Firefighter deal certified and approved

That’s that.

Mayor John Whitmire

Houston City Council approved the $1.5 billion settlement and labor contract with the city firefighters union on Wednesday, a deal that now forces Mayor John Whitmire to quickly find new sources of revenue to help pay for it.

The unanimous vote achieved a core promise of Whitmire’s campaign last year, and ends a nearly eight-year dispute between the union and the city under previous Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“This was a long time coming,” Whitmire said. “It was always going to be a big number and I think we handled it as responsibly as you could expect.”

The firefighters’ new contract will remain in effect until fiscal 2029. Rank-and-file firefighters will see a total pay increase of 36 percent by the end of that period.

The new contract and the back-pay settlement are valued around $650 million, but interest and debt service is expected to drive the total cost to about $1.5 billion, city officials said.

“It’s a good deal for taxpayers, it’s obviously a good deal for the firefighters and the families that have gone without for so, so long,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “We have ensured that we structured this in a way that was fiscally responsible.”

Tuesday’s approval came after Controller Chris Hollins certified the deal Monday evening, ending weeks of uncertainty about whether he would give his City Charter-mandated blessing to the agreement. The controller is required to certify funding is available for ordinances prior to a council vote committing the city to future financial obligations.

The five-year contract includes 10 percent base salary increases for the first year. Base salaries would continue to rise in the following four years, but the total increase would depend on whether the city is able to add new revenue.

[…]

After days of public back-and-forth, Hollins said he sat for a confidential briefing offered by the mayor’s staff in recent days before certifying the deal Monday evening.

“Just as my insistence on completing due diligence should not have been interpreted as opposition to the deal, my certification today should not be interpreted as a vote of confidence,” Hollins wrote.

In a news conference following the meeting, Whitmire said Houstonians should expect a rollout of revenue proposals around the beginning of next year’s legislative session in January. A former longtime state senator, Whitmire has said he expects state assistance to address the city’s budget shortfall but declined to provide further specifics.

“Going forward there will be a challenge to not only pay the firefighters’ settlement but the other incurred expenses,” Whitmire said.

He also said no proposal would be brought to the council before an audit of city departments intended to root out wasteful spending was completed.

See here for the previous update. Not a whole lot to add, there’s nothing really new in this news other than the certification itself. I suppose this all could have been done sooner, but it’s done now. As for the expectation that we can get state assistance to help the city out, I have no idea what the Mayor has in mind. As per usual, he has no details to provide, and I doubt we’ll get anything until there’s an actual bill working its way through the process. If indeed that happens. Let’s just say I have a lot less faith in this Legislature’s willingness to do something other than spit on Houston than the Mayor does. He’s welcome to prove me wrong. The Chron has more.

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Paxton lawsuit to nullify marijuana ordinances tossed

Good.

Still a crook any way you look

A state district judge in Travis County has dismissed a lawsuit by Texas Attorney General Paxton that sought to nullify voter-approved ordinances in Austin and a few other cities that effectively decriminalize possessing small amounts of marijuana.

In a brief order handed down Tuesday, Judge Jan Soifer essentially said there was no reason for the case to proceed to trial.

“Having considered the pleadings, responses, as well as the arguments of legal counsel and applicable law, the Court is of the opinion that the Defendants’ plea to dismiss the case” should be granted, Soifer wrote.

She dismissed the lawsuit “with prejudice,” meaning that, because she ruled on the legal merits, the case may not be refiled.

Paxton’s office brought the lawsuit — which sought to strike down “non-prosecution” of marijuana possession cases in Austin, San Marcos, Elgin, Killeen and Denton — in January on grounds that local ordinances cannot override state laws.

[…]

In an unsigned emailed statement to the American-Statesman, the city of Austin said the judge’s order means police officers can direct their attention to more urgent matters other than low-level marijuana possession.

“We appreciate the court’s time and careful consideration and are pleased with the outcome,” the statement said. “The ordinance challenged by the now-dismissed lawsuit reflects the will of the voters, who sent a clear message that law enforcement should prioritize resources to focus on critical public safety issues, rather than low-level marijuana possession. At its core, the ordinance does exactly that, without removing reasonable discretion from police officers to enforce the law.”

See here for the background. There was a hearing on June 10, and the ruling came a couple of days later. Paxton has since announced his intention to appeal the ruling. I’ve been hesitant to embrace these local decriminalization efforts precisely because of the argument that the ordinances contradict state law. I’m glad for this ruling but I’m not convinced it will survive the appellate process. Be that as it may, this is a win for the advocates and I hope they can truly celebrate it. There’s a petition drive going on to get a proposition on Dallas’ ballot for this fall, and I wish them well with that. KUT has more.

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Bird flu found in Houston wastewater

No need to panic, but good to know.

Bird flu has been detected in wastewater around the Houston area, Harris County Public Health officials said Tuesday.

The source of the Bird flu, or H5N1, found in Houston water between March 1 and May 13 is unknown, media partner ABC 13 reported. Officials confirmed there have been no human cases of the virus in Harris County.

“The most likely source is related to agriculture, and the public risk remains low,” county health officials said in a statement, according to ABC 13.

The disease was detected in nine Texas cities, including Austin, where city officials also confirmed there have been no human cases.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported the first human case in April, only the second case reported in the U.S.

Here’s that ABC13 story, which adds some more detail.

Even though bird flu has been detected in wastewater samples in the Houston area, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are people in our communities who are infected.

Chris Van Deusen with the Texas Department of State Health Services told ABC13’s Rosie Nguyen on Monday that traces of the dead virus could still be detected in milk that has been pasteurized if it came from a cow with the bird flu. If someone pours that milk down the drain, that’s one way it could end up in wastewater systems.

“The way most wastewater testing is done, it’s through a test called PCR. What that sort of looks for is fragments of the genetic materials in a virus. So it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a live virus,” Van Deusen said. “One thing that could be going on here is the milk coming from cows in another part of the state and going down the drain in our sewer systems.”

He emphasized that pasteurized milk from an infected cow does not pose a risk to humans because pasteurization kills viruses and other bacteria.

So until and unless there are cases of the flu in humans reported, it’s likely that what we’re detecting is not a threat. The story contains some guidance from the CDC for minimizing your own risk. For those of us who are not on a dairy farm or surrounded by birds, the most relevant and actionable item is “don’t drink raw milk”. I kind of doubt that the people who do drink raw milk will pay attention to that, but there you go. And also, our wastewater detection systems, which we built up during the COVID pandemic, are awesome. Hopefully there won’t be any need for further updates on this one.

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Abbott appoints first judges to new statewide business appeals court

I’d forgotten about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday appointed three conservative justices to the new 15th Court of Appeals, which lawmakers created last year to oversee appeals involving the state, challenges to the constitutionality of state laws and cases from business courts.

Proponents say the new appeals court will improve judicial efficiency, place people with business expertise on the bench and allow issues with implications statewide be heard by judges elected statewide. Critics say Republicans created the new courts so businesses and the state could avoid having their cases heard by judges in urban counties where Democrats dominate local judicial races.

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister will serve as chief justice alongside Justices Scott Field and April Farris. They will each serve two-year terms from Sept. 1 through 2026.

“These highly experienced individuals will serve a vital role in our state’s effort to ensure that the Texas Constitution and state statutes are applied uniformly throughout Texas and that businesses have a sophisticated and efficient process to resolve their disputes,” Abbott said in a news release.

The Legislature created the new statewide appeals court last year, granting it jurisdiction to hear cases brought by or against the state of Texas; agencies, departments or boards of the executive branch; or state universities, including any of these entities’ officers. It will also hear appeals out of a new state district court that was created by lawmakers last year to consider cases involving businesses across Texas with disputes valued at more than $10 million. The appeals court will ultimately have five judges, each elected statewide. For its first three years, it will be made up of Abbott’s three appointees.

The bills’ backers — mostly Republicans in the Legislature, in addition to some corporate attorneys who testified in support of the measures — said that the new courts would help reduce case backlogs and ensure that judges hearing complex business cases would have specific expertise in business law. Supporters similarly made arguments for having appellate judges who are familiar with the nuance and complexity of matters that impact state government and all Texans.

But the bills’ opponents argued that Republicans, who control the Legislature, passed the legislation as a way to circumvent Democrat-dominated courts in big cities. Opponents also said that the new business court also created last year and whose appeals the 15th Circuit will hear, would actually bog cases down as parties fight over which court a case should belong in. And some warned that having the governor appoint judges every two years to the business court would leave the system vulnerable to political pressure from parties with cases before the court, who might look to influence the governor’s selections.

See here for some background. One point raised as these courts were created is that new appellate courts can only be created by constitutional amendment. I still expect there will be a lawsuit filed over this, for which in theory this court itself would hear the appeal. I’m guessing the Supreme Court will get it in reality.

That court, assuming it survives the litigation against it, will have elections for its first three Justices in 2026. There’s also the matter of the district-level business courts, which will have one or two judges for them, all appointed by the Governor for two-year terms. Yes, those of you who hate that we elect judges in this state can rejoice over finally getting some non-elected judges. According to the text of the bill that created these things, there are eleven such courts around the state, each serving the counties of the corresponding Judicial Administrative Region. Harris County, as I’m sure you knew without having to look it up, is in the Eleventh Judicial Region, along with Fort Bend, Galveston, Brazoria, Wharton, and Matagorda.

Abbott has been busy appointing these judges as well. From the First, Third, and Eighth:

Presiding over the Dallas court, administratively referred to as the First Business Court Division, will be Andrea Bouressa and William “Bill” Whitehill. The court division is comprised of the counties of Collin, Dallas, Ellis, Fannin, Grayson, Kaufman and Rockwall.

[…]

In Fort Worth, the Eighth Business Court Division judges will be Jerry Bullard and Brian Stagner. The division is comprised of the counties of Archer, Clay, Montague, Palo Pinto, Parker, Somervell, Stephens, Tarrant, Wichita, Wise and Young.

[…]

In Austin, the Third Business Court Division judges will be Melissa Andrews and Patrick Sweeten. The division is comprised of the counties of Austin, Bell, Blanco, Bosque, Burnet, Caldwell, Colorado, Comal, Comanche, Coryell, Falls, Fayette, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Hamilton, Hays, Hill, Lampasas, Lavaca, Llano, McLennan, Milam, Navarro, Robertson, San Saba, Travis and Williamson.

For the Fourth Region:

Gov. Greg Abbott named former Bexar County Commissioner Marialyn Barnard and San Antonio attorney Stacy Sharp to oversee the 4th Business Court Division Thursday. Including Bexar County, the court will serve 22 counties spanning from Eagle Pass to Port Aransas.

Our home turf, the Eleventh Region, doesn’t have any appointees yet; this Chron story is mostly about the statewide court and also mentions the Third Region appointees but doesn’t say where they’ll be serving. These five regions, ours included, each get two judges. The rest, made up primarily of smaller counties, get one. It’s all a little ridiculous, but here we are.

UPDATE: Since I drafted this, Abbott has appointed Sofia Adrogué and Grant Dorfman to be judges of the Eleventh Business Court Division, effective September 1, 2024.

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Annunciation House hearing

This one is on the merits, to determine if Ken Paxton has any evidence to support his outlandish claims that the religious charity is engaged in “human trafficking”.

An El Paso judge will rule within two weeks on the attempt by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to close Annunciation House’s migrant shelters, he said at the end of a hearing Monday.

“There are a number of issues that were raised here that were addressed in the pleadings, but that, as you’ve argued them, require me to go back and revisit and look at it a little more closely. So, I would expect, and I’ll do my best to get something to you sooner, but expect a ruling on this in two weeks, by the end of two weeks,” 205th District Judge Francisco Dominguez said at the end of a 45-minute hearing.

During the hearing, attorneys essentially summarized arguments they made at a previous hearing and in written filings to the court. Paxton and attorneys in his office say that Annunciation House – which has deep ties to the Catholic Church – runs “stash houses” and engages in human trafficking, allegations vehemently denied by the nonprofit.

“We believe that the evidence demonstrates concealment, harboring, and shielding (of undocumented immigrants) because Annunciation House denies entry to law enforcement without a reasonable expectation of privacy. Annunciation House withheld documents pertaining to illegal aliens based on frivolous and pretextual objections,” Assistant Attorney General Robert Farquharson argued.

The Attorney General’s Office has said Annunciation House’s refusal to provide requested business records in February gives the office the authority to strip the nonprofit of its ability to do business in Texas. Annunciation House’s attorneys say the state officials are violating the organization’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizures, and its religious freedoms.

“Annunciation House does not assert that the attorney general has no investigative authority or cannot investigate Annunciation House. No, the attorney general can, but there are laws, and the attorney general must respect those laws and has tried very hard to get around them at every juncture in this litigation,” said Jerome Wesevich, an attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who is representing Annunciation House.

Annunciation House is asking Dominguez to block the attorney general from closing its operation and prevent future efforts to seize records without judicial review. The attorney general has asked Dominguez “to revoke its registration to conduct business in Texas, for an injunction against its continued operation, and for appointment of a receiver,” according to court filings.

Pope Francis, in an interview on “60 Minutes,” called Paxton’s efforts to close Annunciation House “madness.”

See here for the previous update. Other than the Pope’s remarks, there isn’t much new to this story since we last tuned in. But we do have the Pope weighing in, and I gotta say as a cradle Catholic it is wild to me that this hasn’t caused a bigger stir among the faithful. Which is not to say that it surprises me – right wing politics, driven by the unholy alliance many Catholic bishops have with the evangelical forced-birth lobby, have warped all kinds of aspects of the Church’s dogma in recent years. I wish I had a good idea of how to combat this, but I don’t. The Trib and the Chron have more.

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The DFW high speed rail line hits a bump

Whoops.

Dallas City Council members hit the brakes on a proposed elevated high-speed passenger rail line that would connect with Arlington and Fort Worth.

The council, including Mayor Eric Johnson, approved a resolution 14-0, with council member Jaime Resendez absent. The June 12 action pauses the project for at least four months as city officials conduct a long-range economic impact study to determine the effects of the rail project in the Central Business District.

Council member Jesse Moreno said there are still many unanswered questions about the project, currently proposed to run along the Interstate 30 corridor.

“This is a critical part of downtown Dallas,” he said, adding that the city is investing major funding for downtown projects such as the expansion of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.

In their resolution, council members said, “the City Council does not support construction of any above ground passenger rail lines through downtown and adjacent areas aside from streetcar projects.”

Furthermore, the resolution states that the council “will reconsider the Dallas to Fort Worth high speed rail alignment upon completion of the economic impact study.”

[…]

Concerns about the high-speed rail project first surfaced at the December 2023 Regional Transportation Council meeting, the independent transportation policy group of the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Fort Worth Mayor Pro Tem Gyna Bivens, who chairs the Regional Transportation Council, said she wasn’t bothered by the Dallas resolution.

“I don’t have any criticism about any entity, but I think a study will show the need for high-speed rail in the region,” Bivens told the Fort Worth Report. “People thought we’d never have the Chisholm Trail (Parkway) … There’s a challenge I haven’t seen at the RTC that everybody doesn’t come out a winner.”

[…]

Dallas raised concerns about the proposed seven-story high, elevated rail line that would cut through planned downtown redevelopment work, including the new $3.7 billion convention center.

Stops in Fort Worth and Arlington would be underground, an issue that concerned Dallas officials.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments explored an underground option in Dallas, transportation director Michael Morris previously told the Fort Worth Report, but that option didn’t work for the “one-seat ride” approach that could eventually connect Fort Worth to Houston through Dallas.

“You would defeat the whole purpose of having a high-speed rail to have the seamless connection because you’d have a 40-minute travel time penalty, so we just need time for people to understand that,” Morris said.

Morris did not immediately return a call from the Fort Worth Report on June 12.

Ghassan “Gus” Khankarli, Dallas transportation director, said the study will look at positives and negatives of the project as well as alternative alignments for the proposed rail route.

“In this case, there may be two or three alignments to look at,” he said.

The study, Khankarli said, would provide “clarity and consistency” on the ramifications of high speed rail.

See here for the previous update. I can understand the concerns, especially for seven-story-high rail line. This study could clarify things and help move them forward, or it could be the first of many delaying tactics. We’ll have to see.

The local government agency pushing the project is not terribly concerned at this time.

Elected leaders serving on the Regional Transportation Council said they will work together to develop a rail plan that will benefit North Texas as a whole, as the population is expected to double from about 8 million to more than 15 million by 2050, according to RTC growth estimates presented at a June 13 meeting.

“We have to move forward,” Michael Morris, RTC director of transportation, said after Dallas City Council member Cara Mendelsohn asked for a July 11 workshop on the project to be rescheduled, as the Dallas council will be on a break at that time.

Morris cited the Dallas resolution that calls for a four-month economic impact study to determine the positive and negative aspects of the plan, including whether an elevated rail line is feasible for downtown Dallas.

Mendelsohn suggested that Morris’ reluctance to change the workshop date was “some kind of retribution” for the Dallas resolution approved June 12 — prompting outgoing RTC chair Gyna Bivens, the Fort Worth mayor pro tempore, to demand that transportation council members “act with proper decorum.”

“To have respect, you have to give it,” Bivens said. “We’re not going to let this Dallas-Fort Worth thing get in the way.”

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, elected as the new RTC chair, said, “This is going to have regional implications. … Whatever the case is, it’s not just one city.”

Arlington Mayor Jim Ross said council members from the DFW’s third-largest city plan to attend the July 11 workshop, although they will also be on a recess.

[…]

Members of the Regional Transportation Council, an independent policy group of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, cited regional cooperation for the project.

In a statement read by Bivens at the RTC meeting, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said she is dedicated to improving the city, which is now the 12th largest in the nation.

“Fort Worth remains the fastest-growing large city in the country, attracting people and businesses from across the United States,” Parker said. “High-speed rail is an integral part of our transportation future and it will include Tarrant County.

“The regional long-term success of DFW is connected to regional partnerships, such as the high-speed rail project, as the region is poised to be the third-largest metro region in the country by 2030 – with a majority of the growth occurring west,” the mayor said. “Collectively, our success is dependent on world class mobility solutions that connect not just DFW but the entire state of Texas.”

Fort Worth Mayor Parker’s statement is here on her Instagram page, also reported by the Star-Telegram. This line is intended to connect to the long-awaited Texas Central line from Dallas to Houston, so we would like this all to get worked out. But as noted before, these things take time. Lots and lots and lots of time.

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SCOTx declines to take up IVF appeal

A small victory.

The Texas Supreme Court has declined to take up a major in vitro fertilization case that could have potentially upended access to the procedure.

The justices allowed a lower court’s opinion to stand, and, for now, sidestepped the question of whether a frozen embryo has the same rights as a living child in post-Dobbs Texas.

The case centers on Gaby and Caroline Antoun, a Denton couple who divorced in 2022. They divided up their assets and settled on a custody agreement for their children. The major point of contention, however, was the frozen embryos the couple created while doing IVF in 2019.

While doing IVF, the couple signed a contract saying that in case of divorce, the embryos would go to Gaby Antoun, the husband. At a hearing on June 29, 2022, a judge upheld that contract and awarded him the embryos.

Two months later, Texas’ near-total abortion ban went into effect, and Caroline Antoun asked the court for a new trial. She pointed to the abortion law, which defines an “unborn child” as “an individual living member of the homo sapiens species from fertilization until birth, including the entire embryonic and fetal stages of development.”

“Because fertilization has occurred, the embryos are unborn children and thus people as Texas defines them,” her lawyers wrote in a brief. “They are unborn children and should be treated as having all the rights and constitutional protections of children.”

The court disagreed, and Caroline Antoun appealed. The 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth ruled that her arguments were “a classic example of taking a definition out of its legislatively created context and using it in a context that the legislature did not intend.”

“Dobbs held that the United States Constitution does not guarantee a right to an abortion,” the judges wrote. “Dobbs did not determine the rights of cryogenically stored embryos outside the human body before uterine implantation. Dobbs is not law ‘applicable’ to this case, and thus its pronouncement did not justify a new trial.”

Caroline Antoun asked the Texas Supreme Court to consider the case. In an unsigned order without any comment, the court denied her request.

See here for the background. We don’t know why SCOTx did what it did, we just know they did it. It’ll have to do. That avoids making things worse for now, but the same forced birth zealots that have us in this position are not stopping there. IVF, and birth control, and a lot of other things, remain under threat as long as they have the power to get laws passed.

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Federal judge strikes down Florida laws against gender-affirming care for minors and adults

Of interest, for obvious reasons.

Florida can no longer enforce its ban against transgender youth receiving gender-affirming care, or its restrictions against adults accessing gender-affirming care, after a federal district court ruling on Tuesday found those rules to be unconstitutional and fueled by animus against trans people. The ruling is effective immediately.

Although federal courts have blocked many state anti-LGBTQ+ laws, this ruling carries extra significance because Florida was the first state to push for gender-affirming care restrictions for transgender adults. The ruling is also unique because it blocks restrictions enacted through multiple channels: through laws passed in the statehouse as well as restrictions passed through the state’s medical boards.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle’s order is also significant for its admonishment of the state for trying to regulate gender-affirming care based on “anti-transgender animus” instead of medical standards. Florida “cannot flatly deny transgender individuals safe and effective medical treatment — treatment with medications routinely provided to others with the state’s full approval so long as the purpose is not to support the patient’s transgender identity,” Hinkle wrote.

The Florida Surgeon General and the Florida boards of medicine have admitted that impeding transgender people from pursuing their identities is not a legitimate state interest, he wrote — but state legislators and others involved in the state’s gender-affirming care restrictions have still pursued this goal.

“Gender identity is real. Those whose gender identity does not match their natal sex often suffer gender dysphoria. The widely accepted standard of care calls for appropriate evaluation and treatment,” Hinkle wrote, noting that for minors, such care begins with mental health therapy and is followed, when appropriate, with hormone replacement therapy. “Florida has adopted a statute and rules that ban gender-affirming care for minors even when medically appropriate. The ban is unconstitutional.”

Hinkle also found that the state’s rule preventing nurse practitioners from providing gender-affirming care to adults is unconstitutional, as is requiring trans adults to jump through multiple hoops to access care — like signing consent forms that include false information and requiring follow-ups more frequently than medically necessary. These rules led to physicians and pharmacies turning away patients, preventing trans adults across the state from being able to access gender-affirming care.

A similar law in Alabama, though it only involved care for minors, was blocked by a federal district court judge and then later allowed to go into effect by an appeals court. Florida is in the same appellate district as Alabama, and the judge’s ruling addressed that case as well. I recommend you read Law Dork for a detailed analysis of that, as this ruling will be appealed to that same appellate court, the 11th District Court of Appeals.

And while the importance of that case should be clear to us in Texas, it’s more urgent now.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued the Biden administration over a new federal rule that he says would require states to pay for gender care procedures for transgender people through their Medicaid programs and require health care providers to perform them.

“This is yet another example of Joe Biden trying to sidestep the Constitution and use agency rulemaking to advance unpopular, unlawful, and destructive policies,” Paxton wrote in a press release.

At issue is a new Biden administration rule regarding a section of the Affordable Care Act that pertains to nondiscrimination. The section particularly bans discrimination based on gender.

In 2016, the Obama Administration interpreted it to protect against gender identity and sex stereotyping but not sexual orientation. Four years later, the Trump administration didn’t change the section but suggested it would interpret sex to mean only sex assigned at birth.

But the Biden administration in March issued rules that said the protections apply to gender identity and sexual orientation.The administration, through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, included specific protections for transgender people, including saying that providers can’t deny transition care that would be provided to other people for other purposes. It does, however, allow for some providers to make religious freedom claims.

The story doesn’t say, but I assume this will go before one of Paxton’s handmaiden judges, so we know how the script will play out. At some point, this will be back before SCOTUS. At least we have Judge Hinkle’s order to go on. CNN and the Associated Press have more.

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B-Cycle’s reprieve runs out

Sad to see it go.

Houston’s long-struggling system of on-demand bicycles is reaching the end of the trail.

BCycle, the system of kiosks with available bikes spread around downtown, Midtown and other locations will close June 30, officials with the nonprofit that operates it said.

“Despite our efforts, Houston Bike Share, the nonprofit operator, has been unable to secure the necessary funding and leadership to sustain operations,” the group said.

In a letter sent earlier this month to partners, the chairman of the nonprofit’s board, Neeraj Tandon, said working with the city all the BCycle stations around the city could be removed by Sept. 15.

[…]

BCycle, popular with recreational riders along Houston’s bayou trails and within downtown, grew from a pilot of three stations and a dozen bikes in the central business district to more than 100 locations offering more than 700 bicycles, 100 of them electric pedal-assisted bikes.

That growth, however, strained resources for the nonprofit that had to maintain and distribute bikes around the area. Offering daily, monthly and annual passes, as well as fees for use of the bikes for extended periods of time, were never enough to cover costs. Grants and corporate sponsorships covered some of the deficit, but as the system grew and the pandemic altered funding, the nonprofit found itself underwater.

“Bike share systems across the United States have experienced similar challenges,” said Jennifer Ostlind, interim director of Houston’s Planning and Development Department, in a statement. “Houston’s system has outlived many others, but we have learned that successful systems that serve more than just recreational purposes require corporate and public support to remain viable.”

See here for the previous update. A copy of the letter is embedded above. I was a member of B-Cycle for several years. It was most useful to me when I worked downtown, for going places that were too far to walk but not convenient to the train. It’s an amenity that made Houston a little easier to navigate and a little more attractive to visitors and people who were considering a job here versus a job somewhere else, in the same way that parks and theaters and restaurants do. Whether you personally used it or not, its loss makes Houston a little less vibrant. Perhaps someday we’ll get a replacement for it; as the story notes, other cities have had similar issues with their bike shares, a problem that was undoubtedly exacerbated by the pandemic. It will likely be a few years before a workable business model is clear.

B-Cycle performed another service, which was an extension of the transit system. Metro went a different direction to implement its own bike share system, but not much has happened since then. Houston Public Media adds some details on that.

METRO’s board of directors voted last September to spend $10 million on a five-year bike-sharing contract with Quebec-based PBSC Urban Solutions. But it is unclear whether the transit agency, which has since undergone leadership changes, is moving forward with that plan.

METRO did not comment Friday on the status of the arrangement.

Jordan Levine, a spokesperson for PBSC Urban Solutions, indicated in a statement that a deal could still materialize.

“As a bike share equipment provider with experience in more than 50 cities globally we are confident we are the right team to help METRO deliver Harris County a world-class bike share program,” Levine said. “Our team is eager to get to work in order to ensure there are no gaps in service for riders.”

Joe Cutrufo, the executive director of cycling advocacy nonprofit BikeHouston, urged the transit agency to proceed with the deal as planned. He said there are Houston residents and visitors alike who have relied on the bike-sharing network for their daily transportation needs.

“METRO’s board voted unanimously last year to invest in a state-of-the-art bike share system because they understood that it can expand the footprint of the transportation system by providing easy first- and last-mile access,” Cutrufo said. “That’s squarely in line with the new chair’s focus on attracting new riders.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Houston Mayor John Whitmire, who was elected in December and appointed some of the new board members for METRO, did not immediately respond to an email Friday seeking to determine whether he would support a new bike share system. His administration has been critical of infrastructure projects that expand bicycle lanes at the expense of vehicle lanes, a departure from the tenure of his predecessor, Sylvester Turner, whose administration extended the aforementioned $500,000 lifeline to BCycle.

[James Llamas, the vice chair for the BCycle board] said it’s “really unfortunate” that Houston will soon be the largest city in the U.S. without a bike share network. About 80 stations are expected to remain open through the end of June, after which the city-owned BCycle equipment will be removed and sold.

“I think we’ve demonstrated that Houston has an appetite or bike share and it can be successful even in a relatively low-density, auto-oriented city,” Llamas said. “We hope there can be a solution worked out so some form of bike-sharing can continue.”

I think there’s zero chance that this Metro board moves forward with that contract. I do think that it would help expand ridership, but I don’t believe the current Metro leadership cares all that much about it. There’s a lot that will need to be done when we next have the opportunity to do it.

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Weekend link dump for June 16

“How Donald Trump Could Weaponize US Surveillance in a Second Term”.

“The Scottish woman who claims to be the inspiration for Richard Gadd’s hit Netflix “Baby Reindeer” has sued the streamer, seeking monetary damages of at least $170 million.”

“Republicans keep asking, completely dishonestly, why so much criminal suspicion surrounds Donald Trump. They say it’s all being orchestrated by Joe Biden and Merrick Garland. They insist it’s an effort to interfere with his election campaign. They say a lot of things, but if ever there was a case where Occam’s razor applied, it’s this one. Trump is surrounded by criminal suspicion because he’s a criminal.”

“For parents to believe that their kids are better off without a phone during a school shooting, they’d first need to believe that American schools know how to reliably protect students from guns. And that is one strand of magical thinking that parents seemed wholly unwilling to entertain.”

“Billions of dollars in infrastructure funding are flowing into cities and towns nationwide, nearly three years after Congress passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill approving the cash. And some vulnerable House Republicans are tacitly taking credit for the local funds, despite opposing that bill.”

Something is going to happen to Paramount Plus. Not fully clear what just yet. Leave Star Trek: Strange New Worlds alone, that’s my main concern.

“When I hear people starting to complain about political correctness — and I understand why people might push back on it — but to me that’s a red flag, because it sometimes means something else. I believe being aware of certain sensitivities is not a bad thing. I don’t know how else to say it.”

“Ten players from the 1983 North Carolina State men’s basketball team that won the national championship have filed a lawsuit against the NCAA and the Collegiate Licensing Company for unauthorized use of their names, images and likenesses.”

“That said, I think we can all agree that the felony conviction should disqualify Hunter Biden from running for higher office. Certainly, three felony convictions should preclude him from running for President of the United States. Within the next five months, Congress should consider amending the Constitution to prohibit convicted felons from running for the highest office in the land. Such an amendment would certainly have my support.”

RIP, Mark James, Houston-born musician and songwriter whose works include “Suspicious Minds,” “Hooked on a Feeling”, and “Always on My Mind”.

RIP, Jerry West, basketball legend, longtime Lakers executive, inspiration for the NBA logo.

“A spokesperson for Major League Eating (MLE) told ESPN that [16-time champion Joey] Chestnut had chosen to “represent another hot dog brand” and therefore would not be allowed to participate in the [Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest] contest, which is held annually at New York City’s Coney Island.”

Some candle news, for those of you who are into that sort of thing.

The good news is that this means Ted Cruz can go back to liking post by porn stars again.

“The Southern Baptist Convention endorsed a statement opposing in vitro fertilization.” Your move, Senate Republicans.

“I just think people in power or people that have the power to make change should do it instead of the 17, 18-year-olds trying to do their work for them.”

“As we mentioned on Saturday, there’s a generation gap between white evangelicals whose earliest memories are the 1990s and those of us a bit older who can remember the 1970s and early 1980s. Millennials never experienced evangelical Christianity that was not shaped by and for and around anti-abortion politics, but Gen-Xers and Boomers did. We remember the Before Time, and we remember watching the transformation and redefinition of our faith take place in real time.”

“Duran Duran’s original ‘Rio’ girl, the Mona Lisa of the new wave age, finally found after 42 years”.

Another lawsuit filed by the adult entertainment industry against a state anti-porn law, this time in Indiana.

“Now the Supreme Court has decided that it understands firearms better than the ATF.”

“The majority’s reading flies in the face of this Court’s standard tools of statutory interpretation. Today, the majority forgets that principle and substitutes its own view of what constitutes a ‘machine gun’ for Congress’.”

“Perhaps these public performances of dignity loss are so expected at this point that people take them as a given. But I think there’s a bit more to it than that.”

RIP, Robert hughes, legendary Fort Worth ISD basketball coach and the winningest coach in U.S. high school boys basketball history.

RIP, Lynn Conway, pioneering microchip designer. She was fired by IBM in 1968 for undergoing gender transition surgery. IBM apologized to her many years later and saluted her as someone who helped define the modern computing industry.

RIP, William Anders, NASA astronaut who took the famous “Earthrise” photo while on the Apollo 8 mission.

A brief history of Donald Duck, who just turned 90. He’s in a new short cartoon that was fun to watch.

Paul Pressler has died. He will escape accountability for his alleged crimes, at least on earth.

Posted in Blog stuff | Tagged | 2 Comments

Scott and McCrutcheon win HCAD runoffs

Not much to say, you can see the live results. There were 12,479 total mail ballots, so another 1,436 were received after Tuesday. A bit more than 11K votes had been counted as of 10 PM and two thirds of the voting centers done, so I’d have won that bet with Bob Stein. My best guess for final turnout at this early point is between 45-50K, definitely less than two percent overall. The Republicans got what they wanted, a couple of people elected countywide here in the weirdest way possible. These positions will be up again in November 2026 and 2028, and I still don’t know because I’ve never seen it reported anywhere if they will go through the primary process and be on the general election ballot as R-versus-D races or not. But here we are and now we see what comes of this little experiment. In the meantime, on to November.

UPDATE: Here’s a story from Bexar County about their elections and what they can expect going forward. Still no reporting on whether these positions will go through the primary process or not.

Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Controller Hollins has not certified the firefighter deal yet

In case you were wondering.

Controller Chris Hollins

Hours after Mayor John Whitmire told City Council members on Friday that Controller Chris Hollins plans to certify the mayor’s landmark contract with the Houston firefighters union, Hollins walked back that claim, saying his review continues.

“The mayor doesn’t speak for me or my office. I appreciated the meeting with the mayor’s team, which was long overdue,” Hollins said. “The commitment I made was to review their written responses promptly and to make my decision regarding certification after my office has completed our due diligence. We are working expeditiously to do just that.”

[…]

City Council approved a bond issuance for the back pay portion of the agreement on a 14-3 vote this week, but Hollins — who as controller certifies that funds are available to pay for agenda items — withheld that approval for the contract as he and his staff reviewed the deal, delaying a vote on the broader deal for two weeks.

He sent Whitmire’s team a 10-page memo with 44 questions about the contract on Monday, leading to a clash with the administration over which questions were relevant to his duty to certify.

Earlier Friday, Whitmire sent council members his responses to those questions, and he said Hollins had committed to certify the item ahead of a court deadline for approval next week.

“As my administration has offered to each of you, and conducted with those so desired, the Finance Director, City Attorney, and my staff met with the Controller and his staff yesterday to address items that were required to be discussed in confidence,” Whitmire wrote to council.

“He committed to my staff late last night that he is satisfied with all of the responses to his questions and intends to certify the negotiated settlement agenda item and allow you to conduct your legislative duties as council members next Tuesday.”

See here and here for the background. I think most likely this gets wrapped up in time for all legal deadlines, but who knows. I approve of Controller Hollins taking his job seriously, and so does the Chron editorial board.

It’s the job of Controller Chris Hollins to act as a watchdog over city finances. In our view, that’s his obligation even in situations where his technical responsibilities are rather narrow.

Hollins, who must certify a portion of the collective bargaining agreement before the Council votes to approve it, urged Whitmire last week to pump the brakes. He sent the mayor a 10-page letter with 44 questions about the deal.

Whitmire, a longtime ally of the union as a state senator, campaigned on ending this stalemate over firefighter compensation and he promptly delivered on that promise. Firefighters have been working for far too long without a contract and deserve adequate pay, benefits and stability for their families.

Only issue is, we still don’t know how we’re going to pay for it. Even if the judgment bond the two sides agreed to — which the City Council approved last week on a 14-3 vote — spreads the financial pain out over 25 to 30 years, the sum will likely exceed $1 billion with interest.

Whitmire is asking us to trust that he will figure that out. We’d certainly like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the city is already facing a $187 million hole, a deficit which will only grow after the Council approved a $6.6 billion budget. The city plans to dip into its cash reserves to get them in the black for the next fiscal year, but that’s not a sustainable strategy.

Enter Hollins, a first-term controller whose political ambitions, including a brief run for mayor, may lead some to look askance at his delay in signing off on the deal.

[…]

Reasonable legal minds may disagree about Hollins’ specific role in certifying the agreement — the controller told us he is seeking his own legal counsel on that front — but it appears to us that he’s just doing his job in trying look out for Houston taxpayers.

Hollins’ pestering the city for clarifications about specific provisions of the agreement will only help inform Council members’ decision to approve it. Hollins told us he is trying to shed light on a deal that was brokered behind closed doors.

“It’s my job to ensure transparency and the City Council’s job to vote on the merits of the deal,” Hollins told us on Thursday. “But they have to understand them first. The information has to be made available.”

They work it out or they don’t, and if they don’t we deal with what comes next. If this deal is everything it’s cracked up to be, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Posted in Local politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Uplift Harris remains on hold

Doesn’t look good for them.

The Supreme Court of Texas ruled against Harris County’s guaranteed income program Friday, continuing to block the county from sending checks to participants.

In an opinion written by Justice James D. Blacklock, the court said the state raised “serious doubt” about the constitutionality of the program.

“Temporarily preventing expenditure of these funds while the State’s appeal proceeds ensures public funds are not irrecoverably spent in violation of the Texas Constitution,” Blacklock wrote. “Whether Harris County’s proposal would actually violate the Texas Constitution remains an open question at this early stage of the litigation.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee called the decision “disappointing” and said it could set a precedent to target other guaranteed income programs throughout the country. He also said his office will continue to fight for the program.

“Helping the poor is part of our job in government,” Menefee wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “That’s why programs like this exist across the country and our state. This decision could end Uplift Harris as it exists today.”

The move by the state’s highest court comes after Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the county in April, just days before the guaranteed income program, Uplift Harris, was set to begin dispersing payments to selected applicants.

Two lower courts in Houston denied Paxton’s attempts to block the program. Paxton then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in and stop the county from issuing payments, which resulted in Friday’s emergency stay.

[…]

Nearly 60 cities and counties across the country, including Austin and San Antonio, have launched similar guaranteed income programs. Neither of those two Texas cities — nor any others across the United States — have faced litigation.

While county officials and the attorney general sparred in state district court, Austin’s city council approved a $1.3 million contract to continue its guaranteed income program.

See here for the previous update. Just a reminder, this ruling was on a writ of mandamus filed by the state to prevent Harris County from proceeding with the program while the state appealed the original ruling that allowed them to do exactly that. The law may or may not be an ass, but it sure can be confounding sometimes. If you can power your way through the legalistic argle-bargle of this ruling (which at least is only 14 pages long), it’s clear that SCOTx is skeptical of Harris County’s case. When and if the appeal of the original ruling makes its way to the top, it seems like Harris County is in for a rough go of it. Austin and San Antonio, you may not be in the spotlight now, but buckle up. Your time is coming. The Chron has more.

Posted in Legal matters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

HCAD Runoff Day is today

From the inbox:

Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth announced that the June 15 Uniform Runoff Election Day is this Saturday. There are 131 Election Day vote centers open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. across Harris County.

“A runoff election is being held for two of the three Harris Central Appraisal District (HCAD) Board of Directors contests because no candidate received over 50 percent of the vote in the May 4 Uniform Election ballot,” said Clerk Hudspeth, the county’s chief election official. “As a result, the June 15 Uniform Runoff Election features the top two candidates for HCAD Board of Directors, Place 2 and Place 3.”

HCAD is the largest appraisal district in Texas and one of the largest appraisal districts in the United States. Although the HCAD Board of Directors does not directly assess property values, the newly elected members will have significant administrative responsibilities. Their duties include hiring the chief appraiser, appointing members to the appraisal review board, setting the district’s budget, and communicating with external stakeholders. The winning candidates will assume office on July 1, 2024, and serve until December 31, 2026.

“Every election is important, so I encourage Harris County voters to keep up the vote during the June 15 Runoff Election,” added Clerk Hudspeth. “They still have the opportunity to ensure their voice is heard, even if they did not vote in the May 4 Uniform Election.”

The following forms of photo ID are acceptable when voting in person:

  • Texas Driver’s License issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS)
  • Texas Election Identification Certificate issued by DPS
  • Texas Personal Identification Card issued by DPS
  • Texas Handgun License issued by DPS
  • United States Military Identification Card containing the person’s photograph
  • United States Citizenship Certificate containing the person’s photograph
  • United States Passport (book or card)

Voters who do not possess and cannot obtain one of the approved forms of photo ID may fill out a Reasonable Impediment Declaration (RID) at a Vote Center and present another form of ID, such as a utility bill, bank statement, government check, or voter registration certificate.

Additional election information is available on www.HarrisVotes.com. For news and updates on social media, follow @HarrisVotes.

I strongly urge you to look at the vote centers map before heading out. The number of vote centers for today is roughly what the number of Early Voting locations will be for November. Plenty of places to go, but not nearly as many as you’d get for a higher-turnout affair. Find what’s close to you and go vote. Lines are almost certainly not going to be an issue.

Speaking of turnout, that’s the focus on the press coverage of this election. From the Press.

Those voted into serving on the board will assist in setting the agency’s budget, and two of the three will be able to veto appointments of individuals involved in the property valuation appeal process. However, [Rice University poli sci professor Bob] Stein said their roles maintain limited authority overall.

“One wonders what the purpose of having this elective office is. It costs us hundreds of thousands, if not a million dollars in Harris County, to conduct the election,” he added. “For what, 35,000 people out of 2.6 million? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. This is not what representative government is about.”

In a written statement to the Houston Press, Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) wrote:

“They have more ‘authority’ than other board members in appointing appraisal review board members, and their vote is just as good as any other board member on budget votes, so this is real citizen input!”

About two percent of the roughly 2.6 million registered voters turned out during the May 4 Election. Stein anticipates that Saturday’s runoff could break the record for lower voter turnout in recent years.

According to the Harris County Clerk’s Office Elections Department, 29,091 residents opted to vote during the early voting period. Stein said he could not see more than 10,000 voters heading to polls on Election Day.

He added that the type of voter participating in this runoff is likely in their 70s, white, overwhelmingly partisan — whether Democrat or Republican — and a homeowner who has lived in their house for decades.

“You’re dealing with an extremely unrepresentative population of voters,” Stein said.

I think 10K turnout for today is a little pessimistic, but I would not bet my own money on that proposition. Here’s the Houston Landing:

Few people appear interested in the races. Only 18,048 early votes were cast in person over the nine days of early voting, or about .71 percent of the county’s 2.56 million registered voters.

In the May 5 elections, only about 2.1 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Not sure why you wouldn’t mention the 11,043 people who had voted by mail as of Tuesday as well, since they also count. That number will have gone up, possibly by quite a bit, by today, and may be the determining factor in who wins. I’ll have a report for you tomorrow. Go vote if you haven’t done so yet, you have till 7 PM.

Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Board of Managers passes Mike Miles’ budget

It was a close vote, but as we kids used to say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

In their most divided vote taken to date, members of Houston ISD’s state-appointed school board on Thursday narrowly approved a $2.1 billion budget that slashes hundreds of millions of dollars in spending in 2024-25.

The unexpected 5-4 split on the district’s annual budget — one of the most important votes taken by a school board each year — marks a rare public disagreement between some board members and HISD Superintendent Mike Miles. The nine-member board and Miles, which were appointed to run the district in June 2023 as part of state sanctions against HISD, have generally moved in lockstep while dramatically overhauling Texas’ largest school district.

None of the four board members who voted against the budget proposal — Cassandra Auzenne Bandy, Michelle Cruz Arnold, Rolando Martinez and Adam Rivon — detailed their opposition during Thursday’s meeting. Of the four, only Rivon spoke during the budget discussion, requesting that Miles present the board with more data in the future about which components of HISD’s overhaul model are having the most impact.

Cruz Arnold said she was surprised by the 5-4 result. She said she voted no because Miles did not present the board with enough evidence justifying his plans or possible ways to adjust his spending proposal.

“I asked some questions of the administration in advance of the first budget workshop and then in advance of the second one that went unanswered,” Cruz Arnold said. “I’m a processor, and without that information … I just had to vote no.”

Board President Audrey Momanaee, who voted in favor of the budget, posed the most pointed question to Miles’ over his plans, pressing him on his intention to spend roughly $2,500 more per student on children at 130 “New Education System” schools than students at other campuses.

“Do you think that the budget that we’re looking at will reduce performance in the traditional schools, which are outside of the NES program?” Momanee asked.

Miles’ plan included roughly $500 million less spending than last year, as HISD grapples with the end of pandemic stimulus funding and enrollment losses. Miles also accused HISD’s previous superintendent, Millard House II, of overspending.

But while HISD leaders have said the majority of those cuts will come from roughly 1,500 layoffs in central office, they have not released specifics on the scale of cuts to roles and programs.

Emphasis mine. I have said repeatedly in this space that I am not comfortable with the idea of voting against the forthcoming bond proposal as a way of registering one’s disapproval of Mike Miles, as that message would not be received by the TEA and the schools and students really need what the bonds would deliver. But boy howdy is it easy to understand the “no trust, no bond” mantra when confronted with this kind of obvious bullshit. Miles has been dishonest about his fiscal plans all along. This is just another example of him pissing on our shoes and telling us it’s raining.

There’s a lot in this story so read the whole thing, but I want to highlight this bit as well.

Miles’ administration has implemented a system in HISD where, for the first time, some schools receive considerably more money than others.

Schools undergoing NES system changes will receive roughly one-third more money per student than other schools in the district — bolstering their budgets while other campuses are forced to make cuts.

Miles has said the investments are worthwhile because the schools involved in the overhaul have been historically underperforming and, according to preliminary test results, have seen academic gains after the first year under the new model. The extra money pays for added staff members, new curriculum and teacher salaries that are about $10,000 to $20,000 higher than other roles in the district.

Meanwhile, most non-NES schools have had to reduce their spending for next year, with about 50 campuses required to make cuts between 6 percent and 12 percent.

The 130 NES campuses next year will serve about 72,000 students, while non-NES schools will serve roughly 95,000. Each group serves about half of HISD’s economically disadvantaged students by raw numbers, but NES schools serve those students in a higher concentration.

Despite trimming hundreds of millions of dollars, HISD’s 2024-25 budget relies on roughly $200 million in one-time revenues and tapping reserves, prompting questions about long-term plans to balance costs.

Miles’ team plans to sell $80 million in property next year, though the district has not yet finalized which buildings will be sold. HISD leaders also plan to dip into $130 million of the district’s projected $930 million “rainy day” fund. Texas officials recommend that districts with HISD’s budget keep at least $525 million in reserves.

HISD’s board of managers expressed concerns about budget sustainability, asking Miles’ team to explain its plan to “offset” the district’s current deficit spending in future years, according to a question-and-answer document published by the district in advance of Thursday’s meeting. The document doesn’t specify which board members asked about the deficit.

Miles’ team said it plans to continue cutting spending in the years to come, and to seek philanthropic donations and grants.

So many questions raised by all this:

1. If the key to the projected success of the NES schools is the extra spending on teachers and support staff there, then wouldn’t it follow that cutting spending at the other schools would be detrimental to them? What’s the plan if grades and scores start to slip in the non-NES schools?

2. As I understand it, the schools that were added to the NES system after the initial batch were designated were done so because of their 2023 STAAR scores. But there are progress reports and other data points during the year, which would presumably be more indicative of their standing than a previous STAAR test. Why rush to add so many more NES schools, before we had any evidence this program was not only working but also worth the extra cost? Why not use the full range of data available when making that decision?

3. It’s not just Miles who’s hiding the ball here. As the Houston Press points out:

As usual, no one on the appointed board explained why they voted the way they did, leaving audience members to speculate about whether those trustees who voted “no” did so was because they disagreed with the massive allocation of funds to NES schools, a fear that non-NES schools were being left behind, or just the anxiety that NES style of instruction with its rigid time tables and daily testing would eventually move to highly rated schools those board members hold dear.

The elected Board has certainly had its share of problems. But you generally at least knew where they stood on things.

4. Seeking “philanthropic donations and grants” to help with future budgets sure doesn’t raise any red flags, am I right?

5. Finally, while we can talk all we want about how this school is doing versus that school, what really matters is how the individual students are doing, especially the students from the population groups that have struggled the most in HISD: Students of color, economically disadvantaged students, students who are English language learners, and students in special education. Forget about all the preliminary data that’s being bandied about now. This is what really matters. The Chron has more.

Posted in School days | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rep. Nehls accused of stolen valor

This is interesting.

Rep. Troy Nehls

House Republicans are accusing Rep. Troy Nehls of “stolen valor” for continuing to wear a lapel pin for infantrymen or Special Forces who fought in active combat.

“It matters. As a former commander, it matters what you wear on your uniform,” Rep. Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL, told NOTUS. “And if you didn’t earn it, you shouldn’t wear it.”

Nehls wears a Combat Infantryman Badge pin from Afghanistan on his suit jacket, right under his 118th Congress pin. A CBS News investigation in early May found Nehls’ Combat Infantryman Badge had been revoked from his service record in March 2023 because he served as a civil affairs officer and it was mistakenly awarded. Only Infantry or Special Forces soldiers engaged in combat can receive the badge.

Rep. Wesley Hunt, also from Texas, wears a similar pin on his lapel, the Combat Action Badge. It’s what the Army awards to everyone who “engaged with the enemy,” even if they weren’t Infantry or Special Forces. “That’s ridiculous. That’s stolen valor,” Hunt said when hearing about Nehls.

Nehls defended his military record in the wake of the CBS News investigation and a Pentagon and U.S. Army review of his service record. That review stated that Nehls had one Bronze Star — not the two he has claimed — and is not allowed to wear the Combat Infantryman Badge. Nehls posted photographs and paperwork for two Bronze Stars on his X account last month.

“The Department of Defense (DoD) claims I was awarded only one Bronze Star. Wrong. I have two,” he said in the post. Nehls did not respond to NOTUS’ request for comment on him continuing to wear the CIB pin.

His Republican colleagues in the House have noticed that he hasn’t removed the badge — one he’s worn since joining Congress in 2021. NOTUS spoke with a dozen military veteran Republican lawmakers about Nehls’ pin. Some were granted anonymity to speak freely about their colleague. Eight expressed deep frustration with Nehls for wearing the pin. Those who were more reluctant to cast aspersions said they took the matter seriously and were independently reviewing the allegations against the Texas Republican.

“We hold ourselves to a higher standard as veterans,” a House Republican lawmaker told NOTUS. “He needs to stop wearing it.”

“If you’re wearing something that’s specifically been addressed as something you can’t wear, that is stolen valor,” another Republican lawmaker said. “It’s specifically addressed in U.S. Code, that particular badge,” they added, noting that if the person did not serve in the infantry but continues to wear the badge, it’s “illegal and stolen.”

It goes on from there, with more mostly anonymous quotes from other Republicans. Between this and that ethics investigation, Rep. Nehls has had quite the year so far. Whether it comes back to bite him in an election remains to be seen. He doesn’t appear to be backing down from his claim that the military has this all wrong, so it’s just a matter of how mad his fellow Republicans get at him.

Posted in Show Business for Ugly People | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SCOTUS swats away that bogus mifepristone case

A good and expected result, though the door for future challenges remains open.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the anti-abortion doctor plaintiffs in a major mifepristone case lack standing to reimpose restrictions on the drug.

The case presented a major risk to the drug’s accessibility, as adding back restrictions that the Food and Drug Administration had previously lifted would apply nationwide, even in blue states with robust abortion rights.

The plaintiffs in the case — represented at oral argument by lawyer Erin Hawley, wife of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) — contorted themselves to try to find some injury that the lifting of various restrictions on mifepristone caused them. They crafted hypotheticals about floods of suffering women being sent to their emergency rooms when they happened to be the only doctor on call; they complained that they had to spend money to drum up opposition to the FDA’s actions. But none of that, Kavanaugh wrote, passed muster.

“Federal courts do not operate as an open forum for citizens ‘to press general complaints about the way in which government goes about its business,’” he said.

Cutting through the plaintiffs’ many speculative theories of how they might, maybe, one day be harmed by the drug, Kavanaugh put it plainly: “Under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff’s desire to make a drug less available for others does not establish standing to sue.”

That idea — that the anti-abortion doctors’ desire for other doctors not to prescribe mifepristone and for patients not to take it simply does not give them grounds to sue — is both an obvious and basic facet of our legal system, and one that seemed to elude both U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk and the 5th Circuit, both of whom granted the plaintiffs standing in their haste to restrict the abortion drug.

The Court also clearly couldn’t swallow the slippery slope of what granting standing on such tenuous grounds could mean. The floodgates would be opened to an unmanageable wave of litigation: Every doctor would suddenly get the right to sue the FDA for approving virtually any drug with side effects; others could file lawsuits whenever an official makes a change that could bring about new physical harms (lifting emissions regulations, starting a middle school football league, increasing speed limits, expanding gun rights, as Kavanaugh proposed in a series of hypotheticals).

“Firefighters could sue to object to relaxed building codes that increase fire risks,” he wrote. “Police officers could sue to challenge a government decision to legalize certain activities that are associated with increased crime. Teachers in border states could sue to challenge allegedly lax immigration policies that lead to overcrowded classrooms.”

See here for the previous update. This case was a turd from the beginning and should have been laughed out of court, but this is what happens when you have a wingnut partisan judge that extremist zealots can dial up at will and a wingnut partisan appeals court that makes its own laws. It’s nice that SCOTUS didn’t fall for this patent bullshit, but they don’t deserve any more credit than that, since it was their own patent bullshit in the Dobbs decision that led us here. And while this door may be closed, other challenges like the FDA’s decision to allow mifepristone to be prescribed online remain, and that’s before we consider the zombie menace of the Comstock Act. Celebrate the win, but don’t get complacent about it, there’s still a ton of work to do. Mother Jones, the Associated Press, Slate, Law Dork, the Trib, Daily Kos, and Kevin Drum have more.

Posted in Legal matters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On the bonds and closing or not closing schools

This is a very complicated issue.

Two decades ago, children crowded the halls of Houston ISD’s Attucks and Cullen middle schools, historic campuses located two miles apart on the city’s south side.

Since then, hundreds of families have fled the area or moved their children to charter schools, leaving Attucks and Cullen half-empty with just 450 and 300 students, respectively. The enrollment losses have made the neighboring schools prime candidates for consolidation, a painful cost-saving measure that involves closing or combining campuses.

But after years of talks about shrinking HISD’s number of schools, a prospect floated by recent HISD superintendents and a state-led outside review team, the district’s new leaders are reversing course for now. Rather than closing either school, HISD Superintendent Mike Miles’ administration is proposing $40 million in upgrades for the two campuses as part of a $4.4 billion bond proposal that voters could consider in November.

The upgrades are part of Miles’ ambitious — but potentially wasteful — plan to invest millions of dollars in small and underutilized schools, with the goal of luring families back to once-proud campuses.

[…]

In an interview, Miles said he believes the upgrades, combined with his overhaul of the district, will help reverse enrollment declines that have hurt the district’s finances and the image of some campuses. HISD’s enrollment has fallen from 216,100 to 184,100 over the past seven years, largely due to fewer families residing in the district and the rapid expansion of charter schools.

Miles, who was appointed to lead the HISD in June 2023 as part of state sanctions against the district, said he is being “very careful” not to devote money to schools that would later be closed. The investments in low-enrollment and low-use schools address important health and safety issues, such as problems with air systems and water quality.

“We just haven’t done right by those schools over many, many years,” Miles said. “And so we’re going to blame them, close their schools, because we didn’t help them become a great school, (and) draw back the kids that they’re losing?”

Yet Miles’ plan risks throwing money at a problem he can’t definitively fix. There’s no guarantee that the upgrades will bring families back to HISD, particularly given the unpopularity of many of the changes he’s making to the district. If HISD continues to bleed students, the district could be left with dozens of upgraded but still half-empty buildings.

By keeping open low-enrollment schools, HISD also runs higher operating costs, taking money away from things like teacher salaries. The Texas Legislative Budget Board estimated in the late 2010s that HISD could save tens of millions of dollars each year if it closed dozens of low-enrollment schools.

The financial realities of running low-enrollment schools prompted HISD’s last two superintendents, Grenita Lathan and Millard House II, to raise the possibility of school closures, though district leaders ultimately danced around the issue. Upon his arrival last year, Miles also said he planned to study the issue and propose a list of schools that “need to be closed to provide a better education for the student and also to be more fiscally sound.”

See here and here for some background, and read the rest of the story, which includes a list of underutilized campuses that would get bond money. I’m glad to see some thought being given to addressing the enrollment decline, but only so much of that is in HISD’s control, and let’s be clear that Mike Miles is about the worst possible advocate for addressing this decline one can imagine.

This is a legitimately tough issue to talk about, and several of Miles’ predecessors have gotten their fingers burned trying to grasp it. On the one hand, there is a lot of money to be saved by consolidating schools that have way more capacity than students. At a time like this, that is especially important, but even in better times it could have meant spending more money on a per student basis. On the other hand, neighborhoods suffer when their schools are closed, students have to travel farther to get to their schools, a piece of history is lost, and people just flat don’t like it when this happens. The constituencies that oppose closing any given school are loud and organized, which makes it such a tough thing to do politically.

One could argue that an unaccountable Superintendent who has an unelected Board that doesn’t really oversee him is uniquely positioned to impose these unpopular decisions on the district. One could also suggest that such a Superintendent would have done well to build up trust within the community before putting forth that kind of proposal, instead of spending an entire year becoming the most hated man in town. Seeing Miles use bond money for campuses that had previously been on “could be closed” lists as a way of drumming up support for his bond proposal, especially after he had previously talked about putting together a closure list, is quite the irony.

Posted in School days | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Mayor criticized for Gulfton comments

From the inbox:

Community Leaders Demand Apology from Mayor Whitmire for Offensive Remarks About Gulfton

Houston, TX – A coalition of over 20 community leaders and organizations has released a letter (see attached PDF) calling on Mayor Whitmire to retract his recent offensive remarks about the Gulfton neighborhood and apologize to its residents. Mayor Whitmire described Gulfton as a community largely composed of “undocumented” immigrants who are uninterested in accessing amenities like the Galleria. These comments have been widely condemned as xenophobic and out of touch with the reality of this vibrant, diverse community.

Gulfton is home to residents from Latin America, Africa, West Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, with over 50 languages spoken. The Mayor’s comments ignore the aspirations and contributions of Gulfton’s residents and falsely imply they are unwelcome in other parts of Houston. His opposition to expanding public transit to the Galleria further isolates and disenfranchises this community.

The coalition demands that Mayor Whitmire:

Retract his remarks about Gulfton.
Issue a public apology to Gulfton residents.
Recognize the inherent value and rights of all Houstonians.
Acknowledge the legitimacy of community advocates and city council members.

“Mayor Whitmire’s comments are an affront to all Houstonians who believe in an inclusive and equitable city,” said Daniel Cohen, Chair of Indivisible Houston. “We need leadership that embraces all communities, not one that demeans and marginalizes them.”

You can see a copy of the letter, which was authored by former SD15 candidate Karthik Soora, here. It’s in response to some comments the Mayor made about Gulfton and various Metro projects that would benefit Gulfton, including (if it is ever allowed to happen) the Universities BRT line. I say this with respect to Karthik and the signatories, I don’t think the Mayor will give this much thought. That just isn’t how he operates. Be that as it may, I hope I’m wrong and that he does consider their words and his own. It would be good for everyone involved. The Press has more.

Posted in Local politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dispatches from Dallas, June 14 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week, in news from Dallas-Fort Worth, we have a grab bag. Catch up on: storm aftermath; primary aftermath; bigots and other troublemakers; school district news; the NRA’s sweetheart deal for its convention in Dallas; Mayor Johnson’s recent doings; Six Degrees of Clarence Thomas; Mavericks owner Miriam Adelson; deaths at the Tarrant County Jail; Pride and DEI news; the latest on the nuns in Arlington; the Alamo Drafthouse; the great grocery battles; a Guinness World Record here in Dallas; and a giraffe story with a happy ending. And more!

This week’s post was brought to you by the music of Blonde Redhead, whose most recent record came out last year, who are not touring, and do not have tickets on sale. I was just in the mood to listen to them.

In news this week:

  • Here are some leftover items from the big storms over Memorial Day weekend and the next week: two parks in Flower Mound are still closed due to flooding, with no re-opening date; a dam in Rockwall County shifted by six inches; a pet hospital in Sanger is treating severely injured dogs displaced in the tornadoes; east Texas was still picking up the pieces from the storms a week ago. In Dallas we’ve still got a lot of broken tree limbs bundled up on the sides of both residential streets and main thoroughfares. Plus we have tons of standing water, which means tons of mosquitoes.
  • The DMN wrote an editorial complaining that Dallas’ traffic lights go out but the ones in Garland and Carrolton don’t. And it’s because we don’t do maintenance in Dallas.
  • So far this year the US has had eleven weather disasters with price tags of over $25 billion each. Most of them were just severe thunderstorms.
  • If you don’t like the weather, wait a few weeks and it’ll get worse: ERCOT is predicting a 16% chance of brownouts in August. And the Guardian would like us to know that air conditioning is not enough in the world’s hottest cities. Apparently your AC works 30% harder to keep your home at 75F when the outside temperature goes from 95F to 98F. That’s going to do terrible things to your bill as well as making the brownouts worse.
  • Turning to politics, we have the aftermath of the Republican primaries. The Texas House GOP Caucus censured four Republican representatives, three of whom are from North Texas, for campaigning against Republican incumbents in the primary. The Texas Tribune has more.
  • The DMN’s Watchdog has a nasty mailer threatening to tell “President Trump” the recipient hadn’t voted in the runoff. This may technically not be a campaign law violation because it wasn’t from a campaign, but a PAC nobody could find anything out about and may not exist. Democratic primaries are not immune to this kind of thing; I got some texts about the Sheriff primary with no indication of the sender. The texts I got were misleading, but they weren’t threatening.
  • Tarrant County’s prosecution and persecution of Crystal Mason gets coverage from the Guardian.
  • The Star-Telegram has an editorial about the Texas GOP’s new plank: they want constitutional amendments to require not just statewide majorities but majorities in two-thirds of the counties. The paper’s take on the GOP’s moves to suppress votes, close primaries, and require county majorities: “But at some point, anti-majoritarian becomes anti-democratic. The Texas GOP approaches that threshold.” And this is the most conservative of the big city newspapers in Texas.
  • Rolling Stone has an intro to Tim Dunn for folks outside of Texas who haven’t had the misfortune yet. They’re about to.
  • The Fort Worth Botanic Gardens will not host the True Texas Project’s 15th anniversary event after they found out the event included sessions on the so-called war on white America and the Great Replacement Theory. The Texas Tribune story that got the Botanic Gardens to kick them out. Note the mention of Wilks and Dunn money, Don Huffines, and Louie Gohmert in this one.
  • The Republican and Democratic party chairs in Tarrant County spoke at an NAACP meeting in Arlington earlier this week.
  • Last weekend, some bigots dumped antisemitic flyers in plastic bags in Flower Mound. This is an unfortunately regular part of life in North Texas suburbs now as far as I can tell.
  • You may remember I wrote a few weeks ago about Mike Hixenbaugh’s book about Southlake and the school district based on his podcasts for NBC. John Huffman, former mayor of Southlake and more recently a loser to Dinesh D’Souza’s son-in-law in the Republican primary for CD 26, is mad about it and reached out to the Star-Telegram to tell his side of the story.
  • Speaking of people telling stories on school districts in the Star-Telegram, here’s a Crowley ISD trustee’s op-ed on Governor Abbott’s voucher plans. I wish Trustee Davis well in his next election, because telling it like it is is a death penalty offense in Texas politics these days.
  • The Dallas Observer has a rundown on the campus closings and job losses around the Metroplex.
  • Fort Worth ISD had to dip into its reserves to cover $17.7 million in raises for its teachers. They ended up choosing not to consolidate campuses as mentioned in the Dallas Observer article above, to the dismay of the Star-Telegram’s editorial board. The paper also has an analysis of what will happen next, which may include some closures anyway as enrollments continue to decline with changing demographics.
  • If you want to know who the best-paid school superintendents in Tarrant County are, the Fort Worth Report has you covered. The winner is Northwest ISD Superintendent Mark Foust with an annual salary of $372,659.
  • I’m not a parent and I don’t understand the ins-and-outs of PTAs vs PTOs, but no matter which is better, the last-minute decision disband the PTAs in Mesquite ISD a week before the end of the school year smells fishy. I haven’t seen anything more about the PTAs but I’ll be keeping an eye out.
  • UNT’s teacher education program is going to be on TEA probation for the second year in a row.
  • KERA has an item on the bad investment strategies that are still hurting the pension funds for Dallas’ police and firefighters.
  • Dallas County is facing a $40 million budget shortfall this year. There may be some deep cuts, including job cuts, and freezes coming.
  • You may remember that the NRA had its annual meeting in Dallas last month. They got a sweetheart deal on the facility rental: $5000, against a normal price of $931,990, between discounts and the portion paid by Dallas’ nonprofit tourism bureau. If that sounds shady, you’re not alone in thinking so. The Dallas Morning News has an editorial on how deals like this should be transparent because the public has a right to know whether this contract was particularly cheap or just doing business.
  • Here’s an update on where the Dallas City Council is with the proposed charter amendements.
  • Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson has a big interview in Texas Monthly about his party switch. If you don’t want to read that, the Dallas Observer has its own pithy take on why Johnson is talking to Texas Monthly when he won’t talk to local media.
  • In actual things Mayor Johnson is doing, he would like to avoid paying off City Manager T.C. Broadnax if he can. Here’s a refresher on how Broadnax’s departure went down. And this is a different refresher on all the staff changes at City Hall that have followed Broadnax leaving.
  • One person who isn’t leaving Dallas is Police Chief Eddie Garcia. We can’t legally give him a contract right now, but his offer letter has been amended to keep him the highest paid police chief in a major Texas City.
  • If you’d like a list of the highest-paid city employees here in Dallas, the Dallas Observer has the names and numbers. Garcia is number five; if Broadnax were still with us, he’d be in first place.
  • And in one more piece of Dallas city council news, the council has reappointed Councilmember Tennell Atkins as Mayor Pro Tem. Councilmember Adam Bazaldua was appointed as Deputy Mayor Pro Tem.
  • In addition to its profile of Mayor Johnson, Texas Monthly also has a good piece on Mark Melton of the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center. He was also the subject of a recent D Magazine profile to which I will direct your attention again.
  • It’s the beat that keeps on giving: Six Degrees of Clarence Thomas is back! Thomas finally admitted he should have disclosed some trips and amended some filings. But that wasn’t enough! We know now that Harlan Crow took Thomas on more trips than either had previously admitted, as covered by Talking Points Memo and the DMN. Thanks to the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee for beating this horse hard enough to prove it’s not quite dead. I know Sam Alito is running hard for the coveted title of “Justice who shows the most contempt for the little people” but don’t count Clarence Thomas out yet!
  • More seriously, let’s talk about the Tarrant County Jail, where a sixth inmate died during the last week in May. No cause of death has been reported yet. Meanwhile in the case of Anthony Johnson Jr., the medical examiner has ruled his death was homicide by asphyxiation, which could open jailers to criminal charges. Congressman Marc Veasey has asked the US Department of Justice to investigate the six deaths so far this year at the jail. You may recall that the jail supervisor involved in Johnson’s death was initially fired, but the firing was reversed and he’s now on administrative leave. Now he’s saying he did all the right things and that the unreleased part of the video leading up to Johnson’s death will exonerate him. And on May 30, the chief deputy in charge of jail operations retired after 32 years. He told the DMN the deaths played no role in his decision.
  • The Department of Public Safety is investigating a photo of a state trooper with a Three Percenter decal that was taken here in Dallas.
  • Who watches the watchers? The Dallas Observer tells us that police oversight in most north Texas cities is handled in-house.
  • Leadership in Tarrant County Appraisal District has had a lot of churn in the last couple of years between the disastrous rollout of their new website and its consequences and the first-time elections for appraisal board members. Now the chair of the citizens review board, which mediates valuation disputes, has also resigned, days before the review board was to begin hearing cases.
  • Unrelated, but also relevant: 26% of Fort Worth’s single-family homes are commercially owned.
  • The Tarrant County DA has dropped prosecution of a vacated murder conviction over improved interpretation of DNA evidence. Compare this to the Crystal Mason case.
  • Also on a matter of improved scientific evidence: a retired Palestine police detective wrote a moving DMN op-ed about a shaken baby case where science that is no longer viewed as sound was used to convict a defendant of capital murder for killing his own child. Apparently the defendant in this case is the last person on death row in the US based on a conviction on this discredited theory. I hope this piece inspires the courts involved to take a second look at the case and the defendant’s innocence claim is upheld.
  • Dallas now has a pro-choice pregnancy center operated by the First Unitarian Church of Dallas.
  • File under “I’ll believe it when I see it”: there are plans for a new national stock exchange here in Dallas. Also in the Texas Tribune.
  • It’s the middle of June, but disagreements over the wording and organizations included mean Fort Worth City Council won’t issue a proclamation to designate Pride Month in the city.
  • Does Frisco have an inclusion committee? Maybe. Is it official? Probably not.
  • I found out a couple of things about Butler Place in Fort Worth in the last few weeks. First, it’s Fort Worth’s oldest public housing complex and is currently being redeveloped. Second, it’s a brownfield, requiring environmental remediation before redevelopment. Fortunately there is EPA money coming for Butler Place and other Fort Worth brownfields.
  • Here are a few items about new Dallas Mavericks owner Miriam Adelson, who’s a big old Trump supporter: Mark Cuban backs Biden. Why was he so keen to sell the Mavs to Trump megadonors? (Guardian); Meet the Out-of-State Political Donors Messing With Texas (Texas Monthly; Adelson is the largest donor on the list); GOP megadonor Miriam Adelson to fund colossal super PAC for Trump (Politico). Meanwhile, the DMN has a story on how casino legalization looks like a loser in the 2025 session.
  • Our host has been fascinated by the Arlington nun saga, so I’m bringing y’all the latest updates: the nuns requested the the dismissal of their TRO and their suit in May, but they still wouldn’t let the nun from the Carmelite Association of Christ the King enter. Also, the Vatican has reinstated Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach as a nun, but not as the leader of the monastery. All of this dates from late May, but there’s no later news.
  • Wondering how many billionaires there are in the Metroplex? 15.
  • I complain a lot about the DMN, but I do like that they have an architecture critic. Mark Lamster doesn’t like the bleacher stair, noting correctly that its accessibility for disabled folks is poor. I do like the alternative he shows, which looks easier to use for gathering and, for folks who can use stairs, easier to walk up.
  • This is cool: there’s a 3D printed home being constructed in Fort Worth. The model will cost $150K and the “ink” is specially formulated concrete.
  • It’s been a weird week for Dallas-area moviegoers. First we lost the Angelika in Plano (there’s still one in Dallas) and all of our Alamo Drafthouses and then Sony swept in and bought the Alamo Drafthouse chain lock, stock, and barrel. The Star-Telegram asks the big question, which is what does the purchase mean for moviegoers and staffers in the Metroplex? The answer is that we don’t know for certain, but Sony is working to get the local theaters up and running. And if you’re looking for analysis of the purchase, I like Lainey Gossip’s take.
  • Here’s a piece on how the DFW grocery market is dealing with the entry of HEB. We currently do curbside from HEB in Plano every week or two, sometimes supplementing with trips to Trader Joe’s, Target, and Whole Foods. We used to be Kroger customers, but they were so unreliable during the pandemic that we switched to Target curbside for groceries. Now Target is only sort of reliable and we have to switch between our nearby Target and the close suburban Target to get everything we want. We’re not close to the Joe V’s so they’re not an option for us; we just haven’t gotten to the Central Market because our Whole Foods is closer and more convenient. The rock-solid reliability of HEB’s curbside has made it worth our while to drive out to Plano to get groceries. If Kroger and Tom Thumb (Randall’s) want our business, they’ll need to catch up with HEB.
  • You may have heard there’s a documentary out this month about the Texas Renaissance Festival in Magnolia. Scarborough Faire in Waxahachie, our local faire, would like you to know it is in NO WAY connected to the documentary. There’s a different and equally juicy story about Scarborough, though. Buy me a mocktail sometime and I’ll tell you!
  • Wally Funk, an astronaut from Grapevine, was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame. Most of her career was spent in aviation, but in 2021 she went to space on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin New Shephard at the ripe old age of 82. Congratulations to Ms. Funk and her fellow inductees!
  • Dallas grocery El Rio Grande on Buckner Boulevard now holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for the world’s largest fruit display with its 260,292 avocados. After the display was dismantled, the avocados were sold at El Rio Grande stores across North Texas at 5 for $1.
  • Last, but not least: a giraffe story with a happy ending. A curious giraffe at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose snatched a toddler’s shirt. The giraffe quickly released the child, who was uninjured. Following the incident, Fossil Rim no longer allows guests to ride in the back of pickup trucks.
  • Posted in Blog stuff | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

    Council approves bond deal for firefighter back pay

    This is a big component of the firefighter pay deal, just not the whole thing.

    Mayor John Whitmire

    Houston City Council approved Wednesday a historic bond deal, estimated to cost taxpayers over $1 billion, to spread $650 million in backpay to firefighters over the next 25 to 30 years.

    The 14-3 vote came after a fiery hour-long discussion in which a divided council debated whether Houston voters should have a more direct say in greenlighting a proposal that would affect them for decades to come. Both finance Director Melissa Dubowski and Controller Chris Hollins estimated that the total cost of the bond, including interest, could reach between $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion, though the final amount will not be clear until after the bond pricing.

    Council Members Edward Pollard, Tiffany Thomas and Mary Nan Huffman voted no on the proposal. Both Pollard and Thomas tried to push for an amendment to put the bond issuance on the November ballot, but Mayor John Whitmire ruled them out of order.

    City Attorney Arturo Michel explained these amendments would violate Texas’ Open Meeting Act, because they put forth a different measure than what was originally on the agenda. The bigger issue, he said, is the firefighters’ union might not agree to delay the process for several months, which could lead to a new trial in the fall and leave Houstonians without an agreement to vote on.

    “I promise you, if we start over, it’ll be more expensive. It’ll be years before it’s resolved. It’s going to impact the operations of the fire department,” Whitmire said during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

    Pollard, on the other hand, insisted “anything can be negotiated,” noting members were still getting notifications about last-minute changes to the firefighters’ agreement as late as Tuesday night.

    “Three months of a wait to get to the ballot – which early voting starts in October – that’s not unreasonable for $650 million over 30 years,” Pollard said. “It’s (Houstonians’) money. Let them have a voice.”

    […]

    Approving the bond issuance is just the first step in finalizing the firefighters’ deal. The council also needs to vote on the actual settlement agreement, which includes $650 million in backpay and a labor agreement granting firefighters at least 24% pay raises over the next five years.

    The agenda item that includes the two agreements has appeared twice on the council agenda, last week and this week. However, members could not vote on it because Controller Chris Hollins, Houston’s independently elected watchdog, had not certified the funds as available. The controller’s certification is a necessary step before the council can approve any financial commitments by the city.

    An unofficial copy of the labor agreement has been circulating around City Hall for weeks. But Whitmire’s team did not release an official draft until last week, prompting complaints from Hollins and several City Council members about the rushed timeline for the vote.

    On Monday, Hollins sent Whitmire a 10-page inquiry with 44 questions about the deal, covering topics from base pay increases and drug testing requirements to discipline procedures and negotiation concessions.

    Whitmire responded Tuesday evening, answering only five of the controller’s questions, saying the rest were irrelevant to the certification of the agenda item.

    “To be clear, by not certifying this agreement and allowing City Council to conduct their legislative duty you are risking Fire and EMS operations for all Houstonians, as well as jeopardizing the entire negotiated settlement,” Whitmire wrote in a letter to Hollins.

    Hollins told the Chronicle he does not plan to certify the proposal until he gets clear answers to his questions. Then, he said, it will be up to City Council to decide whether to move forward with the proposal.

    “The mayor’s letter was not responsive to 90% of my questions,” Hollins said. “I wouldn’t be doing my job as Houston’s taxpayer watchdog if I allowed this important item – one that will ultimately cost the City more than $1 billion – to move forward without answering critical questions that are relevant to the fiscal sustainability of the City and the safety of Houstonians.”

    See here for the previous update. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me the main stumbling block in all this is that I don’t take the Mayor’s word for it, in his rebuttals to Controller Hollins and CM Pollard. Maybe he’s right – he certainly knows infinitely more about this than I do – but this whole process has been the opposite of transparent, and that leaves me with plenty of questions. The story notes that the Mayor finally gave an initial answer to the frequently asked question about how the negotiations with the firefighters actually went. We have these questions because the Mayor and the firefighters are so tightly aligned politically. It’s not out of line to wonder how hard the city went in the settlement negotiations given the closeness of that relationship.

    Again, the Mayor could be completely right about all this. I don’t know what kind of offer was on the table prior to his election, but it was clear that the city and the firefighters were far apart and unlikely to get any closer. I don’t know what was at risk if the litigation went to a verdict; I know what Mayor Whitmire has claimed it was, but as noted I have my doubts about that. I’d like to hear what people who were not involved in the litigation think, so I have a basis for comparison. Maybe now that the settlement agreement is public, we’ll get some third party analysis of it.

    UPDATE: Council also approved the Mayor’s budget.

    The Houston City Council approved a $7.3 billion budget Wednesday, paving the way for more spending on drainage projects in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, more police officers and a new program to improve heavy trash pick up services.

    The budget is up $1.1 billion over last year and leaves the city with a $192 million deficit after council members added new spending measures just before the vote, Finance Director Melissa Dubowski said. The budget does not include new taxes or fees proposed by Mayor John Whitmire.

    More changes could be in store as the council will address proposals to implement a trash fee and examine the maximum hours the city pays its terminated employees in upcoming meetings.

    “There’s no such thing as a perfect budget,” Whitmire said ahead of the 15-2 to pass vote.

    The votes against the budget came from Council Member Edward Pollard and Tiffany D. Thomas. Pollard told the council he was concerned the budget wasn’t bringing enough new tax revenue given the city’s growing financial challenges.

    “We’re going to have to start to become much more serious about our spending trends … because all we’re doing is enlarging our structurally unbalanced budget,” Pollard said.

    Thomas told the Chronicle after the meeting that she had concerns about the city’s $650 million settlement with the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, and the hole it could blow in the budget next year. Controller Chris Hollins did not certify the money to pay the agreement due to a range of questions, prompting a standoff with Whitmire. The mayor is urging the council to take swift action to avoid having the agreement expire.

    We’ll see about those “more changes”. I assume the cash in the fund balance that Mayor Turner bequeathed to his successor will be used to close the gap. The Houston Landing and the Mayor’s press release has more.

    Posted in Local politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

    Miles to decimate wraparound services

    This is a bad idea.

    State-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles said social work services for students will be provided by a trimmer team of wraparound specialists who will each serve multiple campuses and refer students to off-campus support centers.

    Houston ISD is cutting more than 200 wrap-around specialists — who help Houston ISD’s neediest students access food, clothing, hygienic products and other basics — as part of the proposed budget that started with a $528 million deficit. The 48 remaining wraparound workers split their time among four and seven schools each.

    “In the 24-25 school year, we will still have wraparound specialists but they will be able to refer kids (to HISD support centers and healthcare providers) much more efficiently and effectively,” Miles said, noting that the specialists would maintain clothing and food banks at every school.

    Miles said the cuts were an unfortunate necessity as wraparound services has been funded with grants and federal COVID relief money, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which expired this year. He said the program had cost HISD about $20 million this year, though the district’s ESSER dashboard indicates HISD spent only about $3.3 million on wraparound specialists. District officials did not immediately return a request for comment about the discrepancy.

    […]

    Miles said that an internal review of the efficacy of HISD’s wraparound services indicated that 76% of specialists were assigned to 200 schools with the least need, and that basic needs such as food insecurity and clothing did not require a full-time employee based on their campus. He said that about 27% of wraparound workers completed at least twice as many support actions as the other 73%.

    Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of the advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education, pointed to a Houston Public Media report that HISD had already instructed wraparound workers to focus on truancy and dropout prevention in January, rather than meeting basic needs. The Houston Education Research Center at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research is conducting its own study in partnership with the district about the efficacy of HISD’s new Sunrise Centers.

    See here for some background. I’ll put aside for now the fact that this is yet another example of Mike Miles saying things about HISD’s finances that are at best misleading if not outright untrue. I’ve said before and I’ll say again now, I think it’s a bad idea to take services away from this population of students that need them so much. I think it’s in opposition to Miles’ own goals for improving academic outcomes, as as noted before the savings in cutting these positions is minimal. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe there were more specialists than we needed and maybe the Sunrise Centers will do as well as the current setup and maybe academic outcomes for this cohort will be just fine. I’m glad to see that research is being done on the efficacy of the Sunrise Centers. Now what I want to know is, if the research shows that I was right and Miles was wrong, then what? Does Miles admit his error and seek to rectify it, or does he throw some more weasel words at us and hope we forget about it? I’m willing to be proven wrong on this. How about you, Mike?

    One more thing:

    The appointed members of HISD’s Board of Managers also questioned the superintendent about his plans for next year’s budget, which will be up for approval at the board’s next meeting on Thursday. Board members Michelle Cruz Arnold and Jeanette Garza Lindner asked the superintendent why he hadn’t considered pausing or reducing the expansion of his New Education System to 130 schools next year, which would account for about $732 million of the district’s $2.1 billion budget.

    “A responsible thing to do moving forward would be to consider postponing (the expansion at) some of the campuses, especially when we’re talking about belt-tightening,” Cruz Arnold said.

    Miles said that his budget reflected the board’s goals of boosting academic achievement. Expanding the New Education System was also at the top of the district’s action plan presented to the board in March. Non NES-campuses are expected to face budget cuts of up to 12%.

    I appreciate that some of the appointed board members are bringing up the very large expenditure that is the NES, which absolutely could be scaled back at least a little to help deal with the budget issues. I don’t know how much feedback was given back in March when the goal of expanding the NES footprint well beyond its initial scope was first announced, but at least it’s here now. The Board votes on the Miles budget today, so that’s another opportunity to express this disagreement. I’m just saying.

    Posted in School days | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

    I-45 construction set to begin

    Ready or not, here it comes.

    Houston’s largest-ever freeway project is one step closer to starting construction, with crews poised to begin digging in the dirt along Interstate 69 by fall.

    After years of planning and sometimes fiery debate, the Texas Department of Transportation last week opened bids on the first of what is likely to be more than two dozen projects expected as part of the $11 billion-plus rebuild of Interstate 45 and the downtown freeway system.

    Harper Brothers Construction, based in Houston, was the apparent low bidder for the job, based on a review of TxDOT’s online bid system. The company’s $121 million bid was nearly $20 million more than the state predicted the work would cost,

    “Costs for this segment have increased due to inflation, but still within budget,” TxDOT spokesman Danny Perez said in a statement. “We always take inflation into account on engineering estimates, and the lowest bid fell within an acceptable range.”

    The cost hike is reflective of other recent bids where construction costs have risen and consumed more of the record-setting funds that TxDOT set aside for highway building.

    I’m just gonna leave this here:

    And I remember how the cost of the Katy Freeway widening project of the early aughts kept increasing as well. Plus ca change, and all that. Place your bets now on what the final cost of this sucker’s gonna be.

    Posted in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

    Texas blog roundup for the week of June 10

    The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes everyone had a nice time in El Paso as it brings you this week’s roundup.

    Continue reading

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    June HCAD special election runoff early voting Day Nine: On to Saturday

    And we are done with early voting for the HCAD runoffs. Here’s the final EV report. Let’s have another chart, shall we?

    
    Month   Mail    Early    Total
    ==============================
    May   14,152   19,500   33,652
    June  11,043   18,048   29,091
    

    As predicted yesterday, we have surpassed one percent turnout. That may be the faintest praise with which one can be damned, but given how low the expectations were going in, getting this far just in early voting has to count as a minor achievement. We did get a bump on each of the last two days – it does warm my heart to observe that even in the weirdest circumstances, some patterns remain true. We also saw 8,344 mail ballots come in after Day One, bringing the total so far more or less into the expected range. It won’t surprise me to see a decent increase in the mail ballot total when the results are posted on Saturday night. There have been at least 800 ballots returned every day for which there is mail service, so if that persists we could see another 3200 or so mail votes in the final tally. It may not be quite that much – I would be hesitant to count on any ballot mailed after today in Saturday’s total – but it will be more than this.

    I will not provide a guess about final turnout, but I will note that for the May election, about 39% of the total vote was cast on the Saturday. I think we are likely to fall short of May’s total, and it would take a sufficient mail haul between now and Saturday to make me think we’ll top two percent overall turnout, but it could happen. Again, this is all ridiculous and wasteful, a transparent effort by the Republicans to gin up an election in Harris County they can win, but it is what it is. I’ll have a post about where to vote on Saturday later in the week. If you still haven’t voted yet, go get out there on Saturday.

    Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

    Hollins not ready to certify firefighters’ deal

    Welp.

    Controller Chris Hollins

    The proposed $1.5 billion settlement and labor contract with the Houston firefighters union appears unlikely to be certified in time for Wednesday’s scheduled City Council vote because a lengthy list of questions Controller Chris Hollins sent Mayor John Whitmire about the deal have not been answered.

    Hollins sent the mayor 44 questions on Monday, giving the administration a tight deadline to produce answers before Wednesday morning’s council session. The questions seek basic information about the deal’s estimated cost to the city, as well as more intricate details, including specific triggers for firefighter bonuses he says were not included in the draft his office received last week.

    The city charter requires the controller to certify the availability of funding for ordinances prior to a council vote committing the city to future financial obligations. Hollins said he would not certify the deal without answers to each of his 44 questions, something his office had not received Tuesday afternoon.

    “It’s my job to make sure that we ensure complete transparency, and that includes having these questions answered,” Hollins said Tuesday afternoon. “I would not be doing my job if we let this off our desk without getting our questions answered.”

    In a Tuesday evening response to Hollins, Whitmire declined to answer many of the questions, citing the confidential legal negotiations that produced the eventual settlement. Whitmire warned Hollins that a failure to certify before Wednesday’s meeting risks millions of dollars from the city’s budget. He said his office spent Tuesday writing its response and would provide more answers to City Council members later in the evening.

    “To be clear, by not certifying this agreement and allowing City Council to conduct their legislative duty you are risking fire and EMS operations for all Houstonians, as well as jeopardizing the entire negotiated settlement,” the mayor wrote.

    He also said the city had until June 19 to approve the agreement, ending the letter, “My team stands ready to answer any additional questions you may have, and I look forward to being able to vote on this item tomorrow.”

    Whitmire, who campaigned for mayor last year on a promise to end the firefighter back-pay dispute, announced the deal in March. Since then, details about the settlement and collective bargaining agreement had been sparse prior to the 123-page CBA being signed and published June 3.

    Hollins said his office worked as quickly as possible to review the terms and draft his questions in the week since those details became public.

    […]

    In his letter, Hollins asks Whitmire to confirm the back-pay settlement’s $650 million price tag, the cost of legal bills, as well as the number of firefighters eligible to receive the back-pay. He also seeks additional clarity about the negotiations that delivered the settlement, asking Whitmire how many concessions the city and the firefighters’ union offered prior to the two sides coming to an agreement.

    According to Hollins, the CBA lacks details about “escalators,” or funding benchmarks that, if met, could trigger pay raises for the union’s members. Without details about the types of new revenue that would trigger the pay raises, it could lead to further litigation between the city and the union down the road, Hollins said.

    Hollins urged Whitmire to provide details of the triggering conditions or negotiate them prior to the deal being ratified by council.

    Hollins also is seeking clarification from Whitmire about some of the CBA’s non-financial terms, including changes to Civil Service Commission rules that would allow the firefighters’ union to select half of the board’s members and a requirement that any termination achieve a unanimous vote by the board’s members. The change effectively would give the firefighters veto power over major discipline.

    See here for the previous update. Just so we’re clear, the agreement was announced on February 29. The price tag, as stated by Mayor Whitmire and the HPFFA, was announced on March 14. Controller Hollins gave his estimate of the price tag, based on then-available information, on March 26. In an interview with CityCast Houston published on April 15, Hollins stated that he had not seen a copy of the agreement yet. The settlement agreement was approved by the judge on May 24. Hollins received a copy of the deal last Monday, June 3, more than three months after the city’s initial agreement with the firefighters. There was plenty of room in the timeline for him to have gotten the details before then.

    If the deal isn’t brought up for a Council vote today, then it will come up again next Wednesday, the 19th. Mayor Whitmire’s job between now and then is to get his ducks in a row. We’ll see how he does.

    Posted in Local politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

    Cruise returns to Houston

    They’re baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack…

    Here’s the story.

    General Motors’ Cruise began test-driving their autonomous vehicles in Houston again months after the faulty cars were pulled off the streets pending a federal investigation, a spokesperson said on Tuesday.

    The company will begin its relaunch into Houston with drivers behind the wheels of the autonomous vehicles charged with creating map data and gathering road information. The company’s fleet began test driving again in Phoenix in April after a short hiatus and a staff shakeup.

    The vehicles are still the subject of a federal investigation launched by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the United States Department of Transportation last year after several reports of the driverless cars injuring pedestrians.

    […]

    In an open letter posted to Cruise’s website, the company said it has “thoroughly examined” standards, processes and systems guided by expert external reviews since reports of the vehicles malfunctioning in October last year.

    The company’s Houston fleet will start as human-driven vehicles before moving to a supervised autonomous driving phase in the coming weeks.

    See here, here, and here for some background. Cruise announced its return to the streets of Phoenix in April, and they relaunched in Dallas last week, so this was going to happen sooner or later. I still think the hype greatly outweighs the value, but we’ll see how they do this time around. Anyone out there excited to give this a try? TechCrunch and the Houston Landing, which quotes a Cruise spokesperson as saying “there will be three driver-operated vehicles in Bellaire, West University Place, and The Villages with hopes of later expanding to the Fifth Ward area”, though there is not yet a timeline for resuming driverless service, has more.

    Posted in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

    June HCAD special election runoff early voting Day Eight: Let’s not be too pessimistic about turnout

    I was struck by the following passage in this Houston Landing story about the HCAD runoff elections.

    Turnout in the Place 1 race was just 2.1 percent of Harris County’s 2.56 million registered voters, according to Harris County Clerk’s Office data.

    Turnout is expected to be even lower for Saturday’s runoffs, University of Houston political analyst Nancy Sims said.

    “I don’t think this turnout will break 1 percent,” Sims said. “I just can’t see people coming out for this. There’s nothing else on the ballot to draw their interest.”

    First, on an entirely pedantic matter, there are 2.62 million registered voters in Harris County, going by the figure in the official May canvass report. There were 2.59 million RVs as of November 2023, which is the last election report before May to contain a Harris County RV figure. It may be there were 2.56 million as of January, following whatever reconciliation and update activities the Tax Assessor’s office did. Whatever the case, as of May the county says 2.62 million.

    Which means that Nancy Sims is predicting that turnout will top out at about 26,200 people. I have to wonder when she provided that quote, because just looking at the total number of ballots already cast in early voting, we’re probably going to exceed that today. Indeed, as we look at the Day Eight EV report, we are now at 23,287 total votes – 13,108 in person, 10,179 by mail. That’s about 2900 voters per day over the course of the EV period, and if we get that amount today, which does not include a normal “last day of early voting” bump, it would put us right at one percent turnout, with four more days for mail ballots to be returned and all of Saturday to come. Fair to say, that prediction is off.

    I don’t mean to rag on Nancy, who’s a smart person and knows her stuff. As noted above, I suspect she provided that quote early in the cycle, before enough data had come in to alter one’s perception. And to be clear, this is still an abysmal level of turnout. I’d bet the under on getting to two percent, which is just ridiculous. It’s hard to take seriously the Republican claims that changing these three positions will be an improvement of representation, given how quickly and with so little notice these elections occurred and the fact that about half of the counties that had to have them ended up cancelling them because most or all of the races were unopposed. It’s a farce, but here we are, and the result still matters. Do what you can to make it a little more respectable by making sure you and the people you know get out and vote. Today and Saturday are your last chances.

    Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

    It’s Greg Abbott’s fault if your school district is facing a budget crunch

    News item #1: Houston-area school districts brace for big budget cuts.

    Staring down a $100 million deficit budget, even after deciding to close three campuses in February, Aldine ISD trustees have a difficult decision to make this week.

    Voting on Aldine ISD’s budget on Monday will involve a 10% cut to the district’s budget, including 100 employees. The proposed budget comes after the board voted to close Conley, Sammons and Gray elementaries earlier this year. And more campuses may need to be closed before the 2025-2026 year to remain afloat.

    “In recent years, Aldine ISD has had to face some tough realities: student enrollment declines, a lack of affordable housing throughout the community, declining birth rates, and decreased funding from the state,” district spokesperson Sylvia Samuell wrote.

    The district on the north side of Houston is led by well-known superintendent LaTonya Goffney, and is praised for innovations like its year-round school calendar at some elementary campuses. Over the past four years since the pandemic, the district has lost more than 6,000 students, putting enrollment at 59,996.

    At least six other districts across the Houston area have reported multi-million dollar deficits as they face the 2024-2025 budgeting process this summer, totaling at least $850 million in shortfalls.

    “It really is a perfect storm,” said Bob Popinski, executive director of Raise Your Hand Texas. “Since 2019, we’ve had double-digit inflation. So think, increased costs in fuel, property and casualty insurance and construction costs and health insurance costs, and even food services.”

    […]

    A recent report from the Texas Education Agency shows that state funding has actually decreased over the past 10 years Gov. Greg Abbott has been in office, when accounting for double-digit inflation, according to the TEA.

    In 2014, the total per student revenue from state and local taxes was $6,680, but when adjusted for inflation, that sum dropped to $6,669 in 2023. And in the same year, just looking at state funding, the sum was $4,235, a number also dropped to $4,196 when adjusted for inflation in 2023, according to the report.

    A recent report from the Texas Association of School Business Officials shows that over half the 313 districts surveyed across the state are projecting deficit budgets for fiscal year 2024.

    “Nearly 80% of respondents face challenges with deficit budgets or insufficient resources, a concern ranking among the top three challenges for half of them,” reads the May 2024 report overview

    Just under half the districts surveyed are presently undergoing significant cuts, and over half said they would have to take teacher raises out of cuts. More than 175 districts reported that they would need to make budget cuts and use their fund balance to stay afloat.

    “The headlines from now until the beginning of next school year are going to be kind of jaw dropping in the amount of programs being cut,” Popinski said.

    News item #2, a similar story from the Fort Worth area.

    Superintendent Michael McFarland was anxious as his team assembled Crowley ISD’s next budget.

    Numbers were tight for the growing school district. So much so that McFarland turned to Chief Financial Officer Leon Fisher in meetings and asked, “Are you sure, man?”

    McFarland and Fisher recently presented the district’s preliminary 2024-25 budget to the school board. They expect a nearly $23 million deficit to draw down the district’s reserves to $14.2 million. Trustees and administrators blamed the school district’s financial situation, which leaders have expected since early 2024, on state lawmakers not increasing public education funding.

    “In case you’re wondering, it is raining in the school system. It’s not one of those natural storms. This is a man-made, politically made storm,” McFarland said.

    […]

    The superintendent and CFO pointed to several factors crunching the district’s budget:

    • The state’s new $100,000 homestead exemption led to an estimated loss of 18 cents from each property tax bill.
    • The freezing of property taxes of residents who are either disabled or 65 or older meant a $10 million reduction in revenue.
    • The state’s lowering of Crowley ISD’s tax rate as property values increase

    School board President Daryl Davis added two more reasons.

    “This is all in the face of funding levels from 2019 and funding on average daily attendance rather than enrollment,” Davis said.

    News item #3: There’s a simple and obvious solution. Greg Abbott refuses to consider it and is instead casting blame on the school districts themselves.

    State Representative Steve Allison called on Governor Greg Abbott to convene a special session to address the pressing funding issues facing the state’s public schools as more school districts announce massive layoffs.

    In a recent op-ed for the San Antonio Express-News, Allison emphasized that the future of more than 5.4 million public school students, thousands of public school employees and Texas communities are at stake.

    Allison’s urgency comes as some of the largest school districts in Texas are facing huge deficits and have announced massive layoffs to address the problem. Some lawmakers have urged Abbott to call a special session to address school funding, but Abbott has refused.

    Last year, the state had a record $32 billion surplus, but the government failed to increase funding for public schools. Allison noted that the state hasn’t increased the base per-pupil allocation since 2019, and that “this failure has contributed to our state’s low national ranking in per-student funding and teacher compensation.”

    Abbott, on the other hand, has blamed schools for his financial woes.

    “If you don’t like the budget cuts at your child’s school — tough! It’s your school’s fault,” Abbott said. He also said schools were misusing a federal pandemic found and blamed the House for not passing HB1, a package that would have increased public school funding but with limits.

    “Suffice it to say, these accusations are disingenuous at best and simply not supported by facts,” Allison wrote. “The federal pandemic funds that went to both the state and school districts were known to be temporary. HB1 did indeed include provisions that address current needs, but it also included controversial unrelated private school voucher provisions, which are being pushed by Abbott.”

    Since the House failed to pass HB1, Abbott has refused to consider increasing school funding without a school choice proposal.

    “The inescapable fact is that Abbott held the needs of school districts hostage for his private school voucher plan,” Allison said.

    Just a reminder here that flipping Rep. Allison’s HD121, for which there are better prospects given his primary loss, would at least help block Abbott’s vouchermania in 2025. He may never give in on funding the schools, but we can at least deny him what he wants.

    Anyway, just a reminder of why we are where we are. And another item on my list of complaints about Mike Miles, as he has yet to make the obvious and necessary point that HISD’s budget issues are also in large part Greg Abbott’s fault. You can acknowledge that reality any time, Mike.

    Posted in That's our Lege | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

    Once again we ask, what’s up with that FBI investigation of Ken Paxton?

    Who knows?

    Still a crook any way you look

    Federal agents were still actively investigating Paxton for alleged corruption after he was acquitted of related impeachment charges last year, according to multiple sources who spoke with The Texas Newsroom in recent weeks. Among Paxton’s potential crimes listed in newly unearthed federal grand jury documents included bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy.

    News of the FBI investigation first broke in fall 2020. Paxton is alleged to have repeatedly abused his position as attorney general to help Nate Paul, an Austin-based real estate investor and campaign donor. It’s unclear whether the FBI is still investigating. If the federal probe is still active, it would now be more than three years old.

    Two former federal prosecutors said it’s not uncommon for a complex investigation involving a public official to drag on this long.

    Sometimes federal investigators get a lead that takes them months – even years – to run down, they said. New witnesses may need to be convinced to flip, they said, and elections can also delay cases because it’s not preferable to announce charges against someone who’s actively running for office.

    The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District and Paxton’s attorneys declined to comment for this story.

    The feds could have closed the probe without a public announcement, or could still be planning on bringing charges against Paxton. If they move forward, the Department of Justice will want a case that sticks, the experts said.

    “DOJ doesn’t want to shoot and get it wrong,” said Jeff Ansley, an attorney who worked on fraud and corruption cases in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas for almost a decade.

    […]

    Three people with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Texas Newsroom that federal agents were in the state working the case in late fall of 2023.

    Two of the sources, who said they did not want to be named because they feared retaliation from Paxton and his allies, said officials from the U.S. Department of Justice interviewed witnesses in October.

    A third source testified in front of a federal grand jury about Paxton in early August and was aware of counsel last speaking with federal authorities in early October, the source said. This source wanted to remain unnamed out of concerns about political and personal retribution for being tied to the case.

    […]

    The Associated Press and Austin American-Statesman reported that a federal grand jury met in August to hear from witnesses close to Paxton. After the impeachment trial wrapped, Bloomberg wrote that a key witness who had refused to testify in that case was subpoenaed to appear before the federal grand jury in late October.

    Justice Department officials in Washington reportedly took over the investigation, according to the AP, after Paxton’s lawyers complained federal investigators in Texas had a conflict of interest.

    Experts said cases like this must be handled carefully.

    “It’s not uncommon for a federal investigation to take years,” said John Teakell, who served in the U.S. attorney’s offices in Dallas and Puerto Rico and is now a criminal defense attorney.

    Ansley agreed, saying public corruption cases can take longer than “anything in the entire federal lexicon.” Paul’s federal case, the impeachment trial and moving the case from Texas to main Justice further complicates things, he added.

    “That makes these things draw on for a painfully long time period,” Ansley said.

    I wrote about the DOJ taking over the investigation last February, and I noted the grand jury being empaneled in August, which squares with this report. On the one hand, especially with the transition of the case from the local US Attorney’s office to the Justice Department, things could be taking more time. On the other hand, this could all have been quietly dropped and we’d never know why or when. And on the other other hand, as we saw in the state securities trial, the longer the delay the less likely it will be helpful for the prosecution. So, you know, tick tock and all that.

    Let’s put on our rosiest spectacles for a second and assume that this case is alive and well and marching ever onward. I don’t think there’s any chance of indictments being handed down before November under any circumstances. I just don’t think the DOJ would want to poke the bear like that. If Biden gets re-elected, then maybe we get some action in early 2025, if the case has progressed sufficiently. But the difference between “they’re still getting their ducks in a row, you can’t rush these things” and “that train has left the station and also spectacularly derailed” is one we won’t be able to discern with the naked eye. Either we eventually get an indictment announcement or we forever wonder what might have been. That’s just life.

    Posted in Crime and Punishment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

    June HCAD special election runoff early voting Day Seven: Two more days to go

    Here’s your Day Seven EV report for the June HCAD runoff. And just for kicks, let’s do a comparison with the May election for this day in the EV process.

    
    Month   Mail    Early    Total
    ==============================
    May   13,446   10,282   23,728
    June   9,364   10,547   19,911
    

    The difference between the May election and the June runoff, at least from an early vote turnout perspective, is entirely in the mail ballots. And as discussed before, that’s more a matter of shape than anything else. There were 10,858 mail ballots on Day One of the May election, but just over 2,400 further ballots had arrived since then to that point. Only 1,699 mail ballots had made it in by Day One for the June races, but counting Saturday another 7,665 had come in, which closed the gap considerably. If the normal last-day patterns hold for the June election as they did in May, and if mail ballots continue to come in, we could wind up with very similar EV totals when all is said and done.

    Not that they’d be anything to crow about overall, of course. Turnout in May was a paltry 2.18%, well below the past performances for admittedly less weird elections. I’d still bet the under for that in this race. We also don’t have SD15 pushing people to the polls, which is a somewhat marginal effect given the absolute numbers, but still something. On the other hand, it’s not crazy to me to think that Runoff Day voting could be higher than usual, given the compressed timeline for this race. Election Day in May favored the Republicans, so if that is the case I’d prefer it to be with a different composition. I have no idea what to expect and I’m definitely not making any predictions, I’m just suggesting possibilities. Get out and vote if you haven’t, and keep reminding your friends and helping with the mail efforts.

    Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

    Fifth Circuit partially upholds ruling that ordered library books back on shelves in Llano County

    This is a lot.

    Eight books dealing with subjects including racism and transgender issues must be returned to library shelves in a rural Texas county that had removed them in an ongoing book banning controversy, a divided panel of three federal appeals court judges ruled Thursday.

    It was a partial victory for seven library patrons who sued numerous officials with the Llano County library system and the county government after 17 books were removed. In Thursday’s opinion from a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, one judge voted to uphold a lower court order that the books should be returned. Another largely agreed but said nine of the books could stay off the shelves as the appeal plays out.

    A third dissented entirely, meaning a majority supported returning eight books.

    In March 2023, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ordered 17 books returned to Kingsland library shelves while a citizen lawsuit against book banning proceeded. The works ranged from children’s books to award-winning nonfiction, including “They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group,” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; and “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health,” by Robie Harris.

    The ruling from Pitman, nominated to the federal court by former President Barack Obama, was on hold during the appeal. Thursday’s ruling was a preliminary injunction, and more court proceedings are likely.

    See here and here for the background. As noted previously, this happened at the public library, not a school library. The story has some information on how the three judges (all Republican-appointed) ruled, but I recommend you read this thread by appellate lawyer Raffi Melkonian for a more detailed analysis. He also thinks this will go to an en banc hearing, at which the full Fifth Circuit will review the ruling, and from there I’d expect an appeal to SCOTUS. Whether they take that up or not is anyone’s guess. As dumb and corrosive as the original action by Llano County was, this is a thornier and more complex case than you might think. Read the thread and see for yourself.

    Posted in Legal matters | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

    Mayor Whitmire wants to get rid of ShotSpotter

    Fine by me.

    Mayor John Whitmire

    Mayor John Whitmire revealed plans to scrap the city’s $3.5 million ShotSpotter program, positioning Houston as the latest city government to abandon the controversial gunshot detection technology after a brief experiment.

    “I think it is a gimmick,” Whitmire told the Chronicle on Wednesday. “I think it was cooked up by contractors and, personally, talking to officers, it doesn’t do any good.”

    Houston’s current five-year contract with SoundThinking, the California-based company behind the crime-fighting tool, is set to expire in 2027. When asked if a reevaluation was imminent, the mayor said his mind was already made up on the program’s termination.

    “We’re not going to have it,” Whitmire said. “Let me save you some time. I do not support it.”

    A SoundThinking spokesperson called Whitmire’s comments “misinformed.” While the company respects the mayor’s decision to not extend the city’s contract beyond its third year, the technology has helped Houston first responders locate dozens of gunshot wound victims since its deployment, the spokesperson said.

    “ShotSpotter’s effectiveness can be measured in the difference it makes for each life saved – and for these individuals, the tool was the difference between life and death, not a ‘gimmick,'” the spokesperson said.

    […]

    Council Member Julian Ramirez cited the Chronicle’s investigation last year, which revealed that several years into its deployment, the tool has not significantly impacted gun crimes and has contributed to increased police response times within its program areas in Southeast and Northwest Houston.

    The SoundThinking spokesperson told the Chronicle the company designed the system to decrease response times to gunfire reports.

    “SoundThinking has never claimed to decrease overall response times regarding non-gunfire-related incidents,” the spokesperson said. “The ShotSpotter system is not a cure-all, but when used as a critical tool in a comprehensive gun crime response strategy, it can ensure that first responders get to the scene of an incident quickly and take appropriate action safely.”

    New acting Police Chief Larry Satterwhite acknowledged the Chronicle’s findings. Since the department treats every ShotSpotter alert as a top-priority call warranting immediate response, he said, the program has sometimes diverted officers from other 911 calls, such as in-progress burglaries.

    Meanwhile, the probability of a ShotSpotter alert leading to an incident report — less than 20% — is about half that of traditional 911 calls, the Chronicle previously reported.

    “Lower-priority calls will have to sit and wait until our officers are able to get to that Priority 1 and verify that nothing is happening of urgency,” Satterwhite said. “We only have so many officers in a given area…It does affect response time.”

    See here and here for some background. I’m not averse to trying technology to solve problems, but there has to be data showing that it works and justifies the cost. That’s not the case here. Maybe in more flush times we could extend the experiment, try tweaking the settings and whatnot, but we can’t afford that now. The money going to ShotSpotter can and should be used on things that will get a better return on their investment. That shouldn’t be hard to do. Make it happen and move on.

    Posted in Crime and Punishment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

    Weekend link dump for June 9

    “No one has ever sold out a hundred shows at Madison Square Garden, and I don’t think anybody ever will.”

    Cool story about Dat Nguyen, College Football Hall of Famer at Texas A&M, first Vietnamese-American to play in the NFL, with the Cowboys.

    A small number of people, mostly older women, are responsible for spreading most of the misinformation on Twitter.

    “Although some people might worry about the National Security Agency itself spying on their phones, the NSA has some sage advice for iPhone and android users concerned about zero-click exploits and the like: turn it off and on again once per week.”

    “The [federal] guidance expects agencies to proactively address systemic risks, biases, and harms in their use of AI – a fundamental shift in how many of them have approached their obligations to protect civil liberties and rights, which all too frequently take a backseat to operational concerns. Resourcing agencies not only to establish technical safeguards but also to take a broader view of AI’s impact on society is a crucial first step in making this change. Just as important, however, is effective oversight – putting in place a system of internal and external checks that incentivizes compliance and holds agencies accountable to the public.”

    “While it’s marginally refreshing to learn that some of our legends will be replacing the names we’ve read for decades, it’s a sobering reminder of how hard it is to maintain one’s history, dignity and existence if you aren’t actively doing so in real time as it happens.”

    “Plot twist: WA has a law against felons running for office“. Oopsie.

    “If there were negative consequences in the last 20 years of the decision to legalize marriage for same-sex couples, no one has yet been able to measure them.”

    “The conservative media company behind the book and film “2,000 Mules,” which alleged a widespread conspiracy by Democrats to steal the 2020 election and was embraced by former President Donald Trump, has issued an apology and said it would halt distribution of the film and remove both the film and book from its platforms.”

    RIP, Larry Allen, Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys.

    Disbar him.

    “The ‘Maude’ Abortion Episode Wouldn’t Air Today — Norman Lear Tried, and ‘It Wasn’t Green Lit’”.

    “It’s the parents’ money to use as they see is best. We don’t necessarily see it as taxpayer money.”

    Pour one out for Birmingham-Southern. Hold your heads up, gents.

    Lock them up.

    “The chief financial officer of conservative global news outlet The Epoch Times has been arrested and charged with leading a yearslong scheme to launder at least $67 million in illicit funds, federal prosecutors said Monday.”

    “Major League Baseball formally closed its investigation into the gambling allegations surrounding Ippei Mizuhara, Shohei Ohtani’s longtime interpreter and close confidant, after Mizuhara pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud charges Tuesday.”

    RIP, Janis Paige, star of stage and screen who danced with Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings and replaced Angela Lansbury in Mame, among many other things.

    I have four unfortunate words for you: Giant venomous flying spiders. I’m very sorry.

    Well done, Katy Perry, well done.

    Lock him up. The world will be a safer place.

    “The problem with all such theories about “what the Bible says” about “The Antichrist” is that the Bible doesn’t say anything about “The Antichrist.””

    Sell it all.

    “In retrospect, everything about Perot’s candidacy was wild and not even remotely replicable by Kennedy.”

    I too should have disclosed all of those luxury trips I got from right-wing billionaires in exchange for favorable blog coverage. I was young, it was a different time, I didn’t really understand that whole “difference between right and wrong” thing. I promise to do better going forward.

    Posted in Blog stuff | Tagged | Comments Off on Weekend link dump for June 9