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March, 2005:

Good news on the tollway front

The proposed toll road that would have cut through Oak Forest appears to be dead.

A proposed toll road that would slice through the Oak Forest subdivision in north Houston is no longer an immediate threat to residents, who opposed the project at a Tuesday town hall meeting at Scarborough High School.

Alan Clark, transportation planning director for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, announced that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad will not relinquish right of way for the proposed 20-mile Northwest Corridor Toll Road to span from the Grand Parkway in Tomball to Loop 610.

Clark was there to present H-GAC’s Regional Transportation Plan for 2025 — which includes widening parts of T.C. Jester Boulevard, Pinemont and Antoine drives, and 43rd Street.

Clark was interrupted by residents who packed the school’s auditorium.

Residents interrupted Clark and forced him to abandon a video presentation on the overall plan. “What about our neighborhood?” a resident shouted.

“I’m here to help our community be a better place to live,” Clark said, prompting the audience to become more disruptive.

Taking over the microphone, Greg Ryden, president of the Oak Forest Homeowners Association, urged residents to be respectful and defended their cause to Clark.

Fearing plans for a toll road will resurface in the future, Ryden said residents of established neighborhoods “should not be penalized to address the needs of commuters who choose to live outside the city.”

In addition, widening thoroughfares such as 43rd Street and Antoine Drive from four lanes to six could reduce property values, put children who bike and walk to school at greater risk for accidents, and exacerbate air and noise pollution, he said.

“Are our neighborhoods worth preserving, or are we at the mercy of the infrastructure that serves them?” Ryden said.

That’s definitely good news, but Ryden’s question needs an answer. John, from whom I found this story, frames it thusly:

I think that in the end, if you choose to live in a remote part of the metro area, you should expect to condemned to hellish commutes, and if you don’t like that, you should push for mass transit. Wrecking someone else’s neighborhood should simply be off the table. It’s interesting to me that allowing unchecked development and road-building is usually a conservative position, when in fact it’s a kind of meddling welfare – we will save people from the results of their own choices by punishing those who made smarter choices. And yes, my bias is showing; if you work downtown, moving to the northeast corner of Harris County is just stupid, unless you are one of those few people who enjoys sitting in traffic jams.

Here’s the big scoop for people who claim they have to go out there to get an affordable house: it’s not Christmas and the government’s not Santa Claus. You do not have to go there to find an affordable house; there are tons of cheap houses in Houston, inside the loop. What’s unspoken is the other adjectives in that “affordable housing” phrase: “3000 square foot,” “brand new,” “not near too many people different colors than me,” and so on.

I’m not going to comment on the benefits of old vs new, 3000 square feet versus 1500, or any of that. We all make these choices. I like old houses; not everybody does. I don’t want a giant house; maybe somebody else does.

My point is that I am perfectly willing to live with the consequences of my choices. I want to live close to the center of the city, therefore, I will pay more per square foot. I want to have an actual neighborhood where people walk around and there are stores and businesses mixed in with residential development; therefore, there are many places in Houston with nice, affordable houses that I won’t look at.

For someone moving to a distant suburb to insist that they have to now have roads built for them is no different than me insisting that someone needs to build me a 2500 square foot brand new house in the Heights, and sell it to me for the same price as a 1200 square foot 60-year old bungalow. If I made that claim, I’d be laughed at. I don’t make that claim; I look at all the factors, decide what trade-offs make sense for me, and live with that. I’m only asking that those who want to live farther out do the same. If the commute is really a reasonable trade-off for space and newness, that’s fine. Just don’t come back and say, “hey, this house is exactly as far from downtown as it was on the map when I bought it!” and expect someone to plow down someone else’s house to make your life easier.

I agree with every word. Right now, I’d say that the road-hungry crowd has the upper hand in all this, since the essentially unfettered HCTRA and a couple of prominent local Congressmen are on their side, but the people on the wrong end of the eminent domain equation are getting better about fighting back. We’re starting to get some allies in unexpected places, as the good people of Spring have discovered that a suburban location is no protection from HCTRA’s predation. This is an issue that I hope comes up in the County Judge, County Commissioner, and as many State Rep races as possible next year, since I think it’s one that will reach across party lines. I mean, if your house gets condemned for a toll road, I can’t imagine it’s much consolation knowing that at least it was a Republican who pushed for the road to be built.

(This issue isn’t strictly partisan, of course – Debbie Riddle has filed a bill that may be of help here (I haven’t gotten a reply to my email asking about it, so I can’t say for sure), and Martha Wong has been asked to sponsor a bill that would rein the HCTRA in a bit. Note also Council Member Toni Lawrence’s words at the end of the article, and recall that at the Woodland Heights I-45 town hall, representatives from Michael Berry and Shelly Sekula Gibbs’ offices were there in support. For sure, though, Robert Eckels and Jerry Eversole have dirty hands here, and if anyone ought to be vulnerable to this kind of appeal, it should be the more pragmatic than partisan offices in the Couny Commissioners’ Court. If nothing else, I think a Democrat who campaigns in Spring on a message of making the HCTRA more responsive to neighborhood concerns would be listened to.)

Worried the idea of a tollway will emerge again, one resident asked how homeowners can protect their neighborhood in the future.

Clark said as long as the railroad is not a willing partner, residents can remain at ease.

That feels like a promise written in sand to me. I see that the Oak Forest folks have launched a webpage to agitate against the toll road and other RTP items. I’d say that they’ll still need it even after this victory. I sure wouldn’t be feeling at ease.

Selena, ten years after

Ten years ago today, Tejano music sensation Selena Quintanilla Perez was murdered by the manager of her fan club, whom the singer had accused of embezzling funds. Here’s a sample of coverage of the anniversary of her death:

Selena’s last day still vivid for many

Legend of Selena keeps growing

Selena’s death reshaped family’s life

Myths still surround Selena’s death

Selena left cultural, musical legacy

Remembering Selena

Selena’s records still selling

State Democratic leaders denounce gambling


“We want to take gambling off the table this session,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He was joined by Reps. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

Gallego, chairman of the House’s Mexican American Caucus, said he thinks most of the House’s 63 Democrats and enough members of the Republican majority will join to kill any gambling proposal.


The Texas Republican Party is on record as strongly against gambling. State GOP Chairwoman Tina Benkiser is scheduled to speak at an anti-gambling rally at the Capitol today.

Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who proposed video slot machines as a source of education funding last year, seems to have backed away from that option this session.

And Speaker Tom Craddick has said he doesn’t know how gambling will fare in the House.

But there has been speculation that Republicans may seek a House vote on gambling as a source of additional funds for public schools. With such a move, some observers have noted, Republicans could put some of the blame for gambling on Democrats, who have been pressing for more education funding.

The anti-gambling comments by the Democratic leaders seemed designed to address that speculation.

“We can’t afford to let the Legislature roll the dice with our children’s future,” Gallego said.

In a related development, Texas Democratic Chairman Charles Soechting said he will ask the State Democratic Executive Committee to pass a resolution opposing the expansion of gambling in Texas.

Thank goodness. Hotshot Casey was the one who first brought up the idea of the Democrats getting played on gambling, a not-unreasonable idea since Democratic legislators like Speaker Pro Tem Sylvester Turner have been the ones introducing the legislation this session.

It’s easy to see what the allure of gambling is for states that don’t have the will or the wherewithal to deal with their finances in an honest manner, but let’s keep a few things in mind here. One is that in our case, neighboring states like Louisiana are not going to just let us take their revenue away without a fight. Whatever we think the state can rake in from “racinos” and slot machines is at least one part wishful because of that. Two, money spent on gambling is money that for the most part would have been spent on other activities, like movies or sporting events or trips to the beach. The cost to other businesses is at best understated if not outright ignored in the rosy projections. Finally, an expansion in legalized gambling will be a huge windfall for a few firms, and boy do they know it. They have an equally huge incentive to do whatever it takes to make sure they get a piece of than pie. All of this, without even mentioning the social costs of compulsive gambling, is more than enough to stand firm against it. My applause to Reps. Dunnam, Gallego, and Coleman, along with Chairman Soechting, for getting it right.

UPDATE: In the Pink reports from the anti-gambling rallies at the Capitol.

UPDATE: PinkDome reminds us of Governor Perry’s big ol’ flipflop on the gambling issue.

First one’s free, Rep. Rodriguez

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez takes his first step down the blogging highway with a guest post on Rep. Aaron Pena’s blog. Next thing you know, he’ll be fiddling with stylesheets and hunting around for plugins. We’ll be there for you, Rep. Rodriguez!

I-45 Town Hall meeting on Saturday

Attention, everyone who may be affected by TxDOT’s plan to widen I-45 inside Loop 610: State Rep. Jessica Farrar is hosting a town hall meeting this Saturday from 9 AM to 1 PM to discuss this.

The meeting is at the University of Houston-Downtown, One Main St.

Representatives from TxDOT are expected to provide updates on the agency’s proposal to expand the interstate between downtown Houston and The Woodlands and to increase the number of lanes between Loop 610 and I-10.

In October, TxDOT unveiled plans of its expansion to community members at a meeting at Jefferson Davis High School. The plans called for the creation of four “managed lanes” in the center of the interstate that would serve as high-occupancy vehicle lanes or toll lanes for individual drivers.

In some cases, the addition of those lanes would increase I-45 from eight lanes to 12.

Community members who attended the October TxDOT meeting, as well as a meeting hosted by the I-45 Coalition in February, have voiced their concerns over noise and aesthetic issues associated with the expansion — particularly the idea of TxDOT having to purchase homes and other buildings in order to create more right of way.

TxDOT representatives have said that initial plans call for little, if any, land purchase, but residents have been worried that they would not be able to work closely with the department before design plans are finalized.

Free parking will be available at 900 Girard. Additional parking will be in lots along North Main. I’ve got the agenda posted in the extended entry. I’ll be there.


News flash: Katy Freeway expansion costs rise again

Remember the good old days when the Katy Freeway expansion project cost a mere $2.2 billion? How young and foolish we all were, back before stories like this started appearing.

The cost of expanding the Katy Freeway has gone up almost another $300 million, according to a state audit that faults the Texas Department of Transportation for failing to “take the necessary and appropriate steps to estimate total project costs.”

Auditor John Keel’s report notes TxDOT’s latest cost estimate is $2.67 billion, up 78 percent from the October 2001 estimate of $1.5 billion. The last estimate released by TxDOT was $2.4 billion.

“TxDOT faces a significant risk that costs will continue to rise above the $2.67 billion March 2005 estimate for total projects costs.” Keel warns in his Tuesday report to Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, which was publicly released Wednesday. “The Legislature may wish to require TxDOT to design a standard model so that it could estimate project costs more accurately.”

Do I hear three billion? Three billion, anyone?

And since I started making that silly calculation last time, I’ll update it to note that at a total cost of $2.67 billion, this project is costing $2107 per inch.

Keel criticizes TxDOT for basing the 2001 Katy expansion estimate on preliminary engineering work and failing to update the projection as further design work revealed substantially higher costs. He cites about $100 million added after the department determined it would need to rebuild the Beltway 8 interchange to accommodate the four High Occupancy Toll lanes being built in the center of the freeway.

According to the report, the highway department did not originally include $56 million for moving Houston water and sewer lines, failed to include the project’s administrative costs of more than $100 million, didn’t adjust costs for inflation or include contingencies to cover rising materials prices.

The auditor identifies another $121 million in unanticipated cost increases for land needed to widen the freeway, and suggests transportation officials raced to get the bulldozers out there before having the necessary right of way.

“TxDOT did not follow its standard practice of purchasing the majority of right of way before letting contracts,” the report states. “TxDOT made a decision to forgo acquiring right of way in advance in order to manage the project on an accelerated construction schedule.”


Keel issued several recommendations to the Legislature for mandating better cost controls at the highway department on future projects. He also cited changes needed in expediting the state’s ability to take property needed for these major infrastructure upgrades.

His suggestions include expanding jurisdiction for right of way condemnations in Harris County to include state district courts in addition to county courts. Legal delays mean only 57 percent of needed parcels along I-10 have been acquired despite nearly all construction contracts’ having been let.

[TxDOT Commissioner Ric] Williamson blames landowners for bogging down the process in a bid to get more money.

Now, I know that eminent domain is a necessary tool of government. I don’t know much about the particulars here, but I could be persuaded that a little streamlining of the system is in order. It should be possible to give everyone a fair shake while still keeping the system moving.

That said, I think Ric Williamson has a hell of a nerve blaming displaced property owners for his problems. This situation was entirely foreseeable. It’s a big part of the reason why critics like the Katy Corridor Coalition agitated to reduce the footprint of the Katy renovation – less property to take means lower costs, less time spent in court, and a better outcome for everyone. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I thought respect for private property was supposed to be a conservative principle. At least now we know where it stands when put in conflict with the roadbuilding industry and its generous campaign contributions.

UPDATE: Greg chips in his two cents.

Pop culture has truly passed me by

Am I the last person on earth to realize that that actually is Darius “Hootie” Rucker in that bizarro Burger King ad? I swear, I thought that Boondocks comic was a joke. Whatever motivated him to do this ad is unfathomable to me. Well, okay, not completely unfathomable, but still. There are some things money can’t get me to do. That commercial would have been one of them.

And I didn’t realize that was Brooke Burke at the end of the ad, either. Show of hands here – who thinks Brooke Burke has ever eaten at Burger King in her life? Yeah, me neither.

Death to the BCS!

You know, having seen so many bad bills that could do real damage to people and institutions in this state, it’s nice that our Lege is still capable of contemplating legislation that’s just plain silly.

Under bills filed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Tomball, college football teams in Texas would be banned from playing in post-season championship games that are not part of a national playoff system.

But the bills would expire before BCS bids go out in early December if four of a dozen states mentioned in the proposals don’t adopt similar legislation.

“The problems (with the BCS) have been existing for some years now,” said Wentworth, a graduate of Texas A&M University. “People can’t figure out the formula, there are always disputes and arguments over how people got picked and who really is the national champion.”


If passed, the legislation would take effect before the upcoming season but could expire on Dec. 2, if at least four other states mentioned haven’t adopted similar legislation.

Of the states mentioned — Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington — Wentworth said California is the only one with similar legislation pending, but he expects the others to debate the issue.

Yeah, that’s been keeping me awake at night, I tell you. Look, I’m a BCS hater of the first order, but c’mon. We know what it’s all about, right? (Hint: $$$). At least if you’re going to make a grand but meaningless gesture, you should have the courage of your convictions and not give everyone an easy out if a bunch of pusillanimous states-which-aren’t-Texas don’t fall in line behind you. You’ve got that windmill in your sights, Senor Quixote! Don’t stop now!

On the other hand, there is this:

Wentworth said former Texas football coach Darrell Royal admitted that he didn’t understand the BCS formula.

“If it is beyond him, it’s certainly beyond the rest of us,” he said.

I suppose anything that can get an Aggie to agree with Darrell Royal must be worth a few minutes of sober contemplation before breaking out into guffaws. I feel a twitch coming on, so I’d better move along now.

UPDATE: Postcards from the Lege has some viewer mail on the subject.

Aggies Against DeLay

One last thought for the day on L’Affaire DeLay: When Aggies turn against you, can the rest of Texas be far behind?

Ads target DeLay

By now you’ve probably heard of the anti-DeLay ads that are being run here in Houston (the Chron has a video link) and in various other Congressional districts – see here for more on that. Couple things to mention here, staring with a bit from the NYT story:

Officials in Mr. DeLay’s office were quick to depict the commercials as partisan attacks, noting that the Campaign for America’s Future has in the past received money from George Soros, the philanthropist and financier who gave millions of dollars to support Democrats in last November’s elections. Records show Mr. Soros gave $300,000 to a committee run by the organization last year.

“This is one more front group for Nancy Pelosi and Democratic heavy hitters like George Soros,” said Dan Allen, a spokesman for Mr. DeLay. “They are attacking the House Republicans in an attempt to bring the House down.”

Actually, they’re attacking one specific House Republican, though I’d certainly say it’s fair to question why all these other supposedly honorable Republicans are sticking up for their Ethics Violater In Chief. As to the laughable spectacle of Tom Freaking DeLay complaining about partisan attacks, I think this response is about right:

“You can’t complain of partisanship when you are one of Congress’s leading partisans,” said John Jonas, a Democratic lobbyist. “This is somebody who has contributed to the sharp and bitter partisan environment in Washington. There’s not much credibility in his claim.”

Indeed. Hard to imagine anyone buying this outburst of crocodile tears. DeLay is nobody’s idea of warm and fuzzy, and doesn’t have any room to whine here. He can talk about Democratic attacks on him all he wants, but I guarantee that the country’s editorial writers will continue to bring up those troublesome unanimously-decided ethics rebukes and the purge that followed them.

As for the political wisdom of all this, Brad Plumer and Ezra Klein think the focus is too much on DeLay and not nearly enough on DeLayism. I think their fears can be summarized by the closing of this Howard Fineman article:

Inside the GOP leadership on the Hill, DeLay is not beloved. He is admired for his fundraising skill and political daring, but at least some of the top figures are wary of him. Speaker Denny Hastert, once thought of as a creation and tool of the DeLay, has risen in esteem – and real and perceived independence. Majority Whip Roy Blunt, widely respected and much liked at the White House, is waiting in the wings should the need arise to move up in the ranks.

Relations between the president and DeLay have never been particularly warm – Texas isn’t quite big enough for the both of them. Bush and Karl Rove have been careful to cultivate him over the years, of course, and they have made common cause since Bush first started running for governor in 1993. Bush likes to delegate the tough stuff – to people like DeLay and Rove – but they are still hired help.

And you can always fire the help.

Any scenario that includes DeLay’s ouster is by definition good, but if that’s all that happens – if Roy Blunt gets promoted, the national GOP gains absolution for finally “cleaning itself up”, and life goes on as before except there’s no longer a clearly visible symbol of the arrogance, corruption, and abuse of power that is the national Republican Party, then at the very least, it’s about as small a good as it could be. Clearly, we need more than that.

Reading JesseLee’s post, I think the DCCC gets it. I don’t think there’s any way in which DeLay leaves voluntarily, as Newt Gingrich did in 1998. To me, the ideal situation is for DeLay to dig in and remain defiant – and thus in the news – all the way up to the 2006 elections. As with Newt, I don’t think it’s the Republicans who will benefit from his higher profile. Let him get his friends to publicly stand by him. That’s what we want, right? And it keeps the story in the news and allows us to keep bringing up all the reasons why it’s in the news. All that without even mentioning that there ought to be a continuing stream of news coming out of Texas, all with ties back to DeLay. I say bring it on, fellas.

Aquifer land grab followup

Pink Dome has more on the attempts by Sens. Armbrister and Madla to hand the Edwards Aquifer over to developers. Among other things, the legislation they’re set to propose would have a profound impact on Kinney County out in West Texas.

The National Press Club and GannonGuckert

I’m a signee of this open letter to the National Press Club about their upcoming conference on bloggers and journalists. It’s difficult to regard a panel which includes JimJeff GannonGuckert as anything other than a wretched parody, but then we do live in some strange times. See here and here for the background, and drop Sean-Paul a note if you want in on the signatory action.


I think one reason why so much regrettable legislation gets passed is that a lot of legislation is just plain complicated. Read some of the bills I’ve linked to for this session, or just go to either the House or Senate homepages and look a few bills up to see what I mean. The fact that a lot of what the Lege does is (as we’ve discussed) too arcane and/or complicated for mass-market audiences doesn’t help, either.

So if it seems like I’ve been on a Bad Bills rampage lately, it’s partly because there’s a lot of material to work with, and partly because in my small way I hope to shed a bit of light on some dusty corners of the sausagemaking process. With that in mind, I’d like to direct you to this post by Hope about STAR+PLUS, a pilot program in Houston that integrates acute and long-term care services for aged and disabled Medicaid recipients using a managed care model. Hope worked on the legislation that created STAR+PLUS as a legislative aide awhile back, and she’s got a lot of good reasons why you should think of this program as highly as she does.

Unfortunately, Rep. Dianne Delisi has filed HB1771, which would effectively kill STAR+PLUS. It’s pending in committee now, so that makes this an excellent time to call your Rep or Senator and express your support for STAR+PLUS. Hope’s got a list of the Committee members and a suggestion for how to express your support. Please take a moment and check it out.

The next phase for HB789

OK, break’s over, time to work the Senate on HB789. We know that Senate Business and Commerce Chair Troy Fraser has his doubts about this bill, but that doesn’t mean he’ll kill it. If you need another reason to get fired up over HB789, try the Crownover Amendment. Or maybe the fact that thanks to real free market competition, broadband access is more widespread and prices are much lower in Europe.

Last but not least, I join in with Save Muni Wireless in condemning the idiot that sent threatening letters to Rep. Phil King. Whatever happens with HB789, there’s absolutely no justification for that kind of crap. I hope the FBI catches this clown quickly.

San Antonio mayoral race update

Long as I’m on his site, let me recommend The Jeffersonian‘s followup post on the San Antonio Mayoral race (initial post noted here). There’s much there for the political junkie to chew on. One small piece of anecdotal data that I can add is a note from an Alamo City correspondent now living in HD121, which as we know is a heavily Republican area, who reports that he got a visit from a Julian Castro volunteer recently. I’m always happy to hear about Democratic candidates who aren’t afraid to go after votes in traditionally unfriendly turf. Anyway, check out the report. This is going to be a very interesting race.

Another view of Mike Villareal

State Rep. Mike Villareal has come under some fire for his role in helping HB3 pass out of committee (though he eventually voted against it, which has also contributed to the grumbling about him). The Jeffersonian puts some of the squabbling in context and gives a robust defense of Villareal’s overall record. Check it out.

Martha, Martha, Martha!

Martha Wong, on the hot seat, thanks to yet another anti-gay marriage bill in the Lege. Sure does suck representing a swing district sometimes, doesn’t it? Via Byron, who also has more info on the proposed legislation.

A request

If you’re a Texas-based progressive political blogger and you have not received an email from me in the last week or so, please drop me a note (kuff-at-offthekuff-dot-com) and tell me how to reach you. I’ve got a little project going and I want to make sure everyone who might be interested hears about it, but my address book (even after a major overhaul) is still lacking. Thanks!

Send Richard Morrison to DC

We’d all like to help send Richard Morrison to Washington next year, but here’s a chance to help him now. He’s taking a trip up to DC next week to talk to the DCCC about his rematch with Tom DeLay, and he’s hoping to get a few folks to give him a boost on the way. This is a great chance for him to convince the powers that be that he’s got DeLay in his sights and just needs the means to beat him in 2006. Click here to lend a hand for his journey.

Attacking the aquifer and other bad bills

Sigh…What do some people have against a clean and stable water supply?

Advocates for the Edwards Aquifer, already stunned by the pace of development over the recharge zone, are incensed by bills making their way through the Texas Legislature that would gut the protections that do exist.

Even a representative for local developers who helped craft the compromises at the heart of the current protective city ordinances said common sense should lead people to oppose most of the proposed bills.

Observers say passage of the bills would undo years of efforts by those in San Antonio to pass ordinances striking a balance between development and preservation, to limit the density and types of construction over the area where rainfall and streamflows refill the aquifer.

“These are developer dream bills,” said Richard Alles, technical research director for Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas. “You’ve got people in the Legislature who are limited government advocates and they don’t believe in regulations and don’t believe that developers should be regulated.”

State Sen. Kenneth Armbrister, D-Victoria, who tried two years ago to yank water quality powers from the Edwards Aquifer Authority, is the author of most of the developer-friendly bills.

Armbrister’s Senate Bill 1363 says cities don’t have the authority of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to regulate water quality and that a city can enforce water quality rules adopted prior to passage of this bill only to the extent that they agree with the standards and practices of the state commission.

That effectively would gut the aquifer protection measures approved by the San Antonio City Council in early 1995 and by Austin voters in 1992, said Brad Rockwell, deputy director of the Save Our Springs Alliance in Austin.

Another Armbrister bill, SB 1362, would strip away a city’s ability to regulate within its extraterritorial jurisdiction the density or number of buildings or lots and the percentage of land covered by concrete, buildings and other nonporous surfaces. The bill specifically removes an exemption that covers the Edwards recharge zone outside San Antonio.


Gene Dawson Jr., a San Antonio engineer whose firm has had a hand in much of the city’s recent development, has sat on several panels that worked out compromises on city ordinances that restrict development.

Dawson said that local development groups are not pushing for the two Armbrister bills. “I’ve not seen any lobbying effort on those at all,” he said.

“I just can’t believe a bill like that would be passed,” he said of SB 1363. “It seems like that would have so much common-sense opposition from all the cities.”

Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, who battled Armbrister two years ago over the senator’s efforts to strip water quality powers from the Edwards Aquifer Authority, said another battle is brewing over these two bills and others that would make it easier for developers.

“I think these bills are aimed at cities like San Antonio that have been very progressive in establishing water quality provisions and regulations that a lot of the mainstream environmental community buys off on,” said Puente, who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“And there’s always a segment out there that wants to go their own way and they’re not willing to sit down and negotiate.

“Everything we’ve done here in San Antonio has been by compromise, by negotiation, that the development community has bought in on, and I think that’s the way it should work,” Puente said.

I’m at a loss. Honestly, I have no idea what Armbrister is up to, though I’m sure a little forensic accounting of his campaign contributions would be illuminating. If anyone reading this is in Sen. Armbrister’s district, please give him a call (512-463-0118) and an earful about these awful bills. Via B and B.

Sadly, there’s more. PinkDome has the details of two more bad bills, SB848 and SB574, both of which are more sops to developers. These bills are the brainchildren of San Antonians Frank Madla and Jeff Wentworth, though Madla has three Republican cosponsors on his piece of work. More details can be found at the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance webpage.

Did Smokey Joe bend the DMN to his will?

Awhile back, I noted a story which told the tale of Things Gone Wrong at the Dallas Morning News. The American Journalism Review has a followup on the subject now (via Kimberly). All I can say to that is Yeesh.

Much more interesting from a political intrigue perspective is this long sidebar which asks the question “Did the Morning News soften its pro-environment stance after a visit from a powerful congressman?”

Regrettable as the layoffs were at the Dallas Morning News, there might have been a silver lining for at least one very important person: Joe Barton.

Barton, a Republican congressman, represents Ellis County, just south of Dallas, where cement plants and other industries contribute mightily to the area’s smog problem. But besides contributing to the smog, the companies that own these plants also contribute to Barton’s political campaigns, and Barton fights doggedly to shield them from government clean air rules.

Before they were laid off in October, two of the News’ editorial writers, Timothy O’Leary and Jim Frisinger, had given Barton a very hard time, accusing him of using sneaky legislative maneuvers, regulatory loopholes and plain old political pressure to protect some of North Texas’ worst polluters.

Local advocates for clean air drew comfort from these editorials. They felt that the paper was on their side in the fight against Barton.

But now, says Wendi Hammond, executive director of Blue Skies Alliance in Dallas, “There are a lot of people in the environmental community who are not happy with what’s going on at the paper.” They fear that political pressure may have played a role in the two writers’ departures, says Hammond, and in what they perceive to be a toned-down editorial policy.

Read the rest and decide for yourself. There’s a reference to some of the stuff O’Leary wrote about Smokey Joe and to the DMN’s curious non-endorsement endorsement of Barton before the election. More (much more) on the Barton vs Frisinger/O’Leary scuffle can be found here, and a Barton vs Belo timeline can be found here, on the Midlothian Family Network page, the proprietor of which, Julie Boyle, sent me the sidebar link (actually a link to the D Magazine blog, which has also posted on this) via email.

Mistakes were made

When you make a mistake, you try to fix it, right? Especially when you’ve publicly admitted to that mistake and publicly stated that it is your intent to fix it at your first opportunity, right? If so, you’re one up on State Rep. Dan Gattis (R, Round Rock). Eye On Williamson County has the details.

Meanwhile, on the substantive side of the campaign…

Chris Bell has picked up the ball on the recent spate of anti-ethics PLOBs, in particular Mary Denny’s “Mother May I?” HB913 and Sylvester Turner’s “I’m just helping out a friend” HB3148. There’s certainly a target-rich environment here for a reformist campaign, and I’m glad to see him work this theme. More, please.

I should note that the Chron editorializes in favor of the broadly supported bipartisan reform bill HB1348 today. Which is nice, but a little bit more about the bad bills and who’s behind Turner’s HB3148 would be nicer.

As for when Bell drops the “exploratory” and becomes an actual candidate, well, hopefully soon.

The Hillary Menace grows

And the furious debate over whether Kay Bailey or Little Ricky hates Hillary Clinton with more fervor continues on.

A week after Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign tried to link one of his potential GOP primary rivals to U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a 1993 letter emerged in which Perry called Clinton’s efforts at health care reform “commendable.”


On Monday, Hutchison’s campaign aides said the Perry letter to Clinton showed he was a hypocrite in making the videotape.

“It’s a double standard. It’s the ultimate in hypocrisy,” said Hutchison campaign manger Terry Sullivan.

“I’m glad to see in at least some instances the governor is willing to reach across party lines,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s for Hillary Clinton’s socialized medicine plan.”

Perry campaign manager Luis Saenz said there is no comparison between Perry writing a letter on behalf of his constituents in 1993 and Hutchison accepting praise in person from “a rather liberal New York senator.”

It’s gonna be like this all the way through the primary, isn’t it?

The story states that Perry’s letter to Hillary isn’t quite in the same boat as KBH’s kissy-kissy video. Frankly, I don’t care. The whole thing is stupid. We’re all in danger of losing IQ points just by being forced to acknowledge the existence of this inane kabuki dance. Jim D has about the right response, as did the Star Telegram to Perry’s initial salvo and his lackey’s lies about it (via PerryVsWorld).

When chickens attack

The best thing about this Chron story on the Wall Street Journal’s anti-DeLay editorial and the reaction to same is the following quote at the very end:

But some observers of Congress say ethics probes can suddenly flare out of control, as when former House Speakers Texas Democrat Jim Wright and Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich were forced from power.

“If you’ve seen a chicken in the barnyard get a peck on his head so a little blood is showing, then the other chickens all rush in and peck him to death, that is the danger for Tom DeLay right now,” said Charlie Wilson, a former Democratic member of Congress from Lufkin. “He’s got a little blood on his head, and sometimes that is enough to get you killed.”

Apparently, it’s Violent Chicken-Based Analogy Season these days. I need to do a better job of marking this sort of thing on my calendar so I won’t get caught off guard again. Who knows what other horrors are lurking out there for the innocent poultry around us?

Anyway. The Stakeholder notes that some other prominent conservatives are joining in the DeLay peck-a-rama, though they manage to steer clear of the blood-and-feathers language. Start of a trend, or soon to be forgotten? We’ll see.

UPDATE: The Daily DeLay has some thoughts on the WSJ editorial, while the Burnt Orange Report has a poll.

A Capitol Blog

State Rep. Aaron Pena has moved his blog to a friendlier location. Whether the peanut gallery of which I was a part got him to switch or not I couldn’t say, but I’m glad for it. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, it’s your turn now. Via Grits.

Yet another bill to make voting harder

Criminy, I just can’t keep up with the wave of voter-unfriendly bills coming out of the 79th Lege. Lyn informs me that Houston’s own Rep. Dwayne Bohac has filed HB1269, which would essentially require you to re-fill out and submit a voter’s reg application in the event you’d previously made a mistake. Current law allows for a space on reg forms to make corrections, and as Lyn notes in some cases you can do that online, but Bohac would take that away. Why, I have no idea. Maybe too many non-citizens were submitting badly-filled-out forms in a subtle attempt to wreck our democracy or something.

I think we need a pithy descriptive term for all this bad legislation. I hereby propose that bills like HB1269 and its bastard cousins be called Petty Little Odious Bills, or PLOBs for short. It’s based on a expression from the game of bridge, where the B stands for Bid instead of Bill. Who’s with me?

The death of the scoop

Adina writes about the death of the scoop in newspaper journalism and notes how the assumptions are different when blogs cover the news.

Early reporting on the big Texas House telecom bill involves bloggers sharing information, puzzling out the intricacies of a debate with nearly 40 amendments, and the meaning of the bill that came out of the sausage machine.

The enemy isn’t other bloggers — it’s the indifference of the mainstream media to stories that are less dramatic than an oil refinery explosion. The Statesman covered the telecom story. The Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle apparently didn’t.

In a world of online peer production, facts aren’t the scarce resource. Attention is the scarce resource. We’re not limited by the front page, news-hour spatial constraint where an oil refinery explosion crowds out other news. We’re limited by social dynamics that focus attention on the day’s cause celebre.

The scarce resource is attention. Collaboration multiplies links and attracts attention. Thus bloggers swarm to assemble the facts.

Kimberly, who unlike most of us bloggers is an Actual Professional Journalist in real life, has some thoughts on this. I think this is a bit harsh on the Chronicle, since the BP refinery explosion happened in its back yard at the same time, and there’s only so many reporters to go around. They did have a story about HB789 the next day. Of course, they didn’t have much of anything outside of Dwight’s TechBlog before that, and what he had was mostly links to me and to SaveMuniWireless. Her point about attention is well taken. The Chron didn’t think this story merited it, and that was that.

Clearly, though, there was and is an audience for narrow-interest stuff, and that brings us to where blogs stepped in. I think the effect that the proliferation of blogs has had on news coverage is akin to the effect that the proliferation of cable channels has had on broadcast TV. Think back, if you’re old enough, to the dark days of the Big Three networks, PBS, and UHF. How many shark documentaries were there back then? How about shows about home design? Celebrity poker? Fashion faux pas? They didn’t exist because the audience for them wasn’t big enough. But cable channels, who took to specialization as a means of competing, gladly went after those audiences. Though the overall numbers they got were small in comparison, the people who did tune in tended to fit a niche that was attractive to advertisers. The smaller audience was still a very desireable one.

I think that’s the role that blogs play now. Just as there’s only so much room in the weekly network schedule for niche programming, there’s only so much room in the dailies for stories that don’t have broad appeal. Bloggers, who do have the time and inclination to follow stories like the lifecycle of an otherwise dry telecom bill, step in to fill the void. Speaking as a voracious consumer of news, I couldn’t be happier. The (generally) collaborative nature of blogging is a big asset here, since no one person can stay on top of all developments all the time, and most of us aren’t usually heavily invested in publishing first. We just want to make sure that thing we’re obsessing about gets the coverage we think it deserves. On busy days especially, we’re happy to be able to throw a link that says “my colleague so-and-so has the goods today on that story we’re following” and know that the interested readers are still being served.

The interesting question, of course, is whether the mainstream news producers will attempt to leverage these efforts as a way of boosting their own product line, much as NBC, Viacom, and Disney have snapped up various cable channels. That seems to be the direction that the Greensboro News & Record is taking, and if this story is any indication, others are beginning to follow their lead.

The News & Record’s Web site features 11 staff-written Web journals, or blogs, including one by the editor that answers readers’ questions, addresses their criticisms and discusses how the paper is run.

That puts the paper way ahead of even much larger news organizations. The News & Record’s blogs range from “just-the-facts, ma’am,” to slightly spicy.

There’s a page for reader-submitted articles, another for letters to the editor and an online tips’ form. The Web site hosts online forums on 23 topics, including safety at a local high school, FedEx Corp.’s move to the area and cameras at local stoplights. Traffic cams monitor local road conditions.

The site posts up-to-date public records on property ownership, marriages and divorce.


Other papers are watching. The Houston Chronicle, The (Portland) Oregonian, (Raleigh) News & Observer and USA Today have all called News & Record editor John Robinson to discuss what his paper is doing.

Intrigued? I am. I thought participatory journalism was a good idea when I first heard about it, and I still think that. How it will shake out, how widely it will get adopted, and whether there’s more than one way to do it right, I don’t know. But I think this is coming, and I think it will be good, especially for those of us who can’t get enough news.

UPDATE: More from Grits, including some good comments.

The best news you’ll read today

Complete season sets of “The Muppet Show” will be released on DVD by the end of 2005. And the news just gets better:

The video is reported to be transferred from their original British (PAL) tapes. Aside from working to get a beautiful transfer and mastering of the video, it is also said that the episodes will be unedited and will contain the UK skits. This goes to show how Disney is trying to create a collection of the episodes like never seen before.

Although at this point, the inclusion of the original season 1 opening sequence is still undetermined. Apparently there are strong arguments for including the original openings, and also powerful reasons for not including them. The answer of which it will be has flip-flopped back and forth throughout the set’s production and the final outcome is not available at this time.

There were two pilot episodes produced for The Muppet Show (“The Muppets Valentine Show” and “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence”). There were also some specials produced during the run of the show, including the great behind the scenes special “Of Muppets and Men”. Many fans wondered if these season sets would include any of the show’s pilots or specials. The answer to this is yes. Disney does plan on including several of the historic Muppet Show pilots and specials.

As soon as this pops up on, I’ll be able to do all my Christmas shopping. I’m so excited. Via Lis Riba.

The Fabulous Four

That was some weekend of basketball, huh? I don’t know how any of the Final Four teams can top what happened in the Michigan State-Kentucky game for excitement, but then I wouldn’t have known how anyone could have topped the Illinois-Arizona and Louisville-West Virginia games, either. And despite my overall incompetence at bracketology this year, I came thisclose to calling the Final Four correctly – my only misfire was picking Kentucky. You can see my folly here, which leads to a vexing question – how come this thing was set up so that North Carolina would be the Illini’s foe in the semifinals? I’ve got Illinois over Louisville for the championship, and obviously that’s not gonna happen. Hey, Yoni Cohen, what’s up with that?

Ken Pomeroy makes an observation that usually gets overlooked in the wake of a classic battle like Mich State-KY:

There was no better illustration of how random chance can affect a game than on Patrick Sparks’ successful three-pointer to send the Kentucky/Michigan State game to overtime. There were three main variables that could have flipped the other way from what actually occurred.

1) What if Patrick Sparks’ foot is a micron closer to the basket, and so it’s only a two- point attempt?

2) What if Kelvin Torbert (or “Torbit” as Jim Nantz says) is called for a foul on Sparks?

3) What if Sparks’ shot falls off the rim instead of through?

Then consider each of the eight possible combinations to the yes/no answers of the above questions. Only one of those – Sparks makes a three, foul is called – potentially results in a UK win.

I actually think variable #1 should be stated differently. What if the ref’s on-court ruling had been that Sparks’ foot was on the line? We all saw the replays, including the blown-up ones. If there was insufficient evidence to change the call one way, wouldn’t there have been insufficient evidence to change it the other? I think the actual ruling was the correct one, but if it had gone the other way, I would find it difficult to criticize even after seeing all the evidence. Sometimes it is a game of microns.

(If you want to know the ref’s actual thinking on his decision, read this:

“On the court, I scored it as a 3 and scored it within the regulation of time,” [referee James] Burr said. “When you go to the replay and you first see it, the camera angles that you have are very difficult. I felt that the play was so important in deciding a college basketball game that was as great as that, I asked the guy in the (production) truck to blow it up for me.

“I don’t know how many angles he had. But he showed me every single angle he possibly could, and I still couldn’t find anything that would overrule my original decision. When he finally blew it up, in my humble opinion, it showed that the kid was behind the line when he took the shot, and that is how I made my decision.”

Nicely done by Burr and his colleagues.)

The point that needs to be stressed here is that it is the extremely rare champion that wins it all on superior skill alone. These teams are very evenly matched. If you could take each of the matchups in the regional finals and play them a hundred times apiece, do you think any of those teams would win as many as 60 games? Luck is a bigger factor than we want to admit – it’s much sexier to talk about “character” and “knowing how to win”. Michigan State won anyway, but had they not, Patrick Sparks’ rim-rattler should serve as a reminder of that.

Story on DeLay’s father picked up by the Chron

Like I said, better late than never. I can’t wait to see what the letters to the Editor will look like.

As for whether or not DeLay’s name recognition and negatives may be on the rise, all I can say is that it’s never a good thing when the cartoonists start taking aim at you.

UPDATE: Ooh, the Wall Street Journal is piling on. That’s gonna leave a mark. And here’s an earlier cartoon on DeLay by the same artist (thanks to William in the comments for the link).

Washington Avenue

Since this is near where I live, I’m quite interested in the development on Washington Avenue.

Rob Johnson recently accomplished what few independent real estate developers can in the inner city.

He bought enough land — on a hot corner, no less — to build a shopping center.

Johnson’s new project is planned for the northeast intersection of Washington Avenue and Shepherd Drive.

Experts say the price of real estate along Washington Avenue — the east-west corridor that connects Memorial Park to downtown — is being driven up by acquisitive developers and real estate speculators who see huge promise in this area.

“It’s hard to find land,” said Johnson, owner of Rob Johnson Interests. “I don’t think there’s any street inside the Loop that’s changing as fast as this one.”

Washington Avenue is somewhat of a curiosity. Just south of I-10 and the Heights and just north of Memorial Park and the West End, it’s an oasis of non-gentrification surrounded by townhomes and shiny new commercial development. It used to be a hot spot for live music, but sadly, all of those places – Rockefeller’s, the Satellite Lounge, the Bon Ton Room, and probably quite a few others that I can’t recall – have all closed down. The far eastern end of Washington, near downtown, has seen residential (which is to say “townhome”) development, but that’s about it so far.

I’m actually a bit amazed that it’s taken so long for anything to happen on Washington. I can’t think of any other stretch of real estate south and/or west of downtown that’s been anywhere near as overlooked. Maybe Richmond Avenue east of Shepherd? Anyone in Houston that wants to nominate some other street, please do so in the comments.

Developers and retailers are attracted to this area because of its demographics and proximity to dense residential neighborhoods, people in the area say.

Nearly 130,000 people live within three miles of his site and have median incomes in excess of $80,000, Johnson said.

Many of those folks live in pricey new townhome developments.

“Townhomes are proliferating in every little pocket in the area,” said Larry Plotsky of the Plotsky Group, a real estate brokerage that’s leasing space in a new strip center on Washington.

Just so we’re clear here, since I’ve made it known I’m not the world’s biggest townhome fan, this is the kind of townhome development that I generally approve of. Putting them in places where there was basically nothing to begin with, thus creating neighborhoods from scratch instead of overwhelming existing neighborhoods, that’s a good thing.

So far, much of the new commercial development has been concentrated between Westcott and Shepherd.

A CVS drugstore has just opened on Washington near T.C. Jester. And Mexican restaurant El Tiempo has moved its Katy Freeway location to a spot across the street. The cantina is said to be packed nightly, backing a theory that this area is underserved by retailers.

“A lot of the people eating and having drinks are walking back into the neighborhood,” said the Michael Group’s Jeff Trevino, a commercial real estate broker who works in the area. “They’re walking back to their townhouses.”

I like the sound of that, but, umm, are there really sidewalks for people to walk on around there? I know I haven’t seen many of them in the West End/I-10 townhome areas. TC Jester is farther west, so maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. Here’s hoping.

Oh, won’t you stay, just a little bit longer?

The mind games between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison about KBH’s future plans continue on.

As Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison eyes a possible race against Gov. Rick Perry, a network of key Republican activists and power players is moving to send her a clear message: Don’t do it.

In letters, e-mails and direct conversations, nervous Republicans have told Ms. Hutchison they want her to seek re-election and abandon thoughts of targeting the incumbent governor in what they expect would be a fractious GOP primary.

Aides to Ms. Hutchison, who will spend next week on a fund-raising tour of the state, dismiss the effort. They say that the opposition is being orchestrated by the Perry political camp and that Ms. Hutchison has widespread support.

But the prospects of an expensive, intra-party battle between the two has rattled many of the GOP faithful, according to interviews with top Republicans and supporters on both sides.

“It would be like throwing a hand grenade in a chicken yard,” said former Texas Republican Party chairman George Strake, a Perry supporter.

Does anyone else get the mental image of a bunch of birds with blackened feathers and dangling beaks, like Daffy Duck right after Elmer Fudd blasts him with his shotgun? I’m just curious.

Ms. Hutchison has not said whether she will try to unseat the governor, but she has floated the idea in conversations with fellow Republicans.

Her political team expressed confidence she has a strong backing within the party, and contended that some who would prefer to avoid an intramural feud will side with her if she makes the race.

“The amount of support from average people has been shocking – people out of the blue coming up to her,” said Hutchison campaign manager Terry Sullivan.

Politicians are many things, but I think most of them have a fairly firm grip on their own chances in a given election. If KBH decides to run, it’ll be because she thinks she can win. There may be some ego tied up in that, and maybe she’s not seeing a representative sample of pro-Perry forces, I don’t know. But I do know that if all she wants to do is come home to Texas, simply retiring is an option. It’s not like she’ll be facing bleak job prospects here.

Via PerryVsWorld.

How much per gallon?

A little perspective on $2/gallon gasoline.

If you think gasoline is expensive, be glad your SUV doesn’t run on double half-caf mocha lattes.

At $32 per gallon, the popular Starbucks brew can make today’s prices at the pump look like a real bargain.

Even so, a lot of drivers who complain about gasoline prices in excess of $2 per gallon seem to have no problem plunking down $3 or more for a designer cup of coffee.


Consider this. John Frieda’s brilliant brunette color-boosting shampoo retails for $6.19 per tube at Randall’s. That translates to a whopping $94 for a gallon. But even cheap-o bottles of Suave that sell for 89 cents on sale ring up to $8.14 for a gallon. That’s four times the average price for regular unleaded in Houston.

Art Smith, an energy consult with John S. Herold, says when broken down, the overall price-per-mile ratio in this country still comes out to a mere 10 cents.

“Would you pay a dime to not have to push your car down the highway for a mile?” Smith asks. “I would.”

When you put it that way, it sure doesn’t sound so bad. The accompanying sidebar and chart to the story are illuminating as well. Check it out.