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September, 2005:

Buzbee update

I noted before that Galveston attorney and former Galveston County Democratic Chair Tony Buzbee is reportedly mulling entering the race for Lieutenant Governor on the Democratic side. I’ve since heard from folks inside the Texas Democratic Party that he’s mulling more seriously now.

As you can see, he’s got a pretty good biography, and from what I understand would be able to self-finance the campaign, which is pretty much a must in this climate and against the very wealthy David Dewhurst. I don’t have much more on this right now, but when I do, I’ll be sure to pass it along. Karl-T has some more.

On a tangential note, today is the last day of the third quarter, so if you’ve been doing some mulling of your own – in particular, about donating to various candidates – now is a good time to act, as the reporting period ends today as well. A few possible places for your spare change:

Barbara Radnofsky

Chris Bell

David Van Os

Shane Sklar

John Courage

Mary Beth Harrell

Nick Lampson

David Harris

And of course all the State Rep, county, and local candidates of your choice.

Grand Parkway project suspended

Good news for the citizens of Spring (and I see that Anne is suitably happy): According to Robin Holzer, the Harris County Toll Road Authority has (at least for now) suspended its efforts to partner with TxDOT on the proposed expansion of the Grand Parkway.

In a letter to Commissioners Court dated Sept 21, 2005:

Art Storey, PE wrote:
“Dear Court Members:

As I have reported before, TxDOT has suggested that Harris County join them in a general agreement for sharing toll road revenues when HCTRA constructs a toll road in TxDOT right-of-way or on an alignment within the TxDOT highway system. With the support of county staff and our toll road legal and investment consultants, I have been working on such an agreement for several months.

The negotiations have been difficult, and more time and effort is needed before we can expect to reach agreement. Accordingly, I have instructed HCTRA to stop work on so- called “future” projects until either such an agreement is in hand or the requirement for one is eliminated. Projects affected include the Grand Parkway and the U.S. 290 corridor (Hempstead Road). My letter to HCTRA is attached and is part of this report.”

In the attached letter to Mike Strech, Director of HCTRA, dated Sept 19, 2005:

Art Storey, PE wrote:

I have been thinking about last week’s excellent briefing by the engineering section and our ongoing difficult negotiations with TxDOT concerning revenue sharing on future projects. While we sort out our TxDOT situation, I want us to reassess our priorities for engineering, both in-house and with our consultants.

1. Please instruct our staff and consultants to suspend immediately all work on the proposed Grand Parkway. That means surveying, right-of-way definition, schematic designs, conversations, everything. We will resume from this point (or from some other one) if and when we have successfully negotiated an agreement with TxDOT to do so. I will inform eommissioners Court accordingly at their next meeting on September 27th.”

Art says he’s continuing to negotiate with TxDOT’s Gary Trietsch, so there’s no telling how long the County’s hiatus will last.

As Anne says, it’s better than nothing. Perhaps this will be one of those projects that just gets quietly shelved and never taken up again. Or maybe it’ll become a hot priority later on down the line. Will any of the otherwise-indistinguishable Republican candidates for SD07 publicly state a position on this issue? Will a Democratic candidate challenge them on it? Stay tuned.

DeLayathon Day Three

Via TalkLeft, Tom DeLay’s arraignment has been set for October 21. Here’s Jeralyn’s view as a defense attorney:

A poster at Daily Kos speculates he already has a plea bargain and will plead no contest. He bases this on the Indictment which mentions DeLay’s waiver of the statute of limitations (which I referenced in the comments section here) and his having gone in for talks with prosecutors ( discussed here.)

I doubt it. First of all, I don’t think Dick DeGuerin was representing DeLay at the time he waived the statute of limitations or when he went in for talks, and that his prior (or newly subjugated) counsel arranged both. This article says DeGuerin only recently has become involved in the case.

DeLay may have believed he could talk himself out of an Indictment, and his white collar defense lawyers arranged for the opportunity. Has nobody learned anything from Martha Stewart? Jails are filled with people who thought if only they could explain themselves, the cops and prosectuors would see it their way.

I surmise that DeGuerin was brought in when it became clear to DeLay’s other lawyers there was no way out of an Indictment and no acceptable bargain. (Or, they may have had DeGuerin in “standby mode” in case that occurred.) I think DeLay will fight this case until Earle either gives up like he did with Kay Bailey Hutchison or makes a misdemeanor offer with no jail that he can’t afford to turn down.

As ‘stina reminds us, Dick DeGuerin is the guy who got Robert Durst acquitted. However good a case Ronnie Earle may or may not have, he’s in for a helluva fight.

Tom also analyzes the indictment, which he finds to be on the weak side. If the rumored canary turns up (Jesse nominates fellow indictee Warren RoBold), then we’ll have a much better idea how it stacks up. Or maybe we could just listen to DeLay himself and see what he thinks.

Back to DeLay’s court date, here‘s what he may have to expect.

DeLay’s attorneys were working out the details of when the 11-term congressman would return to the Texas Capitol in hopes of saving him from further embarrassment, they said.

“What we’re trying to avoid is Ronnie Earle having him taken down in handcuffs, and fingerprinted and photographed. That’s uncalled for and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Dick DeGuerin, DeLay’s attorney.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said it is up to the court to decide how DeLay would be arraigned.

DeLay should soon receive a summons ordering him to appear for arraignment, said his attorney Bill White. It was not immediately clear whether DeLay would have to go through booking after responding to the summons.

Travis County allows some defendants to do a “walk-through” booking process, in which he would be photographed and fingerprinted. But his bond amount would be preset so he could immediately pay it and avoid a stay in jail.

DeLay also could waive going before a magistrate to have his rights and charges read to him, said Roger Wade, Travis County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

It also will be up to Earle whether DeLay’s mug shot is publicly released.

I rather doubt that Earle would release the mug shot – it’s a pretty cheap thing to do, even to Tom DeLay, and would just feed the “partisan vindictiveness” meme. That said, I’ll bet a copy of it leaks out and becomes a collector’s item. The first person with a Cafepress T-shirt featuring that image will make a fortune.

Also via ‘stina, I see that the “Jim Mattox is a Republican who was also unfairly tarred by Earle” defense, first popularized by Houston’s own John Culberson, has made it out to the masses. Folks, if you can’t tell me who Jim Mattox is, don’t drag him into this discussion. Among other things, you’ll look like a fool.

Jim Mattox, a former Democratic congressman and Texas attorney general, was charged by Earle with bribery in 1983. Mattox was found not guilty but said he’s still “angry and disappointed” by the effect it had on his political career and family.

Still, Mattox called Earle a tenacious person carrying out his responsibilities. “A lesser individual might have given up this fight,” he said. “Most people that know Ronnie would not question his integrity.”

Via the Chris Bell blog and Greg Wythe.

It’s probably just as well that DeLay chose not to appear before the grand jury, given his unreliable memory.

The day after U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay’s grand jury indictment, his lawyer and the jury foreman on Thursday appeared to contradict the Texas politician’s assertions that he was not given a chance to speak before the jury.

The foreman, William M. Gibson Jr., a retired state insurance investigator, said the Travis County grand jury waited until Wednesday, the final day of its term, to indict him because it was hoping he would accept jurors’ invitation to testify.

DeLay said in interviews that the grand jury never asked him to testify.

In a Wednesday night appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, he said Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle never talked to him or asked him to testify.

“Never asking me to testify, never doing anything for two years,” DeLay said in the interview. “And then, on the last day of his fourth or sixth grand jury, he indicts me. Why? Because his goal was to make me step down as majority leader.”

On Thursday, DeLay said in another broadcast interview that he was under the impression that he wasn’t going to be indicted because he hadn’t been called to testify before the grand jury.

“I have not testified before the grand jury to present my side of the case, and they indicted me,” said DeLay, according to the Associated Press.

Dick DeGuerin, the attorney representing DeLay, said Thursday that DeLay actually was invited to appear before the grand jury, where he would have been under oath. The Houston attorney was not yet on the legal team when DeLay was asked to appear, but he said other attorneys advised him not to testify — a decision DeGuerin supports.

DeGuerin said that DeLay may have been referring in the interviews to the fact that the grand jury did not subpoena him to testify.

I trust that the next time DeLay appears on camera to charge that he was never given the opportunity to speak before the grand jury, whoever he’s talking to will remind him what his lawyer said. Right? Yeah, right.

Well, at least Tom still has his friends. This was sent to my inbox last night:

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow, we are gathering together at the Hess Club to show our
support for Congressman Tom DeLay. We hope you’ll join us for this
very special get together (details below and click here for a map.)

Also, we’ve just added some new information to the Website — “Ronnie
Earle has a history of using his office for attacks on his political
and personal enemies.”

United for DeLay Rally

Friday, September 30
4:00 p.m.


The Hess Club
5430 Westheimer Road
Houston, Texas 77056
(Between Chimney Rock and Sage in the Galleria area)


Sadly, I can’t make it. If any of you wants to show him how you feel about all this unpleasantness, however, consider yourself invited.

Last but not least, I think Jay Lee sums up the DeLay situation as well as one possibly could. Thanks to Ginger for the pointer.

David Murff in CD07

I’ve been hoping to see someone step up to run against John Culberson in CD07, and I see via PDiddie that my wish has come true. The gentleman’s name is David Murff, and he’s answered a few questions at Perry’s place, so go take a look. His website isn’t up yet, but when it is I’ll post an update. Welcome to the 2006 election, David Murff!

(Now if we can just get opponents for Ted Poe and Kevin Brady, we’ll have the whole Houston area covered at the Congressional level…)

Wohlgemuth’s legacy

We’ve just barely started down the road of privatizing the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (THHSC), and already the savings we were promised for doing so are turning into an illusion.

The $45 million in savings Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission hoped to realize by privatizing its payroll and human resources operations will be far less, according to a state auditor’s office report to be released next week.

The audit, a draft of which was obtained by the Express-News, said a substantial amount of the projected savings evaporated after “errors and complete data” were considered.

That version of the audit said the commission would save only $1.1 million over five years. The commission disputed that number.

The report also questioned the commission’s process for awarding the contract to Convergys, an international outsourcing company that also runs Florida’s payroll and personnel systems.

Off by a factor of 40. That’s pretty impressive. You could have probably just fired a couple of managers and gotten the $220K per year savings that we’re actually going to see.

Those who oppose the state’s rush to privatize say that same faulty analysis is allowing the commission to claim $646 million in savings by laying off 2,500 state employees, closing dozens of offices around the state and farming out eligibility work to four privately-run call centers under a five-year $899 million contract with Accenture.

I discussed that $646 million fantasy back in July. Anyone still believe that number is operative?

Privatization was sold to taxpayers and legislators as a major savings, Sen. Elliot Shapleigh said Wednesday. Shapleigh was part of a Senate finance subcommittee that attempted to reform the way Texas awards private contracts. The effort failed.

“Instead, professional and proven state employees were cut and politically chosen vendors were awarded (contracts) with little or no savings to the taxpayers,” he said.

Funny how that seems to happen, isn’t it? Who would ever guess that connections and cronyism would count for more in the handout of megamillion-dollar contracts than merit? Shocking, just shocking.

I’ve titled this post for former State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, author of HB2292, which was the genesis of all this nonsense. Let me just say again how lucky we all are that Rep. Chet Edwards sent her back into private citizenhood last November.

Carlos Guerra has more. Here’s a statement (PDF) on the draft report from the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Thanks to The Jeffersonian and The Red State for the links.

Monetizing Harris County’s toll roads

I missed this story yesterday, but Albert Hollan was kind enough to forward me the link, so here it is.

An investment bank concluded that a private firm might pay up to $7 billion for the right to operate Harris County toll roads, prompting Commissioners Court Tuesday to authorize a study of the pluses and minuses of such a deal.

If the plan worked right, the multibillion-dollar windfall could be invested, and interest earned on it would pay for future road projects. Pricey road bonds likely would be a thing of the past, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said.

“This could avoid the need for bond elections and the need to go to taxpayers for tax increases,” he said.

As part of the 50- to 75-year deal, the county would maintain ownership of the toll roads, decide whether the system should expand and possibly set limits on future toll increases.

The county isn’t looking to turn the Harris County Toll Road Authority over to an operator that would be interested solely in the bottom line and wouldn’t be flexible in helping meet the region’s transportation needs, Eckels said.

“I believe it is a good idea to do something like this,” he said.


The court appointed Dick Raycraft, director of county management services, to report back Oct. 25 on what exactly will be studied.


The group that does the study would give its report by April. A deal, if it is approved, could be in place by spring 2007.


First Southwest estimated the county could net between $2 billion and $5.1 billion by selling concession rights.

Goldman Sachs, another investment bank, reported that concession rights might be sold for $7 billion or more.

In its report, First Southwest says the authority is marketable because it is one of the more successful toll roads nationwide.

It took in $318 million in tolls last year and has $1.8 billion in outstanding bond debt.

I’m no financial guru, but it seems to me that if the system is earning enough to pay off all its debts in six years, it’s making pretty good money, and I don’t quite understand the rationale for selling. Fortunately, Robin Holzer has an MBA, and she doesn’t think this is a good deal, either.

This deal is NOT about Harris County finding a private outfit to operate the toll road system more cheaply. It’s about selling off the taxpayers’ financial interest in the toll system to a private investor. “Monetizing” the toll road system means finding a way to trade the future cash revenue of our toll road system for cash today. The problem is, no private entity can afford to pay the County what it’s really worth. Here’s why:

1. The Harris County Toll Road system generated ~$318 million in toll revenue during the last fiscal year. This cash cow currently belongs to Harris County taxpayers. As Harris County tax payers, we are essentially shareholders of HCTRA. We taxpayers already receive the financial benefits from public investments like the Sam Houston Toll Road, and we will for years to come. Some of that revenue is spent servicing HCTRA’s $1.8 billion in debt, and the rest is spent to improve and expand the toll road system.

2. In order for the County to receive up front today as cash the benefit of 30-75 years of future toll revenue — the “multi-billion dollar windfall” referred to by Judge Robert Eckels — taxpayers will have to pay a significant premium, either in the form of increased borrowing costs, increased tolls or both.

3. Harris County is already in the business of borrowing against future toll revenue (i.e. floating toll-backed revenue bonds) to get cash today to pay for road projects. As long as the county’s bond rating remains investment grade, the county enjoys a lower cost of capital than that of any U.S. for-profit entity (e.g., bank, hedge fund, toll consortium, etc.).

4. An investor (i.e. Cintra/Zachery) will be interested in this deal based on the profits they expect to be able to extract from the toll roads, which must more than cover the price they pay to Harris County and whomever is providing the capital to purchase the tollroads.

5. Harris County, as a public entity, can borrow at a lower rate of return than a private borrower can achieve. Given that a private investor will have a higher cost of capital than Harris County does, then basic finance says that the present value of the cash flows from our toll road system will be worth less to them than they are to Harris County. Since the cash flows are worth less to a private investor than the County, that means no private investor can afford to pay the County what the flows are worth to taxpayers.

6. Further, this “deal” is a once-only proposition. If we sell our interest in Harris County’s toll revenue to a private investor, we can never again borrow against it. We will have to borrow against other, less-desirable assets, which will affect the County’s bond rating. So, this “deal” may have the effect on Harris County taxpayers of raising our cost of borrowing to 3-5 times the current rate. It would suddenly be as if we had built the toll road system and then decided to pay for it with high-rate credit cards instead of the low-risk bonds for which the taxpayers voted.

In my opinion, it is NOT in the interest of Harris County taxpayers to allow the County to do such a deal. Frankly, I’d prefer the County did not spend any more money studying the concept either.

By the way, Robin notes that “this concept was NOT included in the posted agenda for the meeting, and was NOT mentioned at all at the County’s agenda briefing Monday morning”. That’s our county government for you.

Basically, I have two questions at this point: What in the world does the Commissioner’s Court want to do with all the up-front cash they’d get out of this, and would this proposal be put up for a public vote before any agreements are signed? And if it isn’t (okay, three questions), why the heck not? Robin’s right – the toll road system belongs to all of us. Its disposition should be subject to our say so.

I feel like there’s more to this than what we know so far. Anyone want to speculate?

UPDATE: Tory also thinks this is a bad idea.

Rebuilding in East Texas

The Rita Blog has some info on how the rebuilding is going in East Texas. It also has information about Red Cross and Salvation Army relief efforts. I haven’t seen a whole lot about benefits for Rita victims; if you’re aware of anything, please let me know.

Shane Sklar, Democratic candidate for the US House in CD14, is spending some time in Chambers County (which is a part of that district) doing volunteer relief work.

I’m doing this for two primary reasons:

First, and foremost, it would be ridiculous for me to ask these folks to vote for me next November if I had not first helped them out in their time of need.

Second, I want to see firsthand a hurricane’s aftermath so I will be better informed about how we can improve hurricane preparedness and enhance homeland security.

I am going to periodically post my experiences here, so you can learn as I learn and reach your own conclusions. So keep an eye out for more “Shane’s Rita Relief Reports.”

Remember, give whatever you can and as much as you can to help the victims of this storm. Though many are saying we dodged a bullet in Texas, there are a lot of folks over here who are hurting and need our help.

He’s got a report of his first day there, so check it out. Lots more on the ground information can be found at KOGT radio out of Orange (link via Rafe Colburn, whose family was evacuated from there).

I had expressed surprise that I hadn’t heard of too many automotive fatalities during the Rita evacuation. Sadly, I’m not surprised any more.

A Chronicle survey of Houston-area counties and those along major evacuation routes to the north and west indicates that at least 107 people were killed by last week’s hurricane or died in accidents or from health problems associated with the evacuation of 2.5 million people from their homes.

One day before the expected announcement of a state-county-city task force to examine the problems that plagued the exodus, which doubled or tripled the travel time between Houston and other Texas cities, Mayor Bill White conceded, “I don’t think the evacuation should be a disaster in itself.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, whose wife spent more than 12 hours in a U.S. 290 traffic jam, called for a careful review of the evacuation. “People are downplaying the fact that people died in the evacuation and that is not right,” he said. “Is the chance of dying greater in the movement than in the storm? That’s the question we need to consider.”

Yes, it is. Tom has plowed this ground before, and while there’s commendable talk about ways to reduce congestion in the future, the obvious answer is to figure out how to convince people who are at less risk in their homes to stay. I don’t think you can alter how risk averse someone is, but maybe you can at least provide a better picture of what the odds are.

One thing that might help is to get some more clarity on what the true flood zones are. I recall that one of the effects of TS Allison was to expose the fact that out flood-plain maps were out of date. Where does that stand now? We know that Allison demonstrated that under the right conditions, flooding can occur where you don’t expect it, so if that storm was a driving factor in people’s stay-or-run decisions, better information about who really is in danger is called for. It surely can’t hurt, though again, with a sufficiently large storm, all bets are going to be off.

Here’s a great story called “Six lessons from online coverage of Hurricane Rita”, which takes a critical look at the role blogging played and gives it a high grade. Dwight Silverman gets some well-deserved kudos for his work in setting up various storm-related blogs on the Chron site, as does Laurence Simon, who pays the reporter back with a wonderfully characteristic quote. I will say this, though – the failure to cite Eric Berger‘s stellar efforts is a grave omission. Link via Metroblogging Houston.

Finally, on a related subject, the George R. Brown is once again a convention center. Congrats to everyone who worked there for a job well done.

Evaluating the case against DeLay

Boy, yesterday sure was fun, wasn’t it? Breathe it in deeply, because it all gets hairier from here.

The first question, of course, is how does Travis County DA Ronnie Earle go from indictment to conviction? What kind of evidence does he have against The Hammer? The conventional wisdom suggests a canary.

“I can’t imagine indicting a majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives without having a smoking gun, and that means someone who flipped on DeLay,” said Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer who filed a related civil lawsuit on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates. “He’s got to have corroborating evidence, too, bills and things proving where DeLay was at key times.”


DeLay was indicted, along with two political associates, by an Austin state grand jury Wednesday. The three were charged with conspiracy to violate a Texas election law that bars giving corporate money to candidates.

The brief indictment accuses DeLay’s two co-defendants with specific acts such as collecting corporate contributions through a Texas political action committee. It says they sent a $190,000 check to a branch of the Republican National Committee with a list of Texas congressional candidates who were to get funding.

But all the indictment says DeLay did was “enter into an agreement” with one or both men to knowingly violate the election code. Earle must prove to a jury that DeLay agreed to a felony when he denies it.

Houston lawyer David Berg said the case against DeLay could possibly be proved with a lot of circumstantial evidence such as cryptic e-mail, hotel and travel bills placing him at meetings, and his “fingerprints” somehow on the transactions.

“But what a prosecutor wants is someone in the meetings. I think someone has to have rolled over on DeLay,” Berg said.

He said prosecutor Earle has too much at stake to move forward without strong evidence. Earle has to be careful because he has taken heat over his public anti-DeLay comments and is marked by his failure to convict U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, some years ago, Berg said.

Attorneys familiar with the case said that key anti-DeLay cooperators, if they exist, could be co-defendants, insider Republicans or even witnesses from the contributing corporations.

My best guess is that it’s the latter. Earle has already made some deals with indicted corporations, and I figure they’re the most risk averse here. I have a hard time believing that someone who is not under indictment, say a Beverly Woolley, would roll on DeLay, since there’d be no pressure on them to compel their testimony. I’m not sure how to evaluate the likelihood of a codefendant (Jim Ellis or John Colyandro in this case, as they were also indicted on the conspiracy charges) cutting a deal. It feels too early in the process for that, but what do I know?

The Texas law invoked against DeLay is loosely worded and casts a wide net. It merely requires that a conspirator must intentionally agree with at least one person that they or someone else in the conspiracy will commit an act to further a felony.

University of Houston professor David Crump said the government is nevertheless going to have to show the jury, no matter how many Travis County Democrats are sitting on it, that DeLay did something to promote a campaign-fund transfer that was against the law.

“Yes, it’s possible to have a conspiracy in which one conspirator didn’t do anything but merely agreed. But I’ve never seen it happen in reality. The agreement can’t be that passive or tacit,” Crump said.

Crump said a “granddaddy of conspiracy cases” comes from moonshine charges. “Courts said delivering sugar, knowing it would be used for moonshine, just wasn’t enough,” Crump said. “They required an agreement with the intent to promote (moonshine production).”

So DeLay could argue that while he knew TRMPAC (which he helped to set up) might be used to do questionable things, he never agreed to participate or facilitate any of those things. I doubt he’d have much of a political career after mounting such a defense, but it does show that he has some rope to play out, since just being in the know won’t be enough to convict him.

He’ll do plenty of maneuvering before setting foot in a courtroom, of course. David Corn had a chat with crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall, and he provides a blueprint for the pre-trial defense.

“The first thing he must do,” Dezenhall said, “is to realize that his objective is to get acquitted, not to look good. He must understand that damage control does not equal damage disappearance. He has to save what is save-able. He might not be able to save everything: his freedom; his political career, and his financial prospects. His life has changed; he has to focus on acquittal.” At the same time, he added, DeLay has “to stick with his brand and fight back savagely.” And will he depict himself as a martyr being crucified because of his devotion to the conservative cause? I asked. “What does he have to lose at this stage?” Dezenhall answered. “He has to dig in, stay in character and depict the indictment as unholy and agenda-driven. Show contrition? Nah, that’s total horseshit.”

Dezenhall also noted that from this day on, DeLay’s target audience is the to-be-named-later jury that will hear the criminal case against him: “He and his advisers have to concentrate on what will work with a Texas jury. A media roadshow involving someone in a legal case never pays dividends. And DeLay is sufficiently divisive and that does not lend himself well to a careful TV interview. What does pay off is whipping up the preexisting prejudices of the the jury pool.” While Dezenhall said that DeLay ought to “speak up within the confines of his brand,” he noted that DeLay “is always vulnerable to coming off looking mean, and mean does not go well with juries.” (Before DeLay became majority leader, Representative Curt Weldon, a GOP hawk, once observed, “We need someone who can go on national TV and present a good, positive image of the Republican Party and not a mean-spirited image.”)

DeLay’s team, Dezenhall continued, may also consider playing the leak game. With DeLay indicted on a conspiracy charge, it could be that Travis County DA Ronnie Earle flipped one of the coconspirators. There are several ways of establishing a conspiracy charge–say, obtaining memos or emails that lay out the conspiracy–but one clear way is by obtaining the testimony of one of the schemers. If Earle does have an insider spilling all, DeLay will need to undermine that witness–perhaps before any trial. This could lead to a “media game,” Dezenhall said. “Things are leaked to get the person or people who were flipped. This will be done through leaks to the media. The point from DeLay’s perspective is, don’t love me, but hate him.” Above all, Dezenhall added, DeLay has to proceed with the understanding that he “cannot get people to change their fundamental perception of him.”

Link via Political Wire. If there is a flipper, I doubt it’ll be long before his identity is known. That’s just too hot to stay secret. For what it’s worth, a correspondent to Kevin Drum claims it’ll be Sears, one of the indicted corporations. We shall see.

Other news: Read how DeLay’s attempt to name his own successor failed. These are fun days for the GOP House caucus, I’ll bet. And I’m sure you will be shocked to learn that the man who did take DeLay’s place as Majority Leader is also up to his sternum in sleaziness.

Almost, I’m sure, as shocked as you were to learn that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is also in deep doodoo for some mighty convenient stock sales. It’s almost like there’s a culture of corruption surrounding these guys or something.

Well, when you’ve recovered from all that shock, go pay a visit to Juanita and enjoy a little more schadenfreude. You’ve earned it.

If at first you don’t succeed

You know, if shamelessness were a virtue, Smokey Joe Barton would have been assumed directly into Heaven by now. First, he is one of only eleven Congressmen to vote against the emergency relief package for Katrina victims. Next, he signs a letter urging support for the Gulf Coast Wage Cut. And now, he’s going for the trifecta by pushing to repeal environmental protections as his answer for dealing with hurricanes.

Riding a wave of concern over high energy prices triggered by Hurricane Katrina, congressional Republicans began a rush Wednesday to ease environmental rules on refineries and looked for ways to open new coastal waters to oil and gas development.

“More refineries will result in more domestic production of gasoline,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, as his committee began work on the energy legislation. “We cannot stop hurricanes but we can mitigate some of the adverse impacts.”


The Barton measure included easing air pollution control rules on refineries, setting shorter deadlines for issuing refinery permits and a government-funded “risk insurance” program to shield companies against lengthy regulatory delays in refinery construction. And it would give the federal government greater say in siting refineries and pipelines.

A companion measure, being put together by the House Resources Committee, called for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil development and would clear the way for states to allow oil or gas drilling in their coastal waters, including areas under a federal drilling ban. States would get half of the revenue from new lease sales.

Environmentalists and state and local officials on Tuesday accused sponsors of the legislation of exploiting the hurricane devastation and public fears about rising energy costs to push through pro-industry measures that, in the end, will be environmentally harmful.

“They’re using this disaster to roll back public health protection,” said Paul Billings of the American Lung Association. He argued that some of Barton’s proposals would jeopardize government efforts to require cleaner burning diesel and allow more air pollution from refineries and other industrial plants.

Organizations representing city and county governments and state officials in charge of implementing clean air requirements were mobilizing to try to block the GOP energy proposals.

“Though hailed as a post-Katrina package,” the proposals would “dismantle environmental laws that are not barriers to rebuilding the affected Gulf states,” said Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities.

William Becker, executive director of two organizations that represent state and county air pollution control officials, said Barton’s legislation would allow refineries to expand operations without installing new pollution controls. Similar changes have been proposed by the Bush administration, but are hung up in court because of lawsuits from several states.

Because every bad thing that happens is just another opportunity to push your already-existing agenda as the panacea. It’s the Smokey Joe Way. Via PinkDome.

Congrats to John Courage

I’ve been remiss in not congratulating John Courage for winning the online poll to earn the first Democracy for America endorsement of the 2006 election season. Consider that omission corrected.

It’s a great accomplishment for John, and he deserves kudos for beating out some excellent competitors, but by itself it means little. The bottom line for this is whether or not that endorsement translates into campaign contributions. If Courage’s next FEC filing report shows enough money raised and cash on hand to make non-obsessive observers take notice, then his campaign can get on the public’s radar. He can start to get some coverage in the papers, especially in stories about Lamar Smith. People need to know who he is before they can support him, and for better or worse it all starts with the money.

You know what that means, right? Sure you do. Doesn’t this quarter end tomorrow? Consider that an additional enticement.

How about a nice big serving of schadenfreude?

Who knew that one little indictment could make so many people so very very happy?

How about this? Someone actually thought to ask one of the grand jurors about the indictment.

The majority leader derided Earle as an “unabashed partisan zealot” and a “rogue district attorney.”

However, the grand jury’s foreman, William Gibson, told The Associated Press that Earle didn’t pressure members to indict DeLay. “Ronnie Earle didn’t indict him. The grand jury indicted him,” Gibson said in an interview at his home.

Gibson, 76, a retired sheriff’s deputy, said of DeLay: “He’s probably doing a good job. I don’t have anything against him. Just something happened.”

Via the Daily DeLay, which as you might imagine has quite a bit more on this. Start at the top and scroll down.

Here’s Chris Bell’s statement. And here’s a couple of reminders from Public Citizen that despite DeLay’s protestations, he’s been in plenty of well-earned trouble before.

As Michael says, in times such as these, it’s important to ask yourself the tough questions. Like, What would Bruce Campbell do?

Greg notes a slightly baffling defense of DeLay from his good buddy John Culberson.

Finally, as The Red State notes, now would be a good time to lend a hand to Nick Lampson.

Video on demand

This Slate article on cable versus satellite is interesting, and in the wake of the passing of the telecom bill here in Texas it may help contribute to that long-promised specter of competition and lower rates. I know, I know, but stranger things have happened. Give it a read, and be sure to also read critiques of it by Matt Yglesias and Mark Evanier.

One thing that the Slate piece talks about as a weapon cable has against satellite is video on demand. I’m curious about something. I’ve never been particularly interested in VoD. That’s partly due to TiVo, where there’s almost always something I like available to me to watch, and it’s partly due to the fact that I’m not a big movie buff. (Of course, looking at the Now Playing list, it’s also partly due to the lack of desirable content.) Show of hands here – how many of you have watched a movie via “on demand” programming? What would get you to order a movie this way if you haven’t?

For what it’s worth, I think Evanier nails it:

I dunno…if you’re going to pay to see a new movie, wouldn’t you rather have the DVD? Even if it means waiting until your next trip to Costco… when it’ll probably be cheaper? Once you have physical possession of the DVD, you really “own” that movie. It’s not going to get deleted off the hard drive of your Personal Video Recorder or lost if there’s a crash. You can watch it whenever you want it on any TV in your house that has a DVD player. You can take it to a friend’s house and watch it there. You can look at a little shelf of DVDs in your library and say, “I own those” and feel like you really got something for your money. This could get into a long discourse but basically, I think the new age of cable and the Internet is disabusing people of the idea that you pay for content. A lot of people feel that they’re not stealing if they download a bootleg of a new movie. They’d never think of stealing a DVD or a VHS tape of that film but just moving a copy to their harddisk is different. That same, dubious distinction is what I think will discourage people from paying to have a new movie delivered to their PVRs when they could be getting a tangible DVD for their bucks.

What I think VOD is going to have to do is to offer people programming they can’t go and buy at Sam’s Club. I’ll pay to add new channels to my DirecTV subscription because that increases my viewing choices. But I’ve never bought a pay-per-view offering because I’ve never seen an ad for one it would bother me to miss. If I cared about sports, that would probably be different.

The business model for VOD may not be in TV. It may be established by Howard Stern’s pending move to Sirius Radio: How many people will buy the units and subscribe to hear Howard, for the first time, unexpurgated? (My guess: Not nearly as many as Sirius is projecting. I think a lot of people will never accept the idea of paying for radio. And as Stern’s show gets dirtier, it’s going to be more frustrating to listen to it and not be able to see. Betcha that within three years, he moves the whole thing to HBO or Showtime…or to VOD, where it would indeed be something you couldn’t get elsewhere or buy at Sam’s Club.)

Video on Demand as programming that can’t be had by other means is something I’d consider. Otherwise, it feels to me like a service for people who think Netflix is too much work. What do you think?

DeLay indicted

That loud thudding sound you just heard? It was a size 15EEEE hiking boot dropping.

A Travis County grand jury today indicted U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on one count of criminal conspiracy, jeopardizing the Sugar Land Republican’s leadership role as the second most powerful Texan in Washington, D.C.

The charge, a state jail felony punishable by up to two years incarceration, stems from his role with his political committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, a now-defunct organization that already had been indicted on charges of illegally using corporate money during the 2002 legislative elections.


An indictment does not force DeLay to resign as a member of Congress, but the GOP’s rules demand that he resign his post as majority leader as he fights the charges. Congressional Republicans earlier tried to drop that requirement, citing Earle’s investigation as a political vendetta, but they ultimately maintained the rule after withering criticism.

Over the past year, Travis County grand jurors have indicted three DeLay associates — John Colyandro, Jim Ellis and Warren Robold — as well as eight corporate donors, the Texas Association of Business and DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority. Colyandro and Ellis were re-indicted this morning as part of the conspiracy indictment.

DeLay had appeared to escape criminal scrutiny as early as last year when Travis County prosecutors concluded they did not have the jurisdiction to pursue election code violations against him. Under the law, only DeLay’s local district attorney, a Republican, had jurisdiction, and he expressed no interest in the case.

But a conspiracy charge falls under the criminal code, not the election statute that bans corporate money from being spent on a campaign. And Earle has the jurisdiction to prosecute DeLay for conspiring with others to circumvent state law.

In recent days, the broad-based investigation has focused on one particular transaction during the 2002 campaign.

In late September 2002, Colyandro, the executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority, sent a blank check to Ellis, who is DeLay’s primary fundraiser in Washington.

According to the money-laundering indictment returned against those two last year, Ellis was accused of having the Republican National Committee launder $190,000 of corporate donations into noncorporate money that was sent to to seven Texas House candidates, including Austinites Jack Stick and Todd Baxter.

As late as Tuesday, Travis County prosecutors were interviewing Republican National Committee staffers about their roles in the transaction.

You know what the best part about this is going to be? For the foreseeable future, every story written about Tom DeLay or anyone associated with him – every story about Jack Abramoff and Bob Ney and the Ellis/RoBold/Colyandro triplets and the TAB and TRMPAC civil suits, and on and on and on – will no longer include the sentence “DeLay himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing in these matters”. From here on out, it’ll be “DeLay is currently under felony indictment in Travis County for criminal conspiracy”. How sweet that is.

All that said, this is a bit of a surprise:

The grand jury, however, took no action against Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond or state Reps. Dianne Delisi and Beverly Woolley, both of whom sit on the political committee’s board, for their roles in the election.

I have to say, it always looked to me like Craddick was the more likely of the two Toms to have left fingerprints somewhere. Maybe I underestimated the guy.

I’m sure there’ll be plenty of blogospheric reaction and analysis shortly. In the meantime, here’s Ronnie Earle’s statement on the indictment, and the indictment itself; both are Word docs, and both come via the Quorum Report. Here also is a press release from CREW lauding the indictment, and a reminder from them that House corruption goes well beyond DeLay.

Nice pumping station you’ve got there…

Continuing with the theme of risk aversion and how it impacted people’s stay-or-flee decisions as Rita loomed in the Gulf, here’s another data point to consider.

Water service to more than half a million Houston-area residents and several key industrial facilities was in jeopardy during the weekend when Hurricane Rita knocked out power to a crucial pumping station, officials said today.

CenterPoint Energy, Entergy and local governments joined to restore power to the station before the Lynchburg Reservoir, which is supplied by water pumped from the Trinity River, ran dry.

“Many Houstonians breathed a sigh of relief when we didn’t confront 100 mile per hour winds, flooding and the kind of damage that was inflicted on our fellow Americans in Lake Charles, Port Arthur and Beaumont,” Houston Mayor Bill White said. “But when you have a hurricane this big … there are some untold stories on the effects to our region.”

Flooding may not have been much of a risk for many Houstonians (though Tropical Storm Allison taught us that under the right conditions – and there was a real chance that those conditions could have occurred with Rita – places you don’t expect can flood), but this again shows that there are factors to consider beyond flooding. Any sufficiently big storm is going to be scary enough, and have enough unknown dangers, to tip the scales in favor of bugging out for many people. We need to account for this in the future.

On the other hand, evacuating has its risks, too.

At least 31 people died in Harris County as a result of circumstances surrounding Hurricane Rita, several of them from heat-related illnesses during the mass evacuation before the storm hit, the medical examiner’s office announced Tuesday.

More than half of those deaths — 17 of the 31 recorded so far — were of people evacuating to safer ground when they suffered some sort of medical distress, said Beverly Begay, chief investigator of the medical examiner’s office. None of the deaths occurred during the storm itself, she said.

The office completed its grim inventory Tuesday and announced the results after identifying all of the dead and notifying their families. The fatalities linked to Rita do not include the 23 Bellaire nursing-home residents who died when their bus caught fire Friday in Dallas County


The dead ranged in age from 14 months to 92 years. Though the deaths occurred over six days, about a third of the victims died Thursday when the evacuation crush was at its peak, clogging major Houston-area highways.

Nineteen of the 31 victims died or became ill while they were inside vehicles, and seven of the deaths were thought to be potentially heat-related, Begay said. Some had body temperatures ranging from 105 to 112 degrees, the report shows.

Now that I think about it, I’m surprised I haven’t seen more reports of highway fatalities during either the evacuation or the return. Driving 200+ miles, especially on crowded highways, is not exactly the safest thing you can do. More things to think about for next time.

The good news is that the latest tropical disturbance which could threaten the Gulf of Mexico appears to be disspating. The bad news is that there’s still two months’ worth of hurricane season to go, and we’re not out of the woods just yet.

Towing fees followup

Previously, I asked what might happen to cars which were abandoned on evacuation routes by drivers who ran out of gas; in particular, would they be stuck for sizable towing fees, as the friend of a correspondant said he was. I have since received an email from Melissa Noriega, who did some digging in response to that post. She tells me that at this time, only the City of Houston has addressed the concerns of towing fees for cars left abandoned by Rita evacuees who ran out of gas. The State of Texas has not asked any other municipalities to follow Houston’s lead, so if you’re unlucky enough to have been towed by someone other than a Houston SafeClear wrecker, you’re on your own. My best suggestion for getting a reimbursement or reduction in the towing and storage fee, based on what Melissa says, is to contact your State Rep’s office and ask for their help. You might also inquire with them as to whether this issue will be raised at the state level.

If you were towed in Houston, the number to call is 713-308-8580. Obviously, the sooner you take care of that, the better. My sincere thanks to Melissa for the followup. If anyone else knows of an evacuation-related towing, please let me know what happened.

UPDATE: Phone number for Houston towing issues corrected. Thanks to M in the comments for pointing it out.

Speaking of rumors

Last week, just as I was getting ready to bug out of Rita’s way, reader Charles M sent me this Wonkette link, which makes what sounded to me like a bizarre claim:

Wonkette readers are no Googling monkeys, but they do know their way around a high school yearbook. Two theories dominated the guessing game about the meaning of this headscratcher:

* A SMART SUGARLAND MOVE BY BEGALA, per the Washington Post: “Adults With Wisdom Teeth Often Develop Gum Disease.” (That one is an inside joke intelligible to precisely seven Note readers.) LINK

First: Paul Begala is from Sugar Land, he had his wisdom teeth removed while there, and thus is one smart guy, able to pat himself on the back this morning after a general round of back patting generated by the the rest of the morning’s news. This is not much of a joke, but it does make some kind of sense.

Second, Paul Begala is going to run for Congress against Tom Delay, who is also from Sugar Land. This is completely insane and has nothing to do with gum disease, but we like it that way.

Thank you for playing and good night.

I’m not a regular Wonkette reader, so I can’t honestly say if this is a joke or not, but I can say that I placed an inquiry with the Nick Lampson campaign, and they said to me that they hadn’t heard anything about Paul Begala and CD22 outside of my question. So, just in case anyone had heard of this and took it seriously, far as I can tell you can forget about it.

Grand jury probe wrapping up, indictment rumors buzzing

Earlier reports that Tom DeLay is off the hook for all the grand jury probes going on in Travis County may be premature.

The term of the Travis County grand jury ends Wednesday. Although the investigation into felony charges of illegal corporate spending during the 2002 election theoretically could continue through October, a last-minute burst of activity by prosecutors had defense lawyers speculating — in some cases fearing — the prospect of more indictments by Wednesday.

U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and Texas Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, answered prosecutors’ questions last month, but Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle recently called Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond for a second visit.

Prosecutors also interviewed state Reps. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, and Dianne Delisi, R-Temple, who served with DeLay on the board of the Texans for a Republican Majority.

Also, former Dallas lawmaker Bill Ceverha, the treasurer of that GOP committee, met for the first time with prosecutors.

In some instances, the people met with prosecutors because of the threat of being subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.

“Now, for the first time, there is a general apprehension for everyone,” said Austin lawyer Terry Scarborough, who represents Ceverha and Texans for a Republican Majority in civil litigation surrounding the case.

DeLay’s Washington lawyer, Ed Bethune, was dispatched to Austin last week to size up the situation.

DeLay, Craddick and their allies all added lawyers who once worked for Earle to their defense teams, but even those closest to the district attorney could not predict what will happen this week.

“I wouldn’t bet 50 cents on any outcome,” said one defense lawyer, who asked for anonymity so as to not draw attention to his client. “You get paranoid at the end.”


In recent days, defense lawyers trying to decipher Earle’s actions have speculated privately that there is a difference of opinion among prosecutors on who else should be indicted.

There has even been speculation that the grand jury might be pushing prosecutors to do more, not less.

We’ll know soon enough. In the meantime, Harvey Kronberg adds some details from the rumor mill.

adding conspiracy charges to the indictments of Jim Ellis and John Colyandro has inspired relentless speculation.

After all, conspiracy charges suggest a bigger network than just the two operatives. Plus, it is no secret that the Speaker statute strictly limiting activities related to a Texas Speaker’s race may have substantial free speech problems that could tie prosecutions up for years. On the other hand, criminal conspiracy may well take prosecutors to the same place but with fewer constitutional issues.

It may well be no more than the Austin-DC echo chamber, but major national news organizations are on alert and have contacted QR since first thing this morning, in case of an indictment of Majority Leader Tom Delay.

In addition, the mill seems convinced that there are as many as six additional indictments and that the recent parade of witnesses before the Grand Jury may be to lay groundwork for future perjury charges.

Get the popcorn ready, this is gonna be fun.

RIP, Don Adams

Don Adams, best known for his role as Agent Maxwell Smart on TV’s Get Smart, has died at the age of 82. Of all the silly 60s and 70s era sitcoms that I watched as a kid, I’d say Get Smart was both my favorite and the least embarrassing one to admit to liking today. It’s also one that I’d be willing to watch with Olivia some day, assuming that the TVLands and Nicks at Nite are still wallowing in the nostalgia of that era.

As always with celebrity obituaries, Mark Evanier is your best source for more information. See here and here for all you could want to know.

I just want to add, by the way, that any list of Sexiest Female TV Stars Of All-Time that does not include Barbara “Agent 99” Feldon is just plain wrong. That is all.

Rita and Katrina

So why did people run from Hurricane Rita?

Having seen the handiwork of Rita’s vicious cousin, Katrina, all of Houston’s coastal suburbs and a good percentage of everybody else in the area decided that discretion was the better part of valor. There was no talk of hurricane parties.

As the week wore on and Rita’s ranking escalated as fast as the price of crude — all the way to Category 5 in what seemed like the blink of an eye — so did the anxiety of people not easily moved.

Residents don’t flee The Woodlands, 100 miles from the coast. This time was different.

“Events make an impression to the extent they are recent, frequent or very intense,” said Michael Lindell, a professor at the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. “We know that storms the magnitude of Rita are not frequent. But there was one that was recent and very intense.”

As I said before, it all comes down to how risk-averse you are. You can give a rational and lucid explanation of the likely effects that a Cat-4 hurricane barreling up I-45 would have, but fear is a funny thing and so is relative risk. There’s a reason why there’s a well-documented fear of flying in an airplane but not of bacon double cheeseburgers, even though the latter is much more likely to contribute to your ultimate demise. Let this be a lesson to us all: Whatever after-action reviews of the evacuations take place, they’d all better account for the fact that more people than strictly necessary will get the hell out of town when the next Big One looms.

Speaking of which, there’s an editorial and a news piece on that subject today. I’m still thinking about how I think things could be done better – it’s easy enough to point to problems, but coming up with workable fixes, not so much.

In other hurricane news:

I haven’t worked my way through these stories yet, but the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has an investigative report on FEMA’s recent history of disaster mismanagement. Lots of grist there for your mills, so check it out. Thanks to Sergio for the tip.

Everybody’s probably already seen this debunking of the lurid tales of rapes and murders at the Superdome in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but if not, do read it. Bottom line: It was about 99% baloney.

After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA – Beron doesn’t remember his name – came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

“I’ve got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome,” Beron recalls the doctor saying.

The real total was six, Beron said.

Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.

File that one away, because sooner or later you’re going to have to correct someone who hasn’t heard the real story. And may I add, similar allegations were made in Houston as well. Time for a little followup there, too, since it’s likely to be about as true. Thanks to Julia for the NOLA link.

There are other propositions on the ballot, too

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Proposition 2, the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment, and the reasons why you should vote NO on it. There are eight other amendments on the ballot this year as well, and so far I’ve not seen a whole lot of discussion about any of them.

The main exceptions are Props 1 and 9. Here’s the ballot language and brief explanation from the Secretary of State:

Prop. 1 HJR 54 McClendon – Staples

Ballot Language
“The constitutional amendment creating the Texas rail relocation and improvement fund and authorizing grants of money and issuance of obligations for financing the relocation, rehabilitation, and expansion of rail facilities.”

Brief Explanation
HJR 54 would create a Texas rail relocation and improvement fund in the state treasury and would authorize grants of state revenue and issuance of public debt to relocate, rehabilitate, and expand privately and publicly owned passenger and freight rail facilities and to construct railroad underpasses and overpasses.

Prop. 9 HJR 79 Krusee – Staples

Ballot Language
“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for a six-year term for a board member of a regional mobility authority.”

Brief Explanation
HJR 79 would authorize the Legislature to provide staggered six year terms of office for board members serving on regional mobility authorities, with no more than one-third of the board positions being appointed every two years.

Not a whole lot to go on, is there? Sal Costello strongly opposes each. He’s also weighed in on discussion threads for each proposal at the CTC Forums. I’d really like to see an argument in favor of these proposals before I make up my mind on them. If anyone would like to oblige, or to add to Sal’s comments, please do so.

Most of the rest are so vague that without doing a load of research I can’t tell what kind of an effect they might have. For example, Proposition 5:

Prop. 5 SJR 21 Averitt – Flynn

Ballot Language
“The constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to define rates of interest for commercial loans.”

Brief Explanation
SJR 21 would authorize the Legislature to exempt commercial loans from state usury laws that set maximum interest rates. “Commercial loans” are loans made primarily for business, commercial, investment, agricultural, or similar purposes and not primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.

I confess, I don’t know why the Lege doesn’t already have this power. I also don’t know why they would want to do this, and who might be affected by it. Yes, I know that I can dig up all the information that I need, but let’s be honest. How many people, when faced with this proposition in November, are going to have any clue about it? What, exactly, is the point of putting it to a popular vote, especially given the tiny statewide turnout that we’ll have in this off-year election?

Prop 7 (“The constitutional amendment authorizing line-of-credit advances under a reverse mortgage.”) had Scott Hochberg as its House sponsor, so I feel pretty good about supporting it. Beyond that, who knows? And of course, it wouldn’t be an AmendmentFest if we weren’t contemplating the addition of something like Prop 8 to our overbloated State Constitution:

Prop. 8 SJR 40 Eltife – Hughes

Ballot Language
“The constitutional amendment providing for the clearing of land titles by relinquishing and releasing any state claim to sovereign ownership or title to interest in certain land in Upshur County and in Smith County.”

Brief Explanation
SJR 40 would clear individual land titles by relinquishing and releasing all claims of state ownership interests, including mineral interests, in two local areas, namely, a roughly 4,600 acre area located roughly 14 miles southeast of Gilmer, Texas, and a separate 900 acre area located north of Tyler, Texas.

If anyone can think of a good reason why this sort of thing rises to the level of constitutional amendment-ness, please do enlighten me.

Beyond Brownie

Shorter Houston Chronicle front-page story: FEMA Screws Up Again.

Frustration and anger mounted in Southeast Texas on Monday over the response to Hurricane Rita by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With homes smashed, trees and power lines downed and a looming shortage of food and water, one official even threatened to take federal relief supplies by force, if necessary.

“If you have enough policemen to take it from them, take it,” Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith said Monday during a meeting of city and county officials.


Southeast Texas officials charged that the federal agency’s response to Rita was inadequate.

“We are very short on food and water, and the FEMA trucks that were supposed to be here just aren’t here,” Griffith said.


Griffith was angry over an incident in which a FEMA truck was supposed to deliver fuel to a police facility but took the gasoline to a fire station. When the crew learned its error, it left, the county judge said, without providing the fuel to anyone.

If police had been available, Griffith said, they should have just taken the fuel.

Griffith also was outraged over FEMA portable generators that, he said, were sitting in a park and not being distributed.

“We can’t help it if politicians come here and just want to be seen by the media,” Griffith said.

“We hit the ground running with our own commodities and our own facilities, but we have no support.”

Beaumont officials also cited a shortage of water pumps and generators. They complained that federal relief teams had failed to show up and that fuel deliveries had not been made as promised.

And there’s more, from Port Arthur and Nederland. I see via TalkLeft that Michael “Brownie” Brown has been rehired by [FEMA] as a consultant to evaluate its response following Hurricane Katrina. Well, here’s one more thing for him to testify about today.

Home again

We’re home. It was highway speed all the way, making for a much more pleasant journey. Thanks very much once again for all the kind words and good thoughts. I plan to return to more normal blogging in the morning. If you haven’t made the trek home yet, may you have a safe trip. See y’all in the morning.

Against Prop 2

If you haven’t read this Chron editorial arguing against Proposition 2, a/k/a the Double Secret Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment, please do so now. One point to highlight:

Contrary to the giddy pictures in the press, same-sex marriage is not primarily about a ritual. Marriage — and to a lesser extent civil union — confers precious protections for two adults and the children they raise as a family. With one marriage vow, a heterosexual American gains more than 1,000 federal protections. The list makes numbing reading, but each item clarifies couples’ rights and responsibilities.

Marriage legally requires a spouse to arrange a partner’s funeral. It requires a surviving spouse to raise the couple’s children. Same-sex couples who have been together for decades and are raising children are denied both the legal duties and protections that married couples take for granted. Same-sex couples can pay for contracts ensuring rights such as child custody, hospital visitation and power of attorney, but blood relatives can and do successfully contest such agreements.


Impeding protections for relationships that are even “identical or similar to marriage” is a crude assault on an existing truth. Throughout the state, same-sex couples are thriving, raising children, volunteering in the community and supporting each other financially. Withholding protections for these family units cruelly jeopardizes their ability to take care of themselves and their children.

As someone said to me recently, while gay couples can and do hire lawyers to write all these contracts for them to protect rights that married couples get automatically, it costs them a boatload of money to do so. Those that can’t afford that expense have to take the chance that should one of these issues ever arise, they won’t be shut out by their partners’ families. That’s a battle for another day, but as I wrote before, that debate will never happen if this law gets passed. If Prop 2 becomes a part of our state’s Constitution, even the unfairly expensive option for protecting one’s rights will be mooted.

This amendment is bad on many levels. It deserves to die. Vote No on Proposition 2 in November.

(Thanks to Greg for the link.)

What happens to the stranded cars?

The following came to me in email. I have not heard of anything similar to this, and I haven’t had a chance to do any news searching to see if there are other reports. I’m printing this to see if anyone reading this has any information.

Someone who came into my office said he missed his friday visit because he had to pick up his stranded brother who ran out of gas south of Dallas. Well now, his brother’s car was towed, and he can’t afford to get it. $550. How many others who were forced out and had to leave vehicles are going to be screwed by this? Is this gouging or at least taking advantage of people. State approved?

As I say, this is the first I’ve heard of anything like this. Certainly, under normal circunstances, cars which are abandoned on interstate highways will eventually be towed, and the cost to get them back will be several hundred dollars. I’m sure there were and still are quite a few cars along I-10 and I-45 which were left behind after running out of gas during the evacuation. How should they be treated? What would be a reasonable fee for the agencies that did the towing? Those cars do represent a highway hazard, after all. What do you think?

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, this Chron story has an answer:

Evacuees forced to leave cars along freeways because they broke down or ran out of gas may face another nightmare — paying expensive tow and storage fees to get them back.

It all depends on location. If the car was left on a highway within Houston, the city will pay the bill.

Anywhere else, you’re on your own.

Frank Michel, the city’s communication director, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the city $124 for each car towed under its Safe Clear mandatory tow program.

“The tow operators have agreed to do away with the rest of the fees,” Michel said.


More than 600 vehicles were towed from freeways. Most were taken to private storage lots. Those towed since Saturday morning were taken to Metro’s Park & Ride, 7821 N. Shepherd, where no fee will be assessed.

More than 150 vehicles were at the Park & Ride on Sunday afternoon. To find out where your car is, call 713-884-3131.

“If jurisdictions are allowing us to bring vehicles back, we are,” Houston police Capt. Lori Bender said, adding that the city has retrieved residents’ cars from Montgomery County and Jersey City.

If people have paid to get their car out of storage, they can ask for a refund, Bender said. The city will then reimburse the storage lots with FEMA money.

The city has not gotten complaints about price gouging, Bender said.

“We aren’t aware of any,” she said. “It’s too soon to know. A lot of people haven’t picked up their cars yet — they are still worried about getting their lights back on.”

So there you go. Check Melissa’s comment below for some suggestions if your experience differs from this.

Hoping to head home today

Our goal is to head back to Houston today, most likely leaving Dallas in the evening, a bit after the normal rush hour. Scanning the Road Home Blog, it seems like I-45 wasn’t too awful yesterday, but we ought to be prepared to scoot over to US75 for part of the trip. I don’t think gas will be a problem, but I expect we’ll have the reserve can filled up just in case anyway.

This article about evacuation planning and the need for contraflow lanes is very well done and needs a response from state and local officials. I’m still willing to go easy on this, but we’d better make sure we learn well from this experience. Tom and Tory are giving the matter some thought, and I will return to it after I come back home.

It could happen to Dallas

Did you know that Dallas has a system of levees that help keep it dry, and that those levees could overflow and cause major flooding in the event of a big storm? Like, say, Hurricane Rita, had it not gone as far east as it did?

Downtown Dallas relies on a much-compromised 30-mile levee system to keep it dry from the Trinity River. Because of extensive development in the counties north and west of the city, the levees, completed in 1958, can no longer handle the severe storm runoff they were designed to contain.

Dallas is therefore now vulnerable to a far less serious storm breaching the levees and flooding business and residential areas that equal about 20 percent of the city’s taxable property value.

With only a day or so of warning, city officials would need to coordinate the swift evacuation of an estimated 100,000 people who live or work in flood-prone areas on either side of the Trinity.

The flooding would also complicate the city’s standard emergency plan, since key shelters such as Reunion Arena and the Convention Center, as well as the city’s emergency command post beneath City Hall, would all be flooded.

Scary stuff. Read the whole thing.

Contraflow controversy

There will be many questions asked over the next few weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. One that’s being asked now is whether the inbound highway lanes could have been opened in a more timely manner that they were on Thursday.

The so-called contra-flow lane change, part of the state emergency plans, was implemented only Thursday morning, drawing criticism from frustrated motorists who ended up spending more than 24 hours on a drive that normally takes less than five hours.

Gov. Rick Perry said decisions were complicated by Rita’s changing course over the past several days.

Early projections, which had it hitting between Houston and Corpus Christi, moved gradually north.

At one point, forecasters fingered the Houston area and its 4 million residents.

“Once Houston in particular was in the bull’s-eye, if you will, then a decision had to be made, which Mayor [Bill] White and [Harris County] Judge [Robert] Eckels did appropriately and timely,” Mr. Perry said.

“Being able to switch over that southbound lane of I-45 and I-10, it doesn’t happen at the drop of a hat,” he said.

Transportation Department officials have said they did not strongly consider converting highways to one-way traffic before this week.

That step had long been considered a last resort.

But the size of the evacuation led officials to reconsider. By midweek, highways leading north and west from Houston recorded traffic increases up to 339 percent.

“It became absolutely apparent that more had to be done,” said Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Closing highways to inbound traffic poses massive logistical challenges.

The transportation department estimates that about 130 entrance and exit ramps were barricaded along Interstates 45 and 10 and U.S. Highways 69 and 96.

The closures then had to be staffed with police or other officials to prevent motorists from driving around barricades and causing head-on collisions.

Brian Wolshon, a professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University, said Texas officials “will probably see there were things they could have done better.”

But he added: “It’s not economically or environmentally feasible to build enough roads to evacuate a city the size of Houston in a short time and with no congestion.

“It’s just not going to happen.”

Personally, I’m inclined to cut the decisionmakers some slack on this. I think the sheer number of people who evacuated was more than they expected, and I think once they realized this they acted as quickly as they reasonably could. This was a huge job. TxDOT and local police forces blocked off neaerly 200 miles of I-45 in a matter of hours. I’m just not willing to say they should have done it sooner than they did.

I mean, most people went to work in Houston on Wednesday. Schools were open. I-45 South and I-10 East were being used as they normally are. There was a risk of cutting people off from their homes before they had a chance to get out. You could have tried doing all this at night, I guess, but at what risk to the people who were doing the actual work clearing the roads and blocking the entrance ramps? I don’t buy it.

There’s one more thing to keep in mind here, and that’s even with the contraflow lanes, the traffic demand overwhelmed everything. I-45 didn’t start to move for us until we were north of Conroe, and that was only because people started to pull off the road. North of FM1488 (the original starting point for the I-45 contraflow) there’s only two lanes on each side. It’s that narrowing from six to four, and earlier from eight or nine to six, which will always cause bottlenecks. (And that doesn’t take into account other choke points, such as the junction at US59, which is also two lanes on each side.) Unless you’re willing to start evacuating several days sooner, and to enforce a south-to-north priority pattern (think of a church exiting one pew at a time, from front to back), you’re always going to have more cars than the roads can handle.

That doesn’t mean that we have to accept what happened as inevitable or the best we can do. I agree with Rick Casey that a full after-action review is called for, and I agree with Stace that we could have done a lot better ensuring there was enough gasoline for the evacuees. On this point, though, I’m okay with the decisions that were made.

The Road Home Blog

Now that Rita has proven to be a non-menace to Houston, evacuees from the area are starting to return home despite pleas to stay put a little longer.

Houston-bound traffic was at a standstill by noon on I-10 just outside of Columbus as cars from San Antonio met up with people driving in from Austin. The snarl prompted many to pull off the highway, examine maps and consider alternate routes.

Billy Yarborough, who evacuated his Matagorda County home before the storm, opted to drive along a smaller highway to avoid sitting on I-10.

“We did this on the way out, and I am not going to do it again,” Yarborough said. “I don’t mind going a few more miles, if I can keep moving.”

Texas and Houston officials are scrambling to avoid a repeat of the grueling evacuation earlier this week, and they say leaving now is a bad idea. Texas Gov. Rick Perry called today for evacuees to stay put while authorities come up with a plan to stagger their return.

Because of the need to bring rescue crews and supplies into the region, outbound lanes of the highways will not be opened to returning traffic. State officials have not decided whether the government would be willing to refuel incoming cars as they did for those stranded on their way out of town, saying that scenario is too hypothetical. Fuel suppliers are scrambling to find ways to get much-needed gasoline into the area.

“Stay patient. Stay put,” Perry said this morning. “I can’t say in strong enough terms to those who evacuated the coastal region they should not begin to return for the time being. We are not through assessing the damage. We cannot assure you at this time that your community is safe to return to.”


Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels encouraged people to keep their ears open for the all-clear signal but acknowledged the government’s efforts will be largely advisory.

“Coordinating the acts of citizens — let’s be serious,” he said. “There aren’t going to be mandated days on when to come back.”

“If they are in a safe place and have power, they shouldn’t be making plans right now,” White said.

Nonetheless, a steady stream of traffic was returning on I-45 South this morning, as evacuees headed back to the Clear Lake area, League City, Dickinson and other communities in north Galveston County that were under a mandatory evacuation.

All area schools are closed until Wednesday, so for most people there’s no real rush. Our current plans are to return on Monday night, but we’ll be keeping a close eye on traffic conditions before we leave. One 17-hour drive with a baby and a dog is enough for my lifetime.

Along those lines, the Chron now has a Road Home Blog, which looks to have some useful info about current road conditions. I’ll want to break out the maps and check out US75, as this post suggests it might be a better alternative.

Here in the Dallas area, it’s windy, much cooler than yesterday, and overcast. No rain as yet, though. I refilled the car at a nearby Exxon station and chatted with a fellow who’d run with his family from Clear Lake. They left just after midnight on Thursday and needed 26 hours to get here. I sure hope their trip back is better than that.

UPDATE: Here’s the state’s plan for evacuees’ returns.

Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw today released the following state plan for evacuees returning to the greater Houston area:

· SUNDAY: Those living west of Interstate 45 and north of Interstate 10, including Tomball, The Woodlands, Waller, Hockley, Katy and Brookshire.

· MONDAY: West of State Highway 35 and south of I-10, including Richmond, Stafford, Rosenberg, Sugar Land, Pearland and those living inside Loop 610.

· TUESDAY: East of I-45 and north of I-10, including Liberty and Chambers counties.

Although there are no enforcement powers, McCraw urged evacuees to follow these guidelines to minimize traffic congestion.

“Returning is not only an inconvenience, it’s also becoming a public safety crisis. because even if they do get home, there may not be electricity, food in the stores and medical services.”

Looks like we picked the right day to return. We’ll see how it goes and decide from there.

Davis-Bacon update

Since we’ll be soon talking about rebuilding efforts again, I thought I’d post an update on the attempt by President Bush to allow federally-funded contractors to pay wages beneath the prevailing rate. The number of Democrats who have not signed on as sponsors of HR3763, the anti-Gulf Coast Wage Cut Act (as Josh Marshall calls it), is down to thirteen. Only one of the holdouts is a Texan. Care to guess who? If you said Henry Cuellar, you’re right. Richard Raymond, Ciro Rodriguez, this is your cue. Get those mailers ready for the primary. Thanks to The Jeffersonian for the link.

So far, so good

So far, all reports are that Houston has evaded major damage. I’ve spoken to my in-laws, my next-door neighbor, and my friend Andrea, who lives about a mile away from us. All are fine, all have power, and our neighbor reports that while there are some downed branches, our house has no broken windows. I’m very much relieved.

Every Houston-area blogger I’ve checked in on seems to be fine as well. The one I was most worried about was Jack, and he reports that there’s no major problems in his part of Seabrook. All of the Chron’s Stormwatchers look okay, too.

Good news for Houston is still not so good news for Beaumont, Port Arthur, and much of Louisiana. Rita may very well stall out somewhere over Texas and/or Louisiana and dump a hufge quantity of rain there. There will still need to be a big relief effort. And as Greg reminds us, the Red Cross still very much needs our help with that.

As things stand now, we’ll probably return Monday night, though we’ll have to see what road conditions are like, since we’ll surely be far from alone. For now, all is well. I hope and pray that it stays that way for everyone who is still threatened by Rita.

So did we overreact?

There’s a debate going on at SciGuy over whether or not the dangers of Hurricane Rita were overhyped (by the media and/or local politicians), and if that contributed to the extreme freeway gridlock yesterday. At least one local official is complaining that people who shouldn’t have evacuated were preventing those who should from doing so:

Brazoria County Judge John Willy complained that Houston and Harris County jumped the gun, encouraging evacuation before people on the coast could get past the big city.

“Everybody did a fabulous job down here until Houston-Harris County forgot that there was a plan, and they clogged up the freeways and byways where there’s still traffic sitting and waiting,” Mr. Willy said.

But both [Houston Mayor Bill] White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said late Thursday that they never called for a complete evacuation of Houston or Harris County.

“We’re asking folks to use common sense,” Mr. Eckels said. “If you’re not in a storm surge area, watch events. There’s no point if you’re not in a flood zone to jump up and get out in traffic.”

Our house is not in a flood zone. We came through Allison high and dry. You could say we shouldn’t have left. But – and forgive me if I sound a little defensive – we had our reasons.

First, hype or no, Rita’s statistics spoke for themselves. It was the third most intense storm ever at one point. It’s 500 miles in diameter, with hurricane-force winds reaching for 100 miles, so even a non-direct hit to Houston will bring lots of wind and fury. It still might stall over Houston and dump huge amounts of rain over a 3- to 5-day period, which is essentially what Allison did. And still nobody’s sure where it will go and what it will do. This is one badass storm no matter how you look at it.

Second, floods aren’t the only thing to worry about. Wind damage is likely to be heavy. There are four big trees within falling distance of my house, two of which are in questionable health. Even if they all stay standing, large branches may tear off and do who knows what. We did not have the wherewithal to cover up our windows, so breakage is possible. Were it just us, Tiffany and I may well have chosen to stick it out. With Olivia in the mix, we were not willing to risk it.

And then there’s the power outages that accompany big storms. CenterPoint was talking about outages lasting ten days. Alicia knocked out power for two weeks in 1983. Olivia has an ear infection right now, and it’s being treated by an antibiotic that needs refrigeration. It’s a small thing, but it’s there.

Bottom line, we were too risk-averse to ride this thing out along with Olivia. By ourselves, we might’ve done it. Maybe next time we will. I can’t see how anyone could look at this sucker and not contemplate getting the hell out of its way. To those who chose to stand their ground, including my in-laws, our next-door neighbor, and various friends, I salute you and I sincerely hope you’ll be able to laugh at our wussiness when we return. I’ll be happy to take it.

One last thing: It’s clear that Thursday was the worst possible day to leave. I’ve seen reports from people who left on Wednesday and today that make it clear those days were better options, though they still took a long time. That’s a lesson learned for the future: be prepared to bug out as soon as possible after you decide it’s necessary. We could’ve left on Wednesday night if we’d pushed it. In retrospect, we should have. However long it took us to get here and whatever eventually happens in Houston, though, I’ve no regrets that we did.

The eighteen-hour trip

And now, the full story…

Yesterday, I learned of a new way to measure gasoline consumption. We left the house at 10:30 AM with a full tank. Six hours of mostly idling while the AC ran later, we were in Spring, 20 miles away. The gas gauge was pointing to the 3/4 mark. Things did not look good for making it to Dallas.

Thankfully, we had a gas can with 5 extra gallons in it, courtesy of Tiffany’s dad. While we paused for awhile in Spring at the home of Tiffany’s aunt and uncle – we figured we’d wait until dark, so we could mostly go with windows down – we emptied that reserve can into the tank. That just topped it up, meaning we’d used nearly a gallon an hour. At highway speed, that’d make for great mileage. Not in this case.

We got lucky once more when we saw on the news that the contraflow lanes had reached as far south in Spring. A little reconnaissance showed that the southbound entrance at Cypresswood, where we were, was just opening to northbound traffic. We hastily packed up and headed back out, just before 6 PM.

For the first 12 miles or so, we flew along at normal speed. We knew it wouldn’t last, though, and by the time we were in The Woodlands, both sides of the freeway were crawling along. It was a teeny bit faster than before, but that’s like saying that molasses pours out faster than ketchup. At 9:30 PM, when a cranky and overheated Olivia finally fell asleep (we had stuck to our plan of limiting AC usage, and could see the difference in the tank indicator), we’d made it to the north side of Conroe, about 30 miles away from Spring.

And then…it was all clear. We actually hit 40 MPH and more. Some people had exited in Conroe, which was a shelter location. Others were pulling off to the shoulders and median. How many had run out of gas, and how many were taking a break, I couldn’t say. We saw many more people do this all the way to Dallas. As midnight came and went, I saw more people sleeping, in pickup truck beds and on the grass. One such grouping of cars with sleepers was just south of I-20; by this time, it was close to 3 AM.

We drove at highway speed to Hunstville, where both sides of the freeway bottled up again; this continued until we were north of the state pen. That was the pattern in almost every town with an exit – some cars got off, others pulled over. Same thing at rest stops.

Beyond that, we were delayed by construction zones south of Corsicana (which I swear was in the same state the last time I drove to Dallas in 2001) and around Ennis, where the southbound lanes returned to their normal state; this is about 200 miles north of where they began. Say what you want about TxDOT (and I surely do), I think this was a hell of a feat to accomplish in one day. We also paused to stretch our legs and walk the dog in Corsicana, at an exit that was surprisingly uncrowded despite the marquee announcement two exits earlier that there was gas available there. Tiffany took over driving at that point – I’d been doing that since we began, some 15 hours before.

Murphy, where we’re staying, is to the north and east of Dallas. We passed through Dallas proper on US75, then into Richardson before getting to our destination. We arrived a little after 3:30. Olivia woke up and was full of energy while we unpacked. I sat up with her for awhile to let her wind down (this also gave me the chance to post and email about our journey’s end), then we all fell asleep by 5.

So here we are, for what I hope is a relatively short stay. I’m glad to see that Rita is weakening and that current projections are a bit more favorable for Houston. I’d like nothing more than for all this to have been unnecessary. I’ll be more than happy to have been proven a fraidycat. (More on that subject in the next post.)

Thank you to everyone

I want to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone for the kind words and offers of hospitality. I’m truly humbled by the outpouring of generosity so many of you have shown. Thank you all very, very much.

I am cautiously becoming a bit more optimistic about how this storm will turn out, based on stuff like this. Nothing will make me happier right now than for Rita to be far less than originally advertised. To everyone who is in Houston or elsewhere in its path, please stay safe.

(I was almost done with a long writeup of our eighteen-hour oddysey from yesterday when a nap-resisting Olivia struck a well-aimed blow at the Escape key and wiped it all out. Sigh. Maybe later.)

We made it

We have arrived in Murphy. Our earlier estimate of 1 AM was optimistic by about three hours. Olivia’s awake, Harry’s a little freaked, and we’re all a bit frazzled, but we’re here and we’re safe. Thank you all very very much for the well-wishes and good thoughts. Please keep thinking them for everyone who’s still in Rita’s path. I’ll be back with the full story of The Drive That Wouldn’t End when I’m coherent.