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January, 2006:

Sixty-five percent of nothing is still nothing

Eye on Williamson beat me to the analysis of this article on the pointless sixtyfive percent rule, but there are a couple of things I’d like to add.

Standard & Poor’s analyzed data in Texas and eight other states considering instituting a 65 percent classroom spending requirement. It found no significant positive correlation between the percentage of funds that districts spend on instruction and the percentage of students who score proficient or higher on state reading and math tests.

“Interestingly, some of the highest-performing districts spend less than 65 percent, and some of the lowest-performing districts spend more than 65 percent. Student performance does not noticeably or consistently increase at 65 percent, or any other percentage spent on instruction,” concluded the report.

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley is trying to decide how to define “classroom spending” for Perry’s rule. Districts will start phasing in the requirement during the 2006-07 school year.

Superintendents opposed to the 65 percent rule have focused on the Standard & Poor’s report as another argument against the initiative.

“There’s a danger inherent in adopting rules that sound good but have no statistical basis or significance,” said David Anthony, superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which spends more than 65 percent on classroom instruction.

Neeley’s former school district, Galena Park, is an example of one that spent less than 65 percent in 2003 — the latest figures available from the Texas Education Agency — but was top-rated at the time.

“The 65 percent rule is an arbitrary figure. That percentage has no meaning on how effective a school district is,” said Mark Henry, current superintendent of Galena Park. “Some school districts have to spend more on social services and security and those items might not be figured into the 65 percent rule.”

“Arbitrary” is exactly right. What’s going to happen here is that any school that’s in danger of not meeting this bogus requirement is going to spend a lot of time and effort getting certain budget items designated as “classroom expenses” so that they can make it fit. Last I looked, accounting tricks didn’t have any effect on teaching and learning. And honestly, would anyone expect a big difference between a school that spends 64.8% on “classroom expenses” and a school that spends 65.2% on them?

What might possibly be useful is to compare the outliers, the schools that are more than two standard deviations away from whatever the mean value is, and see if there’s a statistically significant difference between their levels of performance on whatever standard you care to measure against. Maybe if there’s a gap between the 60 percenters and the 70 percenters, or the 55s and 75s, there’s an angle worth pursuing. I say “maybe” because there may be a legitimate reason why one school spends that much less on classroom instruction than another, such as a higher percentage of special-needs kids. It would all depend on how you define “classroom expenses”, of course. It’s my guess that even at the extremes, other factors such as the actual dollars spent per student and the students’ overall socioeconomic markers would have a much greater correlation to good test scores. But who knows? Show me I’m wrong and that there is something to this and I’ll change my mind. What are the odds Governor Perry will ever say that?

And secondly, a reminder of where this is all coming from:

The idea of spending 65 percent in the classroom has been embraced by the business community and is gaining steam nationwide. It is being pushed by Patrick Byrne, the president of online retailer Inc. of Salt Lake City.

Byrne’s money helped launch First Class Education, a nonprofit group that is spending millions of dollars to promote the issue through legislation and voter initiatives.

Tim Mooney, a spokesman for the group, said 65 percent spending mandates could be on the ballot in as many as 10 states this year.

“We anticipate this will be a multi-million dollar campaign nationally and perhaps a multi-million campaign in most of these states,” said Mooney.

He would not disclose any other donors of the group. Byrne also supports school vouchers, but Mooney said classroom spending is First Class Education’s only issue.

Business groups often support educational reforms as a way to avoid higher taxes to pay for schools.

It always comes down to whining about taxes, doesn’t it? Some yahoo in Utah gets a bright idea to create this arbitrary standard, and governors fall over themselves to adopt it. Hey, Patrick Byrne, four out of five school superintendants in Texas think you should spend 25% of your budget on research and development. What would you say if they got the governor of Utah to impose such a rule on you? Maybe someone should look into getting a shareholders referendum going on this.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, initiated the idea in Texas last spring when he added it to an education reform bill. The legislation failed.

Wentworth said San Antonio businessman Red McCombs, former owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team, suggested the requirement.

“It looked like a good idea from a policy standpoint,” said Wentworth. “I hear complaints from people about these Taj Mahal campuses and football stadiums. At the same time, superintendents say they don’t have enough money to pay teachers more.”

So who’s making those decisions to overspend on campuses and stadia, and why aren’t they being taken to task for it? Aren’t school board members accountable to the voters? Don’t school bonds have to be approved by the voters? Why is an arbitrary number handed down from on high the best way of dealing with that?

Sigh. More special sessions than you can count, and this is the only thing we have to show for them. Says a lot about our priorities.

RIP, Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, has died at the age of 78.

“We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country,” the King family said in a statement. The family said she died during the night. The widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. suffered a serious stroke and heart attack in 2005.

“It’s a bleak morning for me and for many people and yet it’s a great morning because we have a chance to look at her and see what she did and who she was,” poet Maya Angelou said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“It’s bleak because I can’t — many of us can’t hear her sweet voice but it’s great because she did live, and she was ours. I mean African-Americans and white Americans and Asians, Spanish-speaking — she belonged to us and that’s a great thing.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, the civil rights activist who is close to the King family, broke the news on NBC’s “Today” show: “I understand that she was asleep last night and her daughter (Bernice King) went in to wake her up and she was not able to and so she quietly slipped away. Her spirit will remain with us just as her husband’s has.”

Rest in peace, Coretta Scott King.

Eat ’em up, Republicans

Nothing like a hearty diet of eating your own, as the Quorum Report describes.

For months now, rumors have swirled around the capital that operatives of Dr. James Leininger were recruiting primary opponents for House voucher opponents, specifically Carter Casteel, Charlie Geren, Delwin Jones, Roy Blake and Tommy Merritt.

However, on January 10th of this year, Dr. Leininger appeared on a panel about school vouchers at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event in Austin.

When quizzed by reporters afterwards, Dr. Leininger seemed to distance himself from efforts to unseat House Republicans. He told Associated Press, “For 15 years I’ve tried to support people who support school choice and I guess that means opposing people, in a sense, that are against school choice. I’ll focus more on open seats, it’s hard to beat incumbents, is a lot more productive to focus on open seats and hopefully protect incumbents that believe the way you believe, and oppose people that don’t believe what you believe”

Nevertheless, a newly formed General Purpose PAC appears to be the vehicle for organizing the challenge and promoting pro-voucher Republican candidates.

The Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee (TRLCC) was formed on October 18th. It’s report identifies only two contributors, Dr. James Leininger for $50,000 and John Norwood of Midland for $100.

Leininger’s PAC made only three expenditures during the reporting period. The largest was to consulting firm Anthem Media for $20,000. Anthem Media is owned by Republican consultant Jeff Norwood from Midland who may or may not be related to the Norwood in the report.

Although Anthem Media has not yet appeared on Contribution and Expenditure Reports for the five challengers, we have verified that the company is working with media buying firm Crossroads Media in the Nathan Macias race against Carter Casteel. Crossroads has also surfaced doing the media buys for Mark Williams who is running against Tommy Merritt.. There may be more. The media buys took place after January 1, so they will presumably appear on the next report.

Lying may be a sin, but the Scriptures are apparently murky on the subject of non-denial denials. If you’re in one of these districts and spot any not-clearly-sourced attack ads or mailers against your Rep, please let me know about it.

On a more positive note, Katy Hubener got the Texas State Teachers Association endorsement. Here’s the press release:

The Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) today announced its endorsement of a strong advocate of public education and public school employees, Katy Hubener, in the February special election for the District 106 seat vacated by the resignation of Ray Allen.

“I appreciate the support of Texas teachers in this special election,” Hubener said. “They work hard and expect their elected representatives to work hard, too. I will.”

Hubener, who has an undergraduate degree in education from Texas Tech University and is a certified Texas classroom teacher, said the special election should focus on one issue: who will represent the mainstream values of the community in this spring’s special legislative session on public school finance.

“It’s critical that we stabilize the current tax system so that we can afford to pay teachers what they’re worth,” Hubener said. “I know firsthand that no profession is more important to our future.”

TSTA President Donna Haschke urged voters who value public schools and their children’s education to turn out for Hubener in the February 28, special election.

“Katy will continue to be a strong voice for improving the salary and benefits of active and retired public school employees,” Haschke said.

“We need someone who will fight to stop those who want to take our tax dollars away from public schools to pay for the private education of a privileged few to attend private schools,” Haschke said. “Katy will work to provide our public schools the funding they need to give all our children an opportunity to succeed.”

It’s two weeks till the HD48 runoff, four weeks till the HD106 special election, and five weeks till Primary day. February will be an especially busy month this year.

Koufax awards for 2005

I’ve been remiss in noting that the nominations for the 2005 Koufax Awards are rolling out over at Wampum. This year, they’re starting with the comments closed, to give everyone time to check out as many of the nominees as possible before casting ballots. One of the joys of the Koufaxes is discovering blogs that you didn’t know about, so take advantage of the opportunity. You’ll be sure to find a new favorite or two.

Anyway, currently up for your consideration are nominees for Best New Blog, Most Deserving of Wider Recognition, and Best Local and State Blogs. You may note that I’m among the nominees in that last batch. If you’re inclined to cast a vote for me when balloting opens, that would be way cool. And if anything “happens” to me between now and then, it’s Jack‘s fault.

Finally, while you’re over at Wampum perusing these fine blogs, do consider giving them a little donation to cover their bandwidth costs, which ran into four figures last year. And click on the Barbara Radnofsky ad, too. I’ll post an update when voting begins.

UPDATE: Here’s the Best Post list. You’ll definitely need some time to read through them. And who knew Lydia Cornell was a blogger?

Raising taxes on college students

Rep. Chet Edwards has some bad news for college students and their parents: A massive cut in student financial aid is buried in a reconciliation bill that could be voted on in the House as soon as Wednesday. Take a look at what’s coming, and call your Congress member if you think this is as bad an idea as it sounds.

How not to settle the Bagwell situation

I have to agree with Tom – this column by Richard Justice about how Drayton McLane and Jeff Bagwell should settle their differences is just plain ignorant. I mean, among other things, a little thing called the Collective Bargaining Agreement would prevent Bags from agreeing to give up money that’s contractually owed to him. You Red Sox fans, you remember why the Manny-for-A-Rod trade fell through? That was the CBA in action. Seems to me that a professional sportswriter ought to have at least a passing familiarity with this sort of thing.

What’s not surprising is Justice’s attitude that Bagwell needs to give some money back. There’s a distressing tendency among sportswriters to believe that professional athletes are somehow undeserving of the money they’re paid. The runup to the CBA agreement of 2002, in which a strike looked likely for much of it, featured some particularly egregious examples of this kind of thinking. You want to make the argument that society would be better if athletes earned less while teachers, nurses, social workers, or whoever earned more, that’s fine. But the next time I see a sportswriter cop that same attitude about a team owner, it’ll be the first.

The crazy thing is, Justice isn’t necessarily out in left field here. I’m not a CBA expert, but perhaps Bagwell could agree to give back some money this year in return for more in the future. Say, in return for giving up $10 million this year, which ought to help the Stros with any remaining payroll quandaries (*cough* *cough* Roger Clemens *cough* *cough*), Bagwell could agree to get paid $7 million in 2008 and 2009. Or something similar, as long as Bagwell gets future value for present. Maybe that would be appealing to both sides and maybe not, but at least it’s not a clearcut violation of the CBA. Too bad Justice couldn’t get past his preconceived notions and see that for himself.

Kenny Boy on trial: And so it begins

Jury selection for the trials of Kenny Boy Lay and Jeff Skilling is underway, and if Judge Sim Lake has his way, it’ll be all over today as well. Here‘s some background on the process.

The Chron is gearing up its blog machinery for the event. There’s an Enron Trial Watch blog, which is mostly being written by reporter Mary Flood and which seems to be staging ground for some stuff that will wind up in news stories. There’s a lawyer-written group blog called Enron Legal Commentary that appears to be serving the Tim McCarver role to the Trial Watch’s Joe Buck. And of course Loren Steffy is there, too.

I have no idea how this trial will resolve itself. After the prosecution’s fumble in the Enron Broadband case, I’d have to make the defense a slight favorite, their whines about biased jurors notwithstanding. (They can renew their change-of-venue motion after jury selection is complete, as my dad the former judge reminded me this weekend.) One thing I do feel confident about is that no matter what does happen, Kenny Boy will not reclaim his reputation. How could he? Even if the defense proves that everything he did was legal, in the end his company wound up in a ditch, and it happened on his watch. At the very least, no one is ever going to think of him as a dynamic CEO any more. And if he wants to be thought of as a great philanthropist/humanitarian again, I say actions will speak louder than words. Let him donate a big chunk of whatever wealth he’s got left to charity, and find himself a project that he can dedicate himself and his time to, like Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity. That’s how you fix a broken reputation: Penance.

More toll road resistance in San Antonio

I’ve written several times about the issue of toll roads, and the passionate resistance their implementation has spawned. I believe, and I continue to believe, that it’s an issue that will change how people vote this fall. I don’t know how many people – I wish someone would take a poll! – and I admit that I may well be overestimating the effect. But this is an issue that gives common cause to urban and rural voters, and unlike school finance (where those two factions also have commonality) there are few ideological distractions to wedge them apart. I feel like a lot of this is below the radar – and really, it should be until school finance is resolved – but it’s there, and it’s an opportunity for an underdog candidate to make some headway.

The Chron reported over the weekend on some of this activity in San Antonio, where a proposal that includes converting some existing roads to tollways has people up in arms.

Anti-tollway rhetoric turned caustic at a recent roadside rally where politicians joined 200 residents in denouncing state plans to build tolled lanes amid the city’s clogged far-northside freeways.

Comptroller and independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn said that if she’s elected, the Texas Department of Transportation “will not do whatever the hell they want to do.”

“We’re not going to roll over and have them railroad a tollroad down our throats,” added Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.

Someone in San Antonio, help me out here. The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority was created by the authority of the Bexar County Commissioners’ Court in 2003-04. Was Adkisson always opposed to it, or has it just turned out not to be what he expected?

The initial plan calls for tolled lanes on U.S. Highway 281 for the few miles just north of Loop 1604, but later the lanes would be extended into Comal County and north to the Blanco County line. Parts of Loop 1604 and Interstate 35 also are targeted for tolled lanes.

Six weeks into their work, crews stopped clearing trees from right-of-way along U.S. Highway 281 North on Jan. 12 after the Federal Highway Administration demanded a new environmental survey. Impact studies done in 1984, 2000, 2004 and last year were no longer adequate, officials said.

That move nullified a citizens lawsuit demanding a halt to the project. Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas had joined an anti-tollway group, People for Efficient Transportation, in pressing the suit, which was dismissed Jan. 17.

“When you have these two groups coming together, it just shows the depth and the strength of our cause,” said Texas Toll Party regional director Terri Hall.

“It’s a nonpartisan issue. It’s about highway interests hijacking our freeways and turning them into tollways. It’s an outrage and that’s why the public is galvanized on this,” she said.

Houstonians, who use 83 miles of tolled highways operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority, “got to vote on their tollways. That’s a big difference,” Hall said.

Whether we’ll get to vote on a possible proposal to sell off the toll road system is not known to me at this time.

Both sides are honing their strategies during the hiatus. Some toll opponents are calling for a “regime change” in Austin, targeting Gov. Rick Perry and other elected and appointed officials who advocate this and other tollways.

Well, yeah. Perry certainly isn’t going to change his mind about toll roads, so it’s either get a new Governor or keep holding rallies here and there. I know which option is likely to be more effective. It’s just a question of how many people who are making that “regime change” call would have voted for Perry otherwise.

And would that same idea translate to downballot races? Larry Stallings has been writing quite a bit about toll road issues in his race for HD122. If there is an issue that can crack a solid-red district like that, I’d say it’s toll roads. Once again, some polling would be nice.

Finally, Carlos Guerra reminds us of a situation to watch out for.

As is now promised here, Californians were told they could keep taking the free — and perhaps, slower — lanes if they chose to not pay tolls. And so many drivers took that option that the state started preparing to widen the free roads and better maintain them.

But the state was stopped because the investors had exacted a non-compete clause that prevented California from building or improving state roads within 1 1/2 miles of the toll lanes. In the end, the state bought the toll lanes that cost $125 million to build for $207.5 million, which was raised with bonds that will be repaid by —you guessed it — toll-lane revenues.

Perhaps we’ll be smarter in our contract negotiations here. And perhaps no private operator will want to run a toll road without a similar noncompete clause. Anyone want to take bets on either of these?

More on the Intermodal Transit Center

Christof follows up on the announcement of a potential Intermodal Transit Center north of downtown by speculating on what it might end up looking like. Having read the forum discussion, I think doing this in pieces makes a fair amount of sense, as does possibly splitting it into two locations, with the other one down at Wheeler. Good stuff there, so check it out.

Report from the Juan Garcia campaign kickoff

The Red State has a report from the Juan Garcia campaign kickoff rally in Corpus Christi, with Gen. Wes Clark and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Gammage in attendance. So were a couple of prominent local Republicans, though I daresay their purpose for being there was a tad different.

There are also some pictures from the event. I love the An Army of Juan shirts. Here’s the local paper’s coverage of the event. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more soon.

UPDATE: TRS adds a postscript to the event.

Snapper and Wal-Mart

Fascinating article about Snapper lawnmowers, and the reasons why they pulled their products from the shelves at Wal-Mart. Definitely worth the read. Link via RC3.

Ballot battles resolved

A number of lawsuits by various candidates who were knocked off of primary ballots were resolved in recent days. In Austin, former State Rep. Terry Keel will not enter the Court of Criminal Appeals on a TKO, as the Texas Supreme Court has ruled in favor of his previously-disqualified primary opponents.

[T]he court, declaring that the ballot is not reserved for candidates with perfect clerical skills, gave incumbent Judge Charles Holcomb and Dallas District Judge Robert Francis extra time to correct the petition mistakes.

“The public interest is best served when public offices are decided by fair and vigorous elections, not technicalities leading to (victory by) default,” Justice Scott Brister wrote for the majority in twin 5-3 rulings. Justice Don Willett recused himself.

Holcomb resubmitted his corrected petitions to the Republican Party on Friday, and Francis said he will do so Monday. Both previously had collected extra signatures from voters in hopes of a court victory.

Keel said he did not expect the ruling to damage his campaign because the pertinent issues extend beyond petition problems.

“But I still think the first rule for a judicial candidate should be that they should follow the law,” said Keel, a retiring state representative from Austin. “They are seeking positions in which they intend to hold others to the letter of the law.”

But Buck Wood, Francis’ Austin lawyer, predicted that Keel would feel repercussions from Friday’s ruling.

“When potential clients come in and say, ‘I want my guy knocked off the ballot,’ I say, ‘You better win then,’ because the voters do not like being gamed out of a choice,” said Wood, an election-law specialist.

The winner of the March 7 primary will face Libertarian Dave Howard of Round Rock and no Democrat in November.

On a dozen petition forms, Francis had failed to list that he was seeking Place 8 on the court. Holcomb’s petitions contained duplicate signatures. The problems left both short of the required 50 signatures from each of the state’s 14 judicial districts.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Republican Party of Texas erred when it examined and approved the Francis and Holcomb petitions. Had the mistakes been pointed out, both candidates easily could have corrected the problems before the filing deadline, Brister wrote. Justice Dale Wainwright’s dissent, joined by Justices Harriet O’Neill and Phil Johnson, faulted the majority for infringing on the Legislature’s duties by extending election deadlines. In addition, the election code insists that candidates bear primary responsible for filing legal petitions, Wainwright wrote.

My gut says that Wood is right. Keel is certainly within his rights to make the challenge that he did, and he’s right about following the law, though as previously noted, the sheer length of the ballot applications would seem to make this kind of ticky-tack error more likely than it should be. And I do think that a nontrivial number of voters will find that kind of challenge to be distasteful, because they just don’t sound like any kind of a big deal. I’d count it as a mark against someone, all things being equal. We’ll see if the GOP primary voters think so, too.

Another candidate getting good news was Democrat Jim Sharp.

The court decided Friday that even though Sharp’s application to be on the primary ballot had a “technical defect,” it could be corrected by party officials. Sharp’s attorneys, Geoffery Berg and J. Beverly said a notary at the state party headquarters had forgotten to put her official seal on Sharp’s ballot application.

Sharp plans to go to Austin and have his application notarized, his attorneys said.

Sharp is running for the 1st Court of Appeals, which he ran for and lost by a 54-46 margin in 2004. As I recall from a brief conversation with him a couple of weeks ago, the missing seal was noticed when he turned in his ballot application at Democratic Party headquarters in Austin, but the notary in question was no longer in the building, and so the problem was not resolved before the deadline. This is another kind of error that I think should be fixable rather than fatal.

Two candidates got bad news. One was Edward Smith, who had sought to run in the March GOP primary election in HD106 to replace the outgoing Rep. Ray Allen.

A district court judge Friday ordered Edward Smith Jr. removed from the March ballot for the state House District 106 Republican primary because he doesn’t meet residency requirements.

Republican candidate Kirk England filed a petition in the court this week questioning whether Mr. Smith satisfied residency requirements for the office held by Ray Allen, who resigned last week.


State representative candidates must reside in the district they wish to represent for at least 12 months before the election, and in Texas for at least two years.

On his filing application, Mr. Smith indicated that he had lived in Texas and the district for six months. He also listed his permanent residence as being on Normandy Way, which is in the Tarrant County portion of Grand Prairie and not part of District 106. The district includes most of the Dallas County portion of Grand Prairie and parts of south Irving.

Voter registration paperwork at the Dallas County Elections Department shows Mr. Smith lived in Dallas at the time of his filing for the District 106 office. He filed updated paperwork with the Elections Department on Thursday listing a Grand Prairie address that is in District 106

But the temporary injunction granted by visiting Judge John Ovard eliminated Mr. Smith’s name from the March 7 primary ballot.

Residency matters are another issue entirely. I’ve no problem with this ruling. It’ll be England vs Hubener for both the special and the November general.

Finally,the saga of Fort Bend County District Clerk Glory Hopkins has come to an ignominious end for the longtime incumbent.

On Friday, Hopkins lost her bid to be on the ballot when the Texas Supreme Court denied her motion to be on the March 7 primary ballot. Hopkins, 62, failed to meet the filing deadline because she used an incorrect ZIP code obtained from an e-mail sent by Fort Bend County Republican Party Chair Eric Thode. The certified mail with her filing papers never arrived.


Earlier this month, Hopkins had asked the 14th Court of Appeals to allow her name to appear on the ballot for a sixth term, claiming she made a good-faith effort to file before the deadline.

The appellate court denied her request twice. The Supreme Court issued its ruling without an explanation.

The appeals court said the law allows a deadline extension in order to correct a violation of law made by the party chairman. However, the court ruled Hopkins’ failure to file her application in a timely manner was not caused by such a violation. [Hopkins’ attorney Richard] Tate also argued that Thode has a statutory duty to provide candidates with the correct address.

Thode did not oppose Hopkins’ request to be placed on the ballot and wrote in an affidavit saying Hopkins’ name to the ballot would not impair the election.

“It’s disappointing that everyone who wanted to be a candidate won’t be on the ballot,” Thode said.

However, Thode has said Hopkins could have given him the filing application when they had lunch several days before the filing deadline.

As I said before, though I think putting Hopkins back on the ballot would have been an acceptable ruling, I’m okay with it going against her as well. The fault was as much hers as Thode’s, and it wasn’t a mis-filled blank that cost her. Sorry, Glory. I can’t get to the site at this moment, but Fort Bend Now has a story as well.

A few more words about Uncle Ken

First, I’d like to thank everyone for the kind words of condolence that I’ve received in the comments, email, and by phone. I really appreciate it. Having the whole family in town was a great comfort for all of us. Everyone was at our house last night. We ordered a ton of takeout from Berryhill in the Heights, enjoyed each other’s company, and talked some more about Uncle Ken. The occasion that brought us all together was sad, but it’s never sad when we are all together.

This is Uncle Ken, with each of his grandchildren. The one on the bottom right was born eight weeks premature in November and is still in the NICU after several surgeries to relieve intestinal problems. The good news is that he’ll be home in two weeks’ time. We’re all glad that Uncle Ken got to meet little Ryan before he died.

Uncle Ken was a patent attorney. He worked for a number of years with the Houston office of Arnold, White & Durkee, which has since merged with another firm. The biggest case he was involved in was the landmark patent infringement suit Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc. (1992), in which the Supreme Court ruled that Two Pesos had copied enough individual elements of Taco Cabana’s overall look to infringe on its uniqueness. That’s the reason why there are no more Two Pesos restaurants in Houston. I know that when I arrived here in 1988 from San Antonio, which was definitely a Taco Cabana town, I was amazed at how interchangeable Two P’s was with TC’s. Sorry to disappoint any remaining Two Pesos fans here (having cut my teeth on Taco Cabana, I always thought Two P’s was inferior), but Uncle Ken was on the winning plaintiff’s team for that one.

Uncle Ken was still consulting on patent issues, as well as doing mediation work, when he died. My cousin James, who cut short a business trip to Tokyo to fly in yesterday and take part in the memorial, told us that he had retained Uncle Ken’s services for some IP work in recent years. He said he got great advice, and was always gratified to know that he was working with a lawyer he knew he could trust.

The next time the whole family will be together is in July, for a family wedding in Portland. We have a longstanding tradition at family weddings in which the Kuffner men, led by the uncles, sings “Nothing Like A Dame” from South Pacific to the bride. Each of the uncles has a little solo part in it. Uncle Ken’s was the bridge that begins “Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother”. They’ll have to reassign that part, either by giving it to another brother or by transitioning it to one of the nephews, for the first generational shift since they took over the role from their uncles at the first of my cousins’ weddings in 1987. I’ve no doubt that will stir up a lot of emotions and memories, but in the good way, I think. It’ll certainly provide a lot of fodder for reminiscences of Uncle Ken.

Rest in peace, Ace. Your legacy is in good hands.

RIP, Kenneth Edwin Kuffner, Sr

My uncle Ken passed away unexpectedly this week. Pretty much the whole extended family is in town for the funeral, which was today. I’m a little wrung out from helping people make travel and hotel arrangements and from picking people up at the airport, not to mention the actual wake and funeral. So, this is all I’ve got for today.

As I said at the memorial service on Friday night, my uncle Ken was my family in town when I first arrived in Houston in 1988. He was very generous with his time and hospitality to a poor grad student, and he remained kind and generous to me ever since. Every time I met someone in Houston who knew him, they would inevitably say to me “Your uncle’s a really great guy, you know that?” Yes, I did know that. We all did. And we’ll all miss you, Uncle Ken.

I’ve reprinted his obituary beneath the fold. See you tomorrow.


The state of the city 2006

Mayor White gave his State of the City address yesterday. Tory was there, and he has some of the highlights. The Chron also has an audio link for the speech, so you can hear the whole thing yourself.

Who’s your donor?

The anti-DeLay TV ads get another day in the news cycle, but not in a way that I’d have preferred.

The Public Campaign Action Fund and the Campaign for America’s Future said they used the nonprofit arms of their organizations to buy about $80,000 worth of broadcast time. Such organizations, unlike national political action committees and other campaign groups, do not have to list their contributors for the federal government.

Nick Nyhart, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund and a nonprofit affiliate called Public Campaign, said it is reasonable that lawmakers, but not his groups, must fully disclose their donors.

Elected officials “have the power to make laws and affect policy that private organizations don’t,” he said. “There is no material benefit that a donor can get by giving money to us, other than passing campaign finance laws and educating the public.”

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, said the group “discloses exactly what is required.”

Its tax returns show how much was received in contributions, but not donor names or what they gave.

The groups denied the Chronicle’s request for a list of top contributors.


The tax-exempt status of the nonprofits could be in jeopardy if the groups engage in too much political activity, according to watchdog groups.

“They are allowed to do a substantial amount of political activity, but they are not allowed to make it their primary purpose,” said Craig Holman, campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, which has evaluated the political efforts of several U.S. nonprofits.

He said activities of the Campaign for America’s Future could be problematic “because the only time I hear about them is when they are getting involved in election activity.”

Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future, said the group does not veer too far into the political realm.

“We have more recently been involved in this government corruption issue,” he said. “We have a track record of educational work that we are very proud of. Our activity around DeLay is simply an extension of that. We are not worried at all.”

I have, as others have noted, complained in the past about this usage of nonprofits to shield the disclosure of donor names. I still feel that way. More disclosure is better than less, and I believe this loophole in the law should be changed to require it. If that would have meant that this ad could not have been run because of insufficient funding, then so be it. I believe a lot more genuine shams like “Texans for True Mobility” would be affected by such an alteration, so on balance it would be positive. Not by a small margin, either, I’d bet.

The Campaign for America’s Future is well within its rights to keep its list secret, as current law stands. I think they’ve done good work here, but I also think that law should be changed. I expect that I will have plenty more opportunities to blog about this before that ever happens.

UPDATE: Forgot to say when I first wrote this that I have no problem with anonymity for small donors. We can argue over the definition of “small” here – $100? $1000? More? – but there’s definitely a point of diminishing returns in there. I’d be happy with a simple accounting, as in “X percent of the funding for this ad came from people who gave Y dollars or less” for that. It’s really only the big donors, the ones who can make ads happen out of thin air, whose identities have probitive value and should be made known regardless of the vehicle they use.

Strayhorn to audit the Cassidy Group contract

Though I may be annoyed at how much Carole Keeton Strayhorn has bamboozled certain segments of the Democratic Party lately, I will not deny that she does have her uses.

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, responding to a report in the Houston Chronicle, said Thursday that she will audit payments made by the state’s Washington office to a private lobbyist to see if the money was misused for political purposes.


Strayhorn, whose office issues all state checks based on warrants from state agencies, said she will audit the payments to Cassidy & Associates for any signs of political misuse of state funds. “If during my audit I find that Cassidy & Associates inappropriately used tax dollars, I will immediately suspend all future payments and take the necessary steps to make sure these dollars are returned to the state,” Strayhorn said.

I rather doubt she’ll find anything – it would be awfully amateurish for Cassidy to leave a clear trail from the state’s payments for services rendered to their own political donations – but at least this keeps the story in the news for another day or two, which might inspire some more digging. And who knows, maybe there is a smoking gun to be found.

One more thing:

Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Tom Craddick oversee State-Federal Relations. Dewhurst and Craddick have said the decision to hire an outside lobbyist for the first time was Perry’s.

The governor’s staff has distanced him from the hiring of Boulanger and the state’s other contract lobbyist, Drew Maloney of the Federalist Group, saying the choice was made by OSFR Executive Director Ed Perez. Maloney is a former top congressional aide to DeLay.

As noted before, Perez is a Perry appointee; in fact, the entire OSFR is under the Governor’s authority. Perhaps if Perry is dissatisfied with the choices his people are making, instead of merely hoping not to be blamed for them, he might consider doing something about them. I’m just saying.

A profile of Kathi Thomas in SD25

Just Another Matt introduces us to Kathi Thomas, who is running as a Democrat against State Sen. Jeff Wentworth in SD25. Matt promises a further entry later on her stances. Check it out.

UPDATE: Here’s part 2, on Kathi Thomas’ platform.

Bentzin’s flop

The date for the HD48 special election runoff is February 14, with early voting beginning on February 6. Democrats are united behind Donna Howard. If you want to know more about how badly Ben Bentzin did in the initial race, check out these two articles, all from the Austin Chronicle.

Don’t get too relaxed after that, because the HD106 special is just around the corner, on February 28. If Howard and Katy Hubener can prevail, that would increase the Democratic caucus from 62 to 65 since the last sessions (the Dems were down one after the tragic death of Joe Moreno). As it happens, it would also increase the number of women in the Lege by three. Stay tuned.

Looking for equivalence in all the wrong places

Where your tax dollars are going, thanks to the benificence of Governor Perry.

Two weeks after the state made its first $15,000 monthly payment to a contract lobbyist in Washington, D.C., the lobbyist and his firm spent $7,600 to host a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority.

Texas Office of State-Federal Relations lobbyist Todd Boulanger and his firm, Cassidy & Associates, put on the fundraiser on March 2.

Cassidy Vice Chairman Gregg Hartley, registered as a member of Boulanger’s Texas lobby team, later that month also made a direct contribution of $5,000 to the DeLay leadership political committee, according to Federal Election Commission records reviewed Wednesday by the Houston Chronicle.


Texas House Democratic Chairman Jim Dunnam last week accused Maloney of “laundering” his state payments into Republican political donations.

Dunnam said Wednesday he is not surprised to learn Boulanger held an event for DeLay within weeks of getting his first state payment.

“It’s clear these guys are turning taxpayer money into political donations,” Dunnam said. “The timing is too coincidental. It speaks for itself. It doesn’t need any political spin.”


The Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday that the Office of State-Federal Relations hired Boulanger and Cassidy over firms that met more of the office’s selection criteria and cost less.

The newspaper reported that Cassidy got the edge because of Boulanger’s ties to important officials in Washington, including presidential adviser Karl Rove.

Here’s that Statesman story, which goes into a good amount of detail. I recommend reading it because the full story is both better in some respects for the choice of Cassidy and worse in others.

This is pretty straightforward, right? Texas already has fulltime staff in DC to advocate for its issues, not to mention a senior Senator and until recently the House Majority Leader, which raises the question why an outside firm was needed. Whatever the merits of hiring such an outside firm may be, hiring one that spends lavishly on political donations, especially to a single party, raises more questions about whose interests are actually being represented here. This Statesman editorial puts it together nicely:

Apparently, no governor prior to Perry found it necessary to hire beltway lobby firms, which adds to the smell emanating from these contracts. The circular connection of large amounts of taxpayer money, Republican cronies and the K Street lobbyists is not coincidence. Nor is it a matter of “everybody does it.” According to Democratic critics, no other state hires lobbyists to supplement their governmental relations staffs.

Democrats have a right to complain. All that money went to lobbyists who never bothered to contact the Democratic members of Congress from Texas. It was a partisan effort, like the K Street project itself and this state’s 2003 congressional redistricting fiasco.

A Perry spokeswoman said the firms were paid to lobby members from other states, but that’s not what the records show. Boulanger’s firm, for instance, was paid to organize a luncheon for Texas House and Senate legislative directors.

Largely under DeLay’s direction, the Republicans created a continuous loop of power and influence. It was as simple as directing lobbying firms to hire former staff members if they wanted access to congressional leadership, and as complicated as channeling campaign funds through several different entities to wash it.

DeLay’s influence was so intense that he demanded the Texas Legislature redistrict the state in mid-census to increase GOP power in Washington. And on his whim, Texas Republicans complied.

In light of all that, Perry’s lobbying contracts look like another sop to curry favor with the Republican power brokers. It’s a shame that Texas taxpayers had to foot the bill for nothing more than tribute.

With all that in mind, one has to wonder what the heck Harvey Kronberg was thinking when he attempted to draw a parallel to the lobbying efforts of the Texas Municipal League.

[T]he Democrats stepped on to a slippery slope when they claim that the state is sufficiently represented by the Office of State Federal Relations and the Texas delegation.

Elected officials have their own agendas. Sometimes they coincide with the governmental institutions they represent. Sometimes they don’t.


Some Republicans believe that cities, counties and school boards should be prohibited from using tax dollars to hire lobbyists to make their case to the Legislature. It is an effort to silence those with whom the GOP leadership disagrees.

The House Democrats cannot have it both ways. They can not categorically oppose state contracts to D.C. lobbyists yet support their cities and school districts when they hire lobbyists.

Let’s put aside for a moment the crony/K-Street Project part of the Democrats’ complaint. Does Kronberg not see any distinction between the hiring of lobbyists by cities, who as I’ve said before do not have any dedicated representation in Austin, and the hiring of lobbyists by the state when they have both elected and fulltime employed representatives in Washington? Whatever the merits of the TML, at least one cannot say they’re duplicating someone else’s efforts. What’s so hard about that?

Secondly, while it is necessarily in the Democrats’ interests to oppose the hiring of a lobby group by the state that funnels cash to Republicans, the alignment of the TML’s interests with those of the Democrats (which has spawned those Republican complaints lately) is by no means a given. The TML lobbied against specific agenda items of the state’s Republican leadership, in particular appraisal and revenue caps, plus the anti-municipal WiFi provisions of the telecom bill. That put them largely in alliance with the Dems, but there’s no reason to believe that a future Democratic-controlled state government can’t or won’t do things that would get crosswise with the TML and its members (two words: “unfunded mandate”). Similarly, a Republican-controlled 80th Lege could easily take up items that the TML will support. This is a marriage of convenience, and it will eventually end.

This doesn’t of course mean that one cannot raise legitimate questions about the use of public dollars for TML’s services. Same thing with school boards and their lobbyists. But there is simply no equivalence between TML’s lobbying contract and the Cassidy Group’s. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous at best.

One last thing to note in this story is this:

The contract was approved by an advisory board made up of Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Dewhurst and Craddick have both said Perry was the official who wanted to hire outside lobbyists.

State-Federal Executive Director Ed Perez was appointed to the job by Perry, and serves at the governor’s pleasure.

It’s always interesting to see Dewhurst and Craddick back away from something Perry has done. Craddick has been vocal about his lack of interest in hiring Drew Maloney for some time now. Even more amusing, as I noted in 2003, is that the Office of State-Federal Relations, which is the official state-employed lobbying office in DC, has been under heavy bipartisan criticism for its ineffectiveness. What was their solution at the time? Why, hire Drew Maloney of course, allegedly at the urging of Tom DeLay. The OFSR is now officially under the auspices of the Governor’s office, so any lingering complaints about its aptitude should be directed there. Sure is amazing how you can make incompetence work in your favor if you put your mind to it, isn’t it?

Thanks to Eye on Williamson for the Statesman and Kronberg links.

Interviews with Madla and Uresti

Philip Martin keeps up his string of candidate interviews by getting answers from Frank Madla and Carlos Uresti for the SD19 primary. It’s good stuff, so check it out. Folks have had a little fun at Madla’s expense recently, so here at least is a good chance to evaluate him more objectively.

And when you’re done, check out Damon McCullar’s interview with Juan Garcia. Nicely done, guys.

Bye-bye, Bagwell?

Not really much to say about the Jeff Bagwell saga, in which the team is attempting to claim he’s physically unable to play in 2006 and thus claim over 90% of the $17 million salary he’s owed from their insurance carrier. Bagwell, of course, insists he’s fine and will report to spring training to try to win his starting job back. The Astros’ stance makes perfect financial sense. Even a healthy Bagwell would be unlikely to be worth $17 million this season. That’s a sum that was given to him for past performance, not for genuine market value. Bagwell, like most athletes, isn’t ready to let go. Why should he be? He wants to leave on his terms, and his injury-marred 2005 wasn’t what he had in mind.

I’m sorry this has soured Bagwell’s relationship with the team, but at least so far no one has said anything that can’t be forgotten about. There’s no other solution that I can think of to this that doesn’t involve Bagwell agreeing to take less money this year, and as he’s perfectly within his rights to demand that the Stros live up to what they contracted for, I don’t see that happening. You’re stuck with each other, fellas, so make the best of it. Far as I can tell, that’s Bagwell being healthy enough to be at least a positive contributor. Don’t know how likely that is, but good luck with it.

Houston Pavilions

I’ve noted before the development of a downtown park/retail/entertainment area, to be called Houston Pavilions. The Chron now reports that it will contain a big music venue as a key component.

A proposed $200 million real estate project near the convention center has landed its first big tenant, moving the project a step closer to reality.

The developers of Houston Pavilions, a shopping, entertainment, office and residential complex to be built on three blocks of prime downtown land, planned to announce at a news conference today that House of Blues has signed the first major retail lease in the project.

Developers Geoffrey Jones and William Denton, who set the wheels in motion for the Pavilions more than two years ago, said they expect to begin construction this spring.

That’s pretty big news, and seeing that happen makes this project look a lot more realistic than I first thought it was. I’m curious how Clear Channel will react to having this kind of competition for the Verizon Theater nearby. I daresay the two sites will feature mostly different kinds of acts, but having seen Bonnie Raitt and Keb Mo at the Verizon (admittedly, several years ago), I can say there is some overlap.

Actually, perhaps the Hard Rock Cafe, next door to the Verizon, ought to be worried, since now there’s another music-themed eatery in the neighborhood. We shall see.

This will be the first Houston location for Los Angeles-based House of Blues Entertainment, a national chain of venues famous for its blues, rock and jazz concerts and Sunday gospel brunches.

Liam Thornton, the company’s senior vice president of development, said House of Blues often chooses changing inner-city areas for its outlets.

“We like to go into urban areas,” he said. “We like to be pioneering.”

With its roughly 3,700 residents, downtown Houston still doesn’t have the critical mass of residents that some retailers typically require to open locations. But Thornton said he’s not worried.

“Because we’re destination entertainment, we’re basically a traffic generator,” he said.

Indeed, the developers said the venue will attract customers from far beyond the city center, which will help bring in additional retailers.

House of Blues is expected to open by the fourth quarter of next year, when the developers said the Houston Pavilions will be completed.

Hope they’re right about drawing in people from elsewhere. Certainly this should be attractive to anyone who lives within walking distance of a light rail stop. Beyond that, they better have enough parking.

Houstonist has more.

How blog activism is supposed to work

From an anonymous comment on a blog post to hooking up a person in need of assistance with an expert in the field, all in under 24 hours. That’s blog activism in its idealized state. Read how it happened at Grits for Breakfast.

The school finance machinery starts grinding

Eye on Williamson has been doing a great job following all the school finance news. Check out this post on what the upcoming special session won’t fix, and this one on the first meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Education Reform & Public School Finance. As you can see from the following quote, the Senate is more on top of things than their House counterparts:

The House education committee has not scheduled meetings.

“We’ve spent almost … the last two years full time on this issue. There’s not a lot of new ideas,” said Arlington Republican Rep. Kent Grusendorf, who has led House education overhaul efforts. “What we need is to get a consensus and move forward, I think that’s possible.”

Inspiring, isn’t it? Maybe we’ll get lucky and Grusendorf will lose to whoever his primary challenger is. Doesn’t sound like that would make him any less motivated come April.

Meanwhile, at the meeting of that Senate committee, Texas Soliciter General Ted Cruz continues to remind everyone that cutting property taxes is not a fix for the problem.

“Lowering the cap is moving backwards,” said Cruz, referring to previous plans considered by the Legislature.

“What as a policy matter this body may deem attractive is not helpful legally for responding to this claim,” said Cruz. “All of the claims brought by the plaintiff school districts were at the end of the day about more money.”

Even if lawmakers enact new business taxes to pay for lower property taxes, school districts will need extra state revenue to meet a Texas Supreme Court requirement that they have “meaningful discretion” in their budgets and tax rates, he said.

This is exactly what the plaintiffs have been saying in the aftermath of the West Orange-Cove decision, too. Maybe this time it will sink in.

Cruz, who represented the state before the high court, outlined the tough choices as lawmakers face a June 1 deadline to write a new school finance law.

Other options would be to lower educational standards, raise the tax cap so districts can increase rates or ask voters to amend the Texas Constitution to allow a statewide property tax.

I’d love to see any House member advance the argument that what we need to do is lower costs by dumbing everything down. I have a feeling that we’ll need all of the comic relief we can get.

One wonders what Rick Perry will eventually advocate, now that the state’s lawyer is telling everyone that the much-derided tax swap schemes from last year are essentially out of the question. The idea of the Texas Tax Reform Commission is to build consensus for a business tax that actually taxes businesses, which can then be used as a better vehicle for school funding. What happens when one or more of Perry’s corporate sponsors rebels at the idea of being taxed? The only way this works is if everyone buys into the idea of sharing the burden equally, or at least equitably. Once you start letting this guy or that off the hook, everyone wants the same deal. I think Perry will have some unpleasant (for him) decisions to make.

Finally, via Dos Centavos comes this Carlos Guerra column, which explains why school districts that are within military bases in San Antonio do so well. Here’s one reason: They get more money to spend per pupil. Funny how that works.

Lawsuit filed over highway noise

If you’re in Houston, you’ve surely seen the massive, high-in-the-sky expansion to the I-10/Loop 610 interchanges. A lawsuit has now been filed by activists who say that the design of these interchanges does not follow federal laws to abate road noise from them.

Federal law says Memorial Park is entitled to strict protection from noise coming from federal highways. But some Houstonians say the Texas Department of Transportation found a way around the regulations and they are going to court to prove it.

Bill Ware and his wife, Carol, have filed a lawsuit against TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration.

“This is a massive deception. What it ultimately is, it’s a massive deception

The lawsuit said the 610 project should have never received a federal environmental exclusion which allows construction without a noise analysis study.

The exclusion came 15 years ago, when the project only involved repaving Loop 610. But with the widening of Interstate 10, the plan changed drastically and called for a huge overpass.


Because of the lawsuit, in 2004 TxDOT performed a noise analysis study along North Post Oak Road and Memorial Drive, but not one near the park.

I presume they mean “Because of the threat of a lawsuit” here, unless there was another one filed previously that isn’t mentioned in this story. Or perhaps time travel was involved somehow.

The lawsuit is calling for an immediate halt to 610 construction near Memorial Park so that an independent noise analysis can be performed.

The Citizens Transportation Coalition, along with those who filed suit, are collecting signatures to show the judge there is public support.

For more information on how to sign the petition, visit or call (713) 680-2500.

Without knowing TxDOT’s side of the story – they did not comment – it sounds pretty straightforward to me. I’m not at all surprised to hear that TxDOT would have taken the path of least resistance. I can’t wait to hear their counterarguments.

The CTC has more information about noise and strategies to reduce it, which is worth your time to read. If you want to help them in this effort, you can also download and sign a statement of support for a proper noise analysis, which is available here. Thanks to Houstonist and blogHOUSTON for the links.

Houston 1836

The new Houston MLS franchise has a name.

How does Houston 1836 grab you?

No, it’s not a spinoff of Beverly Hills 90210. For better or worse, it really is the name chosen for the city’s Major League Soccer team.

In case you’re scratching your head, wondering where on Earth such a name came from, you’re not alone.


Most popular in Europe, particularly Germany, the style of naming a team after a year is considered a soccer staple. German teams such as Hannover 96 (1896), Bayer 04 Leverkusen, FC Schalke 04 (both 1904) and FSV Mainz 05 (1905) are among the most popular in Europe. The style migrated to other parts of the world, including Latin America, in the early 1900s.

Houston’s name would have a different connotation. It would not make reference to the year the team was founded, as do most European names.

Mike Hensley, who manages KICKS, said the name was not the most popular choice among patrons.

“A lot of people weren’t familiar with the historical aspect of the year,” said Hensley, who nonetheless added that 1836 was among his top choices. “I think it’s a perfect fit. I think once the why and the root of the name is explained, people will be excited about it.”

Candidates included the Apollos, Generals, Lonestars and Toros.

Well, I like it, even if Lair doesn’t. I presume Rob will approve, though he hasn’t posted yet. I can’t tell you how thankful I am that we’ve all been spared the horror of a “Houston Lonestars” franchise. Whoever is responsible for that, you have my eternal gratitude.

UPDATE: As predicted, Rob approves. Liberty is more concerned about the future stadium deal that the Sixers (see, isn’t that a nice, simple nickname for them?) will eventually get.

Bell hits Strayhorn on vouchers


Since 2000, James Leininger, a major donor of the voucher movement, has made four contributions to Mrs. Strayhorn totaling $100,000. In addition, he secured a loan of $950,000 to then-Carole Keeton Rylander’s first campaign for comptroller. In return, she supported a 1999 voucher measure and signed a letter using the Comptroller’s state seal to raise money for a Leininger-founded, pro-voucher think tank.

Then last Friday, Mrs. Strayhorn attacked Rick Perry because he supports publicly funded, private-school vouchers, saying, “We’re either going to have public education or we’re not, and Rick Perry looks to vouchers as the only solution to a public school system that he has doomed to failure.” (Associated Press, Jan. 20, 2006)

“It’s not enough to be right about Rick Perry being completely wrong about vouchers,” said Bell. “What Texas needs is a leader it can trust to never support what I believe would be the biggest cop-out in American history. She says, ‘Vouchers are off the table.’ Vouchers were on the table in the first place in part because of her support, and anyone who claims to be a friend of teachers should have the conviction that vouchers will never be part of the solution.”

James Leininger is the godfather of the voucher movement in Texas. As is the case with Bob Perry, he stopped giving to Strayhorn in 2003, about the time Strayhorn started opposing Rick Perry. It’s only now, of course, that Strayhorn says she opposes vouchers – at least, she opposes them at this time. Once the school finance mess is settled, who knows? This isn’t an ideological change of heart as far as I can tell, it’s opportunism. Successful opportunism, as the TSTA endorsement shows, but opportunism nonetheless. I hope the rank and file in the TSTA aren’t as easily dazzled.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this. A little Google news searching tells me Bell’s gotten some mileage out of his criticism. One interesting bit:

TSTA spokesman Richard Kouri said the group’s leaders believed Strayhorn, but added, “Time will tell.”

So what does that mean? That you think that maybe she’s not truly changed her mind, and could go back to her original beliefs once the initial finance crisis has passed? Way to go on the due diligence, dude.

Gammage gets endorsements

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Gammage picked up his first major endorsement on Monday, from House Democratic Caucus Chair Jim Dunnam. He trails Chris Bell by a wide margin in that department, but this is a nice one to have.

More important to his campaign right now, I’d say, is the upcoming fundraiser with Wes Clark, which ought to boost his coffers by a decent amount. Clark will also be at an endorsement rally for Gammage at the U.S. and Vietnamese Soldier Memorial in Houston on Thursday, January 26, at 2:30 PM. According to the press release I’ve got, State Rep. Hubert Vo will also be there. Whether that means he’s endorsing Gammage or not I can’t say. I’m guessing not, since the release doesn’t mention that. But I thought I’d pass it along.

From there, it’s off to Corpus for Clark and Gammage, where they’ll stump for Juan Garcia in HD32. Eddie from The Red State will be liveblogging it.

UPDATE: And chalk up another endorsement for Bell, this time from Houston’s State Rep. Garnet Coleman.

“DeLay’s Last Disciple”

Mary Beth Harrell gives the latest edition of the run against Tom DeLay chronicles with her current Kos diary. I wish we had some better data on DeLay’s name recognition and approval ratings in districts like CD31, but at least we do know one thing: As with John Culberson, John Carter isn’t ever going to run away from The Hammer, so if he does wind up getting convicted, Carter will be stuck with it. Anyway, check it out.

Keep that trial right here

The Skilling/Lay trial will stay right here in Houston.

As expected, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake ordered late Monday that the request from ex-Enron chairman Ken Lay and ex-CEO Jeff Skilling to move the case be denied.

The pair face charges of conspiracy and fraud.

Lake said in this week’s order that in 2005 he set out the law regarding moving trials and why he thought there were not sufficient grounds to undergo the cost of moving this case when so many people around the country also knew a lot about Enron.


Lake sent out 400 questionnaires to potential jurors asking what they knew about the case, how they felt about Enron and the defendants and what contact they’ve had with legal and financial matters.

Upon receiving responses from the vast majority of the 400, the judge then dropped some potential jurors for hardship. Then the lawyers agreed to drop another 109 people who appeared too biased. The lawyers also agreed to drop additional possible jurors for more hardship problems — like being in college or taking care of a child or sick relative.

About 150 people were left in the pool after all the cutting and they been called to appear in court Monday.

The defendants have acknowledged that about 70 of those have said nothing that could even suggest any bias or feelings about Enron. But the defendants worry there could be hidden bias.

I never doubted this trial could be held here. Let’s get it on already.

Toll road selloff madness spreads to Austin

Late last year, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court got the bright idea to consider selling off its toll road system to a private operator (see here and here for more). Apparently, the folks up in Travis County now think that’s just swell.

Officials here in Austin, including state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, say they are open to the idea of selling the 66 miles of toll roads under construction on Austin’s north and east sides. And, oh yes, the original plan for expanding Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) involved a long-term concession agreement with a private operator.

And that’s just what we know of now.

“Texas is open for business,” said the opening slide in a Texas Department of Transportation workshop put on last week for an overflow crowd of industry contractors, including toll road companies. The Texas Transportation Commission makes no bones about it: It wants companies to come to Texas, wallets open, and build or buy toll roads.

“We’re prepared to make sure you’re rewarded for taking on that risk,” commission Chairman Ric Williamson told the crowd.

That potential reward is the nub.

One of the primary sales points for toll roads has been that once the turnpikes are in place, with forevermore toll charges, the profits would be plowed back into the road system. The turnpikes would become unceasing fountains of transportation cash that would allow Texas to close what Williamson says is an $86 billion funding gap over the next quarter-century, and maybe build some passenger rail systems to boot.

So, if we sell the fountains now, we’d be flooded with transportation cash for projects, but we’d lose the future cash flow. The toll road operators, meanwhile — no fools they — would certainly do everything they could to pay Texas less than what those roads will eventually generate in revenue.

That margin, the profit, is money that would go to their stockholders, not Texas roads.

“That could go both ways,” Krusee said, noting that the roads might underperform and thus swing the transactions to Texas’ favor. And if the state gets big money now, Krusee said, more roads could be built faster, and the state would see an economic development benefit from that acceleration.

So as long as the toll roads that we sell off to the highest bidders, roads that were built on the premise of being sufficiently good moneymakers that they could help close an alleged $86 billion funding gap, are unprofitable for those buyers, the deal is a winner for the state of Texas. Genius!

I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how it’s a better idea to sell off assets to raise a boatload of cash to finance capital spending instead of borrowing against the future revenue of those assets and the investment-grade bonds they help generate. Am I missing something here? How exactly does this make sense? Link via Eye on Williamson, who’s as skeptical as I am.

UPDATE: sigh

[Harris] county agreed today to pay investment banks $1 million to study the toll road system, including a plan to privatize it.

Commissioners Court voted to study three possible scenarios for the Harris County Toll Road Authority: keeping the 83-mile system as is; selling it outright; and leasing the long-term rights to operate it.


Financiers worldwide have begun viewing busy toll roads that draw hundreds of thousands of daily users as investment opportunities.

Investment houses and private toll-road operators have inquired whether the county is interested in privatizing, saying it might be able to lease its system for $2 billion to $7 billion.

An outright sale might net $2.7 billion to $4.4 billion, concluded First Southwest Co., the county’s financial adviser.

But First Southwest and the investment banks have provided only preliminary estimates of how much the county could make. The studies will try to determine more exactly how much the county could reap by selling or leasing.

Here’s a hint, fellas: If professional investors think toll roads have good long-term moneymaking potential, then maybe selling them off isn’t such a bright idea. If “underperforming” is the key to making this work in our favor, we’re kidding ourselves. Thanks to Christof in the comments for the catch.

UPDATE: In the comments, Steve says:

[T]here is a possibility that the prices are inflated right now — Macquerie, a big Australian investment bank, has been plowing money into this sort of project all over the globe because Australia, for a variety of reasons related to their pension reform laws, is desperate for bonds; a 50-year or 99-year right to operate a toll road can be securitized and sold to the pension funds. It pretty much seems like a seller’s market, so it is possible that buyers are prepared to pay more than the roads would be objectively worth.

That’s an interesting point, and it does cast Krusee’s perspective in a different light. Robin Holzer noted the importance of toll road revenues for Harris County’s bond ratings when this topic first came up. To my way of thinking, the county would have to be overpaid by a lot to make this a good deal for the taxpayers.

Another setback for BlackBerry

I haven’t previously blogged about the patent-infringement lawsuit against Canada’s Research In Motion, Ltd, the makers of BlackBerry handhelds and servers, but since I administer a BlackBerry infrastructure in real life, seeing stories like this always makes me clench my teeth a little bit. None of us are freaking out over it – we’re all as confident as one can reasonably be that an acceptable settlement will be reached – but it’s still one more damn thing for me to worry about during the day. As if I needed that. So consider this my plea to all parties involed: Settle, already, so I can go back to worrying about other things. Thank you.

Network neutrality

Do you know what network neutrality is, and and how a change from that policy could affect the operation of the Internet? Read about it and keep an eye on it in the future. It looks unclear at this time how the successor to the 1996 Telecom Act will go, but you can be sure sides will be taken shortly. Link via Josh Marshall.