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August 23rd, 2006:

Helping the homeless in Houston

Mayor White has a plan for helping the homeless in Houston.

As one of several new city initiatives to battle homelessness, White is asking Houstonians not to give money to street beggars, but instead to donate to organizations that help the homeless.

“We want people to give, but we want to give in a smart manner,” said White, who recently began spreading the word through radio advertisements. “If you see somebody begging in the streets, and you feel sorry for them, don’t give to that person, but instead give to organizations to help turn around lives.”

One often hears that this is the best approach to the issue of homelessness, and it certainly has some intrinsic appeal. I’m curious if this has been tried at the municipal level like this. The article doesn’t indicate, nor does it quote anyone who seems to oppose it. It would be nice to know more about these things.

The city also has set up a special municipal court that encourages homeless to clear outstanding traffic tickets and other minor violations. Outstanding cases prevent people from getting driver’s licenses or identification cards they need for housing and employment.

[…]

The Coalition is helping steer homeless people who want to clear tickets through the new court that meets on the fourth Wednesday of every month. Violators must agree to participate in the Coalition’s rehabilitation program, and they can perform community service in lieu of a fine. Most homeless who attended the court since its start two months ago have had traffic-related violations, said Judge Berta Mejia, presiding judge at Municipal Courts.

“It helps the person remove their legal barriers and be able to obtain housing, be able to be employed, and it clears the cases in our courts,” she said.

This sounds like a clear winner. For sure, having a traffic ticket outstanding should not get in the way of getting housing. Whatever else there is to this proposal, I hope this happens.

And in certain neighborhoods, it soon may be illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

That’s already the law in downtown and Midtown, but three other close-in neighborhoods – Old Sixth Ward, Avondale and Greater Hyde Park – have petitioned City Council to expand the ordinance to their areas.

The panel will hear from the public on that issue today.

[…]

[Former Council member Gordon] Quan and other advocates for the homeless say the mayor’s suggestion to donate to groups instead of individuals and the creation of the new court docket will help people get off streets and into assistance programs.

They are less enthusiastic about expanding the so-called “civility” ordinance that prohibits sleeping on sidewalks during the day in certain areas, saying it just pushes the homeless elsewhere.

“It’s anything but civil,” said Anthony Love, president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County, who supports the mayor’s initiatives. “It tends to move the people around and not get at the core issues that contribute to homelessness to begin with.”

That part I’m not so enthusiastic about, either. I sympathize greatly with the homeowners in the affected areas, but I tend to agree with Mr. Love as to the actual effect of such ordinances.

Chron on the TTC hearings

The Chron follows up the Statesman with a story about the statewide series of hearings about the Trans Texas Corridor and how much Perry-bashing went on at them. It’s not terribly different from the Statesman story, though it has more quotes from people who testified at the hearings, which are worth checking out, and it spares us any smarmy think-tank denigration of the opposition to the TTC, for which I’m grateful. A couple of points to make:

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said the corridor concept is the only feasible means of easing congestion on state highways while guaranteeing future expansion when needed.

“For every 14,000 people who congregate and protest, there are 1.4 million in downtown Dallas and Fort Worth that recognize congestion on 35 is a problem and somebody’s got to do something about it,” Williamson said.

Dallas-Fort Worth area officials have been generally neutral on the corridor concept, but questioned the specific plan because its route bypassed the cities and would have done little to relieve local congestion. Perry last Friday ordered the corridor study to include an alternative route proposed by local officials.

Dallas County Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, a Republican, said he thinks people in the Metroplex would largely oppose the plan because it relies heavily on tolls and has included little public input.

“I dare say, if you took a vote in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it would be voted down,” he said.

For a project that’s supposed to relieve urban congestion, the TTC makes a pretty strong effort to avoid any actual urban areas. It’s telling to me that Governor Perry finally forced TxDOT to consider a route for the I-35 alternative that touches the Metroplex. That’s some pretty strong Republican turf, and I think his intervention here is a sign that he recognizes how precarious the support is for this project among his base. It’s no accident that the state GOP platform calls for the repeal of the TTC.

“Fourteen thousand people is a nice turnout, but the fact of the matter is we’re looking for input, any better ideas,” Perry said of the hearings.

“Those that came out are just against – you know, the agin’ers. It’s easy to turn out a bunch of people who are just agin a particular project,” the governor said.

When all else fails, insult the intelligence of the voters. How lucky we all are to have a governor who knows our needs and preferences better than we do.

Greg Gerig, a corn farmer and a director of the Blackland Coalition opposed to the corridor, said there is a feeling state officials have been arrogant.

“Perry has in effect said, ‘We don’t care what people at the hearings said; we’re going to build it anyway,’ ” Gerig said.

I can’t imagine where he might have gotten that idea.

One final point:

One of Perry’s fellow Republicans on the statewide ballot – U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison – also has criticized the project, saying it imposes too heavily on rural landowners.

That’s an overstatement of Hutchison’s criticism. Here’s a fuller version of what Hutchison said.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, apparently trying to distance herself from Gov. Rick Perry on the controversial toll road issue, said Wednesday she was “very concerned” about how Perry’s proposed Trans Texas Corridor would route new highways across the state.

She said bypasses to major, congested freeways, including Interstate 35, are needed, but she said it was unnecessary to build a toll road connecting South Texas to San Antonio.

“I just don’t see the need for that, and I think the taking of property for that is a very serious matter that needs to be studied carefully,” she told reporters after addressing the Texas Association of Counties.

[…]

“I’m very concerned about the Trans-Texas Corridor,” Hutchison said.

She said parts of it are “very necessary” but questioned whether there has been enough public input, despite the series of hearings.

She called for a “whole lot more study of the routes” and said the state needed to make sure it was adequately using existing right of way.

“I’m not saying I’m against another route for bypassing the major, clogged freeways that we have. Interstate 35 is a parking lot,” she said. “But I think that going too far outside of the major metropolitan areas is an issue that should be resolved.”

That sounds more like hand-wringing than criticism to me. You can interpret it however you like, but according to Barbara Radnofsky, who genuinely opposes the TTC, some people haven’t gotten the message about KBH’s “concerns”.

Louis Bronaugh, who is on the I-69 committee, said, “I think Strayhorn is making it political, because she needed to attack the present governor anyway she can, and we understand it. It’s a political football, we just don’t know how it’s going to bounce, I talked to Senator Hutchison and she is very much in favor of this.”

That’s a different piece of the TTC (KBH’s remarks were about the I-35 component), but it’s still going to be going through mostly rural land. Basically, KBH has criticized one aspect of one component of the TTC. She thinks it can be tweaked, while a lot of people are saying it should be scrapped. Those are two very different things.

Checks, please!

The Tom DeLay/TRMPAC criminal trial is back in the news today as attorneys for DeLay associates Jim Ellis and John Colyandro are pursuing an appeal of their indictments.

Lawyers for two of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s political associates asked an appeals court panel Tuesday to toss out their money-laundering indictments because the underlying election laws are too confusing.

“The law must be so clear that a person of ordinary intelligence” won’t mistakenly run afoul of it, said Joseph Turner, who represents John Colyandro, executive director of a political action committee founded by DeLay.

[…]

A panel of three Republican judges on the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals heard the arguments. Colyandro and Ellis initially were indicted one year before DeLay was charged in the alleged conspiracy last September.

Ellis’ attorney, J.D. Pauerstein, argued that the state’s money-laundering statute in 2002 did not include transactions involving a personal or business check. The Legislature last year expanded the definition of “funds” to include checks and money orders.

Yes, this is the checks are not the same as cash argument that Judges Perkins and Priest refused to accept. I don’t think the passage of time has made it any less ludicrous, but we’ll see what the court says.

Pauerstein said laws prohibiting corporations or labor unions from donating to political campaigns but allowing contributions to be used for a PAC’s administrative overhead are unconstitutionally vague because they require those accepting the money to determine the intent of the donors.

This argument too was rejected by Judge Priest last year. I say that the statute is crystal clear and the reason why there’s no case law on the subject is because no one’s been dumb enough to try to challenge it before now. And even if you accept Attorney Pauerstein’s logic, the state’s evidence in the case showed that the defendants themselves understood the distinction between administrative overhead and other types of expenses. I hate to predict what judges will do, but I just don’t see this one.

I should note that the reason why DeLay is not pursuing this line of appeal is because at the time he was hoping to have everything more or less wrapped up before the March primary, and this route was expected to take much longer to resolve. If Ellis and Colyandro do strike gold, however, then as DeLay’s attorney says in the article it’s highly likely that his indictments will get tossed as a resiult as well. Stay tuned.

Commissioners Court approves Dome hotel plan

Yet another step forward for the Astrodome Hotel plan.

Commissioners Court unanimously gave the go-ahead to a private firm’s plan to spend $450 million reinventing the mostly dormant, county-owned Astrodome into a convention hotel.

[…]

With its vote, the court gave the the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., permission to sign a letter of intent with Astrodome Redevelopment Corp.

No public money will be put into the project.

The letter of intent states that by March 2007, Astrodome Redevelopment must obtain financing and the approval from Reliant Park’s tenants, the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Hotel construction would begin at the earliest late next year.

The county would lease the Dome to Astrodome Redevelopment for 50 years and give it an option to extend the lease another 20 years.

Astrodome Redevelopment would pay the county $2.5 million in rent annually and 2 percent-3 percent of gross revenues.

The letter of intent prohibits Astrodome Redevelopment from operating a casino or sexually oriented businesses.

[Harris County Judge Robert] Eckels said the project is a good one for the county. Private entrepreneurs, he said, will assume all the risk but may succeed in giving new life to the much beloved, aging Dome. If the plan works, Houston will begin attracting more conventions and more money will be pumped into the local economy, he said.

More on this project is here and here. The next step, in which the Dome Redevelopment folks have to convince companies with money to part with large sums of it to serve as their capital to do the construction, will be the crucial one. Tory did some back-of-the-envelope math on this back in July, and he’s skeptical about the Dome Hotel’s ability to generate enough revenue to cover its nut. We’ll see if the professional moneylenders feel the same way. Meanwhile, the question to ponder is what happens if financing falls through? I get the feeling that the Dome is running out of options, and may well face the prospect of demolition again. At least if that happens, folks like Judge Eckels who fear being tagged as “the guy who let the Dome get torn down” can say they tried their best but even a private investor couldn’t make it work. We shall see.

Another contender in CD21

Via Strange Bedfellows, there are now four declared candidates in the new CD21.

Tommy Calvert Jr., a community activist and an international anti-slavery crusader, got the word out this morning that he’s in the race for Congressional District 21.

“I am running for Congress to clean up the mess in Washington and give the people of the 21st Congressional District of Texas a leader that they can talk to, so they can believe again in America’s promise,” Calvert said in an e-mail to supporters.

He’ll challenge Rep. Lamar Smith, a San Antonio Republican who’s held the seat for 20 years. He’ll also come up against at least two Democrats – perennial candidate Gene Kelly and John Courage, the party’s nominee before a redistricting decision earlier this month forced Nov. 7 open election in five congressional district, including the 21st.

[…]

“The recent redistricting has presented the community with a unique opportunity to unite a seemingly disparate district,” he said. “I grew up in the heart of the (district)). I lived near Perrin-Beitel Road for almost 20 years, and attended school at MacArthur Park Lutheran, St. Luke’s Episcopal and St. Mary’s Hall.”

I don’t know a thing about Mr. Calvert (Karl-T says he’s a Democrat running as an independent), but I don’t mind having another voice against Lamar Smith in the race. Meanwhile, John Courage has a new ad out that you can see at BOR, and he’s a national netroots candidate. He was in this race from the beginning, and I hope people will remember that.

Who actually wants rail on Westpark?

Christof makes an observation about the Universities rail controversy.

It’s important to realize first of all that nobody is speaking for Westpark. The vocal proponents of Westpark are those who are against rail on Richmond. They don’t want Westpark because they think rail on Westpark is good; they want rail on Westpark because it means no rail on Richmond. That’s in contrast to Richmond, where, while there is considerable opposition, there is also considerable support in the surrounding neighborhoods for Richmond.

And there are those who oppose rail on Westpark. There are residential neighborhoods directly bordering Westpark between Edloe and the Union Pacific railroad; they lobbied against Richmond in the and will do so again. And any alignment that tries to avoid Richmond east of Shepherd either by elevating above 59 or by running at grade alongside the freeway trench will run into two very organized civic groups (Boulevard Oaks and Neartown) that are already on record for a Richmond alignment and that know how to organize (they’re the reason 59 is depressed under Montrose now). And what about the businesses along Westpark, especially those with back driveways that cross the METRO right-of-way?

The point is that without a vocal constituency in favor of a line on Westpark, it will likely die. Will John Culberson actually champion building the line on Westpark where he insists it has to go, and will he fight to ensure that it gets FTA funding as other cities have gotten via earmarks, thus upholding the will of the voters by seeing the Universities line through to completion? Or, since he’s never before lifted a finger to support mass transportation in Houston, will he be content to let it die and thus finally overturn the referendum that he fought in vain to defeat in 2003? You know what I think.

The DCCC welcomes Sekula-Gibbs to the race

I’d forgotten about this.

Republicans in Washington are famous for accepting congressional pay raises even though the debt has reached $8.5 trillion under their watch while they continue to do nothing to balance the budget. Congressional candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs was one of five on the Houston City Council to accept a pay raise during a city-wide financial crisis in 2004. At the time, Houston faced an $8 million budget shortfall and projected gaps of more than $70 million for the following year.

[…]

In 2004, Sekula-Gibbs was one of only five of fourteen City Council members to accept a pay raise, despite maintaining a private medical practice on the side. The Houston Chronicle reported that Houston “faces an anticipated $8 million shortfall this fiscal year, according to the controller’s office. The gap for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, has been projected as high as $74 million by the finance and administration office.” Sekula-Gibbs declined to comment on acceptance of the 12% raise. [Houston Chronicle, 1/15/04, 1/16/04]

Welcome to the table, Shelley. The Chron articles cited can be found here and here. The full story is more nuanced than this, since the money for the raises goes to the Council members’ budgets whether they take it home as pay or not, but that’s life in the big city. I don’t imagine ads funded by the $3 million of national GOP money will be any fairer than that.

Besides, I figure that for the most part, Shelley will be mostly if not totally ignored in Nick Lampson’s advertising. This race is not much different than most well-funded-incumbent-versus-little-known-challenger campaigns. Especially with the write-in component, there’s no percentage in Lampson adding to her name recognition. I don’t expect the DCCC or any other organization to spend much if anything on attacks ads for the same reason. I could be wrong about this, especially if a big barrage of anti-Lampson pieces hits the airwaves, but at this point I don’t see it.

A preview of the coming budget battles

I like the link title for this story: “Some fear state budget will hurt health, education”. I believe that one goes into the “No s–t, Sherlock” file.

Unofficial estimates from Gov. Rick Perry’s office identify money totals – factoring in “conservative” revenue growth, an economic boost from tax changes and the balance in the state contingency fund – that come close to covering his staff’s estimates of major spending needs in the coming two-year budget period. The needs, identified in May, include such things as Medicaid growth but not recently high-profile issues such as parks funding.

For the two-year budget period after that – the one lawmakers won’t write until 2009 – forecasts are more uncertain.

In that period, the state would be $300 million short of paying just for the school and tax package under what Perry budget director Mike Morrissey called conservative revenue projections. He said the estimates don’t fully account for factors such as potential economic growth.

In short, if you accept the Governor’s notion of “conservative” revenue growth estimates, and you accept that the special session tax swap will be a boost to the economy (I’m a little unclear on that one), and you assume that the previous surplus projections haven’t already been allocated at least twice, then we’re only $300 million shy of a balanced budget. Assuming nothing else bad happens, of course.

As you might imagine, not everyone sees it that way.

Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, House Democratic Caucus chairman, dismissed the figures from Perry’s office as “ludicrous estimates.”

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, Senate Finance Committee chairman, said: “The budget is going to be tight. But I don’t think it’s going to be anything that we can’t manage.

“I think we’re going to be fine. I’m not 100 percent sure,” Ogden said. “I think the next biennium, we’re going to be OK. I’m not ready to speculate on the biennium beyond that.”

[…]

[Comptroller Carole] Strayhorn estimated the effort would create a shortfall of $23 billion over five years. The nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board put it at $25 billion.

The comptroller is the only one who can make official revenue estimates, a point Morrissey noted. The comptroller is required to make such an estimate for the next Legislature, which returns in January 2007.

Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton emphasized that point when asked about Morrissey’s figures, and he disputed the idea that there would be a huge economic response to the tax changes.

“You can come up with all sorts of scenarios, but really, the proof is in the pudding,” Hamilton said. “And right now, the pudding says $23 billion to $25 billion short in the plan. That’s $5 billion a year, and that takes a lot of economic growth to make up.”

I don’t blame Sen. Ogden for not wanting to talk about the next biennium. It gets ugly in a hurry. Strayhorn’s revenue estimate for January of 2007 will be her last as Comptroller. That will bear watching.