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December, 2006:

Robinson Warehouse – To the end of the year, but not much more

Today is December 31, and a piece of the Robinson Warehouse is still standing, but the end is clearly in sight. I’ll be surprised if there’s anything but debris to be picked up and carted off in a week’s time.

Not much left, is there? Click on for more.


The last Speaker’s race story of the year

The latest news in the Speaker’s race is a letter written by most of Tom Craddick’s committee chairs to the House membership asking for their support in giving Craddick a third term. The letter is here (PDF); four chairs – two Republicans (Jim Pitts and Robert Talton) and two Democrats (Allan Ritter and Craig Eiland) – declined to sign. This is the sort of thing that I think Team Craddick should have done from the beginning, not releasing nebulous and ever-shrinking pledge lists or demanding to know who has pledged to someone else, both of which strike me as signs of weakness. This is the first positive reason to support Craddick I’ve seen, and not a minute too late for Craddick. Not that it impresses me, of course – I’d sooner see Dan Patrick in charge of things – but at least it’s a sign that Craddick recognizes the position he’s in.

Others have their own take. Hal doesn’t think this letter will fool anyone, though he does have some sympathy for the Democratic signers, a position with which McBlogger disagrees. Vince thinks this letter could be the death knell of the anti-Craddick rebellion. Paul Burka is unwilling to call it one way or the other at this point. I’m somewhere between Hal and Burka on this. I see Craddick is being seriously wounded, but not dead yet. We’ll know soon enough.

UPDATE: Just because it was my last post for this year on the Speaker’s race doesn’t mean it was everybody else’s:

BOR cites a Quorum Report story in which Democratic Rep. Craig Eiland, one of the four committee chairs who did not sign the letter on behalf of Craddick, says that Craddick can’t win at this point. From your lips to God’s ears, Rep. Eiland.

Rep. Pena says he’s ready to call the Speaker’s race, but doesn’t say who he thinks the winner is.

Muse comments on Rep. Pena’s postings and wonders if Pitts and McCall might be combining forces.

Lisa Sandberg says things are a wee bit too quiet in Austin right now.

Happy New Year, Utah!

It’s already 2007 in some parts of Utah.

[A]t least two [Utah] cities will eagerly embrace 2007 a full 24 hours before it actually arrives in order to appeal to Mormons.

The premature celebration does not reflect a new emphasis on revelry, church officials assure. It is simply that New Year’s Eve this year falls on a Sunday, the Sabbath, and the two cities, St. George and Provo, know that in a state with about 1.75 million Mormons, faith can trump Father Time when it comes to planning a party.

“It’s cultural slash religious, but primarily it’s economic-based,” said Marc Mortensen, the coordinator for First Night St. George, the city’s alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration. “We’re just not going to get good enough attendance if we hold it on Sunday.”

Works for me. I started a tradition of “New Year’s Eve In January” parties back in college, because the only way I could have a New Year’s Eve party with all my friends was to do so after the winter break. I say one shouldn’t be too closely wedded to the idea of a single New Year’s Eve, and as such, I applaud the city of St. George for thinking outside the box. Happy New Year, Utah!

The Lubbock State School

Here’s a disturbing story from last week that had slipped past me.

Shoddy health care, substantial neglect and harmful treatment techniques have jeopardized the lives of Lubbock State School residents, federal investigators said in a report that criticized nearly every part of the facility.

The U.S. Department of Justice report paints a nightmarish picture of the facility that cares for about 350 people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

One man died of an illness that could have been prevented if his doctors and nurses had done something as simple as modifying his diet. Another woman developed excruciating ulcers on her buttocks after lying in urine-soaked diapers. A third resident was grabbed, choked and thrown on the floor when he resisted receiving a shot.

“LSS’s provision of health care falls alarmingly short of professional standards of care,” said the report, which was issued Dec. 11 but was not posted on the department’s Web site until Thursday.

That report is here (PDF).

Michael Jones, a spokesman for the state agency that oversees the state school, said he could not comment on the report’s contents because “it’s still a potential legal matter.” But he would say the facility has a new management team that has worked hard to improve training and hire more medical professionals.

Many of the problems stemmed from severe staffing shortages and training issues, the report said.


The investigators documented scores of problems, including 17 deaths in a year and a half and possible violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

That law says states must treat individuals in the most integrated setting possible. But rather than seeking to move obviously capable residents into the community, officials seemed eager to keep them in the facility, the report said.

Emphasis mine. Seventeen deaths in a year and a half, due in large part to staff shortages. Why were there such staff shortages? Take a wild guess.

State Rep. Delwin Jones of Lubbock, who helped get the school built in the 1960s, said he saw some of the report Friday and said state budget cuts put the school in a difficult position.

“A shortage of personnel put them in a tough spot in trying to deliver the quality of care people deserve,” he said, adding he would support efforts to upgrade the quality of care.

Budget cuts. Seventeen deaths. Any more questions about why some of us get so pissed off when we don’t hear about restoring the draconian cuts of 2003 now that we have a larger surplus than we did a deficit back then?

Oh, and another thing we tend to get upset about, from that same session, is how this agency came to be:

The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) was established in September 2004 as a result of House Bill 2292 (78th Texas Legislature), which consolidated:

  • mental retardation services and state school programs of the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation
  • community care, nursing facility, and long-term care regulatory services of the Department of Human Services, and
  • aging services and programs of the Department on Aging.

Yes, HB2292, also known as the bill that threw 250,000 kids off of CHIP and gave us the excellent adventure known as Accenture outsourcing of THHSC. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Rick Perry may not want to talk about what his legacy will be, but I’ll tell you that stuff like this is a big part of it.

My thanks to Citizen Able for the heads up on this.

Tell us who you are, dammit!

So House Speaker wannabe Brian McCall says he has enough pledges to beat Tom Craddick next week. Which is great, even if by now most legislators have committed themselves multiple times. What really fascinated me in this article was the approach that Team Craddick has decided to take to woo back its wayward supporters:

Lawmakers who met with Craddick in a room off the House chamber are calling those on his list to ensure they’re sticking with the incumbent, said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, one of the participants.

“You divide the names up and call and make sure everybody is still where they are,” said Chisum. “That’s what we’re doing.” He estimated there were 30 or more people in the meeting.

During the meeting, voices along with laughter and applause could be heard from behind the closed doors by tourists and others who wandered into the chamber.

Chisum — along with Republican Reps. Frank Corte of San Antonio and Phil King of Weatherford, and Democratic Rep. Norma Chavez of El Paso — said after the meeting that those who claim support should show their list of pledged backers.

“If you have support, then show me your list,” Chavez said.

The lawmakers also said there is a question of honor at stake in secretly pledging support to more than one candidate. They said lawmakers who change their minds about supporting Craddick should be upfront about it.

“Your word is all you have,” King said.

Corte said, “It’s about honor.”

Chavez said, “Veteran members know how important giving your word is in this process.”

Yes, publicly questioning people’s honor has always been an effective means of ensuring loyalty.

What an utter load of crap this is. “Veteran members” know fully well that pledge cards are meaningless. They’re no more bound to that than a respondent to a pollster is to vote for the candidate they claimed they support. This isn’t aimed at veteran members, who’ve been around the block and know the score. It’s aimed at freshmen – in particular, Republican freshmen – who as I said before have to make a choice without having as full an understanding of the consequences as everybody else will. This has all the sincerity of a daytime TV commercial selling some kind of dubious supplemental insurance to worried senior citizens.

McCall and Pitts have said they don’t want to put lawmakers in jeopardy with the incumbent by releasing names prematurely.

McCall voiced concern about “bullying and strong-arm tactics.” McCall also said he is trying to attract more supporters, not release an exclusive list. Pitts is seeking to be a consensus candidate.

Corte said, “There’s no fear and intimidation here.”

“We just want to know who all the dirty turncoat traitors are so the kneebreaking – I mean, the healing – can begin,” he did not add.

Truly, I am astonished at how tone deaf the Craddickites are. They have no idea what is driving this rebellion, so they have no viable response to it. Have none of them read a newspaper, or asked a non-Craddickite friend (assuming they still have any) what the hate is all about? The level of disengagement is positively Bushian.

On a related note, here’s a little blast from the past that saw this coming from quite a ways off. Extra kudos to The Red State for foreseeing the rise of Brian McCall.

Why Craddick’s speakership is in trouble

I really don’t think I can sum up why Tom Craddick’s hold on the Speakership is in trouble better than this article has done.

Lawmakers backing House Speaker Tom Craddick plan a strategy meeting here today to map “a new course “in the wake of a challenge to his re-election by fellow Republicans, a key participant said Friday.

“We’re going to plan and strategize and map out a new course for the whole state of Texas,” Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said as he drove to the Amarillo airport late Friday to catch a flight to the state capital.

Craddick spokesman Chris Cutrone and consultant Bill Miller said they didn’t know anything about a meeting.

Though Chisum said he believes Craddick will successfully fight off challenges by Reps. Brian McCall, of Plano, and Jim Pitts, of Waxahachie, “it was kind of an assault on his leadership style, so we’ve got to talk about that. … You’ve got to sit down and say, ‘OK, how can we do better?’ Or maybe we need to get all on the same page if we’re going to do the right thing for the people of Texas.”

Chisum suggested there would be “a change of style, a little bit” to involve more lawmakers.

“We’d like to get … back to having the House more run by the members,” he said.


[Chisum] said he wasn’t certain whether Craddick would attend the meeting, which he said would be at the state Capitol, but added, “I know some of his staff people will be there.”


Chisum said the group wants to figure out why lawmakers are so set on change.

“We want to see why we had so many … especially Republicans that would go out and seek the company of Democrats to unseat the speaker,” he said, referring to the support from both parties claimed by each challenger in the GOP-majority House.

“That’s kind of concerning because they lay their political career on the line when they do that,” Chisum said. “It’s kind of just a little self-examination time, and hopefully lay out a plan that we can kind of get this behind us pretty quick, because a real hard-divided House is not going to be fun.”

How clueless and out of touch can you get? There’s dozens of books on leadership at your local Barnes and Noble that will tell you how effective leaders communicate with their charges so they can understand their problems and frustrations, and how they get out in front of issues like this so they can head them off before they become full-blown crises. Maybe someone should give Craddick a copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as a belated Christmas present. With any luck, he’ll have more free time this session to read it.

Elsewhere, Eye on Williamson has an update from Travis County and a good explanation why some Craddick Dems may indeed go down with the ship. Check it out.

UPDATE: Want more evidence that Craddick is clueless? Here you go.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick released a list Thursday of the state representatives who were supposedly supporting the Midland Republican’s effort to retain his leadership position.

One of our first clues that the list wasn’t rock solid (other than the fact it included Waxahachie Republican Jim Pitts, who the same day announced that he would challenge Craddick) was that Craddick didn’t correctly spell the names of some of the lawmakers he claimed had pledged their loyalty. We figured that if they were truly aligned with him, he would at least know their names.

No word on whether Dallas Democrat Helen Giddings (on Craddick’s list as “Helen Gidding”) or Corsicana Republican Byron Cook (listed as “Bryon Cook”) are still supporting Craddick.

Oops. Link via BOR.

Get well soon, Bobby Murcer

Former Yankee center fielder Bobby Murcer is in Houston this weekend, but not for a good reason.

Yankee legend Bobby Murcer is scheduled to undergo surgery [Thursday] in Houston for the removal of a brain tumor.

Murcer, 60, a Yankee institution as a player and broadcaster for 40 years, had been experiencing headaches and a loss of energy in recent days and, after an MRI on Christmas Eve, the tumor was discovered. It was then decided that he would seek treatment at the MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, one of the foremost cancer facilities in the country.

“I’m feeling OK and we’re just going to have to see what this surgery will bring,” Murcer said by phone last night. “I’m hopeful that everything will turn out OK and I’m thankful to have so many friends who are rooting for me.”

Link via David Pinto. Thankfully, the surgery appears to have gone well.

Bobby Murcer emerged in good spirits yesterday from six hours of surgery to remove a brain tumor and, according to close family sources, the Yankee legend’s doctor was “completely happy” with how the operation went.

According to former Yankee publicist Marty Appel, who spoke last night with Murcer’s wife, Kay, Murcer was actually talking and joking following the procedure at the renowned University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Dr. Jeffrey Weinberg performed the surgery.


“They removed it all and everything went great,” Appel said Kay Murcer told him. “The doctor was completely happy with the way it went and Bobby came out of the recovery room talking and even asked the anesthesiologist, who he remembered by name: ‘How did I do, Tom?'”

It will take a few days before doctors can fully analyze the pathology reports on the tumor, but initial signs all appear to be positive. Kay Murcer said, “Bobby fully expects to be in spring training in March.”

As of now, barring any complications, Murcer, 60, is expected to remain in the hospital over the weekend and likely will be discharged on Monday, when he would return home to Oklahoma City for his recovery period.

I’m very glad to her that. Murcer was one of the few bright spots on the Yankee roster in the late 60s and early 70s, and he’s always been a favorite of mine. Get well soon, Bobby! Second link via Bronx Banter.

It’s not a tradition till you’ve done it twice

I knew I had officially entered Old Fogeyhood a couple of years ago when I realized I didn’t really care if I stayed up to usher in the New Year. As such, I was completely unaware of last year’s new New Year’s Eve “tradition” in Houston, which apparently will be taking this year off due to technical difficulties.

It was supposed to be a signature event for Houston, planners said, a budding New Year’s Eve tradition that might one day rival the Big Apple’s midnight drop. There was heady talk of eventually broadcasting it nationally or even worldwide.

But the 9-foot star that was hoisted to the top of downtown’s Binz Building to celebrate last Dec. 31 will languish in a warehouse this year as planners regroup for what they promise will be a far grander spectacle in 2007.

“It takes a couple of years to get a project like that up and running and to get people educated about it,” said City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado. “Last year was a start.”


The hitch in planning may reflect that Houston is still learning how to create a sense of shared community — something that wasn’t necessary when a surging, oil-based economy was all the city needed to consider itself successful, said Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg, a longtime observer of Houston culture.

Political and business leaders increasingly are focusing on creating a distinct identity for Houston, Klineberg said, but such transformations take time.

“It’s a tricky thing,” he said, “to create a tradition that doesn’t already exist.”

Hey, in the MOB we just declare that anything we’ve done more than once is a tradition. Saves a lot of time that way. Give it a try and see for yourself.

Bye-bye, Jordy

The Jordy Tollett era is coming to an end.

Gerard J. “Jordy” Tollett announced today that he is leaving his post as president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He said he has decided to pursue other ventures.

He will serve as a consultant until 2008.

GHCVB chairman Doug Horn and chairman emeritus Don Henderson will coordinate day-to-day operations at the GHCVB.

The executive board of the bureau voted in November to search for a possible replacement for Tollett.

Considerable pressure was applied on the board’s 28 members, who cast secret ballots when deciding whether to follow up on Mayor Bill White’s recommendation to enlist a national executive search firm to find candidates when Tollett’s contract expires in February.


Tollett doesn’t need a job – he still earns $111,000 a year from his city pension. But this is a job he had wanted to keep, he said in November, because it defines him.

I recommend finding a hobby. Try needlepoint, or maybe blogging. You’d be amazed at how much personal fulfillment is available if you look for it. And hey, now you have the time to do just that.

Miya has more.

UPDATE: Here’s today’s fuller story.

Still time to vote for Stephanie

If you’d like to affect an election that’s maybe not as important as the House Speaker’s race but is by far more fun, you have until tomorrow night to vote for Stephanie Stradley as the Ultimate Texans Fan. Here she explains why your vote matters:

Here’s a stat you won’t find anywhere else. The Texans are 2-1 when I run out on the field through the tunnel as one of the finalists in the Ultimate Texan Fan contest. My buddy Mark thinks the team won’t turn the corner until I win. Interesting theory, and one I’d like to see work. Voting ends soon. If you would like to see our videos, you can click here. If you would like to just vote, click here.

Steph notes that the Texans have never won Game 16 in their history, so we’ll see how her mojo is working for them this time. They’ll announce the winner at the two minute warning of the first half. Good luck, Stephanie!

Today’s Speaker Race update

It’s really hard to keep up on all the developments in the Speaker’s race. Let’s see what I can do to bring you up to speed.

Here’s the Chron story on the latest entrant into the fray, Waxahachie Republican Jim Pitts:

Jim Pitts, 59, the affable Republican from Waxahachie whom Craddick appointed to chair the influential Appropriations Committee in 2004, said he decided to challenge the 63-year-old speaker from Midland because he is convinced he can win.

While refusing to name names or discuss precise numbers, Pitts said at an afternoon news conference that he’d done the math and, unlike either of his opponents, had come up with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans backing him.

“I wouldn’t be standing here today if I didn’t feel that I would win overwhelmingly on Jan. 9,” he said.

I’ve already said that Pitts would be okay by me. Now I’m going to say that Pitts may be a stalking horse for Craddick. He may be the not-McCall candidate, rather than the not-Craddick candidate. A major consideration here for some Republicans is that being part of a power-seizing coalition that’s three-quarters Democratic might be hazardous to their health in a future primary. Pitts could win simply by getting the bulk of Craddick’s support, plus some Republicans who currently support McCall. That’s a Republican-dominated coalition, which achieves the end of ousting Craddick, but does so in a way that’s sufficiently palatable to those involved. Mind you, this would still be an improvement over Speaker Craddick. The question is whether the choice is between Pitts and McCall, or Pitts and Craddick.

On the other hand, if Leo Berman is any indicator, then maybe it’s not so simple for Pitts after all. Like I said, it’s hard to keep up with all of this.

Best quote of the entire affair:

Craddick, meanwhile, insisted he held a decisive lead and released a list of 84 members that his consultant, Bill Miller, called “solid hard,” “in our pocket” supporters, people who had been called “two and three times” to reconfirm their support for him, including Pitts.

Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee appeared stunned that Pitts had entered the race.

“We have not heard that,” DeLee said about an hour after Pitts confirmed his candidacy. “He told us he’s in our camp. Well, that’s just one less person on the list.”

You can see why nobody is taking Craddick’s pledge lists seriously any more. How can you when he doesn’t even know who really supports him and who doesn’t?

From where I sit, which isn’t in Austin and which isn’t connected to all this, it feels to me like the longer this gets drawn out, the less likely Craddick is to survive. Power is as much about perception as anything, and right now Tom Craddick looks weak. If fear plays any role in keeping some of his support in line, then the weaker Craddick looks the less there is to fear from him. Remember, a vote for Speaker can be called during the session. Even if Craddick wins on January 9, he’s not free to go back to his old ways.

Describing himself as “the consensus candidate,” Pitts said he had been “inundated with calls over the last five days” from House members seeking a candidate who would work both sides of the aisle and do so without the “arm twisting” he and others allege occurred under Craddick’s leadership.

“I would never insist or twist arms or intimidate members to vote against their district,” Pitts said Thursday, standing beside his son Ryan, 20. “I will go out and help 150 members get re-elected whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.”

If you want to know where that fear of Craddick comes from, it’s in the strong challenges that various members have faced over the past couple of cycles, in particular in Republican primaries. Unfortunately for him, a few too many people have survived them, and now know that they don’t have to be afraid.

And of course there’s a bunch of freshmen this session – Democrats who need only follow Senfronia Thompson’s lead, and Republicans who may or may not have any reason to feel a kinship with Craddick. Some of those Republican freshmen will have a really tough decision to make, and they’ll be making it without really knowing the players involved. I don’t envy them the task.

In the Take It For What It’s Worth department, I’m hearing that there’s some real ugliness looming on the horizon for the speaker’s race. If what I’m hearing is accurate, look for things to get personal and nasty very soon.

Other takes:

Burka looks at the Craddick defectors and the Dems who still remain in his camp. I’ll address two of those people, and make a more general point. I’m hearing that Chuck Hopson is with McCall, so he’s another person that Craddick may be counting on that he shouldn’t be. As for Aaron Pena, I join Burka in wishing that Pena would address this matter on his blog. I hate to call someone out in this fashion, but one thing about blogging is that people will come to expect you to talk about certain topics. I don’t doubt that this is as hard for Pena as it is for many others, but this is one of those topics that he needs to address. I sympathize with the spot he may be in, but as long as he’s on Craddick’s list, even as meaningless as that list may turn out to be, people will wonder about it.

That said, getting to my more general point, I think if Craddick ultimately loses most of those folks will wind up supporting the winner. It may be simply a matter of knowing which way the wind is blowing and not wanting to go down with the ship, but I’ll be very surprised if there’s more than a handful of Dems stick with Craddick in a losing effort.

McBlogger and Vince are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the challenge to Craddick. I see where Vince is coming from, but I’m with McB. Sometimes the only way to move forward is to risk being thrown for a loss. It’s increasingly hard to sympathize with the Craddick Dems.

BOR is calling out several of those Dems, especially Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes. Dukes, sadly, has other things in her track record to worry about. Supporting Craddick may be the backbreaker, but she didn’t get into that position by happenstance. As for the rest of BOR’s list of potential primary targets, for better or worse I don’t see Sylvester Turner as being in any real danger. I think Burka has the right take on him. Turner is very good at what he does, and he’ll do what’s best for him. Remember my general point above? Think Sylvester Turner as you read that. Kevin Bailey, on the other hand, needs to watch his posterior.

South Texas Chisme is keeping score in the Valley. Have I mentioned that calling your own Rep and asking him or her to support Brian McCall is a good idea? Yes, I think I have.

Sal Costello says that Jim Pitts would oppose the Trans Texas Corridor.

Muse reads Rep. Leo Berman’s email and says he’s making a very serious charge. She has the relevant law pertaining to the Speaker’s race and explains what she means by that.

UPDATE: DallasBlog says Pitts’ candidacy is going nowhere. Bay Area Houston airs grievances against Craddick.

UPDATE: Rep. Pena weighs in.

UPDATE: More from Easter Lemming, who fills in what I left blank regarding the nastiness, and Hal.

Houston’s bowl game, version whatever

Anybody watch the Texas Bowl? I’ll say this, having attended my first-ever bowl game last week: There is something cool, something special about bowl games. Just being in another town with your fellow fans, wearing your school’s colors, hopefully in greater numbers than the other guys, and knowing that the locals you encounter know why you’re there, was pleasing in a way I didn’t expect. Maybe that wears off when going to a bowl game becomes a habit and an expectation, but for this time, at least, I enjoyed the heck out of it.

Anyway. In yesterday’s story about the latest version of a Houston-based bowl game, an old familiar theme cropped up:

Rutgers vs. Kansas State is a fortuitously attractive matchup between two rags-to-riches programs with devout followings. A crowd in excess of 50,000 is expected for the 7 p.m. kickoff, and officials predict the economic impact for the community to exceed $30 million.

Thousands of hotel rooms are said to be full of people wearing clothes in Rutgers scarlet or K-State purple.

“It’s the equivalent of one of our major conventions, like the Offshore Technology Conference,” said Wayne Chappell of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And because (the visitors) don’t have to go to meetings, they’re out having fun and spending money.”

Reading this makes me kinda wish I’d been at work for some of this week so I could offer my own evidence about these statements. I’d be interested to know where these folks spent those discretionary dollars of theirs, because as I’ve said many times before, there are not many attractive dining options near Reliant Stadium. Did anybody else encounter some of these folks? If so, where was it?

And of course you can’t have a story like this without the issue of the game’s economic impact on the city arising. I’ve beaten that horse to a pulp (see here and here for two examples), and I’ve yet to see a postgame study of the actual numbers. I doubt this time will be any different.

Be that as it may, the game did draw over 50,000 fans, many of whom presumably came from out of town. I’m not doubting that there was some economic impact (though whether this year’s attendance level will be normal or anomalous is open to debate), I just want something other than some Houston booster’s self-interested pregame guess as a metric. Is that so much to ask?

What’s in a name, part deux

Shortly after Olivia was born, I wrote about how we picked her name in part on the belief that it wasn’t a trendy choice. That belief turned out to be false, but looking back, I don’t think we care any more. We love the name Olivia Rose, and as an extra added bonus, we haven’t encountered any other Olivias at Esperanza, as we thought we were going to. All in all, we’re very happy with that choice.

Still, all things being equal, we’d rather not run with the crowd. As such, I’m pleased to see that the name we’ve selected for baby #2 is not in the top ten for 2006. It does appear in the top 100 list, but I can live with that. We’re not looking to be pioneers, either. A happy medium works for us.

(No, I’m not going to tell you what it is yet. You’ll know when she makes her debut.)

On that note, I’ve been amused by the debate in this week’s Dear Abby about unusual baby names (see here, here, and here for the background). For what it’s worth, I side with the MYOB crowd on this one. Among the reasons why we don’t disclose our baby names prior to baby arrivals is too many stories from people who told others what they’d be naming their impending progeny only to get a negative reaction. That never seems to be a problem for an already-born child, just for those who are still in utero. I guess maybe these folks think that if the kid isn’t here yet, they can change the parents’ minds about its name. We’d just as soon not deal with people like that, so we avoid the issue. But for the record, as far as I’m concerned the only acceptable, polite reaction to the disclosure of a forthcoming baby’s name is a pleasantry. If you don’t like the chosen name, you are cordially invited to lump it. I don’t care who you are or what your relationship is to the kid’s parents. You have no say in the matter, so keep your criticism to yourself.

This is not to say that I think some names are better choices than others. As my friend Ellen likes to say, if you can’t imagine your kid’s name (in particular, your daughter’s name) on the door of a CEO’s office, you might want to explore other options. I’d just never say such a thing out loud to anyone, as it’s none of my damn business.

Finally, I just want to say that the chapter on children’s names in the book Freakonomics, especially the bit on the brothers named Winner and Loser, is excellent. If you’ve not yet read the book, consider this a good reason to seek it out.

Red light cameras and traffic safety

Earlier this week, I received a comment on this post about red light cameras from a fellow named Reed Berry, who said he’d had a radio debate with local camera opponent Michael Kubosh. I’ve had a pleasant exchange of emails with Mr. Berry since then, and am awaiting an MP3 of the broadcast, which I will post for you when I get it.

In the meantime, Berry also sent me these two links (PDF) on the subject of how red light cameras affect accident and injury rates. I’ll quote a bit from the latter, which is taken from a statement before the Ohio Senate Committee on Highways and Transportation given by Anne T. McCartt of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

The key question is, would wide use of such cameras improve the safety of our urban streets? Findings from Institute research indicate they do. Significant citywide crash reductions followed the introduction of red light cameras in Oxnard, California. This is the major finding of the first U.S. research on the effects of camera enforcement on intersection crashes.5 Injury crashes at intersections with traffic signals were reduced by 29 percent after camera enforcement began in Oxnard in 1997. Front-into-side collisions – the crash type that is most closely associated with
red light running – were reduced by 32 percent overall, and front-into-side crashes involving injuries were reduced 68 percent. Crashes declined throughout Oxnard even though only 11 of the city’s 125 intersections with traffic signals were equipped with cameras. Previous studies of red light running violations in Oxnard and elsewhere found similar spillover effects. That is, the violations dropped in about the same proportions at intersections with and without cameras, attesting to the strong deterrent value of red light cameras and their ability to change driver behavior.

Institute research based on a review of the international literature provides further evidence that red light cameras can significantly reduce violations and related injury crashes. A detailed assessment of international studies of camera effectiveness indicates that red light camera enforcement generally reduces violations by an estimated 40-50 percent and reduces overall injury crashes by 25-30 percent.

A 2005 study sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration evaluated red light camera programs in seven communities (El Cajon, San Diego, and San Francisco, California; Howard County, Montgomery County, and Baltimore, Maryland; and Charlotte, North Carolina). The study found that, overall, right-angle crashes decreased by 25 percent while rear-end collisions increased by 15 percent. Because the types of crashes prevented by red light cameras tend to be more severe and more costly than the additional rear-end crashes that can occur, the study found a positive societal benefit of more than $14 million. The authors concluded that the increase in rear-end crash frequency does not offset the societal benefit resulting from the decrease in right-angle crashes targeted by red light cameras.

A 2003 report conducted for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation evaluated a two-year pilot program using red light cameras in six communities in Ontario. The study found a 6.8 percent decrease in fatal and injury collisions and a 18.5 percent increase in property-damage-only collisions. As with the Federal Highway Administration study, the researchers found that the positive societal benefits resulting from the decrease in fatal and injury crashes was not offset by the increase in property-damage-only crashes. The report concluded that the program “has been shown to be an effective tool in reducing fatal and injury collisions, thereby preventing injuries and saving lives” and recommended its continuation. Based on the results of the pilot program, Ontario’s Transportation Minister authorized the use of red light cameras throughout Ontario.

There’s quite a bit more there, so check it out. I find they’re way too blase about privacy concerns for my taste, but the information about collisions is something I’ve been very interested in. I still want to know what the effect is here in Houston, so I hope some similar research is done. Let me know what you think about this.

Farmers Branch will vote on immigration law

Previously I noted that there was a petition drive in Farmers Branch to force a repeal of the anti-immigrant law that was passed by its City Council in November. It appears that drive was successful.

Opponents of a city ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to illegal immigrants have collected enough valid signatures to force the City Council to repeal the measure or put it to a city vote.

The petition drive gathered at least 908 valid signatures, more than the 721 required, city spokesman Tom Bryson said.


The petitioners needed to collect the signatures of at least 5 percent of the voters registered for the May election.

Bryson said the council will discuss the petition at its Jan. 8 meeting. The city charter requires that the council now reconsider the measure or call a special election on the issue.

Bryson said that if the issue goes to a vote, it would be placed on a May 12 ballot.

If I were in charge of the campaign to repeal this stupid law, I would be sure to emphasize that its nullification would (among other things) result in the dismissal of the lawsuits that have been filed against the city. (Not all of them, perhaps – one such suit alleges that the Council violated state open meeting laws.) Needless to say, that would save the city a ton of money in legal fees. There are certainly better reasons to vote for its repeal, but that’s one that I think most people can relate to. I’m guessing that Council will not reconsider its action, so mark your calendar for May 12 when this goes to a vote.

Speaker’s race: Two out, one in

Things continue to heat up in the Speaker’s race. First, according to the Quorum Report, onetime Speaker candidate Robert Talton has thrown his support to Brian McCall, thus making him the first Republican to officially break with Tom Craddick. BOR prints Talton’s statement.

Meanwhile, the Chron’s Lisa Sandberg reports on Texas Politics blog that Senfronia Thompson has also thrown her support to McCall. She claimed to have about 60 pledges.

That leaves Craddick and McCall. Well, it did leave them until Jim Pitts announced his candidacy.

“I told Speaker Craddick that I didnt think he could get the numbers that he needed (to be re-elected as head of the House). I dont think Brian (McCall) is getting the numbers. And I’ve got a consensus group that has asked me to run,” Pitts said in an interview minutes after he mailed his paperwork for the race.

Pitts said he would have a news conference at the Capitol later today to announce his race.

He disclosed his plans soon after a consultant for McCall, R-Plano, said his client had been endorsed by Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena – who had been considering a run for speaker – and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who filed to run against Craddick.

All I’ve heard about Jim Pitts suggests that he’d be as good an alternative as McCall would be. If he can get over the hump, he’d be fine by me.

Meanwhile, Paul Burka says what he knows about McCall and his chances. Craddick released a list of 84 pledges to the Quorum Report, which you can see here (Word doc) and beneath the fold. That list includes Jim Pitts, so take it for what it’s worth. Finally, BOR has a Numsum spreadsheet comparing Craddick’s original pledge list to his current one, minus Pitts, with both lists taken from what Quorum Report has published. Have I mentioned that this is going to be a fun few days? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Burka has more.

UPDATE: Burka reports from Pitts’ press conference.


Caption time

I’m not usually one for caption contests, but with a picture like this, I can’t resist:

I’ll open the bidding with “The Bad, The Worse, and The Ugly”, but surely you can do better than that. Have at it in the comments. Thanks to Kriston for the catch.

Oh, and you can buy a copy of this photo, which was taken by Christopher Morris in 2004, for as little as one thousand dollars. In case you need a post-Christmas gift for someone, I suppose.

Corpus Christi WiFi update

Dwight brings an update on Corpus Christi’s WiFi rollout, which he says still has a few bugs in the system. It’s still under construction, so the final chapter has not been written yet. As Earthlink is their vendor and one of two possibilities for Houston’s setup, and as Corpus has been cited as a model for Houston, this will bear watching.

Throwing good money after bad

Scott picks up on this Chron editorial endorsing the recent proposal to spend $267 million to build more jails in Harris County, and points out all of the bothersome details that they failed to address. I’m not going to re-plow this ground again, but I am going to say this: Let’s accept for argument’s sake that Harris County really does need all of this new prison space, that none of the issues with overcrowding we face now are problems of mismanagement. Where is the plan to hire enough guards for all these new prisons? As we’ve already seen, the county – which already faces a shortage of guards – will be competing with HPD and the armed forces for its job applicants. What are they going to do to increase the size of that pool, and to win enough of them over? It seems to me that one logical way to do this is to sweeten the deal for prospective jailers. Is that being considered, and if so, what effect will it have overall on Harris County’s finances? Commissioner’s Court is awfully quiet on this point. Tell me what that plan is, and then we can talk about the wisdom of this scheme. Until then, I see this proposal as little more than vaporware.

Everybody into the Speaker’s race!

It was a very weird election year in Texas. Why should the Speaker’s race be any different?

Tuesday brought yet another twist in the speaker’s race: Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, another conservative Republican, announced he would decide by Thursday whether to become the third person to challenge Craddick, after McCall and liberal Democrat Senfronia Thompson of Houston.

“I think members of the House ought to run the House,” Talton said, voicing a common refrain of discontent. “I think there needs to be changes. I told the speaker that shortly after the election.”


Thompson, for her part, said she remains in the running, at least for now.

But she said if too many candidates run against Craddick for speaker, it could divide the “disgruntled” vote.

She said it would be “very difficult” for her to support Talton but she’d have “no problem” supporting McCall under certain circumstances.

“He’s in the same position I’m maybe in. Can we garner enough votes on both sides of the aisle to make a cut? That’s what it really boils down to,” she said.

So let’s see, we have an unpopular Republican incumbent running for re-election against three candidates who can combine for a majority of the vote but who may let the incumbent slip back in with a sub-majority because none of them can consolidate the anti-incumbent voters behind them. Is it just me, or has anyone else seen this movie before already? Though I must say, having Talton play the Kinky Friedman role in the remake is some pretty inspired casting.

Anybody know if the vote for Speaker requires a majority – in other words, is there a runoff if no one gets 76 Yeas? The Constitution did not address this point.

Few House members, and no committee chairpeople contacted for this story, appeared willing to openly discuss breaking ranks with the man who has decided committee assignments and chairmanships, and the fate of major bills.

“I’m focusing on getting support for a secret ballot,” said Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview.

Sticking with Craddick, for example, are Democratic Reps. Robert Puente of San Antonio and Ismael “Kino” Flores of Palmview, who chair, respectively, the committees on Natural Resources and Licensing & Administrative Procedures.

Flores said Craddick’s reputation for strong-arm tactics could be undeserved, but he wasn’t about to test it.

“If you don’t put him in a corner and if you don’t punch him, he’ll work with you,” Flores said. “Now, has anyone opposed him and survived? I don’t know. If you’re asking me if I’m going to take that chance, (the answer is) no.”

I’ve touched on this before. The number of Puentes and Floreses there are out there will determine how many anti-Craddick Republicans will be needed to complete the coup. Expect there to be a lot of head-counting in the next two weeks, because no one is going to want to be on the losing team if they can avoid it.

It’s good on a number of levels that Senfronia Thompson is in the race. The main reason why is because she gives all Democrats an unimpeachable reason for supporting someone besides Craddick.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said Sunday that he has pledged to support Thompson when the balloting occurs.

My first obligation is going to be try to support the Democratic candidate,” he said. “If we’re released from our pledges, that’s a different story.”

Emphasis mine. Rodriguez is someone I’d expect to do the right thing regardless, but note his rationale. How can that be a wrong thing for any good Democrat to do? If it turns out Craddick doesn’t have a majority from who’s left, well, then a little shopping around couldn’t hurt, could it?

And if all else fails, there’s always the threat of a primary opponent. Would you like to have to explain to Democratic primary voters why you supported a Republican over a Democrat in the Speaker’s race? I wouldn’t.

Who knows what happens next? It’ll be all over before you know it, so stay tuned.

RIP, Gerald Ford

Former President Gerald Ford passed away yesterday at the age of 93.

Former President Gerald R. Ford, who declared “Our long national nightmare is over” as he replaced Richard Nixon but may have doomed his own chances of election by pardoning his disgraced predecessor, has died. He was 93.

The nation’s 38th president, and the only one elected to neither the office of president nor vice president, died at his desert home at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday.

“His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country,” his wife, Betty, said in a statement.

Ford was the longest living former president, surpassing Ronald Reagan, who died in June 2004, by more than a month.


Ford was an accidental president. A Michigan Republican elected to Congress 13 times before becoming the first appointed vice president in 1973 after Spiro Agnew left amid scandal, Ford was Nixon’s hand-picked successor, a man of much political experience who had never run on a national ticket. He was as open and straightforward as Nixon was tightly controlled and conspiratorial.

Ford took office moments after Nixon resigned in disgrace over Watergate.

“My fellow Americans,” Ford said, “our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

And, true to his reputation as unassuming Jerry, he added: “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots. So I ask you to confirm me with your prayers.”

He revived the debate over Watergate a month later by granting Nixon a pardon for all crimes he committed as president.

That single act, it was widely believed, contributed to Ford losing election to a term of his own in 1976. But it won praise in later years as a courageous act that allowed the nation to move on.

I’ll let history judge Ford’s actions in pardoning Richard Nixon. I think Atrios provides a little perspective on that to counterbalance the story line that you’ll read in most of the obits. Make of it what you will.

For what it’s worth, I barely remember Ford’s presidency. I remember Nixon’s resignation, and I remember Carter’s election, but there’s nothing about Ford that stands out in my mind (well, okay, there was Chevy Chase’s portrayal, but I don’t think I saw any of that until years later). I recall participating in a fifth grade class project on the 1976 election, and deciding that I supported Carter because I didn’t think it was right that a guy who hadn’t been elected President or Vice President should be President, but that’s about it. Like everyone else, I always perceived him as a decent enough fellow. I don’t have much beyond that.

Rest in peace, Gerald Ford.

UPDATE: Jim Henley and Steve Benen have interesting takes as well.

Robinson Warehouse – No Christmas break

It was a beautiful day after Christmas yesterday, and as you can see the work on the Robinson Warehouse is continuing. I don’t know how much time they deliberately took off, or how much they might have lost to inclement weather, but they were hard at work yesterday. It’s getting hard for me to distinguish at a glance of pictures like this between the remaining structure and the condo complex behind it. I still don’t think they’re going to finish by the 31st, but they’ll be darned close.

Click on for more.


The merry monster

Tiffany’s family does a gift exchange on Christmas Eve. It used to be ornaments only (I didn’t get the Derek Jeter that way, but have collected some other cool ones from that), but this year was a White Elephant exchange. You could only contribute things that you already had – no bought gifts allowed. As with the ornament exchange, everyone draws a number to determine the selection order. The rule is that you can pick from the pile of unopened gifts, or you can steal someone else’s gift; if a gift is stolen, the person who lost it gets to pick or steal, with the turn ultimately ending when a selection is made from the pile. A gift can be stolen three times, after which it’s the property of the last person to swipe it. At the end, the person who went first gets a chance to steal. It’s great fun, and we all whoop it up the whole time.

Anyway. There were some interesting objects available at this year’s exchange. One was a little doohickie that Olivia acquired – by stealing, I should point out – that she is fascinated by and we’re tolerating grimly. It’s a little stuffed monster that, well, see for yourself. I figured I’d capture it on video so we’ll remember why we eventually threw the thing out a window.

It actually does one other thing besides that:

What can I say? Olivia spent the better part of the day yesterday making it do its thing. Now you can share in the joy.

Farmers Branch lawsuit

To no one’s surprise, the city of Farmers Branch has been sued for its recent anti-immigrant actions.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund is asking a federal court here to block the suburb from enforcing an ordinance banning apartment managers from leasing to illegal immigrants. The rental measure, which would fine apartment owners up to $500 a day for violations, was passed last month and is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 12.

“The power to regulate immigration belongs to the federal government, otherwise you’d have cities, counties, town, and other entities creating their own immigration laws, which would be unenforceable,” said Lisa Graybill, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

“The Farmers Branch law is a botched attempt to force landlords to police immigration,” Nina Perales, southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a release.

She said Farmers Branch is wasting taxpayer money trying to drive out Latinos.

Calls to Farmers Branch officials were referred to City Attorney Matthew Boyle, who declined to comment, except to say it was expected. “They’ve been threatening us with litigation since August or September, so it was our understanding that this would be filed,” he said.

When this stupid law was first passed, one of its architects predicted they’d be sued. I don’t know about you, but if I were a resident of Farmers Branch, I’d want to know why my tax dollars were going to be spent defending these suits. You’d think they’d have more pressing needs than that.

The ACLU/MALDEF suit alleges that Farmers Branch places landlords in the untenable position of acting as federal immigration officers. It also complains the ordinance is poorly drafted and excludes even some immigrants with proper legal status from renting in Farmers Branch apartment complexes.

Ten plaintiffs in the lawsuit include two adult Latino tenants who are legal residents but whom have family members who are not; five unidentified children whose parents are affected by the law and three apartment owners.

The suit alleges, among other things, that the ordinance denies citizen apartment dwellers their First Amendment right to free association because it bars them from living with relatives who are not legal residents.

It also alleges the ordinance discriminates against Latinos because 42 percent of Latino-headed households in the city live in apartment complexes. By contrast, only 14 percent households headed by whites live in apartment complexes.

The ordinance, which exempts rental houses and duplexes, fails to cite any studies, reports or statistics that support the conclusion that citizenship certification is necessary for the safety and welfare of Farmers Branch residents, the plaintiffs allege.

I can’t wait to see what the city’s defense is. There are two other suits against them for related matters as well, so at least they’ll get some practice.

Also, opponents have submitted a petition seeking to force a public vote on the measures. If the city verifies 726 signatures, a vote is likely to be scheduled for May.

More fun to look forward to. Stay tuned.

Smoke ’em if you can afford ’em

Ready or not, that new cigarette tax is coming soon.

Texas smokers will pay significantly more for cigarettes starting Jan. 1 when the excise tax increases by $1 a pack in a move that health experts hope will discourage folks, especially teens, from lighting up.

The state tax increase – from 41 cents to $1.41 per pack – also will help pay for school property tax cuts.


“The cigarette tax, more than anything, will have the most significant impact in stopping kids from ever starting smoking, because they are so price-sensitive,” said James Gray, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society, Texas chapter.

The Texas tax increase will push the price of a single pack of cigarettes to around $4.50.

An estimated 143,000 Texas adults will quit smoking, and a projected 284,000 teens never will start smoking as a result of the tax increase, Gray said, citing various studies. About 3.3 million Texans currently smoke, based on a 20 percent adult smoking rate in the state, he said.


[Lawmakers] could not resist raising cigarette taxes in the spring when searching for more revenue to cut property taxes. The $1-per-pack increase should generate roughly $700 million a year more in taxes, according to projections by the comptroller’s office: $682.6 million in fiscal 2008 and $722.8 million for fiscal 2009.

All of that new tax revenue will go to reduce property taxes. But Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, said she will renew efforts in the upcoming legislative session to allocate a modest portion for smoking prevention programs aimed at teenagers.

“As a mother and a grandmother, it’s very important for me that we stop a whole other generation of kids from being hooked on tobacco,” she said. “The cost is just too great.”

She said she wants lawmakers to set aside 5 percent of the new tobacco tax revenue for anti-smoking programs.

“Every month you can keep a person past 14 from smoking, chances are they won’t become a smoker,” Nelson said.

Here we arrive at the crux of the issue I have with this tax. I’m okay with using a cigarette tax as a means to discourage smoking, and I’m okay with using it to fund anti-smoking efforts. The problem is that if you’re doing these things, you should expect the revenue from said tax to decrease over time – at least, that should be a goal. As such, using it to fund a longterm program with sure-to-be-increasing needs like a property tax cut makes no sense. What will we do when the revenue from this tax starts to decline? As far as I can tell, the answer from this Legislature is “Let that be someone else’s problem”.

El Pasoans will save $5 in excise taxes on every carton by shopping in neighboring New Mexico, while Texarkana shoppers could save more than $8 per carton in Arkansas.

“The impact will be disproportionate along those areas of Texas that border other states, because the consumer will readily cross the border to save that much on cigarette taxes,” [Chris Newton, president of the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association] said.

He said he fears that more smokers will turn to the Internet for tax-free cigarettes, Indian tribal retailers or black market cigarettes.

The convenience store industry will urge Texas lawmakers and the comptroller’s office to beef up enforcement efforts.

“Our association has encouraged its members to promptly report any signs of illicit activities or other tax-evasion schemes to the comptroller’s office or their local law enforcement authorities,” Newton said.

I’d love to know what assumptions the Comptroller’s office made about the black market when determining the revenue for this tax. How much will we lose to non-taxed sources (legal and otherwise), and how much will we spend trying to enforce the collection of this tax? All I can say is that I hope someone follows up on this in a year’s time.

McCall says he can win

And the race for House Speaker gets more interesting.

The lawmaker running against House Speaker Tom Craddick said today he’s confident he’s already secured the votes to be the next speaker, though he wouldn’t say how many pledges he’s gotten from members.

“I’m getting a very good response,” Brian McCall, R-Plano.

McCall said he’s been calling fellow lawmakers since Friday to win backing for his candidacy and that he’s been promised support from many of the 109 members who signed pledge cards for Craddick last month. Seventy-six votes are needed to win.

He also said people are fed up with what he characterized as Craddick’s “(my) way or the highway” style.

McCall filed the necessary papers for the speaker’s race on Friday.

The 16-year House veteran described himself as a social conservative who agrees with Craddick on major policy issues. But he said under his leadership, members would be treated with more respect with him as speaker.

“Members would be allowed to vote their districts and their conscience,” he said. “The speaker would take a back seat.”

As with Craddick’s claim of 109 pledge cards, it’s hard to know how seriously to take what McCall is saying here. It’s been said that with a secret ballot, Craddick would be deposed easily, but that’s not how it’s done. Someone – more than one someone, really – is going to have to be the first Republican to throw down for McCall, and be willing to suffer the brunt of whatever negative consequences there may be if McCall loses. When and if that happens, we’ll know where we stand. If that happens, I fully expect to see enough people follow in that person’s wake to effectively seal the deal. If not, I expect we’re stuck with Craddick for two more years.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, is one of the most liberal House members, but he said he would vote for McCall if speaker candidate and fellow Houston Democrat Rep. Senfronia Thompson releases him to do so.

”Clearly there’s momentum for change, and that’s what’s important here,” he said. ”Even though Brian is conservative and a lot more conservative than I am, I think he’ll be fair as speaker.

Coleman echoed others who said they are sick of Craddick’s ”autocratic” style.

”Speakers ought to be people who, if the members elect you, you serve the members and the interests of the members,” he added. ”Craddick has not served the member’s interests. He’s served his own interests. The members are disposable.”

It’s been pointed out to me that Democratic caucus rules require a vote for a Democratic Speaker candidate if there is one. I don’t know what enforcement mechanism exists for that, but I’m certain it will be used to get the Craddick Dems in line. The more successful that effort is, the better the odds of Speaker McCall.

Republicans now hold an 81-69 majority in the House.

Actually, even though the runoff in HD29 is between two Republicans, the winner of that race won’t be seated until after January 9. That means that for the purposes of the Speaker’s race, it’s 80-69, not 81. That in turn means that 75 votes are enough to depose Craddick. Who’s to say that won’t matter?

State finally cuts bait on Accenture

One more story from last week to catch me up on current events: The state’s Health and Human Resources Commission has finally realized what everyone else knew to be true months ago and cut bait on Accenture.

Texas is drastically cutting a private contract for social services because of backlogs and errors in processing applications, state officials said Thursday.

The $899 million contract with Accenture to operate call centers to determine benefits eligibility will be reduced by $356 million and ended in 2008, two years early, said Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins.

Under the restructured contract, the Bermuda-based company will be largely relegated to data entry, leaving judgments about whether Texans qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and other welfare programs to state workers.

“We didn’t draw the line between vendor work and state work in the right place,” Hawkins said. “As we rebalance the roles between the state and the vendor, we will be drawing that line in a different place.”

For example, if a client applying for benefits fails to list an asset such as a car, and a check of public data indicates a car is registered to the family, the situation will be investigated by state employees, not Accenture workers.

Additionally, a planned expansion of Accenture-run call centers from two Central Texas counties to other areas of the state will not occur, Hawkins said.


The announcement was received as good news for state workers and groups that work with low-income Texans. Hawkins said 900 temporary positions in eligibility offices will be converted to full-time to stabilize the state work force.

“We’re glad to see that HHSC is acknowledging that its call-center experiment didn’t work,” said Mike Gross, Texas State Employees Union vice president.

Gross said the commission should restore staffing levels at its local benefits offices to levels that existed before the contract was signed in June 2005.


Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin group that has advocated a more cautious approach to privatization, said Thursday’s announcement served as a reminder that not all duties performed by state workers can be transferred to the private sector.

“I think the Legislature significantly underestimated the value of what the public sector did. There’s a tremendous amount of expertise and skill in the public sector that the private sector could not replicate,” he said.

There’s not really much to add to this, as I’ve been saying it all along. I’ll simply point you to this Chron editorial, Father John, and HHSC Employee for more.

On a related note, Eye on Williamson flags an Express News story about a different aspect of THHSC that’s broken and in need of a complete do-over.

Since mid-2005, investigators at the state Health and Human Services Commission have been unable to determine the level of fraud in a pilot program that officials have touted as the future of entitlements in Texas.

The findings of a state audit released last month potentially put in jeopardy millions of dollars the federal government sends to Texas as its part of public assistance programs in Hays and Travis counties.

Those counties were chosen by HHSC to test a complex system for processing the applications of needy people before rolling it out statewide.

The state auditor’s report comes almost a year after problems at the commission emerged in its move to privatize social services, an effort Gov. Rick Perry has endorsed.

The problems included the inability of a troubled computer system, called TIERS, to function properly.

The federal government also has raised concerns about a nearly $900 million contract the state agency signed with a Bermuda-based firm to manage TIERS, which stands for the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System.

In a report that pulls few punches, the audit found TIERS is a faulty computer system and that incomplete or unavailable data had squelched the state’s ability to monitor the level of recipient fraud in state programs that disburse millions of dollars in federal benefits.

The report said information “that is critical to pursuing investigations of fraud and overpayment is not readily accessible to investigators through TIERS, and the data that is accessible is not sufficient to legally pursue criminal proceedings for fraud.”

We first heard about this last month. I’m still waiting to hear an official reaction from the state’s leadership. At the very least, there should be some action on this front in the Lege. Stay tuned.

RIP, James Brown

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, has passed away at the age of 73.

Brown’s music – funky, cool, soulful, passionate and gritty – had broad appeal. His raspy voice, clipped grunts and immediately recognizable songs made irrelevant distinctions such as age, race and class that create genre and subgenre distinctions in music. He was a uniter, tagged “the Funky President.”

“God had a special job for me,” Brown wrote in 1991 in the liner notes to his career-spanning Star Time box set.

“He gave me a special talent to relate to people of all cultures. I found that the common denominator among all people was love. Because regardless of all the obstacles which we fight, the social problems and the poverty problems, it all boils down to the love factor. And I believe I was able to create that in my life.”

Indeed he did. Rest in peace, James Brown.

Dan Morales in halfway house

Former Attorney General Dan Morales is out of the pokey and in a halfway house.

Morales was transferred last month from a federal prison in Texarkana to a halfway house in San Antonio, according to his brother, Michael Morales.


The regional office of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in Dallas would not say when Dan Morales, 50, was transferred from Texarkana, but acknowledged he was in a halfway house in the region covered by the bureau’s Community Corrections Office in San Antonio.

“The last 10 percent of the sentence – not greater than six months – can be served at a halfway house,” said Mitch Huffman, acting regional public information officer for the BOP.

Speaking generally, Huffman said inmates approved for transfer from prisons to halfway houses usually get sent back near the community from which they came.

“You want to get them as close to home as possible,” Huffman said.

Looking back in my archives, Morales was sentenced to four years in October of 2003 after copping a plea in July. If there’s really less than six months left on his sentence, I presume he either got some credit for good behavior or for time already served. I don’t know how these things work, so if someone can clarify, please do.

Parents sue over Round Rock immigration protest arrests

Eye on Williamson has the latest development in the case of the city of Round Rock versus its high school students.

Four parents of Round Rock students charged with misdemeanors during an immigration demonstration last spring sued the City of Round Rock and the Round Rock school district on Thursday, saying the charges violated the teenagers’ constitutional rights of assembly and free speech.

The federal lawsuit is a class action suit, which means it also seeks fair treatment on behalf of other Round Rock students who were detained and issued tickets during the protests in March, said Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing the parents and students.

The suit accuses the city and school officials of conspiring to deprive students of their right to assemble and protest during protests against proposed immigration laws on March 30 and 31.

At a Thursday news conference, Harrington noted that the immigration protests were nationwide and said the Round Rock school district “instead of reacting punitively . . . should have done what almost all school districts around the country did and use the protests as a ‘teaching moment’ to help students learn about leadership and dissent in a democracy.”


Harrington said Round Rock police overreacted when they gave Class C misdemeanor citations to 204 students, accusing them of violating the city’s youth curfew or disrupting class on the second day of demonstrations. The ordinance says anyone under age 17 must be in school between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. It also says exercising First Amendment rights can be used as a defense in court.

“The curfew ordinance itself said First Amendment rights were an absolute defense,” Harrington said. “With all the signs that were present, it had to have been obvious to the police that the kids were just exercising that right.”

I don’t blame the cops for handing out the summonses. It’s the District Attorney’s responsibility to exercise prosecutorial discretion and do the right thing. The fact that he finally scored a win in one of these cases doesn’t change that. It’s a shame that this will ultimately be settled through the civil justice system, but sometimes you have to smack people upside the head to get their attention. I’ll keep an eye on this one.

Henley in the Examiner

I received an email last week from Charlotte Aguilar of the Examiner telling me that former CD07 candidate Jim Henley will be filling in as a guest columnist while Molly Ivins takes a sabbatical. His first effort is here, on the topic of Iraq. I look forward to seeing more of his efforts while he fills in for Molly. Check it out.

Have a chocolate Christmas

It’s gonna be a chocolate Christmas. I’ll have a chocolate Christmas tree.
Chocolate reindeer pull a chocolate sleigh full of chocolate toys for me.
I’ll bite off chocolate Santa’s head and nibble his chocolate feet,
Wash him down with chocolate milk and go right back to sleep.

And dream about chocolate ice cream and a German chocolate cake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for chocolate’s sake.
Chocolate stars in a chocolate sky, chocolate people walking by.
I’m so happy I could cry. It’s Chocolate Christmas time.

I’m talking ’bout a Chocolate Christmas,
A cha cha cha cha Chocolate Christmas,
It’s gonna be a Chocolate Christmas.
Well, it’s Chocolate Christmas time.

I’m gonna decorate my chocolate house with chocolate Christmas lights.
Hang a chocolate wreath on a chocolate door and call it paradise.
Between the double chocolate brownies and a batch of chocolate fudge
I’ll be so full of chocolate that I can barely budge.

But you’re standing under chocolate mistletoe,
oh now give me a little chocolate kiss.
I’ll take my chocolate fishing pole and catch a big chocolate fish.
If my chocolate wish comes true I’ll share my chocolate dreams with you.
I love chocolate. You do, too! It’s Chocolate Christmas time.

I’m talking ’bout a Chocolate Christmas,
A cha cha cha cha Chocolate Christmas,
It’s gonna be a Chocolate Christmas.
Well, it’s Chocolate Christmas time.

Merry Christmas, everybody. See you all tomorrow.

(Oh, and Merry Christmas to you, too, Texans fans. Amazing how much better a quarterback David Carr is when he has an effective running game behind him, isn’t it?)

As always, Merry Christmas, Mel Torme

As has been a tradition around here, every year at this time I link to my favorite Christmas story, featuring Mel Torme and Mark Evanier. I do it every year because every year it’s worth reading again. Click through and see for yourself. And Merry Christmas, Mel Torme, wherever you may be.

We’ve got ourselves a speaker’s race

By now you’ve heard, as Paul Burka first reported, that Republican Rep. Brian McCall has announced his candidacy for Speaker of the Texas House.

McCall has a reputation of getting along with different factions. If elected, he is expected to bring a more even-handed approach to the role, allowing members to vote the interests of their districts, rather than succumb to the dictates of the speaker.

Rumors have been swirling around the Capitol for weeks about a possible challenge, but some doubted anyone would dare take on Craddick.

The race is expected to be a nasty political battle, played out mostly behind the scenes before a vote is taken when the Legislature convenes Jan. 9.

McCall, a nine-term legislator, filed the necessary papers for the speaker’s race Friday.


Some compare Craddick’s style with DeLay’s.

”He’s basically been the face of the Republican Party in Texas, and that has resulted in significant Democratic gains in the Texas House, and Republicans tell me they are sick and tired of that,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said.


McCall is seen as more even-handed.

”He is a fair-minded person and has a track record of encouraging members to make up their own minds,” Dunnam said of McCall.

Obviously, from my perspective as a Democrat, having Senfronia Thompson as Speaker would be optimal. Assuming that’s not a likely outcome, then put me on the Anybody But Craddick bandwagon. I don’t know much about Brian McCall, but if Jim Dunnam is saying nice things about him, he’s good enough for me.

Actually, I don’t have to rely on Rep. Dunnam’s perspective. Rep. McCall ran for Speaker in 2003 as well, and he wrote a letter (first published in Quorum Report) that quite clearly delineates how his approach to the Speakership would be different. What he has to say there is definitely good enough for me. I’ve reproduced it beneath the fold so you can see for yourself.

It’s very simple. Tom Craddick is a bad Speaker. He’s bad for Texas. Brian McCall, by all available evidence, would be a much better Speaker. You can construct all kinds of game-theoretic political scenarios where having Craddick as Speaker makes it easier for the Dems to make more gains in the House in 2008, but they’d all be a load of crap. Texas can’t afford another legislative session in which Craddick wields the gavel. We deserve better, and this is our chance to get it.

One lawmaker who has spoken to McCall said McCall and his supporters hope to make a formal announcement Tuesday or Wednesday.

“The numbers are there. If he gets written commitments from the people who have given verbal commitments, then it’s done,” said the member who did not want to be identified.


One veteran Republican legislator who also asked not to be identified said McCall should have waited until the eve of the session before emerging with his candidacy.

”I think they are blowing it. They are giving everybody in the state the chance to buy off the ones they think are the conservative vote,” the GOP lawmaker said of the expected push by Craddick to stay in power.

I dunno. I suspect, as Rick Casey reported, that this secret was kept for a pretty long time, something that’s not easy to do in the Capitol. Burka first reported on the rumors on Thursday, so McCall may as well have mailed in his papers after that. I’ll say this: The doubts about Craddick have swirled since Election Day. If there wasn’t already a campaign to put pressure on members to keep Craddick in power, then you could write his obituary today. I don’t think the timing of this announcement changes that part of the dynamic that much.

”There are folks who are very much invested in the current leadership. People are fearful that their legislation won’t pass, that they may lose committee posts,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.


Democrats said they can deliver up to 60 votes for McCall, with only some of the so-called Craddick Democrats — essentially those he rewarded with committee chairmanships — willing to stick with the incumbent. They don’t want to surrender their grasp of the gavel.

However, there is pressure on them to side with McCall, or they risk losing their position and standing should they stay with Craddick and McCall wins.

House Border and International Affairs Chair Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, declined to discuss the dilemma she faces. Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, another Craddick ally and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, did not return a call.

Dunnam said he and many Democrats support Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who announced her challenge against Craddick early this year. No woman has ever been elected speaker of the Texas House. Thompson, who could not be reached Saturday, has said in the past that she would release her pledges if someone else could defeat Craddick.

”If Miss Thompson releases me from my pledge, certainly I would be more favorable to Brian McCall,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. ”Texas needs a new speaker of the House so that we return to meritorious policymaking and true bipartisanship.”

Gallego said he thinks the chances of McCall defeating Craddick ”are in his favor if he puts on a full-court press.”

”The discontent (under Craddick’s leadership) has been pretty strong for a long time,” Gallego said.

Republicans in the House will of course have some hard decisions to make. It’s easy to be the 76th vote for McCall, but those votes in between will be hard won.

A key point here is just how many Republican votes will be needed to get to 76. To cite Burka again, Houston Republican Robert Talton is apparently making calls on McCall’s behalf. Talton could deliver a decent-sized bloc of votes in a tight Speaker’s race. That may be the difference between the status quo and Speaker McCall. If that happens, Dems will owe Talton, and the one thing they can give him is a pass in 2008. I’ll be the first person to tell you that Talton’s seat is well within reach for Dems in 2008, and that they’re going to need his seat if they ever hope to regain a Democratic majority. All of us who want Craddick out are going to have to come to terms with the possibility that some decisions we may not like may have to be made to make that happen. I don’t like it one little bit, but we need to be aware of it. I’ll say it again: Deposing Craddick is worth an awful lot. Whatever you think about this, make up your mind quickly, because it’ll be all over before you know it.

Having said all that, maximizing the Democratic support for McCall means minimizing the need to deal with the likes of Talton for victory. Muse lists Craddick’s strongest Demcratic allies, to which I’d add Kevin Bailey. If one of those reps is yours, I’d strongly encourage you to give him or her a call and extoll McCall’s virtues. There will be time to put the squeeze on these folks, as Muse suggests. For now, I’d advise using honey to catch some flies.

Houtopia and BOR also weigh in. Click on for Rep. McCall’s letter.