Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

March, 2007:

Shaquanda Cotton

A couple of days ago, I mentioned in passing the case of Shaquanda Cotton, a high school freshman in Paris, Texas, who was sentenced to seven years in the TYC facility in Brownwood for pushing a teacher’s aide. (Vince, Grits, and North Texas Liberal have the background.) Yesterday, as part of TYC Conservator Jay Kimbrough’s plan to review all TYC sentences, she was released after serving a year of her incarceration.

“[Kimbrough] made a determination that she served her time and it was time to let that child out,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Cotton could have been kept in a cell until her 21st birthday. But a public outcry about the case helped secure her release.

“I’ve spent the whole year fighting this,” her mother, Creola Cotton, said.

On Friday, the 54-year-old single mother rushed to find a rental car and began preparing for the trip to Brownwood today to pick up her daughter and bring her home.

“She’s thrilled,” said Brenda Cherry, a Paris civil rights activist and a close family friend.

Confidentiality laws prevented Kimbrough from talking about Cotton’s case. Speaking in general terms, however, Kimbrough touched on how the TYC’s haphazard system of extending youths’ sentences could lead to the release of an inmate.

“I have said a lot — as have parents, staff and legislators — about the fragmented and disjointed and decentralized process where youth sentences have been extended by TYC,” Kimbrough said Friday. “Every facility has a different version plan, model and system.”

A week ago, Kimbrough announced he would begin to review every case in which the TYC extended a youth’s sentence.

“I started with ‘B, Brownwood,’ ” he said.

For the past year, Cotton has been locked up at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood.

West said Cotton would be placed on conditional parole for about three months.

“This particular case defies all logic, and I’ve worked 25 years as an attorney,” West said. “I challenge Americans to take a look at this case where people in the criminal justice system are dealt with differently, based, it seems, on the color of their skin.”

Just for reference, here’s Paris, TX, and here’s Brownwood, TX. Given that Mrs. Cotton apparently doesn’t own a car, that’s a long distance for her daughter to be away from her.

Whatever you may want to think, there’s a racial aspect to this case that can’t be overlooked or hand-waved away. It pretty much boils down to this:

Cotton’s struggle against authorities in this small northeast Texas town focuses on a single thread: how a black teenager with no prior criminal history was sent to prison for what her supporters say was a mere brush-up against a teacher’s aide, while a white classmate was given probation for burning down her family’s rental property by setting a Christmas tree on fire.

Prosecutors in the case counter that the incident involving Cotton was much more serious than a shove. It was an assault, described by Lamar County Attorney Gary Young as a “body slam” that sent a petite 58-year-old teacher’s aide to the ground.

“It was no push,” Young said. “When you assault a teacher in Lamar County, you’re going to get prosecuted.”

Let’s stipulate, just for argument’s sake, that “push” really means “body slam”. One presumes that the teacher’s aide did not suffer any lasting injury, but if one accept’s Attorney Young’s description, she could have. If it’s serious enough to warrant locking up a 14-year-old girl until her 21st birthday, then how exactly is it that an arsonist, who clearly would have put people’s lives in danger, received probation? You can accept Cotton’s sentence as justice if you insist, but how do you square it with the other girl’s?

Young said his office had recommended the white student convicted of arson be sent to TYC. But Lamar County Judge Maurice Superville, the same judge who sentenced Cotton, opted for probation, in part because the white girl had relatives who offered to look after her. Young said Creola Cotton did not cooperate with probation officials and declared she would refuse to do so because her daughter was innocent.

Creola Cotton claimed she said no such thing.

There are other disputed facts in this story, and if one wants to believe everything that is being said by the local authorities about Shaquanda Cotton, then one can convince oneself that she got what she deserved. That’s only half of the equation, of course; good luck balancing the rest of it out. Note that even Attorney Young says at the end of the story that “She did a year for something she could have gotten probation for. That’s more than enough time.” NTL has more.

River Oaks redevelopment made official

A month ago, we heard about the impending redevelopment of part of the River Oaks Shopping Center. It’s now official.

The owner of the historic River Oaks Shopping Center announced plans Friday to demolish a portion of the center and replace it with a multilevel retail development including a two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Houston-based Weingarten Realty Investors, which has owned the center since 1972, said the design of the new $15 million project will echo the architecturally significant structure that will be torn down.

Patty Bender, senior vice president and director of leasing for Weingarten, said the aging center needs major changes.

“With improved access, increased retail space and design enhancements reflective of the center’s art deco and moderne character, we will be creating the future of the center within the context of the past,” Bender said in the announcement.

The decision was a blow to local preservationists who have opposed the anticipated redevelopment of the shopping center that runs along both sides of West Gray just east of Shepherd. “Preserving the character of the center by tearing it down is a little ironic,” said David Bush, director of programs and information for the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

The alliance recently sent a petition with more than 25,000 signatures to the chairman and CEO of Barnes & Noble, urging the book seller to reconsider leasing space in the project.

The preservation group also worries that this phase of redevelopment will lead to changes to the rest of the River Oaks center, which includes what Bush said is the last historic movie theater still operating in Houston.

Bender said the new plan will not affect the theater, and the company hasn’t made any decisions regarding its future. The theater’s lease expires in 2010, at which time it has options to extend, she said.

Does it really have that option, or will the terms of renewal be completely unpalatable in order to drive them out? Let’s just say that Weingarten doesn’t have a whole lot of goodwill here.

As we know, whatever happens at the River Oaks will have an effect on another landmark:

Preservationists are also concerned about how the opening of a new Barnes & Noble store could affect the the old Alabama Theater down the street. Located in a Weingarten-owned strip center at the corner of West Alabama and Shepherd, the former theater houses the Bookstop, a Barnes & Noble store, which the retailer said will likely close by the end of its lease term in about two years.

I suppose all that can be done is to keep going to the Bookstop regardless. Just because there’s a different option doesn’t mean you have to use it. If you like the Bookstop and you want to see it live on, keep shopping there. There may be other things that can be done in defense of the Bookstop, but ensuring that it remains a viable business has got to be #1 on the list.

The redevelopment plan also includes construction of a four-story parking garage behind the center that will connect to it.

Some residents of the adjacent neighborhood are concerned the garage will hurt their property values, increase crime and encroach on their views.

“I understand that they need some parking, but I don’t understand why they have to destroy a residential neighborhood to do it,” said Cindy Rice, a resident of the Live Oak subdivision behind the Black-eyed Pea.

That concern has come up before. I still think the main effect will be to make that traffic around Shepherd and Gray even more snarled that it currently is. I don’t know what you can do about that. I just know I’m not looking forward to it.

UPDATE: HouStoned has a closer look at the plans for the new shopping center.

Friday random ten: The “Better Late Than Never” edition

Yes, I know it’s Saturday. I had this drafted earlier, then never got a chance to post it yesterday. Now I am. Without further ado, here are ten more songs from the current playlist:

1. Raina Do Mer (Queen of the Sea) – Susanna Sharpe and the Samba Police. The best samba band ever from Austin, and the only CD I own that’s sung mostly in Portuguese. If she doesn’t make you want to get up and dance, nothing will.

2. How You Carry On – Marcia Ball. A legend among Texas blues singers. The first outing I went on with Tiffany (this was between the show at the Mucky Duck where we met and our first real date) was a trip to the Houston International Festival to see Marcia Ball on the Texas stage. That will have been ten years ago on April 20. (And they say men don’t remember stuff like that.)

3. East St. Louis Toodle-Oo – from the soundtrack to “The Cotton Club”. Lousy movie (saw it in the theater with a bunch of college friends), awesome soundtrack. If you’ve ever wondered what the fuss over Duke Ellington was about, this is a good place to start to learn.

4. Sugar and Spice – The Searchers. This is from the soundtrack to “Good Morning, Vietnam”, and it’s a Tiffany CD. The reason I bothered to rip this is because unlike some other movies that feature music from this era (*cough* *cough* The Big Chill *cough* *cough*), it’s mostly stuff that hasn’t been played to death on oldies and classic rock radio stations.

5. Funky Tom’s Place – Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows. Old school Chicago-style blues from a guy who has a song called “300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy” in his repertoire. I recall a family friend taping his Big Twist album for me years ago, and being thrilled when I found a CD copy of it later.

6. Love, Sweet Love – Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli. Three Texas blues women together on one CD, the only CD I ever bought after reading a review in the Rice Thresher.

7. Nothin’ But A Woman – Robert Cray. Back before 104.5 in San Antonio became pioneering classic rocker KZEP, they were a fairly metalhead station called KXZL. Though they were the place to hear such 80s icons as Dokken and Krokus, their range was wide enough to include bluesmen like Cray and his “Strong Persuader” CD. I’ve been a fan of Cray’s smooth guitar and offbeat humor ever since.

8. Wish That I Could Never Love Again – Feo y Loco. Ah, Feo y Loco. The most gloriously tasteless band that I ever followed around obsessively back when the Mucky Duck cost $3 to get in. This is one of maybe two songs in their canon that can be played for one’s parents. It’s actually my favorite, and I have Ginger and Michael to thank for salvaging it from Feo’s cassette-only first album and burning it to a CD, where it eventually wound up on my iPod. I love technology.

9. Crocodile Rock – The Beach Boys. From a CD of Elton John covers called “Two Rooms”. You can say what you want about Sir Elton and his music (I like it – sue me), but you have to admit that the Beach Boys are the perfect band to cover this baby.

10. The Iron Man – The Chieftains. It’s the Chieftains. What more do you need to know?

Budget moves forward with a pay raise for teachers

After the opening snuff of multiple Democratic amendments, things got better from a Democratic perspective as an amendment to give teachers an across-the-board pay raise as part of the budget bill.

“Bottom line, members, do we want to give teachers a pay raise?” asked Rep. Rick Noriega. He offered the proposal to shift $583 million in funding from the incentive programs to the raise for teachers and other school personnel.

The Houston Democrat’s proposal passed 90-56 in the Republican-dominated House, which gave approval to the overall budget with a vote of 129-14 after 3 a.m. today. Now it goes to the Senate for consideration.

Defenders of the incentive programs — including top GOP budget-writers — worked hard to try to ward off the provision. They argued the switch could work against deserving teachers, provide a raise that’s less than intended and cost deserving campuses money.

Perry earlier Thursday, before the incentives were cut, had singled them out for praise: “I think the performance pay that is in this budget will put Texas at the top of the heap from the standpoint of a really strong, powerful message about competition in our public schools.”

Those who supported the pay raise said money for the incentive programs could be restored later. But, said Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, “This is the only time this session you will be able to vote for a pay raise for your teachers back home.”

Although the move still could be changed as the budget goes through the process in the House and Senate, it was a dramatic stand against the position of GOP budget writers on House Speaker Tom Craddick’s leadership team, including Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, Appropriations Committee chairman.

We all know how well the incentive pay thing went over here in Houston, right? Like Burka, I don’t necessarily think that incentive pay is per se a bad thing. My company gives out year-end bonuses that are determined in part by one’s performance (and by the company’s performance and some other factors). But it also gives out regular base-salary raises, and most of us get them annually. We’re all clear on why people were cranky about this, and why there was so much political will to do something about it, right? Look at some of the Rs who supported this. This wasn’t a rebellion so much as it was reality.

I’m getting to this very late (today was a busy day for me), so let me just point you to Vince‘s exhaustive listing of relevant amendments and how they were voted on, the Observer on Rep. Laubenberg’s controversial CHIP amendment (later withdrawn), BOR‘s budget recap, and Burka on how the teacher pay raise passed, and how the ParentPAC Republicans voted. See you tomorrow.

Consent searches

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) has put out its 2007 report on Law Enforcement and Racial Profiling (PDF), with all the data you could want about who gets subjected to consent searches (i.e., searches by police where there is no probable cause to suspect a crime; the officer requests permission to do the search, usually of a motor vehicle, hence the name) and how often they occur. From the executive summary:

Texas’ racial profiling law (S.B. 1074, passed in 2001) requires every Texas law enforcement agency to annually create a report on the race of individuals they stop and search and submit it to their local governing body. Because no central repository was written into the law to collect and analyze the data on a statewide level, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) has served since the inaugural year of data reporting as the sole statewide repository and analyst of required, annual racial profiling reports from Texas law enforcement agencies. In this role, TCJC obtains valuable feedback from law enforcement and community members and has assisted agencies in understanding their data, streamlining their reporting practices, and improving the way they protect the public through the implementation of needed policy changes. We also offer technical assistance to agencies regarding the requirements of the law.

To obtain the pool of agencies analyzed in this report, TCJC sent open records requests to 1,074 law enforcement agencies in October, 2006; we requested a copy of each agency’s racial profiling report containing racial profiling data for calendar year 2005, as well as the racial profiling policy in use by each agency during 2005. Of agencies that responded with usable information prior to the data analysis process, 221 agencies issued 3,000 or more citations, accounting for 4.9 million stops. Though in some ways 3,000 is an arbitrary number, we chose these 221 agencies to avoid small samples that were not statistically significant.


We determined that some law enforcement agencies continue to have problems complying with the data collection and reporting requirements of Texas’ racial profiling law. Law enforcement, the public, and key stakeholders need a more comprehensive picture of what is happening at Texas traffic stops in order to create better community policing models.

As the sole statewide repository of Texas racial profiling reports, TCJC is well positioned to offer recommendations about what works – and what doesn’t work – when it comes to the data collection and reporting provisions of Texas’ racial profiling law. As such, throughout the pages of this report we have suggested solutions to the problems facing law enforcement as they undergo data collection and reporting processes, as well as recommendations related to other provisions within the law.

Grits, who was a coauthor, has more.

Is this the end for the Astrodome Hotel?

Back in August, Commissioners’ Court approved a plan by the Astrodome Redevelopment folks to secure financing for their much-touted Dome Hotel. They were supposed to have that in hand by March of this year. Well, as Tom and Houstonist have noted, that ain’t happened yet.

Scott Hanson, president with Astrodome Redevelopment, found a New York bank interested in backing the mammoth development. County officials were not satisfied with the commitment as presented.

[. . .]

Says Hanson: “It’s happening. It’s just a timing issue. Sometimes the wheels don’t turn as fast as we’d like them to.”

[. . .]

The developer wants to enter into a definitive agreement with the county this year on the project, and hopes to begin construction by early 2008.

“I think that’s probably aggressive,” says Mike Surface, chairman of the Sports & Convention Corp.

“These projects wind up taking a lot more time than you anticipate,” he adds. “There are still a lot of approvals that have to take place.”

[. . .]

“We’ve come a long way … but there is a long way between now and getting a deal inked,” Surface says. “For people to start booking their rooms today is a bit premature.”

I thought they had some momentum going back in August, but apparently not. I wonder, now that Robert Eckels no longer has to worry about being “the man who tore down the Astrodome”, if this will be the beginning of the end for the Dome. Maybe the financing will come through in the next few months, but if not, then what? I consider myself a preservationist, and I don’t relish the thought of destroying one of Houston’s icons, but at some point Harris County needs to stop being responsible for its upkeep. How that happens will depend on whether Astrodome Redevelopment succeeds or fails.

No red light cameras yet for Alamo Heights

While the city-within-a-city of Balcones Heights has adopted red light cameras, its sister city-within-a-city Alamo Heights has demurred.

Police Chief Rick Pruitt says right now the situation is too fluid, with many measures in the Legislature that would crack down on red light cameras.

“There are just so many bills out there, and there is really no direction to these things, other than revenue sharing to the state,” Pruitt told 1200 WOAI news. “We may not even be able recover the costs we need to implement this program.”

The City of Beauty and Charm authorized a pilot program to test red light cameras on Broadway near Alamo Height High School last year, but so far no cameras have been installed. By contrast, Balcones Heights rushed a red light camera program into place and it’s four cameras started mailing phony tickets to people photographed running red lights last Sunday.

Not that reporter Jim Forsyth has any opinion on the subject, mind you. I should note that I spent the summer of 1987 living in an apartment complex on Broadway slightly south of Alamo Heights High School.

As 1200 WOAI news has repeatedly reported, there is no legal requirement that people pay red light tickets they receive in the mail. In Houston, which has had a red light camera program in place since November, no more than a quarter of the people who have been mailed the tickets have paid them.

As we know, that 25% figure is bogus. This is not the first time that Forsyth has been overly casual about the facts. I don’t have any qualms with the anti-camera position, but can we at least be honest in our arguments about them?

Pruitt says Alamo Heights will take another look at red light cameras this summer, after the Legislature has adjourned.

Alamo Heights is basically the West U of San Antonio, with better architecture. (Though not as good as Olmos Park.) As with West U here, the adoption of red light cameras, coupled with their enthusiastic approach to speed limit enforcement, would just about ensure that nobody ever drove there unless they absolutely had to. Whether that’s a bug or a feature depends on your perspective. Link via the Walker Report.

You know where you can stick your amendments

Note: See second update below

Whatever you may think of today’s budget bill, keep this in mind: It’s 100% the work of the Republicans, because Democratic amendments are being snuffed before they even get a chance to be debated.

The Democrats have a number of amendments to take money away from the Governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund. The money in the fund is not general revenue but is dedicated by an assessment on employers. Craddick sustained a point of order that these amendments violate the Calendars Committee rule.

The Ds are really mad about this, because their amendments in some cases were drafted by the Legislative Council–for example, Eiland’s amendment. The mistake, or the failure to realize the problem, was the Legislative Council’s. Craddick said to Eiland, in response to a parliamentary inquiry, that the responsibility for the mistake is the legislator’s, not the Legislative Council’s. Gallego went to the microphone to say that the traditional practice has been to let members cure errors. This was done during the special session, Villareal pointed out. Craddick said that this was not the policy of the chair. Eiland is really mad: You mean to tell me that these amendments were inappropriately drafted, and we can’t fix them. Craddick reiterated that it’s the member’s responsibility. Merritt went to back mike and pointed out that the head of the Legislative Council is a political hack. This is an old sore. Craddick had that slow, measure tone of voice that he uses when he is really furious.

The head of the Legislative Council is not just any old political hack, but as the Observer points out (by generously linking to this old post of mine), he’s a hack who’s a wholly owned subsidiary of one Tom Craddick. You’ll never find a bow tied up as neatly as that.

All that moots some of the latest Legislative Study Group analysis, but I’ll quote it beneath the fold anyway. Meanwhile, on a side note, today’s quote of the day comes from John Sharp, who says “I can’t think of anyone who knows less about [the new business] tax than David Dewhurst.” Click the preceeding link for context.

UPDATE More on the Craddick Hack here.

UPDATE: My bad. The stuffed amendments were not all of them, but a set of them having to do with Governor Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund. As noted in the comments, some Dem amendments, like this one, were accepted. My apologies for the confusion.


Budget battles today

Today the House will take up the Committee Substitute for House Bill 1 (CSHB1), which is the state budget bill. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to link to and talk about later today, but for now, here’s two items regarding this budget that you might not see elsewhere. First, from Capitol Inside, some early responses from the Democrats:

On the eve of the House floor debate on a $150 billion two-year state spending plan, Democratic leaders said they have no plans to offer a full floor substitute like they did in the school finance battle in special session two years ago. But the Democrats indicated that they’d be giving their colleagues substantial opportunity to shift funds to items they see as higher priorities within the parameters of a Calendars Committee rule that prohibits the bill’s bottom line from growing beyond the total amount approved by the Appropriations Committee.

State Rep. Pete Gallego, an Alpine Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said House Bill 1 in its current form would leave TYC spending at 2003 despite a sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the juvenile corrections agency and sent shock waves through the Texas Capitol.

State Rep. Ana Hernandez of Houston accused Republican budget-writers of essentially ignoring the explosive situation at the youth commission at a time when it’s quickly become the biggest crisis facing the state. Hernandez called the proposed spending on TYC “inexcusable” and “unconscionable.”

The spending bill that’s being sponsored by State Rep. Warren Chisum, a Pampa Republican in his first year as the Appropriations Committee chairman, would leave fewer Texas children with Medicaid and CHIP benefits instead of boosting the number of kids who have health coverage, State Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston asserted. Coleman said health and human services spending in 2008 and 2009 would be about the same as it had been in the last budget that the Legislature approved when Democrats still controlled the lower chamber in 2001.

Coleman said that Republicans had found a way to spend a record amount of money without getting more in return than the state had received in exchange for the funds that it had been spending before deep cuts were enacted in the face of a record deficit in 2003.

According to State Rep. Abel Herrero of Corpus Christi, the House will be debating a state budget with $8.5 billion more available but out of reach despite a need for more funds for essential services. Republicans are putting some of a current surplus in reserve for property tax cuts while proposing to keep more than $4 billion in the rainy day fund.

Chisum and other members of the leadership team have been reluctant to earmark all of the funds that are available in anticipation of an upcoming federal court ruling in Medicaid suit that could cost the state billions of dollars.

And from the Legislative Study Group:

Writing a budget is the only task the Texas Legislature is required to accomplish each session. Spending priorities are typically debated side by side to allow members to make a more informed decision on how to appropriate state funds. The General Appropriations Act, HB 1, is intended to lay out how state dollars will be allocated for the next two years.

It became evident at the beginning of this session that tax cuts were the top priority. The first order of business was the passage of SCR 20 and HB 2, ensuring that the constitutionally imposed spending cap was lifted for the sole purpose of providing property tax cuts. To fund this priority, $8.1 billion from the Property Tax Relief Fund and $6.1 billion in General Revenue was spent. Before a budget was able to be reviewed by the full House, $14.2 billion was eliminated from the budget – funds that otherwise could have been allocated for important budget priorities – such as improving our public schools, providing health care coverage to Texas families, making college affordable, reforming TYC, maintaining our state parks and properly funding the state’s transportation needs. After the rush to pass out the property tax cuts, HB 2 has yet to be taken up in the Senate Finance committee.

This year, as state agencies were submitting budget requests for the coming biennium, they were instructed to limit their funding requests to 90% of their 2006-2007 budget. Items not able to be included in this “base budget” could be listed as exceptional items, in hopes of receiving additional funding to cover these expenses. A partial reinstatement of this initial 10% reduction was appropriated to some agencies, and could be misinterpreted by some as an increase in funding to that agency. Agencies were required to work up to meet their priorities – first by fighting to reach funding levels from last biennium, then fighting to maintain services with the growth of the state, and finally fighting for improvements to those services.

There is $8.5 billion in unspent GR left on the table that full House is unable to access – $4.3 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, $4.2 billion in unappropriated funds. Today’s budget debate is the only chance for the House to vote to fund the state’s priorities. After the bill leaves this chamber, conference committee members will ultimately decide the funding levels in the budget and House members will be only be allowed a straight up or down vote on the conference committee report.

Typically, all of the state’s spending for the upcoming biennium is done in the General Appropriations Act. This session, three separate appropriation bills have been introduced to account for spending in the 2008-2009 biennium. It is important to take into account all three of these bills when evaluating the state’s spending priorities.

-The main budget document, CSHB 1, appropriates $150.1 billion in All Funds, including $72.5 billion in General Revenue. This is an increase of $5.4 billion in All Funds and $4.7 billion in General Revenue from the current biennium’s budget.

-HB 2 spends $14.2 billion on property tax cuts, including $6.1 billion in GR.

-The Supplemental Appropriations Bill, CSHB 15, spends $224.4 million in funding for fiscal year 2008-2009, leaving $40 million in funds vetoed by the Governor unappropriated.

All told, the state is spending $164.5 billion for the coming biennium, leaving $9 billion unspent and leaving the state’s priorities fighting to keep up with growth.

More to come, so stay tuned.

Voter ID bills pass out of committee

Not surprisingly, the two voter ID bills passed out of committee yesterday on a party line vote. It will, I presume, also be passed by the House on a straight party line vote as well. The only question at this point is what Senate rules Lt. Gov. Dewhurst will discard or ignore in order to push it through that chamber. The Republicans want this, and they will move heaven and earth to get it.

I thought the case of Royal Masset’s mother might give some of this bad idea’s proponents pause, but so far it hasn’t. I’m just amazed at how little concern there is for the likelihood that American citizens will be denied their right to vote by measures like these, all in the name of…well, I couldn’t honestly tell you. I’m confident that by and large the people who are cheerleading for these bills would be the first ones on board the Outrage Express if we were talking about someone being denied the right to practice their religion, or to buy a firearm. I genuinely don’t understand the blitheness with which voting rights are treated.

Maybe I could understand this a bit better if there were actual evidence of a real problem. Maybe if the voter ID proponents could cite actual cases of fraudulent votes being knowingly cast by noncitizens or other ineligible voters, I could see the need for this. But all we ever get is fearmongering. I have to ask, if this really is such a widespread problem, why aren’t the Tina Benkisers and Leo Bermans of the world banging on Greg Abbott’s door, demanding that he Do Something about it? Over a year ago, Abbott made big noises about busting vote fraud cases, but all of them had to do with mail-in ballots, and most of them involved violations of a 2003 law that made it illegal to possess another person’s absentee ballot, a law that is being challenged in court. If Greg Abbott can’t provide cases to back up the allegations made by pro-voter ID people, then what evidence is there?

And this isn’t just happening in Texas. Two of the US Attorneys fired in the Purgegate scandal were fired precisely because they had the temerity to conclude that allegations of voter fraud in their states were bogus. This isn’t a solution to a problem, it’s a political strategy cloaked in part by anti-immigration sentiment. It’s reprehensible.

Stace has more. All I can say at this point is that I hope Sen. Ellis wins his staredown contest with Dewhurst.

UPDATE: Oh, and Texas also took a step towards ratifying the 24th Amendment, which outlawed the poll tax, yesterday. Please fill in your own snark.

UPDATE: More debunking of the “voter fraud” myth.

Supreme Court agrees to hear Jones’ appeal

Ray Jones has cleared the first hurdle in appealing his case to the state Supreme Court. The Court has agreed to hear his appeal, and has requested a reply from the city by 3 PM on Wednesday, April 4. We’ll see how quickly they act once they get it. Stay tuned.

Reminder: Town hall meeting with Rep. Ellen Cohen

Just a reminder that tonight at 7 PM on the campus of Rice University, State Rep. Ellen Cohen will be hosting a town hall meeting on education. Details are here. One of the presenters is former State Sen. and Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, who was in the news over the weekend for his call to change how we do testing in the schools. Check it out.

More wind over wind farms

As we know, the folks at the King Ranch are hot about wind farms. They are now taking their beef to the Lege.

King Ranch Inc., the agricultural holding company that owns the South Texas ranch and other properties, is backing legislation that could choke off the boom in Texas wind energy by requiring new state regulations of wind turbines.

The state does not require permits in most cases for wind farms, which consist of hundreds of enormous turbines that generate electricity.

That would change under House Bill 2794, sponsored by Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio. The bill would require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to establish a permit process to take into account the environmental consequences of wind turbines and whether the noise they create — or just the fact they’re part of a once-unspoiled view — interferes with the property rights of nearby landowners.

King Ranch has been fighting a proposed coastal wind project in Kenedy County, just east of its ranch, that would place 267 turbines along the Gulf’s Laguna Madre.

“People need to take a deep breath and think a little,” Jack Hunt, CEO of King Ranch Inc., said about the Texas wind rush. “It’s a frenzy.”

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the things that Hunt said in the earlier piece I blogged regarding wind farms at the neighboring Kenedy Ranch. Reading through this story, I’m still not impressed.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said opponents of wind energy won’t succeed in the Legislature, either.

“The bill is dead because no one wants to pass it,” said Patterson, who has leased state land for big offshore wind projects to generate more revenue for public education. “This is the King Ranch versus the rest of Texas.”

I spoke to Commissioner Patterson about this story. He was quite emphatic about this being a case of Jack Hunt extending his battle against the Kenedy Ranch, and he accused Hunt of willfully spreading misinformation about wind farms. This is already an ugly fight, and it’s clear to me that it’s going to get worse.

Patterson also said that the TCEQ does not want the responsibility that Puente’s bill would require them to take. Looking at the bill, the checklist for certification is pretty broadly defined, with sure-to-cause-litigation items like considering if “the facility will be located in close proximity to property of an adjacent property owner”. I can’t say I blame them for not wanting to touch that.

Most wind projects get federal and state tax breaks; a federal tax subsidy on production runs through 2008. In addition, Texas wind farms are receiving local school tax breaks totaling about $25 million a year, according to figures from the state comptroller.

Hunt, the King Ranch CEO, said wind turbines are sprouting across Texas without examination of their impact on the environment or nearby property owners.

“No one is looking at the longer-term impact and the value of the entire area” where turbines are placed, Hunt said.

I’ve asked this question before, and I’ve got to assume that someone somewhere has done some research. Are we expecting the TCEQ to fund some studies? If not, what should be done to examine that impact Hunt speaks of?

Of course, wind farms of the type that Hunt objects to are a relatively new phenomenon, so “longer-term impact” is kind of a chameleon – they just haven’t been around long enough to say for sure. On the other hand, coal plants have been around for a long time, and we know what kind of an impact they have. Let’s keep some perspective here.

One other point – though the story doesn’t explicitly mention this, Patterson told me that one of the points Hunt uses against the wind farms is the aforementioned subsidies. He then noted that the King Ranch is the beneficiary of many such subsidies itself, as are most energy-related projects. There’s an inconsistency in attacking wind farms for having them.

FPL Group, a Juno Beach, Fla.-based utility, won the Abilene case. At the time, FPL officials said the 11-1 verdict should send a message to other landowners thinking of suing.

Jurors could consider only whether turbine noise interfered with landowners’ enjoyment of their property.

Dale Rankin, one of the Abilene plaintiffs who owns a ranch and a chemical company in nearby Tuscola, said he’s about one mile away from a stretch of hundreds of turbines. He compares it to living “next to an airport where the jets are running their engines all the time.”

Anybody have any direct experience with these things? Patterson specifically disputed that assertion about the noise. I have no idea myself, so any feedback from those who know better than I would be appreciated.

Patterson said the idea of siting requirements for wind turbines “is not completely outside the realm of good public policy” and is worth studying.

“But this bill isn’t about being reasonable,” he said.

I asked Patterson what he thought a better approach would be. He didn’t have any specific recommendations but suggested instead that there should have been more discussion about Puente’s bill before it came up in committee, where it currently sits pending a public hearing on an unknown-to-me date.

I need to do some more research on wind farms. My general impression of them is favorable – certainly, given a choice between more wind turbines and more coal-fired plants, it’s a no-brainer. Interestingly, this Salon article suggests that in addition to being greener, wind farms can produce energy more cheaply than coal plants if given a level playing field on which to compete. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that we need to be doing more with wind energy. B and B has further thoughts.

Business tax revenue projected to fall short

I wish I could say I’m surprised by this, but I’m not.

Texas’ new business tax may bring in $500 million to $900 million less per year than originally projected, the state comptroller said in a draft letter to lawmakers that was obtained Tuesday by the Houston Chronicle.

When the business tax expansion was approved last year as part of a school finance package, it was expected to bring in about $3.4 billion extra per year to help subsidize local school property tax relief.

If you recall, the $14 billion in lost property tax revenue for the 2007-2008 biennium was to be made up by $6.8 billion in business tax revenue, $1.2 billion in tobacco and other tax revenue, and $6 billion of general revenue. What this means is that if this projection is accurate, that’s another $1 to $1.8 billion per biennium of general revenue that would be needed. Assuming that it could be taken from the $4 billion or so that Chisum and Company want to squirrel away for the next go-round, it wouldn’t have any immediate effect, but as with all things involving this irresponsible tax cut, the bill will come due soon and when it does it’s gonna suck.

“There could be some room for concern,” said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, House Appropriations Committee chairman, who added that Comptroller Susan Combs may increase her overall revenue estimate.

“We know that we’re going to get some additional tax revenue, so we’re going to have enough money probably to cover it,” Chisum said. “The overall revenue estimate is not lowered and … very well could be raised by that much.”

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, said he expects lawmakers will “have more than enough to cover what we need to do. We just need to go through this bump in the road here to get us where we want to go.”

“But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes/He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes”

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. There’s no plans here, but hopes a-plenty. Given that the plan for the property tax cut going forward was to hope like heck that the business tax did better than expected, in some sense this is no change from the status quo.

Combs’ letter states, “As guarded as these less-than-definitive results may appear, they must be balanced against the overall fiscal condition of the Texas economy, which is still generating revenues above expectations so far this fiscal year.”

She said her estimate of revenue available for general-purpose spending remains unchanged at $82.5 billion, providing $14.3 billion in new revenue over and above revenues earmarked for specific purposes, including local tax relief.

The new business tax law required 3,404 entities to submit a report this year providing information on their expected tax liability under the new tax, which starts next year. Reports were submitted covering only about 2,500 of them and, Keffer said, “a lot of those that were filled out were filled out wrong.”

Combs has said previously there are no consequences in the law for “having guessed everything totally wrong.”

And with such precision methods as these, it’s almost hard to criticize Chisum and Keffer for waving their hands at Combs’ estimates. Maybe we should just take a cue from Tinkerbell and clap louder. At this point, it couldn’t hurt.

TYC: Kimbrough now conservator

Jay Kimbrough has been named conservator of the Texas Youth Commission, nearly a month after the Lege urged Governor Perry to name someone to that post.

Mr. Kimbrough took the reins with ease, vowing to force all superintendents and many high-level agency officials to reapply for their jobs. He said TYC Executive Director Ed Owens would report to him.

“This provides me with the authority to take immediate action and I will,” Mr. Kimbrough said. “I am the conservator; I am the person who drives the ship at that agency.”

The deal, announced by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Tom Craddick, has the support of the key lawmakers with oversight over the TYC.

“We’re going to fix an agency that’s broken,” Mr. Perry said.

These lawmakers have been crafting a broad bill to overhaul the juvenile justice agency – legislation they’re now designing to include the commissioner and advisory board provision.

The compromise weaves together the governor’s proposal to appoint a commissioner over the agency and lawmakers’ concerns that as special master, Mr. Kimbrough didn’t have constitutional authority to investigate and reform the agency.

“This is a giant step in reforming the TYC,” said Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “It also demonstrates we’re all on the same team.”

Well, more or less. Rep. Jim Dunnam isn’t too impressed. Here’s what he had to say, from his press release:

After a month of foot dragging, I am pleased that Governor Perry finally understands the need to appoint a Conservator over TYC. Unfortunately, the Governor still does not recognize that the Conservator must be independent and autonomous. Perry’s decision to appoint his long time friend and insider, Jay Kimbrough, provides the public with a clear understanding that the Governor has no interest in really getting to the bottom of what really went wrong at TYC and who allowed it to happen.

The victims of these horrible crimes deserve someone who has absolutely no ties to any of the players in the TYC scandal. The public needs to be able to trust the integrity of the investigation, and there should be no appearance of cover-up or inside dealing.

Mr. Kimbrough was a senior administrator at the Governor’s office when TYC issues were being disclosed to that very office. Mr. Kimbrough was also a senior administrator with the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) when that office was made aware of sex abuse at TYC.

Mr. Kimbrough not only is the ultimate inside player, he has been richly rewarded for his close ties to Governor Perry, something that would lead the public to believe that any wrongdoing in the Governor’s or Attorney General’s offices would not be top priorities for Kimbrough to investigate. Mr. Kimbrough has been paid almost $800,000 by the State of Texas just since 2002. Kimbrough was being paid by the Governor when Perry’s office first learned of the Ranger investigation. Kimbrough was with the Governor when his office learned that prosecutions were not moving forward. Kimbrough was with the OAG when that office, through one of Kimbrough’s subordinates, learned of the Ranger’s report. In short, Kimbrough’s employment has followed almost the same path as the revelations. For him now to be charged to investigate who knew what and when is directly in conflict with the independence a conservator and TYC need.

I would urge the Governor to do what has been asked of him for the last month–appoint an independent and qualified conservator so there will be full public confidence in the results of the TYC investigations.

Vince has more on this, including a Dunnam-provided timeline of Kimbrough and the TYC.

Elsewhere, the Observer blog has two posts on the joint TYC hearings, which got a little testy at times – see the comments in this Grits post for more on that. Grits also discusses the new no-felon policy for TYC, whose predecessor I discussed before here.

Voter ID bill in committee today

It’s probably too late to do anything about it, and the committee agenda is somewhat suspiciously free of any mention of it, but I’m told that two voter ID bills, HBs 218 and 626 are up for a committee vote today. According to BOR, there’s three votes for, three votes against, and one vote apparently undecided on each of these. The holdout is Republican freshman Rep. Kirk English of Grand Prairie. If you want to give him a call and tell him to just say No, BOR has the contact info. If you need to be reminded why these bills are bad, just remember the case of Royal Masset’s mother. We’ll see what happens in committee.

Ray Jones appeals to Supreme Court

Ray Jones, whose effort to get on the ballot for the May 12 City Council special election was denied by the 14th Court of Appeals last week, has taken his efforts to the State Supreme Court. His writ of mandamus and petition for emergency relief are here for your perusal, in Word format:


Petition for emergency relief

I’m no more impressed with these arguments than I was with the previous ones, and I do not expect them to carry the day for Jones. It won’t help him with this election, but the solution he needs is a legislative one, and it’s one I’d support if he chooses to pursue it. We’ll see if the Supremes are as swift in rendering judgment as the Appeals Court was.

The “Bill Ceverha Bill” passes out of the Senate

Earlier this month, a bill was filed in the House to close a loophole in which state officials did not have to disclose the value of a gift they received. That bill is pending in committee, but now a similar measure has passed out of the Senate by a unanimous vote, which hopefully will give its House counterpart a little momentum. The bill is SB558 by Sen. Rodney Ellis. Let’s hope it gets heard in the House.

Another downtown tower

Are you ready for another downtown tower?

Betting on the continued strength of downtown’s office market, Trammell Crow Co. is planning to build a tower on the eastern end of downtown near the convention center and Discovery Green, a 12-acre park under development.

The building, to be known as Discovery Tower, is designed to be 31 stories tall, including 630,000 square feet and 10 levels of parking. But the developer, which doesn’t have a tenant for the building, said it could grow to 1.2 million square feet, depending on demand.

With strong commercial occupancy rates in the Central Business District, “We don’t feel it’s necessary to sign someone up first,” said Aaron Thielhorn, a principal of Dallas-based Trammell Crow, which plans a formal announcement today.

You can see the construction site in this picture taken by Mike Caddell of the Discovery Green and Park One Tower construction. It’s the parking lot to the left of Discovery Green and diagonally up and left from Park One. Yes, that means more dirt piles. Those of you who are bothered by such things will have to find a way to cope.

“But wait,” I hear you cry. “Isn’t that an awful lot of office space being constructed downtown?” Well, yes, but apparently it’s needed.

The vacancy rate for the best downtown office buildings is 9 percent, and the availability of large blocks of space has dwindled, according to real estate brokers.

That’s led other developers to plan new buildings as well.

Brookfield Properties of New York, which owns a number of downtown buildings, including the Allen Center complex, is working on plans for a new downtown tower, but it’s taking a more conservative approach. It would like to have at least 50 percent of the building’s space leased before starting construction, Executive Vice President Paul Layne said.

Fort Worth-based Crescent Real Estate Equities Co. also said it will announce a building this year that will be attached to its existing Houston Center complex.

“We are actually very far along on our plans,” said John Goff, vice chairman and CEO, adding that Crescent has land holdings that would allow it to develop up to 2 million square feet in two buildings.

Goff said Crescent would start a building on a speculative basis — or without first signing up a tenant — but “we’re confident when we make a firm announcement we’re going to have some occupancy in tow.”

And Hines also is preparing for the development of a downtown building, but it won’t announce anything until plans are complete.

“It’s broadly known in the real estate community that downtown Houston is running out of space, and leasing rates are increasing monthly,” said Mark Cover, executive vice president of Houston-based Hines. “With the continued growth in commodity-based businesses, we believe the near-term outlook is very bright for the office market in Houston.”

Sounds pretty reasonable to me. It is a little weird to think of an office tower being built on spec, but if the other projects all have birds in hand already, it would seem there’s justification for the optimism. I hope that enough people remember the 1980s around here to keep things from getting too crazy, but in the meantime, it’s nice to see so much demand for downtown. I’ve seen it from the other perspective. This is better, believe me.

MLB and DirecTV

I don’t know if you’ve been following the controversy over Major League Baseball’s deal with DirecTV for exclusive rights to their Extra Innings package – suffice it to say that my parents, who live in a north-facing condo that provides cable as part of its maintenance fees, are beside themselves at the prospect of being cut off from a regular fix of Yankee games (Mom chided me on the phone on Sunday for not having blogged about this yet) – but as things stand right now there’s dwindling hope for a stay of execution if not a better deal for all fans.

Sen. John Kerry urged Major League Baseball on today to hold off on a deal to put the sport’s Extra Innings package of out-of-market games exclusively on DirecTV. A top baseball official declined to agree, with opening day less than a week away.

Kerry, D-Mass., made the push at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on behalf of subscribers to cable TV and EchoStar’s Dish Network who had received the package previously.


At today’s hearing, Rob Jacobson, president and CEO of iN Demand, owned by affiliates of the companies that own Time Warner, Comcast and Cox cable systems, offered to carry the package on the same terms that DirecTV is, while putting off the issue of The Baseball Channel until it is launched.

“This would ensure that for the next two years at least, all baseball fans would have access to the Extra Innings package,” he said. “If we’re unable to reach an agreement when the channel launches, we’d give baseball the right to cancel the Extra Innings deal. We think this is a fair compromise.”

Kerry, often playing the role of mediator, got behind the effort.

“What’s the matter with that?” he asked Bob DuPuy, baseball’s chief operating officer.

“We believe that DirecTV has the right to begin to help us build the channel,” DuPuy answered, adding that the cable industry had nine months to negotiate a deal.

Kerry pressed the issue, suggesting that the status quo be kept in place while the sides tried to work out a deal.

DuPuy wouldn’t agree to that, although he said, “Our door remains open” for a resolution.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R, PA) is also with Kerry on this. I know, it’s usually shameless pandering when politicians get involved in such issues. All I can say is that if you feel that way about this one, you tell it to my mother. She and my dad have written to just about everyone to plead their case so far.

BP’s Maury Brown, who’s done a lot of heavy lifting on this topic, is not particularly optimistic of a favorable resolution for fans like my folks. Mom and Dad are exploring other options, none of which are as good as what they’ve had up till now, but which may have to do. Stuff like this from MLB doesn’t help:

DuPuy said fans who have gotten the out-of-town games on other providers will still have the option of receiving them this year: by switching to DirecTV or subscribing to MLB.TV to watch the games on the Internet.

“This is not a matter of fans being unable to view Major League Baseball’s out-of-market games,” he said. “It is a matter of not being able to watch those games on a particular system.”

The problem, of course, is that DirecTV is not an option for many people, and watching on a computer is just not as good an experience. I understand why MLB is doing what it’s doing, and from a business perspective it does make sense, but it would be nice if they could refrain from spitting on the people they’re screwing in the process. Alas, that’s usually not their style. Sorry, Mom and Dad.

Red light cameras fully enabled in Balcones Heights

The city-within-San Antonio of Balcones Heights, which installed red light cameras back in January, have now fully enabled those cameras, and have begun mailing citations to violators as of this past Sunday. The Express News has more on this:

The owner of the light-blue Geo, which ran a red light on Fredericksburg Road last week and buzzed within inches of a man walking across the street, has been warned.

So was the owner of the reddish Dodge sedan, which blew through a red light two nights later, going 59 mph. By the way, the posted speed limit on Fredericksburg Road is 40 mph.

In all, 469 warning letters were sent to owners of vehicles that busted red lights at four intersections in Balcones Heights over the first 27 days of a monthlong test of a new red-light camera system.

But on Sunday, at one minute after midnight, the warnings will cease. American Traffic Solutions of Phoenix, working with Balcones Heights police, will start mailing tickets demanding $148 for each violation.

If the Carona bill passes, that fine would have to be cut in half. Those of you who have carped about the lack of warning signs at Houston camera-enabled intersections should note the prominent sign at one of the Balcones intersections. That ought to satisfy the requirements of a separate bill, by Rep. Callegari.

The cameras were installed on Fredericksburg Road at Hillcrest Drive, Crossroads Boulevard and Balcones Heights Road and at the intersection of Babcock and Hillcrest.

American Traffic Solutions will use license plate numbers to find and mail tickets to the owners and pursue unpaid charges through civil courts.

Those cited have to prove they weren’t driving — by producing a name, stolen vehicle report or bill of sale — or pay up or face getting reported to a credit agency. They also can appeal.

In Houston, you have another option (PDF):

If you were not driving the vehicle when the violation was committed, you may submit a DECLARATION OF NONLIABILITY. This form may be downloaded from or obtained from the Court. The form must be completed in its entirety and hand-delivered by the person to the Court prior to the Notice due date. This form CANNOT be mailed.

Back to the story:

American Traffic Solutions, which manages to collect 70 percent of fines levied in more than 100 cities, will get a $40 cut for each ticket in Balcones Heights. Based on violations there so far, and collection rates, the company could reap up to $177,000 a year and the city $479,000.

Balcones Heights City Council member and blogger Steve Walker, the main critic there of the cameras, brought up the collections issue in an op-ed piece he wrote:

One of my biggest roadblocks for voting to approve the proposal has always been the fact that the ticket issued is a civil violation and not a criminal offense. In other words since Balcones Heights police officers or any other peace officer don’t write the citation, there is no mechanism in place to insure that the red-light runner pay the fine for the infraction.

When a certified peace officer issues a traffic violation, failure to pay may result in arrest, suspension of driver’s license and may affect the driver’s ability to retain insurance at a reasonable cost. None of that applies to the civil citation.

I would point out that there is no real due process to appeal the violation to a judge since it goes before a hearing officer to rule on guilt or innocence.

Since they base the citation on video tape of the automobile’s license plate and not the driver of the vehicle, there is no reliable way to determine accurately who was driving the automobile.

The owner of the vehicle is the one ticketed. He or she receives a summons from ATS, headquartered in Arizona. ATS is also the vendor who installed the video equipment.

According to the five-year contract between the City and the vendor, ATS is responsible to process the citations, collect the traffic fines, and once the fine is paid, send the City a portion of the fine for the infraction. ATS retain $40 for each ticket collected since they own the video cameras.

Statistics coming out of Houston and other cities that are using the Red Light Cameras reveal that violators are not paying the fines. In Houston in the first four months of citations that should have netted $14 million dollars, less than 15 percent of those cited have paid the fine. What is wrong with this picture?

Well, to begin with, that 15% statistic is wrong, by a lot. Even the initial report of less-than-expected collections, cited before the deadline for payment, said 25% of ticketed folks paid up. I’ll have to drop Council Member Walker a note about that.

James McMahon, a 30-year Army veteran and former New York cop, isn’t convinced. While sitting at the Jim’s counter, white hair poking out of his Aircorps cap, he frowned, swung his arm out and jabbed his thumb downward.

“I try to avoid it,” he said. “A lot of people do. They don’t want to come through Balcones because of those lights.”

I don’t recall what it was like in BH back when I was living in San Antonio, but here in Houston we avoid the BH-like sub-cities because of their zealous approach to speed limit enforcement. Adding red light cameras would be totally gilding the lily.

One las thing: Apparently, Michael Kubosh is taking his show on the road.

Kubosh is traveling Texas to have himself photographed and ticketed running red lights in all cities that have cameras, and then his attorney brother is filing lawsuits against those cities. Kubosh says Balcones Heights is definitely on his hit list. No word on how much defending this lawsuit will cost the suburb.

You folks in BH are welcome to keep him there for as long as you like. No rush to send him back. Take your time.

Two more things about Medicaid

Burka revisits the subject of the Frew v. Hawkins class action lawsuit over Medicaid and the state’s obligations for same, which I last mentioned here. April 9 is fast approaching, and you should expect several shoes to drop once this one is announced.

Meanwhile, there are multiple Medicaid-related bills set to come up in the Lege this week. The CPPP takes a look at them and offers six things Medicaid reform should not do. Check it out.

TYC: On reviewing sentences

The plan by TYC Special Master Jay Kimbrough to review the sentences of youth offenders who had their sentences extended by TYC authorities to see who might now be locked up for purposes of retaliation or intimidation has run into opposition from an unexpected (to me, anyway) source.

Next week, a panel that will include representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among others, is expected to begin examining the procedures by which many of the system’s 4,600 offenders had their punishments lengthened at TYC.

A retired judge yet to be named will make the panel’s recommendations for release. Ed Owens, TYC’s newly appointed acting executive director, will make the final decisions.

“I think ultimately we’re talking about a fourth of those in custody, maybe more, who may be eligible for release,” said Rep. Jerry Madden, the Plano Republican who chairs the House Corrections Committee.


Some lawmakers fretted that dangerous offenders may be let go in the rush to reform TYC.

“The last time we started releasing people early, we ended up with Kenneth Allen McDuff,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, the Waco Democrat who serves on the Corrections Committee, referring to a Texas murderer who was paroled and went on to kill at least three more women before being recaptured, convicted and executed.

I don’t understand Rep. Dunnam’s concern. What Kimbrough and the ACLU are looking for is kids who have served their terms but are still in the system because one of the corrupt and/or indifferent administrators has refused to let them out. If we had a functional TYC, these kids would have already been released. Yes, it’s true, one of them might be a truly bad actor, but that’s beside the point. We don’t keep people locked up based on suspicion – at least, we’re not supposed to. If there are legitimate grounds for keeping someone incarcerated, that’s one thing. But keeping kids incarcerated who should have been released because of this kind of fear strikes me as irrational, and not particularly constructive. I hope Rep. Dunnam rethinks his position here.

In other news, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has noticed the unusally high number of deaths at the Lubbock State School. Better late than never, I suppose. Elsewhere on related topics:

Vince reports on the case of a Paris, Texas 14 year old named Shaquanda Cotton, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for pushing a hall monitor at her school. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

Scott Henson blogs about Ed Owens facing the joint TYC committee. He’s also still skeptical of Kimbrough, and he’s got some more links to check out.

Finally, the Chron blog says that the new and improved TYC will get more money to do its job better. Hopefully, that will come with some real oversight attached to it.

Lampson update

More news on Rep. Nick Lampson’s recovery from bypass surgery.

Lampson’s doctors said the congressman was doing well, even though the blockage was in the worst possible place, the trunk of the coronary artery. Without the surgery, which was performed Sunday, Lampson would have been at risk of a fatal heart attack soon, they said.

“Barring the unforeseen, we expect him to bounce back,” said Dr. Billy Cohn, one of Lampson’s surgeons. “Every patient recovers different, but he should be fine — his heart’s strong, the grafts are working.”

Lampson could not be reached for comment Monday, but his wife, Susan, said he was doing “beautifully.”

“He’s back to his old self,” she said. “I could tell because he was politicking with all the nurses already.”

Good to hear. Get well soon, Rep. Lampson!

The BlackBerry Defense


[O]n February 6th, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the administration intended to nominate (and have the Senate confirm) replacements for all the ousted prosecutors. But as the emails make clear, Alberto Gonzales’ chief of staff Kyle Sampson was advising the use of the AG’s newfound power to appoint replacements indefinitely — without the trouble of Senate confirmation.

The Justice Department, remember, has said that Sampson was a conspiracy unto himself, and that he failed to inform McNulty of his machinations before McNulty misled Congress. Sampson, on the other hand, says many other Department officials knew, including those involved in preparing McNulty to testify.

The emails show that Sampson wasn’t shy about the scheme. He discussed it freely with members of the White House counsel office, including Harriet Miers. In October of 2006, he forwarded one of these discussions to Michael Elston, McNulty’s chief of staff.

But wait… if McNulty’s right hand knew, how could McNulty himself not know? Your answer:

“Either Elston did not scroll down on his BlackBerry to read the last section [of the e-mail] or it made no impression on him, because he knew that it did not reflect the department’s plan for replacing the U.S. attorneys who would be asked to resign,” says spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

There you go: the contemporary version of “I do not recall.”

Outstanding. As someone who administers BlackBerry servers for a living, I’m always pleased to see the new frontiers of its permeation into society. It doesn’t get much better than this. Thanks to Rafe Colburn for the link.

Though I should note that there’s an even better dodge available. On the assumption that the underlying email system is Exchange/Outlook, you could claim that you have an Inbox rule that automatically filed the email in question into a personal folders file (PST). In that case, if the email in question was large enough to have only been partially received by your BlackBerry, you wouldn’t be able to request the rest of it because the BB server can’t access your PST file. It can only process a “More” request for email that still exists on the Exchange server.

Of course, you’d have to make sure you have such an Inbox rule in place if push came to shove. But if you did, then the whole world could see that little red X that appears next to an email on a BlackBerry for which full information is not available. And you can’t beat that for plausible deniability.

Danno TV

Sen. Patrick has a film crew following him around, Kinky Friedman-style. This has not endeared him to his colleagues.

“Do you have a live microphone on you?” Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, asked the freshman lawmaker.

Patrick assured Carona and other colleagues that he was not wearing any microphone — “live, dead or otherwise.”

What about the Senate lounge? Carona wondered. Might the film crew follow Patrick into the off-limits lounge?

Absolutely not, Patrick answered: “We don’t even allow our relatives into the Senate lounge.”

I suggest regular friskings, just to be on the safe side. And I’ll buy a round of drinks for the first person to send me a photo of someone patting Danno down to check for a wire.

Who else wants to see this footage?

[W]ith the cameras rolling, Patrick surprised his colleagues by trying to insert the heart of a bill he submitted and is pending in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee in a bill by fellow freshman, Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. Hegar’s bill confines itself to allowing nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants in rural areas to issue parking permits in the absence of a doctor for the disabled.

Patrick’s amendment, which would have expanded the medical authority for assistants and practioners, brought Sen. Jane Nelson, the chairman of Health and Human Services, to her feet.

After a flurry of points of order and senatorial huddling, Patrick withdrew his amendment. Nelson, R-Lewisville and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, took turns speaking privately with Patrick after the Senate passed Hegar’s bill. It remains to be seen whether or not the film crew recognized this as the Senate particularly mannered version of woodshedding the outspoken freshman Senator from Houston.

Oh, I figure someone explained it to them. Whether or not that person then asks for a consultant credit is the real question.

Won’t you be my forever stamp?

From the Ideas Whose Time Have Come Department: the Forever Stamp.

The forever stamp goes on sale April 12 at 41 cents. The rate for first-class postage rises to 41 cents May 14.

The stamp, which will carry the word “Forever” instead of a price, will remain valid for sending a letter, no matter how much rates go up in the future.

That will eliminate the annoyance of buying one- and two-cent stamps to make up the new rate when prices rise, and folks who want to hedge against inflation could lay in a supply of the stamps for long-term use.

We’re still working our way through two-cent stamps that we bought to accomodate the leftover 37-centers we’ve got. What can I say – Tiffany likes buying stamps in bulk. This news will make her very, very happy.

Justice For Laura Candlelight Vigil

The following is a press release from the Laura Recovery Center for missing children:

Justice For Laura – Candlelight Vigil
Tuesday, April 3 – Stevenson Park, Friendswood

FRIENDSWOOD, TX – The Laura Recovery Center is announcing a public candlelight vigil, seeking Justice for Laura, at 7:00 PM. on Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at Stevenson Park in Friendswood, Texas. The vigil marks the tenth anniversary of 12-year old Laura Kate Smither’s abduction and murder.

During the vigil, Laura’s parents Bob and Gay Smither, joined by Friendswood Police Chief Bob Weiners and Laura’s priest Rev. Robert Wareing, will call for justice and the resolution of Laura’s ten year-old case.

The evening will be include prayers, the distribution of remembrance bracelets, and the lighting of candles which have come to symbolize “lighting the way home” for missing children throughout the nation.

Laura Smither disappeared on April 3, 1997 when she went for a run. When she didn’t return, the police were called and a massive community search began which eventually included over six thousand volunteers and a battalion of U. S. Marines. After 17 days Laura’s remains were found on April 20, 1997, 14 miles from her home in a Pasadena, Texas retention pond.

Laura’s disappearance remains an open and active ongoing investigation, however charges have never been filed by the authorities. The Smither Family is calling for JUSTICE FOR LAURA and asking for the person responsible for this crime to do the right thing and come forward. For information on Justice for Laura – Candlelight Vigil call the Laura Recovery Center at 281-482-LRCF (5723) or visit

A $10,000 reward is offered by the Carole Sunde Foundation and Crimestoppers for information about this case. Conditions apply.

The Laura Recovery Center – for missing children – is a non-profit 501 (c)3 organization that was founded in Laura Smither’s memory. The Center focuses on the Education, Search, and Prevention in the area of missing children and has offered free abduction prevention programs to over 135,000 children throughout the greater Houston area, worked with over 1,100 families with missing loved ones, and organized more than 75 community searches for abducted children.

Just so you know, this was Laura Smither.

I met Bob Smither last year when I interviewed him as a candidate for CD22. Turns out that his sister Pam Covington is good friends with my mother-in-law, which is something that I hadn’t realized till that day. They do good work at the Laura Recovery Center, and as the tenth anniversary of Laura’s abduction approaches, I hope you’ll take a moment to take a look at what they do and see if there’s a way that you might be willing and able to help them. Thanks very much.

Ed Brandon announces his retirement

Local TV weatherman Ed Brandon has announced his retirement next month. In the process, he gave a lengthy interview about his career to his KTRK colleague Mike McGuff. (Another colleague from KTRK, Laurence Simon, adds his memories of Brandon.) Brandon is a dying species on the air – the weatherman who isn’t a meteorologist. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what difference it makes if the person reading the forecast and waving at the green screen has a degree or not – frankly, for my money, the local stations spend too much time on weather as it is, and I suspect the trend towards “professional” weathercasters is a factor in that. I’d just as soon see the whole thing de-emphasized a bit, since (let’s face it) most times there’s not that much to report anyway. But that’s just me, and I get a little cranky about things like this. Be that as it may, the interview is a good read, and the local landscape is always a little less colorful when someone like Brandon hangs it up. Best wishes to you, Ed, in whatever you do from here.

Let the tubing season begin!

The Chron gives us an update and overview of the state and regulation of tubing in New Braunfels as the recreation season begins. Nothing much new here if you’ve been following this news all along (last update here), but there was one interesting tidbit:

Still, [New Braunfels City Council member Ken] Valentine, who said he went along with the eased limits in a bid to show council unity, has many foes who insist he went too far.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see what the river nannies are trying to push down everyone’s throats. They have made New Braunfels the laughing stock of the state,” said one commentator on an anti-Valentine blog.

The blog is called Keep NBNB (one presumes that calling it “Keep New Braunfels Weird” would put people at risk of brain injury), and it’s associated with a grassroots political group of the same name. The post from which that quote originates is here. There’s been no updates since a flurry of posts on March 16, but I’ll keep an eye on it. I presume that as the May 12 recall election (which appears to be the driving force behind Keep NBNB) draws nearer, there will be more activity on the site.

In any event, it’ll be interesting to see how the season goes. I hope there will be an end-of-summer review – who knows, maybe this has all been a tempest in a seven-quart cooler. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Get well soon, Rep. Lampson

From the office of Rep. Nick Lampson:

On Sunday, March 25, Congressman Nick Lampson (D-Stafford) received coronary artery bypass surgery to treat blockages of the arteries on the surface of his heart. The surgery was performed by Dr. O.H. “Bud” Frazier and Dr. William E. Cohn of the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in the Texas Medical Center in Houston. The procedure was recommended after a checkup at the National Naval Medical Center this past Friday detected irregularities, and Congressman Lampson returned to Texas for treatment.

“On recommendation of physicians at the Texas Medical Center, the National Naval Medical Center and the U.S. Capitol, Congressman Lampson had quadruple bypass surgery Sunday morning,” spokesman Bobby Zafarnia said. “He’ll remain under observation in the hospital for the next several days, and should be released within the week. The physicians have indicated that the surgery proceeded well, and that Congressman Lampson will make a full recovery. Though this was a serious procedure, Congressman Lampson has his family with him, his spirits are high, and he looks forward to returning to his office and serving his constituents as quickly as possible. ”

Congressman Lampson’s recovery period will keep him in Houston for approximately 3 to 4 weeks, and the U.S. House of Representatives leadership has been notified of his temporary absence. A press conference will be held today at the Denton Cooley Auditorium at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital with the Congressman’s wife Susan Lampson, Dr. William Cohn, and Dr. Reynolds Delgado to answer questions regarding the procedure.

I saw Rep. Lampson just a week before this. He gave me a little bib for Audrey that says “Future member of the House of Representatives” on it – I need to take a picture of her wearing it. He looked like he was in fine shape, so I’m sure he’ll bounce back from this just as he did from his angioplasty last year. The press conference will be at 2 PM, so I’ll update this later with any new details. In the meantime, my best wishes for a full and speedy recovery to Rep. Nick Lampson.

TYC: Reform bills to come tomorrow

The House tried to pass some Texas Youth Commission reforms last week but ran into some technical difficulties (I’m trying to put a nice face on it here). Tomorrow, the Senate will take a crack at it.

The first wide-ranging legislation meant to fix reported physical and sexual abuse problems at TYC is expected to emerge Tuesday from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

That bill, by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has been more than a year in the making — growing out of a 2004 riot at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center — and had its progress delayed by the infighting that erupted with the latest scandal.

“We need to fix the problem, period,” Hinojosa said. “The finger-pointing just slows down the process.”

We’ll see what emerges. The issue that tripped up the House bill had to do with naming a special prosecutor for abuse cases related to the TYC. My general impression is that the Senate will avoid that pitfall, but if the issue needs to be resolved in a joint committee, then all bets are off.

I’ve been critical of special master Jay Kimbrough, who is currently heading up the investigation into TYC, but credit where it’s due:

Kimbrough unveiled a plan along with the Texas office of the American Civil Liberties Union to review the sentences of youth offenders who had their sentences extended by TYC authorities. Kimbrough wants to find out if students have been kept in the system for purposes of retaliation or intimidation.

“This doesn’t take legislation. This just takes people sitting down, recognizing there’s a problem and working together,” Kimbrough said.

This is not only the humane thing to do, it’s the practical thing to do as well. The guards-to-inmates ration has two aspects to it, after all, and it’s far cheaper to release inmates who don’t belong than it is to hire guards to oversee them. Verifying who still belongs in custody and letting out those who don’t makes all kinds of sense. Kudos to Kimbrough for pursuing that.

Old Sixth Ward wins preservation award

Back in January, I noted that the Old Sixth Ward had put a series of videos up on YouTube that talked about the need to preserve their historic neighborhood. I’m pleased to report that they won an award for this. The following is an email from Larissa Lindsay, which she sent to Mayor White and other city officials:

Good Morning Mayor White, and Councilmembers Garcia, Brown, and Lovell,

We have good news! As part of Texas Historic Commission’s Annual Conference, Preservation Texas honors organizations and individuals with awards to be presented at their annual dinner (this year on Friday, April 13 in 2007). The Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association received word that we will be receiving the “Heritage Education Award” for our videos (and the Mayor’s response) which brought about awareness of our special place in Houston to a broad sweep of the community. The award letter is attached. A group of us are travelling to Austin to attend the dinner, we’d love for you to join us!

Statewide preservation officials have been taking notice of what a difference the current Houston City Council is when it relates to preserving Houston’s past, and thus, the history of the great State of Texas. You should be proud of the compliments, they are well deserved. I think it is important that we are creating a sense of place in Houston. We had many people move to Houston in the 70s and 80s, they now have children who have come of age and are seeking their own history. I hope we as a public are able to fulfill that goal.

With sincerest appreciation,


Here’s the award letter. Congratulations all around!

The NBA draft lottery

Gotta love Jeff Van Gundy. The man is not afraid to speak his mind.

Weeks before accusations could begin that teams were tanking games to improve their chances of landing either of the season’s celebrated college prodigies, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, Van Gundy offered a solution. Make the entire first round a lottery. One through 30. Put every name in a hat and let luck determine the draft order.


“I think every team should have an equal chance at winning the lottery, from the best team all the way down,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t want to accuse anyone of anything. I would say to take away any possible conflict of interest, everyone should have an equal chance at the top pick all the way down. That way there would be absolutely no question by anybody about anything.

“If it’s better for the game, they should do it. I never quite understood why losing is rewarded, other than (for) parity.”

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the parity argument. It is in the league’s best interests to prevent franchises from becoming moribund moneylosers. Hitting the draft lottery can literally save a team – where would the Cavaliers be today without LeBron James? “Somewhere other than Cleveland, if anywhere at all” is a good answer to that question.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s merit to Van Gundy’s suggestion. There shouldn’t be any incentive for a team to finish lower in the standings than it otherwise might. You don’t get this as much in football as in basketball for the simple reason that there’s far fewer NBA draft prospects that can have a big impact on a team’s fortunes than there are NFL draftees. The NFL draft is much deeper, is much more likely to produce star quality players in lower rounds (the NBA draft only has two rounds anyway), and doesn’t feature a consensus #1 pick as often (see “Williams, Mario”, for example). The difference between, say, the #s 1 and 5 picks, or the #s 1 and 10 picks is generally less stark in the NFL draft than the NBA.

(Major League Baseball does a reverse-order-of-finish draft, too, but with compensation picks for lost free agents thrown in. Interestingly, recent work by the boys at the Baseball Prospectus show that there’s a real advantage to having the #1 pick in the MLB draft. Far as I know, there’s never been any suggestion of teams tanking to gain that advantage, however. Make of that what you will.)

Anyway, if draft order will be a complete crapshoot, then I think whatever temptations there may be for a team to call it a season early will disappear. At the very least, the dividing line between playoff team/lottery team would be erased with the Van Gundy Plan, and that’s the main point in its favor. For that reason, I can’t endorse the Feigen Variation:

Van Gundy’s solution is extreme — and beyond anything the NBA will consider. But if teams abuse the system, the system should be changed.

It is a weighted lottery now, with the worst teams having the best chance, but not a great chance of winning the lottery. As much as the league might like reviving its weakest teams, it also should not reward those that disrespected the game and its customers.

It’s seems clear that winning should be good, losing bad. Benefiting from losing is a problem that could be solved without going as far as Van Gundy suggested. Making the lottery a true lottery would do it.

Let them pick the top 14 in the draft randomly. Then no one would feel compelled to lose.

I disagree. Choosing this path would discourage teams that are on the edge of playoff contention from making a serious run at it. Why should they fight to be a #8 seed when the alternative is a 7% chance at the top draft pick? That’s way better odds than what they’d face now in the weighted lottery. It’s how the lottery was once done, and it was changed after a .500 Magic team drew the golden ticket the year Shaquille O’Neal was the prize. Feigen’s proposal wouldn’t eliminate the incentive to lose, it would just shift it away from the bottom feeders to the coulda-been-a-contenders. I don’t see how that’s an improvement in any way.