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May, 2007:

Earthlink passes test in Philadelphia

Good news for EarthLink, our city WiFi provider.

EarthLink, the Internet Service Provider that has contracted to build a wireless network in Houston, today cleared a major hurdle in Philadelphia, where it has begun building another of the nation’s largest networks.

The first phase of the Philadelphia project, a 15-square mile network that blankets downtown, works well and has gained approval from the nonprofit group hired by the city to oversee the project, Mayor John Street announced.

That means EarthLink can continue to build in Philadelphia, which expects to have a wireless connection by the end of the year that covers nearly all of the city’s 135-square miles.

Houston’s project is planned for nearly five times that size, 640-square miles, the biggest in the country.

Nice to see progress. Hopefully they’ll see equivalent process in their business model review as well.

Afternoon update on the mess in the House

I’m about midway through the season finale of Lost (thank prime for my in-laws’ TiVo) and wanted to pause for a moment for a brief House update. The anti-Craddicks are still trying to make a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair, and they’re still not being recognized. The dirty work today is being done by Sylvester Turner and Terry Keel, while Craddick works the room. When DPS troopers have to be stationed at the door of the House chamber, you know things have gone to hell in a handbasket. Meanwhile, an ethics complaint has been filed against Ron Wilson, Sen. Dan Patrick resorts to name-calling, and you can add Sen. Kyle Janek to the list of potential budget filibusterers. Finally, in the spirit of equal time, Quorum Report has the anti-Craddick response (PDF) to why his behavior is unconstitutional. Oh, and Grits is disgusted. I think that about covers it for now. Back to the TiVo for me.

And the fun begins again

I know, it’s the Saturday of a holiday weekend, but the Lege is back at it, and who knows what will happen today. At some point, bills will be considered and maybe even passed. Here’s one that’s dead, killed by the delays last night, for which I’m grateful. Glen Maxey thinks Craddick’s supporters should say “enough!” and call on him to step down, but his lieutenants appear to be as loyal as ever. As for the budget, the CHIP bill, and other matters of importance, they’re all pretty much background items now. If only Molly Ivins were still here to enjoy the spectacle. Stay tuned.

So what happened last night?

Short answer: Several members attempted to make a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. Craddick refused to recognize them, refused to allow an appeal of his rulings, and declared that he had sole and total discretion in the matter. If that sounds to you like he promoted himself from Speaker of the House to Supreme Dictator For Life, I’d say you’re on the right track.

For the long answer, I recommend reading the accounts of the people who stayed up much later than I did to watch it all:

BOR: Rep. Hill Takes the Podium- Motion to Vacate

BOR: Picture Worth A Thousand of Terry Keel’s Words

BOR: Todd Smith (R-Euless) Plays Key Anti-Craddick Role

BOR: House Adjourns, What A Night

Texas Observer: His House, His Rules

Capitol Letters: Wonder what the heck just happened?

Capitol Letters: In case you’re wondering…

Capitol Letters: The Craddick Rationale

Capitol Letters: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy

Chron Blog: A view from the wrong side of the door

Chron Blog: Thoughts on the night

Chron Blog: I say it here, it comes out there

EOW: Otto Craddick application of Rule 5 Section 24

PinkDome: The Craddicktator

The Muse: Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen Co-Speakers of the Texas House

And I’m sure there will be plenty more today. Stay tuned.

UPDATE Missed Postcards from the Lege, Craddick’s Legal Rationale Released, Craddick ruling splits Centex supporters, and Rose talks about decision to leave Craddick camp.

Grits on the death of HB13

It’s official – HB13 is dead. Grits explains what that means in practical terms.

The Governor already had authority to accept federal homeland security grants, so that doesn’t change (his homeland security director Steve McCraw is the agent who receives and distributes those funds), and he certainly has authority to delegate that task to DPS or whomever he chooses. But this does mean a couple of things offhand:

1. A provision in current law (which would have been deleted in the Senate version of HB 13) limits the Governor’s authority over the TDEX database and he may have to pull his thumbs out of the criminal intelligence pie anyway.

2. The Governor will still not be accountable to anyone for how he spends the $100 million given him by legislative budget writers for border security. But then, HB 13 would have only ratified his authority, not restricted it. This is a wash – no change from the status quo.

3. Because there is no accountability or oversight, it will be up to the media and nonprofit watchdogs to use open records to study how the governor spends pork barrel money legislators gave him. This will be a labor intensive task, one I hope the MSM will undertake with the same zeal they’ve covered the border during the election season.

If the Governor wanted to avoid the rightful criticism he faced over ham-handed political appointees mismanaging law enforcement resources like TDEX, he should transfer grant making authority to DPS. They in turn should be charged with funding projects that implement the state’s existing, overall border security strategy, not just dole out pork like candy to border politicians with little regard for improving public safety.

Sen. Carona could still revive the bill with a 4/5 vote by stripping off all the Senate amendments, but at this point I hope the thing just dies. Better for now to monitor what the Governor does with his new border pork and start anew to rein in the whole mess 18 months from now.

I join Grits in saluting Rep. Lon Burnam for driving the stake through this sucker.

West 11th Street Park saved!

Assuming we do eventually get a budget passed, it looks like it will contain a provision to pay off the debt for the West 11th Street Park. Jeff Balke has the details. Major kudos to Sen. John Whitmire for making this happen.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

“I’m so excited,” said Councilwoman Toni Lawrence, whose district includes the park in the Timbergrove Manor neighborhood in northwest Houston. “I’ll give (Mayor) Bill White all the credit in the world, because it started with him,” when White announced last year that the city would contribute $4 million toward the purchase price of the land.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, inserted the funding for the park in the state budget for local parks grants. It was part of the overall state budget approved by House and Senate conferees Friday and scheduled for votes in both chambers this weekend.

“There has been so much effort to preserve this 20 acres for neighborhood parks,” Whitmire said. “But all the stakeholders came up short. I saw an opportunity to solve the problem.”

Preserving the land was important to Whitmire because he has represented the area for more than 30 years, as a state representative and senator.

[…]

Whitmire announced that he sealed the deal once the budget was voted on in conference committee and the report was printed.

“If I weren’t confident about its chances, I wouldn’t have made it public. I’m happy to be in a position to help those who worked longer and harder than I have on this project,” Whitmire said. “It seemed like the natural thing to do.”

Damn fine news. Kudos all around.

Cleaner cement for Dallas

Very cool.

The Dallas City Council voted late Wednesday to direct construction contractors to include the price of dry kiln-processed cement in their bid packages to the city. Cement produced in dry kilns generally produces less pollution than traditional wet kilns.

“This is a giant step forward for us to tackle our [nitrous oxide] problem. It’s going to be the beginning of a national trend,” Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said. “We can start buying from clean plants and make it an incentive for businesses to operate and build clean plants that we’ll buy from.”

The city staff will spend the next several weeks crafting rules for cement purchasing, said Mark Duebner, Dallas’ director of business development and procurement.

Mr. Duebner estimates the city has 150 to 200 construction bids a year that would be affected by the change.

[…]

The mayor added that she’ll urge cities involved in the Texas Cities for Clean Air Coalition – which has fought for the last year to prevent TXU Corp. from building new, traditional-style coal-fired power plants – to adopt similar cement-purchasing practices.

“We’ll start to reach out to other cities soon to see if they’re interested in joining us,” Mr. Duebner said.

That coalition includes Houston. I look forward to hearing that we are following Dallas’ lead on this.

One more thing:

Cement companies in nearby Midlothian could most be affected by the rule change, particularly Texas Industries, which uses one dry kiln among its five.

If this nudges the notoriously noxious Midlothian plants to change how they do business, that will exponentially increase the benefits of this plan. Here’s hoping.

Is this finally it?

Well, something is going on in the House. It all started about an hour ago.

A short while ago, Rep. Jim Dunnam made a simple parliamentary inquiry. Would the speaker recognize someone for a privileged motion to vacate the chair? Speaker Craddick said no. Would that ruling be open to a vote to appeal it? Craddick said no.

Then all hell broke loose.

The House now stands at recess until 11 p.m. The parliamentarian Denise Davis has allegedly threatened to quit. The mood is very ugly here. And Tom Craddick may be witnessing his final hours as speaker of the Texas House.

The AP has a report.

After an evening of simmering discord, House members exploded with shouts of rage when Craddick announced that the chamber would stand in recess until 11 p.m. Friday.

He’d earlier called another recess to escape pointed questions about his handling of parliamentary issues. When he emerged from his office 40 minutes later, he ignored further interrogating from a man who has filed his candidacy to replace Craddick and quickly called for the two-hour break to a chorus of boos.

Angry House members stormed Craddick’s podium as he hustled back to his office suite, refusing to answer questions from reporters.

Democrats trying to overtake the speakers podium were physically restrained by House sergeants-at-arms as they tried to grab the microphone.

[…]

To oust Craddick before his term is up, a lawmaker must make a parliamentary maneuver known as a motion to vacate and a majority of the House must vote in favor of it.

It’s called a privileged motion, and Craddick must recognize a lawmaker before they’re allowed to speak to the House to make such a motion.

The meltdown Friday started when Democratic Rep. Jim Dunnam questioned Craddick about the parliamentary procedure. Craddick made it clear that he would not necessarily recognize someone to make that request and he was adamant that his ruling could not be appealed.

A short time later, Republican Rep. Todd Smith of Bedford asked Craddick if he ignored the advice of parliamentarian Denise Davis when he made the ruling.

“I looked over and asked her and I don’t know if she agreed or didn’t agree,” Craddick responded.

“Did you or did you not ignore the advice of Denise Davis?” Smith asked.

“It’s a privileged conversation between the two of us,” Craddick said.

The “further interrogation” was by Jim Pitts, and one of the Democrats trying to get to the dais was Rick Noriega. BOR reports that parliamentarian Davis has resigned, and that Craddick supporters are attempting to break quorum. The assistant parliamentarian may also resign.

Crazy, just crazy. Brandi Grissom, Quorum Report, and Capitol Letters are also following this, which is sure to go well into the night.

One thing to keep in mind: While the joint conferees have approved the budget, it will likely be Sunday before any members get it. With sine die on Tuesday Monday and a lot more business still to be conducted, the budget could wind up getting filibustered, which would force a special session. Who might do such a thing? Here’s one possibility. Keep an eye open for this.

Oh, and we have one more candidate for Speaker. Hey, by now, the more, the merrier. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Too much going on. Here’s more coverage from the DMN and the Chron. And lookie at the new parliamentarians. Nice to know the Speaker believes in recycling. For the insomniacs out there, check with BOR, QR, PinkDome, and In the Pink. Good night.

Senfronia for Speaker!

She did it before, and she’s doing it again.

Throw Democrat Senfronia Thompson of Houston’s stylish hat into the ring.

She was the first state rep to start the rumbling last summer when she filed her candidacy for speaker for this session – touching off the race that wound up captivating the entire Pink Dome on opening day, even though she was no longer a candidate by then. She started the momentum.

Ms. Thompson filed for speaker for the 81st session this morning, declining to join the army of male Republicans vying for a spot that may or may not open up this session.

And in a perfect world, a new Democratic majority in the House will carry her to the Speaker’s podium. While any of the current alternatives to Tom Craddick would represent a step up, Speaker Thompson by far would be the best option.

The CHIP endgame

Capitol Letters says the recently-passed CHIP bill HB109 is still being monkeyed with by the Senate and David Dewhurst.

After collecting kudos Tuesday from the Texas Network of IAF Organizations (Dallas Area Interfaith, Valley Interfaith and so on), Mr. Dewhurst named Senate negotiators who are expected to strongly defend his pet idea of electronic eligibility verification.

Senate conferees include the only two senators who voted against the House’s partial CHIP restoration bill: Republicans Steve Ogden, who voted “nay” in committee, and Jane Nelson, who opposed the bill on the floor. The team’s leader is Waco Republican Kip Averitt, who favors a bigger CHIP but is unlikely to betray Mr. Dewhurst, even though the lieutenant governor dumped him as a budget negotiator this session to appease the right wing of the Senate’s GOP caucus.

Most CHIP advocates, physician groups and hospitals who love the House-passed version believe Mr. Dewhurst has made income verification almost a fetish — and is going to give us another Accenture-like fiasco, albeit much smaller in scope than the call centers that do eligibility screening for the major social programs.

If the Dewhurst plan passes, state social services czar Albert Hawkins will get a strong nudge to hire a private firm that does data mining to check on some families’ incomes every six months — even though parents would submit paperwork annually. Mr. Dewhurst says he’s heard of three or four such vendors, though CHIP advocates are skeptical the techniques are proven — and the expenditures would be worth it.

Clearly, the lesson we learned with Accenture wasn’t expensive enough to leave a lasting impression.

Prediction: Mr. Turner could blow up the bill but won’t. He’s a Craddick D, which means he knows a thing or two about incremental gains. Mr. Dewhurst gets his way.

Oh, yes, conferees probably will narrow the range of families who undergo the electronic checking. Under the Senate version, families would be scrutinized every six months if their incomes exceed 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that is $30,975 a year. But Mr. Dewhurst probably signaled his true intentions on May 10, when he told reporters he was looking at three possible thresholds – 165, 170 or 175 percent of the poverty level. The next week, he reduced that to 150 percent, and all but admitted he was leaving Senate negotiators room to compromise. So “compromise” they will.

Watch for it. The CPPP has more on where things now stand.

Weakened toll road moratorium finally passes

This is definitely not what we thought we were going to get out of a toll road moratorium. It may be the best we could have done, but if so that’s pretty sad.

Texas lawmakers struck a deal Thursday on transportation legislation that includes a two-year moratorium on private company toll roads, although the agreement does not satisfy anti-toll road groups.

House and Senate leaders reached agreement on a compromise plan that likely will reach both chambers for a vote on Saturday.

“What we’ve got is pretty good but maybe not perfect,” said Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who led the House negotiators.

The compromise legislation, Senate Bill 792, does not affect six road construction projects for the Harris County Toll Road Authority, and it also allows the Dallas-Fort Worth region to proceed with highways already in the pipeline. The moratorium prohibits two private toll road projects in San Antonio.

The bill also would avoid a veto override effort of another transportation bill, HB 1892. Gov. Rick Perry rejected that measure and helped develop the alternative plan.

[…]

Senate Bill 792 “is not only full of loopholes, but it makes things worse. (It) allows local authorities the same powers we were trying to take away from” state transportation officials, said Sal Costello, leader of People for Efficient Transportation.

The main problem with SB792 is the removal of the Kolhorst Amendment. I’ll refer you to Eye on Williamson, who’s been exhaustively following this, for the details – see here, here, here, and here. As he notes, Governor Perry could still veto this, and we could still have a special session on transportation. Scary thoughts, but there you have them.

Another reprieve for the Astrodome

Last week, I noted that State Sen. Kyle Janek had amended HB3694 to qualify the Astrodome hotel redevelopment project for some tax rebates, for the purpose of helping it to get financing, which has proven elusive so far. The amended bill has now passed the Senate and will go back to the House.

The legislation comes just in time for Astrodome Redevelopment Corp., the private entity seeking to transform the dome, which is counting on the future rebates to help it secure financing for the $450 million project.

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which manages the county-owned Reliant Park, set a June 1 deadline for Astrodome Redevelopment to prove it has lined up financing.

As I said in the previous post, these rebates would essentially serve as a form of collateral for the loans. Given how soon the deadline is for proof of financing, I wonder if Astrodome Redevelopment has a deal contingent on this, or if they’ll beg for an extension. If they don’t get it, whoever comes after them will presumably have an easier time of it if this bill does pass. We’ll see.

Is HB13 going down?

I’d almost forgotten about HB13 since it passed out of the House nearly three weeks ago. A much-amended version was passed by the Senate early this week, and apparently those amendments have left it open to attack.

Yesterday afternoon the ever-resourceful Fort Worth Democrat Rep. Lon Burnam unleashed three points of order on the governor’s homeland security bill, HB 13.

[…]

Burnam hit the bill with two points on germaneness and one point on the fact it violated the two-subject rule. There is so much in the bill that has nothing to do with homeland security that it seems likely the points will be sustained. The bill’s author Rep. David Swinford could try to get it sent back to the Senate to strip off their amendments but it seems a little late in the game. The Homeland Security Bill might be dead.

This would mean that the status quo remains and it would be up to the next legislature to wrest TDEx from the governor’s hands. But it also gives folks more of an opportunity to have a real debate about how homeland security should be handled in Texas and what the appropriate role is for the governor in the mix.

There was some good work done on HB13 in the House, and it will be a shame not to see those things get implemented. But on balance, HB13 is a net negative, and its death will not be a shame. We’ll see if this really is it.

(Unhappy thought: Would Governor Perry call a special session for this? HB13 was a priority for him. Ugh.)

UPDATE: Brandi Grissom has more.

RIP, statewide smoking ban

It’s a goner.

Although Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, may be holding out hope for her statewide smoking ban proposal until the Senate and House adjourn sine die, the Smoke-Free Texas coalition is admitting defeat.

The organization, which includes the American Cancer Society, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and Texas PTA, this afternoon issued a press release saying that the smoking ban they’d been pushing has died in the Senate.

“Even as time expires this session for HB 9, Smoke-Free Texas already is planning to bring forward in 2009 another bill that would provide strong secondhand smoke protections for Texas workers by banning smoking in indoor public and work places,” Kirsten Voinis, the group’s spokeswoman, said in the statement.

Given that HB9 had been gutted in the House, it’s not clear that a worthwhile bill would have made it out of the conference committee, or that it would have been passed if it had. Better luck next time, I suppose.

Anti-rail lawsuit details

After being denied the opportunity to break out the thumbscrews depose Metro executives without having to file a lawsuit, rail opponents went ahead and filed their lawsuit, as everyone and their dog knew they were going to do. Much of what’s in this story is a rehash of what we already know, but there are a few pieces of new information:

The lawsuit, assigned to state District Judge Tad Halbach‘s court, was filed after state District Judge Levi Benton denied permission Tuesday for Scarborough’s lawyers to take oral testimony from Metro officials to determine if there was basis for a lawsuit. Metro called that request a “fishing expedition.”

The lawsuit says Taylor wants to question David Wolff, Metro board chairman; Frank Wilson, Metro president and CEO; and six high-level staffers of the agency.

[…]

Former Houston city attorney Gene Locke, representing Metro, said he also expects a “legal battle” but added that “the first round goes to Metro.”

Although the suit says repeatedly that Metro should abide by 2003 resolution or “seek voter approval” of its current plans, Taylor also has said the resolution bars another such vote until November 2009.

Locke said that date applies only to a new bond referendum to fund the plan and not to the plan itself.

The lawsuit does not ask that the projects be halted until the matter is decided.

Locke said Metro is going “full steam ahead” on them.

The insistence on having another vote is both typical for this crowd, in the sense that they always want to have another vote because maybe the next one will finally go their way, and weird – if you follow their logic, what they’re really demanding is a two-year moratorium on pretty much all current Metro activity. Given that, it’s interesting that they haven’t requested a temporary restraining order. I mean, by the time this sucker makes it to the Supreme Court, the entire 2012 plan could be built out. I’d guess they’ll file for that once Metro makes its plans known for the Universities line. We’ll see.

Get ready to say Good-bye to the River Oaks Shopping Center

The end is near for the River Oaks Shopping Center.

Preservationists gathered at a city hall trying to block the renovation of the historic River Oaks Shopping Center.

The shopping center is 70 years-old and for generations it has been a fixture on the edge of the posh River Oaks neighborhood.

Now Weingarten Realty has unveiled plans to renovate at least one section of the center. Preservationists suspect it is the first step toward rebuilding the entire center, including the historic River Oaks Theater.

“It would not prevent their demolition, but once again it would be a statement as to the value of these properties and reinforce it before city council, and that’s really who we’re playing to at this point,” said David Bush, one of those working to preserve the shopping center.

Shoppers visiting the center today see many empty storefronts left behind by businesses that have moved out a section of the center.

And people who work in the Black-Eyed Pea, which has been located here for a quarter century, told 11 News they are closing their doors on Friday.

That would be today. I’ll try to get some demolition pictures when it happens. Speaking of which, whatever was on the small lot immediately north of the center on Shepherd was bulldozed in the last week or so. Looking at the schematic of the new center here, I don’t think that has anything to do with the upcoming renovation, but it’s an interesting coincidence.

On happier preservation news, Matt Stiles gives an update on the effort to protect the Old Sixth Ward. It’s still a ways off, but it’s in progress and headed in the right direction.

Tron!

Awesome!

Gearing up for our 12th anniversary, Technology Bytes Radio is teaming up with The Petrol Station and St. Arnold Brewery to bring you Tron, the original geek movie, projected in all it’s gigantic glory outdoors and on the back wall.

The event will be Friday, July 1st. and admission is FREE!

The movie should fire up around 9 PM but feel free to come on out anytime after 7:30 and join the crew of Technology Bytes for some brews and a very geeky evening.

If there’s such a thing as geek heaven, then all in attendance will be in danger of being raptured immediately following the closing credits. Oh, and did I mention that one of the stars of “Tron” is the actress who played Lacey Underall in Caddyshack? What more could you want? I’ve gotta go to this.

Still waiting to vacate

So all the pieces seem to be falling into place for that long-awaited motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. According to BOR, Republican Rep. Todd Smith has filed two resolutions that would allow for a secret ballot in the event a new Speaker needs to be elected. You may recall that this was the real fight back at the start of the session, since everyone feared retaliation in an open-vote election for Speaker. Will such a move fare any better this time? We may eventually see. Karen Brooks is following it as it goes. Greg, Eileen, and Inside the Texas Capitol have also weighed in.

On a slightly odd note, Rep. Robert Talton, who’s been the biggest thorn in Tom Craddick’s side all session, has spoken against the presumed motion to vacate. He then goes on to urge Speaker Craddick to step aside if such a motion is made anyway. Whatever.

Meanwhile, in the “when it rains, it pours” department for Craddick, he’s been sued by a travel agent (more here). I’d ask “what next?”, but I’m almost afraid to find out. Stay tuned.

More endorsements for Noriega

Melissa Noriega has racked up a bunch more endorsements for the June 16 runoff for City Council. Early on, she received the endorsements of Noel Freeman and Andy Neill. Earlier today, her campaign sent out a press release announcing the support of most of the remaining contenders: Sara Owen-Gemoets, Ivan Mayers, Kendall Baker, and Alfred Molison. And tomorrow, according to Miya Shay, she’ll get the nod from the Houston Association of Realtors. Not a bad week for her.

As for Roy Morales, it’s not been so good for him, thanks to that lawsuit filed against him by his sign maker. He did get an endorsement from Tom Nixon, but that’s it so far. The remaining two candidates from the election, Anthony Dutrow and David Goldberg, have not announced that they are backing anyone in the runoff.

We have TiVo again

Our replacement TiVo unit arrived on our doorstep late this afternoon. It’s all set up now, so when Olivia comes home from school tomorrow she can see one of her beloved Noggin programs again. Of course, she won’t have many choices yet, after only a day of recording, but it’s a start.

The funniest thing to come out of this whole episode was Tuesday night, the day our original box died. We had given Olivia the bad news that she couldn’t watch Diego or Jack because the TiVo was broken. She seemed to accept this with more stoicism than I’d shown, and after dinner when she usually gets to see her daily allotment of two shows she went upstairs with Audrey and me to play instead. This left Tiffany free to watch the NCIS finale as it aired, since we couldn’t record it. About midway through, I had to bring Audrey downstairs so Tiffany could feed her. Olivia of course tagged along, and when she saw Tiffany watching TV, she exclaimed in the most accusatory tone of voice I’ve ever heard her use “Hey! You said TiVo was broken!” I lamely tried to explain the difference between TiVo and TV to her, then thought better of it and just hustled her back upstairs. This is the sort of thing they don’t tell you about before you become a parent.

But all is well now, and I hope to catch the Lost finale off the Series II TiVo we bequeathed to my in-laws in the next few days. I’m on high spoiler alert till then.

Goodbye SB419, hello HB1919

The bad news is that SB419 did not make it through the House. The good news is that it’s still alive as an amendment to another bill. Pete has an email from Sen. Eddie Lucio’s office, which lays it out:

Unfortunately, like so many other good Senate bills, SB 419 was essentially “timed out” in the House and died. However, Senator Lucio was able to amend most of the language from SB 419 onto HB 1919 by Representative Todd Smith/Senator Leticia Van de Putte. HB 1919 requires specific treatment for individuals with traumatic brain injury. The Senate also amended language relating to mental health parity to HB 1919. Tomorrow, May 25th, the House of Representatives will decide whether or not to concur with these Senate amendments to HB 1919. Texas Association of Business and the Citizens Commission on Human Rights are both working hard to convince House members to oppose these amendments, so we have to work twice as hard to ensure members support them. We know there will be a few House members who will try to oppose the Senate amendments, but as long as we have a simple majority who support them, the current bill will remain intact with the early intervention amendments. We also have confirmation that Governor Perry will support the Senate amendments to HB 1919.

The best way for you to take action is to call your own State Representative and urge them to concur with Senate amendments to HB 1919. It would be helpful to explain to them why these amendments are important in terms of supporting Texas families and saving taxpayers money. Representative Smith’s (HB 1919 author) office has been very good to work with and we do not recommend calling them at this time.

The really good news is that the ABA provision was added back along with the amendment to HB1919. Pete has the amended text for your perusal. Please contact your representative and ask him or her to support HB1919 as amended by the Senate. This is it, it’s now or never. Thanks very much.

What about the red light camera bills?

And the other legislation mentioned in the sidebar to the strip club fee story is about red light cameras.

Red-light cameras

  • Multiple bills: To formally authorize use of cameras to catch red light violators, regulate their use and require cities to share some ticket revenue.
  • Status: Senate Bill 125, which would require cities to spend a portion of their red-light camera revenue on trauma care, did not pass the House. Lawmakers will try to work out differences in conference committee.

Someone is confused here, and I don’t think it’s me, but let’s check. There was a flurry of camera-related bills introduced in February. In April, both SB125, which was the bill to limit civil fines from camera-recorded red light violations to $75 and to direct where some of those funds must go, and SB1119, which was the bill that authorized the use of red light cameras by cities, were passed by the Senate. In May, an amended version of SB1119 that inserted a sunset review of their effectiveness in two years’ time, was passed by the House. That bill needs its differences worked out in conference, then to be passed again by both chambers, to be sent to Governor Perry. SB125, however, was placed on the General State Calendar on May 22 and apparently never emerged from there. Its only hope is to be added as an amendment to another bill; presumably, SB1119 would be the vehicle for this, but I suppose there could be other possibilities.

So that’s my understanding, anyway. If I’m the one that’s confused, I hope someone will point it out in the comments.

Is SB1317 dead?

The strip club fee story has a little sidebar on it entitled “Other bills of particular interest in the Houston area”, which includes this tidbit:

Clean air

  • The measure: To prohibit Houston and other cities from using city nuisance laws against plants outside the city limits that pollute city air.
  • Status: Senate Bill 1317 did not pass the House. But it could be revived as an amendment to another bill.

Looking at the history of this bill, it’s a little weird that it took two weeks to get from Environmental Affairs, the playground of Dennis “Dirty Air” Bonnen, to Calendars, from which it apparently never emerged. One can only presume that if the House had been working on a more traditional schedule – which is to say, had they been in session through the weekend – this one would have made it to the floor. Chalk this up as a victory for the anti-Craddick rebellion. Now let’s keep an eye on amendments and hope for the best.

Strip club fee passes the Senate

I confess, I hadn’t paid very close attention to Rep. Ellen Cohen’s bill to raise money for sexual assault prevention by imposing a $5 per customer fee on strip clubs because I didn’t think it would make it through. Clearly, I was wrong about that.

The measure, pushed through the House earlier by Rep. Ellen Cohen, would require the clubs to take a daily count of patrons and pay the state $5 for each one. Those records would be subject to audits from the state comptroller.

It would be up to the clubs to determine how much, if any, of the burden to pass on to the customers.

The fee is expected to raise $87 million over the next biennium — $25 million of which would go toward a sex assault prevention fund. The rest would go to the Texas health opportunity pool, which is used to provide assistance to low-income people.

[…]

It’s not clear how many establishments in Texas would be affected by the bill. Tax records in the State Comptroller’s Office list 151 sexually oriented businesses that serve alcohol.

But some clubs that feature topless or nude performances do not serve alcohol and therefore are not on the liquor tax rolls.

The measure is moving through the Legislature as the city of Houston prepares to shut down sexually oriented businesses that operate near schools, churches, parks and one another.

“The source of revenue may come and go,” Cohen said. “But it will not affect the original intent of the bill, to set aside the first $25 million for sexual assault prevention.”

I wonder if the fiscal note on this one has changed in light of the recent unpleasantness in Houston. Seems to me the impact could be pretty big.

Speaking of our endangered local establishments, the Chron is calling on them to surrender.

Despite the definitive ruling by Judge Atlas, some owners are appealing to a higher court for a restraining order to stall city enforcement. Others have filed suit in state district court seeking to allow the businesses to operate at their current sites in order to recoup the owners’ investments.

After the decade-long effort involving the support of three Houston mayors and a succession of City Council lineups, the ordinance clearly enjoys strong support from the majority of Houstonians and their representatives.

Whether one accepts or disagrees with the claim by ordinance supporters that SOBs create environments around them conducive to crime, communities across the United States have successfully regulated the businesses and set conditions for their operations. Houston has the right to do so, as well.

The fact that the businesses pay city taxes does not mean they should be immune from site restrictions. Once the businesses set up in legal locations, similar revenue likely would flow. In fact, the departure of some of the largest clubs from a valuable area near the Galleria might provoke redevelopment that would bring the city more tax dollars.

Rather than continue to wage costly and likely futile court fights to delay the inevitable, Houston SOB owners should drop their legal actions and find suitable properties for relocation. In return, city officials should work with club owners who commit to relocating in a reasonable period of time to avoid unnecessary arrests of innocent employees while the process is under way.

Does this ordinance “clearly enjoy strong support from the majority of Houstonians”? I suppose it must, given the lack or any organized resistance to its enforcement (anyone out there remember Americans for Legal Freedom? Those were the days) and the lack of waffling from City Council members, who undoubtedly would be looking for a way to walk this back if they were hearing it from their constituents. The one place I’ve seen strong disagreement with this is in the utterly non-representative comments to Chron stories on the subject. There’s a good one to this editorial, from EdT, who notes that the ordinance really only makes sense in the context of zoning, which Houstonians do not support. Beyond that, I can’t say this assertion is off base.

The talk about “once the businesses have set up in legal locations” is laughable. The whole reason there’s been a decade-long court fight is because every one of these clubs was in a legal location back in 1997. City Council changed the rules on them, and they – quite justifiably – took to the courts for relief. Had there been some form of grandfathering, this matter would have been settled years ago.

And once they do move to a spot that’s now legal, who’s to say that will be the end of it? Empty space is a rare commodity in Houston. What happens when an apartment complex gets built 1400 feet from the new Men’s Club? And who’s to say that Harris County won’t adopt similar rules now that Houston has taken the legal burden off of them? From the perspective of a club owner, I’m not seeing a good reason to stop fighting, because as far as I can tell there’s no assurance that relocating will bring them across the finish line. If this ordinance really is about regulation and not elimination, addressing this issue would at least be a decent starting point.

Budget deal reached

With all the other legislative activity going on as the session winds down, I’d almost lost track of the one thing the Lege must do, which is pass a budget. They’re almost there, according to the conference chairs.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said early this morning that lead negotiators have agreed on a two-year state spending plan that will total about $152 billion.

The deal will avert a threatened veto of education spending by Gov. Rick Perry by addressing changes he sought in university funding, said Ogden, R-Bryan. He and House Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, met Wednesday with the GOP governor.

Perry has sought incentive funding for higher education to boost graduation rates; urged the drastic reduction of funding for special item initiatives, which aren’t tied to enrollment; and sought a change in the budget format so he can more freely use his line-item veto power.

The governor has complained that the current budget format would force him to veto a campus’s entire funding to get at spending he doesn’t like.

Ogden said the deal puts in an additional $100 million for the higher education incentives sought by Perry. The overall bill pattern isn’t changed, but some special funding items are shifted so that Perry can strike them if he likes, Ogden said, while adding, “I hope he doesn’t veto any of them.”

We’ll see what it looks like when it makes it out of the conference committee. For what it’s worth, Sen. Ogden is predicting easy passage. Stay tuned.

Aaron and Bonds

Hank Aaron says he won’t watch Barry Bonds break his record.

Aaron doesn’t plan to see the milestone homer in person, wherever it might happen.

“No, I won’t be there,” he said.

Asked why, Aaron said: “I traveled for 23 years, and I just get tired of traveling. I’m not going to fly to go see somebody hit a home run, no matter whether it is Barry or Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or whoever it may be. I’m not going anyplace. I wish him all the luck in the world.”

I’m fine with this. Hank Aaron doesn’t owe anyone anything. He can be as gracious as he wants to be or not to be. Anything on the polite side of being a jerk is acceptable, and he’s nowhere near the jerk line here.

On the other hand, this is all wrong:

Fay Vincent has this advice for Bud Selig: Stay away! Vincent said the man who succeeded him as baseball commissioner should not be in the ballpark if and when Bonds hits his 756th home run to break Aaron’s career record.

“He has every right to say: I’m willing to congratulate him but I don’t honor him by presence,” Vincent said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press during spring training.

“I think if nothing changes … I would say to Bonds: Because you haven’t told us what you did, because we assume and because we believe you cheated and because you haven’t helped clean baseball up, we will recognize your record but we will not honor you,” Vincent said.

Hogwash. If that’s what Fay Vincent really thinks, then good riddance to him. I subscribe 100% to the King Kaufman solution:

Go to the game.

When Bonds gets to home run No. 753 or so, you get on the plane, go to wherever the San Francisco Giants are, and plant yourself in the front row for every game until he hits No. 756. Then you congratulate him, shake his hand and head for the exit.

You don’t have to give a speech extolling his virtues — which would be a very short speech indeed: “Dude sure can hit!” You don’t have to give a speech downplaying the record and saying we really can’t be sure what it means because we don’t know all the facts, or one that condemns Bonds as a cheater but explains that your hands are tied, there’s nothing you can hang on him yet, or one that tries to explain away the roughly two decades when you and the other owners ignored the steroid issue.

All you have to do is stand up in the front row, call Bonds over, shake his hand, say, “Congratulations” and walk up the aisle. You’re free to go. You can even go to your own house if Bonds breaks the record in one of the six games the Giants play in Milwaukee between June 18 and July 22. Bonus.

Selig has to go because otherwise he’s sending the message that Bonds is hitting illegitimate home runs and setting a new, illegitimate record. Is that baseball’s official stance? “Our product is bogus”?

Not that such a thing would be completely foreign to the Budster, but one hopes that he’s gotten past such urges. Hank Aaron is a private citizen, and he’s free to do as he chooses. Bud Selig, God help us, is the official representative of Major League Baseball. He has an obligation, but luckily for him he can think of it as strictly a ceremonial one if he needs to. He can consider it as a ribbon-cutting if he can’t find any pomp in this circumstance, but he needs to do the job he’s there to do. To do anything else makes it de facto policy, and that deserves a lot more input and debate than what it’s been given so far. Besides, going to the games and being a minimal presence will generate less publicity than not going will. Just a guess here, but I think that’s probably what Bud would prefer. The choice is clear.

WiFi woes?

Dwight notes that EarthLink is rethinking its municipal WiFi commitment.

Following a quarter in which it posted a loss of $29.96 million broadband provider EarthLink said it is reviewing four of its Wi-Fi deployments in Philadelphia, Anaheim, Milpitas and New Orleans before deciding if it wants to take on any new projects.

The pause for EarthLink could just be momentary. Or it could signal that the push for municipal Wi-Fi deployments could be losing steam if one of it’s biggest proponents starts to rethink the whole venture.

EarthLink is “not yet able to establish that comfort level” that the investments are really profitable, Kevin Dotts, EarthLink’s chief financial officer told the AP.

Dotts said they will be looking at factors like topography; concentration of households; and alternative revenue opportunities to determine where they might want to continue building. It’s likely he said that the company will only pursue large projects in the future such as Chicago.

I’m sure Houston counts as a “large project”, for which they’re already committed. We’ll see how (or if) their review affects what they do here.

A satisfying driving experience

Houstonist has a question for you: “What is the most satisfying driving experience in Houston?” I’d call it a toss-up between going eastbound on Memorial from 610 to downtown, especially once you get past the last traffic light just before Shepherd, and westbound on Allen Parkway from the exit off I-45, either to Shepherd/Kirby or just to Montrose. The latter sometimes serves as a nice alternate route home for me when 45 is backed up all the way to Conroe, so it gets extra “satisfaction” points. What do you think?

One more step towards independence for the Woodlands

Back in December, a deal was struck between the Woodlands and the city of Houston to take future annexation off the table in return for financial considerations. That deal depended on the Lege passing bills to make it happen. That hurdle has now been cleared.

Lawmakers on Tuesday approved the last bill necessary for the master-planned community north of Houston to pursue a new form of governance.

The bill enables The Woodlands to expand the boundaries of its existing special district to collect sales and property taxes throughout the entire community — a move that could possibly lessen the property tax burden on residents down the road.

Another bill signed last week by Gov. Rick Perry enables The Woodlands to enter into a groundbreaking regional partnership agreement with Houston, giving the community of more than 85,000 an opportunity to incorporate in 2014, if it choses.

Together, the legislation pushed by The Woodlands lawmakers, Sen. Tommy Williams and Rep. Rob Eissler, both Republicans, will give residents what they have desired for a long time: The right to determine their own future without fear of annexation.

[…]

The Woodlands still must wait for a couple of more steps before moving ahead full throttle.

The bill that unanimously passed the Senate Tuesday, with minor amendments, must go back to the House before being sent to the governor for his signature. The Houston City Council must first approve the regional agreement drafted in December by Williams and Houston Mayor Bill White. Also, The Woodlands residents must approve the special district expansion in a November election.

If the expansion gets the green light, the new district called The Woodlands District would replace the Town Center Improvement District and serve as an interim form of governance until 2014, the year the community would be released from Houston’s boundaries.

The district also would have an elected board and would execute the regional partnership agreement with Houston.

Williams and White secretly crafted the deal to avoid a nasty boundary war similar to the one Houston had with Kingwood more than 10 years ago. Houston’s future boundaries extend into Montgomery County and cover the majority of The Woodlands.

Under the draft agreement, Houston would agree to release the community from the city’s future boundaries in 2014 and, in exchange, The Woodlands would pay make an intial payment of $16 million and estimated total of $29 million over 30 years to help fund regional transportation and park projects.

The 2014 date is when a 1999 moratorium agreement between Houston and Woodlands officials expires. The pact protected The Woodlands from annexation.

I don’t expect any of the remaining items to present much of an obstacle. I presume that the concerns that Houston lawmakers raised have been addressed as well. At this point, I think the biggest sticking point is what to call the new residents of the soon-to-be City of The Woodlands. But I’m sure we’ll work that out soon enough.

Dewhurst gives up the pursuit of HB218

Good.

It appears the Legislature will not pass a voter identification bill that Republicans desire and Democrats loath as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sent ailing Sen. Mario Gallegos home Wednesday night.

Gallegos, recovering from a liver transplant and potentially in danger of his body rejecting the replacement, has stayed in the Capitol despite his doctors’ advice to remain in Houston.

The Democratic lawmaker is the swing vote in determining whether the bill comes up for debate.

“I sent Mario home,” Dewhurst told reporters.

That means the lieutenant governor has no plans to call up the contentious legislation. Doing so would certainly trigger a filibuster by Democrats and kill scores of bills.

The Senate must tentatively approve House bills by midnight. Legislation that doesn’t pass before the deadline is dead.

Thank you, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst. Sen. Gallegos thanks you as well.

He said he wasn’t going to do it, but the emotion of the evening got the better of him.

Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston asked for and received a personal privilege to stand and thank Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the Senate for agreeing not to consider the Voter ID bill.

“As a human being to another human being, I appreciate it, I don’t mind telling you,” Gallegos said.

[…]

Gallegos said he was sincerely moved by the consideration shown him by a Senate that last week was angrily split over House Bill 218, which would require voters to present identification before casting ballots.

“I’ll be back and if you want to fight this battle again, we’ll fight it, but with a healthy Mario Gallegos,” he said, before receiving a standing ovation.

That is the most-deserved standing O of the year. Sen. Gallegos, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for all you did this session. Enjoy all the yellow roses that have been sent.

For posterity, here’s Sen. Gallegos’ op-ed on voter ID and why he chose to stand and fight. I’m reprinting it beneath the fold for future reference.

(more…)

Anti-rail lawsuit ruling

We have ourselves a ruling in the anti-rail “lawsuit” that was filed a few weeks ago.

A judge today denied a Richmond Avenue merchant’s request to make Metropolitan Transit Authority officials testify about their light rail and Bus Rapid Transit plans, even though she had not yet filed a lawsuit against the agency.

Plaintiff Daphne Scarborough’s attorney, Andy Taylor, said he will now file such a lawsuit — which he had earlier described in state District Judge Levi Benton’s court as “full-blown nuclear war.”

“We’re going to see this thing all the way to the Supreme Court,” Taylor said.

Bring it on. There was no way that this crowd was ever going to stop short of a lawsuit, so this doesn’t even count as a bump in the road. Let’s settle this once and for all. More to come soon, I’m sure.

Senate passes CHIP bill

Well, HB109 passed yesterday and that’s a good start, even if there’s room for improvement.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday agreed to loosen some enrollment restrictions for children in the state’s low-cost insurance program for working poor families, allowing their families to renew their coverage once a year instead of twice.

The proposal would reverse several changes the Legislature implemented to the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 2003, when the state faced a $10 billion budget shortfall.

The bill would require electronic income checks every six months for families at the top of the income eligibility scale. State officials would only contact families whose income appears to have risen beyond the program’s limits, Sen. Kip Averitt said.

“Most of the families will never even know that it ever happened,” said Averitt, R-Waco.

Except for those that get thrown off, of course. Let’s just hope that Accenture isn’t involved in this process. I’m not the only person thinking along those lines, either.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, the bill’s House sponsor, said he wouldn’t accept the Senate’s changes because that version would only add 100,000 children to the CHIP rolls. The House version would add about 30,000 more kids, he said.

“I think we can do better and I think the kids deserve better and I’m going to, along with the House conferees, fight for better,” said Turner, D-Houston, referring to the committee of lawmakers from both chambers that will work out the differences between the bills.

House and Senate budget writers approved almost $90 million for CHIP last week. That’s enough to cover the changes made by the House.

[…]

The bill was a disappointment for advocacy groups that favor the House’s version.

Barbara Best, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas, said she fears the state will have as many problems with this computer system as it has had with other social services programs.

“After the disastrous performance of the private contractor Accenture, this is not the time to institute a complicated new eligibility check that relies on untested technology,” Best said in a statement.

Has anyone thought about the procedure for appealing the result of that eligibility check? Maybe I should take a step back and ask if there even is a way to appeal if you think you were incorrectly ruled ineligible. Surely there must be, right?

Anyway, I presume Rep. Turner will be on the conference committee. We’ll see if he can get his version of the bill across the goal line.

Rose and Lucio

Well, we’ve made it through another day without an official motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. It makes sense that it would happen after last night’s deadline for passing bills on third reading, but until it actually happens, I and I’m sure other folks will have a feeling of apprehension about this. We had a chance to take out Tom Craddick at the beginning of the session, and we failed. It feels like there have been many openings in the past few days to take a second shot at it, but none were used. I just hate the thought that this could be all buildup and no payoff.

On the other hand, this time around more Craddick allies are publicly abandoning him. It seems to me that Craddick has no more carrots to offer anyone who might be wavering now. He’s got plenty of stick to wield, in the form of his $4 million campaign war chest, but how effectively can he use that if enough people tell him to buzz off? Nobody can win a fight on that many fronts, right?

I don’t know. But I do know that every defection makes me feel better about the potential end of this session. And with that in mind, I want to echo what Vince is saying about the two Democrats to jump off the USS Craddick, Patrick Rose and Eddie Lucio III.

While some may be tempted to say “it’s about time,” or “it’s too late” for the Rose and Lucio defections from the Craddick camp, we believe the time is always right to see the light.

Lucio and Rose each no doubt had their reasons for siding with the Speaker early in the session. Whatever their reasons may have been, the fact remains that they have realized that Republicans and the Craddick Administration have a different definition of “bipartisan” than Democrats (and, for that matter, the rest of the world) have.

What Lucio and Rose did today was not without risk. Both have assured themselves of Republican opponents well-funded by Craddick and his allies. Further, should we be unfortunate enough to be forced to endure a Republican majority in the next session or, God forbid, another Craddick speakership, Rose and Lucio would face proverbial back-benching.

Regardless of when one makes the decision to come to the right side of an issue or a movement, it’s a decision worthy of some praise. The bottom line is that they did the right thing.

Too, the defection of these two may serve as a sign to other Craddick Democrats that the time is now for House Democrats to unite under their full strength for at least the last days of the Session.

I agree completely. You can’t get people to come over to your side if you berate them when they finally do so. Yes, I would have preferred to have had these two gentlemen on our team from the beginning, but they’re here now, and I hope they’re setting an example for the others. A thousand times better to be Rose and Lucio than Dawnna Dukes. Where will the rest of the Craddick Dems go?

UPDATE: Stace joins in.

UPDATE: Burka and EoW add their takes on Craddick’s ability to punish defectors.

Heck of a job, Joshie

Obviously, I don’t actually care who will win the Republican nomination for President. Having said that, if I were a John McCain fan, I’d shudder in horror at this news.

Josh Robinson-State Field Director [for South Carolina]

A graduate of Texas A&M University, Josh comes from Houston, Texas after working on a number of Congressional, State House, and State Senate races. Additionally, Josh has spent time at RNC Headquarters in the Department of Grassroots Development.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the last campaign Josh Robinson worked for was Martha Wong’s. Along the way, he called the Texas ParentPAC a “fringe group”, gave a bogus explanation for using clumsily-altered campaign signs, and of course oversaw the release of the worst campaign ad ever.We know how well all that went. Let me just say I hope Robinson goes from this campaign to that of the eventual Republican nominee, so he can do for him what he did for Martha and will do for McCain.