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May 16th, 2007:

Is this the end of the line for HB218?

I’ll believe it when I see it, but David Dewhurst is apparently saying that he won’t be able to force HB218 through, because the Democrats are strong in their unified opposition to it. All I know is that I’ve got May 22, which is the last day to vote on unpassed bills, circled on my calendar. Note to Sen. Shapleigh: I know this sucks, but I think you’re going to have to miss your son’s graduation on Tuesday. We can’t take the chance.

Meanwhile, Patricia Kilday Hart says Dewhurst’s ill-advised tirade against Sen. Whitmire, which he’s since disavowed and blamed on his staff, has cost him support among Republican Senators who might have been otherwise inclined to lift the two-thirds rule on HB218. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

Another aspect of the Speaker’s race

It’s important to remember that Tom Craddick’s biggest supporters are the hardcore base of the Republican Party. His best strategy for staying in power is going to be to leverage that support as well as his vast financial resources to whip up turnout in the next primary and general elections. Keep that in mind as you read this tidbit from Quorum Report.

In what some members believe is a signal about the year and half long speaker battle to come, the Calendars Committee surprised most observers by setting two heavyweight abortion bills on the Major State Calendar for tomorrow. They point to the Calendar being posted just hours after Speaker Craddick announced his intention to run for a fourth term.

The Speaker’s office dismisses any such sinister notion noting that the bills had just come over from the Senate and were set on the Calendar as a normal course of business.

One of the sources of irritation with the Speaker this session is the amount of blood spilled and floor time that has been committed to socially conservative issues that had no legs in the Senate. In contrast, these two bills started in the Senate and are waiting for House action.

The first is SB920 by Patrick that requires patients seeking abortions be compelled to see sonograms of the fetus beforehand. The second is SB785 by Shapiro which requires reports from physicians on any abortion and publishes information about judges that grant judicial bypasses thus targeting them for voter reprisal.
Critics of the bills complain that both bills substantially insert the state into what should be a medical issue between physician and patient.

Opponents particularly complain that SB785 is intended to follow through on the Republican Party of Texas Platform that says, “We call for the electoral defeat of all judges who through raw judicial activism seek to nullify the Parental Consent Law by wantonly granting bypasses to minor girls seeking abortions….”

Heather Paffe of Planned Parenthood said, “It is not a coincidence that this happened just hours after a race for Speaker was announced yesterday. Women’s health and the safety of our teens and judges have no place in Speaker politics.

Both Republicans and Democrats with which we spoke see this as the end of the cessation of floor hostilities and the low key ambience engineered for the calendars earlier this week. These bills have the potential of dramatically raising the decibel level and moving all sides to DefCon 4.

Perhaps it is simply paranoia, but the presumed thinking behind the move is to cut up members, particularly WD40s and moderate Republicans for what they argue is the inevitable purging effort to come now that there is a speakers race. Ginning up the social conservative base for both the Republican primary and the general election in a presidential year could be an effective strategy they say.

One Republican active in the Craddick opposition movement said yesterday that, “freshmen are Craddick’s oxygen.” This observer noted that Craddick needed a large freshman class of Republicans in 2003 to win his first speakership. And while many in the current class of Republican freshmen were either implicitly or explicitly critical of the leadership in their campaigns last year, they almost uniformly followed the advice of their consultants to support the incumbent in last January’s speakers race.

I’m told that SB920 will be delayed due to a procedural error and re-commitment to a different committee, but SB785 is on its way. Put on your flameproof skivvies, it’s going to be another nasty day. The Observer has more on this, including a preview of some of the amendments that will be brought up.

Andy Neill endorses Melissa Noriega

Noel Freeman was the first of the runnerup City Council candidates to make an endorsement in the runoff, and now Andy Neill has followed suit.

My Fellow Houstonians,

As a registered Independent and a candidate for City Council during the current Special Election cycle, I have been granted a truly unique vantage point from which to assess fellow competitors and their messages of change for the City of Houston. It’s from that perspective that I feel compelled to endorse candidate Melissa Noreiga for the vacant At-Large position 3 seat in the upcoming runoff.

Melissa Noriega has earned my admiration and respect with her compassion, sincerity, and firm grasp of the complex issues that affect our citizens on a daily basis. Specifically I share Melissa’s vision of Houston that addresses the following concerns:

  • Balancing economic growth with the need for more green space and parks
  • Greater protection of our citizenry while respecting individual freedoms at the same time
  • Greater attention to the special needs of our children and Senior Citizens

I encourage everyone to do their homework on the issues that affect them and their families and make their own choice. I however have made mine and I am proud to support Melissa Noriega over the coming weeks.

Sincerely,

Andy Neill

The only other formal announcement of an endorsement so far is from Tom Nixon, who endorsed Roy Morales. I am aware of other endorsements in the works, and will report on them as soon as I have the official word.

Joe Pojman speaks

Since I’ve raised questions about the email that’s been sent twice now by the Texas Alliance for Life in support of Tom Craddick as Speaker, I thought I should put the response from its Executive Director Joe Pojman, which he left in the comments to that post, on the front page:

With due respect to Mr. [Buck] Wood, my email to members regarding a “motion to unseat the speaker” is 100% within Texas law. Regardless of whether my email is a “thing of value,” the issue addressed in my email addresses is not a speaker’s race. A motion to remove a sitting speaker, the subject of my email, is not a motion to elect a speaker. Therefore, my email is not limited by Sec. 302.017 any more than an email to members on motions to adopt or table House or Senate bills.

Joe Pojman, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Texas Alliance for Life

So there you have it.

Senate at recess: Now what?

Despite rumors of rules gamesmanship in the Senate, they have recessed for the day without taking up any House bills. That doesn’t mean the Dems are out of the woods on HB218, just that it’s been pushed back for a day. Which means there’s still a chance for David Dewhurst to re-live the Tuesday he’d like to forget.

If he really didn’t care about passing the voter ID bill, and just wanted to pay lip service to the GOP agenda, he had cover. The Democrats’ 11-member opposition would have let Dewhurst watch HB 218 expire with the session. His high regard for the rules of the Senate, he could say, wouldn’t allow him to break the two-thirds rule, or risk stalling the lawmaking process with a filibuster. Unfortunately, a potential future political rival — Sen. Dan Patrick — was on record against the two-thirds rule.

If, however, what he really wanted was to flex his power at the helm of the Senate and ram the bill through, it would have been easy Tuesday, with Sen. Carlos Uresti (D–San Antonio) home sick with the flu during the morning call. With just 10 Democrats around, the path was clear to bring HB 218 to the floor.

[…]

Uresti says Dewhurst knew he was home sick Tuesday morning, because he’d called in to the Secretary of the Senate’s office earlier, “out of courtesy. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do, just to let them know,” he says. Dewhurst must also have known Democrats would rush to get Uresti back to the floor, and he didn’t have all day. Still, he let Democratic Senator Eliot Shapleigh quiz the bill’s sponsor, Troy Fraser, on “the history of this issue… into the 1940s, and all of the history of how this hinders the right to vote,” among other questions.

That exchange alone took ten minutes, before Sen. Dan Patrick raised a point of order against debating the bill without voting to consider it. When the vote did come up, Sen. Glen Hegar wasn’t on the floor to vote with other Republicans, something easily prevented by better communication from the top. Benkiser, and other results-oriented GOP leaders, will want to know why Dewhurst saw fit to take his sweet time to finally bring up the bill, and didn’t have his bloc of Republican votes in line.

Indifference to the rules and and an inability to follow through – there’s a combination that just screams “Governor material!”, doesn’t it?

Dewhurst also had to disavow a letter written on his own stationary that trashed Democrats and Sen. Whitmire. See here, here, here, here, and here for more.

Can I get a motion to adjourn here? Please?

Bonnen versus Bonnen

From the Texas League of Conservation Voters, the latest shenanigans by Rep. Dennis Bonnen:

Chairman of the House Environmental Regulations Committee, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, is threatening to kill his own clean air bill, SB 12, to avoid a floor vote on regulating toxic air emissions in Texas. Yesterday, Houston Representative Jessica Farrar offered an amendment to SB 12 that would set statewide standards for toxic air emissions in Texas. Rather than make House members cast a record vote, Bonnen twice chose to postpone SB 12.

“I’m not sure what Chairman Bonnen is afraid of. Is he afraid that Members might actually vote for cleaning up toxic air emissions, or is he afraid that voters will punish those Members who vote against it?” said Colin Leyden, Executive Director for the Texas League of Conservation Voters.

Unlike ozone, there are currently no federal or state standards for toxic air emissions. Toxic air became an issue in a number of House races in the Houston area in the 2006 election. In the 2005 session, former state representative, Martha Wong, consistently voted against amendments to address the problem, and those votes were used against her in the race. She was defeated by Rep. Ellen Cohen who has filed a bill to clean up toxic emissions this session.

“I find it telling that Bonnen, who as chairman of Environmental Regulation is tasked with the job of cleaning up our air, is threatening to kill his own clean-air bill over an amendment that further cleans up our air. Rather than play by the rules everyone else does, he’s taking his ball and going home,” said Leyden.

Chairman Bonnen repeatedly referred to the Houston Chronicles editorials and stories covering the ongoing failure of the Texas Legislature to deal with serious air pollution in Houston. He seems more concerned with hiding the ball from the public than dealing with the legislative business assigned to his committee.

This bill is apparently scheduled to be heard tonight at 7. We’ll see what happens.

That’s a marriage class I’d pay for

Michael Croft takes the news of the “double or nothing” marriage license fees, stirs in the recent news of the strip clubs’ legal woes, and comes up with the obvious solution. You need to move back to Texas, dude. We need more thinking like that around here.

Response to Mayor’s response

Following the Mayor’s letter to the editor over the Chron pension fund story, today we have a response from David Long, the executive director of the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System. This is a long one, so I’ll put it beneath the fold. The crux of it is this:

The issue is not whether the mayor or his administration stated they would pay an amount required by state law, but why they have ignored our repeated requests for discussions about it, and why they are just now disputing an amount they have known about for almost three years.

It’s a good question, one that I’d guess is answered by one part hoping things would be better by the time they really had to deal with it (kinda like this; note that according to the letter, things are in fact a little better, just not that much better), one part denial, and one part playing hardball. Obviously, the Mayor needs to follow the law and meet the obligations to which the city is bound. I have faith that this will happen, but we’ll see what’s in the budget. Here’s Director Long’s letter:

UPDATE: See also today’s Chron editorial, which among other things says:

When he championed boosting the pension benefits in 2001, Long cited figures from his actuarial consultant that they would not cost more than 15 percent of the city payroll, roughly what the city is paying now. Two years later, that figure had swollen to 42 percent, a potential cost to taxpayers of $100 million annually. The pension board also underestimated the unfunded liabilities of the system by half.

With that kind of track record on fiscal accuracy, Long is hardly in a position to critique efforts of others to clean up the mess the pension board helped create.

Isn’t this fun?

(more…)

Dynamo Stadium deal being negotiated

We first heard about this last week, and now it’s official: The Houston Dynamo are talking to the city about building a stadium near Minute Maid Park.

The Anschutz Entertainment Group, owners of the Dynamo, would bear the brunt of the 22,000-seat open air facility near Minute Maid Park that would cost between $70 million and $80 million, said Billy Burge, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority chairman.

Although parties involved anticipate a public-private partnership, it is unclear how much the city would contribute toward the construction costs, said Oliver Luck, president and general manager of the Dynamo.

But a substantial part of the public contribution could take the form of providing some parking, making infrastructure improvements and helping the Dynamo obtain a reasonable lease for the land where the stadium would be built, he said.

“The mayor has made it clear that this will work only with a substantial private investment,” Luck said.

The most likely site would be Minute Maid’s parking lot C, a 900-space lot just east of the ballpark and U.S. 59, Burge said. The sports authority leased the lot to the Astros for 30 years as part of the Minute Maid Park deal.

[…]

Mayor Bill White has ruled out using property tax revenues to help finance the stadium, but sales and hotel occupancy taxes might be an option, said Frank Michel, the mayor’s spokesman.

The city and Dynamo are finalizing a letter that would set the terms and topics of their negotiations. The deadline to complete the talks would be mid-July, Michel said.

The sports authority isn’t expected to pay any construction costs and would have little to do with the deal since the Astros have a long-term lease on the land, Burge said.

I do not favor using any public money for this deal. Helping with parking and with getting a decent lease, that’s fine. “Infrastructure improvements”, that depends on what exactly we’re talking about. Using sales and hotel occupancy taxes to help finance the stadium, no way. There was a time when I supported that sort of thing. I have since learned my lesson.

Pam Gardner, the Astros’ president of business operations, said the team is open to a soccer stadium being built on a Minute Maid lot, but would like to know more about how it would affect parking and traffic.

“We welcome more entertainment, arts, sports. All of those things are good for downtown,” she said. “We’d be happy to have more to say once we know what the plan is.”

Watch out for any concessions to the Astros, too. They don’t get a second trip to the public trough.

AEG is focusing on the downtown site after officials in Sugar Land withdrew from talks about building a soccer stadium. The Sugar Land City Council Tuesday night was to consider a partnership with AEG to build a 5,000- to 6,000-seat performing arts center.

Well, at least they’d still be the Houston Dynamo to me. So that’s something.

“The Bionic Woman” lives

God help me, I’m actually curious about this.

The “Bionic Woman” is being called upon to rescue a desperate NBC from its ratings woes. A reworking of the ’70s comic-book adventure series is among the six new shows announced Monday for the struggling Peacock Network’s fall schedule.

Michelle Ryan (“EastEnders”) will play Jamie Sommers, the bionically reconstructed title character portrayed by Lindsay Wagner in the 1976-78 incarnation. Wagner’s Jamie was a tennis pro nearly killed in a skydiving accident. Ryan’s Jamie is bartender and a surrogate mother to her teenage sister (Mae Whitman).

Slated for 9-10 p.m. Wednesday, “Bionic Woman” also stars Miguel Ferrer, Chris Powers and Will Yun Lee.

More info is here. I admit it, I loved the original “Bionic Woman”. The more I think about this, the more I think that this could be a very cool show. Or, of course, it could also suck rocks. But if the folks who “re-imagined” Battlestar Galactica are involved, then I’ll give it some faith, even if I too would prefer a slightly older Jamie Summers. Bring it on, NBC.

More toll road maneuvering

I’ve just about lost track of where the whole toll road moratorium thing is now. I’m not even sure it’s appropriate to keep referring to an actual “moratorium”, given all the exceptions that have been larded in. In any event, here’s the latest.

Trying to avoid a confrontation with the governor, the Texas Senate voted unanimously Monday for another transportation bill that preserves a two-year moratorium on most private toll roads.

Senate Bill 792 also satisfies Gov. Rick Perry’s concerns in another transportation bill sitting on his desk that he plans to veto because, he contends, it transfers too much road-building authority from the state to local communities.

[…]

The private toll road moratorium would not apply to major projects already planned in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas.

The Houston-area Grand Parkway and a proposed I-69 project from Corpus Christi to Brownsville also would be exempted from the moratorium.

The new legislation, which requires approval by the state House, would create a new “market valuation” approach for planning and building roads.

[…]

The latest transportation bill could run into a wary House chamber.

“I don’t think any of us have seen it. I don’t know what kind of reception it will get,” said. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, author of the moratorium on private toll roads.

The compromise legislation passed by the Senate represents an agreement between senators, the governor and state highway officials.

“Everybody says it’s ‘agreed upon,’ but I didn’t really see any House members in that meeting,” Kolkhorst said.

I’m not even sure what to root for at this point.

Meanwhile, speaking of I-69:

Commissioners Court voted today to withdraw the county’s membership in the Alliance for I-69 Texas, an organization that has long supported converting U.S. 59 through East and South Texas into an interstate highway.

Harris County has paid $50,000 in annual membership fees to the alliance, a coalition of counties, towns, chambers of commerce and others.

“It has always been my position that we spend too much money on membership fees and get no real value for the dollars we spend,” said Commissioner Sylvia Garcia.

The vote on County Judge Ed Emmett’s motion to withdraw from the organization was unanimous.

The county is at odds with the I-69 alliance over its request that Gov. Rick Perry veto a state transportation bill because it includes a two-year moratorium on long-term contracts between the state and private firms to build and operate toll roads for profit.

The county wants the bill signed into law because another largely unrelated provision would empower the Harris County Toll Road Authority to build toll roads on Texas Department of Transportation right of way.

Emmett said the I-69 alliance, acting on advice from state highway officials, appears to have given up on building Interstate 69, and now supports constructing a Trans-Texas Corridor toll road roughly parallel to the existing U.S. 59.

[…]

“The alliance’s interests have changed since Harris County joined it,” Emmett said. “The original intent was to upgrade U.S. 59 to an interstate.”

And as far as I know, the intent of I-69 as a TTC component would have it essentially bypass Houston, which is the basic plan for most Corridor highways. It’s not clear to me why that would have been a good thing for Houston and Harris County.

One more thing, on a side note:

Even if a tolled corridor is built parallel to U.S. 59, [John Thompson, I-69 alliance chairman and Polk county judge] said he still favors converting the present road into an interstate through East Texas, with the toll road being used mainly by heavy trucks going long distances.

How exactly do we know that the toll road will be used “mainly by heavy trucks going long distances”? Last I checked, the tolls on these roads are going to be pretty stiff. Why would truckers, who are already reeling from high gas prices, want to take on that added expense? I guess they might, if they think they can get where they’re going that much faster. I’m just saying this strikes me as a pretty big assumption.

Marriage tax hike goes to Governor

Dammit. I thought that stupid “healthy marriage” bill had been scuttled, but the Senate revived the concept, and now it’s on to Governor Perry’s desk.

Despite its earlier protests of government intrusion into private lives, the Texas House approved a bill today doubling marriage license fees to $60 unless couples take state-sanctioned classes on how to be good spouses.

The marriage fee hike, which unanimously passed the Senate last week, is now on its way to Gov. Rick Perry.

Couples that agree to take specific classes outlined in the bill will get free marriage licenses, but it is not yet clear how much the classes will cost.

The House, which earlier voted against raising the marriage license fee, reversed that stance with a 84-56 vote.

[…]

Under the bill, those wishing to tie the knot can avoid the marriage fee hike by taking an eight-hour class on how to succeed as a spouse.

The bill specifies that couples must take the classes within a year of applying for a marriage license. If they take the class, the bill also waives a 72-hour waiting period for getting married after a license is granted.

The classes must teach couples conflict management, communication skills and keys to a successful marriage. It does not require that couples be instructed on how to be good parents or how to manage finances.

[…]

[Bill author Rep. Warren] Chisum has said no special degrees or licenses are required to teach the class. Anyone wishing to instruct couples can take a class lasting only a day or two.

[Rep. Tommy] Merritt predicted that marriage classes will pop up around Texas just as defensive driving classes did, based on a bill the Legislature passed.

“There are individuals that make money off of defensive driving. This is just another way for some opportunist to come here under the perception that this is a good idea,” he said. “A lot of people will make money off of it. It’s terrible.”

I think Rep. Merritt is exactly right. A bunch of fly-by-night shysters are going to cash in on this scam. What a joke.

Farmers Branch lawsuits filed

As expected, the ratification of Farmers Branch’s anti-immigrant ordinance has spawned a round of lawsuits.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund wants a federal district court to restrain the Dallas suburb from enforcing the rental ban, which is set to take effect next Tuesday.

Three federal lawsuits have been brought against the city on behalf of apartment complexes, business owners, Hispanic residents with undocumented relatives and others. They are being heard together before U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay.

“We’d like the judge to hear this before the ordinance goes into effect,” said MALDEF staff attorney Marisol Perez.

A group of business owners behind one of the lawsuits also said that they would file a motion for injunctive relief this afternoon.

“I’ve said all along that an election was not going to stop this,” said Carlos Quintanilla, an activist and spokesman for 43 business owners that have sued the city.

[…]

[City Attorney Matthew] Boyle said he was optimistic about his chances of averting a restraining order. He said he is preparing a letter for the dozen apartment complexes affected explaining how to comply with the law.

The ordinance requires apartment managers to verify that renters are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants before leasing to them, with some exceptions. Violators would face a misdemeanor charge punishable by a fine of up to $500.

That’s the first I recall hearing about any exceptions – I may have just missed it before. I wonder what they might be.

Note that as was the case when the ordinance was first passed, one of the lawsuits was filed in state court claiming that the Farmers Branch City Council violated the state open meetings act when they took action. We’ll see what happens.