Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

May 18th, 2007:

Toll road moratorium in limbo

HB1892, the toll road moratorium vehicle that was sent to Governor Perry despite his veto threat and warnings of a special session, will be officially vetoed today. HB792, the compromise toll road moratorium that’s supposed to mollify Perry while still slowing down the Trans Texas Corridor, was supposed to be passed out of the House today but has been delayed till Monday. Which leaves it vulnerable to a Perry veto if he chooses to be a hardhead about it, but that’s how it goes. Ben Wear and Eye on Williamson have the details.

UPDATE: As expected, Perry vetoes HB1892. Via EOW, who notes that Perry hasn’t said he’d sign HB792.

CHIP expansion finally nearing

Still not the best we can do, but better than what we’ve got.

Budget negotiators agreed Thursday to spend as much as $89.5 million to expand CHIP, which is for children in families that don’t qualify for Medicaid and can’t afford private insurance. The spending is contingent on passage of House Bill 109, which has already passed the House and was revamped before being OK’d Thursday by the Finance Committee.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, was the only “no” vote on HB109. He has voiced concern about the cost of 12-month eligibility.

The Senate committee version, which has a $58.7 million price tag, would cost less than the House bill’s $73.6 million. If approved by the full Senate, the bill will return to the House for consideration of changes.

[…]

“What we’ll be doing in this bill is repairing some of the damage done in 2003” that resulted in a decline in enrollment, said Averitt. “After all is said and done, over 100,000 children are going to be able to participate in this program again.”

The Finance Committee’s extra check of income eligibility would apply only to those at the upper levels of CHIP eligibility.

Averitt said it would be a “non-intrusive” electronic income verification that “clients probably won’t even know is happening.”

Rep. Sylvester Turner, the Houston Democrat who championed HB109 and is a budget negotiator, said updated state figures show the House version would expand coverage to 135,000 more children, while the Senate changes would cover only 101,000 more.

“We’ve already compromised in the House,” Turner said. “I don’t think the children need to get caught up in this red tape and bureaucratic maze. These kids need insurance now.”

Like I said, better than what we’ve got, but not the best we can do. At some point after the session, I’ll have to go back and review the “Democrats for Real Reform” agenda to see how their results matched up to their wish list. For now, I’m just glad that this sucker finally has the goal line in sight.

As I understand it, there are some riders already in the budget that would help undo some of the arcane HHSC rules about CHIP that have contributed to its recent drop in enrollment. I don’t have all the details, but the bottom line is that more than one facet of the CHIP question is being addressed. At long last, we’re regaining some of the ground that was lost in 2003. Hopefully, in the next session, we can make some actual progress.

Anti-abortion bills postponed till today

Well, we may or may not get another floor fight over HB218 in the Senate, but just to ensure that today won’t be a quiet Friday in Austin, those anti-abortion bills that mysteriously appeared on the House calendar shortly after the announcement of Jim Keffer for Speaker were postponed till today. The Observer blog has the details. Stay tuned.

Revisiting Heflin-Vo

I looked through some of my Election 2004 archives as I was searching for the Andy Taylor links in my previous post, and doing so reminded me of just how much the election contest brought by Talmadge Heflin against Hubert Vo blows a hole in the “voter fraud” claims the GOP likes to throw around these days. Royal Masset brought this up the other day, how there was no fraud found in that excruciatingly scrutinized race, and it’s worth emphasizing again today.

In his report ruling against Heflin, Republican Rep. Will Hartnett, who was the adjudicator of that contest, noted three kinds of questioned votes. One was for people who voted at the wrong precinct. They were legitimately in HD149, they just went to the wrong location within that district to vote. Those votes were counted. Another was for people from Fort Bend County, which borders HD149, who erroneously voted in Harris County. This is a relatively common situation – according to Paul Bettencourt, the county line is not well delineated, and he and his cohort in Fort Bend receive registration applications from folks on the other side of the line all the time. Those votes, which broke both ways, were discounted for the HD149 race.

Finally, there was a small set of truly questionable votes. One was cast by a non-citizen, a Norwegian national. He had filled out a reg form at a voter’s registration drive, and correctly indicated on the form that he was not a citizen. He was mistakenly sent a voter’s reg card anyway (by Bettencourt’s office), and his vote was subsequently thrown out. There was a woman who voted in person and also by mail. She was accustomed to voting in person, but said in her deposition that when she received a mail ballot, she assumed she was supposed to fill it out and send it it; she didn’t realize that having done so, she wasn’t supposed to then vote in person. One of her two votes was discarded. Finally, there was a person who was living in north Texas as of November, 2004. He was selling his home in Harris County – it was still on the market at the time, he still had personal belongings there, and he hadn’t registered in his new county yet. His vote was allowed to stand.

The kicker to this is that all three of those folks testified in their deposition that they had voted for Talmadge Heflin; the Norwegian gentleman said he voted a straight Republican ticket. That didn’t stop Andy Taylor from referring to them, prior to the hearing, as examples of the pernicious fraud in HD149 that helped put Hubert Vo into office, and which he, Andy Taylor, Defender of the Sanctity of the Voting Process, was there to ferret out and expose for all the world to see. None of these folks had acted in bad faith, and by almost perverse coincidence they’d all supported Taylor’s man. But they served a useful rhetorical purpose, one which still informs the terms of this argument more than two years later.

None of this will matter if David Dewhurst takes advantage of Sen. Mario Gallegos’ fragile health and brings HB218 to the floor of the Senate now that he can (at least in theory) get it to a vote. Harvey Kronberg suggests that at least one Republican Senator has lost his appetite for this fight, especially as there’s a lot of unfinished business and less than five days in which to accomplish it. As you know, I don’t put much stock in that, but maybe I’ll be proven wrong. HB218 is on the intent calendar for today, but it’s been there every day this week, so perhaps that doesn’t mean anything. Whatever the case, I wanted to go over all this just as a reminder where we came from. I don’t know where we’ll wind up, but that’s where we’ve been, and I hope we all remember that.

Anti-rail “lawsuit” hearing

Didn’t get to this yesterday, but the hearing for the anti-rail “lawsuit” took place on Wednesday.

A judge heard arguments Wednesday, but did not rule, on a Richmond Avenue resident’s request to order Metropolitan Transit Authority officials to testify about their transit plans.

Attorney Andy Taylor, representing Daphne Scarborough, had filed a motion in April to compel the testimony but did not formally sue the agency. Metro described the unusual tactic as a “fishing expedition.”

Neither side called witnesses in the two-hour hearing before state District Judge Levi Benton.

Seems almost anti-climactic, doesn’t it? I don’t know what I was expecting from a Section 202 petition hearing, but I suppose I thought there’d be a witness or two.

Taylor began by arguing that Metro has violated the 2003 referendum in which voters narrowly approved the transit plan. He cited changes in the specified routes, substitution of Bus Rapid Transit for light rail on four of the five routes, and a reduction in bus service. He also questioned Metro’s plans for funding the expansion.

Metro’s lawyers, Gene Locke and Andrew Edison, said the agency is complying with the referendum and argued that the hearing should focus on the narrow issue of whether its officials should have to testify in the absence of a lawsuit.

Locke argued that applying the legal provision to government bodies like Metro would allow any litigant with a grievance to hamstring an agency in the performance of its duties.

Taylor responded that the alternative would be a “full-blown nuclear war” in court, wasting time and money.

In other words, “Do exactly as we say, or we’ll sue”. Quite the choice, no? You know, since it’s Scarbrough and Taylor who’d be making the first strike in this hypothetical nuclear war, it’s also Scarbrough and Taylor who can avoid its resulting waste of time and money by choosing to avoid the confrontation instead. I’m just saying.

There’s also an implication in Taylor’s words that if only Metro would capitulate and agreed to being deposed, Taylor could heroically get to the truth of the matter. This, naturally, would avoid the need for all that costly and wasteful litigation, because Metro will come to see how wrong they’ve been all along. It’s almost like he’s expecting a Perry Mason-style confession to come out of this: “OK, OK, I did it, and I’m glad! We deliberately misled the public into voting for something we never intended to build. And we’d have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!”

OK, maybe not. But what I’m getting at here is, under what circumstances will this not lead to a lawsuit? Suppose Judge Benton grants Taylor’s motion and lets him depose away. What are the odds that after all is said and done, Taylor will conclude that there isn’t enough evidence for him to have any kind of chance of winning in court? Remember, Taylor has a record of making grandiose claims that evaporate under scrutiny. Are there any circumstances under which he’ll walk away without firing a shot, after coming all this way? Especialy considering that, as RichmondRail.org notes, all the principals in this action have fought light rail from the beginning, and continue to do so in the other non-Universities corridors today? I don’t think so.

We’ll see what Judge Benton says. Meanwhile, RichmondRail.org has a timeline to ponder. Check it out.

Where’s the review?

Remember the telecom bill that was finally passed in the second special session of 2005? Sure you do. What you may not remember – or, like me, even have realized – is that it contained a provision to do formal reviews of its effects. Whatever happened to that? Basically, nothing.

The controversial bill, Senate Bill 5, approved in the second special session after a ferocious and costly lobbying battle between the phone and cable industries, included among its provisions the creation of the Telecommunications Competitiveness Legislative Oversight Committee, a council of legislators (and the chief executive of the Public Utility Counsel) that would hold public hearings, evaluate the law’s repercussions, and report back to the Legislature by the end of 2006. House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst dutifully issued press releases announcing their selections for the committee and wishing the members godspeed. “I have confidence in [the committee members’] abilities to find recommendations to improve our telecommunications laws and monitor the implementation of this historic legislation,” Craddick declared in his press release.

And then … nothing. The committee never met. There was no public testimony. No report was issued. “It was something that we were all anticipating,” said Rondella Hawkins, manager of telecommunications and regulatory affairs for the city of Austin. “They were going to look at some of the key areas of the law.” SB 5, which set a national precedent, altered the basics of the telecom business in Texas, allowing phone companies into the television game by eliminating franchise agreements with local municipalities and creating a “one-stop” state franchise system. By the letter of the law, the committee was charged with exploring several specific and controversial aspects of the legislation, including “the fairness of rates, the quality of service, and the effect of regulation on the normal forces of competition.” It would also monitor right-of-way access fees, franchise fees, and the “continuation of public, educational, and governmental access channels.”

[…]

In December 2005, Craddick appointed Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee and one of the key sponsors of SB 5, to co-chair the oversight committee. Contacted on the House floor, King expressed surprise that anyone was interested in the committee. “Senate Bill 5 has been moving along flawlessly,” King said, “so we never felt the need to meet.”

But SB 5 didn’t ask for the chairman’s opinion, critics note, nor allow for any “discretion” about completing its tasks. The law mandates that not only should the committee meet, it should have filed a report by the end of 2006, and then biannually, to satisfy the public that telecom issues were being adequately and fairly addressed. King, who helped craft SB 5, said he didn’t realize the law directed the committee to file a report by a specific date. “It calls for a report?” he said. “We probably need to amend it and strike the report; that wasn’t really the intent.” (An aide for the committee co-chair, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, did not respond to repeated queries about the committee.)

The committee language was included in the bill, King said, as a “safety,” in case the House and Senate needed to resolve issues. With the law purportedly running smoothly and his Regulated Industries Committee dealing with any issues, “the need [for the committee] never came up,” he said.

So what if they never met? They didn’t need to! Just listen, they’ll tell you themselves. If only getting out of meetings at work were that easy.

Digital singles

Back when vinyl ruled the world, I was never much for buying 45s instead of regular LPs, so I never really noticed as the record industry killed them off. But it’s still amusing to see the format get resurrected in a modern form.

Almost a decade after virtually eliminating 45s and cassette singles, thereby forcing fans to spend more money on whole albums, the digital single is largely responsible for the industry’s woes.

Consumers no longer need to buy an album if they want that cool jam they heard on the radio — and in growing numbers, they’re choosing 99-cent downloads over $15 CDs.

Some worry this trend is worsening the quality of albums as a cohesive musical work, and that label executives are more and more interested in quick hits than lasting music or artists.

Given the sorry state of pop music in general lately, it’s hard to imagine how.

While the vast majority of music consumers still buy CD albums, they are buying less of them, while digital tracks are exploding: According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of physical CDs this year have declined 20 percent from the same point in 2006, from 112 million to 89 million. Digital tracks are up to 288 million from 242 million at the same period last year. And that’s not counting the millions of singles that are illegally downloaded.

“Now, we’re in a very difference place in terms of the single business,” Jim Donio, president of National Association of Recording Merchandisers, said in an interview. “The single business is alive and well, and it’s in the form of track downloads.”

The same cannot be said, however, for albums. Even counting albums that are downloaded along with physical CDs sold, album sales are down 10 percent from the same period last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, continuing a decline that has been growing for several years.

[…]

“We tried to stop selling a commercial single because people were making great, great records and albums were selling like hot cakes,” says longtime music industry executive Steve Rifkind, founder of Street Records Corp., home to platinum singer/producer Akon, and Loud.com.

But removing the option of purchasing a single may not have helped the album much, either — and may have actually boosted the original illegal downloading services like Napster, says [Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard magazine].

“The notion that someone would jump to an album-length purchase because they couldn’t find the one song they wanted available was a naive one,” he said.

Not completely – I know I bought a few albums back in the day because of one or two songs. Of course, most of the time I came to regret those purchases. Not always – among the many unexpected joys I’ve found of ripping all my CDs has been hearing some of the stuff I’d avoided because I was reluctant to play a whole CD just for the one song I recognized – but enough times for me to feel burned by it. I haven’t transitioned to buying digital-only music yet – I still have CDs to rip – but when I do, I expect I’ll be much more choosy, just because I can.

And at 99 cents or so, singles bring in much less profit than albums (which is why iTunes has been pressured by record companies to raise its prices).

Yeah, well, news like this is going to apply some counterpressure to that.

Amazon is finally taking on Apple.

The Seattle-based online retail powerhouse said Wednesday said that it would open a digital music store with a consumer-friendly twist that, Amazon hopes, will give Apple’s iTunes a run for its money.

The difference: Customers can do anything they want with the songs they buy.

It’s a good time to be a music consumer, isn’t it?

Making the case for Dynamo Stadium

Chron soccer writer Glenn Davis makes his pitch for the proposed downtown Dynamo Stadium.

Let me borrow a real estate phrase: Location, location, location is what this is about, and a downtown stadium will be an unparalleled vehicle for promoting soccer. Stadiums out in the hinterlands in MLS are still trying to prove them-selves as a magnet for fans.

I thought the Frisco team was doing pretty well, fan-wise. They certainly spent enough dough on their stadium for that.

Fans migrating to stadiums located in the inner city can become a part of a ritual.

When I was growing up in New Jersey, my father used to take me to sporting events at Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York. The ritual began as we left the house.

Take the train from the suburbs to Hoboken, N.J., then jump on the Path train (subway) under the Hudson River. As we exited the Path and scrambled up the steps to the street, a whole new world opened up.

The streets of Manhattan were alive with vendors, scalpers hawking tickets, and fans of the New York Rangers or Knicks. The air crackled with competition and excitement.

For a kid from the suburbs, this was like going into a new world. To this day, these impressions are indelible in my mind. Whether going to Madison Square Garden or to Giants Stadium to watch Pelé and the New York Cosmos, I always felt that sense of anticipation.

[Dynamo president Oliver] Luck has told me his ritual with his father was taking public transportation to go to Cleveland Indians games.

I can relate to that, having taken the #4 train to Yankee Stadium more times than I can count. Just before the train arrives at 161st Street in the Bronx, it emerges from underground, and the next thing you see is the Stadium in the background. As a kid, that was always a thrill for me.

That’s not nearly enough to make me change my mind about public financing for this venue, of course. And as romantic as this notion is, it won’t be very practical until the light rail system is built out some more. But hey, if that I-10 rail line ever becomes a reality, maybe I’ll take the girls to a game via the train some day. For what it’s worth, I’d never have willingly driven to Sugar Land, which I presume was Davis’ basic point. But that stadium is still gonna have to get paid for with private money.

An open letter to Les Alexander

Dear Les,

Whatever you do, please don’t hire this guy. We Rockets fans have suffered enough.

Yours,

Charles

It takes a village of bohemian hippie attorneys

I love having an excuse to run this picture:

Lisa Gray looks at my favorite development project and wonders if it really will – or even can – be all that.

Sonoma itself doesn’t seem concerned about even the shallowest forms of authenticity. “The Rice Village Re-Imagined,” proclaim banners facing Bolsover, but it’s not clear whether it’s being re-imagined as California or Italy. The name screams West Coast, but [developer Randall] Davis seems to favor Italy. A while back, he told Houston Chronicle reporter Nancy Sarnoff that the pedestrian space planned between the buildings will resemble a European plaza with Italian cypresses and palm trees. Viva Italifornia.

Or really, viva anywhere. The Mediterranean Revival architecture you see in the architects’ drawings could be a slick new development in any city at all, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, or maybe in The Woodlands. Just because a development is walkable doesn’t mean it has a sense of place.

Wherever Sonoma is pledging its stylistic allegiance, it’s not to the Rice Village.

But will that matter? Will cultural creatives care, given shiny Viking appliances and interesting shops a couple of blocks away?

Gray goes on to suggest maybe they won’t. Me, I’m not so sure that matters. I look at the genericizing of Montrose and parts of the Heights and think that there’s an awful lot of people out there with more money than taste. You can certainly argue either way about whether it’s a good thing or not, but in the end I think shiny new buildings with high-end amenities do pretty well regardless of what cultural sins they may be committing. I wouldn’t bet against it, is all I’m saying.