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May 24th, 2007:

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.