Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

May, 2008:

Council fusses at Metro over rail details

This story about City Council delaying a vote on the “consent agreement” with Metro seems to me to be less bad than it sounds.

Among council members’ concerns were sidewalks, street beautification, the impact of construction, the danger of trains operating in residential neighborhoods and uncertainties about routes. After more than two hours of discussion, committee chair Sue Lovell adjourned the meeting.

“When we have votes, I like for them to be informed votes,” she said. “We have some work to do to go back and get some answers.”

A May 13 meeting on the agreement also ended without a vote. Lovell said private meetings would be set up next week so committee members can put their questions to Mayor Bill White and Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO Frank Wilson.

The proposed agreement could come back to the committee for a vote in June or go directly to the full council if members’ concerns are addressed, she said.


“Some of us feel that this is our last shot,” [Council Member Peter] Brown said. “Once we sign the consent agreement, the partnership may crumble. Metro may not listen.”

Councilwoman Melissa Noriega agreed, saying, “We have leverage to impact this.”

That’s about the size of it. Council has one chance to affect what Metro does from here, and they’re quite reasonably going to make the most of it. When all is said and done, I believe Metro will accommodate them as best they can, and I will be very surprised if the agreement is not ratified by a wide margin.

Hotel tax lawsuit goes class-action

Back in 2006, the city of San Antonio filed a lawsuit against online hotel bookers, claiming that they were paying an insufficient amount of hotel taxes. Basically, sites like Travelocity book a boatload of rooms at a fixed discount price, say $75 a night for a room that would normally go for $150, then resell them in between, say at $125. They pay taxes based on the $75 price. Their customer doesn’t pay the tax, since they don’t do business directly with the hotel. The city claims that the broker should pay the tax based on the $125 price that the customer pays.

In 2007, the city of Houston filed a similar suit. Now the original suit has been given class-action status, though for now Houston will continue to pursue its own claim.

On Tuesday, a federal judge granted San Antonio’s motion for class-action certification in its lawsuit against 16 companies, including,, and Orbitz. The San Antonio suit, like Houston’s, claims the online companies collect the hotel tax at the retail rate but only pay taxes on the bulk wholesale rate that they are charged. Galveston will not seek inclusion in the San Antonio suit, a city official there said Thursday.

The companies argue they do not control occupancy and only provide a service for consumers and should not have to pay the difference.

The suit, they argue, could wind up hurting tourism.

“It just doesn’t make sense that increasing the costs of travel won’t decrease the amount of travel,” said Paul Chronis, Orbitz’s lawyer. “That’s pretty basic stuff.”

Randy Pourteau, a senior assistant city attorney for the city of Houston, disputed the claim. He said the rates the online companies charge would not have to be raised. The issue pertains to the smaller amount in taxes the companies are paying local governments.

At the time this suit was first filed, I thought the cities would lose – it seemed to me there was a genuine loophole in the law. They’ve progressed far enough now that I’m not so sure. Any lawyers out there care to venture an opinion?

Once again, a matter of priorities

I’ve hit on the theme of budgetary priorities and choices many times in recent weeks, and I see that Rick Noriega has given me a nice opportunity to hit it again.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rick Noriega lashed Republican incumbent John Cornyn at a Houston news conference today over Cornyn’s recent vote against a bill to expand benefits for military veterans.

Cornyn, however, said he favors what he calls a more effective version.

“We should be appalled and enraged as Texans and as patriots at his behavior on the Senate floor,” Noriega, a state House member from Houston, said on the main campus of the University of Houston, which he attended.

Noriega recalled that veterans lived in trailers on the UH campus many years ago while getting a college education funded by the GI Bill.

Cornyn and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain last week were on the losing side fo a 70-22 Senate vote for the benefits package, which would pay education costs for National Guard and miltary reserve veterans who serve active duty and meet other requirements.

Cornyn, citing a study by the Congressional Budget Office, said the bill was irresponsible because the offer of such benefits would encourage military personnel to use them rather then re-enlist in armed forces units. The Bush administration has branded the bill as too expensive.

Noriega, a National Guard lieutentant colonel who served in Afghanistan, said he, rather than Cornyn, knows from working with reservists that any new benefits have nothing to do with their re-enlistment choices.

Instead, he said, the personnel choose to end their service because they already have served multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and want to ease the toll on their families.

Noriega said Cornyn supports a “half-step, double-talk” version of the bill that would not give reservists full educational benefits after serving active duty.


Noriega, standing on the campus with six war veterans of various generations, said it was “an absurd statement” that the bill costs too much while Cornyn and other senators vote for $165 billion in continued funding for the war.

That’s it in a nutshell. You can’t claim one thing is unaffordable when you support spending much more money on something far more irresponsible. The occupation of Iraq, which is something we’ve chosen to do for more than five years now (Happy Suck On This Day, by the way), is an unsustainable expense that people like Sens. Cornyn and McCain choose to incur, despite overwhelming popular demand to not do it any more. In this case, following the will of the people would not only allow for much-needed spending on direly needed priorities such as the Webb bill Cornyn and McCain voted against, but would also mitigate against its cost by allowing us to finally reduce the number of active service members we require. In every way, it’s a win-win situation, but some people insist on choosing the loser option. Thankfully, we can do something about it this November.

I should note, by the way, that the Cornyns and McCains of the world are aided in this pursuit by a small but persistent group of House Democrats, who perversely oppose various forms of spending out of a misguided sense of fiscal prudence. I’m sorry, but you cannot simultaneously be a deficit hawk and a war hawk. Pick one or the other, because the two together do not mix.

LSG report on higher education in Texas

Since the subject of public universities and tuition costs have been in the news lately, this would be a good time to direct you to the just-released Legislative Study Group Analysis and Recommendations on State of Higher Education in Texas – Part 1, which you can find in PDF form here. Topics covered within are:

-Repealing tuition deregulation
-Cutting and freezing tuition rates, lowering costs by at least $500/year
-Creating a new statewide scholarship system based on merit to help students and their parents achieve a higher education without becoming burdened by debt.
-Expanding and increasing the number of top tier institutions of higher learning, from 2 to at least 6. This would help Texas compete with states such as California and New York while expanding the opportunities for excellence for Texas students. Such development would also yield great returns to the state in the form of economic and jobs development.

The last bit is something that should be easier to remedy than you might think. From the report:

As the state with the second highest population total in the nation, there are only two tier one universities in Texas. California has 10 tier one universities, New York has eight, Massachusetts five and Illinois four. Proportionally, Texas should have six to seven total top tier universities to maintain competitiveness.

Investment by the state serves as seed money. To qualify as tier one, a school needs to spend $100 million on research. After initial investments by the state, additional funding is drawn from federal and private grants as a return on the investment. Investment in research and development yields a 20 to 30 percent rate of return to the state in terms of jobs and economic stimulus. Money begets money, and the state’s additional investment in institutions of higher education would not only greatly expand the possibilities for students, resulting in a better educated populace, but would help the state maintain a competitive economic edge in technology and human capital in the 21st century.


The University of Houston needs $24 million to reach that [$100 million on research] threshhold, Texas Tech needs $49 million, UT-Dallas needs $57 million, UT-El Paso needs $58 million, UT-Arlington needs $65 million, UT-San Antonio needs $68 million and UNT needs $84 million in additional funding. An investment of $405 million could yield seven additional Tier One Schools in Texas, bringing the total to nine. An investment of $188 million could bring in four schools to Tier One status (Tech, UH, UTD & UTEP).

In the context of the state’s budget, and the projected surplus, that’s really not a lot of money to achieve a result that would have great long-term benefit. As the report notes elsewhere, the amount of money currently allocated for the gubernatorial piggy bank known as the Texas Enterprise Fund would more than cover the lower-cost investment cited above, and would surely get a better return as well.

The one thing that isn’t really discussed here is a stable funding source for these needs. We have surpluses now, but we won’t forever – indeed, the Comptroller is already warning that the 2008 revenue numbers are softer than the 2007 figures were. And while we do have a big surplus projected for this year, the reality is that most of it is already spoken for, with the property tax cut from the 2007 legislative session being a big part of that. We could try to establish a revenue source like a local sales tax as proposed by Sen. Royce West, but there are many problems with that, and frankly, it’s not really needed. Having better priorities would do it, or at least would get us most of the way there. Needless to say, that will take a change in the state’s leadership to have any hope.

Part II of this report, which will include a discussion of the cost and income differential between four year colleges and community colleges; workforce needs and innovation for a more competitive Texas; student transition from community colleges to four year institutions; and the demographics of Texas higher education, will be forthcoming. In the meantime, it should be noted that all of this we can and did see coming. Click on for a reprint of an editorial Rep. Garnet Coleman wrote in 2004 that predicted where we’d be now.


A change of direction at TxDOT?

Is new TxDOT Chair Deirdre Delisi, whose appointment to replace the late Ric Williamson was not very well received due to her close ties to Governor Perry, trying to take the agency in a new direction regarding toll roads? Maybe, maybe not.

The commission unanimously agreed that all Texas highways will be owned by the state, not private developers; that the state may buy back the interest of a private road developer; that only expansions to existing highways will be tolled and existing free lanes won’t be reduced; and that “non-compete clauses” will be banned, meaning no state contract will limit improvements to nearby existing roads.

The order also calls for an attempt to minimize disturbing private property and to consider using existing rights of way.

The clarifying statement came in response to public criticism during the early planning stages of the Trans Texas Corridor, Perry’s plan to contract with private companies to build toll roads throughout the state.

Opponents remained skeptical. Terri Hall, director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom said that if TxDOT expands or builds a competing road, the toll contractor could require compensation from taxpayers for any resulting loss in toll revenue.

David Stall, who operates the with his wife, Linda, said the state had always intended to own the toll roads that it leased to private operators.

The new rules also call for only new lanes to be tolled, but Stall said that if TxDOT continues to rely on toll financing for new projects, it means “that they are not intending to expand existing free highways beyond the current expansion plans.”

The devil’s in the details. It’s too early to say if this is cosmetic or substantive. There’s no evidence that I’m aware of to indicate a change of heart on Perry’s part, so it’s hard to imagine Delisi advocating any real changes. But perhaps they’ve at least admitted defeat about some aspects of the TTC. That would be a start. Eye on Williamson has more.

The best argument ever against the intentional walk

I’m watching a bit of the Women’s College World Series – I quite enjoy NCAA softball, which is a very different game than baseball. After UCLA walked Arizona State slugger Kaitlin Cochran to start the fifth inning and she came around to score, ESPN showed her in the dugout with the caption that she had been walked intentionally 10 times in the postseason, and scored 6 runs as a result. I’m thinking maybe that’s not the best way to approach her plate appearances, you know? Someone needs to tell Joe Sheehan about this, I sense a column opportunity for him.

KTRK interviews Texas DNC Rules Committee member

KTRK political reporter Tom Abrahams has a long interview with DNC superdelegate and Rules and Bylaws Committee member Jaime Gonzalez, Jr., in which they discuss issues such as what to do with Florida and Michigan. Those of you who can’t get enough of that stuff – and you know who you are – check it out.

Supreme Court upholds FLDS ruling

The State Supreme Court has upheld the earlier ruling by the Third Court of Appeals that the state of Texas overstepped its bounds in the case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the removal of children from its compound.

The Third Court ruled the state didn’t have enough evidence to order into foster care every child who lived at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, instead of just the teenage girls who child welfare officials said were at risk of being sexually abused by marriages to older men.

“On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted,” said the court in an unsigned opinion.

It was not clear exactly when the children will be returned and restrictions can be placed on their living arrangements.

CPS attorneys will have to decide whether to go back to court to try to regain custody of some of the children, particularly the underage girls, whose safety has been at the heart of this case.

“It is a victory as to returning the children to the families, but it does not mean the case is over,” said Laura Shockley, an attorney who represents some of the children. “It doesn’t mean that re-removal of some of the children couldn’t occur again.”

Six justices agreed entirely with the decision. Three justices, Harriet O’Neill, Phil Johnson and Don Willett, said they would keep pubescent girls in state custody but return younger girls and boys.

The court ordered District Judge Barbara Walther to withdraw her order giving the state custody of all the children, who are scattered around the state in group homes and shelters. But it noted that she can place conditions on their return, including requiring them to stay in West Texas and removing alleged abusers from their home.

University of Texas Law Professor Jack Sampson said the ruling gives Walther broad discretion to provide greater protections to teenage girls, and that she can make sure CPS has access to children who are returned to the ranch.

“She has the power to ensure that the kids aren’t going back unmonitored,” he said.


Returning the children will likely make it much more difficult for child welfare authorities to continue their investigation into whether children were abused on the remote compound owned by members of a breakaway Mormon group known for its polygamist practices. Agency officials said they were unable to get clear information from the children when they were still with their mothers in temporary shelters in San Angelo.

CPS is awaiting the results of DNA tests which Walther ordered to match children with their parents. A criminal probe also is continuing as investigators sift through more than 900 boxes of material removed from the ranch during the weeklong raid that began April 3.

“They’re going to have to return the kids, but this is going to be a fiasco,” said Shockley, an attorney whose FLDS clients include a 26-year-old mother whom CPS insisted was an underage girl until a week ago.

The Dallas attorney said it’s not a clean win for FLDS parents. “Yes, they have to return the children, but they — CPS — can put provisions in an order that requires all sorts of monitoring and home studies and that sort of thing.”

As you know, I agree with this ruling, and I hope CPS has learned its lesson in jurisprudence. The ruling itself is here for those of you who want to read it. Grits has more.

RIP, Harvey Korman

Harvey Korman, one of my favorite comic actors of all time, has passed away at the age of 81.

A natural second banana, Korman gained attention on The Danny Kaye Show, appearing in skits with the star. He joined the show in its second season in 1964 and continued until it was canceled in 1967. That same year he became a cast member in the first season of The Carol Burnett Show.

His most memorable film role was as the outlandish Hedley Lamarr (who was endlessly exasperated when people called him Hedy) in Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western satire, Blazing Saddles.

“A world without Harvey Korman — it’s a more serious world,” Brooks told the AP on Thursday. “It was very dangerous for me to work with him because if our eyes met we’d crash to floor in comic ecstasy. It was comedy heaven to make Harvey Korman laugh.”

On television, Burnett and Korman developed into the perfect pair with their burlesques of classic movies such as Gone With the Wind and soap operas like As the World Turns (their version was called “As the Stomach Turns”).

Another recurring skit featured them as “Ed and Eunice,” a staid married couple who were constantly at odds with the wife’s mother (a young Vickie Lawrence in a gray wig). In “Old Folks at Home,” they were a combative married couple bedeviled by Lawrence as Burnett’s troublesome young sister.

Korman revealed the secret to the long-running show’s success in a 2005 interview: “We were an ensemble, and Carol had the most incredible attitude. I’ve never worked with a star of that magnitude who was willing to give so much away.”

Burnett was devastated by Korman’s death, said her assistant, Angie Horejsi.

“She loved Harvey very much,” Horejsi said.

As wonderful as he was in “Blazing Saddles”, I think you have to watch some episodes of “The Carol Burnett Show” to really get a feel for it. One of the things about that show that always struck me is how much the performers were able to crack each other up – Burnett and Korman in particular were always trying to stifle laughs, usually at something ridiculous Tim Conway was doing. Here, Greg has a clip for you. And be sure to check Mark Evanier soon, as he has promised some Korman stories, which I’ve no doubt will be a hoot.

Rest in peace, Harvey Korman. As Mel Brooks said, the world is a more serious place without you.

Ibarras sue again

Look out, Lloyd Kelley and the Ibarra brothers are suing the Sheriff’s Office again, this time alleging that the HCSO retaliates against people who file complaints against it.

“There is a pattern and a practice of abusing civil rights and basically terrorizing people who have filed complaints,” Kelley said shortly after filing the suit against Sheriff Tommy Thomas and the county. “The basic remedy is for a federal judge to put the sheriff’s department under a court ordered decree and basically take it over.”

Kelley, who also asks for unspecified punitive damages, alleges that in addition to the Ibarras, the Sheriff’s Office has retaliated against April Walker, a law professor and part-time municipal court judge, who was arrested early on New Year’s Day on charges of impersonating a public official.

The charges were dismissed two days later, but Walker claims that her superiors at Texas Southern University have been pressured to get her to drop her complaint against the deputies who arrested her, or else she would face new charges.

Walker received a subpoena May 21 to appear next month before a grand jury that claims to be investigating her conduct in spite of the dismissal of the charges. The subpoena is signed by Assistant District Attorney Joe Owmby, who also headed and closed without action his department’s investigation into the Ibarras’ complaint. Owmby could not be reached for comment.

“The state cannot use a subpoena to retaliate,” Kelley said. “This fits in with a pattern of retaliating against people who file complaints.”

Thomas declined to comment in person. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office said all the incidents were investigated in accordance with department procedures. He would not discuss any of them individually.

The impersonation charges against Walker were dismissed at the first court hearing on Jan. 3, but she was so incensed by the actions of the deputies that she filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office. In early May, she said, a colleague informed her that he had been told if she did not drop the complaint, the District Attorney’s Office would seek to indict her for assault on a police officer.

“If I had done something wrong, I would have stood up and acknowledged it,” Walker said Thursday. “I don’t want to do this. This is not fun. I don’t like this, the attention. I’m a very private person. But this has to stop.”

Business owner Lloyd Henderson and his wife, Loretta, also are plaintiffs. He filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office after a deputy handcuffed him and threw him on the ground on Oct. 19, 2007. Henderson had called the department after someone broke into his store. He was not taken to jail.

The lawsuit claims that when the Hendersons later complained of their treatment they “were harassed and an attempt was made to intimidate them.”

Well, I just hope that this time the Harris County Attorney has a more realistic view of its odds of winning, so that we get a faster and less expensive resolution. And of course that there won’t be any more “routine” surveillance done of the plaintiffs.

Talking tuition

It’s a start.

One by one, representatives of the state’s universities were called before a Senate subcommittee Wednesday to explain why they have raised tuition 50 percent or more during the past five years.

“It was done after much anguish,” said Welcome Wilson Sr., chairman of the University of Houston’s board of regents, of the decision earlier this month to increase tuition by almost 6 percent.

Senators weren’t moved, suggesting legislators have grown weary of ever-rising costs in the years since they gave regents the power to set tuition and raising the question of another way to pay for higher education.

Wilson and representatives of eight other universities — including the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas State University, Texas Southern University and Texas Tech — appeared before the Senate Finance Higher Education Subcommittee to discuss the issue and possible solutions.

“I supported (deregulation),” said Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. “I still do. … But I get concerned that boards of regents, in justifying their increases, say the Legislature has not kept up. I don’t think that’s fair.”

State spending on higher education has increased. But it hasn’t kept pace with inflation and growing enrollment, so per-student state spending has dropped. Regents across the state say that has forced them to increase tuition.


Everyone agreed with the need to recruit top faculty. But that may require new funding sources, said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

He suggested a local sales tax. Another option could be to require universities with endowments of at least $5 million to spend some of that money to keep costs in check.

Several regents predicted voters would not approve a sales tax for a state university.

“There would be competing interests for that money,” said Glenn O. Lewis, chairman of the board of regents at Texas Southern University and a former state representative.


The subcommittee will meet throughout the summer and fall to prepare for the next session. In the meantime, [committee Chair Sen. Judith] Zaffirini asked regents to determine what will happen if deregulation is rolled back, as well as how much state money they would need to put an end to the annual tuition increases.

“It isn’t enough to talk about the problem,” she said. “We have to come up with some solutions.”

With all due respect to Sen. West, a local sales tax option is not a viable solution. Putting the regressive nature of such a tax aside, localities like Houston already have a high sales tax, and that’s before any further efforts to swap property taxes for more sales taxes. Suck it up and find the funding to keep Texas’ public universities affordable, or watch as the rest of the world passes us by. That’s all there is to it.

New math, Russian-style

As someone with a degree in – and a love of – math, I’m always interested in stories about better ways to teach math to kids.

“Most people can’t imagine a ‘beautiful proof’ or an ‘elegant theorem,’ but in fact, math — if a good curriculum is used — is full of such things,” said George Khachatryan, now a 23-year-old math graduate student at Cambridge University.

Together, the family decided to harness their strengths to create a nonprofit program called Reasoning Mind, designed to get elementary students excited about math.

Based on the Russian curriculum written in the 1930s and ’40s, Reasoning Mind has won financial backing from Exxon Mobil and political backing from HISD influentials such as union leader Gayle Fallon and 2007 bond political action committee co-chairman Michael Dee.

An independent evaluation of the program completed in January showed that students who used Reasoning Mind scored 20 to 29 percent higher on an achievement test than students at the same two schools who weren’t in the program.


Even with the early indications of success, schools are slow to abandon traditional teaching methods. So far, about 1,800 students in 25 Texas schools use the Reasoning Mind curriculum, which was first piloted in 2003. Unlike other computer-based programs, students use Reasoning Mind every day, not just as a supplemental activity.

According to their website, one such place they piloted this was in my neighborhood, at Hogg Middle School.

Unlike a traditional classroom, Reasoning Mind classes allow students to work at their own pace. One child can be practicing subtraction, while another has moved on to fractions. Children don’t have to be embarrassed if a certain lesson trips them up and requires more remediation.

Children are forced to master one lesson before they try another.

“The prevailing view in this country is that mathematics is not for everybody,” Alex Khachatryan said. “Elementary math is for everyone. Everyone can and should be able to do it. Failure is not an option.”

Well, I definitely agree with that. I wish I could have gotten a better feel for the actual methodology here, but neither the article nor a cursory glance at their web page gives me a good indication. I may dig through some of their published articles to see what I can learn, but for now, I’m glad to hear that HISD is trying something like this. I wish them much success with the endeavor.

“The Sanctuary”

Those of you interested in immigration matters, here’s a new blog for you: The Sanctuary. Their mission statement:

The Sanctuary is a grassroots effort of pro-migrant, human-rights, and civil-rights bloggers and on-line activists dedicated to the enactment of meaningful immigration reform that is practical, rational, fair and most of all humane.

The mission of The Sanctuary is to create a broad community of on-line activists, and translate digital activism into real-world, practical action.

By working in cooperation with mainstream organizations and advocacy groups involved in the struggle for immigrant and human rights, an issue-focused on-line community that facilitates direct communications and coordination between on-line activists, the new media, and those working daily in Washington, and on the ground to effect change, can be established.

Our goal is to allow all those working towards meaningful reform and migrant-rights to interact, share ideas, and coordinate their efforts to better facilitate change.

The Sanctuary is officially affiliated with no specific political party or organization, yet is unequivocally a pro-migrant endeavor, and as such, supports all efforts to work towards meaningful immigration reform … both legislatively and at the ballot box.

It’s a Soapblox site, so you can create an ID and add your own content. Check it out.

A little perspective, please

Since the release of the Texas Observer poll of new and crossover voters in this year’s Democratic primary, a somewhat strange narrative has taken hold. Here’s Burka:

The voting pattern-a huge spike in turnout combined with little interest in downballot races-indicates that the presidential race was the main motivating factor for 2 out of 3 Democratic voters. No surprise there. The question is, Can the D’s reap the benefit of this huge turnout in the U.S. Senate race and in local races for courthouse positions and for legislative and congressional races? Two-thirds of the primary voters showed little interest in these races. The problem for Democrats is twofold: First, can they raise the money to educate these voters about the downballot races? and, second, can the enthusiasm that new voters exhibited on March 4 be sustained over the eight months between the primary and the general election?

And here’s Wayne Slater:

Beatty notes that 25 percent of the primary voters quit after voting for president. One third stopped at the first statewide race, Texas Railroad Commission. And 40 percent of the voters stopped before getting to their local legislative candidate. In March, we reported about this falloff – and its implications. Obama supporters were more likely to vote in the presidential race and then skip the other contests than Clinton supporters, who tended to continue voting down the ballot. More than 80 percent of Democratic voters in the Texas counties where Clinton had her largest victory margins went on to vote in the U.S. Senate race, the leading statewide contest on the ballot after the presidential race. By contrast, only 71 percent of voters in Obama’s strongest counties did.

That means if Obama’s at the top of the ticket, as it appears will be the case, the Democratic Party will have to convince the Obamamaniacs in November to keep voting down ballot, not just stop with their star.

Okay, so the dropoff in voting from the Presidential primary to the other primaries – which, you may recall, was once cited by Royal Masset as evidence of massive Republican mischief voting – is a problem for the Democrats in November. Seems logical enough. Only one problem: The dropoff rate for 2008 looks remarkably like the dropoff rate for 2004. Observe:

Office Total votes Pct of Pres ======================================== 2004 President 839,211 100.00 2008 President 2,874,986 100.00 2004 RR Commish 605,675 72.17 2008 RR Commish 1,951,295 67.87 2004 Sup Court 585,927 69.82 2008 Sup Court 1,736,732 60.41 2008 Sup Court 2,025,442 70.45 2008 Sup Court 2,008,917 69.88 2004 CCA 605,789 72.19 2008 CCA 1,719,103 59.80 2008 CCA 1,747,217 60.78

The difference between the first 2008 Supreme Court primary and the other two is that one primary, for Chief Justice, was uncontested; the other two were not. Note that in those two races, the dropoff rate was slightly less than it was in 2004.

Now, none of the 2004 primaries were contested, whereas the 2008 RR Commish race was along with those two Supreme Court races, so perhaps this is a bit unfair. But come on. In 2004, when John Kerry had wrapped up the nomination, only the hardiest of the hardcore came out for the primary, and they quit after the Presidential race at a rate very similar to this year’s crowd of mostly newbies. Given that, would someone please tell me what exactly it is that I’m supposed to be worried about this year? Because I’m just not seeing it.

The Texas Observer polls the new primary voters

Leland Beatty takes a look at all those new folks who voted in the Democratic primary.

[W]e surveyed 2,500 voters, half of whom had never participated in a primary until 2008 and the other half voters who participated in previous Republican primaries but this year voted in the Democratic primary. We asked them whom they support now, and whether their feelings have changed since the March primary. We also sought their feelings about the presidential campaign and about issues of concern to Texas.

Looking at the charts, 72.4% of first-time primary voters say they support either Obama (37.6%) or Clinton (31.8%), compared to 13.7% for McCain and 13.9% undecided. Nearly half of Republican crossover voters (25.1% Obama, 21.7% Clinton) support one of the Democrats, while 33.1% are with McCain and 20.1% undecided. Beatty summed up these findings as follows:

Beatty said that his survey — which singled out 1,500 first-time primary voters and 1,500 voters who had previously voted in a Republican primary — suggests a strong realignment is underway in Texas as more voters become “persuadable” to Democratic candidates, provided the aspirants have a positive message and enough campaign money to get it across.

Beatty, who has a background in farm issues, summed up this way: “It’s going to take some irrigation on that wheat to get a crop out of it.”

For reasons not quite clear to me because he doesn’t elaborate, Burka thinks this poll is “bad news for Democrats”. I suppose if you assume they won’t have the money to “irrigate the wheat”, you could read it as demonstrating the big primary turnout as being more illusory than tangible. I’m not sure why the resources won’t be there – at least, enough to make an impact – and I’m not sure why Texas’ experience with new voters in the Democratic primary will be any different from all the other states that experienced the same huge surge in turnout; perhaps Burka will go into more detail in a subsequent post. For now at least, I lean towards Matt Glazer’s assessment that while this may not be a realignment, it is a de-alignment. If nothing else, it’s a way better position to be in than it used to be.

Sheriff still hasn’t learned his lesson about deleting emails

Some people never learn.

It may be just one email, but the sheriff’s office is trying to explain why it was trying to destroy a key piece of evidence, which has now been subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating that office.

Remember when the sheriff defended that mass deletion of 750,000 emails in the midst of the Ibarra lawsuit? High ranking commanders testified under oath that emails being deleted detailing investigations had been saved.

“Don’t worry judge, it exists somewhere else and now we know it doesn’t,” said Judge David Bernal of the 281st Civil Court in a hearing.

Judge Bernal was reacting to our stories last week. It was our discovery of an email detailing surveillance of the brothers who had sued the sheriff’s office for civil rights violations. It is the only written evidence of a surveillance operation now under criminal investigation by a grand jury.

“It was going to be deleted with all these other 750,000 emails if we hadn’t stepped in and that’s a fact,” said KTRK attorney John Edwards.

Previously, KTRK had reported:

We have every report or document the investigative support unit created in the last two years – that doesn’t concern an ongoing investigation. And there’s nothing, not even a single document or email, on the Ibarra surveillance. So whatever they found they never passed it on, leading to the still unanswered question – why were they doing it and what did they find?

KTRK subsequently raised the question about the relevant email being deleted in the March purge. Background on the email deletion issue is here, here, and here.

The county’s explanation was it was the only email being destroyed that should have been saved. The judge wasn’t buying it.

“I can’t take the representation that it’s the only one,” said Judge Bernal. “It appears to be is that the more time we spend on this, we get another one.”

The sheriff’s office also sought for days to keep the email a law enforcement secret.

“That email was produced for lack of a better word not voluntarily,” the judge said.

I think it should be clear by now that the Sheriff’s office doesn’t deserve any benefit of the doubt here.

We have the latest claim from the sheriff’s office that his secret squad didn’t document surveillance or use of surveillance equipment.

Of course the elected sheriff still refuses to answer these questions as his department was chastised for failing to live up to court orders.

I suppose if I were engaged in such scurrilous behavior, I wouldn’t want to take responsibility for it, either. Video of the story, which should have more updates soon now that Judge Bernal has ordered a faster pace to the investigation, is here. What’s next, Sheriff Thomas?

Early overview of the HCDE Trustee races

The last countywide office that I will examine in my Early Overview series is one that I would normally call the most obscure office in Harris County. That would be the office of Harris County Department of Education trustee. In my years of following local elections, I cannot recall a single instance of even being consciously aware of these races, let alone having an active interest in who was running. But this year is different, both in terms of the profile of the office and the level of interest in the races.

Before I get into that, here’s a brief description of what the HCDE does, for those of you who never had any idea.

[The HCDE] is a nonprofit tax-assisted organization dedicated to the equalization of educational opportunity and to the advancement of public schools. HCDE has been serving the county’s public schools for 115 years. The organization impacts the educational community through visionary leadership, shared resources and innovative programs.

Basically, they administer federal Department of Education grants for various programs, and they have the power to levy a tiny tax to fund some other services. In short, not very exciting for most people.

So why is this year unlike other years for the HCDE elections? Two words: Michael Wolfe, whose ongoing clown show has had the HCDE in the news more in the past year than they’ve likely been in their previous 114 years of existence combined. Wolfe, who could give Orlando Sanchez a run for the title of Least Hardest-Working County Official, managed to get a pair of his cronies elected in the GOP primary for the two seats that are up this year, knocking off a pair of longtime trustees (including HCDE President Ray Garcia) in the process. One of those cronies is Mike Riddle, husband of State Rep. Debbie “Pit of hell” Riddle; obviously, a great fit for an elected office that administers public education funds.

In doing so, Wolfe’s gambit changed the nature of these two races. The Democratic candidates – former CD07 candidate Jim Henley, who recently retired after a long career as a champion debate coach at Lamar Middle School; and special education specialist Debby Kerner – are both well qualified for the positions, but in a race against two longtime incumbents, that would have been somewhat of a wash. I would have expected that kind of race to be of less interest, lost amid the other high-profile races and largely determined by Presidential coattails. But against a couple of unqualified, hostile to education Republican hacks who owe their spots on the ballot to Michael Wolfe, that’s a different story. All you need is the money to do a couple of compare-the-candidates mail pieces, with a little of Wolfe’s greatest hits thrown in, and you’ve got a compelling case for the Democrats.

That’s an optimistic scenario, but not an unrealistic one. Mentioning the Riddle name on the campaign trail ought to loosen some purse strings for Henley and Kerner, though the competition for contributions is fierce. Wolfe might cooperate by doing something silly and getting HCDE back in the news as a result. Riddle and his fellow Republican candidate Stan Stanart will get their share of love from the Republican base, but supporters of ousted trustees Garcia and Robert Peterson might not be too thrilled about voting for them. In the end, these may be the invisible races for obscure offices that they were originally destined to be, but at least they have a chance of breaking out. That’s more than you could have said a year ago.


District Attorney
County Judge
Tax Assessor
County Attorney
District Clerk

Baselice’s Texas poll

Rick Perry’s pollster Mike Baselice has released a poll showing John McCain with a significant lead over either Democratic candidate for President in Texas – he pegs McCain with a 52-36 advantage over Barack Obama, and a 51-36 edge over Hillary Clinton. You can read his poll memo here (PDF) for the crosstabs; Baselice says another poll done four weeks ago got a similar result.

I’ll just say two things. One is that Baselice’s numbers are pretty far removed from what other pollsters have found; see TPM Election Central, for instance, which notes a Rasmussen result from early May that had McCain up by five and six over Obama and Clinton. That could mean some movement in public opinion, though given Baselice’s report of near-identical numbers from earlier in May, that seems unlikely. I think it’s probably the case that Baselice is making different assumptions about the electorate; he has the partisan breakdown at 48R/40D, with a 6R/4D split among the remainder. I think that overstates the case – I don’t think Republicans have a ten-point advantage any more. But maybe he’s right and it’s the other outfits that are wrong. Some numbers from a Democratic source would be interesting to see for comparison purposes.

One more item: On June 2 of 2004, Rasmussen released poll numbers showing Bush over Kerry by a 55-38 margin in Texas. That’s about the same spread as McCain currently enjoys in this poll (17 points versus 16 or 15), presumably with fewer undecideds. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time believing that John McCain is doing about as well in Texas in 2008 as George W. Bush was at the same time in 2004. You can make of that what you will, but I’ve got my doubts about Baselice’s results.

Judge strikes down Farmers Branch anti-immigrant law


U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay issued a permanent injunction barring the city from implementing Ordinance 2903, which voters approved 2-to-1 in May 2007.

But the newer version of the effort, Ordinance 2952, remains and is slated to go into effect 15 days after a final judgment is issued on Ordinance 2903.

Though the judge Wednesday issued his opinion, he has not technically issued the final ruling, which an attorney for the city said would wrap together all the rulings in the case.

When it does come, it’s likely to trigger a flurry of activity in the courts, as attorneys who sued the city over Ordinance 2903 try to keep Ordinance 2952 from taking effect.

Judge Lindsay said in a summary judgment – without allowing the case to go to trial – that Ordinance 2903 was unconstitutional.

He declined a request by the city to issue a summary judgment finding Ordinance 2952 constitutional. In that opinion, he criticized the city, saying the new law was an attempt to circumvent his earlier, preliminary, findings that 2903 was unconstitutional.


Ordinance 2952 differs from 2903 in that the city government, using a federal database, would be responsible for determining a prospective tenant’s status. Also, it would apply to rental houses, as well as apartments.

Judge Lindsay said the city “put the cart before the horse” in asking for an opinion on the newer ordinance when it has not drawn a legal challenge.

I presume a lawsuit challenging Ordinance 2952 will follow, and I also presume the plaintiffs will receive a temporary injunction prohibiting its enforcement until that matter is resolved. My guess is that it too will ultimately be struck down, though it’s not as clearcut as Ordinance 2903 was.

On a side note:

The ruling came as testimony concluded in an unrelated lawsuit in which three Hispanic residents are trying to force Farmers Branch to elect City Council members by district rather than citywide.

The three contend that the current, at-large system dilutes the voting strength of Latinos. Although Farmers Branch was 37 percent Hispanic at the time of the 2000 census, the plaintiffs say history has shown that a Hispanic cannot win a Farmers Branch election.

They contend that if the city were divided into districts, one with a Hispanic voting majority could be created, increasing the chances that a Latino could win a council seat.

“All they want is to be able to elect a candidate of their choice,” plaintiffs’ attorney Rolando Rios said.

Bob Heath, an attorney for the city, said federal law requires those who want to force such a change to show that they can draw a district in which a majority of the voting-age U.S. citizens are Hispanic.

“The problem in Farmers Branch is they cannot,” he said. “The Hispanic community cannot draw a Hispanic citizen voting-age majority.”

No clue about this one. I think single-member districts are more democratic, but that doesn’t mean they’re a requirement. As before, I’m rooting for the plaintiffs.

We should all have such critics

You’d think a story headlined Critics question White’s motives for environmental push would feature some criticism of Mayor White. This is what you got:

In his third and last term, White has backed up his eco-friendly rhetoric by purchasing wind-powered electricity, weatherizing old homes and adding hybrids to the city fleet.

White also has used the bully pulpit to confront the chemical industry over its emissions of cancer-causing air pollutants, such as benzene. All of which has earned high marks from environmental groups and some business leaders.

“To me it’s a public health issue and also an ethical issue of stewardship of our national resources,” White says.

Some critics, however, suggest White has a different goal in mind: furthering his political career, possibly with a run for governor in 2010. Despite all the mayor’s talk about global warming and green space, it is easy to point out that the city’s curbside recycling program does not even reach every house or apartment.


White said last week that he planned to challenge the permits of nearby plants to force the TCEQ to limit the levels of benzene. He previously had threatened to fine plants outside Houston up to $2,000 a day for emitting the pollutant into the city’s air.

White’s saber-rattling has been more about political points than true progress, say lawyers for some of the chemical companies, who refused to be named because of business pending before the city. But environmentalists and public officials say he has brought urgent, much-needed attention to the issue.

“It had not really been one of the top priorities of prior mayors,” Councilwoman Sue Lovell says.

“Industry, the regulatory agencies and the Legislature are now watching him closely,” says Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer. “He has their attention.”


White has fought battles, too. He pushed through an ordinance that requires developers to set aside funds for open space. He tightened the energy code for commercial buildings, and plans to do the same for residential homes.

But many residents have complained that the mayor has neglected a basic environmental precept: recycling. The service is available to only 162,000 homes, though 50,000 will be added in the next budget year. A quarter of a million homes are on the waiting list.

White acknowledges that the city is behind with recycling.

But he resists implementing citywide recycling simply because it looks good. Recycling trucks use gas, and some neighborhoods that do get the service barely participate. So he’s attacked the problem by pulling out the largest recyclable from the city’s trash cans — wood waste — and creating a program to recycle it. The program begins in the fall.

But the benzene battles may be the crux of White’s environmental legacy.

Politically speaking, White is in a seemingly no-lose situation: He either gets emissions cut and takes the credit, or blames industry for unhealthy levels of air toxics. But industry lawyers say his position makes the city’s air seem worse than it is.

For example, the city’s benzene plan aims to lower the chemical’s concentration to a level that could cause one additional cancer case per one million people. That’s 10 times stricter than the state’s benzene goal and a level that the entire city exceeds, not just in areas by the big plants.

White’s approach “tended to be putting all the blame on industry,” says John Manlove, former mayor of Pasadena, home to several large chemical plants and refineries. Most benzene and smog-forming pollutants come from automobile tailpipes, so “it’s not fair” to concentrate on smokestacks.

Still, Manlove and others doubt the air pollution battles will hurt White should he run for higher office in a state that emits more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than California and Pennsylvania combined.

Boy, pretty harsh, huh? Maybe this is why they say that good policies make for good politics.

I don’t know if this was a case of the headline writers having their own take on things, or if the story would have been more substantive about the alleged criticism if more than one critic had been willing to be named. Either way, I figure Mayor White isn’t too unhappy with the result.

Putting the peculiarities of the story aside, the substance of the criticism is pretty weak. I consider myself a passionate supporter of curbside recycling, but given the abysmal participation rates, I can’t see justifying an expansion of the program, especially given the cost of running the pickup vehicles. I’d love to see the city do some kind of PR campaign aimed at boosting the curbside recycling numbers, but that’s no small undertaking, and if such a thing isn’t in the works right now, I see no point in complaining about it. It’s pretty small potatoes in context of the Mayor’s overall record on environmental issues – it’s not like recycling and harassing chemical plants were his only options, after all.

As far as Manlove’s complaint about the poor plants being singled out, I say cry me a river. How many years have we been fighting this battle, and how many ways have the polluters found to stall, obfuscate, and deny the issue? Sure, automotive emissions are a chunk of the problem, but what exactly would you have the Mayor do about that? Focusing on the plants is something the Mayor can do something about, and so he is. Disagree with the action he’s taking if you want, but I see this particular argument as little more than a distraction. KUHF has more.

Janek resigns

It’s official – State Sen. Kyle Janek has handed in his resignation letter to Governor Perry. Perry now has to set a special election date, which I’d guess will be November 4, same as the regular election. He can always declare an emergency and set a date sooner than that, but I don’t see why he would, unless he thinks it’d give whoever his favored Republican candidate is an edge.

As it happens, Rick Casey wrote today about the possibility of Chris Bell running for the seat, and includes a poll tidbit that I’d heard about:

Now a group of trial lawyers who provide considerable Democratic funding is pushing former congressman and gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell to run.

The group funded a poll of the district a couple of weeks ago which provided some enticing numbers in a race between Bell and Furse, whom the poll identified as a conservative Houston businessman who served as a policy advisor to the first President Bush.

The poll results: Bell 43, Furse 29.

Furse’s dismal showing is partly the result of lack of name recognition, which would be cured by a well-funded campaign. If the trial lawyers generously funded Bell, the business community, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform, could be counted on to be at least as generous for Furse, or for some other Republican on the ballot.

Bell says he is looking closely at the race.

He would have the advantage of being the only Democrat on a ballot in which several Republicans would split their vote. (It’s not a matter of Democratic party discipline, traditionally an oxymoron, but because Democrats know their only shot in a district still clearly Republican is to have only one candidate on the ballot.)

Another advantage Bell would have, and this would be true whenever the election is held, is that straight-ticket voting would not apply. That would help to dampen whatever edge the Republicans may have in numbers, even if only a bit. At this point, I think there’s a decent chance Bell will run, and if so I think he’d at the very least be able to raise the resources he’d need to make a strong challenge. But first we need to know when the election is, and then when the filing deadline for it is. Your move, Governor.

Settlement in vote suppression lawsuit against AG Abbott

Good news, from the Lone Star Project:

Events unfolded in dramatic fashion today in Marshall, TX. As the case was set to go to trial, the Plaintiffs, including the Texas Democratic Party and Democratic activists, were approached by lawyers for the State of Texas offering a settlement agreement. After negotiations, a settlement was reached that included the following terms:

  • The Texas Attorney General has agreed to rewrite prosecution guidelines to reflect that voters who merely possess the ballot of another voter with that voter’s consent will not be investigated or prosecuted unless there’s evidence of actual fraud. Prosecutions will be limited to cases exists such as when a person illegally votes a ballot for another person or causes a person to vote for a different candidate than they wish.
  • By agreeing to this settlement, the Texas Attorney General has essentially acknowledged that those who have been prosecuted to date for hypertechnical violations of failing to sign a mail ballot envelope did not commit any fraud, as he has falsely claimed for years.
  • The Attorney General’s filings in the case also revealed that two of the plaintiffs, Gloria Meeks and Rebecca Minneweather, were no longer under investigation, a point the Attorney General had failed to tell these voters.
  • The Attorney General also agreed that the Secretary of State would change instructions to voters who vote by mail in 2008. The Secretary of State had already made changes to the ballot envelope and instructions to voters, acknowledging that such changes were made as a result of the lawsuit. The Attorney General and Secretary of State also agreed to consider additional revisions to voter instruction language that make it clear to voters, and those who assist them, the proper procedures for voting by mail. The Plaintiff will also help the Secretary of State’s office create training materials and guidelines so those who help their neighbors vote will do so in accordance with the law.
  • Plaintiffs agreed to drop all pending claims except for the pending challenge to the State’s restriction on a person’s acting as a witness on only one mail ballot application.”

Sounds pretty good to me. There’s more at the link, including some choice quotes about Abbott and his anti-voter crusade. PoliTex is the first news outlet to have anything about this, including Abbott’s somewhat bizarre claim of victory. Check it out.

Commercial valuation baloney

This story about commercial property valuations rising is no surprise, but there’s a staggering piece of baloney in it that really needs a response.

Commercial property values in Harris County increased an average of 34 percent this year amid a strong local economy and pressure from the state comptroller to increase appraisals, Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said Tuesday.

The average appraised value of commercial property increased from about $981,000 to a little more than $1.3 million, Bettencourt said. Ten ZIP codes, including all of downtown Houston, saw average appraisal increases of more than 50 percent.

Bettencourt called it the highest one-year increase in at least a decade and said the cost will be passed on to consumers as businesses raise their prices to pay the bills.

“It’s a hidden tax that people don’t really understand,” he said.

OK, let’s mention again that taxes are always too high as far as Paul Bettencourt is concerned. If there is some level of taxation that is acceptable to him, he’s never specified it. It would be more honest for him to simply come out and say that he thinks property taxes should be abolished and not replaced by any other revenue source, since that’s the ultimate conclusion his logic leads to, but he knows that would never fly so instead he plays the tax cut game for all it’s worth. I don’t even know why anyone bothers quoting him on this any more; he could save himself and the reporters some time and effort if he simply recorded all his sound bites as MP3s and made them available for download whenever a tax-related story was in the paper. It’s not like he’s ever going to change his tune, after all.

But that “hidden tax” bit is such BS that it just takes your breath away. Given that we’re not living in Paul Bettencourt’s fantasy world, in which county government would stop spending vast sums of money on such frivolities as roads, drainage, the criminal justice system, and so forth, the money to fund those things has to come from somewhere. If it’s not coming from the “hidden tax” of commercial property taxes, where will it come from? Why, residential property taxes of course, where at least the amount you’re being chaged is right there for you to see. I’m sure that would be a great comfort to all of us every December when we get our tax bills.

Anyway. We can certainly argue about whether or not commercial properties are being taxed too little, too much, or just enough – I happen to think that despite that 34% hike in appraisals, they’re still being undervalued – but let’s not pretend that burden isn’t going to be placed on someone, one way or another.

Significant sales of downtown buildings, plenty of new commercial construction and a low vacancy rate among office buildings played a strong role in pushing values up, said Jim Robinson, chief appraiser for the Harris County Appraisal District.

But he also blamed some of the increase on the county’s ongoing tug of war with Comptroller Susan Combs, whose office studies property values throughout Texas to ensure school districts are receiving the appropriate amount of state funding.

Combs has argued that HCAD under-appraises commercial and apartment property in several area school districts, including Houston and Cypress-Fairbanks, shifting the tax burden away from businesses and onto homeowners.

Undervaluing commercial property also allows districts to capture more than their share of state aid, since districts with lower property values receive more funding than their wealthier peers.

HCAD contends the comptroller is not properly accounting for the values set by the appraisal review boards that rule on protests filed by taxpayers.

The comptroller’s office is expected to release its final report on 2007’s tax rolls in July after an administrative hearings officer rules on appeals from districts and taxpayers.

“It’s a difficult proposition,” Robinson said. “We’ve had significant increases each of the last two years, and they have not been enough for us to get a finding from them that we’re appraising commercial property at full market value.”

Robert Wood, director of local government assistance and economic development at the comptroller’s office, said it would be premature for him to comment on HCAD’s preliminary appraisals.

But he said the comptroller’s role is being vastly overstated. Instead, he insisted, the comptroller only wants to inform the Legislature of the values being assigned so it can determine whether school funding is being equitably distributed.

“That’s our goal,” he said. “It’s not to have a particular county or city or school district raise values or lower values.”

Bettencourt and Combs have had this argument, at least publicly, since last year – see here and here for some background. The dispute is over the interpretation of the relevant state law, and Combs has conceded that Bettencourt’s reading may be the correct one. In fact, this quote here makes it sound like they’re backpedaling some more. I hope that’s not the case, but as I don’t expect Susan Combs to be a crusader on this issue – she wants to be Governor some day, and this wouldn’t exactly be a winning issue in a GOP primary for her – I won’t be surprised to see the Comptroller’s office see things Bettencourt’s way when that report comes out.

Olivia the star (gazer)

So last week, as I was about to chase Olivia off to bed, Tiffany stopped me and said “No, wait, there’s stargazing on the Esplanade tonight. Why not take Olivia out for a few minutes and let her look through one of the telescopes?”

(I’ll pause for a minute to explain that our neighborhood contains some amateur astronomy buffs, and when conditions are favorable they sometimes gather on the esplanade on our street and set up their equipment to look heavenward. This was one of those nights.)

Olivia, of course, was amenable to this – hey, anything to delay going to bed for a few minutes. We got outside, and I pointed out the big telescope to her, and she was excited about looking through it. Her preschool class had been talking about the solar system that week, and so she could name a couple of planets, one of which was Saturn, which just happened to be visible that evening.

We were the first people to wander over and ask about using the scope, so Olivia was able to get a crack at it right away. There was a stepladder that we moved over for her to climb up so she could peer into the eyepiece, and once it got good and dark, she had a great look at Saturn, which she thought was very cool. She chattered about it quite a bit afterwards.

Oh, and did I mention that there was a reporter for the Houston Chronicle there as well, doing a feature story on neighborhood “star parties” like that one? And that she had a photographer with her? And that they and the telescope dude just about fainted at the prospect of photographing a cute little girl in her pink Minnie Mouse nightgown as she looked at Saturn through a big telescope?

Here’s the story. Scroll down a bit to see the picture.

I should note, by the way, that the Chron reporter asked me a few questions as well, but none of that made it in. Obviously, we can tell who has the real star power in this family.

The party to attend in Austin next week

Are you going to be in Austin for the Texas Democratic convention next week? If so, then this is the party to attend while you’re there:

The Texas Progressive Alliance
Proudly Presents
The Third Biennial Blogger’s Caucus
Thursday, June 5, 2008
8:30 p.m. – Midnight

The Cedar Door
2nd and Brazos
Austin, Texas

Meet and drink with your favorite bloggers. What more do you need to know? The 2006 party was a big hit, and this one will be bigger still. See you there!

Metro to hold open house on Southeast corridor today

From the inbox:

METRO is conducting an Open House and a Public Hearing to receive comments on the Southeast Corridor Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement (SFEIS), which was released for public review May 9, when METRO announced the availability of this document to its stakeholders. This document is available online, at select branch libraries and at METRO Headquarters at 1900 Main St.

What: Open House and Public Hearing

Date: Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Time: Open House, 5:30 – 6:30 p.m.
Public Hearing, 6:30 p.m.

Location: Texas Southern University
Science and Technology Building
Atrium and Auditorium

Address: 3100 Cleburne St., Houston, TX 77004
(near Eagle and Ennis)

In 2006, the METRO Board of Directors selected Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)-Convertible as an interim Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the Southeast Corridor with the ultimate goal of implementing Light Rail Transit (LRT) when corridor growth and ridership warranted. A Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was prepared to document this decision. The FTA issued environmental approval for the project in a Record of Decision (ROD) on February 2007. In October 2007, following further analysis of forecasted ridership and costs, the METRO Board of Directors modified the LPA mode and selected LRT as the initial technology for the Southeast Corridor. In November 2007, FTA determined that the modified LPA required the preparation of a SFEIS and the issuance of a new ROD.

METRO will be receiving comments through June 11, 2008.

Metro has made some changes to the alignment of the Southeast and Harrisburg lines, and while it’s better than before, there’s still room for improvement. Go and be a part of the discussion if you can, so we get the best system we can get.

The Comets at Reliant

I took Olivia to see the Comets’ home opener last night at Reliant Arena. We only stayed for the first half, which is going to be the norm for night games, but we had a good time while we were there. I have to say, though, that I wish the Comets were still at the Toyota Center, which is closer to where we live and a better facility overall. I can understand why the Comets moved to Reliant, but I still wish they hadn’t.

Reliant Arena holds 7,261, and although it’s missing some of the bells and whistles Toyota Center offers, [Comets owner Hilton] Koch believed it would be more fan-friendly.

“I think it suits us better,” he said. “Everyone will be closer to the floor, it will be full for games, and I think it will really be the right fit.”


Jeff Gaines, assistant general manager of Reliant Park, said the Comets fit the mold of entertainment — sporting events, concerts, circuses, etc. — the complex wants to host.

“There are obvious advantages, starting with the financial situation. We are a little more cost-effective,” Gaines said. “But we have a lot to offer to fans in the ways of good seats, good parking and less traffic.”

The Comets, Reliant Park and Toyota Center can’t comment on the amount of money spent to house a team, but Gaines said the team pays a lot less at Reliant than it did downtown.

Reliant Arena’s concession stands don’t offer as much as Toyota Center’s, the scoreboards don’t list game stats, and there won’t be a jumbotron in the middle of the court. But Gaines said Reliant will strive to meet the needs and expectations of Comets fans.

“This team has a loyal fan base, and I hope we can do everything to make them feel at home here with their team,” he said.

I would hope that it is costing the Comets considerably less to play at Reliant. Now that they’re no longer a part of the Rockets portfolio, I suppose this was inevitable. I hope they’re not taking that loyal fan base for granted by providing lesser concessions – in my experience, Comets fans are not shy about spending a few bucks at the game on food and drink – or amenities like stats and Jumbotron video. I didn’t see anyone handing out program sheets like they did at Toyota, and between the lack of scoreboard info and the inferior sound system – I could barely hear the courtside announcer – I had little idea of who was actually in the game at any time. That’s not very fan-friendly, if you ask me, but it is fixable if the Comets care to address it.

One more thing: Though the game was announced as a sellout, the place looked maybe 60% full – I’d guess there were 4000 to 4500 actual butts in seats. Chron reporter Jenny Dial called it “a packed house of 7,261”. I think she either needs a new thesaurus or her vision checked. The crowd noise and atmosphere was decent enough, thanks to Reliant’s smaller dimensions, but I don’t see how that attendance level can be sustainable for the franchise. If that’s the turnout they get for a sellout, what will we see for a lesser draw? If the franchise isn’t worried about this, it ought to be.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 27

I hope everyone is enjoying their Memorial Day holiday-shortened week. Here’s your still-full-length weekly roundup from the Texas Progressive Alliance:


Abbott’s ambition

Given that at least our last three Attorneys General made runs for higher office – it may be more than that, but that’s as far back as I can recall offhand – it should be no surprise that our current AG, Greg Abbott, has higher ambitions and has been socking away the cash to fuel whatever they may eventually be. My guess would be Lt. Gov. in 2010 if David Dewhurst runs for Governor, or Senate whenever KBH steps down. Or who knows, maybe Rick Perry will successfully psyche them both out of challenging him for the Governor’s mansion, and Abbott will aim for that instead. He intends to go someplace, it’s just a matter of when and where. And I don’t think he intends to wait till 2014, when the state’s demography will be that much less GOP-friendly.

In the meantime, after you’ve read that rather complimentary piece towards Abbott, here are a couple of recent editorials concerning his highly partisan vote fraud efforts to balance things out a bit. From the Statesman:

After a two-year investigation of voter fraud, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has only 26 minor cases of voting irregularities to show for his expenditure from a $1.4 million grant. Some of that money also was spent on other cases.

All of those cases involved Democrats and 18 of them were instances where lawful voters cast proper ballots that were collected and handled by someone else. That’s technically illegal unless the carrier’s name and address is on the envelope, but it’s a petty prosecution.

Actually, the paltry results of Abbott’s initiative are a good thing. It shows that vote fraud is hardly the “persistent problem” Abbott claimed it was when he announced the investigation in January 2006. The outcome of Abbott’s efforts was published by The Dallas Morning News this week.

Republicans in the Legislature have been pushing for a more stringent voter identification law in Texas. Although the issue died in the chaos at the end of the 2007 session, it is sure to return in January. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who has made tougher voter identification a cornerstone of his administration, will see to that.

Nationally, tougher voter identification laws are favorite issues for Republicans, though there is little evidence of widespread voting fraud. Democrats contend that the GOP effort is a way to suppress turnout, since many of the voters who lack sufficient identification are the poor and elderly and minorities – who tend to vote Democratic.

Abbott’s misguided investigation lends credence to the Democrats’ argument. Several of the cases prosecuted by the attorney general’s office involved people helping homebound senior citizens get and mail absentee ballots.

Is this the great voter fraud that Abbott said triggered an investigation into “a dramatic increase in indictments for voter fraud” in his initial press release? If so, it wasn’t worth the time or the money.

And from the Dallas Morning News:

The hunt goes on. And on. And on.

Still, proponents of adding new personal identification requirements at Texas polling places haven’t produced evidence of an Election Day problem that needs fixing.

Attorney General Greg Abbott tried but came up short, despite months of investigating. As detailed recently by Dallas Morning News senior political writer Wayne Slater, Mr. Abbott documented scattered cases of familiar methods of ballot fraud – schemes involving mail-in ballots, false registrations and manipulation of elderly voters.

These despicable acts undermine the democratic system and should be prosecuted based on state and federal laws already on the books.

But warnings from self-styled voting reformers have focused on other kinds of perceived threats to clean elections – patterns of voter impersonation at the polls and massive fraud using illegal immigrants.

Were those threats real, Mr. Abbott most certainly would have provided proof, helping Republican state lawmakers make their case for new laws requiring a photo ID at the polls to go along with the traditional Texas voter registration card.

He didn’t.

No, he didn’t. That won’t stop him or any other Republican bent on passing a voter ID law from lying about the need for it, but then that’s another place ambition can take you.

By the way, the Chron story mentions that a federal lawsuit filed against Abbott over his vote fraud prosecutions will go to trial starting tomorrow in Marshall. The Lone Star Project has all the details about that case.

A new front in the war on mosquitoes

You hate mosquitoes, right? Of course you do – everybody does. So do I, but like most people I also hate having to apply mosquito repellant. It’s unplesant stuff that smells bad, but it’s a necessity of life in places like Houston. The good news is that a better way appears to be on the horizon.

When it comes to evading mosquitoes, DEET can’t be beat.

That’s been the refrain among bug experts for half a century, but it hasn’t stopped scientists from looking for something better than the pungent repellent. Now, a research team from Florida, another state thoroughly infested by the biting bugs this time of year, is reporting some success.

After scanning libraries of chemicals, the scientists found seven promising candidates significantly more potent than DEET. In tests, the chemicals, after application to cloth, repelled mosquitoes for up to 10 weeks.

In similar experiments, DEET remained effective for less than three weeks.

“I’m optimistic that we will have something come to the market that’s better than DEET,” said research chemist Ulrich Bernier of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “These are the best candidates I have seen in the 15 years that I’ve been testing repellents.”

Well, that’s the best news I’ve heard this week; the coda at the end of the piece saying the stuff they’re testing has no scent is just icing on the cake. There has to be some bad news, though, right?

The most effective chemicals were found in a group of compounds related to the active ingredient in black pepper. In their lab tests, the chemists tested the compounds against the female Aedes aegypti, or yellow fever mosquito. They now are trying the compounds, known as N-acylpiperidines, against other mosquitoes.

Following these tests, the chemists will have to conduct toxicology tests to determine whether the compounds are safe for human use.

“If the stars are aligned, and everything goes well, we could bring this to market in four or five years,” Bernier said.

Hmph. Please don’t get my hopes up just to dash them. I hope what this is saying is that the less-sunny, more-realistic scenario is, say, six to eight years to get a product to market, and not that they need everything to go right to get something produced at all. All I can say is that I’ll be anxiously awaiting future developments.

Court thwacks CPS over FLDS raid

While I was out last week, the case of the state of Texas versus the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints took a turn against the State when the 3rd Court of Appeals issued a ruling saying, in effect, that Child Protective Services did not follow the law in ordering the emergency removal of some 400 children from the polygamist sect’s compound. (The state has since appealed the ruling.) You can read a good media account of the ruling from, a very lucid description of the court’s ruling (and the depth of CPS’ manifest failures) from RickG at Lone Star Times, a bunch of “now what?” questions in the wake of the ruling from Grits, and a big roundup of other related links also from Grits. I’m going to quote a bit from RickG’s piece, since it encapsulates pretty well my thinking on this case:

The State painted with too broad a brush, imposing its considerable force on every member of the community based on facts involving only a few, along with the State’s determination to proceed on the concept of guilt by association, which is not condoned in the law. The Court rightly rejected the implicit notion that because there may have been wrongdoing by a few, the State could, through clairvoyance or otherwise, justify action against everyone.

The Court added that the State did not even make “reasonable” efforts to prevent unjustified removals. Instead, based upon five pregnant minors and a belief system that allowed minors to marry and become pregnant, the State removed all children – including infants – from their homes and separated them from their parents.

Note the “five pregnant minors”. The overstatement of how many underage mothers there were at the FLDS compound is something Grits has been hammering away at. Now we find, as Brooke Adams reported:

Here’s a question: The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had all the power in the world to structure status hearings held this week in any order it wanted. It kept telling us, the media and the public, that there were 31 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 who were pregnant, mothers or both.

Now we know the truth: There are only five girls in that group. All but one are or will be 18 this year. One gave birth when she was 17, three when they were 16. One is pregnant.

I kept asking the state for a breakdown by age of the 31 girls, the 60 percent, it claimed were pregnant or mothers. They refused weeks ago and still haven’t done it.

Now we know why.

And that in a nutshell is why I had serious problems with this case. Again, it’s not a matter of the FLDS lifestyle and dogma. If Olivia or Audrey were someday to fall under the sway of a group like that, I’d do everything in my power to get them out of there. But that’s not a justification for the state to trample these folks’ constitutional rights. Due process exists for a reason: To protect the innocent from the awesome power of the government. This is just another example of why we have due process, and why we need it. Otherwise, the state can declare you pregnant when you’re not and drag you to court based on that declaration. If it can happen to them, it can happen to you.

From the “Dance with them what brung you” files

It’s a good thing I’m tanned and rested from my weekend vacation, or else this Clay Robison column might have caused me to faint.

How much college tuition would $1.4 million cover?

The simple answer, of course, is not nearly as much as it would have before Gov. Rick Perry signed the tuition deregulation law five years ago, and not even as much as last year, as tuition continues to rise at most state-supported universities.

Why $1.4 million?

That’s the amount of political contributions Perry has collected during his administration from the university regents who accepted his invitation to attend a higher education summit with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin last week.

The Perry-friendly, business-oriented audience (tort reformer and mega-donor Richard Weekley also was there) kicked around some ideas — some controversial, some perhaps worthy — about improving higher education in Texas.

But legislators, the people who can make or break the governor’s agenda, weren’t invited.

“Dog bites man.” “Sun rises in East.” “Rick Perry puts his financial supporters above everyone else.” You get the picture.

Some Democratic House members plan to respond to the governor’s summit within the next few days by unveiling higher education proposals of their own, including a freeze on tuition and repeal of the deregulation law.

These are among the real “bread and butter issues” for Texas families, said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

And on Wednesday, a Senate higher education subcommittee chaired by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has scheduled a meeting on student financial aid and the “effects (that) continued tuition deregulation will have on college enrollment and accessibility.”

Perhaps without the Governor and his sycophants in attendance, we can get some real work done to try and solve this problem.

Is the death penalty declining in Texas?

This Chron story asks a provocative question: If a Harris County jury declines to give the death penalty to Juan Quintero, is it the case that a taste for the death penalty is on the decline here?

The jury decided to spare him, despite the brutal killing of Houston police officer Rodney Johnson, which raises the question of whether any death case — even in the nation’s death penalty capital — is a slam-dunk anymore.


Quintero’s jurors also had the benefit of a sentencing option not available in Texas until 2005: life without parole. Criminal justice experts, especially those focusing on capital punishment, say the landscape has been altered in recent years, in part by life-without-parole options in 35 of the 36 states with the death penalty and in part by shaken confidence arising from the significant number of people removed from death row after DNA testing.

It’s not so much that juries are eschewing death, as they did with Quintero, but that prosecutors are pursuing fewer death cases, reserving those for their most heinous murders.

“There are fewer of these cases going to trial,” said John Niland, director of the Capital Trial Project for the Texas Defender Service, which assists indigent defendants in capital cases. “I think there’s a willingness to plead cases that, just from a statistical standpoint, wasn’t there before.”


Over the past few years, death sentences have declined by almost two-thirds in Texas and the rest of the country. There is no pat explanation for the drop, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an information clearinghouse opposed to capital punishment.

“I wouldn’t attribute it to one reason,” Dieter said. “Life without parole has to be included. The emergence of DNA testing and innocence cases has been a factor, maybe even a bigger factor. So many cases were highlighted in the media and on television shows and movies. There has been quite a pronounced effect that has given some skepticism to jurors when they are asked to impose a death sentence.”

I agree that the items suggested here – the life-without-parole option, and the recent spate of DNA exonerations – have had an effect. My unscientific opinion is that LWOP satisfies the main condition that the death penalty used to – ensuring that the killer never gets out to kill again – without the defendant’s condemnation being on anyone’s conscience. You can debate, as AHCL and Grits do as to whether death or LWOP is “worse” (see also here), but I don’t think anyone would deny that it’s a generally fitting sentence. I’m not at all surprised by this, and will not be at all unhappy if it’s a trend that continues.

And in other news, water is wet

From the “Headlines That Write Themselves” Department last week: Lack of evidence stalls investigation of UFO sightings. Never would have seen that one coming!

Whether a UFO visited two Central Texas towns will remain a mystery – at least for now.

“All the video that we’ve analyzed hasn’t provided substantial proof,” Ken Cherry, Texas state director of the Mutual UFO Network, said [last] Sunday. “Without definite evidence, we’re left with the word of our witnesses.”

I don’t think I can add anything to that.