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May, 2009:

House approves windstorm insurance bill

The one known threat of a special session has just been dramatically reduced.

House members today approved the conference committee report shoring up a fund supporting hail and windstorm insurance coverage for coastal property-owners.

Assuming the Senate similarly OK’s the legislation, it’ll go to Gov. Rick Perry, whose threat to call a summer special session if lawmakers didn’t address the windstorm topic helped kick-start negotiations about 10 days ago.

Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said a moment ago he expects Senate approval tonight. Referring to previous efforts to amend the windstorm law, Fraser said: “This represents six years of work, so we’re excited.”

Details are in the Postcards entry. According to TrailBlazers, the vote was 147-0 in favor, so one hopes that this will carry forward and get signed. Doesn’t mean there can’t or won’t be a special session, but it does mean the one issue that Governor Perry explicitly said could trigger one will be resolved. That’s all one can hope for at this time.

The lack of leadership

State Sen. John Carona gets medieval on his party’s leadership.

Tempers flared Saturday on the Legislature’s last weekend with a key GOP senator declaring that the session’s central theme is “lack of leadership” by top members of his own party.

“If you look at this session, you’ve got two underlying problems: One is simply the lack of leadership in the top offices and the second is the lack of any clear, compelling agenda,” said Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas.

His angst was triggered by the evident demise of a proposal to allow urban areas to raise gasoline taxes and some fees in their areas to pay for local transportation projects.

But the bickering about the bill has been emblematic of a string of sparring episodes that have played out over the last few weeks as lawmakers have struggled with successes and losses on controversial public issues.

[…]

n charging a lack of leadership, Carona referred to Perry’s expected tough primary battle to keep his job against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, speculation that Dewhurst may run for U.S. Senate and the fact that GOP Speaker Joe Straus is a novice House leader.

“You can determine that perhaps that’s because the state’s top two leaders are considering their future political ambitions. You might consider that part of it is due to the fact we have a new speaker who has his own troubles,” Carona said. “The bottom line is you can’t lead 181 members without strong personalities and a set and significant agenda.”

He particularly said Perry has failed to lead on the transportation bill, saying the governor should have supported the local-option idea since money is running short to meet transportation needs.

Once again, I’ll say that this session has been about the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary from the beginning. Rick Perry has achieved a lot of his goals, though not all of them. If you don’t like what you’ve seen, well, that’s what the elections next year are all about.

The story talks about the bills that were killed by the chubfest, and the ensuing scramble to resurrect as many of the important ones as possible. I say the fact that so many bills were in a position to be killed by that kind of delay is itself an indictment of the leadership, specifically of Speaker Straus. Look at SB1569, the unemployment insurance bill that would have gone against the Governor’s wishes on stimulus money. It passed out of the Senate committee on April 2, was put on the calendar on the 14th, passed on second reading on the 16th, and on third reading on the 20th, when it was sent to the House. It then passed out of the House committee on May 2, and disappeared until May 18, when the Calendars committee finally took it up. It was debated in the House on May 21, then postponed due to disagreements over an amendment, and was finally taken up again after all the chubbing concluded late on the 26th, where it failed to pass before midnight. It took the Senate 18 days to go from committee approval to final passage. It took the House 19 days to go from committee approval to the initial floor debate. If the House had moved at the same pace as the Senate, SB1569 would have been on its way to Governor Perry’s desk before any of us had ever heard the word “chubbing”.

Oh, and despite Burka’s helpful suggestion that the House simply punt on this, I’ll note that SB1569 passed on third reading with eight Yes votes from Republican Senators, out of 19 total. Assuming it would have gotten 70 Yes votes from House Dems (let’s assume an absence or two, and a stray No vote or two), it would have needed 30 of 75 Republican Yeas to pass with a veto-proof majority. That’s a smaller percentage of House GOP votes needed than Senate GOP votes received, so don’t tell me it was impossible. Yes, there may have been more pressure on House Republicans to vote No, but we’ll never know that now. This could have been taken up for a vote in time had the House been better organized and had it been a priority instead of voter ID.

There are other examples, of course. We know that committee assignments came out later than usual. You can cut some slack for that. The House didn’t get to voting on any bills till later than usual as well, and along the way we’ve heard complaints about the pace of the action in the House and of the length of their daily schedule. All I’m saying is there was a reason there were so many bills imperiled at the end. It didn’t have to be that way.

Getting back to Carona and his complaint, it’s making for some quality entertainment if you’re into that sort of thing. Follow the ups and downs here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The lack of leadership

State Sen. John Carona gets medieval on his party’s leadership.

Tempers flared Saturday on the Legislature’s last weekend with a key GOP senator declaring that the session’s central theme is “lack of leadership” by top members of his own party.

“If you look at this session, you’ve got two underlying problems: One is simply the lack of leadership in the top offices and the second is the lack of any clear, compelling agenda,” said Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas.

His angst was triggered by the evident demise of a proposal to allow urban areas to raise gasoline taxes and some fees in their areas to pay for local transportation projects.

But the bickering about the bill has been emblematic of a string of sparring episodes that have played out over the last few weeks as lawmakers have struggled with successes and losses on controversial public issues.

[…]

n charging a lack of leadership, Carona referred to Perry’s expected tough primary battle to keep his job against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, speculation that Dewhurst may run for U.S. Senate and the fact that GOP Speaker Joe Straus is a novice House leader.

“You can determine that perhaps that’s because the state’s top two leaders are considering their future political ambitions. You might consider that part of it is due to the fact we have a new speaker who has his own troubles,” Carona said. “The bottom line is you can’t lead 181 members without strong personalities and a set and significant agenda.”

He particularly said Perry has failed to lead on the transportation bill, saying the governor should have supported the local-option idea since money is running short to meet transportation needs.

Once again, I’ll say that this session has been about the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary from the beginning. Rick Perry has achieved a lot of his goals, though not all of them. If you don’t like what you’ve seen, well, that’s what the elections next year are all about.

The story talks about the bills that were killed by the chubfest, and the ensuing scramble to resurrect as many of the important ones as possible. I say the fact that so many bills were in a position to be killed by that kind of delay is itself an indictment of the leadership, specifically of Speaker Straus. Look at SB1569, the unemployment insurance bill that would have gone against the Governor’s wishes on stimulus money. It passed out of the Senate committee on April 2, was put on the calendar on the 14th, passed on second reading on the 16th, and on third reading on the 20th, when it was sent to the House. It then passed out of the House committee on May 2, and disappeared until May 18, when the Calendars committee finally took it up. It was debated in the House on May 21, then postponed due to disagreements over an amendment, and was finally taken up again after all the chubbing concluded late on the 26th, where it failed to pass before midnight. It took the Senate 18 days to go from committee approval to final passage. It took the House 19 days to go from committee approval to the initial floor debate. If the House had moved at the same pace as the Senate, SB1569 would have been on its way to Governor Perry’s desk before any of us had ever heard the word “chubbing”.

Oh, and despite Burka’s helpful suggestion that the House simply punt on this, I’ll note that SB1569 passed on third reading with eight Yes votes from Republican Senators, out of 19 total. Assuming it would have gotten 70 Yes votes from House Dems (let’s assume an absence or two, and a stray No vote or two), it would have needed 30 of 75 Republican Yeas to pass with a veto-proof majority. That’s a smaller percentage of House GOP votes needed than Senate GOP votes received, so don’t tell me it was impossible. Yes, there may have been more pressure on House Republicans to vote No, but we’ll never know that now. This could have been taken up for a vote in time had the House been better organized and had it been a priority instead of voter ID.

There are other examples, of course. We know that committee assignments came out later than usual. You can cut some slack for that. The House didn’t get to voting on any bills till later than usual as well, and along the way we’ve heard complaints about the pace of the action in the House and of the length of their daily schedule. All I’m saying is there was a reason there were so many bills imperiled at the end. It didn’t have to be that way.

Getting back to Carona and his complaint, it’s making for some quality entertainment if you’re into that sort of thing. Follow the ups and downs here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Weekend link dump for May 31

Holy crap, is it really almost June already?

Your modern Republican Party.

I love it when ladies of a certain age cuss like sailors.

I think I’ve finally found an argument against gay marriage that I can understand: The thought of it makes some people so incredibly stupid that there’s a risk it could rub off on the rest of us. I suppose it’s better than the current arguments, which to my mind mostly boil down to “Ewww!”

The art and etymology of “chubbing”.

The Deep South is just different.

How to win 300 games.

A Joss-free Buffy? Blasphemy!

“Lost”: The Rewatch. Admit it, you need a fix to make it through the summer.

Life never stops being like high school, does it?

Michelle Bachmann: The comic book. One can only imagine what kind of super-villains she’ll encounter.

It’s hard to imagine the rhetoric from conservatives getting any stupider, but the Sonia Sotomayor nomination is proving that it can.

If you want to know more about our next Supreme Court Justice and prefer something a lot less stupid than all that, try this.

Archie and Veronica? That’s just wrong.

I had no idea there was a hullabaloo about hugging. All my friends in college were a bunch of huggers. Somehow, we managed to survive and become mostly productive members of society. Via Yglesias.

Of course, it does help to know the right way to hug.

Good grief, now George Will is even making stuff up about baseball. What else is there for him to fib about?

Libertarians at sea. Watch out for pirates!

Ten years of SpongeBob.

The wearable towel. Just please, ignore the suggestion about going to get the paper while wearing it.

Red light camera ban appears dead

So says the Star-Telegram, which has been the go-to source for these stories.

A final version of legislation restructuring the Texas Department of Transportation is not expected to include a ban on red-light cameras or a local option provision allowing county elections to raise money for road and rail projects, lawmakers said Saturday.

Members of a joint conference committee reconciling differences between the House and Senate versions of the transportation department bill are under a midnight deadline to release their report. Sen. Glenn Hegar Jr., R-Katy, the chief Senate negotiator, told the Star-Telegram that neither the local option provision or the red-light camera ban are likely to be in the final bill.

Asked if the local option provsion, strongly opposed by House negotiators, will be in the conference committee legislation, Hegar replied: “I don’t see how it does.”

He added: “I would assume there will be no ban on red light cameras, and then that the way the bill would focus on TxDOT and nothing more, nothing less.”

[…]

[Rep. Gary] Elkins acknowledged that his red-light camera ban apparently was out of the bill. He said his amendment “was being held hostage” during the conference committee deliberations, with a possible swap in which the Senate would agree to take the House-passed red-light camera ban in exchange for House acceptance of local option.

“My understanding right now is the House is not going to get its will on red-light cameras and the Senate is not going to get its will on the local option tax,” he said.

It’s also possible that HB300 won’t be able to pass – among other things, Sen. John Carona may filibuster it over its lack of a local-option provision – or if it does pass, Governor Perry, who not unreasonably thinks the whole thing has turned into a monstrosity, may veto it. In which case, the red light cameras will live on, since there would be no legislation to pass that would kill them. At this point, I’d say they’re in decent shape, though as always it ain’t over till it’s over. Hope all those contracts with camera vendors that got extended for however long don’t come back to bite anyone. EoW has more on the status of HB300 and the local option tax.

Meet the robocallers

I didn’t think it was possible for me to hate the auto warranty robocallers any more than I already do, but apparently it is.

[C]ourt documents filed this month in a Federal Trade Commission case against a Florida company — Transcontinental Warranty — provide what authorities say is a look inside a telemarketing operation that used widespread recorded calls and misrepresentations in selling its product.

A declaration from a former employee describes how he was supposed to go through hundreds of calls in a shift, trying to sell auto service warranties, which the FTC said typically cost $2,000 to $3,000, without giving up too much information about the company, especially if consumers became combative or suspicious.

“Transcontinental’s company motto was ‘Hang up. Next,’ ” said Mark Israel, who worked the evening shift with about 30 other operators at company headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Essentially, this meant that if the consumer did not readily go along with the scripted telemarketing pitch, I should immediately hang up.”

[…]

Israel, who did not respond to requests for an interview, worked for the company only four days before quitting and contacting the FTC.

His description of the calls mirrored those of people nationwide, the FTC said, who complained to government agencies and consumer organizations. The FTC said some Transcontinental calls went to numbers registered on the national Do Not Call list. But all recorded sales calls are illegal with the exception of those that go to people with whom there’s an established business relationship.

But it was difficult for consumers to report a company if it couldn’t get its name. “I understood it to be an acceptable practice at Transcontinental to say whatever was necessary to get the consumer to divulge his or her credit card number,” Israel said in the court documents.

Some people have left comments on previous posts about these jerks saying they’d managed to hang on the line long enough to get to a person and get that person to take them off their call list, at least for awhile. I never bothered with that – I always hung up as soon as I recognized the call, if I was unfortunate enough to answer it in the first place. I think that was for the better, all things considered. And I must say, I haven’t received one of these calls in a few days now (knock wood), so maybe the feds are having an effect, One can only hope.

Extending the deadline

The deadline for finishing up conference committee work was supposed to be last night at midnight. There was too much work to do for that, so the deadline got pushed back for 24 hours.

That means the Senate on Monday likely will be approving dozens of conference committee reports — the final versions of bills — where they were supposed to just do minor corrections to a few bills.

Senate Administration Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, told senators a few minutes ago that 131 House bills loaded up with Senate amendments are still in conference — meaning they are still in negotiation with House members.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Williams said.

The vote to waive the rule and extend tonight’s deadline was 31-0. A four-fifths vote of at least 25 senators was required.

Among other things, that means that there’s more time for a deal on windstorm insurance, which is now the must-pass bill of the session, as a failure to do so will mean a special session. It also means that there may be some hope for the previously-declared dead solar bill.

At the stroke of midnight last night, Sen. Troy Fraser’s SB 545, the “chosen” solar incentives bill for the legislative session, seemed to have drawn its last breath when Rep. Sylvester Turner killed its vehicle.

Fraser’s solar bill would have provided incentives for solar installation, with a view to increasing solar energy generation in Texas. Since the bill didn’t make it through the House chubfest last week, it was tacked on to HB 1243, which would require utilities to purchase extra electricity from on-site renewable generation.

Well: Would have required. Turner killed the bill last night, seemingly out of hurt feelings over other bills that didn’t make it through the parliamentary process over the past day.

“All day long we have been sending bill after bill back on germaneness,” Turner said, objecting to the fact that HB 1243 had absorbed three loosely related measures.

He also objected to the electricity rate increases that would have been passed onto consumers to fund the solar incentives. Still, at 20 cents per month for residential customers, the increases were quite small.

[…]

According to Environment Texas advocate Luke Metzger, establishing a solar incentives program is critical in Texas right now, since the solar manufacturing base isn’t permanently settled anywhere. If Texans buy more solar systems, it could persuade manufacturer’s to set up shop here. Without the incentives, Metzger says, “we’ll miss the solar boat for decades to come, potentially.”

But all hope is not lost. Last week’s chubfest in the House has put legislators through an exercise in it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And it ain’t over for solar incentives, which may find a viable vehicle in Fraser’s own SB 546, the session’s “chosen” energy efficiency bill, which is in conference committee today.

If SB 546 can accommodate solar incentives legislation, Metzger does not think there will be a problem with germaneness.

However, he points out, “the other danger still is timing. This all has to happen very quickly in order to avoid Turner or anyone else trying to chub it to death.”

Keep hope alive. Maybe the extended deadlines will be sufficient to allow this to pass. Stranger things, almost always for the worse, have happened.

Other items to keep an eye on are SCR72, the joint resolution to clean up after the Railroad Commission, and HB498, the innocence commission study bill. A lot of good criminal jurisprudence reform bills were chubbing victims so salvaging that one would be nice.

Saturday video break: Literally!

The 80s is a gift that keeps on giving.

Go here to see more of this silliness under the Related Videos. Happy Saturday!

Van de Putte gearing up

With sine die just around the corner (and God willing, no special session), we may start to get some answers to the questions about which legislators might be running for higher offices. One of them is State Sen. Letitia Van de Putte, who has been talking about a run for Governor. That subject comes up in this interview she did with BOR’s Phillip Martin. As you might expect, she’s rather coy about it, and says she needs to discuss it with her family, but I notice that she mentions her potential primary opponent Tom Schieffer a couple of times, all critically, and that sounds to me like something a candidate would say. We’ll know in the next week or two, so check it out.

Who should represent District H?

That’s the question, isn’t it?

It took only a few minutes at the District H candidate forum Thursday morning for discussion to turn to the elephant in the room.

“District H is supposed to be a Hispanic district,” said Edgar Colon, chairman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Political Action Committee, reading a question on behalf of an audience member. “Should it be represented by a Hispanic?”

In what is shaping up as a hard-fought runoff campaign between Houston police officer Ed Gonzalez and former public high school teacher Maverick Welsh to fill the City Council seat vacated by Adrian Garcia, that question looms as large as any other in a district originally drawn to elect a Latino.

Stace gives a nice answer to that.

I’ll be the first one to say it. No! It doesn’t have to be represented by an Hispanic. But when you have a highly qualified, progressive-minded product of the district, why not?

As a highly-educated Chicano myself, I’ve been proud to click on a Anglo candidate running against a brown person, especially when the brown person is not a progressive (cough-cough, Roy and/or Danny More-or-Less Mexicano). So, no, it’s not about race, or in this case, ethnicity. As a voter, I’m interested in having a highly qualified candidate with whom I can identify, whether it by that candidate’s story, or something else.

Stace supports Ed Gonzalez. As you know, I broke the tie in favor of Maverick Welsh. You can’t really go wrong either way. I was at that forum, and I thought both candidates answered the question deftly, without getting trapped by it. The right answer to me is that this district, like all of the others, should be represented by someone who can serve the needs of everyone in it. One could just as easily ask the question should District G be represented by an Anglo? Who should represent the city, in which no racial or ethnic group comprises a majority? I say the answer is the same across the board. In this particular case, we have two candidates who I think would fit the bill nicely. It’s up to all of us to ensure that whoever wins lives up to that.

Currently, District I Councilman James Rodriguez is the only Latino among 14 council members, in a city where Hispanics make up nearly 42 percent of the population.

The Department of Justice helped create District H when it forced the city to undertake redistricting in 1979, part of an effort to correct historic voting inequities in Houston and ensure more minority representation on the council. But the district, which includes the Heights, much of the old Second Ward just east of downtown and a wide swath that extends midway between the inner and outer loops around Interstate 45, has undergone dramatic changes since then.

Here’s something you may not know. I didn’t know it until I went looking through the historical election returns on the City Secretary’s webpage. The first election for District H in 1979 was won by Dale Gorczynski, who is now a Justice of the Peace in JP Precinct 1. Here are the returns from that election:


James M. Goins 1,181 Willie D. Hatchett 1,719 Herman Lauhoff 3,977 Russel Stanley 305 Anne Wheeler 2,824 Dale M. Gorczynski 3,274

Gorczynski won the runoff, then held the seat through the 1991 election, after which he did not run again. The first time that a Hispanic candidate won the District H seat was as far as I could tell the first time that a candidate with a recognizably Hispanic surname ran for it, in the open seat contest of 1993 in which Felix Fraga emerged victorious. I knew Gorczynski had been the District H member before Fraga, but I hadn’t realized he was the original Council member.

You can make of all that what you will. I found it interesting that this district that was drawn to be represented by a Hispanic has only recently been actually represented by a Hispanic for a majority of its existence. David Ortez has some tangential thoughts.

Budget heads to the Governor

In the end, thanks in large part to the stimulus package and its infusion of funds that prevented the need to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, the budget process was relatively uncontroversial. Yesterday, it was passed by the House, and is now on its way to Governor Perry’s desk.

With just three days left in the 81st Texas Legislature, the only thing certain was the state’s $182.3 billion budget, which, among other things, increases spending for the mentally disabled, correctional officer salaries, college financial aid and pre-kindergarten programs. Most of the money, which includes $12.1 billion in federal economic stimulus dollars, is dedicated to education and health care.

The vote in the House was 142-2, after unanimous passage in the Senate. Perry is certain to do some line-item vetoing, if only to remind us that he can. Odds are he’ll pick something that no one will see coming. We’ll know soon enough.

Of greater interest at this time is the handful of bills that are still struggling to stay alive.

The House kept the debate on windstorm insurance reform alive by agreeing to seek a compromise on the bill in a joint conference committee. Perry has told lawmakers he will call a special session if the windstorm insurance reform does not pass.

At issue is how to keep solvent the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which provides insurance for homeowners who cannot find private coverage — without pushing insurance rates up. Hurricanes Ike and Dolly busted the association with an unexpected $2 billion in payouts.

Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood said they hope to reach a settlement so as “not to have a special session.”

Here’s the conference committee information. They have till midnight tonight to work it out, get a bill printed, and distribute it to members. Tall order, but doable.

Also Friday, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, said he was still trying to revive the Children’s Health Insurance Program. An effort earlier this week to piggyback CHIP on a bill for newborn disease screening did not comply with House rules that subjects be “germane.”

Although a coalition representing 70 groups called on legislative leaders to “take all necessary means” to pass the bill, the prospect is dim.

Apparently, the measure to which the CHIP bill had been attached as an amendment, which had originally been sent back by the House because author Paula Pierson didn’t think it would concur, has now been approved for a conference committee, but that’s to remove the CHIP amendment so the original bill, having to do with newborn screening, can pass. There’s still the original House CHIP bill by Rep. Garnet Coleman, which hasn’t been approved by the Senate but still could if they agree to suspend the rules to bring it up. I’m not holding my breath on that one. The Chron editorializes today in favor of taking action, while Rick Casey took Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Steve Ogden to task for not getting this right the first time.

Disputes also were holding up a bill to renew the life of the Texas Department of Transportation for another two years. Portions of the bill call for a local option gas tax, supported by business leaders and elected officials from North Texas and San Antonio.

In Harris County, officials are keeping an eye on a provision that could limit or ban new cameras being placed at intersections to catch red-light runners.

That one could get ugly. Rep. Joe Pickett has called out lobbyists who are agitating over the local-option tax, which has both strong support and strong opposition. More from McBlogger and EoW, both of whom are in the latter camp. On a tangential note, the Chron rails against the attempt by the state to meddle in local affairs regarding red light cameras.

Finally, one bit of bad news.

At the stroke of midnight on Friday, House Bill 1243 turned into a pumpkin and a fairy godmother was nowhere to be found to save it or the electric cooperative measure attached to it.

Provisions to improve accountability in the electric cooperatives, including Pedernales Electric Cooperative, had been tacked on to the bill in the Senate. And Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, challenged whether that amendment and others belonged on the bill.

A lengthy confab at the dais followed by a postponement delayed a vote on whether to send the bill to a conference committee, called for by Turner, until shortly before midnight. That vote failed 48 to 90.

But by the time Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, stepped to the microphone to save the bill, it was too late.

Another half-hour of parliamentary hand-wringing ensued. But, in the end, the glass slipper didn’t fit.

That unfortunately means that SB545, the solar bill, is dead as well. Major bummer about that.

The science of smog

I thought this was a very interesting article about a current research project that is investigating the effect of industrial flares from refineries and chemical plants on ozone levels, but one bit of it really amazed me.

Industrial flares burn off pressurized gases but also can shoot out massive amounts of noxious emissions. The Houston area has about 400 flare stacks, and they are among the largest and least- understood sources of pollution in the region, researchers said.

A recent University of North Carolina study found that formaldehyde from flares may increase Houston’s ozone by as much as 30 parts per billion. In tandem with the pollution that blows into the region from elsewhere, that might be enough to keep Houston from meeting the new federal ozone limit of 75 parts per billion, scientists said.

The state’s current plan for reducing Houston’s smog doesn’t consider formaldehyde and other precursors.

“If there is a problem with flares, it upends the entire regulatory strategy,” said Harvey Jeffries, an atmospheric chemist who conducted the UNC study.

How is it that we’re just now getting around to studying this? I mean, anyone looking at one of those flares blazing away would automatically assume that’s putting a lot of nasty stuff into the atmosphere. I have a hard time understanding how come we don’t have a better handle on just how nasty the effects are. Am I missing something?

Oh, and by the way, living in the suburbs is no escape.

Twice in the past week, the Fort Bend County city has exceeded the federal limit for ozone, a critical threshold under the nation’s Clean Air Act.

And the forecast calls for more heavy smog today.

“Ozone obviously isn’t stopping at the Harris County line,” said Barry Lefer, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Houston.

Until this smog season, which began in March, Fort Bend was the most populous county in Texas without a monitoring station to measure air pollution. At the request of County Judge Bob Hebert in January, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is responsible for fighting ozone in smog-prone places including Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, agreed to help pay for a monitor at UH’s Sugar Land campus.

[…]

Some smog watchers said the early readings from the Sugar Land monitor underscore the need for more on the outskirts of the eight-county Houston region.

“These folks don’t know that they could have air-quality problems,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the clean-air advocacy group Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention.

I’m thinking the politics of clean air change considerably when places like Fort Bend start seeing it as their problem as well. You can run away from some problems, but you can’t hide from them forever.

Big John versus El Rushbo and The Newt

There’s just not enough popcorn in the world.

As if to magnify what are already major differences between elected Republicans and conservative activists on the question of Sonia Sotomayor, check out what conservative senator (and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Judiciary Comittee member and former Texas State Supreme Court Justice) had to say on NPR yesterday.

“I think it’s terrible. This is not the kind of tone that any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advice and consent.”

Republican leaders may not have as much sway over their own interest groups as Democratic leaders do over their, so don’t expect the attacks to stop. But it’s a bold statement. He even lashed out at Newt Gingrich and the unassailable Rush Limbaugh.

“Neither one of these men are elected Republican officials [and] I just don’t think it’s appropriate and I certainly don’t endorse it. I think it’s wrong.”

You can listen to the entire interview here.

Of course, any time a Republican official says anything unflattering about Rush, it’s worth asking a couple questions: Will he apologize for it? And how long will he wait?

You know you’ve gone completely round the bend when Big John tells you to dial it down a bit. Not that it matters, as neither Newtie nor the Round Mound of Sound is backing off. Oh, and now the DCCC is joining in the fun by calling out Rep. Pete Sessions, who as Cornyn’s counterpart in Congress has been silent so far. Who needs summer movies when you have this kind of entertainment?

UPDATE: Forgot to add that there’s video of Big John taking on his foes. And as we know, the Rushmeister was in town last night. Here’s a photo of him and some of his fanboys from that event. BOR has more.

Friday random ten: Get your game on

Next on the theme list: Songs about sports.

1. HOOPS Yes! (FC Dallas) – The Polyphonic Spree
2. The Stock Car Travels By Illusion – Austin Lounge Lizards
3. Centerfield – John Fogerty
4. Galway Farmer – Ceili’s Muse
5. Catchers Drummers Anchormen – Eddie from Ohio
6. Sweet Georgia Brown – The Ray Brown Trio
7. Glory Days – Bruce Springsteen
8. Chess – Andersson/Ulvaeus
9. Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys
10. Fight Fiercely, Harvard – Tom Lehrer

Yes, chess is a sport – it’s a mind sport. So’s bridge, but no one’s written a musical about it yet. “Galway Farmer” is about a guy betting on a horse he’d dreamed about. We should all be as lucky as he was. Technically, “Sweet Georgia Brown” isn’t about sports, but it’s the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters, so I say it’s close enough. There’s a whole class of stadium songs that could be admitted under a sufficiently loose definition of the theme, but I wasn’t going to go there. What’s on your playlist this week?

Houston extends red light camera contract

We’ll have red light cameras to kick around for at least a few more years.

The City Council extended the contract of the company that administers its red-light camera program for three more years Wednesday, aiming to thwart legislation pending in Austin that would sunset the use of the devices.

The ordinance, which passed Wednesday with only two nay votes — by members Mike Sullivan and Jolanda Jones — extends the camera program through May 2014. The action was a preemptive effort meant to keep the program active in case a bill in the Legislature succeeds in precluding municipalities from adding the cameras or extending contracts with vendors after June 1, 2009.

The provision was included as an amendment to a bill that already has passed in the House and is expected to be hashed out in the coming days in a conference committee. Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, sponsored the amendment.

The cities of Amarillo, Arlington, Baytown, Fort Worth and Irving all took similar steps to extend their programs, in some cases continuing them for an additional 15 to 20 years.

Mayor Bill White defended the council’s action Wednesday.

“The fact is that where we have these cameras, the number of people who are photographed running the red light goes down consistently over time,” he said, adding later in a news conference that he believes the cameras will become an integral part of law enforcement all over the U.S. within 10 years.

Maybe we’ll get a valid study of their effect in Houston by then. We all saw this coming, so if you don’t like the cameras, take solace in the fact that Houston only extended the contract that far, unlike some other cities.

Burleson extended its agreement with American Traffic Solutions for 15 years, a city official said this week.

The Fort Worth City Council gave the city manager permission this week to immediately sign an extension through 2018 if it appears that the Legislature will imminently approve a ban on future contracts.

North Richland Hills extended its deal with Redflex through 2013.

Last week, Arlington officials gave the city staff permission to sign a new deal with ATS through 2027, and Southlake extended its terms with Redflex through 2024.

Count your blessings, camera-haters. The House conference committee members on the TxDOT sunset bill that had the anti-camera amendment will be fighting to keep it, so their days may still be numbered.

Debutant’s last post

As you know, Deborah Greer-Costello, better known as Debutant, passed away on May 18 after a long battle with leukemia. Her sister Stephanie, a/k/a Texans Chick, posted a final message from Deb based on conversations they had after her condition became clear. Go give it a read and remember what a remarkable woman Deb was, and if you are so moved, make a donation to her daughter Zoe’s college fund. Oh, and give blood, too. Thanks very much.

Lon Burnam

The Star Telegram has a nice profile of Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, who we all know was anti-Tom Craddick before it was cool. If he were a baseball or basketball player, you’d say he’s one of those guys who does things that don’t show up in the box score. Burnam doesn’t pass a lot of bills, but he works to kill those that need killing, and he helps provide a much-needed and otherwise often lacking liberal perspective on many issues. And his story for this session has not been fully written yet, as he has promised to bring his resolution to impeach Sharon Keller to the floor for a vote on a personal privilege motion. He has said that will happen before sine die, so it’s got to be coming soon.

Hey, world! Pay attention to us!

Houston’s efforts to brand itself as a world-class city often come in for ridicule, some deserved and some not so much. But Houston is way farther down the path of international prominence than our neighbor to the west, San Antonio. Evan Smith highlights a bit from an interview to be published in their upcoming issue with the newly-elected Mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro.

What do you do about luring companies to San Antonio and keeping them there? There are a number of major corporations headquartered in the city, but the loss of AT&T to Dallas last year had to hurt. What kind of package can you put together to attract and retain their kind?

A couple of things. First, we’re going to keep refining our economic development model. We have dozens of development entities right now, and we are going to look at how we can streamline that process and create a web presence–an informational portal of entry for San Antonio along the lines of what Houston and Phoenix do. Second, we need to get back to what Mayor [Henry] Cisneros did so well in the eighties, which was to raise the profile of the city. If you watch the Today show or CNN when they do the weather, you’d think San Antonio didn’t exist.

I have a distinct memory from college, being at home during Christmas break and freezing my butt off, checking the weather listing in the newspaper each day so I’d know just how much warmer I’d be if I were back at school. The New York Daily News weather page had a listing for San Antonio, but I’ve seen papers that didn’t. It really is weird.

It’s the seventh-largest city in the country. Is there problem that I don’t know about?

Whatever it is, we’re going to fix it.

Do you hire people to help market the city? Do you get more aggressive in publicizing things going on? Because obviously you want to spend your time on substance, and marketing isn’t really substance. Or at least it doesn’t have the same impact.

I like to think it does. If you’re a graduate of Yale or the University of Michigan or the University of Chicago and you think about where the jobs are, oftentimes there’s opportunity in San Antonio that you wouldn’t know about. We can’t even fathom how much of a talent investment we’re missing out on. So we’re going to get on the road, get with companies, write letters to media outlets, and do all the practical things we need to. Over time, we’ll get into the national conversation about up-and-coming cities.

San Antonio has some assets that Houston doesn’t. It has a much stronger sense of history and heritage, it’s a genuine tourist destination, and it’s a truly beautiful place that’s very close to some even more beautiful countryside. It’s a love-at-first-sight kind of place, where Houston is much more of an acquired taste. It may be the seventh most populous city in America, but it’s not crowded and it doesn’t sprawl out all over the place (not yet, anyway); it’s only the 37th largest TV market as a result, which probably contributes to its lower profile overall. I don’t know what I’d do in Mayor Castro’s place to raise that profile, but I’m confident that it can be done. It really has a lot going for it, and if I couldn’t live here it would be my first choice for where to move.

CHIP dies again

sigh

Gov. Rick Perry today indicated that he opposes a plan to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program, putting in jeopardy of a veto a measure that has been a top priority this session for children’s advocates.

But the CHIP bill appears unlikely to make it to his desk at all. The House today rejected a Senate attempt to attach it to an unrelated measure.

Talking with reporters, Perry was asked if he’d consider having the Legislature take up CHIP if he calls a special session. He said no.

When asked why not, Perry said: “I would probably not be in favor of that expansion even if it came to my desk. I think the members know that. That is not what I consider to be a piece of legislation that has the vast support of the people of the state of Texas.”

[…]

The Senate late Wednesday revived the CHIP legislation by attaching it to a measure about newborn screening, and the CHIP bill’s Senate author, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, sent out a press release declaring: “Averitt saves CHIP.”

The author of the newborn screening measure, Rep. Paula Pierson, D-Arlington, who supports the CHIP expansion, said today the House is sending the screening bill back to the Senate. That’s because the CHIP amendment would have doomed the measure in the House, she said. “It was dead on arrival,” Pierson said.

I presume that the likelihood of a point of order, which would have scuttled the bill, was enough to get the House to send it back. Our Governor, as a matter of policy, thinks that having fewer kids be able to get access to health care is a preferable outcome. And for this, he’s the darling of those who call themselves Christian activists. Go figure. Rep. Garnet Coleman, in a statement he sent out to the press, speaks for me:

It is unconscionable, in these tough economic times, that Governor Perry will veto legislation that will help working Texas parents purchase insurance for their children. Legislation creating a buy-in program for CHIP passed last night with a 29-2 vote in the Senate, and it passed last month from the House with a vote of 87-55. This bill was specifically written with the strictest “crowd out” language possible to ensure that private health insurance is not substituted by CHIP coverage. The Governor is clearly out of touch with the needs of Texas.

Sadly, that’s been that’s been the case for a long time. We’re all the worse for it.

Hail to the king!

So apparently the head of the GOP is in town tonight to help raise money for US Rep. Mike McCaul, who apparently isn’t taking any chances for next year. No, not this guy – nobody cares about him. I mean this guy, also known as He Who Must Be Apologized To. Is there a brighter star in the Republican Party these days? Why, we may soon find that his image has appeared on a grilled cheese sandwich or something. It could happen, you know. Anyway, I can’t wait to hear what he had to say at this event. Should provide fodder for months to come. BOR has more.

Senate spikes McLeroy

Good for them.

The Texas Senate on Thursday refused to confirm Don McLeroy as State Board of Education chairman after an impassioned floor debate.

The 19 to 11 party-line vote was not enough to get McLeroy across the required two-thirds threshold. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, abstained from the vote.

McLeroy, a Republican from Bryan, was first elected to the board in 1998 and will remain in that position.

But Gov. Rick Perry will now need to appoint another leader from the 15-member board. Critics said McLeroy’s nearly two-year tenure as chairman has been dysfunctional and divisive.

I know I said that I’d give any Dem a pass on this one if they thought they needed to confirm him. I’m glad they didn’t take me up on that. If Rick Perry does appoint someone decent like Bob Craig, it’s a win all around. And if he goes full metal wingnut and gives us Cynthia Dunbar, well, I’ll look forward to the 2010 campaign that much more. TFN, which led the way on this one, has a full accounting of the proceedings and a statement on the outcome. Elise and Kilday Hart have more.

Senate passes windstorm bill

The one bill that has been expressly mentioned as a reason for a special session if it doesn’t get done is SB14, the windstorm insurance bill. It was a chubbing victim on Tuesday, but on Wednesday it was revived by the time-honored “attach it as an amendment to another bill” method.

By a 27-4 vote, senators voted to amend House Bill 4409 to include the provisions of Senate Bill 14, that was passed in April to address the looming crisis in the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.

“This is our last hope to be able to work on this issue,” said state Sen. Mike Jackson, R-LaPorte, the Senate sponsor of the House legislation.

[…]

Jackson said that while the House may not accept the Senate’s provisions, the approval of the amended bill tonight will provide a way for House and Sehate negotiators to come up with a final version that can be approved before the Legislature adjourns on Monday.

The original version of HB4409 passed the House by a 147-0 margin, so one hopes that the addition of SB14 to it will be palatable. I’m in favor of there not being a special session, so taking action to reduce the odds of one is a good thing in my book. Floor Pass has more.

Gallery fire ruled arson

Wow.

The massive fire last week that destroyed the warehouse at Gallery Furniture’s main location on the North Freeway was intentionally set, an official said today.

Rob Elder, assistant special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office in Houston, said the agency determined the fire was arson because all possible accidental causes had been ruled out, including a faulty generator that was initially suspected.

“Someone out there knows what happened that night, and we’re going to find them,” Elder said in a news conference today. No one has been ruled out as a suspect, said Elder, who declined to reveal details as to how investigators think the blaze began.

I did not see that coming. I hope they figure it all out.

Unemployment insurance dies, CHIP lives

Not unexpectedly, SB1569 was a casualty of the weekend chubfest. Also not surprisingly, it was basically chubbed by Republicans, who wanted to ensure its death as the local and consent calendar was finally finished up a little before the midnight deadline. I’m disappointed to see this bill die, but given that it hadn’t been passed by a veto-proof majority in time for the inevitable veto to be overridden, it was doomed anyway. If that helps the House Republicans blow off some steam, then so be it.

On the good side, CHIP expansion got new life.

The Texas Senate late Wednesday, facing a midnight deadline, used a House bill concerning newborn screening to revive a measure aimed at expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, put SB841 (the CHIP expansion bill) into HB1795, which was approved 28-2 by the Senate.

The CHIP amendment allows some families with incomes above current limits to buy into the insurance program.

The measure now heads back to the House with changes approved in the Senate.

One hopes it will be accepted as amended. That’s at least one less casualty from the weekend.

I’m including an excerpt from Ed Sills’ Texas AFL-CIO email newsletter about SB1569 beneath the fold. Click on to read it.

UPDATE: Floor Pass, quoting Harvey Kronberg, thinks the CHIP add-on might fall victim to a point of order.

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More on the City Council redistricting lawsuit dismissal

Here’s the Chron story about the dismissal of the lawsuit, brought by Vidal Martinez and Carroll Robinson.

The lawsuit argued the city was violating its own charter by refusing to redistrict and add two council districts when its population passed the 2.1 million threshhold in late 2006.

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake rejected that contention, finding the plaintiffs had failed to show the city’s charter compelled redistricting. Martinez promised an appeal.

“This is just the first step in a long marathon,” he said, noting that the outcome of the case could depend on a U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with voting rights that originated in Austin. “Nobody should take any happiness out of this very preliminary ruling by the court. In the end, justice has not been done with a 30-year agreement and contract the city made with the Houston Latino community.”

City Attorney Arturo Michel said the ruling upholds the city’s contention that it could not follow federal law regarding redistricting without the accuracy provided by the upcoming decennial population count by the U.S. Census Bureau. Federal law requires precinct-level data for redistricting, which would not be available until after the 2010 count. Using data from the 2000 count, the city argued, would lead to inaccurate district boundaries.

“That will allow you to identify where voters are and come up with the representation system that is the fairest,” Michel said. “What’s more important is that you have a complete and accurate Census count so that you know where people are, and then you can divide your districts in a way that will be fairest to everyone.”

I’m not sure at this point how you can get a resolution from the courts that would be done any sooner than the post-2010 Census redistricting, but we’ll see how that goes. A copy of the opinion can be found here (PDF). It’s pretty complex, but I think Miya summarizes it succinctly enough as “the plaintiffs basically didn’t prove how they were damaged by the city waiting for the census”. And so wait we will, pending a reversal on appeal. Houston Politics has more.

Still talking about a new jail

We’re going to be having this conversation for awhile, I expect.

As he attempts to secure a new jail for Harris County, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has hired nearly 90 more guards but still faces skepticism from commissioners about whether a new facility is the only solution to chronic overcrowding and failed inspections.

Garcia argued earlier this month for the construction of a new jail, after the downtown lockups failed a fourth state inspection in six years because of broken toilets and intercoms. He said a new facility would alleviate persistent problems with maintenance and overcrowding at the facilities that house more than 10,000 people.

County and state officials have watched previous plans for a new jail fizzle because of a lack of voter support or the Sheriff’s Office’s guard shortage. They repeatedly have said other methods must be used to address overcrowding, including modification of bonding and pretrial diversion policies. Recent numbers show that half of the jail’s population is made up of people awaiting trial.

“A new jail would have to be a last resort,” Commissioner El Franco Lee said last week.

You know where I stand on this. As I wrote when this came up before, I’m open to the idea of a new jail as a replacement for the existing facility, but we absolutely need to deal with the underlying reasons for the overcrowding in the first place before we commit to anything. No plan, no new construction.

The discussion could culminate next month when Commissioner’s Court expects to receive a report from Justice Management Institute, which is performing a “top-to-bottom” review of the local criminal justice system. The court also is scheduled to hold its annual meeting to discuss its capital improvements plan.

“Why would we make any decisions until we have all the information?” asked Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “The last thing we want to do is to put (a new jail) back on the ballot and have it fail again.”

Agreed. And I’ll be one of those No votes if we haven’t moved forward significantly in dealing with things like pretrail services, bail, probation, etc.

Since January, [Sheriff Garcia] has hired 87 civilian jailers and cut openings in patrol, through new hires and transfers within the department, from about 70 to 22, according to Lt. John Legg, a spokesman for the department.

“Summer is a peak recruiting period,” Legg said. “We expect June and July to be big months for hiring.”

I’m sure it will be, and I’ve no doubt that the department is a better place to work now than it was last year. Having said that, I’m sure a big driver in this is the economic downturn. It’s not like there are a lot of other job openings out there, after all. Which means we need to make sure we can retain these folks when things get better, or else we’ll be right back where we started, possibly in a bigger jail with more inmates to guard. And that gets us back to the need to make sure we’re not locking up people we don’t really have to. Fix that, and the rest takes care of itself.

See you later, alligator

We all know how much Hurricane Ike has affected and continues to affect people and property. I at least had no idea how devastating it had been to the state’s alligator population.

The throaty bellow of adult male alligators, a combination mating call/territorial warning and a signature sound of vibrant coastal wetlands, has been all but absent from marshes along Texas’ upper coast this year.

The gators are gone. Marshes that a year ago held, quite literally, tens of thousands of alligators have, for the past eight months, been all but devoid of the signature wetlands reptile.

Hurricane Ike, which shoved a wall of saltwater as much as 18 feet deep as far as 15 or more miles inland along the upper coast this past September, profoundly impacted the marshes and the hundreds of thousands of alligators that lived there.

The storm hit dead-center of the state’s most extensive alligator habitat and highest alligator populations. The four-county area of Chambers, Galveston, Jefferson and Orange in the southeast corner of Texas held an estimated quarter-million alligators ahead of Ike.

The storm’s lingering effects continued killing gators for months. Just how many were lost to the storm remains in question.

“Right now, it’s still too early to say,” said Port Arthur-based biologist Amos Cooper, who heads Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s alligator programs. “We know we had some mortality of alligators. But whether they were just displaced and will move back as the habitat recovers is something we won’t know for a while.”

The good news is that the folks who keep an eye on this are optimistic that the gator population will bounce back next year. That’s what happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, so there’s no reason it can’t happen here. We hope, anyway.

Anti-Metro amendment officially dead

Good.

State lawmakers today voted unanimously to kill a provision that could have complicated the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light-rail plans.

The House removed language from a local transportation bill for Austin that would have put limits on Metro’s authority to acquire property through condemnation.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, quietly placed the provision in the bill, apparently at the request of rail critics who contend that a 2003 referendum didn’t specify that a portion of the planned University Line would run on Richmond rather solely on Westpark.

Technically, it was one critic, though as has been suggested to me I’m sure there were others behind him. Way to operate in the daylight, y’all. But then that’s been the hallmark of rail opponents around here, going back to Texans for True Mobility in the 2003 referendum, and no doubt much farther than that. No surprise there at all.

Anti-Metro amendment officially dead

Good.

State lawmakers today voted unanimously to kill a provision that could have complicated the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light-rail plans.

The House removed language from a local transportation bill for Austin that would have put limits on Metro’s authority to acquire property through condemnation.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, quietly placed the provision in the bill, apparently at the request of rail critics who contend that a 2003 referendum didn’t specify that a portion of the planned University Line would run on Richmond rather solely on Westpark.

Technically, it was one critic, though as has been suggested to me I’m sure there were others behind him. Way to operate in the daylight, y’all. But then that’s been the hallmark of rail opponents around here, going back to Texans for True Mobility in the 2003 referendum, and no doubt much farther than that. No surprise there at all.

The state of solar power

The Chron has a feature story on efforts to ramp up solar power in Texas.

[S]olar advocates say the right legislation could do the wind industry’s success one better.

One approach, incentives to install solar panels on homes and businesses, could be the catalyst for a homegrown industry of system installers and panel manufacturers, they say. Those manufacturers also could benefit from close proximity to an existing link in the solar supply chain — the single largest manufacturer of high quality polysilicon used in semiconductor chips and solar panels, which is located in Pasadena on the Houston Ship Channel.

“Really you want to develop a sustainable industry that does not require incentives,” said Steve Chadima, vice president of internal affairs for SunTech Power, a Chinese solar panel manufacturer that is eyeing Texas as a possible plant site. “You don’t want to live on the dole forever. But you need to jump-start the industry for it to develop along all the sectors.”

As legislative deadlines approached late Tuesday, advocates were closely watching a bill that would give out $500 million in rebates over the next five years to businesses and homeowners who install solar panels. Money for the rebates would be raised through monthly fees on electric bills—about 20 cents for residential customers, $2 for small businesses and $20 for industries.

The law would also require retail electric companies to buy a customer’s surplus electricity at a fair market price or credit the customer’s bill and provide incentives for commercial-scale solar installations.

The bill’s fate was uncertain, and its supporters in the legislature and the solar industry fear that if it doesn’t pass the Legislature this year, other states that offer incentives will get a leg up on Texas in developing new solar business.

The bill in question is SB545, which was sadly one of the victims of the weekend chub-a-rama. However, as Citizen Sarah notes, there’s still hope.

This afternoon, the Senate has HB 1243 on their intent calendar. HB 1243 is a “net metering” bill which would ensure that owners of solar installations, small wind turbines, or biogas generators get paid a fair price for the excess power they produce. As HB 1243 is a solar-related bill, it can be deemed germane, or related, to solar SB 545, which “died” last night […].

Which means that SB 545 can (maybe, possibly) be amended to HB 1243. Tentative huzzah!

It gets better. HB 1243 is co-authored by Senator Troy Fraser — the same fellow who sponsored SB 545. As both of these bills are Fraser’s babies, the chances of SB 545 living on as an amendment are looking pretty good.

We should know soon enough. Both HB1243 (99-36 in the House) and SB545 (25-5 in the Senate) passed easily enough, so one hopes this would not be controversial. I’ve got my fingers crossed. I’ve got my fingers crossed. NewsWatch: Energy has more.

UPDATE: Success!

The text of Senate Bill 921 was attached to House Bill 1243, a measure relating to net metering for electric service customers that was earlier passed the House.

Also attached was the text of Senate Bill 545, a bill earlier passed by the Senate that is designed to provide incentives for solar projects.

I don’t know how the vote went, but it doesn’t really matter. It passed, and as long as the House concurs, it’s off to the Governor for an autograph. Nicely done, Senate.

Clay Jenkins

Clay Jenkins is a candidate for County Judge in Dallas. He’s running in the Democratic primary against the incumbent, Jim Foster, who knocked off the Republican incumbent in the 2006 countywide sweep, in a race nobody expected him to win. (This is why we say Run Everywhere.) I don’t normally get involved in that kind of race outside of the Houston area, but Jenkins was a big supporter of Rick Noriega last year, and any friend of the Noriegas i a friend of mine. Rick and Melissa are hosting an event for Clay Jenkins at their place this Sunday – details are beneath the fold – so if you’d like to know more about Jenkins and what’s going on in Dallas, come on out to the Noriegas’ house on Sunday and find out.

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Would-be Metro killer outs himself

I had wondered who was behind that anti-Metro amendment from the weekend. Now I know.

A local light rail opponent claimed credit Tuesday for working with an El Paso legislator to try to block Metro’s ability to build the University Line along Richmond Avenue.

Don Hooper, who owns property along the thoroughfare, said he persuaded Democratic state Rep. Joe Pickett to amend a bill involving Austin’s transit agency last week.

The amendment would prevent Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority from using condemnation powers to acquire land needed for the proposed line running from the University of Houston through downtown to near Westpark and U.S. 59.

Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, did not return calls for comment Tuesday. But other legislators and Metro officials confirmed that the amendment — which now looks unlikely to pass — would have posed a big threat to Metro’s plans for four new lines.

[…]

Houston-area lawmakers and Metro lobbyists worked over the weekend to block the amendment.

State Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, said Tuesday that Pickett had agreed to pull his amendment, which had been attached to a bill allowing Austin’s transit agency to hire officers to catch fare evaders.

By late Tuesday, the bill still contained Pickett’s amendment, but it hadn’t been placed on the local and consent calendar — a crucial step in getting the bill to a floor vote. As a backup, the part affecting Austin was added to a separate Texas Department of Transportation measure, so if the bill fails Austin’s agency can still hire fare enforcement officers.

I reported that on Monday. SB1263 is on the Local, Consent, and Resolutions calendar for today. The bill text still has the offending amendment in it, but that likely doesn’t mean anything at this point. Still, vigilance is called for, so keep making those phone calls.

So what we had here was one dude laying a bunch of baloney on a legislator from outside Houston who didn’t know any better, and in the process nearly sinking a huge project that had been approved by the voters. I suppose the fact that it won’t happen should be a sign that the system works, but that’s pretty cold comfort. And in the irony department, a Metro Solutions News Flash that touted the Saturday days of wine and roses editorial hit my inbox yesterday afternoon, with nary a mention of Hooper’s assassination attempt. Way to communicate, guys! Though I suppose there are days when the head-in-the-sand approach has its merits. The idea is that if you do that, whatever’s bothering you will go away, right? Maybe they’re onto something after all.

Senate passes TxDOT sunset bill, red light cameras not dead yet

The Senate approved its version of HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill, and as expected it has some major differences from the House version.

Plans to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects in North Texas progressed Monday night as the Senate approved a massive transportation bill that gives counties authority to ask voters to endorse higher gas taxes or other fees.

The bill, approved 22-9, would also end the state’s authority to create privately operated and financed toll roads, though that provision could easily be changed, or even eliminated, before the bill becomes law.

A version of the bill passed this month by the House does not include the tax proposal, a fact that could spell trouble for the entire bill. The House bill would impose far more changes on the Texas Department of Transportation. The chambers will have to negotiate a compromise on the bill.

An amendment to kill red-light cameras in Texas also passed 16-15, but was later withdrawn after two senators changed their minds. The House had already voted to kill the cameras, which several Dallas-area cities use.

Matt Stiles blogged Monday morning about a possible option to let those caught by red light cameras take a defensive driving course to get out of paying the fine. It’s unclear to me if this provision is in the Senate version of the bill. The close vote on the cameras, and the fact that a couple of Senators changed their minds, suggests the possibility that the ban could be added back into the conference committee version of the bill. For now, though, they live.

The local tax provision would let counties in Texas’ five largest metropolitan areas call tax elections as soon as 2010. Voters would be asked to approve a range of new fees and taxes, possibly including a 10-cent per gallon fuel tax increase.

Peggy Fikac notes that this also includes the possibility of up to a $60 increase for vehicle registration fees and up to a $24 increase for driver licenses’ fees that could be used for transportation projects. All would have to be approved by voters.

Dallas-area planners have said their first priority for the new funds, which could total $500 million or more per year, will be to expand suburban rail lines, though legal hurdles to using all of the new funds for that purpose must still be cleared.

Sure would be nice to have some funds like that available for commuter rail here, wouldn’t it? I have a hard time seeing any ballot-proposition tax or fee increases to fund that getting passed, unfortunately.

In the Senate version of the bill, the Texas Department of Transportation would retain its current governance structure – comprising five commissioners appointed by the governor – and its authority to have the biggest say over which roads will be built and when.

The Senate bill would reduce transportation commissioners’ terms from six years to two, however.

So no elections for TxDOT commissioners. I know there were logistical issues with that, and that rural counties likely would have gotten the short end of the stick, but I still think it was a worthwhile idea to explore. Maybe some other time. For now, the next step is the real sausage-making, also known as the conference committee. They’ll need to hurry, and Lord knows nothing can go wrong when that happens. Keep an eye on this one. Postcards has more.

Terra Cotta Warriors

I got a chance to get a sneak peek of the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at HMNS last week, and it was awesome. I confess, I knew nothing about this beforehand; Tiffany, who has a vivid childhood memory of a National Geographic edition from around the time of their discovery, was much more familiar with them and was greatly excited about getting to see them. I came away very impressed, both with the exhibit itself, which was really well done, and with the idea of this imperial afterlife army, and the sheer amount of manpower it took to create. Amazing how much of what we can still experience from ancient history is a testament to ego and megalomania, isn’t it – pyramids, coliseums, etc – isn’t it? Anyway, if you’re like me and are wondering what the fuss is about, go here and get an idea, then buy some tickets and see for yourself. If you already know about them, well, just go buy the tickets. It’s totally worth it.