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May 8th, 2009:

Friday random ten: Now with more randomness

Back to the well we go with ten more songs taken from the Every Song I’ve Got In iTunes pile.

1. The Boxer – Simon and Garfunkel
2. Guinness Dog – The Rogues
3. Take The “A” Train – Joe Henderson
4. Warmer Place to Sleep – John Mellencamp
5. Cakewalk – Asylum Street Spankers
6. Free as a Bird – The Beatles
7. The Mountain – Heartless Bastards
8. Cotton Club Stomp #1 – from the soundtrack to “The Cotton Club”
9. 11 Easy Steps – Trout Fishing in America
10. Come On (Part III) – Stevie Ray Vaughan

That’s “Free as a Bird”, not Freebird, which I think would have required a time machine to have been performed by the Fab Four. Which would have been awesome, but I’ll leave it to the philosophers to debate. What are you listening to this week?

Smith caves in to the Browns

No surprise, really.

Rep. Todd Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Elections, confirmed today he’s intending to have the committee vote Monday on a voter ID plan.

The twist: Smith is backing off his attempts to rewrite the plan.

Bowing to a request from two GOP colleagues, Smith simply intends to seek the committee’s approval of the Senate-approved version of Senate Bill 362.

Presuming the five Republicans on the committee stick together, this means that barring unforeseen hang-ups, a clean version of the Senate plan will ultimately be taken up on the House floor.

The colleagues, Reps. Betty Brown of Terrell and Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, had resisted Smith’s attempts to rewrite the Senate bill.

Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned. If there are any unforeseen hang-ups, the bill is dead, since Monday is the deadline for passing bills out of House committees. Which doesn’t mean it couldn’t be inserted as an amendment somewhere, of course, so even if it dies one way or another – has anyone talked to Reps. Tommy Merritt or Delwin Jones lately? – it’s not truly dead until sine die and the threat of a special session passes.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, the Monday deadline is for House bills, so SB362 would be exempt from that. So I daresay the best hope is for it to not pass on the House floor.

Sunsetting TxDOT

Yesterday was Day One of the debate over HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill. The Lege is on Day Two now, and if you look at all the amendments they’ve gone through, you can see why this is taking so long. Some massive changes have been proposed and adopted, staring with this.

The first amendment to the bill, authored by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon and amended by Rep. David Leibowitz, makes an even bigger change than the base bill proposed, completely transforming TxDOT’s leadership structure.

Under current law, there are five TxDOT commissioners, all appointed by the governor. The base bill proposed maintaining five commissioners, allowing the governor to appoint three and allowing the lt. gov. and the speaker to appoint one each. And McClendon’s amendment would have replaced the five appointed commissioners with one elected commissioner.

She said she wanted to “restore public trust” to TxDOT by allowing the public to choose its commissioner.

Enter Leibowitiz, whose amendment to the McClendon amendment made an even more radical proposal. Rather than have a single elected commissioner, his amendment provided for the election of 14 regional commissioners and one commission chair elected at large.

Leibowitz said he didn’t think it was a perfect proposal (they’ll have time to tweak it later, since the bill is on second reading), but said it was “a step in the right direction.”

I like the idea and think it would have the potential to make TxDOT more responsive to localities than it has been. That’s the hope, anyway. It was adopted, as was a subsequent amendment aimed at red light cameras.

The Texas House late last night voted to strip cities of control over their red-light camera programs, granting the jurisdiction to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The change came in the form of an amendment, offered by state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, that moved authority over the cameras’ specifications, operations and maintenance to the transportation agency as part of its overall sunset bill.

An amendment to that measure, which was opposed by the city of Houston, also bans the installation of any new red-light cameras statewide after June 1.

Elkins told members that his amendment wouldn’t affect any current camera systems (the city has 70), but rather just allow the agency to craft one set of rules statewide.

“When you go from one city or the next, you don’t know if you’re in compliance,” he said. “The state needs to establish the policy.”

Presumably there’s a lot more to come. An overview of the base bill, pre-amendments, is here on the DMN’s Transportation blog, which has several other entries of interest as well. EoW and McBlogger have more.

UPDATE: HB300 passes to engrossment.

The House tentatively approved a Texas Department of Transportation “sunset” bill in a non-recorded voice vote. The proposal also calls for the election of 14 regional commissioners.

Currently the governor appoints a five-member transportation commission, so the House move limits Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s power over an agency that’s widely criticized as dysfunctional. The bill still must have another House vote before moving to the Senate.

The sweeping TxDOT overhaul vote came in response to a scathing state sunset report that called for a revamp of the department’s governing board and its dealings with lawmakers and the public.

The bill by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, removes some duties from the agency, including driver’s license oversight. It also would establish a legislative oversight committee, made up of six members, to study and make recommendations for the operation and needs of the state transportation system.

“No longer will the public be in the dark about construction projects in their own towns,” Isett said as he introduced the legislation. “No longer will the public trust be disregarded.”

One amendment attached to the bill would prohibit the state or local governments from adding automated cameras at intersections to catch traffic violations. Contracts for current red light cameras also could not be renewed once the bill becomes effective.

Lawmakers also added a provision that would require contractors for road construction projects to pay damages to businesses that have been adversely affected by project delays.

Obviously, there can still be changes made, and the Senate still needs to take action. More here, here, and here.

UPDATE: The AP story linked to in the first update contains a line that says the bill “removes some duties from [TxDOT], including driver’s license oversight”. That isn’t entirely accurate. I received an email from the office of State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who was on the Sunset committee for TxDOT, which gave the following clarification:

TxDOT now has no oversight of driver licenses, although in many states the Department of Motor Vehicles does administer that function. The driver license functions are housed at the DPS, and the TxDOT Sunset Bill would not make any change in that regard, at least not this Session. The changes coming about in regard to the new DMV concern the permitting and titling of motor vehicles, salvage vehicles, the Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, and similar related matters. Those divisions would move over from TxDOT and become part of the DMV, in order to house the administrative functions in an agency dealing directly with the public, private and commercial vehicle owners included. That would leave TxDOT in a better position to concentrate on infrastructure planning, design, maintenance and construction.

My thanks to Rep. McClendon for the information.

Poker bill coming to a vote

HB222, the bill that would legalize poker rooms, is on the House calendar for today, so barring a point of order or some other complication it will get a floor vote. It hadn’t looked too good for the bill’s prospects last week, so this is a turnaround. That may be because, as its author Rep. Jose Menendez said, that it was “ratcheted back” to limit poker to racetracks and Indian casinos, in the event they get legalized. I can’t quite tell from the bill’s text if that’s the case. In any event, I know about this addition to the calendar because of an email alert I received from Texans Against Gambling, which included a statement of their opposition to HB222. I have also solicited and received a response to TAG’s statement from Mike Lavigne on behalf of the Poker Players Alliance. Both are reproduced beneath the fold for your perusal. I appreciate TAG’s position, but I still support HB222. We’ll see if the House does as well.

UPDATE: And it’s off the calendar and possibly officially dead for the session as Rep. Menendez postpones it to seek an assurance from Gov. Perry not to veto it.


Projecting District H

The final early vote tallies are in, and thanks to relatively busy days on Monday and Tuesday, a total of 1870 ballots have been cast by mail or in person as of the end of early voting on Tuesday. That’s slightly higher than I thought, though I now realize I had an error in my previous computations – there had been 1321 votes cast through the weekend, not 1221. I’d have probably bumped my guess for a final total to 1800 had I realized that, so I wasn’t off by that much.

Be that as it may, I’m wondering if my initial projection of 2656 votes is even farther off. I based that on District H’s share of the vote in 2008, and the turnout for the May 2007 special election for At Large #3. Looking at the cumulative report from the November 2007 general election, I note that the early vote share in the Mayoral race was about 30%, and for District H it was 24%. In fact, the early vote total in District H in 2007 was only 2399 when undervotes are factored in, and the final number of ballots cast was 10,018. If the early vote share in this race is the same as the early vote share was in November of 2007, we’ll wind up with 7809 ballots in all. That’s a very different picture.

Personally, I think the early voting pattern that was established in 2008, when a much larger share of the votes were cast before Election Day – about 44% in March, over 60% in November – will continue to some extent in this race. I don’t think it’s be that high, but I think it will be higher than the 25-30% we saw in 2007. Richard Murray, who suggests that Maverick Welsh has an exellent shot at making the runoff, estimates turnout to be “five or six percent”, which would be between 4523 and 5428 out of 90,473 registered voters. That would make the early vote share in the 35-40% range. I think that’s pretty reasonable given all this, so I’m going to make my new guess for what the final turnout will be 4500 to 5000. What do you think?

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that polling locations for tomorrow’s election can be found here. If you’re not sure what precinct you’re in, go here to find out. Polls will be open 7 AM to 7 PM, so you will have plenty of time to vote and go to the Art Car Parade.

Garcia’s plan to fix the jails

Sheriff Adrian Garcia is off to Austin to explain how he’s going to fix problems with the Harris County jails.

Garcia, who took office in January, inherited a massive downtown detention system under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and under scrutiny for its overcrowding, as well as poor sanitation and access to medical treatment. Last month, the jail, which houses more than 10,000 prisoners in four buildings, added to its troubles with a failed state inspection.

It was the fourth time in six years the jail failed to meet state standards.

Inspectors with the state Commission on Jail Standards found problems that posed “life safety issues” to inmates. They cited broken intercoms, which could keep inmates from communicating with deputies in an emergency, unusable toilets and overcrowded holding cells.

Today, Garcia will detail for the jail commission plans to fix the facilities, including the repair of existing intercoms while the county installs a $5.3 million security and communications system that will replace the intercoms, a contract for which Commissioners Court approved Tuesday. Garcia also will outline a plan to better track maintenance requests while the Sheriff’s Department negotiates with another county department to assume more responsibility for upkeep of the jail.

“We found that we did have a large backlog of work orders over the last few months leading up to the inspection,” said Keir Murray, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

The county’s facilities and property management department oversees the contractors who maintain county buildings, an arrangement Garcia argues has stalled repairs. The Sheriff’s Office hopes to take over responsibility for jail maintenance but will try to track work orders in the meantime.

Stuff like this is a big part of the reason why Garcia was elected by such a large majority last fall. He’ll be judged by how well he does cleaning up this mess he inherited. (Getting rid of the bad actors is another key component of that.) I have no doubt he’ll be worlds better than his predecessor, but there’s a lot that needs to be done. I wish him the best of luck in doing so.

Having said that, I disagree with him about this.

Persistent problems at the Harris County Jail will cease only with the construction of a new facility, Sheriff Adrian Garcia said Thursday after negotiating with state officials to keep the downtown lockup running despite its failure of a recent inspection.


Garcia outlined short-term fixes but stressed that construction of a new building for a detention system that already holds more than 10,000 people will be inevitable. Two years ago, before Garcia took office, voters narrowly rejected a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail.

“Today is an indication of how pressing the need is,” Garcia said. “We are going to have to have a conversation about the future and make sure we don’t propose a jail that doesn’t meet the needs of the county.”

Garcia said he is open to all options for meeting demands, whether they come in the form of a downtown jail or another facility. He did not have a timeline for taking a proposal before the Commissioner’s Court or voters but said he was confident such a plan will get support.

Court members said they were open to discussions about a new jail, but only in conjunction with broader attempts to reduce the inmate population through pre-trial diversion and modified bonding policies.

“There are so many factors involved when you look at jail overcrowding that sometimes it is just too simple to say we need a new jail,” Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said.

The court has said it will not pursue a downtown jail plan unless voters approve the measure.

As you know, I agree with Commissioner Garcia on this. While I could be persuaded that we need a new building to replace the current facility because it is in such bad shape that it’s not cost-effective to repair it, I do not support adding more jail space until we’ve dealt with the overcrowding problems we have now.

Now, Sheriff Garcia told me in the first interview I did with him that he voted for that failed jail bond referendum in 2007, so his position is not a surprise. Fixing the overcrowding issue is something that will take cooperation from the judiciary and the District Attorney’s office, and we saw back in January that steps were being taken in that direction, which is very encouraging. I believe Sheriff Garcia will do the right thing, but I want to see concrete evidence of progress before I’m willing to talk about new jail construction. As with many of the issues bequeathed to him by Tommy Thomas, this can’t wait.

Is there a Medicaid issue or not?

Earlier this week, Sen. Steve Ogden and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made the claim that Medicaid would require another $1 billion from the budget, and that this would constrain the budget reconciliation committee as it tries to fund everything that’s been appropriated. I thought that sounded ominous, but to others it sounds overblown.

[P]owerful lawmakers usually low-ball what Medicaid will cost to help them balance the budget. But now, they are “high-balling,” or maybe we should say “true-balling” them? What gives?

Normally, after knowingly putting into the budget too little money for Medicaid, lawmakers then come back the next session and pass a stopgap spending bill. It plugs holes in the soon-to-be-history two year budget, with Medicaid the biggest shortfall, usually. Because Medicaid is an entitlement, recipients get seen and their medical bills get paid.

But this session, [the Legislative Budget Board] has suddenly upped its projections so that they actually exceed the commission’s for two of the next three years. How unusual.

I asked [former state Medicaid program official Anne Dunkelberg] if she thought Senate GOP leaders are trying to discourage passage of any more bills that would authorize more spending, in areas such as children’s health care or expanded pre-kindergarten instruction.

Her response:

“After 20-plus years of tracking Texas Medicaid budgets, it is hard not to be a little sceptical when there is such a noticeable change in assumptions. For the last decade or more, when major assumptions have changed mid-session, it has always been to lower the Medicaid budget total, so you really take notice when they take it in the other direction. The HHSC agency folks think this is just the LBB coming to their senses about the true cost of the program, but a darker interpretation could certainly be that there is a desire to slow the momentum behind the movement to provide more uninsured kids health care and expand acces to pre-K.

The timing of that is interesting, given that the Senate just approved a buy-in program for CHIP that would provide health care to more uninsured kids. Patricia Kilday Hart says “Senate leaders are choosing to lock up as much money as possible in paying for entitlements. The practical effect is this will make funding of discretionary programs more difficult.”, to which Burka adds that this is a “created crisis” that is potentially a large point of contention between the House and the Senate negotiators. Clearly, we need to keep an eye on this.

Roger that

So about two weeks ago I got an email from a gentleman named David Smith, who is the proprietor of a website called Texans for Staubach, as well as the treasurer of a PAC by the same name, whose purpose is:

-To oppose the re-election of Governor Rick Perry
-To oppose the election of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to the office of Governor
-To promote the candidacy of Roger Staubach for the Office of the Governor of the State of Texas

I had a brief email correspondence with Smith about this, and told him that while I’m on board with the first two planks in that platform, I’ll be supporting a Democratic candidate next November. I have a lot of respect for Roger Staubach, even as a Giants fan, but unless he’s about to do a Arlen Specter, I don’t foresee voting for him in the event he heeds this call. Nonetheless, I said I’d give this a mention, and so here we are. I don’t expect anything to come of this – besides Rick and Kay, the GOP primary has at least two other potential candidates; I don’t see how there’s the room, or the finances, for a Staubach bid – but there you have it.

UPDATE: Turns out The Rog is a KBH supporter.