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November 11th, 2009:

Grits on the Whitmire/Bradley hearing

When I posted a roundup of reporting and commentary on the Senate hearing chaired by State Sen. John Whitmire to inquire with John Bradley about the status of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, Scott Henson hadn’t yet posted his thoughts. He has now done so, and it’s well worth your time to read.

Veterans Day

I just want to pause for a moment to join Bill White, Stace Medellin, and many others in honoring those who served our country in the armed forces today. A number of members of my family served in World War II, and several more served in Vietnam – my dad’s brothers Jim Kuffner and Bill Kuffner, and my father-in-law Tim Tyler, to name three. On Veteran’s Day today I salute them and thank them, and everyone who served alongside them. Texas Kaos has more.

Precinct analysis: The top 50

Martha has a nice look at the 50 precincts inside the city of Houston in which the most votes were cast, and how each of the four contenders for Mayor did in them. I’ve copied the data into this Google spreadsheet so that I could add in total and percentages. Here’s how that breaks down:

Candidate Votes Pct ======================== Parker 17,162 36.93 Morales 12,322 26.52 Brown 10,139 21.82 Locke 5,633 12.12

So in these 50 precincts, which make up about 25% of the total vote, Parker led Locke by a 3-1 margin. You have to be a little careful about drawing any broad conclusions here, since this is a heterogeneous set of precincts, in which Parker or Morales were the top votegetters in all but two, but that looks like an impressive performance to me.

Now of course, with a finite data set like this, for Parker to do better than her overall performance here she must have done not as well as her overall performance elsewhere, with the same being true in reverse for Locke. Here’s how it looks for the remaining 700+ precincts:

Candidate Votes Pct ======================== Locke 38,341 29.98 Parker 36,757 28.74 Brown 29,317 22.92 Morales 23,480 18.36

Locke edges ahead here, as Parker’s margin over him in the other precincts was larger than her total margin over him. There’s a lot more voters here than there are in the top 50, so he doesn’t have to do as well percentage-wise to move ahead. By my calculation, if you redistribute the votes in these precincts so Locke got 35% and Parker 24%, he’d have finished ahead of her. Having said that, I’d rather depend on a smaller number of big boxes than a larger number of small ones to hit my target. That just seems like the simpler task to me.

Lone Star Rail

We’ve talked a number of times in this space about the possibility of building a commuter rail line between Houston and Galveston, possibly connecting to another line that would run out Highway 290 to College Station. That effort is just now starting to gain some momentum, and could see construction begin relatively soon. Another place where that kind of rail would make a lot of sense is between Austin and San Antonio. They have had a government entity in place to make that happen since 1997, which perhaps should serve as a dash of cold water to anyone who might feel overly optimistic about a Houston-Galveston line happening. But as Ben Wear reports, there may be some progress happening there as well.

As of last month, the San Marcos-based government agency hoping someday soon to run passenger trains between Williamson County and San Antonio is now called the Lone Star Rail District. Agency officials have called a news conference for this morning to advertise that fact, and that the train line will be called the LSTAR.

Or perhaps would be called. Because a dozen years after the Legislature authorized it, the train service is still mostly a line on a map. As agency board chairman Sid Covington says, the main obstacles to creating a commuter line between Austin and San Antonio are now and always have been Union Pacific freights and money.

It’s a matter of too much of the first and not enough of the latter.

[…]

All is not smoke, however. The district, after existing on $7.7 million in congressional earmarks for several years, now has a commitment for $40 million over the next four years from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and its San Antonio counterpart. That money will be used for design and a study required for federal environmental clearance of the project. That study should begin early next year.

More from the Express News:

“Passenger rail is coming to San Antonio, Austin and the I-35 corridor,” said Tullos Wells, vice chairman of the district’s board of directors. “We’re going to make it happen.”

[…]

District officials estimate it would cost about $800 million to build a fully functional passenger system.

But the regional rail service can only be realized if Union Pacific relocates its freight trains to a proposed bypass line that would remove through-freight trains from urban centers. Officials estimate the cost of a bypass from the South Side of San Antonio to Taylor would be about $1.7 billion.

“The rail relocation is the key to it. If you don’t move the freight out, forget really having a good first-class passenger service,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Wells said he hopes the LSTAR could begin offering “preliminary service” as early as 2012 or 2013.

“Yes, it’s ambitious,” he said. “But it’s doable.”

It’s something, at least. This kind of line makes all kinds of sense – I-35 between Austin and San Antonio is woefully crowded, having New Braunfels and San Marcos in between would be a big boost to ridership, the corridor is growing rapidly – so perhaps this is a sign that something will finally happen. You can see a map with potential station locations at that link. The On the Move blog and the Austin Post have more.

State sales tax revenues plummet

No surprise here.

Sales tax and natural gas tax collections fell more than $1 billion short of projections in the 2009 fiscal year, according to a state comptroller’s report, fueling questions about the financial heartburn that may be ahead for Texas.

“I think it tells us that the economy was softer than expected (when projections were outlined) in January, and tax revenues were lower than expected … and if it weren’t for the federal stimulus money, we would have been in a lot of trouble,” said Dick Lavine, of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, who analyzed state Comptroller Susan Combs’ projected revenue for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31 and her recent annual cash report.

[…]

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he was examining the numbers but had yet to draw a conclusion.

“We’ve got some time to look at it” with the hope that the economy will begin to recover, he said. “Secondly, we’ve still got a fairly substantial rainy day fund that I’m glad we saved. The problem’s still manageable.”

That assumes that there will be the political will to spend from the rainy day fund, which you may recall requires a 60% majority in the House. What I recall is that outside of maybe some money for Hurricane Ike recovery, there was almost zero willingness to touch the rainy day fund this year. Then the stimulus package got approved and solved all our problems for this session, but I feel confident that the same reluctance to touch the fund, coupled with the desire of the Dan Patrick wing of the GOP to slash and burn, will make that an awful lot harder than Ogden glibly predicts. (Easy for him to say, too. It won’t be his problem.)

The unmentioned elephant in the room, of course, is the structural deficit we currently have thanks to the ginormous irresponsible property tax cut from the 2006 special session. Even if the Lege agrees to drain the rainy day fund to keep things afloat in 2011, we’ll face the exact same problem in 2013. Maybe it won’t be as severe if the economy has really recovered, but I wouldn’t count on it as tax revenues tend to lag behind. The point is that we don’t have the money to pay for that tax cut. The business margins tax and the increased cigarette tax don’t come close to covering the revenue lost to that property tax cut. We’ve paid for it with general revenues twice. What are we going to do in 2011 and beyond? That’s the question that needs to be asked.

New digs for Central City Co-Op

Central City Co-Op, Houston’s premier organic produce co-op, has moved to a new location in Montrose.

Central City Co-op moved this week to Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, where the growing organic market’s members have renovated a space for their own use.

The church, 2515 Waugh Drive, was an ideal partner for the 8-year-old co-op, which previously held its weekly Wednesday market at Ecclesia Church, 2115 Taft St. The group also manages a Sunday market at Discovery Green.

“We realized as recently as a year and a half ago that we were outgrowing the space,” co-op board chairwoman Tiffany Tyler said of the Taft Street location. “When farmer deliveries happened on Tuesday nights last spring, we would pack that store room and it would literally be packed floor to ceiling with produce.”

The co-op got its start on a front porch as a way for friends to share the cost of organic foods. Every move since, Tyler said, has doubled the market’s business. More than 200 member families now pay the $48 annual fee, she said, and many others buy $1 passes to shop on market days. The group gets its produce from eight organic farms and from Country Fresh Inc., the same organic supplier used by local groceries.

Tiffany, for those of you who may not know, is my wife. You can find the new location for the Wednesday market here. Come check it out, you’ll be glad you did.

Texas blog roundup for the week of November 9

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes everyone had a happy Election Day last week, and is already looking forward to the next one. Click on for this week’s highlights.

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