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November, 2010:

Stipeche wins HISD Trustee runoff

From School Zone:

Juliet Stipeche has won the Houston ISD District VIII school board runoff election by 48 votes, according to the unofficial results. Stipeche, an attorney, beat Judith Cruz, a stay-at-home mom and former HISD teacher, with 51 percent of the vote. The total number of votes cast was 2,032, compared with nearly 15,000 cast in the Nov. 2 general election.

The numbers are here – Stipeche won 1040 votes to Cruz’s 992. Cruz led in early voting, but Stipeche caught up and passed her with 53 of the 57 precincts reporting. Congratulations to Juliet Stipeche, HISD’s newest Trustee.

Runoff Day in HISD VIII

Today is the day of the runoff election for HISD Trustee in District VIII between Judith Cruz and Juliet Stipeche. According to School Zone, only about 1000 votes were cast during early voting, so if you live in this district, your vote really matters. See here for a map of the district, here for a list of residential addresses in the district, and here for a list of polling places, all of which will be open from 7 AM till 7 PM. Finally, you can listen to an interview I did before the November election with Cruz here and with Stipeche here. Now go vote!

State auditor to look at Emerging Technology Fund

State Auditor John Keel will perform an audit on the state’s Emerging Technology Fund to see if the money is being used and distributed properly.

State Auditor John Keel said Wednesday that his office will review the monitoring of the funds, compliance of the companies and universities receiving the taxpayer money, and internal controls over awards.

“It is a significant amount of money. The state has a lot invested in this and in the outcomes,” Keel said.

Most of the decision-making behind the technology fund’s awards, as well as the names of investors in chosen companies, has been shrouded in secrecy.


Keel said Wednesday that his office will start an audit Dec. 1, and he hopes to have it completed by June.

“There’s been a lot of focus and attention on this in the press; all of those things brought us to the conclusion that we need to initiate an audit of the Emerging Technology Fund,” Keel said.

The fund has not been independently evaluated since its inception. The law creating the fund did not provide for audits, but Keel has broad discretion to evaluate state government programs.

Reports of the state auditor are public and outline weaknesses and failures of state programs in adhering to state law or accountability standards. Lawmakers study the results closely as they shape legislation and decide how much money to allocate to programs.

In a memo dated Tuesday and sent to key lawmakers who serve on the state audit committee, Keel said the audit will determine whether the governor’s office disperses the technology fund grants in accordance with the law, monitors recipients “to help ensure that they comply with terms of the grant,” and determine whether the companies and the governor’s office “have controls to help ensure accountability for the use” of the funds.

What do you suppose are the odds of that? It sure would have been nice for all of this to have been done six months ago, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. See various posts here for some background.

More on Houston’s sustainability efforts

This Trib story about Houston Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian and her efforts to make our fair city a greener place, which also appeared in the Sunday New York Times, can be considered a companion piece to the earlier CultureMap story about her. Since it was in the Times, it’s geared towards a national audience:

The nation’s fourth-largest city, the sprawling capital of the oil industry, has recently embarked on a variety of green initiatives in an effort to keep up with the times and, it hopes, save money.

The local-food craze is the most visible of these efforts, with the opening of the weekly farmers market in October and the planting of nearby Michelle Obama-style vegetable gardens tended by city hall staff members. But Houston is also transforming itself into an electric-car hub, a national leader in wind-power investment and an advocate for energy efficiency.

“It’s a city rethinking what it needs to be successful,” says Stephen Klineberg, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

In recent decades, Klineberg says, as Houston’s economy has diversified beyond oil, the city has realized that it needs to pay attention to quality-of-life issues if it wants to attract talented people.

“Our problem,” he says, “is that people who don’t live in Houston say, ‘Yuck, why would you want to live in Houston?’”

I’m a fan of the goals here, but I don’t know how much effect Spanjian’s efforts can have on the problem Klineberg identifies. Can’t hurt, but it’s my opinion that the best antidote Houston has to this is good word of mouth from those of us who do live here, and especially those of us who move here.

Being on the cutting edge of green technology will help, too.

Perhaps Houston’s most publicized initiative involves electric cars. Starting early next year, the city — which already has plenty of hybrids among its fleet — will become among the first recipients of Nissan’s all-electric Leaf. The city government is expecting to buy 30 of the cars next year with financial help from the federal government. Earlier this month, the electric company NRG Energy rolled out an initiative to put in 50 public charging stations around the city by mid-2011.

Of course, electric cars will do nothing to ease Houston’s infamous traffic and sprawl.

“If you’re going to be a car city, you might as well acknowledge that and help people get into cars that don’t pollute as much,” Parker says.

The city is also considering California-style incentives that would allow electric cars into the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes or reduce their tolls. The city also wants more light-rail lines.

The article doesn’t go into any detail about that last sentence, which at this point is just as well. As far as the electric cars goes, I’m hopeful. I’m also curious if anyone will be tracking electric car ownership in Houston going forward, to see if there are more of them per capita than in cities that don’t have any charging amenities. Seems like something you’d want to do. Anyway, it’s a good story, so check it out.

Dynamo Stadium on the agenda

The Sports Authority will meet this week to try to hammer out a lease agreement for the Houston Dynamo in their future stadium.

The Sports Authority will meet Dec. 2, but it won’t meet again until February, which is partly why the lease topic was placed on the agenda.

[Sports Authority Chair Kenny] Friedman said the lease was put on the agenda to give the Sports Authority a chance to vote on it if all the issues are resolved in the negotiations between the Sports Authority and the Dynamo.

I figure it’ll happen in time for the meeting. Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind.

Texas blog roundup for the week of November 29

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes you got your recommended allowance of tryptophan last week as it brings you the blog highlights.


RIP, Leslie Nielsen

As Mel Brooks said when his friend Harvey Korman passed away, the world is a more serious place today.

Leslie Nielsen, the actor best known for starring in such comedies as Airplane! and the Naked Gun film franchise, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia at a hospital near his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He was 84.

“We are sadden by the passing of beloved actor Leslie Nielsen, probably best remembered as Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun series of pictures, but who enjoyed a more than 60-year career in motion pictures and television,” said a statement from Nielsen’s family released through his rep.

Nielsen was born Feb. 11, 1926, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. His acting career spanned several decades, starting in the 1950s with episodes of series including The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse and Tales of Tomorrow and encompassing several genres. But he became known in later years for his deadpan delivery in comedies featuring absurd situations, including 1980s’s Airplane!, a parody of Zero! Hour, Airport and other movies about flying.

Airplane! is, of course, one of the greatest movies ever made. The Naked Gun was sheer genius, too. Here are the opening credits to its first show, for those of you who never had the pleasure:

It goes on like that – if you’ve seen Airplane!, you’re familiar with the idea. Don’t care how many times I’ve seen it, it still makes me laugh. For more on Nielsen’s long and distinguished career, see Roger Ebert and Mark Evanier. Rest in peace, Leslie Nielsen.

Because that’s who he is

Before Thanksgiving, Ezra Klein asked “Why does Gov. Rick Perry want more uninsured Texans?”

Consider the case of Texas, which with 25 percent uninsured, leads the nation in not providing for its residents. If the state pulls out of Medicaid, as Gov. Rick Perry (R) is suggesting, that would put it at 40 percent uninsured, as Medicaid covers 15 percent of the state. Texas might try some other form of coverage, but it will have lost hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding. You can occasionally do less with more, but when you have a lot less, you generally just do less. Whatever the state tried next would cover fewer people with less-comprehensive insurance, and it’s a safe bet that the rate of uninsured would ultimately settle above 30 percent. Some legacy.

Conversely, if Perry does nothing, the federal government is going to come in and pick up most of the cost of a massive coverage expansion. Texas, in fact, will be one of the biggest winners from health-care reform, as its huge pool of uninsured residents means the state will get an uncommonly large amount of subsidies to bring that down to manageable levels. Texas “can expect to see Medicaid enrollment rise by 46 percent while state spending on Medicaid rises by about 3 percent.” Pretty good deal.


There is nothing that states can do that would cover residents at a lower cost to their budgets than simply letting the new health-care law take effect. Any governor that is even vaguely interested in covering the uninsured should be celebrating the federal government’s willingness to pick up 96 percent of the tab. Of course, as these trial balloons over Medicaid show, plenty of governors don’t care about that at all. You’d think Perry, who runs a state where one out of four residents don’t have health insurance, would be obsessed with figuring out ways to cover more Texans. Instead, he’s leading the way in concocting schemes to cover fewer of them.

There are several factors that need to be considered here. One is Texas’ huge budget shortfall, for which the only allowable solution will be budget cuts. Simple accounting for those with that mindset notes that Texas spends about $17 billion per biennium on Medicaid, which amounts to somewhere between two thirds and four fifths of the deficit, so if we just simply stopped funding Medicaid, we’d have an almost-balanced budget. Yes, I know, it’s way more complicated than that, but that’s where this is coming from. Second is Perry’s newfound jihad against the federal government, which conveniently coincides with a Democrat being in the White House. Whatever else you make of this, you can’t separate these two things from the whole.

But even without these factors, we should not forget that at no time during his ten years in office has Rick Perry ever done anything to substantially expand health care coverage in Texas. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 2003, Texas threw 300,000 kids off CHIP, and only some of those who lost coverage were able to regain it in subsequent legislative sessions. Texas’ Republican leadership, including Perry, has repeatedly opposed simple things like changing from a six-month re-enrollment period for CHIP and Medicaid to a 12-month period, thus ensuring that a significant portion of eligible recipients lose coverage due to failure to re-enroll in a timely fashion. Even more basic than that, I can’t think of a single program that Perry has introduced or touted that would have attempted to deal with the huge number of uninsured residents we have. Other Republican Governors, like Mitch Daniels and Mitt Romney, have gotten legislation passed in their states, and whether you agree with what they’ve done or not they at least made an attempt to tackle their states’ problems in a way that’s consistent with their stated principles. Perry has done nothing. I can’t help but think that a big part of the reason why he and his cronies are so ferociously opposed to the Affordable Care Act is precisely because it so clearly shows the extent of their failure to do anything about this. After ten years of Rick Perry and eight years of a Republican legislature and mostly the same state leadership, I can only conclude that they genuinely don’t care about making health care accessible for the uninsured. It’s just not on their radar, and so it’s just another line item in the budget that they’d like to target for cuts so they can keep giving Dan Patrick property tax cuts. It’s who they are, it’s what they do, and we should not be surprised by it.

UPDATE: I refer you to Peggy Fikac:

Some Republicans who talk about Texas potentially opting out of Medicaid are quick to say the changes wouldn’t throw people out on the street — but not House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts.

Pitts didn’t advocate the change in health care for the poor at a meeting of the Ellis County Tea Party, just noted that it will be discussed by lawmakers.

But unlike others who have painted a rosy picture of a potential health-care restructuring without filling in the details, Pitts gave a stark answer when an audience member asked about an ill friend who is on Medicaid.

The questioner reacted with concern when Pitts said the state is looking at getting out of the program. What will my friend do then? Will you throw him out in the street?

“If we did exactly what we’re doing today, we wouldn’t be throwing him out in the street. But if we have any savings in getting out of Medicaid, we will have to throw some people out in the street,” said Pitts, R-Waxahachie. He noted, “I’m not telling you that your friend would be.”

But he probably would be. Aren’t you glad you voted for that?

Off to the appeals courts for DeLay

Whatever sentence awaits Tom DeLay – I strongly suspect it will be probation, but you never know – it will be a long time, if ever, before he begins serving it.

DeLay’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, expressed confidence on Friday the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Austin will rule in his favor because it has in the past. Add to that a varied assortment of available arguments, and DeGuerin and law experts say they’re convinced this is only the start of what will become a precedent-setting case.

“This is the first and only time that a prosecution like this has ever taken place in Texas. It’s totally unprecedented, and we believe we’re right,” DeGuerin said.

Yes, the Third Court of Appeals has distinguished itself in a bad way throughout this case. I totally understand Team DeLay’s glee at the prospect of taking their chances with them.

Some legal experts argue that such unprecedented cases immediately raise the interest of the appellate courts. Others, however, note that Texas’ conservative, largely Republican appellate courts do not have a strong record of siding with defendants.

“Statistically, he is going to be fighting an uphill battle,” said Philip H. Hilder, a former prosecutor who is now a Houston-based criminal attorney concentrating on white-collar cases.

The courts could see it as a “partisan fight” though, Hilder said.

“Then the courts are of his political persuasion,” he added. “But still, they would have to rely on precedent and they will have to really do back flips to do any favor to him.”


The appellate court in Austin has previously ruled in DeLay’s favor – striking down the first indictment and parts of the second, an indication the court thinks DeLay had a valid argument, DeGuerin said. So while the criminal court of appeals overturned that decision saying the issues first had to be brought to trial, DeGuerin says the court’s previous ruling paved the way for support now that the trial is over.

“There was no crime. There was no crime,” DeGuerin insisted, explaining the legal argument he will make. “It was not criminal for there to be a money swap – that is for lawful money, collected from corporations for the national Republican party, and for the Republican Party to send money collected from individuals to the Texas Republican Party. That was not unlawful.”

Barry Pollack, a Washington-based white-collar criminal defense attorney, agreed this is the best argument, even though it didn’t convince the jury. Money collected by the national party is segregated between corporate contributions and individual donations, then redistributed to Texas candidates from the pot of money donated by individuals, Pollack explained.

“Typically, in money laundering, you can trace the laundered money directly back to the illicit money. Here, you can’t. What they’ve done is they’ve used different moneys,” Pollack said. “The way the government looks at that is that it’s very effective money laundering because you’ve managed to make it into a different set of money, but what you’ve done in effect, is complied with the law.”

The one thing I know is that DeLay won’t be shy about making partisan arguments to the Republican judges on the appeals court. They’ve already shown their willingness to do those back flips for him, so why not try it again? PDiddie has more.


When the UT TV network was created, I wondered just how the heck one school could fill out its programming schedule. Turns out there’s a lot of potential content available thanks to UT’s historic ties to high school athletics.

“We’re the only one left,” [Dr. Charles Breithaupt, executive director of the University Interscholastic League] said of the UIL, which was founded in 1909 and, under state law, is part of UT-Austin.

Earlier this year, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association became independent of the University of North Carolina.

Through the UIL, Texas typically has more students competing in athletics than any other state. According to figures compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations, in the 2009-10 school year Texas had 780,000 boys and girls competing in high school athletics while California had 771,000. No other state had as many as 400,000 participants.

The UIL also runs academic and music competitions for its member schools.

Breithaupt said the UIL has a contract with Fox Sports to televise UIL football, basketball and baseball championships, but the deal is only for the championship games in those sports. He said playoff games could be available to the Longhorn network as well as regular-season games. The UIL has a long-standing ban on televising football games on Friday night, out of concerns that the telecasts could hurt local ticket sales. However, that leaves Thursday and Saturday games available for TV, and Breithaupt said more schools will probably warm to the idea of playing on those nights if it means television exposure.

I did not know that about the UIL. Can’t say I’m a big fan of high school sports, but there are plenty of ’em out there, so this idea sure makes sense.

We’re #1 in misleading rankings on annoying lists

So what else is new?

Mayor Annise Parker lashed out at an controversial annual study released Monday that placed Houston among the most dangerous cities in the United States with a population of 500,000 or higher.

“Crime Rankings 2010-2011,” published by CQ Press, ranks Houston’s crime as ninth-highest for big cities nationwide, placing it on a list with the likes of Detroit and Columbus, Ohio., although the city has less than half the crimes per capita of those atop the rankings. Violent crime in Houston fell 8 percent during the first half of this year and was on a pace to reach the lowest rate since 2000, records show.

Parker said the data released by CQ Press are flawed because the publisher allows different cities to avoid counting certain crimes. New York does not count any robberies of property less than $1,000, she said, and Chicago frequently is not included in the list because it does not follow the standards requested by the FBI, which compiles the statistics.

“Everybody likes to do rankings of cities, and when we like the results of the rankings, we put them on our websites and when we don’t like the results, we critique them,” Parker said. “It can create a false sense of security or an impression that a particular city has a bad crime situation, and it can have real consequences in terms of economic impact on that city.”

Hey, at least they didn’t say that we’re number one on the list of Cities With The Fattest Criminals. I don’t see any reason to take this sort of thing any more seriously than that.

Weekend link dump for November 28

The leftovers are always the best part…

Got computer problems? Read this, because they’re not always what you think they are.

It’s always best to get your excuses prepared beforehand.

Texas hasn’t grown any faster than California. Someone should tell Rick Perry. To be fair, it’s not fully clear what it all means.

A salute to Sid and Marty Krofft.

What Warren says.

It’s not easy being a dog.

When public officials and the media troglodytes that enable them can lie with impunity, it’s bad for society.

Let the “states rights” concept be used for comething potentially beneficial for a change.

No Democrat should even think about voting for this travesty. Any Democrat that does should be primaried.

Hard to believe that Farmers Branch could become any more hateful, but there you have it.

TSA enhanced patdowns from the patters’ point of view.

Motor Trend smacks around Rush Limbaugh.

What Barney Frank says.

A TSA anti-rant.

Rebooting Buffy without Joss strikes me as a bad idea, and a potential nerdpocalypse.

Yes, having to placate the fanatics makes it hard to get anything worthwhile done.

Please follow your principles on this, newly elected Republicans.

“Then they came for my junk”

“Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell finger tolls,
It tolls for thee.”

You can’t get one of these at Wal-Mart. At least, I don’t think you can.

How high the moon, how far the stars.

Read Salon’s Hack 30 and finally let go of the notion that life is a meritocracy.

Yes, but can she see Pyongyang from her house?

Saying Thanksgiving grace the science fiction way.

Remember Wendell Potter? He’s now a Daily Kos member.

Three cheers for paid sick days.

Don’t mess with Nicola Briggs.

“Dancing With The Stars” needs electoral reform.

The Grand Parkway takes another inevitable step forward

No money to fix traffic lights, but there’s always money for the Grand Parkway.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized the Harris County Toll Road Authority to negotiate with the Texas Department of Transportation over the development of three Grand Parkway segments inside Harris County with a total length of more than 40 miles. Segment E, which would run roughly from Interstate 10 to U.S. 290, is next up for construction.

State legislation gives Harris County two years after it receives federal permits to start building. It has not yet received those permits, but the county won a lawsuit that challenged the project on environmental grounds.

“If we come to an agreement, then Harris County will build it, then we’ll start as soon as possible, perhaps next year,” County Judge Ed Emmett. “If for some reason we can’t come to an agreement, then it’s TxDOT’s highway again, but I think an agreement can be reached.”

Yes, I know, it’s not a straight up trade of traffic signals for speculative toll roads in the middle of nowhere, but it’s instructive nonetheless. The problem many people have with the Grand Parkway is that it’s being built to address the perceived future traffic needs of people who will eventually move to this currently empty part of the county. The reason these people are projected to live there some day is, of course, because of this big honking road that’s going to be built first. It’s all very neat. Point being, Commissioners Court has for a long time now been committed to addressing the future needs of these future residents, even as the present day needs of people who are already here are being sacrificed. It’s a matter of priorities, and as far as the Grand Parkway is concerned those priorities have always been warped.

Time for the annual “Someone said something stupid about the BCS” kerfuffle

I was going to write something about Ohio State President Gordon Gee and his obnoxious remarks about Boise State, TCU, and the BCS, but Mean Green Cougar Red covered all the of the ground that I would have, so I’ll just point you to him. I have two rooting interests in college football: The Rice Owls, and anything that causes BCS-related chaos. Someday, I hope to simplify this. I mean, I was forced to root for Alabama on Friday. Do you know what kind of a stain rooting for a Nick Saban team leaves on your soul? The fact that Boise State took itself out of the “national championship” debate this weekend doesn’t change the basic calculus of the situation. Sooner or later, something’s got to give, and it would be nice if the needlessly privileged like Gordon Gee began to grasp that reality.

An early peek at the Sugar Land baseball stadium

From the city’s web page:

Sugar Land recently began the process to select a final design-build contractor for the construction of a minor league baseball stadium northeast of State Highway 6 and U.S. Highway 90A. A final decision is expected in late January.

Architectural renderings have been prepared and are available above in the “On Deck” box. Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2011 to have the stadium ready for opening day in April 2012.

Sugar Land City Council approved on Oct. 5 Lease and Development Agreements with Opening Day Partners, LLC to bring professional minor league baseball to Sugar Land. ODP — an experienced community-focused operator that emphasizes year-round community events and activities at their stadiums — will own and operate Sugar Land’s baseball team. ODP will be the owner of an Atlantic League expansion team in Sugar Land.

Click over to see the pictures, or if you need a little snarky commentary thrown in, visit Swamplot.

Saturday video break: Won’t I get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?

President Bartlett, doing his Constitutional duty:

There’s also the classic Butterball hotline sequence if you want more. Happy Saturday!

From the “What Greg said” department

Among the things I’m thankful for at this time of year is that Greg is back to blogging. In particular, I’m grateful that he said what needed to be said about Bill King’s ridiculous column that advised Democrats to lay down and roll over on voter ID, thus saving me the effort. I would not change a word of what Greg wrote, so go read it. I will just add three things:

1. I am fully aware that Democrats are going to lose on voter ID this time around. They don’t have the numbers to stop it now that the Senate has switched to a “two thirds rule when it doesn’t inconvenience us” tradition. Frankly, the fact that they are now basically helpless to stop this legislation is all the more reason to not concede on it. The Republicans don’t need to negotiate with them to pass exactly what they want. There was an argument to be made in 2009 that there was a tactical advantage to finding some reasonably palatable compromise measure that traded voter ID for something like less restrictive voter registration. That argument was based on Democrats having some leverage. They have none now, so there’s nothing to negotiate about. There is absolutely no reason to back away from the principle that voting is a right that should be protected, not a privilege that can be subjected to political whim.

2. I don’t know what kind of mindset it takes to believe that after an election where one side’s base was crazy motivated and the other side’s was not to advise the side that was not that it would be a good idea to quit fighting for one of the things their base feels passionately about, but it’s neither one I understand or would trust. When have voters ever rewarded surrender?

3. What principle should Republicans be willing to unilaterally capitulate on in the name of whatever good it is you think that would help achieve, Bill? I look forward to reading that column.

County buys more eSlates

Now that the election is over and all those borrowed voting machines need to be sent back to their owners, Harris County needs to buy replacements. Commissioners Court has approved an expenditure of $19 million to buy some 4600 eSlate machines to be ready for next year. What they got is the same thing we’ve been using all along.

The purchase also signals that the county will continue to use these machines with decade-old technology for some years to come.

“We’re going to need them until there’s a new iteration of machines,” County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said. She said, and a representative of eSlate vendor Hart Intercivic confirmed, that manufacturers will not introduce new machines until the Texas secretary of state and the federal Election Assistance Commission certifies the hardware and software for use in elections.

“Vendors are loath to develop something new because they don’t know what’s around the bend,” Kaufman said.

Well, I don’t know about the certifications issue, but there are two things I would like to see in the next generation of eSlates:

1. The ability to randomize ballot order, especially for non-partisan elections like primaries, special elections, and municipal elections. Your electoral outcome should not be affected in any way by the luck of a ballot order drawing.

2. Highlighting any races that are not included in a straight-party vote. In other words, if you cast a straight party vote on a ballot where there may also be a special election or a proposition, the eSlate should point that out to you before you hit the “cast vote” button.

I don’t know if this is a chicken and egg situation or not, and I don’t know if state law would need to be changed to allow these things, but I do know that I feel pretty strongly that they ought to be considered. I’m avoiding the question of adding a paper trail because that’s a political fight, and I see these things as merely technological; perhaps naively, I don’t think either of these suggestions should be controversial, and thus ought to be reasonably easy to build a consensus for them. Given that, is there anything you’d add to my wish list?

More on Amazon and the sales tax

From Slate:

Amazon has aggressively fought state efforts to impose sales tax on its operations. In 2008, New York passed a law that required online companies to collect taxes if they had deals with marketing affiliates based in the state. The law was designed specifically to target Amazon and other large online retailers—many called it the “Amazon tax.” In response, Amazon sued New York over the law’s constitutionality—marketing affiliates, Amazon argued, did not constitute a significant presence in the state. (, another company that has carefully avoided collecting taxes, took a harder line. In response to the New York law, Overstock canceled its relationships with all New York affiliates, freeing it from collecting any taxes in the state.)

While Amazon is still fighting the New York tax law, the company has been collecting taxes in the state as per the legislation. But Amazon has pushed back against collecting taxes in three other states that passed similar laws—it told its marketing affiliates inColoradoNorth Carolina, and Rhode Island to take a hike, allowing the company to skirt tax collection there. And it has threatened to do the same in other states—including California—where legislators have proposed affiliate-related taxes.

So, is Amazon’s tax-free status unfair? Of course it is. As [Michael Mazerov of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] points out, Amazon has physical operations in 17 states in which the company and its employees enjoy the fruits of local taxes—police and fire protection, roads, hospitals, and other infrastructure that make its operations possible. Yet Amazon skirts tax collection in most of these places through clever legal tricks. For instance, it has incorporated its warehouses and Web site as separate legal entities in order to argue that it doesn’t really have a presence in Nevada, Texas, and other states. The Kindle offers another example of that strategy—the e-book reader was developed at Lab126, an Amazon office based in Cupertino, Calif. But that office is actually a legal subsidiary, freeing Amazon of collecting any taxes in California.

Anything that drives a company to resort to such trickery cannot be good public policy. The solution will ultimately need to come from Congress, which means it won’t happen any time soon. Out of fairness to brick and mortar retailers, as well as to state and local governments, it needs to happen eventually.

Friday random ten: The Top 500, part 3

Continuing on with the songs in my collection from the Rolling Stone Top 500 list.

1. Long Tall Sally – The Beatles (#56, orig. Little Richard)
2. A Whiter Shade of Pale – Annie Lennox (#57, orig. Procol Harem)
3. Billie Jean – Josh and Anand/Big Daddy (#58, orig. Michael Jackson)
4. Let’s Stay Together – Al Green (#60)
5. For What It’s Worth – Black 47 (#63, orig. Buffalo Springfield)
6. She Loves You – The Beatles (#64)
7. Sunshine Of Your Love – Brian Tarquin (#65, orig. Cream)
8. Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag – James Brown (#72)
9. Superstition – Beck, Bogert & Appice (#74, cover by Stevie Wonder)
10. I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown (#78)

It’s the Stevie Wonder version of “Superstition” that’s on the list, but I have the Beck recording. Nothing else too remarkable here, so on we go.

Entire song list report: Started with “Roll Away The Stone”, by Mott the Hoople. Finished with “Rubber Biscuit”, by The Blues Brothers, song #4377. That’s 57 songs for this shortened holiday week. Have a great weekend!

More stories about building food

After having turducken for your Thanksgiving dinner, how can you not have something like this for dessert?

A Los Angeles man named Charles Phoenix has created the turducken of Thanksgiving desserts and dubbed it the cherpumple.

Turduckens are pretty commonplace these days; the cherpumple decidedly is not. A cherpumple is a three-layer cake sporting an entire pie in each layer (spice cake holding an apple pie on the bottom layer, a pumpkin pie nestled in yellow cake in the middle and a top layer of cherry pie baked into white cake) iced with cream cheese frosting.

“When you slice and serve it,” Phoenix says in a video on his cherpumple-pumped site charles, “your company will be astonished.”


But one thing bothered me about this strange and clever creation. Who the heck eats cherry pie at Thanksgiving?

I thought I could best the cherpumple. And now I present to you the pumpecapple.

OK, maybe it doesn’t roll off the tongue, but the pumpecapple – my “improvement” on the cherpumple – better represents Thanksgiving flavors with layers of pumpkin, pecan and apple pies baked in cake. I also thought good pies and homemade cake batter (Phoenix used frozen pies and box cake mix) would make a crazy dessert idea palatable. Even delicious.

My first and only call was to Three Brothers Bakery on South Braeswood. (You think I’d make this thing myself, are you crazy?) Three Brothers immediately came to mind because the Houston bakery’s pecan pie recently was recently singled out by Country Living magazine as one of the best pies in the country.

Janice Jucker, one of the business’ owners along with her husband, Robert, immediately bit. Three Brothers was game, and they also suggested improving on the layers: Apple pie baked in a spice apple cake; chocolate pecan pie in a chocolate cake; pumpkin pie in a pumpkin spice cake. Robert did the baking, and decorator Heather Campbell did the icing (Janice did a lot of the encouraging and cheerleading).

Read the rest to see how it turned out. All I can say is OM NOM NOM, I so totally want to try either one of them. Maybe this can be the cake for my next birthday.

Recount sought in HD48

Given how close this one was, a recount was to be expected.

Republican Dan Neil is seeking a recount in his challenge to state Rep. Donna Howard in the District 48 seat that represents part of Travis County.

Neil has filed the paperwork with the Texas secretary of state to request another look at the votes. Unofficial returns showed Howard winning by 16 votes out of more than 51,000 ballots cast.

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure every legal vote is counted,” Neil said. “I want to be an advocate for the voters.”

That’s obviously a much smaller margin than was in CD27, but I expect the same outcome, mostly because there are fewer votes in play due to electronic balloting. We’ll see how it goes.

Greg notes that an election contest would not be a surprise, and speculates about what a 100th member would mean for Constitutional amendment purposes. I will say that the one thing I’m not terribly worried about for this term is the specter of awful amendments getting pushed through, because it still takes a 2/3 vote in the Senate for that just as it does in the House, and I feel confident that will be insurmountable for anything truly egregious. There are plenty of other things to be concerned about, but that one isn’t high on my list.

This is what happens when budget cuts are the only tool in your bag

You get the government you’re willing to pay for.

[F]rom Oct. 23 to Oct. 30, [Peter] Wang counted a total of 12 [traffic signal] outages at various intersections, from Barker Cypress down to Telge Road.

He initially thought it was an act of vandalism, he said.

However, after voicing the matter to the Harris County Precinct Three, he received the true explanation for the outages.

“Budget shortfalls have limited our traffic signal maintenance funding,” Wayne Gisler, the Assistant Manager of Traffic Engineering for Harris County, said in a email to Wang, “ In order to maintain the signals operating in a safe and efficient manner during our fiscal crisis, we’ve had to limit maintenance to emergency repairs only.”

Many understand the pitfalls of the economy and the financial bind that it has imposed on several fronts.

However, some believe that more funds should be funneled into signal infrastructure opposed to other arenas.

“I understand the budget but there’s a bigger picture. They’ve spent tax money on work for the Grand Parkway,” Wang said. “If you build a piece of infrastructure you have to be able to maintain it. If you can’t maintain it, then you shouldn’t build something new.”

Do you suppose that if it were the city of Houston instead of Harris County that had been forced to take this action that we’d be hearing about it from all of the professional critics of the city’s finances? I’m sure they’ll start clucking their tongues about this any time now. I just wonder how many replacement signal bulbs that 2007 property tax rate cut could have paid for.

I know everyone says that just as families tighten their belts and cut expenditures when they experience tough times, so should government. It’s just that families also look at ways to bring in more money if they need to do so in order to keep paying for the things they really need, like food and shelter. So far, all we’ve been willing to let government do is continually define down what we need. I have no idea where and when that may end.

Special Thursday video break: It’s not the name of the restaurant, it’s the name of the song

You can get anything you want at you-know-where:

I did this last year and figured I’d do it again this year. Happy Thanksgiving!

Smoked beer can turkey

For those of you with an engineering bent and a large enough grill, I give you smoked beer can turkey, based on a popular grilling technique for chickens. Bon appetit!

Ortiz concedes

No surprise.

U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz on Monday conceded the loss of his 27th District seat that he held for nearly three decades.
A recount netted him more than 100 votes in Cameron County but left him still hundreds of votes behind Republican Blake Farenthold.

Ortiz called Farenthold at 8:04 p.m. to congratulate him and offer assistance on the transition.

“Although I gained votes during the manual recount, I did not surpass my opponent’s lead,” Ortiz said in a statement. “Therefore, with great respect and admiration in the democratic process, I congratulate my opponent, Mr. R. Blake Farenthold, in his election to the 27th Congressional District of Texas.”

The exact margin remained unclear. Ortiz spokesman Jose Borjon said Ortiz picked up about 200 votes overall, and Farenthold, about 50. He said the margin was “somewhere in the 600s.”

About what I expected. It was just too many votes to reasonably hope to overcome.

The interesting question is what comes after redistricting. As Greg notes, CD27 will be much more Democratic in a Presidential year like 2012, so it will require some surgery to protect its new Congressman from electoral peril, and even then that may not be possible. It may wind up that CD27, or whatever it is ultimately called, will be like Baron Hill‘s once and former district in Indiana, prone to flipping every cycle, with Dems having the advantage in Presidential years and Republicans coming back in the off years. Whatever the case, expect Rep-elect Farenthold to be a top target. Is there a Juan Garcia bandwagon for me to climb on board yet?

Another story about solar energy in Texas

They keep writing them, I’ll keep blogging about them.

Dallas renewable energy investor Panda Power Funds is developing one of the country’s largest solar power plants in sunny New Jersey. Not Texas.

And Texas’ second-largest power generator, NRG Energy, is investing in the world’s largest solar thermal power plant in California. Not Texas.

Texas is No. 9 among states when it comes to the amount of sunlight that could be used to make electricity. But the state ranks 16th in the amount of solar electric generating capacity actually installed. New Jersey is No. 2; California is No. 1.

“It’s really a shame in Texas. We’ve got good sunlight. It’s really a shame that we don’t have a more aggressive solar program,” said Panda’s managing director of development, Ralph Killian.

Solar producers say Texas will fall behind economically without an aggressive push into solar energy. They blame state leaders for not providing the financial backing to attract the industry to Texas. And they hope a new legislative session beginning in January will create those incentives.

Critics say incentives are unnecessary and wasteful. They say Texans benefit from lower prices for electricity generated with other fuels.

Most of what’s in here is familiar stuff. I too hope that this Lege will do something to create incentives for more solar (and wind and other forms of renewable) energy, but I don’t actually believe it will happen. One thing in the story I did not know:

NRG negotiated with the city of Houston to build a solar plant and sell the power to the city. Talks unraveled over a law banning the city from committing to a multiple-year contract.

“That’s how the city has to do business,” said Houston spokeswoman Janice Evans. “There’s no way within the city’s annual funding that you can do a 25-year contract.”

But NRG couldn’t risk having the contract dropped one year, without enough revenue to pay for the equipment.

I’d blogged about this before, but the last word I had was that the talks had hit a snag, not that they’d completely fallen apart. Bummer. I totally understand the city’s position on this, but it sure seems like there ought to be a way around that. Maybe one way the Lege could act would be to provide some kind of insurance for clean energy developers that want to engage in this kind of long term deal with cities. I’m just thinking out loud here, I don’t know what that might look like, and besides it’s surely a non-starter in this slash and burn session to come. I’m just saying that there ought to be a way for cities to do this sort of thing, and that if there is it will need to come from a higher level of government, such as the state.

DeLay convicted

Just in time for the holiday.

Tom DeLay, the former U.S. House majority leader whose name became synonymous with the Republicans’ controversial rise to power in the Texas House, was found guilty today of laundering money in connection with the 2002 elections.

Jurors sent a note on yellow legal paper that a verdict had been reached to the judge at 4:46 p.m. They had deliberated since Monday afternoon.

They sent word that they had reached a verdict at 4:46 p.m. today.

DeLay was charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit money. He faces a possible sentence of 5-99 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine on the money laundering charge, and 2-20 years in prison and a possible $10,000 fine on the conspiracy charge.

Prosecutors earlier said they believe the DeLay case is the first such criminal charge ever filed over Texas’ century-old prohibition on corporate contributions in state political races.

I don’t know what will happen on appeal, and regardless of that I think the possible sentences are a bit over the top, but still. That ought to wipe the smirk off his face for a little while. Maybe there is some justice in the world. I bet Jim Ellis and John Colyandro will have long, hard talks with their lawyers this weekend.

UPDATE: For your schadenfreude-tastic enjoyment, this classic scene from “Cop Rock”, the greatest musical cop show ever produced by Steven Bochco:

It may take awhile to get this stupid grin off of my face.

UPDATE: Juanita celebrates.

Still no verdict in the DeLay trial

Two days of deliberation, lots of questions being asked, but still no decision from the DeLay jury. They’ll try again today, and I’ll be a little surprised if they strike out again. Having said that, a hung jury is certainly within the realm of possibility here. I just wonder if the Travis County DA’s office will take another shot at him if that happens, or if they go for what should be the lower-hanging fruit of Jim Ellis and John Colyandro instead. I’d choose the latter – who knows, they might be able to exert enough pressure during the trial to get them to cop a plea and agree to testify against DeLay in the do-over – but nobody asked me. Juanita has more.

There’s no such thing as a rainy day

Rainy Day Fund? What Rainy Day Fund?

State budget writers will propose eliminating agencies, cutting others to a quarter of their current size and laying off state employees to balance the budget without raising taxes or using the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told an Ellis County group that the shortfall is also the reason lawmakers have talked about leaving the federal Medicaid program.

“We’re making huge cuts,” Pitts told the group. “There are agencies that are in existence today that we are eliminating when we introduce the bill. We are making some large cuts to some agencies that are not going away — up to 75 or 80 percent of their budget. That’s where we are today, is doing those cuts. And yes, sir, I’m nearly there. But we may need to do some more. And what we may do is we may get furloughs, we are having hiring freezes, we have told the [Health and Human Services Commission] to do a freeze on our waiting list. There are numerous things we can come up with, but we are getting very close to being able to come up with that money without using the Rainy Day Fund.”

Then why do we have a Rainy Day Fund? Seriously, if a $24 billion dollar deficit isn’t reason to use it, then why do we have it? How is it a better idea to lay a bunch of people off during a time of high unemployment and a slow economy? Never mind policy, I don’t get the philosophy behind this. If we’re not going to use it, we may as well just abolish it and use the money to give Dan Patrick another property tax cut, since that seems to be the only thing these guys care about.

The cost of closing the beaches

The recent Supreme Court ruling predictably leads to the enrichment of a lucky few.

Although Carol Severance’s lawsuit killed the largest beach resanding project in Texas history, her four Galveston beach properties won’t suffer.

Instead, she could walk away with more than $2 million from the sale of her hurricane-damaged houses at pre-storm prices.

The money comes from a federal program to buy houses in hazardous areas. Twenty-five percent of the buyout will be paid by the Texas General Land Office, the same agency she sued in a case that led the Land Office last week to cancel a $40 million project that would have placed fresh sand on six miles of beach west of the Galveston Seawall.

“It’s an ironic result that someone who has been at the trough has also caused the loss of all these public resources to the west end beach front,” said Galveston city Councilwoman Elizabeth Beeton.

Severance, a lawyer living in San Diego, Calif., says she brought her lawsuit because she believes in private property rights.

Heck of a job, State Supreme Court! I’m imagining an attack ad that would run against the justices who are up for re-election in 2012 that speak in ominous tones of how they gave millions of your tax dollars to a bunch of California lawyers that lost their fancy beach houses to Hurricane Ike. What I have a much harder time imagining is a funding source for such an ad. Alas.

Baby, you can charge my car

Plug it in, plug it in.

The city of Houston will make it easier for locals to buy and own electric cars, including speeding up permitting of home charging stations and opening up HOV lanes to the vehicles.

Mayor Annise Parker announced some of the measures Thursday at an event introducing power plant operator NRG Energy’s plans for a citywide electric vehicle charging system.

“I recognize that Houston is a car city,” she said. “But let’s make sure if you have a particular type of car you want to drive, and it’s an electric vehicle, let’s make sure it’s supported.”

The NRG network, branded eVgo, will begin with 150 charging stations throughout the city at retailers and offices.

Walgreens will have chargers at 18 of its local stores, HEB at 10 of its H-E-B or Central Market stores, Best Buy at up to 10 locations and Spec’s at eight.

Fifty of the public stations will be rapid chargers that can charge a vehicle fully in about 30 minutes. The other 100 chargers can do a full charge in about four hours.

OK, I think I’ve run out of cheesy musical allusions. It’s a small step towards a greener planet – it would be nice if we were doing more on the back end, to make sure that the electricity powering these cars comes from green sources and not just more coal-fired plants, for instance – but every little step is needed and helpful. Swamplot has a map of where you can go to get your recharge on, and Hair Balls has more.

What about red light cameras elsewhere?

Before the election, I noted a DMN story about how the red light camera referendum in Houston might spur opponents in other cities to try their luck with a similar ban. This DMN story discusses that, but you have to get past a few glaring errors first.

More than 50 Texas communities have installed the cameras since 2003, when Garland became the state’s first city to do so. But growing opposition, buttressed by the same brand of anti-government ire that propelled the tea party this fall, has cast an uncertain future on the cameras.

That includes Dallas, which uses some 60 cameras citywide. Legislators in Austin, who almost passed a statewide camera ban in 2009, have pledged to take up the issue again next year.

First of all, Republican voters in Houston voted for the red light cameras. It was the heavily Democratic, African-American neighborhoods – the opposite of teabaggerdom – that opposed them the most strongly. Second, while it may well be the case that the Lege will take the matter up next year and may well pass a ban, it was two Republican legislators – State Sen. John Carona and State Rep. Jim Murphy – that sponsored the legislation in 2007 that gave cities the official authority to operate the cameras. Things aren’t always as they appear.

A similar petition has yet to surface in Dallas, Fort Worth or the 11 other North Texas cities that use red-light cameras. But one might not be far off.

After voters in Garfield Heights, Ohio, rejected cameras earlier this month, some in neighboring Cleveland began their own ballot drive.

Petition or not, it may be a matter of time before North Texas faces a camera reckoning like Houston. State Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr., D-Corpus Christi, co-sponsored a statewide camera ban in 2009 and says he plans to again.

I’m afraid that’s going to be difficult for Rep. Ortiz to do, since he was defeated in his re-election bid. In fact, both of the main camera opponents from the 2009 Lege, Ortiz and Rep. Carl Isett, who chose not to run for re-election, will be absent in this session. I’m certain there are others who will take up the mantle, but at the very least the face of camera opposition will be different this time around.

Anyway. I won’t be surprised if the Lege takes up a bill to ban the cameras, and I won’t be surprised if that bill passes. I just wish this article had been more useful.

UPDATE: Received the following via Facebook from Stephen Polunsky of Sen. John Carona’s staff:

Hi – this statement from your blog is incorrect, would you mind correcting it? “State Sen. John Carona and State Rep. Jim Murphy – that sponsored the legislation in 2007 that gave cities the official authority to operate the cameras.” It was a floor amendment by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown the previous session that authorized the cameras (see press coverage from the time). Carona/Murphy clarified the authority and placed limits on it. Let me know if I can help further. Steven Polunsky, on Senator Carona’s staff, 463-0365.

My apologies for the confusion. What I recall about the Carona/Murphy bill was that there had been a lawsuit filed by Michael Kubosh that claimed that cities could not issue civil citations for running red lights; state law at the time was not clear on the subject. It was the clarification of that authority in the Carona/Murphy bill that I was referring to. I should have been more specific about that. My larger point was that it was Republicans who passed legislation that gave cities this authority, and as Rep. Harper-Brown is also a Republican, that still stands. Anyway, my thanks to Stephen Polunsky for the feedback.

We can learn from Indiana’s example

The state of Indiana decided a couple of years ago that it was paying too much for Medicaid, so they created to create a program called Healthy Indiana that provided vouchers for low income people to use to purchase private insurance. How has it worked out for them? About as you might expect, if you had any common sense.

First, many beneficiaries have to pay a lot more out of pocket than they would if they had traditional Medicaid coverage. Nonpayment has been the No. 1 reason for terminating beneficiaries from Healthy Indiana since the program began in 2008, with up to 35 percent of beneficiaries in certain income levels failing to make their first payment.

Second, providers serving Healthy Indiana beneficiaries have indeed been paid more than they would have if the beneficiaries had been covered under Medicaid. However, Healthy Indiana covers only about 44,000 Indiana residents, while more than 830,000 Indianans are uninsured. And in order to pay for the 44,000 Indianans in the Healthy Indiana Plan, the state took $50 million from funds that it uses to help reimburse hospitals for uncompensated care. In other words, 40 percent of the state’s uncompensated care funds were spent on only 5 percent of Indiana’s uninsured population.

But maybe this was still a much better deal for everyone. Maybe most of Indiana’s uninsured population doesn’t need health care, and those who do got a much better deal through the Healthy Indiana Plan than they would have if they’d been in traditional Medicaid.

Unfortunately, neither premise is correct. Healthy Indiana’s waiting list is longer than the number of enrollees it has. And uninsured Indianans, whether eligible for Healthy Indiana or not, continue to need health care. Meanwhile, for those actually in the program, the state paid $75 more per month in 2009 for the healthiest group of Healthy Indiana enrollees than it did for comparable adult Medicaid beneficiaries, even though Healthy Indiana beneficiaries are ineligible for many expensive services, such as maternity care, that Medicaid beneficiaries receive. That doesn’t include the cost that Healthy Indiana beneficiaries must pay out of their own pockets: up to $1,100 per year.

There is no evidence that Healthy Indiana beneficiaries are getting better care than Medicaid beneficiaries. However, the care they are receiving costs more, and leaves less for reimbursing uncompensated care for the remaining 95 percent of the uninsured.

But other than that, it worked great. This is the Republican way – make poor people pay more to get less so that Dan Patrick can get a property tax cut. The same basic ideas of vouchers for private insurance, in this case as a replacement for Medicare, is a cornerstone of Paul Ryan’s blueprint for cutting the national deficit. One must admit, simply not providing a needed service will allow governments to cut their expenditures. Too bad the need for those services doesn’t go away.

UPDATE: Corrected first sentence based on comments from Hope.