Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

March, 2011:

House votes to spend some Rainy Day funds

From the Trib:

House lawmakers preliminarily passed two bills Thursday that together will balance the state’s budget for the remaining months of the fiscal year through a mix of spending cuts and use of the Rainy Day Fund. The cuts were in the first bill, HB 4, which passed by a party-line vote of 100-46. The second bill, HB 275, authorizes the use of $3.1 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. (See our liveblog of the debate here.) The latter measure generated more support from Democrats, with a final vote of 142-2.

Most of the reductions outlined in HB4 have already been implemented by state agencies. (See the list of agency fund reductions here.)

The votes came after nearly ten hours of intense debate. In all, lawmakers filed 65 amendments to HB 4. Democrats attempted to restore funding for public education, higher education, and health services. Some amendments were contingency-based; others targeted the governor’s various funds, including the mansion restoration account.

With very few exceptions, Democratic amendments went down on party line or near-party line votes. An amendment by Rep. Mark Strama limited one of Rick Perry’s slush funds, the Emerging Technology Fund, to only spend monies it had already allocated through August. A few other Democratic amendments drew a handful of Republican votes and some fine whining but still got tabled. Beyond that, nothing terribly exciting happened. The big show is tomorrow when HB1 gets debated and approximately one million amendments get voted on.

Costello opposes exempting the churches

From the inbox:

Houston City Council Member Stephen Costello asks the Mayor and Council to exempt only state-mandated property from the drainage fee.

Costello, the At Large Position 1 Council Member, offered an amendment Wednesday to the Municipal Drainage Utility ordinance that would limit exemptions to those under the state’s Local Government Code Section 552.053.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Costello said. “It is only fair that everyone who contributes water to the system should help maintain it. If we start exempting groups, then homeowners and businesses will have to pick up the slack.

“Throughout this process, I have consistently maintained that all users of the drainage system should pay the drainage utility fee,” Costello added. “The City has the responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated fairly.”

Council will vote on the ordinance next week.

The ordinance was brought up in Council yesterday but was tagged. I greatly prefer CM Costello’s compromise to Mayor Parker’s, and now that the churches have shown themselves to be such sore winners, I like his proposal even more. My concern is that it will be a futile gesture, given that Dan Patrick’s blackmail bill has passed the Senate. (And may I just say: What the hell are Whitmire, Ellis, and Gallegos doing supporting his meddling? Get the Senate out of Houston’s business already!) But it’ll be good to get everyone on the record anyway.

One thing I hadn’t considered about Patrick’s petty little bill is that it might not pass Constitutional muster. Turns out that Sen. Ellis inquired about that with the City Attorney (would have been nice if he’d done that before teaming up with Danno, but whatever), and today he got this response, which says, in a word, No.

Article 3, § 56 of the Texas Constitution provides:

(a) The Legislature shall not, except as otherwise provided in this Constitution, pass any local or special law, authorizing:
* * *
(2) regulating the affairs of counties, cities, towns, wards or school districts;

To avoid the strictures of Article 3, § 56, a population distinction as is found in this Bill “must be based on a real distinction, and must not be arbitrary or a device to give what is in substance a local or special law the form of a general law.” Bexar Co. v. Tynan, 97 S.W.2d
467, 470 (Tex. 1936). The Texas Supreme Court has opined that, in statutes classified by population, the central question is whether the population classification bears a reasonable relationship to the object sought to be accomplished. See Maple Run Mun. Utility District v. Monaghan, 931 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Tex. 1996); see also, Smith v. Decker, 312 S.W.3d 632, 635-36 (Tex. 1958); Rodriguez v. Gonzales, 227 S.W.2d 791 at 794 (Tex. 1950)(condemning law as prohibited local and special law where court determined that “[n]o valid reason can be perceived for limiting the operation of the Act to border counties”); Smith v. State, 49 S.W.2d 739, 744 (Tex. Crim. App. 1932)(striking down law as an unconstitutional local or special law because the “classification does not rest in real and substantial distinction rendering the class involved distinct [and] the basis of the classification—the population involved—has no direction relation to the purpose of the law”). The proposed Bill satisfies none of these criteria.

The Texas constitutional framers believed that restrictions on the passage of local and special bills would prevent the granting of special privileges; secure uniformity of law throughout the state; decrease the passage of courtesy bills; and encourage the legislature to devote more of its time to interests of the state at large. (Interpretive Commentary, Art. 3. § 56 Tex. Const.).

Unfortunately, this Bill fails on all four counts. On its face, the Bill grants special privileges to an entire list of entities seeking exemption from payment of drainage charges, and only for such entities in the City of Houston. By imposing those exemptions only in the City of Houston, the provisions in TLGC Chapter 552 allowing the creation of a municipal drainage utility would, in substantial measure, be uniform state-wide, except in Houston. Clearly this Bill on its face affords special privileges for selected groups by exempting them from utility payments at a time when both the State Legislature and the Houston City Council are wrestling with declining revenues. The proposed Bill is a local Bill, aimed solely at the City of Houston in direct contravention of the Texas Constitution. Not only would the Bill expand the categories of property eligible for exemption from payment of a drainage fee in Houston only, but the number of entities that would qualify and the properties that would receive exemptions in comparison to other cities is incomprehensible.

I’m not a lawyer, and certainly David Feldman has an interest in advocating the city’s position, but it’s pretty persuasive. If nothing else, it sure sounds like there will be more litigation coming if SB714 becomes law. Campos has more.

What was this past election about?

I’ve seen the following quote from House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, in this Statesman story about some queasiness among lower chamber Republicans about the severe budget cuts, several times this past week, and I feel it needs a bit of deconstruction.

There are limits, in fact, to how much can be added and still get the 76 votes needed to pass the House budget.

“For a lot of members of the House, this is as far as we can go,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said last week. “They feel like they were elected to make cuts and this accurately reflects what their constituents want.”

I don’t know how the campaigns actually went in most House districts. There wasn’t a competitive race in mine, so the vast majority of what I saw that an average voter would have seen came from the Governor’s race, where the Republican message was basically “Texas rulz, Obama droolz”. Rick Perry certainly didn’t campaign on the need to slash the budget in Texas. Sure, he talked at length about out of control spending, but that was always clearly in the context of talking about Washington and Obama and the Democratic Congress. I realize I’m Monday morning quarterbacking to an extent here, but does anyone disagree with the claim that Rick Perry has basically been running a nonstop anti-Washington campaign for about two years now? Does anyone disagree that the 2010 election was all about the anti-Obama vote coming out in force, abetted by a weak economy and a heaping measure of anti-immigrant sentiment? I mean, the two candidates in Harris County that won races they weren’t generally expected to win, Sarah Davis and Jack Morman, both basically ran anti-Obamacare campaigns despite the fact that neither one was seeking an office that had anything to do with “Obamacare”. To say that the election was about anything else strikes me as being a big distortion of what really happened.

Now again, I don’t know how things looked on the ground elsewhere in the state. Maybe some of these Republican freshmen really did spend their summer and fall last year talking about the need to cut billions of dollars from the state budget, from public education and Medicaid and everywhere else. It’s also possible – likely, in fact – that the “out of control spending” message about Washington was also taken implicitly by voters to be a critique of Austin. That gets into some ticklish territory for Texas Republicans, since they’ve been in full control of state government since 2003, so if spending here was “out of control”, well, whose fault was that? I’m equally sure that Democrats, who seldom miss a chance to run away from themselves, would have not done a very good job pointing out that distinction and contradiction. That will have to be the task for next year, when the electorate and the climate ought to be considerably different. In the meantime, however inaccurate a characterization of the 2010 election Pitts’ statement may be, I’m not at all unhappy for the Republicans – and the Democrats – to run with it. Y’all go right ahead and tell the voters how you gutted public education and helped close a bunch of nursing homes just like we asked you to do. We’ll be glad to have that conversation.

Mayor seeks pension fund cuts

Given the size of the budget shortfall for next year and the amount that the city pays into the various pension funds, Mayor Parker’s proposal to pay less should not be a surprise to anyone.

City Attorney David Feldman and Finance Director Kelly Dowe already have asked firefighter pension executives to accept $14 million less than the city’s obligation to the pension system for the fiscal year that begins July 1. They plan to ask police for cuts as well, they said.

“We asked them to work with us to determine whether we could reduce the amount paid in, and I pledged that concessions made would offset cuts made to the fire department,” Parker said Tuesday.

Early this month Parker asked the fire department to cut $22 million from its $449 million budget as part of a larger set of spending targets issued to city departments.

Firefighter pension leaders who met with Feldman and Dowe at City Hall late last week said they were told that the city would be laying off between 200 and 300 firefighters, as well as closing some stations. They talked of the administration’s desire to reduce the pension payment by $14 million during the same discussion.

“We feel like it’s an ultimatum. The result is, from their perspective, to make the pension plan look bad so they can pass their budget,” said Christopher Gonzales, executive director and chief investment officer of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund. “They’re balancing the budget on the backs of the firefighters, and that’s unfair.”

With all due respect, I think the other city employees that have been furloughed or laid off would disagree with that characterization. Everyone knows that the trajectory the city is on with its pension obligations is unsustainable. The resolution will ultimately involve some combination of the city paying less, the firefighters contributing more, and pensioners (current and future) taking less. It’s just a matter of how messy it is getting there.

UPDATE: I received this statement from HPFFA President Jeff Caynon, which disputes the Mayor’s claims about the budget. It reads in part:

“A few months ago, firefighters negotiated with HFD to restrict vacation use and adjust the department deployment model which saved the city about $5 million. The mayor then recently ordered HFD to cut its budget by five percent – or about $25 million. The Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) recently lower the city’s contribution thereby saving the city of Houston $13 million per year for the next three years.

“None of the $13 million pension reduction was counted toward the $23 million budget cuts ordered by the mayor. In fact, during recent discussions the mayor’s financial director expressly notified firefighters that any savings related to pension reduction would not count toward the city’s imposed HFD budget cuts.

“The mayor’s comments today were misleading, but they also continue a pattern of behind-the-scenes pension and layoff threats that contradict the administration’s statements about their public safety commitment. The mayor also has attempted to pit police and firefighters against each other by increasing the city’s contribution to the police pension without argument while failing to acknowledge the efforts of firefighter’s pension.”

Click the link for the rest.

Bill Hammond gets his name in the papers again

Whether he actually achieves any of the goals that are the basis for many of these stories remains to be seen.

Hammond, a former business owner and Republican lawmaker from Dallas, is accustomed to steering the state business organization between its support for Perry and his fervent belief that now is not the time to short-change public or higher education.

Hammond, who’s been interested in public education since his days as a lawmaker in the 1980s, has added higher education to his list of concerns for the state’s future workforce.

“If we don’t have an educated workforce, the jobs will leave,” Hammond said. “We are not meeting the needs of the future.”

It’s a message he takes to lawmakers, educators and the business community. The message not only chastises lawmakers who favor cutting education, it also faults the public and higher education establishment for not doing a better job of preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs.

“Business needs to be a critical friend,” Hammond said of his double-barreled message.

Hammond, listed this year on Texas Monthly’s list of the 25 people who most influence state politics, leads the oldest statewide business organization, which includes 3,500 businesses and 220 chambers of commerce.

For this legislative session, the Texas Association of Business has partnered with business and education groups to produce reports on ways to improve higher education and the need for better pre-kindergarten.

He also called for spending money from the state’s reserves, the so-called rainy day fund, weeks before state officials inched in that direction with a deal to spend about $3.2 billion to cover the shortfall in the current budget.

To those who would argue the state’s funding gap for the next two years can be closed with cuts alone, Hammond says, “You can’t cut from current (spending) levels and have a functioning government.”

I give Hammond credit for being out in front of the need to use the Rainy Day Fund, and I give him credit for being a voice of relative sanity on immigration. But as I’ve repeatedly said, I just don’t expect him to be very effective in getting what he says he wants. Maybe if he threatened to actually oppose some of the Republican legislators that stand in the way of these goals, I’d have more faith in him. But as long as he continues to be buddy-buddy with bad actors like Leo Berman, I expect he’ll be as successful as a parent who threatens his kids with various punishments for misbehavior but never carries it out. What does any currently elected Republican legislator have to fear if he doesn’t do what Bill Hammond asks? Not nearly as much as what they believe they have to fear from the teabaggers. As long as that’s the dynamic, the results will be utterly predictable.

Is there an app for doing a golf clap?

This just about blew my mind.

Staying connected at the Shell Houston Open will be easier than ever this year, and golf fans won’t have to sneak their cellphones past the entrance gates to do so.

Starting with this year’s Honda Classic a couple of weeks ago, golf fans have been allowed to take their cellphones to the course during tournament play. It comes, of course, with several stipulations, chief among them, turning off the ringer, making calls in designated areas only and not taking pictures during the actual tournament.

Steve Timms, SHO tournament director and the chairman of the tournament action committee, presented the proposal for the new policy to the PGA Tour more than a year ago. The PGA Tour tested it at five events over the past six months and found that there was little, if any, interruptions of play.

The reason for the change in policy is twofold, said Timms, who also is president and CEO of the Houston Golf Association. First, the PGA Tour merely is acknowledging that cellphones and smartphones are an integral part of people’s lives. And secondly, the PGA Tour can use smartphones to its advantage, offering spectators downloadable applications that will allow them to follow the scoring and receive announcements regarding the tournament.

Timms said surveys among golf fans showed that having to check the cellphone at the gate was a deterrent to attending. Many people aren’t willing to be out of touch with the world for four or five hours.

“I know I don’t like to be without mine, and I know with the younger demographic, a lot of them don’t wear watches because that’s the way they tell time,” Timms said. “They want to be constantly in touch. It’s just part of our society.”

I don’t think I qualify as the “younger demographic” any more – maybe at a golf tournament I would – but yeah. I very seldom go anywhere without my cellphone and my BlackBerry, and if I had been told at the entrance for a sporting event that I’d need to check them with security for the duration (as had been the case with the PGA Tour), I’d ask for a refund and go home. I realize that golf is a little different than team sports – you’re up close to the action and are expected to keep quiet – but it still amazes me that professional golf is just cluing into this. I mean, you can get WiFi at Minute Maid, and the demand for wireless coverage at Reliant is bedeviling its engineers. How is it that golf managed to hold out for this long?

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 28

The Texas Progressive Alliance is ready for another sports-related tourist infusion as it brings you this week’s bloog roundup.


Hung jury for Eversole

It’s the one outcome guaranteed to ensure that nobody is happy.

Federal prosecutors plan to retry their corruption case against Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole after a judge today declared a hung jury in the three-week trial on charges that he accepted bribes to steer millions of dollars in contracts to a developer.


John Pearson, the lead federal prosecutor, said he respected the jury’s decision, but confirmed that the U.S. Attorney’s office will retry the case.

Eversole was charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of accepting a bribe and two counts of filing false income tax returns in 2003 and 2004.

A look at the jury’s votes on the charges against Eversole show how close he came to be convicted on at least two of the crimes.

On the conspiracy charge, five jurors found him guilty; seven not guilty.

On the bribery charge, 10 found him guilty; two not guilty.

On one of the false tax return charges, 10 ruled guilty; two not guilty. On the second charge, seven found him guilty; five not guilty.

Today’s mistrial marks the second time the county commissioner has avoided a conviction on criminal charges lodged against him.

I’m not surprised the feds will take another crack at him – they did come pretty close. I wonder if Eversole will be as insistent on getting the trial done in a speedy manner as before. One way or the other, we’ll have him to kick around for awhile longer.

“Nobody likes a sore winner”

Mayor Parker’s updated drainage fee proposal, which would allow for exemptions to schools and churches, was introduced to City Council amid a torrent of whining from the pro-exemption forces.

Church and school leaders testified at a special council meeting that it still was not good enough.

For one thing, critics said, the exemptions cover only existing buildings. Future schools and churches would have to pay the drainage fee on any increase in impervious cover — such as roofs, parking lots or playgrounds.

In addition, religious leaders criticized the proposal for not exempting church schools and other private campuses.

Councilman C.O. Bradford also said that public schools chartered by the state — independent but publicly funded campuses not affiliated with Houston Independent School District — also deserved exemptions.

For Councilwoman Melissa Noriega, who said she has not decided whether she will support any exemptions when the ordinance reaches the council agenda Wednesday, the criticism of the mayor’s compromise proposal was a little too much.

“Nobody likes a sore winner,” Noriega said, “If someone says, ‘Yes,’ take yes for an answer.”

CM Noriega speaks for me. You want to see what a sore winner looks like, read their statement. I’ll say again, I understand why the Mayor did what she did here, but from where I sit if you extend a hand and it gets slapped away, the logical thing to do is to un-extend it and go back to what you had originally wanted. If these guys want to fight, I say let’s fight. And while we’re at it, let’s clarify once and for all whether these guys agree that flooding and drainage is an issue in Houston, and if so just what exactly they think we should do about it. I hate to break it to them, but the Magic Drainage Fairy doesn’t actually exist. In the real world, solutions cost money.

Gambling interests tout job creation benefits

From the inbox:


Confirms Texans Continue To Spend Billions Gaming in Neighboring States

AUSTIN, Texas – Win For Texas released a new report today outlining the specific regions and sectors of the 77,500 new, permanent jobs that will be created when slots are allowed at Texas horse and greyhound tracks and recognized Indian reservations. TXP, a Texas economic policy consulting group, prepared the study.

The study also details the $2.7 billion dollars Texans spend on gaming in a seven state region every year. TXP estimates that $2.2 billion of this “leakage” could be kept here simply by allowing slot machines at existing racetracks and Indian reservations.

“TXP estimates that approximately $2.4 billion in gaming revenue (and $3.8 billion total) would appear in-state by the end of 2013,” said TXP President, Jon Hockenyos. “This in turn would create $8.5 billion in total economic activity, $2.6 billion in earnings, and about 77,500 permanent jobs.”

The new report breaks down the specific economic and job creation into five regions: Austin Area, DFW, Houston and the Rest of Texas.

“The economic benefits of implementing slots are well-distributed across the state, as Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston each stand to gain close to 20,000 permanent jobs, Austin and San Antonio will realize approximately 10,000, and the balance is distributed across the rest of Texas,” said Hockenyos.

The legislation that would bring this proposal to Texas voters to decide is HJR 111/ SJR 33. The enabling legislation that details the implementation and oversight are HB 2111/ SB 1118.

The study was commissioned by Win For Texas and is attached in its entirety. For more information about this proposal or Win For Texas, please visit

Please see the report for your region’s specific benefits. The TXP report is attached and may also be downloaded here:

I will simply note that TXP issued a similar report in 2009, which I blogged about here. I’ll leave it to you do compare the two and see what differences there are. Hey, we’ll need something for all those soon to be unemployed people to do.

As for the ubiquitous question of gambling’s prospects in the Lege, it doesn’t look any clearer now than it did before the session. The good news for gambling interests is that a consensus bill may emerge from the House.

A Texas House committee will listen to several gambling proposals at a hearing today , and in the coming days, the chairman of the committee will take all the proposals and roll them into one measure.

The forthcoming piece of all-encompassing legislation by Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, could lead to seven new Las Vegas-style casinos, slot machines at 13 horse and dog tracks across the state, slots at a few Indian reservations and slots at bingo halls across Texas, he said.

“Something for everybody,” Hamilton said. “We’ll put them all together.”

But there are competing gambling interests in Texas, and getting them to work with one another could prove difficult; casino proponents and the group wanting slots at tracks have not been able to work together this session or in sessions past.

There are also pro-gambling groups representing bingo halls and Indian reservations.

Hamilton, though, said he can get them all together.

Asked how he’d reach a consensus among the competing groups, Hamilton said, “Because I’m the chairman, and there will be just one bill passed out of committee.”

Whether that’s a bill that makes the casino interests, the racetrack interests, and the Indian tribes happy or one that makes some or all of them feel disgruntled remains to be seen. It’s also not clear that this consensus bill, or any other gambling bill, will get a hearing in the Senate.

While a new statewide poll shows that 86 percent of Texans believe the public should vote on whether to legalize casinos, an influential state Senate chairman with jurisdiction over gambling said Monday he has no intention of advancing the necessary legislation.

“There is no support in my committee,” said state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. “I just don’t think there are the votes in the Senate. I don’t see any chance of passage.”

Duncan’s opposition signals almost insurmountable odds for the expansion of gambling in Texas, despite the industry’s hopes that lawmakers would look favorably upon casinos this year as a solution to the state’s fiscal crisis.

So far, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has referred all gambling resolutions and bills filed in the Texas Senate to the State Affairs Committee, which Duncan chairs.

His spokesman, Mike Walz, said Dewhurst also likely would refer all “stand-alone” gambling bills passed by the House to Duncan’s committee. He noted that the issue could be attached to other significant legislation that traditionally is heard by other committees.

So the door isn’t completely closed, but it’s far from wide open. I thought gambling’s odds may have improved somewhat after the terribly austere Pitts and Ogden budgets first surfaced, but this doesn’t lend support to that thesis.

As for the poll mentioned in the story, there’s no details or references to the poll data, and I’m not interested in seeking them out. We’ve seen plenty of polling data that suggests Texans support the idea, so this is no revelation. I still think the fundamental issue is a lack of legislators that support it. If Hamilton’s “consensus” bill never makes it to the House floor, that will tell you all you need to know. The Trib, Texas Politics, and Postcards have more.

Texting while lawmaking

This is a fascinating issue.

A bill by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi , would make an addition to the Texas Open Meetings Act. And it would apply to any public meeting, whether it’s a House committee or a small-town city council meeting.

The measure, House Bill 2977, says an official would be committing an offense if he or she transmits an electronic message — including an email, text message, instant message or Internet posting — during a public meeting.

No penalty has been included in the bill. But Hunter said he’s still considering how to deal with violators.

Hunter, who chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, said he had a few reasons for filing the bill.

“For one, it’s discourteous if you’re conducting business on a cellular phone or BlackBerry when somebody’s coming in to testify. You need to be focused on those people,” Hunter said.

But perhaps more to the point, Hunter is seeking to take the state’s open records and open meetings laws into the digital age.

The state has to modernize the law, Hunter said.

“I also don’t think you should be communicating in a public setting with private interests, telling you how to vote, telling you how to think, telling you how to speak without that being open access to the public,” he said. He added that state legislators would still be allowed to text from the House and Senate chambers.

But rudeness and modernization are not the only reasons for filing the measure. There is a legal basis for his bill, too, Hunter said: If lawmakers don’t address the issue, it could end up the subject of a court challenge.

Here’s HB2977. The subject came up last year in a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing. I think Rep. Hunter is correct that if the Lege doesn’t take action to clarify existing laws relating to open meetings, the courts eventually will, and I think there’s a lot of merit to what he’s saying. I’m not sure about drawing a line between public meetings and just being in the House or Senate chambers, since surely those same private interests are there as well, but the subject is worth debating. I personally think that applying the same guidelines for email to other forms of messaging on mobile devices would go a long way towards addressing these issues, though that brings up the matter of retention intervals. Like I said, there’s a lot to discuss here, and whatever gets passed initially will surely need to be revisited in the future, probably multiple times. It’s going to take awhile to figure this all out and come up with something workable.

From the “Things that are not considered legislative emergencies” department

That list would include removing Texas’ unconstitutional anti-sodomy law from the books.

Although Texas’ so-called sodomy law cannot be enforced legally, civil rights advocates say it should be removed from the books because it creates a climate favorable to bullying, gay-bashing and hate crimes.

“By leaving it on the books, you create the potential for abuse,” said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project , which is representing two gay men who were kicked out of an El Paso restaurant in 2009 for kissing in public.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not stop people of the same sex from engaging in sexual activity. Today, the Texas Penal Code still states that it is a Class C misdemeanor to engage in “deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex” — just after a line explaining that the law is unconstitutional.

El Paso police cited the “homosexual conduct” wording when the two men were kicked out of a Chico’s Tacos restaurant. The men refused to leave and called the police, assuming the restaurant staff was out of line with a city ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Instead, an officer told the men it was illegal for two men to kiss in public and said they could be cited for “homosexual conduct.”

At the time, El Paso Police Department spokesman Javier Sambrano described the officers involved as “relatively inexperienced.”

Harrington said even though the men were not cited, the Chico’s Tacos incident is about harassment.

That’s why Texas needs to strip the language from the books, said State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who has sponsored legislation to do so.

“There is archaic language in our code that is used against our citizens today,” said Farrar, whose colleague, Rep. Garnet Coleman, also a Houston Democrat, has filed an identical bill.

Farrar’s bill is HB604; Coleman’s is HB2156. Neither is likely to get a hearing in committee, much less voted out of committee; if by some miracle that were to happen, it would never be approved by the full House or signed by Governor Perry. The attitude of Rep. Wayne Christian, president of the Texas Conservative Coalition, tells you all you need to know:

Christian said he had not looked at the bills in detail, but that the time it would take them to go through committee probably would not be worth the outcome — especially in a session where lawmakers are wrestling with major issues like redistricting and filling a multi-billion-dollar budget hole.

“In this particular session, I’d be hesitant to do any changing,” Christian said, adding that the law probably “better reflects the views of a lot of citizens” as it is.

Priorities, you know? The Dallas Voice has more.

RIP, health exchange bill

Can’t say this is a surprise.

State Rep. John Zerwas, the Simonton Republican who has filed legislation to implement one of the key elements of federal health care reform, said his bill may be permanently stuck.

Zerwas, who proposed establishing a Texas health insurance exchange not because he approves of federal health reform, but because he fears the feds will do it for Texas, said he’s been told Gov. Rick Perry’s office doesn’t support the measure.

“I am absolutely disappointed,” said Zerwas, who is an anesthesiologist. “I believe this is one of the most important things we can do to protect our insurance market, by putting a Texas exchange in place.”

Perry’s office didn’t say whether he’d veto Zerwas’ bill. But a spokeswoman said the governor “strongly opposes the federal healthcare reform bill and the one size fits all mandates that come along with it.”

What Perry really opposes is anything that would help people who lack health insurance get it. He’s done exactly nothing in his first ten years to advance that cause, so why should we expect anything else? The excuses may change, but the underlying ideology remains the same. I respect Rep. Zerwas’ efforts, but if he wants to do this he’s going to need a Democratic Governor, and who knows when that may happen.

Moving the primaries back

In the 2007 legislative session, there was some energy to move the primary date up in Texas, on the theory that an earlier primary would finally enable Texas voters to have a say in the Presidential process, which was usually decided by the time our turn rolled around. That ultimately went nowhere, and it turned out to be for the best. Now the primary calendar may get pushed back a few weeks to accommodate a 2009 federal law aimed at making it easier for overseas military personnel to vote.

Texas must comply with the 2009 Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment Act requiring states to provide ballots to military personnel at least 45 days before an election. Making it easier for military personnel to vote will require Texas to change primary and runoff elections dates – resulting in longer campaigns for candidates and the public.

The early March primary election date will change – most likely to later in March or April. The runoff election – now six weeks after the primary – could move to May or late June or, possibly, even to July.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, are working to develop a bipartisan plan, which may not be so simple considering the Legislature includes as many election experts as there are members – 181. And most have an opinion. The major political parties also will have to sign off since they run the primary elections.

Sen. Van de Putte’s bill is SB100, and Rep. Taylor’s bill is HB111. The two are not the same, and so far it’s unclear that there’s a single approach preferred by a majority of either chamber. Among other things, having runoffs in June might present logistical issues, since many voting locations are schools, which would not be open at that time.

There’s another issue in all this that’s nagging at me as well:

Linda Green, installation voting assistance officer at Fort Sam Houston, said deployed troops have had problems voting by mail because ballots didn’t reach the personnel on time, or don’t get returned soon enough to be counted. But she said the Defense Department does an excellent job of providing resources to help with voting, including the assignment of a voting assistance officer to each unit – typically a captain or major.

I have to ask: Why aren’t we thinking about designing a system for these voters that doesn’t rely on slow mail delivery? Specifically, isn’t it time someone designed a system where they could vote over the Internet? Everyone in the military already has a unique ID. All they’ll need is an account and a password, and they’re good to go. The system can be designed to prevent anyone from voting more than once – hell, you could make it so that only a designated set of computers at a given location are authorized for voting, which must be done in the presence of the voting assistance officer. Obviously, this isn’t a problem that can be solved at a local or state level, so adjusting the elections calendar is the best the Lege can do, but still. This has got to be the right answer.

Schools begin to feel the effect of budget cuts

If you’re an HISD principal, the next few weeks will be no fun at all.

More public school employees can expect pink slips in coming weeks as state law requires districts to notify teachers by mid-April – technically, 45 days before the last day of instruction – if they don’t have guaranteed jobs in the coming year. If the budget picture improves, the employees could be hired back.

The Houston Independent School District board kick-started the cuts this month, authorizing Superintendent Terry Grier to give layoff notices to about 90 employees – many of them literacy coaches – because federal stimulus funding or other grants were drying up.

HISD is preparing for a projected shortfall of $170 million – about 10 percent of the district’s $1.6 billion operating budget. On March 10, the board approved lowering the funding it distributes to each school by $275 per student.

Just as a reminder, as things stand the budget proposed by the Senate would be slightly better for HISD than they were originally expecting, though that would still translate to over $100 million in lost funding for them. The House budget is far more draconian, worse than HISD is planning for, and it’s not at all clear that the House will go along with what the Senate wants to do. In other words, the misery being felt now may be just the beginning. And just think, TAKS tests are at the end of April. I’m sure everyone will be in a great frame of mind for them, don’t you?

TPC splits the difference

Bike advocates get a partial victory as the Transportation Policy Council voted to keep the last $12.8 million of unallocated federal funds on alternate mode projects instead of redirecting it towards roads.

“Whatever we do in this room is supposed to be representative of our regional values and needs,” said Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey, who said he favored redirecting that $12.8 million to roads. “If we allocate federal money to small-ticket things that are representative of individual communities’ values as opposed to regional values, we’re sucking up our discretionary funding because of the deficiency in mobility, the big-ticket things.”

Ultimately, Storey voted with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to funnel all the remaining dollars to mobility work, but leave previous funding decisions intact.

A proposal by Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell to give $7.2 million more to bike and pedestrian projects and another $72.6 million to roads was voted down.

CM Lovell put out a statement following the TPC meeting that said “This action not only stopped the loss of $12.8 million in federal funding recommended at the February 25 TPC meeting but also secured the commitment of the $51.6 million, which represents 15 percent of the total federal funding and exceeds the original recommendation that was originally considered by the Transportation Policy Council.” That is higher than the nine to thirteen percent range for alternate mode projects that Judge Emmett had recommended, but considerably lower than the 34% target that advocacy groups like Houston Tomorrow wanted. Still, they managed to reverse the original decision to use those remaining funds for roads and drew a considerable amount of attention to their efforts in the process, which is no small thing. I haven’t seen a statement yet from either HT or BikeHouston yet so I don’t know how they feel about this, but my guess would be more positive than negative.

The first people

Great story.

Texas scientists have found the oldest confirmed site of human habitation in the Americas just north of Austin, where the Edwards Plateau meets the coastal plains.

The unprecedented haul of artifacts from as far back as 15,500 years ago brings archaeologists much closer to answering the mysteries of who the first Americans were, where they came from and how they got here.

The new work, published Thursday in the journal Science, may definitively prove humans lived in the Americas prior to the “Clovis” people, who spread widely across the western hemisphere beginning about 13,000 years ago. These people, identifiable by their characteristic fluted spear points, were long thought to be the first Americans.

The discovery of such an old settlement also suggests the first Americans must have come from Asia, not through an ice-free corridor over land, but along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts in boats as long as 16,000 years ago.

“I think we’re getting closer and closer to understanding how and when the first people came into the Americas,” said Michael Waters, a Texas A&M University archaeologist who led the study.

I love this story, and I can’t wait to hear more about what Dr. Waters and his team discover. I couldn’t quite read it without thinking to myself “And whoever these people were, and whenever they arrived, they probably encountered some ancient ancestors of Debbie Riddle and Leo Berman demanding to see their papers”. I think I’ve been following the Lege too closely and it’s scrambled my brains a bit. Anyway, read the article and be excited about what we’re learning about the people who were in Texas before we were.

What the vote suppressers are up to

I just saw a link on the homepage about a group of folks who are convinced that there’s heaps! reams! scads! piles! of examples of vote fraud going on out there and how they’re here in our fair city to Do Something about it. If you want to know what they’re up to but fear getting cooties, I recommend this TPM report, from a reporter who wasn’t allowed in the door, apparently because the vote fraudsters thought they might get cooties. Got all that? Good. Go check it out.

Interview with Steve Murdock

Dr. Steve Murdock is a former State Demographer of Texas and director of the US Census, now the founding Director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University. He’s the man to go to if you want to know about demography in Texas, and since that’s both something that interests me and is also very much in the news between the Census and the legislative session, I figured now was an excellent time to have a conversation with him about these things. Here’s what we discussed:

Download the MP3 file

It’s a long conversation, but I hope you’ll find it as interesting and informative as I did. Whatever the Lege chooses to do this session, they and we can’t say we didn’t know any better.

SBOE redistricting

The House Redistricting Committee gets to work.

It would be easier to draw new State Board of Education districts to reflect the state’s booming Hispanic population growth if there were more than 15 seats, a state lawmaker said Friday while calling for a study to expand the board.

House Redistricting Chairman Burt Solomons said Friday the current 15 districts are too large and unwieldy. He said he will ask House Speaker Joe Straus for an interim study to determine a better way to configure the State Board of Education.

Meanwhile, the new map that Solomons, R-Carrollton, has drawn for those 15 seats needs additional work, some said, because it does not accommodate Hispanic growth. Although Hispanics represent about two-thirds of the state’s population growth, critics note the proposed map would dilute one of the three existing Hispanic districts.

“With the current 15 members and the districts being so large, there’s only so much you can do,” Solomons said.

The current districts each will have about 1.7 million people. Some of the districts anchored in west Texas take 12 hours to drive from one end to the other.

“That’s not exactly what I would call reasonable,” Solomons said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but at the end of the day, you can’t have districts that are going to have 2.5 million people (after the 2020 Census). You will have to do something.”

Couple points to make. First, I completely agree that 1.7 million people per district, with some of these districts being larger than most states, is ridiculous. I seem to recall that there was briefly an amendment in some large bill from the last legislative session that would have significantly changed the nature of the SBOE, but it didn’t make it into any final bill; I can’t find a citation for this, but I know it happened. In any event, I’m of the opinion that State Senate districts are starting to get too big, and that we ought to consider expanding that body to reduce the size of each individual district, so bringing the SBOE a little closer to the people appeals to me, if we’re going to have it around at all. And get used to hearing phrases like “reflect the state’s booming Hispanic population growth”, because some variation of it is going to come up at pretty much every single redistricting-related hearing. As well they should. If you want more, Greg has number-crunching, map commentary, and a liveblog of the House hearing on SBOE redistricting, which was short and sweet. Check ’em out.

Constable Bailey to step down

This from last week was a surprise.

Harris County’s longest-serving current constable resigned today at commissioners court, upset by the layoffs he said he was forced to make after the county passed its leanest budget in years earlier this month.

Precinct 8 Constable Bill Bailey, 72, who also is an announcer, board member and lifetime vice president for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, surprised much of the room by announcing he would step down from his post effective May 31.

He explained the painful process of laying off 10 employees, then 11, then being told even those cuts didn’t reach his required budget number. So, he said, he had decided to cut a 12th worker.

“I’ve reached the difficult decision that that employee’s going to be me,” Bailey said, his voice faltering at times. “I will cut my position… I will retire from a job that I dearly loved, for 28 and a half years.”

I don’t know anything about Constable Bailey, but it’s clear from the story that he was well-liked. I wish him well in his retirement.

As the Chron story notes, Bailey was not going to run for re-election in 2012 anyway. Commissioners Court will choose a replacement for him – Bailey will recommend that his chief deputy Phil Sandlin be appointed to fill his unexpired term – and that person will then have the advantage of having been in the office for a few months before being on a ballot. Normally at this time I’d tell you what the partisan numbers for 2008 were in Bailey’s precinct, but I seem to have managed to misplace the original Harris County canvass file that I had, so I can’t. Given that County Commissioner precincts, which include the Constable and JP precincts within them, are due to be redrawn, those numbers wouldn’t have served as more than curiosities anyway. But I knew you’d wonder about that, so there you have it.

“Don’t call me, I won’t call you”

Does anybody use the phone any more?

In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone — land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.

“I literally never use the phone,” Jonathan Adler, the interior designer, told me. (Alas, by phone, but it had to be.) “Sometimes I call my mother on the way to work because she’ll be happy to chitty chat. But I just can’t think of anyone else who’d want to talk to me.” Then again, he doesn’t want to be called, either. “I’ve learned not to press ‘ignore’ on my cellphone because then people know that you’re there.”

“I remember when I was growing up, the rule was, ‘Don’t call anyone after 10 p.m.,’ ” Mr. Adler said. “Now the rule is, ‘Don’t call anyone. Ever.’ ”

Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward. “Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now,” Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners, said by way of opening our phone conversation. “I’ve been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.”

Though the beast has been somewhat tamed by voice mail and caller ID, the phone caller still insists, Ms. Martin explained, “that we should drop whatever we’re doing and listen to me.”

Even at work, where people once managed to look busy by wearing a headset or constantly parrying calls back and forth via a harried assistant, the offices are silent. The reasons are multifold. Nobody has assistants anymore to handle telecommunications. And in today’s nearly door-free workplaces, unless everyone is on the phone, calls are disruptive and, in a tight warren of cubicles, distressingly public. Does anyone want to hear me detail to the dentist the havoc six-year molars have wreaked on my daughter?

“When I walk around the office, nobody is on the phone,” said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher at HarperCollins. The nature of the rare business call has also changed. “Phone calls used to be everything: serious, light, heavy, funny,” Mr. Burnham said. “But now they tend to be things that are very focused. And almost everyone e-mails first and asks, ‘Is it O.K. if I call?’ ”

I do about 90% of my business via email at work. I will admit that I encourage people to email me – I tell them I always have my BlackBerry on me, so they’ll reach me when I’m not at my desk – and generally try to get off the phone when possible. That said, for some things I prefer it. I do a lot of customer troubleshooting, and you just can’t diagnose a problem many times without being able to ask a lot of questions and make clarifications. That’s a lot easier and faster to do on the phone. At home, forget it. The phone is almost never for me, which is fine by me. People who call for me usually call me on my cell nowadays. If you’d asked me five years ago if this is how it would turn out, I wouldn’t have expected it. But there you have it. How much do you use your phone for actual talking these days?

Weekend link dump for March 27

Spring is here, spring is here, life is skittles and life is beer…

All talk, and no action, that’s our Republican Congress.

The only quibble I have with this is that it needed to give more hate to people who hit “reply to all” unnecessarily.

Feeling hungry? Read this and you’ll feel full. Probably a little queasy, too.

Maybe time travel is impossible, but I know where (when) I want to go when and if it becomes available.

The main thing I wish Google would do differently is give you a way to sort your mail by size, so you can easily delete old mails with big honking attachments.

The Republican war on the poor is proceeding apace.

That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.

So much for competition in the wireless market. Get ready to get bent, T-Mobile customers!

Hey, at least you can still access my content for free, no matter where you come from.

Yes, the downside of March Madness is definitely having to watch all those ads.

Relatively speaking, NPR is a bargain.

How many children will die as a result of a Republican-sponsored budget cut of vaccination funding?

How dumb are we? Or, putting it another way, how many people that leave illiterate comments on newspaper stories and blog posts about “illegals” could pass the US citizenship test? Not too damn many, if you ask me. And for the record, I got all 20 questions right.

Keep those kiddos facing the rear of your vehicle until they’re two.

Maybe letting go of all the journalists wasn’t such a hot idea after all.

How do you explain health care reform to people who have mostly been misinformed about it?

You want to keep government out of health care? Then this government intrusion into health care should outrage you.

We need another corporate tax break like we need a collective hole in the head.

From the “A word means precisely what I want it to mean” department.

Why Liyba 2011 and Iraq 2003 are not the same thing.

Apparently, campaigning as a moderate, then governing as a radical conservative isn’t something voters like.

What Leonard Pitts said.

Why do we use barrel-wearing as a signifier of poverty, anyway?

This may be the greatest search engine referral my blog has ever received.

Page not found. Really, really, really not found.

Wisconsin’s new junior Senator has no idea what he’s talking about.

Child obesity and policies to deal with it is a sad example of the bizarre ways that Obama hatred manifests itself.

Of sonograms and airport scanners.

I am here. You probably are, too.

“When we Congressional Republicans speak of the Constitution, it means just what we choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Roger Ebert eulogizes Elizabeth Taylor.

Fiscal conservatism, Mississippi-style.

It was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire this year.

RIP, Geraldine Ferraro.

More on the drainage fee exemptions

Here’s the Chron story about the Mayor’s change in direction to exempt churches and schools from the new drainage fee.

Under previous numbers published by the administration, exempting those institutions would raise the monthly fee on other property owners by about 7.6 percent. But on Friday, Parker said city officials had “refined our estimates” and found that they could include the exemptions without raising the rates on home and business owners.

“The average homeowner in the city of Houston will still pay that $5 on a curb-and-gutter street and $4.06 per month on an open-ditch street, and still accommodate what I heard over and over again — particularly for the school districts – that they needed relief considering what was going on in Austin,” Parker said.


Parker campaigned in the fall in favor of an ordinance with no exemptions and continued that stance in the months since city voters passed Proposition 1 last November, which calls for a monthly surcharge on property owners to raise $125 million a year for drainage and street improvements, starting in July.

Her rhetoric softened in recent weeks as she faced a divided council, a coalition of church and school leaders clamoring for relief from the fee and a push in Austin to impose exemptions through state legislation. Her council allies on the issue also are using the language of compromise.

“I will vote for exemptions if this is the kind of thing that’s necessary to move it forward. A principled no-exemptions position is not something I’m going to go to the mat on,” said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, whose District C voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 1.

We’ll get the specifics on Monday, and I’ll get to those revised estimates in a minute. It must be noted that while this is a big victory for the churches, they’re still not satisfied.

“We are thankful that due to massive public pressure and outcry the mayor has finally reversed her position and is supporting exemptions for churches and schools. If she is sincere, she will instruct the city’s lobbyists to support SB 714 in the state Senate,” the Houston Area Pastor Council said in a release. “Moreover, our basic position is that due to the election results being challenged in court and major ethical issues unresolved, the City Council should not act on any ordinance at this time with or without exemptions.”

Councilman C.O. Bradford said he agrees with the group, adding, “Today, I would be a no vote, pending discussion.”

You may recall that the Houston Area Pastor’s Council was the first group to bring the anti-gay hate during the 2009 election. I can’t tell you how sick it makes me to give these jerks anything. Shame on you for abetting them, CM Bradford.

As for the refined estimates, a few weeks ago Don Sumners, the county’s crazy uncle in the Tax Assessor’s office, alleged that the city’s planned fee structure would bring in more revenue than they claimed it would. He made his charges in this presentation, which was based on the city’s presentation of the way the fee was calculated. I sent an inquiry to the Mayor’s office about this, and they responded with this document. There were two critical adjustments the city made, which account for the lower revenue figure they project:

1. The estimate of total impervious acreage was based on aerial images. The city validated its estimates by taking actual measurements of a sample of properties. Based on that, they concluded that the real total acreage was somewhat less, so the amount billed would be less than what Sumners’ calculations showed. They also assumed that a few people would successfully protest their acreage assessment, and would thus reduce the total amount billed further.

2. Sumners’ revenue figure is based on everyone paying in full. In real life, that doesn’t happen. The city’s revenue figure takes into account the fact that some bills, for water service and for sewer service (most people get billed for both in Houston, but some only get billed for sewer) go uncollected. Guess this never occurred to Sumners.

Put the two together, and you get the lower revenue numbers the city cited. I’m not exactly sure how this relates to the revelation about not needing to charge more if churches and schools are exempted, and the matter of county buildings is still up in the air as far as I can tell, but I’d still prefer they got included. Not gonna happen, unfortunately. We’ll see how the rest goes on Monday.

School district reserves

Rick Perry sure does like the idea of spending other people’s money.

Pressed on using the Rainy Day Fund to help close of the state’s massive budget shortfall and avoid dramatic cuts, particularly to school funding, Gov. Rick Perry earlier this month pointed to another source of money he believes should be tapped first: the reserves held by many Texas school districts.

“It’s about $12 billion in reserve accounts in our independent school districts, so should the state spend their Rainy Day Fund before those are accessed?” Perry said. “It’s a good debate to have. My answer is no, I don’t think so.”

According to spreadsheets prepared for the governor and provided to the Tribune, the state’s 1,030 school districts have — in total — $10.2 billion in reserves and another $2.1 billion in unspent federal stimulus money. Facing a reduction in state education spending of between $4 billion and $10 billion, many school districts have said they will be forced to lay off teachers and other staff and even close schools. Can they use their reserve funds to avoid such draconian cutbacks? The answer is not as simple as the governor’s statement would imply.

Hard to believe that Perry could be oversimplifying, isn’t it? For one thing, the state requires school districts to maintain a cash reserve, which is supposed to be enough for them to operate for 60 days. As the story goes on to note, the districts collectively have only about $430 million above the amount recommended by the state. One reason they need such a cushion is because a standard accounting trick the state employs when it needs a little slack to balance its budget is delaying payments to other entities – like, for instance, school districts – for a day. Nice work if you can get it, right?

It’s also the case that while districts together have some excess reserves, not all of them do individually, and no mechanism exists to transfer such funds from one ISD to another. Even if one did exist, as Rep. Rob Eissler points out, it would be perverse to make them do so.

Eissler, a former school board member who now heads the House’s Public Education Committee, says it “would be a strong reach” to try to get the school districts to throw their money into the pot to make the state budget work. He doesn’t think it would be a smart thing to do. It’s not the state’s money, for one thing, and the districts aren’t all in the same financial shape.

“Let’s say School District A really watched their money and really got good results and has a healthy fund balance, and we’re going to penalize them because School District B just spent everything they had and didn’t pay attention to their finances and they’re in the hole?” he says. “We’re trying to reward productivity. That would not.”

Not that Rick Perry cares. He has a point to make. On a related note, Abby Rapoport observes that Senate Republicans are dangling the “local control” carrot in front of school districts, which in this case means “we’ll relieve you of some responsibilities as we take away all your money”. Given a real choice, I don’t know how many school districts would choose a deal like that.

St. Joseph’s Hospital on the auction block

Another ownership change is coming for the venerable hospital.

St. Joseph Medical Center, Houston’s oldest hospital, will be put up for auction next month, five years after its then-Catholic owners sold majority shares to a North Carolina-based for-profit company.

Hospital Partners of America invested heavily in the hospital but declared bankruptcy 2½ years ago and is initiating the sale as part of its Chapter 7 process. The downtown hospital is financially healthy.

“St. Joseph has been caring for the people of Houston for nearly 125 years, and there are no plans for that to change,” Chief Executive Officer Patrick Mathews said in a statement. “At the end of this process, 30 to 45 days from now, St. Joseph will still be the great institution that’s served Houston all these years. The only difference will be that our physician partners will have a new majority owner.”

St. Joseph doctors hold a nearly 22 percent interest in the hospital.

Iasis Healthcare of Tennessee signed an agreement to buy the remaining 78.2 percent interest Friday, after the bankruptcy trustee conducting the sale selected its bid as the best among 11. Another bidder could still top it at the auction April 15.

The purchase price will be based upon an “enterprise value” of $165 million, an Iasis press release said. The release noted that St. Joseph’s annual net revenue is roughly $245 million.

I’m just glad the hospital, which is where both my girls were born, is in good financial shape. That wasn’t the case a few years ago, when it looked like the place might be forced to close. May it continue to be a part of Houston’s landscape for years to come.

New judge in DeLay associates’ case

Meet the new judge, fourth in a series:

The co-defendants of Tom DeLay, who was convicted last fall of conspiring to launder corporate money into political donations, will be tried before state District Judge David Crain, according to a court order filed Wednesday.

Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, the presiding judge of the Central Texas region, tapped Crain after defense lawyers for Jim Ellis and John Colyandro claimed visiting Judge Pat Priest of San Antonio was biased against their clients. Priest, who sentenced to DeLay to three years in prison, stepped aside earlier this month.

Stubblefield said under the law the Ellis and Colyandro cases automatically return to the 331st District Court, where the felony charges against them originated.

Judge Crain succeeded Judge Bob Perkins in the 331st. Perkins, of course, was the original judge in the DeLay case, before he was removed via a motion to recuse him from the defense. I feel a song coming on:

What the hell, this case has been around since the earth’s crust cooled. Let’s have another song:

I think I’m done now. More here.

Saturday video break: Ease on down the road

We took the girls to see a children’s-theater production of “The Wizard of Oz” last weekend, and that made me think of this:

Alas, I couldn’t find a clip of this from the movie, but if you just want to hear the original, uninterrupted song, go here. Thinking about that also got me to thinking about the late, great Nipsey Russell, about whom you can hear a tribute from NPR here. I’d say someone needs to revive “The Wiz”, but honestly I don’t know how you can top the talent from the original.

No more free tows

Change is coming to SafeClear – it will now cost $50 for a tow on a highway inside the city, instead of it being provided for free.

Passing the cost of towing to motorists is expected to save the city about $3.3 million a year, one of numerous steps the city is considering to close a $130 million budget gap for the year that begins July 1.

“We can no longer afford to pay for this program,” said Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who chairs council’s transportation committee and helped work out the new arrangement with city-contracted towing companies.

The SafeClear program’s operations will not change much beyond the pay-at-the-curb proposal. When a car breaks down in the emergency lane, a city-dispatched truck arrives within six minutes and tows it from the freeway, with or without the driver’s consent. Currently, the city pays the towing company $50 per vehicle cleared from the freeway.

Jeanette Rash, of the SafeClear Management Group, a consortium of towing companies that patrol the freeways and respond to city dispatchers’ calls, said she is trying to arrange direct billing to insurance companies so motorists do not have to pay tow truck drivers up front and later seek reimbursement under their policies.

Considering that ending the program altogether had been on the table, that’s not so bad. There are still issues to be worked out, such as how to deal with uninsured and indigent motorists, and of course Council will weigh in, which is sure to mean some non-trivial amount of disagreement. But one way or another, SafeClear is going to be different.

Smaller cuts from the Senate

Trail Blazers:

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday adopted a school funding plan for the next two years that would cut basic funding for school districts by nearly 6 percent – or $2 billion a year – to handle a massive state revenue shortfall. The committee voted 13-2 to approve the recommendations of a special subcommittee on education funding that was chaired by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who also serves on the finance committee. The two no votes were cast by Democrats on the panel.

The proposal is less than half the 15 percent reduction in education funding contained in a preliminary Senate budget plan and is well under a House proposal that would trim an estimated $3.9 billion a year – or $7.8 billion over the next two years – from school district budgets. Senators are still looking for potential revenue sources to make up the estimated $5.3 billion that would be needed to fund their budget for public education. Tapping the state’s rainy day fund also has been mentioned as a possibility.

This is considerably better than the House version, not that that’s a high bar to clear. It’s also slightly better than the optimistic scenario that HISD optimistic scenario, a fact that was noted by trustees.

[HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett said the senate finance bill is looking at a 7-8 percent cut in funds which for HISD would amount to a cut of $105 million to $119 million – a lot but still less than the $160 million HISD had projected. In addition to that, HISD projects added costs of $11 million in the next year.

That’s the good news. The bad news, of course, is that the Senate hasn’t figured out yet how to pay for any of this yet. It’s also far from certain that the House would go along with whatever they come up with. Sen. Shapiro’s plan still includes nearly $800 million for new textbooks and discretionary grants, which means she’s still prioritizing the new STAAR tests. I’d rather see every penny go to keeping teachers and support personnel. And the fact that we’re talking about “only” a $4 billion cut to public ed in positive terms gives you some idea of how debased this session has been. But you take your itty bitty teeny tiny signs of progress where you can. Postcards has more.

Meanwhile, another Senate committee did more of the same.

Deliberation about what to cut — and whom to save — ended with a vote to restore $4.5 billion to state health agencies at a Senate Health and Human Services sub-committee hearing this morning. The issue now goes to the full Senate Finance Committee, which will debate whether to add the funds back into the Senate appropriations bill.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says this morning’s vote “represents our best effort to address our top needs first,” and will restore 505 full-time positions and funding for programs like Early Childhood Intervention and foster care. It will also, she says, significantly reduce cuts to reimbursement rates for physicians, hospitals and nursing homes.

But some senators argue that funding should be restored for more services. “Certainly the $4.5 billion restoration is a positive step, but we all know that we need more,” says State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who voted against moving the measure to the full Finance Committee. “How can I vote for something that I know is going to create pain [and] cut basic services for thousands of Texans, when I know there’s still an option of … the Rainy Day Fund that’s across the street in the bank?”

As with the Finance bill, this has the same obstacles of needing to identify where the revenue is coming from and convincing the House to go along. Again, I’m glad to see even inadequate baby steps in the right direction, but there’s so much more that is needed. The Trib has more.

I-10 service road update

From Ultimate Heights:

Two of six planned detention ponds are under construction near Interstate 10 east of Patterson Street, along with new feeder roads between Shepherd and Taylor.

Work on the project began in October, with the first two detention ponds scheduled for completion near the end of this year, two Texas Department of Transportation representatives said March 8.

Alan Wang, supervising design engineer, and Elie J. Alkhoury, assistant director of the transportation department’s consultant contract administration, spoke at a meeting of the Greater Houston Heights Community Emergency Response Team.

The meeting took place at Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church, 211 Byrne St.

Building the feeder roads is expected to take another three years, the two said.

The project is designed to prevent catastrophic flooding on Interstate 10 near White Oak Bayou, which happened during Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001, they said.

“I-10 acted as a detention pond in Allison,” Wang said. “We’re trying to make sure this won’t happen again.”

Four more detention ponds will be built between Studemont and Taylor on the north side of the freeway, within the I-10 right-of-way that varies between about 200 feet and 500 feet, Wang said.

The retention ponds have been on the agenda for awhile – I have a note about a public meeting to discuss them from 2006. You can also find some schematics for the service roads here, from 2008. With the way this is snarling traffic in my neck of the woods, the bit about construction lasting till 2014 is enough to give me a migraine. Odds are good that the Heights Wal-Mart will be built before the service roads are done, which makes the Ainbinder traffic study even less useful. Anyway, just wanted to pass this along.

District H redistricting town hall meeting

From the inbox:

City of Houston Redistricting 2011 Town Hall Meeting (District H)

Mayor Annise D. Parker
District H Council Member Edward Gonzalez
City of Houston Attorney Dave Feldman

Monday, March 28, 2011
6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Jefferson Davis High School
1101 Quitman Street
Houston, Texas 77009

Parking located behind school (along Tackaberry Street off Quitman Street or Morris Street off Fulton Street)

The City of Houston Charter requires that Houston City Council expand to eleven single-member districts at such point that census data demonstrates that the city’s population exceeds 2.1 million residents. With council’s confirmation that the city has surpassed this threshold, the City has embarked on the process of creating Districts J and K.

The City is interested in hearing from you and your neighborhood regarding your suggestions for the configuration of the new council districts. There will NOT be a map of new districts available at the redistricting meetings. This phase of the process is designed to hear from the public BEFORE the City of Houston draws a proposed map.

You are invited to attend this town hall meeting and tell us what you think. Go to for more information.

If you have questions or concerns, contact [email protected] or call 713.837.7826.

Here’s a map to the location. Be there if you can.

City caves on drainage fee for churches

From the inbox:

Mayor Parker Announces New Rebuild Houston Funding Plan with Exemptions and Assistance for Low Income

Mayor Annise Parker today announced that she will ask City Council next week to approve a new Rebuild Houston funding plan that includes exemptions for churches and schools. In addition to the exemptions, the City will set aside half a million dollars that will be available to assist the disabled, senior citizens and low-income residents who cannot afford the drainage charge.

“I presented the draft Rebuild Houston Ordinance on February 6, 2011,” said Mayor Parker. “It was exactly as I promised voters, with no exemptions and everyone paying their fair share. After 10 town hall meetings, two public hearings, and discussions with council members, I believe this new plan properly balances community needs. I promised Houston homeowners this would cost them about $5 a month. The calculations indicate we can keep that promise while still helping our cash-strapped schools and our churches, and providing assistance to those who can’t afford the fee.”

Mayor Parker wanted to work this out here at home, not at the state capitol, and appreciates the patience of her colleagues in Austin, especially State Representative Harold Dutton. She calls this is an example of local control that accomplishes the goals she set at the beginning of this process.

The city charter amendment approved by Houston voters last fall mandates the imposition of a new drainage fee to raise a minimum of $125 million annually for a dedicated, pay-as-you-go, street and drainage improvement program. Monies raised from the fee must be placed in a lock box and cannot be used for other city needs.

For efficiency and cost-savings, the city intends to bill property owners, when possible, by including the fee on city water bills. Billing is scheduled to begin in July.

Houston City Council will be briefed on details of the new fee, assistance plan and enforcement mechanism at a committee meeting at 2:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, 2011. City Council will be asked to vote on the plan Wednesday.

In other words, Dan Patrick’s legislative blackmail worked as intended. I can’t say I blame the city for wanting to avoid this kind of hassle, but I can’t say I’m happy about it, either. But what’s done is done. Let’s get this wrapped up and move on to the next item on the agenda.

Friday random ten: The 1950s

The 1950s. Poodle skirts, greasy kid stuff, James Dean, and some pretty good music.

1. Walkin’ Blues – Muddy Waters (1950)
2. All The Things You Are – Dizzy Gillespie (1953)
3. Rock Around The Clock – Bill Haley and The Comets (1954)
4. I Got A Woman – Ray Charles (1954)
5. Angel Band – The Stanley Brothers (1955)
6. Brilliant Corners – Thelonious Monk (1956)
7. Blue Moon of Kentucky – Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys (1956)
8. Tom Dooley – Kingston Trio (1958)
9. Mack The Knife – Bobby Darin (1959)
10. Blue Rondo A La Turk – Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

I think this sums up the 1950s for those of us who didn’t live through it but who do remember the ubiquitous 1950s nostalgia from the 1970s:

Sit on it, nerds.

Entire song list report: Started with “Walk Humbly, Son” by Eddie From Ohio. The last song was “The Way She Walks”, by Trish and Darin, song #5847, for another 62 this week. I’m within 500 tunes of the end and the rewind through songs that were missed the first time. Woo hoo!