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April, 2011:

Saturday video break: Take comfort, Texans fans

You could have been born a Jets fan:

May I just say, Mel Kiper’s hair should be registered with his local police department as a weapon. You could put someone’s eye out with that pompadour.

City layoffs begin

With more to follow later.

Expressing faith that the “brighter tomorrow we wait for is just around the corner,” the Parker administration on Thursday began pink-slipping municipal workers in hope of easing an expected $80 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year.

A memorandum from Mayor Annise Parker’s office to City Council and department heads said the first layoffs targeted workers in “non-public safety” departments.

Thursday’s layoffs are the first of many expected by May 17 — the legal deadline for handing out termination notices. Laid-off workers will remain on the city payroll until July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Mary Benton has a copy of the Mayor’s memo, which notes that “Economic improvements seen in the last month or so have allowed us to reduce the number of planned layoffs by more than half. If there is further improvement, it is possible that some of the remaining planned layoffs could be reversed.” From your lips to Susan Combs’ ears, I say. It is true that state sales tax collections have been up considerably over the past few months, though they’re still well below pre-crash numbers. But as long as the actual revenue is beating projected revenue, the budget picture will improve. Keep your fingers crossed.

Why can’t a woman be more like a man?

The Texas Legislature would like for you to stay just exactly as you are, thank you very much.

Two years after Texas became one of the last states to allow transgendered people to use proof of their sex change to get a marriage license, Republican lawmakers are trying to roll back the clock.

Advocates for the transgendered say a proposal to bar transgendered people from getting married smacks of discrimination and would put their legally-granted marriages in danger of being nullified if challenged in court.

One of the Republican sponsors of the legislation said he’s simply trying to clean up the 2009 law in a state that bans same-sex marriage under the Constitution.

“The Texas Constitution,” Sen. Tommy Williams said, “clearly defines marriage between one man and one woman.”


Williams said he understands that some people’s gender cannot easily be determined when they are born and they later have an operation that could change the originally assigned gender.

“It is an emotional issue,” Williams said. “I can appreciate that.”

But when asked about claims of discrimination, Williams insisted his goal is to simplify marriage licensing for clerks who are trying to balance the 2009 law with the 1999 Texas appeals court ruling.

“They shouldn’t have to resolve these issues,” Williams said.

“We have confused them.”

Williams’ legislation has cleared a committee vote and now awaits approval by the full Senate, which is predominantly Republican. The version in the GOP-dominated House has not yet been given a hearing.

Some advocates for the transgendered say that even if the legislation is passed, transgendered people could still get marriage licenses using other state and federally-issued documents such as a drivers’ license or passport. But without the weight of a court order officially recognizing their gender reassignment, they worry any legal challenge, such as a divorce or estate dispute, would nullify the marriage.

“We want to be recognized as people. We want to have the same rights as all of you,” Lisa Scheps of the Transgender Education Network of Texas said at a March hearing on Williams’ bill. No one testified in favor of the legislation.

See here and here for some background. Williams’ bill is SB723; its companion bill is HB3098 by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst. All it does is strike the words “or sex change” from the section of the law that allows “an original or certified copy of a court order relating to the applicant’s name change” as proof of identity for a marriage license. While Williams’ bill has been voted out of committee (Kolkhorsts’ bill has not had a committee hearing yet), it’s not on the Senate calendar, and I’d think there’s at least a decent chance it could get blocked by Senate Democrats, if it gets onto the Senate calendar. I don’t know how high a priority this is for Republicans. With any luck, it’ll die on the vine.

I don’t know what else there is to say about this. I believe the concerns that transgendered people will get married anyway with other forms of ID then be exposed to legal jeopardy in the event of divorce or other court proceedings are almost certain to come true. We wouldn’t have these problems if we had marriage equality in this state. Some day, when we do, we’ll marvel at all the gyrations that those who opposed it will have gone through to hold onto their outdated and unjust ways. That day cannot come soon enough. Thanks to Hair Balls for the link.

New development planned for West Gray

From Prime Property:

West Gray may soon get a lot busier.

Developers are proposing multi-story apartment complexes on two sites just a short distance apart along the largely retail roadway, which runs from River Oaks to downtown.

Both developers are requesting variances from the Planning Commission that would alter the building setbacks for their projects.

The first is at the of site of the Tavern on Gray, a sports bar at at the corner of West Gray and Waugh.


The second complex is proposed on the site of the old Houston Ballet building on West Gray near Dunlavy. The ballet recently moved downtown.

Click over to see the relevant documents. The rendering of the first site, called Hanover West Gray, hilariously depicts wide-open, uncrowded streets at the Waugh and West Gray location. It’s almost as funny as the drawings you see of various suburban-style strip center developments that show happy people walking through tree-lined areas instead of the vast tree-free parking lots that will actually get built. (Like this or this.) Where do the people that do these drawings live, and what color is the sky on their planet?

Jokes aside, I’m generally happy to see infill development happening. What needs to go along with it is a rethinking of the streets that serve these areas, to accommodate and encourage walking and transit instead of simply drawing more cars, of which these streets already have plenty. Andrew Burleson proposed one such alternative awhile back – sadly, the accompanying pictures are no longer there – but there are other possibilities if we’re willing to commit to the idea. The problem, as always, is money, and that’s in short supply these days. It won’t get any cheaper to deal with later on, that’s all I know.

What we need right now

Is a tax cut on yachts.

As some lawmakers look high and low for money to ease cutbacks in education and human services, the House Ways and Means Committee has approved a tax break for big yachts.

The committee voted 8-3 Thursday for House Bill 2187, which Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, casts as an effort to preserve the economic activity that goes along with having big yachts purchased and kept here.

Other states — most notably Florida — have limited their yacht taxes and Davis said that means Texas is losing out on sales and service.

Davis’ bill initially would have limited the the amount of boat tax to $15,625 — the amount normally due on a $250,000 vessel — regardless of sales price. He changed that to match Florida’s $18,000 maximum.

The bill next goes to the full House, where Davis said he’s optimistic about its chances.

Voting against the bill in committee were Reps. Wayne Christian, R-Center; Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio; and Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

Here’s some background on this ludicrous piece of legislation. According to the fiscal note attached to HB2187, it will cost the state $2,782,000 over the next biennium. (That works out to just over 25 teachers, at $55K per year, for the biennium.) Without any way to pay for it, of course, because tax cuts always pay for themselves. It’s a law of the universe, I believe. Anyway, if you’re in the market for a new yacht, as most of us are, be sure to wait till this new law passes so you can save yourself a few bucks. It’s the economy-boosting thing to do. A statement from the “flabbergasted” Rep. Villarreal is here. Hair Balls has more.

Friday random ten: The 2000s

Did we ever decide on a name for this decade, or did we all sort of agree that it wasn’t worth the bother? I mean, if it weren’t for the birth of my two kids, I’d be willing to forget the whole wretched decade ever happened. Be that as it may, there were a few songs worth remembering.

1. For What Reason – Death Cab for Cutie (2000)
2. Apology – The Go-Go’s (2001)
3. The Rising – Bruce Springsteen (2002)
4. Dirty Life & Times – Warren Zevon (2003)
5. Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Green Day (2004)
6. When I’m 25 or 64 – Jonathan Coulton (2005)
7. You Know I’m No Good – Amy Winehouse (2006)
8. Village Green Preservation Society – Kate Rusby (2007)
9. Womanizer – Lily Allen (2008)
10. Hesitation Blues – Willie and The Wheel (2009)

You remember what was supposed to happen in the year 2000, don’t you?

What, you were expecting something about the Y2K bug? That was a crock. The real question is, does anyone still use Lotus software any more? A decade’s a heck of a long time in that industry.

Entire song list report: Started with “You’re An Ocean”, by Fastball. Finished with “6060-842”, by the B-52s, even though iTunes claims that “99 Red Balloons” by Nena is the last song. That would have been appropriate, but that’s the way it goes. The last Y song was “Yuppies In The Sky”, by Tom Paxton. The first Z song was “Zanzibar”, by Billy Joel; the last Z song was “Zoot Suit Riot”, by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies; the first numeric song was “2 Chairs and One Tree”, by Brother, even if iTunes says it is “100 Days, 100 Night”, by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Eighty-eight songs this week, and a new batch of a few hundred starting next week. And maybe a new gimmick project for after that. Woo hoo!

House passes redistricting map

The Trib stayed up all night to see how it ended.

The Texas House tentatively approved new political districts early this morning on a 92-52 vote after hours of nips and tucks that left the proposal they started with mostly intact.

They turned back wholesale redesigns presented by various groups, including the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force, a coalition of Latino groups, and a map prepared by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. They also got a look at a map drawn by Republicans who wanted to press for more GOP seats than in the proposed map, though that one never came to a vote. And they picked and chose their way through amendments that changed the political lines only in particular regions, counties, cities, and neighborhoods.

“I recognize that some members are not going to be pleased with the results of the map,” Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, predicted at the beginning of the 16-hour debate. He said the lines and the stakes were “very personal” to each of the 150 House members in the room.

The Republicans, with a 101-49 supermajority, easily fended off Democratic attempts to overhaul the maps to increase the voting power of minorities. But not all of the votes split along party lines. In fact, three Democrats voted for the map when the debate ended, and ten Republicans voted against it.

West Texas freshmen Reps. Jim Landtroop, R-Plainview, and Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, were drawn into the same district in Solomons’ plan. They got their own districts after the House accepted an amendment.

Here’s the Chron story on the map’s passage. If West Texas got an extra district, then some other district disappeared, but as of now I can’t tell where that may be. Here’s the Harris County view:

Harris County districts

And here’s how it looks for my neck of the woods:

Only three districts this time

I should note that the map changed a bit between second and third readings; here’s the Harris view and the Heights view of the maps that were originally adopted. Either way, there’s still 24 districts, despite the wishes of the Harris County Democratic caucus, Mayor Parker, and Judge Emmett, who modified his original statement on the matter. The roulette wheel ultimately dropped me into HD145, though as before this map splits the Woodland Heights into two districts, with the eastern half remaining in HD148. This map finally does what I expected to be done all along by putting some heavily Republican territory, around the Galleria and in Memorial, into HD134. I have a feeling it won’t look like a swing district any more when the elections data comes out. (Turnout data is here, but that doesn’t tell me what I want to know.)

While this map is a near certainty at this point to get signed into law, it’s less likely that there will be no further changes to it. Democrats are loudly complaining about Voting Rights Act problems with the map, so if the Justice Department doesn’t take action, you can be certain a lawsuit or two will be filed. Whether anything gets changed for 2012 or if it has to wait till a later election remains to be seen.

As noted, the debate over this map was very long and there were about a million amendments proposed. Greg’s liveblogging, which lasted till about 8 PM, has the most detail. Be sure to see his comparison of Rep. Charlie Howard’s proposed district to his current one, which apparently contains too many Asians for Howard’s taste. See this press release from the Texas Asian American Redistricting Initiative (TAARI) for more on that. Other good coverage from the debate comes from Texas Politics and Trail Blazers. The Trib has a chart comparing average margin of victory in statewide races for the new and old districts that’s now obsolete; we’ll see if they update it. It was useful while it lasted, but the spread in statewide results can be pretty broad, and is to some extent driven by funding differentials. I prefer to look at the full range, but I can certainly understand why the Trib took a more compact approach. Greg now has a Google maps view of the plan (original rev here), so you can zoom in and see more details. Burka, EoW, South Texas Chisme, PDiddie, and Abby Rapoport have more.

Fight over family planning funds coming

It’s a small piece of the difference between the House and Senate budgets, but it will surely be a big part of the fight over how the two are reconciled.

The Senate budget approved by the Finance Committee would spend $11 billion more than the House version, and members of the upper chamber seem unwilling to leave family planning drastically underfunded. The Senate is expected to vote on a final version of the bill this week and clear up the details.

The money that the House slashed helps needy women get physical exams, birth control pills and tests for sexually transmitted infections, as well as other health disorders.

Republican Sen. Bob Deuell of Greenville , an open opponent of abortion and a practicing physician, sees the wisdom in finding money for low-income women who need the services. “These programs prevent unwanted pregnancies and prevent abortions by allowing women to plan their pregnancies,” he said. “I would dare say (the Senate) is willing to put more into family planning.”


In a show of power, the House’s Republican supermajority used a series of amendments to strip the budget of more than $60 million in family planning services and shift it to other programs for poor and disabled children. Some of the money was moved into anti-abortion-rights programs and crisis pregnancy centers.

The conservatives were relentless in their efforts, which some see as part of a nationwide attack on Planned Parenthood, the most widely known family planning program. This larger conservative movement to defund Planned Parenthood, and groups like it, is intended to reduce access to abortion nationwide.

Houston Rep. Jessica Farrar , leader of the House Democrats, said the fight is about ideology, not fiscal prudence. “It’s not about policy; it’s not about women’s health — everything is about abortion for them,” she said.

Farrar and others say that gutting services that help women and children stay healthy and avoid unintended pregnancies will yield skyrocketing long-term Medicaid costs. Women who can’t get birth control are more likely to stay trapped in poverty at the cost of the taxpayer, family planning advocates contend.

There’s no question that Rep. Farrar is right. The question is which side will blink first. There’s a middle ground between spending X dollars and spending Y dollars. There isn’t between believing something is good and believing it’s evil. The anti-family planning zealots do have an ace in the hole, and that’s Rick Perry’s line item veto power. They can give if they need to and still win.

A night with the Skeeters

I learned a couple of interesting things from this Richard Justice column about the forthcoming Sugar Land Skeeters minor league baseball team. Among them: You may think you know what a Skeeter is, but you don’t.

If you’re wondering what a Skeeter is, don’t.

“It’s not a mosquito,” [team president Matt] O’Brien said.

He will unveil a mascot later this year, and then we’ll all know.

Why wait that long? Leave your guesses as to what a Sugar Land Skeeter is if it’s not a mosquito in the comments. Bonus points for links to a representative image.

Houston hasn’t had a minor league baseball team in 50 years, and the gamble for the Skeeters is trying to survive in the shadow of a major league franchise.

And then O’Brien starts rattling off reasons people will enjoy the ballpark experience.

“At times, we’ll feel like dinner theater,” he said. “It’s a place to eat, have fun and socialize with your neighbors.”

If the Skeeters are a success, there likely will be more teams added within two or three years. Baytown has been mentioned for a franchise. So have The Woodlands, Conroe and Waco.

These would be Atlantic League teams – the league is looking at expanding into Texas, if only to make future Skeeter scheduling easier. There’s also supposed to be a Montgomery County team coming online in 2012, but I have not heard anything more about that recently. I don’t know if they’ve officially landed a team, and if so what league it’s in. I’m not sure there’s room for two minor league teams out that way.

The description of the minor league experience as being a bit like dinner theater is apt. I’ve been to minor league games all over the country, and they do work hard to keep you entertained. A common factor now seems to be having a play area for kids. Speaking from recent personal experience, you can spend the better part of the game there with the kiddos if they’re not as into watching the action on the field as you might be. Minor league games are very different than their major league counterparts, but they’re a lot of fun. I plan to make the trek out there once or twice a summer.

One more thing:

There will be all the bells and whistles of minor league baseball. One section of the outfield will be a playground, another an old-fashioned Texas icehouse.

Tickets will go for $8, and $1.75 will get you a hot dog. Depending on your taste in beer, a cold one will cost between $4 and $6.

Again, speaking from personal experience, let me implore President O’Brien and the entire Skeeters staff to ensure there are microbrews available at the games. If you don’t have Saint Arnold, No Label, and Southern Star on tap, you’re doing it wrong. Trust me on this.

For a bottle deposit

I didn’t know that there were bills to create a deposit on beverage bottles and cans in the Lege, but I agree with the Chron editorial board that such a thing would be a good idea.

The bottle bill would require a five- or ten-cent deposit on the vast majority of aluminum, glass and plastic beverage containers sold in the state (a nickel for little ones, a dime for big ones, nothing for milk containers). Consumers could get their money back by returning the containers to stores, redemption centers or reverse vending machines.

Would it be a pain in the neck? A little one, at first. But ask anyone who’s lived in a bottle-deposit state: It’s really not onerous to keep your empties in a sack until you’re ready to turn them in.

Alternately, there are lots of people who’d be delighted to take those valuable containers off your hands. Scout groups and churches could raise money with recycling drives – or by picking up litter. Or you could put your bottles and cans in your curbside recycling bin and let the city recycling program keep the deposits.

The bigger, cleaner stream of stuff to recycle would turbo-boost the recycling industry, creating jobs. Lots of jobs, right here in Texas: According to the Consumer Recycling Institute, Michigan’s bottle bill generated more than 4,600 new jobs there; New York’s, 3,800.

Some bottles and cans wouldn’t be turned in for redemption, of course. Texas would keep the deposits on those – a whopping $175 million a year, estimates the Alliance for a Clean Texas.

The bills in question are HB2114 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, and SB1119 by Sen. Rodney Ellis; they are among the bills of interest that are supported by ACT. I support any reasonable action to improve recycling rates, and I definitely support these. The fact that they would add much-needed revenue to the state’s coffers is a bonus. Unfortunately, neither bill has had a committee hearing yet, and this late in the calendar I can’t say I have much hope for them. If you would like to see these bills pass, then take the Chron’s advice and contact members of the respective committees to get them onto the agenda. There’s no time to waste.

Eversole and Surface to be tried together

There will be only one more trial relating to the Jerry Eversole case. We think, anyway.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole and developer Michael Surface, two longtime friends who exchanged more than $100,000 in trips and gifts, will be tried together for bribery in October, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner agreed with federal prosecutors that two more three-week trials would strain witnesses and resources, according to the order. Hittner’s decision reversed an earlier ruling severing the two men’s cases so Eversole could get a speedy trial last month. That jury deadlocked after a three-week trial on all four counts of corruption.


“This is not good for Eversole,” said Geoffrey Corn, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “Because it results in an accumulation of evidence. The more defendants you have sitting in a courtroom, the worse it always looks.”

He noted that rejoining the cases is not surprising, and the original decision to separate is more unusual.

“Getting a severance motion granted is very, very difficult,” Corn said. “I think the reason the judge did it the first time was the timing of the trials was so disparate.”

Most of the first Eversole trial was about his friendship with Surface, so it’ll be interesting to see how the dynamic changes now that Surface will be there to respond as well. The main thing I’ll note here is that Commissioners Court will need to proceed with redistricting itself before it knows what Eversole’s fate is. I don’t know if their inclination is to draw a map that preserves a precinct for him or not. The point is they’ll have to make a choice instead of waiting to see if it will be made for them. Good luck with that.

Dewhurst flips, then flops, on using rainy day funds

First he says he’s against it.

[Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst sounded supportive of the overall level of spending in the Senate plan, but voiced a preference for using what he calls nontax revenue items instead of the rainy day fund. Some of the supposed nontax revenue ideas that senators haven’t embraced include selling some state land and property, or trying to liquidate state tobacco settlements that are now in endowments.

“I disagreed with them,” said Dewhurst, who presides over the GOP-dominated Senate. “But again, this is a process; we want to keep it moving; we want to get it into conference (committee).”

You can see a transcript of the conversation Dewhurst had with reporters over this here. The man is good at ducking and weaving, I’ll give him that.

The rainy day fund money is a critical difference between the Senate plan and the House plan, which does not spend any rainy day dollars. The Senate version also spends more than the House’s because it would allow some accounting tricks, including a speedup of tax collections and a brief delay in payments to school districts; however, the House has appeared willing to support those measures as well.

So if Dewhurst does not support using rainy day dollars, members of the Senate — particularly Democrats — may have little incentive for bringing it up for a debate on the floor. Those dollars could disappear in a conference committee with the House, since House leaders, and Perry, have said they don’t want to spend rainy day money over the next two years.

The question of whether to bring the budget to the floor has set off considerable debate in Democratic circles. One school of thought says that if Democrats block the budget, perhaps pushing the debate into a special session, Republicans will have no incentive to work with Democrats and will pass the House’s cuts-heavy approach.

But without the rainy day fund, there may be little difference between the House and Senate approaches. And the rule requiring a two-thirds vote to bring the bill to the floor would not be in effect for a final House-Senate compromise, meaning Republicans could pass it without any Democratic support.

In a memo to Democratic colleagues obtained by the American-Statesman, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said Tuesday that he believes the use of the rainy day fund will vanish in a House-Senate conference committee.

“I truly believe it would be a mistake to take any position on the budget that assumes the final version will have significant new revenues — particularly from the Rainy Day Fund — to pay for Texans’ basic needs and priorities,” Watson said. “I’m unconvinced we can trust that those in control of this process truly intend to put significant new dollars into these priorities.”

Then he says he’s for it, more or less.

A day after telling reporters that he’d resisted and been surprised by the Senate Finance Committee’s decision to allow for the use of $3 billion more from the rainy-day fund to support its spending plan, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst issued a letter to senators saying he supports the measure and asking them to do the same.

Dewhurst leaves himself a bit of wiggle room in the letter, saying that if “Texas keeps growing the way it is now, we may not need much, if any, from the Rainy Day Fund”, and calling on Comptroller Susan Combs to certify an increase in future revenue for the Senate to use, with any remaining gap to be taken from the RDF. What Plan B is if Combs refuses to do that is unclear.

I think there’s a lot of merit to Sen. Watson’s concerns. Dewhurst’s comments changed the dynamic of the debate over the Senate budget, as Rep. Garnet Coleman and the CPPP are now urging a No vote on it. I don’t know if they still feel this way after his latest change of direction. Republican Sen. John Carona is pushing back as well. Not surprisingly, Finance Committee Chair Sen. Steve Ogden, who has been struggling to find 21 votes for the budget, called Dewhurst’s remarks not helpful. You can say that again.

Consideration of HB1 is on the Senate intent calendar, but a vote may or may not happen today as there aren’t enough Yeas to suspend the rules for it – via Texas Politics, Nate Blakeslee says at least four Republicans are No votes on it, which means it may not have even a majority, let alone two thirds support. Should be a fun day in the Senate today. The Trib has more.

Bill to help oust Dan Ramos passes out of committee

Nothing unites people like having a common problem.

Legislation that would allow the Texas Democratic Party to intervene in the leadership dispute in the Bexar County Democratic Party was approved Thursday by the Texas House Elections Committee.

With the 7-1 vote, the measure by state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, is eligible for consideration by the full House, but it hasn’t been set for debate.

Martinez Fischer said he was encouraged by the bill’s bipartisan backing in committee. He said he’s contemplating further modifying his proposal to address lingering concerns about loss of local control in the management of party affairs.

Republicans have shown interest in the measure because of a dispute involving a GOP county chair in East Texas who’s under indictment for theft.

A reminder about Dan Ramos, the current Chair of the Bexar County Democratic Party and the main target of this legislation, in case you need it. The bill is HB2752. You will note that one of the coauthors is Crazy Leo Berman. Republicans can’t get much more cover than that. I have no idea what the prospects are for passage, but any time you can get a bill out of committee, you’re doing something right.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 25

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks it’s never too early to plan your Sine Die Day activities as it brings you this week’s roundup.


Bike to the ballpark

From the CTC email list, this is very cool:

Bike to the Ballpark – May 1

Play Green Week at Minute Maid Park runs today through Sunday, May 1st. Throughout the week, the ballclub will be raising awareness of green initiatives. Join the Astros on Sunday, May 1st for the first-ever Bike to the Ballpark!

Register online for just $10 and receive


  • Ticket to Astros vs. Brewers
  • Free Bike Valet secure bike parking in lot D
  • Complimentary bike inspection by Bike Barn mechanics
  • Event packet & Play Green goodie bag
  • Chance to win a free bike, courtesy of Bike Barn!

Once registered, each fan will receive a confirmation email. Please bring this email as your proof of purchase to pick up your event packet and game ticket.

What: Packet pick-up

When: Friday, April 29, 2011 from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, and
Saturday, April 30, 2011 from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Where: Union Station Lobby at Minute Maid Park, 501 Crawford St., Houston, 77002 (map)

What: Late registration and group ride

When: Sunday, May 1, 2011; 9:30 am late registration, 11:00 am ride departs
Where: TC Jester Park, 4201 TC Jester Blvd, Houston, TX 77018 (map)

The group ride from TC Jester Park will follow a predetermined route leading to Minute Maid Park. The Houston Police Department and volunteers from Bike Houston and CTC will be on hand to lead the event, and provide traffic control throughout the route. Once at parking lot D, riders will receive goodie bags and tickets to the game.

What: Astros vs Brewers ballgame
: Sunday, May 1, 2011; 11:30 am gates open, 12:45 pm bike raffle, 1:05 pm game time, 7th inning first chance to be escorted back to TC Jester Park
Where: Minute Maid Park, 501 Crawford St., Houston, 77002 (map)

Bike Houston and CTC volunteers, along with HPD, will be available beginning at the top of the 7th inning to escort riders back to the starting locations. Groups will be escorted from Lot D every 30 minutes beginning at the top of the 7th.

More information is here, and you can see a map of the five-mile route from TC Jester Park to Minute Maid here. It follows existing bike paths all the way downtown, so you’re separate from traffic almost the entire time. If I weren’t already booked up for Sunday, I’d do it myself. Maybe next year. Let me know if you decide to go on this, I’d love to hear about your experience with it.

In Perry’s world

Rick Perry creates his own reality. You got a problem with that?

Gov. Rick Perry, sticking to his guns against further use of the state’s rainy day fund, dismissed a question Tuesday about whether he’s planning for dislocation of tens of thousands of elderly Texans if the House budget is passed and many nursing homes close.

“Those are … estimates that are not on my radar,” Perry told reporters outside the Texas House, where he made his first casual visit of the session to chat with members on the floor.


On April 18, Dewhurst said, “The last thing we want to do is force every nursing home operator who has Medicaid beds to shut down and some 50,000 to 60,000 grandmas and grandpas are pushed out on the street. Now, that’s not Texas.”

On Tuesday, though, Perry made it clear he’s not excited about using rainy-day money to avoid nursing-home closures.

“Look, everybody’s got concerns,” he said. “I don’t get confused about that. It’s also on people’s radar screens what they’ve been through the last two years, where people have had to make huge and hard decisions in their personal lives and their small businesses. And for the government to not have to make those is inappropriate. Look, nobody says it’s going to be an easy period of time. We all understand that. But to sit here and say, ‘Hey, sorry, we’re just going to have to raise your taxes,’ because we don’t have the courage to pass a budget that meets the requirements of being in our revenue stream, I don’t think is appropriate.”

When a reporter noted that Legislative Budget Board officials have told Senate budget writers that the rainy day fund very well could have $12 billion by August 2013, Perry snorted with derision. “I’ve lost so much faith” in the board’s “ability to estimate what’s going,” he said, after it estimated last month that 335,000 jobs could be lost in fiscal 2013 if as many cuts to state spending occur as the House budget proposes.

Perry’s been Governor for more years than I’ve been a blogger. I’ve long since run out of ways to characterize him. The Legislative Budget Board displeased him by contradicting his worldview, so he dismisses them and continues on. If anything about this surprises you, you haven’t been paying attention. And if you think he’ll change his tune when the LBB’s projections pan out, I’ve got some lakefront property in Midland to sell you. After all this time, what else is there to be said?

A better idea than suspending the sales tax holiday

I’ll go along with this.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis said Monday he will fight the proposed suspension of the state’s August school supplies sales tax holiday he created in 1999 unless lawmakers also consider ending tax breaks “for those who have the most in our society.”

“We’ve got all kinds of little goodies, all kinds of tax breaks, and we are going to suspend the sales tax holiday that benefits the working class?” Ellis, D-Houston, asked. “Don’t balance the budget on the backs of the working class.”

Ellis said he favors a comprehensive look at all tax loopholes, including one for natural gas that costs the state $1.2 billion a year, and another “green space” tax exemption that benefits country clubs. He is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would require the Legislature to review its tax exemptions periodically.


Ellis says a comprehensive study on all tax exemptions would allow lawmakers to make rational choices.

He noted that tax “high cost gas” exemption, which cost the state $1.2 billion last year, was created in 1989 to help companies with the costs of drilling high cost wells. Ellis said the policy “made sense as we were in a massive recession and energy costs were a fourth of what they are today.

“Now, however, virtually every new well produced is a ‘high cost’ well, meaning all new drilling receives an ‘incentive’ to do what they are already going to do. And it is not mom and pop producers getting this tax break,” he said. “Oklahoma-based Devon Energy saved $113.8 million in FY 2010, while reporting net profits of $4.6 billion. If we are serious about responsibly balancing the budget, we would actually start eliminating loopholes right now.”

For months now, we’ve been hearing about “hard choices”, and “sacrifice”, and “living within our means”. Well, it’s a lot easier to make “hard choices” when you know that none of the choices will directly affect you. It’s easy to call for “sacrifice” when all of the sacrifice will be made by others. There’s no reason I can think of why we shouldn’t be reviewing all of the current tax exemptions and expenditures to see which make sense and which need to be modified or removed. But that might require some sacrifice from entities that aren’t currently being asked to make any, and we just can’t have that.

HISD redistricting on the horizon

This is likely to be a lot less contentious than other map-drawing exercises we’ve seen, but no redistricting exercise is ever completely bloodless.

Gene Locke of Andrews Kurth told [HISD] trustees they should have a plan to submit to the Justice Department by this July.

Redistricting is called for whenever there’s more than a 10 percent change in the population of a district, Locke said. While several of HISD’s districts remain about the same, [Richard] Murray said there’s been a large increase in District 9 (Larry Marshall’s area) and a decline in population in the north and east parts of the city since the 2000 census.

HISD is going to have to balance the demands of the Voting Rights Act which call for it to be cognizant of race and the Shaw v. Reno case of the 1990s which drawing on the 14th Amendment prohibits anyone from being included or excluded from a voting area based on race.

“You’re caught in a dilemma,” Locke said. “The Voting Rights Act says you have to recognize minority groups [in Houston that’s been identified as Vietnamese, Hispanics and African American, he said] but the 14th amendment says you can’t draw lines on race.”

According to Murray, census figures show Anglos declined by 30,000 overall, but increased by 20,000 in the inner city. African Americans dropped by 7,000 overall, he said. Asians increased by 41 percent, from 50,000 to 70,000 and are concentrated mostly in the Medical Center and Midtown areas.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of Hispanic residents in Marshall’s district, Murray said. But the Hispanic population is declining in the east end and the Heights, he added.

Greg was on this in January, and he has a document from that time that outlined the process. I’ll be very interested to see what HISD does.

Public meeting with updates on Wal-Mart

From RUDH:


Join RUDH and receive updates about the Yale Street bridge, the Bass Street connection and TxDOTs role in ensuring the safety of West End residents, the City’s plan for re-routing 18-wheelers onto Heights Boulevard and what is known about drainage to date.  Now is the time to set responsible precedents for development in our neighborhood.Permits are pending, we have no time to waste. The Mayor, City Council members and other representatives will be invited to answer questions. We look forward to seeing you all there for a quick, informative meeting!

WHEN: Tuesday May 3, 2011 @ 6:30 pm
WHERE: The Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston, 303 Jackson Hill Street, Houston, Texas 77007

Here’s a map. Click over for more info about what will be discussed, and see They Are Building A Wal-Mart On My Street for more.

From the “When you’re in a hole, go ahead and keep digging” files

Deficit, schmeficit.

Texas lawmakers voted on Thursday to extend a tax break for businesses with revenues of less than $1 million a year at a time the state is facing a massive budget shortfall.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 8-0 to send the bill to the full House with three lawmakers absent.

The bill by Republican Rep. Harvey Hilderbran would continue a tax break that will cost the state almost $150 million over the next two years. Under the original business franchise tax, only companies with revenues of less than $600,000 a year were exempt from the tax.

See here for some background. The bill is HB262. Note that there are eight Republicans and three Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, and that the vote was 8-0 with three members absent. How you can justify this exorbitant expenditure, for which there is no offsetting revenue source, at a time like this is just beyond me. Just keep it in mind when you hear every Republican in the House talk about “living within our means” and how they can’t support the slightly less awful Senate budget because it spends too much money.

The mental health catastrophe is coming

Here’s yet another story about the forthcoming disaster in mental health care that is about to be perpetuated by the Legislature. It starts with one of the best analogies I’ve seen:

Dr. Steven B. Schnee, executive director of the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, offered up an extended metaphor one day recently to illustrate the consequences of what he considers catastrophic cuts in state funding for mental health services. Schnee is a licensed psychologist whose agency assists more than 45,000 county residents annually through a variety of community-based programs.

“It’s like saying, we’re short money — and we are short money – so we’re not going to put oil in our car. Or we’re just going to put a little bit of oil in the car,” he said, sitting in his fifth-floor office on the Southwest Freeway. “But when the engine blows up and we’re spending thousands of dollars on the engine – because now the car doesn’t work – we go ‘Oh, my goodness! What happened here?’ ”

The way I’ve been thinking about the approach being taken is to go back to the cliche of your household budget and note that there are some parts of it you just don’t cut in hard times unless there truly are no alternatives. For example, you don’t skip eating two days a week, and you don’t turn off your electricity every day at 5 PM, even though doing so would undoubtedly save you a few bucks. Dr. Schnee’s example works brilliantly as well.

If you’ve been paying any attention to this, you’re familiar with the story and the effects of the budget cuts that the Lege is about to visit on us. This particular anecdote was new to me, but it encapsulates the overall problem as well as anything I’ve seen:

Texas, which ranks 49th in per capita funding for mental health, has chosen not to fund community care and other measures that could help prevent men and women afflicted with an illness of the brain from ending up behind bars.

They are people like Tony Daugerty, 62, who was diagnosed 30 years ago with manic-depression and who has been in and out of jail at least 15 times in five years. For Daugerty and others, it’s easier to get arrested than it is to get treatment. Jail also is a more reliable provider of the treatment he needs.

Wearing a standard-issue orange jumpsuit, the balding, bespectacled man sat at a metal table in the jail’s mental health area recently and spoke about his decades-long battle with his illness. During his manic phases he stays up all night, night after night. “I design the solutions to all the world’s problems,” he said.

Daugerty was on probation last year when he boarded a Metro bus carrying a black canvas bag. When he told the driver, “Keep driving or I’m going to blow up the bus,” the driver called the police.

Daugerty is scheduled to be released next month, although the sheriff and members of his mental health unit, not to mention Daugerty himself, know they are likely to see him again.

“We do incredible work at stabilizing these folks,” [Sheriff Adrian] Garcia said, “but it’s a shame that we do the work that we do, at the price that we do it, just to have them go back out into the community and have them deteriorate again. They’ll be back in our facility. It’s a horrible revolving door when there’s a lack of capacity out in the community.”

We reap what we sow. And we’re about to sow a whole lot more.

Austin wants to get on the bike sharing bandwagon

Good for them.

San Antonio became the first city in Texas to install a bike-share system last month, when it opened 14 B-cycle stations within a few miles of downtown.

Now Austin is considering spending about $1.8 million, plus operating costs of about $225,000 per year, to put in a similar system.

It would start with 30 stations and 300 bikes but could eventually expand to 70 stations with 700 bikes, said Annick Beaudet, head of the city’s Bicycle Program.

The city would apply for grant money to help cover costs. If Austin officials find a business model that will work, a bike-share system could be up and running within two years. Officials would work to make memberships, grants and possibly advertising sustain it.

You can read more about the San Antonio bike share program and about Houston’s efforts to set up a program of its own here. This story has a good overview of how this has worked in other American cities, including San Antonio, where it appears to be off to a good start. I wish Austin the best of luck in getting this going. On a related note, see Matt Yglesias and these two DCist posts for info on how bike sharing is working in the District of Columbia.

HISD contemplates different start and end times for school days

If you have kids in HISD schools, you should check this out. That dropoff and pickup schedule you’re used to may be different next fall. Nothing has been voted on yet, so take a look and give your feedback to your Trustee.

Parker and Emmett ask for redistricting reconsideration

Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett have written a letter to House Speaker Joe Straus asking for reconsideration of the Solomons map that reduces Harris County’s delegation to 25 members. You can see the letter on Rep. Garnet Coleman’s website. The map will be voted on by the full House this week – amendments are due in today, and the map will be brought up for consideration on Wednesday. I have no idea if this will sway anyone, but I approve of the action.

Three things about Sanchez

If you judge the announcement of a possible candidacy by the amount of attention it receives, then the story of the recruitment of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has been a smash success. Here are a few things being written that I thought were worth taking note of.

First Reading: GOP starts trying to build case against Sanchez

The ink is still drying on the first reports that Democrats are trying to recruit Ricardo Sanchez, a retired Army lieutenant general and former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to run next year for the U.S. Senate seat now held by retiring Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. But Republicans aren’t wasting any time preparing their opposition files.

Numerous Democrats on Capitol Hill were critical of Sanchez’s role in Iraq, particularly over the Abu Ghraib scandal. According to the Los Angeles Times, he wrote in his 2008 book that one reason he did not get a fourth star was that “Senate Democrats were intentionally putting pressure” on the Bush administration “not to send my nomination forward.”

So if Sanchez runs, it seems Republicans will use Democrats’ past criticisms against him. In fact, on Tuesday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (headed by our own John Cornyn) sent a six-page Freedom of Information Act request to the Pentagon asking for “any and all correspondence” between Democratic senators and the Pentagon that referenced Sanchez between May 2003 and the end of November 2006.

The first senator from that time period on their list? Yep, that would be Barack Obama.

If that’s the worst they’ve got, I’m not particularly worried. Politically, this is equivalent to a party-switching situation. What was said before by each side is taken in partisan context when everybody changes rhetoric. I’m not saying it can never be effective – ask Arlen Specter about that – but it’s generally discounted. It also goes both ways – I’m sure if anyone bothers to look, one can find Sen. Cornyn saying something nice about Gen. Sanchez. What will be interesting will be to see how they attack him for Abu Ghraib, since that isn’t exactly something Republicans have a track record of being upset about. If they can try to kill Medicare six months after cleaning up in an election where they killed the Democrats over cuts to Medicare, I’m sure they can pull it off.

The Fix: Can Democrats win in Texas in 2012?

The last time Democrats in Texas won a major statewide race — president, Senate or governor — was back in 1990 when Ann Richards was elected governor.

Since that time, the party has struggled mightily to even be competitive. The best showing for a Democratic presidential candidate in Texas since 1990 was 43.8 percent for Bill Clinton in 1996.

Obama won 43. 7 percent in 2008, coming up 11 points short of Sen. John McCain.


Given all of that history, what makes Democrats think that 2012 will be any different?

The answer is the continued — and massive — growth of the state’s Hispanic community coupled with Republicans’ inability nationwide to win over that critical voting bloc.

Two thirds of all the population growth in Texas over the past decade came among Latinos and nearly four in every ten residents of the Lonestar State are now Hispanic.

That’s good news for Democrats as Hispanics — even in Texas where they were far more of a swing group than in other states thanks to Bush’s outreach to them — are moving more and more to the Democratic side in recent elections.

In 2010, Bill White carried Hispanics 61 percent to 38 percent over Perry. And in 2008, President Obama won the group by an even wider 63 percent to 35 percent margin.

Those numbers make clear why Democrats are so keen on the idea of Ricardo Sanchez as their nominee. (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Patty Murray included Texas as one of the six targeted races for the committee in 2012.)


Sanchez is the latest in a series of impressive candidates on paper that Democrats have fielded in hopes of taking advantage of the shifting political dynamic in Texas.

But recent history suggests he will need to overperform most statewide Democrats by seven points in order to win — a tough task for anyone particularly a first time candidate.

Actually, Democrats won seven of fifteen statewide races in 1994, including a couple of judicial races in which they were unopposed. Not that it really affects Cilizza’s point, I just get peeved when supposed experts flub easily checked facts like that.

The question about whether Sanchez, or any Democratic statewide nominee, can win in 2012 largely boils down to the question of what you think the base level of Democratic support will be. As I’ve shown before, Republican statewide vote totals in 2008 were at best equivalent to those from 2004 even though statewide turnout improved by 650,000 votes. If 2012 is to 2008 as 2008 was to 2004, Texas will be close to tossup status before anyone runs an ad. Republican turnout in 2004 was juiced a bit by the presence of George Bush, and Democratic turnout was juiced a bit in 2008 by Barack Obama, though he didn’t spend any money here after the primary. It’s more likely the case that 2012 will not be to 2008 as 2008 was to 2004, but if the Obama campaign and the DSCC actually do put some resources into Texas, who knows? I would expect the baseline to be two or three points better for the Dems, all things being equal. From there, it’s up to the candidates and their campaigns. Speaking to Cilizza’s point about demography, there’s not much driving an increase in the Republican voting pool for 2012. The type of person who votes Republican is already highly likely to vote, and was highly likely to have voted in 2008. There are a lot more potential Democratic voters out there, and their likelihood of voting is more volatile and sensitive to specific conditions. That can be a very bad thing in off years, but it means the ceiling is higher, too. Democratic turnout was the key in 2008, and it will be the key in 2012.

BOR: The Texas Democratic Strategy: Winnability vs. Values

Lots of good stuff here from KT. Go read it, but let me highlight this bit first:

Maybe it’s time to for Texas Democrats to stop searching for nominees based upon this model of “winnability” and instead, search for a nominee based upon our Party’s “values”.

How many more times are we going to ask the Democratic base of this state to trudge out to the polls and “get excited” by our winnable candidates? Seeing as our “winnable” strategy never wins, is there any harm in nominating someone with a strong Democratic identity who runs a campaign centered on our Democratic values? What if we sought out someone who’s more interested in running a multi-million dollar campaign focused on calling out Republicans for their failure of leadership and bankrupting of this state’s treasury and future rather than calling up Republicans to plead for their checks and votes?

Rather then get bogged down in a debate about the merits or demerits of a particular candidate, we should be putting some energy into finding and supporting candidates who seek to energize the Democratic base as a starting point. It’s true that our base isn’t quite as big as theirs, but it’s also true that the strategy of studied distance from the Democratic base as a way of appealing to crossovers hasn’t exactly been a success. Sooner or later there’s going to be a change election in Texas, and it would help to have our high-profile candidates be more forceful advocates of that change. Now, talking about such things is the easy part. Figuring out how to do it, including a way to provide for it financially, then actually doing it, that’s where it gets hard. But first things first.

Mayor Parker officially kicks off her re-election campaign

We were out of town over the weekend, so I missed this.

An Easter weekend campaign event replete with rousing speeches, dogs of both the hot and four-legged variety and a kids’ Easter egg “scramble” kicked off Mayor Annise Parker’s re-election bid Saturday at Discovery Green.

With no announced opposition so far, Parker’s bid to retain what she called “the best job in the world” would seem to be a cakewalk — if not an Easter egg roll — compared with 2009.

In her first run for the office that year, the former neighborhood activist, city councilwoman and city controller nosed out the candidate anointed for the open seat by the downtown establishment, attorney Gene Locke, as well as two other candidates, to become the first lesbian mayor of a major American city.

This year, the establishment seems to be satisfied with the mayor’s job performance, as evidenced by her endorsement by erstwhile opponent Locke and by former mayor (and still political paterfamilias) Bob Lanier. Parker also has raised more than $1 million in campaign funds with two more major fundraisers still this week.

As I’ve noted before, by this point in 2009 we were over two months into a full-fledged four-way race. I still hear the occasional rumor about Paul Bettencourt and Benjamin Hall, and we were recently informed about some dude that no one knew was thinking about running for Mayor but apparently isn’t, but it’s hard to see how anyone makes anything more than a token attempt at it at this point. Hell, the only person quoted in the piece with negative things to say was Jared Woodfill, the silly Chair of the local GOP. How can there be an opponent if there’s no one saying oppositional things in a story like this? I agree with Keir Murray – barring someone who can massively self-fund, there just isn’t the room or the time for someone to mount a serious challenge.

I also agree with Murray about this:

Despite the campaign cakewalk to the November election, the mayor would face major challenges during her second two-year term, Murray said.

“The first term was the easiest,” he said. “The budget crisis is a continuing problem for anyone in office. Layoffs are coming, including HPD layoffs. There will be unhappiness. There’s no getting around it.”

The good news for the Mayor is that she most likely will have nothing but fringe opponents for re-election. The danger is that anything short of a Soviet-style margin of victory could be seen as electoral weakness, and may open the door for one or more serious opponents in 2013. Call this the Terence-Wales Effect, if you will. Now compare Lee Brown’s vote totals over five contested elections to Parker’s 2009 numbers and note that there’s an awful lot of people in this town who are not yet in the habit of voting to elect a Mayor Parker. Add that to the issues Murray identifies, and you can see what could happen. Given all that, expect the Mayor to run as vigorous a campaign this year as she did in 2009. She’s not just running for her second term, she’s already running for her third.

Federal education funds officially on their way

That’s $830 million that the Senate was counting on for education funds that it will now officially have.

Just two weeks after a bipartisan federal budget deal ended an eight-month impasse over $830 million in federal education funding, the U.S. Department of Education agreed Friday to send Texas the money that previously had been in dispute.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan quietly made the announcement on Good Friday. But Texas Republicans immediately declared victory in a two-front political war that had been waged for months.

“Today our schoolchildren and teachers received the funding they should have never been denied,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, who led Texas House Republican efforts to secure the aid. “This $830 million will give our schoolchildren, teachers and communities additional funding during this financial crisis. Today is indeed Good Friday.”

Burgess said he received word of the aid reversal during a conversation with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had condemned the attempt by Texas congressional Democrats to attach strings to the federal school funding.

Texas Democrats, led by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, had required the state to pledge that it would not divert the federal education funding to other uses as the Legislature attempts to plug a state budget shortfall.

Republicans will celebrate the political win, which resulted from the budget deal that avoided a federal government shutdown, and everyone in Texas is no doubt glad to have these funds, but Doggett was right to do what he did. In the end, this money will be used for education and not for plugging other holes in our own budget, so as far as that goes Doggett got some of what he wanted as well. What happens in 2013 will be up to that Legislature.

KTRU’s last day will be Thursday


Last week the FCC approved a license transfer from Rice University to the University of Houston which was the end of the road for Rice’s student-run KTRU/91.7 radio station. [Wednesday] came news of the shut off date. KTRU will no longer be broadcast from 91.7 starting at 6 a.m. on April 28.

KTRU plans to continue its programming on KPFT 90.1 HD2 and streaming online at

Save KTRU mentioned it as well. Mark your calendars.

Weekend link dump for April 24

Oh, I could write a sonnet/About your Easter bonnet…

Hooray for Delaware!

The tax prep scam on the poor.

Your household and your government are not the same.

Among other things, Joe Arpaio wastes a lot of tax dollars.

So OK, police procedurals are formulaic. I like them anyway. Sue me.

Roy watches “Atlas Shrugged” so you don’t have to.

Standing up for bullies is now apparently the Christian thing to do.

In case you haven’t seen Tina Fey’s Prayer For A Daughter yet.

Sometimes bad PR happens. Sometimes bad PR is done to oneself.

Jungle love, it’s making me mad, it’s driving me crazy.

The Irish are not so lucky these days.

India spends 2% of its GDP treating diarrhea, the result of much of its population not having access to clean water.

Philosophy referee hand signals. No word on whether they use instant replay or not.

Winter soldiers and sunshine patriots in Wisconsin.

The carbon footprint of cannabis is higher than you might think.

Groo meets Conan. Hilarity is sure to ensue.

RIP, Grete Waitz.

The BP oil spill, one year later. If you’re not still mad about it, you should be.

Not so Happy Days. Slot machines? Sheesh.

From the you reap what you sow department.

You’d think Scott Adams would know better than the engage in sock puppetry, but you’d be wrong. And “dilhole” is a great word.

“Unsuck” is also a great word.

Could I please get a tax cut for my yacht? It’s a middle-class yacht, I swear!

The brains behind the anti-immigrant movement.

Calling all Freds!

More McJobs is not the McAnswer to the economy’s problems.

Apparently, the “Olive Garden Culinary Institute” is a sham. Boy you could knock me over with a breadstick.

This may not be the best way to explain the Easter Bunny, but it is the funniest I’ve seen.

What went wrong with cap and trade is more about dysfunctional politics than anything else.

Professional athletes taking paternity leave, today and yesterday. Via Linkmeister.

What Neil says.

Happy Krauthammer Day!

How about that courageous budget proposal from the House Progressive Caucus?

Bettencourt and Hotze lose in court again

If there’s a lawsuit against the city over a matter of how money is raised or spent, you can be sure that Bruce Hotze and Paul Bettencourt are involved. Thankfully, they have a lousy record of getting what they want by these means.

An Austin appeals court on Friday upheld an earlier ruling that increased water rates passed by Houston City Council last year are valid, ruling that two activists who intervened in the suit had no standing to appeal.

Bruce Hotze and former Harris County tax assessor Paul Bettencourt had intervened in the suit, which the city initiated last year to seek validation of City Council’s April 21, 2010, vote to raise water and sewer rates by nearly 30 percent for the average residential user. The new water rates took effect last June.

Bettencourt said he and Hotze are weighing their next steps, calling it a “tough ruling” that presented “long odds.”

The pair claimed the rate increases violated a 2004 amendment to the city charter that limits rate increases to the combined rate of inflation and population growth in a given year.

See here, here, and here for some background. Mayor Parker put out a sharply worded statement after the ruling came down that criticized Hotze and Bettencourt for costing the city millions of dollars:

Bettencourt and Hotze attempted to challenge the new water and sewer rates approved a year ago by Houston City Council. Due to their intervention, the City has been unable to obtain approval to move forward with a $300 million bond sale needed to finance capital improvements for the City’s Combined Utility System. The delay has put the City at risk for an estimated $37.72 million in higher interest costs over the life of the bonds.

“This legal fight has cost Houston taxpayers dearly,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “Mr. Bettencourt and Mr. Hotze have now lost in the courts twice. It is time for them to end this needless and very expensive game that has prevented the City from following through on improvements to its water and sewer system.”

“This is a significant legal victory and should mark the end of the road in the challenge made by Bettencourt and Hotze,” said City Attorney David Feldman. “We knew from the start there was no legal basis for their challenge. It is unfortunate that they chose to take this on because they hurt taxpayers.”

Bettencourt whined that it was really all the city’s fault for not doing things the way he wanted them done. After going 0 for 2 in the courts, he doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on for that. Hopefully this will be the end of the foolishness, and the city can get down to the business it needs to do.

More Sports Authority woes

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority is dealing with more financial issues that may require it to dip way into its cash reserves.

Lawyers for the authority and MBIA now are disputing whether Swiss bank UBS gave proper notice of its intent to terminate the interest-rate swap agreement that would require the $27 million payment. The deal was intended to control interest-rate spikes on the $125 million in variable-rate bonds the authority issued to help build Reliant Stadium. The authority’s other $875 million in debt is on a fixed rate.

The authority’s main reserve account today holds about $51 million, Executive Director Janis Schmees said; the payment to UBS would come from that account.

Schmees said neither the payment nor a default by the authority would affect the average citizen or sports fan. The authority, a quasi-governmental entity whose unpaid board members are appointed by the city and county, was created to finance the stadiums, in part, so the city and county’s credit ratings would not be at risk in the event of financial trouble.


Barton Smith, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Houston, said the situation presents, at worst, an “indirect risk” that would have an “almost not detectable” effect on taxpayers.

“If they default, who’s it going to hurt? Well, it’s going to hurt the bondholders if they’re stupid enough to let them default,” he said. “The risk to us Houstonians … is that they couldn’t continue to carry out their functions without some type of Harris County bailout.”

A potential default would have no spillover effects on other governments, Smith said, because the factors that would lead the city or county to default have nothing to do with the authority’s situation.

In case you’re wondering what the HCHSA’s functions are these days, their Chair J. Kent Friedman was kind enough to tell us all about them in this op-ed from a few months ago. Frankly, other than being the Dynamo’s landlord I don’t think there’s much that would need to be replaced. As long as they can’t do any damage to the city or the county in the event they do go down, I’m not terribly worried.

ATS says red light violations have gone up


Anti-big brother Houstonians rejoiced when a referendum passed last November to take down the city’s network of red light cameras. Nearly six months later, data collected by the camera service provider, Phoenix-based ATS, suggests that citizens’ temporarily cautious attitude towards red lights has already reversed.

ATS analyzed 10 high-traffic intersections in different parts of the city that had seen noticeably decreases in violations when the cameras were installed, but have now suffered unprecedented increases. For example, the westbound intersection of Richmond Avenue and Hillcroft Avenue dipped from 5,628 violations in 2009 to 2,532 in 2010 — only to rocket back up to 3,799 in the first few months of 2011.

The intersection of westbound Southwest Freeway and Fountainview is an even more hyperbolic example: In 2009, violations numbered 2,211. The cameras’ presence slashed that figure to 811 violations in 2010, but with the deinstallation, the number of violations has risen past the original statistic to 2,981 — a 72 percent increase. What this data suggests is that the camera program’s removal has inspired more violations than ever before.

“This is the reversal of a trend,” says Charles Territo of ATS. “Driver behavior was changing because they knew the cameras were there, or they’d gotten a ticket. The cameras can’t prevent accidents, but what they do is change driver behavior over time. People drive differently, so they are a deterrent. I think this shows how much of a deterrent they were.”

Make of this what you will. On the one hand, ATS has an obvious interest in telling Houston “See? I told you that you’d miss me when I’m gone.” On the other hand, does anyone really doubt that people are running red lights with abandon again? We all know what it’s like to drive in this town. Via Houston Tomorrow.

Agricultural tax breaks

There’s been a fair amount of talk this session about examining different types of tax exemptions, all of which combine to cost Texas billions in revenue, but there’s one type of exemption for which I have not seen any discussion: Tax breaks for agriculture. There’s an awful lot of property in Texas that get large reductions in the appraised value because they fall under an exception originally intended for farmland. The Nation explains how it works.

Take Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers and the second-richest Texan, who qualified for an agricultural property tax break on his sprawling 1,757-acre residential ranch in suburban Austin and saved over $1 million simply because his family and friends sometimes use the land as a private hunting preserve to shoot deer. Or take billionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who got more than a 90 percent property tax reduction on hundreds of acres of his multimillion-dollar estate in upscale Bedminister, New Jersey, just by putting a couple of cows out to pasture. They are not alone. All across the country, a huge number of America’s wealthiest are tapping into agricultural tax breaks—and none of them have to do any real farming to qualify.

Not only are agricultural tax breaks allowing wealthy landowners to shift their tax burden onto other less-affluent taxpayers but they are also helping bankrupt public schools, which derive the bulk of their funding from local property taxes.

Agricultural tax breaks got their start in the ’50s and ’60s, as a response to the explosive growth of suburban development, which was encroaching on farmland and raising agricultural property values to the point where farmers were having paying their tax bills. Fearing that this would pressure farmers into selling out to developers, states began granting exemptions that allowed agricultural land to be assessed at rates well below market value. The practice, called use-value assessment, is today used by all but one of the fifty states to artificially deflate the value of farmland, frequently by 90 percent or more.

The plan looked good on paper, but in the real world it was quickly manipulated to steer money to the rich.

Many states expanded the definition of “agricultural land” beyond land that was farmed to land that simply had not yet been developed. In South Carolina, all it takes is five acres of trees to qualify for a tax exemption. New Jersey requires that a landowner have five acres, but also sell $500 of agricultural goods a year from their farm. Publishing magnate Steve Forbes and his wife, Sabrina, qualify for their exemption by breeding show cows on their 450-acre Bedminster estate. “You don’t make money selling hamburger meat. You make money breeding show cows; that’s the name of the game,” Forbes told Fortune magazine in 1996. Florida requires a couple of cows or a herd of goats, which don’t have to be on the property all the time. Texan law is so broadly defined that the PGA Tour golf resort in San Antonio has been trying to get recognized as a “nature preserve” to get a farm tax break.

“You can go out and cut some brush, put out some feed and count the deer once a year and qualify,” a tax appraiser from Travis County in Texas told the Austin American-Statesman.

That’s exactly what Michael Dell did with the suburban Austin ranch he uses as a second home. Periodically hunting and maintaining a “well-managed deer herd” reduced the property’s 2005 market value from $71.4 million to an agricultural value of $290,000, which saves him—and costs Texas—$1.2 million a year.

The story references this 2005 Chron article, which notes that “Across the state, $91 billion in property value is taken off the tax rolls. The loss in revenue to school districts tops $1.5 billion.” One presumes both figures are higher than that now. At the time that Chron story was published, before the 2006 property tax reduction, there was a little bit of talk about revisiting this exemption to make it more reflective of reality. That’s the last I’ve heard of any such effort. It won’t happen this session, of course, but when a saner Lege gets sworn in, it ought to be on the to do list.

Saturday video break: Life goes on

Making music is supposed to be fun, you know? Like this.

Useless trivia: Some years ago I was listening to the local classic rock station while driving around town. (That was 93.7 the Arrow, for those keeping score at home.) It was Memorial Day weekend, and their schtick for that holiday was to play their entire collection in alphabetical order. (As you know, that sort of thing appeals to me.) I happened to be tuned in when they hit the letter O, and as it turned out, both of their first two letter O songs were by the Beatles – “Ob La Di, Ob La Da”, and “Octopus’ Garden”. I thought that was kind of cool. Hey, I said it was useless trivia. What more do you want?