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July, 2011:

It’s “The Longhorn Network” for a reason

Branding, y’all. It’s called branding. And I don’t mean what they do to cattle. Though I suppose that is sort of what’s happening here, now that I think about it.

Opponents’ views of Texas’ new cable network venture with ESPN have quickly escalated from concern to apprehension to resentment. Texas A&M’s board of regents will be discussing the Longhorn Network in executive session Thursday. Unconfirmed rumors suggested A&M and Oklahoma were eyeing the Southeastern Conference.

Texas officials tried to reassure the Big 12 and its conference rivals about the 24/7 cable network this week. UT participated in conference calls with conference athletic directors Monday and presidents Wednesday to allay fears about the network’s scope.

Commissioner Dan Beebe announced a temporary compromise Wednesday. Telecasts of high school football games on the Longhorn Network are now on hold, pending decisions by the NCAA and the Big 12 about how to handle school and conference networks. The Big 12 also delayed the possibility of a conference game on the Longhorn Network, announced earlier this month as part of a side deal with Fox.

“It’s not going to happen until and unless the conference can make it happen with benefit to all and detriment to none,” Beebe said.

[…]

Anxiety skyrocketed in early June after Austin’s 104.9 FM interviewed Dave Brown, the Longhorn Network’s vice president for programming and acquisitions. His responses seemed to confirm the worst fears that the Longhorn Network would zoom from zero to overkill with 18 high school games on Thursdays and Saturdays. Brown specifically mentioned star Aledo running back Johnathan Gray, who has orally committed to Texas but not signed a letter of intent.

“I know people are going to want to see Johnathan Gray. I can’t wait to see Johnathan Gray,” Brown told the station. “Feedback we got from our audience is they just want to see Johnathan Gray run — whether it’s 45-0 or not, they want to see more Johnathan Gray.”

I don’t know about those “unconfirmed rumors” regarding A&M, OU, and the SEC, but A&M President Loftin Bowin was quite clear about their school’s unhappiness with this.

Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin used the term “uncertainty” time and again Thursday in describing the state of the league, thanks to the start of the ESPN-owned Longhorn Network in Austin next month.

“The (recent) announcement by ESPN that the Longhorn Network might carry a conference (football) game in addition to a nonconference game was troubling, and then following right after that was ESPN’s announcement regarding high school games would be televised as well,” Loftin said. “Both of those we believe provide a great deal of uncertainty right now for us and the conference.”

[…]

Loftin said the LHN has no business showing Big 12 football games, and especially high school games that might target top recruits.

“If (they show) one conference game, then maybe we have two or three,” Loftin said. “High school games are very problematic. … If we have an unequal playing field for various schools (concerning recruiting), we think that is a problem. That creates uncertainty.”

Meanwhile ESPN and A&M athletic director Bill Byrne chimed in on the suddenly touchy subject Thursday.

“We recognize more discussions need to take place to properly address the questions raised by the conference,” ESPN said in a statement. “This is uncharted territory for all involved, so it’s logical for everyone to proceed carefully.”

What I don’t understand is why this is “suddenly” a touchy subject. The UIL has had its eyes on the Longhorn Network from the beginning. Was nobody else thinking about the implications of this at that time? Good luck cramming that genie back into the lamp now, that’s all I can say.

Rethinking school discipline

Wow.

Nearly 60 percent of junior high school and high school students get suspended or expelled, according to a report that tracked about 1 million Texas children over a six-year period.

About 15 percent of the Texas seventh- through 12th-grade students tracked during the study were suspended or expelled at least 11 times and nearly half of those ended up in the juvenile justice system. Most students who experienced multiple suspensions or expulsions do not graduate, according to the study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute of Texas A&M University.

“The findings in this report should prompt policymakers in Texas and in states everywhere to ask this question: ‘Is our (public) school discipline system getting the desired results?’ ” said Michael Thompson of the justice center, one of the report’s co-authors.

The findings suggest an urgent need to stop the criminalization of students for simply misbehaving, said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, longtime chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.

Some highlights from the study:

The report also found that during a six-year period, about 15 percent of the students studied were suspended or expelled 11 times or more — and more than half of those students had been on probation or incarcerated by juvenile justice authorities.

The study also found that:

• Nearly 6 in 10 public school students studied were suspended or expelled from at least one class during grades seven to 12, most of them at least four times.

• Only 3 percent of the disciplinary actions were for conduct for which state law mandated suspensions and expulsions; the rest were made at the discretion of school officials primarily in response to violations of local schools’ conduct codes.

• Repeated suspensions and expulsions predicted poor academic outcomes. Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school during the study period, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once.

• Schools that had similar characteristics, including racial composition and economic status of the student body, varied greatly in how frequently they suspended or expelled students.

Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center program and one of the report’s authors, said classroom removal is highly related to an increase of students repeating a grade, dropping out or entering the juvenile justice system.

“We see significant differences in the rates of suspension and explusion for similar student populations, indicating, I think, that it’s possible for schools, by relying less on suspension and expulsion, in theory, to actually reduce juvenile justice involvement and improve academic performance,” Thompson said.

You can find the report and related information here. It’s a first of its kind longitudinal study – every seventh grader was tracked for six years. I think we would all agree that every kid at that age occasionally engages in some knucklehead behavior. What we need to do with all this data is learn how to better distinguish between and deal with the good kids that do dumb things and the real troublemakers. The Trib notes that some school districts are already taking steps.

What the report ultimately means is that schools’ current methods of punishing kids are ineffective, said Deborah Fowler, a contributor to the report and director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit social justice research and advocacy group.

“The good news is that we know there are alternatives that do work,” Fowler said. She said schools can stop disciplinary problems from happening in the first place with an approach that emphasizes positive behavioral intervention and support, or a “PBIS” model. That allows teachers “to focus less time on disciplinary referrals and … more on the purpose of their role, which is educating the students.”

Several school districts across the state have implemented PBIS models, Fowler said, including Austin, Leander, Amarillo and Pflugerville.

Jane Nethercut coordinates a positive behavioral support program at Austin ISD. She said the model was based on praising students when they are doing something right, rather than punishing them when they are doing something wrong — and that it has “changed the schools” around the district.

“Disciplinary referrals have gone down; attendance rates have gone up,” she said, “This is not rocket science — in the schools that practice PBIS, academic performance has also gone up. We have seen thousands and thousands of hours of recovered learning time.”

That’s the goal, right? Click on to see the full press release from the Council of State Governments Justice Center. There’s a lot we ought to be able to learn from all this data.

(more…)

We’re running out of helium

Am I the only one that finds this a little disturbing?

Deep beneath the dry, dusty ground outside this Panhandle city lies something lighter than air: helium.

But the supply of the gas that inflates balloons, cools MRI machines and detects leaks in NASA space shuttle fuel tanks isn’t infinite.
There’s only so much helium in the world, and some fear that a shortage is coming.

“Once it’s used up, it’s gone,” said Rasika Dias, professor and chairman of the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of Texas at Arlington. “What we have is what we have.”

Still, nearly two dozen underground wells about 15 miles northwest of Amarillo work round the clock to retrieve helium and pump it to customers connected to a nearly 450-mile pipeline that stretches from the Panhandle through Oklahoma and to Kansas.

This site — thousands of acres where cows and antelope roam — is home to underground gas fields and the country’s only Federal Helium Reserve.

More than one-third of the world’s helium supply comes from this site, including nearly half of the U.S. supply.

But even helium officials in Amarillo say that after more than a half-century of steadily providing the world with helium, the facility’s production days are numbered.

“There is just a finite amount of helium out here,” said Leslie Theiss, field office manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Amarillo field office. “There’s only so much we can do.

“The clock is winding down on this place.”

That seems to be what the government wanted more than a decade ago, when Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, calling on reserve officials to sell off most of their helium by 2015. The latest projections show that all the helium won’t be sold on time, but it could be gone by 2020.

And then we’ll buy it from someplace else, like Russia, until all that runs out, too. It’s an interesting story, but other than the obvious effect on balloons and silly voices, it’s not clear what the implications of this are. Maybe it’s no big deal, I don’t know. But I still get nervous when I see headlines about the earth running out of things.

Saturday video break: Seven in seven

Seven “Harry Potter” movies, summarized in seven minutes:

I haven’t seen a Potter movie since the third one – we saw it two days before Olivia was born, if that helps you understand why I’m behind in my movie-watching – but I do hope to see this one. And now I’m prepared for it.

Red light camera tickets begin again tomorrow

Drive appropriately. You have been warned.

Houston police will begin issuing red-light camera citations Sunday at 50 intersections around the city, the latest maneuver in a protracted court battle over the controversial but lucrative traffic surveillance system.

Police Chief Charles McClelland has decided to start with a “clean slate,“ explaining he will not issue citations to red-light runners who were recorded after the cameras were turned back on July 9. Mayor Annise Parker ordered the cameras to resume recording after a federal judge struck down the November referendum that saw 53 percent of voters reject the program.

“We have been working very hard to make sure our infrastructure is put back in place, and we are up and running and ready to go,” McClelland said Thursday. “As of 12:01 (a.m.), July 24, the Houston Police Department will start back issuing citations to motorists who run red lights at intersections that have digital red-light cameras.”

McClelland also said an existing contract with the red-light camera vendor allows the city to expand the system, and he plans to add more cameras in the future.

Okay, look. I voted for the cameras. I thought that the election should not have been held, on the grounds that Judge Hughes cited in his ruling. I agree with the decision to turn the cameras back on pending a ruling on what the city’s contractual obligations are. (Any word from Judge Hughes on this yet? The hearing to hash that out was on Wednesday.) But this? No. Even mentioning the possibility of maybe adding more cameras some time down the line can be charitably described as a really lousy idea. The fire’s plenty hot right now, please don’t go adding any fuel to it.

McClelland repeated his strong support of red-light cameras for a Police Department that was forced in recent weeks to cut $40 million from the current year’s budget and lay off 154 civilian employees.

The chief noted that traffic enforcement is a core service the department must provide, but without technology such as surveillance cameras he would be forced to pull officers off of neighborhood patrols.

“The camera can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week,“ McClelland said. “The camera does not complain about it being cold or hot. The camera can work in the rain, and the camera does not submit an overtime slip.”

I know everyone’s tired of re-litigating the same issues we argued over ad nauseum last year, but if you’re going to do it anyway, I recommend embracing the budgetary aspect of this, and de-emphasizing the safety aspect. At least everyone agrees that the cameras make the city some money, so the dispute is over whether it’s worth it, not whether it’s true. It’s at least theoretically possible that some people who voted against the cameras because they didn’t buy the safety argument or just didn’t like the idea of having them might be willing to accept them as an alternative to cutting the police budget. Or not – everyone may just be too sick of the whole damn thing by now to be persuaded of anything – but I don’t think anyone’s mind can be changed by the safety argument at this point, so what the hell.

Poor Jerry

I feel so, so sorry for him.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole has racked up $1.1 million in legal bills fighting a federal corruption probe in the past two years, nearly exhausting his campaign funds months before his case is to be retried.

Campaign finance reports show Eversole has $51,000 left in the bank after paying $1.1 million to defense lawyer Rusty Hardin’s firm. Eversole, a commissioner for 20 years, has raised just $60 this year and says he’s not sure how he will pay for his trial.

“I really and truly don’t have any idea what I’m going to do,” Eversole said. “I know I’m planning on going to trial on Oct. 24. By what means I’m going to pay for that, I don’t know.

“If I’m going to have to work the rest of my life to pay off Rusty Hardin, that’s what I’ll do.

“I don’t have a great deal of finances or, really, the ability to raise finances in the circumstances that I’m in,” Eversole continued.

Please. If he gets acquitted, he’ll have three more years as County Commissioner to raise whatever he needs. If he get convicted, money will be the least of his concerns. I don’t know whose sympathy he’s hoping to get with this story, but it won’t be mine.

In which I try to find common ground with Sen. Patrick

From a news item about President Obama’s nomination to helm the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:

Congress created the bureau a year ago this week with the enactment of the Dodd-Frank law, which overhauled financial regulations after the credit crisis. The bureau, a centerpiece of the sweeping new law, has since emerged as one of the thorniest topics in Washington and on Wall Street.

Putting a director in place is critical because the agency will not gain the full measure of its powers until the Senate confirms a nominee. The agency can supervise the compliance of banks with existing laws, but the Dodd-Frank financial legislation dictates that it cannot write new rules or supervise other financial companies without a director.

[…]

Republicans made it clear on Sunday that they were no more likely to confirm Mr. Cordray than Ms. Warren. Forty-four Republican senators have signed a letter saying they would refuse to vote on any nominee to lead the bureau, demanding instead that the agency replace a single leader with a board of directors.

One of the things my new pal Sen. Dan Patrick and I talked about on that recent Houston8 episode was the Texas Senate’s two thirds rule. He’s against it, in case you hadn’t heard, and he talked at some length about how much more the Senate was able to do in the special session when the two thirds rule was not in effect. I’m certain, therefore, that Sen. Patrick will join me in condemning this obstructive tactic by a minority of Senators in Washington, and call on them to reform their rules so the majority party can do what it was elected to do. If it’s good enough for Austin, it’s good enough for DC. Right, Dan?

We’re #9!

The ninth greenest metro area, at least in terms of “green” jobs, according to a Brookings study.

Houston’s “clean” or “green” economy is ranked 9th among the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

“There is room for clean technology in a city with the largest number of fossil fuel jobs in the country and where oil is still king,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “In fact, many of our local energy companies are also at the forefront of research and production on environmentally-friendly alternatives. Going green is creating good paying jobs for Houstonians and growing our economy.”

The Brookings Institute report, “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment,” provides the following profile of Houston’s clean economy:

  • 9th among the 100 largest metro areas
  • Nearly 40,000 jobs, or 1.6 percent of all jobs in the region
  • Job growth exceeding 5 percent annually between 2003 and 2010
  • Each job produces nearly $17,000 in exports
  • Estimated median wage of $42,779 a year, compared to $38,608 for all jobs in Houston

Houston boasts an impressive list of green accomplishments. For three years in a row, it has appeared on the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual “top 10 list” of U.S. cities with the most Energy Star certified buildings. It is also the country’s largest municipal purchaser of renewable energy, with 33 percent of the City of Houston’s energy load provided by wind energy. Just last month, Mayor Parker was chosen as the nation’s top winner for large cities in the 2011 Mayors’ Climate Protection Awards sponsored by The U.S. Conference of Mayors. In addition, Houston has been selected as the site for Total Energy USA, an annual trade event that will assemble renewable energy, clean energy and energy-efficiency sectors in one place to provide a comprehensive look at the overarching, integrated energy solutions taking shape today.

The Brookings report can be found here, and the profile of the Houston metro area is here. If you go to that first link and click on the interactive indicator map, you’ll see that the rankings correlate strongly with overall metro area population. That shouldn’t be a surprise – these places are where most of the jobs of all kinds are – but it should be kept in perspective. Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the catch.

SBOE manages to not screw up science supplements

Baby steps.

The quietude of yesterday’s State Board of Education meeting came to a screeching halt during today’s final vote over supplemental science materials.

After a unanimous preliminary vote on Thursday, the board appeared split over alleged errors in how evolution was addressed in a high school biology submission from Holt McDougal.

A board-appointed reviewer had identified the errors but the publisher maintained that the points at issue were not wrong. It was up to the board to referee the dispute and the mood turned testy.

In the end, the board members chose to punt the contentious issue to Education Commissioner Robert Scott.

“My goal would be to try to find some common ground,” Scott said.

Then the board unanimously approved the online science materials that will supplement existing textbooks.

That may not sound like much, but it was enough to get both the NCSE and the Texas Freedom Network to put out victory statements. Sometimes, not going backwards counts as going forward. What a difference having a couple fewer wingnuts can make. The Trib, Burka, and TFN Insider have more.

Friday random ten: Songs of the Century, part 8

At long last, we return to the Songs of the Century as compiled by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

1. Bye Bye Blackbird – Mel Torme (#189, Gene Austin)
2. Tom Dooley – Kingston Trio (#197)
3. The Tennessee Waltz/Tennessee Mazurka – Tom Jones and The Chieftains (#198, Patti Page)
4. What The World Needs Now Is Love – Modern Barbershop Quartet (#208, Jackie DeShannon)
5. It’s Too Late/I Feel The Earth Move – Carole King (#213)
6. You’re So Vain – Carly Simon (#216)
7. Blue Moon of Kentucky – Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys (#218)
8. We Shall Overcome – Bruce Springsteen/The SNCC Freedom Singers, Dorothy Cotton & Pete Seeger (#221, Joan Baez)
9. Something To Talk About – Bonnie Raitt (#222)
10. Summertime Blues – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (#227, Eddie Cochrane)

There’s a few songs you’re unlikely to hear on the radio today. I have to admit, I thought “What The World Needs Now Is Love” was pretty schmaltzy when I first heard it as a kid. Not really sure what its enduring appeal is, but to each their own. And just because it’s something that you won’t hear on the radio doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy tune; far from it. “Tom Dooley”, “The Tennessee Waltz”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, “We Shall Overcome” – they’re not on the radio stations most of us listen to, but they should be.

Round 2 report: Started with “Personal Jesus”, by The Lonely Wild. Finished with “Separate Ways”, by Elvis Presley, song #855, for a total of 78 this week. The last P song was “Puzzlin’ Evidence”, by the Talking Heads. The one and only Q song was “Queen Jane Approximately”, by Bob Dylan. The first R song was “Rad Gumbo”, by Little Feat. The last R song was “Runaway Trains”, by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. The first S song was “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, also by Bob Dylan. Barring anything unusual, three more weeks of this and we’re done. Woo hoo!

The other races

In addition to the city of Houston races, I am trying to follow the HISD and HCC Trustee elections as well. I say “trying” because there’s just no information out there that I can find. For one thing, though there are seven such races this year – four in HISD, three in HCC, including one open seat – I am unaware of a second candidate in any race. HISD Trustees Paula Harris, Carol Mims Galloway, Manuel Rodriguez, and Juliet Stipeche are up for election. None have opponents that I know of, though there’s a group calling itself “Educators For A Better District IV” that has been attacking Harris and claimed to have a candidate for that race at one point, though that fell through. As for HCC, it’s not at all easy to figure out who’s doing what. You just can’t easily tell from the biographies or from the past election results on Harris Votes whose terms are up. I know Richard Schechter will be on the ballot, and I know that Carroll Robinson is running to fill the slot that Michael P. Williams is leaving behind in his run for City Council, and somewhere along the line I managed to determine that Christopher Oliver was the third one in. At least, I think so – I was unable to duplicate whatever method I used back then to draw that conclusion. There’s got to be a better way than this.

And campaign finance reports, forget it. Google “HISD Trustee Campaign Finance Reports” and you’ll find this page, which contains exactly two reports, Juliet Stipeche’s from January and July. Google “HCCS Trustee Campaign Finance Reports” and you get a Carroll Robinson press release from January and a few links about Jay Aiyer. In other words, a whole lot of nothing.

So I’ll ask you. What do you know about any of these elections? Are there candidates out there, even rumors of candidates, that I’m not hearing about? Leave a comment and let me know. Thanks.

Oh yeah, someone is running in CD23

Scott Stroud reminds me that the Democrats do have a candidate for that other Congressional race in Bexar County.

Although Democrats are already buzzing about the looming Interstate 35 tussle between Congressman Lloyd Doggett and state Rep. Joaquín Castro for a new congressional district, Congressman Francisco “Quico” Canseco’s defense of his sprawling district might turn out to be the better story.

Canseco, so far, has one declared opponent — the man he defeated in 2010, Ciro Rodriguez. But while Doggett and Castro are fighting over a sure Democratic seat, national Democrats will need to reclaim District 23 to have any shot at a congressional majority.

“If we can’t win seats at that level,” said Adrian Saenz, a Democratic consultant who has worked with Rodriguez in the past, “there’s no way we can win back the House.”

And yet the list of Democrats who looked at District 23 and passed keeps growing. It includes Castro, former City Councilman Justin Rodriguez, state Reps. Mike Villarreal and Trey Martinez Fischer, and state Sens. Carlos Uresti and Leticia Van de Putte.

Republicans, meanwhile, seem content to let Canseco defend his turf. He’s one of a handful of Hispanic Republicans in Congress, and with America becoming more Latino in a hurry, that’s an asset the GOP wants to build on. That helps explain why lawmakers added GOP voters to District 23 — and removed Hispanic voters in favor of others less likely to show up.

That might not withstand a challenge in the court battle over redistricting — another reason it’s puzzling that so many contenders took a pass.

I don’t find that part so puzzling. If the Justice Department takes action, it will happen before the filing deadline. If it’s left to the courts, there won’t be a final ruling for years; likely not till the 2016 election, as I’ve suggested before. Ciro Rodriguez is an acceptable candidate if not a terribly exciting one – Stroud says “this race cries out for a jolt of new energy” and I don’t disagree with that. He’ll need to do better on the fundraising trail – his July report shows $98K raised and $51K on hand, while Canseco greatly improved his position with a $579K haul, leaving him with $481K on hand. Not insurmountable, especially if the winds shift back, but quite a decent head start. I’m glad there is someone with experience running in CD23, but my concern that this race isn’t getting the attention it deserves remains.

Texas seeks preclearance from the courts

This was expected.

Texas bypassed the Obama administration’s Department of Justice on Tuesday, opting to ask a panel of federal judges in Washington, D.C., to review the state’s new maps for congressional, legislative and State Board of Education districts.

Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the federal courts to review the new political maps for compliance with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Here’s a link to his filing.

“The state’s redistricting plans have neither the purpose nor will they have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority,” the state’s lawyers said in their filing.

Abbott asked the courts for preclearance but also informally filed papers with the Justice Department “to facilitate and expedite disposition of this matter.” Federal law allows the state to choose between the two venues for Section 5 approval. Some lawyers read the dual filing differently than the state does. “The way I read it, the state filed with the Department of Justice and filed a protective lawsuit with the courts,” said Renea Hicks, a veteran of previous redistricting fights who is involved in one of several challenges to the new Texas maps.

The issue, as AG Abbott well knows, is not that anyone is being denied the right to vote by the new maps – that’s what the voter ID law and the efforts of the various vote-suppression groups are for – but that the new maps are not a fair reflection of Texas’ population, especially its population growth, nor do they allow groups protected by the Voting Rights Act an adequate opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice. One of the goals of bypassing the Justice Department is to get the federal courts to narrow or even throw out the Voting Rights Act. Needless to say, this will bear close scrutiny. Greg has more.

Patterson to run for Lite Guv

With Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst running for the Senate, everyone else in state government that’s been waiting for a chance to move up is undoubtedly making plans to do so. At the front of the line is Lanc Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

Jerry Patterson confirmed Tuesday night that he will run for lieutenant governor in 2014, making that announcement just hours after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he’ll run for U.S. Senate in 2012.

Patterson, a former state senator, followed Dewhurst as Land Commissioner and wants to follow him again. Other Republicans have expressed interest in the post, including Comptroller Susan Combs and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

Click over to see Patterson’s statement. Obviously, there is no guarantee that Dewhurst will be successful in his Senate campaign. I think everyone would agree that his odds of defeat are likely to be greater in the primary than in the general, but the point is that there is a non-zero chance that David Dewhurst will not be taking the oath of office in the nation’s capital in 2013. If that happens, who can say for sure what he’ll do next? We were supposed to have a special election for KBH’s Senate seat some time last year, after all. Would Dewhurst want to stay on as Lite Guv if he loses next year? In particular, would he want to run for Lite Guv again in 2014? Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened. I’d do the same as Patterson if I were in his position, but in the back of my mind I’d be a little concerned that this might not wind up being a primary for an open seat. You just never know. By the way, Todd Staples appears to be in, too. So’s Rep. Dan Branch, who would have the distinction of not currently being a statewide office holder.

Another way of looking at this is that we could have a very different state leadership in 2015 than we did this year, much as the leadership in 2003 differed greatly from that of 1999. Everyone knows that Greg Abbott wants to run for Governor; if one way or another this is Rick Perry’s last term in office, given all of the known and projected campaign activity it could be that the only current statewide non-judicial incumbent still in the same office in 2015 will be Railroad Commissioner David Porter. It’s usually foolish to make statements about an election this far in advance, but it’s quite clear that 2014 is going to be a change election in this state. Anyone even remotely thinking about running that year – and not just at the state level – should be thinking about it in those terms.

Day One at the SBOE

Here’s your TFN Insider coverage of today’s SBOE science hearings. In Part I of the hearings, we find that the SBOE may not be such a major factor in school curriculum any more:

10:20  – Board members are quizzing the commissioner about how the new rules governing the purchase of instructional materials — changes codified in Senate Bill 6, passed during the legislative session and signed by the governor earlier this week — will play out in school districts. Commissioner Scott rightly notes that the law represents a sea-change in the way the schools purchase materials.Note: TFN is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive analysis of this new law and its likely effects on the state board’s role in vetting and approving classroom materials. We plan to publish that analysis in the coming weeks. TFN communications director Dan Quinn previewed our conclusions in a story in today’s USA Today: “It has the great potential to diminish the influence of the State Board of Education.”

And we find that maybe, just maybe, the winds have shifted a bit:

11:20 – Interesting news out of the SBOE Committee on Instruction meeting earlier this morning. That five-member committee has long been dominated by far-right members, but there are signs that a change is coming. The committee’s first order of business today was to elect a new chair, after Barbara Cargill announced she was stepping down. In a move that seemed to surprise Cargill, George Clayton, R-Dallas, nominated new board member Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, as chair. Clayton and Farney, though conservative, have been ostracized by Cargill and the far-right faction. Cargill immediately nominated fellow far-right conservative Terri Leo, R-Spring, and the vote was deadlocked at two votes for each candidate. Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, is absent from today’s meetings, so the committee moved to postpone the election of chair until the September meeting when Berlanga will be present. Since there is no love lost between Berlanga and the far-right bloc, it seems likely that she will vote for Farney at the September meeting. Could this be a coup, signaling a return to common sense on this critical committee?

We can only hope. In Part II we find that all those annoying pro-science testifiers are making Ken Mercer and David Bradley cry, and in Part I of the debate, we find there’s nothing to be alarmed about just yet. Which counts as good news with the SBOE. Here’s Steven Schafersman‘s coverage; Josh Rosenau has weighed in on Twitter but not yet on his blog. All the Twitter action is on the #SBOE hashtag if you’re into that sort of thing.

Finally, an object lesson in not being able to do more with less:

With one-third fewer people, the Texas Education Agency just can’t do everything it used to do.

State Board of Education members were were told on multiple occasions this morning that a lack of time and staffers had prevented the agency from doing some of the prep work that it would have done previously, such as creating a briefing book on new legislation.

Citing similar constraints, agency staffers said they had yet to produce rules for the implementation of Senate Bill 6, which fundamentally changes how school districts can use state dollars to buy instructional materials and technology. It was passed during the special session last month.

School districts, for example, are waiting to learn how much they will get under the new system to cover the cost of textbooks, hardware, software and other expenses associated with disseminating lessons to students.

Sometimes, when you fire a bunch of people, stuff just doesn’t get done. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

UPDATE: So far, so good. On to tomorrow.

UPDATE: The Trib has more.

Interview with CM Melissa Noriega

CM Melissa Noriega

Council Member Melissa Noriega was elected to finish the unexpired At Large #3 term of Shelley Sekula Gibbs in June of 2007, and has been re-elected for full terms twice since. She’s the chair of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee on Council, a former HISD employee, and the wife of former State Rep. and 2008 Senate candidate Rick Noriega. She’s also one of my favorite people in government, and it’s always a pleasure to talk with her.

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page.

UPDATE: Since someone asked, let me make it clear that CM Noriega is running for re-election to her third full term. Her first re-election in 2007 was for her first full term; the unexpired portion of Sekula Gibbs’ term, for which she won a special election runoff in June, doesn’t count towards her term limits total.

Open The Taps

Better late than never.

“The fourth tier wants to speak up,” said Ted Duchesne, a Clear Lake-area beer blogger and president of a nascent nonprofit organization that pledges to work on behalf of consumers to increase the availability of craft beer in Texas.

The group, Open The Taps, hopes to do so by encouraging legislation – such as the stifled efforts to expand the ways small breweries and brewpubs get their goods to market – and regulatory changes often cited as a deterrent by out-of-state craft breweries that want to do business here.

Duchesne and the other founders believe they can tap into a large, passionate base that prefers craft beers to mass-produced ones. They are set to launch a fund-raising drive in major Texas cities and next month will be recruiting members at a public home brewing event in Seabrook.

[…]

The founders of Open The Taps say the recent explosive growth of craft beer in the state and the number of new breweries prove there is grass-roots support here that they can leverage into legislative action through lobbying. One of their first initiatives is to recruit 100 people willing to contribute $100 apiece in each of the state’s four biggest metro areas: Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Here’s their nascent website and Facebook page. They have a launch party scheduled for this Saturday the 23rd at 4 PM at the Moon Tower Inn on Canal Street. I’m glad to see this group form, and I wish them all the best, I’ll just note that we’ve now had three legislative sessions in which microbreweries have tried to get a bill passed. It would have been nice if something like this had existed even a year ago. Be that as it may, it’s going to take grassroots action to get this done, so if you care about beer in Texas and can’t understand why we don’t have a free market for it, join up with these folks and start working towards 2013. Beer, TX has more.

Amazon to push for ballot initiative in California

I believe we are entering “last refuge of the scoundrel” territory here.

Amazon said [last] Monday that it would back a California ballot initiative that would roll back a new state law that forces more online retailers to collect sales tax.

Amazon’s decision to support the proposed referendum pits the world’s biggest online retailer against the state government, which is looking for ways to raise additional revenue to cover budget shortfalls.

The California legislature last month passed a law, now in effect, requiring online retailers to collect sales tax just like merchants physically located in the state. The law was intended to close a loophole that let online retailers sell their wares but not collect and pay sales tax to the state.

Two weeks ago, Amazon, hoping it could comply with the new law and still avoid collecting taxes, severed ties with thousands of California businesses whose Web sites linked to products on its site. California officials say that move does not free it of this year’s tax obligation, estimated at $83 million.

“At a time when businesses are leaving California, it is important to enact policies that attract and encourage business, not drive it away,” said Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of public policy. He also called Amazon’s antisales tax position “a referendum on jobs and investment in California.”

Actually, it’s a straightforward statement of naked self-interest. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let’s not try to cloak it in anything noble. Amazon wants to maintain a competitive advantage it was given many years ago. I see no reason why anyone should feel inclined to abet them with that, especially at the cost of the public’s interest, but stranger things have happened.

Supporters of the proposed initiative must now gather around 505,000 signatures to qualify it for the ballot, according to the secretary of state. A vote could occur during the next statewide election in February 2012.

“Where does Amazon plan to collect these signatures — in front of bricks and mortar retailers that collect sales tax everyday?” asked [spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown Evan] Westrup.

Kind of amusing to imagine, isn’t it?

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 18

The Texas Progressive Alliance congratulates Japan for its well-deserved victory in the Women’s World Cup as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Time to get it on again with the SBOE

From an email from the National Center for Science Education:

The Texas Board of Education is at it again, this time aiming to insert creationism into high school biology classes via textbook “supplements” (such as those from International Databases, LLC). The other goal: to force mainstream publishers to rewrite their supplements to de-emphasize or undermine evolution education.

We’re talking heated debate among board members, contentious testimony from the public, followed by an equally contentious Board vote the next day.

The science textbook supplement finalists: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/tea/RSSM_CommissionerFinalRecommendations1.pdf

The details:

THURSDAY, JULY 21
Public testimony before the Board of Education, followed by Board debate.

When: 10 a.m. Four hours of testimony. 2 minutes per person.

Where:
Room 1-104, First Floor
William B. Travis Building
1701 North Congress
Austin, Texas

Agenda (for “Committee of the Full Board”): http://www.texasadmin.com/agenda.php?confid=TEA_FB072111&dir=tea

Agenda item: “4. Public Hearing Regarding Instructional Materials Submitted for Adoption by the State Board of Education Under The Request for Supplemental Science Materials”

Live video feed:

http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=3876
http://www.texasadmin.com/tea.shtml

***Note: Texas Freedom Network will hold a press conference before the hearing (before 10 a.m.), in the Texas Education Agency building. Speaking: TFN President Kathy Miller, Josh Rosenau from NCSE, Prof. Ron Wetherington from Southern Methodist University, and more.

FRIDAY, JULY 22
The board votes on the biology science supplements

When: 9 a.m.

Where:
Room 1-104, First Floor
William B. Travis Building
1701 North Congress
Austin, Texas

Agenda (for “General meeting”: http://www.texasadmin.com/agenda.php?confid=TEA_GM072211&dir=tea

Live video feed:

http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=3876
http://www.texasadmin.com/tea.shtml

See here, here, and here for some background, and this Chron story for more. TFN Insider will be liveblogging the proceedings, and I’ll try to keep an eye on things as they go, too. Hair Balls and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: More ways to follow the action:

What’s happening minute by minute? There are two live feeds worth checking out, starting tomorrow at 10a.m.

NCSE’s Josh Rosenau will be covering the event live via Twitter (http://twitter.com/ncse) in the morning. After lunch, he’ll switch to his blog, http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/.

Steven Schafersman from Texas Citizens for Science will likewise be blogging live from the Texas board of education meeting tomorrow, starting at 10 a.m. Go to: https://www.texasobserver.org/authors/stevenschafersman.

The Dew gets set to do it

To officially join the Senate race, as everyone has been expecting him to do.

Ending perhaps the worst-kept secret in Texas politics, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will make his official announcement by “midweek” that he will seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat becoming vacant due to the retirement of incumbent Kay Bailey Hutchison, his press secretary, Mike Walz, said Monday.

Eschewing the traditional barnstorming tour of the state favored by nascent campaigns, Dewhurst will announce by video and plunge into the challenge of raising money under restrictive federal campaign laws, which limit individuals to giving $2,500 to a candidate per election, Walz said.

But political observers say Dewhurst, a Houston multimillionaire, enters the race with the unmistakable advantage of being able to self-fund a campaign that could easily top $10 million.

Dewhurst has money – second quarter results aren’t posted online yet, but none of the other candidates raised anything particularly notable. He has the most name recognition, which you’d expect for a guy that’s held statewide office since 1998. He’s leading the polls, such as they are at this early stage. I don’t think anyone would claim he has much excitement or buzz, but when you have all those other things perhaps you don’t need them. Not that Republicans should pay any attention to what I think about this, but if we can’t elect a Democrat I’d prefer to have the old white guy who won’t serve as anybody’s inspiration or be touted as the next new hotness. I’d rather take my chances in 2018 against a first term Sen. Dewhurst than against whoever was able to beat him in next March’s primary. Robert Miller has more.

UPDATE: If you missed the actual announcement yesterday afternoon, you’re not alone.

County’s voting machines get new home

Let’s hope for no more fires.

Harris County is buying a building to house voting machines and other equipment that will replace a warehouse destroyed by fire last August.

The $4.35 million purchase of a facility on Todd Road near the intersection of Hempstead Highway and 34th is expected to close this month, said John Blount, director of architecture and engineering.

After a renovation, the building will house voting machines, the County Clerk’s archives, Tax Assessor-Collector’s distribution center and perhaps records of several justices of the peace and other county departments.

[…]

The Todd Road warehouse, built in 1980, sits on 4.4 acres and is 124,510 square feet, according to the Harris County Appraisal District.

The building is owned by the estate of legendary Houston lawyer John O’Quinn, who died in a 2009 car accident. O’Quinn stored part of his prodigious classic car collection there, [County Clerk Stan] Stanart said.

“He stored $250 million worth of cars in this warehouse, so it’s not just an old warehouse,” Blount said. “It’s very nice.”

I will agree that sounds nice and robust. I’m still a little nervous about having all our eggs in one basket like that. I just hope the disaster recovery plans that were made after last year’s fire are being updated and maintained.

David Rosen for HCDE Trustee

Via Facebook, we have our first announcement of a countywide candidacy for 2012, as David Rosen declares his candidacy for the Harris County Department of Education Board of Trustees. Here’s a video of the announcement that was posted:

Rosen will be running for the At Large #3 position, currently held by the infamous Michael Wolfe, whom Rosen says is running for re-election. Needless to say, the HCDE Board will be a much better place if Rosen succeeds in knocking him off. As for the other available spot on the Board, the Precinct 1 seat currently held by Roy Morales, I’ve heard rumors of various people being interested in it but have not heard of a committed candidate yet. Perhaps once county redistricting is done, we’ll get a clear indication from someone. Anyway, with Rosen’s announcement that’s one countywide position accounted for, with two others – District Attorney and Tax Assessor – to go.

UTA and UTSA

UT Arlington is moving up in the collegiate athletic world.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents [Thursday] approved UTA joining the Western Athletic Conference beginning July 1, 2012.

UTA has been a charter member of the Southland Conference since 1963, but it is leaving the Texas-Louisiana-Arkansas based league for a conference with a much broader geographical reach and that is a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).

UTA disbanded its football program after the 1985 season and its admittance into the WAC was not conditioned on restarting the sport, but the WAC’s membership in the FBS will mean higher conference revenues UTA can draw from.

There’s been talk about UTA reviving its football program for some time now. I haven’t seen any updates lately, but certainly a conference upgrade could help spur things on. Whether that turns out to be a good thing for them or not remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, UTA’s fellow Southland Conference-to-WAC school UTSA will be starting up football this fall, and they have grand plans to draw crowds.

Always careful to avoid painting herself into a corner, UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey repeatedly demurred when asked to predict what kind of crowd the Roadrunners might draw for their inaugural football game on Sept. 3 at the Alamodome.

Finally, however, her guard slipped when asked if luring 30,000 fans was a reasonable expectation.

“At least,” Hickey said. “I think we’ll have more. I think we’ll have an outstanding first crowd.”

And then the real challenge will begin.

As the story notes, every new entrant into the world of college football started out with a much bigger crowd than it finished its first season with. I expect UTSA will have similar issues – Lord knows, their home schedule lacks anything resembling a big name – but in the end I do expect them to do well. San Antonio is an enormous underserved market for football, and the Alamodome is a fine facility. It may take them awhile, but UTSA should have all the ingredients they need to make their mark on the sport.

Tuesday late filers report

This is a semi-regular tracker of late campaign finance report filings for City of Houston elections. I’ll keep this up until either everyone has filed, or we all get sick of it and I move onto other trivial obsessions. With that said, here are today’s contestants:

1. Andrew Burks, District D. Burks actually filed his report on time – it made it onto the city’s CFR website late Friday – but I include him here because I had not been aware he was running, at least not for this particular seat. Burks is a perennial candidate who nonetheless made it into a runoff with CM Sue Lovell last year. As with Griff Griffin, who topped 47% against Lovell in 2007, if he had had any semblance of a campaign or rationale for running other than “there’s nothing good on TV”, he might have actually won. Given that Burks accepted the endorsement of gay-hating Steven Hotze in his runoff against Lovell, I’m glad he lost then and I hope he loses this time as well.

2. Bob Schoellkopf, District A. Like Burks, Schoellkopf filed on Friday; like Burks, I had previously been unaware of his entry into this race; and like Burks, he filed a blank report. These two are the first opponents to district Council members that I know of.

3. Alexander Gonik, District K. Gonik filed a blank report that was posted Sunday. He’s the third candidate to file a report for District K. That is the sum total of my knowledge of him.

4. Bryan Smart, District B. Smart put out a press release Sunday evening touting a fundraising haul of $43,755 in donations, with $24,397.12 on hand. The report appeared this morning. Those numbers dominate those of his opponents, but as with several other candidates, a big chunk of that first figure comes from in-kind donations, including:

– Two $5000 donations, from Ruby Ramirez and Hugo Mojica (who ran in the 2009 special election in H) for “Latino Voter Outreach”.

– A $4000 donation from Jerome Brooks, who sent the aforementioned press release, for “Consulting Services”.

– A $3000 donation from Max Temkin for “Web/Graphic Design”.

– A $1250 donation from the Texas Democratic Party for “Voter File Access”, which I didn’t think you could do as an in-kind donation.

Smart listed less than $1000 in expenditures, so there’s your difference between contributions received and cash on hand.

5. Scott Boates, At Large #1. Boates’ report, which listed contributions of $18,247 and cash on hand of $11,713, was rather a family affair, in that a total of $12,000 – two $5k donations and two $1K donations – came from people with the surname “Boates”. Gotta hit your inner circle first. Boates also loaned himself $1200. On the expense side, he spent $180 each on buttons and balloons, with vendors located in Iowa and New York, respectively, and in my favorite listing since the Pam Holm for Controller koozies, he spent $369.92 at Custom Wristbands in Richmond, TX, for “wristband printing”. I guess those are for entry to the VIP room. Anyway, these are the reports that have been added since last time. The remaining non-filers:

Michael Williams, At Large #2
Griff Griffin, At Large #2
Joe Edmonds, At Large #5
Kenneth Perkins, District B
Randy Locke, District C
Otis Jordan, District K

While going through my archives to find some of the links used in this post, I noticed that Perkins, who was a candidate for At Large #1 in 2009, never filed a finance report that year. I don’t suppose that will change this year. We’ll see who drops off this list tomorrow.

UPDATE: I have since been informed that Otis Jordan is not running, so I have stricken him from the list of non-filers. I have also since received a press release from Jack Christie officially announcing his entry into the At Large #5 field.

Time to vote for the new corpse flower name

You may recall that the Houston Museum of Natural Science has a new corpse flower to go with its star attraction Lois, and they have a contest going on to name the newbie. They’ve narrowed things down to five finalists, and they need your help picking the winner.

Help decide the name of our new corpse flower – vote for your favorite!

There are two ways to vote:

1. Click here to vote on Facebook.

2. Vote via Twitter by sending a tweet to @hmns with one of the following hashtags. Your vote will be automatically counted in the Facebook poll – so check that link to see the scoreboard!

#corpseflowerCLARK
#corpseflowerAUDREY
#corpseflowerVIOLET
#corpseflowerHERMANN
#corpseflowerDELILAH

If do not have a Facebook or Twitter account, you may also vote by leaving a comment on this post. (Comments left on other posts will not be counted.)

The winning name will be announced on the anniversary of Lois’ bloom: Monday, July 25 at 10 am!

My choice is Clark, but to each their own. Go vote, and may the best name win.

That next school finance lawsuit is coming

Look for it when school starts this fall.

Texas lawmakers who left town recently after cutting public education and doing little to fix school funding disparities have guaranteed another school finance lawsuit, according to educators and lawyers involved in the case.

They expect to file a lawsuit later in September.

“There’s going to be litigation. The timing of it is really nothing more than putting together the case. We’re still analyzing all the impact of the mess that they passed,” veteran school finance lawyer Randall “Buck” Wood said.

School superintendents across Texas are “very frustrated,” said John Folks, superintendent of San Antonio’s largest district — Northside ISD — and a respected veteran among the state’s school leaders. Folks is past president of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

Folks sees litigation as a certainty: “If the only option that school districts have to force the Legislature to do what is right — as far as public education is concerned — is a lawsuit, that’s pretty sad.”

Another topic we discussed on that Houston 8 episode I was on was school finance. The mantra Sen. Dan Patrick repeated was that school districts supported the legislation that allowed them to do things like reduce teacher salaries. He’s right about that, but I hope this makes it clear that school districts were not supportive of the rest of the things they did. Lord knows they have no reason to be.

The lowest 10 percent funded school districts in Texas average $5,246 per student from a tax rate averaging $1.15, according to the Equity Center, an Austin-based consortium of nearly 700 Texas school districts. In contrast, the top 10 percent funded Texas school districts average $7,742 per student from an average tax rate of $1 per $100 of property valuation. Simply put, the state’s lesser funded school districts get about $2,500 less per student than the wealthiest districts, despite being forced into levying much larger tax rates.

The system is irrational, unfair, unequal and inefficient, lawyers say.

And they complain that state leaders and legislators willfully ignored the problem.

[…]

Humble ISD is one of about 220 school districts that have hit the maximum school operations tax rate of $1.17 (per $100 of property valuation) and cannot increase revenue.

The district’s administrators have made cuts every year for most of the past decade and now face “even more devastating cuts,” spokeswoman Karen Collier said: “Our backs are truly against the wall.”

The district must accommodate an additional 1,000 children every year.

School districts no longer reap the benefit of property value increases. Increased local property values results in school districts getting less state school funds.

“There’s no way to win. It’s a losing battle,” Collier said. “We’ll go to court.”

Everybody agrees that the Lege did not provide funding to accommodate the continued growth in public school enrollments. We all know that the Lege didn’t come close to addressing the structural deficit caused by the 2006 property tax cut, which will be a big driver of the next deficit. This lawsuit may eventually force a change in how the Legislature addresses school funding, but then it was the last lawsuit that led to the 2006 changes, and we see where that has gotten us. The only way this will truly change is with a different mindset in the Legislature, and that’s going to require throwing a bunch of the current members out. If you want something different, you cannot vote for those who are part of the problem.

A closer look at the proposed County Commissioner precincts

Rick Casey does some analysis of the proposed Harris County redistricting map and notes some concerns about the way Precinct 2 was drawn.

The total population of the proposed new precinct is 57 percent Hispanic and 31 percent Anglo. But the voting age population is just 52.5 percent Hispanic to 35.7 percent Anglo.

And when you look further, at the numbers of citizens of voting age, the ratio changes dramatically. Estimates are that only 38 percent are Hispanic, and 50 percent are Anglo.

According to Columbia Law School Professor Nathaniel Persily, an expert on the Voting Rights Act, Justice Department lawyers who will review the new lines will look at total population and voting age population.

“However, the DOJ specifically asked for a special tabulation from the Census Bureau for citizen voting age population, as derived from the American Community Survey averages from 2005 to 2009,” he said.

There may be a bigger problem with something called retrogression. Some county officials point out that the proposed precinct has a higher percentage of Hispanics than it did in 2000.

That’s true, but both Persily and Steve Bickerstaff, who teaches voting law at the University of Texas law school and has a thriving practice in the field, agree that the law doesn’t measure retrogression from 10 years ago, but from the precinct as it now stands.

By that measure, the proposed lines raise the percentage of Anglos by about 3 percent and lower Hispanic numbers by about the same.

What’s more, the precinct would be substantially more Republican than it is today.

Democrat Bill White carried the current precinct in last year’s governor’s race by 49.4 to 48.7 percent. But Gov. Rick Perry carried the proposed precinct by 52.6 to 45.6 percent.

Greg has a look at all of the new precincts and adds some details. I’m still waiting to see what 2008 numbers for Steve Radack’s precinct look like, but as Precinct 2 is the one where an incumbent was ousted it’s obviously of the most interest. Casey notes that Precinct 2 mostly shares a boundary with Precinct 1, which is also protected by the VRA and which also needed to add population, making the whole process a lot more complicated. I wish we had the option of adding more County Commissioner precincts, as I believe that would address a whole range of issues, but that would require a constitutional amendment, and that ain’t gonna happen. According to this County Attorney redistricting info page, this map was given preliminary approval, so I presume any changes from here will be small unless subsequently dictated by the Justice Department or a court. We’ll see what comes out of those four public hearings that are scheduled over the next two weeks. More from Greg is here.

More on directing density

We know that the city’s Planning Department is prepping a draft ordinance that would add some restrictions to highrise construction in parts of the city outside designated areas. Here’s the Chron story about it.

The proposed ordinance was written in response to the controversy over the project known as the Ashby high-rise, a real estate development planned several years ago near upscale homes around Rice University.

“The one thing Ashby did was raise the level of interest from a lot of our neighborhoods. A lot of them have voiced to us they don’t want to see something similar in their neighborhood,” said Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the municipal Planning & Development Department.

[…]

The ordinance would require that developers leave a 50-foot buffer along the sides of buildings adjacent to or within 30 feet of single-family homes or land restricted to single-family development.

The buffer would have to include 10 feet of landscaping, trees, and an 8-foot-tall masonry wall. Mechanical equipment or covered parking wouldn’t be allowed in the buffer zone. In addition, taller parts of the building would have to be set back farther than the ground floor.

Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, sees the additional setbacks on upper floors as too limiting, but supports the draft’s overall language.

“It does strike a very good balance between neighborhood protection and encouraging high-density development in areas that can handle these types of projects,” said Sanders, who served on Mayor Annise Parker’s transition committee on development when she took office at the beginning of 2010.

Just as a reminder, Houstonians for Responsible Growth is a developer-heavy group that “organized in response to a significant number of proposals by the City of Houston proposing stringent land-use controls.” For them to be basically okay with this ordinance says a lot. Note that there is nothing in the ordinance the forbids building a highrise in a residential neighborhood. Even with the new ordinance, you can still build something up to six or seven stories without triggering its regulations. Above that would require some design changes, but doesn’t otherwise say No. Common sense says that highrises belong some places and not others. There’s certainly room to haggle over the details, but there’s nothing in this to get alarmed about.

Well, except for this guy:

Kevin Kirton of Buckhead declined to discuss the status of the Ashby project because of the ongoing litigation, but said he doesn’t believe the proposed new ordinance would affect it.

“We have an approved set of plans and still have an application with the city,” he said.

To Kirton, the ordinance looks a lot like zoning, which he said Houston does not need.

“I think deed restrictions and the existing land use controls work just fine,” he said.

Dude. Your project is Exhibits A through Z of the reasons why our existing land controls don’t work. This new ordinance should be called the Buckhead Memorial Don’t Be Pigheaded About Where You Build Highrises Ordinance. If it weren’t for the litigious duo of Kevin Kirton and Matthew Morgan, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

Texas accepts grant for high speed rail study

Awesome.

Texas accepted a $15 million grant from the Federal High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program to fund the preliminary engineering and NEPA studies for the Dallas to Houston corridor.

This money was made available by Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida’s refusal of a combined $2.4 billion in high speed passenger rail funding.

Since the adoption of the Texas Rail Plan in November, 2010, Texas has shown it is serious about improving rail across the state. The Dallas to Houston line would connect the two largest metropolitan areas of the state, running parallel to I-45. Most of the right of way along that route is already in place.

A previous grant to study a line between Oklahoma City to Dallas was announced in 2010. The federal plan is to connect the country via a high speed passenger rail network by 2030.

Kind of amazing that we’re the beneficiaries of the crazy, shortsighted decisions made by other states’ wingnut governors, isn’t it? You can find the official mention of this in the June 30 agenda of the Texas Transportation Commission – scroll down to item 5, or see here for the minute order. We’re maybe three steps into this journey of a thousand miles now, but we’re at least moving in the right direction.

DA gets Jones case

What sound does a hot potato make when it gets passed to someone else?

The Harris County District Attorney has been asked to review for possible criminal prosecution allegations that Councilwoman Jolanda Jones used city resources to support her private law practice, Mayor Annise Parker confirmed this afternoon.

Shortly after the Office of Inspector General released a report last month summarizing its findings that Jones had used a city phone number, fax machine and employee time to run her practice, Parker said she did not believe Jones should face criminal prosecution. The alleged crimes are misdemeanors.

Since then, Parker has chaired numerous meetings of a three-member review panel advised by City Attorney David Feldman to determine whether Jones should face the judgment of her fellow council members. If the panel sends the matter to council, Jones could face penalties ranging from reprimand to removal.

[…]

The Inspector General, Houston’s top internal affairs official, referred the case to the district attorney independently, said Parker, but she does not disapprove of the decision.

“My concern once council member Jones started attacking the process was that it would make it very difficult to proceed” with the panel review, Parker said. “This certainly takes that out of the equation.”

The panel is scheduled to meet again Wednesday. Parker said she believes the panel should suspend its work while the district attorney’s office does its job.

All I know at this point is that this needs a resolution, one way or another. I wish I knew what went on in those meetings. It seems clear that there was no consensus, but was that a requirement under the new ordinance, or was it supposed to be up to the Mayor to make like Judge Judy and say how it was going to be? I have no idea. Whatever the case, it’s Pat Lykos’ problem now.

UPDATE: I stand corrected about one thing: There was consensus about the panel suspending deliberations until the DA concludes its investigation.

Interview with CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

We begin the 2011 election interview season with first term Council Member Stephen Costello, elected in 2009 in At Large #1. He had a mission in mind when he ran for office, and that was a plan to fund street and drainage improvements in Houston. That plan became Renew Houston, now known as Rebuild Houston, for which a charter amendment was passed last year. He has also served as the Chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee. We chatted about these things and about what he’s working on now, which may surprise you, all of which you can listen to here:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page. My schedule for this will probably be two interviews a week to start, then ramping up to three later and possibly more towards the end. As always, your feedback is appreciated.

Does Perry get any credit?

What credit, if any, should Rick Perry get for Texas’ relatively good economic condition? This Statesman story aims to find out.

As Gov. Rick Perry’s flirtation with running for president puts the Texas economy under a microscope, there’s no question jobs would be Perry’s calling card in a national campaign focused on the economy. The state’s longest-serving governor can say people are voting with their feet. But what do people like Fishbein find once they are here? And how much credit can Perry take for the state’s economy?

Most people know of Texas’ reputation for creating jobs — the cornerstone of Perry’s pitch that limited government, less regulation and low taxes are the tonic for what ails the nation. Yet almost half of the state’s job growth the past two years was led by education, health care and government, the sectors of the economy that will now take a hit as federal stimulus money runs out and the Legislature’s 8 percent cut in state spending translates into thousands of layoffs among state workers and teachers in the coming weeks.

Also, Texas is tied with Mississippi as the nation’s leaders in minimum wage jobs. And conservatives argue that Texas can do more to lower its tax burden on businesses, which is higher than the national average and states such as California and Massachusetts that have a personal income tax.

That said, experts agree that Texas, with its 10 million-plus workforce, is adding more jobs than other states. They don’t always agree on the fairest way to report Texas’ proportion of the nation’s job growth since the recession ended officially in June 2009. The number ranges from a third to nearly half, a significant portion to be sure. And in raw numbers, Texas has no peer as it leads the nation through a slow recovery.

The state’s economy added about 282,300 jobs from June 2009 through April, according to an analyis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The state also lost 45,500 jobs during that period.

Job gains and losses, however, did not fall equally across the Texas economy the past two years. Construction, manufacturing and information sectors lost jobs overall. Education and health services led in job creation (32 percent of all jobs added), followed by professional and business services (23 percent), petroleum (18 percent) and government (12 percent). Other industry sectors, ranging from utilities to hospitality, had smaller job gains.

Pia Orrenius, a Dallas Fed economist, explained Texas’ resiliency this way:

“The state has some natural advantages, including energy, Gulf ports and proximity to Mexico, and a young and rapidly growing population,” she said. “But the state also has business-friendly policies. The state attracts businesses due to its low cost of doing business and attracts people due to its relatively low tax burden and low cost of living.”

Which, as the story notes, is how it was before Perry took office, and how it will undoubtedly continue to be after he leaves. You want to give Perry credit for that, fine, but then he also deserves the “credit” for all of the austerity-induced job losses and all future educational setbacks resulting from cuts to public schools. That story is yet to be written, but the parts of it that begin to show up in the next few months while Perry may or may not be mounting a Presidential campaign deserve a full airing.

Veasey joins in redistricting litigation

Add another redistricting lawsuit to the pile.

Brought by state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, the lawsuit is another attempt to get a three-judge panel hearing redistricting cases to reconsider the entire state map by focusing on how the districts are drawn around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.

“You want to show that, statewide, 90 percent of the growth has been minority and to show that you can make a map that is a lot more reflective of that,” Veasey said. “(Republicans) figured out how to draw another seat for voters who are shrinking in population.”

Veasey’s lawsuit filed in San Antonio argues that two additional minority majority districts should be added to the Metroplex, one for Hispanic voters and another for African-Americans.

“A lot of people fail to realize that the Metroplex has the second-fastest-growing African-American population in the country,” Veasey said.

Republicans have staunchly defended their redistricting map against Democratic charges that it shortchanges minority voters.

“It’s a purely partisan statement,” said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who led the redistricting effort in the Texas Senate. Efforts to avoid drawing oddly shaped districts that could be overturned in court made it harder to reflect the state’s minority population growth in the new maps, Seliger contended.

See PoliTex for more. The Lone Star Project gives some of the details of Veasey’s suit:

Excerpts from the complaint:

  • Voting Rights Act Section 2 Violations
    “Though minority communities accounted for 90% of population growth between 2000 and 2010, and Texas received four additional congressional seats because of that explosive population growth, minorities only control one of the four new districts created under the State’s Plan. And though the Anglo population now comprises only 45% of Texas’ total population, Anglos control 72% of Texas’ congressional districts under the newly enacted map. This configuration constitutes an unlawful dilution of minority voting strength under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
  • Voting Rights Act Section 5 Violations
    “The State’s Plan was drawn with the purpose of, and has the effect of, minimizing and reducing the strength of minority populations in Texas. While the pre-2011 congressional map contains eleven effective minority opportunity districts, the State’s Plan contains only ten such districts. Reducing the number of effective minority opportunity districts constitutes unlawful retrogression under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
  • 14th Amendment Violations
    “That Republican leadership did not extend meaningful opportunities for effective participation in redistricting to those Representatives elected by communities of color and the general public is an affront to democratic values and is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Excluding minority Representatives of choice from the redistricting process also violates Article I, Sections 2 and 4 of the United States Constitution, as well as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

I was on Houston8 with Ernie Manouse on Friday, talking about the special session, and got into it over redistricting with Sen. Dan Patrick, who made the standard claim about how diffuse the Latino population is and how that makes it hard to draw fair districts for them. The problem with that, and I wish I had said it more clearly, is that when someone then tries to draw a minority-opportunity district or two, as Veasey did during the session, people complain about “gerrymandering”, as if that would not apply even more to the things that were done to prevent the creation of such districts. If you take the “too diffuse” argument to its logical end, the “solution” is for Latinos to pack themselves into designated areas instead. I’m sorry, but when more than a half dozen plausible maps are presented for consideration that draw winnable Latino seats, then “too diffuse” becomes an excuse, not an argument.

Anyway. We’ll see what the courts have to say. I had previously noted fourteen other lawsuits; the story referenced five. I’m sure several have been combined by now. Whatever the case, we likely won’t see resolution for several years; my prediction remains that we’ll have some changes to districts for the 2016 election.