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September, 2011:

Eversole pleads out

Another saga comes to an end.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole pleaded guilty this morning in federal court to a felony charge of making a false statement to FBI agents.

The charge carries up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In exchange for the guilty plea and for Eversole’s announcement last week that he would resign from office, prosecutors dropped charges of conspiracy, bribery and two counts of filing false income tax statements.

The Department of Justice had alleged Eversole took nearly $100,000 in cash and gifts from co-defendant Mike Surface in exchange for steering lucrative county contracts to companies in which Surface had an interest.

A mistrial was declared in the case earlier this year following a hung jury. A retrial had been scheduled to begin next month. Throughout, Eversole had denied wrongdoing, and his attorneys have characterized the government’s corruption case as criminalizing a friendship.

“All the allegations by the government that he ever did anything improper in the conduct of his office were dismissed. Every single count, every single allegation that has to do with the performance of his office were dismissed today and they’re gone forever,” said Rusty Hardin, Eversole’s attorney. “There is nothing in his statement of facts that says he ever did anything in his office in return for anything or was influenced in any way.”

I suppose that means something, but whatever. All I can say is that it’s about time.

Surface also took a plea.

In a statement of facts read before the court, Surface admitted to giving Eversole gifts in an attempt to influence him. There was no such clause in Eversole’s statement of facts.


Surface pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false income tax return, which carries up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine. In exchange, conspiracy and bribery charges were dropped.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner accepted Eversole and Surface’s guilty pleas at 10:35 a.m. A sentencing date has been set for Jan. 4, 2012.

Federal sentencing guidelines place the sentence at between zero and six months for both men, served in any combination of incarceration, probation or home confinement Hittner chooses, said Andy Drumheller, an attorney for Eversole.

As part of the pleas, Eversole is barred from seeking elected or appointed office for 10 years; Surface is barred from seeking contracts with the city of Houston and Harris County for five years.

Later Friday, Surface also pleaded guilty to making a false statement to federal agents in another public corruption trial; his lawyer Chip Lewis said the two pleas “are wired together.” Surface, along with codefendant Andrew Schatte, had been charged with conspiracy and mail fraud. Those charges against Surface have been dropped.

Good riddance and shame on both of them. We deserve better from our elected officials and those who do business with our government.

In other news, Judge Ed Emmett will announce Eversole’s successor on Monday morning. A list of potential recipients of the golden ticket are at that link. Whoever it is, I expect there’s a 100% chance he or she will face a contested primary next March. Nobody will have that much time to raise money, so it ought to be quite the scramble. Have sweet dreams over the weekend, y’all, because Monday all but one of you are going to wake up.

UPDATE: Robert Miller takes a guess at who the next Commissioner will be.

Friday random ten: So that’s what “random” means

Hey, here’s a radical idea: How about I hit Shuffle on my iPod and report the first ten songs that come up? You know, like they used to do in the old days? No theme, just ten randomly-played songs. What a novel idea.

1. One Half Laughing – The Aislers Set
2. Prom Night In Pig Town – Trout Fishing In America
3. Big Daddy Of Them All – John Mellencamp
4. More I Cannot Wish You – Georgetown Chimes
5. Gonna Make It – Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, and Lou Ann Barton
6. Jersey Girl – Bruce Springsteen
7. Up The Junction – Beth Madden
8. Wild West End – Dire Straits
9. The Breakdown – Los Lobos
10. Alma – Tom Lehrer

Rather serendipitous that “Jersey Girl” happened to come up so soon after being a featured video. “Up the Junction” is from a Coverville collection that you can still download if you’re so inclined. What are you listening to this week?

Sonogram law still blocked


The Texas sonogram law, that was ruled unconstitutional before it could go into effect, will stay in legal limbo for the time being.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ordered the main provisions of the law were improper because they forced speech upon doctors, who could lose their license to practice medicine, if they failed to tell patients certain information — even if the women didn’t want to hear it or didn’t medically need it.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to allow the law to go into effect pending appeals and on Thursday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, acting on behalf of the high court, also refused to lift the lower court order.


The case, brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights, is still in Sparks court. While a temporary restraining order has been instituted, a final decision on the validity of the law is still pending.

See here for more on Judge Sparks’ ruling. No word on when there will be a final judgment, with the inevitable appeal to follow. The Trib has more.

Giving tax breaks to those that don’t need them

You can add this to the list of things schools might have to pay for that they don’t have the money to pay for.

Three environmental commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry are considering whether to grant some of the nation’s largest refineries a tax refund of more than $135 million money Texas’ cash-strapped schools and other local governments have been counting on to help pay teachers and provide other public services.

The property tax refund would mean more pain for some communities after a year in which state lawmakers slashed spending on public schools to deal with a budget shortfall. Nearly half of the refund would be taken from public schools, and those in cities where the refineries are based would be hurt most.

“We were already cut at the knees as it is, but more cuts? It’s appalling,” said Patricia Gonzales, whose 13-year-old twins attend Park View Intermediate School in Pasadena, a refinery town just south of Houston. Gonzales is president of the school’s new parent-teacher organization, formed this summer after the state budget cuts.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is evaluating 16 requests for the refund, which concerns a piece of pollution control equipment. If granted, the refund total could add up to more than $135 million, according to county tax data and application documents analyzed by The Associated Press. If the commission grants the requests, at least 12 other refineries that have not sought a refund also could qualify.

The three-person commission last year expressed some support for the refund.

See here for the background. Remember that the TCEQ is populated entirely by Rick Perry cronies, so if this goes through, you know where the buck stops. A breakdown of which district would owe what is here. Note that in addition to school districts, counties would lose millions as well – Harris County could wind up taking a $50 million haircut. The refiners themselves claim the actual numbers would probably be much lower, but unless that actual number is zero, I say it’s too much.

Today’s Republican Party is too radical even for Rick Perry

Mark Jones states a few facts about the Texas version of the DREAM Act that Rick Perry signed in 2001, and what it says about the Republican Party now.

In 2001 the Republican Party enjoyed a narrow majority over the Democratic Party in the Texas Senate (16 to 15), and was in its last session as the minority party in the Texas House, with 72 seats to the Democratic Party’s 78. The final version of HB 1403 was amended and passed by the Senate on May 21, 2001, voted on for a second time in the House (which concurred with the Senate’s amended version) on May 24, and signed into law by Perry on June 16.

In the Senate, the bill passed by a 27 to 3 vote, with 12 Republicans and 15 Democrats in favor, and three Republicans against. Seven of the 12 Republicans who supported the bill continue to serve today in the Texas Senate, with three (Sens. John Carona, Troy Fraser, and Florence Shapiro) among only eight senators (out of a total of 19 Republicans) to receive awards for their legislative voting record from the conservative watchdog group, Empower Texans. Also voting yes was Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples, who was then a senator.

The final version of the bill received even stronger Republican backing in the House, with 64 Republicans joining 66 Democrats to vote yes (130 total) versus only two dissenting votes (both Republicans). In the vote on the original version of HB 1403 on April 23, 67 Republicans joined 75 Democrats to approve the bill, with one Republican voting no. Ten years later, 23 of the 64 Republicans (along with two Democrats who would later switch to the Republican Party) who voted yea on the final version of the bill continued in office, as did two Republicans who voted for the bill on April 23, but were absent on May 24.

These legislators are some of the Texas House’s most conservative members (based on both the Empower Texans 2011 Legislative Scorecard as well as the Baker Institute’s 2011 Liberal-Conservative rating), including former House Speaker (2003-09) Tom Craddick, Sid Miller, Leo Berman, Phil King, Dennis Bonnen, Wayne Christian, and Bill Callegari. All were classified by both Empower Texans and the Baker Institute as among the most conservative third of the Republican delegation in the 2011 Texas House. Furthermore, five additional representatives who supported the bill (Gary Elkins, Charlie Howard, Lois Kolkhorst, Geanie Morrison, and Burt Solomons) were considered by both Empower Texans and the Baker Institute to be among the most conservative half of the 2011 Republican caucus.

Berman is especially well known for his hawkish stance on immigration. In 2011 he was the author of several bills in this area, including one patterned on Arizona’s SB 1070 and others which proposed to end birthright citizenship and to make English the state’s official language. In addition, one of the Republican representatives who voted for HB 1403, Kenny Marchant, now represents Texas in the U.S. House, where he is located in the most conservative decile of the House membership by

Yes, even Leo freaking Berman voted for HB1403 – which was authored by Rick Noriega, by the way – back then. The underlying point in all this cannot be emphasized enough: Today’s Republican Party has gone completely off the rails, abandoning principles and opposing policies it once championed in pursuit of a bizarre, destructive, and ultimately unattainable ideological purity in the eyes of its unhinged base. The fact that Rick Perry – Rick Perry! – is being attacked as a liberal tells you all you need to know. Thankfully, the Lege rebuffed attempts to repeal HB1403 this year, with prominent Republicans like Sen. Robert Duncan stepping up to help beat it back (for what it’s worth, I don’t recall seeing Perry say anything at the time), but with David Dewhurst now hopping aboard the xenophobia train, I would expect there to be a lot more pressure on this in 2013. It’s truly a sad state of affairs.

Jus’ what?

From the stupid lawyer tricks department:

Heights-area restaurant Jus’ Mac, which boasts a variety of gourmet macaroni-and-cheese dishes mixed with anything from jalapenos to pineapple to Doritos, is in a trademark disagreement with the McDonald’s Corp.

McDonald’s claims the “Mac” in the Houston-based restaurant’s name may be too similar to what it uses in some of its promotions and product names, such as the “Big Mac” sandwich, Jus’ Mac owner Kimberly Alvarez said.

Alvarez tried to trademark Jus’ Mac in October 2010 shortly after she opened its first location at the 2600 block of Yale Street.


[The Alvarezes] plan to build similar eateries throughout the Texas region.

A second location is slated to open in November in Sugar Land at Lexington Boulevard near First Colony Mall.

Alvarez said her attorneys submitted a proposal to include the phrase “a mac n’ cheese eatery” at the end of the restaurant’s name to resolve the squabble.

She hopes to hear something back from McDonald’s and the trademark division soon.

I guess Mattress Mac better watch himself. This all reminds me of the Star Bock saga, which at last report had turned out all right for the little guy, but only as long as he didn’t try to expand beyond his original location. If the Alvarezes are looking to franchise, that could be a problem for them. We’ll see how it goes.

TRO granted for redistricting plans

Texas Redistricting:

The San Antonio panel this morning enjoined provisions of the Texas Election Code requiring counties to redraw precinct boundaries by October 1 and to issue new voter registration certificates to voters by December 6.

The panel also enjoined implementation of Texas’ new state house and congressional maps on the grounds that the maps have yet to receive pre-clearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

No word in the panel’s order, however, about drawing temporary maps for use in the 2012 election cycle.

Here’s the court’s order:

Because the redistricting plans for the Texas House of Representatives (Plan H283) and the United States House of Representatives (Plan Cl 85) have not been precleared pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the plans may not be implemented. According to the Texas Election Code, any changes that must be made in the county election precinct boundaries “to give effect to a redistricting plan” must be finalized by October 1, 2011. Tex. Elec. Code Ann. Section 42.032 (Vernon 2010). Because the redistricting plans have not been precleared pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, all persons or entities that would otherwise have a duty under Section 42.032 of the Texas Election Code are relieved of those duties until further order of the Court. Likewise, Section 14.001 of the Election Code requires that voter registration certificates be issued to each voter in the county. Because the county election precinct boundaries will not be fmalized, the persons or entities that would otherwise have a duty to issue such registration certificates are relieved of those duties until further order of the Court.

The parties have agreed that the relief granted herein will be effective as a permanent injunction, subject to being lifted by order of the Court as appropriate.

A similar order was issued for State Senate districts, in response to Sen. Wendy Davis’ recent lawsuit; that one will get underway November 3 with an expedited schedule. My non-lawyer’s reading of this is basically that all of the existing districts and precincts are in place until the San Antonio court says otherwise, which I presume won’t happen until after the DC court weighs in. Since we have to add four Congressional districts one way or another, either the maps get precleared or the judges – possibly in both locations – will get busy with their cartography software. And remember, candidate filing begins November 14. Isn’t this fun? A statement from Sen. Davis is here, Texas Redistricting has a useful timeline, and Postcards has more.

Jones saga comes to a close

At long last.

A three-member panel led by Mayor Annise Parker has found insufficient cause to believe Councilwoman Jolanda Jones breached council ethics violations documented in a city investigation.

In a four-page report, the panel also criticized the Office of Inspector General investigation for its “lack of thoroughness” and for finding in some cases that Jones broke rules that do not even apply to her as an elected official.

Though the report notes some concerns about Jones’ behavior, it largely clears her of any violations of city rules and ends all inquiries into whether Jones used her city resources to support her private law practice.


The panel, on which Councilwoman Sue Lovell and Councilman C.O. Bradford also sit, came to an agreement with Jones that requires her to remove her council phone number from the card. The agreement also calls for her to conduct ethics training for her staff, to take steps to separate her council business from her law practice and to create records that show any employee who drives her to court is not doing so on city time.

The panel could have sent the matter to the entire council for possible sanction that could have included removing Jones from office. But the panel declined to forward the matter, and its action today concludes an eight-month saga that produced little physical evidence of violations of law beyond a single business-related fax sent from her council office fax machine.

You can see the panel report at the link above. Last week, the DA declined to bring charges against CM Jones in the matter, so this was the last item on the to do list. At the time, Mayor Parker said she wanted to defer till after the election, but CM Jones wanted to get it done, so I presume the Mayor acceded to her wishes. May we not see any reason for another ethics panel for a long time.

“How to Choose a Texas Electric Provider the Wrong Way”

Recently, my friend Dan Wallach wrote a guest post here about how to find the best deal on electricity in Texas. Robert Nagle, another friend of mine, took issue with some of the things Dan wrote and penned a response on his blog, called How to Choose a Texas Electric Provider the Wrong Way. A brief excerpt:

I am amazed at how easy it is to make a bad decision about electric providers.  A college friend with a PhD in Economics chose an expensive coal-laden TXU plan because he had just moved back to Texas and wasn’t aware that you had the ability to choose your provider – he just went with whatever someone told him about. (In two minutes, I was able to find him a plan which was 10% cheaper and 100% green).  Various acquaintances have chosen plans for the most illogical of reasons. One chose “Reliant” because it sounded “reliable” (Reliant-reliable – get it? I guess getting your name on the downtown stadium was good for something).  Another signed up for the coal-dirty Reliant because it had balanced-billing – never mind that it was significantly more expensive than the other plans. A friend chose a plan simply because a friend of hers had recommended it – that was also more expensive. Another friend opted not to choose the “renewable” plan because she didn’t want to have to renew it each time the fixed rate expired.  There are other not-so-obvious problems. When I had Dynawatt (a company I don’t recommend) I could not make head or tail of the bill (no matter how long I studied it). Everything on the printed bill contradicted what the terms of my contract were, and when I called telephone support several times, each agent quoted me a different rate on my current plan – something which didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

4 Things You Need to Know about Choosing an Electric Provider in Texas

This blogpost is going to ramble a bit, so I’ll summarize for people who are in a hurry and need some fast tips.

  1. Texas consumes more fossil fuels than any other state in the US. If Texas were a nation, it would be the 7th largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Electric plants in Texas (population 25 million) emit as much CO2 as electric plants in the COMBINED states of New York, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon (population: 86 million)
  2. 1 year Fixed-rate plans for 100% green (renewable) energy plans are on average 5-10% higher than comparable coal/natural gas plans.
  3. Don’t choose an electric provider which has received too many complaints. (Check thecomplaint scorecards on the PUC site and also Yelp if you want).

You’ll need to click over and read the whole thing for the fourth point. My thanks to Robert for sharing his expertise.

“Litter on a stick”

I think the saddest thing about this story is that it’s basically the only mainstream media coverage the At Large #2 race has received.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced a crackdown on so-called bandit signs Wednesday, pledging to issue fines to political candidates and others who illegally post their signs on city land.

The announcement comes less than a month before early voting in her re-election campaign. Parker said election season is when signs proliferate and that the city spent $450,000 in 2009 to take them down. The $200-per-offense fines aim to recover the city’s costs.

“This is about quality of life in our city. This is about visual pollution, and this is about someone trampling on the public right of way and intruding in the public space. And it is about tax dollars – $450,000 a year to deal with illegally placed signs,” Parker said during a news conference following Wednesday’s City Council meeting.


Candidates confronted by allegations that they are breaking the law typically distance themselves from direct responsibility by claiming overzealous volunteers have illegally placed the signs without the campaign’s authorization. Parker said she did not know of a single instance in which a candidate had been fined. City ordinance calls for a fine of $100 to $500 per sign per day to those responsible for illegally posted signs.

City Council candidate Eric Dick has received the most notoriety this year for his seemingly ubiquitous red signs.

“I think she’s trying to use her position as mayor to fine other candidates that disagree with her. It’s kind of tyranny,” Dick said.

KTRK has additional coverage. Let’s take Eric Dick at his oft-stated word that his ubiquitous illegal signs are solely the responsibility of unnamed and unpaid campaign volunteers. Putting aside the question of where one finds such dedicated yet untrainable volunteers, once the signs are up, who’s responsible for the cost to take them down? It is, after all, the taxpayers, whose interests every candidate that has ever run for office vows to watch out for, that ultimately foot the bill for their removal. If the city, on behalf of those taxpayers, decides to present that bill to those who incurred the cost, who would Eric Dick say they should be? I presume he has some idea who his volunteers are, even if he has no control over what they do. Wouldn’t the right thing for Eric Dick to do, after promising that his campaign volunteers would no longer be given signs to distribute since clearly they cannot be trusted to do so in a legal manner, be to provide the names of those volunteers whom he believes must have hung those illegal signs, so they can be made to give restitution to the people of Houston?

That’s what I’d do, if I wanted to convince people that I was an honorable person and a fiscally responsible steward of their tax dollars. Alternately, I could send out a sniggering press release that makes the Harvey Richards argument that “hey, everybody does it” and hope that nobody is too paying enough attention to notice that the taxpayers are left holding the bag. That wouldn’t be my first choice, but then I would not have found myself in that position to begin with, so there you go. Greg, Perry, and John have more.

On spending and jobs

What exactly was the point of this story?

About 600 workers already are on the job building the North, Southeast and East End lines, according Metro.

“This is an opportunity for Metro to create thousands of jobs in Houston for local contractors, construction workers, and engineers,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a recent blog post on her re-election campaign website.

In addition to direct hires for construction, Metro says light-rail projects will create other jobs as workers spend money, a process economists call a “multiplier effect.” Citing research by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Metro President and Chief Executive Officer George Greanias said the agency’s $900 million in federal grants, nearing approval in Washington, is expected to create 18,000 jobs over six years ending in 2014.

“According to the bureau, for every $1 million you spend, you will create 20 jobs over the life of the project,” Greanias said.

But Barton Smith, University of Houston economics professor emeritus, said the multiplier effect doesn’t apply to local tax funds, which will pay for all of the East End line and part of the other two.

“We have to recognize the tax money you and I are spending to cover the cost of (locally funded) projects is money that won’t be spent on other things in Houston,” he said. “I’m a strong believer that any public investment ought to be judged on its own merits and not whether it’s a job creator.”

Where to even begin? First, Dr. Smith is specifically talking about local tax funds, but Metro is talking about federal grant money, which whatever else you may have to say about it didn’t have to be spent in Houston. Second, even if we were talking about local tax funds, not all such spending is equal from a job creation perspective. To cite a ridiculous example, we could take the money Metro is spending on the Harrisburg line, as that one is not receiving any New Start grant money, and use it instead to purchase artwork from the Menil Collection so they could be hung at City Hall. I’m pretty sure building the Harrisburg line would do more for employment than that would. Finally, since we are talking about spending money on new infrastructure, the benefit goes on past the time when the money is being spent on construction. That’s dicier to calculate, and less important when your focus is getting people back to work now, but it’s still an important consideration.

It’s also a consideration that Dr. Smith mentions subsequently in the story. My quibble isn’t with him, it’s with the bizarre way this article is framed. But there is another consideration that neither Dr. Smith nor the story’s author mentions:

Also, Smith said, this is a good time to do public-sector investment that’s needed because there’s a ready labor supply and construction costs are low.

One reason why construction costs are low is that interest rates are at historically low levels. It may never be this cheap to borrow money again. That makes the case for federal infrastructure spending stronger than for local infrastructure spending, since the federal government is not bound by artificial accounting deadlines for “balancing” its budget, but if you have any need for building new stuff or repairing old stuff, now is the time. And if you do it by floating debt instead of dipping into general revenue, you avoid the made-up conflict that was the basis for this story. See how easy that was?

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 26

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks Alec Baldwin’s hair does a pretty decent impersonation of our Governor as it brings you this week’s roundup.


Interview with Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson

Concluding my interviews with Council candidates is a newcomer, Laurie Robinson, who is running for At Large #5. Robinson is a businesswoman and regulatory compliance expert in the health care industry. She has worked in the Department of Health and Human Services in DC and has also conducted audits and operational assessments for the City of Houston, among others. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

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

Trouble with the trees

The drought gets more expensive for the city of Houston.

The drought is about to claim yet more of Houston’s green – this time $4.5 million in tax dollars to remove trees that have died of thirst.

Houston’s driest year on record has prompted City Hall to mandate lawn-watering restrictions, hire extra crews to fix water main breaks, ban barbecuing and smoking in city parks and call for park visitors to bring rakes with them to help municipal employees scoop up pine needles and other dead vegetation.

The drought’s length and intensity have become so acute the city has to throw unbudgeted money at it. City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a request by the Parks and Recreation Department for $4.5 million to remove 15,000 dead trees from city parks and esplanades, an amount nearly 13 times what the city spends dragging away dead trees in an average year.

One presumes they have a lot more dead trees to drag away this year than they would in an average year. This is a lot of money, but then a wildfire in a city park would likely cost a whole lot more. I’ll take the ounce of prevention for $4.5 million, thanks. Hair Balls, which also couldn’t resist the Rush reference, has more.

No funding for long term water needs

We know what we need to do, we just don’t want to pay for it.

On paper, at least, Texas is well-prepared to meet the water needs of its rapidly expanding population — even when Mother Nature lays down a harsh and lengthy drought.

The price tag on the plan: $53 billion. State money allocated: $1.4 billion.

If there were funds, Texas would be able to build the dams, reservoirs, pipelines, wells and other infrastructure that would ideally avoid tight water-use restrictions imposed on residents, farmers and ranchers during times of drought while also guaranteeing there would be enough water for the state’s rapidly growing population — even in 2060.

Instead, now, more than four years after the latest blueprint was published, deadlines have passed with some work barely begun, and many projects never started. Meanwhile, lakes are shrinking, rivers are drying up and temperatures are rising.

“The longer you delay implementation, the costs are going to go up,” said Carolyn Brittin, a planning official at the Texas Water Development Board, which must publish a revised plan by January.

The Lege, of course, failed to do anything about this. As Forrest Wilder wrote back in May, there was a bill in place, there just wasn’t enough support for it.

Even as an historical drought grips the whole state, a measure to pump money into the underfunded state water plan has failed at the Texas Legislature. Rep. Allan Ritter, a Democrat-turned-Republican from rainy Southeast Texas, said the legislation died in the Calendars Committee because it included new fees unacceptable to the Republican supermajority in the House.

“We’re fighting so many fiscal battles,” Ritter said. “I just can’t get the members to lock onto it.”

Ritter’s idea was to finally come up with a permanent source of funding for a backlog of water-supply projects contemplated by the state water plan. By 2060, it’s estimated that Texas will need to spend $52 billion to avoid water shortages. But Ritter’s approach, consisting of two funding sources, never had a chance.

One, he wanted to impose a new monthly “tap fee” on people and businesses – an extra $1 per month for residential water bills. Two, he wanted to take $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, a much-abused pot of money that was supposed to help poor people pay for their utility bills. Now it mostly just sits in an account to help the Legislature balance the budget.

The proposed changes would’ve been put to the voters in November as a proposed constitutional amendment. The money would’ve helped finance hundreds of proposed projects, including new reservoirs, water conservation efforts, pipelines, and desalination.

I disagree with raiding the System Benefit Fund, but that sort of chicanery was par for the course this session. Is there anyone out there who thinks Ritter’s plan would not have been ratified by the voters? Is there anyone who thinks that if the Lege knew then what it knows now about how bad this drought would be that they wouldn’t have taken this more seriously? Nothing like looming catastrophe to focus the mind, I guess. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the next Lege will finally tackle this.

The can banners fight back

I’ve blogged before about New Braunfels’s new ordinance that bans disposable containers on the Comal River. Since then, those who oppose the ban have gotten organized and have succeeded in putting a referendum to repeal the ordinance on the November ballot. There are plenty of people who support the ban, however, and now they have gotten organized as well.

Support The Ban, a political action committee backed by civic leaders, officer holders and the local clergy, will go head-to-head in a public relations war with Can The Ban, a PAC formed by those opposed to the controversial ordinance. That group includes businesses involved in the city’s $418 million tourism industry.


The city, Support the Ban spokeswoman Kathleen Krueger said, picked up 700,000 gallons of trash this summer, and New Braunfels says another summer like this will put it $600,000 over budget.

Leaders of 35 religious congregations publicly support the ban.

“We’re meant to be stewards of this treasure,” said Scott Tjernagel, pastor of River City Vineyard Church.

Unlike the ban opponents, I couldn’t find a Facebook page for Support the Ban. Render whatever judgment you want about that after the election. I have a feeling that turnout won’t be a problem in New Braunfels this November.

TRO requested for redistricting plans

Texas Redistricting:

This morning, MALC and the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force asked the San Antonio panel to enter a temporary restraining order to prevent the State of Texas from implementing its redistricting plans on the grounds that they have yet to receive pre-clearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

In what may be an opening salvo for an interim fix, MALC and the Task Force also suggested that it likely would be necessary for the San Antonio panel to “devise a temporary court-ordered plan in time for the 2012 election cycle” in order to make sure the state’s responsibility to hold congressional and state house elections is not “completely thwarted.”

You can read the full motion here. As we know, the DC court has oral arguments in the case scheduled for November 2, so there’s no way there will be resolution before the start of the filing period, and it may not happen by the deadline. Keep your eye on this, it could be a game changer.

Interview with Jack Christie

Jack Christie

Next up in At Large #5 is a familiar face, that of Jack Christie, who is on his third run for this office. Christie came very close to winning in 2009, ultimately falling by 1500 votes in the runoff. He is a chiropractor who has served on the Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustees and on the State Board of Education. Here’s our conversation:

Download the MP3 file

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

Evaluating Eversole

As we prepare to say good-bye and good riddance to Jerry Eversole, the Chron takes a look at what he has achieved in office and what his legacy might be.

After more than 20 years as a Harris County commissioner, Jerry Eversole is expected to leave office a felon, having announced his resignation last week as part of a plea deal that likely will see him plead guilty to lying to FBI agents four years ago.

In political circles, that may be Eversole’s legacy: forced from office by a corruption probe, accused – though not convicted – of funneling contracts to a friend’s companies in exchange for more than $100,000 in cash and gifts.

Some may see him as a caricature: A local politician accused of cronyism, with a penchant for charity golf tournaments, who so resembled Clint Eastwood he had to turn away autograph-seekers.

Many of Eversole’s constituents in north Harris County will not remember him that way, however.

They point to his beloved Spring Creek Greenway, a developing 12,000-acre park that, when completed, will run along 33 miles of creek from The Woodlands to Humble.

Eversole proudly said the land still looks as it did when the Akokisa Indians camped there.

“I regret that I won’t see it any further,” Eversole said. “It’s a tremendous project.”

In the end, Eversole’s legacy may be neither disgraced politician nor saintly conservationist. Those who know him describe him as an endearing but admittedly imperfect, old-fashioned, road-and-bridge commissioner.

If Jerry Eversole wants to be remembered as something other than a politician who was forced out of office by pleading guilty to a felony, then there needs to be something extraordinary in his record to balance that out. It’s nice that his employees thought he was a good boss who boosted morale, and it’s nice that his constituents felt like they could talk to him when they needed to, but those are hardly remarkable achievements. The construction of that park is certainly laudable, but building parks is something County Commissioners do. Unless there’s some evidence to suggest that Jerry Eversole and no one else could have gotten that done over the past 20 years, it doesn’t rise to that standard, either. There may be more to the Jerry Eversole story than what’s in this article, but I don’t see anything to distract from the fact that he’s about to become an ex-official because he got caught taking advantage of his position for his own personal gain.

More things that schools have to deal with that isn’t in their budgets

Droughts and wildfires.

The drought across Texas has lasted nearly 12 months, and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. In fact, La Niña, the intermittent Pacific Ocean phenomenon that caused the drought, is back and strengthening. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, 88 percent of the state is considered to be in the worst drought stage.

School districts are dealing with the extreme weather by changing school procedures — and some have already had to take costly preventative measures or make expensive repairs. All of this happens as schools have already pared down their budgets, shed staff and streamlined operations to absorb the $4 billion in budget cuts enacted by lawmakers during this year’s legislative session.

Recently, a grass fire came within two miles of Northside Independent School District’s Langley Elementary School in San Antonio. Pascual Gonzalez, a spokesman for the school district, said Northside ISD has undertaken a major review of its crisis plan as a result of the fires.

“The most important issue for us is, how do we get kids out of schools that are immediately threatened?” Gonzalez said.


Houston ISD hasn’t been immune to the extreme weather either. Over the past couple months, the district’s Construction and Facility Services has received more than a dozen requests to evaluate school buildings for structural concerns, according to HISD spokesman Patrick Trahan. Some of the recommended repairs have been simple, such as cutting down nearby trees that absorb large amounts of moisture from the soil in order to reduce the chance of foundation movement.

“Others have been much more extreme,” Trahan said. “Some of the major foundation repairs cost up to $600,000.”

It’s all right. I’m sure that between bake sales and passing other costs on to parents, schools won’t have any trouble paying for any of this. They can just follow Rick Perry’s lead and learn how to do more with less.

Ron Paul got no respect

Poor dear.

Ron Paul says Republican leaders in the Texas legislature asked him how he would like his district to be changed during the recently completed redistricting process.

“So they did exactly the opposite,” the libertarian congressman told Texas on the Potomac Wednesday.

At a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, the Republican presidential candidate described the process as “a terrible business.”

The radical redrawing of Paul’s congressional district is one of the lesser-known subplots of the Texas legislature’s 2011 redistricting wars.

You heard it here first. As Jason Stanford and Abby Rapoport note, Paul and the GOP establishment have never much liked each other, and when you have no one on your side while districts are being drawn, you tend to get screwed. No great mystery, really.

One more thing:

Paul said that despite the line changes, “it’s very possible” that he could have won re-election to Congress in 2012.

Assuming he survived a primary challenge, which would have been no sure thing for him in this new turf, I agree with this. Most likely, he would have drawn only token Democratic opposition, despite the moderately purple hue of the district. The only reason there’s even the possibility of a serious Democratic contender now is that the seat will be open. Whether you think his impending exit is a good thing or not, you have the Republicans in the Lege to thank for it..

Interview with CM Jolanda Jones

CM Jolanda Jones

Our last look at a Council race is the most interesting race involving an incumbent, as once again CM Jolanda Jones faces some tough competition in At Large #5. If you follow Houston politics at all you are surely familiar with CM Jones, so I will skip the introduction. We talked about a lot of the things that have been going on with her, with Council, and with the Mayor in the interview:

Download the MP3 file

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

Austin will keep May elections for now

As we know, the city of Austin holds its municipal elections in May. They have three year terms for City Council, so half of their elections are held in even-numbered years. As we also know, a bill that was passed by the Lege this spring will cause a conflict for cities like this as the primary election calendar will leave them insufficient time to prepare for their elections. Austin has contemplated moving its May 2012 election to November, but in the end and in a close vote on Council decided to stay put for the time being.

A narrow council majority said the city should stick with May until the voters decide otherwise, via a citywide referendum planned for November 2012. Council members on the losing end argued that a May election will cost the city more money while drawing fewer voters, and noted that the county’s top election official recommended a November date.

But council members also voted their own interests.

May elections are typically dominated by Democratic clubs, civically engaged environmental clubs and neighborhood associations in Central and West Austin, whose influence is magnified by chronically low turnout. Those groups were largely responsible for the election of council members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo. Those groups’ support is also key to the prospects of Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman, both of whom supported a May election and are considering running in it against Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Leffingwell’s supporters think a November election would strengthen his re-election prospects. A larger and more diverse electorate would dilute the influence of activists who have grown increasingly frustrated with Leffingwell, and his higher name recognition would help among voters who have traditionally shown little interest in city issues. Council Member Mike Martinez, a Leffingwell ally, voted for a November election, as did Council Member Chris Riley.

The Thursday debate centered largely on whether a larger turnout would be more important than the risk of a presidential election drowning out local issues.

The vote was 4-3 to keep the May election date. I get the argument for that, and I have no doubt that local races will be utterly drowned out by the Presidential and legislative cacaphony that next November will be. On the other hand, I have a hard time being sympathetic to the idea that lower turnout is a good thing. Katherine Haenschen argues forcefully for “new and casual voters [being] given lower barriers to participating in our city elections”; she expands on that further here. Personally, I wish there was no such thing as a “casual voter”, but if voting is a habit – and it is – then the goal should be to get more people into the habit of doing it. All things considered, I’d have picked the November option.

The good news is that this should not, or at least that it need not, be an ongoing concern.

The city is working on a proposal to overhaul Austin’s political structure by switching to a system of district representation on the City Council. Now, each council member runs citywide. That referendum could be accompanied by a proposal to move the city elections to November of odd-numbered years, and extend council terms from three to four years.

If the district plan goes to voters in May, its fate would be decided by the same electorate that has rejected the idea numerous times. Council members are in general agreement that it would stand a better chance of passing in November and should be put to voters then, regardless of when the City Council election happens.

More on the single member district plan is here; there’s a citizen group petitioning for an alternate plan as well. Going to November of odd-numbered years only strikes me as the best solution. Houston’s turnout is no great shakes most years, but it’s historically much better than Austin’s. That’s the direction I’d recommend they go.

Still room for discontent in the Big XII

Texas A&M is on the way out, OU and UT are settling back in, but what’s left of the Big XII still isn’t quite a happy family.

Contrasting pictures of the stability of the Big 12 were highlighted by OU president David Boren and Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton during dueling head-to-head news conferences Thursday night. Their comments reflected contrary viewpoints on whether the conference’s problems have been fixed.

Deaton’s news conference was held at the same time as Boren’s. Both used the same audio servicing company and Boren’s voice boomed over Deaton’s during part of the teleconference for media members across the nation.

It might have been a technical glitch, but it seemed more symbolic than that.

Boren projected an air of unity with most of the Big 12’s problems settled; Deaton talked about working to reconcile those differences.

Most importantly, the Missouri chancellor didn’t provide a long-term commitment to remaining in the conference. Some reports have the Tigers interested in joining Texas A&M as a new member of the Southeastern Conference.

“That’s a hypothetical that could occur,” Deaton told reporters. “In a sense, anything is possible. That’s all recognized, and that’s what has led to the discussions that we’ve had over the last several weeks.”

Make of that what you will. For its part, the SEC is going to have 13 teams, which seems to be mighty awkward from a scheduling perspective. Adding one more school might help with that.

South Carolina president Harris Pastides would like to see the Southeastern Conference cap expansion at 14 teams.

Pastides and the other SEC presidents have voted to accept Texas A&M as the league’s 13th member, once the Aggies resolve legal issues regarding their departure from the Big 12. The presidents have not decided whether to add a 14th team.

“I don’t think 13 is a sustainable number, but I think 14 is,” Pastides said. “I’m not in favor of 16 personally right now. You begin to lose what is a very special quality.”

Pastides spoke with the Associated Press this week about SEC expansion and his role in an NCAA summit this past summer regarding reform in major college athletics.

Pastides is favor of the SEC growing after Texas A&M joins “because 14 works better than 13,” he said. “But if it were Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech [together], to me, I’d be saying, ‘What happened to the SEC?’ ”


The president said identifying a 14th school is just speculation and rumors right now. He’d like for SEC members to have some time out of the glare of conference realignment to find a similarly good match as Texas A&M. Pastides knows that might not happen.

I’m not really sure how much better 14 is. With 12, it’s easy – two six-team divisions, each team plays all five division mates plus three teams in the other division. All rivalries are maintained, no teams go more than two years without facing each other, no muss no fuss. With 14, you either skip some in-division games as shown in the 13 team scenario, or you forget about even scheduling across divisions. Seems to me 16 would be easier to deal with, but that has other problems as we well know. I’d have stayed with 12, but no one asked me. As for who lucky number 14 might be, we’re left to our own devices for the time being. Mizzou would like for it to be known that they would not turn down an invitation.

Bike sharing comes to New York

You’d have thought – or at least, I’d have thought – that New York City would have been a very early adopter of bike sharing. Turns out they’re just getting started now.

At a press conference [last Wednesday] afternoon, the Department of Transportation announced that it has selected Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share, which runs similar programs in Boston and Washington D.C.

New York is kind of late to the bike-share game — European cities have been on this tip forever, and U.S. cities from Boston and D.C. to Madison, Minneapolis, and Chicago already have programs in place.

But New York will be the biggest bike-share yet. When it makes its debut next summer, New York City Bike Share will include 10,000 new bicycles at 600 locations, more than any other program in the world.

The rental stands will be placed about three blocks apart, throughout Manhattan below 79th Street and in the nearer reaches of Brooklyn.

Mindful of the recent grumblings about its ambitious bike-lane expansions, the Department of Transportation is promising to solicit lots of input before it selects locations for the rental stands.

Last week the DOT promised City Council it will consult the Council and hold public hearings as it goes forward. New Yorkers can also give their own suggestions for a bike-share location on the program’s web site.

There’s a video at the story that explains the basics. Speaking as a native Staten Islander, all I can say is that I hope they expand this beyond “Manhattan below 79th Street and in the nearer reaches of Brooklyn”. Oddly enough, the streets of Manhattan are crowded enough that I don’t know how they’ll be to an influx of presumably novice bicyclists. I also wonder if the effect will be more to reduce bus and subway ridership rather than to take cars off the street. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Also fixing to hop on board the bike sharing bandwagon – Dallas.

Absolutely, says the city’s top bicycle planner, Max Kalhammer.

The 2011 Dallas Bike Plan, approved in June by the Dallas City Council to mixed reviews, calls for just such a program, with a half-dozen bike centers located in downtown, he said. Private firms willing to operate a bike share program have already visited him, and interest is strong.

But first, he said, Dallas has to implement the first stages of the bike plan — which would add hundreds of miles of bike lanes — so that those who want to use the bikes, or use their own, can do so safely and have plenty of places to go.

“We have to really have the bicycle infrastructure in place before we can offer that program of bicycle sharing,” Kalhammer said. “One has to come before the other.”

Most importantly, the city is looking for about $500,000 in grant money to complete the Central Core Connector, a series of on-street improvements central Dallas that planners hope will make bicycling easier and safer for residents and tourists from Uptown to Deep Ellum, downtown and Oak Cliff.


How would the city’s bike share program work?

The bike plan envisions two possible scenarios. One would involve bringing in a firm, as New York has done, to manage the program in return for the right to collect fees from users. The monthly fee — pledged in NYC to be less than a monthly transit pass — would cover unlimited 24/7 access to, in New York’s case, the 10,000 bikes stationed throughout the city.

In Dallas, though, the program would start smaller, perhaps with about a half-dozen bike stations in downtown, though the plans call for expanding service to Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff over time.

The other scenario would involve the city managing the program.

Good for them. With San Antonio leading the way, and Houston and Austin to follow, our state’s on its way to being a lot more bike friendly.

Speaking of Houston, I was hoping to give an update on its Bike Share rollout, since it’s supposed to be up and running this fall. As it happens, Laura Spanjian was on vacation when the story about New York’s bike share program came out, and I have not been able to connect with her to ask for a status update. I will note that neither the Houston Bike Share Facebook page nor the Bike Share Houston webpage has been updated in recent months. When I hear something, I will let you know.

Weekend link dump for September 25

“If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

How much money recording artists make from the different ways of selling their music.

Dinosaur feathers. Awesome.

“These same Republicans who are dubious of government’s ability to do anything right have an apparently bottomless faith in the capital-justice system. Everything is broken in America, they claim—except the machinery of death.”

“Maybe the real trick to exploiting the wisdom of the crowd is to recognise the most knowledgeable individuals within it.”

Why Lizz Winstead wants to make Planned Parenthood be like LensCrafters.

Imagine there’s no smoking. It’s more complicated than you might think.

It’s only called “class warfare” when our side engages in it.

That’s not a threat, Mr. O’Reilly, it’s a promise. At least, it better be.

Whatever else you might say about Rep. Charlie Rangel, he’s got balls.

Ralph Nader admires Sarah Palin. Sure, why not? She hates Democrats as much as he does.

Why yes, Mitch McConnell is a huge, two-faced hypocrite. What makes you ask? Oh, and so is Darrell Issa. I’m as shocked as you are.

I’ve never been a David Brooks fan, so his utterly predictable flipflopping is not a problem for me.

“Centrist” is the least understood and most misused word in the political lexicon.

I will admit that PETA knows how to draw attention to itself. Beyond that, I got nothing.

When you confront a bully, the bully usually backs down.

If this turns out to be true, we’d damn well better start working on warp drives.

On supporting some, but not all, of the troops.

Finally, in honor of the release of Thunder Soul, the documentary about the Kashmere High School Stage Band, here’s the band’s rendition of “Thank You”, originally by Sly and the Family Stone:

Awesome. Search YouTube for “Kashmere Stage Band” for more. And remember, those were high school kids.

Still cleaning up Tommy Thomas’ mess

Some stains take a long time to scrub out.

The U.S. Justice Department is proceeding with an investigation of Harris County sheriff’s operations, after county leaders refused to enter into a civil rights settlement with the government or hire an independent monitor.

The investigation was sparked by the discovery of emails from sheriff’s commanders – before Sheriff Adrian Garcia took office – that disparaged religious, racial and ethnic groups. The inquiry also was prompted by the treatment of members of a Sikh family detained in late 2008 after calling deputies to their home to investigate a burglary.

County Attorney Vince Ryan in July asked the Commissioners Court to enter into a memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department that would have ended the investigation.

The agreement required the department to hire an internal affairs expert to review use of force and internal affairs procedures, as well as developing “diversity and cross-cultural awareness” training for new cadets and existing deputies.

The agreement also called for a written report after an eight-month review, which will serve as an outline to improve the handling of complaints against deputies from the public, how internal investigations are conducted and the training of officers who do them.

Nancy Sims has a concise summary. County Judge Ed Emmett called the agreement “onerous”, and I’m sure it is. Steve Radack whined that county people should be the ones overseeing county people. All I can say is that if county people had done a better job of that while Tommy Thomas was in office, we wouldn’t be in this spot now.

Hempstead commuter rail update

Here’s a look at how commuter rail along 290 might work.

Commuter trains from Hempstead to Houston could start running by 2019 if the Gulf Coast Rail District can secure $300 million and if Union Pacific Railroad lets passenger cars use its track along Hempstead Highway.

It would be the Houston area’s first commuter rail service between cities in at least 50 years and would help ease severe traffic congestion on U.S. 290, a major route for rapidly growing northwest Harris County.

At the outset, the service would operate only between Hempstead and Loop 610 near Northwest Mall. From there, express buses would carry passengers to four employment centers – downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria/Uptown area.

To succeed, however, the project must extend the track from the loop into downtown, according to a report on a year-long study by Klotz Associates and TranSystems. Commissioned by the rail district, the report was presented Tuesday to the board.

The study was commissioned last March. All of the documents related to the Hempstead rail project can be found here. The initial presentation was made last November. The report that was given to the GCRD this week is here. Of interest is that one of its operating assumptions is that the METRO Solutions Phase II plan has been “Fully Implemented” by the projected start date of 2019. It’s not clear to me if this includes the Uptown Line, which would conveniently have an endpoint at or near the Northwest Mall, which is given as one of the possible terminal locations for the Hempstead line. There is a slide with the title “Interim Terminal Bus Needs (Peak)”, which says two buses to the Galleria/Uptown area would be needed, so presumably at least at the outset the Uptown Line is not assumed to be in the mix.

I would think that having the Uptown Line running would have a positive effect on ridership projections – who wants to get stuck in traffic on a bus after getting off a commuter train? – but the study doesn’t explicitly mention that. What it does discuss is continuing the line into downtown, which would have a huge effect:

By 2035, the time reference used in the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s, regional transportation plan, the commuter service would see about 6,000 daily boardings without an extension to downtown.

If the track is extended, ridership is expected to jump to as many as 22,578 daily boardings by 2035.

I will note that the Super Neighborhood 22 comprehensive transportation plan explicitly discusses a commuter rail connection from Northwest Mall into downtown, so there is a basis for planning that extension. I’m sure the SN22 folks will be happy to talk to the GCRD about how this can be made to happen, with maybe a few of their other ideas thrown in for good measure.

Even in Midland

Fact-based sex education replaces mythical thinking in Midland. And they said it couldn’t be done.

In the spring, public school students in Midland will cross what until very recently was the political third rail of sex education. For the first time, they will be taught about contraception — and how to practice safe sex.

The West Texas town is known for oil and Republican presidents, not progressive social policy. But after watching the teen pregnancy rates creep up year after year — 172 pregnant girls were enrolled in the town’s public schools last year — many in the community realized something needed to change.

“These are girls as young as 13 that are pregnant, some of them are on their second pregnancies,” said Tracey Dees, the supervisor of health services in the district of just under 22,000 students, adding that many of them reported having sexually transmitted infections as well.

Eighteen months ago, with input from parents, staff and other community leaders, the school board decided to implement a new curriculum for seventh and eighth-graders — one that emphasizes that waiting to have sex is best, but also teaches students about condoms and birth control. Midland is just one of a number of schools, from West Texas to the suburbs of Houston, that are moving toward “abstinence-plus” education at the urging of their health advisory committees made up of community members.

“We’re getting calls from all over the state,” said Susan Tortolero, the director of the University of Texas’ Prevention Research Center in Houston who developed the curriculum being used in Midland. “It’s like we’re beyond this argument of abstinence, abstinence plus. Districts want something that works.”

What a novel idea. There’s a part of me that’s never quite understood why this is controversial. I mean, why wouldn’t you want your kids to have the best information? How can you expect them to make good decisions otherwise? I’m glad that even in places like Midland, people are starting to get that. It’s just a shame that so many kids had to be poorly served in the meantime.

What we lost in the wildfires

It’s going to take a long time to recover from the fires.

The fire burned through the heart of the Lost Pines area, a unique ecological island encompassing some 64,000 acres of loblolly pine, the westernmost stands of the great pine forest originally carpeting the southeastern United States.

Incinerated, too, was the largest single tract of remaining habitat of the Houston toad, an endangered amphibian whose survival is tied to the habitat beneath the pine canopy.

Much of that Houston toad habitat sat on 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park, one of the oldest, most popular and profitable Texas parks. All but about 100 acres of the tract was consumed by the fire.

The park, which opened in 1937, has been “a real diamond in our system,” said Mike Cox, spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It attracts up to a quarter-million visitors a year, placing it in the top 10 most visited sites in the 95-unit state park system, and has been one of only a handful of state parks that generated more visitor revenue than it cost to run.


How, when and even if the three recover to anything like their pre-fire status remains uncertain.

“The amount of destruction, to humans and the land … I’m stunned and shocked at the scale of it,” said Michael Forstner, a Texas State University biology professor and expert on the Houston toad who has spent time in the burned areas over the past week.

“It’s an incredible loss to Texas on many levels. On a personal level, it’s like losing an old friend,” Claire Williams, distinguished scholar at the Forest History Society at Duke University and a former professor of forestry at Texas A&M University, said about the Lost Pines’ forest.


Whatever way the forest regenerates – from intense plantings by humans or natural regeneration – it will be many years before the area resembles the Lost Pines that generations of Texans enjoyed and on which generations of Houston toads depended.

“It takes 10 to 15 years for a (pine) seedling to begin bearing,” Williams said. It takes 30 years or more for a pine, which can live as long as 300 to 400 years, to reach the size of what most consider a modestly “mature” tree.

“It’ll be decades before we know all the impacts of this fire on the Lost Pines,” Forstner said. “Nature is resilient. But, right now, it’s a very real tragedy for everybody and everything it touched.”

It’s all very sad. You wish there was something you could do to help, but there isn’t. Whatever healing there is will happen on its own, and on its own schedule.

Saturday video break: Jersey Girl

Song #99 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Jersey Girl”, originally by Tom Waits and iconically covered by Bruce Springsteen. Here’s Waits:

No mistaking that voice. And here’s the Boss:

Boy, watching Clarence Clemons play his sax never gets old, does it? I have the recording from Springsteen’s “Live 1975-1985” collection. I don’t think it’s changed much from that version till this one. What’s your preference?

DOJ says redistricting plans purposely discriminated

Game on.

The Justice Department said late Friday that based on their preliminary investigation, a congressional redistricting map signed into law by Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry appears to have been “adopted, at least in part, for the purpose of diminishing the ability of citizens of the United States, on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, to elect their preferred candidates of choice to Congress.”

DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is specifically contesting the changes made to Texas Districts 23 and 27, which they say would not provide Hispanic citizens with the ability to elect candidates of their choice.

They say they need more information on the congressional plan to determine what the purpose of the redistricting plan was for sure. But the federal agency came out stronger against the state House of Representatives plan, which they flat out said “violates Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in that it was adopted, at least in part, for the purpose of diminishing the ability of citizens of the United States, on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, to elect their preferred candidates of choice to the Texas House of Representatives.”

The State House districts that DOJ singled out were 33, 35, 41, 117, and 149. The other intervenors in the case – State Sen. Wendy Davis and State Rep. Marc Veasey; MALC; Greg Gonzales (I don’t know who that is); the Texas Legislative Black Caucus; the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force; and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches – agreed with DOJ about all of these districts and added quite a few more of their own, with some detailed objections in Dallas, Tarrant, and Harris Counties, among others. A copy of the DOJ doc is here, and I recommend you read it – it’s not very long, and isn’t particularly legalistic. If nothing else, see why the state of Texas will likely never hire Dr. John Alford as an expert witness again, at least not while the Republicans are still in charge. Oral arguments are scheduled for November 2 on the state’s motion for summary judgment.

In related news, the Justice Department also had some questions about the voter ID law.

In a Friday letter officials wrote that they need to know more about how the state would alert voters to the changes to the law.

Federal officials also want a detailed description of when and where the state will make free identification certificates available, as well as specifics on how they will educated the public about when such certificates will be available.

Texas officials said that 605,576 residents do not have a Texas drivers license or photo ID card. DOJ wants to know how many of those residents without IDs have Spanish surnames.

You can read the response letter for the specifics. In this case, if the state answers the questions to DOJ’s satisfaction, preclearance will be granted. Postcards adds on:

State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, the House sponsor of the Voter ID measure, said she was not surprised with the Justice Department’s action.

“I think the questions they are asking are reasonable,” Harless said.

Harless added that the Texas Secretary of State’s office should be able to respond relatively quickly.

Once the Justice Department gets the response, it’ll have 60 days to review it — plenty of time before the March primary.


If the Justice Department denies pre-clearance, the state probably would sue the department and ask the court to overturn the denial, leading to a lengthy court case.

And if the department approves the measure, appeals from opponents likely would be filed.

In other words, expect litigation no matter what happens next. The Trib has more.

Another Division I program in San Antonio?

That’s what the University of the Incarnate Word wants to be.

UIW President Lou Agnese said Friday the Cardinals are considering joining the Southland Conference after less than two years in the Division II Lone Star Conference.

UIW’s interest in Division I is a calculated move by Agnese to “extend the brand” of his school, which has mushroomed in enrollment during his tenure as leader.

With a current fall enrollment of 8,445 students, UIW is the fourth-largest private school in Texas behind Baylor, SMU and TCU. When Agnese arrived at UIW in 1985, the school had an enrollment of 1,298.

“We’re building the ‘Cardinal Brand,’” Agnese said. “We’ve been on a 25-year trajectory to build it. And the next step for us, if the students agree, is to make the move to Division I.”

And when I arrived at Trinity back in 1984, they were known as Incarnate Word College. If we had a rival in athletics, they were it. Well, for basketball, anyway – I don’t think they had football back then, or if they did we didn’t play them. I have to say, it blows my mind a little to see them say they want to step up to Division I. I had no idea they’d grown that much. How many of you had even heard of them?

UIW student athletes greeted Agnese’s plans with great interest when he met with them earlier this year, he said.

UIW students will vote on Agnese’s plan in November. If approved, student activity fees would increase from their current $350 per year.

The school then would petition the Southland Conference to join in January with hopes of becoming a member by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Agnese said the school also has considered applying to Conference USA. But the likely target is the Southland Conference, which has lost UTSA, Texas State and UT-Arlington to the Western Athletic Conference since 2010.

The SLC commissioner was non-committal, but it sounds like if UIW commits to going that route, they’ll wind up there eventually. Money is the big issue, as they would have to go to 63 football scholarships from the 28 they currently give as a Division II school. Facilities, for both football and basketball, are also an issue, as their current average attendance for football is less than half what the typical SLC school draws. They’re mulling various capital improvements, and also some football games at Alamo Stadium and basketball at Alamo Convocation Center, both of which are SAISD facilities. Like I said, it’s going to cost a bunch of money to move on up, but they seem determined to spend it. I wish them the best of luck.

Rescuing fish


Wildlife biologists [last week evacuated] two species of minnows from the shrinking waters of a West Texas river in the first of what could be several rescue operations involving fish affected by the state’s worst drought in decades.

Smalleye shiners and sharpnose shiners, the species being collected from the Brazos River about 175 miles northwest of Fort Worth, will be taken to the state’s fish hatchery near Possum Kingdom Lake. When drought conditions abate, the minnows will be returned to the river.

Scorching conditions have left the water hot, muddy and salty in the river’s Clear, Double Mountain and Salt forks. Because of the drought, the water levels were so low this year that the minnows — candidates to be listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act — didn’t have the 100 miles of river needed to reproduce.

Their life span is just two years, so scientists are scrambling to save the two species, which wildlife officials say are the most abundant fish in the upper Brazos and are found nowhere else in the world.

“If this drought continues for another year and they haven’t reproduced . . . we may lose the entire population,” said Gene Wilde, a fish ecology professor at Texas Tech who has spent much of his life studying fish in West Texas rivers.

There are a couple of other examples of this kind of rescue, but it’s pretty rare. I suppose one can make the case – a couple of the story’s commenters try – that this is natural selection in action, and we have no business messing with it. I don’t accept that reasoning, partly because the presence of modern humans has an outsized and unnatural effect on the ecosystem anyway, and partly because there may be direct negative effects on the human population in the area if these species were to vanish; who knows what might happen to plants and other animals if these fish were to go extinct? I’m no bio-ethicist, but I approve of this action.