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December, 2011:

Saturday video break: New Year’s Eve

Diana Krall has a question for you:

Whatever you’re doing this evening, I wish you all the best for the new year. I’ll return to the Popdose Top 100 Covers video feature next Saturday.

A little schadenfreude to end the year

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our only Governor.

Gov. Rick Perry was once again stumped on the stump Thursday, this time with a question about a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out Texas’ anti-sodomy law.

Perry, taking questions at the Blue Strawberry Coffee Company, was asked how his criticism of Lawrence vs. Texas jibes with his views on limited government. The questioner simply named the case without describing its details.

Although Perry cited the case in his anti-Washington book Fed Up! in criticizing the Supreme Court, he said Thursday that he didn’t know what the case is.

“I wish I could tell you I knew every Supreme Court case. I don’t … I’m not a lawyer,” Perry told the person who posed the question. “We can sit here and play ‘I gotcha’ questions on ‘What about this Supreme Court case’ or whatever, but let me tell you — you know and I know that the problem in this country is spending in Washington, D.C. It’s
not some Supreme Court case.”

Asked directly later by a journalist whether he knew what the case is, Perry said, “I don’t.” He added, “I’m not taking the bar exam.”

I can only imagine what the response might have been if the questioner had mentioned Fed Up! by name: “I wish I could tell you I knew every book, but I don’t. I’m not a reader. Hell, I probably couldn’t pass the TAKS test in English with a cheat sheet and George Will sittin’ on my lap.”

Perry may not be a lawyer, but as the story notes, he has lawyers who work for him:

Perry also suffered another setback on a different front Thursday when a federal judge in Richmond rejected his request for an emergency court order to require Virginia’s Board of Elections to place his name on the March Republican presidential primary ballot.

Lawyers for Perry, whose presidential campaign failed to submit enough valid signatures to win a spot on Virginia’s primary ballot, argued that the state’s requirements are “overly burdensome and unconstitutional.”

Yes, he complained that these requirements for participating in the political process are “overly burdensome and unconstitutional”. If he were capable of experiencing human emotion, Ralph Nader would be having a good belly laugh at that. In case anyone managed to miss the overbearing irony of Rick Perry whining about “overly burdensome and unconstitutional” requirements, here’s Ezra Klein to help you out:

Perry is an experienced politician who has hired a professional staff for the express purpose of navigating the logistical hurdle of ballot access. And he still failed to make the Virginia ballot, despite the fact that the rules were well-known and unchanged since the last election.

In Texas, however, Perry has sharply changed the rules, changed them on people who do not have a staff dedicated to helping them vote, and in fact made it harder for outside groups to send professionals into the state to help potential voters navigate the new law.

And here’s the Chron editorial board with an extra helping of salt:

Perry does not deny that he failed to meet the state statutory requirements, but that does not mean he is simply going to take it. Rather, Perry is suing in federal court to overturn this state decision. And for a 10th Amendment advocate like Perry, that’s like rain on his wedding day.

In his complaint, Perry states that Virginia’s ballot requirement places a severe burden on his freedom of speech, because it “prohibits an otherwise qualified candidate for the Office of President of the United States from circulating his own candidate petitions.”

To win this case, Perry is going to need a judge willing to overturn state law. Dare we say, Perry will need an activist judge.

They’re only activist judges when they issue rulings people like Rick Perry don’t like. Personally, I think the courts should make Perry eat a bug before accepting his writ, but I confess I don’t know if that’s proper legal procedure or not. I wish I could tell you I knew all of the legal rules, but I can’t. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not taking the bar exam. For some schadenfreude of a slightly different flavor, see Jason Stanford.

Eversole and Surface whine for leniency

Stop, you’re breaking my heart.

Even after former Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole and real estate developer Michael Surface agreed to plea deals, their lawyers said prosecutors were trying to “criminalize” a 30-year friendship.

In letters filed Wednesday to the judge who will decide whether they will spend six months behind bars or on probation, the two spoke openly about the depth of their friendship and the deals that landed them in trouble.

“I’ve bought meals, paid for gas, bought him chaps and cowboy hats over the years among other things,” Eversole, 68, said. “We never kept a ledger.”

Both wrote of a friendship that began when Surface owned a mowing service and Eversole was president of the Humble Chamber of Commerce.

When Eversole first ran for commissioner 21 years ago, Surface was his unpaid campaign manager.

“He and I would meet at the Best Doughnuts in Humble at 5 a.m. to get coffee together and then would go to Metro Park and Rides to hand out information about me and my campaign for office,” Eversole said. “Mike and I remained close friends even as our lives and the world around us changed.”

It goes on and on from there. I personally think they should have skipped the letters and just done a video montage of how beautiful their friendship is, with a peppy single from the 60s as the soundtrack. Something like this, for example:

Okay, maybe without the romantic overtones, but you get the idea. It wouldn’t have been any less ridiculous, is all I’m saying.

From the “More things you need to be slightly paranoid about” department

Nothing like a new domain suffix to remind you of the potential for creative malfeasance.

The University of Kansas is buying up website names such as and But not because it’s planning a Hot Babes of Kansas site or an X-rated gallery of the Nude Girls of the Land of Aaahs.

Instead, the university and countless other schools and businesses are rushing to prevent their good names from falling into the hands of the pornography industry. Over the past two months, they have snapped up tens of thousands of “.xxx” website names that could be exploited by the adult entertainment business.

“Down the road there’s no way we can predict what some unscrupulous entrepreneur might come up with,” said Paul Vander Tuig, trademark licensing director at the Lawrence, Kan., school.

The university spent nearly $3,000 in all. It plans to sit on the .xxx names and do nothing with them.

The brand-new .xxx suffix is an adults-only variation on .com. The .xxx name went on sale to the public for the first time this week, promoted as a way to enable porn sites to distinguish themselves and a means of making it easier for Internet filters to screen out things parents don’t want their children to see.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle notes that UT and A&M have also been taking this precaution. I guarantee you, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes an unwanted news story for a politician. Hijacking a rival’s domain name is a sport of longstanding, and even today campaigns that should have had more on the ball get caught flatfooted – go click on for an example of what I mean. It won’t just be politicians who get snared by this, but when one does it will result in some embarrassing news cycles. If you’re a domain owner, now is a good time to see if your “.xxx” counterpart is still available or if it’s already too late.

You may now be wondering if I have done this for myself. I have checked and verified that as of this moment, is unclaimed. Turns out that the cost of this particular insurance policy – the protection money, if you will – is $100 a year. That’s a tad bit more than I want to spend, so I’m taking my chances until the registry fee becomes a bit less extortionate. I think I can afford that risk as a non-candidate, but those of you who aren’t ought to look into it.

Friday random ten: Out with the old

Only one more day left in the old year, so here are ten old songs:

1. The Old Black Rum – Great Big Sea
2. Old Blevins – Austin Lounge Lizards
3. Old Dan Tucker – Bruce Springsteen
4. The Old Days – Dr. Dog
5. Old Dominion – Eddie From Ohio
6. The Old Dope Peddler – Tom Lehrer
7. Old Folks’ Boogie – Little Feat
8. Old Man – Neil Young
9. Old Woman’s Lament – The Mollys
10. Old Woman From Wexford – Flying Fish Sailors

Enjoy the last thirty-some hours of 2011 while you still can. Or prepare to shake its dust from your shoes, as you see fit.

Constable Abercia to step down

I wish him well.

Longtime Harris County Constable Jack Abercia, citing health concerns, said Wednesday he will not seek re-election next year.

Abercia, 78, has served as Precinct 1 Constable since 1991, when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of predecessor Walter Rankin.

“I’ve got cancer,” Abercia said. “I’m in treatment now, and I can’t go through a campaign. I’m just running out of steam.”

Abercia submitted a notarized letter to the county Democratic Party headquarters announcing his withdrawal on Tuesday, said the party’s primary director, Demetria Nelson-McNulty.

Credit where it’s due to Campos for catching this before it hit the papers. Abercia’s office has been the subject of scrutiny from the FBI lately, though we don’t know what for. I’m inclined to take him at his word that that was not a driver of his decision to retire – he’s 78 and he has cancer, after all – but we’ll see what happens there.

Greg points out an interesting fact about Constables that I’ll bet most of us didn’t know:

But one tidbit about Constable & JP districts is that they apparently aren’t required to undergo redistricting. Something to do with them being more administrative in function and outside the scope of one-man/one-vote requirements and all that. The result is that Pct 1 has 696,436 people in it while Phil Camus’ Precinct 5 has 1,100,496. The smallest jurisdiction, however, belongs to Victor Trevino’s Precinct 6 with 148,395. Wacky. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Commissioners Court take up the “emergency” in this discrepancy sometime soon.

Now that he mentions it, I do recall hearing some grumbles about the vastly different workloads at different JP courts. I suppose something ought to be done about that, but you’d think the time to tackle it would have been when redoing the County Commissioner precincts. Given everything else going on this year, I don’t know about adding this on to the to do list. I will also confidently predict that if it does find its way onto the Court’s agenda, litigation will follow. Anyone know if this would be subject to preclearance? You’d think it would be, given that the Commissioner precincts were as well, but who knows?

Four Democrats have filed to contest the primary in Abercia’s absence: Grady Castleberry, Alan Rosen, Cindy Vara-Leija and Quincy Whitaker. No Republican has filed.

I’m not terribly familiar with these folks. I suppose since I’m in Constable Precinct 1, I’ll need to figure it out. One more race to add to my list for interviews. This list may yet be incomplete, given the second filing period to come at the end of January. I won’t be surprised to see more names added to it, given Abercia’s announcement.

How small does good news have to be before it’s not considered good news any more?

Whatever that threshold is, this has got to be pretty close to it.

Christmas came a little early for a small slice of Texas this year. We can now say that part of Texas is no longer in drought. A small part, to be sure, only 0.01 percent, but it’s happy news nonetheless.

According to new data from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska (with a grateful hat tip to Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune), a sliver of Texas along the Texas-Oklahoma border is officially drought-free. Just east of Paris, Texas, 3.7 percent of Red River County is no longer in drought, representing 0.01 percent of the entire state.

At the beginning of the year, nearly 8 percent of the state wasn’t in drought and none of Texas was at the “exceptional” level of drought. Today, nearly 39 percent of Texas is at the “exceptional” level, the most severe stage of drought.

3.7% of a cheer for Red River County! However, before you get your hopes up for the rest of the state, go read John Nielson-Gammon, who notes that “it’s hard to break out of a drought when you’re still setting records” for dryness. And we’re still under La Niña conditions, so expect things to continue as they have been for a few more months. Such a cheery thing to look forward to for 2012, eh?

DOJ files amicus brief in favor of interim maps

Michael Li:

The Justice Department is not a party to the San Antonio case and, until now, it hasn’t been involved in the interim map appeal before the Supreme Court.

However, given the possible impact that a Supreme Court ruling could have on operation of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, legal observers widely expected the DOJ to weigh in with a brief – and, on Wednesday, it did.

The gist can be summed up as “section 5 says what it meant and meant it said” (to paraphrase Dr. Seuss).

What that boils down to, very simply, is that the DOJ is saying “better a somewhat imperfect court-drawn interim map than an illegal legislatively-drawn one”, which puts them in agreement with the plaintiffs. SCOTUSBlog goes into more detail:

When Texas filed its opening brief in the Supreme Court a week ago, it said there was no time to draw up new redistricting boundaries, so the Court should order into effect for next year’s elections the maps drafted by the state legislature earlier this year, even though those have not gained any approval — as federal voting rights law requires — in Washington. The Administration’s brief directly opposed that request, arguing that a state such as Texas, required to get preclearance in Washington for any change in any election method, may not use any change until it has gained clearance. (The preclearance requirement is imposed on a number of states, mostly in the South, that formerly had a history of racial bias in their voting laws. Texas has been covered by the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 since 1975.)

When a federal District Court outside of Washington has a challenge before it to an election change from a state such as Texas, the Solicitor General contended, that court does not examine its validity but rather has to block its use if it has not been precleared either by a federal District Court in Washington or by the Justice Department. Thus, the brief argued, a three-judge District Court in San Antonio — faced with six lawsuits challenging the legality of the Texas maps under another part of the Voting Rights Act (Section 2) — properly barred Texas from using the new redistricting plans until they have official approval, and then drew up its own “interim” maps.

Texas should not be allowed to use its own maps in 2012, the Administration contended, even on an interim basis. “There is no basis,” it argued, “for allowing any temporary circumvention of the preclearance requirement, much less one of the magnitude [that Texas] seek[s].”

If the Court were to find that it must choose between the maps created by the Texas legislature and the “interim” maps drawn by the San Antonio court, the new brief said, it should choose the court-ordered plans. “Even if the court-drawn plans may — pending further explanation — insufficiently adhere to state redistricting principles in certain respects, those plans are preferable to ones whose very use would contravene Section 5′s preclearance regime and whose content violates Section 5 in purpose and effect.”

I think we’re all clear on what the stakes are here. The DOJ’s recommendation is that SCOTUS remand the case back to the San Antonio court to fix a few minor issues with the maps (Congressional and State House only; they took no issue with the Senate map), or if there really is no time for further line-drawing, to use the already-existing interim maps and to sort it all out later as the cases go to trial. SCOTUS takes up oral arguments on January 9.

It’s (almost) 2012, and Bigfoot still does not exist

Which will not stop stories about Bigfoot and the fools who keep looking for him from being written.

The Finding Bigfoot crew has not visited Texas yet, but something is out there deep in the Big Thicket, say members of Texas groups dedicated to hunting the beast.

Ken Gerhard of the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization has never seen one, but he thinks technology will help solve the mystery.

“I have been immersed in Sasquatch research for a number of years, and I can tell you in my mind a mountain of evidence supports the existence of these creatures,” Gerhard said. When hunting season ends, he will return to the woods to look for tracks, hair and habitations and to listen for vocalizations at night.

There have been sightings along the Trinity River corridor, and a cast of a suspected Bigfoot track was made in Sam Houston National Forest, said Gerhard, a San Antonio cryptozoologist who co-wrote Monsters of Texas (CFZ, $16.99) with Nick Redfern.

Texas is in the top 10 states for Bigfoot sightings, Gerhard said, outranked only by Washington, California, Oregon, Ohio and Florida.

“Eventually someone is going to come up with some evidence, although it is very frustrating that we have not found a body yet,” he said. “And it is a very good argument against Bigfoot’s existence.”

Exactly, said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which discounts the idea of Bigfoot running around the woods. Someone would have found some verifiable piece of evidence by now, TPWD biologists contend.

“The theory is that with as much traffic as there is in East Texas that sooner or later a Bigfoot would not stop, look and listen and make the mistake of walking out into traffic and become the victim of a hit-and-run,” Cox said. Or a hunter would mistakenly shoot one.

I’ve written about Bigfoot several times. In that last link there’s a guy claiming there are as many as 7,000 of the beasties tramping about across the country, apparently in complete isolation from the human population. I’m going to save myself some typing and just quote myself from one of my earlier posts:

You don’t have to catch an actual Bigfoot to make me believe. Just find a body. Or a bone. Or hell, a DNA sample. All over North America, there’s evidence of animals that lived thousands and millions of years ago, and you expect me to believe we can’t find one Bigfoot skeleton? Please.

It’s interesting. With the relentless expansion of human development into the traditional habitat of various animals, we see story after story of unfortunate encounters between people and alligators, people and bears, people and mountain lions, all taking place in what was once the exclusive domain of those animals. Where are the stories of human encroachment on Bigfoot territory? Why has no one been forced to kill a Bigfoot to defend family, property, or self? Is their domain so wild and so remote that no exurban real estate speculator has ever set sight on it? Or is there perhaps a more prosaic explanation?

I said that five and a half years ago, and I don’t think I can say it any better today. I will note, however, that this story points out one more aspect of Bigfoot-hunting that I hadn’t previously considered:

[Vaughn M. Bryant, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University]’s specialty is paleo nutrition and the study of coprolites, or fossilized feces.

“Quite frankly, I have tried to get out of the Bigfoot-poop business because it is very time consuming and didn’t really lead anywhere productive,” Bryant said. At A&M he is studying excrement found in the Paisley Caves of Oregon that is 12,000 years or older.

If you can’t even find Bigfoot poop, what does that tell you?

County sues over dioxin

More like this, please.

Harris County has filed a lawsuit in state court to recover hundreds of millions of dollars from local waste management companies and a Pasadena paper factory responsible for storage of a human carcinogen that has leaked into the San Jacinto River.

Named as defendants in the action, which seeks penalties of up to $25,000 a day dating to 1965, are McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Co., Waste Management Inc., Waste Management of Texas and International Paper Co.

The lawsuit, announced Tuesday by County Attorney Vince Ryan, centers on riverside waste disposal pits near the Interstate 10-San Jacinto River crossing opened in 1965 to contain dioxin, a toxic byproduct of paper production.

Here’s a more detailed version of the story.

“The day of reckoning is here,” said Rock Owens, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s lead lawyer on the case. “These penalties are there to punish, to send a message. … We’re asking these companies to atone for what they’ve done.”


A byproduct of bleaching paper, dioxin is a human carcinogen so potent that it is measured in trillionths of a gram. Tests of river mud near the site have found dioxin concentrations in excess of 41,000 parts per trillion. Of the fish and crab samples collected near the dump, 95 percent found to be were dangerously contaminated.

McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. for nine months deposited waste from a Pasadena paper factory at the dump, which was swamped by the river as land subsided. The factory is no longer open.

The long-lived toxin, which also causes reproduction and immune system problems, is stored in body fat and increases in concentration as it moves up the food chain.

The EPA says no amount of exposure is safe.


Evelyn Merz, Houston Sierra Club conservation chairwoman, lauded the county lawsuit, saying that Ryan’s office – faced with little action taken by the state – had adopted an appropriately aggressive strategy.

She expressed concern, however, that the county might devote an inordinately large amount of its potential award to efforts to educate the public about dangers at the site. Rather, Merz suggested, such money should go toward financing attempts to stabilize and end erosion.

“It certainly hasn’t taken millions of dollars to put up signs,” she said. “It doesn’t take millions for a public ad campaign.”

I’d just like to note for the record that “Rock Owens” is a totally awesome name. You can see a copy of the suit here. As Hair Balls notes, this was designated a Superfund cleanup site three years ago, and has been considered a health hazard by state officials for years. Given how longstanding these problems are, I don’t know that it’s possible to properly redress the damage, but one hopes we’ll get something out of this. It’s long past time for the parties that have been imposing these costs on the public to be held accountable for them.

I’d like to point you to more information on this from the County Attorney’s office, but unfortunately the County Attorney webpage only has a link to the Chron story, while their underutilized Facebook page has nada. Consider this my gentle reminder to them to get with the program already.

Houston-Austin rail study

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation presented results from a study on the potential for new 110 mph passenger rail service between Houston and Austin, potentially connecting College Station, according to Guidry News and documented in the minutes of the December 16 minutes of the Transportation Policy Council.

The study looked at 4 potential alignments, with the following estimated costs and trip times:
– Austin to Houston directly ($972 million – 2hr 45 minutes).
– Austin to Hempstead, with connecting spur service to Bryan / College Station ($1.255 billion – 3hr 51 minutes).
– Austin to Giddings to Bryan / College Station to Hempstead to Houston (a little over $1.149 billion – 3hr 15 minutes).
– Austin to Brenham to Hempstead to Houston, with a spur to Bryan / College Station ($1.213 billion – 3hr 38 minutes).

All routes assumed two round trip options daily with one train each leaving from Houston and Austin in the morning and evening.

All routes assume that they would not actually be a single ride between the centers of the cities, but would connect to commuter rail systems that some are advocating in each region to go from Austin to Elgin and Houston to a suburban location along 290.

Any plans for intercity rail from Houston to Austin depend upon the connections to the urban cores, according to Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Executive Director Art Storey:

“When you’re in the mass transit / public transportation business, the cheapest option is not always the best option. Sometimes when you’re there, it’s best to spend a little more money and do a little more. I would caution that the cheapest option is not necessarily the best option. The second thing is that I think its great that we’re studying this, but that does leave the hard part. You’re not anywhere when you get to Hempstead in terms of the ridership that would use this facility, so there has to be a lot of coordination. If anything, I think it focuses on the importance of what the Rail District is doing, because that is the hard part, getting from 610 to downtown.  And if you don’t get there, you don’t really have the ridership that is going to justify this whole thing.”

Details derived from audio of meeting, recorded by Guidry News (mp3).

TXDOT Houston Austin Rail Presentation (ppt)

I recommend you look at that PowerPoint presentation, as it illustrates the different options discussed. I have to say, I find this all disappointing. The travel time, even for the direct route, is no better than driving, and I have a hard time seeing how this can be a viable, competitive option if you can’t get there any faster than you could have on your own. Part of the reason for this is the stops in between, in Elgin, Giddings, Brenham, and Hempstead, but mostly because the average speed of the train is not very fast; the Hempstead-Houston segment shows an average train speed of 50 MPH, which needless to say would feel like molasses if you were behind the wheel. I don’t know why that segment is projected to be so slow, I don’t know why they only refer to 109 miles of track when it’s about 150 miles between Austin and Houston on 290, and I don’t know where the “Houston” station would be located; neither, apparently, do they, which is in part what Art Storey’s quote is about. I like and support the idea of rail between Austin and Houston as I do between Dallas and Houston, but I feel like we would have to do better than this. Note that there are three alternate routes proposed as well, all of which go through Bryan/College Station. One of them bypasses Brenham, the others take a round trip to B/CS from either Giddings or Hempstead, which adds considerably to the total travel time; as such, none of these alternates are particularly satisfying, either. I hope there will be more to this than what we have seen so far.

The giant prawn menace

Yet another thing to add to your list of Things You Didn’t Realize You Needed To Worry About: Giant prawns in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Asian tiger prawn, a foot-long crustacean with a voracious appetite and a proclivity for disease, has invaded the northern Gulf, threatening prized native species, from crabs and oysters to smaller brown and white shrimp.

Though no one is sure what the ecological impact will be, scientists fear a tiger prawn takeover could knock nature’s balance out of whack and turn a healthy, diverse marine habitat into one dominated by a single invasive species.

“It has the potential to be real ugly,” said Leslie Hartman, Matagorda Bay ecoystem leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But we just do not know.”

The tiger prawns from the western Pacific – which can grow up to 13 inches long – have been spreading along the Gulf Coast since 2006, but their numbers took off this year. Shrimpers pulled one from Texas waters for the first time in June.


Some speculate that the Gulf invasion began with an accidental release of farmed prawns in South Carolina in 1988. Another theory: The prawns may have escaped from flooded industrial shrimp ponds in the Caribbean Sea during recent hurricanes.

The threat underscores concerns about large-scale fish farming, also known as aquaculture, in the Gulf. The federal government opened the waters to fish farms in 2009 despite fears from environmental and fishing interests over how to protect wild stocks.

They’re going to do some genetic testing to try to determine where these things came from. What to do about them if they’ve gained a foothold in the ecosystem is less clear. These shrimp do make good eating, and could be another cash crop for shrimpers, but it would be at the expense of existing stock, which isn’t a good trade. Let’s hope something can be done before it gets out of control.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 26

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes everyone is enjoying their holiday as it brings you the last roundup of 2011.


A field guide to the school finance lawsuits

The Trib has a handy overview of the school finance lawsuits – who the plaintiffs are, who their lawyers are, and on what grounds they are suing. Among other things, it shows that I was correct in saying that there had only been three suits filed at the time that was written, with the Thompson lawsuit now in as of last Thursday. Anyway, since it’s often hard to tell the players without a scorecard, now you have a scorecard. Check it out.

Seeking more water for Houston

I don’t know how I feel about this.

After decades of fits and starts, Houston is pushing forward with plans to move Trinity water nearly 30 miles to Lake Houston. The reservoir, located on the smaller San Jacinto River, fills the taps for millions of people in the region.

Planners say the Luce Bayou project, a nearly $300 million pipeline and canal, would provide water to the ever-swelling city and suburbs while helping with the area’s planned conversion from groundwater. The newly adopted state water plan identifies it among the key strategies to slake the region’s thirst in 2060.

While population growth and a wicked drought boost the prospects for the mega-plumbing job, critics are asking how much water does Houston need. To their dismay, the answer is always the same: More than it has.

The project, they say, could invite too much growth, encourage more transfers from water-rich East Texas and damage native habitats along the Trinity and in the bay.

“This project is a game changer,” said Brandt Mannchen, of the Sierra Club’s Houston group.


The push comes amid state forecasts showing the 15-county Houston region growing from 6 million people to 11 million during the next half-century.

The new state water plan also identifies five new major reservoirs by 2060 to provide enough water for the region in times of drought.

Critics say the state plan promotes more pumps, pipes, dams and canals ahead of saving existing water. Although the plan calls for 12 percent of the supply in 2060 to come from conservation, they say more could be done.

With Luce Bayou, “we will have capacity well into the future,” said Jim Lester, a water policy expert at the Houston Advanced Research Center. “My fundamental problem with this is, we are doing so little on conservation.”

The plan referenced is this one, which I noted in October. There’s not enough in the story for me to judge this plan – PDiddie is singularly unimpressed – but I definitely concur with Jim Lester that we’re not doing enough to conserve water. Whatever the merits of this project, I’d really like to see a more aggressive approach taken to conservation, which in the long run will be far less expensive than any expansion project we might undertake.

More on Bike Share Houston

Here’s the Chron story on the Council vote to get bike sharing in Houston off the ground.

The plan for the so-called Bike Share Houston program is to intrigue residents and visitors with the technology, then raise funds to install additional locations. The effort is modeled after one started last spring in San Antonio.

The Alamo City now has 20 bike share kiosks at such destinations as the Alamo, Hemisfair, La Villita, the city’s convention center and central library. About 1,000 San Antonio residents have purchased yearly memberships in the program since the first bikes rolled in April.

Bike Share Houston – a joint project of the city, Bike Barn and the nonprofit Bike Houston organization – will begin with kiosks at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Market Square and downtown’s Central Library.

Kim Burley, deputy assistant director of the city’s fleet management department, said the contractor, B-Cycle LLC, will have 120 days to get the system up and running. The company also installed San Antonio’s system and those in Chicago, Denver and other cities.

Bike Houston president Darren Sabom said the three kiosks and their 18 bikes are designed to show Houston residents how the system works. Ultimately, with the help of donors and grants, additional kiosks may be added at select light rail stops and other locations.

Such a network of kiosks could help residents and visitors navigate the Rice University campus, Hermann Park, the Museum District and the Texas Medical Center.

“After stepping off a bus or train, it would fill the gap of the last five blocks of your trip,” Sabom said.

Obviously, the goal will be to get this out to other locations as soon as possible. Things that I can think of to help achieve that goal will be promotion, highlighting bike-friendly routes near and between kiosk locations, and in the longer term street improvements. We should be thinking about locations that could be a good fit for this as well, such as the Washington corridor and the Upper Kirby area, where it might be nice to leave your car in one place and use a bike to get to other destinations. I’m sure there are other possibilities, including some that won’t be apparent until people start using it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes, and to using it myself.

MLB labor deal calls for more use of replay

This overview of what’s in the proposed collective bargaining agreement for Major League Baseball has the following interesting tidbit:

MLB wants to expand replay to include fair-or-foul calls, “whether a fly ball or line drive was trapped” and fan interference all around the ballpark. Umpires still must give their approval and it’s uncertain whether the extra replay will be in place by Opening Day.

As you know, I approve of video reviews where possible to ensure a correct call was made. The “human element” should be about the players, not about the possibility of an egregious, uncorrectable error from an arbitrator. I just hope MLB gives some thought about how to resolve these situations when a call needs to be reversed. It’s usually easy enough to handle when the call should have been “foul ball” or “proper catch”, but how do you restore equity when a ball that was declared foul should have been called fair, or when a catch should have been a trap? It’s hard to know what “should” have happened when the action comes to a premature halt. Obviously, there will need to be a certain amount of umpire discretion, and some outcomes will be less than fully satisfactory though still better than they would have been otherwise. Expect a few bugs in the system, and be willing to go back and make refinements as needed.

At last, school finance lawsuit number 4

The fourth and presumably final school finance lawsuit was filed just before the holiday weekend.

The state’s largest school districts, including Houston and Cypress-Fairbanks, have filed a lawsuit claiming the public education system is inadequate and inequitable, the fourth such suit filed since the Legislature ended its session in September.

The latest suit involves more than 60 school districts and nearly 1.6 million students. More than 500 Texas school districts representing about 3.3 million children now are involved in school funding litigation against the state.

“We wish litigation weren’t necessary, but the nature of school finance just seems to be that you have this back-and-forth dialogue going on between the legislative branch and the judicial branch,” said Houston-based attorney David Thompson, lead lawyer in the large school-districts lawsuit. “It seems like a judicial decision seems to be a necessary spur to legislative action.”


Each of the four school finance lawsuits claims the state is not adequately funding education, particularly when the student enrollment grows by about 85,000 children per year. Most of the enrollment growth is made up of low income children, who cost more to educate.

“The big concern across the state is the massive cuts to public education at the very same time we’re facing the highest standards in the history of the state of Texas,” said Thompson, a former general counsel for the Texas Education Agency.

So now it’s up to the courts. The four suits are almost certain to be consolidated, and they’re likely to begin next fall, with a ruling possible before or during the 2013 legislative session. Matters won’t be settled till the Supreme Court rules, of course, but we ought to have a pretty good idea of what’s at stake by then. Let’s hope for the best.

Recycle your Christmas tree

And now, a message from the City of Houston Solid Waste Department:

Christmas Tree Recycling


The City of Houston (COH) Solid Waste Management Department will embark on its 21st year of Christmas tree recycling(.pdf) after the holiday by providing recycling drop-off sites throughout Houston. All drop-off sites will be closed on New Year’s Day.

Every year, Houstonians discard thousands of used Christmas trees that could be recycled into useable items. The COH is encouraging residents to recycle their Christmas trees to give them a new lease on life and make the recycling of Christmas trees a family tradition.

Please remove tinsel, lights, ornaments, plastic tree stands and plastic water bowls from the trees. The recycled trees will be converted into mulch, which will in turn help save landfill space and help preserve the environment.

Trees with artificial snow (flocked) will not be accepted for recycling; they will be picked up on the neighborhood’s scheduled “Junk Waste” day in February. Commercial vendor trees will not be accepted. Living Earth Technology, a leading composting company in Houston, has partnered with the COH to make this a very cost-effective program for the city.

Living Earth Technology composts all the Christmas trees at no cost to the COH.

Homes with COH automated garbage collection service may place their trees at the curb on their “Tree Waste” day in January or bring them to one of the Christmas tree recycling locations(pdf) – (jpg version)

Please bring residential Christmas trees to one of the following drop-off locations:


Hours and Dates of Operation:

Dec. 27, 2011 through Jan. 8, 2012 (Closed Jan. 1st and 2nd, 2012)

OPEN Weds. – Sun., 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

  • Sunbeam Neighborhood Depository – 5100 Sunbeam
  • Central Neighborhood Depository – 2240 Central St.
  • Kirkpatrick Neighborhood Depository – 5565 Kirkpatrick
  • Windfern Neighborhood Depository – 6023 Windfern
  • N. Main Neighborhood Depository – 9003 N. Main
  • Southwest Neighborhood Depository -10785 SW Freeway

OPEN DAILY, 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

  • Doss Park (gates close at 5) – 2500 Frick Road
  • Memorial Park (Ball Fields 4 and 5) – 7300 Memorial Drive
  • T.C. Jester Park – 4200 T.C. Jester West
  • Kingwood – Bens View Lane @ Bens Branch Drive
  • Elington Airport Recycling Drop-off –HWY [email protected] Brantley Roa

MON-SAT 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Saturday 9am – 12pm, CLOSED SUNDAY

  • Westpark Consumer Recycling Center – 5900 Westpark

MON-SAT 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., CLOSED SUNDAY

  • Living Earth – 5625 Crawford Road
  • Living Earth – 1503 Industrial Drive (Gessner @ Hwy 90)
  • Living Earth – 1700 Highway 90A East
  • Living Earth – 12202 Cutten Road
  • Living Earth – 16138 Highway 6
  • Living Earth – 5210 S. Sam Houston Pkwy.

For more information on locations and hours, visit the Christmas Tree Recycling page here (.pdf version).

Click here for the .jpg version of the Christmas Tree Recycling flyer (.jpg)

Thank you.

Ballot failure

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Newt Gingrich will not appear on the Virginia presidential primary ballot, state Republican Party officials announced Saturday, after he failed to submit the required number of valid signatures to qualify.

The announcement was made on the Virginia Republican Party’s Twitter account. On Friday evening, the Republican Party of Virginia made a similar announcement for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

Ten thousand signatures are needed to get on the ballot for the Virginia primary, which is March 6, known as Super Tuesday. The Perry campaign says it submitted 11,911 signatures, according to The Washington Post. But at 6:30 p.m. the Virginia Republican Party posted on its Twitter account that after verification, it was determined that Mr. Perry did not submit the requisite amount.

Mr. Gingrich submitted 11,050 signatures, but after verification, the state party said it determined that he had not submitted enough signatures.

Merry Christmas, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Every time I think Rick Perry’s Presidential campaign can’t get any more inept, it goes and proves me wrong.

Half a billion trees


The current Texas drought has killed as many as 500 million trees 10 percent of the state’s forest cover and the end is not in sight, according to the Texas Forest Service. Some of the hardest-hit areas are in Central Texas.

The numbers are preliminary, the first results from an unprecedented statewide survey of tree mortality across 63 million acres of forest land this year.

They don’t include trees lost to drought-induced wildfire — an estimated 1.5 million trees burned in the Bastrop Labor Day fires alone — or trees that have succumbed to heat and thirst in urban areas.

Though the estimated range of dead trees varies widely — from a low of 100 million to a high of 500 million — the visible evidence of the die-off is still “very shocking,” said Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service. “It’s a significant change in the landscape.”

And the stress of the past year of record-setting heat, high winds and low rainfall will continue to take its toll on living trees, whether or not the drought continues as forecast for at least another six months, because they have been too weakened to survive.

“We recognize that the mortality will increase even if it started raining,” said Burl Carraway, head of sustainable forestry for the Forest Service.

Read the rest, if you can stand it. We really, really, really, need a lot of rain.

D.C. panel issues decision defining preclearance standards

From Michael Li:

Late Thursday evening, the D.C. panel issued its long-awaited opinion defining the standards for preclearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and further explaining why the court had earlier rejected the State of Texas’ request for summary judgment.

The opinion, authored by Judge Rosemary Collyer, was unanimous.

Initial reaction from many observers is that the decision is a pretty significant win for the Justice Department- though, as in past Texas redistricting cycles, the case is likely to end up in Supreme Court. The opinion, though, also hands the DOJ and redistricting plaintiffs a few losses.

With more briefing due January 3 in the interim map appeal before the Supreme Court, it’s likely the D.C. court’s opinion could make a cameo appearance in that case as well – especially since some of the things the state says the San Antonio court got wrong, the D.C. court says Texas got wrong.

Li highlights the key aspects of the ruling, which you can read here, so go read the whole thing; he has more at BOR as well. Even on the key area where the court disagreed with the DOJ and the redistricting plaintiffs, that not adding any Hispanic opportunity districts among the four new Congressional seats was not necessarily retrogression because it reduced the proportion of Hispanic representation, they still concluded that it might be evidence of discriminatory intent on the state’s part. Here’s the Quorum Report, via email from Allen Jamail:

The Court said, “Although Texas’ alleged failure to account for the significant increase of the Hispanic population in the State does not establish retrogression, it is relevant to the Court’s evaluation of whether the Congressional Plan was enacted with discriminatory purpose.

A redistricting plan that does not increase a minority group’s voting power, despite a significant growth in that minority group’s population, may provide significant circumstantial evidence that the plan was enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging that community’s right to vote.

The Court also wrote:

“Summary judgment is also not appropriate because Texas has failed to demonstrate that the Plans do not have the purpose of “denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color, or [membership in a language minority group].” . . . We conclude that there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the Plans were enacted with discriminatory intent.

The net effect appears to be that the burden on the State of Texas to illustrate that the Texas legislative maps were not intentionally discriminatory designed to deny a political voice to a protected group has just been elevated.

We are still reviewing the decision. And it is true, the full litigation in DC in late January could provide a different outcome, but first blush analysis that the burden on the State of Texas substantially increased and that the legislatively drawn maps are in jeopardy.

The unanimous DC ruling also suggests that the Interim maps by the three judge panel in San Antonio could have legal legs.

My impression of this is that if the state, on the urging of AG Greg Abbott, thought they were going to get a better deal from the DC court than from the Justice Department, they have another think coming. More importantly, Rick Hasen believes this opinion may influence SCOTUS when it makes its ruling on the San Antonio court’s maps:

[T]he opinion provides strong reasons to think that Texas will not be able to obtain preclearance of its plans (though the issues will depend upon how the judges resolve contested facts at trial), and that fact could be relevant to the Supreme Court’s forthcoming hearing and decision on the interim plan. If the opinion convinces Justice Kennedy (and the Court liberals) that Texas’s proposed plans likely should not be precleared, then that is good reason these plans should not be deferred to by the courts in crafting an interim plan. Texas in its brief filed [Wednesday] conceded there should not be deference to a proposed (but unprecleared) plan when it is likely to believe the plan should not be precleared. The opinion today will be thrown back in Texas’s face in the second round of briefing before the Supreme Court.

I should hope so. Texas Politics has more.

DOJ refuses to preclear South Carolina voter ID law


The U.S. Department of Justice on Friday rejected as discriminatory a South Carolina law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. The action by the department’s civil rights division, coupled with Attorney General Eric Holder’s call 10 days earlier in Austin for more aggressive federal review of such laws, appears to increase the likelihood that the Texas version could meet a similar fate.

Texas Republicans criticized the decision, calling it improper and vowing to defend Texas’ voter ID law.

The Justice Department said the South Carolina law makes it harder for members of minority groups to cast ballots, to the point that tens of thousands of them might be turned away at the polls because they lack the required photo ID. The law requires a state-issued driver’s license or ID card, a U.S. military ID or a U.S. passport.

The Texas law, which was signed by Gov. Rick Perry in May, requires voters to show a valid government-issued photo ID, such as a Texas driver’s license, Department of Public Safety identification card, state concealed handgun license, U.S. military ID or U.S. passport.

Like the South Carolina law, the Texas law needs approval from the Justice Department under the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. Such “pre-clearance” to ensure that minority political power is not harmed is required in states that failed to protect minority voting rights in the past.

See here for more on Holder’s speech. As Michael Li noted on Twitter, AG Greg Abbott expects Texas’ law to be similarly slam dunked. Part of the reason for that is that in South Carolina, “the state’s own statistics demonstrated that the photo identification requirement would have a much greater impact on non-white residents”. In Texas, the state has been unable to provide sufficient information to the DOJ about the effect its voter ID law would have on minorities. It’s not hard to get the impression that neither of these states, or any of the others that are going down this road, really care about it.

And that’s the point, of course, but for reasons I don’t understand, the issue continues to be portrayed by lazy media outlets as follows:

Supporters of voter ID laws say they are needed to combat voter fraud. Critics say they discriminate against minority and low-income voters, including many such voters who tend to vote Democratic.

Yes, it’s always he-said, she-said. But let’s take a look once again at that “supporters” – that is, Republicans – “say they are needed to combat voter fraud”. Like many other of those “critics”, I have repeatedly pointed out that “supporters” are unable to point to even one case of the kind of fraud that voter ID laws might be able to mitigate against actually taking place. The reason for this is that a moment’s thought clearly demonstrates how ridiculously implausible and impractical a fraud-by-impersonation scheme would be.

Suppose you’re a candidate in a race you believe will be close, and you want to pad your totals a bit to help improve your odds of victory. Let’s use the recent Thibaut-Burks runoff, a race decided by some 250 votes, as an example of the kind of race where you might want to consider cheating in this fashion. From the perspective of either candidate, if you believe the race will be sufficiently close to make cheating attractive, you first have to consider how many extra votes you need. You don’t want to make it too close, since that attracts scrutiny and you might either be off by a little and just miss or barely squeak by and risk losing after provisional votes are counted. For either candidate, I’d say a thousand votes would be the minimum amount to make the effort worthwhile. That’s about two percent of the vote total, so enough to be reasonably sure it will make a difference but not so much as to make anything stand out.

So instead of identifying a thousand legal voters who might vote for you if they dragged themselves to the polls and work on getting them to vote for you, you decide to find a thousand people who can’t vote and give them the forged credentials of a thousand people who can vote but won’t and herd them to the polls to vote for you. These are the people that voter ID laws are supposed to stop, because now in addition to their forged voter registration cards they’d also need to produce a forged driver’s license to commit their crime, and that apparently is a bridge too far for cheating candidates. You also have to choose very carefully the voters that your illegal horde will be impersonating, because if even one of them decides to vote, the existence of their duplicated ballot will be strong evidence that something untoward is going on, and would risk your entire scheme.

Now that you have a plan, you need to execute it. That first means creating all those forged voter registration cards and distributing them to your impersonators. Well, I guess technically you have to locate the impersonators and get them to agree to participate. I don’t think there’s a listing for that in the phone book or on the Internet, but let’s just wave our hands at that and assume that being the resourceful cheating candidate that you are, you can find an army of impostors. The next obstacle you face will be cost. I figure it’ll run you some ten grand to design and produce a thousand fake voter registration cards. Your fake voters need to be paid something, too. Even if they’re too unsophisticated to realize that you are asking them to commit a felony, they need to be compensated for their time. If they agree to work for ten bucks apiece, that’s another ten grand. And of course, you need someone to coordinate all of this – finding the voters, identifying the non-voters they’ll be portraying, producing and distributing the documents, and ensuring that they actually go and vote. I don’t even know how to estimate the cost of all that, but again since the person or persons involved will be risking jail time, you have to figure it starts in five digits. You’re talking a minimum of thirty grand, which would be more than enough to cover the cost of a couple of mail pieces to the voter universe for a city runoff, all without the worry that you’ll someday be carted off in handcuffs. Tell me again why this was a good idea?

Oh, and remember that this all has to be done off the books, or at least in a way that the expenditures look innocent on a campaign finance report. Either way, you’re potentially adding other fraud charges to the list of things you could be arrested for. Now stop and think about all the people who know at least a little something about your illegal activities. Again, even if you assume that none of the thousand illegal voters has any idea they’re doing anything wrong, at the very least you have your illegal vote coordinator and your campaign manager, who presumably has signed off on this even if he or she refrains from doing any of the overt activity, as well as you yourself and perhaps your spouse or significant other. How likely is it that no one involved ever talks about this? Not just to the authorities, but to bloggers and other political lowlifes who traffic in gossip and innuendo and whatnot. There’s an entire right-wing media machine out there that would desperately love (and handsomely compensate) anyone who came forward with even the flimsiest evidence of such a conspiracy to steal an election, and they would trumpet that story 24/7 until everyone involved were arrested, waterboarded, and sent to Gitmo. Yet somehow a single name has never been associated with such a scheme.

This is what those “supporters” of these laws want you to believe is happening and has happened many times in our elections, enough to justify laws that will make it not just harder but downright impossible for legal, habitual voters to do what they’ve always legally done. And the media, which can’t be bothered to think this through, is content to tell you that there are also “critics” who say that voting rights could be compromised. Hey, what’s a little dispute among partisans, right?

Now, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as vote fraud. There certainly is, and there almost certainly is a fair amount of undetected vote fraud. What I am saying is that this particular type of vote fraud, the only type of vote fraud that voter ID legislation could possibly be an effective solution for, is so ludicrously unfeasible on its face as to completely invalidate the argument for it. The proper response to this is to laugh scornfully and ask why, if the Republicans who keep pushing voter ID as a cure for election integrity care so much about safeguarding the process, there is no expressed concern about fraud by absentee ballot, or fraud by compromising electronic voting machines, which after all this time are still basically black boxes. I mean, if I wanted to steal an election, that’s the way I’d go. Figure out a way to alter the bits on the memory sticks, or attack the program that tallies the vote directly. More bang for the buck, far less exposure, and complete control over the outcome. What more could you want? When Republicans turn the conversation to protecting the integrity of our elections on these fronts, then we can talk. Until then, I will continue to call bullshit on voter ID.

Coinis interruptis

No more Presidential dollar coins will be minted for general circulation.

Have you ever seen a $1 presidential coin? Neither have we. Except that one time when we received seven of them in change from a MetroCard machine in the New York City subway system and, perplexed as to where to fit such weighty coins in our dainty-sized wallet, we relegated them to the bottom of our junk drawer.

And perhaps for that very reason, Vice President Joseph Biden announced Tuesday that the U.S. Mint would halt the production of those pesky $1 coins for circulation, because they’re not exactly in demand.

In fact, the U.S. Treasury Department said there are 1.4 billion surplus $1 presidential coins just sitting in the vaults of the Federal Reserve, and that the government would save taxpayers at least $50 million per year in production and storage costs by suspending their production.

Instead, U.S. Mint will produce a limited number of the coins, which “will be sold at a premium to collectors, so it will ensure that the coins will not be produced at a cost to taxpayers,” said Treasury spokesman Matt Anderson.

Until Tuesday’s announcement, the U.S. Mint had been on track to produce 1.6 billion more of the $1 presidential coins through the year 2016, even though the 1.4 billion in surplus is enough to meet demand for more than a decade, Anderson said.

File that under “more reasons why the paper dollar bill will never go away”, despite the insistence of some that it’s more cost efficient. Not if no one wants them it’s not, and given our track record I daresay any effort to mandate their usage by getting rid of the paper dollars will be about as successful as metric coversion has been. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of dollar coins, but as an option, not a requirement. Kevin Drum has more.

Weekend link dump for December 25

Just a few more hours till the after-Christmas sales start. Assuming there are any more Chistmases after this one.

The case against Santa Claus.

Trying to exert control over the presents your kids get is ultimately doomed to fail.

How many of the presents under your tree were made in America?

On baby names, pet names, and product names. For what it’s worth, one of Tiffany’s university friends is named Siri. I wonder what she thinks about the new iPhone gadget.

Sadly, the poor will be getting another lump of coal for Christmas. Actually, that’s not quite true – even the coal is being taken from them. By Congress, naturally.

If I told you that Ebenezer Scrooge lived in Alabama, would you have any trouble believing me?

From the “Everything old is new again” department: A “Bosom Buddies” for the new millennium.

How well can you tell your supervillains from your GOP Presidential candidates, in particular Newt Gingrich? Take the quiz and find out. I got 7 out of 10 correct.

When something is written in your name, saying that you yourself didn’t write it isn’t an excuse.

I have only unfriended a few people on Facebook. Generally speaking, they are people I shouldn’t have friended in the first place.

Generally speaking, it is better to give money to your local food bank than give canned goods to a food drive.

Is there anything Mitt RoMNEY hasn’t flip-flopped on?

More planets are good.

Where the cast of “A Christmas Story” is today.

After the busy night he had, I sure hope Santa kicks back and relaxes today.

It isn’t Christmas without Mel Torme

Every year on Christmas Day, I link to my favorite Christmas story, which stars Mel Torme. Apparently, this story is so popular now that it gets ripped off a lot, which sure seems to be contrary to the Christmas spirit if you ask me. But let’s not worry about such things this morning. Merry Christmas to you and yours. I’ll have a somewhat Christmas-themed weekend link dump later today, and I’ll be back with the usual stuff tomorrow.

Saturday video break: And all through the house

I’ve shown this video before on Christmas Eve, and since that happens to be Saturday this year, it all comes together beautifully:

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Brewers win one in court

From CultureMap:

A small but significant victory was had for craft beermakers and drinkers Monday when a federal judge ruled (partially) in favor of Austin’s Jester King Brewery in a lawsuit against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Jester King filed a motion for summary judgement in Federal court in October over what it deemed to be violations of both its First and 14th Amendment rights.

Its First Amendment right to free speech, Jester King argued (along with two co-plaintiffs — a distribution company and an Austin restaurant) was violated by the TABC’s oft-criticized demand that any beer stronger than 4 percent be labeled as ale and anything with less than 4 percent alcohol by weight be labeled beer. The celebrated craft brewery argued that misusing technical terms as shorthand for alcoholic strength ignored hundreds of years of beer-making tradition and, in effect, misrepresented its brews and brewing processes to the public.

Jester King also claimed its 14th Amendment right to equal protection is obstructed by Texas’ three-tier system, which mandates that breweries (which produce beer on-site and distribute it to consumers) may not sell their wares on site while brewpubs (which produce and sell on-site) may not distribute it to consumers.

Here’s some background and analysis of the ruling, along with the wit and wisdom of Judge Sam Sparks, courtesy of Freetail’s Brewed And Never Battered blog. Briefly, this is what the ruling means:

To summarize, the ruling has the following effects:

TABC cannot prohibit you from telling customers or advertising where they can buy your products
TABC cannot require you to label your products by their definition of “beer” and “ale”
TABC cannot prohibit you from advertising the strength of your products by prohibiting words like “strong”, “prewar strength”, “full strength”, etc

There’s more to it than that, so go read all the links. The bits about how the TABC was essentially unable to justify its regulations was fascinating, and I hope inspiring to the next Legislature. That will be necessary, because the ruling did not strike down the regulations that forbid breweries to sell their wares directly to visitors even though wineries can do so. Keep pestering your State Rep and State Senator about this, because in the end it’s their job to make this happen. Plaintiff Jester King, I Love Beer, and Beer, TX have more.

Friday video break: And to you your wassail too

I’m going to take a short break from the Random Tens to bring you a few Christmas songs I wish got more exposure. First up, the King’s Singers take us all wassailing:

Here’s the Irish Rovers, with “Good King Wenceslas”:

I wish I could find a good video of Brave Combo doing their awesome “O Holy Night (Cha Cha Cha)”, but alas none of any decent quality exist. So here are they instead doing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”:

And of course, we – Phineas and Ferb and I, that is – wish you a Perry Christmas:

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Council approves B-Cycle, and other bike news

One other item that Council approved on its last day of business for the year was to clear the way for the city to start up bike sharing with B-cycle. As you know, I’ve been following this along, and am delighted to see this milestone. I look forward to the official launch, hopefully some time soon.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago there was a story about TxDOT closing the White Oak Bayou Hike and Bike Trail between Ella and 34th streets while there is construction on the service road for 610 North at East TC Jester. The closure was scheduled for two years, without an alternate route that bicyclists thought was adequate. Fortunately, after meeting with bike activists, TxDOT made some changes to accommodate riders a little better. I’ve been meaning to get over there and take some pictures but just haven’t had the chance. Anyone here have experience with what’s going on at this location?

Finally, Metro announced that the Columbia Tap Trail, which had been affected by the Southeast Line construction, has been reopened. Metro had maintained a detour for this trail while construction was ongoing, but it’s good to have it back. May there be many more bits of good bike news in the new year.

TCEQ denies Valero tax break


Texas environmental regulators have rejected Valero Energy Corp.’s request for a tax break that cities, counties and school districts feared would lead to devastating cuts to their budgets.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality denied the request because the San Antonio-based oil giant could not show an environmental benefit at its six Texas refineries from the equipment at the center of its application for the tax break.

Texas law provides property tax exemptions for equipment that reduces pollution at the refinery. Valero, however, sought a tax break for hydrotreaters, which are used to produce low-sulfur fuels. In this case, the lower emissions come at the tailpipe.

If TCEQ had granted the exemption, Valero stood to gain up to $130 million a year in property tax relief from cities, counties and school districts, officials said. The company earned $1.2 billion in profits for the most recent quarter, its best quarterly results in four years.

“It’s a nice Christmas gift to many cities, counties and school districts around the state that would have had to shell out millions to a rich oil company,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “Justice and logic can still prevail in the state of Texas.”

See here and here for some background. TCEQ had denied this request once before but reviewed it again at the urging of three of its commissioners. I’m glad to see that wasn’t enough to change their minds. Valero has 20 days to file an appeal, but hopefully this will be the end of it. It would be nice if the next Legislature closed this potential loophole once and for all. Hair Balls has more, and a statement from Sens. Rodney Ellis and Wendy Davis is beneath the fold.


More on privatizing the Harris County jail


On Sunday, Grits broke the news that Corrections Corporation of America had submitted a bid to manage the Harris County Jail, citing information given to investors about a county-issued RFP which hadn’t been reported in the local media. Last night, the local Fox TV affiliate confirmed it:

FOX 26 News obtained this news letter from Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison operation firm:

“We are also very excited about the opportunities that are before the industry and for which we feel well positioned. We’re awaiting a decision from Arizona on its 5,000 bed request for proposal as well as a managed-only opportunity for approximately 9,000 beds in Harris County, Texas.”

County officials confirm private talks are underway to consider privatizing the county jail.

That’s virtually the same wording cited in the Grits post from a analyst.

You can see the RFP here. None of this is exactly news – the item came up on the Court agenda back in April (page 21) and was duly reported and blogged about at the time. The Court authorized a study of the possibilities of privatization, which as far as I know is still a work in progress. So, other than knowing that someone did in fact submit an RFP, there’s not much new here. Privatization is still a bad idea for the jail – you’ll note it was Steve Radack who was pushing this, which should tell you all you need to know – and we should keep an eye on this, but it’s not at the action stage just yet.

SCOTUS redistricting briefs

Opening briefs for the SCOTUS hearing on Texas redistricting were filed yesterday – you can see them here. The State of Texas is going long – Michael Li explains.

The State of Texas asks the Supreme Court to let the state use the maps passed by the Texas Legislature for the 2012 election cycle, citing now tight election deadlines.

Texas’ 2012 elections have already been delayed by agreement of the two major political parties. Even the deadlines contained in that carefully crafted agreement, however, are rapidly approaching. Candidates for office need to know the borders of the districts in which they will be running. Voters need to know who their candidates will be. Election officials need to print and mail absentee and overseas ballots. And, in order for the primaries to go forward on April 6, 2012, as agreed to by the political parties, usable redistricting maps must be in place by February 1, 2012. Especially for the presidential primaries, any further delays will significantly diminish the role of the nation’s second-largest State in choosing the parties’ presidential candidates.

In light of these exigencies, there simply does not appear to be enough time to remand the case and allow the district court to craft yet another batch of interim maps for the upcoming elections. Accordingly, this Court should vacate the interim orders and remand to the district court with instructions to impose Texas’ legislatively enacted plan as the interim plan while preclearance is pending.

The state’s request is almost certain to draw sharp rebukes from plaintiff groups, contending that the relief sought by the state, if granted, would essentially gut section 5 preclearance and reward states for going slow.

SCOTUSblog goes into more detail. Of course, as Matt Angle pointed out, the reason we’re up against a tight schedule is because the Republicans who controlled the redistricting process took their sweet time, and chose the least swift option, at every step. One could argue, as the plaintiffs have, that keeping the San Antonio maps would also accomplish the goal of minimizing the work that needs to be done by elections administrators to get ready for the primaries, without incinerating the Voting Rights Act. That’s what the state is aiming for, to be sure, and there’s a non-trivial chance they’ll get it. I don’t know how to estimate the chances of it.

Speaking of the schedule and the election admins, they’re already sounding the alarm.

Texas counties say the April 3 primary election date won’t work.

In papers filed in federal court this afternoon, the officials who actually administer the state’s elections say that date — agreed to by the Democratic and Republican parties and ordered by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio — creates an impossible situation for them.


In their legal briefs, the Conference of Urban Counties, the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, and the Texas Association of Counties said they agree that all of the primaries should be held on the same day, but object to the date chosen by the political parties:

Despite agreement with the unified primaries, the County Organizations believe the Order issued in these consolidated cases on December 16, 2011 imposes on counties requirements that (1) are impossible to comply with, or that will be extremely difficult and expensive to comply with, if compliance is physically possible; and (2) may lead to voter confusion and disenfranchisement.

They said they’re basing that position on conferences with several counties of various sizes, from Harris, the state’s most populous county, all the way down to Shelby, with its 25,400 residents.

The court based the April 3 date on having a map in place by Feb. 1. But the counties say that wouldn’t leave them enough time. The court would give them only two weeks to prepare voter registration certificates that take six to seven weeks to prepare, the groups said.

“If voter registrars are required to mail inaccurate voter registration certificates in order to meet the deadline set by the Court, there is likely to be much confusion among voters. And voter confusion leads to voter disenfranchisement,” they wrote.

Isn’t this fun? I just have no idea what’s going to happen. Everything about this year is unprecedented. I don’t know what to expect.

Council passes high rise ordinance

And with that, Council is done for the year.

After four years of planning and discussion, the Houston City Council on Wednesday approved new restrictions on residential high rises.

The restrictions, which passed after a failed proposal to delay a vote on the ordinance, would require that neighborhood high rises be built at least 30 or 40 feet from surrounding homes, depending on street sizes.


Council members Oliver Pennington, Brenda Stardig, James Rodriguez, Mike Sullivan and Jolanda Jones voted against the ordinance.

They argued that many residents had not had appropriate feedback in the process of crafting the legislation.

This had been tagged last week. Other agenda items, including parking requirements, Chapter 42 revisions, and auto repair rules, will be put off till next year so they can be taken up by the new Council. I don’t know if that will make any difference, but that was a sentiment echoed by some Council members. As for the high rise ordinance, as we know some neighborhood activists were not satisfied with it, but I have a feeling we have not heard the last of this. When that happens, and when the new Council gets to the Chapter 42 revisions, neoHouston has a simple suggestion for how to proceed.