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January 20th, 2012:

Friday random ten: What was that lyric again?

Another actual random ten, with a theme that occurred to me as I was compiling it.

1. Óró Sé do Bheath Abhaile – SixMileBridge
2. Broadway – Stew
3. (Making The Run To) Gladewater – Michelle Shocked
4. Snakedance – The Rainmakers
5. Harbour Lecou – Great Big Sea
6. Peace Like A River – Paul Simon
7. Crying In My Sleep – Squeeze
8. Long Time – Boston
9. Our House – Madness
10. Void In My Heart – John Mellencamp

I was listening to the song “Our House”, and it occurred to me that after all these years, I still have no idea what the fourth line of the first verse is. It goes like this:

Father wears his Sunday best
Mother says she needs a rest, kids are playing up downstairs
Sister [something] in her sleep
Brother’s got a date to keep, he can’t hang around

Sister “saying” in her sleep? Sister “slaying” in her sleep – maybe the song is from the perspective of Dawn Summers? I have no clue. I have found that one of the virtues of cover songs is that sometimes hearing a familiar yet undecipherable lyric sung by a different voice allows you to finally have that forehead-slapping “So THAT’S what he’s singing!” moments, but I haven’t heard a cover version of this one yet.

Yes, I know, I could look the lyrics up, but what’s the fun in that? Coming up with a Mondegreen is far more satisfying.

Anyway. Óró Sé do Bheath Abhaile, which the Internets say is more correctly rendered as Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile would make a nice tune for your next Labor Day rally; spend a little time on YouTube and watch Sinéad O’Connor or The Dubliners have a go at it. Harbour Lecou is a cautionary tale about running into an old buddy while stepping out on your wife. Peace Like A River is from Paul Simon’s first solo album. What are you listening to this week?

SCOTUS issues ruling on redistricting

Who knows what will come next

As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, the Supreme Court has officially thrown out the interim maps that were drawn by the San Antonio court, in a unanimous decision handed down this morning. What does this mean? I’m going to start with Adam B at Daily Kos:

Let’s take a step back: Texas’ legislature drew a new map to account for the decennial census, population growth, etc. Because Texas is a covered jurisdiction under Section 5 the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it had to submit its map to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or the Department of Justice for “preclearance”—i.e., to ensure that minorities weren’t screwed over. They chose the Court. That’s still ongoing.

In the meantime, plaintiffs sued Texas in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas alleging that the map, in fact, discriminated against Latinos and African-Americans and diluted their voting strength, notwithstanding the fact that Latinos and African-Americans accounted for three-quarters of Texas’ population growth since 2000. Sensing some merit in the plaintiffs’ claims and fearing that the DC court wouldn’t complete its process in time, the Texas court drew its own map—since Texas has an early primary and wants to have something firmly in place by February 1. And that, writes the Court today in a per curiam (i.e., unsigned) opinion), is where it screwed up:

[H]ere the scale of Texas’ population growth appears to require sweeping changes to the State’s current districts. In areas where population shifts are so large that no semblance of the existing plan’s district lines can be used, that plan offers little guidance to a court drawing an interim map. The problem is perhaps most obvious in adding new congressional districts: The old plan gives no suggestion as to where those new districts should be placed. In addition, experience has shown the difficulty of defining neutral legal principles in this area, for redistricting ordinarily involves criteria and standards that have been weighed and evaluated by the elected branches in the exercise of their political judgment. Thus, if the old state districts were the only source to which a district court could look, it would be forced to make the sort of policy judgments for which courts are, at best, ill suited.

To avoid being compelled to make such otherwise standardless decisions, a district court should take guidance from the State’s recently enacted plan in drafting an interim plan. That plan reflects the State’s policy judgments on where to place new districts and how to shift existing ones in response to massive population growth. This Court has observed before that “faced with the necessity of drawing district lines by judicial order, a court, as a general rule, should be guided by the legislative policies underlying” a state plan—even one that was itself unenforceable—“to the extent those policies do not lead to violations of the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act.”

So fix it if you must, but don’t start from scratch:

[T]he state plan serves as a starting point for the district court. It provides important guidance that helps ensure that the district court appropriately confines itself to drawing interim maps that comply with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, without displacing legitimate state policy judgments with the court’s own preferences.

The Supremes thus sent the judges to the drawing board—literally!—to try again, a compromise advanced by Justice Kagan during oral argument.

Rick Hasen agrees that this is basically the Kagan compromise and sees this as a win for the state:

Speaking non-technically, the Supreme Court held that the three-judge court erred in starting its redistricting plan from scratch. It should have started with the state’s plan, and then adjusted to the extent the plan violated the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution.

More technically, the Court held that as to the Voting Rights Act section 2 standards, the three-judge court is not to defer on those districts where it appears more likely than not that Texas is in violation of the section 2 standards. (Burden appears to be on the VRA section 2 plaintiffs.)

As to section 5, however, because only the Washington DC court can decide on preclearance, the Court is not to take the section 5 preclearance question into account unless those plans have a reasonable probability of failing section 5 review (a tough standard for challengers to the law to meet).

So this is a big win for Texas, and will require the drawing of districts much more likely to favor Texas’s interim plan (and therefore favor Republicans over Democrats favored by the three-judge court’s original map).

One caveat: at most these lines will last for one election, as the preclearance issue being decided by the Washington court will dictate the preclearance going forward, and as the section 2 issue finally gets resolved by the three judge court in Texas.

Michael Li sees it a little differently:

1. The opinion has hallmarks of a tough fought compromise. It is not entirely clear, for example, what ‘reasonable probability’ means or how it differs from the traditional injunction standard of ‘substantial likelihood of success,’ except that the court went on to say that it meant ‘not insubstantial.’ Some commentators and observers have suggested that is a high standard; other observers think the standard could be somewhat less demanding. Others have no idea what the opinion means. As one prominent civil practitioner said in an email, ”The definition of ‘reasonable probability’ being ‘not insubstantial’ is not really clearing things up for me.”

1a. Because redistricting cases come up only every ten years or so, unfortunately it may be another decade or more before we get Supreme Court clarification on what it meant by ‘reasonable probability.’ That’s one of the challenges of practicing in this area.

1b. As far as ‘reasonable probability,’ some are already pointing to this email.

1c. Lloyd Doggett and ‘reasonable probability.’ My initial reaction is that Lloyd Doggett still comes out pretty good from all this. The D.C. court has already rejected the state’s contention that crossover districts are not protected under section 5. That’s a critical legal hurdle. The Travis County intervenors still need to show that the existing CD-25 is a crossover district on the facts, but given that is an argument based largely on the performance of Austin, they would seem to have a good shot at doing so.

2. Overall, the opinion favors the state’s maps, but so would any permanent remedial map drawn after a decision in the section 5 case being tried in Washington this week and next. In other words, the opinion in that sense just requires that the result look something like the ultimate outcome. It’s hard to complain too much about that. It’s a defeat for the interim maps, but not necessarily for redistricting plaintiffs.

There’s already a ton more analysis and interpretation out there for your perusal. SCOTUSBlog has an in depth look at the opinion. Hasen revisits his original take and considers Li’s suggestion of a “political compromise” in the opinion; he also provides a nice roundup of other coverage. The Texas Democratic Party notes that “what is clear is that the state’s original maps have been found to be discriminatory in some way by every court which has examined them”, while plaintiff Sen. Wendy Davis is “encouraged” by the ruling. The Lion Star insists this is “not a loss for the redistricting plaintiffs”. PoliTex has some other Democratic reactions.

On the other side, PoliTex also notes some glee from Republicans, including man without a district Michael Williams and the maybe-not-retired Aaron Pena. I will simply point out that just before New Year’s Day the DC Court issued an opinion on preclearance standards that took Texas to task for its methodology and strongly suggested that preclearance was not in the cards. As Pena’s district was one that the plaintiffs and the Justice Department had focused on, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if his district remains substantially changed from what the Lege drew. My own non-lawyerly take on this is that if the San Antonio court waits for the DC court, or if it just relies on that opinion while completing the do-over, there’s still a lot of potential for significant alterations to the Lege’s maps. Clearly, bad things can happen from a Democratic perspective – the Lege combined HDs 137 and 149, for example, while the court restored those and instead combined HDs 133 and 136, while turning HD144 into a Latino-majority Democrat-favoring district – but overreach is still overreach, and there’s nothing to suggest it can’t or won’t be dialed back. It’s a question of where and how much.

As for the primaries, who knows when they’ll be? It’s not out of the question that either the San Antonio court does its rework in the next week or so, or that the DC court issues a quick ruling followed by some quick mapmaking, and we can keep the April date with some compression of the absentee ballot mailing period. More likely, I think, is a later primary, but whether May or June is anyone’s guess. At least we’re not waiting for SCOTUS any more. What I know for sure is that I have some more map-studying and number-crunching in my future. I’m sure you’re as eager for me to get to that as I am.

UPDATE: Greg weighs in.

January finance reports: Harris County

January is a very busy month for campaign finance reports, since they are due for all levels of government. I’ve been busy updating the 2012 Primary Election pages for Harris County and elsewhere in Texas with reports as I can find them. Here’s an overview of some races of interest in Harris County. I’ll have similar reports for State Rep and Congressional races next week.

Let me preface this post by saying that I loathe the County Clerks’ Campaign Finance Reports page. You can’t search for an individual by name, you can only search for all candidates whose last name starts with a given letter. All of the reports are scanned PDFs, which means that most of them are handwritten, though even the ones that are electronically generated are then apparently printed and scanned. This has the effect of creating much larger files, which are then harder to navigate, and Adobe being what it is they managed to crash Chrome on my PC and IE9 on my laptop. They do open in the browser with a direct link, unlike the city’s reporting system which opens each report as an Acrobat file for download, which I then have to upload and share to make available on my page, so as long as your browser continues to function that’s nice. All I know is that when I am named Supreme Commander of the world, my first official action will be to outlaw paper filing of campaign finance reports. It’s 2012, for Pete’s sake.

OK, rant off. Here are the highlights:

District Attorney

Incumbent Pat Lykos starts the year in good shape, having raised $194K with $320K on hand; she spent $40K during the cycle. Primary opponent Mike Anderson reported no money raised or spent. He was a late entrant and likely hasn’t had any fundraisers yet. I’m sure he’ll have sufficient resources to wage a campaign. On the Democratic side, Zack Fertitta had an impressive haul, taking in $170K, with $141K on hand. I don’t know exactly when he named a treasurer, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t start raising money until a couple of months into the cycle. His primary opponent Lloyd Oliver, who is listed for some bizarre reason in the county financial reporting system as “Oliver Lloyd” – I only found his report by accident, looking for other L-named candidates – reported no money raised or spent.


Sheriff Adrian Garcia will have a tough race in November, and he starts the year well armed for it, having collected $187K and maintaining $302K. He has two primary opponents – Delores Jones has $1,038 on hand, while perennial contender Charles Massey El had no report visible; yes, I checked under M and under E. There are eight Republican hopefuls, but only four filed reports. Ruben Monzon raised $33K; Carl Pittman raised $13K and reported $24K in loans; Brian Steinacher claimed the princely total of $750 raised. The most interesting report belonged to Louis Guthrie, who claimed to raise $96K with $30K in loans. That caught my eye at first, but he only listed $21K on hand, which made me suspicious enough to read the whole report. The individual contributions he detailed added up to only $6450 in cash plus about $18K in kind for things like printing and food, which are usually considered expenses. Something is definitely off there, but even if you took him at his word, the four of them together raised less than Garcia did.

County Attorney

Not really on anyone’s radar since it’s a lower profile office and there are no contested primaries, but Democratic incumbent Vince Ryan raised $29K and has $126K on hand. Republican challenger and former State Rep. Robert Talton raised $14,650 and had $10,500 in loans, but spent $14,978 and was left with $10,367 on hand.

Tax Assessor

In the battle of Guys Whose Surnames Both Start With The Letter S And Are Thus Convenient To Find In The Otherwise Wack Harris County Finance Reporting System, incumbent Don Sumners reported no cash raised and $3,911 on hand, while current Council Member Mike Sullivan made good use of his remaining Council campaign fund, which allowed him to report $53K on hand. He actually raised $8200 for this cycle, and had $15K in loans outstanding. Democratic challenger Ann Harris Bennett, who was listed under the Bs, raised no money and had $1,856 on hand, presumably left over from her 2010 race for County Clerk. Remind me to ask Clerk candidates in 2014 about how they propose to overhaul the finance reporting system.


I didn’t bother looking at a lot of these reports, as there are just so many Constable candidates. Among those I did look at were ones for the open Precinct 1 seat. Alan Rosen did the most, raising $43K with $37K on hand. Cindy Vara-Leija raised $22K and had $15K on hand; Grady Castleberry, who also had a July report, raised $2K but had $19K in loans and $23K on hand. Quincy Whitaker’s January report was not visible as of this publication; his July report claimed $5K raised and $18K spent but did not list any loans or cash on hand.

That’s your Harris County finance report. I’ll have state and federal candidates next week. The one other county race I’m watching is the Democratic primary for Travis County DA, featuring incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg and former judge Charlie Baird. The Statesman noted their totals, and I have their reports linked on the non-Harris page – here’s Lehmberg, and here’s Baird. Check that page and the Harris page for more reports as they come in. Greg has more.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that there is a “Friends of Mike Anderson” finance report, which I would have found if I could have searched by name and not by letter, and that this report shows contributions of $152K and cash on hand of $135K. That report lists his office sought as the 127th District Civil Court bench, but that’s neither here nor there.

Our drought is no longer “exceptional”

The good news is that for the first time since last March, no part of Harris County is in an “exceptional” drought. The bad news is that now we’re either in an “extreme” drought or a “severe” drought, depending on where you are in the county. Here’s a picture of what the state looks like as of January 10, and what it looked like January 3, when we learned that 2011 was the driest year ever in Texas:

Drought conditions for the first two weeks of January

Click for the full-size picture, courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor archive. You can clearly see the effect of that big storm we had last week, not just in Harris County but in the Austin/San Antonio area. It’s still really bad, it’s just not “worst ever” bad.

What’s the prognosis for the near future?

Forecasters say the remainder of this winter’s weather is still likely to be moderated by La Niña, a cooling of equatorial sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

Last year a stronger La Niña set the stage for a dry February, leading through the spring months.

Although La Niña is back this winter, there’s reason to feel a little more confident about drought conditions later this year, said Fred Schmude, a forecaster with Houston-based ImpactWeather.

“What makes this season different from last year is we are dealing with a considerably weaker La Niña,” he said.

We’re likely to be a little dry through February, then a little wetter than normal after that. And though he didn’t say, hopefully a lot wetter after that.

Military spending is government spending

President Obama recently announced a change in direction for US military strategy in the wake of exiting Iraq, one that will involve some reductions in spending. Much pearl clutching and chin stroking followed.

But ongoing tinkering with the nation’s defense blueprint means many Texans could feel the pinch from a planned reduction of at least 100,000 ground combat troops. And projected Pentagon spending cuts of at least $489 billion over the next decade could force layoffs at major defense contractors in Texas, such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BAE Systems and Boeing Co.

With the nation’s $15 trillion debt rivaling annual U.S. economic output, “this country is facing a crisis that it has to address,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told roughly 500 soldiers in a visit to Fort Bliss on Thursday. “We have got to put everything on the table.”


Stephen Fuller, an economic modeling expert at George Mason University, estimated that Obama’s planned defense reductions of $1 trillion could claim as many as 1 million jobs nationwide – with 91,600 of those losses coming in Texas.

“Our analysis reveals bleak outcomes for both the defense industry and the economy as a whole if $1 trillion is cut from defense,” Fuller said.

Yes, it’s true: When government spends less money on government programs like the military, it’s a drag on the economy. I marvel at how some people only make this connection when the government spending is on government programs that they happen to approve of. For what it’s worth, this new direction isn’t really a cut military spending, but a reduction in the rate of increase in military spending. The second derivative is now negative, in other words. The curve still points upward, however. Be that as it may, I’d be happy to see the economic impact of these reductions mitigated by spending that money on other priorities, like infrastructure. I mean, if we agree that there’s a correlation between government spending and job creation, we should proceed on to the next logical step. Right?

Thinking outside the box on the city’s finances

We’ve seen the ideas generated by the Long Term Financial Management Task Force, which I thought lacked a certain amount of breadth to its perspective. Here’s a taste of what else might be out there to think about.

Good Jobs Great Houston, of which the Houston Organization of Public Employees is a member, held a news conference outside Wednesday’s City Council meeting to get their own ideas out. They claim that some of the ideas they had submitted to the Task Force did not make it onto the draft list. Among the union’s ideas distributed Wednesday:

  • Raise the city’s tax rate;
  • Establish a higher property tax bracket on homes with a value exceeding $500,000;
  • Establish a 1 percent income tax on city residents who make more than $30,000 a year;
  • A “blight tax” on foreclosed homes that banks would pay on vacant properties they let deteriorate;
  • End the practice of double dipping — remaining on the city payroll while collecting a pension;
  • Put a cap of $100,000 a year on annual pensions for new hires;
  • Review all outsourced services to see if they can be done more efficiently in house.

There are a lot more, but the Good Job Great Houston and HOPE officials said they want the conversation to include more than what’s already on the Task Force’s 229-item draft list.

As with the LTFMTF, some of these ideas are more practical than others, and some cannot be done without legislative input, possibly even a Constitutional amendment. I’ve been an advocate of rolling back the miniscule property tax rate cuts that were implemented during the Bill White years – the savings for an individual household is minor, but the cumulative revenue for the city adds up. You do have to be aware of the limitations imposed by the revenue cap, however – even if you wanted to, you can only raise the tax rate so much before that would kick in.

I really like the idea of the “blight tax”, as I want to see more thought given to generating growth here inside city limits. The city has been admirably aggressive under Mayor Parker to condemn and demolish derelict properties – Patricia Kilday Hart wrote about a new tool in their chest for that – but it’s only half of the equation. You still have to get someone to build or rehab or otherwise do something useful with the property afterward, and as far as I can tell we’re still short on ideas there.

And if we’re going to go after blight, let’s aim for the biggest target out there – abandoned buildings downtown. There are properties downtown that have been derelict for decades, and that’s some of the most valuable real estate in the city. Some of these buildings are within a couple of blocks of the Main Street light rail line, and would make excellent mixed use/transit oriented projects, if only they could or would be used for something. Do we not have the tools to make something happen, or have we just not put enough effort into it? I don’t know, but I wish we’d put more thought into it. The same is true for other empty or blighted lots along the existing rail line, and the ones that are now being built. There’s been quite a bit of development in the Main Street corridor, but there’s room for much more. If the secret to making Inner Loop housing less expensive is to generate more of it, then these are the places to start. What are the obstacles, and what can we do to overcome them? This needs to be part of the long term financial conversation.