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March, 2012:

Saturday video break: Wichita Lineman

Song #75 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Wichita Lineman”, originally by Jimmy Webb and covered by Glen Campbell. Here’s the original:

Obviously a more recent recording than his original, but it’s the best I can do. Here’s Campbell’s cover:

As was the case last week and as will be the case for the next three weeks we have a cover version (not necessarily the featured one) that is way better known than the original, to the point where you may be saying to yourself “Huh, I didn’t know s/he didn’t write that”. Sometimes that’s because of a change in genre or arrangement, but that’s not the case here. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I suppose as long as the royalty checks come in, the song’s writer isn’t complaining. By the way, am I the only one who can’t help but hear “Like a rhinestone cowboy” whenever I hear Glen Campbell’s name? Damn those K-Tel commercials.

Harris County rejecting fewer voter registrations

In other lawsuit-related news:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The only voter ID anyone should need

Harris County officials have rejected far fewer would-be voters since 2008, but Democrats are demanding more proof that voter rolls are not being illegally suppressed – particularly among Hispanics – as another U.S. presidential election approaches.

The two sides [met] in secret mediation Friday as Democratic officials seek assurances the county is following the terms of a 2009 settlement reached after the party challenged Harris County voter reviews in a federal lawsuit. The county’s voter registrations have remained fairly flat at about 1.9 million since 2008, failing to keep pace with a boom in the eligible voting population.

“Harris County continues to fall behind other large cities. Harris County rejects far too many applications and removes far too many eligible voters from the rolls,” Chad Dunn, an attorney for the Democrats, told the Houston Chronicle.

The Chronicle’s own analysis of voter registration data shows county officials denied about 39,000 applications in the last three years – far fewer than the 70,000 rejected as ineligible or incomplete in 2008. Of applications received in 2009 to 2011, about 14 percent were not immediately accepted. A slightly higher percentage of voters with Hispanic last names had applications denied, the Chronicle’s analysis shows.


U.S. District Court Judge Gray H. Miller, who oversees the settlement, ordered both sides to meet with a mediator Friday. If the dispute is not resolved, a hearing has been set next week.

County records show that most unsuccessful applicants from 2009-2011 -35,800 – provided incomplete information, such as leaving parts of the form blank.

As part of the 2009 settlement, Harris County officials agreed to be more flexible in reviewing voter addresses and accept those submitted from so-called commercial properties. However, about 3,000 voters’ applications apparently were red-flagged because of address-related issues in 2009-2011, according to data. In at least a few dozen cases, officials rejected valid addresses mostly from voters living in newly-built homes, the Chronicle found.

They did some good analysis of the rejected applications, so be sure to read the whole story. This action resulted from a followup complaint in 2010 by the TDP, which was itself a result of then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez getting in bed with the KSP. If the Tax Assessor’s office is now doing a better job of accepting valid registrations – and sorry, but I’m not going to just accept Don Sumner’s word for that – that’s great, but there’s still a long way to go before they earn any trust. PDiddie has more.

HBU wants a name change

Always a challenging task.

Half a century after being founded by the Baptist General Convention of Texas as “a Christian college of the highest order,” Houston Baptist University may soon erase the religious designation in its name.

Saying that the Baptist tag creates a barrier for potential students, university officials are exploring a name change for the 51-year-old school – a prospect that concerns some alumni who fear HBU’s religious identity would be de-emphasized.

Although an alternative name hasn’t been chosen, one possibility mentioned at an HBU town hall meeting last Thursday was “Morris Christian University,” after Stewart Morris, a founding father and major donor.

At the town hall meeting, one of two held last week, HBU board member Ray Cox Jr. argued that “the name Houston and the name Baptist are somewhat limiting to a national Christian university. … That’s why we are considering changing the name.”

I don’t know, “Morris Christian University” sounds limiting to me. It sounds like a school in a small town. Maybe that’s just me.

In recent years, the school’s profile has shifted significantly from its origins with an inaugural freshman class of 193 students. Only about one-third of HBU’s 2,500 students are Baptist.

Last year, the university voted to add three non-Baptists to the board of trustees, making HBU the first university affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas to allow non-Baptist trustees.


The HBU-commissioned survey of 1,129 current and prospective students and faculty showed that the current name wasn’t the best fit with the university’s vision of becoming “a comprehensive national Christian university,” Mark Denison, a board member and chairman of the name change committee, said at the town hall.

Denison said officials are also considering dropping Houston from the university’s name because the geographical term is limiting. He noted most of the students come from three surrounding counties.

The timing of the change coincides with the school’s transition to the Southland Conference and the addition of football in 2014, Denison said.

I suppose they could go the TCU route and decide that the acronym is the name. As we know from the UH-Downtown experience, it’s not easy finding a new name that enough people like, or at least don’t dislike. The committee will present its findings in May, so we’ll see what they come up with. Greg has more.

Presidential Pinterest

A while back I wondered if political campaigns would try to leverage Pinterest as part of their social media strategy. At least one well-known campaign has now jumped on it.

Obama cupcakes

In case you missed it, Barack Obama [Tuesday] officially became the first U.S. President to launch a Pinterest page. His campaign staff announced the move on Twitter today.


Obama is not the first to use Pinterest for political purposes. Groups like liberal-leaning Think Progress have employed it to poke at GOP candidates. Ann Romney, wife of GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, has a page of her own to collect recipes and post campaign photos.

So what will the president use his page for? Well, if his current social media strategy is any indication, he will use it to disseminate his popular memes — catchy images and videos designed specifically to spread virally on the web (His campaign Tumblr page also is used for the same purpose). Already, Obama’s Pinterest page has some pep to it. The page features photos of dogs wearing Obama gear, cakes shaped like Obama’s campaign logo and even disarming photos of the president himself.

Welcome to Political Campaigns circa 2012.

Indeed, and note that the fact that there’s also a Presidential Tumblr page wasn’t even worth remarking on. As long as your campaign has the resources to ensure these different campaign platforms remain lively and updated, I’d say you can’t have too many ways to communicate with voters. Who do you think will be the first Texas officeholder or candidate to climb on the Pinterest bandwagon?

Friday random ten: Opening day

Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains. But all the time, there’s Friday Random Ten.

1. Opening Ceremonies – from the “Chess” soundtrack
2. Opening: I Can’t Turn You Loose – Blues Brothers
3. Open All Night – Bruce Springsteen
4. Open Arms – Journey
5. Open Book – CAKE
6. Open Page – Crazy Ivan
7. Open Pages – Rocco Deluca and The Burden
8. The Open Road – John Hiatt
9. Open Sesame – Crosstown Traffic
10. Open Wide – Trinity University Jazz Band

Play ball!

There’s only one Democrat running in CD22

We all need to be clear about that.

KP George

Both candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat famously held for two decades by Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, are unusual.

K.P. George’s background makes him an improbable candidate — he was born in a village in India that still has no electricity or running water. For Kesha Rogers, it is her political positions that stand out — she is best known for demanding President Obama’s impeachment.

In light of Rogers’ candidacy, the Fort Bend County Democratic Party’s executive committee has issued a rare primary endorsement, backing George.

“If I can figure out what that silver bullet is to make sure that she is not on my slate after May, then I’ll definitely do that,” said Steve Brown, chairman of the Fort Bend Democratic Party. “I don’t think the endorsement alone is going to do it. It’s going to take work.”

I’ve covered this before, but it can’t be said enough. We know who Kesha Rogers is, and we know what she stands for. Neither are compatible with the positions and values of the Democratic Party. The good news is that this Trib story probably represents more coverage than Rogers and the CD22 primary got in all of 2010, so hopefully that and the experience of having nominated her once before will be enough to ensure that people know not to do it again. It’s really very simple: KP George is the only Democrat running in CD22. Just remember that if you live in the district, and make sure you vote for him in May so you can vote for him again in November.

If it walks like a PAC and talks like a PAC…

…the odds are pretty good that it’s a PAC.

A Travis County district court judge ruled this week that a Houston-based tea party group is not a nonprofit corporation as it claims, but an unregistered political action committee that illegally aided the Republican Party through its poll-watching efforts during the 2010 elections.

The summary judgment by Judge John Dietz upheld several Texas campaign finance laws that had been challenged on constitutional grounds by King Street Patriots, a tea party organization known for its “True the Vote” effort to uncover voter fraud.

The ruling grew out of a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party against the King Street Patriots. The Democrats charged that the organization made unlawful political contributions to the Texas Republican Party and various Republican candidates by training poll watchers in cooperation with the party and its candidates and by holding candidate forums only for GOP candidates.

See here, here, here, here, and here for more on this charming collection of chuckleheads and the litigation they’ve spawned. You can see a copy of the judgment here and here; it’s short and fairly readable, so do give it a look. Not only were all of the KSP’s motions denied, it’s clear that Judge Dietz didn’t think much of their arguments. The crux of all this is as follows:

King Street Patriots was founded in December 2009 by Catherine Englebrecht, of Richmond. Its stated purpose is “to provide education and awareness with the general public on important civic and patriotic duties.”

During the 2010 elections, King Street Patriots reviewed public information regarding voter registration in Harris County, reported findings to the county registrar and trained several hundred poll watchers to serve during the general election. It has made voter fraud its signature issue.

As a nonprofit, King Street Patriots does not have to list its funders, but cannot participate in partisan activity. To support a party or a candidate, a nonprofit must create a political action committee. PACs can be involved in partisan politics, but must list their donors.

You cannot operate in a partisan manner and not disclose your donors. Pretty simple concept, at least if it’s your intent to operate on the up and up. Now that the constitutional questions have been settled, the case moves on to the TDP’s claims that the KSP violated state election law and are liable for damages. Based on this, it’s looking good for the TDP. PDiddie has more.

Rick Perry and pink slime

Two great tastes that taste great together.

Can't be worse than one of these

Gov. Rick Perry is defending so-called “pink slime” in a statement issued in conjunction with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and South Dakota Lt. Gov. Matt Michels (on behalf of South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who’s on a trade mission to China).

Their statement says that the “lean, finely textured beef is a safe, nutritious product that is backed by sound science.”

Here’s how the AP describes the produce, nicknamed pink slime: “The lower-cost ingredient is made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product is exposed to ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.”

Since she’s been the chief troublemaker in all this, I’m going to let Bettina give the response.

When I started my petition on March 6th, I had one simple, clearly defined goal:  to ask USDA to revisit its practice of providing school districts with ground beef containing LFTB.  The USDA/schools petition went viral, garnering almost a quarter of a million signatures in a little over a week (and now exceeding that target).  USDA responded to the outpouring of concern by offering schools the option of buying beef without this filler.   And that might have been the end of this story.

But clearly something else arose out of my petition and the media coverage associated with it.  Consumers learned — many for the first time — that USDA allows LFTB to be mixed into the nation’s ground beef supply, up to 15%, without any labeling to disclose that fact.  Reportedly, 70% of beef in this country now contains LFTB.

And as it turns out, consumers are quite unhappy about this fact.

Some people are concerned about food safety, given the pathogenic nature of the raw material used by BPI to make the product.   Its safety record, though now admirable, was somewhat more troubling between 2005 and 2009 when E. coli and salmonella were repeatedly found in its product, as reported by the New York Times.   Some consumers – rightly or wrongly — worry about the use of ammonium hydroxide in the processing of their food.  Some people consider the inclusion of an unlabeled filler to be a form of economic adulteration, in that their package labeled 100% ground beef might only be  85% ground chuck or ground round and the rest a gelatinous meat filler.  And others claim there are aesthetic differences between beef with LFTB and pure ground beef.

Whether any or all of these concerns are valid is almost beside the point.  Our free market is founded on informed consumer choice, but in this case USDA deprived consumers of the ability to make that choice when it made the controversial decision to treat LFTB as “ground beef,” no different from ground chuck or ground round.

Now that the truth about LFTB is coming to light, BPI’s business may be suffering.  But this consumer reaction should not come as much of a surprise to the company;  why else did BPI, according to the Times, lobby USDA back in 2001 to exempt their product from labeling?

As I said in an interview on the very first day of my USDA/schools campaign, the use of LFTB in ground beef is “one of those practices that can thrive only in obscurity.”   Now exposed under intense media scrutiny, BPI is discovering that this is indeed the case.

Of course, Rick Perry also works best when he operates in obscurity, so I suppose none of this should come as a surprise to anyone. It’s a true meeting of the minds.

Are you smarter than a Texas high school student?

Well, why don’t you take this sample STAAR test and find out? It’s very much non-trivial. I got 11 out of 15 correct – I punted on the two physics questions and on the first World History question, though in retrospect I might have gotten it right if I’d thought about it, and I guessed wrong on the chemistry question. I was able to do all of the algebra questions in my head, however, and that’s all that really matters to me.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think these questions would have been too tough for my high school self. I did attend one of the best high schools in the country, Stuyvesant High School in New York, so that’s not too surprising. For those of you who attended high school in Texas, how do these questions stack up against your experience? Would you say the curriculum, or at least the standardized tests, are harder, easier, or about the same as they were when you were in school? Leave a comment and let me know.

Interview with Sarah Winkler

Sarah Winkler

Wrapping up a week of conversations with candidates who hope to succeed Rep. Scott Hochberg in HD137, today we have Sarah Winkler. Winkler has served on the Alief ISD Board of Trustees since 1997 and on the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) Board of Directors since 2001; she was TASB President in 2009-10. She is a longtime neighborhood activist and also serves on the SPARK Park Board of Directors. I interviewed her for the 2009 election Alief ISD election here. Oh, and she’s a Rice grad as well, which I am constitutionally required to mention. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

She showed me her manifesto, I had no reply

I got nothing.

A little light reading before bedtime

District E Councilman Mike Sullivan, until January by far the Council’s most conservative member, was so outflanked from the right by a Council newcomer Wednesday that he found himself uttering into his microphone: “I am not a communist.”

The energy company Entergy is proposing raising rates on 1,500 of his Kingwood constituents by about 13 percent. He championed the Council’s denial of Entergy’s request.

But when the item came up for discussion, District A Councilwoman Helena Brown announced she would vote against the denial. That is, she would support the rate increase.

“We need to support their rate increase because it is justified,” Brown said. She then continued:

I understand my colleague Sullivan expressed the concerns of his constituents in the Kingwood area. But I also understand the folks in Kingwood are conservatives. They do not believe in the regulation of rates of businesses. That’s communism. I will be standing in support of this business and the need that they have.

“Truthfully, I don’t think you have a clue what Kingwood believes in,” Sullivan shot back.

Sullivan explained that a study commissioned by a coalition of cities in Entergy’s service area concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support a rate increase.

“I am not a communist by voting for this rate denial,” Sullivan said.

As Dogbert says, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. The woman defies parody. If anyone reading this happens to bump into Toni Lawrence or Bruce Tatro, would you mind asking them just what it was they were thinking? Thanks.

Bromwich on the Mayor’s crime lab proposal

Michael Bromwich, the author of the report that laid out all of the problems with HPD’s crime lab, expresses his approval of Mayor Parker’s proposal for an independent crime lab.

Mayor Annise Parker and her administration have proposed removing the city of Houston’s crime lab from the Houston Police Department, where it has resided since the 1950s. This major step toward obtaining independence for the crime lab – free from the influence of the police department, prosecutors and political leaders – would place Houston in the vanguard of the movement to create appropriate structures for conducting forensic science in the criminal justice system. Her proposal carries the promise of improving both the reality and appearance of the way forensic science is conducted in Houston. Although implementing this vision will involve significant challenges, the proposal deserves serious consideration.


The core of the mayor’s proposal is to sever the crime lab from HPD and political leaders and entrust its oversight to a local government corporation governed by an independent board of directors. This board would set policy, ensure institutional independence and integrity, and oversee sound fiscal management. The board would be guided by an advisory committee, whose members would have significant expertise in forensic science. This structure is conceptually sound: The challenge would be in ensuring the competence of the outside directors, and the level of engagement of the members of the advisory committee

Although the mayor’s proposal to separate the crime lab from the police department and reduce the risk of political influence on its operations is fundamentally sound, aspects of it merit careful examination and discussion. No reform worth doing is free from thorny questions of implementation. While on first blush, the fee-for-service model that is being proposed is attractive, it raises questions about the incentives such a system creates – for example, preference may be given to scientific work that generates the most revenue rather than work that is most important for the fair administration of justice.

Such issues are not insoluble, but they do require careful study and consideration. To her credit, Mayor Parker is advancing a bold and serious proposal to improve the quality of forensic science, and therefore the quality of justice, administered by the city of Houston. It deserves a thoughtful and constructive reception.

Bromwich called the Mayor’s proposal to make the crime lab independent “fully consistent with a comprehensive and widely acclaimed National Academy of Science review of forensic science, published in 2009, that recommended that public forensic labs be independent from police departments and prosecutors”. That’s a pretty nice endorsement from the fellow who wrote the comprehensive report on all the things that were wrong with the crime lab. Now this is only one person’s opinion, and as he notes there are still a lot of details to be worked out. We don’t know how or if the city will resolve its differences with Harris County, and there’s always the possibility of politics gumming up the works to some extent. But let’s be honest, if Bromwich had been critical of the Mayor’s proposal, that would be significant. The fact that he’s laudatory should be significant as well.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 26

The Texas Progressive Alliane is wearing a hoodie this week as it brings you the blog roundup.


Interview with Jamaal Smith

Jamaal Smith

Continuing with the candidates who hope to succeed Rep. Scott Hochberg in HD137 we have Jamaal Smith, whom you may remember from his time as Executive Director of the HCDP and as the Deputy Campaign Manager and Campaign Manager from the 2008 and 2010 Coordinated Campaigns. Before his stint with the HCDP Smith was the Legislative Director for the late Rep. Joe Moreno, and more recently has been a policy advisor and community liaison for Sen. Rodney Ellis. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

The Sheriff’s office is hiring


Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia says by balancing his department’s $392 million budget, he’ll be able to transfer 100 deputies from jail duties to crime-fighting jobs in the next year while hiring hundreds of new civilian jailers.

During a news conference Monday, Garcia said when he took office in January 2009 the department was spending $56 million more a year than approved by Commissioners Court. When the budget year ended Feb. 29, the department spent $2.8 million less than was budgeted.

“The budget was out of control,” Garcia said. “I brought in executives from the business world and told them it was irresponsible to allow this to happen. I challenged them to fix it, and they did.”

Garcia said the savings will allow him to begin filling 240 vacancies in the jail with civilian jailers. He said in the next 12 months they will transfer 100 deputies ­- 60 to patrol and 40 to investigations and court protection – now assigned to jail duties.


A countywide hiring freeze that began in October 2009 – now lifted – was among factors forcing the county to pay large amounts of mandatory overtime to legally staff the jails. Garcia said jail overtime payments, which reached a high of $40 million a year and totalled $20 million last year, can be cut to $15 million this fiscal year, which began in March 1.

“We’ve already brought overspending under control, now we’re working to put more boots on the ground to keep Harris County safe and to continue to bring crime under control,” Garcia said.

Obviously, the reduction in the inmate population, which recently enabled the county to cease outsourcing them to other jails, has had a big effect on the Sheriff’s ability to balance his budget. There are a number of factors responsible for that – DA Pat Lykos gets some credit, the overall decline in the crime rate gets some – but Sheriff Garcia has implemented some policies to abet that. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of progress being made, which Garcia gets to trumpet and Steve Radack gets to whine about. Gotta love that. A copy of the Sheriff’s press release is beneath the fold.


Mobile broadband in Texas

For your perusal.

Almost half of adult Texans, about 8.9 million, use mobile broadband devices — cellphones, laptops or tablets using a cellular network — to keep the Internet a constant companion, according to a survey by Connected Nation, a nonprofit that is working to map and improve broadband use in several states.

According to the survey, 11 percent of adult Texans don’t even bother with home-based broadband, relying only on mobile devices on cellular networks. And that percentage is higher among minorities and low-income people, both about 17 percent, according to the survey.

“Smartphones are revolutionizing the way Texans communicate and function in our modern world,” said Don Shirley, executive director of Connected Texas, a division of Connected Nation.


Connected Nation reports that Texas and Florida led the eight other states in its survey: 48 percent in those two states use mobile broadband compared with an average of 42 percent in all 10 states.

Shirley said Texas’ expanse is a factor in the embrace of mobile technology here.

“More people have access to cellular networks than cable,” he said.

You can see the full survey here. Texas is below the national average in broadband adoption, but as noted above it for mobile broadband. I would have liked to have seen data from some other high-population states like California, New York, and Illinois, but no such luck. Still, some interesting tidbits in there if you’re into that sort of thing.

The bees are back

And that’s a very good thing.

The bees were hungry.

Months of sweltering heat with little rain blanched the landscape. Flowers withered, if they bloomed at all. The drought, a death rattle to so many farmers and ranchers in Texas, also deprived bees food to forage from, and honey production dropped.

Lacking a well-balanced diet rich with protein and nutrients, Texas bees grew weak last year and were increasingly susceptible to sickness. Mark Gretchen, who has kept bees since the early 1980s, fed his 130 hives scattered around South Central Texas sugar water and a pollen supplement since July to boost the meager food supply.

About 30 percent of his colonies died anyway.

“It was probably the most difficult year we’ve ever had,” said Gretchen, the owner of Gretchen Bee Ranch in Seguin.

But recent rains bode well for a better honey haul this year. The bees are buzzing around flowers that have already popped, and although honey flows won’t start to peak until mid- to late April, Gretchen has already made up for last season’s losses.


The full economic impact of last year’s drought on the honey industry is still to be seen, with federal 2011 data set to be released later this month.

Over the past five years, the number of hives, pounds of honey produced and honey’s market value have varied. The price per pound has climbed about 76 percent, from as low as 87 cents in 2006 to $1.53 in 2010.

Bob Benson, a beekeeping hobbyist in Hays County, said that 2010 was particularly bountiful. Statewide, bees produced the most honey since 2007, when beekeepers collected 8.6 million pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The total value of Texas honey in 2010 topped $11 million, more than in any of the six years prior.

Wildflowers were scarce in 2011, but if beekeepers were able to feed their bees and keep them alive, they could come out better in 2012, the agency speculated.

Talk about “that which does not kill you makes you stronger”. I hope it’s a good year for the beekeepers, they sure could use it. I suspect that every daily newspaper in Texas could write a story like this every day for the next year. That’s how big the effect of last year’s drought was.

Interview with Gene Wu

Gene Wu

The second candidate running to succeed Rep. Scott Hochberg in HD137 that I interviewed is Gene Wu. Gene is currently a felony prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s office, and he also has legislative experience, having previously been the Chief Clerk for the House Higher Education Committee for the Texas Legislature. He is currently the President of the Houston 80-20 Political Action Committee and a Board member for OCA Greater Houston. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Examining the voter ID lie

I’ve complained quite a bit at how the media in Texas lazily reports the voter ID issue as a simple “he said/she said” dispute when a cursory examination of the facts shows how ridiculous the pro-voter ID case is, so I’ll give the Chron some credit for this story that asks whether the facts justify the voter ID law. But I’m still going to complain.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Despite scant evidence of actual cheating at the polls, allegations of voter fraud fueled the controversial law that makes a picture ID necessary to vote in Texas.

Fewer than five complaints involving voter impersonations were filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office from the 2008 and 2010 general elections, which drew more than 13 million voters.

The Department of Justice has deemed the law in violation of the Voting Rights Act, finding that it would disproportionately affect minorities, who are less likely to have a photo ID.

Proponents of the embattled legislation contend the actual number of voter impersonations is hard to prove without the photo requirement.

Texas has suffered from “multiple cases of voter fraud,” Gov. Rick Perry said in a recent Fox News interview, though the attorney general handled just 20 allegations of election law violations in the 2008 and 2010 elections. Most involved mail-in ballot or campaign finance violations, electioneering too close to a polling place or a voter blocked by an election worker.

To sell the voter ID law, however, supporters conjured up images of “busloads of illegal immigrants being transported up from Mexico to vote straight-ticket Democratic in an election near you,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “That was the fantasy, the scary narrative.”

No one disputes some level of voting abuse, said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “However, what every investigation has proven is that the kind of fraud voter ID laws would address – voter impersonation – doesn’t really exist,” Ellis said. “In fact, there are more UFO and Bigfoot sightings than documented cases of voter impersonation.”

The story makes a decent effort to air the anti-voter ID perspective, but it still comes off as a dispute between partisans. It would have been nice to quote a few people who are not actively engaged in the litigation. And while I appreciate the effort to point out that the state of Texas has failed miserably to demonstrate that there are any crimes that might be deterred by its voter ID law, it’s still being said too politely. The fact is that voter ID proponents have been telling a lot of lies about the vote fraud they claim exists but can never find, and that can’t be said often enough. I come back once again to Daniel Davies’ classic post The D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA – Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101, which is unfortunately now not publicly visible but which can still be seen here, in which he notes that “Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance.”

Maybe it’s too much to ask for a newspaper to call a lie a lie. If so, I guess I should be happy with what this story gives. But look, the Republican proponents of voter ID have said many ludicrously implausible and provably false things about why this legislation is supposedly needed, yet the issue is treated as a matter of partisan dispute rather than a factual one. It’s one thing to say “If you adopt policy X, then Y will happen”. It’s another to say “Because X has already happened, policy Y is needed”, especially when you cannot show any evidence that X has in fact happened. The Republicans may succeed at getting voter ID implemented, and they may succeed at their bigger goal of gutting or overturning the Voting Rights Act. But they’ll never succeed at finding an objective non-partisan justification for voter ID because there isn’t any for them to find. Ed Kilgore has more.

There’s still a drought out there

Despite the rain, the state of Texas is still mostly in drought conditions, and the threat will remain for the next several years.

Most of Central and East Texas beat long odds with heavy rains this winter, but experts warned state lawmakers Thursday that the drought is far from over.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said that the second year of a La Niña cycle — cooler temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that influence global weather patterns — produces a dry winter for Texas “4 times out of 5.”

But Nielsen-Gammon said it’s a coin toss whether the recent winning streak will continue. “The (short-term) outlook is not particularly dire or good,” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a summary of drought conditions that was updated Thursday, showed how quickly conditions can change. As recently as 
Oct. 4, 88 percent of the state was categorized as being in “exceptional” drought, the most severe level. On Thursday’s map, about 18 percent of the state remained in that category.


Nielsen-Gammon said that most of the winter rains fell on the most populated areas of the state.

“The people of Texas are going to tend to forget a drought is still going on in many parts of Texas,” he said.

In parts of the Panhandle and far West Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the drought has gotten worse this winter.

Despite the rains and the short-term forecast, Nielsen-Gammon said he still believes Texas remains in a long-term drought cycle.

“We are more likely to get droughts over the next decade than the one after that,” he said.

Lake levels remain down, and while conservation remains the best strategy for both the short and long term, such planning is often inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, urged lawmakers to maximize the state’s existing water supplies.

He testified that drought contingency plans are drafted locally and filed with the state without the state reviewing “how much water is actually being saved.”

He said that causes inconsistencies in how cities — including neighboring communities drawing from the same water supplies — handle restrictions on water use.

“It’s (a problem) everywhere,” Ritter said. “It’s definitely an issue we will be dealing with.”

For example, Kramer said, voluntary restrictions on water use were never used in Corpus Christi because the restrictions aren’t triggered until the city’s reservoir reaches 50 percent of capacity. Kramer suggested that is too low and that weather conditions — not just reservoir levels — should be part of the equation.

“You may well be into a drought before the reservoir reaches the trigger,” he said.

Likewise, Kramer said Houston was restricting its residents to twice-a-week watering of their lawns while selling water to neighboring cities that didn’t have those limits.

He said water wholesalers, whether public suppliers like Houston or private companies, don’t have a financial incentive to restrict water sales.

I don’t see how we can hope to effectively deal with this without some state level regulations. Especially now that some parts of the state are feeling flush, the incentives are all out of whack. It may go against the grain for some folks – Rep. Ritter was clearly not thrilled with the idea – but I don’t see how you can prevent shortsighted usage when there’s a buck to be made without them.

The Trib also covered this hearing, and added another dimension to it.

“This is the biggest threat we have to our economy right now,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking about water supplies. In 2011, he added, “the bell went off, and either we’re going to do something or we’re not.”

How big a threat to the economy is this? This big.

Texas’ worst drought in history just got worse, with new estimates putting the agricultural toll at $7.6 billion for 2011 – $2.4 billion above the original loss estimate, which already was a record.

The recently updated estimate from Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists was $3.5 billion more than the losses for the previous record drought in 2006.

“When you are one of the biggest agricultural-producing states in the nation, a monumental drought causes enormous losses,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

If we’re not adequately prepared for when this happens again, we’re going to be that much worse off.

San Antonio B-Cycle keeps on growing

It’s very cool to watch.

[B-cycle and city officials announced] plans to add three bicycle stations in April, at HemisView Village apartments, the San Antonio Housing Authority park on South Flores Street, and the 1221 Broadway apartments, said Cindi Snell, executive director of San Antonio B-cycle and co-owner of Bike World. That will bring the total number of stations to 23, with 230 bicycles in circulation.
The program started with 14 stations.

By the year’s end, B-cycle may add five to seven more bicycle stations near the Spanish colonial missions south of downtown, thanks to a federal parks grant. B-cycle is seeking $50,000 to $60,000 in donations to outfit the mission stations with bicycles because the grant covers only the stations, Snell said.

To date, 1,069 people have signed up for annual B-cycle memberships, Snell said, slightly shy of the goal of 1,200 in the first year.

More than 6,700 people have bought the $10, 24-hour passes, with 876 sold this month alone — the highest in a single month since the program began.

San Antonio now has the second busiest B-cycle program in the country, behind Denver, she said.

“I feel like that there’s a really an emerging bike culture in San Antonio, like we’ve never seen this before,” Snell said.

The SA Business Journal adds on:

The primary goal for 2012, say San Antonio officials, is to expand the bike share program beyond the existing 20 stations throughout downtown San Antonio and to connect riders with other key points of interest in surrounding areas.

“B–Cycle members have embraced this program and we can’t wait to see how much more we can do in the upcoming year,” Snell says.

Mayor Julian Castro says San Antonio was the first city in Texas to implement a modern bike-share program.

“San Antonio is leading the way in showing how quickly cycling can be accepted as a legitimate, everyday transportation option,” he says.

They’re way ahead in Texas, that’s for sure. The Houston B-Cycle page is still “coming soon”, while Austin still isn’t listed as a participating city. You have to figure that if they can be successful in San Antonio they can be successful elsewhere. Got to get the programs up and running first, however.

On a tangential note, the Press’ Eating Our Words blog has some bike-related news of interest:

3. We started an organization, called OKRA – An Organization Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs – which is actively pursuing initiatives that will lead to reduced on-street parking in our city. I was going to release a press release on this next week, but here you go anyway. We’re going to start providing complimentary bike racks to small restaurants and bars inside the loop, at our cost, to encourage alternative transportation in Houston. This is for OTHER restaurants and bars, not our own, which already have bike parking.

That’s from an email by Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Hay Merchant, in response to a story about complaints about valet parking in the neighborhood. Heugel has been one of the more vocal people giving feedback of the proposed revisions to the Off Street Parking ordinance. He’s clearly putting some money where his mouth is, which I respect. Especially now that the weather’s nice, I like to bike where possible to things in the neighborhood instead of drive precisely because it makes parking a non-issue. Makes the amenities nearby that much more amenable. For a lot of places, when you take the time and effort to park out of the equation, it’s probably just as quick to get there via pedal power.

Interview with Joseph Carlos Madden

Joseph Carlos Madden

There’s one open Democratic seat in Harris County for the State House: HD137, in which State Rep. Scott Hochberg decided not to run for re-election. There are four Democrats vying to succeed Rep. Hochberg, and I will be presenting their interviews this week. First up is Joseph Carlos Madden, who currently serves as the Chief of Staff for Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) and the Executive Director of the Texas Legislative Study Group (LSG), a public policy caucus of the Texas House of Representatives. I’ve definitely taken advantage of the LSG’s research in past sessions. My conversation with Madden is below, and you can read a brief interview he did with NewsTaco here:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Fifth Circuit rules against Farmers Branch

I almost missed this.

When will they learn?

A federal appeals court has upheld the ruling that struck down a Farmers Branch renters ordinance aimed at banning illegal immigrants from rental housing in the city.

The decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday upholds the federal government’s right to control immigration laws through the Constitution’s supremacy clause.

“This is a national problem, needing a national solution. And it impacts the nation’s relations with Mexico and other nations,” the decision said.

The appeals court ruled that the ordinance was more than a housing regulation and was “designed to burden aliens, both documented and undocumented, in Farmers Branch. As such, the ordinance serves no legitimate city interest…”

Farmers Branch Mayor Bill Glancy said he hadn’t read the decision, or spoken to the outside legal counsel. But, he said, “I have supported our stance on illegal immigration because I feel something must be done.”

Glancy said he couldn’t say yet whether the city would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One reason why that might not be such a hot idea is in the Huffington Post story:

William Brewer, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he sensed a “strong undercurrent” throughout the appellate court’s decision that Farmers Branch was engaged in discrimination. The ruling is particularly meaningful because the 5th Circuit has a reputation for conservatism, he said.

Brewer noted that the ruling affirms Boyle’s decision that Farmers Branch must pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, which before the appeal were nearly $2 million. He called that portion of the decision “a strong deterrent” against other cities seeking to pass similar laws.

“Clearly, both the trial court and the appellate court recognize that this ordinance was discriminatory,” Brewer said.

That’s on top of the $4 million they’ve spent so far; who knows how many more millions they’d have to waste pursuing a Supreme Court appeal. They haven’t shown any evidence of sanity on this, however. Some lessons just have to be learned the hard way, I suppose.

The plaintiffs don’t think it’s over yet, either.

Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who argued the case before the 5th Circuit in October, didn’t downplay the significance of the ruling, which she said came from one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country.

“This is a stern message from the federal court that ordinances that target people for expulsion based on their race or ethnicity are unconstitutional, even if you dress them up as local immigration laws,” she said.

But while the ruling is a victory for immigrants in the realm of housing, she said the effects on other aspects of immigration law cannot be easily predicted. That’s because immigration laws are often packaged into big omnibus bills, she said — including some pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“A lot of these laws are a smorgasbord,” she said. “Some have to do with police, some have to do with employment, day laborers, solicitation of employment, some with housing.”

And coming up next month is the SCOTUS hearing on Arizona’s notorious SB1070, which was the basis for the “sanctuary cities” bill that Rick Perry declared an emergency but which thankfully did not pass. While most of that bill has been blocked by the lower courts, some portions of it were upheld. Regardless of what happens, there’s likely to be a lot more attempts by cities and states to regulate immigration in some fashion, and a lot more litigation to follow it. Given how lawsuit-happy some Attorneys General have been of late, even if Congress manages to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, I doubt that will stop any of this activity any time soon.

The Congressional Geezer Caucus

The DMN notices that a sizable portion of Texas’ Congressional delegation is, um, old.

Of the most populous states, Texas has the oldest congressional delegation, averaging nearly 63 years old, while the average for Congress as a whole is about 58.

North Texas accounts for a big slice of that, paced by Hall, a Republican who is the House’s oldest member; Rep. Sam Johnson, 81, R-Plano ; Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, 76, D-Dallas; Rep. Kay Granger, 69, R-Fort Worth; and GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, 68, of Dallas.

It’s a record of longevity, solidified by one-sided districts, smart hometown politics and relatively satisfied voters who don’t often kick out incumbents.

That the state sends an older group to Congress is especially striking because Texas has the nation’s second-youngest population, with a median age of 33.6.


Moving forward, it doesn’t seem likely that the Texas delegation will get much younger any time soon.

Most of the older representatives are in safe seats. And several of the more prominent members — including Sen. John Cornyn, and Dallas Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Pete Sessions — are only in their mid-50s to early 60s — prime years by congressional standards.

Still, the 2012 races may knock Texas off the top of the gray-hair rankings, because it is gaining four new House seats, giving the state 36.

And three of its oldest members — Paul, Hutchison and Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, 66, of San Antonio — are not seeking re-election, although the front-runner for Hutchison’s seat, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, would be 67 if he wins.

Being in a safe seat makes partisan turnover unlikely, but it does nothing to protect an incumbent from a primary challenge. Take a look at the list of Teaxs’ oldest Congressional members, included at the end of the story:

AT A GLANCE: Oldest Texans in Congress

Rep. Ralph Hall, 88, R-Rockwall
Rep. Sam Johnson, 81, R-Plano
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, 76, D-Dallas
Rep. Ron Paul, 76, R-Lake Jackson
Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, 71, D-Mercedes
Rep. John Carter, 70, R-Round Rock
Rep. Kay Granger, 69, R-Fort Worth
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, 68, R-Dallas
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, 67, D-El Paso
Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, 66, D-San Antonio

As noted, Paul, KBH, and Gonzalez are retiring. As with KBH and Dewhurst, the leading contender for Paul’s seat, Nick Lampson, is someone who won’t bring the average age down that much. But with Joaquin Castro set to step in for Gonzalez, there’s at least some movement in the youth direction.

What the story did not note was that every single non-retiring incumbent on that list has at least one primary challenger. Two of them, Reps. Reyes and EB Johnson, have challengers who have a big money PAC supporting them; the challengers in those cases, Beto O’Rourke and Taj Clayton, are both 40 and under. You can see who the Democratic challengers are here, and who the Republicans are here. I don’t know anything about these folks, including how old they are, and a quick check on the FEC campaign finance reports page suggests that none of the others have any juice, but you never know. There’s more potential for change now than you might think, and projecting forward I’d say it’s a safe bet that the delegation will look a lot different after the 2021 reapportionment and the 2022 election that follows it.

Fort Bend ISD goes iPad

I’m guessing stories like this are going to be increasingly common.

[Three Fort Bend ISD campuses], all Title I schools that serve predominantly low-income students, are the launching pad for iAchieve, a school district initiative to create a tablet-based “e-curriculum.”

Instead of simply distributing iPads to students and using educational apps already on the market, Fort Bend officials are building a platform that links on-demand lesson plans, curriculum guidelines, online resources, real-time assessments, interactive simulations, and suggested teaching strategies.

There are also plans to post videos of the district’s master teachers at work in the classroom, which could help younger teachers improve their craft, said Robert Calvert, Fort Bend ISD’s chief information officer.

“All a teacher will have to do is press a button to pull up resources,” Calvert explained. “When that bell rings, the teacher can scroll through her outline of daily lessons. If the students are learning really well, she can expand on activities. If they need more time, she can slow down.”

The primary goal is to use the technology to help raise lagging science scores, increase student engagement and close the equity gap between schools, according to Olwen Herron, Fort Bend’s chief academic officer.

“It’s the perfect partnership of instruction and technology,” said Herron. “iAchieve is not about technology per se. It’s about using technology to impact achievement.”

Although the iAchieve pilot phase is limited to three schools, the program will eventually expand to other schools in the district as well as other subjects, Herron said. It will also be adapted for use on other tablet-type devices.

It’s a differet approach than what McAllen ISD is doing, but it’s the same basic concept, trying to use technology to get better results. And as with McAllen, I’ll be very interested to see how it goes. Also of interest is that FBISD is paying for the devices partly with unused bond funds. Given that HISD is talking about a bond election possibly for this year, that may be something for them to think about, perhaps as a pot-sweetener.

Anyway, as I said I figure we’ll be seeing a lot more of these stories in the coming months. In the meantime, for a more technical view of things go read Frasier Speirs, whom Michael pointed out in the comments to the last post.

Weekend link dump for March 25

I’d invest in the un-wiki if someone would be so kind as to invent it.

What could go wrong with cloning a woolly mammoth? They’re not carnivores!

Nothing like this happened to me while I was coaching Little League.

I really miss “Calvin and Hobbes”, too.

That’s some kind of pro-life philosophy you’ve got there.

Yes, it’s time to review FAA guidelines on electronic gizmos.

Cutting funds for lead poisoning prevention is an exceedingly stupid and short-sighted thing to do.

The killing of Trayvon Martin is horrible and heartbreaking. I’m glad to see there is a criminal investigation going on, but there needs to be justice for this innocent victim.

With friends like these, who feels the need to distance himself?

“This used to be called “political correctness” and, believe it or not, it was once associated with liberals.”

Having Andy Fastow give a lecture on ethics is like having a bunch of celibate old men testify about the need for contraception. What the hell did you think was going to happen?

Thirteen pages about revenue neutral tax reform, without naming a single specific item to reform.

New frontiers in conservative attack “journalism”.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown was actually prepared to go down with the ship.

The whole kerfuffle about naughty words on TV is boring and mostly tiresome. Context matters, you know.

This was certainly an interesting week for the Etch A Sketch spokesperson.

The right to birth control is only 40 years old. And if some people have their way, it won’t get any older.

Speaking of birth control and people who should have taken greater advantage of it, John Edwards was in the news again.

Hey, Geraldo, my five-year-old daughter loves wearing hoodies. Do I need to worry about some asshole shooting her?

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”


When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.

Catholic schools doing the right thing

I’ve had a lot of disagreements with the Catholic Church on policy matters lately, but this is something I applaud.

The organization that represents Texas’ Catholic high schools on Thursday called for a comprehensive review of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, calling TAPPS’ treatment of Jewish and Muslim schools unacceptable.

“Failure to sufficiently improve the structure and management of TAPPS will require a re-examination of our 43 Catholic schools’ continued affiliation with TAPPS,” wrote Margaret McGettrick, education director of the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department.

Those schools represent 20 percent of TAPPS’ membership.

She urged that a review committee represent the association’s “denominational, institutional and geographic diversity, to ensure that the issues and concerns of all members are accounted for and addressed.”

The letter follows TAPPS’ refusal – until it was sued – to reschedule its state basketball playoffs to accommodate a Class 2A boys team from Beren Academy in Houston. It also cites TAPPS’ rejection of a Houston Muslim school, the Iman Academy, for membership.

The story of the Imam Academy’s effort to join TAPPS is here, and it does not make the organization look good.

Iman Academy principal Cindy Steffens said the school, which has about 500 students, wanted the chance to compete in athletics and academics against other private schools. It applied for membership in 2010 and after an interview process was rejected.


Steffens said she almost chose not to move forward with the application after receiving a questionnaire that contained what she called “loaded and provocative” questions from the association.

The Houston Chronicle obtained the email sent to the school, and the questions included, “Historically, there is nothing in the Koran that fully embraces Christianity or Judaism in the way a Christian and/or Jew understands religion. Why, then, are you interested in joining an association whose basic beliefs your religion condemns?

“It is our understanding that the Koran tells you not to mix with (and even eliminate) the infidels. Christians and Jews fall into that category. Why do you wish to join an organization whose membership is in disagreement with your beliefs?”

The questions also asked about celebrating Christmas, whether Muslims believe the Bible is corrupt and about the “spread of Islam in America.”

In 2004, at least two other Islamic schools withdrew themselves from consideration after receiving the same questionnaire.

Steffens said the apparent prejudice against Muslims was disheartening throughout the interview process.

“It’s about our children and our generation,” she said. “You know what’s really scary – if this is what we are teaching in our private schools. This is a board representing private schools in Texas. Is this how the majority of private schools think?”

Thankfully, it’s not what the Catholic schools, who probably know a little bit about being on the receiving end of such intolerance, think. You can see the letter they sent to TAPPS Executive Director Edd Burleson at Hair Balls. Burleson says TAPPS is surveying its members to better understand what direction they want to go, and that is a good first step. I hope they keep going that way. State Sen. Rodney Ellis sent a letter of his own to Burleson after the Imam Academy story ran; I’ve got it beneath the fold. As that earlier story notes, any action TAPPS takes may not be the end of this:

Jeremy Warren, spokesman for state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the senator is discussing potential legislation that would help prevent situations like what happened with the Jewish and Islamic schools.

“It’s an interesting situation – a private entity dealing with a private institution but they use public facilities,” Warren said.

And as long as they do use public facilities, the Lege should ensure that they are following state non-discrimination laws. I hope TAPPS recognizes the need for that before any such laws get passed.


Always in motion the future is

That won’t stop some people from trying to predict it. the future!

A Houston think tank has seen the city’s future. Make that two futures.

One version shows the Houston metropolitan area in 2040 as beginning to grow after decades of economic stagnation, focused on improving the environment, education and quality of life, paid for through higher taxes.

The second hypothetical Houston is a hard-charging economic power, doubling in size over the previous 30 years but also split by stark disparities between rich and poor.

The two scenarios from the Center for Houston’s Future are intended to inform the debate over decisions the region faces in coming decades.

“We’re not saying one is good or bad,” said James Calaway, the center’s chairman. “We’re giving leadership things to think about.”


In the first scenario, “Learning to Live,” the eight-county region has had two decades of slow growth and political instability, buffeted by businesses moving away and declining educational levels.

By 2040, the population had reached 7 million – up just 1 million from current estimates – and residents had agreed to higher taxes and other efforts to improve education. The result was a better quality of life, with cleaner air, more green spaces and better public transportation.

The second scenario, “Playing to Win,” describes a region of 12 million people, boosted by a pro-business climate and an economy based on energy, health care, the port and water reclamation and desalination efforts along the coast.

Companies recruit from around the world while the home-grown workforce suffers from a lack of education and training. The wealthy live in gated enclaves, the poor in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

“For some the region represents boundless opportunity and a quality of life beyond what they could find elsewhere,” this scenario concludes. “For others … access to opportunity is limited and the future is unclear.”

Don’t know that I’d consider either of those scenarios to be particularly appealing, but maybe I’m just not getting it. You can see it all here, and come up with your own scenarios if you’re into that sort of thing.

When will Ashby rise?

Real Soon Now, developers promise.

Going up whether you like it or not

After more than four years in the works, the so-called Ashby high-rise is expected to break ground by year-end.

A lawsuit keeping the project from being built was settled last week. The proposed building pitted the developer against the city of Houston and a well-to-do neighborhood – some of whose residents went to great lengths to stop the Ashby project.

“A few may continue to complain, but this development will not be stopped because good projects always get built,” developer Matthew Morgan said in a written statement. “The settlement of this lawsuit should send a clear signal to them that any similar attempts to delay the project will not succeed.”


If the project breaks ground before the fourth quarter, units could be available by the end of 2013 at the earliest.

Anyone want to place a bet on that happening as claimed? I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the saber-rattling of the neighborhood, but I do think the city is going to check very closely to ensure all I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed on every permit application, and won’t give them any slack on blocking the streets. That ought to be good for a slipped deadline or two. I also have a hard time believing this project will be completed before Regent Square or whatever was supposed to be built on the site of The Stables, but maybe that’s just me. So I’m curious, do you think Buckhead can back up that claim, or are they just blowing hot air?

Saturday video break: Always On My Mind

Song #76 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Always On My Mind”, originally by Brenda Lee and covered by the Pet Shop Boys. Here’s the original:

I didn’t realize this was the original. I like this version, but it’s not the one I think of when I think of this song. I’ll get to that in a minute. Here’s the Pet Shop Boys:

That one I’d heard before, and if you hadn’t ever heard it you’d know as soon as the vocals kicked in who it was. The Pet Shop Boys, along with Depeche Mode and Madonna and a whole hot of other 80s pop acts, are a group I couldn’t stand back in the day but like now. I just didn’t care for the sound and the style back then. Nostalgia and advancing age work wonders, don’t they?

Now I don’t know about you, but to me this song will always be sung by Willie Nelson:

He didn’t write that song, and he recorded his version ten years after Lee released hers, but is there any doubt that Willie owns this one? There are some artists and some songs where you just know they lived every word they’re singing. That’s what we have here. God bless you, Willie.

HISD announces public meetings to address proposed school start time changes

From the HISD News Blog:

HISD has scheduled 10 public meetings to gather community input on a plan to add 19 minutes to the average student’s school day by coordinating the bell schedule among the district’s 279 schools.

If approved, the extra 19 minutes of daily instructional time would be equal to an extra seven full days of school by the end of the school year. In addition, the plan would save HISD $1.2 million as the district seeks to address a $34 million deficit caused by the Texas Legislature’s decision last year to cut public funding.

Under this plan, every HISD school would have an instructional day that is 7 ½ hours long.  Currently, HISD schools have about 20 different start and end times.  Under the option presented, schools would operate on the following bell schedule:

  • Approximately half of all elementary schools would operate from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Approximately half of all elementary schools would operate from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • All middle schools would operate from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.
  • All high schools would operate from 8:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

The cost savings in this plan would come from a much more efficient school bus operation that would allow many buses to drive more routes than is currently possible.  However before a final decision is made, HISD will be gathering input at a series of community meetings held in locations throughout the district. Principals are also being asked to meet with their communities to gather additional input.

The public meetings are scheduled for the following dates and locations:

  • April 3 (Tuesday) – 6-7 p.m.
    • Austin HS (1700 Dumble)
    • Bellaire HS (5100 Maple Street)
    • Chavez HS (8501 Howard)
  • April 4 (Wednesday) – 6-7 p.m.
    • Lamar  HS (3325 Westheimer)
    • Sharpstown HS (7504 Bissonnet)
    • Waltrip HS – (1900 West 34th )
  • April 9 (Monday) – Noon-1 p.m.
    • Hattie Mae Educational Support Center (4400 W. 18th Street)
  • April 10 (Tuesday) – 6-7 p.m.
    • Wheatley HS (4801 Providence)
    • Worthing HS (9215 Scott)
    • Yates HS (3703 Sampson)

HISD has created an online survey for parents, students, and community members to provide feedback for the proposal. The survey also includes an open comment section. It can be found on the website

HISD administration plans to analyze all of this feedback before making a formal proposal for the Board of Education’s consideration by May 17.  A detailed description of the plan can be found on the district’s website

As a reminder, you can read the full press release about the proposed bell schedule. The survey will be live until Friday, April 13 at midnight. Here are the Proposed Instructional Times (.pdf)

Show up and give your input or don’t complain about it later when they do something you don’t like.

Abbott is the new KBH

Will he take on the boss?

I don’t know how you can write an entire story about Greg Abbott’s political ambitions without stopping to ask the basic question about whether he’ll need to take Rick Perry out in a primary to get what he wants, but Nolan Hicks managed it. Look, you may not believe Rick Perry when he says he’s going to run for Governor again in 2014. Some people think he’s positioning himself for another Presidential run in 2016, some people think he’s just bluffing so the Lege won’t treat him as a lame duck next year, some people think he means it. Four years ago, everyone thought Kay Bailey Hutchison was going to have a clear path to the Governor’s mansion. We know how that turned out. The question I’m asking is what happens if Perry isn’t bluffing? Does Abbott take him on in a bloody, multi-million dollar primary, or does he continue to be the loyal consigliere and stay put as AG, filing lawsuits against the federal government every time the President sneezes? Unlike KBH, Abbott is very much like Perry in how he conducts his business, and as the story notes he has been working hard to appeal to the same fanatical dead-enders in the GOP primary base that Perry counts on. It wasn’t that hard to see how the 2010 primary would play out, but we don’t have a blueprint for 2014 if Abbott and Perry go head to head. Writing a story about how Greg Abbott hates the federal government as much as Rick Perry does – as long as there’s a Democratic President, of course – is easy. Writing a story about what happens if the two of them decide they want the same thing, that’s what I want to see.

On a side note, I thought this quote was precious:

One of the driving forces in Austin promoting this renewed emphasis on states’ rights is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based think tank that has deep ties to Perry and prominent Republican donors.

“The tyranny of the majority is great so long as (it is) embracing policies that you like,” said Mario Loyola of the foundation. “But when it goes against you, and you realize that you have nothing to protect you from the tyranny of the majority because the federal courts don’t enforce the Constitution anymore against the [state] government, then when that goes against you, you’ll realize why some of us are so unhappy about what [Perry] is doing now.”

I edited the quote slightly to make a point. I’m never sure if these guys simply forget the reason why there was a federal Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, or if they just hope the rest of us are too stupid to remember why that legislation was needed.

Tailgating downtown

Go for it!

The Dynamo have been playing at the University of Houston’s Robertson Stadium and have always allowed tailgating prior to games.

However, fans won’t have the same luxury at the soccer team’s new stadium because of a city ordinance against drinking in parking lots downtown.

The city ordinance prohibits an open container or public consumption of alcohol within the central business district, where the new Dynamo stadium is located.

Mayor Annise Parker and members of the City Council are working to provide soccer fans the same privileges that the Texans’ fans enjoy.

“Football has long had a tailgating culture, and soccer fans have a similar fan base that wants to engage in tailgating parties,” Parker noted. “We want to make it a great fan experience.”

The council will consider a proposal Wednesday that would create room in the ordinance for property owned or operated by a sports team to allow open containers and alcohol on the property.

The ordinance was approved unanimously on Wednesday – yes, even you-know-who let it by without a tag. This would also allow fans of the Rockets and Astros to get their tailgate on if they so chose; so far the Astros are thinking about it while the Rockets have not commented. Who knows, maybe this will start a new tradition. Hair Balls and the Chron soccer blog have more.