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August, 2012:

TREE lawsuit may proceed with the other school finance suits

We will have one big school finance lawsuit, not multiple separate suits.

State District Judge John Dietz ruled on Tuesday that the claims from Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a group of charter school supporters and parents, belong in the lawsuit. The decision ensures that case will proceed to trial on Oct. 22.

The group, referred to as TREE, argues that the current cap on new charter schools stifles competition and maintains that large swaths of the education code foster waste and inefficiency in traditional public schools.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing one of the six groups of plaintiffs, petitioned to remove TREE, asserting that its concerns are political issues that need to be addressed by the Legislature, not constitutional issues that must be decided by the courts.

MALDEF lawyer David Hinojosa said on Tuesday that TREE had “cherry-picked” elements of the education code with which its leaders disagree politically, and it was asking the court to “redesign the system of education to suit their specific needs.” Those elements include minimum salary requirements and certain job protections for teachers.

Dietz, however, said TREE was not asking the court to impose its own judgment over that of the Legislature. Rather, TREE wants him to review components of the education system that it believes to be unconstitutional.

MALDEF was the only plaintiff to contest TREE’s presence in the lawsuit. Texas Politics notes that TREE still has some homework to do.

In his ruling, the judge noted that Enoch and his party “have not asked the court to dictate a particular course of action. (They) asked the court to review different aspects of the public school system to determine if they meet the constitution.”

Hinojosa argued that [TREE lawyer Craig] Enoch’s side, which includes parents and the Texas Association of Business, don’t have a legal standing in the case.

Dietz disagreed.

“The court can certainly concede that Texas parents and business owners are and will be injured by a public school system that fails to achieve a general diffusion of knowledge,” the judge said.

He did instruct Enoch to clean up his pleading to specifically explain how his clients could be injured in an unconstitutional school funding system.

Failure to fix that issue will allow the judge to dismiss them from the case, Hinojosa said later.

TREE has its own agenda and should not be trusted. The trial begins October 22. Mark your calendars.

One more thing, from the Statesman story:

Research released on Tuesday from Pennsylvania State University education professor Ed Fuller showed that fifth- and sixth-graders entering high-performing charter schools already had higher reading and math scores than their peers in traditional public schools. Fuller said that difference might explain why some charter schools register better achievement scores when compared with traditional public schools.

In addition, Fuller noted that charter schools also enrolled far fewer students with special needs, such as those learning English or who have disabilities.

“This simply makes it easier for a school to claim success as well as for a school to operate efficiently and effectively since students are more homogeneous and have fewer needs,” wrote Fuller, a former University of Texas researcher.

The study was commissioned by the Texas Business and Education Coalition in advance of a state Senate committee hearing Friday on the issue of charter schools and school choice.

That ought to add some fuel to the debate fires. As noted yesterday, the Harmony schools spend a lot less money than the traditional public schools do on such students. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of tomorrow’s hearing.

After school programs

I see a lot of merit in this.

CM C.O. "Brad" Bradford

After-school programs prevent crime, Councilman C.O. Bradford said, so some of them should be paid for by the police.

“This sounds strange to hear a gun-packing, badge-toting, 24-year cop talking about this,” said Bradford, Houston’s former police chief, but he proposes hiring 20 fewer police officers in the coming year and using the savings to put nearly 2,000 more children into homework clubs, sports, scholarship coaching and museum tours.

The Houston Police Department plans to conduct three 70-member cadet academies in the coming year to replace those who retire or resign from the 5,300-member force. Bradford said having 10 fewer cadets in two of the classes could save the city $1.6 million, enough to put an entire large middle school’s worth of children into activities each weekday afternoon.

“Nobody’s going to miss an additional 10 officers spread over 640-plus square miles,” he said Tuesday.

The area’s after-school advocates have turned to Bradford as the front man for their sociological strategy over an exclusively lock-’em-up approach to public safety.

The Harris County Department of Education, the Houston Endowment and others interested in expanding the offerings appointed Bradford chairman of their after-school enrichment consortium.

The group, which goes by the acronym ENRICH, is rounding up research that documents correlations between after-school programs and lower crime rates. It also is tallying available funding for county programs, which it reports is $63 million a year in mostly federal money. It is on Bradford’s own initiative that he is seeking police funding to serve more kids.

The story notes that HPD Chief Charles McClelland is not on board with this, Mayor Parker has expressed some support but is not backing it, and several Council members including CM Ellen Cohen ran on platforms that included support for increasing the size of the police academy classes. Certainly, in all the interviews I did in 2011, I can’t recall anyone expressing a contrary opinion about hiring more cops. In other words, CM Bradford has a tough row to hoe. But I think he’s onto something, and I hope people listen to him. As with many things, prevention is less costly and more effective than mitigation. Crime rates have been declining across the board for years, which should make us question what the “right” size of HPD should be. I’d like to know if there’s some research to back up this proposition. We should learn more about this, and we should be willing to consider it as another tool in the crimefighting box.

Fifth Circuit strikes again

Dammit.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that Texas did not act unconstitutionally when it moved to expel Planned Parenthood from a health and contraceptive care program for low-income women.

The ruling overturned a preliminary injunction, issued in April by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin, that banned Texas from enforcing rules designed to exclude Planned Parenthood from the Women’s Health Program. Yeakel found that the regulations violated the organization’s rights of free speech and association.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, sided with Texas late Tuesday — ruling that the state had the authority to prohibit Women’s Health Program money from going to health care providers that promote abortion or affiliate with organizations that perform or promote abortions.

Officials said Texas will act promptly to drop Planned Parenthood from the program.

“We appreciate the court’s ruling and will move to enforce state law banning abortion providers and affiliates from the Women’s Health Program as quickly as possible,” said Stephanie Goodman with the state Health and Human Services Commission.

Here’s a copy of the ruling, via TM Daily Post and The Trib. First there was injunction, then the injunction was stayed, then the stay was lifted, and now it’s back. The Fifth Circuit has been quite hostile to women’s health advocates this year.

But this isn’t about women’s health, is it? I mean, the state of Texas pinky-swears that it will have a super-duper Planned Parenthood-free replacement for the Women’s Health Program up and running any day now, assuming there are any clinics left to handle it. Rick Perry and Greg Abbott say this is about abortion, so let’s take their word for it. What do Rick Perry and Greg Abbott and all the rest of them think about abortion?

Mere hours after U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and an ardent opponent of abortion in almost all cases, made comments on Sunday suggesting that women’s bodies would naturally reject pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape,” Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan released a statement distancing themselves from him. They said their administration “would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.”

Elected officials from Texas widely condemned Akin’s comments: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn released a statement that seemed to suggest Akin should drop his Senate bid; Gov. Rick Perry’s office called Akin’s words “off-base, insensitive and a distraction from the important issue of protecting life.” Akin, for his part, quickly backtracked, saying he “misspoke” in his “off-the-cuff remarks,” and adding that he understands “that rape can result in pregnancy.”

Yet Akin’s broader opposition to abortion in cases of rape is shared by many top Texas leaders. Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and GOP Senate hopeful Ted Cruz only support abortion when the mother’s life is in jeopardy. The position isn’t uncommon among Republicans; CNN reported on Monday night that a rape exemption is likely not part of the GOP abortion platform set to be adopted at next week’s Republican Convention in Tampa.

Perry’s stance is a relatively new one for him; he revised his position to oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest late last year on the presidential campaign trail, saying the issue had troubled him for a long time.

The difference between Todd Akin and other such troglodytes and the likes of Perry, Dewhurst, and other “pro-life heroes” is simply this: Akin et al are too insulated from reality to believe that rape of any kind can and does lead to pregnancy, and thus he is free to oppose a rape and incest exception for abortion since it won’t make any practical difference as far as he’s concerned. Perry, Dewhurst, Abbott, Cornyn, Ted Cruz, and all of the other tut-tutters who are shocked, shocked that Todd Akin would say such an impolitic thing, oppose rape and incest exceptions because they are perfectly happy to force the victims of rape and incest to carry their assailants’ pregnancies to term. They’re too slick to say it out loud, of course, but give them an opening and you can be sure they’ll take it. Paul Ryan agrees with Todd Akin. The GOP platform agrees with Todd Akin. What kind of Supreme Court justices – and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals justices, for that matter – do you think Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would appoint? If you want more like this, vote for them and find out.

Anyway. For now, Planned Parenthood remains in the WHP, at least until the state figures out what it’s going to do with it. Given how little they care about women’s health, that could still take awhile. A statement from Rep. Carol Alvarado is here, a statement from Melaney Linton, the CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, is here, and a statement from Ann Johnson is beneath the fold.

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Dems boot Oliver

Here we go.

The Harris County Democratic Party worked Wednesday to take district attorney nominee Lloyd Oliver’s name off the ballot, deciding to go forward without a candidate in November’s general election.

Whether they can actually take the outspoken and controversial lawyer out of the race remains an open question because state law does not appear to allow the party’s actions.

“There are ways to remove a candidate, but not the way they’re doing it,” Oliver said. “And my ultimate remedy is an injunction in the federal court, and I think the federal courts will agree with me.”

Oliver, a perennial candidate who has run as both a Republican and a Democratic, usually in judicial elections, said he did not know why the party wants to take him off the ballot.

[…]

Chad Dunn, the party’s attorney, said the party’s actions are lawful.

“All of the federal court decisions addressing this issue have found that political parties have an intrinsic right, as a private political association protected by the First Amendment, to choose and select their nominees,” Dunn said. “I think the law is very clear that political parties can’t be forced by the state, either by statute or some state officer’s requirement, to have a nominee in a race they don’t want to have a nominee in.”

I still don’t see it, but I remain a non-lawyer, so what do I know. Oliver is a barnacle on the political process and I have zero sympathy for him, but that doesn’t make this legal or right. I presume a judge will eventually decide the former; the latter is for you to determine. I hope Dunn et al are correct about the law, because this will be a debacle otherwise. I’ll say again, I hope the lesson learned is that the party needs to be involved in the primary when a clearly unsuitable candidate files.

Mark Bennett objects to this move on principle. I’ll leave the principle to others to discuss, but I will offer a pragmatic defense: If this sticks, it at least ensures that an unqualified boob like Lloyd Oliver cannot be elected DA. How likely would that be? If Harris County is roughly 50-50 as it was in 2008, then I’d have bet money on Mike Anderson winning. If Harris in 2012 is to 2008 as 2008 was to 2004, then Oliver could easily win on partisan momentum. If it’s somewhere in between, who knows? Point is, as long as Lloyd Oliver is on the ballot there’s a non-zero chance he could win. Your opinion of that risk will likely color your opinion of the HCDP’s action. Murray Newman has more.

Some things are not easily replicated

I have three things to say about this.

Harmony Public Schools appears to have cracked the code.

The charter school system, with 38 campuses across Texas and more than 23,000 students, regularly produces students who excel at math, science and engineering. And they do it on a shoestring.

Harmony’s five schools in Austin spent $7,923 per student in 2010-11 on operating expenses, almost $1,600 less than the Austin school district and about $800 less than the statewide average.

Harmony’s schools have also consistently beat the rest of the state on standardized test scores even while educating about the same proportion of students considered at risk of dropping out.

Few other charter schools operate as efficiently and effectively as Harmony. But the ability of some charter schools to seemingly do more with less could become a key issue in the mammoth school finance lawsuit that is set for trial in October.

[…]

A 2011 study done for the Texas Education Agency found that charter schools spent 15 percent less on operations than did comparable schools in traditional districts. Most of that difference came from hiring less experienced teachers and paying them less.

Lindsay Gustafson of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association said paying teachers less and stripping them of job protections would drive good teachers out of the classroom. Teacher turnover was twice as high in charter schools as in traditional public schools, according to the 2011 TEA study.

“We’re interested in quality, not just what’s cheap,” Gustafson said.

[…]

Soner Tarim, Harmony’s chief executive officer, said his schools are methodical about getting the most out of every employee, giving each person multiple jobs to ensure a leaner administrative operation.

One key to Harmony’s low-budget education is hiring teachers — some of whom come from Turkey — with little experience and paying them far less. The pay difference was about $11,000 less than the state average of $48,600 in 2010, though Tarim said teachers have since received a pay raise. Although charter school teachers are not required to be certified by the state, more than 70 percent of Harmony’s teachers are certified.

Harmony’s hiring practices and its ties to Turkey have generated controversy, including an investigation by a committee in the Texas House. House General Investigating Committee Chairman Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, said the investigation has been concluded and its findings turned over to other agencies looking into charter schools.

Tarim said Harmony’s teachers are willing to work for less because of the innovative, safe and supportive environment that produces results. Other savings come from the schools’ minimal spending on athletics, transportation, guidance counseling and social work.

Harmony also must dedicate relatively little to serving students with disabilities and those learning English. Only 6 percent of its program budget went to educating students with disabilities last year compared to 21 percent for the Austin school district. Austin also committed about 17 percent of its dollars to bilingual students while Harmony spent just 1.6 percent.

1. The thought of being able to pay for his tax cuts by slashing teacher salaries is just ambrosia for Dan Patrick, isn’t it? If you listen carefully, you can actually hear him salivate.

2. On a more serious note, while the story doesn’t get into how or why Harmony is successful getting students to perform well, if the secret to their success at doing it efficiently is being able to convince teachers capable of achieving that performance to do so for 25% less than the industry average salary, I don’t know how well that model can be replicated. I can’t think of too many industries where getting above average results for below average pay is a successful long-term strategy. In an era of stagnant wages and a declining middle class, it’s indecent to be talking about it as a way to keep property taxes at artificially low rates.

3. It may be that there isn’t much of anything that can be learned from Harmony’s experience and applied to the public schools. Sometimes it’s just the right combination of people that makes a place special, and you just can’t make it happen the same way anywhere else. By all means, we should study them and the other high-performing charters and try to learn from their experiences, but what works for them may not work for any other school. There’s never just one right way to do something.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 20

The Texas Progressive Alliance is still recovering from the weekend Back To School sales as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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Interview with Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

One of the effects of redistricting was to take CD02, which used to run from Kingwood out east into Jefferson County and move it entirely into Harris County, where it now runs southwest into Spring Branch and inside Loop 610. The first Democrat to take on this oddly-shaped district is Jim Dougherty. Dougherty is a lawyer who was an was an Assistant US Attorney with the Southern District of Texas before going into private practice, where he and his wife Judy are now partners in a firm that specializes in family law. Dougherty has been a candidate for office twice before, having run for District Attorney in 2000 and HD134 in 2004. Here’s what we talked about:

Jim Dougherty MP3

I now have the Yahoo! audio player enabled as a plugin for my blog (thanks, Greg Wythe!) and it works a little differently. Basically, as long as this is the top audio file on my index page, you ought to see a “Play” control button next to the link above. If not, or later this week when I have another interview published, simply clicking the link ought to play the audio via the player. If something goes wrong as can happen when implementing something new, let me know.

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. And since I haven’t mentioned it since the last interview, you can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Mills and Clemens

Enjoy your paid time off, Brad Mills.

General manager Jeff Luhnow and owner Jim Crane see no reason to wait until the season ends to begin the search for the next Astros manager after Brad Mills was fired and replaced by interim skipper Tony DeFrancesco.

Some candidates might not become available until after Oct. 3 — or after the World Series should their employers advance far enough — but the search begins now and interviews will likely start during the season for those unattached.

“Right now, we’re at the very first stage, which is gathering information,” Luhnow said Sunday. “Once we get past that stage and determine which candidates we want to speak to, there’s going to be a lot of factors involved in that.

“There’s no reason to wait, so we’re going to move as fast as we can.

“We’re going to be working diligently on that for the remainder of the season and into the offseason or however long it takes.”

Crane said the Astros have four or five candidates in mind but have not compiled a list, which is expected to be larger than that once phone calls start today.

That Mills was fired isn’t a surprise. Changes in ownership almost always mean changes in management, and it’s not like Mills has a long record of managerial success to mitigate against that. Of course, it’s hard to imagine any manager from John McGraw to Casey Stengel to Bobby Cox getting a whole lot more out of the talent on hand. Still, I am curious what the actual case against Mills was, since no one is saying anything bad about him and I don’t recall seeing anyone argue that he’s been a failure. When a club is in complete tear down and rebuild mode, you need a manager that’s good at teaching and who won’t unnecessarily risk the health of his players to win a game that in the long run doesn’t mean much. I don’t know if Luhnow and Crane didn’t like what they saw with Mills or if they just wanted to get their own guy in there. Not that it really matters, as whoever they bring in is unlikely to still be there when the team finally turns it around. That’s usually the way these things go in the process, and with the Astros years away from being competitive, I’m pretty sure that’s how it will go here. Best of luck to whoever will be nurturing them in the interim.

Then there’s Roger Clemens.

Roger Clemens, whose remarkable 30-year baseball travelogue has taken him from Houston to Austin, Boston, Toronto, New York and points in between, will make his next stop in Sugar Land.

Clemens, 50, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner who last pitched in 2007 and was last in the public eye for his acquittal on federal perjury charges earlier this year, will return to the mound on Saturday night to pitch for the minor league Sugar Land Skeeters.

Clemens threw for about 90 minutes Monday morning at Sugar Land’s Constellation Field and pronounced himself ready for his comeback against the Bridgeport Bluefish, which along with the Skeeters plays in the independent Atlantic League.

[…]

“It is a fun, local, one-time kind of thing,” said Clemens’ longtime agent, Randy Hendricks. “The hitters will let him know Saturday if he should pitch another game.”

Whether it is indeed a one-time curtain call or a return to action that could at some point lead to Clemens’ return to the major leagues, it is an unexpected swerve in the career of one of baseball’s most charismatic yet polarizing athletes.

“We’re going to take things one game at a time and see where they lead us,” said Michael Kirk, operations manager for the Skeeters. “I am fascinated to see what happens this weekend, and we’ll take it from there.”

I think a little Pete Townshend is appropriate here:

“After the fire, the fire still burns
The heart grows older, but never ever learns
The memories smolder, but the soul always yearns
After the fire, the fire still burns.”

There’s two ways for an athletic career to end: For the athlete to accept that it’s over and move on, and for the athlete’s performance to make it clear to anyone who might think of hiring said athlete that it’s over. Neither has happened yet with Roger Clemens. As long as he’s got the fire, and until the objective evidence says otherwise, I say what the heck. For all we know he may still be a viable option for the Astros a few years down the line when they’ve finally put together a team that can win again. Or perhaps sooner than that, as Campos speculates.

So here’s the deal. If he does OK in a couple of outings, the ‘Stros will pick him up for three games in September when they can expand the roster. The ‘Stros will let him start against three non-contending clubs at The Yard – Cubbies, Phillies, and San Luis (soon to be non-contenders) – and they will let him pitch four or five innings and sell out The Yard. It is gate money the team wasn’t counting on. They will pay The Rocket the minimum but since he’ll be an MLBer, he’ll be knocked off the Hall of Fame ballot for the next five years and won’t have to face the humiliation of not getting the votes next January to join the Hall of Fame. By 2018, some of the old school BBWOA members won’t be around to leave The Rocket off of their ballot and the most recent Rocket memory will be of the 2012 Comeback at The Yard. That’s not a bad strategy if you ask me. Plus, at least it would be something to look forward to at The Yard this September.

That actually makes a lot of sense, for all involved. We’ll see how it goes.

CSAPR knocked down by federal court

Score one for the polluters.

Greg Abbott approves of this picture

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in a 2-1 decision that the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority with the new regulation.

Led by Texas, 14 states and several power companies challenged the legality of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which imposes caps on nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants in eastern states. Texas officials fear some utilities will shutter plants to comply with the rule, threatening the state’s ability to “keep the lights on.”

The EPA has said the rule is necessary to reduce lung-damaging pollution that causes thousands of premature deaths and respiratory illnesses each year around the power plants and in downwind states.

“This is clearly a big blow for breathers in downwind states,” said Frank O’Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. “The good neighbor rule is a critical component in the EPA’s strategy to ensure healthful air quality.”

See here and here for some background. The Environmental Defense Fund has a press release and anlysis of the ruling, which you can read here. Unlike the flex permits ruling, this one is a genuine setback, though though it should be noted that the court didn’t say the EPA had no authority, just that it needed to write the rules differently. While the usual pollution-enabling gang celebrates, the former head of the EPA in Texas notes that the industries who helped fight this may come to regret it.

Al Armendariz, who was the regional administrator of the EPA when the cross-state rule was finalized and now works as a senior representative from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Texas, said:

“The ruling, I think, only delays the inevitable, which is that there is going to be a transport rule that requires utilities to significantly reduce their emissions. And ironically, the judgment is critical of steps the agency took which were designed to make the rule cost-effective. And if anything, the judgment could result in EPA putting a rule forward about a year from now that requires utilities to spend more to reduce emissions than if the cross-state rule had gone into effect. So the delay is unfortunate, but ironically, I think the court’s criticism of some of the steps the [EPA] took to try to make the rule cost-effective might result in the agency moving forward with a rule that costs more to comply than the cross-state rule would have.”

Of course, that assumes an EPA that’s not been taken over by industry hacks by that time. We’re all clear on what needs to be done to prevent that, right? Texas Vox has more.

Riding that (privately funded) train

Another story on the vaunted high speed rail line for Texas.

Like this but with fewer mountains

The leaders of Texas Central High-Speed Railway sound very confident for a company expecting to succeed where scores of state planners, elected officials and private interests have failed.

The firm hopes to have bullet trains moving Texans at 205 miles per hour between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston by 2020.

The bit that has raised eyebrows: The company plans to do it without seeking public financing.

“We are not the traditional state-run railroad,” Robert Eckels, the company’s president and a former Harris County judge, said at a high-speed rail forum in Irving on Tuesday. “This is designed to be a profitable high-speed rail system that will serve the people of these two great cities and in between and, ultimately, the whole state of Texas.”

Backing the Texas-based company is a group led by Central Japan Railway Company, which handles more than 100 million passengers each year on its bullet trains in Japan.

“They’re spending real money on high-speed rail to try and get things done,” said Gary Fickes, chairman of the Texas High-Speed Rail and Train Corporation, a nonprofit coalition of public and private leaders that for years has been advocating for a high-speed rail system in Texas. “I think they’re the real deal.”

While the project is generating enthusiasm, Eckels acknowledged he’s also heard from plenty of skeptics who predict he will eventually ask for billions of dollars in public support. But Eckels said his investors would likely walk away from a project that couldn’t stand on its own.

“If we start taking the federal money, it takes twice as long, costs twice as much,” Eckels said. “My guess is we’d end up pulling the plug on it.”

[…]

During a presentation on the array of financial and regulatory hurdles blocking the success of high-speed rail in the country, Richard Arena with the Association for Public Transportation said Texas is a possible bright spot.

“You guys are not waiting for things to happen,” Arena said. “You’re making it happen.”

Arena said the state’s strong economy and growing population make high-speed rail a more likely proposition than in other regions. But he was highly skeptical that the rail project could come together without public funding.

“My numbers say it’s going to be a stretch,” Arena said. “There was a reason why all the passenger railroads went bankrupt 50 years ago. I just don’t know.”

We’ve heard about this before. I don’t care how it is ultimately funded, I want to see it happen. It just makes sense. Who knows how many more super-commuters we may have in this state if one could easily travel from Dallas to Houston in an hour and a half? I wish them the best of luck, and I hope that by the time they’re done there’s a more robust local rail network to help move the passengers to their final destinations. Burka, who remembers the last time someone tried to build a high-speed rail line in Texas, has more.

Women’s Equality Day celebration

This seems like something we could all use right about now:

The League of Women Voters of Houston Education Fund today announces Rising Stars of 2012, men and women who have made important contributions to the Houston community and whose work will continue to call forth a bright and hopeful future.

Rising Stars will be recognized at the League’s annual Women’s Equality Day Commemoration on Wednesday., Aug. 22, 2012, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at the historic Julia Ideson Library. Mayor Annise Parker and Ms. Kathy Hubbard serve as honorary co-chairs.

The event celebrates the 92nd anniversary of the 19th Constitutional Amendment, the amendment that gave American Women the right to vote.

The reception will also feature a salute to four notable Houstonians, premier communicators who set the stage for lively and learned conversation in the modern public square: Mary Benton (KPRC-TV), Ernie Manouse (PBS Channel 8), Grace Olivares (Univision 45) and Mark Pirtle (Houston MediaSource TV). The winner of the Carrie Chapman Catt award for emerging leaders will also be announced.

“It is endlessly astonishing to me,” said LWV-Houston President Linda Cohn, “that there are so many people alive today – including my own mother – who were born into an America where women could not vote. One small tick on the national timeline separates us from an indignity our children cannot even imagine. Let’s take a moment to honor suffragists like Miss Julia Ideson. Let this new generation of Rising Stars take courage from their achievements and remember that an informed and active citizenry remains the proven path to good government and a good life for every American.”

See here for the list of Rising Stars, and here for information on tickets. I am unfortunately unable to attend, but I hope you can. The LWV does good work, and it’s going to have its hands full this fall.

Dan Wallach: Energy pricing 2012

This is a guest post that follows up on an earlier guest post.

Dan Wallach

Last year, I wrote a guest article for Off The Kuff where I discussed the complexity of trying to get a good price on your electric bill. In Houston, we have seemingly hundreds of companies who will gladly take our money in return for electricity. Which should you choose? The place to begin remains PowerToChoose.com, but the market has changed a bunch from when I last took a look.

If you really dig around PowerToChoose, you’ll see all these companies you’ve never heard of, each of which has a piece of clip-art on its web page of a beautiful meadow with a shining sun, or maybe a happy family with perfect teeth. (Exercise for the reader running the Chrome browser: you can right-click on those pictures, and select “Search Google with this image”, and see how widespread those stock images are used. In one case, the smiling family I saw also appeared in web sites for a car dealership, a dentist, a youth ministry, a nutrition supplements company, and an alarm system company.)

Last year, it was common for these companies to offer low teaser rates for the first month that bubbled them up to the top of the list. You’d then pay the regular higher rate thereafter. This made it very difficult to do comparison shopping, since you had to dig deeper into the “electricity facts label” sheets to find out what the real prices were. It also created a huge incentive for you to switch companies every month.

At the time, I decided to switch to Pennywise Power, who was advertising a relatively low variable rate. I was entirely happy with them until this July, when their prices exploded. My bill for June was $197.99 for 1873 kWh ($0.105 per kWh, after taxes, fees, and such). My bill for July was $289.78 for 1662 kWh ($0.174 per kWh). It’s come back down again, but at least for two months, they were charging far above other companies’ advertised rates. (Note: the wholesale market for electricity went bonkers at the end of June, and some of that was clearly passed on to me.)

My conclusion last year was that Pennywise’s rates were low enough to be attractive, but I apparently failed to notice my own warning:

“Variable rates” aren’t connected to much of anything beyond the whims of the executives who set these rates. If you read the legal verbiage closely, they can change your rate, at any time, to any price they want.

After seeing the shocking July bill, I figured it was time to jump into a fixed rate product, so back I went to PowerToChoose.com and slogged through the various options. These days, the low teaser rates from last year are all gone. Now, the advertised price seems to be the price you actually pay, but things are still a bit wonky. One of the tricks I observed with Pennywise is that their pricing, which included a $9.95 “base charge” if you use less than 1000 kWh, creates some perverse incentives if your electrical usage is just below that number per month. Wasting energy to get over the top might save you real money! This year, I resolved to find the best fixed price with zero “base” charge. That led me to Summer Energy, where I inked a one year lock-in at $0.093 per kWh. (If you sign up today, with the proper promotion code, it’s $0.085 per kWh.) My first bill showed up for the back half of July, and it included a $4.89 base charge! I had to threaten to abandon them if they didn’t fix it, and they eventually came around.

So, what have we learned here? First, when you’re doing business with faceless companies who advertise low rates, you might expect to have unexpected charges and unusual behaviors. (Summer Energy still hasn’t sorted out my request to set up automatic credit card payment.)

Second, this “deregulated” market could stand to have more regulation. If you read the electricity fact sheets that our vendors are required to publish, there’s a remarkable amount of diversity among them, and lots of fine print they leave out. If I were king for a day, all of these fixed “base rate” fees would be standardized, simplifying vendor competition to price per kilowatt-hour within equivalence classes of different percentages of “renewable” energy.

Finally, a word about the future. A buddy of mine in California got himself a fancy solar panel system on his house. He sells excess capacity back to the grid, but it’s much better than that. His electric utility company (for which he has no choice) has tiered rates. The more electricity he burns, the more he pays. But by selling power back, he stays out of the higher rate tiers. He also gets tax credits and other incentives that aren’t available in Houston; some other Texas utilities offer rebates, but Centerpoint has nothing in our area. In theory, with our shiny new smart meters, we could have some all kinds of sophisticated billing policies like variable day/night rates or solar systems that let you sell power back to the grid, but these aren’t happening yet. I suspect this is an unfortunate side effect of our multi-vendor deregulated market. (Reliant does have a plan that lets you sell power back, but the base electrical rate is uncompetitive.)

If you dig deeper into your electrical bill, you’re paying a big chunk of your bill to Centerpoint for “delivering” your electricity, no matter who you’re paying for your juice. That’s the place where we might eventually see some innovation. Centerpoint could charge variable time-of-day or tiered rates, they could buy back your electricity if you have solar, and so forth. One of these days, I might buy myself an electric car, and I’d be keen to have more sophisticated electrical pricing in place before then.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice University.

The Green blues

First there was this.

City Controller Ronald Green

City Controller Ron Green, Houston’s top elected money manager and self-described watchdog, is seeking leniency for a five-time convicted felon and contractor who masterminded an elaborate real estate and forgery scam targeting the city’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Green is asking a judge for probation for his friend and former next-door neighbor Dwayne K. Jordon, a rogue developer who pleaded guilty to felony theft. According to indictments, Jordon pilfered 23 Houston properties from different owners and then duped unsuspecting buyers into purchasing homes built on stolen ground.

The ex-con contractor and the city controller have known each other about five years, the same period, according to a Houston Chronicle review of dozens of court records and related real estate documents, that Jordon carried out the series of land thefts, mortgage frauds and deed scams.

Harris County prosecutors want a 25-year sentence for Jordon, who has a long string of prior convictions, including kidnapping, armed robbery and illegal possession of drugs and firearms. Along with a business partner, Jordon executed the contracting scheme by forging deeds of sale on mostly vacant properties and profiting from his illegally built homes, indictments say.

Green – who owes $112,000 to the IRS and nearly lost his house to foreclosure in 2006 – has described the 46-year-old Jordon as a hardworking businessman who renovated Green’s own home. In fact, Jordon’s contract for the renovations helped Green get a new $508,000 home loan in 2008.

Acting as a character witness, Green told a judge in March that Jordon raised money to buy turkeys for the poor, performed high quality construction and “worked very hard to really try to change the face of that Sunnyside community in which he lives.”

Then there was this.

Elected Justice of the Peace Hilary Harmon Green repeatedly ordered the eviction of tenants and relatives on behalf of a five-time felon even though she and her husband, City Controller Ron Green, both had financial and personal ties to the home builder.

In one case involving Dwayne K. Jordon – a convicted thief who has admitted to repeatedly pilfering people’s properties for his residential construction projects – Green evicted Jordon’s own uncle despite a dispute over whether Jordon held ownership of the family home.

That ruling, which later was overturned by a county court, came in 2009 – the same year Green’s husband, a lawyer, was paid an undisclosed amount of money to advise Jordon on his criminal case, meet with a Harris County prosecutor and recommend a defense attorney.

Through her clerk, Hilary Green refused to comment on why she did not recuse herself from more than a dozen matters involving Jordon, who has been her neighbor, her home renovation contractor and for whom her husband has served as a character witness in the pending real estate criminal case.

[…]

Ethically, Hilary Green should have recused herself on legal cases involving Jordon because of her other associations with him, said Lillian Hardwick, an Austin attorney and expert in judicial conduct who co-authored the authoritative Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics.

We don’t get much of either Green’s side of these stories, so it’s a little premature to judge them. Still, they don’t look good, and to have two bad stories in the space of a week, that’s going to leave a mark. Campos suggested after the first story came out that it put Ronald Green in a vulnerable position not just for a future Mayoral campaign but even potentially for re-election in 2013. I think it’s a little early for such speculation, but if there are more shoes to drop, then that certainly becomes possible. We’ll see if this is it or not.

Once again on charter school facilities

David Dunn of the Texas Charter Schools Association writes another op-ed about funding for charter school facilities.

The Texas Charter Schools Association has looked at the needs of public school students whose parents have chosen the option of public charter schools for them, and we know that these Houston students deserve the same consideration as students in HISD. With at least 56,000 students on waiting lists to attend charter schools in Texas, and perhaps as many as a third of those waiting-list students in Houston, this is not a trivial matter. In a state that values local control in school matters, charter school parents and taxpayers have none when it comes to funding for their public charter schools. The Legislature could act to correct this funding inequity, but they haven’t in the past. Charter schools have been part of the public education landscape in Texas for more than 16 years, and it is long past time for the Texas Legislature to address this issue.

So now that HISD trustees have put this proposal for capital improvement bonds before the voters, we ask Houstonians to take a moment and remember the public school students who do not have this option. Houston ISD has funding opportunities for their students that Houston public charter schools do not. This goes to show again the violation of the Constitution for public charter school students because they have the right to the same funding and facilities as other students in Houston, but not the means.

Dunn wrote essentially the same op-ed two years ago. He has the HISD bond referendum as a framing device this time around, and of course now there is the latest school finance lawsuit, to which the TCSA is a party. It’s not clear to me that the charters have the same constitutional rights as the public schools, but it is a good question. I do agree that the Lege should address this in some fashion, but I believe they ought to come up with a funding source rather than tapping the Permanent School Fund. Of course, if the Lege were good at coming up with appropriate funding sources we wouldn’t have a whole host of other problems, so perhaps the courts are the charters’ best hope. We’ll see about that.

Birnberg files complaint to force Oliver off the ballot

I’m far from thrilled to have Lloyd Oliver as the Democratic nominee for District Attorney, but this seems a bit much to me.

Gerry Birnberg, the former party chair, filed a complaint earlier this month to have Oliver removed from November’s ballot because he praised the sitting district attorney, Republican Pat Lykos.

Specifically, Birnberg said in his complaint, Oliver told the Houston Chronicle in May that Lykos was such a good candidate that she “would have gotten my vote.”

[…]

Birnberg said he was not retaliating against Oliver for beating Zack Fertitta in the primary, but said he is concerned about Oliver’s loyalty and the Republican strategy.

“I believe the Republicans are planning on using his colorful past as a way to bring down the entire ticket,” Birnberg said.

He also said he expects loyalty to Democrats across the ticket, “and if a candidate is saying that ‘Republicans are still good candidates too,’ that’s not helpful for the Democratic party.”

So much to cover here, but let me start off by noting that Gary Polland was the first to report this:

This hasn’t made the local media yet, but former Democratic Chair Gerald Birnberg has made a complaint designed to remove Democratic “accidental” District Attorney candidate Lloyd Oliver from the ballot. This is an interesting development.

TCR wonders, do the D’s intend to remove and replace with a handpicked star who they think could take advantage of the nasty GOP primary battle between incumbent Pat Lykos and successful primary challenger Mike Anderson? Do the Democrats think that they can convince enough swing and Lykos loyalists to vote their way, and win a tight battle? Maybe it’s time for the Anderson group to smoke the peace pipe with District Attorney Lykos and her supporters.

Birnberg is worried that the Republicans will user Oliver as a club against the Democrats elsewhere on the ticket. Polland is worried that the residual acrimony from the Anderson-Lykos primary could let Oliver win a race he has no business winning. We live in interesting times.

I’m sure that Birnberg and Polland have both forgotten more election law than I’ll ever know, but I don’t see how the Dems can do this. For one thing, the case Birnberg is making seems exceedingly weak to me. I mean, the Democratic Speaker of the State House in 2000 (Pete Laney) endorsed George Bush for President, and he was far from the only Dem to do so back then. Compared to that, Oliver’s words barely register. I mean, they’d be grounds to remove him as a precinct chair, but to declare him ineligible as a nominee? I just don’t see it. Oliver is an idiot, but unless he chooses to withdraw I’m afraid we’re stuck with him.

Assuming that HCDP Chair Lane Lewis buys the ineligibility argument, it’s also not clear to me that Oliver can be replaced. Section 145 of the Elections Code doesn’t specifically address the question of replacing candidates who have been declared ineligible on the ballot, but Sec 145.039 says “If a candidate dies or is declared ineligible after the 74th day before election day, the candidate’s name shall be placed on the ballot”. By my calculation, that makes the deadline this Friday, the 24th. I have no idea if the machinery can be made to move swiftly enough to allow for this, again in the event that Lewis goes along with Birnberg’s complaint. It just adds to my incredulity about this.

Interview with Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

Let’s get this round of interviews off with a strong start with a visit with Rep. Gene Green, who has been a fixture in local politics for a long time. First elected to Congress in 1992, Rep. Green was elected to the State House in 1972 and to the Senate in 1985. Rep. Green is a Democratic Senior Whip who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. He’s a UH grad and a union man, and many of his former staffers and interns have gone on to political careers of their own. Here’s what we talked about:

Gene Green MP3

I now have the Yahoo! audio player enabled as a plugin for my blog (thanks, Greg Wythe!) and it works a little differently. Basically, as long as this is the top audio file on my index page, you ought to see a “Play” control button next to the link above. If not, or later this week when I have another interview published, simply clicking the link ought to play the audio via the player. If something goes wrong as can happen when implementing something new, let me know. You can always right-click to save the MP3 file to your computer.

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. And since I haven’t mentioned it since the last interview, you can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

The ballot propositions we won’t have

Today is the 78th day before the November 6 election. That makes it the statutory deadline for ordering an election, as noted by the Secretary of State. They cite Sec. 201.054 of the Elections Code for this, which seems wrong to me; Sec. 201.051 appears to be more on point, though that still doesn’t specifically address ballot referenda. In any event, assuming they know what they’re talking about, that means today is the last day that a charter amendment referendum can be added to Houston’s ballot for November. So, even if the City Secretary has finished certifying the petition signatures for the measure to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance, unless City Council approves it today, the item is moot. It can’t be voted on this year. Moreover, since there were two charter amendments in with the bond referenda, if those charter amendments are approved, there can be no more charter amendments put on the ballot for two more years. And since Election Day in 2014 is November 4, which is not quite two years after this year’s election on November 6, the next available time for a charter amendment election would be May of 2015.

There were at least two more charter amendments that had been potentially on tap for this year that will also now have to wait. There were a pair of anti-immigration proposals for which signatures were collected but apparently never submitted. I can only presume they did not get enough signatures, which makes me happy. Of course, if Dan Patrick gets his way and passes a “sanctuary cities” bill then it ultimately won’t matter. The other was a referendum to overturn the 2001 charter amendment that bans the city from providing domestic partner benefits to its employees. As far as I can tell, no effort to collect petition signatures for that was ever launched. I’m pretty sure the Lege will not intervene on this matter before May of 2015, so it will have to wait for the next electoral opportunity. Those are the ones I recall, anyway. If you know of others let me know.

Count tells EPA to review flex permits

Score one for Texas.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency’s disapproval of Texas’ Flexible Permits program was not supported by the Clean Air Act.

Under the Flexible Permits program, which had been in place since 1994, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality put a cap on allowed emissions from oil refineries and other industrial plants by facility. EPA officials announced in 2010 that they disapproved of the program because it might allow major polluters to exceed federal standards, record-keeping was inadequate and the methodology for calculating the emissions cap was unclear. As a result, those flexible permits were no longer accepted under the Clean Air Act. The facilities that already possessed flexible permits were subject to federal fines.

In the opinion, the court called the EPA’s disapproval of Texas’ program “untimely” and said it “unraveled approximately 140 permits” issued under the program. The court said the EPA’s reasoning was mainly based on wording, and not actual standards or procedures.

“A state’s ‘broad responsibility regarding the means’ to achieve better air quality would be hollow indeed if the state were not even responsible for its own sentence structure,” the court says in the opinion.

The opinion says the EPA must further consider the program.

Court opinion on matters pertaining to the EPA had been running against the state recently, so I’m sure they’re celebrating in the AG’s office. It’s not a huge win for the state, however:

Elena Craft at the Environmental Defense fund pointed out that the court’s decision does not rubber stamp Texas’ Flexible Permits program, but rather deems the EPA’s reasons for disapproving the program inadequate. The program still needs approval from the EPA to exist.

“The reality is that there’s no real change of the situation on the ground,” Craft said. “These [permits] are still not approved by the EPA, so they’re still susceptible to government enforcement until approved.”

The flex permits may yet be denied, but not until further review and not on the grounds cited so far. This story isn’t finished yet.

HISD takes another crack at ethics reform

Good luck.

Houston school trustees on Thursday renewed serious talks about tightening their ethics rules after failing to agree on new policies late last year.

The proposed changes, meant to restore public confidence that the Houston Independent School District is hiring the best contractors without undue influence, also could affect trustees’ political campaign coffers.

Trustees would have to abstain from voting on deals involving vendors who had contributed more than $500 to their campaigns the prior year. They also would have to disclose and abstain if they have a close relationship with a vendor.

Board president Mike Lunceford pledged that trustees would take a preliminary vote on the new policies in September. The changes would be in place before November, when the board is asking voters to approved a $1.9 billion bond issue that would result in the district awarding numerous lucrative construction contracts.

“This is something that should have happened a long time ago,” trustee Juliet Stipeche said of adopting stricter rules. “We need to have higher ethical standards.”

This is true, and pushing for stronger ethics rules before rolling out the pro-bond referendum campaign makes a lot of sense and ought to help satisfy those who want to be supportive of the bonds but have qualms about some of the trustees’ behavior. Still, any set of rules can be circumvented – as Campos suggests, what happens if a vendor donates to a PAC that then attacks or supports a given candidate? I wouldn’t mind seeing publicly funded campaigns for school boards as I’ve suggested for judicial races, but in a post-Citizens United world, I don’t see a viable path towards that end. Honestly, what we really need are more voters that are willing to hold accountable trustees that don’t act in an ethical manner. If we had Board whose members all instinctively acted correctly in these matters, we wouldn’t have to sweat the details nearly as much.

Weekend link dump for August 19

Last week of freedom, kids.

Election fraud is a lot more prosaic than its most vocal partisans would have you think.

I hope to remain clear-headed enough to never be tempted to climb Mount Everest.

People have been pounding caffeine for pretty much ever.

Nuns On The Bus >> Mitt Romney.

Why “pro-life” is not the same as “pro-family”, “pro-child”, or “pro-mother”.

Pity the poor, picked-on Koch Brothers. Try being decent human beings instead of greedy scuzzballs, fellas. It might help.

What do Christian fundamentalists have against set theory? Don’t mess with Georg Cantor, that’s all I know.

Two words: Bacon s’mores. You’re welcome.

How you should have celebrated Shark Week.

“The Committee is not impressed with revisionist claims that Greedo shot first.”

My dinner with Andre‘s robot.

Hey girl, it’s Paul Ryan Gosling comin’ at ya.

Happy 40th birthday, PFLAG.

“HR 212 would almost certainly make IVF illegal, and since Mitt Romney’s kids have used IVF it would, as the headline says, make them criminals. Or childless. Is that a brutal way of putting it? Sure. But it’s a pretty brutal law. What’s wrong with letting people know in stark terms just exactly what it would mean?” Oh, and by the way – Paul Ryan was a cosponsor of HR 212.

I don’t have a “driverless car”, I have an “electronically chauffeured vehicle”. Now pass me the damn Grey Poupon already.

RIP, Helen Gurley Brown. I think Jezebel has the best memorial.

And RIP, Ron Palillo, a/k/a Arnold Horshack.

Is it even possible for Congress’ approval rating to go any lower?

Would your child know what to do if she got lost or separated from you in a public place?

Some excellent Julia Child video clips in honor of what would have been her 100th birthday.

Pottypalooza appears to have been a success.

No more meta-serious conversing about the issues! We had the power to be actually seriously conversing about them all along!

Bye, ALEC. Smell ya later.

Of course our Jumbotrons are bigger in Texas. What did you expect?

Jane Eyre = Bella Swan. Discuss. And I was never much impressed by classical literature, either.

Apparently there are consequences for being a lying liar. Sometimes, anyway. Who knew?

Sometimes, the machine rages against you.

On speaking off the cuff. I always thought it was a synonym for speaking extemporaneously, but apparently not.

Fall interview season begins tomorrow

I know that we just finished the primary runoffs, but we’re also now more than halfway through August, so it’s time to start doing interviews with candidates for the fall. I’ll be up candid, I don’t know exactly how many interviews I plan to do. For the most part, I don’t anticipate re-interviewing candidates that I spoke to for the May election – I’m already too far behind even if I did want to do that. I’m mostly going to concentrate on area races, but as always things can and do change, so don’t hold me to that. In the meantime, here’s a list of the interviews I did earlier with candidates who will be on the ballot in November:

Senate: Paul SadlerWebMP3

CD07: James CargasWebMP3

CD14: Nick LampsonWebMP3

CD20: Joaquin CastroWebMP3

CD23: Pete GallegoWebMP3

CD27: Rose Meza HarrisonWebMP3

CD33: Marc VeaseyWebMP3

SBOE6: Traci JensenWebMP3

SD10: Sen. Wendy DavisWebMP3

HD131: Rep. Alma AllenWebMP3

HD137: Gene WuWebMP3

HD144: Mary Ann PerezWebMP3

HD146: Rep. Borris MilesWebMP3

HD147: Rep. Garnet ColemanWebMP3

Harris County Sheriff: Sheriff Adrian GarciaWebMP3

HCDE Position 3, At Large: Diane TrautmanWebMP3

HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1: Erica LeeWebMP3

Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Sean HammerleWebMP3

Constable, Precinct 1: Alan RosenWebMP3

You may notice if you click on the Web links above that the embedded audio player no longer works. The code comes from Google, and they unfortunately appear to have disabled it. I should have an alternate solution in place going forward, but just clicking on the MP3 file ought to work for you as well. And of course you can always download it for your iPod or whatever.

I am going to try again to reach Beto O’Rourke and Filemon Vela, but you know how that goes. I’ve given up on Rep. Lloyd Doggett; though I did finally make contact with a staffer before the primary, at this point I doubt there’s any interest on his end. There was a contested primary in CD10, but both candidates were late filers. I am trying to reach Tawana Cadien, who won the nomination, but she has no phone number that I can find and she has not as yet responded to an email I sent. If anyone knows how to reach her, please ask her to drop me a note: kuff – at – offthekuff – dot – com.

“Collateral damage”

How’s that war on women going?

In the year since deep cuts to family planning funding took effect, the impact has become apparent. An Observer review of state records has found that 146 clinics have lost state funds, clumped mainly in the Panhandle, Central Texas and on the border with Mexico. More than 60 of those clinics have closed their doors forever. The number of organizations that help poor women plan pregnancy has shrunk by almost half. As in San Saba, low-income women in many areas of Texas now face a long drive, or worse, lack of access to birth control and health screenings.

This isn’t news to conservative state lawmakers. After all, in its 2011 session, the Texas Legislature cut the state’s family planning program by two-thirds. Public health experts warned lawmakers at the time that by defunding Texas’s family planning system, clinics would close and a spike in disease, pregnancies and abortions would follow. Regardless, they slashed the budget. Lawmakers were quite clear about their motivation: They hoped to drive abortion providers out of business. Their specific target—Planned Parenthood—also provides family planning and preventive health care to low income women. In their zeal to attack Planned Parenthood, politicians designed a funding formula that caused collateral damage. They defunded many other family planning clinics that aren’t connected to Planned Parenthood and don’t offer any abortion services.

In fact, of the more than 60 clinics that have closed across Texas, only 12 were run by Planned Parenthood. Dozens of other clinics unconnected to Planned Parenthood nonetheless lost state funds and have closed, leaving low-income women in large areas of the state without access to contraception.

It gets worse. The federally qualified health centers—which lawmakers said could provide family planning services to low-income women and make up for the cuts—have themselves experienced a funding crunch and are struggling to absorb demand. The result is that costs have shifted to patients, and exceptionally poor women now make hard choices about paying for their well-woman care. Some will find the cash, but an alarming number won’t. Indeed, the bipartisan Legislative Budget Board estimated that last year’s cuts would lead to more than 250,000 women losing services and 20,000 additional births covered by Medicaid. When The Texas Observer asked providers what they thought about the cuts, several mentioned the same phrase. They said in hoping to punish Planned Parenthood, politicians had gone too far, with devastating consequences for women’s health. Lawmakers, they said, had thrown the “baby out with the bath water.” In this story, the first in an occasional series, we examine what happened to the family planning providers who have fallen from favor.

The simplest answer to this is that this isn’t a problem to the legislators who committed this assault on Planned Parenthood. If this were only about stopping abortion, then the news that many clinics that are unaffiliated with Planned Parenthood and which do not offer abortion services have been driven out of business would be a cause for concern. If there’s been any remorse about these developments, or any desire to correct them, I sure haven’t heard about it.

You would think that these providers that the state has managed to kill would have been good replacements for Planned Parenthood to deliver Women’s Health Program services. The state continues to demonstrate that it has no idea how to replace Planned Parenthood in it reckless and misguided zeal, but it is willing to lie about its plans.

In a May letter to the governor’s office and the Legislative Budget Board, outgoing HHSC Commissioner Tom Suehs offered a funding mechanism for the program that included implementing cost-saving measures throughout the agency, a hiring freeze and enhancing efforts to recover funds from Medicaid fraud.

But opponents of efforts to oust Planned Parenthood from the program say the state was banking on paying for much of it another way — with the federal health reform Republican state leaders so revile. They point to legal filings and fiscal notes state officials prepared in July indicating they could fold Women’s Health Program clients into Medicaid starting in 2014, the year the Affordable Care Act calls for a widespread expansion of the safety net health care program. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Medicaid expansion is optional, and Perry has vowed that Texas will not do it.

[…]

Planned Parenthood is awaiting an October hearing in district court over whether its clinics can stay in the Women’s Health Program. A separate case is moving through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In March, Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for pulling back funding over Texas’ decision to eject clinics affiliated with abortion providers from the program.

On Thursday, state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, wrote a sharply worded letter to Abbott after learning his office had submitted a July 9 briefing to the appeals court that twice referenced the state’s intent to move WHP clients into Medicaid after the expansion of the program takes effect in 2014. She pointed out that was the same day Perry notified federal authorities that Texas would not extend the program. Farrar requested that Abbott “correct or withdraw” those statements.

State Rep. John Zerwas, an anesthesiologist and Simonton Republican, said the state is caught in a difficult situation because Planned Parenthood is “a very cost-effective provider.” However, he said lawmakers were willing to walk away from federal funds to make a bigger point: They are against abortion and any organization that may refer women for the procedure.

“We have to look at who’s elected to the Legislature and their philosophies and beliefs, and we have to be respectful of those,” he said.

Being respectful of the women who are directly affected by these political games is at best a secondary concern. You can read Rep. Farrar’s letter here. These problems are entirely of the Republicans’ making. They had no thought for the consequences when they did what they did, and they have no idea how to get out of the situation they’ve put themselves and everyone else in. TM Daily Post has more.

More on the landfills of Waller County

Last July I wrote about a proposed landfill in Waller County near Hempstead and the residents who are fighting against it. The Statesman has an update on the story.

In many ways, the landfill fight in this rural Texas town two hours east of Austin has a standard shape: An out-of-state corporation is accused of siting an unsightly dump near a largely poor, largely minority community. The landfill company says the accusations are unfair and that the dump will contribute jobs to a stricken area.

The twist here is one of the background players.

Glenn Shankle — the former executive director of the state environmental agency and a lobbyist for landfill companies himself, including one whose permit for a radioactive waste dump he controversially supported just before leaving said agency — is now a hired gun for the community.

Unlikely as the partnership may be, Shankle, 59, hobbled by old track injuries suffered as a runner at then-Kealing Junior High School, may be the opposition’s best hope.

In Shankle’s telling, over a breakfast of heavily buttered toast, bacon and a Dr Pepper in downtown Austin, he resisted the community group gig when first approached about it.

“I told them at the time I don’t do protest work,” he said.

He had grown leery, after a career at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, of the methods of environmental groups, he said, and was unsure that he could fight a landfill while also serving as a landfill lobbyist.

“Once you predominantly do industry work, it puts you in an awkward situation,” he said.

Having survived some health scares, however, he had been casting about how he ought to fulfill God’s plan, as he put it. Then, family members who had attended Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college eight miles outside of Hempstead, opposed the landfill and pressed him to intervene.

“I slept on it and prayed on it,” he said. His conclusion: Prairie View should not suffer because of a “scar” to the landscape.

[…]

Landfill company Green Group Holdings CEO Ernest Kaufmann said no more than 250 acres of the 723-acre site will be dedicated to the landfill, which will hold municipal waste from a 40-mile radius around the landfill — with an eye to serving the ever-growing Houston market. Kaufmann said its operation could last roughly 40 years.

“We’re not taking hazardous waste. We’re not taking sewage sludge,” said Kaufmann, whose company calls the project Pintail. The rest of the land might be used for ranching, recreational purposes, as an industrial park or left as open space. The company, which says it will invest millions of dollars in the project, has proposed paying fees to Waller County for each ton of waste collected and a donation of $150,000 for county fire safety equipment.

It estimates the project will create at least 20 full-time jobs at the landfill.

“This is not in a disadvantaged neighborhood,” he continued. “What you have here is some very wealthy people stirring that up. We pay a lot of attention to where we locate facilities and who we’re impacting and who we’re not impacting.”

Huntsinger and others are skeptical of the company’s pledges because, they say, Green Group could sell its permit.

Huntsinger is Bill Huntsinger, a retired Houston real estate guy who moved to Hempstead and is funding the Stop Highway 6 Landfill effort. Green Group has an array of high-priced lobbyists working for it, and rather to my surprise has hired environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn as a consultant. The main thing I get from this story is that the process hasn’t advanced much in the past year and may not advance any further this year, as consideration of the landfill application may happen in 2013. I said last time and I’ll say again, I think this is a bad idea. We shouldn’t be in the business of building more landfills, we should be in the business of waste reduction so that we don’t need more landfills. I wish I had faith that the TCEQ would give this a very critical review, but I don’t. I fear we’ll eventually be stuck with it.

The fate of private junior colleges

Fascinating story of Lon Morris College and its grand plan to save itself.

Like so many other non-profit, two-year private campuses, Lon Morris has been seeking ways to survive as more than half the country’s private junior colleges have disappeared since the mid-1990s due in part to cheaper tuition at community colleges. Dozens have closed. Most transitioned to four-year schools. But in a fitting strategy for a Texas school, Lon Morris saw its survival in football.

“That was going to be my new home for the next two years,” said Brandon Griffin, 18, among the latest football recruits looking for a new school after Lon Morris axed its sports teams and furloughed almost all faculty members. “For a moment, I didn’t even know if I wanted to play football anymore. I worked all the way through high school just for this scholarship and it was taken from me unfairly.”

The school’s decision to revive the football program in 2009 was meant to help erase some of its debt but instead drove Lon Morris further in the hole, about $20 million when it filed for bankruptcy in July. It also prompted the resignation of the president who spearheaded the idea and left plenty of disheartened students and former faculty wondering what to do next.

The strategy was to recruit more than 300 football players for the first season on partial scholarships of $7,500 each, leaving them to pay more than $15,000 in remaining expenses and replenish the school’s coffers. The recruiting helped more than triple the school’s enrollment to about 1,000 students by 2010.

It was quite an enrollment boost for a tiny campus located more than a two-hour drive from Dallas in this quiet town of 14,500 people.

[…]

Lon Morris then endured a string of unexpected pitfalls that added to the million-dollar football expansion tab. The campus didn’t offer enough room to house the rush of new students, so administrators leased a nearby hotel. It also offered huge tuition discounts to players — as high as 53 percent in 2010 — and failed to collect payments from those who could not pay yet continued to take classes. Other costs, including hiring security to combat reports of misbehaving players, only worsened the financial hole.

It seems like an awfully strange thing to have tried given that football is generally a money-losing proposition for colleges. I don’t have anything to add to this, I had just never really given any thought to the world of private two-year colleges. This was an interesting look inside that world, so check it out.

Saturday video break: Mustang Sally

Song #54 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Mustang Sally”, originally by Mack Rice and covered by Wilson Pickett. Here’s the original:

Yet another song I hadn’t realized was a cover and whose original was unknown to me. Unlike many of the others, this one isn’t bad. I grooved to it. Still, it’s not quote right, is it? This one is:

That’s more like it. As was the case with Try A Little Tenderness, The Commitments did an awesome version of this as well:

Sorry about the cutoff and naughty word at the end there, but that was a clip from the movie, so there you have it. Here’s the uninterrupted song. You do know that singer Andrew Strong was 16 at the time of filming/recording, right? Take that, Justin Bieber. Oh, and yes, that is Mr. O’Brien from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine” jamming in the background of that video.

If you’d like something a little different, here’s the great Buddy Guy with his rendition:

Consider this all a somewhat belated tribute to the late Dr. Sally Ride, trailblazer and inspiration to us all. I have no idea what she thought of this song – my guess is that people sang “Ride, Sally Ride” to her more often than she needed to hear it – but it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to hear it and not think of her. Rest in peace and forever may you ride, Sally Ride.

Metro board passes amended GMP referendum

More consensus this time.

The board voted 8-1 for a measure that, if approved by voters, would continue the so-called General Mobility Program in its current form, allocating a quarter of Metro’s 1-cent sales tax to Harris County, Houston and 14 small cities in Metro’s service area. The local governments use these funds for road and bridge projects.

However, the payments would be capped at 2014 levels, and any growth in revenues from October 2014 through December 2025 would be split evenly between Metro and the other jurisdictions. Another referendum on whether to continue the payments would be required prior to Dec. 31, 2025.

If voters reject the ballot measure, the payments would stop and Metro would retain all its sales tax proceeds.

See here for some background. Christof Spieler was the lone No vote on the amended referendum. I had the opportunity to hear Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia speak about the new referendum after the board voted on it, and he said that this agreement would mean an extra $400 million for Metro from 2014 through 2025, which Metro would use to pay down debt as well as to provide more buses and bus shelters, with the aim of increasing overall ridership and thus broadening support for transit and Metro overall. Garcia noted that retiring some of the debt that Metro now carries would free up other funds for rail – he certainly agreed that the University line is critical to the overall system, that he thought the sales tax projections might be low given the starting point of a sluggish economy, and that the Metro board can call for another referendum to revisit the GMP allocation again any time before 2025. This isn’t ideal, but it’s better than what was originally proposed in that it will actually provide more money for Metro, while likely avoiding a contentious campaign. There’s definitely something to that. We’ll see how it plays out from here.

Council approves funding for sobering center

Good.

City Council agreed Wednesday to spend $4.3 million to outfit a warehouse at Star of Hope Mission and $353,000 a year to operate it as a place to take drunks instead of jail.

City officials expect the 84-bed facility to open later this year and justified the expense on the hope that it will save money by diverting thousands of people from expensive and time-consuming jail bookings.

Police officers who detain people whose only crime is being drunk in public will have the option of dropping them off at the so-called sobering center for at least a four-hour stay without an arrest on their record. Because the drop-offs are much quicker than jail bookings, police would return to patrol sooner.

The Mayor’s press release has the key numbers plus some more details:

The city’s annual cost to lease, maintain and staff the new center is estimated to be $1.5 million, compared to the $4-6 million currently being spent to process public intoxication cases at the city jail.

The Houston Center for Sobriety will be an alternative to jail for people detained for public intoxication, allowing the opportunity to regain sobriety in a safe, medically-monitored environment. The Houston Police Department (HPD), Houston Department of Health and Human Services and Houston Fire Department (HFD) will provide city services at the site. In addition, the building will also house the Houston Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, bringing together staff dispersed throughout the city into one location.

A 501(c)3 foundation will also be created to aid in future fundraising for operations and possible future expansion.

See here for some background. This should pay for itself in a couple of years, and it moves the city a step closer to exiting the jail business. Good work all around.

Les Alexander on the verge of buying the Dynamo

I like the thought of this.

Rockets owner Leslie Alexander is in the final stages of negotiations to purchase the Dynamo and secure the 30-year lease and development agreement on BBVA Compass Stadium, three officials with knowledge of the process said Thursday.

The deal is not complete, but the sides are close, said the three officials, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

Anschutz Entertainment Group owns 50 percent of the Dynamo. Oscar de la Hoya and Mexican billionaire Gabriel Brener own 25 percent each. AEG president Tim Leiweke’s spokesman, Mike Roth, declined to comment on the negotiations with Alexander. Brener is scheduled to be in Houston for the Dynamo’s game Sunday against Columbus.

The Dynamo are a good team, and Alexander is a good owner. The Rockets have had their share of setbacks in their effort to claw their way back to the elite of the NBA, but it’s not been the result of a lack of determination by Alexander and his crew. While the Dynamo aren’t exactly in dire need of a change of direction (that would be the Astros, though their recent change in ownership seems to have them on a better, if long and slogging, path) they could do a lot worse than having Les Alexander writing the checks. On a tangential and somewhat tendentious note, having Alexander and not Phillip Anschutz in control would make me feel better about buying Dynamo tickets since then my money would not be going to bad purposes. A win all around, as far as I’m concerned.

Hang up and walk

We all know that texting and other smartphone tomfoolery while driving is a bad idea. Turns out that texting while walking isn’t so safe, either.

On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, there is usually someone strolling while talking on a phone, texting with his head down, listening to music, or playing a video game. The problem isn’t as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real.

Reports of injuries to distracted walkers treated at hospital emergency rooms have more than quadrupled in the past seven years and are almost certainly underreported. There has been a spike in pedestrians killed and injured in traffic accidents, but there is no reliable data on how many were distracted by electronics.

“We are where we were with cellphone use in cars 10 years or so ago. We knew it was a problem, but we didn’t have the data,” said Jonathan Akins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

State and local officials are struggling to figure out how to respond, and in some cases asking how far government should go in trying to protect people from themselves.

In Delaware, highway safety officials opted for a public education campaign, placing decals on crosswalks and sidewalks at busy intersections urging pedestrians to “Look up. Drivers aren’t always looking out for you.”

Philadelphia officials are drafting a safety campaign that will be aimed in part at pedestrians who are looking at their devices instead of where they’re going. “One of the messages will certainly be ‘pick your head up’ — I want to say ‘nitwit,’ but I probably shouldn’t call them names,” said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and public utilities.

[…]

A University of Maryland study found 116 cases over six years in which pedestrians were killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones. In two-thirds of the cases the victims were men under age 30. Half the cases involved trains. In a third of the incidents, a warning horn was sounded just before the accident.

“With the smartphone technology these days and everything at your fingertips, it’s almost getting to be an obsession or a compulsion with people,” Fox said. “You see it in airports or train stations or malls — if there’s any kind of downtime, they’re jumping right to that phone.”

About 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. last year for injuries suffered while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which receives annual data from 100 emergency rooms and extrapolates the information into a national estimate. But that’s likely an underestimate because patients may not mention they were using a cellphone or other device at the time at the time they were injured, or the doctor or nurse may neglect to include the information in their report, said Tom Schroeder, director of the commission’s data systems.

The difference between texting while walking and texting while driving is that you’re more a menace to yourself with the former. How big a problem this actually is remains hard to define – one presumes it’s less of an issue in places like Houston where there are fewer pedestrians than in places like New York – but I suppose it’s just a matter of time before someone becomes the poster child for this. Try not to do this when crossing the street or on a crowded sidewalk, OK?

Friday random ten: Non-stupid Texas songs

I came across this this Dallas Observer list of the 100 Best Texas Songs, and as I can’t resist a good list I figured I ought to be able to get a random ten out of it.

1. She’s No Lady, She’s My Wife – Lyle Lovett, #95
2. Pride And Joy – Stevie Ray Vaughan, #92
3. Me and Bobby McGee – Janis Joplin (#77, orig. Kris Krittofferson)
4. Paradise By The Dashboard Light – Meat Loaf, #72
5. London Homesick Blues – Flying Fish Sailors (#62, orig. Gary P. Nunn)
6. La Grange – ZZ Top, #41
7. That’ll Be The Day – Buddy Holly, #15
8. In Dreams – Roy Orbison, #11
9. Crazy – Patsy Cline (#5, orig. Willie Nelson)
10. Tighten Up – Archie Bell and The Drells, #1

Not a bad list overall, with a fair amount of punk and hip-hop on it, as you’d expect from a list put together by the staff of an alt-weekly. I believe they missed out on what I consider to be an iconic Texas tune, the Austin Lounge Lizards’ “Stupid Texas Song”, which captures the essence of our beloved home in a way no other ditty ever has. Still, a good sampling, with a few songs I’m going to need to check out. There’s always room to argue about the songs that should have been included, but I’ll leave that to the comments. What do you think?

On hedging one’s bets

Writing in the Trib, Mustafa Tameez tells Republicans that there such a thing as too much of a good thing for them.

Sen. Wendy Davis

If Republicans win in SD-10, there will only be 11 Democrats in the Texas Senate. That means that in order for the majority to pass anything it wants, all they need to do is peel off one member of the opposition (or just wait for a day when one of them is running late, or steps out to use the bathroom) and they can pass anything they like. Think about that for a moment: All that’s standing between Texas and an absolute one-party rule is a traffic jam or a sick day. I don’t care what your politics are — that’s not good.

Suppose you are a large homebuilder with strong ties to the Republican Party establishment. Suppose you embrace many of the same principles as the new Tea Party members of the Legislature. But what happens when say, a sanctuary cities bill gets introduced? Will your opposition even be heard? Or will you simply be denounced as a conservative apostate or worse yet, a RINO, and dismissed from the conversation?

Let’s say you’re a member of a well-moneyed group of business people who firmly believe that dismantling the trial bar in Texas is the only way to secure economic growth. What will you do if the female, minority, or gay members of your group are threatened from separate corners of the political spheres in, for instance, the realm of marriage, voting rights, or reproductive medicine? It wouldn’t take too many dust-ups like these before the vaunted “Three-Legged-Stool” is over turned completely. This is not a hypothetical struggle. This is truly about how big a tent the Republican Party is able to hold up while it is being driven further and further to the right.

Essentially, with the Senate held by a virtual supermajority, the same folks who so ardently supported Ted Cruz would be running the show in Austin this coming January. Like I said: terror or delight.

The Wendy Davis race in SD-10 should be a rallying point for Democrats and for Republicans. It should be a moment to reflect on the larger picture, and not on any one individual issue. After all, this is a fight for their survival and, strangely enough, it depends on a Democrat winning.

If you think Tameez is overstating the case about the two thirds rule being circumvented by circumstance, remember that it’s happened before. I see no reason to believe that David Dewhurst wouldn’t try it again if the opportunity presented itself. Philosophical issues about the two thirds rule aside, a lot of people involved in the process like it as it is. If it’s going to be changed, we should be honest about it and not subvert it with sneak attacks.

The point is this. Dan Patrick has made perfectly clear what his priorities are for this legislative session, and “sanctuary cities” is one of the things on his wish list. Establishment Republican types like Bob Perry and Bill Hammond have been all talk and no action when it has come to pushing back on anti-immigration hysteria in the Republican Party. The SD10 race is a perfect opportunity for these business types to do something about an issue they claim is important to them. If they can’t bring themselves to actually support Sen. Davis – and by the way, a Republican win here would likely make it that much easier to do away with the two thirds rule entirely, this making it that much easier for Dan Patrick to impose his will – then they can at least not actively oppose her. The more Dan Patrick gets what he wants, the less he’s going to feel he owes to anyone who isn’t with him on each and every one of his issues. Like “sanctuary cities”, for starters. What kind of Senate do you want, establishment Republican businesspeople? You have the power to help decide.

No stay for voter registration injunction

Good.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge in Galveston today denied the state’s request for a stay that would have allowed Texas to enforce several of its voter registration laws.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office asked for the stay on Aug. 4 — the same day it appealed an order by U.S. District Judge Gregg Costa that granted a temporary injunction sought by two Galveston residents and two national, nonpartisan groups that organize efforts to register people in areas with low registration levels.

The provisions at issue include those that prohibit completed voter applications from being mailed to county offices; prohibit deputy voter registrars from registering voters in counties where they don’t live; prohibit the photocopying of voter registration cards; require voter registrars to be Texas residents; and prohibit registration drives from firing deputy registrars based on their performance. Some of the blocked provisions specifically address “volunteer deputy registrars,” the canvassers who, by law, must be appointed to take applications from prospective voters.

Costa’s injunction, which remains in place, bars enforcement of the provisions until a trial can be held to determine if they violate the 1993 National Voter Registration Act or the U.S. Constitution. No trial has been set.

See here and here for the background. I’d link to Judge Costa’s order, but the Southern District of Texas webpage doesn’t make it easy to find such documents, if they exist online. The case is Voting for America, Inc., v Andrade, southern district, G-12-44 according to Ballot Access News, if that helps anyone who knows these things better than I. On to trial from here, where hopefully these petty little laws will get a proper burial. BOR and Juanita have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a copy of the judge’s order denying the request for a stay. Thanks to Jeff and to Tony for using their superpowers as attorneys to find that for me. The state has now asked the Fifth Circuit Court for a stay, so this isn’t over yet.

Opposing the privatized psych hospital

Some pushback on a bad idea.

A coalition of influential Texas organizations is pushing back against the proposed privatization of a state psychiatric hospital by Geo Care, a subsidiary of a prison operations group that has a troubled history in Texas.

The Department of State Health Services is preparing to privatize one of the state hospitals it oversees, a move estimated to save taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

Members of the coalition, concerned by the fact that Geo Care was the only bidder to operate the hospital, are urging the state health department, the Legislative Budget Board and Gov. Rick Perry to reject the company’s proposed management of the hospital.

“The Geo Group has a long and troubled history in Texas,” said Bob Libal, whose organization, Grassroots Leadership, signed the letter along with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Disability Rights Texas, Texas NAACP, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the United Methodist Church.

The letter in question is here, the associated press release is here, and some background on this is here. I’d not heard of Grassroots Leadership before, but their mission statement says they’re all about abolishing for-profit prisons, jails, and detention centers, so this is certainly in their wheelhouse. Here’s a letter they sent in March to all 50 governors opposing plans by Corrections Corporation of America to spend up to $250 million buying prisons from state, local, and federal government entities, and then managing the facilities. The only problem I see with the letter they sent to Rick Perry is that all the signers are lefty groups, meaning that Perry will send it straight to the round file. That doesn’t make them any less right, it just means they’ll have the dubious pleasure of saying “we told you so!” someday in the future when this has gone horribly wrong. The Trib has more.

Regent Square gets off the ground

This has been a long time coming.

More than five years after announcing plans for the 24-acre Regent Square project off Allen Parkway, GID Development Group has begun construction on the first building, a 21-story apartment tower called The Sovereign.

[…]

GID said it remains committed to Regent Square, which is to go up in multiple phases on land abutting Allen Parkway near Dunlavy and Dallas, on the site of the old Allen House Apartments. The development could take 10 years to complete.

Plans include about 400,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space; more than 1,500 residential units; and 250,000 square feet of office space in what the developer refers to as an “urban district” where residents can walk to everything. The walkable nature of the project extends beyond its borders, [GID President James] Linsley said, with a pedestrian trail around Buffalo Bayou and high-end shops and a new Whole Foods a short distance away.

Additional construction could begin in about a year as the company is “moments away” from signing up a major retail tenant, Linsley said.

We heard about movement on this front in May. Like many other projects, it was the collapse of the economy that brought it to a halt. I’m glad to see it finally get going, that’s far too valuable a property to sit vacant like that. Prime Property has more.