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December, 2013:

What is the sound of one politician switching?

It depends.

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge Larry Meyers

When Lawrence Meyers won a seat on the statewide Court of Criminal Appeals in 1992, he was the first Republican elected to the state’s highest criminal court.

This month he made history again. After switching parties, Meyers, who had been a judge in Fort Worth, became the first Democrat to hold statewide office in Texas in the 21st century. Now he is running for a spot on the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court.

Though Meyers was not elected to his current post as a Democrat, his high-level defection has given the party a shot of momentum and some bragging rights ahead of the 2014 elections, said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. But Republican officials suggest that the switch was more about their party’s cramped races and not an indicator of any sea change.

Democrats have not had one of their own in statewide elected office since the late 1990s, and nearly every person switching parties in the last two decades has gone in the opposite direction.

“With this and the candidates that we are fielding in this election, I think people are saying, ‘Wow, this is a totally different Texas Democratic Party,’” Hinojosa said.

Meyers, who has flirted with party-switching in the past, did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans laugh this off, and not without justification. The last R-to-D of any prominence I can think of is former State Rep. Kirk England, who changed sides after the 2007 legislative session. He won re-election as a Dem easily in 2008, then got swept out in the 2010 bloodbath. (He almost certainly would have been a victim of redistricting in 2011 if he had survived 2010; Dallas County lost two districts, and his district number, HD106, is now in Collin County.) It’s nice to have someone with a D after their name in a statewide position, but it’s hard to know what it means just yet. For one thing, as long as Judge Meyers remains mum about his reasons for switching, we don’t know how much of it was motivated by genuine alienation from the Texas GOP, and how much was opportunism. When legislators switch parties, they have multiple colleagues to welcome them and to offer them guidance and a model of legislative behavior. Judge Meyers is the only Dem on his bench. There’s no guarantee his behavior as a judge will change in any way that might reflect the difference in values between his old party and his new one. I don’t need Judge Meyers’ motives to be pure here, but it would be nice to know that there’s more here than a different place for him to send his ballot application.

HHSC publishes rules relating to HB2

HHSC is all in on the omnibus anti-abortion bill passed during the special session this summer.

Texas health officials have a message for the more than 19,000 folks who wrote in to oppose new abortion regulations: Each individual commenter failed to show that clinics will close or that women will face an undue burden under the rules.

In what amounts to a robust defense of Texas’ sweeping new abortion law, the state Health and Human Services Commission is set to publish responses to the crush of public comments it received while wrapping up the last set of regulations for House Bill 2.

Final rules go live Friday in the Texas Register to spell out how the state will implement a portion of the law that requires clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. That document will contain a 16-page preamble to directly address the 19,000-plus commenters who asked regulators to amend the rules to prevent potential widespread clinic closures by carving out waivers for existing facilities

As expected, however, the commission earlier this month gave its blessing to a set of final rules that ignored those requests and instead adhered strictly to legislative intent.

In the document, state health officials argue the new standards will improve patient safety and said the rules are not intended to punish abortion clinics and do not “pose a substantial obstacle to a woman who seeks an abortion in Texas.”

The agency also pointed a finger back at the people who wrote in, saying individual commenters failed to produce even a shred of evidence proving the new rules would cause an undue burden for women seeking an abortion.

“The department is aware of no comments that explain how particular abortion-seeking patients will face unconstitutionally long travel distances, unconstitutionally long wait times, or unconstitutionally high costs for abortion services in any particular part of the state,” according to a copy of the final rules obtained by the Express-News.

The rules are here. It takes a special kind of willfulness to refuse to see any harmful effects of this dangerous and unnecessary legislation, but then these people are Rick Perry appointees, so they’re just doing their jobs. This story only reports on what HHSC was doing, so we go to this Trib story to hear from the folks on the sharp end of HHSC’s antics.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, executive director of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates five abortion clinics in Texas, called the department’s claim that it doesn’t know of any abortion clinics that have closed or will close “preposterous.” She emphasized that the new restrictions have already caused abortion facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, Killeen and Waco to stop performing abortions, leaving thousands of women without access to care.

“Women can still decide to terminate a pregnancy, but thousands of them can no longer actually access safe, professional medical care to receive that termination,” Miller said in an email to the Tribune. “A right is meaningless if you cannot act on it. Without providers, the right to an abortion is an abstraction that does not exist for thousands of Texan women.”

Abortion providers in Texas have challenged the constitutionality of two laws that took effect in November: the admitting-privileges rule and another requiring doctors to follow federal guidelines — rather than a common, evidence-based protocol — when administering drug-induced abortions. The rules finalized on Friday also require abortion facilities to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers starting in September.

Although six abortion facilities already qualify as ambulatory surgical centers, only three of them currently have a physician on staff with hospital admitting privileges. The department wrote in the rules that it’s aware of three ambulatory surgical facilities that abortion providers plan to open in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston by September.

[…]

As the case moves through the courts, roughly a third of abortion providers operating in Texas have discontinued abortion services because they do not have a physician with hospital admitting privileges. Some facilities that discontinued services when the law first took effect now have physicians who have obtained hospital admitting privileges, such as the Whole Woman’s Health facility in Fort Worth.

Planned Parenthood was forced to stop performing abortions at four facilities in Texas when the new law took effect in November because those facilities do not have physicians with such privileges. Planned Parenthood facilities that offered abortions in Bryan, Midland and San Angelo have also recently closed.

Although the finalization of the new rules are a “deeply troubling development,” said Sarah Wheat, vice president of community affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the organization would continue to evaluate its options and take steps to secure women’s access to health services.

“These restrictions will do nothing to protect women’s health and safety, which is why doctors and leading medical groups — as well as thousands of Texans — opposed them,” Wheat said in a statement. “By cutting off access to safe, high-quality medical care, these restrictions will endanger women’s health and safety.”

I suppose one could claim there’s a difference between closing down a clinic that provided abortion services and simply forcing that clinic to stop providing those services, but I daresay it’s a distinction that would be lost on the women who no longer have access to those services. It also rather egregiously ignores the stated intent of Rick Perry, Dan Patrick, and a huge swath of other Republican elected officials, which is to outlaw abortion in Texas, if not in the actual statutes then in the effect of them. If HB2 doesn’t fulfill that goal, then I guarantee you they’ll be back with another bill next session. There’s no end game here – if they succeed at making abortion illegal or impossible, they’ll move on to closing down Planned Parenthood or restricting access to birth control or something else. There will always be something next on their list.

The one thing that won’t be on their list is working to improve health care for women. They claim that that was that goal of HB2, but an amicus brief filed by the American Medical Association and the American College of Gynecologists on behalf of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against HB2 puts the lie to that. From the brief these medical groups filed:

H.B. 2 does not serve the health of women in Texas, but instead jeopardizes women’s health by restricting access to abortion providers and denying women well-researched, safe, evidence-based, and proven protocols for the provision of medical abortion.

[…]

The privileges requirement imposed by H.B. 2 does nothing to enhance the safety of, or healthcare provided to, women in Texas. There is no medically sound reason for Texas to impose a more stringent requirement on facilities in which abortions are performed than it does on facilities that perform other procedures that carry similar, or even greater, risks. Therefore, there is no medically sound basis for H.B. 2’s privileges requirement.

You can see the full brief here (PDF), or click the BOR link above for the highlights. The full appeal of HB2 before the Fifth Circuit is one of many high-profile lawsuits that will be heard beginning next week. There’s still a lot of this story to be told.

HBU wins contraception mandate lawsuit

This is very disappointing.

The federal government cannot force Houston Baptist University to pay for emergency contraception services as part of its employee health insurance plans, according to a ruling Friday by U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal.

The decision is a victory for HBU and East Texas Baptist University in their joint lawsuit against the government over the constitutionality of Affordable Care Act provisions about employer-paid birth control.

“The government doesn’t have the right to decide what religious beliefs are legitimate and which ones aren’t,” said Eric Rassbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm representing the two Texas colleges.

The universities said that obeying the Health and Human Services contraception mandate would violate their religious conscience. In a 46-page opinion, Rosenthal said they proved their positions.

“The belief need not be long-standing, central to (their) religious beliefs, internally consistent with any written scripture or reasonable from another’s perspective. They need only be sincerely held,” Rosenthal wrote.

The Obama administration exempted churches from the mandate, but not affiliated organizations like religious schools and hospitals.

The Obama administration is likely to appeal this ruling, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope. In the meantime, there’s a bigger case working its way towards the Supreme Court, involving secular companies such as Hobby Lobby, which want to establish the principle that corporations can have religious rights. If they win, then the employees of these institutions, who may not share the religious views of the owners of said corporations themselves or who may not even be religious, will have their health insurance options dictated to them.

You may be thinking to yourself “Wait, I thought it was the Catholics that opposed birth control. What’s up with Baptists opposing it?” You would not be the only one wondering about this.

I’m proud to be a part of a movement whose great concern is learning to love your neighbor as you love yourself. And as we move into the New Year, I hope those voices of justice will grow stronger and I wish for some other things as well.

I hope that the Religious Right will drop birth control as an issue. During the political season, the conservative Evangelical case against birth control was loud and clear. I spoke to Frank Schaeffer, one of the founders of the Religious Right, trying to remember my days growing up in a conservative Evangelical household. “I don’t remember birth control ever being an issue before. It wasn’t tied to the Evangelical pro-life movement, was it? Did I miss something?” I asked.

“No. Birth control wasn’t an issue at the beginning.” Schaeffer replied. “This is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In other words, the Religious Right took up the cause of birth control because the Roman Catholic Church is against birth control. Since the Religious Right Evangelicals and some Catholics could join forces and become more powerful in their shared quest to defeat Barack Obama, then they decided to add birth control as an issue. We began to hear the pill referred to more as an “abortifacient.”

I am now a Progressive Presbyterian, but growing up as a teen in a conservative Christian culture, I read Passion and Purity. I was advised to take the pill for medical reasons and refused because I thought it would make sex more tempting. I also thought that using a condom would be like premeditated sin, because you would have to have to buy them beforehand and plan on having sex. But there was no sense that birth control was somehow tied to abortion.

I’m hoping that since the Evangelical tie of birth control to the pro-life movement was a pragmatic political flop, it won’t affect conservative women who want to decide when they are ready to have a child. There is already a teen pregnancy problem in red states. We don’t need to exacerbate the issue, jeopardizing the lives and futures of young women by demonizing birth control.

I guess it’s a good thing for HBU and ETBU that their “belief” need not be “long-standing, central to (their) religious beliefs, internally consistent with any written scripture or reasonable from another’s perspective”, because as recently as last decade, this wasn’t part of their beliefs. In fact, one of their peer institutions that also sued the federal government over this mandate was providing emergency contraception coverage as part of its health insurance plan at the same time it was asking for injunctive relief against being required to provide emergency contraception coverage. Don’t make me do something I’m already doing, Your Honor!

The key to understanding all this is in the quoted bit above. Take a look at the reason the lawsuit was filed in the first place.

Dub Oliver, president of East Texas Baptist University, told KLTV 7 that he opposes the provision because he believes that “life begins at conception” and that contraception drugs cause abortions.

But the statement that “contraception drugs cause abortions” is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of testable, provable fact. And the facts as we now know them show that this belief is mistaken.

Several scientists and doctors said in interviews that this view did not reflect the way the birth control methods actually work. “There’s so much evidence for how these things work prior to fertilization,” said Diana L. Blithe, director of contraceptive development for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “And there’s no evidence that they work beyond fertilization.”

She and other experts said these methods are so effective in preventing fertilization that the chance of an egg and sperm uniting is slim. If fertilization does occur, the embryo runs a high risk of not implanting for natural reasons. While several medical Web sites, including some from government agencies, raise the possibility that the morning-after pill could affect implantation, Dr. Blithe and others said it had not been scientifically verified that the drugs work that way.

One morning-after pill, Plan B, contains a synthetic progesterone that blocks ovulation, said Dr. Anita Nelson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Recent studies have indicated that women who take Plan B after ovulation have a normal chance of becoming pregnant, and that Plan B does not prevent their fertilized eggs from implanting, Dr. Nelson said. Ella, the other morning-after pill, delays ovulation by blocking the body’s progesterone, she said.

She said that Ella was a hormonal cousin of the drug used in an acknowledged abortifacient, RU-486, which is given to women who are up to about seven weeks pregnant and stops the development of an already-implanted embryo. But the RU-486 hormone is a very high dose, between 200 to 600 milligrams, whereas the Ella hormone is 30 milligrams, Dr. Nelson said. She said that Ella had not been tested to see if it prevented implantation. But she added that the RU-486 hormone at low doses acts only to prevent ovulation.

See also this NPR story on the same subject. The evidence at hand was sufficient to convince Catholic bishops in Germany that emergency contraception was acceptable, at least in some cases. But that’s what this is about, conflating birth control with abortion, and teaming up with the Catholic Chuch – the “enemy of my enemy” – against the Obama Administration by conflating birth control with abortion. That says to me that this is much more about politics than it is about faith. To the extent that faith is involved, it’s a matter of convenience. I don’t think that’s worth trumping the rights of the employees of these institutions, and I’m disappointed that Judge Rosenthal bought into it. BOR has more.

Police cameras

It’s disappointing that Houston lags behind other cities in using dashboard cameras in police cars, but I am glad to see we are trying to catch up.

Houston police have fewer dashboard cameras than any major Texas law enforcement agency, providing them with little of the recorded evidence that other departments have to determine whether an officer violated procedures or laws.

Just 5 percent of the Houston Police Department’s fleet of nearly 4,000 vehicles feature dashboard cameras, compared to the Dallas Police Department’s 55 percent, the highest of the six largest law enforcement agencies in the state.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation showed more than one-fourth of civilians shot by HPD from 2008 to 2012 were unarmed, and apparently none of the 121 shootings in that time frame were captured by dash cameras.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland this month announced a program to test 100 small cameras worn on the front of officers’ uniforms, saying this newer technology has made dash cameras obsolete. He did not address the future of HPD’s dashboard cameras.

Policing experts say cameras – mounted in cars or uniforms – are critical to public confidence in law enforcement.

“They are absolutely a benefit. They tell a story,” said professor Geoffrey Alpert, who teaches criminology at the University of South Carolina and is a national expert on policing. “If you have a suspect saying one thing, and the officer another thing, and if you don’t have an electronic witness, you don’t know who’s telling the truth.”

Alpert said research has found that dash cameras support the officer’s account 90 percent of the time, although he notes they are expensive for cities to purchase and operate.

Austin police have installed digital cameras in 38 percent of the department’s 1,335 vehicles. Other agencies with more dash cameras than HPD include Fort Worth, El Paso, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. The Dallas Police Department, the state’s second largest police agency with 3,500 officers, has installed dashboard camera systems in 960 of its 1,757 vehicles, according to an open records request.

There’s really no good argument against having these cameras. They cost money, sure, but they’re a great investment because they provide an indisputably objective account of what happened when police interact with civilians. The case for dashboard cams is the same as the case for recording interrogations, though for reasons I’ve never quite understood there’s more resistance to the latter. I am curious about the proposed use of officer cams instead of dashboard cams, mostly because the officer cams – uniform cams? – are new and don’t have a record of use that we can examine like the dashboard cams do. I can see how the officer cams might provide a better view than static dashboard cams, but I can also imagine a scenario where an officer that might want to obscure what he’s doing could facilitate that by the way he positions himself or angles his body. It’s important to make sure the cams can’t be interfered with.

It’s also important to make sure the operation of the cams is not optional or at the discretion of the officers involved.

Fort Worth police have equipped about one-quarter of their 1,227 vehicles with dashboard cameras. Police union officials there say the biggest problem is officers who forget to turn the cameras on.

“Here’s the deal. If it saves you on one multimillion dollar lawsuit, it would be worth it,” said Sgt. Stephen Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

McClelland, the HPD chief, said the 100 body cameras to be used in a pilot program – including hardware, software and digital storage – costs $2,500 each.

Equipping all 3,000 HPD officers who are first responders would be a significant investment, McClelland said. Using the figures provided by the chief, the cost would be about $7.5 million.

He said anecdotal reports from other departments indicate body cameras have resulted in fewer complaints against officers, along with more convictions in criminal courts.

McClelland said the new technology will also offer “a measure of protection for our police officers against false allegations” and defense in civil litigation.

“This just allows us to have our own video, without being edited by the public or someone’s cellphone video they want to chop up and only show bits of pieces, only the bad parts that they think where maybe it makes the officer look bad and makes them look good,” McClelland said.

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said the cameras must be turned on and off by the officer, who in many situations will instead focus on making an arrest.

“We’re not scared of what the cameras are going to capture, we are fearful that an officer is going to fail to turn it on at a very quickly evolving scene and people are automatically going to think that officer is trying to hide something,” Hunt said.

Which is why it shouldn’t be up to the officers to remember to turn them on. They should either be always on or automatically activated whenever an officer exits the police vehicle. People will have confidence in them only if they know they will always be able to review the video. The first time video isn’t available when there’s been a confrontation between an officer and a civilian, people will have questions. The second time it happens, people will have doubts. If we want this to work and get the maximum benefit from these cameras, they have to be always on when we need them. If they’re not designed that way, they’re not ready to be used. Grits, who is a fan of the officer cams, has more.

City moves anti-same sex spouse benefits lawsuit to federal court

Interesting.

RedEquality

Mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston have moved a lawsuit challenging same-sex benefits out of Republican Judge Lisa Millard’s court after she allegedly halted the benefits without giving the city proper notice.

City Attorney David Feldman filed a “Notice of Removal” on Friday saying the lawsuit belongs in U.S. district court instead of state court because it raises federal questions, including the guarantees of equal protection and due process under the U.S. Constitution. The notice of removal says Millard, who presides over the 310th State District Family Court, failed to notify Parker and the city before holding a hearing at 5 p.m. on Dec. 17 — the same day the lawsuit was filed — and issuing an order halting the benefits.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Harris County Republicans Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, allege the same-sex benefits violate the city’s charter and Texas’ bans on same-sex marriage. The plaintiffs are represented by Harris GOP chair Jared Woodfill, an attorney who has said the suit belongs in Millard’s court because it relates to statutes banning same-sex marriage in the Texas Family Code.

According to a legal expert, the notice of removal filed by the city on Friday automatically moves the case into federal court for the time being. To get it back in state court, the plaintiffs would have to ask a federal judge to remand it.

See here and here for the background. The story speculates, and I am inclined to agree, that the purpose of this maneuver is to get this lawsuit joined with the second lawsuit and deal with them both together. How that plays out, since the two lawsuits against the city are asking for the exact opposite things, will be something to watch. PDiddie has more.

On riding the North Line

Can we wait until we’ve had at least one non-holiday work week before we start talking about North Line ridership numbers? Thanks.

The changes brought by the rail line, an extension of the Main Street Line now known as the Red Line, might develop more gradually than some residents and businesses hope.

Early signs are that riders are flocking to the train. On opening day, when rides were free, Metro estimated 22,054 total boardings, a 59.8 percent increase over the Saturday average for December 2012. This occurred despite sprinkles of rain and an otherwise dreary start to the day.

Officials estimated about 4,500 of those boardings were along the North Line extension. Bus Route 15, which the light rail extension replaces, averaged 1,637 Saturday boardings in October, the latest month for which figures are available.

Ridership was brisk during Christmas week as curious residents hopped aboard and frequent transit riders checked out the extension.

In the documents filed with the FTA in 2009, Metro projected an average weekly ridership of 17,400 daily boardings for the new North Line. That was a projection for 2013, when it was presumed that the line would be operational by then. Let’s assume that’s our projection for 2014. For comparison, the average weekday ridership for the Main Street line was 38,000 daily boardings for the twelve month period running through October. My suspicion is that the 2009 estimate of opening year daily ridership on the North Line will be a bit optimistic due to the Harrisburg and Southeast lines not being operational, but that the totals will rise next year once those lines are up and running. The Southeast line, by the way, had a nearly identical projection of 17,200 average weekday boardings for 2013 back in 2009. The Universities Line, if it ever gets built, has a projection of 32,100 average weekday boardings for an opening year of 2020. The Harrisburg line is funded solely with local money, so there’s no FTA documents for its projected usage, and I couldn’t find anything with some cursory Google searching.

One thing Metro could do a better job of right now is communicating how the “extension” part of the North Line actually works.

Beyond the Northside itself, using the trains takes some adjustment.

Trains run every six minutes during most of the day between the Fannin South station, south of Loop 610, and the Burnett Transit Center north of downtown. North of Burnett, trains run every 12 minutes, meaning half of them turn around at Burnett while half continue northward.

Some riders, unaccustomed to this variation, are finding it difficult to catch the right train.

The schedule is designed to accommodate the line’s ridership without Metro putting too many trains in service, according to David Couch, the transit agency’s vice president for rail construction. As use of the trains increases, he said, wait times will shorten.

The trains rolling through the Northside will pick up more riders when the two lines headed east and southeast of downtown begin service next year. Already on the Northside, riders say they want to see more tracks.

As it happens, Tiffany rode the North Line home from work on Friday, having dropped her car off at the mechanic on the way in. She was on one of the trains that turned around at the Burnett station. Unfortunately, according to her, there was no announcement that passengers needed to disembark – the conductor turned off the lights and exited the train without saying anything – and Metro personnel at the station were uninformed about the situation. She eventually figured it out and caught another train for the remainder of her trip, but it would do Metro and its new riders a lot of good to be very clear about what to expect when you reach the Burnett station. Let’s please not have the next story about the North Line be one whose subject is confused riders who are upset about not having the route properly explained to them, OK?

On another note, the North Line is providing an opportunity to measure the effect of transit on health in Houston.

Now that Metro’s North Line has opened, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are preparing to begin taking the pulse – figuratively, not literally – of the light rail line extension’s impact on physical activity.

“This is a great opportunity to study a mass transit project as it goes forward,” said Harold Kohl III, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology in the UT center’s School of Public Health and the study’s principal investigator. “We know systems such as Metro light rail can improve traffic congestion and connect people to more places in a city, but not so much about the extent to which they encourage walking in nearby residents.”

Kohl said the answer is particularly hard to know in a car-crazy place like Houston, which doesn’t seem a ripe candidate for the sort of active culture one sees circulating around mass transport in, say, Boston, New York, Portland or San Francisco.

If the study finds a significant increase in physical activity, Kohl said, it could be used to help design future rail lines, principally in Houston, but also in other cities. He said the idea should be to incorporate practical destinations – places to work, shop, worship – that encourage people to make the lines part of their everyday lives.

I have no doubt that I was in the best shape of my life in high school, when I was commuting by bus, ferry, and train each day. I didn’t have to walk more than a few blocks at any point, but there were multiple points at which I did have to walk, and several of them involved going up or down stairs. Do that twice a day, five days a week, usually in a rush because you don’t want to miss the next connection, and you’d be in pretty good shape, too. I doubt anyone’s experience will be like that here in Houston, but making daily walks a part of one’s routine surely can’t be bad. I’ll be interested to see if any differences are detected. Of course, the whole idea of any form of transit is to incorporate practical destinations – no one would use it otherwise – but if there’s a measurable health benefit as part of the bargain, that would be nice.

School finance trial do-over set to start soon

Once more into the breach.

Hundreds of school districts in North Texas and across the state will resume their courtroom battle over funding in January, arguing that new money and reduced testing did little to fix Texas’ school finance system.

State and legislative leaders contend changes they approved this year have blunted the districts’ arguments. But the more than 600 districts suing will urge state District Judge John Dietz to reissue his February 2013 ruling that ordered dramatic changes in funding of schools.

Dietz found the system fails to provide enough money for schools to educate all their students to meet the state constitution’s requirements. The judge also said funds are being distributed unfairly.

Dietz withheld his final ruling pending the Legislature’s action in the regular session that ended in late May.

Lawmakers restored much of the funding that was taken away from schools in the state budget crisis of 2011. The bulk of new money helped narrow the wide funding gaps between poor and rich districts. That was a key point of contention in the case.

They boosted funding by $3.4 billion, after a $5.4 billion cut in 2011, and sharply reduced the required high-stakes tests in high school.

But is that enough to sway Dietz and, ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court?

See here, here, here, and here for the background. To sum up, the state will argue that they restored a lot of the funds that were cut, they reduced the amount of tests that needed to be taken, and they prioritized restoring funds to the schools that had the lowest per-student funding rate. Plaintiffs will argue that school districts overall are still underfunded, that most of the tests were cut were ones that weren’t often taken anyway, that large funding disparities still exist, that school districts still have little to no ability to set their own tax rates because of mandated caps, and that very few resources exist for the growing number of non-native English speakers in the public schools. I personally think the plaintiffs have the stronger argument, but we’ll see. The next hearing is January 21.

From the “If at first you don’t succeed” files

Sometimes you have to try try again for 24 years to get what you want.

The road in question

It seems as if he never existed, but he certainly did.

For 24 years, Charles Hixon attended nearly every Harris County Commissioners Court meeting to complain about a drainage problem at his property in Huffman, delivering a speech that evolved only slightly.

But Hixon, 55, who briefly suspended his biweekly plea in 2002 when was trying to unseat his then-county commissioner, Jerry Eversole, has missed the last half-dozen meetings.

At the last one he attended in September, the room fell silent as the gadfly stepped to the speakers’ podium and deviated from his usual script, one that county regulars can recite from memory.

“I’d like to recognize Commissioner Morman for his activity on Palm Lane and encourage your activity to a successful completion,” Hixon told the five-member court. “But I don’t have really too much of an idea as to what you’re doing.”

At the previous meeting, Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman, who had just become Hixon’s commissioner after a long-awaited court ruling that altered precinct boundaries, promised his new constituent he would try to fix his problem. Crews had already been dispatched to the site, Morman told him.

They have since cleared and re-dug the overgrown ditches Hixon had said were “overburdened and do not drain,” installed neat, sturdy culverts in more than a dozen driveways and paved over the dirt and caliche road avoided by U.S. mail trucks and school buses. The work wrapped up early last month.

Hixon has not returned to court to say whether he’s satisfied or returned phone calls requesting comment.

Hixon has been a semi-regular commenter on this blog ever since I noted his then-quixotic attempt to get Commissioners Court to listen to him a decade ago. He finally got some traction on his epic quest in August when he got a new Commissioner.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman aims to free up Charles Hixon’s Tuesday mornings.

The Huffman resident has attended almost every Harris County Commissioners Court meeting for 24 years, delivering the same scripted speech – with minor variations – complaining of a drainage problem at his property in northeast Harris County.

Various officials throughout the years have attempted to mollify the most persistent of gadflies, now in his mid-50s, but most have determined that he could not be helped because his .69-acre lot, between Palm Drive and Cry Baby Lane, sits on a road that is not listed on the county road log, meaning the county is not responsible for maintaining it.

That changed on Tuesday, when the Commissioners Court – at the behest of Morman – voted to take on Palm Drive and its ditches, which Hixon contends “are overburdened and do not drain.”

Morman, of Precinct 2, became Hixon’s commissioner this month when new county precinct boundaries took effect after a long-awaited court ruling on redistricting.

When the first-term commissioner learned he would inherit the persistent constituent, he asked county staff to look into the problem.

“There is a grading issue and a drainage issue, so yeah, there’s a problem for not just this guy, but for all of his neighbors,” Morman said.

Not really clear why Morman decided this was a county issue when everyone else had concluded otherwise, but that’s all in the past. The road is paved, the drainage issue is resolved, and everyone appears to be happy. Commissioners Court meetings may never be the same.

Weekend link dump for December 29

It’s the end of the year as we know it…

Porn filters are ineffective, blocking things they shouldn’t, not blocking things they should, and generally annoying everyone. As someone who was alive and using the Internet in the 90s, I could have told you that.

Death of blogging predicted. Film at 11.

“Under the norm of objectivity that dominates mainstream political journalism in the United States, reporters are supposed to avoid endorsing competing political viewpoints or proposals. In practice, however, journalists often treat centrist policy priorities—especially on fiscal policy—as value-neutral. That’s wrong.”

There’s more than one “Washington, DC”.

“The greatest trick austerians ever pulled was convincing people that it was stimulus that had failed.”

More pardons, please.

This Settlers of Cataan cookbook wins the award for the geekiest thing I saw in 2013.

“I tend to take the stance that Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density”.

The top pro-choice heroes of 2013.

McDonald’s menu tips, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Long term unemployment is a national disaster. Sure would be nice if we did something about it.

The Twelve Days of Buzzfeed Christmas.

The history of the WPIX Yule Log, also known as the most famous animated GIF ever.

What the Left Behind books have to do with the Target data breach.

RIP, Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK47. He appears to have died of natural causes.

Alan Turing gets a posthumous pardon. A brilliant mind and one of the biggest contributors to the Allied effort against the Axis in WWII, he was hounded into committing suicide 60 years ago because he was gay. When you think about all that’s happened just this week, it’s unreal.

How the media would have covered the birth of Jesus if the media as we know had existed back then.

The year in media corrections and other related matters.

And the year in media failures.

Since it’s likely no more a matter of “if” but “when”, we ought to talk about the best way to legalize cannabis while we still can.

RIP, Paul Blair, outstanding centerfielder for the Orioles and Yankees.

Independents’ views on man-made climate change change with the weather. On hotter days, Independents become much, much more likely to claim they believe in man-made climate change”

The rise of solar energy is making utilities nervous, and a bit belligerent.

Dan Savage reads Sarah Palin’s book. You can probably guess what happens next.

Of course A&E unsuspended Phil Robertson. What did you expect? Somewhere, Martin Bashir is kicking himself.

Mayor Parker to get married?

According to CultureMap, the answer is Yes.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Although Mayor Annise Parker has vowed that she and her longtime partner, Kathy Hubbard, will not wed until gay marriage is legal in Texas, in recent interviews the mayor has softened her stance.

“The world is changing so fast, maybe I won’t wait that long,” Parker said last week in a year-end interview with CultureMap when asked when she would marry. “I’m no longer worried that (gay marriage in Texas) is not going to happen in my lifetime. After the Supreme Court ruling and the number of states that now have equal marriage, it’s coming.”

Since then CultureMap has learned that Parker and Hubbard are making wedding plans. Several sources close to the couple said they hope to marry in mid-January in a low-key ceremony and are strongly considering Palm Springs, Calif., for the nuptials.

California is one of 18 states that currently recognize gay marriage. Couples who wed in a state that allows gay marriage are treated as a married couple for federal tax purposes, including income and gift and estate taxes, no matter where they reside, and also receive the same rights for immigration purposes. The policy on Social Security and other federal benefits has not been determined.

The couple would also be eligible for city of Houston health and life insurance benefits. In November, Parker announced that same-sex couples who have legally wed in a state that recognizes such marriages and work for the city of Houston can receive the same health care and life insurance benefits as straight couples. Harris County Republicans are challenging the ruling in court.

As we know, there’s now another lawsuit in this matter. One hopes the injunction will get lifted after the hearing on the sixth. The Chron adds a couple of details.

Parker, recently elected to her third and final term as Houston mayor, long has pledged that she and Hubbard would not marry until Texas legalized same-sex marriage.

In recent public statements, though, the mayor has suggested she might reconsider her position. She said developments such as the Supreme Court’s striking down of the federal Defense of Marriage Act have prompted her to consider the message her inaction might be sending to the couple’s two adopted children.

[…]

Mayoral spokeswoman Jessica Michan said in a statement via email: “The mayor very much appreciates the interest in the 23-year relationship she has shared with her life partner, First Lady Kathy Hubbard. However, marriage is a private matter and she has no announcements she wishes to make at this time. If that changes, we will let you know.”

With the recent ruling in Utah and the injunction hearing coming up in Texas, it’s not out of the question that the Mayor could have her wish to get married in Texas as soon as February. I understand the desire for a bit more certainty, and Lord knows there’s nothing wrong with a destination wedding. I don’t know who CultureMap’s source is, but if this information is accurate I wish Mayor Parker and Kathy Hubbard all the best. Mazel tov, y’all.

The new justice complex

It’s a big deal.

hall_of_justice

Houston leaders are in the early stages of planning a new police headquarters and courthouse complex that Mayor Annise Parker said could be the most important project on which she will work during her six-year tenure.

There is little question the city’s criminal justice facilities are fading. Houston’s central jail at 61 Riesner, the largest of five buildings that make up the justice complex northwest of downtown, is 62 years old.

The 18-acre plot is home to 1,000 Houston Police Department staff, a courthouse with 10 courtrooms, the jail and other operations.

A city study concluded the buildings need $55 million in repairs; Parker noted there is a sinkhole under the courthouse caused by a burst sewer pipe. Officials say police headquarters at 1200 Travis also needs work, is too small and is more office building than police command center. That building would be sold and consolidated into the new justice complex.

“It’s hugely important,” Parker said. “It may not be the largest, but I think it may be the most important, not because of the size of the dollars but because of what it’s taken to get to this point.”

The new complex will not house a jail, thanks to voters’ approval last month of a joint city-county inmate processing center. That decision was preceded by the city opening a sobering center to divert inebriates from city lockups and by police and court staff deciding to retain their downtown headquarters.

A key question is whether to build the complex the traditional way, whereby the city issues bonds, hires designers and contractors, then owns and maintains the finished buildings, or whether to pursue a public-private partnership, or so-called “P3,” by which the city, essentially, would pay rent to a private firm hired to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the facilities.

Ownership would revert to the city after a negotiated period, typically 30 to 50 years.

Is it wrong that I want this thing to be named the Hall of Justice? Because if it is, I don’t want to be right. We won’t begin to receive proposals till March, where it will be located and how we will pay for it are unclear, and we may not break ground until 2016. I expect we’ll hear a lot more about this over the next two years.

Ching and the Dash

Good move.

A few weeks after he was sent into retirement with the first MLS testimonial match, the face of the Dynamo will attempt to build Houston’s new National Women’s Soccer League franchise.

Brian Ching will be the managing director of the NWSL’s Houston Dash. The role will be similar to a general manager’s position, but Ching’s duties will also entail being “the face of the team,” said Dynamo and Dash president Chris Canetti

“I’m excited about it,” said Ching, 35, who has an accounting degree from Gonzaga. “When I stopped playing, I didn’t think that I would be this excited about being in the front office. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to grow the Dynamo brand and make the Dash just as successful as the Dynamo both on and off the field.”

The Dash, who will play their inaugural season in 2014, begin preseason in March and play their season opener in April.

“He’ll work closely with me building this team from the ground up,” Canetti said of Ching. “I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity for him. He wants to be an MLS president one day. I think it’s awesome for the Dash as well.”

When the Comets debuted with the WNBA, they were owned by the Rockets – more specifically, by Les Alexander – but other than playing in the same building and occasionally having Rockets players attend games, there was no obvious tie in between the two franchises. The Comets wound up having enough star power on their own to establish themselves, but a little help from the better known brand never hurts. Having the most famous name from the Dynamo there in the beginning for the Dash makes all kinds of sense. I look forward to seeing who they hire to be their coach and who they get on their initial roster.

Lambda Legal sues Houston over same sex spouse benefits

I didn’t see this coming.

RedEquality

Lambda Legal [Thursday] filed a federal lawsuit against Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the City of Houston seeking to preserve spousal benefits, including health insurance, covering the same-sex spouses of city employees. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf three City of Houston employees legally married to same-sex spouses and follows notification these employees received recently that the City, one month after extending the employee coverage for their spouses, was being forced to withdraw these benefits and cancel the coverage.

“City employees who are married to same-sex spouses are doing the same work as coworkers who are married to different-sex spouses—at the end of the day this case is about equal pay for equal work. These employees, some who have worked for the City for many years, acted in good faith when notified the City was extending health coverage benefits to their legal spouses,” said Kenneth Upton, Senior Counsel in Lambda Legal’s South Central Regional Office in Dallas.

They enrolled for spousal benefits, including health insurance, paid the premiums, scheduled doctor visits and underwent treatments that will require ongoing care. Now, suddenly, the rug is pulled out from under them.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker on November 20, 2013 announced that all lawfully-married city employees, including those who married same-sex partners in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal, would be eligible to enroll for spousal benefits, including health insurance coverage, under the City’s employee benefits health plan. The three plaintiffs named in Lambda Legal’s lawsuit enrolled their spouses as soon as they received notification of the policy change. Shortly thereafter, however, two Houston taxpayers sued the Mayor and the City in Family Law Court claiming the benefits were illegal and, without giving the Mayor or the City notice, secured a temporary restraining order (TRO) blocking extension of the benefits. The City is defending against the challenge to the Mayor’s decision to ensure equal employee benefits for all workers.

See here and here for more on the lawsuit and injunction that forced the city to suspend health insurance enrollments for same sex spouses, and here for more on the original order to provide those benefits. It’s clear from reading this that Lambda Legal is taking this action not to oppose the city but to support it in its defense against the injunction. I’m not a lawyer, but I presume the reason why Lambda Legal filed this separate action was for the purpose of having the two lawsuits joined so they could directly contribute to the defense against the injunction. I trust one of the lawyers in my audience will correct me if I’m wrong about that. The hearing will be Monday, January 6, so I hope we get a quick and favorable resolution to this. I also hope the Chronicle takes note of this new development sometime before then. The brief filed by Lambda Legal is here, and you can keep track of developments in the case here. Link via BOR.

Meanwhile, in Utah, it’s off to the Supreme Court for one last shot at stopping the tide from coming in.

Utah officials will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a lower-court ruling allowing same-sex marriage in the state, the state attorney general’s office said Thursday.

Newly appointed Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes will seek a stay of the federal judge’s ruling after state officials consult first with outside attorneys over the next few days.

“It is the intent of the Attorney General’s Office to file with the Supreme Court as soon as possible,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.

The emergency appeal, when filed, would go to Justice Sonia Sotomayor because she has jurisdiction over appeals from Utah and nearby states. She could rule on the state’s application herself or ask the entire nine-member court to weigh in.

Sotomayor is likely to refer the Utah request to the entire court, as is tradition with high-profile traditional cases, said Carl Tobias, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond.

The forces against progress probably shouldn’t get their hopes up.

To secure a stay of the ruling, the state has to prove two things, says Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah professor of law and expert on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender legal issues. First, the state would have to prove that they are likely to win, Rosky, a gay-rights advocate, said this week. Second, they would have to prove that allowing the marriages to proceed would do “irreparable harm.” With hundreds of gay couples having already received licenses, that second argument is hard to make, he argues.

“If same-sex couples have already begun to marry, in the hundreds now, what would be the ‘irreparable harm’ of additional same-sex couples marrying?” he said early this week. “The cat’s out of the bag.”

Whatever happens, expect things to move quickly, Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and a constitutional law expert, told the Salt-Lake Tribune. ”The state has always thought time was of the essence, and the justices are likely to agree and move very quickly once the papers are in,” he said.

As of the end of the day Dec. 26, at least 905 same-sex couples had received marriage licenses in Utah since last Friday’s ruling, according to the paper. And that’s despite the holidays and some county clerks’ initial reluctance to issue the licenses. Salt Lake County alone issued 353 such licenses Monday, dwarfing a previous record of 85.

You almost have to feel a little sympathy for SCOTUS having this issue dropped in their laps so quickly after their previous ruling.

“If the court thought it was going to get a few years,” said Michael C. Dorf, a law professor at Cornell, “I think they were naïve.”

The Supreme Court’s two decisions in June were finely balanced, with legal experts saying they had achieved the twin goals of advancing the cause of gay rights and avoiding a backlash in parts of the country not ready to embrace same-sex marriage.

One decision struck down the part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples in states that allowed such unions. The other declined to say whether the Constitution required states to allow such marriages in the first place.

Since then, the pace of change has been very rapid. When the justices heard arguments in the cases in March, same-sex marriage was permitted in nine states and the District of Columbia. If the Utah decision stands, the number of states allowing such marriages will have doubled, to 18.

[…]

Michael J. Klarman, a historian at Harvard Law School and the author of “From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage,” said he had expected rapid change — but not this rapid.

“The Utah decision is unique,” he added, “because it’s in a state with so much opposition to same-sex marriage. In Utah, you’re going to have a real experiment in backlash.”

Just wait and see what happens if the state of Texas gets injuncted. The hot air that will get generated will be enough to make Mars a temperate zone.

Professor Dorf said there are probably not five votes on the Supreme Court to block Judge Shelby’s ruling. “On the strictly legal argument,” he said, “it’s hard to justify granting a stay.”

But he added that the lower courts should have done so, partly because of the potential cruelty of voiding the new marriages and partly because the Supreme Court is hard to predict.

“It’s pretty clear that even the five justices who are sympathetic to same-sex marriage would rather take a few years before getting there,” Professor Dorf wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “If their hand is forced, as it now will be, it’s impossible to say with certainty what they’ll do.”

Of course, if SCOTUS had taken the bull by the horns in June and come to the correct conclusion that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, we wouldn’t be here now. To sum up, I agree with Josh Marshall.

Now there are some conceivable federalism grounds where you could maybe eke out a reason why the Constitution bars the federal government from doing something but allows it to states. But it’s a big stretch and probably an impossible one in a country where opposition to same sex marriage is declining rapidly every year. There’s also the real world reality that the 10th Circuit denial of a stay seems certain to guarantee a pretty substantial population of same sex couples in the state by the time the appellate Court actually comes to a decision.

In this sense – and not to be overly dramatic – it’s almost reminiscent of the Fall of the Berlin Wall – when actions on the ground, literally on the ground, swept a lot of details and technicalities before it and presented authorities with faits accompli they were likely to accept eventually much more rapidly than they would have preferred.

So yes, this will percolate a bit, as they say. Decisions will come up through the individual Circuits. In pretty short order, the Supreme Court will be forced to revisit the issue. And their our logic in the Windsor case will join forces with the march of public opinion to make it almost impossible for them not to issue a broad ruling which invalidates every gay marriage ban in country.

I think everybody, on each side of the issue, has realized for the past two or three years that it’s only a matter of time till this happens. But the decade of different policies from state to state now seems like it won’t happen. I don’t want to end without noting that a lot of lawyering remains to be done and nothing is ever certain and even when it’s all but certain it’s not easy. But I see little way to look at the last week and not conclude that gay marriage will be the law of the land in every state in the country in the near future. Probably during the Obama presidency and maybe sooner still.

It’s just a matter of time now. And given that it’s just a matter of time, sooner is better than later. Why make this harder than it needs to be?

We need to take better care of our water

We lose way too much of it because our infrastructure is old and in need of replacement.

At a time when the Lone Star State is facing a grave water shortage and its population is expected to double by 2060, billions of gallons are hemorrhaging from Texas’ leaky old pipes.

The exact loss is unknown as only 10 percent of the state’s 3,500 utilities were required to report their 2012 losses. But in Houston, enough water seeped from broken pipes to supply 383,000 residents for one year.

According to city records, Houston pipelines gushed 22.4 billion gallons of water in 11,343 leaks last fiscal year. That equates to about 15.2 percent of the city’s total water supply.

No state standard exists on an acceptable loss rate, but some utilities manage to hold their losses to single digits.

Proposition 6, which Texas voters approved last month, could help fund some Houston pipeline improvements since 20 percent of the $2 billion was set aside for statewide conservation efforts. The fund is designed to secure the state water supply for the next 50 years.

“We are still working on establishing the rules for using this money. It should be available by 2015,” said John Sutton, Texas Water Development spokesman.

Mayor Annise Parker’s spokeswoman, Jessica Michan, said the city plans to go after the conservation funds.

Michan said the city already has a separate request in with the TWD for $71 million to rebuild 130 miles of pipe. That request is still pending.

Alvin Wright, Houston’s public works spokesman, said it would take an “astronomical sum”- several billion dollars – to upgrade Houston’s entire system.

Well, water conservation is on Mayor Parker’s third term agenda. I don’t know how much they’ll be able to fund via this mechanism, but perhaps there are some high-value projects that can be done first. This sort of work really needs to be done, and should be prioritized because the fewer the leaks, the less new capacity that will need to be built. There’s plenty of this kind of work to be done across the state, and around the country. Ideally, there would be a federal program to provide grant money for all this work, but Republican nihilism plus an obsessive myopia about the deficit means that will never happen. Prop 6 was far from perfect, but it was the best we were going to get. Let’s make the most of it.

More security cameras coming

You’re being recorded, like it or not.

Houston is adding 180 downtown surveillance cameras despite shrinking national security grants and research showing that video feeds only sometimes improve public safety.

By early next year, the Houston Police Department will have nearly 1,000 camera feeds available. Most record public areas around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District.

“With all the homeland security requirements that we have – we have more critical infrastructure to protect than New York City – we can’t do it without video,” said HPD Chief Charles McClelland.

Federal Homeland Security grants first issued in 2003 sparked a rush in many American cities to expand video surveillance networks in an attempt to deter or help apprehend terrorists. With cameras in place and police agencies collaborating at unprecedented levels, local departments also have used the video networks to combat local crime amid shrinking patrol budgets in many cities.

“We see the federal government handing out lots of money for anti-terrorism programs, but it actually ends up being used against parole violators and to issue traffic tickets,” said David Maass, spokesman for the civil rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the technology is necessary for modern police work.

“It is almost professional malpractice not to have technology deployed in public areas where you know large groups of people are going to gather on a regular basis,” Bradford said earlier this month after the City Council approved grant funding for 180 new cameras downtown.

Nancy La Vigne, a justice policy researcher with the nonprofit Urban Institute, said cameras can help but never replace officers patrolling a beat.

“You need that human interaction,” La Vigne said.

She pointed to her 2011 study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, analyzing local use of surveillance networks. Her findings showed the effects on crime and cost benefits varied widely.

The city of Houston has had downtown cameras since 2007, and cameras in other parts of the city more recently. (We also have a lot of traffic monitoring cameras, but they don’t appear to be part of this discussion.) It would be nice if we could get some objective data about their effectiveness in Houston, if only so we could know where they might be best deployed going forward. Unfortunately, all we’ve got is anecdotal information. How can we know if we’re using these things to their best advantage, or if we’re even using them effectively at all, without some kind of metrics in place? I’d feel better about this expenditure if someone could show me some numbers.

Friday random ten – Olivia’s year in music

Olivia’s now been an iPod owner for more than a year, and last year she got a bunch of iTunes money that she still hasn’t fully spent. Here’s a sample of the songs she has added to her collection in 2013.

1. Applause – Lady GaGa
2. Come & Get It – Selena Gomez
3. Eat It – Weird Al Yankovic
4. Don’t Stop The Music – The Treblemakers
5. Cups – Anna Kendrick
6. Roar – Katy Perry
7. She’s So Mean – Matchbox Twenty
8. Gold – Britt Nicole
9. Good Girl – Carrie Underwood
10. Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen

Perry and GaGa are two of Olivia’s favorite artists. “Eat It” was added after a friend showed her the video, which she thought was hilarious. “Don’t Stop The Music” and “Cups” are both from the movie “Pitch Perfect”, which again she saw via a friend; I think she may have seen that movie at a sleepover birthday party. Anyway, there’s a scene in the movie that involves a singer barfing, which she also thought was hilarious. Nine-year-olds, what are you gonna do? “She’s So Mean” was playing on the radio as I was driving her somewhere. She asked me what the name of the song was, and since I didn’t know I handed her my cellphone, gave her the call-in number for KACC, and told her to ask the DJ. That’s another great thing about that station – you can almost always get through to the DJ to ask those questions. And now you know what The Kids These Days are listening to. In February, Audrey will be getting my mom’s old iPod as a hand-me-down, so we’ll see what kind of music she asks me to get for her. So far her tastes overlap Olivia’s pretty closely, but this will be her chance to break out. I’m sure I’ll have a report on this at a later date.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.

A lot more court action on same sex marriage is coming

One way or another, 2014 is going to be a milestone year for marriage equality.

RedEquality

Advocates on both sides of the gay marriage debate predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that overturned part of a federal ban on gay marriage would create a pathway for states to act.

They were right.

In the six months since the decision, the number of states allowing gay marriage has jumped from 12 to 18, a trend that started before the high court ruling that’s been reinforced since. Judges in New Mexico, Ohio and, most surprisingly, conservative, Mormon-heavy Utah all ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in just the past week. Both Utah’s case and another in Nevada will next be heard by federal appeals courts, putting them on the path toward the high court. Ohio’s case, which recognized same-sex death certificates, also will likely be appealed.

The series of court decisions has many asking: When will the Supreme Court step in and settle the issue for good?

[…]

More state rulings in favor of gay marriage could be in the works in 2014. The thinking goes, if it can happen in ultra-conservative Utah, it can happen anywhere. Utah is home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which still teaches its members homosexuality is a sin despite a softening of their rhetoric in recent years.

“The ruling has had a symbolic impact already,” Jon Davidson, director of Lambda Legal, which pursues litigation on LGBT issues nationwide. “It is recognition that the nation’s attitudes, from public to legislative to judicial, are changing very rapidly in all parts of the country.”

“And the opponents, many of them, are moving on,” said William Eskridge, a professor at Yale Law School. “We are not seeing the same kind of Armageddon rhetoric we saw in the 1990s.”

A federal judge in Michigan will hear testimony from experts in February before deciding whether to throw out the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Two federal lawsuits in Virginia, including one being led by the same legal team that challenged California’s ban, are moving forward.

Eskridge disagrees with those who say the Supreme Court won’t act, predicting justices will get involved in the gay marriage dispute in the next year or two.

Different branches of the government are acting, he said — lawmakers, state courts, and federal courts — which could convince the justices to step in.

By “state rulings” they really mean “federal district court rulings”. You can add Texas to the list, though it’s just at the injunction stage, as was Utah. You want to see Armageddon rhetoric, just wait and see what happens if Judge Orlando Garcia puts the kibosh, however temporarily, on Texas’ Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage constitutional amendment. I don’t think we’re going to be able to escape that being a campaign issue next year.

Speaking of campaign issues, Indiana may be going old school.

Dominated by Republicans and steeped in traditional values, Indiana seemed among the least likely places to become a battleground in the nation’s debate over same-sex marriage when the legislature overwhelmingly chose in 2011 to push forward a state constitutional amendment barring gay couples from marrying.

But in the two years since, the landscape has shifted as voters, lawmakers and courts began recognizing same-sex marriage in places like Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico and as the United States Supreme Court declared parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. In just the past few days, a federal judge struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in Utah, home of the Mormon Church, and a federal appeals court rejected a request to halt the marriages on Tuesday. A federal judge in Ohio found that same-sex marriages should be recognized on death certificates.

So suddenly Indiana, where lawmakers in the coming weeks are expected to call for the second vote needed to put a ban before voters in the fall elections, is now in a far more tense, unpredictable and closely watched spot than anyone here had imagined — a test case in whether a state will impose new limits on same-sex marriage in this fast-moving political and legal environment.

“What happens in Indiana is critical,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage. He and other opponents hope the outcome here will reveal that shifts in public sentiment over the last few years are not as widespread as some may think.

Supporters of same-sex marriage, however, are pouring money and effort into defeating the measure in Indiana, a possibility that seemed unthinkable not long ago but one that advocates now insist is conceivable. They say victory in a conservative place like Indiana would be a turning point in a fight that has largely been waged in more predictable, left-leaning states or in the courts. “That would send a clear message to opponents of marriage equality that it’s time to be done fighting this battle,” said Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director of the Human Rights Campaign.

As lawmakers prepare to return for a new legislative session in January, it is an especially awkward spot for Republicans, who dominate both chambers of the General Assembly. With an election year ahead and the risk of primaries in May, the issue is pitting socially conservative groups, who are urging a constitutional ban, against sometime allies in the state’s business community, who say a ban could cause Indiana economic harm.

Few Republicans now seem eager to talk about the issue, and some legislative aides said it was not entirely certain who would formally file the legislation in January.

Sure does suck when the wedge issue turns you into the fulcrum, doesn’t it? With all that’s happening you might think that Indiana Republicans would be wise to wait and see where the courts are going before pursuing legislation that may be pre-declared unconstitutional, but that would require their GOP primary voters to behave rationally. Good luck with that.

The dry Heights

What’s a guy got to do to get a drink around here?

Heights dry map

Eighty years after the repeal of Prohibition – the anniversary of which came and went with hardly a toast last week – there is a sliver of Houston where the booze is still banned.

And for more than 100 years, that’s been just fine with the residents of the Houston Heights.

Back when it was a city on its own and not a historic Houston neighborhood in the shadows of the skyscrapers, Heights Mayor David Barker led a campaign to rid it of the saloons that were springing up on 19th Street.

One of those saloons had become famous due to Jennie Yon Yon, a monkey who would ascend into the sky every Sunday afternoon in a hot air balloon to entertain the festive crowds.

It was never, it seems, a moral issue pitting pros against antis. The good people of the City of Houston Heights simply wanted to protect their property values, says Sister Mary Agatha, an Incarnate Word teacher who grew up there, in the book she wrote on the neighborhood.

The boundaries of this island in alcoholic seas are not neat. But they basically follow an elongated area between the North Loop and I-10, bounded on the east by Studewood and on the west by North Durham.

There are irregularities to this rectangle, though, which have spread confusion over the years.

“The question of boundaries affected by the law comes more frequently to the Heights library for solution than any other purely local inquiry,” Sister Mary Agatha tells us. The Heights was annexed by Houston in 1918 and one would have thought that 15 years later, when the repeal of Prohibition opened the beer taps across the country, that would have applied to the dry Heights.

It didn’t. The legal underpinnings of that reality, however, were not resolved until 1937, when the Texas Supreme Court said the Heights was dry and would remain so until the people within the original boundaries of the neighborhood voted to make it other.

This is a subject that has been discussed in some depth – see, for example, Houstorian from 2007 and this Houston Heights newsletter from 2009; the Leader News had a story in November as well – but it’s one of the quirkier things about Houston’s history, so it’s always interesting. One of the irregularities as I understand it is that at least in some places, the eastern border is Oxford, not Studewood. This is why so many bars and restaurants with full bars have popped up on White Oak just west of Studewood, but very little has happened past where Onion Creek is. I’m not sure if this is the case at 11th Street or not; Berryhill has a full bar, but I’ve heard that they’re on a site that used to be an icehouse and they inherited a grandfathered exception to the dry regulations as a result. Like the story says, it’s confusing. I seriously doubt anything will change about the status quo. Residents of the neighborhood don’t want any more places that sell alcohol near them. Several of the existing bars and restaurants on White Oak encountered resistance from nearby residents that were concerned about noise and drunks, and some contention remains to this day. There are ways around the restrictions. Some places do BYOB, some operate as “private clubs” for which you have to buy a token membership before you can imbibe. One way or another it all works out.

Another court says No to Utah

And Yes to the hundreds of couples getting married.

RedEquality

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that gay marriages can continue in Utah, denying a request from the state to halt same-sex weddings that have been occurring at a rapid rate since last week.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ rejection of Utah’s request for an emergency stay marks yet another legal setback for the state. The same federal judge who ruled that Utah’s same-sex marriage ban violates gay and lesbian couples’ rights previously denied the state’s request to halt the marriages.

The appeals court said in its short ruling that a decision to put gay marriage on hold was not warranted, but said it put the case on the fast track for a full appeal of the ruling.

Utah’s last chance to temporarily stop the marriages would be the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s what the UtahAttorney General’s Office is prepared to do, said spokesman Ryan Bruckman. “We’re disappointed in the ruling, but we just have to take it to the next level,” Bruckman said.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s office declined comment on the decision.

Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at Virginia’s University of Richmond who has tracked legal battles for gay marriage, thinks Utah faces long odds to get their stay granted, considering two courts have already rejected it and marriages have been going on for days now.

“The longer this goes on, the less likely it becomes that any court is going to entertain a stay,” Tobias said.

It’s certainly possible that Utah could prevail in court later, when the 10th Circuit rules on the merits of the case. Seems increasingly unlikely that will happen, given the rulings so far and the certainty that by the time the appeal is heard it will be clear that no harm has come to anyone as a result of these nuptials, but you never know. I don’t know what the 10th Circuit’s calendar looks like, but it’s possible that by the time they have their hearing that Texas’ case could have been heard, and that there may be an injunction in place in Texas as well. I know I was dismissive of the chance that an injunction could be put in place against Texas’ anti-gay marriage law, but that was before the developments in New Mexico, Utah, and Ohio. It’s impossible to miss the pattern that’s being set, and it’s impossible to overlook the potential implications. I’m somewhat amazed that there hasn’t been more of a reaction to all this from Texas Republicans, many of whom are falling all over themselves to stand with that Duck Dynasty guy. Maybe their attention span is too small, maybe they’re in denial, or maybe they can see it coming and just don’t want to talk about it, I don’t know. I imagine we’ll hear plenty if Texas gets the same treatment from the courts that Utah has gotten.

Lone Star Santas

I love this story by Lisa Gray.

Yes, Santa drives a pickup

When Jim Fletcher asked his fiancee whether she’d mind if he grew a beard, Madge Boyer didn’t realize what she was getting into.

That was in early 2007, not long after he’d played Santa for his civic club Christmas party. In the red suit, he wasn’t just a retired product quality engineer. He was the party’s focus, the object of children’s adoration and adult smiles. Madge, who’d played Mrs. Claus, had a good time, too. But she thought that was that.

As his beard grew in, though, Jim began to wear red every day: Red suspenders, red sneakers, red shorts, polo shirts with candy-cane stripes, even a red business suit. He traded in the costume-shop Santa suit for tailor-made editions. His belt buckles said “SANTA.” He hand-carved an elaborate walking cane and, for formal occasions, a tall staff emblazoned with reindeer.

When working in the yard, he’d add a red cap to his regular work clothes. If he had to drop by the hardware store, he’d shower first and change into an outfit worthy of his station.

He studied “Behind the Red Suit,” a book about the business side of Santa-hood. At a Dallas seminar hosted by the International University of Santa Claus, he learned Santa history and lore, as well as the fine points of beard maintenance. He swore the Santa Claus oath, promising to use his powers to “create happiness, spread love and make fantasies come to life.” He printed business cards with a number for his “sleigh phone.” During the off-season, he kept his 100-year-old mahogany Santa throne by the living-room fireplace.

When Jim and Madge went to restaurants, children’s heads swiveled. He’d leave her at the table and go talk to every kid in the place. On the freeway, admirers snapped photos of him behind the wheel of his red pickup, with its CLAUS license plates. “It was like being with a movie star,” Madge says. “I didn’t like it at first.”

But Jim was no longer just Jim; he’d become Santa Jim. Santa was part of the Jim Fletcher package.

[…]

After the holidays, the Fletchers spend a surprising amount of time in the company of other Claus couples. In Jim’s first year as a Santa, he helped launch Lone Star Santas, a fraternal organization open to Clauses, Mrs. Clauses, elves and reindeer herders. The first meeting, in Brenham, attracted about five Santas. Now, with roughly 120, it’s one of the biggest regional Santa groups in the country.

It’s an inclusive group, Jim says proudly. Some Santa organizations limit membership to real-beard Santas, but Lone Star Santas has at least two “skin chins” in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. (Their day jobs don’t permit facial hair.) Membership includes Hispanic Santas, at least one black Santa and a couple of gay ones. “We even had one gal – a rotund, jolly gal – who talked to us about joining as a Santa, not a Mrs. Claus,” Jim says. “She didn’t end up joining. But as long as someone passes the background check, pays their dues and has the spirit of Christmas, that’s all we care about.”

This. That’s what it’s all about. It’s what Santa Claus stands for, not what he – or she – looks like. I could quote the whole thing, but I’ll hold back. Just go read it and feel good about the spirit of giving that makes Santa Claus what he is.

Texas Left Me Out

This.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Obamacare advocates are actively recruiting those left out of the Medicaid expansion in Republican-controlled states to lobby state officials to change their minds and participate in that key provision of the health care reform law.

So far, the effort is most organized in Texas, which is also the state with the most people in that Medicaid expansion gap: 1 million. But it’s likely to pick up elsewhere as the Obama administration and outside advocates apply pressure to the 25 states that have resisted expansion for the first year.

Texas Left Me Out, the combined effort of several community groups, is a website designed to collect those people’s stories and organize them into a cohesive political action constituency. It asks those in the Medicaid gap to sign a petition to stay informed about advocacy events and share their story on the site.

Are they going to turn Texas blue on the backs of people who have traditionally been ignored by Republicans? Are they going to convince an anti-Obamacare stalwart like Rick Perry to buy into the law? That’s a tough sell. But they’re going to try.

“When you personalize a policy, when you make it real, it’s always much more powerful. It’s always going to resonate,” Tiffany Hogue, state health care campaign coordinator at the Texas Organizing Project, one of the groups involved with the campaign, told TPM. “People have really have awakened to the fact that people really are getting left behind.”

Texas Left Me Out had a soft launch in October in preparation for a January rollout. The Texas Organizing Project says it has already contacted 100,000 people who are in the gap and convinced 20,000 to commit to be part of the campaign. They hope that those numbers will grow substantially before the Texas legislature reconvenes in 2015, its next opportunity to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. They’ve set recruitment targets for specific legislative districts to focus their efforts.

The broader coalition is also eyeing the 2014 elections. The presumed Democratic frontrunner for governor, state Sen. Wendy Davis, has enthusiastically endorsed expansion, and a more Democratic legislature would also be more likely to sign onto a major piece of the health care reform law.

The strategy is simple: sheer political force. They’ll ask people to turn up at legislative committee hearings and stage protests at the state capitol. Conference calls and press conferences will be the norm. They aren’t waiting for 2015 either. A group is going to a state insurance department meeting Dec. 20 to rally for expansion.

The website is here. I’m not at all surprised to see that Progress Texas is one of the forces behind it. The goals are ambitious, but we’re not going to get anywhere by thinking small.

And despite the ferocious efforts by Texas Republicans to deny health care coverage to its residents, demand for health insurance is strong.

Texas has the second-highest number of people who have purchased health plans through the embattled online insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act, according to enrollment figures for October and November released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But as a percentage of the uninsured in the second-largest state — which has the nation’s worst rate of health coverage — the number is tiny: 14,000 Texans had purchased coverage through healthcare.gov by the end of November.

The number of people who purchased coverage in the federal marketplace, which has been riddled with technical problems, was four times higher in November than in October: 137,204 people, including 14,000 Texans, had purchased coverage there as of the end of November, whereas only 27,000 people, including 3,000 Texans, had purchased coverage there at the end of October.

“Evidence of the technical improvements to HealthCare.gov can be seen in the enrollment numbers,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, said in a press statement.

Florida had the highest enrollment numbers, with 17,900 people purchasing coverage in the federal marketplace, followed by Texas, and Pennsylvania, with 11,800 people purchasing coverage. 2.2 million people, including 245,000 Texans, have now completed applications through the federal marketplace.

Texas has the nation’s highest rate of people without health insurance at 24.6 percent, according to U.S. Census data. About 48 million Americans — including more than 6 million Texans — were uninsured in 2011 and 2012.

Those numbers are two weeks old now, but there’s no indication that the pace has slowed since then. Remember when you hear a Texas Republican whine about Obamacare that they have been in complete control of Texas’ government for over a decade now. If they cared at all about those six million uninsured people, they’ve had ample opportunity to do something about it. But they don’t, so they haven’t. Nothing will change until our state government changes. That’s why efforts like Texas Left Me Out matter.

Your Mel Torme Christmas moment

Every year on Christmas Day, I link to my favorite Christmas story, which stars Mel Torme. Apparently, this story is so popular now that it gets ripped off a lot, which sure seems to be contrary to the Christmas spirit if you ask me. But let’s not worry about such things this morning. Merry Christmas to you and yours. May your days be merry and bright, and may the new year bring you all the joy you can handle.

Tuesday video break: With how much care are your stockings hung?

Christmas Eve, y’all. You know what that means.

I’ll post the Mel Torme story tomorrow. Until then, Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Keep getting married, Utah

You have at least a few more days till the next court ruling.

RedEquality

A federal judge on Monday allowed gay marriage to continue in Utah, rejecting a request to put same-sex weddings on hold as the state appeals a decision that has sent couples flocking to county clerk offices for marriage licenses.

Judge Robert J. Shelby overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage Friday, ruling the voter-approved measure is a violation of gay couples’ constitutional rights. The state then asked him to put a stop to the weddings, but he rejected the request.

Shelby’s ruling is far from the end of the legal wrangling on the topic. The state quickly filed a request with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put gay marriage on hold, and that court could rule as soon as Monday evening or Tuesday. The same court, in Denver, likely will hear the full appeal of the case several months from now.

In the meantime, the rush on marriage licenses continues for gay couples around Utah.

More than 300 gay couples have obtained marriage licenses since Friday in Utah’s most populous county. On Monday, an estimated 100 licenses were issued in other counties, while some clerks shut their doors as they awaited Shelby’s decision.

[…]

Even if the 10th Circuit grants a stay, the marriages licenses that already have been issued probably will remain valid, said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at Virginia’s University of Richmond who has tracked legal battles for gay marriage. It’s not entirely certain, however, because Utah’s situation has unfolded differently than other states, and there’s no direct precedent, he said.

The appeals court already has rejected two previous requests from the state due to procedural issues, but it has not yet considered the case based on merits.

Who knows what will happen with the appeals court, but for now the biggest obstacle is recalcitrant county clerks.

Judge Shelby explicitly said his ruling allows all people the “fundamental right” of marriage. He said counties who don’t comply are breaking the law.

In Utah County, the clerk’s office was not issuing same-sex marriage licenses even after Shelby ruled, and they turned away at least three couples. Utah County Clerk Bryan E. Thompson told The Salt Lake Tribune he would wait to see how the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled on Shelby’s decision before deciding how to proceed.

I hope they come around on their own, because the state sure isn’t going to enforce that requirement. Be that as it may, this is a joyful week for a lot of people in Utah, and I daresay a hopeful one for folks in Texas and other states like it. If it can happen in Utah, it can truly happen anywhere. Take a look at some happy couples here and let your heart grow a size or two.

By the way, Utah wasn’t the only place where the cause of marriage equality was being expanded this week. Via Freedom to Marry, a judge in Ohio has gotten in on the act, too.

A federal judge Monday ordered Ohio authorities to recognize gay marriages on death certificates, saying the state’s ban on such unions is unconstitutional and that states cannot discriminate against same-sex couples simply because some voters don’t like homosexuality.

Although Judge Timothy Black’s ruling applies only to death certificates, his statements about Ohio’s gay-marriage ban are sweeping, unequivocal, and are expected to incite further litigation challenging the law. Ohio’s attorney general said the state will appeal.

Black cited the Supreme Court’s June decision striking down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law, saying that the lower courts are now tasked with applying that ruling.

“And the question presented is whether a state can do what the federal government cannot — i.e., discriminate against same-sex couples … simply because the majority of the voters don’t like homosexuality (or at least didn’t in 2004),” Black said in reference to the year Ohio’s gay marriage ban passed. “Under the Constitution of the United States, the answer is no.”

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex weddings, up from six before the Supreme Court decision.

Black wrote that “once you get married lawfully in one state, another state cannot summarily take your marriage away,” saying the right to remain married is recognized as a fundamental liberty in the U.S. Constitution.

“When a state effectively terminates the marriage of a same-sex couple married in another jurisdiction, it intrudes into the realm of private marital, family, and intimate relations specifically protected by the Supreme Court,” he wrote.

Black referenced Ohio’s historical practice of recognizing other out-of-state marriages even though they can’t legally be performed in Ohio, such as those involving cousins or minors.

Go read that Freedom to Marry for analysis of what that means. What I take from it is that it rips a pretty big hole in the state of Texas’ arguments about gay divorce. It sure feels to me like the walls are closing in on the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage Constitutional Amendment. I can only wonder what the reaction will be like from the state GOP when the inevitable happens.

Merry Christmas from Pancho Claus

If it’s Christmas time, it must be time for a Pancho Claus story.

Santa and Pancho

He usually has black hair and a black beard, sometimes just a mustache. Like Santa, he wears a hat — though often it’s a sombrero. He dons a serape or a poncho and, in one case, a red and black zoot suit. And he makes his grand entrance on lowriders or Harleys or led by a pack of burros instead of eight reindeer.

Meet Pancho Claus, the Tex-Mex Santa.

Amid all the talk about Santa Claus’ race, spawned by a Fox News commentator’s remarks that both Santa and Jesus were white, there is, in the Lone Star State, a Hispanic version of Santa in cities from the border to the plains — handing out gifts for low-income and at-risk children.

Born from the Chicano civil rights movement, Pancho Claus is a mostly Texas thing, historians say, though there may be one somewhere in California. Lorenzo Cano, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Houston, says Pancho was apparently conceived north of the border as Mexican-Americans looked to “build a place and a space for themselves” in the 1970s. His rise coincided with a growing interest in Mexican art, Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day and other cultural events.

Now, Pancho is an adored Christmas fixture in many Texas cities.

“We have kids that we ask, ‘Did Santa Claus come to see you?’ and they say, ‘No he didn’t. But Pancho Claus did,'” says Robert Narvaiz, vice commander for Lubbock’s American GI Forum and coordinator of that city’s Pancho project.

Each city’s Pancho has a unique local flavor, but all share roots that set Pancho apart from Santa. Here’s a look at just a few. Oh, and Feliz Navidad, amigos.

For God’s sake, don’t tell Megyn Kelly about this! I’ve blogged about Pancho Claus before – Houston’s version is played by Richard Reyes, whom you see in the photo above, but he’s far from the only one, and his look as Pancho Claus is unique to him. I love reading about Pancho Claus, not just because of the good works the various Panchos do, but also because of the beautiful way he represents the utility and versatility of the Santa Claus story. There are as many variations on Pancho Claus as there are on Santa Claus/Father Christmas, and it always amazes me how adaptable that legend is. It’s true that there are some people whose small minds can’t handle anything that doesn’t resemble themselves or the stories they grew up with, but those people will always be with us in one form or another. No reason to let them detract from the wonder of Pancho Claus. Feliz Navidad, y’all.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 23

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a joyful and joyous holiday at it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

What can we do to get the Universities Line going?

This story is about the opening of the North Line, but it’s also about where Metro goes from here.

The opening of the lines won’t spell the end of the construction. To complete the final mile of the East Line, Metro must build an underpass at Harrisburg and 66th Street at the Houston Belt & Terminal railroad tracks. The agency struggled to accommodate neighborhood concerns and figure out what it could afford, leading to delays. The final mile will open in December 2015 at the earliest.

The fate of the planned University Line, between the University of Houston and the Westpark Tollway, is even less certain. Metro officials haven’t detailed how they plan to pay for its construction.

Earlier this year at Metro’s behest, city officials designated Richmond as a transit corridor, limiting new development that encroaches on the ability to add a rail line without committing officials to any decision or affecting current buildings.

On Thursday, Metro board members extended the contract for design of the University Line for another year, to Dec. 21, 2014. The extension did not increase the fee to engineering firm AECOM, though the contract has been amended and the fee increased 10 times.

Since 2006, the design contract for the University Line has grown from $17.2 million to $50.8 million, of which $3.7 million remains unpaid.

The added time gives Metro a chance to adjust the designs if necessary, interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

Some Metro board members suggested the agency might be throwing good money after bad.

“We know that line can’t be built, or by the time we have it built, all that work will be obsolete,” board member Jim Robinson said.

Board member Dwight Jefferson said Metro should build what officials said they would when they spent money to study the route.

“If we can save it, that’s what we need to be looking to do,” Jefferson said.

Light rail continues to face vocal opposition from property owners along Richmond, especially west of Shepherd Drive. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who represents the western area segment of the route, has consistently opposed federal money for the project.

[…]

Washington has its own set of challenges funding transit projects. Still, [Federal Transit Administrator Peter] Rogoff said federal officials will consider helping Houston when it’s ready for its next light rail line. Technically, the University Line application is already filed with federal transit officials.

“We are sort of awaiting clear direction (from Metro),” Rogoff said. “They have seemingly taken a bit of a timeout.”

The North Line extension had a successful opening on Saturday despite the lousy weather. The political situation, by which I mean Rep. Culberson and his fanatical opposition to rail on Richmond, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The need for the Universities Line hasn’t changed, either – if anything, it’s more urgent now. We can’t wait for Culberson to retire or lose or get redistricted out of this part of town. What can we do in the meantime to move the ball forward?

One possibility is to start building the portion of the line that isn’t in Culberson’s district. That would run from the Eastwood Transit Center to Shepherd. That would provide connectivity to the Main Street and Southeast lines as well we better access to UH and the Third Ward. The Richmond portion of that truncated line falls within Rep. Ted Poe’s district, and as we know, Rep. Poe supports construction of the Universities Line because his constituents support it. With Rep. Poe behind this, one would hope that getting federal funds would be possible. On the other hand, chopping the line in half like this may well invalidate all of the previous filings and approvals Metro now has for this project, and might require Metro to start from scratch and do them all again. Given that ridership would surely be a lot lower for this partial route, there would be no guarantee that it would even qualify for FTA funds. It’s worth exploring, but only worth pursuing if it doesn’t represent a step backward.

Another possibility is to commit to building the whole thing, but only seek federal funding for the eastern half of the line, unless something changes to make funding the western half of the line feasible. That would of course require a large amount of local funding. To my mind, that local funding should come from Metro, the city of Houston, and Harris County. How likely that is I couldn’t say; when I bring it up to other people, the reaction I usually get is to be asked if I also believe in the tooth fairy. It might not be fiscally possible even if you accept the premise that Harris County could be persuaded to play ball. The FTA might not think this is such a hot idea, either, and even if they did Culberson could fight against it even though he’s made a point of saying that he has never opposed funding for rail construction that wasn’t in his district. I’m just throwing out ideas here, I don’t claim to have all the details worked out.

Look, I recognize that these ideas may be completely unrealistic. There may not be anything that can be done under current conditions. But the need is there, whether a plausible path forward exists or not. We need to be talking about this, with the understanding that this really matters and we need to figure it out one way or another. The Universities Line, when it is finally built, will do a lot to enhance mobility in a part of town that desperately needs the help. It will facilitate travel in neighborhoods that are already dense and heavily congested and getting more so every day as one new highrise after another gets developed. It will provide a critical link between east and west, and when the Uptown Line is completed it will make traveling to the Galleria and its environs a lot less nightmarish. Maybe once we start this conversation we’ll also remember that there are other routes on the drawing board that ought to be back in the conversation, like the Inner Katy line and the US90 commuter line. Again, the need is there, and it won’t go away if we don’t do anything about it. So what are we going to do about it?

They’ll be getting married in Utah today

For at least an hour today, county clerks in Utah will be issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.

RedEquality

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert filed seeking an Emergency Motion for Temporary Stay following a federal judge’s ruling that struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage, and on Sunday the United States Court of Appeals Tenth District denied the motion.

According to court documents, “The Defendants-Appellants ask this court to stay the district court’s order pending the district court’s ruling on a motion for stay pending appeal that is currently pending in that court.”

According to the documents, the filing for an Emergency Motion for Temporary Stay did not address nor satisfy the factors that must be established to be entitled to a stay pending an appeal. The denial is without prejudice if the defendants-appellants file a motion for stay pending appeal that complies with regulations.

Click here for the full document: Emergency Motion to Stay denied

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby has scheduled a hearing Monday at 9 a.m. on the state’s request to halt same-sex marriages, and pro same-sex marriage groups in Utah encouraged people to take advantage of the limited window in which marriage licenses were guaranteed to be granted in several counties.

In a post on their Facebook page, Equality Utah said, “Worst case scenario we will only have 1 hour in which marriages can be performed by the respective county clerks.”

Here’s that Facebook post. If it were me and my intended, I’d seriously consider camping out the night before to make sure we were first in line. This is a big deal for two reasons. One, even if an injunction on further marriage licenses is given, the fact is that some number of couples will tie the knot while the issue is being decided. These lucky folks will get to live as legally married couples in Utah at least until the appeal is settled, if not longer than that. It will be a lot harder to take that away from them down the line, because – and this is reason #2 – the world will not have ended in the interim. Utah will continue to be Utah, life will go on, and no one will be harmed in any way by the marriages that take place today. And then in February, when the federal lawsuit in Texas has its first hearing, the plaintiffs can point to Utah and say “See? We’re just like them and we deserve the same treatment.” Even the Fifth Circuit might have a hard time coming up with a justification to maintain the harmful and discriminatory status quo. Via TPM.

HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson being investigated

Great.

Carroll Robinson

Carroll Robinson

Houston Community College has hired a law firm to investigate an accusation that trustee Carroll Robinson tried to steer part of a multimillion dollar construction contract to a company owned by a close friend, according to HCC records and interviews.

HCC, one of the largest community colleges in the nation, has been plagued in recent years by concerns that board members improperly meddled in contracts. The latest issue comes after the board tightened its ethics rules and voters entrusted the college last year with a $425 million bond issue for construction projects.

The company that HCC hired to oversee its bond program, Jacobs Project Management, proposed paying a little-known firm called Five Woods as a subcontractor to handle public outreach. Five Woods – owned by Robinson’s friend, Laolu Davies-Yemitan – could have earned up to $1.4 million over several years, according to Davies-Yemitan and HCC records.

But the plan drew concerns from Michelle Morris, an attorney the college had retained to monitor procurement.

“When I pressed Jacobs about how they came to select Five Woods,” Morris emailed the college, “the Jacobs representatives became very nervous, finally revealed that the Five Woods representative was ‘sent’ to them by Trustee Robinson.”

Morris also questioned why Jacobs was not using its usual public relations consultants.

“Again, the response from Jacobs to me is a nervous one, and they outright told me that they are in a ‘precarious position’ (their words, not mine),” Morris wrote in the October email.

Robinson, a former Houston city councilman serving his first term on the college board, denied pressuring Jacobs to hire his friend’s firm.

“I don’t appreciate anybody dragging my good name through the mud,” he said.

After the concerns surfaced, a Jacobs executive, Whit Robinson, who is not related to Carroll Robinson, wrote the college that no board members tried to influence the contract decision.

“We want to reconfirm with you that our choice of subconsultant was based on merit and our desire to support minority-owned small businesses here in Houston,” Whit Robinson wrote. “At no time was there any coercion or pressure from any person or entity outside of Jacobs to utilize this company.”

Davies-Yemitan said he had a four-person team that would have helped the college’s public relations staff – updating the community about the bond projects, coordinating groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and assisting small businesses interested in bidding on work.

But HCC and Jacobs ultimately did not agree on a deal to use Five Woods. A spokesman for HCC, Dan Arguijo, said this month that Five Woods was not part of the college’s final $7.3 million contract with Jacobs.

The bylaws for the HCC board ban trustees from suggesting subcontractors to vendors.

“If the behavior that was suggested occurred, it is improper behavior for a board member,” said Bruce Austin, the board’s chairman.

Regardless of whether or not there was inappropriate behavior, it’s just as well that nothing came of this. That’s the sort of thing that would have generated stories for years, whereas this one has a chance of being settled in the near future. Assuming that nothing questionable happened, of course. Investigate it thoroughly and let the chips fall where they may. If Robinson is correct, he deserves the chance to have his name cleared. If not, well, we’ll deal with that when we get to it.

Weekend link dump for December 22

A link dump for kids from one to ninety-two…

A long but provocative read on smarm and snark.

From the Is Our Children Learning? department.

RIP, Peter O’Toole, and RIP, Joan Fontaine. Hollywood is a little less royal today.

Sergio Aragones draws 60 years of MAD Magazine history in a single pullout poster. A full size version of said poster sure would be nice.

Piling on Katie Couric for her vaccination irresponsibility again.

There are three ways to respond to Ross Douthat, the Kilgore way, the TBogg way, and the Marcotte way.

Those of you that are fans of Prince, this is relevant to your interests.

An oral history of the nerd villain trio from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“The thing about politicians is that they take positions and perform official actions that give great insight into whether and how much they care about regular people. That’s the place to look if you want to know who they really are.”

When Andrew Sullivan is right, he’s right.

RIP, Harold Camping, most famous for those failed Rapture predictions he made in 2011.

I swing both ways on the “y’all” or “you guys” question, as befits my New York upbringing and my longtime Texas residency.

I would like to state categorically and for the record that I am not a candidate for the head coaching job at UT.

Take a hostage, any hostage, doesn’t really matter which.

“In fact we went back a few weeks ago to see if this was a phenomenon that was confined only to the women, and we actually found a few virgin fathers as well — which is a little harder to get your head around.”

The sports blackout rule may soon be lifted.

“The situation’s improved since then, but there remain many, many more votes lost because of flawed ballots or attrition from long lines than votes canceled out out by the confirmed ballot of a non-citizen.”

“Perhaps inevitably, at every political stress point liberals knock themselves out urging Obama to say precisely the things he’s been saying nonstop since he first appeared on our horizon.”

RIP, Al Goldstein, 70’s era porn pioneer.

“He reminds me of a character from the novel The Color Purple who was under the false presumption that the black maid who took care of her family actually felt any sympathy or love for her or her parents.”

“Of course A&E wasn’t going to put racist, homophobic rants on the air—it never would have survived the backlash. But if the network were true to the genre, it would have showed America the unedited Phil Robertson, not because his views reflect those of the network, but because it is, you know, reality.”

As always, when in doubt read what Ta-Nehisi has to say, and you’ll arrive at the right place.

“I’m trying to think of something snarky and/or witty to say about this . . . but it’s a sausage and bacon nativity scene. A SAUSAGE AND BACON NATIVITY SCENE. There are no words.”

Why the Obama = Bush meme fails.

What can we do to improve reading skills in HISD?

I wish I knew.

HISD students continue to struggle with reading while matching or exceeding their peers’ math performance in other big cities, according to national test data released Wednesday.

Reading scores for the district’s fourth- and eighth-graders have stagnated for six years. In math, however, the middle-school results have improved over time, and HISD ranks well against others nationwide.

The scores come from a battery of exams, typically called the Nation’s Report Card, that allow big urban districts that choose to participate to compare themselves.

“We are pleased that we continue to perform at high levels in mathematics and are concerned about the flat-line trending of our literacy rates,” said Dan Gohl, chief academic officer for the Houston Independent School District.

Gohl said he plans to present a revised plan for boosting reading skills to the school board in January. Campuses across the district use numerous programs to teach reading, he said, and the quality appears to vary. The differences also may trouble students who transfer schools mid-year.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders every two years. The latest results are from exams taken in early 2013. The other Texas districts that participate are those in Dallas and Austin.

The Houston Press had a cover story the other week about HISD’s reading scores, which look better than they are on the state accountability measures. A lot of big urban school districts have problems with reading scores, though there’s been a good deal of improvement in recent years. Poverty is a big factor – there’s a lot of research out there showing that poor children start out behind their peers even before they get to school – but it’s not the only factor. As our experience with Apollo has shown so far, we seem to have a handle on getting improvements to math scores, but reading is a much tougher nut to crack. We need to figure it out, and the sooner the better. Hair Balls and Washington Monthly have more.

Judge Pratt gets no-billed

From the inbox:

Judge Denise Pratt

Harris County Grand Jury “No Bills” Judge Denise Pratt

“We are pleased that the grand jury agrees with us that there’s absolutely no evidence that Judge Pratt tampered with court documents or did anything illegal,” says her attorney, Terry W. Yates.

“The office of the District Clerk was created by the Texas Constitution as a backstop for the judges. One of their primary jobs is to keep the court papers in proper order. Unfortunately, this did not happen in the 311th District Court,”says Yates.

“The problems with the court documents emanated from the number of deputy clerks that were assigned to this court; more than 20 in the last three years. Some of these clerks were not properly trained and were otherwise unqualified for the position of deputy clerk,” says Yates.

Yates added, “Judge Pratt is very relieved that this matter is behind her and she is working hard to serve the citizens of Harris County.”

See here for previous blogging. It’s been a rough few weeks for Judge Pratt, and I’m sure she’s happy to get a bit of good news going into the holidays. She’s not out of the woods yet, however. Here’s the Chron story with more details.

Several family court lawyers who have sought to recuse Pratt from their cases in recent weeks have presented documents from her 311th family district court that appear to be backdated. A pair of visiting judges approved nine of those requests earlier this week.

[…]

District Clerk Chris Daniel, who launched his own investigation after receiving a copy of Enos’ complaint, released a statement saying that “our office’s own investigation of these alleged backdating incidents found only one instance of backdating by a court clerk.”

His spokesman, Bill Murphy, said the office found another document that appears to be backdated, but no one initialed it, so it is “unclear who processed” it.

[Greg] Enos said in an e-mail that the backdating of court orders “was always just the tip of the iceberg of problems with her, but that was what happened to arguably be a crime.”

The 53-year-old family lawyer filed a similar complaint last year against a Galveston County judge that preceded an investigation by the state attorney general and multiple indictments that led to the judge’s suspension and eventual resignation.

Enos’ complaint detailed other problems with Pratt. Lawyer Fred Krasny said Pratt regularly shows up to morning and after-lunch hearings an hour late, costing lawyers time and clients money. Others have said she sometimes has not shown up to hearings at all.

[…]

Lawyers who have spoken out against Pratt since Enos filed his complaint expressed frustration on Friday with the grand jury’s decision.

Matthew Waldrop, a lawyer who had eight cases removed from Pratt’s court this week by a visiting judge, said he is considering filing another criminal complaint.

Lawyer Robert Clark, who still has more than a dozen cases in Pratt’s court, said he is readying motions asking her to be removed from some or all of them. Clark argued a case in Pratt’s court in January for which she issued a ruling in May. The official court record now says the ruling was issued on Jan. 30, the day before the two-day trial actually ended.

“I don’t want my clients to suffer any adverse actions as a result of my being a vocal opponent of the judge,” Clark said.

See here and here for stories about those recusals. Even if Judge Pratt survives further complaints, she still has that primary and a November election to get through. I’m thinking she’s got a very tough road ahead of her.

Drinking al fresco

From the Things You Might Not Have Realized department.

beer

“It is a commonly-held belief that it’s illegal to walk down the street drinking a beer in Texas. However, that is not always the case.”

Those words, which we recently happened upon at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission website, sparked wary excitement. We’d always chafed under the assumed strictness of Houston drinking laws, even fearing that we might receive a ticket for drinking in Houstonia’s unfenced Heights yard. Until, that is, we researched the Texas legal code, which states that public drinking is prohibited only in certain areas of state parks and wherever a city has specifically deemed it illegal. In 1994, the City of Houston successfully petitioned to ban drinking in public within the entire Central Business District (the area roughly bounded by Dowling Street and I-45, McGowen Street and Buffalo Bayou). On the one hand, you can’t drink on downtown’s streets, or Midtown’s or EaDo’s. On the other, it’s open season for open containers everywhere else.

Public intoxication, which the TABC defines as inebriation that “may endanger the person or another,” is illegal everywhere, of course. But there’s no law against strolling Allen Parkway with a Lone Star while taking in the skyline, or sipping margaritas to-go in Eleanor Tinsley Park. Just keep things classy and under control, not like you would in NOLA.

I’m a pretty moderate drinker these days, so this knowledge is of limited practical use to me. It’s still good to know, and hey, maybe it will be of more use to you. Link via Swamplot.