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July, 2015:

Auditing HCDE

We’ll see about this.

Later this summer, state auditors are expected to release their final report on the Harris County Department of Education. They’ve been examining the agency since last December.

Superintendent James Colbert told lawmakers about it at a hearing in April.

“We should have absolutely nothing to hide as far as I’m concerned and really they provide a free service for us for things that we need to fix. And so, that’s something that I’m open to,” Colbert said.

Critics contend the Harris County Department of Education has plenty to fix, from handling records requests to duplicating services with other agencies.

Its services include early learning, special education and adult education.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he wants to have a hearing in Austin after the audit is released.

“What I want this to come out with is an idea of ‘Do we have a model that works in Harris County, or do we need to change it?’” he said.

See here for some background. HCDE has long been a political target, so an audit like this could provide ammunition for its detractors, or it could provide evidence that there’s nothing of substance for them to attack. The Chron story I linked to in that earlier post certainly suggests there are some things going on at HCDE that need scrutiny. Hopefully, this audit will show that they have been addressed.

Mayoral finance reports: Out of town cash and max donors

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of money in the Mayoral race this year, even after subtracting what the candidates have given or loaned to themselves. You may be wondering where all that money came from. This post aims to shed a little light on that.

First question: How much of the money raised by Mayoral candidates came from Houston donors, and how much came from outside Houston?

Candidate Non-Hou $ Total $ Pct % ========================================== Garcia 539,949 1,441,792 37.4% Costello 312,660 1,276,281 24.5% Turner 296,588 747,793 39.7% King 103,501 721,250 14.4% Bell 51,288 366,770 14.0% Hall 35,925 69,025 52.0% McVey 21,750 43,927 49.5%

Disclaimer time: All reports can be seen here. My methodology was ridiculously simple. All donations for which the city listed in the report entry was something other than “Houston” was counted for this. Obviously, not all “Houston” addresses are actually within the city – mail sent to all of unincorporated Harris County and such small cities as West U and Southside Place say “Houston, TX” on the envelope – but I wanted to complete this exercise before the election took place, so I followed this guideline for ease of use. As with all totals presented here and elsewhere, this was a manual process, which means I looked over the reports and counted up the totals myself. It is highly likely that I goofed here and there, so consider these numbers to be reasonable estimates and not gospel truth. Finally, also as before, the “Total $” figures represent the cash money raised by each candidate, thus excluding in kind donations, loans, and (in the case of Costello) contributions from the candidate himself.

Having done this exercise, I (reluctantly) feel like I should go back and review Mayor Parker’s July forms from 2009, 2011, and 2013, as well as Gene Locke and Peter Brown’s from 2009, to see if what we’re seeing here is completely out of whack with past results or not. I know Mayor Parker had a strong national fundraising network, but I’ve no idea offhand what that meant in total dollars and proportional amounts. Whatever the case, I feel confident saying that Adrian Garcia knocked it out of the park here. He raised more from outside Houston than Chris Bell, Ben Hall, and Marty McVey raised in total combined; his non-Houston total is 75% of Bill King’s overall total. And that still left $900K from in Houston. Holy smokes.

One thing I noticed while perusing Garcia’s report: He received a ton of contributions from people with Asian names, both in Houston and not. He also had a lot of contributions from Latino/a donors, but the sheer number of Asian supporters surprised me. Make of that what you will.

I am curious what motivates someone to donate to a Mayoral candidate they can’t vote for. I get why people contribute to Congressional and Senate candidates from other places – laws made in DC affect them regardless, and partisan control matters a lot – but the justification here is somewhat less clear. To be fair, the vast majority of these non-Houston donations came from places like Katy, the Woodlands, Sugar Land, and so forth. For all the griping I did about non-Houstonians driving the red light camera referendum, it’s clear that folks who work here but live elsewhere have a stake in the outcome of elections like this. And of course some of these out of towners are in the personal networks of the candidates – friends, family, in-laws, colleagues (Sylvester Turner received several contributions from other members of the Legislature, for example), and so forth. I’d still like to understand this phenomenon a little better. Surely one of our Professional Political Pundits can put a grad student on it.

Next item: In Houston, an individual can give a maximum of $5000 to a city candidate in a given cycle, and a PAC maxes out at $10K. Having an army of small-dollar donors is a great thing in many ways, but those big checks sure add up in a hurry. How much of these hauls came from the deep pockets?

Candidate # Maxes Max $ Total $ Pct % ===================================================== Garcia 148 745,000 1,441,792 51.7% Costello 138 720,000 1,276,281 56.4% Turner 76 410,000 747,793 54.8% King 71 365,000 721,250 50.6% Bell 25 125,000 366,770 34.1% Hall 11 55,000 69,025 79.7% McVey 2 10,000 43,927 22.8%

Again with the disclaimers: Same manual process as above. Not all max donors give $5K at once. There were several gifts of $2500 each, and other combinations I observed as well. “# Maxes” is the count of all max donors, both individuals and PACs, which I also counted as one even though they could give twice as much. Multiply “# Maxes” by 5,000 and the difference will tell you how many max PAC donations that candidate got.

With the large amounts of money collected, the large number of donors who gave their all should not be surprising. One reason why I did this was to see who might have a harder time replicating their success between now and the beginning of October, when the 30 day reports come due. You can’t hit up those who are tapped out for a repeat performance, after all. I guess this leaves Chris Bell in better shape than some others, but I’m not sure how much effect that will have.

I should note here that two of Ben Hall’s max donors were named Hotze, an “SM Hotze” and a “JS Hotze”. Hall has gone all in with the haters, despite his weak sauce denials. This could actually present a bit of a problem for King and to a lesser extent Costello, as both of them are in their own way wooing Republican voters. Clearly, some of those Republicans are not going to be open to them. I presume Hotze still has some sway among GOP voters (a subset of them, at least), so if he actively pushes for Hall via mail/robocall/whatever as the One True Candidate Who Will Stand Up To The Gays, then I think that has to put a ceiling on King and Costello. How much that might be I don’t know – if I were forced to guess right now I’d say “maybe two or three points” – but as we’ve been saying all along, this is likely to be a close race where not too many votes could make a big difference in the outcome. Hall is a threat to Turner as well, of course, I just wanted to point this possibility out.

I think that’s about all the patience I have for scouring the Mayoral reports. I may take a closer look at the other candidates’ reports as my copious spare time allows.

Seeking GLBT support in the Mayor’s race

In a crowded field where a small number of votes could be the difference between making the runoff and not, endorsements will be of greater importance. One endorsement that several Mayoral candidates would really like to have if the endorsement of the HGLBT Political Caucus.

Houston’s mayoral candidates are angling for the GLBT Caucus’ coveted support, with state Rep. Sylvester Turner’s campaign purchasing dozens of memberships and others urging supporters to sign up ahead of the group’s August endorsement meeting.

In the last month, caucus membership jumped by about 200 people, from 325 to 525, leaving some longtime members, particularly supporters of former congressman Chris Bell, concerned that this year’s endorsement already may have been bought.

Caucus President Maverick Welsh, however, said the campaigns’ efforts will not be enough to tip the scales.

“We know campaigns actively try to push as many people into the room as possible, and that’s why we’ve strategically tried to grow our membership over the last year and a half,” Welsh said. “I don’t think any candidate has enough members to be able to buy an endorsement.”

[…]

Former congressman Chris Bell has been actively encouraging supporters to join and show up for the August meeting, while City Councilman Stephen Costello has pursued what his campaign described as a “low-key effort” to get people to join the caucus’ ranks.

Turner, on the other hand, opted to write the group a $3,040 check two weeks ago – enough for at least 76 memberships, according to spokeswoman Sue Davis.

“It’s something that’s done every year,” Davis said.

All three candidates, as well as former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, are seen as contenders for the caucus endorsement.

I wouldn’t want to try to guess who will come away with it. Based on what I’ve been seeing in my inbox and Facebook feed, we should start seeing a bunch of endorsements come down in the next few weeks. There’s a lot of races, not just the Mayor’s race, where those decisions aren’t going to be easy. I’ll be tracking them on the 2015 Election page as I see them.

Vetoes: You’re doing it wrong

Oops.

NO

Some of Gov. Greg Abbott’s line-item vetoes in the state budget might be invalid, the state’s Legislative Budget Board said in a 14-page letter sent Tuesday to Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar.

The director of the LBB said the governor’s veto proclamation, listing line items he chose to excise from the new budget, doesn’t have the effect Abbott apparently intended.

“The Proclamation from June 20, 2015 seeks to veto the appropriation for a number of purposes and programs contained in House Bill 1,” LBB Director Ursula Parks wrote. “However, in nearly all instances the Proclamation does not veto the actual appropriation but rather seeks either to veto non-appropriating rider language or informational items. As it is the case that the Governor may only veto items of appropriation, for the reasons outlined below I believe that many of the items in HB 1 referenced in the Proclamation remain valid provisions.”

That letter amounts to a rebuke of sorts from the leaders of the Legislature to the new governor. The LBB is co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, and its members include the chairs of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees who write the budget, along with six other legislative leaders from both chambers.

“In our analysis, most of the actions in the Proclamation have the effect neither of actually reducing agency or institution appropriations, nor indeed of eliminating legislative direction on the use of funds,” Parks wrote. “The Proclamation seeks to go beyond what is authorized in the Texas Constitution, is in many respects unprecedented, and is contrary to both practice and expectation since adoption of the Texas Constitution in 1876.”

Abbott’s office received the letter Tuesday afternoon and did not have an immediate comment, but argued in a memo last month that the governor’s vetoes were within the law. Lauren Willis, a spokeswoman for Hegar, said the comptroller’s office is still reviewing the LBB letter.

It says, in effect, that the governor vetoed items in the budget that he doesn’t have the power to veto, an assertion Parks sourced back to Abbott himself. In his proposed budget earlier this year, Abbott said that he wanted to expand the governor’s line-item veto authority and suggested amending the state constitution to take care of that. The Legislature made no such amendment.

“The implication in this statement supports the analysis that the Constitution currently provides limited and specific authority in this area; authority that the Proclamation seeks to extend,” Parks wrote.

The LBB letter is here, and the Abbott memo on which it was based is here. Nothing like having your own words used against you, is there? This isn’t a LePage level of failure, but it would be pretty embarrassing if it holds up. On the plus side for Abbott, his buddy Dan Patrick is there for him, even though he is also on the LBB. Intrigue! Ross Ramsay has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 20

The Texas Progressive Alliance asks #WhatHappenedToSandraBland as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Interview with Greg Travis

Greg Travis

Greg Travis

We come now to our second and final interview in District G. There are only two candidates for this open seat, which is a lot fewer than you might normally expect. It’s quality that matters more than quantity, of course, and both contenders here are well qualified. Today’s interview subject is Greg Travis. Travis is a former officer in the Air Force who is now an attorney managing his own firm. He has taught Business Law at Houston Community College, and has served on the board of directors of Justice for All. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Dashcam video from Sandra Bland arrest released

The Press has a good writeup. I’m just going to quote the two bits of transcript they provided:

Sandra Bland

“What’s wrong?” the trooper asked as he delivered Bland her ticket. “You seem very irritated.”

“I really am, because I feel like it’s crap for what I’m getting a ticket for,” Bland said. “I was getting out of your way. You were speeding and tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated.”

“Are you done?” the trooper said.

“You asked me what was wrong and I told you,” Bland said.

“OK,” the officer said. “You mind putting out your cigarette please?”

“I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?”

“Well,” the officer said, “you can step out now.”

“I don’t have to,” Bland said.

“Step out.”

Emphasis mine. Right there, the cop should have said “Have a nice day” and walked away. I’m sorry, but any cop who can’t handle a little mouthy frustration from someone who just got a ticket they don’t think they deserved shouldn’t have a badge and a gun. He escalated the situation. There was no need to tell her to put out her cigarette, and no justification at all for telling her to get out of the car when she justifiably told him No. And it gets worse from there:

“You do not have the right to do that,” Bland says.

“I do have the right, now step out or I will remove you,” the officer says.

“I am getting removed for a failure to signal?”

“I am giving you a lawful order. Get outta the car now.”

“I’m calling my lawyer.”

“I’m gonna yank you out of here,” the officer said, while leaning over and reaching into the car.

“Don’t touch me! I’m not under arrest,” Bland says.

“You are under arrest,” the officer says.

“For what? For what?”

There’s a pause. The officer does not answer.

“Get out of the car, now!”

Bland walks out of the car and around the back, as directed by the officer. The rest takes place off camera, though you can hear what’s going on.

“You feeling good about yourself?” she says. “You feel good about yourself? Why will you not tell me what’s going on? Ya’ll bitch asses scared. That’s it.”

Then there is a shuffling sound, and Bland screams, “You’re about to fucking break my wrist!”

Then Bland screams.

“Stop… moving… now!” the officer shouts. “Stop it!”

Bland begins to cry. Through sobs, she says, “For a traffic signal… for a fucking traffic signal. I can’t feel my arm.”

“You’re going to jail,” the officer says. “For resisting arrest.”

Unbelievable. And completely unacceptable. Even more, as the Trib reports, what can be seen contradicts the officer’s account of what happened. I don’t know what happened to Sandra Bland – we may never know for sure – but the one thing I do know is that Sandra Bland should never have been in jail in the first place. That is the root cause of what happened. And it’s as clear an illustration of what the #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been talking about all along as one could see. This is what needs to be fixed. Daily Kos has more.

UPDATE: Lisa Falkenberg has more.

Paxton concedes FMLA lawsuit

Excellent.

RedEquality

Almost a month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quietly conceded a case against the federal government over medical leave benefits for certain same-sex couples.

Paxton and the attorneys general of Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Nebraska filed a voluntary dismissal on Friday with the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas, where the states had sued the Obama administration over a rule change to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. That change was intended to grant time off to legally married same-sex couples, even if they lived in a state like Texas that at the time did not recognize same-sex marriage.

[…]

Asked for comment on the dismissal, Cynthia Meyer, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, said, “Our filing speaks for itself.” The state had spent at least $26,881 on the case, according to legal costs obtained from the AG’s office.

This is the second case related to same-sex marriage that Texas has dropped in light of the high court’s ruling. This month, Paxton’s office ended its defense of the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage.

See here and here for the background. Reality’s a bitch, ain’t it, Kenny? I’m just glad this got resolved in such a relatively short period of time, as that will minimize the pain and inconvenience for the affected employees. And no one will ever have to worry about it again.

The future of Fort Bend transit

Public transportation in Fort Bend County has grown quite a bit since its inception, and there’s a lot of potential for future growth if the pieces can be put into place.

On Tuesday, county leaders, staff and transit partners gathered in Richmond to celebrate the rapid evolution of the Fort Bend Public Transportation Department since it was formed 10 years ago. They marked projects that moved from the initially limited efforts of the 1990s, which benefited a few hundred people a month, into a system that serves tens of thousands of riders. Leaders also talked about what might be next for public transportation in the suburban county west of Houston.

“In 2003, we were providing 300 rides per month,” Patterson said. “This last six months, we transported 33,000 rides per month.”

This year, the transit department will create a master plan to outline priorities and possibilities through 2040, coordinating with the roads department to anticipate future needs.

“Where is the growth going to be in Fort Bend County? Will it be residential or commercial? What will the overlay of transportation needs be?” Transportation Director Paulette Shelton asked, listing the core questions to be considered as the plan is developed. “We pull out 37 buses every day to do service. If I look ahead five years, we’ll probably be around 60 or 70 buses.”

How the system expands will depend on “where the development happens and the needs in the cities,” she said.

County Judge Bob Hebert said he does not intend for the county to ever operate a major bus system with fixed routes, but still expects to add new services. The future of the department will hinge “to some extent on where Harris County goes,” he said.

Because Fort Bend’s future is linked to the wider region – with about 60 percent of residents working in Houston, according to Census figures – many transportation and roads projects will require coordination with Harris County and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as Metro.

Hebert said the most common question about public transit that he is asked is, “When are we going to have commuter rail?” He compared the undertaking to the construction of Fort Bend toll roads.

“They have to be tied into a bigger system,” he said. “When Harris County started building the Westpark Tollway, our Westpark Tollway became viable. It gave you a path somewhere people wanted to be in large numbers. We will not put in rail until we know for certain there is rail coming out to the Harris County line.”

Commissioner Richard Morrison lists a commuter rail out to Missouri City and along Highway 90 as a top priority, but said a more practical concern must be considered first: funding.

Here’s the FBPTD website. Note that their buses are “demand response service”, which means you call at least a day in advance to schedule a stop by your house or wherever, and they take you where you want to go as long as it’s within their service area. Sounds an awful lot like the Flex Zones in Metro’s reimagined bus network, which have caused so much anxiety. I wonder how well this service has worked for Fort Bend. Might be nice for their to be some reporting on that, to get a better feel for what Houston Flex Zone riders might expect.

As for commuter rail into Fort Bend, that may well hinge on the Metro/Culberson peace treaty, as working to secure funding for that line was among the goodies Rep. Culberson promised to work on. The Lege may need to get involved to authorize Metro to operate in Fort Bend, but if there is a plan in place to get that rail line going, I would expect such authorization to be a formality. Mostly, I’m glad that this is such a persistent question for Judge Hebert, as that is surely a key component to moving this along. For now, I’d say the ball is in Congress’ court, and there is some motion (finally) on a transportation bill, so we’ll see what happens.

Mayoral finance reports: PACs and consultants

Let’s take a deeper dive into Mayoral candidate fundraising by examining one of the main categories of raised funds, and one of the main categories of spent funds. I speak of PAC money for the former, and consultant fees/staff salaries for the other. Here’s how much each candidate raised in PAC funds in their July report:

Candidate PAC $ Total $ PAC % ========================================= Turner 127,650 747,793 17.1% Costello 124,500 1,276,281 9.8% Garcia 87,150 1,441,792 6.0% King 41,000 721,250 5.7% Bell 5,500 366,770 1.5% McVey 3,000 43,927 6.8% Hall 0 69,025 0.0%

As a reminder, you can see all the finance reports that have been submitted on my Election 2015 page. I considered any contributor identified as a PAC or a business of some kind to be a “PAC” for these purposes. If you want to be technical, I’m adding up the contributions that didn’t come from individuals or couples. I also did not include in kind contributions in these totals. For most candidates, I found the value represented in the “Total $” column on the new Subtotals page, which is the modification to the forms that caused all of the trouble this cycle. Ben Hall, of course, didn’t bother with that page, and also included the $850,000 he loaned himself in his “Total Political Contributions” entry. His form was pretty short and it was easy enough to sort it out. Steve Costello’s total above is lower than what you’ll find on his report. This is because he contributed $175K to his campaign – it was reported as a contribution, not a loan – and his PAC donated an additional $10K. For the purposes of this post, I excluded them from his total amount, and didn’t add the PAC contribution to the “PAC $” figure. Sylvester Turner definitely gets the benefit of being a long-term office holder. We’ll see other effects of that in subsequent reports. I expect Adrian Garcia will pull in more PAC money for the 30 day report. As impressive as his haul is, he’s still catching up in some ways.

Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger:

Candidate Salary $ Consult $ Sum $ Raised Pct ========================================================== King 67,289 306,400 373,689 721,250 51.8% Turner 131,192 224,000 355,192 747,793 47.5% Costello 120,932 181,800 302,732 1,276,281 23.7% Bell 102,226 30,350 132,576 366,770 36.1% Garcia 52,427 31,300 83,727 1,441,792 5.8% McVey 60,500 9,000 69,500 43,927 158.2% Hall 0 24,200 24,200 69,025 35.1%

There are two basic categories of paying for people to do stuff – “Salaries/Wages/Contract Labor” and “Consulting”. I added all of the former to “Salary $”, and I also included anything classified as health insurance for staffers and payroll taxes. I did not include fees paid to payroll management services like ADI, because I’m just obstreperous like that. Here you can see the advantage of Adrian Garcia’s late entry into the race – unlike several of his competitors, he hasn’t been paying for staffers and consultants since January. Bill King raised a decent amount of money, but man that’s a big burn rate. If he’s going to hire all those people and run an air campaign, he’s going to have to keep writing checks to himself. Turner’s burn rate is almost as high, but he started out with (and still has) a lot of cash, and his strategy seems to be more targeted, and thus less likely to run into five- and six-figure media buys. Costello spent almost as much as those two did on people, but his much bigger haul gives him a lot of cushion. Bell is going to need to figure out how to run a lean and cost-effective campaign, because he’s not living in the same ZIP code as those four. While multiple candidates are doing at least some self-financing, Marty McVey shows what the edge case for that looks like. He literally wouldn’t have a campaign without his own money, and he still has plenty of it to spend. It will be interesting to see what he does with it. As for Ben Hall, all I will say is that he paid $12,500 to the Hall Law Firm for legal expenses. Hey, if you want something done right, you do it yourself, amirite?

In the next entry in this series, I’ll take another look at where all this money is coming from. You’re not at all wrong to think we’re swimming in it in a way that we weren’t in 2009 or 2003.

Sandra Bland’s death being investigated as a homicide

Doesn’t mean that’s how it will be ruled, but it’s at least a sign that it’s being taken with appropriate seriousness.

Sandra Bland

The probe into Sandra Bland’s hanging death inside a Texas jail — which a medical examiner ruled a suicide last week — now includes the possibility of murder.

“This is being treated like a murder investigation,” Elton Mathis, Waller County’s district attorney, said at a press conference Monday.

Mathis said he made the determination after talking to Bland’s family and to those who saw her last, including the bail bondsman, who was among the last to hear from her alive.

[…]

While the Harris County medical examiner ruled her death consistent with a suicide, Mathis said it is now being treated as a murder.

“There are too many questions that need to be resolved. Ms. Bland’s family does make valid points. She did have a lot of things going on in her life for good,” Mathis said.

The district attorney also said the dashboard video of the traffic stop in Prairie View that was retrieved from Encinia’s patrol car would be released on Tuesday.

After viewing the video, Mathis said Bland was not “compliant” with the officer’s directions.

“Sandra Bland was very combative. It was not a model traffic stop. It was not a model person that was stopped,” Mathis said.

See here for some background. I am sure that dashcam video will be all over social media later today. The Chron story provides a different assessment of its contents.

Mathis said he has requested scientific testing from the jail, including touch DNA evidence on the plastic trash bag that medical examiners in Harris County said Bland used to kill herself.

Mathis outlined some of the details of his investigation at a news conference Monday afternoon, hours after a separate news conference, where advocates for Bland raised questions into her death.

Advocates representing Bland’s relatives also said dash cam footage of her traffic stop in Prairie View contradicted information provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The family also called for the Department of Justice to investigate the circumstances of her arrest on July 10 and death three days later in the Waller County Jail, which officials have ruled a suicide.

“We know we’re standing at a crime scene,” said Jamal Bryant, an advocate for Bland’s relatives, outside the jail.

At a news conference, Bryant, a pastor at the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, said the footage, which had been shown to Bland’s relatives and their lawyer, but which has not yet been released publicly, showed the DPS trooper stopping her, walking to her car, and then speaking to her while she smoked a cigarette.

The trooper, 30-year-old Brian Encinia, told her to put it out, and she refused, Bryant said.

Bland began videotaping the stop with her cell phone, which enraged the trooper, Bryant said.

“You can’t see at any point where Bland attacks the officer,” Bryant said.

DPS officials have said that during the stop, Bland became “uncooperative” and kicked the officer. She was arrested and charged with assault of a public servant.

Cannon Lambert, a Chicago-based attorney representing the family, said Sunday on a Washington D.C. radio show that Encinia tried to pull Bland from the car when she reached for her cell phone. When that didn’t work, he pulled out a TASER and pointed it at her, and she voluntarily got out of the car, he said.

The dash cam did not record the entire encounter between the trooper and Bland.

I hope it’s enough to settle the arguments, but I suspect it will intensify them instead. We’ll see what it has to tell us.

Controller philosophies

Here’s a Chron story from a candidate forum for Controller candidates at which the main subject was the relationship that Controllers have with Mayors.

City Controller Ronald Green

City Controller Ronald Green

“It’s the second-highest elected official in city government, and it needs to be independent to provide a check and balance on the office in power,” said former City Councilman Jew Don Boney, who went on to say the controller must not be an ally or lapdog to the mayor.

The city’s chief financial officer is tasked with performing audits, preparing financial statements and managing Houston’s investments and debt, though the office holder has no vote on City Council.

Still, Boney stressed the controller ought not approach the role bureaucratically.

“This is not an election for the chief bookkeeper of Houston,” Boney said. “We hire CPAs.”

Bill Frazer, 2013 controller runner-up, who touts himself as the only certified public accountant in the race, was not in attendance. Former Houston Community College board member Carroll Robinson also missed the bulk of the forum, walking in during closing remarks.

Meanwhile, deputy controller Chris Brown edged closer to the idea of a controller at odds with the mayor, albeit more gingerly.

Brown said the relationship between mayor and controller should depend on the state of the city’s fiscal affairs.

“In times of great surplus, where there’s a lot of money, I think the mayor and the controller should be adversaries, because that’s the time when the mayor’s gonna say, ‘Hey, we’ve got tons of money. Let’s just go spend it,’ ” Brown said.

“But,” he added, “I think in the times when we have difficult financial problems, there needs to be more of a concerted effort to work together to solve the financial problems in the city.”

Controller is kind of a strange office, as it has no authority to set agenda items or vote on Council. One can certainly argue that it should have more authority, as a counterbalance to the Mayor – this is a question I have asked before in interviews with Controller candidates, and will ask again – but as the story suggests, the Controller can always be a semi-official pain in the rear to the Mayor as needed. I personally think the Controller should focus more energy on audits and thinking up creative ways to save money. Beyond that, we’ll see what they have to say for themselves when I talk to them. For what is the second-most important office in the city, it sure doesn’t get a lot of attention.

More allegations against Kelly Siegler

Here they come.

Kelly Siegler

Howard Guidry was 18 years old when he was charged being the triggerman in a 1994 murder-for-hire case that involved a Missouri City police officer and his estranged wife. Twice he was convicted and sent to death row, and both times the prosecutor who sent him there was Kelly Siegler, the legendary Houston attorney who has been accused of withholding evidence in another high-profile murder case.

Now Guidry’s attorneys are saying she used the same tactics when she prosecuted their client, both in the original trial, which was overturned on appeal, and again when he was retried.

“Here it is – the same patterns and practices,” said Gwendolyn Payton, a lawyer at Lane Powell PC, a Seattle law firm that took on Guidry’s case pro bono. “And how many more are out there? It’s just really troubling.”

In the wake of District Judge Larry Gist’s ruling earlier this month, which said Siegler withheld evidence in the trial of David Temple and recommended a new trial for the Katy man, lawyers for Guidry are preparing to file amendments to a 2013 appeal explaining how her behavior in Guidry’s case is similar to what she did in the Temple case.

“We are alleging the same acts, independent of the Temple case,” Payton said. “We didn’t even know about the Temple case until that ruling.”

[…]

There are several striking resemblances between the Brady material that was not released in Temple’s 2007 trial and Guidry’s two death penalty trials, including evidence of other suspects and exculpatory evidence about the murder weapon.

In what may be the most damning example, Guidry’s lawyers were never told that crime scene investigators found fingerprints that were not Guidry’s on Farah Fratta’s car door and front fender where the shooter would have stood. The fingerprints were from another man who resembled Guidry and was friends with one of the suspects in the case.

The fingerprints that were found next to the body of the estranged wife were never disclosed to Guidry’s defense lawyers. The man resembling Guidry, who was part of the ring of suspects in the case, was never charged. Police investigating the slaying found human blood in the car he owned, which matched the description of the getaway car that witnesses saw, including having only one headlight.

In an appeal with hundreds of pages of arguments and sworn affidavits, Guidry’s lawyers allege numerous instances of misconduct. They contend Siegler hid the identity of the suspect resembling Guidry, his fingerprints and the fact that there was blood on the seat of his car.

In the Temple ruling, Gist took Siegler to task after she testified that Brady material did not need to be disclosed if she didn’t believe it.

“Of enormous significance was the prosecutor’s testimony at the habeas hearing that apparently favorable evidence did not need to be disclosed if the state did not believe it was true,” Gist wrote.

Lawyers for Guidry say the investigation of the man whose fingerprints were found is just one of the many pieces of evidence that was withheld.

“The trial counsel for sure never got that evidence,” Payton said. “It should have been disclosed under Brady, I don’t think anyone can argue unless you’re using the ‘Kelly Siegler rule’ that she didn’t find it credible.”

See here for some background. I vaguely remember this case, though I don’t recall any details or that there was a controversy about how the trial was conducted. As such, I have no insight as to the merit of these allegations. I do think the so-called “Kelly Siegler rule” is wrong and cannot be allowed to serve as a standard for what qualifies as Brady material. I don’t know what the standard should be, but it needs to be more inclusive than what the prosecution thinks the defense might need. I hope the generally prosecution-friendly Court of Criminal Appeals can provide some better guidance, because I strongly suspect Kelly Siegler isn’t the only prosecutor, and David Temple and Howard Guidry aren’t the only defendants, to whom this would need to apply. Hair Balls has more.

Interview with Sandie Mullins Moger

Sandie Mullins Moger

Sandie Mullins Moger

We move on now to the other open district seat, which is District G, currently held by CM Oliver Pennington. G is a Republican district stretching out to the west, just south of I-10, encompassing the Energy Corridor, the Galleria, and Memorial Park inside the Loop. There are two candidates running, and I have interviews with both of them. First up is Sandie Mullins Moger, who is completing a term of office as HCC Trustee. Moger a longtime neighborhood and community activist, having served as President for Super Neighborhood 17 and the Houston West Chamber of Commerce, among others. She is now a member of the executive team of MogerMedia Advertising Agency, which produces HomeShow Radio with Tom Tynan. Here’s the interview:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Will there be TMF-Menendez round 2?

Maybe. Who knows?

Sen. Jose Menendez

Last February, Jose Menendez beat Trey Martinez Fischer to serve the remainder of Leticia Van De Putte’s term when she decided to run for mayor.

Campaign finance reports filed Wednesday may point to a rematch this fall.

“Without money you don’t get your message out, so that’s why having money is important,” says Senator Menendez.

“It’s quite a compliment and a testament to the work I do in Austin, and that believe in my public service,” says Martinez Fischer.

Combined the two men have raised more than $400,000 , according to their campaigns and finance reports.

[…]

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

“There’s no doubt about it, I’m giving it some very serious consideration. The special election was just in very recent memory, but there isn’t a day goes by in San Antonio that I’m not stopped in the street, or talking to people in a restaurant where they don’t ask about this race,” says Martinez Fischer.

“I can’t worry about who’s going to run, I have to worry about doing my job, and at the end of the day, come Election Day if I’ve done my job then the voters I believe will send me back to Austin,” says Menendez.

[…]

Menendez came in second in the general election, and then won handily in the runoff, and he admits he had Republican Party backing, he’s not sure he’ll need it if he and Martinez Fischer meet again.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many slick ads are cut, it doesn’t matter how many fliers you have, or how many signs are out there. What matters is that people believe that you care enough to work on what matters to them,” says Menendez.

Anything is possible, but let’s remember two things. One, for all the hullabaloo and self-loathing among some Democrats for the way Menendez won the runoff, the fact remains that even TMF’s post-election analysis showed Menendez had significant Democratic support. Republican voters preferred him over TMF, but that was likely more about them disliking TMF and his combative personality, as there was no ideological reason for them to have a preference. And that’s point two: For all the hue and cry about Menendez being more “conservative” than TMF, there’s nothing I know of in his voting record, in the House or in his short term so far in the Senate, to back that up. If TMF challenges Menendez in March – and I say this as someone who likes TMF and would have voted for him in SD26 if I had lived there – what does he have to use against him in that race? My guess is this would be one of those all-heat, little-light races that everyone hates. This is how it goes when two candidates that have no real difference between them on the issues battle it out. I have no opinion about whether or not TMF should challenge Menendez in March. If he does it’s fine and if he doesn’t it’s fine. All I’m saying is that the special election runoff from this year has nothing to tell us about how such a race might go next year.

We don’t want to share marriage with those icky gay people

Ed Kilgore detects a new trend.

Now that the Christian Right has been reduced to the sputtering defiance of Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal or to the sullen silence of many others, one can hope that conservative acceptance of same-sex marriage will follow as rapidly as it did for the public as a whole.

But then there’s another possibility, signaled [recently] by Rand Paul in an op-ed at Time:

RedEquality

Perhaps the time has come to examine whether or not governmental recognition of marriage is a good idea, for either party.

Since government has been involved in marriage, they have done what they always do — taxed it, regulated it, and now redefined it. It is hard to argue that government’s involvement in marriage has made it better, a fact also not surprising to those who believe government does little right.

So now, states such as Alabama are beginning to understand this as they begin to get out of the marriage licensing business altogether. Will others follow?….

[T]he questions now before us are: What are those rights? What does government convey along with marriage, and should it do so? Should the government care, or allocate any benefits based on marital status?

And can the government do its main job in the aftermath of this ruling — the protection of liberty, particularly religious liberty and free speech?

We shall see. I will fight to ensure it does both, along with taking part in a discussion on the role of government in our lives.

Well, the idea of “privatizing” marriage carries all sorts of unsavory associations, such as previous efforts to avoid racial discrimination laws via “private clubs” and “segregation academies,” and even to avoid African-American voting rights via “white primaries” understood as private arrangements.

Beyond that, since conservative social policy in this country has become heavily associated with the practice of attaching all sorts of benefits—especially tax deductions and credits—to married couples with or without children, how is that supposed to work if marriage no longer exists as a state-defined status? What are reformicons supposed to do?

I’ve noted this before, though I’m still not sure what to make of it. There’s long been a libertarian argument for “privatizing” marriage, which I also have never quite gotten. I agree with the Cato author that marriage is fundamentally a civil contract. This is, at one level, what the LGBT community has been fighting about, since the act of getting married confers all kinds of rights and privileges on each spouse. There’s also a religious component to marriage – Catholics consider it a sacrament – that one may or may not participate in. If the religious folks want to argue for a complete separation of the two, that’s fine by me as long as that means that the religious-not-civil/”government” marriage no longer confers any of the legal benefits that civil marriage does. Treat it legally like any other domestic partnership and see how they like it.

The possibility that concerns me is that there will be pressure on state legislatures to elevate religious marriage to some higher status than civil marriage, or conversely to deprecate the value of civil marriage. One way or the other, they don’t want to be the same kind of “married” as same-sex couples. Again, I don’t get it, but it seems to me this is something to watch out for. The conservative iconoclast State Rep. David Simpson has called on Greg Abbott to convene a special session to end marriage licensing in Texas. Abbott has already ignored pleas from other social cons to do a special session to re-outlaw same-sex marriage, as if that were possible, and I doubt Simpson’s request will find any more sympathy. You can be sure this will be an issue in next March’s primaries, however. I don’t know what the final form of this mania will look like, but the outlines are clear. The Rivard Report and Newsdesk have more.

Abbott sides with auto dealers

Sorry, Tesla.

Giving a nod to long-established franchised auto dealerships, Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas doesn’t need to carve out a loophole in its laws that would allow Tesla to sell its high-end electric cars directly to consumers.

“Texas has a very robust, very open, very effective automobile sector that seems like it’s working quite well the way that it is,” the Republican told Bloomberg Radio on Tuesday. “If you’re going to have a breakdown in a car, you need to have a car dealership there to make sure that the vehicle is going to be taken care of. We haven’t seen that from Tesla.”

Tesla’s business model is to sell directly to consumers, bypassing the middleman dealers as it does in many states. But a longstanding law bars that practice in Texas.

[…]

Tesla has refused to call last session a failure. The company says it educated more consumers and lawmakers and will continue its fight to enter the country’s second-largest automobile market. And on Tuesday, it said it wasn’t discouraged by Abbott’s comments.

“As a growing company, we are optimistic about the governor’s pro-business position and hope to be selling direct soon,” Ricardo Reyes, a spokesman, said in a statement.

Abbott’s comments contrast with those of his predecessor. Last year, Gov. Rick Perry suggested in an interview with the Fox Business channel that the state’s dealership laws were “antiquated protections” that should be revisited. Those comments came as Texas was trying to entice Tesla to build its $5 billion lithium-ion battery plant here. The company ultimately chose Nevada.

See here for previous Tesla bloggage. They’ve struck out in the last two legislative sessions trying to get a bill passed to change the franchise model, with no one even sponsoring a bill last time. Abbott may be “pro-business” in some sense, but he surely knows where his bread is buttered. It will be interesting to see what if anything Tesla does in the next session.

Weekend link dump for July 19

“Their latest results reveal that descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders.”

Interns are not volunteers and should not be treated as such.

How to make color, in three easy steps.

Tough times for computer sales.

Are you a harbinger of failure? It’s not a bad gig to have if you are.

“The most important action Americans can take to stop the terrorism that puts us most in danger is to toughen gun laws and background checks.”

Why colleges should admit more ex-felons.

Anyone know where Dorothy’s ruby slippers are? There’s a reward for finding them.

“The Bush administration decided it wasn’t going to go along with the Clinton administration’s naive, give-away-everything negotiations with North Korea. The Bush team, particularly the first term team, decided they were going to hang tough and not be patsies for the North Koreans. And now North Korea is a nuclear state with a number of nuclear weapons. Maybe that would have happened had the Democrats won in 2000 too. But it did happen under the hang tough crowd.”

What $12 billion in public funds for 51 new sports facilities around the country could have paid for instead.

RIP, Margaret Block, freedom fighter.

“Truth really is stranger than fiction: Syfy brought us Sharknado and then the universe counters with Sharkcano, otherwise known as Kavachi. This very, very active volcano off the Solomon Islands is 60 feet underwater, and sharks and rays have apparently been hanging out in its caldera between eruptions.”

What to expect when you’re expecting a planetary flyby.

“Here’s the good news: NASA will have to pay for your car. Under the Convention on the International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Object, NASA and the US government would clearly be on the hook for the damage. And, since you wouldn’t be considered at fault in the accident, in most states insurance companies would be legally prohibited from raising your premiums.”

I wonder what the percentage of men who say that having a vasectomy was the right decision for them would be.

“But without question, state ownership of Stone Mountain Park makes it a bit difficult to pretend the carving doesn’t have public sanction, and the side of a mountain is a bit large to be described as a museum.”

Having said that, I heartily approve of this as a remedy.

“It is believed to be the first time the Welsh government has chosen to communicate in Klingon.”

Say, when did Adam and Eve get married, anyway?

Everything I wrote this week about this latest Scary Story echoes and/or repeats everything I’ve been writing for years about all the earlier versions of these Scary Stories, whether the particular prompt is the Satanic baby-killers of Mike Warnke’s lucrative imagination or the Satanic baby-killers of Randall Terry’s unfunny version of the same act.” (Yes, that’s two in a row from The Slactivist. Sue me.)

Paxton’s partner in alleged crime

Meet Fritz Mowery, the man who helped get AG Ken Paxton into trouble.

Ken Paxton

Fritz Mowery was on a mission.

Last April, he tried to convince investment clients to sign backdated forms saying they knew Ken Paxton had received money for referring clients.

In a hearing in March, Mowery said he did it, “because it became an issue with Ken Paxton.”

Paxton, who was sworn in as Texas Attorney General earlier this year, acknowledged in May 2014 that he solicited clients for Mowery without being registered with the state securities board to do that. He described it as an administrative error and paid a fine.

“Mr. Paxton’s deal just seems to be, ‘If I say I’m sorry, everything ought to be OK and it ought to be forgotten,'” said John Sloan, who represented a couple that sued Paxton and Mowery after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in failed real estate deals. “The problem is the law [passed when] he was in the legislature [that] makes the conduct that he was engaging in a felony.”

[…]

A five-day administrative hearing this past March revealed details about the dealings between the two men. Regulators are seeking to revoke Mowery’s securities license and they allege that he engaged in pattern of misconduct that included misrepresentations, acting in his own self-interest over his clients’, and failing to disclose crucial information to clients.

Testimony showed the two men had been working together as far back 2004, the same year that Mowery founded Mowery Capital Associates.

Paxton was paid 30 percent of management fees for referrals that he made to Mowery.

[…]

But the testimony shows the lengths to which Mowery was going to get clients to sign the backdated disclosures last spring.

In one case, a disclosure was dated as having been signed in 2005. In reality, it wasn’t signed until 2014.

Read the whole thing, it’s quite illuminating. Mowery’s defenders and Paxton’s campaign flack insist that this is all just a big misunderstanding, an innocent mistake that anyone can make, and so on. I think there’s only so many times you can ask people who had no idea that Ken Paxton was getting a kickback when he steered them to Fritz Mowery to sign a backdated form saying that they had been informed up front about the Paxton/Mowery relationship before one is forced to conclude that the behavior was habitual and not accidental. That will presumably be one of the things that the grand jury convening in August will consider, along with whatever evidence of other alleged wrongdoing that the special prosecutors say they have found. As I’ve said, I can’t wait to see how that goes.

In the meantime, you may be wondering about Paxton’s legal bills.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, dogged by a cloud of legal uncertainty since taking office in January, is not using taxpayer dollars to pay his lawyers, according to aides, who left it less clear whether he plans to tap his campaign account.

The question of how he has been footing his legal bills flared up Thursday with the disclosure of campaign finances that showed he spent almost $20,000 on legal services during the first half of the year. A Paxton spokesman indicated the expenses did not have to do with the ongoing fallout from his self-admitted violation of state securities law last year.

A special prosecutor overseeing the latest chapter in the saga has said he plans to ask a Collin County grand jury to indict Paxton on a charge of first-degree felony securities fraud. The grand jury is expected to meet in the next few weeks, and Paxton has hired high-powered Dallas attorney Joe Kendall to represent him.

Before Paxton brought Kendall on board, the attorney general was being represented by Matt Orwig and Bob Webster, two Dallas lawyers whose firms did not show up on Paxton’s most recent campaign finance report. Asked Thursday evening about the legal services listed on the disclosure, Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm said in a statement, “My belief is that none of those are related to the events in Collin County.”

[…]

State law prohibits elected officials from using campaign contributions for personal purposes. One exception, however, is when an elected official is defending a civil or criminal action brought against them in his or her “status as a candidate or officeholder.” Holm has long suggested Paxton is only facing the legal drama because he is a top-ranking elected official, while prosecutors have argued Paxton’s political stature has nothing to do with their work.

The Texas Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion in 1995 that shed some light on how it interprets the so-called “personal use” exception. A district judge had asked the commission whether he could use campaign contributions to pay for his defense against a lawsuit stemming from his time as an attorney before he joined the court. The commission concluded that judge was in the clear as long as he had determined “in good faith that a groundless lawsuit has been filed against him solely because of his status as a judge.”

Defending oneself against felony charges can be quite expensive, as Rick Perry can attest. It will be very interesting to see if Paxton is allowed to tap into his campaign account for this, or it he’ll have to fundraise separately.

The David Temple case

I have not followed this very closely, but it definitely deserves all the attention it has received.

Kelly Siegler

There’s a 1,300-page offense report detailing the investigation into the fatal shooting of Belinda Temple in 1999. There are audio tapes of witnesses who saw the pregnant teacher at Katy High School on the day she was killed later than previously thought. There’s a statement from a teenage neighbor that the Temples’ dog, known for its viciousness, would calm down after sniffing him.

Those are three examples of evidence withheld from David Temple’s defense lawyers that could have helped him at his 2007 trial, lawyers said Monday, as they called for a special prosecutor to investigate the notorious Katy slaying and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Their request comes days after a judge outlined 36 different instances of prosecutorial misconduct by former prosecutor Kelly Siegler and said Temple deserves a new trial.

“David is innocent. He has been convicted of a crime he did not commit,” David Temple’s brother, Darren, told reporters. “We are horrified by the voluminous suppressed evidence, the lies and the prosecutorial misconduct that has occurred over the last 10 years.”

Temple was convicted in 2007 of murder in the fatal shooting death of his wife, Belinda Lucas Temple.

[…]

With the ruling from state District Judge Larry Gist, Temple could get a new trial. The judge’s findings will be forwarded to the state’s highest criminal court to decide.

In the wake of that 19-page decision from Gist, Temple’s family called for District Attorney Devon Anderson to agree that Temple should be free on bail while the case winds its way through the appeals process. They also asked that Anderson reopen the murder case. Both requests were denied by the elected district attorney, who said her office disagrees with Gist’s ruling.

“The Court of Criminal Appeals will rule on the Temple case after a thorough review of the judge’s findings, and the objections filed by our office,” Anderson said in a prepared statement. “Any actions such as reopening an investigation into this case would be premature.”

In his ruling, Gist looked at several assertions by the defense, including that Temple was “actually innocent.” The judge found that he did not hear enough evidence during a 26-day hearing beginning in December to justify “actual innocence.”

He did agree that evidence that could have helped Temple was either delayed so much that it was not helpful or withheld completely.

On Monday, Temple’s attorneys said they will seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to reinvestigate the murder case and the prosecutors accused of withholding evidence and interfering with the appeals process.

“There’s a systemic problem in Harris County,” said Temple’s defense lawyer, Stanley Schneider. “Maybe it’s time for an attorney pro tem to be appointed.”

He blamed a “win at all costs” culture and said it permeated the office from 2002 to 2008 under former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal.

Attorney Casie Gotro said prosecutors who are still at the office continue to “stonewall” defense efforts to look at all of the evidence.

“We’ve been repeatedly told that things ‘don’t exist’ only to find out later that they do,” Gotro said. “And without fail, they either benefit the defense theory or undermine the state’s theory.”

Here’s the written opinion by the judge in the habeas case, in which the court concluded “the defendant has shown he was denied a fair trial because of the state’s failure to disclose or timely disclose favorable evidence; and that had evidence been disclosed or disclosed timely, the results of the trial would have been different”. Both Lisa Falkenberg and the Chron editorial board have excoriated Siegler and sided with the call for a special prosecutor to take over. I think they’re right about that, and I think given DA Devon Anderson’s past history of being reluctant to act against someone with whom she is connected, she will need to be pressured about it. Kelly Siegler did the world a big favor by helping to expose rogue prosecutor Charles Sebesta, who was recently disbarred for activities similar in nature to the ones Siegler now stands accused of. Justice demands that someone like Kelly Siegler, with no connection to the Harris County DA’s office, now lead an investigation into her behavior in this trial. I respect Siegler’s work as a prosecutor and now as a crusading TV cold case investigator, but reputation only counts for so much. The facts need to be followed, and David Temple deserves his new day in court. Harris County needs to get out of the way. Let’s get going on this. Grits and Murray Newman, a friend and former colleague of Siegler’s, have more.

Boy Scouts rescind ban on gay adults

About time.

The executive committee of the Boy Scouts of America has unanimously approved a resolution that would end the organization’s blanket ban on gay adult leaders and let individual Scout units set their own policy on the long-divisive issue. Units sponsored by churches opposed to the change could maintain the ban if they choose.

In a statement Monday, the BSA said the resolution was approved by the 17-member executive committee on Friday, and would become official policy immediately if ratified by the organization’s 80-member National Executive Board at a meeting on July 27.

The committee action follows an emphatic speech in May by the organization’s president, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, declaring that the long-standing ban on participation by openly gay adults was no longer sustainable. He and other BSA leaders said the ban was likely to be the target of lawsuits that the Scouts were apt to lose.

In 2013, after bitter internal debate, the BSA decided to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not gay adults as leaders.

Under the new resolution, local scout units would be able to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation — a stance that several scout councils have already adopted in defiance of the official national policy.

“This change allows Scouting’s members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families,” the BSA statement said. “This change would also respect the right of religious chartered organizations to continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own.”

See here for the previous update. I was never a Boy Scout and honestly don’t really care very much about them, but I’m always glad to see an organization make progress. Took ’em long enough, but better late than never.

It’s hard out here on a recycler, part 3

A story in the WaPo about the ongoing struggles of the recycling business.

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities here in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. In fact, almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. And Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

In short, the business of American recycling has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears.

“If people feel that recycling is important — and I think they do, increasingly — then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” said David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler that owns the Elkridge plant and 50 others.

The Houston-based company’s recycling division posted a loss of nearly $16 million in the first quarter of the year. In recent months, it has shut nearly one in 10 of its biggest recycling facilities. An even larger percentage of its plants may go dark in the next 12 months, Steiner said.

The problems of recycling in America are both global and local. A storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide.

Environmentalists and other die-hard conservation advocates question if the industry is overstating a cyclical slump.

“If you look at the long-term trends, there is no doubt that the markets for most recyclables have matured and that the economics of recycling, although it varies, has generally been moving in the right direction,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks solid waste and recycling in New York.

“And that’s without factoring in the external impact of landfilling or anything else,” he added. “There aren’t a lot of people saying, ‘Send more material to landfills.’ ”

Still, the numbers speak for themselves: a three-year trend of shrinking profits and rising costs for U.S. municipalities — and little evidence that they are a blip.

Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system.

“We kind of got everyone thinking that recycling was free,” said Bill Moore, a leading industry consultant on paper recycling who is based in Atlanta. “It’s never really been free, and in fact, it’s getting more expensive.”

[…]

Clemm, the District’s recycling chief, said small efforts can begin to turn the tide. The District must begin by getting more garbage out of its recycling stream.

“Residents have a way to influence this by making sure they are recycling right,” she said.

Another possibility is to follow the urgings of the environmental community by expanding recycling programs to include composting — the banana peels and grass clippings degrading in landfills that by some estimates have become the nation’s third-biggest source of methane gas contributing to global warming. Composting is partly credited with the success of such cities as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle in increasing the share of the waste stream that is recycled each year.

See here and here for some background. The main thing I take away from this is that however intriguing the One Bin For All possibility may be, I just don’t see how it could be economically feasible at this time. Maybe in the future, and maybe never, but not now. It looks like that education/marketing blitz that opponents of One Bin like the Texas Campaign for the Environment have been advocating as the better alternative is the way we will have to go to ensure that our current recycling arrangements can be sustained. We need to do a better job of getting people to put only recyclables in their bins – and in the public receptacles that are often treated the same as garbage cans – and we need to seriously think about a separate collection process for compostable material, as a number of other cities have done. Needless to say, these are issues that the Mayoral candidates should be addressing, which means they need to be getting asked questions about them. I promise to do my part when it’s my turn to do so (and I have been doing so in many of the Council candidate interviews), but until then it would be nice if someone else thought to do it, too.

Saturday video break: Groove Me

One of the great cover bands of our time, the Blues Brothers:

It’s been over 33 years since John Belushi died. Every now and then I wonder what kind of career he would have had if he had managed to tame his demons enough to survive them. He was amazingly talented, but he’d entered that “not quite sure what to do next” phase of his life, and who knows how that might have gone. What a terrible, tragic loss.

Here’s the original version of that song:

If you knew without looking it up that it was done by King Floyd, give yourself a pat on the back.

(Yeah, I know, I got out of order again. This is what happens when I do these that far in advance. Next week will be out of order too, so be prepared to cope.)

Mayoral ad spending

The Chron takes a look at one of the more visible aspects of all the money that Mayoral candidates have raised or loaned themselves so far.

BagOfMoney

Despite taking in a total of more than $7 million, Houston’s mayoral candidates spent relatively little on advertising in the first half of the year, paving the way for an onslaught of messaging in the closing months of the campaign.

In general, less-known candidates – such as City Councilman Steve Costello and former mayor of Kemah Bill King – poured more money into advertising, including pricey TV spots, to introduce themselves to the public.

Meanwhile, those with strong name identification with voters – such as former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and state Rep. Sylvester Turner – spent less on advertising or targeted their efforts at the voters most likely to support them.

Though it will be months before it is clear whether either strategy worked, the numbers from the mayoral hopefuls’ first round of campaign disclosures provide an early indication of how the race is shaping up.

King allocated more than $191,000 to advertising, nearly as much as the rest of the field combined, while Costello spent about $66,000, more than a third of which went toward online campaigns and $37,000 for video and associated production costs.

I haven’t seen a single TV ad yet. For what it’s worth, I think that unless you’re going to carpet-bomb the airwaves a la Bill White in 2003 or (to a lesser extent) Peter Brown in 2009, early TV ad spending won’t have much effect. The main problem with TV ads is that they’re written on water – if your target audience isn’t watching at the right time, it’s on and gone. On the other hand, I can’t visit a webpage anywhere these days without seeing a Bill King ad, as it was for me with Annise Parker in 2013. I am, to put it mildly, unlikely to base my vote on Internet advertising, but at least he’s out there in a tangible way.

The rest of the story is about the so-far lower-cost advertising efforts by other candidates. You can scan the finance reports yourself if you are a crazy person like me have the time, but there’s not that much to see there on this front as yet. One thing I’ll say is that these efforts are either to boost name recognition or to remind certain groups that a particular person is running. The target is the 180,000 to 200,000 people that everyone knows will show up to vote in November.

There are many people who vote in Houston in even-numbered years but generally not in these odd-numbered municipal election years. For example, there were 398,337 votes cast in the city of Houston in 2010, including 350,000 in the red light cameras referendum and 340,000 in Renew Houston. There were 590,566 votes in Houston in 2012, with vote totals ranging from 417,000 to 446,000 for various charter amendments and bond referendums. I don’t think traditional city election advertising, whether on TV, radio, the Internet, or in newspapers, is geared to or noticed by these larger groups. These folks, I suspect, need to be informed that there is an election, that they have a stake in it, and that there’s a candidate that might appeal to them. I suspect as well that more direct contact – door knocking, phone calls made by actual people, that sort of thing – is the key to getting their votes.

Every candidate wants to get as many votes as they can from that core 180 to 200 thousand group, since they each represent a vote that would then not be going to their opponents, but at least some of these candidates need to tap into that harder to get larger group as well. Adrian Garcia, who is likely to do very well among a group (Latino voters) who are far more likely to show up in Presidential years than non-Presidential years, is one such candidate. Fortunately for him, he’s already run in two Presidential-year elections, so there’s a lot of people out there who have already voted for him at least once. Sylvester Turner, who is used to running in even-numbered years, is another. When the 30-day and 8-day reports come out, look in them for evidence of field-related expenses. That will tell you what you need to know about this aspect of voter outreach.

More on the state’s refusal to issue birth certificates

The Observer follows up.

Two legislators have weighed in on the controversy over Texas’ refusal to grant birth certificates to some children of undocumented families. On Wednesday, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, sent a letter to Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Kirk Cole, referencing an Observer story published online Monday. He wrote that he was “alarmed” by the article as well as “a lawsuit that surfaced this week” over the agency’s refusal to issue birth certificates to people born in the United States.

At least 17 families have joined the lawsuit filed last month by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Jennifer Harbury and Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Jim Harrington.

In his letter to Cole, Hinojosa noted that 13 of the 17 plaintiffs are residents of Hidalgo County, in his Senate district. “By denying these birth certificates, DSHS is denying these children their U.S. citizenship. These children were born in the United States, are United States citizens, and are entitled to receive their own birth certificates.”

State Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Fort Worth, also sent a letter to Cole. “Any person born in Texas deserves all documentation and privileges concomitant with being both a United States and Texas citizen,” he wrote. “The U.S. Constitution speaks directly to the issue of birthright citizenship. It makes clear that birthright citizenship is a matter of constitutional right.”

Harbury says she’s grateful the legislators are weighing in on the matter. At the crux of the lawsuit is the state’s sudden decision not to honor the matricula consular, which is an official photo ID issued by Mexican consulates to Mexican nationals living in the U.S. In the past, Texas has deemed the matricula consular an acceptable form of ID.

In his letter to Cole, Hinojosa noted that the state’s “new policy” has never been “stated or even publicly proposed.”

See here for the background. What’s interesting is that while the Observer story from this week appears to be the catalyst for this issue getting wide attention, the lawsuit was filed in May. That happened as the Legislature was winding down and the state was getting walloped by floods, so perhaps it’s understandable that it went under the radar. Be that as it may, people are paying attention now. The DSHS claim that this has been their policy since 2008 seems awfully weak, and the evidence we have points to this being spurred on by the influx of Central American kids several months ago. Whatever the case, it’s clearly unconstitutional. The state is filing its response next week. I hope whoever the judge is will act quickly. Daily Kos, Hair Balls, and the Latin Post have more.

Preview your bus route change

From Write On Metro:

The New Bus Network is designed to make our service better and more convenient for you. Before it debuts on Aug. 16, you can get a preview of exactly how your new route will be changed.

Simply go to the Dual Trip Planner. Type in your starting and ending addresses. There are three ways to enter addresses. Once you have your new itinerary, you can send it to your email or phone by clicking the “Send This Itinerary” button that appears after its description.

When experimenting with the Dual Trip Planner, please note that the planner is extremely sensitive to the exact locations typed in. Just changing your destination by one block can result in a very different itinerary. For example, “Hobby Airport” will give you a different trip plan than “Airport & Broadway” which gives you a different option than “Broadway & Morley.”

If you’re going to the Galleria, the address “Westheimer and Post Oak” will give you a different result than “Westheimer & Sage.”

If it’s been awhile since you’ve looked at the System Reimagining webpage, you really ought to familiarize yourself with this tool, as the initial routes have been tweaked and re-tweaked multiple times. The #40 bus I take now is the same in my neighborhood, but takes a different path downtown, so the stop I’ll be using there will change for me. Forewarned is forearmed and all that. Change is hard and there will be some bumps and bruises, but we will get through this.

Please don’t feed the gators

Should be obvious, but apparently not to everyone.

In the time it took for something to hit the water and the unseen creature lying in wait to snap at it, the legend of the “killer gator” was born.

It didn’t take much longer for the story to spread around the world, from the small Texas city of Orange where it took place all the way to Europe, much to the annoyance of Gary Saurage, who has devoted his life to the prehistoric creatures that he says are marvels of biological efficiency and no threat to anybody with a lick of sense.

“It was an accident, pure and simple,” said Saurage, owner of Gator Country outside of Beaumont and a longtime trapper of so-called nuisance alligators for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “This is not an animal that attacks people. I don’t like it even being called an attack.”

Think of it this way, he says. Millions of gators live in warm coastal areas from Corpus Christi up into the Carolinas. Always have, forever and ever. More than half a million are estimated to live in Texas, but reports of attacks of any sort are rare. As for deaths, how many have ever been recorded?

“Until now – zero,” he said.

[…]

In the three counties that make up the southeast corner of Texas, alligators outnumber humans. The saltwater surge of Hurricane Ike killed more than 100,000, but they have rebounded in the years since and have thrived in the midst of one of the rainiest years in recent history. Floods caused by those rains, as well as development and infrastructure improvements that add more ponds and widen waterways, serve to expand the alligators’ range.

People who live in the area say Woodward’s death and a second attack that involved a man and his teenage son in Lake Charlotte in Chambers County were fluke events that do not bespeak any increased danger.

Alligators in the wild typically avoid humans. One exception is a female alligator protecting her nest. Another is a gator that was getting food from people.

Saurage said he believes the alligator that went after Woodward, which later was killed illegally by a nearby resident, had for some time been fed from the deck behind the small, neighborhood Burkart’s Marina along an offshoot of Adams Bayou. An employee of the modest bar and hamburger restaurant said that was not the case, that people had only fed smaller juvenile alligators that had been around in previous months.

Saurage is skeptical. Why would a gator hang around if there was no obvious food supply?

“When I go to remove a gator, the first thing I look for is whether he moves away from me or comes toward me,” he said. “If he does not swim away, I know he is one who’s been fed.”

The same is true for bears, who like alligators interact more with people as human habitation moves into their turf. Alligators that associate people with food become nuisances. It’s not their fault, it’s ours. As long as the people don’t do anything stupid, they and the gators can coexist just fine. I’m a damn Yankee city boy, and even I know that much.

Friday random ten: Revisiting the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs list, part 4

Here again is the RS list.

1. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) – Sly and the Family Stone (#410)
2. (Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Öyster Cult (#405)
3. Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand) – Aerosmith (#404, orig. The Shangri-Las)
4. Can’t Help Falling In Love – Elvis Presley (#403)
5. Summer in the City – Black Casino And The Ghost (#401, orig. The Lovin’ Spoonful)
6. Roxanne – The Police (#398)
7. Tell It Like It Is – Aaron Neville (#391)
8. Pride (In The Name Of Love) – U2 (#388)
9. Hit The Road Jack – Ray Charles (#387)
10. (What A) Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong (#382, orig. Sam Cooke)

Song the girls would like if I played it for them: “Umbrella”, Rihanna (#412). It’s right in their wheelhouse.
Song every Yankees fan associates with Mariano Rivera: “Enter Sandman”, Metallica (#408). They should play it when he’s inducted to the Hall of Fame.
Song the MOB played once, then gave to a school that would appreciate it more: “Sweet Home Alabama”, Lynyrd Skynyrd (#407). I don’t remember why then-director Ken Dye said he’d arranged it, but after one rehearsal of it he said he’d give the arrangement to the Crimson Tide band.
Song I may still have on vinyl but if so I haven’t ripped it: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, Elton John (#390). I owned (and may still own, I’ll have to check) two volumes’ worth of Elton John’s greatest hits on vinyl. Neither ever made it into my digital collection.
Song I used to own but don’t anymore: “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)”, Pink Floyd (#384). I think I recorded a friend’s copy of this from vinyl to cassette once. Go ahead, sic the RIAA on me.
Song I don’t own but should: “Ohio”, CSNY (#395). As with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, I should own more CSNY.

Interview with Jason Cisneroz

Jason Cisneroz

Jason Cisneroz

We come to the last of the interviews I did in District H, where current Council Member Ed Gonzalez is termed out. Today’s candidate, Jason Cisneroz, is a former staffer for CM Gonzalez, and for CM Adrian Garcia before him. A resident of the Near Northside, Cisneroz is a veteran, having served in Operation Enduring Freedom II with the Army Reserve. He was the campaign manager State Rep. Armando Walle in 2006, and is now an HPD Community Service Officer. Here’s our conversation:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

What happened to Sandra Bland?

This is horrible.

Sandra Bland

There are big questions about the final hours of Sandra Bland’s life. The official story is that the 28-year old committed suicide by hanging herself in a Waller County jail cell. Her family doesn’t buy it.

Bland, a black woman who graduated from Texas Prairie View A&M and had recently accepted a new job at the university, didn’t seem to her friends and family to be a suicide risk. And as ABC 7 in Chicago reported (Bland was originally from nearby Naperville), many have disputed the official story. “The Waller County Jail is trying to rule her death a suicide and Sandy would not have taken her own life,” longtime friend LaNitra Dean told the station. “Sandy was strong. Strong mentally and spiritually.”

We don’t know what happened in Bland’s cell, but we know that her initial encounter with police was contentious. Bland was pulled over Friday after she failed to signal a lane change. According to the Chicago Tribune, officials said Bland was about to drive off with a warning before she kicked the officer.

A bystander who observed the incident on University Drive in Prairie View filmed the arrest. It’s not easy to watch.

In the video, we see Bland in the prone position while a deputy pins her to the ground. She screams to the witness and asks the policemen why they’re hurting her. (According to police brutality activist Shaun King on Twitter, the witness says that Bland was pulled out of the car through her window.)

It’s unclear what danger the officers arresting an unarmed woman felt that they were in. Usually, failing to signal a lane change isn’t an offense that ends in handcuffs. (She was ultimately arrested for “assault on a public servant,” though the details of her alleged assault are similarly unclear.) It does, of course, come on the heels of other incidents in which police have deployed surprising amounts of force against Texans — particularly Texans of color — in recent months. In fact, police killed a man during a routine traffic stop similar to Bland’s.

[…]

The Texas Rangers are investigating Bland’s death now, and it may not end there. A Change.org petition launched Thursday morning urging the U.S. Justice Department to take over the investigation already has 5,000 signatures, and the DoJ has demonstrated a willingness to investigate situations like this in other high-profile deaths involving black citizens and the police.

In the meantime, #SandraBland has become a trending topic on Twitter, and that seems to have changed the way her death is being discussed in Waller. Yesterday, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told ABC 7, “I do not have any information that would make me think it was anything other than just a suicide.” Today, speaking to KPRC in Houston, he was more thoughtful:

“I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life,” he told NBC station KPRC in Houston. “That’s why it’s very important a thorough investigation is done and that we get a good picture of what Ms. Bland was going through the last four or five days of her life.”

“If there was something nefarious, or if there was some foul play involved, we’ll get to the bottom of that,” Mathis added.

There are a lot of eyes on Waller County right now, and someone will hopefully find the truth.

The Trib adds some details.

An autopsy classified the death as suicide by hanging, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences spokeswoman Tricia Bentley told The Post, and the sheriff’s office statement said it appeared to be from “self-inflicted asphyxiation.”

“The family of Sandra Bland is confident that she was killed and did not commit suicide,” Bland’s family said in a statement sent to the Tribune by the law firm they hired. “The family has retained counsel to investigate Sandy’s death.”

At the press conference, another of Bland’s sisters said that the two had a telephone conversation after Bland was taken into custody. Shante Needham said Bland was “very aggravated,” and thought she had broken her arm, according to the AP.

The Texas Rangers, an investigative arm of the state’s Department of Public Safety, are investigating the death. Additionally, the Department of Public Safety said it has asked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s assistance.

“At this time, the joint investigation by the Texas Rangers and the FBI is ongoing,” the release stated.

Shauna Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s office in Houston, told the Houston Chronicle in an email that the agency would be “monitoring the local investigation until it is complete.”

“Once the local process takes its course, the FBI reviews all of the evidence and if warranted could pursue a federal investigation,” she wrote.

[…]

In his Facebook statement, Mathis, the district attorney, said his office “is actively consulting with and monitoring the investigation being conducted by the Texas Rangers into Ms. Bland’s death. Once the investigation is complete the matter will be turned over to a Waller County grand jury for any further proceedings deemed appropriate by them.”

He added: “Please allow us to do our jobs, and rest assured that Ms. Bland’s death is receiving the scrutiny it deserves.”

I certainly hope so. Everyone is watching, that’s for sure. You can click on that top link to see the video. There’s plenty of questions about what happened once Ms. Bland was in jail, but the questions begin with what happened at that traffic stop. How does someone get arrested – never mind carted off to jail – for failing to use a turn signal? Half of Houston would be incarcerated right now if the police here enforced that. And then there’s this:

Hempstead Police Chief R. Glenn Smith, who was fired last month by elected city officials, is now the Republican Party’s nominee for Waller County sheriff.

Smith easily won in a runoff Tuesday, defeating Joseph “Joey” Williams 801 to 544, and will face Democrat Jeron Barnett in the November election.

Smith, 49, blamed his dismissal on small-town politics.

“In my opinion some of them possibly had an agenda for somebody else who is running for sheriff,” Smith said Thursday.

However, some in the community say the dismissal stems from incidents involving police misconduct toward African-Americans.

[…]

Activist Herschel Smith said many Hempstead residents expressed concerns about police conduct. He said two incidents that sparked worries involved a mistaken drug raid and a strip search conducted on area youths by Hempstead police.

Link via Daily Kos and Mic. Glenn Smith is now the Sheriff of Waller County. Maybe the one doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but with all that’s been happening, now and forever, there’s no benefit of the doubt to accrue. Sandra Bland and everyone else deserves a real answer. See #WhatHappenedToSandraBland on Facebook for more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

UPDATE: The Press has more.

Revisiting birth certificates

This is one of those next steps that needs to be taken.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, some gay and lesbian couples in Texas have raised questions about another legal document – birth certificates.

They want Texas birth certificates to list two parents’ names, even if a child has two moms or two dads. Birth certificates issued by the state list one mother and one father.

Change could come in the next few weeks, said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for Texas Department of State Health Services. She said state officials are reviewing the Supreme Court decision with attorneys and the attorney general’s office. They’re looking at how the ruling could compel revision to other vital records, such as death certificates that list a surviving spouse, she said.

“Once we complete that analysis, we would make any necessary changes as soon as possible,” Williams said in an email.

As you may recall, a bill to reform how birth certificates list parental names got some traction in the Lege but ultimately fell short. We can wait till 2017 to try again, or we can hope for direct intervention.

Texas birth certificates only allow for a mother and a father to be listed. That means, for instance, when a woman has a child, her same-sex spouse is not automatically listed on the birth certificate — and considered the child’s parent — as a male spouse would be. The non-biological parent has to adopt the child later to gain parental rights.

Same-sex couples adopting a child run into the state’s requirements for supplemental birth certificates, which are issued to establish parental rights for adopters. Texas supplemental certificates allow for two parents to be listed, “one of whom must be a female, named as the mother, and the other of whom must be a male, named as the father.” As a result, only one parent is listed for same-sex couples.

The Department of State Health Services has already modified marriage licenses to accommodate same-sex couples, but a spokeswoman for the department said it is analyzing what to do about birth certificates in light of the high court’s decision.

“We are reviewing the ruling to determine what, if any, changes will be needed to our forms or processes relating to issues other than marriage applications,” said the department’s Carrie Williams.

Family law attorneys who handle same-sex adoptions aren’t hopeful the matter will be easily resolved, predicting it’ll take a legal challenge to force the state to modify the birth certificates.

[…]

It is estimated that 9,191 same-sex couples in Texas are raising children, according to the Williams Institute, a nonpartisan think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dallas family law attorney Susan Vrana said she expected the state’s top elected officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both Republicans, to provide leadership on the issue. (Paxton, a conservative who staunchly opposes same-sex marriage, has said county clerks with religious objections can opt out of issuing marriage licenses.)

“I’m hoping that good judgment and good lawyering by the attorney general and the governor will” resolve the issue, Vrana said. “We all live in hope that they’ll put their lawyer hats on and remember their oath.”

I know Ms. Vrana is trying to catch some flies with a honey jar, but we all know that ain’t gonna happen. I’ll put my money on a lawsuit being filed sometime before the 2017 Lege convenes. We are incapable of doing things the easy way in this state.

Whither the monarch butterfly

We should try to keep them from going extinct. That would be bad.

The state’s chief financial officer has approved a $300,000 grant to investigate why the number of monarch butterflies is declining in Texas, and what can be done about it.

The bottom line for Comptroller Glenn Hegar, however, is less about butterflies than it is about commerce.

The state’s interest in the study by the University of Texas at San Antonio includes the potential economic impact on Texas should the federal government decide to list the official state insect as a threatened species.

Kevin Lyons, Hegar’s press secretary, said that if the iconic butterfly is listed, “many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production.” Texas, he said, is trying to take the lead nationally on monarch conservation efforts.

“This crucial research will help us develop voluntary best management practices to conserve the monarch butterfly while minimizing the impact on economic activity,” Hegar said in a statement announcing the grant.

The monarch study is the latest funded by the state in an effort to “gather data on species under review so it can respond appropriately to proposed listings … and find the right balance of protecting our natural resources and our state’s economy,” according to the website for the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species, which Hegar chairs.

[…]

In Texas and other states, studies weighing economic development against the cost of saving endangered species have become the latest battleground between environmental groups and big business.

“We’ve seen this with the sage grouse, wolves, freshwater mussels and other species,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. “The argument is that if we have to protect anything, the world will end, when actually it won’t. There is a public benefit to protecting butterflies and other species, but it’s hard to monetize. … Studying the economics of a listing is a very clever way of saying the cost will be high – something most people can understand – when that doesn’t measure the cost of losing a species.”

In Texas, officials said the monarch study will evaluate the abundance and distribution of the otherwise unremarkable nuisance plant known as milkweed, the butterfly’s primary food source.

If the butterfly is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened, officials fear much of the state could be affected because Texas is a major flyway for the annual migration of the monarch between Mexico and Canada each year.

Environmental groups seeking to have the monarch listed note that the butterfly’s population fell from about 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million last winter, the lowest number ever logged.

“There’s been an 80 percent decline in the population, a precipitous decline,” said Lori Ann Burd, the environmental health director for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of three groups that filed to have the monarch listed. “They can’t survive in smaller numbers. We’re really at the precipice with the monarch.”

That’s actually a 96.5% decline, which sounds pretty bad to me. Butterflies have an important role to play in pollinization, so to say the least there would be a significant cost if they were to become endangered or worse. Let’s for once please not be penny-wise and pound-foolish here.

Finance reports come trickling in

As always, the Mayoral reports lead the story.

BagOfMoney

Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia closed out the first half of the year with more than $1.3 million in the bank, eclipsing City Councilman Stephen Costello by a mere $7,423.

According to their campaign finance reports, Garcia raised $1.5 million and spent just over $122,000, while Costello raised about $30,000 less in contributions, was loaned $90,000 and spent $496,000.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner and former mayor of Kemah Bill King trailed in cash on hand, reporting $1.1 million and $544,000, respectively.

[…]

Costello’s campaign previously said his funds include a $250,000 personal contribution and a $262,000 transfer from his council account.

Among those with reports already in, King spent the most in the first half of the year, coughing up more than $680,000. He raised more than $755,000 and lent himself an additional $500,000.

Turner’s expenditures came in just under King’s, at $601,000, according to his report. However, his campaign noted that $125,000 of those expenditures were related to his state office, not his mayoral campaign.

After starting the race with about $900,000 in the bank from his legislative account, Turner raised an additional $763,000 in the nine days between when his state fundraising blackout period ended and the close of the reporting period.

See here for more. As previously noted, the reports are not in their usual place due to changes in state law and the reporting system. For now, you can see the reports that the city has posted here. I’ve linked to them on my Election 2015 page and will keep updating that as more of them appear. I’ll do a more in depth look at the reports once they’re all there, starting with the Mayorals, which were added to that page as of last night. Expect that for next week.

The Chron story has a spreadsheet embedded in it with totals for candidates who had turned in reports by publication time. Among the other Mayorals, Chris Bell had raised $381K and had $190K on hand; Ben Hall raised $94K and loaned himself $850K to have $812K on hand; and Mary McVey had raised $60K and loaned himself $1.075M to have $1.071M on hand. Forget the price of oil, this Mayoral campaign will be stimulating the local economy over the next few months.

So far, mayoral fundraising has far overshadowed that for Houston’s second-highest political post, city controller.

Deputy controller Chris Brown reported raising $270,000 and spending $22,000, leaving him with more than $222,000 in cash on hand.

Meanwhile, Bill Frazer, runner-up in the 2013 controller’s race, raised $129,000, received $32,000 in loans, spent $120,000 and closed out the first half of the year with more than $53,000 in the bank.

Former Metro board member Dwight Jefferson lagged behind with $11,000 raised $1,800 loaned and $9,000 spent. It was unclear how much cash he had on hand.

Carroll Robinson had raised $50K and had $5K on hand; Jew Don Boney did not have totals posted. Other hauls of note: Amanda Edwards dominated At Large #4 with $165K raised and $118K on hand. Laurie Robinson was the runnerup with $43K and $26K, respectively. In At Large #1, Tom McCasland ($141K raised, $98K on hand) and Lane Lewis ($104K raised, $62K on hand) were far out in front; Chris Oliver raised $37K and had $23K on hand, while Jenifer Pool had not yet reported. CM Michael Kubosh was the only one with any money in At Large #3, raising $63K and banking $44K. Philippe Nassif had a very respectable $73K raised in At Large #5, but only $12K of it remained, far less than CM Jack Christie’s $100K cash on $124K raised; Durrel Douglas had not yet reported.

For district races, CM Mike Laster had a big haul and an equally big financial lead in J, while CM Richard Nguyen had a decent total in F. His opponent, Steven Le, did not have a report up as of last night. There was surprisingly little money raised in the two-person District G race; Greg Travis led in cash on hand over Sandie Moger thanks to a $41K loan to himself. Roland Chavez had the most raised and the most on hand in H, with Karla Cisneros and Jason Cisneroz a notch back. Abel Davila raised a small amount but loaned himself $20K to be even in cash on hand with the other two.

That’s it for now. For the other races, HISD and HCC reports lag behind the city’s – HISD by a little, HCC by a lot – so I’ll keep an eye on those and update as needed. As always, fundraising is just one aspect of one’s candidacy, and is in no way predictive in many races. We only get a few chances a year to see who’s funding whom, and this is one of them. I’ll have more when I can.

Lawsuit filed over state refusal to issue birth certificates

I’m sure this won’t be contentious at all.

For nearly 150 years, the United States, under the 14th Amendment, has recognized people born here as citizens, regardless of whether their parents were citizens.

But Texas has other plans. In the last year, the state has refused to issue birth certificates to children who were born in Texas to undocumented parents. In May, four women filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Texas Department of State Health Services alleging constitutional discrimination and interference in the federal government’s authority over immigration.

Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who is representing the women, said the deluge of birth certificate refusals began last winter. “I’ve never seen such a large number of women with this problem,” she says. “In the past someone might be turned away, but it was always resolved. This is something altogether new.”

According to the lawsuit, the women who requested birth certificates for their children at the state’s vital statistics offices in Cameron and Hidalgo counties were turned away because of insufficient proof of their identities. State law allows the use of a foreign ID if the mother lacks a Texas driver’s license or a U.S. passport.

But employees at the offices, which are run by the Texas Department of State Health Services, told the women they would no longer accept either the matricula consular, which is a photo ID issued by the Mexican Consulate to Mexican nationals living in the U.S., or a foreign passport without a current U.S. visa. Undocumented Central American women are also being turned away because they only have a passport without a U.S. visa. “They are locking out a huge chunk of the undocumented immigrant community,” says Harbury.

[…]

James Harrington, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, is also representing the undocumented families. The legal team is seeking a court order to reinstate the use of the matricula consular and foreign passports as valid proof of identity for undocumented mothers.

“Even in the darkest hours of Texas’ history of discrimination, officials never denied birth certificates to Hispanic children of immigrants,” said Harrington in a written statement. “Everyone born in the United States is entitled to the full rights of citizenship.”

Here’s the Express-News story from May that the Observer post references; it has some more detail so read it as well. Just as a reminder, the 14th Amendment grants birthright citizenship, so I have no idea on what ground the Department of State Health Services thinks it has to stand. Here’s a bit from a press release from MALC that expands on that:

Recently, several parents were denied birth certificates for their U.S. born children by employees at offices administered by the Department of State Health Services, after administrators declined to accept their foreign government forms of identification. This is a major departure from prior practice, as parents had been able to obtain a copy of their child’s birth certificate by providing their passport or a consular ID from their country of national origin in lieu of a US-issued ID.

“The legal standing for this prerequisite is questionable. No section under Texas’s Health and Safety Code mandates that the Department require verification of immigrant status or national original before the issuance of a birth certificate to the parents of an American-born child. This practice also runs counter to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which grants citizenship to all children born in the United States, regardless of whether their parents are citizens.

The full statement is here. I’d hope this would spur a quick reversal, but I know better than to expect it. We’ll see what the courts have to say. TPM has more.