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March 9th, 2004:

The case for paper ballots, as if you needed more ammo

From the LA Times:

Poll workers struggling with a new electronic voting system in last week’s election gave thousands of Orange County voters the wrong ballots, according to a Times analysis of election records. In 21 precincts where the problem was most acute, there were more ballots cast than registered voters.

[…]

David Hart, chairman of Texas-based Hart InterCivic, which manufactured Orange County’s voting system, said it would be impossible to identify which voters cast ballots in the wrong precincts because of steps the company had taken to ensure voter secrecy. For this reason, an exact account of miscast ballots is impossible.

Hart InterCivic, of course, is the manufacturer of eSlate, which is the gadget we use here in Houston. It rather goes without saying that had they produced paper ballots, they would at least know how many people had voted for incorrect candidates. They might even have caught the problem in time to do something about it. Oh, well. Better luck next time. Via Soon To Be Big Media Kevin.

It’s the School Finance Reform Tango

The ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they tango on school finance reform took another step closer towards that dreaded special session.

Talk at the Capitol finally turns to taxes this week, the remaining piece in a school finance puzzle that could lead to a special session as early as March 29.

Lawmakers studiously avoided discussion of taxes during the primary election season. There are 45 contested primary races for House seats and five for the Senate.

On Wednesday the Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance will discuss tax options for replacing a portion of local school property taxes. One member of that committee, House Appropriations Chairman Talmadge Heflin, said last week that behind-the-scenes talks among lawmakers are showing progress.

“I think we’re beginning to see some strong consensus statements, probably surfacing shortly after the primary. I’m a little reluctant to say a whole lot until then. This is a political group, you know,” said Heflin, a Houston Republican who doesn’t have a primary opponent.

Gov. Rick Perry also may begin publicly talking about tax issues this week. Several weeks ago, Perry promised to soon lay out proposals to lower and cap property taxes.

[…]

Despite the perils of opening a discussion on the complex issues of education finance and taxes, many Capitol observers now believe a session is inevitable because of the months-long buildup. Political pollsters also say that Perry needs a victory on school finance to improve his declining job approval ratings.

Another driver for a special session is the July trial of a lawsuit filed by dozens of school districts, alleging that the current finance system is constitutionally inadequate.

Achieving success in a school finance special session will not be easy. Lawmakers want to overhaul the $27 billion school finance system and end the more onerous provisions that require high property-wealthy districts to share $1.1 billion with lower-wealth districts. But they must replace that money to retain equity among districts.

The Legislature also will have to come up with revenue to offset lower property taxes. Legislation passed by the Senate during the 2003 regular session would have cut school property taxes in half and replaced the $8 billion in lost revenue by raising the sales tax and adding it to many services.

Lawmakers now are looking at a smaller cut, perhaps one-third, and replacing the money with a mix of sales, cigarette and business taxes.

Points to remember as we go forward:

– The Lege failed to close the franchise tax loophole during the regular session, despite Governor Perry’s claim that it was a “major priority”. It will very likely be on the agenda this time around. Note that the Lege had all but given up on closing this loophole before the Ardmore walkout occurred, by the way.

– If some sort of cigarette tax is enacted, the credit for it (or blame, depending on your perspective) goes to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who floated the idea during the regular session only to have Governor Perry reject it out of hand. To be fair, Perry rejected this as a means of balancing the budget, not as a vehicle for funding schools, so a change in position on his part is not exactly a flipflop.

– Property tax reductions, a subject that nearly caused a riot last year, will probably be the really hot potato. Property taxes can’t be reduced or capped enough for the truly zealous, but reductions there will have to be made up elsewhere, mostly in the form of higher and/or expanded sales taxes. I predict that if there’s going to be a major roadblock, this will be it.

– I believe the odds are at least as good that the end result of this as-yet-still-uncalled session will be no increase in Governor Perry’s approval ratings as they are for a significant increase.

We’ll know where we stand when Perry returns from Italy. Stay tuned.

Houston wilderness

This is a pretty neat site for those who think it’s nothing but a concrete jungle around here. Be sure to check their little Flash movie about what you can find near here, too.

Now of course, the 24-county area it covers is a lot bigger than just Houston, but everything here is within a two-hour or so drive, and there are ten different kinds of wilderness areas described on their interactive map. The idea of this site is modelled after that of Chicago Wilderness. Check it out.

Money bridge

I’m going to try to get a statement out of the Harris County DA’s office regarding poker tournaments, but in the meantime I can confirm that playing bridge for money is indeed an option here in Houston. As I recall, the rule is that the house can only charge a table fee – it cannot get a cut from individual hands played. The stakes are among the players themselves, and as you’d expect are settled up at the end.

For those who don’t play bridge, the stakes are for points earned or lost on a given hand. Probably about half the time, 100 to 200 points are at risk, but up to about 2200 points can be available on normal hands. As such, even in the one-cent game, the totals can add up quickly. Lots of good bridge players have made a living doing this sort of thing.

Votacion Hoy

At long last, it’s primary day in Texas, and there are some rumblings that a few incumbents might be in trouble in their primaries. The Quorum Report is suggesting that early voting is favoring Judge Leticia Hinojosa in her race against Rep. Lloyd Doggett in the new 25th CD, while Henry Cuellar appears to be getting a boost from Webb County in his race against Rep. Ciro Rodriguez in the 28th. That race is especially fierce given Rodriguez’s support of Cuellar in 2002 when he came close to unseating Republican Henry Bonilla.

Mr. Rodriguez, 57, says he feels betrayed by Mr. Cuellar’s entry in the race.

After all, he says, they served in the Texas House together for more than a decade, and he helped raise money and secure endorsements for Mr. Cuellar’s first run for Congress in 2002 – a nearly successful bid to knock off Republican Henry Bonilla.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was just rumors,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “I never expected it. … I thought I knew him, but apparently not.”

Mr. Cuellar, 48, was readying himself for another shot at Mr. Bonilla this year when GOP-led redistricting split Laredo, one of the state’s most reliable Democratic strongholds.

Half stayed in Mr. Bonilla’s 23rd District, which was also reinforced with Republican voters in San Antonio’s well-to-do northern suburbs. The other half went to Mr. Rodriguez.

Mr. Cuellar, a 14-year lawmaker who served briefly as Texas secretary of state under Republican Gov. Rick Perry, said he agonized over whether to run against Mr. Rodriguez. But once he made the decision, he went for the incumbent’s jugular.

“He’s a very nice man, but what has he done for the district?” Mr. Cuellar asked while campaigning recently in a working-class neighborhood in San Antonio. The race “is not about him or me. It’s about providing public service to the community.”

Mr. Cuellar also accuses Mr. Rodriguez of telling only part of a story that dates to 1987, when the pair went into the Legislature together.

He said he helped Mr. Rodriguez get state money for his district, and he “never threw it back in his face.”

Mr. Rodriguez says he has served his district well. He says he helped lure the new Toyota truck plant to his district and secured money for higher education, veterans health and public transit programs and a large jail in Pearsall.

As chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Mr. Rodriguez says he’s also been active on border and trade issues important to his constituents.

The CHC is firmly behind Ciro Rodriguez. CHC Chair Bob Menendez was quoted in NationalJournal.com as follows:

“[Cuellar’s challenge to Rodriguez] is a huge disappointment. So many of us supported him, and his biggest advocate, the biggest fighter when he was running against Bonilla, in raising money and getting out the vote, was Ciro Rodriguez. There is a certain requirement, I think, of being thankful…[Rodriguez is] an exceptional member of the Democratic caucus and an exceptional leader in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.”

The Express News confirms that early turnout in Bexar County was not overwhelming.

Turnout is typically higher than normal during presidential years, as voters are inundated with campaign materials and become more politically aware.

Nearly 22,000 people cast early votes in Bexar County this year, compared with about 35,000 in 2002 and about 49,000 in 2000, the last presidential election year.

Another 50,000 are likely to hit the polls today, for a total turnout of about 72,000, or about 8.5 percent of registered voters, said Christian Anderson, who monitors local voting patterns for Election Support Services.

Most of that turnout has been driven by Democratic voters who have cast ballots at more than twice the rate of Republican voters.

There were contested primaries for Governor in 2002, and of course for President in 2000, so there isn’t a straight apples-to-apples comparison. Nonetheless, Rodriguez better hope that today’s turnout beats expectations.

It may or may not make any difference, but Cuellar came under fire late last week for claiming a union endorsement that he later retracted.

“Let me state this in no uncertain terms,” Texas AFL-CIO President Emmett Sheppard said Friday in a news release. “Ciro Rodriguez has a stellar record of support for the working people in his district.”

The Cuellar campaign Web site had listed the Communications Workers of America (CWA) as an endorsing organization.

The CWA is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Cuellar spokesman Colin Strother acknowledged that the mistake was his.

“They’re right,” Strother said. “We had a meeting with all the CWA members in Laredo and they indicated that they support Henry.

“I mistook that as an endorsement and erroneously posted it on the Web site.”

Strother said when he was made aware of the error, he immediately removed the group’s name from the list Friday afternoon.

“We don’t want to confuse anyone,” he said.

Meanwhile, over in CD 25, it’s not been quite as nasty, but recent ads may be making up for that.

In ads that began airing late this week, an old man questions whether Doggett lives in the newly created, overwhelmingly Hispanic district and how someone who doesn’t speak Spanish expects to represent it.

District 25 snakes from East Austin 350 miles south to the Mexican border.

In the 60-second radio commercial and a 30-second TV version, Hinojosa questions “whether he will run in another district if there is a redistricting effort next election.”

Doggett almost immediately fired back with ads that declare, “The people who know her the best have supported her the least — that’s why every single Hidalgo County official who has endorsed in the race has endorsed me.”

Doggett has said he is a resident of the newly configured district, which contains about one-third of the population that was in his old Austin district.

A Republican-dominated Legislature last year redrew the state’s 32 congressional districts, targeting Doggett and five other Anglo Democratic U.S. House incumbents for extinction.

Doggett accused her of characterizing him as a rich Anglo.

“It’s ironic that she’s saying I’m a rich Anglo when she was relying on a small group of Anglo power brokers to crown her campaign,” he said.

Hinojosa denied any racial or ill intent and said she was justified in “raising those issues because it is what voters are asking me about him.”

There’s one small consolation to these races, as well as with the Bell-Green battle in CD09, and that’s that these districts will remain Democratic regardless of who wins the primaries. I’d hate to see a bunch of seniority get flushed, but in the end we’ll all get on with our lives. Oh, and there shouldn’t be any runoffs in these races, either. That’s always good news.

Now for some Republican hijinx. As noted by a Kos diarist, the NRCC tried to brass-knuckle a challenger to Ralph Hall in CD 04 and made themselves look like idiots in the process. I particularly enjoyed Larry Telford’s up-is-down denial of what he was recorded saying. And of course, the fact that the attempted pistol-whipping was of a no-name with no money, and not the challenger who had actual experience and funding.

Last but not least, also from NationalJournal.com (it’s a subscription service; I was sent some excerpts): When in doubt, invoke the Clenis:

A last-minute attack mailer sent by “Citizens for Education” seeks to tie mortgage co. exec. Ben Streusand (R) and atty. Michael McCaul (R) to ex-Pres. Bill Clinton and ex-AG Janet Reno, “even going so far as to allege that McCaul had something to do with Clinton donor Johnny Chung getting probation instead of jail time.” The piece “also tries to connect Streusand” with ex-Reps. Bob Gammage (D) and Ken Bensten (D), “and tries to link McCaul to the hate crimes law and questions his positions on home schooling.”

McCaul was a career DOJ prosecutor in several admins, and says he made several recommendations to his superiors about follow-up prosecutions on the Clinton fundraising scandal, but they were ignored. No one, “including the other candidates, is willing to own up to sending the mailer. (All have denied it.) And we can find no records on who the Citizens for Education is.”

“Quote of the week:” McCaul spokesperson Ted Delisi, on the attack mailer: “This mailer is full of falsehoods and half-truths. The only half that’s true is the part about Streusand.”

Heh. I didn’t find anything useful from a Google search on “Citizens for Education”, which is about as phony a “grass roots” name as you’ll find. Once again, as with the BS attacks on Adrian Garcia, the perpetrators (who are very likely violating some campaign law or another) will spread their slime and get away scott-free. They seem to be as hard to trace as spammers, and no DA’s office has the money or the inclination to do anything about it. I don’t really care who wins the CD 10 race, but I find this sort of behavior objectionable no matter who the victim is.

Thanks to reader JD for the NationalJournal excerpts.

UPDATE: Check the comments for a little more info on “Citizens for Education”, courtesy of AJ.

USA Today on Metro Rail

I was doing a little channel surfing last night before Tiffany and I headed out to childbirth class, and one of the Happy Talk Local News anchors popped up on my screen to say something like “MetroRail slammed by national publication! Details tonight!” Lovely, I thought. Just what we needed.

I didn’t bother to stay up and watch the broadcast of their story, but I found it today.

The Bayou City’s light-rail system made national headlines Monday.

A USA Today article titled, “Houston’s Crash Course In Light Rail,” addressed the number of accidents that have occurred since the system began its test runs in November.

The article said the system has had almost as many accident in three months as Dallas during the entire 2003 year.

The story said part of the problem is that Houston’s light-rail system is at street level, instead of above of below ground, and that most Houstonians are drivers.

According to Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University, Houston is the most auto-dependent city in the nation.

That’s it? Where’s the slam? Here’s the article the culled the story from. Maybe I’m getting addlepated, but if there was any slamming going on in that story, it was of our town’s drivers.

For a full year, Houston tried to prepare its drivers to share the streets with the city’s new light-rail transit system.

There were public service announcements, community forums and safety classes to educate drivers. The sleek trains were equipped with strobe lights, horns, bells and whistles to warn motorists.

A test of the safety campaign didn’t fare well. An average of five drivers on Houston’s streets each day plowed into trains while the system was working out its kinks before the Jan. 1 opening. Worried transit officials immediately launched more television ads. One had Metro Police Chief Tom Lambert growling, “So, what part of safety do we not understand?”

Nobody really knows the answer to that question. But since the MetroRail trains began running full time Jan. 1, there have been 15 more collisions. No one has died in the accidents. Police blame motorists in all of them. “It’s not a rail problem,” says Ken Connaughton of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. “It’s a driver problem.”

While I agree with that assessment, I’m scratching my head about that “average of five drivers on Houston’s streets each day plowed into trains while the system was working out its kinks before the Jan. 1 opening” bit. We’ve had 23 accidents total, 15 of which have come after January 1, so unless the author meant to imply that the “before Jan. 1” period is exactly 1.6 days long, there’s some seriously fuzzy math going on here.

As it happens, the Chron today has a story which notes that a review of the MetroRail design found no systemic flaws.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials have reviewed part of the report’s draft, scheduled to be released at a news conference Thursday. Experts at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University are expected to recommend minor adjustments to signal timing and signage. Those suggestions will be in addition to changes Metro already has implemented during the monthlong study, including using train horns only in emergencies.

[…]

Metro had planned on increasing train frequencies and adjusting bus routes to better tie in to the new rail line starting Feb. 15 but postponed the changes until TTI’s review was completed. There have been 23 train/vehicle crashes in the past four months, a rate far exceeding that of any other new light rail line in the United States.

Metro police cited 22 of the vehicle drivers for traffic infractions that caused the wrecks, including illegal left and right turns, running red lights and failing to yield the right of way when pulling out of a driveway or intersection. Police blamed the other crash on a Union Pacific Railroad employee who bypassed a flashing crossing arm on the test track, but they are still reviewing what type of citation, if any, should be issued.

I heard someone say recently “it’s not like the trains are jumping the tracks and attacking innocent vehicles”. I almost feel like we’d have a better handle on the situation if that were the case. I’m going to try to stay hopeful that the rate of accidents will decrease as people eventually figure out where the train is.