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March 18th, 2004:

February traffic report

I don’t really know how much traffic I had in February thanks to the sudden and inexplicable death of my Sitemeter counter early on in the month. After a couple days of ruling out every other possibility, I decided it had to be specific to that one account. I bit the bullet and switched everything over to the counter that I had (and thankfully still remembered the logon/password details for) on my old Blogspot site. I know I got about 21,000 hits since that was configured on Feb 11, so let’s say I got 32,000 hits. I got a lot of referrals from my post about Howard Stern getting dropped by Clear Channel while they were picking up Michael Savage, which helped drive that total.

By the way, I never did get an answer from the Sitemeter folks about my account. You do get what you pay for.

Top referrers are below the More link. As always, thanks for reading.

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Those prison blues

I’ve harped on the correlation between our lock ’em up mentality in this state and our recent budget shortfalls (see here, here, here, and here for earlier installments). Slowly but surely, that idea is taking hold to the Lege.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the state of Texas now who thinks that the smart thing to do is build thousands of more prison units,” said House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie. “We need to have a better-funded system of probation.”

Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, a member of the Corrections Committee and its designee on the Appropriations Committee, was among several lawmakers who quizzed Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials about whether many people are on parole who might not need to be, whether probation programs get enough money to be a realistic alternative to prison and whether new technology should cause Texas to rethink its decade-old parole and probation policies.

Such suggestions could have drawn derision at the Capitol just a few years ago during an era when new prisons and getting tougher on criminals were politically popular. During a five-year period starting in 1991, Texas tripled the size of its prison system to become the largest in the free world as it slashed the parole rate and sentenced felons to longer terms.

But the costs to operate such a system proved huge, and parole, probation, drug treatment, education, job training and other rehabilitation programs for prisoners were cut to make ends meet. Last year, the criminal justice agency, which oversees prisons and parole programs and financially supports county-run probation programs statewide, had to cut $240 million out of its $5.2 billion budget.

“My sense is that we may have about the same amount of funding available during the next biennium, but any new initiatives whatsoever will have to be paid for through savings,” Allen said after a Tuesday hearing during which businesses proposed options that could save state money by privatizing some corrections services.

On Wednesday, a legislative hearing explored how to improve parole and probation programs to save money. State budget officials noted that the basic cost of keeping someone on probation is 97 cents a day, compared with $2.30 for parole and $44 for prison.

Lawmakers are discussing whether satellite-tracking technology could be used more extensively to better keep track of the 76,000 parolees and 450,000 probationers — more than 3 percent of all adult Texans — and whether other technology and revamped supervision policies could allow many more felons to serve their time outside prisons so they could pay taxes and stay with their families.

“Do we have people on parole in Texas for 14 years because they need to be on parole or because that is how we have always done it?” asked Stick, a former prosecutor.

Stick suggested that some people might be released from parole early if they were proven to be rehabilitated.

“Maybe we have an antiquated system we need to look at,” he said.

Yeah, maybe we do. I realize there’s a certain only-Nixon-could-go-to-China aspect to Republican state legislators looking into alternatives to the prison industry, but now would be an excellent time for some Democrats to make we-told-you-so noises and to trot out whatever good ideas they may have. They won’t get official credit for whatever legislation may result, but they might plant the notion in the media and in the public consciousness that they were on the right side of the issue all along.

UPDATE: Kevin thinks this is bad news.

Your regular TRMPAC briefing

The state Republican Part continues its efforts to smear Travis County DA Ronnie Earle by claiming that he has a double standard because he didn’t go after former Attorney General Dan Morales.

Earle said he did not investigate Morales because federal officials were doing it.

“The federal authorities did an outstanding job in that case, and it would have been inappropriate for me to intervene in their ongoing investigation,” Earle said. “Justice was done.”

Morales last year pleaded guilty to federal charges of mail fraud and filing a false income tax return in connection with his attempt to fraudulently secure $520 million in legal fees for a friend in the state’s $17 billion tobacco lawsuit settlement.

You know, I admit to being as much a partisan in this squabble as anyone, but that sure seems like a reasonable explanation to me. It’s not like Morales is off in the Caymans with a boatload of ill-gotten gains thumbing his nose at all of us. I don’t recall ever hearing complaints that the feds were overstepping their jurisdiction in this case, at least not from Republicans. I also don’t ever recall hearing any complaints from Republicans about who was or wasn’t prosecuting Morales during the leadup to his guilty plea in federal court, or when he was working for and endorsing Governor Perry back in 2002. I guess it wasn’t convenient back then.

I should note that then-Attorney General John Cornyn did some of the early heavy lifting in unravelling Morales’ crimes. There was some speculation that Cornyn was dogged in pursuit of Morales because he was still seen as a potential threat to win an election for Governor or Senate in 2002. That Cornyn may have been motivated in part by partisan goals doesn’t diminish the fact that he had a legitimate reason for his investigation. Given the facts of the TRM/TAB case that have come to light so far, I’d say the same is true of Ronnie Earle.

I’ve pointed to several overviews of the TRM/TAB investigation before, but I really recommend this one in the AusChron, which looks at the individual pieces and players and how they all fit together, rather than doing a chronological narrative. Your understanding of the subject will definitely be enhanced by it.

ChevronTexaco closes the sale

After all that hoo-hah, ChevronTexaco went ahead and bought the Enron Building anyway, without the tax abatement from Harris County.

Houston City Council had already agreed to give ChevronTexaco a tax break on $64 million in building improvements and furnishings, reducing the California company’s tax payments to the city by $350,000 a year over 10 years.

Doubts about the deal arose after ChevronTexaco indicated it also expected tax incentives from a reluctant county government.

It was unclear how the county’s position affected negotiations for the purchase of the gleaming new building, completed by Enron shortly after its collapse into bankruptcy.

Plans now call for consolidating ChevronTexaco’s 4,700 workers and 500 workers from outside Texas at the new facility at 1500 Louisiana. The current work force in Houston is now in seven buildings.

The oil giant would still have to pay taxes on the building’s current assessed value of $79.3 million, which would bring the city $520,000 a year.

If I’m understanding this correctly, CT still gets a break from the city on planned improvements to the building, but not from the county. Hard to argue the assertion of the County Commissioners’ Court at this point that there was no need for them to kick in, as the sale clearly did not hinge on it. This may still be seen as a screwup on Mayor White’s part (though again I can’t say for sure if the Commissioners squeezed him a bit), but it looks like it’ll be a pretty small ding on his record.

Rodriguez increases lead, and other news

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez has increased his lead over primary challenger Henry Cuellar now that provisional and overseas ballots have been counted. Forty-four votes were added to his margin, which now stands at 170.

Although the results are unofficial until the Texas Democratic Party conducts the formal canvass March 20, Rodriguez’s campaign staff was heartened by the increase in the incumbent’s lead from 126 votes on election night.

“Now that the provisional and overseas ballots have been counted, every vote has been counted,” said Rodriguez spokesman John Puder. “Any hope that the Cuellar campaign had that those votes would help close the gap has vanished.”

Cuellar may still ask for a recount, but one would think that he’s not as well-positioned for it as he was before. The difference is still small, though, so his chances are still reasonable.

Meanwhile, in CD10, the money keeps flowing in the runoff between Ben Streusand and Mike McCaul.

As of Feb. 18, Streusand had contributed more of his own money than any other congressional candidate — $1.34 million, or 96 percent of the $1.4 million he has raised.

McCaul, meanwhile, was the third biggest personal spender at $647,000, or 70 percent of the $929,000 he raised.

Such contributions have helped make this the costliest congressional race in the country to date, with more than $2.6 million being spent, according to campaign finance reports.

And there is an expensive April 13 runoff to come between the two candidates. Streusand won 28 percent and McCaul 24 percent in eliminating six others in the March 9 primary.

[…]

The geometry of the 10th District, which stretches from Houston to Austin, helps explain why the race is so expensive, said GOP political consultant Allen Blakemore.

Last year, the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature changed the boundaries of the 10th District to give Republicans a better chance of winning the seat last held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. Doggett decided to run in the 25th District, which was moved to South Central Texas, and the 10th became an open seat with a 64 percent Republican voting history.

“To win, you have to advertise in two television markets, Austin and Houston,” said Blakemore, who does not work for either candidate. “And there are three radio markets including Brenham.

“If you’re (U.S. Reps.) Tom DeLay or John Culberson, you only have to buy in the Houston market,” he said. “That’s what makes this race so expensive to compete in.”

It also greatly raises the bar for a Democratic candidate who might get into the race, probably as good a reason as any why Gus Garcia was the only one to even contemplate it. Sadly, any serious challenger in this bastardized district will almost surely have to be someone with his or her own money to burn on it.

Big spending on political races has not always worked in the Houston area.

Two years ago, Republican businessman Tom Reiser spent $1.76 million on his losing campaign for the 25th Congressional District. GOP businessman Peter Wareing spent $1.2 million on his losing primary race for the 31st Congressional District.

Reiser and Wareing were part of a wave of 14 congressional candidates in 2002 who spent large sums of their own money on their campaigns only to lose their elections.

I had to go to the Secretary of State page to remind myself about Peter Wareing. I had forgotten that he’d tried again after his expensive failure in 2000 in CD07 against John Culberson. Some people are just gluttons for punishment, I guess.

Among those supporting McCaul are former Gov. William P. Clements; U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; and Republican state Reps. Todd Baxter, Jack Stick and Terry Keel.

Speaking of Stick and Baxter, the AusChron notes that Democratic primary turnout in their State House districts may spell trouble for them in November.

Both of their Dem challengers – Mark Strama and Kelly White, respectively – ran unopposed in districts designed to lean Republican. But both Strama and White still got more votes last week than did the incumbents.

The article suggests this election may not be like the ones of the recent past, and that the Dems may have blown a chance to make some gains or at least hold some losses down.

Last week’s results suggest forces that are working more deeply and broadly than many observers, including me, may have initially concluded on Election Night. Yes, it’s true that U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, facing what just days before had seemed (to many, including him) a neck-and-neck battle for survival, poured on a get-out-the-vote effort that helped buoy the high D turnout. But only a third of Travis Co. lies within Doggett’s new CD 25, and while Dem turnout in East and Southeast Austin was indeed much higher than normal, and much higher than most anywhere else, those precincts always prefer the D’s by several orders of magnitude. (Central and East Austin have kept Dems in power at the courthouse for at least the last two election cycles.)

But Democrats outpaced GOP turnout in all three of Travis’ congressional districts, two of which were uncontested on the D side; in all six of its House districts, none of which was contested on the D side; and the precincts of all four county commissioners, two of whom weren’t even on the ballot. Certainly, the countywide races – for sheriff and especially for 200th District Court – offered their share of voter interest, but the GOP had some of those, too.

Indeed, the turnout may be making some local Dems question their willingness to write off without a fight the races for CD 10 and CD 21, for Terry Keel’s House District 47, and for Gerald Daugherty’s Precinct 3 seat on the Commissioners Court. The GOP was unwilling to write off CD 25, but Becky Armendariz Klein has a row to hoe almost as long and narrow as the district itself. Despite her glib assertions on Election Night that she could pick up the Hinojosa (that is, Hispanic) vote, at least in Travis Co., Doggett outpolled Hinojosa and Klein combined by a factor of 4.7-to-1.

Something else is apparently at work, something that suggests the cynical hubris of the GOP leadership may now be touched by nemesis. Faced with effective disenfranchisement and supposed irrelevance, Travis Co. Democrats did not go play Frisbee with their dogs; they stormed the polls to send a message – about redistricting, about Tom DeLay, and about Bush and his reign of error, more so than about the choices actually before them on this ballot. Some of this reflects the Zeitgeist of a revitalized national Democratic Party (particularly here, where Howard Dean still came in third, even after exiting the race before the start of early voting); people made time to vote in the same way, and for the same reason, that they stood in the pouring rain for an hour to see anti-GOP documentaries like Bush’s Brain and The Hunting of the President at SXSW. Democrats care about what’s happening in politics, right now, in a way that hasn’t been true locally since Ann Richards’ 1990 triumph.

The second paragraph is a bit misleading, in that two of the three Congressional districts had no Democratic primary candidates, not unopposed primary candidates. However you slice it, though, it would appear that Travis County Dems are more fired up than anyone, including the party leaders, would have thought. I’m not sure what their secret is, but I do wish they’d share it with Harris County.

Finally, getting back to CD 10 for a minute, those who care about that sort of thing will be pleased to note that McCaul has picked up the Poppy Bush endorsement. I will note the following from the Streusand campaign:

Marc Cowart, Streusand’s campaign manager, said the Bush event shows that McCaul is the candidate of “the Republican establishment.”

“The feedback we hear from voters and grass roots is they don’t want the Washington establishment telling them how to vote,” Cowart said. “They want to make a decision based on facts, issues and backgrounds.”

If one believes Mr. Cowart, then a possible interpretation of his words is that Republican voters are not very happy with Republican officeholders right now, at least not happy enough to consider an endorsement from them to be a good thing. Make of that what you will.

You can have my beer bong when you pry it from my cold, hungover fingers

Spring break has many traditions associated with it. Lately, it seems that one of those traditions is for a City Council person somewhere to lose touch with reality and propose a stupid rule in order to keep those damn kids off their lawn.

NEW BRAUNFELS — Last summer, City Councilman Ken Valentine saw a young woman on the bank of the Comal River being fed beer through a “beer bong.” Minutes later she fell and received a serious cut.

Valentine is now proposing that the devices be banned from the Comal and Guadalupe rivers inside the city limits and that police confiscate them when found.

“I want the beer bongs off the river,” Valentine said at a City Council workshop Monday night. “Their only purpose is to get someone drunk as a skunk as quickly as possible.”

Valentine promised to put a call for a beer bong ban on an upcoming City Council agenda.

A beer bong is a long section of flexible tubing attached to a large funnel. The user puts the tube in his or her mouth while another person dumps beer into the funnel. They are a common sight among college-age drinkers on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers when thousands float the waterways on summer weekends.

“The user”. I love that. Makes it sound like a piece of software.

New Braunfels Police Chief Russell Johnson said he doubts a policy to ban beer bongs would pass legal muster.

“If we break the law, we are no better than they are,” he said.

Councilman Lee Rodriguez said he doesn’t like the idea either.

“Ken is wanting to bend the rules,” he said. “I appreciate his passion about what goes on on the river, but we have to draw the line somewhere. We have to be careful about violating people’s rights.”

Concerns about personal freedoms led the council to defeat a proposal last year to ban radios from the rivers, and instead adopt a stricter citywide noise ordinance.

Rodriguez said he “was kind of upset” with Valentine because “he keeps putting out a bad message about our rivers,” which could keep well-behaved families away.

The public perception that river tourism constitutes an alcohol-fueled wild party will simply draw more rowdy tourists, Rodriguez said.

Many city and Comal County officials believe behavior on the rivers has improved substantially in recent years, as stepped-up law enforcement has created a more family friendly atmosphere.

Congratulations, Ken “No Bong” Valentine of New Braunfels! You have officially joined Martha “No Thong” Wong in the pantheon of City Council frivolity. Remember, no problem is too important to be put aside for a crusade against college students having the kind of fun you don’t approve of. That’s the American way.