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January 25th, 2005:

Rose Spector Dot Com

Rose Spector’s campaign website is up and running. Early voting has already started for the Feb 5 special election, so visit now and help her out if you can.

No on Gonzales

I know it won’t make a whit of difference to my Senators, but count me in with the many others who say No to Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General. I do not condone torture, and I do not agree with those who do. Alberto Gonzalez may have the brains, education, and experience to be the Attorney General, but he has no conscience and no morals, and as such he has no business being the nation’s top law enforcer. I say No, and I hope you will join me.

Cintra complaints

Before we sign over the keys to the PerryPike to Cintra, it would be nice to know what kind of power Cintra will wield over its customers. We can look to Ontario, Canada, for examples.

Some toll-road companies can raise tolls without a government hearing, or send collection agencies after drivers with past-due accounts.

Some even negotiate noncompete clauses into contracts so that governments cannot expand other freeways that might take business away from toll roads.

Just how much power Cintra will have is being negotiated behind closed doors in Austin. State officials say that within weeks they expect to sign a contract, known as a comprehensive development agreement, identifying Madrid, Spain-based Cintra as the lead agency, along with San Antonio’s Zachry Construction Corp. and other minority partners.

[…]

Ontario has filed several lawsuits attempting to gain some decision-making powers, including the right to veto toll increases, but courts generally have sided with Cintra, citing a 1999 contract signed by both parties.

In fact, Cintra is pushing for additional authority. The company has asked Ontario not to renew vehicle registrations for motorists who are behind on their toll payments, a request the government has declined.

First things first. Within reason, I’m OK with Cintra having the right to pursue delinquent tollpayers, just as any other company can do to deadbeats. I would, however, like to know what rights the accused will have. The story cites “people who are dead, people who have never driven on the highway or people who have been double-billed” as being aggressively dunned by Cintra. What recourse will Texans who say they’ve been billed in error have?

As for toll hikes, that’s the nature of free enterprise, right? Cintra’s a profit-maximizing firm, and they’ll set their price point where they see fit. But what happens if somewhere down the line they’re the only provider for a certain area? Again, what if any checks and balances will exist here? The gas tax doesn’t get raised without public input (sometimes after the fact, but still), so are we comfortable letting Cintra make unilateral decisions about tolls?

A noncompete clause and the power to deny vehicle registrations to delinquent payers are complete nonstarters for me. That’s just way too much power in the hands of people no one voted for. And I don’t know about you, but I have little faith that future Leges will be able to resist the urge to accede to whatever new demands Cintra will have. The potential to give away the store is just too high.

We’ll know what the contract looks like in a few weeks. I just hope there’s enough skepticism in the Lege to keep it from being too outrageous. Via Lasso.

Cowboys for Clean Cement

Here’s an interesting suggestion to clean up the air in Dallas: Enlist America’s Team in the fight against polluting cememnt plants.

Public money will buy cement for the [Dallas Cowboys’] new football stadium. Public financing is intended to be for the public good. Midlothian’s cement production practices do not qualify as public good. They do not deserve Arlington’s taxpayer money.

State-of-the-art, publicly financed stadiums should be built with the best available, state-of-the art, pollution-controlled cement. Anything less will make the Cowboys accomplices to these cement makers’ relentless assault on local public health.

[…]

Money, and the prospect of losing it, is the only language that Midlothian’s polluters understand. If we are serious about improving regional air quality, county commissioners, city council members, developers, shoppers at Home Depot — and even Jerry Jones — should ask how their cement is made and at whose expense.

Consumers can draw a line in concrete and declare with their purchasing power that Midlothian’s smokestacks must clean up — now.

[…]

As a partner with Arlington, the Cowboys are stewards of public money. They have an opportunity to champion local health by setting high standards for their cement supplier.

In doing so, they would score a huge win for families in Dallas-Fort Worth’s red zone.

Economic boycotts have a mixed record, but getting the Dallas Cowboys to agree to not buy cement from local manufacturers until they improve their air quality record would be quite a coup. I have no idea if this proposal will be taken seriously or not, but it is the sort of thing that can capture the imagination. Worth a shot, that’s for sure. Thanks to Tom B for the tip.

The state of the city

Mayor White made his State of the City address yesterday, which you can find here. The Chron has a bunch of stories relating directly and indirectly to the items mentioned in this address. I’ll start with the two big proposals for 2005:

Foreclosing for affordable housing

The city of Houston will foreclose on 1,500 tax-delinquent properties beginning next month in an effort to add affordable housing and stem the gentrification of poor neighborhoods near downtown, Mayor Bill White said Monday.

[…]

White said at a news conference after his speech that with the help of the Texas Legislature, he hopes to complete the foreclosures in six to 18 months. After that, he said, the city envisions working closely with developers and funneling tens of millions of dollars in local, state and federal funds to build mostly subsidized, single-family homes on the 1,500 lots.

The city also plans to improve infrastructure in these areas, he said.

White said that too many subsidized housing units now are being built in outlying areas of the city, “far away from work centers.” White also has expressed concern that the increasing popularity of inner-city neighborhoods could drive out low-income homeowners as rising property values increase tax bills.

[…]

Steve Tinnermon, White’s special assistant for neighborhoods, said White’s plan is more ambitious than anything the city has tried in an effort to clean up tax-delinquent properties and build affordable housing.

Tinnermon said the city will ask the Legislature to pass two laws to help the plan. The first would eliminate, in some cases, a requirement that courts appoint a lawyer to represent the interests of property owners who cannot be located.

Tinnermon said the city wants to remove that requirement on properties that have delinquent tax bills and fees greater than their appraised values. About half of the 1,500 properties are in that category, called “upside-down” in real estate parlance.

Tinnermon said such a law could expedite foreclosures by reducing the entire process to as little as four months from as much as 18 months. He said the city has been unable to locate owners for about 80 percent of the city’s tax-delinquent properties and that taxes have been unpaid on some properties for almost 20 years.

The city will also ask the Legislature to create a Houston “Land Bank,” such as one already authorized in Dallas, that would give it the first right to buy foreclosed properties by paying the lesser of either the delinquent tax bill or the appraised value.

The city then could pass along the savings in selling the property to developers who would build affordable housing.

This one seems pretty achievable. The goal is clear, precedent exists, and there’s no obvious and organized opposition. If the legislative hurdle is cleared and the money is there, this one should get done.

Tracking toxic air

Taking his strongest stance yet on the city’s air pollution problems, Mayor Bill White on Monday said the city would set up an air pollution monitoring network along the fences of some of the region’s industrial plants to track down companies contributing to risky levels of carcinogenic chemicals in city air.

“We will begin to place air quality monitors outside the plant gates of those firms most likely identified as the source of these excess levels of air toxics,” White said in his second annual State of the City address.

“I don’t want to wait two or three years,” the mayor later said in a briefing. “I don’t care who does it, but if somebody doesn’t do it quick, we are going to do it.”

The new air quality initiative — one of two unveiled by the mayor for his second year in office — is aimed at addressing “needs we’ve swept under the rug for too long,” he said.

While White applauded business community efforts to cut smog, he said “we cannot ignore air toxics,” a group of 188 chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health effects.

Other goals of his clean air plan include: asking state and federal agencies’ to post their air toxics data on the Internet; assembling a task force of medical experts to analyze the risk from the pollution levels measured; and joining other local governments to bring legal action against companies whose plants are “cutting corners.”

This one will be tough. The goal is certainly laudable, but it’s less clear, and the polluters aren’t going to sit around quietly. Further, it’s not clear that any help will be forthcoming at either the state or national level. Still, this would be a huge feather in White’s cap if he can succeed. We’ll keep an eye on this one.

Other headlines relating to the address or items mentioned by Mayor White:

ChevronTexaco deeds golf course to the city

Texas Rangers to oversee crime lab review

LULAC denounces SafeClear

Council to weigh funding for Emeergency Center audit

Happy reading.

Is Carole just teasing us now?

Strayhorn hints against running for governor

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn indicated Monday she may be about to back away from challenging Gov. Rick Perry in next year’s Republican primary.

Strayhorn’s spokesman, Mark Sanders, issued a statement denying she ever told Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs that she would not seek re-election as comptroller. Combs has been preparing to run for Strayhorn’s office if she vacates it to run for governor.

Say it isn’t so, Carole!

Sanders said in issuing the statement that Strayhorn was not trying to send signals about whether she would seek re-election rather than run for governor. Sanders said Strayhorn just wanted to “set the record straight” about statements attributed to Combs.

Combs was quoted indirectly in Sunday’s Corpus Christi Caller-Times as saying Strayhorn had told her she was not running for comptroller again.

“The people of Texas are certainly asking her (Strayhorn) to run for governor, and she is listening,” Sanders said. “But the comptroller never told Commissioner Combs she is not running for comptroller again, and Commissioner Combs knows it.”

Combs spokesman Reggie Bashur said Combs “agreed” with Strayhorn that Strayhorn “did not tell her directly that she was not seeking re-election.”

Bashur said the Caller-Times article misquoted Combs. The reporter who wrote the story could not be reached for comment. Editors at the paper said they had no information that would cause them to run a correction.

Whew, that’s much better. With or without Kinky Friedman in the Governor’s race, the 2006 elections will be much less fun if there aren’t a few bloody GOP primaries to kick things off. Greg has been saying all along that Strayhorn is doomed in any contested Republican primary, so maybe this is a feint to keep her options open. Who knows?

The briefs are in

Lawyers for both Talmadge Heflin and Hubert Vo have filed their briefs in the election contest, and Andy Taylor is still beating the “irrefutable evidence of massive fraud!” drum. I’ve seen a copy of Vo’s brief, and I have to say they do a pretty decent job of refuting much of that “irrefutable” evidence. I have not seen the Heflin brief, so I have a one-sided view of this. It still looked darned convincing to me. Some highlights from the Vo brief:

1. Team Heflin interviewed a subset of those whose votes were questioned, and extrapolated from there.

2. Among those Team Heflin did interview, Team Vo disagreed with many of their assertions about whose vote should or should not count.

3. Some votes were questioned because voters went to the wrong precinct, but were still in HD149.

4. Some of the voters who had moved to Fort Bend were told by Paul Bettencourt’s office that it was OK for them to vote at their old location.

5. As noted in the story, some votes were challenged on the basis of uncorroborated phone interviews.

You get the idea. The hearing is Thursday, and Discovery Master Will Hartnett will issue his recommendations next week. In the meantime, ponder this:

[Andy] Taylor said Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman agrees with Heflin’s team that Heflin should be declared the winner because so many ballots cast for Vo should be thrown out.

But in a prepared statement, David Beirne, Kaufman’s spokesman, said Kaufman is waiting for the House to conduct an investigation and has not endorsed the findings of Heflin’s team.

“No such endorsement exists or should be construed from the office of Harris County clerk,” Beirne said.

One might wonder what else Andy Taylor is fibbing about.

Last but not least, the Daily Texan calls on Heflin to drop his challenge.