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October 19th, 2005:

Astros win the pennant

How about that?

I have a feeling there’ll be a higher than usual occurrance of absenteeism and tardiness in the workplace tomorrow. Somehow, I think it’ll be overlooked.

Congratulations to the Astros and to all their long-suffering fans. And just so you know, those 1914 Braves – the only other team to make the postseason after being 15 games below .500 – they swept the Athletics in the World Series. On to Chicago!

Endorsement watch: Prop 1

Skipping over two more contested City Council races (in Districts H and I), the Chron jumps into the statewide ballot propositions with a call in favor of Prop 1.

Proposition 1 seeks to amend the Constitution to authorize a Texas rail relocation and improvement fund to be administered by the Texas Transportation Commission.

The TTC could issue bonds backed by monies in the fund, and the bonds would be repaid from fund balances. Bond revenues could be applied to construction projects that would move traffic around passenger and freight rail lines. The goals would be to advance public safety, improve air quality and spur economic development.

A constitutional amendment is required for these purposes because the state is constitutionally prohibited from taking on bonded indebtedness without voter approval beyond an amount requiring a specified level of debt repayment out of general revenue. The amendment, if approved, creates an exception to that prohibition.

Normally, a strong argument could be made that taxpayers should not spend money to reroute rail infrastructure belonging to private rail companies. But the need for public attention to the problem of trains blocking major thoroughfares has become increasingly clear as Texas cities grow.

They cite safety concerns, a theme echoed in this Express News endorsement (via Latinos for Texas) of Prop 1. What is hanging me up, however, is this:

If voters approve the amendment, lawmakers plan to find revenue for the fund in the next legislative session.

“We’ll get input from the public and then figure out a way to pay for it,” said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, who sponsored a resolution to put the amendment on the ballot.

The fund would be used in a public/private effort to move freight rail traffic out of densely populated areas.

To put it bluntly, I don’t have a lot of faith right now in the Lege’s ability to “figure out a way to pay for it”. The current leadership is not interested in honest accounting, as any even casual observation of the school finance shenanigans should make clear. And the thought of opening a public-money spigot to an industry that donates heavily to Rick Perry is not a comforting one. I appreciate the need to do this, but there’s way too much leeway here for unintended consequences. Like Greg, I will be voting No on Prop 1.

One-note Bettencourt sings again

Does Harris County Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt ever say anything else?

The average Houston-area homeowner’s taxes rose 7.5 percent this year, a rate that could cause tax bills to double in nine years, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said Tuesday.

The owner of an average home, worth $141,668, pays $3,376 in local taxes — up $238 from last year, Bettencourt told Commissioners Court.

When the court votes on this year’s tax rate Tuesday, it is expected to keep the rate unchanged, as it has since 2001.

Bettencourt pressed the court, as he has in the past, to lower the tax rate because rising property values cause owners to pay more taxes even when the tax rate remains the same.

“We should try to reduce the rate wherever we can. There is little or no advocacy for the homeowners in the process,” Bettencourt said.

That’s misleading, to say the least. I can’t speak for anyone else, but every year we get a handful of solicitations from outfits that offer to protest your tax assessment for you in return for a piece of any reduction they manage to win. We used one of them this year and sure enough, we got a break. All it took was the time to fill out and mail in a form. Surely we’re not the only homeowners in Harris County to get this kind of thing. Does Bettencourt not consider that to be advocacy?

Bettencourt said that in 1997, the average home was appraised at $79,535 and paid $1,546 in taxes. Taxes have more than doubled on that home since then, he said.

“Right now, homeowners are the cash cow for government,” Bettencourt said.

And how much could that homeowner sell that house for now? I’m willing to bet it’s a lot more than $79,535. Let’s be honest here – most houses are worth more on the open market than their appraised values. If property values, as expressed by the potential price one could get for selling one’s house, increase at a given rate, then it makes perfect sense to me that as a general rule the tax assessment for that house should increase at a commesurate rate. What exactly is so evil about that? Why is the free-market value of your house not an appropriate yardstick for your local appraisal district to use?

If we were stuck in a housing market that was stagnant, then I’d agree with Bettencourt. Here, though, he’s focusing on a single item without giving any consideration to the causes behind it. I say that’s at best disingenuous. Greg and Tory have related thoughts.

Wilma

I for one am getting tired of reading words like “most intense Atlantic storm ever recorded”.

Wilma’s confirmed pressure readings this morning dropped to 882 millibars — the lowest minimum pressure ever measured in a hurricane in the Atlantic basin, according to the hurricane center. Lower pressure translates into higher wind speed.

Forecasters said Wilma was stronger than the devastating Labor Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935, the strongest Atlantic hurricane to make landfall on record.

But Wilma was not expected to keep its record strength for long, as disruptive atmospheric winds in the Gulf of Mexico should weaken it before landfall, Hurricane Center meteorologist Hugh Cobb. Gulf water is about 1 to 2 degrees cooler than that in the Caribbean, which should inhibit its strength more, he added.

The strongest storm on record, based on the lowest pressure reading, had been Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which registered an 888 millibar reading.

SciGuy has more on what a badass Wilma is already, and also on this recordbreaking season of hurricane activity. Which still has six weeks to go, by the way. At least we’re all pretty sure that Wilma is not coming our way.

That’s a good thing for many reasons, not the least of which being that the areas devastated by Hurricane Rita are still in desperate need of help.

After more than three weeks of disappointing responses from the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and spotty media coverage, several Southeast Texas officials and business leaders are starting their own relief efforts and openly appealing to fellow Texans for assistance.

“We’re not self-reliant. We’re not too prideful. We’re crying out now and saying we need help,” said Mark Viator, a Beaumont pastor and manager of public and government affairs for chemical giant BASF Corp.

East Texas leaders say they have little choice but to plead for individual and corporate donations to help dig their citizens and already depressed economies out of what some have deemed the “forgotten hurricane.”

“We needed an alternative to just complaining,” said Walter Diggles, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, known as DETCOG, which represents 12 counties. “We needed to give people who wanted to do something an opportunity to make sure their contributions went directly to the Rita victims.”

The organization he leads began accepting contributions this week to the East Texas Rita Fund, established at the First National Bank in Jasper.

“Now we’re looking to our sister communities across Texas to assist like they did with the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other major disasters,” he said.

[…]

East Texas leaders have complained about slow, disorganized and inconsistent relief efforts from FEMA and the Red Cross.

They say FEMA offered more benefits to Hurricane Katrina victims, and the Red Cross excluded most East Texas counties from automatic relief for damaged homes, even though President Bush declared many of the counties disaster areas.

The agencies have insisted they are doing the best they can.

The Red Cross procedure allows Rita victims to appeal for damage assistance later, but Red Cross officials have acknowledged that the new procedure has caused confusion and frustration.

[…]

In Beaumont, Regina Rogers, an attorney who runs three nonprofits, is helping oversee fundraising efforts for the Southeast Texas Emergency Relief Fund for Hurricane Rita Recovery.

The fund, which originally helped Katrina victims, was designated for East Texans after Rita, Rogers said. About $1.3 million has been raised so far, including $1 million from Exxon Mobil and $250,000 from BASF, Rogers said.

She said her goal is not only to raise $10 million to $15 million but to educate potential donors about the devastation Rita caused when it hit a region already weakened and depleted financially after weeks of feeding, housing and donating money to Katrina victims.

“What’s unfortunate is so many people, even folks in Houston, are just totally unaware of the damages in this area,” she said.

I’m as guilty as anyone on that score. Here’s the information on the two aformentioned relief funds:

• East Texas Rita Fund, benefiting 12 counties represented by the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. Contributions to: First National Bank, P.O. Box 700, Jasper, TX 75951

• Southeast Texas Emergency Relief Fund for Hurricane Rita Recovery, established by business and philanthropic leaders in Beaumont. Contributions to: P.O. Box 201943, Houston, TX 77216-1943

Please give what you can.

Evidence, schmevidence

It’s amazing sometimes how what’s said to reporters and what’s said to a judge are often two very different things.

U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay’s chief lawyer says he has no evidence that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle participated in grand jury deliberations, despite having made that allegation in motions to dismiss DeLay’s indictments.

But Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin said there have been enough public comments by grand jurors in news media reports to raise suspicions that Earle may have violated laws in his efforts to indict one of the most powerful Republican politicians in the nation.

DeGuerin is seeking access to grand jury records to develop possible evidence of misconduct on Earle’s part. He has subpoenaed records from two of his assistant district attorneys related to their dealings with three grand juries that investigated DeLay.

Members of a grand jury that no-billed DeLay have told reporters that Earle was angry with them. DeGuerin also has focused on media reports that Earle’s office telephoned former members of the first grand jury to indict DeLay, asking them if they might have returned other charges, and then presented the results of the poll to a third grand jury, which issued new indictments.

DeGuerin is asking a judge to allow him to question members of the grand juries. A prosecutor being present when a grand jury was deliberating or voting on an indictment is specific grounds under Texas law for an indictment to be dismissed.

On Law and Order, this is what they call a fishing expedition. Nice try, Dick, but no cigar.

“It seems an uphill battle to get access to grand jury material based upon things reporters have written in a newspaper,” said Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches criminal law at the University of Texas School of Law.

Buell, who served as lead prosecutor in the case against Enron’s former top executives, said the defense would have to show a “real serious claim of misconduct” to persuade a judge to allow questioning of Earle and grand jurors.

[…]

Susan Brenner, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law who has researched grand juries, said polling discharged grand jurors about what they might have done on another charge is not a violation of secrecy.

“I don’t see any impropriety of polling people who used to be grand jurors,” said Brenner, who formerly defended white-collar-crime cases.

But Brenner added that such a poll would be “a strange thing to do.” She said the results should not be presented to another grand jury as evidence.

If such a scenario did occur, Brenner said Earle might have violated an ethical rule and could be sanctioned or held in contempt of court. “But there’s a difference between saying something is not wise or not appropriate and saying that it requires the dismissal of the indictment,” she said.

That’s a key point, I think. Even if an impropriety occurred – and remember, all we have so far is a defense claim of impropriety – it doesn’t necessarily follow that the remedy is for indictments to be thrown out. Ultimately, I don’t expect this to have any bearing on the case.

We’re two days out from DeLay’s first court appearance. It looks like he’ll be treated more or less like any other arrestee.

At a hearing Friday before state district Judge Bob Perkins in Austin, the former House majority leader will be asked to designate for the record the names of his attorneys.

The judge said Tuesday he doesn’t know whether he’ll take up any of the legal motions filed so far by DeLay’s attorneys and that he may schedule those matters for a later date. DeLay is one of numerous defendants scheduled to appear before Perkins that day.

[…]

DeLay is expected to be fingerprinted, photographed and booked this week, despite attempts by his attorneys to bypass that process.

“Perkins believes that if God was charged with a felony, he would have to go through the booking process, too,” said D’Ann Underwood, court coordinator for the judge.

DeLay, a Republican from Sugar Land, Texas, probably will spend about an hour being fingerprinted and photographed, she said.

It sure would be a shame if there were a screwup with his paperwork and it took all day to process him, wouldn’t it? Thanks to Stace for the link.

Down doobie doo down down

I know we’ve all enjoyed watching President Bush’s numbers head further and further south (even if there are potentially dire pony-related consequences), but to get the full flavor of it you really have to see the SurveyUSA 50-state poll. He’s above 50% in only four states, and below 40% in 25. At long last, it would seem, Dubya has finally managed to unite us.

More amazing are his numbers in Texas – 42% approval, 54% disapproval. Honestly, I never thought I’d see a day where he was in net negative territory here. Presumably, given the steep dive he took since last month, what we’re seeing is a Katrina anti-bounce. As such, this may well be a trough from which he’ll climb back up, but for now, I’m just going to savor it.

And as long as I’m savoring, consider this: If Bush is still in the 42% approval zone next year, that ought to have an effect on all of the statewide and Congressional races, because for the first time in a long time, Democratic candidates for office won’t have to defer to Bush’s popularity here. For once, they’ll be able to really run against him and make the kind of case for change that a challenger needs to make against an incumbent and a majority party. For once, their Republican opponents won’t be able to simply portray themselves as Bush’s bestest buddy. I’m not going to say that this will be a rising tide that will lift anyone to victory, but not having to explain why you’ll be able to work just fine with a partisan President from across the aisle at least makes the turf you’re running on a lot less inhospitable. You can already see this with the candidates we’ve got so far. Again, I’m not going to say that this is enough to win races they’re not expected to, but it sure won’t hurt.