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October 25th, 2005:

Behold my power!

If only I had such sway over the Chronicle’s editorial page! Thanks for the egoboo and all, but I’ve never even gotten them to print one of my letters to the editor. Believe me, if they were taking orders from me they’d have finished all of their endorsements by now.

Sedosi’s complaint here is that the Chron doesn’t have an op-ed on the passing of Rosa Parks. Far as I can tell, the editorials there generally lag the news cycle by a day or two. While I agree that it would be nice to see them be more on top of things, I think it’s a little unfair to single them out without at least a cursory check of what the other major papers are opining on. With that in mind:

– The top editorial at the Morning News has to do with sanctions on Syria, with secondary pieces on Ben Bernanke and teaching kids about the evils of drugs.

– At the Star-Telegram, they’re weighing in on cancelling proms, a tax increment financing district, and more kudos for Ben Bernanke.

– The Express News tells us to support the McCain anti-torture bill and to vote for Prop 7, while also counseling NBA players to accept a dress code.

– Last but not least we have the Statesman, which turns out to be the only paper eulogizing Rosa Parks on its editorial page. (They also lionize Ben Bernanke, which makes me wonder who all these papers have been listening to and why the Chron didn’t get that particular memo. I will admit, though, that “Bush hires competent non-crony for important job” is a topic worth remarking on.)

So five major papers, and one editorial obit for Rosa Parks, with many other pieces commenting on older stories. I feel certain that by Thursday, at least four of the five will have said something about Ms. Parks. As well they should remember a true American hero, who deserves to be commemorated from coast to coast. All I’m saying is that if it’s a crime for the Chron not to have done it today, they had their share of accomplices.

Toll road privatization followup

Last month, the idea of Harris County selling off the financial interest in its toll road network to a private firm was first publicly floated. At the time, a feasability study was proposed, with an October 25 deadline for Dick Raycraft, director of county management services, to report back on just what would be studied. Well, today’s the 25th:

Commissioners Court is expected today to give the go-ahead to a comprehensive study that will determine whether it is in the public’s and the county’s interest to fully or partially privatize the toll road. The plan calls for the county to ask selected investment banks to submit proposals about the toll road’s future.

The court also will consider whether it should create a working group that will help review proposals about the toll road’s future.

The study will consider which of the following options is best for the toll road users, the county and its long-term financial stability.

The county could:

•Keep the toll-road authority as is.

•Sell parts or all of the system to a private firm or to a partnership between a private firm, the county and a newly created regional mobility organization. Such a sale might net $2.7 billion to $4.4 billion, concluded First Southwest Co., the county’s financial adviser.

•Or it could lease the right to operate the system for 50 to 75 years to a private firm or to a partnership between a private firm, county and the regional group. Such a deal could net the county $2 billion to $7 billion, according to investment banks.

Under a public-private partnership, the county could hold no more than a 49 percent interest. A private firm and a regional mobility organization would control the remaining 51 percent.

The organization, [Harris County Judge Robert] Eckels said, would include members appointed by Harris County, surrounding counties and Gov. Rick Perry.

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said, “The study will explore our options and look at what the future of the toll-road authority ought to be. We would be remiss in our responsibility not to look at this.”

Robin Holzer, who outlined the reasons why this is a bad idea when it first came up (there’s a lot more discussion on that link after her piece, so do click the link and read it all), explains it again in shorter form:

“Many, many members of our organization are concerned the accountability will be less if the toll roads are run by a private company,” said Robin Holzer, chair of the Citizens Transportation Coalition.

[…]

Holzer said private firms want to operate the toll road because they know that they can make money on top of whatever was required to be paid to the county. She wondered why the county just doesn’t make the money itself rather than give a private firm a cut of its take.

“I am skeptical that the deal makes financial sense. Some people will be tempted by the thought, ‘Hey, we can have money now instead of later,’ ” she said.

The subsequent discussion of Robin’s initial analysis of this led me to this interesting perspective on what may be to come:

County Toll Road Authority director Mike Strech tells us impetus for the study comes from an unsolicited offer by Goldman Sachs to the county received about a month back. Goldman Sachs have proposed a longterm franchise in return for a franchise fee of $7b.

Goldman Sachs made a proposal about five years ago which was rejected by the county.

There’s a report in Bond Buyer magazine quoting Edwin Harrison, the county’s chief investment officer as saying that Lehman Bros, UBS and Citigroup have also said there should be no trouble getting a sum like $7b for a toll franchise.

First Southwest in a preliminary report for the county is reported in the local press as saying a franchise could bring in a net $2b to $5b after defeasing county debt of $1.8b.

However a First Southwest guy told us that so far all they have had is general conversations with Harris County officials. Any numbers they have given were very rough back of the envelop calculations of the order of magnitude. To get a good grip on the subject they would need to do a proper study. He said there are many alternatives that could be considered:

* sale to another government agency

* formation of a regional mobility authority

* an initial public offering in which the authority is converted into a publicly held and traded company

* a longterm toll concession granted after competitive bids

“There are a lot of options,” he said “and obviously we hope we will be hired to help the county explore them. We have a lot of experience here and we know these toll roads.”

Yes, I’m sure they’re oh so eager to help the county out. Someone remind me to look into recent campaign contributions made by whoever wins this consulting gig once it happens.

Finally, since the article mentions “Spanish toll company Cintra” (also known as a main player in the Trans Texas Corridor), here’s just a little reminder of what meeting the new boss may mean:

In Chicago, Cintra took over the Chicago Skyway, a 7-mile bridge, late last year. The city, which built the bridge in the 1950s, was paid $1.8 billion for 99 years.

Before the documents were signed, Cintra and its partners, doing business as Skyway Concession, announced that the $2 toll would increase to $2.50 for cars and up to $11.80 for trucks.

“Everybody agrees the tollway needs money for repairs … but to increase it by that much is shocking,” said Bob Stranczek, president of Chicago-area Cresco Lines, which specializes in hauling steel. “Most of us operate under 1 to 3 percent profit margins. We don’t have the money to pay these fees.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Would you like that roof open or closed?

Tonight will feature the first World Series game ever played in the state of Texas, and what is Major League Baseball talking about? Whether or not the Astros must open the roof on Minute Maid Park.

Major League Baseball officials say they, and not the Astros, will have final word on whether the retractable roof at Minute Maid Park will be open for tonight’s Game 3 against the Chicago White Sox.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said Monday the league will have control of the roof and prefers keep it open, weather permitting. Forecasters are predicting clear skies and 62 degrees at first pitch, with temperatures falling into the mid-50s during the game.

“MLB controls the postseason, certainly the World Series,” Selig said. “We really haven’t gotten heavily involved in the debate. Our position is that we want teams to do what they do during the regular season.

“If, say, 80 degrees is the cutoff during the regular season, that’s what it should be in the postseason. I don’t want it to become a farce. Let’s say it’s 72 degrees. Why wouldn’t the roof be open? Why do you have a retractable roof in the first place?”

Because it’s their stadium and they have the final say over it for every other game, including games in the first two postseason rounds, which MLB supposedly controls? Because the Astros are 36-17 with the roof closed but only 15-11 with it open, and when you’re down 0-2 you need all the home-field advantage you can get? Because they may possibly know more about what their fans would want than you would? I’m just saying.

Rob Matwick, the Astros’ senior vice president for ballpark operations and customer service, said the top concerns during the regular season are the threat of precipitation and the temperature.

“The No. 1 decision-maker probably ends up being the chance of rain in the summer,” he said. “If the rain chance is 60, 70 percent, we’ll err on the side of caution and stay closed. From there, heat and humidity and the heat index-type numbers are the criteria we would look at.”

Matwick said the typical rule of thumb during the summer is the roof will be closed if the temperature is 85 degrees or above at scheduled first pitch for a night game.

“Our only experience with cold is during the College Classic (a baseball tournament in February), and we’ve played Classic games in the bright sunshine and roof closed just because it’s too cold,” Matwick said.

For what it’s worth, I attended a College Classic game a couple of years back, on a night that dipped into the low 50s or maybe high 40s. Since the day had started out as sunny and warm as today’s is now, I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to bringing sufficiently warm clothing for the game that night, and as a result I was not as comfortable as I would have liked. Any fans who are going straight to the game after work and who didn’t think to bring their sweaters will regret it. Maybe that would be their fault for not thinking ahead, but especially if they assumed the roof would be closed as it usually is it would also be a shame.

Meanwhile, the Chron recalls the referendum that led to the construction of EnronMinute Maid. I supported this at the time, based mostly on a belief in the economic power of new stadia which I now know to be almost completely false. I do think there was and is value in building this stadium, and I agree with Mayorbob Lanier when he says that there’d be a lot fewer opponents of its construction, at least if you were to do a poll right this very minute. That said, I couldn’t recommend these deals with a straight face any more. Maybe a partial public funding arrangement – it would depend on who pays how much and what the public got back out of it – but on the whole this wasn’t worth it.

I did get a chuckle out of local gadfly/stadium opponent Barry Klein’s demonstration of how not to win hearts and minds:

[I]sn’t he excited that the Astros are in the World Series?

“I’m entirely ambivalent,” Klein said.

“I’m pleased when the team is doing well, but I’m content when they lose because I know the local establishment is gloating, and I’d prefer they not be in that mood.”

Boy, that’ll sure get the masses flocking to your side.

Finally, the Orange Show notes that the traditional intra-city bet on the Series outcome has a distinctly Houston twist to it this year. From a press release I received:

As Mayor White continues his tireless work to keep Houston moving, he is including an official entry in Everyones Art Car Parade, the world’s largest and oldest Art Car Parade, in the traditional bet between the two cities participating in the World Series. Mayor Daley bet some of Chicago’s signature items such as hot dogs and a giant cheesecake. Mayor White is offering an experience that no other city can offer – an official entry in the city’s proud display of mobile works of art produced by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, Everyones Art Car Parade!

The Houston Astros play the first ever World Series game in Texas on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2005. A grand collection of Art Cars will drive around Minute Maid Park beginning at 4 pm to celebrate this historic occasion.

“While we are always rooting for more entries in the world’s largest and oldest Art Car parade, this is one entry we are rooting against with all of our collective might,” said Susanne Theis, Executive Director of the Orange Show Center for Visionary. “We’re confident that the Astros will win the World Series and ensure that Chicago does not have an official entry in Everyones Art Car Parade. Houstonians will be overjoyed to see Art Cars welcome the World Series to Texas and even more excited to see a Houston Astros World Series Champions Art Car rolling in the parade on Saturday, May 13, 2006!” added parade director Kim Stoilis.

Many Houstonians remember the playoff wager that involved David Letterman and then Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire during the 1986 playoffs against the New York Mets. The Astros lost the hard fought series forcing Kathy Whitmire to display a giant photo of Mets leftfielder Mookie Wilson in her office for an entire year.

Mookie Wilson! Man, I’d forgotten about that bet. Bet that pic would be worth a few bucks on eBay now.

Council race news

There may not be any endorsements today, but there’s still some local election news, starting with this piece on City Council At Large #1 and its frontrunner, Peter Brown. I just want to point out this bit of muddled thinking from candidate Roy Morales:

Morales said he doesn’t support the position of Mayor Bill White and the Police Department that immigration enforcement should be handled by federal authorities. He said the city should work with them to enforce the laws, including detaining undocumented people to await deportation, but it shouldn’t use racial profiling.

“We’ve got to think all this out,” he said, adding that the city should seek solutions with county and federal authorities. “We owe it to our citizens to try,” he said.

You could start by telling us how you would pay for all this extra police work as well as the facilities needed to store the undocumented folks they pick up. Adding in a little bit about how a cop on the beat can tell who’s a legal resident and who’s not without harassing a bunch of citizens and documented visitors would be nice, too.

Over in District I, the Alvarado Diploma Dustup gets a second day in the news cycle.

UH Communications Director Eric Gerber on Monday said he was prohibited by privacy laws from providing detailed information about Alvarado. But he released a statement saying that in 1999, numerous UH requirements for a bachelor of arts degree were revised. The writing proficiency exam was dropped.

“Since that time, students who had enrolled under earlier degree plans have been allowed to petition to waive this obsolete requirement,” Gerber said in the statement. “Such requirements are routinely approved.”

I presume he meant “such requests are routinely approved”, but whatever. There’s nothing in here that alters my belief that Carol Alvarado could plausibly have thought she’d jumped through all the hoops to get her diploma. Perhaps she should have known, and perhaps she should have been more careful, but completing the coursework for a degree and claiming to have one is still in my book not the same level of offense as not completing the coursework but still claiming the degree. Voters can certainly see it differently, but to me this is not a resignation-worthy infraction. Greg and Dos Centavos have further thoughts.

Endorsement watch: Nothing new

For whatever the reason, the Chron has taken the day off from endorsing anyone or anything today, despite the fact that there are still a handful of Constitutional amendments, three contested City Council races, and HISD/HCC trustee races to be discussed. I really really wish I knew what their schedule was for all this.

So we’ll look elsewhere today, and a good place to start is with the Swanky Conservative and his principled reasons for voting against Prop 2. I don’t share all of the tenets that brought him to his decision, but when differing perspectives lead to the same righteous conclusion, it shows the strength of that conclusion. Check it out.

I see that the announcement about Save Texas Marriage is in the news. I’ve said about all I have to say about this tactic, so I’ll just note how painfully amusing it is to see Kelly Shackleford, who hasn’t uttered one honest word during the entire debate over Prop 2, complain about deceptive practices. If there’s one person in the state of Texas who’s qualified to comment on deceptiveness, it’s Kelly Shackleford, who adds to his legend in this piece by falsely accusing some Save Texas Marriage proponents of being phony clergy members.

Well, there’s also this:

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who authored the amendment, called the group’s assertion “ludicrous” and said no legal scholar could possibly agree that Proposition 2 could negate traditional marriages.

“It’s just crazy,” said Chisum, who has long championed measures to block same-sex marriage in Texas. “This is politics at its lowest level here. They’re just trying to scare people.”

That would be the same brilliant legal scholar Warren Chisum who claims that not adopting Prop 2 would lead to legalized polygamy. As with Shackleford and baloney, if there’s a Grand Poobah of Invoking Boogeymen For Political Gain, it’s Warren Chisum.

On other subjects, David Van Os has joined the “just vote No” coalition. I expect to vote No on most of them, but I’m still working my way through it all, and while I can’t think of any amendment whose defeat I would mourn, I’m not prepared to say they should all die just yet.

Toll road opponent Sal Costello has a story with video in which he argues against Prop 9. He also points to two editorials that advocate No votes on Props 1 and 9.

Finally, I promised to give my own endorsements today, but I’m not ready yet. Hopefully, I’ll have them written by tomorrow.

Judge to judge judge selected

Judge B.B. Schraub has named retired Judge C.W. Duncan to determine if Judge Bob Perkins is fit to judge Tom DeLay. Got all that?

Duncan, a senior district judge from Bell County who sometimes continues to serve as a visiting judge, will hear DeLay’s complaint that Perkins, a Democrat, should step aside because he donated $400 to the Democratic National Committee and $310 to the Texas Democratic Party after DeLay’s co-defendants were first indicted last fall. He has also given money to other Democratic groups in recent years.

A hearing on the matter will be at 10 a.m. Nov. 1 in the 331st District Court in Austin.

[…]

Last week DeLay’s lawyers urged Perkins to step aside as well. Perkins asked B.B. Schraub, the presiding judge of the 3rd Administrative Judicial District, to settle the issue. Schraub, a Seguin Republican, also had given money to Republican candidates. On Monday, he tapped Duncan, a member of a longtime Bell County family, who apparently has a reputation for being nonpolitical.

“I don’t remember him ever being very political,” said Nancy Boston of the Bell County Republican Party.

Write that down for when Team DeLay begins its next slime campaign.

On the Karmic Balance scale, DeLay’s desire to challenge every little thing in court is apparently conflicting with his desire to hold onto his power in the House.

DeLay and his attorneys are faced with a dilemma. The former majority leader needs to win the case quickly to get his job back, while his lawyers need to do everything they can – which includes filing motions that could potentially slow the case – to acquit their client.

[…]

The number of pretrial motions filed in the case is consistent with the number of pretrial motions filed in other big cases, according to legal experts in Texas. Whether they slow the eventual case is up to the individual judge who rules on them, though.

“If these [motions] are going to be seriously pursued there is a lot to be resolved,” said George Dix, a law professor at the University of Texas who has written a six-volume series on criminal procedure in that state.

Of the motions already filed in this case, DeGuerin’s challenge of the grand jury process – in particular, his charge that Earle coerced a ruling from jurors during one of the closed-door hearings – could take the most time to resolve, Dix said, because it is a significant procedural question that could require its own separate trial.

[…]

“I’d be very surprised to see this case go to trial before December,” said Joe Turner, Colyandro’s Austin-based attorney, who attended the hearing on Friday.

Colyandro and Ellis, of course, are pursuing a different time-consuming scheme, which is a challenge to the constitutionality of the law under which they were arrested. They’ve already lost one round, but appeals are underway and the final destination, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is likely months in the future.

And finally, here’s the best photoshopped DeLay mug shot I’ve seen yet. It’s not quite a 10 – add a pack of smokes rolled up in his shirtsleeve and it might get there – but it’s at least a 9.5. Well done.

Texas Monthly preview: Why tort “reform” stinks

It’s preview time at Texas Monthly again, and for your reading pleasure for the usual limited time only is this fine piece by Patricia Kilday Hart on the history and effects of the tort “reform” movement in Texas. If you think the passage of Prop 12 from 2003 meant they had no more courtrooms to blockade, you’re sadly mistaken, as were some of the poor saps who voted for Prop 12 and now find themselves screwed by it. Read it and weep.