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June, 2006:

Sanctuary

So according to this story, one of the motivating factors in the petition drive to force a vote on HPD’s policy on checking immigration status is the meaning of the phrase “sanctuary city”. I think the whole thing is a stunt being pushed by people who need something to do now that gay marriage can’t be made any more illegal, but you can read the story and decide for yourself. I just want to note this:

Many localities don’t have a written policy at all.

That’s the case in Katy, where police are forbidden from enforcing immigration laws but do not have a written policy to follow, according to Assistant Police Chief Bill Hastings. The policy was mandated by a court in 1994 after a federal lawsuit was filed when police picked up day laborers.

So. When will the petition drive to change the city charter of Katy begin? That’s even more hands-off than Houston. Where’s the outrage over that?

I was sent a statement by City Council member Carol Alvarado about this, which I’ve got beneath the fold. Click on for more.

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The Yates 2.0 jury

I found this story about the voir dire for Andrea Yates retrial jury fascinating.

The seven women and eight men chosen for the new jury Thursday each had to agree they could set aside what they previously heard or learned about the case so they can give Yates a fair and impartial hearing.

“You’d have to be living in a cave not to have heard of this case,” defense attorney Wendell Odom said outside the courthouse after the jury had been seated. “We’ve got a good mix of people – a diverse group with a lot of independent thinkers on it. And they’re intelligent.”

[…]

Attorneys asked the 120 panelists questions including their views of the insanity defense and their opinions of police officers and psychiatrists, as well as how they felt about not being able to assess Yates’ punishment. A key difference for the new jury is that Yates automatically faces a life sentence if she is convicted of capital murder. The death penalty cannot be considered since jurors rejected that option in her last trial.

As we discussed before, the exclusion of the death penalty tends to make jury pools more amenable to the defense. Every jury is different, of course, and you never know what can happen. But it’s a potential factor, so let’s keep it in mind.

About one-fourth – 37 people – told [Judge Belinda] Hill they had already reached a conclusion on Yates’ guilt or innocence because of pretrial publicity and suspected that would influence their verdict. Many of those on the panel openly discussed prejudices or viewpoints as attorneys tried to assess whether those would hinder their ability to be fair and impartial jurors.

“I just don’t understand why a mother kills her babies when they’re her blood,” said one man, as Yates stared down at the table in front of her. “Maybe one – but five?”

“Mainly, it’s that I don’t understand – not why (it happened), but how could she?” a woman asked the attorneys.

Several panelists said they do not consider the insanity argument to be a credible and valid defense. One of them referred to it as a “defense of convenience.” But others said they would consider any mother who killed her children to be insane, regardless of what evidence might be presented.

[…]

Defense attorneys said they found the jury panel’s lively discussion refreshing.

“I can’t remember a time when people discussed mental illness in voir dire,” [defense attorney George] Parnham said. “Five years ago, we would’ve been laughed out of the courtroom.”

I don’t know if this will have any effect in the end on Yates, but it does look like the defense team is pretty optimistic going into the trial. We’ll see.

Strayhorn and Kinky Yes, Stockman No

I’m not at all surprised that Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman qualified for the ballot. Given the number of signatures they collected, the only question was how many of those sigs would be validated. What is a surprise is this:

In other races, former congressman Steve Stockman failed to qualify as an independent candidate for the 22nd Congressional District seat vacated by former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land. Stockman turned in about 600 signatures but fewer than the 500 valid signatures that he needed, Haywood said.

I always knew Steve Stockman was an idiot, but good grief. Has he never heard the rule of thumb that you need twice as many sigs as the minimum to be reasonably sure of getting enough valid ones? And how hard is it to get five hundred signatures in five weeks? What a maroon.

So. Governor’s race, complicated. CD22, simple. That’s about it.

Straight ticket Texan

If you haven’t done so already, please go to the Forward Together PAC Map Changers page and give your support to the straight Texan ticket. Right now, Chris Bell is #2, and rumor has it that John Courage is just outside the top five. We can do better than that, right? Please go vote to bring $25K to Texas. Thanks!

Away from my desk

I’ll be tied up with family business through the weekend, and will have limited time for any blog-related program activities. Fortunately, I have activated the Emergency Guest Blogger network, so there should be some new stuff here whether or not I can contribute on a given day. I’m sure as soon as I step away from the keyboard something big is going to happen (aren’t we due for a SCOTUS ruling on the Texas redistricting lawsuit this week?), but c’est la vie. I’ll be back at my usual pace on Monday. If I don’t see you before then, have a good weekend.

Grow, San Antonio

Way to go, San Antonio.

Only perpetually booming Phoenix added more people than San Antonio and Fort Worth in the year ending in July 2005, according to the Census Bureau’s annual city population estimates released Tuesday. However, the figures don’t reflect the demographic chaos caused weeks later by the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

San Antonio, which replaced San Diego as the seventh-largest city in the United States, and Fort Worth added about 21,000 people each, based on government estimates using housing statistics. Phoenix tacked nearly 44,500 people onto its tally.

[…]

“What is clearly a change is that San Antonio historically had been among the slower-growing of the major cities,” said Steve Murdock, the state demographer based at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It’s become San Antonio’s turn, so to speak.”

When I was at Trinity in the 80s, San Antonio was the biggest sleepy little town I’ve ever been in. You could drive from the airport, which is just north of US281/Loop 410, the busiest interchange in the city, and see practically no development between there and the TU campus just north of downtown. It’s definitely grown since then, and I’m glad to see it get a little positive attention for it. If I couldn’t live in Houston, San Antonio would be high on my list of second choices.

A future stumbling block for San Antonio could be water. The area depends on the drought-sensitive Edwards Aquifer, and a recent engineering report prepared for the Texas Water Development Board indicates the area could lose 50,000 people by 2030 if water-supply needs go unmet.

“The San Antonio area is going to have to make some hard decisions, here and throughout the aquifer region,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. “If we pave over the recharge zone, we’ll reduce the amount of available water.”

Peace supports stronger limits on how much “impervious cover” – typically concrete slabs or pavement – can be built onto land that acts as a rainwater sponge to replenish the underground lake.

The good news is that the citizens of San Antonio seem to take that responsibility seriously. They’ll need to keep doing that.

The Red State has more.

Another dumb idea

I don’t really have much to say about this ugly plan to turn the Houston Police into an arm of the INS. Let’s put aside the question of why the movers behind this idea want to turn a federal problem into a local one. It’s always splashier to go for the cheap political stunt than it is to ask why Texas’s Senators and Congressfolk have been unable to provide sufficient funding for immigration enforcement in their home state, after all. And let’s ignore the question of where HPD will get the manpower and funding to pick up these new responsibilities, since those are tacky questions. And of course, we can just let the issue of how HPD can tell a citizen or legal immigrant from an illegal immigrant slide on past, since that opens a can of worms no one really wants to deal with.

But we can’t let this little exhibit of political fortitude slip away without comment. Here’s City Council member turned Congressional hopeful Shelley Sekula-Gibbs explaining her support for the movement:

“This has gone on long enough,” Sekula-Gibbs said. “It is time for Houston to stand up and assist the federal government in enforcing immigration laws.”

Sekula-Gibbs, who recently has tried to raise her profile on the border-security issue as she seeks to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, told the Houston Chronicle in November that she didn’t have a “strong opinion” on a similar measure posed by then-Councilman Mark Ellis. He tried to force a council vote on the issue when he was seeking a Republican state Senate nomination in a conservative district.

“It’s a political stunt,” she said then of Ellis’ measure, which would have similarly changed the police policy but also required people to show proof of U.S. citizenship to get “taxpayer-provided social services.”

Sekula-Gibbs said it would be impossible to verify someone’s immigration status before, for example, putting out a fire. She said she also disapproved of Ellis’ tactic of trying to force a council vote on a nonbinding resolution.

A charter referendum, by contrast, would be binding on city policy.

“The city’s sanctuary policy was wrong then, and it’s wrong now,” Sekula-Gibbs said Tuesday. “What he was trying to do was just political posturing.”

I hope you didn’t get whiplash from that turnabout on her part. Note that last November, Sekula-Gibbs lacked the huevos to sign on to a similar stunt by Mark Ellis, even though she clearly agreed with the sentiment. Of course, back then she needed the support of the entire city of Houston, even though she was running against a no-name crackpot perennial candidate. Now that it’s in her interest to whip up the nativists, and in particular now that she won’t be in a position to have to account for HPD’s financial and personnel needs when the bill for this travesty comes due, it’s anything goes. I think if I stayed up all night thinking about it, I couldn’t come up with a more fitting way to describe Sekula-Gibbs’ tenure on City Council. So congratulations, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. You really did yourself proud.

One helpful grandma

Here’s my nominee for Quote Of The Year, Unexpected Source division.

Despite her protestations now, Bell said, Strayhorn once advocated privatizing the children’s Medicaid-eligibility system and changing rules for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, changes at least partly blamed for thousands of children losing health coverage.

Strayhorn announced last month that she would investigate the state’s $899 million contract with Accenture LLP, the company hired to screen applicants for children’s health insurance and other welfare programs.

Accenture has been criticized by legislators and health care advocates for inadequate staffing and training at private call centers.

Strayhorn called the Accenture contract a “perfect storm of wasted tax dollars” and blamed Perry, who appointed the health and human services commissioner, for the problem.

Strayhorn’s spokesman, Mark Sanders, said Tuesday that the health insurance privatization approved by the Legislature and the Health and Human Services Commission was much broader than the comptroller had recommended as a cost-cutting measure in 2003.

“That’s sort of like an arsonist offering to help put out the fire that he started,” Bell responded. “I mean, this was part of her recommendation, and obviously she wants to run from it now.”

Former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth of Burleson, who sponsored the health and human services reorganization in 2003, said Strayhorn’s office was “very helpful” in getting the legislation passed.

“In a way, she was the grandma of House Bill 2292,” the reorganization act, said Wohlgemuth, who backs Perry.

(Emphasis mine.) Arlene Wohlgemuth, ladies and gentlemen. Be sure to check yourself for stiletto wounds after you shake hands with her.

Oh, and I’d totally accept “Carole Keeton ‘Grandma of House Bill 2292’ Strayhorn” as a compromise solution to how she should be listed on the ballot. I’m just saying.

Another contender for Treasurer

From the “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” files, we have a new contender for the GOP nomination for Harris County Treasurer: Former Harris County Treasurer Don Sumners.

“It’s going to be a fight, but I’m up to it,” said Sumners, who filed paperwork Tuesday indicating his intent to seek the position.

“Commissioners Court has robbed the office of its functions. Now they say it’s not needed.”

[…]

Sumners, who held the office for one term and fended off an effort to abolish the position , lost to Cato in the 1998 GOP primary. He now works as the director of quality assurance for Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt.

[…]

Sumners promoted his candidacy in a letter Tuesday to Republican precinct chairs, declaring “war on those who want to abolish the office.”

As the taxpayers’ only independent voice on financial matters, the treasurer is in the unique position to provide a second opinion about the county’s financial health, he wrote.

Commissioners who want to get rid of the office fear accountability and transparency, he charged.

“Jack, although a congenial person, did exactly what he was put into office to do, nothing,” Sumner wrote.

Commissioner Steve Radack, a staunch supporter of Cato, dismissed Sumners.

“This is the same Don Sumners the voters turned out of office after four years,” Radack said. “The problem with Mr. Sumners is he can say it, but he just can’t sell it.”

Sumners admits he doesn’t have any visible support.

“I have myself. That’s all I’ve ever had,” he said.

True enough. For example, he doesn’t have the support of Gary Polland, who’s firmly in the Orlandomania camp. You’ll note, however, that nowhere in that mash note does Polland ever make the case for why we need a Treasurer’s office, nor does he connect any of Orlando Sanchez’s past glories to any purported function of the Treasurer’s office. Apparently, the principle of smaller government is less important than the principle of rewarding your buddies. Not that this surprises me, mind you.

Interestingly enough, in the exchange between Sumners and Radack, Sumners got it right. In the seven-plus years that he was County Treasurer, Jack Cato did exactly nothing in his official capacity that was notable enough to make the newspaper. I’ve now extended that archive search to all years, and there’s just nothing. Try it yourself and see what I mean. Maybe Sumners, and for that matter Orlando Sanchez, are correct in saying that the Treasurer is supposed to be a watchdog/advocate of some kind. If so, then my question to them would be what did Jack Cato’s non-advocacy cost Harris County during his tenure? If you can’t identify anything that we missed by not having an activist Treasurer, then tell me again why we need a Treasurer.

By the way, here’s a blast from the past for you from that extended archive search:

Incumbent Don Sumners told a gathering of about 50 downtown Republicans that he sees his role as a “taxpayer watchdog,” fighting against tax increases and unnecessary county spending.

But Sumner’s opponent, former television reporter Jack Cato, said the treasurer has no say in the county’s property-tax rates and said Sumners spends too much time working on issues unrelated to the office.

Sumners and Cato appeared before the Downtown Pachyderm Club trying to drum up support before the March 10 primary. About half the crowd appeared solidly in one camp or the other, and several in the gathering took the opportunity to question their candidate’s opponent.

Much of the discussion focused on Sumners’ rocky relationship with other county officials. While Sumners said those problems were the result of his opposition to several high-profile county issues in the past several years, Cato painted him as a county gadfly of sorts, “spending all your time `speaking out,’ and not doing the job you’re supposed to do.”

Sumners’ relationship with other county officials – most notably County Commissioner Steve Radack – is considerably less than friendly. Sumners irritated Radack in 1996 by criticizing an unexpected property-tax increase Radack proposed.

“It’s no secret that Steve Radack has been after me for a long time. And it really got going when he brought out the sneak tax increase,” Sumners said. He said Radack had been looking for someone to run against him and, turning toward Cato, he said: “And I think he found one.”

Nice to see that Sumners and Radack have not kissed and made up.

Look, I don’t care if county officials get along or not, and I certainly don’t object to someone pissing off the Commissioners’ Court. But if the Treasurer’s office has no actual power to provide a check and balance on what the Commissioners can do, then I ask again why we need to pay for such an office. Let Sumners and Orlando Sanchez do their watchdog thing on their own dime. It’ll have as much effect, and it’ll save the taxpayers a couple hundred grand a year in salary, benefits, and overhead.

Fundraising update – State House

I was sent the following from Capitol Inside, which I pass along for your enlightenment:

Republicans reaped the lion’s share of headlines but Democrats raised the most cash for Texas House and Senate campaigns during the special session on schools and taxes this spring.

With about two-thirds of the special session fundraising reports posted by the Texas Ethics Commission late Friday, eight of the 10 Texas House candidates who raised the most money during the spring gathering are Democrats. Nine of the 10 candidates who reported the most contributions during the special session are challenging incumbents or running for open seats. Only one – State Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles – is a current House member.

Toureilles – an Alice Democrat who’s being targeted by Republicans in her quest for a third House term – reported contributions of almost $46,000 during the special session that got under way in April and ended 29 days later in May. Toureilles, who represents one out of 150 state House districts, raised one-eighth as much during the special session as Republican Governor Rick Perry did for a statewide re-election race. Toureilles’ two biggest donations came from attorneys who represent plaintiffs in civil lawsuits – $10,000 from the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and $10,000 from Houston litigator Michael Gallagher.

I discussed Toureilles here, as her seat is one of only a few that the Republicans are targeting this year.

The rest of the article is beneath the fold. Be sure to read the bit about how Ellen Cohen did in comparison to Martha Wong.

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Anna on the TDP voter data file

Anna has a long post about the Texas Democratic Party charging candidates for access to its voter database file. I’m not as convinced as she that this is a bad thing, and I don’t think the prices they ask are excessive, but I do agree that the way they’ve gone about implementing this new policy is not good. I also agree that on the heels of the generally positive convention in Fort Worth, a better approach might have been to solicit support from the TDP membership to cover the costs of this service so they could keep it free for candidates. Finally, if it really is the case that data from the 2005 Constitutional amendment referendum and the 2006 primary are not available in the database, then whoever made the decision not to include them needs to be removed from oversight of this data. There’s no excuse for that.

Anyway. Read what she says and see what you think.

UPDATE: From Phillip in the comments:

Charles — don’t know if you want to make an update or not, but the 2005 Constitutional amendment referendum and the 2006 primary data are in the voter file for over 80% of the counties, including all the ones that submit that information electronically. The TDP is constantly updating the other information (which is submitted in hard copies). Just an FYI.

Good to hear. Thanks, Phillip!

Sanity reigns at Commissioners’ Court

One less dumb idea for me to worry about.

Rejecting the temptation of a multibillion windfall, Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously today to continue running the county’s lucrative toll road system rather than selling or leasing it to a private entity.

“Now we can erect a sign on the toll roads: ‘Not for sale, not for lease,'” said Commissioner Steve Radack, who had never been enthusiastic about the idea, even as the county conducted studies of the leasing and selling options.

The action means the system, which comprises the Hardy, Sam Houston and Westpark toll roads, will continue to be operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

You’ll never hear me say this again, so write down today’s date: Thank goodness for the HCTRA. I just hope they didn’t spend too much money studying this lemon.

Mapchangers, Round 2

I’ve mentioned the Mapchangers competition before. They’re on to Round Two, in which you can select up to five candidates from the East and West regions for the $5000 contribution from Forward Together PAC and a chance to have a fundraiser with Gov. Mark Warner. Five’s perfect, because there are five Texans in the round:

The Straight Ticket Texan lineup:

TX GOV – Chris Bell
TX SEN – Barbara Ann Radnofsky
TX CD 10 – Ted Ankrum
TX CD 21 – John Courage
TX CD 31 – Mary Beth Harrell

As you can see from the published ballots, the Texas Five are doing pretty well. (Not all ballots are published – I chose not to publish mine.) This one’s the easy choice – the hard one will be who to pick if more than one Texas Democrat makes it to the Top Ten. I say that’s a good problem to have, though, so go do what you can to get them there.

Safavian convicted

The first trial connected to the Jack Abramoff scandals has ended with a conviction.

Former White House official David Safavian was convicted of hiding his aid to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and obstructing an inquiry into their trip to Scotland, in the first trial stemming from an influence-peddling probe.

A federal jury in Washington today found Safavian, 38, guilty of three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing justice. He was acquitted of another obstruction charge. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Safavian plans to appeal.

The verdict is a victory for the Justice Department’s strategy of relying on e-mail messages between Abramoff and Safavian to prove guilt. Without calling Abramoff to the witness stand, prosecutors Peter Zeidenberg and Nathaniel Edmonds painted Safavian as a public servant led astray by lavish gifts.

“The e-mails certainly played a very large, maybe more important, role than they should have in this case,” Safavian’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, told reporters outside the federal courthouse after the verdict. “Mr. Abramoff loomed large, and his absence loomed larger than his presence.”

[…]

“Abramoff is at the heart of this thing,” said Greg Wallance, a former federal prosecutor and now a lawyer at the New York firm Kaye Scholer. Safavian “is one of the spokes,” he said prior to the verdict.

Where might those spokes lead?

The Safavian case stems from an August 2002 trip Abramoff arranged for a group to visit Scotland’s famed St. Andrews golf course. Abramoff added on three nights in London, where guests stayed in $500-a-night rooms at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Abramoff chartered a private jet at a cost of more than $91,000 for the nine-person outing. Besides Abramoff, his son, two fellow lobbyists and Safavian, the group included Christian activist Ralph Reed, Ohio Republican Representative Bob Ney and two Ney aides, Will Heaton and Paul Vinovich.

Ralph Reed and Bob Ney. Couldn’t happen to a finer pair. Enjoy reading the papers today, fellas.

Safavian’s attorney is upset about an aspect of this case, which I don’t quite understand.

Van Gelder had fought the introduction of hundreds of e- mails into evidence, arguing that Abramoff should appear on the witness stand to show whether they were valid. The decision by U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to allow the e-mails into evidence without any testimony by Abramoff will play a role in the fight to overturn the verdict, she said.

Why is this even an issue? You don’t need Jack Abramoff to establish that emails were sent from his account to David Safavian. Is Van Gelder saying that unless Abramoff testifies that he himself really did write those emails, we can’t be sure that he did? Yes, it’s possible someone could hijack his account, but c’mon. And did Safavian testify that he didn’t receive these emails, or that they couldn’t have come from Abramoff? If not, why not? I’m confused.

At the time, Safavian served as chief of staff at the U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees government land. Before the trip, he sent an e-mail to a GSA ethics official asking how he should treat the offer from Abramoff of a free ride on the jet. He told the ethics official that Abramoff “has no business before GSA.”

Prosecutors said that statement was untrue because Safavian and Abramoff had discussed how to acquire rights to GSA properties in a series of e-mails shown to the jury. Safavian said his statement was true because Abramoff, who worked for Greenberg Traurig LLP, didn’t have any GSA contracts or bids and wasn’t likely to have any.

“It’s the e-mail that has given the Justice Department its cases,” Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, said before the verdict. “E-mail really is around forever.”

Yes, it is. Ask Ollie North, who was tripped up in part by backup tapes of the ancient mainframe system PROFs. I’ll bet those tapes still exist somewhere, too.

I still don’t understand why Van Gelder insisted that Abramoff had to testify about the emails. I just don’t see the relevance. Any lawyers want to address this?

Elsewhere, TPMuckrakers Paul Kiel and Justin Rood report on the trial, while the Hotline Blog gives us this interesting side effect:

A small marvel of the enormous media attention played to the Abramoff/Cunningham corruption scandals is the degree to which local newspapers — especially those serving communities represented by members of Congress on district-flattering committees — are strengthening their investigative coverage and have adopted a come-hell-or-high-water fearlessness about challenging pillars of their community.

The latest example: The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California.

It joins the San Bernadino Sun in creating a special section of its website to deal with Reps. Ken Calvert and Jerry Lewis.

All to the good, if you ask me. If only some of the bigger papers would show such initiative.

SOS to rule on Strayhorn and Friedman

We may know as soon as Wednesday if the Texas Secretary of State has validated the petition signatures of Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, thus giving them each a slot on the November gubernatorial ballot.

Spokesman Scott Haywood said Monday that Secretary of State Roger Williams, Texas’ chief elections officer, was in the final stages of checking the validity of petition signatures that Strayhorn and Friedman submitted last month.

“Hopefully, that will be completed by Wednesday,” he said.

Each needs the signatures of 45,540 registered voters who didn’t cast ballots in either major party primary or runoff.

Strayhorn submitted more than 220,000 signatures and Friedman turned in about 169,000. Both campaigns admitted some signatures probably would be struck during the verification process but contended they had more than enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“We turned in five times the number of signatures that were required. So we’re very confident,” Strayhorn spokesman Mark Sanders said.

If certified, Friedman and Strayhorn will join Democrat Chris Bell and Libertarian James Werner in challenging Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election.

Haywood said the secretary of state’s office also was checking the validity of petition signatures submitted by the Green Party for a statewide ballot spot. That party has to meet the same requirements as the independent candidates.

I will be utterly flabbergasted if either Strayhorn or Friedman fails to make the ballot. I always assumed they would, and I have a hard time imagining that they’d fall short after the number of signatures they turned in.

Not mentioned in this story is the status of Steve Stockman, the independent hopeful in CD22. I presume that the SOS will have something to say about that as well. I still think it’s ridiculous to have taken the same amount of time to verify 500 signatures as it did 45,000, but whatever.

Speaking of baloney:

Also pending is Strayhorn’s attempt to use the nickname “Grandma,” which she has used in political advertising, on the ballot.

Haywood said Williams also may decide that issue this week.

If Haywood and Williams can manage to keep straight faces when they announce that decision, I’ll be impressed.

Best comment on the process goes to the Pink Lady.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Roger Williams, the chief elections officer, said that they are in the final stages of validating the petition signatures submitted last month. “Hopefully, that will be completed by Wednesday,” he said. “But we’re still trying to determine how many of Strayhorn’s signatures came from her ex-husbands.”

Zing!

Rain, rain, go away

I know y’all don’t come here for weather reports, but I’ve got to say “Enough already!”

Houston escaped the heaviest rains overnight, but forecasters warned this morning that the ingredients for violent thunderstorms remained in the area.

Shortly before 5 a.m. some major rain-producing storms formed along a line just east of Houston, from Clear Lake to downtown, over the same area where Monday morning’s storms were the worst.

“For Eastern Houston that’s not a good thing at all,” said Patrick Blood, a forecaster at the Houston Galveston office of the National Weather Service.

The good news, Blood said, is that the storms appear to be moving and not stalling over a single area to provide significant localized flooding.

Prior to these storms, eastern Houston received only a tenth of an inch overnight. The heaviest rains in Harris County fell to the north, where Kingwood received about 2 inches. The Woodlands received about 1 inch of rain.

Forecasters still believe the storms could produce significant rainfall in the Houston area this morning, but downgraded their expectations from isolated totals of up to 10 inches to 3 to 4 inches. About 1 inch should fall over the area between now and noon, Blood said. A flash flood warning remains in effect for Harris County until 7 a.m.

Cripes. And to think we were worried about drought conditions earlier this year. (Some parts of Texas still are.)

At least one good thing has come out of all this.

It was hardly a dry run, but Monday’s heavy rain gave local emergency officials practice in a real and dangerous weather event — though one less widespread and destructive than a hurricane.

At the Houston Emergency Center, for example, officials recorded 38 percent more emergency calls than typical for a Monday morning, many of them from motorists stranded by high water.

The center, which dispatches the city’s police, fire and emergency medical service, took about 7,500 calls from midnight to 2 p.m., up by almost 2,100 over an average Monday volume for that time period.

HEC spokesman Joe Laud said the center handled the increased volume, which spiked around 7 a.m., even though some employees couldn’t get to the North Shepherd facility for the morning shift change.

The situation, and the improvisation it required, should help the center’s workers keep a cool head later, he said.

“There are lessons learned,” he said. “We see situations like this as helping us in the future.”

He added, “It was stressful, but the personnel did a great job.”

Kudos to them all. May today be more restful. And may no one utter the words Tropical Storm Allison again any time soon.

Burnam and Dunnam on the budget

A couple of Democratic State Reps are out there on the op-ed pages making the case that what happened in the Lege this past spring did not represent success in dealing with school finance. First, Rep. Lon Burnam chides the Star Telegram for its cheerleading.

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board seems to have lowered its standards for what it considers “good work” from the Legislature. Merely succeeding in passing legislation does not mean we succeeded in passing good legislation that works in the interest of the people.

The board’s kind treatment of the Republican leadership is the equivalent of “social promotion” in schools. If a student simply shows up and puts in minimum effort, he or she gets passed on to the next grade, regardless of merit. There is little merit in the legislation produced last month in Austin.

The Republican leadership basically succeeded in saddling the state with indefinite annual budget shortfalls. According to the Legislative Budget Board (of which the lieutenant governor and Texas House speaker are members), the tax plan will lose about $5 billion per year.

Miraculous tax cuts are not difficult to achieve if you take the money from future budgets. The money raised from tax increases on business, smokers and used-car sales does not come anywhere close to paying for the property tax cuts that Gov. Rick Perry promoted.

Five billion dollars is no small amount. It represents 15 percent of annual expenditures from state revenue.

This hijacking of the state government almost guarantees that Texas will face a $10 billion shortfall for the ’08-’09 biennium, precipitating a budget crisis similar to that of three years ago.

And over in Amarillo, Rep. Jim Dunnam sounds a similar theme.

How do you define success?

Is it enough that the Legislature passed bills that will keep public schools open for one more year? Or should the Legislature have taken the opportunity to craft a truly long-term solution for our broken public school finance system?

Since the end of the last special session of the Texas Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry and several other Republican politicians have in one way or another claimed success.

For example, Perry is now running TV commercials claiming that the average Texas homeowner will receive a $2,000 cut on his or her property taxes.

But anyone even remotely familiar with our state’s property tax system knows that this claim is utterly ridiculous.

Unlike the governor, I believe that, sadly, the latest special session achieved little beyond getting us out of court temporarily. Unlike the governor, I’m not running TV commercials that make false claims in order to sell a lemon to the people of Texas. Unlike the governor, I don’t define success as just doing something – I define it as doing the right thing.

Governor Perry’s been rewarded with an approval bounce from SurveyUSA, so whatever the truthiness of his ads, they have probably done what he hoped they would do. I wonder, though, if people begin to use property tax calculators and come to realize that they ain’t getting a $2K cut no matter how you slice it if some of that bounce will flatten out. We’ll see.

US290, meet I-10

Those of you who live, work, and/or commute along the US290 corridor, I hope you’ve been paying attention to the Katy Freeway construction, because you’ll be experiencing it soon.

Proposed improvements to U.S. 290 and Hempstead Road will affect a long swath of properties along the roadways, according to a study by Mark Sikes, a principal with Lewis Realty Advisors.

The real estate appraiser and consultant said the proposal will affect some 700 parcels, as the Texas Department of Transportation acquires additional right of way to expand the roads.

“It’s going to be just like I-10,” said Sikes, referring to the businesses and landowners that were displaced because of the expansion.

Sikes, who helps owners negotiate fair values for their properties, said the expansion primarily will affect commercial parcels.

The Houston District of the Transportation Department, along with the Federal Highway Administration and the Harris County Toll Road Authority, are moving forward with a long-range plan to reconstruct the U.S. 290 corridor from the 610 Loop to FM 2920. Property along Hempstead Road will also be affected, as a tollway or HOV lane is planned.

Still, the reconstruction project is many years off.

The department said the land acquisition won’t begin until around 2008, according to the latest newsletter posted on its Web site.

The thing is, much of what is currently on 290 is new. When I worked out at 290 and Hollister in the early 90s, there really wasn’t much in the way of development along that freeway. Once you got past 34th Street, there was a lot of empty space. Really made for slim pickings at lunch, let me tell you. With all the new development that’s there now, I have to wonder just how expensive that land acquisition is going to get.

Now, if Hempstead is more or less as it was 15 years ago, and the bulk of the construction is there, then it won’t be as bad. There was even less on Hempstead, and I don’t think that’s changed as drastically. Can’t say for sure, as it’s been awhile since I’ve taken that road, but if that’s the main target then maybe this project won’t cost a godawful amount. We’ll see.

On a side note, let me offer my congratulations to Chron writer Nancy Sarnoff on her new job. I too will miss her Sunday real estate column – I got quite a bit of blog fodder out of it. And thanks to Houstonist for the link.

Twenty days

Greg notes that the twenty-day period in which Governor Perry has to call an emergency special election to fill a Congressional vacancy is ticking away with no indication that one will be called. He wonders if there may be some extra risk associated with that position now that there’s a lawsuit that could slow down the replacement selection process. Be sure to read through the comments on that post – my thanks to Greg and Ken for the fine discussion.

Speaking of the lawsuit, Federal Judge Sam Sparks has set a hearing date of Monday, June 26.

Judge Sam Sparks left in place a temporary restraining order that expires Thursday, though he did not extend it. Sparks is expected to hear evidence and lawyers’ arguments at the hearing.

Democrats went to court earlier this month to prevent the state Republican Party from replacing DeLay on the ballot. A state district judge blocked the process with the temporary order. Attorneys for the Republicans then had the case moved to federal court.

Though Republicans plan to initiate steps to fill the GOP vacancy on the ballot once the temporary order expires, the process wouldn’t be complete by the time of the court hearing, said GOP lawyer Jim Bopp.

I guess that’s good news for the Republicans, since at least they can get started. I’m not sure what it means for the suit itself. I’ve put a statement from the Texas Democratic Party beneath the fold.

Meanwhile, here is what DeLay has been doing with his free time. Perhaps someone should have bought him a US Atlas as a going-away present. The candidate he shilled for lost, by the way.

(more…)

Democratic Caucus town hall

Want to ask a Texas Democratic Congressperson a question? Here’s your chance.

We invite you to join us on Wednesday, June 21st at 3pm EDT for the inaugural Regional Online Town Hall Meeting for Region 6 to discuss issues of concern to you. Participating Members of Region 6 serve districts in the state of Texas.

We welcome your questions and will try to address your concerns on whatever topics you may wish to discuss, including rising gas prices, college affordability, Social Security increasing health care costs and keeping our nation safe. Please note that your questions will be directed the Member of Congress in Region 6 who represents your area. You may submit your questions in advance by clicking here or join in live by visiting this site from 3pm to 4pm EDT on June 21st. A full transcript of the Online Town Hall Meeting will be available on this website at the conclusion of the meeting.

We look forward to hearing from you, and hope you will join us for the discussion on June 21st.

I’ll have to wait for the transcript, since this is not a convenient time for me. If it works for you, by all means jump in and ask something. If you do attend, please let me know how it goes.

Libertarians!

I’ve got a look at the state of the Libertarian Party in Texas over at Kuff’s World. Check it out.

Tax calculators

The Chron gives an overview of the new school tax along with a calculator to help you determine what your rate might be this year and next. Emphasis on “might”, for this is how they disclaim it:

Remember that this only applies to school taxes. Taxes for counties, cities and other entities aren’t affected by the new law.

It will figure your homestead exemption and show what your taxes would have been this year without the tax break, what they will be this year with the tax break, and what they should be next year when the break goes into full effect.

The calculator provides links to appraisal districts in Harris and adjacent counties, where you can find your home’s assessed value if you don’t know it.

The calculator won’t determine bills for taxpayers with senior-citizen or disability exemptions. Their bills are frozen when they claim the exemption, and generally won’t be affected by the new tax rates.

The Web calculator provides estimates, not guaranteed tax bills. There are four things that could change your bill:

  • The new tax law reduces only the portion of school property taxes devoted to school maintenance and operations. Most districts also have a smaller tax devoted to debt service. If your school district changes its debt structure or floats new bonds, that rate could change.
  • The new law reduces your maintenance and operations taxes by 11.3 percent on your next tax bill, and by one-third on the one that comes the following year. For many typical districts, that means a tax of $1.50 per $100 assessed value will be reduced to $1.

    But the law also allows school boards to raise the tax rate back up by 4 cents without asking voter permission. We’ve included the 4 cents, because the law effectively encourages districts to raise it.

    That’s because revenue from the 4 cents won’t be subject to the “Robin Hood” rule that requires property-rich districts to share some of their revenue with property-poor ones. In turn, property-poor districts will receive state matching funds for revenue from the additional 4 cents, said Harrison Keller, director of research for House Speaker Tom Craddick.

  • A small number of districts with booming real estate markets might have to reduce their property tax by a few cents because of a “rollback” provision that even the law’s authors have a hard time explaining. Essentially districts can’t collect too much more money next year than this year, but it is a generous and complicated formula.
  • The biggest variable is “appraisal creep,” in which the taxable value of your homestead rises along with the market value of homes in your neighborhood. Assuming you’re not protesting your appraisal, this year’s figure is already set, but a rising value could affect the calculation for next year.

If you think your appraisal is going up, the calculator can still help. Enter your current appraisal, hit “calculate” and write down the figures shown. Then guess how much your appraisal might go up. Multiply your appraised value by 1.01 for 1 percent, 1.05 for 5 percent and 1.10 for 10 percent. Then enter the new figure and click “calculate” again, looking only at the new “next year” figure.

I’d argue that there’s a fifth factor in play as well, which is how the Lege ultimately reacts to the need to feed the tax-cut beast. Governor Perry’s budget cut mandate to state agencies only goes so far to cover the big honking shortfall that HB3 saddled us with. There’s only so much more that can be cut back, so we’re back to the old familiar argument: Roll this cut back, or find something new to tax. How much savings will you net if the sales tax gets hiked? Past history suggests the answer for most people is “very little, if at all”. Of course, what effect there may be here is very much an unknown. I just think it needs to be a part of the conversation, because it’s definitely out there.

On the other hand, the call for appraisal caps is being sounded again. By all rights, were it not for the sheer incompetence of State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, this would have passed in 2005. It’s probably got as good a chance in 2007, assuming they find a sponsor who can walk and chew gum at the same time. I have serious problems with putting yet another constriction on tax revenues, especially when it’s the state dictating to localities, but I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t happen in the next session.

Finally, I note in passing that Comptroller Strayhorn put out her own tax calculator last week, this one for the new business tax. Naturally, Governor Perry attacked it as being biased, but then he’d say the same thing if she hung a thermometer outside her office and reported the temperature on an hourly basis. Make of it what you will.

Yates jury selection

Jury selection for the Andrea Yates trial 2.0 begins tomorrow.

The first half of a 120-person panel will begin answering questionnaires intended to help attorneys gauge who can fairly and impartially decide whether Yates knew right from wrong when she killed her children in their Clear Lake-area home.

The remaining panelists will go through the process Wednesday, with jury selection to begin the following day. The trial, which is expected to last about a month, will begin June 26.

[…]

Yates has once again pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Perhaps the biggest difference this time is that jurors will not be able to consider the death penalty if they convict her, since she was sentenced to life in prison in her first trial.

As a result, this jury will be chosen much more quickly than the first. And Yates could benefit by ending up with a more liberal jury, since death-penalty opponents will not automatically be excluded, one consultant said.

“That’s going to change the dynamics of the jury pool pretty dramatically,” said Houston jury consultant Ellen Finlay. “All those people who might be more moderate jurors and more concerned with her mental issues are not likely to be disqualified this time, which could mean a better jury panel for her.”

The passage of time since the drownings likely will help Yates, another consultant said.

“It may be she’s convicted again by another jury, even though the shock has worn off. But I think the public will be much more understanding if she is not convicted than they would have been in the first trial,” said Dr. Richard Waites, a board-certified trial lawyer and chief trial psychologist for The Advocates, a jury consultant service.

Not having a so-called “death-qualified jury” is indeed a big deal, as it makes Yates more likely to be acquitted on insanity grounds. No guarantees, of course, but if Vegas were running a line you’d get shorter odds on the defense this time around.

I’m not sure if the passage of time will matter all that much. I do think the prediction that an acquittal will stir less outrage now is accurate, though.

The new trial – again in the court of state District Judge Belinda Hill – will follow a course similar to that of the first one, attorneys predict. Many of the same witnesses are expected to testify, and much of the same evidence will be presented.

However, there could be some new elements. One is the addition of Dr. Michael Welner, the state’s new mental health expert, who evaluated Yates during a two-day period last month at Rusk State Hospital, where she has been confined while awaiting her new trial.

Welner, a well-known forensic psychiatrist at the New York University School of Medicine, is founder and chairman of The Forensic Panel, which touts itself as the country’s first peer-reviewed forensic practice. Prosecutors said they have not yet received his findings.

And then, there is Yates’ mail. Prosecutors have obtained copies of more than 200 letters she wrote while in custody, but they have not revealed the contents. The letters could be introduced as new evidence.

There’s still a motion by the defense to preclude Dr. Welner’s testimony. I tend to think the state will prevail on that, but it’s still an open issue. As for the letters, who knows? I feel pretty confident in saying that whatever they say, there will be more than one way to interpret them.

Prosecutors also have a statement from a former cellmate who stepped forward last year to report what she said was Yates’ chilling account of the drownings during a conversation in 2002.

Felicia Doe, 28, of Alvin, who has been subpoenaed to testify, said Yates described locking the doors of her home before the drownings so nobody could get inside or out.

This strikes me as a high-risk gambit by the DA. If Ms. Doe is a credible witness, this could be very damaging to the defense. If not, the prosecution will look bad, even vindictive. No way to know until she takes the stand. It all begins next week, so stay tuned.

Candidate Q&A: Chuck Silverman

Continuing with my program of Q&As with local judicial candidates, today I bring you Chuck Silverman:

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Chuck Silverman, a 46 year old native Texan and I’m running for judge of the 189th Civil District Court in Harris County, Texas. I have enjoyed practicing civil litigation as an attorney at law in Harris County for over 19 years. I have been married to my wife, Liz for 19 years and we have 3 children – a 14 year old son, an 11 year old daughter, and a 3 year old son. Also included in our family are cats, a dog, frogs, and fish.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court tries civil actions where the amount in controversy exceeds $200.

3. What are your qualifications for this job?

After receiving my B.A., M.B.A. and law degree from Tulane University I began my legal career in Houston, Texas in 1986. I have actively represented litigants in federal and state trial and appellate courts since then. In addition to my litigation practice, I represent clients in administrative hearings and alternative dispute resolution forums throughout Texas. As a result of my practice I have a solid understanding of the rules of civil procedure and evidence and I have extensive knowledge of judicial practices and procedures.

Based on my experience I am of the opinion that a judge must be an effective administrator and a fair-minded decision maker. I am confident that I can be both. I have a solid understanding of the rules of civil procedure and evidence and will be able to effectively conduct judicial hearings and trials. Also, I am an effective manager. Throughout my career, I have had managerial responsibilities. Early on, I was responsible for managing other attorneys, paralegals and staff. I understand and have a firm grasp of management and the responsibility associated with supervisory positions. I am confident that I can competently and efficiently manage court personnel and an active docket.

4. Why do you believe you would do a better job than the incumbent?

My hard work ethic, calm demeanor, impartiality, courtroom experience and knowledge of the law make me a superior candidate. In the 5 years preceding my opponent’s appointment to the bench he represented just nine (9) parties in Harris County district court. On the other hand, in the last 5 years, I have represented parties in over fifty-five (55) Harris County district court cases. Additionally, I have a good judicial temperament, would be fair to lawyers and litigants and have a good depth of legal knowledge. Finally, if elected, I will be the only Democrat on the civil court bench. In such position, I will be able to foster judicial independence and will bring a sense of fairness and impartiality to the bench. I will not be influenced by personal interest or relationships or external political pressures.

5. Why is this race one we should care about?

The 189th Civil District Court has been dominated by the Republican Party since 1992. In fact, a Democrat has not been elected to a Harris County civil district court bench for over 16 years. I believe there is an inherent problem with a one party court system. Because judges should be nonpartisan, it is important that the legal system be well-balanced and provide the foundation for the civil liberties and freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of our state and country. It should be free from the influence of money and special interests. Unfortunately, our legal system has become a target for those who fear its independence. These attacks have weakened our legal system and have resulted in the loss of civil liberties and the encroachment of government into our homes and personal lives. It is time to elect judges who are neither subservient nor willing to pander to politicians or special interests at the expense of the citizens. As a judge, I will work hard to be apolitical and protect and preserve the rights and civil liberties guaranteed to everyone by the United States and Texas Constitutions.

6. What else do we need to know?

I am an avid outdoorsman and enjoy camping, hunting and fishing. As a youth growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas I was involved in numerous activities, including the Boy Scouts and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. At Tulane University, while working towards my degrees, I participated in school activities, including serving as vice-president of the student government. I also took part in all things New Orleans – music, food, and fun – and even married a Louisianan. We still enjoy eating crawfish, oysters, and gumbo. Currently, I am an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 993 in Houston, I participate in neighborhood committees, and I take a very active interest in my children’s schools and activities. During my spare time, you can usually find me in the company of my wife and kids, reading a good book, following the stock market, or taking a walk outside.

Thank you, Chuck Silverman. You can also read my previous Q&A with Bill Connolly here.

(Note: This is the correct URL for the 189th District Court, but none of the District Court links are working as I type this. I presume it will be fixed at some point.)

More economic analysis of toll road selloffs

Following up on the Angry Bear has some economic analysis of the recent Indiana deal. It’s a little heavy, but worth wading through. Check it out.

Don’t Get Stapled

I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the entertaining blog Don’t Get Stapled before now. It’s written by a pseudonymous supporter of Democratic candidate for Agriculture Commissioner Hank Gilbert, whom I interviewed at the convention. You know how some candidates just have charisma, and if it were the case that everyone who planned to vote had a chance to see or hear them, they’d win a high percentage of the time? Hank Gilbert is one of those candidates. Don’t take my word for it – See for yourself.

I’m pleased to see, by the way, that the 2006 State GOP platform urges the repeal of the Trans-Texas Corridor (Word doc). Guess which candidate for Ag Commish supports the TTC and which one opposes it? Yeah.

Anyway. Don’t Get Stapled. Check it out, and Hank Gilbert, too.

Star Trek…nothing but Star Trek…

I love this story about Star Trek fans filling the TV void with their own productions.

From these Virginia woods to the Scottish Highlands, Star Trek fans are filling the void left in a galaxy that has lost Star Trek. For the first time in nearly two decades, television spin-offs from the original 1960s Star Trek series have ended, so fans are banding together to make their own episodes.

Fan films have been around for years, particularly those related to the Star Wars movies. But now they can be downloaded from the Web, and modern computer-graphics technology has lent them surprising special effects. And as long as no one is profiting from the work, Paramount, which owns the rights to Star Trek, has been tolerant. (Its executives declined to comment.)

As you might imagine, I approve of this hands-off approach by Paramount. It seems to me they have little to lose, and as long as new Trek content is being created, the fan base is being maintained. And who knows? One of these hobbyists could hit one out of the park, and thus create enough demand for another official show to be produced.

“The fans are saying, ‘Look, if we can’t get what we want on television, the technology is out there for us to do it ourselves,'” said Sieber, a 40-year-old engineer for a government contractor who likens his Star Trek project, at www.starshipfarragut.com, to “online community theater.”

And viewers are responding. One series, at www.newvoyages.com, and based in Ticonderoga, N.Y., boasts of 30 million downloads. It has become so popular that Walter Koenig, the actor who played Chekov in the original Star Trek, is guest-starring in an episode, and George Takei, who played Sulu, is slated to shoot another one later this year. D.C. Fontana, a writer from the original Star Trek series, has written a script.

Make fun of these folks if you want, but that’s pretty impressive. I may have to check one of them out. It can’t be any cheesier than a Trek novel or comic book, right? (Yes, I’ve bought and read each. Go ahead, make fun of me, too.)

Just one quibble:

For many Trekkies, contemporary science fiction on television – such as Battlestar Galactica and the more recent Star Trek spin-offs – are too dark.

“Modern science fiction takes itself too seriously,” said Jimm Johnson, 37, who presides over Starship Exeter.

John Broughton Jr., who founded the Farragut project, agreed.

“One thing about the classic Star Trek is at the end of the episode, it was pretty much a happy ending,” he said. “It was sort of like The Brady Bunch. It was all tidied up.”

Dude. Brady Bunch comparisons are never flattering. I thought the darkness and longer story arcs of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine made it the best of the lot. Your mileage may certainly vary, but please. Ixnay on the Brady Bunch references, okay?

It’s a precinct chair’s world

The Chron throws a little love to the GOP precinct chairs of CD22 as they gear up to select a replacement for Tom DeLay.

“We’ve been discovered,” said Harris County precinct chair Kathy Haigler. “We are the lowest level of public officials that exist. We are the last ones on the ballot. But we are the first ones candidates call for an endorsement.”

[…]

A four-member committee representing each of the counties in the district will select the nominee to replace DeLay on the November ballot. And precinct chairs in the district will name the committee from among their ranks, so they’re getting lots of attention from more than half a dozen candidates who covet the spot on the ballot.

Besides selecting the November nominee who may well succeed DeLay in the U.S. House, Harris County GOP precinct chairs also will nominate a candidate to replace County Treasurer Jack Cato, who died May 22.

[…]

“Good precinct chairs know the primary voting history and identification of registered voters for each home in their district,” said Harris County Republican Party Chair Jared Woodfill.

“They are the building blocks of the party. It’s the secret to having a successful grass-roots organization,” he said.

The job has become less secret because of the battle to succeed DeLay. “These elections have put the precinct chairs in the limelight,” Woodfill said.

Woodfill is seizing the opportunity as a recruiting tool. In Harris County, about 40 percent of the precinct chair posts are vacant.

Woodfill has the ambitious goal of bringing the proportion of occupied GOP precinct chairs to 90 percent.

I’m sure this kind of publicity can only help that effort. I mean, wow.

That nasty old lawsuit wasn’t discussed in this story. There are some pretty good comments about it in that post. As with the selection process itself, that puts us in some uncharted waters. I’d love to see some more written about this. The politics are obvious enough, but the merits – heck, the questions themselves – are less so. Consider this, which hasn’t gotten a whole lot of play (besides Greg).

No matter what court hears the case, the issue is DeLay’s eligibility, Democrats said.

Democrats are calling the former Majority Leader’s move to Virginia “a sham.”

“The merits of this case are still there, no matter what court,” said Hector Nieto, deputy communications director for Texas Democrats. “The fact is we cannot say for certain Tom DeLay is a Virginia resident.

“He was still voting as a Texas congressman in Congress even though he had registered to and voted in Virginia.”

On DeLay’s last day in office, he showed off a sticker that indicated he had voted absentee in the Virginia Republican primary.

A few hours later, he cast his last vote as a congressman as a representative from Texas. DeLay contends his move to Virginia did not prevent him from serving in Congress but did make him ineligible to be on the November ballot for another term in office.

Where do you even begin with that? I’d really like to see more written about this, but a Google news search on “DeLay lawsuit” comes up nearly dry. I just don’t know what to make of that.

And of course, there’s another issue that isn’t touched on in this story:

Haigler, who is seeking to represent Harris County on the selection committee, predicted that the Harris and Fort Bend county representatives will back candidates from their home counties, which could make the other two county representatives the swing votes. “Galveston and Brazoria have no dog in the hunt,” she said.

The hell they don’t. This is not an election, where those two counties would represent about 20% of the voters in CD22. This is a committee-of-four selection. Galveston and Brazoria represent half of that committee. They have exactly as much clout as Harris and Fort Bend, though they weren’t a part of this story. If a hopeful could win the support of both of these committee members, he or she would be Chosen One. It’s as simple as that. (Even winning one might be enough.) There’s a rumor going around that this has already happened. I can only wonder what Kathy Haigler would say to that.

ActBlue active for Texas

Our appeal for ActBlue was successful – thanks to everyone who donated, ActBlue will be activated for Texas state races. You’ll be hearing much more about this in the coming weeks. I’m pleased to see that Dallas Blog picked up on this. Kudos to them for being plugged into what the Texas netroots are doing.

In the meantime, BOR wants to know “what types or mix of candidates or ‘requirements’ would you propose for candidates to be on” the upcoming TexRoots page? What qualities should a candidate have to not just be supported but be advocated by bloggers for their readers? I’d also like to know any feedback you may have on this. Thanks very much.

Implementing the Mayor’s clean air plan

Following up on the earlier report about the air quality situation in Houston, City Council Member Carol Alvarado, a native of the most-affected area, writes an op-ed in the Chron that gives a call to action.

The state Legislature meets again in 2007. It is then that we must devise a regional approach to this problem, encompassing both market-based solutions and ironclad clean air standards backed up by firm regulatory powers.

Furthermore, as the summer wears on, candidates for elected office in Texas will be visiting Houston asking for your vote in November. It is incumbent upon every Houstonian to insist that each candidate for office this fall also commit to taking action on this problem to whatever degree the office they seek permits. Whether you live in the East End or Clear Lake, Kingwood or Meyerland, you should ask them what they are going to do about this issue if they are elected. If they say, “I’m going to study it some more,” they don’t deserve your support.

The facts are indisputable and more than sufficient to demand a firm commitment to action. Houston’s air is full of deadly toxins. The health effects are enormous and the social costs are clear. The financial burden is also significant, and each and every one of us is required to foot the bill.

Even if you live in a part of town that is the least affected by these toxins, understand that the most affected areas are also home to people least likely to be able to afford health insurance. Therefore, they don’t go to the doctor when they sense health problems because they simply can’t. When the problem becomes chronic and severe, they go to the emergency room, and the doctor bill is sent to the taxpayer.

In addition, dirty air and the attendant publicity about it make our region less attractive to new investment. The fact is, this limits our economic potential.

What else can I say besides “I agree”?

Selling toll roads: Fear it

Those of you who use Harris County’s toll road system on a regular basis, read this and think about the implications.

The Harris County toll road system could be sold for as much as $20 billion, but only if the county were willing to cede control over toll increases to a private company.

There is “a direct correlation between the rate at which the tolls would be permitted to increase and the value the county would realize from the sale,” the county’s office of management services said in a report.

How much are you willing to pay for that trip on the Sam Houston or Westpark toll roads? More to the point, how much do you think the Harris County Toll Road Authority thinks you’re willing to pay? If they’re serious about going through with this boneheaded idea, you’d better hope they guess correctly.

The county would be more likely to net $5 billion to $12 billion after paying off bonds, concluded JP Morgan and Popular Securities in a study commissioned by the county.

I’m going to ask a question that I asked before when this madness first surfaced: What in the world does Harris County need all that cash for? What could they possibly do with it?

OK, I know that Harris County would not get a lump sum up front for the toll roads, but would instead get paid over time. The thing is, sooner or later those payments would end, meaning that the county would eventually lose a steady source of income, as well as the option of ending the tolls for an asset that’s been fully amortized. I realize that all this may happen many years from now when we’re all dead, but unless you think Harris County will cease to be a functioning entity, or you think we’ll all finally have those flying cars we were promised in 2000, then how is this a responsible thing for the HCTRA to do? Remember, the only way this kind of deal makes sense for the buyer is if they think they’ll get more money back than they pay. So please, someone tell me: In what way does the county benefit from that?

At its annual capital improvements meeting Tuesday, the Commissioners Court will consider whether the toll road system, whose annual revenues have increased steadily, should be sold, leased or continue to be operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

If the county opts for selling or leasing, the court is not expected to make a specific decision for months. It could authorize a more detailed study.

And once again I ask: Do we, the taxpayers of Harris County, get any say in this? As in, do we get to vote on it? If not, why not?

JP Morgan and Popular Securities advised Commissioners Court to determine how much control it needs to exercise over the system before deciding whether it should sell the system to the highest bidder.

The study noted that motorists likely would turn to the county with complaints about tolls or other issues, no matter who owned the system.

The county wants “to avoid having a successful sale and a failed public policy,” the JP Morgan and Popular Securities report said.

Damn right. And if the Commissioners’ Court wants a peek at their future, consider this.

The decision to hand the Indiana Toll Road to an Australian and Spanish team for $3.8 billion at the end of this month has blown up into one of the biggest brawls here in a generation. It has unsettled the state’s politics in the months before the November elections, pitting a governor who was President Bush’s first budget director against the people of northern Indiana, which the highway passes through.

Max Sawicky calls this what it really is:

When a government takes a lump sum in exchange for permitting a private firm to manage a road and levy tolls, it is not only privatizing. It is borrowing, worsening its fiscal position. Most states are looking at growing budget shortfalls in the future, as Medicaid costs in particular continue to grow more rapidly than their revenues.

The Gov could just as easily contract out operations and management, but keep the tolls for itself. The fact that the money is earmarked to new projects — investment — is irrelevant. It’s still borrowing. You could just as easily keep the roads and float a bond — also borrowing — for the new projects. The leasing is not necessary. The political onus against explicit borrowing can warp decisions.

Yes. The question is what are they borrowing all this money for? The example of Indiana in that WaPo article at least makes a decent case why a government might consider doing this. We have no idea at this point what Harris County has in mind. Why is that?

There’s more heavy-duty economics on this at Angry Bear. I really don’t think I can overstate how bad an idea I think this is. I just hope that someone – anyone – expresses skepticism at Tuesday’s Commissioners’ Court meeting.

DeLay lawsuit shifts to federal court

The lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party to block the Republican Party of Texas from replacing Tom DeLay on the November ballot in CD22 has been moved to federal court.

State Republicans filed papers Thursday to move from state to federal court a lawsuit filed last week by the Texas Democratic Party. The Democrats sued to block Republicans from picking a replacement for former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay on the ballot for the 22nd Congressional District.

[…]
A temporary restraining order set last week by a state district judge remains in effect until midnight Thursday. Lawyers for the Democrats are expected to seek an extension of that order before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks next week.

All of the elected state district judges in Travis County are Democrats. Sparks was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush.

“If Democrat plaintiff trial lawyers want to raise federal issues under the U.S. Constitution, they cannot then seek to have them decided in the liberal state court of their choice,” said GOP Chairwoman Tina Benkiser.

[…]

Attorney Chad Dunn of Houston, who represents the Democratic Party, said he is confident that Democrats can win their legal case “in any jurisdiction.”

Dunn said the Texas Election Code prohibits a candidate from withdrawing from a ballot after being elected in the primary. Although DeLay has registered to vote in Virginia, he remains active in the Houston area and his wife still lives in Sugar Land, Dunn said.

Jim Bopp, an Indiana attorney who represents the Republican Party, said DeLay has bought a condo, registered to vote and gotten a driver’s license in Virginia.

He said Democrats have raised federal claims that are appropriate for the federal courts.

“They want the court to determine the inhabitant issue, and that’s a federal claim. They want the court to say that the chairman of the Republican Party cannot declare DeLay ineligible because the (U.S.) Constitution prevents that,” said Bopp.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure how valid that point is. It sounds reasonable enough, for what it’s worth. I don’t think the judges’ partisan backgrounds will make or would have made any difference. Mark has some legal analysis of all this, as does Greg, who explains why he believes this is about expediency rather than partisan makeup.

What wasn’t clear to me from this story was where the papers were filed and who made the ruling on removal. Mark says that Judge Sparks was the one who did that. Fort Bend Now fills in another blank in an earlier story.

On Thursday, Margaret Wilson of Austin’s Potts & Reilly law firm filed a notice of removal, seeking to have the case moved to U.S. District Court in the Western District of Texas.

“In response to the frivolous lawsuit filed last week by Democrats regarding the Texas Congressional District 22 race, the Republican Party of Texas has removed the case to federal court,” the state GOP said in a prepared statement Thursday evening.

[…]

Chad Dunn of Houston’s Riddle & Brazil law firm, who is handling the case for the Texas Democratic Party, said a hearing on the issue has been scheduled for Thursday before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks.

In the meantime, a temporary restraining order granted by Travis County District Judge Darlene Byrne still is in effect. The order prevents Benkiser from calling a meeting of the so-called District Executive Committee or taking other measures to replace DeLay as the Republican Party nominee for CD-22.

So the RPT is still enjoined from taking official action to replace DeLay on the ballot. I’d guess the temporary restraining order will be extended beyond the current June 22 deadline. What happens after that, I have no idea. Stay tuned.

Garnet Coleman profile

There’s a nice profile of State Rep. Garnet Coleman in the Progressive States Network. Coleman’s one of the real good guys, so it’s always a pleasure to see him get a little attention. Check it out.

My good deed of the day

I just finished setting up my mother-in-law with her DSL connection. She’s already marvelling at how much it beats the pants off of dialup. In the vernacular, this makes me a Good Boy. I’m taking the rest of the day off.

(And before anyone asks: Windows Update – set for Automatic; McAfee Virus Scan – up to date and set up for automatic update checking; Microsoft Defender – installed and configured. Did I miss anything?)