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June 15th, 2006:

The money race

We’re still a few weeks away from seeing the second quarter financial reports for campaigns, but there’s some good news for Chris Bell in the fundraising numbers from the special session.

According to records filed Wednesday with the Texas Ethics Commission, Bell collected $333,212, more than the $307,534 reported by Strayhorn and the $149,132 by Friedman.

Bell’s donations between April 17 and May 15, the period covered by Wednesday’s filing, came close to the $375,021 collected by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Let’s not kid ourselves – Bell still trails far behind in cash on hand to both Perry and Strayhorn. But this is encouraging no matter how you look at it.

But the report also showed that $100,000, nearly a third of the new money, came solely from Houston oilman A. Earl Swift, who died of colon cancer May 30.

Bell’s report also showed $56,900 of in-kind contributions, most of it from Ricardo Wietz of Houston, who let Bell use his plane. Another $8,225 came in the form of donated gemstones the campaign plans to auction.

In-kind contributions are reported the same as cash.

Bell spokesman Jason Stanford said those donations should not discount the money raised.

“We have to play well in all phases of the game,” he said.

“Part of that is getting those six-figure checks and getting the big guys on board,” Stanford said. “Around here, every single $10 check is cause for celebration.”

That “but” is irritating me. The fact that a chunk of Bell’s money for the month in question came from one big donation is a good thing. Remember all the stories from before about how traditional big-dollar Dem donors have been cozying up to Strayhorn? That fueled a perception about this race that redounded to Strayhorn’s benefit. If that trend is reversing, it’s a boon for Bell. And c’mon – how much of Rick Perry’s money comes from small donors? Let’s be consistent here.

Now again, I don’t expect Bell to come close to Perry’s culumative totals, or Strayhorn’s for that matter. Getting to the same order of magnitude, and getting ahead of Friedman, both of which would help keep words like “underfunded” from getting attached to Bell’s name in campaign stories, that’s what he needs to do. If the narrative after July 1 is “Bell’s fundraising surges ahead of Strayhorn’s and Friedman’s, keeps pace with Rick Perry’s”, so much the better. This is a good start; we’ll see if the finish is there as well.

Fewer experts, please

The defense team for Andrea Yates, in conjunction with a passel of mental health advocates, is challenging the qualifications of a prosecution expert for the upcoming retrial.

Yates’ attorneys are challenging the qualifications of the state’s expert witnesses, including Dr. Michael Welner, a New York forensic psychiatrist who evaluated Yates during a two-day period last month at Rusk State Hospital.

The issue is pending before state District Judge Belinda Hill, who will preside over Yates’ new capital murder trial, scheduled to begin June 26.

[…]

The advocates who filed Wednesday’s motion say that Yates clearly suffered from “severe postpartum psychosis” when she drowned her five children in a bathtub at the family’s Clear Lake home on June 20, 2001.

But postpartum psychosis is an illness that is unfamiliar to many forensic mental health experts, the advocates said.

They argue that the integrity of the verdict is at stake, depending on which experts are allowed to testify in Yates’ trial.

“Knowledge of the current research is required to ensure that the jury receives necessary information about postpartum psychosis and how it affected Mrs. Yates,” the motion states. ” … The lack of expertise in the relevant mental health area presents the peril of misleading the jury.”

The parties joining the motion included National Advocates for Pregnant Women, the Postpartum Resource Center of New York, Postpartum Support International and Texas Mental Health Consumers.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Yates team. Her illness is far less common, and far more pernicious, than postpartum depression. That needs to be clearly understood in order to judge her fairly. If they can make a reasonable case that any of these particular witnesses don’t have an expert’s level of knowledge about postpartum psychosis, then I think the judge ought to take a hard line on who gets to testify.

Having said that, I don’t know what the case law is here. It seems to me that it’s appropriate for the prosecution to question assumptions about Andrea Yates’ condition – if they concede this particular diagnosis, it puts them in a tougher position, since in doing so they’d be admitting there’s something unique and unusual about Yates. While I think Judge Hill should be reasonably strict about defining what expert status is in this case for the prosecution’s witnesses, I also think she should give them some latitude in demonstrating what their bone fides are. If this all sounds a bit self-contradictory, it’s another way of saying that I don’t envy her the decision. I’ll be very interested to see how she sorts it all out.

Lawsuit filed over state spending limit

It’s been a busy week for suing the state of Texas.

Edd Hendee, executive director of Citizens Lowering Our Unfair Taxes, sued Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Speaker Tom Craddick, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and the Legislative Budget Board.

“The limitations in the constitution need to be defended against Republican leadership that has fallen intoxicatingly into this habit of spending more money than the constitution allows,” said Hendee, a restaurant owner and a KSEV radio talk-show host.

He is asking the court to enforce a provision approved by Texas voters in 1978. The section states that the growth in appropriations shall not exceed the growth in the state’s economy.

The lawsuit, filed in Travis County state district court, alleges the Legislative Budget Board has used artificially robust estimates of economic growth to justify high spending limits. The board, made up of Dewhurst, Craddick and other legislative leaders, develops recommendations for state agency appropriations.

Hendee wants a judge to declare the recently passed school finance appropriations unconstitutional. The Legislature spent nearly half of the state’s $8.2 billion surplus to cover initial property tax cuts, a teacher pay raise and new high school spending.

You never know. Maybe they’ll find one of those legislating-from-the-bench activist judges I keep hearing so much about and get a favorable ruling. In the meantime, anything that sows a little division among Republicans is all right in my book.

Speaking of which, where there’s division among Republicans, there’s opportunity for Carole Keeton “Call me Grandma, please!” Strayhorn.

Strayhorn, the Republican comptroller who opted to run as an independent against Perry, said she welcomed the lawsuit, agreeing that state spending is out of control.

“During the last six years, the state budget has increased $44 billion. That is 44.75 percent during the last six years,” said Strayhorn.

Now, I know that Strayhorn has been for and against all kinds of things this campaign season, some of which were things she was against and for in years past. I don’t have the time to do a thorough search, but I do know that Strayhorn has been more than willing to push for various kinds of spending increases when it suits her purposes – teacher pay raises, for instance. But today’s story calls for her to put on her Fiscal Conservative/Belt Tightening cap, so she’s there with a quote to fit the occasion. It’s what she does, and she’s good at it.

(By the way, I might have had a better idea about what actual issues Strayhorn cares about if her pathetically uninformative website had an Issues page on it. I know people from that campaign have read this blog in the past – if any of you are out there reading this now, please do something about that. It’s embarrassing.)

Anyway. You can read the lawsuit here. Thanks to Dallas Blog for the link.

Fewer tickets, more collections

Fewer drivers are getting parking tickets in Houston, but those that do are much more likely to end up paying them.

The city has issued about 170,000 parking tickets so far this fiscal year, which runs through June 30, down nearly a third from the same period four years ago, according to the Parking Department. But this year through February, the most recent statistics available, 86 percent of those tickets were paid, compared with 62 percent in 2003.

Fewer tickets have been dismissed because better-trained parking enforcement officers now make fewer technical errors, said Liliana Rambo, assistant director of parking management.

“We’re doing a better job at what we do. We’re training officers better,” Rambo said. “We’re being more accurate.”

The most dramatic annual decrease in tickets – 25 percent this year over last – can be attributed at least partly to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Rambo said.

Whatever the reason, this is how you want it to be. Tickets that get dismissed, especially those that were issued in error, are a waste of resources for the city and a pain in the neck for the poor saps who got them. If the city is being more efficient in who they ticket, good for them.

Since I can never resist numbers, I’ll do a little crunching. The print version of this story had a chart that said there were 243,094 parking tickets issued in Fiscal Year 2003, and 169,330 for FY 2006. Sixty-two percent, or about 150,718 tickets were paid off for FY03, while 86 percent, or 145,624 tickets were paid off for FY06. Nearly as many paid tickets, nearly 70,000 fewer tossed ones. Nicely done.

Injunction sought to require paper ballots

Via Houston Dems, the Texas Civil Rights Project has filed a lawsuit to seek an injunction to force the use of paper ballots in Texas. From their press release:

Voters, civil rights groups and a statewide candidate filed a petition Wednesday to prevent the State of Texas from using unreliable electronic voting machines in the November elections.

Travis County voter Sonia Santana, the NAACP of Austin, its president, Nelson Linder, also a Travis County voter, and David Van Os, a candidate for attorney general, filed a petition asking the court to enjoin the county from using voting machines that do not produce a paper ballot. The Texas Civil Rights Project represents the plaintiffs.

“Voters deserve the assurance their voices will be heard,” said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “By using machines that provide no permanent record, the state is failing in its constitutional duty to provide the people with an election in which they can trust the results.”

[…]

The petition charges that the use of these machines is a violation of three of the plaintiffs’ rights guaranteed under the Texas Constitution and the Texas Election Code:

The right to a secure election, since the machines are all-too-often open to failure, mistake, tampering and fraud.

The right to a recount, since there is no way for voters to verify whether the votes were properly recorded, stored, tabulated or printed..

The right to equal protection under the law, since Travis County voters are forced to use a voting system that is less reliable than systems available to other Texas voters.

“The state has chosen to protect one of our most fundamental rights, the right to participate in our government, with a system rife with failure and vulnerable to fraud,” Harrington said.

As you know, I believe in the need for paper receipts as part of the voting process. I’d be happy to have them in place as either the primary or backup method for counting votes, as well as for disaster recovery and audit purposes. I do not believe that paper ballots by themselves are a panacea for all complaints about voting systems, but I believe using electronic machines only without a redundant system in place is asking for a disaster to happen. Steven Wayne Smith would probably argue that we’ve already had such a disaster.

The Statesman has a response from the defendants.

The Texas Civil Rights Project sued Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams and Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir in state District Court.

[…]

DeBeauvoir and a spokesman for Williams, along with the founder of the Austin company that created eSlate, all rejected the claim that paper ballots are necessary for a fair and secure election.

“I am not a lawyer but I kind of doubt that there is much of an argument,” said DeBeauvoir, whose office runs elections in Travis County. “I believe that the system is accurate and secure the way it is.”

David Hart, the founder of Hart InterCivic, said that more than 400 jurisdictions nationwide use the company’s eSlate system, which uses tablet-size screens on which votes are cast with dials and buttons.

He said the system, which is not connected to the Internet, stores ballot information in three electronic places. In Travis County, it captures images of each ballot so electronic or manual recounts can be conducted.

“The eSlate system has got a lot of security built into it,” he said.

That’s nice, but it still doesn’t address my concern. What happens if one of these suckers fails catastrophically? What’s the recovery method for a worst-case scenario?

The lawsuit claims that more than half of states – but not Texas – require electronic voting systems to produce paper copies.

Hart’s company has a machine that also prints paper ballot results. It is being reviewed by Williams’ office for use in Texas elections, and DeBeauvoir said she’ll present the option to the community if it’s approved.

“I can run any kind of election this community wants,” she said.

That’s good to hear. Now tell me more about the Hart machine that does print paper ballots. Seems to me that its approval and adoption would settle this matter pretty quickly.

Chad Khan in the news

Nice little article here on HD126 contender Chad Khan. I’ve reprinted it beneath the fold since I have no idea how long these community newspaper links last. Khan’s a good candidate, and he’ll have the resources he needs to run a strong campaign, but this is a tough district. It’s not just that it’s a little more than two-to-one Republican based on 2004 voting. It’s also that there’s very little dropoff from President Bush’s vote total and percentage to those of the downballot candidates – Victor Carillo, for example, who usually does the worst among statewide Republicans in district comparisons because of the presense of a Hispanic Libertarian candidate on the ballot, had almost 95% of Bush’s total vote, and was within half a point of Bush’s percentage. Kathy Stone, the top Democratic votegetter in Harris County, got 34% in HD126 (John Kerry got 32%). In short, there was very little ticket-splitting.

On the plus side for this year, it’s an open seat, as former incumbent Peggy Hamric left to make an unsuccessful run for the State Senate. Khan will be an infinitely better and more active candidate than 2004 milk carton poster girl Casey McKinney, who for all anyone knows moved to Northern Virginia immediately after filing her papers. On the other hand, the Republicans did manage to nominate the non-insane contender from their primary, so that and the monolithic nature of the HD126 voters are working for them.

Be that as it may, Khan’s a good guy, and you should get to know him better. Click the More link to get started on that.

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I-10 flood mitigation ponds

One of the public meetings held last week was to discuss plans for some flood mitigation ponds around I-10 near the Heights. Robin has some information on what is currently being proposed, plus some background info on the project if you need it.

Be sure to reference “IH-10 detention ponds” in your letter and mail it to:

TxDOT — Director of Project Development
PO Box 1386 Houston TX 77251-1386

You have until June 18 to give your feedback to TxDOT on this, so speak now or forever hold your peace.