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June 19th, 2006:

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?