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July, 2007:

Burka on Heflin

Having previously made a mockery of the announcement that the state GOP has hired Talmadge Heflin to the post of Executive Director, I was all set to cackle a little more when I saw that Paul Burka‘s jaw had dropped open with shock at the announcement as well. Unfortunately, Burka then went on to ruin all the fun.

I’m told that Heflin is just a temporary replacement for Jeff Fisher. Fisher was no prize as executive director, having been suspected by mainstream Republicans of running push polls against them before the 06 elections. There was also a bizarre arrangement at the party that made it impossible for a member of the media to contact anyone on short notice; the message was relayed to a spokeswoman in Houston who might or might not call you back. Anyway, Fisher “needed to be out” (as my source put it) and state chair Tina Benkiser “needed someone to keep the trains running on time while she looked for a permanent replacement.” Heflin and Benkiser have known each other for a long time, and there is a level of confidence that Heflin can keep things going until she can find a successor to Fisher. When that occurs, Heflin will reestablish his relationship with teh Texas Public Policy Foundation. I was specifically told, “Contrary to popular sentiment, he does not need the money.” Heflin will be acting executive director for a few months while the business of raising money and beating the bushes for candidates goes on.

Ah, well. It was nice while it lasted.

Lampson op-ed on Farm Bill

The following is an op-ed by Rep. Nick Lampson on the farm bill that was just passed out of Congress. I confess, this is not the sort of thing that I normally follow closely (some folks at MyDD did a lot of interesting blogging on it), but I thought it was worth printing here.

This past week, Congress passed the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007. As a new Member on the House Agriculture Committee, I had the opportunity to work on a far reaching, vital, and fully paid-for Farm Bill. The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed by the President, will affect every American and every Texan, whether they live on a farm, in the suburbs, or in a busy city center. We all put gasoline in our cars, wear clothing made from natural fibers, many of us donate to food pantries at our local churches, and our children eat snacks and meals at school. This legislation ensures our farmers can continue providing our nation with the safest, most reliable, and most abundant food, fiber, and now energy.

Most importantly, we’ve taken care to make these proposals fiscally responsible. All new programs and spending were approved only if they had offsets in other parts of the bill. Funding for a portion of the bill was provided by closing a tax loophole that allowed foreign corporations operating in the U.S. to avoid paying taxes on income earned here. This is in line with the pay-as-you-go (“PAYGO”) budget mechanism to curb irresponsible deficit spending, adopted by Congress earlier this year. PAYGO is the responsible thing to do with your hard-earned tax dollars, and it is the right thing to do for our children and grandchildren.

The challenge to diversify our resources is the moon-shot of the 21st century, and America’s farmers can lead the way. The 2007 Farm Bill has a 600% increase in renewable fuels funding, including $2 billion in federal loan guarantees for the development of bio-refineries for bio-fuel production. The bill also includes $1.5 billion for production incentives for ethanol and bio-diesel made from agricultural, forest, and waste plant materials. The possibilities are endless, the environmental benefits enormous, and the push for new research and production beneficial for all Americans.

The Agriculture Committee also took steps to expand nutrition programs recently addressed by Houston Food Bank CEO Brian Green in the Houston Chronicle. The bill aims to help the 16% of Texans living in poverty by nearly doubling the funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, so that food banks and soup kitchens have badly needed resources, and provides for the for the reauthorization of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides monthly food boxes for low-income families. The committee also raised and indexed benefits for the food stamp program, now renamed the Secure Supplemental Nutrition Access Program, for the first time in 30 years. Current benefits average $3 a day, and with 2.6 million Texans receiving food stamps, these improvements will help them afford more nutritious food and encourage savings for college, retirement, and rainy days.

With rising obesity, especially in children, and heart disease the number one killer in America, this legislation takes steps to encourage healthy food choices through expanded research, incentives, grant programs, and the expansion of fruit and vegetable snack programs for schools to all 50 states.

I teamed up with the American Heart Association to introduce an amendment creating the Healthy Oils Incentive Program. This temporary one-time incentive program will encourage the development and commercialization of certain oilseeds with heart-healthy traits, including soy, canola, and sunflower grown in Texas. Encouraging the production of healthy oils to replace the use of trans-fats and partially-hydrogenated oils in food preparation will ensure that demand is met with healthy and affordable supplies as more communities ban or reduce their use, as New York and Seattle have recently done.

Additionally, the Agriculture Committee approved a measure to implement the long-delayed Country of Origin Labeling (“COOL”) program established in 2002 to provide labeling of cattle, poultry, pork, seafood, and fruits and vegetables. In a recent report released by Consumer Reports, 92% of Americans expressed their support for COOL, and Congress and industry listened. Recent food safety scares have worn on public confidence, and this important measure will help restore confidence, and allow consumers to make more educated decisions when purchasing food.

I am proud to have contributed to such an important and comprehensive piece of legislation that takes lessons learned from the past to prepare us for the future. Improvements in nutrition programs and bio-energy initiatives will not only uplift our farmers and rural communities, but they will provide additional aid to the neediest at home and abroad, help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and protect our environment. The Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007 will continue to ensure our nation’s access to the safest, cheapest, most reliable, and most abundant food, fiber, and fuel in the world.

I should note that Rep. Lampson is the first member of Congress from southeast Texas to serve on the Ag Committee in recent years. Texas lost a fair bit of clout on that committee when Charlie Stenholm was put out to pasture by Tom DeLay in 2004.

What “innocent till proven guilty” really means

As the case against Michael Vick goes forward, I think it’s important to pause a moment and think about this.

R.L. White, president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the Atlanta Falcons quarterback has been vilified by animal rights groups, talk radio and the news media and prematurely punished by his team and corporate sponsors.

“If Mr. Vick is guilty, he should pay for his crime, but to treat him as he is being treated now is also a crime,” White said at a news conference. “Be restrained in your premature judgment until the legal process is completed.”


On Monday, Tony Taylor, a co-defendant in the case, pleaded guilty in Virginia to federal dogfighting conspiracy charges in a plea agreement with prosecutors. Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach and Quanis Phillips of Atlanta face similar charges and are scheduled for trial Nov. They remain free without bond.

Businesses have been quick to recoil. Nike suspended its lucrative contract with Vick and Reebok stopped sales of his No. 7 jersey. In addition, two trading card companies withdrew Vick items.


White plans to contact Vick to see what assistance the Atlanta NAACP chapter can offer. White predicted that public opinion may worsen in the wake of Taylor’s plea deal.

Until then, he said he would keep an open mind and encouraged others to do the same.

Hard to do sometimes, isn’t it? I know I’ve failed pretty miserably at this many times, especially if the defendant is someone I don’t like. If it helps, think about all the stories you’ve read lately about people being freed from prison after many years, having been convicted of crimes they provably did not commit. Even with the best of intentions, the government can and will sometimes be wrong about who they choose to prosecute, and let’s face it – they don’t always have the best of intentions.

That said, I have no quarrel with any of Vick’s business associates who want to drop him like a bad habit. They don’t require reasonable doubt, and if they want to sever all ties – or just put them on ice till things clear up, if they do – over Vick’s being indicted, that’s fine by me. People have lost marketing deals for far less than this. If Vick succeeds in clearing his name, as he’s been saying on Atlanta radio that he wants to do, then the opportunities will come back.

Meanwhile, it’ll get a little hotter for Vick as one of his codefendants has taken a plea and agreed to testify for the feds.

As part of a plea agreement, Tony Taylor pledged to fully cooperate with the government in its prosecution of Vick and two other men accused of running an interstate dogfighting enterprise known as “Bad Newz Kennels” on Vick’s property in rural Surry County.

“The ‘Bad Newz Kennels’ operation and gambling monies were almost exclusively funded by Vick,” a summary of facts supporting the plea agreement and signed by Taylor states.

The plea deal requires Taylor to testify against Vick and his two remaining co-defendants if called upon to do so. Taylor cannot get a stiffer sentence or face any new charges based on any new information he provides, according to terms of the agreement.

Additional charges are possible, however, against Vick and the other two. Federal prosecutors have said a superseding indictment will be issued in August.


Taylor, 34, of Hampton, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities, and conspiring to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture.


Taylor, who will be sentenced Dec. 14, said he was not promised any specific sentence in return for his cooperation with the government.

He faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, although federal sentencing guidelines likely will call for less. The range will be determined by the court’s probation office, but the judge can depart from that range if he finds aggravating or mitigating circumstances.

At this point, all I can say is that I’m glad it’s not my job to defend Michael Vick. I do not envy his lawyer the task.

But who might take advantage?

Yesterday, Clay Robison wrote about Governor Perry’s controversial community college funding veto, and speculated about the possibility of political gain for Democrats as a result:

There is a potentially large, negative political impact — not for Perry, who won’t be on the ballot next year and maybe never again — but for a few Republican legislators who may find themselves with competitive Democratic challengers in 2008.

There are 50 community college districts throughout Texas, and most are still recovering, in one way or another, from state budget cuts imposed by the Legislature to bridge a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall in 2003.

This veto, of course, wasn’t the fault of any legislator. Perry struck the money because, he said, the two-year community colleges have been inflating the number of employees entitled to state-paid health benefits.

College officials have denied falsifying budget requests and say they will have to raise tuition, increase local property taxes or cut programs to make up for the vetoed funds, which amount to 8 percent of their state funding for the next two years.

The veto could play into the hands of Texas Democrats, who in recent years have been trying to paint Republicans as anti-education. Democrats already are attacking Republicans over the 2003 budget cuts, a tuition deregulation law that has sharply raised the costs of attending four-year, public universities, and a GOP priority on property tax cuts over increased education spending.

It also could be argued with only limited imagination in a campaign mailout that the veto represents a retreat from lower property taxes because it could force some community colleges to raise their local taxes.

It would have been interesting for Robison to name a few legislators he thinks might have a problem with Perry’s action. It’s sufficiently early that some of the folks who might potentially need to deal with this don’t have anyone lined up against them yet, but for what it’s worth I can tell you that Joe Jaworski (running against Sen. Mike Jackson in SD11) and Diane Trautman (going for a rematch against Rep. Joe Crabb in HD127) have been beating the drums over this. I suspect there are more who aren’t too happy to be in this position, but if Robison has any in mind, he doesn’t let on about it. Alas.

Meanwhile, the Chron took the opportunity to pile on with this editorial.

After supporting full funding for Texas community colleges during the legislative session, Gov. Rick Perry shocked educators and lawmakers by vetoing $154 million earmarked for state-mandated health benefits for college employees. As a result, the institutions that provide the backbone of vocational and four-year university preparatory education face an unnecessary budgetary crisis.

Representatives of Houston-area community colleges met with the Chronicle’s editorial board and painted a grim picture. The veto will cost the Houston Community College System $11 million. HCCS Chancellor Mary Spangler stated the college will be forced to cut spending this year by $5 million and another $5 million next year. At a time when Texas needs to increase the number of residents pursuing higher education, HCCS and other colleges might be forced to raise taxes, tuition and fees.


Perry claimed he was vetoing the funding because it violated state law prohibiting state dollars from being used for health benefits for locally paid staff, but the money was approved by the Legislature. Perry also blamed community college leaders for attempting to pad the amount of money they could justifiably claim from the state to cover employee health benefits, an allegation that North Harris Montgomery Community College Chancellor John E. Pickelman denied. Pickelman said that after the governor supported full funding for community colleges, “he vetoed his own message. What changes your mind in four and a half months?”


In a letter to the governor, 47 Democratic members of the Texas House stated, “Your ill-conceived veto is equivalent to a tax increase on middle-class Texans who are working hard to build better lives by obtaining a community or junior college education.”

It is more than strange that an elected official who campaigned on a platform of cutting property taxes would cast a veto that is likely to result in the exact opposite. In an article justifying his veto, Perry noted that if community colleges are short on money, “they are empowered to raise taxes from the population they serve, not unlike a local hospital, school or utility district.” Those who wind up shouldering higher tax bills will have no one to blame but the governor.

Think there might be an ad or two in that? We’ll see what the LBB does, and what Perry does with his second chance.

Laney disputes Craddick’s absolute power

As we know, Attorney General Greg Abbott is soliciting briefs from various parties before he makes a ruling of some kind on the Keffer request, which is about the legality of House Speaker Tom Craddick’s assertion that he is not required to recognize a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. Among those who have filed a response to Abbott’s call for comment is former Speaker Rayford Price, who took issue (PDF) with Craddick’s assertion that the Speaker can only be removed by impeachment (as is the case with statewide officeholders), on the grounds that it would leave matters up to the Senate. Now Pete Laney, who was the last Speaker before Craddick, has joined in as well.

“The 10 years I was speaker I never thought they (elected representatives) couldn’t get rid of me,” Laney said Thursday during a telephone conversation.


“I don’t think it was ever intended for the speaker to have absolute power,” Laney said. “That is why we left England in the early days to come to America so we did not have an emperor.”

Laney said he interprets the speaker’s role as a facilitator.

“In my opinion, the speaker is there as a vehicle so that every representative can have access to the system regardless of where they come from or what their philosophical beliefs are,” Laney said.

“They are elected from an area just like the speaker is,” the retired legislator said. “The members are benevolent enough to elect an individual to preside over them, and to help with the job of representing their constituents.”

When asked if he planned to submit a written statement to the attorney general’s office, Laney said he did not.

“I pretty much agree with what Rayford Price wrote,” Laney said of an Austin attorney who served one term as speaker in 1971-1973 during the 62nd Legislature.

I love Laney’s framing of the issue, and I think it’s what the politics of the situation ultimately comes down to. We don’t like the idea of absolute power in this state or this country. We like it when people who are in a position of power have to answer to somebody, even if it’s not the voters directly. Tom Craddick’s position in all this has been “I don’t have to listen to you”. Call me crazy, but I think any halfway decent politician can run a campaign against that. And I think Greg Abbott knows it. We’ll see if he takes Burka’s advice and remains above the fray or not.

Development along the Main Street line

Christof looks at development projects along the Main Street rail line since 2004:

As in 2004, I can count lots of proposed projects along the line: the two Midtown projects, more Downtown highrises and renovations, air rights development at Wheeler and the TMC Transit Center, a new midrise condo in the Museum Districtm a major Lovett Homes project at Fannin South designed by Andres Duany, and the redevelopment of the Astroworld site.

It’s tempting to argue whether all this new development was due to the rail line or not. Some is; some isn’t. But I think that argument is irrelevant. Rail is a way to move more people in limited right of way. It’s helping to absorb the additional travel demand caused by more density. And what’s happened along Main should dispell any doubts that rail discourages development or lowers property values.

There are two lessons to be learned from Main. The first is that the most likely places for more density are the places that are dense already. Activity feeds on activity. We can’t build rail in vacant places and assume it will make them dense. But rail will support more density in places that are already dense. The second is that the growth we’ve seen along Main has been organic. Of the post-2004 projects I mentioned, only Houston Pavilions has received city assistance. Government has provided infrastructure, but growth has come from market demand.

He’s got a map of the activity as well. There’s quite a bit there, mostly within the magic 1/4-mile walkability radius from stations. Check it out.

HOT or not?

I see from this article in the Chron that my impression of the whole HOV-to-HOT lanes thing has been mistaken.

If an HOV lane becomes congested under rules requiring at least two people in each vehicle, there is little choice but to bump that requirement to a minimum of three people. That likely would result in some unused lane space. Why not charge solo drivers to use that space, proponents say, raising the tolls as needed to keep traffic moving?

“Until a lane becomes quite congested with the two-plus requirement, I feel that it should stay at two-plus,” [Mark Burris, an assistant engineering professor and research scientist at the Texas Transportation Institute,] said.

Lanes that already are congested under the two-occupant minimum may need to go to a three-plus minimum to remain effective as HOV lanes — regardless of whether they charge a toll, Burris said.

Any available space then could be used by toll-paying drivers without negating the lane’s HOV function, he said.

“On the Northwest Freeway in the afternoon, it’s getting to the point where they will have to raise the requirement.” Burris said. “There’s really no choice if you don’t want the lane to slow down.”

TxDOT traffic operations director Carlos Lopez said the toll option really could reduce HOV lane traffic, because “It’s a lot harder to form a three-plus carpool than a two-plus carpool.”

See, I thought the idea was that there weren’t enough two-person carpools using the HOV lanes, and that the toll-for-single-occupant-vehicle proposal was to get more people to use them, thus alleviating traffic on the main highway by some small amount. I mean, when I hear Carlos Lopez with TxDOT say things like “The premise is to try to get every bit of capacity out of the HOV lanes”, that suggests to me that they’re currently underutilized. These paragraphs aren’t saying that at all – quite the reverse, in fact. The idea here is to alleviate congestion in the HOV lanes; the effect on the main highway is not taken into consideration.

This feels bass-ackwards to me. Why do we care about whether the HOV lane is moving smoothly as opposed to whether it plus the highway it’s attached to is operating at peak efficiency? If a switch from two-passenger HOV lanes to three-passenger HOV plus single-occupancy for a toll makes the HOV lane go faster but the main freeway go slower, is that a good thing? I don’t think so.

Basically, I say the focus should be on improving throughput on each corridor as a whole, not on any one piece of it, and especially not on one piece of it to the potential detriment of another. Is anyone talking about that?

Burris said so few HOV lanes across the country have been converted to HOT lanes that it is hard to generalize about the results. But there usually is opposition to overcome, he said.
“Minneapolis took about 12 years to get theirs running” because of a perception that they were “Lexus lanes” designed to favor the wealthy, he said.

“In Maryland, the governor said he didn’t want to hear the words ‘HOT lanes’ anymore,” Burris said. The main headache there, Burris said, was coordinating the toll rules on roads that passed through multiple states and the District of Columbia in a short distance.

So we don’t really have any idea what effect this policy might have, though I think we can take a few good guesses. Is it so much to ask that in the event we do some kind of HOT pilot, we do a study to see if it makes things better, worse, or about the same for both the former HOV lane and the main highway? You know, like we’re supposed to get for the accident rates at red light camera-enabled intersections, only maybe a bit more timely.

Burris said the easiest transition probably was in Houston when Metro began its QuickRide program on the Katy and Northwest freeways. The program allows two-occupant vehicles to use the HOV lane for a $2 fee during peak hours, when the three-plus requirement is in effect.

The move probably was accepted easily because “it wasn’t seen as selling rides to single-occupant vehicles,” he said.

This at least sounds like a reasonable place to start, though again it’d be nice to know what the effect is if you try it. What do you say, TxDOT and Metro?

Bad ad placement

And now for something a little lighter: I present to you Fifteen Unfortunately Placed Ads. I may never get the image of the second one out of my head. Thanks to Mark Evanier for the link.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 30

You know the drill. As with the last time, Vince is the roundup master. Click on for the highlights.


Astros punt on Ensberg

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but it still kinda does.

While the rest of his former teammates were on the field with their wives and children as part of the Astros’ annual family day, third baseman Morgan Ensberg was seeking them out for goodbye handshakes and hugs.

Ensberg’s mercurial tenure with the Astros came to an end Sunday morning when the club designated him for assignment, giving it 10 days to trade or release him. The Astros don’t plan to send him to the minor leagues.

Ensberg, who was hitting .232 with eight homers and 31 RBIs and never could recapture his All-Star form from 2005, became expendable when the Astros acquired third baseman Ty Wigginton in a trade with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Saturday.

“I was kind of expecting something,” Ensberg said. “My mind is little bit more at ease because I know what’s going on. It’s a function of opportunity here. Other guys played really well that happened to play third base, and that means my opportunity shrank.”

Tom, who’s unimpressed with the deal and the related deal that acquired Wiggington for Dan Wheeler, disputes Ensberg’s assertion about others playing well at third for the Stros this year. I’ve got to say, while it’s certainly possible that Ensberg is washed up at 32, it’s also possible that his injury last year just hasn’t fully healed, and that he’s got a bounce-back in him. While it’s certainly justifiable to dump a guy like Ensberg if the club is headed in a youth/rebuilding direction, it’s hard to see how replacing him with the 30-year-old Wiggington, whose lifetime stats are nothing to write home about, moves them in that direction. Plus, DFAing Ensberg undercuts whatever trade value he might have had, since in a bit more than a week he’ll be available for the waiver wire price. (On the other hand, he may not have all that much trade value to begin with – as Will Carroll writes, “I could only find one team that’s made any inquiry”.)

Whatever. Maybe Tim Purpura has something else up his sleeve. All I know is, this doesn’t look like it’ll get the Stros anywhere they want to be.

Back to the future with Talmadge Heflin


Former House Appropriations Chairman Talmadge Heflin of Houston is the new executive director of the Texas Republican Party, state GOP Chairman Tina Benkiser announced today.

Heflin served in the Legislature from 1983-2004, when he was narrowly unseated by Democrat Hubert Vo.

In his new post, Heflin succeeds Jeff Fisher, who will continue as an advisor to the Texas Republican Party. Heflin will continue to serve as a visiting research fellow on fiscal policy for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

I’ve got their press release beneath the fold. May he have the same success with the state party as he did in HD149. And if the GOP doesn’t snap up his webpage designer too, they’re really missing out. And while they’re at it, BOR has a few more suggestions.


RIP, Marvin Zindler

Marvin Zindler, Channel 13’s iconic crusading news reporter, has died from cancer at the age of 85.

Marvin Zindler, a Houston institution for more than three decades and a pioneer of consumer reporting, died Sunday at M.D. Anderson Hospital after a fight with cancer.

The irascible, flamboyant 85-year-old television personality had been diagnosed in July with inoperable pancreatic cancer that spread to his liver.

Even in his last days, Zindler continued to work, filing reports from his hospital bed. In his last report, broadcast Saturday, in which he helped a 45-year-old U.S. citizen secure a Social Security card necessary for employment, Zindler appeared thin and his voice was weak. Still, he signed off with a hearty “MAARVIN ZINDLER, eyewitness news” — his trademark for 34 years with KTRK Channel 13.

“Marvin Zindler was unique,” said Dave Ward, the station’s longtime anchor and one of the people responsible for Zindler being on the air. “There’s never been anyone who lived life more than this man or who wanted to do more than this man. This is a personal loss to me and to everyone at this station — and to every man, woman and child, really, who lives in Southeast Texas.”

Channel 13 interrupted its regular lineup Sunday at 8 p.m. to announce Zindler’s death, with Ward calling him “a legend in Houston television who will never be forgotten.”

The station had extended tributes during its 10 p.m. newscast.

Serbino Sandier-Walker, a journalism professor at Texas Southern University, called Zindler “irreplaceable.”

“Marvin Zindler was a man for the people,” Sandier-Walker said. “He fought for the little person. He made consumer reporting what it is today.”

To youthful viewers, Zindler is perhaps best known as the kind-hearted, grandfatherly figure in white wig and blue shades who delivered the weekly “rat and roach reports” based on health department restaurant inspections. After his idiosyncratic sign-off, his most famous catch phrase comes from the frequent health inspector findings of, “all together now, SLIIIME in the ice machine.”

But to generations of low-income Houstonians, Zindler was the champion of last resort, the man to whom you turned when bureaucracies seemed indifferent and businesses tried to take advantage. The station said that for many years Zindler received 100,000 appeals for help.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Marvin Zindler on TV. It was the spring of 1987, and I was still a student at Trinity. I was in Houston for a school function, and stayed the night at my uncle Ken’s house. I was doing a little channel surfing and came across a KTRK newscast while Marvin was in mid-rant. I stopped to watch, mesmerized. After a few seconds, I’d decided I must have stumbled across an oddly-timed episode of “Saturday Night Live”, even though it wasn’t Saturday, it was the 6 PM news, and “SNL” was broadcast on NBC, not ABC, because there was just no way this was for real. But then Marvin handed things back to Dave Ward or whoever was in the anchor’s chair that night, and I realized, no, that really was for real. Later on, after I came to live in Houston, I understood.

People have often asked me if I experienced any culture shock in moving from New York to Texas. The truth of the matter is that for the most part, I really haven’t. Three things stand out to me as “I’m not in New York any more” moments, two of which I experienced as a freshman in college: Learning the hard way that there are streets with no sidewalks; discovering the joy of being able to wear T-shirts and shorts year-round; and seeing Marvin Zindler on TV for the first time.

As corny and bombastic and over-the-top and whatever else you want to say Marvin Zindler was, he truly was one of a kind, and as you can read in that Chron article, he did a lot more good for more people than most of us will ever be able to claim. The city of Houston is a little quieter, a little duller, and a little less colorful without him. Ken Hoffman, Mike McGuff, and Laurence Simon have more. KTRK has a tribute page to Marvin here.

MAAAAAARVIN ZINDLER, may you rest in peace.

JudgeCriss dot com

Judge Susan Criss, the “blogging judge” who’s also a candidate for the State Supreme Court, has revamped her website in preparation for her planned statewide run. Sure seems like there’s a lot of Democrats out there who are already pretty far along in their candidacies for some office next year. For which, as you might imagine, I’m pretty darned happy to see. Anyway, take a look and get to know Judge Criss, who’s a cool person as well as a fine candidate.

One more thing about the community college veto

I’m reading this AusChron article (link via PinkDome) about more reaction to the community college funding veto (see here and here for more, and I’m reading Burka’s post on why we shouldn’t count out Rick Perry after all this time, and I’m thinking that the veto both counts as an admittedly rare error in political judgment by Perry, as well as another source of opposition to him that (in Burka’s words) he’s conjured out of thin air. It makes me wonder if Perry’s desire to prove that he’s no lame duck may lead him to be more likely to make errors in political judgment, since he’s basically in a position where he’s got to swing for the fences. Hard to say, and barring a dreaded special session, there may not be another opportunity for him to strike out till 2009. It’s just a thought, so take it for what it’s worth, and file it away for future reference.

Oh, and if the GOP base is so desperate for someone with “real” conservative credentials that they’d seriously consider adding Rick Perry to the ticket as Vice President, all I can say is that I hope the Democrats realize this would make Texas more winnable for them, not less. Not that they would, of course, but someone needs to say it.

Thanks for the timely warning

I just have one question regarding this article about the cancer research bill that passed the Lege and will appear as a referendum on the November ballot.

The rhetoric was befitting a $3 billion assault on the nation’s No. 1 killer of people under 85.

State Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, called it “an answer to our prayers.” Colleague Senfronia Thompson, also D-Houston, said she’d “like to sit back and tell my grandchildren I had something to do with the cure.”

And seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong told Texas legislators that “if we get this done, I can honestly say that it’ll be the greatest thing I’ve ever done with my work within cancer, which makes it one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life.”

Thanks to such support, the bill to establish a cancer research center in Texas sailed through the Legislature in May and was signed by Gov. Rick Perry in June. All that remains is for Texas voters in November to approve the center’s funding, a constitutional amendment allowing the state to issue up to $300 million a year in bonds over the next decade.

There’s just one problem: A lot of health care experts think the initiative is a bad idea.

“The issue is whether it makes sense for a state to front the money for research whose benefits presumably will be spread around the nation,” said Seth Chandler, a law professor with the University of Houston’s Health Law and Policy Institute. “It’s nice and altruistic, but is it sound fiscal policy? I’m skeptical.”

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to write this article while the Lege was in session and debating the bill in question? I mean, this is good to know and all, and perhaps it should be brought up again later, when people are thinking about voting in November, but what good is it to discuss now? I’m just asking.

Homeless in suburbia

Good article in yesterday’s Chron about the issue of homelessness in Houston’s suburbs, where the problem is often invisible.

Although homelessness in the suburbs has not yet reached a critical level, service providers say they are nearly stretched to the limits, because the suburbs have fewer resources compared to urban areas. More affordable housing, public transportation and other support services are needed to help the homeless become self-sufficient again, but local and federal funding for programs is tight and competitive, they said.

In Montgomery and Fort Bend counties, providers are seeing an increase in homeless families. Some people can’t pay their rent or mortgages because they lost their jobs and have had a difficult time finding one with decent wages. Others have lost their homes because of divorce or domestic violence.


People often assume that homelessness does not exist in the suburbs and rural areas because they do not see it, said Ken Martin, executive director of the Texas Homeless Network, which provides information services to service providers. The reality is hundreds of homeless people like Hernandez survive in the woods, in their cars or on the couches of family and friends, Martin said. Some suburban homeless drift into urban areas, where more services and jobs are available, but the vast majority stay in their community, he said.

It’s difficult to get an accurate homeless count because of migration and the hidden homeless. Whatever number service providers come up with during annual sight counts can easily be doubled to include those they do not see, Martin said.


Efforts are under way to raise community awareness and to attract funding for additional services. The Montgomery County Homeless Coalition, an organization made up of social service agencies, is leading the charge for the county.

”In a lot of ways, Montgomery County is still a rural community,” said Kristin Lue King, a coalition board member and director of community impact for the Montgomery County United Way. “Services haven’t caught up with the growth and the community doesn’t recognize the need.”

The group is launching a computer database to keep track of homeless people and the services they receive from local agencies. The information will give the group a better snapshot of the population and help identify service gaps.

The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County has had such a system in place for four years, said Anthony Love, the coalition’s president and chief executive officer. Fort Bend and Brazoria counties also are struggling to help the homeless. Fort Bend has between 460 to 1,300 homeless people at any one time but no emergency shelter to serve them. Fort Bend Family Promise, a nonprofit group, provides the only shelter in the community for families.
“We refer single people to Houston,” said executive director Lyn Storm. ”There’s nothing for them here.”

Several of these points were raised in a Houston Press cover story from February, which profiled some homeless teenagers in Fort Bend. The attitude of elected officials there still ticks me off:

Three-term Katy mayor Doyle Callender compares his city to the sleepy TV town of Mayberry, a place where residents know their neighbors and look out for them. “We take care of our own,” Callender says. “There is no homelessness in Katy — none whatsoever.”

Two-term Sugar Land mayor David Wallace says his city, the county’s largest, does not need a homeless shelter. The same goes for public transit, he says. “Why create something that nobody would use?” he asks.

Social workers in Fort Bend tell a different story, of extended families crammed into trailers with no running water. And school social workers say they are overwhelmed by rising numbers of teenagers from even the most upscale communities camping out on sidewalks, park benches and school campuses.

So often the kids get sent on to Houston, where there’s generally a waiting list and no room.

You can deny it all you want, fellas. But wishing it away won’t make it so.

It is finished

It’s done: I have finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Our copy arrived from Amazon UK yesterday, and after Tiffany announced that she didn’t intend to start reading it till Monday, I pounced. I’m happy to have finally caught up with everyone else, and to be able to freely read what’s out there without worry about being spoiled. I won’t say any more about it here.

I do have a few spoilery thoughts to add, which are in the extended entry. DO NOT CLICK ON unless you’ve finished reading.


A new Costco coming

This ought to be interesting.

Costco will open a new store in the Greenway Plaza area next year in a 24-acre retail and apartment development planned on Richmond at Weslayan.

Trammell Crow Co. said Thursday that the warehouse club operator and an LA Fitness health club will anchor the project, which will break ground this year on the former site of the Houston Independent School District administration building.

The retailers will be stacked, with Costco taking 164,000 square feet on the first floor and the fitness club occupying 45,000 square feet on the second level.

The two-story project, which will be called Greenway Commons, will have 256,700 square feet altogether, including two pad sites and another two-story building with 39,000 square feet.

Parking for Costco shoppers will be served by a surface lot and the first floor of a planned four-story garage. LA Fitness customers will park on the garage’s top floor and on a portion of Costco’s roof.

I wonder how much parking it will have compared to its more standard locations, like the one on I-10 and Bunker Hill. Is this kind of location a departure for them, or a variation that they’ve done before somewhere else?

One thing that intrigues me about this is that the new Costco will be potentially very close to a couple of Universities line light rail stations. For obvious reasons, one doesn’t normally think of big box retailers catering to rail passengers. But you have to think that with thousands of people zipping by every day on the train, it would be in Costco’s interest to try to entice some of them to hop off and come in for something. Convenience foods – good for lunch at your desk, or a quick and easy dinner at home – come to mind as a possibility, though I’m sure the folks at Costco can think of plenty more, if they care to. It’ll be worth looking for, if the rail line does eventually go that way. Houstonist has more.


I feel their pain.

Like thousands of other ballplayers across Texas, the young T-ball players at the YMCA have been plagued by rained-out practices and games, muddy fields and the hordes of fire ants that thrive in the wet weather.

“It’s the worst season I’ve ever seen. We had a lot of rain,” said Charlie Fox, who has been administrator of Little League baseball’s District 16 since 1981.

“At one time or another, we had from 15 to 20 games postponed throughout our playoff tournament. But we got them all in, finally.”

Dealing with rainouts was one of the less fun aspects of Little League coaching when I did it. Having to deal with the biblical levels of rainfall we’ve had this July would well and truly suck. Charlie Fox, I salute you.

The eight habits of highly successful commuter rail lines

One thing to remember as we talk about the Northwest Corridor project is that it’s about more than just widening US290. Commuter rail, using the tracks along Hempstead Highway, is a part of it as well. Christof takes a look at the characteristics of successful commuter rail systems, and evaluates the Northwest Corridor and its potential. Check it out.

Lady Bird Lake


The scenic lake that is one of the capital city’s treasures will be named after the former first lady who helped make it beautiful.

Austin’s City Council voted unanimously Thursday to change Town Lake’s name to Lady Bird Lake, two weeks and a day after Lady Bird Johnson died on July 11 at age 94. The change is effective Aug. 6.

“Town Lake has always been a placeholder name,” council member Lee Leffingwell said, adding that at least four former Austin mayors attempted to bestow Lady Bird’s name on what’s been called the “crown jewel of Austin” only to be politely, but firmly, rebuffed by her.

Current Mayor Will Wynn noted this is “an item from City Council that’s been in the works roughly 36 years.”

Five former mayors attended the meeting. Also there were members of Johnson’s family, including daughter Luci Baines Johnson, who told the council her mother would have accepted the posthumous renaming of the lake, but that she wanted its hike and bike trail to be made fully wheelchair accessible.

Former state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who was mayor from 1977 to 1983, approached Johnson with the idea of a name change during her administration and was told, ” ‘Oh my dear, not while I am here. I wouldn’t feel right doing that.’ ”

Johnson initiated and worked on the beautification project that transformed the lake area “from a garbage-strewn eyesore,” according to former Mayor Roy Butler, into the city’s most popular park and a tourist attraction.


The meeting wasn’t all smiles and backslapping. Luci Johnson noted that after Lady Bird Johnson suffered a stroke that left her using a wheelchair, being taken on the lake trail was “one of my mother’s final pleasures.”

“We discovered it was wheelchair accessible — although not quite enough,” she said, directing the remark toward Wynn.

Council member Mike Martinez took up the charge, saying that the trail is not compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. He also made a veiled reference to hotly disputed plans to sell areas around Town Lake to developers.

“I think it would dishonor Lady Bird and her family if we name Town Lake after her and don’t continue to protect and improve the area,” Martinez said. “Mrs. Johnson’s original goal when she started Town Lake was for the hike and bike trail to completely encircle Town Lake.”

*applause* Well done, everyone.

Although Johnson was famously shy, her daughter said she was gratified that so many enjoyed the river trail.

When Luci Johnson was wheeling her mother along Town Lake, she said joggers sometimes would “turn around with a screech like in the Road Runner cartoons to tip their hat and say, ‘Thank you, Lady Bird,’ and then continue their run.”

Wish I could have seen that.

Maybe not so Comcastic for some

The switch is on, but not all newly Comcasted users are happy about the experience.

Tony Speller, Comcast senior vice president, said less than 1 percent of the 750,000 Comcast customers in the Houston area have experienced problems during the technical switchover to Comcast’s network in recent weeks. As of Thursday morning, all Internet and digital phone customers had been switched to the Comcast network, Speller said.

“What has happened to date has exceeded our expectations in terms of our success rate of over 99 percent of our customers’ devices have come over with no challenges at all,” he said. “When you do a transition of this magnitude, obviously you’re going to have some fallout. We don’t want to see any fallout, but for those customers who have, we’ve definitely been very active to get someone out there as quickly as we possibly can to get those resolved.”

Dozens of customers have told the Houston Chronicle about problems with Comcast in past weeks. These have included failing Internet or phone service, hourslong waits for technicians who never showed up, holding more than 30 minutes for a customer service representative, a modem that would not work with Comcast’s network, or being unable to send or receive e-mail since being switched to Comcast.

Hard to say how good or bad this is. Time-Warner had a lot of customers, and some of them are going to have a bumpy ride no matter how competent Comcast is. And obviously, the folks calling in to complain are a self-selected lot. You can’t judge from that. The only way to know what the overall experience has been is to do a customer-satisfaction survey. Which I’m sure Comcast will do, though they may or may not make it public.

As I said in the previous entry, the switch seemed pretty smooth for us, and as far as I can tell the Internet service is about what it was before. For what it’s worth.

DADS: We’re not that bad

Following the earlier reports of systemwide problems of abuse and neglect at state facilities for the mentally retarded, the agency in charge has responded by saying it’s not as bad as it sounds.

State officials said Friday there was no widespread pattern of abuse at Texas’ schools for the mentally retarded, despite documents released earlier this week that revealed hundreds of instances of abuse and neglect systemwide over a seven-year period.

“I would say widespread is wrong,” Addie Horn, commissioner for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, told reporters.

She said her agency, through training, background checks, drug tests and screening, does as much as possible to rid itself of abusive and negligent caregivers. But it is, in a sense, a roll of the dice.

“You can’t judge how a person will react based on a situation they’re faced with nor can you weed out people who … take advantage of others,” Horn said.

Starting off with weasel words isn’t a particularly good sign. I agree that in any system this size, there are always going to be some problems and some bad apples, but that’s not the issue. This issue is whether or not the system had enough safeguards in place to prevent abuse, and sufficient processes to deal with abuse when it did happen. The jury is very much still out on both counts.

The agency later confirmed 600 cases of abuse and neglect at all of its schools over the past two years and said it would release more documents soon.

Seeking to contain a potentially damaging public relations crisis, Horn and Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins attempted to put the abuse reports in context, explaining that the incidents occurred over a seven-year period at facilities that provide 24-hour care every day of the year for nearly 5,000 residents.

They outlined steps the agency was taking to deal with abuse and neglect cases.

Horn said the agency last year began terminating all employees who inflict any physical harm on a resident, whether that harm is severe or not.

Agency documents reviewed by the Chronicle revealed instances in which abusive employees were merely demoted or reprimanded, and left to continue working with the state’s most fragile population.

Hawkins said the agency also was reviewing the grievance process which allows state school employees who are disciplined or terminated by the agency to appeal the decision to an administrative law judge. That judge can reverse the agency’s decision and the agency now cannot appeal that decision. Employees who appeal their cases prevail 38 percent of the time, according to records.

Hawkins said he regrets that state school employees are not considered at-will employees, and thus may only be terminated for “good cause” and only after they are given notice.

Terminating employees who do harm is a good start. I find Commissioner Hawkins’ regrets about the grievance system to be misguided, since having a good, working grievance system in place is a way to keep workers from becoming disgruntled, which in turn seems like a good way to keep frustrations from being displaced onto residents. These folks don’t make much money to begin with. Why make conditions worse for them?

All in all, I see a few glimmers of hope, but plenty of reasons to be skeptical. For all the light that was shone on the TYC in the wake of its scandals, there’s still plenty going on that we don’t know about, so there’s a long way to go before we can feel comfortable about what’s happening with the state schools.

Congratulations anyway

Remember the Boise State running back who scored the game-winning two-pointer in overtime against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, then proposed to his girlfriend? (Here’s YouTube video of the play and the proposal if you don’t.) Today is their wedding day. Unfortunately, they will have things other than their first dance on their minds, thanks to some random lowlifes.

Ian Johnson, who is black, and his fiance, Chrissy Popadics, who is white, are due to be married Saturday in Boise.

A report on the letters and phone calls that Johnson has received was carried in an Idaho Statesman sports column.

Johnson, 21, from San Dimas, Calif., ran into the end zone on a so-called “Statue of Liberty” play to score the winning two-point conversion as underdog BSU beat the Oklahoma Sooners 43-42 in overtime on Jan. 1. The Broncos ended their season 13-0 and wound up ranked No. 5 in the final AP poll.

Johnson, who will be a junior this fall, proposed to Popadics, at the time a Broncos cheerleader, on the field after time expired in the game in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Since then, Johnson said he’s received phone calls, 30 letters and, in some instances, personal threats from people who objected to his plans to marry Popadics.

“You take it for what it is — the less educated, the less willing to change,” Johnson told the Statesman. “But we’re not acting like we’re naive to all the stuff that’s going on. We know what’s been said. We’re going to make sure we’re safe at all times. It’s an amazing day for us, and we’d hate to have it ruined by someone.”

It’s times like this that I find a belief in hell to be comforting. Congratulations to the Johnson and Popadics families on your happy day. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Link via Oliver Willis.

Community college leaders to state: Hurry up!

Now that the possibility of a funding veto reversal has been floated, community college leaders hope that the state hurries up and acts, because they have budgets to plan.

[Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst has indicated that legislative budget leaders could meet as soon as September, but the delay may force many community colleges to make tough financial decisions, such as increases in tuition and property taxes and enrollment cutbacks.

Texas law requires the state’s 50 community colleges to submit their annual budgets by Sept. 1.

“We can’t wait,” said A. Rodney Allbright, president of Alvin Community College. “Our budgets need to be done.”

Dewhurst spokesman Rich Parsons said community colleges can be assured of the money, and no immediate action is needed.

But some college leaders are skeptical after Gov. Rick Perry pulled the funding last month, saying the two-year schools overestimated how many employees were entitled to state-paid health benefits. College officials and many lawmakers have said they were blindsided by the veto, which represented 8 percent of the schools’ state funds for the next two years.

Hard to blame them for being a bit skittish, isn’t it? I wouldn’t count any money until the check cleared, either.

And what will happen when these community colleges don’t get the money they desperately need? Three guesses:

“The smaller the school, the smaller the tax base, the tougher it is to recover that money,” said Myles Shelton, president of Galveston College. “Any institution with less than 6,000 students needs to look at this over two years.”

Perry’s veto will result in a loss of nearly $1 million for the 2,200-student college. Amid an enrollment slump, Shelton said he is reluctant to increase tuition and fees, leaving a property tax rate increase as the most likely remedy.

Meanwhile, Alvin Community College will open a $20 million health science building without new academic programs, such as physical and occupational therapy. The governor’s veto represents a $1.6 million cut, which leaves no money to hire faculty members for the programs, Allbright said.

To close the gap, he said, the college would need to raise tuition by as much as 80 percent, to $54 per semester credit hour, or the tax rate by up to 18 percent.

So the Governor’s shortsighted veto may result in higher property taxes for you. Isn’t that nice? Remember, we already had the money to pay for this – as the Waco Trib notes, the comptroller had already certified the budget as being balanced. You won’t get any of that $154 million that Perry red-lined back – it’ll go into a pot of unallocated fund for the next biennium. But you’ll pay for it with higher property taxes. Well done, Governor. Trib link via EOW.

Craddick to former parliamentarian: Shut up!

Vince has a copy of a letter (PDF) written by House Speaker Tom Craddick to his former parliamentarian, Denise Davis, in which he tells her that she can never speak about anything she did in that job because she’s a lawyer and he was her client. Vince explains why this is baloney:

Denise Davis served not only as Parliamentarian but as Special Counsel to the House. In her capacity as Parliamentarian, she no doubt advised not only Speaker Craddick–who appointed her–but also other members of the Legislature, committee staff, and more. Although Davis is an attorney and special counsel, her duties as Parliamentarian are not necessarily governed by the same requirements as her service as Special Counsel.

Does attorney-client privilege apply to parliamentary advice given to the Speaker or other members merely because Davis is an attorney and also Special Counsel? Probably not. Her ruling papers are public record (and we’ve published some on Capitol Annex before).

Craddick, by sending this letter, is doing his best to attempt to muddy the waters between the positions of Special Counsel and Parliamentarian.


The answer should be obvious: Craddick clearly does not want Davis to ever say publicly how she advised him on rulings on motions to vacate the chair. Again, one may ask, “why?”

While Davis has never publicly acknowledged that she likely advised Craddick he had to recognize those who moved to vacate the chair, it is clearly obvious that she was in such disagreement with his decision not to recognize House members for such motions that she resigned.

Obviously, Craddick doesn’t want the public at large hearing from his former Parliamentarian that he disregarded her professional advice and instead turned to lackeys Terry Keel and Ron Wilson to bail him out of a political jam.

Also, given it was pretty clear from the outset that the matter would either end up in Court or before the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Craddick clearly didn’t want Davis submitting a reply brief to the Keffer/Cook Opinion Request. Why? Because she would likely “tell it like it is,” and hammer nails all over Craddick’s already lined political coffin.

Craddick appears to be trying to use attorney-client privilege to paint, with a very broad brush, everything Denise Davis did as parliamentarian as legal advice to him personally rather than what it was: serving out the duties of the appointed office of Parliamentarian.

The sad thing is that AG Greg Abbott may be buying into Craddick’s logic, since he has not solicited a brief from her to help him make his ruling on the Keffer request.

One person Abbott did solicit was former Speaker Rayford Price, who took issue with the assertion made in Craddick’s brief that the Speaker could only be removed by impeachment. As Price points out (PDF), that means the House has to depend on the Senate to complete that process.

The AG is now accepting briefs from “any interested parties”, so perhaps Ms. Davis will directly challenge Craddick’s interpretation of their relationship. And who knows, there may be other input that’s worth reading. We’ll see. In the meantime, Burka reviewed Craddick’s arguments about what he calls “the divine right of Speakers”, and declares “I do not believe that the Craddick brief makes a persuasive case that the speaker can be removed only by impeachment”.

Judge overturns Hazelton anti-immigrant law

Back in June, I noted that a ruling in a lawsuit against the city of Hazelton, PA over anti-immigrant ordinances was expected this summer. That ruling came down yesterday, and it’s a win for the plaintiffs and a loss for places like Farmers Branch.

A federal judge’s decision Thursday to rule unconstitutional a landmark municipal law that cracks down on illegal immigrants could set a precedent for similar ordinances proposed in dozens of cities throughout the country.

Advocates for illegal immigrants hailed the ruling against a law in Hazleton, Pa., as a victory and powerful reminder that immigration is a federal issue Congress must ultimately deal with by passing comprehensive reform. But supporters of stricter immigration enforcement said the local ordinances have not been defeated and will eventually make their way to the Supreme Court.

Both sides have said the ruling highlights the federal government’s inaction on immigration.

“I think this ruling is a win for common sense,” said Jose Luis Jimenez Jr., Houston district director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Hopefully, other elected officials and other city councils and boards heed the warning not to try to do something that is not their responsibility.”

In a strongly worded ruling, U.S. District Judge James Munley said the ordinance was pre-empted by federal law and violated due process protections in the Constitution.

Munley wrote in his opinion that “in its zeal to control the presence of a group deemed undesirable,” Hazleton violated the rights of those people and others.

“Whatever frustrations … the city of Hazleton may feel about the current state of federal immigration enforcement, the nature of the political system in the United States prohibits the city from enacting ordinances that disrupt a carefully drawn federal statutory scheme.

“Even if federal law did not conflict with Hazleton’s measures, the city could not enact an ordinance that violates rights the Constitution guarantees to every person in the United States, whether legal or not,” the judge added.

Good. And keep that phrase “the city could not enact an ordinance that violates rights the Constitution guarantees to every person in the United States, whether legal or not” in mind when you hear folks from Farmers Branch talk about “the will of the people”. If a law does something illegal or unconstitutional, it will be thrown out, no matter how it was enacted in the first place.

Under the law, passed last summer, landlords would be fined for renting to illegal immigrants and businesses would be denied permits for hiring them. Tenants would have been required to prove they are legal residents and pay for a rental permit. Hazleton is expected to appeal the ruling.

Fine by me. Let’s settle this once and for all.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to hire Accenture again

Back in June, I noted that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) was gearing up to hire a replacement for Accenture to do basically what Accenture had been doing so well before we terminated their contract. Judging from this Texas State Employees’ Union release, one has to wonder if we’ve really learned anything from our prior experience.

The Health and Human Services Commission in May issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking input from vendors about how to resurrect its failed attempt to provide health and human services through call centers. In June, HHSC held a vendor conference to provide more information about the RFI and its call center plans.

HHSC’s presentation at the vendor conference made it clear that it has learned little from its disastrous experiment last year to create a privately operated call center-based health and human services eligibility system. In January 2006 HHSC and its contractor Accenture implemented a call center-based eligibility system in Travis and Hays counties.

People applying for food stamps, Medicaid, and public assistance in the Travis and Hays service area were required to do so through the so-called “modernized” call center-based eligibility system. But call centers made access to services more difficult.


[T]hree months into the experiment HHSC pulled the plug, returned most of the eligibility work being done by Accenture and its subcontractors back to state employees, and postponed further rollout of the call center-based eligibility system.

At the time, HHSC indicated that Accenture needed to work out some technical problems and provide better training to its call center staff. HHSC indicated that when Accenture fixed these problems rollout of the call center eligibility system would resume.

But Accenture never fixed the problems, and there is every reason to believe that the problems are not fixable.

HHSC in March 2007 canceled the Accenture contract, but it appears that HHSC has learned little from last year’s experiment. At the vendor conference, an HHSC spokesperson told the gathering that “the [call center] concept is sound.”

HHSC assertion that the call center concept “is sound” is based on a number of faulty assumptions including the following:

  • Call centers will modernize and improve service delivery
  • Call centers will be more convenient for customers
  • Customers are clamoring for call centers
  • New (Old) business processes will improve access to service
  • Applying for health and human services is easy and most of the initial work can be done by unskilled, low paid data entry clerks
  • A new contractor can make call centers work

The release goes on to challenge all of these assumptions. It’s good reading, and well worth keeping in mind as we re-fight this battle. Check it out.

Further dispatches from the “Good news, bad news” files

Good news:

Plentiful rains throughout Texas the past year led weather officials today to declare an end to drought conditions across the state for the first time in at least a decade.

“We’ve gotten so much rain this year we’ve pretty much made up for the past few years’ drought conditions in several areas of the state,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

Only isolated areas in the northern Panhandle, far West Texas and along the eastern margins of the state are still below normal, he said.

Bad news:

“If there’s enough rain to say we’re drought-free, that means there’s enough water around to cause other problems,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

Flooding persists in some areas, and many farmers are struggling to salvage crops that remain under water, he said.

Heavy rains have caused major flooding in several parts of the state since mid-June. At least 16 people have died, and property damage has been widespread. Numerous rivers remain at or above flood level.

Good news:

The same pattern that brought rain has provided cooler temperatures throughout the state this summer, a trend that Nielsen-Gammon said is likely to continue for several weeks.

Bad news: Well, as I said before, all this rain we’ve had means that if any kind of tropical storm were to come through in the near future, I fear that flooding would be way worse than usual. So keep your fingers crossed.

Hurricane season so far: Good news, bad news

You might have noticed that it’s been a quiet hurricane season so far this year. There are good reasons for that, but don’t go drinking all that bottled water just yet.

First, the good news. Scientists had worried about La Nina, unusually cold ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific, developing by now. This pattern, which hasn’t yet appeared, has historically augured a fierce Atlantic season.

Additionally, sea surface temperatures remain near average across much of the Atlantic tropics, providing less fuel for hurricanes. That’s partly because of large African dust clouds that have blocked the sunlight and kept a lid on ocean warming. This dust, largely from the Sahara desert, also inhibits storm formation.

“But this year probably isn’t going to be like 2006. I don’t think we’re going to luck out like that,” [Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist with The Weather Underground,] said.

Compared with last year, the disruptive force of wind shear in the atmosphere is lower. Of still greater concern, in the northwest Caribbean Sea as well as parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the warm waters run deeper than even in 2005.

“This means that a storm moving into the western Caribbean and/or the Gulf of Mexico over the next few months may have a good chance of becoming a major hurricane, as long as wind shear is low in the region,” said Chris Hebert, lead hurricane forecaster for the private, Houston-based service ImpactWeather.

Here are some charts from SciGuy, which show how Gulf water temps compare to 2005. If we get one heading this way, it could really intensify. Remember, it’s August when things start to get busy most years.

What worries me isn’t all that stuff as much as it is all the rain we’ve already had. How bad do you think the flooding would be if even a Cat 1 storm hit us right now? Maybe if we have a few dry weeks, I’ll fret less. Until then, that’s what’s bothering me. Let’s hope our lucky streak continues for another year.

Define “full time”

There was this article in the Chron business section earlier this week about how more women with children are saying they want to work part-time these days. I don’t know a whole lot about that, but it seems to me we could short-circuit a lot of the discussion that’s sure to follow this if we take note of one fairly significant fact that went otherwise unremarked upon:

For Erica Rubach, a 32-year-old mother of two, the findings weren’t a surprise. A year ago she felt she couldn’t keep her head above water, though to others her life might have seemed ideal: two young kids and a job she loved as director of marketing and business development at a television station.

“But I knew there just wasn’t room for both in my life,” she says. “It was killing me.”

So she left her job, with its 60-70 hour weeks, and with fellow mother Joani Reisen founded MomSpace, a networking site devoted to matching mothers with services in their communities. The two now work on their own schedules.

Well, there’s your problem right there! Sixty to seventy hours a week isn’t a fulltime job, it’s a fulltime job plus a parttime job. You cannot work 60-70 hours a week and be a primary caretaker for a child, at least not without being under enormous pressure, the kind of pressure that makes most people break. I couldn’t have done that – I’d never see my kids if I worked those kinds of hours. Maybe if her job had entailed only 40 hours a week of work – which, let’s be honest, is all they were paying her for; people with titles like “director of marketing” don’t get overtime – she could have handled this.

The irony is that she’s probably working about 40 hours a week at MomSpace now. And that probably feels like a part time job to her. I’d say that’s a pretty significant part of the problem here, wouldn’t you?

Reversal of community college funding veto?

You never know sometimes what will turn into a big political issue. In the wake of the 80th Lege, one of the bigger controversies has turned out to be Governor Perry’s veto of $154 million in health benefits for community college employees. It’s generated enough heat that he felt the need to publicly defend his actions with an op-ed piece. Well, nearly two weeks after that, it appears the stars may be aligning for a reversal of Perry’s cut.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday he wants a quick meeting of legislative budget leaders to restore cut funding for community colleges and a shortage in student financial aid.

Specifically, he wants to find a way to restore $154 million Gov. Rick Perry vetoed from the state budget in June to cover health insurance benefits at community colleges.

“I want to see the $154 million go back to the community colleges,” Dewhurst told reporters, saying he was tired of “bickering” over the issue.

“I’m very supportive of our fine community colleges. In my heart, I believe Gov. Perry is, too,” he said. “I don’t want to see tuition increases, local tax increases or restricting enrollments.”

It’s impossible to interpret anything David Dewhurst does these days without thinking in terms of a 2010 GOP primary for Governor. In this case, at least, it appears Dewhurst may have done some behind-the-scenes work first, to get everyone on board, before going public with this.

Dewhurst said his office has been working with the governor’s office and Speaker Tom Craddick’s office to reach agreement on calling a meeting of the Legislative Budget Board, the budget office for state government, as early as September.

Both Craddick and Perry’s offices issued statements favoring such a meeting.

“I agree that the issue of funding for community college health insurance is one that needs to be addressed in the near term,” Craddick said in a prepared statement.

“My office has been looking at a number of options to do so, and budget execution is, indeed, one way it may be handled.”

Perry still stands by his veto on grounds that the two-year schools were using state money for health benefits for non-state employees, said the governor’s spokeswoman Krista Moody. But he also believes community colleges are underfunded.

“The governor certainly welcomes input of legislators and is happy to work with the LBB towards meeting the needs of community colleges,” she said.

My earlier link to a Burkablog post deconstructs Perry’s reasoning. Be that as it may, it’s the result that matters, and if the Governor is willing to play ball, then that’s a very good thing. It’s early days, and I guarantee that the big three will be furiously calculating the politics of this before they commit themselves to anything, but at least we’re acknowledging the problem. That’s progress. South Texas Chisme has more.

Metro to discuss HOV/HOT lanes with TxDOT today

TxDOT and Metro are getting together today to talk about the possibility of making HOV lanes available to single-occupancy vehicles for a toll.

The agenda includes discussion of a Metropolitan Transit Authority proposal to convert High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on five freeways to High Occupancy-Toll (HOT) lanes, and the possibility of similar changes statewide.

“We will lay it out in our discussion that it (net revenue) be split 50-50,” said Carlos Lopez, director of traffic operations for TxDOT.

But he said that is just “a starting point for negotiations.” No vote is scheduled on the matter.

Delvin Dennis, deputy district engineer for TxDOT in Houston, said TxDOT has been talking with Metro for about a year about the conversion, but has not discussed how the proceeds would be handled.

There’s a Metro meeting at 1 PM at its usual place, and the TxDOT meeting is at 9 PM in Sugar Land. Drop by if you want to know what’s going on with this proposal.

Noriega visits the Valley, slams Cornyn

Rick Noriega was down in the Rio Grande Valley, and had a few sharp words for John Cornyn while he was there.

Noriega joked that he ought to come down more often to the Valley, so that the region gets more attention from Cornyn. He said it was quite remarkable that Cornyn would announce a bill for a VA hospital in the Valley within days of confirming his decision to set up an exploratory committee.

“I need to come back more often so the Valley can, maybe, get their levees fixed, get their interstate built, get better health care,” Noriega said. “I’ll keep coming back so that the Valley can finally be paid attention, after six years of the junior Senator not knowing where the Valley was on the map. If it holds people’s feet to the fire, I am coming down here more often.”

Noriega said his intention was to “speak truth to power” over the coming months on behalf of millions of Texans who have not had proper representation in the U.S. Senate for the past six years. “This senator decided early on to represent one Texan – the President of the United States. He has carried George Bush’s brief case. He has not represented the 22 million people that live in the state of Texas,” Noriega said.

Noriega offered an example of what he believes is inadequate representation. “You have a united border leadership saying that a border wall will not work. Not to listen to that advice is not to represent the people of South Texas,” Noriega said. “The question is will Texas voters hold him (Cornyn) accountable for voting for the border wall on two occasions? No one is holding his feet to the fire.”


Noriega was just as critical of Cornyn over his help for Valley veterans. Last week, Cornyn announced he was filing legislation that would require the VA to report on the inpatient care needs of Valley veterans.

`The veterans have been screaming for a VA hospital for years. It has taken Mr. Cornyn six years and the threat of opposition to finally speak up on the issue,” Noriega said. “A veterans’ hospital would have been my issue the first year, not the sixth year. Not when it is election time.”

Noriega said his duties in the National Guard in the Valley have included “putting people on buses, either to Kingsville, to El Paso, or to Sam Houston, so some poor guy can get an appointment he made four months ago.” He said more people need to realize that Texas does not end in San Antonio.

“This is one of the most patriotic parts of the state. You look at the number of people who serve from the Valley, it is quite impressive. It’s powerful and it’s moving. The people should have a voice,” Noriega said.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the sort of thing I really like to hear. If you like it too, please consider hopping aboard the Noriega bandwagon.

(Cross-posted to Draft Rick Noriega and Stop Cornyn.)