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December 17th, 2007:

A House Pick-Up On Tuesday?

December 18th is election day in Tarrant County in the runoff election to select a new member to the Texas Legislature. Democrat Dan Barrett got 31.5% of the vote in the recent special election against five Republicans. He faces Republican Mark Shelton in the runoff.

This special election became necessary when Anna Mowery, a Republican, retired in August from the Legislature after serving 19 years.

The Fort Worth Star -Telegram endorsed Barrett, saying:

Democrat Dan Barrett has a ready answer for people who contend that the controversies involving Speaker Tom Craddick’s heavy hand in the Texas House don’t matter to the voters in District 97.

“Maybe only the most inside of political wonks know his name,” said Barrett, who is facing Republican Mark Shelton in the Dec. 18 runoff, “but they are upset by a style of leadership that allows Craddick and the people he works with to exercise absolute control by fair means or foul.”

Craddick’s “politics of fear and intimidation” came to a startling climax in the last session, Barrett said, when the speaker declared himself the ultimate authority in the House, but this has been an issue ever since the Midland representative took the speaker’s chair.

“That is so contrary to the very principle of democracy,” Barrett said. Even if people aren’t well-informed about the particulars of government, they still care what happens in Austin. “They want to make sure that things are going OK so they don’t have to watch every single move. That’s why they elect representatives.”

Barrett is counting that the concerns for fair government will propel him to victory Dec. 18, given that his opponent, a pediatrician at Cook Children’s Medical Center, is a Craddick backer.

Barrett pulled in 31.5 percent, or 5,575 votes, in the Nov. 6 special election. Shelton — one of five Republicans in the race — came in second with 22.8 percent, or 4,047 votes.

Early voting for the Dec. 18 runoff election begins Monday.

Barrett is “absolutely against” school vouchers, supports a local-option sales tax for rail transit projects, believes that state lawmakers’ votes should be on the record “from start to finish,” and will work for comprehensive measures to bring North Texas into compliance with Environmental Protection Agency clean-air standards.

To paraphrase Barrett from a League of Women Voters forum, District 97 voters who think things are hunky-dory in Austin should vote for Shelton.

Unfortunately, the last legislative session was far from hunky or dory. Although Barrett is a realist in admitting that he alone, as a freshman legislator, can’t change the status quo, he just might make a difference as part of a growing body of lawmakers who represent a growing number of Texans who are dissatisfied with House leadership.

The Star-Telegram recommends Dan Barrett in the Dec. 18 runoff for Texas House District 97.

3352 votes were cast during early voting for the runoff election.

Follow Tuesday’s election night results at the Tarrant County Elections site.

Gulf “Dead Zone” grows with corn prices

The best thing about this problem is that there’s a pretty clear solution, so dealing with it is hopefully just a matter of implementation:

Because of rising demand for ethanol, American farmers are growing more corn than at any time since the Depression. And sea life in the Gulf of Mexico is paying the price.

The nation’s corn crop is fertilized with millions of pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizer. And when that nitrogen runs off fields in Corn Belt states, it makes its way to the Mississippi River and eventually pours into the Gulf, where it contributes to a growing “dead zone” — a 7,900-square-mile patch so depleted of oxygen that fish, crabs and shrimp suffocate.

The dead zone was discovered in 1985 and has grown fairly steadily since then, forcing fishermen to venture farther and farther out to sea to find their catch. For decades, fertilizer has been considered the prime cause of the lifeless spot.

With demand for corn booming, some researchers fear the dead zone will expand rapidly, with devastating consequences.

“We might be coming close to a tipping point,” said Matt Rota, director of the water resources program for the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group. “The ecosystem might change or collapse as opposed to being just impacted.”

Environmentalists had hoped to cut nitrogen runoff by encouraging farmers to apply less fertilizer and establish buffers along waterways. But the demand for the corn-based fuel additive ethanol has driven up the price for the crop, which is selling for about $4 per bushel, up from a little more than $2 in 2002.

I learned more about the Dead Zone (with fun graphics!) here, and like I said, the best thing about it is how easy it would be to stop this process. Unfortunately, we’re hearing things like this:

“I think you have to try to be a good steward of the land,” said Jerry Peckumn, who farms corn and soybeans on about 2,000 acres he owns or leases near the Iowa community of Jefferson. “But on the other hand, you can’t ignore the price of corn.”

I’d love to see lawmakers take the initiative and work to regulate when and how fertilizers are used and to create buffer zones to keep the dangerous runoff out of the Gulf, like the article suggests. It would be ridiculous to let this problem get out of hand. I think I might have a letter or two to write to my representatives.

Filing news: Mincberg for County Judge

I know I’m on sabbatical, but I got this press release about David Mincberg‘s official filing for Harris County Judge in the mail today.

The public has lost confidence in Harris County’s leadership, which is out of touch, indebted to big donors who “pay to play” for County contracts, and raises taxes via appraisals while pretending to cut tax rates. There is a no focus on the critical issues of growth, jobs, and quality of life. That is why today I filed to run for Harris County Judge, the chief executive officer of the County.

I will campaign on competence, not conservatism or liberalism. I am pro-business, pro-growth and pro-quality of life. I founded and ran one of the largest real estate companies in Texas. As a businessman, I understand budgeting, payrolls and business risks. The County Judge needs to know how to make a budget, prioritize, work with people on complex transactions, and improve the world around him.

Harris County is an enterprise with a budget of more than $1.3 billion a year, much of it spent mysteriously. No-bid contracts for expensive professional services are awarded primarily to big donors. That approach is not a business environment that will bring new companies and new jobs to Harris County. Instead of pandering to the worst in people, I will help Harris County be the best place in the world to do business, because that is what will make our people prosper.

I want to reform the Harris County Judge’s office, making it a place where leadership, responsibility and ethics prevail. I will mount a strong, issues based, year-long campaign to win this most important post in the 2008 General Election.

The voters of Harris County are demanding a leader; someone with a vision, willing to roll up his sleeves and make a difference. I am a first generation American. I grew up in an immigrant household, with parents who could not speak English when they arrived here shortly before my birth and who labored long and hard, teaching me that looking ahead, working hard, and playing by the rules is the way to success. They were right, and I will work hard to apply those lessons to lead Harris County.

I want to restore the words “fair, honest, and hardworking” to the office of County Judge. The Judge’s office will not operate in secrecy, and if elected, I will do everything in the Judge’s power to open up government to the voters. Budgets, appointments, contracts – they will be available online to any individual who wants to participate in a government for and by the people. I will make decisions based on facts, in consultation with my fellow Commissioners, and decide solely on the basis that every vote I cast will benefit the residents of Harris County.

In filing for my candidacy for Harris County Judge, I am sending a strong message that it is time to run the County more like the major business it is. I will push for higher ethical standards, provide stronger oversight of managing future growth, and make environmental quality commonplace at the courthouse.

There is much work to do at the Courthouse and given Harris County’s mounting problems–from mobility to emergency management, from juvenile justice to health care–there is no time to waste! We can learn from the past, and I am excited about moving Harris County forward. I invite every resident of Harris County to join me in this exciting endeavor.

There’s so many campaigns to look forward to next year that it’s hard to keep track of them all, but here in Harris County, this one is at the top of the list. I’ve heard David Mincberg speak, and he’s an impressive person, with a lot of ideas about how the County’s business should be conducted. Whoever his opponent will be, he’s in for a fight against Mincberg.

A Little Time With the Family

I’m going to be taking a bit of a break over the next week or so to spend some quality time with the family. I will still be publishing a Looking Forward To 2008 piece each day, and you can expect to see stuff from my excellent guest bloggers Martha, Alex, and Greg. I may yet post stuff as time allows and the spirit moves. But I need a little break, and this is a good time to take one. Have a great week, and I’ll see you after Christmas.

Looking Forward to 2008: Jay Aiyer

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Jay Aiyer.)

2008 will mark the beginning of a historic building boom for schools in our community. A few weeks ago, four of the largest school districts in our area passed massive bond projects to improve the physical infrastructure of local schools.

As we look forward to 2008, it’s a good time to discuss where we are in terms of education reform in general and here in Houston. What do we need to do and how do we truly improve public education if we are going to move forward? Here are a few thoughts I think we should consider. Some of them you may have heard me or others talk about before. Some may be new. I hope it helps start a conversation.

I am an unabashed advocate of smaller schools. I believe it is the best way to deliver education. The modern school needs to be smaller and more intimate to provide the kind of attention students, particularly younger ones need. That needs to be done two ways, small communities within existing schools, and the establishment of a maximum size for schools at each level: 500 elementary, 1000 middle school, 2000 High school, and align feeder patterns accordingly. Currently, there is a disproportionate distribution of children across schools within districts (particularly HISD). There are several theories as to exactly why this has occurred. Some argue depopulation of some historic communities is the real cause while others think its resource allocation that has driven people away from some neighborhood schools. Still others think negative reputations of schools build over time, and those can drive parents away from neighborhood schools. While no one knows for certain why this happens, I don’t think that really matters. The fact is it is a problem that threatens the stability of the school system. Uneven distribution of resources and more difficult management of mega-schools create a logistical nightmare and makes education delivery more difficult. Three high schools have over 3,000 students, while a few others have less than a thousand. Let’s establish a standard and end the fights. The answer isn’t to do away with district choice or magnet programs, but simply build more schools that are closer to an ideal size and enforce the size limitations. If people want to transfer out of the school–reconstitute the school and change it. Numerous studies have shown that performance improves for students in smaller environments. Smaller classes and smaller schools are simply better learning environments for students, particularly younger ones.

Speaking of reconstituting, let’s allow open public competition to reconstitute underperforming feeder patterns. One of the biggest frustrations is the tolerance of many to allow children in underperforming schools to suffer in a failing school. Let’s change that by being much more aggressive with underperforming schools and reconstitute it. Allow the 2 or 3 worst feeder patterns–to be laboratories for reform and let public and non-profit entities a chance to improve it. Focus more dollars on underperforming areas not less.

We also need to “incentivize” graduation at High School. School funding formulas are designed with a measurement system that allocates funds based on student attendance and standardized testing. Graduation and college preparedness or advancement is not enough of a factor. Make it one. By using that as a measure, schools will push for that. To avoid social promotion, continue end of course exams and national accepted tests for college preparedness like SAT and ACT to be a factor.

A few more thoughts….

Create Master teachers programs. Spend money to retain and attract high quality teachers by providing administrator level compensation for teachers. The highest paid employees at school districts should be teachers, not administrators.

Change the school day to correspond to work day. 7:45-3:10 for a school day is impractical. Parents work till at least 5 everyday and we have to change the antiquated school day to meet that reality. That time can be used to offer enrichment classes like art, music, etc and avoid latch-key issues.

Demand greater Parental involvement. The success of KIPP and YES can be directly attributed to 2 factors…longer school days, and a requirement for parental involvement. Adopt this same approach for all ISD students. Particularly at the Junior High and High School level where involvement is at its lowest.

Change ISD budget priorities to fully fund teacher salaries first and operational administrative functions second. The success of the Charter School (YES and KIPP) movement has shown that more efficient administrative functions can be achieved. Secondly, this approach provides greater transparency in what and where money is going.

Jay Aiyer served as a trustee for the Houston Community College System and is an attorney with Tindall and Foster. He has two children in HISD schools, and serves on the Regional Advocacy Council for Raise Your Hand Texas.