Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

April 9th, 2008:

More on Katy tollway congestion pricing

I’ve said before that I don’t have a problem with the concept of congestion pricing, but there’s something about this that doesn’t feel right to me.

Four toll lanes that will open on the rebuilt Katy Freeway in October will become clogged with traffic unless Commissioners Court imposes congestion pricing during peak travel times, county and state officials said Tuesday.

County Judge Ed Emmett said congestion pricing likely will be needed to help the county fulfill an agreement to keep traffic moving at least 45 mph in the toll lanes.

“We don’t know how to maintain this (traffic flow) without congestion pricing,” said Gary Trietsch, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston district.

The court is expected to set the rate in the coming months. The Harris County Toll Road Authority recommended that passenger vehicles pay $1.25 to travel between Texas 6 and the West Loop during nonpeak hours and that the price double during peak hours and other times when the traffic is moving slower than 45 mph.

[…]

Six years ago, the county, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT agreed to cooperate on widening the 11-lane Katy Freeway to 18 lanes. As part of that pact, the public bodies committed to operating toll lanes that move at least at 45 mph, providing people an incentive to pay to use them.

To me, the goal should be optimal mobility for the entire system, not just for the toll lanes. Doesn’t it make more sense to ensure maximal flow on all lanes? Will they lower the toll if those lanes are zipping along at 65 MPH and the free lanes are all clogged up, or is this a one-way function only?

I understand that HCTRA set this threshhold in order to ensure a return on its $500 million investment. Metro would like for its commuter buses to travel at a decent speed as well. I get that, I’m just saying that it would be better to let the toll lanes slow down to 40 or even 35 if it meant the free lanes got an equivalent bump in speed. But that’s not the priority here, so this is what we’ll get.

KTRK wins injunction in Sheriff’s email deletion case

Good.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office policy of automatically deleting e-mails after 14 days violates state law, a judge has ruled.

State district Judge David J. Bernal issued a permanent injunction on Monday, preventing the department from implementing the policy ever again. Bernal also ordered the release of 750,000 e-mails erased from employees’ in-boxes in a mass deletion between Jan. 12 and 19.

[…]

The sheriff’s office had argued that the deleted e-mails were no longer subject to the Texas Public Information Act once they moved to backup tape.

According to Monday’s ruling, however, all the e-mails are considered public information, regardless of their storage medium.

The ruling also determined that Sheriff Tommy Thomas’ policy of deleting e-mails after 14 days contradicts the Texas municipal code, which requires all public employees’ correspondence to be kept for two years.

As I said before, the Sheriff’s argument that email on backup tape was no longer subject to the TPIA was so ludicrous that it’s hard to believe they even tried to make it. It doesn’t pass the laugh test. This is an embarassment, and it got what it deserved.

The sheriff’s office must now turn the e-mails over to Dolcefino within 14 business days and pay all KTRK’s attorney fees and costs.

[…]

Thomas has asked to file an appeal, said John Barnhill, first assistant county attorney. Barnhill declined to comment on the possible basis for such an appeal on Tuesday.

I guess there’s no argument so stupid that it can’t be improved on appeal. This is nothing but a huge waste of time and money, and I’m not the only person who thinks so.

At what point can some grownup in Harris County government insist to Sheriff Thomas that he’s wasted enough of the public’s money, and that it’s time to turn over the public’s information?

There are two grownups in particular who should be having this conversation with the Sheriff. One is County Judge Ed Emmett, who along with Commissioners Court is going to have to approve the expenditures for those legal fees at some point; given recent history in that regard, one might think they’d be a little risk-averse in pursuing flight-of-fancy appeals. The other is County Attorney Mike Stafford, whose office’s resources are the ones being directly wasted on this fiasco. He is certainly capable of telling the Sheriff why this is a no-win case, and why he won’t allow his office to be abused in this manner, if he chooses to do so. You want your county government to behave responsibly here, that’s where I’d focus my lobbying efforts.

Runoff wrapup

Most of this I covered last night, but just to be official and all, here are the results of races of interest.

– Pat Lykos won the DA runoff, and as soon as she did, the race for November began.

[Democratic candidate C.O.] Bradford ripped Lykos as soon as her victory was revealed.

“We need to end the good ol’ boys and girls network that has mismanaged Harris County for so many years. Pat Lykos is a part of that network,” he said in a written statement. “Lykos also has no management experience. As a judge, she clashed often with the DA’s office and had a high number of cases overturned on appeal. Her personnel files reveal that her supervisors believed she had no leadership or team-building skills.”

He said he has the experience, education and training “required to bring integrity and fairness” to the agency.

“I am very disappointed in Mr. Bradford,” Lykos said. “I was hoping we could run an issue-oriented campaign.”

Okay, first of all, management experience is an issue. Kelly Siegler raised it in the campaign, albeit without much success. Everything Bradford pointed out here is a documented fact, and all of it is objectively relevant to a race like this. Two, I don’t know what DA runoff Lykos was watching, but I seem to recall her saying a negative thing or two about Siegler.

Responding to his allegation about management, Lykos said she has managed the probation status of thousands of defendants, chaired the judges’ committee that oversaw the county criminal justice computer system and headed a statewide judges’ group.

During the GOP campaign, Lykos, a former felony court judge, tried to portray Siegler and Rosenthal as an unethical matching set. She said only someone outside the agency could restore public confidence in the district attorney’s office in the aftermath of scandal.

“The office is in disarray,” Lykos said last month. “And it has been discredited nationally and worldwide.”

By her definition of “issue-oriented”, that would have been a “disappointing” thing to say. Let’s be honest, this is going to be a negative campaign. That doesn’t mean it can’t be substantive, however. Both candidates have questions to answer about their background and experience, and the only way that’s going to happen is if those questions get raised. Like it or not, here it comes.

And three, I’d been told that Bradford, whom I’ve criticized for being too quiet up till now, would come out of the gate as soon as his November opponent was known. I’m glad to see that happen.

One last thing:

Turnout for the runoff fell below 40,000 votes countywide, compared with the 140,695 votes cast in the race in the first round on March 4.

The runoff election returns report says “total number of voters” was 49,957, and “number of district voters” was 40,367. I’m not sure what the distinction is there, but with 477 undervotes and one overvote, that does give fewer than 40,000 total ballots cast in this race. Which is another thing I got wrong. Clearly, Lykos did a better job turning out the smaller-than-expected number of people who cared about this runoff.

– Moving on, Pete Olson had an easy victory over Shelley Sekula Gibbs.

Olson and his campaign aides credited strong grass-roots support for knocking off an opponent with a bigger bankroll and higher name recognition in the district. They also said Olson won key endorsements, and successfully undercut Sekula Gibbs with a contrast ad arguing that she changed her positions on abortion and illegal immigration — key issues to Republican voters.

“There were significant policy differences between us,” said the 45-year-old Olson. “Those were all factual. We thought it was important for the voters to know some of the differences.”

Sekula Gibbs, who claimed 30 percent of the vote in the primary’s first round to Olson’s 21 percent, praised the hard work of her campaign staff and volunteers, but lamented it was not enough to overcome what she characterized as Olson’s negative campaign.

“The positive message we put out of our campaign was not strong enough to overcome all of the negativity that came out of my opponent’s campaign,” she said at an election night party at Mamacita’s Restaurant in Webster.

Yeah, it’s always the other guy that fights dirty. Rep. Nick Lampson also got an early start on the November campaign by releasing the following statement last night:

“Congressman Lampson has promoted NASA while his opponent didn’t know the name of the Johnson Space Center in a recent debate. He has worked on transportation issues while his opponent supports more toll roads and a big government land grab called the Trans-Texas Corridor. And he has worked for affordable health care while his opponent opposes the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Congressman Lampson is an independent voice for Texas. His opponent is a Washington insider with little or no knowledge of this district.”

I’m sure Pat Lykos is disappointed by that as well.

– In other Republican races of interest, Ken Legler won by 101 votes over Fred Roberts in HD144, Angie Chen Button triumphed in HD112, and Odessa incumbent Buddy West was sent packing in HD81; the latter is a win for Tom Craddick.

– On the Democratic side, Mark Thompson scored a solid win over Dale Henry.

Thompson, 48, is an orientation and mobility teacher for the blind. He was a commissioned peace officer for eight years in the 1990s, serving two years as an Austin park police officer and then three years with the State Capitol police.

Henry, 76, had a career as a petroleum engineer, working in this country and the Middle East for oil-drilling and field-service companies. He also worked as a private contractor for the Texas Railroad Commission in plugging and filling abandoned wells.

Thompson has been urging the commission to be more aggressive in forcing natural gas companies to replace aging compression couplings whose failure has caused gas explosions in homes. He also has focused attention on oil-well waste being pumped into the ground with injection wells.

Henry focused on the need to clean up environmental problems caused by oil drilling and abandoned wells. His special concern is oil-field pollution of groundwater.

The Observer’s Cody Garrett has more:

In the statewide contest, Texas Democrats continued to support a political newcomer. Voters favored Mark Thompson over Dale Henry 59 percent to 40 percent. Thompson is a therapist for blind children and former Austin Capitol and Park Police officer — who had spent (as of April 4) only $200 on his entire campaign.

I wrote about Thompson’s inexplicable Mar. 4 victory and have spoken with him on several occasions. He says he is running a campaign on issues and he says he will not take any money from oil and gas interests.

Thompson told me Tuesday that he intends to court those voters who supported his opponents and to raise money for the general campaign. He has consistently refused to “go negative.” He even neglected to mount a campaign to debunk the allegation that he hadn’t voted since 1996 (a charge floated by the Henry campaign). In fact, he did vote in Austin in 2005 and 2006.

Thompson’s victory shows Texas Democrats don’t always follow the leads of bloggers — since most of the progressive blogging community had piled on Henry’s bandwagon. Thompson even beat Henry in Travis County, 51-49.

True enough, though if you look at the county by county results, Thompson ran strongest in rural and South Texas areas, where I daresay our readership is pretty small. But he did also run slightly ahead in the big urban counties, so that only goes so far. There was also precious little mainstream news coverage of this race, going back to the March primary, and Dale Henry didn’t have a whole lot of money to get his message out, either. I still don’t know why, and may never know why, people picked Thompson; at this point I guess he qualified as the better-known candidate from having led in Round One, despite Henry’s candidacy in 2006. One commenter in a previous post mentioned Thompson’s opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor as a factor. Maybe that helped him – the TTC wasn’t specifically mentioned on Henry’s issues page – but that again assumes people knew enough about him to be aware of it, and I’m skeptical of that. Whatever the case, he’s who we’ve got. If he’s sincere about courting those who opposed him, I’ll be glad to hear what he has to say.

– In Austin, Rosemary Lehmberg will succeed Ronnie Earle as DA.

Addressing supporters at Joe’s Bar and Grill on Tuesday night, Lehmberg said she would get to work soon on issues that came up during the campaign, including how best to deal with drug offenders and environmental crimes. She thanked supporters, including Earle.

“Ronnie, you’ve been my friend and my mentor, my boss,” she said, looking at Earle and then turning to the crowd. “He gave me the greatest gift of all: He gave me his good name.”

During the campaign, Lehmberg said that, like Earle, she would rarely seek the death penalty.

Lehmberg repeatedly said that she was the best candidate to run the independent public integrity unit, the state-funded arm of the office that investigates those accused of wrongdoing at the Texas Capitol. During the runoff campaign, Lehmberg criticized Montford for taking money from Capitol lobbyists and wealthy businesspeople from outside Austin, saying the donations would cloud her judgment in public integrity unit investigations.

“Negative campaigning works,” Montford said Tuesday night. She said she did not know whether she would work for Lehmberg.

See what I mean about the other guy? Amazing how often that happens, isn’t it? But maybe there was just a little bit more this time:

Montford outraised Lehmberg $564,371 to $337,750 through March 29, the most recent required reporting date. Much of her money came from connections that her father, AT&T lobbyist John T. Montford, developed in past jobs as a Texas senator from Lubbock and as chancellor of Texas Tech University.

Montford received 6 percent of her campaign contributions from lobbyists, not including her father. Her largest donor was former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe, a Uvalde rancher, who gave her $170,000.

“It just makes me wonder: Why would they care about our race?” said voter Margot Marshall, 63, as she left the polls Tuesday at Travis Heights Elementary School. “I assume influence.”

Well, yeah. There is that. Nice to see that even lobbyists can sometimes fail to sway an electorate, just like us bloggers.

– And finally, Larry Weiman won the 80th District Judge nomination in Harris County, Richard Morrison won the Commissioner’s Court runoff in Fort Bend (and the Republican incumbent, Tom Stavinoha, got knocked off in his runoff), and Eric Roberson won in CD32. That’s all I’ve got, but there’s plenty more out there:

Greg Wythe
Mark Bennett
Half Empty
Miya Shay
Elise Hu
Muse and Muse again
BOR
Walker Report
Houston Politics
Eye on Williamson

Whew!

If at first you don’t privatize, try try again

You have to hand it to Governor Perry. He never gives up, no matter how bad the idea is.

Texans could buy lottery tickets at the checkout lines in supermarkets and big-box department stores, at coffee shops and cabarets. They could pay with credit cards or personal checks and play online or the old-fashioned way with a ticket that’s also a tiny ad for anything from soft drinks to sporting events.

Those are just some of the proposals offered to state officials by some of the nation’s largest financial firms that have an interest in remaking the 16-year-old government-run Texas Lottery Commission into a market-driven enterprise operated by companies motivated more by the prospect of profits than the vagaries of politics.

Although the prospect of turning over Texas’ $1 billion-a-year lottery to the private sector received the coldest of shoulders when Gov. Rick Perry first suggested it, a year ago, proponents have been busy laying the groundwork for a second, more concentrated push when lawmakers return to Austin in January for the 2009 legislative session.

“I seriously doubt at this point that they have one vote, much less the 100 they’ll need [in the 150-member House], but they’re already here visiting with folks to lay out their case,” said state Rep. Warren Chisum, a Pampa Republican who heads the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Chisum, whose committee is among at least three legislative panels to be tasked with at least looking at the feasibility of a closer partnership between the lottery and private enterprise, describes himself as very much a skeptic. He questioned whether lottery ticket sales could generate the billions of dollars that the investment firms say are out there and whether the capital markets want to take chances on state lotteries.

“It sounds very pie-in-the-sky — to me, anyway,” Chisum said.

When folks like Warren Chisum are expressing this kind of skepticism, you wonder if Governor Perry has anyone in the Lege on his side of this. You have to wonder what the point of this effort is. I mean, don’t we have bigger things to worry about?

According to a demographic study released in December by the University of Houston, fewer and fewer Texans are playing the lottery. And those who do play most tend to be lower wage earners with less education.

The study found that people without a high school diploma are likely to spend more than $60 a month on lottery games. People with a four-year college degree are likely to spend about $5 a month. People who earn $20,000 to $50,000 a year spend twice as much on lottery games as people who earn $100,000 a year or more.

The privatization proposals say the lottery needs to end its reliance on a ticket-buying base of low-income earners by marketing the games to people with college educations and more disposable income.

One suggestion is allowing ticket sales at grocery store and department store cash registers, where the price of the ticket would be rolled into the overall outlay. The same strategy could be used in cafes under some of the proposals.

Gerald Busald, a mathematics professor at San Antonio College who has conducted several studies of the Texas lottery operations and its players, questioned whether the pool of lottery ticket buyers can be significantly expanded.

“I don’t think those players are out there,” Busald said. “If people [with more disposable income] want to gamble, they can drive to one of the casinos across the state line.”

Well, yeah. It’s pretty simple, really – in terms of entertainment value for the dollar, a Lottery ticket is pretty far down the list. How much fun is a scratch-off ticket, anyway? I just don’t get the allure. Thanks to South Texas Chisme for the link.

The DMN writes about the HHSC

From yesterday, a familiar litany.

Lawmakers are worried that a partly privatized system for determining who receives public assistance is still shaky and may not be salvageable.

Paperwork for applicants has been lost. Needy Texans have received little help from state workers when they’ve complained of mistakes. And all too often, Texans who should qualify for state-paid health care and other benefits have been refused because of such errors.

When one closely watched measure of the state’s performance on aid requests plunged recently, lawmakers sharply questioned Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins. He has announced several new initiatives this year to lure and retain state eligibility workers – and to train more of them on a computer system causing most of the delays.

But those steps haven’t calmed lawmakers’ nerves. They and advocates for the poor are skeptical he can quickly fix a system that’s been in crisis for most of the five years since the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry slashed the payroll of the state’s welfare offices and ordered a shift of many screening duties to four privately run call centers.

State leaders acknowledge that promised cost savings haven’t materialized and mistakes are common. Now, the system could be headed for more severe problems, as a jittery economy means more Texans may soon apply for public assistance.

The problems could also distract Texas officials as they separately seek to overhaul Medicaid, the nation’s main health care program for the poor. Some advocates for low-income Texans fear that if Mr. Hawkins’ agency remains preoccupied with fixing the eligibility system, it will be distracted just as it needs to focus on huge changes designed to cover more adults and improve preventative and dental care for poor children.

“These problems need to be resolved now – not in the next [legislative] session – because people’s health is at stake,” said Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

It’s all stuff we’ve seen and heard before, though the bit about things getting worse as the economy sinks is a new concern. There’s no way around the fact that this has been a fiasco of biblical proportions from the beginning – worsened service, increased costs instead of promised savings, the canning of the outsourcer, and so forth. It’s failed in every possible way, with more to come as it continues to roll out because there’s no return.

State officials acknowledge the failures but say there’s no turning back. The new system is “a much more flexible system. It’s modern, it’s Web-based, and it allows us to provide Texans with a great deal of choice in how they apply for benefits,” said Stephanie Goodman, a Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman.

She said the promised savings and improved efficiency haven’t materialized because the program ordered by lawmakers in 2003 hasn’t been fully implemented. “But it’s also incredibly difficult to modernize a system that 4 million Texans rely on every day. It’s like trying to remodel a hotel that’s full of guests,” Ms. Goodman added.

I’m sure the old system was in need of an upgrade, and I know fully well how painful such transitions can be. But we compounded all of that woe by trying to do it on the cheap, with an inexperienced vendor instead of the people who knew what they were doing. It would be amusing in a “Dilbert” kind of way if it weren’t for all the suffering that has resulted.

Anyway, read it and weep. And remember there will be more to come soon.

Oh Danny Boy, you can come back now

Remember that pub in New York that banned Danny Boy last month? Well, they have now lifted the ban, as Saint Patrick’s Day is safely in the rearview mirror for the year.

Danny Boy is back in the musical fold at a Manhattan pub where the familiar ballad was banned for all of March.

Foley’s Pub and Restaurant held a party Wednesday night to mark the end of the musical prohibition.

Danny Boy is often seen as an Irish standard, and some consider it symbolic of the Irish diaspora that began around 1850. But Foley’s Irish-born owner, Shaun Clancy, calls it depressing — and he notes that it was written by an Englishman who never set foot in Ireland.

Clancy declared Danny Boy off-limits last month, including on St. Patrick’s Day.

Slainte, y’all.