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June, 2008:

Dan Patrick wants to raise your taxes

It’s true. He says so himself.

A bigger and broader sales tax is being kicked around at the Texas Capitol once again by legislators wanting to scrap the new business tax and further reduce property taxes.

“We need to return Texas to a business-friendly climate. We need to make home ownership affordable. We need to fund our schools for the long term, and the best way to do this is through sales tax,” said state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

He has called for repealing the business tax while boosting the sales tax 2 percentage points — from the current total of 8.25 percent for both state and local taxes — and applying it to some now-exempt items. That increase would generate an estimated $6 billion a year, about double the amount raised by the changes to the business tax.

Many Republicans, including Patrick, have long embraced the idea of relying more on the sales tax to pay for government services. At its convention this month, the Texas Republican Party included abolishing the school property tax — to be replaced with the sales tax and spending cuts — in its platform.

“The fairest way to tax people is on what they consume and their ability to pay, not on where they live,” Patrick said.

[…]

Some taxpayers prefer the sales tax because it is paid incrementally, whereas the property tax is paid in a lump sum and can increase even when a property owner’s ability to pay does not, experts say. But the sales tax hits some taxpayers harder than others.

“Lower- and middle-income families spend everything they have … just to buy things that their families need,” said Dick Lavine of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

Color me shocked at this suggestion. As Rep. Jim Keffer says in the piece, we’ve been down this sales-tax-for-property-tax-swap road before, and it always leads to the same place: Most people wind up paying more taxes under such a scheme. Oddly enough, rich people like Dan Patrick tend to pay less. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

One more thing:

Increasing the reliance on sales tax has its problems, said Robert Ward, deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York.

“A 10 percent sales tax is a very high sales tax,” Ward said. “At some point, a high tax rate drives economic activity out entirely or at least underground.”

Higher taxes and more crime! What’s not to like? You da man, Dan. Thanks to Eye on Williamson for the catch.

Supreme Court sanctions the fence

Disappointing. Not surprising, but disappointing.

The Supreme Court on Monday gave the green light to the Bush administration to press forward with plans to complete a controversial fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The high court, without comment, declined to hear an appeal from two environmental groups — the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife. They had filed suit to reverse a decision by the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, to waive environmental and other laws and regulations that would have slowed construction of 670 miles of border fencing by the end of the year.

I hope that we learn the lesson that it’s a bad idea to give anyone unlimited powers – especially charlatans like Michael Chertoff – before it’s too late. Assuming that it isn’t already too late, of course.

The Texas Border Coalition, made up of border mayors and county judges from 10 Texas border communities from Brownsville to El Paso, filed a separate lawsuit in May against Chertoff’s department, claiming the property rights of landowners had been violated.

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster said the lawsuit was filed because Chertoff had gone too far to build “this feel-good but ineffective Great Wall of Texas.”

The Border Coalition’s lawsuit is pending before a court in Washington.

Let’s just say I’m not filled with hope about that. The Texas Observer and South Texas Chisme have more.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have a problem

New item: Lawmakers debate how to help electric consumers. Sort of.

Anticipating a long, hot summer with record-high electric rates, members of the House Regulated Industries Committee on Monday said Texans are right to expect some sort of relief.

“Rates are up dramatically since 2002. They are unacceptable,” said Chairman Phil King, R-Weatherford.

But the way forward was unclear as lawmakers and regulators expressed reluctance to impose new regulations on the competitive market, despite recent wholesale power market spikes that helped put four electric retailers out of business.

Actually, the way forward is crystal clear, if the goal is to actually help consumers.

What makes the Texas experiment with deregulation especially interesting is that a “control group” has survived–the municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives. Nobody disputes that higher electric rates are partly due to the near-tripling in cost of natural gas, the fuel for 46 percent of Texas power generation. But the rates of still-regulated city-owned utilities and electric cooperatives, which also use natural gas power plants, are substantially cheaper almost across the board. A ratepayer in Austin–who must buy power from the city-owned Austin Energy–spends a little less than $95 each month for 1,000 kwh of electricity. In San Antonio, it’s about $72. Austin and San Antonio have the advantage of owning their own power plants, but the statewide average bill for customers served by municipally owned utilities is a little over $100 and is $97 for cooperatives, according to the PUC.

The cheapest service plan–one negotiated by the City of Houston–in the entire deregulated market is about 35 percent more expensive. What accounts for this difference? “[T]he energy being sold in the deregulated service areas didn’t cost any more to produce than in the regulated areas,” says [Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Electricity, or Texas ROSE]. “The difference is in the way the pricing is established.” In the deregulated market, economists and industry experts say, expensive natural gas-fueled plants generally act on the “margin” to set the wholesale price that retail power companies must pay for all power generation. Even though it’s currently much less expensive to create electricity from coal and nuclear generators, costly natural gas plants control the market price.

“[O]wners of nuclear and coal plants have no incentive to charge anything less than the gas-based market price [to retailers],” as the Association of Electric Companies of Texas explained in a presentation to lawmakers recently.

That was from 2006. Here’s the Chronicle in 2007 (blogged about here), from their sidebar comparing prices:

Electric rates per kilowatt hour are typically higher in deregulated parts of Texas than in electric cooperatives and cities like Austin and San Antonio with municipal utilities.

Regulated

  • Austin: 9.32 cents
  • San Antonio: 8.62 cents
  • Entergy-Texas (Woodlands/Beaumont): 11.33 cents
  • Pedernales Electric Cooperative: 10.67 cents

Unregulated

  • Houston: Range 11.1 – 14.5 cents; average 12.65 cents
  • Dallas-Fort Worth: Range 10.7 -14.3 cents; average 12.18 cents
  • September prices, based on 1,000 kilowatt hours monthly use, including fees. Unregulated prices are for 12-month fixed plans. Lower rates are available on month-to-month plans.

    Source: Public Utility Commission, utilities

    Pretty much speaks for itself, doesn’t it? And it would make for an obvious way forward if the goal were lowering rates. But if the goal is butt-covering for not having taken the obvious action to lower rates when the Lege was last in session, then I agree that the way forward isn’t so clear. I hope we’re at least clear about that.

    Fight for Rice, Rice fight on…

    You look like you could use a Top 20 list. So here you go, the Top 20 college football fight songs:

    When you play NCAA ’09 the background menu music includes most of the free world’s college fight songs. If you log enough hours trying to build your dynasty or take your created player to the top of the draft class like I do then you know almost every important college fight song in the nation. Problem is, you may not know that you know these songs.

    I can’t tell you how many games I’ve watched on ESPN on a Thursday night when Louisville is taking on Rutgers or some similar match up, when all of a sudden I hear said school’s band strike up and I can hum every note. I never even realized I knew Louisville’s fight song!

    Honestly though, I probably know more than your average bear when it comes to school fight songs. So in order to kill time until NCAA ’09 comes out I figured that I would weigh in with a Top 20 list of best college fight songs in order to create discussion, but more than likely just tick off about 80% of the people who read it.

    It’s a pretty good list, and I’m not just saying that because he picked the Rice fight song (MP3) as the second best such tune. (For the true Rice aficionado, that song features the now-sadly underperformed third ending. There’s already a movement in the MOB to bring it back next year.) Anyway, check it out.

    TexBlog PAC endorses Chris Turner

    I am happy to pass along the following announcement:

    TexBlog PAC Proudly Endorses Chris Turner

    TexBlog PAC formally endorsed Democrat Chris Turner for State Representative today. Turner is running in House District 96, in southern Tarrant County, against Republican incumbent Bill Zedler.

    Winning House District 96

    Donate to Chris Turner Today! Help Us Take Back the House!

    House District 96 contains most of the southern areas of Arlington and Fort Worth, along with the communities of Crowley, Kennedale and Rendon and parts of Mansfield and Burleson.

    In 2006, Republican Bill Zedler narrowly avoided a loss, managing only 52.46% of the vote:

    Additionally, as Turner’s website shows, Democrats turned out in the March primary at a rate almost 2.5 times higher than Republicans – a larger ratio than the statewide average. More Democrats voted in the HD 96 House District in Tarrant County than in any other House District in the County.

    About Chris Turner – A Committed, Hard-Working Candidate

    Donate to Chris Turner Today! Help Us Take Back the House!

    Born in Sherman and raised in Dallas, Chris went to Dallas’ Skyline High School and is a UT-Austin graduate with a degree in Government. Before launching his campaign, Chris Turner worked as District Director for Texas Congressman Chet Edwards (D – Waco). During his time with Congressman Edwards, Chris gained experience working across party lines to meet the needs of Texans from all walks of life.

    Chris’ experience with the highly successful Congressman Edwards campaign will come in handy as he runs for office in HD 96. From his website:

    Chris has also managed Edwards’ last four highly competitive and successful re-election campaigns, during which he was recognized for his leadership ability and organizational skills in the midst of challenging circumstances.

    Donate to Chris Turner Today and Help Us Take Back the House!

    We will be writing more about Chris in the coming days, weeks, and months. In the meantime, please join our efforts and donate anything you can – $10, $25, or $50 – to help us take back the House as we do our part to turn Texas blue!

    Chris Turner joins Diana Maldonado on the list of TexBlog PAC endorsed candidates. We will be announcing a third endorsed candidate at the Thursday fundraiser at the Rice Lofts, so please come out there and see who that will be. Finally, if you haven’t done so, you can listen to my interview with Chris Turner here.

    Still time to help Noriega in the Boxer challenge

    Last week, I said you could lend a painless hand to Rick Noriega‘s fundraising efforts by voting in Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Choose a Challenger contest.

    PAC for a Change is kicking off our 2008 “Choose a Challenger” contest — an opportunity for you and our entire online community to decide which Democratic Senate Challenger our PAC will support next. The winner of our online contest will be featured in a fundraising email to our PAC for a Change community, potentially adding tens of thousands of dollars to his or her campaign war chest this fall — going a long way towards helping us build a stronger progressive Senate majority in 2009 and beyond.

    Voting is open till tomorrow – the site doesn’t say specifically, so I’m assuming just until midnight tonight, and as of last report Rick was leading, but not by enough to take if for granted. So if you haven’t done so, please visit the Choose a Challenger contest and cast your vote for Rick Noriega. All you need to provide is an email address. Thanks very much.

    New frontiers in multitasking

    As I was taking the girls to preschool this morning, we passed by a woman riding a bicycle while talking on a cellphone. Not with one of those fancy hands-free devices, either – she had one hand on the phone, which in turn was up to her ear, and one hand on her handlebars. I’m amazed that between the traffic noise and her bike helmet, she was able to hear anything. And it got me to wondering when I’d see the first “Hang up and pedal!” bumper sticker. You know that as fewer people drive and more people bike, it’s gonna happen sooner or later.

    Good news comes in threes

    When was the last time you read three simultaneously-published positive pieces about Houston in the national press? I’m thinking “never”, but maybe my memory just doesn’t stretch back far enough. Here they are:

    Newsweek: Houston, We Have No Problems

    Chicago Tribune: Houston doesn’t have a problem

    Washington Post: Houston’s pipelines of prosperity

    It’s not all good – the Newsweek piece has way too much stereotyping, all three focus too much on how well luxury goods are selling, there’s zero mention of Houston’s many cultural amenities, and I could live a long time without needing to see the name “Halliburton” mentioned in an article like these. But it’s much friendlier than what you usually see in the national media about Houston, even if it is a bit over the top. Lisa Falkenberg for one isn’t quite as sanguine:

    Compared with the dire reports of layoffs and foreclosures and food bank spikes in other parts of the country, Houston is a great story. Except for the few facts that keep getting in the way.

    Just last week, data released by the Texas Workforce Commission indicated a slowdown in key non-energy sectors, including construction, manufacturing, retail trade, and professional and business services.

    While Houston-area employers created 58,300 new jobs — or an increase of 2.3 percent — during the past year, that’s the slowest year-over-year increase since June 2005. Initial claims for area unemployment benefits were up 12.3 percent in May compared with a year ago.

    While the half of Houston’s economy dependent on energy is benefiting from a comfortable energy-based cushion, the other half is vulnerable to the same forces affecting cities elsewhere.

    Fuel costs were among the factors that drove Continental to cut flights and jobs — and into an alliance with United. Another Houston-based company, AIG, the world’s largest insurer, is undergoing management changes after losing billions in investments linked to risky mortgages and other debt.

    The idea that Houston is floating along in a protective, petroleum-filled bubble and is immune to the economic struggles the rest of the country is facing is flawed. Or, in the words of economist Barton Smith, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston, it’s “wrong, wrong wrong.”

    “It bothers me,” he said of the overly glowing media attention.

    “The bottom line is we are slowing down. We have been slowing down for almost a year,” he said.

    Not everyone agrees with Falkenberg’s dash of cold water, but I think she has a point. Barton Smith was sounding that alarm here over the weekend. He’s quoted, though not saying anything like this, in the Post article. All three pieces give some mention to other, non-rosy things about the state of our fair city, but the tone in each is positive to the point of glowing.

    But on the other hand, so what? We’ve gotten more than our share of bad press over the years, in ways that were equally overblown. Hell, the universe still owes us one for inflicting us with The Crooked E. So if we’re the beneficiary of a few puff pieces, and if they make people want to move here – assuming they can sell their current houses, of course – that’s fine by me. Whatever draws people here in the first place, they usually figure out pretty quickly there are plenty of other reasons to like it here.

    So check these articles out, and send the links to your non-Houstonian friends. Then send them links to things like the Art Car Parade and the Catastrophic Theater and Pride Texas and whatever else you’ve got to make sure they know it’s more than just the jobs. Houstonist has more.

    The sheriff speaks

    Sheriff Tommy Thomas comes out of his bunker long enough to answer a few questions about all that nasty news about himself and his office. Looking at what he’s got to say for himself, I’m thinking he’d have been better off staying quiet.

    “I’ve been in this business nearly 40 years, and I’ve never had my integrity questioned. To have this happen, obviously, I think is pure politics,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, some things happened that I’m not happy about. But the responsibility lies with me. I understand that.”

    […]

    Amid the controversies, and some internal questions about why he was not publicly defending himself or the department, the sheriff accepted a Houston Chronicle request for an interview. The 30-minute conversation occurred Monday, a few hours before activist Quanell X and other critics held a rally outside the jail calling for his resignation, a demand Thomas rejected.

    [City Council Member Adrian] Garcia criticized Thomas on Monday, accusing him of “management through damage control, not good leadership.”

    “It’s about time that Sheriff Thomas stopped hiding long enough to answer some questions,” Garcia said. “But the fact remains that his lack of leadership has severely damaged the reputation of the good, hardworking deputies.”

    […]

    One by one, Thomas addressed the various allegations and widespread rumors swirling in political circles in recent months:

    • Thomas said he did nothing wrong in accepting design services from Hermes, who he said was selected for county work by a committee reviewing at least three bids. He said he paid Hermes to redesign plans for a “retirement home” to save some oak trees. He declined to disclose the amount. “You’ll just have to take my word for it,” he said. “I paid him, and I paid him fair market value.”
    • The sheriff beat back the suggestion that he lives beyond his means, noting that his wife, Debra, makes a good salary at a software company. He said he no longer has a mortgage on a $200,000 home in Katy and noted that he bought the ranch land 15 years ago for $90,000. “I think it was a damned good investment,” he said.
    • Thomas also said information technology staffers prompted the decision to delete e-mails on a 14-day schedule, but he acknowledged the “bad timing” after controversy erupted over the e-mails of former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. “We were told by our technical people that we’re about to shut down the system, we’ve got so many e-mails,” the sheriff said.
    • He declined to discuss much about the Ibarra case, citing the ongoing lawsuit. But he suggested their complaint was overblown. “As far as the surveillance goes, it was something that was a matter of a few hours. They were suing the county for millions of dollars,” Thomas said. “They (deputies) didn’t approach these guys or anything. They merely went by their house. I guess I don’t see the real harm when we’re being sued for that kind of money.”

    Where to begin? Well, it seems to me that if you’re being accused of getting a sweetheart deal from a contractor who’s done official county business, the first thing you’d do is disclose how much you’re paying him to do your own stuff, so that anyone would be able to see that you’re being charged a fair market price for his services. To do otherwise would just further the speculation that you got something that the rest of us couldn’t get.

    As for the email deletion issue, which was a crock from the beginning, how about the fact that a state district court judge ruled that the Sheriff’s office violated state law by implementing that policy, and called its arguments in defense of it “not meritorious”? How about the fact that this policy led to the deletion of emails that were relevant to the Ibarra lawsuit, despite the HCSO’s claim that that sort of thing would never happen, and the fact that the same judge chastised the HCSO for its lack of credibility and its reluctance to follow his orders? That’s all a bit more than “bad timing”, isn’t it?

    And then there’s the Ibarra lawsuit – lawsuits, really. I don’t know what to say, other than it’s pretty easy to see why the first suit wasn’t enough to get the message through. Does the Sheriff not know anyone familiar with the concept of public relations, or do none of those folks want anything to do with him?

    Finally, there’s this:

    Sgt. Richard Newby, president of the 1,800-member Harris County Deputies Organization, said he was compiling a poll showing deputies siding slightly with Garcia.

    But he said many do not believe the negative allegations about Thomas.

    “The sheriff has always worked behind the scenes, not in front of the cameras, and he’s been very effective,” Newby said. “Have there been problems and mistakes? Yeah. But they’ve been taken care of as they’ve come up. A lot of this we wouldn’t be seeing if it wasn’t an election year.”

    So, what, it’d all have been hushed up instead? Forgive me if I’m not terribly reassured by that.

    Well, there you have it. I hope it won’t be as long till the next time Sheriff Thomas speaks. The entertainment value along make the experience worthwhile.

    Once again, why is Kinky Friedman still in my newspaper?

    Oh, good grief. Haven’t we read this before?

    Musician and author Kinky Friedman still wants to be governor of Texas and says he’ll run in 2010 as a Democrat — if he can raise enough money.

    Friedman, in a phone interview with WOAI Radio of San Antonio, said he’ll run again if he’s “got a war chest that is sizable enough.”

    Friedman today told KRLD Radio of Dallas-Fort Worth that he’d probably need three-to-five million dollars.

    Yes, we have seen this before. I have three words: Not. Gonna. Happen. He won’t get anywhere near that kind of money, and if he decides to run anyway, he’ll get his ass handed to him in the primary. (Among other things, being called “Our guy in Texas” by Bill O’Reilly is unlikely to help.) Then maybe he’ll finally go back to doing stuff he’s good at, like making music. The world, or at least the state of Texas, will be better off when he does. Thanks to Muse for the link.

    Mayor White talks transit

    I finally had a chance to listen to this interview on NPR with Mayor White that the Houston Politics blog flagged. It’s pretty good, though very general, on the topic of density, transit, and what Houston will look like in the future. I suppose it doesn’t much matter, since he wouldn’t be in office long enough to see any of it get started, much less come to fruition, but I’d still like to hear Mayor White spell out a vision for Houston’s future in transit. Assuming nothing screwy happens in the courts, we should be well on our way to implementing the rest of the Metro Solutions 2012 plan, and we may be making some headway on those new commuter rail lines – at least, we may have answers to some key questions about them by then – and it’ll be high time to get to work on what comes next. Obviously, whoever succeeds Mayor White will be the key player in that, but I see no reason why he shouldn’t start the conversation. Who knows, maybe he’ll be talking about some of these issues anyway when he makes his run for Governor. Anyway, give it a listen and see what you think.

    Texas blog roundup for the week of June 23

    It’s now officially summertime, and whether or not the living is easy or the cotton is high, you can count on the Texas Progressive Alliance to help keep things cool. Click on to read the blog highlights for the week.

    (more…)

    Is there a Heights highrise in the works?

    When Tiffany tells me to blog about something, I listen, so with that in mind let me point you to this HAIF thread, and this post in particular, about what might be the future site of a highrise on White Oak, next to Onion Creek, between Studewood and Heights Boulevard. It’s unclear at this point if this “mixed use development opportunity” on 25,000 square feet of land will in fact develop into something Ashbyesque, as the illustration on the real estate agent’s advert implies – as of now, at least, no permits have been pulled. But just for the record, here’s the case against anything like that:

    Put simply, the same objections as Ashby exist. The scale is all wrong. There would be a big impact on traffic, mostly from ins and outs. It’s already the case that you have to dodge people pulling into and out of the Onion Creek parking lot. This development would also be a stone’s throw from the Viewpoint development (see here, here, and here for background on that), which would put even more pressure on not just the one-lane-each-way White Oak, but on the little side streets that surround these projects. Some of this could be mitigated by infrastructure improvements, but we all know how that goes.

    This may wind up as much ado about nothing if the scale is reasonable, or it may turn into Ashby 2: The Wrath of Khan. The Heights Kids email list is already buzzing about it, so you can be sure that all relevant elected officials know about it by now. Who knows, maybe by the time there’s a buyer we’ll have had a comprehensive overhaul of our land use regulations, rendering the whole thing moot. Stranger things have happened.

    UPDATE: Swamplot has more. Just to be clear, I agree with John in the comments that a midrise mixed-use development would be a good thing. White Oak has been in need of renewal for a long time, and something like that would be a good fit. But the scale matters. A 14-story tower is too much. I hope what’s in the works, if anything is actually planned as of now, is more modest than that.

    Culberson versus wind

    I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Rep. John Culberson is not a fan of wind energy.

    In a video chat with constituents from his Capitol Hill office, Culberson said on June 10:

    These people in the wind energy business have made their fortunes because they are subsidized by you and me, and the Democrats passed a big energy bill late last year that jacked up taxes on the oil and gas industry by about $14 billion and then handed the money over to the wind energy folks and other industries. That’s just dead wrong. We need to eliminate those subsidies. If they can’t make it in the free market – particularly with oil at $130 plus – the alternative energy guys can certainly make money if it’s a good idea.

    [Challenger Michael] Skelly’s campaign brought the video to the news media’s attention today. You can watch the entire video here, with the quoted remark coming 20 minutes into Culberson’s presentation.

    Not that Culberson objects to any and all subsidies. He sought $500,000 from Congress for start-up money for the privately funded construction of a John Quincy Adams Memorial Library.

    I’m gonna take a wild guess here and postulate that Culberson has supported a bill or two in his day to hand some money over to the oil and gas business as well. I don’t have the time to dig into that myself, but if you want to ask him about it, you can do so via Twitter. Culberson appears to have become a fan of online debating, so you may even get an answer from him. If you do, please add a comment to point to it.

    A statement from Michael Skelly is beneath the fold.

    (more…)

    Metro and the East End

    I really don’t know what this story is trying to say.

    The Metropolitan Transit Authority has loyal supporters in Houston’s East End, whose voters approved Metro’s transit plan in 2003 by a 14 percent margin.

    Bus ridership is also strong there, and many in the community look forward to light rail on Harrisburg Boulevard.

    But some of that support has waned as Metro’s plans have expanded to include a large bridge over freight tracks at Harrisburg near 65th Street, and nearby, build a service facility several blocks long for light rail trains.

    Some residents and community leaders welcome the bridge, while others say the large Metro facility should find a different home.

    The thing is, there’s really nothing in the article to demonstrate that support has waned. There’s a quote from the president of the East End Chamber of Commerce saying they can “live with” an overpass for the Harrisburg bridge, which is a compromise solution due to funding constraints, and some pro and con comments about the service faciltiy, and that’s about it. No indication that anyone has changed their minds and decided to oppose the rail construction, nor any regret for supporting the rail referendum in the first place. No quotes from elected officials warning Metro to do or not do something. Maybe I’m just used to the decibel levels generated by the anti-Richmond folks, but this all seems pretty tame to me. I certainly don’t want Metro to take anything for granted, but if this is as bad as it gets, the road ahead is pretty smooth.

    The bounce

    Put me down as being skeptical of that much-ballyhooed Newsweek poll that showed Sen. Barack Obama now enjoying a 15-point lead over Sen. John McCain. It’s not so much that I think the result is impossible, it’s that it’s clearly due to their methodology for determining party ID, and that makes it harder to compare to other polls.

    Obama’s current lead also reflects the large party-identification advantage the Democrats now enjoy–55 percent of all voters call themselves Democrats or say they lean toward the party while just 36 percent call themselves Republicans or lean that way. Even as McCain seeks to gain voters by distancing himself from the unpopular Bush and emphasizing his maverick image, he is suffering from the GOP’s poor reputation among many voters. Still, history provides hope for the GOP. [Pollster Larry] Hugick points out that in May 1988 when the primaries ended, Democrat Michael Dukakis enjoyed a 54 percent to 38 percent lead over George H.W. Bush. But Bush wound up winning handily. “Those results should give people pause,” Hugick says, saying that a substantial number of voters, about 5 percent, have also moved into the undecided column. A significant improvement in the economy, or continued advances in Iraq–an issue McCain has identified with strongly as the senator who championed the “surge” first–could alter the Republican’s fortunes.

    Boy, how many times do you think that Dukakis comparison is going to get trotted out? Five thirty eight dispenses with that, and also explains why state level polling, for which we’ve also seen some wildly different results based on different models for determining party ID, suggests a more modest bounce for Obama. MyDD, on the other hand, is more bullish. I’d like to see some similar results before I feel too comfortable with it.

    The main question I have in looking at this is do we have any partisan ID models besides Mike Baselice’s that are being used in Texas polls? He says Republicans maintain an eight-point advantage statewide; I think that’s too high. We had a couple of polls in May that suggested a much narrower gap, one each by Research 2000 and Rasmussen, then Rasmussen’s subsequent poll swung sharply away from that, and that’s about it. There’s just not enough data to make a judgment, and unfortunately it looks like we’re not going to get much more, at least not on a regular basis. Like it or not, it’s what we’ve got to work with.

    Dallas City Council says “No loonies, please”

    Got this from a reader: Dallas City Council would like certain people to please zip their lips, and they plan to do something about it.

    That’s because time and again, council members (particularly Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway) have grudgingly tolerated or even openly battled with some of the same eight or nine people who speak before the council with regularity, if not every week.

    Sadly, most of these folks attempt to make points obvious only to themselves, using their allotted three minutes of open microphone time to jabber, patter, babble or drone. Often, these diatribes prove more impenetrable than a Fort Knox vault. Council members, in turn, leave the council chambers feeling as if they’ve just wasted half an hour. And arguably, they have.

    So here’s what the council is proposing to do about it:

    • Eliminate the open microphone period at the beginning of voting agenda meetings. (Current practice: Five speakers are allowed to address the council before business starts.)
    • Prohibit persons from speaking during an end-of-meeting open microphone period if they spoke, other than at a public hearing, at the last held regular council meeting. (Current practice: Anyone may address the council at the end of any full council meeting.)
    • Require speakers to register in person, by phone, or by e-mail by 5 p.m. the day preceding council meeting. (Current practice: Speakers may register up to 9 a.m. on the morning of a meeting.)
    • Allow the mayor or a majority of the council to restrict time limits when a large number of persons want to speak at public hearings and open microphone periods. (Current practice: This is often de facto procedure, although not necessarily.)
    • Move to “clarify that ad hoc committees are not subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act unless otherwise required by state law.” (Current practice: Reporters and the public have access to such meetings. Dallas Public Information Director Frank Librio says he’s not immediately certain what would be considered an “ad hoc” committee under this new law.)

    Of course, these council rules wouldn’t just affect a handful of hapless agitators: They’d affect anyone wishing to address the Dallas City Council.

    About five years ago. Harris County Commissioners Court tried something similar, apparently without effect. As then, I have some sympathy for the effort. It is a waste of time, not just for the Council, for whom such distractions are a part of the job, but more for the other citizens who attend these meetings in the hopes of addressing their concerns. If anyone has been discouraged or deterred from doing so because of these frequent flyers, then I’d argue their speech has been impeded. It’s certainly possible that the proposed rules could make it easier for them to participate.

    Having said that, I can’t see these alterations, which are to be debated on Wednesday, going through. This is pushing the envelope of the Open Meetings law, and it’s sure to result in some kind of legal action. I don’t know that there is a good solution to this problem, which is roughly the equivalent of troll moderation in an Internet forum. Any suggestions?

    Term limits on the ballot in San Antonio

    Earlier this year, I noted that San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger, in his second and final two-year term, announced in his State of the City address that he wanted to change San Antonio’s restrictive term limits law. He has now succeeded in getting an initiative on the ballot to do that.

    It took the better part of two hours of debate before the council unanimously voted to adopt an ordinance that will put the proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot.

    Most of the speakers, council members and members of the public said it was for the good of the citizens that the current limit of two two-year years terms be expanded to four two-year terms. They said that keeping the two years reelection time table would still allow voters to dump an incumbent who was not performing up to his or her constituents’ standards.

    […]

    The mayor, who for months has been lining up the full council to take the step, stressed that this is not an effort to overturn the voter’s wishes and that term limits will still be part of the city charter.

    The language that will appear on the November ballot takes up one sentence, although it is a rather long one. And in possibly the only surprise, it will apply to current as well as former council members.

    That means, for example, that if the proposition passes — and the mayor is betting about $750,000 worth of a publicity campaign that it will — former Councilwoman Elena Guajardo, who was defeated after one term, would be able to serve one more term, if she were to decide to run again.

    That penultimate paragraph is a bit unclear. I think what it’s saying, based on the subsequent graf, is that the current two-term limit law will remain in force for former Council members as well as current ones, so that no one who has been elected to their Council can take advantage of the extra allowable terms. That seems reasonable enough.

    I’ll be rooting for this to pass, and if it does, I hope it will spur someone in Houston to take a crack at changing our term limits law as well. Good luck, Mr. Mayor. Rhetoric & Rhythm has more.

    The names may change, but the stories remain the same

    Via Banjo comes this story about the oldest living Major League baseball player, and some of the many stories of the old days he has to tell. This was the one Banjo highlighted, about how Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove impressed a visiting scout:

    “The scout, Ira Thomas, goes out into the woods to look for him, and eventually, here comes this tall, rawboned guy. And he’s got squirrel tails tied around his belt, with the heads hanging down. So the first question Ira Thomas asks him is, ‘Are you Lefty Grove?’

    “And Lefty says, ‘I be.’

    “He said, ‘Well, where’s your gun.’

    ” ‘I don’t use no gun.’

    “He said, ‘Well, how do you kill the squirrels?’

    ” ‘I kill them with rocks.’

    “He says, ‘I don’t believe you.’

    “And Lefty says, ‘Well, you see that insulator on that crossbar?’ And he takes one of the rocks from his pocket, and throws it with his right hand — and the glass just shatters in all directions.

    “And Thomas is amazed, but he says, ‘I thought you were a left-hander.’

    “He says, ‘I am. But when I throw it left-handed, I tear them all up.’ ”

    It’s a great story. It’s also one I read years ago in a book of baseball stories, circa 1949, by old-time sportswriter Arthur Dailey that we had at my parents’ house, except that it was about Dizzy Dean. I figured it was a legend when I first read it 30 years ago, and seeing it repeated about a different pitcher just confirms that feeling. But it’s still a great story, one that ought to be true even if it isn’t. And it’s another reason why I love the game of baseball. There’s enough characters in its history that can be fitted into such a tale and still be believable. You gotta love it.

    Casey on the appraisal problem

    Rick Casey devotes a column to the HISD versus HCAD situation, and points to the obvious solution.

    Texas is one of only five states that doesn’t require that sales prices of real estate be reported to the state.

    The government knows what you earn. It knows what you paid for your car and your clothes. But in Texas it doesn’t know what you paid for your house or your business property.

    Because the middle class lives mainly in neighborhoods where all the houses are similar, appraisal districts are able to do a good job at guessing at the values. Studies show the houses tend to sell for close to their appraised values.

    But very expensive houses and commercial properties almost always sell for considerably more than the amount listed on the tax rolls.

    The gap was illustrated earlier this week when Dallas officials told a state Senate hearing they want to change the law to require price disclosure on real estate sales.

    Support for the change swelled in Dallas after the city found itself having to pay about $42 million for a piece of commercial property listed on the tax rolls as being worth $7.3 million.

    The change won’t happen, though. The people who are paying more than their share are afraid to tell the state how much they paid for fear their appraisal will go from, say, $220,000 to $240,000.

    We’ve discussed this issue before – as we know, legislation to require sales price disclosure came up last session and will surely be introduced next year as well. The thing is, I don’t see the objection Casey raises as being an intractable problem. Far from it, in fact: it should be a fairly straightforward matter to do some math, estimate how much revenue could be raised this way, and then point out that with a more accurate method of appraising high-end properties, the tax rate can be reduced, giving some real relief to the homeowners Casey frets about. This really shouldn’t be that hard to get public support. Getting it past the lobbyists is another matter, but then it always is. The first step, though, should be very doable.

    A tale of two headlines: Slow/No slow

    From Friday’s Chronicle: Housing analyst sees end to local slowdown.

    From Saturday’s Chronicle: Houston’s jobs pace hints at economic slowdown.

    So which is it, fellas?

    Actually, the two articles themselves don’t really conflict with one another. But it was amusing, in a whiplashy sort of way, to see these seemingly contradictory headers on successive days.

    Cricket experiments with instant replay

    Football, baseball, and now cricket.

    Major League Baseball take note, Indian cricket will experiment with TV replay.

    Players will be allowed to appeal against an umpire’s decision for the first time in a challenge system on trial starting next month.

    The Board of Control for Cricket in India said it had agreed to play the series under the experimental rules allowing cricketers to ask for a TV umpire to review decisions on the field by either of the two on-field umpires.

    Each team will be permitted to seek the review, using TV replays, of three decisions each innings. Decisions can be overturned on the TV umpire ruling. A failed appeal will cost the team one challenge.

    I don’t know enough about cricket to reasonably guess how disruptive this is likely to be. Given how long matches can be, it’s probably not that big a deal. Good luck with the experiment, y’all.

    It’s not bad, it’s a classic

    John Scalzi opens a can of worms:

    [W]hat makes science fiction different than every other genre of film — what makes it unique, for better or worse — is that a strangely high percentage of the classics of the genre are not good films; some are structurally flawed in major ways, while others are just plain awful.

    He goes on to list a few examples, including the beloved 1954 original “Gojira”, a/k/a “Godzilla”, which I probably saw a dozen times as a kid when they were doing “Monster Week” for the afternoon movie on Channel 9. I’ll stipulate that it’s perhaps not the finest example of the craft of moviemaking, but I loved it anyway, and Lord knows it was influential. I look forward to watching it some day with Olivia and Audrey.

    There’s some good discussion in the comments about the meaning of “classic” and why some of these films endure despite their faults, so check it out. What’s your favorite example of a “classic” movie, from any genre, that’s also an objectively crappy piece of film? Leave a comment and let me know.

    A tale of two headlines: Veepstakes

    Clinton plans to hit trail with Obama

    Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton will campaign together next Friday, the first joint public event for the former rivals, as the senator from New York returns to the political scene following her defeat in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

    Clinton has shunned most public appearances since her departure from the race on June 7. She resurfaced Wednesday to attend services for Meet The Press host Tim Russert, and she is expected to appear at a pair of events with Obama late next week.

    On Thursday night, Clinton will introduce Obama to a group of her top donors at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, a bid to smooth relations between her supporters and the presumptive Democratic nominee. She is also scheduled to speak to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials earlier in the day.

    Hagel would consider Obama VP offer

    “If it would occur, I would have to think about it,” [Sen. Chuck] Hagel [R, Nebraska] said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think anybody, anybody would have to consider it. Doesn’t mean you’d do it, doesn’t mean you’d accept it, could be too many gaps there, but you’d have to consider it.”

    Hagel said Friday that he and Obama also have differences.

    “But what this country is going to have to do is come together next year, and the next president is going to have to bring this country together to govern with some consensus,” Hagel said.

    He hasn’t endorsed Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed Republican nominee, whom he calls a friend. Hagel said he hadn’t thought about who to vote for in November.

    Okay, look, I’m not really all that interested in the whole veepstakes thing, for Obama or McCain. In the end, I don’t think it makes all that much difference one way or the other. But it seems to me that a certainty that one will vote for the nominee is the Mendoza Line of qualification criteria for being considered. Really, I think anyone who hasn’t pledged by now to work his or her keester off to get the nominee elected should be dropped from whatever unofficial short list is being bandied about. I’m neutral on the question of whether or not an Obama-Clinton ticket is a good idea – having Hillary Clinton as the VP choice would have its pluses and minuses, just as any other choice would – but if that’s what she wants, she’s at least going about it the right way. Hagel, not so much. So please, national media, the next time Sen. Hagel talks about this, just say “That’s nice, Chuck”, and go about your business. Whatever his merits, he is not, and should not be, a genuine contender.

    “Grumpy Republicans” watch

    The bad poll news for Republicans keeps on coming.

    Houston Republican insiders are buzzing — with worry — about an election poll conducted privately for their local party.

    Funded and designed by GOPers, the poll by Baselice and Associates essentially confirms findings by the Chronicle during the last six months that Republican candidates for judgeships and other Harris County offices have lost their built-in, 14-year-old advantage with voters. The survey showed a statistical tie between Republican and Democratic judicial candidates when voters were asked who they are likely to favor on Nov. 4. That’s a slide from 1994 and 1996 when Republican candidates won with 56-58 percent of the county vote.

    Mike Baselice recently acknowledged as much to the Chronicle’s R.G. Ratcliffe, citing a current 1.5 percent edge for Republican candidates in Harris County, which is within the poll’s margin of error.

    If we assume that the 1.5 point advantage Baselice found is accurate – with no disrespect intended, that’s almost surely not the case, since as noted in this post and acknowledged by Baselice himself in that Texas Monthly article on the Noriega campaign, nobody really knows what the turnout model looks like this year – then based on what we saw in 2004, some number of Democratic judicial candidates are virtually certain to win. The GOP would come away mostly victorious, but the shutout would be over.

    That of course only considers the judicial races, where there’s likely to be much less variance in the vote totals from one race to another.

    According to three Republican activists who have seen the poll numbers — they did not want to be identified because the results are supposed to be confidential — their picture may be worse for non-judicial contests such as the one between Republican Ed Emmett and challenger David Mincberg for county chief executive. In these races, the poll indicates Democrats may have a slight lead, they said.

    It’s very nice to see them cite the County Judge race as a concern. I figure this means they’ve already written off the Sheriff’s race, since if anyone is in trouble this year, it’s got to be Tommy Thomas. For them to mention a different race suggests to me they’ve got bigger worries than that.

    The forecast may be darker for Republicans if the poll did not take into account the anticipated huge turnout by minority voters with Barack Obama on the ballot. (The poll did show a statistically significant lead for John McCain in Harris County).

    Let’s just say I have a hard time believing that. I can imagine Obama trailing the average countywide Democrat, but not by enough to go from 1.5 to 5 or more, which is about what a statistically significant lead would need to be. Frankly, it wouldn’t shock me if this year the donwballot candidates trail the top of the ticket on the Democratic side. I think a reverse Bush effect, in which there’s more Dems who just come out to vote for the President this year. How much of that, I don’t know, and if the coordinated campaign is successful it will be minimal, but it’s a real possibility.

    But hey, it’s a long way off, and we haven’t seen and Democratic polling yet. So let’s just enjoy the “grumpy Republican” thing for now. May they stay that way for a long time.

    Oh, and I’ve got to agree with Alan Bernstein: What in the world happened to Steven Hotze? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Just wondering.

    Saint Arnold’s location update

    Last November, the Saint Arnold brewery voted to move its operations to a new, larger building just north of downtown. Now Kristin2Go has some more details on that.

    The brewery expects to produce more than 20,000 barrels of beer this year — a barrel is 31 gallons — but could potentially produce up to 100,000 barrels at its new location.

    ”It would have been easier and cheaper for us to get places that are outside the Beltway, but that’s not really what I felt like we’re about,” Wagner said.

    Last Friday, Saint Arnold’s became the owner of a large, red brick building at 2000 Lyons Ave., just north of downtown and visible from Interstate 10, that was formerly a frozen food distribution center for the Houston Independent School District.

    ”It was perfect,” he said. ”The parking lot across the street comes with it, and it’s right by downtown. You can’t get any closer.”

    By June 2009, Wagner is hoping to have transferred all operations to the new brewery. Although some major changes are in store — such as air-conditioning, nicer bathrooms, tours on weekdays and a newer, bigger brewhouse — he wants the overall feel to stay the same.

    ”I never in my wildest dreams thought we would have 500 people showing up here on a Saturday,” he said. ”I thought that 50 would be a huge success. I want the Saturday tour to continue on and be this special thing, just like it has been here.”

    Wagner said that while he plans for this to be the brewery’s one and only move, he anticipates a strong future for Saint Arnold’s.

    ”When people drive by (I hope) they’re compelled to say, ‘That’s where Saint Arnold is made.’ That to me is really the goal, and something that will live on for a long time.”

    Here’s a Google map satellite view of the location. I’ve got to drive by and take a picture of it. And I can’t wait for the first tour at the new digs.

    HISD versus HCAD

    One way or the other, this will lead to a bad outcome.

    The Houston school board voted Thursday to sue the state comptroller’s office if the school district loses its appeal over rising property values.

    The Houston Independent School District argues that Comptroller Susan Combs’ office overvalues property and that the discrepancy is costing the district state funding — an estimated $3 million last year, according to HISD.

    Combs’ office counters that the property in HISD, particularly commercial buildings and apartment complexes, is being undervalued by the Harris County Appraisal District.

    The school district’s appeal is pending before a state hearing examiner.

    […]

    The discrepancy is wide. The Harris County Appraisal District put the value of property in HISD at $97.6 billion in 2007. According to the comptroller, the value is $110.7 billion.

    Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said the problem stems from the local appraisal district using a different method than the comptroller’s office. And, he added, school districts are penalized under the comptroller’s system when property owners protest their bills and are granted relief.

    […]

    The comptroller’s office is charged with studying property values across Texas to keep local appraisal districts in check and to ensure school districts get the appropriate amount of state aid. To equalize school funding statewide, those districts with higher property wealth are supposed to get less state funding.

    HISD already has appealed the comptroller’s 2007 property assessment to the comptroller’s hearing examiner. The preliminary ruling by the examiner, Michael Esparza, was generally favorable to HISD, said Houston attorney Robert Mott, who is representing the school district.

    The comptroller’s office and HISD have until today to raise exceptions to the ruling before the hearing examiner issues a final opinion.

    As we’ve discussed before, I believe HCAD underappraises commercial properties, as do most appraisal districts, which means that homeowners are paying a disproportionate share of the property tax burden. Unfortunately, if HCAD were closer to the mark, the screwy school finance system would deem HISD a “rich” district and subject it to recapture. It’s a nasty little problem, and one that doesn’t really have a solution under the current configuration of our state government. Maybe with a better Legislature, we can make a genuine effort to fix school finance, and eliminate conundrums like this. You can help with that.

    It’s an amazing thing watching a meme being born

    I am aware of all Internet traditions. Or, putting it another way:

    See here, here, and here for way too much more. Be prepared to waste at least an hour when you do.

    SD10 polling

    We’ve got a couple of polls in the SD10 race between Wendy Davis and Sen. Kim Brimer. From Politex:

    In a poll conducted for Davis’ campaign by Washington, D.C.-based Democratic pollsters Bennett, Petts & Normington, Brimer nabs 39 percent of voters compared to Davis’ 35 percent if the election were held today. Results are based on 400 likely voters in the district. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

    Austin-based TXPollWatch.com then released the results of an automated poll which has Brimer leading 44.27 percent to Davis’ 35.35 percent. The results are weighted based on a sample size of 466. The margin of error is 4.54 percent. (Texas Poll Watch is a brand new site and has caught some serious flak for another recent poll (Word doc).)

    More on that TXPollWatch poll here and here. All I’ll say at this point is that TXPollWatch hasn’t established a sufficient level of credibility just yet.

    Bryan Eppstein, spokesman for Brimer, said, “There are two Democratic polls and both polls show Brimer winning. What does that tell you? It shows Brimer’s going to win the race this fall.”

    That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to say that a 20-year incumbent who can’t crack 45% – heck, 40% in one poll – isn’t doing so hot. The Davis poll, whose memo is reproduced below, was a straight up “Who will you vote for?” ask, with no embellishments, and he got all of 39%. You tell me if that sounds like he’s in a strong position.

    Here’s the Davis poll memo:

    Wendy Davis, candidate for State Senate District 10, released today the results of a poll conducted for her campaign that verified that her record of leadership has positioned her for success this November. The poll revealed evidence that the failed record of her opponent, Senator Kim Brimer, has left voters displeased with his lack of representation and exhibiting an overwhelming desire for change.

    Confirming the results and showing a widening trend of an earlier poll conducted by the Lone Star Project (PDF), and turnout data from the March 4th, 2008 primary (below), the new data makes clear that Wendy Davis is extremely well-positioned to defeat Kim Brimer in November.

    Among the May 2008 poll’s most salient findings:

    * When respondents were asked “If the general election were held today, for whom would you vote?” – without hearing any information, positive or negative, about the candidates – 20-year Republican incumbent Kim Brimer starts the race in a statistical dead heat with challenger Wendy Davis (39% to 35%).

    * Only 41% of the electorate can identify Kim Brimer, a shockingly low number for an incumbent of 20 years. (The Lone Star Project poll had Brimer’s recognition at just 49.7% when identifying him as State Senator Kim Brimer.)

    * Only 25% of voters say that Brimer deserves to be reelected, while 42% believe it’s time to elect someone new. (This corresponds to the Lone Star Project poll, which found that only 27.4% of voters surveyed wanted to see Brimer reelected.)

    The poll was conducted by Bennett, Petts & Normington (BPN), a respected national polling firm, with a sample size of 400 likely voters in Texas’s 10th State Senate District. The poll had a margin of error of 4.9%. BPN conducted polling for Paula Hightower Pierson in her successful bid against State Representative Toby Goodman in 2006 and for Dan Barrett’s special election win in House District 97 last fall.

    This poll also echoes the March primary results, when twice as many Democrats as Republicans turned out to vote. Looking specifically at this race, only 33,543 Republicans voted for Kim Brimer, while 62,574 Democrats voted for Wendy Davis. Both candidates were uncontested in their primaries.

    It all sounds pretty good to me. If you haven’t done so already, you can listen to my interview with Wendy Davis, done during the Democratic convention in Austin, here.

    Reminder: TexBlog PAC fundraiser

    Just a reminder about the TexBlog PAC fundraiser for next Thursday:

    Please join host Mustafa Tameez

    and sponsors:
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    State Representatives Ellen Cohen, Jessica Farrar, Armando Walle, and Ana Hernandez
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    Democratic Candidates for State Representative Carol Alvarado, Sherrie Matula, Joel Redmond, John McClelland, Kristi Thibaut
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    and James Hernandez, Casey Jones, Jay Aiyer

    as we come together to take back the Texas House
    and announce another TexBlog PAC endorsement

    Join us at a

    TexBlog PAC Event

    with special guest

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    Thursday, June 26, 2008

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    You have issues

    It’s Friday, right? That means it’s the perfect day for stuff like this.

    Today, Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill issued a statement taunting Democrat David Mincberg for having nothing under the “Issues” section of the Web site for his campaign for chief of county government.

    A while later Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerald Birnberg issued a statement pointing out that Mincberg’s Republican opponent, County Judge Ed Emmett, has a campaign Web site that lacks an “Issues” section in which to discuss issues.

    So Woodfill attacks Mincberg for something that Emmett is even more guilty of? Well, a serious discussion like this deserves a serious response. So here’s my answer to Jared Woodfill:

    I think that about covers it, don’t you?

    More red light cameras in the works

    Among other things related to the budget Wednesday, City Council approved a request to identify more intersections for red light cameras.

    Councilman James Rodriguez asked for the budget amendment, arguing that red-light cameras are good sources of revenue, and the money can be used to put more police on the streets.

    The administration agreed with the proposal, as did all council members except Mike Sullivan of District E (Clear Lake and Kingwood). The vote asked HPD to identify 50 new intersections, which would each have a few cameras. The total number of new red-light cameras would be about 125.

    HPD should return to the council with the new locations within two months, according to the amendment.

    Council Member Rodriguez had originally asked for 200 more cameras, so this is a scaled-down version of that request. As for the revenue question, we’ve already seen a decrease in the number of citations being given at the intersections that are currently camera-enabled. That’s a trend I would expect to continue, and to occur at any new intersections as well, so I’d be very careful about basing any future expenditures on camera monies. The city of Dallas learned a harsh lesson about that recently; let’s not follow that example.

    Putting this another way: It’s fine by me if the cameras generate revenue because of a large volume of red light runners. I’m perfectly happy to see those people get stung for putting other people in danger. If the revenue plateaus and eventually declines because people are running fewer lights than before, that’s fine by me as well. If we wind up spending some money to maintain cameras at certain intersections, instead of the cameras paying for themselves, because they’ve demonstrated they have a positive effect on safety at those intersections, once again that’s fine by me. What I don’t want is for the city to game the system by reducing yellow light times or whatever in order to maintain a projected revenue stream that’s now falling short because drivers have wised up. For that reason, I’d prefer that the city view any revenue they get from these things as found money, and not a reliable source. So far, I believe the city has acted properly.

    As it happens, if the Kubosh brothers get their wish, that would be a moot question.

    Bail bondsman Michael Kubosh and his attorney brother Paul are looking to force a citywide referendum on the cameras.

    “Let the citizens of the city of Houston decided whether or not they want this red light camera scheme,” said Michael.

    His brother calls the city’s program dishonest.

    “They’re lying to the public. They’re saying this is about public safety,” said Paul Kubosh. “If they would just come out and say, “We want your money because we want to spend it the way we see fit.”

    “I wouldn’t say fraud. But they’re lying to the public.”

    It may not be until March before any referendum could be put before voters. A state law prohibits a measure that has failed in a previous election to be brought back before voters for 24 months.

    The last attempt to let the voters decide the fate of red light cameras went in favor of those who support the program. This year’s election falls on Nov. 4, just a few days shy of 24 months.

    Well, they didn’t get what they wanted from the courts, so why not go for a referendum? It’s certainly possible they might win – I’ve not seen any public opinion data on the cameras, so this is very much an open question. I’d assume it would be next May for the vote, not March, since March is only a uniform election day in even-numbered years, but whatever. If they can get the sigs, then let’s vote on this and be done with it.

    New DNA tests for Darlie Routier

    Remember Darlie Routier, the housewife from Rowlett who is on death row for the stabbing deaths of her two young sons? She has maintained her innocence all along, saying that it was an intruder who killed her boys, and since the trial some strange facts – the court reporter was fired for committing thousands of errors in the trial transcript, her husband admitted that financial problems had led him to consider a plan to hire a burglar to steal stuff from the house to defraud their insurance company – have come to light, though an appeal for a new trial was denied five years ago. Now, however, the Court of Criminal Appeals has granted her request for new DNA testing on some of the evidence from her trial, on the grounds that it may cast doubt on her conviction.

    The items to be retested:

    Blood stains on her night shirt that previous tests showed to be soaked in blood from her and the boys. She claims newer techniques may find another source of blood.

    A blood stain on a tube sock found in an alley. The sock contained blood from both boys and a third blood stain that did not yield a result. The court agreed that newer techniques might yield a DNA result.

    Dried flakes on a utility room door. Although the flakes were previously tested and found not to include human DNA, Routier alleges they are dried blood that should be re-examined.

    Pubic and facial hairs. The pubic hair yielded no result and the facial hair was found to be from someone other than Routier or her husband. She maintains the facial hair is from the alleged intruder and hopes to connect it to the results from the other retested items.

    The court denied retests of a bloody palm print on the coffee table and blood stains on a butcher knife, which investigators said was the murder weapon.

    In granting the new testing, the court said the state’s case against Routier remains strong, but if the new testing shows the results Routier alleges, there’s a chance a jury would not convict her.

    “There is at least a 51 percent likelihood that the jury would have seen her as a victim herself, or at least that it would have harbored a reasonable doubt that she was not,” the court wrote.

    It should be noted that this case is in Dallas County, home of numerous DNA-related exonerations. The Dallas County DA’s office had no comment for this story, but it’ll be interesting to see how they play this. Given that this was not a case of a conviction due to questionable eyewitness testimony or a coerced confession, they’re on far more solid ground being in opposition to Routier. But DNA is DNA, and if more modern testing can corroborate enough of Routier’s story to cast doubt on the result of her trial, then I think they’ve got to consider their options. I’ll keep an eye on this.

    “Helicopter parents”

    You’ve met “free-range kids”. Now meet their nemesis: “Helicopter parents”.

    It begins innocently enough. When our children are infants and toddlers, they need us to protect them at every turn. Babies are just walking (or crawling) catastrophes, and danger lurks in and around every corner. Parents are trained to worry about their children even as they sleep: Don’t put your child on his stomach or he could die of SIDS! Don’t sleep with your child in your bed, or they could be smothered! and eat: Don’t feed your child anything before 6 months of age! Don’t give your toddler grapes! Or hot dogs! Or popcorn! and play: Have you anchored all your furniture? Can that toy become a choking hazard? Is that covered in lead paint?

    But the truth of the matter is the anxiety-inducing messages begin before the child is even born: Don’t eat soft cheeses! Don’t eat tuna! But be sure you eat enough fish! Just not the kind with mercury in it! Don’t drink! Don’t smoke! Don’t take hot baths! Exercise, BUT NOT TOO MUCH!

    And the result is that parents in our information age are never without something new to wring their hands about, and are nearly suffocating their children with worry.

    See, this is why I read about politics. It’s much less worrisome.

    Seriously, author Therese Odell makes a good case for chilling out and letting the kids grow up. Which I hope is what Tiffany and I are doing with our girls. At least, I can say I don’t recognize ourselves in the description Odell gives, and that’s reassuring. But kindergarten is looming around the corner for Olivia, so the opportunities to completely decompensate will grow rapidly. I’m hoping this will serve as a reality check for when that happens.