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June 25th, 2008:

Obama to do something in Texas

I like the sound of this. Mostly, anyway.

Barack Obama will focus his resources largely in 14 states George W. Bush won in 2004, his chief field operative said Tuesday, hoping to score upsets in places such as Virginia, Indiana and Georgia.

But winning the White House won’t be his only goal, deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand told Politico: In an unusual move, Obama’s campaign will also devote some resources to states it’s unlikely to win, with the goal of influencing specific local contests in places such as Texas and Wyoming.

“Texas is a great example where we might not be able to win the state, but we want to pay a lot of attention to it,” Hildebrand said. “It’s one of the most important redistricting opportunities in the country.”

Texas Democrats are five seats away in each chamber from control of the state Legislature, which will redraw congressional districts after the 2010 census.

In Wyoming, Democrat Gary Trauner, running for the state’s sole congressional seat, lost narrowly against an incumbent in 2006 and is now seeking an open seat.

“If we can register more Democrats, if we can increase the Democratic performance and turnout, maybe we can pick up a congressional seat,” Hildebrand said.

“Texas is a great example where we might not be able to win the state, but we want to pay a lot of attention to it,” Hildebrand said. “It’s one of the most important redistricting opportunities in the country.”

Texas Democrats are five seats away in each chamber from control of the state Legislature, which will redraw congressional districts after the 2010 census.

In Wyoming, Democrat Gary Trauner, running for the state’s sole congressional seat, lost narrowly against an incumbent in 2006 and is now seeking an open seat.

“If we can register more Democrats, if we can increase the Democratic performance and turnout, maybe we can pick up a congressional seat,” Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand’s plans underscore the unusual scope and ambition of Obama’s campaign, which can relatively cheaply extend its massive volunteer and technological resources into states which won’t necessarily produce electoral votes.

In Texas, for instance, Obama’s three dozen offices were overrun with volunteers during the primary; the campaign’s challenge is, in part, to find something useful to do with all that free labor. But, while Hildebrand said Obama is unlikely to pay for television advertising outside a core of about 15 states the candidate thinks he can win, he will spend some money on staff. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, reportedly told donors in Houston that he would send 15 staffers to Texas, and the campaign has committed to having some staff on the ground in all 50 states.

Julie Pippert was at an event in Houston that featured Axelrod, and I don’t see any mention of a promise of staffers, so either that’s new (and encouraging) or he just wasn’t saying it publicly then. Either way, it’s not as good as spending money here on advertising, but it’s more than what we’re used to getting. Now maybe if Obama uses some of the fundraising trips he’ll be taking to Texas to help out a few of our fine downballot candidates – such as, oh I don’t know, maybe Rick Noriega – then I think I’d be as happy as I can be with this arrangement. Of course, my wish list item here is unlikely to happen unless some of the people who’ll be getting hit up for Obama donations at those future events make a little wealth-spreading a condition of their donations. For what it’s worth, let me use this opportunity to recommend that course of action to these folks. Let’s please invest some of that dough in Texas, okay? Thanks. Greg has more.

UPDATE: Naturally, as soon as I draft this, I see a Chron story on the same topic.

Obama’s aides told the Houston Chronicle that the Texas expenditures could increase party turnout in targeted races such as Harris County district attorney, sheriff and county judge.

The national campaign’s presence in the state also could help Democrats in closely watched Houston-area congressional races for the seats of incumbent Democrat Nick Lampson and Republican Michael McCaul.

“It’ll help us create a government majority,” said [campaign manager David] Plouffe. “In a state like Texas, there’s House races, there’s state Senate races, and we’re going to encourage people to get involved in their local elections.”

The campaign, Plouffe said, intends to tap into the grassroots organization it built during the primary season, eventually using some of its volunteers to help in more competitive states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia and Ohio.

“We have got a lot of volunteers from these states and want to make sure we have a way to use them,” he said.

At a June 12 meeting of contributors in Houston, Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod of Chicago, said the campaign first would deploy 15 staffers to help with voter registration, according to Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerald Birnberg.

Among the many reasons for the deployment, Axelrod explained, is that the campaign wants to demonstrate its national appeal and presence.

[…]

Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said a staff director had not yet been selected for Texas.

A spokesman for the state Democratic party, Hector Nieto, said the decision by the Obama campaign is “obviously good news for us.”

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said that by sending professional staffers to Texas, the Obama campaign can supplement what he said was an improving Democratic party organization in the state.

“I think that the reason the National Democratic Party would be putting money into Texas is to continue the Democratic resurgence” in the state, he said.

The Democrats, he said, are not likely to win statewide contests but could prevail in areas where the party is on the upsurge, such as Harris County.

Again, good to hear. It could be better, but I know well it could be much worse.

SCOTUS strikes down “Jessica’s Law”

Breaking news.

The Supreme Court declared Wednesday that executions are too severe a punishment for child rape, despite the “years of long anguish” for victims, in a ruling that restricts the death penalty to murder and crimes against the state.

The court’s 5-4 decision struck down a Louisiana law that allows capital punishment for people convicted of raping children under 12. It spares the only people in the U.S. under sentence of death for that crime — two Louisiana men convicted of raping girls 5 and 8.

The ruling also invalidates laws on the books in five other that allowed executions for child rape.

One of those states, of course, is Texas.

However devastating the crime to children, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion, “the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child.” His four liberal colleagues joined him, while the four more conservative justices dissented.

There has not been an execution in the United States for a crime that did not also involve the death of the victim in 44 years, a factor that weighed in Kennedy’s decision.

Rape and other crimes “may be as devastating in their harm, as here, but ‘in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public,’ they cannot be compared to murder in their ‘severity and irrevocability,'” Kennedy said, quoting from earlier decisions.

The decision can be found here (PDF, via BOR). Adam B has some longer quotes from the decision. Grits has some linkage, plus a bit of background info from Texas District and County Attorneys Association spokesperson Shannon Edmonds. Here’s a statement on the ruling from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. Both TAASA and the TDCAA opposed Jessica’s Law during the last legislative session. None of this will stop the usual suspects from cranking up the outrage (see that Salon AP story for a few choice quotes) or from trying again, though the consensus so far seems to be that this is a definitive ruling. I just don’t think this law’s proponents will give up that easily.

More from the Sheriff

Matt Stiles, who did that interview with Sheriff Thomas, adds a little extra to the mix.

Thomas said his department will now launch internal affairs investigations of deputies’ conduct if defense attorneys raise questions. In the past, the office had required sworn statements to start inquiries, he said.

The sheriff also said his office is working on a new e-mail policy that will be manageable for his technology staff, but also comply with retention requirements of the Texas Public Information Act. He previously decided to delete e-mails after 14 days, prompting Wayne Dolcefino at KTRK (Channel 13) to fight him in court.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like, and how they explain how it will solve all the problems they once thought could only be alleviated by the 14-day purge. Stiles may ultimately post the interview as a podcast, which would be cool. Who knows what other pearls of wisdom we may get from our Sheriff?

Meanwhile, Rick Casey piles on:

The most important news in the interview (other than the fact that he granted it) came when he took “responsibility” for some of the mishaps. But politicians all over the country have been “taking responsibility” for problems, as though the term was a magical mantra that would calm the troubled waters and deflect any public anger.

Unfortunately, the public has become somewhat inured to that response. They especially reject it when the surrounding rhetoric suggests that the officeholder doesn’t really “take responsibility.”

For example, Thomas said, “Unfortunately, some things happened that I’m not happy about.”

That sounds like they were outside his control. But when those brothers complained about having their cameras confiscated, being roughed up, arrested, jailed and put on trial for taking pictures from their yard, he could have aggressively investigated the behavior of his deputies in the matter.

As far as I know, he still hasn’t admitted his boys messed up, much less taken action to try to change the culture of his department by disciplining them.

Well, yeah, there is that. Maybe that’s a subject for the next interview.

I’m told by a couple of different sources that Wayne Dolcefino has a story about the Sheriff prepped for tonight’s newscast. You know that wherever WayneDo goes, hijinks is sure to follow, so tune in and see what he has to say. Finally, the Harris County Democratic Party put out a statement in response to Thomas’ interview, which is here. I know it’s “pure politics” and all, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Harrisburg line groundbreaking Thursday

At long last, construction for the Metro 2012 plan is about to begin.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority will host a ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday for the East End light rail line, the first of five scheduled to be completed by late 2012, and the first to start construction since the Red Line opened in 2004.

Metro spokeswoman Sandra Salazar said the event will be on property owned by developer Frank Liu on Harrisburg Boulevard near Eastwood and will involve mostly public officials and community leaders.

Salazar said the actual site preparation and construction likely will begin between Milby and Lockwood next month, but the exact date was not available Tuesday.

Metro says it will build the future lines in 4,000-foot segments, completing each before work starts on the next to avoid the lengthy disruptions of traffic and business that marred construction of the Red Line.

[…]

Salazar said Metro also expects to break ground for the North and Southeast lines this summer, but only after it receives assurance that the Federal Transit Administration will pay half their cost.

Metro is planning to build the East End and Uptown lines out of its own revenues, but needs federal funding for the controversial University Line.

Salazar said construction of the Uptown line, which would run from the Northwest Transit Center to Post Oak Boulevard and end south of Westpark, probably will not begin until federal funds for the University line are assured.

So if all else fails, we’ll at least get this line built, though we still need to get the freight rail overpass funded to make sure this line is truly complete. The North and Southeast lines shouldn’t have any trouble getting federal funding, but you never know what might happen. And we all know about the Universities line. Speaking of which:

Metro said Tuesday that state District Judge Levi Benton has scheduled a hearing for Aug. 6 on Metro’s request to have [Daphne] Scarbrough’s lawsuit thrown out.

Scarbrough’s attorney Andy Taylor has said if Benton rules in Metro’s favor, he will appeal.

I’ll be amazed if ground gets broken for this line before 2009. The East End line may be near completion before this one gets started. But as long as it does get going, that’s what matters.

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.