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July, 2008:

Metro makes change to east end of Universities line

One more change for the route of the Universities Line.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board voted Thursday to reroute the planned University light rail line away from a half-mile stretch of Wheeler Avenue following months of entreaties by residents and elected officials.

The audience responded with a rare burst of applause after the unanimous vote. Earlier, speakers who had raked the agency at the City Council and neighborhood meetings were generous with praise.

“The proposed route is good because now we won’t have a train that passes through a historic neighborhood,” said Cheryl Armitige, who grew up in the Third Ward.

[…]

The original route went east on Wheeler from Main, north on Ennis and east on Alabama to Scott at the University of Houston. Metro says it intends, if possible, to extend it north to Elgin and east across the Gulf Freeway to the Eastwood Transit Center.

The new route would turn north from Wheeler on Hutchins, east on Cleburne, north on Dowling and continue east on Alabama to Scott as before.

The difference in length is negligible, but the change likely will boost the cost for the segment east of Main from $185 million to $200 million because it would require new design and engineering work, environmental impact studies and public meetings, Metro officials said.

Having the line on Alabama, which is less residential than Wheeler, would have less impact on residents and be more likely to attract development, [Metro board member Gerald] Smith said.

He attributed the opposition on Wheeler largely to quality-of-life concerns about loss of land in front of homes and the noise and vibration from the trains. But [Council Member Jolanda] Jones said she was also concerned that large-scale development and gentrification would follow, changing the character of the historically black neighborhood.

So the residents of the Third Ward got what they wanted, just as the residents of Afton Oaks on the west end of the route did. Good for them, and good for Metro for doing what it can to accommodate them. Looking at the before-and-after maps (see the sidebar in the story, or these three maps provided by Metro), this means the train will not directly approach TSU, or run along its western border. It will have the same station location, so the service TSU gets from the line will be the same. Metro’s press release on the change says that the ridership projections are the same, which makes sense if none of the stations move. More on the residents’ concerns here and here.

Unclear from this is how it will affect the FTA approval/funding process. At this point, the other lines are farther along in securing funds. The U-line is the linchpin of the expanded system, and it’s already behind, plus it still has the Scarbrough lawsuit to deal with. I just hope this change doesn’t set things back any more.

John Edwards in town

Former Senator and Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards was in town this week to promote his anti-poverty agenda.

Edwards, from North Carolina, said he would “fight with every fiber of my being” to help low-income Americans.

The former Democratic vice-presidential candidate and one-time presidential hopeful joined local community and political leaders in a private roundtable discussion on poverty, the foreclosure crisis and similar issues hosted by ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

[…]

The effort, dubbed Half in Ten, hopes to encourage state and national legislators to enact measures that will help reduce the number of impoverished citizens by 50 percent in the next 10 years.

Edwards said as the campaign’s chairman he can bring national attention to the need to raise people out of poverty.

“I’ve got a soapbox,” he said, “and I intend to use that soapbox with every fiber of my being to speak for those who have no voice.”

He said that some of the measures that could help the poor and people in financial crisis would be to raise the minimum wage, expand the earned-income tax credit and make child care more affordable.

These are all worthy goals, though I suspect Edwards will have more luck with Congress than he will with the Texas Legislature, even with Sen. Rodney Ellis’ stated support. I just don’t see a minimum-wage increase as being a priority in Austin next year. That said, there are some things that might have a chance, such as better protections for mortgage-seekers, and easier access to banking for low-income folks, which is something City Controller Annise Parker has been championing here. With a careful selection of targets, you might have some success.

Obligatory Questions Department:

When asked if he would accept an invitation from Sen. Barack Obama to be his running mate, Edwards said he is not lobbying for the job but he would seriously consider it.

I’d be fine with an Obama-Edwards ticket, though that wouldn’t be my first choice – I’d call Kathleen Sebelius and Hillary Clinton my top two at this point. If President Obama wants to tap him as Attorney General, now that would excite me. Otherwise, keep doing what you’re doing, John. You do have that soapbox, and this is a good use of it.

UPDATE: Houtopia was at this event. neoHouston has a somewhat different take.

More motorcycles

I suppose an increase in the number of motorcycles was inevitable.

Though data on new motorcycle registrations are not yet available, there are already nearly 400,000 of them on Texas roads.

“We’re seeing an increased number of motorcycles, no doubt about it,” said Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Cross.

With the increase comes added concern about accidents and injuries. Both riders and authorities fear the larger number of inexperienced riders will lead to an uptick in operator fatalities.

July has been an especially deadly month for motorcyclists in unincorporated Harris County with five reported motorcyclist fatalities so far.

“You hear people all the time talking about buying a motorcycle or scooter due to rising fuel cost, so we should anticipate a rise in the future number of motorcycle operators on the roads. With this we have to consider that a large number of these new motorcycle operators will be amateurs,” said Lt. Darryl Coleman, of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Traffic Enforcement Section.

[…]

“We’re seeing different types of people walk through the door, people who wouldn’t be buying if gas weren’t so high,” said Joe Cantu, who has seen a dramatic increase in business at Houston Motorcycle Exchange in the Heights.

“We can’t keep up with the demand. It’s never been like this before. Two months ago we had 80 bikes on the floor. Now we have less than 20,” said Cantu, who has been in the business for more than 25 years.

The sales manager estimated that motorcycles get anywhere between 40 and 80 miles per gallon of gas, “depending on the bike and the driver.”

[…]

Jean Hudgins,Houston area vice president of the Texas Motorcycle Roadriders Association, said inexperienced riders are also to blame for many accidents.

Christopher Ramon Shaw was killed July 17 when he was “probably speeding” and lost control of a 2008 Yamaha R1 sport bike, Baytown Police Lt. Eric Freed said.

Shaw, a 34-year-old La Porte resident, Shaw, wasn’t licensed to operate a motorcycle on his Texas driver’s license, a state requirement for anyone who operates a motorcycle.

“The first thing people need to do when they get a motorcycle, any motorcycle, is take a safety course, especially if they’ve never ridden before,” said Hudgins.

Is taking the safety class a requirement for getting a Class M license? I’ve browsed through the Transportation Codes but couldn’t determine the answer to that. I also couldn’t tell if it is possible to buy a motorcycle without having a Class M license and/or proof of a motorcycle safety class. Seems to me that if the answer to either of these questions is “no”, then this would be a good time for the Lege to address the matter. If we are going to have more motorcycles on the streets, we should do our best to ensure that their operators are as well-equipped for it as possible. Making sure the automobile drivers are less clueless about them is unfortunately a different problem.

The next Mayor of San Antonio

Before Houston elects a new Mayor next November, San Antonio will do the same in May. Ken Rodriguez takes a look at what is shaping up to be a historic race.

“So,” my friend wanted to know, “what do you think of the mayor’s race?”

Could be historic, I said: “Right now we’ve got an all-Latino field. That’s never happened before.”

“Never?” my friend asked in disbelief.

“Not in modern times,” I replied.

Though no one has officially announced, we’ve got three Hispanics raising money to succeed Phil Hardberger: Juli├ín Castro. Diane Cibrian. Fernando Reyes.

Think about that. In modern San Antonio history, only two Latinos have served as mayor — Henry Cisneros and Ed Garza — but no current Anglo powerbroker has filed a campaign finance report to signify a run.

Cisneros, of course, served in the 80s. He was Mayor while I was in college. Garza was the predecessor to current Mayor Phil Hardberger.

Gordon Hartman would be viable. A philanthropist and former homebuilder, he’s got name ID, writes big checks to local charities and has weighed an ’09 run since at least ’05.

But he’s a North Side mystery. He hasn’t filed a campaign finance report. And he couldn’t be reached for comment regarding his mayoral intentions.

If Hartman were to run, he could be a minority candidate. The lone Anglo in a field of Latinos.

Remarkable.

The city may have turned a historic corner. One Anglo pillar in the business community puts it this way: “I think the perception is you are not going to have another Anglo mayor in San Antonio for a long, long time.”

The observation is based partly on the city’s growing Hispanic majority and partly on the shrinking power of the Anglo business community.

It’s an interesting contrast to Houston, where the three known Mayoral candidates so far are all Anglo. Everyone agrees that at least one non-white candidate will jump in at some point, but it’s not clear who they might be.

As for San Antonio, Castro is probably the frontrunner. He lost in a runoff to Hardberger in 2005, and as Rodriguez notes, he’s been running pretty much continuously since then. He was perceived as more style than substance back then, so I daresay he’ll work to address that this time around. Having open seat Mayoral races in two of the big cities here is going to make next year very interesting. Link via BOR.

“Money should NEVER stand in the way of health care”

I’m just going to reiterate the title of this post, and then urge you to follow the link to understand what it’s about and maybe take action to help: Money should NEVER stand in the way of health care. Just ask yourself a question: Would you rather we as a society spent our money helping this woman treat her cancer, or would you rather we spent it raising her two orphaned kids later on? I think that’s a pretty easy call to make, but then I’m just a soft-hearted liberal who doesn’t like the idea of two more motherless children in the world. Thanks to The Bloggess on Twitter for the link.

More flagships

This is a step in the right direction.

Lawmakers on Wednesday took one step closer to anointing a third public flagship by inviting leaders of Texas’ seven “emerging” research institutions to pitch a case for why they should become the state’s next tier one research university, and how much it would cost the state.

“We think we can do it, but we have to be really strategic,” said Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System. “It’s all about vision. Nobody invests in whining.”

“Why do we deserve to be the next one? Because we have momentum,” UTSA president Ricardo Romo told a Senate subcommittee led by Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Adding just one tier one university would cost the state about $70 million annually, $140 million for two and $210 million for three, said David Daniel, president of the University of Texas at Dallas. And it would have to be stable from year to year, like the oil profit endowment that feeds UT-Austin and Texas A&M.

[…]

Bill Powers, president of UT-Austin, warned lawmakers not to spread the money too thin. “Could it be two? Probably. I think there won’t be funding for more than that,” Powers said. “These are very hard decisions, but someone has to make them.”

Back in May, the Legislative Study Group came out with a report (PDF) that said we could add four flagships for $188 million, which is considerably less than what UTD’s Daniel says. It suggests we could make all seven of these schools flagships for $405 million. On a per-population basis, we really should have at least six such schools – California has ten Tier Ones, New York has eight. Getting two more, to bring the total to four, is certainly an improvement over what we have now. But it’s not enough, and we really need to think bigger. This should be a priority. BOR has more.

Obama’s Latino outreach

Julia Pippert was on a conference call yesterday with the Obama campaign, which had to do with their Latino outreach strategy. The good news is that they have one:

Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-CA) [hosted the call and] unveiled the new Spanish language radio ad entitled Bootstraps.

The ad will be rolled out in Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada, key battleground states with Hispanic populations.

The bad news, as you can tell from that list, is that neither Texas nor California, the two states with the largest numbers of Latinos in them, will not be part of the initial ad buy. Julie wanted to know what was up with that:

I called the Obama campaign to ask about it.

Shannon Gilson, who is in charge of communication and coordination for the Southwest states in the Obama 50 state reach out program, immediately replied to me with information about the Obama campaign strategy for Hispanic voters, “The Spanish-language ad is currently running in key battleground states. Our advertising buy will evolve in the coming weeks as we continue to aggressively reach out to Hispanic communities across the country.”

That sounds promising.

Mmm. I’ll feel better when they actually make the buy. Now I’m concerned that we’re just going to get more of the same hands-off “strategy” we’ve gotten in recent years. I hope all that talk about understanding the importance of Texas isn’t just smoke. And I hope we get real campaigning, by real people, and not just media buys. Our votes matter too, you know.

I’m not one who cares much about the National Popular Vote reform. I can take or leave the Electoral College idea, but there’s maybe a hundred things I want to see done before that becomes a priority to me. On the other hand, if “winning” Texas were no longer a necessity, I bet we’d start to see some actual Presidential campaigns here every four years. It was great to have them in March. It’d be even better to have them in November. I hope I don’t have to take on another cause to see that happen.

Metro gets another approval from the feds

Haven’t seen this in the papers, but according to Metro, they have received final federal approval for the Southeast line.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) granted its final approval of the Southeast Corridor Supplemental Final Environmental Statement (SFEIS) through a document known as a Record of Decision (ROD).

The FTA made its decision in part because the project would be a permanent investment, and therefore “this new transit system has the potential to positively influence economic development in the Southeast Corridor consistent with community plans.”

Earlier this month the FTA granted a ROD for the North Corridor light-rail project. The RODs are a key step toward obtaining federal funding, as they establish that these two projects satisfy the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and other legal requirements. The RODs also documents the many opportunities afforded to the community to voice their concerns.

METRO is seeking federal funds for three of the five light-rail expansion lines. In addition to the North and Southeast Corridors, the agency will seek federal funds for the University Corridor. The University Corridor light-rail project is still in the environmental process.

These three lines, together with the Uptown and East End lines, are scheduled to be completed in 2012. Construction is already underway in the East End. Now that METRO has obtained the two RODs, METRO can resume the purchase of property for the right-of-way. Groundbreaking for the North and Southeast lines is expected this Fall.

Ground has already been broken on the East End/Harrisburg line. The Uptown line, which will be paid for entirely by Metro, is dependent on the Universities line, so we won’t hear anything more about it till the U-line has its funding secured. As Tory and Christof have both observed, the new Commuter Rail proposal will be heavily dependent on the light rail network if it’s to be done right. So, lots of rail action going on right now, with even more to come soon.

The new Examiner

Check out the new look at the West U Examiner, which debuted this past week. It’s much slicker, with user comments in stories, and apparently will have more frequent updates – see, for example, this story about the ongoing Kirby trees saga. Their opinion page is now the home for the print stylings of KTRK reporter/blogger Miya Shay, who’ll be filling in for Chris Bell while he runs for State Senate. Here’s Miya’s take on CD07 challenger Michael Skelly. Nice to see that her voice for blogging carries over to the more traditional format.

(By the way, if you haven’t seen the video Miya got of President Bush’s speech at the Pete Olson fundraiser, I don’t know how you’ve managed to miss it. Go check it out, it’s for stuff like this that the word “flabbergasted” was coined.)

The costs and effects of mass imprisonment

Here’s a long, detailed article that summarizes the current research on crime and imprisonment and the costs of the latter on society. There’s way to much to try to encapsulate here, but I do want to highlight these three paragraphs, since I think they’re at the heart of the debate here in Harris County and Texas:

Skeptics may concede that mass incarceration injured social justice, but surely, they would contend, it contributed to the tremendous decline in crime through the 1990s. Indeed, the crime decline of the ’90s produced a great improvement in public safety. From 1993 to 2001, the violent crime rate fell considerably, murder rates in big cities like New York and Los Angeles dropped by half or more, and this progress in social wellbeing was recorded by rich and poor alike. Yet, when I analyzed crime rates in this period, I found that rising prison populations did not reduce crime by much. The growth in state imprisonment accounted for 2-5 percent of the decline in serious crime–one-tenth of the crime drop from 1993 to 2001. The remaining nine-tenths was due to factors like the increasing size of local police forces, the pacification of the drug trade following the crack epidemic of the early 1990s, and the role of local circumstances that resist a general explanation.

So a modest decline in serious crime over an eight year period was purchased for $53 billion in additional correctional spending and half a million new prison inmates: a large price to pay for a small reduction. If we add the lost earnings of prisoners to the family disruption and community instability produced by mass incarceration, we cannot but acknowledge that a steep price was paid for a small improvement in public safety. Several examples further demonstrate that the boom may have been a waste because crime can be controlled without large increases in imprisonment. Violent crime in Canada, for example, also declined greatly through the 1990s, but Canadian incarceration rates actually fell from 1991 to 1999. New York maintained particularly low crime rates through the 2000s, but has been one of the few states to cut its prison population in recent years.

More importantly, perhaps, the reduction in crime was accompanied by an array of new problems associated with mass incarceration. Those states that have sought reduced crime through mass incarceration find themselves faced with an array of problems associated with overreliance on imprisonment. How can poor communities with few resources absorb the return of 700,000 prisoners each year? How can states pay for their prisons while responding to the competing demands of higher education, Medicaid, and K-12 schools? How can we address the social costs–the broken homes, unemployment, and crime–that can follow from imprisonment? Questions such as these lead us to a more fundamental concern: how can mass imprisonment be reversed and American citizenship repaired?

Here again, this is why I refuse to vote for jail bonds. We’re spending tons of money to incarcerate people who don’t need to be locked up, and not only is that having a negligible effect on the crime rate, it costs us in many other ways and prevents us from spending money on other urgent needs. Yet people who would call themselves “fiscally conservative” are perfectly happy to spend these ever-increasing sums, without any honest accounting of the results we get for them. It’s tragic and wasteful and I want to see it stopped.

As I said, there’s much more in this article, including a look at what a saner alternative approach might be, and how some of those approaches are working in the real world. Take a look in particular at what Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes is doing. Link via Crooked Timber.

Brimer will appeal

I guess State Sen. Kim Brimer hasn’t lost in court often enough yet, because he wants to try again with the appeals court.

“We are in the process of both: campaigning for the fall election and appealing the district court’s decision on our opponent’s eligibility,” according to a statement from Brimer’s campaign.

Davis’ office said Brimer’s attitude and response are why she chose to challenge him for the office.

“Mr. Brimer still doesn’t get it,” said Matt Latham, Davis’ campaign manager, in a statement. “After his second failed attempt to deny the voters of Senate District 10 a voice in their choice for state senator, he continues to hide behind his lawyers or even to face his opponent in a public debate of the issues important to the good people of District 10.”

Brimer’s office said in the statement that he would debate Davis if an appeals court rules she is eligible — and if she repays the salary she earned as a city councilwoman from May 2007 to January 2008.

Any other conditions you want to impose there, big guy? Soft lighting, pre-arranged questions, no brown M&Ms? I know how hard this sort of thing can be, so I’m sure we can accommodate you. Sheesh.

Culberson: Let me revise and extend those remarks

Last week, when Rep. John Culberson criticized NASA by saying it had “failed us miserably” and “wastes a vast amount of money”, I wrote that I expected Culberson would wind up walking back his remarks. Looks like I was right.

“Every agency wastes money but NASA itself is not a waste,” the Republican lawmaker said during a video conference with constituents. “These fine people, the scientists and engineers there at NASA, I certainly owe these folks an apology because that is not what I meant to say.”

Culberson, whose statements last week were met with criticism from NASA supporters and political opponents, blamed his temper for his statements but also said his remarks had been taken out of context by people trying to embarass him as he seeks re-election.

In last week’s electronic town hall meeting, Culberson explained Tuesday night, “somebody was asking me about waste in government and a guy was aggravating me and I let my temper get a little bit away with me and I said something I shouldn’t have, which was … that NASA is a waste of money.”

But the congressman, who is seeking re-election against Democrat Michael Skelly and Libertarian Drew Parks in the 7th Congressional District, also said his statements from last week were “taken out of context by somebody out there looking to try to embarrass me in a political campaign, which is unfortunate in this business.”

When a Chronicle reporter contacted Culberson last week about his initial statements, however, the congressman affirmed them and went further, saying he was considering introducing legislation to overhaul the space agency as well as expose it to more competition from the private sector.

He made no remarks Tuesday night about the fate of any such legislation.

Color me unsurprised about any of this. Culberson has never been into subtlety, and that sort of thing always gets you into trouble sooner or later. He can claim he was taken out of context, but this is completely consistent with his style. And please spare me the whining about people trying to “embarrass” him in a political campaign. If you can’t stand having a light shine on what you’re saying, you don’t belong on the campaign trail. Culberson isn’t used to this kind of scrutiny, being a longtime denizen of uncompetitive districts. Welcome to 2008, John. Things are a little different this year. Houston Politics has more.

The Harris County money race

I’ve referred to the 2008 elections here as being very different from what we’re used to seeing. One simple reason for that is that there will be ample funding available for local Democratic campaign efforts.

Disclosures on a complicated web of Republican and Democratic fundraising by federal and state committees indicate that Democrats have an edge, so far, in the total amount of money they can spend in Harris County. How much either party has decided to spend in Harris County remains secret.

The biggest donors to the Texas Democratic Trust are Dallas personal injury lawyer Fred Baron ($1.54 million), Houston personal injury lawyer John Eddie Williams ($450,000) and Dallas-area Container Store retail chain founder Garrett Boone and family ($400,000).

The trust put staffer Mike Malaise to work in Houston after he managed U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson’s 2006 campaign. The group also has paid for consulting, polling and related campaign tools.

The Lone Star Fund, which relies heavily on $5,000 and $10,000 gifts from national labor unions, paid for such things as a Web site featuring “dossiers” on the scandals that have enveloped county Republican officials.

Both groups specialize in tuning and coordinating Democrats’ campaign themes and giving candidates resources, such as voter lists.

The main message is that GOP incumbents are ethically corrupt while letting quality-of-life issues slip.

Republicans say they have cleaned their own house of scandals, such as the ones that led to District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal’s resignation, and have provided efficient government services.

Working to harmonize Democratic candidates “is a coordinated (local) effort we haven’t seen in quite some time,” said Amber Moon, who was dispatched this year by Texas Democratic Party headquarters in Austin to the Houston area to coordinate news media contacts for Democratic contenders for county judge, district attorney, sheriff and other jobs.

County campaigns here have been a total hand-to-mouth experience in recent years. This year, there’s paid staff, there’s a coordinated media effort, and there will be TV and radio advertising. When was the last time you saw that for countywide races? I can’t remember.

At least, it hasn’t been that way on the Democratic side in recent years. The Republicans have a more extensive history of being flush for campaigns. I’m sure they’ll have money this year as well, it’s just that they’ll also have company. From where I sit, it’s about time for that.

One more race on the ballot

Due to the untimely death of Harris County Probate Judge Russell Austin last month, there will be one more race on the ballot this fall. As of yesterday, the Harris County GOP has chosen its nominee for that bench.

About 300 Republican precinct chairs anointed Georgia Akers, an associate judge in another probate court, to be on the Nov. 4 ballot for the job rather than Ruth Ann Stiles, Austin’s associate judge.

County commissioners are scheduled to vote today on who will serve in Austin’s place until voters make their selection. The commissioners can pick someone other than Akers. Stiles, however, said that without the nomination, “it would not be best” for her to take the interim job.

Democrats are scheduled to pick their nominee Aug. 14.

The word that everyone has heard is that former Harris County District Court Judge Kathy Stone, who served two terms on the 55th Court before losing in 1998, will be the Democratic nominee. Stone ran for the 334th District Civil Court in 2004 and was the top Democratic vote-getter in Harris County, drawing almost 48% of the total. She’ll make a strong candidate for this race. Far as I’ve heard, no one else is making a serious effort to challenge her for this.

UPDATE: Commissioners Court has chosen Akers to fill out the remainder of Austin’s term.

Where’s your report, Chuck?

Oops.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman says she will ask District Attorney Ken Magidson to look into the fact that former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal apparently hasn’t filed his semi-annual campaign finance report. The deadline was July 15.

Rosenthal resigned as district attorney and is not on this year’s ballot. But, with $198,204 in contributions in his campaign account as of Dec. 31, he is required to make a public accounting of his finances at least every half-year, officials said.

Late filers may be subject to a $500 fine under state law, Kaufman said. She said she does not police the filing of reports but does make prosecutors aware of violations when they are brought to her attention. Our phone call to ask about the missing report is what made her aware of this instance.

I’m sure Rosenthal has been busy lately, and this must have slipped his mind. If he’s lucky, interim DA Ken Magidson will take this sort of complaint as lightly as Rosenthal himself did, back when it was his job to conduct such investigations. I rather suspect he won’t be so lucky. Not that he’s at any real risk – it’s a $500 fine, for goodness’ sake – but there’s a nontrivial amount of irony here. It’s just fitting, somehow.

Homes for the homeless

Given the previous story about the problem of dealing with mentally ill homeless folks that the jails have, this article about a proposed shelter for them is quite timely.

The list of those who support Magnolia Glen, a project that would provide permanent rooms for 220 homeless, is daunting: Houston Mayor Bill White, all five members of Harris County Commissioners Court, area mental health advocates, top city housing officials.

Commissioners Court in March awarded $1.67 million in federal grant money for the project, expecting the city to approve its share, $4 million, a short time later. But the project is teetering and may not happen because one official has said the project’s bevy of influential supporters are wrong.

“I understand the facility, and I understand what it does. If it were going in another district, I could support it. But I will not support it in District I,” Councilman James Rodriguez. “My district already has enough (such housing for the homeless) and soup kitchens. I feel we need to spread new facilities around.”

White has taken the position that he will not force the district councilman to accept a facility that he opposes.

But White said he hasn’t given up on the project. He urged Rodriguez and the Eastwood Civic Association to meet with Magnolia Glen’s developer, the nonprofit Housing Corporation of Greater Houston, and supporters of the project to try to reach common ground.

[…]

The 220 units of housing would be the biggest project undertaken since the commission in 2006 launched a 10-year effort to find homes for the estimated 10,000 homeless in Harris County. The group concluded that 7,000 rooms and apartments are needed. About 200 such units have been created since 2006.

“The city was looking for a dramatic way to move towards meeting its 10-year homeless plan,” said Tom Lord, president of the nonprofit that has proposed buying Magnolia Glen for $5.85 million and then turning it into permanent housing for the homeless.

Case managers, including supervisors of the mentally ill and those with substance abuse problems, would be on duty at all times. Residents would pay about $425 a month in rent for a single room that includes a small refrigerator and a microwave.

The federal government awards grants for such housing because it has proven to help get the homeless off the street and help prevent them from cycling through jails and emergency psychiatric wards, where they often land when they stop taking prescribed psychotropic medications.

[…]

White said he supports Magnolia Glen in part because it would be a bargain. Building similar new rooms for the homeless would cost about $75,000 a unit. The cost will be $26,000 a unit at Magnolia Glen, White said.

White said he understands that most facilities for the homeless should not be located in the same areas.

Former Councilman Gordon Quan, a member of the blue-ribbon commission, said he keeps that policy in mind, but money helps determine where sites can be found.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you put this in River Oaks or Memorial?’ We couldn’t afford the land in River Oaks. But we are cognizant that these need to be spread around,” he said.

I have a lot of sympathy for CM Rodriguez’s position. As a commenter on that story notes, Eastwood is already the home of several such facilities. They do need to be distributed around the city more. On the other hand, given the low cost of the Magnolia and the fact that the neighborhood is not uniformly opposed to it, perhaps there’s some kind of accommodation that can be reached. It would be a shame to lose out on this kind of opportunity, given the great need for more of these homes.

Kos comes to Houston

I mentioned before that I had the chance to meet Markos Moulitsas Zuniga from Daily Kos. He mentioned to me as we chatted that he’d be back in Texas soon, Houston in particular, as part of his book tour. Turns out he’ll be giving a lecture as part of The Progressive Forum‘s speaker series. The event will be Monday, September 22 at 7:30 at the Wortham Center, Cullen Theater. More details will be forthcoming in August, but for now you can find everything there is to know at that Progressive Forum link.

Judge rules for Davis in ballot access case

Good.

Democrat Wendy Davis is eligible to run against state Sen. KimBrimer, R-Fort Worth, in November, according to a civil court ruling.

When asked if Brimer planned to appeal the ruling, his lawyer, Nick Acuff, said “I think so.”

Outside the courtroom, Davis said she was confident the ruling will stand through appeals.

“I’m very very confident in the law and I’m very confident, that regardless of the appellate level that hears this case, we are legally on the ballot,” she said.

[…]

Judge Tom Lowe ruled in favor of Davis’ eligibility based on two different criteria. He said that Davis’ second filing for the Texas Senate (done on Jan. 2) was completely free of conflict because Joel Burns had been sworn in as city councilman the day before. This ruling is the first concrete declaration of whether Burns’ unscheduled swearing-in at home was official. Fort Worth city attorneys have declined to say.

Lowe then said that even if Burns’ first swearing-in wasn’t official, meaning that Davis held her city council seat for a week following her filing to run for a higher office, it didn’t matter.

“Davis’s holding office for those additional seven days was de minimus and does not render her ineligible to seek election,” Lowe wrote.

Brimer had filed suit earlier this month, in what I thought was a fairly risky move. I think he’s got to appeal, but to my non-lawyerly eyes, this doesn’t look good for him. Here’s more on the hearing itself. I hope we can put this behind us now and get on with the business oif the election.

A billion short

We first heard about this last month, and now it seems certain: The new business tax will fall well short or revenue projections.

“It’s almost certain we’re going to come in about a billion dollars below what we estimated,” Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, told the Houston Chronicle after a meeting of the Business Tax Advisory Committee, which he serves. “Because other taxes are running ahead of projections, we’re still OK. … We’re not flush, but we’ll be OK, I think.”

The new business tax was pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and approved by lawmakers in 2006 as part of a package that also lowered local school property tax rates when the state faced a court order to change the public education tax system. The expanded business tax, due this year for the first time based on last year’s business activity, will help subsidize the cost of lower school property tax rates.

Ogden’s assessment came after the comptroller’s office reported that through June, the new tax brought in $4.29 billion. It has been projected to yield $5.9 billion this fiscal year, which ends Aug. 31. Figures won’t be final until November because of businesses that filed for extensions.

Dale Craymer, chief economist for the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association and a tax advisory committee member, also has said he thinks it’s unlikely the tax will hit its first-year target.

Craymer said better-than-expected yields from other taxes, including oil and natural gas production, could more than make up the difference.

He emphasized Monday that the business tax performance so far “is probably not indicative of how much revenue the tax is ultimately going to generate, just because of first-year transitional issues.”

I’m not as sanguine about the future prospects of this tax as Craymer is. For one thing, I fully expect it to be tinkered with to some extent in 2009, possibly quite a bit, as there is a lot of pressure from unhappy small business owners and from legislators on both sides of the aisle. For another, to be off by more than 15% just doesn’t inspire confidence. I’ll grant that there was probably a learning curve here, but come on. If it was reasonable to expect the possibility of a billion dollars being lost to “first year transitional issues”, that should have been made a lot more clear when the thing was being written and debated. I mean hell, would John Sharp agree with that assessment? This was his baby, after all.

State of Play

Here’s a Texas Monthly article by Paul Burka that takes a look at how the Presidential race might affect various key downballot races in Texas. It’s pretty comprehensive, and very Burka-esque, with all the good and bang-your-head-against-a-wall-ness that implies. One point that I want to highlight, which illuminates some of my frustration with this kind of analysis:

The East Texas WD-40’s

“WD-40” is Capitol-speak for white Democrats of middle age who generally represent Republican-leaning districts. In a normal year, Mark Homer, Jim McReynolds, and Chuck Hopson would be favored, but Obama may be a load to carry in East Texas.

Is there anyone reading this who can’t visualize this exact same paragraph being written with “Hillary” being substituted for “Obama”? I mean, for a good six months or more, we were subjected to one Republican operative after another gleefully rubbing his hands at the prospect of Hillary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket, where her supposedly divisive presence would save them all by giving the legions of grumpy, apathetic Republican voters a reason to drag themselves to the polls. But wait! They were head-faking us all along! It’s really Obama they wanted to run against! He’ll inspire them in a way that John McCain only dreams he could!

Yeah, I think you see my problem. It’s one part lazy thinking, with an equal measure of Republican talking points. And to this day, after all this time, no one has ever satisfactorily explained to me why guys like Homer, Hopson, and McReynolds have anything more to fear now than they did in 2004 when an at-his-zenith George W. Bush was leading the way for the state GOP. For crying out loud, Burka acknowledges this up front:

Finally, the R’s have run out of Bushes. The 2008 election will not be a replay of 2000, or even 2004. The Democrats have a candidate who energizes the party’s electorate, while the GOP nominee would not have been the first choice of most Texas Republicans.

And yet we get the same tired conventional wisdom about the WD-40s. Why is that?

Well, there is one more thing, which Burka doesn’t mention but which must be at the root of his thinking here, and that of course is race. Maybe the fact that Obama is black will help generate Republican turnout in East Texas. Only problem with that is, there’s no evidence that Obama will do any worse in such areas than some other Democrat would have done.

So does Barack Obama have a problem with white voters? The answer is a resounding “yes.” And so has every other Democratic presidential candidate in the past forty years. The last Democratic candidate for president to win a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Al Gore lost the white vote by 12 points in 2000. John Kerry lost the white vote by 17 points in 2004.

Based on five national polls that have been conducted this month–Gallup, Newsweek, Quinnipiac, CBS/New York Times, and ABC/Washington Post–Barack Obama is currently trailing John McCain by an average of nine points among white voters. So Obama is doing much better than John Kerry and a little better than Al Gore. In fact, the only Democratic presidential candidates in the past four decades who have done better among white voters were Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Not coincidentally, they were also the only successful Democratic presidential candidates in the past four decades. Based on his current showing in the polls, Barack Obama may well be the next one. With whites expected to comprise less than 80 percent of the 2008 electorate, and with a 20-1 margin among black voters and a 2-1 margin among Hispanic voters, Obama’s current nine point deficit among white voters would translate into a decisive victory in November.

So the democratic nominee may change, but the question remains the same: Why would any of these guys be in more danger in 2008 than they were in 2004? Note that I’m not saying any of them can’t lose, just that as far as I can see, they’ve faced worse conditions than this. So why the hand-wringing? Anybody? I’m still willing to change my mind about this, if someone can show me tangible evidence to contradict my hypothesis. I’m still waiting to see such evidence. [email protected] has more.

Density and transit go hand in hand

This recent article about a new high-end 236-unit apartment at Richmond and Dunlavy in Montrose contains a point that I wish would get mentioned more often.

David Robinson, president of the Neartown Association, said his group realizes change, specifically higher density, is coming to central Houston, and members are fine with it as long as it is done right.

“Density is something we need and are encouraging inside the city limits, especially in the urban core,” Robinson said. “Neartown’s official opinion is that increased density is OK as long as it is marked by wise investment and prudent decision making. I think we could overbuild the area easily if we weren’t smart about it.

“Our city is so diverse and the character of the neighborhoods is so important to maintain and preserve,” he added. “As a leader of Neartown, we love our neighborhood and we’re not looking for wholesale change. We’re looking at building on the existing infrastructure.”

Robinson said he believes the location of the Fairmont Museum District is appropriate, and is ideally located to make use of the University Corridor line.

“Along the Richmond Avenue corridor is the perfect place for higher density to occur,” Robinson said.

It will help, “get cars off the street and allow people living there to take mass transit,” he added. “When you talk about our carbon footprint these days, getting out of the car and onto the rail is a good idea.”

Claude Wynn, president of the Museum District Business Alliance, said he is aware of increased density and how it can favor businesses.

“I think this is what we’re looking at along the thoroughfares,” Wynn said. “Rail is going to bring this kind of density, which is not incorrect. It’s about how it’s done. There are some concerns by some in the neighborhood, but I personally don’t know of any business complaints.

“We know we are facing increasing density and that’s part of what gives a spark to the businesses. Density is what feeds the walkable Montrose idea, that’s what rail is about – the ability to walk for several blocks. Businesses are not as sensitive to things like that as the neighborhoods.”

Basically, density without transit is just worse traffic. Density with transit is something desirable for residents and businesses, and will attract people to it from elsewhere. Many of the concerns about some of the new highrise projects would largely go away if people didn’t see them as just adding hundreds more cars to their neighborhoods. It’s pretty simple, really. And since the density is coming to all over central Houston, we need to start thinking aggressively about bringing more transit there as well. I have some thoughts on this that I will develop more fully in the coming weeks.

Steffy runs against the wind

I would have had respect for Loren Steffy’s dissenting opinion on wind energy had he acknowledged any of the following: The externalities imposed by coal- and gas-powered plants cost us a boatload of money, too; factoring in those externalities makes wind power a heck of a lot more competitive; the intermittance of wind is a technical problem that can be solved or at least mitigated by various storage solutions. But he did none of that, nor did he offer any solutions of his own, so I’m not particularly impressed. At least T. Boone Pickens put forth a concrete proposal for people to study and pick apart.

On the plus side, reading Steffy’s column alerted me to the fact that the Public Utility Commission cast a vote in favor of expanding the infrastructure for delivering wind energy in Texas.

A divided commission selected a plan that will eventually transmit 18,456 megawatts of wind power from West Texas and the Panhandle. That would be enough to power 3.7 million homes on a hot summer day, and more than 11 million in milder weather.

“It’s a big bite,” said Public Utility Commissioner Paul Hudson. “The transmission plan is nothing short of extraordinary in terms of scope and magnitude.”

The commission expects the new lines will be in service within four to five years. As the lines begin transmitting power, residential consumers will pay higher rates that are expected to total about $4 per month when the $4.93 billion in construction is complete.

[…]

The plan, which is expected to be finalized later this month, represents a middle ground among five scenarios ranging from $3 billion to $6.4 billion.

The Legislature in 2005 directed the PUC to select the most productive wind zones and devise a plan to move power from those zones to populated areas.

[…]

The wind industry is supported by rural lawmakers for the jobs and growth it will bring, and by urban legislators who say that wind will reduce pollution and global warming.

“This puts us on the path toward diversification of our energy sources so that by 2015 we should be reliant on wind for 25 percent,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

Critics said that because the wind blows less in the summer when demand is highest, additional natural gas and coal-fired plants will need to be built to meet peak demand.

Wind generators had supported even higher levels of transmission, but were pleased by Thursday’s vote.

“With the eyes of the nation watching Texas, we have developed a process that will serve as a model for the country as we look to diversify our energy fuel mix,” said Paul Sadler, executive director of The Wind Coalition, in a statement.

So they picked ERCOT scenario 2, not scenario 3. It’s still a step forward, despite what Loren Steffy thinks.

Finally, on a related note, Glenn Smith adds his critique of the Pickens Plan.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 21

We’re back from Netroots Nation, and we’ve got a lot to talk about. There’ll be a special roundup of NN coverage at another time, but for now, here are the Texas Progressive Alliance blog highlights from last week. Read on…

(more…)

The jails and the mentally ill

Tough story to read in the Chron today about mentally ill folks and the role the county jails have played as de facto health care provider for them.

At the Harris County Jail, deputies and health care workers have a name for them — frequent fliers.

They are mentally ill homeless people who return to jail so often, sometimes on minor charges, that they become familiar to the psychiatric staff.

During a recent survey, county officials found that more than 400 of the jail’s 11,000 inmates were homeless and suffered from a major mental illness: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or a chronic depressive-psychotic disorder. They were among 1,900 inmates on psychotropic medications.

When the mentally ill homeless leave jail — and leave behind its mental health care staff — many stop taking medication and end up on the street again. Treatment resumes only when they commit a crime and return to jail or their dementia overwhelms them and they are brought to an emergency psychiatric center.

Treating the mentally ill as they cycle through jail and emergency psychiatric wards is expensive. A county budget analyst estimates that it costs $80,000 a year, per person.

At the jail, spending on mental health care has risen to $24 million annually, and the combined cost of incarcerating and treating the mentally ill is $87 million annually.

“The jails have become the psychiatric hospitals of the United States,” said Clarissa Stephens, an assistant director of the county’s budget and management services office who has been studying the jail’s mental health costs.

The Commissioners Court is so concerned about the rising costs that it has retained a consultant — psychiatrist Avrim Fishkind — to study whether providing outpatient services and supervised housing would reduce the numbers of mentally ill revolving through the jail.

“The costs of reincarcerating and court costs far outweigh what the costs would be if you housed, clothed and supervised the mentally ill,” Fishkind said.

[…]

Some of the mentally ill — many of whom also are substance abusers — keep committing crimes and getting rearrested, in part, because few are properly supervised when they are released, said David Buck, a Baylor College of Medicine associate professor and president of Healthcare for the Homeless-Houston.

Houston isn’t alone in facing this issue. After many mental hospitals were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, countless patients were released in cities that were ill-equipped to house those who needed such care.

“What happens here happens in many communities. We are criminalizing mental illness,” said Betsy Schwartz, president of Mental Health of America of Greater Houston, a nonprofit that promotes effective treatment for the mentally ill.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’m going to do it anyway. We spend all this money to lock people up, when it would be more humane, more cost-effective, and more in keeping with the principles of justice if we’d look for alternatives for many of them. I have some questions about how outpatient sevices and supervised housing would work, and how successful the county would be at overcoming the inevitable (and, let’s face it, understandable) NIMBYism that would be the response to them, but the idea is solid.

Chief Deputy Mike Smith of the Sheriff’s Office said the jail’s mental health operation is comparable to the biggest non-jail mental health hospitals in the state.

Smith, as head of the jail, is among those credited with upgrading its mental health services.

“I’ve had people say I better watch what I say or I’ll come across as a liberal,” he said. “We shouldn’t be treating our mentally ill in the jails. We should be treating them in the free world.”

See, this is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be a “liberal” idea or a “conservative” idea but simply a sensible and humane idea. What we’re doing right now doesn’t work on many levels. There’s no compelling reason not to try something else. Let’s make it happen.

Incentivizing recycling

Though there’s been some recent good news on the recycling front, the city of Houston still has a long way to go to bring its program up to an acceptable level, which has been having problems for years now.

“Everything that comes out of your home or office is really a material stream that can be recycled or composted or even re-used,” says Darryl Lambert, who manages the AbitibiBowater sorting center where Houston sends its recyclables. “There’s very little true, true waste.”

That may be, but that does not mean Houston recycles as much as it could. Some residents blame the city’s modestly scaled curbside program, which offers residents no financial incentive to recycle and serves only 47 percent of the 342,000 homes that get public trash service. But the city says that more recycling companies need to come to Houston, build processing centers, and ramp up the market for used goods.

“Houston is a virtual gold mine of recyclable materials; it’s just a matter of companies mining that material,” said Harry Hayes, solid waste director.

“You need to build it, and I think the material will flow,” Hayes added.

Recycling surveys are notoriously fuzzy, relying on self-reports based on inconsistent measures. But one estimate puts Houston’s rate at a dismal 2 percent of all municipal solid waste — the nonindustrial and nonconstruction waste generated by homes, schools and businesses. The city claims it is slightly higher, if you count efforts in more than 50 city buildings, but officials acknowledge that recycling is the city’s “growth opportunity.”

“I think our current levels of recycling are unacceptable, and we need to do more,” Mayor Bill White said recently.

The city is on track to push its recycling rate toward 20 percent, White said.

[…]

Major sectors of the city — the Medical Center, downtown skyscrapers and apartment buildings — manage their own waste and aren’t mandated by the city. Other cities, like New York and Portland, Ore., require businesses and private haulers to do some recycling, but Houston leaves it up to them.

“Nobody is prevented from doing any of this,” White says.

Critics say that approach, based on volunteerism and education, is not enough.

“You are not going to educate the majority of people into recycling,” says Leo Gold, a financial adviser who also hosts a talk show on KPFT-FM (90.1). “The others have to be induced.”

“It took $4-a-gallon gasoline for people to get fuel-efficient automobiles, and it’s going to take creative pricing to get people to do recycling,” Gold added.

Gold recently presented a petition with specific suggestions for Houston to adopt regarding waste management and recycling. While I strongly agree with his list of proposals, I disagree on the matter of educating people about recycling. I think a lot of people don’t give the matter much thought, and have no idea about the costs of landfills or the real need to recycle more. I’ve advocated for this before and I’ll say it again: I think a big PR campaign, modeled along the lines of the classic “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering program, would go a long way towards changing attitudes and raising participation rates. That should be done in concert with a campaign to get business centers to promote recycling on their properties. This is low-hanging fruit, and will help to get people into the habit and mindset that things like aluminum cans and plastic bottles do not belong in the trash can. I truly believe this is a necessary first step, and that it can be achieved relatively easily.

Now there’s no reason you can’t also do things like “pay to throw”, where trash fees are based in part on the size of your receptacle. Multiple approaches should be taken, and modified as needed if something isn’t working. This is a big opportunity for Houston to save money and be a little greener. I hope someone with a little ambition steps up and takes the lead on this.

Bell’s launch

And it’s official: Chris Bell has his formal campaign kickoff yesterday.

In a rally held in a sweltering tent outside his new campaign headquarters just blocks from his southwest Houston home, Bell said he sees the seat as “a golden opportunity to make progress toward the same goals I’ve worked for my entire career.”

Bolstering public education and fighting vouchers, health care reform and ethics enforcement were the main issues cited by the former U.S. congressman and city councilman.

After losing the Texas governor’s race, Bell –an attorney by professional — joined the Washington, D.C., based firm of Patton Boggs as a lobbyist, and penned a weekly political column for the Examiner Newspaper Group. (That column has been put in hiatus.)

“Running for office this year was not in my plans,” he told about 200 well-wishers. “But real leadership demands that you welcome opportunities to serve the public good even when it’s not convenient or according to some schedule you set for yourself.”

That’s a pretty good turnout for an event like this. This race is now one of the high-profile ones for Harris County – really, for the whole state – and assuming Bell can get the fundraising support he needs, it’s a great opportunity for a Democratic pickup.

The bypass blues

The bypass giveth, and the bypass taketh away.

If motorists on a new branch of Texas 249 glance out their windows as they zip past Tomball, they’ll see a blur of restaurants and shops that soon will be framed in their rear-view mirrors.

The bypass road, which local leaders prefer to call the “Tomball Expressway,” is helping commuters reach homes to the north and workplaces to the south more quickly. But some merchants along the road now known as “Business 249” say sales have dwindled as motorists pass them by.

“It’s definitely affected us. Our revenues are down 15 percent,” said Valery Norton, the assistant manager of a Starbucks on Business 249.

The effect of the new road on this northwest Harris County town of 10,000 illustrates the dilemma facing many Houston area communities adapting to the growth surrounding them.

As developers create new subdivisions and business centers on pastures and fields, towns such as Tomball increasingly become just a set of traffic lights motorists would prefer to avoid on their way to something else.

“These rural areas aren’t rural any more,” said Pat Waskowiak, a program manager in the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

“There’s an inherent conflict between trying to accommodate the commuter traffic and the smaller communities that are trying to retain their business and their character.”

Tomball City Manager Jan Belcher, however, said the town’s decision to support construction of the bypass was intended to benefit local residents as well as commuters. The Texas Department of Transportation opened the southbound lanes in January and northbound lanes in May.

The town and its chamber of commerce lobbied for the road, Belcher said, because Texas 249 was becoming choked with traffic. This created problems for local residents trying to get to businesses on the highway as well as for motorists headed somewhere else, Belcher said.

“It’s working exactly as it was intended,” Belcher said. “It allows the (commuter) traffic to get through, and it allows people on Business 249 to get in and out of the businesses.”

I don’t drive out that way, so I haven’t seen the changes this has brought. But I’ve been driving to Austin along 290 for 20 years, and the same kind of thing happened years ago to a lot of the small towns between here and there, like Prairie View and Hempstead. There’s a McDonald’s in Hempstead, just south of the Lawrence Marshall dealership and the junction with State Highway 6, that used to be a regular stop for me. I’ve no idea if it’s still there – the modern 290 so thoroughly bypasses Hempstead you hardly realize you’re passing through a town at all. It makes for a faster and more fuel-efficient drive to Austin, so I’m not complaining. But I do wonder what effect it’s had on the place.

You still get to see some of the towns along 290 as you drive through. Brenham is bypassed in the sense that there’s a “Business 290” that takes you on the slow drive through the old town center, but the stretch just north of the junction with State Highway 36 and the two miles or so south where the two roads are concurrent has places to stop and eat or sleep and even a few businesses that aren’t travel-dependent. Farther west in Giddings, 290 is pretty much as it was when I first started making that drive, with the road serving as the main local drag. It’s the only remaining locale where you have to slow down as much as 35 MPH, and there’s both traffic lights and an active railroad crossing to keep you slowed down, but I don’t mind. I like being reminded about places like that. It also has a lot of good choices to stop and deal with hungry or bathroom-needing kids, which I appreciate even more.

Check your citizenship

MSNBC recently asked the question “Could you pass the latest citizenship test?” Naturally, I had to find out. Here’s the answer:

I thought it was pretty easy, and I think most people reading this will find it easy as well, but I’d bet there’s an awful lot of folks who would have a hard time getting the 80% passing score. How’d you do? Link via Mike Falick, who did as well as I did, and Texas Weekly.

A few random thoughts on my trip to Netroots Nation

We departed Austin yesterday at 2 PM. That’s earlier than we’d originally planned, but when the kids announce they’re ready to go home, the couple of extra hours you’d thought you’d stay start to look optional. So we’re back, and we’re back in the routine, and all is more or less right with the universe. Here are a few random thoughts from the trip:

– Next time, if there are multiple panel sessions planned for the same time, just pick one and stick with it instead of splitting time between them. The amount you miss between the two is greater than the amount you get.

– I was underwhelmed by the exhibitors floor at NN. When I go to the annual BlackBerry conference, I spend quite a bit of time on the exhibitors floor talking to vendors, even ones whose product I know we’re never going to buy. There’s almost always something of interest to me, almost always something I can learn. I walked through the exhibitors floor twice at NN and never felt the need to stop and chat with any of them. I never even paused long enough for one of them to try to catch my eye. That was about the only thing at NN I didn’t find useful.

– Write this down: You can never ask a four-year-old too many times if she needs to use the potty before embarking on a highway trip. Trust me on this.

– Unexpected pleasant surprise #1: Finding that the parking lot next to the Convention Center, which was too full to use during the state Democratic convention, allowed three in-and-outs for the $7 fee. That was very cool.

– I got to chat for a few minutes with Netroots favorite Darcy Burner on Thursday night. I can totally see why our crowd loves her. Put simply, she’s a geek, and I mean that as high praise.

– Austin has a radio station (103.5) called Bob, which is a lot like Houston’s Jack – in fact, some of their intro/outro clips are identical – but with two differences: One is that Bob has a DJ, though not a very talkative one, and two is that Bob has a wider and deeper playlist. It strayed farther out of the classic rock/80s music comfort zone that Jack largely inhabits, and played some deeper cuts from within that zone as well. I wish Jack were a little more like Bob.

– Unexpected pleasant surprise #2: Seeing and getting to spend some time with my college buddy Jay, who was also in attendance at NN. I knew he was a reader of mine, and I knew he lived in Austin, but I hadn’t expected to see him at the conference. But he was, and it was great to catch up with him. I’ll be seeing him again in October for our 20-year reunion.

– It was nice to hear an ad on the radio for the Oasis restaurant, which has clearly recovered from its devastating fire in 2005. Next time I’m in Austin, I want to have dinner there. Even if the food isn’t any better than before, the view makes up for it.

The difference between Netroots Nation and that other conference going on in Austin, in a nutshell: We had Al Gore to talk about energy policy. They had some guy named Tim Phillips there to tell them that global warming was all a nefarious plot by the eeevil libruls designed to raise their taxes.

– Netroots Nation 2009 will be in Pittsburgh. Make your reservations early.

Weekend link dump for July 19

Had a good time at Netroots Nation. Happy to be sleeping in my own bed again. Dumping links for your weekend amusement. Yes, I meant to do this yesterday.

Lawn zombies. I need to get one of them. Via the comments at The Bloggess.

Gmail to no longer auto-add contacts. I kinda liked it the old way. Via Dwight.

Ed Wade hates fire sales. So he may trade prospects for veterans, instead of the other way around. At least, he would if the Astros had any worth trading.

The tragedy of Jesse Jackson.

The Ten Worst Sports Logos. It’s scary how much that Islanders guy looks like the Gorton fisherman.

The spirit of ’78. I knew a lot of those events described happened that year, but it’s stunning to see it all laid out like that.

Hey, by this definition, I’m a vegetarian, too. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go get a double bacon cheeseburger. (via)

You think the folks at SMU who pushed to get the George W. Bush Presidential Library there are feeling a wee bit embarrassed these days? If not, they should be.

The legacy of Mae Jackson.

Our President is so eloquent.

Running for office, xkcd-style.

Commissioners Court to try, try again

Here we go again.

Commissioners Court could vote Tuesday on whether to take another shot at asking voters to approve a bond proposal for a new jail.

County administrators scaled back plans for the downtown facility after the electorate rejected a $245-million proposal by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin last November. The plan would have relied on $195 million in bonds.

While officials suggested the court find other ways to pay for the downsized facility, Commissioner Steve Radack said he would oppose any plan not approved by the people.

The plan unveiled last month cut the facility’s capacity from 2,500 beds to about 1,000. The five-story jail would house sick inmates and those expected to be released within three days.

That plan would cost $171 million, with about $110 million funded by bonds.

The court also could consider adding 600 beds for sick inmates, which would add as much as $76 million to the bond proposal.

It’s possible this is a sensible plan. I’m willing to be convinced by someone I can trust that it is. But until such time, my position remains that I will not vote for any bonds to fund new jail construction until I am satisfied that we have taken concrete steps to deal with the underlying reasons for our overcrowded jails. Otherwise, this is like dealing with a leaky sink by installing a larger bucket.

You there! Go play outside!

Do you have a teenager at home? If so, he or she probably isn’t exercising enough.

One of the largest studies of its kind shows just how sluggish American children become once they hit the teen years: While 90 percent of 9-year-olds get a couple of hours of exercise most days, fewer than 3 percent of 15-year-olds do.

What’s more, the study suggests that fewer than a third of teens that age get even the minimum recommended by the government — an hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise, like cycling, brisk walking, swimming or jogging.

The sharp drop raises concerns about inactivity continuing into adulthood, which could endanger kids’ health throughout their lives, the study authors said.

“People don’t recognize this as the crisis that it is,” said lead author Dr. Philip Nader, a pediatrician and professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego.

[…]

The study, appearing in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, tracked about 1,000 U.S. children, from 2000 until 2006.

Special gadgets were used to record their activity. Average levels of moderate-to-vigorous activity fell from three hours a day at age 9 to less than an hour at age 15.

Nader said he was “surprised by how dramatic the decline was,” and cited schools dropping recess and gym classes and kids’ increasing use of video games and computers as possible reasons.

Well, there isn’t a standardized test for gym classes, so what do schools need it for? Focus on the necessities, people.

Two personal anecdotes: We didn’t have computers and the Internets when I was a kid, back when the earth’s crust was cooling, but I can assure you that any kid who wanted to avoid activity and exercise had plenty of options for doing so. My preferred method for staying inside and sitting on my butt was Strat-O-Matic sports games. I wasn’t a fan of that newfangled thing called Dungeons and Dragons, but I knew people who were into it. I did actually play a lot of pickup sports back then, but believe me, if I wanted to be sedentary, I had ways of doing it.

And by the time I was 15, my main form of exercise was commuting to and from high school. That meant taking a bus, the ferry, and the subway every day; it also meant a lot of walking, including a fair amount of stair-climbing, thanks to the subway stations. You want a good workout, try hauling yourself and a backpack full of books from the South Ferry station (three stories underground) onto a ferry boat (one more flight of stairs in the terminal) at full speed so you don’t miss the boat and have to wait around with nothing to do for another 30 minutes. I realize that’s a unique experience, one that I was lucky to have, though I doubt I would have seen it that way at the time. But I do wonder: How many kids today are being driven to and from school now, compared to when this study started? Maybe that’s an option for getting some of these kids more exercise that needs further exploration.

From the “Things are tough all over” department

The repo man cometh.

In a bad economy, fun is often the first casualty.

For James Hedrick, that means it’s a busy time in his line of work. He’s one of those dreaded repo men.

He spends his days scanning megayachts, sailboats and fishing skiffs as he steers his dinghy through a marina west of the city’s skyscrapers, looking for a piece of the American dream.

This particular piece is a gleaming white, 65-foot Hatteras with two master bedrooms, two full bathrooms and a full galley kitchen with glossy teak cabinets. The owner is $35,000 past due on his $1.5 million boat loan.

Hedrick is an agent with National Liquidators, considered by industry experts to be the world’s largest marine repo company. The Fort Lauderdale-based company has tripled its business in the past three years, and now takes possession of about 200 boats a month in Florida, Ohio and California. The company’s competitors also say they’ve seen similar increases in business.

“They’re going to hang on to the car, they’re going to hang on to the house. But they’re going to give up on the boat,” said Hedrick, whose employer has doubled its staff in two years to 85 repo agents so they can meet demand from the banks and lenders.

It’s not just boats: Repo agents say banks and lenders have been asking them to reclaim all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, small planes, snowmobiles, semi-trucks and, of, course, cars. Vehicle repossessions were up 10 percent in 2007 over the previous year, said Tom Webb, an analyst for Atlanta-based Manheim, the largest car auction company in the nation.

And I’ll bet they all whined about it, too. Because that’s what we as a nation would do.

The main thing I got out of this article was a reminder that it’s been way too long since I’ve seen the movie. “Put it on a plate, son, you’ll enjoy it more.” Yeah, I need to see it again.

One more thing:

Rising gas prices have also made it harder for owners to make room in their budgets for boat trips. Marine diesel fuel is over $5 a gallon in some places, which means a five-hour jaunt on the water can easily cost $250 for some gas-guzzling yachts. Last year’s marine diesel cost about $3.40 a gallon.

If fuel consumption in the United States drops even a teeny tiny bit because yacht owners are unwilling to pay higher diesel costs for their weekend jaunts, I don’t think I’ll be grieving that.

Bell’s campaign kickoff

The official campaign kickoff for Chris Bell is tomorrow at his new campaign headquarters. The details:

WHO: Chris Bell and friends open Texas Senate campaign HQ
WHEN: Sunday, July 20th, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
WHERE: 4019 S. Braeswood Blvd @ Stella Link, Houston, TX, 77025
RSVP: (713) 978-7701 or [email protected]

I’ve mentioned the matter of Bell getting adequate funding for this race. Here’s one reason why that’s important:

In the special election to replace state Sen. Kyle Janek, former judge Joan Huffman leads other contenders in fundraising thanks mostly to a $500,000 bank loan she secured and a $100,000 contribution from West Texas music impresario Herbert Graham.

Bell starts out with a big lead in name ID, but Huffman has taken a big step towards closing that gap. I hope he’s got a lot of commitments lined up.