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July 14th, 2008:

Bell time

We knew it was coming, and now via QR (and BOR and Greg), here it is: Chris Bell will make his formal announcement of candidacy for SD17 on Sunday. You can view a PDF of his announcement here, which highlights things we’re familiar with such as his good name ID and the general grumpiness of SD17’s voters, for which they are blaming Republicans. You know that I think Bell is a fine candidate for this office, and that I think he’s got an excellent shot at it. What I’ll be looking for, especially now that Republican Joan Huffman has touted her initial fundraising efforts, including donations from GOP bigshots Bob Perry and John Nau, is some sign of Bell’s financial capabilities in the race. I hope some of the money people who stiffed Bell in 2006 step up to the plate this time around. It’s the least they can do.

Houston: Hot or not for college grads?

The Houston Press cover story this week is about how indie bands are avoiding Houston after the 2006 incident at Walter’s on Washington. I’m not really into the indie music scene, and probably wouldn’t be even if I weren’t a boring married-with-kids guy, but it’s a worthwhile read for anyone who cares about Houston’s image. It also contains an interesting assertion that I think needs a closer look:

In bottom-line terms, why does a lively indie scene matter?

It’s hard to quantify. One who has tried is Dr. Richard Florida, an author and urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto. Florida has studied the economic value of music scenes in 31 North American cities (Houston not among them), and concluded they are a major component in attracting and keeping creative young people in town, and that often those people go on to create lucrative businesses.

“Music combines with technology and business trends to put these places on the map,” Florida writes in his study’s conclusion. “It reflects their openness to new ideas, new people and new sounds. If you really want to see entrepreneurs in action, go talk to local musicians.”

Florida’s study further contends that successful music scenes signal “the rise of regional ecosystems that are not only open to new sounds and new ideas, but have the size, scale and commercial oomph to retain key talent and turn their ideas into global commercial successes. Once music scenes of this scale get going, they produce a logic and momentum of their own and signal that more entrepreneurship is on the way.”

While Florida’s data, methodology and conclusions are debatable, and his focus somewhat blindered in that it was focused on indie rock, the exodus of a certain type of creative person from Houston is not. For decades, Houston has exported musicians to cities with livelier scenes at a depressingly steady clip, with almost none moving here from elsewhere in return.

As Florida points out in one of his studies, Win Butler founded the Arcade Fire in Montreal after moving from Houston. We also lost Greg Ashley and Jolie Holland to San Francisco, where their recordings have won attention from fans and critical notice all over the world. We lost Mando Saenz to Nashville and Hayes Carll to Austin, and each of their latest recordings made at least a dent in the national psyche this year. And those are just some of the more famous ones — every band in Austin seems to have a couple of exiled Houstonians in it.

And then there are the people who are simply music fans. How many one-time fixtures at places like Rudyard’s, Mary Jane’s or the Proletariat have now decamped to Austin, San Francisco and New York? Maybe most of them were just slackers, but surely at least a few have gone on to prosper.

On the flip side, how many recent college grads from other parts of the country turn up their noses at even the prospect of coming to Houston sight unseen? In many of their minds, Houston is a cousin city to Coketown in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, a town populated by and solely for Gradgrind-like engineers and scientists where facts and statistics must always trump fancy and the spirit of bohemia. Given a choice of moving to, say, Seattle, or Houston at the same salary adjusted to local cost of living, how many would choose Houston? The question answers itself.

Music matters, and, like it or not, the music that matters most to a great many young, educated new entrants into the workforce is indie rock. And that scene in Houston is definitely ailing.

Is it really the case that Houston attracts fewer college grads from other parts of the country per capita than other cities of its size, or is that just author John Nova Lomax’s impression? I don’t know, but it seems to me there ought to be some data somewhere that can help answer that question. That would seem to fall into Tory Gattis‘ wheelhouse, so let me formally ask: Tory, what do you think? Got any numbers to shed a little light on this? Thanks.

Time to say good-bye to the Kirby trees

The fight over Kirby Drive’s trees is over, and like it or not, the project is going forward.

Work will begin Monday on the contentious Kirby Drive reconstruction project between Westheimer and Richmond with a design that retains none of the 135 trees lining the thoroughfare, leaders of the project said Friday.

The trees, most of which were planted 20 years ago by the nonprofit group Trees for Houston, will be replaced by at least 148 smaller trees, said leaders of the Upper Kirby District, the tax-supported group overseeing the project.

The project will provide improved drainage and better mobility as well as safe and attractive spaces for pedestrians in an area attracting dense, high-rise development with a pedestrian focus, said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, who represents the area.

But William Coats, an attorney who founded Trees for Houston and has worked for months to persuade district and city officials to save at least some of the trees, said the design was disappointing.

“They could have saved $2 million worth of mature trees,” Coats said. “Instead, we’re going to spend $1.2 million for trees that won’t provide shade for 15 years. That’s not good government.”

[…]

Clutterbuck said it’s important to remember that the street is being rebuilt to accommodate a new drainage system.

“First and foremost, this is a drainage project,” she said. “If you’ve ever been stuck on Richmond during a thunderstorm, you probably had to wait a while” for the water to subside.

A key feature of the design for the six-lane thoroughfare is a central, landscaped esplanade that will provide a safe harbor for pedestrians crossing the busy roadway, said Rob Axelson, chairman of the Upper Kirby Improvement District.

Clutterbuck said district officials were able to persuade city officials to design the street with narrower lanes than is typical, leaving more room for pedestrians.

The sidewalks will be at least 5 feet wide while the entire “pedestrian way,” a space that includes trees, benches and other features, will range from 13 to 13 1/2 feet, said Travis Younkin, the Upper Kirby District’s projects coordinator.

Coats, however, said the design continues to be focused on the needs of motorists rather than pedestrians.

“We don’t seem to have enough understanding of the need in the modern city to develop elegance in the pedestrian realm,” he said.

I believe more could have been done to accommodate pedestrians, whose numbers I expect to grow in the coming years, but that ship has sailed. Let’s make sure the promises we did get to plant new trees and optimize the redesigned space for walkers will be delivered.

By the way, the drainage project on Kirby south of 59 has now progressed as far as Sunset, and is heading into the really heavily trafficked part of that street. These are not good days to be driving on Kirby.

“It took me sixteen hours to get to LA”

Virginia Senator John Warner’s proposal to reinstate a national speed limit is back in the news.

[Sen. Warner] says it’s time to start the conversation about an energy-saving national speed limit to help spare Americans from usurious fuel costs.

The 55-mph limit was imposed by federal law during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, remained in effect for 20 years and ultimately was booted off the roadways by Congress in 1995 amid near-universal contempt among motorists.

Warner hasn’t specified what a new limit should be, but he points out that Americans saved 167,000 barrels of petroleum a day when the 55-mph speed limit was in effect. He told fellow senators this week that he’ll probably proceed with legislation after the Energy Department determines the most fuel-efficient speed limit for the nation’s highways.

[…]

In Congress, the idea of reinstituting a national speed limit was below the radar for most lawmakers until Warner began endorsing it. Many lawmakers are likely to be unwilling to resurrect any variation of a highway rule widely condemned and ultimately ignored.

“It’s not a real solution,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said the 55-mph limit “didn’t work so well the last time,” though he acknowledged that it would save fuel.

Well, if the goal is to use less oil, then it clearly is a real solution and it did work pretty well last time. The fact that many people routinely ignored it is certainly a concern, and I for one would have far more qualms about creating more opportunities for traffic stops now than I would have had 35 years ago, but the plain fact is that we as a nation consumed less oil with a 55 MPH speed limit. Just about every other scheme you can think of, from “Drill here, drill now” to the Pickens plan, would take years to have any effect. Lowering the speed limit would reap benefits almost immediately – basically, as soon as you could get the signs up – and it would be a boost to the environment and public safety as well as being dirt cheap. I don’t believe for a minute this would actually pass – the Republicans clearly aren’t interested in anything that involves conservation, and the Democrats are way too chicken to push something like this through; even if they did, Bush would veto it in a heartbeat – but let’s not pretend that it wouldn’t do any good.

Hotze loses again

From last week, another loss in court for local anti-tax gadfly Bruce Hotze.

Hotze has filed four lawsuits about Prop 2, which sought a revenue cap on all city funds. Any revenues that exceeded the yearly cap would have to be returned to taxpayers. Voters did approve this plan in 2004, but more voters approved Prop. 1, which created a less restrictive revenue cap offered by Mayor Bill White. Hizzoner has argued that the cap with the most votes — his — should be the one implemented. Since then, Hotze has been in the courts, trying to force the city to enforce Prop. 2.

Let’s recap:

Today the 14th Court of Appeals threw out his lawsuit #4, saying Hotze had no legal standing to bring it. This was the same reason that the same court threw out his 2nd lawsuit # 2 in April (Chron.com story).

As far as the other lawsuits: #1 was Hotze’s victory, in which he forced the city to
certify the Prop. 2 election results with the Secretary of State. However, the certification had no effect on whether Prop. 2 actually went into effect. The city didn’t even both to appeal.

And, #3 was also thrown out, but Hotze is appealing. That one has to do with the wording on the ballot and whether the election process was fair.

Poor Bruce. Maybe he should find a new hobby.

The tax that dare not speak its name

This came out last month, a little before some of the recent angst about the business margins tax hit the news. It’s not something we haven’t heard before, but it’s definitely something we need to hear again.

The quality of life in Texas depends on our producing a well-educated workforce that can meet the demands of a global economy. A strong and vibrant public education for all Texas children is an essential precondition for a prepared workforce and a prosperous, competitive economy. In fact, providing public education is one of the constitutionally mandated charges of the state legislature. However, the state’s current revenue system is not providing adequate funding to fulfill this charge. Adding a personal state income tax to our tax mix is the best way to meet our needs.

The details are all in this handy PDF. The bottom line is simple:

Only a personal income tax can significantly reduce reliance on property taxes – cutting the school operations tax from $1.00 to 10 cents per $100 of property value – while providing adequately for education – $7 billion in new revenue annually. Alternative tax proposals are not able to reduce property taxes as much or fund public education as well. An income tax would reduce taxes on most Texans, including the middle class, and benefit the economy.

So this would do a better job of achieving the goals that Sen. Dan “I Want To Raise Your Taxes!” Patrick says he wants to achieve, while being more equitable and better for education. He’ll never support it, of course, but that’s to be expected. Just remember this the next time he or someone like him brings up the idea of swapping property taxes for sales taxes. There’s a better way, and this is it.