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July 28th, 2008:

Bell, Skelly, and McCaul

Chris Bell, noting that there’s now 99 days left till Election Day, has sent out a fundraising email hoping to raise $10K in 10 days on ActBlue. The link is here if you want to pitch in. I’ve been harping on fundraising for this race ever since it hit the radar screen, so the least I can do is point this out. Ten grand isn’t much for a State Senate race, but perhaps a little show of grassroots support might help convince the people who can write the bigger checks to get involved here. We know that the big guns are coming out for at least one SD17 Republican, Joan Huffman, so Bell’s going to need all the help he can get to keep pace.

Meanwhile, Michael Skelly is looking to do a similar grassroots push for contributions to counter an attack by John Culberson that Skelly is financing his own campaign. That’s an odd claim to make, given that in the last filing report, Skelly had 617 individual contributors, who totaled $1.2 million for him, while Culberson had 454 individual donors for about half that much, but whatever. They want to do a one-day burst on Friday, August 1, and are asking people to create their own fundraising page to help out.

And finally, Mean Rachel finds CD10 Rep. Mike McCaul making a very strange and apparently false claim about a couple of kids from Atlanta who spent time in a school in Pakistan. Just watch the embedded CNN video (it’s 8:31 in length) and be amazed.

No Ashby highrise ordinance coming

If there’s going to be any action taken by City Council on a new ordinance to deal with the Ahsby highrise and its ilk, it won’t happen any time soon, probably not until after Mayor White’s successor has been sworn in.

Last week, however, the official who has been the public face of White’s administration during the controversy recommended that the city stop its work on a high-density development ordinance.

Instead, the city should continue to rely on a 60-year-old law governing where driveways connect to public streets, with additional guidelines on how the city will apply the measure to ensure that projects do not cause severe traffic congestion, said Andy Icken, a deputy public works director.

An advisory committee of developers, neighborhood leaders and experts had spent hundreds of hours trying to devise regulations that would apply only to large, dense projects near single-family residential neighborhoods.

Such an ordinance “would give people a warm feeling that this is the way the city does things,” Icken told a City Council committee on Monday. “The disadvantage is … as we explicitly define these development standards, we often find ourselves skirting the Z-word.”

Fear that a new ordinance might resemble zoning is a poor reason for the city to throw up its hands on such a vital public issue, neighborhood leaders said.

“This do-nothing approach that the city is taking will not protect existing residential neighborhoods,” said Jane Cahill, a neighborhood activist who served on the advisory committee that worked on the ordinance. “All parcels of land are not appropriate for all types of development.”

I’m not surprised by this. As you know, I’ve long thought that the best approach is to admit that they’re powerless to change the Ashby project, and to focus instead on a sensible ordinance, perhaps one that incorporates updating the city’s form-based codes, in order to be prepared for future Ashbys. I agree with Jane Cahill that all parcels of land are not appropriate for all types of development. But if a solution that does something about Ashby is too elusive and is hindering the pursuit of something that would otherwise be workable, then I think it’s clear that it’s time to try a different approach. Especially given that the Ashby developers are one step away from being able to move forward.

One more thing:

A Web site devoted to the issue is updated regularly, and includes a link that neighbors can use to check online for the status of the permit application, which last was returned to the developers June 25.

I presume that’s a reference to StopAshbyHighRise.org. Why they didn’t just give the URL is a mystery to me, but whatever. I don’t know that I’d call four updates since April 17 “updated regularly”, but it is still there.

Charitable political contributions

The Chron looks at a gray area of political contributions.

For the contractors and lobbyists whose public business rides on the trust and goodwill of politicians, it is no secret that campaign giving is a high-stakes game.

At Harris County Commissioners Court, campaign donations of $5,000 or more come along as often as hot days in a Texas summer. So, donors looking to stand apart from the throngs of high-dollar givers have found another way to make their generosity known: charity.

Over the years, county commissioners have helped local charities raise millions, at times tapping the same donors who fuel their political campaigns. But whereas campaign contributions are public record, donations to most charities are not.

Donors have said they open their wallets to worthwhile causes no matter who runs them. But campaign watchdogs argue that contributing to politicians’ pet charities shelters donors from public scrutiny — an attractive benefit for those who want to earn political favor without having their largesse exposed to watchdogs and competitors.

[…]

All four commissioners — El Franco Lee, Sylvia Garcia, Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole — have close ties to area charities, in some cases running their own using county staff.

[…]

Tommy Kuykendall Jr., president of the Houston branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said a desire to give back to the community is the sole motivation behind the vast majority of charitable gifts from engineering firms. He questioned how donating to a national organization, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, would benefit an officeholder, but acknowledged that lines between charities and politics can become blurred.

“I don’t know if I can give a good answer — OK, this is the exact line, once you cross it, you’re done,” he said. “Because there are a lot of good things that need to be supported.”

Well, here’s one place for that line to be drawn. There’s nothing in this story remotely as egregious as that, but it does show what the possibilities are, and why some folks have these concerns. I guess if it were up to me, I’d say if 1) an elected official or a member of an elected official’s immediate family – spouse, child, parent, or sibling – serves on the board of a charity; 2) if as noted in the story, a charity was founded by an elected official and/or is run by that official’s staff, or; 3) a fundraiser for a charity was organized or hosted by an elected official, then any contributions to that charity must be disclosed in the same manner as a political contribution. Actually, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to only require such disclosure for contributions above a certain amount, say $1000. Of course, all this would require the charities to do more paperwork, and it’s unclear what the best course of action for enforcing these rules would be in the event of a screwup with said paperwork – do you fine the charity? Would the TEC even have the authority to do that? Would you fine the elected official, even if the screwup was by the charity? So maybe this is only a good idea in theory. But I do think it’s worth talking about, because the potential for abuse by the truly unscrupulous is there. What do you think?

Green College Station

I suppose the remarkable thing about this story is that it’s newsworthy at all.

COLLEGE STATION — This rural college town is more boots than Birkenstocks, more gravy than granola. It’s a place where conservative values and traditions run deep, and those who disagree with the way things are done in Aggieland are told if they don’t like it, “Highway 6 runs both ways.”

But this year, city leaders not usually associated with liberal causes pledged to fight global warming by slashing their energy consumption and reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide.

The decision has placed College Station on the front lines of a green revolution that now includes hundreds of cities, counties and towns nationwide. Though the stated goal is to save the environment, the reasons for confronting climate change are economic as well.

The logic behind College Station’s decision starts with saving taxpayer dollars, building the local economy and creating jobs. Without changes to business as usual, the city faces a future with a deficient tax base, inadequate water supplies, traffic problems and a lower quality of life, according to a city report that prompted the City Council to pursue progressive policies.

“This is a critical growth period for us,” said Jennifer Nations, who is overseeing the Green College Station campaign. “We’re asking, ‘What will it cost to get new water sources? What will it cost to buy additional power?’ Sustainability is looking more attractive.”

I realize that conservation is just a personal virtue, but really, any municipal government that isn’t aggressively pursuing energy-saving opportunities should be voted out immediately for extreme fiscal irresponsibility. This is the height of no-brainers – cutting costs without cutting services. Failure to do so means just the reverse. Who wouldn’t want to do that? I find the whole “look! conservatives doing liberal things!” angle to be annoying and distracting, but in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is they’re doing the sensible and responsible thing. We’ll get over that silly story line sooner or later.

The Steffy Plan

Credit where it’s due: After his solution-free criticism of the Pickens Plan, Chron columnist Loren Steffy has come up with a plan of his own for energy.

My plan begins with the idea that energy is really about economics. The solutions, therefore, must make economic sense. That doesn’t mean consumers won’t have to pay more — we will. And providers must be able to make reasonable returns.

Subsidies are fine to develop technology, but we can’t sustain businesses that aren’t profitable without them, which is why I’m skeptical of wind power.

Just as the federal enthusiasm for ethanol led to a wave of subsidies that helped feed higher food prices, we must be careful about picking winners before we understand the rules of the game.

Here, then, are the five broad elements of my plan:

1) Enact meaningful conservation programs from the home to the highways. […]

2) Invest in infrastructure. […]

3) Develop what works. […]

4) Continue researching alternative fuels that show economic promise and fund it through federal grant programs and modest tax incentives for promising technology. […]

5) Be prepared to pay for it.

All in all, not a bad effort. I don’t share Steffy’s skepticism of wind energy, which I believe will be a key component to any solution going forward, but I strongly agree with his emphases on conservation and investment in mass transit, both of which will show immediate and long-term gains. And I appreciate the continuation of the conversation. If the focus has shifted from “why do we need to do anything?” to “what’s the best way to deal with this?” then we’ve made progress. Let’s keep that going.

By the way, the Chron got some letters to the editor regarding Steffy’s previous column, including one from the executive director of the American Wind Energy Association Washington. I’m reprinting that beneath the fold. I won’t bother with the subsequent letter, which says little more than “AL GORE IS FAT!!111!!!”, but I will say that if that’s the best folks like that can do, it’s easy to see who’ll eventually win this battle. Click on for the AWEA response.

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“Turd Blossom” coming to town

The title to this post makes me think I should start out singing – “You better watch out, you better not cry”…you get the idea. In any event, Vince reports that Karl Rove is coming to Houston for a big-dollar joint fundraiser for four Republican State House candidates: Rep. John Davis (HD129, opposed by TexBlog PAC-endorsed candidate Sherrie Matula), Rep. Jim Murphy (HD133, opposed by Kristi Thibaut), Rep. Gary Elkins (HD135, opposed by Trey Fleming), and Ken Legler (HD144, opposed by Joel Redmond). He’s also coming to El Paso for a fundraiser for John Cornyn. I don’t really know why anyone would want to get assistance from Karl Rove these days, since he embodies the failures of the Bush administration as well as anyone, but maybe they can explain it to their constituents. Maybe he’ll get handed a subpoena at one of these events – that would sure liven things up.