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June 23rd, 2009:

Fireworks and droughts

It’s hard out there on a fireworks vendor.

As July 4 approaches, Michael Girdley is praying for rain.

The president of Alamo Fireworks, based in China Grove, is worried a summer drought could lead to a fireworks ban in Harris County, one of Girdley’s biggest markets.

“It’s our worst nightmare. We used to be able to survive because you used to count on opening each year. Now you can’t count on anything in Texas,” he grumbled.

Girdley is part of a growing chorus of fireworks vendors in Texas complaining about what they call arbitrary restrictions on their business. A 2007 revision to state law allows counties to ban sales of certain fireworks if the Keetch-Byram Drought Index indicates drought conditions. Counties must adopt that order before June 15 to prohibit certain fireworks for the July 4 fireworks season.

While the drought index was supposed to simplify the decision, vendors complain that fireworks can ultimately be permitted in one county, but banned in the neighboring one. And, regardless of the drought index, county judges can prohibit firework sales outright at any time by issuing a disaster declaration.

Texas’ patchwork system has left fireworks vendors in a wait-and-see stance as the calendar creeps closer to their most profitable holiday.

“If we can’t sell our product then, we can’t feed our families,” said Chester Davis, president of the Texas Pyrotechnic Association.

I feel for you, I do. Times are tough all over. But having said that, I’m one of those crazy people who thinks that there should be restrictions on fireworks sales, and that some of what is sold to the public should really only be sold to professionals. So while I’m sympathetic to the vendors and the frustration they must feel at dealing with new regulations, I’m on the county officials’ side. I agree with this.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett imposed a ban on the sale and use of some fireworks this afternoon as vendors prepare to open sales for the July 4th holiday.

Emmett issued a county disaster, which allowed him to forbid the sale and use of stick rockets and missiles with fins within Harris County.

“Public safety is my top priority in this matter, and this declaration is absolutely necessary to ensure that Harris County residents remain as safe as possible in these weather conditions,” Emmett said in a statement.

I really don’t see how he could have done otherwise, given the dry conditions lately. But I don’t expect the vendors to like it. Back to the original story:

Responsible vendors should be willing to pull certain aerial fireworks off shelves if it gets hot and dry, but shouldn’t be pushed around by authorities, said Paul Dewey Jones, who sells fireworks .

While Montgomery County will only restrict a few types of fireworks, he’s worried that customers will assume everything is banned.

“I don’t like the idea of government getting into our business unless there’s a very good reason,” he said.

Government officials point to statistics to make the case that fireworks should be carefully regulated: Between 2000 and 2007, there were 259 reported fireworks mishaps in Harris County, causing more than $2 million in damage.

That sounds like a very good reason to me. According to this version of the story, Montgomery County had 80 fireworks-related fires last year. And as with any industry, if all the vendors were responsible there would be no need for regulation, but they’re not and so there is. We’re just arguing about what the right amount is. What we’ve got now is fine by me.

From the “Things are tough all over” department

Texas trying to keep up with unemployment claims.

The rising number of jobless Texans has generated more claims than the Texas Workforce Commission can handle.

The commission has added hundreds of workers and phone lines to call centers to deal with soaring unemployment claims, but officials acknowledge that they can’t answer every call.

A commission spokeswoman, Ann Hatchitt, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram they were hiring and training folks as fast as they can.
Claimants are urged to file for claims on the commission’s Web site, http://www.twc.state.tx.us, which also has answers to commonly asked questions.

The percentage of claims filed online has risen from about 30 to 50.

The state’s unemployment rate jumped to 7.1 percent in May, from a revised 6.6 percent in April.

And yet somehow, a majority of Texans approve of Governor Perry’s shortsighted decision to reject stimulus funds for unemployment insurance, according to the Texas Lyceum. I don’t know if that’s good messaging on his part or just bad math skills on everyone else’s, but you have to admire his ability to frame the conversation. Which is about the only admirable thing about him that comes to my mind right now.

Van de Putte says she’s not running for Governor

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who has been contemplating a run for Governor next year, has sent out a press release saying that she will not do so. Here it is:

Statement of Senator Leticia Van de Putte regarding her political plans for 2010

Senator Van de Putte authorized the release of this statement today, regarding her plans for the 2010 elections:

“Five months of speculation  regarding the possibility of me running for Governor has, quite frankly, been surprising. It started with nothing more than me not immediately saying ‘no,’ unlike in past election cycles, when asked if I would consider such a run. The reactions of thousands of Texans who encouraged me to give it serious consideration has been flattering.

“I have, indeed, given it very serious thought, and while I would love to believe, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that this pent-up desire on the part of so many Texans for me to run for governor is solely because of some perceived superior leadership ability and vast intellect of mine, I have to reluctantly admit that it’s not as much about me as it is about Republican failures.

“This is about Texas’ stunning lack of current leadership. Large and growing numbers feel betrayed by the Republicans they voted into statewide office, and who can blame them?  While Texas families remain concerned about genuine priority issues, Republicans led by Rick Perry continue to instead obsess about hyper-partisan issues, in order to grab more power for themselves.

“Texans still pay the highest homeowners insurance premiums in the country. Texas still has the highest percentage in the country of those without access to health care. Texas still has the second highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation, and the highest rate of teens with a second pregnancy. And after years of Republican ‘leadership,’ not only has Rick Perry failed to address these challenges, but he and his minions have done everything they can to avoid addressing them in any meaningful way. Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and others in the Republican leadership have turned their backs on 25 million Texans, instead opting to curry favor with a handful of fringe Republican primary voters.

“If I believed for a second that it would result in a healthy debate of the issues of most importance to Texas families, I would today be announcing my candidacy for Governor of Texas. But we have all watched over the years as Perry, Hutchison, and other Republican politicians have launched their scorched earth ‘say anything to win’ vicious attacks against political opponents. To mask their utter lack of leadership, they’ll do so again, and I decline to put my family through it. That I am a Latina would only serve to amplify their attacks.

“I will gladly work hard to ensure that a Democrat prevails in the election for Governor, so that Texas families can have a better shot at having a state government focused on the needs of Texans, instead of state Republican leadership obsessed with their own political futures, at Texans’ expense.

“Prominent Democrats must put personal ambitions aside and very pragmatically nominate the person best equipped to win in November. Just because one can win the Democratic nomination for Governor doesn’t mean one should, unless he or she is best positioned to defeat the Republican nominee in the fall.

“That’s why I think Senator Kirk Watson should raise his sights and run for Governor. I’ve watched as Senator Watson has emerged as a leader in the state Senate on the issues of most importance to Texans. While staying true to Democratic values, he is a bipartisan pragmatic leader solidly focused on addressing the priorities of all Texans. I intend to lobby Senator Watson to run for governor, and I’ll wholeheartedly support him if he does. But if he declines, Democrats should recruit and support someone who, like Watson, is energetic, pragmatic, focused, and smart; and who can fully energize Democratic supporters while also attracting a broad range of independent voters in every region of the state.

“The Republicans have had their day, and Texans have realized that the Republicans can’t lead. I will be working hard to elect a Democrat to the Governor’s office.”

I’m disappointed but not terribly surprised. I can live with Tom Scheiffer, but Van de Putte was much more exciting to contemplate. Her suggestion of Sen. Kirk Watson is interesting, and implies to me that financial considerations played a part – Watson is a much more prodigious fundraiser than Van de Putte, and had nearly $1.5 million on hand to Van de Putte’s $300K+. Which is a big thing – both Perry and Hutchison have tons of money already. We’ve seen plenty of examples of good-but-underfunded Democrats running statewide lately, and we know how that story ends. The question, as Peggy Fikac notes, is whether this means Watson is gearing up. I suspect we’ll know soon enough. BOR has more.

Who are these people?

As we know, there are vacancies in the US Attorney’s offices in the Southern and Western district offices in Texas, which will be filled by Presidential appointment. Normally, when the President is of one party and both of a given state’s Senators are of the other party, “the primary role in recommending candidates for district court judgeships is assumed by officials in the state who are of the President’s party.” That’s from a report last year by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. Except that as Steve Benen noted, Texas’ Republican Senators have refused to honor this practice, and instead have insisted on sending to Obama candidates who have been screened by the committee he and Hutchison have always used for making nominations — a committee he admits is “heavily stacked with Republican lawyers.” Because, you know, it’s different when Democrats are in charge.

Well, as Todd Gillman reports, they have made one small concession:

Hutchison and Cornyn refused to cede control, though they did concede it was time to retool the screening panel – adding more Democrats and trial lawyers. They also promised to identify members, to let the public assess the panel’s caliber and balance.

Late Friday, Hutchison’s office finally provided a membership list. It’s hard to assess how the membership has changed, since they never provided a list of prior members. We do know that chairman Daniel Hedges of Houston is a holdover. We know that the previous vice chair, Colleen McHugh, is off the committee.

And, thanks to a 2001 Texas Lawyer report, flagged for me Sunday by a well-informed reader (thanks, well-informed reader!), we can report today that of 35 screeners back then, 12 serve on the new committee.

Beyond that, you’ll have to judge for yourself if Texas’ senators lived up to their promises.

I’ve reproduced the list beneath the fold. Two things stand out to me. One is that of the 31 names listed, two (2) are women. Who knew there were so few women in the state of Texas capable of offering a judgment about the qualities of a US Attorney candidate? I’m thinking that if Cornyn and KBH had such a hard time coming up with the names of women to serve on their committee, their committee may have an equally hard time coming up with the names of women as potential USAs. According to the State Bar of Texas Department of Research and Analysis, as of Dec. 31, 2006, 31 percent of the 71,470 in-state Bar members are female. But only seven percent of the Cornyn/KBH screening committee are. That ain’t right.

And two, one of the people on this list is Andy Taylor. Yes, that Andy Taylor. All I can say is that if any other member of this list is half the dishonest partisan hack Taylor is, then the whole thing should be thrown out. To borrow from William F. Buckley, I’d sooner have the candidate names be selected by the first 31 people in the Houston phone book. If that’s their idea of making this list more representative, they’re crazy.

Finally, as with Gillman, I don’t know the party affiliation of most of these people. If you can point it out for any of them, please do so. Thanks.

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Commissioners Court tries again on ethics reform

They meet today to try to get something done.

After months of political maneuvering, County Judge Ed Emmett is asking commissioners to approve a series of ethics reforms. They include the voluntary registration of lobbyists, online posting of officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms and the adoption of a county statement of ethics.

The proposals are weaker than those recommended by an ethics task force assembled by Emmett last year. But even they have been met with skepticism from commissioners.

The continued infighting raises the question of whether any progress will be made on ethics, a centerpiece of Emmett’s election campaign last year after a series of controversies involving county officials. Adding to doubts was Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of a bill, pushed by Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, that would have required a waiting period before former Harris County employees could lobby the county.

Perry said he vetoed the bill because its approach was “piecemeal” and applied only to Harris County rather than the whole state.

Garcia could not be reached for comment Monday.

I did speak to Joe Stinebaker, Judge Emmett’s director of communications, yesterday, and I asked him about Perry’s veto of HB2468. He told me that as this was Commissioner Garcia’s bill, Judge Emmett didn’t have a comment on the veto, and that they were working on getting the reforms that didn’t require legislative action passed. Fair enough.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he would “be interested what the county attorney has to say about” Emmett’s proposals.

County Attorney Vince Ryan said Monday that the ethics measures differ from those that Ryan reviewed earlier at Emmett’s request.
“His proposals are dissimilar enough that, if asked, we will need to review them again,” Ryan said. “We just need to review them again in light of any action the legislature may have taken.”

A review by the county attorney undoubtedly would stall the reforms. Emmett, however, maintained no further study is needed. He noted that Ryan has reviewed the proposals before and that they were written in accordance with what Ryan previously said was appropriate.

“I think he must not have read them because they are exactly what has been put forward before,” the county judge said.

Emmett added that Ryan also campaigned on ethics reform and noted that the county attorney does not have a vote on the matter.

“This is a decision for Commissioners Court, not the county attorney,” Emmett said. “This has been kicking around for a year almost. Let’s talk about this out in the open, but let’s not kick this back to the county attorney.”

I’ve been plenty snarky about this, but I’m feeling a little sympathetic to Judge Emmett right about now. Maybe he should consider working to replace Commissioners who aren’t on board with him. If Jerry Eversole really is out of the picture for next year, that would be a good opportunity to change the balance to one that’s more favorable to ethics reform. Even if this matter is resolved by then, it would be worth doing that.

Time to replace that portable TV

I don’t have a portable TV, so I hadn’t given the matter of their obsolescence due to the digital transition any thought, but if you have one, you ought to be aware of it.

Though Americans were given four extra months to prepare for the nationwide switch from analog to digital signals, the conversion date last week coincided with the advent of this year’s hurricane season, creating challenges for those like Clanton, who depend on battery-operated sets during emergencies.

Because digital converter boxes are plugged into the wall, on-the-go analog TV sets won’t function during a blackout. The audio from analog TV broadcasts received on radios are now tuned out, as well.

In September, former Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin warned of a possible shortage of battery-operated digital TV equipment and called on groups such as the Consumer Electronic Association to encourage their availability.

FCC spokeswoman Edie Herman said the agency was both concerned and prepared from the outset for residents who rely on portable sets during emergencies.

“The question of battery-powered TVs came to our mind very early on,” she said, “and so the people trying to help and educate consumers with the change were aware of the issue, too.”

The only portable analog sets that have the potential to be kept alive are ones with an antenna port, typically absent on older or smaller models. These TVs must be combined with supplemental devices to get a picture.

Apparently, there are battery-powered digital TVs available, but they’re more expensive and early models weren’t very dependable. The article suggests an NOAA weather radio as a cheaper alternative.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 22

It’s Monday, the day after the first day of summer, and it’s time for another Texas Progressive Alliance blog roundup. Click on for the highlights.

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