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November 12th, 2009:

Precinct analysis: More maps

I’m pretty much wrung out on precinct analysis for this election, but not everybody is. Go check out Greg’s place for Mayoral Maps By Order of Finish and A Path To Victory: A Tale of Three Neighborhoods. Each of those posts tell the story with maps and colors, so those of you that had had enough of tables and numbers will be pleased. Check ’em out.

Here comes the unemployment tax increase

Here comes that unemployment insurance tax hike we’ve all been waiting for.

Under state law, the state’s unemployment trust fund is supposed to stand at 1 percent of taxable wages, or about $860 million. The fund has been depleted in the wake of high jobless claims.

As a result, employers will have to pay more to restore the fund to its mandated level, although the commission tried to cushion the blow by spreading the deficit assessment over several years.

Unemployment tax collections still are estimated to rise to $2.3 billion next year; $2.68 billion in 2011; $2.72 billion in 2012, according to commission spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt. Specific rates for employers were not available Tuesday. How much each employer pays varies, largely based on claims against an employer’s account.

Given the speculation that the Commission was going to push the pain as far back as it could, which is to say after the 2010 elections, I commend them for being realistic about the hole we’re in. The story notes for the umpteenth time the unemployment insurance stimulus funds which Governor Perry refused to take and which surely would have made that hole a lot less deep, not to mention the pain of unemployment a lot less stinging for many Texans, but it wasn’t the only thing he did to exacerbate this situation. His suspension of the tax back when times were good but the ditch was visible on the horizon still ranks as one of the dumbest things he’s done as Governor, and that’s not a short list.

“We haven’t been good squirrels. We haven’t put away nuts for the wintertime,” [Texas AFL-CIO Legal Director Rick] Levy said. “In fact, we deplete our fund so that when wintertime comes, not only is there not anything there, but we have to start charging extra. It’s just a backwards way of doing it.”

[Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, and] a past chairman of the commission, disagreed. “It’s my view, and the view of the employers, that it’s better to collect as little tax as needed,” Hammond said.

“Stockpiling the money in Austin, Texas is not a good strategy. We’d rather have the money out and working, creating jobs during the good times.”

Well, if that’s really what you want, then this is what you’ll get in the bad times. Hope you appreciate it.

It’s hard out here on a pedestrian

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that Houston is not a good city for pedestrians, at least from a safety perspective.

Houston ranked eighth on a new list of the most dangerous urban areas for pedestrians.

And the hundreds of deaths and injuries to pedestrians can’t all be written off as mere accidents, according to a report released Monday by two advocacy groups. Poor roadway design and lack of safety features like sidewalks and medians contribute to the death rate.


The statistics are startling. Almost 5,000 pedestrians die in the U.S. after being hit by cars every year, according to the report by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, two nonprofit, national coalitions that promote more efficient and equitable transportation policies.

All of the Top 10 dangerous cities for pedestrians are in the South, where new growth after World War II created development patterns that favor cars over pedestrians.

You can see the study here (PDF). I find myself in agreement with, and sharing the frustration of, Robin Holzer at the county’s attitude that they only build roads, not sidewalks. Seems to me they’re doing the residents out there a disservice, not to mention jeopardizing their health. But I suppose nothing will change until voters demand it. Swamplot has more.

Trying to reinstate a lawsuit against Sharon Keller

Last year, a wrongful death lawsuit against Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller that was filed by the daughter of death row inmate Michael Richard, the man who was executed in the “we close at 5” case, was dismissed after Keller successfully argued that she had immunity because she was acting in her capacity as a judge. Earlier this year, Keller argued at her judicial misconduct trial that her actions there were in an administrative capacity, not a judicial one. See here and here for more on that. Now Richard’s family is asking the judge who dismissed the lawsuit to reconsider his ruling based on this inconsistency.

Judges acting in their administrative capacity are not immune from lawsuits, said Jim Harrington, director of the civil rights group.

“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t argue out of one side of your mouth in federal court,” then argue differently in another court, Harrington said. “This is a judge who understands the law, who understands how important it is to plead correctly … and to say things correctly when under oath.

“I think this speaks volumes about her integrity and her truthfulness.”

You know my opinion about Keller’s integrity and truthfulness. I think this is a creative argument by the plaintiffs, but I have my doubts that it will work. Not because it doesn’t deserve to, I just don’t think there’s any official inclination to open that particular can of worms. But I hope I’m wrong about that. Thanks to Vince for the catch.

WiFi on buses

This sounds interesting.

Beginning today, VIA Metropolitan Transit bus riders who power up their portable electronic devices — such as laptop computers or Wi-Fi-enabled cell phones — might notice an Internet signal coming from within the bus. VIA has started a monthlong pilot program offering free wireless Internet on some express routes to determine whether riders would use the service. If it’s popular, the agency could begin equipping more buses with wireless access.

“What we’re trying to figure out with the pilot program is how much interest there is out there,” VIA President Keith Parker said. “We think there may be a considerable amount. And if there is, we plan to roll it out on a much larger level.”

Next year, VIA will be adding hybrid-electric, full-electric and compressed natural gas buses to its fleet, Parker said, and Wi-Fi technology could be added to them.

“Before we make the investment (in the Wi-Fi technology), we want to make sure customers would use it,” he said.

Hey, more WiFi is always better than less WiFi, so I say bring in on, VIA, and may Metro look with favor upon this as well. I have no idea how popular this will be, as I kind of doubt too many people will break out their laptops while on the bus – among other things, bus rides are usually bumpy; I wouldn’t want to risk having my laptop slide off my lap – but at $50 a month per bus for the service, it doesn’t need to be used much to be worthwhile. I hope that VIA and other local transit entities will give some thought to empowering smartphone users in other ways, as being able to predict when a bus will arrive and knowing where it will go would be a large enticement for potential riders. There’s a lot of ways that the ubiquity of smartphones can make the transit experience better, and many of them are very low cost. A forward-thinking transit authority should take advantage of them in every way it can.