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December 31st, 2009:

Annise Parker: Texas Progressive Alliance’s Texan of the Year

The Texan of the Year Award is voted on annually by the members of the Texas Progressive Alliance, the largest state-level organization of bloggers, blogs, and netroots activists in the United States. This year’s winner is Houston Mayor-Elect, Annise Parker:

With the election of Annise Parker as mayor of Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States signaled that they pay more attention to qualifications than to sexual orientation. This news reverberated around the globe, and brought positive attention to Texas. National Democratic groups took note of a more progressive Houston than they assumed, and the talk and speculation turned to the possibilities of Texas turning blue sooner rather than later.

The Parker win was no accident. She put together a talented campaign team that ran on the strength of the grassroots, rather than City Hall insiders. Key Houston area progressive bloggers aligned themselves with Parker, and were embraced by the campaign. Blogs became an effective messaging strategy, emphasizing Parker’s qualifications, and her opponent’s weaknesses.

In the runoff, several third parties, including one longtime right wing operative who endorsed Parker’s opponent, launched a series of homophobic attacks against her, but they failed to do her any serious damage because voters recognized her distinguished service as a member of Council and City Controller, and valued her experience and financial acumen. Voters knew who she was and what she was about because she had always been open and honest about it, and that was more important than anything some agitator could say.

For her historic victory, for making the rest of the world re-evaluate its opinion of Texas, and for running a truly modern grassroots campaign, the Texas Progressive Alliance is proud to name Houston’s Mayor-Elect Annise Parker its Texan of the Year for 2009.

Annise Parker is the Alliance’s fifth recipient of its “Texan of the Year Award.” Parker joins former State Representative Carter Casteel of New Braunfels, who won the award in 2005; Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent PAC in 2006; State Representatives Garnet Coleman, Jim Dunnam, and Pete Gallego who shared the honor in 2007; and the Harris County Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign in 2008.

Also earning recognition from the Alliance were Ramey Ko, Hank Gilbert, Calvin Tillman, Texas Watchdog, and State Representative Elliott Naishtat, who were each recognized as “Gold Star Texans” for 2009.

Gov 2.0

I hope that the new year will bring more of this to Houston.

Welcome to a movement the tech crowd is calling “Gov 2.0” — where mobile technology and GPS apps are helping give citizens like Newmark more of a say in how their local tax money is spent. It’s public service for the digital age.

A host of larger U.S. cities from San Francisco to New York quietly have been releasing treasure troves of public data to Web and mobile application developers.

That may sound dull. But tech geeks transform banal local government spreadsheets about train schedules, complaint systems, potholes, street lamp repairs and city garbage into useful applications for mobile phones and the Web.

The aim is to let citizens report problems to their governments more easily and accurately; and to put public information, which otherwise may be buried in file cabinets and Excel files, at the fingertips of taxpayers.

Peter Brown specifically mentioned using this kind of technology during his Mayoral campaign. I hope that it’s an area where he was able to influence Mayor-Elect Parker while he was supporting her during the runoff. The thing about this is that the main expense the city would incur is in making its own data publicly available in a usable format like XML. Once the data is out there, app developers will jump on it and take it from there. Some thought needs to be given to how to manage users’ expectations – just because you submit a photo of a pothole doesn’t mean it’ll get fixed immediately, for instance – but as long as people understand what this sort of thing is all about, I think it’ll be a big hit. Thanks to Martha, who has some other suggestions for how to leverage these innovations, for the link.

Metro does historic preservation

I was sent this press release about Metro workers getting some interesting training as they prepare to build the new light rail lines, and thought it was worth sharing.

‘Hardhat and blue collar’ was the dress code for training classes offered at METRO in mid-December. The classes weren’t elective; they are required study for contractors and subcontractors working on Houston’s East End, North, Southeast and Uptown Light-Rail Transit (LRT) Corridors to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the Texas Antiquities Code, and to help workers understand the impact of their work in a broader context.

Duane Peter, a professional archaeologist, and Marsha Prior, an architectural historian, both consultants for Houston Rapid Transit (HRT), presented a mix of information that touched on everything from bricks to bones and many points in between. Prior noted that historic buildings could be more fragile than other structures in a construction area; therefore, special care must be taken to ensure that workers are aware of the historic buildings and know how to operate around them.

“So far, 19 historic properties have been identified along the Southeast Corridor, and they range from houses and religious facilities to government and commercial multiple-story buildings,” Peter noted. “The Niels Esperson Building (814 Travis), the S.H. Kress & Co. Building (705 Main), and the Annunciation Catholic Church (1618 Texas) have features that are unique, such as limestone columns, terracotta coverings, or arched and round windows that require special care. Awareness of these properties on the part of the workers will ensure that they are not accidentally damaged during construction.”

I think I’ve mentioned before that when Tiffany and I visited Athens in 2000, we used their newly-constructed rail lines to get about. They were still working on some other lines, which were to be ready for the 2004 Olympics, but had a hard time meeting their deadlines because every time they stuck a shovel in the ground, they found some historical or archaeological artifact. One of the local museums had an exhibition called “The City Beneath The City” about what they’d found, which we got to see while we were there. Needless to say, Houston will not have anything like that to deal with, but it’s good to know that if the construction crews do find something of interest, they’ll know what to do with it.

KBH’s transportation plan

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day seems like an odd time to be rolling out policy initiatives, especially in a campaign that’s been going on for months, so I’ll be brief with this.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on Tuesday offered a sweeping plan to overhaul transportation planning in Texas if she is elected governor, but she stopped short of saying how she would pay for it.

Hutchison has cast the final killing off of Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor and the restructuring of his state transportation commission as one of the cornerstones of her campaign to oust him in the March Republican primary.

[…]

The senator proposed a major restructuring of how transportation planning is done in Texas, but she said as governor she would propose a select committee on transportation funding. That pushes the major question of how to pay for new roads off until after the election, although Hutchison said she would not support any funding mechanism that is not approved by voters as a local option.

There’s a time for studies and committees and whatnot, and there’s a time to recognize that we already know what we need to do, and that promises to create select committees are just a way to avoid acknowledging that reality.

While [State Sen. John] Carona and other transportation leaders in the Legislature have called for higher gas taxes, she instead said she’d appoint a task force to study how efficient TxDOT uses the money it already gets, and then to evaluate whether news funds are needed.

Carona called that “a very conservative approach and a starting point for discussion of the issues.”

But he said no amount of efficiencies likely to be found in studying TxDOT’s operations will provide the money Texas needs to keep traffic moving in its busiest cities or to keep its massive network of highways and bridges in good repair. “I can’t speak to what her intentions would be post campaign, should she be elected. But it’s clear that the time for studying is past us now. I applaud her desire to look at the efficiency — that’s a job that is never done — but efficiency alone won’t solve this problem. It’s a first step, but by itself it will be no where close to enough.”

Yeah, well, nobody ever won a Republican primary by promising to raise a tax. I must concede that if she did come out in support of Carona’s position, she’d surely be attacked by Rick Perry for it, even though he himself has not ruled out a gas tax increase. No one ever said this would be easy. Anyway, you can read her full plan here or here if you want. Burka, Hank Gilbert, Come and Take It, and the Trib have more.

The effect of life without parole

Death sentences are way down since the law was changed to allow a life without parole sentence.

Since a new life-without-parole law took effect in 2005, Harris County — with a national reputation for pursuing capital punishment and home to the fourth-largest city in America, with a population of nearly 4 million people — has sent fewer inmates to death row than Tarrant or Bexar counties, urban counties that include Fort Worth and San Antonio, respectively. Tarrant County’s population is about 1.7 million; Bexar’s is 1.6 million, U.S. Census records show.

Bexar and Tarrant each sent eight newly convicted killers to death row in the four years since the law took effect, state prison data show. In the same period, larger Harris and Dallas counties sent six apiece, based on the Chronicle’s analysis of Texas Department of Criminal Justice death row arrivals.

[…]

Statewide, only about 50 inmates have been added to death row since the law took effect Sept. 1, 2005. In contrast, from September 2001 to September 2005 — the four years before the law was enacted — 90 were sentenced to death.

There were only nine inmates sentenced to death in Texas in 2009, which continues a downward trend. None of those sentences came from Harris County, which says a lot. As I’ve said before, I’m happy for this to keep going that direction, but I am curious about something.

Already, the 4-year-old law has created a kind of “life row” — a perpetual population of convicted killers and accomplices who can never win reductions in their sentence regardless of behavior, youth , mental deficiency or other factors. This group appears to be growing faster than death row itself.

One consequence of this is that some years down the line we will have more and more elderly inmates in Texas’s prisons. Grits has written frequently about the costs associated with elderly inmates – here’s a recent example, or just go here and browse. Most of what’s driving this is the long, often excessive, sentences that are given out in other cases, like drug crimes, but clearly LWOP sentences will add to this. I’m wondering at what point someone in the Lege will take notice of this and try to change things so that older inmates with health issues can be released as a cost-containment measure. That’ll be a fun debate, whenever it happens.