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July, 2010:

Saturday video break: When you gotta go, you gotta go

If your dog could sing, he’d probably sing this to you:

I don’t think I can add anything to that.

Ready or not, here comes Wal-Mart

It’s a done deal.

Wal-Mart has placed 16 acres of land in the Washington Avenue corridor under contract, company spokeswoman Kellie Duhr confirmed Thursday. The deal comes two days after concerned Heights-area residents voiced their opposition to the project to the Houston City Council.

Though some council members complimented the residents on their proactive efforts and passion for their neighborhood, most stressed the city can do little to stop Wal-Mart from building a reportedly 152,000-square-foot store near Yale and Koehler. Property owner The Ainbinder Co. holds 24 acres in the area and plans a retail development anchored by the Supercenter.

Mayor Annise Parker said she and Councilman Ed Gonzalez, whose District H includes the Heights area, plan to form a committee of nearby residents and businesses through which the community can articulate its concerns. Gonzalez was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.

Parker said the aim of the group would be “not to stop the project, but to make sure that whatever goes in there, that at least we attempt to negotiate mitigations to potential neighborhood impacts.”

I’m not sure how much actual leverage the city has here, though I’m sure the 4000+ members of Stop the Heights Wal-Mart will be scouring the city’s codes to see what they can make happen. Let’s just say this is going to be interesting to watch.

By the way, a little searching showed that Excited About the Heights Wal-Mart has four (count ’em) fans, and Bring On the Heights Wal-Mart has 21. I wouldn’t call any of this scientific, but that’s a pretty strong statement of public opinion.

Also by the way, there’s now a Stop Heights Wal-Mart website. They’re collecting money for yard signs to be distributed during White Linen Night. I’m sure I’ll publish a picture of said sign when I see one in the ‘hood.

Speaking of pictures, there’s some action going on at the site. I snapped these yesterday from Yale:

Some sort of construction on the Wal-Mart site

The entrance to the construction site

Not sure what exactly they’re doing, but there it is. See They Are Building A Wal-Mart On My Street for more.

Towards healthier school lunches

Good for DISD.

As part of a nationwide push against childhood obesity, the Dallas Independent School District is overhauling its cafeteria menu by featuring healthier food and tossing aside classic artery cloggers.

“The challenge to improve school nutrition is coming from all directions,” said Dora Rivas, the district’s executive director of child nutrition services. “There is a great impetus right now to really work on providing healthier meals.”


Gone are nachos – a lunchroom favorite – for elementary students. Potato chips and desserts will no longer be part of meals, though they will be available a la carte.

Hamburgers and oven fries will be offered only once every two weeks at the middle school and elementary level. And breaded and pre-fried foods will be on the menu more sparingly.

New items will include black bean burgers, hummus plates and Asian chicken bowls. Romaine lettuce and spinach will take the place of iceberg lettuce in salads.

Brown rice will replace white rice.

For actual expert commentary on this sort of thing, I’ll refer you to The Lunch Tray. What I do know is that making this kind of change work is harder than it looks. Taking nachos off the school menu is a no-brainer, sure, but how much good are you really doing if students reject the healthier choices? It doesn’t make much sense if all that good food winds up in the garbage can because nobody wanted to eat it. That certainly doesn’t mean that it’s better to let the kids drive the decisions, just that it will take more than simply substituting black bean burgers for nachos to make this work. Frankly, what it will likely take is a certain amount of marketing to make the kids at least willing to give new foods a try – trust me on this, that is highly non-trivial – and a willingness to listen and adapt to the feedback you get. I hope DISD has someone thinking about all this, and I wish them all the best of luck with it.

One more thing:

The healthy upgrades do come at a price. DISD already spends about $80 million each year providing 120,000 lunches, 46,000 breakfasts and 10,000 after-school snacks. The new menu’s food and supplies could cost up to an extra $3 million this year, said Brad Trudeau, the district’s director of food production and procurement.

That’s a 3.75 percent increase in the cost of providing meals. Given the great long-term upside of getting the kids to eat healthier foods, it would be penny-wise and pound foolish in the extreme to see that as anything but a fine and worthwhile investment. There is a point at which you would say it’s costing too much, but 3.75 percent is a long way from that point.

Dewhurst the deficit peacock

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wants you to believe that he cares about deficit spending.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst warned Wednesday that new federal health care legislation will bust Texas’ budget, saddling state taxpayers with $27 billion in extra costs over the next decade.

“That’s an astounding number for us,” Dewhurst told the Texas State Society at a breakfast that included a half-dozen members of Congress. “We’re on the hook for all those folks we’ve been trying to get to sign up for Medicaid.”

Let’s put aside for a second the fact that his figures are alarmist and highly misleading. Dewhurst is fretting about $27 billion over a decade. That’s $2.7 billion per year, or $5.4 billion per biennium, which is what really matters from a budgetary perspective. Let me bring you this blast from the past, quoted from the Quorum Report:

Chisum first laid out HB 2, which appropriates the $14 billion to make whole the property tax revenue lost by schools, and quickly moved to a vote.

Emphasis mine. This was from the 2007 legislative session, the first regular session that followed the special session of 2006 in which the Lege adopted a one-third cut in property taxes as a fix for the Supreme Court ruling over school finances. Because of that cut, $14 billion had to be taken from general revenue to make up the difference. That’s all in one budget. Now, of course, the Lege did create the new business margins tax, which along with an increase in the cigarette tax and some other small measures was supposed to replace the revenue lost to that property tax cut. Except for the fact that the margins tax has fallen short of projections, which we knew from the beginning it would do. In the end, we’ve spent about eight billion dollars of general revenue to pay for that tax cut, and we’ll spend billions more in this biennium and the biennia to follow. And David Dewhurst doesn’t make a peep about it. In fact, he thinks that’s just peachy. The lesson we learn from this is that it’s not the spending Dewhurst cares about, it’s who the beneficiaries are of that spending.

Metro gets record of decision for University line

Very good news.

Metro has received word that final approval has been given concerning the environmental review process for the University light-rail line.

“Houston clearly needs the University Line as an East-West transit artery,” said George Greanias, action president and CEO of the transit agency. “We’re extremely gratified the FTA has taken a big step in advancing this important project.”

The approval in the form of a federal Record of Decision allows Metro to go forward with utility coordination, design and pre-construction planning along the 11.3-mile route, some of which will run along Richmond Avenue from roughly Main to Cummins streets.

Metro’s press release about the FTA action is beneath the fold. There is of course still the matter of getting federal funds, and ensuring that Metro’s financial position is sufficiently strong to carry the debt load all this will eventually incur, but that’s a concern for another day. Between this and the conclusion of the document shredding investigation, it’s been a pretty darned good week for Metro.

On a side note, you can see Metro’s response to the FTA concerning Buy America. Maybe they can go three for three and get a favorable resolution to this soon, too.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on the record of decision.


Friday random ten: One through ten

I finished my tour of the alphabet a few weeks ago, and it occurred to me around that time that there was a natural extension of that theme once I got through the Zs. To wit:

1. Going For The One – Yes
2. Breaking Us In Two – Joe Jackson
3. Three Babies – Sinead O’Connor
4. Friend Is A Four Letter Word – CAKE
5. Take Five – Dave Brubeck Quartet
6. Number Six Driver – Eddie From Ohio
7. The Magnificent Seven – Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers
8. Eight Days of Hanukkah – Orrin Hatch and Madeline Stone
9. 9:45 – Mieka Pauley
10. Ten Cents A Dance – Julie Murphy

As you can see, the number 9 almost defeated me, but I pulled it out at the end. Anyone have a song with the word or number 9 in the title? Let me know if you do. I’ve got two more of these lists to follow.

Entire song list report: Started with “Kool Whip”, by the Austin Lounge Lizards. Ended with “Lay All Your Love On Me”, from the “Mamma Mia!” soundtrack. Have I mentioned how much Olivia loves “Mamma Mia!”? Yes, I believe I have. That was song #2778, for a total of 60 this week. The last “K” song was “Kyrie Eleison”, by the Oni Wytars Ensemble. The first “L” song was “L – Y”, by Tom Lehrer.

Ripping vinyl report: Way back when I first got the USB turntable, Greg Wythe ripped a couple of albums for me when he had some free time. Among them was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run”. One thing we learned from that experience was that we needed to set the input volume level higher than the manufacturer’s recommendations, or you’d get a very low-volume playback. That’s not such a big deal if you’re just listening to that album on your iPod, but in any sequence that includes stuff from other sources, it can be painful. So, this week I decided to re-do “Born To Run”. Initial playback in iTunes on my laptop suggests I got the level right, or at least I got it closer, but we’ll see when one of these songs comes up in the rotation. In addition to this, I also did one side of The Boss’ “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”. I have side 2 of that and “Tunnel of Love”, before I can finally say I’ve got all my Springsteen collection ripped.

Interview with Judy Jennings

Judy Jennings

Completing our tour of the SBOE candidates, I bring you an interview with Judy Jennings, who is running for the open District 10 seat that the uber wingnut Cynthia Dunbar has vacated. Jennings has a PhD in educational psychology and has been an advisor to the Texas Education Agency on accountability and assessment issues. District 10 is a true swing district – Bill Moody got 49.2% of the two-party vote in 2006; Barack Obama got 48.2% and CCA candidate Susan Strawn won a plurality in 2008. Dunbar’s hand-picked wingnut successor failed to win in the Republican primary runoff, but GOP nominee Marsha Farney can only be called “moderate” by comparison, not because of anything she’s said or done. She’s also spent a ton of money so far, and likely will spend more through November. This race represents a huge opportunity for the forces of reason and sanity. Here’s the interview:

Download the MP3 file

You can see all of my interviews for the 2010 election cycle on my 2010 Election page.

Keller appeals to Supreme Court

She’s still going for full vindication. Because as far as she’s concerned, she did nothing wrong.

[I]n a Supreme Court petition filed Thursday, Keller argued that the commission acted in a “lawless” manner because the Texas Constitution forbids it to issue such a warning.

“The order violates the constitution and is void. At the very least, it is a gross abuse of discretion,” wrote Keller lawyer Chip Babcock.

Babcock asked the court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the commission to expunge the warning from all records and to drop its charges against Keller. “The (commission) should not be given rein to wreak additional mischief,” he wrote.

Here’s the background on what this is about. All I can say is that I can’t think of a more bitterly ironic ending to this fiasco than Keller getting off on a technicality. Somebody pour me a drink.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

The Trib’s electoral three-parter

In case you haven’t seen it, I recommend the Trib‘s three-part series on the state of electoral politics in Texas, which was done in conjunction with the El Paso Times:

The Map: Can A Democrat Win?

The Map: The Giant Sleeps

The Map: Get Out The Vote

See also their interactive general election turnout map. Lots of familiar themes in these stories, lots of ground that has been visited here, all nicely put together and a fine overview if you’re just tuning in. Check it out.

How much do kids count?

In Texas, the answer is not much at all.

Between 2000 and 2008, the number of Texas kids living in poverty grew by 240,000, accounting for 23 percent of the total child population. The national child poverty rate is 18 percent. [Frances Deviney, president of the Texas KIDS Count branch housed at the Center for Public Policy Priorities] also said Texas ranks last in child food insecurity, meaning 1.6 million Texas children don’t know where their next meal will come from. According to the 2006-08 survey conducted by the KIDS Count data center, hungry children are more likely to miss school, be less attentive in class, and fail or drop out of school.

Other key indicators for Texas kids:

—Low birthweight babies have increased in Texas by 17 percent since 2000.

—Infant mortality has spiked by 11 percent since 2000.

—The number of children with special health or medical needs has jumped by 42 percent since 2001.

—Economically disadvantaged children are more likely to fail the TAKS test.

—About 72 percent of Texas fourth graders are not proficient in reading, putting Texas in the bottom quarter of reading proficiency.

During this time, we’ve created a multibillion dollar structural deficit by irresponsibly cutting property taxes, thrown hundreds of thousands of kids off of CHIP, and frozen allocations for school districts at 2006 levels. That’s even before we deal with the current budget shortfall and the fanatical desire among Republican base voters to ensure people remain uninsured. Yeah, we pretty much don’t give a crap about kids in this state. BOR has more.

Dirty deals, done dirt cheap

So I missed this DMN story from the weekend about Rick Perry’s excellent fortune in the real estate market.

Three years after Gov. Rick Perry’s biggest real estate score, questions persist about whether the governor benefited from favoritism, backroom dealing and influence-buying.

The Dallas Morning News found evidence that Perry’s investment was enhanced by a series of professional courtesies and personal favors from friends, campaign donors and the head of a Texas family with a rich history of political power-brokering.

Together they may have enriched Perry by almost $500,000, according to an independent real estate appraisal commissioned by The News.

BOR breaks it down into small, easy pieces. Short version: It’s good to be the king. It’s even better when your business partner in the deal forgets to disclose it, as required by law.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, didn’t list his September 2000 acquisition of the waterfront lot on Lake Lyndon B. Johnson in the disclosure form he filed for that year. He also didn’t note a year later the fact that Perry purchased the property from him in 2001, the documents show.

State law requires elected officials such as Fraser, a friend and political ally of the governor, to describe “any and all” interests they or their families have in real property. They also must disclose any proceeds they received when those interests are sold. Failure to file the forms on time can result in civil penalties levied by the commission, though Fraser will not face enforcement because the commission doesn’t have the authority to levy fines for a 10-year-old violation.

Fraser, a wealthy investor, listed numerous stock holdings and other financial information on the 52-page filing but omitted the land deal. He was traveling out of the state on Wednesday and was unavailable for comment, said his chief of staff, Janice McCoy, who declined to discuss the issue.

Andy Wilson, a research associate for campaign finance issues at the watchdog group Public Citizen Texas, said the senator’s failure to correctly file the forms is no small matter. “The public’s right to know on this is absolute,” Wilson said. “Considering that, for most Texans, their homes are the most important thing that they own, I’m surprised that someone would forget to put this on a financial disclosure — especially waterfront property on Horseshoe Bay.”

I dunno, you’d think that buying and selling a house is the sort of thing you might remember doing. Unless of course there was something about it that you didn’t want people to know about.

Turns out that’s not the only questionable dealing Perry has done. The good folks at the Back to Basics PAC have uncovered a few more, which they detail at their latest website, From their press release:

Today, Back to Basics PAC launched a new website highlighting a few of the suspicious and murky land deals that have put hundreds of thousands of dollars in Rick Perry’s pockets.

Rick Perry said, “The idea that you’re supposed to go get an ethics report when you buy a piece of property might be a bit cumbersome for elected officials.”

We disagree, Governor. Back to Basics PAC believes Texans have a right to know about Perry’s dirty deals, and we will continue doing everything we can to make sure all Texas voters hear about his unethical and corrupt behavior.

Visitors can watch Perry play “Let’s Make a Deal” at

Here’s the source for that “cumbersome” quote. Hey, if it’s too much trouble to report that kind of thing, there’s always life in the private sector, where you can use your cronies to get as rich as you want without anyone caring too much about it.

By the way, that Ricks Dirty Deals site pays homage to that classic game show “Let’s Make A Deal”. For those of you who are too young to remember the 1970s, here’s a short clip to give you a feel for it:

Is it just me or does anyone else think that Monte Hall’s hair is a primordial ancestor of Rick Perry’s? Among the many charms of this show was the silly costumes the studio audience members wore to get Hall’s attention – I’ve been picturing Troy Fraser and Mike Toomey in fright wigs and clown shoes as a result of all this – and vintage 70’s muscle cars, of the kind they don’t make any more. Those were the days, my friends.

Finally, as an aficionado of 70s-era game shows, I recognize the theme music they’re using on – not from “Let’s Make A Deal”; clearly the Back to Basics folks are too young for this – but for the life of me I can’t place it, and it’s driving me crazy. A little help here, please? Thanks.

Where’s Birdwell?

The Trib re-raises the question of the newest Senator’s eligibility to serve.

The newest member of the Texas Senate, Brian Douglas Birdwell, voted in the November 2004 presidential election twice, choosing between George W. Bush and John Kerry in Tarrant County, Texas, and again in Prince William County, Va., according to election records in the two states.

Voting in the same election twice is a third-degree felony in Texas.

What’s more, Birdwell’s record of voting in Virginia from 2004 through 2006 would seem to place his residency in that state, not in Texas, which could imperil his spot in the Legislature. Birdwell voted a Virginia ballot in November 2006; if that’s enough to establish him as a Virginia resident, an issue that can only be settled in court, it means he’s not eligible to serve in the Texas Senate until at least November 2011.

The voting twice issue is new, and after initially not responding, Birdwell strongly denied that allegation. He did not, however, deny voting in Virginia in 2006.

Talk of Birdwell’s eligibility dogged his campaign all along, attracting news coverage and generating talk in political circles. State law requires senators to have lived in the state for the five years before they take office and to have lived at least the last 12 months of that time in the districts they seek to serve.

Indeed, now-retired Sen. Kip Averitt briefly contemplated not retiring if Birdwell won the special election over concerns about his eligibility.

Another, earlier date — November 2006, when Birdwell last voted in Virginia — may well hold the key to whether he’s a legal candidate or not.

“It’s a piece of evidence that’s hard to refute and usually fatal,” says Randall “Buck” Wood, an Austin lawyer and a Democrat respected across the political spectrum for his mastery of election law. The residency question, as Wood sees it, puts the courts in the position of deciding whether someone did something illegal — voting in an election in a place where they don’t reside — or simply is ineligible to run in another place because of that vote. He thinks most judges would choose the second option rather than deciding the candidate in question did something criminal. The crime, if there is one, would be voting in Virginia while residing in Texas. Wood thinks a court would most likely see no crime, saying instead that the voter was a Virginia resident and voter who is simply not eligible to run for Texas Senate.

Lawyers for the Republican Party of Texas haven’t looked into Birdwell’s case, according to Bryan Preston, a party spokesman, who said the matter was left to the campaign. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which backed Birdwell in the special election, did research the residency question and decided he is eligible, according to Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for TLR. “We have endorsed Senator Birdwell, and we have contributed to his campaign,” she says. “We have reviewed the questions surrounding his residency, and like 58 percent of the voters of Senate District 22 and the eight county chairs who nominated him over the weekend, we believe he is a Texas resident.”

Yes, and Tom DeLay’s lawyers were convinced that he could be replaced on the ballot in 2006 after declaring himself a Virginia resident and withdrawing from the CD22 race. Didn’t work out too well for him, as I recall. When and if somebody files suit – my guess is that will happen shortly after the Democrats pick their own candidate and the Republicans officially tab Birdwell – we’ll see what a judge has to say. And as the Waco Trib reports, there’s more evidence that Birdwell considered himself a Virginian pretty recently:

An attorney for Sibley filed Birdwell’s voting records and other documents with state election officials, asking them to disqualify Birdwell.

After the Secretary of State’s Office stored those away, all that was left was talk and news reports along the way. But the filing at SOS supplied the factual underpinning for the argument against Birdwell’s Texas residency.

In addition to some of Birdwell’s voting records, that package includes his “resident state fishing permit” from 2006 and another from 2008 for which he paid the Virginia resident rates — lower than those paid by out-of-staters.

Those fishing licenses include this notice: “I certify that the person named on this license meets residency requirements, is eligible to buy this license, and all information on this form is true to the best of my knowledge and belief.”

That might or might not be strong evidence in a legal residency case, but it’s spice for the political argument about whether Birdwell’s candidacy is legitimate.

Like I said, we’ll presumably see what a judge thinks. I look forward to it.

State sues the EPA again

Round and round we go

Texas has sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency for the second time in six weeks, escalating a feud over the state’s rules for air pollution from refiners and other large industries.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott said Monday he filed a petition with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking to block the EPA from disapproving the state’s so-called flexible permits.

State officials argue the federal agency had no legal or technical justification for rejecting the 16-year-old permitting program, which covers 122 refiners, chemical plants and plastics makers.


[Al Armendariz, the EPA’s regional administrator based in Dallas,] said the EPA rejected flexible permitting because the rules fall short of the federal Clean Air Act’s requirements. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issues the permits on behalf of the EPA, but the EPA decides whether they are in compliance with the law.

Although Texas created the permitting rules in 1994, the EPA did not rule on them until after industry groups sued to force the agency to act.

That’s the irony of all this. Had industry groups not sued the EPA earlier, they might not be in this pickle now. So much for that. Given where we are now, I’m sure the faster and cheaper resolution, not to mention the one that allows for actual progress in cleaning up the air we all breathe, would be for the EPA to work with affected manufacturers to get them into compliance, which is what they’re already doing with many of them. But if you want to drag things out and make everybody spend a bunch of money on legal fees and you don’t really care about air quality, then litigating is totally the way to go. More background is here, here, here, and here

New jitney rules coming

City Council is preparing to make some changes to its ordinances regarding jitneys.

The goal of the new rules, some of which also will be established by mid-September in a “green” ordinance that will govern the use of zero-emissions vehicles, is to “allow the market to function appropriately,” said Chris Newport, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs.

Newport said the previous rules are outdated and inhibit new ideas.

“The changes create a flexible framework and set the foundation for the industry to grow without standing in the way of technology and investment,” he said.

Erik Ibarra, owner of Rev Eco-Shuttle, said that is exactly what the new ordinance will do. The changes to the ordinance may “regulate us out of business,” he said.

I’ve written about RevHouston before. Ibarra’s concern appears to be because his service is currently neither fish nor fowl. Jitneys are being defined as having between nine and 15 passengers and operating on a fixed route. If that sounds like the Washington Wave to you, go to the head of the class. RevHouston is using a jitney license that Ibarra got to keep from getting tickets for not complying with taxi ordinances, but his service is for six and fewer at a time, and really is more like a taxi since it’s not on a fixed route. The city says it has a plan for that:

Although Ibarra’s two six-seat vehicles would be allowed to continue operating under the law under an exception, he said the new ordinance may not allow him to grow or to purchase more vehicles.

City officials say Ibarra’s company will be able to operate as a pedi-cab under the “green” ordinance, which the council is expected to consider in mid-September.


Ibarra said he is concerned that his company’s growth potential will be limited before the new regulations are in place.

He agrees that many of the changes proposed in the ordinance will be good for the industry but questioned why his company will be left in limbo.

“Why not put the green ordinance first?” he asked, noting that he would be in “regulatory purgatory” for six weeks. “It just seems backwards to say, we’re going to regulate you out of the market first, but don’t worry, we’re going to set up a green ordinance for you. … If this passes, they’re not going to prevent other companies from growing, just my company.”

I’m sure there’s a reason Council is doing the jitney update before the green ordinance, but regardless of that it does potentially leave Ibarra in the lurch. What happens if the green ordinance doesn’t get passed, for example? It probably won’t matter in the end, but I can’t blame the guy for fretting about it. As for his concern about his company’s growth potential, I must say that classifying RevHouston as a form of pedicab makes sense to me. As long as the green ordinance wouldn’t forbid him from operating, say, a ten-passenger eco-shuttle, I don’t see the problem. Am I missing something?

If it’s not your car, why did you get mileage reimbursements on it?

The Back to Basics PAC has more questions about “Linda Harper-Benz”.

Remember our prior post on the scandal about how State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown was caught driving a brand-new 2010 Mercedes-Benz ME550 Sedan that was given to her by a state contractor, Durable Enterprises Ltd.? We’ve discovered shocking new information on the scandal surrounding Harper-Benz.

Apparently State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown billed the Texas Comptroller for $13,000 in mileage reimbursement funds. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the mileage reimbursement funds were used on her privately owned cars. However, she has three cars that were given to her by Durable Enterprises, Ltd., and Texan taxpayers have a right to know whether taxpayer funds were used on these cars that weren’t even legally hers.

This is based on a post by John Coby, who found the records from the Comptroller’s office that documented the reimbursements. Follow the links and see what they found. Back to you, Linda.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 26

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes Lois the corpse flower a restful and well-earned dormant period as it brings you this week’s blog highlights.


Interview with Rebecca Bell-Metereau

Rebecca Bell-Metereau

Next up is Rebecca Bell-Metereau, who is running for SBOE in District 5, which also touches San Antonio and goes north into the Hill Country. Bell-Metereau is also a professor of English, at Texas State University. She is running against former State Rep. Ken Mercer, who was elected to his first term in the SBOE in 2006. Interestingly, current State Rep. Donna Howard ran for this seat in 2002, against Mercer’s predecessor, but she lost by a wide margin. The district is more purple now than it was then, but it remains Republican leaning. So it’s a good thing that Bell-Metereau has done well in fundraising, and will hopefully keep that up. Here’s the interview:

Download the MP3 file

As a reminder, you can see all of my interviews for the 2010 election cycle on my 2010 Election page.

Pushback on the historic preservation ordinance

I’m seeing a few of these signs in my neighborhood:

'Responsible Historic Preservation'

The first ones I spotted were in front of houses on Heights Blvd; this one and a couple of others were on Studewood on an empty commercial lot.

Nothing like putting signs on an empty lot

I’ve since seen a few on Yale and 6th Street. The site says it is a “grassroots advocacy group primarily concerned with reasonable and sensible preservation of historic property in Houston”, according to their Who We Are page. I was a little suspicious of this, because I didn’t see the names of any people who were responsible for the group. Their Facebook page didn’t have any names, either. So, I sent them an email asking who their founder is and who their board members are, if they have any. I received the following response from Kathleen Powell:

I’m happy our signs are getting attention. Quite frankly, we are surprised at the number of responses we have received from the signs and from our website since Saturday morning. We are overwhelmed by the response to say the least.

I am one of three founders. The other two are Mary Wassef and Bill Baldwin. We have been keeping an eye on this issue since the spring of 2008 and knew the day was coming that we would have to take some action. All three of us are homeowners of old homes. Mary and I live in a current historic district, the Heights East and Norhill respectively, and Bill lives in a district which has applied for historic designation but he personally has already landmarked his home after doing a major renovation to a splendid old home that was in near tear down condition due to neglect. His home now is a show piece for the neighborhood. We all believe in and want historic preservation. We just want to go about it in a different, more sensible, reasonable, and responsible way.

We are an advocate group in the beginning stages and we have no board of directors. From the looks of things, we will think we will quickly need to become a more formal organization however currently, we are much more concerned with getting the word out about what the city is attempting to do and much too busy with that to worry about a board of directors. We are dancing as fast as we can!

That answered my questions, and I appreciate them getting back to me. (Kathleen also pointed me to this link on their page, which identifies her as its author; it’s linked from the main page on the lower right, but I did not see it when I first visited. She says the website is a work in progress and will have more content on it shortly.) The Baldwin house is in the 200 block of Bayland and it is a jewel – I’ve been in it a couple of times for events. I support efforts to update the existing ordinance, and I like what I’ve seen so far, but I’m certainly open to what they have to say. The goal is the best preservation ordinance we can get, so let’s have the discussion and see where it takes us.

County redoes its public defender proposal

Back in April, Harris County Commissioners Court voted to start a pilot public defenders office, contingent on getting a $4.4 million grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense to help cover costs. That initial effort was subsequently criticized for being inadequate, and the TFID gave the county 30 days to improve its grant application. That has been done, and Commissioners Court is trying again.

The county’s previous version of the application received criticism from academics, local ministers, defense advocacy groups and the local state senator who authored the law authorizing the creation of public defender offices in Texas counties. Among the criticisms were that not enough judges planned to participate, that the office would not serve high-level felony defendants and that the office was subject to control by the judiciary and Commissioners Court.

Originally, 11 of 22 district court judges had volunteered to use a public defender on felony trial cases and only three agreed to the new office’s use on appellate cases. Now, 20 judges have bought in on felony trials and 18 on appeals.


To protect the public defender from meddling by Commissioners Court or the judiciary, an independent oversight board would be established for the office. Judges, attorneys, indigent defense groups, the county attorney and Commissioners Court all would get to make appointments to the board.

In the original application, public defenders would represent felony defendants accused only of low-level crimes such as possession of small amounts of drugs. The revamped proposal would have the public defender take on more serious felony trials. The plan also continues to provide for juvenile, appeals and mental health cases.

The county is also only asking for $4.1 million now, and there were some other changes made as well. It looks like they took the feedback they got seriously, and kudos to them for that. We’ll see how it goes from here.

You think there might be a connection there?

In the middle of this Trib story about the Driver Responsibility Program and the Lege’s efforts to reform it comes a reminder about the relationship between federal and state legislation.

Denise Rose, senior director of government relations at the Texas Hospital Association, says she doesn’t anticipate the new rules will have a large fiscal impact on the Driver Responsibility Program. “The state’s only collecting a third of the surcharges that are out there, so I don’t know that it’s going to make a huge dent,” she says. Even if the state isn’t collecting all it could, she says, the hospital trauma centers that get the money badly need it. Since 2004, Texas trauma centers have received some $380 million from driver surcharges, which helps pay for care provided to uninsured patients. “It seems like a lot of money, but hospitals have reported in the same time frame close to over $1 billion in uncompensated trauma care,” Rose says. Though hospitals acknowledge the surcharge program is not ideal, Rose says they’d rather see it fixed than eliminated. “If the state was funding uncompensated trauma care in a different way, there wouldn’t be a need for things like the Driver Responsibility Program,” she says. “But that’s a whole a different argument.”

Emphasis mine. The Affordable Care Act, which will provide insurance for those trauma victims for which these hospitals have been providing uncompensated care, will do more to close that gap than anything the Lege can or will do. You would think the state of Texas would be happier about that. Here was the federal government finally stepping up to solve a federal problem that was having an outsized impact on state and local governments. The lack of action by the federal government on a similar problem that’s theirs to solve – comprehensive immigration reform – is frequently cited these days (usually by Republicans) as justification for states taking that matter into their own hands. Yet what’s the reaction of these same Republican legislators to this great achievement by the federal government, which among many other things will solve problems like these? Why, they want to repeal it, to file lawsuits against it, to pass laws forbidding their states from recognizing it. One might think they’re not really all that concerned about the federal government solving problems. Funny how these things work, isn’t it?

DA clears Metro


Months after prosecutors took boxes of documents from Metro’s downtown headquarters and experts examined the agency’s computers, the investigation into allegations that Metropolitan Transit Authority administrators illegally destroyed public documents has ended, Metro officials said today.

In a letter to METRO, the Harris County District Attorney’s office wrote, “Our investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and those allegations were unfounded.”

The letter clears the agency of any wrongdoing.

That sound you hear is the wailing of all the Metro haters, who were convinced that evil was afoot and are no doubt disappointed to come away so empty. To recap, back in February Metro was accused of shredding documents related to an open records request Lloyd Kelley made. The DA opened its probe a week later. Shortly after that, Kelley admitted he didn’t have any actual evidence to back up the original claim of document shredding, which may or may not have had anything to do with the nookie that then-CEO Frank Wilson was allegedly engaging in with one of his staffers. Said alleged nookie apparently never happened, or at least if it did it wasn’t done on Metro’s dime. Kelley eventually settled his lawsuit with Metro, with an acknowledgment that there was no evidence of any shredding; Kelley also never said just what it was he’d been looking for in the first place. A grand jury heard evidence related to the alleged shredding in May. And now here we are. About all that’s left from the last days of Frank Wilson is the Pauline Higgins lawsuit and the ongoing Buy America saga. I think that about covers it. Mary Benton has more.

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

Fundraising: SBOE

Really only two races of interest here, SBOE 5 and SBOE 10. Let’s take a look.

Totals From Report For Rebecca L. Bell-Metereau
Filed on: July 15 2010
Covering the Period February 21, 2010 Through June 30, 2010

Total Unitemized Contributions: $8,790.51
Total Political Contributions: $69,779.06
Total Unitemized Expenditures: $79.17
Total Expenditures: $29,172.85
Total Unitemized Pledges (Schedule B1 or B2) $170.00
Total Contributions Maintained As Of The Last Day Of The Reporting Period $43,076.61
Total Principal Amount Of All Outstanding Loans As Of The Last Day of the Reporting Period $0.00
Total Unitemized Loans: $0.00

Totals From Report For Kenneth B. Mercer
Filed on: July 14 2010
Covering the Period February 21, 2010 Through June 30, 2010

Total Unitemized Contributions: $535.00
Total Political Contributions: $6,675.00
Total Unitemized Expenditures: $45.87
Total Expenditures: $24,969.83
Total Unitemized Pledges (Schedule B1 or B2) $0.00
Total Contributions Maintained As Of The Last Day Of The Reporting Period $1,720.77
Total Principal Amount Of All Outstanding Loans As Of The Last Day of the Reporting Period $0.00
Total Unitemized Loans: $0.00

Not a bad haul at all for Bell-Metereau. SBOE districts are enormous, twice the size of State Senate districts, so that money will only go so far, but in context, it’s quite impressive. Mercer presumably had a few bucks lying around from his previous campaign, and I daresay he’ll depend more on the partisan lean of this district to win rather than any actual campaigning. But if he does plan to run a race, he’ll need to find the money for it first.

Totals From Report For Judith A. Jennings
Filed on: July 15 2010
Covering the Period January 01, 2010 Through June 30, 2010

Total Unitemized Contributions: $8,876.61
Total Political Contributions: $54,600.81
Total Unitemized Expenditures: $40.29
Total Expenditures: $26,214.86
Total Unitemized Pledges (Schedule B1 or B2) $150.00
Total Contributions Maintained As Of The Last Day Of The Reporting Period $36,406.78
Total Principal Amount Of All Outstanding Loans As Of The Last Day of the Reporting Period $0.00
Total Unitemized Loans: $0.00

Totals From Report For Marsha L. Farney
Filed on: July 15 2010
Covering the Period April 04, 2010 Through June 30, 2010

Total Unitemized Contributions: $0.00
Total Political Contributions: $17,975.00
Total Unitemized Expenditures: $10.75
Total Expenditures: $101,875.04
Total Unitemized Pledges (Schedule B1 or B2) $0.00
Total Contributions Maintained As Of The Last Day Of The Reporting Period $4,049.86
Total Principal Amount Of All Outstanding Loans As Of The Last Day of the Reporting Period $0.00
Total Unitemized Loans: $0.00

Jennings has another decent Democratic haul. Note that Farney’s totals only cover three months while Jennings’ span six; this is because Farney was in a primary runoff that she won in April. However, if you add her contributions raised in the previous three periods to this, she collected $44,276 for the six months, meaning that Jennings still out-raised her.

You may also notice the large sum Farney reported spending in this period. In fact, she spent an equal or greater amount in the two prior periods as well, and going back to the start of the year has dropped nearly $400K on this race. Almost all of that is reported on the Schedule G form, which is for “Political Contibutions Made From Personal Funds”. The disclaimer on each item is “Reimbursement for political contributions intended”. In short, she’s loaned herself all this money but hopes to get future contributors to pay it back. It’s still money spent, but if you look at her most recent form, the vast majority of these expenditures were made in April; in other words, they were runoff expenses, and thus aimed at a limited audience. If she’s spent that much so far to get nominated, it stands to reason she’ll spend at least as much to get elected, and while as I’ve said there’s a difference between raising money and spending it, that will still be of great use to her. That said, Jennings clearly has the advantage in the breadth of her campaign.

There is a third race that we’re all watching for the SBOE, of course, and that’s Michael Soto’s race in SBOE 3. Here’s Soto’s report – he raised $11K and has about $8K on hand. I didn’t add his report in like the others because he’s running in a strong D district – it’s about ten points more Democratic than SBOE 5 is Republican – and as such, I didn’t even bother to look up his opponent’s name. But here it is for your perusal nonetheless.

In case you need a reminder to vote this November

What we have to look forward to in Austin next year if nothing changes.

Legislators next year will face severe budget problems, divisive redistricting, school funding troubles and reviews of major state agencies, including the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality and the Texas Department of Insurance.

“We are going to have a very tough session,” said Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, chairman of the State Affairs Committee.

But addressing those over-arching issues will not be enough to satisfy Republican voters, he said: “They want us to deal with these other issues. It’s a line in the sand.

“Voter ID and immigration issues are right up there at the top. And nullification (of the national health care law) is a big issue,” Solomons said. “The Republican voters are wanting some things done if Washington isn’t going to do it. And they want states to start taking action.”

Note the problems that we face, and the problems that our Republican legislators will be pressured to deal with by their primary voters. Not much overlap, is there? Now imagine the difference between having Rick Perry there to egg them on, and having Bill White there to veto that kind of hateful stupidity. Puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?

Full fees ahead

The cost of doing business for Harris County keeps going up.

Rising credit card fees have increased that portion of the county government’s banking bill by $1.7 million in two years.

In the year that ended in February, the county paid 36 percent more in fees for customers who pay with plastic to cover their tolls and taxes than it did two years before.

The fees are a tiny portion of the county’s $1.4 billion budget, but the higher bills come during a budget crunch that has resulted in layoffs and a hiring freeze. Just the recent increase in fees would be enough to put 31 new sheriff’s deputies on the streets of Harris County. Rising credit card fees were “a large part” of the reason the Harris County Toll Road Authority stopped allowing people to pay airport parking fees with their EZ Tags earlier this year, said Peter Key, the authority’s director.

The Chron story about the EZ Tag debacle did mention the processing fees, which amounted to $70,000 a month, as a reason. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I must have assumed it was a flat rate that HCTRA was being charged, but clearly that was not the case.

[County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia] suggested that the county consider going out for bids for banking services again next year in hopes of getting another bank to offer lower fees or to pressure Amegy Bank to give the county a better deal.

Key pointed the finger not at Amegy but at the credit card companies as he spoke after the meeting of his frustration over the rising costs.

“They’re just jacking up the transaction fees,” Key said. “The cost ultimately is going to be born by the merchants,” he said, in this case the Toll Road Authority. The tax office, though, passes on charges of $3.95 per Visa debit card transaction and 2.15 percent for most credit cards.

“What has happened is not Amegy but Mastercard and Visa have exponentially increased their fees,” said Edwin Harrison, director of the county’s financial services division.

Indeed, and it’s something that Kevin Drum has written about a few times. Basically, the credit industry soaks the masses to reward the high end users with things like frequent flyer miles and cash back. I’m a beneficiary of that system, but it’s one I’d be happy to see changed, since it’s a huge transfer of wealth away from folks who can’t afford it. Not really something Harris County can do much about, though. Just keep it in mind the next time you hear someone yammer about the unrestrained growth of government spending. There’s an awful lot of it that’s just not in their control.

Another lawsuit against Farmers Branch over City Council districts

Trying again to force the city of Farmers Branch to create single member City Council districts.

The suit seeks an end at-large voting for City Council seats, arguing that the current method dilutes Hispanic voting strength. Nearly half the city is Hispanic, according to estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau over a three-year-period ending in 2008.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Dallas on behalf of several Farmers Branch residents by the Bickel & Brewer Storefront. Bickel & Brewer is firm that has sued the city over an ordinance that bans landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. Federal judges have declared two versions of the rental ordinance to be unconstitutional.

A federal judge dismissed an earlier voting rights suit, one that was filed shortly after the May 2007 council elections. That suit was brought by a San Antonio attorney and Dallas lawyer Domingo García, whose firm is best known for its personal injury litigation.

The last news I heard on that was that the dismissal was being appealed to the Supreme Court. I presume SCOTUS did not agree to hear that appeal, or we’d have heard something more by now.

The new lawsuit was brought by 10 Spanish-surnamed residents. It said that under the current election system, all six City Council members could reside on the same block.

It noted that Hispanics are heavily concentrated in the northwestern part of the city. It said there are enough Hispanics within a small geographic area to allow a single-member district voting system in which Hispanics would form a majority in at least one district.

When the previous suit was dismissed, the judge wrote in his opinion that the plaintiffs did not prove that a majority-minority single-member district could be created. I’m guessing that this lawsuit is using updated Census figures to address that point. There are also more election results, such as this year’s in which all candidates were Anglo, that they can use. We’ll see if any of that makes a difference.

Interview with Michael Soto

Michael Soto

It’s time to start up the interview machine again, as election season will be on us before you know it. (Fun fact: We’re less than 90 days out from the start of early voting.) I’ve got a trio of SBOE candidates to get things started, beginning with Michael Soto, the Democratic candidate for SBOE in District 3, which is primarily San Antonio and points south. Soto is a professor of English at my alma mater and is running to replace the unreliable Democratic incumbent, Rick Agosto. Here’s the interview:

Download the MP3 file

As before, I will keep a list of all interviews on the 2010 Elections page. Let me know what you think about the interview, and if you have any suggestions about that page.

What is this “warning” of which you speak?

I’m glad to see that someone is asking questions about the warning that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct handed down to Sharon Keller.

Seana Willing, the commission’s examiner, contends in an e-mail that the order is based on a rule that does not comport with the Texas Constitution. As examiner in judicial misconduct cases, Willing acts as a prosecutor does in a criminal case, gathering and presenting evidence, often assisted by a private attorney.

Willing says, “I’m not criticizing the commission for what they did, but I don’t understand why they did what they did.” But Willing is concerned that the commission’s public warning in Keller could result in “bad law” and cost taxpayers more money.

She argues the commission should have based its order on the constitution, which allows the commission only three options after it begins formal proceedings against a judge and after a special master issues a report: issue a censure, recommend removal or retirement, or dismiss the charges.

But John J. “Mike” McKetta, the special counsel who prosecuted Keller, thinks the constitution allows the commission to take the action it did.

Bob Warneke, the commission’s counsel in Keller, says the commission’s position is that the order “speaks for itself.” He declines further comment.

The question is somewhat complicated, and turns on what the Texas Constitution outlines and what the rules for the SCJC specify. It’s a bit of a mess, actually. The Statesman has a good story on this as well, which includes the fact that Keller is the 96th judge to be examined by the Commission, and the first to receive this particular sanction. One thing I hope we all can agree on:

While [Keller defense attorney Chip] Babcock is discussing an appeal, how such an appeal would proceed is unclear. That’s because there are different procedures for appeals after formal and informal proceedings. A public warning typically follows informal proceedings, but in Keller’s case, the commission issued a public warning after formal proceedings.

When the commission issues a public warning to a judge in informal proceedings, that judge has the right to ask the state Supreme Court to appoint three appellate justices to a special court of review to hear the appeal. Willing says in an interview that in such appeals, the three-justice panel reviews the evidence de novo, amounting to a new trial.

But because the commission initiated formal proceedings against Keller, Keller already has had a trial — before the special master. Willing says a new trial would be a waste of resources. She is concerned about Keller getting what amounts to a second trial on the taxpayer’s dime.

“This is taxpayers’ resources being expended for a second trial,” Willing says. “I have a problem with that.”

Willing says that even though the commission does not pay Graves Dougherty legal fees for McKetta’s work as special counsel, it had to pay for the firm’s expenses in Keller, which totaled about $20,000 so far. “Are we going to have to do that again?” Willing asks.

I would hope the answer to that is No. At this point, it appears the only way for that to be ensured is for Keller to take her medicine and let it go already. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Thanks to Grits for the Texas Lawyer link.

TEA Commissioner Scott defends Texas Projection Measure

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott takes advantage of a friendly audience to lash out at critics of the Texas Projection Measure.

Scott, speaking to the State Board of Education, said the so-called Texas Projection Measure has been misunderstood and misrepresented by critics who contend the policy gives a false impression of school performance.

The complex formula allows schools and districts to count as passing some students who actually fail the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills if the projection measure shows they are likely to pass in a future year.

“There is a little bit of election year politics going on here,” Scott said. “It is very easy to demagogue. It is very easy for someone to say they gave students credit for failing.”

Too bad he didn’t have the guts to say this to Scott Hochberg. It would have been nice to know how he would have answered those questions, instead of leaving his assistants to hang out to dry.

The commissioner also pointed to scores of e-mails from superintendents, principals and teachers across the state who wrote that the projection measure was beneficial for their students and schools — and should be retained. The Dallas Morning News obtained copies of all e-mails received by the Texas Education Agency through the beginning of this week.

“Please keep TPM and do not suspend the use of the TPM for school accountability ratings,” said Lewisville High School Principal Brad Burns, reflecting the viewpoints of numerous principals in Texas.

“Whether TPM was good, bad or in-between, we had children for the first time in their lives that experienced success,” wrote Temple schools Superintendent Robin Wuebker-Battershell. “Retool it if necessary, but don’t surrender the concept.”

And Weatherford High School Principal David Belding urged Scott to please “not dismantle a system that gives schools with more difficult student groups to educate the chance to be recognized for moving those students forward. That is what TPM does.”

Look, nobody is attacking the idea of a means to measure growth. My understanding is that such a thing is required by No Child Left Behind, so totally scrapping it isn’t an option. The problem is that as a way to measure the growth of students who are not already passing their tests – that is to say, to measure the growth of the students it was really designed to measure – TPM sucks. In mathematical terms, it’s a lousy model. Pointing that out isn’t politics, but distorting that criticism is. Can we please focus on the real issue, so that we have accurate data about our teachers, students, and school districts and so that the real progress they have made doesn’t get lost under the weight of a bad metric? Thanks.

How dry is Dallas?

I’m fascinated by stories about elections to allow the sale of alcohol in places where it is currently prohibited. I suppose I find it weird that these vestiges of Prohibition are still with us. I especially find it strange to learn about such restrictions in big cities like Dallas, since my impression is that they primarily exist in rural areas, but clearly that is not the case.

Since March, when Keep the Dollars in Dallas began collecting petition signatures to force an election [to eliminate dry areas in the city], a central theme of its campaign has been that added sales-tax revenue from expanded alcohol sales could help close the city’s budget gap.

City staffers buttressed that argument during a May presentation to the City Council of budget “brainstorming ideas.” The presentation asserted that the expansion of alcohol sales would add $11.3 million in sales taxes per year.


The city’s report calculated potential tax revenue from each of two ballot initiatives. One would permit the sale of beer and wine – but not liquor – at stores throughout Dallas. A second would eliminate the “private club” requirement that exists in dry areas, which requires the formality of admitting restaurant customers into a “club” before allowing them to buy drinks.

To project potential revenues from the first initiative, city staffers obtained confidential estimates of beer and wine sales per square foot of retail space from one convenience store chain and three grocery store chains in wet areas. The staffers then applied those numbers to all of Dallas assuming the entire city went wet.

The resulting prediction was that alcohol sales in the city’s grocery and convenience stores would grow from $352 million to about $973 million per year. Taxed at 1 percent, the added sales would generate about $6.2 million in city revenue.

To project revenues from the second ballot initiative, involving alcohol sales in restaurants, city staffers performed a similar extrapolation. Based on mixed-beverage tax receipt figures in wet areas from the state comptroller’s office, they estimated such alcohol sales would go from about $542 million to about $880 million. From an effective tax rate on such sales of about 1.5 percent, the city would receive an added $5.1 million in revenue.

City staffers concede that not all of these gains could actually be realized, since many of the new sales in areas going wet would be “cannibalized” from areas that were already wet.

“As a result, these revenue estimates should be considered a maximum potential revenue gain,” the city research report says.

I don’t know how much of Dallas is dry, so it’s hard for me to say how credible I find the proponents’ numbers. The only dry place in Houston that I’m aware of is a small piece of the Heights, where restaurants that aren’t fortunate enough to have a grandfathered permit cannot sell booze, but the overall effect there is miniscule. Making this area wet would make only a tiny difference to the city’s bottom line. I figure the more of the city that already allows alcohol sales, the more “cannibalization” there would be. Be that as it may, if I lived in Dallas I’d vote for these propositions on the grounds that I think it’s silly for there to be dry areas in this day and age. Whether or not eliminating them brings in extra tax revenues isn’t a factor to me. I don’t see any public policy rationale for these little alcohol-free islands, and the experience of the Collin County town of Anna strongly suggests that nothing bad will happen if they disappear. I say pour a cold one and join the 21st Century, Dallas. The DMN editorial board has a sensible take as well.

Weekend link dump for July 25

Hot enough for ya?

It’s a nice thought, but it ain’t happening any time soon.

We have to go back!

Vegas, baby!

Don’t try this at home, kids.

The Republicans have no ideas. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Yes, please do bring on the Bush nostalgia.

Is an energy bill without cap and trade still worth doing? It could be.

I had not realized how scary and sophisticated the “Conficker” worm is.

We could use more people like Bree Heaberlin.

Those Louisiana Republicans sure are a horny bunch, aren’t they?

Gravel roads are the logical conclusion of tax phobia.

George W. Bush is tanned, rested, and ready for Republican Congressional candidates to call him.

On behalf of everyone who ever lived in New York City, I say screw you, Sarah.

The Penn State problem.

The Randal O’Toole problem.

You should also know them by a more accurate name, which would be “a bunch of lying liars”.

RIP, Ralph Houk, the first Yankee manager I can remember from my childhood. Steven Goldman remembers more.

Sue, Shirley, sue! Also, what Josh says. If we lived in a just society, Andrew Breitbart would now be a pariah. At the very least, one hopes that nobody in the so-called “mainstream” media will ever listen to anything he says again.

“Premium privacy”.

Nick Anderson is worth a thousand words.

We’re fixing to run out of IP addresses.

Just how many signs of the apocalypse are there?

As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.

Secession: Not just for Texas Republicans any more. Maybe the new GOP slogan should be “America: Love it AND leave it!”

The public option would save money and reduce the long-term deficit. Which is why we can’t have it. No, I don’t understand that, either.

My sincere condolences to the Cowher family.

So what did the Forensic Science Commission do?

I guess I wasn’t expecting this.

A majority of the Texas Forensic Science Commission has tentatively concluded that there was no professional negligence or misconduct by arson investigators whose flawed work in a fatal Corsicana fire contributed to the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

It would be wrong to punish investigators for following commonly held beliefs about fire conditions that are known, in hindsight, to be invalid indicators of arson, said John Bradley, chairman of a four-member panel reviewing Willingham’s case.

“We should hold people accountable based on standards that existed when they were working on these things,” Bradley said during the commission’s quarterly meeting Friday.

All four members of the investigative panel agreed with the preliminary finding, which was reached during two meetings that were closed to the public, said Dr. Sarah Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and director of the Sam Houston State University crime lab in Huntsville.

“The panel unanimously felt the science was flawed by today’s standards, but the question for us was, was there professional negligence or misconduct?” Kerrigan said, adding that scientific arson standards — though adopted nationally in 1992, the year Willingham was convicted — had not filtered down to the front-line investigators in Texas.

I must have lost the thread of this whole saga awhile back, because as I write this I’m not really sure I know what I was expecting to come out of this. I knew the question of Cameron Todd Willingham’s innocence wasn’t on the table as it once had been – once Rick Perry and John Bradley squashed Craig Beyler’s testimony, all that was effectively swept under the rug – but the question about whether or not the fire investigators at the time of the Willingham blaze deserved official blame or not wasn’t what I had in mind. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure why that even matters. I suppose what I anticipated was more or less the same as Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project:

Instead of focusing on the fire investigators, Scheck implored commissioners to analyze the state fire marshal’s office , which he said adopted scientifically based standards for determining when a fire is arson yet failed to reinvestigate hundreds of arson convictions obtained from investigations now known to be flawed.

“Was it the fire marshal’s office that engaged in professional neglect or misconduct?” Scheck asked. “Does the (agency) have a duty to correct any past representations that are wrong, that are scientifically invalid?”

In the end, commissioners voted to give Scheck and other interested parties three weeks to submit objections to the proposed finding.

It’s well known that many other arson convictions are based on the same shoddy “science” that got Willingham executed. If there’s no action taken to review those convictions – if the Forensic Science Commission doesn’t force the issue in whatever fashion it can – then I don’t see the point of what they’re doing. I know this wasn’t the original intent behind the creation of the FSC. Time to schedule another committee hearing, Sen. Whitmire. Grits and the Chron has more.

UPDATE: Dave Mann, who has reported extensively on arson forensics, weighs in.

Nikki Araguz

I support Nikki Araguz.

The wife of a Wharton firefighter who died in a massive July 4 blaze decried allegations lodged by her late husband’s family that she is a fraud because she was born a man.

“Really, all I have to say is that I’m absolutely devastated about the loss of my husband, a fallen firefighter named Thomas Araguz III, and horrified at the horrendous allegations accusing me of fraud because they are absolutely not true,” Nikki Araguz said on Thursday. “And that is all I have to say.”

She spoke briefly at the law office of Phyllis Frye, a transgender attorney, who said her six-lawyer firm is poised to fight the family’s lawsuit. Moments after her statement, Araguz stood up in tears and walked out of the news conference.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the current status of the case. I’m not interested in the question of what Thomas Araguz did or did not know about his wife. The lawyers and the court can sort that out. What I do care about is the argument being made that Nikki was never legally married to Thomas. As we already know, the issue of what a person’s gender is according to the law is already complicated. The legal upshot of this case, if Thomas’ mother and first wife win, would be to effectively bar transgender people in Texas from being legally able to marry at all. That’s just wrong. Here’s a statement I received from Equality Texas:

We, the attendees of the Second Annual Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit, issue this statement to demonstrate our support for Mrs. Nikki Araguz and to call attention to her plight and that of all transgender people in the state of Texas.

Mrs. Nikki Araguz legally married a man, and her marriage has been recognized under the laws of the state of Texas. Nikki’s husband, a fireman in Wharton County, tragically was killed in the line of duty, and now other parties are attempting to use the courts to have her marriage legally overturned in an effort to deny her inheritance and insurance.

These parties are claiming that Nikki is not legally a woman under Texas law. Nikki’s opponents are attempting to use an obscure Texas case, Littleton v. Prange (1999), to declare that her marriage should be invalid. The Littleton case says that a person’s gender is determined by chromosomes, not physical attributes. The Littleton case was decided to deny a transgender woman her right to bring a wrongful death suit on behalf of her husband – even though Littleton had legally changed her gender and had been legally married in Texas.

The Littleton case was wrongfully decided at the time, and if taken literally stands for the proposition that a transgender person cannot marry anyone, of either gender, under Texas law. Clearly, this is wrong. Denying anyone the right to marry whom they love is a violation of the most basic freedoms under our laws. To deny the validity of an existing, legal marriage, after one of the spouses has died, as justification for the redistribution of inheritance and insurance, is abhorrent to the values of common decency, fair play, and justice that most Texans hold dear.

We, the attendees of this Summit, extend our heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Araguz, and call for the swift dismissal of this lawsuit so that Mrs. Araguz may be left to mourn her loss in private without distraction or worry for her financial stability.

If necessary, we also call for the courts to consider the Littleton case superseded by the recent changes to the Texas Family Code that recognize a court ordered gender change as definitive proof of identity.

Sadly, discrimination against people because of either their gender identity or expression is common. There are few laws in the state of Texas to address this need. The purpose of our Summit is to find ways to help people confront and overcome the issues now facing all transgender people in Texas and, tragically, Mrs. Nikki Araguz.

I stand with them, and with Nikki Araguz, on this matter.

Saint Arnold school supply drive

The following is from the latest Saint Arnold Army newsletter:

School Supply Drive for Needy Families on Wednesday, July 28

In conjunction with State Representative Jessica Farrar, we will be hosting a school supply drive at the brewery on Wednesday, July 28.  For many families, the basics like a backpack and pencils are difficult to afford.  What better way to help kids in these families get a great start to the school year than for us to come together and donate these items to them.  And we will bribe, er, entice you to do so with a fun evening at the brewery.

Here are the details:
Date: Wednesday, July 28
Taps open from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM (remember you can bring snacks, dinner, heck, a white table cloth and 5 course meal if you like)
Admission: Bring one new or gently used children’s backpack
at least one of the following items:
8 pack of markers
24 pack of crayons
Large pack of pencils
Large package of spiral notebooks

You can go to Academy or and get a backpack for around $20 to $25.  There are some available for as little as $15.

That would be at the Saint Arnold brewery, of course. You can find directions and a map here.

Postseason expansion: Not just for the NCAA

Texas high schools may be getting into the act, too.

There is growing support to create a Conference 6A that would send even more Texas high school football teams to the playoffs, the head of the University Interscholastic League said Monday.

UIL executive director Charles Breithaupt said “it’s more likely now than ever” that about 1,200 high schools would be realigned into six classes of roughly equal size in a shake-up geared at putting more teams in the postseason. Under the plan, four schools from every district of every size would make the playoffs.

Currently, only the two largest classifications — 5A and 4A — advance four teams from each district. Critics say it has created watered-down system where schools that finish 2-8 can sometimes advance in weak districts.

Breithaupt said schools have consistently indicated on surveys that more playoff teams are better.

He wondered if the preference was a product of the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality that has become common in youth sports leagues.

“You look at the generation we’re raising up … you say those kids are used to getting more,” Breithaupt said. “They’re used to being in the playoffs. They’re used to an extra game and a trophy and being crowned. So maybe it’s just us fitting in with societal needs.”

Call me crazy, but I don’t think this has anything to do with the kids. There’s got to be a buck to be made here, and if there is, I daresay that will override any other concern.