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January 3rd, 2011:

A very early look at the 2011 elections

Texas on the Potomac lists 11 national races of interest for 2011. Well, of interest to some – outside of the Dallas Mayoral race, none of these mean much to me, and that’s only if incumbent Tom Leppart leaves to pursue the Senate or draws a real challenger. (Here’s a good overview of the Dallas races, if you want to know more about them.) What I care about is the races that will be on Houston ballots this November. Here’s an early look at what will be up and what we may have to look forward to.

Mayor

Obviously, the biggest race, if there is one. For a wide variety of reasons, Mayor Annise Parker is not in the same position that Bill White was six years ago, when he was set to cruise to a 90% total against a handful of nobodies. Still, Parker may or may not face a real challenger – while a number of names have been mentioned as possibilities, no one has named a treasurer or taken any other formal steps to take her on. The person most consistently mentioned as a possible opponent is Council Member C.O. Bradford, but I have my doubts that there’s anything to this, mostly because Bradford has not been a strong fundraiser in his prior campaigns, and because I have my doubts he would have much broad appeal. I think if someone doesn’t go on the record with at least a statement that he or she is “exploring” a Mayoral candidacy by the end of this month, we can expect Parker to have a clear path to a second term.

City Controller

The last year in which a sitting City Controller had an election opponent was 1997, when Sylvia Garcia knocked off Lloyd Kelley. I don’t expect anything different this year, so go ahead and pencil in Ronald Green for another term.

City Council At Large

Only one open At Large seat, the one currently held by CM Sue Lovell. I expect a big field for that seat – there are already two candidates that have made their ambitions known, Jenifer Pool and HCC Trustee Michael Williams, with several others known to be talking about it. Unlike 2009, when incumbent At Large members Lovell and Jolanda Jones were forced into runoffs before winning re-election, I don’t expect any current incumbents to face serious challenges. Someone may take a crack at Jones, but if they couldn’t take her out in 2009, I don’t expect them to do so in 2011. If CM Bradford is planning to run for Mayor, then of course there would be a second open At Large seat, in which case you may see some people shift races, and some more people jump in. I don’t really expect this to happen, but until it’s been ruled out anything is possible.

City Council district seats

2011 is the year that Council is increased to 11 district members, with new boundaries being drawn for all seats. Two current incumbents – Jarvis Johnson in B, and Anne Clutterbuck in C – are term-limited out, so there will be at least four open seats in play. With City Prop 2, which would have authorized a one-time change to the residency requirement to six months from the usual 12, being defeated, if you’re not already in the Council district you hope to run for, it’s too late. What that suggests to me is that every reasonable step will be taken to ensure that the remaining seven district incumbents can run again in those districts, leaving B and C to be sliced and diced freely if need be.

Questions to ponder before Census data comes in and the sausage-making process begins:

1. Will there be a third Latino district drawn, as some activists have hoped/demanded? Given the low level of Latino participation in city elections, and the wide dispersal of Latinos across the city, I think that’s a mighty tall order. The thing to watch for is if someone actually produces a map that they say would elect three Latinos to district seats. Without that, don’t expect there to be a serious attempt at achieving this.

2. Will there be a “gay-friendly” district in central Houston that (among other things) separates Montrose from District D and unites it with the Heights? Greg took a crack at drawing such a thing, and discussed some of the difficulties in doing so. As with a Latino district, I expect there will be some pressure for this to happen. You’ll note, by the way, that the map Greg drew had a Latino population of about 35%, which will likely be higher when the 2010 data is in. Not enough to get a Latino elected by itself, perhaps, but a decent starting point for a base.

3. Will the successor to the current District F be preserved as an “Asian” district? Between MJ Khan and Al Hoang, F has certainly functioned as an Asian district, however it was intended to be. This seems likely to happen, partly because it would be in incumbent Hoang’s best interests and partly because there’s already some interest in keeping it that way. And not to be tedious, but I’m willing to bet that both the current and future versions of F are also heavily Latino. I’m just saying.

4. Will Kingwood and Clear Lake remain joined? I asked CM Sullivan about this when I interviewed him in 2009, and that was his preference. He is no longer the Chair of the committee that handles redistricting, however, so he doesn’t have as much influence over that as he once did. You can make a case either way, so we’ll just see how it goes.

HISD Trustee

Four HISD Trustees will be on the ballot, assuming no one steps down. They are Carol Mims Galloway (District II), Manuel Rodriguez (III), Paula Harris (IV), and the newly-elected Juliet Stipeche (VIII). Other that perhaps Stipeche, I don’t expect anyone to be seriously challenged. If no one does step down, it will be the first time in at least a decade that there will be no open seats available; I’ve verified this through 2001, but the 1999 results aren’t available on the County Clerk webpage, and I’m too lazy to go back farther than that.

HCC Trustee

I certainly hope we won’t have a repeat of 2009, in which incumbent Trustee Abel Davila decided at the last minute to not file for re-election, leaving the field open for his brother-in-law, who dropped out two days later amid much public backlash, thus paving the way for a write-in candidate, Eva Loredo, to win. Three Trustees are up for another six-year term: Michael Williams (District 4), Richard Schechter (District 5), and Christopher Oliver (District 9). Williams, as noted above, is apparently seeking a City Council office, which would leave his seat open if he follows through. Only Schechter had an opponent in 2005, whom he dispatched easily. On the other hand, we did have a very close race in 2009, with incumbent Diane Olmos Guzman being nipped by Mary Ann Perez. For offices that have six-year terms and no resign to run requirement, these offices deserve more attention than they usually get.

Federal court denies stay in Texas’ lawsuit against EPA

No love from the Fifth Circuit.

Texas’ bid to stop the federal government’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases hit another roadblock today, when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down the state’s request for a stay of a move to force states to implement federal plans.

“Petitioners have not met their burden to satisfy the legal standards required to allow a stay pending appeal,” the court said, in its short denial.

[…]

Texas’s efforts are hardly over, however. “The Respondent’s Motion for dismissal or in the alternative transfer to the D.C. Circuit remains before the panel,” the 5th Circuit said.

You can read the denial here; there’s not much more to it than was quoted above. As noted, the case itself is still ongoing, so denying the request to halt the EPA before it begins doesn’t mean that the suit will be resolved in the EPA’s favor. And this particular setback hasn’t stopped the state from filing more lawsuits.

The Texas petition to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia accuses the Environmental Protection Agency of abusing its powers by taking control of the permitting program without proper public notice. The EPA made the unilateral move Dec. 23.

“Once again, the federal government is overreaching and improperly intruding upon the state of Texas and its legal rights,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement. Typically, the federal government delegates implementation of Clean Air Act rules to the states.

Abbott previously filed a challenge to the new rules, saying their underpinnings — that the gases threaten public health by warming the planet – are based on faulty data. Two federal appeals courts, including the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals as recently as Wednesday, rejected his requests for a stay while the lawsuit is pending.

Al Armendariz, the EPA’s regional administratorbased in Dallas, criticized Texas “politicians” for filing suit again “instead of working with EPA to protect Texans’ health and welfare.”

You can read AG Abbott’s fulminations here, if that’s your thing. As the HuffPo reports, we’re in for a long and drawn-out fight. A statement from the Environmental Defense Fund is beneath the fold, while Grist and Kos have related items.

(more…)

These are only “hard choices” for some people

I suspect that for too many members of the incoming Legislature, the decisions they’ll be making about the budget will be ones they’re not at all uncomfortable with.

The Legislature’s Republican leadership will confront weighty questions, such as how many children the state can afford to provide medical care for and what level of care and supervision can be provided for the elderly and disabled.

At lawmakers’ elbows will be the chief of state social services, Tom Suehs. He predicts an agonizing process.

“There are not too many nice and easy decisions,” he said recently. “That’s why they’re going to migrate to cutting some of the optional” services in Medicaid, a health program covering 3.3 million poor children, pregnant women and frail adults.

But Suehs (pronounced “seas”) is quick to add that optional services – which can be taken away from adults on the program, though not from youngsters – are not frills. Cuts will be costly and painful.

“I want to do a better job of describing the balloon effects,” he said. “If you squeeze the community mental health, you’re going to end up possibly with more people in prison, and that’ll cost money over there.”

[…]

Suehs’ task is to help lawmakers understand the implication of life without optional Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of Texans who have little other choice.

Among the services the federal government does not require states to provide: prescription drugs, hospice services, kidney dialysis treatments, hearing aids, mental health treatment and eyeglasses.

A Dallas Morning News analysis found that the state would save about $1 billion in state funds over two years by eliminating all six services for the 820,000 adults now enrolled. That’s less than 5 percent of the savings needed to bridge the overall deficit.

“You want to cut drugs to old people? That’s optional,” Suehs said. “You want to cut out kidney dialysis treatments? That’s optional.”

Our elected Republican leaders could, of course, choose to fund these things if they wanted to. But that might mean asking Dan Patrick to pay a few extra dollars in property taxes, and Lord knows we can’t afford to do that. So all you sick and dying people that will need to sacrifice for the greater good of the state, please be dears about it and do so quietly. Thanks very much.

NPR on LRT

Nice story on NPR about the expansion of light rail around the country. Pretty much everywhere you look in large urban areas, there’s light rail, construction of light rail, or plans for light rail. Couple of points from the story that are worth mentioning:

In Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Diego and other cities large and small, light rail is taking off. The trains look more like streetcars than anything else. They’re only one or two cars long, and are electrically powered. The narrow footprint of light rail cars allows them to be put in dense urban areas, on already crowded streets.

Generally speaking, light rail is built with its own right of way, while streetcars are built to share existing road lanes with automobiles. That makes light rail faster and more efficient, but also much more expensive than streetcars. When I was listening to this, it made me wonder if they were really speaking about LRT per se, or about LRT plus streetcars plus commuter rail, all lumped together. They cite Dallas as an example in the story but not Houston, which given that Dallas’ system is much more suburban-commuter oriented and less about taking advantage of density makes me think they’re mixing their apples and oranges a bit. I don’t think it changes the nature of the story, I just thought they should have been a little more careful with their terminology.

The current downturn has meant that there have been fewer sales tax revenues, which are paying for the system, and costs have spiraled upward. And in a new era of cutbacks, it’s not clear if more money from the federal government is coming either.

That subject came up in my interview with Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler. Until the basic funding mechanism is reauthorized by Congress, there’s no new money available. Which is tragic on many levels, especially if you believe as I do that the feds should be picking up a much greater share of the costs than they do now. Until we change our default assumptions that make funding highways so much easier, and with so much more money to be had, that’s how it’s going to be.