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January 7th, 2011:

Overexposure alert

The following is from the most recent HCDP email:

“Blueprint for a Blue Harris County” This Saturday,  January 8th

blueprintA Blueprint for a Blue Harris County, is a Democrats-only event scheduled for this Saturday, January 8th from 12:00 – 3:00 p.m. at the CWA Union Hall (1730 Jefferson St. Houston, TX 77003). The Party knows that starting the process now is critical for Democratic success in Harris County in 2012. Join fellow Democrats as we discuss what we’ve learned from the 2010 election and where we go from here. This important conversation will help to steer plans aimed at ensuring Democratic victories in the 2012 elections. We hope to gather ideas from Democrats within Harris County concerning how to optimize the prospects for Democratic electoral victories in Harris County in the 2012 elections, and thereafter.

The structure will be as follows: After an opening panel discussion analyzing results from the November 2010 General Election, the assemblage will break into 15 groups in what we are calling “break-out sessions”, each of which will explore a different area for political activity within Harris County during the next two years, i.e. fundraising, messaging, election protection, etc. At the conclusion of the first break-out session, participants will move to a second group to discuss ideas in another area.  After the second break-out session, participants will re-convene as a single group to hear reports from group leaders on the ideas developed in the break-out sessions for that area of political activity.

The Party is honored to have Dr. Robert Stein, Keir Murray, Charles Kuffner, and HCDP Chair Gerry Birnberg analyze the November 2010 General Election in an opening panel moderated by Jeff Weems and Sheriff Adrian Garcia and County Attorney Vince Ryan to moderate our closing panel. To learn more about the break-out sessions that will be offered and to pre-register for the event, click here.

Brown Bag Goes “Off the Kuff” with a 2011 City Election Preview

KuffCalling all voters, activists, and interested parties! Join the Harris County Democratic Party for the first Brown Bag of the New Year as we welcome Charles Kuffner, a noted political blogger (Offthekuff.com), as our featured speaker Tuesday, January 11th, from 12:00 pm (noon) to 1:00 pm, at Party headquarters, 1445 N Loop West, Ste. 110, Houston, TX 77008, as he offers a preview into the 2011 Houston City elections and redistricting. Mr. Kuffner or “Kuff” as he is known in political and media circles, graduated from Trinity University with a degree in math and attended graduate school at Rice University (he’s still a member of the Marching Owl Band). Since 2002, he’s published Off the Kuff, now the state’s longest continuously published progressive political blog; his other blog, Kuff’s World, has also been featured on the Houston Chronicle’s website. Read more.

See here and here for more. If you feel like you already get too damn much of me and my words, then you will want to skip these events. If on the other hand you’d like to hear my words in my voice, instead of whatever voice you hear them in when you read them yourself (I recommend the voice of George Sanders, if you can pull it off), then by all means come out and heckle see what I’ve got to say for myself. Thanks very much.

Friday random ten: The Top 500, part 8

As we ended the old year, so we begin the new year with another set of songs in my collection from the Rolling Stone Top 500 list.

1. Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations (#168)
2. Dancing Queen – Abba (#171)
3. Dream On – Aerosmith (#172)
4. Please Please Me – The Beatles (#184)
5. Who’ll Stop The Rain – Creedence Clearwater Revival (#188)
6. Knocking On Heaven’s Door – Warren Zevon (#190, orig. Bob Dylan)
7. Come Together – Aerosmith/Ike & Tina Turner (#202, orig. The Beatles)
8. Reach Out, I’ll Be There – The Four Tops (#206)
9. Gloria – Them (#208)
10. Boom Boom – John Lee Hooker (#218)

You may or may not realize it, but you have heard John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” before. It was featured in the movie “The Blues Brothers”:

I don’t actually remember the whole song being played in the original cut of the movie, but regardless, there it is. Speaking of movies, I of course also have the version of “Dancing Queen” from “Mamma Mia!”, because that’s Olivia and Audrey’s favoritest movie ever.

Don’t you wish life was more like a musical sometimes? Finally, am I the only one who remembers the disco-ified version of “Gloria” that Santa Esmerelda did?

My parents had this album back in the day. As a commenter on that video noted, the entire first side of the disc was taken up by their rendition of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. The 70s, man. You just had to be there.

Entire song list report: Started with “Small Town”, by John Mellencamp. Finished with “Soul Man”, by The Blues Brothers, song number 4922, for a total of 134 new year’s songs. What are you listening to this week?

Will we re-fight the toll road privatization battle?

Maybe. I’m a little dubious, however.

Over a long July Fourth weekend two years ago, with time running out on a chaotic special session, the Legislature refused to extend authority for the Texas Department of Transportation to contract with private toll firms beyond Aug. 31, 2009.

Since then, the privatization of toll roads, long a centerpiece of Gov. Rick Perry’s ambitious and controversial transportation agenda, has been on hold in Texas, even as some grandfathered projects like Dallas’ LBJ Freeway and the North Tarrant Express continued.

Now the issue is set to be debated again as lawmakers return to Austin, ready to confront rising construction needs even as they grapple with commitments to keep taxes low and a frighteningly large budget shortfall.

Immediately after the last session adjourned, Perry’s chief transportation aide promised a hard push to restore the authority to enter into so-called comprehensive development agreements in 2011.

“Absolutely, the governor is going to keep pushing, pushing for putting this tool back in the box,” then-deputy chief of staff Kris Heckmann said.

And in an interview with The Dallas Morning News just before his re-election in November, Perry said he would ask lawmakers to renew authority for the state to partner with private toll firms.

“Now is not the time to leave any tool out of the box,” he said, noting the revenue shortfall that the Legislature will confront and the state’s growing list of unfunded highway needs.

I dunno. As I remember it, there were a lot of Republicans who didn’t much care for the Trans-Texas Corridor. Has that changed all that much since then? Plus, as the story notes, it’s not clear that the private investors will be lining up to provide the funding right now. The track record of private toll roads as an investment is spotty; it’s an inherently risky business, with a lot of cash up front, and the payoff is long term. I can certainly see there being support for some local projects, as indicated for North Texas, but color me skeptical that this is going to fly again as the ultimate solution for our future highway needs.

Revising the city ethics code

I don’t know enough about the specifics of this to draw any firm conclusions, but it sounds reasonable enough from the description.

The city is poised to significantly tighten its ethics rules, closing loopholes that allow lobbyists to avoid registration and criminalizing some violations of a stricter code of conduct for city officials.

“It’s a very, very thorough review,” said City Councilman Mike Sullivan, whom Mayor Annise Parker credited for spearheading the changes.

Sullivan said he has felt the need to strengthen the city’s ethics rules ever since he has been on City Council.

On numerous occasions, lawyers representing companies or individuals have come to him to discuss city policy, he said. Rarely were they registered as lobbyists for the entities they represented, often saying they were at City Hall on behalf of a legal client, Sullivan said.

“That’s disingenuous to me, and that really disturbed me,” he said. “I’m about openness and transparency, and that really didn’t sit well with me, or the public.”

Under a proposal City Council is expected to vote on next week, that loophole, along with a host of others, would be closed. Now, unless a lawyer is performing services that cannot be done by anyone else, such as representing a client in a legal proceeding, the individual must register as a lobbyist.

Nice to see at least a temporary thaw in the Parker/Sullivan relationship. The real question with these things is the consequences for violating them. How likely are you to get caught, and what happens when you do? City Attorney David Feldman says violators will be prosecuted for misdemeanors under this ordinance. If so, then it ought to have a positive effect. We’ll see.

Big Tobacco wants higher taxes on Little Tobacco

I’m not sure why we’re even talking about this since the Republicans aren’t interested in anything other than slashing and burning, but for the record:

Texas is only one of two states that do not impose a fee on off-brand cigarettes sold by companies that didn’t participate in the historic tobacco settlement a decade ago.

Also, Texas levies only a 2-cent tax on a pack of “little cigars” that look like cigarettes. The state tax on cigarettes is $1.41 a pack. Both carry 20 units.

“It’s a pretty big difference and there’s really no public policy benefit in providing little cigars with a tax advantage like that given the similarities between the products,” said Bill Phelps, spokesman for Altria, whose companies include Philip Morris, the country’s largest cigarette manufacturer. “By equalizing the taxes on those products, the state can realize more revenue, and we think that’s important, especially given the budget challenges.”

Texas faces a budget shortfall exceeding $20 billion, according to recent estimates.

The federal government last year raised the federal excise tax on little cigars to $1.01 — the same rate applied to cigarettes. The federal excise tax on little cigars had been 3.7 cents per pack.

But small tobacco company officials react strongly to suggestions they should be paying more, and they question big tobacco’s interest in solving the state’s budget problems.

“The big tobacco companies are trying to shift the market share to their favor by placing a tax on smaller companies that were not involved in the (late 1990s) settlement,” said Justin Phillips, a spokesman for Global Trading, a small tobacco wholesaler based in Enid, Okla.

[…]

Texas could gain an extra $38 million per year by applying the same excise tax on filtered or little cigars as it does on cigarettes, Phelps said.

Big tobacco companies have “no interest in solving budget shortfall problems. They have an interest in gaining market share,” said Bob Rowland, a spokesman for Tantus Tobacco, a small company based in Russell Springs, Ky.

Cigars historically have not been taxed at the same rate as cigarettes because they are not inhaled and are considered a “reduced harm product,” Rowland said.

On the one hand, I agree that Big Tobacco isn’t doing this out of any sense of civic responsibility, but instead is pushing the idea as a way to remove a competitive advantage that the little guys currently enjoy. On the other hand, I don’t have any problems with increasing the excise tax on the “little cigars” as suggested – just because it’s in Big Tobacco’s interests doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. On the third hand…why are we talking about this? I just don’t see the Republicans being flexible about anything. Knock yourselves out lobbying them, but my advice would be to keep your expectations very low.

San Antonio streetcar study

Fort Worth may have punted on streetcars, but San Antonio is still moving ahead.

It’s not a green light, but it is a boost nonetheless for VIA Metropolitan Transit’s plans to build two streetcar lines downtown.

The transit agency recently was awarded a $900,000 federal grant for it to determine where the streetcar’s rail lines would be embedded in streets.

But perhaps more importantly, the study — which federal officials require before awarding the project any more money — would ascertain if streetcars indeed are feasible for the area.

Although VIA is optimistic the analysis will support its goal of establishing the streetcar lines, President and CEO Keith Parker said the study also will look at other transportation modes, such as rapid transit-style buses and light rail.

“I think personally that streetcars will work very well on these corridors, but we’ll see what the data says once we finish the study,” Parker said. “If it says that these corridors can’t support anything but the regular bus service we have out there now, that would be disappointing.”

The study could take up to 11/2 years to complete, VIA spokesman Andy Scheidt said.

Seems like an awful long time to do a study, but whatever. I look forward to seeing the results.