Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

March 7th, 2011:

House passes sonogram bill

Passing the bill was a formality at this point, but getting one chamber’s bill through the other may be problematic.

The House’s measure will now be sent to a Senate committee. The Senate’s version that was sent to the House has yet to be referred to committee.

Both authors, Rep. Sid Miller in the House and Sen. Dan Patrick in the Senate, have said they will not budge.

“Somebody has to blink,” Miller said. “It’s a stare down at this point.”

Patrick promised his fellow senators during the Senate’s sonogram debate that he would not accept a House version that was either “watered-down” or “on steroids.”

Miller said that he does not think that the two hour waiting period after the woman has the sonogram, which the Senate bill would require, is sufficient. He said the 24 hour waiting period in the House bill would allow the woman to “pray about it or visit with her family.”

He also said he would not consider creating an exception for women who were victims of rape or incest. The Senate bill has such exceptions.

Who could have ever guessed that a bill like this would come down to a macho staring contest? Obviously, the best outcome is for Miller and Patrick to act like a pair of Zaxes for the rest of the session so that neither bill ever passes, but I don’t have much faith in that happening. One way or another, I expect one or both of them to be forced to give in and compromise. But in the meantime, allow me to say “Hold your ground, gentlemen! Compromise is for wussies and losers! Stand firm and don’t let that other fellow run you over! It’s a matter of principle!” Hey, it’s worth a shot.

Jury selection begins in Eversole trial

Get your popcorn popper fired up.

Jury selection begins this morning in the trial of Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, who stands accused of accepting bribes from a friend and developer to whom he allegedly steered county contracts and appointments.

The trial, which Eversole demanded start as early as possible after his Dec. 21 indictment, could mark the beginning of the end of a more than three-year corruption investigation that has worn on the six-term commissioner and saddled him with scandal.

Or it could be the start of a lengthy legal battle, with up to 21 years in prison, $700,000 in fines and his political office at stake.

“These next five weeks are going to be very, very difficult, but I feel wonderful, I really do,” Eversole said. “My wife and I are optimistic. The main thing is, it’s started, and it’s going be over. This has been four years of our lives.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The trial is starting a little later than we originally thought it would, but it is now officially on. Anyone want to take a guess as to what will happen? Swamplot has more.

Population growth by legislative district

Some nice work by the Trib here.

Our new interactive map visualizes population changes by district for the total population and residents who are of Hispanic origin. These totals are especially important now given that lawmakers are preparing to redraw these districts based on their growth, demographics and election histories.

The data behind the map reveal some interesting trends. As we’ve seen, suburban areas around Texas’ largest cities saw the robust growth in the Hispanic population — both in raw totals and rate. That means suburban representatives — most of whom are Republicans — are seeing an influx of potential voters from a group that has traditionally favored Democrats.

You can see the map here. As a companion to that, bookmark the Texas Legislative Council’s redistricting page, in particular the ones that show election returns by Senate and House districts.

That serves nicely as a lead in to this Trib story about the challenges the mapmakers will face, and who’s in for a rough couple of months while they’re working it all out.

In any conversation about who is vulnerable in the redistricting process, the four freshmen from West Texas always rise to the top of the list. Sure enough, when the census numbers came out, that part of Texas lagged behind the state’s overall growth; there aren’t enough people there to justify the number of state representatives in the Legislature. Two will have to go. It’s not at all clear this early who’ll be on the list, but two things stand out. State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, is interested in running for the Texas Railroad Commission and won’t be back, so that seat will be easy to delete. And of the four Republican freshmen, Rep. Jim Landtroop of Plainview is the least well-anchored. Rep. Walter “Four” Price is based in Amarillo, and John Frullo and Charles Perry call Lubbock home. Only 22,194 people live in Plainview, and the 16-county district is spread out like a crucifix that reaches from north of Lubbock to south of Midland.

Parties and friendships aside, it’s an easy district to cut up.

Or look at Tarrant County, where Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, is completely surrounded by Republicans, two of whom need to add people to their districts. Her seat isn’t a district protected by the federal Voting Rights Act — it voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election — and she’s a Democrat in a legislative body in which Republicans would gain solid control by flipping a couple of seats to their side. Like Landtroop, she’s got time to negotiate, and a district that will require her to be good at it.

Or look at U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, a freshman who surprised Democrats and Republicans alike when he beat U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, in the November elections. Texas gets four new U.S. congressional seats in 2012, and Latinos are pushing for at least one in South Texas. Farenthold’s district isn’t stable ground for a Republican and could easily be affected by changes in the lines nearby. And he’s a freshman at a time when it would be more useful to be an incumbent.

I think it’s a little early to state unequivocally that Chisum won’t be back, since we don’t know for sure that there will be an elected Railroad Commission for him to try to join. As for Davis, I’ll just note that you can say basically the same thing about one of her neighbors, State Sen. Chris Harris, whose district in 2008 was actually a tiny bit more Democratic than Davis’ was:

SD Senator McCain Cornyn Williams Wainwright ================================================== 09 Harris 51.9 52.6 50.7 49.6 10 Davis 52.1 52.1 50.4 50.2 16 Carona 51.7 54.6 53.1 50.2

Harris is between Davis and Democratic Sen. Royce West in SD23, with Sen. John Carona’s SD16 just touching his district to the northeast. Davis’ district actually has the most people in it of those four – she has 834,265, which by my count is the 12th-most populous Senate district overall; Harris has 807,907; West 749,622; Carona 641,007; his is the least populated Senate district, and was the only one to decrease in number. I’m not saying she has nothing to fear, just that as always with redistricting, you can’t look at any one district in isolation. What happens to her will affect everyone around her, and just as Travis County could not sustain three Republican House districts after 2002, it’s not at all clear to me that Dallas and Tarrant Counties can sustain having only one Democratic Senate district.

Anyway. Maps! They’ve got ’em, we like ’em, go look at ’em and see what you think. Robert Miller has more.

Is it finally time to do something with the Dome?

A few days ago, a woman named Cynthia Neely took to CultureMap to demand that we Do Something about the Astrodome.

Regardless of whether you love or hate the Astrodome, the building is owned by the county and in effect belongs to all of us taxpayers. And you are paying for it.

Consider these options:

  • It would cost about $128 million to tear it down — that’s $128 million of public funding (which includes the existing $40 million bond debt that has to be satisfied no matter what is done).
  • To repair the Dome just enough to become habitable (and able to produce at least some revenue), the Sports and Convention Corp says it would cost $30 million (though some reports say less).

Hmmm …$128 million to end up with nothing versus $30 million to stop the bleeding and still have an historic building with both revenue and jobs potential.

The Commissioners have allowed it to deteriorate, not protecting our investment — even though it is likely the county’s biggest asset; the Astrodome’s doors were slammed shut in July 2008 due to fire code and building inspection violations.

Had somebody been on the ball, these problems would not have come as a surprise. Modifications could have been made all along to maintain its certificate of occupancy and thereby its ability to create revenue. It could have been self-supporting, or on its way towards being self-supporting, and not have wasted at least $3 million in taxes every year to do nothing.

Instead, since the Astrodome has been permanently closed in 2008, taxpayers have forked over a minimum of $9 million for it to collect dust. If the Commissioners had begun correcting those violations three years ago, some of that money could have gone into repairs, not down the toilet.

Most property owners and landlords who have the means fix their leaky roofs, have their furnaces checked before turning on each winter, repair a broken window to keep the rain out, and that kind of thing. It’s called upkeep. It is the responsibility of the County Commissioners to do the same, particularly since we are entrusting them with our money. It is their fiduciary responsibility.

Neely, in case you’re wondering, had previously been with the company that had proposed turning the Dome into a movie studio. I don’t know if she had a wire on this or what, but it appears that someone was listening.

Harris County should move this year to renovate the Reliant Astrodome into a special events arena, County Judge Ed Emmett told a Greater Houston Partnership luncheon audience Friday.

Emmett said he favors a “minimalist” approach that would see the Dome’s roof replaced, its seats removed, its shell intact, and grass laid down. He did not have a cost estimate for the idea.

“Anything we do to or with the Dome is going to be expensive, but it really is time to move forward,” he said during the annual State of the County speech to roughly 1,100 people at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel. “I think we owe it to future generations to preserve the Dome as a gathering place for special events.

“The taxpayers have to be engaged early in the process, for it is their Dome,” he continued, “but now’s the time to make a decision.”

Houston’s major festivals could be held at the Dome, he said, rather than in a less-than-ideal spot around downtown’s City Hall, where property is hard to secure at night.

“I think people would flock to it,” Emmett said. “Is that a revenue generator, enough to pay for the Dome? No. It would have to be a decision that the community said, ‘You know what? We want this to be part of our community.'”

Emmett said he hopes Commissioners Court will reach a decision “in a matter of months” to be presented to the voters of Harris County, perhaps a year from now, in a bond referendum.

The main thing I take away from this is that Judge Emmett, at least, no longer thinks getting a private investor to turn the Dome into a movie studio or convention center/hotel or whatever is viable. A corollary to that is that the fabled three options are no longer in play – the Emmett Option is far more minimalist than any of them. It’ll be interesting to see how the County Commissioners react to this – Steve Radack is quoted expressing skepticism about spending money on the Dome while the economy is still weak; none of the others were quoted having a reaction. Beyond that, I don’t have any strong feelings about this as yet. I don’t have the sentimental attachment to the Dome that many people have, Judge Emmett apparently included, but we have always needed to do something about this sooner or later. The only real complaint I have about this is that we’re still paying off bonds from the Dome’s 1987 facelift. It would be nice to be off the hook for this thing once and for all.

Anyway. The West U Examiner has some good coverage on this and the rest of Judge Emmett’s State of the County address, which you can read in full here. As I have called on Judge Emmett to push back against looming cuts in mental health services by the Legislature, I’m glad to see this from his speech:

Harris County is home to the world’s greatest medical center, a hospital district that is a model for the nation, and many neighborhood clinics and organizations supported by thousands of dedicated people. Yet we have far too many residents with no medical home, so they come to our emergency rooms. That is tragic and costly. Fortunately, the Greater Houston Partnership, working with the Houston Galveston Area Council, is working toward a regional concept to provide better care for more people at lower cost in the long run. Ultimately, the Legislature and, to a degree, the federal government must provide the framework to make a new system, but Harris County will be a driving force.

Now is not the time to cut funding for such efforts. Now is the time to move forward.

While on the subject of health care, mental health issues are a top priority to be addressed. Let me rephrase that. We have a lot of Harris County residents who suffer from mental health conditions, and we must do a better job of caring for them. Far too many of these people end up in our county jail – time after time. The cost of incarceration and treatment in a criminal justice setting is staggering compared to proper preventive care and treatment.  

Now is not the time to cut funding for mental health programs. Now is the time to move forward ‐ fully funding those programs so that the taxpayer reaps huge benefits in the long run and our residents receive better care.

From your lips to the Lege’s ears, Judge.

Finally, I note that while Judge Emmett spoke about the need to do something with the Dome a little more than a month ago, his press release in advance of the State of the County address gave no indication that it was going to be a topic for discussion. Way to keep us all on our toes, dude.

More on magnet schools

Some further information about the proposed changes to HISD’s magnet school program made by Superintendent Terry Grier at Thursday’s public meeting.

Funding would drop at 69 schools and increase at 53 under Grier’s preliminary plan. In all, the district would slash spending for magnet schools, excluding busing, by more than $4 million next school year, according to a Houston Chronicle review of the data.

Grier emphasized that the numbers could change and the ultimate decision will rest with the school board. But the potential cuts have parents and students worried that their schools’ beloved offerings will all but disappear, especially with a looming state budget shortfall.

“I get the idea of working toward making sure that money is spent in a fair way,” said Sue Deigaard, who has two children at Twain Elementary, which could lose about $162,500. “But they can’t just go pulling money from kids because it makes sense on paper.”


Combined, the programs on the chopping block serve about 10,060 students. About 18 percent of those come from outside the neighborhood.

Grier says the schools where he proposes ending magnet designation either aren’t attracting enough out-of-neighborhood students or lack sufficient space.

Key Middle School, for example, now receives $187,128 for a foreign language magnet program that serves 77 students, five of whom come from outside the attendance zone, according to HISD data.

Magnet schools were created in HISD and across the nation as desegregation tools, intended to attract diverse students from across the city to special programs.

T.H. Rogers, which has a program for gifted and special-needs students in elementary and middle school, would experience the largest loss, from nearly $3 million to about $650,000.

Grier said the school originally was funded at a high rate to expand its program for students with disabilities, and it continued to get the money despite a limited expansion. The school now spends much of its money on extra teachers – needed because they get two periods to plan without students, he said.

I’m leery of these changes, coming as they are on top of potentially devastating cuts to HISD’s funding by the Legislature. I suspect any changes to the program, in particular any changes that will take away from existing programs. The following email was forwarded to the Heights Kids group on Friday evening from the Hamilton Middle School PTO:

Hamilton Parents and Friends,

We learned last night that the HISD administration is recommending eliminating Hamilton’s Vanguard program in order to create a dual language magnet in its place. The Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on the recommendation next Thursday, March 10th. We don’t have any information about how or when this change would be implemented.

The effects of such a change will not only be felt by current families and future families of Hamilton, but the entire Houston Heights and surrounding communities. The Hamilton we know today has been in the making for over 10 years. We see little sense in dismantling a successful program with committed students, families, principal, teachers and staff.

Let’s plan on keeping the Vanguard Program at Hamilton intact and growing. We, as parents and concerned citizens, must communicate with the Board and its president in such a manner that they understand that the Vanguard Program at Hamilton—a program designed for kids who are committed to work hard at school, strive for excellence, and take education very seriously — is important for the well being of the entire HISD school system and the ongoing efforts for improving education in the State of Texas.

THERE IS NO TIME TO WASTE! Next Thursday will be here before we know it. Please email Dr. Grier, Anna Eastman and other Trustees to let them know how valuable Hamilton’s Vanguard program is to you. Email addresses are listed below. Also, plan to attend a community meeting hosted by Anna Eastman Tuesday evening, March 8th at 6 p.m. in the school cafeteria.


Hamilton PTO

I suspect Grier and the board will be hearing a lot more like that. (And indeed they are – any decision on magnet school changes has been postponed till the next fiscal year.) As with the original proposal by MSA, I suspect what we see now is subject to further change. In addition, I expect the board will hear a lot about the schools that have been targeted for closure as a result of budget pressures – there are already petitions to save Love Elementary, the magnet program at Jeff Davis High School and Project GRAD out there. I’ve also seen a sample letter to write on behalf of Love Elementary, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. Again, if any of this affects you, now is the time to get involved and make your voice heard. There’s plenty of things you can do, and any of them will help.

UPDATE: Since I didn’t make it very clear in this post, please note that Superintendent Grier has decided to defer discussion of magnet school changes until the next fiscal year.

“We will continue fine-tuning the preliminary proposal that was unveiled last week and gathering input from all stakeholders with the goal of bringing the issue back before the board sometime around September,” Houston Independent School District spokesman Jason Spencer said in an e-mail Sunday.


Board president Paula Harris, who called the special meeting last week to fast-track a new policy on magnet schools and to get public input, said the decision to slow down now is a response to the wishes of the community and the board.

“People definitely wanted to see it,” Harris said of Grier’s magnet proposal. “Now they want some time to review it and meet about it. I get that. I heard that loud and clear.”

“It’s big changes to Houston,” she added. “You don’t want to rush it.”

So there’s still time to make sure your voice is heard. Make sure you make the most of it.


We’re still not bonding out enough people

I’m sure this will make a lot of people uncomfortable.

More than 15,000 people were collared in Harris County for misdemeanors in the final months of 2010, but 70 percent of white inmates were released on bond before trial, compared to 50 percent or less of Hispanics and African-Americans, a new report critical of detention practices shows.

White criminal defendants also generally had to pay lower bonds for their freedom, according to a report released by the Houston Ministers Against Crime. The group of politically connected pastors claims aggressively locking up those who have been accused — but not yet convicted — for crimes like fighting and trespassing costs taxpayers big bucks and harms poor communities “struggling under the ongoing financial crisis.”

Last week alone, more than 840 people accused of misdemeanors remained jailed at a cost of about $38,000, or $45 per person daily plus processing expenses, Harris County Sheriff’s Office records show. Many are poor and unwilling or unable to pay fees of $200 or less to a bondsman.

Houston Ministers Against Crime released the new report to urge county judges and commissioners to correct a racial and socioeconomic imbalance they claim hurts poor people accused of crimes as well as others.

“Due to widespread economic woes, many of our citizens are unable to raise the money necessary to post bonds on even relatively minor cases,” the report says. “Even while presumed innocent, they remain in custody as their jobs are lost and their financial troubles worsen. This hardship further undermines their families and communities.”

Any discussion of race, in almost any context, is going to make a lot of people feel defensive; include the criminal justice system in the conversation and you increase it exponentially. I’m far from immune to that. But the numbers are what they are, and however you want to explain them it does no one any good to deny them. We need to understand what’s going on here. The main thing I’ll point out is that in addition to the burden on the individuals and their families, this is a huge cost to the taxpayers at a time when we’re making massive cuts to programs we want and need. A better and more just approach will not only benefit the people who are currently in jail but don’t need to be, it will save us millions of dollars.

58 percent of the county’s 9,700 current jail inmates remain “pretrial,” the week’s statistics show. Among them are disabled adults, teenagers, the mentally ill, substance abusers and first-time offenders who often get mixed in with hard-core felons.

Judges alone could decide to allow more misdemeanor and other nonviolent criminal defendants to remain free before trial if unable to post bond, but Harris County jurists rarely use so-called personal recognizance bonds, other records show.

Harris County District Judge Belinda Hill, the newly elected administrative district judge, said a judge-led group already is collecting information on pretrial detention and she’d like to expand it to include community members.

“This is an important area that judges have begun evaluating and will continue to do so,” she said.

Pardon me for saying so, Your Honor, but it’s time the judges stopped evaluating and started taking action. How long has the process to reduce jail population been going on, and what tangible steps to change how things are done can we point to? Grits is equally unimpressed:

Given that consultants paid by the county said many years ago that rising rates of pretrial detention were the main cause of jail overcrowding, the idea that judges have only now “begun evaluating” the issue seems laughably, pathetically obtuse, not to mention way late.

A large number of the judges who were up for re-election last year, and who benefited from that ginormous Republican wave, were criminal court judges. What have they done to alleviate this problem rather than contribute to it? The next report I’d like to see would show what percentage of defendants are granted or denied bonds by each judge, and what percentage of defendants are granted personal recognizance bonds. This problem didn’t happen on its own, and it won’t be solved without applying some pressure where it’s needed.

You can read the full report here; it’s not online, but I requested and received a copy in email and uploaded it as a Google doc. See this Chron editorial for more.