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March 18th, 2011:

Neil finally concedes in HD48

At long last, it’s finally over.

Republican Dan Neil dropped out of the race today for the Texas House seat in District 48.

Neil lost to Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, on Election Day by 16 votes. After a recount, Howard’s margin fell to 12 votes. Neil then exercised his right to contest the election, which sent the matter to the Texas House. There, Speaker Joe Straus appointed Rep. Will Hartnett, a Dallas Republican, to serve as a “master of discovery” and hold a trial-like hearing.

After four days of listening to voters whose votes were suspect, Hartnett eliminated several ballots, and Howard’s margin was reduced to just four votes.

But just like in any contest, a tight victory is still a victory. And Hartnett said in a recommendation that Howard should retain her seat.

That was followed by the unanimous vote of the special committee in favor of Howard. Hard to see a path to victory from there, I suppose. A statement from Rep. Howard is beneath the fold. The Trib has more.


Friday random ten: The 1940s

One of the side projects I took on as I’ve gone through all my songs has been cleaning up their data as best I can. I finished assigning a year of release to nearly every song awhile back, and figured there must be a list or two in that. Here’s the first of them, a sample of songs in my collection from the 1940s.

1. Perdido – Duke Ellington (1940)
2. This Land Is Your Land – Woodie Guthrie (1940)
3. Somebody’s Been Fooling #1 – Big Joe Williams (1941)
4. Knock Me A Kiss – Louis Jordan (1943)
5. Freedom Road – Josh White (1944)
6. In The Pines – Leadbelly (1944)
7. Virgo – Mary Lou Williams (1945)
8. What A Wonderful World – Louie Armstrong (1947)
9. Gypsy Woman – Muddy Waters (1947)
10. All I Want For Christmas – Nat King Cole (1949)

A number of these songs are from a CD I got at the Smithsonian called “American Folkways”, which is a collection of American roots music. They, and Duke Ellington songs, make up a lot of my pre-1940s music as well. I’ll be going through subsequent decades, possibly taking a little more time with some of the later decades.

Entire song list report: Started with “Vehicle”, by Ides of March, which is immediately followed by the MOB version. Finished with “Walk Back In”, by Keb’ Mo’, song #5785. That was 68 songs for Spring Break week, not too shabby. The last V song was “Vx Fx Dx”, by Michelle Shocked. The first W song was “Wade In The Water”, by the Asylum Street Spankers. Have a great weekend!

Harris County gets ready for the shaft

One of the ways in which the state will attempt to address its budget shortfall is by shortchanging counties – cutting reimbursements, raiding funds, and the like. Having already decimated its own budget, Harris County is preparing for further indignities.

“When you go to the Legislature you don’t want to be whining about everything,” said Cathy Sisk, the county’s director of legislative relations. “But they’re having a large impact on county fiscal matters because of so many things that they’re doing, and they’re specifically raiding funds that are now dedicated to counties.”

The proposed cuts include:

· Cutting the portion of mixed beverage taxes counties receive from 10.7 percent to 8.3 percent, costing Harris County an estimated $3.2 million from the $14.3 million the fees yielded last year.

· Cutting 15 percent from the reimbursements sent to counties for paying jurors. Harris County, which spent $2.1 million paying jurors during its last fiscal year, could lose almost $200,000 under this proposal.

· Eliminating payments to counties for roads and bridges; Harris County received $148,653 in these funds last year.

· Chopping statewide mental health funding by a fifth — from $290 million this year to $226 million next year for adults and from $67 million this year to $53 million next year for children. These cuts also would result in the state losing $64 million in federal grant dollars for mental health care, Sisk said.

The first three are almost incidental, more irritating than anything else. The last is huge, not just in terms of the up front amount but in terms of how much greater the back end costs for Harris County taxpayers will be.

Treating a mental health patient through a community mental health program costs $12 per day, according to state data. Mentally ill inmates cost $85 to $280 per day to house and treat in Harris County jail, county officials said, depending on the severity of their conditions.

Every one of those $12 a day inmates that the state will refuse to pay for will instead cost the county up to $280 a day. And every last one of those self-styled “fiscal conservatives” that have urged Governor Perry and the Legislator to balance the budget through cuts alone is perfectly happy with that.

In his State of the County address March 4, County Judge Ed Emmett said the county would only see positive changes in the coming years if lawmakers at all levels showed “vision and courage,” such as by raising fees or taxes to pay for mental health care if necessary to secure funding.

Emmett, a Republican former state representative, said he expects such actions from the GOP-dominated Legislature at some point.

“They’ll get there,” Emmett said. “And if they don’t, then I hope some of them get beat. It’s just that simple. We all have to govern. It’s fine to campaign on what you’re against, but sooner or later you have to govern.”

I don’t have anywhere near the same faith that Judge Emmett has in the state’s Republican leadership, but he’s absolutely right about the remedy. It’s just unfortunate that we’ll all have to suffer for the lack of vision and courage in the meantime.

Still going through the couch cushions

The Senate is looking for funds wherever it can find them.

Hoping to cushion the impact of proposed state budget cuts to public education and health care, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday that a special subcommittee will be named Monday to find $5 billion in nontax revenue for use in the next two-year budget cycle.

State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, will head the effort to identify alternative methods of balancing the budget through the sale of state property and financial management tools, like making greater use of some state investments.

“Texans have a lower threshold for taxes as a percent of income than residents of other states,” Dewhurst said in an interview. At the same time, he noted that lawmakers are struggling to adequately provide essential services to Texas’ growing population and that additional revenues may be necessary.

Dewhurst said he believes the Legislature might be able to squeeze more money out of real estate investments and the Permanent School Fund, comprising mineral royalties from state-owned lands. Sale of unused state lands might also help bridge the budget gap, he said.

Duncan said the seven-member committee would examine “all state revenue streams in a robust and open way. It is going to be comprehensive.”

“We will look at everything — inside the treasury and outside,” he said. “A fiscal crisis like we are having is not fun but it allows us to evaluate everything. Are there funds that are just sitting there and are not efficient?”

Duncan declined to say specifically whether university investments or school district reserves would be under review, saying only “everything is on the table.”

“I don’t see any low-hanging fruit. It is a tough job,” he said.

I’m delighted to see them make this effort, and to see them set a target for revenue (unlike the House, which will be happy with whatever it comes up with) even if the level is too low. Recognizing that what we have is completely inadequate for what we need to do is encouraging, even if it will fall short. What’s not encouraging is the continued avoidance of acknowledging the underlying problem.

“I’m glad the lieutenant governor is doing this. Desperation requires you to get creative,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. But she added that the Legislature was dodging the real source of the state’s fiscal problem — a 2006 tax-swap scheme that led to declining revenues. “The cure is you’ve got to fix the margins tax (imposed on businesses to lower property taxes in 2006.)”

I suppose the optimistic reading of this is that they have to exhaust every other possibility first before they are willing and able to face the facts. Some of them may reach that realization before others.

How hard will it be to keep Senate Republicans, much less Senate Democrats , in line behind a two-year budget that cuts far, far more deeply than the one passed in 2003? For the past 48 hours, lobbyists and social services advocates have been pointing to remarks Tuesday morning by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, as proof it’ll be cussedly difficult.

“We’re playing a game here with people, and I’m not going to be a part of it,” Eltife said at a meeting of the subpanel of Senate Finance Committee that’s chopping Medicaid and social programs.

“I just can’t,” he said, spurning appeals by Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, for senators to “start making decisions” on whether to stand by cuts in GOP leaders’ initial budgets.


After describing the process as a game, he added, “I can’t sit here and decide that I’m going to pend the blind children’s program. I think they’re all priorities.”

Yes they are, and the more people that come to realize it, the better. But as long as we’re in Rick Perry’s world, I don’t know how much it will matter. All I can say is that I have to hope for better. EoW has more.

More on Judge Priest recusing himself

We now have a reason for Judge Pat Priest recusing himself in the upcoming trial of DeLay associates Jim Ellis and John Colyandro.

Senior District Judge Pat Priest , who sentenced DeLay to three years in prison for laundering corporate money into political donations, urged the lawyers for Jim Ellis and John Colyandro to consider plea negotiations at a status conference, according to sources.

The sources asked that their names not be used because they were commenting on a sealed court order.

Sealing a motion to remove a judge is so unusual that it raised red flags about why Priest would remove himself in such a high-profile case. But legal experts, including a senior judge, said Priest’s words to the co-defendants’ lawyers, as described by the sources, did not sound out of line.

“I personally don’t think there is a problem with that,” said Senior District Judge Jon Wisser of Austin.

On Thursday , Priest agreed to remove himself from the upcoming trial of Ellis and Colyandro without explanation in a brief pretrial hearing. The judge, who has spent more than five years overseeing the case, declined to comment for this story.

“It is a super-high publicity case,” Wisser said. “Judge Priest might just be tired of it.”

Several other experts quoted thought it was no big deal, either. I suppose that means it’s fairly standard practice, and I must say that if that’s so, it probably shouldn’t be, and I can see the defense team’s point. Judges should stay out of that discussion for the most part. Having said that, I don’t think Judge Priest’s advice was at all unsound. I’ve always believed that the case against Ellis and Colyandro was much stronger than the case against DeLay, and we know what happened with him. But I’m just some guy on the Internets, and if they like their chances at trial then no one should stand in their way.

One more thing:

Priest is not the first judge whose impartiality has been questioned during the DeLay cases.

In 2005, DeLay objected to the original judge, Bob Perkins , an Austin Democrat, because he had donated to Democratic causes and, a frequent DeLay critic.

On the other hand, prosecutors objected to Judge B.B. Schraub , a Seguin Republican, because he had given money to Republicans.

Schraub, the region’s presiding judge at the time, recused himself before naming a replacement for Perkins.

Whoever replaces Priest will be judge #4 on the case. I wonder what the record is for most judges and most recusals in a single case.

Hamilton Middle School still designated as magnet

Mostly of interest to folks in my neck of the woods, but worth noting that after receiving a lot of feedback from parents in the community, HISD has announced that it will keep Hamilton Middle School as a Vanguard program for gifted and talented students instead of changing it to a Spanish language magnet program.

Allison Hartzell, whose daughter is a seventh grader in Hamilton’s Vanguard program, said Monday afternoon she was awaiting further clarification from the school’s principal, Roger Bunnell, but she said her understanding was that Hamilton would continue as a magnet school for gifted and talented students.


Hartzell, a former Hamilton PTO president and now a member of its board, sent an e-mail on Saturday, March 5, to Dallas Dance, the district’s chief middle schools officer, who was hired a year ago.

“The parents, students and Heights community DO NOT SUPPORT this proposal,” Hartzell e-mailed Dance. “I was flooded with e-mails and phone calls yesterday as I’m sure you were ….”

Dance’s reply to Hartzell Sunday afternoon said, in part: “After careful thought and feedback from Mr. Bunnell, teachers, and parents, we have recommended that Hamilton MS become a Vanguard Center in 2011-2012, rather than a dual language magnet.”

If Hamilton were to become a Vanguard Center, the school would receive more district funding than it does now, as well as more funding than it would have received as a dual-language magnet school.

Those changes would still have to be approved by the Board, so the story isn’t over yet. But the fact that feedback from the affected community helped engineer this change in direction is encouraging. There are many more things on HISD’s agenda that will require our input, so we should all keep this example in mind.