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June, 2011:

PPP poll shows Obama leading Perry in Texas

Perhaps this will put a little dent in the Perry-for-President bandwagon.

A potential Rick Perry Presidential bid has been getting oodles of attention in the last few weeks. There’s one place where voters aren’t real into the possibility though- Texas. Only 33% of voters in the state think he should make a bid for the White House compared to 59% opposed to him running. More surprising than that? Perry actually trails Barack Obama 47-45 in a hypothetical match up in the state.

Perry’s trailing Obama certainly has nothing to do with the President being popular. Only 42% of voters in the state like the job he’s doing to 55% who rate him poorly. Texas is a Republican state to begin with him and Obama has a lot more Democrats (14%) who disapprove of him than GOP voters who approve (6%) and beyond that he’s on negative ground with independents at 46/47.

Perry, however, is almost as unpopular. Only 43% of voters approve of him with 52% giving him bad marks. Most striking in Perry’s numbers is a horrible 33/62 standing with independents. He also has 21% of Republicans disapproving of him while only 12% of Democrats cross over to give him good marks. Perry may prove to be a strong Presidential candidate but his numbers in Texas are nothing to write home about.

The only potential Republican candidate for President in Texas who does as bad as Perry is Sarah Palin. She has a 37/55 favorability breakdown and trails Obama 46-44 in a head to head. That’s just more confirmation that the GOP nominating her could lead to a 400+ electoral vote landslide reelection for Obama.

Most of the rest of the GOP field leads Obama. Mitt Romney fares the best with an 8 point lead at 50-42, Ron Paul is up 5 at 45-40, Michele Bachmann has a 3 point advantage at 47-44, and Tim Pawlenty’s up by a single point at 44-43. Herman Cain ties the President at 43%.

Full data for the poll are here. The numbers all seem reasonable to me – nothing stands out as being obviously outlying compared to other polls. The sample voted 52-41 for McCain in 2008; the R/D/I numbers were 44/35/21. Note that outside of Perry and Palin, Obama’s range is 40 to 44, which is far from unreasonable. It’s one result, and all of the usual disclaimers apply, but this certainly isn’t evidence against my hypothesis about a Perry Presidential candidacy.

Sine Die, take two

The House followed the Senate out the door yesterday, leaving a bit of unfinished business behind.

The Senate’s version of a bill to criminalize intrusive pat-downs by federal agents with the Transportation Security Administration has died in the House, after the chamber couldn’t get the four-fifths vote needed to suspend the rules.

The 96-26 vote meant the measure couldn’t pass before the end of the special session, so House lawmakers adjourned sine die.

That leaves two of Gov. Rick Perry’s special session priorities — TSA and sanctuary cities — incomplete, but the governor doesn’t seem compelled to call lawmakers back again.

Many fingers were pointed in the aftermath of these welcome failures. The only thing better than seeing these things fail would be seeing Republicans rip each other apart over them.

Before we put a final bow on the 82nd Lege and move fulltime into 2012 electioneering – kudos to Robert Miller for sprinting out of the blocks on that – let me just make note of this rant by teabagger/enfant terrible Rep. David Simpson:

Simpson also took aim at the state budget, which top leaders have lauded as balancing without new taxes but which, Simpson noted, puts off billions of dollars in required Medicaid spending with the bill to come due in 2013. Legislative leaders have predicted they’ll need to dip into the rainy day fund again them to make the budget balance.

“I wholeheartedly support not raising taxes and shrinking the size and scope of government, but let’s tell the truth about the budget. Methinks we boast too much,” Simpson said. “We are deferring $4 billion into the next biennium. Is that conservative? Is using tax speedups conservative?”

He added that, “We have not kept up with the enrollment of our schools” while not scrubbing the budget of what he calls “handouts.”

Simpson said it is “unfortunate that this legislation has been used as political fodder by anybody to attack the President Obama administration. The TSA and its policies were initiated by the Bush administration.”

He said, “It is time that we stand up for individual rights. Not just state rights.”

He’s nuts, but he’s right about the budget shenanigans. See also what State Rep. Donna Howard and State Rep. Sylvester Turner have to say. All of these things need to be repeated ad nauseum between now and next November.

More ankle monitors

Harris County will try using ankle monitors on some inmates as a way of reducing the jail population.

The program, approved unanimously by Commissioners Court last week, is the county’s latest stab at thinning the jail population. As of Wednesday, the county had 9,850 inmates, including 978 being held in other Texas counties or in Louisiana due to lack of space at the downtown lockups.

“Ankle monitors for certain prisoners make a lot of sense so that we don’t have to bring them into the jail and use up jail cells for them,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “The frustrating thing is, that idea’s been around for years. Finally, we’re getting to it. It’s about time, and I’m glad we’re doing it.”

Electronic monitoring is common but rarely has been used in lieu of a jail sentence, said Caprice Cosper, the county’s director of criminal justice coordination. Last year, 883 people were monitored electronically by the county’s Supervision & Corrections, Juvenile Probation and Pretrial Services departments.

Hey, it’s a Caprice Cosper sighting! I was beginning to think she’d been shipped to another county, too.

The pilot program will run until Sept. 14. County officials then will consider whether to expand it, said the sheriff’s chief administrative officer, John Dyess. Ideally, offenders would be given their monitors at court and never booked into jail, Dyess said.

Choosing who is sentenced to house arrest and fitted with a monitor will be up to the two County Court-at-Law judges and two District Court judges who signed up for the pilot program.

Interestingly, this story does not mention another pilot program from January, in which some inmates who work outside the jail were fitted with the monitors. I presume that must have gone off without any major incident, as it would seem unlikely that Commissioners Court would approve any further experimentation if it had. That program was run by the Sheriff, whereas this one is being done in the courts. Like that one, this won’t make a big dent in the inmate numbers – it’s still the same old same old that has not yet been adequately addressed – but every little bit does help. I wish them success with this test.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 27

The Texas Progressive Alliance is ready to say “Sine Die” for the second time as it brings you this week’s roundup.


From the “Work smarter, not harder” files

So far, deep cuts in local budgets not yet led to equivalent reductions in service levels.

The city of Houston just cut spending by $100 million in the budget that begins next month. The average Houstonian may have to look really hard — hard enough to see parks’ grass grow a little longer between mowings – to notice.

County government cut $138 million in the budget it adopted in March. The most noticeable results? Average wait times at tax branches with depleted staffs have more than tripled and weekend operating hours of the Lynchburg Ferry have been cut.

City and county officials, faced with millions less in tax revenues and millions more in anticipated cuts from the Texas Legislature, pledged to work diligently to minimize the effects of the squeeze.

They appear to have succeeded.

The rest of the story is filled with quotes, mostly from elected officials, claiming credit for this success. What they’re really claiming credit for, of course, is all the extra work being done by the remaining employees, who are doing all that extra work for the same pay. This frees up the elected officials, who don’t have to pick up the slack for any laid-off colleagues, to talk to the press about what a great job they (the elected officials, I mean) are doing. And in this fashion our government does a fine job acting like a business.

It’s Williams versus Williams in CD33

Another Williams switches from Senate to Congress for 2012.

Weatherford car dealer Roger Williams switched from the U.S. Senate race to a race for Congress this morning, finishing up a swap that began last week with calls to supporters in and around the new CD-33.

He’s the second candidate to jump. Former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams switched to the congressional race last week, opting out of the crowded GOP pack seeking to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Senate.

Roger Williams is a former Texas Secretary of State and has been a successful fundraiser for other candidates while never seeking office himself. The new district includes all of Parker County and part of Wise County, but the biggest part of the population is in the portion of Tarrant County that’s included. It’s one of four new seats in Congress coming to Texas because of its population growth over the last decade. Williams started with endorsements from Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, Arlington City Councilman Robert Rivera and state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford.

Trail Blazers and Jason Embry both noted this as well. Michael Williams was the first Williams in and still seems to me to be the stronger candidate, though his lackluster Senate candidacy took some of his shine off. CD33 was certainly drawn to be won by a Republican, but it’s by no means hopeless for the Democrats. It would help if a candidate were to enter the race, though.

News flash: The Amazon sales tax problem requires a federal solution

How many times do we have to say it?

State governments across the country are laying off teachers, closing public libraries and parks, and reducing health care services, but there is one place they could get $23 billion if they could only agree how to do it: Internet retailers such as

That’s enough to pay for the salaries of more than 46,000 teachers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In California, the amount of uncollected taxes from Amazon sales alone is roughly the same amount cut from child welfare services in the current state budget.

But collecting those taxes from major online retailers is difficult.

Internet retailers are required to collect sales tax only when they sell to customers living in a state where they have a physical presence, such as a store or office. When consumers order from out-of-state retailers, they are required under state law to pay the tax. But it’s difficult to enforce and rarely happens.

That means under the current system the seller is absolved of responsibility, buyers save 3 percent to 9 percent because they rarely volunteer to pay the sales tax, and the state loses revenue.

You know why we don’t have this kind of problem with brick-and-mortar retailers? Because they automatically add the sales tax into the amount you owe them, and then it’s their responsibility to remit those taxes to the state. This should be ridiculously easy to accomplish with online retailers: Just apply the applicable sales tax to whatever state the ship-to address is in, and remit to the states as you would if you were an offline retailer. Your e-commerce backend should have no trouble keeping track of how much you owe each state. All that’s missing from this equation is the requirement to do it. As long as it’s up to each individual state, we’ll have these problems. The day that Congress passes a law addressing the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving catalog sales, Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, those problems vanish and the states and cities that depend on sales taxes will get a boost. This isn’t rocket science.

Invasive species report

Interesting story about a group of scientists cataloging invasive species in the area.

Termed the Texas Rapid Assessment Team — Galveston, the group includes scientists from across the spectrum of disciplines and expertise conducting surveys and collecting samples to document all the alien/invasive species they can find. Their focus is strictly the Galveston Bay area, particularly the watersheds feeding the bay.

“We have cooperators looking at everything from phytoplankton and algae to fish, vegetation, mammals — the whole spectrum,” said Leslie Hartman, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries scientist and coordinator of the TxRAT project.

More than 30 state and federal agencies, universities and private organizations are helping support the effort with personnel, equipment and funding. The aim is to catalog as many alien/invasive species as possible and include information on their locations and distribution. This information will serve as a “baseline” for future monitoring of alien species and their impacts, Hartman said.

Among the places they’re looking are in urban areas, such as Houston’s bayous, as these are the entry points for a surprising number of unwanted visitors.

The armored catfish are South American natives. Commonly called plecostomus, “plecos,” “sucker catfish” or “algae eaters” in the aquarium trade, juvenile armored catfish are sold to hobbyists. The small catfish eat the algae growing on aquarium glass.

But little plecos grow into big armored catfish. And when owners tire of the fish or the fish get too large for the tanks, they end up in streams and bayous.

Houston’s bayou system swarms with armored catfish, which thrive in the near-tropical water. They face no natural enemies or other population controls and get big, with some growing to more than 2 feet long.

While their impacts on native species remain unclear, armored catfish do have a definite environmental and economic impact.

Like most catfish, they are “cavity nesters.” The well-named armored catfish, their heads and bodies encased in a bone-hard exterior, carve “nest” holes in the clay sides of the bayou. When water levels are low, the holes can be seen along the banks of the bayou. In some places, dozens of these cavities pock the bayou.

Those holes weaken the bayou bank, causing sections to slough into the water and otherwise accelerating erosion, costing the public money to maintain the banks for flood control.

So please don’t dump your unwanted fish down the toilet or sewer, aquarium enthusiasts. Those fish don’t belong here, and dumping them like that costs us all money.

House passes budget after brief meltdown

For a few brief moments, it looked like we were heading to double overtime, as Republicans voted down their own budget in the House.

The Texas House, in a surprise turn of events late Tuesday afternoon, tentatively voted down a must-pass bill that distributes the pain of school-funding cuts and uses accounting tricks to help balance the two-year state budget.

The 79-64 vote against the bill saw 32 House Republicans, including a few key members of Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team, defect. They cast a “nay” vote that, unless reconsidered and reversed, could force the Legislature into another special session. The Senate adjourned for good earlier in the afternoon.

House Republicans immediately went into a caucus to try to sort out the mess.

Among the “nays” were State Affairs Committee chief Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who complained bitterly in a floor speech that the bill cravenly caved to Gov. Rick Perry’s desire to protect the Department of Information Resources and also placed on financially strapped rural counties an unfunded mandate that they audit court fee collections.

With the Senate having wrapped things up earlier in the day, if this result had stood it would have meant Special Session 2: Electric Boogaloo, which no one could have blamed on Wendy Davis. However, Republicans came to their senses and averted disaster.

After the drama of a surprise no-vote on a must-pass budget bill, House Republicans reconsidered their vote and sent the budget bill to the Governor’s desk for his approval.

The House voted to reconsider their previous vote, 96-44. The bill was passed by a vote of 80-57.

Rep. Phil King said that concerns raised by the Eagle Forum, a conservative Christian lobby group, had given many Republicans second thoughts about SB1. The Eagle Forum’s concerns related to provisions that affect charter schools.

King, who has influence with some of the Tea Party freshmen, also said that he had some concerns about an unfunded mandate being levied against rural counties. He said that those concerns had been answered.

So with the windstorm insurance bill having passed earlier, the session can finally, mercifully come to a close. The House will meet tomorrow to consider the silly “don’t touch my junk” bill, which has apparently been watered down to a resolution that amounts to an official finger-wag at the feds – I’ll be honest, I tend to lose consciousness whenever the subject of this thing comes up, so I’m not totally up to date on it – but the sanctuary cities bill is officially dead. So as of noon tomorrow, it’ll be good-bye and good riddance, and not a moment too soon.

TWIA deal apparently reached

If this pans out we can definitely put a final wrap on the legislative season.

Two key state House and Senate negotiators said today that they have reached an agreement on a bill to govern the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.

Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, said today that he and his Senate counterpart, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, have compromised on the highly political bill. Now, they have to sell the bill to each chamber.

Carona said today that he was “optimistic” that the Senate could pass a measure.

And Smithee said: “I think we can probably pass it in the House.”

According to the Trib, both chambers will vote on the conference committee reports today. I’m sure I speak for many people when I say I hope they get a reasonable bill passed so they can all get the hell out of town.

Non-robust job numbers in Texas

As goes the country, so goes the state.

The Houston area is showing signs of a slowdown after coming off some fairly strong job gains during the winter months.

“It’s very consistent with the national pattern,” said Barton Smith, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, who pointed to the data released Friday by the Texas Workforce Commission that showed Houston area employers added just 45,000 jobs during the past 12 months, a gain of 1.8 percent.

Since January, when area employers put on 56,600 jobs, a 2.3 percent gain, they have been easing back on their hiring.

The slowdown is relatively modest, Smith said. But it’s becoming increasingly clear hiring isn’t as robust as it was just a few months ago.

There’s another factor in play as well.

Austin-area employers added 13,700 jobs in the 12 months that ended in May, a 1.8 percent annual gain, the Texas Workforce Commission reported Friday.

But the region’s largest job sector, government — which includes local school districts and higher education — lost 600 jobs, a 0.3 percent decline. That was the first sign of local and state budget cuts that are expected to grow over the summer, as the full impact of teacher and state agency layoffs is felt.

That sector accounts for 22 percent of the 785,300 jobs in Central Texas.

The cutbacks were even deeper in other large Texas cities.

The Dallas area lost 3,200 government jobs last month, a 1.2 percent drop. Houston was down 7,300 jobs, or 1.9 percent, and San Antonio was down 2,400 jobs, or 1.4 percent.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Remember, the Legislative Budget Board forecast large numbers of jobs lost as a result of the penurious spending cuts. That was based on the initial House budget, which was a lot harsher than what is now in the pipeline, but it’s still going to result in a lot of layoffs. Maybe as Rick Perry continues his Ego Across America tour, someone in the national media should ask him about that.

Fiscal and health care bills pass

Here’s one less reason for a special session.

One key budget-related bill, Senate Bill 2, won final approval from both chambers this afternoon and is headed to the governor’s desk.

SB 2 is an appropriations bill that goes hand-in-hand with Senate Bill 1, the main revenue and school finance vehicle. SB 1 is expected to come to the floor on both sides of the Capitol tomorrow.

With the passage of both bills, “we will be able to go home,” said Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

One provision that didn’t make in the final version of SB 2 was an amendment from Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, that called for $2 billion from the rainy day fund for schools if the fund brings in more than expected.

“A choice was made when we had money in the bank to say: ‘No, we’re not going to appropriate any more here to our schools’,” Howard said. “We’re going to leave billions in the bank when we’re asking our schools to cut.”


Ogden said the Howard amendment had promise with some modifications, but the House members wanted it gone.

“They were for it and then they were against it,” Ogden said.

Yes, after they were reminded by the people who hate public education that they need to hate it, too. That’s the choice they made, and the voters need to be reminded about it every day between now and next November.

Meanwhile, there was more action taken by a group of legislators that clearly wants to get out of town.

The Texas House and Senate agreed today to a final version of an omnibus health bill that seeks to cut spending and makes wide-ranging changes to the state’s health-care system.

The House voted 96-48, along party lines, to agree with conference committee changes to Senate Bill 7. Senators followed with a 22-8 vote, and the bill’s next stop will be Gov. Rick Perry’s desk.

SB 7 includes $468 million in anticipated savings for the 2012-13 budget by expanding Medicaid managed care to South Texas and restructuring the payment system for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The final bill includes language that would cut state funding from Central Health if the Travis County health district continued to finance abortions for low-income women. The measure also excludes Planned Parenthood from receiving about $38 million in state family planning money and from participating in the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, which provides contraceptive care to women who would be covered by Medicaid if they were to become pregnant.

A lot of what was in this bill was in similar legislation from the regular session. As it happens, on the same day this happened, the state of Indiana got swatted down by a federal judge for trying to legislatively de-fund Planned Parenthood. I don’t know enough about what either state has done to know how comparable the two situations are, but earlier this month Texas got some pushback from the feds over this, so there’s clearly some parallel. I feel confident there will be litigation here as well. The Trib has more on the legislation, and Jason Stanford has a righteous rant on what it does.

The Midtown arts deal

I have three things to say about this.

A nonprofit group plans to build a community arts complex in Midtown with the help of up to $6 million in reimbursements from the city.

The Houston City Council this week approved a tax reimbursement deal and the $2.5 million sale of 3400 Main, currently a parking lot, to the Independent Arts Collaborative, a group created to run the facility.

The 90,000-square-foot facility will include a performance theater, rehearsal spaces, offices and classrooms, as well as make it easier for various arts groups to work together, said Emily Todd, a board member of the collaborative.


The Independent Arts Collaborative has raised $250,000 for a down payment and has financed the rest through the International Bank of Commerce. Ensemble/HCC Partners, a partnership that owns two adjacent blocks and of which developer Bob Schultz is a managing partner, is guaranteeing the loan.

The collaborative must now raise the estimated $22 million it will cost to build the project, on the block bounded by Francis, Travis, Holman and Main.

The group’s deal with the city, also known as a 380 agreement, requires the collaborative to raise at least $10 million for design and construction of the project. At least 25 full-time workers must also be employed by the building’s tenants.


The collaborative intends to deed the finished building to the city. It would then be maintained by the collaborative and managed by Houston First — recently created by the merger of the city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department and the existing government corporation that runs the city-owned Hilton Americas.

According to the agreement, the city believes the project, along with new retail and parking garages on two adjacent blocks, will attract tourism and more development to the area.

Bob Schultz, who developed some of 3600 Main and the site of four businesses on 3700 Main, plans to build office space, retail and some residential units on 3500 Main and the rest of the 3600 block of Main.

1. Now this is what I call a good use of a 380 agreement. It’s helping to facilitate a deal that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, in a location where the development in question will fit with and benefit existing and future neighbors. More like this, please.

2. Clearly, Houston First is going to be about more than just managing the Convention Center. I wonder where else it will turn up. I also wonder if it was essential to this deal, or if it could have happened with the old setup.

3. Revenue from the sale of 3400 Main was part of the fiscal year 2011 budget. Good to see they got it done before the June 30 deadline. Swamplot has more.

Where the votes were and weren’t in 2006 and 2010

When I was doing the electoral analysis for the new Congressional districts, I also had data about how many votes were cast in each district. And in looking through that data, I saw some interesting things. What I was looking for was the change in Democratic turnout from 2006 to 2010. We know 2010 was a huge Republican turnout year, but Democratic turnout is a bit harder to pin down. Most Democrats other than Bill White got about the same number of total votes in 2006 as in 2010, but the location of those votes changed a lot. Here’s a comparison of White, Lt. Gov. candidate Linda Chavez-Thompson, and Supreme Court candidate Bill Moody from 2006. White received 2,106,395 votes, LCT got 1,719,202, and Moody 1,877,909, so in general you’d expect the order to be White-Moody-LCT, but that wasn’t always the case. First, there were a few districts in which Moody led the way:

2010 2010 2006 Dist White LCT Moody =========================== 04 53,281 38,538 58,733 11 36,925 24,089 43,168 13 36,285 24,089 47,056 16 49,342 44,478 55,542 19 38,880 26,806 46,817 27 59,160 46,972 66,018 36 50,118 37,524 51,906

CD16 is in El Paso, which is Moody’s home county, so that result is understandable. The rest are puzzling to me. CDs 11, 13, and 19 are West Texas/Panhandle; CD 4 is northeast Texas; CD 36 is southeast Texas, including southeast Harris County; CD27 is Central Texas. All except CD16 are Republican, mostly strong Republican. Why Moody would do so much better in these places is rather a mystery to me. Clearly, he got some crossover Republican support – I can’t say how much right now because I don’t have any other statewide results for 2006 – but so did White. Simply put, the baseline Democratic vote had to decline in these locations. Was that because they didn’t vote, or because they’re voting Republican now? I can’t answer that question, but whoever runs for Governor in 2014 better get a handle on it.

Here are the districts where the vote totals followed the order you’d expect:

2010 2010 2006 Dist White LCT Moody =========================== 01 51,874 38,898 51,681 03 47,323 37,154 39,032 05 51,603 38,718 51,270 06 45,018 37,610 41,581 08 46,415 32,213 37,867 10 75,070 57,466 63,491 12 54,464 46,383 52,643 14 69,305 57,054 66,154 17 62,546 47,579 60,262 20 60,249 53,304 55,298 21 82,051 64,223 75,448 23 54,719 46,205 50,387 24 52,928 42,154 49,004 25 73,744 57,362 71,185 26 43,221 37,711 37,769 31 53,200 42,787 47,221 32 68,019 52,902 61,105 33 56,896 47,582 54,195 34 48,311 44,335 45,745 35 57,191 50,473 52,046

Much more of a mixed bag here. The districts are geographically all over, and run the gamut from strong D to strong R. What stands out to me is that for the most part, Moody’s total exceeded LCT’s by about what you’d expect given that he had about nine percent more votes overall. The exceptions to that are CDs 14, 17, 21, 24, 25, and 32. Similarly, White topped Moody by about 12%, and he clearly exceeded that in CDs 3, 8, 10, and 26. Note that two of those districts are either partially in Harris County (CD10) or next door to it (CD08). Keep that in mind as we look at the set of districts in which both White and LCT surpassed Moody.

2010 2010 2006 Dist White LCT Moody =========================== 02 60,693 45,546 39,874 07 70,874 50,083 48,140 09 81,595 76,783 52,345 15 45,220 40,713 33,443 18 104,617 96,130 72,057 22 64,834 50,287 46,626 28 55,686 49,419 42,744 29 48,781 44,524 33,244 30 96,105 92,385 78,602

Six of these nine districts are wholly or partially in Harris County; of the others, CDs 15 and 28 are South Texas, and CD30 is Dallas. The step up from 2006 is huge – fifty percent or more in some cases. Anyone who claims White had no coattails in his home turf needs to explain these numbers. Now of course the Republican surge wiped everyone out, but the point, which I’ve made before, is that base Democratic turnout improved quite a bit in Harris County over 2006, as 2006 had done over 2002, and that this bodes well for 2014 as 2008’s gains should bode well for 2012.

Anyway. I don’t know that I have any broad conclusions to draw here. As I said, anyone thinking about running statewide in 2014 needs to understand what happened in those West Texas districts, and what if anything could have been done to improve things in the big middle group of districts. I myself have not spent much time studying 2010 data because the Republican wave obscures much of what’s interesting about the data. It doesn’t obliterate it, however, and that’s something I need to keep in mind. There’s always something to learn if you look for it.

Time for another “What to do with the Astrodome?” study

It’s been two years since we had one of these.

The Astrodome’s next incarnation — planetarium? hotel? heap of dynamited rubble? – will be the subject of yet another study ordered up by Harris County Commissioners Court this week.

What to do with the dusty 46-year-old landmark has nagged at county officials even before the Astros left for what is now Minute Maid Park in 1999. How to pay for any proposal has not been far from their minds, either. Even tearing it down would cost tens of millions of dollars.

“We have to make a decision” on the Dome, County Judge Ed Emmett said. “I wanted us to make our decision this year. They’re going to look at every option there is and come back with the recommendation. It’s about time we do that.”

The county will contribute $50,000 toward a $500,000 study, bringing to $100,000 the total the county has spent in the past two years studying what to do with the aging Houston icon.

The remaining $450,000 for the latest study will be funded by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Houston Texans, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and Aramark Corp.

The study, slated for completion in December, also will plot the future of the entire Reliant Park complex, home to the long-vacant Dome, the Texans’ Reliant Stadium, Reliant Center and aging Reliant Arena.

It was almost exactly two years ago when the previous study was approved. That led to the infamous three options proposal that nobody liked. County Judge Ed Emmett said at the beginning of the year that something needs to happen, and he reiterated his call at the State of the County address. According to the story, he wants to have a bond referendum on next year’s ballot. We’ll see if this study works out any better than that last one.

How much time will the Lege waste this week on a stunt?

House Speaker Joe Straus got a little frustrated on Friday.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus unleashed a rare verbal assault Friday on an effort to criminalize invasive searches at airports, assailing legislation supported by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and most of the House.

“The bill — without some serious revisions — appears to me to be nothing more than an ill-advised publicity stunt,” said Straus, R-San Antonio. “Unenforceable. Ill-advised. Misdirected to uniform security personnel. And not where it appropriately should be aimed, which is in Washington, to the bosses of these people. I have some other thoughts on how to send a message without actually harming commercial aviation in Texas and without making the Texas Legislature a laughingstock.”

As Speaker, of course, he’s in a rare position to do something about this beyond having a tantrum. The special session expires at midnight tomorrow, and there’s still a lot of bills that need to be passed in order to stave off the need for yet another special session. Perhaps if he and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst would agree to lock all of the legislators involved in negotiating a windstorm insurance bill in an un-air conditioned room, safely away from the influence of those dreaded “special interests”, and not let them out till they agreed on something. The more time spent on the “anti-groping” bill and its close relative the “sanctuary cities” bill, the more likely that we’ll be going into double overtime on Wednesday.

The budget is still broken

What was true at the beginning of the regular legislative session is still true as the special session winds down: The budget is still broken.

Instead of revamping the business tax structure or taking aim at tax exemptions, lawmakers cut billions of dollars in spending and cobbled together accounting maneuvers and spending delays to meet a massive shortfall and tide them over until 2013. They took a limited amount of money from the state’s rainy day fund, but leaders expect to dip into it again in a big way when they return in regular session in 2013.

Legislators also pushed back a looming gap in transportation funding by allowing issuance of the last of voter-approved bonds. They made some cost-saving changes in Medicaid, but will need federal approval to realize more savings.

On school finance, they are working in a special session to pass a bill to allow $4 billion less through the next two years than required under current funding formulas.

“The governor and the tea party deserve the credit or the blame, depending on one’s point of view,” for the lack of reform, said Rep. Rene Oli­veira, D-Brownsville, a former Ways and Means chairman. “I believe the majority of Texans know we have a very serious tax code problem, and they want and expect us to address it.”

We started with a structural deficit, and we’re finishing with a structural deficit. Nearly $5 billion of the Rainy Day fund will be needed by the next legislature just to cover the hot check written for Medicaid. The Republicans made billions in devastating cuts to vital services, especially public education, but did nothing to solve the underlying problems. The Democrats need to pound that theme every day between now and November of 2012. Nothing will change until the Legislature changes.

Weekend link dump for June 26

Another year half over.

A semi-secret history of MAD Magazine. Which now has a blog, too.

It’s called “wingnut welfare” for a reason.

Where have all the Republican scientists gone?

Sadly, the Peanutweeter has fallen victim to a DMCA copyright complaint. Here’s an impassioned argument that it constituted fair use parody. I’ll say this much: It was way funnier than any of the later-year Peanuts strips that rerun in perpetuity on the daily pages of the Chronicle. (The Sunday funnies use older strips from its golden days, thank the stars.)

For those who like playing in the dirt but want bigger toys.

The Onion totally deserves a Pulitzer Prize.

I want to make “.kuff” an Internet top level domain. Anyone got $185K they can front me for this?

Here’s a nice interview with the late Clarence Clemons from 2009.

Sorry, but I don’t believe that trading nuclear power for burning coal represents a win for environmentalism.

Five predictions for the future of energy, not all of which are compatible with each other.

Government-run single-payer health care – also known as “Medicare” – is way more efficient at processing claims than private insurers.

Sock puppetry is always pathetic.

Great column about Roy White, one of the classiest and most underrated players to ever wear Yankee pinstripes.

Want more economic growth? Support more immigration.

Hey, Biden! Eat a sandwich, willya?

Anyone got a photo of Clarence Thomas’ junk lying around?

Good-bye and best wishes to Lucy Noland, the tallest anchorwoman I’ve ever met.

Sadly, the new Harry Potter website isn’t all that.

Let Georgia’s crops rot in the field. It may teach some politicians a lesson.

You have to love Marc Cuban.

How Republicans view the economy.

Without immigrant labor, the NBA wouldn’t be as good as it is. Same for MLB, of course.

Teabagger TV. I’ll be watching “Covert Affairs”, thanks.

Oh, and one more thing: RIP, Peter Falk. As usual, Mark Evanier has a story to tell.

A better way to be “pro-life”.

No Metro redistricting for now

Back in January there was a Chron story that pointed out a state law that would require the Metro board to add two more members if the non-Houston population of Metro’s service area made up 75% or more of the total. Metro did a study to see what the Census data said, and it concluded that the threshold had not been met.

Preliminary 2010 census data suggested that more than 70 percent of Harris County’s non-Houston residents lived within Metro’s service area.

If the non-Houston population were to hit 75 percent, Metro would have to add two new seats to the Metro board, according to the Texas Transportation Code.

The state code says that, if the 75-percent threshold is reached, Harris County Commissioners Court appoints another board member and the board itself names an 11th member, who becomes the chairman.

According to [UH political science professor Richard] Murray’s report, 67 percent of Harris County residents who live outside Houston are in Metro’s jurisdiction.

Dr. Murray, as we know, has been busy working with HISD, HCC, and Harris County on their redistricting plans, so it’s safe to say he’s familiar with this data. Nonetheless, the Metro board at the request of one of its members voted to have AG Greg Abbott review the results, just in case. Most likely, this will be the end of it until the next Census. Dr. Murray’s report is here, and Metro’s blog has more.

Pena to run for re-election

To borrow from Greg, we’ll still have Aaron Pena to kick around, at least for a little while longer.

The political ambitions of state Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, have been the subject of speculation since he switched parties prior to the recent legislative session. But he’s announcing today that, for now at least, he doesn’t intend to go anywhere.

“I’ve said from the beginning that my intention is to run for re-election, and I guess I’m announcing that today,” Peña told the Tribune. “For months, I’ve been hearing that I’m running for Congress and even though I’ve publicly stated many times that I’m not running for Congress, nobody seems to believe me.”

Can’t imagine why he might have credibility issues. I guess that job with the law firm didn’t work out. Be that as it may, as I said before, this is a seat the Democrats need to win next year, and it’s one I’m sure they will want very much to win. I know I plan to make a contribution to whoever gets the pleasure of running against Pena.

Down to the wire for “sanctuary cities”

There’s an 11th hour lobbying effort to stop the “sanctuary cities” bill as it is.

As two of Texas’ most politically-involved business leaders emerged as opponents, a bill banning “sanctuary cities” lost crucial momentum Friday, raising the possibility the measure will be killed or substantially weakened before the special session of the Texas Legislature ends Wednesday.

HillCo Partners’ lobby team, led by Neal T. “Buddy” Jones, is working on behalf of Houston home builder Bob Perry and San Antonio grocery store magnate Charles Butt to alter a proposal that would permit law enforcement officers to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain, Jones’ partner Bill Miller confirmed.

Miller declined to detail the changes Jones hopes to make in the legislation, saying only that they have “given language to members” to consider including in the proposal, which would carry financial penalties for cities that prohibit law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status.

The opposition of the business leaders demonstrates a schism in the Republican Party on the issue, designated a priority by Gov. Rick Perry. Bob Perry, no relation to the governor, is a prolific Republican contributor who has given $2.5 million to the governor’s campaign coffers since 2001. HEB CEO Butt has made substantial contributions to members of both parties.

Friday, the House State Affairs Committee canceled hearings scheduled to pass the bill for the second day in a row, due to a lack of a quorum, as exhausted lawmakers returned home to tend to their businesses and families. A meeting has been scheduled for Monday, but House leaders did not rule out that a meeting could be called during the weekend if enough lawmakers return to Austin.


Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, who sponsored the measure, expressed frustration that the two businessmen are “trying to kill the bill” at such a late hour.

“It’s good to know that my good friend, Buddy Jones, and his clients, Mr. Butt and Mr. Perry, decided after six months what they think a sanctuary cities bill ought to look like,” he said. “I don’t know where they’ve been for six months.”

Well, Burt, not to put too fine a point on it but for the first 140 days they knew that Democrats would kill the bill in the Senate, so there was no urgent need on their part to do anything. With the two-thirds rule out the window for the special session, they figured they needed to get their act together, and that meant lobbying Republicans. Any questions?

Perry and Butt aren’t the only ones telling Republicans to back off, and much as it pains me to say anything nice about the likes of Norman Adams and Steven Hotze, they’re doing the right thing for mostly the right reasons, so kudos to them. If they do succeed here, however, I still believe they need to rethink their strategy going forward, because unfortunately this issue isn’t going away. In fact, unless there’s a miraculous breakthrough on windstorm insurance reform in the next 24 hours or so, it may reappear later this week. So keep fighting the good fight and all that, but try to remember that plugging your fingers into the leaks isn’t the same thing as repairing the levee. PDiddie has more.

Senate approves Wentworth redistricting commission bill

It’ll never get past the House, but bully for Wentworth anyway.

The Texas Senate [Wednesday] approved Senate Bill 22, which would create a citizens’ commission to redraw congressional districts.

Congressional redistricting is a highly political task now handled by the Legislature. Senate Bill 22, authored by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, would hand the task to an eight-member commission consisting of four Republicans and four Democrats appointed by the House and Senate. The commission would appoint a ninth, nonvoting member to preside.

Wentworth has long sought redistricting reform. His proposal, approved 16-13 in the Senate, is unlikely to go far in the House.

Here’s SB22. I try to be philosophical about redistricting – of course it’s going to be partisan! – not that it stops me from bitching about it when it serves my purposes. I will say that if we ever do go this route, I’d prefer to hand off all of the legislative redistricting efforts we now have to a Wentworth Commission. If it’s good for Congress, it’s good for the House and Senate (and SBOE) too, right? The House and Senate processes are written into the state Constitution, however, so it’s a much higher bar to clear. And I will note that just because you’ve handed the map-drawing task off to a non-partisan group doesn’t mean no one will think they’ve gotten screwed afterward; just ask California Latinos about their initial experience with the new Citizens Redistricting Commission there.

Like I said, though, this is all an academic exercise. This won’t pass the House, and you need only look at the record vote to realize why. SB22 was approved by all 11 Democrats (Uresti was absent), but only received five Yeses from Republicans – Carona, Deuell, Eltife, Seliger, and Wentworth. The remaining 13 (Duncan was absent) all voted No. That’s not a vote that bodes well for House passage, and that’s before you take into account the remaining unfinished business before the end of the session on Wednesday. It’s a nice try, but it’s nothing more than that. The AusChron has more.

Saturday video break: It’s OK to be Takei

Ladies and gentlemen, George Takei:

I suppose now is as good a time as any to show you this:

George Takei and me, 1994

That was taken at the Houston premier of a slightly bizarre, very cheesy, and mostly fun sci-fi western called Oblivion, at a now long-gone theater on Post Oak near San Felipe. The movie’s director, writer (Peter David, for my fellow geeks), and most of the stars including Takei and Julie Newmar, were there for a post-screening Q&A and autograph-signing. I was with my buddy Matt and a couple other people, but in those ancient pre-cellphone days none of us had a camera. I was standing near Takei when some random dude in the crowd who did have a camera offered to take a picture of me with him. I gave the guy my address, and sure enough, a few days later there it was in the mail.

Anyway, we have a scanner now, so that was the first of what should be many embarrassing old photos that I hope to digitize in my copious spare time. Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever been photographed with? Feel free to include a link to the picture if you have one.

Castro says he’s in for Congress

It’s on in CD35.

State Rep. Joaquin Castro said today he is running next year for U.S. Congress in a new district carved by the state’s Republican majority, likely pitting him in the Democratic primary against U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin.

“This congressional race is all about the future,” Castro said in a prepared statement.

“Just like streets and highways help people get where they need to go, I believe there is an Infrastructure of Opportunity that helps people achieve the American dream. We will build this infrastructure by investing in higher education and job training, by improving public education and by making sure our small businesses succeed,” he said.

Castro has represented the 125th District in the Texas House of Representatives since 2002.

The Trib has a lengthy story about this development. I agree with my blogging colleague here:

“If you’re going by the numbers, I would say Castro is the heavy favorite,” said Harold Cook, a Democratic political consultant based in Austin. “But if there’s any Anglo candidate, any Austin candidate, who can win this race, it’s Doggett.”

Two things to consider: One, there’s no guarantee that CD35 will still exist as drawn by the time the filing deadline arrives. The Justice Department may kick the map back for any number of fixes. Castro is quoted in the Trib story expressing confidence that CD35 at least will withstand review, and he may well be right. Nothing is set in stone just yet, that’s all I’m saying.

And two, the GOP may want to consider being careful about what they’re wishing for. It’s true that Doggett is a senior Democrat with a solidly progressive record who has generally been a pain in their rear end. He’s also a 64-year-old white guy who’ll be happy to occupy his seat until someone carts him out of there. Castro is a 36-year-old Latino with ambitions. I daresay there’s little chance he’ll still want to be a Congressman when he’s 64. He may have his eye on bigger things by the time he’s 44. By winning what will surely be a high-profile election and getting access to a much deeper and broader donor base, he’d take a big step towards that end. And thus, by finally ridding themselves of their longtime nemesis, the Republicans may enable the Democrats to significantly upgrade their bench. No guarantees, of course, but I’d bet big money on Joaquin Castro running for something statewide before Lloyd Doggett does, and if he does run I’d give him much better odds of winning than Doggett ever would have had. Like I said, be careful what you wish for.

Williams in, Lucio out for Congress

Now that the Lege has finished its job with Congressional redistricting, expect to hear a lot more stories about the hopefuls and the not-hopefuls and their plans. For instance, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams.

With the race for Senate getting crowded, Republican Michael Williams figured the new North Texas congressional seat might just be the ticket to Washington. The former Railroad Commissioner has changed his campaign web site and refiled his papers with the Federal Election Commission as a candidate for Congressional District 33. The district is one of four new seats that Texas gets as a result of population growth. The Legislature passed the new congressional map last week and sent to the governor. The map likely faces legal challenges and has to win federal preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. But Williams’ campaign consultant Corbin Casteel says the new Arlington-based Republican district is a perfect fit for Williams.

“Michael knows if he gets to Washington as a senator or a congressman, it doesn’t matter which, he’s going to be a conservative leader,” Casteel said. “This is a much more direct path. The Senate race is crowded. It’s not going to be clear for several months who’s going to break out of that, so he said this congressional seat is in my home town, it makes plenty of sense.”

Williams first talked about this a couple of weeks ago, not long after the first map came out. Despite his lackluster Senate campaign, you’d have to make him a frontrunner for this seat, assuming it survives a Justice Department review.

Meanwhile, a more surprising announcement is that State Sen. Eddie Lucio will not run for Congress in CD34.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio says he will not run for Congress, even though a new heavily Democratic open district has been created that is anchored in Brownsville.


Lucio first talked publicly about running for Congress in an exclusive interview with the Guardian at a legislative event at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen in September 2009. The 2010 Census was just around the corner and Lucio felt sure that the huge population growth in the Rio Grande Valley over the last decade would result in a new congressional seat being awarded to South Texas.

Here are his comments to the Guardian in September 2009:

“We deserve to have at least three congressional districts anchored in the Valley and going north. I will work to that affect next session and I will seriously look at running for one of those seats.

“If I lose another 15 pounds and continue to have the energy I have today I would very seriously like to cap my political career… not so much my political career but I would love to address and tackle the issues that are important to us internationally, immigration, health care, water, the environment.

“I think there are a lot of wonderful things we could do at the federal level that would benefit the Valley and South Texas.”

This is surprising because the conventional wisdom was that Lucio, who is on the Senate Redistricting Committee that produced the initial map, was said to have drawn CD34 for himself. There were rumors that he’d vote for the final map, though that turned out to be untrue. He made his announcement on Twitter last Friday; his full statement about why he chose not to run is here.

Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos has expressed an interest in running in District 34. However, as Lucio points out, it has yet to win pre-clearance from the Department of Justice. The Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force has said the new map leaves more than 200,000 Latinos in Nueces County “stranded” in a congressional seat (District 27) where they cannot elect their preferred candidate of choice. On Friday, the Task Force announced it had filed a voting rights lawsuit in federal court in San Antonio.

Stories about that lawsuit are here and here. There was already a lawsuit filed by LULAC in the same U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio, and LULAC is listed as a member of the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force, so it’s not clear to me if these are separate lawsuits or not. If they are, I’d say the odds are good they eventually get combined. As for Armando Villalobos, he had announced his interest in running for Congress back in May, well before a map made an appearance. As with CD33, we’ll see how the legal reviews shake out.

The Sundance Theater deal

When Sundance Theaters announced it would take the place of the Angelika downtown, everyone was happy. The deal that their landlord is getting to make way for them is not quite as joy-inducing.

Sundance Cinemas negotiated a lease earlier this year for the space formerly occupied by the Angelika Film Center in Bayou Place. The city, through the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, agreed to reimburse up to $750,000 of the $2.3 million renovation now under way.

Sundance is to repay the authority, which reinvests some taxes collected from downtown property owners into the area, through “percentage rent” payments based on the theater’s annual sales. But a similar agreement to redevelop an old firehouse into the Downtown Aquarium restaurant and entertainment complex hasn’t yielded any such payments.


Under an agreement between the city and Baltimore-based Cordish Co. — which leases Bayou Place from the city and is Sundance’s landlord — Sundance will pay the city 10 percent of annual revenue over $3.5 million. The percentage increases if annual revenue exceeds $5 million.

Like the arrangement with Landry’s, an earlier percentage rent deal with Cordish has failed to produce revenue for the city.

In developing Bayou Place, formerly a convention center, the city required Cordish to pay $50,000 in rent plus 25 percent of gross revenue — but only after Cordish covers its expenses.

In the 14 years it has operated Bayou Place, Cordish never has paid the 25 percent because of its investments in building out the Hard Rock Cafe and other improvements offset revenue.


Steven Craig, an economics professor at the University of Houston, said the deals make sense if they draw businesses or consumers from out of town but not if they simply displace business from one part of town to another.

“If we didn’t build the Aquarium or a movie theater downtown, would people still get entertained in Houston? Yes. You’re not really importing business,” he said. “You’re just relocating money from one part of town to another.”

Craig is essentially making the Andrew Zimbalist argument about public financing for sports stadia on a smaller scale. I see where he’s coming from and can’t really argue the point, but I can see why the city might be interested in ensuring that an entertainment development adjacent to the Theater District remains viable. Whether they did a better job negotiating a deal that might actually pay them something for their investment is another question.

HISD adopts its budget

No tax increase, at least not at this time.

Students in the Houston Independent School District can expect to see larger class sizes and fewer teachers, librarians and elective courses next year under the spending plan that trustees approved Thursday.

The $1.6 billion budget reflects a state funding shortfall affecting districts across Texas, although for HISD, the financial picture ended up better than predicted.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and board president Paula Harris had suggested over the last several months that raising the property tax rate was a possibility to balance the district’s budget.

But in the end, district officials decided to leave the tax rate alone and not dip into savings despite pleas from the district’s largest teachers association that more revenue could save hundreds of jobs and programs.

“We have an option to get more money. We’ve chosen not to do it,” Andy Dewey, the vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said.

Due to the way the Legislature will be distributing the budget cuts to school districts, HISD will take a bigger hit for the school year starting in 2012 than it will for this year. As such, the trustees voted to bank the extra money they now have from cutting more than they needed to this year until then. As I said before, I think that’s a reasonable position to take, though I certainly won’t criticize anyone who thinks we should be spending it now to keep more people employed. I would suggest that if we are going to hold on to this cash and lay off more people than perhaps we really needed to, the goal for the next year should be to balance the budget without any further job losses. If that means a tax rate hike, then so be it. Hair Balls has more.

GOP finally kills Howard amendment

In the end, this was no surprise.

An amendment from Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, that would have directed surplus money from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for enrollment growth in public schools has perished in conference committee.

The House voted to attach the measure, which Howard argued was a practical approach that would allow Republican members to maintain their pledges to protect the savings account while providing what could be an extra $2 billion to public education, to SB 2 — an omnibus appropriations bill critical to balancing the budget.

After outcry from fiscal conservatives, however, the lower chamber passed a resolution to strip the amendment when the bill went to conference committee to resolve key differences between the House and Senate versions.


“I am disappointed that the conference committee allowed the demands of a few unduly influential activists, as well as the political ambitions of Governor Rick Perry, to eclipse the needs of our schoolchildren,” Howard wrote in an email, “My amendment was a common-sense compromise that would have left existing rainy day funds ‘in the bank’ while still providing the necessary funding to cover a rapidly-growing student population and investing in the future economic prosperity of our state.”

See here and here for the background. There needs to be quotation marks around “fiscal conservatives” in that penultimate paragraph. There are many words that can describe this, but there’s nothing conservative about failing to invest in one’s future. At least the Republicans have made it as clear as they can where their priorities aren’t.

Friday random ten: Songs of the Century, part 7

Continuing with songs in my collection from the Songs of the Century as compiled by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

1. I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown (#152)
2. Banana Boat Song (Day-O) – RJD2 (#156, Harry Belafonte)
3. Material Girl – Madonna (#161)
4. Tequila – The MOB (#164, The Champs)
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Big Daddy (#167, The Beatles)
6. Soul Man – The Blues Brothers (#168, Sam and Dave)
7. I Love Rock and Roll – Hayseed Dixie/The MOB (#177, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts)
8. Fast Car – Tracy Chapman (#178)
9. Will You Love Me Tomorrow – Carole King (#179, The Shirelles)
10. I Can See Clearly Now – Johnny Nash (#183)

I haven’t included a video for one of these in awhile, so here’s my favorite rendition of the Banana Boat Song:

All dinner parties should be like that, don’t you think? Well, maybe minus the face-grabbing. I remember seeing that in the theater. We all laughed our rear ends off.

Round 2 report: Started with “Listening to Levon”, by Marc Cohn. Finished with “My Favorite Mistake”, by Sheryl Crow, song #691, for a total of 86 this week. The last L song was “Lullaby”, by Billy Joel. The first M song was “Make It Funky”, by John Lee Hooker.

City passes its budget

It wasn’t much different than the Mayor’s original proposal.

The overall spending plan totals $4 billion, including $1.8 billion from the tax- and fee-supported general fund. The remaining $2.2 billion involves the city’s enterprise funds, such as the airport and water utilities divisions, which generate their own revenues through user fees.

Fiscal year 2012 begins July 1.

The Council considered dozens of amendments during several hours of discussion Wednesday, but adopted the mayor’s proposed budget with no substantive changes.

Mayor Annise Parker spent the spring looking for ways to close a huge budget gap caused, in part, by a decrease in tax collections and ballooning pension obligations. She balanced the budget without a tax increase.

Instead, the newly adopted budget calls for spending $100 million less than in the current fiscal year. Because the city spends most of its money on police and fire protection, those two departments took the biggest hits, but no police officers or firefighters were laid off.

Basically, this budget finalized the layoffs that we knew about, did not include any major service cuts, did not raise taxes, and did not include any borrowing or use of the reserve funds but did include some deferment of payments. As I recall, the 2011 budget wound up dipping into the reserve fund when some real estate sales that had been booked as revenue didn’t pan out in time. There’s no mention of that in this story.

As the Mayor said, until revenues from property and sales taxes recover sufficiently we’ll be in a similar position next year. Sales tax revenues have been up for the state lately, and property valuations were better than originally expected for this budget, which reduced the deficit a bit, so there’s some hope. But if it’s not enough, the question continues to be at what point do we say we can’t cut any more, we have to roll back some of the property tax rate cuts to bring in enough revenue to do the things we have to do? I’m pretty sure everyone involved is hoping things improve to the point where we don’t have to find an answer to that question. If so, then let me ask the next question: At what point do we start restoring some of the things we’ve cut? The reserve fund will need some replenishing, those deferred payments will come due, and of course the long-term pension issues remain, and all of them will be priorities. Still, I hope we’re thinking about the better-case scenario in addition to the worst-case one.

Balancing the budget on the backs of charities

Just another “accounting trick” from our Republican legislature.

Each year, more than 100 organizations — including the University of Texas, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Special Olympics and the Girl Scouts — earn a collective $2.5 million from specialty plates voluntarily purchased by drivers. The $30 plates earn $22 for nonprofits or state agencies, $7.50 goes to the state highway fund, and 50 cents goes to the county in which the vehicle is registered.

Now that money is at risk. In the main budget bill legislators passed last month, officials decided to defer payment on half the money organizations receive through the plates for the next two years. Nonprofits would get $11 per sale. The rest of their money could not be accessed until September 2013 .

The idea is to, in effect, turn that revenue into state income, which helps balance the budget, said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas , which has taken the lead on fighting the proposal and received $330,000 from the fund in 2010.

Nonprofits say the deferred payments will hurt them because they use that money to operate programs and leverage other sources of income, such as federal grants. They also worry that the state could come back in two years and pass another bill directing that money somewhere else.

“Nobody’s taking much comfort in that we’re supposed to get that money in two years,” Stallings said. “The longer it sits there, the more attractive it becomes for the state to want to keep it for some other purpose.”

This is not a new development, by the way. Rep. Geanie Morrison has filed an amendment that would prevent this from happening, so it’s not set in stone yet. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this kind of budget prestidigitation – just ask Rep. Sylvester Turner about the System Benefit Fund, and watch the smoke come out of his ears. Still, this is the sort of thing you should expect when the very idea of raising revenue is anathema. My advice would be to put off getting that “Animal Friendly” license plate till 2013, when the money you spend on it will again go to the cause behind it. We hope, anyway.

The perils of being a single-issue voter

A new voice is heard against the “sanctuary cities” bill.

Several Hispanic, conservative evangelical pastors from around the state spoke out in opposition of the bill.

One of them, Gilberto Avila, a pastor from Tyler, testified against the measure on behalf of his conservative Restoration Christian Center and a group of 30 other Texas pastors who preach about socially conservative values.

Avila said he and the people he represent usually vote solely for pro-life candidates. But the measures before the committee have made him and others re-evaluate that stance, he said.

“We need to think more globally,” he said. “I think the way we’re going is really wrong for the state, and that is the sentiment that’s growing in our Latino community.”

He said the bills being discussed in the Legislature would amount to a “death sentence” for assimilated undocumented immigrants who would be deported. Once back in Mexico, they likely would be targeted, he said.

“If you’re pro-life, you have to be all the way,” Avila said.

You mean there’s more to being “pro-life” than just making abortion super duper illegal? I never would have imagined that. Just out of curiosity, does that extend to the death penalty, too?

Snark aside, I’m glad to see this even if their threats of electoral retribution turn out to be as empty as those of the other groups that have been completely ineffectual at steering the GOP away from this destructive course. Ultimately, if there are enough voices saying the same thing, the system will follow. It’ll take less time if people lose elections over it, though. I hope they keep that in mind. The “sanctuary cities” bill is still in committee but may be voted out today. Some changes to ICE policy have complicated things a bit, and now the decision on whether to advance the bill in the House has been put off till Monday, meaning it might fail to beat the end of the session on Wednesday. Would Rick Perry add this to the call of another special session if there is one due to windstorm insurance failure? I don’t see how he changes paths now, but you never know. EoW, who found another story on this topic, has more.

Andrea Yates, ten years later

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Andrea Yates drowned her children in their bathtub. I’ve blogged about her many times since first posting about her trial and conviction, which was later overturned on the grounds that an expert witness for the prosecution, Dr. Park Dietz, gave false testimony at her trial; he claimed that she had watched an episode of “Law and Order” in which a woman murdered her children and was acquitted after using a defense of postpartum psychosis when in fact no such episode ever existed. She was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2006. I said at the time that justice has finally been served, and I believe that to this day.

I’m glad there are more resources now for mothers who are suffering from postpartum depression. I’m glad that Andrea Yates is doing better, and I hope some day she’ll find peace and healing. I wish the legal system, and society in general, had evolved further in its understanding of these issues. And I hope there’s never another case like this one to test that understanding.

Senate not inclined to accept Amazon’s bribe

Good for them.

It looks like the Texas Legislature is likely to say no — at least for now — to’s proposal to bring 5,000 jobs to the state in exchange for a temporary break on collecting sales tax.

State Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, said this morning that the odds were slim the deal with Amazon would survive in the legislative conference committee report that would have attached the language to Senate Bill 1.

SB 1 is the fiscal matters bill being debated in the Legislature’s special session, and is a must-pass measure essential to balancing the state’s 2012-13 budget.

Deuell is a member of the conference committee working to iron out differences between the House and Senate on SB 1.

“I don’t think this offer from Amazon is going to be on the conference report. I don’t see us accepting that offer on the Senate side,” Deuell said. “I’m just speaking for myself, but I think the consensus on the Senate side of the conference committee is not for it.”


Deuell said he doesn’t see a reason the state should allow Amazon to avoid collecting sales tax.

“That’s why we have a sales tax,” Deuell said. “We don’t have an income tax — and I’m not advocating for that – so we have to have (sales) tax. That’s a mainstay of our economy.”


Deuell also said he was skeptical of Amazon’s ability to deliver on its promise of 5,000 jobs and $300 million in capital investments by the end of 2013.

“I don’t see how in the world they can provide 5,000 jobs at distribution centers. Those operate very efficiently, with computers and mechanized things,” Deuell said. “I don’t want to doubt their word and their intentions; I just don’t see how they bring 5,000 jobs to the state.”

See here for the background. I’m glad to see someone besides me express skepticism about the job creation claims. We’ve already seen with the Texas Enterprise Fund that such promises of jobs for kickbacks are written on sand. Why should we take Amazon’s word for it and complicate our tax structure for their benefit? Much simpler to do what we wanted to do in the first place and make them follow the law and pay their fair share.

UPDATE: If we were skeptical of their claim about creating 5,000 jobs, why would be any less skeptical about a claim of creating 6,000 jobs? Or 10,000? Hell, let’s make it ONE MILLION JOBS! When we get to that, let me know.