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July, 2011:

Weekend link dump for July 31

Hot. Hot hot hot.

We probably won’t see Hope Solo in MLS any time soon.

Circle fatigue. That didn’t take long.

Leisure diving. Because, sure, why not?

The food desert problem is more complicated than just a lack of grocery stores.

They always say you’ve got to have heart, but they never say whose.

A closer look at the conventional wisdom about the NBA lockout.

This is what it looks like when history passes you by. And this is what history looks like, in the Bronx, at least.

Of course, there is a down side to all this gay marriage stuff.

Can I hear more about Jessica Alba, please?

How about an unbalanced budget amendment instead?

Just remember that Jennifer Rubin is paid to publish her opinions in a major national newspaper, and you aren’t.

“If the U.S. legalized marijuana today […] [p]eople in the marijuana industry would wear suits, work in offices, donate to the Club for Growth and work with the tobacco industry to lobby against clean air restrictions.”

This is why your mother told you to always wear clean undies.

We need patent reform, and we need it now.

Ten rules for tipping.

The only bipartisan energy compromise to pass the House.

Lying is still a sin, no matter who the liar is.

Republicans voted for the debt they now claim to abhor.

This is like an analogy. A very snarky analogy.

You’ve been playing Monopoly wrong all these years.

Growing replacement teeth for mice.

From the “Amnesty for me, but not for thee” files.

Even the Tooth Fairy is cutting back these days.

This is a constructive way of looking at the McDonald’s Happy Meal changes. The examples cited by Roy, not so much.

Some things that are still true today, and likely will still be true many days from now, about the budget situation.

MS-DOS is 30 years old. There are times when I still prefer to use a plain ol’ DOS prompt for some things. Yes, I’m very old.

Maybe this guy shouldn’t be lecturing us about financial responsibility.

RIP, Hideki Irabu.

Higher standards mean lower ratings

Schools across the state have seen their academic ratings drop as a result of changes made in how the Texas Education Agency computes them.

The new accountability ratings released Friday for public school campuses in the state’s 1,228 districts and charter schools present a “far more accurate look” at academic performance, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said.

They are also markedly lower — with far fewer schools achieving the highest ratings than last year. Instead, most schools fall in the middle “acceptable” category.

Many districts find themselves with lower ratings even though their student achievement has remained the same. That’s because the formula used to calculate the ratings, based primarily on students’ standardized test scores, no longer includes a mechanism called the Texas Projection Measure. The TPM gauged students’ future test scores based on a campus-wide average instead of using their actual test scores and had the effect of giving schools credit for students passing when they hadn’t.

In April, Scott announced he would discontinue the measure after state lawmakers took a unanimous vote against it during debate on a testing bill.

The Chron gives the local picture.

In the Houston Independent School District, the “unacceptable” campuses more than tripled to 25 — or 9 percent of its rated schools.

Statewide, about 7 percent of schools netted the lowest rating this year. The unacceptable list grew from 104 schools to 569.


The ratings, from best to worst, are exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, honored last year as the state’s largest “recognized” district, dropped to “acceptable.” HISD, the biggest district, also was “acceptable.”

Among the area’s other large districts, Katy, Pasadena, Conroe, Alief, Klein, Clear Creek, Humble, Lamar Consolidated, Galena Park and Pearland earned “recognized” status.

You can see ratings for all HISD schools here, and for all school districts in Texas here. It is important to remember that last year’s ratings were basically bogus. If you do keep that in mind, HISD actually showed some improvement.

The news that Houston ISD’s number of exemplary schools dropped from 101 in 2010 to 59 in 2011, according to the Texas Education Agency’s figures just released at 1 p.m. today, could only add more fuel to the fire of critics who are certain Superintendent Terry Grier is destroying HISD.

Except that if the now discarded and discredited Texas Projection Measure (a method of giving extra points to schools by predicting that certain kids who failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills actually would pass in the next year) was removed from last year’s results, and other new “accountability measures” were factored in, according to HISD, then in 2010 there were 46 HISD schools that were really exemplary.

Which would make this year — at least in the exemplary category — an improvement. And Terry Grier a hero (or at least not a complete goat)?

Elsewhere in the annual ratings, the number of HISD’s academically recognized schools in 2011 was 106 (107 last year with the TPM), and academically acceptable increased to 79 (from 49 with TPM).

The number of academically unacceptable schools soared to 21 from last year’s 7 — but HISD’s recalculation last year’s effort says it would have been 23 — so hey, put another one in the win column.

In addition to the dropping of TPM, there were other ways in which the accountability system was made more difficult. Special ed kids were counted for the first time, and the standards for kids with limited English proficiency and math scores were raised. And before you get too used to this new/old way of scoring things, get ready for them to change again.

This is the last year for the TAKS testing program, which began in 2003. Schools will get a one-year reprieve from ratings as students take the new exams, expected to be more challenging.

Test scores traditionally rise over the years as teachers and students get used to the format of an exam. Statewide, at least 90 percent of students passed the TAKS in reading, writing and social studies this year. At least 80 percent passed in math and science.

HISD saw its scores remain mostly flat this year. The district’s passing rate in math rose two points to 83 percent, while writing dropped two points to 91 percent.

“Schools have a pretty good routine based on the TAKS,” said state Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands who chairs the House Public Education Committee. “It will change when we get to the (new) end-of-course exams and the STAAR tests.”

The forthcoming STAAR standard is already causing a lot of anxiety in school districts. The good news for Houston teachers is that they will be cut some slack in their evaluations.

​In a startling reversal of previous statements and his own avowed philosophies, Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier today released a statement that he will recommend to the school board that teachers not be evaluated by their students’ test scores this next school year.

It was only in May that trustees — urged on by Grier — voted 7-2 (Carol Galloway and Juliet Stipeche dissenting) to include student test scores in the formal list of criteria used to evaluate a teacher’s performance.

The May vote came after several months of entreaty from HISD teachers who argued that it would be especially inappropriate this coming year to judge teachers on their students’ test scores given that the state was introducing a new standardized test system that is replacing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. (Historically, student test scores drop after a new test is adopted.)

But Grier and his administration had remained adamant that it was inconceivable that the district have this information — student test scores — and not use it to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom. They have repeatedly said that teachers are the most crucial element in whether a child succeeds or fails in school.

It is difficult to understand what new information became available in the two months since May that would change Grier’s position on this. In his statement, he references “feedback we’ve heard this summer from teachers about taking on these challenges,” but he certainly heard plenty of this feedback before school was out.

Better late than never. How did your school do?

Terminal B expansion on the menu

In late May, the city announced that Terminal B expansion at IAH would go forward.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the Houston Airport System (HAS), and United Continental Holdings, Inc. Airlines, reaffirm a commitment to overhaul Terminal B at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) with a revised $1 billion renovation project.

This public-private initiative will help boost the Houston economy by creating local construction jobs during the next seven to 10 years. It will also offer a major upgrade for airport passengers as one of the original terminals at IAH is transformed into a spacious, efficient, eco-friendly facility.

“As the largest hub for the largest airline in the world, Bush Intercontinental is positioned to serve the world as United builds its global network,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “Our airport serves as one of the most important economic engines in Houston and we are committed to expanding the portal to our global business connections.”

During a news conference today, Mayor Parker, airport and airline executives reconfirmed construction plans for the billion dollar redevelopment at IAH United’s largest Hub which serves some 40 million passengers a year.

The agreement to move forward closely mirrors the agreement approved by Houston City Council in 2008. Under the revised plan the airlines will develop the project in phases, as economic conditions improve.

Here’s a presentation about the Terminal B redevelopment lease, which notes that it is on the City Council agenda for Wednesday (see item 40) after a public hearing tomorrow. (That will be a special meeting of the Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee in Council Chambers at 10 AM, in case you’re curious.) There are some questions about what exactly is in the lease agreement, as things are a little different now than they were in 2008. In particular, the main player is now United Airlines, not Continental. The folks at SEIU sent me this fact sheet about the deal that asks some questions about what is in it. I have not followed this story, and I don’t know anything about it beyond the docs that I’ve linked to in this post. It is a pretty big deal, though, so I wanted to throw this out there. If you know anything more about this, please leave a comment. Thanks.

Old neighborhoods, new faces

Really interesting story about the changing faces of a couple of Houston’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

There are now almost as many Latino residents as African-Americans in Independence Heights. At the same time, there are fewer African-American children there and in other historic black neighborhoods, even when the number of African-American adults has grown.

“There’s a lot of chitter-chatter about what that means,” said Roynell Young, a former All-Pro cornerback who runs a charter school in Sunnyside. “What I do know is, you take what you have and grow it. It’s the quality of what you produce that is important.”

Decades after segregation faded in public schools and workplaces, residential neighborhoods have been slower to change. Even as people moved away from historically black neighborhoods, churches and other institutions kept them at the center of civic engagement.

But neighborhoods, like the people who inhabit them, don’t stand still.

“We are born, we grow up, we get old,” said Sheri L. Smith, who teaches urban planning at Texas Southern University. “Communities do the same thing.”

Longtime residents may resist change. “But if you move out, someone else moves in, and they’re not responsible for your memories,” she said.

I met a couple of people over the weekend who had just moved here from Brooklyn. When I told them I was from Staten Island, one of them asked me which neighborhood. I actually had to think about it for a second before I answered, because it had been so long since anyone had asked me that question. My neighborhood on Staten Island – West Brighton, for the record – and most of the neighborhoods around it were like Sunnyside and Independence Heights when I was a kid in that they stayed the same for a long time. People lived their whole lives there, and knew who everybody was. Both my father’s parents lived in the same ZIP code till the day they died. I’m not certain, but I’d bet the same was true of my mother’s father, and outside of a couple of years at the end when she was in an assisted living facility in Seattle near her son, the same was probably true of her mother. It was true for my parents until 1999, when they moved west.

It’s not true any more, at least in my family as all us kids settled elsewhere. Through various reconnections I’ve made on Facebook, I know there’s still some of my old friends there, but many have left. I suspect some of it is generational – people nowadays are more accustomed to the idea of moving away – and some of it is just how society in general is these days – modern careers are much less conducive to staying in one place forever. I haven’t been back to Staten Island in over a decade, so I can’t say for myself how much it has changed since I stopped visiting regularly. I definitely plan to take the girls to visit there in the next few years, and we’ll see how I perceive it from the perspective of fatherhood and connecting to my roots. I suspect it will be a very different experience.

On a side note, I will say that the place in Texas that is most strongly reminiscent of Staten Island to me is Galveston. Island communities, where the boundaries are clearly demarcated and there’s a big difference between being born there and not being born there, are just different. Paul Burka wrote a story about his ancestral home town awhile back for Texas Monthly, and I remember thinking as I read it that someone could write a very similar story about mine. Maybe some day I will.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to get all nostalgic on you, but that’s what this story triggered in me. It’s worth your time to read even if it’s not likely to have the same effect on you. Greg has more.

San Antonio approves long term transit plan

The board of VIA Metropolitan Transit, the transit agency for San Antonio, has unanimously approved a long term roadmap that will bring rail construction to the city.

San Antonio is the largest city in the U.S. with a bus-only transit system, according to the plan. The city’s only previous electric streetcar system was discontinued in 1933.

The plan, SmartWaySA, was developed over two years and several series of public workshops. It envisions 39 miles of light-rail, 57 miles of bus rapid transit, and thee miles of streetcar by 2035. By then, Bexar County’s population is expected to have surged to more than 2.15 million.

VIA will update the plan every five years.


Specific elements of the plan include details on the city’s first bus rapid transit line, set to launch late next year or in early 2013, plus plans for additional bus rapid transit lines stretching north and south.

The next priority will be construction of an east-west modern streetcar line through downtown connecting VIA’s planned West Side multimodal center and the Robert Thompson Transit Center at the Alamodome on the East Side.

It also has recommendations for two light-rail corridors in the region, one stretching north and south, initially joining the airport and downtown, and one east and west, connecting Lackland AFB to Fort Sam Houston.

Here’s the SmartWaySA website, and here’s a map of the draft system plan. I wish I could tell what the streets are that are being designated as the rail corridors. I think the purple one that originates at the airport goes along San Pedro, which would make sense, but the location of Trinity to its west on the map says otherwise. The north-south starter rail line, which will begin as a streetcar line, is intended to be on Broadway, which makes sense. VIA has already received a federal grant to do a feasibility study. Where they get the money for all this is the big question. They’ll be applying for more federal grants, including the TIGER III grant, but there will be local money involved as well. I wish them all the best in moving forward on this.

Saturday video break: We’re at an impasse here

Am I the only one who sees this as a metaphor for the debt ceiling hostage crisis situation?

I can totally see John Boehner, or more accurately Eric Cantor, singing that to Harry Reid. Can’t you?

Greanias’ suspension

I’m as shocked by this as you are.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s efforts to rebuild public confidence suffered a setback Thursday with the announcement that President and CEO George Greanias, the public face of the “new Metro,” has been suspended for visiting sexually explicit websites using the agency’s Internet access.

Some observers said Greanias, who has led Metro since last September, has been so good for the agency that the embarrassing bombshell should not prevent his continued leadership. Others said the damage to his reputation and Metro’s will be too great for him to continue effectively.

Metro suspended Greanias for one week without pay effective immediately, a punishment that Chairman Gilbert Garcia said was harsher than typically would be assessed for a violation of Metro’s electronic communications policies. The suspension will cost Greanias about $4,500, Garcia said.

An investigation revealed that while on his personal computer at Metro headquarters, 1900 Main St., Greanias visited more than a dozen “adult-oriented sites of a sexual nature” using wireless Internet access provided by the agency, Metro said in a news release.

I’m going to guess that since he was on his personal laptop, Greanias didn’t realize that where he was surfing would be visible on the corporate network. You may scoff at that, but after 20 years in the IT business, I’ve learned to never underestimate people’s ability to not know how their computers work. Having said that, one would think that keeping the naughty stuff out of the office regardless would be common sense.

I feel terrible about this for George Greanias and for Metro. Greanias has done an outstanding job as Metro CEO, and has done more to rehabilitate that agency’s image than any ten people. I’ve had the chance to meet him a few times since he took over, and I’ve been very impressed by him, not just as a CEO but as a person. I hope, I really do, that people will chalk this up as a personal mistake that won’t affect his ability to keep doing great work as Metro CEO. David Vitter is still a Senator. Hugh Grant is still a movie star. It would be a tragedy if his talents were to be discarded. The good news there is that so far this seems to be everything. Metro did some more checking and found that he didn’t violate email policies, so that should help him. If this is all there is – if there are no further revelations of wrongdoing, or announcements that what had been previously declared to be true about who did what actually isn’t true, then I think this story will die from lack of oxygen, I hope that’s what happens. Robert Miller, who thinks Greanias will survive this incident, and Marc Campos, who doesn’t, have more.

Tough times for teaching hospitals

Oh, who needs doctors, anyway?

Texas teaching hospitals are bracing for a big hit in the federal deficit-reduction plans under consideration, just a few weeks after the state Legislature slashed funding to the same doctor-training programs.

The cuts will exacerbate a crisis in which Texas, ranked 42nd in the number of physicians per population, loses potential doctors because the state doesn’t have enough residency slots to train the medical students it pays to educate.

“There’s a perfect storm forming in Texas — a growing, aging population, an increase in students and, now more than ever, a decrease in residency slots,” said Dr. Kenneth Shine, the University of Texas System’s executive vice chancellor for health affairs. “The impact of the state cuts and likely federal cuts pose a grave threat to our ability to provide health care to all Texans.”

Congressional proposals, still in flux, would cut Texas’ doctor-training funding by 60 percent. State cuts, passed earlier this month, will reduce the funding of one doctor-training program by 74 percent and another by 30 percent. Together, they’d cost Texas about $165 million of the $306 million it currently gets in government funding to train new doctors.

The cuts loom six months after Texas officials expressed concern that the state was losing 45 percent of its medical school graduates to out-of-state residencies, in part because its residency-to-graduate ratio is less than 1-1 — far below, say, New York’s 3-1 ratio. The Texas ratio will get significantly worse under the cuts.

And here I thought tort “reform” was going to solve all of our doctor shortage problems. Seriously, I cannot see how this is a good idea. We’re not doing this because we’re trying to control a long-term cost that we expect to grow at an unmanageable rate. We’re doing it because as with most of the other budget cuts we’re doing or may be doing, the constituency that is affected by them has less power than certain other constituencies, none of which are being made to “sacrifice” in any meaningful way. We’re not doing what’s smart or what’s fair, we’re doing what’s left to do after a whole range of other options are taken off the table.

The job market for teachers

There are still some jobs available for new teachers and teachers looking for a new gig, but not nearly as many as there have been in the past.

Because of the Legislature’s initial $4 billion cut from public school funding, districts are slicing at least 6 percent from their budgets for the first year of the biennium. Options for grads trying to get their foot in the teaching door look bleak. But as districts work out budgets for the coming school year, many are finding a little more room than expected to hire new teachers because of resignations, retirements and pre-emptive cuts.

“Some districts, like those in San Antonio, may have skewed things when they offered incentives or people decided to retire,” said Linda Bridges, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers. “So districts will have to hire, but not in the large numbers they were before.”

Based on a general survey of most districts, the number of new teachers hired is down by 74 percent from last year. Though districts are hiring, open positions are limited. Many are shuffling employees to fill newly consolidated positions. Chalkley said she hit many such walls — notices stamped “For internal applicants only” — when applying in the Austin Independent School District.

In addition to the lower hiring and recruiting numbers, teachers are being hired later in the year. Jobs typically available in April or May might not appear until August, if at all, and graduates are starting to panic, said Denise Staudt, dean of the Dreeben School of Education at the University of the Incarnate Word.


The schools are emphasizing the long-term outlook.

“We’re telling them that this isn’t going to last forever, people will start retiring and things will turn around a little bit,” said Blanche Desjean-Perrotta, associate dean for teacher education at UTSA.

When positions open, districts are likely to hire those on probationary leave or already within the district. Such was the case with Judson ISD, where officials cut teaching positions in April, but in the wake of retirements and resignations hired back 60 who had been put on leave.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas has seen a 25 percent increase in retirements since 2006, climbing to 16,706 in 2010. If those numbers continue to rise, districts will have to hire more than they planned, Bridges said.

“If people are reading the economic forecast and looking at some of the job statistics, we have an aging workforce across the country,” [Shari Albright, chairwoman of Trinity’s department of education] said. “Consequently, statistics would tell us we need new cadres of teachers.”

Prospects are still pretty good for the long term. Texas still has a young and growing population, and that means teachers will be needed. The short term is going to be hard, and the bargain newer teachers will be getting won’t be as good as those who came before them got. There’s a danger that the best and brightest will leave to find jobs elsewhere, and that fewer people will be encouraged to pursue education as a career, which may leave districts in the lurch when they need to start hiring again. To use a word that Republicans seem to favor these days, there’s a lot of uncertainty out there.

Will the feds get another shot at Clemens?


U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton is considering the possibility that putting Clemens on trial again would subject him to double jeopardy.

Walton, who declared a mistrial on July 14, has ordered both sides to submit their arguments in writing and has scheduled a Sept. 2 hearing.

Attorneys and scholars who have reviewed case transcripts provided by The Associated Press say a second trial seems likely under rules established by the Supreme Court.

“It is one thing when something like this happens three weeks into a month-long trial where the defense has poked big holes in the government’s case and effectively crossed main witnesses,” said Andrew Wise, a white-collar attorney with the Washington firm Miller & Chevalier. “But when you are on day two of a month-long trial, it is harder to argue that the government was throwing in the towel and goading the defense into seeking a mistrial so they could have a fresh start.”

Protection against double jeopardy is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which says in part, “nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that a defendant is considered to be in jeopardy once a jury is sworn in, so Clemens had been in jeopardy for just over one day. But the question is whether the jeopardy ended with Walton’s declaration of a mistrial.

At least one prominent expert disagrees with the chorus of his colleagues who are predicting a second trial. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said there’s no innocent explanation for why prosecutors put inadmissible evidence in front of the jury.

“The government constantly does this because they think they can get away with it,” Dershowitz said. “When you are preparing a case for so long, you don’t make errors like this. I have a high level of confidence that a good lawyer could keep this case from being retried.”

I’m not a lawyer, so I have no idea what the “correct” ruling should be. As a non-lawyer, I think the prosecution screwed the pooch badly enough the first time around that they don’t deserve a second chance, but that’s an emotional opinion, not a legal one. Whatever happens, it won’t change my opinion that Clemens belongs in the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible. To me, the only true disqualifier is what is spelled out in baseball’s rules: Thou shalt not bet on games. I don’t expect the writers to see it that way – the opportunity to pontificate about the evils of steroids, which they missed doing for basically the entire time that players were actively using them, will be way too much for them to pass up. As such, I will go back to paying only minimal attention to this until we get a result.

Friday random ten: Songs of the Century, part 9

Three lists to go from the Songs of the Century as compiled by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

1. Me and Bobby McGee – Modern Barbershop Quartet (#232, Janis Joplin)
2. Kansas City – The Beatles (#236, Wilbert Harrison)
3. Got My Mojo Workin’ – Asylum Street Spankers (#238, Muddy Waters)
4. White Rabbit – Austin Lounge Lizards & Karen Abrahams (#241, Jefferson Airplane)
5. Graceland – Paul Simon (#242)
6. Love Shack – The B-52s (#243)
7. My Heart Will Go On – Big Daddy (#246, Celine Dion)
8. What’d I Say? – Ray Charles (#251)
9. Flashdance – Big Daddy (#256, Irene Cara)
10. Burning Down The House – The Talking Heads (#257)

Seeing the Janis Joplin classic appear in the same week that we lost Amy Winehouse at the Joplinian age of 27 is rather poignant. Seeing it appear in the same group as “My Heart Will Go On” makes me want to question the entire methodology used to compile this list. Ah, well, it’s just a list, and it’s not worth getting worked up about. But I do wonder sometimes what songs, and what artists, will stand the test of time. If you were to put together a “Songs of the Century” for the 1800s, how many would be recognizable today? Would there be anything other than what we now call “classical” music, and maybe some Stephen Foster songs? How different do you think musical tastes will be in the year 2100?

Anyway. For the Round 2 Report, I started with “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)”, by Los Lobos, and ended with “Stand!”, by Sly and the Family Stone, song #896. That was only 41 tunes this week, which was an aberration. I have about 170 to go till the end, so maybe two more weeks and maybe three. We’ll see.

Meyers to challenge Keller in GOP primary

There will be a little hot judge on judge action in next March’s Republican primary.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers has told colleagues that he will challenge fellow jurist Sharon Keller in the Republican primary for the court’s presiding judge position.

Keller famously fought and ultimately won a legal battle against the state Commission on Judicial Conduct last year after it issued a “public warning” for her saying, “We close at 5,” when asked about holding the court open for last-minute death row appeal. She has said she felt vindicated when no wrongdoing was assessed.

In a memo Meyers gave to the other eight members of the court on Tuesday, he never mentioned Keller’s legal fight, but instead stated that all federal appellate courts and several state Supreme Courts rotate their chief justice position.

Keller has been presiding judge for the past decade.

“Therefore, I have decided to seek my party’s nomination for this position in next year’s election — I will make a formal announcement to this effect later this week,” he said.

Meyers was elected to another full term in 2010, so this is basically a free shot for him. Win, and he inherits Keller’s position. Lose, and he stays where he is. I presume if he wins there will then be an appointment to fill his seat, with a subsequent election for the unexpired term in 2014. Before you get too excited about the possibility of Keller being taken out this way, Meyers is not the first of her colleagues to give it a try.

Tom Price, currently the court’s third most senior member after Keller and Meyers, unsuccessfully ran against her in the Republican primary in 2000 and 2006.

“I’m used to people on my court running against me,” she said.

All I know is that the Democrats better have a decent candidate lined up to take her on. Another non-campaign from JR Molina isn’t going to cut it. Grits has more.

Austin to propose ban on plastic bags

Good for them.

The City Council will vote Aug. 4 on a resolution from [Mayor Lee] Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley that would direct staff members to propose a scope for the ban and a timetable for phasing it in. Staff members would have to present a plan to the council in November.

City staffers will work with retailers and other stakeholders to write that plan, the mayor said.

Details such as whether small retailers should be exempt, what penalties retailers could face for not complying and when the ban should take effect will be worked out over the next four months, he said.

“I’m sure many retailers have a lot of plastic bags on hand or (long-term) contracts with bag companies. We want to take those things into consideration,” Leffingwell said. “Our goal will be to develop a reasonable ordinance that doesn’t cause hardship. It would be a hardship to enact a ban immediately.”

Leffingwell said he thinks paper bags should still be an option at checkout counters because they’re included in Austin’s curbside collection program for recyclables and they don’t gum up recycling machinery as plastic bags do.

But he said retailers may want or need to charge a fee of a few cents per paper bag to compel customers to get in the habit of bringing canvas or reusable bags.

The mayor said he would prefer that compostable plastic bags not be allowed because they can be tough to distinguish from other plastic bags, which might make a ban difficult to enforce.

Leffingwell said he expects there will be exceptions to the ban, such as allowing grocery stores to put fish and meat products in plastic bags at checkout counters.

Only a handful of other U.S. cities have enacted bans on plastic bags, including Brownsville, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., which passed a ban last week.

Besides Brownsville, South Padre Island has banned plastic bags, while Fort Stockton has a ban that will take effect in September. The Lege had a couple of bills proposed that would have preempted these local ordinances, but neither got a vote in either chamber. Austin had tried to ban plastic bags in 2008 but settled instead for a voluntary program that aimed at reducing their usage by 50%; Leffingwell says that only a 20% reduction was achieved. I’ll be interested to see what they come up with. I hope it succeeds and becomes a model for other Texas cities to follow. More from Mayor Leffingwell is on BOR.

Airport Direct on the way out

You can’t say they didn’t try.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials have decided to eliminate express bus service to George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Canceling the airport service was one of a dozen suggested route changes that were discussed at a public hearing Tuesday. Metro officials concluded after the hearing that they should proceed with plans to end the service, a decision that doesn’t require board approval, spokesman Jerome Gray said.

The service is expected to stop late next month, Gray said. The local Route 102 bus, which also provides service from downtown to Bush Airport, will continue to operate.

Metro president and chief executive officer George Greanias said the agency had worked hard to make the service succeed, including lowering the fare in January from $15 to $4.50 for a one-way trip.

“Our concern for Airport Direct stemmed strictly from the costs of the service versus revenues we could realistically achieve, not its desirability or our personal wish that it succeed,” Greanias said in a prepared statement.

Metro doesn’t have the cash flow to keep trying to make this work. They gave it a shot, and under other circumstances they might have been able to keep tinkering with it, but this was clearly the responsible thing to do.

Which isn’t to say that there couldn’t be some way to make a service like this be either self-sufficient or only in need of a modest subsidy.

Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the conversations with Metro had provided a good beginning for new ideas about transportation service to Houston’s airports.

“I think that what needs to happen now is go back and get all the interested parties to retool, think a little bit outside the box and think how we can put together a good, solid express not only to Bush but also to Hobby,” he said.

Ortale said some meetings are planned in the next two weeks to discuss a future airport bus service.

As long as there’s limited exposure for any public funding, I’m okay with taking another crack at it. It really does seem like there ought to be a way.

Freetail expansion on hold


Having previously announced expansion into the Houston market, Freetail Brewing Co. will announce the indefinite suspension of plans for a second location — citing concerns over access to capital.

“As I moved forward with the Freetail Houston project, I began to run into an increasing level of resistance in capital markets. A brewpub is a good project for downtown Houston, but the deal is simply not there for me at this time,” explained Freetail Founder & CEO, Scott Metzger. “When we announced the project on May 17, we also stated there were financial considerations to be addressed. Those considerations are ultimately what put this project on hold indefinitely, and no other reason. To move forward with the project at this time would be irresponsible and an injustice to my company and the City of Houston.

“For now my focus will be to continue growing our successful original location, which has internal expansion needs of its own, and moving forward in the battle for fair reform of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, as it relates to the activities of our state’s brewpubs and breweries,” added Metzger.

Beer, TX adds some details.

Houston officials had worked closely with Metzger and the owner of the downtown property and felt Freetail was “a fantastic fit for us,” said Angie Bertinot, spokeswoman for the Houston Downtown Management District.

“We’re incredibly disappointed, without a doubt,” she said. “This is something the district really went after.”

She said the district had asked Metzger to consider extending his self-imposed deadline of last Friday. Officials had hoped he would keep trying to raise money until closer to the mid-August date set in the letter of intent signed back in May. “But,” Bertinot added, “we can’t go raise money for him, obviously.”


The brewer said he still believes Houston is a viable location, but he realized he did not have enough contacts among potential investors. He also said continuing economic uncertainties may have investors leery.

“If things change, then we want to revisit Houston,” he said.

“Economic uncertainties”? I blame Eric Cantor. Freetail had announced their intent to open a Houston location in May. I hope they are able to get the funding they need to try again soon.

A closer look at finance reports: PACs

Having taken the time to download all of those campaign finance reports for the city of Houston elections, which you can view on my 2011 Election page, I wanted to see what I could learn from all this data. So I spent a little time going through all the reports to sort contributions and expenditures into a few categories. I’ve got a few posts in the works to discuss what I found, and I’ll start with one of the biggest yet least talked-about factors in city elections: Contributions to candidates from PACs, businesses, and law firms. This Google spreadsheet has all of the data, sorted both by candidate and by contributor, with a third tab for totals. A few things to point out before you dive in:

– All of these reports I’ve put together are the result of me going through each report manually. As such, expect there to be some inconsistencies and things I’ve missed. Nobody’s perfect.

– In particular, not everybody categorizes donors the same way. I think I was able to tell when an acronym matched a spelled-out name, and Open Office Calc helped fill in common names, but there were still questions, and when in doubt I just copied in what they reported. An example is with the Longshoremen, for which there’s an “International Longshoremen Association Local #24 PAC”, an “International Longshoremen Association Local #28 PAC”, and an “International Longshoremen’s Association Committee on Political Education”. All the same, or different groups? I don’t know, so I listed them all.

– Along similar lines, many reports featured multiple donations by a given group to a candidate. Where I noticed this, I added the contributions together rather than listed them separately. I can see from the spreadsheet that I wasn’t always successful at this, so bear it in mind. In general, however, multiple donations will be represented as a single entry in this spreadsheet.

– The one report I did not go through is Mayor Parker’s, for the simple reason that it’s almost 900 pages long, and I enjoy seeing my family on occasion. I may try to get to it later, but don’t quote me on that.

– Any contribution that was not clearly from an individual was listed. If it was a business name, I included it. Most of what’s here is a PAC of some kind, mostly but not entirely business and law firm PACs, but not all are.

– Things That Should Not Surprise You And Probably Won’t: By far, the biggest beneficiaries were incumbents. By my calculation, less than five percent of the total went to those who are not already in office. Obviously, the people who write big checks like to back winners, and there’s no surer bet in Houston politics than incumbents running for re-election. However, as the fields settle and frontrunners for open seats emerge, you’ll see more money flow to non-incumbents – some of them, anyway. This will be even more so for the runoffs.

– Things That Should Not Surprise You But Might: Quite a few of these PACs are, shall we say, not terribly discriminatory in their giving. Let me put it to you this way: The following PACs donated to both Jolanda Jones and Mike Sullivan:

  • Andrews & Kurth Texas PAC, $1000 each
  • Bracewell & Giuliani PAC, $1000 to Jones, $500 to Sullivan
  • Continental Airlines Employee Fund, $1000 each
  • Houston Apartment Association (HAA) Better Government Fund, $250 to Jones, $500 to Sullivan
  • Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, $1000 each
  • Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott, $500 to Jones, $1000 to Sullivan
  • Texas Taxi PAC, $1000 to Jones, $2000 to Sullivan
  • Union Pacific Corporation Fund for Effective Government PAC, $1000 each

I can think of a theory of government that explains this, but not a theory of ideology. Feel free to speculate.

Anyway. Here’s the spreadsheet. I’ll have more soon. Let me know what you think.

Update on HISD and HCC finance reports

I had mentioned before that it was hard to find campaign finance reports for HISD and HCC Trustees. I now have some updated information about this, so I wanted to share it with you. First, HISD Trustee Anna Eastman (who represents my HISD district) emailed me on Tuesday to let me know that their finance reports are now posted online. If you go to the HISD Board of Trustees page and click on an individual Trustee, you will see a link to his or her finance reports, dating back as far as 2008. I have now updated the 2011 Election page to reflect this. My thanks to Anna Eastman for passing this on. Note that unlike the City of Houston reports, these are document scans that have been saved as PDFs, and not native PDFs. That means you can’t easily copy and paste from them, and it means they can be filled out by hand, as a couple of them were. But at least they’re online.

Which is more than I can say for HCC Trustee finance reports. I received an email from Trustee Richard Schechter last week informing me that I can get them by requesting copies from their general counsel, Renee Byas. I have sent a request for this information to Ms. Byas, who is out of the office this week but is expected back on Monday, and will update the 2011 Election page accordingly when I receive them. At least then they’ll exist somewhere on the Internets. My thanks to Richard Schechter as well for the information.

I am still unaware of any candidates for these offices other than the incumbents and Carroll Robinson for the HCC open seat. It remains possible that none of these seven elections will be contested, which as a matter of general principle is just wrong. But it’s the situation we appear to be facing.

Talking about the T word

Scott McCown brings up the subject of taxes but leaves it short of where to go from here.

If a stronger economy, honest budgeting and pitting priorities against each other aren’t the answer, what is? Texas must modestly increase taxes. No one is suggesting that Texas become a high-tax state, but Texas must raise the money needed to invest in education and other building blocks of a strong economy. As a group, Texans pay low taxes, and as a percentage of our economy our contribution has been falling.

This is not a question of living within our means. Texans have the resources in our trillion-dollar economy to meet today’s needs and build a prosperous future. But until we fix our tax system, we can’t make important investments for the common good.

The issue isn’t whether to increase taxes, but how. Our state’s major tax is a sales tax on goods – a tax designed for yesterday’s economy when we sold more goods and fewer services.

The business tax is also flawed – redesigned in 2006 to help pay for a property tax cut, it instead leaves us $10 billion per biennium short. And our state has tax giveaways and loopholes galore.

Between now and the 2013 legislative session, Texans must square our shoulders and do two things.

First, we must solve some technical problems – how do we modernize the sales tax, reform the business tax and address tax giveaways and loopholes so we have a smart and fair tax system that produces adequate revenue.

Second, we must work together to build the public will for a tax increase. There’s no other answer.

What McCown doesn’t say is which taxes should be increased. I feel reasonably confident saying that the CPPP is not about to begin plumping for the sales tax to be hiked, as that would be a regressive tax increase. To expand the sales tax to include more services, and to remove some questionable exemptions to the sales tax such as those for bottled water and high cost gas, sure. But to raise the base percentage, I don’t think so. I sure hope not, anyway.

The missing piece of the puzzle here is property taxes. The problem, as we well know, is that the business margins tax and the increase to the cigarette tax from 2006 have not come close to paying for the property tax cut of that same year. To me, the goal needs to be to close the structural deficit that was caused by this tax swap. If that can be done by simply tweaking the margins tax, or by scrapping it for a better business tax, that’s fine. If it can be done by fixing the margins tax and revamping the sales tax as described above, that’s fine too. But if we can’t do it with those things alone, then it’s the property tax rate we need to talk about increasing. There are some exemptions to property taxes that we can examine before we get to that, but if we’re really talking about raising taxes then that’s what we need to be talking about. I’m not sure if McCown avoided the topic because he ran out of space or because he wanted someone else to be the one to bring it up first. If so, here it is. Now we just need the people who are running for office to start talking about it.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 25

The thoughts and prayers of the Texas Progressive Alliance are with the people of Norway as we bring you this week’s roundup.


Interview with CM Ed Gonzalez

CM Ed Gonzalez

CM Ed Gonzalez was elected to complete the unexpired term of now-Sheriff Adrian Garcia in June of 2009, and is now running for his second full term on Council. He’s a former homicide investigator for HPD, and was elected by his fellow Council members to be Mayor Pro Tem last year. He’s also my Council member, and will continue to be my Council member after redistricting. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page.

Alternate Commissioners Court map proposed

Via BJP, here’s an alternate County Commissioners map, with accompanying data, to the one that was proposed to the Court two weeks ago. The map comes courtesy of Sylvia Garcia and Sen. Mario Gallegos, whose stated goal is to ensure that there’s a real Latino opportunity precinct. As Greg says, it’s an aggressive map – I’ll be very interested to see what the electoral data looks like – that goes a long way towards correcting the retrogression that exists in the initial proposal. Note how Kingwood is put back into Precinct 4 in this map, for instance. It’s hard to say how open the Court will be to this kind of feedback – Houston City Council made changes in response to public input, but the stakes here are quite a bit different – but you tend not to get what you don’t demand in politics, so we’ll see. If nothing else, demonstrating the viability of an alternate plan is necessary for any future litigation. Somos Tejanos has more, and more from Greg is here.

A word about endorsements

As I have done in prior elections, I will be keeping track of endorsements for the 2011 elections. You can argue all you want about the value of endorsements – clearly, some are more valuable than others, and some mean more to some candidates than to others – but my view is simply that they’re another piece of information about a candidate or a race, and that more information is better than less.

All endorsements will be noted on the 2011 Election page. Note that some groups may not issue all their endorsements at once, so check it periodically for updates.

I mostly learn about endorsements via press releases and candidate emails. There’s no guarantee that I will hear about any particular endorsement – for better or worse, not everyone sends me their releases and emails – so if you want me to know about an endorsement your group has made or your candidate has received, tell me about it via email: kuff – at – offthekuff – dot – com. As of this year, I have one requirement for listing an endorsement: There must be a webpage for that endorsement to which I can link. In the past, I have saved press releases as Google docs or pasted them into blog posts, and linked to those things. I’m not going to do that any more. If you’re an endorsing organization, I believe you owe it to the people you’re endorsing, all of whom likely had to fill out a time-consuming questionnaire and maybe sit through an in-person screening, to make your endorsement easy to find. It’s a simple matter of respect. Provide a link to your list of endorsed candidates, or don’t bother with it. Thanks very much.

Are there West Texas pickup opportunities available?

Depends on how you look at it, I suppose.

Former Potter County Democratic Party chairman Abel Bosquez said he plans to run for the same Texas House seat he did not win in last year’s election.

“I am ready to go again,” said Bosquez, who was soundly defeated by Amarillo Republican Four Price in the District 87 race. “We can’t sit out this or any other election.”

Bosquez said he intends to make a formal announcement on or around Labor Day.


Although first-time Republican candidates Price and John Frullo of Lubbock, as well as second-time candidate Jim Landtroop of Plainview, cruised in last year’s election, West Texas Democrats said they’ll fare much better next year and could even win a House seat.

“We’re energized,” said Lubbock County Democratic Party Chairwoman Pam Brink.

Brink’s main task is to recruit candidates for House districts 83 and 84, both anchored in Lubbock. District 83 is represented by Charles Perry and District 84 by Frullo. Perry is a freshman and did not have a Democratic opponent in November.


Heflin had narrowly defeated Landtroop in the 2006 election when both were vying for what was an open seat in District 85.

If the Texas House redistricting map the Legislature approved this session survives numerous court challenges, Landtroop would find himself campaigning in large sections of the Panhandle.

His new district would stretch all the way to Lipscomb County.

Heflin said he has yet to decide if he’ll run again. If he does, he would likely run against Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon. Hardcastle’s redrawn district would include 14 counties in the Panhandle and South Plains regions, including Crosby where Heflin lives.

Although no Democrat has expressed interest in running against Amarillo Republican John Smithee in District 86, Bosquez said he would not be surprised.

Note that if you look for HD85 in the viewer (Plan H283), HD85 is the new district anchored in Fort Bend County. Landtroop would be running in HD88, which is being vacated by Warren Chisum. I admire Bosquez and Brink’s attitudes, but the numbers aren’t pretty. Here’s the Google spreadsheet for Plan H283, and here’s a summary of the 2008 election returns in districts that I’d call “West Texas” districts:

Dist Inbumbent Obama Houston =============================== 68 Hardcastle 22.13 31.36 69 Lyne 28.07 34.27 71 King, S 26.98 32.88 72 Darby 26.68 33.35 81 Lewis 24.61 28.88 82 Craddick 21.49 23.47 83 Perry 24.62 28.57 84 Frullo 35.99 36.34 86 Smithee 18.66 21.58 87 Price 24.70 28.48 88 Landtroop* 21.30 27.35

Like I said, not very pretty. If you squint you could maybe see HD84 go our way over time, but that’s about it. You’re not going to win any of these seats via turnout and demographics, that’s for sure. You’re only hope is to convince the voters in these districts that they’ve gotten screwed by their legislators. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that that’s precisely what happened this past session, so if there’s ever a time to try a persuasion campaign, this is it. It’s possible your audience will be more receptive in 2014, after we’ve had yet another deficit-dominated session, but there’s no reason not to start laying down that message now. The mantra out here should be simply “Your legislator voted for things that will harm/have harmed this district. I will vote to help this district.” Will it work? Probably some, maybe a little more than some, but those are some steep hills to climb. You can’t win if you don’t play, though, and if there was ever a time that a message of change might resonate, this has to be it. I wish Bosquez and Brink and all of their colleagues the very best of luck in their quest.

City asks Metro for Harrisburg underpass

From the Inbox:

Houston Mayor and METRO Seek Common Ground on East End Line

Resolution of Harrisburg/Hughes Streets Over/Under Question Becomes a Milestone

The city of Houston has concluded there is “strong sentiment” within the East End community for an underpass at Harrisburg/Hughes St. and has requested METRO’s Board of Directors vote in support of a plan to create a grade separated betterment for light rail and vehicular traffic. This “All-Under Option,” according to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, is intended to “promote pedestrian and vehicular safety in the area and encourage community development, and enhance overall mobility in the East End.” The city has committed $20.6 million in financial support for the project.

Although the underpass route is influenced by numerous considerations, the decision of whether or not to support the request will ultimately rest with the METRO Board of Directors. METRO Chairman, Gilbert Garcia, hopes to bring the complex matter up for vote by the directors this Thursday.

“We appreciate Mayor Parker’s efforts to build consensus in this lingering community debate. I congratulate the Mayor, Council members, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, and Melissa Noriega, as well as community representatives, the Mayor’s staff and METRO’s staff for working together on this issue.” said Garcia.

METRO President & CEO George Greanias said the “all under option” will take longer to build, possibly two years longer, and the extra cost of $20-23 million does not cover a pedestrian tunnel. “Despite the hurdles ahead, this request is a good example of community partnerships. We look forward to working with the city in seeing this project to completion.” said Greanias.

Of the $20.6 million in financial assistance being offered by the city:

  • $10.0 million – CIP funds previously committed to this issue
  • $4.9 million – Postponement of the Fulton Paving and Drainage Project (Dist. H)
  • $3.2 million – Postponement of the Telephone Road Reconstruction (Dist. I)
  • $2.5 million – Harrisburg TIRZ funds

METRO’s original design for the crossing accommodated light-rail only. The city of Houston, after extensive dialog with the community, commissioned a study on the feasibility of constructing an underpass. The betterment will require collaboration with Houston Belt and Terminal (HBT) Railroad, and creation of a new and temporary terminus at Altic.  Offsetting the higher cost, however, is an added value to railroad operations – the new design, according to the city, will ease flooding impairments. In return for METRO’s support, the city of Houston has offered to make funds available in a timely fashion, as well as collaborate to seek more funds and support METRO in negotiations for necessary concessions from HBT. The matter will go before the full METRO Board of Directors, at its regular monthly meeting Thursday, July 28th.

See here and here for some background. This sounds like the better way to go, and I’m glad to see it happen. Swamplot has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

George Greanias, Metro’s president and chief executive officer, said the need for detailed design work means the underpass likely won’t be complete until 2016, two years after the scheduled completion date for the East End, North and Southeast lines. However, trains will run from downtown to the station nearest the underpass by 2014, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

To help pay Metro’s share of the cost, Greanias said the agency would look to Harris County as well as railroads that benefit from the grade separation. The East End line is not federally funded.


Council member Sue Lovell, chairwoman of the city’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee, said the decision to build the underpass represents the city’s and Metro’s shared response to a community request.

“Metro could have just built the overpass, but they decided to listen to the community,” said Lovell, who initially opposed the underpass. “They presented to the community that it would cost more, and the community overwhelmingly said they wanted to have the underpass.”

Also, she said, a bigger variety of businesses can be built along an underpass than in the shadow of a viaduct.

“The advantages to economic development in the long run for the neighborhoods more than make up what they may sacrifice right now in the CIP,” she said.

Marilu de la Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society and a member of the East End Chamber’s rail committee, said the underpass decision showed the community’s power.

“Finally we got everyone involved,” she said. “They started listening to us and they knew we were a force to be reckoned with.”

No question about that. There was a lot of opposition to the overpass in the community, and a lot of grumbling at that time about Metro ignoring the feedback they were getting. This change of direction says as much about Metro as it does about the power and persistence of the residents.

Sylvia and Mario

Last week, Robert Miller mentioned that there was talk that former County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia might challenge Sen. Mario Gallegos in the 2012 primary. PDiddie expanded on that, and the chatter eventually led to a denial from both politicians via their shared consultant, Dan McClung; Campos pooh-poohed the denial. So basically, believe what and who you want about this. If it’s going to happen, we’ll know soon enough.

What I know is that I’ve been redistricted out of SD06, so if it does come to pass, I won’t be forced to pick a side between two people I like. Sen. Gallegos has done a lot of good representing this district; he’s certainly voted as I would want him to most of the time. I have no doubt that Garcia would also do an excellent job if she were to be elected. Having said that, let me say this: Whether by his choice or not, if it is time for new blood in SD06, what I would prefer to see is some actual new blood. There are four young, talented, and (I hope) ambitious State Reps whose districts include parts of SD06: Jessica Farrar, Carol Alvarado, Ana Hernandez Luna, and Armando Walle. Farrar is now a senior member of the House – she was the Democratic Caucus Chair this past session and did a fine job under terrible circumstances – which is a good argument for her to stay put, but the others have no such constraint. If there’s going to be a change in SD06, this is where I’d go looking for it.

Again, I mean no disrespect at all to Sen. Gallegos, who as far as I know isn’t going anywhere, or Sylvia Garcia, who was an outstanding member of Commissioners Court and who I still think would make a great Harris County Tax Assessor. I just see this as a logical extension of the case for Joaquin Castro in CD35. I’ve yet to hear a single Democrat in Texas tell me lately that we’re doing just fine with what we’re doing now. Well, if change is what we want then a key aspect of that is to make way for the next generation of leaders. Sen. Mario Gallegos isn’t going to run statewide for anything, but Sen. Walle or Sen. Hernandez Luna or Sen. Alvarado might. Hell, if one of them were to succeed Sen. Gallegos in 2012, I’d start beating the drum for them as a statewide possibility in 2014. If we’re not thinking about this sort of thing, we’re setting ourselves up for failure in the future.

Nobody knows when Texas is going to turn blue. I think it’ll happen this decade, but beyond that it’s a straight up guess. There are a number of factors that will affect that, and one of them is the quality of the candidates we put on the ballot going forward. If there’s an opportunity to upgrade our bench, we need to take it. What exactly do we have to lose?

Those darned propositions

I have three things to say about this.

Houston voters can be forgiven if they feel a bit confused.

They voted down red-light cameras, but the cameras are on. They may have heard the mayor say that voting for a drainage fee would result in a typical $5 monthly bill that everyone should pay, but sample bills were much higher, and churches and schools got a pass.

Mayor Annise Parker’s critics lay the blame at her feet. It’s her mishandling of the twin propositions on last November’s ballot, they say, that has people doubting what they hear out of City Hall these days.

The mayor and her supporters counter that the mayor has spent much of this year trying to walk a fine line between honoring popular will and the rule of law.

Asked whether she still has voters’ trust through all of the fallout from the propositions, Parker said, “I hope so. That will, I guess, be demonstrated this November,” when she is up for re-election.

1. I continue to find it remarkable that the two biggest problem children for the Mayor were the two things that weren’t of her initiation. There are some things you just can’t control. For what it’s worth, I think Rebuild Houston will quiet down as an issue over time. The main points of contention, namely who pays and how much, are largely settled. All that’s left is to start collecting the fees and planning for the street and drainage repair. The red light camera issue won’t go away until the cameras themselves go away, either as the result of a settlement or the end of the contract in 2014.

2. The reason the Mayor is running hard for re-election is not because she’s worried about her 2011 opposition but about her potential 2013 opposition. She needs to clear the Lee Brown Line, wherever that may be.

3. It sure is easier to be a non-candidate for something than to be a candidate, isn’t it? Nobody’s ever going to ask Paul Bettencourt what his plan to mitigate flooding in Houston is, or why he doesn’t think we need one. He gets to sit on the sidelines and chat with reporters about how much more awesome he is than the Mayor because…well, I’m not exactly sure why reporters bother to call him, since he’s just some dude these days. If being a former county official who has an interest in city politics is the criteria, I’m sure Bob Eckels or Sylvia Garcia would be happy to discuss these matters, too. But they’re not unannounced, unofficial uncandidates for anything.

Rep. Beverly Woolley to retire

Robert Miller had the scoop, and Texas Politics has the details.

Rep. Beverly Woolley, a longtime Republican Party activist elevated to some of the most prestigious leadership positions in the Texas House, announced today – her 72nd birthday – that she would not seek re-election to represent her West Houston district, which straddles I-10 and stretches from Loop 610 nearly to Dairy Ashford Rd..

Woolley, who during her six terms in office served in the political powerful positions of Speaker Pro Tem and chair of the Calendars Committee, confessed that she found this year’s legislative session and special session arduous and exhausting.


At the end of the regular session, Woolley announced that she and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, planned to form a Women’s Caucus to mentor female legislators and to educate male lawmakers on issues important to women. She said she would follow up on the goal, working with Thompson and Reps. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston and Patricia Harless, R-Spring. “I’m not going away entirely,” she said.

I wish her well in that pursuit and in her retirement. Had she called it quits any time this decade, I’d have said that her successor would be determined in the next Republican primary. After this round of redistricting, that’s still very much the most likely outcome, but it’s not quite an ironclad guarantee, as her almost 70% Republican district was used to shore up a few of her neighbors, such as Sarah Davis. Here’s how her old district compares to her new district:

Dist McCain Obama Wainwright Houston =========================================== Old 65.4% 33.8% 66.2% 31.7% New 57.3% 41.9% 57.5% 40.1%

Not exactly purple, but not so far off that you can’t imagine a competitive race, especially for an open seat. Someone with a D next to their name needs to take a look at this one.

Dr. Peerwani and the Willingham case

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the newly appointed Chair of the Forensic Science Commission, gets profiled in the Trib. Most of the story is about the history of the Willingham case, which the Commission finally sort of dealt with last year.

With a smile and a friendly laugh, Dr. Nizam Peerwani offers coupons for free autopsies to visitors to his office.

Death and the science of it have dominated Peerwani’s 30-year career in the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. Now, Peerwani is taking on a very live controversy as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission: the continuing investigation into the arson science that led to the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

“His background and his temperament give him the unique ability to make sure the commission is focused on the science of forensics instead of the science of politics,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who helped created the nine-member commission in 2005.


In April, three years after it began its investigation, the commission published some of its findings. It made significant recommendations to improve future arson investigations, but did not decide whether the Willingham arson investigators were professionally negligent, which was its original charge.

Commissioners declined to rule on that until the Texas attorney general decides whether the panel has jurisdiction to investigate cases including Willingham’s that occurred before its creation in 2005. A ruling is expected by the end of this month.

Peerwani said he agreed with experts who testified before the board that the arson science used to convict Willingham was seriously flawed. But asked whether Willingham was guilty or innocent, he was less definitive. “There were other issues,” he said of what lead to Willingham’s conviction. “There were eyewitness accounts; there were hospital and doctor testimony given and investigative findings.”


Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, said he was heartened by Peerwani’s appointment. Early on in the Willingham investigation, Peerwani agreed with other experts that not only was the science faulty but that forensic examiners had an ethical duty to inform prosecutors of potential flaws in their work.

That, Scheck said, gets at the heart of the matter. When the Innocence Project asked the commission to review the Willingham case, the main purpose was to establish whether the science used was faulty. And if it was, to find other cases in which the same faulty science might have led to wrongful convictions.

If the attorney general rules that the commission cannot review older cases, he said, an unknown number of inmates convicted based on so-called junk science will have little opportunity to seek justice.

“It would be extremely troublesome,” Scheck said. “We’d be back to square one.”

Obviously, almost anyone would have been an improvement over professional hack/Perry toady John Bradley, but the reactions from folks like Scheck and Sen. Ellis are especially encouraging. This really is supposed to be about evaluating procedures to ensure that they’re rigorous and not a bunch of handed-down folk tales. If the FSC pursues that, and doesn’t get needlessly blocked from reviewing old cases, it will be a major step forward, if only to get us back to where we were always supposed to be.

Interview with CM Wanda Adams

CM Wanda Adams

CM Wanda Adams was first elected in District D in 2007, and is now running for her third term. She was employed by the City of Houston before being elected to Council, so it was interesting to get her perspective on how the budget cuts will affect city services. Her district was changed pretty significantly by redistricting, which is likely why she has drawn a challenger already. These were some of the things we discussed in this interview:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page.

More redistricting plaintiffs

Here’s an update to the scorecard, for those of you hoping to keep track of the players.

The Texas Democratic Party officially entered the court fight over Republican-dominated redistricting maps Wednesday.

The new claims by the state Democratic Party came a day after the NAACP and other leading African American groups joined three redistricting lawsuits that already have been filed in San Antonio federal court.

“Allowing these partisan redistricting plans to take effect would violate the voting rights of every Texas voter who is not a partisan Republican,” said Chad Dunn, general counsel of the Texas Democratic Party.

I can’t tell if that is related to this action by State Rep. Marc Veasey and State Sen. Wendy Davis or if they are separate.

Davis and Veasey filed a motion in federal court [Friday] morning aiming to intervene in the state’s effort to get four redistricting maps approved in time for the 2012 elections.

Texas is among the states that must still get pre-clearance of redistricting plans under the federal Voting Rights Act. Earlier this week, the Texas Attorney General’s office filed a “pre-clearance submission” in federal court requesting that a three-judge panel approve the state’s new redistricting maps.

Traditionally, state officials seek out the U.S. Justice Department for that clearance. Texas decided to officially file the request in federal court and “informally” submit the information to the Department of Justice, according to legal filings. Democrats have charged that the state’s Republican leadership is pursuing the court case because they know a Justice Department under the Obama administration would determine the maps are in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Davis and Veasey are hoping their legal action will allow them to argue against the Republican-approved maps in the federal case.

Their motion focuses largely on the congressional plan and specifically the way Senate District 10, currently represented by Davis, was redrawn in the new state senate map. In both cases, the Fort Worth Democrats argue that large minority communities are purposely drawn into districts where their voting strength would be effectively drowned out.

You can see their motion here, and some background information relating to SD10 that was provided by Sen. Davis’ staff is here. As we progress down the line and get updates on this lawsuit or that it will be increasingly difficult to remember which suit is which, and on what arguments and/or alternate maps they’re based. May as well just accept that now and get used to it. (According to this story, “Another redistricting lawsuit was transferred from federal court in Houston to San Antonio on Thursday.” Which lawsuit and which court are left as an exercise for the reader.)

Anyway. The full TDP statement on which the first story is based, plus a press release by Sen. Davis, are beneath the fold.


The non-filers

We are now more than a week beyond the deadline to file campaign finance reports for City of Houston elections. The following candidates for city office have not yet filed a campaign finance report for July:

Michael Williams, At Large #2

Griff Griffin, At Large #2

Joe Edmonds, At Large #5

Kenneth Perkins, District B

Randy Locke, District C

Edmonds sent out a press release announcing his intent to run in May. That’s the last I’ve heard from him. He has no website or Facebook page that I can find. If he’s since decided not to run, he wouldn’t be the first person to follow that path.

Edmonds is a first time candidate. Everyone else on that list has run for office before; Griff, Perkins, and Locke all ran for Council in 2009, while Williams is an incumbent HCC Trustee. Griff managed to file all three finance forms last time, while Locke filed his 30 day and 8 day reports (he may not have been officially in the race as of July 15, 2009), and Perkins never filed anything. At this point, I doubt any of them will file anything for July. I don’t know why this is – with the possible exception of Edmonds, it’s not because they have not engaged in any campaign activity. I’m not a stickler for certain things in candidates. You don’t have to live in the district (unless the law requires it), and you don’t have to have a spotless voting record for me to consider your candidacy. I’ll break a tie against you if it comes down to that, but I won’t disqualify you. But I have to say, anyone who wants to have some say in the city’s finances had better damn well be able to explain why they were unable or unwilling to file this form on time. I really don’t think that’s asking for much.

Better times are coming (we hope)

So says City Controller Ronald Green in the Chron’s op-ed pages.

Officially, the U.S. recession has ended. We have certainly rounded the corner here in Houston. And while there is a loss here of public sector jobs, the private sector in Houston is hiring again – about 23,000 new jobs this year, significant but not near the typical 65,000 new jobs created annually pre-recession.

But we’re getting back.

And the city of Houston is getting back. I sense a new way of doing business here at the city, with employees dedicated to their jobs and serving the citizens, employees more cognizant than ever of the importance of efficiency in the workplace. Employees willing to pay a larger part of their benefit deductibles, willing to renegotiate pensions and willing to forgo raises.

That works as a short term fix for the city’s bottom line, but it’s not exactly good for the employees’ long term financial health. Green doesn’t give any figures for the 2012 budget year, perhaps because too much is in flux right now (*cough* *cough* debt ceiling *cough* *cough*), perhaps because they might contradict his sunny thesis. I hope like hell he’s right – I hope that in a few months we’ll be talking about what services we can restore instead of what else we can cut, but I’m going to wait to see some numbers before I get too optimistic.

Weekend link dump for July 24

Today, a large number of Family Court judges in New York are volunteering their time to perform the first legal same-sex weddings in the state. If that doesn’t renew your faith in our judicial system, I don’t know what would.

You New Yorkers also still have time to get your nekkid on, if you’re into that sort of thing. Bring your own bicycle.

Let Julia be a cheerleader. I mean, come on.

Here’s another way to tell if your relationship is in trouble.

No, you don’t have to drink eight cups of water every day.

The echo chambers of tomorrow.

When Larry Flynt thinks you’ve gone too far…

An article on why digitally organizing one’s friends is hard to do is a great thing to read shortly after one has joined Google+.

The problem with sex offender registries, and the struggle to fix them.

I’ve no doubt that this is exactly what dealing with Congressional Republicans is like.

We didn’t win the World Cup, but we did win the Twitter wars. That’s got to be worth something.

A D&D alignment chart for the debt ceiling battle. If you don’t already know what that means, don’t bother clicking. You won’t get it.

Elizabeth Warren for Senate? I’m in.

The climate and environmental impact of the food you eat. And a reminder that a carbon tax is easily the best way of dealing with it.

Perhaps digital textbook rental could save the state of Texas some money.

Ronald Reagan was way too liberal for today’s GOP.

The Murdoch saga, distilled to its essence.

We should all support the repeal of DOMA.

Making birth control more widely available would be excellent public policy, and a long-run cost saver.

Starting community college this fall? Here’s some good advice for how to get the most out of it.

Pluto now has four moons, but it’s still not considered to be a planet. Go figure.

If Grover Norquist is flip flopping, that’s okay by me. But it’s apparently not the case.

Redistricting reform may have its merits, but it’s no panacea.

Let Richard Cordray speak.

The personal finance metaphor doesn’t work and isn’t helpful.

Any story that includes the phrase “a horde of gay barbarians” is worth reading, don’t you think?

RIP, the guy who designed the wheel on “Wheel of Fortune”.

Nobody filibusters me!

Not sure if this is meant to poke fun at “Lost” fans or the producers, but either way it’s pretty funny.

What Roy says about Amy Winehouse.

Party Like A Rock Star 2011

Looking for something to do this Saturday? Here’s an idea:

I am sadly unable to make it this year, but I can attest from past experience that it’s a fine event, and this is definitely now-more-than-ever time. So click the picture, buy a ticket, and have fun. You know you want to.