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August, 2011:

Aggies officially outta here

Smell ya later, Big XII X IX.

Texas A&M is down to a final step in its methodical march to the Southeastern Conference. The Aggies on Wednesday gave the Big 12 official notification that they’re withdrawing from the 10-member league.

The SEC is expected to announce A&M’s entry as its 13th member in the coming days, putting the wraps on a whirlwind month in Aggieland. A&M will end a 16-year run in the Big 12 next summer, and intends to play football, volleyball and soccer in the SEC starting in the summer of 2012.

The Trib has the full press release. I don’t know if this will be good, bad, or indifferent for A&M, and to a large extent I don’t really care. It’s just business. If someone were to visit from the year 2021 and tell me that there’s no such thing as conferences any more, they were all replaced by something that was perceived to be more lucrative, I’d have no trouble believing it. The world already isn’t the same as it once was, we’re just waiting for it to reach a point of temporary equilibrium before it goes all helter skelter again. Burka has more.

Interview with Bryan Smart

Bryan Smart

District B candidate Bryan Smart is, at age 24, the youngest candidate I’ve interviewed since I started doing this regularly in 2006. Smart is a graduate of Howard University, where he was the Executive President of the Howard University Student Association and served on the Budget Advisory Committee, which helped bring the university out of a deficit. He has also worked for the Defense Department and at Kashmere Senior High School as an Apollo 20 Fellow. Here’s the 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.

On targeting public pension plans

I have three things to say about this.

Texas could be gearing up for its own Wisconsin-style grudge match over public employee benefits.

A group of high-powered Houston business leaders is starting a statewide campaign to overhaul retirement for future teachers, firefighters, police officers, judges and other state and local government workers.

“I think the state needs to get the hell out of this (pension) business completely,” said lawyer Bill King, who is forming Texans for Public Pension Reform with others from the Greater Houston Partnership, an über-chamber of commerce with business members representing $1.5 trillion in assets.

Taxpayers bear too much risk on behalf of public employees by providing them a guaranteed retirement that most private sector workers don’t get, King said.

But advocates of the public pension system say there are ways to eliminate or reduce risk without doing away with the program.

“They don’t have to destroy a system that works,” said Keith Brainard, research director of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

He said government pensions provide retirement security for millions of Texans in a cost-effective manner for taxpayers. Research by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College shows that professionally managed pension funds produce better investment returns than 401(k)s and cost less to administer.

King said the campaign is in its infancy, and its specific goals are still being developed. It’s not clear how the campaign will get involved in next year’s elections or the 2013 legislative session, but King said he is confident the campaign will soon make pensions an issue for lawmakers.

King said he would support a constitutional amendment eliminating public pensions in the state and moving all government employees to retirement accounts akin to 401(k)s. Legislators would have to approve such an amendment on the ballot when they convene in 2013.


King, the son of a union pipefitter, said he was disappointed with the anti-worker tenor of the Wisconsin battle over collective bargaining rights. This campaign, he added, is not intended to bully public employees.

Well, that’s nice to hear, and I don’t have any particular reason to doubt King’s sincerity on this, but let’s be honest: It’s highly likely that if this campaign gains any traction, it will pick up support from people who will be happy to demonize and bully public employees. To think that won’t happen is naive. It’s also the case that no matter how good King believes his own intentions are, once the employees whose pensions are threatened by this become engaged, they’re likely to play rough, too. It will be easy to blame them for any shift in rhetoric that King’s campaign will feel the need to make down the line.

Both the Employee Retirement System of Texas and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas have more than 80 cents for every dollar needed to pay their long-term obligations, a level considered to be a benchmark of a strong fund. The state funds also have tight restrictions on contributions and benefits.

There are about 1,800 public retirement systems in Texas, the vast majority of which are small cities and counties that pool their resources for investment purposes. The big cities, however, have mostly set up shop on their own and have separate plans for police, firefighters and other municipal workers.

Given the large number of plans in Texas, Brainard said, the state “has been striking in the relative absence of abuse and pension problems.”

Where there have been problems, Brainard said, they have been in the big-city pensions. Those plans have fewer constraints on increasing benefits than do the state systems.

The sentiment that pensions are unsustainable gained traction across the country after the 2008 financial market collapse sank the value of funds everywhere. State and local governments failed to cover $660 billion of their $2.94 trillion in pension liabilities last year, according to the Pew Center on the States.

There’s nothing in this story to indicate how big a problem King is talking about. We know Houston has some pension issues, and the story gets into that, but its problems mostly stem from a change to pension benefits that was made a few years ago. If the state or other cities have similar issues, you wouldn’t know it from this story. How much money are we talking about, and how much of it is attributable to the economic downturn? If you’re going to claim there’s a crisis, then show me some numbers.

By the way, on the matter of Houston’s pension problems, one of the issues the city faces is that its options for taking action to deal with it are constrained by state laws. If King and the Greater Houston Partnership have done anything to help persuade the Legislature to give Houston more tools for taking care of this, I am not aware of it and the story does not discuss it.

The problem is that states can’t save money anytime soon by doing away with pensions.

In fact, it costs more in the midterm because taxpayers must contribute more to cover the benefits accrued by retirees and current workers because new workers would no longer be chipping in to the pension, [Stephen Fehr, a researcher with the Pew Center on the States] said.

When a Texas Senate committee looked in 2008 at a similar pension conversion, the committee found no compelling reason to do so.

The state’s Pension Review Board at the time estimated the combined contribution from the state and employees to the Employees Retirement System of Texas would have to rise from around 17 percent of payroll to as much as 30 percent if the pension were closed to new people.

In 30 years, the contribution rate would climb beyond 80 percent .

Nevertheless, King argues that finally wiping clean the public pension liabilities is worth the higher costs now.

“It will require sacrifices in city services and higher taxes than would otherwise be necessary,” King wrote. “But at least the number will be finite, unlike in our current predicament.”

Again, if you believe in this environment that there would be any kind of tax increase to help cover the cost of shifting to a 401(k) plan, you are naive in the extreme. The cost would be covered by general revenue, which would either mean further cuts to things like public education, or more budgetary flimflam like what we saw this session with deliberately underfunding Medicaid. That’s not acceptable, especially for a problem whose scope is not clear, but it’s what we’ll get for as long as we have a Lege that resembles the current one. When we get these mostly Republican-created problems that are affecting us right now under control – that is to say, when we get a different Legislature, one that really is fiscally responsible – then maybe we can talk about this. Texans for Public Pension Reform, you let me know when you’re willing to help with that effort. EoW has more.

Injunction granted against sonogram law

Very good news.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks issued a preliminary injunction after finding that portions of the sonogram law, set to take effect Sept. 1, were unconstitutionally vague and violated the First Amendment by improperly requiring doctors and patients to engage in government-mandated speech.

“The act compels physicians to advance an ideological agenda with which they may not agree, regardless of any medical necessity, and irrespective of whether the pregnant women wish to listen,” Sparks wrote.

Attorney General Greg Abbott immediately filed notice that he intends to appeal the ruling.

The ruling is here, and I recommend you take the time to read it; skip over the part about class action certification, which as Burka says is tedious, and just got to the good stuff that follows. Judge Sparks denied most of the plaintiff’s claims about vagueness of the law, but the real meat is in the First Amendment discussion at the end. And of course, this being Judge Sparks, there’s a bit of quality snark in there, as he observes in a footnote: “It is ironic that many of the same people who zealously defend the state’s righteous duty to become intimately involved in a woman’s decision to get an abortion are also positively scandalized at the government’s gross overreaching in the area of health care.” Not to mention the freakout over potential junk-touching by TSA. I for one will not be surprised to see this one on SCOTUS’ docket some day. Trail Blazers and Hair Balls have more, and a statement from the Center for Reproductive Rights, which helped represent the plaintiffs in this case, is here.

UPDATE: The Observer reminds us that while this ruling is good news, there’s a whole lot of bad about to come down on women and women’s health services, especially Planned Parenthood.

More angst over May elections

The Star Telegram adds to the litany of woe surrounding the upcoming changes to the state’s elections calendar.

Over three months, some voters would face a primary, followed by city and school elections, followed by primary runoffs, followed by city and school runoffs. And then, of course, the statewide and national general election next November.

“We have overlapping election cycles, and I am very concerned that voters are going to be confused,” Tarrant County Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Klick said. “With that confusion, it may impact turnout.”

“There’s going to be a lot of confusion,” agreed Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Maxwell. “You’ve got three elections that voters are showing up for in the space of about eight weeks.”


In Tarrant County, cities including Arlington, Haltom City and Keller and school districts including Fort Worth typically hold May elections in even-numbered years. Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn originally told those entities that he didn’t have enough voting equipment to handle both the nonpartisan elections and the primary runoffs in May.

Almost immediately, officials with several local entities made clear that they didn’t like their options. Moving elections to November would mean placing nonpartisan and partisan races on the same ballot, a shift that some worry may negatively affect the tone of the nonpartisan races.

Holding elections only in May of odd-numbered years, as cities including Fort Worth do, also poses problems, especially for entities that stagger their council terms so that only some seats are on the ballot each year.

Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes said that he has heard from almost all the cities in his Northeast Tarrant precinct and that they are against moving their election dates.

“I see some real problems with forcing our government entities to change their elections,” Fickes said at a recent meeting.

I’m not exactly sure what the problems are with holding elections only in May of odd-numbered years. One presumes they would have existed before now but were somehow coped with; the point is that the issue of primary runoffs being too close to them would not arise. Frankly, for any affected city that has two or four year municipal terms, I’d say that’s the best solution if moving those elections to November is undesirable. Cities whose Council terms are three years, like Austin, remain screwed, but you can’t have everything.

For what it’s worth, as recently as the 2003-2004 election cycle, the uniform election calendar was much busier than it is now. There were uniform election dates in January and September – the constitutional amendment election of 2003 was held in September instead of November because the Republicans that were pushing the tort “reform” amendment on that year’s ballot didn’t want it to take place at the same time as a high-turnout city of Houston Mayoral election – with special elections and runoffs occurring in December, February and April. Go see the SOS Election Results page and look at all of the elections that took place between the 2002 general and the 2004 primaries. The 2005 Lege cut all this back to the May/November with March primaries calendar we know now; at the time people fretted about how long it could take to fill legislative vacancies and stuffing too many elections onto the May and November ballots. The point I’m making is that we adjusted to that change, and we’ll eventually adjust to this one. It’ll be more painful (and expensive) some places than others, but we’ll figure it out.

Interview with Phillip Paul Bryant

Phillip Paul Bryant

Next up in District B is Philip Paul Bryant, whose bio lists him as a Community Organizer, Television Talk show Host, and Businessman, among other things. Bryant is the son of Bishop Prince Earl Williams Bryant, Sr., who is the pastor of the Island of Hope Church of God in Christ, and has served in his father’s ministries. Here’s what we discussed:

Download the MP3 file

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

Same old story: City wins, Hotze loses

Yes, they’re still litigating 2004 ballot propositions around here.

The Texas Supreme Court has dismissed a six-year-old case against the City of Houston seeking to limit the city government’s annual income.

Carroll Robinson, Bruce Hotze and Jeffrey Daily sought to make Proposition 2, passed by voters in 2004, the law of the city. It capped revenue from all sources. The city never implemented it because on the same ballot a city-sponsored revenue cap, Proposition 1, passed with more votes than Proposition 2 received.

Proposition 1 only limits revenues raised for the general fund, which pays police officers, firefighters, garbage collectors, and the like. Proposition 2 includes a cap on so-called “enterprise” revenues — money made at the airport, convention center and through water bills, for example.

If Proposition 2 ruled the day, the city could be forced to shrink the general fund to stay under the cap if, for example, a lot more people used the airport and the city collected resulting fees. Or, if people used a lot more water during, say, a long drought, and a lot more water bill money poured into city coffers.

No, I didn’t realize there were still any active cases relating to this. Looking in my archives, the last rulings I see were from over three years ago. You might think this would be the end of it, but if you did you would be wrong, as the losers are saying that the Supremes didn’t rule on the merits of the case. So maybe by the year 2018 we’ll have some finality on this.

How long will we talk about Latino turnout before someone does something about it?

Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before.

On Saturday, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project announced its 2012 goal of raising Latino voting in Texas to 2 million from the 1.7 million who voted in the last presidential election, according to its own polling.

Like other groups, SVREP sets up at community events to engage nonvoters. After registering new ones, it puts them in a phone database.

“Our niche has always been to contact new voters and help that voter become a high-propensity voter,” SVREP Vice President Lydia Camarillo said.

“We believe that there will be 300,000 new voters compared to ’08, which would be the highest increase in Texas history,” she said.

Altogether, Latinos 18 and over represent a potential voting bloc of 6.1 million in Texas that has still to exercise its power.

Political science Professor Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University thinks SVREP’s goal is unrealistic.

“Only 1.2 million Latinos cast votes in the 2008 presidential election in Texas. Two million votes cast in 2012 is a very ambitious target, more likely to inspire voter registration workers than actually to be met,” he said.


“But the most curious approach to voter registration has not been by the Republicans,” Jillson said. It’s been the Democratic Party, which “has never taken voter registration as seriously as it needs to.”

He said Democrats ought to focus on naturalization first.

“Thirty percent of Hispanics are noncitizens, but many of them are eligible to become citizens,” he said.

Jillson also accuses some Democrats of being comfortable with current turnout and not being particularly interested in increasing the number of non-Anglo Democratic voters.

“It’s an important, but delicate issue.” he said.

“The Democrats have not won a statewide race since 1994,” Gambitta added in email comments. “They will not carry this state in the near future unless they increase the size of the voting population to include those who rarely vote.”

But what really irks him is the lackluster attention the Democrat Party gives “to the large, untapped, eligible youth vote.”

“It’s amazing, simply amazing, in fact, it’s tragic,” [UTSA’s Richard] Gambitta said, “especially when the debt is being laid on the heads of the young as the members of both parties kick the can down the road on the huge deficits, and simultaneously cut education.”

I don’t disagree with any of this, but as I’ve said before, the issue that never seems to get discussed whenever this topic comes up is M-O-N-E-Y. All these things cost money, lots of money. The TDP is an easy scapegoat, but they don’t have any money. Most of the county parties don’t have much money, either. I’m sure we could have a lively discussion about whose fault all of that is, but it’s not going to help with the matter at hand. Where is the money going to come from to address these issues, and who is going to be in charge of it to resolve them? That’s what I’d like to know. Frankly, I don’t see how any of this gets anywhere in the absence of a Presidential campaign, which is why I keep hoping that Team Obama decides to give a challenge to Rick Perry here in his back yard. If we’re starting out with 2008 as the baseline for 2012, and we remember that Rick Perry is less popular than you might think here, it makes sense to me. But it’s not up to me, so all we can do is keep talking. Campos has more.

We do have casino gambling in Texas

With all the talk about slot machines at horse racing tracks and legalized casinos, it’s easy to forget that there already is one legal casino in Texas.

As the busloads of seniors and other low rollers pulled in from San Antonio for a day of gaming at the Lucky Eagle Casino, demolition crews were busy tearing down an adjacent concrete dome.

If all goes well, by mid-2013, a new 250-room hotel and expanded casino will take the place of the ill-conceived dome built for concerts and boxing matches by an earlier tribal administration.

The scene neatly captures the dramatic changes of the past decade for the Kickapoo Indians, who still offer the state’s only casino gambling on their small reservation by the Rio Grande.

Peace and prosperity have replaced the upheaval, legal battles and insolvency that not long ago bedeviled the Kickapoo, allowing them to launch an ambitious development project that includes improved gaming facilities.

“The tribe is in extremely good health economically. We’re doing a $90 million improvement project, of which we’ll borrow about $50 million, with the rest coming from the tribe,” said tribal administrator Don Spaulding.


The money machine that makes it all possible, of course, is the glittering casino that never closes. Restricted to what is known as Class II gambling, one notch below Las Vegas-style gaming, the casino offers machine games, poker and bingo, and it caters to clients from San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley.

The tribe divulges little financial information, but did report that last year its casino had more than 1.1 million visitors and paid out more than $30 million in winnings.

“On July 23, we had a million-dollar winner. I think that was the biggest prize the casino has ever had,” said casino manager Robin Miller.

The facility will soon hold 2,500 gaming machines, up from 1,500 when Miller arrived two years ago.

With the planned improvements, she said, the Lucky Eagle will be more competitive with the big casinos in Oklahoma and Louisiana. And when the hotel opens, players will be able to make it more than a day trip.

I’m curious what, if anything, is the state’s take from this. If nothing else, the numbers from this casino, before and after expansion, will provide some objective basis for evaluating what a Texas with more legal gambling might look like.

Interview with Jerry Davis

Jerry Davis

For this week, I have five interviews with candidates from District B, which like District C is open this year. First up is Jerry Davis, founder of the nonprofit organization Making It Better and co-owner along with his brothers of the restaurants the Breakfast Klub and The Reggae Hut. Davis also manages an investment company and has a master’s degree in education administration. 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.

At long last, HCC campaign finance statements

As you know, I had sent an Open Records request to the HCC General Counsel to get copies of July campaign finance reports for all HCC Trustees and candidates. I sent that in on August 10, and the reply I got said I would have a reply within 10 business days. Sure enough, exactly two weeks later on the 24th, I got another email saying they were ready. They were collectively too big to email, so I had three choices to get them. From the email I was sent:

1) I can place them all on a CD at a cost of $1, and they will be available for pick up this afternoon. If you would like the information mailed to you, please see the instructions below.

2) You may bring a jump drive to 3100 Main St., 12th floor, Houston, TX 77002, and I will be happy to place them on your drive free of charge.

3) I can print all the documents out at .10 cents a page. There is approximately 100 to 200 pages regarding this request, and they would be available for pick up this afternoon.

The instructions noted that I would have to pay by check, credit card, or debit card, as they didn’t take cash any more. I was not about to pay money for something that should be freely available, and as it happened I had some business to take care of in the vicinity of 3100 Main, so I brought my thumb drive and got my files. Here they are, for your perusal:

Bruce Austin

Carroll Robinson

Christopher Oliver

Eva Loredo

Mary Ann Perez

Michael Williams

Neeta Sane

Richard Schechter

Sandie Mullins

Yolanda Navarro Flores

Some of these files are as big as 200 MB, so Google Docs may not give you a preview of them – you’ll have to download them and view in Acrobat. Sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

By the way, according to the grapevine Michael Williams is officially no longer a candidate for City Council. I’ve heard that from multiple sources now. One possible reason for this is in his finance report, which says he raised $58K but spent $54K and has only $4K on hand. By my count, $37,545 went to Bethel Nathan Communications for “Consulting”, $5,500 went to Portia Matthews for “Campaign services”, and $5,050 went to radio ads on KCOH. That’s a lot of money to have spent on a campaign that ultimately went nowhere. The grapevine also says that Andrew Burks will switch from District D to At Large #2. I’ll have to check, but having Burks and Griff Griffin in the same race may violate one of the laws of thermodynamics. Be prepared to brace yourselves just in case.

There’s more than one way to do it

Really interesting story about the different approaches being taken by Austin and San Antonio to draw clean energy jobs to their towns. While Austin has taken the traditional route of offering various types of incentives to help create a market for clean energy there, San Antonio has leveraged its ownership of its utility company to great effect.

While Austin has long worked to create a market to attract clean energy companies, San Antonio’s leadership is now using CPS Energy’s purchasing power to demand jobs as a condition of doing business with the utility.

If it can become a clean energy hub, the city might be able to lure hundreds — if not thousands — of new jobs, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro says.

“San Antonio can be for the new energy economy what Silicon Valley is to software and what Boston is to biotech,” Castro said in June as he announced that five energy-related companies plan to relocate a couple of hundred jobs to San Antonio.

Whether hype or hope, San Antonio’s muscle-flexing has lit a debate among Austin’s clean tech advocates about whether Austin Energy is in danger of losing its leadership role in clean technology and whether the city-owned utility could do more to attract jobs.

When it comes to leveraging a utility into a job creator, “San Antonio is capturing the value of a community owning an electric utility,” said Mike Sloan, a renewable energy consultant and founder of the advocacy group Solar Austin. “In Austin, we’ve talked about it, but we haven’t really done it.”


CPS Energy has 717,000 electricity customers, second only to Los Angeles. Austin Energy, by comparison, has 411,000 customers.

Accessing San Antonio’s large customer base whets the appetites of companies.

In June, Castro announced five companies agreeing to relocate their headquarters or parts of their operations to San Antonio. They range from a solar developer to a truck assembly firm to a lighting company.

Jack Roberts is the CEO of Consert Inc., a developer of software that allows homeowners to manage their energy conservation through their home computers. Customers save money, and utilities have to build fewer generators.

Roberts is moving his Raleigh, N.C.-based company to San Antonio with 50 jobs by the beginning of next year and said he expects to hire hundreds more as it expands.

He came without tax breaks or cash incentives.

“People want to know what the city, county and the state gave us. Zero,” Roberts said. “It’s all about a business opportunity and a fabulous chance to demonstrate what we can do.”

Remember, CPS is a publicly-owned utility, meaning that the San Antonio market (Austin, too) was not deregulated like much of the rest of the state. Not that any of this will stop Rick Perry from claiming the credit for the jobs that are being created as a result of this, of course. There’s a clear parallel here to the longtime push to allow Medicare to use its bulk purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices from pharmaceutical companies. Fortunately for the people of San Antonio, there was nothing stopping them from taking this approach. Austin’s more traditional approach has been very successful for them as well, and as the story notes there are limitations to what San Antonio can do. The point is that they have a valuable asset in their public utility, and they’re using it for all they can. It’s going to be very interesting to watch how this all plays out.

Supremes uphold strip club tax

In a ruling that reverses the 3rd Court of Appeals, the State Supreme Court has unanimously held that the so-called “pole tax” is constitutional.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that a $5-per-customer fee on strip clubs that serve alcohol doesn’t violate free speech rights.


“We think a $5 fee poses no greater burden on nude dancing,” Justice Nathan Hecht wrote for the court. “The fee in this case is clearly directed, not at expression in nude dancing, but at the secondary effects of nude dancing when alcohol is being consumed.”

He further added that businesses could avoid the fee altogether by simply not allowing consumption of alcohol.

Here’s a copy of the ruling, via the Trib, which had previously noted that many clubs had not been paying the tax along the way as they had been required to do pending final disposition of the lawsuit; they’ll be getting a collection notice from the Comptroller soon. Just to give you an idea of how quickly our judicial system works, remember that the original legislation passed in the 2007 legislative session. In March of 2008 a Travis County district court judge ruled the tax unconstitutional. That ruling was appealed to the 3rd Court, which heard arguments in February of 2009, and upheld the lower court in June, a mere four months later. That ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court within a week, and was heard by the Supremes in March of 2010. Nearly a year and a half later, we finally have their ruling. You just can’t rush these things. Hair Balls has more.

Weekend link dump for August 28

Homework? Already? Actually, not till next week for us. But it’s out there, waiting…

“Groupon’s fundamental problem is that it has not yet discovered a viable business model.”

The haters’ guide to the college football Top 25. Not for the easily offended, in case the title wasn’t enough of a clue for you.

We’re likely to see more Michelle Bachmanns in the future.

Remember, this guy wants to lecture you about fiscal responsibility.

PETA is getting into the naughty movie business. That was probably inevitable, all things considered. Here are a few suggested titles for their first releases.

Our wedding pictures were different.

“In brief, my theory is this: Michelle Bachmann is traveling backwards through time.”

How true to the characters’ histories will the planned “Sex and the City” prequel be?

How many houses do you think Mitt Romney has? Do you think he knows the answer to that?

The Muschamp Stare. I wonder what he’d look like with Michelle Bachmann eyes?

“These are their stories.” All 456 of them, on 104 DVDs.

One hopes that people who interview The Bloggess have some idea what they’re getting into.

Chewbacca with a monocle for the win.

Happy 350th birthday to my home town, Staten Island.

Even Rick Perry thinks his book is an embarrassing load of tripe.

Michelle Rhee really needs to answer questions about the cheating allegations at schools she oversaw.

Giving “Don’t Mess With Texas” a whole new meaning.

“The market in physical gold is tiny, and largely comprised of nutcases.” And now Venezuelan strongmen, who are also nutcases.

We should use the housing market for stimulus.

Why do so many Republicans want to tax poor people so much?

Seventy years after Lou Gehrig’s death, there’s hope for a cure of the disease that killed him.

How the MDA Telethon without Jerry Lewis should happen.

We eat a lot of Greek yogurt at our house, and by “we” I mean “Audrey”.

Some things the Fed could be doing to make the economy suck less.

There’s no snark like judicial snark.

Why I prefer pilates to yoga: I can’t touch my toes, but I can do calculus.

Despite what some people would have you believe, shrinking government does not lead to growing the economy.

Inevitable school finance lawsuit update

Duly noted.

Superintendents from several low and medium-wealth school districts appear ready to sue the state over its school finance system as early as October. Wayne Pierce, executive director the Equity Center – a group representing 690 districts – said Wednesday that superintendents and other local leaders decided at a meeting in Austin they would seek approval to join a lawsuit challenging the finance system this fall. Legislative leaders have been expecting a suit, particularly after lawmakers slashed funding for schools by $2 billion a year in their regular session this year.

“A good number of those attending the meeting were ready to go back and present it to their school boards, to see if there is support for joining the lawsuit,” Pierce said. “We do believe a legal challenge is imminent and we’re beginning to put things together in preparation for a lawsuit.” Among the problems with the funding system that will be raised in the suit, he said, are the disparities that allow some districts to receive several thousand dollars more per student each year than other districts – a clear violation of the Texas Constitution.

It has always taken a court order for the Lege to do something about school finance. The only question is whether the next court order will get them to do something good. Electing some better legislators in the meantime would be a wise idea.

Let’s share that toll road revenue

Have you ever taken the toll road connector from the Hardy Toll Road to IAH? I have, many times. Being able to bypass the traffic on Beltway 8 and JFK Boulevard makes it worthwhile for me to take the Hardy instead of I-45. Turns out that the city of Houston paid for part of the construction of this connector, but due to a weird quirk in the contract with the Harris County Toll Road Authority it’s not collecting any revenue for it. The city would like to renegotiate that deal.

In a recent letter to county toll toad officials, Houston Airport System director Mario Diaz pointed to the 1997 deal spelling out how the two governments would construct, maintain and collect tolls on the road.

The agreement, in what officials called a “puzzling” clause, does not give the city access to any of the revenues unless it builds its own toll plaza, Assistant County Attorney Nick Turner said. The county would have to tear down its existing toll plaza.

“It just doesn’t seem to reflect sanity,” said Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key.

In his letter, Diaz said the city has no plans to build such a plaza, but he noted that the city contributed 43 percent of the road’s $31.7 million construction cost and maintains a roughly 1.3-mile stretch of the road on airport property.

Tolls should be shared “in the same manner and ratio that construction costs were shared and we continue to share in maintenance responsibilities,” Diaz wrote.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved Key’s request to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal with the city.

“This is an outdated agreement,” Key said. “None of us really understand the mindset of the people that were involved in this 14, probably 15 years ago, in terms of setting it up. It ought to be amended to reflect today’s reality.”

One would think that a few of the folks who negotiated that deal are still with us, so it might be worthwhile to track them down and ask them. Not that it really matters that much today – this is clearly a silly arrangement, and it doesn’t make sense for anyone to have the city tear down an existing toll booth to build its own, so working this out ought to be easy enough. At least, if everyone involved is a grownup about it, it ought to be easy.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he does not support sharing the airport connector’s tolls with the city, saying it seems clear the city is not entitled to the revenues unless it constructs a toll plaza.

“I would hope that the city of Houston has enough common sense not to go out and tear down perfectly good tool booths to build their own so they can collect money,” Radack said. “I believe everybody should shake hands and leave things the way it is.”

Yes, in case you needed a reminder, you should never use the words “Steve Radack” and “grownups” in the same sentence. It’s always nice to know that some things never change.

Trader Joe’s to San Antonio, too

We have a full scale invasion on our hands.

An official for Trader Joe’s confirmed [last] Wednesday that the company is looking to expand into San Antonio. Nothing definitive has been inked, and the official, who did not want to be named, didn’t comment further and didn’t volunteer a timeline or possible sites for the anticipated store.


Earlier this year, Trader Joe’s, which has about 350 stores in nearly 30 states, announced that it was looking to venture into Texas, naming Dallas and Houston as definite cities. The company still hasn’t closed on any sites in those cities, but it’s expected that the Dallas area will get the first store, the Trader Joe’s official said.

It wasn’t clear exactly how many stores Trader Joe’s is looking to open in Texas. On the company’s website, no locations in Texas are listed under stores that will be opening soon.

The rumored location in San Antonio is Quarry Village, which those of us of a certain age remember as being nothing more than an old abandoned rock quarry when we were in college. Not that this makes us old, mind you. We heard about Trader Joe’s coming to Houston in May, and a couple of weeks ago the rumors started flying that they were looking at the Alabama Theater as a possible site. Apparently, there’s no new information on that front yet.

Hacking cars

You can add this to the list of things you didn’t know you needed to worry about.

Computer hackers can force some cars to unlock their doors and start their engines without a key by sending specially crafted messages to a car’s anti-theft system. They can also snoop at where you’ve been by tapping the car’s GPS system.

That is possible because car alarms, GPS systems and other devices are increasingly connected to cellular telephone networks and thus can receive commands through text messaging. That capability allows owners to change settings on devices remotely, but it also gives hackers a way in.

Researchers from iSEC Partners recently demonstrated such an attack on a Subaru Outback equipped with a vulnerable alarm system, which wasn’t identified. With a laptop perched on the hood, they sent the Subaru’s alarm system commands to unlock the doors and start the engine.

Sounds scary! But PC World puts it into context.

As the AP article goes on to explain, hackers need a specific phone number to break into an in-car security system. To get that number, they must run a certain kind of network administration program, which can probe for vulnerable security devices by make and model. Then, the thief must get close to the target vehicle and run a hacking tool to see if that car is using a vulnerable security system.

After all that effort, the car’s steering wheel may still be mechanically locked, preventing the hacker from driving away after breaking in. If someone really wants to steal a car, there are plenty of other methods that sound a lot easier. Besides, Bailey and Solnik are already working with the maker of the security system they hacked to plug the holes.

Keep in mind that this high-tech car hack is just a proof of concept, and it’s not the first. In March, researchers described using a Trojan horse on an audio CD to break a car’s defenses. To my knowledge, no car theft epidemic has resulted from either of these methods.

So don’t sweat it too much for now. Two things to add. One, not to get all tinfoil hatty on you, but if this capability exists, it’s the government that’s most likely to figure out how best to capitalize on it. Not because they want to steal your car, but because your car’s GPS can be hacked in similar fashion, and that information could be of interest to them. And two, since the story also mentioned the possibility of hackers messing with a car’s computer-controlled systems, such as the brakes, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes a key plot element in a mystery or thriller novel. As a fan of that genre, I like to keep abreast of the coming attractions.

Saturday video break: OK Go + Muppets = awesome

Some things were just meant to happen:

Be sure to watch the “behind the scenes” video as well:

Thanks to Popdose for the embeds.

Harris County property appraisals dip a little

This is what counts as good news these days.

The appraised value of property countywide has declined slightly, according to numbers released Thursday, but not nearly on the scale of last year’s 3 percent plunge that translated into tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts at the area’s largest local government agencies.

The Harris County Appraisal District certified the value of the county’s appraisal rolls at $271 billion, three-tenths of a percent lower than in 2010.

“It’s not good news, but it’s not bad news either,” said Jim Robinson, chief appraiser for HCAD.

The value is close enough to 2010’s level that local school boards and city councils can send out the same tax bills as last year without raising property tax rates and without facing the kinds of choices they did in passing budgets this year – choices like how many teachers to lay off, how many pools to close and how many mentally ill people won’t get counseling.

The decline in value within the boundaries of Houston Independent School District was three-tenths of 1 percent. It was a tenth of 1 percent in the Harris County portion of the city of Houston.

The reason why this is good news is that Houston had made its initial budget projections based on a 1.5% decline in appraised values. The actual decline, which is listed as 0.04% later in the article, is much less than that, so whatever budget shortfall the city may have been planning for is now less than they originally thought it would be. We’re not out of the hole yet, but we’re getting there.

Lawsuit filed to stop Grand Parkway

We’ll see how it goes.

The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit to block construction of the Grand Parkway in west Harris County until federal and state officials conduct a new analysis of the flooding consequences.

The environmental group says the 15-mile toll road may increase runoff into Addicks dam, which the Army Corps of Engineers has identified as among the nation’s riskiest because of the potential harm to low-lying Houston should the 1940s-era structure give way.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Houston, comes seven weeks after the Army Corps issued the final permit for the new leg of the long-planned outer beltway around greater Houston. The toll road would cut through the Katy Prairie between U.S. 290 and Interstate 10 – a mostly undeveloped area that stores rainwater like a natural sponge.

I believe the Grand Parkway is a bad idea and a misuse of resources, and I have no doubt it will have a negative effect on the environment. I don’t know nearly enough about the specific claims here to offer any judgment. Anybody out there want to comment on this? Swamplot has more.

Access to transit in Houston

From the Chron’s Newswatch blog:

Houston ranks third from the bottom among the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas in the number of households with no cars and no access to public transit, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

Released today, the report “Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households” found that about 32,630 households in the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown area have no vehicles and aren’t served by public transit.


Today’s report is the first in a series of three studies that are follow-ups to Brookings’ report in May, “Missed Opportunity: Transit and jobs in Metropolitan America,” which looked at how well transit services connect workers to existing jobs.

Houston also fared poorly in that study, ranking 72nd among 100 metropolitan areas, chiefly due to its low transit access – just 44 percent of working-age residents live near a transit stop, compared with a national average of 69 percent.

You can see the current study here. My first reaction on seeing this was to presume that the distribution of these households that are not near transit is not uniform. The Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown MSA is considerably larger than Metro’s service area, and while there are non-Metro transit options out there, I think it’s fair to say that they are fewer and farther between. If you look at this chart from the study, you will see that my presumption was correct. I don’t know how exactly they defined “city”, “metro”, and “suburb” for this graphic, but ninety-eight percent of zero-car households in the city are near a transit stop, compared to 73% for metro and 27% for suburb. Ninety percent of other households in the city are similarly located, compared to 44% for metro and 15% for suburb. The issue isn’t with Houston proper, in other words. I doubt that tells you anything you didn’t already suspect, but there you have the numbers anyway.

States looking at online gambling

Until the economy returns to the point where states aren’t completely strapped for revenue, I expect them to look at all possible sources of new money.

It’s an idea gaining currency around the country: virtual gambling as part of the antidote to local budget woes. The District of Columbia is the first to legalize it, while Iowa is studying it, and bills are pending in places like California and Massachusetts.

But the states may run into trouble with the Justice Department, which has been cracking down on all forms of Internet gambling. And their efforts have given rise to critics who say legalized online gambling will promote addictive wagering and lead to personal debt troubles.

The states say they will put safeguards in place to deal with the potential social ills. And they say they need the money from online play, which will supplement the taxes they already receive from gambling at horse tracks, poker houses and brick-and-mortar casinos.

“States had looked at this haphazardly and not very energetically until the Great Recession hit, but now they’re desperate for money,” said I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School, where he specializes in gambling issues.

When it comes to taxing gambling, he said, “the thing they have left is the Internet.”

I don’t really expect this to come up in the Texas Lege in 2013, because casino and horse racing interests have too much at stake to let it happen. While I am not an advocate of expanded gambling myself, if it ever does happen in Texas I would prefer it to be in the form of real casinos and/or slot machines at racetracks, on the grounds that they would provide more jobs than online gambling. Having said that, once this is up and running somewhere, it’s not really clear to me how you could prevent someone in Texas, or anywhere else, from playing.

There are other ways that a state could leverage the Internet to feed its own gambling habit:

Some states, including New York and North Dakota, already sell lottery subscriptions online. Since 2005, New York has offered a subscription service that allows people in the state to enter a string of Lotto or Mega Millions drawings. The state says 100,000 people subscribe.

New York is exploring whether to allow people to draw from an escrow account when they decide to buy into a single drawing — say, when the jackpot reaches alluring levels.

Again, I can’t recall hearing of anything like this in Texas. Unlike the virtual casinos, I could imagine something like this being implemented by the Texas Lottery Commission, without direct input from the Lege. I wonder if they haven’t thought of it, or if they think it’s illegal for them to try it. Anyone know anything about that?

Friday random ten: Blowin’ in the wind

Those of us here on the Gulf Coast are quite familiar with hurricanes and all they can bring with them, so we have much sympathy for those on the East Coast who are in the path of Hurricane Irene. Whether you hunker down or get out of town, we wish you all the best as this storm approaches. Here’s a little playlist to help get you through the weekend.

1. Mr. Hurricane – Beast
2. Ill Wind – Lonette McKee
3. Ready For The Storm – Gordian Knot
4. Storm Front – Billy Joel
5. Stormbringer – Elton John
6. Stormy Blues – Billie Holiday
7. Stormy Weather – Julie Murphy
8. Couldn’t Stand The Weather – Stevie Ray Vaughan
9. Full Force Gale – Van Morrison
10. Hasten Down The Wind – Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon

Stay safe, y’all.

Mayor Parker campaign finance data

As you know, in my analyses of the campaign finance reports for July, I skipped over Mayor Parker’s report because it was just too damn big for me to plow through. Well, Sue Davis of the Mayor’s campaign heard my incessant whining plaintive cries, and sent me an Excel spreadsheet version of the Mayor’s report, which I have uploaded as a Google spreadsheet for your perusal here. It’s still too big for me to go through it for things like donations from elected officials, but I did separate out all of the PAC donations, which I put into its own spreadsheet. Total PAC donations to the Parker campaign were over $369K, but that represents less than one sixth of her total haul of $2.23 million. Quite a few Council members have a higher percentage of PAC donations than that. Anyway, it’s all there for you in a friendlier format. My thanks to Sue Davis for sending it to me.

Drought could last a long time

This is by far the scariest thing I’ve read in awhile.

As historically bad as this summer’s drought has been, we may not have seen the worst of it.

There’s growing concern among some scientists that Texas’ drought could linger through another dry winter and return next summer to more deeply ravage an already water-stressed state.

“I’ve started telling anyone who’s interested that it’s likely much of Texas will still be in severe drought this time next summer, with water supply implications even worse than those we are now experiencing,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a Texas A&M University professor.


Earlier this month, the federal Climate Prediction Center raised its forecast odds for the return of La Niña conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean this winter to 50 percent.

During a La Niña winter, Texas generally experiences mild temperatures and drier-than-normal weather, but there are no guarantees.

“When you think in terms of a climate forecast and a condition such as La Niña, what’s really happening is you’re changing your odds,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the climate prediction center.”There have been some La Niña winters in Texas that have been wet. But most of them have been dry.”

Nielsen-Gammon, who correctly predicted the onset of a significant drought last October because of a La Niña winter, said chance favors at least parts of Texas continuing to experience a drought that will stretch on for two or more years.

It may be even worse than it sounds, and even worse than the six-year drought of the 1950s. Anybody want to talk seriously about water conservation now?

Primary news: HD90, HD113, HCDE

State Rep. Lon Burnam has an opponent in March.

Fort Worth School Board trustee Carlos Vasquez has announced he will challenge state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, in next year’s Democratic primary.

Vasquez, a former elementary school principal, has been on the board since 2008 representing the district’s north side.

“After careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that many of the problems faced with public education are attributable to a broken State Government in Austin,” Vasquez wrote on Facebook. “With over four billion dollars cut in public education we need to refocus on what matters most, a strong public school system.

“Today, I am announcing my candidacy for State Representative in District 90 in the Democratic Primary of 2012.”

I think it’s fair to say that Rep. Burnam was not part of the problem that Vasquez identifies, but that’s neither here nor there. HD90 is a heavily Latino district, and Burnam nearly drew a Latino challenger in 2010. It should be noted that the new district in Tarrant County, currently listed as HD101, was drawn with a Latino plurality, but in practice I believe is more likely to elect an African-American. Be that as it may, I like Rep. Burnam and think he plays a very useful role in the Legislature, but as I’ve said before nobody is entitled to a seat. If Vasquez believes he can do a better job protecting the interests of public schools and representing HD90, then let’s hear what he has to say.

Over in Dallas, one of the Republicans that was paired up in the legislative redistricting has announced her intent to run again.

Mesquite Republican Cindy Burkett announced Tuesday that she would seek re-election to the Texas House.

Burkett will run in the newly constituted District 113, where she was paired after redistricting with incumbent lawmaker Joe Driver of Garland.

It’s possible that Driver and Burkett will have meet each other in March for what would be a hotly contested Republican primary race.

Burkett won the former HD101 last year, ousting freshman Rep. Robert Miklos. The new HD113 is quite purple, so with any luck it won’t matter whether Burkett or Driver and his ethical issues emerges from the primary.

Finally, here in Harris County I had recently mentioned the Precinct 1 HCDE Trustee seat, currently held by Roy Morales and referred to by me as the single easiest pickup opportunity for Dems next year. I am pleased to report that via email, TaShon Thomas has informed me that he will make an official announcement of his candidacy for that seat next month. Thomas is a senior Administration of Justice major at TSU and the Chief of Staff in the President’s office of the TSU student government. I met him a year or so ago at a Harris County Young Democrats meeting; he actually qualifies as a Young Dem, I was there as a guest speaker. Here’s his Facebook page if you want to know more about him.

Why not start the Aggie Network?

Kirk Bohls raises an interesting point.

It’s hard to blame Texas for having the wherewithal and desire to start its own network and reap $15 million a year off it for the next 20 years. It’s not the Longhorns’ fault they’ve won four national championships in football and two Heisman trophies, and are one of the most recognizable brands from Rome, Italy to Paris, Texas.

And Texas isn’t alone in this. Kansas State just announced it’s starting its own digital network. Oklahoma wants to. Magnus said Missouri’s looking into it.

So is Notre Dame, which is interesting since that could facilitate it joining the Big 12, no matter what A&M does, because the Big Ten Network supposedly would preclude it from taking Notre Dame with a Notre Dame network. The Big 12 could accept the Irish.

Texas A&M should start its own network, too. Lots of Aggies out there.

“The opportunities are just huge for each (Big 12) institution,” Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said. “I think as time goes by, we’ll all learn how to better those opportunities and get past somebody having a network. I think in 30 years, the Big 12 will look smart for doing it this way.”

I think that’s probably right. I also think that if, say, LSU or Alabama or Florida gets an offer from ESPN to start their own network, they’ll jump on it with both feet. What will A&M do if that happens? Better to look for opportunities than whine about threats. Go for it, Aggies.

A closer look at finance reports: Contributions, donations, and memberships

When you give money to a political candidate, you’re not just paying for their overhead and campaign-related expenses. You’re also helping to support the causes and candidates that they support. This last post in my series on campaign finance reports is a look at this kind of spending by candidates.

First, we have things like political contributions, charitable donations, and gifts. This Google spreadsheet documents what I found in the July reports. My notes:

– For the most part, these are the entries for which the category is either “Contributions/Donations Made by Candidate/Officeholder/Political Committee” or “Gift/Awards/Memorials Expense”. As always, not everyone fills these forms out the same way, and some classifications are ambiguous, so while I tried to be consistent, I may not have done this the way you would have. And of course, I might have missed some things.

– There’s not that much overlap among the payees, which means I couldn’t use Open Office Calc’s wonderful fill-in capabilities as there were almost no common names, so pretty much everything is copied and pasted in directly from the forms. That means that any misspellings or weird capitalizations are as in the originals.

– One area of commonality is with donations made to various political clubs and organizations. It’s no great secret that election season is a good time for these groups, as candidates seeking endorsements like to make positive impressions in whatever ways they can. Some groups require you to be a member in order to be eligible for an endorsement screening.

– That makes this one of the easy ways to tell which candidate plays for which team in our ostensibly non-partisan municipal elections. There’s a little bit of crossover, but not much that I saw here, and not nearly as much as with who gives to the candidates.

– One way that I tend to rationalize all of the spending by PACs and other usual suspects is that it’s basically trickle-down economics in action. This is especially the case for candidates that don’t face strong opposition. Frankly, it’s fine by me for some of this money to get passed through to other worthy causes.

– I counted 37 donations or contributions for Ellen Cohen, which was by far the most. James Rodriguez with 24 and Ronald Green with 20 were the runners up.

– The other spreadsheet I created is this one, which lists membership fees and dues for various organizations. There were only a handful of these, and in retrospect I should have rolled them into the first spreadsheet. There’s not really much of interest to say about it.

So there you have it. The main category that I left unexplored in this is advertising and printing, and that’s mostly because at this point in the campaign there isn’t much to note. There’s yard signs and T shirts and the occasional odd trinket, but most of the advertising expenses are either blurbs in specialty newspapers and organizational newsletters, or sponsorships of some kind. The stuff that’s really worth watching for will be in the 30 day and 8 day reports. I’ll do what I can with those later. Hope you found these reports useful.

RIP, red light cameras

There they go.

Houston’s red-light cameras are done issuing violations. This time, permanently.

City Council dealt the controversial cameras a double death blow Wednesday, first ordering their immediate shutdown and then outlawing the use of cameras to catch red-light runners.

More than nine months after a majority of Houston voters rejected red-light cameras in a referendum and a month after Mayor Annise Parker ordered them back on, City Attorney David Feldman and Police Chief Charles McClelland issued an order to American Traffic Solutions to shut their cameras off at 12:01 p.m. Wednesday.

It’s been a long, strange road to this point, and it’s not quite over yet as there’s still that teeny matter of settling/litigating the dissolution of the contract with ATS, who made a last ditch settlement offer prior to this that was rejected. Nonetheless, this is a moment for the people who worked to get rid of them to celebrate. I don’t agree with their position, and I certainly gave them a hard time in this space, but today I tip my cap to the Kuboshes and their crew for their hard-fought victory. I just hope we’ll all still feel festive when we learn how big a check we have to write. Stace, Hair Balls, and Houston Politics have more.

Hardy Toll Road extension gets final OK

After many years of planning, a project to extend the Hardy Toll Road all the way into downtown is finally headed to the drawing board.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is seeking the court’s permission to begin final negotiations with two railroads to relocate a track north of downtown, clearing the way for the 3.6-mile connector.

Moving a section of track along Maury Street and buying land around it, owned by Houston Belt & Terminal Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad Co., would cost a projected $130 million, said Peter Key, director of the toll road authority.

“Obviously, the hard part of the Hardy Toll Road was getting that final leg into downtown,” Key said. “It’s just greater mobility between the central business district and even points south of there, say, the medical center, and the north side of Houston, the airport.”


Work on the Hardy connector could then begin in 2013. Construction would take about two years, officials said.

The North Freeway “is already one of the most congested roads in the state of Texas,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a former transportation consultant. “Ultimately, as (U.S.) 59 gets more and more congested, we are going to need another north-south way into and out of downtown, and Hardy’s going to be it.”

Northbound travelers would access the road from the Eastex Freeway or downtown from Crawford Street, which becomes the Elysian Viaduct. The Texas Department of Transportation plans to rebuild Elysian where it crosses Buffalo Bayou.

Drivers inbound on the new road would be able to head north or south on U.S. 59 or could enter downtown on Elysian, which becomes La Branch Street.

The Court’s approval comes nearly four years after City Council gave its go ahead to the road work. My post from that time contains a link to this map of the extension from the Chron story, which still works. Here’s a Google map of the area, and the Houston Politics blog has an even better look. Back in 2007 I was confused about why the extension would connect into 59 and not I-10, but I think I understand it now. From that point on I-10, there’s no exit into downtown, whereas from 59 you can get off at Minute Maid and at McGowan. The main downside to this is that this particular section of 59, between I-10 and I-45, is already terribly congested. Exiting at Elysian north of I-10 might be the better option, though I’ll bet that gets crowded pretty quickly as well. Hey, you can’t have everything. The North Line light rail extension should be done by 2015 as well (please, please, pretty please) so at least folks who live in that area will have a good option to get downtown without getting stuck in all that traffic.

Speaking of folks who live in the affected area:

Fernando Cisneroz Jr., longtime president of the North Central Civic Association, said he has heard little opposition to the project. Some neighbors are nervous about traffic after the Hardy connector and the viaduct are built or replaced, he said.

“That’s an awful lot of access – it runs right through our neighborhood, and we’re going to be faced with additional traffic coming through,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of noise issues that’s going to cause.”

Cisneroz said he’s “not opposed to people taking an easy route home,” but said if the neighborhood is to accept some negative affects of construction, it should be balanced with some positives, such as new park space.

I hope the lack of opposition comes from general satisfaction with the plan, and not from lack of knowledge about it. I agree that they deserve some mitigation as part of the package, too. We’ll see how it goes.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 22

The Texas Progressive Alliance believes that all visitors are welcome in Texas as it brings you this week’s roundup.


Interview with Mike Laster

Mike Laster

Our third and final candidate in District J is Mike Laster. Laster is an attorney and neighborhood activist who has also been active in Democratic politics. He ran in 2009 for District F, losing in the runoff to Council Member Al Hoang. Like the other two candidates, Laster is a resident of Sharpstown. Here’s our conversation:

Download the MP3 file

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

UPDATE: Laster does have a webpage, which I have linked to above. My apologies for the confusion.

New Braunfels bans disposable containers on the river

Despite some talk that they might wait awhile to take action, the New Braunfels City Council has voted to ban disposable food and beverage containers – think cans and bottles – on waterways within its city limits.

The law covers the Comal River and a small section of the Guadalupe River that passes through the city. It does not affect the lion’s share of the Guadalupe below Canyon Dam, which is outside the city limits.

The ban covers aluminum cans and plastic bottles. It also includes paper towels and disposable utensils.


Mayor Gale Pospisil directed the city’s staff to draft the ordinance two weeks ago after a long, hot summer. The drought has rendered stretches of the Guadalupe too dry for tubers to float. City officials say that as a result, crowds, citations, arrests and litter are at all-time highs on the Comal, a 2½-mile-long spring-fed river that winds through the center of town.

There was some loud opposition at the Council meeting, and some predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth elsewhere. I understand how people may be upset at this, but I liken this situation to Lights in the Heights in my own neighborhood. It’s gotten sufficiently big and rowdy that many of the people who actually live there and are directly affected by it don’t want to deal with it any more. I totally understand where they’re coming from on this.

Which is not to say that the action Council has taken will withstand challenge.

Sitting in the audience was James B. Ewbank II, an Austin attorney representing Tourist Associated Businesses of Comal County, an organization whose members sell disposable containers.

“If you pass this ordinance,” he said, “there will be a lawsuit.”

The city has passed several ordinances in recent years in efforts to modify rowdy behavior on the Comal, including a restriction on the size of ice chests and the imposition of a fee on tube rentals. Both of those laws are being challenged on appeal.

In addition, a 2000 attempt to ban alcohol on the river was disallowed by state law. That concept of superseding state law will be the basis of the new lawsuit, Ewbank said. A 1993 state law prohibits cities from banning disposable containers. It was intended, he said, to keep recycling and sanitary disposable laws consistent from town to town.

“You are about to pass an ordinance that is directly prohibited by the Texas Health and Safety Code,” he told the council.

“We would ask that you reconsider,” he said, “based on the legal consequences.”

Opponent Jay Patrick suggested that residents be allowed to vote on the ban in November.

“A vote of the people would legitimize this issue once and for all,” he said.

I’m not qualified to evaluate the threat of a lawsuit, but history suggests there could be something to it. I do know that previous Council actions against unruly tubers resulted in a successful recall effort against one of the main players. I will not be surprised if a similar effort is launched now. One way or another, this is far from over.