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January 5th, 2012:

Inauguration Day 2012

Mayor Annise Parker

Tuesday was Inauguration Day for Mayor Annise Parker, City Controller Ronald Green, and all 16 members of Houston City Council.

Annise D. Parker began her second term as mayor of Houston on Monday with a commitment to bring more jobs to the city and to tackle an ambitious to-do list that includes progress on public employee pensions, an independent crime lab, getting out of the jail business and alleviating homelessness.

Immediately before her inaugural speech, she swore in the 16-member City Council, whose support she needs to implement her agenda. Seven of them are new. Afterward, several of the new members pledged to work with the Democratic mayor to solve problems.

“My philosophy is: potholes, not partisans, ” said Republican At-Large 5 Councilman Jack Christie.

Remember when the runoffs were a “strong repudiation” of the Parker administration? Yes, I know, new CM Helena Brown has sworn to be her arch-nemesis, but I daresay that from the Mayor’s perspective, getting Christie in return on the trade isn’t the worst deal ever.

The new council members, however, have yet to flesh out their positions on how to solve those problems, and Parker’s speech was a broad sketch of what needs to be done, not a policy address.

Parker relied instead on the optimism of Inauguration Day to put forward the idea that history is on the city’s side and that Houston residents will build what a recent magazine article called “one of the world’s next great cities” with audacity, a can-docharacter and a willingness to invest in their community even during tough economic times. She paid tribute to Houston as a city that got its unlikely start on a mosquito-ridden prairie, pioneered the artificial heart and played a central role in space exploration.

“Everything we have done as a city has been a matter of vision and will, of taking what we have and deciding what we want, setting an impossible goal, and then creating it,” Parker said.

The full text of the Mayor’s inaugural address is here. The policy-related stuff is as follows:

My number one job for the next two years is to continue to bring more jobs to Houston. We will expand the programs we have already started to stimulate small business with access to loans and training. We will continue the Hire Houston First policy. We will work tirelessly to increase our role as the energy capital of the world and a world leader in the next high tech industrial revolution.

Hard times prompt us to chart the latitude and longitude of who we are. Hard times test our character. The economy still dominates every conversation, and colors everything we do. Too many Houstonians are struggling to find jobs, to make ends meet. Our city workforce has also felt that pain. City employees have been furloughed, and more than 750 were laid off. We are doing more with less.

But …

We did not raise taxes. We did not mortgage our future with debt. We did not compromise public safety. We did not lay off a single firefighter or police officer. Many of our civilian employees stepped up and volunteered additional furlough days to help save the jobs of their colleagues.

We took bold steps to address our aging infrastructure – finally recovering the full cost of this precious asset, emphasizing conservation, and setting aside funds to complete long neglected maintenance. In doing the responsible thing, we unknowingly prepared ourselves to be able to respond to the worst drought in our history.

And I cannot envision voters in any other city in America, in the midst of a recession, doing the right thing, the prudent thing, and creating the funding to invest in critically needed flooding and drainage infrastructure. This is a visionary step akin to that in the 1950’s and 60s which created lakes Conroe and Houston and secured the water rights which sustain us today, or the commitment to set aside land and other incentives to encourage medical institutions to locate together and so lead to the largest medical complex in the world.

As we navigated this city through the toughest economy in generations, I built my administration on 5 pillars, and focused the work of the city around them:

Jobs and sustainable development,
Fiscal responsibility,
Infrastructure,
Public safety,
Quality of life.

Those will remain our strengths – there is progress yet to be made on pension security for both the city and our retirees, an independent regional crime lab, phasing out the city jail and progress against homelessness – these are challenges we are committed to address and have already begun.

Seems like a good idea to remind people that the city is actually going to do something with the money collected from the drainage fee. I’d recommend doing a lot more of that over the next two years. Still no more details about the crime lab. Calling it “an independent regional crime lab” sure sounds like the original city-county jointly funded proposal to me, which makes me wonder what the deal was in that KHOU story. The one item here that’s less familiar is “progress against homelessness”, which I presume refers to the announcement from late November about a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). I presume we’ll hear more about this in the coming months.

I was not able to attend the inauguration, so I don’t have any personal impressions to share. If you were there, what did you think? Houston Politics has more.

Sonogram lawsuit appeal

The state’s appeal of the injunction granted against the awful sonogram law was heard in court, but there’s no indication yet when the court will issue a ruling.

A three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t immediately rule on Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell’s request for them to lift a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin, Texas.

Sparks ruled in August that several provisions of the state law violated the free-speech rights of abortion-performing doctors.

“Each of these decisions is wrong and should be vacated as an abuse of discretion,” Mitchell said.

A group of medical providers sued to block enforcement of the law, which also requires doctors to describe the fetal heartbeat to a patient before performing an abortion.

“Our argument is that there is nothing in the record and everything to the contrary that this information is medically necessary,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Julie Rikelman, of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

[…]

The judges pressed Rikelman to explain how law exceeds the state’s authority to regulate the medical profession.

“How do you draw the line?” Judge Patrick Higginbotham asked.

“We would draw the line at what is medically necessary,” Rikelman responded. “The government shouldn’t be able to interject itself in our conversations with physicians in that way.”

Sparks has scheduled a Jan. 20 hearing on dueling requests for him to decide the underlying case without a trial. The state has asked Sparks to dismiss the medical providers’ claims, while the plaintiffs are seeking an order that would permanently bar the state from enforcing portions of the law.

The state asked the appeals court to rule before Judge Sparks does, but they didn’t say what they would do. We’ll know soon enough. As noted before, these lawsuits are different than previous ones relating to abortion legislation in that they make a free speech argument, which Judge Sparks largely accepted. There’s always a risk in trying something new, but so far so good for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Here comes the Convention District

We’ll see what this turns into.

The newest vision for the eastern edge of downtown includes hotels and residential buildings in place of what are now parking lots.

Officials also picture a bustling pedestrian scene where shops and restaurants line the streets leading to the city’s 1.2-million-square-foot George R. Brown Convention Center, which, too, would grow as part of their plan.

The group that operates the nearly 25-year-old convention center and other city-owned buildings will publicly unveil its vision this month.

“The economic impact over the past 25 years has been significant,” said Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corp. “We’re going to build on that.”

The 2025 Master Plan takes a long-range approach to the area, which officials hope to brand as the “Convention District.” The boundaries would be U.S. 59, Bell, Austin and Congress.

The plan focuses on three main components: new hotel rooms, more amenities and an expansion of the convention center, which would happen once the other elements were complete.

Some of the improvements will be financed by Houston First, which could also purchase land to help carry out the plan.

Houston First is the spinoff of the city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department and the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation, which runs the Hilton Americas. The idea behind it was to allow the convention center to have more freedom to make decisions, which would allow it to be more innovative and grow the business. Given that plans like this don’t generally come out of nowhere in six months’ time, you have to figure it was part of the reason for the spinoff. Houston First is seeking private investors for this project, which is fine as long as there’s no assumption there will be public funds as backstops. If private investors think they can make this work, more power to them.

Meeting planners have also cited the area’s lack of amenities, saying the convention center is blocks away from most of downtown’s dining and shopping.

“For the out-of-towner, it’s not a significant draw,” said Alan Colyer, a principal with the Gensler architecture firm, which led the overall planning effort for Houston First that began more than a year ago.

The closest collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues is at Houston Pavilions, about five blocks away.

Looking at the map of the area, I’d guess that EaDo and its amenities aren’t far away, but getting to them isn’t pedestrian-friendly, at least not yet. The forthcoming Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines will help with that, and there are other options to consider, like the revived downtown trolley, REV Eco Shuttle, and perhaps a new frontier for the Houston (formerly Washington) Wave. A little creative thinking could go a long way, though some more options nearby wouldn’t hurt, either. Again, we’ll see how big and how comprehensive the Houston First people’s thinking is when they release their plan.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 2

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a happy and prosperous New Year as it brings you the first roundup of 2012.

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