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September 23rd, 2012:

Weekend link dump for September 23

Let judges perform weddings. Who cares if they’re active or not?

Making it easier to fire teachers has no effect on student performance.

I want to ride my tricycle, I want to ride my trike.

What Faith The Vampire Slayer’s mom has to say about Mitt Romney.

Are Apple products not so easy to use any more?

Ten “fun” facts from the Values “Values” Voter Summit.

Well, this is what most people use the Internet for.

The Incred-Obamas.

We need to build a lot more of that, and the sooner the better.

Comedians and blog-snark purveyors are fervently hoping this happens.

Rush Limbaugh is a big fat liar. Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.

Another reminder to not dump non-native species into the local ecosystem.

“So whenever you hear that half of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes, remember: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush helped build that.”

RIP, Steve Sabol, guru of NFL Films.

Another “be careful what you like on Facebook” story.

Mitt Romney will of course never give this speech, but Lord knows, he should.

I sure hope that Chick-Fil-A is ceasing donations to anti-gay groups. It would be great news, and a big win for social justice and public pressure.

The budget sequester would be bad for science, too.

Everyone deserves to participate in our society.

Always remember Rule #1.

Happy 95th birthday to June Foray, the first lady of cartoon voices.

Poll claims lead for Gallego in CD23

A poll commissioned by the League of Conservation Voters shows Democratic challenger Pete Gallego with a lead in CD23.

Pete Gallego

Democratic challenger Pete Gallego is leading Republican incumbent Quico Canseco (43% Gallego / 38% Canseco) in the race to represent Texas’ 23rd Congressional District. The 23rd is a swing district that is very competitive at the top of the ticket, and Gallego is well-positioned to take advantage of Canseco’s unimpressive popularity and job rating. Gallego not only leads Canseco, but also critical undecided voters show a propensity to break for Gallego. If Gallego and his allies are able to fund a robust communication plan rebutting Canseco/GOP attacks, Gallego stands an excellent chance to oust the Republican incumbent.

Pete Gallego leads Quico Canseco by five points, and undecided voters appear more likelyto break Democratic than Republican.

Despite Canseco’s incumbency and name -ID advantages, Democrat Pete Gallegocurrently leads Canseco 43% to 38%.

Undecided voters (18% of the electorate) are disproportionately Hispanic, a group among whom Gallego overwhelmingly leads (60% Gallego / 20% Canseco).

That’s all from the polling memo, which doesn’t tell us much else beyond the fact that Obama led in their sample by a 46-45 mark, and Democrats were preferred to control Congress by 44-41. I don’t have the questions, partisan breakdown, or crosstabs, so I can’t give you any kind of analysis of this. However, I disagree with the assertion that this poll should be taken with a “big grain of salt”. It is just one data point, and it is of limited value since it has limited information, but as Steve Singiser pointed out awhile back, internal polls do tell us something, especially when only one side is releasing them. Far as I know, there’s been no counter-poll released by the Canseco campaign or an ally of it. For sure, they have their own data. If they’re not sharing it, they either feel sufficiently confident in their position to not bother with a response, or they don’t have a suitable rebuttal at hand. Which do you think is more likely? Canseco also has his own 47% issue, which I’m sure will come up in the voluminous advertising for the race. This will be a hard-fought race to the end, but it’s clearly one Gallego can win.

Once more with the margins tax and the Supreme Court

Here we go again.

The Texas Supreme Court could blow a hole in the state’s budget if it finds the business tax unconstitutional, as pressed Tuesday in a lawsuit led by food giant Nestlé USA.

“The Legislature can’t violate the constitution to promote even a legitimate interest,” said attorney Peter A. Nolan, arguing on Nestlé’s behalf that the tax violates a state constitutional requirement that taxes be equal and uniform.

If the Supreme Court throws out the law, the scope of the court’s decision will determine whether the state needs to quickly find another way to come up with some $4.5 billion annually or more.

“Should they rule for the plaintiff, they could throw out the tax in its entirety. They could require the state to provide four years of refunds, which is the statute of limitations period,” said Dale Craymer, president of the business-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. The business tax “is about 10 percent of all the taxes the state collects. It’s a sizable part of the budget,” Craymer said.

The court could, however, give the state some leeway to come up with a remedy, he said. It must rule in the case by Oct. 23, according to court staff.

See here, here, and here for some background. The Statesman gives November 9 as a rule-by date. Regardless, there will be a decision this year. The Lege was likely to tweak the margins tax anyway; they may wind up having to do a lot more than that. The Trib explains the legalities involved.

Dale Craymer, president of Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, says the suit boils down to questions over equal treatment.

Craymer explains the franchise tax charges one-half of 1 percent to wholesalers but a full 1 percent to businesses engaged in manufacturing. Nestle, a national manufacturer and wholesaler, does not manufacture anything in Texas, but is still subject to the 1 percent rate.

The company claims the distinction violates equal protection provision in the Texas and U.S. constitutions.

Texas designates Nestle and the other companies in the suit as “unitary entities,” or companies that have various components but operate as one organization. Unitary entities are subject to the 1 percent tax rate under current franchise tax rules that were revised in 2006.

Texas has had a version of the franchise tax since the 19th century. Sometimes called the margins tax, it’s a tax on doing business in Texas. Craymer says the dollars it brings in “generally pale in comparison to property and sales tax” on businesses.

Lawyers for the Texas Attorney General’s Office wrote in a brief to the court that Nestle’s equal-protection challenges hinge on an erroneous premise that the franchise tax was solely meant to cover the value of doing business in Texas and that the value should be assessed as if it were property. But, they wrote, the Legislature has wide latitude to create tax classifications.

My first impression when I read that was that Nestle’s argument sounds a lot like the one Amazon had made to argue that they weren’t subject to the sales tax in Texas because they didn’t have a “physical presence” in the state, just a distribution center. They eventually lost that fight as we know, but I couldn’t say what might happen here. Between this and the school finance lawsuits, the Supreme Court will have a big say over what Texas’ budget looks like in the coming years.

Bike maps

The Chron has a request about bicycle trails.

Unfortunately, navigating via bicycle can sometimes be a difficult feat for people unfamiliar with these neighborhoods – especially downtown. While the central business district’s grid of one-way streets is easy enough, the bicycle routes for getting out of downtown are less obvious.

The ideal solution would be clearly marked signs and designated bicycle paths, but that will take time and money. Until then, the city could make sure that the maps at B-cycle stations do a better job of showing how to get to key bicycle paths. And putting mini-maps on the bikes themselves will help riders traverse Houston while sticking to designated bicycle-friendly routes.

I’ll take this request a step further. There needs to be a better map of the bike trail system online. I’m sorry, but the maps on Houston Bikeways just don’t cut it. They’re all PDFs, and they may be fine as printed documents, but even zoomed in they’re hard to read and don’t have enough street detail. You can see existing bike paths on Google Maps, but you can’t see designated bike lanes on city streets, and you can’t see what paths are currently under construction. There ought to be something easier to use, and it ought to be equally usable on smartphones. Having an app that can suggest a route in the absence of dedicated trails or lanes would be awesome, too. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.

Techies and the city

The reason why tech companies are eschewing suburban campuses for urban office locations.

For as long as many of us can remember, high-tech industries have flourished in the suburban office parks that are so ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, North Carolina’s Research Triangle and other “nerdistans.” But in recent years, high-tech has been taking a decidedly urban turn.

Silicon Valley remains the world’s pre-eminent center of high-tech industry, of course. But even in the Valley, denser, more mixed-use and walkable places, like downtown Palo Alto, are becoming the preferred locations for start-ups and smaller firms. And many other start-ups—Pinterest, Zynga, Yelp, Square and Salesforce.com, to name just a notable few—are taking up residence in downtown San Francisco.

[…]

Venture capital icon Paul Graham notes that, for all its advantages and power, Silicon Valley has a great weakness. The high-tech “paradise” created in the 1950s and 1960s “is now one giant parking lot,” he writes. “San Francisco and Berkeley are great, but they’re 40 miles away. Silicon Valley proper is soul-crushing suburban sprawl. It has fabulous weather, which makes it significantly better than the soul-crushing sprawl of most other American cities. But a competitor that managed to avoid sprawl would have real leverage.”

Still, escaping sprawl is only part of the explanation. There are also the distinct lifestyle advantages of setting up shop in the hurly-burly of real urban districts. Compared with previous generations, today’s younger techies are less interested in owning cars and big houses. They prefer to live in central locations, where they can rent an apartment and use transit or walk or bike to work, and where there are plenty of nearby options for socializing during nonwork hours.

“It’s not that young people wanted to live in Mountain View in the past,” Mr. Suster blogged. “In fact, so many did not that companies like Google & Yahoo had free buses with Wi-Fi from San Francisco to their Palo Alto and Sunnyvale headquarters.”

Or, as one high-tech entrepreneur told the authors of the Centre for London report: “We moved here out of pressure from the [software] developers to move somewhere better. And by better, I think they mean somewhere which has lots of bars and lots of places you can eat.”

This is a Richard Florida article, so if you’re familiar with his body of work then none of this will surprise you. I gather that workers in the energy industry do not have the same prevalent preferences, or at least not enough of them do to discourage this sort of thing. We’re cool, but we’re not quite that cool.