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April, 2013:

Redistricting remains a partisan issue

We’re not surprised by this, right?

Alternate Plan C236 by Rep. Yvonne Davis

Amarillo Sen. Kel Seliger offered a redistricting bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee that would formally adopt interim maps drawn by a federal court in San Antonio last year. The maps for Congressional, state Senate and House districts were used for the 2012 election while a federal court in Washington DC reviewed maps drawn by the Legislature after minority groups filed a lawsuit to block them.

After the 2012 primary, that federal three-judge panel determined that the Republican-controlled Legislature intentionally discriminated against African Americans and Latinos, prompting Attorney General Greg Abbott to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and challenge the court’s authority to review the maps under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Seliger throwing out the old maps and formally adopting the San Antonio court’s interim maps would end the litigation.

“The interim maps represent the court’s best judgment as to the maps that would be fully legal and constitutional,” he said. “Enacting these lawful and constitutional interim plans will help bring to a close this chapter of redistricting, enacting these plans will practically ensure that the ongoing litigation over Texas redistricting plans will come to a swift end and bring some surety of the primaries ensuing.”

The Senate Democratic Caucus, Mexican American Legislative Caucus, NAACP and voting rights group Common Cause leapt to oppose the measure and Seliger’s assertions.

“Neither I nor my 11 colleagues … can trust the redistricting process,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, representing Senate Democrats. “Texas was the only state in the nation subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that was found to have deliberately discriminated against African American and Latino citizens.”

He said Abbott’s efforts to overturn Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and to restore the original maps the Washington court found discriminatory could only lead Democrats and minorities to distrust Seliger’s bill.

Jose Garza, an attorney with the Mexican American Legislative Caucus who argued before the Washington court, said Seliger mischaracterized the interim maps and said Washington court’s decision called for the San Antonio court to draw yet another set of maps. He promised continued litigation if the Legislature adopted the interim maps.

In fact, MALC has opposed the plan to adopt the interim maps as permanent all along. I don’t have any idea where he gets the impression that adopting the interim maps would end litigation. The San Antonio court did draw the interim maps based on instructions from SCOTUS to fix what they thought were problems with the legislatively drawn maps, but all that was done well before the preclearance trial, in which the DC court found persistent discrimination in the maps and the process. If they knew then what they know now, it’s very possible, if not likely, that the San Antonio court would have drawn different maps. You can certainly argue that the interim maps are sufficient, the point is that you can also argue that they are not. For that simple reason, adopting them as permanent would not settle the arguments.

Texas Redistricting recaps the hearing, which he calls “relatively sedate”. Of interest is that the Senate Democrats refused to budge at all on this.

Watson told the committee that the Democratic caucus was opposed even to the possibility of taking up the state senate map on a stand alone basis.

Watson explained that’s because although there is no dispute on the interim senate map, the caucus was concerned that House Republicans would amend the bill to add back the state house and congressional maps, after which only a simple majority would be required in the senate to pass the bill. Watson said that after years of redistricting battles, senate Democrats no longer felt they could trust the process.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) also expressed concerns about the process and the possibility that Republicans might try to circumvent the 2/3 rule, noting that deviations from the established rules in 2011 were one of the things cited by the D.C. court as supporting a finding of discriminatory intent.

Senate Dems can use the two-thirds rule to block Sen. Seliger’s map from reaching the floor. House Democrats are also unanimous in their opposition to adopting the interim maps as permanent, though there’s not much they can do to stop it in their chamber short of a walkout. It’s still remarkable to see all 67 Dems in the Lege unite on something.

Anyway, there’s no sign of the House taking up the companion bill by Rep. Drew Darby as yet. Written testimony to the Senate committee is due by 5 PM on April 24.

Court of inquiry issues arrest warrant for Ken Anderson

Wow.

A judge issued an arrest warrant for former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson Friday, after finding probable cause to believe Anderson withheld critical evidence in Michael Morton’s 1987 murder trial.

Judge Louis Sturns concluded his court of inquiry by charging Anderson, who is now a state district judge, with tampering with government records (a misdemeanor), tampering with physical evidence (a felony) and failing to comply with a judge’s order to turn over such evidence, for which he could be held in “contempt of court.”

The rare court of inquiry, in which arguments were made in February, was held to determine whether Anderson, a former district attorney, committed criminal misconduct during the trial that led to Morton’s wrongful murder conviction. Morton, who was in attendance for Friday’s decision, spent nearly 25 years behind bars for his wife’s murder before he was exonerated.

Sturns said that Anderson purposefully concealed evidence from Morton’s defense attorneys, hiding reports that neighbors had seen a green van outside of the Mortons’ home and a phone transcript in which Morton’s son was said to have told his grandmother a “monster” murdered Morton’s wife.

Rusty Hardin, the special prosecutor in the court of inquiry, told reporters that Anderson would turn himself in at the Williamson County Jail on Friday afternoon, and that he would have to pay a $2,500 bond for each of three separate counts.

As for what happens next, Hardin admitted that nobody involved is sure. “We’re all kind of operating on a clean slate here,” he said, adding that Anderson would be “treated like anybody else.”

See here and here for some background. I wasn’t terribly sympathetic to Anderson after reading his testimony, so I’m not particularly sorry for him now. But as Michael Morton himself reminds us, this is not about punishment but transparency and accountability. Whatever happens next, it’s good that Ken Anderson is being held accountable for his actions. A statement from Sen. Rodney Ellis, who has authored and advocated for more legislation that would help promote that kind of transparency and accountability, is beneath the fold.

UPDATE: Grits has a copy of Judge Sturns’ order.

(more…)

Grier asks for Apollo money

It is his signature program.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier on Thursday lobbied the school board for at least $17 million to expand his Apollo school reform effort, noting new research showing its benefits.

Grier is facing resistance from some trustees – though likely not enough to defeat his plan – as they consider a possible tax increase to balance the Houston Independent School District’s $1.5 billion total budget for next year.

“I’m going to say this 100,000 times if I need to,” he told the board. “It simply takes more money to educate children who are really far behind, to bring them back up to grade level.”

Grier is seeking the extra money to maintain key parts of the Apollo program: hiring tutors to work with small groups of students and extending the school day by an hour. He proposes funding the effort at 16 middle and high schools, up from the nine that started the program in 2010.

The program also would continue in 11 elementary schools that began a scaled-down version in 2011.

[…]

Grier’s administration estimates needing an extra $52 million to $73 million to balance the district’s budget next year, including adding funding for the Apollo program. The numbers could change depending on the state’s final budget.

In February, Grier’s administration floated the idea of raising property taxes, and documents given to trustees Thursday included scenarios of increasing the rate from 3 to 6 cents.

That increase would come on top of the 1-cent tax hike planned for 2014 to help fund the recent bond issue for school construction. Combined, they raise the tax bills of the owner of a $200,000 home by as much as $100, assuming no change in property value.

Unclear what the Board will do with Grier’s request; the story had one favorable comment from Harvin Moore and one skeptical comment from Manuel Rodriguez. The main question is going to be the money. The House just approved some more money in the supplemental budget for public education, which might help HISD for the upcoming year, but committing more resources to Apollo is an ongoing expense. If it’s working, it’s a pretty good investment. I haven’t been paying close enough attention to have a strong opinion on this, so I look forward to seeing what the Board has to say about it.

Some things can’t be rebranded

Louie Gohmert, ladies and gentlemen.

implied-facepalm

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) warned Wednesday that “radical Islamists” are being “trained to act like Hispanic[s]” and cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We know Al Qaeda has camps over with the drug cartels on the other side of the Mexican border,” he said Wednesday on C-Span. “We know that people that are now being trained to come in and act like Hispanic [sic] when they are radical Islamists. We know these things are happening. It is just insane not to protect ourselves, to make sure that people come in as most people do … They want the freedoms we have.”

He compared the United States to Israel, and said that the nation might need a border fence in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. “Finally the Israeli people said, ‘You know what? Enough.’ They built a fence, and the rest is a wall to prevent snipers from knocking off their kids. They finally stopped the domestic violence from people that wanted to destroy them. I am concerned we might need to do that as well,” he said, adding he didn’t know whether the attack in Boston was domestic or foreign in origin.

Gohmert has previously asserted that pregnant women were coming to the U.S. to have babies to take advantage of birthright citizenship, where their infants would grow up to be terrorists.

Far be it from me to give advice to the GOP, which would have every right to be suspicious of any help I’d be willing to give them. I don’t really believe they’re sincere about “rebranding” themselves, since most of what they’re saying is that they just need to do a better job of communicating the same old ideas they’ve always held and that will be that. But to whatever extent they are sincere about giving themselves a makeover – and even I will admit that they are to some extent on immigration and gay rights – I don’t see how you can truly claim to have changed while people like Louie Gohmert remain in good standing. If the powers that be in the GOP don’t see the likes of Gohmert as a problem, or are unwilling/unable to to anything about it if they do, then no change is possible. Juanita, our state’s foremost expert on all things Louie, and Campos have more.

Weekend link dump for April 21

An Anthony Weiner mayoral candidacy would be a gift for shameless headline writers, if nothing else.

It’s time for MLB to honor all of its pioneers, without whom there couldn’t have been a Jackie Robinson.

“People who assumed Siskel & Ebert was just about movies were never really paying attention.”

“Eden Foods — an organic food company with no shortage of liberal customers — has quietly pursued a decidedly right-wing agenda, suing the Obama administration for exemption from the mandate to cover contraception for its employees under the Affordable Care Act.”

Seriously, if you care at all about this, avoid Eden Foods.

I have always liked the designated hitter. And I too believe it’s time for the NL to adopt it.

Some thoughtful words about Google Glass.

Right now geekdom is positively stacked with Green Blazered Men, who are shocked and concerned that women in geekdom are suddenly not just satisfied with the idea that they have equal standing, opportunity and engagement in the geek world — they are actually pushing for it to happen, and pushing back against the men who are resisting that, whether that resistance is passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive.

Maybe President Obama should have nominated Jay-Z to be Secretary of State.

“Numerous studies show that all children, especially those from low-income homes, benefit greatly from sound child care. The key ingredients are quite simple—starting with plenty of caregivers, who ideally have some expertise in child development. By these metrics, American day care performs abysmally.”

Five lessons from the Gosnell abortion-clinic controversy.

So how’s your gold collection doing?

On the alliance Jackie Robinson forged with Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential election.

Real scientists have families, too.

How to protect your WordPress blog from hackers. Don’t get pwned, y’all.

“In the age-old dilemma between liberty and law enforcement, Rubio switches sides depending on the issue. He believes passionately that laws designed to catch lawbreakers don’t work, that inconveniences to law-abiding citizens are intolerable, and that government databases are unacceptably dangerous—but only if you’re buying a gun.”

“I guess I should point out here that white persons have been allowed to talk about black history for as long as there has been black history.”

Better to be right slow than wrong fast.

RIP, Pat Summerall, truly the voice of NFL games for many of us.

We are all very, very old.

And forgive us our trespasses, unless they violate the terms of the divorce decree. But at least now we know what a bridge too far looks like.

Brittney Griner comes out. She and her peers have a refreshing attitude, thankfully typical for their generation, about it. Just don’t read the comments there, as doing so will more than wipe out the good feeling you’ll get from the story. Oh, and I also wonder if this will have a salutary effect on her alma mater, which is not known for its tolerance.

More like Adolphus Busch, please.

And more like Aamina Fetuga, too.

“An accident waiting to happen”

I don’t even know what to say.

There were no sprinklers. No firewalls. No water deluge systems. Safety inspections were rare at the fertilizer company in West, Texas, that exploded and killed at least 14 people this week.

This is not unusual.

Small fertilizer plants nationwide fall under the purview of several government agencies, each with a specific concern and none required to coordinate with others on what they have found.

The small distributors — there are as many of 1,150 in Texas alone — are part of a regulatory system that focuses on large installations and industries, though many of the small plants contain enough agricultural chemicals to fuel a major explosion.

The plant in West had ammonium nitrate, the chemical used to build the bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. According to a document filed in 2012 with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the maximum amount of this “extremely hazardous substance” the plant could store in one container was 90 tons, and the most it could have on site was 270 tons. It is unknown how much was onsite at any given time, or at the time of the explosion.

It was also authorized to handle up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a substance the Texas environmental agency considers flammable and potentially toxic.

“This type of facility is a minor source of air emissions,” Ramiro Garcia, the head of enforcement and compliance at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told The Associated Press.

“So the inspections are complaint driven. We usually look at more of the major facilities.”

No federal agency determines how close a facility handling potentially dangerous substances can be to population centers, and in many states, including Texas, many of these decisions are left up to local zoning authorities. And in Texas, the state’s minimal approach to zoning puts plants just yards away from schools, houses and other populated areas, as was the case in West.

That plant received a special permit because it was less than 3,000 feet from a school. The damage from the blast destroyed an apartment complex, nursing home and houses in a four-block area.

In the city of Houston, sexually oriented businesses are forbidden to be within 1,500 feet of a school. Say what you want about strip clubs, they are generally not prone to exploding. From a safety perspective, it’s no contest.

It’s pretty simple. We can simply accept that this sort of thing will happen from time to time, and chalk up the death and destruction as one of the costs of our society, or we can decide that’s not acceptable, and be willing to pay some amount of money to mitigate those risks. I’m pretty sure I know which one we’re going to choose – we already have chosen it, we’re just going to reaffirm that choice – I just wanted to be clear about that fact that it is a choice. It doesn’t have to be like this, we want it to be like this.

There are a lot of Republicans who want to move us backwards on equality

Drew Springer is at it again, and he’s got help.

In the last year, two Central Texas school districts have announced plans to offer employee benefits to same-sex couples, but one bill heard Tuesday at the Capitol would make that more difficult across the state.

Pflugerville ISD announced the change last fall, making it the first district in the state to offer benefits to “dependents” who pay into their partners’ insurance plan, at no additional cost to the district or state. Austin ISD followed in late March, saying the change would cost the district $600,000 per year.

Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) has a plan that’d put an end to this trend, though. He explained his proposal to the House Public Education Committee [last] Tuesday night, to withhold 7.5 percent of the state’s funding to any district offering domestic partner benefits. That, he said, should be about equal to the full cost of a district’s employee insurance program.

Springer is joined by dozens of Republican co-authors on House Bill 1568. He stressed that his bill would apply equally to same-sex and heterosexual couples, but also suggested Pflugerville and Austin’s policies were rooted in something more specific.

“I think that was around the back-side door and around the corner of trying to figure out, ‘We’re not happy with the constitutional amendment we had in 2005 that defines marriage between a man and a woman,’” Springer said.

Here’s HB 1568, which is pending in committee, and here’s more on the bill. Author Springer has meddled elsewhere this session as well. It’s a thing with him, it seems.

There is good news, however. Equality Texas reports that HB1568 was withdrawn from consideration after its hearing in the Public Education committee on Thursday the 18th. That’s great news, but a “compromise” bill is in the works, whatever that means. Even if that amounts to nothing, the number of sponsors on this bills suggests the possibility of it being attached to some other bill as an amendment later on. So be happy for now, but don’t rest easy.

Two more points to note from the story:

Springer complained that expanding these policies would be a huge extra cost to the state. “If we outlawed marriage, we could save a ton of money,” Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) prodded him.

Unlike married people, though, Springer noted, domestic partners can’t get divorced. He said some might take advantage of the system by staying on the same health insurance plan after they’ve split up.

“It’s very difficult to be able to police that,” Springer said. ”You have a next-door neighbor who may be 40 years, 80 years old—my next-door neighbor—and she comes to me and says, Drew, I need to get coverage, help me out here. It’s easy to make that person my partner.”

No it’s not, you idiot. In fact, most private employers that provide domestic partner coverage have a verification process to ensure brain-dead schemes like Springer’s don’t happen. Many private employers now provide this coverage to their employees, including some of the biggest companies in the world. They do it because it’s something many employees want, and they know they can’t compete for the best talent if they don’t provide such basic benefits. Fraud is unsurprisingly rare. You would think that a party that worships businesses the way the Republicans do might think twice about banning government entities from adopting some of the best practices of the free enterprise system, but I suppose there are things that are more important to them than that.

Steve Washburn, pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pflugerville, told lawmakers of the turmoil that followed the district’s decision in his otherwise civil community. “At a school board meeting in the heat of debate, I was referred to as a hate-monger,” he said. “I’ve been there for 23 years. I’m pretty highly respected. That enraged a lot of people. It hurt a lot of people’s feelings.”

Sorry, Rev. Washburn, but when you seek to deny people the same rights that you enjoy, that makes you not a nice person. I’m sorry that comes as a shock to you, and I’m sorry your feelings have been hurt by the understandably and justifiably angry reaction to your intolerance, but you really need to examine your actions and your motives if you want to be respected again. It’s entirely up to you.

Senate committee votes to repeal state sodomy law

About time.

RedEquality

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted on Wednesday to repeal the state’s anti-gay sodomy law, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

Texas, along with Oklahoma and Kansas, will be the only states that still have the law on the books after Montana’s legislature approved its repeal of the measure and the governor pledged to sign it.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, authored the bill and said the state was long overdue in taking the measure off the books and that it created confusion among law enforcement.

“This defunct law was the grounds for police to harass patrons of restaurants in my district resulting in a suit against the city of El Paso,” he said, describing a 2009 incident where police arrested a same-sex couple for kissing. “Not only is the continued existence of this law on the books a source of misinformation to law enforcement, but in my own district local governments have been forced to spend their limited resources due to this misuse.”

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he tried to get the law repealed in 1993, but conservatives in the Texas House blocked the attempt.

“All you’re doing is following court rulings and taking unconstitutional language off the books,” he said.

Sen. Rodriguez’s bill is SB 538. It’s the second pro-equality bill to pass out of this committee so far. As before, the big question is whether either bill can pass the full Senate or the full House, but regardless of that it’s still a step forward. Kudos to Sen. Rodriguez for filing the bill and to Sen. Whitmire for getting it through his committee. Equality Texas, Texpatriate, and the Texas Observer have more.

Mobile payments

Austin is a hot spot for the hot new thing in retail technology.

Mobile payments technology is gathering steam across the country, but Austin is one of the hot spots, both for deployment of new technology and for development of new software for payment systems and payment processing.

Dozens of merchants have affiliated with Square Inc., a well-funded startup based in San Francisco that is winning over smaller merchants with lower credit card processing fees.
Other companies in the field are coming here because of the tech talent base. Mozido, an ambitious payments startup, moved from Dallas to Austin early this year, drawn by better recruiting prospects.

“There is a lot of talent and energy here,” said company founder Michael Liberty. “It seemed like all the good young engineers in mobile who we wanted to recruit either lived here or aspired to live here.”

Brent Warrington, CEO of SecureNet Payments Systems, a payments processing company, moved the company headquarters and its technology development hub to Austin last year from Maryland to tap into the talent pool.

Warrington, a payments industry veteran, said the mobile payments industry is starting to take off after years of more talk than action. “There have been more changes in the payments industry in the last year than I have seen in the previous 15 years of my career,” he said.

Isis, a big joint venture of three mobile carriers, is using Austin as one of two pilot markets for its mobile payments service. The company has brought 1,000 merchant locations on board in Central Texas since the middle of last year and presently is adding about 100 a month. The company is working with Austin’s Mutual Mobile on some software development projects. It is using Gemalto, a big European digital security provider with operations in Austin, for its Trusted Service Manager security.

And PayPal, a veteran of online payments, is adding new workers in California and Austin as it focuses on making mobile payments the starting point for its new software development. The company was recruiting new talent during the recent South by Southwest festivals. The PayPal Austin development center, which is run in conjunction with its parent eBay Inc., employs about 650 people.

A newcomer to town is Visa Inc., a global payments giant, that is building a big software development center on Research Boulevard. The project, which expects to employ nearly 800 people within five years, received approval for state and local incentives late last year. Visa hasn’t spelled out publicly what the Austin development center will be working on, but part of its assignment is expected to be mobile payments.

Other payments companies in town include: Starmount Inc., which develops mobile point-of-sale software for retailers; Bypass Lane, which creates mobile payments systems for public venues and campuses; and Tabbed Out, which develops mobile software for settling tabs at restaurants and bars.

Analyst David Schropfer with New York-based Luciano Group rates Austin among the top cities in the world for mobile payments, taking into consideration the Isis pilot program here and the companies doing software development and market development here.

“Austin is a snapshot into what will happen in the rest of the country and the rest of the world in mobile payments,” he said. “I would put Austin among the top five cities in the world in terms of focus and attention that people are giving to it and the companies that are there.”

Gartner Group, a major tech consulting firm, estimates that global mobile payments will more than triple over the next three years, expanding to an estimated $617 billion. That sounds like a lot, but it compares with estimates that global retail sales will reach $20 trillion by 2017.

The key factor behind the optimistic forecasts is the public’s fascination with smartphones, which are fast becoming the dominant form of cellphone being sold worldwide with an estimated 722 million shipped last year. International Data Corp., another tech consulting firm, expects the number of smartphones shipped annually will double to 1.5 billion over the next four years. Keep in mind that there are presently about 7 billion people on the planet.

It’ll be very interesting to see how this shakes out. I can’t imagine that the market will ultimately support more than maybe two or three mobile payment technologies. People aren’t going to load up multiple apps on their smartphones, and vendors won’t want to bother with systems that their customers don’t use. Will established players like Visa and PayPal suck all the oxygen out of this space, or will the upstarts steal their thunder and become big boys and girls themselves? Place your bets, y’all.

One cannot talk about new technology without also talking about security for this new technology.

Payments industry executives say the technology is good and getting better. But security experts say the swift growth of smartphone use inevitably is going to attract fraud. And as more consumers use their mobile phones as payment devices, the potential risks can increase.

Dallas-based NQ Mobile, the leader in security software for smartphones, says it saw more than 65,000 new malware threats released worldwide in 2012, up from 24,000 the year before. Malware and phony app sites can direct unsuspecting phone users to sites where they give up sensitive personal information, such as bank account passwords.

“It is a real problem, and it is growing,” said Gavin Kim, chief commercial officer of the company. “Smartphone sales are booming, and they are becoming a much more targeted device by hackers.”

The company sells software that can identify mobile phone apps sites and protect users against malware and viruses.

Interest in the mobile phone security software is growing, but the company estimates that only about 8 percent of the mobile market actually uses security products on phones.

Certainly, the threat of malware is there for smartphones – it’s a huge growth opportunity for the bad guys, especially if smartphones become popular for making payments. The back end is likely the bigger target, but I presume that the PCI DSS standard would still apply to mobile payment systems. But threats aren’t limited to just software these days. It’s just a matter of time before there’s a vulnerability in mobile payment systems. Doesn’t mean you should avoid them, just that as with all other things related to computing that you be aware of the risks and take steps to mitigate them.

Saturday video break: For Boston

This is how you sing the national anthem:

And switching sports, but with the same sentiment:

Three cheers for Boston’s hospitals as well as their first responders. You are all amazing. For anyone who wants to help, here’s what you can do.

I wish I had a song for Waco as well, but I can’t think of one. If you can, by all means please suggest it. In the meantime, here are some ways you can help with that disaster.

Lehmberg pleads guilty, gets 45 days

Off she goes.

Rosemary Lehmberg

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has pleaded guilty to drunken driving, was sentenced to 45 days in jail and immediately taken into custody.

Lehmberg’s blood alcohol level registered at 0.23 when she was arrested April 13, her attorney David Sheppard said.

Sheppard said the the punishment is “without a doubt” the “harshest” sentence for a first-time drunken driving charge in the history of Travis County.

Lehmberg’s driver’s license was also suspended for 180 days.

I didn’t think she’d see the inside of a cell. I was wrong about that, but not because jail time is the norm in these cases. I’ve heard some chatter that she preferred the jail option to probation on the grounds that after the 45 days are up (*) she’s done, she isn’t tethered to a probation officer for a year or two, which can be quite onerous. It’s not long ago that choosing jail over probation was commonly done in Harris County. I don’t know what I’d have done in her shoes, but I can see the appeal of this.

With that aspect of the case now over, the focus is on the political fallout.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has said she won’t resign despite pleading guilty to drunken driving and being sentenced to 45 days in prison, though the drumbeat for her to do so is getting louder.

It’s a decision that may have its roots in party politics.

That’s because the DA in left-leaning Travis County oversees the state-funded public integrity unit, which investigates allegations of malfeasance against elected officials, and has been a thorn in the side of GOP lawmakers.

If Lehmberg resigns, as the Austin American-Statesman has editorialized that she should — or if she’s forced out by a lawsuit under a rarely used tenet of state law that authorizes the removal of county officials over drunkenness — Gov. Rick Perry would get to appoint a replacement to finish out her term, which isn’t set to expire until 2016. That would almost certainly put a Republican (or a conservative Democrat Perry believed could hold the seat in future elections) in the highly politicized post.

Josh Havens, a Perry spokesman, said that whenever there is a DA vacancy, the governor appoints the replacement, “just like what happened in Kaufman County” this month after the murder of that jurisdiction’s chief prosecutor and his wife.

The Travis County DA holds the lead responsibility for enforcing the state’s government and election code. It was created under the leadership of Ronnie Earle, the Democrat who served as Travis County DA for three decades until his retirement in 2008. Earle captured national attention with his investigations into former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and became the poster child for what Republicans view as the unit’s politically motivated prosecutions.

Dismantling the unit is a perennial platform plank of the Texas Republican Party, and numerous members of the GOP, including DeLay and Hutchison, have criticized what they view as its politically motivated prosecutions.

Lehmberg has continued to maintain that she will not resign. I don’t know if that petition that’s been filed can force her to resign or if only political pressure can do it. If it’s the latter then I doubt she will step down, even if the threat of Rick Perry messing with the Public Integrity Unit is temporary and overblown. But you never know – political scandals often unfold in unexpected ways. The thing about DUI is that while it’s a serious offense, it’s not necessarily an indicator of an underlying character issue, at least for a first time offender. Unlike scandals involving money or sex, you can fairly credibly claim it was a mistake. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be consequences – certainly, Rosemary Lehmberg is facing consequences for this – but it might mitigate the extent of them. Who knows? If this is still being talked about in a week or two, then maybe the pressure builds up enough to knock her over. If not, then I think she survives. Ask me again in two weeks. BOR has more.

(*) – In Harris County, at least, non-violent inmates can get time shaved off their sentences for doing things like enrolling in educational or work programs. I rather doubt that would apply to Lehmberg even if the Travis County jail offers a similar option. Point being, Lehmberg might wind up serving fewer than 45 days. I could well be wrong about that, I’m just saying it does happen in some cases.

Adios, Aeros

It was nice knowing you.

After 19 years, the Houston Aeros will be no more after this season.

The Minnesota Wild, who own the majority of the Aeros AHL franchise, were unable to reach a new lease agreement with the Toyota Center.

According to person familiar with the situation, the team [sought approval] Thursday from the AHL Board of Governors to relocate the franchise to Des Moines, Iowa starting next season.

The Iowa Wild would play at Well Fargo Arena, which holds over 15,000 for hockey. A press conference is expected on Monday in Des Moines.

According to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, the Toyota Center felt they were turning away more profitable concerts to accommodate the Aeros, who often tie up weekend dates between October and April.

The Wild and sports authority sought, but were unable to find, a suitable alternate venue for the team in Houston.

See here for background. The approval was granted, and the team will henceforth be known as the Iowa Wild. My interpretation of this is that we shouldn’t expect another franchise to seek out Houston as its home anytime soon. If the Toyota Center isn’t available, it’s probably not worth their time. Sorry about that, hockey fans. Hair Balls has more.

Zaffirini and Uresti stand against needless abortion restrictions

Good to hear, but given their histories it’s wise to be vigilant.

Texas Republicans are one vote short of passing a controversial abortion bill in the Senate — and the fate of the legislation now rests squarely on the shoulders of two South Texas Democrats.

Sens. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, oppose the bill, and without their votes it won’t have the supermajority needed under Senate rules to get to a floor vote.

Both senators occasionally have sided with Republicans to pass anti-abortion measures, voting as recently as 2011 for a contentious bill that requires women to have a sonogram before an abortion. But if they maintain their opposition to Senate Bill 537, which would increase regulations for abortion clinics, the bill is stuck.

The measure has been on the Senate’s calendar for nearly two weeks but has yet to be considered. The Senate requires a two-thirds majority, or 21 votes, to consider legislation. SB 537 has 20 supporters — 19 Republicans and a lone Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville.

[…]

Zaffirini said she is “strongly pro-life” but opposes this bill because it “does nothing to make abortions less necessary” and “has the potential to limit access to critical health care services for thousands of Texas women.”

“Instead of attempting to address problems that do not exist, the Texas Legislature should focus on making women’s health care and prenatal care more accessible and affordable,” she said.

Uresti, who voted against the measure in committee, said it would reduce health care services, including abortion, for women in his district, specifically in rural areas.

“I don’t want to create barriers for women to access health services,” said Uresti, noting that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes the bill.

They’re saying the right things, but believe me, I have not forgotten their role in letting the awful sonogram bill pass in 2011. All we needed was one of them plus Lucio to say no, since Jeff Wentworth was also a No vote, but in the end Uresti sold out for a small modification to the bill that somewhat exempted his own district from its reach. Ultimately, Uresti and Zaffirini need to hear from Democrats, around the state but especially in their district, thanking them for holding fast on this, with at least the vague hint of a threat to be primaried if they cave in. They have it exactly right on what it is that SB537 will do. All they need to do is stick to that.

And before anyone says “Kermit Gosnell”, read this and this and this and this. Kermit Gosnell is what happens when women don’t have access to reliable abortion providers. It’s called the back alley, and it was supposed to have been banished forty years ago. Take away enough other choices, however, and it’s what’s left, just like it was before 1973.

From the “Simple Answers To Simple Questions” department

Is Rick Perry the next Comeback Kid?

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs are always in style

Americans love a comeback story.

Tiger Woods has clawed himself back on top of the pro golf tour after a nasty scandal involving nightclub waitresses, lingerie models and his wife swinging a 9-iron near his head. But the whole golf world is watching to see if he can capture another Grand Slam, thus confirming his sponsor Nike’s new TV ad: “Winning Takes Care of Everything.”

The New York Times Magazine has a cover story about disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s plunge back into public life after a marital and political catastrophe. In South Carolina, former Gov. Mark Sanford is making a political comeback.

Bill Clinton once declared himself the “Comeback Kid.” John McCain jump-started a moribund campaign in 2008. And the 2004 Boston Red Sox surmounted nearly impossible odds to win the World Series.

Comeback stories, all.

And then there is Rick Perry, who famously blew up his front-runner presidential bid with an oops moment in which he couldn’t remember all three federal agencies he promised to abolish. A poll showed that even Texans, embarrassed for the state, didn’t want him to run again.

But the Republican governor is sending signals he might join the GOP sweepstakes for 2016.

There seems to be little going for another Perry bid. The big-money contributors who helped launch his brief, spectacular flameout might be reluctant to dig deep again. A reputation as a less-than-informed politico now precedes him.

Bob Vander Plaats, an influential conservative Christian activist in the key early-voting state of Iowa, didn’t even volunteer Perry’s name when asked about the GOP’s prospects to win back the White House in 2016.

Inside the Perry camp, word is that some around him who would benefit are encouraging Perry to run again — this time by studying up on the issues, getting enough rest and meticulously tending to grass-roots voters in a way he didn’t last year.

Playing the comeback card might be one of the few things Perry has going for him.

No. No, he is not poised for a “comeback”, and no, he has no future as a Presidential candidate in 2016. Even if you can somehow forget what a massive clusterfsck his 2012 campaign was, he’s still yesterday’s news. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are the new hotness, and Rick Santorum gets whatever benefit there is to be derived from being runnerup to Mitt Romney. But speaking as someone who loves a good farce, I’m all in for him to make another attempt. I can’t wait to see what he tries to do for an encore. If it means he runs for Governor again and thus continues to frustrate the ambitions of Greg Abbott, so much the better. Oh, and on a side note, maybe Mark Sanford isn’t a good role model for this after all. Via the equally skeptical Burka.

Friday random ten: The city never sleeps, part 2

More cities, more songs.

1. Asheville/Crashville – Austin Lounge Lizards
2. Beaumont Boys – Ezra Charles
3. Boston – Augustana
4. Chattanooga Choo Choo – Glenn Miller
5. Chinatown – Joe Jackson
6. Cold Chicago – Humming House
7. Darlington County – Bruce Springsteen
8. Debbie Does Montreal – team9 vs Stereogum
9. Detroit – Black Gold
10. Detroit City – Alice Cooper

I complied these lists and drafted these posts a couple of weeks ago, so it’s a complete coincidence that I had a song called “Boston” on the list for today. Fate’s a funny thing. I was going to comment on a couple of the other tunes on this list, but now I think I’ll just let it stand with that.

What Obamacare will do for Texas

Even without Medicaid expansion, the Affordable Care Act will help millions of Texans get access to health care.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Nearly 2.6 million Texans could qualify for tax credits to purchase health insurance in 2014, according to a report released Thursday by Families USA, a nonprofit that advocates for health care consumers.

The tax credits will be offered through the health insurance exchange — an Orbitz-style online marketplace for health insurance — that the federal government plans to launch as part of the Affordable Care Act in October. Beginning in January, families with an income of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line, between $47,100 and $94,200 for a family of four, will be eligible for a tax credit subsidy to purchase insurance through the exchange. The tax credits will be offered on a sliding scale, so that lower-income families will receive larger credits.

“These are typically the families where folks are working, sometimes more than one job,” U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said of the report. “Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, I think that’s something we can all support.”

Nearly 5.8 million Texans — nearly a quarter of the state’s population — are uninsured. The Health and Human Services commission estimates the tax credits offered through the health insurance exchange and other provisions in the Affordable Care Act will lower that rate to 16 percent. If Texas also expanded Medicaid — an unlikely scenario given Gov. Rick Perry’s opposition — the uninsured rate could be lowered to 12 percent.

“Given the large number of people in Texas that are uninsured, many of whom are poor, this is an extraordinary opportunity,” said Ron Pollock, executive director of Families USA. He said it was “short-sighted” for the state’s leadership to oppose Medicaid expansion, as it would bring billions of federal dollars to the state, and increase job opportunities.

You can see the report for Texas here, and for other states here. That still leaves about a million people who would be able to get Medicaid if the state agrees to expand it, but we know how little Rick Perry cares about these people. Trail Blazers has more on the Families USA report.

Elsewhere on the Medicaid front, HHSC Commissioner Kyle Janek has been given the go-ahead to negotiate with the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. At the time, he wasn’t given any direction about what to negotiate for or toward, but perhaps now that the Zerwas bill has been discussed in committee there’s something tangible for him to talk about. We’re unlikely to hear much about his effort and any progress he may make since apparently talking about it in public spooks people, the way saying the name “Voldemort” does in the Harry Potter books. Lord only knows what might happen, but hey, at least they’re talking. EoW has more.

Division over the payday loan bill

Quite a heated little fight in the Senate yesterday.

An ugly scene erupted in the Texas Senate today, with Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) suggesting that some of his Republican colleagues were “shills” for the payday loan industry and worrying that the GOP would be seen as “the party that is backed and bankrolled by payday lenders.”

After intense negotiations this week, Carona told lawmakers he had struck a deal to pass legislation to reform payday and auto-title lending in Texas. Most of the consumer groups, the cities, Senate Democrats and even the payday loan industry were on board with the “hard-fought compromise,” he said.

“There have been great concessions on both sides,” Carona said. “We can leave this chamber at the end of May and honestly say we made a significant incremental step forward on protecting consumers.”

However, as Carona moved toward a suspension of the rule to bring the bill up for debate, which requires two-thirds of the Senate, he complained that payday-loan lobbyists were calling senators on the Senate floor and asking them to change their votes. He even hinted that two GOP senators were acting as agents for the industry.

“If we don’t do it this time, you won’t be able to regulate this industry two years from now,” he said. “This industry will be so much wealthier, so much more politically powerful that you won’t be able to say no and you won’t be able to draw the line. I know the lobbyists are just in a frenzy right now to try to stir up some action on the floor and get one or two of my colleagues who seem to be working the floor to change their vote.”

Sen. Carona wound up pulling the bill down. The Trib adds some details.

Carona, who said the bill had been “negotiated literally through the night,” brought with him to the floor six amendments that were intended to address the concerns of some consumer advocates who said the bill didn’t go far enough in limiting the abilities of short-term lenders.

Ultimately, the bill was pulled before debate on the amendments began, but Carona said they mostly contained ways to strengthen consumer protections, including limiting the types of loans that short-term lenders could offer, mandating that lenders accept partial payments, and limiting the maximum duration of multiple-payment loans — a major sticking point for consumer advocates.

“There are only two or three amendments that the industry really finds objectionable,” he said, “and in that case, all we’re asking the chamber to do is do what’s right for consumers.”

Early in the debate, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said many senators’ support for the measure would depend on the inclusion of those six amendments in the final bill.

“I think that there will be an effort to stop 16 people from voting for any conference committee report that strips those out,” he said, referring to the version of the bill that could emerge from a future House vote.

But some senators, who had previously expressed their intent to vote for the bill that emerged from committee, balked at the proposed changes. In an argument about process that turned personal, critics of the bill took issue with the way Carona brought his amendments to the floor.

Leading the criticism was state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who charged that Carona hadn’t given the chamber enough time to review the proposed changes. While calling payday lending reform a “difficult issue,” he asked Carona if he had sent the amendments around 24 hours in advance. Carona’s reply was sharp.

“No, sir,” he said. “And, frankly, I haven’t seen you do that with your bills.”

[…]

Fraser was joined in his criticism by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who also argued that the legislative process should be slowed down to give senators time to consider prospective amendments, adding that he had concerns about Houston’s ability to regulate payday lending under the bill.

“What’s the rush?” Whitmire asked Carona.

Because “the industry has hired damn near every lobbyist in town to kill this bill,” Carona replied.

When Carona replied that he had been in constant contact with the city of Houston to determine its position on the bill, Whitmire erupted, telling Carona that he would represent his own constituents. He again criticized Corona for rushing the process.

“When you were negotiating this most recent agreement, I was chairing [Senate] Criminal Justice for four hours,” Whitmire said. “I think this has gotten totally out of control.”

The bill in question is SB 1247. Before this kerfuffle, the main divisions had been among consumer advocates.

Some progressive groups, including the Center for Public Policy Priorities and Texas Impact, have thrown their support behind the bill, arguing that it’s better than the status quo.

“For us, doing nothing is not an option this time around,” said Don Baylor, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. He points to estimates that limiting the number of times borrowers can “roll over” loans would save consumers at least $132 million.

“You get to a point where you ask yourself the question, Is there any more money [for consumers] left on the table? The folks that have decided to support it have decided there isn’t any more money on the table.”

Bee Moorhead, director of interfaith group Texas Impact, said that it’s important that legislators show the increasingly aggressive and powerful industry who’s boss.

“The thing that’s hard is that first step,” Moorhead said, “saying the state gets to decide under what terms you do business.”

Opposing the bill, however, are most Senate Democrats, the Texas Catholic Conference, Baptist organizations, Texas Appleseed and AARP.

They say that Carona’s approach falls short of meaningful reform and sanctions harmful new loan products.

“Our opposition is that this bill doesn’t do what it purports to do,” said Ann Baddour, with Austin-based group Texas Appleseed.

The pre-emption of local ordinances is the sticking point for many, myself included. It should be noted that there is a decent argument for proceeding anyway, as articulated in the Chron.

The bill has split the community of nonprofits that lobby legislation affecting the poor. Favoring it are the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Goodwill Industries and Texas Impact, whose leaders believe it provides a pragmatic system of statewide regulation.

While it pre-empts the stronger city ordinances, they believe lenders simply are directing borrowers to suburban locations outside the reach of city enforcement.

The industry has launched legal challenges to those ordinances that probably will be resolved by the conservative Texas Supreme Court, said Scott McCown, executive director of the public policy center. “Do we really think that if the ordinances are challenged, the Texas Supreme Court is going to say they are valid and enforceable?” he asked.

McCown also said most cities do not have the “economic wherewithal” to enforce the ordinances. While he would like the bill to be stronger, McCown said, “our assessment is that this was the best we could do.”

[…]

Carona’s bill would limit the number of times lenders could “roll over” a loan and charge new fees. That provision would save Texas consumers at least $132 million a year, according to an analysis by the Texas Consumer Credit Commission.

[Rob] Norcross said [the payday lending group Consumer Service Alliance of Texas] agreed to it in response to the plethora of city ordinances and the burden that dealing with so many different laws creates for business. “If anybody thinks anybody (in the industry) is happy, they are wrong,” he said. “This is a high price to pay.”

I’m a half-a-loaf guy and I get where McCown and Moorhead are coming from. I’m still reluctant to support this thing, though perhaps I’d feel better once I knew what the amendments that never got to be debated are about. The Observer indicated that Carona may bring the bill back on Monday, though the Trib suggested it could be longer than that. I don’t know what to think at this point, other than to marvel once again at how sleazy the payday lending industry is. Trail Blazers has more.

Protecting polluters

Ridiculous.

Ship Channel circa 1973

It’s never been easy fighting powerful polluters in Texas. A bill approved by a Senate committee today would make it even harder. With a big push from the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Association of Business, the Senate Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 today for legislation “streamlining” (read: weakening) the process that communities and environmental groups can use to challenge permits to pollute. (Democrats Rodney Ellis and Carlos Uresti as well as Republican Robert Duncan were the ‘no’ votes.)

“We are very disappointed by the committee’s vote today,” said Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger. “The deck is already stacked against residents when a powerful polluter applies for a permit to discharge chemicals in to our air, water and land.”

Senate Bill 957 by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) would put limits on contested case hearings, mini-trials in which each administrative law judges hear testimony and evidence from each side. Environmental groups already complain that the process is flawed: The judges can only offer recommendations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That agency, run by corporate-friendly Rick Perry appointees, often ignores or downplays the judge’s proposals.

However, SB 957 would weaken it even further. Fraser’s proposal would shift the burden of proof from the company seeking the permit—often some of the most lucrative and powerful corporations in the world—to the protestant, often a hastily-formed grassroots group or an environmental organization. The bill would also strictly limit how long the contested case hearing could last; limit who could participate; narrow the scope of the hearing; and eliminate discovery.

Here’s SB957. It’s not the only polluter-friendly bill out there.

Some county governments have found that when it comes to suing corporations over polluted property, hiring a private law firm on a contingency fee basis is the way to go.

But against the backdrop of a multi-billion dollar dioxin case in Harris County, there’s an effort to outlaw those arrangements in pollution lawsuits. The House Committee on Environmental Regulation has scheduled a hearing today on a bill that would ban counties from using private firms, HB 3119.

The bill has the support of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute that compiled a report on what it calls the “dubious practice of employing private lawyers on a contingency basis.”

“The arrangement creates a variety of perverse incentives. A county faces no risk in bringing a suit and the outside, contingency-based counsel has no incentive to settle the suit,” said Brent Connett, communications director for the group.

The group argues that instead, contingency fee deals encourage private firms to enrich themselves at the expense of adequately funding the cleanup of toxic sites.

Harris County, which was the focus of the conservative group’s report, says contingency fee arranagements are vital to its efforts to litigate pollution cases.

“We don’t have money to go out and hire lawyers. You’re talking about, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars that we would have to spend up front just to go to court. With the contingency fee, we don’t have to do that. We only pay if we win,” said Terrence O’Rourke, special assistant to the Office of the Harris County Attorney.

[…]

[Harris County] points out that the big corporations fighting the suits often use very experienced, highly-paid attorneys.

“They’re spending millions on their lawyers and Harris County can’t afford that. We’ve got contingent fee lawyers,” says O’Rourke, the county’s special assistant.

The point of taking cases on contingency is that it only pays to take cases you think can win. Otherwise, it’s a lot of hours down the drain for nothing. One could argue that it’s the attorneys for the polluters that have no real incentive to settle, since they get paid by the hour. But maybe as a compromise, we could set up a public defender system for the businesses that find themselves plagued by these suits, to represent them free of charge. Think the polluters would go for that? Yeah, me neither.

Here’s the Chron on these two bills:

“It surprises me a little bit because there is no history of us settling cases in opposition to the attorney general or against the wishes of the attorney general,” said Rock Owens, who heads the environmental division in the Harris County Attorney’s office, which historically has filed the most civil environmental lawsuits in the state.

Owens said the legislation would diminish an authority local governments have had for decades to punish environmental offenders, and also make for an uneven playing field as governments cannot afford to pay private attorneys on an hourly basis like the companies they sue.

While the county has been filing environmental cases for a long time, it only recently began recruiting outside counsel. Six cases have been relegated to private firms.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the county has not taken an official position on hiring outside lawyers on a contingency fee basis, but that all counties “ought to be able to make those decisions on their own.”

Once again I note the irony of people who rant and rage about the federal government telling Texas what it can and can’t do but who are lining up to tell various local governments, often in localities far from their own home districts (Rep. Cindy Burkett, author of HB 3119, is from the suburbs of Dallas), what they can and can’t do. The good news is that SB957 likely won’t get past the Senate’s two-thirds rule, while HB3119 hasn’t yet been voted on in committee. If we’re lucky, it won’t have enough time to make it through, or it too will die from insufficient Senate support. But until they both do die, they’re menaces to be watched.

Bad ideas never die

And so we find ourselves once again talking about tax breaks for yacht buyers.

Just think how much you would save on this baby

From capping the sales tax on yachts to phasing out the state business levy, some lawmakers are pushing for tax breaks even as others say the system is already riddled with too many special-interest exemptions.

The breaks are most often cast as a driver for economic development, and a Monday hearing on the yacht tax break was no exception.

Senate Bill 862 “is not about giving tax breaks to the rich. It is all about jobs and protecting our Texas economy,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who pitched it before the Senate subcommittee on fiscal matters as necessary for the state to compete for boat business.

The subcommittee, which left the bill pending, is trying to have hearings on at least a representative sampling of the tax breaks that have been proposed, said its chairman, Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. “Obviously, the question always becomes do they, at the end of the day, provide a benefit to the taxpayers overall?” said Hegar.

[…]

A similar measure sank two years ago. Backers emphasized then, as they are now, a decision by Florida to cap its sales and use tax at $18,000. They said that has prompted buyers to purchase and keep their boats in Florida.

As filed, the legislation would cap the amount of boat tax at $15,625 per retail sale, the amount typically paid for a $250,000 yacht. Taylor has a substitute to change that to $25,000.

The subcommittee left the bill pending while it awaits a new fiscal note on the change.

As noted, a similar bill was introduced last session, but it did not pass. The fiscal note for SB862 says it would cost $2,893,000 for the upcoming biennium, which is slightly more than the fiscal note of the previous bill. Perhaps the Legislative Budget Board is forecasting more yacht purchases for this biennium, or maybe it’s just that yachts are more expensive these days. In either case, I doubt that Taylor’s substitute bill will make that much difference in this department.

I expended all the snark I have on this two years ago. There’s only so much time available in a legislative session, and it really says something about John Davis and Larry Taylor that they think this particular issue, which would greatly benefit a very small number of people at the expense of the general revenue fund, is worth their limited time and energy. I haven’t even seen a bogus “economic benefit” report on behalf of the yachters, making the usual dubious claims about how much more money this would actually mean for Texas despite the fiscal note, which is telling in itself. As Rodney Ellis says in the story, our tax code is already an unmanageable jumble of bizarre, obscure, and often needless tax breaks that cost billions for no clear reason. We don’t need to add to that.

How you can help West, TX

Horrible.

A massive explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, Wednesday night, sending scores of injured to area hospitals, sparking fires and triggering evacuations.

WHAT’S NEW

— “It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

— Some 10 to 15 buildings have been “totally demolished” and “probably 50 homes (were) heavily damaged,” said George Smith, community emergency medical services director.

— The fertilizer plant was near an apartment complex and a nursing home, authorities said.

— Some people might be trapped in collapsed buildings, Smith said.

— “I expect there’s going to be many fatalities and many more injured people,” he added.

If you live in the area, you can go to the Capitol Area Blood Bank of Central Texas to give blood. You can also make a contribution to the American Red Cross Heart of Texas or the American Red Cross of Central Texas. Visit either of their Facebook pages – Heart of Texas, Central Texas – for up to date information and more ways to help. Here’s a West, TX people search and news page. There’s lots you can do, so please do something to help.

Should Travis County DA Lehmberg resign?

Perspectives on that are colored by politics right now.

Rosemary Lehmberg

While Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg sought to put her weekend drunken driving arrest behind her, debate over her political future reached the State Capitol on Monday, where lawmakers weighed in on whether she should resign and how a replacement might be chosen.

Some officials pointed to an obscure provision in state law that allows a district attorney to be removed from office for being drunk. The provision also says that a single county resident could start such a removal.

If Lehmberg, a Democrat, were to resign or be removed from office, Republican Gov. Rick Perry would appoint a replacement who would be subject to confirmation by the GOP-controlled state Senate.

Chapter 87 of the state’s Local Government Code lists among the “general grounds for removal” of a district attorney and other county officials “intoxication on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.”

Under that law, a removal petition could be filed by anyone who has lived in Travis County for six months and is “not currently under indictment” for a crime here. The petition would be filed with a district judge, and a trial would be held on the charge — with a jury to determine the official’s fate, according to the law.

While there was no indication Monday that such a petition was being contemplated, an unofficial online petition to Gov. Rick Perry seeking Lehmberg’s removal was gathering signatures at Change.org. The petition by “Beth S” in Cedar Park said Lehmberg, as a result of her arrest, “is not a person to lead this county in delivering justice.”

That petition has now been filed, though Lehmberg has said that she has no intention of resigning. She has also said that she will not contest the charges against her and will accept whatever punishment she receives, which will depend in part on the result of her blood alcohol test, which is still pending. If her BAC was less than 0.15, she will be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, for which the maximum sentence is a $2000 fine and six months in jail. More than that is a Class A, for which the max is a $4000 fine and a year in the pokey.

I’m curious about two things. One is how often District Attorneys get into legal trouble of their own, and how often they resign as a result. Surely Lehmberg isn’t the first DA in Texas to be arrested for drunk driving. What are the precedents here? We in Harris County saw Chuck Rosenthal resign in 2008, though that was a far different situation than Lehmberg’s, not least of which was that the pressure on Rosenthal came largely from his fellow Republicans, who correctly saw him as a major liability for them heading into that fall’s election. How often have DAs been arrested for something, and how often have DAs resigned for whatever the reason? It would be nice to know so we could have some context to evaluate Lehmberg’s case.

Also, while the max sentences Lehmberg can receive include jail time, it seems highly unlikely to me that a first time offender such as she will see the inside of a jail cell. What is the typical range of punishment for a first time DUI offense, in Travis County and across the state? I’m hardly an expert on this, but if you made me guess I’d assume that things like a fine, probation, alcohol counseling, and a suspension of her license would be in the mix, but not jail time. Those of you who do know more about this, please speak up in the comments. Does one’s perception of Lehmberg’s position change if that’s the actual punishment she’s likely to face? If she were County Attorney or Tax Assessor or some other office – I’m sorry, but that obscure law about drunk DAs needs to stay obscure – would that change your perception? These are the things I’d like to hear more about.

Finally, on the matter of the petition to remove Lehmberg, BOR has a good analysis of what it means and what the procedures are, as well as a copy of the petition itself. It’s not quite as straightforward as news reports have made it sound. Interestingly, there’s a connection between the law being cited to remove Lehmberg and the attempt by the HCDE to oust Michael Wolfe. Which didn’t work, for whatever that’s worth. Anyway, if nothing else this has the potential to be some entertaining political theater, so keep an eye on it.

Mattress Mack’s Uptown rant

There’s a lot missing from Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale’s screed in the Sunday op-ed pages.

When you get right down to it, the recent announcement that the Uptown Houston Management District wants to spend $177.5 million to “redesign and widen” Post Oak Boulevard and build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system through the heart of the Galleria area tells you everything you need to know.

What does it say?

It tells you that here in the fourth-largest city in America, our Metropolitan Transit Authority is so tarnished by corruption and scandal, so riddled with $1.3 billion in debt, and generally so ineffective that they now must rely on a local taxing district to do their job.

So one “rogue” organization, as Mayor Annise Parker referred to Metro back when she was running for office, is passing the baton of an incredibly expensive and very ineffective transportation program to an even less transparent organization – the Uptown District.

Folks, this is not progress. It’s government at its worst.

First, if the Uptown District wants Metro to provide bus service up and down Post Oak, they could do that right now without spending an additional dime. But this isn’t about buses.

It’s about paving the way for light rail and helping the contractors and developers who live off city contracts and make generous campaign contributions.

I wish I could quote the whole thing, because it’s a masterpiece of unfocused anger, buzzwords, and vague accusations. It could easily have been a transcript from a talk radio segment. But let’s discuss some of the things that aren’t in this piece.

First, McIngvale’s antipathy to the Uptown Line goes back at least three years, when he and some other Galleria-area businesses, aided by one of the anti-rail-on-Richmond agitators, threw a fit about a design for the Uptown Line that had come to light a few months before. It’s curious that he spends as much time as he does raging about Metro and Mayor Parker and Washington, DC (?!?) since the main driver of the BRT effort, as well as the earlier Uptown Line design, is the Uptown Management District. Management districts are government-created entities, and there are certainly issues about the powers being granted to these unelected bodies, but all that escapes Mack’s wrath.

Second, Mack misses the point about bus service in the Galleria area. The idea here is to provide a dedicated right of way to the BRT buses, as is the case elsewhere with light rail and would be/would have been the case with the Uptown Line, so that they are not stuck in the awful traffic that currently snarls mobility in the region. A lot of people live and work in Uptown, and of course a lot of other people come into Uptown to shop or do business. Some number of the trips they take during the say is from one Uptown destination to another. Ideally, the Uptown BRT line would provide a viable alternative to them to driving from point A to point B, which in turn would help un-snarl things a little more. A BRT line could make such a trip quicker than driving, factoring in walking and waiting on the one hand and navigating a parking structure on the other. A bus line using the same streets as your car cannot.

Third, remember that part of the Uptown plan includes tying the Uptown district into Metro’s park and ride system, which Mack never mentions in his jeremiad. While it’s not clear (at least to me) how this will be done, it should be obvious why this is a good thing. Having the BRT line in place so that one isn’t stranded during the say will make using the park and ride service that much more attractive. Add bike sharing to the mix, and you can make non-car transit into and out of the Uptown area, and around it for those who live there, viable in a way that it just isn’t right now. How can this not help with mobility?

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, the voters did approve the Metro 2012 Solutions plan, which included a light rail line in Uptown, back in 2003. We’re not going to get exactly that with the Uptown BRT line, though we may yet someday, but as is so often the case with opposition to this and to the University Line, those expressing that opposition simply ignore that electoral result. This is the vision people voted for. For a variety of reasons, some of which can be blamed on Metro and some of which cannot, that vision still isn’t and may never be completely fulfilled. But that vote mattered, and the default direction should towards its fulfillment, not away from it.

Senate committee to take up interim maps bill

From Texas Redistricting:

The Texas Senate’s state affairs committee has scheduled a hearing for Thursday, April 18, at 2 p.m. (or upon adjournment) to consider SB 1524 – State Sen. Kel Seliger’s bill to adopt the court-drawn interim maps as permanent.

As drafted, the bill would apply to all three maps that are currently in litigation (state house, state senate, congressional).

As of this time, the House redistricting committee still has not scheduled a hearing on the companion bill filed by State Rep. Drew Darby (or any hearings for that matter).

Here’s SB1524. These are the interim maps, and the Abbott strategy that has puzzled me so. There’s no remaining argument over the Senate map, so making that one permanent should cause no grief, but the House and Congressional maps remain in dispute and could be modified further by the San Antonio court even if Section 5 is thrown out, given the DC Court’s finding of discrimination in them. Be that as it may, I don’t expect the process to be as contentious as it usually is, on the grounds that everyone in the Legislature was elected under these maps, in most cases by comfortable margins. As one of the Trib’s insiders notes, the incumbents all like the existing maps. So we’ll see how this goes, but I won’t be surprised if there’s a lack of fireworks. Having said all that, I completely agree with the Express News.

Here’s a better idea: Take to heart the federal court decision that denied preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and then craft maps that give minority voters a shot at the representation their numbers merit. Failing that, the San Antonio federal judges will have to craft better maps.

The best move in any case would be to ultimately remove the responsibility for redistricting from the Legislature, whose members will always be more concerned with re-election and party dominance than drawing maps fairly.

Clearly, the attorney general is hoping — not without reason — for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case to gut Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires states with histories of discrimination to get changes to voting and election law precleared. Texas is appealing the lower court’s refusal to grant preclearance to the state’s maps.

But even if Abbott gets his desired ruling, that doesn’t mean the retrogression and discrimination didn’t happen. It will simply mean states such as Texas can get away with its shenanigans until — or only if — they are challenged under a different section of the Act, a much more difficult task for challengers.

Lawmakers should reject Abbott’s recommendation.

I’m not going to hold my breath for any of that. For a much more detailed look at the continuing dispute over the Congressional map, see this Texas Redistricting post about treatment of Hispanics in North Texas, and this post about Travis County. There’s a whole lot more that could and really should be done, but what matters is what’s legally required, and we won’t know that for some time.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 15

The Texas Progressive Alliance is settling in for another long hurricane season as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Astrodome anti-climax

That’s it?!?!?!?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. board of directors approved a resolution Wednesday calling for staff to collect ideas for what to do with the vacant Reliant Astrodome between now and June 10.

The Sports Corp., the agency that manages Reliant Park, would analyze any proposals its receives before bringing them to Harris County Commissioners Court on June 25.

The court has the final say on what should be done with the aging stadium, on which the county still owes about $30 million. The time frame set by the Sports Corp. is aligned with the court’s scheduled consideration of the county’s capital projects plan on June 25.

Seriously? We’ve been talking about this for over five years, and there have been more what-to-do-with-the-Dome studies than I can count. How is it that the HCSCC doesn’t already have a firm idea of what’s practical or not?

From KTRK:

“We have had people approaching us, asking us questions and they want to sit down and talk to us about the idea, so that way we can evaluated them and make a decision,” said Edgar Colon with the HCSCC.

Turning it into a parking lot has been suggested by the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo as well as the Houston Texans, who play in nearby Reliant Stadium. Their estimated cost was around $30 million and no funding source was named.

Now the Sports and Convention Corporation says it would cost more like $50 million, and says it is weighing a wide variety of ideas from turning into a plaza to preserving it.

“It is not that we are solely considering demolition of the Astrodome. We are considering that as one of the possibilities, one of the alternatives, among six, seven or eight that we are considering,” Colon said.

Engaging the public is never a bad idea, but what are the odds someone will have an idea that hasn’t already been proposed? Make a decision about what options are the most viable and send them to Commissioners Court already. Sheesh.

UPDATE: More from Hair Balls.

According to the paperwork passed about after today’s meeting, it appears that the HCSCC has given private entities until June 10th to submit their proposals for turning the Dome into a hotel, a ski-jump facility, a coliseum of Roman re-enactors, or any of the thoroughly bottom-dollar approaches those behind the plans have concocted. After conducting feasibility studies — have to make sure the money’s backing the plans — HCSCC will then pass the ideas along to the Commissioners Court for discussion at the June 25th Capital Improvements Program hearing.

If they so deem, the HCSCC “may also recommend one of more public purpose plans” to suit the Dome’s transformation. While there’s no guarantee that a public option will be on the table for the June 25th hearing, it seems unlikely that a location that’s gained as much sense of public ownership as any building in Houston would come to a final vote without a potential for communal ownership.

Of course, all of this could end up being moot, as explained in the HCSCC’s resolution’s final point. “If a referendum vote fails or is not ordered, the HCSCC respectfully requests that the Commissioners Court directs HCSCC to prepare a plan to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome.” The threat of demolition, of another patch of pavement and parking, hangs behind the forthcoming decision, whichever form it may take.

So if you have an idea, go ahead and let HCSCC know about it by June 10.

House discusses Medicaid expansion

Sounds like a sincere effort, though whether it can get anywhere is an open question.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Amid hours of testimony from advocates in support of Medicaid expansion on Tuesday, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, described his proposal to create an alternative program that could draw down federal financing to provide health coverage for poor and uninsured Texans.

“I think it’s incredibly important that we do something that can be discussed and debated on the floor of the House,” Zerwas said before outlining House Bill 3791 during a meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Budget Transparency and Reform. “I think the citizens of Texas expect us to have that conversation.”

“The bill is intended to not be an expansion of Medicaid,” he added.

HB 3791 would require the state’s health commissioner to craft a “Texas solution” to health care expansion by pursuing a waiver or authorization from the federal government to reform Medicaid while expanding coverage to poor adults. Under Zerwas’ proposal, the waiver must be cost-neutral and allow Texas to leverage tax revenue collected from premiums on health care plans to pay for the state’s portion of the program’s costs. It must also allow the state to save money by tailoring Medicaid recipients’ benefits, implementing “personal responsibility” cost-sharing measures, such as co-pays and deductibles, and prioritizing premium assistance for private market health plans.

If negotiations with the federal government were to fail, the bill would require Texas to set up the same program with state funds.

“This is intended to try to promote personal responsibility,” said Zerwas, explaining that the program would support many options for poor individuals to find health coverage through the private market. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”

The bill was left pending in committee.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a joint author on Zerwas’ bill, said it would allow the Legislature to weigh in on the best way to cover the poor and uninsured.

“Let’s take what we want up there and let’s advocate for what the majority of the people in this Legislature think,” he said. As an example, he said, the bill would allow the state to help people who want one to obtain a health savings account.

If Rep. Coleman is involved then you can be reassured the bill will be meritorious, if not ideal. At least it’s intended to be expansionary, unlike some other proposals that have been floated. But it’s still not the best we could do.

“This is not Medicaid expansion; this is Texas Plus or Medicaid Plus One,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who laid out his House Bill 3376 at the House Appropriations Subcommittee on budget transparency and reform.

HB 3376 would expand Medicaid coverage to individuals below 133 percent of the federal poverty line. The bill includes a severance clause that requires the state to stop financing the program if the federal government reduces its share of financing below 90 percent and — “in the spirit of conservatism,” as Turner put it — also includes cost-sharing requirements such as co-payments.

“I don’t think anyone can dispute the numbers. We may dispute whether or not we want to do it,” said Turner, emphasizing that the state comptroller estimates expanding Medicaid coverage as proposed in HB 3376 would save the state $50.4 million in the 2014-15 biennium. “From a fiscal, financial, budgetary point of view, the numbers are overwhelming.”

Unfortunately, so are the odds against Rep. Turner’s bill passing. What’s best is not always politically doable, and though the opposition has no good argument, they have the numbers. What are you going to do? Let’s support Rep. Zerwas’ bill and hope for the best. Texas Well and Healthy has more.

A STEM vision for the Astrodome

Tory Gattis has an idea for what to do with the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Where can America’s kids go to be inspired toward careers in our country’s most crucial need: science, technology, engineering and math (aka STEM)? Something far beyond their little local science or children’s museum?

Houston could be that city, building not only on our energy, chemical, aerospace and biomedical industries, but also on our top-rated and very popular existing STEM museums like Space Center Houston, The Museum of Natural Science, The Health Museum, The Children’s Museum, Moody Gardens and The George Observatory. But we really need one additional anchor “mega-attraction” that will give us critical mass and undisputed STEM leadership. That flagship would be the National Museum of Technology and Innovation, the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something in the class of D.C.’s National Air and Space Museum (the second-most popular museum in the world), Germany’s Deutsches Museum, San Francisco’s Exploratorium or Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of national museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington, D.C., like Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York and the Smithsonian affiliate, National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Penn.

Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. And with the right design, it could attract STEM-related academic and commercial conferences from around the world to Houston (imagine a Davos of STEM).

By showing students stories of the great historical innovators who invented technology to address civilization’s problems, we can inspire America’s – and especially Houston’s – youth into STEM careers. They can see how they could become the next Edison, Bell, Ford, Gates, Jobs or Musk. But this institution would not just look backward at history. It would inspire kids into STEM fields by framing the great challenges of the present and future, such as the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering by the National Academy of Engineering, including limitless fusion energy, health informatics, better medicines, artificial intelligence, carbon sequestration, preventing nuclear terror, securing cyberspace, advancing personalized eLearning and more.

Where can Houston find a grand structure to house such a grand institution? Yes, the Astrodome.

The problem with most of the Astrodome proposals so far is their isolation from a bigger civic vision. If a purely for-profit enterprise were feasible, it would have happened by now. Houston’s philanthropic community needs to be inspired to invest in the future of the Astrodome (in partnership with Harris County).

[…]

County officials have already stated a STEM museum is one of the best ideas they’ve been presented for repurposing the Astrodome, but they want to see philanthropic backing. The Getty Trust stepped up to build the spectacular $1.3 billion Getty Center in Los Angeles. Ross Perot’s family donated $50 million to kick off a successful $185 million campaign to build the stunning new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. Bernard Marcus, founder of Home Depot, donated $250 million to build the world’s largest aquarium in Atlanta. Does Houston have such a visionary leader?

We certainly have no shortage of people who could do this. The tricky part is getting one of them on board with a vision like what Tory outlines. It’s obviously a massive commitment, and you still have to find a way to bring that vision to reality. It’s also not certain that a for-profit enterprise isn’t feasible, since the discussion about the Dome’s fate didn’t really begin until after the economic downturn of 2008. However, if a commercial project is not worth doing now, it likely will never be. Any billionaires out there want to take a crack at this?

Meanwhile, today is the day that the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation votes on what it wants to recommend to Harris County to do about the Dome. Here are some more details about what they might have in mind.

Officials on Monday said it does not involve a specific project or proposal for what to do with the empty stadium, but rather a timeline for making a decision.

“This vote is not project specific or project related,” said Willie Loston, the agency’s executive director.

Loston said they have “established a timeline for within which any number of decisions could be made” and that “All the options are still there, but we’ve laid out a timeline for that to basically come to a head.”

What kind of timeline?

Loston declined to specify, saying only that “it’s probably a good time to try and bring this debate to an end” with the city bidding to host the Super Bowl in 2017 and the county receiving pressure from the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo to do something with the decaying structure well before then or risk losing out.

A spokesman for Harris County Judget Ed Emmett, noting that you never know what’s going to happen until it happens, said they are expecting a vote on a timetable that will result in the Sports Corps. essentially shoving the ticking clock into the hands of the Harris County Commissioners Court this summer.

Joe Stinebaker said the timetable is June, when the county adopts its capital projects plan, meaning the Sports Corps. would gather and analyze proposals on what to do with the dome and present the best ones to commissioners court late that month.

We’ll know soon enough what they have up their sleeves. Before we get to that, however, Hair Balls notes that the original report of forthcoming action by the HCSCC wasn’t quite accurate.

“[The Chronicle’s report] was just wrong,” Kevin Hoffman, HCSCC’s deputy executive director, told Hair Balls. “There’s a lot of speculation in the community regarding it, but we’ve been very careful and diligent in trying to get accurate information out.”

Joe Stinebaker, the director of communications in the Harris County judge’s office, was at least a bit softer in his judgment of the original story

“[They] got it kind of wrong,” Stinebaker told Hair Balls.

While we wait for a retraction — which, hey, might not come; that’s the blessing of anonymous sourcing — we’ll try to detail for you what’s actually going on with the HCSCC this week. The board will indeed meet this week, coming together to decide the next step on potential movement on the Dome. But there’s no “unspecified plan” that the public has thus far been kept in the dark about. Rather, according to Hoffman, the board will be looking for a resolution on a time-frame to have a set of plans to move to the Commissioners Court by June 25th, when the court will hold its annual Capital Improvements hearing.

“This is just the beginning of process — the process is going to be moving towards having something to present the Commissioners Court” by June 25th, Hoffman said. “We want to have the opportunity to put something before them, something well-thought-out that can either address a public purpose or have some private financing associated [with] the resolution.”

While Hoffman did say that there would be a vetting process involved with certain proposals — they’re not simply going to shunt every idea directly to the court — Stinebaker confirmed that he believed HCSCC would present both private and public proposals on June 25th.

“I think it’s a fairly legitimate expectation … that they’re going to evaluate and determine feasibility of privately financed proposals — to build hotels, to build indoor ski slopes — and they’ll say by June 25th, they’ll have everyone’s stuff on record,” Stinebaker said. “They’re also going to collate public use recommendations, how county taxpayers could pay to convert it into an open-air park, or an indoor festival venue. Or, No. 3 — they could say that it could be torn down.”

And the reason why it’s all happening now is so that there could be a ballot item this November to finalize the plan and have the community ratify it, whatever it may be. That’s faster than what we had heard before, which suggested HCSCC would make its recommendation by the end of this year, for a vote sometime in 2014. Maybe the county is taking the concerns about the Super Bowl bid more seriously. Speaking of which, and just because it amused me, I want to note that former Secretary of State James Baker has been told by the NFL that he can’t participate in the city’s presentation to the owners because he’s a celebrity and his presence might make them too starry-eyed to be able to objectively evaluate the city’s bid for Super Bowl LI. Or something like that. Good thing we weren’t planning to send Beyonce to make our case, I guess.

UPDATE: If you can get past the embarrassing typo in the headline, this Chron editorial calls for instant runoff voting to determine the Dome’s fate. I’m not sure that would provide more political cover for whatever gets decided than a “normal” vote would, but I do agree that this isn’t a straight-up yes or no question. It’s a choice between renovation (plan to be determined), demolition, and going back to the drawing board if neither the recommended renovation plan nor demolition is seen as acceptable. As such, a different approach to the referendum may be the best way to go about it.

What does Tesla Motors have in common with microbreweries?

Both are forbidden by archaic laws from selling their wares direct to the public.

Electric car maker Elon Musk wants to bet big on Texas – but he’s having trouble getting his chips on the table.

Musk, a South African-born entrepreneur and the CEO, chairman and co-founder of Tesla Motors, wants to sell Tesla’s electric cars directly to Texas consumers. But to do so, the company must win an exemption from state antitrust laws that regulate the relationship between car dealers and manufacturers.

State laws prevent car manufacturers from selling directly to Texas consumers and require that manufacturers operate through a tightly regulated franchise system. Texas’ protections for car dealers are among the strongest in the country. The Texas Automobile Dealers Association says the rules protect consumers, and ensure the livelihood of Texas auto dealerships. Tesla and its supporters say the laws are an antiquated legacy, and that the ability to sell directly to customers is crucial to the company’s livelihood.

“Everyone told us when we were getting into this that we’d get our ass kicked,” Musk told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday. “Well, I guess there’s a good chance that we will get our ass kicked. But we’ll try.”

Two bills — Senate Bill 1659, by state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, and House Bill 3351, by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin — would carve out narrowly tailored exemptions from state franchise law for Tesla. Under the measures, American manufacturers of electric cars that have never previously had franchised dealerships could sell cars directly to customers.

But the bills’ critics, including some legislators, ask why Tesla can’t conduct business like other, established car companies.

“There’s nothing prohibiting this company, in the future, from finding a dealership to represent them,” said state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. He argued that weakening the dealer model would hurt car owners.

“I would be wary, as a consumer, of buying a car from a manufacturer that may or may not be here in six months.”

I’m just curious – has anyone ever explained to Dan Patrick how capitalism works? What he said is true of any product or service on the market. Last I checked, auto dealerships can go belly-up, too.

Currently, Tesla has “galleries” in Austin and Houston. Employees there are legally prohibited from discussing the price or any logistical aspect of acquiring the car. Consumers who want to purchase the vehicle have to order the car from Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto.

The cars are then delivered in a truck with no company markings, per Texas law. Once delivered, Musk said, the customers even have to unwrap their new automobiles themselves, because under the law no representatives of Tesla’s in the state are allowed to do, say or touch anything related to selling or delivering cars.

To put it bluntly, this is nuts. Laws like these, in the automotive industry and the beer-making industry, do nothing for consumers, but do ensure a tidy piece of the action for a privileged set of middlemen. I can’t imagine too many people will want to buy a car direct from a manufacturer – most of us have at best a vague idea of what we want in a car, which is why we go to dealerships and take test drives and so on – but I can’t think of any reason why someone who does know what she wants should be prevented from doing business directly with the source. If Dan Patrick or anyone else is truly concerned about the risk such customers may be exposing themselves to, they can insist on including some strong consumer protections in the law that Tesla is seeking. Ideally, the exception Tesla is seeking to carve out really ought to be a general one for all automakers, but the bills are narrowly tailored to just them because everyone is already freaking out about it. The Lege can be a very weird place sometimes. As with the microbrewers, it will take Tesla more than one session to get enough buy-in on this to get a bill passed. I hope they’re in business long enough to see it happen, if only so Dan Patrick doesn’t get to say “I told you so”. See also this Trib interview with Elon Musk, and Texas Politics has more.

Don’t expect B-Cycle in the Heights anytime soon

I know there are a lot of people in the Heights that would like to see some bike share kiosks here, but as The Leader News reports, it will be awhile before that happens.

Although running through arguably the most bike-conscious set of communities in Houston, the bike paths along White Oak Bayou and through the Heights into downtown now primarily sustain a ridership of weekend and evening recreational users, walkers and joggers. (It doesn’t help the White Oak trail that 610/290 construction is closing a big chunk of it from south of the North Loop along T.C. Jester to 34th Street for another year.)

The city of Houston’s B-cycle bike share program largely completed its second phase this week ahead of schedule and now boasts 21 stations and 175 bikes – but they’re all in downtown, midtown, Montrose, the East End and the Museum District-Hermann Park area.

And Will Rub, head of the B-cycle program, says when the third phase is funded, it’s likely to focus on the Medical Center area.

“We might start looking along sites along the Washington Avenue Corridor,” he said, “but that’s down the line.” Way down the line is the Heights, he said.

[…]

Blake Masters, president of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood, seems strangely calm about the area being passed over so far for the B-cycle kiosks. But there’s a reason.

As part of a Leadership Houston class, Masters studied putting a bike share into Houston before the group learned that the B-cycle program was already on the drawing boards.

“You do have to start somewhere, and to make it succeed, you have to choose the areas with the heaviest pedestrian traffic and people who need to go short distances on congested streets. So far, they’re doing it right.”

He’s encouraged to hear that the Washington Avenue Corridor, which is in his Super Neighborhood, is on B-cycle’s radar. Parts of the Heights would also be “very logical” locations he said, naming the 19th-20th Street, White Oak and Studewood commercial areas. “We’d have to make sure the neighbors are on board with the plans, though,” he said.

This makes sense to me. Bike sharing is for places to which people travel without cars, or for whom it’s inconvenient to get their parked cars for a short trip. That describes places like downtown and the Medical Center, but not the Heights. The Heights is a destination, not a point of origin, for bike sharing; if you’re in the Heights and you want to get somewhere by bike, you probably already have your bike with you. The downtown bike share network, which is somewhat akin to a transit network, is beginning to build spokes out of downtown, with kiosks in Midtown and parts of Montrose. The Washington Avenue corridor, which is directly accessible from downtown, is a natural future spoke of this network. Once this extended network is robust enough to support spokes being built from other spokes and not from the hub, that’s when it will make sense to look at putting kiosks in the Heights, most likely in the locations suggested by Blake Masters. Alternately, as Metro’s re-architected bus route map gets built, or in the event of future streetcar/BRT/light rail construction along Washington, that may make Heights-area kiosks more attractive and useful. The kiosks are coming, I have no doubt about that, but the network isn’t ready for it yet. If you want it to hurry along, do what you can to make the existing B-Cycle network a success.

Texas On The Brink 2013

Quantifying what we long suspected to be true.

TxOTB

Texas remains behind most other states on issues related to educational achievement, public health and the environment, according to the latest version of the “Texas on the Brink” study released Monday.

The sixth edition of the report from the Texas Legislative Study Group, a left-leaning research caucus in the House, says the state has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents, ranks 50th in the percentage of the population with a high school degree, and has the highest carbon emissions of any state. The study ranked the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Texas legislators should prioritize funding and support for education to improve quality of life in Texas, said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chairman of the Legislative Study Group, at a news conference Monday about the study. The state should protect Texas’ future by restoring the cuts made last session to public education and “making sure the amount of money that goes into the budget is growing the budget appropriately for the new students coming in and for the resources they need to be successful,” he added. He also said an expansion of Medicaid would improve health care access for Texans.

The report also examines Texas’ ranking in areas like women’s issues, workforce and public safety.

You can read the report here, and the LSG’s press release here. Former Sen. Eliot Shapleigh released the first Texas On The Brink report in 2003, with the LSG taking it on in 2011 after Shapleigh’s retirement. I encourage you to look at the report, it’s mostly a collection of facts and figures in easy-to-understand pieces. Two tidbits from the section on Women’s Issues that may be of interest: Texas ranks #47 in women’s voter registration, and #51 in women’s voter turnout; on the flip side of that, we are #4 in the percentage of women living in poverty. Think there may be a connection there? Consider that another item for Battleground Texas’ to do list. BOR has more.

(In case you’re curious, the source for the first two figures is the US Census Bureau, Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: November 2010. The source for the latter figure is the Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Adult Poverty Rate by Gender, States (2010-2011). Every fact given in the report has a similar citation.)

It’s always time for a tax cut

I have three things to say about this:

A corndog in every pot

A corndog in every pot

With less than two months remaining in the 83rd legislative session, Gov. Rick Perry on Monday called on state lawmakers to find $1.6 billion to give Texas businesses relief from the state’s franchise tax.

Perry’s proposal consists of four parts: reducing the overall franchise tax rates by 5 percent, making permanent a $1 million deduction for businesses with up to $20 million in gross receipts, lowering the rate for businesses that file their taxes using the state’s simplified “EZ form” and allowing out-of-state companies that relocate to Texas to deduct their moving expenses.

Perry said Texas needs to invest in more tax relief because other states are considering cutting their taxes to match Texas.

“The idea that we can just sit here and think we can stay at the top of the heap is just not correct,” Perry said Monday at a news conference at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

1. All through the session, as Democrats have called for restoring the brutal cuts that were made to public education in 2011, one of the main arguments made by Republicans for not doing so is that we ought to wait and see how the Supreme Court rules on the school finance lawsuit, since it won’t be until that point that the Legislature will know what (if anything) it needs to do to comply. One would think that the same logic would apply here. In particular, if the Court upholds the ruling on adequacy, the Lege will have to find several billions of dollars in new revenue for the schools. Seems like a bad idea to be cutting one of the primary sources of that revenue before you even know what will be needed. Not that Rick Perry cares about such trivia, of course.

2. Speaking of the schools, as we know the margins tax has consistently fallen well short of replacing the revenue lost to the schools when the property tax rate was cut in 2006 in response to the previous school finance lawsuit. I don’t see that fact being mentioned in any of the stories I’ve seen so far.

3. As with the other form of tax relief being offered so far this session, the benefits are going (exclusively in this case, primarily in the other) not to individuals but to businesses. If you think tax relief is what is needed this session – I don’t, but it takes all kinds – wouldn’t you at least like to actually see some of that relief? Unless you happen to be a business owner affected by the margins tax, you won’t. Too bad for you.

It’s Chapter 42 week

We won’t know for years what the upcoming revisions to Chapter 42, the development and density codes in Houston, will mean to the city and its development and population patterns. There’s certainly a lot of hope that the changes will be positive.

Southwest Houston, with its glut of apartments and condominiums, is three times denser than the city as a whole.

Whatever the term – aging, blighted, dilapidated – many of those complexes are ripe for redevelopment, as are the empty shopping centers and abandoned warehouses around them. Often havens for crime, these eyesores depress property values and are themselves a drag on the tax rolls.

Some revitalization efforts are underway, but residents like Jim Bigham, president of the Sharpstown Civic Association, are looking for a spark, a catalyst for change.

With a proposed rewrite of Houston’s development ordinance headed to the City Council table on Wednesday, city leaders say they have one.

The new rules, six years in the making, would allow greater single-family housing density outside Loop 610. That, builders say, will enable them to fit more houses on the same piece of land, bringing down the price of each home and making it more likely that market-price housing can be placed on dormant tracts.

“We’re stuck right now. What’s not working is having an empty retail – vacant, crappy – building for 20 years sitting on the same corner,” Bigham said. “We see the overall rule change facilitating redevelopment at some level, and that in itself is a positive thing.”

By their own admission, however, homebuilders will struggle to develop many of the tracts targeted for renewal because they do not have the capital or because they risk being outbid by apartment developers. Experts say land developers, who buy large tracts, invest in infrastructure and then sell individual lots to homebuilders, will play an important role if revitalization is to be widespread.

“Our challenge that we have to think about is, we have an aging city, and we need to think about how we go in and allow for our city to be updated,” city Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick said. “To some degree, these rules will encourage the redevelopment of property, and you’ll utilize the existing infrastructure that’s already in place where the city has already made an investment in the infrastructure, streets and sewers.”

That’s the plan, anyway. How well it will work, I have no idea. The theory is simple enough – when you’ve got a lot of demand for something, you should try to increase the supply of that something – it’s the ancillary effects that are the big unknowns. Check back in ten years and we’ll see where we are.

One way to know if the revision has been a success is if this trend slows down.

More than 80 percent of the homes that sold last year were outside of Beltway 8, according to a study commissioned by the Houston Chronicle. Compare that to just 6 percent inside Loop 610 and 12.8 percent between the Loop and the Beltway.

What draws people to these far-off suburbs, sometimes 30 miles from downtown? Homeowners cite a multitude of reasons, like schools, shopping and affordable housing. Another big draw is jobs.

Houston’s outlying areas are home to major business districts.

“You keep seeing oil companies and major employers locating outside of downtown. They locate along the West Belt. They’re moving up to The Woodlands,” said Evert Crawford of Crawford Realty Advisors and the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business.

“A lot of people don’t work downtown anymore,” said Crawford, who conducted the study.

[…]

The median price per square foot for a home outside the Beltway was $72.98 last year, according to the housing data. That was up 3.7 percent from 2011, but still less than half of the Inner Loop value of $178.09 per square foot.

That’s an insufficient comparison, since the Chapter 42 revision is aimed at property between 610 and the Beltway, but you get the idea. We’d like to see a higher percentage of homes purchased inside the Beltway in order to say that the Chapter 42 remake is doing what we wanted it to do. Now, single-family houses aren’t the be-all and end-all – there’s a ton of high-end apartment construction inside the Loop, and smaller apartments, the antithesis to sprawling suburban mansions, are a trend as well. A fuller range of metrics will be needed to really get an answer to the question of how successful the Chapter 42 changes were. But since we’ve been talking so much about how the goal is to make it easier to build affordable housing in Houston, then let’s look first at those numbers.

More on that underutilized high speed toll road

More toll road travails.

Traffic counts on the new section of Texas 130, released Friday by the Texas Department of Transportation based on newspaper open records requests, show that the tollway southeast of Austin in its first couple of months was seeing fewer than 3,000 vehicles a day.

About 5 percent of those were big rigs in the 10 weeks between the road’s Oct. 24 opening and the end of the year, the period covered by open records requests filed with TxDOT by the American-Statesman and the San Antonio Express-News. The road saw 132 trucks with trailers per day between Mustang Ridge and Lockhart, and about 100 a day between Lockhart and Seguin.

Interstate 35, several miles to the west, saw more than 100,000 vehicles a day in 2011 counts taken by TxDOT.

The Texas Attorney General’s office rejected arguments from the Texas 130 Concession Co., which built and is operating the 85 mph road under a 50-year lease with TxDOT, that traffic and revenue information about the 41-mile tollway should not released to the public. The company had argued that the information constituted a trade secret and that disclosure would cause the company “competitive harm.”

The early numbers are about half of what the company predicted in 2008, according to Moody’s Investor Service, which is investigating whether credit ratings on the company’s $1.1 billion in debt on the road should be downgraded. The concession company, owned by a partnership of Spain-based Cintra and Zachry Construction Co. from San Antonio, spent about $1.3 billion building the road and paid TxDOT $140 million in lease payments.

That’s not a lot of traffic. The earlier story we heard was that the daily vehicle count was only about half of what had been originally estimated, but it didn’t say what that number actually was. I’m not sure what’s more remarkable, that the estimate was off by so much, or that 6,000 vehicles a day was considered worthwhile, at least at the beginning, for this project. If it’s mostly pass-through traffic that’s using SH 130, it’s certainly beneficial to get those vehicles off of I-35, but you really have to wonder how sustainable this is, and whether there might have been a more cost-effective solution.

Still pondering Abbott’s redistricting motives

The Trib’s Ross Ramsey wonders what Greg Abbott is up to.

Still not Greg Abbott

Greg Abbott is selling a redistricting nostrum, telling Texas legislators they could cut their legal risks by adopting new political maps right away.

It is a hard sell. Lawmakers are getting along so well they practically break out into song every day. Abbott, the state’s attorney general, is offering them one of the most reliably divisive issues in existence, saying they could get themselves — and him, too, by the way — out of a lot of gnarly legal fights by endorsing maps drawn by federal judges instead of defending their own. They’re balking.

[…]

Lawmakers can always come back and draw new maps again, after the courts are through. They have been advised to leave their school finance system alone while that works its way through the courts, to avoid trying to second-guess the judges. So why second-guess the courts on redistricting?

Abbott has more at risk.

The political incentives are meager: It would be hard to come out of this a hero. Just try to find a well-balanced Texas voter who is keeping score on redistricting machinations. Most voters are looking at other things.

The risk? If, a year from now, one party or the other has lost ground because of a lousy showing in court, its advocates — not the lawmakers themselves — would take the heat.

Nobody, especially the attorney general, wants to be a goat.

As we know, bills to affirm the interim 2012 maps as the official maps for the rest of the decade were introduced just before the filing deadline. We learned later that this was what Abbott wanted. I still don’t quite get why he wants this, and I don’t fully buy Ramsey’s thesis. The Republicans, led in part by Abbott, have been employing a maximalist strategy all along. They drew super-aggressive maps, they put essentially no remediation in the voter ID bill, and they’re petitioning the Supreme Court to throw out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act so that they can implement these things. Why hedge their bets now? Even if SCOTUS upholds Section 5 and the San Antonio court forces Dem-friendlier maps to be drawn, I don’t believe Abbott will be the fall guy for that. He’d have a very straightforward case to make to the seething masses of GOP primary voters that he was out there fighting for truth and justice and he would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those godless activist judges. Maybe some GOP insiders will grumble that he gave them bad legal advice, but who cares? Facts don’t have anything to do with it. I don’t see the downside of going full gonzo Don Quixote, or the upside of getting timid inside the red zone. Am I missing something here?

One more thing, from Trail Blazers:

The 83rd Texas legislative session could go into overtime.

Attorney General Greg Abbott has urged the Legislature to make permanent the interim legislative boundaries developed last year by a federal panel in San Antonio.

But such action is unlikely to occur before the current session ends in May. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to strike down a provision in the Voting Rights Act that requires states like Texas to have legislative boundaries and changes in election law approved by the federal government. The high court is expected to rule on the Sec. 5 provision in the Voting Rights Act near the end of its term, perhaps in June.

Most legislators don’t want to consider redistricting until the Supreme Court has finished its business. This week several lawmakers told me they expected to be called back by Gov. Rick Perry for a short special session to approve final legislative boundaries.

I’m not sure if the implication here is that they’re expecting a special session to be called in the event of Section 5 being struck down, or if one will be called regardless. I’m not going to worry about it until we get the ruling from SCOTUS. But if the implication of all this is that Perry is on board with Abbott’s idea to make the interim maps the officially sanctioned maps, then again I wonder what caused the retreat from the damn-the-torpedoes attitude of before.