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April 30th, 2013:

Look out, Lamar

There’s big money coming after you.

The anti-incumbent super-PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability is coming back for 2014 after shutting down last election cycle — and it’s already making a wish list of targets, including Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas). 



The organization, which targets long-serving House incumbents in safe districts, spent $3 million to defeat a number of lawmakers in 2012 before running out of money last July.

A group spokesman tells The Hill the organization’s efforts will be “much more robust” this time around and says plans for new House targets are in the works.

The group has its eye on five incumbents: Rangel, Smith and Reps. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

Rangel, Bachus and Bonner were targets in the last election cycle and faced tough races; Schiff and Smith are new.

[…]

[Spokesman Curtis] Ellis said his organization’s research shows Smith’s constituents in Texas are less than thrilled with him, partly because of his failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Smith could face a tough challenge from a libertarian-leaning Republican named Matt McCaul.

“There’s a sense Smith is not universally loved, respected or regarded. He was the author of SOPA, and that worked out really well, didn’t it?” Ellis said. “He was one of the authors, leadership got behind it, the establishment told everyone ‘there’s nothing to see here, just vote for it’ and that blew up in everyone’s face.”

Ellis added: “We’ve heard through our channels that McCaul is viable and serious, he has the potential to run a real race.”

I’m pretty sure they mean Matt McCall, who does appear to be interested in running. Burka speculated briefly about Joe Straus challenging Smith, but quickly shot it down for the obvious reason that Straus would have no good reason to give up what he has now for a Congressional campaign that would be at best a coin toss.

Lamar Smith is awful for a lot of reasons – he’s a longstanding xenophobe and anti-immigration activist; if comprehensive immigration reform dies in the House, you can be sure Lamar Smith’s fingerprints will be on the corpse – but as I said when the CPA targeted Joe Barton and Ralph Hall last year, I have little reason to believe Matt McCall would be any better. By all means, primary him good and hard – it’ll be entertaining to watch him squirm – but win or lose I hardly see it as an improvement on the status quo in CD21.

Questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Lisa Falkenberg reports that some people have raised questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ.

Reforestation is sorely needed in a park devastated by hurricane damage and drought. This is a great deal, city leaders and supporters say, a great way to restore our crown jewel to its former beauty. And we should all trust the Memorial Park Conservancy – a private body whose members aren’t elected and which acts as both fundraiser and watchdog for the park – to make it happen.

But some meddlesome environmentalists aren’t so trusting. This week, they walked into City Hall and demanded the public have a say, a real say, in the deal. They asked for details beyond a press release. They asked for more than a couple of weeks to sort it out and read the small print.

When they were assured by Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members that the city would have to sign off on any decisions, the environmentalists continued to argue that the public should be involved from the get-go. Not after the fact. Not left holding a rubber stamp.

After all, it’s a public park, a very special one with a rare wildness that offers a unique escape in a city as large as Houston. It belongs to all of us, they say. It is not for sale.

[…]

There are details in a “Letter of Intent” on the project that didn’t make it into the press release. The letter outlining details of the plan states that the Conservancy would be responsible for major decisions including design, bidding, and managing construction projects in the master plan. The city would later have to approve those decisions, but it’s unclear if that leaves enough time for a thorough public vetting.

A troubling section of the letter called “Coordination of Public Relations” points out that the conservancy isn’t subject to public information requests. And the agreement would require all parties – even the public ones that are subject to information requests – to coordinate through private parties before disclosing any information to the public.

When I asked Joe Turner, Houston’s parks director, about that provision, he said it had been awhile since he’d read the letter. He said he’d read it and get back with me if he had anything to add. He didn’t call back.

“The public is a missing piece of this organization. It’s political appointees, private nonprofits and a TIRZ. Where’s the public?” Evelyn Merz, with the Sierra Club, told me. Merz said she’s “appalled” by the plan, but not because she doubts the motives of conservancy members.

“I know they care about the park. That’s not the issue. Are they the same as the public? I would say they aren’t,” she told me.

My first thought upon reading this was to wonder what kind of public input on the management of Memorial Park exists now. If the TIRZ were to go away, I presume the Conservancy would still be responsible for major decisions concerning the park and any attempt to reforest it via grants and private donations, just as it has always been. If the public has been involved in that in any substantive way, I couldn’t tell you what it is.

The difference here is the addition of public funds via the TIRZ. Public money requires public accountability, so it is perfectly reasonable to demand that. Unfortunately, just as there’s no mention of what public involvement currently exists for Memorial Park governance, there is no mention of what type of new or further involvement would make the Mayor’s proposal acceptable. Falkenberg notes that Council would have to approve any decisions made by the Conservancy, but what is being asked for is involvement in the process, before the signoff. I think that’s a fine idea, I’d just like to know what that involvement might look like.

I sent an email to Ms. Merz to ask her what she would like to see done to involve the public more directly, but I didn’t get a response. It’s not unreasonable to me for the Mayor to suggest that Council signoff on any proposal gives the public a voice in the process, but it’s also not unreasonable for Ms. Merz to suggest that the public should have its say earlier in the process, while the ideas are still being debated and proposed. I suppose the ordinance that creates the TIRZ could put some requirements on how the Conservancy operates – open meetings, outreach via social and traditional media for feedback, etc. Again, it’s not clear to me what the specific concerns are. I wish Falkenberg had considered that question. Maybe she felt she didn’t have the space for it in her column, but she does have a Facebook page for her column as well as a long-dormant blog, so she did have avenues to explore it that wouldn’t have cost her space in the news hole. Maybe she’ll write a followup, I don’t know. Campos has more.

UPDATE: Here’s an FAQ about the TIRZ proposal that Campos forwarded to me. Note the following:

How will transparency in the development of the Master Plan be ensured?

The process for creating the Memorial Park Master Plan will follow the same pattern that the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan was developed under. Public meetings will be held during the draft stages; drafts will be circulated for public comment and prior to any finalization of the Master Plan by the consultants selected a public meeting will be held. After that the Master Plan will be brought to the City’s Quality of Life Committee for review and then to City Council for final consideration.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. What do you think, Lisa?

Abbott opines against domestic partnership benefits

This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

On the right side of history

The state Constitution prohibits government entities from recognizing domestic partnerships and offering insurance benefits to those couples, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in an opinion on Monday.

In the nonbinding opinion, Abbott determined that local jurisdictions that offer such benefits “have created and recognized something” — domestic partnerships — “not established by Texas law.”

“A court is likely to conclude that the domestic partnership legal status about which you inquire is ‘similar to marriage’ and therefore barred” by the state Constitution, he wrote.

The opinion was a response to a question asked by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who had raised concerns about the Pflugerville school district, as well as the cities of El Paso, Austin and Fort Worth, extending such benefits to domestic partners.

“The voters of the state of Texas decided overwhelmingly that marriage is between one man and one woman in 2005,” Patrick said in a statement responding to Abbott’s opinion. “This opinion clearly outlines that cities, counties and school districts cannot subvert the will of Texans.”

You can read the opinion here. I called this back in November when Patrick asked for the opinion, not that this is anything to be proud of. A few thoughts:

– Remember back in 2005 when those of us who opposed that awful anti-gay marriage amendment pointed out that it would do a lot more than merely make gay marriage extra super illegal (since it was already illegal in Texas)? This is the sort of thing we were talking about. Legislative Democrats that still haven’t gotten on board the marriage equality bus, this is especially on you.

– Note that since the language of Abbott’s opinion is all about how the amendment banned anything “similar to marriage” and how that encompasses the term “domestic partner”, this isn’t strictly about LGBT folks. If you’re shacking up with your opposite sex partner but have chosen not to tie the knot, you’re SOL if you work for a non-federal government entity in Texas.

– Of course, if you are one half of a straight unmarried couple, you can always tie the knot to get your hands on health insurance. Gay people can get married now, too, but the state of Texas does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this would be the seed of that law’s downfall in the event that SCOTUS throws out DOMA. If we’re lucky, this will turn out to be a massive and petty waste of time.

– If you read the opinion, Abbott tries to play a little jiujitsu by claiming that the intent of the law was not to bar cities from offering same sex partners insurance benefits, just from recognizing the status of a marriage-like thing such as a domestic partnership:

Representative Chisum’s statement simply explains that article I, section 32 does not, in his view, address whether a political subdivision may provide health benefits to the unmarried partner of an employee. The constitutional provision does, however, explicitly prohibit a political subdivision from creating or recognizing a legal status identical or similar to marriage. The political subdivisions you ask about have not simply provided health benefits to the partners of their employees. Instead, they have elected to create a domestic partnership status that is similar to marriage. Further, they have recognized that status by making it the sole basis on which health benefits may be conferred on the domestic partners of employees.

For extra credit, please detail a scenario in which an insurance company would offer a benefit for the unmarried partner of an employee that didn’t require some kind of legal affirmation of a relationship between the applicant and the employee that would also be constitutionally acceptable to Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and other deep thinkers such as Drew Springer.

– This absolutely, positively has to be a campaign issue in 2014. I can’t emphasize this enough. People may remain largely opposed to gay marriage in Texas, but by a two to one margin they approve of either gay marriage or civil unions. I’m willing to bet a decent majority will not like this opinion. More to the point, this is an issue that Democrats can rally around, since it illustrates in unmistakeable terms a key difference between the two parties. Even better, this can be hung around Abbott’s neck. Sure, he’s only taking his best guess at how a court would decide the issue, but it’s also unambiguously the same as his own position. Let him explain why it’s technically inaccurate to say that Greg Abbott outlawed domestic partnership benefits in Texas. This goes for Drew Springer and all of his coauthors, too. This is a big deal. We need to treat it like one.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but let’s keep our eyes open for the reactions to this. Trail Blazers, Hair Balls, and BOR have more.

UPDATE: Equality Texas goes glass-half-full on the opinion:

It means cities, counties, and school districts seeking to remain competitive with private business can offer employee benefit programs that provide health and other benefits to unmarried household members if the eligibility criteria are properly structured.

However, eligibility should not use the term “domestic partner”, or be based upon proving the existence of a “domestic partnership”, or use criteria usually associated with marriage (like current marital status, or related by a certain degree of consanguinity).

It means political subdivisions can offer employee benefit programs to unmarried household members if their eligibility criteria don’t look like marriage, or create something that resembles marriage.

I appreciate their optimism, and I hope they’re right. But I still think that the challenge of fashioning such a thing will be too daunting. I’ll be glad to be proven wrong.

UPDATE: The cities of Austin and San Antonio are not quite ready to accept Abbott’s opinion.

UH goes smoke-free

Good for them.

The University of Houston, which educates more than 40,000 students each year on its 667-acre campus, will become tobacco-free June 1, school officials announced Thursday.

The new policy, approved by UH Chancellor Renu Khator, bans the use of tobacco products in all university buildings and grounds, including parking areas, sidewalks and walkways. It will apply to all employees, students, contractors and visitors to the campus.

“We are very well aware that this will be an inconvenience to the UH community of smokers,” said Kathryn Peek, assistant vice president of university health initiatives and co-chair of the school’s tobacco task force. “But nobody has to quit smoking. What we’re trying to do is eliminate second-hand smoke on the campus.”

For smokers, UH will provide 20 designated open areas for tobacco use mostly situated away from buildings and walkways. People will be able to smoke there, but after a year the task force will decide if it will allow those exemptions to continue.

[…]

UH is a recipient of more than $9.4 million in funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, which began requiring its recipients in 2012 to have tobacco-free policies in and around all locations where research is conducted.

The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University banned tobacco on their campuses in 2012. Texas A&M is awaiting approval of the president to establish a tobacco-free campus. All are CPRIT grant recipients.

“CPRIT accelerated the university’s tobacco-free campus policy, but that isn’t the sole reason,” Peek said. “This was a student-led movement from the beginning.”

Good to know CPRIT has been good for something. More seriously, I’m somewhat amazed that UH didn’t already ban smoking in these places. Most public places have been smoke-free for so long that I suppose I just took that for granted. This has been in the works at UH since June but it’s just coming up now. Better late than never, I guess.