Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

June, 2013:

Back to court for the school finance lawsuit

Like deja vu all over again.

State district court Judge John Dietz likened the state’s school finance case to the soap opera As The World Turns when he opened Wednesday’s hearing on whether to reconsider evidence in the trial that concluded in February.

He drew the comparison not because of the trial’s drama but because of its longevity.

“There were 13,858 episodes of As The World Turns and we are getting pretty close,” Dietz said.

After hearing brief arguments from the state and the six parties in the case, the judge announced that a new six-week trial would begin on Jan. 6 in the lawsuit that arose last summer after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011 while the state simultaneously implemented a rigorous new testing and accountability system.

“The passage of the wealth of bills during this 83rd Legislature has created a situation where in the interests of justice we need to assay and concentrate as to whether that legislation changed the circumstances [we examined] during the 45-day trial,” Dietz said.

The two largest groups of school districts represented in the case, along with the state, were in favor of reopening evidence in the case to update the record after a legislative session in which the Legislature restored about $3.4 billion to public education funding. Changes to high school testing and graduation requirements, as well as a bill expanding the state’s charter school system, also passed.

“It’s not in anyone’s interest to allow it to go to [Texas] Supreme Court. It’d be highly likely we’d be back in this court in six months,” said attorney Mark Trachtenberg, who represents some of the districts in the case. He argued that the high court would remand the decision if it did not consider the impact of the 2013 Legislature.

[…]

All of the parties will be back in court on July 17 to determine what procedures will govern the new trial.

See here for the last update. It makes sense to hash everything out again, since there were some significant changes made by the Legislature. I don’t know that what they did actually fixes the problems that Judge Dietz outlined, but to be sure the facts are different now, and there’s not much point in having the Supreme Court rule on a decision that is no longer current. So have at it one more time, y’all.

Drinking water from the Gulf

Well, there is a lot of water there.

The wicked drought gripping Texas has made one thing clear to Bill West: There is not enough water to meet new urban demands and competing environmental needs.

So in his search for new sources of water, the general manager the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is looking in another direction. West plans to tap the Gulf of Mexico.

The river authority has launched a two-year, $2-million study into the economic viability of building a seawater desalination plant by the Texas coast, a technology being used in Australia, Singapore and the Middle East that has been slow to take hold in North America.

[…]

The cost of desalting seawater is usually many times more than that of conventional water sources, such as rivers and reservoirs.

The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that water from a desalting plant will cost about $2,000 an acre-foot, roughly enough water to satisfy two or three families a year. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which supplies water for a fast-growing corridor between Austin and San Antonio, now sells water from the Canyon Lake reservoir for $125 an acre-foot.

Energy is the primary driver, accounting for as much as 70 percent of the operating costs of a seawater desalting plant, said Tom Pankratz, the Houston-based editor of the Water Desalination Report.

“In a number of places, desalination always has been too expensive,” he said. “But now the cost of developing conventional supplies is rising, making the cost of desalination more viable.”

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority would build the desalting facility with a power plant near Victoria, about 130 miles southwest of Houston. The power plant likely would be fueled by cheap and plentiful natural gas from the nearby Eagle Ford play, though the feasibility study also will look at renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

“The energy part of the equation has changed over the years,” said Les Shephard, director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which will help the river authority on the project. “Now is a good time to look at natural gas.”

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Most of what has been talked about so far has involved brackish water, of which there is plenty in Texas. It’s cheaper to process, since it’s not nearly as salty as seawater. I get the impression that things must be getting desperate if using water from the Gulf is looking like a viable option.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s idea “seems awfully Herculean for what we need,” said Amy Hardberger, a water policy and law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “It does not get to the heart of the matter.”

Hardberger said the river authority should look more closely at using water more efficiently before building a big desalting plant that could cost more than $1 billion. She is among those who are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming each Texan will use the same amount per day in the future.

Others are bullish on a brackish desalination. The groundwater is much less salty than seawater, so purifying it is much less expensive. The San Antonio Water System, for one, is building a $145 million desalting plant above the Wilcox Aquifer, about 30 miles south of the city.

There are 46 brackish desalination plants across Texas, with nearly 40 more facilities included in the state’s long-range water plan. The state holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, which is 150 times the amount of water Texans use each year, according to the state water board.

But West said the Gulf is more attractive than a salty aquifer because he can avoid the often nasty permitting fights with the special districts that oversee groundwater. What’s more, the river authority’s project is an important piece in an “all-of-the-above” water portfolio, especially with climate models showing Texas getting less rainfall as global temperatures keep rising.

See here for more on what San Antonio has done, and here for all my previous blogging on desalinization. I’m curious about putting a desalting plant in Victoria – wouldn’t you also need to build a big pipeline to get the water there in the first place as well? Most of the previous stuff I’ve seen on desalinization had to do with brackish water, which is found all over Texas, but in browsing my archives I didn’t see any indication of how much it cost to desalinate brackish water, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. I do agree with Prof. Hardberger that conservation has to be the first priority, as that is always the cheapest option, but in the long term I suspect desalinization will be a part of the equation. I don’t know how much of that will be Gulf water, though.

One thing I’ve yet to see mentioned in any story about desalinization is what to do with all the excess salt – technically, the brine water that is left over, which can be 15 to 25 percent of the intake, from what I can tell. If you take salty water and extract all the fresh water you can, you’re going to have to do something with the extra super salty residual water, right? Fortunately, the Sierra Club of Texas has done the heavy lifting on that, and you can read all about it here. If we’re going to go down this road – and I believe we are – we need to make sure we have sufficient environmental controls in place so that we don’t create bigger problems than the ones we’re trying to solve.

Saturday video break: With A Little Help From My Friends

Song #14 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “With A Little Help From My Friends”, originally by The Beatles and covered by Joe Cocker. Here’s the original:

One thing I’ve always liked about that song is that it’s right in my own vocal range. I used to be a low-end tenor, though my voice has gotten lower as I’ve gotten older. I can still sing this one along with Ringo, however, so if I ever stumble into a karaoke party, there’s at least one song I can do. Now here’s Cocker’s iconic cover:

Of course, he’s best known for his live performance of it at Woodstock:

And whether because of the sub-optimal acoustics, the, um, unique vocal stylings, or just the whole drug-fueled aesthetic of it, that recording has inspired numerous parodies, from John Belushi:

To random people on the Internet with too much time on their hands:

That’s funny – the Fred Flinstone image will stay with me for a long time – but man, Belushi was a genius. I guess it was inevitable that he’d die young, but what a tragedy it was. Look at the body of work Bill Murray and Dan Ayckroyd will leave behind, and wonder what could have been if he could have just reined in the self-destructiveness a bit. Anyway, to get back to the subject at hand, which version is your favorite?

House passes redistricting and abortion bills

Texas Redistricting:

The House has passed SB 3, the redistricting bill for the state house map, on third and final reading.

There was one last floor amendment today offered by State Rep. Toni Rose (D-Dallas), which moved Rose’s mother and a few other hundred voters into her district from HD 109 where they had been previously.

The amendment was accepted with objection.

State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) also offered an amendment that would have reunited the Sharpstown community in his district. Wu said the Sharpstown community had always been in HD 137 but under the state’s 2011 and the second interim map had been split between Wu’s district and that of State Rep. Boris Miles (D-Houston).

Wu, however, pulled the amendment after laying it out, saying that he had not been able to obtain full consent to the change.

[…]

As on second reading, SB 3 passed on a party line vote and now heads back to the Senate, where the Senate redistricting chair, State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), has committed to accept the House’s changes to its map in keeping with longstanding custom that each house draws its own map.

The House returns at 2:15 p.m. for votes on the state senate and congressional maps.

The Senate is out until Sunday at 1 p.m. when it could take up the state house map bill.

And at 2:15 the House returned and passed the other bills with no muss or fuss. Since the Congressional and State Senate redistricting bills were not amended by the House they will go to Rick Perry for his signature. Greg has more.

Meanwhile, this happened.

After abruptly ending hours of public testimony that went into the wee hours of Friday morning, the House State Affairs Committee reconvened on Friday and quietly approved House Bill 60, its companion, Senate Bill 5 — omnibus abortion restriction legislation — and a standalone measure to ban abortion at 20 weeks gestation, House Bill 16.

With the special session coming to an end on Tuesday, opponents of the measures say the decision by Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, to end to the hearing near 4 a.m. — before hundreds of reproductive rights advocates could testify — may open the door to kill the legislation. They also say their efforts to delay the legislation could enable senators to filibuster it when it returns to that chamber for final approval.

“We had a lot of impassioned testimony, which is the public’s right,” Cook told reporters when the committee adjourned. “Your legislative body weighs very seriously people’s concerns.”

The only committee member present that voted against the three bills, state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, chairwoman of the House women’s health caucus, called the decision to approve the bills despite the testimony of advocates a political farce.

“We all know that abortion will continue to happen, the question is will it be safe and legal,” she said. “It’s all about appeals to the right flank of the Republican party.”

[…]

Farrar and reproductive rights advocates allege Cook’s decision to end testimony could endanger the legislation. House members may be able to kill the bill on a point of order if the committee did not follow proper legislative procedures when they ended testimony. If approved, advocates could also sue the state and seek to overturn the legislation, arguing the state ignored democratic processes by denying them the opportunity to speak on the bill.

We’ll see about that. The “people’s filibuster”, which kept the committee up until almost 4 on Friday morning, made national news, but I think we all knew that in the end the Republicans would do what they had to do to get this out of committee. With the session ending Tuesday, there’s a chance that some further gamesmanship can take place, but I feel pretty confident saying that this is going to pass, one way or another. After that, it’s a matter for the courts and the ballot box. I salute everyone who participated in this little show of force, and I dearly hope it gets our side fired up, because we need to be.

More on the New Dome Experience

The Chron’s subscription site story adds some more details to the news about the New Dome Experience.

[Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett said that if the court signs off on the plan next week, it likely would ask the county budget office to look for alternative ways to pay the $194 million tab, which includes asbestos abatement, to minimize the amount of any bond referendum put to voters.

County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said last week that millions potentially could be generated via naming rights deals, building use fees and auctioning off various salvaged building parts, including the seats.

The cost estimate is about $80 million cheaper than a similar plan the agency presented to Commissioners Court last year. Loston said the primary reason the price tag is lower is because the plan does not involve renovating the below-ground space.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said the sports corporation’s proposal seems like a modified version of the one submitted last year, which he said the rodeo was involved in crafting.

“So, on the surface, it appears to be something that is in line with our lease covenants and something that we would have no opposition to,” he said.

Shafer said the rodeo remains concerned about the future of the aging Reliant Arena, but is “excited that movement is taking place.”

“We’re excited about this recommendation,” Shafer said. “But we were excited about the recommendation when it went to Commissioners Court last year, too. So, we still have to wait to see where this goes.”

Those who submitted reuse plans to the sports corporation said they were disappointed their ideas were not selected but glad officials were not pushing demolition.

“We’re very happy that there’s no intention or recommendation to demolish the Dome, and that was our principal objective,” said Chris Alexander, project director of Astrodome Tomorrow, which submitted a $1 billion plan to turn the stadium into a “tourist mecca” with retail and restaurants and an educational facility. “Obviously, we had our own proposal. We think it’s a great proposal, and we still intend to take it directly to Harris County.”

See here for the initial New Dome announcement. I’m not exactly sure what Chris Alexander means by taking his idea “directly to Harris County” – lobbying Commissioners Court? Advertising his solution as a better alternative? Something else? I don’t see anything on their webpage or Facebook page to suggest what that might mean.

The idea of salvaging the Dome as a way to defray costs was raised last year by demolition experts and reported in the Chronicle. It’s good that Harris County is thinking along those lines – it really wouldn’t make any sense to do otherwise – but it’s not something that was just thought up.

There was that $270 million plan from last year to create a New Dome Experience, which did not get an endorsement from Judge Emmett and never went anywhere, in part due to concern that the economy wasn’t good enough yet to put a $270 million Astrodome bond referendum on the ballot. (As Swamplot reminds us, the same basic idea of a multi-purpose facility goes back even further than last year.) I inquired with Judge Emmett’s office about the difference between this year and last year, and besides the obvious fact that this year’s proposal is a lot cheaper and the economy is in better shape, the process has played out more fully, which wasn’t the case then. Now clearly, some people think this process has taken way too long, but I agree with that assessment. It feels different to me, like everyone is more engaged, and even if none of them were ready for prime time, the fact that 19 private proposals were submitted says a lot.

Not all reactions to the HCSCC announcement have been positive. After Hair Balls posted a straightforward account of the announcement, John Royal went on a rampage about it.

The Corporation unveiled its grand plan on Wednesday, and in doing so, stated that no qualified private plans had been submitted, so it had to cobble together its own plan. A plan that essentially repeated warmed over plans that the Corporation had tried to pass off on suckers in the past. The difference being that this time the cost was an outrageous $194 million that, somehow, the public will be forced to fund.

Amazingly, there are sheep out there who think that not only is this a good plan, but that the costs are reasonable and doable. Those costs will be doable of course because taxpayers would be paying for it.

But being a doable plan doesn’t make it a good plan. Creating more convention and exhibition space that will only be used during the Rodeo, the Offshore Technology Conference, and the occasional Super Bowl at a cost of $194 million isn’t reasonable or doable. It’s idiotic. It’s moronic. It’s the work of imbeciles who, over past years, have also offered up proposals for turning the place into an aquarium, a movie studio, a hotel, and a theme park, to name just a few ideas.

[…]

Then again, this whole fiasco has never been about saving or refurbishing the Dome. It’s always been about saving face. About finding some way to get cowards on Commissioners Court off of the hook. Tear it down? Well only if there are no other options. Rebuilding it with taxpayer funds so as to guarantee the revenue streams of the Texans and the Rodeo, well, if that’s the only option. And if this plan is put on the ballot and the voters stupidly support it, then how can the Commissioners be blamed because it’s what the public wants.

The Dome is an architectural wonder that deserves much better than what the county’s not-so-benign neglect has delivered. Unlike its next door neighbor, the Dome is a building with character and personality. It defines a Houston from a past era, a Houston that was forward thinking and was on the leading edge of the space race. But Houston’s now like Reliant Stadium, a stale, sterile rip-off of ideas generated by outsiders who care less about Houston’s past, present, or future – much like Minute Maid Park is just a poor imitation of many things done so much better.

If any building should be demolished to make way for parking it should be Reliant Stadium. If there’s any body of people who should be replaced along with Reliant Stadium, it’s the worthless fools who make up the Commissioners Court, who are more concerned with reelection than they are with doing what’s right by the Astrodome and with the citizens of Harris County.

It’s doubtful that Commissioners Court reads this blog, but if they do, please say no to this abomination of a plan that is set to do nothing more than rip-off taxpayers while continuing to enrich the Texans, the Rodeo. Let’s defund the damn Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.

And while this opinion might not be the popular one, I urge this. If somehow this supreme folly ends up on the ballot, please vote no.

I presume Royal means that the HCSCC are the “imbeciles” in question, but they weren’t the ones who offered up the movie studio or hotel/convention center ideas; they both came from the private sector. Royal avows his love of the Astrodome and his desire to preserve it, but it’s not clear to me how he would like to see that happen. What do you want the Astrodome to be, and how do you want it to get there? I mean, if all one cares about is that the building continues to exist, then the current plan of not-so-benign neglect works pretty well, and at a bargain price. Anything else is going to cost money, most likely nine digits’ worth. That’s been the problem all along, as we well know. I understand the grumbling about the 19 private proposals being dismissed in favor of the HCSCC’s publicly-funded option, but I haven’t seen any of those 19 proposers claiming that they had financing, or at least the promise of it, lined up. I trust Royal isn’t advocating for public money to be spent on a privately-owned project, but then I don’t know what he’s advocating. Nobody has to like the HCSCC plan – most likely, you’ll get your chance to vote on it in November – but if you don’t like it and don’t want the Dome to be demolished, then what do you want? And how would you pay for it? We’ve been asking these questions for a decade. If there were an obvious answer, we’d have figured it out by now.

Also not a fan is the Chron editorial board.

Of course the HCSCC’s public option was going to win – it promulgated rules that disqualified anything else. So instead we watched a well-rehearsed script as the corporation went through the motions of soliciting private ideas, considering them under the impossible guidelines set and then inevitably striking them down. The HCSCC instead falls back on a public plan that seems strikingly similar to the one proposed in May 2012 – a proposal notably rejected at the time by County Commissioner Steve Radack. Mischief, thou art afoot.

It is hard to grasp this proposal as anything but another kick of the can, getting us closer to an apparently inevitable destruction of the Dome all while looking like we’re doing the right thing.

This isn’t a convention center. It looks to us like a lamb that the county seeks to sacrifice without appearing like butchers. We’ll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down. How long until the first voices from within county government condemn this plan as too expensive? Or unnecessary? Or requiring extra study? After all, why would a plan rejected a year ago suddenly become the best idea?

And once voters strike down the rather convenient convention idea, HCSCC has explicitly said that the next step is demolition. This has been the stated scheme since April. If public option fails, there is no room for another vote, no looking for new plans, only demolition. HCSCC says it’s going to fix up the Dome into a new experience, but this feels more like the fix is in.

County commissioners need to come out and say now whether they will support this plan or not come election day. The voters of Harris County deserve transparency from them as well as from the Rodeo and the Texans, two other very interested parties that play in a tax-subsidized facility. We’re afraid opponents will bide their time until election season and suddenly let loose a parade of horribles about every aspect of this Dome decision process, and it’ll be too late to do anything different.

I think we’ve already answered the question about why the plan rejected a year ago is now being touted as the best idea: That plan is now $75 million cheaper, and the economy is in better shape, thus making a publicly-funded solution more feasible. Maybe that lower cost estimate is unrealistic, but the Chron isn’t making that claim. The point about Commissioners Court supporting this plan is a good one, one for which I presume we will get an answer on Tuesday. If Commissioners Court adopts the plan unanimously, and a campaign team gets assembled to pass the subsequent ballot initiative, would that satisfy the Chron’s objections? Of course there will be the usual suspects in opposition because that’s what they do, but if there’s an honest effort to convince the public that this is the right time and the right plan, I don’t see any reason to complain. And if it does get voted down, maybe that’s what the public actually wants. We won’t know until we ask, right?

I don’t think this is the platonic ideal of a plan for the Astrodome. There are a lot of details to be filled in, and even at the lower price it’s fair to wonder why we’re recycling an old idea. How many events do we really think this new facility will be used for, and how many of them would have been held at a different county-owned facility if this one didn’t exist? I was asking those questions myself last year. For all his unfocused ranting, John Royal is correct that the lease deal with the Texans and the Rodeo have hamstrung this process and will limit the usefulness of the New Dome. Again, though, that would be true of any option besides turning the place into a parking lot. The one thing I know is that we’ve talked about this for a long time. There’s never been a consensus about what to do with the Dome, which is why there have always been plenty of ideas for it, however wild and crazy many of them are. If nothing else, this gives us a chance to find some kind of consensus. I for one am ready to stop talking and start doing something. Campos has more.

I love it when anti-GLBT candidates lose

A good runoff result in San Antonio.

Ron Nirenberg

Ron Nirenberg, once an underfunded dark-horse, secured the District 8 seat in [last] Saturday’s runoff, overwhelmingly defeating establishment candidate Rolando Briones.

“It feels good knowing that in San Antonio, the message of grassroots, neighborhood-oriented politics is still what will carry the day — not money, not machine, but the citizens of District 8,” Nirenberg said. “I look forward to working with everyone who was so passionate about this race and this community, no matter which side of the campaign they fell on.”

Nirenberg won with nearly 55 percent of the vote — almost 10 points better than Briones. Atypical of run-off elections, Saturday’s numbers exceeded those of the general election on May 11 when Nirenberg became the de facto frontrunner.

Nirenberg ran a grassroots campaign staffed primarily by volunteers, including a contingent of energized college students and recent graduates, who he calls the future of San Antonio.

Briones’ campaign was a well-funded operation staffed by several well-known political consultants. The engineering firm owner spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money and ran what’s likely to be the most expensive campaign for a council seat in the history of recent city politics.

Nirenberg, who is conventionally married and has a son, was on the receiving end of some nasty gay-baiting mailers. See BOR (twice) and Concerned Citizens for the details. Nirenberg (a Trinity alum and the general manger of 91.7 KRTU – Tigers represent!) nearly won outright in May, and we might have been spared Briones’ foolishness had he done so (Briones claimed the nasty mailers did not come from his campaign, for what it’s worth), so maybe his win in the runoff was predestined. It’s still sweet to see crap like that fail. I hope anyone else who might think to use such tactics, on their own behalf or on behalf of someone else, takes note.

Marfreless will be back

Here’s an unexpected surprise.

We are thrilled to announce our reopening this summer at our same 2006 Peden location in River Oaks. Although we will be under new ownership, we promise the same unique atmosphere, premium menu, friendly staff, and neighborhood charm.

All this comes with a complete renovation – from wires and carpet to the furniture you… sit on. You can expect an updated feel with the same Marfreless experience you’ve come to love. And don’t worry, our upstairs seating and iconic blue door will remain.

Join us on Facebook at facebook.com/marfreless and on Twitter at @MarfrelessBar for updates.

At last report, Marfreless had closed its iconic location and was looking for new digs because it could no longer afford the rent where it was. I’m not sure if the new management – about which a post on their Facebook page promises “more details later” – was able to renegotiate with leaseholder Weingarten Realty or if they just have deeper pockets and less concern about making the math work. Either way, it’s great to have them back. It’s pretty rare for a piece of history that appeared to be doomed to become un-doomed in this town. Welcome back, y’all.

Friday random ten: The city never sleeps, part 10

One last tour of musical cities.

1. UMMG (Upper Manhattan Medical Group) – Joe Henderson
2. Vienna – Billy Joel
3. Walkin’ In Jerusalem – Eddie From Ohio
4. Walking In Memphis – Marc Cohn
5. Weekend In Austin – Ezra Charles
6. Weekend In Cincinnati – The Bobs
7. Werewolfs Of London – Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon
8. The Wharton UFO – Flying Fish Sailors
9. Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell
10. Youngstown – Bruce Springsteen

And one last visit to Memphis, the most popular city in my collection. “The Wharton UFO” is the story of what really happens when space aliens land in rural areas. “Vienna” is one of Billy Joel’s most underrated songs. And that’s all I’ve got. I’ll be back with some new gimmick next week.

Targeting Farenthold

Yes, please.

Rep. Blake Farenthold

Democrats are trying to exact a political price for Texas Republicans’ votes to restart deportations of so-called “DREAMers” — the children illegally brought into the U.S. by their parents.

The target of the latest ad buy is Corpus Christi Rep. Blake Farenthold, who was one of 23 Texas Republicans to favor the measure by Iowa Rep. Steve King enacted by the House last week. (Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas did not vote on the proposal. All 12 Texas Democrats voted no.)

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said today it had bought air time on Spanish language radio stations “across” the district, which stretches from Corpus Christi to the Austin and San Antonio media markets, to demand that Farenthold “stand with our young people and not with most extreme members of his party.”

The district’s population is majority Latino, but voters who go to the polls tend to favor Republicans.

“Instead of giving these young people a chance at the American Dream, Congressman Farenthold showed his true colors: an extreme ideology that would deport young people who have been contributing to this country since they were brought here as children,” said Emily Bittner, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The people of Texas want a comprehensive solution to our broken immigration system, but Congressman Farenthold just did the opposite — and voted to restart deportations for 800,00 DREAMers.”

The ad includes the words of a young Latino person eligible for the DREAM Act who could be among 800,000 youths facing deportation under the King Amendment because of their parents’ decisions.

“I have lived in the United States since I was a child, and it’s my only home,” the unnamed immigrant says in the ad. “I’m a student, I work, and I’m proud to give back to my community. I’ve always done what was asked of me. The only thing I ask is for the opportunity to do it.”

Farenthold easily won re-election in the redrawn 27th District last year after upsetting veteran Democrat Solomon Ortiz two years earlier in the old 27th, which was much more heavily Latino. But Democrats are hoping to soften him up with negative ads, particularly if the federal courts redraw Texas congressional maps to increase the district’s Mexican-American population.

I’m very glad to see this. Besides just being morally correct and good politics, Farenthold does have a soft underbelly despite being in a nominally safe district. As I noted before, he lost a significant amount of support from the top of the ticket despite running against an opponent with few resources. A district like his, with its heavy concentration of low-turnout Latinos could be prime proving ground for Battleground Texas. I don’t know how much the DCCC is spending here, or how focused that money is, but it’s a good start. This is the kind of issue that can motivate voters. If we can get a good candidate in place, we have a chance to make something interesting happen.

House passes redistricting bills

They accepted a couple of amendments but otherwise the process wasn’t much different from the Senate or the House committee.

A daylong debate on redistricting maps in the Texas House drew frustration from Democrats and growing concern from Republicans on Thursday as House leaders agreed to some amendments to one of the maps.

Gov. Rick Perry called the 83rd Legislature into special session in hopes it would ratify — without changes — the interim redistricting maps that a panel of federal judges drew for use in the 2012 elections. The Texas Senate did that earlier this month. But the House deviated, adopting three amendments on the state House district map moments after gaveling in.

The chairman of the House Select Committee on Redistricting, Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, told members from the start that he would be accepting “small, necessary tweaks” to the maps providing they meet specific criteria — unite communities of interest, are agreeable to members of neighboring districts and are in accordance with the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

In a matter of minutes, Darby approved, and the House adopted three such amendments. Two would swap out precincts between members of neighboring House districts. A third, by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, brings all of Texas A&M International into his district.

Beyond that, state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, was among a handful of members who began questioning Darby, puzzled as to why amendments were being accepted when, he said, members had been told “any change made would open the door for other problems.” He also cited the fact that the amendments hadn’t come through committee.

Darby restated his criteria, adding that the amendments he’s accepting don’t impact geography or the demographic makeup of districts. With that, more members began filing amendments. Two more, which also swap out precincts between neighboring districts, were adopted.

Those were the only three that were accepted. I commend you to read Greg and Texas Redistricting for the full blow-by-blow; see also this post for the map that was planned.

Three points of interest. One, not all redistricting fights fall along party lines.

“You’re a liar,” state Rep. Pat Fallon of Frisco yelled at his colleague, state Rep. Bennett Ratliff of Coppell.

Other House Republicans tried to hush Fallon, but his fury wouldn’t ebb.

“Touch your buddy Gene because you’re in the same party as him,” a red-faced Fallon loudly continued, as Ratliff walked away and placed a hand on state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, as he passed by.

Asked a few moments later what the dust-up was all about, Fallon said simply, “Forgot.”

The hollering could have stemmed from a quiet dispute brewing during the redistricting debate. On Thursday afternoon, some tea party-affiliated members of the House had been upset about an amendment that removed one of Ratliff’s primary opponents from his district. The amendment, which passed earlier in the day without much trouble, put tea party favorite Matt Rinaldi into the safely Democratic district of state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.

Temper, temper. And I must say, I too would buy a Touch Me, I’m Gene Wu’s Buddy t-shirt, too. Someone get on Cafepress.com and make this happen, OK? Oh, and as Greg says, I’d take Bennett Ratliff for my team if the Rs don’t want him, too.

Two, the ball is now in the Senate’s court.

The Senate, which is scheduled to meet Friday, still has to sign off on changes made Thursday by the House to its maps before sending the bills to Perry for his signature. Sen. Kel Seliger, the upper chamber’s redistricting chief during the special session, has said he plans to accept changes the House makes to their political boundaries.

I guess it wouldn’t have killed them to accept some cleanup amendments after all.

And three, the missing man makes an appearance:

MALC chair State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer and African-American and Hispanic members asked the AG to have someone testify at redistricting hearings. But the AG’s office ignored those requests and redistricting committee chair, State Rep. Drew Darby, said that he would not use subpoena power to require attendance.

In fact, Darby said today in response to questioning that he never even asked the AG’s office to come testify voluntarily.

All that might be logical if the AG’s office took that position that it was the office’s job to defend whatever maps emerged, not to give advice on them.

But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead, Abbott’s office appears to have met with the House Republican caucus on at least two occasions, including today during an early afternoon break in floor action.

And after emerging from today’s meeting – reportedly with Abbott’s chief deputy – House Republicans seem to have experienced a major sea change in their willingness to accept even minor agreed amendments, such as one offered by State Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) to adjust for the fact that a mountain runs oddly through HD 77 in El Paso. Whereas before the break, redistricting chair Darby had agree to five relatively minor amendments (one of which was proposed to unite a parking lot at Texas A&M International with the school itself), afterwards he would take none.

Now, since what was said in the meeting isn’t known, it’s not clear that advice from the AG’s office caused the change. But it’s at least a little awkward – both legally and optically – that the AG’s office seems to be acting as counsel for the Republican caucus rather than the Legislature or the state as a whole.

It also seems to have left the Legislature in a precarious position legally.

Too chicken to talk to non-Republicans, I guess. Or maybe he’s just forgotten how. But at least he’s consistent. Go read the rest of that post, it’s all good.

And again, now that redistricting is done for the day, the House can be like the Senate and get to what really animates them, which is making life miserable for women.

House Bill 60 would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles, require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical clinics, and regulate how doctors administer pills for medical abortions.

HB 60 would originally have required women receiving medical abortions to take the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended dosage, which physicians have said is dangerously high. The committee substitute introduced in the hearing reduced the dosage to that recommended in obstetrician-gynecologist guidelines.

The bill’s Senate version, Senate Bill 5, passed Tuesday night after an amendment removed the 20-week ban. State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, who sponsored the House legislation, has said she hopes to revive the ban in the Senate by passing HB 60.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, questioned Laubenberg about the justifications for the 20-week ban, which is premised upon research that suggests fetuses at 20 weeks of gestation can feel pain. Though research indicates fetuses respond to stimuli at that point of pregnancy, there is no consensus on whether they feel pain.

Farrar also asked whether HB 60 would deprive women of choice, to which Laubenberg responded, “The Legislature should err on the side of life, not death.”

[…]

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, asked why the legislation included no exception for cases of rape or incest.

Rape is “a horrible violation to a woman,” Laubenberg said, adding that the state should focus on punishing the perpetrator but still not allow abortion if the fetus is past 20 weeks.

[…]

Matthew Braunberg, an ob-gyn from Dallas, said the legislation would needlessly limit women’s access to abortions despite what he said were decreased medical risks, compared to carrying a pregnancy to term.

“The last thing we want is for them to go to Doctor Google to figure out how to do this,” he said.

Carol Everett, an anti-abortion advocate, said the bill would help women by raising standards for abortions.

“This is a health protection for her,” she said.

I think David Dewhurst let the cat out of the bag on that, Carol. Kudos for sticking to the script regardless. Maybe someone should tell Rep. Laubenberg that if this bill passes and a bunch of clinics close because they can’t meet the needlessly onerous requirements that HB60 would impose, then an awful lot more women are going be be horribly violated, since there wouldn’t be any place for them to get an abortion before 20 weeks anyway. But hey, it’s all about protecting women, since they obviously don’t know what’s best for themselves. Besides, rape victims don’t get pregnant anyway, am I right? Pro-choice advocates are hoping to run out the clock, which has as much hope as any other strategy. Good luck gumming up the works, y’all.

Seniors get a tax cut from Council

Good for them.

BagOfMoney

Houston City Council voted to provide property tax relief to seniors Wednesday, one of many votes at a marathon meeting at which council unanimously approved a $4.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The city’s exemption for homeowners 65 and older will rise from $70,862 to $80,000 thanks to the 14-2 vote, a move that should be codified with a second approval next week, City Attorney David Feldman said.

The roller-coaster 10-hour meeting – all but 45 minutes of which focused on Mayor Annise Parker’s budget and council members’ 60 proposed amendments to it – will require Parker to shuffle about $3.9 million in the $2.2 billion general fund budget. The rest of the city’s spending occurs in enterprise funds fed by fees and not taxes.

[…]

Among the successful amendments: A $2 million push to redeploy four ambulances shelved during the cutbacks; a $1.5 million summer jobs program for youth; $250,000 for cameras to monitor illegal dumping; and money to increase the Houston Center for Literacy’s budget from $400,000 to $500,000. Other big-ticket items, including a $3 million summer-jobs program and $1.5 million for after-school programs, were voted down.

Parker said she will cover the ambulance spending with funds that had been set aside to analyze the fire department’s operations and will fund the jobs program with money that had been slated for efficiency reviews of departments. Parker said she will shuffle $250,000 around in the police budget to cover the cameras and must find an offset for the literacy item.

The $3.8 million cost of raising property tax exemptions, which will save the average homeowner $39 to $58, depending on the estimate, won’t require a change to the budget, Parker said. City officials expect revenues to exceed the projected figures, with or without exemption changes.

“We can always say that we have to prepare for tomorrow, but there are senior citizens out there now who, $40, $50 dollars a year would help them pay the drainage fee, help them pay their water bill, maybe medication,” said the amendment’s author, Councilman C.O. Bradford. “Do all of them need it? Perhaps not, but, by God, I can take you to enough neighborhoods in Houston where they are on fixed incomes and to provide relief for them is the proper thing to do.”

I’m sure this will help some people who need it, and raising the exemption is more progressive than cutting the rate, but this is a fairly significant amount of money. It’s a lot less than it could have been, since some Council members proposed raising the exemption to $160,000 to match Harris County. That would have cost a boatload, on the order of $20 million a year. I note that one person who proposed that massive reduction in revenue was CM Helena Brown, who is convinced that the city is on the brink of bankruptcy. You tell me how that makes sense.

If you want to wonk out on the budget, go look at the Fiscal Year 2014 Proposed Budget webpage and the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee webpage, which together have enough PDFs to keep you busy for weeks. The Houston Politics blog had multiple posts over the past couple of weeks covering the individual departments’ budget presentations. Very useful stuff, too bad it wasn’t ever in the print edition or the houstonchronicle.com site.

One more thing:

With an $81 million deficit projected for the next budget cycle, Parker said the most important amendment of the day likely was the first, in which council voted 13-3 to accept Councilman Oliver Pennington’s plan to save any revenue collected over expected levels. That meant no such money could be spent during the fiscal year, including on projects such as those mentioned in the scores of subsequent budget amendments.

That’s not a lot to go on. An email from CM Costello at the start of the budget committee process gives a little bit of information on this:

Finance Director Kelly Dowe followed the Controller with the Administration’s FY 2014 budget overview and General Fund five-year forecast. The FY 2014 budget shows increases in property tax revenue of 4.33 percent and sales tax revenue of 5.8 percent. Total General Fund revenues are projected to grow $70.3 million and General Fund expenditures budgeted to increase $105 million. This will be the tenth year the city has spent more money than it has collected. The majority of expenditure increases ($53.7 million) are tied to personnel: contractual pay increases ($21.5 million); higher health benefit costs ($7.3 million); and increased pension costs ($23 million). Other specifics include $7.5 million for ongoing maintenance of the city’s facilities and fleet, $3.1 million to restore library hours and personnel, $2 million for an analysis aimed at optimizing the city’s fire and emergency services model and $2.7 million in debt service increases. The proposed budget also expands single stream recycling to another 100,000 households.

That’s based on the five year forecast that Finance Director Kelly Dowe makes. You can see the rest of Dowe’s materials here. I’ll simply note that while any projection of a deficit is concerning, the revenue projections for each of the past three years undershot the actual totals. Things could be better than we think, or if the economy goes to hell again they could be worse. We just don’t know. Predicting the future is hard, y’all. Stace has more.

What do you have against yarn?

This is such a shame.

The artwork pre-destruction. Image via Mary Goldsby’s Facebook page.

An International Yarn Bombing Day installation on a park trellis in the Heights was partially torn down Saturday after it was only up for a week, since June 8.

The project was headed by Heights resident Mary Goldsby, who was helped by 24 volunteers, including the Heights Knit Chicks.
It was to be up for a month, and Goldsby had obtained a permit for the yarn to be up at the 1600 block of Heights Blvd., between 16th and 17th Street.

Houston Crime Stoppers is offering up to $5,000 in cash rewards for any information that leads to an arrest in the vandalization of the yarn bombing exhibit. If the information leads to felony charges, or a felony arrest, callers will be eligible for the Crime Stoppers reward.

According to officials, approximately $10,000 in damage was caused by the vandal.

KTRK and The Leader have more on this. From the former:

Where the yarn bomb installation was is now a reward poster for information on a woman seen ripping and cutting the installation apart early Saturday evening, just as David Milner was walking by.

“I said to the woman, ‘What happened?’ I thought she was part of the group. I thought it was going to be up for another month,” Milner said. “And she wouldn’t comment. She wouldn’t talk to me.”

It might not seem high crime, but what happened here matters. The destruction of what was intended to be a touch of whimsy in a world that needs it means a lot to the people and the community that helped create it, not to mention the person who organized it all — Mary Goldsby.

“It’s been overwhelmingly positive. And that’s what makes this all the more puzzling,” she said. “Absolutely, it’s a mystery.”

According to The Leader, the vandal is described as “a woman between 40-50 years old who seemed ‘angry'”. I have no idea what would motivate someone to destroy something that you’d think would make most people smile, but there it is. The Heights Life adds on:

  • Something is afoot regarding the Yarn Bomb that was installed on Heights Blvd in honor of International Yarn Bomb day. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know it will have yarn and pictures and your help is needed to pull it off! Due to the overwhelmingly positive response to the project, the knitters just can’t let it end on a gloomy note because of one crazy person. Help them resurrect the Yarnbomb on the Boulevard in a “new format.”
  • “Did you see the Yarnbomb before it was vandalized? Did you take a picture?? Please email your photos, ESPECIALLY if they include people, pets, or anything in front of the yarnbomb. Quirky and fun is dandy. With everyone’s help, we’ll be creating a new project at the site that will bring smiles back, instead of scowls and head shaking.”
  • Email your photos to: [email protected] by Sunday, June 23, 4 p.m.
  • There is still a reward for finding out who went so nuts they had to rip this art apart!

If you know anything about this, please call Crime Stoppers at (713) 222-TIPS (8477). Marty Hajovsky has more.

The trend matters as much as the average

I would characterize this Politifact analysis as basically accurate but not particularly meaningful.

Republican consultant Karl Rove thinks Georgia Republicans need to be more like their Texas counterparts.

In a May 18 speech at Georgia’s GOP state convention, Rove said Republicans have “got to get outside of our comfort zone and go places Republicans are not comfortable going,” according to a transcript provided to us by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And we’ve got to get candidates who represent the diversity of our country,” Rove said.

“Look, in Texas we get 40 percent of the Latino vote on average,” Rove said. “And that’s because every Republican is comfortable campaigning everywhere in Texas and because we go out of our way to recruit qualified Latino candidates and run them for office.”

Nationally in 2012, Barack Obama defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney while enjoying substantial Latino support. Some 71 percent of Hispanic voters favored Obama, compared with 27 percent for Romney, according to voter exit polls undertaken for a consortium of news organizations.

We wondered about Rove’s 40-percent-in-Texas claim.

[…]

Mike Baselice, an Austin pollster who has counseled Rove, Perry and numerous Republican candidates, said in an October 2012 memo based on his firm’s Oct. 10-14 survey of 851 likely Texas voters that at that time, Obama had the support of 49 percent of the state’s Hispanic voters, with Romney at 40 percent. According to Baselice’s memo, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Ted Cruz was supported by 36 percent of Hispanic voters, while Democrat Paul Sadler had 40 percent.

The Politico story also mentioned a Texas poll taken on the eve of the November 2012 elections indicating Cruz had 35 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote, outpacing Romney, shown at 29 percent. The poll by Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based firm that specializes in Latino political opinion research, was based on 400 telephone interviews with Texas Latinos who had voted or were certain to vote. Its margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points suggests that Cruz, but not Romney, was on the verge of drawing 40 percent of the Texas Latino vote.

James Henson, director of the Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, struck a cautionary note as we explored Rove’s claim. Any look at how Latino voters divide relies on extrapolation, Henson said, “since there is no direct measure for Latino voting.”

[…]

Upshot: The best a Republican fared with Texas Hispanics in the elections was Kay Bailey Hutchison when she drew half the Hispanic vote in 2000, by one analysis. The same year, Bush got 49 percent in his first run for president, according to that year’s exit polls taken for news organizations, or 33 percent, according to a poll by the William C. Velásquez Institute. Bush also drew 49 percent in 2004, according to the national exit poll.

The worst any Republican fared among Texas Hispanics was Romney’s election eve 29 percent, according to the Latino Decisions poll.

Considering every result except the one for Perry in 2006 (when he faced multiple challengers) delivers an average of 39 percent of the Hispanic vote for Republicans at or near the top of the tickets. We also averaged the poll showings for each election year, reaching an across-the-years average of 40 percent. Trying another tack, we counted only the polled results for nonpresidential candidates, also landing at 40 percent.

There are two basic issues here. One is that whatever polling can tell us, it’s not the only data we have available to us. We also have election returns, and while that doesn’t tell us how many Latinos there were voting and how specifically they did, we can get a pretty decent estimate. As it happens, I did look at Presidential voting in the heavily Latino State Rep districts recently, and the totals for Mitt Romney ranged from 21.8% to 34.1% – actually, Romney went all the way up to 37.3%, as I just realized I missed HD31 when I compiled that list – which needless to say suggests he fell well short of 40%, as we’ve basically known all along. In fact, it’s likely the case that he did even worse in these districts than the numbers given suggest, since some of the voters there were Anglo, and I think it’s safe to say he got more support those voters. As for Baselice, as far as I know he never released the data of his poll, which claimed that “Romney did 12 to 15 points better among Latinos in Texas than in California”, not specifically that Latinos voted 40% for Romney. I’m always extra skeptical of polls whose data I can’t see, especially when they come from the same guy who claimed just before the GOP Senate primary runoff last year that David Dewhurst was going to beat Ted Cruz.

I should note that there were other polls in Texas besides the two mentioned by PolitiFact. The Wilson Perkins poll had Romney at 32% among Latinos; the Lyceum poll had him at 32.5% among Latinos; and the last YouGov poll had Romney at 40% among Latinos. So that’s three out of four polls that publicly released their data showing Romney no higher than 33%, while one poll that did release its data and one poll that didn’t had him at 40.

Getting back to my point about actual election returns, sure there are plenty of Latino voters in places other than those specific districts, but these are the districts where SSVR is over 70%, which gives some assurance that the actual vote totals and the Latino vote totals will be similar. It’s an estimate, like polls are estimates, and in this case it gives some idea of what the upper bound of Romney support from Latinos in Texas likely was. Again, that would put it significantly below 40%.

OK, but Rove was talking about Latino support on the average. That’s all well and good, and for all I know his statement may be perfectly accurate, but how much does the data from the 2000 election really tell you? Texas is a very different place now than it was back then. It would be equally accurate to say that over the 2000-2012 time frame, Texas Democrats averaged two members of Congress from predominantly Republican rural districts. Of course, nearly all of those members of Congress were elected in 2000 and 2002, and the last one was elected in 2008, but the math still works. The point here is that while averages are useful, so are trend lines. Latino support for Republicans is lower now than it was in 2000, or 2004, and it’s likely to stay at those lower levels, at least for the time being. Surely, the high profile opposition to immigration reform among the entire Texas Republican Congressional caucus isn’t going to help their cause here. If the next couple of elections go like the last few have been, it will be about as accurate to talk about Republicans winning 40% of the Latino vote as it is now to talk about Democrats winning 40% of the East Texas vote.

The New Dome Experience

Behold:

If the future of the Astrodome has been keeping you up at night, you’ll rest easy knowing that a major step was taken in favor of preservation at a board meeting on Wednesday afternoon: The Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation (HCSCC) board unanimously agreed on a recommendation to repurpose the Houston landmark.

Willie Loston, executive director of HCSCC, said that none of the 19 privately-funded proposals submitted by the June 10 deadline met the criteria required, but the public use option presented at the board meeting does — think of it as “The New Dome Experience.”

Loston, along with SMG-Reliant Park general manager Mark Miller, presented the plan for a 350,000-square-foot column-free exhibition space, which would require removing the seats and raising the floor to street level.

Other improvements would include adding glass at the stadium’s four compass points for enhanced natural light and aesthetics, with a signature entry at the south end; installing solar panels on the domed roof and incorporating other building systems to improve energy-efficiency; and removing the berms, entrance ramps and ticket booths from the building’s exterior to create a more continuous and useable outdoor plaza, with food vendors and restroom opportunities as well as green space.

“What we want the ‘Dome to become for major events in Reliant Park is the front door,” explained Miller.

The reimagined space could serve, he said, as the headquarters for Reliant Park’s 24-hour security post, and would help facilitate emergency operations within the county in the case of disaster. The interior could be easily reconfigured to accommodate swim meets, graduations and other community events, football games, conventions and more.

The project is estimated to take about 30 months to build out at a cost of approximately $194 million, including everything from architectural and engineering fees to food service, according to Miller, although board chairman Edgardo Colón said that the HCSCC hopes to reduce that amount even further with alternative sources of financing.

See here for all my recent blogging on the subject, and here for the complete presentation on the New Dome. Commissioners Court will take up the matter on June 25, and if Judge Emmett’s reaction is any indication, it will get the Court’s support as well. As this option would require public money, it will also require a vote from We The People, meaning that if it fails then a date with the wrecker is surely next. If you’re wondering what happened with the private proposals, here’s your answer:

In order to be considered, privately submitted proposals had to include private funding, must be compatible with lease agreements with the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, as well as the master plan of the Reliant Park complex. None of the ideas submitted by private groups or individuals met those criteria, Loston said.

Loston previously had said that some of the submissions were little more than ideas, while a few appeared to be professionally developed proposals.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise. If getting funding had been doable, someone would have made a formal proposal to do it by now, as almost happened back in 2007. I’ll be very interested to see how the usual anti-spending-on-anything suspects react to this, since it will be more public debt.

Speaking of which, it turns out that the existing debt on the Astrodome is only $6 million, which is probably less that you might have thought.

According to information provided by the County Attorney’s Office, three “categories” of debt can be linked to the half-century-old domed structure: One $3.1 million package from 2004, being paid with hotel occupancy taxes, will mature this year. Two others – totaling more than $28 million – are various voter-approved bonds issued between 1997 and 2009 that refunded debt originally issued for improvement work on the Astrodome.

Those packages, however, have been refunded so many times that the amount that can be tied directly to work done on the stadium is hard to nail down, especially when one considers that the oldest debt is paid off first.

The original $27 million general obligation bond that voters approved in 1961 to pay for construction of the world’s first domed super stadium was paid off 12 years ago.

Of the $245 million the county owes on the Reliant Park complex, nearly $240 million – issued in 2002 for construction of Reliant Center and a cooling plant – has nothing to do with the Astrodome, at least directly. That means the county owes less than $6 million on the decaying structure, on which it spends $2 million a year for insurance, utilities and upkeep.

There were only two other Astrodome-specific bond packages since 1961, both issued in 1988 back when we were trying to keep the Oilers from leaving, and they have been paid off. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice. I have always sort of assumed that any action taken on the Dome now, whether a private proposal, a public proposal, or demolition, would include the existing debt as a part of it. Maybe this will make that part of it a little easier. PDiddie, who is delighted to see this plan, has more.

Maybe they shouldn’t have listened to Abbott

If you’re a Republican involved in redistricting and you’ve begun to wonder why you ever took AG Greg Abbott’s legal advice on redistricting, I can’t blame you.

Still not Greg Abbott

All spring, Attorney General Greg Abbott had argued to Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus that the Legislature should adopt as its own work product the temporary maps put in place by the appellate court for the 2012 elections. As he wrote to Straus on March 8: “The best way to avoid further intervention from federal judges in the Texas redistricting plans, and ensure an orderly election without further delay or uncertainty, is to enact the interim maps.”

Doing so, he said, “would confirm the Legislature’s intent for a redistricting plan that fully comports with the law, and will insulate the State’s redistricting plans from further legal challenge.”

Abbott’s promise was especially appealing to Dewhurst, since the redistricting lawsuit postponed the 2012 Republican Primary until June, a delay most political observers say cost him the U.S. Senate race against Ted Cruz.

Judge Rodriguez’s remarks, however, cast doubt on the advice in Abbott’s letter. If the interim maps do not correct all legal defects, then what will the special session accomplish?

As Texas Redistricting pointed out a little while ago, Abbott has been pretty consistently wrong throughout the process. As I noted around the same time, Abbott’s first priority all along has been politics, and good political strategy doesn’t always align with sound legal advice. And as Greg noted in Monday’s House hearing liveblog, Abbott’s unwillingness to have his office available to answer questions during these hearings has put the Republicans in numerous uncomfortable and untenable positions that will likely come back to bite them in the courtroom. All in all, a pretty impressive performance.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 17

The Texas Progressive Alliance dismayed but not surprised by the hard right turn of the special session as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

HISD contemplates tax hike

It’s not as much as they once thought they would raise them, since enough money was restored by the Legislature to stave off the need to raise taxes for that purpose.

Superintendent Terry Grier’s budget proposal, released Monday, would increase the tax rate by 2 cents and would expand his Apollo school reform program, a three-year-old effort that some trustees have not embraced.

If the board agrees to hike the tax rate more – by 4 cents – Grier proposed giving raises to teachers and other staff.

“I don’t mind paying more taxes,” Grier said at a board meeting Monday. “We know some of our schools need more help.”

A 4-cent increase would cost the owner of an average $209,000 home roughly $60 extra, assuming no change in value.

Taxpayers in the Houston Independent School District already were expected to face a 1-cent increase next year to help fund the recent bond issue for school construction, but that may not be necessary. HISD’s chief financial officer, Ken Huewitt, said Monday that higher property values may mean the district can delay the first tax increase related to the bond.

On the high end, HISD property owners would see a 5-cent tax increase in 2014 – if the 1-cent bond-related hike remained and if the school board approved another 4 cents for the general operating budget.

Trustees won’t formally adopt a tax rate until October, but they are scheduled to vote Thursday on a budget based on the rate they expect to approve.

The district’s current tax rate of $1.1567 per $100 of assessed value is the lowest among local school systems.

K-12 Zone has more on the budget considerations. They key driver here is the Apollo initiative, which remains a point of contention. The Chron op-ed pages on Wednesday had pro and anti Apollo articles, which I’ll leave you to read. I don’t feel like I know enough to make a judgment on this. HISD Board Chair Anna Eastman has some good discussion of the pro and anti pieces, if you want more reading. I need to give it some more thought. In the meantime, we’ll see what direction the Board takes.

Getting out the “hard-to-motivate Latino vote” in Farmers Branch

Great story about Ana Reyes, the first Hispanic person elected to City Council in Farmers Branch, in the first election after a lawsuit forced the city to adopt single-member Council districts, and how she actually got elected.

CM Ana Reyes

“What happened here is what helped us get off the couch,” Ana Reyes said, inside a childhood home filled with landscape paintings by her father, Antonio.

Insult after insult hurled at Hispanics, from the ordinance to public taunts about catching “illegals,” would eventually lead to a campaign directive of “pound, pound, pound.”

That would be the sound the candidate and her campaign team made as they knocked multiple times on nearly every door in a newly carved City Council district, a so-called Hispanic opportunity district because of the concentration of U.S. citizens of voting age.

[…]

Ana Reyes, 39, credits her mother for demanding she attend council sessions in 2006.

But she said political consultant Jeff Dalton and his firm Democracy Toolbox propelled success forward.

“The Hispanic component of the vote has always been the brick wall,” said Dalton, who works exclusively for Democrats or in nonpartisan municipal elections.

In fact, in the 2012 presidential race, Hispanics punched way below their weight with a turnout of only 48 percent. The top-performing group, black voters, participated at a 66 percent rate, according to newly released U.S. Census Bureau data.

The political strategist said he methodically plotted data on the likelihood of a Reyes vote on a scale of 1 to 5 through canvassing. At one point, Dalton’s data showed Reyes in a dead heat with her opponent, William Capener, a print shop manager with ties to the local tea party.

Canvassing intensified. Ana Reyes walked the entire District 1 three times, including on election day. Others followed in her steps until the nearly 1,800 voters in the district had received about a dozen visits.

“Her brother walked,” Dalton said. “Her sister walked. Her mother walked. There was an excitement level generated by that. It was like pound, pound, pound.”

Nadia Khan-Roberts, a Spanish teacher living in Farmers Branch, volunteered for the Reyes get-out-the-vote effort. One man told Khan-Roberts: “Todos estos politicos no hacen nada y ella va a ser lo mismo. All politicians do nothing, and she’ll be the same.”

Khan-Roberts countered, “With that attitude nothing will change. The baby that cries the loudest gets the milk.”

A prayer group of women dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe even met weekly at the local Mary Immaculate Catholic Church.

On May 11, Ana Reyes won with 62 percent of the vote. Dalton, the consultant, believes that half of the Hispanic vote was “low-propensity,” or hard to-budge, and hadn’t voted in more than one of the last five elections.

“Something special happened,” said Dalton, who wants to replicate the strategy on a larger scale.

See here for the background. I trust we all see the parallels between Reyes’ victory and the future success or failure of Battleground Texas. Good candidates, direct contact with voters, giving voters compelling reasons to vote that connect with their daily lives – it’s not rocket science, but it is hard work, and it’s going to be a long-term process. But victories build momentum, and they provide paths forward. What worked for Ana Reyes in Farmers Branch can and will work elsewhere, if we learn from her experience and apply those lessons to other races. And when someone tells you it can’t be done, point to Farmers Branch and Council Member Ana Reyes and tell them oh yes it can.

And then get back to work, because the fight isn’t over when the ballots are counted. The fight is just beginning.

During her 2013 campaign, on three occasions, motorists parked outside her home in a Valwood Parkway neighborhood where residents know each other’s cars.

Ana Reyes went outside to knock on the driver’s window and ask if she could help. He said he’d run out of gas, she said. She went to get a gas container, but when she returned the man was gone.

In another instance, she took a photo of the license plate, and the driver of that vehicle never returned.

But Ana Reyes said her experience “does not compare to what Elizabeth Villafranca and other Latino candidates experienced.”

Villafranca, a Farmers Branch restaurateur who ran for City Council in 2009, faced slurs and what she called stalking. Ruben Rendon, a school psychologist who ran for office in 2008, was called “an illegal.” Rendon, who was born in Texas, now says, “All of this was so stupid.”

Candidate Reyes visited with a Dallas County election manager to ask about harassment prevention. She found out the department’s responsibility was limited to a constricted perimeter near polling machines.

The campaign took its own action.

“We hired constables to make sure order was maintained,” she said. “We are not going to tolerate it anymore.”

[…]

Farmers Branch Mayor Bill Glancy said he hoped the new council members, who include Kirk Connally, a 73-year-old retiree who beat an incumbent, would want “good things for the city.”

But regarding Ana Reyes, he said, “You never know what someone is until they are in office. There is campaigning and then there is serving.”

Ana Reyes is now an elected official. That gives her power, but it doesn’t mean respect will follow. The appalling behavior that Reyes and those who went before her in Farmers Branch had to put up with isn’t going to just disappear, and neither will the people who exhibited such behavior. There will be plenty of people rooting for her to fail, and working to undermine her. If Mayor Glancy’s attitude is any indication, some of those people will be her colleagues. Ana Reyes made history by winning this race, but there’s a lot more of the story to be written.

Transportation funding advances

Between redistricting and abortion, transportation funding has taken a bit of a back seat in the special session despite being the first additional item on the agenda. The Senate took the first step on that yesterday.

Sen. Robert Nichols

Despite concerns raised by both Republicans and Democrats, senators on Tuesday tentatively passed a resolution that aims to solve the state’s transportation funding woes by diverting future revenue from the Rainy Day Fund.

Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would eventually have to be approved as a constitutional amendment in November by voters, would split a portion of oil and gas severance taxes currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund between that fund and the State Highway Fund.

With traffic on Texas roads continuing to rise and transportation funding at a 10-year low, the state’s department of transportation “needs a revenue stream that allows for future planning,” said Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

[…]

The resolution is estimated to add nearly $1 billion a year for transportation, money that would keep coming in until the drilling boom dies. But, as Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, pointed out, that is only a fraction of the $4 billion a year that transportation officials say that TxDOT needs to maintain current traffic levels.

“This problem is not going to go away. It’s only going to get worse. The 4 billion barely relieves congestion,” he said. “As politicians we don’t need to go around thumping our chests saying we fixed the problem. We need to be realistic to voters and taxpayers and tell them it’s going to take more money in the form of new revenue to fix this problem.”

[…]

SJR 2 needs a final vote to officially pass the Senate, and it must be approved by the House, where lawmakers have offered their own proposals. Instead of directly pumping up the highway fund, House Joint Resolution 16 from Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, would send some of the revenue currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to public education, undoing a long-standing diversion of the state’s 20-cent gas tax, of which a nickel currently goes to schools. The measure has the backing of the House’s lead budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has signed on as a co-author.

Pickett’s proposal could draw support from some House Republicans who had opposed additional funding for TxDOT during the regular session in part because the measures didn’t end the gas tax diversion. Yet those same lawmakers may be wary of any proposal that reduces the funding stream to the Rainy Day Fund, widely regarded as the state’s savings account.

For either proposal to pass, they will need to muster strong bipartisan support as both amend the state’s Constitution, a move that requires the backing of two-thirds of both chambers.

The fact that this is a Constitutional amendment and thus requires a two-thirds vote in order to pass actually gives the Democrats some leverage on the abortion issue.

Since there are 12 Democrats in the chamber, Republicans will need the support of at least two of them for the transportation proposal But most of the Democrats are opposed to the abortion measures, so there’s a chance of extracting concessions for their vote on transportation.

Of course, that depends on how things play out among the Democrats. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, is voting for the abortion measures, so there’s no reason for him to vote against transportation on that front. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voted for one of the abortion measures in committee, but against the rest, so I want to ask her what she plans to do. Other Democrats may have reasons for supporting the transportation measure.

Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who heads the Senate Democratic Caucus, said some senators are determined to use whatever tools they have “to try to stop this assault on women.”

While Republicans generally support the anti-abortion measures, some have expressed concern about various proposals, which include a ban on abortion at 20 weeks, increased regulations for abortion facilities, requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and new requirements for administering drugs that cause abortions. The provisions are wrapped into one omnibus bill, and there are separate bills on each.

There was also a math problem for Democrats who oppose the proposed new abortion regulations, related to procedural rules and Tuesday attendance. The transportation measure is ahead of the abortion legislation on the “regular order of business” agenda for the Senate, meaning a two-thirds vote would have been required to take up the abortion measures first and bypass the transportation. But this two-thirds requirement isn’t a hard two-thirds — it’s a two-thirds of those present. And not all the Democrats are present now.

It may all get worked out, but the delay shows the difficulty for Republicans who thought they could discount Democrats by virtue of special-session rules, which don’t require a two-thirds vote to take up all legislation.

Remember, the session ends next Thursday. It will be fine by me if the session runs out without the abortion legislation passing, of course. Yes, I know, Rick Perry can call them back again. But who knows, maybe he won’t. Until something passes, there’s hope. In the meantime, the full House will take up redistricting this Thursday, after the committee cleaned up its little oops from Monday. We are definitely headed into the home stretch. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Senate Democrats did ultimately get something for their leverage over the transportation bill, but not much.

After hours of emotional debate, the Senate late on Tuesday evening approved omnibus legislation to tighten abortion restrictions.

“My objective first and foremost, second and third, is to raise the standard of care,” said state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, the author of Senate Bill 5, which passed 20-10 and now heads to the House for approval.

SB 5 includes three abortion regulation measures that failed to reach the floor of either chamber during the regular legislative session: a requirement that abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers, which state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, has filed as SB 24 in the special session; a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion facility; and a requirement that if doctors administer the abortion inducing drug, RU-486, they do so in person, which state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has proposed separately in SB 18 in the special session.

In a debate that lasted late into the evening, conservative Republican legislators who supported the measure argued it was designed to protect women and improve the standard of care for abortion services. Most Democratic senators, however, contended the abortion bill was designed to curry favor with GOP primary voters and that it amounted to an attack on women’s constitutional rights to access health care.

Hegar early in the debate offered an amendment, which was accepted, that removed the so-called preborn pain provision that would have banned abortion at 20 weeks of gestation. Although he strongly supported the 20-week ban on abortion, which he filed separately as SB 13, Hegar said he felt it was necessary to remove the provision from SB 5 so that the House would have adequate opportunity to debate the bill. He denied an insinuation by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, that he had compromised his “pro-life position for political expediency.”

“It appears to me at this point, this committee substitute seems the most practical and logical way for us to talk about standard of care, while also trying to protect innocent life,” Hegar said.

I suppose if the House adds back the 20-week limit or otherwise amends SB5, there’s a chance it could still get blown up before the end of the special session. I sure hope so.

Would you pay more for pre-K in Harris County?

You might get the chance to vote on it.

pre-k

The recently formed Harris County School Readiness Corp., a group whose membership includes former Houston first lady Andrea White, is circulating a petition calling for the placement of an item on the next election ballot that would increase the county property tax rate by 1 cent, generating about $25 million a year to train teachers and buy school supplies for child-care centers serving children up to age 5.

“All the recent brain science development has indicated that early childhood education is absolutely pivotal,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney. “The business community and academics, everybody’s of the single mind that, if there is a single point of investment for leverage to improve children’s education, it’s at early childhood.”

The initiative stems from a recommendation made in an April report commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership and the Collaborative for Children. It is similar to one launched by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, which ended in voters last year approving a modest sales tax hike to build new pre-kindergarten centers.

The corporation, however, faces several big hurdles before voters have a say.

Chief among them: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who says he believes the state law dictating the petition process the group is following is no longer valid.

While most county-related matters require the approval of the five-member Harris County Commissioners Court, the corporation is going by a process laid out in a state law that technically no longer is on the books that says county judges must call elections to increase the tax rates of county education departments if enough signatures are collected on a petition. The corporation will have to gather at least 78,000.

While conceding that the group’s legal interpretation “may be right” and describing childhood education as “a great need,” Emmett said he believes that portion of the education code no longer applies, and has asked the county attorney’s office to review it.

“I’m going to ask probably even the attorney general if I have to,” Emmett said, expressing a declining lack of confidence in the education department for hiring lobbyists to visit court members and state lawmakers. “They didn’t recodify these sections and you can’t find these anywhere in state statutes today.”

The issue here is that only two counties, Harris and Dallas, still have education departments. As is often the case, the laws on the books don’t quite line up with current reality, and as such there’s an ambiguity. Judge Emmett will seek counsel about that, as he should, but it’s a lead pipe cinch that if this election goes forward and the proponents of raising the tax rate win, someone will file a lawsuit to invalidate it. I can already hear Paul Bettencourt and the Hotze brothers cracking their knuckles in anticipation. Hell, there will probably be a lawsuit even before the election if enough petition signatures are collected to require one. At least then we’ll have a more definitive answer to the Judge’s question, though it might be quicker to just wait till 2015 and try to get a bill passed to clarify matters then.

Be that as it may, getting to the point of having an election is no sure thing. As Campos calculates, it’ll take about 78,000 signatures to clear that bar. I’m not exactly sure what that is based on – it’s always some percentage of the turnout of the previous election, but what that percentage is and which election it’s derived from are unknown to me. It’s also not clear to me that this would pass if it made it onto the ballot. The San Antonio pre-k initiative that Mayor Julian Castro championed passed with 53.56% of the vote, which is solid but not overwhelming and it happened in a city rather than a county in a high-turnout election. It’s easy to visualize the campaign against this initiative, no matter how good it sounds on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, I’m just saying it’s far from a slam-dunk.

There’s not a lot of information out there about the Harris County School Readiness Corporation right now – no webpage or Facebook presence, though I am told both will be up soon. I did get this press release yesterday, which fills in a few blanks.

Houston: Citizens for School Readiness made a presentation today to the Harris County Board of Education on the importance of early childhood education. The Board received a report commissioned by the Houston Endowment and conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership and Collaborative for Children, demonstrating the need for improved early education. Also presented to the Board was a plan to place a ballot measure before the voters this November that would create a dedicated revenue stream for early childhood education.

The additional revenues will be overseen by the Harris County School Readiness Corporation, a public/private partnership board headed by Mr. James Calaway, Chairman of the Board of the Center for Houston’s Future. Also serving on the board is Houston’s Former First Lady, Mrs. Andrea White, as well as Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, Mr. Jonathan Day former Houston City Attorney and civic leader, leading Houston businessman Mr. Lupe Fraga, Ms. Y. Ping Sun, and Ms. Laura Jaramillo, Senior Vice President of Wells Fargo.

A poll conducted by Dr. Richard Murray of the University of Houston found strong support for the proposed measure. Dr. Murray’s survey showed, “Nearly 70% of county voters said a local effort to improve early childhood education in Harris County should be a priority.”

“People from every sector of this city recognize the critical importance of strengthening early childhood education for our youngest children. Kindergarten is the new first grade, and children need to enter kindergarten already knowing their ABCs and with their skill sets already developed.” said Mr. Jonathan Day, referencing numerous studies that tout the long-term social benefits of early childhood education programs.

There’s more, so click over and read the rest. Like I said, I think the hill is a lot steeper than Dr. Murray’s poll suggests, but I daresay the pro-pre-K group won’t be outspent. What do you think about this?

UPDATE: HCDE trustees approve the plan, which has a wrinkle I didn’t catch the first time around.

The Harris County Department of Education board of trustees voted 6-1 Tuesday to allow its superintendent to review a proposal calling for a 1-cent increase to the agency’s tax rate to fund early childhood education programs. Board members, however, expressed concern about the lack of oversight they may have under the proposal, pitched by recently formed nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corp.

The group’s plan, which it presented to the board on Tuesday, involves collecting at least 78,000 signatures on a petition, which would – according to a 1937 state law – require the county judge to place the tax hike on the next election ballot.

The increase would generate an additional $25 million a year, which would be used in part to train teachers to staff child-care centers in the county serving children up to age 5. If voters were to approve the hike, the nonprofit’s plan says its own board would administer the new revenue.

The item approved by the board Tuesday allows the superintendent to review the plan and later bring a recommendation back to the board.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the funds being administered by the unelected board of a nonprofit. See CPRIT for the reasons why. I’d still like to see pre-k funding happen, but I’d like to know more about how these funds would be administered.

Don’t expect much from the review of Judge Edith Jones

History says that nothing much will happen.

Judge Edith Jones

Federal judicial disciplinary action is extremely rare in the United States, where district and circuit judges enjoy lifetime appointments and more than 95 percent of complaints are dismissed.

However, some jurists have been disciplined and some publicly apologized after being accused of misconduct related to complaints of alleged racial, gender or ethnic biases.

Mocking the dialect of a black defendant during a hearing by writing “Ah is Important” on a note, and other offensive quips earned U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald a 2000 reprimand for “offensive banter.”

McDonald, now deceased, had passed the notes to a court employee and intended them to be private. They became public after being dug out of the trash and passed to a Spokane newspaper reporter.

[…]

Repeatedly, judicial slips of the lip – and crude jokes – have avoided public sanction, especially when a jurist accused of misconduct offers an apology.

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took no action against Montana U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, who apologized after forwarding a racist email “joke” about President Barack Obama that included a reference to bestiality, though the Montana Human Rights Network filed a formal complaint asking for Cebull’s resignation.

The Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 gave federal judges the power to secretly vet and, when necessary, to investigate misconduct complaints against their peers. Hundreds are filed each year. However, only Congress can impeach or remove a district or circuit judge for so-called “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

[…]

Eugene Volokh, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, reviewed affidavits and the complaint and said that even if Jones’ remarks offended some listeners, they did not appear to rise to the level of judicial misconduct.

“The judge has firm views but … it is normal for judges to express their views on contested issues especially before legal audiences and in law schools,” he said.

In the last three decades, only four former chief circuit court judges, including Jones, have faced a public misconduct complaint. Two received no public disciplinary action.

See here and here for the background. Even if the Chief Judge of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals writes up a report about Judge Jones, it may never be made public. It would be nice to imagine Jones facing some actual consequences for her words, but it seems highly unlikely that will happen.

Some are elected to do things, others are elected to not do things

Meet the opposite ends of the spectrum in the Legislature.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Jonathan Stickland

They were the freshest of the freshmen — the two youngest members of the largest freshman class of the Texas House in 40 years. And even before they took office, Mary González, an El Paso Democrat who will turn 30 in October, and Jonathan Stickland, a tea party Republican from the Fort Worth suburbs who will be 30 in September, each had made a defining declaration.

Stickland announced his ambition to compile the most conservative voting record of any member of the Texas House. “It’s time to do battle,” he said.

And González, uncomfortable with the imprecision of being described as the first openly gay woman to be elected to the Texas Legislature, announced to the Dallas Voice that she was actually “pansexual.” She explained that gender isn’t binary but a spectrum, and she has said that while her partner may be a lesbian, “I’m not.”

“Authenticity is important to me,” she said in a recent interview.

It was a breathtaking bit of sharing, especially for a representative who was from a socially conservative district and who was about to enter an institution that is dominated by an older generation of men and has had only one openly gay member — Austin’s Glen Maxey, who left the House a decade ago.

Though the 83rd Legislature ended its regular session just two weeks ago, it isn’t too soon to conclude that its two youngest members, in very different ways, had successful freshman seasons. Their experience offers a window into the sometimes surprising workings of the Legislature, and how novice members find their way amid the hurly-burly of the biennial mayhem, and why it is that a member of the board of the Texas organization for “queer people of color” might find herself more welcome than the darling of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.

[…]

Some of this might be the Seinfelds of informed opinion purposely placing the stocky Stickland in the role of Newman (“Hello, Stickland”) as an inviting target. But insults in Austin are music to the ears Stickland cares about back home. Think U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Has Ted Cruz ever passed a bill? I don’t think he has, but he’s one of the most influential and powerful senators, and he’s done it as a freshman,” said Stickland, who, in fact, passed a bill with state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, to allow excused school absences for the children of active-duty military personnel. “Ted Cruz has become a sensation because of what he’s fought against and not what he’s fought for. People love him for it.”

Yes, I’m sure it’s now the fondest wish of Jonathan Sticklands everywhere to grow up to be Ted Cruz. No question, from reading the story or just generally following the news from the Capitol this year, Stickland had a lot of success with his mission to obstruct anything he didn’t like. If that’s what he wants out of being a legislator, and that’s what the people who elected him want out of him, then mission accomplished. I’m sure there will be some political opposition to his tactics back home, not to mention opportunities for payback among his colleagues if the people of Stickland’s district ever ask him to get a bill passed for them, but he’ll just turn that into fuel for his persecution complex, like every other straight white boy from the suburbs who’s convinced that he’s the real victim here.

On a much more pleasant and productive note, there’s fellow freshman Rep. Mary González, who was paired with Stickland in this article not just for their youth but also for their position on the political spectrum, with Stickland measuring as the most “conservative” member while González was the most liberal.

González’s success, which might have seemed even more unlikely, was her ability to surmount her exotic introduction, emerging from the session as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus freshman of the year, and, it seems from relationships she’s forged across party lines, something like the Miss Congeniality of the class of 2013. In her unique 140-day gestation in the Capitol hothouse, she seemed to find a way to become one of the boys without becoming one of the boys.

“It’s been a lot of hard work to go to 149 members to get them to go beyond their projections, beyond their stereotypes, beyond the stigma and beyond the boxes,” González said. “Hey, I’m getting a Ph.D. Hey, I grew up on a farm. Hey, I am so much more than the one thing, the only thing that people want to write about.”

Or, as state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, a fellow freshman who sits next to her in the House and represents an adjoining border district, put it, “Mary’s the only woman on this floor who can palpate a cow.”

“In heels,” adds González.

How the cow got into those heels…never mind. I was channeling Groucho Marx there for a minute. Carrying on:

Rep. Mary Gonzalez

Earlier in the session, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who chairs the State Affairs Committee, serves on Calendars and sits diagonally behind her on the House floor, told her, “ ‘You’re basically the same age as my daughter, so you’re going to be my adopted daughter on the floor,’ and that’s kind of what we did. She’s a wonderful young lady to work with.”

Of Cook, said González, “I’m so surprised how close I have gotten to him.”

Asked to compare her approach to Stickland’s, Cook said, “I think you catch more bees with honey.”

And, unlike Stickland, González focused mostly on more targeted legislation for her district.

“We were able to get wastewater service to three colonias, sewerage to over 1,000 families in my district,” González said of the impoverished neighborhoods. “That’s amazing. No one is ever going to write about that, but I know what it means.”

“Mary is pretty much positive, not only a sunny disposition but a very positive person,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a veteran Democrat from Laredo. “You get the sense with Jonathan that he’s just not very content with anything.”

[…]

When she showed up as a member of the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, Chairman Tracy King, D-Batesville, said he assumed she had gotten stuck with the assignment, but he was delighted to find out that she grew up in 4H, the daughter of a Texas A&M agricultural extension agent in El Paso, and that the committee had been her first choice.

“We developed a kinship sitting next to one another on the ag committee,” said state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station. “I like to judge people for myself, and we’ve formed an incredible relationship.”

[…]

For González, the real drama during the session was internal.

She recalled staying up all night when she was a UT student to testify against capping automatic admissions to state universities under the top 10 percent law.

“I wouldn’t be here without it,” she said of the law guaranteeing state university admission to those in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Then last month, a bill by Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch to extend the limits that she opposed was headed to the House floor, and she realized the bind she was in.

“When I was in my previous life, I could more actively fight it, but I’m a member, and you know Chairman Branch has done a lot for El Paso and a lot for my district, as far as bringing the medical school to El Paso,” González said.

“It’s this tension,” she said, “between sticking up for what you think is important and against what you think is oppression, and the reality that you still have to work with these people tomorrow and they can stop your bills, which are also trying to end oppression.”

In the end, she said, “I asked a few questions on the back mic; I talked to him,” but it was clear the bill was going to pass. She was still one of only seven votes against it, but she wasn’t as vociferous in her opposition as the old Mary might have been. “You’ve got to pick your battles.”

I was in Austin for a training class last month, and had the pleasure of meeting Rep. González at the ten year reunion of the Killer Ds. My impression of her, even before meeting her, was as positive as everyone else quoted in the story. She’s already got at least one opponent for next March, and the story notes that her predecessor, former Rep. Chente Quintanilla, is also thinking about getting in. Rep. González will have the support of her caucus mates, who have committed to her over their former colleague, and she’ll have mine as well. The world is full of Jonathan Sticklands, but it’s the Mary Gonzálezes that truly leave a mark. Stuff does need to get done, and we need the people who are there to get it done working for us.

Monday House action

The main action on Monday in the House was the House Redistricting Committee hearing. Where there’s a redistricting hearing, there’s Greg with a liveblogging session. Pay close attention to the stuff Greg writes about the questions that the Dems, in particular Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer (TMF) are asking, because they’re all about the future court fights. A big part of this has to do with who is advising the committee on legal matters, and why the Attorney General is not being made to testify before the committee.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

TMF turns his attention to [David] Archer [of the Texas Legislative Council], asking if there are legal issues seen in [Rep. Yvonne] Davis’ map. Archer notes that the plan is within the committee’s “discretion.” This is pretty much what TMF wants to hear. [Rep.] Senfronia [Thompson] has some questions for Archer, affirming his redistricting bona fides, which leads TMF to follow up with questions to affirm his legal bona fides re: redistricting. He then turns his back & forth with a point that it is the Att. General that ultimately defines those legal points on behalf of the state. He’s trying to back Archer up to a point where Archer can’t offer the answer TMF is fishing for. Archer says he’s “not trying to pass the buck …”, but he seems to realize the corner TMF is trying to paint him into. TMF notes that there is a limit to the advice that Lege Council can give, which builds from Archer’s own statements. He’s building the new court case for MALC pretty well. There are points in this line of questioning that are pure genius to observe. Archer is doing his best to just not break down and say: “Yeah, you need to talk to the Att. General’s office about that.”

TMF is done with Archer for now. Davis follows up by asking Archer about Sec. 2. This is going to be her strongest case for her plan being “legally required.” Ultimately, that definition comes down to the mood of the chair, the barometric pressure, and a number of other issues having nothing to do with law. But it’s a good marker for her to put down on this plan. Davis is exasperated with his analysis, saying he’s not being helpful to the committee by not giving any solid yesses and nos. The nut of this is that Archer’s position with the Lege Council isn’t an advocacy position, it’s a non-partisan role. With that, Davis picks up on TMF’s bigger argument – that this isn’t helping the committee determine what is legally required. It’s coming across as picking on Archer a little (something that TMF avoids in his questioning). But this is aimed at the court, not [David] Archer.

[…]

TMF picks up his opening from [Rep. Jason] Villalba’s questioning, asking again whether Archer is the best person to testify. Let me repeat: Villalba not only extracted testimony from Archer that wasn’t helpful to his side, but he also allows TMF to work in a further point about the inadequacy of Lege Council to be the ones offering legal advice to the committee. He also asks whether Archer would advise that there should be more minority-opportunity districts. Archer begins by answering that he “sees opportunities” but concludes with a “no.” TMF is also asking more questions that sidestep whether or not he thinks Lege Council is the appropriate resource for the committee. This is some more impressive TMF-ery. If the state wants to make the case that Lege Council is perfectly valid and fine, then expect comments like “sees opportunities” to come back around in the courts. This is the grand pitfall of the Lege Council not being in a position to advocate for anything – Archer is obviously trying to be neutral to all sides, but the flipside of that approach is that they aren’t going to say that the interim map is a solid slam dunk that doesn’t need tweaking. It gives TMF the ability to take Archer’s comments to court and get some kind of win (major or minor) regardless of whether the Att. General’s unwillingness to testify is ruled significant. Seriously, this is better than Perry Mason reruns. Along the same lines as above, TMF asks Archer to clarify his comment about “minimizing risk” and “insulation of risk” by taking more legislative action on the map. This won’t be the last time we hear those terms.

[Rep. Richard] Raymond follows that up with some clarity on whether a plan passed by the Lege would have to get preclearance from the DOJ (Yes, it will). Raymond then replays some history by noting that the AG’s office took the preclearance route of the DC Circuit court rather than DOJ last time. Archer notes that the AG has the same discretion of where to take preclearance this time around. Bottom line: I think we can expect this to go back through the DC court.

Texas Redistricting has a more concise wrapup. Both note that HB3, the bill for the House, passed 9-5 when motioned to a vote, but that’s not a majority of the committee and thus technically can’t be brought to the full floor. Instead, HB1 – the bill that does all of three of the affected bodies – was brought up and passed along part lines, despite objections that it brings up the same measure, since HB2 (the Senate bill) had already been approved. It’s getting wild around here, so be on high alert for shenanigans and points of order. I suspect that in the end the House will be as pro forma as the Senate was, and will do whatever it needs to do to get the maps approved.

There were other items of business in the House as well. The possibilities for the Public Integrity Unit warranted their own post. On the matter of the recent items added to the session call, these are the words of a House Speaker who has to deal with wingnut abortion legislation but isn’t exactly thrilled about it.

The House State Affairs Committee is expected to have a hearing on abortion bills Thursday, with consideration by the full chamber possible this weekend.

[…]

“I haven’t seen a bill come from the Senate yet, but I would assume that there would be support in the House, yes,” House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said Monday.

Asked about Perry adding the abortion issue to the agenda, Straus said, “It’s the governor’s prerogative to add issues to a special session. He controls the agenda during a special session. It’s certainly a right he exercises freely.”

The Senate is expected to approve the bill that was voted out of committee on Friday today. The session ends on the 25th, and while Perry can call more sessions till the cows come home, if this or any other bill hasn’t passed by then, it would have to start over from scratch in a new session.

Finally, a panel of House members will join Perry and Abbott in calling on President Obama to reconsider the denial of federal emergency aid to West. I don’t have any issue with that, though you’d thin that the Congressional delegation, including our two Senators, would be the ones to take the lead on this.

Perry still leads Abbott in UT/TT poll

I remain unconvinced that Greg Abbott is a sure thing to be the GOP nominee for Governor next year.

Only 25 percent of Texas voters — Republicans and Democrats — are ready to give Perry another term, saying they would vote for him if he seeks re-election in 2014. Nearly two in five — 38 percent — said they would vote against him, and 31 percent said they would wait and see who is running against him.

But Perry is far ahead of his likeliest challenger with Republican voters in the poll. In a fantasy match against Abbott, who has been preparing for a gubernatorial bid while he and everyone else waits for Perry to announce his own plan, the governor got 45 percent to Abbott’s 19 percent in the poll. Another 11 percent said they would choose someone else, and 25 percent said they haven’t given it enough thought to form an opinion. Those numbers haven’t changed much since the February UT/TT Poll, which found Perry with 49 percent to Abbott’s 17 percent.

Most Republicans in the poll think Texas is on the right track, and that group overwhelmingly chose Perry over Abbott. The attorney general did better with those who think the state is going in the wrong direction, but still favored Perry over Abbott. That last group, however, was as likely to choose “someone else” as they were to choose the governor.

Henson said Perry’s pre-2014 standing is much different from his pre-2010 standing and his position going into the presidential bid two years ago. Then, there were few ready or willing to challenge his pre-eminence in the Texas GOP.

“As we go into the 2014 cycle, you have both the track record of the presidential run, which is clearly negative, and you’ve got Ted Cruz very much on the stage and as a viable figurehead for the party, and you’ve got Greg Abbott waiting in the wings,” Henson said.

I say if Perry runs it’s still his to lose. By the same token, he’d be easier for a Democrat to beat than Abbott would be, if there are any Dems out there to run. No guarantees in this world, of course, and who knows what might happen if Abbott decides to dump ten million bucks or so trashing Perry. For sure, the potential is great for many Republican operatives and consultants and vendors to get very, very rich. But beyond that, who knows. Downballot, David Dewhurst leads his competitors for Lite Guv, but everyone trails “Don’t Know”, which got 61%, by a huge margin. So expect a lot of money to be spent in that race, too. Texpatriate has more.

Turner seeks a way to get around Public Integrity Unit de-funding

Rep. Sylvester Turner takes aim at one of Perry’s vetoes.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said he would propose a House Concurrent Resolution advocating restoration of funding for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office, which was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry last week.

[…]

This morning on the floor of the Texas House, Turner raised what options lawmakers have in responding to the veto. Afterwards he told reporters he would seek the resolution for restoring the funding.

“Over the last 10 years, there have been attempts to eliminate, weaken, move the public integrity unit from Travis County to the AG’s (attorney general’s) office and over the last 10 years the Legislature has said no,” Turner noted. “We are entitled to know where the funding will come from or what the plan is. Is it the intent of the state to say no to the Public Integrity Unit, to significantly weaken it?”

Turner questioned Perry’s use of his veto power to influence who holds a particular office.

“I am just not comfortable with vetoing funding because some people here have problems with one person,” he said

A concurrent resolution is basically just a “sense of the chamber” vote, so even if such a thing passed (which I doubt) it wouldn’t compel anyone to do anything. This is about sending a message. The politics of this situation are increasingly complex, but there’s a good case to be made that whatever you think of Rosemary Lehmberg and her sins, it’s not up to Rick Perry to force the issue. There’s a process in place that is already in motion, and Perry’s involvement is a conflict of interest.

More on this in the Statesman:

From the back microphone of the Texas House, Turner asked Speaker Joe Straus if any options exist to fund the unit.

Straus said after Monday’s meeting of the House that his office would do some research for Turner.

“With the questions from Mr. Turner and others, it’s certainly something that we should explore with the governor and with the Public Integrity Unit personnel. I’m assuming that the governor’s office has considered this,” Straus said in an interview. “We just have to assess where we are, and what the implications are as we go forward.”

[…]

Also Monday, state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, asked from the House floor if funding could be revived if Lehmberg resigns.

House leaders didn’t have an immediate response.

But Dale Craymer, president of Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, had a thought. The former top budget official for Govs. Ann Richards and George W. Bush said it is possible to restore funding through budget execution action, which involves the governor and the Legislative Budget Board agreeing on moving money from other parts of the budget.

I can’t claim to be optimistic about anything happening to counter Perry’s veto, but clearly we are in uncharted territory. Rep. Turner in particular got a lot done in the budget deal, so I would not discount his efforts.

On a related note, Travis County Commissioners Court is exploring its options as well.

Travis County commissioners will discuss the legislation and the governor’s actions on their agenda around 11 a.m. Tuesday.

“We likely will not take action tomorrow, rather just discuss this issue,” County Judge Sam Biscoe told KVUE. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. I have sent a list of questions to the county attorney to understand our authority and limitations on this matter. I also want to know whether the governor’s decision can be reversed by himself or the Legislature before September 1, 2013.”

Biscoe says the commissioners will address the item and then go into executive session. They will likely take action on June 25.

“From my understanding, the revenue from that unit goes to residents of Texas as well as the state and federal government. I personally don’t see the benefit of fully funding the unit if the money goes to outside agencies. We will explore the issue,” said Biscoe.

The main thing I’d be concerned about is that if Commissioners Court picks up the slack, what incentive does the Lege have to fund the PIU in a future session, post-Lehmberg? This is the same dilemma school districts that had room to raise their tax rates faced after the massive cuts to public education in 2011. A one-time fix can quickly be seen as the new normal.

Craft beer bills now officially the law

Whatever you think of the vetoes or the special session action, this is unequivocally good news.

Happy hour started Friday afternoon for Texas brewers.

Gov. Rick Perry signed five bills representing the most comprehensive overhaul in two decades of how beer is packaged and sold across the state.

Thus, effective immediately, shipping breweries such as Houston’s Saint Arnold can sell a set amount of beer directly to customers, although they must consume it on-site.

And brewpubs like San Antonio’s Freetail can package and sell some of their products for distribution in other retail outlets. The latter change gives Texas restaurants that make their own beer the same ability to sell off-site as many out-of-state brewpubs.

“This is a great moment for craft brewers in Texas,” Saint Arnold founder Brock Wagner said. “It’s the first real reform we’ve seen in beer law, for craft brewers, since the brewpub bill.” He referred to the 1993 legislation that authorized licensed restaurants to make and sell beer for sale on-site.

The Texas Craft Brewers Guild hailed the signings as a “progressive step forward in making Texas the epicenter of craft beer development and growth” and predicted the law changes will mean not just more beer on store shelves but also “more jobs for Texans, increased tourism and greater tax revenue for the state.”

In Houston, the law allowing on-site consumption at shipping breweries would have the biggest immediate potential impact. Saint Arnold, for example, plans to begin offering “special and limited edition brews” for sale during its weekday and Saturday tours.

The basic tour at Saint Arnold’s won’t change – they’re not going to fool around with something that’s been such a success for them. Saint Arnold may start adding other events at which beer will be sold. I suspect there will be a lot of experimenting, and that’s just fine. The brewers and the brewpubs have been given a lot of new latitude, and it will take them awhile to figure out how best to take advantage of it for themselves.

Saint Arnold is the biggest player in the microbrewery space around here, but there are plenty of others now. One of them is Karbach, which hasn’t decided yet what it will do now that it can sell beer on premise. Karbach has been growing like gangbusters lately, so the new freedom they’ve been given comes at a great time for them.

Karbach Brewing Co., one of the nation’s fastest-growing craft breweries, has signed a distribution deal that will significantly expand its availability in stores, bars and restaurants from Beaumont to Galveston to Victoria.

In a separate deal, the Houston brewery also will begin selling beer in San Antonio next month, co-founder Ken Goodman said Wednesday.

To meet the anticipated demand, Karbach is completing a major expansion of its northwest Houston plant that will give it capacity to produce and sell up to 40,000 barrels annually, up from 15,000 barrels.

Karbach, which began sales in August 2011, produced more than 8,000 barrels in 2012, well ahead of internal forecasts. Goodman said he expects to sell 18,000 to 20,000 barrels this year.

That will include new sales in 17 counties across Southeast Texas through a distribution arrangement announced Wednesday with Del Papa Distributing Co.

Karbach had been delivering some beers on its own in a limited area, but the Del Papa deal will put year-round and special-release beers in a wider variety of stores and bars.

According to some research done by The New Yorker, based on newly released 2012 data gathered by the Brewers Association, Karbach was the second-fastest growing brewery in the country from 2011 to 2012, with sales increasing by a phenomenal 1112% over that year. You have to start at a pretty low level to grow tenfold, but still, that’s impressive. Overall, craft brewery production increased by 14% in the state, though the total volume of over 770,000 barrels is still peanuts compared to what an Anheuser Busch produces in a year. One reason why there’s been such growth is because there’s plenty of room for it. Texas is only 41st in the country in craft breweries per capita. A whole lot more of these places could open before the market even approaches saturation.

One more thing:

The brewers guild released new figures Friday showing that craft beer production in Texas was up 42 percent last year compared with 2011. It estimated the industry’s economic impact in the state was $737 million in 2012.

“Texas craft beer now accounts for an estimated 0.98 percent of all beer consumed in Texas, but it employs 59.7 percent of the people who work in breweries in the state,” it said.

The new figures don’t appear on the Texas Craft Brewers Guild website just yet, though you can still see last year’s study, which put the impact at $608 million. You can be sure that number will be even bigger next year.

City seeks One Bin For All RFQs

Calling all vendors.

The city of Houston took a step forward on its “One Bin for All” project this week.

The project would allow residents to discard trash and recyclables in one bin to be sorted at a new $100 million facility, which would be built and run by a private firm.

On June 12, the city issued a request for qualification, looking for firms to provide residential municipal solid waste and recyclables processing, and named Deputy Director Don Pagel as the new program manager for the project.

The city will hold a pre-proposal conference on June 27, and RFQ submissions are due Aug. 22. Click here to download the RFQ.

See here for my previous blogging on One Bin For All, and here for the city’s press release. Of interest is this Houston Politics post about the budget hearing for the Solid Waste department.

City Council this Wednesday will vote on whether to spend $2.5 million to purchase 11,408 trash carts and 34,560 recycling carts for the Solid Waste Management Department, the latter a part of the city’s planned expansion of curbside single-stream recycling service.

Solid Waste Department spokeswoman Sandra Jackson said the department plans to release the list of neighborhoods where the recycling carts will go after City Council approves the purchase.

Today, 26 percent of Houston homes have 18-gallon green tubs that take newspapers, magazines, cans, cardboard and plastic, and 28 percent have single-stream, which are larger, have wheels, and which accept glass in addition to those other items. About 46 percent of homes have no curbside recycling.

The $7.8 million expansion plan, which Mayor Annise Parker touted last month in announcing her proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, would expand single-stream service to about 55 percent of the city’s households (adding 35,000 in July and 70,000 in October), making some type of curbside recycling available to about 63 percent of homes, department Director Harry Hayes said.

As a result, Hayes said he expects the citywide recycling rate to increase from roughly 19 percent now to about 23 percent after the expansion. (By comparison, he said, the goal of waste diverted from landfills as part of the still-in-development One Bin For All proposal would be 55 percent in the first year and, eventually, 75 percent).

The black trash cans on the agenda tomorrow would replace broken and lost ones, as well as serve new customers and give some customers extra bins — for a price. Hayes expects to bring in $1.3 million in the coming fiscal year from selling residents extra trash cans, and another $480,000 from selling bins to businesses.

Those were just two details gleaned from Hayes’ budget presentation this morning, the latest in City Council’s two-week budget hearing process. (See below for details from the Houston Public Library budget presentation.)

Hayes proposes a $70.6 million budget, up from $69.4 million this year. In addition to expanding curbside recycling (Hayes said he hopes to expand single-stream service citywide in the next 2.5 fiscal years), his budget also calls for expanding or remodeling some neighborhood recycling centers in early 2014.

Landfill fees are projected at $13.5 million; as recently as fiscal year 2008, they were $23.6 million.

That was from last week. I was beginning to wonder what had happened with that, since surely Council had voted on it by now, but I wasn’t seeing any news about it. However, on Friday I got this press release from the city that made the official announcement about that first expansion of automated curbside recycling to 35,000 more households. Click over to see if your neighborhood is getting it in July if you haven’t gotten it already, or if you have to wait till October.

On a side note, the debate about how effective the One Bin solution will be continues. City Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian and Texas Campaign for the Environment Houston program director Tyson Sowell each contributed an op-ed to Waste & Recycling News with their perspective. They have been going back and forth on this since the One Bin plan was announced, including here, so you should read what they have to say there to keep up with the discussion.

Tesla will be back

This story was from earlier in June.

Texas’ state legislature failed to vote on a bill backed by Musk’s Tesla Motors (TSLA) that would have loosened the state’s restriction on dealerships owned by automakers. The legislature concluded its most recent session last week, and won’t be back until January 2015.

Tesla has tangled with dealership associations in a number of states in its effort to sell its Model S electric sedan directly to consumers rather than using franchised car dealers. Musk testified before lawmakers in Texas on the issue earlier this year.

[…]

Speaking at Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting Tuesday, Musk cited polling data from various states to argue that consumers overwhelmingly favor allowing direct sales.

“Clearly, if democracy was working properly and the legislators were implementing the will of the people, something else would be happening, and there would not be legislation trying to artificially restrict direct sales,” Musk said.

“Right now, the autodealers’ association — they’re crowing about the fact that they were able to defeat us in Texas and that they’re making so much progress in North Carolina and stopping us in Virginia,” he added. “I think it’s outrageous.”

See here and here for some background, and this earlier story for more. I’ve compared what Tesla is trying to do to what the craft brewers finally managed to do, and if Elon Musk is as smart as he seems to be, he’ll figure out a way to mimic their tactics. In both cases, the argument in favor of loosening the archaic restrictions is basically self-evident, it’s mostly a matter of getting the public on your side, and educating the legislators, all of whom would favor the changes if they truly understood the concept of a “free market”. It’s a process and not a straight line, and you shouldn’t expect to win without a fight, but I do believe it’s inevitable. It may take awhile, but in the end I believe Tesla will prevail.

Remember, drowning doesn’t look like drowning

I’ve posted about this before, but as summer is now upon us, it seems like a good time to go over it again. Former Coast Guard rescue swimmer Mario Vittone’s iconic article about how to recognize the signs of drowning has been reprinted in Slate, and you need to read it again if you haven’t already read it.

The Instinctive Drowning Response—so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the No. 2 cause of accidental death in children, ages 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents)—of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In some of those drownings, the adult will actually watch the child do it, having no idea it is happening. Drowning does not look like drowning—Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, described the Instinctive Drowning Response like this:

  1. “Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.”

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble—they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the Instinctive Drowning Response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long—but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Go read the whole thing, and then watch the video. See also this clip from the Today show. Now let’s be careful out there.

Weekend link dump for June 16

The difference between “geek” and “nerd”, in a detailed discussion that is both geeky and nerdy.

The Longhorn Network really isn’t working out as planned, is it?

Putting your favorite MLB team’s draft picks in perspective.

You know, accurate sex education and access to birth control would be a far more effective strategy.

Ten fun facts about Judge Edith Jones.

Kangaroos are particularly prone to excited delirium. Unfortunately for this particular kangaroo, it didn’t end well for him.

Put a little Man In Black on your snail mail.

Another reason to like Costco – they promote from within, instead of hiring MBAs.

A feature film about the “Archie” comic books is apparently a thing that exists.

Now, if they could work zombies into it, we might have something.

Does anybody have a clear vision of the desirable financial system of the future? Sheila Bair does.

Baseball needs a Lifetime Achievement Award that is something other than Hall of Fame induction.

All things considered, an Insane Clown Posse TV show was probably inevitable.

“The House vote signals that congressional Republicans aren’t afraid to take votes that may jeopardize their standing with Latinos. Indeed, the vote last week was essentially a symbolic measure with no chance of passage in the Senate, but it still got the support of 221 out of 227 Republicans who voted. If they’re voting for that, why wouldn’t they also vote against a path to citizenship?”

Wait, how do mosquitoes avoid getting squashed by falling raindrops?

“Penelope Garcia is the personification of the NSA’s PRISM program.”

“As a lifelong career criminal, although I no longer enjoy the right to keep and bear arms, I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation to the National Rifle Association for nonetheless protecting my ability to easily obtain them through its opposition to universal background checks.”

“Diamonds are not actually scarce, make a terrible investment, and are purely valuable as a status symbol. Diamonds, to put it delicately, are bullshit.”

From your lips to God’s ear, Chuckster.

I’m thinking that more than an apology may be needed here.

Why are there no real world examples of libertarian governance?

On being a distraction in sports.

“In the long run, women who want abortions but don’t get them adjust to their new lives. They aren’t unhappy at becoming mothers. But there’s not much question that their lives suffer, and as more and more states put more and more roadblocks in the way of abortion providers, that suffering will increase.”

I am not surprised by this. Disappointed and sad, sure, but not surprised.

A smatrphone kill switch could do a lot to deter their theft.

Perry goes on a veto spree

NO

Here’s the full list. Among the victims are the omnibus ethics bill HB217, thus giving Allen Blakemore his fondest wish; two bills aimed at reducing the number of standardized tests some students must take, one of which will make William McKenzie happy; SB15, which would have placed new limits on the power of the University of Texas System Board of Regents to fire campus presidents; a Dan Patrick gun bill (!); the Lilly Ledbetter bill as previously noted; a bill that would have allowed voters to pick an interpreter of their choice, within certain limits, while voting, a bill that Perry either misread or misrepresented; and quite a few others, not to mention the funding for the Public Integrity Unit.

Here are some reactions to the vetoes from the Chron:

Friday, the Austin-based Texans for Public Justice filed a legal complaint that Perry’s threat amounted to official coercion so he could win an appointment and short-circuit the unit’s investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

“No surprise Perry would act to de-fang the state’s corruption watchdog. It’s a watchdog that might bite him and his cronies,” said Craig McDonald, TPJ director. “Our legal complaint against his bullying tactics remains in play, however.”

McDonald and Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, also faulted Perry’s veto of a bill reforming the Texas Ethics Commission. “Perry’s office is an ethical black hole,” said McDonald. “Reforms go in. Nothing comes out.”

Smith pointed out that the bill would have required Railroad Commission Barry Smitherman, a Perry appointee, to resign his office before running for attorney general. “It is stunning that the governor is so intent on protecting one ambitious politician that he would veto a bill that drastically improved enforcement at the Texas Ethics Commission.”
Whether any of this represents Perry reasserting himself (again) in preparation for his next election or just a last middle finger to the rest of us before he rides off into the sunset on the wingnut welfare wagon I couldn’t say. Texas Vox bemoans the veto of the omnibus ethics bill, and I’m sure there will be plenty of other reactions, just in time for Perry to gallivant off to New York. What bills on the veto list – or not on the veto list – surprised you, one way or the other?

[…]

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education committee, filed Senate Bill 15 after a February dust-up over whether University of Texas System regents had micromanaged or maligned the character of UT Austin President Bill Powers. UT Regents Chairman Gene Powell has denied those allegations.

“Limiting oversight authority of a board of regents … is a step in the wrong direction,” Perry wrote in his veto. “History has taught us that the lack of board oversight in both the corporate and university settings diminishes accountability and provides fertile ground for organizational malfeasance.”

Seliger expressed frustration that Perry vetoed the bill, saying he had accepted all changes suggested by the governor’s staff.

“It is duplicitous,” he said.

In vetoing the Lilly Ledbetter Act, Perry wrote that “Texas’ commitment to smart regulations and fair courts is a large part of why we continue to lead the nation in job creation. House Bill 950 duplicates federal law, which already allows employees who feel that have been discriminated against through compensation to file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

“I thought Gov. Perry always wanted us to do things the Texas way and not the federal way, but apparently not in this case,” Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said in a statement. “Now, Texas women will have no choice but to rely on the federal government to protect their rights. The governor took office at the dawn of the 21st Century, but you wouldn’t know it from his actions today.”

Rick Perry does what is best for Rick Perry. There are no other considerations. Whether all this is a sign of him asserting his power in preparation for his next campaign or just a parting middle finger to the rest of us as he prepares to ride off into the sunset on the wingnut welfare wagon, I couldn’t say.

Other reactions to Friday: Texas Vox bemoans the veto of the omnibus ethics bill. Grits is bewildered by the veto of one de-incarceration bill, and games out the ploy to defund the Public Integrity Unit. Burka is relieved that things weren’t any worse. Texas Watch applauds the signing of three bills designed to improve transparency for Texas home and auto insurance customers. Juanita is spitting mad at the veto of the Lilly Ledbetter bill. Texpatriate summarizes the whole day’s activity. Egberto Willies talks to Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the author of the Lilly Ledbetter bill, about Perry’s veto. She vows to bring the bill back next session. What vetoes and signatures surprised or didn’t surprise you?

HISD moving forward with North Forest annexation

Despite some legal uncertainty, they pretty much have to keep moving forward.

The Houston Independent School District moved forward Wednesday with its takeover of the beleaguered North Forest school system even as state education officials prepare for a Thursday hearing that could delay the annexation.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier announced principal assignments as well as changes in the use of some campuses. Parents were notified of the changes by mail earlier in the week.

The Texas Education Agency, citing decades of academic failures and financial mismanagement, in May ordered that North Forest ISD close and be annexed to HISD by July 1. Two weeks ago, a visiting judge in Austin, Jon Wisser, issued a temporary restraining order against the state agency at the request of North Forest supporters.

The supporters will go before Wisser again Thursday to request a temporary injunction. The restraining order is set to expire Friday.

“Until a judge orders otherwise, we have an obligation to continue proceeding as though (TEA) Commissioner Williams’ order for HISD to annex North Forest on July 1 will remain in effect,” said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer.

[…]

However, a federal issue dealing with voting rights must be resolved before the takeover is finalized. The Houston ISD board will need to redraw voting districts. The board will discuss how to incorporate North Forest voters into its single-member districts at its meeting Thursday, Spencer said.

HISD has scheduled community meetings June 25 and June 27 to share information and receive feedback from North Forest parents about the transition.

The meetings will be at 6:30 p.m. at the Eden Event Center, 7540 N. Wayside.

See here and here for the latest news. I have not yet seen an account of the HISD board meeting, so I don’t know what they decided to do about redistricting. On Friday afternoon, a district judge in Austin dismissed that lawsuit filed by North Forest against the TEA, for which visiting Judge Visser had granted a temporary restraining order, so that’s one more obstacle cleared. North Forest will appeal the dismissal, and there’s still the matter of the Justice Department, but it’s getting close to impossible to imagine an outcome in which the annexation does not move forward as planned at this point.

Review ordered for Jones allegations

Moving forward.

Judge Edith Jones

Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court formally ordered on Wednesday that a rare public judicial misconduct complaint against 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones be reviewed by officials in a different circuit — one based in the nation’s capital.

“I have selected the Judicial Council of the District of Columbia Circuit to accept the transfer and to exercise the powers of a judicial council with respect to the identified complaint and any pending or new complaints relating to the same subject matter,” Roberts said in a letter addressed to the D.C. circuit’s chief judge that was posted on the 5th Circuit’s website.

It is only one of a handful of times in U.S. history that a federal circuit judge has been the subject of a public judicial misconduct complaint and a formal disciplinary review. Normally such matters are secret under federal law.

“This is a hopeful sign that (federal judges) are taking this seriously,” says a lawyer who signed the complaint, James C. Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

[…]

Chief Justice Roberts’ letter, dated June 12, reports that the reassignment of the judicial misconduct complaint against Jones to jurists in Washington, D.C., came in response to a request for transfer from the current Chief Judge of the 5th Circuit, Carl E. Stewart.

Stewart, who replaced Jones as chief judge last October, apparently requested last week that the June 4 complaint review be assigned to another circuit court for review. However, his request on Friday for transfer was not previously made public.

See here for the background. Chief Justice Roberts’ letter is here, and more on the details of the complaint are here and here. I have no idea what to expect out of this, but I’m glad to see it being taken seriously. BOR has more.

What we missed by not getting a payday lending bill

Better Texas Blog reminds us of what could have been

SB 1247, the omnibus reform bill filed by Sen. John Carona … included the ability to repay standards, loan limits, and refinance limitations, among numerous other provisions. According to the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner (OCCC), the refinance limitations alone in SB 1247 would have produced annual savings more than $130 million for more than 300,000 Texas consumers.

Unlike other consumer loan products offered in Texas, the Finance Code contains no payday loan regulation relating to loan fees or effective annual interest rates, loan amounts, maximum number of refinances per loan, loan terms[i], ability to repay or underwriting and type of product. At least for payday loans, the absence of any statewide regulation or consumer protection makes Texas an outlier compared to nearly every state that permits or authorizes payday lending. Only five other states do not cap the amount of fees payday lenders can charge (Delaware, Idaho, Nevada, Ohio and South Dakota).[ii] Even among these states however, Delaware and Nevada have limits on loan terms and all five states limit loan amounts. [iii]

recent analysis of payday lending conducted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which covers a majority of the U.S. storefront payday loan transactions over a 12-month period, found that 68 percent of payday loan consumers had annual incomes at or below $30,000, and 43 percent had annual incomes at or below $20,000. The median annual income of payday loan consumers was about $22,500; for borrowers making under $20,000, the most common income sources were “public assistance/benefits” and “retirement”.

The CFPB analysis also found that the average payday loan amount nationwide was $392 in 2012. Nationwide data on payday lending appear to be much better than comparable data from unregulated Texas payday lenders, which reveal that Texas borrowers pay much higher fees and loan amounts. Based on 2012 data from OCCC, the average single payment payday loan in Texas was $472.

SB 1247 also included limits on refinances for each loan product, generating a pathway out of debt for consumers who get into trouble with payday or auto title loans. For 2012, single payment payday loans alone comprised about 75 percent of all payday loans, while single payment auto title loans accounted for 83% of all auto title loans.[iv] The original loan amounts of single payment payday loans surpassed $1 billion, while loan refinancing nearly hit $2.1 billion. Over 70 percent of single payment payday loan consumers that refinanced their loan did so multiple times. As shown by the CFPB report, repeat borrowing and renewals represent the lion’s share of all loan volume.   On-time repayment is the exception, with three refinances for every loan paid in full on the original due date.

The good news and the bad news is that city ordinances are still in effect. It’s good news because we almost got an bill that did little more than nullify the city ordinances, and it’s bad because city ordinances only cover a portion of the state. Given what Mayor Parker has said, we will likely be able to add Houston to the list of cities that offer this protection. But until we have a real statewide law, it only means so much.