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June 25th, 2013:

Interview with Willie Loston

Willie Loston is the Executive Director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, which is the not-for-profit company that operates and maintains the public facilities at Reliant Park, including Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. It was the HCSCC that called for and evaluated the private proposals for the Astrodome, and the HCSCC that ultimately presented the plan for a publicly-funded renovation of the Dome into a multi-purpose event facility. Of course, the process of coming up with a sustainable plan for the Dome goes back well before this year, but after a few false starts it has traction now. As you know, not everyone is on board with HCSCC’s idea, which must be approved by Commissioners Court and then ratified by popular vote, and there are still a lot of questions about why it was the HCSCC plan that was put forward, why has this taken so long, and so on. Mr. Loston reached out to me after one of my (many) posts about the Dome, and agreed to let me throw a few of these questions at him for my blog. Here’s what we talked about:

Willie Loston interview

Just as a point of clarification, the interview was conducted yesterday, so when Loston refers to the Commissioners Court meeting tomorrow, he means today, Tuesday. I believe this is the link Loston refers to when he mentions searching for the master plan. We’ll see what Commissioners Court does today; I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities to write about this before all is said and done.

UPDATE: Commissioners Court has unanimously approved the HCSCC proposal, and sent it to the county budget office, county attorney and infrastructure department for further review.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he expects to hear back on the proposal in about a month.

The budget office will look at ways to finance the project, including revenue generators to offset the price tag of any bond referendum sent to voters. The project could end up on the ballot in the form of a bond referendum as early as November.

Commissioners had no comment on the proposal before voting to send it to staff.

Emmett, however, explained that they were referring it to the budget office “to analyze what exactly the financial impact is because if there is a bond, there will be a tax and everybody needs to understand that, but the level of that tax right now is still undetermined.”

The county attorney, he said, will determine what deadlines have to be met to get the item on the ballot.

So far so good. Now that the T-word has been invoked, we’ll see who pops up to oppose this.

No action on SB5 in the Senate

The name of the game is running out the clock.

Right there with them

Right there with them

Texas Democrats, far outnumbered by Republicans in both the House and the Senate, are nonetheless on the verge of killing one of the most restrictive abortion proposals in the nation — at least for now.

Using delaying tactics and parliamentary rules, the minority party argued into the wee hours in the state House on Monday morning and then stuck together to keep the GOP from jamming Senate Bill 5 through the Senate in the afternoon. Republicans vowed to try to try to muster enough support to push the bill through again Monday night, but it was unclear if they could change any minds.

SB 5, by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would make abortion illegal after 20 weeks and would establish stringent new requirements for facilities that perform abortions. Supporters of the bill say it would make the procedures safer for women and protect unborn babies. Abortion rights proponents say the legislation would shut down most of the abortion facilities in Texas.

With barely more than a day left in the 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry at the end of May, that means Democrats have moved much closer to putting the controversial measure within the range of a filibuster.

“I think we are now in a position to try to do what’s right for the women of this state,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “We need to be protecting women’s health in this state, and we need to be protecting a woman’s right to make choices about her body.”

Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat and rising star in the party, has vowed to launch a filibuster. Unless Republicans can change some votes, the abortion measure can’t be brought up for debate until Tuesday morning at about 11 a.m. Since the session ends at midnight Tuesday, that means she could kill the legislation by talking nonstop for about 13 hours.

The Democrats won a test vote at about 4 p.m., turning away a GOP attempt to fast track the abortion legislation by suspending a 24-hour layout rule. It takes a supermajority — two-thirds of those present — to suspend that rule. The Democrats voted as a bloc and stopped debate on the measure.

There was a second attempt to get a motion to suspend but it failed as well. The Senate is in recess until 10 AM today. As noted, from that point on it’s a matter of someone talking till midnight, at which point the session expires. There could, of course, be a second session called, but you take your victories where you can.

In the meantime, let the blame game begin!

Accusations of who’s to blame for the anti-abortion proposal’s potential demise already are starting to fly.

Look no further than the always vocal Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who blasted leadership after the Senate recessed Monday afternoon.

In a short back-and-forth with reporters, Patrick said “very clearly it does not look like there was coordination between the people who lead the majority” when it comes to Senate Bill 5.

“It’s just clear that we appear to be flying a little bit by the seat of our pants. These are important bills. You don’t fly by the seat of your pants when you try to pass important bill.”

Patrick added: “We’re the majority if the majority can’t pass the legislation they think is important and the people think is important then that’s a great concern to me.”

In response, Lt. Gov David Dewhurst said Patrick misrepresented leadership’s strategy and that he “had a very clear plan” to “pass good pro life legislation.”

Dewhurst quickly turned the table to focus on the House, which passed SB5 Monday morning.

After passing the bill, the House sent SB5 to the Senate for the upper chamber to concur with a change it made when the lower chamber put back language to ban abortions at 20-weeks.Concurring with the House change is the final step for the Senate before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry.

But because the House wrestled with SB5 from Sunday evening all the way into Monday morning, it delayed the Senate’s ability to move forward and cut short the potential for an even longer filibuster from Democrats.

“I asked the House ‘please don’t send it to us at the last minute, please,’” Dewhurst said. “Send it out at the latest on Sunday afternoon, so we’ll be able to take it up outside of filibuster range. “

Dewhurst added: “The House, by passing this out late this morning, it means that we can’t bring the bill up until tomorrow at 11 o’clock … most of us … could stand up for 13 hours and talk. That’s the reason why I wanted Senate Bill 5 passed out of the House by late afternoon Sunday, so we could bring it up this afternoon, and I think out of filibuster range where its difficult for most people to talk for 36 hours in a row.”

I don’t know, I might have included Rick Perry in the blame, since he sets the session agenda and all. But then, Dan Patrick isn’t (possibly) running against Perry. And it must be noted, Dewhurst did try to go the extra mile.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told Sen. Leticia Van de Putte in a letter Monday that the he plans to move forward with a package of strict abortion restrictions even if the San Antonio Democrat is away attending services for her recently deceased father.

“I cannot in good conscience delay the people’s work on these important matters,” Dewhurst wrote Monday.

[…]

Van de Putte’s vote could be what determines whether Democrats can block Republican efforts to suspend the 24-hour layout rule. Without her, Democrats don’t have enough votes to block it.

And Van de Putte is scheduled to be in San Antonio on Monday attending services for her father, Daniel San Miguel Jr., who was killed in a car accident last week. Van de Putte lobbed a letter at Dewhurst a day earlier (rumors have been swirling all day at the Capitol about Van De Putte potentially showing up; her office declined to comment).

In his letter, Dewhurst offered condolences but made clear the Senate cannot wait because time is running out on the special session.

“I believe we can fulfill our obligation to the people of Texas while honoring your beloved father’s memory,” he wrote.

The wild card in the equation: Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

Lucio supports the package of anti-abortion bills, and he’s also planning to vote in favor of a motion to suspend the 24-hour layout rule. But he’s said he won’t cast that vote unless Van De Putte is on the floor.

“Senator Van de Putte asked me directly — knowing I support Senate Bill 5—to nonetheless vote no on suspending the 24-hour posting rule on the bill until she can be in the Senate chamber to cast her vote against it.” Lucio said. “I am honoring Senator Van de Putte’s request.”

Heck of a guy, that David Dewhurst. Remember when he tried to take advantage of John Whitmire being in the bathroom to push through a vote on voter ID during Mario Gallegos’ convalescence after his liver transplant? Good times. Lucio thankfully stuck to his word, and Dewhurst was thwarted – for now – having ruined Sen. Kevin Eltife’s vacation for nothing.

So it comes down to today, and there will be filibustering. Maybe the Rs have something up their sleeve to overcome that – after 10 AM, all they’ll need is a majority vote – and as noted, maybe Rick Perry will call another session. But this is a win, and as was the case ten years ago with the Killer Ds, it’s a galvanizing event. If you’re in Austin today, you can be there to see it for yourself. And wherever you are, you can keep the ball moving after sine die, whenever that may be.

Finally, I can’t let this go without a tip of the hat to Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, who demonstrated that one does not have to be a man to say something profoundly stupid and offensive about rape. As they say, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. PDiddie has more.

Chron wonders where B-Cycle is going

Last week in an unsigned editorial, the Chron asked a provocative question about B-Cycle.

Are bicycle rental programs supposed to be legitimate transportation or merely toys for urban bohemians? New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante revealed Friday that her city’s attempts to make bike share more affordable, such as distributing free helmets and subsidizing Citi Bike memberships for low-income New Yorkers, have so far reached few people.

Houston’s policies don’t paint a better picture. We do have a bicycle helmet fund, which was created to raise money to provide bicycle helmets for very low-income families. But the list seems to stop there. We lack a program to subsidize B-Cycle memberships for needy families, though one has to wonder how much of an impact that program would have. After all, there are no B-Cycle stations in the poor neighborhoods surrounding downtown’s B-Cycle core. It is not as if these neighborhoods aren’t bike-friendly. The Fourth Ward is accessible by West Dallas St., a designated bike-share road that connects directly with downtown. And the Columbia Tap bicycle trail stretches from east of downtown through the Third Ward to Brays Bayou – one of the most convenient bicycle paths in the city, utterly wanting for a B-Cycle station.

Here’s that NYT article the editorial refers to. I can’t speak to Citi Bike, which is a new program and has its share of kinks to be worked out, but the point about making B-Cycle more accessible to more Houstonians is very much a valid one. I sent an inquiry to Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian about the editorial, but she had already sent a letter to the editor in response, which she pointed me to.

Houston B-Cycle appreciates the Chronicle’s calling attention to a wonderful three-month old program – and the call for more bikes and greater coverage. When first launched, some thought this could never work in Houston.

But Houstonians are proving the skeptics wrong. Houston B-cycle is well ahead of projections with over 5,000 unique users and an average of 1,300 bikes checked out each week. And in a city accused of being too fat, these riders have burned an estimated 4 million calories! But we recognize that we have more work to do.

The Houston bike share system, like successful programs in other cities, has used a proven formula, placing the first bikes in the densest part of our city … the downtown urban core and dense adjacent neighborhoods. We want to expand the program across the city, and the Chronicle is right to push for broader coverage.

B-cycle’s growth will build off of the current network. The existing program is a great example of private and public partnership, built with zero local tax dollars. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas has been a key partner and financial supporter. They share our goal of making Houston B-cycle the best in the nation.

We need more partners to continue expansion plans. If you want to help, please visit us at http://houston.bcycle.com/.

Laura Spanjian, director, city of Houston Sustainability

Michael Skelly board member, Houston Bike Share

I agree with what Spanjian and Skelly say here, but they don’t exactly get into specifics in their response. I think there’s a more fundamental point that needs to be addressed, but before I get to that, let me point to the story that I suspect was the genesis of the Chron editorial, which was in one of the neighborhood section and thus probably wasn’t widely noticed. (I only saw it because it was on the B-Cycle Facebook page.)

As cycling’s popularity rises in Houston, city officials and planners see the west side of the Inner Loop as the logical next place to focus energy on developing a more prominent role for the quiet, eco-friendly mode of transportation.

Rice University, the Texas Medical Center and area shopping districts already attract cyclists, said Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for Mayor Annise Parker.

“There’s a lot of bike commuters to Rice,” she said. “There’s already some good infrastructure there.”

The city is looking at ways to expand offerings in the neighborhood, with one option being a project where certain streets will close to vehicles and open only for bicycles on Sundays, Spanjian said.

Will Rub, director of Houston Bike Share, hopes that the city’s B-cycle bike rental program can become more established in the area.

“We have very high hopes of expanding the bike share program into the medical center,” he said. “Bike share is an ideal supplement to the Texas Medical Center environment and would go a long way towards reducing a significant number of ‘intra-center’ car rides and eventually reducing some of the shuttle trips.”

He said the next natural step would be to expand the program to Rice Village and at Rice University.

“I’ve had discussions with a few representatives from the school, but no plans or commitments at this time,” he said.

Spanjian said the mayor’s office is working to expand bicycle routes into the medical center and other neighborhoods by year’s end.

I talked about the logical next steps for B-Cycle expansion, and this story makes sense to me. Ideally, as Spanjian and Skelly said, B-Cycle is going to go where the biggest bang for the buck will be – dense places where parking is at a premium and it’s often not convenient or practical to retrieve your car for a short trip. B-Cycle will mostly be a convenience in these locations, helping to reduce short-trip driving, which in turn helps relieve parking congestion, while extending the range of places that a non-driver can get to. This is all to the good.

What we need to keep sight of is that at its core, B-Cycle is a transit network. Extending that network by adding more stations makes it more useful and valuable, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The B-Cycle network can and should integrate well with our existing transit network.

Last month, we recorded 15,232 bikes on buses – that’s 15 percent more than the same month a year ago. And that’s 28 percent more than the previous month of April’s boardings.

Now, no one is going to put a B-Cycle bike aboard a Metro bus. But if we locate some B-Cycle kiosks near bus stops in parts of town that are heavily dependent on buses for local transit, that not only makes both networks more extensive, it also helps to address the Chron’s concern about who is being served by B-Cycle. As we know, Metro is re-imagining its bus system. I say this redesign needs to be done in conjunction with B-Cycle and its future expansion plans. Having these two networks – and the light rail network, and the Uptown BRT line – complement each other will make the whole that much greater than the sum of the parts. To address the question about the helmet fund, perhaps Metro could kick in a little something for that, and perhaps there’s some H-GAC mobility money available to help as well. The point I’m (finally) making here is that we need all these components to work together. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this, but I haven’t seen it addressed anywhere else. We have an opportunity here to really make non-car transit in Houston a lot more convenient and attractive. Let’s take full advantage of it.

Skilling gets resentenced

He got the minimum of what he could have gotten.

The long-running battle between federal prosecutors and former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling formally came to an end Friday when U.S. District Judge Sim Lake signed off on a negotiated sentence agreement that will end Skilling’s incarceration in about four years.

In agreeing to the minimum sentence within the range of 168 and 210 months, Lake said the interest of justice would not be served by having Skilling serve longer. He noted that the architect of Enron’s rise from an obscure pipeline company to an innovative and diverse energy giant will end up spending more time in prison than anyone else connected to the company’s stunning 2001 collapse into bankruptcy.

“This is not an easy decision to make,” Lake said about the number of months to choose.

“The two most significant factors are the need for the sentence to deter others from similar action and to reflect the seriousness of the offense — 168 months adequately reflects both concerns. The court is not persuaded a longer sentence is necessary.”

Appellate reversals of part of the government’s case against Skilling, as well as one of grounds used by Lake in setting the original sentence of 24 years, meant that Skilling already was entitled to a reduced sentence. The agreement knocked about 20 months off the lower end of the revised sentence range, in exchange for which Skilling agreed to forgo any further appeals.

That finality, which brings the Enron saga to a close, frees up about $40 million in Skilling’s assets to be divided among investors, protects the government from the possibility of more appeals reversals and assures Skilling of at least the possibility of having an extended period of time as a free man before he dies.

See here and here for the background. 168 months is 14 years, but he’s been in the clink for seven already, so as noted in my previous post he’d be freed in 2020. All things considered, a reasonable deal for everyone involved, though some former Enron workers are not happy about it.