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April, 2014:

Will the Ashby Highrise ever be built?

The Chron reviews the bidding so far prior to Monday’s Ashby hearing.

Sue me!

Key to the jury’s finding was that the project should be considered a nuisance. The residents’ attorneys will ask the judge to grant a permanent injunction for the Ashby high-rise, stopping the project from being built. The developers’ side will ask the judge not to enter judgment on the jury’s findings and allow the project to go forward, arguing in part that the evidence was not presented in trial to prove the project was “abnormal and out of place.”

“It’s very hard to balance the interests and assign a remedy that will compensate anyone who suffered harm, but try not to impede the property rights and system of development for the state as a whole,” said Matthew Festa, professor at South Texas College of Law, who specializes in land use and testified during last year’s trial.

[…]

Festa said the judge can take the jury finding of nuisance and award a permanent injunction, compensate residents with the monetary award or rule that the verdict did not comply with the law. He said the court will likely factor in the delays to the project, the investments and costs to developers in his decision.

“This could have some pretty interesting implications for development, not just in Houston and Texas, but nationally,” he said. “The idea of being able to stop something otherwise legal before it’s built is novel.”

It’s a tough call. If the project is a genuine nuisance, then it doesn’t make sense to let it be built as is. But if that’s the case, then what can be built there? And if it’s not a nuisance, then what’s the problem? The residents will be awarded damages, which in theory at least makes them whole. It’s no wonder the city submitted a brief asking for the project to be allowed. It’s a big mess from a regulatory perspective otherwise.

I don’t envy the judge in the case, who is fully aware that all eyes are on him.

Having heard the last of the legal arguments on Monday, state District Judge Randy Wilson acknowledged a dilemma he faces in having to rule whether the Ashby high-rise can go forward: If he stops the 21-story tower, could developers come back with, say, a 20-story model that might spark another lawsuit from outraged neighbors?

The case of 1717 Bissonnet differs from some previous nuisance cases that were more clear-cut, he said, such as a slaughterhouse or tanning facility that was planned alongside private residences. In this case, a permanent injunction would block a residential tower that would replace the two-story Maryland Manor apartments that were demolished.

“It’s not putting a racetrack next to somebody, so what type of residences should be permitted?” Wilson asked. “We know a Maryland Manor is fine, but 21 stories is not fine. But what is? That’s a horse of a different color.”

The judge asked for a final set of documents from attorneys on both sides and promised to make a decision promptly.

“This case has intense public interest and has stretched for some time,” Wilson told a courtroom packed with observers interested in the outcome of the seven-year-long battle. “Because of this, I will rule quickly.”

I have no idea what he will rule. We’ll just how quickly he produces his opinion. Prime Property and Stop Ashby Highrise have more.

Wallace Jefferson is still going on about judicial elections

In an interview in The Atlantic, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson rides his favorite hobbyhorse of partisan judicial elections.

Hon. Wallace Jefferson

I’ve been talking about this for a long time. And I am not the first one. Republican or Democrat Chief Justices for the last 30 or 40 years have been calling on the legislature to change the way judges come to the bench in Texas. It is a broken system. We shouldn’t have partisan elections. I do not like the concept of a Republican or Democratic judge. I think fundraising undermines the confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system. So I would change it completely if I were king.

The sad reality, given the system that we have, is that if a judge wants to remain on the bench they have to find a way to reach the voters. And the only way to do that in Texas is in the media market. If you are running a statewide campaign, there are about 26 million people in Texas. You have Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, and all are major media markets. Even to mail campaign literature, you’ve got to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I don’t defend the system. I would want to change it.

[…]

In your free time one day, take a look at the ballot in Harris County—that’s Houston—in a presidential year. If you look at that ballot, there will be several pages of judges who are standing for election, from the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals … There are district court judges, county court judges, probate judges, municipal court judges. In that one year in Harris County, there are probably 60 or 70 judges on that ballot. The voters have no clue about the experience or background of these candidates for office, and so what happens in Texas is that voters increasingly vote based upon partisan affiliation.

And we have the ability to straight-ticket vote here and so, in 2008, when I was on the ballot, it was McCain versus Obama, and Republicans in Texas by a large margin voted for McCain but they voted straight-ticket. So they voted McCain and every single Republican down the ballot. And in Harris County that year, Obama was extraordinarily popular so they voted for Obama and every Democrat down the ballot. I won [my] election easily, [but] in Houston there was almost a complete sweep of Republican judges — they were replaced by Democrats.

That makes no sense. These votes are not based upon the merits of the judge but on partisan affiliation and if its not party affiliation it’s the sound of your name. I said that almost all the Republican judges in Harris County lost—well, there were three exceptions. And in each of those cases, the Democratic candidate had an ethnic-sounding name. That’s no way to differentiate among candidates. And if it’s not partisan affiliation or the sound of your name, it’s how much money you can raise—which, as I said, undermines confidence in impartial justice.

We’ve discussed this before. I’m just going to note the following tidbit I learned from querying the Contributor records at the Texas Ethics Commission:

Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 05/21/2001
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 8,015.00, 02/20/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 06/27/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/31/2005
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 03/05/2007
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 7,500.00, 06/27/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 10/14/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/14/2008

When Wallace Jefferson is ready to talk about how judicial elections are financed, then I’ll be ready to take him seriously. Until then, as far as I’m concerned none of his proposals have any chance of actually achieving the reforms he says he wants.

No restraining order against Uber and Lyft

The ridesharing services in Houston and San Antonio can continue to operate, at least for now.

A federal judge Monday declined to issue a temporary restraining order sought by Houston and San Antonio cab companies hoping to block ride-sharing services that permit riders to use smart phone applications to catch rides.

Houston-based U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore set a July 15 date for an injunction hearing, which could result in stopping the smartphone-based companies from operating or give city ordinances as chance to catch up with the technology.

Gilmore said she had some “real concern” about whether the taxi and limousine companies had standing for a temporary restraining order, and added that she was particularly concerned about doing anything that stands in the way of a political process that already is under way.

[…]

Gilmore said she believes the current situation simply is an instance of technology outpacing laws.

“I think technology has gotten ahead of the law,” she said. “It happens all the time.”

That much is clearly true. The rest is subject to debate. Mark July 15 on your calendars, y’all.

In the meantime, here’s a Sunday Express-News story about ridesharing services and their entry into Texas markets. Think of it as a primer for those who are just tuning in. A couple of points:

Lyft and Uber are disrupting the long-established industry of taxi and limo services that, in most cities, “really haven’t had a need to evolve,” said Paul Supawanich, a senior associate with Nelson\Nygaard, a transportation planning consulting firm.

Physically hailing a taxi or having to phone a dispatcher, Sundararajan said, becomes less efficient than using a smartphone app.

With Lyft and Uber, customers input their credit card information into each services’ smartphone app first, so any monetary withdrawal is done electronically without the driver and passenger having to exchange funds directly.

The ridesharing companies want to be thought of as technology platforms, not taxis, because their drivers aren’t professionals and usually only work a few hours at a time. Lyft has billed itself as more like getting a ride with a friend. Drivers are encouraged to give their vehicles themes or hand out snacks.

But taxi drivers and companies are frustrated because a taxi driver can’t operate without a city permit, and drivers pay hundreds of dollars every week for the right to use those permits — expenses Lyft and Uber drivers currently don’t have to bear.

“If they want to play in this game and be in this business, then play by the rules,” said John Bouloubasis, president of San Antonio’s largest taxi company Yellow Cab San Antonio and one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

Bouloubasis pays $455 annually for each basic taxi permit and another $175 for permits that authorize vehicles to pick up and drop off passengers at the San Antonio International Airport.

Bouloubasis leases the right to use the taxi permits back to the cab drivers. Some drivers lease Yellow Cab vehicles, which costs $88 a day. Other drivers own their vehicles but pay for the right to use a Yellow Cab permit, the company’s brand, its dispatching services, and to be covered by its insurance, a cost that runs $267 a week.

In effect, drivers have to make up a financial deficit every day if they want to at least break even, said Richard Moreno, a driver for Star Taxis who pays $75 a day to rent his vehicle and use the permit.

“There’s no sympathy in this business,” said Moreno, who said he’s already started to feel the effects of Lyft’s and Uber’s presence on his bottom line. “It’s cutthroat.”

All new taxi drivers also have to pay a $2,000 driver deposit, which they can choose to pay in a lump sum or in increments.

Lyft and Uber drivers don’t have to pay any of these fees.

Both companies keep 20 percent of every fare; the rest of the profits, plus tips, go to the drivers. Drivers don’t have to pay any base cost for the right to drive for Lyft or Uber.

Another difference: Lyft and Uber have set their own rates; taxi drivers’ rates are regulated by the city.

One thing that hasn’t gotten much discussion in Houston is that not all taxi permit holders do things to add value to the permits. Basically, they lease them out to cabbies for a flat fee, which makes them excellent cash cows, but it’s on the cabbies themselves to earn the money to pay for the leases. The permit holders themselves don’t offer dispatch service or any other means of directing riders to the cabbies that lease the permits. This isn’t true for most permit holders, of course, but there’s a non-trivial number of the non-value add types. Rideshare services, or TNCs if you prefer, are a direct threat to them, as well they should be.

They’re a threat to the permit owners that do provide value to their leaseholders, too, and I don’t see any resolution that allows Uber and Lyft into the market that doesn’t diminish the return on those permits. But as I’ve said all along, I don’t see the market for paid rides as being static. I think with innovation and some new ways to access these services, the market can and will grow, and this growth can benefit the legacy companies if they work for it. This bit of the story resonated for me:

The new companies are becoming popular because they are filling a need, said Supawanich, with Nelson\Nygaard.

“If no one in San Francisco (where Lyft started) ever complained about getting a taxi,” Supawanich said, “these services would not exist.”

“We’ve had the same basic transportation options for a really long time,” he said. “It’s kind of been a new splash for the market.”

The 80/20 Foundation, the private foundation of Rackspace founder Graham Weston, launched a petition on Change.org last week to encourage City Council members to adjust the city ordinance to allow Lyft and Uber to operate because the foundation believes millennials want other transportation options.

“There is research showing that fewer and fewer young people are interested in owning cars,” 80/20 Foundation Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez III wrote in an email this week. “So any city that wants to attract young talent will need options that make it easier for them to get around. Ride share is one of them.”Muñoz hasn’t tried Uber yet and hasn’t used Lyft since she first took a ride last month. But she’s thinking about using it again this week when she and some of her coworkers head to the Night In Old San Antonio Fiesta event. To her, the fact that these ridesharing services operate exclusively via smartphone apps is just an example of companies adapting to changing times.

I haven’t taken a cab in Houston in at least a decade. In recent days, however, I’ve been thinking about how I might use a service like UberX or Lyft. I’d consider using it as transportation to and from a sporting event downtown, for example. The round trip likely won’t cost much more than parking, and it could avoid a lot of hassle. Another possibility is using it as a shuttle to and from an event like the Art Car Parade, where parking is free but really hard to find unless you get there very early. If I do any of these things, it’s not coming at the expense of the existing cab companies. Along the same lines, if I were thinking about living downtown or in Midtown, or some other parking-challenged part of town, I’d strongly consider the possibility of giving up at least one car – which would be a significant savings – and using a combination of transit, ridesharing, car sharing, and bicycling in its place. The amount one spends in a given year on gas, insurance, maintenance, fees, parking, and so forth even on a paid for car could probably buy you a lot of rides. If we ever want to nudge people towards a higher-density, lower-carbon lifestyle, ridesharing services need to be in the mix.

Finally, The Atlantic Cities reminds us that as in all things, the past is never dead and everything old is always new again.

These services might feel radically different from the traditional taxi model, but in fact American cities have seen this movie before. Long before TNCs captured public attention, the low-tech jitneys of the 1910s disrupted the existing transportation order by promising a more customized service at a similar price to public transit.

The rise of the low-tech jitneys coincided with a spike in unemployment at the outset of World War I, and the availability of affordable secondhand cars. With more cars on the road and fewer jobs to occupy the labor force, drivers began picking up rides for a nickel. The appeal of flexible service — in conjunction with streetcar dissatisfaction, low rates of automobile ownership, and shifting housing and travel patterns in many cities — led to a dizzying increase in jitney operations across the country. “The mushroom growth of the jitney has been so rapid that cities which were in blissful ignorance of it in the evening found cars in operation the next morning,” The New York Times reported in 1915.

As quickly as jitneys flooded into cities, however, local regulations washed them back out to sea. Streetcar companies, which paid more in state and local taxes and maintained roads adjacent to tracks, complained that the jitneys reaped the benefit of these roads without paying for their upkeep. Municipalities largely sided with streetcar interests because they didn’t believe jitneys could handle the same passenger loads, and thought the loss of streetcars would be disastrous at a time when the vast majority of Americans relied on transit for travel. Between 1915 and 1918, the number of jitneys operating nationally declined from 62,000 to 6,000.

The jitney more or less disappeared by 1920, but the idea of car-like convenience at the price of transit never disappeared — most U.S. cities still run public vanpool and dial-a-ride services — and with TNCs it’s returned with a vengeance.

Funny how these things go, isn’t it?

Mayor Parker releases draft of non-discrimination ordinance

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker today released a draft of her proposed Equal Rights Ordinance. The document is the result of more than two months of collaborative discussions with various stakeholders.

“As I stated in my State of the City Address earlier this month, the Houston I know does not discriminate, treats everyone equally and allows full participation by everyone in civic and business life,” said Mayor Parker. “We don’t care where you come from, the color of your skin, your age, gender, what physical limitations you may have or who you choose to love. It’s time the laws on our books reflect this.”

Houston is currently the only major city in the country without civil rights protections for its residents. The draft ordinance will prohibit discrimination in city employment, city contracting, housing, public accommodations and private employment at businesses with at least 50 employees. To avoid First Amendment issues, religious organizations are exempt from the definition of an employer.

Complaints about violations of the ordinance and decisions regarding prosecution are to be handled by the City’s Office of Inspector General and the City Attorney. If the subject of a complaint refuses to cooperate with an investigation, the City Attorney may ask City Council to approve the issuance of a subpoena to compel cooperation.

In addition, the mayor has the discretion to create an advisory task force to study and report on matters related to the ordinance.

“Equal protection under law is a cornerstone of our democracy and the Equal Rights Ordinance will help to ensure that all Houstonians are protected from discrimination,” said District C City Council Member Ellen Cohen, who has been involved in the drafting of the ordinance. “As the most diverse city in the nation, I’m pleased that we will offer these protections in public accommodations and employment to all our citizens.”

“This ordinance gives us another tool to demonstrate that Houston is a world class city that is open for business,” said District J City Council Member Mike Laster, who has also played an integral role in the drafting of the ordinance. “If you are willing to work hard, and treat your neighbors with respect and fairness, you will be welcome in Houston, and you will succeed in Houston!”

Mayor Parker intends to present the draft ordinance to City Council’s Quality of Life Committee on April 30. Consideration by the full City Council is scheduled for May 7. The ordinance may be viewed by clicking the Ordinance Feedback icon under the mayor’s photo on the homepage of the city’s website at www.houstontx.gov.

See here and here for the background. A direct link to the ordinance is here, and if you’re wondering why we need such a thing in Houston, I recommend you read this Equal Rights Ordinance Guide helpfully put together by the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats. As we know there had been some concern about private employers not being included in the ordinance, but as you can see that has been addressed. Nothing like a little public engagement on an important issue.

The Chron story gives us a feel for the lay of the land.

Parker initially had talked of creating a human rights commission to hear complaints, but that idea was left out of the proposal announced Monday.

[…]

Greater Houston Partnership President and CEO Bob Harvey said his group’s key concern with the idea had been the commission.

“At this juncture, admittedly upon a very quick review, I would say there is plenty in this proposal that we can support,” Harvey said, noting that a majority of GHP members already have anti-discrimination policies. “We now must take the time to review the proposal in detail, and we plan to take it before our board for discussion in the next several days.”

The Houston GLBT Caucus, during last fall’s elections, asked the mayor whether she would introduce, and council members whether they would support, a nondiscrimination ordinance; Parker and 11 council members said yes. Caucus President Maverick Welsh said he is pleased private employers were included.

“She kept her commitment to the GLBT community and I’m hoping the council members that made a commitment will keep theirs, too,” Welsh said. “Houston is competing with other cities for the best and brightest talent out there and if Houston has these protections in place we’re more competitive and welcoming.”

Councilman Michael Kubosh said he is concerned Parker is stressing the ordinance’s sweep when her goal is adding protections for gay and transgender residents. If accurate, he said, that is where discussions should focus.

“The mayor needs to come out and just say what it’s really about. Let’s start from there and go on,” Kubosh said. “The most important thing is transparency.”

Councilman Jack Christie said the draft’s dropping of a commission makes it an improvement over earlier discussions.

“Just have direct access to the city attorney, if the state and federal hasn’t helped you,” Christie said. “I just don’t hear that much discrimination, but if there is, if there’s less than 1 percent, we need to stop that.”

There was a quote in there from one of the usual suspects that can be summed up as “haters gonna hate”, but beyond that I find these reactions to be encouraging, and boding well for passage. Still, I am sure there will be more opposition now that this is out, and I’m sure some members of Council will need a bit of pushing, so don’t quit engaging just yet. Just remember, when the predictions of doom and employers fleeing and whatever else begin to crop up, plenty of other cities in Texas and elsewhere have passed ordinances like this one, and last I checked the earth was still rotating on its axis. Nothing bad will happen, but a lot of good will. Texas Leftist, Lone Star Q, Texpatriate, TransGriot, and PDiddie have more.

East Enders want the underpass

We’re talking about the long-debated Harrisburg rail line extension, for which three residents of the East End took to the Chron op-ed pages to make their case for their preferred solution.

East End residents worked for years with Metro to work out a solution for the light rail to cross the “east belt” heavy-rail trunk line near Hughes Street. Two and a half years ago an underpass was deemed the best option to cross the railroad tracks because it would preserve the urban character of Harrisburg Boulevard, the commercial and cultural spine of the East End.

Metro now says an overpass is the only option. Metro tells us they have found an underground plume or accumulation of gasoline in shallow groundwater that might pose a liability if it moves under adjacent properties due to the construction of the underpass. There is no danger. It is strictly an issue of liability, based on perception alone.

[…]

The contaminated plume in question occurs only in the eastern half of the underpass excavation zone, and at most is only 2 feet thick. Contaminated soil thus makes up only about 10 percent of the total volume of the area to be excavated. This amount is not a deal-breaker for the excavation. Procedures are in place to deal with this kind of contamination during construction, and Metro was fully prepared to deal with this until it started worrying about the lateral underground migration of the plume.

These kinds of contaminated water bodies occur all over Houston. So much so that the city, in conjunction with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has a procedure that allows contaminated zones of groundwater that pose no human risk to be left in place with limited or no liability on the part of landowners who had nothing to do with the original contamination. This is exactly the situation of the Harrisburg Boulevard plume.

There are relatively few viable businesses today along the underpass construction zone on Harrisburg, which is exactly how it will stay if an overpass is built there. Let’s not make decisions based on the used-car lots and pawn shops that are there today. Let’s make those decisions based on what is coming if we do the right thing. This is a generational decision.

See here and here for the background. It seems to me that the real issue here, going back to the bad old days of David Wolff and Frank Wilson, is that it costs more to build an underpass than an overpass, and Metro – which is paying for the Harrisburg line with strictly local funds – has been reluctant to spend the extra money. I can understand that, but at some point you have to recognize reality and try to accommodate a community that has been strongly pro-rail and strongly anti-overpass. Before the discovery of these underground plumes, the New Metro agreed to build an underpass with some financial help from the city. If the price of the underpass is now higher because of this discovery, Metro and the city owe it to the East End residents to try to figure out a way to absorb this extra cost, or to find some other source of funds to help cover it. Surely there must be some way to do this.

Texas insurance enrollment update

Enrollments are up and the number of uninsured are down, though both could have been a lot better.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The sky-high rate of Texans without health insurance has dropped only slightly since the launch of the federal Affordable Care Act’s online health insurance marketplace, according to a new report from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Episcopal Health Foundation.

During the open enrollment period from September through March, the rate of uninsured adults in Texas fell to 23.5 percent from 24.8. And most of that change was attributable to an increase in employer-sponsored health coverage, the report found, rather than new signups in the federal marketplace.

Texas’ decline in the rate of its uninsured was commensurate with those in other Republican-led states that elected not to expand Medicaid to cover poor adults. But while the number of Texans applying for coverage in the online marketplace — about 746,000, according to the report — pales in comparison to the more than 5 million who lack insurance, ACA proponents may see reason for optimism, the authors wrote. The 746,000 figure represents a significant increase in Texas enrollments from the 295,000 reported by the federal government as of March 1.

“You look at the absolute numbers and say, ‘Wow! This is a good start,’” said Vivian Ho, a co-author.

The report, which draws its conclusions from survey data rather than figures that are gradually being released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers new insight into what kinds of people are signing up for insurance under the ACA.

For example, only about 30.2 percent of those seeking coverage in the online marketplace were previously uninsured, researchers found. Employer-provided health insurance seemed to be responsible for the biggest drop in the uninsured.

“If I had to guess, a large portion of that is just the upswing in the economy,” Ho said. “There are more people getting jobs.” But she added that some businesses are also preparing to comply with the upcoming coverage mandate for their employees, offering low-cost insurance options for low-wage workers, a trend that may be reflected in the data.

We also now have some specific information about Houston enrollments.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated report, the Associated Press found more than 177,000 Houston residents signed up for health coverage, exceeding expectations and indicating a last-minute enrollment push just before the March 31 deadline might have helped Texas meet projected targets despite months of lagging.

The news service, citing an email by Marjorie McColl Petty, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Dallas regional director, and obtained by the Associated Press, reported that as of April 5, some 177,825 Houston residents signed up for coverage. A previous email by Petty said that as of March 29, 149,273 Houston residents had signed up for insurance, the AP said.

The expectation had been that 138,000 Houston residents would sign up.

You can see the Baker Institute report here. This answers some of the questions raised in my earlier post, though the Kaiser numbers have not yet been updated. As noted, there’s no official tally of who does or does not have health insurance in Texas. We’ll have the healthcare.gov enrollment totals, and I presume HHSC has Medicaid and CHIP numbers, but beyond that it’s all estimates and speculation.

We all know how this has gone down in Texas, where the party line from the Republican leadership has been one of unrelenting hostility and obstacles. Not surprisingly, in states like Texas the ranks of the uninsured decreased at a lower rate than in states that are not run by heartless assholes. With the grace period for people who began but were unable to complete the enrollment process now over, the official tally for healthcare.gov enrollees is eight million. That doesn’t count state exchanges, Medicaid expansions, the under-26 set that can be on their parents’ insurance, or people who will now have insurance through their employers; the grand total is at least 14 million, and counting. And it could have been so much more.

Opponents of the ACA said the report spelled bad news for President Obama’s signature health law. John Davidson, a policy analyst for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, called the number of previously uninsured people who signed up for coverage on the exchange a “drop in the bucket” compared to Texas’ total uninsured population.

“I believe that cost is driving these numbers,” Davidson said. “Coverage on the exchange is very expensive, and it’s expensive even if you get a subsidy, in many cases.” He compared the report’s projection that 746,000 Texans had enrolled in the marketplace to a recent HHS brief that estimated that 2.2 million Texans could qualify for subsidies.

“Something’s going on there,” Davidson said. “Why so few?”

I’m going to be charitable and not assume that the oft-quoted token Davidson is sufficiently stupid as to be genuinely baffled. The organization for which he is employed is a malignant force in Texas, but they are quite clear-eyed about their goals. He knows what the truth is, and he knows what his role in relation to it is. The real question is why the Tribune, or any self-respecting news organization, thinks there is value in including his disinformation. Why do you think it’s a good idea to let someone lie to your readers, Evan Smith? I can’t think of a good reason for that. The LA Times has more.

Burnam challenge awaiting appeal

Another update on the ongoing legal challenge by State Rep. Lon Burnam, who wants his loss in the primary to Ramon Romero thrown out on the grounds that some applications for absentee ballots by Romero voters involved the use of iPads, which are not included as permissible devices in the relevant state law.

Rep. Lon Burnam

In a hearing earlier this month, attorneys representing Burnam asked that county election officials release all the applications turned in for mail-in ballots in this race to investigate potential illegalities such as an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation.”

State District Judge Robert McFarling of Denton, the visiting judge appointed to the case, turned down the request. Burnam’s attorney, former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Art Brender, has filed an appeal, asking the Fort Worth Court of Appeals to overturn that ruling.

McFarling on Monday agreed to delay the trial until the Court of Appeals rules. The case was scheduled to go to trial Tuesday.

Brender said he was glad for the delay.

“We are continuing our investigation every day,” he said. “And we are investigating other aspects of the election — and have been the whole time.”

Romero’s staff said they believe the final ruling will go their way.

“We are confident in the legal system,” said Michael “Mikey” Valdez, Romero’s campaign manager. “We feel the right decision will be made and it will confirm our victory.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume that’s the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and not the “Fort Worth Court of Appeals” since as far as I know there is no such thing. I don’t have anything to add to this story, but on a related note both Campos and Michael Li complained about an email Burnam sent out, presumably as an update on his case and as a fundraising appeal. Burnam is litigating a technicality, and technicalities don’t have much fundraising appeal. Trying to make it more than that risks alienating supporters and handing Republicans political ammunition. Burnam may win his challenge, but I’ll say again that I see nothing wrong in what Romero’s campaign did, nor do I see any reason why the law shouldn’t be amended to specifically allow it. Don’t lose sight of who you are in your quest to stay in office, Lon.

Retail medical clinics

I for one think they’re a good idea.

Here’s a prescription for pediatricians fighting to keep easy-to-treat, well-paying patients: Expand after-hours and weekend services to serve desperate parents in search of quick remedies for their kids’ late-night sore throats and upset tummies. Otherwise, parents will continue choosing the closest CVS, Walgreens or H-E-B clinic.

With the store-based medical clinic business projected to double between 2012 and 2015, analysts and doctors say pediatricians must change their business model to fit parents’ needs. Otherwise, they risk losing their relatively lucrative patients and relying more on chronically ill ones who take longer to diagnose and treat and thus reduce the number of people that doctors can see in a day.

“Well-baby cases help compensate for a Medicaid enrollee who takes half an hour,” said Devon Herrick, senior fellow at the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis. He added that the speed and convenience of retail clinics attract many of the better-paying cases, and doctors are working to keep from losing them.

Despite clear demand in the market, doctors have for years targeted retail clinics for criticism. They argue that doctors best understand their patients’ needs and provide the best care. Most recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged parents to avoid store-based health clinics, saying they don’t provide the high-quality care children need.

However, the nation’s leading professional organizations for doctors repeatedly have said there aren’t enough doctors to treat everyone now and won’t be in years to come. The American Academy of Family Physicians projects a shortage of 40,000 doctors nationwide by 2020. Texas already has a ratio of about 165 doctors for every 100,000 residents, which falls below the national average of 220 physicians for every 100,000 people.

“It’s about competition,” said Dr. Kaveh Safavi, global managing director of Accenture health business, adding that retailers came up with the idea for “embedded clinics” because people needed them.

He described pediatricians’ concerns with retail clinics as a “short-term skirmish” that doctors have been waging for years.

[…]

Texas Children’s Hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Stan Spinner, recently posted in a hospital website blog that retail clinics employ providers who lack proper training and experience treating children.

“As a pediatrician for more than 25 years, I’ve seen firsthand the inadequate care these clinics can provide,” Spinner wrote. “Numerous patients have come into our Texas Children’s pediatrics practices after visiting a retail-based clinic the night before questioning the medication or dosage they had received.”

When asked to elaborate later, Spinner said he didn’t know how many such incidents had occurred. He said parents waste time and resources at retail clinics and then follow up with pediatricians to ensure children received the correct treatment.

“(Pediatricians) should have seen them the very first time,” Spinner said, adding that some pediatricians are expanding their office hours and working weekends to accommodate patients.

All due respect, Doc, but there are bad physicians out there, too. I’d take your complaint more seriously if we had a more effective means of policing them, but between tort “reform” and the impotence of the Texas Medical Board, there ain’t much that can be done. Be that as it may, my own anecdotal evidence favors the retail clinics. A few years back, what I had figured was an insect bite on my left foot had turned into something painful and alarmingly swelled on a Saturday morning. With my alternatives being a visit to the emergency room and a fervent wish that it wouldn’t get any worse by Monday, I visited a clinic at the HEB on Bunker Hill. They prescribed some meds that did the trick, and by the time I did see my doctor on Monday, my foot looked mostly normal again, and he agreed with their diagnosis. Faced with the same situation again, I’d have no hesitation to pay them another visit.

One more thing:

Retail clinics revolve around a high-volume, low-complexity business model. Services usually range from $59 to $99. They include convenient and basic care – physicals, disease monitoring, vaccinations, and illness and infection diagnosis and treatment. The clinics usually employ nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who are less expensive than doctors.

[…]

Retail clinics will hold nearly 11 million visits annually, saving about $800 million in unnecessary emergency care costs, Accenture said.

One of the dirty secrets of health care and the amount that we spend on it is that controlling our health care costs necessarily means paying less money to doctors. It’s more complex than that, of course – prescription drug costs and a lack of transparency in pricing are other big factors – but in the end, less money being spent by consumers means less money being paid to providers. Given that there’s a shortage of general practice physicians anyway, more retail clinics and a greater use of advanced practice nurses are both modest steps in the right direction. Doctors are going to have to learn to live with that.

City asks court to let Ashby Highrise be built

Interesting.

Sue me!

The city on Friday asked a judge to let the Ashby high-rise project go forward after seven years of wrangling and a recent jury verdict in favor of nearby residents who oppose the 21-story tower planned for 1717 Bissonnet.

City Attorney David Feldman said halting construction of a project that satisfied the regulations in place at the time it was granted a permit would “irreparably impair future developments in the city.”

“The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of such lawsuits would hinder developers from financing, leasing and constructing real estate developments in Houston, which require long-term secure contracts,” Feldman wrote in a letter delivered to state District Judge Randy Wilson. “We urge the court to consider the serious public policy considerations involved.”

[…]

“We’re not endeavoring to take a position in this specific situation,” Feldman said Friday. “It’s a broader question of whether, in a city such as ours without zoning, development can reasonably be expected to occur if a developer that complies with all laws and deed restrictions can be enjoined from building … What kind of effect would that have on development in a city such as ours? That’s the point that we felt was important to raise with the court.”

The city’s stance surprised Earle Martin, one of the residents who brought the suit. He said that even when the city settled a separate lawsuit with Buckhead in 2012, Mayor Annise Parker continued to insist the project was not suitable for the area.

“The letter is completely inconsistent with what the mayor has said so far,” Martin said. “I cannot understand this. I’m sure there is pressure from the development community.”

[…]

Expert testimony presented during the monthlong trial showed the building would severely damage several homes, causing walls to lean, foundations to crack and pipes to shift. The jury also heard evidence that the project would cause significant traffic problems, and that it is out of place and abnormal in the neighborhood.

Residents’ attorney Jean Frizzell said Friday that the city letter ignores evidence presented at trial that the developers misled the city to obtain permits, and that an ordinance enacted after the battle began ensured similar projects could not be built so close to existing homes.

“This letter appears to ignore that,” Frizzell said.

Josh Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit organization that represents developers, said the city weighed in on the court case because stopping the project would have a major impact on development. His group submitted a friend of the court brief, which Feldman referenced in his letter, that argued against permanent injunction.

“The city is stepping in and saying, ‘Why are you overriding our regulatory structure?’ ” Sanders said. “If a permanent injunction is granted, it throws all the rules out the window.”

See here for the last update. I’m really not sure what to make of this. I get where the city is coming from, and as you know I never really believed the plaintiffs had a case, but neither do I think the regulatory structure is sacrosanct. If this lawsuit has shown it to be fatally flawed, then let the court do its job and allow for a remedy. I’m skeptical this is the case, but let’s let the judge sort it out. Final arguments are today about whether the project can go forward, and I’m sure whatever the judge says it will be appealed. What do you think?

Weekend link dump for April 20

Personally, I think the way to deal with fans who run onto the field is to have more stadium security at the fences. Yeah, most of these guys are just drunken fools, but it only takes one evildoer to cause a possibly preventable tragedy.

The mother of all binge-watching opportunities is coming this August.

How not to succeed in show business, in one easy step.

The Darwin fish was a living, breathing, swimming, and walking thing.

When political cartoons predict the future.

Wage theft remains a huge problem.

You can have a dating site for Mormons, but you can’t call it a Mormon dating site.

RIP, Rod Kennedy, founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival and a whole lot more besides.

This is lawlessness.

TurboTax is astroturfing against free, simple tax filing. When you’re on the same side of a tax issue as Grover Norquist, you’re doing it wrong.

Of course, Norquist doesn’t want tax filing to be simple and easy, because then people won’t buy his BS about taxation in general.

Hank Aaron observed during the celebration of his 715th home run that there’s still plenty of racism in America, thus prompting a bunch of modern day racists to prove his point.

The parallels between Mad Men and the Manson Family murders.

Nothing like a trust fund baby whining about taxes he himself will never have to pay.

Munich is the place to be for gettin’ nekkid in public.

Texas Monthly sues the New York Times for poaching editor Jake Silverstein.

Nobody cares about the deficit. Nor should they.

Despite the cold in the US, it’s been a very warm winter globally.

Just a beautiful story. I won’t say any more than that. Go read it.

Haters gonna hate. And threaten to file lawsuits.

The actual effect of screening mammograms is much less than you think it is.

“Yes, you read that right. Using the national popular vote to determine who wins the presidency would be stealing elections. Let that sink in for a minute.”

RIP, Bud Purdy, who was what Western ranching was all about.

Congratulations to the Clinton family on their forthcoming addition.

Hey, law school is expensive.

“If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an Internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated.”

Congrats to Curtis High School, which has clearly shed the reputation it had when I was that age of being “challenging” for negative reasons.

“It was the permanently insured speculating about the uninsured and the barely insured – and, unsurprisingly, they got it wrong.”

Court rules for the EPA against Texas again

Another win for the environment.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Obama administration’s new rules that for the first time limit emissions of mercury and other harmful pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

In a split decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a Texas-based challenge to the regulations, saying the federal government acted reasonably to protect the environment and public health from poisonous gases and cancer-causing chemicals released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels.

Developers of the White Stallion Energy Center, a proposed power plant about 90 miles southwest of Houston, challenged the federal regulations, arguing that the new limits would be too burdensome and thus prevent them from securing financing for the project. Several industry groups and 22 states, including Texas, joined the fight.

But a divided three-judge panel ruled that federal law and previous court decisions do not require the Environmental Protection Agency to consider cost when imposing new regulations on electric utilities.

[…]

At the time the EPA finalized the rules in 2012, Texas was home to seven of the top 16 mercury-emitting coal plants in the nation, an Environmental Defense Fund analysis found.

“There is no other state that is going to get as much public health benefit than Texas from the mercury rule,” said Al Armendariz, a former EPA official who now leads the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign in the state.

See here and here for some background. I’ve long since lost track of which lawsuit by Texas against the EPA is about what, and I don’t think I have any previous blogging on this specific case, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all of a piece, and it’s all about whether we make the polluters be responsible for their actions or we give them a free pass. The EPA counters claims that these regulations are too costly for business with evidence that the health benefits for everyone else will outweigh those costs. That will never satisfy the polluters, of course, and I presume they’ll appeal this first to the entire DC court, then to SCOTUS. It’s a nice win for now but it’s far from over. The LA Times, the DMN BizBeat blog, the Texas Green Report, and the EDF, which has a separate statement beneath the fold, have more, while Wonkblog reminds us of the disproportionate effect of industrial pollution on minority neighborhoods.

Environmental Defense Fund applauds today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., denying legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) life-saving Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Today’s court decision rejects flawed legal claims by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, one of the opponents of EPA’s vital clean air safeguards for our communities and families.

Attorney General Abbott has sued the federal government 31 times since 2004, needlessly costing Texan taxpayer’s nearly $4 million.

The EPA emission standards at issue establish the first nationwide emission limits on the mercury, arsenic and acid gases discharged from the U.S. fleet of existing coal- and oil-fired power plants, the single largest source of these toxic airborne contaminants.

Mercury exposure can impair the brain development of infants and young children. According to the EPA, each year more than 400,000 infants are born with elevated mercury levels in their blood, but the MATS standards will eliminate 90 percent of mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants. In Texas, the rule will annually prevent up to 1,200 premature deaths, while providing between $4 billion to $9.7 billion in health benefits in 2016 and each year thereafter.

“Today’s decision comes as an unquestionable victory for Texans who care about vital clean air safeguards and protecting our most vulnerable citizens – young children and pregnant women. Rather than waste taxpayer’s money and protect the interests of big fossil fuel companies, Greg Abbott and other state leaders should champion life-saving measures that protect the health and well-being of Texans.”

HCC has not begun any 2012 bond construction yet

I hadn’t realized it was taking this long.

A divided Houston Community College board has failed to approve construction contracts for its November 2012 voter-approved bond program, potentially costing the college system tens of millions of dollars in fines.

The clock to break ground on building projects is ticking to meet federal spending deadlines that, if missed, could result in fines under a worst-case scenario, HCC’s hired bond counsel, Tom Sage, warned in March.

Some trustees, however, have said the college administration has not provided enough information about projects in the $425 million bond package. Others questioned why the college system wasn’t planning to spread contracts around to more local companies.

Concerned about delays and perceived meddling by some board members, a volunteer oversight committee called a special meeting earlier this week to urge the board to approve contracts for all 14 building projects Thursday.

“This is a gross example of the board trying to micromanage a major job,” said oversight committee member Ed Wulfe, a commercial real-estate developer who has served on numerous local boards. “ … Right now the community is back to HCC being in a state of confusion, and the perception is reality.”

Board Chairwoman Neeta Sane defended her colleagues.

“I’m here to give you the assurance, there is no hanky-panky going on,” she told the committee, which the board created to monitor the bond package.

[…]

In March, HCC Acting Chancellor Renee Byas sought the board’s approval to hire eight companies to serve as the construction managers for the 14 bond projects. The fees the firms would earn range from an estimated $575,000 to $5.6 million, depending on the project size, according to the agenda item.

The board rejected the proposal on a 6-3 vote.

A followup story indicates that at Thursday’s meeting, the Board did unanimously approve four contracts for construction, with a fifth left pending because it needed to be paired with a related issue. I’m not exactly sure what brought about the change – Campos has his suspicions – but I’m glad to see them move forward. I don’t know why this was more time consuming for HCC than it has been for HISD, which according to the first story has approved 22 contracts for projects related to its 2012 bond referendum. HCC doesn’t have the best track record in these matters, so if this is just the Board being a little extra careful then that’s fine, but let’s get on with it. There’s a reason this construction was needed, and that hasn’t changed.

Uber uber alles

Very interesting.

Uber rolled out a new service in Manhattan [last] Tuesday that foreshadows the five-year-old company’s plans to become much more than a platform for e-hailing taxi and town car rides. Now, with UberRUSH, the company is piloting a bike and ped-courier service designed to move stuff, rather than people.

For at least $15 a trip, Uber wants to dispatch couriers to ferry everything from legal papers to fashion pieces around Manhattan below 110th Street (for now).

The new service signals the company’s expansion beyond local transportation and into the much larger world of urban logistics. And it’s a savvy play for several reasons: The same back-end technology that Uber has built to track drivers and connect them to riders can easily be used to order and follow deliveries. All that changes is the cargo on board and the mode of transportation, a detail around which the company is becoming increasingly agnostic.

These bigger ambitions bolster Uber’s claim that it is not, by definition, simply another kind of cab company. Most importantly, though, Uber foresees — as Amazon and eBay do, too — that the next growth opportunity in a shifting economy isn’t facilitating digital marketplaces: It’s moving physical stuff. It’s figuring out urban logistics in a world where crowded cities will only become more so, where e-commerce is actually making congestion worse, where the rise of “sharing” has created a need for coordinating the mass joint use of cars, tools, tasks and dinner.

[…]

Logistics are the logical companion industry to the sharing economy. As the latter grows, so will need for the former. Logistics also represent the unresolved territory of the digital age. The Internet has solved all kinds of other problems: It’s enabled us to communicate faster, to pay bills more easily, to shop for products that can’t be found in local stores, to open businesses that couldn’t cover the rent on a brick-and-mortar storefront. But for all those interactions that take place in the ether, we still need to move stuff in the real world. Your Airbnb keys can’t be e-mailed. You can rent a drill bit on SnapGoods, but an online platform can’t physically deliver it to you.

I don’t have anything to add to this. Frankly, the whole thing was just an excuse to use that headline. Nonetheless, this is very interesting, and if it’s successful we’ll see when it or something like it comes to Houston. TechCrunch has more.

Saturday video break: Beautiful

Another installment of Same Name, Different Song. The song is “Beautiful”, and our first contestants are G. Love & Special Sauce, featuring Tristan Prettyman:

I do love me a good duet. G. Love has a new album out that you can download from Noisetrade if you like what you heard.

For a different Beautiful song, here’s the one and only Carole King:

Did you know there’s now a Broadway musical based on the life of Carole King, called “Beautiful”? I learned that when I went trawling YouTube for this song. Here’s Jessie Mueller, the actor who plays Carole King in this musical, channeling her on The Today Show:

Pretty fair impersonation there. Did you hear at the end where one of the Today Show ladies said that Carole King needed to see “Beautiful” on Broadway? Well, I’m sure you can see this coming:

Moments like that are often staged, but even without King’s assurance that they had no idea she was there, it’s obvious from the surprise and delight on the cast members’ faces that they were truly in the dark. It’s quite a moment, worth watching even with the choppy editing. Here’s the YouTube link, which has more about the show, for those of you that might want to see it.

Council approves hoarding ordinance

I think they’re on the right track.

HoardersOne

The Houston City Council unanimously approved an anti-hoarding ordinance Wednesday without a clear idea of how it will be enforced.

The ordinance, which does not apply to single-family homes, clarifies when police can seek a warrant to enter a home and prioritizes mental health treatment before turning to daily fines of up to $500.

The ordinance does not specify how deep piles of apparent junk must be, nor how long neighbors can be expected to battle insect or rodent infestations while city officials seek treatment of a suspected hoarder and a clean-up of the property.

To a large extent, Mayor Annise Parker said, enforcement will be at the discretion of responding police officers.

Internal policies outlining possible hoarding thresholds, how agencies will coordinate a response and who will have a final say in the decision still must be written.

[…]

Council members said they expect the ordinance to reinforce the existing relationship between HPD and the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, who often perform joint welfare checks.

MHMRA Executive Director Stephen Schnee said the agency would complete assessments and recommend treatment, but not be involved in enforcement decisions.

[…]

Despite the ordinance, Parker said enforcement by authorities is not her preferred first choice for dealing with hoarders.

“Having the ability to say to a family member, ‘This is against the law. If you don’t do this, if you don’t work on this issue, if you don’t seek the help you need, there will be a police intervention,’ is one more tool that can help resolve the issue,” she said. “The goal is never to write a citation for something like this because we understand it’s a mental health issue, but this gets us in the door.”

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, as someone who was a fan of Hoarders on A&E, in nearly every episode the hoarder in question had to be backed into a corner before agreeing to get help and do some cleanup. Often, this included some kind of threat from local authorities to impose fines or even condemn the property. One gets the impression that this kind of leverage can be very useful to help persuade someone who doesn’t believe he has a problem to do something about the situation at hand. As the story notes, in the past the only legal leverage the city had was if there was a credible complaint about animal abuse. This gives them another way to open the door and assess the condition of the residence, and hopefully connect the person inside with the resources they will need to help them address the problem. I’d like to see the city revisit this in a year or so, and if it’s getting results to see about extending the ordinance to include standalone houses. I think they are pointing in the right direction, and I hope this works. Texpatriate has more.

The explosion in West will change nothing

That’s just how we roll around here.

A year after the blast killed 15 people and injured hundreds, Texas lawmakers have yet to propose or put into action any major reforms in an attempt to prevent future industrial accidents, whether it’s at a small, rural fertilizer retailer or a petrochemical plant along the Houston Ship Channel.

The disconnect reflects a state famously wary of government regulations. Even in West, about 120 miles north of Austin, some residents sound more concerned about the length of freight trains rolling through town than the absence of new rules for chemical plants.

It’s impossible to know whether stricter rules would have prevented the disaster, but some say the lack of action is putting lives in jeopardy.

“The bottom line is, there hasn’t been any effort to do things that would prevent such a tragedy in the future,” said Elena Craft, a Texas-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It seems wrong that lives were lost in vain.”

Key lawmakers say changes are coming, but any new regulations likely will be tailored to improve safety at the 82 facilities permitted to store and sell ammonium nitrate, the nitrogen-rich compound that was involved in the devastating blast. It’s unlikely the yet-unseen agenda will involve sweeping legislation that alters the handling of hazardous materials at all chemical plants.

“We just cannot do business the same way,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. “I want to turn the ought-to-dos into statute. But I want something that even the staunchest anti-regulation people say it’s a good idea.”

[…]

Pickett said he would like to assign authority for overseeing the handling and storage of fertilizer to one agency, most likely the state fire marshal’s office. There were eight state agencies with some oversight of the West plant or the explosion, and critics believe the patchwork regulatory approach allowed the West plant to slip through bureaucratic cracks.

For example, plant managers submitted to state and local agencies a document, known as a Tier II report, that shows how much ammonium nitrate is stored on site for sale to farmers. But no one flagged the large stockpile at the West facility, which reported in 2012 that it had at least 270 tons of the dangerously combustible chemical.

Pickett said he wants the Tier II reports to go directly to the state fire marshal’s office, which also would be responsible for inspecting facilities and instructing plant personnel on best safety practices. He also wants additional funding for training firefighters.

[…]

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Craft is skeptical about the Legislature’s willingness to produce significant reforms.

“I don’t think they see what happened in West as a real problem,” she said. “They kind of think of it as a one-off event and that it probably won’t happen again.”

Until the next one, that is. Can we at least agree that this is a problem?

Pickett also indicated a willingness to consider strengthening rules on the storage of ammonium nitrate. Connealy, the State Fire Marshal, said today that 46, nearly half, of the state’s 96 ammonium nitrate plants are housing the fertilizer in combustible wood-frame structures—just like in the West disaster. At the West fertilizer plant, the fire originated in the seed room and spread rapidly to consume the wood structure and the wood fertilizer bins.

“We have to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate,” he said. Connealy said requiring sprinkler systems or, alternatively, mandating that ammonium nitrate be stored in non-combustible storage bins made of concrete, stone or metal could go a long way toward avoiding another West-like disaster.

“I still worry about the 46 that are dangerous wood structures and we have no authority right now to go in and say change ‘em,” Pickett said.

Please tell me this isn’t too much to ask. I really didn’t expect much, but surely this is doable. Right? The DMN has more.

The equal pay issue in SD10

Just as the issue of equal pay has become a big deal in the Governor’s race, so is it an issue in the race to succeed Sen. Wendy Davis in SD10.

Libby Willis

In the battle for Senate District 10, [Konni] Burton and [Mark] Shelton head to a May 27 Republican primary runoff to determine who takes on [Democrat Libby] Willis in November.

Davis has represented the district since 2009.

Burton, a leader in the NE Tarrant Tea Party, said Willis is pushing issues like this while avoiding “tackling serious issues facing Texans,” like the “crippling” impact of Obamacare.

Shelton, a pediatrician and former state representative who lost a bid for this seat in 2012, said no more legislation is necessary.

“Equal pay for equal work is the law of the United States and the state of Texas,” he said. “Current law should be enforced and additional laws are unneeded.”

Willis said something must be done.

“Republicans, Democrats and independents support equal pay for women,” she said. “Equal pay is not only a fairness issue, it’s a family economic issue.”

To whatever extent this issue has salience in the statewide race, it ought to have a similar effect in SD10. Maybe more, since the SD10 Republicans have a harder edge than Greg Abbott. I think Abbott would rather just have this issue (and most others) go away, while Burton and Shelton will campaign loud and proud against the Ledbetter law. Whatever it takes, because it sure would be nice to hold onto this seat. Between Donna Campbell, Don Huffines, and whoever wins the special election to succeed Tommy Williams, the Senate is stupid and mean enough already. Let’s not make it any more so.

Endorsement watch: The not-so-special SD04

Before we get to the primary runoffs, we must first settle the special election business in SD04. The Chron attempts to pick the best of a mostly sorry lot of candidates to replace Sen. Tommy Williams.

Gordy Bunch

Residents of state Senate District 4 through the years have shown a penchant for electing big men to represent them. We mean that both literally and figuratively.

From 1977 until 1995, it was Carl Parker, a liberal Democrat from Port Arthur who was an outsized force for public education, the environment and industrial safety, all while serving, unofficially, as the Senate’s resident wit. (Parker: “If you took all the fools out of the Legislature, it wouldn’t be a representative body anymore.”)

From 2003 until last fall, it’s been Tommy Williams, a conservative Republican from The Woodlands who left the upper chamber after a decade in office to serve as the vice chancellor of federal and state relations for his alma mater, Texas A&M University. Williams, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, earned a reputation as a smart, no-nonsense lawmaker willing to cooperate with the other side of the aisle, despite his strongly held conservative views.

Williams and Parker both cut a wide swath through the Capitol (again, literally and figuratively). Unfortunately, the four candidates seeking to succeed Williams in a May 4 special election come nowhere close to the caliber of the senator they would succeed.

[…]

Our endorsement, almost by default, goes to Richard “Gordy” Bunch, a Coast Guard veteran, CEO of The Woodlands Financial Group and treasurer on The Woodlands township board. He also serves as chairman of The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bunch touts his business experience and his township track record of lowering property taxes below the effective tax rate and paying down city debt. In addition to his township experience, he seems to have a good grasp of issues that affect the district, including education needs in Beaumont and Port Arthur and transportation needs throughout the area.

Early voting begins April 28 and ends May 6. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be necessary.

My expectations are low for this race. Tommy Williams was hardly the end of the rainbow, but at least while he was Senate Finance chair, he proved to be less awful than someone from that district might have been. That’s about all I can ask for. I have no plans to get my hopes up that Gordy Bunch can meet that threshold, or that he can make it to the runoff, but if the Chron’s opinion is to be believed, at least I have a reason to check the election returns on May 10.

Friday random ten – Baby, You Can Drive My Car Part 1

There are lots of songs about different kinds of cars. Here are ten of them.

1. Cadillac Ranch – Bruce Springsteen
2. Elvis Rolls Royce – Was (Not Was)
3. Hey, Little Minivan – Austin Lounge Lizards
4. Jaguar – Cities Aviv
5. Jeepster – T. Rex
6. Little Red Corvette – Big Daddy
7. Look At That Cadillac – Stray Cats
8. Mid Life Chrysler – Madverb
9. My Bloody Yugo – The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group
10. Volkswagon Thing – Asylum Street Spankers

I limited myself to two selections from the two Car Talk “Disrespectful Songs About Cars” CDs that are in my collection. Note that none of these have the generic word “car” in the title. That’s next week. What are your favorite songs about a make or model of car?

Sorry, the Sriracha factory will not be coming to Texas

The ongoing battle between the makers of Sriracha sauce and their hometown flared up again last week.

The Irwindale City Council has voted unanimously to declare the spicy smell of Sriracha hot sauce production a public nuisance.

Once the council adopts an expected official resolution at its next meeting, hot sauce maker Huy Fong Foods will have about 90 days to mitigate the odor, which residents say burns their eyes and throats at certain times of day.

The 4-0 vote during a Wednesday night hearing came despite assurances from company attorney John Tate that Huy Fong Foods planned to submit an action plan within 10 days and have the smell fixed by June 1.

Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District have been performing tests at the facility and have offered to help the company craft a mitigation plan. Although they would not release the test results, AQMD officials indicated that the smell issues could be resolved with active carbon filters — a technology the company has used in the past.

“The City Council is determined to assert its authority regardless of the status of the odor remediation efforts,” Tate said.

[…]

No demonstrators showed up Wednesday night. But state Sen. Ed Hernandez sent a representative to deliver a statement, calling Huy Fong Foods one of the “shining stars” of the San Gabriel Valley’s vibrant business community and offering to help the sauce maker find a home in a neighboring city.

“I ask that the city of Irwindale reject this inflammatory and unnecessary ‘public nuisance’ designation and constructively work with Huy Fong Foods to resolve these issues,” Hernandez said in a statement.

Councilman Albert Ambriz said that the city wants to keep the hot sauce factory.

“I respect the fact that they are here. But they know there’s a problem and it needs to be fixed,” Ambriz said.

The fuss is basically a tempest in a Rooster Sauce bottle.

But company owner David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who founded Huy Fong Foods in 1980, has insisted the odor concerns are overblown — and indeed there are signs the controversy may be as manufactured as Sriracha itself.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which includes Irwindale, has never issued a citation to the company and Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the district, says that many of the 70 odor complaints the district had received as of April 7 came from just a handful of households. The first person to file a formal complaint was the relative of a city official, according to court documents. Atwood says inspectors from the district visited the Huy Fong Foods factory and determined the company was not in violation of current air quality regulations. If a smell is bad enough that the district would take action, he says, “You’re going to get dozens if not hundreds of complaints.”

That hasn’t happened yet, but the factory remains in danger of being shut down. Irwindale officials have even said they may have the right to install air-filtering equipment inside the factory and bill Huy Fong Foods for the expense.

Some locals seem baffled by all the fuss. Tania Bueno, who owns a salon a few blocks from the factory, told TIME in February she’s never detected an odor from the Huy Fong Foods factory. “None of my clients have mentioned any smells.” Tran recently opened his doors for public tours to allow Irwindale residents to decide for themselves how strong the smell is.

But then maybe it’s more than that.

After a months-long battle with the city of Irwindale over complaints about a spicy odor, Sriracha sauce creator David Tran said Wednesday he is now seriously considering moving his factory to another location.

Tran responded Wednesday to the politicians and business leaders from 10 states and multiple cities in California that have offered to host the Sriracha factory. He invited them to tour the facility in Irwindale and decide if their communities would complain about the odors that arise during production.

Tran stressed he has not decided whether to move, but would like to explore his options.

The Irwindale City Council voted unanimously to designate the factory a public nuisance last Wednesday despite promises from the saucemaker that they would submit an action plan and fix the smell by June 1.

Tran said he fears the city won’t accept any solution he proposes. If Irwindale residents continue to complain even after smell-mitigation technology is installed, Sriracha’s legal troubles could have no end, Tran said.

“[City officials] tell you one thing, but think another,” Tran said in an interview at Huy Fong Foods on Wednesday. “I don’t want to sit here and wait to die.”

Irwindale City Attorney Fred Galante said he was confused and disappointed by Tran’s actions. Irwindale officials just want an action plan to be submitted, and Galante said that Tran has not proposed any solutions for the city to reject.

“This seems very extreme,” Galante said. “It’s disappointing giving that [air quality officials] have explained that there are readily available solutions.”

[…]

Relocating Sriracha production would not be simple. Tran has been working with a single pepper grower in Ventura County for years, and the businesses have shaped their operations around each other, expanding in tandem. Since peppers for Sriracha hot sauce must be fresh ground on the day they are harvested, Tran said he’ll have to find a new grower if he moves, as well as replace or relocate 60 to 200 employees.

Tran said his first choice is to stay in Irwindale, but the city government’s actions have created an uncertain business climate.

“I have had the bad luck to move into a city with a government that acts like a local king,” Tran said.

See here, here, and here for the background. State Rep. Jason Villalba has been beseeching Huy Fung Foods to consider moving to Texas, where we care a lot less about such niceties as clean air, and he’s back on Facebook pitching his message again. Until this week, his message had not been received by Huy Fung, but now Villalba may get his chance.

Villalba says he’s received a call from the Sriracha maker about setting up a meeting “as soon as possible.” Says the state rep, “We’re assembling our team now and getting ready to go to California.” That meeting will likely take place in early May, he says, and include Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples and other state politicians.

“We’re pretty excited,” says Villalba.

Well, good luck with that, but as the title of this post suggests, I remain highly skeptical. Not being near their supplier of peppers would be a significant change to their business, and likely a significant cost increase. Lots of other groups are lining up to make their pitch as well, including other cities close by in California. Anything is possible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Mail ballots being mailed out for primary runoffs

From the inbox:

EarlyVoting

The first batch of over 38,000 postal ballots for the May 27, 2014 Primary Runoff Elections have been mailed and will be arriving in voters’ mailboxes this week. This mailing represents the highest number of mail ballots issued for a mid-term runoff election in the history of Harris County. The previous high of 31,468 was recorded during the 2010 Primary Runoff Election.

“It is likely that a portion of the increase in mail ballots issued is due to a measure passed by the State Legislature during the 2013 Legislative session that makes the mail ballot request process more efficient,” informed Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the largest county in Texas and third largest county in the nation. “Effective this year, voters who are 65 years of age or older, or who are disabled, have the option of submitting an annual ballot by mail application. The annual application is valid for all elections conducted by my office in the calendar year.”

Of the over 38,000 initial mail ballots issued for the Primary Runoff Elections, 96 percent were addressed to senior citizens and disabled voters who have taken advantage of the new law, one percent were sent to qualified voters who specifically requested a ballot for the Primary Runoff Elections, and three percent were mailed to Military and Overseas voters. For the May 27 Runoff Elections, the last day to apply for a ballot by mail is May 16, 2014.

There are a little over 300,000 registered voters on the Harris County voter roll who are 65 years of age or older and are qualified to submit an annual mail ballot application. “I encourage senior citizens and disabled voters who wish to vote by mail to submit an annual ballot by mail application,” asserted Stanart. “I want to ensure that every ballot by mail voter has sufficient time to vote their ballot and return it to my office by Election Day.”

“Permitting qualified voters who have difficulty going to a poll the opportunity to submit a single application to receive a postal ballot for multiple elections is good public policy,” concluded Stanart who supported the annual ballot by mail application for senior citizens and disabled voters.

For more information about the process to apply for a ballot by mail, or to download the new application for a ballot by mail, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com.

Yes, the runoff isn’t until May 27, but early voting will begin before you know it. If you plan to vote by mail for the primary runoff, now would be a good time to request your ballot if you haven’t already done so. Remember, if you didn’t vote in March you can vote in either runoff, but if you did vote in March you must vote in the runoff of the same party.

Speaking of parties, I was curious what the partisan breakdown of the mail ballots was, since that is something we know for primaries and primary runoffs. I sent the question to the County Clerk’s office, and this was the answer I got:

As of 4/15/2014:

DEM-13,547
REP-24,547

Interestingly, that’s a fairly significant increase for Democrats, but not for Republicans. For the March primary, there were 12,722 Democratic ballots mailed, of which 8,961 were returned. For Republicans, there were 24,548 ballots mailed, of which 20,026 were returned. There’s still time for more ballots to be requested, so these tallies should increase. I fully expect there to be more action on the Republican side, but clearly at least the usual Democratic suspects are planning to vote.

Boats N Hoes

With friends like these

The name of a fundraising group made waves in the tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats over women voters on Wednesday.

Political consulting firm employee Shaun Nowacki registered the political action committee, “Boats ‘N Hoes PAC,” with the Texas Ethics Commission on April 1, according to state records.

Nowacki is listed as comptroller for Blakemore and Associates Consulting Firm, whose namesake, Allen Blakemore, is the “senior strategist” for Republican Dan Patrick’s lieutenant governor campaign. The firm also advised Greg Abbott, the GOP nominee for governor, during eight previous campaigns from 1991 to 2004, according to Blakemore’s website.

Democrats on Wednesday were quick to pounce on the unorthodox PAC name, calling it “derogatory and offensive” toward women. Abbott, meanwhile, quickly distanced himself from the group.

“The terminology used in the name of this PAC is reprehensible and Greg Abbott denounces any person or entity that uses such offensive language,” said Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch, emphasizing that the consulting firm has not worked for him in years.

Abbott would not take money from the committee, Hirsch said.

That didn’t stop state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, from suggesting a correlation between the language and her opponent’s policies.

“Greg Abbott’s consultants are clearly taking their cues from Abbott himself, who campaigns with an admitted sexual predator of underage girls, who pays women less than men for doing the same work and who forms his education plan with the ideas of a man like Charles Murray, who argues women are inferior to men,” said Davis spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña. “The language used by Greg Abbott’s consultants is offensive to every Texas mother and daughter — and the men who love them — and has no place in politics.”

Nowacki and Blakemore each did not return requests for comment. The name appears to be a nod to a gag in the 2008 movie “Step Brothers.”

For your edification. The lyrics are Not Safe For Work, so shut your door or plug in your headphones.

I almost feel a twinge of sympathy for poor Shaun Nowacki, who I’m guessing is a 20-something bro that maybe likes Will Ferrell movies a little too much and doesn’t have the sense God gave a turnip if it didn’t occur to him that maybe “Boats N Hoes PAC” wasn’t such a hot idea. I will note that this story has gone national, and all I had to do at Youtube to find that video was type in “boats” – autofill knew exactly what I was looking for. I should probably have something more intelligent to say about this, but I’m laughing too hard to think straight. I bet so is Molly Ivins, wherever she may be.

The dino turtle

Please don’t go extinct.

The extremely rare, utterly impressive and scary looking alligator snapping turtle is actually even more rare than first thought, according to a study out of Florida this week.

Researchers in in the sunshine state have found that the scaly creature, once common to Houston, is actually just one of three different kinds of the turtles.

Until this week the species has been collectively known as macrochelys temminckii and nicknamed the ‘dinosaur of the turtle world’ because of it’s fiercesome look and massive size. It can reach up to 200 pounds in weight.

Now two new species names have been added after scientists found distinct differences between the turtles that have grown up in river systems across the Gulf states.

The new study looked at data from turtles still in the wild as well as fossils that date back 15-16 million years and determined the turtles developed differently according to their geographical placing.

[…]

It means that the few who still live in East Texas are the last remaining of their kind, with just close relatives living across state lines, rather than direct decsendents.

A figure for how many of these prehistoric-looking beasts remain does not exist. Their shy nature and nocturnal lifestyle make it almost impossible to count them.

Some estimate the Suwannee still has around a 1000 of them but that figure could be much lower in East Texas and Louisiana because of the love of local populations for turtle soup.

“Whenever the (federal authorities) banned sea turtles from harvest, all the people, especially in New Orleans, who wanted turtle soup, turned to freashwater turtles,” said Thomas, “That was alligator snapping turtles, they hit them hard and they hit them hard in a short amount of time.”

I’m sorry, but a magnificent creature like this deserves a better fate than being wiped out by foodies. They’re not currently listed as endangered, but perhaps this re-classification will cause a review of that. At the very least, chefs ought to find more plentiful turtles to use in their soup.

Uber goes rogue

That sound you hear is me shaking my head.

At least one ride-sharing company has decided to openly defy city law that bans its unlicensed drivers from charging for rides.

While a few free-ride promotions remain ongoing, Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian confirmed Tuesday that the service, which connects interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone apps, is indeed charging for rides and will “stand by” any drivers who receive city citations.

“The support of city users and drivers has been absolutely tremendous.” Hourdajian said. “There have been tens of thousands of trips in Houston in the time we’ve been here, and we’re thrilled by that reception.”

She said the growing use of the service since its launch in February is a sign Houstonians think City Council should “have a sense of urgency” in approving regulatory revisions that would allow legal operation for Uber, Lyft and similar mobile-centric operators.

A draft of possible changes will be reviewed early next week by a joint committee on transportation and public safety. How quickly that proposal moves to the full City Council for a vote depends on suggested changes from concerned council members and taxi industry officials.

Jim Black, executive vice president of governmental relations for Lyft, said he was unaware of plans for the service to mimic Uber and begin regular, for-fee operations before council’s decision. He did note that the Houston Lyft app still offers riders the option to donate to their drivers.

In other cities, the company has swapped out that feature for fees once legal wrangling has been resolved.

See here, here, and here for the background. I mean, seriously, Uber. You’re going to get what you want soon enough. The Chronicle editorial board continues to be on your side. Could you just chill a little? I’m going to let William Shatner speak for me here:

I’m sure I speak for many people when I say I’ll be glad when this matter has been dealt with.

On a related matter, the Express News has a brief update on the lawsuit filed against Uber and Lyft by the cabbies:

The 23 plaintiffs that filed the lawsuit April 8 — among them, two taxi companies from San Antonio including the city’s largest, Yellow Cab San Antonio — have asked a federal judge to rule the companies are violating vehicle-for-hire ordinances in San Antonio and Houston. They are also seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction to prevent Lyft and Uber from operating.

But an injunction has not yet been issued. A hearing on the matter could be scheduled soon, said Michael A. Harris, one of two Houston-based attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

A pre-trial conference has been scheduled for July 18 in U.S. District Court in Houston.

I’ll be glad when this is over, too. Texpatriate has more.

Castro v Patrick

Who do you think won?

Mayor Julian Castro

Democratic Mayor Julián Castro and GOP lieutenant governor candidate Dan Pat- rick of Houston clashed over immigration policy on Tuesday in a rowdy debate that left both politicians claiming victory.

The politicians stood by the sharply different stances that brought them to their much ballyhooed face-off, at times in conciliatory tones and occasionally with biting rhetoric.

Repeating banter that initially erupted on social media, Castro pleaded for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law and portrayed Patrick as too harsh on immigrants, while Patrick painted Castro’s approach as too liberal and unfair to citizens.

Taped before guests at Univision studios and streamed live on the Web, the hourlong showdown gave Castro an opportunity to dispute Patrick’s campaign claims about the extent of unauthorized immigration and the lack of border security, while Patrick assailed Castro and other Democrats for embracing immigrant law-breakers seeking citizenship.

The encounter was the first meeting for the two officials, whose conversation was guided by Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith, and it started out on a lively note with Castro as the aggressor, calling Patrick “part of the problem” in the political stalemate over immigration reform.

“On Twitter, in front of the Alamo, in your campaign, you’ve been huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf and now you’re dancing around like Little Red Riding Hood. That is not leadership,” Castro said.

“Nobody is disagreeing with you, senator, when you talk about the need to clamp down on coyotes (smugglers), on people who are crossing here illegally,” Castro said.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that the clear loser of this debate was David Dewhurst. Not that anybody cares about David Dewhurst. Beyond that, I would suggest that one way to evaluate a contest like this is to measure how fired up each side’s supporters are afterward. I’ll let someone else check on Patrick’s fans, but it’s clear that Team Castro was pretty happy with how it went.

Another way to assess the outcome is the “If you’re lying, you’re losing” metric:

The exchange grew heated when Castro questioned Patrick’s claims, based on a state report, about the extent of crime tied to immigrants.

“The Express-News and Houston Chronicle looked into that and they said that’s bogus,” Castro said. “You have a way with statistics and trying to exaggerate them,” Castro said.

Patrick denied that and repeatedly urged Castro to “read the report” he had cited.

Yes, Patrick is lying about immigration and crime. He also has a history of lying about immigration and disease:

In 2006, Patrick claimed that undocumented immigrants were responsible for spreading diseases largely banished from developed countries.

“They are bringing Third World diseases with them,” Patrick said, according to The Texas Observer, listing “tuberculosis, malaria, polio and leprosy.”

State health officials say there’s little basis for those claims.

Take polio for instance. The Department of State Health Services couldn’t provide any information about cases because the disease has been “eradicated in the Western hemisphere,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the DSHS.

All of Texas’ malaria cases are imported, he said, and not by immigrants. Instead, those infected typically were traveling to or from a part of the world, such as Africa, where the disease is rampant.

While there is a link between immigration and leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, Van Deusen said, there is an equally strong link between contracting it and contact with armadillos or coming from an old European family that has a genetic quirk making them susceptible to the disease.

Most humans, he pointed out, are genetically immune from getting Hansen’s, which is not easily spread.

To paraphrase Daniel Davies once again, good debaters do not need to tell lots of lies to win their debates. The Trib, Erica Greider, and the Observer have more.

HISD unveils new mascots

Here they are.

The cafeteria at Hamilton Middle School showcases a painting of a Native American in a feathered headdress. Students wear collared shirts with a similar symbol. They were, until Tuesday, the Hamilton Indians.

Now, with a new school district policy banning mascots deemed culturally offensive, the Houston Heights campus has adopted the Huskies as their symbol, as have the Westbury High School Rebels. The Lamar High Redskins become the Texans, and the Welch Middle School Warriors are now the Wolf Pack.

The mascot changes – including painting over old logos, buying new uniforms and replacing marquees – could cost the district an estimated $250,000, officials said.

Superintendent Terry Grier, who won school board approval for the stricter mascot policy in December, said the expense was worth it.

“For us here at HISD, while this day marks the end of an era and sends a message about nurturing our cultural diversity, we do understand the importance of tradition and history,” Grier said while unveiling the new mascots in the Hamilton school cafeteria.

Grier said he was troubled by the Lamar Redskins name shortly after arriving in Houston in 2009, but he didn’t push for a change until last year when state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Native American students and parents upped the pressure.

[…]

An HISD handout about the mascot changes said new uniforms for football and volleyball in the fall would cost about $50,000, while the four schools expected to spend more than $38,000 to replace logos on their campuses. Uniforms for all other sports could drive the total cost up to about $250,000 according to district spokeswoman Sheleah Reed.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I figure uniforms have to be replaced periodically anyway so the cost doesn’t bother me. Besides, this was simply The Right Thing To Do. I’m glad HISD got it done. Hair Balls has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 14

The Texas Progressive Alliance honors the legacy of LBJ and the continuing struggle for civil rights as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

PPP: Abbott 51, Davis 37

Another discouraging poll from PPP.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In the Governor’s race Greg Abbott’s at 51% to 37% for Wendy Davis. Those numbers are largely unchanged from our last poll of the state in early November when Abbott had a 50/35 advantage. Davis had a 39/29 favorability rating right after her famous filibuster last June, but since then voters in the state have mostly moved toward having negative opinions about her and now she’s at a 33/47 spread. Davis’ name recognition is actually 12 points higher than Abbott’s, but his reviews break down favorably with 40% having a positive view of him to 27% with a negative one.

One thing that may be working to Abbott’s benefit is that for the first time ever in PPP’s Texas polling Rick Perry has a positive approval rating, with 48% of voters approving of him to 44% who disapprove. Perry’s net approval has improved 18 points from where it was 2 years ago at this time in the wake of his failed Presidential bid, when only 39% of voters gave him good marks with 53% disapproving.

There’s been some thought that Democratic prospects might be better in the race for Lieutenant Governor but Leticia Van de Putte actually trails by slightly more than Davis, regardless of who her Republican opponent ends up being. Dan Patrick leads her by 16 points at 51/35 and incumbent David Dewhurst leads her by 18 points at 50/32. Even with a divisive Republican nomination fight between Patrick and Dewhurst there doesn’t appear to be much risk of the party failing to unify before the fall- they lead 83/9 and 82/5 respectively with GOP voters in the general election.

Although it hasn’t really been on anyone’s radar screen the likely US Senate match up between John Cornyn and David Alameel is actually just about as competitive as the state races. Cornyn leads the contest 49/32. Cornyn is not particularly popular, sporting a 31/40 approval rating. That’s largely because Republican voters are pretty tepid toward him- a 46/27 spread- he’s lucky that he got Steve Stockman instead of a more serious challenger in the GOP primary last month.
We also looked at the race for Land Commissioner and it looks like the Bushes should be back in statewide office in Texas- George P. Bush leads Democratic opponent John Cook 50/32.

Last November, PPP had Abbott up 50-35, so this represents little change since then. You can see the full poll memo here. There are two things I want to note here, the first of which was captured by Michael Li on Facebook, which is that there are a lot more undecided voters among Hispanic and African-American voters than there are among Anglo voters, which suggests this poll is underestimating Davis’ true level of support. Another way of looking at this is to compare this poll with the PPP polls from June 2010, which had Bill White tied with Rick Perry at 43-43, and from October 2010, which had White losing 53-44, not far off from the final result. I’ll throw in the November result as well. I’m going to highlight the results by race and by partisan ID:

Candidate Anglo Hispanic Af-Am Dem Rep Ind ========================================================= Perry 6/10 55 21 7 10 74 36 White 6/10 35 55 70 76 15 42 Undecided 10 24 23 14 11 22 Perry 10/10 65 38 11 11 88 44 White 10/10 34 55 85 87 11 50 Undecided 1 7 4 3 1 6 Abbott 11/13 60 43 12 18 81 44 Davis 11/13 28 38 62 65 6 44 Undecided 12 19 26 17 14 13 Abbott 4/14 65 33 11 14 84 40 Davis 4/14 27 43 72 74 8 40 Undecided 8 24 17 12 8 20

By these results, Davis has a fair amount of room to grow among her own voters, and she has already done so to some extent from November. Other Dems had basically the same breakdowns as Davis, so the diagnosis I’d give is “it’s too early for a lot of folks to be thinking about this”. I don’t want to read too much into the variations among small subsamples, but I think it’s reasonable to say that a sizable majority of the undecided voters are those that would lean towards her. So just as the June 2010 poll underestimated Rick Perry’s support, based on the Anglo and Republican numbers, I suggest this poll underestimates Davis’ true level.

Of course, she would need more than that to make up this gap, which is where point #2 comes in. Point #2 is, of course, turnout. As we’ve discussed ad infinitum, Republican turnout has varied wildly over the past three off-year elections, while Dem turnout has been consistently and depressingly flat. This year, Battleground Texas is in operation, doing the sort of grassroots GOTV work that we haven’t seen for Dems in forever and which the Republicans are doing their best to unskew. Turnout models matter a lot for this kind of election, and this year especially they’re anybody’s guess. We won’t know how well BGTX has done until the votes are counted, and for something like this it’s pure speculation to assign it a value. I’ll say this much – they could add 500,000 base Democratic votes to the bottom line, which would be about a 30% increase in base turnout and one hell of an impressive achievement, but it would still fall below Republican base turnout even for a low tide year like 2006. They could do better than that, and the candidates like Davis and Van de Putte can work to pick off voters from their opponents, but BGTX could also easily fall short of this, and the other side can make their case to our voters, too. We just don’t know. What I do know is there’s still a lot of work to be done, so don’t go flinging yourself out any windows, and keep those gloom and doom predictions to a minimum. BOR and EoW have more.

City issues One Bin RFPs

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker today announced the issuance of a Request for Proposals and creation of an advisory committee for the One Bin for All waste management and diversion project.

The City of Houston invites submittals from short-listed firms that participated in an earlier Request for Qualifications process.

“One Bin for All will revolutionize the way we handle trash, achieving high-volume recycling and waste diversion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, new jobs and lower operating costs,” said Mayor Parker. “We have reached another key milestone in this process and are eager to move forward as this technology has the potential to improve health and quality of life not only in Houston, but around the world.”

The City is seeking a public-private partnership that will significantly increase its overall waste diversion rate, create jobs, reduce expenses to the City, reduce emissions compared to current processes, and protect and educate local communities.

“The City’s One Bin concept is a pioneering program that strives to make recycling easier for citizens, which will make us more successful as well as reduce emissions and improve our environment,” said Rice University Professor Jim Blackburn. “Technology and innovation will have important roles in the changes that we as a society must make to recycle and reuse efficiently.”

“Mayor Parker and Houston are once again leading, and working smart and diligently to find state-of-the-art solutions to improve the quality of life of Houstonians,” said Houston Director for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Brian Yeoman. “Developing new tools that can be replicated to increase recycling and waste diversion, will help many cities who grapple with this same problem.”

The RFQ can be downloaded at http://purchasing.houstontx.gov/Bid_Display.aspx?id=T24905

Submissions are due July 12, 2014. A pre-proposal conference will be held on April 29, 2014.

In addition to the issuance of the RFP, Mayor Parker also announced the creation of a One Bin for All Advisory Committee. The panel will provide expertise to the City regarding financing, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental justice and outreach and education issues as the City moves forward to significantly increase its waste diversion. Advisory Committee members include:

Jim Blackburn – Partner, Blackburn & Carter; and Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University
Winifred Hamilton, Ph.D. – Director of Environmental Health, Baylor College of Medicine
Barry L. Lefer, Ph.D. – Associate Department Chair and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Houston
Jim Lester, Ph.D. – President, HARC
Cheryl Mergo – Sustainable Development Program Manager, H-GAC
Laurie Petersen – Sustainability Champion, NASA JSC
Lalita Sen, Ph.D. – Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy, Texas Southern University
Adrian Shelly, III – Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston
Alan Stein – President & CEO, A&E Interests
Jeff Taylor – Vice President, Freese and Nichols, Inc.

“Houston is advancing creative solutions and embracing new technologies to continue to improve our air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in areas such as waste operations,” said Barry Lefer, Associate Department Chair and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston. “For example, using anaerobic digestion to convert organics, including food, to fuel, is an important breakthrough concept for large scale waste diversion and methane reduction.”

Last year, Houston’s One Bin for All idea was one of the five winners in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire American cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life – and that ultimately can be shared with other cities to improve the well-being of the nation. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ mission is to ensure better, longer lives for the greatest number of people. Houston was selected as a Mayors Challenge winner out of a pool of over 300 applicant cities, based on four criteria: vision, ability to implement, potential for impact, and potential for replication. One Bin for All was also the first place winner of the Mayors Challenge Fan Favorite Selection.

For more information please visit www.houstontx.gov/onebinforall.

The RFQs were issued last June, and I noted recently that the city was expected to issue the RFPs this month. It remains the case that some environmental groups strongly oppose this approach – see Zero Waste Houston, put together by a coalition of enviro groups, for their argument. I reached out to Melanie Scruggs with the Texas Campaign for the Environment for a statement, and this is what she sent me:

Groups and individuals who oppose the One Bin for All proposal include the National Sierra Club CEO Michael Brune, Annie Leonard, Founder of the Story of Stuff Project, the local Sierra Club Houston Regional Group, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), the San Jacinto River Coalition, Houston Peace and Justice Center, Public Citizen TX, Texas Campaign for the Environment and thousands of Houstonians who have written letters or emailed City Council since last March. We all believe that commingling trash and recycling will lower real recycling rates and that bringing incineration technologies like gasification or pyrolysis to Houston or any other city will threaten public health, compete with recycling and waste reduction, and put the City of Houston and its taxpayers at financial risk.

While the City claims the public-private partnership will reduce costs to the City, the proposal clearly calls for tax incentives including 380 Agreements and tax-exempt financing that will lock the City into a decades-long public subsidy for technologies that have a horrendous track record of cost failures, emission violations and failures to produce energy. While the One Bin plant may produce a little over 100 jobs, expanding recycling to the entire City could produce thousands and thousands more if curbside composting is implemented. Real recycling and composting will do more to reduce greenhouse gases than incineration ever could, because incineration of recyclable materials means that raw materials will have to be extracted again. And yes, gasification and pyrolysis are incineration technologies according to the EPA, despite what the City’s public relations people want to think.

The announcement of the “Advisory Committee” has been made for PR purposes and raises more questions than hopes. What exactly is the Advisory Committee supposed to produce? Why were they not invited to participate during the RFQ process wherein the City heard from respondents about the technologies under consideration? None of the local groups who have voiced concerns about a One-Bin program been asked to serve on the Advisory Committee, and no one from the neighborhoods where this facility will be built has been invited either. It is also ineffective to evaluate “One Bin for All” in isolation while groups have proposed alternatives, including keeping recycling and trash separate, implementing organics recycling, creating new incentives and investing in education programs to boost participation.

The participation rates with recycling have been increasing since the City has started to switch to the “big, green bins” and we believe the “One Bin for All” will waste the progress Houston is currently making in real recycling. Without any investment in public education whatsoever, the participation rates have still increased from 22% to 62% with the big, green recycling bins simply because they are a better design. Far from “innovation,” what City Hall is proposing is a proven failure that will set real progress on waste reduction, recycling and sustainability back for years to come. Houston needs a long-term plan to eliminate waste at its source and provide universal recycling where we live, work and play, the way other cities in Texas and across the country are now doing. City Hall needs to abandon this terrible proposal that would turn our trash in to air pollution, harming the environment, our health and the recycling economy.

So there you have it. I will be very interested to see what kind of responses the RFP gets. What are your thoughts on this?

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this.

SA City Council to begin the plastic bag debate

I look forward to seeing what direction they go.

plastic-bag

City staffers Wednesday plan to recommend to the City Council’s Governance Committee that San Antonio move forward with a ban on single-use plastic and paper bags.

The recommendation comes after vetting by the Solid Waste Management Department, which researched policies in other cities across the state and the nation.

The committee, led by Mayor Julián Castro, could direct David McCary, director of the waste management department, to present his recommendations to the full council. But it’s too soon to tell what the city’s governing body might do with the proposal.

“There has not yet been a robust discussion among council members on this issue,” Castro said. “We look forward to examining the staff’s analysis and going forward from there.”

The bag-ban proposal took flight in November when Councilman Cris Medina filed a request asking that his council colleagues consider a prohibition on single-use plastic bags.

[…]

During a February round-table meeting with retail business leaders, environmentalists and others, Medina directed McCary to recommend a single approach for the council to consider.

According to city documents, those possibilities are:

  • Allow the local business community to handle the issue on its own through education and outreach;
  • Establish a fee for all distributed single-use bags, both paper and plastic;
  • Ban all single-use plastic and paper carry-out bags;
  • Approve an ordinance requiring businesses to offer incentives for customer usage of reusable bags;
  • Maintain the status quo with a continued focus on outreach to the 340,000 customers of the waste management department and inform them of an Aug. 1 start date for the city’s plastic-bag recycling program.

See here and here for the background. As we know, the city of Dallas recently adopted a bag fee, which came on the heels of a request for an AG opinion on the legality of municipal bag laws. Assuming San Antonio takes some action – and I believe they will – then the focus may shift to Houston, since every other large city will have done something except for us. Mayor Parker has a lot on her plate, but I continue to believe this issue will come up here sooner or later.

The Rick Perry grand jury convenes

Game on.

Rosemary Lehmberg

A grand jury was sworn in Monday to look into whether Gov. Rick Perry acted improperly last year when he threatened to kill funding for the Travis County district attorney’s public corruption division unless District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned after her drunken driving conviction.

The office of the governor – who carried through on the veto threat – has hired defense lawyer David Botsford to “ensure the special prosecutor receives the facts in this matter,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.

“The facts will show this veto was made in accordance with the veto power afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution,” she said. “As we have from the beginning, we remain ready and willing to assist with this inquiry.”

Because the inquiry concerns actions by Perry in his official capacity, Botsford’s $450-an-hour fee is expected to be paid from general revenue, Nashed said.

Much as it pains me to say it, that is appropriate. Perry could of course offer to pay for it from his ample campaign funds, and I’m sure he’d have no trouble getting a sugar daddy or two to cover the tab, but he’s not required to do so.

Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in politics, last year filed a complaint with prosecutors over Perry’s threat, contending he violated laws against coercion of a public servant, abuse of official capacity, official oppression and, potentially, bribery.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, emphasized that the group’s focus is on Perry’s threat. He said the group does not question Perry’s right to veto the funding itself.

“He’s got the authority to veto whatever he wants. He just can’t threaten to use his official pen or his official act against anyone, let alone the DA,” McDonald said.

[…]

Political experts suggested a criminal case against Perry for the veto threat is a long shot.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to prison for signaling that they would utilize their veto power to try to encourage an outcome. If that were the case, then I think pretty much every governor in the United States at one point or another would be guilty as charged,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

Oh, for crying out loud. Can we not agree that there’s something problematic with an elected official demanding that another elected official resign her office, and using the power to veto funding for her office as a threat to make her resign? As District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg can convene a grand jury to investigate anyone she thinks might have committed a crime. If she had demanded that a member of Austin City Council resign for whatever the reason, and threatened to convene a grand jury to investigate every member of that Council person’s staff if he didn’t resign, then followed through on it afterward, would we not agree that that is an abuse of her power? It doesn’t matter if this hypothetical Council member has done anything that might merit a grand jury investigation. The point is that there are limits on the power, and going beyond those limits is at the least a concern and may be a crime. I don’t see what’s so hard to grasp about that. If the grand jury comes back with a no-bill based on their understanding of the law and the evidence presented, then so be it. We built limits on the powers of our elected officials in Texas for a reason. It’s appropriate to check when we think an elected official may have attempted to exceed the power of his or her office. Texas Politics has more.

Another trip down Demography Lane

From the Sunday Chron op-ed pages:

Texas is headed for the ditch, but few people are aware of the state’s perilous path. The demographers have seen the future, though, because it’s foretold in their numbers. And they’ve been sounding the alarm.

There hasn’t been much of a public-policy response, so far.

Texas could be the pacesetter: It has a young and rapidly growing population. Educate that workforce and Texas becomes a vibrant, thriving state for decades. Unfortunately, that young population is overwhelmingly minority and under-educated, and there appears to be little political interest in addressing the needs of that demographic group.

Increasingly, Texas stands to become poorer and less competitive, according to demographers who study the numbers for a living. Neither state leaders nor the media is paying adequate attention. Few Texans are aware of the state’s rapidly changing population. Hispanics will surpass whites as the largest population group some time before 2020.

By the numbers, here’s what’s been taking place: The state lost 184,486 white children between 2000 and 2010 while gaining 931,012 Hispanic children over that decade, according to the U.S. Census. Stated another way, in 2000, Texas white kids outnumbered Hispanic children by 120,382; Flash forward to 2010 and Hispanic children outnumbered white kids by 995,116.

This gap will continue to widen. Demographer Steve Murdock notes the average white female is 42 years old compared to an average age of 28 for Latinas. And the fertility rate is 1.9 children for the white female compared to 2.7 for the Latina. Demographers say replacement of a population group requires a fertility rate of at least 2.1.

Whites are projected to make up fewer than 4 percent of the state’s population growth between now and 2040, compared to 78 percent for Texas Hispanics.

Here’s the most important figure: All of our K-12 enrollment growth over the past decade comes from low-income children – that is, children whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced-cost school lunches. Those low-income students now make up a little more than 60 percent of our public school enrollment.

Many are way behind when they arrive in the first grade. Too many drop out years later. A whopping 47 percent of low-income high school students from the Class of 2015 were off track to graduate, according to testimony in last year’s public school finance trial.

Why does this matter? Murdock, who served as director of the U.S Census Bureau in the administration of President George W. Bush, projects that three out of 10 Texas workers will not have a high school diploma by 2040. Also, in 25 years, the average Texas household income will be some $6,500 less than it was in the year 2000. The figure is not inflation-adjusted, so it will be worse than it sounds. Basically, today’s children, collectively, stand to be worse off than preceding generations.

How can we address the trend line? The first step is to increase access to high-quality pre-K, Murdock says.

[…]

The demographers are warning us about the not so-rosy future if we fail to act. Education is the answer. Education is the best ticket out of poverty. We simply need state leaders to understand a universal truth: It doesn’t cost to educate a child; it pays to educate a child.

This is a condensed version of a longer piece by former Chron and Express-News reporter Gary Scharrer, which first appeared on Texas To The World. Scharrer was more recently on the staff of now-former Sen. Tommy Williams. Steve Murdock is a familiar name in this blog – he’s been singing this tune for well over a decade now, not that the powers that be have been listening. Here’s an interview I did with him in 2011, just as the Legislature was getting set to cut $5.4 billion from public education and $200 million from pre-k, because they suck like that. As we know, these issues are salient in the election for Governor this fall. You tell me whose pre-k plan, not to mention whose overall vision for education, is a better fit for our future.

Perry lawyers up

It’s getting real.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has hired a high-profile Austin defense lawyer to represent him in an investigation into whether he illegally withheld money from the Travis County District Attorney’s office.

KVUE News and the Austin American-Statesman confirmed Sunday evening the hiring of David L. Botsford.

The hiring comes as a special Travis County grand jury is set to be seated Monday to hear evidence into whether Perry broke state laws concerning bribery, coercion and abuse of authority.

[…]

Botsford said Sunday night, “The matter at hand pertains to the power of the governor to issue vetoes as allowed under the Texas Constitution. I have been retained to ensure that (the special prosecutor) receives all the facts, which will show that the governor’s veto was carried out in both the spirit and the letter of the law.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Attorney Botsford must be good at what he does, because he’s already obfuscating the facts. The issue, as I’ve said repeatedly, is not that Perry vetoed the funds but that he threatened to veto them unless Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg resigned. Trying to force out another elected official in this manner is the no-no. Had Perry simply vetoed the funds without yapping about it beforehand, there would be no allegation of wrongdoing. I can’t wait to see what the grand jury, which has been seated, makes of this. Jason Stanford and Juanita have more.

Regulating Bitcoin in Texas

Bitcoin regulations. We have ’em.

Texas will not treat Bitcoin and other virtual currencies as legal money, according to a new memo from the Texas Department of Banking. Yet some companies that deal in Bitcoin transactions could draw state oversight, even if they are based outside of Texas.

Texas Banking Commissioner Charles Cooper issued a memo this month outlining the agency’s policies involving virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

“At this point a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is best viewed like a speculative investment, not as money,” Cooper said in a statement.

In his memo, Cooper provided reasoning that echoed the IRS. Last month, the federal agency announced that, for tax purposes, it would treat Bitcoin as property instead of currency because no government recognizes the virtual currency as legal tender.

“Because neither centralized virtual currencies nor cryptocurrencies are coin and paper money issued by the government of a country, they cannot be considered currencies under the statute,” Cooper’s memo reads.

While Texas does not have a state income tax, the state’s Department of Banking does regulate certain financial transactions and license financial institutions. An exchange of Bitcoin for U.S. dollars between two parties would not draw the agency’s interest, according to the memo.

But some third-party Bitcoin exchanges are already drawing state scrutiny because of the way they handle transactions involving U.S. currency and Bitcoin, according to Daniel Wood, assistant general counsel at the Department of Banking. Cooper’s memo states that such exchanges are involved in “money transmission” because they act as an “escrow-like intermediary” that holds onto a buyer’s funds “until it determines that the terms of the sale have been satisfied before remitting the funds to the seller.”

Such exchanges do not need to be based in Texas to fall under the state’s regulations, Wood said. “If they do business with Texas consumers, we can force them to get a Texas license,” he added.

I’ll admit, I had no idea there was a Texas Department of Banking. I don’t know what effect this will have, but I suppose it’s good to be one of the pioneers in setting this sort of regulatory framework. I personally think that Bitcoin is more toy than currency, though I could see it maybe being useful for campaign contributions. Assuming all disclosure and other requirements are met, of course. What do you think about this?