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April 22nd, 2014:

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.