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April 25th, 2014:

Friday random ten – Baby, You Can Drive My Car Part 2

Last week was about specific types of cars. This week is about cars in the generic sense.

1. Baby’s Got The Car Keys – Trout Fishing In America
2. The Car Hank Died In – Austin Lounge Lizards
3. Car Wash – Rose Royce
4. Chasing Cars – Snow Patrol
5. Electric Car – They Might Be Giants
6. Fancy Car – The Honeycutters
7. Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
8. In The Car – Barenaked Ladies
9. Race Car Ya-Yas – CAKE
10. Refrigerator Car – Spin Doctors

Again, I eschewed tunes from the Car Talk CDs, this time completely. You could come up with a full list of songs just from those disks. To conclude this series next week, we’ll have other modes of transportation.

State court rules gay marriage ban is unconstitutional

That’s two rulings in Texas, with this one referencing the federal ruling from February.

RedEquality

In a move that follows suit with a federal ruling issued in February, a state district judge has deemed Texas’ restrictions on same-sex marriage unconstitutional – paving the way for a San Antonio couple’s divorce proceedings and subsequent child custody battle to continue.

Judge Barbara Nellermoe, in a five-page ruling released Tuesday, pinpointed three portions of the Texas Family Code as unconstitutional, as well as Section 32 of the Texas Constitution.

Nellermoe wrote that “in a well-reasoned opinion by Judge Orlando Garcia, the federal district court found that a state cannot do what the federal government cannot – that is, it cannot discriminate against same-sex couples.”

The latest ruling comes in response to a same-sex divorce lawsuit that was filed in Bexar County in February by Allison Leona Flood Lesh and Kristi Lyn Lesh, who were married in Washington, D.C., in August 2010.

[…]

What is remarkable about the ruling is its finding that failing to “afford the same presumption of parenthood to the wife of a child’s birth mother as it does to a husband of the birth mother” is unconstitutional, said lawyer Emily Hecht-McGowan, director of public policy at the Family Equality Council.

The organization, based in Washington, D.C., advocates for LGBT families throughout the nation.

A child born in a straight marriage or a legal same-sex marriage is considered a child to both parents, which is known as parental presumption, Hecht-McGowan said. But in cases such as this involving a couple in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, the child was only considered legally the child of the birth mother.

But in Nellermoe’s ruling, the judge wrote that such a practice violated the Equal Protection Clause.

“By denying their parents the right to marry, Texas has created a suspect classification of children who are denied equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment,” Nellermoe wrote.

See here for the background on this case, which was filed shortly before Judge Garcia’s ruling that declared Texas’ Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage constitutional amendment to be unconstitutional. As we know, the State Supreme Court heard appeals in two other same sex divorce cases last November, but no one knows when they’ll get around to ruling on it. Judge Nellermoe’s ruling seems pretty straightforward to me, but I’m sure it will be appealed. Sure enough, just as Greg Abbott inserted himself into the other cases, so has he done in this one.

Late Wednesday the State Attorney General’s Office filed what’s called a Plea in intervention with this case. It says, “The state of Texas seeks the opportunity to defend its laws and statutes before this court.”

Via Lone Star Q, which notes there’s a lot of other legal activity out there as well. And late yesterday, the Fourth Court of Appeals halted the divorce proceedings for now.

Attorney General Greg Abbott responding by asking the appeals court to grant an emergency stay delaying Nellermoe’s ruling, arguing that speedy action was needed “to avoid the legal chaos that would follow if the trial court’s broadly worded ruling is mistakenly interpreted as authorization for the creation or recognition of same-sex marriages in Bexar County or throughout the state.”

The San Antonio appeals court agreed Thursday afternoon, staying Nellermoe’s ruling while it considers Abbott’s request to vacate the decision as a violation of the district judge’s authority.

The appeals court also set a May 5 deadline to receive briefs in the case.

Nothing ever comes easy, does it? Be that as it may, I have seen basically no reaction to this, at least so far. Equality Texas posted a link to the story on Facebook, which has been widely shared, as well as the link to that Statesman story, but as of publication I have not seen a statement or press release from anyone. I have no idea if the usual nattering nabobs of negativism have reacted to this ruling, either – I didn’t want to get slime all over my nice clothes, so I didn’t go looking – but I’m sure we’ll hear from them as well as from the good guys.

On improving literacy

I have three things to say about this story.

In Houston, a city known for its brilliant doctors and energy executives, adults are waiting in line for classes that teach basic literacy skills – reading, writing and speaking clearly. They can’t land jobs or promotions, can’t help their kids with homework.

At the same time, tens of thousands of students in local public school districts are failing to meet the state’s minimum academic standards, fighting to comprehend texts and straining to write essays.

Houston, educators and civic leaders say, has far too many citizens who can’t read well, the subject of a report scheduled for release Thursday by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, “Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action.”

The plan calls for educating parents of infants, making pre-kindergarten classes available to all youngsters, deploying reading specialists to low-performing schools and expanding adult education programs.

The foundation has not put a price on its ideas, but executive director Julie Baker Finck said she hopes the report serves as a rallying cry to turn more attention, volunteer support and funding toward literacy work.

“If we don’t in part solve low literacy levels for adults, then they will never be able to support their own child’s development and prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn how to read,” she said.

[…]

The Bush Foundation’s work dovetails with HISD’s latest campaign to improve literacy instruction. In a draft plan presented to the school board this month, Superintendent Terry Grier and his academic chief, Dan Gohl, set a goal that 100 percent of third-graders would meet the state’s reading standards by 2019.

Last year, 37 percent of HISD third-graders hit the recommended level, slightly lower than the Texas average.

“This is our profound crisis,” Gohl told the school board, “and we must do something dramatically different.”

The district’s plan calls for placing a trained “literacy leader” on campuses, increasing scrutiny of individual school programs, and trying to outfit classrooms with books for different reading levels.

Gohl said he plans to ask the board to approve $4 million next school year, largely to fund training. That doesn’t include the classroom libraries for kindergarten through second grade, which could cost another $9 million.

Let me preface this by saying that there’s no question that HISD needs to do a better job on reading and literacy. By every measure, HISD students perform poorly overall in reading, and this does have profound consequences for graduation rates, college achievement, and ultimately earning potential. Improving reading performance, at HISD and in many other school districts in Texas, would go a long way towards making a brighter future for many, many people.

Having said that, here are my concerns with this story.

1. More than half of this story is spent on the personal struggles of two people who dealt with dyslexia as children. One might conclude from this that dyslexia is a big part of the problem, but the story doesn’t actually make that connection. Dyslexia is something we’ve known about for a long time, and according to Wikipedia, it affects about five percent of children. The article uses dyslexia for narrative purposes, so I am unclear whether it is trying to say that dyslexia is a significant part of the problem and/or if local school districts do an inadequate job in dealing with dyslexic children. My guess is that this was for informational purposes only, as they say, and not really something that needs to be better addressed via policy.

2. More broadly, there’s nothing in the story about how these recommendations fit (or don’t fit) with what area school districts are already doing or planning to do, and there’s no reaction from any local school officials or other stakeholders like Gayle Fallon. Perhaps that’s because this story was in advance of the Foundation actually releasing their report – as of this publication, I still don’t see anything on their website about it – so I guess there isn’t anything for them to react to. Maybe this was just supposed to be a puff piece, but someone funded this study and someone took the time to write it, and from what little we see in this story they have some decent ideas – I particularly like the bit about educating parents of infants – so let’s take it seriously and see if it’s worthwhile. Otherwise, what’s the point?

3. That said, and bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the report myself, I’m disappointed that they didn’t put a price tag on anything. We’re in the middle of a policy debate in the Governor’s race about education and pre-k, mostly about funding but also about how to do it right. I understand it’s not their role to get in the middle of a partisan dispute, but nothing happens in this state without at least some understanding of the cost involved, and how to pay for it. In the absence of adequate state funding for pre-k, thanks to the 2011 budget cuts, some localities have tried to provide pre-k programs on their own; the one in San Antonio was successful, the one in Harris County was not. What approach would the Bush Foundation recommend? I for one would like to know.

Radack finally gets to implement his feral hog plan

I can’t wait to see how well this works out.

Locally sourced pork finally may be on the menu for needy Houston-area families as Harris County Precinct 3 launches its most ambitious effort yet to eradicate feral hogs damaging parkland and neighborhoods around the Barker and Addicks reservoirs.

Within a month, precinct employees hope to begin trapping and transporting the wild pigs to a meat processing facility in Brookshire, where they will be butchered, frozen and distributed to area food banks.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a one-year, $217,600 contract with J&J Packing Co. that begins May 1. The court also OK’d the purchase of metal panels to complete four traps to be erected near the reservoirs in west Harris County.

The approvals were the final steps needed in Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack’s long-standing plan to eliminate, or at least sharply reduce, a prolific hog population in George Bush and Congressman Bill Archer parks, home to the two reservoirs.

“This is the beginning of (the) Harris County hog program in earnest,” Radack declared. “As meat prices go up, we’ll be giving it away.”

Commissioner Radack first floated this idea in 2009, and proposed allowing bow hunters in the parks to deal with the problem. The Army Corps of Engineers put the kibosh on the plan, however, on the grounds of public safety. I presume using traps instead of hunters addresses that issue.

For nearly a decade, off-duty county workers and hired contractors have trapped several hundred hogs a year in the area.

The current plan began to come together early last year when the precinct won a $630,000 federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program grant to bankroll a study assessing whether hog removal improves water quality, as well as pay for four metal traps and the slaughter and processing of 2,500 pigs.

“It’ll be an ongoing and continuing exercise until we get every pig in that area,” said Mike McMahan, Radack’s special activities coordinator.

The plan is to trap the varmints in four, 4-acre fenced structures – two in each park – where they can survive for up to several weeks, having grass, water and room to move around.

The larger traps will be more effective than smaller ones employees have been using, McMahan said, because the pigs do not realize they are in a trap and are less likely to panic and warn others.

“Pigs become very aware of those situations very quickly,” McMahan said. “Pigs are very smart animals.”

[…]

Brian Mesenbrink, a wildlife disease biologist with the Texas offices of Wildlife Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture branch designated to address human-wildlife conflicts, said the agency is “not against any legal method when it comes to controlling feral hogs,” but said that the trap-and-process concept – “tried in small little operations here and there” – has proved short-lived in other places, mainly because of the cost.

“It’s actually very expensive,” he said, noting that “you don’t get to pick which ones go to market.”

He also warned of the “disease aspect” of such an operation, noting that feral hogs “carry quite a few” and even federal inspectors do not examine every piece of meat.

“It’s like Russian roulette,” he said. “It’s great publicity while it works, but the minute something goes wrong, the minute somebody gets sick, there’s going to be all hell to pay. No one thinks about that going into it. They just see the fuzzy and warm side of it.”

Radack dismissed the disease concern, noting that hunting and eating feral hog is far from uncommon. As for the financial viability of the program, he believes the precinct will be able to secure additional grant money to continue it.

Here’s the Texas Parks and Wildlife information page on feral hogs, which addresses the disease question among others. It’s a concern, but it’s not like there are no concerns about traditional mass-produced meat. I would warn against being optimistic that this plan will actually make a dent in the feral hog population. If it were this easy to keep them in check, there would be no such thing as porkchopping. Beyond that, I see no problems with this. As the story notes, it does connect a problem with a need – there’s already an agreement in place with the Houston Food Bank to receive the hog meat, for which they are grateful. I hope that costs can be managed and that either grant money or philanthropy can cover it as needed. Kudos to Commissioner Radack for having the vision to conceive of this, and for having the persistence to see it through. Texpatriate and Hair Balls have more.

Dallas and Seattle redoing vehicle for hire ordinances

I’ve said before that the review of Houston’s vehicle for hire codes will be a process and not a one-time deal, and that we ought to be prepared to review what we do now in another six or twelve months since we don’t really know what the effect of whatever we do here will be. Case in point, Dallas:

A proposed transportation-for-hire ordinance is intended to “create a level playing field,” says the draft outline sent to Mayor Mike Rawlings, the Dallas City Council, city manager A.C. Gonzalez and members of Sandy Greyson’s work group late Wednesday.

The ordinance, which comes eight months after the debate over Uber and other app-ordered car services pulled into Dallas City Council chambers, would, among other things, do away with “caps on the number of transportation-for-hire vehicles” and “regulations of fares.” Right now, for instance Yellow Cab owns most of the 2,022 stickers needed to get a cab on the road. The proposed ordinance would essentially end Yellow Cab’s position as a “regulated monopoly,” as council member Scott Griggs called it in January.

The proposed ordinance also requires that every company with a car on the road provides insurance — “regardless of whether the driver has a separate policy.”

[…]

Greyson and other council members and city officials won’t comment on the proposal until after tomorrow’s meeting of the work group, which begins at 11 a.m. Several messages have also been left for Uber and Lyft representatives.

Says the proposed ordinance, every company must have an operating authority permit, which lists every car in the fleet, expires annually and can be suspended and isn’t transferable. Yellow Cab would need the permit; so too Uber’s black-car service or Lyft’s ride-sharing service or, for that matter, horse carriages or pedicabs — or any company that charges for ridesharing (as opposed to, say, carpooling).

Drivers will need separate permits, which they can only get after extensive background checks, a drug test and a training class that’s “sponsored by the city and run by a contractor on city regulations, familiarity with the city, and customer service.” That permit would be good only for two years, and must be displayed in the vehicle at all times.

Companies and their drivers aren’t the only thing needing permits. Vehicles will need them too — and, for starters, they can’t be older than 10 years or have more than 250,000 miles on them. But the draft ordinance says there’s no minimum cost for a vehicle — a far cry from the $45,000 minimum Yellow Cab tried to set last August in its efforts to ride Uber out of town.

That operating authority permit would cost $1,000 per year. There’s also a fee for the driver’s permit: $50 a year. On top of that, there’s also a fee for the vehicle permit: $100 a year.

The draft ordinance does allow for hailing by app — which Yellow Cab also tried to stop last year — and demands “city-wide service,” in an attempt to address Transportation and Trinity River Project Committee chair Vonciel Jones Hill’s unsubstantiated claims that Uber is engaged in red-lining south of the Trinity River.

Via Unfair Park, and you can see a copy of the draft ordinance at either link. There’s a committee meeting scheduled for today to go over the proposals. I note that there’s a fair bit of overlap with the proposed Houston ordinance, so perhaps we are groping our way towards a consensus of some kind.

Meanwhile, Christopher Newport, the former Chief of Staff of the Administration & Regulatory Affairs Department and current Chief of Staff to Mayor Parker, left this link in a comment on the draft ordinance post:

A coalition group has collected enough signatures to suspend a newly-passed ordinance regulating companies like UberX and Lyft, and now Mayor Ed Murray wants to work with all stakeholders to reach a new agreement.

The group, which received more than $400,000 in donations from Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, submitted more than 36,000 signatures today to the City Clerk’s office, more than double what was required (16,510).

The City of Seattle has a referendum process in place for situations like this, and if citizens can gather enough signatures — eight percent of the total number of votes cast for mayor in the last mayoral election (206,377) — newly-approved ordinances will be put on hold and then voted on by Seattle residents.

The ordinance, which passed in March and attempted to thread the needle by simply capping the number of vehicle for hire permits while taking some time to review how things were going, has been suspended and all parties are back at the table to try to negotiate a comprehensive solution. Maybe they should take a peek at what Houston and Dallas are doing and see what they think about that.