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May, 2014:

The Observer on the high-speed rail line

Some contemplation about the prospects for success of this unique project.

Ross Capon, president of the National Association for Railroad Passengers, a national Washington D.C.-based non-profit promoting the development of rail, supports Texas Central Railways’ proposal but says it could be difficult to pull off. Mass transit systems, he points out, have always relied on public funds.

“If they can do it, more power to them,” Capon says. “That is a very steep hill to climb because infrastructure is almost always publicly owned and is the result of public investment.”

All other forms of transportation receive some kind of government subsidies. Even major airlines would be unprofitable if not for public financing of airports. Amtrak relies heavily on federal funding to just stay afloat, and the government builds and maintains roads for buses.

It’s often cheaper to build with subsidies. A private company would not only have to swallow the full costs of building the railway but expect to turn enough revenue to be profitable.

Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, says high-speed rail is different from other types of transit like planes and conventional trains in that it is potentially profitable, but it also comes with huge capital costs.

“It takes some deep pockets to get them off the ground,” says Kunz. “And that’s why you usually need government because government is better set up to lay out that kind of money up front.”

[…]

Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes says Japan Central Railways—the Japanese high-speed rail company that Texas Central Railways has partnered with—doesn’t want the strings that may come attached to federal funds. Such requirements include the possibility of having to unionize all construction workers and buy all American-made materials. He says these requirements could mean higher building costs and could translate into even higher fares.

But the for-profit approach could also translate into high fares. The company will need to start turning a profit on the project fast. [Tom Schieffer, former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the senior advisor to the project] refuses to pinpoint a fare but says it would be “somewhat less” than a plane ticket between North Texas and Houston.

See here for previous Texas Central Railway blogging. As I’ve noted before, the TCR folks recognize that their project is unusually well-suited for the approach they’re taking. Future extensions to this line, or connections to it, may not follow the same path. As far as pricing goes, I took a quick check on United’s website for roundtrip fares between Houston and Dallas. The ones I looked at ranged from $149 to $330, with most around $250; these were all advance fares, ones for same day departures began at about $450 roundtrip. These don’t include any baggage fees, so the actual total will be a bit higher. This suggests to me that the sweet spot for competitiveness will be in the $100-$125 range for one way. They can probably go a little higher than that and compete on other aspects of the service – leg room! free WiFi! no TSA lines! better food and drink choices! – but I’d guess that $150 for one way is about as high as they can go. I’m hardly an expert on this and I have no inside knowledge, so take my wild guess with a heaping tablespoon of salt. But we’ll see how accurate I am when they get closer to being in business.

On “potty water”

I have three things to say about this.

Wastewater reuse in Wichita Falls has been in the works for years and would have happened with or without the drought. It was fast-tracked as the city deals with reservoirs that are only 25 percent full today. In addition, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — not known for being a particularly strict regulating agency — is currently on the defensive for delaying the city’s project by asking for more testing.

Several other Texas cities — San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth among them — have been looking at such water reuse projects for decades, and some are hoping the plans might come to fruition in the coming years. Across Texas, treated wastewater is being used for everything from watering golf courses to making silicon chips.

Yet judging by the headlines on news reports about the Wichita Falls project, the city’s residents could be in for some sort of disgusting surprise.

“Brushing Teeth With Sewer Water Next Step as Texas Faces Drought,” read a Bloomberg News headline. National Public Radio wrote, “Drought-Stricken Texas Town Turns To Toilets For Water.” Most recently, NBC’s Today Show tackled the topic, with a reporter noting, “Some residents think it’s just plain gross.”

Bloomberg News noted that many people are concerned about water contamination, comparing the Wichita Falls project to the example of Oregon water officials flushing 38 million gallons from a reservoir after a teenager urinated into it. “We’re not drought-stricken Texas,” an official there noted.

On that note, remember all the people guzzling beer and floating in the water out on Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which supply Austin’s drinking water. No one is suggesting flushing those bodies of water or implying that residents of the capital city are brushing their teeth with sewer water.

1. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but I always assumed that much of our drinking water came from treated wastewater. I mean, wastewater has to go somewhere, and one way or another it’s going to wind up back in whatever river or lake or reservoir we use for potable water. Maybe it’s the number of steps between the two that makes the difference for some people, but I figure it’s all the same water anyway, so what’s the fuss about?

2. Of course, if the thought of drinking treated wastewater wigs you out, maybe we can talk about using it for agricultural or industrial purposes, or even just for watering your lawn. It really doesn’t make sense to dump almost a hundred billion gallons of drinkable water on grass and plants.

3. Besides, all of our water has been inside a dinosaur at some point, so why be squeamish about it now?

The case against Castro for HUD

While we wait for further word on San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s reported appointment to be Secretary of HUD – he is keeping quiet about it for now – it’s worth considering some of the political implications behind it. Brian Beutler does the honors.

Mayor Julian Castro

Castro is currently the Mayor of San Antonio, an office with relatively little power, but one that suggests a longer path toward national prominence that runs through the Texas governor’s mansion. A HUD nomination would constitute a pretty significant detour. And I think there are three ways to look at the decision—one optimistic, one strategic, and one shortsighted—any of which could explain why Castro, Obama, and party strategists think this is a wise move.

An idealist might look at this and say the country has turned an important corner, around which heading a government agency tasked with providing services to low-income communities is no longer a political anvil around the neck. Or at least that today’s Democrats are hoping to turn that corner.

A cynic, by contrast, would look ahead to 2016 and see a Democratic field that lacks seasoned Hispanic stars. Could Hillary Clinton (or whomever) pick a mayor of a medium-large city as her running mate? There’s a real logic to priming Castro by placing him in the cabinet now.

But a pessimist would note that Obama has a frustrating tendency to pluck star Democrats out of red states and place them in his cabinet where their political prospects quickly erode. Castro’s prospective nomination coincides with a growing recognition that Obama’s probably not going to sign an immigration reform bill, and is looking for other ways to maintain the Democrats’ huge edge in immigrant communities.

It should be noted that one of the top competitors to Castro for the VP slot on the Hillary Clinton 2016 ticket is Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former Governor of Iowa who was appointed to that post in 2009. In other words, being in Obama’s Cabinet isn’t necessarily a death knell for one’s future political ambitions. (See also: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I’m just saying.) The grumbling about “plucking star Democrats out of red states” mostly had to do with taking potential Senate candidates off the board for 2010 than anything else – think Janet Napolitano, who might have challenged John McCain; Kathleen Sebelius, who could have run against Pat Roberts; and Vilsack, who might have taken on Chuck Grassley. The theory was that without a credible Democratic opponent, these guys had free rein to be as obstructionist on the Affordable Care Act during the endless legislative summer of 2009. It was a sensible-sounding theory at the time, but in retrospect surely we can see that it didn’t hold water. Putting aside the disastrous election results of 2010, we now know that the the main force affecting Republican legislative behavior was and very much continues to be the threat of being primaried as a RINO. Republicans these days, and this definitely goes back to 2010, fear their base much more than they fear the November electorate. I get the frustration, but there’s not much empirical evidence of actual damage done.

As far as Julian Castro goes, being HUD Secretary is likely to help him get on the 2016 ticket than run for statewide office in 2018. Not because of any taint from having served in the Obama Administration – he was a keynote speaker at the 2012 DNC and did a ton of campaigning for Obama in 2012 as well; he’s already as tainted as he’s going to be, and even if he wasn’t the Republican’s would act as if he were anyway – but because I think he’d be better served building up his record of achievement in San Antonio. Honestly, though, it probably doesn’t make much difference one way or the other. If Castro is available to run for something in 2018, then the combination of demography and the efforts of Battleground Texas will have more to do with his likelihood of success than his most recent job title. He’s already got the resume, the star power, and the fundraising connections. As long as he can avoid screwing up or getting caught by a scandal, he’ll be in as good shape as he can hope to be in.

Meet your “education reform” groups

The Observer provides a primer.

For 20 years, Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) has been protecting our hospitals and business leaders from meddling trial lawyers, convincing the Texas Legislature to cap damage awards and closing the courthouse doors to some potential plaintiffs. For two decades, TLR has been wildly successful, perhaps the most successful special interest in Texas. Having conquered the civil justice system, TLR is moving on—to education.

Texans for Education Reform launched midway through the 2013 legislative session, and shares lobbyists, board members and a spokeswoman with TLR. (TLR president Dick Trabulsi, for example, sits on the school reform group’s board.) The two groups also share a few of the same deep-pocketed donors, wealthy individuals like Dick Weekley, Ray Hunt and Doug Foshee who helped the education group raise nearly $1 million for its new political action committee. Just under $200,000 was distributed to candidates ahead of the March primary.

It might seem strange that Texas’ preeminent tort reform advocates have taken a keen interest in public schools, of all things. But TLR’s move into education mirrors a nationwide trend over roughly the last decade: Advocacy groups and business leaders have spent big money trying to apply business principles to schools, a particular brand of school reform built around school choice and fewer job protections for teachers.

[…]

Texans for Education Reform emerged last year to make up for lost time and to shake schools from the status quo. “Most of the other interest groups in this space weren’t advancing agendas; they were restricting bills,” Texans for Education Reform consultant Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune last year. The group dispatched 19 lobbyists to the Texas Capitol, many of them highly paid, pushing charter school expansion, online learning and state takeover of low-performing schools. Texans for Public Justice noted the group was the 2013 session’s most formidable newcomer, debuting by spending as much as $1.2 million on lobbyists like former Senate education chairwoman Florence Shapiro, Rick Perry’s old friend Mike Toomey, and Adam Jones, a former deputy education commissioner.

The group’s spokeswoman, Sherry Sylvester, declined to discuss what the group will go after next session, offering only that it will advocate “research-proven reforms that empower parents, reinforce local control and provide pathways for intervention in chronically failing schools within a morally responsible timeline.”

Whatever that means, Texans for Education Reform will likely find itself in agreement with Democrats for Education Reform, which recently launched a chapter in Texas. That group—through a spinoff group called Education Reform Now Advocacy—has already distinguished itself as Texas’ No. 2 “dark money” spender in this year’s elections. Dark money is cash culled from undisclosed, usually corporate, contributors. In a flurry this spring, Democrats for Education Reform dropped $114,000 in anonymous cash on phone banks and mailers supporting four candidates: El Paso Reps. Marisa Marquez and Naomi Gonzalez; Ramon Romero, who upset longtime Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam in March; and Erika Beltran, a Teach for America alum who’s worked on school reform in Dallas, in a race for the State Board of Education.

[…]

Democrats for Education Reform has been around for years, with support from multi-billion dollar hedge fund managers. But its Texas branch is just getting started, led by Jennifer Koppel, whose past titles include vice president for growth at the IDEA charter school chain. Koppel says she’s still forming the group’s Texas-specific strategy. “We are definitely still trying to think about where we’ll get involved legislatively,” she tells the Observer, but that they’ll support candidates who’ve been engaged with school reform issues and aren’t “beholden to the old way of doing things.”

Texans for Education Reform may have the power of the Texas GOP establishment behind it, but Democrats for Education Reform’s national scope gives the group a different sort of strength. Koppel speculates her group might take Texas lawmakers to see school reforms in action in other states.

“For Democrats there is this constant questioning to say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” she says. “And they’re asking these questions. It’s hard in a vacuum to build that confidence.”

While conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have embraced school choice from a free-market perspective, Koppel says there’s a simple reason Democrats should be enthusiastic about reform: “You’re looking at the places where these failing schools are, and they’re overwhelmingly places that are represented by Democrats. And you wonder where the disconnect is.”

Let’s start by stating the obvious: Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a malignant force in our politics, and any effort that is associated with them should be treated with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. It’s always possible that they could end up on the right side of a given issue, but those cases are highly likely to be exceptional, and one should not lower one’s guard without a long and sustained demonstration of good faith on their part. Seriously, as much as possible, stay away.

As far as Democrats for Education Reform is concerned, the picture is a bit murkier. This is an area of often strong disagreement among people that otherwise agree on a lot of things. A lot of the dispute is about strategy and solutions, since for the most part there is common ground on what the problems are and what the goals, broadly speaking, ought to be. It’s a rift within Democratic circles that isn’t going away. Still, any time “dark money” is involved there’s ample reason for mistrust, and until Democrats for Education Reform articulate an agenda, it’s hard to know what to think. Keep your eyes and ears open and we’ll assess as we go.

The cars in the bayous

Boy, does this sound like a great opening to a crime novel.

Houston’s bayous, dotted by marshy banks and filled with bass and catfish, weave through the city, providing an appealing landscape for joggers and cyclists. But beneath the murky, brown waters is something not as pleasant: a makeshift dumping ground of cars, trucks and vans.

Tim Miller, director of Texas Equusearch, said his volunteer crews have evidence that 127 vehicles are submerged in the bayous. Miller said there are potential environmental and safety hazards of having cars corroding the city’s waterways.

“Houston is known as the Bayou City. I know millions of dollars are spent on the banks of the bayous to make it beautiful,” said Miller, who founded the nonprofit search and rescue organization in 2000. “But we’ve got a big problem with what’s underneath the water.”

Texas Equusearch crews found the vehicles while assisting the Houston Police Department with a search for 82-year-old Lillian High in October 2011. Her body was found inside a rented Dodge Avenger that had plunged into the pond a few miles from her Houston home.

During that search Miller said the organization’s sonar equipment discovered vehicles in Sims, Braes and Buffalo bayous.

In recent months, Miller said many bodies have been discovered in vehicles in Texas and around the country, compelling him to go public with the information. He cited two cases from April, one in which police in South Dakota found the bodies of two teens who disappeared 42 years ago. Later that month, police found skeletal remains inside a truck recovered from a North Texas lake of a woman missing for 35 years.

“Families would call me whose loved ones were still missing, and they’d see these kinds of stories and ask me if there is any chance that their (family members) could be under there, since their loved ones hadn’t been found,” he said. “It was just like, you know what, we’ve got to do something, we just have to.”

HPD says the know all about the cars and they dispute the claim that there could be bodies in one or more of them. I have no opinion about that, but I do think from an environmental point of view that we ought to do what we can to get these cars out of there. They can’t be doing any good down there. Let’s figure out how much it might cost, then see if we can come up with an action plan. Swamplot has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 19

The Texas Progressive Alliance celebrates the ten-year anniversary of same sex marriages in America – which, at last report, was still standing – as it bring you this week’s roundup.

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TransGriot on the current status of the NDO

Monica Roberts wants to set the record straight about Mayor Parker and the latest version of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance that will (eventually, we swear) be voted on by Council.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The local trans community asked for Section 17-51 (b) to be pulled from the proposed ordinance. I’ve written and testified it needed to go. Lou, Dee Dee, and other Houston trans leaders have also been unanimous in our dislike of it.

What we’re pissed off about inside Beltway 8 is you peeps blasting Mayor Parker based on Frontiers LA writing a story and only posting a snippet of Section 17-51 (b) prior to their conclusion jump. Neither did any of you outside of Houston critics know at the time because you weren’t privy to it, we were working with council to get amendments done to clean up that problematic language in a way that would be satisfying to our community.

FYI, here’s the full text of Section 17-51 (b)

(b) It shall be unlawful for any place of public accommodation or any employee or agent thereof to deny any person entry to any restroom, shower room, or similar facility if that facility is consistent with and appropriate to that person’s expression of gender identity. It shall be a defense to prosecution for discrimination on the basis of gender identity under this article, however, if the defendant had a good faith belief that the gender or gender identity of the person discriminated against was not consistent with the gender designation of the facility. For purposes of this section, a defendant has a good faith belief if the manner in which the person represented or expressed gender to others (e.g. behavior, clothing, hairstyles, activities, voice or mannerisms) is not consistent with the gender designation of the facility the person attempted to access. Nothing in this section shall require construction of a new bathroom, shower room, or similar facility.

The problematic section I underlined and put in bold print is why the Houston transgender community and our allies after consulting with us asked to have it pulled. Leaving that as is would have allowed transphobes to engage in gender policing and we would have no recourse to it.

So did you stop to think before you knee-jerk conclusion jumped to ask me or any other transperson in Houston working to pass the HERO what was going on? Did you peeps outside Loop 610 honestly think after I wrote this post that I or any other Houston trans leaders would support ANY HERO that didn’t FIX the problems that ail the Houston trans community?

This is the post Roberts is referring to, and despite her post from Sunday and a couple of comments on the offending piece by the likes of Daniel Williams, there’s been no correction or followup from Frontiers LA that I can see. I consider this yet another example of a non-Texas-based writer getting the basic facts about a story here – usually a political story – all wrong, presumably from some combination of laziness, misunderstanding, and the long-outdated perception of the state as a monochromatic sea of red outside of Austin. Whatever the cause, it’s annoying as hell, and I share Roberts’ frustration and desire to get the facts out. If you see any misinformation out there about the status of the HERO, keep that link handy to point people back in the right direction.

And on an unfortunate related note, Texas Leftist has an update on how one Council member will apparently be voting.

When one visits the website for Grace Community Church, a mega-church in Southeast Houston, it’s easy to form an initial impression that it is a community which is welcoming and loving to all. They proudly proclaim the slogan “Everybody needs a little grace!”

But those impressions couldn’t be further from the truth, as there is lots of ugliness going on within the walls of this congregation. Local political activist Kris Banks decided to attend a rally at Grace for those against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and what he found there was pretty awful. Banks says many in the crowd openly laughed when transgender people were mentioned, and some even called the community an “abomination”.

Even after his 2 hour town hall with members of the LGBT community and supposed friendship with Jenifer Rene Pool, Council Member Michael Kubosh was at this rally clapping right along to the hate speech against the transgender community. Kubosh even says to the crowd that “God put him on Council to fight this ordinance.”

Well clearly after statements like the one above, there’s no further mystery about how Kubosh plans to vote. On a personal note, I never voted for Kubosh or supported his campaign, but was willing to attend the town hall and hope that he would be open-minded on these issues. I was dead wrong.

(Emphasis in the original.) Me too, I’m afraid. CM Kubosh’s vote isn’t needed to pass the NDO, but it’s unfortunate to see him line up against it, and against many residents of the city he was elected to represent. You can be sure people will remember this in 2015.

Time for the debate about debates to begin

It’s getting to be debating season.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis on Tuesday proposed a series of six debates with Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott in their race for governor.

Her proposal came after Abbott earlier said he had accepted two invitations for debates in McAllen in September and in Dallas in October.

Davis envisions a series of debates from July through October in the Rio Grande Valley, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston and Lubbock.

In a letter to Abbott dated Tuesday, she said she would like at least two of them to be issue-specific debates focused on education and economic opportunity.

Davis proposed at least two 90-minute town-hall formats “with a technology partner and social media engagement;” at least one community college with a local media partner “on a weekend so parents can attend;” and at least one English-Spanish simulcast.

I’ve got Davis’ letter to Abbott beneath the fold. It’s interesting to me that Abbott made the first move by accepting the media-sponsored debates in McAllen and Dallas. I suspect that’s one part confidence in his oratorial skills, one part bravado about “competing” for the Latino vote, and one part recognition that maybe he can’t hope to hide in a corner like Rick Perry did. Davis had already come under some questioning for not immediately jumping to accept the two debates on offer, but she apparently had bigger things in mind. Let’s see how Abbott plays it from here. The Austin Chronicle and the Monitor have more.

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Dewhurst admits he has no control over his campaign

I can’t think of any other way to characterize this.

So very sad

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Monday he was “appalled” by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson’s decision to publicize court filings detailing Dan Patrick’s past mental health issues and that he tried to put a stop to the initial document release as far back as two weeks ago.

In his first public comments since Patterson released documents to state media showing that Patrick was hospitalized and treated for severe depression and a suicide attempt in the 1980s, Dewhurst reiterated in an interview that his campaign had nothing to do with the attack.

Dewhurst, an 11-year incumbent reduced to the role of underdog heading into the May 27 runoff against Patrick, attempted to distance his campaign from the fallout that ensued following the release, saying he strongly advised Patterson against the dissemination of the court records weeks ago.

The rationale: Releasing sensitive documents aimed at damaging Patrick’s campaign could backfire and damage his own chances of winning re-election.

“Whatever you do could have some reflection on me,” Dewhurst said he told Patterson at the time, noting that he was not privy to the details of the documents. “I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Patterson, who initially said he could not recall the conversation with Dewhurst from two weeks ago, had a “memory recovery” later Monday that the incumbent was “unimpressed” when the two first talked about possible court documents earlier this month. He ended up bucking Dewhurst anyway, releasing hundreds of pages of documents to reporters late Thursday.

He followed with another document dump Friday, ignoring a second personal appeal from Dewhurst to refrain from releasing documents and even emailing reporters to say he “didn’t give a damn” about the lieutenant governor’s opinion.

“He was not happy about it,” Patterson said of his Friday conversation with Dewhurst.

See here for the background. All I can say is “seriously?” Dewhurst couldn’t get Patterson, who really wants him to win, to respect his opinion that this was a bad idea, and he didn’t have the cojones to make Patterson listen to him? Who’s in charge over there, anyway? All this assumes that you buy Dewhurst’s explanation that he was totally in the dark as to what Patterson had to leak out, a story that the Observer finds difficult to believe. Whatever it was that this was supposed to accomplish, it didn’t.

I shouldn’t be too surprised that this was the path taken, whether Dewhurst was directly involved or not. The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that most of the things that David Dewhurst could say about Dan Patrick that most normal people would think of as negatives, the people that will actually be voting in this runoff consider to be badges of honor. Calling someone a scum-sucking bottom feeder isn’t very effective as a line of attack if it’s what the voters want to vote for.

The editorial pages have been busy clucking their tongues over this, not that they really want to since they don’t much like Dan Patrick, either, but the DMN’s Rodger Jones raises an interesting point: Would news organizations have printed this information if they had dug it up for themselves? Almost certainly they would have. He puts it all in the context of nuance and big-picture-ness, but to me it’s simply a matter of stigmatization. Reporting that a candidate for political office had spent time in a mental health facility if that information had been part of a public record (as was the case here, since it came from a deposition in a lawsuit) is one thing. Painting it as something shameful is another. The shame belongs to Patterson and Dewhurst for their attempt to demonize Dan Patrick for one of the few things that aren’t unlovely about him. PDiddie, the Trib, and Campos have more.

The stars at night could use a little less competition

The stars at night may indeed be big and bright, but too much brightness here on earth makes them harder to see in the sky.

A West Texas astronomical observatory known for discovering the largest supermassive black hole is facing the threat of growing cities and increased oil and gas play lighting up the horizon.

McDonald Observatory celebrates 75 years of research and public outreach this year with a $30 million upgrade to its Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

“There will be discoveries coming out of this project we can’t even conceive of today,” said William Wren, special assistant to the observatory’s superintendent, noting the mountain of data will be publicly available.

But with West Texas cities booming – and drilling rigs lining the horizon of once desolate places – astronomers are worried about the impact of light on their research.

Even though it’s the farthest city, El Paso once had the biggest impact on the observatory.

“That was the brightest thing in our sky up until a few years ago,” Wren said. “Now the Permian Basin is lighting up our horizon.”

[…]

Oil and gas activity in the Wolfcamp-Spraberry play and Eagle Ford Shale now light up once dark areas of Texas. But Wren said the observatory isn’t pushing for nearby communities or oil and gas operations to “go dark” – just adopt better lightning practices.

“Light that is going up to the sky – it’s a waste. There’s no reason for it at all,” Wren said.

Good, safe outdoor lighting is possible, he said, pointing to Tucson, Arizona, and gas stations and convenience stores that have found success in switching to focused lighting or LEDs.

“Oftentimes it’s more cost efficient, reduces flare and increases visibility at night while keeping skies dark,” he said.

McDonald Observatory is also working with Pioneer Energy Services, a San Antonio company with a West Texas presence, to create a “dark-sky friendly” drilling rig.

See also this Observer story for more on the plight of West Texas’ not-so-dark-anymore skies. BeyondBones, the blog of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, recently provided five simple ways to cut down on light pollution. I’m a born-and-bred city boy, so I’m used to only seeing a few stars at night. I’ve never forgotten the time I traveled with the Trinity University baseball team to Kerrville for an afternoon-evening doubleheader, and being absolutely astounded at how full of stars the sky was 60 miles west of San Antonio. There’s getting to be fewer places in Texas where one can experience that, and it would be a shame for it to happen to the Observatory. The story mentioned the existence of a bill from the last Legislature that would have required seven counties to adopt ordinances that would help keep the Observatory in the dark, but there wasn’t enough information to go looking for it. I have no idea if such a bill might have a chance in 2015, but I’ll try to keep a lookout for it.

A letter to Ed Young

Found on Facebook, from an alumnus of Second Baptist School to Pastor Ed Young, reprinted in full because you need to see it.

Ed Young

MY LETTER TO THE SCHOOL ALUMNI ASSOCIATION:

Thank you again for featuring me in the Eagle magazine recently. It was an honor to be included.

A friend of mine forwarded the below email from Dr. Young. My understanding is that the letter was sent to the membership of the church. While the letter’s message does not surprise me, it deeply disappoints me.

I loved my time at Second Baptist School. I was a part of your community from kindergarten through my senior year of high school. I was class president, yearbook editor, drama club president, and actively gave my time and talents to my school. I am still in touch with many of my fellow alumni and several wonderful teachers. While I have numerous great memories of SBS, Dr. Young’s letter is a shining example of why I have been unable to support the school monetarily. There are many positive values taught at SBS, but it seems in the 28 years since my graduation, there has been no progress in Dr. Young’s hurtful teachings about gay and lesbian people.

The equality ordinance under consideration by the Houston City Council is more reflective of the teachings of Christ than the misleading and politicized letter from Dr. Young to the church’s members. The ordinance is designed to protect Houstonians from discrimination that would affect their livelihood and ability to have a roof over their heads. I was fired from my first job out of college, simply because the conservative Christian president of the company found out that I was a gay man. For Second Baptist to take a strong stand in favor of this kind of discrimination seems profoundly out of line with the teachings of Jesus. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not reflected in denying people employment.

To say Americans have a right to refuse service to people who are gay also feels highly out of line with the teachings of Christ. Does Dr. Young feel the same about American’s rights to refuse service to people of a different ethnicity? Would he write a letter encouraging policy that would allow business owners to refuse service to someone of a different faith? Of course not. This is specifically about the demonization of LGBT people.

To imply that this ordinance is designed to legalize the actions of sexual predators might be politically effective, however, it’s not true. Predatory behavior and sexual assault will still be quite illegal in Houston. I have to assume Dr. Young is smart enough to know that and was willing to dial up the rhetoric to accomplish his goal.

Most of all, I am concerned for the young gay and lesbian people who are in the care of Second Baptist, both the school and the church. This aggressive political agenda from Dr. Young only serves to teach them that they are less than worthy in the eyes of their community, and it encourages their families to alienate their own children, based on misinformation and fear. The suicide rate of gay youth, often from religious families, is still far too high for caring Christians to remain silent.

I do not write this letter out of spite; I genuinely care about the school where I spent 13 years of my life. I encourage Dr. Young, Second Baptist School and Second Baptist Church to be less concerned with “daring to be Daniel” and more concerned with immolating Christ. When the school reflects these values, I will be more than happy to become an avid donor.

Best Regards,
Kyle Young
Class of 1986

Bravo, Kyle Young. I can only wonder what Ed Young (I presume there’s no relation) would say to you if he had the guts to say to your face what he’s been saying to others.

The Senate is likely to get stupider again

The cause.

Sen. Robert Duncan

The Texas Tech University System Board of Regents officially named state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, the sole finalist to be the system’s next chancellor in a press release issued Monday afternoon.

Duncan is expected to start in his new position on July 1. A special election will have to be held to replace him, and at least one candidate — state Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock — has already announced an intention to run.

“To be able to serve the great universities in the Texas Tech University System is a tremendous honor for me and my family,” Duncan said in a statement. “I love the people of West Texas and will devote all of my energy to continue to grow the reputations for excellence of all the universities in the system.”

Mickey Long, the chairman of the Texas Tech board, expressed delight that, though the regents undertook a national search for the replacement for outgoing chancellor Kent Hance, they ended up with a new chancellor with strong personal ties to the region and to Texas Tech University.

The effect.

If current trends hold, [Duncan] may well be replaced by a tea party fire-breather for a 2015 session that will be seriously deficient in “credibility, calm, and collegiality.” Here’s another way to think about that: The Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones created an ideological pecking order of the Texas Senate after last session. He compared votes and identified the most liberal (relatively speaking) and conservative senators.

There were 19 GOP senators last session. Of the six most moderate, only three will be left next session. It’s possible that there will be only two. Duncan is leaving, and state Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) already left, each to take a university job. State Sen. John Carona, the most moderate according to Jones’ standard, lost a re-election bid.

State Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) faces a surprisingly competitive primary runoff against a challenger with an extremely problematic personal history; that contest will be resolved May 27. That leaves only state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), who squeaked past a surprisingly competitive primary challenge of his own, and state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler).

If he wins next week’s lieutenant governor runoff, Dan Patrick has talked about ending the senate’s two-thirds rule and stripping all committee chairmanships from Democrats, which would turn the chamber, effectively, into his own private club. As if that weren’t enough, the bottom third of Jones’ chart—the small group of plugged-in, moderate Republicans—is fading away. In 2011, Texas Monthly wrote that “legislatures can’t function without members like Robert Duncan.” It looks like we’ll soon find out if that’s true.

You don’t have to buy Mark Jones’ ideology-identifying methodology to recognize that Sen. Duncan is in the increasingly smaller “let’s get something done” bucket on the Republican side of the Senate. We already know what we’re getting from some of the replacement Republican Senators, and the possible additions of Deuell’s completely unhinged challenger – who would be elected, it must be noted, by equally unhinged voters – and teabagger Rep. Charles Perry if he wins the future special election in SD28 – will only serve to make it worse. Duncan had long been expected to be the next head of Texas Tech and I will wish him well in his new job, but his good fortune will not be good for the rest of us.

We could have better transportation infrastructure if we wanted it

House Speaker Joe Straus embraces the end-the-diversions approach to transportation funding.

BagOfMoney

Texas’ booming economy and massive transportation needs are inching the state toward simplifying highway spending, officials say.

The latest move to end so-called diversions from the State Highway Fund came Wednesday, when Speaker Joe Straus said the next Texas budget proposed by the House will dedicate all the money from the fund to transportation.

“This approach will make the state budget even more straightforward, just as taxpayers expect,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a news release. “It will also provide needed transportation revenue – without a tax increase.”

The highway fund, amassed from state gasoline tax revenues and fees for services like driver’s license renewals and vehicle registrations, goes mostly to the Texas Department of Transportation. Some of the money, however, goes to law enforcement or other uses.

Shifting all the money to transportation would give TxDOT an additional $1.3 billion, Straus’ office said. Other money would be found for the budgets affected, Straus said, although he did not specify a source.

EoW is also on this. Let’s be clear about two things. One is that this doesn’t actually solve the problem of insufficient funding for transportation in Texas. It helps, sure, but it’s not enough. There’s still a gap, which includes paying off a ton of bond debt, and closing that gap involves the same choices that the Lege has studiously avoided making so far. And two, the impression I have always gotten is that the way that “other money would be found” would be by cutting it from other parts of the budget. You don’t think they’d increase spending by $1.3 billion and not offset it somewhere else, do you? We’re likely to have a big enough surplus this biennium to reduce the appetite for that kind of mindless cutting, but there’s also going to be a lot of pressure for mindless tax cutting, and you can imagine what will be more popular. So if this isn’t a stealth budget cut, and if it isn’t a declaration of victory for transportation spending, then it’s OK. If not, we’re being sold a bill of goods.

Meanwhile, the federal government has its own funding problems for transportation.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday tried to turn up the election-year heat on Republicans by demanding fast-track congressional action to finance multi-year bridge and highway projects that are jeopardized by the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.

The president made his partisan pitch on the banks of the Hudson River in Tarrytown, N.Y., with the deteriorating 58-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge as a backdrop to underscore the price of election-year inaction by Congress.

The 4.9-mile bridge north of New York City is being replaced in a $3.9 billion federal-state project.

Obama said unnamed Republican lawmakers are voting against transportation spending yet willing to take credit at the projects’ ribbon-cutting ceremonies. “They are more interested in saying ‘no’ because they are worried that maybe they’d have to be at a bill signing with me,” Obama said.

Without congressional action to beef up the hard-pressed Highway Trust Fund, money for transportation projects will “run out” by the end of summer, Obama warned. “The cupboard will be bare.”

That could imperil 700,000 jobs, potentially risking continuation of 112,000 active road and bridge projects as well as 5,600 transit projects, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has warned.

Texas has a great deal at stake, receiving about $3.2 billion a year from the federal government for transportation projects. That amounts to roughly 35 percent of the state’s annual spending on projects.

[…]

Sen. John Cornyn said the bipartisan Senate measure being marked up on Capitol Hill on Thursday still faces scrutiny and tinkering by other committees with jurisdiction, including the Senate Finance Committee. Cornyn, R-Texas, is a member of the 26-member panel that will come up with the funding mechanism for the measure, whether a gasoline tax hike, corporate tax “reform” or permission for states to impose tolls.

“As a first step, it is my hope that the bill will be improved as it moves through the committee process,” said Cornyn, the second in command in the Senate GOP leadership. “Congress must be willing to do the hard work of reforming our distorted federal aid system and addressing the solvency of the Trust Fund on a long-term basis.”

The two situations aren’t exactly the same, as there isn’t a quick and easy partial fix available to Congress. But the same comprehensive fix exists for each. Unfortunately, so does the stubborn resistance to it. I don’t foresee that resistance being overcome any time soon.

The other reason why Huy Fong won’t move to Texas

In a word, water.

Huy Fong Foods, which is staying put for now, is different from Toyota and other companies that have recently been wooed or moved to Texas. It is an agribusiness, relying on thousands of tons of local fresh chiles to operate. And in rapidly growing Texas, where the population is approaching 90 percent urban, some farming advocates complain that agriculture is being left behind in the scramble to accommodate growth. That is especially true when it comes to water policy, water planning specialists say.

“One of the dominant water management strategies for meeting future water supply needs is a conversion away from agriculture” in Texas and most of the West, said Bill Mullican, a former state water planner in Texas who now writes plans for nearby states.

With that in mind, he said, “if you’re going to bring agribusiness to Texas, I would think that you want to focus on those activities that were not water-dependent or at least heavily water-dependent.”

[…]

Most of the stories of Texas agriculture recently have been about high-profile closings and economic losses in the midst of drought, including the loss of a Cargill beef processing plant that employed more than 2,000 people in the Panhandle and the decimation of the Gulf Coast rice processing industry.

Some legislators have suggested that certain crops should not be grown in Texas at all. As the reservoirs that supply both Austin and rice farmers downstream continue to shrink, Austin-area lawmakers argue that growing rice requires too much water, and that those who live and do business alongside the reservoirs have more economic muscle. Along the Brazos River basin, Texas regulators prioritized cities and power plants over rice growers when the river’s users were asked to cut back.

“You already hear in the political realm, ‘Well, agriculture uses 95 percent of the water. We just need to turn the irrigation wells off,’” said Darren Hudson, an agricultural economist at Texas Tech University. “Those conflicts are going to just intensify.”

Villalba has suggested that the red jalapeño peppers needed to supply Huy Fong could be grown in the Rio Grande Valley. But the water rights system there, the result of a court case from the 1950s, prioritizes municipal use over agriculture.

“Agriculture is basically the user of last resort. They get what water is not for cities,” said Ray Prewett, the executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association, which is based in the border city of Mission. Even before the drought, agriculture in the region had suffered because of dwindling water supplies and urbanization, Prewett said. Farmers have found it more profitable to sell their water rights to growing cities, and to shift to dryland farming, which pays more in crop insurance.

Water for cities is also much more highly valued than irrigation water, according to the 2012 state water plan. The plan forecasts a shortfall of 260,000 acre-feet of agricultural water in the Rio Grande region by 2060, resulting in a loss of $48 million and 655 jobs. The water deficit for municipal users in the region is slightly above that, but its estimated impact is much greater — $2.2 billion and 54,000 jobs lost.

[…]

While chiles are a relatively drought-tolerant crop, requiring far less water than rice, other issues the agricultural industry faces could create problems. Ben Villalon, a well-known horticulturalist from Texas A&M University dubbed “Dr. Pepper” for his expertise in growing chiles, said chiles are largely gone from Texas because of higher labor costs and the difficulty of finding farm workers. Most Texas Republicans favor immigration policies that could further tighten the farm labor supply.

“It’s a sinking boat,” Villalon said. “They’ll never make it. The money’s just not there. It’s not profitable anymore.” Huy Fong’s pepper supplier has used mechanization and other techniques to cut costs, and in 2011, chile yields per acre were almost 10 times higher in California than in Texas.

See here for prior Sriracha blogging. I don’t really have a point to make about this, I just thought it was a useful perspective that hasn’t exactly been prominent amid the drama and the flood of Texas-versus-California stories. Besides, there’s nothing new to report since the Texas delegation visited the plant last week – the city of Irwindale still hasn’t taken action that might force Huy Fong’s hand, and may yet delay that decision again for at least another week – so here’s a picture of Rep. Jason Villalba in a hairnet to keep you amused until there is something new to note.

Falkenberg on Wilson and the NDO

Lisa Falkenberg weighs in on the “Reverend RJ Ballard” email.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

The e-mail is the handiwork of Houstonians for Family Values, the group affiliated with none other than Dave Wilson. You may remember him as the old white anti-gay activist who got elected to the Houston Community College board last year in a predominantly black district by leading voters to believe he was black.

He’s still up to his old tricks. He told me this week he’s gotten 10,000 signatures for his anti-ordinance petition, and he’s getting ready to drop a new batch of mail.

“What’s the old adage?” he said, almost gleefully. “Strike while the hammer is hot?”

Yes, this is the guy speaking for “the families.” An affable but bigoted trouble-maker who deals in racial caricatures, and his little friend – Portrait of Man Pointing.

As it happens, the Chron ran a correction on Saturday, which noted that while Wilson did indeed send an email campaigning against the NDO, he denied having sent this particular email that I’ve now reviewed twice. Falkenberg called me on Friday to give me a heads up about that since I had forwarded the email to her and pointed out some of its obvious falsehoods. I looked over the email again after I got her message, and when I called her back I told her that it was possible he was telling the truth. The reason for that, which I hadn’t given any thought to till her call, was that the email in question was sent via Mail Chimp, which as we know from before isn’t secure. Well, crap.

I hadn’t given the matter any thought before this because unlike our previous experience with mysterious Mail Chimp emails, this could hardly be an attempt to slander Dave Wilson. As noted in the correction, Wilson agreed with what was said in the “Reverend RJ Ballard” email and made similar points in the email he did admit to sending. Why would anyone pretend to be Dave Wilson for these purposes? If this was a forgery – and while I have no inclination to give Dave Wilson the benefit of the doubt, I also can’t think of a reason why he’d bother to lie about this – it had to be deliberate – why else include Wilson’s mailing address in the email? I’ve thought about it all weekend, and I can come up with three semi-plausible scenarios:

– The email was sent by someone who has a public reputation for being pro-equality but who secretly wants the NDO to be defeated, and so sent this out under the cover of a well-known bigot figuring his or her tracks would be covered. It sounds even less believable having typed that sentence than it did in my head, but it was the first thing I came up with, so there you have it.

– It was sent by some other Anglo conservative in an attempt to mobilize a group with which he or she has no credibility or influence, done more as a flattering imitation of Dave Wilson than as a forgery. I can almost believe that, but I still get hung up on why the author would bother to include Wilson’s address. You’re already sending it out under a phony name, why confuse things by pointing a finger at someone? Maybe the answer to that is that the sender knew that some smartypants on the Internet would make the Wilson connection and that would serve to amplify the effect of the email. I guess that’s possible, but I’m reluctant to give this hypothetical second emailer that much credit for intelligence.

– Finally, perhaps it was sent by a supporter of the NDO who feared that energy among its proponents was flagging, and s/he thought this might be a shot in the arm for their advocacy efforts. Seems pretty convoluted and with a potentially high downside, but I suppose someone could see it that way. For what it’s worth, even after the second delay, I haven’t seen any signs of proponents losing fervor for the fight, but perhaps someone else saw that differently.

As before, we’ll likely never know the answer to this. If you think you know something about it, by all means leave a comment or drop me an email. And for the record, while Wilson’s denial is plausible, I’m not ready to let him off the hook. Even if he didn’t send this, one way or another he inspired who sent it.

Back to Falkenberg’s column, and her conversation with one of the email’s targets, CM Jerry Davis. Davis says what needs to be said about this:

“The god I serve, to me, loves everyone,” Davis said. “And it’s hard for me to believe that he’s telling me to discriminate against people.”

Yet, his constituents are saying something different: When he polled them, 47 percent came out against the ordinance and about 30 percent for it.

Then there’s other feedback: “Some of the phone calls I’ve received in the last few weeks, it sounds like the same group of people who said ‘we believe in equal rights, but not for blacks; they weren’t meant to be equal to us.’ ”

And isn’t that the classic argument? We believe in rights. Just not for those people.

“I want to make sure I’m not one of those persons who are doing that,” Davis told me.

Good for you, Jerry Davis. People certainly do make some ridiculous arguments when they try to argue against the basic humanity of others. The website Good As You caught a great example of that during the Council meeting, in which CM Ellen Cohen got Pastor Becky Riggle to admit that opponents of the NDO like herself was equally arguing for the right to discriminate against people whose religion they disagreed with. You’d think with all the huffing and puffing lately about folks like Condoleeza Rice beind denied the right to collect a fat speaker’s fee at a commencement ceremony that it might occur to the Becy Riggles of the world that a right to discriminate includes the right to discriminate against them, but somehow that connection never gets made. Just another downside to lacking empathy, I suppose.

Why revenue caps suck

I’ve been expecting this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Despite a booming economy that is the envy of much of the nation, the city of Houston could face hundreds of layoffs and cuts in service next year as it runs headlong into a revenue cap put in place by voters a decade ago.

Mayor Annise Parker sounded the alarm Thursday as she rolled out her plan for a $5.2 billion overall budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Driven by soaring pension costs, contractual raises for employees and the increased cost of servicing the city’s debt, the proposed budget envisions an 8 percent increase in the general fund, which is fed chiefly by property and sales taxes and funds most basic city services.

The spending plan would expand single-stream recycling to all households, add $10 million for pothole and street repairs in addition to what will be spent through the ReBuild Houston program, and provide a $2.6 million increase for the city’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care.

The real challenges, Parker and others said, await next year, with the fiscal year 2016 budget and beyond.

The hot economy is, in some sense, to blame, as sprinting increases in property values are expected to run the city smack into the decade-old, voter-approved cap on revenues that would force a cut in the property tax rate, carving millions of dollars from the budget.

Combined with weaknesses that have lurked on the balance sheet for years, primarily soaring pension payments and a spike in servicing the city’s debt over the next four years, Parker said conversations with the council and public on how to address the shortfall must begin now.

“I’ll be very clear: If the cap stays in and there are no other sources of revenue, there will be layoffs,” Parker said. “The Houston economy is going to continue to grow. We have held the line on taxes, and yet, there’s a forced tax rollback just when there’s more and more demand for services. The options are raise revenue, cut spending, both, or go to the voters in 2015 and amend the charter.”

The cap holds city property tax revenues to the combined rates of inflation and population increases.

If voters reject any changes – such as raising the cap for public safety spending, as former Mayor Bill White did – Parker said cuts could be nearly as drastic as when 776 workers were let go during the recession in 2010.

You can see the expenditure summary here and the Mayor’s press release here. I’ve been fearing this problem for some time now. Back in 2010, when Mayor Parker was grappling with the giant budget shortfall that resulted from the depressed economy, her team put out a graphic “balance the budget” tool that allowed you to decide how to apportion the shortfall. It did have an option built in to raise revenues, but as the tool was constructed you could only fill in part of the hole by raising taxes or whatever. The reason for that is the revenue cap, passed in 2004, that limits annual increases in property tax revenue and water and sewer rates to the combined increases of population and inflation for Houston or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. Are you experiencing bad times and need more revenue to avoid cutting staff and programs? Too bad. Are you in good times and would like to invest in infrastructure or pay down long-term debt with the bundles of extra property tax revenue rolling in? Too bad, you have to cut the tax rate. If that forces cuts elsewhere because costs increased faster than the artificial limit you imposed on revenue growth, too bad. Is this a great idea or what?

City Finance Department Director Kelly Dowe said he will order departments to seek efficiencies, but that will not bridge the gap; nor will fee increases. The city cannot fix its pensions or the revenue cap by itself, he added, leaving only cuts to services or extending debt payments to a future’s mayor’s term, which Parker won’t do.

Just such a debt bubble, created by past refinancings, is coming due over the next four years. General obligation debt payments will jump from $297 million this fiscal year to $355 million by fiscal 2018 before falling.

White’s 2006 maneuver to increase the original 2004 revenue cap by $90 million for public safety spending simply “delayed the day of reckoning,” Dowe said.

“Here we are, public safety costs have gone up $90 million over the 2006 to 2014 time frame,” he said. “It’s going to be up to everyone to decide whether what seemed like a good idea in 2004 is really a good idea in 2014.”

Yeah, well, some of us thought this was a lousy idea back in 2004. The projection of what may be to come in 2015 was entirely predictable in 2004. We’re likely to get sidetracked from here into another squabble over the firefighters’ pension fund. I don’t have the patience to adjudicate this again, I just care about dealing with that stupid revenue cap. I’m glad to see Mayor Parker bring it up, and I hope she does turn her attention to it one we pass the NDO and get past the Uber/Lyft battle.

What is the deal with Vanguard funding?

It started with an urgent action email sent to Travis Elementary School parents:

As you may have heard, the Houston ISD Board’s proposed budget for the 2014-15 school year would eliminate HISD Vanguard Magnet funding. These drastic cuts would threaten the viability of the Vanguard program at Travis. (see the April 24 Budget and PUA Workshop: www.houstonisd.org/page/32539). In addition to the loss of Vanguard funding, the budget as proposed would eliminate the beloved and valuable HISD-owned Camp Olympia. This is a perennial tradition for 5th graders to spend 3-4 days camping and having hands-on nature and science experiences.

The Vanguard Magnet funding is used by Travis to fund various staff positions and under the proposed budget this funding would be eliminated, thus threatening the unique programs that directly support the Vanguard curriculum and reach every student at Travis. The proposed 2014-15 HISD budget will be presented during the HISD Board meeting THIS Thursday night, May 8th at 5pm and may be presented for a final vote at the June HISD Board meeting.

If you follow that link and open the April 24 Budget and PUA Workshop PDF file, you’ll see the proposed zeroing out of Vanguard funding on page 14. It’s part of a budget priorities exercise, where various choices are presented with their respective costs or savings, and my reaction when I saw it was that it looked more like a theoretical scenario than a for-serious proposal. I have to think that a truly serious proposal to do this might have been reported on before now, and might have generated a bit of pushback from the various trustees whose schools would take the brunt of that change. This Chron story from April 24 adds some context to the discussion:

Under the proposal, HISD would eliminate extra magnet funding to Vanguard campuses, such as Carnegie Vanguard High School, but would continue to provide busing for those students, officials said. The amount of extra money those schools receive varies by campus.

Vanguard schools would continue to receive the roughly $400 extra that the state provides for each child who qualifies as gifted and talented. District-funded allotments for other magnets would be standardized, including $350 extra for each Montessori student and $50 extra per student at other magnets.

The proposed magnet funding-formula overhaul also gives $1,000 per student at DeBakey High School and $50 per student to International Baccalaureate schools.

“We don’t want people sitting here thinking we’re trying to destroy Vanguard,” Grier added.

Mission not accomplished there, if the email from Travis is any indication. In any event, after this K12 Zone post from May 8 that included the line “cuts to Vanguard funding are on the table” at the end, there weren’t any stories in the Chronicle that I could find, but there were a cople of subsequent K12Zone posts that explained what did happen. The first post reported that the cuts were targeted and limited.

The budget proposal also includes new, standard funding formulas for the district’s specialty magnet programs. The changes are not expected to save the district money but will make the funding more equitable, Grier said.

Grier’s proposal last month would have eliminated funding for the district’s Vanguard magnet programs for gifted students, raising concerns from parents. The new plan would fund those programs at $410 a student. Schools also get another $406 per gifted student based on state funding rules.

A subsequent post went into more detail.

Under HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s latest proposal for magnet funding, roughly two-thirds of programs would see more money while the others would receive less. The changes vary widely.

The gains and losses wouldn’t take effect immediately. Grier’s plan calls for the schools to receive 25 percent of their increase or decrease next school year and the rest in 2015-16.

T.H. Rogers, a combined elementary and middle school with a Vanguard magnet program for gifted students, would take the biggest hit, losing more than $953,000, according to data provided by HISD on Thursday evening. The big loss appears to come because the school had been receiving a special pot of money outside of the normal magnet funding stream for years. (For those in the know, this is called the unique per-unit allocation). The Rice School would lose more than $436,000.

Lanier Middle School, also a Vanguard magnet, would see the biggest bump, an increase of nearly $348,000. Lanier parents and others at Vanguard schools lobbied the school board after Grier’s proposal last month called for eliminating funding for the Vanguard magnet programs.

By all accounts, the current magnet funding system is haphazard. Grier’s proposal calls for funding magnet programs based on their theme, such as fine arts or Vanguard, on a per-pupil basis. That, of course, means that programs with more students get more money. Each program also would get a base amount of $52,820, typically to employ a coordinator over the magnet program.

[…]

Grier’s April proposal called for a cost savings of about $3 million for the magnet programs. He and the district’s financial chief, Kenneth Huewitt, said the new plan keeps funding about the same, with local property tax values higher than earlier estimates.

Both posts have tables that give all the relevant numbers, so go click over and see for yourself what the details are. I know a lot of parents responded to emails and Facebook posts about this threatened cut. A petition against such a cute collected nearly 500 signatures in a few days. I could be wrong, but I’ve come to the conclusion based on the overall lack of communication about this that it was never a serious proposal to gut Vanguard funding. Reading these K12 Zone posts, I get where Grier is coming from, but the lack of explanation about how the original and final figures were determined leaves me perplexed. It would be nice to get some kind of official word about this, if only so that we’re better prepared for this kind of discussion in the future. Hair Balls has more.

Early voting begins today for primary runoffs

From the inbox:

EarlyVoting

Harris County voters can prepare to vote in the May 27 Democratic and Republican Primary Runoff Elections by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com to view the contests which will appear on their ballot. Early Voting for the Primary Runoff Elections begins on Monday, May 19 and continues until Friday, May 23. During this period, 39 early voting locations will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. to serve the over 2 million registered voters in Harris County. Keep in mind, Election Day, May 27th, is the day after Memorial Day.

All voters are encouraged to vote early at one of the 39 early voting locations because the number of Election Day polling locations has been significantly reduced by the Democratic and Republican Parties to 12% of the usual number of polls on Election Day. Many voters will have to travel further than normal to vote on Election Day. To find all early voting locations and specific Election Day polling locations, visit www.HarrisVotes.com.

“Voters can use the “Find Your Poll and Ballot” link at www.HarrisVotes.com to print out their own personal ballot to review before going to the poll,” said Harris County Clerk Stanart, who is also the county’s Chief Elections Officer. All Democratic Party voters will have the same ballot in Harris County. For the Republican Party, there are 11 contests; 4 of which are not county-wide.

“The County Clerk’s Office has provided an enormous amount of information for the voters on our website to increase the voter’s knowledge and accessibility to the polls,” added Stanart. “Timely information about elections can be received by following our office on twitter @HarrisVotes.”

Stanart reminds voters “If you voted in the March Primary, you are only able to vote in the same party’s election for the Primary Runoff. If you did not participate in either Parties March 4th Election and are eligible to vote, you may participate in the Runoff Primary of your party choice.”

To view the early voting schedule, a list of acceptable forms of Photo ID that can be presented to vote at the poll, Election Day polling locations and other voting information, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call 713.755.6965.

See here for early voting locations and hours – it’s 7 AM to 7 PM each day. Two things to emphasize: There are only five days of early voting. It starts today and ends Friday. Runoff Day is Tuesday, May 27, which as noted is the day after Memorial Day, and you can expect that only a handful of precinct voting locations will be open. It’s very much in your interest to vote early if you plan to vote. I plan to do sol, and I’ll be voting for David Alameel and Kinky Friedman. I don’t expect a lot of company. From the Chron story, which is mostly about how the air will be a little safer to breathe once the toxic GOP Lite Guv runoff has finally concluded, comes this prediction about turnout:

Despite all of those races, and dozens of local ones – including for two Harris County state representatives and four Harris County judges – officials are expecting a very low turnout.

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart is predicting that, at most, 75,000 Republicans and 20,000 Democrats will cast ballot, less than 5 percent of the county’s 2 million registered voters.

Stanart speculated that more than half of voters will vote early or by mail, a route that is becoming increasingly common.

“Historically, primary runoffs tend to not have a large number of people,” Stanart said. “But you never know what’s going to drive people to the polls.”

The only local runoffs in Harris County are Republican runoffs. We Dems only have the two statewide races. There are Dem runoffs for State Rep in Dallas and El Paso, but anything beyond that will be for local races. Be that as it may, I think Stanart’s prediction for Dem turnout may be a tad optimistic. The Harris County turnout for the “>2006 Democratic primary runoff, which also featured two low profile statewide races plus two local races, one of which was the fairly high-interest HD146 battle between Al Edwards and Borris Miles, was a pitiful 13,726. (GOP runoff turnout was even lower, but then their races that year were even lower profile.) I’d bet the under on a Dem turnout projection of 20,000, but I’ll buy that half or more of the voters will show up before May 27. Feel free to do your part to make my predictions look foolish.

Weekend link dump for May 18

So, what should HBO do when Game of Thrones catches up to the books?

And what does an old episode of The Simpsons have to do with the civil war in Syria?

“All the papers and history of singer-songwriter Willie Nelson won’t be on the road again, but have found a permanent home at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas.”

“Some places in the US already allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields, and red lights as stop signs, and these rules are no more dangerous — and perhaps even a little safer — than the status quo.”

“A 50,000 year-old indigenous Native American tribe that has weathered the conquistadors, numerous wars with the Europeans, the American Revolution and the Civil War is now fighting to preserve its language and culture by embracing modern technology.”

On playing the Mom card.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, Godzilla keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Happy 89th birthday, Yogi Berra!

Forty years of Emacs versus Vi. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re not as big a geek as you think you are.

On Emily Letts and the reactions to her.

On Rand Paul and his newfound opposition to voter ID.

Sales of Michael Sam uniforms are sky high. Suck it, haters.

The number of uninsured people being admitted to hospitals declines dramatically in states that expanded Medicaid. Nobody could have seen that coming!

Reports of Rand Paul opposing voter ID were greatly exaggerated. Quelle surprise.

Don’t mess with Godzilla’s lawyer.

Ann Coulter’s hashtag fail.

“Five months into the biggest expansion of health coverage in 50 years — with about 13 million people enrolled in private insurance and Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — there are few reports of patients facing major delays getting care, say officials from more than two dozen health centers and multi-group practices, as well as insurers and physician groups in nine big states.”

RIP, H.R. Giger, surrealist artists and “Alien” designer.

“Tales of someone doing something unbelievably stupid or selfish or irrational are often told because they can help someone else get rich or get elected.”

Quantifying the rage factor of intentional walks.

(One person’s opinion of) the ten most overrated cult films. FWIW, I remember seeing “Eraserhead” in college and thinking it was boring.

What do you give the person that has everything? Their own super PAC, apparently.

They are coming for your birth control. This cannot be said often enough.

Castro to DC?

The hot rumor going around is that San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is being vetted for a Cabinet position in the Obama administration.

Mayor Julian Castro

For the second time in two years, President Barack Obama has offered Julián Castro a chance to serve in his Cabinet, and the mayor has signaled his willingness to begin a swift process of confirmation to the post, knowledgeable sources say.

The process includes a vetting of Castro by the FBI — which has begun — and a Senate confirmation hearing, expected to conclude within months.

Castro, whose mayoral tenure thrust him into the national spotlight, refused to comment Friday. It was unclear what post the president has offered the Democratic stalwart.

Castro’s departure from San Antonio for the nation’s capital, where he would join his twin, Rep. Joaquin Castro, would come five years after he first was elected mayor, and one year before he could run for re-election to a final two-year term at City Hall.

Obama gauged Castro’s interest in serving as transportation secretary last year, but the mayor declined.

Publicly, Castro has said he plans to serve as mayor here as long as the voters would have him. In private conversations, though, he’s said an offer from the president to serve as education secretary would have proven tougher to turn down.

Also tough to turn down is a chance to run as nominee for vice president alongside Hillary Clinton.

[…]

The president’s offer last year for Castro to join his Cabinet was poor timing: The mayor was on the cusp of seeking re-election to a third term at City Hall.

Former Mayor Henry Cisneros, a mentor to Castro who accepted an offer to join President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet after his own mayoral tenure, disapproved at the time of Castro’s decision.

Cisneros served as secretary of housing and urban development from 1993 to 1997 and was interviewed for a spot on Walter Mondale’s ticket in 1984. Mondale opted, though, for the first female nominee, Geraldine Ferraro.

“I advised that he accept a position for President Obama,” Cisneros told the New York Times. “I thought that if he was going to be vice presidential material in 2016, then he needed to be more than mayor at that time.”

Via the Trib, the Times confirms the rumors and names the Cabinet position.

President Obama intends to choose Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio as the secretary of housing and urban development in a cabinet reshuffling, according to Democrats informed about the plans.

Mr. Castro, who has often been mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate for the Democrats, would take the place of Shaun Donovan, who would move to head the Office of Management and Budget. That job is being vacated by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, whom Mr. Obama has nominated as secretary of health and human services.

The White House refused to comment. But the president’s move to elevate a high-profile Hispanic official to his cabinet comes as his attempt to push an immigration overhaul through Congress appears to be stymied and as he considers easing the number of deportations of illegal immigrants.

That would appear to be that. We’ll see how his confirmation hearings go. After his recent debate with Dan Patrick, I can only imagine the grandstanding and petty point-scoring opportunities there will be for Ted Cruz.

Naturally, this appointment has everyone thinking of the future. Does this increase the odds of Castro being on the ticket with Hillary Clinton in 2016? I’m going to say maybe a little, since at least it will give the DC insiders a chance to scope him out and render an opinion that’s microscopically better informed than what they would have about him otherwise. On the other hand, HUD isn’t exactly a high-profile position – like being an NFL lineman or a baseball umpire, one mostly gets noticed as HUD Secretary when one screws up – and the VP speculation game is almost entirely a bunch of blather anyway. Hillary, if she runs, will pick who she wants; the rest of us are just nattering for the sake of being heard.

Of more immediate interest is who would succeed Castro as Mayor of San Antonio. The Rivard Report gives a bit of background on that.

The news has upended San Antonio politics like no other time in memory, setting off a scramble on City Council, whose 10 members will decide for themselves who will serve as mayor for the rest of Castro’s unexpired third term.The mayor does not get to vote on his successor. In theory, the Council could nominate a non-Council member to serve out the term, but that would not happen unless a prolonged deadlock prevented a council member from winning a majority of six votes.

Another story to be posted on the Rivard Report will look at the likely candidates who want to succeed Castro as mayor for here, and how the votes might fall in the scramble.

Castro’s decision will lead many to say he is putting his own political ambitions ahead of his promise to remain mayor of San Antonio “as long as the voters will have me,” which he has stated on the Rivard Report in the past when speculation arose about him joining a re-elected President Obama for a second term cabinet post.

Here’s that subsequent story. I don’t know the players in San Antonio, so I have no idea how that will play out. As far as the “putting his own political ambitions ahead of his promise to remain mayor of San Antonio” bit goes, well yeah, he is doing that. So would 99.9% of anyone else in that position. The question is whether people perceive him as sniffing around and begging for whatever happens to come up, or if they think he was just in the right place at the right time when a great opportunity presented itself. I’m sure we’ll know more about that soon enough. Wonkblog has more.

Judge prevents state from intervening in same sex divorce case

Back off, Greg Abbott.

RedEquality

A San Antonio judge Wednesday denied a bid from the state of Texas to stop divorce and child-custody proceedings between a same-sex couple.

State District Judge Barbara Nellermoe also set a custody hearing for May 29 in which Kristi Lesh and Allison Flood Lesh will fight over custody of their nearly 15-month-old daughter. The two women were legally married in Washington in 2010.

Nellermoe previously had ruled that Texas’ restrictions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, and her latest ruling prevented the state from intervening as a party in the women’s court battle.

“It’s a huge victory,” said attorney Deanna Whitley, who with Judith K. Wemmert, represents Flood Lesh. “She knocked the state of Texas out of the lawsuit.”

The lawyers said they are hoping to quickly reunite Flood Lesh with her daughter, who she hasn’t seen since Nov. 3.

Among the arguments by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office was that Nellermoe had no jurisdiction, and that the state should be allowed into the suit because it has an interest in defending the state’s ban on gay marriage.

[…]

In the state case, Abbott’s office has also argued that Nellermoe went beyond her rights as a district judge in declaring that sections of the Texas Family Code and state constitution violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

His office in late April obtained a temporary halt to Nellermoe’s prior decision, but Wednesday’s ruling kicks the state out of the lawsuit and allows the custody proceedings to go ahead — barring any other order from a higher court that’s also taking up similar cases, lawyers for both women said.

“As we stand here today, same-sex marriage is not recognized and those issues are on appeal,” Efron said. “What they’re trying to do is create a whole new category of standing of who can initiate a custody case. … We shouldn’t be there (in a custody hearing).”

Nellermoe’s rulings could “open up a floodgate” of gay divorce and custody battles in Bexar County and elsewhere, Efron said.

See here for the background. If this does “open up a floodgate” of such battles, it’s unfortunate for the couples that are no longer together and their children, but it’s infinitely better for them to have access to the legal process to settle disputes and divide property and determine custody and visitation for the kids. We’ll see if this order gets halted on appeals as well.

Steve Stockman’s ongoing FEC issues

“Steve Stockman” and “ethical issues” go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Steve Stockman doing his best Joe Cocker impersonation

For a congressman who has overseen four campaign committees in two decades, Rep. Steve Stockman is having a hard time dissolving his troubled congressional campaign.

Now a lame duck, the Clear Lake Republican first tried on April 16 to terminate Friends of Congressman Steve Stockman, the committee he used before challenging Sen. John Cornyn in the recent Republican Senate primary. But the Federal Election Commission refused to allow the termination, sending two letters last week to the Stockman campaign.

The first threatened legal action. At issue were contributions the campaign had received in the last quarter of 2013 and earmarked for expenses related to the 2014 general election. But by challenging Cornyn, Stockman relinquished any chance of being on the ballot to represent the 36th Congressional district in November 2014.

“Since the candidate is not seeking office and will not participate in the general election, any contribution received for the general election must be returned to the donors,” the FEC’s letter reads. “Although the Commission may take further legal action, your prompt action to refund these contributions will be taken into consideration.”

Stockman’s campaign apparently owes Rep. Eric Cantor’s PAC $5,000, which he may or may not be able to pay back because his campaign has no money, according to its most recent filings. Except that his most recent filings were riddled with errors and omissions, which is what the second letter is about. Maybe the next time he runs for something, the FEC should just provide a babysitter for his campaign to handle all this complicated stuff for him. He’s clearly not capable of doing it on his own.

Don’t kill the penny, revalue it

Ryan Cooper proposes a big idea to make coins more useful so that people start spending them again instead of hoarding them in jars for months at a time.

Millard is keeping hope alive

Here’s my solution: multiply the face value of every U.S. coin by 10. A penny will be worth 10 cents, a nickel 50 cents, a dime one dollar, a quarter $2.50, and a dollar coin 10 bucks. (We could also reinvent the half-dollar, which is barely produced now, as a nice $5 coin.)

This will have several beneficial effects: first, it will make change real money again. The whole point of having money is to facilitate the process of exchange, but studies have shown that people tend not to spend even the vaunted dollar coin. It’s no surprise, given that we’ve been training people for decades to think of change as worthless. And multiplying by 10 sounds like a lot, but if anything, it isn’t going far enough — the BLS inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, but even so, one dollar from that time was worth the equivalent of $23.87 today! The one-cent coin was the smallest then, and people still somehow survived. Rounding to the nearest tenth of a dollar in cash transactions today will be no problem.

Second, it will be easy to accomplish. We won’t have to have a big fight with the zinc lobby or Abraham Lincoln fans over whether to stop production of a particular coin, or rebuild all the vending machines around differently-shaped coins. Instead, we just alter the mint plates slightly with new numbers. (Making U.S. money more coin-based would also save the government a bit of money, since coins last much, much longer than paper money.)

Third — and this might be the most contentious part of this proposal — changing coins could be a nice piece of badly-needed economic stimulus. Effectively, we’d be printing up a bunch of new money and handing it to whoever has coins on hand. We’d have to think carefully about the details, but the idea would be to allow people who have old coins to hand them in for fresh new versions worth 10 times as much. Vending machines can be easily reprogrammed to help soak up the old currency (which will be exactly the same size and weight as the new stuff), and banks could be required to exchange for the new versions for a few years. To keep them from being swamped and to ease the effect, we could say banks don’t have to exchange more than $50 worth of new currency per person per day, or something similar.

[…]

How much money are we talking about? According to the Federal Reserve, as of 2010 there was about $40 billion worth of coins in circulation, which constituted 4.3 percent of the U.S. currency stock. We’d be increasing that by $360 billion at a stroke, which would actually be a pretty powerful economic stimulus. Indeed, it might cause a bit of moderate inflationary pressure, as all the coin hoarders with soup tureens full of pennies went on spending sprees. However, that would be exactly the kind of situation the Federal Reserve is equipped to handle. I doubt any inflationary pressure would be sustained long, but if so, it would be a godsend to the Fed, which has been stuck at the zero lower bound and mostly below its inflation target since the financial crisis. Indeed, there is a very strong case that a bit higher inflation target is wise economic policy for the future.

Usually, when I blog about coins it’s in the context of arguing against eliminating the dollar bill in favor of dollar coins, but I have also objected to killing the penny. As does Kevin Drum, I mostly like this idea, but I think Cooper sells short the problem of rounding prices to the nearest old-school dime. The limited bit of empirical evidence we have suggests this would affect poorer folks adversely, since prices would be rounded up much more often than they would be rounded down. One thing that occurred to me in writing this post is that it would likely cause a hike in transit fares around the country – here in Houston, a ride costs $1.25, which would undoubtedly become $1.30 under Cooper’s plan. I’m not sure what the best way to deal with that is. On the plus side, it would as Cooper notes provide a bit of short-term stimulus, which likely means Cooper is underestimating the opposition to his idea as well. This will never happen, but it’s an interesting suggestion. What do you think?

Saturday video break: Blue Moon

“Blue Moon” is a Rodgers and Hart song with a complicated history and a number of iconic versions. The first time it was a hit was when it was recorded by the Velvet Fog himself, Mel Torme:

Gotta love the voice, but the arrangement is a product of its time, and not really my cup of tea. The version I first heard and still love the most is by the Marcels, and it’s both a product of its time and completely different:

A slightly different arrangement, but such a joy to see them perform it live that I don’t care. Elvis had a version before them, and Jan and Dean had one after them, then the next performer to make a mark with this song was the Cowboy Junkies:

Man, I love me some Margo Timmins. What an awesome voice. If you like that version, you’ll almost certainly like The Mavericks’ rendition, too.

I won’t embed the video here, but these days this song is a stadium anthem for the Manchester City Football Club. How many former show tunes do you think end up in a place like that?

One thing I won’t criticize Dan Patrick for

This is just wrong.

“Oozing charm from every pore I oiled my way around the floor”

Sen. Dan Patrick issued a terse statement late Thursday about a period in his life 30 years ago during which he sought medical attention to cope with “mild depression and exhaustion.”

Patrick, who is in a runoff with David Dewhurst for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor issued the statement late Thursday in response to various media reports that he once was on anti-depressants and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, according to court documents related to a slander suit Patrick filed against the Houston Post in the 1980s.

While Patrick accused Dewhurst of releasing the documents to the media, the documents were released to the San Antonio Express-News and other media by Jerry Patterson, the departing Commissioner for the General Land Office of Texas and a former candidate for lieutenant governor.

See the Trib and First Reading for all the details. Let me just say, there is nothing at all shameful about Patrick’s medical history. Depression is no more disqualifying for office than bunions or hemorrhoids or cataracts or any other medical condition. An ongoing undisclosed condition might be an issue, but this? This was a disgraceful attempt to shame someone for a common and unremarkable problem, and it reeks of desperation. Everyone involved in releasing this information needs to do some deep soul searching about their own decency and humanity. I’m particularly disappointed in Jerry Patterson, who is generally an honorable person. You’re better than this, Jerry.

So I condemn this attack wholeheartedly, and any Democrat that might be thinking about revisiting it after May 27 needs to drop that thought right now. There are tons of legitimate attack vectors on Dan Patrick. He’s a horrible person, a serial liar, a narcissistic egotist who puts his own interests before all others, and is exactly the sort of person that should never be put in a position of authority. There’s plenty of places to go other than this.

I want to be clear that while I deplore what happened to Dan Patrick, I feel no sympathy for him, nor do I share the outrage that his sycophants are currently spewing. One reason for this is that we’ve seen this movie before, and as the Observer reminds us, there was a lot less outrage from those folks that time.

It’s good to see Patrick supporters—and Republican state senators—speaking out about the stigma of mental illness, and the unfairness of this as an attack line in a campaign. But for those of us with memories that reach back to November, it’s a bit odd, because of what many conservatives in the state were saying about state Sen. Wendy Davis.

In 1996, Davis sued the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for defamation, after she lost an election. (It was ultimately dismissed.) As one frequently does when one seeks damages in the course of a civil lawsuit, she claimed to have suffered “emotional distress” and “continuing damages to her mental health.” That second phrase—the one that would get all the attention—was used once.

Compare this to Patrick’s situation: In 1987, Patrick sued a Houston Press gossip columnist for libel, after an altercation at a sports bar. (It was also ultimately dismissed, “with prejudice.”) In the course of this lawsuit it is revealed that Patrick has had to contend seriously with mental health issues for much of the decade, and was briefly, and voluntarily, committed to a psychiatric center.

So: both unsuccessfully sued the press, both endured revelations of mental anguish. The only real difference is that Patrick’s mental health troubles would seem, on the available evidence, to be much more substantial and long-lasting. Many conservatives in the state are rallying around Patrick: How did they treat Davis when her (very minor) admission was written up last November by noted slug pundit Eric Erickson?

Three guesses how that went. Go see for yourself if you can’t figure it out. Erica Greider has more.

City drops bid for downtown post office

So much for that.

Photo by Houston In Pics

The city of Houston has withdrawn from bidding on the downtown post office, Mayor Annise Parker wrote in a letter to City Council members Tuesday.

City officials said they wanted to keep their options open in bidding on the site, saying it could have a number of uses, chief among them as a location for the city’s planned police and courts complex. Parker’s letter also notes the site could give commuter rail an entry point to downtown.

Some developers eager to scoop up the high-profile 16-acre property at Bagby and Franklin just east of Interstate 45 had expressed their displeasure at the city’s interest in the property to council members in recent weeks.

“When we entered the bidding we did not think that the competition with private interests and the concern about us being in that fight would be as strong as they are and, on second thought, we decided it’s probably best if we do pull out,” Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans said Tuesday.

[…]

Central Houston chairman Ric Campo said the site is crucial to improving the theater district and the northwest section of downtown. The city’s interest, he said, generated ample chatter among those active in the central business district.

“It wasn’t a quiet conversation,” Campo said. “There were voices on both sides. Having the city step aside, there must have been louder voices on the private side. It gets to be a political issue whenever you get something like that.” Should the city be involved or not be involved?”

See here and here for the background. While I’m sure it will be better in the long run for the old post office to become some kind of mixed-use development – this Chron editorial made the point that something other than a government building would be a lot more amenable to the overall plan for Buffalo Bayou – I still don’t quite get the fuss about this. If the process was fair and the city was submitting a fair bid, what’s wrong with that? Be that as it may, the city will look elsewhere for its police and courts complex. That’s fine by me. Houston Public Media has more.

Saturday mini-link roundup

Three stories you should read that I didn’t have time to devote a full post to:

AusChron: Abbott’s abject CPRIT failures

Still not Greg Abbott

The scandal broke after letters between the agency’s chief science officer, Nobel laureate Dr. Alfred Gilman, and CPRIT’s Chief Commercialization Officer Jerry Cobbs were released, in which Gilman repeatedly questioned the ethics of multiple grants, while Cobbs shot down his criticisms. Gilman finally resigned in protest over $20 million to local research incubator groups, and he was quickly followed by a slew of top-ranked researchers from bodies including the Harvard and Stanford medical schools, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. By contrast, Cobbs is currently under indictment in Travis County for the first-degree felony of securing execution of a document by deception, regarding the granting of $11 million to Peloton Therapeutics Inc. In January 2013, CPRIT was subject to a damning report by Texas State Auditor John Keel, advising that it revamp every stage of the grant process, from evaluation to research progress, after which lawmakers effectively shut it down, and opened back up with increased controls and oversight.

Arguably, oversight was what was missing in the first place. It was supposed to be there, and Abbott was supposed to be providing it. From its inception, CPRIT had an oversight committee, which included both the attorney general and Comptroller Susan Combs. However, out of 23 committee meetings between June 23, 2008, and Feb 25, 2013, Abbott attended exactly zero. Abbott’s campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch has since said that he removed himself, rather than face conflicts of interest. However, rather than stepping down completely, he sent designees from his office: Then-Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Andrew Weber attended the first meeting, then the task was handed over to Deputy Attorney General for Government and External Affairs Jay Dyer, who would himself miss several meetings in the following four years. Hopefully, they were giving Abbott extensive notes, because he did not seem to be that inquisitive. The Dallas Morning News found that in his five years on the committee, Abbott sent a grand total of nine emails to “key state officials” on CPRIT’s problems.

So what was keeping Abbott so distracted? Democratic pressure group the Lone Star Project went through Abbott’s diary and compared his calendar with the committee’s schedule, and found that on 10 of the 23 meeting days, he had no official events booked. And what kept him busy on the other 13? A lot of time with the press. He crammed 20 interviews and briefings into those days. He even skipped meetings at the height of the public scandal, after the release of the Cobbs-Gilman emails. On Oct. 24, 2012 (less than two weeks after some of the nation’s leading cancer researchers had severed all ties with the agency in protest over its mismanagement and their concerns of nepotism in the incubator grant), both Abbott and Dyer were absent, even though the top item on the agenda was the discussion of hiring a replacement for Gilman. Instead, the state’s top attorney was busy on Fox News ginning up a false controversy about international elections monitors visiting Texas to observe the Democratic process.

The story is related to Wendy Davis’ ongoing attacks against Abbott for his manifest failure to do his job on CPRIT. The facts of this sorry story are so unfavorable to Abbott that I have to think they’ll do some real damage to him. That’s my heart talking more than my brain, but we’ll see.

Texas Observer: Millennial Hispanics are way more secular than their ancestors

Pew’s survey of more than 5,000 Hispanics nationwide shows that an increasing number of Latinos are leaving Catholicism, their childhood faith. Just 55 percent of those surveyed identify themselves as Catholic, down from 67 percent in the previous comprehensive study in 2006. Now, nearly a quarter of all Hispanics say they are former Catholics. Overall, non-Catholics are nearly evenly divided between evangelical Protestants (16 percent) and those who profess no religious affiliation (18 percent). Mainline Protestants and other Christians round out the remaining 8 percent.

The conversion of some Catholics to evangelicals holds out hope for the GOP. Consider the study’s findings on abortion. Overall, Hispanics tend to be conservative on this issue. Fifty-three percent say that abortion should be completely or mostly illegal, with just 40 percent in favor of abortion rights—a flip of the 40/54 percent split among Americans generally. With Hispanic evangelicals, 70 percent are in favor of making abortion illegal. That’s even more than white (non-Hispanic) evangelicals. Even so, these evangelical Hispanics still mostly identify as Democrats (48 percent vs. 30 percent support for the GOP). That’s progress for Republicans since, overall, Hispanics identify as Democrats 56/21 percent.

But this is little more than a consolation prize when contrasted with how religiously unaffiliated Hispanics are changing the landscape. The unaffiliated, also known as “nones,” include those who think of themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” and those who are neither spiritual nor religious. They are far more pro-choice than Hispanics overall, even more so than the general public. They are also staunchly Democratic, overwhelming Republicans by 4-to-1.

According to the study, the bulk of the “nones” are young. What’s going on with the under-30 crowd? These are millennials, a generation significantly detached from institutions, making its presence felt. In 2010, unaffiliated Hispanics made up 14 percent of the 18-29 category. In 2013, as millennials rapidly came to dominate and define that age group, the unaffiliated more than doubled, rising to 31 percent of the cohort.

Hispanic millennials are a demographic tidal wave, the dominant ethnicity among millennials. Some 800,000 underage Hispanics turn voting age every year. They are the first generation that is mostly U.S.-born and identify closely with their non-Hispanic contemporaries. Their turn toward being “nones” closely matches the national trend, according to a separate Pew study. As the remaining millennial Hispanics come of age over the next decade, “nones” could wipe out whatever modest gains the GOP now enjoys with evangelical Hispanics.

Getting them to turn out, that’s the challenge for Democrats, especially this year. And if they do get engaged and involved in proportion to their numbers, expect the potential for change within the Democratic Party to be at least as big as the potential for change in Texas. Which, to be clear, I welcome.

Texas Election Law Blog: An under the radar assault on voting rights

So … let’s recap. By law, (see Section 11.001, Texas Election Code) you are citizen of Texas as soon as you permanently reside in Texas. As soon as you permanently reside in Texas, you qualify to vote and can apply for a voter registration certificate. But you can’t use a voter registration certificate by itself to vote. To vote, you need a picture I.D. issued by the Department of Public Safety. But to get a picture I.D., you need to prove that you’ve been domiciled in Texas for at least 30 days. (You’ll also need to prove your citizenship and identity, which, as I have described before, is another sort of fresh hell, but enough about that).

But to prove that you’ve been domiciled in Texas for at least 30 days, you’ll either have to present the documentary proof of your financial respectability (in the form of bank statements, utility bills, and paychecks), or you’ll have to fall back on the mercy of the modern poor house or work farm, getting someone else in a position of paternal responsibility to vouch for you as not being entirely transient and rootless.

The State of Texas (a state whose independence was precipitated by the actions of transient adventurers and freebooters) certainly seems to have put away the “welcome” mat once and for all.

This is the result of a change made to the Transportation Code in 2009, which two years later when voter ID passed combined to put an extra burden on would-be voters. It’s yet another reason why the voter ID law needs to be declared unconstitutional.

Go check them all out, they’re worth your time.

Holmes Road

It kind of blows my mind that something like this could be the case in 2014 in Houston.

Holmes Road

Holmes Road in south Houston, for a stretch, feels less like a city street and more like a weathered country road in Central Texas, even though NRG Stadium and the Texas Medical Center shimmer in the distance.

On the surface, there is no reason this accessible area – over 1,400 acres – should be the city’s largest single mass of undeveloped land.

The problem lies underground. Neither the city nor private developers ever extended sewer service to the area, leading developers to skip it in favor of other sites with more infrastructure and lower up-front costs.

Houston and Harris County officials propose to remedy that by burying an $11 million sewer line along Holmes Road.

The project is still being negotiated but is scheduled for 2016, the same year Holmes is slated to be widened and rebuilt and when Buffalo Speedway is to be extended south through the area.

“A lot of migration in terms of development has moved south to the Pearland area, and I don’t think it’s because the developers desire to be in Pearland,” said Houston’s deputy director of development, Gwen Tillotson. “I just think it’s because we did not have the adequate infrastructure. The longer we delay moving forward on this project, the more opportunities for development we stand to lose.”

Linda Scurlock, president of the South Houston Concerned Citizens Coalition, has lived in the area for 37 years. Holmes Road, she said, has been an eyesore for many of those years, so isolated it invites illegal dumping.

“We’re close to the Medical Center, we’re close to Reliant (NRG) Stadium, we’re close to 610, we’re close to the Beltway, we’re close to 288,” Scurlock said. “We see those as pluses, and we can’t see why there has not been development out here. If you have the infrastructure there, then I think development will come.”

You know how I suggested we build more places to live proximate to the Medical Center as a way of coping with its mobility needs? This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. I had suggested it for the undeveloped land along Hiram Clark, but if you look at that Google maps image I provided with that post, you can see the gigantic plot of land south of Holmes Road mentioned in this story as well. I didn’t suggest it as a target for development in my post because I figured it had to be a park or something – it was just too big. You know that former KBR site in the East End that everyone was talking about awhile back? It’s 136 acres, which is to say one tenth the size of this plot. If this expanse of land south of Holmes Road were in the process of being developed right now, you think that might have an effect on Houston’s housing shortage? This is a smart move by the city, and I’m glad to see Harris County playing a role in it as well. I look forward to seeing what eventually comes out of this.

Friday random ten – The I’s have it

Tiffany and I went to see Ingrid Michaelson last night, courtesy of my cousin Christopher who is touring with her and her band. That’s as good a reason as any for this Random Ten to be about artists and bands whose names start with the letter I:

1. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Ian Dury & The Blockheads
2. Vehicle – Ides Of March
3. Let It Go – Idina Menzel
4. A Fool In Love – Ike & Tina Turner
5. Closer To Fine – Indigo Girls
6. Sweet Georgia Brown – Illinois Jacquet
7. The Way I Am – Ingrid Michaelson
8. Devil Inside – INXS
9. Fame – Irene Cara
10. Buns O’ Plenty – Isaac Hayes

I have two young daughters, so OF COURSE I have “Let It Go”. We have the Demi Lovato version of it, too, but her name doesn’t start with I. I had more of these than I expected, so maybe I’ll make a series out of this. I did a series of lists based on the starting letter of song titles, so why not artists? You’ll know next week if I decided it was worth the time. In the meantime, go see Ingrid Michaelson, who is both a fine musician and a fellow Staten Islander.

Give up the green

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

We clip it, bag it, throw it away, feed it, love it, hate it, fight with it, protect it, brag on it and curse it. Our lush green lawns suck up a preposterous amount of our time, energy, money and water supplies. That’s why Texas – still facing major water woes – is the perfect place to open a national discussion on the need to give up this ridiculous obsession.

Lawn care is big business in the United States. According to Ted Steinberg, the author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, Americans spend a massive $40 billion on their lawns every year. Texas, famous for its big suburbs full of big homes surrounded by big lawns, surely makes up a large portion of that total.

The sheer volume of water used for lawn upkeep is even more incredible. According to a Texas Water Development Board study, 259 Texas cities between 2004 and 2008 used an annual total of about 96.7 billion gallons of water outdoors – 80 to 90 percent of which is estimated to have been used to maintain lawns and plants. To put that into perspective, picture all the water that runs over Niagara Falls during a 40-hour workweek. Now imagine that same amount poured into our yards. Just in Texas.

This tremendous wastefulness has continued during a time of scarcity. Texas, already drier than most of the rest of the U.S. to begin with, is in the middle of one of its worst droughts in history. But the lawn care industry is humming along and, along with agriculture, remains a major source of water consumption. (Of course, we don’t eat the grass; it goes into a landfill, but not until after we’ve dumped an estimated 22 inches of water on it, according to the Texas Water Resources Institute.)

In many ways, Texas has adeptly handled water shortages in recent years. Cities like San Antonio are leading the way in municipal conservation efforts, and Texas voters in 2013 overwhelmingly approved a plan to take $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to fund water supply projects. We’re faring considerably better than states like California, where several communities are on the verge of running out of water, and other parts of the world like China.

Still, we drop enough fresh, potable water into our yards every day to make T. Boone Pickens blush.

We must cast aside our vanity-fueled insistence that lush lawns are a fixture of our modern lifestyle. There’s no good reason to plant thirstier varieties of grass, like St. Augustine, instead of hardier types like native buffalograss. Incorporating xeriscaping, or dry landscaping, into more lawns would also help reduce water use.

If Gov. Rick Perry can talk about marijuana in the same tones as President Obama, surely we can have a meaningful conversation about the other kind of grass, too.

Mustafa Tameez (@mustafatameez) is Founder and Managing Director of Outreach Strategists, a Houston based communications and public affairs firm. He is also a contributor for the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Tribune, and co-hosts a FOX26 Sunday morning show, “The Round Up.” This post was originally published on Trib Talk.

(Ed. note: Charles here. When I talk about water conservation, this is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Putting aside the question of how we landscape our yards, it’s insane to use this much clean, drinkable water on grass, especially since much of it gets wasted anyway. If we’re going to get serious about managing our future water needs, this is one of the fatter targets out there. Some cities like El Paso have by necessity led the way on this, but at some point state action will be required. Until then, we should at least be aware of this. We can spend a lot of money generating the water we need, or we can use less and spend less.)

They don’t make historic landmarks like they used to

If it can still be demolished, it’s fair to ask what was the point.

Not historic but still standing

The impending designation of the Astrodome as a so-called “state antiquities landmark” has offered new hope to those who want to save the iconic stadium, but the special title would not outright protect the former Eighth Wonder of the World from the wrecking ball, even though it would make it far more difficult.

At an “Astrodome Stakeholder’s Meeting” on Wednesday convened by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, preservation groups pointed out that the county still could seek a demolition permit from the Texas Historical Commission, even if the 13-member body votes this summer to deem the dome an antiquities landmark. Emmett noted that the county, under state law, could also make the case that redevelopment is too much of a burden on taxpayers in asking the commission for permission to tear down the now-empty structure.

[…]

“If we can’t find a group or a solution to use that building, we’re going to get to demolition eventually,” said Beth Wiedower, a senior field officer for the National Trust. “Yes, this is great that it’s been recognized as historic but our efforts are going to be focused on reusing the building because that’s ultimately what’s going to save it.”

Emmett said he organized the Wednesday meeting because he wanted everyone to be “on the same page” about where things stand with the dome, particularly the antiquities designation he says will impose added difficulties as the county tries to figure out what to do next.

The historical commission is slated to consider the designation at its meeting July 30-31.

[…]

Emmett said Wednesday the goal – as it was before the failed bond proposal – is to find a private entity to redevelop the dome at its own expense, something the county has been seeking for years now to no avail. He also said demolition still is not on the table, although he mentioned a provision in state law that would allow the county to make the case to the commission that demolition is necessary because redevelopment is too costly, if no plan pans out.

“Part of this antiquities landmark process later on could be going to the historical commission and saying ‘Look we’ve tried we’ve tried, we’ve tried. We’ve not come up with an answer and this is too great a burden on the taxpayers of Harris County and that is a provision in the law that you can take into consideration,” he said.

Emmett said he expects the commission will approve the designation, preventing demolition at least for the “short run.”

“If they grant the landmark status then I think that will force some people to come to the table and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do with the dome’ because I think it would be unlikely then, in the short run, that the historical commission would approve tearing it down,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Not sure we’re any closer than before to agreeing on What To Do About The Dome. Well, at least now we agree that it can still be torn down. Whether or not that’s what we want to do is a whole ‘nother question. So I guess we’ll just keep talking.

Harris County tries to get smarter about drunk driving

That seems to be the thrust of this story.

Convicted drunken drivers soon could face tougher scrutiny through a series of reforms designed to reduce the rate of drunken driving fatalities in Harris County, among the highest in the nation.

Repeat offenders, and those arrested for egregious blood-alcohol levels while behind the wheel, will be targeted under the Harris County Community Supervision Department’s initiative, which includes having probation officers trained on the psychology behind drunken driving assigned to those considered to be at high risk of repeat offenses while on probation.

“With higher-risk DWIs, we know that when these individuals are getting in a car, they are driving a loaded weapon,” probations department Director Teresa May said. “If they continue to drink at that level, their risk of killing someone is very, very high.”

In 2013, about 13,000 people – half of all Harris County probationers – were on supervision for a misdemeanor driving-while-intoxicated conviction. Thousands more crowd county jails.

Harris County has the highest rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities among large counties in Texas and, some years, the nation. In 2012, 2,809 alcohol-related crashes caused 175 deaths and 942 serious injuries in Harris County, according to the Texas Department of Transportation’s most recent statistics.

A 2009 report found that 60 percent of traffic deaths in Harris County were alcohol related – twice the national average. It sparked county-wide reduction efforts that May, who was hired last year, has now joined.

She has pushed for numerous changes at the probation department, including the gradual implementation later this month of a new risk assessment for all convicted defendants that aims to determine how likely a person is to re-offend while on probation and, for the first time, why.

Currently, about 6 percent of DWI offenders have their probation revoked for any reason, May said.

Of the 400 probation officers put through a “Hard Core Drunk Driver” course, 60 were selected to receive ongoing training and work with DWI probationers at the highest risk of re-offending. Those officers will have a limited number of cases assigned to them so that they have more time to work with each offender and judge.

The probation officers have gotten some specialized training for how to deal with likely repeat offenders, and judges have agreed to sentencing guidelines to abet this effort. These reforms have been done elsewhere, though the story doesn’t cite any statistics about their effectiveness. It certainly sounds like a reasonable approach to take, though it would be nice to get the perspective of a defense attorney on this, as well as some data.

On a side note, Grits points to a Statesman story that suggests better transit options as well as the availability of ridesharing would help decrease the incidence of DUIs because they would give folks that go out drinking easier non-driving ways to get home. Keep that in mind as we go forward with Metro’s bus reimagining and the Uber/Lyft debate.

Maybe we don’t need that much more water

More conservation would mean less demand and less need going forward.

Drought-prone Texas could make better use of its existing water supplies and avoid spending billions of dollars on new reservoirs, pipelines and other big-ticket projects with more realistic forecasts for demand, according to an analysis released Friday.

The report by the Texas Center for Policy Studies, a nonprofit environmental research group, concluded that the state overestimates how much water it will need as its population grows over the next half-century. The state also underestimates the potential of conserving water in dry times.

As a result, Texas is trying to add 8.3 million acre-feet of water by 2060 with new infrastructure. An acre-foot is typically enough to satisfy three families for a year. But the report found that the state could reduce the gap to about 3.3 million acre-feet through conservation and use of unconventional sources, such as brackish groundwater.

The state’s projected shortfall “isn’t a real number,” said Mary Kelly, an Austin-based lawyer who was one of the report’s authors. “The real gap is about half that amount.”

The report received a mixed review from the Texas Water Development Board, which oversees the state’s water planning. The agency acknowledged that some of it assumptions could be revised but was skeptical of other changes proposed in the study.

[…]

For now, Texas’ plan calls for new reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects to avoid grave shortages in 50 years because of an ever-swelling population. State officials estimate the price tag at $53 billion.

To spur development of projects listed in the plan, Texas voters decided last November to dip into the state’s savings account to create a $2 billion fund that would reduce borrowing costs for municipalities seeking to increase their water supply.

But the report said Texas might not need to spend so much to increase its water supply, particularly if its demands are lower than projected. The forecast is inaccurate in part because it assumes that each Texan will use almost the same amount of water each day in the future even as new technology is helping them to use less.

The report is here, the Texas Center for Policy Studies project page with all of their related work is here, their press release is here, and the TCPS blog post with a summary of the report is here. As you know, I firmly believe we need to emphasize conservation and where possible prioritize it over building new water infrastructure. It’s cheaper and more sustainable, and cities like San Antonio and El Paso have shown it’s readily doable. The plan that was approved in last year’s referendum does include some emphasis on conservation, to its credit, but there’s always room for more. I’m glad to see the TCPS highlight this.

NDO delayed two weeks

I thought it would be over by now, but it’s not.

RedEquality

A proposal to extend equal rights protections to gay and transgender Houston residents, which had been swiftly advancing to a City Council vote, stalled Wednesday as council members voted for a two-week delay to allow more public input on the increasingly divisive measure.

Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, said she had the votes to pass the ordinance Wednesday but hopes to pick up even more before the council’s May 28 meeting. The 12-5 vote in favor of delay reflected not an erosion of support, she said, but the council’s desire to address constituents’ questions.

“There were several council members who fully intend to vote for the item who asked for an opportunity, in the interest of complete transparency and openness on this issue, to have another round of conversations with their various constituent groups,” Parker said. “This has never been about getting something rushed through. It is about getting something right.”

Most opposition has come from clergy, from conservative megachurch leaders to black ministers. Opponents said they, too, plan to continue rallying votes; council offices have been deluged with calls and emails now numbering in the thousands.

The proposal, already delayed one week amid tearful cries of support and angry protestations, has been the subject of intense debate for nearly a month.

Houston political consultant Keir Murray said the delay is driven in part by some council members’ desire to address concerns from community leaders, particularly elderly black pastors, who may be uncomfortable with gay and transgender issues.

“They’ve got the votes,” Murray said. “The mayor and others are just trying to cut colleagues some slack, give them a little time and go back to constituencies and say, ‘We gave you more time to make your voices heard.’ ”

The key piece of evidence here is that an amendment proposed by CM Robert Gallegos that reduced the minimum size for companies to be subject to this ordinance from 50 to 15 was adopted by an 11-6 vote. I can’t think of any good reason to vote for that amendment, then vote against the final ordinance, so I think it is safe to say that it is headed for passage.

But first, more talk.

Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church, said neither his megachurch brethren nor influential ministers of color were engaged in the drafting of the law, saying, “We’re willing to sit down at the table and talk.”

Asked whether there were any protections for gay and transgender residents he could support, Riggle said only, “Let’s sit at the table and see.” But he added, “Gender identity is a term that is a problem.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen noted that scores of faith, nonprofit and community leaders have announced their backing for the proposal.

“The idea that somehow this was a secret process, particularly after how many countless hours of public hearings we’ve had over the last few weeks, is interesting,” Parker said.

Councilman Dwight Boykins pushed for the delay, saying he hopes to convene a meeting for pastors and business owners in his south Houston district: “Within the next two weeks, I think we will come to some conclusion where this city will heal this divisiveness in this city today.

“The people in this city, the ones that have questions about this ordinance, have questions that can be dealt with.”

Councilman Jerry Davis held a similar meeting in his north Houston district, and said many pastors left with a better understanding of the measure even if they remained opposed.

If CM Boykins, who voted for the Gallegos amendment, feels he needs more time to explain things to his constituents, then fine. That’s easy for me to say, since I get to do life on the lowest difficulty setting, but my scan of social media after the motion to postpone indicates that the folks who have real skin in the game are handling this latest delay with grace. My hat is off to them for that.

So this will now be decided on Wednesday, May 28. There will be no Council meeting on the 27th, so the 28th will be both a public-comment session and a Council-vote-on-agenda-items session. That means you have one more chance to tell Council in person what you think, and of course you can continue to send them emails, telegrams, mash notes, what have you. The vote may be highly likely to go in favor, but if you’ve got a story to tell it’s important to tell it. Contact the City Secretary and get on the list of speakers for the 28th.

One more thing. In my previous entry, I analyzed Dave Wilson’s latest piece of hate mail and pointed out two ways in which he was being blatantly dishonest. Turns out I wasn’t thorough enough. See the picture at the bottom with the caption about girls claiming to be “harassed” in the school bathroom by a transgender classmate? Though there is no link provided, that was an actual story that ran on some legitimate news sites. However, it was based on a complete lie put forward by a group of haters, and was subsequently pulled down after it was exposed as the fabrication it was. A reporter named Cristan Williams did the legwork, and you can read her story here, with a followup here. The original “story” was first printed last October, and a cursory Google search would at least indicate that maybe it’s not a hundred percent kosher. Given Wilson’s longstanding record of abject dishonesty, it’s far more likely that he knew all this but pushed the lie anyway than that he was confused or minsinformed. The lesson, in case I haven’t been sufficiently blunt, is that you should never, ever believe a word Dave Wilson says. Thanks to Transgriot and Media Matters for the links.