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May 7th, 2014:

Davis steps up attacks on Abbott over CPRIT

Progress Texas gets the ball rolling.

Still not Greg Abbott

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) was supposed to provide funding for cancer research. But soon after its implementation, the multi-billion dollar entity was awarding grants to donors of Rick Perry and Greg Abbott without the proper review. Scientists resigned in protest, and an investigation into the activities of the fund has since resulted in a felony indictment.

Greg Abbott, as the state’s Attorney General, was tasked with serving as a watchdog for this cancer research fund. But he never attended a board meeting – and took no action when cancer research dollars were funneled to his donors.

In a video released by the Progress Texas PAC, cancer survivors share their thoughts of betrayal on this matter. Take a moment and watch the video and then share it with your networks.

It’s unclear if Abbott was ok with cancer research fund activities, but it is clear that he never showed up to see for himself.

See here and here for the background on this. Here’s the video:

Trail Blazers neatly sums up the state of play.

After The Dallas Morning News first broke stories raising questions about funding problems, Abbott’s office announced it would investigate what went wrong at the Cancer Prevention and Research Fund. That announcement put Abbott in the position of investigating an agency over which his office already had oversight. That means the attorney general potentially is looking into the behavior of board members who are his campaign donors. Abbott says he sees no problems with these arrangements.

Yes, I’m sure he’ll be as diligent and thorough in his investigation as Chris Christie was about Bridgegate. Well, once he gets around to doing that investigation, anyway.

Shortly after CPRIT unraveled in 2012, Abbott announced his intention to open a civil investigation into the agency, even though Abbott would be investigating his own donors. That was a year and a half ago—since then, a criminal investigation by the Travis County DA’s office resulted in a felony indictment for one senior CPRIT official.

As for Abbott’s investigation? It’s unclear where that stands—if it’s still ongoing, or if it was quietly dropped sometime in the last 19 months. The Observer asked the AG’s office for an update Monday afternoon—we’ll update when we hear back.

But don’t worry, I’m sure ethics ninja Ken Paxton will get right on it after he’s elected.

Chron overview of Senate primary runoff

We’ve heard this story before.

David Alameel

David Alameel

Texas Democrats trying to gain traction in statewide elections face an awkward predicament in the May 27 primary runoff election for the U.S. Senate.

If the winner is Kesha Rogers, a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, their nominee won’t even be welcome at the Texas Democratic Convention in Dallas next month. LaRouche is a perennial fringe candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who espouses various conspiracy theories to explain world events. Since 2009, his followers have said President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act is something Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party would have supported, a view embraced by Rogers in the Democratic primary.

“She’s not on our ticket,” said Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Will Hailer. “If she came to the convention, she wouldn’t be speaking.”

It’s a prospect Democrats hope to head off with David Alameel, a wealthy Dallas dentist better known for bankrolling races than running in them. But even as party leaders tried to warn voters off Rogers in the March 4 primary, she managed to finish second in a five-way race. More importantly, she kept the largely self-funded Alameel just under the 50 percent mark, thus forcing a runoff.

You know, the three other candidates in the race besides Alameel and Rogers were also campaigning for votes. One could quite reasonably argue that Maxey Scherr, who finished third and collected the lion’s share of Democratic club endorsements while vocally criticizing Alameel for his past history of giving to Republican candidates, is the reason Alameel couldn’t quite break the 50% mark. Given the existence of that crappy Trib poll that showed Kesha leading and had everyone freaked out, I thought Alameel did all right for a first time statewide candidate. He got his name out there and put himself in a position to win. What more do you want?

As I said the last time, this race is about getting the word out about who Kesha Rogers is, and making sure that people know they need to get out and vote. Alameel can do his part and the rest of us can do ours. I finally had a chance to do an interview with Alameel, so look for that on Monday. The Trib has more.

It’s not so cheap to live in Houston any more

It’s the downside of a hot job market and an improving national reputation for being a cool place to live.

BagOfMoney

Business and city leaders often tout the Houston region as one of the most affordable markets in the country. But first-time homebuyers like the Schaefers are finding that image increasingly outdated.

“We are in a hot market, and it does pose some challenges,” said Patrick Jankowski, executive vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership. “There’s a cliché in Houston that you just drive until you find something you can afford. People are finding that’s becoming a farther stretch.”

The housing market has seen sales soar, prices rise and inventory shrink. Many households now could spend up to half their paychecks on housing and commuting.

Jankowski said Houston’s job growth led to an influx of new people seeking housing options in the last few years. He said affordability could be a concern going forward, especially as longer commutes tack on more cost.

[…]

Real estate experts and economists say that, although Houston is still affordable compared to other large markets, double-digit price increases could chip away at that reputation. The pattern could alienate first-time homebuyers, leave the middle class with fewer options and drive low-income residents into rundown apartments.

“It can be a challenge to understand why home price increases can be a bad thing coming out of the recession,” said Janet Viveiros, with the Washington, D.C.-based National Housing Center, who authored a report about affordable housing this year. “House prices are surging, and rents are surging. It puts buyers in a situation where they have to make difficult decisions.”

In Houston, the fact that about 80 percent of housing activity is outside Beltway 8 contributes to its reputation as an inexpensive market.

Home sales and prices from 2013 show strong growth everywhere: Overall, home prices rose 9.4 percent, the Houston Association of Realtors reports in an analysis of sales, prices and inventory for the Houston Chronicle. Inside Loop 610, prices rose 12 percent, and they were up almost 20 percent from the Loop to Beltway 8 and 9 percent outside the Beltway.

[…]

“Is it losing some of its competitively priced housing? A little bit, but it’s not a major concern yet,” Jim Gaines, research economist at the Texas A&M Real Estate Center, said of the area. “The middle class, or working class, can still find affordable housing. It’s just not as abundant as it was.”

Still, he said, recent price increases threaten to hurt.

“If prices go up 12 percent, I guarantee incomes didn’t go up 12 percent,” he said. “If you continue double-digit price growth for several years and don’t get corresponding income, then you get out of whack.”

The median household income for Houston, The Woodlands and Sugar Land is $55,910, according to the 2012 U.S. Census American Community Survey.

The low housing stock is driving up values on all types of properties, according to Sheri Smith, an associate professor in the school of public affairs at Texas Southern University. Working Houstonians who can afford $125,000 to $150,000 houses are being priced out of the market or forced into rentals or housing in the suburban fringes.

“Middle-income individuals are not finding affordable housing,” Smith said.

A recent Rice University study found Houstonians typically pay 30 percent of their income on housing, including mortgages and rents. Compare that to those in New York City who spend 25 percent of their income on housing, 25 percent for Chicago and 31 percent in Los Angeles, based on 2011 data.

Once transportation costs are factored in, almost half of the typical Houstonian’s income – 46 percent – is gone.

I’ll bet those figures are a surprise to a lot of folks. New York especially has a reputation for being an expensive place to live, but if you’re earning enough money, it’s not a problem. Of course, you have to earn a heck of a lot of money in Manhattan or you’re screwed. So Houston still has that going for it.

As for what should be done about the problem, clearly more supply is needed. I’ve talked before about how we really have to do something with the many empty spaces in Houston. The reason so much construction occurs in the far out reaches of Harris County is because that’s where the empty land is. Empty and underutilized spaces exist in Houston, too. We need to figure out ways to encourage construction in these places. That’s going to require an investment in infrastructure in a lot of these places – fixing roads, adding drainage, etc – but the alternative is letting all the growth occur in the hinterlands and dealing with the effects of that.

Another solution is going to be more highrises. It’s the only way to increase the available housing on limited land. Houston does have some limits on where highrises can be built, but the bigger constraint these days is neighborhood resistance. Lots of places are not appropriate for highrises, and you can’t do much about aesthetic objections to them, but traffic concerns can and should be addressed. As I’ve said before, more density needs more transit. As with infrastructure, that’s going to cost some money, but it’s a vital investment. The alternative is to curse traffic for all eternity, as the folks down in Pearland are fixing to learn.

I guess what I’m saying is we can keep doing what we’ve always done and hope it works out for the best, or we can try to figure out some policies that might help alleviate the housing shortage and make the best use of the land we have available, then figure out a way to pay for it. The former is easy, of course, and it’s more or less worked fairly well for the greater Houston area, though arguably not so well for every part of it, and arguably not so well for the city as opposed to the metro area. Doing the latter is a lot harder and there’s no guarantee we can even pull it off, but it has the upside of maybe solving some of these vexing problems that the market tends not to care about. I really don’t expect anything but Door #1, but it can’t hurt to point out that we do in fact have a choice.

We really should comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act

It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the law.

During a House County Affairs Committee hearing Monday, local sheriffs said the most problematic provision of the 2003 law is a requirement that minors be housed separately from adult prison and jail populations. Since Texas is one of only 10 states that classifies 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, sheriffs would be required to build separate facilities or seek new housing options for these offenders.

“Most county jails just aren’t in the position to do that,” said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk, who also represents the Texas Sheriffs Association. He said the mandate makes the law nearly impossible to implement for many counties with small staffs and tight budgets.

The law also prohibits what is known as “cross-gender viewing,” a provision that would bar female guards from supervising male inmates during strip searches, showers and other instances. Since 40 percent of Texas’ guards are women, Perry said that enforcing that provision would mean laying off female staff and hiring more men, a violation of labor laws.

Not coming into compliance brings its own costs and dangers, however. The most immediate is the possible loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants. Since 2003, Texas has received more than $3.5 million from the federal government to become PREA-compliant, far more than any other state. If Perry insists on not certifying the state as compliant with the prison rape law, Texas could lose some federal grants, according to a preliminary analysis from the Austin-based think tank Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Elizabeth Hennecke.

See here for the background. Seems to me that if we’ve been taking grant money meant to aid compliance with the law, the least we can do is comply with the law. If that means the Lege needs to revisit the issue of classifying 17-year-olds as minors, then so be it. Grits has more.