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May 19th, 2014:

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.