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July, 2014:

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 21

The Texas Progressive Alliance mourns the tragedy of MH17 as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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Ivy Taylor named interim SA Mayor

Congratulations, Madam Mayor.

Mayor Ivy Taylor

The City Council appointed Councilwoman Ivy Taylor to become San Antonio’s next mayor.

She did not win a majority of the council vote, as her colleagues split 5-3 over her and Councilman Ray Lopez.

Lopez then withdrew from consideration, saying that it was important for the city to move forward.

Mayor Julián Castro then submitted his official letter of resignation, reading it aloud in council chambers.

He then congratulated Taylor for becoming the city’s new mayor. She is the first African-American woman to hold the seat.

She pledged to “work with everyone” to make San Antonio a great city. She thanked her family from traveling to San Antonio for Tuesday’s meeting and her husband and daughter for their support.

See here and here for some background. I’ve expressed some reservations about Taylor based on her vote against San Antonio’s expanded non-discrimination ordinance, but clearly she was able to overcome any reservations her fellow Council members had. She addressed the issue afterward.

When Taylor began her speech at the beginning of the process, she ran down a list of accomplishments and said she would like to serve in the interim role to continue moving Castro’s vision forward. Taylor mentioned the streetcar, balancing the city budget, working toward a resolution to police and fire health benefits, and rebuilding relationships with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community following her vote against the revised non-discrimination ordinance passed last September.

Members of the community, including those from the LGBT community, spoke at the special council meeting before votes were cast, telling the council who their interim mayor of choice is and why. From the podium, Daniel Graney told the council that he feels passionate about the new mayor embodying the core principle that everyone in the city should be treated equally and fairly.

“We need a face that is a welcoming one that embraces fairness and equality,” Graney said. “I therefore respectfully implore you to appoint an interim mayor who championed and voted for including LGBT protections in the NDO last year and is committed to furthering its implementation expansion.”

Following the council meeting, Taylor answered questions about repairing those relationships.

“I’ve always been committed to working with everyone in our community, even though we may not always agree on every issue,” said Taylor. “I’ve talked with them about some of the things they’d like to see moving forward as far as implementation and I pledged that I’d be willing to work on that.”

Other members of the LGBT community said there is a trust issue because Taylor said she would vote in favor of the NDO but then voted against it.

Q San Antonio addressed that issue as well.

Many in the LGBT community lobbied actively against Taylor because she voted against the nondiscrimination ordinance and because of remarks she made prior to her vote against the ordinance. (See related links below.) However, she did have a handful of LGBT supporters who felt she should not be denied the position because of that one vote.

In remarks posted on Facebook, Chad Reumann, a governor for the local chapter of the Human Rights Campaign said, “I hope we as a community can regroup and now focus on how we can work with Mayor Taylor. I had hoped for something else. Yet I know now we must try and work together.”

Local blogger Randy Bear, who supported Taylor’s appointment, posted, “So here’s my suggestion to CAUSA. Take time to work through your anger, but then start working with Mayor Ivy Taylor to get the NDO implemented. She has committed to it and you can make this a success for the community by taking her up on that commitment.”

I wish Mayor Taylor, who becomes the first African-American Mayor of San Antonio, all the best. I hope she follows through on that commitment and that her critics now will look back on her time in office as a success. Randy Bear, the Rivard Report, the SA Current, Equality Texas, and Texas Leftist have more.

Don’t sweat that court ruling on Obamacare tax credits just yet

It’s too soon to say what effect, if any will be felt in Texas.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Opposing rulings from two federal courts Tuesday left unclear the future prospects of federal financial aid to Texans who qualify for assistance to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the ACA legislation made federal subsidies available only to individuals who purchased insurance through state-run exchanges. That would make federal subsidies illegal in the 36 states, including Texas, that use the federally facilitated insurance marketplace.

That announcement was followed by a decision from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, which ruled that individuals who enroll using federally facilitated exchanges are eligible to receive subsidies.

Texas, like dozens of other states with Republican leaders, declined to create its own state-based insurance exchange under the ACA. Instead, Texas relies on a federally managed marketplace. More than 730,000 Texans enrolled for health coverage through the federal marketplace during the first period of open enrollment.

[…]

Individuals whose annual incomes range from one to four times the federal poverty level — $11,490 to $45,960 for an individual and $23,550 to $94,200 for a family of four — typically qualify for the subsidies.

Christine Sinatra, state spokeswoman for Enroll America, which has worked to enroll individuals in the federal marketplace, said the availability of financial assistance was “obviously a big factor” for that encouraged many in Texas to get insurance.

“What’s most important at this stage is for consumers to know that no one will lose their coverage or their financial help while this judicial process plays out,” Sinatra said. “And today’s decision isn’t making anyone newly uninsured.”

As noted in the story, some 734K people signed up for insurance via the federal exchange, and they generally got a good deal when they did. Put that aside for now, because as Josh Marshall suggests, the en banc reviews are likely to result in both courts agreeing, in which case there’s no dispute for the Supreme Court to resolve. But they could still take the case, or maybe something goes sideways with the en banc reviews. What happens if the adverse ruling is ultimately upheld? Kevin Drum suggests one possibility.

The key point here is that people respond much more strongly to losing things than they do to not getting them in the first place. For example, there are lots of poor people in red states who currently aren’t receiving Medicaid benefits thanks to their states’ refusal to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. This hasn’t caused a revolt because nothing was taken away. They just never got Medicaid in the first place.

The subsidies would be a different story. You’d have roughly 6 million people who would suddenly lose a benefit that they’ve come to value highly. This would cause a huge backlash. It’s hard to say if this would be enough to move Congress to action, but I think this is nonetheless the basic lay of the land. Obamacare wouldn’t be destroyed, it would merely be taken away from a lot of people who are currently benefiting from it. They’d fight to get it back, and that changes the political calculus.

Six million people nationwide, 734,000 in Texas. Remember, while it would take Congress to fix the national problem if it comes to that, there’s nothing stopping Texas or any other state from setting up their own exchange, as the law (as interpreted by two federal judges in Washington, DC) says. State Rep. John Zerwas tried to pass a bill in 2011 to establish an exchange in Texas, on the very reasonable grounds that a state-run exchange would be a better fit than a national one would. Sadly, though not surprisingly, it went nowhere, thanks in large part to Rick Perry’s fanatical opposition. My point is that if Drum is right then any pressure on Congress to fix this would also translate to the state Legislature. Who knows what effect that might have in 2016, or even 2018? Or for that matter, how about this year, too? Seven hundred thousand people losing something that they now have, that sure is a lot. Surely there’s something we can do with that.

Southeast and Harrisburg rail line openings pushed back

Well, at least it’s still in 2014.

THERE’S STILL “some uncertainty” over the exact schedule, but all the pieces needed to allow Metro to open Houston’s second and third light-rail lines won’t be in place until late December, according to reports delivered to a committee of the transportation organization’s board of directors last Friday. Previously, an opening date sometime this fall had been projected for the Southeast and East End lines (though the far eastern end of the East End line won’t come on line until a newly planned overpass is built under over the Union Pacific East Belt freight rail line between the future Altic and Cesar Chavez stations). Delays in the delivery of trains aren’t the sole reason for the late openings, however.

The contractor building the lines won’t be ready to turn over the completed tracks until September 30th to Metro, which will then need approximately 60 days to prepare for their operation. Other factors affecting the schedule: delivery of hundreds of newly redesigned axle counters to monitor train traffic on the rail lines, and construction of Houston First’s new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the downtown convention center.

I suppose the optimistic way to look at this is to observe that hopefully this renders the rail car shortage problem moot. And technically, if the opening is on or before December 20, it’s still “sometime this fall”. Right?

If officials can resolve a handful of remaining issues, the Metropolitan Transit Authority will open its two new rail lines in December, according to a revised schedule. It’s a delay from the fall 2014 estimate officials provided earlier this year.

“It is scheduled as of now to open Christmas week,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “It is going to open before the end of the year.”

Missed it by that much. Look, just get it done this year, OK? Thanks.

Wonkblog on Texas cities’ efforts to combat payday lenders

It’s always nice when the national media notices something positive happening in Texas instead of the usual.

The number of payday and auto title loan outlets has skyrocketed since 2005. (Texas Appleseed)

Four years ago, ACE Cash Express was the company that turned Dallas Council member Jerry Allen into the payday loan industry’s worst enemy.

The day before he was about to celebrate the launch of the Bank On Dallas program, which helps people get bank accounts, Allen got a call from a lobbyist asking if he would meet with the ACE’s executives. He didn’t have time, and declined. But the next day, along with regular council business, it became apparent that two council members had taken the meeting: They made a proclamation declaring ACE a model corporate citizen, after it donated $100,000 to relief efforts in Haiti. “It irritated me that these guys thought they could play that game,” Allen said. “It was game on.”

Texas has been a gold mine for payday lenders since 2005, when a court ruling sanctioned a loophole in usury laws that allowed them to charge whatever interest they pleased. Storefronts proliferated to the point where, according to a 2012 report by Texas Appleseed, the state accounted for 60 percent of the four biggest publicly traded firms’ profits. A major push by religious and community groups to pass restrictions in the state legislature failed in its last biannual session, in 2013; they only managed to require that borrowers be provided with certain disclosures when they took out loans.

Allen, however, had already started pushing on a different front. In 2011, he got an ordinance passed that limited the number of installments on a loan to four, each of which must pay down 25 percent of the loan principal, and can’t exceed 20 percent of a borrower’s paycheck. On top of that, the council passed zoning restrictions that prevented new shops from opening within certain distances from highways, residential areas, and other payday lenders.

It’s not really an aggressive set of rules. Because municipalities aren’t allowed to legislate much on top of an area already regulated by the state, Dallas didn’t limit the actual interest or fees the lenders could charge, so as to remain safe from legal challenges. Still, Allen says, not one single new “credit service organization,” as they’re called in the state, has applied to set up shop in Dallas since it passed. And meanwhile, 17 other cities — including most of the largest, besides Fort Worth — have passed similar rules. That’s left advocates, especially Allen, feeling triumphant.

“You can run, but you better run fast, because we’ve got jets on,” Allen says. “Go down your rabbit holes, because we’re going to put concrete in ’em. We’ve got ’em on the run, and we’re shooting ’em in the back.”

Allen doesn’t hold out much hope that Texas’ next legislative session will significantly strengthen or standardize the ordinances that cities have been adopting on their own; he’s just hoping the conservative House won’t overrule them. In the mean time, he’s waiting for the CFPB’s expected rulemaking in the fall, which could include national requirements for a borrower’s ability to pay back loans, even though the agency can’t cap the interest rates outright. And importantly, he’s working to develop alternative banking services, so people don’t find themselves in Gail Rowland’s shoes in the first place — a common critique of the industry, which says people will just seek out even worse options if they can’t borrow against their next paycheck.

One possible substitute: Community loan centers, like this one in Brownsville, Tex., which offer more affordable small-dollar loans. They’ll have an easier time expanding once payday lenders retreat, as they have in most places that place serious limits on their operations.

“If there’s a situation where people don’t have access,” Allen says, “well then dad gummit, we’ve got to get it to them.”

The “go where the customers are” approach of Select Federal Credit Union (SFCU) in San Antonio is another possible substitute. I’m glad to see people paying some attention to that, because it undercuts the one argument that the payday lenders have for themselves, and I strongly suspect they will not be able to handle this kind of competition. I had forgotten about the zoning restrictions in the Dallas ordinance. The Houston ordinance doesn’t have anything like that. Not because of the Z-word – we have no problem restricting where bars, liquor stores, and strip clubs can operate; there should be no reason we couldn’t do the same with payday lenders. That’s something I’d like to see considered as an extension of our ordinance down the line, maybe next year. I understand CM Allen’s pessimism about state action on payday lenders, but do keep in mind that one candidate for Governor has helped lead the fight against payday lenders, while the other candidate greatly enabled their expanded presence. Just look at that chart above to see the effect. You want to improve the odds of state action, or at least greatly reduce the odds of any attempt to claw back what the cities have done, you know who to vote for this fall.

Another perspective on residency requirements

The Texas Election Law blog looks at my coverage of the Dave Wilson residency saga and offers his thoughts on the matter.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

The saga of gaming residence for the sake of running for office – what a tangle of legal precedent it provides. Mr. Kuffner has used the occasion of the Wilson lawsuit to suggest some sort of legal reform to our statutory definition of residence, mindful of the weeds and quicksand. Mr. Kuffner’s suggestion is to treat an out-of-territory homestead exemption as a bar to holding office within a territory (assuming the jurisdiction in question has a residence requirement for holding office).

I. IS DOMICILE THAT IMPORTANT?

I guess another way to ask the question is to ask why a person’s domicile is important to office holding, voting, paying taxes, or what-have-you. The short answer is that domicile isn’t important, except when we want it to be important.

[…]

I bring all this up as a reminder that there’s no inherent necessity to link residence with office. If we do make a requirement that someone has to consider a district their “home” in order to represent that district, such a policy choice is just that – a choice. Supporters of such requirements would likely argue that members of … say for example … the Houston Community College District Board of Trustees … should be residents of the community college district so that they will be personally invested in the problems and conditions of the district, forced by geographic proximity to share the experience of living in the Houston Community College District. We certainly don’t want those outsiders and strangers who live across the street from the Community College District to come in and impose their seditious ideologies and strange ways, do we?

II. RESIDENCE REQUIREMENTS MIGHT BE A LITTLE ARBITRARY, BUT SO WHAT? GIVEN THAT SUCH REQUIREMENTS DO EXIST FOR MOST LOCAL ELECTIVE OFFICES, HOW DO WE DEFINE THOSE REQUIREMENTS FAIRLY?

Well, what is “fair?” I mean, any definition of domicile will involve some subjective standard for determining the sincerity of a person’s … hearth-cleaving. (Hearth-cleaving is my made-up term for domiciliary intent; it means, “emotional and physical ties to the one place in all the world that is home.”)

Legislatures, disgruntled losing candidates, judges, juries, voters, and angry political rivals have searched high and low for some universally applicable sure-fire objective test or standard for hearth-cleaving that would guarantee the exclusion of the carpetbagging outsider from office. But for every bright line test, there will come some sympathetic officeholder whose exclusion is unfair. Because there is really just one test underlying all these tests of domicile and residence. Is the candidate or officeholder one of us, or is the candidate or officeholder not one of us?

III. SO, TO SUM UP, RESIDENCE REQUIREMENTS ARE ARBITRARY, SUBJECTIVE, AND A SOURCE OF ENDLESS FACTUAL DISPUTE, AND THEY ALWAYS WILL BE, AND THAT’S JUST INHERENT IN THE IDEA OF HOME, COMMUNITY, AND BELONGING OR NOT BELONGING TO A PLACE?

Yup.

Fair enough. As I’ve said, at least we now have a standard for our residency requirements, and clearly that standard is pretty loose. It’s loose enough that one could certainly make a reasonable case that they have no meaning and we ought to get rid of them. I’ve already expressed my preference for having some kind of meaningful requirement, and as the TELB notes you know what I would like to see done about it. Your mileage may vary on that, and while I can see the appeal of leaving this as a campaign issue rather than a legal issue, that’s not my first choice. This is why we have elections, I suppose.

I’ll stipulate that I was driven in part by animus for Dave Wilson, a man who has richly earned the animus of many, many people. It’s also about my dislike of people who are not residents of Houston but are nonetheless hellbent on meddling in its political affairs. I get the argument that some people have made that they work here, they own businesses here, and so forth. I get it, I’m just not persuaded by it. Some arguments can be settled by existing laws, empirical data, analogous examples, or cold hard logic. This isn’t one of those arguments. This is how I see it, and I make no apologies for that. If you don’t see it the same way, that’s fine. I’m not claiming that I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m just stating my preference, with which you’re welcome to disagree. I’m okay with that, and I hope you are, too.

Perry’s border surge

Stupid.

Gov. Rick Perry, leaping again into the national spotlight on illegal immigration, announced Monday he is sending up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border, where an influx of young Central Americans has overwhelmed the federal government.

Democrats blasted the decision as a political stunt by a governor with presidential ambitions. But Perry, who has the power to call up Guard troops to deal with a broad variety of crises, said Texas had to act because the federal government has offered nothing but “lip service and empty promises” while the border is overrun with illegal activity.

“I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children from Central America are detained in squalor,” Perry told a packed press conference at the Texas Capitol. “We are too good a country for that to occur.”

Monday’s announcement marked the second time this month that Perry, who is considering another run for the White House in 2016, has thrust himself into the center of national debate about the crisis along border. He met with President Obama in Dallas on July 9, in part, to press his demands that the feds send — and pay for — a National Guard deployment.

Absent a federal activation, Perry said he acted on his own, meaning that Texans will pick up the $12 million-a-month tab authorities say the deployment will cost. The governor and other Republican elected officials said they would ask the federal government to pay for the mobilization.

I know what my answer to that request would be. Look, we all know the reason for this. It’s one part Perry 2016, and one part a response to the fear and fear of the voters he’s trying to woo. I know what Perry hopes to accomplish by this, but I have no idea what the Guard is supposed to be doing. These are children, for Christ’s sake, not criminals. God help us all if something goes wrong. TPM, PDiddie, and Stace, who has reactions from numerous Democratic officials, have more.

SH 130 operator in default

But it’s not default-default just yet.

Speed Limit 85

Although the company that built and operates the southern leg of the Texas 130 toll road recently managed to work out a payment extension with its lenders, an investor service that monitors the project still considers it in default.

Moody’s Investor Service issued a report last week, saying SH 130 Concession Company LLC did not have enough money to make a June 30 loan payment, which Moody’s predicted last month would likely happen.

“Moody’s view is that the failure to meet the full payment that was originally scheduled … constitutes a ‘default’ under Moody’s definition,” the July 8 report said.

However, the concession company worked out a deal with its senior lenders June 26, “which allowed for an undisclosed partial payment” and which also pushed back the deadline to pay off the remaining payment until Dec. 15, the report said.

That means the project is not in legal default. The report said the extension also gives the senior lenders time to restructure the debt.

[…]

In the case of a legal default, control of the project would transfer from the borrower to the lender, said Karan Bhanot, a finance professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Business. That’s not what’s happening in this case.

Instead, Moody’s is applying its own, stricter definition of default.

See here for the background. I think the odds that they can escape legal default are slim, but I suppose one should never underestimate the ability of companies like that to wheedle extensions and exceptions for long periods of time. I just hope TxDOT is ready to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart.

San Antonio’s “Little India”

I love stories like this.

On a recent Saturday morning, about two dozen men in team jerseys gathered on grounds in the far North Side with their kits of helmets, bats and protective gear, pumped to play cricket.

The scoreboard went up. Stumps were placed 66 feet apart, defining the wicket. Morning drizzle gave way to sunshine, and the match started, with a jumble of sounds — the crack of leather-covered balls against willow cricket bats and eight Indian dialects as players shouted encouragement to teammates on the pitch.

While the only “hard ball” format in town, which because of the weight of the ball isn’t necessarily for beginners, it wasn’t the only game of cricket played that day in San Antonio.

South Asian immigrants, primarily from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been a growing presence here, with many of them taking high-skill positions with economic powerhouses such as Valero Energy Corp., H-E-B and the South Texas Medical Center.

Off the job, they gravitate toward the game most have been playing since preschool.

Some of the players are transitory, in town on one- or two-year work contracts. But many others have brought their wives, are starting families and are pursuing permanent residency or U.S. citizenship.

As a result of the influx, clusters of Indian and Pakistani grocery stores and restaurants — known as “little India” — have sprouted near the headquarters of USAA, a major importer of South Asian information technology workers, and close to the Medical Center, the workplace of scores of Indian-born physicians and medical researchers.

[…]

[Sol Hooda, a real estate agent who was one of the founders of the Alamo City Cricket League] who was born in Bangladesh, estimates between 250 and 400 South Asians lived here when he moved to San Antonio in the early 1990s. Now, he said, the number is in the thousands.

“A lot of people are coming from California, Chicago, New York, Atlanta,” he said. “I have several clients that were (on) temporary visas, but now they’re permanent. So they decided, ‘Hey, let’s buy a home.’ And they make good money, their credit is good, so they can afford to buy.”

Dr. Jayesh Shah, president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, said there are now as many as 3,000 families of Indian origin in the city and about 300 physicians.

Largely because Shah lives here, the city hosted the association’s 32nd annual convention last week. The gathering of doctors from around the country included appearances by U.S. surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy, Miss America Nina Davuluri (the first Indian-American to win the crown) and a live video address from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Part of the event was a celebration of “Mexican-Indian” culture, Shah said, including a tribute to La Meri, a San Antonio dancer who became proficient in Indian dance.

There also was daily yoga, a fashion show and a performance by Bollywood music stars.

It was be a chance to show off San Antonio’s charms to a well-heeled demographic.

“It matches the Indian climate, kind of,” Shah said. “And San Antonio is a nice city. It’s a big city, but it’s small, you know, and everybody’s well connected to each other.”

The Indian population here is small-scale compared with cities such as Houston, New York, Chicago and San Jose, California. But its growth fits in with a wave of immigration that has made Indians the U.S.’s third-largest immigrant group by country of origin, behind Mexico and China.

One in seven patients in America is now seen by Indian-born physician, Shah said.

I worked two summers at USAA while I was in college in the 80s, and I was reasonably familiar with the “Little India” area described above, but suffice it to say it was different back then. Consider this separate but related to the other recent stories about demographic changes in Texas’ cities. The emergence of not one but two cricket leagues is a bonus.

Planned Parenthood comes out swinging

Good to see.

Planned Parenthood’s political arm is embarking on the most aggressive campaign it has ever waged in Texas, with plans to spend $3 million to turn out voters for Democratic candidates including Sens. Wendy Davis for governor and Leticia Van de Putte for lieutenant governor.

Bolstered by a $1 million donation from a single backer, Planned Parenthood’s latest Texas-based political action fund is sparking concerns among anti-abortion activists who expect to be outgunned financially by the effort that has a particular focus on women voters.

[…]

The new PAC, called Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, is intended to bolster the top of the Democratic ticket, along with a slate of state House candidates and the Democrat running for Davis’ open Senate seat. The group also endorsed Rep. Sarah Davis, the only Republican who voted against last year’s tighter abortion restrictions.

Created just four months ago, the PAC already has more than $1 million cash on hand, mostly through the $1 million donation from Planned Parenthood Chair Cecilia Boone. It’s only the third contribution of that amount recorded by any candidate or PAC this election cycle.

The endeavor will be coordinated with a new Texas-based Planned Parenthood 501c4 group, a tax exempt nonprofit that does not have to disclose contributors.

Planned Parenthood says the nonprofit is set up to handle administrative costs, while the bulk of the spending will be done through its PAC that makes contributors known to the public.

Despite having a long-established presence in Texas, state data shows it’s the first time Planned Parenthood’s political arm has dedicated this type of financial firepower to Texas’ elections.

[…]

Planned Parenthood organizers said they will parlay the PAC money into an aggressive field program to reach more than 300,000 women – including Democrats and Republicans identified as receptive to their message – through phone banks, door-to-door visits and direct mail. The campaign will also include a heavy dose of digital outreach that will include radio ads and online ads, along with social media.

That’s great and exciting and all, but I have to ask: What the hell took so long for someone to figure out this was a good idea? It’s not exactly rocket science, and the bad guys have been doing it for years now. More in the primaries than in November, I admit, but still. How is it that the light bulb never went on before now? And where are the other groups that ought to be doing the same thing? If I don’t see at least one more story like this about a similar organization between now and November, I’m going to be deeply annoyed.

Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant, said Planned Parenthood’s spending can slice two ways for Davis.

On one hand, it will put the abortion spotlight back on Davis and could stymie her messaging as a candidate focused on a broad range of policies. Mackowiak said, however, it can also provide more resources for her campaign, which is at a 3-1 cash disadvantage compared to Abbott, and maybe even provide a bit of cover on the issue.

“The campaign knows that talking about abortion is a net loser for her,” he said. “These outside groups can focus on maximizing the pro-choice vote while Wendy stays above that fray.”

I basically agree with Mackowiak, but not for the reason he has in mind. The issue here for Davis, as I’ve said before, is that there’s precious little she can do as Governor to advance reproductive rights. She can’t undo or roll back HB2, the bill she famously filibustered, she can’t restore funding to family planning services or Planned Parenthood. She can’t even introduce a bill to do any of these things, not that they’d go anywhere if she could. The one thing she can do is be the last line of defense against further assaults on women’s health and reproductive freedom, via the veto pen. Vitally important, to be sure, and something that needs to be said, but talking about defense doesn’t strike me as very inspiring. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that if she did speak more about it, the nattering types that have complained Davis has not talked enough about abortion would complain that she’s focusing on it too much.

Be that as it may, apocalyptic scenarios and desperate appeals to hold the line are exactly the sort of thing that outside groups are made for. They can get as hyperbolic as they want and do whatever they can to scare targeted voters to the ballot box. (Again, the mind boggles that we hadn’t been doing this before now.) In addition, PPVT and any other groups that want to jump in can shill for candidates other than just Wendy Davis as well. Certainly they’d want to push for Leticia Van de Putte, but including Sam Houston and Mike Collier – yes, I know that the Comptroller has little to nothing to do with abortion, but remember that Collier is running against the guy who sponsored HB2 – would also make sense and would be a nice little boost to their campaigns.

So jump in with both feet, PPVT, and invite your friends to jump in with you. There’s plenty of people in Texas to help fund this kind of effort. We need them all to keep some of their money in state and do their part to help the good guys win in November.

Texas EquuSearch wins one in court

Good.

Texas EquuSearch will resume flying drones during their search-and-recovery missions after a federal appeals court ruled Friday that a government “cease and desist” order banning their use wasn’t valid.

In February, a Federal Aviation Administration official sent the volunteer group an email, saying its use of unmanned aircraft to search for missing people was illegal.

“He was overstepping his boundaries,” Equu­Search founder Tim Miller said Friday after the Washington, D.C.-based appellate court issued its ruling.

Texas EquuSearch stopped using drones after receiving the government’s email, then filed a lawsuit against the agency.

[…]

Although the court’s decision dismissed the lawsuit, it achieved the desired results of confirming that Texas EquuSearch could continue using drones, said Brendan Schulman, who represented Texas EquuSearch in the case.

“The FAA’s instructions to stop using (drones) were not legally binding. They were just advisory in nature,” Schulman said.

See here for the background. As I said at the time, I could see no good reason why Texas EquuSearch should be barred from using drones in its search-and-rescue missions. There should certainly be some regulation of drone use, but any sensible set of rules should allow for this kind of use. (Fun question to ask at your next candidate forum: Which should be regulated more tightly, guns or drones?) I’m glad to see them get this ruling.

Chron agrees that the Astrodome Park plan is silly

So there you have it.

There is something uniquely Houston about tearing down an historic structure to build a memorial commemorating the history of that very structure. But that is exactly what the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Texans have suggested in their recent proposal for the future of the Astrodome.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett minced no words when he called it a “silly plan.”

Those two primary tenants of NRG park pitched their $66 million idea to county commissioners two weeks ago, which involves razing the Dome and replacing it with green space, including historic markers and possible event stages. It seems like a less ambitious version of the steel-skeleton idea proposed by University of Houston architecture graduate student Ryan Slattery.

We’ve previously supported the idea of turning the Dome site into something resembling a “Discovery Green – South,” but only as a last resort. This proposal falls short of that standard, lacking the ambition and easy access, not to mention funding necessary to create a park that can match Discovery Green. This plan also feels far too willing to ignore the potential that continues to exist in the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Emmett has opposed any demolition, and says that this proposal is a “nonstory.” After all, the Dome belongs to the citizens of Harris County, not a professional sports team.

But it is hard to ignore a plan sponsored by the two largest users of the NRG complex, especially given that they’ve remained generally quiet through all the past ideas, but for their own previously proposed demolition and parking lot plan.

See here for the story so far. I do think it’s a little early to completely dismiss the idea, since the Rodeo and the Texans have not said how much of the tab they would be willing to pick up and what (if any) thought has been given to programming and paying for programming. Of course, the longer we go without any word from the Texans and the Rodeo on these subjects, the more reasonable it is to view this idea through a cynical lens. As the Chron notes, the Rodeo and the Texans have made their preference for demolition clear all along. If they’re serious about this being something more than just a way to make demolition more viable, then it’s on them to spell out the details. We’re waiting.

Bikes on buses update

Keeps going up.

More METRO bus rides are bringing along their bicycles to complete their trip and get from point A to point B.

In June, the number of bikes on buses hit a record 21,941, a 32 percent increase over June a year ago. For the first nine months of this fiscal year (Oct. 2013 to June 2014), bike boardings rose 50 percent over the same period a year ago to 178,401.

Biking in the city is a trend that’s being promoted by city and county officials. METRO’s Kingsland Park & Ride bike partnership included $84,000 donated by METRO to build a bridge, path and parking that leads to a trail expanded by Harris County. The city donated bike racks for parking.

The trend continues, as did the good B-Cycle news. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s important for these networks to intersect and act as extensions of one another. The more we can do to facilitate nor-car travel, the better off we’ll all be. That includes the drivers, who will find themselves in less traffic. Adding other kinds of capacity will also serve to add capacity to the roads.

Weekend link dump for July 20

“And that means that the Koch brothers, who spent an estimated $30 million on ads opposing Obamacare, might have actually had a hand in getting people signed up for insurance coverage.”

Reading the polls is a little trickier than usual this year.

As Neil Gaiman once said, George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

Financial literacy is overrated.

I loved the World Cup this year, but I’ve really been waiting for the Women’s World Cup to begin. I hope the third time can be the charm for professional women’s soccer in the US.

You think that traffic jam you’re sitting in now is bad?

Yogi Berra is a mensch.

Don’t use hotel business center computers if you know what’s good for you.

Were you a Prodigy user? Do you still have the hard drive from the computer where you logged on to Prodigy? If so, then this may be of interest to you.

“The Church of England has voted to allow women to enter its top ranks as bishops.” In other news, it is the year 2014.

RIP, Alice Coachman Davis, first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Clearly, I need to encourage my daughters to keep busy on their rainbow looms.

“I’ll be the first to admit that the Texas medical system has its problems. But if the biggest “health threats” these kids from Central America bring are head lice, some twisted ankles and 23 cases of chickenpox, well, Texas can handle that.”

“There have always been cranky old people asserting that things were better when they were kids and whatever is happening now is terrible […] and presumably there always will be cranky old people. But a confluence of circumstances has created a situation in which conservative politics has gotten bound up with crankly oldersterism in a somewhat weird way.”

As one of the commenters to this said, “If anyone in history has ever deserved a religion more than Weird Al, I don’t know who it is.”

“Not to let facts intrude on their paranoid fantasies, but let’s not forget what the IRS scandalette actually involved. There’s never been any credible allegation that anyone was audited because of their political beliefs. There’s never been any allegation that the IRS “targeted” donors to Republican super PACs. The worst thing that happened was that some Tea Party groups that had applied for 501(c)(4) status—claiming, utterly falsely, that they were charitable, non-political organizations, I might add—had to wait longer than they should have to get approval on their applications. (And, I have to repeat, when you’re waiting for your approval, you’re permitted under the law to act as though you’ve gotten your approval. You can raise and spend money, which they did.)”

“Down with pipe shots. Up with throwing a fastball and letting destiny take over after that. Just make sure you call it what we’re all expecting. Even better, don’t call it anything at all.”

RIP, Johnny Winter, Texas blues legend.

Whatever you may think about NFL cheerleaders and how they are treated by the various teams, you have to admire Kriste Lewis and her determination to live life to its fullest.

Tort “reform” for thee, but not for me.

Want to buy one of the Pearls Before Swine strips that featured art by Bill Watterson? Go here, and be prepared to spend some big bucks. It’s for charity, if that helps.

Quit disappearing Rickroll videos, YouTube!

RIP, James Garner, iconic leading man.

When is that appeal of the Texas same sex marriage ruling going to happen?

A little later than originally planned.

RedEquality

It’s been five months since a federal judge struck down Texas’ bans on same-sex marriage.

But Attorney General Greg Abbott says he needs more time to file a brief appealing U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s February decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court.

Abbott’s brief was initially to the 5th Circuit on July 9, but his office has now requested — and received — two extensions. The brief is now due July 29, according to court records.

“Applicants do not seek this extension for purposes of delay, but rather so that appellate counsel Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell has sufficient time to prepare a brief that is thorough, accurate, and helpful to the Court,” Abbott’s office wrote in a July 15 motion requesting the second extension of 10 days. “The issue in this case, the constitutionality of Texas’ same-sex marriage laws, is important and complex. The additional time would allow Mr. Mitchell to give this case the attention that it deserves. Besides this case, Mr. Mitchell also has obligations with respect to other multiple lawsuits including challenges to Texas’ voter ID laws, redistricting, an upcoming bench trial concerning Texas’ abortion laws, and a United States Supreme Court capital case undergoing merits briefing. Even with the previous seven-day extension, appellants are still within the court’s usual limit of forty days.”

Attorneys for two same-sex couples challenging Texas’ marriage bans in the case, known as De Leon v. Perry, opposed Abbott’s request for an extension.

“The Solicitor General’s vague claim of being too busy to prioritize this appeal simply does not justify further delaying this dispute,” attorneys for the couples wrote. “Appellees are suffering irreparable harm due to the violation of their Constitutional rights, and that harm should not be extended merely because nearly five months have proven an insufficient amount of time for the Solicitor General to prepare Appellants’ opening brief.”

In May, the 5th Circuit denied a request from the plaintiffs to expedite consideration of the case.

Neel Lane, one of the attorneys representing the couples, told Lone Star Q this week that Abbott’s office had given him “no clue as to why they had to seek the extension.”

“But I should add that extensions are not unusual at all,” Lane said. “A total of three extra weeks won’t be material.”

Lane said under the new timeline, his side’s response brief will be due Sept. 2, with the state‘s reply due Sept. 19. The court has not scheduled oral arguments.

You can see a copy of the request for extension at that link. The original ruling was on February 26, so it will be seven months from then till all briefs are due, assuming no further delays, then oral arguments at a later date and finally the ruling. I figure that’s at least a nine or ten-month span, optimistically putting the ruling at around the end of the year. As a point of comparison, yesterday the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the earlier ruling that struck down the Sooner State’s anti-same sex marriage law. A survey of the press releases I’ve received on this case shows that the original ruling was made on January 14, oral arguments concluded on April 17, and the ruling by the 10th Circuit was handed down on July 18, or a hair more than six months total time. That’s a month less than it’s taking Texas just to get all the briefs filed. I’m sure they’re stretched pretty thin at the AG’s office between this and redistricting and voter ID and all those other lawsuits they file against the federal government every day, but that doesn’t mean we ought to feel any sympathy for them for it. Juanita has more.

Beaver versus beaver

It’s a trademark infringement lawsuit. What did you think I was referring to?

In the animal world it may be that no two beavers are the same but semi-aquatic rodent diversity does not extend to the world of the convenience store, at least according to Buc-ee’s.

The Texas-based legends of convenience store bathrooms and beef jerky have issued a trademark infringement lawsuit against beaver rivals Frio Beaver, a new store opened in Concan, Texas.

The suit, filed in federal court earlier this month, contends that the new store is attempting to trade off Buc-ee’s success by copying its logo and store concept.

[…]

In the animal world it may be that no two beavers are the same but semi-aquatic rodent diversity does not extend to the world of the convenience store, at least according to Buc-ee’s.

The Texas-based legends of convenience store bathrooms and beef jerky have issued a trademark infringement lawsuit against beaver rivals Frio Beaver, a new store opened in Concan, Texas.

The suit, filed in federal court earlier this month, contends that the new store is attempting to trade off Buc-ee’s success by copying its logo and store concept.

The Southeast Texas Record appears to have had the first report on this. You can judge for yourself how similar the two logos are and how likely a person might be confused by it. It’s not the first time Buc-ee’s has gotten litigious over a potential competitor it thought was too close to its own concept or design. TM Daily Post has more.

More on the partisan lines of the Uber fight

From Wonkblog, another interesting look at how the fight over the so-called “sharing economy”, in particular transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, is playing out nationally.

In its short life, however, the sharing economy has seldom reflected a clear schism between Republicans and Democrats — an argument Grover Norquist tries to make today in a provocative opinion piece for Reuters. Companies like Uber, he writes with Patrick Gleason, can help the GOP “gain control” of cities where they’ve been all but absent for years. Their logic:

Yet despite the Democrats’ urban dominance, cities may soon be up for grabs. For the party’s refusal to embrace the innovative technology and disruptive businesses that have greatly improved city life presents a challenge to Democrats — and an opportunity for Republicans.

Democrats are facing a tough choice. A big part of their base is the unions now facing off against such disruptive innovations as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and charter schools. Do Democrats support the regulations pushed by taxi and other unions that help to protect the status quo but can also stifle competition? Or do they embrace innovative technologies and businesses that expand transportation options, create jobs and are increasingly welcomed by another key Democratic constituency: urban dwellers, particularly young urban dwellers?

Norquist and Gleason are right that there will no doubt be political fallout from the sharing economy. I recently met a number of cab drivers in Chicago who pledged to me that they would fight against the reelection of Mayor Rahm Emanuel because of his support for services like Uber and Lyft there. But it’s not at all clear that this fallout will favor Republicans.

[…]

The point here isn’t that Democrats are all supporters of the sharing economy. It’s that support isn’t as contingent on ideology as Norquist and Gleason suggest. And the political lines are definitely not so tidy as to suggest that Republicans can leverage liberals’ “refusal to embrace the innovative technology” to sweep back into favor with urban voters. There’s room here for Democrats to acknowledge that markets can partly regulate themselves — with the help of technology — in ways that weren’t possible in the past; there’s room for Republicans to acknowledge that we need laws mandating commercial auto insurance anyway.

We’ve heard a lot from Democrats on these issues precisely because they’re playing out in cities so far. And, inevitably, elected Democrats like Rahm Emanuel will be forced to take positions that will please some core constituents at the expense of others. The tension between unions and young consumers is particularly compelling. Republicans should absolutely jump into that fray. They haven’t found a lot of reasons to talk to urban voters lately — if people like Norquist think this is one, that’s great.

But the fact that this debate isn’t neatly drawn into liberal and conservative camps is a testament to the policy issues raised by the sharing economy: They’re incredibly, incredibly messy. They also aren’t purely about big-picture ideological battles over less regulation or more union power, the kind of divisive themes that animate federal policy debates. They’re about the gritty details of auto insurance policies and tax receipts and access for disabled consumers. That’s not the stuff of pithy partisan slogans.

As author Emily Badger notes, this issue has not played out along partisan lines so far. Uber and Lyft have made their way into cities like San Francisco and Seattle working with the local governments there. Trying to make this into an R-versus-D fight will surely be a loser at least in the short term precisely because cities are overwhelmingly Democratic right now. Uber and Lyft can’t get approved in Houston without at least two Democrats supporting it, and indeed can’t even come up for a vote without Mayor Parker putting it on the agenda.

Of course, Norquist is playing a long game, and a few losses up front aren’t a setback to him but a catalyst. I still have a hard time buying this as a wedge issue. Norquist envisions a future army of disillusioned Uber (and Lyft and AirBnB and whatever other sharing economy companies are out there trying to gain a foothold) users turning to his brand of small-government deregulators as the saviors of their smartphone apps. But most people who live in cities like having a certain level of service and infrastructure, and they accept that there’s a higher level of taxes to provide for that. It’s not exactly a coincidence that cities tend to be Democratic, after all. If what you really want is lower taxes and you don’t care so much for things like sewer systems and professional fire departments, well, that’s what the suburbs and unincorporated areas are for. It’s not like these are hard to find or move to in most metro areas.

Again, though, this is a long game. Norquist is hoping to bring younger people – those who are way more likely to be Uber users in the first place – to a more generalized preference of deregulation and less government. I like to think that the millennial crowd already has a clear view of what he’s trying to sell them, but let’s all admit that predicting what politics will look like in 20 or 30 years is considerably sillier than trying to predict what it will look like in 2 or 3 years, or even 2 or 3 months. One reason for that is because nobody knows what society will look like in 20 or 30 years. Uber thinks driverless cars will eventually replace their human chauffeurs. Some other people think driverless cars will be the end of Uber and its ilk. Who knows? Maybe society won’t accept driverless cars and unions like SEIU make a push to organize Uber drivers. Anything can happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen.

Collier hits the road

Talking taxes, and our state’s screwed-up appraisal process.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

With about as many local candidates as voters in attendance, the Travis County Democratic Party hosted a “town hall” on property tax reform Friday morning, where everybody agreed with would-be County Commissioner (Precinct 2) Brigid Shea: “The appraisal process is broken.” To fix it – in the current state political climate – will take some doing.

The event, introduced by TCDP Executive Director J.D. Gins, was headlined by Shea and Mike Collier, candidate for state Comptroller, who each spoke briefly and then responded to audience questions. Among the several dozen attendees, Newsdesk counted at least a dozen local candidates – most of them for Austin’s fall City Council elections – and among them likely County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who took the mic for a moment to rattle off some estimates of the financial benefits to county homeowners of substantial tax reform. The forum was also webcast across the state; Shea introduced a brief video produced by Real Values for Texas, a new statewide coalition “taking action to expose the impact of our state’s broken property tax system on homeowners, kids, and local communities.”

The gist of the problem, reiterated Collier and Shea, is that the property tax appraisal system has been allowed to become radically inequitable – even unconstitutional, said Collier. Under the Texas Constitution, properties are required to be assessed at market value for taxation purposes. For individual homeowners, said Collier, that’s mostly what happens; but big industrial and commercial property owners have managed, over the years, by various mechanisms – e.g., limiting exposure, concealing sales prices, and using greater resources to appeal – to be taxed at much lower valuations.

According to Real Values for Texas, the result is a system that, statewide, taxes major commercial and industrial properties at roughly 60% of market value, thereby moving much of that additional burden onto residential homeowners. Shea said that during her campaign visits, the subject is on everyone’s lips (especially in Travis County, where property values continue to surge). “It is hurting people all across our state,” Shea said, “literally driving people out of their homes.”

Collier noted that statewide, the problem must be addressed by the Legislature, which has largely relied on across-the-board spending cuts – especially to public schools – instead of attempting to make the system more equitable. He recommended three basic fixes: 1) tightening the definition of capital property; 2) requiring some form of sale price disclosure (as is required in 46 states); 3) addressing the imbalance in “negotiating power.” Commercial property owners, he pointed out, not only have teams of lawyers to appeal their valuations, but also, if they should win a lawsuit, the appraisal districts must pay any legal costs (not so in reverse). As a result, appraisal officials are motivated to capitulate rather than risk losing contested appeals.

Collier acknowledged that substantial reform will require legislative action, but the comptroller has a “voice, and the data,” to press the Legislature to comprehend the problem and restore equity to the system. He said that the Republican Party in Texas has become the spokesman and representative of big business, and “small businesses need at least one comptroller.” Rather than think first about the needs of big business, he added, state officials need to consider, in order, the needs of “homeowners, consumers, small business, and then big business.”

We’ve talked about this before, and you know how I feel about it. I’m glad to see Collier out and about talking about this – he’s on a two-week statewide tour, including a stop in Atascocita today, to discuss the issue. If he can get his message out, he can put himself in a position to win.

Saturday video break: Cherry Bomb

It’s time for another edition of Same Name, Different Song. Today’s song “Cherry Bomb” is fairly well known in either rendition, though I’d venture to guess that the John Mellencamp version has been on the radio a lot more.

I had Mellencamp’s album “Scarecrow” on vinyl (still have it, I believe), and “Lonesome Jubilee”, from whence this song came, on CD. Tiffany was the big Mellencamp fan in our house – she had all his CDs from “Lonesome Jubilee” forward. We saw him play at the Woodlands Pavilion some 15 years ago, and it was a great show. I don’t know if he’s still touring these days, but if he were to come to Houston again I feel reasonably sure we’d get tickets.

The other song by this name was by The Runaways:

Yeah, no question about these two songs being different. This one was in at least two movies, “Dazed and Confused” and of course “The Runaways”. Maybe not a radio staple, but it got plenty of exposure.

Emmett doesn’t like Astrodome Park

And he’s not afraid to say so.

Hoping to jump-start another discussion about redeveloping the Astrodome, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Thursday called the Houston Texans and the Rodeo’s proposal to demolish the iconic stadium and replace it with a park-like green space “a silly plan” and pleaded with members of the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston to give repurposing a second chance.

“The Astrodome is the only building in the world that’s 350,000 square feet of column-free space,” he told a luncheon crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. “There are a lot of creative people in the world who would love to figure out ways to use the space if we just keep it and make it an option for them.”

The county’s top elected official was not advocating for a specific redevelopment proposal and told association members there is not one currently under consideration by the Harris County Commissioners Court, which will have the final say on any plan to renovate or demolish the structure. Rather, he said that tearing it down would be a waste of a valuable taxpayer-funded asset and that demolition would come back to haunt him in retirement.

The 49-year-old structure “is going to become a critical piece of who we are as a community. It’s not about nostalgia,” he continued. “It’s an asset that belongs to the taxpayers of Harris County and it would be a shame, because I know that I would wake up in retirement at my log cabin 10 or 12 years later and somebody would come forth and say ‘If we just had the Astrodome.’ So, I just wanted to bring that out. I’m starting that discussion again.”

In the last week, Emmett has expressed opposition to a $66 million proposal by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Texans to demolish the stadium and turn it into a grassy, outdoor space like downtown’s Discovery Green where festivals, tailgating and concerts could take place. He did so again on Thursday.

“It’s a silly plan,” he said after his remarks. “I told them: If you’re going to tear it down, just tear it down. I mean, is anybody going to care this is where Harmon Killebrew hit a home run?”

Well, I think some nod to the history of the place if it gets torn down is the least we can do, but that’s a valid point. Judge Emmett was the only distinctly negative voice on Commissioners Court when the idea first surfaced, so this isn’t a big surprise. I’m happy to restart this conversation as well, but the problem is that after all these years there still isn’t an agreed-upon idea for What To Do With The Dome nor a way to pay for it. You’d think that if it was ever the time for a private investor to come forward with a plan, it would be now while we’re experiencing a huge real estate and construction boom. Alternately, the county could float another bond proposal; Emmett acknowledged in an earlier version of this story that they did a lousy job selling the last one, so maybe the next time, if there is one, they’d do better at it.

I don’t know if this is going to go anywhere. The rest of Commissioners Court appears to be receptive to the Astrodome Park idea, though perhaps their enthusiasm will wane a bit if the Rodeo and the Texans get weaselly about how much they’d be willing to pony up for it. Emmett sort of called them out on that, saying he’d oppose the idea even if they picked up the entire tab, which I’m sure they never had in mind. Things are on hold while the Texas Historical Commission is deciding whether or not to grant the Dome historical status. Like I said, I don’t know where we go from here, but one way or another the matter is still open for discussion. Hair Balls, Texas Leftist, and PDiddie, who does like the Astrodome Park idea, have more.

Four for interim Mayor

Four of out five San Antonio City Council members that had said they would like to file a letter of interest for the post of interim Mayor actually filed those letters of interest.

Submitting letters of interest by Wednesday’s 5 p.m. deadline were District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez and District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg.

The 10-member council has called a special meeting for 9 a.m. Tuesday to select a replacement for Mayor Julián Castro, whose term ends May 31. Castro has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Castro plans to resign as mayor once his successor is chosen, and later will be sworn in as HUD secretary.

Not filing a letter of interest was District 7 Councilman Cris Medina, who had expressed interest in the appointment but last week was the target of an anonymous email alleging official wrongdoing, which he vigorously denied. Medina announced Wednesday that he would take a brief leave of absence from council for military training in the Air Force Reserve, adding that fulfilling that commitment prevented him from pursuing the mayoral appointment.

See here for some background, and see The Rivard Report for more on the candidates. The fact that there are only four candidates instead of five changes the nature of the process a bit. Here’s a relevant quote from that Rivard Report post to illustrate why:

Candidates cannot vote for themselves, but they are allowed to abstain from voting and thus avoid giving their vote to anyone else.

A candidate needs six votes to win, and now there are six Council members that are not candidates. In theory, now one of the four contenders could win on a first round vote instead of needing one of his or her competitors to drop out and support their candidacy. The special meeting to do all of this is this coming Tuesday, July 22. We’ll see how it goes.

The wheels on the bus go round and round, even in The Woodlands

Welcome to the wonderful world of transit.

If only…

With help from regional officials, The Woodlands is entering the bus business, a decision that might give south Montgomery County commuters more options down the road.

Population gains pushed the Woodlands-Conroe area from a “small urban area” to a “large urbanized area” of 230,000 residents for the 2010 Census. That bump means someone has to take responsibility for federally awarded transit money.

“Now those dollars are coming to us,” said Nick Wolda, spokesman for The Woodlands Township, the local governing organization.

With the money, however, comes responsibility for overseeing a bus system and stocking up on buses. To get the fleet started, Woodlands officials reached out to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out federal transit money in the Houston area.

Council officials Tuesday approved a $14.1 million agreement that uses $11.3 million in federal funds and $2.8 million from The Woodlands to buy 25 buses over a number of years, starting with five in the first year.

“It is not all the buses they need, but it is gives them a great start,” said Alan Clark, manager of transportation air quality programs for H-GAC.

[…]

Controlling bus service in their communities means the township and city can adjust service more to their liking and move more quickly, Clark said. By owning buses – and potentially having the funding to invest in more lines – transit officials in southern Montgomery County can start to position the buses to meet the area’s explosive growth.

“This is kind of the maturity of these communities,” Clark said. “Everything is coming together on this. They have made additional investments in sidewalk infrastructure.”

I wish them all the best with that. They’re still going to have to deal with the fact that their lack of a street grid and the resulting traffic congestion will severely limit the utility of their bus network, but it’s a start. At least every bus passenger will be one less car on those crowded streets. It ain’t much, but it’s a start.

Friday random ten: What the H?

I love how a single letter can represent a swear word.

1. Philadelphia Freedom – Hall and Oates
2. Stompin’ At The Savoy – Harry Connick, Jr
3. Big Rock Candy Mountain – Harry McClintock
4. Jump Into The Fire – Harry Nilsson
5. My Best Friend’s Girl – Hayseed Dixie
6. Well You Needn’t – Herbie Hancock
7. White Wedding – Herman’s Hermits
8. Black Eyed Suzi – The Honeycutters
9. I Can’t Tame Wild Women – The Hot Club of Cowtown
10. Back In Time – Huey Lewis & The News

Yes, that’s Herman’s Hermits covering Billy Idol. I see nothing wrong with that.

Wilson wins residency fight

That was quick.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson lives in the residence he claimed and can keep his seat on the college system’s board, a jury decided Thursday.

“Thank you,” Wilson shouted when the verdict was announced about 4:30 p.m.

Harris County officials filed a lawsuit seeking to remove Wilson from office on grounds that he did not actually live in an apartment at 5600 W. 34th St. in the HCC district he represents. Because of this, county officials said, he was unqualified to hold his seat.

Jurors disagreed.

[…]

A slew of exhibits by the defense showed that if Wilson doesn’t live in the warehouse, he’s gone to great lengths to make it look like he does.

Wilson’s blood pressure medicine is mailed to 5600 W. 34th St. His bank statements and bills go to the warehouse. His numerous magazine subscriptions – from Forbes to National Geographic and Hemmings Motor News – go there, too. He’s also registered to vote there and lists the address on his driver’s license.

The sticking point is that Wilson’s wife lives on Lake Lane. It’s also where Wilson’s children were raised, where Wilson says he spends his weekends and where the family gathers to celebrate holidays. Wilson also listed the home as his address on tax returns. Wilson says that’s because he wants the check sent to the house, so he can sign it over to his wife.

I’ve said all along that if nothing else I hope we get some kind of standard out of this, because the residency laws as they stand now are ripe for gamesmanship. I don’t know if this definitively settles the matter, but it certainly sets an outer bound, which we could call the Wilson Line. Anything less egregious than what he did is apparently okay.

Yesterday’s story, which focused on the county’s case, showed how Wilson tests boundaries better than any toddler or teenager you’ve ever known.

Houston Community College Trustee Dave Wilson, whose name has become a staple on local election ballots, has made a habit of claiming one residence after another to qualify for his numerous runs for office, a Harris County attorney argued in court Wednesday.

Wilson has also claimed tax exemptions at a home on Lake Lane, which is in the Lone Star College System district. Lake Lane is where his wife lives and where he raised his children, spends his weekends and has his family gatherings, Douglas Ray, an assistant county attorney, told a jury in his opening argument in a case to determine where exactly Wilson lives.

Wilson lives exactly where he says he lives: in a “fully furnished” apartment in a warehouse on W. 34th Street, in District II of the HCC system, defense attorney Keith Gross told the jury. Just because his wife lives on Lake Lane does not mean it has to be his residence, Gross argued.

[…]

Wilson has stated on voter registration cards, drivers licenses, tax and other forms that he has lived at four addresses since 2005, and those addresses all line up with some motive – whether that is to run for office, or take out a tax exemption – Ray told the jury.

“When it’s convenient for him to claim for some economic reason he lives on Lake Lane, he’s lives at Lake Lane,” Ray said. “When he wants to run for office, well he lives wherever he needs to live.”

Wilson lived, and still does live, exactly where he claimed when he filed to run, his attorney said,adding his client spends “more than 70 percent” of his time on 34th Street. He has a driver’s license there, is registered to vote there and has all of his bank statements sent there. He’s lived there since early 2012.

But since moving there, he’s also registered to vote at another address, on Claremont Street, where he never lived, so he could run for an open state Senate seat, Wilson testified during questioning. Wilson said he “intended” to live there, but he did not end up running.

His defense attorney says “nowhere is it ever written” that you can’t live somewhere, if your motive is to run for political office. Wilson, an anti-gay activist, only wants to “improve the community” and has offended people in his quest to do so, Gross said. The case against him is politically motivated and that’s proven by the fact that more than 4,500 Harris County voters are registered at commercial buildings, as Wilson is, and the county isn’t going after any of them, Gross said.

Residence, Wilson and his attorney argued, is based on three factors: volition, intention and action. People can choose to live wherever they want. That they intend to live there, and that they actually hang their hat there make the place a residence.

Basically, Wilson says he lives wherever he says he lives at the time, and that’s sufficient for the law. Nothing else matters – the homestead exemption on the house where his wife lives, the ever-changing nature of the address on his voter registration, the fact that some of his “residences” are not permitted as residential, etc. The law is vague and he’s hardly the first person to take advantage of that. He’s just the most blatant and least apologetic about it.

And now a jury has accepted it. So be it, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s right. More to the point, I don’t think this is how it should be. As you know, I have an idea what I’d like to see the Legislature do about it. I plan to start my lobbying effort shortly.

Council votes to sue over bad pension projections

Game on.

BagOfMoney

Houston City Council on Wednesday paved the way for city attorneys to sue an actuarial firm the city claims gave inaccurate pension estimates that spurred costly changes to firefighters’ retirement benefits in 2001.

[…]

Houston’s contribution rate to the fire pension skyrocketed soon after the changes were approved, despite an actuarial report from Towers Perrin, now Towers Watson, that predicted the payment rate would remain flat for a decade. This year, the city is contributing 33 percent of payroll to firefighters’ retirements, more than double the rate prior to the changes.

In the event of a payout in the proposed lawsuit, the money would be used to reimburse the city for the Susman Godfrey’s fees and expenses up to $970,000, and the firm would get a third of the remaining cash, with the city keeping the rest.

See here and here for the background. Based on past history, the city would have a decent chance of winning. How much they might stand to collect remains to be seen, but it likely would fall in the “not nothing, but not going to make a big dent in the unfunded liability” bucket.

It really is about more than just marriage

Jo Ann Santangelo writes for the Observer about what it means to be in a same-sex marriage that isn’t recognized as legal by the state of Texas.

RedEquality

In 2012, my wife, Kate, and I traveled more than 3,400 miles from Austin and back to marry legally in New York City. Seven years earlier, in November 2005, our fellow Texas voters had approved Proposition 2, amending the Texas Constitution to declare that “Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman,” thereby banning same-sex marriage within the state’s borders.

Like other same-sex couples who live in Texas, we are denied access to 1,138 federal rights, benefits and privileges because our marriage is not recognized here. That list, tallied in a 2003 report by the General Accounting Office, includes Social Security, military and veterans’ benefits, employment rights, and immigration and naturalization privileges.

In the eyes of Texas, Kate is not my next of kin. To approximate the status that a legally recognized marriage would confer, our attorney has recommended that we file six different contracts: a medical power of attorney and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act release; statutory durable power of attorney; declaration of guardian; directive to physicians; appointment of agent to control disposition of remains; and a last will and testament.

We have recently begun trying to become parents. Kate will be the birth mother. A lawyer has been necessary in this process as well. Months ago we started discussing the paperwork that will be required for me to adopt our child. We discovered that even after I file this paperwork, am screened and declared a fit mother by Child Protective Services, and appear in front of a judge, my name can never appear on our child’s birth certificate due to Texas Health and Safety Code 192.008, which states, “The supplementary birth certificate of an adopted child must be in the names of the adoptive parents, one of whom must be a female, named as the mother, and the other of whom must be a male, named as the father.”

You can see that GAO report here; it’s actually an update to a report from 1997, prepared after the passage of the now-unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act that listed a mere 1,049 “federal statutory provisions classified to the United States Code in which benefits, rights, and privileges are contingent on marital status or in which marital status is a factor”. All these rights that the rest of us get to take for granted were a part of the argument against Prop 2 in 2005, but unfortunately they fell on deaf ears. The courts are likely to grant same sex couples the right to have their marriages recognized and to get married wherever they want, but a lot of those “benefits, rights, and privileges” are codified into state laws as well, and their practical effect won’t disappear overnight when and if SCOTUS makes a favorable ruling in the Utah case. As the Riggs and Hanna case showed, there are lots more issues to be sorted out, and this will take time because the Lege is unlikely to deal with the business of repealing these soon-to-be-unconstitutional laws. I mean hell, the anti-sodomy statute struck down by the Lawrence ruling of 2003 is still on the books. It’s going to take a lot of court cases clear these matters up one by one, which will mean a lot more harm and hardship to many same sex couples.

In her essay, Santagelo talked to six other same sex couples about their experiences, including one of the two couples that served as plaintiffs in the case that struck down Texas’ marriage law, which is now pending appeal.

Nicole: “[When we were discussing having children] we thought, ‘Do we get married now even though it’s not legal in our own state?’ We knew we wanted to have kids, but we didn’t want to have kids and not be married. We’re both pretty traditional people. There’s just no way we’re going to have kids out of wedlock, and I wanted to be able to tell [our son] that we’re as married as we can possibly be. … She had an inordinately hard labor, a C-section that wasn’t planned. It became an emergency. For about 30 minutes we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Cleo: “It only comes up in some of the most vulnerable times. During the labor and delivery—you can’t adopt a child while he or she is in utero, so if something had happened … they become essentially orphans, they don’t have a second parent. The [legal arrangements] that we had, she could make decisions for me. She couldn’t make health decisions for him. We didn’t even think of that. You don’t think about those things. You think that you’re covered, you talk to your lawyer, you’ve got everything filed and prepared and ready, and then you’re in this situation and all of a sudden it dawns on you, ‘Oh my God.’ It really drove home the need to change the laws in this state. … So we are vulnerable, and that’s one of the reasons why we feel so strongly about the lawsuit that we’re in. We want to make sure that all the default laws that are afforded to different-sex couples are given to us as well, because we’re a family and we feel that if the state really wants to promote responsible procreation, then why are you making it harder for us?”

Nicole: “You don’t have an accidental kid in a gay relationship. There is so much intention and planning that goes into having a kid. There’s nothing irresponsible about that.”

Reading that just kills me. I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the hell that Nicole Dimetman and her son would have faced if tragedy had struck, but the point is that she shouldn’t have had to think about that. The sooner we as a society fix this injustice, the better.

B-Cycle keeps racking up good numbers

Great to see.

From meager beginnings, Houston’s bikesharing program has blossomed into a big draw for visitors and locals looking for a quick ride.

For the first six months of 2014, Houston B-Cycle logged 43,530 checkouts, according to agency data. The system had about 2,000 checkouts in all of 2012, the year it started with three stations and 18 bikes.

“We are excited about continuing the expansion and operations,” Houston B-Cycle director Will Rub said. “We still feel like we are on track for our five-year plan for having 100 stations and 1,000 bikes by 2017.”

The smooth ride to a 29-station, 225-bike system hasn’t been all downhill, however. Use of a couple of stations meant to move B-Cycle into targeted areas is well below expectations, and three bikes, valued at about $1,200 each, have gone missing.

The bumps are balanced by good ridership even in the city’s hotter months, if June is any indication. As the weather warmed, the system still averaged more than 220 checkouts a day. Based on calculations of how long the bikes were checked out and an average travel distance, officials estimate the bikes have traveled more than 143,000 miles this year.

[…]

Denver’s growth is a good aspiration for Houston, however. Its system, one of the country’s largest, logged 263,000 trips last year. Denver has 84 stations and 624 bikes.

Houston’s long-term plans mirror what Denver has already built in some sections of the city. Stations are spaced about every 1,000 feet, making it easy for a rider to grab a bike for a quick trip down the street for lunch or an appointment. From there, stations have been added to expand the edges of the system.

Although Houston has a group of committed, frequent riders, it hasn’t hit the level where grabbing a bike becomes a viable option for most people, Rub said.

“Right now we don’t have the station density that really contributes to it being a really integrated network,” Rub said.

Houston B-Cycle is hoping to lure a title sponsor – like New York’s 6,000-bike system did with Citibank – to commit $4 million over five years. Paired with grant money and federal funds for air quality improvements, the title sponsor would give Houston the capital to blanket many areas, such as the Texas Medical Center.

“I think that network in and of itself is going to create some very impressive numbers when we are in the (medical center),” Rub said.

I renewed my membership this weekend. I don’t use B-Cycle as often as I thought I would, but when I do use it, it’s been for the reasons I expected – to get me places in and near downtown that are too far to reasonably walk but which make no sense for me to drive to. A lot of folks – some visitors, some locals – have used B-Cycle on impulse, which is good for the system since they pay a slightly higher rate than members do. It would be nice to understand why some of the stations have been lightly used, and as I’ve said before I hope all interested parties are talking about how best to integrate B-Cycle with the new bus routes going forward. I can’t wait to see what B-Cycle’s numbers look like next year and the year after.

Dave Wilson residency lawsuit is underway

Almost missed this.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

A trial is set to begin Tuesday morning to determine whether Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson actually lived in the district in which he ran last November.

Wilson, who ousted former HCC Chairman Bruce Austin in the Nov. 5 election by 26 votes, is being sued by the Harris County attorney. The lawsuit says Wilson did not live in the college system’s District II – the bulk of which sits in northeast Harris County – when he ran for office. Wilson has contended that he lives in “a 1,140-square-foot apartment upstairs” at his office, located at 5600 W. 34th St., which is in the district.

The building there is an 11,340-square-foot commercial metal warehouse, according to county records. A city inspection in January determined Wilson doesn’t have permission to use the warehouse as a residence.

Wilson, a 67-year-old businessman, gained national attention when he beat a 24-year incumbent for the predominantly black district after leading voters to believe he was black. Wilson – who is white – mailed campaign fliers without his photo that said he was endorsed by Ron Wilson – his white cousin, who happens to share the name of a black former state representative.

Jury selection begins this morning, and the trial is expected to last about a day and a half.

See here and here for the background. The trial was originally scheduled to begin April 15, but you know how these things go. The trial may have already concluded by the time you read this, or maybe it will stretch till tomorrow. In any event, I presume we’ll get a ruling soon. I hope there’s some more news coverage to go with it when that happens – this blurb on the free chron.com and this News 92 FM piece were all I saw for it. A search in houstonchronicle.com came up empty, and if there was something in the dead tree edition I missed it. I’d have missed this as well if Houston Legal hadn’t included it in its daily link roundup yesterday.

I have no idea what will happen in this trial. As we’ve discussed before, there’s little precedent to go by, and a lot of vagueness when it comes to what constitutes “residency”. If nothing else, I hope this will help with that. If Wilson loses, I expect him to appeal, going all the way to SCOTUS and maybe the World Court in the Hague if need be, because that’s how he rolls. If Wilson wins, I don’t know if Vince Ryan will pursue it any further. I’m not sure it would be worth the effort unless there’s good reason to think the trial judge screwed up.

I’ve been giving some thought to how this could be better addressed via legislation, and what I’ve come up with is this: A bill that says you are not eligible to serve as a trustee or the equivalent on a school board, community college board, MUD or RUD board, and anything else I might be overlooking, if you or your legally married spouse claims a homestead exemption outside the boundaries of the political entity in question. Note that this wouldn’t prevent someone like Dave Wilson from running for something like the HCC Board of Trustees, but it would require him to sell the house on which he has the exemption, divorce his wife, or give up the exemption. (I put the “spouse” requirement in there because you know the first line of escape by this kind of scoundrel would be to put the home in question in the spouse’s name. It also provides a loophole for same sex couples, at least until same sex marriage is officially legal in Texas. Yeah, I’m evil like that.) If you want to run for something here while owning a home there, you can still rent an apartment or claim a spot on someone’s couch and re-register as a voter here to qualify. You just have to forfeit the tax advantage on that house over there. I think that’s a suitable answer.

Now this is the part where I remind everyone that I am not a lawyer, and so there may be some legal or practical reason why this idea is nuts and completely unworkable. If so, please let me know in the comments. If you want to point out that this would affect some politicians that I happen to like as well as Dave Wilson, my answer is that I’m fine with that. They can make whatever choice to get right that they want, and we’ll have one less fig leaf in politics. If there isn’t a good reason why this idea is stupid, then I plan to start lobbying a few of my favorite State Reps about it. I didn’t include cities in my fantasy bill because I think they should come up with their own requirements for office, but if this can work at the Lege then I’d certainly support amending Houston’s charter to this effect as well. What do you think? Like I said, if this is crazy, go ahead and tell me why.

UPDATE: Today’s Chron reports on the first day of the trial. I’ll have a full post about this tomorrow.

Fracking ban on the ballot in Denton

This has the potential to be even bigger than the HERO repeal referendum.

Voters will decide whether this North Texas college town will become the state’s first city to ban hydraulic fracturing.

After a public hearing Tuesday night that stretched into Wednesday morning, the Denton City Council rejected a proposal to ban the method of oil and gas extraction inside the city, which sits on the edge of the gas-rich Barnett Shale. The 5-2 vote kicked the question to the city’s November ballot, the next step in a high-profile property rights clash that will likely be resolved outside of Denton.

“It’s a high-stakes game,” said mayor Chris Watts, who said he voted against the proposal so that citizens would have a say. “This issue is going to be decided in one of two places: the statehouse or the courthouse.”

Fracking opponents forced the council’s vote after gathering nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for a ban. The proposal would not prohibit drilling outright; it would apply only to fracking, which involves blasting apart rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water.

Denton, population 121,000 and pockmarked with more than 270 natural gas wells, is one of several Texas cities wrangling with questions about where to allow drilling and how strictly to regulate it.

As drilling increasingly moves into urban areas, tension is growing between property rights above ground and sub-surface mineral rights. States, along with the federal government, regulate most aspects of drilling, including well integrity, pipeline safety, and air and water impact. Cities, however, have sought to regulate noise and to control the location of wells or related sites like compressor stations.

No Texas city has tried to ban fracking, and the prospect of a ban in Texas prompted state officials and energy industry representatives Tuesday to join an overflow crowd at city hall.

“The whole world is watching Denton, Texas,” said Chris Faulkner, CEO of Dallas-based Breitling Energy, who urged the council to reject the ban.

I think that’s fair to say. It’s also highly likely that there will be a ton out outside interest and money in this referendum, and if it passes you can be sure there will be litigation.

A Chron story from Tuesday morning set the scene.

“I think everyone all along assumed this was going to go to a citywide vote, given the uncharted waters we find ourselves in,” Councilman Kevin Roden said in an interview. “My guess is there’s comfort in letting it go to an entire city vote as opposed to seven of us trying to decide this.”

Denton sits over the Barnett Shale, one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields.

[…]

Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, sent a 4-page letter to the mayor and council members blasting the ban proposal as “extremely misguided.”

“Increased production of natural gas, natural gas liquids and crude oil has greatly enhanced the Texas economy,” Smitherman wrote. “Over 400,000 Texans work in the oil and gas industry and the average wage per employee is a staggering $128,000.”

Smitherman [didn’t] attend Tuesday’s public hearing because of a prior commitment, but asked that his written comments be considered.

Although Roden, the councilman, declined to state his position on the ban, he was unimpressed with Smitherman’s letter.

“We’ve been struggling with how to make natural gas drilling compatible in residential areas and largely because of the regulatory environment we find ourselves in, the state is pulling the shots and we’re not able to regulate from a local perspective,” he said.

“For him to write us a letter in the 11th hour with no policy suggestions on how to get better, only advocating for an industry he’s supposed to be regulating, I found it pretty out of touch.”

Here’s Smitherman’s letter. Perhaps if the RRC had any credibility as a watchdog, this sort of advocacy would not have arisen. State Rep. Myra Crownover, who represents Denton, is quoted in the Trib story saying that she will work with Sen. Craig Estes “to find a finely crafted fix for these issues”, but again, I don’t know how much credibility that carries. We all know whose interests come first around here. The Observer, Unfair Park, and Texas Sharon, one of the leaders of the petition effort, have more.

How to solve the traffic problems of The Woodlands

All that growth has its downsides.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, along with local entities including The Woodlands, Montgomery County, the City of Oak Ridge North and the Texas Department of Transportation, are working on a South Montgomery Mobility Study that they hope will ultimately ease the woes of commuters.

Officials say they realize there are no easy answers. But they say the blueprint will help guide transportation planning for years to come.

“It’s obvious. The traffic situation is getting worse,” said Thomas Gray, a Houston-Galveston Area Council planner who is helping to lead the study. “The existing road network can barely sustain current traffic, and they won’t be able to handle the anticipated volumes.”

Preliminary findings reveal that most of the main arterials in and surrounding The Woodlands, such as Woodlands Parkway, Gosling Road and Kuykendahl Road, are either at or over capacity.

Congestion will only worsen as new residential communities and companies break ground in the coming years, according to early data and area council officials.

Township board members said that some residents believe the township and other regional leaders are not working quickly enough, as growth stresses the local infrastructure.

For many, completion of the study can’t come soon enough.

“I have residents calling and saying, ‘Why can’t you do something?'” said Jeff Long, a member of The Woodlands Township board. He said the No. 1 concern he hears from residents is that they’re spending too much time in traffic.

My advice is to invent a time machine, travel back to 1975 or so, and try to convince George Mitchell to do a traditional grid design for the streets instead of the mishmash of self-contained cul-de-sacs that exists now. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t known for some years now that this funnel everything to a single main road approach doesn’t work so well. Doing a grid would also allow for the creation of a public transportation network, and would also allow people to, you know, walk or bike to certain destinations instead of having to drive everywhere. It’s so crazy it just might work!

While I maintain that the time machine approach would ultimately be cheaper and less disruptive to The Woodlands and other parts of southern Montgomery County and far north Harris County – I wonder if all those soon-to-be-relocated ExxonMobil employees are aware of this? – I daresay that’s not likely to be the way the folks that are charged with fixing this will go. What the next best alternative is, I have no idea. Whatever solutions they do come up with, I’ll bet they can’t afford them with their current level of taxation. Good luck, y’all. You’re going to need it.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 14

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes you all a Happy Bastille Day as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Astrodome Park: The population isn’t the problem

Greg Wythe addresses one of the central questions about the proposed Astrodome Park in this comment that I thought was worth highlighting on the front page.

As it turns out, there are a number of apartments situated to the east and north of the Dome. Checking Census data, the counts on the area “un-highlighted” in this map view comes to 13,360 for the immediate Dome walking area.

If we look at just downtown, we have only 4,690 total people there to seed Discovery Green with foot traffic. So, on the surface, the Dome area is significantly better situated. If we factor in Midtown and a generous interpretation of EaDo, we get 13,243 people in the “un-highlighted” version of the downtown map. Still less than would be accessible to the Dome park.

Both maps are from roughly the same elevation, so the expanse of territory of those maps should give a good interpretation. Obviously, not all parts of downtown (let alone Midtown or EaDo) are considered “walkable” to Discovery Green and not all parts of the Med Center apartments are going to be “walkable” to a Dome park.

But even if the downtown area were more populated, I don’t think it would make a case in and of itself – highways and a rail line to the Dome generally mean easier access. If there’s a problem with the proposal, proximate population and access aren’t going to be among them.

Greg’s input – and his maps! – are always appreciated around here, so I’m glad he was inspired to do this bit of research. I have three takeaways from it.

1. It seems clear that the residential population around the Astrodome is not an impediment to it becoming a successful park like Discovery Green. Honestly, when you think about it, Houston’s best parks – here we include Hermann and Memorial, for starters – are destinations. People get there by whatever means is most practical to enjoy their amenities. If Astrodome Park is worth going to, people will go to it.

2. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the walkability question, nor the point that Astrodome Park would be a small oasis of green surrounded by a sprawling desert of asphalt, which may have a dampening effect on attendance. Walkability is about more than just distance to travel, it’s about the experience and utility of walking as a mode of transportation. People associate walking with downtown, if only because wherever you’re going downtown, you’re likely going to park a couple of blocks away from it, and once you do park it’s often expensive and inconvenient to move and re-park. That asphalt desert that would encircle Astrodome Park feels like it might be a psychological barrier to the park. I don’t know how to test that hypothesis without actually building the park, and even I will admit that the total effect of what I’d describing here is likely to be minimal in reality, but I do think one reason why people are skeptical of the idea is because of this. It just doesn’t fit with our perception of the place. Of course, there were people saying the same thing about Discovery Green not too long ago, so take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

3. Really, what Greg highlights here just enhances what Lisa Gray wrote about and I commented on: It’s the programming. The people that conceived, built, and now run Discovery Green have put a ton of work and a few million bucks into making it a place that people want to go. The evidence that we have so far is that other than invoking Discovery Green as an optimistic analogy, the proponents of Astrodome Park haven’t done any of that thinking or planning or fund-seeking. If and when they show their work on this, we can evaluate their plans and compare them to Discovery Green and see how we feel. Until then, it’s just some pictures on a set of PowerPoint slides.

The relevant numbers in the finance reports

The headlines will say one thing but you need to dig a little deeper to get the picture.

BagOfMoney

Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott has amassed a $35.6 million war chest in his campaign for Texas governor, a figure his aides called unprecedented Tuesday.

Abbott’s cash-on-hand figure dwarfs the $13.1 million that his Democratic opponent, Sen. Wendy Davis, said she had piled up so far. The figures from the Davis campaign include money destined for the Democrats’ separate turnout operation.

Both campaigns released their fundraising totals ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. The actual reports, which provide details about donors and expenditures, were not immediately available.

Though Abbott has far more money to spend on the race, Davis had her own reason to brag. She claimed raising $11.2 million for the most recent fundraising period, which ran from late February through June 30. Abbott pulled in $11.1 million over the same time frame, his campaign said.

It’s true that Abbott has a huge wad of cash, much more than anyone else, but what the story fails to mention is that he’s had a twelve year head start in raising that cash. Look at it this way: In his July 2013 report, Abbott showed $20,978,129.91 on hand, which means that in the year since then, he’s netted about $14.7 million in cash. That’s not bad at all, but remember, Wendy Davis hadn’t even declared for Governor at that point. Her first gubernatorial finance report is from January of 2014. Her comparable cash on hand figure can be seen by looking at her July 2013 Senate fundraising account, which had
$1,063,108.05 on hand. This means that she has amassed a bit more than $12 million in net cash since then, or about $2.6 million less than Abbott. When you consider that she outraised him in three of the four reporting periods, and that she had to invest a lot more in building a statewide infrastructure from scratch, that tells a rather different story.

That doesn’t change the fact that Abbott has over $20 million more on hand than she does, and that he could start carpet-bombing the airwaves with nonstop ads from now through November if he wanted to. It’s not clear to me what the marginal effect of another $10 or $20 million in TV ads or mailers or what have you may be – I suspect people start to tune them out long before the end – but Abbott has that capability. My point is that Davis may be outgunned, but she’s hardly outclassed. We expected her to give Abbott a run for his money, and she has done that. Kudos to Wayne Slater for acknowledging that.

There’s a similar dynamic in the Lt. Gov. race.

Since defeating incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a May 28 runoff, [Dan] Patrick has raised $1 million. [Leticia] Van de Putte, who ran unopposed, raised about $1.2 million in the same time period. Four months ahead of the general election, the two candidates are working with similar balances in their respective war chests, with Van de Putte reporting $1.1 million cash on hand while Patrick has $946,982 in the bank.

The two campaigns released some fundraising totals ahead of the Texas Ethics Commission’s Tuesday deadline for reports covering fundraising activity and expenditures through June 30. The reports were not immediately available.

Patrick raised $2.2 million during a crowded, four-way primary election, and $4.5 million during his runoff against Dewhurst. His overall haul so far — $7.8 million since last summer — dwarfs his Democratic opponent’s. Since announcing her candidacy in late November, Van de Putte has raised almost $2.3 million.

The news that LVdP outraised Patrick since May 28 is encouraging, and may be an indicator that she will have real crossover potential. We’ll have to see what the full report looks like for that. Patrick’s overall fundraising lead is largely due to the race dynamic so far – he had two competitive elections to win while she was unopposed and didn’t really start fundraising until after the primary. She will have to do at least as well on a monthly basis to keep up or (one hopes) surpass him, as Patrick has much higher name recognition than she has. That’s a double-edged sword for him, of course, but people will need to know about LVdP for it to really matter. I’d love for her to reach $10 million overall, but if she can at least pull in another $5 million by the start of early voting, I’ll feel like she can do what she needs to get her name out there.

UPDATE: Davis’ cash total is a bit less than originally reported due to a large in-kind donation and some deadline shenanigans with BGTX’s payroll. A little annoying and a needless distraction, but in the grand scheme of things not that much actual money.

Sam Houston enters the chemical disclosure fray

From the inbox:

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Sam Houston, Democratic Nominee for Texas Attorney General, today promised to reverse the current AG’s letter ruling on the release of the locations of dangerous chemicals, putting the safety of our families and children first.

“I have reviewed the law that General Abbott cited when his office upheld the state health department’s decision to withhold this vital information,” Houston said. “That opinion is wrong. Under the Texas Public Information Act, information is open to the public absent any specific exception. Federal and state statutes specifically make this information available to the public. General Abbott took a nonspecific statute and said it overrode the public right to know statutes. Legally, this is incorrect.

“Texans have the right to know whether their homes, schools or churches are located near facilities with dangerous chemicals,” Houston said. “As soon as I receive a request for an opinion on this issue , I will re-review the issue and, absent any new information, will reverse the decision.”

Houston noted that information on chemicals stored at corporate facilities has been available for decades under state and federal law. He said the suggestion that Texans could just “drive around” and ask these facilities what chemicals they have on site is insulting and leaves thousands of Texans vulnerable to another incident like the one that occurred in West. Additionally, Houston said General Abbott’s “drive around and ask” suggestion contradicts his claim that this information is confidential.

“Texans need to know that their attorney general will aggressively defend the rights of all Texans,” said Houston. “I will re-establish trust in the attorney general’s office.”

I’d been hoping Houston would jump on this, as it seemed to be an obvious opportunity to make some noise on an issue that’s already in the news and where he can boost his own candidacy while aiding that of Wendy Davis as well. It’s totally fair game for him to say that he disagrees with something the incumbent AG has done and that he would do it differently if he were in office, and given Abbott’s blinkered view of the law this is a pretty fat target. Houston has done this before, and honestly I wish he’d do it more often. It’s not like there’s a shortage of issues on which Abbott has been worthy of criticism as AG, and the news hook for Houston would be bigger when he aims up.

Speaking of which, Houston’s release did in fact make the news.

Kicking off a four-city tour to keep the issue on voters’ minds, Houston charged Abbott, the GOP front-runner for governor, with disregarding public right-to-know laws when he ruled the Texas Department of State Health Services does not have to disclose information about hazardous chemicals kept at private facilities, citing a 2003 anti-terrorism law.

“All that they’re relying on is a vague statute that’s not specific enough,” Houston said during a news conference at a union hall in Houston. “That’s not good enough.”

[…]

“Voters are always going to want to hear about it because it’s going to come home in the future if we don’t change this and they don’t find out about the information,” Houston told reporters, brushing off the idea that voters have heard enough about an issue that has dominated the governor’s race for most of the month so far.

It’s also an opportunity for a free shot at his actual opponent.

Houston speculated [Ken] Paxton has avoided speaking about the ruling because “he’s got his own issues about openness,” an apparent reference to Paxton’s violation of a a state securities law. He was fined $1,000 for not informing clients of his relationship with an investment adviser.

It’s okay to be a little less oblique about that, but otherwise, well done. More like this, please.