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July 7th, 2014:

One point of perspective on the repeal petitions

Here’s the Chron story about the HERO-haters turning in their repeal petitions.

Opponents of Houston’s new non-discrimination ordinance Thursday turned in well more than the minimum number of signatures needed to trigger a November vote on whether to repeal the measure.

Staff in the City Secretary’s office will have 30 days to verify that the names – 50,000 of them, opponents said – cross the minimum threshold of 17,269 signatures from registered Houston voters that foes needed to gather in the month following the measure’s passage in an 11-6 vote of the City Council.

Most of the divisiveness around the ordinance stems from the protections it extends to gay and transgender residents, groups not already protected under federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

Mayor Annise Parker pledged to fight the effort to overturn the ordinance should it make the November ballot, a task she acknowledged city rules make fairly easy.

“This was not a narrowly-focused, special-interest ordinance,” said Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city. “This is something that the business and civic community of Houston was firmly behind, and we fully expect if there is a campaign that it will be a spirited campaign, but we’ll have the same outcome in November as we had around the council table.

“Houston does not discriminate, Houston will not discriminate and Houston will not be fooled by misinformation, hyperbole – I would use the word ‘lies’ but I’m going to back off from that – and people who are just simply unwilling to read the ordinance for themselves.”

See my post from Thursday evening for the background. As we know, the haters were busy collecting petitions last weekend, and my presumption was that if they weren’t scrambling to clear the bar, they were aiming for a show of force. It would actually have been enough to force a recall election against Mayor Parker, if they largely prove to be valid. The haters claim to have verified 30,000 of the sigs themselves, but we’ll see about that. As I said on Thursday, the petitions will be very closely scrutinized, and I expect the final number to be a lot lower.

One thing to keep in mind when we talk about that number. Via Facebook, I understand that the haters are referring to it as “two-thirds of the total vote against Mayor Parker in 2013”. That’s true enough as it goes – remember, that 50,000 is likely to be an illusion – but we’re not in a low-turnout odd-numbered election year. We’re in an even-numbered partisan election year. We had a situation much like this in 2010, with the red light camera and Renew Houston items on the ballot. That year, there were 389,428 votes cast in the Houston part of Harris County – a smidge less than half the total county turnout – plus another 8,492 votes in Fort Bend County, with between 320,000 and 350,000 votes cast in each of the three propositions. Even if all 50,000 signatures represents a valid Houston voter that will show up in November, that’s still less than 1/3 of the total that will likely be needed for the haters to win.

Let me provide one more number, as long as I’m on the subject. Last year, the Early to Rise group submitted 150,000 signatures to put an item for raising HCDE’s tax assessment to fund pre-K in Harris County. Of those signatures, 80,505 were verified. If the haters have the same level of accuracy, their total number of valid sigs will be around 27,000. Still plenty to qualify for the ballot, but a lot less than 50,000. They may well be more accurate than that, but I do know they were using paid canvassers as the Early to Rise proponents were, so I expect they’ll have a fair amount of slop in their work. Again, we’ll see how much.

I don’t post any of this to encourage complacence in HERO supporters. We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. But if we put our heads down and do the work, I feel confident we will win. As Greg highlights, the city of Houston is Democratic, and we’ve got more voters to reach out to than they do. Register voters, talk to voters, and make sure everyone who should be voting does so. That’s the winning formula. PDiddie, John Coby, Texas Leftist, Lone Star Q, and Hair Balls have more.

Walking a mile in their ankle monitors

You have to admire this kind of dedication to one’s office.

Though she has never been convicted of a crime, Marsha McLane is having her every movement these days tracked by a satellite-monitored anklet, just like thousands of ex-cons in Texas.

Charged with rebuilding a little-known state agency that supervises high-risk sex offenders, she is looking for a better, high-tech way to keep track of them.

“I’m a nuts and bolts person. … I had to see for myself how the system would work,” she said Monday, after spending five days unsuccessfully trying to foil a new GPS-based monitoring system her agency is considering buying. “If I can’t fool it, knowing what I know, I think it’ll be hard for an offender to do it.”

Last Thursday, the new executive director of the embattled Office of Violent Sex Offender Management strapped on a 3M XT monitor that allows officials to have two-way communication with an offender the instant an alarm goes off indicating he is not where he is supposed to be.

Unlike traditional GPS-based monitors that set off alarms if an offender goes outside of approved zones, or strays too far from the base unit, the new system features a cellphone-sized handset in addition to the anklet that allows the offender to contact his caseworker or other approved numbers if the alarm goes off. Caseworkers and officials monitoring the units can call them as well.

“Right now, when a bracelet alarm goes off, we have no way to contact the offender except to send a caseworker out there to check the offender,” agency Programs Director Kathy Drake said. “This appears to be a much more efficient way to verify their status, much less labor intensive, much faster.”

Records show the agency had 1,300 alarms go off between September and May that turned out to be nothing other than a satellite glitch or an equipment malfunction or something else as benign.

“You can see the savings to the taxpayers if we can check out alarms quickly without having to make the trip,” McLane said.

Makes sense to me. I’ve talked about ankle monitors before. They have their issues, but they can be used to help keep low-risk and non-violent offenders out of jail, which is a win all around. They can also be used as in this case for monitoring offenders that have additional conditions after being released from prison. If the technology has improved and if the supervisors and probation officers that handle the offenders that use them really know how they operate, then so much the better. Kudos to Marsha McLane for her attention to detail.

The Dallas and Houston rail experiences

It’s useful to compare, but mostly as an academic exercise.

The new Dallas Area Rapid Transit line links riders to the region’s major airport. Houston’s new Purple and Green lines, years in the making, come up far short of what’s been laid in the Dallas area, but they open up rail to new parts of town.

Since 1983, and some argue even longer than that, the cities have been on vastly different trajectories when it comes to rail transit. Dallas has enjoyed a much less fractious political climate. That relative calm compared to Houston has given Dallas officials more latitude to invest and leverage local money to capture federal funds.

Officials in North Texas spent money on suburban routes rather than key urban connections. DART will soon have 90 miles serving 62 stations, while Houston later this year will have 22 miles of track and 38 major stops.

Houston’s population is twice that of Dallas, though their respective metropolitan areas are similar in size.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decline to call the light rail lines competitors. But from time to time, as a sales pitch for more tracks, they compare DART’s apparent ease of laying lines to Houston’s perennial controversy.

“Dallas has almost 100 miles of light rail,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia once said at a business luncheon. “Certainly we can get to The Galleria.”

The race for more lines isn’t much of a competition because many Gulf Coast area elected leaders don’t want rail, or more specifically they don’t want to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars associated with trains. As a result, Houston has taken a different tack, choosing politically palatable downtown city lines that in some respects are harder to build but carry many more riders per mile.

Which system is more successful, and which will be better off in the long run, is less clear.

I’ve sat on this one for awhile as I’ve gone through several revisions in my head of what I’ve wanted to say. I agree with the story’s premise that Dallas and Houston each took the most viable path available to them given the resources and needs they had. We’ve had plenty of arguments in Houston about whether commuter rail should have been prioritized over light rail. To me it’s ultimately a chicken-or-egg question, but to me the fact that we already have a muscular park-and-ride network that covers much of the ground that commuter rail would plus the fact that mobility in town keeps getting worse with nothing other than light rail available to help mitigate it tips the scales. Commuter rail has a place and if we can make like Dallas and leverage some existing tracks to do it at a low cost, I’m all over it. Just remember that the value of a rail network increases greatly as the network grows, so commuter rail + a robust light rail system > commuter rail by itself.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about since Metro announced the reimagined bus routes is how any future expansion of the current light rail network might fit with it. If the new routes deliver on their promise of faster and better service systemwide, then perhaps we should rethink where new rail lines might go to ensure we get the most out of them and not be redundant. The new #7 bus line on Richmond, which goes to the Eastwood Transit Center, will be one of the high-frequency routes. Will it be good enough to undercut the case for the Universities Line? Maybe, but even if the buses run every ten minutes at peak times, they’re still going to crawl along in the traffic morass that is Richmond Avenue. Light rail, with its dedicated right of way, should easily beat its travel times. Still, that’s a point I expect the light rail critics of the future to haul out someday, once they remember they’re supposed to be pro-bus and they notice there’s better bus service available now. I still think an Inner Katy line connecting downtown to the Galleria via the Uptown BRT would have a lot of value, especially as a continuation of either the Harrisburg or Southeast lines. I also think the US90 extension into Fort Bend, hopefully all the way to Sugar Land if the politics can be worked out, should be a high priority. Beyond that, who knows? The point is that the whole system continues to evolve, and we ought to evolve our thinking along with it. The need for rail transit in Houston is not going to go down anytime soon.

We really need to do better on vaccinations

Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, PhD, MPH and self-proclaimed “crunchy granola hippie”, writes in the Rivard Report about how we are letting infectious diseases regain a foothold.

In 1998, the World Health Organization declared that measles would be eradicated worldwide by 2007. In 2000, public health officials declared measles to be eliminated from the US. But instead of being eliminated, it returned with a vengeance: the CDC reported 11 outbreaks in the US in 2013.

In 2014 it’s been even worse, with Texas and California hit particularly hard. When one looks at the numbers, they tend to say “Ah, only a couple of hundred cases, that’s not much.” But what they’re forgetting is this: Measles kills. Like most vaccine-preventable diseases, it doesn’t always kill, but once we reach a critical number of cases, the likelihood that one of those children will die becomes much greater. For measles, that’s 500 cases.

It’s been many years since we’ve seen more than 500 cases in the US. But this year, as of May 14, there have been 216 cases in the US. Ever closer, we inch towards that critical threshold.

And it’s not just measles. The second M in MMR stands for Mumps. By May 27, 2014, there have been 464 cases of mumps in the U.S., most linked to outbreaks at Ohio State University and Fordham University in New York City.

And then Congenital Rubella (the “R” in MMR) rears its ugly head. For most of us, rubella is a mild illness, often not even noticed. But for pregnant women, it often results in the death of their fetus. If the baby survives, then there’s a high likelihood the baby will be born with severe abnormalities, all due to a preventable disease.

Pertussis is probably the most widespread vaccine preventable illness we see today. In 2000, if we’d seen more than 2,218 cases we saw in 2012, DSHS would have declared an epidemic. Today, this is the endemic level – the “new normal.”

[…]

In Bexar County, 65.7 percent children under the age of three have received all the required vaccinations.

That sounds pretty good, except when you learn that the US National Goal is 80 percent, and for some diseases, we need at least 90 percent of all kids vaccinated to fully protect the entire population.

Why? Why would anyone not prevent a disease when it’s so easily preventable?

Partly it’s the disinformation coming from uninformed and/or dishonest sources that scares people into misidentifying the relative risks (spoiler alert: childhood vaccines are totally safe), partly it’s the public health profession being a victim of its own success – out of sight, out of mind, and all that – and partly it’s insufficient outreach. The main thing to keep in mind is that a lack of vaccination – and Bexar County is not alone in its low participation rate, as you’ll see if you click over – puts us all at risk. You and I may have been vaccinated as kids, but most vaccines eventually run out of potency and need to be supplemented later in life. Without a high enough vaccination rate to ensure herd immunity, even healthy previously vaccinated adults can come down with these diseases. So please, vaccinate your kids, tell everyone you know to vaccinate their kids, and support policies and politicians that provide funds and resources for vaccinating as many kids as possible. The person you save from getting measles or pertussis later in life may be you.