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July 12th, 2014:

Saturday video break: Centerfold

I’m sure you’re familiar with the original, by the J. Geils Band:

J. Geils was one part quality classic rock band, one part novelty act. This was probably their biggest hit, and it seems somehow fitting that my favorite cover of it was done by a novelty band, Hayseed Dixie.

Like cheesy lounge versions, corny country covers are a bit of a cliche, but Hayseed Dixie does it well enough that it’s easy to forgive them. They do mostly covers in the same vein, but they have some funny originals, too. Worth your time to check them out if you’re into that sort of thing.

And finally, because Centerfold is also a Same Name, Different Song entrant, here’s Randy Twigg with her version:

Well, that was…different. They can’t all be hits.

The Rodeo and the Texans would like to demolish the Dome now, please

Yeah, I don’t know how well this will go over.

County leaders said Thursday they are open to considering a $66 million plan devised by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Houston Texans to demolish the iconic Astrodome and turn the nearly 9-acre site into a massive outdoor space reminiscent of downtown’s Discovery Green.

The two organizations – the primary tenants of the South Loop sports complex where the vacant stadium stands – briefed commissioners on their proposal this week.

The project, titled the “Astrodome Hall of Fame,” calls for tearing down the dome, bringing the floor to ground level and installing an open-air structure where the walls once stood, according to a 37-page proposal obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The plan, drawn up by two architecture and construction firms, is designed to pay tribute to “the Astrodome’s history” and realize its potential as an “outdoor fulcrum” of NRG Park.

Renderings show what looks like the ribs of the former stadium circling a vast, grassy space with multiple event stages. Tributes to the various events, athletes and entertainers – from Elvis to Earl Campbell – who have played and performed at the stadium throughout the decades would be installed on each of 72 structural columns that would stand as tall as the 49-year-old structure.

“We think they came up with a tremendous idea and it’s the one thing we don’t have out there right now,” Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said of the plan devised by Gensler and Linbeck Construction. “This puts a park right in the center of our NRG park complex.”

Shafer and Texans President Jamey Rootes said they are open to helping foot the bill for the project, describing it as “affordable,” but would not say how much they would contribute.

Mighty thoughtful of them. You can see their proposal – which has a February, 2014 date on it, by the way – here; the embedded image comes from that document. The inspiration for turning the Dome into green space comes from Discovery Green. I love Discovery Green and I’m generally favorable towards more parks, but I am skeptical of this analogy. Discovery Green is a park surrounded by city blocks that are full of people who can walk to it. Astrodome Park would be surrounded by acres of parking lot that abuts a highway on one side. Who’s going to walk to it? I admit, it’s true that a significant number of Discovery Green visitors arrive by car, so I may be overblowing this. But as I look at the renderings, I can’t escape the feeling that this is something that’s being grafted on to the space. It just doesn’t feel natural to me.

Maybe that’s not important to the proponents of this idea, which include at least two members of Commissioners Court, Steve Radack and Jack Morman. (El Franco Lee is undecided but not obviously opposed, Jack Cagle did not comment for the story, and County Judge Ed Emmett is strongly against it.) Perhaps all that matters is that it would be used Rodeo attendees and Texans fans, and would make a pleasing backdrop for Super Bowl LI. I wonder if they’ll be happier about paying to maintain a lightly-used park than they are about upkeep on the aging Dome.

Reactions I’ve seen so far to this range from ambivalence and resignation to outrage, with a healthy dose of the latter on Facebook. I fall more into the first two camps. I’ve never had an emotional connection to the Dome but I don’t relish the idea of tearing it down, and I still think repurposing it is the better way to go. But after the bond referendum was voted down last year, even if one interpreted that as a rejection of that specific idea rather than of preserving the Dome, it wasn’t hard to imagine this kind of scenario playing out. The powers that be would like to have a plan in place to Do Something by 2017, when the Super Bowl arrives. There’s no consensus for a preservation plan, and no funding source, either. Demolition is the easy way to go, and hey, at least this beats more parking lots, right? If you feel strongly about this one way or another, I advise you to contact your County Commissioner and let him know how you feel. Time is running out. Hair Balls and Swamplot have more.

Judge rules that the voter ID lawsuit will go to trial

In addition to the start of the redistricting trial, we have some news on the voter ID lawsuit front, and it’s generally good news for the good guys.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Last week’s ruling, in which U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos denied almost all of a set of motions filed by [AG Greg] Abbott’s office to dismiss the case before it goes to trial, suggests that keeping the law in place won’t be a slam-dunk for the AG and his allies.

To be sure, the ruling itself wasn’t a surprise—and election law experts caution not to read too much into it. All Ramos did was give permission for the law’s challengers to make their case, as any good judge would have done, they say. The final ruling, of course, will come down to whether the plaintiffs can present facts that prove that case during the trial, scheduled to start September 2.

Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at the Ohio State University, said some of Texas’s arguments “don’t pass the laugh test,” so it makes sense that Ramos didn’t give them the time of day.

But the approach taken by Ramos, an Obama appointee—and in particular, the unequivocal way in which she rejected Texas’s effort to narrow the scope of federal voting protections—suggests the trial could play out on favorable terrain for the law’s challengers.

Here’s why: Central to the lawsuit challenging the ID measure is the claim that it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination in voting. In its motion to dismiss the case, Texas argued that Section 2 bars only intentional discrimination, not actions that have a discriminatory effect. In other words, the law’s challengers should have to show that the state consciously set out to make voting harder for blacks or Hispanics—which would be a heavy lift indeed.

That’s not a view that’s won much acceptance from the courts—but it is championed by some prominent conservative legal scholars, who say interpreting Section 2 more broadly risks going beyond what the Constitution allows.

Ramos gave that argument short shrift. “Defendants are incorrect,” she wrote, noting that Congress’s explicit expansion of Section 2 to cover results, not just intent, “has been held to be consistent with the scope of the 15th Amendment.”

And Ramos went on to offer a clear statement of just what the VRA requires that the law’s challengers show: that the law’s disproportionate impact on racial minorities is not just incidental, but is the result of how the ID requirement interacts with past discrimination.

“Plaintiffs have alleged that Hispanic and African-American voters are disproportionately without photo identification and without the resources to easily obtain [state-issued ID cards],” Ramos wrote, rejecting Texas’s claim that the case should be scrapped because the challengers had merely shown an incidental “disparate impact” on minorities. “Plaintiffs have alleged that this disproportionality is related to past intentional discrimination and its lasting socio-economic effects. Thus they do not rely on disparate impact alone.”

That holistic approach was at the heart of the ruling in April that struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law—an opinion that voting-rights groups praised for its nuanced and sophisticated understanding of how discrimination works.

Ramos took a similarly broad view of the Voting Rights Act when she dispatched the state’s claim that the ID law doesn’t encroach on the right to vote because even Texans without an ID can get a state-issued identification card. To support that view, Texas argued that the plaintiffs must show that at least somebody faced an insurmountable burden in voting. Under that interpretation, the law’s challengers would have faced a high bar at trial, even if Ramos allowed the case to go forward.

“Defendants argument is incorrect,” Ramos wrote. “Plaintiffs are required to show a denial or abridgement [Ramos’s emphasis] of the right to vote. Whether the right to vote is completely prevented or partially restricted, the matter is actionable under Section 2.”

That’s a pretty clear statement, and it’s what plaintiffs would have hoped for. There hasn’t been a trial date set, and this is still going to be a tough fight, but it won’t be any tougher than it needs to be. Which is tougher than it used to be before the Shelby case, since now the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs, not the state. For a preview of how things may go here, keep an eye on the North Carolina lawsuit, because if their abrogations of voting rights aren’t illegal, it’s hard to say what would be. The Morning News editorial board is rooting for the plaintiffs in that case, and by extension in Texas. Oh, and remember also that voter fraud just doesn’t exist, meaning that the justification of these voter ID laws is built entirely on fiction. Well, the stated justification for them, anyway.

Going where the payday lenders are

The most frequent defense I hear of payday lenders it that there’s a demand for the kind of short-term low-dollar loans that they provide that aren’t provided by other financial institutions, and even if they were those institutions don’t exist in the neighborhoods that generate the demand for these loans. That doesn’t come close to justifying the payday lenders’ exorbitant rates and fees or their predatory practices, but I admit that there’s a need that will get fulfilled one way or another. Given that, wouldn’t it be preferable by far to have more reputable financial institutions in the neighborhoods that need these services, operating in a manner that serves the customers rather than preys on them? One such institution is giving that a try in San Antonio.

Select Federal Credit Union (SFCU), an outspoken opponent of the payday lending industry, is trying to fill the gap from two directions: accessibility and availability.

One reason payday lenders were successful is that they were densely present in their target markets. While their clients fall across a range of income brackets, the highest concentration is in low income areas, where many are unbanked.

“We definitely have a proliferation of payday lenders, and bank branches are sparse,” said District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor.

SFCU realized that to be effective, they needed to be in the neighborhood. They needed to find places along people’s pathways. Convenience is an issue for those who take public transit or walk to and from work with their paycheck in their hands.

So SFCU found a home in the middle of their target market: Ella Austin Community Center, affectionately known around the neighborhood simply as “Ella Austin” or “Ella.”


SFCU seized the moment to set up shop on the campus, giving them access to senior citizens and families who use the services offered at Ella Austin. They also have access to the employees of Ella Austin and the resident businesses. Employed people are statistically just as likely to use payday lenders as those without steady income.

SFCU goes a step further even, as they have the technology to bring banking directly to the homes of those who have trouble accessing in person or online. They are also working on other partnerships with local businesses and institutions to bring virtual or mini-branches to their facilities.

Ella Austin is easily walkable for neighborhood residents, and the branch has a slower, more relational atmosphere.

“We want to dedicate this branch to sitting down and talking with people,” said John Garcia, head of Business Development and Marketing at SFCU.

From their post at Ella Austin, SFCU is poised to offer not only accessible financial services, but also financial education. SFCU is a designated Community Development Financial Institution, one of only two in San Antonio. They keep their footprint small and nimble, with a focus on increasing financial stability for their members.

“We welcome Select Federal Credit Union because they have the flexibility to do more outreach than a traditional bank,” said Taylor.

The basic idea here is simple and well-conceived. Any business wants to be where the potential customers are, and Lord knows there’s plenty of room to compete with payday lenders on price and service. Those are the pillars behind the concepts of allowing post offices and WalMart to act as banks – they exist everywhere, including a lot of places where there are no traditional banks, and they can provide standard services like checking, savings, and low-dollar loans at very reasonable costs. Getting credit unions into the game is even better, as they wouldn’t need to seek regulatory approval to take on this business and they’ve generally been a force for good overall. I will be very interested to see how this plays out – there are no guarantees, of course, but this is a great idea that has real hope of succeeding. I hope their peers in other cities are watching how this goes, too.