Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

May, 2015:

Saturday video break: Good Enough

Here’s Cyndi Lauper with a song from an iconic 80s movie:

I suppose technically that’s called “The Goonies R Good Enough”, but it’s in my library simply as “Good Enough”, and that’s good enough for me.

Here’s Sarah McLachlin with a song of the same name:

With bonus French introduction. Very classy.

Budget deal

What Christopher Hooks says.

BagOfMoney

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

[…]

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

At least the teabaggers aren’t happy, though I suppose that’s the default state for them. The best thing I can say about this session is that it’s almost over, and at least a few of the awful bills that could have passed didn’t.

Save Uptown from what?

From Swamplot:

The Uptown Property and Business Owners Coalition is out today with a new website (portrayed here) meant to drum up opposition to the Uptown District and Metro’s plans to install dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak Blvd. The lanes, the last vestige of what was once a plan for an Uptown light rail line, would run from dedicated bus lanes linking to the Northwest Transit Center all the way to the proposed Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center near U.S. 59 and Westpark, where they might someday intersect with a University Line traveling eastward from that point. But the team behind the website wants none of it: “Uptown is a Houston masterpiece. Why do they want to ruin it?” reads the copy on the home page. Meanwhile, an introductory blog post on the site encourages readers to attend a friendly “town hall” meeting, [Tuesday] night at the Uptown Hilton, in the company of “hundreds of angry business owners and Uptown area residents.”

Here’s their website; if you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see the name Daphne Scarbrough, one of the fanatical anti-rail on Richmond types who has long since morphed into an all-purpose rail hater. Given the Metro/Culberson peace treaty, the timing of their launch – the Facebook page was created Friday the 15th – isn’t exactly sublime for them. Remember that Metro has nothing to do with the construction of this line – it’s entirely being done by the Uptown Management District. Metro will eventually operate the buses, but that’s it. As far as what they’re fighting for, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever heard anyone call Uptown a “masterpiece” – hell, twenty years ago I’d have said I’d never heard the term “Uptown” used in conjunction with that part of the city. It’s not like there’s a historic preservation angle in play. My personal description of Uptown is a mess that I try to avoid at all times. I believe this plan will help, and I have no idea what alternative to help alleviate the awful traffic Save Uptown or any other group might have. Doing nothing isn’t an option, it’s just sticking your head in the cement. But here they are, and one should know one’s opponents. We’ll see if they get any traction. KHOU has more.

House passes AG butt-in bill

Boo.

Ken Paxton

The state attorney general is on the verge of having new powers to influence cases on school finance and legislative redistricting, as part of the GOP’s latest efforts to diminish Democratic challenges to their policies.

The House on Monday voted 91-49 to give preliminary approval to a bill that would allow the attorney general to demand that two additional judges be appointed to hear those divisive cases if he or she is unhappy with the district judge assigned the case.

Most lawsuits on those topics are currently heard in the Democratic stronghold of Travis County, home to the state capital.

Pending final approval in the House on Saturday, the bill would head to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. That would mark a major victory for GOP lawmakers, who cheered the measure as a way to allow more Texans a voice in that high-profile process.

“This is the result of decades of seeing just one county have any say in the school finance bills, and not wanting the same thing with any redistricting bills,” said Rep. Mike Schofield, a Katy Republican who sponsored the legislation.

Democrats, however, said the bill would give too much power to the attorney general, who represents the state in such cases. They argued that the attorney general, currently Republican Ken Paxton, could use the system just to find more sympathetic judges.

“It is forum shopping and judge shopping at its very core,” said Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio.

[…]

Under the measure, an attorney general could petition the Texas Supreme Court’s chief justice to appoint two additional judges – a district judge from another county and an appeals court judge – to hear evidence along with the original district judge.

The chief justice would have to appoint the two extra judges.

Because why shouldn’t we give an ethical paragon like Ken Paxton more influence? The good news, as I suggested before, is that the practical effect of this will likely be limited. The current school finance case is already on the Supreme Court docket. We went about seven years from the previous Supreme Court school finance case ruling to the filing of the current lawsuit, so you have to figure that the next case, if and when there is one, is close to a decade away. And who knows, the Lege might actually try to fix it this time. (OK, yeah, probably not.) As for redistricting, here again I will say that as far as I know these cases are all filed in federal court, and I don’t see how this bill could apply to that. This bill is about partisan advantage, but partisan advantage is a fleeting thing. It says a lot about the priorities of the Republican majorities, but not much that we didn’t already know.

Friday random ten: Pseudorandom, anyway

After a long string of theme lists, I thought it would be nice to have a true Random Ten this week. And just to be different, rather than have the iPod pick them, I went to Random.org and generated numbers there to select the songs from my master playlist. Here’s what it spun up for me:

1. Black Is The Color – Six Mile Bridge
2. Either Way – Wilco
3. Francis – Rexway
4. Bird On The Wire – Leonard Cohen
5. When I Change Your Mind – Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
6. Hanukkah Blessings – Barenaked Ladies
7. Long Long Time – Guy Forsyth
8. Crazy ‘Cause I Love You – The Hot Club of Cowtown
9. Hold On – Corey Hart
10. Anahuac – Austin Lounge Lizards

Keeping in mind what John von Neumann said about arithmetical methods of producing random digits, I think that worked pretty well. I may do it again next week just to see how they compare. Have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend.

Pointless “pastor protection” bill passes House

Whatever.

RedEquality

The House tentatively approved Thursday a bill saying that Texas pastors, churches and religious institutions can’t be sued by private parties or penalized by government for spurning gay weddings.

Many clergy, especially Southern Baptist ministers opposed to gay marriage, have testified they very much need the legal shield.

“Maybe pastors won’t be sued. But we need some protection in case they are,” said Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, bill supporter.

The bill’s critics, though, have expressed skepticism that same-sex couples would try to coerce a reluctant religious leader to officiate at their unions. Even if some did, the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1999 already protect pastors, opponents have said.

Rep. Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and out lesbian, said she hopes the U.S. Supreme Court soon will declare a constitutional right to marry.

If it does, though, Israel said she and her partner of 20 years would never ask to be married by a pastor who interprets the Bible as against loving, same-sex unions.

“Rest assured [we] will not be going to them to bless our union,” she said. “We will be going to someone who loves us and respects us for who we are and how we take care of one another.”

[…]

Estes’ bill would confer legal immunity on clergy and religious institutions if they refused to open facilities, provide services and sell goods to same-sex couples because it would violate “a sincerely held religious belief” to do so.

Rep. Scott Sanford, a McKinney Republican who is a Baptist pastor, filed a companion bill that died in last week’s bill-killing maelstrom before a key House deadline. Sanford also sponsored the Senate-passed version.

Following Sanford’s example, Estes agreed to one change. He deleted a phrase saying clergy and religious institutions could refuse to treat a same-sex marriage “as valid for any purpose.” Bill opponents warned those words could shield, say, a religious hospital from challenge if it barred a spouse legally married to someone of the same sex in another state from making medical decisions for a partner.

See here for the background. The vote was 141-2 in favor. If you’re wondering why it was so lopsided, the Trib has the answer.

“I truly believe that there is space for LGBT justice and religious freedom and this, I feel, is the space for that,” said state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, who has called herself the only openly pan-sexual elected official in the nation.

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said in a speech supporting the bill that she will one day marry her longtime lesbian partner in Texas. Pastors that don’t support their union shouldn’t worry about her trying to get them to conduct the ceremony, she said. SB 2065, Israel argued, would ensure that a clergy member that wants to support the ceremony can.

“This Roman Catholic urges you to vote yes,” Israel said.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Equality Texas withdrew its opposition to the measure and encouraged House Democrats to vote for it.

So there you have it. I don’t know that I’d agree that this bill was worth supporting, but I do agree that it’s likely to not have much effect, something even its most ardent supporters concede. Gotta say, though, when the phrase “sincerely held religious belief” is invoked, the possibility exists for all kinds of unintended consequences to arise. Be careful what you ask for, pastors. Hair Balls has more.

Anti-high speed rail budget rider removed

Good.

A proposed bullet train between Dallas and Houston has survived a budgeting measure that could’ve derailed the push in Texas to have the nation’s first high-speed rail line.

Budget writers on Thursday removed a Senate-inserted rider in the spending plan that said the Texas Department of Transportation couldn’t spend any state money on “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

Backers of the planned 240-mile line had said the provision would’ve effectively killed the endeavor. High-speed rail opponents, however, said they were simply trying to ensure that the state wouldn’t bail out the costly project if private funds dry up.

The two-sentence provision in the massive, $210 billion state spending plan had proved nettlesome in late-session budget negotiations, pitting rural lawmakers against those who represent Texas’ two biggest metropolitan areas.

And though the language was deleted on a 6-4 vote of the budget conference committee, it wasn’t without stern warnings from project opponents.

“We’re being sold a potential bill of goods,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. “In the long term, the citizens and the taxpayers are going to be left holding the hook.”

Barring any further maneuvering in the Legislature’s final days, it appears that the high-speed rail proposal could emerge the session unscathed.

See here for the background. As you know, I approve of this. I disagree with Sen. Schwertner about the merits of the high speed rail line, but I’m willing to have that debate. I just don’t think that debate belonged in a back room with ten people and no one else.

Local control still under assault

Sucks to be us, Harris County.

San Jacinto River waste pits

With Harris County in its crosshairs, the Senate on Wednesday tentatively approved legislation that could make it tougher for Texas Counties to sue big-time polluters.

If finally passed, House Bill 1794 would notch another victory for a wide range of business groups in a legislative session that’s been kind to industry at the expense of environmentalists and advocates for local control. The proposal would set a 5-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air.

A 24-6 vote with no debate set the bill up for a final Senate vote. The legislation already sailed through the House, pushed by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Proponents say that curbing civil penalties assessed on top of those doled out by state regulators would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.

“This bill is about enforcing a policy that encourages people to do the right thing and not punish them,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who carried the proposal in the chamber.

But critics say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) doesn’t do enough to hold polluters accountable, and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health.

“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County Attorney’s office. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”

[…]

Under HB 1794, local governments and the state would evenly split the first $4.3 million awarded in a suit, and the state would pocket any amount above that limit.

County officials say the cap on local government collections would make it difficult, if not impossible to prosecute the most complex, egregious cases of pollution, because contingency fee lawyers would not sign on for such lower pay.

The counties, not the state typically initiate such actions, said O’Rourke, who has been prosecuting environmental cases since 1973.

“It is only by contingent fee litigation that you can prosecute global corporations that are operating in Houston – Harris County, he said. “You can’t attract people to that if you’re going to kill them with contamination.”

Anyone who thinks that this bill will be any kind of positive for counties – not just Harris, though it is the main target of this bill – is living in a fantasyland where voluntary compliance with environmental regulations would be sufficient. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the TCEQ wasn’t a giant bag of industry-coddling suck, then lawsuits like these wouldn’t be necessary. All this will do is push the cost of pollution from the polluters where it belongs to the population at large. Hope no one reading this lives close to a site that won’t get cleaned up now.

And it’s not just county governments that are taking it in the shorts.

Norman Adams isn’t the kind of guy who is sensitive to smells, or much else. He wears cowboy boots and boasts of changing lots of his children’s and grandchildren’s diapers without gagging.

But the smell that wafts on the southerly breeze from a waste treatment processor toward buildings he owns on West 11th Street is “like an open septic tank, or worse.”

“Abusive,” he called the stench in a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opposing an application by Southwaste Disposal, to increase capacity at its liquid waste treatment facility near Houston’s booming Timbergrove neighborhood.

Adams begged regulators not to grant the expansion, instead requesting a “contested case hearing.” Such proceedings allow citizens who convince TCEQ that their health or pocketbook would be impacted by a permit to compel the company to demonstrate it can comply with environmental requirements.

But legislation awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature would make industry-friendly changes to the proceedings. It would set time lines to speed up the process, restrict who qualifies to ask for hearings and – most significantly – shift the burden of proof from companies seeking the permits to people opposing them.

The bills, which sailed through the Senate and House, have the backing of industry leaders who say contested case hearings make it harder for Texas to attract businesses by injecting uncertainty and expense into the process.

[…]

The bills tilt “the balance in favor of the polluters,” said Jim Marston, regional director with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office. He also warned that Texas could jeopardize losing the Environmental Protection Agency’s authorization to administer permitting programs if signs the bills.

EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard on Tuesday said the legislation creates a “problematic” legal presumption. “We can’t speculate what action the (EPA) should take if the bills are passed and signed into state law,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I’d feel sorry for Norman Adams, but he’s a well-known Republican activist, so in a very real sense he’s getting the government he deserves. I do feel sorry for his neighbors, and for everyone else that will be put in this position. In Houston, where residential development is encroaching on former (and sometimes still active) industrial areas, that could be a lot of people. But hey, at least our ability to attract more pollution-oriented businesses will remain strong.

A brief lesson in the value of disclosure and transparency

I confess, I have not been following the “wingnut activists videoing everyone at the Capitol” clown show very closely, but the absurdity of it all has been kicked up to the point where I couldn’t ignore it any more.

The activist group employing people who have been secretly recording lawmakers have talked about having a bipartisan mission to root out misdeeds of lawmakers no matter the political stripe.

But four large donors to the American Phoenix Foundation — the Strake Foundation, the State Policy Network, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, and Jeff Sandefer’s Ed Foundation — are well-known backers of conservative causes.

The Strake Foundation, founded by George Strake, a former Texas Republican Party chairman from Houston, has given $30,000 to American Phoenix since the group’s founding in 2010, according to IRS filings with Guidestar.org. Sandefer, a former adviser to Rick Perry, has given a total of $200,000 through his foundation. The Arlington, Va.-based State Policy Network and the Franklin Center each gave $25,000 in 2012 to American Phoenix.

In the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2012, American Phoenix reported donations and grants totaling $182,225. IRS rules do not require the Austin-based nonprofit to reveal individual donors.

[…]

Eric Bearse, a Republican political consultant and speechwriter who has worked in the past for House Speaker Joe Straus, called American Phoenix’s claims of training journalists and trying to ferret out information about politicians of all stripes “a total smoke screen.”

“I have thought from the beginning that this is an attempt to go after Speaker Straus and Republicans in the House who have supported his leadership,” Bearse said Thursday. “They are focused on one goal, which is to undermine the speaker.”

“The speaker’s hold on the office has increased over the years, and his opponents have grown more desperate because of that,” Bearse added. “This is the most desperate attempt yet.”

Who could have guessed that a bunch of secretive operatives with close ties to the world’s least honest videographer could have been less than fully forthcoming about their motives? And now, as RG Ratcliffe notes, one of their sugar daddies is proclaiming to be unhappy with how his money has been spent.

Reached for comment Thursday, Sandefer said he was not aware of the group’s plan to secretly film lawmakers and was unhappy with his investment after he received no feedback on how the group was using his money.

“I was unaware that they were planning to film politicians. Our intent was that they were going to train journalists,” Sandefer said. “We were unhappy with a lack of progress in training journalists and asked for the money back. And we did not receive any money back.”

Just breaks your heart, doesn’t it? As Juanita notes, one should not feel too sorry for Mr. Sandefer. One should instead chuckle heartily, while noting that if we had stronger disclosure and transparency laws for campaigns and PACs and what have you – all of which these very donors are fanatically committed to opposing, mind you – they might have had a clearer idea about where their dollars were going. Can’t trust anyone these days, I tell you. PDiddie has more.

Bullet train budget rider battle continues

The budget rider to derail the high speed train is still under contention as the conference committee completes its work.

Tucked in Page 682 of the budget passed by the Senate in April is Rider 48, a provision that would bar the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any state funds toward “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

The budget rider is one of several efforts by some Republican lawmakers to stop Texas Central Railway’s plan to build a high-speed rail line that would travel between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes, reaching speeds of 205 mph.

Texas Central has vowed to not take public operating subsidies. Nonetheless, company officials say the rider would kill the train because TxDOT, as the state agency in charge of transportation, would need to play a role in the project’s construction.

“If enacted the rider would constrain TxDOT’s ability to work with Texas Central Partners to perform important public safety duties,” the company argues on a website it launched this week to rally public support against the rider.

The Senate’s lead budget negotiator, Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the rider remains one of the final sticking points between the House and the Senate.

“There is some question of whether that would handicap it to the point that you couldn’t build it,” Nelson said Wednesday of the rider. “There are very strong feelings on both sides of that issue.”

[…]

Two vocal critics of the project, Republican Sens. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, are among the five senators on the budget conference committee working out a compromise version of the budget.

Schwertner said he was fighting for the rider to remain in the budget, citing concerns about how the project will impact property values and local economies.

“There’s all sorts of potential problems with the project that must be heard,” Schwertner said.

[…]

State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, is representing the House in budget negotiations related to transportation. Asked about the high-speed rail rider Wednesday, he said that it was not proposed by the House. “That was in their budget. That’s their language. Rider 48. That’s them. It was not in our budget.”

Nelson said there have been multiple discussions about how to amend the rider in an effort to find a compromise.

“I think I’ve probably looked at seven different versions of amendments to the rider,” Nelson said. “I’m trying to come up with something that both sides may not totally agree with but it may calm them down.”

See here for the background. I personally am not a fan of settling policy matters in this fashion. It’s terribly un-democratic, as the finalized budget, with or without Rider 48, is not subject to debate or further amendment, just an up or down vote on the whole thing. The folks who oppose Texas Central Railway, who make their case for keeping Rider 48 on the Texans Against High Speed Rail Facebook page, were able to get bills introduced in each chamber to impede if not completely obstruct TCR, with one of those bills getting out of committee. Neither got any farther than that, but that’s the way it goes for 90% or so of all bills. It seems likely they’ll have another crack at it in 2017, and there’s always the possibility of federal action, too. There’s nothing nefarious about what they’re doing – budget riders are a well-known part of the puzzle – I would just prefer not to see the matter settled in this fashion.

New Precinct 4 Constable chosen

Now that Ron Hickman is Sheriff, that left a vacancy in his old job as Precinct 4 Constable. Commissioners Court has now filled that vacancy.

At a special meeting Tuesday morning Harris County Commissioners Court selected Mark Herman, assistant chief deputy in Precinct 4, to fill the spot vacated when Constable Ron Hickman was tapped last week as Harris County’s fill-in sheriff. Herman, who has worked at Precinct 4 for three decades, will serve the remainder of Hickman’s term, through 2016.

County Judge Ed Emmett administered the oath of office, as Herman’s wife held a family bible for him.

Herman thanked his family, God and the entire staff of Precinct 4, telling the court members he looked forward to working with them. He took the opportunity during his acceptance speech to introduce Captain Donald Steward who works in patrol for the precinct and whom Herman announced would serve as his chief deputy.

Hickman’s term as Constable would have been up at the end of 2016, so Herman will (presumably) be running for a full term next year. Hickman was unopposed in 2012, but Herman will not be, at least in the primary.

In an abrupt change of heart, state Rep. Allen Fletcher said Tuesday he no longer intends to run for Harris County sheriff in 2016.

Instead, he will seek the Precinct 4 constable’s job vacated by the county’s new sheriff, Ron Hickman.

[…]

“I want to run out in my home district and I want to represent the people out in northwest Harris County,” he said, explaining that he does not want to run against Hickman after commissioners selected him for the job.

Fletcher, a former Houston police officer, cited support from local lawmakers for his constable’s bid. He also voiced concerns about running as a Republican in a county-wide race in 2016.

“I don’t want to depend on Hillary Clinton being on the top of the ticket for the Democrats and trying to run county-wide when I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he said.

A wise choice, I’d say. I went back and looked at 2012 election data, and Constable Precinct 4 was carried by Mitt Romney by a 64-36 margin. I’d take my chances in a primary for those odds in November if I were a Republican. I’m guessing Fletcher came under some pressure to leave Sheriff Hickman alone as well, though I’ll be surprised if no one else jumps into that primary. I’ve not heard any word on potential Democratic candidates for Sheriff yet. Anyone out there hearing anything? Leave a comment and let us know.

Pointless “pastor protection” bill comes to the House

From the Observer.

RedEquality

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) said Wednesday he doesn’t plan to introduce an anti-gay marriage amendment to the so-called Pastor Protection Act scheduled for a House vote Thursday.

However, with 12 days remaining in the session, Bell said he continues to look for another means of resurrecting House Bill 4105, which was designed to undermine a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, and died on the House floor last week.

LGBT advocates feared Bell would attempt to add the provisions of HB 4105 to Senate Bill 2065, by Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), which would reaffirm that pastors and churches can’t be forced to participate in same-sex weddings. But Bell said he doesn’t believe such an amendment would be considered germane to SB 2065, aka the Pastor Protection Act, thus threatening the bill’s chances.

“A lot of work’s been done on that bill, and I don’t want to compromise that bill,” Bell told the Observer. “The intent is to assert the sovereignty of the state of Texas. If I can find a place to do that, then I’ll do that. But I’m not going to compromise the very structure and value system that I’m trying to affirm in that process.”

[…]

With other anti-LGBT legislation stalled, social conservatives have made SB 2065 a top priority in recent days. However, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch acknowledged recently that its passage wouldn’t be a significant victory.

Supporters of SB 2065 have used committee hearings on the bill to give general testimony in opposition to same-sex marriage, which some witnesses compared to bestiality and pedophilia.

“It suggests that really the goal here to increase hostility and animosity toward gay and lesbian couples who want to get married, rather than to protect pastors from having to perform their marriages, because pastors are already protected from doing that if they don’t want to,” [Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network] said.

Nevertheless, if SB 2065 is the only unfavorable measure that passes out of more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals that were introduced, advocates won’t hang their heads.

“It’s certainly encouraging that some of the really bad bills appear to be going nowhere, and that the only bill that’s moving forward does essentially what the law already does,” Quinn said. “If we can get out of the session without any of those other bills passing, it would clearly be a big step forward.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Equality Texas had sent out an email alert about HB4105 being attached to SB2065 earlier in the day. I’m glad to see that turned out to be a false alarm. There are reasons to be concerned about SB2065 as is, and we can’t rest easy on HB4105 until the session is well and truly over, but so far so good. I’ll update this post if anything notable happens during the House debate.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 18

The Texas Progressive Alliance doesn’t need hindsight to know that invading Iraq was a tragically stupid decision as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Where the education reform bills stand

As we know, the attempt to take a first stab at school finance reform did not make it to the House floor. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some action on school-related issues. This Chron story from the weekend recapped a couple of the major bills that did make it through.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Lawmakers likely could have killed House Bill 2804, the A-F and accountability legislation, by delaying debate until midnight Thursday, the deadline for passing House bills out of that chamber. Instead, out of respect for [Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock, the bill’s opponents chose to allow a vote even though they knew it would win approval.

On Friday, Aycock said he would be proud if the bill is the last piece of legislation he helps shepherd to passage.

“I was pleased and surprised that some people who opposed the bill, had every right to oppose the bill, chose not to kill it on the clock,” said Aycock, who is mulling whether to retire from politics. He was elected in 2007 and quickly rose to become chairman, but at nearly 70, says he wants to return to his central Texas ranch life.

[…]

Originally, House Bill 2804 sought solely to revamp the way schools are held accountable by placing less emphasis on state standardized test performance in grading campuses.

Sensing he didn’t have the political support to pass the bill as it was, however, Aycock amended it to mandate schools be given A-F grades, a proposal popular with many Republicans. Educators and many Democrats oppose the A-F scale, saying it stigmatizes low-performing schools.

Aycock says having an A-F system won’t be an issue if the grades are determined fairly: “It’s not the horrible deal that everybody thinks it will be if you have an accountability system on which to base it. If you have the present accountability model, then it’s just totally unacceptable.”

Schools are graded now either as “met standard” or “improvement required,” based largely on student performance measures. Under House Bill 2804, 35 percent of a school’s grade would be determined by measures like completion and dropout rates, and by how many students take AP and international baccalaureate classes. Ten percent would be based on how well the school engages with its community, and 55 percent on state test scores with a particular emphasis on closing the gap between the top- and bottom-performing students.

[…]

House Bill 1842, which would force districts to improve failing schools or face tough consequences, passed the House the day before with little of the discussion Aycock’s other legislation generated. Aycock called the bill “one of the most far-reaching bills of the session,” and said while he carried it, Dutton was the architect.

“I think House Bill 1842 is the best bill on public education that helps students more than any bill that I’ve seen in this Legislature, and I’ve been here 30 years,” [Rep. Harold] Dutton said Friday. “We have never pressured districts to do something about (low-performing schools). This does that. This says to the school district, ‘Either you do it, or we’ll get someone who can.’ ”

The legislation would require any school that has received a failing grade for two straight years to create an improvement plan to take effect by the third year. If the school has not improved by the end of the fifth year, the commissioner of education would have to order the school’s closure or assign an emergency board of managers to oversee the school district.

Schools that have received consistently failing grades, such as Kashmere and Jones High Schools in the Houston Independent School District, would have one less year to implement a turnaround plan.

“Kashmere is what started me down this road,” Dutton said.

Kashmere earned the state’s “academically acceptable” rating in 2007 and 2008, but it has failed to meet standards every other year over the last decade. Its enrollment has fallen to about 500 students, most of whom come from poor families. Last school year, more than a quarter were in special education and 2 percent were designated as gifted, state data show.

“We’re just going to wait and see what the state does,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said about Aycock’s legislation. “If the state gives us the option of trying to manage it, we would implement some of the same strategies we have found to be successful in North Forest.”

I don’t care for the A-F grading system. I tend to agree with the critics that say it will stigmatize some schools. Not just the schools that get a D where they might have gotten a “meets standards”, but perhaps also the ones that get a B instead of an “academically recognized”. Who wants to send their kids to a B school if an A school is available? As for HB 1842, I don’t have any problem with the concept, but I’d like to know there’s some empirical evidence to suggest something like this can work, and has worked before. We haven’t done much to track the progress of students that were taken from failing school districts that the state shut down, so there’s not much of a track record here. What happens if we try this and it doesn’t work? What comes next?

The Observer updates us on some other education bills.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.

Vouchers

After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

Here’s Raise Your Hand Texas testifying against the “parent trigger” bill. I can’t say I’ll be sad to see any of these die.

And finally, there’s still the budget, which as always has an effect on schools. Here’s some information of interest for anyone who lives in HISD from local activist Sue Deigaard:

HB1759, that would have made structural modifications to school finance and added $800 million more to the $2.2 the House added in their budget for public education, was pulled from the floor on Thursday. Basically, there were so many amendments it was unlikely there was time left to get it to a vote and the time spent on a HB1759 vote would have preempted other bills from being discussed. It also sounds like the vote in the Senate for HB1759 would have been especially steep even if it had been approved by the House.

So, HISD will go into “recapture.” That means that per Ch 41 of the Texas education code, because HISD is a “property rich, student poor” district, instead of HISD receiving money from the state we will have to send local tax revenue TO the state to redistribute to other districts. We are projected to lose as much as $200 million over the coming biennium. Here’s the fun part…the electorate in HISD gets to decide whether or not to send that money back to the state. Yet, not really. First, the HISD board will have to vote on whether or not to even have such an election. If they don’t hold an election, the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. If they do hold an election and voters do not approve to give money to the state (which is the likely outcome), then the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. The “ask” now is for the budget conferees, which include a few members of the HISD legislative delegation, to approve the House pub ed allocation that increases basic allotment for pub ed by $2.2 billion instead of the Senate version that increases it by $1.2 billion. Also, at least as I understand it, that “increase” still does not restore the per pupil allocation that was cut back in 2011, and like last session mostly just funds enrollment growth. As logic would dictate, adding the extra $1 billion in the House version over the Senate version infuses the system with more money so HISD has to send less back to the state through recapture. Basically….House budget = better for HISD.

Unfortunately, the Senate won this skirmish.

The budget conference committee — made up of five senators and five House members — approved a $1.5 billion boost to public education beyond enrollment growth, according to the LBB. The figure matches what the Senate had requested. The House had pushed for a $2.2 billion increase, and had briefly considered an additional $800 million on top of that tied to reforms in the state’s convoluted school finance system.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was the lone “no” vote on the committee’s decisions to set the level of public education funding, in large part because he felt the amount was too little compared to how much the state was putting toward tax cuts and border security, he said.

“Conservatives spend money like they’re printing money,” Turner said, except on education.

Budget conferees included Rep. Sarah Davis and Sen. Joan Huffman. When HISD has to raise taxes or cut programs to cover this loss, you can thank them for it.

What next for Metro now that peace with Culberson has broken out?

We’ve all had a chance to read over and digest the agreement Metro struck with Rep. John Culberson now. It looked good to me up front (though not to everyone – more on that in a bit), but as always with something this involved, there are many questions. What do some of these items mean, and when might we start to see some of the effects of this deal? I had much to ask, and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia had the answers. He took a few minutes to talk to me and address my queries. Here’s what we talked about.

We spoke over the phone, so the audio quality isn’t the best, but I think you can get the picture. As I said, I like what I’ve seen, and I like what I heard from Chair Garcia. I mentioned that not everyone is sold on this just yet, so let me turn it over to Jeff Ragsdale:

HoustonMetro

What has been the hook in Culberson’s jaw to make him come to the table and put out this grandiose agreement with Gilbert Garcia? In my estimation, that hook can only be coming from elements in his district wanting clarity on the rail-on-Richmond/Post Oak issue. Afton Oaks once again, for better or for worse, dictates to the rest of METRO’s service area its light-rail policy.

Wanting clarity on the Richmond/Post Oak rail issue makes Culberson’s agreement this week not so surprising. He simply wants new votes, and I don’t much blame him for that.

Another hook in Culberson’s jaw may be the rest of the Houston congressional delegation as well as elements in the Republican Party wanting the federal money-faucet to start going in earnest.

What this agreement does, I think, is codify, though not in law, a broad regional strategy for public transport as well as lay a foundation for future regional inter-government cooperation. More importantly, the fast-tracking of the METRO Board composition change takes away from a future rogue Mayor of Houston the ability to completely stymie the process of mass-transit improvement, as Mayors Holcombe, Lanier, and White did with such effect.

It also gives a new perspective on Houston Mayor Lee Brown’s work in the late 1990s to bring light rail to our city. However, this work also set a precedent for light rail that is at-grade and stops for red lights, the wisdom of which is to my mind still to be proven.

My friend, Wayne Ashley, in his blog is far-more effusive about this ‘Culberson-Garcia Accord’ than I. Culberson could still be forced to go back on his word, and this year’s election for Mayor of Houston could produce a maverick with his own ideas about Houston mass-transit which include not so much cooperation with the County and Multi-Cities, which for Houston-area bus riders will not be a good thing. Yes, I am very guarded about all of this.

If Culberson keeps his word and the next Mayor of Houston does not sabotage everything with a new rogue Board, the agreement between Culberson and Garcia could go down in history as one of the brilliant moments in the history of Houston mass-transit.

We shall see.

I would note, as Chair Garcia did in our conversation, that Metro was already prohibited by law from using any federal money on the Universities Line as currently designed. This agreement allows for a way forward, which we didn’t have before. Of course it requires Rep. Culberson to keep his word, but then that’s true of any contract. Metro has an end to hold up, too. Sure, a rogue Houston Mayor could undo or undermine a lot of this, but it has always been the case that a non-transit-oriented Mayor could do a lot of damage. That’s why I’ve been so obsessed with where the Mayoral candidates stand on mobility and transit and other issues. We need to know these things, and we need to not be satisfied with platitudes and evasions. We also need to not be satisfied with any Mayor that isn’t fully on board with taking advantage of this great opportunity Houston has been given. We have been presented with a great opportunity. Let’s grab it with both hands and run with it.

UPDATE: You should also listen to this Houston Matters segment about the agreement, in which Craig Cohen speaks to Rep. Culberson and a couple of media types. Culberson is still spewing the same untruths about the 2003 referendum, and pointedly said that while he would not obstruct future rail construction if the voters approved it he would absolutely oppose such a referendum. So yes, one should maintain one’s level of skepticism. One correction to something Bob Stein said after Culberson was on: The 2012 referendum forbids Metro from spending the extra money they would get from the sales tax from scaling back the 25% give back on rail. They’re not restricted on spending other money on rail. I’ll agree they don’t have it to spend, at least in the absence of new federal funds, but the 2012 referendum isn’t the cause of that.

Stickland not out of the woods

Despite what he says.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

A state investigation into allegations that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland improperly registered witnesses to testify on a bill banning red light cameras has cleared Stickland of wrongdoing, his office announced Monday. But two officials involved in the investigation disagreed with the Bedford Republican’s declaration Monday evening.

“I can confirm that we have met with the Texas Rangers working on the case and the investigation is still ongoing,” said Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit at the Travis district attorney’s office. Asked about Stickland’s claim that he was personally cleared of wrongdoing, Cox said, “I would not agree with that statement.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee referred an investigation into the hearing to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Stickland has denied any wrongdoing.

“Late Friday I spoke with one of the Rangers assigned to the case,” said Trey Trainor, Stickland’s lawyer. “I was told that the investigation was over and that I would not be hearing from DPS anymore.”

Trainor said the Travis County district attorney’s office declined to take up the case based on DPS’s evidence.

Cox said Trainor’s assessment is not accurate.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger also said the investigation remains ongoing.

“At this time, this investigation is under final review by the Texas Ranger management team,” Vinger said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I really have no idea why his lawyer would say something like this if he wasn’t one hundred percent sure he was right. Maybe he just jumped the gun a little, in which case no harm done, but if he’s wrong, you’d have to wonder about his competence. Note that even if this investigation ends with no charges being filed, Stickland may still face sanctions from the House, though in that case I wouldn’t expect much. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

More on Sheriff Hickman

A profile of appointed Sheriff Ron Hickman that’s long on biography but short on policy.

Ron Hickman

Hickman is 63 and has spent his entire career doing police work. No step on his path has been sudden or unanticipated. Hickman expressed interest in the sheriff’s job when there were hints of a vacancy, before Garcia had announced his run for mayor. He was the candidate the Harris County Deputies’ Organization endorsed, the first person Commissioners Court members considered.

In terms of gravitas, law enforcement experience and proven political skills, the county chiefs felt, he was unmatched.

But the job ahead is significantly bigger and more bureaucratic than anything Hickman has tackled. During his four elected terms as Precinct 4 constable, he supervised 425 employees and managed a $42 million budget. As sheriff, he will oversee a staff of 4,600 and a budget of $437 million.

An astute measurer of expectations, the Republican lawman understands what the majority Republican Commissioners Court wants to see during his first days in office.

Commissioners, most vocally Precinct 3’s Steve Radack, have articulated an interest in a sheriff who would be willing to relinquish supervision of the jail.

Hickman does not see this as a sacrifice, since the detention portion of the job doesn’t appeal to him. It is not aligned with his skill set, he said, “I am cop at heart.”

Hickman was appointed last week, and about all I know about him is that he’s been a cop for a long time, and Steve Radack really likes him. The headline to this story says that he hopes to “shine a light” at the Sheriff’s office, but the story doesn’t say anything about what that might mean. He’s also open to the idea of handing off jail administration duties to an appointed overseer. That may be a good idea and it may be a bad idea, but it seems to me that it’s a substantial enough idea that it ought not to happen without there being some vigorous public debate about it. In particular, maybe it ought not to happen until someone has gotten himself elected Sheriff on a platform that includes this as a plank. Just a thought.

In the meantime, while it’s nice to know that our new Sheriff likes to hunt and fish and stuff like that, it would also be nice to know what he thinks about things like Secure Communities and the the jail’s nondiscrimination policy and so on. You know, Sheriff stuff. Maybe we could ask if his willingness to cede control of the jail to a separate administrator extends to handing the jail over to a private operator, which is something that’s been on Commissioner Radack’s radar for awhile. Sheriff Hickman’s now-former primary opponent Allen Fletcher has connections to the private prison business, so perhaps that subject will come up in the next few months. Sooner would be better than later, if you ask me.

Senate still trying to pass “sanctuary cities” and DREAM Act repeal

Time is running out on these bad bills, but as the man said, it ain’t over till it’s over.

After sitting idle in the Senate for more than a month, a controversial bill to eliminate in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants is back on the upper chamber’s calendar.

But it remains unclear whether the Senate has the votes to bring the measure up for debate.

Senate Bill 1819 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would do away with what has been standard policy in Texas since 2001: allowing non-citizens, including undocumented students, to pay discounted in-state tuition rates if they have lived in Texas for three or more years.

The proposal was originally placed on the Senate’s intent calendar on April 15 after an hours-long and emotional committee hearing — but it was taken off that calendar next day. During the first 130 days of the session, Senate rules require a bill to stay on the calendar for two days before being brought up for debate.

On Tuesday, the bill was back on the calendar along with another controversial measure, Senate Bill 185 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. That proposal seeks to give local law enforcement expanded immigration enforcement powers.

SB 185 has been on and off the intent calendar several times since passing out of committee on April 13, a sign that the measure didn’t have support from 19 senators — the threshold needed to bring it up for a debate. The upper chamber’s 11 Democrats have stood united in their opposition to both measures, and at least two Republicans are firm against it.

See here for the background. The two Republican Senators that are helping hold these bills back are Sens. Kevin Eltife, who is not a surprise, and Craig Estes, who is. Without their resistance, these bills would have already passed the Senate thanks to the two thirds rule change. We appreciate the support, fellas. Hold fast, there’s not much farther to go. Stace, Texas Leftist, and the Chron’s Bobby Cervantes have more.

Metro and Culberson announce the terms of their agreement

Gotta say, this all sounds pretty good.

HoustonMetro

First, Congressman Culberson supports METRO’s proposed legislation pending in the State Legislature that expands the size of the METRO Board, increases the eligible length of Board member service and allows the existing board to elect a chairman in October with an odd initial term. These changes will help ensure better regional cooperation in designing and building successful transportation projects while smoothing the transition from the current board size to the larger board size that current law will require in the near future.

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Fifth, METRO wants to eliminate confusion for property and business owners on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive and on Post Oak Boulevard. Therefore, the METRO Board will adopt a resolution pledging not to use any federal or state funds to build rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond unless METRO service area voters approve it as part of a future METRO service area referendum. Likewise, no local funds can be spent on such a rail project without a referendum except expenditures of local funds necessary for the proper studies and engineering to present to the voters in the required referendum. Any such referendum will be part of a multi-modal transportation plan including reasonable cost estimates and a description of the project’s pathway and end points, realizing that pathways could undergo minor adjustments as a result of unforeseen environmental problems.

Sixth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to memorialize this agreement in both federal and state law. Thus, METRO does not oppose Congressman Culberson’s language amending Section 164 of the FY16 THUD appropriations bill to memorialize this agreement. And, Metro does not oppose his efforts to memorialize this agreement in state law.

Seventh, if METRO service area voters approve the referendum, Congressman Culberson pledges to support the will of the voters and he will work to secure the maximum level of federal funding available for the transit projects described in the referendum.

All of that is from a “letter to our fellow Houston area citizens” signed by Rep. Culberson and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia, which you can see here, following an announcement on Friday that the two had reached an accord. It’s about everything I could have wanted – getting the US90A extension moving, providing a path forward for the Universities line, and more. I don’t know how Metro accomplished this, but wow. Major kudos all around. I’m sure there will be more to come, and I am eager to hear it. The later version of the Chron story adds a few details, and Texas Leftist has more.

Ken Paxton continues to be an ethical morass

We continue to learn more about just how compromised our Attorney General is.

Ken Paxton

Ken Paxton earned thousands of dollars by referring his private legal clients to a financial adviser now accused of “unethical and fraudulent conduct” by the state, records obtained by The Dallas Morning News show.

Paxton, now Texas attorney general, did not tell them he was getting paid. He steered his clients to a financial adviser who had declared bankruptcy and who now faces losing his state license over questionable business dealings.

Paxton’s referral agreement with Frederick “Fritz” Mowery, the head of McKinney-based Mowery Capital Management, has created a yearlong political and legal headache for the Republican attorney general. He acknowledged last year, in the middle of his statewide campaign, that he violated state securities law by failing to register as an agent for Mowery. He paid a $1,000 administrative fine in April 2014.

Failing to register can also be a third-degree felony under state law. Complaints by a watchdog group have led to a Texas Rangers investigation and appointment of special prosecutors.

A Paxton aide said Paxton was unaware of Mowery’s financial trouble and business conduct. Mowery, reached by The News, deferred to his lawyer, who declined to comment. In court proceedings, the attorney has acknowledged his client’s mistakes with paperwork and other matters but said he did not defraud his clients.

[…]

Paxton referred at least six of his law clients — twice as many as previously reported — to Mowery for financial advice.

After being questioned by state securities officials, Mowery sent letters in April 2014 to clients referred by Paxton. The letters, which clients were asked to sign, disclosed the fee arrangement with Paxton. But the letters were back-dated to years earlier, when the clients first hired Mowery. The securities board was sharply critical of the practice.

Mowery’s fees were a percentage of how much a client invested. Calculations based on those disclosures show that Paxton received payments amounting from hundreds to thousands of dollars annually.

Paxton apparently made the referrals without knowing Mowery had struggled financially and declared bankruptcy in 2005.

Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Paxton, said the attorney general does not believe he “vouched” for Mowery when he referred his clients to him.

“If someone’s asking you about a financial manager, it’s reasonable to say, ‘There’s one in my building,’” Holm said.

Mowery’s business dealings have only recently surfaced, he said. “We’re all reading it now. But in real time, I don’t believe the community was aware,” Holm said.

[…]

In the course of the board’s hearing, most of Paxton’s former clients, whose names had previously been unknown, came forward to testify.

Mark Dickerson, a Paxton law client who opened an account with Mowery in December 2011, testified that had he known of the fee arrangement, “I just would have felt it was a conflict of interest and probably would have looked elsewhere for another financial adviser.”

In addition, most of the clients said they either weren’t informed or had no recollection that Mowery said he was paying Paxton for the referral.

The state also showed that after the investigation began, Mowery asked the clients to sign back-dated letters outlining the fee arrangement. Such letters could have suggested to investigators that the clients were informed in advance, when they were not.

Evidence also showed that Mowery tried to alter his letterhead to match the address he used at the time the client contracts were signed.

Mowery testified that he saw the forms were missing from his files and was just trying to replicate the letters. He said that he forthrightly admitted to investigators when asked that he had created the disclosure letters in April 2014.

Several Paxton clients reached by The News declined to discuss the business deals. But records of the hearing show Dickerson and another client, David Goettsche, refused to sign the post-dated letters.

“I didn’t feel like it was a truthful statement for me to make,” Dickerson testified.

For the sake of argument, let’s accept Paxton’s word that he had no idea his buddy Mowery was treading water at the time that he was referring clients to him. The reason why Paxton looks like such a sleaze here is not that he was tossing some business to a friend, but that he was getting a kickback for it without disclosing it to the clients he was sending Mowery’s way. If I recommend a product or service to you, and then later you find out I got a commission for making that recommendation but didn’t tell you that up front, doesn’t that make you wonder about my motivations and objectivity? Wouldn’t it make you feel like you had been used, even just a little?

A few years back there was a big kerfuffle in the world of mommy bloggers, some of whom had been busy doing just that – promoting products and services for which they were being compensated but not disclosing that they were being rewarded for doing so. In the end, after much kvetching and tsouris, everyone agreed to the should-have-been-blindingly-obvious-from-the-get-go solution that the ethical thing to do in this situation is to say up front that you receive a boon from this product or service that you are currently shilling. This is what Ken Paxton failed to do. Shouldn’t we expect our Attorney General to hold himself to the same standards of integrity as these mommy bloggers? I don’t think that’s too much to ask here.

Note that this is a separate matter from the criminal complaint against Paxton, which is about him failing to file the requisite paperwork with the state before soliciting clients for his buddy. Clearly, though, if Paxton had been an ethical person, he would not have gotten himself into this kind of trouble. One wonders if he has truly learned that lesson, or if he’s just hoping to get away with it at this point. PDiddie and the Lone Star Project have more.

House approves limited medical marijuana bill

And there it is.

On a 96-34 vote, the House passed Senate Bill 339, from state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. If the House gives final passage in a follow-up vote, the measure will be Gov. Greg Abbott’s to sign, veto or allow to become law without his signature. If it becomes law, the state would be able to regulate and distribute the oils to patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Before the vote, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor, repeatedly stressed to House members that the product she was trying to legalize should not be confused with marijuana.

“It is also not something you can get high on. It has a low risk of abuse,” Klick said. “This is not something that can be smoked. It is ingested orally.”

[…]

Several Republican lawmakers brought up those concerns during the House floor debate. At one point, over the shouts of House members booing, state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, yelled, “This is a bad bill.”

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, and a House sponsor of the bill along with Klick, responded. “It is not a bad bill. It is a great bill and it is going to save lives.”

See here for the background. This is not a bad bill, but it’s not a great bill, either. It should do some good, and it’s a step in the right direction, but remember that some CBD proponents opposed this bill because it didn’t do very much for them. I hope the Lege is as kind to Rep. Joe Moody’s bill to reduce marijuana penalties, but if this is all we get, I won’t be surprised. A statement from RAMP is beneath the fold, and Trail Blazers and the Current have more.

(more…)

Montgomery and Fort Bend

The Houston Area Survey covered a bigger area than usual this year.

One is mostly white and mostly Republican. It hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate since native Texan Lyndon Johnson a half-century ago.

The other is as racially and ethnically diverse as any place in the country, swelling with black, Asian and Hispanic residents and much harder to bring under one umbrella.

But Montgomery and Fort Bend counties are much more similar than they are different. A new poll by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research shows that the two contrasting suburbs share common ground with their attitudes on traffic, development and immigration, among other key local issues.

The shared perspective matters as Houston goes through another growth boom, extending deeper into these counties. They will play an important role in the region’s future as it becomes bigger, busier and more diverse.

Separated by 50 miles of Houston sprawl, the two counties see bumper-to-bumper traffic as the region’s biggest problem, ahead of crime and the local economy, the poll found. And despite the car-oriented cultures of both places, four in 10 people surveyed say they would prefer to live within walking distance of work, restaurants and shops.

On new immigration, Montgomery County residents generally have stronger reservations, while Fort Bend County is more enthusiastic about its increasing diversity. But the differences are slight, said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice sociologist who has conducted the Houston Area Survey for more than 30 years.

“In this time of such political polarization, you would expect to see greater divergence on the issues,” Klineberg said. “But there is a surprising degree of consensus on what we need to do to succeed as a larger community, and that’s reassuring.”

[…]

The poll found that 45 percent of those surveyed – in each county – say improving public transit, such as light rail, buses and trains, is the best way to confront traffic woes. Fewer than one-third of people in the counties say they prefer building bigger freeways and roads.

In Fort Bend County, Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen said the poll’s results are not surprising considering the explosive growth in both counties.

“We’re dealing with the same issues,” including an aging infrastructure and the need for more water, Owen said. “I don’t care which side of Houston you live on, you have these problems.”

Missouri City, for one, is expected to nearly double its current population of 70,000 people by 2025. The growth is being driven by people working in and around the Texas Medical Center, 15 miles away.

Owen, echoing the poll’s results, said the area needs light rail to get people where they need to go.

“We have to get people out of their cars,” he said.

The recently released Kinder survey was based on interviews with 1,611 people, with about half in Harris County. The other half of the interviews were conducted in Fort Bend County and, for the first time, Montgomery County. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Klineberg expanded the poll to understand how these communities view the “dramatic” changes unfolding across greater Houston.

The rail numbers are interesting, though I don’t know how exactly to interpret them. I’ve browsed through the HAS page but have not found where (or if) they broke that data out by county. I’m guessing that support for rail in Montgomery is noticeably less than in Fort Bend and Harris. Which wouldn’t be a surprise, since there’s nothing on the drawing board for Montgomery (not counting the high speed rail proposal, which may not touch Montgomery anyway). Fort Bend has the possibility of the US90A rail extension, which may be in a better place politically now. They’d still have to enable Metro to operate inside the county for it to worthwhile, though. Anyway, as always the Houston Area Survey is a wealth of useful information. It’s good they’re including responses from outside Harris County now. The “Houston Area” isn’t complete without Fort Bend and Montgomery.

Keeping up with Team Hillary

Just checking in, but this story does address a question I’ve been wondering about.

The dozen or so Hillary Clinton supporters gathered here late Tuesday had no illusions that ruby-red Texas would play a key role in electing the next Democratic president. They acknowledged they may get sent to other states to phone bank and block walk, and they were told — repeatedly — not to expect Clinton’s campaign to open a brick-and-mortar outpost in the Lone Star State anytime soon.

Yet they held out hope that the former secretary of state could put up a fight in Texas, where Democrats are desperately looking for a boost after devastating losses in last year’s statewide elections.

“She may not win this state,” said Terry Adkins, a former union official who recalls registering voters with the Clintons decades ago in the Rio Grande Valley. “But I do believe she’s going to really scare some Republicans.”

The meeting at the back of the Llano Public Library — held on a dreary evening in the heart of the Hill Country, 90 minutes outside Texas’ liberal refuge of Austin — highlighted the Clinton campaign’s first public efforts to build an organization in a state that rejected President Barack Obama by double-digit margins in 2008 and 2012. The campaign is decisively concentrating on the primary in Texas and elsewhere, reflective of a humble approach to a presidential race in which Clinton has long been presumed as the Democratic nominee.

Still, as they rally donors and volunteers, some Texas Democrats cannot help but imagine a general election in which Clinton shakes the party out of its statewide slump.

“I’m not giving up on the general election in Texas because I think she’s the kind of candidate who could build on the work Battleground Texas and other groups have done and make a credible showing,” said Carrin Patman, a Houston trial lawyer who is helping raise money for the campaign. “It may sound quixotic, but I wouldn’t rule out her putting Texas in play in 2016.”

[…]

For Texas Democrats, it remains an open question how the campaign will mesh with the network of state-level groups working to turn the state blue, especially as those groups find their footing after getting crushed up and down the ballot in 2014. Battleground Texas Executive Director Jenn Brown said in a statement Tuesday that it is “too soon to tell what things will look like in Texas in 2016 or how Battleground Texas and its supporters will interact with the president campaign.”

Clinton’s fans in Texas nonetheless see Battleground as an eventual partner for the campaign. Some believe the benefits of its work last year will not be evident until a presidential election cycle, when Democrats tend to turn out more than they do in midterm elections.

See here and here for the background. This is the first explicit mention of BGTx I’ve seen in one of these stories, though we still don’t know how they will interact with Team Hillary. All I know is that whatever it turns out to be, if it works well we need to keep it going from there. We need for 2018 to be a lot better than 2014 and 2010 were.

No expedited appeal for HERO opponents

From HOUEquality, on May 13:

Today the 14th Court of Appeals denied HERO opponents’ request to force a trial in less than 30 days. The trial will proceed, but at a regular pace. This is another setback for opponents, but the case will still be heard by the Court of Appeals.

PetitionsInvalid

HERO opponents filed their request for an expedited appeal on April 30, nearly two weeks after the city prevailed in district court. I don’t know about you, but I think if part of my argument was that my case would somehow become moot if the appeals process took too long, I’d file that appeal a bit more quickly. The city responded on May 7, arguing that the plaintffs’ request was “unnecessary, unreasonable, and unfair”, and as you can see in the very brief ruling, the appeals court agreed. I don’t know what the appeals schedule will be, but I do know that unless there’s a ruling in place by about mid-August ordering a repeal referendum, there ain’t gonna be one this year. One hopes there will never be one, but this year is increasingly unlikely.

Oh, and it might help the plaintiffs’ case if they actually paid the appellate filing fee. I mean, it would be fine by me if they didn’t, as that will lead to a dismissal of their case. But if they do want their case to go forward, in however timely a fashion, this is a detail they might want to tend to. Just FYI.

Another redistricting update

Once again from Russ Tidwell, writing at Letters from Texas.

The three judge federal panel in San Antonio is nearing a final decision on redistricting litigation for the Texas House and congressional delegation.

As previously discussed here, multiple weeks of trial have provided a mountain of evidence of intentional discrimination and dilution of the opportunity for minority citizens to elect the candidates of their choice. The post-trial briefs were filed in December.

However, it appears the panel in San Antonio was waiting for further guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court in the form of a ruling in an Alabama redistricting case. That ruling came down on March 25, and it was a victory for the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference. The San Antonio panel immediately ordered the Texas litigants to file additional briefs in light of this ruling. The last of those was filed Monday.

The Alabama case involved claims of improper racial gerrymandering and provided significant clarification to this distinct line of case law stretching back to the Shaw case in North Carolina. While minority plaintiffs in Texas felt they had adequately proven their claims of vote dilution and intentional discrimination, this ruling provided an additional clear roadmap for successful resolution of their claims.

[…]

In response to the San Antonio panel’s order, attorneys representing the Perez Plaintiffs, LULAC, and the NAACP filed a brief outlining how the evidence already before the court supports racial gerrymandering findings under the Alabama opinion. The brief documents the plaintiffs’ claims in eleven state house districts in Dallas, Tarrant, Harris, McLennan, Bell and Fort Bend Counties. Reversing the fragmentation of these districts would re-enfranchise over 1.2 million people of color in these six counties.

While MALC’s brief was consistent with and supportive of the Perez/NAACP/LULAC filing, it made additional claims in Nueces, Midland/Ector and Lubbock Counties. They rightfully argue that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the Fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution should override the state’s constitutional “county line rule”. This would provide for the creation of three additional majority Hispanic districts.

See here and here for some background, and here for the LULAC demonstration Congressional map. The main piece of news here is that the San Antonio panel is nearing a decision. I do wonder if there’s time for this case to make it through the process for the 2016 election – I mean, we’re seven months out from the filing deadline, and we’re barely down the road. Would we have another election under the current maps, or would we get a different map in the interim? At this rate there won’t be a whole lot of elections left before it’s time for the next set of maps to be drawn. We’ll know more when we hear from the court, I guess.

New rail lines set to officially open

I’m so ready.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, after numerous delays, will christen the Green and Purple lines Saturday with free rides and community celebrations, just in time for Memorial Day. The openings signify the end of a long, sometimes painful journey that tested nerves and frustrated supporters and opponents alike.

Officials are encouraged the process has led to greater understanding of rail among supporters and opponents. Prospects for additional rail in Houston brightened late last week, meanwhile, with the announcement that Metro had reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, softening the language Culberson added to a transportation bill to block a long-planned line on Richmond that was part of the same 2003 referendum that led to the Green and Purple lines.

Completing construction is hardly the end of the discussion about rail and its place in Houston, however. How efficiently the new lines operate, and how well they serve the residents, students, workers and travelers looking for an alternative to driving, will determine if the political fighting and price tag were worth it for Houston area taxpayers and Metro riders.

If riders flock to the lines, elected officials and transit board members agreed, it could wash away the stain of political infighting and many missteps – including a controversy over buying American rail car components that threatened hundreds of millions of federal dollars, a botched design of a signature downtown station, repeated delays and a failed attempt to build an underpass along Harrisburg that nearby residents preferred.

A lackluster rollout, weak community support and a rash of accidents as drivers adjust to the new trains could give currency to critics’ predictions of a boondoggle “danger train.” Metro officials acknowledge the opening is a huge opportunity for the agency, but they warn that nothing goes perfectly.

“There are going to be accidents,” chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “But those in my view are not the litmus test. There are accidents on (U.S.) 59.”

[…]

Officials point to the extension of the Red Line, from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons, as an indication of the demand. Since the 5.3 mile extension opened in December 2013 its ridership has exceeded expectations and continues to grow.

March light rail ridership was 12.5 percent higher than March 2014, while overall bus ridership dropped by 3 percent. Even accounting for bus lines the train replaced, rail is carrying more riders, and its expansion north has meant more people can make direct trips downtown and to the Texas Medical Center.

It’s been a long road to get here. Some of that is Metro’s fault and some of it isn’t. The Main Street Line and the North Line extension have both been very successful, easily reaching ridership milestones well ahead of schedule. I am confident the new lines will do the same, even more so for the Harrisburg Line when its extension is finished. Should we continue to build on to the system – if we extend the Main Street Line out to Fort Bend and into Fort Bend via US90A, if we build the Universities Line to connect the current system to Uptown, if we build an Inner Katy Line, perhaps to connect a high speed rail terminal to downtown – who knows how big an effect we can have. We’ve already been more successful with this than we thought we could be. There’s no reason we can’t continue to be.

Weekend link dump for May 17

You do not have the constitutional right to sing in a post office. Does Ted Cruz know about this?

A whole bunch of African rhinos may get relocated to South Texas.

“The bottom line is that Brown Recluse spiders are extremely common in some areas but hardly ever bite anyone, and totally absent from vast areas where they are blamed, incorrectly, for the occasional lesion.”

“Republicans keep saying they’ll be ready to act if the Supreme Court upholds the big legal challenge to Obamacare, thereby wiping out financial assistance for millions of people in two-thirds of the states. With the clock ticking down to a ruling, it’s gotten awfully hard to take the GOP’s vows seriously.”

“The birth rate for unmarried women has actually gone down 14 percent since its peak in 2008.”

Blame your parents if you get bitten by mosquitoes a lot.

“But I’d like to talk about the next four months, in which Simmons is still with ESPN but is essentially a lame duck. What does employment law say about this awkward interim period?”

There’s a petition to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Yogi Berra.

Is this the end of the line for Bill Cosby?

“For those keeping score at home, if you’re white, you can apparently refuse to take your hands out of your pockets and threaten to kill a cop while sporting a tattoo of the Number of the Beast on your forehead. But Freddie Gray is dead because he “made eye contact” with a police officer.”

Lawsuit filed against Rolling Stone and the reporter who wrote that bogus UVa rape story.

“The Obama administration said Monday that health plans must offer at least one option for every type of prescription birth control free of charge to consumers.”

Deflategate class. Lawyers, man.

Grissom and Willows will return as CSI gets a two-hour movie finale.

“Harriet Tubman won an online poll asking which woman should be featured on the $20 bill, as part of a movement to push President Obama to support the idea.”

“Asian workers are far less likely than whites to end up in the leadership ranks.”

Actions have consequences, even for loutish soccer fans.

“A first of its kind study has found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual men and women face troubling amounts of homophobia at all levels of sports, from the youth ranks to the pros.”

“However, now that same-sex marriage is possible in a majority of states, a number of employers there are cutting benefits for same-sex couples who don’t legally wed”.

“One woman was desperate enough to ask her rapist to help fund the abortion.”

RIP, William Zinsser, teacher and author of On Writing Well.

RIP, B.B. King, legendary bluesman.

“But the truth is painful and clear: Iraq wasn’t a good faith mistake. It was a calamity based on lies and willful deceptions. Much of that was clear at the time. It’s all clear now.”

The Mayoral candidates and public transportation

It’s a start.

HoustonMetro

When it comes to traffic, Houstonians and their mayoral candidates agree: The city is gridlocked and only getting worse.

Judging by the candidates’ fledgling campaign platforms, many of which mention traffic as a top concern, road improvements are the answer.

Houston-area residents, however, beg to differ.

So says the Kinder Institute’s recent Houston Area Survey, which found that 43 percent of those surveyed in Harris County said “making improvements in public transportation, such as trains, buses and light rail” is the best-long term solution to the city’s congestion. Just 26 percent of survey respondents said the fix is “building bigger and better roads and highways.”

That perspective is not new – those polled have said they prefer a public transportation solution to Houston-area traffic problems for a few years running – but recent surveys show declining support for road improvements.

“You cannot solve the traffic problem by simply building more roads, and the public understands that,” said sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who conducts the annual poll.

Some say the discrepancy exists in part because people envision public transportation as a way to get others off the roads, even as they show little interest in riding the train or bus to work themselves. The survey also incorporates those who live outside the city.

Rice University political science professor Bob Stein framed the seeming disconnect in terms of voter turnout.

“We wonder why we don’t get mass transit,” Stein said. “It’s because the people that vote, they drive cars, and their vote has more influence on the policy decisions than the people’s who don’t vote,”

The full Kinder survey is here. I’m sure that low turnout has something to do with it, mostly in the sense that the issue of public transportation rarely gets much discussion during election season, but until the Kinder folks start doing a likely voter screen we can only guess how much of an effect it is.

The story also reports on what the Mayoral candidates have to say about public transportation, which at this point isn’t much; only Sylvester Turner, in his announcement video, mentions public transportation on his website. I know, I know, it’s still early in the cycle, but it’s not that early any more, especially now that the field is set. Since I’ve been incessantly complaining about the way that various issues affect the 2015 Mayor’s race have been ignored in the Chron’s reporting on these issues, I should be glad to see a story like this, and indeed I am. I’d like more – much more – but for now I’ll take what I can get.

HISD mostly declines to rezone its schools

Lots of noise, not nearly as much action.

HISD School Map

A divided Houston school board on Thursday rejected most of the rezoning proposals designed to reduce class sizes after dozens of parents expressed concerns about families having to send their children to different campuses.

Only two of the six proposals passed, with parents and board members in those areas generally supportive of the changes.

In the booming Energy Corridor, the attendance zone for the popular Bush Elementary School will shrink, and Shadowbriar Elementary in the area will become a specialty school designed to relieve overcrowding for nearby campuses.

In southwest Houston, the Tinsley Elementary boundaries will decrease, with homes rezoned to Anderson Elementary.

Current students and incoming kindergarten students will be grandfathered and can stay.

[…]

Superintendent Terry Grier said the proposals were an attempt to cut the number of waivers that the district receives from the Texas Education Agency to exceed the state’s cap of 22 students per class in elementary schools. The district requested about 1,500 waivers this fall, more than double the number five years ago.

Hair Balls details who was and wasn’t shuffled around.

Schools that won’t see their lines redrawn include Rice, Roberts, Twain and West U elementaries in one group. Another group that won’t be reconfigured includes Smith, Crockett, Love, Memorial Sinclair, Steven, Harvard and Travis elementaries – mostly on arguments from Sinclair supporters who said they’d built something special and didn’t want to see it diminished and trustees who agreed with that.

A third group including Hartsfield, Bastian, Kelso and Young elementaries will stay as they are. It’ll be status quo for Kennedy, Burbank, Lyons and Northline elementaries. Lyons in particular was pointed out as a school that has done well and shouldn’t be disturbed.

The schools that will see their boundary lines change include the Anderson, Tinsley and Halpin group as well as the Shadowbriar, Ashford, Bush, Askew, Daily, Emerson and Walnut Bend group. In the second case, there were several parents supporting the change as well as those who criticized it.

This was brought up in January and then put on hold in March, as it proved to be as challenging and contentious as any other form of redistricting is. The main reason why parents argued for the status quo is that they were willing to trade a few fuller classes for not messing with something that was working, as it was generally highly-rated schools that were overpopulated. Ultimately, what we need is for more neighborhood schools to be doing as well as their most-crowded peers. Lot easier said than done, I know.

Fighting illegal dumping

Illegal dumping of trash is a huge problem in some Houston neighborhoods. Enforcement is especially tricky because unless you catch someone in the act, there’s little to no evidence to go on. One way to help catch dumpers in the act is with cameras at locations where dumping frequently occurs. Council Member Jerry Davis has been working to get a camera program to fight illegal dumping going. He was able to get some money from the budget to work on this but couldn’t work out the details with HPD. We pick up the story from there.

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

So last year, Davis and his staff instead turned to Harris County for help. He offered Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen the $250,000 to purchase, assemble and monitor 25 cameras in areas where people frequently cast off garbage.

Deputies from constable precincts 1 and 5 make up the county’s environmental crimes unit but have jurisdiction throughout the county. The deputies would largely focus on areas in council districts with the most illegal dumping complaints, ranging from Sunnyside to Kashmere Gardens to the East End. The county would own the cameras and keep any funds generated from prosecuting crimes.

In Houston, any amount of illegal dumping can result in fines, and more than 5 pounds can yield jail time.

On Wednesday, City Council approved the agreement, which could span three years with renewals. Harris County commissioners are expected to take it up early next month.

“It was a lengthy process and, yes, we did get a little bit upset at times,” Davis said. “But we just persevered and worked with the legal department to make sure this gets done because the people are counting on it.”

HPD environmental senior officer Stephen Dicker largely agreed with Davis’ assessment of why the city opted to work with the county. Dicker said HPD talks fell apart two years ago when he told the city he would need to add 15 people, effectively doubling the investigations unit, to set up, man and track the new cameras to the tune of $1.7 million. The money simply wasn’t there.

The city’s environmental unit also tends to focus on larger commercial and industrial offenders that have a bigger public health impact, Dicker said.

“The emphasis just doesn’t match up,” Dicker said. “He’s looking at just trash on the streets. We do water pollution, air pollution. Those are much bigger impacts. But we do hope the program with the county works.”

I’m glad to see this because it really is a problem, and for those of us who are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where it doesn’t happen, we have no idea what it’s like to put up with this. I get why HPD focuses its environmental enforcement efforts on commercial and industrial offenders, but I’m still disappointed that the department didn’t have the capability to take this on, given what a big quality of life issue it is. This is one reason why I keep saying that we need to have a much better understanding than we currently do about how HPD prioritizes its budget, which very much informs how it prioritizes what crimes it pursues. I have no doubt that there wasn’t an additional $1.7 million to be found in the HPD budget as it currently stands, but I also have no doubt that we could re-prioritize that budget in a way that would have allowed this. Maybe we would still not choose to pursue this, but we can’t know that until we have a clearer picture of what HPD does and why it does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t do.

I will also note that one of the things that a garbage fee could help finance is a stronger enforcement organization against all forms of illegal dumping. We fund the Solid Waste department through general revenue, which makes Houston different than other Texas cities. They do a great job, but they could do more of it, and there would be more room in the budget for other things. And no, I don’t expect this to be brought up for discussion any time soon. I’m just saying.

Bikes now allowed on light rail all day

Some good news from the inbox:

BikesOnRail

METRORail is opening its doors to bikes during all regular service hours just in time for Houston’s Bike to Work Day observance, Friday, May 15, 2015. The new hours are made possible with the introduction of a new fleet of rail cars for METRORail’s Green/East End and Purple/Southeast Lines launch on May 23.

The expanded hours coincide with the announcement that one million bikes have been boarded on METRO’s fixed-route fleet of 1,200 buses since the Bikes On Buses program was instituted in 2007. This year in the month of April alone METRO buses carried nearly 21,500 bikes as compared with 1,500 for the month of April 2008.

Riders are showing a strong desire to use both buses and trains as part of their daily commutes. The restricted access hours will be rescinded effective immediately in an effort to keep riders moving in the right direction. For information about how to access and maintain safety on METRORail with your bicycle please refer to www.ridemetro.org.

Beginning Saturday, May 23, 2015 there will be more transit options as two new light-rail lines start serving the community. The Green Line (East End Line) and the Purple Line (Southeast Line) will open to the public and there will be a huge community celebration to mark the occasion. For details about METRORail Fest, including free tickets to the celebration and performances, visit www.ridemetro.org. or click here now.

The effort to get bikes on trains dates back to at least 2008, with Metro allowing them on for most of the day in 2010. I found out about the peak hours restriction the hard way a few years ago – I’d dropped my car off for service at a garage in Montrose near Midtown, and had cleverly brought my bike with me so I could ride to the Ensemble/HCC station and take the train to work. I wound up having to hang out at the station for almost an hour before I was allowed to board. Not any more! Metro has also done very well with bikes on buses – I feel like about half the buses I observe have at least one bike on the rack. I look forward to seeing what the numbers are like for bikes on trains. Kudos all around for this.

Saturday video break: Gold

One from the kids, by Britt Nicole:

Chad Orzel recently wrote about how having a six-year-old means he’s fairly up to speed on pop music today. I’m not quite as familiar with the Top 40 list he presented, but I can definitely relate. I’ll put it to you this way: We have the 2015 Radio Disney Music Awards show on our TiVo right now, and we had the 2014 RDMAs on the last one. So yeah, I have some knowledge about What The Kids Are Listening To These Days, or as someone else once put it, the Tunes The Young People Will Enjoy.

And now for a tune that the somewhat less young people will enjoy, here’s Emmylou Harris’ song of the same name:

What can I say? I enjoy them both.

Bell’s anti-marriage bill goes down

From the inbox, a celebration of victory:

RedEquality

Civil liberties and LGBT rights groups tonight are hailing the failure by the Texas House of Representatives to pass HB 4105, which would bar the state from granting, enforcing or recognizing marriage licenses for same-sex couples even if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down state bans on such marriages as unconstitutional. A growing number of major Texas-based companies, including Dell in Round Rock and Celanese in Irving, have come out publicly against the bill this week. Emails and calls have also flooded legislative offices in opposition to the bill. Moreover, House opponents successfully managed the bill schedule to keep HB 4105 from coming up for a vote. Following are statements from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Equality Texas, Texas Freedom Network and the Human Rights Campaign.

Terri Burke, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas
“HB 4105 would have accomplished nothing constructive. That this hateful, retrograde legislation has failed is an encouraging reflection that most Texans value equality.”

Chuck Smith, executive director, Equality Texas
“Thanks to the leadership of our allies in the Texas House, the clock ran out on HB 4105 at midnight. Unfortunately for LGBT Texans, there are still 17 days remaining in the legislative session – 17 days during which homophobic and transphobic lawmakers will continue to look for amendment opportunities to inflict discrimination. We must continue to fight their efforts to defy the Supreme Court and to deny equality to LGBT Texans – through the end of the legislative session and beyond.”

Kathy Miller, president, Texas Freedom Network
“We hope today’s action means the death of this irresponsible bill and are grateful to all of the legislators who have worked hard to ensure that it never gets out of the House. This was just one bill among many in a broad strategy to lock in discrimination against gay and transgender Texans and subvert a Supreme Court ruling on the freedom to marry. Bad actors will continue to push their discrimination legislation, including as amendments to other bills, until the final gavel. So we’re not letting our guard down now.”

Marty Rouse, national field director, Human Rights Campaign
“As a deplorable last-ditch effort to try to stop marriage equality from reaching the state if the Supreme Court rules in favor of equality this summer, this destructive and divisive bill would have sent the wrong message about the future of the Lone Star State and the ability of all Texans to live and thrive there. We urge lawmakers to ensure neither this bill nor the more than twenty other pieces of discriminatory legislation targeting LGBT Texans and their families move any further.”

Both the Trib, which also provides a profile of Rep. Bell, and TrailBlazers both note that he can (and will try to) attach his bill or some part of it to a Senate bill. The Austin Chronicle explains how it all came to this.

Its failure is a self-inflicted wound. If Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, had filed it before March 13, it might have stood a chance of earlier, safer passage. As was, it was a minor miracle that it made it this far. Bills with a number in the 4,000s, filed two months into the session, aren’t really supposed to get a second hearing.

Think about that.

But this measure was a favorite of the House Republican caucus, with three authors and 86 co-authors, and so it sped through committee, making it on to the calendar for the final day that it could conceivably pass to third reading.

Think about that.

If it had passed, then Texas lawmakers could tell fundamentalist, homophobic primary voters, “look what we did!”

At the same time, they would have to explain to the business community what they did.

The fate of this measure shows the fine balancing act that the modern GOP must strike, between the fringe right and the corporate right. Businesses of all scales have made it completely clear that they oppose such legislation: not only because is it cruel, but because it’s a great way to scare off potential customers and investors. This session, new group Texas Competes, comprising commercial power players like Southwest Airlines, Dell, Samsung the Alamo Drafthouse, PR firm GSD&M, and SXSW made a vocal commitment to LGBT equality. Even the normally loyal fiscal conservative Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business has chastised lawmakers for such bills.

The fight against anti-LGBT bills is not over yet. Yesterday, Senate Bill 2065, the Texas version of Indiana’s “religious freedom bill” (see Bill of the Week, May 8) was referred to the House State Affairs Committee. As for the gist of HB 4105, Bell has told the Dallas Morning News that he may try to get it tacked onto another bill as an amendment. SB 2065 could be a primary contender, and Republicans still have until May 26 to get it back to the chamber for a second reading. The question is, do they really want to?

As is always the case in the Lege, nothing is well and truly dead until sine die. Moreover, if there is a special session for whatever the reason, Greg Abbott could add this to the call. Ninety-three of the 98 Republicans in the House have signed a letter swearing to love, honor, and cherish the idea of opposite marriage till death do they part. But for today at least, the goal of killing this piece of crap has been accomplished. Let us hope we never see its like again. The Observer and PDiddie have more.

Metro reaches detente with Culberson

Holy cow!

Metro and U.S. Rep. John Culberson have called a truce in their war over a planned light rail line on Richmond Avenue, suggesting an end to an impasse that has stymied local transit development.

Culberson, a Republican from Houston, has stood in the way of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s federal funding efforts for years. While the new agreement does not necessarily mean the Richmond line will be developed, it could help Metro move forward with other transit projects.

“We have got to make progress or we are in gridlock,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

The announcement follows months of discussions and comes days before Metro is set to open two new rail lines serving east and southeast Houston. The Green and Purple lines open May 23, the next step in development of a light rail system that has divided Metro and many critics, notably Culberson, since voters approved it in 2003.

From his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, Culberson has stopped Metro from receiving any Federal Transit Administration funds related to rail on Richmond or a similar rail plan along Post Oak, later converted to a fixed-route bus system.

Culberson represents voters west of Shepherd along Richmond, many of whom vigorously oppose the rail line.

Just as a reminder, while the anti-rail faction is highly vocal, there’s little evidence to suggest they’re any kind of majority. Precinct analysis from the 2006 election, when funding for the Universities line and the debate about whether or not it belonged on Richmond Avenue were hot items, suggests that Culberson and then-State Rep. Martha Wong did not gain any votes by being anti-rail, and may have lost some votes for it. That was a long time ago and 2006 was an oddball election, so I wouldn’t stake too much on any of that, but it always annoys me to see these loudmouths presented as the prevailing opinion.

Recently, Culberson announced he would seek to continue cutting off the Richmond money in the next federal funding bill, but he softened his stance by saying Metro could seek money for the lines if they receive local voter support in a new election.

He said current leaders have made the agency more financially transparent, helping him to find common ground with them.

“I am especially pleased that our agreed-upon amendment today will make Metro the first transit agency in America to require voter approval of a very detailed and very specific transportation plan before they can move forward with construction,” Culberson said in a statement.

The change in tone drew praise from Rep. Ted Poe, another Houston-area Republican, who sparred with Culberson over his blocking the federal funding for rail along Richmond.

“While we would prefer to have no limiting language, this compromise allows the voters of Houston to have a voice in this matter, which has been Congressman Poe’s concern the whole time,” said spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.

We’ll have to wait and see exactly what this means, but if we can settle this matter once and for all and get the ball rolling on the US90A rail extension into Fort Bend County, that would be a big step forward. The fact is that sooner or later, we’re going to need the Universities line and we’re going to want to build it. It doesn’t make sense to have the Uptown line as an island unto itself. The system as a whole will be far more valuable if it is all connected. If we do wind up with the high speed rail line terminal being out at the Northwest Transit Center, that makes connections to the Uptown Line (including perhaps an Inner Katy line, which by the way was also part of the 2003 referendum) all the more necessary. All I ask is that if we have to re-vote on the Universities line that we get full cooperation from our entire Congressional delegation if it passes as well as the possibility of building on what we already have. It doesn’t have to happen right away, it just has to happen. Houston Tomorrow and Texas Leftist have more.