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March 21st, 2016:

Runoff watch: Railroad Commissioner

So yeah, the Railroad Commissioner runoff is a bit of a mess, on both sides. I’m going to let the Trib summarize the problem.

In his campaign for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, former state Rep. Wayne Christian says his 14-year legislative career made him an expert on energy issues. And the Republican laments that many people misunderstand the curiously named agency he wants to lead, which hasn’t dealt with locomotives for more than a decade.

“A lot of people don’t know what the Railroad Commission does – even folks in the Legislature,” he said in a recent interview.

But even Christian, who formerly served on the House energy committee and previously ran for the Railroad Commission in 2014, didn’t know one of the agency’s key duties — regulating natural gas utilities — until a reporter told him.

[…]

On the campaign trail, Christian has knocked his rival in a May 24 Republican primary runoff, real estate magnate Gary Gates, for his lack of policy experience. Gates has never held public office and failed in four earlier bids for the Texas Legislature.

“My current intention is just run on the fact that he has absolutely zero experience in the legislature. Zero experience in any type of legislative process, or government,” Christian said.

But when the Tribune asked about his philosophy on setting gas rates — a question it posed to all four remaining Republicans and Democrats — Christian initially suggested that those duties fell to the Public Utility Commission, which regulates electric, telecommunication, water and sewer utilities.

“I didn’t realize that they were actually doing the rates inside the utility,” he said after the Tribune told him it was the Railroad Commission’s job. “But I’ve been there, done that.”

Gates, asked the same question in a separate interview, appeared aware of the commission’s duties to regulate natural gas utilities.

“I think I am very well equipped to understand the reasons — if a utility wants a fee increase” to build new pipes or fix aging ones, he said. “Through all of that, there has to be a rate of return” for the company.

[…]

Democrats also have a runoff between the top two vote-getters from the March 1 primary: Grady Yarbrough, a retired school teacher who has lived in San Antonio and East Texas, and Cody Garrett, a former journalist and campaign director from the Austin area. Neither has held public office or has experience in the energy sector. A Democrat hasn’t sat on the commission in more than two decades.

Yarbrough did not appear to understand the commission’s ratemaking duties.

“I’m in tune with market forces, whatever the market prices are. I’m not for the idea of putting a floor in there,” he said, apparently talking about gas production rather than utilities. He then began to discuss controversial legislation from 2015 that curbed local control over oil and gas extraction.

When asked again about utility ratemaking with more detail, he said: “If there needs to be some revision, I would be for it.”

Garrett was aware that the commission set natural gas rates. “I am on the record in calling for a moratorium on raising natural gas rates,” he said, arguing that the current commissioners were too quick to approve hikes. But asked if he would allow utilities to raise rates in some circumstances — to fix equipment, for instance — he said yes, if the project was worthy.

Garrett is the obvious choice on the Democratic side. I really have no idea what motivates people like Gene Kelly and Grady Yarbrough and Jim Hogan to run for offices for which they are manifestly unqualified and for which they have no interest in actually campaigning. Surely there’s some better use of the filing fee for them. It is my fond hope that some day, an enterprising graduate student in political science will try to answer this question. And if I were for some reason voting in the Republican runoff, I’d likely go for Gary Gates, who despite being a lousy candidate for the Legislature on multiple occasions still appears to be the superior choice. And not for nothing, but Wayne Christian was a lousy legislator.

Paxton prosecutors file their response briefs at the 5th Court of Appeals

In sum: Don’t think about Rick Perry!

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

A Travis County court’s decision to throw out Rick Perry’s abuse-of-power indictments should have no bearing on Ken Paxton’s securities fraud case, the team prosecuting the first-term attorney general wrote in their latest brief filed Monday.

“Comparing Rick Perry’s case with Mr. Paxton’s is like comparing Citizen Kane with Showgirls,” special prosecutor Brian Wice said late last month after a Travis County appeals court threw out the former governor’s indictments. “The prosecution of Rick Perry, not to mention Tom DeLay, was about the criminalization of politics. Mr. Paxton’s case is about the criminalization of securities fraud.”

Wice, along with fellow special prosecutors Kent Schaffer and Nicole DeBorde, filed a brief Monday with a Dallas-based appeals court responding to Paxton’s latest attempt to have his three felony indictments thrown out. In December, the judge presiding over the attorney general’s securities fraud case decided against quashing the charges, prompting Paxton to appeal that decision to the higher court in Dallas.

In his appeal, Paxton contended the grand jury that indicted him was improperly impaneled and that the state law he’s been charged with violating is both unconstitutionally vague and trumped by a different federal law.

The special prosecutors denied all three claims in their Monday filing, saying a court could not come to these conclusions without first hearing all the evidence at trial. They repeated their arguments that the judge who impaneled the grand jury used the same method he and others employed for many other grand juries, that state law holds in this case and that the statute was clear in its meaning.

“Persons of ordinary intelligence would not have to guess at the plain and common meaning of the term ‘investment adviser representative’ or where to turn ‘to determine who is an [IAR] or who may be penalized for failing to register,’ ” the prosecutors wrote.

See here for the background. Wice’s defense attorney roots are showing here, as he has bought into the Perry defense team’s characterization of that case, which as you know is not mine. It is the CCA’s, however, and they’re the ones who count, so one hopes that Wice’s talent for turning a phrase will help here. Both prosecution and defense have asked for oral arguments, so expect that to be scheduled soon. As the story notes, there could then be a ruling by June or so, though things bog down considerably if an appeal to the CCA follows. For now, at least, things are moving along at a steady clip.

Other cities want to be like Houston

For parks and landscaping.

The word “infrastructure” typically conjures up images of towering buildings, layered freeway interchanges and heavily monitored drainage ditches; concrete, cars, trucks and impressive feats of engineering that attempt to mold the natural world and resources to fit human needs.

Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., has long been hailed, and criticized, for such accomplishments, but a shift in social, political, and economic values has strengthened lesser-thought of elements of city infrastructure: parks and green space. Architectural and engineering professions in Houston have been historically bolstered by energy and the wealth it has pumped into the city, but the recent downturn in oil prices and a more diversified Houston economy has led the city to focus on what the landscape architect can bring to table.

Just like “infrastructure,” the term “Houstonization” has begun to mean something completely different. Cities across Texas and the nation, including San Antonio, are taking a closer look at the Bayou City and how the Sun Belt’s biggest metropolis, now 180 years old, has done an about-face to embrace the natural environment as cultural and economic assets to retain and attract residents. Literal mud holes and parking lots have become world-class parks.

[…]

Like most paradigm shifts, it took an “aligning of the planets,” said Cultural Landscape Foundation President and CEO Charles Birnbaum in the ornate lobby of Hotel ZaZa Thursday evening. He would later reiterate this concept for conference attendees next door in the auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Those “planets” are core patrons – the bureaucratic (city), the civic (philanthropist/corporate) and the citizen patron. The key for Houston, as other cities, has been another three-piece vocabulary, the public-private partnership, the so-called “P3.”

Just as these patron planets aligned for the rise of the highway and construction cranes, they have aligned for green space, Birnbaum said. “People are hungry and ready for parks.”

Houstonians – along with national and international consultants – are currently turning an urban golf course into a botanical garden; they’re redesigning, reconnecting and expanding Memorial Park and its arboretum; they’re connecting 150 miles of bayou trails; and developing engaging programming to activate its 371-and-counting parks.

“It takes big civic ideas and the patronage muscle to pull it off,” Birnbaum said.

That’s a report from a recent landscape architect’s conference that was held in Houston. OffCite was all over this as well. Lots of good reading there if you’re interested.

They also love us for bus system reimagining.

Was it hard to persuade people to focus on rerouting bus lines?

They had us all put together a list of, what are things you’d like to see done. This was on my list. It took about three years for the agency to be convinced to do it.

There was a lot of focus on the fact that ridership was dropping. I was actually offering up a solution that addressed that problem.

It probably didn’t hurt that it was budget friendly?

It’s funny when you look at this. Why haven’t more agencies done this? Because on the surface it’s a no-brainer: make a system better without putting money into it. In the end we put a little bit of money into it, but using your current resources to do more seems like it’s something everybody would be doing. But it turns out it’s actually really rare.

[…]

So Houston is open to change and your project has been a progressive triumph. But is the city ever going to reach that urban planning “nirvana”?

Yes. I think we’re actually getting there. There are people from all over the United States looking at Bayou Greenways as a model, looking at Discovery Green and Market Square. We’re a city that has suddenly ended up in the national spotlight when it comes to urban planning, and that’s really interesting because 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, we were the joke at the beginning of every urban planning presentation.

Yes, I distinctly remember the slide in those presentations.

It’s funny. One of the most famous pictures is that picture of downtown Houston covered in surface parking lots, and that’s where Discovery Green is now.

Some of the things we got held up for as being bad, like the lack of zoning, I think are turning out to be advantages. The good restaurant scene we have actually has something to do with the fact we don’t have zoning.

It’s really odd, parks people are looking at Houston, development people are looking at Houston, transit people are looking at Houston.

That’s got to feel pretty good.

It feels pretty darn good.

That’s from an interview with recently reappointed Metro board member Christof Spieler. Spieler has previously said that other transit agencies are closely watching the new bus network rollout – one agency that is considering something similar was here in town on the day that the new maps were implemented, for a firsthand look at how it went. As Spieler says, that feels pretty darn good.

Prepping for the city budget

Mayor Turner gives a brief preview of what is to come.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday that he expects to lay off 40 city employees and eliminate 54 vacant positions as he seeks to close a budget shortfall of as much as $160 million, his first public estimate of the personnel reductions required to balance Houston’s books.

Turner did not specify which departments would bear the brunt of the cuts, but said he would not lay off police officers or civilians working in the Houston Police Department. He added that he would be resistant to trimming the parks or library departments.

The mayor emphasized that if City Council members alter his proposed budget, more layoffs are likely.

“Until this budget is voted on and approved by the members of City Council, it is very, very preliminary,” Turner said. “If there are any changes that reduce the shared sacrifice that is embedded within my budget that I will propose, the layoffs will exponentially increase.”

Turner said he intends to submit an executive summary of the budget to council members no later than April 15, with the goal of approving the budget in early May. The city must finalize its budget by July.

Houston’s financial shortfall had been projected to be $126 million, but Turner has revised that figure to as much as $160 million.

I’m very curious to see what the executive summary will look like. As the story notes, Mayor Parker wound up cutting a lot more jobs back in 2010. I’m not sure what Mayor Turner has in mind that will allow fewer jobs to be lost – maybe more of them are higher-paying jobs, who knows – but I can’t wait to see. Perhaps the “shared sacrifice” aspect of this includes some use of TIRZ funds, or concessions on how much the city pays into pension funds. Any guesses out there?