Monday, June 30, 2014

Election 2014: The Bright and Starry Night of Texas Democrats

Reading news coverage from Houston's former newspaper of record one could be forgiven for thinking it's been the Texas Republicans on a 20-year victory drought and not, as is reality, Texas Democrats.

From glowing opinion pieces about the relative strength of the two top of ticket "sisters" to gushing news/opinion pieces about the star turn of Wendy! Davis to fawning news/opinion coverage of a group of "rising stars" that discuss all things perceived (by the reporters) as "good" about the candidates and fail to mention that they still are traveling along policy paths repeatedly rejected by 55-60% of Texas voters. One wonders why Texas Democrats haven't been dominating the electorate in recent years.

Contrast that with Chronicle coverage of the Texas State GOP convention where even resounding victories are cast in ominous tones and typical policy skirmishes are treated as political disasters and you might wonder how this GOP Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight ever won an election in the first place.

Granted, it's easier to provide fawning coverage on ideas where you're ideologically in-sync and very hard to be neutral when you stand opposed. This has always been proof-of-case for those who claim a "liberal bias" in the media.  Those who oppose the idea of any bias choose to frame the argument in terms of party ID, picking up any story that's moderately negative toward their party of choice as being the ending point in an argument that there is no bias.

Both sides are wrong, of course, because the entire issue of bias in media is more nuanced than a single-issue story here or a anti-party story there.  The issue encompasses ALL media stories and requires viewing them as trends, over a long time frame.

When doing this it is very clear that the Houston Chronicle, both editorially and in their so-called "hard news" coverage of politics, clearly falls closer to the left on political issues than the right. The problem with ALL of their coverage however is that they, and many other members of the Texas Lock Step Political Media, fail to take into account anything even remotely approaching an ideological spectrum.

To the editorial and news-gathering staff of the Chronicle you are either a fire-breathing member of the Tea Party/extreme-right-wing, a member of the sensible GOP establishment, or you are a common-sense, moderate liberal with the State's best interest at heart.  In the world of the TLSPM, there can be no blurring of these lines because that runs against the political orthodoxy which has been established by Burka the Clown, Slater the Rove-Obsessed, Greider the Newly Risen Star and other political wonks who have made a good living pretty much getting it wrong for the last 20 (or so) years.

There are three main reasons the TLSPM is so off-base when reporting on their primary topic:

The TLSPM doesn't have the kind of access to conservatives that they enjoy with Republican moderates and (most) Democrats. Limitation of access leads to reporting by heresy and reporting of this type is typically incomplete. That most, not all, reporters are transcribers rather actual fact-finders (as Kevin Whited of Blog Houston calls them, secretarial journalists) results in too many reporters practicing journalism behind a desk, which most often results in bad reporting.

When you couple ideological homogenization with an incurious reporting mind, you quite often end up with reporting on issues that is incapable of providing proper context. Too often the news gathering organizations focus on diversity of bodies than they do diversity of opinion.  When this is the case reporting on issues becomes blatantly one-sided and opens itself up to criticism. It also leads to shoddy editing, allowing politically charged statements to slip through the editorial net unaltered.

Finally, when you couple lack of access, intellectual laziness and a lack of diversity in perspective with the idea that experience automatically equals expertise, you get a full picture of the failures of the TLSPM. When you hear a reporter suggest that they are an authority because they have "X experience covering" any issue that's your key to tune them out when they start opining about what "should" happen.  I've been watching Formula One racing for most of my adult life. You should not mistake this to mean that I could hop into a F1 car tomorrow and complete a lap at speed without plowing it in to the wall at Casino Square. Nor could I, as a Texas political blogger of almost a decade, tell you how the state education system can best be fixed.  While I have strong opinions on the same and I vote for candidates who support those opinions, that doesn't mean that I consider myself an expert.  Unfortunately, many members of the TLSPM clearly do. This leads to them dismissing potentially workable ideas out of hand and, usually, not giving them proper coverage or column inches.

In a way a lot of the reporting you are seeing today is due to boredom. There is nothing a political reporter wants more than a competitive race with lots of scandal, regardless of who eventually ends up winning. The excitement over King Dan Patrick vs. Van De Putte isn't about a liberal media being hopeful that Van de Putte will win. It's more about the TLSPM (many of them who are rooting for VdP FWIW) hoping beyond hope that controversy, a mild amount of hilarity and some mild demagoguery might make for some easy copy and provide good column inches.

King Dan is an easy target, one that even I can make use of. That it's been enough to create an overarching theme that Texas Dems are on the verge of a comeback shows just how shallow political reporting talent pool is. Right now all we have to go on are the words of a few political journalists who are being very secretarial, reporting the Democratic talking point that "demographics are destiny" despite numbers that reveal no evident trend to support this. Why repeat the lie?  For one, it's what they're being told and they're too lazy to do some digging. (Plus, it just sounds right) Most importantly however this provides them hope that one day they will get to cover one of the larger shifts in political history. It doesn't matter which Democrat wins, just that one does, someday perhaps.

Until then the educated voter is going to have to continue navigating the bumpy swells of Texas politics with little help from the TLSPM. This would suggest a rise in the alternative media but just as it's needed most we're seeing signs that it's on the verge of either falling away or becoming just another one of many party house organs, which does no one much good.

None of the above should be read to say that Texas Democrats should have no hope.  During their convention, when they attempt to put on their best face to the voters, of course they should. I would just say that it's curious to focus on one party singing Kum-bai-yah while suggesting that the party riding the winning streak is falling apart at the seams. Curious and disingenuous, Texas voters deserve better.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: A spending binge on the eve of the supposed fiscal apocalypse.

A strange thing happened as Houston, supposedly, begins its inevitable slide toward fiscal calamity.  The Houston City Council decided things were not as dire as predicted and added all kinds of spending provisions to Mayor Antionnette Parker's proposed $5.2 Billion dollar budget.

City increases after school spending, gives each District $1Million for projects. Mike Morris, Houston Chronicle

The most curious line of spending was forwarded by a Councilmember who had, up until this point, acted as somewhat of a fiscal hawk.  C.O. Bradford forwarded the amendment providing each council district with $1Million dollars to use as they please.  Borrowing a quote from the above linked article (but only a quote mind you, so as not to interfere with the Chron's pay wall.) one can see how many hoops some Councilmembers are willing to go through to get their hands on this money:

"I don't want this splashed around the media as a slush fund. That's not what it is," said district Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who supported the amendment. "This is discretionary funds we can use in our district to expedite some of the issues. I have 80 civic clubs in my district. I promise you I hear from all of them what they need."

In other words, it's a slush fund.

Mr. Morris goes on to say that these monies will be drawn from "savings" that Mayor Parker had included in the budget to ostensibly ward off fiscal Armageddon in the 2016 budget, when things are really projected to go haywire.

Amazingly, in the face of all of this financial doom, the Councilmembers were able to maintain their laser-like focus on getting themselves re-elected rather than acting as stewards for the financial health of Houston. Parker, as is her style, seems more interested in celebrating with her staff (hopefully not at "pricey" hot-spots in Central Houston) than working to find cost savings in the budget in the face of a Council that seems not to care.

Where does this leave Houston?  Depending on which side you take it means either looking at potential deep cuts in the 2016 annual budget, more policies of the type we've seen in recent history that kick the can further down the road or a ballot referendum in November which will relieve the City of its pillow-soft revenue cap. 

Since I'm a betting man I'll give you some odds:

Actual Spending cuts: 20/1
Kick the can "cuts": 2/1
Referendum: 1/9

In reality I think we're going to see a combination of the latter two.  Unlike say, a private business or household, the idea of living within budget restraints is foreign to those who feel that every problem (real or imagined) requires a large government solution. Since they do nothing to earn revenues, and have control over how much is taken, there's no fiduciary duty inherent in elected officials to be good stewards of the public dime.  While it's understood on the campaign trail that each and every candidate is to wave the "fiscal watchdog" flag. The reality is that it's more important for an elected official to spend money than it is to try and save.  Trimming 10% off of the budget gets less press coverage than spending an additional 10% to help save the squirrel population in one's district for quality of life reasons.

The problem is emotive voters like squirrels and they like big shiny trinkets which make them feel good about themselves. Does Houston really need an art installation saying "I 'heart' Houston" looming over a freeway?  Of course not. But it's purchase allows elected officials to give good campaign glossy so it gets funded while the coffers are increasingly drained. Houston may be broke, but, by God, we have the finest example of a public art installation in a dog-park that you will find anywhere.  Dare we say it: It's world class.

Which, if things don't change, will be Houston's future in a nut-shell.  Full of World-Classiness and shiny trinkets but broke as hell and trying desperately to keep the police and fire departments minimally staffed.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A day in the life of a #BadMedia organization

At times of late, the Houston Chronicle has surprised us with a surprise story or two (the HPD non-investigation stories, which (strangely) the Chron has all but hidden on their website, was an example of this). Then there is the rest of the time, when the Chron reminds us that they are the undisputed leader in the #BadMedia Sweepstakes.

For Example:

Their slideshows - This slideshow focuses on the "best" and "worst" World Cup uniforms as seemingly decided by an unpaid intern who knows very little about the WC or fashion.  For example, England's home and away kits are deemed the "worst" due to them being simple, as England's kits have always been since the beginning of time.  In the same slide-show however the author praises the Netherlands and Ivory Coast who are wearing kits that look exactly the same, except in their traditional colors and with different patches. 

Also, if you think the US Men's National Team home kits, the ones that look like the US bought them off the French second hand, look good then there's not much I can do for you.

Their quizzes - I can almost see this one being formed in an editorial meeting.  Hey! Houston is diverse! So let's give a 20-something-year-old unpaid intern the task of coming up with a quiz that tells people in Houston where they should live!  Of course, the kid is clearly Caucasian, the questions being filled with stuff white people like (Your favorite band choices are classical, the Black Keys, Iggy Azalea and Jimmy Buffett!) and the answer choices are so limited (your favorite type of blue jean? [J.Crew, slim cut, cuffed skinnies, custom tailored and distressed]) as to exclude any neighborhood where someone say, north of 25 would want to live. What if you prefer Mariachi music? (The new urbanist nitwits that the Chron-kiddies share drinks with are busy trying to drive poor and minority families out of Houston so there's that) How about loose fit jeans from Levis?  What if you don't drive a Vespa, a "sleek new Audi", walk or ride the danger train even?  Is there no place in Houston that you can live?

Sadly, we'll just never know.

Finally, their front page.

I mean, c'mon folks.  This from a publication with a staff blogger who recently chastised Maureen Dowd's editors (giggle) Clearly the Chron is in no position to crack on ANYONE for their editing.

Take a gander at today's headline: Ethics panels details Stockman Allegations.  I'm willing to bet they think that Newspapers reports on this as well?  Or that peoples is interested?

My subscription (Wed-Sunday useful if only for the coupons) is coming up soon and I'm starting to wonder if it's even worth renewing.  My thought is I can contribute more to the local economy by giving $1.75 to the homeless out peddling Sunday's paper in medians at all of the intersections.  Maybe then I'll be helping to eradicate that income gap Mrs. White and her 1% cohorts are always going on about.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Looking to November: Out with a whimper.

Today's news that the Wendy! Davis Campaign is making big changes has set off a flurry of activity amongst the TLSPM (h/t Kevin) trying to explain that it's really not a negative, Wendy! Davis changing out her campaign manager, but a sign that she's "fighting back" and is on the verge of preventing herself from falling into the scrap-heap of not ready for prime time Democratic candidates past.

This is all well and good, and fits the TLSPM narrative that Wendy! is more than just pink tennis shoes, some talk about unrestricted abortion and throwing money at problems in hopes they go away. The reality is we're seeing the first signs that the national spigot of Democratic effort flowing into Texas is about to be shut off.

Remember, the Johnson hire was used as proof national Democrats were targeting Texas in a big way. Between her, former Obama numbers guy Joel Benenson and Battleground Texas hopes were high that instead of being a financial donor, Texas was about to benefit from the largesse of national Democratic donors.  Wendy! Davis was the main cog in that machine.  Hers was a political story that everyone could love. A struggling single mom who, despite a system that worked against her, rose through the ranks to prominence and who would soon be Texas' first female governor since Ann Richards.

What happened next was reality. Many of the heart-string facts in the Wendy! life story were found to be bogus. Instead of a "starving single mother" it was found out that she married rich, used her husband to pay for law school (filing for divorce the day after the last payment was made) and then dumped him. Her campaign has also been a series of missteps, clearly leading national Democrats to decide their time and energy is better spent at home in the North East, watching grass grow.

Oh sure, you'll have the decreasingly public Battleground Texas puttering around for a while longer and there's still the whole "demographics is destiny" crowd who are waiting for everyone to die off but, from a practical standpoint, the 'Turn Texas Blue!" movement is just about as dead as the Wendy! campaign for Governor. Barring a huge error from Greg Abbott, this one is as done as a steak from the buffet at Golden Corral.

Somebody better alert the TLSPM, because they don't seem to have gotten the memo.

MileagePlus: Dead horse, beaten.

For a while now United has been slowly chipping away at the value of their MileagePlus program for low price, budget fliers in an attempt to cull the ranks and (ostensibly) provide better service, and more perks, to what they consider high-value fliers (or, those who frequently travel in business/first often paying full fare on the company dime).

Yesterday the travel internets went all akimbo over United's announcement that they're changing the model to a purely revenue based one in imitation of Delta an it's SkyMiles program. As is usual, the jokes were ever present. As was the opining that United has lost it's way.  Both are valid points. It does appear that United has no current strategy other than "me too!" allowing Delta (and soon, American) to become a market leader while the blue and gold tailed planes fall further and further behind.

A summary of the changes can be found here.

A run-down of just how bad the changes are (for all levels of Premier status) look here.

So, in the past year United has made it more expensive to redeem miles and now it has cut in half the number of miles you can earn, taken away the benefits of purchasing Business/First, but kept the miles requirement for qualification regardless of how much you spend.

Considering where United (and MileagePlus) is currently, this is just another logical step.  United needs to do something to cull the ranks of their Premier members.  Since the merger it's been very clear that they have too many.  Getting an upgrade on several routes is almost impossible. On several occasions I've spoken with upper-tier (Platinum and 1K) Premier passengers who are experiencing upgrade success rates around 25%.  If you're spending a lot of money flying an airline, that type of rate is unacceptable.

I still stand by my theory that the lower tiers (Silver and Gold) are soon to be no more. United is working desperately to move many perks to reward their profitable credit card partners.  I predict that those changes will be announced in 2016 or 17 at the latest.

Does it matter?  In short. No.

Unless you are a traveler who hyper-leveraged low/mistake fares for Premier status then it won't affect you much at all.  In crap-class, air travel is a commodity and increasingly fliers are going to treat it that way.  There are plenty of good seats available in crap-class for cheap rates that will allow recreational travelers to move around the globe. Quite often, these are on carriers offering better service/amenities than United.

Ancillary to all of this is the fact that United is currently a ship without a rudder or, seemingly, anything involving a long-term strategy.  They make noises that they want to improve the in-flight experience and then move slowly on the roll-outs, equip planes with seats that are about as comfortable as traction and offer service not with a smile but, quite often, with a shrug of the shoulders.

United is leaking money, still having operational issues, struggling with the very technologies that will help them implement these changes and is linking itself to the 787, a plane that has spotty reliability at best. There are calls for President and CEO Jeff Smisek to resign and it's past time that he should.

As the largest airline in the world, before the AA/USAir merger that is, United failed in execution on the simplest of issues namely, getting planes into gates on-time. Now that they've lost their market advantage, there's little evidence that they can compete long-term. This is an airline that needs new leadership and a new strategy. It's going to take more to turn United around than continuing to try and beat additional value out of the dead horse that is MileagePlus.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The 2014 Texas Republican Party Convention: Rotting Planks

Unfortunately, despite some good fiscal policy introduced in the Texas Republican Platform for 2014, almost all of the oxygen is going to be sucked up by two issues.

First, LGBT 'reparative' therapy and second, the revocation of the "Texas Solution" for immigration. Neither of these developments is good news since both planks cater to, and were forwarded by, the further reaches of the right-side of Texas politics.

Already we're starting to see some blow-back. The Young Republicans of Texas have rejected the State platform and progressive writers are already giddily projecting a GOP demise electorally because of the two issues.  As I've explained previously I don't think there will be much of a political price to be paid for the former issue, but I do think some in the Texas Republican Party are short-sighted when it comes to the latter.

So far as I can tell, most of the support for denying immigrants temporary work visas has much to do with the maintenance of "culture", or of protecting the "language" of America. That this is patently ridiculous seems to be lost on some in Texas Republican circles.

In short, there is no monolithic American culture, nor has there ever been. The vision of America as a great melting pot has always been a little-bit over romanticized as the truth was more segregated than older history books would have you believe.  Also a myth is the "speak English" cry that some have adopted, suggesting that first generation immigrants throughout history have done this. The premise is patently false of course, as first generation Italians spoke Italian, first generation Germans spoke German, and (in Texas) first Generation Czechs spoke Czech.  As with the current Hispanic immigrants, it was and is the 2nd generation that became conversational in the language of business.*

This presents a unique challenge for Texas candidates carrying (R)'s behind their names on the ballot.  On the one hand, there's party loyalty and worrying about losing the base that would suggest adoption of these issues. On the other, there's the reality that both planks on this platform are rotten and do the State no long-term good. You realize the damage of the party language on immigration when you understand that even King Dan is starting to frame the issue differently by suggesting that securing the border is key (which he has done all along) but also making hints that there will have to be a viable solution, once security is completed, for those who are already here.

Of equal concern to Republicans should be the fact that it appears King Dan, and not Greg Abbott, is driving the agenda for the state party leading up to the general election.  While I think that, even if Dan (Goeb) Patrick runs in full-on demagogue mode, there's little chance the Democratic squeals of delight come true, there's still long-term damage that can be done to Republicans should they decide to hitch their future electoral wagon to a man whose knack for self-promotion is only (slightly) overshadowed by his need to frame himself in Messianic terms.

All of that said, it could be a good thing for Republicans that the State convention ended with just a small wheeze and TLSPM bloviating over a couple of issues. Party platforms are always exercises in party extremism. It's where single-issue advocates come out and play. So far the political impact has been limited to a few silly, insignificant writers on the left and the decreasingly influential TLSPM. Given that, and the fact that the base appears motivated, I'd say the convention was a success.

*Not really the language of "America" English is really the language of worldwide business. From that perspective it's less of a cultural item and more of a cog in the engine of prosperity. It behooves immigrants to learn to converse in English for their own economic well-being, not for any cultural reasons that some like to bandy about.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Transportation

On Tuesday, the Libertarian think-tank The Cato Institute released a policy paper surrounding the infatuation of cities with light, heavy and hybrid rail, and why these systems are not working.

Yesterday, RealClearPolicy published a Q&A with Mr. O'Toole which I thought had some interesting thoughts for Houstonians.

Rail advocates tend to leave out the hidden costs of maintaining railroads over the years. Why are the maintenance costs so high?

Like anything, rails wear out. They have a lifespan of about 30 years. Not just the rails, but the stations, the power-supply systems, the overhead lines, the railcars. Everything wears out after about 30 years. People are familiar with the Washington, D.C., Metro system, which was such a beautiful system when it was first opened. Today, more than 30 years after it first opened, it is rapidly deteriorating. You have problems on an almost weekly basis when sometimes three lines are shut down. The reason is that about every 30 years you have to go back and completely rebuild everything at just about the same cost you spent building it in the first place.

And nobody ever budgets for this.

Certainly, Houston Metro hasn't budgeted for this. Nor have we heard anything about it.  You certainly won't hear anything about it from groups such as Houston Tomorrow, or the Citizen's Transportation Coalition. Nor will you hear this from Metro itself.

Of course, proponents will say that Houston's Danger Train is better than those other cities, that we've bought a world class system that, despite our muggy and damaging climate, won't deteriorate, or be affected the way every other system is being affected.  They say this with full faith and confidence in Metro's sterling reputation on matters of planning and procurement.

Meanwhile, Metro is spending time and resources feeding a line to one of the Chron's more secretarial journalists that they don't have a SWAT team (despite information on their own website that they do. ) (Sadly, the Chron's own archives [which Begley was seemingly to incurious to search] suggested they did as well) And so Metro goes under the (non) leadership of CEO Tom Lambert, who seems content to turn over the keys to the train to board members who are apparently doing most of the heavy lifting these days.

In short, it's another leadership fiasco to add to the Houston Region's tally.

It's getting close to the point where it's fair to ask if there's anyone currently in charge?  Or is Houston just barreling down a weird Kafkaesque path where leaders are there only for photo shoots and political gain while the real decisions are made by the bureaucracy?

Friday, June 06, 2014

Looking to November: How much a political price/benefit on gay rights?

News today from the AP and dutifully reproduced at suggests that the Texas Republican Party is choosing to double down on the issue of gay rights.

Texas GOP advances reparative therapy for gays. Paul J. Weber & Will Weissert, AP via

The Texas Republican Party would endorse psychological treatment that seeks to turn gay people straight under a new platform partly aimed at rebuking laws in California and New Jersey that ban so-called "reparative therapy" on minors.

This comes on the heels of Houston passing it's controversial Equal Rights Ordinance which has lit a fire under social conservatives who feel their "culture" is being slowly eroded by progressive activists who want to see them locked away in re-education centers.

Also today the Chron ran a column by it's curiously nominated Pulitzer finalist interviewing a local gay GOP precinct chairman.

Gay Republican hopes his party does the right thing. Lisa Falkenberg, HoustonChronicle

As with all of Ms. Falkenberg's writing, this column is hidden behind the paper's pay wall so if you don't have a subscription I'm sorry.  I will respect that they want fewer people reading this material and will not blockquote here.

While it's easy to look at all of this and suggest (as many Dems are doing) that it's just the social wing of the party running loose with no collar, a more sober political analyst might wonder why the party leadership doesn't seem too worried about this issue at all.

I will argue that it's a simple matter of demographics. Specifically, Hispanic demographics.

While a recent Pew Research study suggested that a majority (56%) of Hispanics now favor the legalization of gay marriage most of that support is centered around Hispanics with no religious affiliation (71% in support). For evangelical Hispanics, of the type Republicans would target, 66% still stand in opposition to gay marriage according to Pew. Given that 38% of the Texas population is estimated to be Hispanic (with 70% of those being US Born according to estimates) there's a much larger voting opportunity there than with the estimated 3.8% of Texans who identify as LGBT.

In hard numbers: It is estimated that approximately 10MM Hispanics are currently living in Texas, as opposed to approximately 600M who identify as LGBT. If you assume that approximately 70% of those Hispanics also identify as "Christian" (I'm including both evangelical and Catholics) then the targeted voter pool is 7MM versus 180M (30% of LGBT citizens still identify themselves as conservatives, with Democrats getting about 70% of the LGBT vote.)[Source: Gallup]

Analysis of this type is not meant to place value judgments on policy decisions, only to point out the raw numbers behind the thinking that is often omitted from news stories.  As stated before, I am not an opponent of LGBT marriage. I feel that marriage is a contract, and I don't think the government should use it's powers to prohibit 2 consenting adults from entering into legally binding contracts.

Nor do I think churches should be "required" to conduct LGBT marriage ceremonies.

I realize that might seem like a contradiction but there's a very broad First Amendment line between allowing the LGBT community to be viewed as married within the eyes of the State, and requiring them to be married in the eyes of the church.  Issues such as Houston's ERO are much more difficult and are likely to be argued in the same manner as anti-segregation laws were historically.  Trying to establish a "separate but equal" standard for LGBT rights feels like a sticky proposition. I would argue that if you do business in the public realm, you have an obligation to serve the entire public regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation. However, I do feel that the Houston ERO went too far, was too ambiguous on several issues and is an example of bad public policy looking desperately for a problem to solve. As with all things, your mileage may vary.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see what comes out in the Texas Republican platform regarding LGBT issues. I've an early feeling that whatever planks are adopted will be strongly worded and decidedly anti-LGBT. However, I also think that a big reason for this is because (some) Republicans see an opening to increase the Hispanic vote, having decided that the reality of increasing the LGBT vote are slim to none no matter how they choose to react.

I should clarify that the "some" in the Republican Party to which I'm referring are not the staunch social conservatives. In most cases, for both parties, I don't feel that the true believers give all that much thought to how the party is going to do, they just want to "win".

Still, the happy warriors over at Battleground Texas have repeated ad nauseam that "demographics is destiny". By this they are referring to Hispanic voters. If Texas Republicans aren't running almost everything they do through that prism they will be losing ground.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: So bad even Mrs. White takes notice.

Over the years on this blog it's been very easy to take the Chron Editorial board to task. Too often the editorial arm of the former newspaper of record in Houston has churned out knee-jerk, half-witted missives that typically call for solving things by rolling out a catapult and hurling large amounts of money at the problem.

Apparently, if the Chron's writing makes you angry, and you respond to them angrily, the catapult gets locked down.

HPD Needs Help, Mrs. White,
Experience has demonstrated that money will not solve the problem. Over the last decade, HPD has seen its budget grow from $468 million to $722 million - not including the cost of the crime lab and neighborhood protection departments. In that time, HPD actually lost more than 100 officers. So where did the funds go? That is the question that City Hall needs to answer before it cuts another check to HPD's questionable management.

The rest of the editorial is a scathing indictment of both HPD Chief Charles McClelland as well as Mayor Annise Parker, neither of whom have shown any leadership on this issue.

Credit where credit is due. After the possibly Chron-nominated Pulitzer finalist Lisa Falkenberg borrowed the catapult from Mrs. White in a ridiculous example of apologia it is possible that it was just decided that too much was too much.

Either way, both the reporting and the resulting editorial is a fine, if rare, example of solid watchdog reporting of the type newspapers once mastered. It's nice to see the Chron-crew practicing some actual journalism instead of just dutifly taking marching orders from institutional sources, insulting readers or (amazingly) suggesting anyone (else) is in need of an editor.

There's still way to much secretarial journalism going on over on Texas Avenue, but at least there are signs of life under the new leadership.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: $12 Million and it will STILL be 2nd tier.

Pity the poor Greater Houston Partnership.  For all of their consultants and study groups they still don't understand why people are coming to Houston or how to effectively market the place. By way of example......

No Limits: New image campaign highlights Houston's high points. David Kaplan,
The city has gone through a number of image campaigns over the years, including "Houston Proud," "Expect the Unexpected" and "Houston is Hot."

The Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau has two active campaigns, "My Houston," featuring Houston-born celebrities touting the city, and "Houston Is...," spotlighting local chefs, artists and others who are making their mark on the city.

Kaplan also reports that the GHP is planning to spend 12 Million dollars over the next five or six years trying to convince people that Houston is a really great place to........

What exactly?

We know that people are coming here because this is where the jobs are and if you ignore the trendy spots (of the type people in the GHP would like you to live) the Houston region is still very affordable. We also know that there is a lot to do in this city despite our local leaders telling us things to the contrary in an effort to fund trinkets. (The goal of trinkets being to get local dignitaries names engraved on plaques which future generations ignore.)

Houston has parks, shopping, a fairly active social scene, museums, and a host of things to do that are within a day trip from almost any point in the region.  This includes traditional non-Houston things like hiking, biking, camping and kayaking.

The thing is, most of these things are pretty widely known, so what the GHP is really trying to do is a.)justify their existence and b.)continue beating their head against Houston's climate.

Unfortunately, for them, no matter what they do it's never going to be as good as the Houston: It's worth it campaign that was launched outside of the auspices of GHP and has continued to be a better marketer of the city than any of the focus-group driven crap sandwiches produced by the Partnership or it's sister organization the Greater Houston Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

$12 Million for a second-tier product?  Only in a City and region operating in a leadership vacuum is this considered a smart plan.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: 20,000 criminal cases not investigated in 2013, revenue cap to be blamed.

The old adage in politics, attributed to Rahm Emanuel, is that you never let a serious crisis go to waste. Since first uttering these words in 2008, "Rahm's Rule" has become de facto guidance for Federal, State and Local politicians.

In Houston, we're witnessing preliminary usage of Rahm's Rule in relation to the recent HPD scandal.

20,000 Criminal Cases not Investigated in 2013 by HPD. James Pinkerton, Mike Morris. Houston

This story is behind the Chron's pay wall so I'm going to quote sparingly with the usual caveat that you should go and read the entire article.

"We investigate everything we have the capacity to investigate,"[Mayor Annise] Parker said. "We need more police officers. The only way we can have more police officers is to have more tax revenue to pay for them."

According to the article, the report coming out now was originally requested by current City Council Member and former HPD Chief of Police from 1997-2004, C.O. Bradford shortly after taking office in 2010. This report only covered results of cases filed in 2013, but an additional Chronicle investigative series seems to suggest that the non-investigation of criminal activity is systemic in HPD and goes back several years. Of course, there was a review and some scalps were claimed but, for the most part, bucks have now been passed and a majority of the blame has been placed on "rogue" employees and out-of-date electronics.  Nowhere in these cases was it mentioned that the impending doom of the revenue cap was a culprit.

Until now.

Now we have converging crises and politicians with an understanding of Rahm's rule as well as a willingness to use it.

The problem with this argument is that it doesn't provide the entire picture. If you take a look at the HPD Org Chart available on-line you find an extremely large amount of staff placed in what can be described as administrative positions, and very few departments out actually doing police work. In fact, HPD is organized more like a professional services company than a public safety entity. This is not to say that needs such as professional development are not important, but does it really have a need for four separate units and captains?

I'm not sure of the answer on that, maybe it does. The problem caused by sweeping everything under the "more revenue is needed" umbrella is that these questions are not being asked. What's missing from the org chart is the distribution of officers within the respective commands.  Even IF the argument for all of the units and captains can be made, is the department allocating resources effectively? Again, we don't know because the City is taking a page out of the playbook of the old Mrs. White* and choosing to just call for rolling out the catapult and hurling large amounts of money at an ill-defined problem.

Now the bad news. Unless Houston is really serious about taking a look at HPD operations, organization and spending, things are going to get worse not better.  Even IF voters agree to roll-back the originator-of-all-city-problems, hoped reviver of Chris Bell's political career, and example (In Bell and Parker's eyes) of voter stupidity that is the revenue cap the City Council and Mayor Parker have just placed a huge investigative load on the department in the form of the Grand Urinal Bargain of 2014 which led to the passage of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

You see, after the bargain, HPD will also be responsible for investigating claims of discrimination filed by members of the various groups now offered protection. If they can't handle their responsibility of handling the investigation of life, personal injury and property crimes how in the word are they going to handle investigations in the often he/she said vs. he/she** said world of discrimination claims?

Mayor Parker and Co. can roll out the biggest of catapults and hurl the largest amounts of money at the problem and there will be no success in closing the gap because Houston continues to dig a deeper hole.  How long before that hole starts swallowing up the poor and middle class, forcing them to move outside of the City?

*Mrs. White: The name I gave the Houston Chronicle Editorial board back in 2006 because they always stood by their man.

**It's he/she not he-she. In other words, either or.  Not a transgendered slam for those of you looking for scalps for that.

Houston set to increase hired car city revenue, protect cab companies airport monopolies.

That was my take-away from today's story by Chron secretarial journalist Dug Begley providing details on the proposed city ordinance regulating hire care services such as Uber and Lyft.  If Begley is correct, and I see no reason to assume he's not, it appears that Yellow Cab (and other companies) have leveraged their considerable lobbying monies spent on Houston City Council members to preserve their control over their two biggest profit centers in the region.

The city has to be happy with this as well.  By requiring the licensing of new hire cars the city is going to increase their revenue stream in "devoted fee" form which will not fall under the provisions of the suddenly controversial revenue cap.

Apparently, the revenue cap is so horrendous that rumored future candidate for Houston Mayor perennial candidate Chris Bell felt the need to weigh in, in his trademark, foolish writing style in an attempt to chastise Houstonians for being a bunch of silly prats who are not capable of understanding even the basics of government finance.

Given that attitude toward Houstonians, is it any wonder they don't trust us to handle little things like getting a hire car without government intrusion as well?

Monday, June 02, 2014

Looking to November: How will they Govern? Greg Abbott vs. Wendy Davis (Part 3 of a series)

Previous Posts:

Part 1: How will the Democrats campaign?
Part 2: How will the Republicans campaign?

(Updated: 06/02/14 6:21)

Before talking about how either candidate in the race for Texas Governor will actually attempt to govern it is important to take a look at the office itself. Under Rick Perry, whose long tenure allowed him to fill appointments in almost all areas of the bureaucracy with his friends and political allies, the perceived power of the office grew greatly. Perry also wisely used his office as both a bully pulpit and, primarily through his ability to set the agenda for special sessions, as a tool to drive policy.

Neither Greg Abbott or Wendy Davis are going to have the advantage of appointments under their belts and will need to work with former Perry appointees in key bureaucratic positions which would be more of a challenge for Davis than Abbott due to differences in political ideology.

Dealing with large Republican majorities is going to be an issue for Davis who, should she win, would have to discover the fine line between over vetoing legislation that's politically popular and looking as if she's an inept governor by becoming a rubber stamp who happens to occupy the office. Davis is also going to have to exert serious influence on the entire Democratic delegation (something, due to her rock star status in the party which would grow should she pull the upset, she shouldn't have a problem doing) in order to even get a hearing for her policy priorities.

However, I don't think passing policy would be the primary focus of a Wendy Davis administration. I believe that her primary focus would be to use the bully pulpit of the office in an attempt to plea for Texas voters to change the make-up of both the upper and lower chambers of the Texas legislature. In many ways, she'd be a Texas-lite version of President Obama, constantly campaigning and acting unilaterally where she could to circumvent policies she did not like.

Davis issues page on her campaign website is very heavy on education the issue on which, besides women's health issues and abortion rights, she is trying to base her campaign. It's very clear that a Davis administration would try to increase expenditures for education greatly, and based on past campaign rhetoric she will try to advocate for funding these increases by, at first, eliminating several tax breaks and, eventually, possibly trying to advocate for a full overhaul of Texas' tax code. It is reasonable to forecast that a newly-elected Governor Davis would view her election as a mandate Texas voters want fundamental change and would govern in such a manner.

Greg Abbott's issues page also mentions education although his plans and governing style are likely to be vastly different than Ms. Davis' style. For one, it's very clear that Abbott is planning on continuing the style that he perfected during his time as the State's Attorney General. Rather than pushing a laundry list of policies focused on detail, it appears that a Governor Abbott would leave many of the details of legislation to his ideological colleagues.

Instead, it appears that Abbott would lead through vocalization of key anti-Federal issues and use those to push forward his version of a practical platform.  One thing that Abbott is not, is a conservative in the Tea Party mold. Those on the right hoping to see him act as such are going to be disappointed.  Abbott will act conservatively on the issues of the 10th and 2nd amendments however, and he has shown a willingness in the past to take aggressive stands within this space.

One thing that neither Abbott or Davis seem willing to change is the use of both the Texas Enterprise and Texas Emerging Technology funds which should be of concern to both limited government/free enterprise conservatives and anti-corporate welfare progressives. Rick Perry made very effective use of these tools politically, I would think that Wendy Davis would be the more likely of the two, especially in areas of green energy, to use both of these tools to her political advantage than would Greg Abbott given their range of issues and rhetoric.

(UPDATED) It appears that I missed this but Greg Abbott has made some pretty strong statements suggesting that he would not be in favor of using the two funds mentioned above. Clearly, from a limited government/reduction in corporate welfare point of view this is a good thing. My apologies to the Abbott campaign for missing this.

Despite their similarities on the two economic funds Texas citizens can expect two entirely different governing styles from each of the two main candidates. In summary, Greg Abbott should be expected to try and govern like an advocate for Texas against the federal government, while Wendy Davis would try and govern as an advocate for Texas working with the federal government.

In the next part the focus will switch to one of the most consequential and interesting races, the race for Lt. Governor where candidates Dan Patrick and Leticia Van de Putte would seemingly govern in entirely different ways.