Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: It's so annoying when the unwashed make noise.

There is a dream that is Houston. To paraphrase Richard Harris, acting as Marcus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator, a dream that is only a whisper, if you dare say it, it will fade away.

It's a dream envisioned by developers, who stand to make ship-loads of money building luxury high-rise apartment buildings and David Crossley of Houston Tomorrow. It's shared by most of what passes for leadership in Houston as well as most of the city's power players.

This dream is a urban city, modeled on Paris, consisting of dense, urban development inside the Loop where pretty, predominantly Caucasian, young professionals traipse from a open air vegetable market to a patio coffee shop to sip java and surf the web on iApple products while streetcars and trains trundle lazily by.  It's a Houston that is downtown centric, where the city's power players rub elbows with the city's exciting class. A place where wide sidewalks co-exist seamlessly with multi-modal "complete" streets that have green-painted cycling lanes full to bursting with healthy, pretty people and mass transit zipping by those insipid enough to choose to try and drive along one-lane roads requiring stoppages (to let cyclists, trains and pedestrians by) frequently enough that only hybrids and electric cars are an option.

Sadly, it was a dream held by the Houston Chronicle who appear to now be on the outside looking in. This is painful to them because they've done so much heavy writing to support, to advocate for this dream. It was envisioned that the reporters would be ambling around in 60's clothing taking an almost beatnik approach to the news. They would speak to politicians, Metro board members and advocacy groups in street-side wine bars, discussing the important matters of the day as the hustle and bustle of downtown commerce erupted in a cacophony around them.

Unfortunately, a slight hiccup is occurring on the road to Houtopia, and it's quite a serious problem.

For one, those that are most dependent on bus service are objecting to Christof Spieler's attempts to reimagine Metro's bus service away from them and toward supporting the Houston Dream. This is a big problem because the presence of the old and infirm do not create an idyllic setting for either a bus wedding or tourists riding from hotels to transit centers to catch trains and streetcars that will ultimately drop them off at a stadium or convention center.

Second, those who can't afford to shop at a boutique shoppe peddling bowls hand-made from wood reclaimed from suburban dwellings are discovering that all of the money being spent to prop up the wealthy in the middle are threatening to leave the outside shell of Houtopia a rotting, underdeveloped husk.  It is, of course, to the great chagrin of the unproductive class that the poor and, mostly, minority communities who are not targets for gentrification cannot get on board with Houtopia, either through stubbornness or (more likely) ignorance of the benefits of world classiness to the courtier class.

So, once again, it seems that it falls to Your Drink Order Please to offer up a sensible solution.  Fortunately, I spent a couple of minutes mulling this over and believe that I have the perfect solution in mind.

Ship all of the nay-sayers to Kingwood.

Think about it. Kingwood has pretty homes with lush lawns and only slightly deteriorating roads that can be navigated by either pedestrians, or by automobile. It is not, yet, a food desert, and there is plenty of space to build temporary residences in the back-yards of those greedy suburbanites who still persist on believing that the automobile is a viable mode of transportation.

It's also, due to annexation, firmly inside the city limits so these newly transplanted residents can vote, and the influx of traditionally Democratic voters means that at least one traditionally conservative City Council seat is sure to flip and be filled by a Houtopian with wisdom and vision.

Sure, you're going to have to throw people a bone or two.  Metro can spare a bus route and Houston's next Mayor can promise a community center once "funds are found".  Given the state of City finances we all realize this is an empty promise but the proletariat won't. As a matter of fact, if played right, and if we can limit these people's access to news, this campaign promise can become evergreen, being recycled every election cycle before being locked up in the basement alongside Metro's failed promise to increase bus service by 50%.

I really do think that this is the only option that will make everyone happy. Well, except for those who find themselves relocated, and the people of Kingwood who might be a little peeved that residents of traditionally underserved neighborhoods are camping in their yards. If only they would look at it from a Houtopian perspective, perhaps they could understand that they've been moved into a huge greenspace (vital for happiness) and that they are now able to live a hearty life free of the worries of urban decay.

I'm sure someone at Houston Tomorrow can get on this. It's not as if they have anything pressing to do.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Texas Leadership Vacuum: The Texas Supreme Court rules against open government.

With all of the hype and noise surrounding Obergefell v. Hodges and King vs. Burwell over the weekend you could be forgiven for missing this decision from the Texas Supreme Court:

Texas Supreme Court limits open government law, GHP can keep books closed. Mark Collette, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday limited the public's right to know about private groups that get government funds.

In a 6-3 opinion, the court sided with the Greater Houston Partnership, agreeing that GHP doesn't have to open its check registers even though it received funds from the city of Houston and other local governments worth about $1 million per year.

This is a bad decision for Texans in terms of government accountability and transparency. Unfortunately it was decided during a time where all of the oxygen is being sucked out of the news cycle by other forces.

Perhaps someday this will be given a full review and treatment by Texas Lock-Step Political Media, but don't hold your breath.  In many cases the people writing the articles are friends with the defendants in the case and have no interest in seeing any kind of review of these pseudo-government agencies.

That's too bad.

Texas Leadership Vacuum: A door so wide open even Falkenberg can walk through it.

By now you probably know that the Supreme Court of the United States has established (via a 5-4 vote) that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.

For the GOP there has been much hand-wringing and much thought given how to ensure that the critical evangelical vote stays firmly on their side. I'm sure that consultants and focus groups were brought in almost immediately to determine just what the best response should be.

In Texas, this is what they've come up with:

Texas AG tells clerks, judges, they can flout Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Lauren McGaughy, Chron.com

"It is important to note that any clerk who wishes to defend their religious objections and who chooses not to issue licenses may well face litigation and/or a fine," Paxton said in a statement accompanying an opinion released Sunday.

"But, numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and I will do everything I can from this office to be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights."

Governor Abbott's Response to Gay Marriage Ruling. Gov.Tex.gov

“The Supreme Court has abandoned its role as an impartial judicial arbiter and has become an unelected nine-member legislature. Five Justices on the Supreme Court have imposed on the entire country their personal views on an issue that the Constitution and the Court’s previous decisions reserve to the people of the States.

“Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings, Texans’ fundamental right to religious liberty remains protected. No Texan is required by the Supreme Court’s decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage. 

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick Response to SCOTUS gay marriage ruling. Ltgov.State.tx.gov

“Now, more than ever, we must ensure that faithful Texans be afforded their religious liberty protections. During this past session the Senate passed SB 2065, which was signed by the Governor, that protects pastors from having to perform a marriage between two people of the same sex if it goes against their religious beliefs.

“Yesterday, I sent a request to Texas Attorney General Paxton for a legal opinion on the protection of religious liberty rights of Texans guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, should the Supreme Court rule in favor of same sex marriage, as they did today. My request broadens the scope of SB 2065 to include County Clerks, judges and Justices of the Peace who may be forced to issue a marriage license or preside over a wedding that is against the free exercise of their religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Sen. Ted Cruz backs County Clerks denying marraige liscenses to gay couples. Adam Howard, MSNBC.com
On Saturday, the 2016 Republican presidential candidate said he “absolutely” believes that his state’s country clerks should deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples if they have a religious objection, in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

“Ours is a country that was built by men and women fleeing religious oppression,” Cruz told the newspaper, “and you look at the foundation of this country — it was to seek out a new land where anyone of us could worship the Lord God Almighty with all of our hearts, minds and souls, without government getting in the way.”

It's almost as if a conference call was held and this was what was decided to be the official response.  Unfortunately it's a response that is so riddled with errors, even Lisa Falkenberg can do a decent job tearing it apart.  Not a great job granted, as she chooses to try and inflame instead of explain, but a decent job, that's certainly being grasped on by the chron.commenters as proof of case, nevertheless.

What Ms. Falkenberg doesn't quite seem to grasp is the differential between a legally binding marriage contract (which the Supreme Court ruled upon) and the spiritually binding contract that exists within religious context. Unfortunately, it appears that our elected officials don't quite grasp that concept either and are trying to apply 1st Amendment protections where they were never meant to be applied in the first place.

A second issue lies within the Oath of Office required of all county clerks and judges to whom Paxton is trying to touch with his opinion:


I,[Insert Name] , do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of [Insert office] of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.

There's no wiggle room contained within that oath that states "unless I disagree with said laws" nor is there a Religious exemption.  It should come as no surprise to officials, either elected or appointed, that there may come a time that they are required to comply with a law that they personally are opposed to. Unlike clergy, or private citizens for that matter, who have made no oath declaring fealty, government officials have promised to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States" and therefore should not be able to claim 1st Amendment protections if they refuse to participate in a ceremony involving a same-sex union.

Instead of obsessing over the rights of the political class, our elected officials should be doing their level best to ensure the rights of the citizenry. What they don't get is that there are two different "rights" at play here, and they are not necessarily (as Falkenberg and the rest of the MSM would have you believe) at cross-purposes.

The SCOTUS has interpreted a "right" to enter into the contract of marriage for same-sex couples. This "right" involves the State issuance of a marriage license. What this ruling does not provide is the "right" to have your marriage catered to, or officiated by, a company or individual who has a religious belief which prevents them from participating.

Opponents of this would argue that it is just a license for churches to discriminate. This is, of course, false, because not having the ceremony within the Church does not prevent gay couples from being married. While some will say they have a life-long dream of getting hitched in a church to them I respond that I have a life-long dream of owning a Ferrari. I'm not guaranteed that either.

The old saw that "your rights end where mine begin" is a simplistic tool that many on the left use to try and blunt debate on touchy issues of discrimination etc. Beyond being a ridiculous tool that's frequently misunderstood and misapplied, it's also not even remotely accurate in describing the situations that it purports to address.  If anything, the reverse argument is true. It is the churches and religious organizations who have rights that are being violated, and the couple-to-be's rights to be joined under the auspices of a house of religion end where the churches begin. That's an important distinction that's often forgotten in cases such as these.

While often characterized as "the end of the argument" by progressives when SCOTUS cases go their way the Obergefell v. Hodges decision was instead the beginning of a nationwide discussion on how rights are recognized. It is vitally important to the continuing health of the Union that we get this right. Unfortunately, based on the early indications by what passes for leadership in Texas, it feels as if we're getting it 100% wrong.

Abbott, Patrick, Paxton and Cruz are doing what politicians do, they've been presented with a decision that is contrary to the core beliefs of a large portion of their constituency and they've come out with a response that they believe will provide them with the biggest bang for their buck. They are, in short, pandering to the portion of the electorate for which the rely to stay in positions of power.

What they should be doing is working very hard to ensure the rights of those people are not taken away by a Federal Government who increasingly views them as fungible. For all of the talk about marriage being defined by a higher power there's very little talk about unalienable rights or the bedrock of the American experiment.

To paraphrase another parable from Scripture:  A foolish man built his house upon the sand.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

American Leadership Vacuum: The Problem with our Way of Thinking. (Updated)

Update:  Kevin Whited, of BlogHouston, had a link to this piece by Mark Lisheron, formerly of Texas Watchdog, which sums up pretty much what I think is now wrong in this country. It's a well written piece that is far more deserving of your reading time than what I posted below.

When the SCOTUS rules that subsidies for the ACA in states where no exchanges are set up are consistent with the intent of the law one side erupts in rage while the other cheers a little too loud and suddenly is emboldened to request something that a vast majority, in Texas, do not want.

When a group of rogue jihadists attacks a heretofore unknown (in America) satirical publication, killing 12 and stunning the World we're warned to not generalize against the entire religion (rightfully) but to realize that, in all cases, extremists can happen.

Conversely, when a lone gunman with ties to fringe white supremacist groups enters a church, kills nine in cold blood, we are subject to screams for taking the rights away from law-abiding citizens to fix the problem and the General Lee is suddenly taboo and large swaths of the Country have serious discussions about attempting to erase some uglier parts of American History in order to make them feel better about things.

The above is not meant to be taken as support for either the Charlie Hedbo terrorists, pro-ACA, Anti ACA positions or the Charleston terrorist or, for that matter, public display of the Confederate Battle Flag.

In fact, I think the two killings were heinous, I think the CSA Battle Flag being displayed on public lands is ridiculous and I think the ACA could be easily fixed if it's authors had 1. added a high-deductible option to the authorized plans and 2. removed some of the more political provisions (the day after pill etc.) in an attempt to pander for votes and instead left those issues up to the individual insurance company and policy buyers.

But this is not the way our leaders in America think. As such, it's not the way we're programmed to think either. We've transformed into a Nation that is, perhaps by design, incapable of having mature discussions on a variety of thorny issues. We no longer posses (in a general sense) the ability to either win gracefully or lose with dignity.

While it's easy (and correct) to look at our political leaders and news media and assign them the lion's share of the blame, it would be an omission to not take a look in the mirror as well and realize that, in the words of Pogo Possum "I have seen the enemy, and he is us."

Despite low Congressional approval ratings it is the American public who continue to vote in their representatives, while hoping that other people vote out theirs. Instead of coming to the realization that we are not participating in the experiment that is the American Republic, we choose to allow entrenched politicians and the mainstream press to convince us that so-called "Dark money" is to blame. Nevermind that the money is neither all that "dark" nor possessing of any power to sway our votes that we do not give it.

America is currently on the cusp of another Presidential election. Not surprisingly, the choices that we've been offered by both parties are historically weak.

On the Democratic side of the ticket voters will choose between a woman who is possibly the most elitist, self-serving political candidate in recent history or a man who's made his political career denying both his true party affiliation (Democrat) and the fact that he's not the dyed-in-the-wool Socialist he pretends to be. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, he's a faux populist Statist fancied up with a fake independent label.

On the Republican side we're being presented with another Bush, the family who has never been conservative and never will be, Lindsey freaking Graham (a lifetime politician who has never met a government overreach he didn't like) and possibly Marco Rubio (who has promise, if he can ever determine what in the heck he really stands for.)

Sure, there are other candidates out there who are beating around the fringes, and maybe one of them (Ted Cruz perhaps?) jumps forward but (as is the case with Rubio) they're sure to face an onslaught of criticism from a media who stands to gain the most from a government growing out of control. (Controversial news brings page hits, and page hits bring advertising dollars).  Add to this the fact that the political media and politicians are symbiotic beings, and you have a perfect storm of suck that's infected our news media, politics and most of the other ruling institutions.

I've stated before that I firmly believe America is currently damaged beyond repair. Even IF another Reagan-like figure appeared I doubt there's enough self-reliance remaining in the American citizenry to stop shouting "give me more!" for a minute to realize that you have to earn more to get more. Entitlements and stuffing temporary political victories into the faces of our opponents have become more important than ever. Working, improving your lot and temporarily doing without? 

Well, we'll leave that for other people to do. If they could vote, pay taxes, give up things that are dear to them, change their lifestyles and eat differently so we don't have to that would be even better.

Welcome to the new America.  Land of the ME and home of the Blame.

Long may whatever flag is non-offensive to those courted by the political class wave.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Houston Mayoral Election: We have a poll.

There is finally some polling data on the upcoming 2015 Houston Mayoral Election, conducted by KHOU and Houston Public Media.

Exclusive Poll: Turner, Garcia lead pack in race for Mayor. Doug Miller, KHOU

2015 Mayoral Race. Houston Public Media

The poll was conducted under the direction of Bob Stein who was, unsurprisingly, "not surprised" by the results.  If you've followed local politics for any length of time you know that Mr. Stein is rarely surprised by the results of any poll that he releases.

Without viewing the cross-tabs or the entire poll itself, which has not (as far as I can tell) been released to the public, it's difficult to do too much of a deep-dive into what, if anything, this poll tells us.

Absent any context it's pretty much just a quick identifier of name ID early in the election cycle.

Here's how the candidates stack up:  (I'm just using the 'likely voters' results although I caveat that by pointing out that I'm unsure of what screen they used)

Sylvester Turner:  16%

Adrian Garcia: 12%

Chris Bell: 8%

Ben Hall: 3%

Bill King: 3%

Stephen Costello: 2%

Marty McVey: 0%

Undecided: 50%

There are plenty of unanswered questions which could skew these results greatly when taken into consideration.

1. What is the geographical dispersion of the persons polled? If, for instance, the responses were clustered in certain geographical areas you could have responses that were weighted toward candidates to whom the respondents were familiar. I'm not saying this IS the case, I'm just saying we don't know.

2. Why is the Republican percentage so low? Only 15% of all respondents identified as "Republican". Given what we know about Houston demographics, that is skewed very low.  Either there was an error in the sampling (the calls made during business hours when people were at work) or there's a problem in the statistical model that's being used. Given voting trends we know that over 30% of the population of Houston tends to vote Republican.  This survey doesn't reflect that.

3. In what order were the candidates listed as options?  Was it random, per call, or was there a fixed order with Turner and Garcia first, and then the rest?  Ordering matters as many people will default toward answering the top choices offered.  Unfortunately, again, we just don't know.

I could go on and on but I won't.  You can see where over-analysis of an incomplete poll can create issues of identification.  I do find it odd that NO likely voters chose Marty McVey.  While I don't think he has a chance of winning the fact that zero respondents in that bucket selected him raises huge red flags to me.

What we do know is that a lot of people are not yet ready to reveal their choice. While many are saying they are surprised that the undecided vote is so "low" I would suggest that, given we're supposedly dealing with active municipal voters, I'm slightly surprised that it's so high.

It probably understates reality however. I would imagine that, in most cases, people are not even paying attention to this race much yet and that the undecided votes are really those who just haven't taken the time to look at it yet.

The poll also doesn't tell us where the conservative vote is going to coalesce, and I think that's a big weakness because I think that many of them have decided on who their candidate will be.  Part of this may be because we don't know how much of this poll was conducted after news of the ReBuild Houston Supreme Court decision broke.  Part of it is probably that Mr. Stein doesn't take that reality all that seriously in his analysis and modeling.

One last caveat: It is unclear whether or not the release of this poll is raw answers, or statistically sampled results.  That is a pretty big item.  If the report is just producing the raw answers then we really don't have a scientific poll of where things stand, we just have the opinions of 500 people. While we do know some basic demographic information there's no direction in the report given as to how this correlates to expected voting patterns.  For example, I would surmise that, given recent voter turn-out, the number of Hispanic "likely voters" may be skewed.

As far as the other questions asked I think we're left with a confusing mixed bag.

A plurality of poll respondents claim to want increases in public transportation (41%) yet a majority do not support tax increases to fund them (60%). While a majority rate Mayor Parker's performance as either "excellent" or "good" (55%) majorities disagree with many of her policy selections (Term limit changes ran 53% against for example)

One thing that is clear, a large majority of the 500 people surveyed  (68%) do not want the public to finance projects renovating the Astrodome.

Unfortunately, we're getting what we typically get in local elections, a partial release of a possibly flawed survey whose methodology is unclear, and whose interpretations are swallowed whole by a local media who are happy with the results because it melds with what the so-called smart set presupposes is happening.

This leads me to predict that the only thing we know right now is that Sylvester Turner has the best name recognition, that there are some people who are not shaken by Adrian Garcia's negative press, and there remains a disconnect between Houston's ruling class and the voters who vote them in.  The conservative vote in Houston will coalesce around a single candidate, this has always happened and it always will.  Right now I think that candidate will be Bill King.  Although I have no data to back that up, intuitively it makes the most sense.

Perhaps, in the coming weeks, we'll get some more data that fleshes this out further.  Right now we're not much better off than we were before this poll dropped.  We're still grasping at straws.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Houston Mayoral Election: Chris Bell's plan to indict the Almighty.

Sometimes a story runs in an election cycle that's so unbelievable you would swear that it started as something from The Onion that inadvertently made it into the pages of a news outlet.

Case in point:

Mayoral Candidate Calls for Investigation of Meyerland Flooding. Tina Nazerian, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

(Chron Pay-wall, blah, blah, blah)

Mayoral candidate Chris Bell on Sunday called for an independent investigation into why so many Meyerland homes flooded during the heavy Memorial Day weekend rains.
Surrounded by about two dozen residents at a press conference by Brays Bayou, Bell said it was important to figure out why infrastructure projects in the area didn't prevent major flooding and why others were not completed on schedule. Bell challenged the assertion, backed by experts, that flooding was inevitable considering some areas were hit with more than 10 inches overnight.

As part of his expanded agenda there's been no denial from the Bell camp that rumors of his plan to indict the Lord himself will be a key plank in his Mayoral Platform.  Additionally, "firing the experts" who claim flooding was always going to happen has not been ruled out as well.

Sound corny?

Yup, but it's no less corny than a Mayoral candidate honestly suggesting that an act of God be investigated.

Perhaps it's past time to consider the Chris Bell campaign as being firmly implanted on the fringe and stop giving him false credibility just because he happened to win an election way back when and because he served in elected office for a brief period of time.

To be honest, the entire Mayoral news coverage would be better for this.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Texas Lock-Step Political Media: Nevermind that it wasn't working.

Shock and outrage from "children's health advocates" yesterday as Ag Commissioner Sid Miller lifted the State-wide ban on schools having deep-fat fryers and selling sodas.

Agriculture Commissioner rolls back ban on deep fryers, soda sales. Liz Crampton, The Texas Tribune.

Critics have argued that Miller's push is a step backward for childhood nutrition. In 2013, 16 percent of high school students in Texas were obese, up from 14 percent in 2005. Only Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama reported higher rates. Nationwide, child obesity rates have jumped from 7 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2012.

Citing Local Control, ag commish ends ban on fryers, soda in schools. Brian M. Rosenthal, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

(The Chron doesn't want you to read this, hiding it behind their increasingly expensive paywall. In deference to that I am only quoting selectively and encourage you (if you can) to go and read the entire piece.)

The American Heart Association said in a statement that the changes would "roll back years of progress in the work to reduce childhood obesity."
The epidemic has emerged as a major health problem in Texas, which ranked fourth highest in America in obesity among high school students in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state's rate that year was 16 percent, up from 14 percent in 2003, according to the national organization. 

Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller drops deep fried food ban in schools. Julie Chang, Austin American Statesman ($$$)

(As with the Chron, the Austin American-Statesman would prefer that you NOT read their journalism. I will respect their wishes by only selectively quoting here and encouraging you to go read the full article if you can)

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced Thursday that he is lifting a public-school ban on the use of deep-fat fryers and the sale of sodas. He said his decision returns control to school districts, which were required more than a decade ago to get rid of such types of foods. (Emphasis Added)

 And so it goes.

It should be noted, and at least one of the articles states, that this change in State policy is likely to not change much. It's doubtful that many districts, under pressure from parents, will change existing policy.

Nor, looking at the data, does it appear that any schools who decide to bring back in fat-fryers and sodas will see much of an effect anyway.  It's important to note that, from 2005 to 2013 (when the ban was in effect) the child obesity rate in Texas rose 2 percentage points and our State ranking (in comparison with other states) rose as well. According to this analysis Texas childhood obesity rates didn't move at ALL between 2003 and 2011. Furthermore, Texas Children STILL outrank the National Average for obesity rates despite this "ban" being in place for over a decade.

A person using reason, would be right in concluding that the ban is not having the desired effect.

However, the Texas media isn't using reason. In whole their reporting is driven by two things. 1. Anecdotal anger driven by advocacy groups whose goal is not, in whole, to reduce childhood obesity but to control and limit what the poor and obese eat and 2. A genuine dislike of Sid Miller, who has not given them the deference they feel they deserve either in the campaign or while in office.

The TLSPM framing of Mr. Miller has always been that he's a buffoon who has no business being in the position. This is not changing here nor is it likely to change. In many cases, the TLSPM endorsements skewed wildly toward Jim Hogan who not only did not actively campaign for the job, but who had no political experience or (seemingly) inclination to hold the job.  If history tells us anything, the TLSPM is unlikely to admit that there were (ever) wrong about either a candidate, or an election, and will continue to double down on the negative coverage until a replacement (hopefully someone with a big Statist inclination) if found.

Until this happens Texas citizens can continue to expect a host of lock-step reporting that overblows tempests in teapots like you are seeing here.  This is a policy change that will have almost zero impact, yet it's being treated as if Sid Miller is attempting to force-feed children fried food and mandate soda IVs during school hours.

Obviously, that's not the case, but realizing that means that you also have to realize that the TLSPM is not about reporting the news more than they are forwarding an agenda and (most importantly) generating page views.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tales of a sub-par media outlet: I wonder why?

In today's online version of the Houston Chronicle, the part not hidden behind the increasingly expensive paywall, the New Mrs. White moaned and groaned about why more voters are not coming to the polls and electing the candidates she would like to see be elected.

What will it take? The New Mrs. White, Chron.com

Although San Antonio's municipal elections are officially nonpartisan, all four candidates in the race were Democrats at various points on the conservative-to-liberal spectrum. Taylor, a Yale-educated urban planning professor, was arguably the most conservative of the four.

Despite a decent quartet of candidates from which to choose, only 12 percent of registered voters in a city of 1.3 million chose to exercise their vote in the general election, 14 percent in the runoff. That pathetic percentage means that roughly 9 out of 10 registered voters found something better to do than participate in self-government for their city.

Of course, SOMETHING! must be done. And although Mrs. White doesn't seem to know what that something is, she's sure that it must be done and that if only more people could be drawn out to vote we could fix the environment where the (marginally) more conservative candidates continue to win elections.

Amusingly, below is a screen-shot of both the header of the editorial, AND the on-line advertisements related to this for which the Chron receives revenue.


Posted without further comment.

Houston Mayoral Election: Does Twitter REALLY Matter?

Last weekend I joined a few political-types in Houston for some beers and discussions regarding things that we political blogger-types find interesting.  The conversation ran from TIRZ, to the Danger Train to the proposed Post Oak BRT and across a whole host of issues.  One of the issues that stuck with me was what, if any role, Twitter could play in the upcoming Houston Municipal Elections.

To start off I thought I'd take a look at the popularity/(success?) of the accounts for all of the Mayoral hopefuls.  Then I thought I'd compare them to the account of the sitting Mayor.  Finally, I've got just a few thoughts to add on at the end.

Without further ado, below are the Twitter accounts for the seven hopefuls for Houston Mayor (listed in order of followers): [as of 06/17/2015 8 PM in the evening]

Adrian Garcia

Followers: 11.5K
Following: 6219

Sylvester Turner

Followers: 5040
Following: 590

Steve Costello

Followers: 1940
Following: 853

Bill King

Followers: 1876
Following: 969

Marty McVey

Followers: 1688
Following: 1998

Ben Hall (includes BenHallForAll followers)

Followers: 1346
Following: 395

Chris Bell

Followers: 692
Following: 687

Mayor Annise Parker

Followers: 47.5K
Following: 2124

Thoughts:  Based on these numbers I think only a few broad generalizations can be made from Twitter activity.  I'm going to lay those out as follows.

1. Followers on Twitter do not necessarily mean votes.  Although having few followers probably entails trouble getting votes.

Usually, on Twitter and other social media sites, people tend to follow those with whom they agree politically or, more specifically, who they support.  That Ben Hall and Chris Bell have such low follower counts typically means that there aren't people interested enough in their campaigns to invest space on their timeline. 

2. There's little chance this is how the election will play out.

When you review the content on the Twitter accounts themselves you are clearly dealing with two different dynamics.  Ironically, the account with the most followers belongs to one of the candidates with the weaker set of qualifications.  It also has the least relevant content.  Adrian Garcia's account is more of a "hey look at me" set of selfies and other items that people like to view on Twitter. To his credit, he's been very consistent and good in developing a following. He also got a bump from being the Harris County Sheriff that the other candidates did not.

That said, I'm not sure there's anyone who is viewing this election seriously who believes that Garcia has a strong shot to be much of a contender for the run-off.

3. Some candidates are working at this, others aren't.

If you wonder why, despite over a decade in the public eye, Chris Bell has few followers, you only need to take a quick peek under the hood at his timeline.  If someone is working the twitters for him, they need to be replaced.  His is a timeline full of soundbytes and platitudes that are, honestly, difficult to read.

Of all of the candidates I think Sylvester Turner and Bill King are doing some of the best work on Twitter. Both are filled with links, images, video and a host of information relating to the campaign and issues affecting the City of Houston.  Whoever is working on their social media should take a bow.

4. Finally, and most importantly, the Twitter campaigns give a window into the campaigns themselves, which I think does, moreso than raw followers, tell us a little bit about who is where in the pack.

I think two favorites are emerging in this race. Turner and King, and the professionalism of their account content and campaigns as a whole reflect this.

Garcia is leading in follower count, but has a problem of a horrible record as Harris County Sheriff. His focus on glib content seems to recognize that his campaign team understands this, but they don't have much of a plan to overcome it other than "demographics is destiny".

Costello is much the same way. His early plan seemed to be to run on his familiarity with Houston and experience. Unfortunately, for him, the recent Supreme Court decision on ReBuild Houston and the Memorial Day flooding knocks all of that into a cocked hat.  Much like Garcia he seems to be treading water right now hoping everything blows over within a couple of news cycles.

McVey is well....he's Marty McVey. He's clearly hoping to catch the Bill White Genie in a bottle minus the federal appointment and political experience. I've felt from the beginning that he's a nice enough guy that is somewhat overreaching in his first real shot at a political position. His name ID is nonexistent and some of his positions feel more developed in the "me too" school of political thought than original solutions for Texas.

Ben Hall is running against the ghost of Ben Hall.  His campaign for Mayor in 2013 was horrible to the point that I can't see a path to victory this time around.  I hear rumors that he has a big announcement in the offing but, if it's what I hear it is I think it will do him more harm than help with some (although not all) of the voters he's courting.

Chris Bell's problem is simple.  There are a lot of people on the left who genuinely like Chris Bell the person. The problem is they don't like Chris Bell the politician all that much. And certainly not more than they like other people.  When you add to this that Bell is a horrible campaigner who has a very, very soft public persona and he's the definition of a perennial candidate.  He reminds me of someone who just runs a lot hoping that eventually something will stick.  Like a progressive version of Roy Morales. (Although things seemed to work out OK for him)

In summary (I'd say 'in short' but it's too late for that) I think the two top-tier candidates in this race don't necessarily have the most Twitter followers, but they DO have the most interesting campaigns so far.

In separate post I'm going to discuss the nuts and bolts of each campaign, with a heavy focus on both Sylvester Turner and Bill King.  The reason for this is because I think the two of them are doing the best job so far.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, my Twitter account sucks.  So I'm by no means an expert.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wednesday Humor: While doing some research.

While doing some research on a local matter I ran across the following, rather humorous, Google search result:

Houston Democratic Blogs

The top two results are from the Houston Chronicle, and the next two are blogs that (on the surface) advertise themselves as either "Republican" or "Right of Center".  Only at numbers 4 & 5 do you find openly Democratic Party blogs. (Although I would argue two of those on the list do the work of the Democratic party, just not openly)

Of course, the next blog on the list was BlogHouston (To which I am an occasional contributor) so I'm guessing the problem lies in the search algorithms as much as anything.

Still funny however.

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Parks, parking lots, and potties over pot-holes and policing.

As Mayor Parker continues to obsess about who should be able to go into what public restroom, when, how and creative names to call her political opponents the City of Houston is dealing with some pretty serious issues.  Not that you'd know it (other than the recent Tropical Storm Bill tweets) looking through her Twitter Account which is a mish-mash of catty issue advocacy that searches at every angle to belittle her political opponents and to take pictures of Herroner with various groups of friendly supporters.

The Mayor is also big on rhetorical questions which make it clear how little thought she's given to what the answers might be.

As signs continue to emerge that Parker is no longer being taken all that seriously by the people who are not term-limited whether or not you consider her remaining tenure being marked by lame-duck status is either a blessing or a curse depending on which side of the political aisle you reside.

One thing is for sure, pressing items such as HPD staffing, legal issues surrounding, and the future of, ReBuild Houston, and the city's plan for flooding going forward are going to be up to the next Mayoral administration to tackle.  For Parker, these things are outside of her "political agenda" which she now considers "complete".  One assumes this means that she's passed the Grand Urinal Bargain of 2014, grabbed a shovel and broke ground on a project under litigation and well.....

Some would call this a downside of term-limits.  While this may be true it's also true that, even when she wasn't a lame-duck, Mayor Parker did not show much of an interest in dealing with these issues so, from that perspective, having a new Mayor coming on board could be a good thing.

Just as Mayor Parker suggested that it's a good idea to ask the Mayoral candidates about ReBuild Houston, it might also be a good idea to ask them about the major issues that will be affecting their tenure if elected.

I'm not sure about you but I would consider HPD staffing, Rebuild Houston and basic infrastructure needs to be much higher up the food chain of core issues than one-bin recycling or special parking designations. Not that the latter shouldn't be on the city's agenda, only that there are far more pressing issues to deal with that will affect the lives of all Houstonians and those in the Houston Area.

Houston Mayoral Election: Bill King on TIRZ

BlogHouston has posted an editorial from the Bill King Campaign on a subject that I have brought up from time to time: Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ)

While it is not the policy of this blog to make endorsements in elections, I do believe this issue will be big in the coming years and Mr. King's thoughts are worth a read.

King: Growing Concerns Over TIRZ, BlogHouston

Since BlogHouston sought, and obtained, permission from the King campaign to reproduce the editorial in full, I will not block-quote here but will encourage you to head over to that site and read the entire thing.

What I will do is re-post some of my thoughts from a previous post on how TIRZ can be reformed:

 - Shorter, more flexible sunset dates. - This would allow the TIRZ to be brought to an end once their mission ended.
 - More narrowly defined objectives - Preventing the 'mission creep' that we're now seeing in highly developed areas where TIRZ officers are trying to keep their phony baloney jobs.
 - Harder boundaries - Preventing the types of land-grabs that are outlined in the Press piece.
 - More accountability - Including increased audit requirements and new, more robust, public disclosure rules.
 - Term limits for appointments -  because.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Politics aside: Be careful out there Houston

As waves of rain come into the region, along with (presumably) localized flooding, high water, closed roads and high winds, I hope that everyone who reads this makes it through without loss of property or (most importantly) loved ones.

As much as we poke fun of the slogans, and the politicians who champion them, the fact is "Hunker Down" and "Turn Around, Don't Drown" are pretty useful reminders as far as what to do in a weather event.

Watch the news, limit unnecessary trips and have a plan.

And....most importantly, stay safe.

Texas Leadership Vacuum: Closing the book on the Texas Democrats disasterous 2014 candidate slate.

After the weekend's run-off election for San Antonio Mayor, Texas Democrats can (happily) wave goodbye, for now, to what might be the worst slate of state-wide candidates in recent history.

Taylor claims win in San Antonio Mayoral Runoff. Patrick Svitek. Texas Tribune

It's unclear where Van de Putte goes from here. Much like Wendy (?!?) Davis her trouncing in the 2014 general election has made her fairly unelectable state-wide.  Her last hope was to win the Mayor's race in San Antonio and use that to reform her image.

Whether through Democratic apathy or because she's just too far left for the electorate, that's not going to be the case.

Sure, she'll end up OK and will probably get a job as either a lobbyist or working with an advocacy group but, from an elections perspective, I can't help but feel that Van de Putte is finished. Much in the way Davis is done.

It's a stunning end to a ticket that, initially, had some Democrats giddy with anticipation. Hopes that were quickly dashed as it came to be realized that Wendy! Davis was really Wendy (?!?) Davis and that Van de Putte was no match for now Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. (Who is probably among the best politicians in the State when it comes to the nitty-gritty of political strategy and campaigning [and yes, it pains me to say that])

Fielding quality candidates has been an issue for the State Democratic Party for some time now. If you look at the charred remains of their candidate bench, and think about potential spot-holders in the next election cycle, perhaps the leading name for the Dem nominee for Texas Governor is......

Annise Parker.

And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: A growing mess on Post Oak.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this become the next big transit mess in Houston:

As officials celebrate Uptown transit project, opponents persist. Dug Begley, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

The most interesting part of the linked article (to me) is that Begley went seemingly out of his way to find an "expert" whose support for the project was unwavering. While Mr. Garvin might be the best thing to happen to urban planning in....forever, that doesn't mean that he understands the local issues involved to a degree in which his commentary means all that much.

Add to that the obvious fact that he has no skin in the game and, well, let's just say it's very easy to helicopter in and advocate spending the money of other people, affecting their lives with no personal consequence. I'm sure it's just a happy coincidence that Mr. Garvin's opinions of "going big" just happen to coincide with the New Mrs. White's opinion that "thinking bigger" is the solution to all of Uptown's (supposed) problems?

Forgive me for thinking that the Chron is crying a few crocodile tears here, hoping to leverage supposed reservations for "this" plan with the hopes of diverting more tax dollars to a rail system that's financially breaking Metro.

A second question is this:  On the dual matters of light rail on Richmond and now the Post Oak BRT it appears that the wishes of the local community are being overran so that a select few can benefit, either politically or financially.

The question that the Chron has never asked or attempted to answer is.........

Who are those few?

Just a thought.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: A leader for all (unless you disagree with her)

h/t to Kevin from BlogHouston

Houston's publically elected Mayor y'all:

First:  I don't have children and I'm not entirely concerned about a sexual predator attacking me in a gender neutral restroom.  And, while I think the entire concept of public restrooms having no gender designation is a little ridiculous I would understand if you had Men's rooms, Women's rooms, and a gender neutral option.  After all, we're supposed to be about "choice" right?

That out of the way what concerns me most about this is Parker's characterization of those with political, religious or moral beliefs that differ from her as "trolls".  I expect this from an anonymous commenter on Chron.com or on Twitter. I would hope people would not expect this from the Mayor of the 4th largest city in America.

Sadly, because the leadership in the Houston area has been so bad, for so long, statements such as this don't even garner a reaction.  Add to this the fact that there are people who go "Rah! Rah!" to boorish behavior on the sole basis that it happens to agree with their worldview and you begin to see where substandard leadership leads to substandard logic becoming the norm in political debate.

Society, in this case Houston society, gets the government that it deserves and asks for.  In this case we deserve a logically challenged hothead who has conflict resolution issues.  Yay us. I'd like to say that this has to be the bottom but looking at the slate of 2016 Mayoral candidates I would guess that Houston has a better than 50% chance of digging the hole even deeper.

Finally: This is not the main point of this post but it should be said. No matter what designation you give to public restrooms they are NOT "just like bathrooms at home".  Unless, that is, Mayor Parker and her ideological fellow travelers make it a habit to let total strangers in to use the bathroom at their houses. I doubt, should you go knock on her door, either the Mayor or her family would let you come inside to drop off a quick No. 2 in their master bath. 

Call that a hunch.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Just one large (tropical) desert.

And here we go.....

Houston's Transit Deserts. Kyle Shelton. Rice-Kinder Institute, Grey Matters, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

(No wonder the Chron likes the Kinder Institute so much, they're willing to provide content for them to shove behind the increasingly expensive pay-wall)

The researchers acknowledge that the approach isn't perfect. The number of cars per household is certainly not the sole factor that determines use of transit. For example, a household of five in which all members are over the age of 16 is unlikely to own five cars. By the study's mechanisms, such a household would be considered transit dependent. In reality, though, this car-to-person gap does not automatically make a household transit dependent. Indeed a household might get along fine with three or even two family vehicles.

Or, "food deserts" Part II.

If this is to be the next wave in attempts to engage in opinion making by the unproductive class then Houston, and the rest of the region, is in a world of hurt.

It's impossible to rebut so-called "studies" where the researchers and defenders themselves admit to flaws, but then counter with "well, those flaws don't matter because we say so."  Logical fallacies being the most difficult to shoot-down.

As with any of the newly coined "deserts", there's little doubt that this one will be used to call for increased government intrusion and expenditure (read: increased taxes) to rid the city of this scourge.  Since we know that the Chron's pro-rail lens is very much still in focus you can bet that the entire reporting and editorial team are preparing to flex their muscles in a concerted effort to rid us of this scourge.

Now, granted, the Chron wants to do it using your money (ideally not theirs) but you get the point.

Strong leaders would take a look at this study and rightly point out that the shortcomings and obvious pro-transit bias make it all but useless in terms of planning.  However, Houston does not, as has been demonstrated over the years, currently posses anything resembling strong leadership so we can all look forward to the days when City Council has hand-wringing meetings, the Mayor (both current and future) proclaim that SOMETHING! must be done, and someone in Metro (Probably Christof Spieler) pens an urgent memo stating that the organization takes this "seriously" and is currently reviewing options to address it fully (and expensively).  This will also most certainly be a question in next year's Kinder/Houston Area Survey and, faced with a yes/no choice with no potential trade-offs, you can be certain that a vast majority of Houstonians will be against all deserts and thinks the Cities and Counties effected should do something about it post-haste.

That it's such a vicious circle that it is this easy to predict is a direct result of sub-par political leadership and below-average media in the region as well.

Tales of a sub-par news outlet: Has the Chron broken its rail lens?

By 2015, many may have forgotten the infamous internal memo circulated among staff and accidentally placed on a public area of Chron.com before being swept under the rug with a flimsy rationalization before retracting to nothing much more than blog-fodder after a brief brew-ha-ha and chuckle by local politicos. It was "wink-wink" public advocacy at its finest.

If you were aware of the memo (and most Houstonians weren't) then the Chron's curiously unquestioning (boosterish) coverage of the tragic comedy that has become Metro Rail makes sense. It was not the Chron's intention to evenhandedly report on the rail projects but to advocate for them.

What this led to was editorializing that followed the marching orders below:

There isn’t a more critical issue on the horizon. I propose a series of editorials, editorial cartoons and Sounding Board columns leading up to the rail referendum, with this specific objective: Continuing our long standing efforts to make rail a permanent part of the transit mix here.

This guiding principle (established by then Editor-in-Chief Cohen) was the driving force behind all Chron reporting on the matter for over a decade. Rail is good, rail is great....lather, rinse, repeat.

Two interesting pieces on the Chron's free site appear, at face value, to look at rail through something other than the narrow lens prescribed in the memo.....

Chart Shows how much money US Metro systems lose per passenger ride. John Henry Perera. Chron.com

Houston Metro-$1.23 per passenger ride

 Early Use of New Rail Lines Below Expectations. Dug Begley, Chron.com

Two new light rail lines have gotten off to slow start, according to early ridership figures from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, but officials and riders still hope the Green and Purple Line will meet expectations.

So, on face, are we getting some honest levelheaded reporting on the rail system from the Chron?  Have they finally decided to discard the advocacy lens and do some serious, public interest reporting? (Something that has been largely missing from this publication for years now.)


Looking further down the 2nd linked article the following can be found...

Officials said a number of factors contributed to the less-than-expected use.
“Heavy rain throughout the week combined with the absence of classes at Texas Southern University and the University of Houston, along with the absence of the highest ridership station on the Green Line, Magnolia Park Transit Center, had a dampening effect on overall ridership, pun intended,” Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

It's one thing to allow Metro to "explain away" the low ridership numbers unchallenged, it's quite another to continue (as Begley does) offering nothing more than publicly available apologia.  You see, according to Begley, and the riders he quoted, the (few) passengers that ARE on the train find them swell, no complaints, nothing to see here.  Moving right along.

This brings us to the 1st piece, and the unsurprising revelation that Metro loses money every time a passenger steps on the train.  Damning stuff right?       Wrong.

Because turning a profit, or running efficiently, is not something that people who care about rail care about much at all. To them, the benefits of transit aren't measured by dollars and cents, it's measured by how many other people you can get off the road so they can continue to commute in their vehicles, get to the shops they want to get to, and move around Houston in the manner they want to move around in as conveniently as possible.

Already the comments section of the first story are filled with unproductive class members trying to compare the money "lost" per passenger ride to the money "lost" on I-10.  They even (laughably) grouse about the $2B price tag for the Katy Freeway expansion, ignoring the fact that 1.) on a per-passenger basis, the Katy Freeway is MUCH more economical and that 2.) industry happens on Freeways, which brings economic activity to the area.  Rail is used, in Houston, primarily for......weddings?

None of this matters to the true believers however because the true, lasting benefit of rail is not that it turns a profit, or that it is even ran efficiently and well. The real benefit is that it makes them feel warm and fuzzy and gives and air of World Classiness to the place.  Light Rail is the ultimate trinket for those who believe trinket governance is the bestest and most perfect way to govern.

"Let them eat cake, or take rail.  Whatever it is they want to do to get them off of the roads so I can fire up the Range Rover and get my kids to their schools.

Or, better yet, let me drive down to a rail terminus, park my luxury SUV, take a ride around town, stop at a café for a quick spot of something that is nothing like European espresso and food that listed as gourmet in the Sysco catalogue.  When I'm finished with that I'll hop back in my car and head home."

It's the new-new urbanist pledge.  Just keep the poor away and the trains blasting AC.

Tales of the FoodBorg: Does this mean the Heights is now a "food desert".

Revival Market, a very upscale fresh market/diner in the Heights area is "repositioning" itself to be more of a traditional diner, and less a retail market.

Revival Market repositions itself with restaurant first, market second. Greg Morago, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

(Granted, the cost per month for this article is still cheaper than almost anything you could buy at Revival)

Last month, Revival Market expanded its hours to accommodate dinner service. Its kitchen now offers all-day service for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily (except Monday, when dinner is not served). The aisles that held a variety of produce and artisan foods are gone to make way for more café tables and banquette seating.

While I've only been there once or twice, I always enjoyed breakfast at Revival when I did visit and I (usually) found one or two things to try that I liked.  Their pimento cheese spread, for example, is out of this world good.

The staff was usually friendly and, despite it's pretentious reputation, the patrons were typically fairly nice and it made for a good Saturday morning drive into town.  The food there is good and the butcher's counter, while pricey, was always full of tasty dead, carved, animals. It also had been around long enough that the FoodBorg had long since abandoned this place for newer (although not necessarily greener) pastures.

Now it appears that the market is, largely, going away.  This is horrible news for Heights residents who, if I understand the fuzzy definition of "food deserts" correctly, appear to be now living in one.

Look at the map below:
Heights proper with grocery stores
It is very clear the Heights now has a very large geographic area where the purchase of farm-fresh, vegetarian-fed, cage-free, organic, hormone-free eggs from chickens massaged daily by Tibetan Monks brought over on sustainable sail-yachts and paid a living wage is now ONLY possible via either the automobile or (horrors) hopping on a bus with the unwashed.

So, is this a 'food desert' then?

Or no?

The problem is that the definition of a 'food desert' is mercurial and doesn't appear to have much basis in actual fact.  To argue that one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Central Houston is a 'food desert' using much the same criteria one uses to categorize economically depressed neighborhoods is ridiculous of course.  But that won't stop those who tend to freak out about such things from plowing ahead.

The reason the Heights is NOT a food desert and other areas are seems only delineated by the fact that the ruling and unproductive classes feel the poorer neighborhoods are not engaging in behaviors with which they agree.

Food deserts, like public transportation, are for 'those people' who are viewed as being incapable of making the choices of their betters absent some form of central control.

But if it's not all about control, and gaining an economic advantage off of the opportunities that come from that control, then large parts of the Houston Heights really are a food desert and SOMETHING! Must be done.

What I would suggest is dropping the idea of food deserts altogether and work on implementing policies that lift all Houstonians, not just ones who happen to live in areas where the upper-crust view disparagingly.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The DangerTrain Chronicles: Killing the homeless so anonymous commenters can continue to pile on.

Maybe it's just me.

But when I see something like today's sad story my first inclination is not to either heap condemnation on the recently deceased, or to make a for/against argument for at-grade light rail.

Pedestrian hit, killed, by Metro Rail on South Loop. Dug Begly & Anita Hassan, Chron.com

Witnesses reported seeing the man walking along Fannin, then onto the southbound tracks, said Jerome Gray, a Metro spokesman. He crossed over to the northbound tracks and had walked about 20 to 30 feet when he was hit, Gray said.

The man's back was to the train and fire department officials said he was wearing earbuds, Gray said. The guard rails were lowered and the signal lights were flashing, the spokesman said.

The man was believed to be in his 50s and witnesses said he hung out under the South Loop, Gray said. 
Of course, the Chron.commenters are in full voice:

  • Tomasina
  • Those trains are so hard to see. Moron.

  • catsfan
    don't be an idiot with earphones on or texting while you cross an intersection. This is hardly Metro's fault

  • stevenf
    Reason #362 why the rail system in Houston needs to go away. Instead of transporting working professionals from the burbs into downtown, it brings a less than desirable element into downtown to just hang out and ask for money. In the Summer, it is free AC for the homeless. This is an epic waste of money! 

    And these commenters are an epic waste of space.

    Sometimes, when I'm feeling happy, I go to the chron.comments area before I begin to write a blog post in the curmudgeon voice. It never fails.  Anonymous comments are well intelligence goes to die. It's why I don't allow them on here, haven't for a while and never will again.  And while I'm sure that this, and a very small readership, prevents me from having any comments at all it's the price I'm willing to pay for preventing this kind of crap from settling in the soft underbelly of the blog and generally bringing down the collective IQ.

    Were I King of the Chronicle I would do away with the comments section all-together. It never adds anything interesting and it typically devolves into shouting matches between those with a tenuous grip on the facts.

    Over the last 8 days 2 people woke up in the morning having no idea that the walk they would take later in the day would be their last.  In a sane world there would be some discussion as to whether or not the small Houston Light Rail system has enough safeguards in place to try and prevent tragedies such as this.  Alas, we don't live in either a sane world (or city for that matter).

    Instead we live in a world where making fun of someone who's lot in life has apparently not been as blessed as those commenting is the norm and the first instinct of Houstonians is to see who can either get in the first snarky comment, or (in their minds) the best snarky comment.

    What none of them realize is that being the "best" in online commenting is akin to winning first prize in the Darwin Awards.

    Yes, you came in first but you're still a loser.

    Here's hoping the families of the deceased choose not to read that and view how the unproductive class regards their loved ones.

    Houston Area Leadership Vaccum: For Kroger, the Tax Devil lies in the details.

    Interesting, albeit incomplete, story behind the Chronicle's paywall today regarding Kroger's request for a 75% 10-year tax abatement request regarding a proposed expansion of their distribution facility on Gellhorn Drive.

    Kroger tax break request falls flat with some on Council. Katherine Driessen, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

    (That will be $3.50/month, to read reporting lacking in detail)

    The 75 percent tax abatement would last a decade and apply to Kroger's $17 million expansion, which calls for an additional 80,000 square feet at the company's facility on Gellhorn Drive. The company also is planning to spend $24 million on general facility upgrades.

    The story goes on to question both the reality that Kroger would gain the benefit they are claiming from expanding the Indiana location, or if they would really shift a large amount of product shipped from Gellhorn to the alternate location.

    Then there's the issue of so-called "food deserts", those fuzzily defined, hard to quantify areas of the city where apparently no food is available or, at least, no food that the City Council (and those who prescribe to food deserts) feel is of the quality they desire.

    In typical Chronicle fashion, much of the pertinent information regarding the request is omitted from the story, or buried at the bottom in favor of pushing a cause celeb.

    First, WHY would a Houston expansion be so much more prohibitively expensive?  Is it the property tax rate itself? (unlikely) Or is it the fact that, in Houston, Kroger would be absorbing a huge increase in rain taxes to fund the lightly audited Rebuild Houston developer slush-fund infrastructure initiative?  We don't know because that analysis is not available.

    Second, are "food deserts" even a consideration here?  While Councilmembers Green and Boykins are making a lot of noise about Kroger's refusal to expand within their districts, it seems that, based on quotes buried at the bottom of the story, these items are off the table when considering the merits of any expansion. In other words, Green and Boykins are practicing Houston Way politics.

    They will claim it's "for their districts" of course, and that is probably somewhat true, but the fact is that they are also hoping to force Kroger into building in their district which would allow them a nice ribbon-cutting ceremony that they can include in future campaign literature.

    Third, it doesn't appear that the proposed Kroger project is going to create the minimum jobs required to qualify in the first place.  Kroger is claiming that 15 jobs will be created, although (according to the article) they're claiming all 300 current jobs in their job-creation numbers.  While that doesn't make any sense it also feels like an add-on done by a proposal team that realizes the math doesn't add up.  At 15 jobs, the $770,000 calculation (anyone know how they came up with that number?) amounts to  just a hair over $50,000 in tax savings for jobs created.  While that's not as bad as some economic incentive proposals, it's still likely to be more than the average salary of the positions that will be (maybe) added on.

    Finally, there's scant evidence to suggest that Kroger's addition is going to offer them any cost savings at all.

    By default, I'm opposed to corporate tax abatements on the grounds that they are an artificial intrusion into the marketplace by government creating a system where certain companies are granted most favored nation status at the expense of their competition.  While I believe in low, simple tax systems I also believe that the overall public good is rarely served efficiently by abatements of this type.  Too often the numbers just don't add up.

    The Chronicle, as is often the case, tends to be for/against these things based on either the type of business or how willing that business reacts to policies that they deem important (food deserts for instance) and while there's little evidence that Kroger is a bad corporate citizen my gut feeling is that this will be editorialized against by the New Mrs. White and (eventually) denied.

    Unless Kroger agrees to open stores in certain areas of Houston that is.  Should that happen then all of those against will suddenly be in favor and the myth of food deserts will still (amazingly) be with us.

    That's the thing about poorly defined "problems".  If someone works to fix them they can always stay around by moving the goal posts to keep the issue alive. In Houston, there's no doubt that what passes for leadership has seized on food deserts as a method to beat companies about the head to achieve a desired result.

    A smart company would promise to "study" the issue of expansion into food deserts, possibly by hiring on friends of the Council in an advisory role.  They would then get the abatement and lose nothing other than some consulting fees and a few bucks from the lobbying fund.  This would (probably) flip the no votes to yesses and sweep under the rug the fact that the proposal itself doesn't technically meet all of the minimum requirements for abatements.

    Is this Kroger's fault?  Of course not. It's Houston's fault for electing leaders who apparently don't understand the requirements for the rules they are charged to enforce. They could then continue to make serious faces come budget time as they try to figure out how they can spread around the lost tax revenue in a manner that doesn't affect the revenue cap.

    The Houston Way folks, it's alive and well.

    Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Time to pull the plug on Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones

    I bring your attention to the following:

    How Houston Uses the TIRZ System to Benefit High Dollar Areas and Ignore Poorer Neighborhoods. Steve Jansen, Houston Press.

    In 2007, the Southwest Houston TIRZ dolled up the intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and Fondren Road with a $4 million enhancement that included new brick sidewalks, enhanced lighting and concrete rings that housed street signs.

    Every six months or so, a car would smash into the concrete, and the rubble would sit there for at least a year. The sidewalks also crumbled immediately, explains Bigham, because the developer hadn’t laid concrete beneath the brick pavers. “By 2012, it was an absolute embarrassment,” he says.

    Because state law prohibits a TIRZ from spending any money on maintenance, that burden falls on the local management district. Bigham went to Hawes Hill Calderon, which heads the Southwest Houston TIRZ as well as the Greater Sharpstown Management District, and he says he couldn’t get an answer. When he took the issue to city officials, they, too, washed their hands of the problem.

    “Nobody would take responsibility. If you’re going to collect a consulting fee every month, then do your job and take care of it. That’s the bottom line,” Bigham says about Hawes Hill Calderon.

    It got to the point where the Sharpstown neighborhood association considered writing a check for the improvements, which Bigham says would cost a couple of thousand dollars. Eight years later, the intersection remains in shambles.

    In the affluent Uptown and Westchase, -broken sidewalks are repaired because the management districts capture significant amounts of ad valorem tax revenue from high-dollar properties. It also helps to fix things that break when there’s an internal management team, rather than a group of outside consultants, at the ready to deal with problems, says Breeding of the Uptown Management District and the Uptown TIRZ.
    The quote above is just a small piece of a very long, well-written article by the Houston Press on TIRZ funding, operations and the fuzzy financial world in which they operate.

    I've long argued that TIRZ funding has a negative effect on city services. The counter argument to this is that, without TIRZ expenditures, the City of Houston would be over the revenue cap and could not use the money regardless. This is undoubtedly true.  However, the TIRZ system takes pressure off of elected officials to spend money wisely, because there's always an unaccountable bank of money outside of the budget proper for them to tap to provide trinkets to prospective voters.

    Most of the "reforms" being tossed around by opponents of the current TIRZ system involve making changes that redirect the spending from more affluent areas, to poorer areas.  All this is doing is redirecting the trinkets to people who some think need it more.

    Solutions of this type amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  The band is still playing and the iceberg is still coming, faster than ever.

    The real solution is to either vastly reform the TIRZ process in the Texas Legislature. If the Lege decided to take this up I have some suggestions:

     - Shorter, more flexible sunset dates. - This would allow the TIRZ to be brought to an end once their mission ended.
     - More narrowly defined objectives - Preventing the 'mission creep' that we're now seeing in highly developed areas where TIRZ officers are trying to keep their phony baloney jobs.
     - Harder boundaries - Preventing the types of land-grabs that are outlined in the Press piece.
     - More accountability - Including increased audit requirements and new, more robust, public disclosure rules.
     - Term limits for appointments -  because.

    I'm not a fan of elected board members for TIRZ, nor will I ever be. I think appointments are fine but need to be reigned in with some stringent term limits.

    What I would really prefer is for Houston to follow California's lead and eliminate TIRZ all-together.  At some point Texas cities are going to have to take a long, hard look in the mirror to determine whether or not their pace of expenditure is sustainable in the long-term.  TIRZ funding hides the real costs of running a city, and allow for the continued idea that spending monies on parks and one-bin recycling are the primary issues of our day.

    I hope you will take the time and read the entire report. I also hope to see this come up in the Mayor's race soon.  My guess is it will be cast aside as "junk food" by those who want more bike paths whatever the cost.

    Tuesday, June 09, 2015

    American Leadership Vacuum: Uncool at the Pool.

    I'm not going to comment on the right/wrong of various individuals in the McKinney pool fiasco. I'm not going to do a Zapruder analysis on the fuzzy film coverage and say whether or not the police acted correctly or over the top, I'm not going to comment on racism and policing, I'm not going to say that the party organizer, or the cop, was in the wrong.

    The fact is I just don't know.  Not being familiar with all of the facts of the situation it's impossible for me to sit here this morning, sipping my coffee, in my recliner and weigh-in authoritatively on a mess of a situation. Too many elected officials and political hacks are doing that already.

    What I am going to do is say that I'm willing to be the truth (whatever that may be any more) lies somewhere between here and here.

    I'm also going to say that the rot in the American snake starts at the head and is working it's way down to the rest of the body.  And not just with one man.  That's too easy and it gives everyone in the ruling class a free pass.

    Yes, Obama is not the leader we either wanted or needed. But the rest of the ruling class, the courtesan class that gloms on to them desperately seeking attention, and the chattering class are guilty as well.

    This transcends party or ideology, it moves beyond race and financial demographics and it is elevated among legal status. The problems with America right now are systemic and legion....

    Our ruling class is ineffective and weak, serving only to expose our weak underbelly, while the media whose job it has been to watchdog their doings have turned into a courtesan class whose main job is to salivate like Pavlov's dog hoping to catch a treat in the manner of attention. The end result of this is that we now have large segments of our population who feel that the rules of a civil society do not apply to them and that, when they should, the best reaction is violence and outrage.

    We've reached a point where the very existence of success is viewed as something called a micro-aggression and anyone having anything is deemed to have received it at the expense of others. Punishment must needs be swift and justice is no longer blind. You will receive a quick and fair trial in the court of public opinion, followed by a quick rush to judgment confirming your guilt. Once your guilt is confirmed the only remedy is for your life, livelihood, and the life and livelihood of anyone close to you, be stripped away. This is not only unhealthy, it's unsustainable.

    Our politicians view this as a chance to secure votes, to secure outrage and 'rile up the base'.  And, as we well know, a riled up base is a voting base. The media views this as a chance to increase page hits, or viewership, a way to entice a little bit more money from advertisers to allow them to continue to forward the lie that the success of one particular for-profit entity is vital to the survival of the Republic.

    America is breaking right now, and it's not clear that the people have either the attention span, the inclination or the pain tolerance to take the necessary steps to fix it. Instead we're probably looking over the precipice at a future where the 1st Amendment continues to erode for private citizens, where free speech is the enemy rather than the cure, where politicians taking hundreds of thousands of dollars for political access is overlooked while the jockey who just won the Triple Crown is facing an FCC fine for saying "holy shit" after winning the biggest prize in a generation.

    It's all upside down and broken.  I fear irrevocably broken.

    United we stood, divided we are falling.  Hard.

    Friday, June 05, 2015

    Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: All-in (almost) for tax increases in the Mayoral pool.

    Another day, another "roundtable" for Houston's Mayoral wannabes. (Excepting Ben Hall) This time opining on the scourge that is the revenue cap and how Houston's problem can, largely, be solved by rolling out Mrs. White's dusty catapult and hurling large amounts of money at the problem.

    Mayoral Candidates Talk Budget at Second Forum. Katherine Driessen, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

    (Interestingly, the Chron is asking you to pay $3.50/month to see an unfinished product with all of the sub-headers listed as "sudbhddhre".  Nice work editing team)

    I would like to point out the one candidate who was an outlier from the "hurl large amounts of money at the problem" school of thought.

    Former mayor of Kemah Bill King said the city's budget woes are "not a revenue problem."
    He said he would push for more cost-saving partnerships with the county, particularly merging the city's independent crime lab with the county's lab.

    Agreed. And while I understand that calls for increasing revenue are both easy and the default setting for most members of the ruling class, they really should try harder. The fact is that, when you both have the power of forced takings (taxes) and are a literal monopoly (there's no other entity competing with the city, forcing them to run efficiently or no shareholders expecting a profit) the lazy way out is to just demand more money and then phrase it in serious terms as if you're concerned about the little people that tend to be used during campaign season, and then tossed aside in real life in lieu of parks, trains, trinkets and potty compromises for the well-to-do.

    How ridiculous is all of this?

    Chris Bell pretended to have gravitas and was not laughed out of the room.

    While it's not clear, as of yet, how the public feels about all of this (Given Houston's recent election history any public polling that comes out will be closer to election time, paid for by the Chronicle and administered by bicyclist and husband of Marty, Bob Stein) it seems that there are two options available depending on where you fall on the political spectrum.

    On the Left, you have Sylvester Turner. Whether or not you agree with his politics he's the most serious of all the progressive candidates. Chris Bell is a perennial candidate with no ideas and no reason to take seriously, Adrian Garcia was a failed sheriff who's proclivity to allow things to fall apart under his administration is only challenged by his infatuation with selfies. Ben Hall, well, we've been down that disaster of a road before and Marty McVey seems like a nice guy, but one who just doesn't quite understand the scope of the office for which he's running.

    On the Right, you have King, who has desperately tried to position himself as a moderate and is, at least right now, the most likely candidate to face Turner in the inevitable run-off. King has his minuses, but fiscally speaking, he's the only one that seems to be speaking any kind of sense at all in regards to fiscal issues.

    I didn't include Councilmember Costello in either of these lists because I consider him separately.  While most certainly on the left side of the political spectrum he seems to me to be more of a Houston Way candidate than anyone else. Because of this I feel he has an outside chance of making the run-off against either Turner or King.  While Turner is the early favorite for the meaningless endorsement of the New Mrs. White should he stumble or veer away from the new-urbanist orthodoxy on important issues I could see Costello getting that nod by default.

    So, right now, I've got the race handicapped as follows:  (odds to make the run-off)

    Sylvester Turner:  6/5

    Bill King:   3-1

    Adrian Garcia:   10-1

    Stephen Costello:    10-1

    Ben Hall:     20-1

    Adrian Garcia:     25-1

    Chris Bell:     50-1

    Marty McVey:       100-1

    I'm not happy that Houston's Mayoral election is matching America's Presidential election as far as the presumption that we have a coronation on our hands, but there's a long way to go and things could change drastically by the time election day arrives.