Thursday, October 29, 2015

Houston Leadership Vacuum: The Final Run-off Handicapping (Place your Bets)

On Tuesday, the voters of Houston will head to the polls to determine (probably) who will be the top 2 candidates to face-off in a run-off for Houston Mayor.  Over the past few months I've undertaken a mock handicapping exercise giving my opinion on where the candidates stand in relation to the others. I've decided to complete their odds in the manner of a Las Vegas sports book. 

So, without further ado......

1. Sylvester Turner (1/5) - I still see Turner as a shoo-in for the 1st run-off spot.  It seems that most of the other candidates in the race do as well. No one has seriously attacked him, outside of a few fringe conservative groups, and he's done nothing silly to jeopardize his chances. Barring a complete and total bombshell (and maybe even then) I think Turner has one spot sewn up.

2. (tie)  Bill King and Adrian Garcia (5/1) - The conventional wisdom is that the conservative vote is coalescing around King, and that the attacks against Garcia have started to sting. This is evidenced in the fact that Garcia is starting to spend a bunch of money trying to blunt these attacks. While Garcia's campaign is putting on a brave face poll results are saying that they need to be worried. Add to that early voting numbers that show high turnouts where King is supposed to do well, and you might not be surprised to find that local bicyclist, and Democratic political analyst Bob Stein, has gone on record saying King will be in the run-off in his opinion.

There are a couple of reasons that make me not as sure:

1. Republicans typically vote early at a higher rate than Democrats: While the early vote numbers look good for King, the real story will be told on election day.

2. Local election polling is sometimes.....meh. We'll see. Houston is a majority Democratic city and while the elections are ostensibly non-partisan that really only affects the Republican vote. Most times Republicans in Houston choose the moderate looking Democrat (Bill White) over a lesser Republican Candidate (Orlando Sanchez) will they rally behind a stronger candidate in King?

3. Everyone else (1000/1) - I just don't see anyone else challenging here. While Ben Hall and Stephen Costello have spent money, I think voters are ultimately going to break for other candidates. Chris Bell is the scolding uncle that everyone tolerates, but no one likes and Marty McVey has proven himself to be not ready for the big stage.

I think we're now down to a 3 candidate race.  So, cue the bugler and place  your bets.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: How will they Govern? (Bill King)

Wrapping up the last in the series we take a look at the candidate whom I feel has the only remaining serious shot at winning a spot in the run-off.

How would Bill King Govern?

Mayor Bill King would enact a full-court press on slimming down the City of Houston City Government and cutting back what he considers to be "non-core services" in favor of public works, mobility and pension reform.

King has made this very clear not only in his stump speeches, his website and in the several candidate forums but also at every level of the current campaign.

King's issues page on his website focuses on three main areas:

1. Public Safety: King has specific proposals that he is proffering in order to both decrease the crime rate and increase the crime clearance rate in Houston.

Close the HPD Crime Lab - King would work with the County to combine operations and close the struggling lab in a move that he says would cut costs and increase efficiencies.

Disband the mounted Patrol - King states that mounted horse patrols are a relic of a by-gone era whose resources are better utilized by increasing patrol cars which also would save costs by no-longer having to maintain a fleet of horses.

Use modern training and data-driven policing techniques - Think "Broken Windows" policing.

Fix the pensions - In a policy bleed from his city finances page King is focused intently on fixing the pension problem. It's clear that he views the financial drain from this issue to be a key reason the city cannot afford to meet basic police needs such as number of officers.

Use outside reviews and zero-based budgeting. - External audits/reviews and a change to zero-based budgeting is a common theme among some of the current candidate for Mayor, most notably Chris Bell.

Right-size the command structure - The idea that HPD is top-heavy is one that has been around for a while now. There have been many calls to change this but none have been successful. It is unclear what, if anything, King would do differently this time to make this a success.

2. Pensions: Pension reform is at the top of King's "to do" list from a policy perspective. Reading all of his material it is very clear that he is the most well-informed of all the candidates on this policy issue. Even the Houston Chronicle, in their endorsement of Sylvester Turner, admitted such and suggested that whoever wins the Mayoral election should provide him 'with a seat at the table' when pension negotiations occur.

Like others, King offers up a two-pronged plan: One part that maintains the 'promises made' to individuals currently on the plan, but he breaks from the pack by suggesting a full switch to defined benefit compensation* plans for future enrollees. To accomplish this King would need legislative action by the Texas Government, which could occur no sooner than 2017. King does understand that getting the legislature to act on changes of this type will be an uphill slog. The Chronicle, again, in their endorsement of Turner, raised questions as to whether or not Bill King will have the ability to bring the various parties together (Read: John Whitmire et. al) to pull this off.

3. Infrastructure: King has indicted throughout the campaign that fixing Houston's streets, drainage and crumbling infrastructure will be a hallmark of his administration. To do this he proposes that the controversial ReBuild Houston program be scrapped and a series of bonds be submitted for voter approval to address the needs. Critics have countered that this runs counter to his claims that the city has unsustainable debt. King counters that debt for infrastructure repair is a separate, and less serious, issue than debt to cover budget short falls. He also believes that city government is currently diverting too much of it's budget to "non-core" services (such as one-bin recycling, subsidies for artists lofts, etc.) that could be put to better use in public works.

One hurdle that Mr. King will have to over come should he want to enact his plan is the fiefdoms that naturally exist in council. It is unclear whether or not he will be able to persuade them to do away with pet projects in their districts in favor of public works expenditures city-wide.

King would also, presumably, drastically alter the make-up of the Metro board (to which the Mayor have a majority of appointees) to push the agency away from rail and bus-rapid transit to a more bus-centered approach. King believes that the bus network should be the core of Metro's service and should be expected to name members to the board that will follow that vision. He has also expressed support for commuter rail, as opposed to light rail.


King's elephant in the room, for a portion of his candidacy, was HER Ordinance. For several weeks he declined to state whether or not he supported the ordinance, choosing instead to focus on public finance and infrastructure issues. In recent weeks he has come out in opposition to HER Ordinance based primarily on many of the technical issues that I have previously discussed here although he and I are not in lockstep on this issue. King has not expressed any interest in seeking to make changes or alterations to the ordinance should it pass.

Overall Expectations:

While it seems that King is starting to consolidate the Republican vote around him it is unclear, if he should win, how effective he will be at turning an electoral win into policy success. Despite some early campaign stumbles, which led some to question whether he was the type of manager who could bring Houston "Back to Basics" as he claimed, King's campaign has shown message discipline that has many thinking he might sneak into the number 2 slot in the run-off.

King will need that discipline to make wholesale changes in a City Hall that's become used to running in a certain way, with little financial oversight and without many of the checks and balances one might find in a private enterprise. King's challenges will be two-fold: One, find support internally with a municipal employees union that is 100% against the changes he is making and two, finding support at the State level to provide him with local autonomy on the pension issue.

Whether or not he can do this will determine much about how his Mayoral tenure is viewed. Of all of the current candidates, King probably has the biggest hill to climb in that he is the only candidate who is running uphill against the current bureaucratic structure. He will be helped, by a Bill Frazer victory for Comptroller and, as a matter of fact, a loss by Frazer might hamstring his ability to get things done at all.

Voters can expect that Mayor Bill King would hit the ground running with a reform agenda. His big question is whether or not he can herd all of the cats that make up the various interests into seeing the reform needs to happen.

*Thanks to James C. Lennon who pointed out this error on Facebook. He now joins my growing list of uncompensated editors.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Can we Calm Down Just a Bit on HER Ordinance?

I have, until this point, largely avoided wading too deep into the sordid, churning waters that make up the debate surrounding the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance or HER Ordinance, if you've been reading here for any period of time.  Sure I have commented on it and poked fun at both sides regarding their positions, but I haven't really taken the time to sit down and go through it at a level that would constitute a full review.  I've read it, in full, to be sure, but I haven't put my thoughts to keyboard and computer screen until now.

The reason that I've decided to weigh in is simple. Crap such as this. While Mimi Swartz is certainly allowed to write whatever drivel she wants on the issue but, she's utterly wrong and, in true TLSPM style, suffering from a mad case of hyperbole. The entire HER Ordinance debate has been drowned in a sea of hyperbole and downright idiocy that has both sides partaking in more projection about the motives of the other side than actual debate over the ordinance.

In one sense, this is to be expected. Debate overall in this country has devolved toward fake "gotchas" and snark in 140 characters or less than actual constructive dialogue. If you want to point a finger of blame you could look all over the place, but a good place to start might be members of the Chattering Class including Bill O'Reilly, Rachel Maddow and a host of others.

Let's just calm down for a minute and look at the actual text of HER Ordinance and see if there's anything actually written in there that would cause concern. Now, granted, if you're pro HER Ordinance your default answer is "of course there's not" and if you're anti-HER Ordinance then you will shout "there sure is!"  I get that.  But, and here's the kicker, have you read it?

Because I'm willing to bet most people on both sides have not.

Before I get started let me first say this: I am not a voter in the City of Houston, I live in unincorporated Harris County.  As such I am going to have no say on this matter. I do however work, and manage people for a company inside Houston's City Limits. On my staff of approximately 25 people I have a wide range of races, sexes, political views. I might even have a variety of sexual orientations on my staff. The point is I don't know, and I really don't care. What I look for are talented accountants, regardless of race, creed, religious preference, sex, sexual orientation etc. I imagine that most companies, especially large ones, are like that, but I'm not naïve enough to believe that discrimination doesn't exist solely because I keep it away from my group.

And that's the first point to concede here: Discrimination, even in modern day society, exists. Unfortunately, we live in a world, nation and state where "diving while black" is a thing, where the 'little lady' mentality still holds sway, where the 'good ol' boys club' is accepted and where being a member of the GLBT community is considered a pox on your person and an abomination against all that is good and Holy. I get that. I don't like it, but I get it that these things exist.

Because, if you don't believe any of that then you might as well stop reading. I understand, and accept, that there are bad things that go on in the world that need to be remedied. I also understand that the United States has Federal non-discrimination laws and Texas has State non-discrimination laws that hold sway over the City of Houston. It is important to note that none of these laws hold sexual orientation or gender identity as protected classes.

This then, is the root of the problem.  Quoting from the "definitions" portion of the Ordinance:

Gender Identity means an individual’s innate identification, appearance, expression or behavior as either male or female, although the same may not correspond to the individual’s body or gender as assigned at birth.

This is the controlling language that is driving most, if not all, of the controversy.  It appears in this Ordinance and is rife with problems.

1. The phrase "Innate identification" has not been full litigated as to provide a legal threshold for application.

In legalese, words have very specific meanings and can lead to very, very specific and harmful legal remedies if not fully vetted. It is very hard to determine, on the part of a business owner, if someone is being truthful and honest in their claims of identification which could lead to needless litigation. This is clearly a gift to the GLBT community by Parker, as it codifies a legal term that, as of yet, has little to no case law that provides a definition.

The Houston Baptist blog for the School of Humanities as a good write-up on this here. Where they also mention the following:

2. Gender assignment language is an odd thing to include in an ordinance of this sort.

The phrase "gender assignment" assumes a position that the GLBT community rejects out of hand, that our sex is 'assigned' to us at birth, like a 'kick-me' sign plastered on our backs. I'm unsure what exactly the authors were striving for here but it does seem to be another try at over-broadening the rule to allow for a freer interpretation of gender identity than is offered in any city's existing ERO.

It's this focus on gender self-identification, and the troubling legal fuzziness of the terms used, that has led most of the opposition to focus on the hysterical claim that a "man could enter a ladies bathroom and expose him(her)self to young girls."  Supporters point out, rightly, that sexual assault and exposing yourself to a minor is still a crime in Houston, Texas and America (and most of the rest of the world for that matter, with a few exceptions) but fail to acknowledge that the coarse wording in the ordinance could potentially make it more difficult for a place of business to prevent a person from entering the restroom to commit a crime.

The biggest defense to this is that 'the right just doesn't understand transgendered men' which is probably true, but the counterargument to that is that the left is willfully ignoring the sometimes single-mindedness and determination of those who are intent on breaking the law. It should also be pointed out that many of the people the anti-HER Ordinance groups are concerned about here are not actual transgendered people. That seems like a rather thin distinction, but I do believe it to be an important one.

Is there a better way to word this?  Most certainly.  And while I don't claim to have all of the answers it would behoove both supporters, and opponents, to try and sit down in a room and try and work out a compromise. This is true even IF HER Ordinance passes.

The second area where I have concerns regarding HER Ordinance is procedural in nature.  HER Ordinance states that there are several steps to remedy of a complaint:

1. The Inspector General begins an investigation.
2. The Inspector General requests evidence.
3. If evidence is not received, the Inspector General, in conjunction with the City Attorney, can request a subpoena.

It is at this point, without the actual collection of any evidence, that a business could find itself in municipal court with very few prescribed remedies for relief of cost. The article does say that it would be a criminal act for a complainant to file a false claim, but does not mention that they may be liable for the costs incurred by the complained.

This is, by any measure, a very fast track to court which could tie-up the system and lead to a lot of businesses being brought in for simple misunderstandings. In fact both the Inspector General and Municipal Courts are given broad discretion in the matter of determining intent. It is unclear to what level "intentionally discriminates" will be elevated. If you're familiar with any civil action at all, the defined thresholds for a violation to incur are vital to the success of any rule's success.

It also feels like an employer, who had two choose between (as an example) a gay job applicant and a black job applicant could find themselves a victim of a discrimination claim no matter which one they picked.  That's my biggest problem with this law, is that it seems to assume discrimination where none exists. HER Ordinance assumes, by text, that if someone says discrimination is happening then it is. As we know, from real-world experience, that is not always (or even usually) the case.

It's also very clear that Parker and Co, when crafting HER Ordinance, didn't bother to talk to any stakeholders outside of the GLBT community. Whether HER Ordinance passes or fails it would behoove the next mayor to bring in all the affected groups and work to tweak this bad piece of legislation to fix these errors.

To be honest, I don't take issue with anything else written into HER Ordinance.  As I stated earlier, I concede that discrimination happens and I believe that it is in the best interest of the community to try and tamp it out whenever possible.  That said, speech is still free in America, just, so within those boundaries I think that sometimes it's not wise to try and suppress discriminatory speech, but to point it out and mock it in the public square. This also lets us know exactly where the bigots are hiding. On ALL sides of the political spectrum.

None of what I wrote above should mean to suggest that I'm advocating a vote for, or against, HER Ordinance. The citizens of Houston will ultimately go to the polls and cast ballots which will do this job quite well. My only point here is to try and remove the hyperbole, look at the text of the ordinance itself, and identify potential pratfalls.

Finally, one of the biggest arguments used by supporters of HER Ordinance is that "other cities already have these and Houston doesn't."  This is both true, and untrue.  A look at the GLBT language in some cities reveals missing details that made them not quite as controversial as HER Ordinance:

1. Dallas: " (a)   Employers.  It is unlawful for an employer, because of sexual orientation:
      (1)   to fail or refuse to hire, or to discharge, any person;
      (2)   to discriminate against any person with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment; or
      (3)   to limit, segregate, or classify employees or applicants for employment in any way that would deprive or tend to deprive a person of employment or employment opportunities, or that would otherwise adversely affect a person's status as an employee.
This one is fairly straight-forward, as Dallas has excluded gender identity altogether from it's list.

2. San Antonio: It shall be the general policy of the city to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, age or disability, as set forth in the divisions following, unless exempted by state or federal law or as otherwise indicated.

Definitions: Gender identity means a gender-related identity, appearance, expression or behavior of an individual, regardless of the individual's assigned sex at birth.

San Antonio's Ordinance is almost directly in-line with Houston's and, to be fair, is even more chunkily worded than HER Ordinance. That ordinance is still creating divisions within the San Antonio Community. but does not appear to have faced any serious legal challenges. However, one thing the San Antonio Ordinance has for it is a.)It's not 36 pages long and b.) it does a better job laying out how claims are dealt with, where HER Ordinance leaves open the door to a LOT of otherwise innocent people being pulled into a meat grinder of a system because of some fairly fuzzy definitions of evidence.

There are other cities with ERO's in place but, on a post that's already overlong, I'm going to spare you the details and let you look them up yourself.  Again, I have no preference when, or how, you vote on these matters, it is not the job of this blog to endorse.  I view my job as one of presenting the facts, with an admitted conservative spin.  In that respect you should understand that I am 1.) A Republican 2.) A Christian and 3.) A Caucasian Heterosexual Male, happily married for over 17 years.  In other words, the very type of person that Parker and Co consider to be among the WORST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.  Does this skew my POV? Yup, but at least I throw it out there for your to see. I believe that we should all have all of the facts when debating, or deciding on any issue.

If you're a citizen of the City of Houston, and are planning to vote, then you are going to have a say on this issue. Regardless of whether HER Ordinance passes or fails (and I think it will pass FWIW) the next administration should consider looking at some of the weaker parts of the ordinance and shoring them up. As we've seen with the Affordable Care Act, any complex piece of legislation, no matter how well intended, is going to be littered with unintended consequences. The way to address those consequences can take one of two forms: Tweak the bill and fix the problems or kill the bill altogether and start from scratch.  For HER Ordinance I think the best solution is a tweaking, but voters might have to kill the thing in order to get there.

And for goodness' sake STOP paying attention to the clown show. If Mimi Swartz or any other member of the Houston/Texas Lock-Step Political Media tells you they're embarrassed of Houston tell them "Good, we were trying for complete shame and horror but will settle for embarrassed just as well." Maybe then she'll go back to Austin and we won't have to deal with inward looking clap-trap like that any longer.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Texas Leadership Vacuum: We love rules that restrict others, until they restrict the things we like.

The Houston Chronicle, inadvertently, brought up an interesting point about "local ordinances" or (codes) and how people tend to support them, until they don't.

The first story was a headline story on complete with recent Houston City Code violations. These ranged in scope from failure to maintain "minimum standards" to "junked vehicles" to "dangerous buildings" or items that were just considered a "nuisance".

While the idea behind codes is a good one, after all, you don't want to live next to someone who does not maintain their houses, the Devil, as "they" say, lies in the details, especially when those details start to branch into the absurd.  For example....

Texas Man Arrested for Not Mowing His Yard. Dylan Braddour, Houston Chronicle.

Neighbor's Sue Terry Black's Over Excessive Barbecue Smoke in Austin. Heather Leighton. Houston Chronicle

Dallas Officials Remove Blue Police Support Ribbons due to Code Violations in Dallas. Dylan Braddour. Houston Chronicle.

We're used to seeing a host of horror stories about homeowners stuck in HOA Hell, where disagreements over supposed "code violations" lead to house liens, and even evictions, houses sold at auction and people suing for relief. The standard response from 'others' (those not involved in the mess) is that the homeowners purchased the home with eyes wide open, that they knew what they were signing on for and deserve everything they get.

There's rarely any mention of an HOA potentially making ridiculous requests, but it happens more frequently than people think.  It happens in the cities as well, where ordinances are enforced through zero tolerance methods similar to what you find in today's schools.  For the most part, we're OK with this, provided the codes don't impugn something that we like.

When the shoe is on the other foot though, if our favorite hangout is threatened because of a violation of the noise ordinance, or if a barbecue restaurant is in trouble because they create barbecue smoke, we suddenly become enraged.  To quote Douglas Addams: Something! must be done.

Too often that Something! is to either pass another ordinance or, in many cases, a specifically targeted exemption. These solutions either a.) make the Codes so unwieldy as to be unintelligible, or b.) turn the codes into a de-facto rule-book for what types of business we want to see. It then punishes those we don't by picking the feared 'winners and losers' not by what the market will bear, but by what people THINK they want the market to be.

That last distinction is fairly important.  Because why we all think we understand and know what the market wants (we're the market right?) the truth is we don't. This is due to the fact that we are all, individually, just one small slice of the market as a whole. Putting your entire household in the same bucket is often impossible since each family member potentially wants to see different things.

None of this should be read to mean that codes outlining acceptable minimum standards for home or building maintenance should be abolished. Quite the contrary. It should be required that people keep their homes in working order, their grass mowed and their automobiles from collecting rust in the front yard. 

What we need to work to avoid is the idea that the Codes in question can insulate us from everything we find offensive while ensuring those things we don't are allowed. Too often our call to city government when offended is to demand an ordinance be written that outlaws the offending item. City Council, eager to be reelected and happy to assume more power, is often too happy to do this. Rare is the municipal official who looks at a controversy and says "You know what? I think the laws we have on the books are sufficient."  Were that more would do that.

Then there's old political trick of telling the affronted to just go pound sand. In our current age of being continually aggrieved, it wouldn't hurt us any to be told that occasionally. Especially when, in the case of the barbecue smoke, we're not really being harmed in any way.  Looking at that example you can clearly see just how damaging a knee-jerk municipal politician can be. One solution proposed? To require every barbecue establishment in Austin to install smoke-scrubbers that can run in cost up to $20,000.

It would benefit most communities in Texas to take a hard look at their community codes and begin executing a shave with Occam's Razor. Work to remove the needlessly complex and complicated from the code and focus on the basics.  Of course, this will mean taking away some power from local government and that's probably too much to ask.

Another method would be for the citizenry to just stop and think a minute before clamoring for relief from the local municipalities. Sadly, we currently live in a society that thrives in victimhood, to the detriment of coherent problem solving.

In other words: We're probably just a little bit screwed.

So the next time you wonder why some things you used to do you can't anymore or why all of the nice things are going away, take a look at your city code, and the elected officials and citizens who asked for it.  What to do after that is entirely up to you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tales of a Sub-Par Media Outlet: The Chron Editorial Board Plumbs New Depths on Tax Rate Cuts #ShutterTheEdBoard

Anger. It's an unbecoming emotion for a group that is, ostensibly, the voice of calm and reasoned thought in America's 4th (soon to be 3rd, someday) largest city. It can also lead to some dodgy reasoning when tax rate cuts are involved.  As you can see below.

Tax Cuts. The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board,

(Due to the high level of "seriously?" in this editorial I am going to quote a bit more than usual, not a Fisking but certainly a review)

Mayor Annise Parker just cut Houston's property tax rate to its lowest level since 1987. Then again, it wasn't exactly her idea. City Hall was compelled by Houston's revenue cap to make the cut. The cap, which was first approved in 2004, restricts the annual growth in property tax collections to the combined rate of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower ("Forced by cap, Houston cuts tax rate again," Page A1, Thursday). If it were up to Parker, the city would be free to keep rates where they are and collect the extra $20 million from the last budget year and $112 million from the next. After all, the city's pension obligations aren't restrained to 4.5 percent growth, and revenue should be allowed to keep up. There's also calls for the city to hire more police officers and fix routine infrastructure problems, not to mention the projected $126 million budget deficit for next year. Every week, 11 district council members sit around the City Hall horseshoe to advocate for their own individual districts, and five at-large council members argue for big picture concerns. This push and pull of interests makes it easy to find deserving, responsible ways to spend funds on necessary services. Remove the cap, and it isn't hard to guess exactly how the money will be spent on potholes, pensions and public safety.

This may, or may not be true.  The fact remains however that any discussion of Houston's budget without mentioning historical excesses in the current context is silly and does a disservice to the readers. For example. It IS relatively hard to guess exactly how the money will be spent because the city has several "nice to have" initiatives that have consistently taken priority over pensions, potholes and public safety.  Mayor Parker herself has spend money on parklets, green bike lanes (Just like Amsterdam!!), parks, potties, funding for the arts, bike-share, bike-paths, murals and a host of other items that are not potholes, pensions and public safety.

While it is fair to argue against the voter imposed, pillow-soft, revenue cap, it's not fair to suggest that the windfall the city would receive from its removal will instantly go to core priorities. Doing so ignores the city's recent history of throwing money at all kinds of 'nice to have' trinkets while ignoring the meat and potatoes issues of potholes, pensions and public safety. To say that the editorial board is being naïve here is probably too kind as they are some of the biggest cheerleaders for trinket governance that the Houston area has.

It gets worse when they get to the County....

As former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners wrote Tuesday, Harris County is expecting a record $230 million in increased tax revenues, and will not return any of that to homeowners who have seen their property values - and taxes paid - skyrocket ("We should all share in county's windfall," Page B5, Tuesday). If the county had straightforward budget holes that had to be filled or pressing policy needs, like the city of Houston, this static tax rate would seem perfectly reasonable. However, when the Houston Chronicle editorial board met with county representatives to discuss bond votes, they couldn't provide any explicit plans for how taxpayer dollars would be spent. Instead, we heard two key goals in their spending plans. First, ensure that money is equally split between commissioner precincts. Second, provide roads for new, far-flung growth throughout the county.
If the county can't say how it will spend our money, then taxpayers should get some of it back. 

Just to get this straight. The Editorial Board of the Houston Chronicle is openly advocating that Harris County give some of their tax income back to the taxpayers via refunds. That they have too much money, so much that they don't know how to spend it.

Or are they?
These sorts of rate cuts don't necessarily mean you'll pay less on your taxes. Growth in property values will likely eclipse whatever relief homeowners receive. But if the government can't justify its spending, then it has not earned the right to collect. City Hall has a portfolio of problems that could be solved by removing the revenue cap. For the county, all we see is a blank check.

Not really.  Because, what the Editorial Board is really arguing for is a repeal of the voter imposed, pillow-soft revenue cap. They, and the government, view taxpayer dollars as revenue earned, not income taken from taxpayers. This is a big flaw in the thinking of many in the ruling class, specifically that they are entitled to unlimited revenue to spend as they wish.  Make no mistake about it, if the City did not find itself forced to cut the property tax rate under the current revenue cap, we would not see this editorial at all. At least here, unlike in their hard news story on the item, they got it right that the average homeowner will not see a cut, only a slowdown in the increase on their tax bill.

This is not about the County having too much money, it's about the Editorial Board, and by extension the City of Houston, feeling that it doesn't have enough.  I expect to see more and more of this stuff coming from the Chronicle in the run-up to the 2017 elections when a referendum on the cap can be expected to show up on the ballot. You're going to hear gloom and doom and tales not only of financial woe, but of fiscal disaster and a city spinning toward the precipice with no brakes and no money to buy them.  Imagine Detroit, but without Joe Louis' fist in the town square.

My question to the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board is this:

If you're so worried about the County having too much money then why did you recommend voting FOR all four bonds they placed on the ballot?

Go ahead, think about that.   I'll wait.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: How Would They Govern? (Adrian Garcia)

After a short break, I would like to say that I was studying the campaign but the truth is I was in Vegas studying sports book lines, it's back to taking a look at how the major players in Houston's Mayoral Race could potentially govern should they win.

Adrian Garcia began his campaign for the Mayor of Houston as a prohibitive favorite to make the run-off election. This was due in large part to his relatively high name identification (he has spent the last several years in the public eye as both a City Councilman and Harris County Sheriff) and a natural constituency, Hispanics, that are widely considered to be on the cusp of dominating local, and Texas, politics by some political observers.

The problem, lied with Garcia's political history.  A history that is marked by either no exceptional actions (his time in Council) or problematic developments that appear to have occurred on his watch (his time as Sheriff).  Because of this Garcia has tried to run primarily on name and identity.  He has the weakest "issues" section of all the candidates on his website, only identifying three areas (City Budget, infrastructure, and investing in our kids) each of which are strong on ideas, but light on specifics regarding a.) how he is going to pay for his wish list and b.) How exactly he plans to accomplish these things.

City Budget: Mr. Garcia's website spends a lot of time talking about "managing expenses" and "conducting reviews" to determine whether or not the city is operating efficiently. On supposes that one of his first acts as Mayor, would be to conduct a "top to bottom" review of city operations. On his budget page he states that he would not entertain tax or fee increases until "we have demonstrated to the taxpayers that City Hall is running as efficiently as possible."

The good thing, for politicians, about the statement above is that it doesn't tie Garcia down to any strict standard. "as efficiently as possible" can be a sliding scale standard that can easily be tossed away should the need arise. One can always claim that you are running "as efficiently as possible" given the current level of funding and that increased funds are needed to increase efficiency.

In light of this, the expectation is that Garcia would, immediately after the efficiency survey, seek to revoke the voter-approved, pillow-soft, revenue cap and would then move to increase fees and taxes almost across the board in the name of 'efficiency improvements'.

Garcia favors a pension solution that guarantees 'existing promises are kept' but that future obligations are in line with Houston's financial needs. His plan (he doesn't mention a solution) is to work with the interested parties, City Hall, Legislators, Employees and Taxpayers (it is telling that he places taxpayers last FWIW) in finding a solution to the problem.

Ironically, Garcia leans on his work as Sheriff to sharpen his budgetary cred, which is unusual since it seems that his large cuts to the budget of the Harris County Jail may have contributed to the problems that dogged his administration in the latter days.  Garcia also claims to have "Helped" Bill White balance the budget during the latter's administration. Knowing the City of Houston budget process (a strong Mayor submits a budget which Council then can debate or amend slightly) his "help" probably consisted mainly of adding or subtracting around the edges and should not be taken as a serious qualification for the office.

Infrastructure: Of all his policy areas, Mr. Garcia is the most thin on infrastructure. His solutions to the pot-hole/crumbling infrastructure problem is to "reform" public works and make them "work for the public" which tells us nothing about what he wants to really do or how he intends to do it.

The only other issue that he mentions is "transportation" to which is plan is "multimodal" which is an empty buzz-speak word politicians use when they don't fully understand the issue. The problem with a so-called multimodal solution is that it ignores the fact that over 90% of all trips in the Houston area involve people sitting in an automobile, quite often, as a single occupant.

While there is no doubt walking, biking or taking public transportation are options to reducing this number the problem is that most of Houston's walking, biking and public transportation are not designed to alleviate this. The system that is most capable of reducing congestion, the Park and Ride system, is often relegated to third-tier status behind the DangerTrain (which mainly ferries people from one point inside the Loop to another) and recreational walking and bicycle trails. None of which will do anything statistically significant to reduce congestion city wide.

Public transit then, under Garcia, would be operated in a similar manner to which it has been dating back to Lee P. Brown, a toy for the affluent, a diminishing tool for the poor (although the verdict is still out on the recent reimagining experiment) and a non-factor in terms of traffic abatement.

Investing in our kids: There are two types of politicians who scare me.  Ones who are always out "fighting" for things and ones who use the old saw "It's for the children."  Both of these use loaded language to tug at the emotions of voters and skew issues away from their true causes.

Garcia has been a master at using both. The myth of the 'fighting' politician is not something that has partisan roots. Nor does it have any basis in fact. Politicians do not 'fight'. They never 'fight', they are not fighters but negotiators, political animals who, generally, either lack the steel of spine or rock-solid principle to stand and take a beating for much of anything. Expecting them to do so is akin to expecting an accountant to make a joke. It just doesn't work that way.

Again light on specifics, Garcia's education plan seems to be tied up wholly in the popular-for-the-moment idea of public/private partnerships. Unlike Chris Bell, it's clear that Garcia at least understands the city is in a financial hole and will need volunteer cash in order to meet his early-educational goals. He also mentions dropouts/truancy but offers no real solutions to the problem.

Overall expectations: They say that the past performance is a great indication of future results. In fact, expecting them to change with no external action is the hallmark of insanity.

What we know about Garcia's leadership style is this:  He's a constant self-promoter (which has lead to him being hung with the moniker "Sheriff Selfie" by some local political commentators) who's leadership at the HCSO resulted in balanced budgets but also was marred by cases of abuse and neglect at the Harris County Jail. Garcia's response to this is that "he dealt with it as soon as it was brought to his attention."  While I realize he believes that is a sign of leadership, it is not. The fact is that he had more eyes on glad handing and taking pictures of himself than he did the day to day operations of his department. When he resigned office to run for Mayor there were issues with employee morale as well.

Also, it should be noted that Garcia has left elected office early to run for one considered more high profile. In the past I have been very hard on Republicans (Former County Judge Eckels, current Tx Senator Bettencourt) who have done the same. It reflects poorly on an officeholder that he fails to finish out his elected term in my opinion, and calls into question their ability to lead responsibly.

There are questions, based on his past performance, whether or not Garcia pays enough attention to detail to tackle the issues that Houston is currently facing. In Houston's "strong mayor" form of government one needs more than a keen eye for publicity and a selfie-stick. Whoever is going to lead Houston needs a clear understanding of the issues and detailed plans for how to address them. 

Based on his statements, campaign website and past history it is unclear whether or not Mr. Garcia currently possesses those skills or the ability to grow into the job.  That is the great unknown and also why (along with the issues stemming from his time as Sheriff mentioned above) he is falling in the polls.

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: The "biggest tax cut in the history of EVER!" that really isn't.

The Houston Chronicle ran a story behind their increasingly expensive pay-wall this morning that was interesting only because it was so incorrect:

City Passes Biggest Tax Cut in Decades (!!!) Mike Morris, ($$$)
(Selectively quoting here Chron, you allow other bloggers to rip whole articles after all)

The cut will save the average homeowner with a standard homestead exemption about $50 next year. That follows a $12 savings for the same home this year, after the revenue cap had taken effect for the first time. City data show the average Houstonian's taxes still are rising, however, as home appraisals continue to increase.
Emphasis mine.

The problem with the reporting on this is as follows:

The "average" City of Houston taxpayer will NOT see a $50 tax savings from this cut since the increased value of their home will increase at a higher rate than the decrease in the tax rate.  This is because Ad Valorem tax has two components.  A tax rate (which is decreasing from $.63/$100 valuation to $.60/$100 valuation) and property value (which has increased, in most cases, anywhere from 5%-10% based on the area). In other words, the approximately 5% decrease in the tax rate will be more than offset, in many cases, by the increase in the home value.

The end result of all this is simple.  The city is still going to receive an increase in tax revenues, but they are going to be smaller than they would otherwise be due to the pillow-soft revenue cap. This is the same type of fuzzy tax math that led the TLSPM to report that schools received a $4 Billion dollar "decrease" in funding a few years back despite the fact that overall funding increased during that time.

The problem is that, when reviewing ad valorem tax rates, the municipalities affected would like for you to think that the rate is the controlling factor. Increasingly. in the age of appraisal creep, it is not and any efforts by politicians to claim that they are "working for the people" by lowering their tax rate incrementally is a half-truth designed to cover the fact that they are receiving more revenue due to no actions of their own.  Bill White was a master at this slight-of-hand, Parker less so.

In reality, the average Houston property owner is going to see an increase in their ad valorem tax bill from the prior year. That increase will be less than it would have been otherwise, but it will still be there.

When he first got involved in politics, Lt. Governor "King" Dan Patrick ran on a platform of capping appraisal increases at 3%-5%. This seemingly stopped being a priority of his when his friend, and current State Senator, Paul Bettencourt established "Bettencourt Tax Advisors" whose primary service was helping homeowners appeal increased valuations. It would be nice if that issue was still a priority of theirs.

Since it is not a priority Houstonians are left with one of two choices, either pay the increase in Ad Valorem tax or appeal their home's valuation, either on their own or through one of the many firms that offer help doing so. If you're lucky enough to receive a flat valuation then you will see a slight cut. (A home valued at $250,000 would see around a $75 savings)

However, the problem remains that using this "tax cut" as an argument against the City of Houston revenue cap is not as strong as supporters claim. The City of Houston is not losing revenue, they're just gaining it at a slower pace.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: The Curious Case of Marty McVey's "60 Businesses"

One of the main talking points of Houston Mayoral Candidate Marty McVey has been his claim to have turned around "over 60 struggling companies".  This is a fine record, if true, and an achievement of which a candidate should be proud.

However, when asked to provide details, McVey has responded vaguely. Worse than vaguely (rudely) in many cases and has steadfastly refused to provide even a partial list based on "client privacy" concerns.

This seems like an odd tack for a candidate whose primary qualification claims are based on his business acumen, an acumen that he has suddenly become unwilling, or unable, to provide. It could be that there are legitimate privacy concerns on the part of his clients. There could be non-disclosure contracts or other clauses in his engagement contracts that prevent this disclosure, things that a release could easily resolve if a candidate needed to provide support for a remarkable claim such as this one.

One would think that there are at least a handful, among the 60-plus struggling companies he has bailed out, that would be willing to sign such a release in support. Even more curious, Mr. McVey has a page where you can endorse his candidacy but not a page where you can view who has endorsed him previously.

I attempted to reach out to the campaign but their "contact us" page does not list an e-mail. Another odd oversight from a campaign. A review of the other campaign's websites finds endorsements to be rather prominently listed so it's unclear why Mr. McVey is keeping his so tightly under wraps.

The other possibility is that Mr. McVey does not have a list of "60-plus struggling companies" that he has turned-around because said list does not exist. Or that he was not highly involved with that number of companies at all.  Unfortunately, because Mr. McVey seems content to cast dispersions at those asking, we may never know where the truth lies.

While I don't foresee this mattering in this election (based on polling the candidate will be lucky to break the 2% barrier in actual votes) it could become more important should he choose to run for another office such as City Council in the future.

In 2012 the inability of Rick Perry to name the 3 Federal agencies that he wanted to cut resulted in one of the biggest campaign gaffes in modern history and effectively marked the end of his serious political career. In 2015 you would think that an inability, or unwillingness, to substantiate a claim as significant as the one McVey is making would mark the end of his as well.

This blog is going to reach out to the McVey campaign and request some support for this claim.  Should have provide it, we will update with a new post as applicable.

Presumptuous Blogging: Things you should read (10/21/2015)

Something I saw on Twitter last night:  After today, all of Back to the Future occurs in the past.

Speaking of the past.  Let's get caught up shall we?

The Chron has gone fuzzy lately on the 1st Amendment, and they've never been that great on the 2nd. - This should not surprise you since, in most cases, the media believes that the 1st Amendment only applies to them, and not the average citizen and that the 2nd Amendment is a mistake that needs to be stricken from the Bill of Rights.

Facing a financial cliff, the City is subsidizing housing for starving artists. - Why is this? Because relatively well-off, primarily Caucasian Progressives are A-OK with starving artists living near them.  Regular poor people?  Not so much.

The narrative for regional transportation needs is fully set. - And it's loaded with meaningless buzz-words such as "multi-modal" and "sustainable" which really mean: Things that we've been told over and over that we should like.  Whether they work or not.  Cardinal rule: The more dim the politician on transportation issues the more they will use those buzz-words in their campaign.

Houston's New Urbanists are trying their best to rid the city of everything that makes it unique and interesting. And the Chron and what passes for leadership in Houston are cheering them on.

No Mr. Loeb, Houston doesn't want to be "walkable" but our progressive ruling class wants us to want it to be walkable.  So the narrative gets set, no matter how inaccurate it may be. (Over 90% of Houstonians drive their cars to almost everywhere and have no desire to change that.)

The Adrian Garcia Campaign continues to rip quotes from endorsements for other candidates. - There's little question that he's sinking in the polls. The question is, will he sink far enough to miss the runoff?

There was a reason why everyone was hoping to run against Turner in a potential run-off. - Turner's support is deep, but it's about as wide as a fashion model's hips. An average candidate should be able to build a winning coalition if matched against him.

The House that Terry Grier Built. - Short answer: It's a mess.

Refugees today. - Quoted from the story: "Standing under the shelter of a tent where migrants can stop to charge their phones" Uh, OK.

If HER Ordinance is crucial to the success of Houston, then how has the city thrived so long without it? - No one seems to be able to explain that.

Staring over the edge of a financial cliff and Houston is considering increasing funding to this? - Not only is the Houston Leadership Vacuum expanding, it's threatening to hit critical mass.

Why don't YOU want Houston to be what your progressive, New Urbanist, betters want you to want it to be? To them, Houston would be a great place if they could just get rid of Houstonians and their backward ways.

OUTRAGE! - Not mentioned is that the TxDOT allocation is in line with the percentage of automobile trips versus public transit/walkable/bike trips State Wide.  In other words, it makes a hell of a lot of sense. (It's just that it's not building walking and biking trails for the relatively well-off, progressive Caucasians who desire those things.)

Of COURSE the Harris County Commissioner's Court would like to establish a $15 Million dollar slush fund (per district) to pay out to companies they like. - If you asked them, and could get an honest answer, they would tell you that this is a perk of leadership that they are entitled to as your democratically elected superior.

When the Municipal Debt issue blows up, remember this. - The Chron Editorial Board used to come out in favor of creating TIRZ all the time. Now that they are starting to drain a LOT of revenue from the general fund they've found religion. Eventually, the municipal debt bomb is going to explode. I'm willing to bet that the Ed Board will suddenly discover "long held concerns" about these bonds.

Ignoring the abortion fight for a minute. The scariest thing about the whole PP issue is the willingness of the MSM to disparage watchdog reporting in service to a cause they believe the ruling class likes. If there is no undercover, watchdog reporting then the media itself serves no further purpose.

Shadow Editorials for HER Ordinance appearing in every Chron story regarding the same. - This sentence is a pro-HER Ordinance editorial statement disguised as a statement of fact:
Under the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status, is banned. Opponents criticize the protections the law extends to gay and transgender residents.
If you don't understand why that is, then you have either chosen to ignore it or you don't understand the line between editorializing and reporting.

Your monthly reminder that economic impact studies are mostly guesswork and fairy dust. - They have no bearing on the real world and should be treated as such.

The #TLSPM didn't crucify Hegar over his revenue cut. - And according to Peggy Fikac one of the main reasons was because he let reporters ask questions.  In other words, he made them feel important and coddled so they laid off hoping to keep access. Courage.

Harris County Officials to be Deposed. - I give you your entertainment through the first part of 2016.

The Dimmer members of the unproductive class clearly have no concept of the workings of diesel engines. - This should not surprise you much since they have no idea about the workings of civil society either.

And finally.......Which is the real conservative talk-radio host? And which is the fake, mock conservative figure?

It's hard to tell
Really hard to tell

If you're still seriously listening to conservative talk-radio the only question I have for you is......why?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hobby Airport Expansion: The rather big fly in the ointment.

After a decade of loyalty to United Airlines, the wife and I decided it was time, given their seeming inability to take-off or land a plane on time, to give another airline a go. Because of this we found ourselves on a Southwest flight to Las Vegas last weekend.

Some thoughts:

1. I am still not a huge fan of Southwest's boarding procedure, but they've made some improvements over the years. IF you're willing to pay for early check-in, and an all-important A boarding group, then you will get your preferred seat.

This is a problem for the airline however, which is currently running a "Transfarency" ad campaign promoting their lack of fees.  In fact, if you want a good seat, and not something in the middle, you have to pay a fee (around $30 per person round trip) in order to secure a seat not in the middle and room for your carry on.

2. That said the in-flight experience on Southwest was MUCH better than United. The flight crew actually made us feel welcome, instead of making us feel like we were an inconvenience to them, the planes were clean, in good working order, and service was efficient.

3. One advantage for Southwest over United?  Their wi-fi worked on every leg of the trip where available. (Our last leg was on a "Classic" plane (the FA's joking word for old) and the service was not available.

The bigger issue, on our trip, was trying to get in and out of Hobby Airport.  When I booked the ticket I did not realize that Thursday was opening day for International travel there. Fortunately, we didn't have a problem getting through security (thank you Pre Check) nor did there appear to be any operational delays. Where we did have problems was on the return trip Monday night getting from the plane to our car, an ordeal which took almost two hours.

1. Baggage claim:  The system at HOU is antiquated and not ready for prime time.  There are still only 5 claim areas, and the space around them was packed with travelers, making moving around the small area a chore.  Add to this an overflow of bags that arrived for people on prior flights, and you had the makings of a mess.

Southwest and HOU do a better job of getting your luggage to the turnstiles than does UA and IAH, but actually getting to your bag took us about 45 minutes.

2. Ground Transportation: There's not near enough of it, or an area that's sufficient to handle all of the waiting passengers.

We use the Parking Spot service, in part because it's convenient and because my company has a corporate account with them. It took us over an hour to get on board a bus, and get back to our car. By the time we grabbed our bags and made it out to the poorly marked pick-up area, there were over 100 people waiting to get on buses that can only hold 13 people each.  Add to that the fact that there only appeared to be 4 buses in active circulation, we were in for a long wait.

The lady who was administering the mess wasn't helping either, as she was screaming and hollering at people to "get on the curb" and spending more time threatening to "make the bus not stop and pass you by" than she was working to try and fix an already out of control situation.  Clearly having supposed power over people was more important to her than resolving an escalating problem.

At this point, people were getting angry. I saw an elderly woman get pushed out of the way by a younger man trying to get on the bus, a lady with a baby physically wedge her way in front of a middle-aged couple, all while the airport personnel (and one especially unhelpful driver from another Parking Spot, sat around and either mocked them or did nothing).

Now, granted, not all of the fault lies at the feet of the Houston Airport System here, as part of the problem lies at the feet of Parking Spot and their lack of buses and rude drivers from other locations. The rude driver was especially grating.  Instead of getting on the radio and calling for more buses, he stood by as people loaded continually saying "If you would have parked at Parking Spot 2 instead of Parking Spot 1 I would have had you to the car by now!" He also mocked people in line, constantly chiding people that "only 13 are going to fit on that bus so most of y'all ain't going to make it."

He got so bad that I finally told him that his time would be better served finding a solution to the problem rather than making fun of people. Once he was confronted he walked away, got in his bus and we didn't see him again.  So for that Parking Spot, you failed miserably. I'll be filing a letter of complaint but, as is usually the case with this, I'll receive a form letter in return and nothing much will happen.

3. Layout of ground transportation area:  In short, at HOU it's a mess. They have poorly marked lanes, areas where buses are loaded from active lanes of traffic, no set pick-up areas and very dodgy crowd control. This, and the shortage of buses, leads to a very hectic process of getting from the airport to your car. It was one of the more unpleasant airport experiences that I can remember.

At this point I'm not sure if there's a quick solution to the problem. The infrastructure outside of HOU is old, and there are geographical issues with expanding. Yes, the Houston Airport System could do a better job of communicating with 3rd party parking services regarding flight arrival times etc. but absent of that, the only thing that can be done is better training of personnel to handle large volumes of people. The staff that was working that Monday evening was about as poorly equipped to handle a logistical problem as any I've ever seen. The one lady with a hi-vi vest did little but scream at people and allow passengers to be berated by a driver.

That's hardly the take-away one wants from an otherwise fun vacation. Unfortunately many HOU customers had exactly that.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: How will they Govern (Getting this out of the way)

Ben Hall, Chris Bell, Stephen Costello, Marty McVey.....

Let's just be honest here:   They won't.

Neither of these four have a serious path to the run-off.  I'll finish up Adrian Garcia and Bill King next week. I have a lot of football to watch this weekend.  #priorities

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: How would they Govern? (Sylvester Turner)

What follows is an analysis, based on the candidates statements, tweets from their campaign, their political history and their campaign websites, of how each of the top candidates for Houston Mayor would govern.  Given that Houston has a strong-mayor form of government the style and priorities of the eventual winner will be important in determining the future health of the City as a whole.

Part One: Sylvester Turner, a long-time politician with a penchant for consolidating power and resources to himself.

Sylvester Turner has been a member of the Texas House of Representatives for over 25 years, a point that he makes repeatedly on his campaign website, at debates and in his stump speeches. This is viewed, by many, to be his primary qualification for Mayor of Houston, whether or not legislative membership as a member of the minority party (Texas Democrats have a minimal presence in the Texas House) qualifies one for executive office is up for debate, but it's his calling card and he's smart enough to run with it.

On almost every issue on his campaign site, Turner references his "fighting" in the Texas Legislature for something similar over the years, in other cases he offers what appear to be massive spending increases without a clearly identified funding mechanism....

Road to the Future: (his signature plan)
"One of the key lessons I have learned during my years of legislative service is just how well transparent, accountable business incentive funding can work to grow jobs in a community. I have consistently advocated for well-crafted incentive programs at the state level"
24 Hour Road Repairs:

 The ReBuild Houston infrastructure initiative is projected to generate at least $125 million annually for the city, with available revenues increasing as existing debt is paid off.  Though the prospects for the continuation of ReBuild Houston are now in question, it is clear that Houstonians have reached a consensus that we must have a secure, stable and adequate source of funding for infrastructure.  Within that infrastructure funding mechanism – whether it is ReBuild Houston or a replacement – we must allocate adequate funding to our short-term repair needs.

Partners in Safety:

Increase the number of HPD officers to 6,000 by 2020. Our police department is severely understaffed, with personnel numbers close to what they were a decade ago, despite Houston’s substantial population growth. I will fight to ensure we have enough officers to meet the needs of today’s Houston.

Partners in Learning:

As a state legislator, I have consistently fought for the full amount of funding that our schools need and are owed. For the past several years, hundreds of Texas school districts — including Houston-area districts Clear Creek ISD, Crosby ISD, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Fort Bend ISD, Houston ISD, Huffman ISD, Humble ISD, Katy ISD, Klein ISD, New Caney ISD, Pasadena ISD, Sheldon ISD and Spring Branch ISD — have been in court seeking the basic funding support that the State of Texas owes our students.

Economic Opportunity:

That’s why Sylvester has proposed his Road to the Future initiative to provide job training, employment matching and small-business assistance through investments in roads and infrastructure. Making an investment in our people will uphold the highest values of our city — and better position us for future economic success. Click here to read the plan.

And so on....

It's pretty clear that, if elected Mayor, Turner is going to do some things almost immediately.

Push for a vote regarding an appeal of the voter-approved revenue cap. For Turner's plans to be funded he HAS to push for this. There's no way, under the existing revenue limitations (as pillow-soft as they are) he's going to be able to implement all of his plans.

Immediately propose property tax increases on certain groups: Not groups that make up his core constituency mind you, but businesses and the "wealthier" parts of town.  Turner needs to markedly increase the city's revenue stream if any of his plans are going to come to fruition.

Increase the city's lobbying presence in the Texas Legislature: As a creature of the Texas Lege, Turner understands the power that it holds over certain things that he wishes to do. Many of his policies (education, road funding, etc.) will not move forward if the city does not receive additional funding from the State. Turner has stated, on Twitter and in forums, that this will be key to his Mayoral agenda.

Governing Style: It is not clear that Turner, as a legislature, possesses the leadership qualities necessary to thrive in a strong-mayor form of government. If anything the guess is that he's going to have to grow into the job over time.  Because of this I expect there will be fits and starts in his first term. He will make missteps and will be forced to back-track on several of his initiatives because he doesn't seem to have the political chops to force them through.

Also of concern is the rather monochromatic theme of his campaign site, and campaign materials. For over 25 years now Turner has catered to, and courted, a single demographic. While he bemoans the fact that Houstonians appear to vote along racial lines (something that we see in most of the country) he doesn't appear to be branching out beyond his own target demographic except for in rhetoric.  Can he broaden his scope?  That is unclear based on his history to this point.

What is clear is that Turner would govern as a progressive, although probably not a Progressive. The lower case "p" is important.  Turner supports ReBuild Houston because he understands the value of having a large slush-fund to dole out to winning parties in a strong-mayor form of government. He is not unique in this. He will push for increased public-private partnerships, tax abatements and other items such as increased minimum wage to forward progressive economic goals. He is a staunch supporter of HER Ordinance, and will work to pass a new ordinance should the original one be voted down. However, Turner's long experience in the Legislature has taught him at least where the boundaries lie. I don't see him overreaching until his last term, if elected to such, then all bets are off.

Of biggest concern should be Turner's political patronage to State. Senator John Whitmire. The latter is highly vested in the pension negotiations that Turner is expected to oversee. Turner and Whitmire are increasingly tied at the political hip so it will bear watching what, if any, impact this relationship have on Turner's policy proposals.

On transportation issues Turner has not shown a propensity to lead. His rhetoric basically mimics the New Urbanist orthodoxy that already controls the debate. He is a proponent of so-called "multi-modal" transportation, complete streets and an increased reliance on hike and bike paths. While he tries to walk the fine-line between fixing pot-holes and building more at-grade rail, his comments are largely in favor of the latter. Expect his Metro appointments to be roughly the same as Mayor Parkers.

In tone Turner will represent a marked change from the current Mayor. He is much more polished a public figure, although not an especially gifted orator. As a member of the Legislature he was forced to co-exist with a large majority that possessed a different political make-up. It's unclear whether or not he is a talented enough, and humble enough, politician to treat the minority with respect in Houston. Parker, due in part to her generally elevated sense of self, has not mastered this skill and often speaks to those in opposition with her in dismissive tones.

If he is going to succeed, Turner will have to be better than that.  It's unclear, at this point, whether or not he will succeed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Forum Follies

Last night a Mayoral Forum on Community Health Issues was conducted at the Museum of Fine Arts. The forum was co-sponsored by a partnership between Legacy Community Health Center, Planned Parenthood, Gulf Coast, the Montrose Center and Change Happens. In other words, it was a progressive forum put on by a combination of progressive groups with a crowd who was progressive in nature.

Based on that information, you won't be surprised to find out that most of the questions at the forum centered on progressive issues: HER Ordinance, Food Deserts, Support for Planned Parenthood. I don't point this out to begrudge the forum, quite the contrary I think forums like this are great, only to provide some context for the candidate's answers.

Yesterday I wrote that The Chronicle Editorial Board did a great job pointing out the weaknesses of the candidates in this race.  They pointed out that Sylvester Turner is a long-time public servant who's proclivity for self-service is well-known, that Adrian Garcia has a penchant for giving shallow answers to deep questions, that Bill King doesn't seem to have the ability to pull diverse groups together, and that Ben Hall, Chris Bell and Marty McVey aren't really worth spending much time on.

At the forum, the candidates did their level best to prove the Chron correct.

Let's take a look at them one by one:

Sylvester Turner: Spent most of his time talking about his long legislative tenure as well as griping about Houston voting along racial lines while his campaign continues to post photos of himself with a pretty monochromatic group of supporters.  He also doubled down on sound-byte speech. Because, really, if you just add in the catch-phrases you can pretty much replace every other word he says with "blah-blah-blah"

Adrian Garcia: The biggest knock against Garcia is that he gives shallow answers to deep questions. Garcia didn't do anything to contest that by saying he had a pink tie, pink shirt and his wife drove a pink car as evidence of his support for Planned Parenthood.  If true (and his wife just doesn't have a successful Mary Kay distributorship) Garcia could be the 2nd Texas politician with an affinity for pink clothing who suffers a humiliating loss.

Chris Bell: Look, I don't take Chris Bell seriously and neither does the Chron. He proved why tonight by bringing attention to his hot pink tie (What is the deal with politicians thinking wearing a tie of a certain color is "taking a stand"?), talking about 'turf wars' that have been conceded by those in charge for a while now and continuing to demonstrate that he has no clue regarding the current fiscal state of the City.  Whether or not you support PP you cannot escape the fact that the city is running out of money. It would be amazing that a candidate for the highest executive office in the city doesn't understand this, but then you realize it's Chris Bell and it all makes sense.

Ben Hall: This image is probably the worst thing for Hall. After saying he would be there, he didn't show up.  That image of an empty seat is probably akin to kicking the corpse of a dead campaign, but it's a bad look nonetheless.

Bill King:  I don't have a tweet to anything King said because he didn't bother to show up. I realize that King would say these are not the core issues that he's worried about, but his seeming unwillingness to engage those with different political beliefs than he only serves to reinforce the belief that he's not someone who can build the coalitions necessary to fix the city's problems.

Stephen Costello: One thing confused me regarding Costello.  If you're going to try and court conservative voters is it really wise to get in front of a progressive audience and then stake out a position that's further left than even Wendy Davis?  The phrase about a man having no say over a women's body is the slogan of those who want abortion on demand. No restrictions, period. Does this mean that Costello supports late-term abortions, partial-birth abortions and even (as some argue for) shortly-after-live-birth abortions?  If he doesn't then he doesn't understand the meaning of his statement. Still, if you're courting Republican votes this feels like a huge mistake. It either signifies that he's not the conservative he claims or that he has no spine. Neither bodes well for his election chances.

Marty McVey: Poor Marty.  When he wasn't being poked fun at for being long-winded he was making post-forum tweets himself that suggest he doesn't understand the political nature of a political forum for Mayor.  Mr. McVey: You WERE politicizing health issues by engaging in a debate about them in a forum that was an extension of a political race.

Ironically, there was a bad Houston Public Media Poll released late Sunday that showed King climbing up the ladder to draw even with Garcia in second place. This, and Turner leading at 19%, received much of the media attention. What should have gained the most coverage is that more voters responded 'undecided' than made a preference for any one candidate. There was also an odd, leading (potentially biasing), question that seemed to place Turner and Garcia in a run-off. It also appeared to over-sample certain groups and raised more questions than it answered.

Typically, in a hotly contested political race, a few candidates begin to separate themselves from the herd this close to election day. In Houston's Mayoral Election however the field seems to be regressing to the lowest common denominator and is content to stay there. The Leadership vacuum is expanding and it is threatening to take down the city with it.

During this time of trouble for Houston there should be better. It should trouble you that there's not.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hashtag Harmony: #HALV #ShutterTheEdBoard and #BadMedia in one editorial.

The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board released it's luke-warm endorsement for Houston Mayor early Sunday Morning.

Sylvester Turner for Mayor. ($$$)

None of the seven major candidates running for mayor can claim a complete resume.

The "endorsement" goes on to provide Turner with some back-handed compliments for hanging around the legislature for a long time, for coming up with a pension solution that the ed board still "has strong reservations" about and for a lot of time passing from the scandals that weighed Turner down in his prior two runs for Mayor.

That's hardly effusive praise, and it's hardly a reason for Houston voters to pull the lever for a man who seems to be running on a platform that's a mixture of raise taxes, increase spending and work the city's legislative lobby department to death.

For example, Turner wants to "increase funding to Houston schools" as Mayor but admits that school funding is provided by the Texas Legislature. To accomplish this goal he's stated (on Twitter) that the city will lobby harder for increased funds.  While that's laudable it's hardly a solution to education funding that a true leader would espouse.

While the Chron makes mention of Turner's "impressive policy papers" on many issues what they fail to notice is that most of them are really just outlines of things that might be a plan that skirt important specifics such as where the funding is going to come from.

That's the biggest problem with Turner's campaign, one that the Editorial Board doesn't address, that he has a ton of plans to dust off and role out Mrs. White's old money catapult, but is unwilling to say where exactly the money to put in that catapult is going to come from.  The answer, of course, is through repealing the pillow-soft, voter-approved revenue cap and raising taxes on everyone except for his supporters and key constituency. Turner's a smart enough politician to understand that if he says this, he's going to go down for a third time.

More importantly however, is how the Ed board chooses to address the remaining candidates in what we can only assume is an effort to maintain access should Turner not prevail.

Adrian Garcia: Was given the worst treatment as the Chron has determined that all of his pre-campaign high hopes have been dashed against the reality of his disastrous administration of the Harris County Sheriff's Office. They also point out that "Sheriff Selfie" is pretty much an empty shell. Garcia doesn't have policy he has pictures, that he posts on-line. Ironically, the criticism of Garcia's relatively lightweight policy muscle can be passed on to Turner as well. Neither of the two front-runners in this race seem all that bright from a policy perspective.

Stephen Costello: You get the feeling that the Chron wanted to throw their endorsement toward Costello but felt a lot of pressure to not do so due to his mid-tier standing in the polls. Confusingly, they praise current Mayor Annise Parker for being a competent Mayor but then criticize Costello for being too much like Parker. The fact is that Parker has been a disastrous, although popular Mayor who has exacerbated Houston's financial woes while choosing to focus on policy priorities such as HER Ordinance and exaggerating her impact on the homeless situation.

Bill King: Again it feels like the Chron thinks King might be the one person in the race with solutions to the problems, but they again shy away due to fears over future access to City Hall should they be wrong. Of all the candidates, King got the most positive write-up and the specific mention by the Chron that he should be included in future situations.

Ben Hall, Chris Bell, Marty McVey: None of these candidates were given a passing mention, which means that the Ed Board either did not talk to them or did not consider them serious candidates to the race and saw no sense in mentioning them to maintain access.

In the title, I suggest that this endorsement is a harmony of all the major themes of this blog. Houston has a leadership vacuum that's only going to get worse if Turner is elected. The Chron Editorial Board can't even pen a decent endorsement any more, which some would argue is their only remaining purpose for existing. Beyond all of that however, making an endorsement for a candidate with scandals in his past, whose only qualification for the job is that he's been in politics for a while and who is the candidate that you think might win the thing is a cop-out.

Every time I think the Chron Ed Board can't dig the hole any deeper, they produce a shovel with a longer handle. This mayoral endorsement should never have been written and it serves no purpose in the race. In fact, it was more damning of Turner than anything that's been previously written because it casts him as an empty suit who's done nothing during his career but look after his own interests.

Of course, being the bad candidate that his is, Turner has the endorsement all over his campaign website.

That right there tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Turner. It's not this site's policy to make endorsements, it probably shouldn't be the Chron's policy either since they seem to be incapable of credibly performing the duty.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Tales of a sub-par media outlet: Going fuzzy on the 1st and 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution.

For the Houston Chronicle, and other media outlets really, the problem with the first two acts of the Bill of Rights is that many people consider them actual rights.

Conceptually, the Chronicle (and all of media) claim to be champions of the 1st Amendment and the free speech/religion principles that it proclaims. This works up until the point that whatever speech they are hearing runs counter to their progressive value-system.

Open Carry anti-Islamic Rallies: Who's the terrorist here? Sarah Raslan, ($$$)

And even if it were a mosque, isn't religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution that the protesters claim to revere? Or do they believe the Constitution enshrines "freedom of religion sans Islam"?

First off, the writer is incorrect. The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee freedom of speech. That guarantee is provided by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Where the author, and the Chronicle, are confused is that the 1st Amendment is a two-way street. Yes, it grants those who practice Islam the right to construct, and worship, within a Mosque, a right that I wholeheartedly support (even though I myself do not follow Islam and will not worship there). It also, and this is the sticky part, grants the protesters the right to conduct a peaceful protest against the presence of a Mosque.  If you accept the first then you must also accept the second. You cannot only have it one way as the author tries to do. 

What the First Amendment does not protect is the right of the protestors to get violent, or disruptive within the private property of the Mosque, or to throw things etc. You do not have the right to enter a crowded theater and yell "Fire!" or engage in activities that may harm another individual. Hurting someone's feelings doesn't count. 

With free speech comes the responsibility of both being offended and facing the consequences of that speech. We're not promised that the Government will protect us from other people shouting us down. More importantly, this is not a violation of the Mosque members' rights (as the author is claiming) but an endorsement of those rights. In certain countries Christians, and other non-Muslims are not only protested against, but they are being slaughtered for their refusal to accept the official orthodoxy. THAT is a true violation of the first amendment, not Ms. Raslan's hurt feelings.

On matters regarding the 2nd Amendment the Houston Chronicle (and other media) are even worse.

Aiming for Sanity. The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board.

Why do you consider the Second Amendment among all others sacrosanct? Every other constitutional right is circumscribed, including our First Amendment rights of free speech, a free press and the freedom to demonstrate peaceably. Setting aside the debate about whether the right to bear arms actually refers to militias rather than individuals, how can you argue that the Second Amendment confers an absolute immunity against any attempt to protect the general welfare? Do the words "well-regulated" mean anything to you?

Do the words "false narrative" have any meaning to the Chronicle?

I ask this because we do have regulations surrounding guns already. We have in place restrictions who can purchase them, who can carry them (both concealed and in an open manner) and we've even settled the so-called 'thorny' issue of individuals vs. militias at both the federal State and Municipal levels. After all, the debate regarding abortion and the Affordable Care act is considered "settled" by prior Supreme Court ruling, why does this not mean that the individual vs. militia issue is not settled as well?

On gun rights the media and gun opponents are trying their level best to  not mention confiscation as a part of their narrative but it keeps slipping in regardless. The reason for this is because, at heart, the anti-gun movement is about confiscation. It's the only end-game to an problem with no end. What the Chron (and other media outlets) do is try and put a pretty picture on that face. They roll out the editorial board and Lisa Falkenberg to try and make the case that 'common sense' is needed when what they really want is for you to admit fault and submit to the confiscation quietly and meekly. Only by delegitimizing gun ownership can they ultimately succeed. The desire is to establish a more perfect society (in their eyes) but not a more perfect union. The details in the differences matter.

The biggest problem with repeal of the 2nd Amendment is that enacting such a plan in the real world would involve suspension of the remainder of the Bill of Rights.  Consider this:

It's been mentioned, in several places, that there are over 300 Million guns in private ownership within the borders of the United States. In order to confiscate those guns the United States would need to enlist the help of the US Military, this is a violation of the posse comitatus act which would lead to the natural suspension of the 3rd amendment (the confiscating soldiers would have to live somewhere), 4th Amendment (unlawful search and seizure), 5th Amendment (due process), 6th Amendment (trial by jury) the 9th Amendment (removing the rights of the people through interpretation of the constitution) and the 10th Amendment (the powers of the States to individually regulate firearms).  Any way you look at this, it's problematic.

All of this just goes to show just how hell-bent media organizations are to ring true Benjamin Franklin's famous quote: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."  Now, granted, Franklin was originally speaking about liberty in financial terms, but it applies here as well.

I've long argued that the editorial arm of the Houston Chronicle is an aging relic whose stated purpose has long since outlived it's expiration date. The presence, on a newspaper, of both unsigned editorials and house opinion writers makes as little sense as the proverbial feminist fish with a bicycle.

There is no special expertise that can be given to a degree in journalism when it comes to complex socio-political issues. In many cases the author only receives their ideas from others and acts as a wordsmith to arrange them in an aesthetically pleasing manner on a computer screen. Just because one has written about science for a period of time does not make them a scientist, nor does writing about war make one an experienced soldier qualified to comment on battle tactics. And writing about hot-button political issues does not make one a qualified expert on Constitutional matters.

Neither the Houston Chronicle or any of the other Chron opinion writers add anything of note to the conversation that cannot be handled by outsourced editorials or enhanced investigative reporting.  What's worse, the path that they find themselves on currently is one that is disastrous for the City, State and Union as a whole because they are actively attempting to limit the rights of the citizens in return for crumbs from the table of the ruling class.  It is time for them to go, with the resources they free up being deployed to more and better news gathering activities.

Of course, they probably think the same thing about me and my blog, when they spend any time at all thinking about it that is.  The difference is that I pretend to have no special expertise on the matter, only an opinion whose right to express I exercise. Yes, they have the same right, they are just provided with a bigger bullhorn and an air of legitimacy that I believe it's time to take from them.