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Archive for April 3rd, 2017

Opening Day 2017

Commentary attended the Cong. Beto O’Rourke meet and greet yesterday at the IBEW Hall and let me say that I was mightily impressed. I am not exaggerating when I say there were about 1,000 Democrats in attendance and had a standing room only crowd. (I took the time to count the rows and seats per row.)   There was a lot of energy in the room.

Commentary has never seen this many Democrats show up for a Democratic statewide candidate for their kickoff event in a city. Come on! How much time has Cong. O’Rourke spent in H-Town to get this size of a crowd?

His speech hit the right marks. Some of his lines were delivered in Spanish and not a mangled broken Spanish – very fluent. A friend I respect a ton said he should have hit Sen. Ted Cruz harder. I don’t know. He’s got 19 months of hitting to go. He hit Donald Trump pretty good.

You do have to say he’s the real deal. He does have charisma. Rock star status? It certainly has that look and feel.

Another observation. I didn’t see any Dem elected officials at the event. I also didn’t see very many Dem Party leaders. So the O’Rourke candidacy is kind of organic in nature and not being force fed to us by Dem leaders, which is probably a real good thing.

I am glad I attended.

We begin our 18th season at Minute Maid Park this evening. So, this will be our 18th home opener. What is our won-loss record for home openers at The Yard?

I went back to check out the June, 2014 Sports Illustrated piece that has us winning the 2017 World Serious. In the piece, Bo Porter is still our skipper and Mark Appel and Brady Aiken are key members of the pitching staff. We sweep the Cubbies in four and go 106-56 in the regular season. Got it?

Donald Trump definitely never wanted to be a grown-up. Still name calling. Check out this from The Hill this past Saturday:

“When will Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd and @NBCNews start talking about the Obama SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL and stop with the Fake Trump/Russia story?” Trump tweeted just before 9 a.m.

And:

Meanwhile, Todd on Saturday brushed off Trump’s “Sleepy Eyes” tweet: “For those wondering, I slept well even tho I stayed up late watching the #msstate upset of UConn. #cowbell. Don’t feel sleepy at all though,” Todd tweeted.

What a joke for sure.

My good friend State Rep. Carol Alvarado sent this out Friday:

Dear Friends,

Today the Texas Tribune published an article about my bill HB 1087 that will make animal sexual abuse a crime in Texas for the first time. If you would like to read the article simply click HERE.  

Texas is one of only eight states that has not criminalized sexual assault of an animal and I am proud to author this piece of legislation.  This is not just about animals, sexual assault of an animal is the number one predictor of sexual abuse of a child.  It is imperative that we pass this bill for the protection of innocent animals and our children. 

Nice going, Carol!

The publisher of The Leader, a local community newspaper serving my ‘hood and other nearby ‘hoods, is on the H-Town Mayor’s program for sure. Here is what hit our front lawns this past Friday:

In 2015, Houston voters weren’t exactly unanimous in who they wanted to serve as our city’s next mayor. For that matter, politicians weren’t exactly sure who should assume the throne.

There were 13 candidates in the November 2015 election, and most all of them seemed qualified for election (I said “most,” not all).

Bill King and Sylvester Turner survived the first round of the General Election and if you think Trump-Clinton or Bush-Gore was close, the population of about two city blocks separated the candidates in the Dec. 12 runoff.

Turner received 104,711 votes to King’s 104,125. That’s half of one percent difference, if you’re keeping track at home, and after two previous runs at the office, Turner finally won his turn.

In a moment of brutal honesty, I’ll tell you that I didn’t think Turner was the right choice for mayor in 2015. I thought the city was headed toward fiscal calamity (we were) and Turner’s credentials and demeanor on the campaign trail didn’t match up with what I thought our city needed at the time.

My reasoning made sense, at least at the time. Turner had spent two decades in Austin serving as a state legislator. He had done that job without much opposition, and let’s face it, state and national political governance aren’t exactly the same thing as running a city the size of a small country. (The city of Houston has as many people as the entire country of Jamaica.)

In Austin, any decision that needs to be made goes through a sickening spectrum of red tape. Bills pass from interest groups and lobbyists and – sometimes – actual legislators. Then they go to a committee and get sent back for revisions. If they make it out of committee, they end up on 4th Street, where they are discussed over Stubbs, and then, if lucky, the bill gets compared to similar Senate bills where it may get changed, scrapped or actually voted upon.

Let’s put it this way: State and national politics are slow, slow going, and I was worried Turner would come to Houston with 20 years of experience in red-taping every single issue Houston needed to fix.

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life. Most weeks, our readers are quick to point them out. But I don’t know that I’ve ever been more wrong about a political candidate than I was about Sylvester Turner. In fact, I’m not sure Houston could have gathered the most qualified candidates in the entire country and found someone better than the person we have sitting in the mayor’s office on Bagby.

Part of the reason is because I’m not sure Turner ever actually sits down in his office.

Recently, I sent a note to Turner’s communications director asking if I could spend some time with him talking about the issues most important to our area of Houston. Immediately, I was told the mayor’s schedule was booked through April. I got a note back later that day saying he could fit me in for 30 minutes.

The reason Turner doesn’t have much time for interviews with people like me is because he has spent his first 15 months in office confronting every issue previous mayors have only serviced with glancing admissions.

In his first week, Turner took on potholes and, if you haven’t noticed, those things usually get fixed within 24 hours of being reported. More importantly, our mayor has tackled a pension issue that has haunted our city for the past decade.

Maybe I’m so bullish on Turner because, in my opinion, the bar was set pretty low. His predecessor, Annise Parker, had served as the city’s controller from 2003-2009 and mayor from 2009-2015. She was a member of the city council from 1997-2003. Again, if you’re counting at home, that’s 18 years of being elected by the voters in Houston, and we never attempted to seriously address the debt piling up in pension funds to our city’s most valuable servants – police and firefighters.

It took Turner nine months to craft a pension plan that could be presented to his old buddies in Austin. Turner will admit the solution isn’t perfect. He likes to call it “actuarial sound,” meaning it keeps us from piling up more debt while fulfilling our obligation to municipal pensions.

Potholes and pensions aren’t the only things Turner has done. He’s already implemented enormous solutions to flooding, he has faced a budget shortfall head-on and figured out a way to keep this city running. He has addressed the homeless issue our city faces and even led a movement to clean homeless encampments twice a week.

Turner has sent spies into the permitting office to figure out ways our city could help businesses and homeowners, and he’s even been successful at helping Houston ISD cut its obligation to a Robin Hood law that would have taken $165 million of Houston taxes and sent them to other districts in the state. Instead, his savvy political move got that number down to $77 million, saving us almost $90 million.

But here’s why I’m most proud of Mayor Turner. A few weeks ago, he was seemingly attacked by members of his own party – people who said he wasn’t being progressive enough on social issues.

At the end of our interview, I briefly asked him about that, and his answer was a lesson all politicians could stand: He didn’t seem to care much.

For Turner, he may have one more election fight in him when his first term expires at the end of 2019. But until then, the guy just can’t seem to sit still.

He wants to fix everything wrong with his city, and he’ll travel anywhere at anytime and talk to anybody if it will help. Along with trips to Bahrain, Cuba and Mexico – all in the name of trade and improving Houston – Turner spent Monday in Austin and Tuesday in Washington, D.C. He wasn’t taking trips for the sake of travel. He was promoting Houston and fighting to fix our pension crisis.

While it’s fine for the Mayor to travel, if he keeps up what he’s doing now, we need to keep that guy right here, in his office on Bagby, for another seven years.

Ok. I get it.

Meanwhile, Bill King sent this out on Friday:

Fire Fighters Claim Turner’s Pension Plan is Unconstitutional

The problem with doing something no one has ever done before is that no one has ever done it.  Trying something that is untested in the real world almost always leads to unintended and unanticipated consequences.  In the IT world, it is referred to as being on the bleeding edge of technology.  

I have been warning since Turner announced his pension plan that no one could possibly know how its hideously complex corridor mechanism would actually work.  Well, this week we got a preview of the kinds of problems that come with doing something no one has done before.  

At both the Senate and House hearings on the Huffman/Flynn/Turner bill, Andy Taylor appeared on behalf of the fire fighter pension board and testified that the bill, if adopted, would be unconstitutional.  If you are unfamiliar with Taylor, he is a former assistant Texas Attorney General and has for the last 30 years been in private practice doing exclusively governmental litigation.  You are most likely to recall him from his battles with the City over the drainage fee and the HERO ordinance ballot language.  In both cases, he cleaned the City’s clock.  So, when he says something is unconstitutional, he should not be taken lightly.

His assertion arises from Article 16, Section 67 of the Texas Constitution.  That section grants exclusive responsibility to the pension boards to “adopt sound actuarial assumptions to be used by the program.”  Of course, the entire point of the corridor mechanism is to give the City some control over those assumptions.  Some may feel that the City should have more say over the assumptions (I would probably be in that camp) but whether it is a good idea or not is irrelevant to the question of constitutionality.  

There are some cases that generally support Taylor’s position but none that are directly on point.  So, it is impossible to know how the courts would ultimately sort this out.  But given the lightning speed at which our courts move, this will be tied up in court for years.  

If the City ignores the litigation and goes forward with the plan (assuming a court does not enjoin it from doing so), it risks owing hundreds of millions of dollars in back benefits if the statute is ultimately thrown out.  And my friends in the investment banking industry tell me that it will be exceedingly difficult to issue the $1 billion in bonds on which the plan relies if there is litigation pending.  

And it is a virtual certainty that the fire fighter pension board will file the suit, because they would be exposed to lawsuits by their members if they do not.  The police and municipal boards will face the same dilemma.  Also, every employee and retiree probably has standing to bring suit individually as well.  You can take it to the bank that this lawsuit will be filed by someone.

And the risk is pointless.  All of the savings from Turner’s plan come from the immediate benefit cuts in exchange for the issuance of the bonds.  The corridor mechanism is an elaborate ruse to limit, i.e. define, the City’s contributions without Turner having to admit that defined benefit plans don’t work.   

It is time to admit the obvious.  The City needs to do what the private sector did decades ago.  We need to come up with an equitable plan to phase out defined benefit plans and replace them with Social Security and defined contribution plans.  There is no reason to do something no one has ever done before.  Let’s do what we know works.

Commentary doesn’t want to sound simplistic but it looks like the H-Town Mayor is saying we cut a deal in H-Town so the Texas legislature has to approve.   Bill King is saying the GOP controlled Texas legislature has to act like a GOP controlled Texas legislature and go with defined contributions. Stay tuned!

The Chron E-Board certainly had some things to say yesterday. They big time putdown Dems in the Texas State Senate and they said H-Town missed out on the Big Data initiative that the UT System had planned.

Here is how the putdown of the Senate Dems starts out with the headline first:

Democrats, RIP

It is with a somber heart that we must announce the death of the Democratic Caucus of the Texas Senate.

In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to Planned Parenthood or the Texas Trial Lawyers Association.

Changes to the Two-Thirds Rule in 2015 delivered a near-fatal blow to the already weakened Democratic members. The suffering caucus sadly took its own life last week by voting unanimously to support Dan Patrick’s budget.

It didn’t have to end this way.

Suicide Senate Dems? Ouch!

Here is the entire E-Board read: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Democrats-RIP-11042522.php.

Here is H-Town missing out on the Big Data deal:

Houston made a mistake. The chancellor of the University of Texas System may have made mistakes, as well, but it’s up to this city to launch an effort to recover from its own shortsightedness.

We’re referring, of course, to plans the UT-System had for its 300-plus acres near the Texas Medical Center, plans now scuttled after UT Chancellor William McRaven was forced to surrender a few weeks ago to petty politics and parochial concerns exhibited by lawmakers, UT regents and University of Houston officials. Houston-area lawmakers with UH connections were high-fiving each other when McRaven walked away, but a just-released report from an advisory group of Houston civic and business leaders underscores what we’ve lost.

Co-chaired by Carin Marcy Barth and Paul Hobby, the 18-member Houston Task Force envisoned, not a full-fledged campus offering undergraduate instruction but a collaborative institute for data science. As the report lays out, the Houston institution would have been a research and academic consortium of public and private partners from academic institutions, national laboratories and industry. The institute might have resembled Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study or the National Humanities Center in North Carolina or Cornell University’s forthcoming New York City campus that will offer data and business programs.

The focus of the institute would have been the role of so-called Big Data in three areas that reflect this city’s strength – energy, health care and education systems. The advisory group’s report included an endorsement from Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. “Big Data is the oil wealth of the 21st Century,” he said. “Texas needs to invest in Big Data, and I am excited that the University of Texas System is leading the way. I can think of no better place to start this initiative than Houston.”

Other Houstonians thought otherwise, to this community’s detriment. Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the UH System Board of Regents, said the university’s leaders, supporters and elected officials mounted a group effort to “stand our ground against an unnecessary duplication of resources that didn’t align with the state’s plan for higher education.”

In this case, the star of CNBC’s “Billion Dollar Buyer” came a cropper on a billion-dollar idea for Houston. So did UH Chancellor and President Renu Khator, who should have followed the example set by her counterpart at Rice University. President David Leebron saw the UT proposal, not as a threat, but as an opportunity for collaboration.

And this is how it ends:

Can the plan be revived? We believe the effort should be made. So does David Wolff, chairman and president of Wolff Companies and former Metro chairman. He points out that the nation’s fourth-largest city can accommodate any number of higher-education ventures and that a greater UT presence in Houston would diversify the city’s economy and boost its reputation as a laboratory of new ideas and innovative thinking.

So who will take the lead? The Greater Houston Partnership? UT alumni? The mayor’s office? Philanthropic groups and individuals? We need farsighted men and women with ambitious ideas about this city’s future, a future that includes a greater UT presence. The eyes of Texas have been averted, for now. We need a robust effort to re-direct them to the Bayou City.

Here is the entire E-Board take: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Revived-vision-11042527.php.

I guess time will tell if we are missing out on the Big Data deal.

From the ‘Stros:

The ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day will be a “passing of the Hall of Fame torch” from Class of 2015 Hall of Famer Craig Biggio to newly-inducted Class of 2017 Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell. Biggio and Bagwell are the first players in franchise history to represent the Houston Astros in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Ken Hoffman had a column in yesterday’s Chron on the new grub at The Yard. Here is from his column that should not be at The Yard:

I almost had a personal meltdown at the Astros Melt stand behind Section 114. Astros executive chef Dominic Soucie has created a SPAM Grilled Cheese Sandwich ($10). I usually scram from SPAM, but chef says keep an open mind.

SPAM at The Yard? No way! Who’s with me?

And then this from his column:

In deep right field, you’ll find a convenience store selling packaged sandwiches, a self-service soda fountain, soft-serve ice cream and candy bars. Also, bottles of wine, which a friendly clerk will pour into a plastic carafe you can carry back to your seat.

On the wine takeout, they will only let you take out a carafe if you have another 21 year or older person with you if you know what I mean.

Here is all of the Hoffman column: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/life/columnists/hoffman/article/New-concession-eats-stepping-up-to-plate-at-11042234.php.

Here was one of the lead stories in yesterday’s Chron on the ‘Stros and 2017. Here is how it starts:

Shortly before 7:10 p.m. Monday, Jeff Luhnow will take his customary front-row seat in the general manager’s suite-level box behind home plate. To his right, on the main Minute Maid Park scoreboard that dominates right field, the most potent Astros lineup since the days of Biggio and Bagwell will adorn the right side of the screen.

The complete teardown and long-term rebuild Luhnow envisioned when Astros owner Jim Crane hired him in December 2011 will manifest itself this year in a 1 through 9 that might be baseball’s best. When the Astros’ lineup is at full strength, opposing American League West pitchers won’t find much of a letup, even at the bottom of the order.

But that’s especially the case at the top, where for the first time to begin a season the Astros will have the core four position players they’ve built toward in the same lineup. In terms of youth, talent, cost and years of club control, only the Cubs and Red Sox can make legitimate cases of having a better quartet of position players under 30 than the Astros.

In shortstop Carlos Correa, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman and outfielder George Springer, the Astros have four homegrown players between the ages of 22 and 27 who are each among the best at their positions.

Fittingly, they will bat consecutively to kick-start manager A.J. Hinch’s opening-day lineup, with the uber athletic Springer setting the table for the infield trio: the smooth-swinging Bregman, the human hit machine Altuve, and the phenom Correa.

Here is the entire article: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/astros/article/Astros-core-four-ranks-with-best-in-the-majors-11043943.php.

The article is accompanied with a picture of Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Springer. The sub-headline of the article calls them the “core four.” Let me say that I like Alex Bregman and I am rooting for him but I don’t think he has earned “core four” status.   He has only played in 49 big league games with 201 at-bats. Not yet, not yet. I hope he gets to “core four” status very soon. But like this season’s slogan says, #EarnIt.

I will say that if we are going to make a World Serious run, we have to get offensive production from our catcher, first baseman, and third baseman. Brian McCann is the real deal. I kind of feel good about Yuli Gurriel and Bregman. We will see.

Our record in home openers at The Yard is 8 wins and 9 losses of course.

Last season, a St. Arnold at The Yard sold for $10.25, tonight $10.75.

They broke me.   I blinked. With the exception of tonight’s home opener, my tickets this season will be on my iphone gizmo. I didn’t want to shell out $250 for a set of hard copy tickets. I apologize for letting you down.

Oh yeah, we are playing the Mariners. They are going with King Felix and we are going with Dallas Keuchel. They have Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz and you know who we have.

Let’s play ball!

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