If you bulid it: A tale of two stadiums

Scanning headlines this morning I couldn’t help but note the irony of two stories. Houston residents read that the Astrodome was no longer up to code and would not be usable for public events without about $3 million in repairs. Many people are distraught after seeing their beloved dome go from the enviable “eighth wonder of the world” to a building that fails to meet city code and sits waiting its fate. While the new Reliant Stadium next door prepares to host WrestleMania in April, the old Astrodome has been neglected and told that the rodeo that was one of the few events it had hosted will have to find a safer location.

Meanwhile, back a the Jones ranch, The Dallas Morning News is reporting that the exciting commercial district expected to pop up around the Cowboy’s new stadium in Arlington has yet to materialize. While the Pitt Grill and Days Inn remain just across the street, the City of Arlington had hoped that fans attending the 2011 Super Bowl would be within easy strolling distance of more elegant hotels, restaurants, and shopping. However, fine dining (including Red, Hot, & Blues–some of the best ribs on the planet) is not that far away along I-30.

The possibility that Jerry Jones may have over-promised and may be self serving comes as a shock to many. City planning around development like stadiums often seems more rooted in hope and prestige than pragmatic economic development. Even as Arlington hopes for the best for its new stadium Houston’s experience with the Astrodome is an unpleasent reminder that a stadium’s fame is fleeting and that after if build it, bills will come.

House Committee Assignments

The House Committee Assignments came out this morning. The full official list (by committee or by member) is available online.

Tenaha’s toll on drug trafficking

There are  stories in the Houston Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, and KWTX paint a troubling picture of Americans having cash and/or property taken from them by law enforcement under the justification of suspicion of a crime and without due process of law. Usually  stories about law enforcement officers offering to let someone go if they’ll just leave their property behind come from Americans who travel outside the country and beyond the reach of our Constitution. However, in this case the trouble is not south of the border–it’s west of the Louisiana border in the small town of Tenaha (population 1,110).

Over the last few years, Tenaha law enforcement has seized the property of over 140 people who were passing through town because police suspected a crime had been committed. This is done under law written to make it easier to seize property related to illegal activity such as drug smuggling.

The problem is that in many of the Tenaha cases the accused is never formally accused and charges are not filed. Essentially, suspected criminals are allowed to drive away (or walk when their vehicle is seized) in return for giving property to local officials.  In such cases either: (a) innocent people are shaken down for money, or (b) guilty people go free. Neither seems to be “justice.” It’s not clear to me why local officials are allowed to profit from illegal activity and ignore the Constitution.

In any case, anyone running drugs along Highway 59 should keep plenty of cash on hand. Drug traffickers are facing a new version of Texas toll roads.

Living the good life with campaign dollars?

The Dallas Morning News has an interesting analysis of the way Dallas-area legislators are spending some of their campaign funds. The rules allow legislators to pay for the expenses of holding office with campaign dollars. This is completely understandable given the need to supplement legislative staff, assist with travel expenses, and help with the costs of living in Austin during the session.

However, it appears that some legislators are doing more than tending to the bare necessities and travel needs associated with public service. One senator used campaign money for lease payments on a Mercedes Benz and  stays at the Ritz Carlton Palm Beach, the Venetian in Las Vegas, the Hay-Adams in Washington DC. It’s not clear what state business the Senator was attending to in these locations. However, I know that there are less expensive lodging options. For example, rooms at the Hay-Adams appear to start at just over $400 a night. That’s about double the maximum reimbursement allowed under state rules when I travel (not that there are enough funds to pay that amount).

Donor money is paying for some of the same things that bribes traditionally would. Special interest groups are giving big money to legislators that face little competition in the next election and surely understand that this money can be converted into supporting an improved lifestyle for the legislator. The flow cash may be less direct than a bribe, but the sense of obligation that is created is the same.

What’s the solution to dealing with the expenses of serving in the Texas Legislature? Without some help it is be hard for Texans of ordinary means to manage the expenses of serving in the Legislature. Should we build dorms for members? How about the kind of bureaucratic red tape and dollar restrictions state employees face?

If you are not familiar with the way things work around the Capitol and you’re worried about your own representative, please don’t fret. The food supply in parts of Austin this time of year is bountiful and the chances that your legislator or their staff will starve are slim. The greater danger is being run over by the caterer’s little carts as they zip around the Capitol trying to deliver all that food.

Senate Committee Assignments

The new committee assignments (list in .pdf) for the Texas Senate are out. The biggest news for those of us who need to update our lectures is that the Lt. Governor has created three new committees: Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Economic Development, and Higher Education. This brings the total number of committees to 18.

There were no surprises on Committee chairs. All the committee chairs that won reelection are back at the head of their old committees. Tommy Williams from the Woodlands has become the chair of the Administration Committee after the previous chair was not re-elected.

The elevation of higher education from subcommittee to committee reflects the attention that higher education will face this session. The return of tuition regulation and the quest to elevate one or more of our universities to tier 1 status is going to produce some contentious battles over the next few years.