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A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Transportation

Have We Reached Peak Return on Highway Infrastructure Investment?

| 3 weeks ago

There is one aspect of the infrastructure spending bill that is being batted around in Washington that both political parties appear to agree on: spending billions on America’s roads will boost the economy. Of the $579 billion in proposed new spending, roughly 19 percent is earmarked for roads, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required). That same report points out both Republicans and Democrats are bullish on the impact that plowing that kind of dough into the country’s roads will have:

President Biden last week touted the agreement as delivering “higher productivity and higher growth for our economy over the long run.”

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who helped craft the deal, said last moth that the plan would “increase our productivity as a country.”

The problem is much of the research around the impact of highway infrastructure spending shows that it doesn’t produce much long-term economic productivity. In fact, as careful observers of the history of North Texas’ development might know, spending money on roads promotes some short-term economic gains, though over time it tends to merely redistribute growth with no real net increase in GDP.

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Politics

Poll: Should We Raise City Council Salaries?

| 2 months ago

On Tuesday, I argued that it was past time we gave the city council a raise. Better pay equals better candidates. It means people can run for office that can’t run for office today because they have jobs and families and lives. It means that we can better avoid things like over representation by millionaires, mayors who need second jobs, and bribery scandals. It doesn’t cost that much, and it would make our government run better. So why not?

In the comments to that post, former council member Philip Kingston gave some context to the debates that swirled around the horseshoe the last lime council got raise:

. . .my first motion was to go to $100K for council and $200K for mayor with an automatic increase indexed to inflation. Rawlings wouldn’t back anything higher than $80K for mayor and asked me why it should be higher to which I said so not every mayor looked like him. The council members terming out would support ANY raise that took effect immediately, and Carolyn Davis even mentioned making it retroactive. The north Dallas reps wouldn’t support any increase that took effect immediately, but would support even $100K if it went into effect after everyone who voted on it was off of council, which is another of the 300 motions I made that day. End of the day we wound up with $60K not indexed. . .

But what do you think? Should Dallas elected officials receive a raise, and if so, how much? Vote after the jump.

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Local Government

Why We Should Pay Dallas City Council Members More

| 2 months ago

Over the weekend, as results of the Dallas City Council election runoffs rolled in, I couldn’t shake a cynical reaction to the end of what felt like a very prolonged campaign season: why would anyone want a job as a city council member?

Being a member of the Dallas City Council is a thankless position. It is more than a fulltime job; requires tangling with both local politics and the impossible bureaucracy of Dallas City Hall; and even the most unflappable, talented, and idealistic city council members find it difficult to enact real and meaningful change. For their services, city council members receive a salary of $60,000, which, while substantially higher than the city’s median salary, is either a big pay cut or a bonus token to most who run for office. The $80,000 mayoral salary was such an afterthought to Mayor Mike Rawlings that he donated it to charity. The salary wasn’t enough to keep Mayor Eric Johnson from accepting a gig as a partner with a large law firm not long after taking office rather than making being mayor his only job.

And yet, this election cycle saw many Dallas residents working hard – and spending tons of campaign dollars – to try to get into office. As I reported in my (admittedly incomplete) analysis of some of this cycle’s campaign spending, some candidates for council spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their campaigns, with district 13 candidate Leland Burk outspending all others. Burk came up short in his runoff, which, regardless of how you felt about Burk as a candidate, at least shows that council seats can’t be bought outright. There’s still a neighbor-to-neighbor scale to local politics that candidates must respect. But then again, not all neighbors can afford to run for city council.

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Politics & Government

A Dallasite’s Guide to the Fort Worth Mayoral, City Council Runoffs

| 2 months ago

The same week Fort Worth voters will decide who succeeds Mayor Betsy Price and a handful of other runoff races, the city received some news. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Fort Worth surpassed Jacksonville, Florida to become the 12th largest city in the country. The city grew by 2.1 percent from 2019 to 2020, the most of any of Texas’ largest cities. By comparison, Dallas added just 74 total people—a minuscule percentage increase that Fort Worth and the surrounding suburbs easily trounced.

In fact, Fort Worth’s population has grown by 24 percent since 2010, one year before Price took office. Only Phoenix and San Antonio grew faster. Whoever succeeds her will have to direct policy to accommodate such growth.

Neither Mattie Parker nor Deborah Peoples, each of whom bested more than a dozen candidates in May to make the runoff, have chimed in on the news. But city officials and civic boosters were jubilant. On Twitter, a stock photo circulated of the city’s downtown emblazoned with “12th largest city in the country.” (To me, a photo of the city’s mascot Molly the Longhorn emblazoned with an outline of a longhorn cheering “We’re No. 12!” would have sufficed. That’s the sort of hokey civic boosterism I’ve come to expect from Cowtown.)

Parker is Price’s former chief of staff. Peoples is the former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair. Both have taken heat for being stridently partisan. Peoples is clearly a Democrat, backed most notably by former Congressman Beto O’Rourke as well as U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas. Parker is a Republican who has Price’s backing and, as of this week, the support of Gov. Greg Abbott.

They have similar goals: diversifying the city’s tax base, which relies too much on residential property taxes; providing more affordable housing; expanding the city’s paltry and underfunded public transit system; and policing reform.

They differ in approaches to achieving these goals, however.

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Politics

It Is Time for Dallas to Adopt Ranked-Choice Voting

| 3 months ago

Amid all the postgame analysis that has been flying about in the aftermath of last Saturday’s municipal elections, one simple and striking fact bears mentioning: up until a few election cycles ago, sitting council members were rarely challenged. That has changed – big time. Last Saturday’s elections saw competitive races in nearly every district, and three incumbents—David Blewett, Adam Bazaldua, and Carolyn King Arnold—have been forced into runoffs. In general, that’s a good thing. More candidates mean more ideas are brought to the table, more citizens are engaged in the electoral process, and council members are more responsive to the constituents who put them in office.

But this new era of Dallas politics has also created a situation in which runoff elections are almost inevitable, particularly in crowded races where there is no incumbent. This means the city’s general election basically functions like a primary. We saw this in the 2019 mayoral election and in the 2017 mayoral election. When 9 or 10 candidates are running for a single office there is virtually no way one of those candidates is going to secure 50.01 percent of the votes. The first election narrows down the field; the real decision is made in the runoff. That’s a problem. Municipal voter turnout is already very low, and it is even lower in the runoffs. They’re also expensive. But there’s a simple solution: ranked-choice voting.

Ranked choice voting — which we’ve mentioned before — is an electoral process that is gaining popularity throughout the country, particularly in local elections, precisely because it remedies some of these problems. According to FairVote.org, 22 municipalities and states have adopted ranked-choice voting, including some large cities like New York, Oakland, and San Francisco. Ten additional cities and states, including Alaska, are considering or have adopted ranked-choice voting for future use. Austin just adopted it over the weekend.

So, what is ranked-choice voting and how does it work?

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Local Government

How Much Does a Dallas City Council Vote Cost?

| 3 months ago

As the results of the city council election were coming in Saturday night, a familiar storyline took shape. There were plenty of intriguing political subplots building up to the election. And now we have weeks of limbo as we await a staggering six runoff races that will determine the make up of the next council. But the big takeaway was low turnout.

Every election cycle we are reminded that the city’s government is determined by precious few voters. This year, 67,788 people voted in the council elections, which is about 14 percent fewer than who voted in 2019 (when the mayor was also on the ballot). This year’s turnout was up around 46 percent from the last council-only election in 2017, but turnout was still fewer than 10 percent of the total number of registered voters.

Per usual, northern council districts drew more voters than southern council districts, another depressingly familiar statistic. But what was different about this year was that, in the weeks leading up to the election, Mayor Eric Johnson attempted to influence some of these southern Dallas council races. His influence drove more dollars into the campaigns in an effort to unseat two of his rivals on the city council. It didn’t work, but it got me thinking. There was a lot of money spent on this year’s council election but that money did not translate into huge voter turnouts. It seems like council candidates spend a ton of money each election cycle to win very few votes. But how much?

How much money do council candidates have to spend to turn out a single vote in their favor?

I spent yesterday crunching the numbers, tallying up the 2021 expenditures for the top finishing council candidates in all 14 districts. In some close races, I analyzed the top two or three candidates. In races in which incumbents didn’t face serious opposition, I tallied the expenditure totals for all the candidates. Most new candidates did not report spending in 2020, so I didn’t include incumbent spending in 2020 (there wasn’t a ton save a few candidates, such as Chad West) because it was too difficult to determine if 2020 spending was directly related to the 2021 campaign. These numbers also reflect the latest publicly available figure filed, so they may miss the last week-and-a-half or so of last minute fundraising. In other words, these numbers may be imperfect, but they are pretty close.

The results offer an imperfect metric for determining the effectiveness of council campaigns, but they also reveal several fascinating disparities in how campaign spending drives election results. Here’s one glaring example: District 13 candidate Leland Burk spent about $61.41 for every vote he received in Saturday’s election. His opponent in the runoff, Gay Donnell Willis, spent just $10.31 per vote. So what does this tell us about that race?

I break down the rest of the data and offer some interpretations after the jump:

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Politics & Government

What Is Behind Mayor Eric Johnson’s City Council Endorsements?

| 3 months ago

Although he isn’t on the ballot, there is a lot at stake for Mayor Eric L. Johnson in the upcoming Dallas city election. During his first two years in office, Johnson has struggled to establish a clear mayoral directive. This is partly to do to the fact that his term has been dominated by crises, beginning with the North Dallas tornados in 2019 and continuing through COVID-19, the George Floyd protests last summer, and February’s winter storm. Johnson has also butted heads with many top officials at City Hall, and his occasionally combative approach has alienated a Council that has been unwilling to line up behind his policy agenda.

It makes sense, then, that Johnson is publicly backing a few council candidates that are running against incumbents the mayor perceives as obstacles. In the race for District 7, he has come out in support of Donald Parish Jr., the son of a South Dallas preacher, against Adam Bazaldua, one of the loudest progressive voices on the Council. In District 5, Johnson backs perennial candidate Yolanda Faye Williams against Jaime Resendez in a race that has become framed by Resendez’s vote last fall to reduce the police department’s overtime budget. He did so against the mayor’s objections and has raised around $20,000 since Johnson endorsed his opponent. Behind the scenes, there are whispers that Johnson has also stuck his nose into the races to unseat East Dallas council member Paula Blackmon and Oak Cliff representative Carolyn King Arnold.

But on another level, Johnson’s endorsements don’t make any sense at all. I have spoken with a lot of people who have worked with Johnson over the years or have been following his political career since he first ran for the Texas Lege, in 2009. One thing they say is that Johnson doesn’t endorse candidates. Period. They say he sees it as too risky. Why hitch your political fortunes on someone else’s talents and ideas? Perhaps, then, Johnson’s willingness to come out in support of candidates in this year’s city council election suggests an appreciation of just how isolated he has become at City Hall, or a willingness to adapt to the demands of its unique political culture. Regardless, it represents yet another behavioral shift that has baffled many of Johnson’s former colleagues, friends, and associates who confess that they don’t often recognize the mayor as the man they once knew.

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Politics & Government

Dallas Council Candidate Jesse Moreno Returns $11,000 in Campaign Contributions

| 4 months ago

Dallas City Council candidate Jesse Moreno recently found himself in an interesting predicament. He is running to represent District 2, an oddly shaped swath of the city that sweeps from Love Field, the Medical District, south of downtown, and into the Cedars and Deep Ellum. From January 1 through March 22, he raised more than $36,000 in contributions, but a D Magazine analysis revealed that nearly a third of the money appeared to come from limited partnerships that were governed by a single person. Election law limits contributions in Dallas municipal races to just $1,000 per individual and certain businesses.

When asked last week about the origins of the money, Moreno pointed out—correctly—that everything was aboveboard. This week, though, he has returned all $11,000, saying that he wants to avoid even the whiff of funny business. The episode illustrates an interesting gray area in election law that it appears few local campaigns have taken advantage of, particularly during this cycle.

The contributions, each in the amount of $1,000, were made by 11 limited partnerships all registered to the developer Scott Rohrman, whose purchase of many buildings in Deep Ellum almost a decade ago helped begin the neighborhood’s latest resurgence. Rohrman says each limited partnership has varying interests “in or near” the district and wanted to support Moreno. And that is, without question, legal. The state’s election code allows individuals and certain businesses (e.g., limited partnerships, limited liability corporations) to give to political candidates; the city’s election code limits each to a maximum $1,000. But what happens when one individual controls multiple partnerships?

“Is this the sign of someone who’s putting his toe right on the ethical line, or, alternatively, is this the sign of a shrewd businessperson who knows how to get things done?” asked Dallas appellate attorney Chad Ruback, who has experience with election law. He was speaking generally about the situation after hearing a description of it. “I think two different voters can interpret it two different ways.”

Rohrman says even raising that question was enough for him.

“We determined that everything is aboveboard, but I did not want anyone questioning my intent,” he said. “The donations have been sent back.”

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Politics & Government

Calling All Lawyers: Can You Sort Out The HB 19 Trucking Bill in the Texas Lege For Us?

| 4 months ago

This morning, criminally early, I stumbled across a piece of legislation, House Bill 19, which caught my attention because I had insomnia and there’s this rabbit hole called YouTube that, well, anyway… I had no idea that Texas had such an abysmal record in trucking fatalities on our roads and highways. According to Ware Wendall of Texas Watch, a consumer group, Texas led the country with 685 trucking fatalities last year alone, which was more than Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Colorado, and Mississippi combined.

I thought reckless trucking was just a Pennsylvania Turnpike thing, where my parents narrowly escaped death by truck years ago. So I am sensitive. But here’s how I read this bill: it would eliminate the right in a civil case to hold responsible the company that put the commercial vehicle on the road, no matter that they hired a bad driver, or had maintenance or repair problems. Only the driver would be responsible.

First, know that the bill is still in committee. It will morph. Our Texas House representative from Collin County, Jeff Leach, R-Plano, chairs the committee and sponsored the bill. Still my mind flashed through a number of scenarios, and I’d love to know from the legal world—not just personal liability lawyers but including personal liability lawyers—what this could mean.

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Politics & Government

New Maps Detail Neighborhoods’ Political Divides

| 4 months ago

We’re used to talking about red and blue states, and about neighborhood divides centered around income inequality and the lingering legacy of racial segregation. But to what extent do these two things overlap? Do social economic and demographic factors create red and blue neighborhoods? According to a new study by two Harvard researchers, the answers is they do.

Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos sorted information on 180 million U.S. voters and attempted to map their political divisions on a neighborhood scale, publishing the results in Nature. The researchers don’t know, of course, how people voted in the recent election, but they crunched the data by analyzing public data like demographic information, voter registration, and whether voters participated in party primaries. What they found is that the country’s political divides extend into neighborhoods, and, in some case, even manifest on a block-by-block basis.

In some ways, the broad outlines of the maps aren’t anything new. Hand a red and blue crayon to anyone who pays close attention to local politics and ask her to color in the the political affiliations of the neighborhoods, and you might end up with a map like the one of DFW pictured above. But this data drills gets so granular that it manages to quantify some eyebrow-raising results. For example, as  the New York Times reports:

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Police

The Former Mesquite Cop Behind the Power of the Dallas Police Union

| 5 months ago

Ron DeLord has been the Dallas Police Association’s strategic enforcer for years. A new profile in the New York Times shows how DeLord has pioneered a simple and direct approach to ensuring that the police unions he represents get the benefits and protections they seek: “He has likened a police union going after an elected official to a cheetah devouring a wildebeest, and suggested that taking down just one would make others fall in line.”

In practice, this looks like the attack DeLord launched against Council member Lee Kleinman during his 2017 race, when North Dallas residents received a mailer, highlighted in the Times piece, that called the council member “a menacing threat to the security of North Dallas families.” Over time, the approach has proven extremely effective.

“We took weak, underpaid organizations and built them into what everyone today says are powerful police unions,” Mr. DeLord said in a recent interview. “You may say we went too far. I say you don’t know how far you’ve gone until you’re at the edge of the envelope.”

The New York Times piece details how DeLord helped transform policing in the United States. His philosophy and influence are encapsulated in a 1997 book he coauthored called Police Association Power, Politics, and Confrontation: A Guide for the Successful Police Labor Leader that has shaped union strategies over the past two decades:

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Politics & Government

Watch Dallas State Rep. Grill the Chair of Texas’ Public Utilities Commission

| 5 months ago

If you are looking for a little more insight into what went wrong with Texas’ electrical power grid a couple of weeks ago, I suggest taking the time to watch the video (after the jump) that shows Texas state Rep. Rafael Anchia grilling DeAnn Walker, the chair of the Public Utility Commission, during Friday’s Joint Commission Hearing. Walker resigned on Monday afternoon.

If you don’t have the full 36 minutes to devote to it, click ahead to about 22:00 mark. Up to that point, Anchia spends time walking through the scope of the PUC’s regulatory responsibilities, particularly as they relate to legislation passed after the 2011 winter storm – and further refined in 2013 – that was precisely designed to avoid what happened two weeks ago.

The legislation the state passed, Anchia argues, didn’t merely suggest that the PUC monitor ERCOT, the private entity that manages the state’s grid, in order to prepare for extreme summer and winter weather. Reading from a house document that laid out the full details of the 2013 bill, Anchia recites details of the legislation that gave the PUC cease and desist authority over ERCOT, instructed the PUC to come up with performance measures to evaluate ERCOT, and required the commission to prepare annual reports on ERCOT’s performance. Walker admits that after a 2012 report, the PUC did not submit another annual report on ERCOT’s preparedness to the legislature.

“We told you to report to us if you thought we were unprepared,” Anchia says. “Because we had promised our constituents that this was not going to happen again, and we told the PUC to take care of it, and we gave you power – we gave you rulemaking authority to take care of it.”

Walker was appointed directly by Gov. Abbott, and prior to serving as the chair of the PUC, she worked as a senior policy advisor to the governor and as Associate General Counsel and Director of Regulatory Affairs at CenterPoint Energy, a Fortune 500 electric and natural gas utility.

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