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How would you implement Prop B?

Here, from last week, is Mayor Turner’s official announcement about layoffs, following a failure to come to an agreement with the firefighters’ union about a time frame to fully implement Prop B. Here’s the Chron story about the firefighters protesting the layoffs, which we knew were coming – indeed, we’d known since last year, as that was one of the main points Mayor Turner made during the Prop B campaign. The Chron editorial board agrees with Turner that given the limited options available, layoffs are the only reasonable choice.

Now, to be sure, there is the garbage fee proposal, which Council will vote on this week. It would, at least in theory, pay for the increased costs that Prop B imposes, though there are objections. I’ve laid some of them out – a trash fee should be used for solid waste collection, the potential for litigation is non-trivial – and I’ll add another one here: If a garbage fee is the mechanism for funding Prop B, that necessarily means that only some Houstonians are contributing to that. Anyone who doesn’t live in a house that has city of Houston solid waste service would not be subject to this fee. (At least, I assume so – it’s not clear to me how this fee will be assessed.) Maybe you think that’s a big deal and maybe you don’t, but I guarantee someone will complain about it.

So the question remains, how would you implement Prop B? We all agree Prop B will cost some money to implement. The firefighters have never put a dollar figure on it themselves – they have made claims that the fire department brings in revenues that could be spent on the fire department instead of other things, which doesn’t actually solve anything but just recapitulates the argument that the city should spend more on firefighters. Raising the property tax rate is out, as it would violate the stupid revenue cap. Indeed, as we know, the city has had to cut the tax rate multiple times in recent years, costing itself a lot of revenue in the process. The basic options are a flawed fee that will charge some households up to $300 a year and others nothing, and layoffs. And if you’re going to do layoffs, the ones that make the most sense are the firefighters themselves, as the vast majority of calls to HFD are for emergency medical services and not fires – EMTs are cheaper to hire, don’t require expensive fire trucks to get to where they’re going, and aren’t in scope of Prop B. And that, barring any late-breaking agreement to implement Prop B more slowly, is what we are going to get.

So then, what if anything would you do differently? I’m open to suggestion.

UPDATE: Here’s City Controller Chris Brown saying the cost of Prop B is unsustainable outside an agreement to phase it in over five years, which is what the city has been pushing for.

Still lots of houses at risk of flooding

This is going to take a long time to really mitigate.

A new study is raising concerns that restrictions on new construction put in place after Hurricane Harvey could leave low-income residents with fewer choices for affordable housing.

More than 475,000 people in Harris County live in multifamily units at risk of flooding, according to the study released Thursday by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. The group includes the University of Houston, the Kinder Institute and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, among others. Even without the flooding risk, units are becoming less and less affordable.

“The issue of flooding and the issue of affordable housing are very connected,” said Christof Spieler, the consortium’s project manager. “We have a lot of Houstonians who are in the difficult position where the housing they can afford is the housing that puts them at risk of flooding.”

In Harris County, 26 percent of all multifamily units — buildings with two or more units — are currently located within a flood-risk area. After Harvey, Houston leaders passed an ordinance known as Chapter 19 that requires elevation for rebuilding in the flood plain. The down side, according to the consortium, is that this requirement may lead to the loss of affordable multifamily units in the floodplain.

“Chapter 19 has the best interests of people in mind, but I just don’t think that we really thought through the potential impact on multifamily units,” said study co-author Susan Rogers, the director of the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center. “I don’t think any of us want to encourage apartment owners to continue to renovate and put people in (apartments) clueless of what could happen to them.”

While most of the multifamily units in Houston that are being rebuilt were permitted before the ordinance took effect, researchers heard through focus groups that property owners are worried about what will happen after the next storm.

“If you’re trying to keep affordable units, but safe and not-falling-apart units, you don’t want reputable property owners to either go bankrupt and abandon their properties to the kind of ‘owner of last resort’ who will potentially not bring things back up to where they should be,” said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute and another of the study’s lead authors.

The press release is here, the full report is here, and Mayor Turner’s response to this report is here. All of the Consortium’s research is here if you need to read more. I don’t have much to add to this, just that if we want to make good policy decisions to fix the mistakes of the past and prevent making more of them in the future, we really need to understand the full scope of the issues. I’m glad we have this group doing that work for it.

Rideshare for Medicaid?

This could make sense.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas would soon start relying on Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services to shuttle Medicaid patients to and from the doctor, if a new House bill becomes law.

The state is one of several eyeing rideshare as a way to save money and ensure Medicaid patients make it to their health care appointments. Each year an estimated 3.6 million people delay or forgo care due to lack of transportation, studies have found, leaving providers with cancellations and patients with potentially more costly medical issues in the future.

“It’s about better outcomes for patients, health care providers and, at the end of the day, much better outcomes for the taxpayers,” said state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who authored the bill, HB1576.

The proposal, which has wide support in the Texas House, comes roughly a year after Uber and Lyft broke into the health care market with services that let hospitals order rides for patients. With some 4.3 million low-income residents on Medicaid, most of them children, the bill could dramatically expand the business in Texas.

The state already pays several transportation firms roughly $160 million a year to arrange free rides for Medicaid patients to visit the doctor, dentist and pharmacy. But the trips must be scheduled at least two days in advance, Phelan said.

His bill would let Medicaid managed care companies order a ride for patients who can’t give advanced notice, including those who come down with a sudden illness or are discharged from the hospital early. The legislation would also let the existing transportation firms use rideshare, in addition to their own vehicles.

[…]

Under the bill, Medicaid managed care companies would take on the responsibility of ordering rideshares for patients. The Texas Association of Health Plans, which represents many of the managed care companies, didn’t return a request for comment.

Hannah Mehta, with the group Protect TX Fragile Kids, said there’s no question the Medicaid transportation system needs improvement. A 2017 report by the Legislative Budget Board found the shifting of rides to private firms increased costs and client complaints, while decreasing access.

But Mehta is worried about handing the coordination of rideshares over to Medicaid managed care companies, which a recent Dallas Morning News series found have denied patients critical care. Mehta, whose son is covered by Medicaid, also questioned which patients would qualify and how that would be determined.

“Accessibility is a great goal,” she said. “But the devil’s in the details.”

Here’s HB1576, which as you can see has a slew of co-authors. The story notes that ensuring accessible rides for people with disabilities would be necessary; having the managed care companies in charge of arranging the rides, which would include the existing transportation companies as options, should handle that. The basic idea here is to make transportation to medical services for people who need it easier to arrange, which is something Uber and Lyft are good at, and presumably also to reduce costs. This at least sounds good in theory, but we’ll see how it develops.

Weekend link dump for March 24

“Flipping the bird is protected by First Amendment, federal appeals court says in cop-stop case”.

“This seems to be one of those stories involving both intentional grifters and others who were merely incompetent, unintentional, self-deceiving grifters carried away by quixotic dreams.”

If baseball allowed ties, how different would things be?

Why phone numbers stink as proof of your identity.

The roots of today’s white nationalism can be traced back a hundred years to an American whose writing influenced the Nazis in Germany.

“Partisanship shapes American politics, and, indeed, many parts of everyday life. Americans are increasingly negative about the possibility of their children marrying someone who affiliates with the opposite party. Many see the other party as a threat to the nation’s very well-being. In the 2016 election, about ninety percent of party identifiers pulled the lever for their party’s presidential nominee. Yet, despite these fierce party attachments, institutional parties play a weak and unclear role in American political life.”

“Grooming doesn’t just happen with the child, it happens with entire families and communities, and in a celebrity’s case, the entire community.”

RIP, Dick Dale, king of the surf guitar.

Devin Nunes’ Cow is my new hero.

The Spider-Man newspaper comic is slinging off into the sunset.

“The attacks that make headlines and those that do not are all rooted in the same hateful ideology. None of the attackers embraced unique or isolated ideas; they didn’t need to. The white supremacist ideology already contains all of the components needed to propel a radicalized individual to violence. And we have hard data showing the threat is regularly materializing. So why is there so much controversy over whether right-wing racially motivated violent extremism is a growing threat?”

I for one would be all in on a 20th anniversary Angel reunion.

Say what you want about MySpace, its loss of millions of songs that had been uploaded to it in its heyday is a damn tragedy.

Who knew asteroids could do that?

“Social Media Giants Have Been Promising to Stop Livestreamed Violence For Years. They Still Can’t.”

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

“What is less remarkable than the fact that such polemics about child sacrifice should continue to exist (how could they not, since they’re at least as old and as ingrained in Western culture as the Bible?) is that, in a truly gobsmacking way, they are entirely gratuitous compared with the actual, unvarnished truth.”

Abolishing the Electoral College Was a Republican Idea“.

Neil deGrasse Tyson was cleared of charges of sexual misconduct by the National Geographic network, but we have no idea how or why.

“Blake Bortles Is No Longer on the Jaguars – A Nation of Jasons Weeps”.

“It should never, ever be forgotten what a resentful, self-absorbed, petty, and insecure husk of a man is occupying the Oval Office, and it never, ever will be forgotten. As he demonstrated again on Wednesday, Donald Trump won’t allow it.”

“The National Cathedral now joins Tic Tacs and Skittles in the realm of bizarre entities that have had to publicly distance themselves from Trump and his family.”

RIP, Sydney Aiello, survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting.

We still could have done better on turnout

That’s always how it is, isn’t it?

Despite holding the most expensive and closely-watched U.S. Senate election in the nation last year, Texas still ranked among the ten worst states for voter turnout in 2018, according to a new report on voting trends.

About 46 percent of eligible Texas voters cast a ballot in the November election, up from 29 percent four years earlier, according to “America Goes to the Polls 2018,” a report from Nonprofit VOTE and the US Elections Project. While the number of voters jumped, the turnout places Texas 41st in the country for voter turnout — up from 50th in the 2014 election.

The national report blames Texas’ poor ranking on a deadline that cuts off voter registration four weeks before Election Day. Most states in the bottom 15 for voter turnout require people to register to vote at least a month before the election. Most states with the highest turnout allow for same-day voter registration, according to the report.

“The November midterm election shattered records for voter turnout,” says Brian Miller, Executive Director at Nonprofit VOTE, “but beneath the record-setting turnout is a vast gap in turnout between states that speaks volumes about the impact state policies play in voter turnout.”

The League of Women Voters of Texas argues it’s time that the state “joins the modern age” and allows for same-day voter registration, according to an email Tuesday from the group representing more than 8,000 voters who encourage participation in government.

Here’s the executive summary if you don’t want to read the full report. The authors do look at other factors, including voting by mail, automatic registration, and competitive elections, so while same day registration is correlated with higher turnout, it’s not the only thing. I’d suggest that voter ID laws and other barriers to voting need to be taken into account as well. Be that as it may, there is a bill in the House to enable same day registration, and perhaps surprisingly it has two Republican authors and seven more Republican co-authors. It also doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Piedras Negras of getting past Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott. But the idea is there, and it’s bipartisan. We’ll get there eventually. The Dallas Observer has more.

Who should be managing the Permanent School Fund?

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure what the best answer to it is.

Lawmakers are proposing a wide range of fixes for the state’s public school endowment, which has lost out on billions in growth during the past decade while paying out less to schoolchildren.

One bipartisan bill backed by high-powered legislators would restore the State Board of Education’s control over nearly all of the investments for the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund, reverting to the way it was before a 2001 law change.

Another would allow the School Land Board, which now controls about $10 billion of the endowment, to double the amount it can send annually directly to schools — up to $600 million. Yet another would take most of the money away from the feuding boards and create a new nine-member governing body appointed by the governor to decide how the endowment invests and distributes its dollars.

[…]

A key point in the debate is which governing body should have the authority to retain and invest the state’s oil and gas royalty revenue from leases on state land. Until 2001, the land board collected the money and sent it passively along to the education board to invest. But a law passed that year allowed the land board to retain the money and invest it.

A series of law changes and constitutional amendments since has changed the way money is sent to schools. The education board was tasked with setting a distribution rate based on a complex formula that, in part, depends on how much money it receives from the land board. Lawmakers also authorized the land board to send up to $300 million per year directly to schools, instead of to the education board, but it has no requirement to do so.

The changes created a serious governance issue, said Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who has introduced a bill that would return the royalty revenue to the education board to invest. That bill has the backing of five Republican Senate committee chairs. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

It also is supported by the education board’s chairwoman, Donna Bahorich, who said it aims to “permanently and efficiently fix the decision-making structure that affects the performance, distributions and expenses. Consolidation of the two pieces of the Permanent School Fund into one decision-making structure would be for the benefit of putting more money to work for the school children.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the Chron’s “Broken Trust” series, which uncovered a lot of these problems. The Land Board has had the worse performance, but the SBOE’s management isn’t perfect, and it was just ten years ago that there were proposals to take PSF management away from the SBOE. At some level, I don’t care who manages the PSF. What I do care about is ensuring accountability and maximizing returns. What are the best practices – what do other institutions that manage similar endowments do, for example – and what are the gaps that need to be addressed? That’s what I want us to focus on.

An overview on bail reform

From Mother Jones, a look at how bail reform is progressing in Harris County. I’m going to focus on the part about the second bail-related lawsuit, which covers felony arrests.

A federal judge in Harris County is currently considering a case that would transform the way bail is set for people charged with felonies, a population that comprises the vast majority of people in jail awaiting trial.

The lawsuit, filed in January by civil rights groups against the county and its sheriff, argues that detaining felony defendants simply because they can’t afford bail discriminates against the poor and often forces them to take guilty pleas just to get out faster. The suit asks the court to stop the practice of jailing people who aren’t a threat to public safety prior to trial only because they can’t pay. According to the suit, in 2017, up to 85 percent of those arrested for felonies were booked into jail because they couldn’t make bail.

[…]

The settlement [in the misdemeanor case lawsuit] was a watershed moment. “I don’t think we can understate the cultural significance,” says Alec Karakatsanis, who was a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law when the case was settled and is now an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. Although other counties and states have similarly reformed their bail systems—California abolished cash bail last year, and Washington, DC, largely did away with the practice decades ago—Harris County’s size makes the victory particularly significant.

And while the settlement details were being ironed out, the same lawyers from the misdemeanor case filed the felony suit.

“Once we were having very constructive, productive discussions with the new misdemeanor judges about a final settlement, we realized it was time now to move on to the next piece of the problem,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in both lawsuits.

The felony case, a class action, was filed on behalf of three men who had been charged with nonviolent felony offenses, including driving under the influence and drug possession. The men were assigned bail amounts between $15,000 and $30,000. None of them could pay, and two of them remain detained since being brought into custody in mid-January. (The other made bail after about two weeks in jail.) Like the misdemeanor case, lawyers for the plaintiffs are arguing that such a bail system discriminates against poor inmates who are otherwise low risk.

But if the misdemeanor case was a big deal, the case currently in front of the court will be a game-changer. As of March 2016, misdemeanor defendants comprise only about 8 percent of the county jail’s pretrial population—felony defendants, meanwhile, account for the rest. In fact, 77 percent of the entire county jail population, or approximately 6,000 people, at any given time are felony defendants awaiting trial, most of them for nonviolent offenses. And like people charged with misdemeanors, most of the defendants in jail for felony charges are stuck there because they can’t afford a bond. Although there are no national figures available on how many people are in jail because they can’t pay, data from the Prison Policy Initiative says that every day, 465,000 people are held in jail pretrial, and the organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of these people are there because they can’t afford bail.

If the district court sides with Karakatsanis and his clients, Harris County would be one of the largest in the country to severely limit the use of cash bail. The parties will be negotiating a settlement over the next several weeks, and Manne said he’s optimistic those talks will result in a similar outcome as the misdemeanor suit.

See here and here for some background. The story does not note that there are bills filed in the Legislature that would implement much of the reforms from the Harris County lawsuit statewide. Harris County was a watershed here not just because it’s the biggest county, with the biggest jail population, but also because for the most part, the other big counties have not taken similar action yet. The precedent this lawsuit set will certainly affect any future and current lawsuits in other counties, whether or not the proposed bills pass. There of course remains some resistance to the whole thing, but that is by this point a diminishing position. I look forward to seeing how the negotiations over the felony bail lawsuit turn out.

The Harris County poll you didn’t really need

From the inbox:

Sponsored by HRBC, a survey was released today that reveals many insights into Harris County voters and their feelings towards political leaders and important issues facing Harris County.

“While Harris County voters feel very differently about various leaders and issues, they overwhelmingly believe that our home is a leader in job creation because of its low taxes and regulations,” said HRBC Chairman Alan Hassenflu. “HRBC looks forward to its continued work with state and local leaders to ensure our region and state remains an economic powerhouse,” continued Hassenflu.

The survey was conducted by Ragnar Research Partners, February 24 through February 26, 2019 by telephone, including landlines (28%) and cell phones (72%). Interviews included 400 Likely Voters (LVs) across Harris County. Quotas on age, gender, education, ethnicity, and region were used to ensure a representative distribution. The study’s margin of error is ±5%.

“Generally, we see that voters have a positive outlook for Harris County which is reflected in the optimistic attitudes towards the County’s continued economic prosperity. The voters believe that Texas continues to head in the right direction, but they have a differing opinion on the state of the Nation,” said Chris Perkins, Partner at Ragnar Research.

Click link to review full survey results:

https://houstonrealty.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/HRBC_Harris-Co_Memo_vF_190320.pdf

HRBC is the Houston Realty Business Coalition, a group that tends to endorse conservative candidates in city elections; Bill King, Bill Frazer, and Mike Knox were among their preferred candidates in 2015. I’d not heard of Ragnar Research Partners before, but Chris Perkins is a longtime Republican operative who’s shown up on this blog before. He was once part of Wilson Perkins Associates, now known as WPA Intelligence. I tell you all this not to convince you that their data is junk, just to let you know who you’re dealing with.

As for the poll results, I’d take them with a modest amount of salt. Greg Abbott has a 52-36 favorable split in the county, which didn’t stop him from losing the county to Lupe Valdez 52-46 in 2018, while County Judge Lina Hidalgo was largely unknown to respondents. (That didn’t stop 65% of them from disagreeing with Hidalgo hiring some New York-based consultants, with her campaign’s money (not mentioned in the question, by the way) after the election, even though I’d bet my annual salary against Chris Perkins’ that basically nobody had even heard of that before being asked the question.) Donald Trump, on the other hand, was at 39-60 in favorability, which let’s just say is not good and does not bode well for Republicans in the county in 2020. And even though they did their best to tilt the question by associating it with Nancy Pelosi, more respondents preferred Pelosi’s position on the border wall.

Earlier in this post I said I wasn’t trying to convince you that this pollster is shady. Well, let’s revisit that. Here, from the full results page, is one of their “local issues” questions:

Bus Services Are Preferred
Likely voters are split initially on whether building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of $2.45 billion dollars. However, when given the choice, a majority of voters are more likely to agree prefer BRT and providing more express commuter bus service over building more light rail tracks.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Now here are the questions they actually asked:

Question Asked:
20 mi Light Rail: Do you agree or disagree that building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of two point four five billion dollars to help address Houston’s transportation needs?

BRT vs Light Rail: Please tell me which point of view you agree with the most. Some people say, Metro should build more light rail. Other people say, Metro should make fares free and provide more express commuter bus service to job centers other than downtown.

Emphasis mine. That’s not the same choice as they presented it above. I’m not some fancy professional pollster, but it seems to me that if one of your choices is something for free, it’s going to get more support than it would have without the free stuff, and more support than something else that isn’t free.

Anyway. I don’t know what motivated a poll of the county this far out from any election, but more data is better than less data. Even questionable data from questionable sources has some value.

The anti-vaxxers keep on coming

Eternal vigilance, and some more problematic legislators getting booted out of office, are required.

Among the new Texas proposals is an “informed consent” bill filed by state Representative Bill Zedler, an outspoken anti-vaccine member of the House Public Health Committee. Zedler drew national attention after he downplayed the resurgence of measles, which he had as a child, telling the Observer last month, “Today, with antibiotics and that kind of stuff, they’re not dying [of measles] in America.” (Hundreds of Americans died of measles each year before the disease was considered eradicated in 2000, thanks in large part to the development of a vaccine. Also, antibiotics don’t treat measles, which is a virus.)

[…]

bill filed by state Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, would ban vaccines that haven’t met criteria that Hall — a retired business owner — has determined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should be using for approval. The bill also requires the state health department to post online a “disclosure of any known injuries or diseases caused by the vaccine” and that the vaccine be “evaluated for [its] potential to: cause cancer, mutate genes, affect fertility or cause infertility, and cause autism spectrum disorder.”< The bill is “dangerous” and a “misunderstanding of how science and clinical trials work,” Lakshmanan said. Any link to autism, first proposed in a now-retracted study, has been repeatedly debunked. “The insinuation of this legislation is that vaccines are not well-tested and not safe, which is erroneous, incorrect and misleading,” she said. Hall did not respond to a request for comment.

Also of top concern for immunization advocates are proposals to make it even easier to opt out of vaccine requirements, even as “conscience” exemptions have skyrocketed in Texas from about 2,300 in 2003 to nearly 53,000 in 2017. A bill filed by House Freedom Caucus member Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, would allow nurses to sign off on exemption forms rather than just doctors. Another, from state Representative Tony Tinderholt, would prohibit doctors from refusing to see patients who aren’t vaccinated. And one from caucus member Matt Krause would make it easier to submit vaccine exemptions, and prevent the state health department from tracking them. Health experts say this would prevent the state from preparing for potential disease outbreaks, as well as make it impossible for families of very young or immunocompromised kids to know which communities have low vaccination rates.

See here for some background. You can find all these bills and more by going to the Texas Legislature Online page and doing a word/phrase search for “immunization”. It’s not always easy to tell with the language in these bills, but SB1813 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez, which appears to loosen requirements for pharmacists to administer vaccinations, looks good. I don’t see anything positive relating to the so-called “conscience clause” exemption, which is what allows parents to enroll unvaxxed kids in school because they don’t want to get them immunized. I don’t think we’re there yet for something like this. The best we can do this session is most likely going to be not letting anything bad get passed. Then we need to follow it up by beating as many of these anti-vax schmoes at the ballot box as we can. Make note of those names, these are the targets of interest.

State sues over Deer Park fire

Too big to ignore.

Late Friday, the state of Texas sued Intercontinental Terminals — the Houston-based company whose petrochemical storage facility in the suburb of Deer Park caught fire last weekend and burned for days, sending a dramatic plume of black smoke over the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, alleges that air pollution released during the fire is a violation of the Texas Clean Air Act.

It seeks a permanent injunction and civil penalties that “could exceed $100,000.”

“The state of Texas works hard to maintain good air quality and will hold ITC accountable for the damage it has done to our environment,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. “ITC has a history of environmental violations, and this latest incident is especially disturbing and frightening. No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk.”

Were you able to read that statement with a straight face? Then read this.

The TCEQ, the agency responsible for protecting the state’s environment and public health, has been criticized for letting large corporate polluters off with a slap on the wrist. An analysis of its enforcement record by an environmental nonprofit found that the agency imposed penalties on violators in just 3 percent of cases. ITC appears to have benefitted from the lax enforcement. In 2016, for instance, the company released more than 1,500 pounds of benzene — a carcinogenic chemical — for over five days and failed to notify the state agency within the mandated 24-hour deadline. The fine: roughly $4,000.

I’m just saying. Maybe some day when there aren’t new fires breaking out every time an old fire gets put out, we can get to the bottom of what happened here. And then sue these assholes out of existence. More broadly, maybe we can demand that our state take enforcement of environmental regulations seriously. If they had done so before, maybe we wouldn’t be in this position now. The Chron has more.

Garbage fee on the agenda

I don’t think this is going to pass, but it will get a vote.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would put a proposed garbage fee on next week’s city council agenda, but will not vote for it.

Turner agreed to put the idea promoted by Councilman Dwight Boykins as a way to to offset the cost of firefighter raises mandated by Proposition B to a council vote, even as he called it “regressive” and said it would hurt low-income Houstonians.

“I will put it on the council agenda next week to let council members have their say, but I will not vote to impose this fee on the people of Houston,” he said on Twitter.

[…]

Boykins’ original proposal largely fell flat among his council colleagues, some of whom said the fees were far too high. Boykins since has floated lower rates, and said Wednesday that he would call for fees between $19 and $27 a month when council votes.

In a statement Wednesday, Boykins said he was the “only member of City Council to put forth a proposal that creates a steady revenue stream while preventing massive and destructive layoffs.”

“My proposal is an alternative that secures public safety while saving the jobs of up to 500 firefighters, 200 police officers and up to 300 city employees,” Boykins said. “It’s an opportunity for city leaders to lead, and I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this measure.

See here for the background. As you know, I support the concept of a garbage fee for the purpose of improving and expanding our existing solid waste services. I don’t support it for other purposes, such as using it to pay for firefighter raises. Fees are generally exempt from the revenue cap stricture – Mayor Parker raised a bunch of fees as part of her budget-balancing in 2010-2011, with some language at the time about what it cost to provide various services and how the fees for one service should not be subsidizing the cost of another. That said, I would wonder if something like this, which is both a big increase in what most people pay each year plus an obvious ploy to raise money to pay for something else, would run into a lawsuit challenging its validity under the revenue cap. Surely someone will seize on the opportunity to cause trouble. Be that as it may, the first question is who will vote for this. My gut says Boykins will have some support, but probably not a majority. But who knows? We’ll find out next week.

One more thing:

If the Mayor is opposed [to the garbage fee proposal], why put it on the agenda?

For one thing, so the firefighters will not be able to claim later on that Turner never even put a valid proposal to pay for Prop B up for a vote. The ads write themselves – “He never even gave it a fair chance!” They can still claim he opposed it, of course, but if Council votes it down by (say) a 12-5 margin, that takes some of the bite out of it. Also, too, by letting the vote go on there will necessarily be a discussion about how much the fee would be, which might make people think a bit differently about Prop B. It’s not like the firefighters ever put a price tag on it, after all. If people realize that paying for Prop B will cost them personally $200 to $300 a year – down from $300 to $500 as in the original proposal from Boykins – they might see the Mayor’s point more closely. Finally, if Turner is wrong and the proposal passes, he no longer has to lay anyone off and he can let individual Council members explain their vote. I think letting the garbage fee be voted on makes more sense from Turner’s perspective than refusing to put it on the agenda would have.

Abbott wants in on bail reform

Not sure yet what to make of this.

The ongoing federal lawsuits (and the potential for new ones) and recent jail deaths have further spurred efforts in Texas to address the court rulings and help get poor people accused of nonviolent crimes out of jail. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has prioritized fixing the bail system this session, but he has focused more on making it harder for dangerous defendants to get out of jail.

But when this legislative session’s first pair of major reform bills were filed last month by a Democratic senator and Republican House representative who have worked on the issue for years, Abbott was silent. Now, he appears to have thrown his weight behind a less-detailed bill with the same name. A key difference: It puts power over changes to Texas’ bail system directly into his office — giving him control over the creation of a risk-assessment tool to be used in bail decisions.

The bill was only recently filed, and advocacy groups for bail reform have acknowledged that it will likely be tweaked as it moves through the Legislature, but the legislation still has drawn concern from groups that say it doesn’t properly address the problems that led to federal litigation and that it is fully “unworkable” in some areas.

“If the Legislature does not want federal courts to design local bail systems in Texas, they need to pass a bill that corrects the essential problem of people who could otherwise safely be released being jailed for no other reason than their not having money for bail,” said Mary Schmid Mergler, director of the criminal justice project for the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, in an email to The Texas Tribune.

She added that the first bills filed are more comprehensive and research driven.

[…]

A primary piece of Whitmire and Murr’s legislation would have the state’s Office of Court Administration create a risk-assessment tool to help judges determine an arrestee’s potential for posing a danger or skipping court hearings if released from jail before trial. It would also establish procedures in statute aimed at releasing poor, low-risk defendants from jail on no-cost bonds while those deemed a high risk would be detained before trial without the option of bailing out with cash. (Currently in Texas, bail release can only be denied in capital murder cases or in certain repeat felony or bail violation circumstances.)

The second Damon Allen Act filed this month by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, also includes a risk-assessment tool, but it doesn’t specify how and when the tool would be used to affect bail practices. Instead, it creates a program within the governor’s office that would both develop the tool and recommend best practices for pretrial release decisions.

“I think [Abbott] and his office produced the Kacal bill, which means we’ve got a lot of work to do with the governor’s office if we’re going to pursue my bill,” Whitmire told the Tribune last week. “I know [Abbott] wants to control it.”

[…]

A risk-assessment tool is included in Kacal’s legislation, but it is much less specific than Whitmire and Murr’s bills, which explicitly lay out how and by when judicial officers must use the tool in making bail decisions, in part nodding to the necessary changes called for by federal judges in Harris and Dallas counties. Instead, the Kacal (and now Whitmire) legislation places the power for creating the risk-assessment tool, as well as deciding on best practices for pretrial release, directly under the governor.

The bill would create a Bail Advisory Program within the governor’s Criminal Justice Division, a grant-making arm of the executive office. The governor would appoint a director, and the program would develop a pretrial risk-assessment tool for bail decisions (with help from the Office of Court Administration), recommend best practices for bail decisions and collect data on bail practices statewide.

“[Abbott’s] concerned about who would get out on a [no-cost] bond, and I guess he thinks if he came up with a risk-assessment model, he would be able to have more input,” Whitmire said.

See here for some background. I am of course generally suspicious of Abbott’s motives, but so far reform advocates haven’t complained, Whitmire has expressed his willingness to work with him, and as Whitmire notes they do need the governor’s signature. If this increases the odds of the bill passing, and it doesn’t result in the bill being too watered down, then this is fine. Everyone agrees there will be changes made to the final bill, so that’s what we need to watch.

Some business opposition to SB15

It’s a start.

A coalition of business groups and convention and tourism leaders, which includes ASAE, is expressing concern that a pending bill in the Texas Legislature could weaken protections for the state’s LGBTQ workers.

ASAE is joining a coalition of business and tourism groups in voicing concern that a pending bill in the Texas Legislature would weaken protections for LGBTQ workers in the state.

“ASAE is opposed to legislation that would harm Texas’s reputation as a welcoming state. Any legislation that would weaken protections for LGBTQ workers would have severe economic consequences in the form of lost jobs, investments and event bookings throughout the state,” said ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE, in a statement to Associations Now. “ASAE is committed to working with our members and meetings industry partners in Texas to address legislators’ concerns while keeping Texas open and accessible for all.”

At issue is a proposed bill (Senate Bill 15) that would prohibit cities from requiring private companies to offer paid sick leave to their employees. The bill was supported by a lot of businesses until a recent rewrite of the bill stripped language that explicitly said the proposed state law would not supersede local nondiscrimination ordinances.

Unlike 21 other states and the District of Columbia, Texas employment discrimination laws don’t explicitly protect LGBTQ workers. But six major Texas cities—Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Plano and San Antonio—have their own nondiscrimination protections in place. LGBTQ advocates are concerned that SB15 could subject some Texans to discriminatory employment practices.

In case you’re wondering, ASAE is the American Society of Association Executives. I’m glad to have them in the fray, but the dynamics of this are very different than they were in 2017. For one thing, the Texas Association of Business supports SB15, since they would love to see things like local sick leave ordinances banned. They have not expressed any concerns about the anti-equality potential of SB15, and who knows, maybe they’re right. They’ve got access to plenty of fancy lawyers who can tell them what the bill is likely to do and not to. That’s not the same as assessing the risk that the State Supreme Court will buy the argument of a couple of Dave Welch minions who sue to overturn every anti-discrimination ordinance in the state, however. Seems to me there’s a simple way to make SB15 merely anti-worker and anti-local control, instead of those things and anti-equality, too. I don’t know why the TAB wouldn’t want to play it safe.

Emily’s List takes aim at Cornyn

Interesting.

Big John Cornyn

The influential Democratic group EMILY’s List is adding U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to its target list for 2020 — and in doing so, signaling it’d like to see a woman challenge him.

EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, is giving Cornyn its “On Notice” designation, making him the seventh GOP senator to land in the group’s crosshairs ahead of next year. The announcement comes as a Democratic man, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, appears likely to launch a Cornyn challenge soon.

“In his nearly 20 years in the Senate, John Cornyn has made clear that he’ll always put his party’s dangerous and destructive agenda ahead of the people he was elected to serve,” the president of EMILY’s List, Stephanie Schriock, says in a statement. “It’s time for a change, and EMILY’s List is actively recruiting to replace him. There are plenty of Democratic women who are up for the challenge, and who will always put Texan families first.”

There are at least three women thinking about challenging Cornyn. They include Wendy Davis, the 2014 gubernatorial nominee; Amanda Edwards, a member of the Houston City Council; and M.J. Hegar, a former congressional candidate. EMILY’s List backed Hegar in her run last year against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.

There are a few ways of looking at this.

1. Rep. Joaquin Castro may be reported to be all in, but until he makes an official statement to that effect, it’s just rumor. As such, given the time and money it takes to make oneself known to the voters, it’s best to have multiple options for as long as they may be needed. I was dismissive of the speculation about him giving up his safe Congressional seat now that Dems are in the majority for a reason, and others will be as well.

2. Of course, even if Joaquin is in no one is required to consider that to be the be all and end all of the matter. EMILY’s List is in the business of getting progressive, pro-choice women elected, and they’re going to put that mission first. They may well believe that a female candidate would do better against Cornyn even compared to someone like Joaquin Castro, who starts out with some advantages. If you believe Joaquin Castro would have a 50% chance of beating John Cornyn, but (say) MJ Hegar would have a 60% chance of winning (yes, I know, these are very optimistic estimates), why wouldn’t you try to get MJ Hegar nominated?

3. Bottom line is simply that if this is likely to be a competitive race, then it is also an opportunity to increase the number of women in the Senate. Joaquin Castro has a 100% rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund as of 2017, but if you want more women elected then you either take a shot in 2020 or you wait till 2024 when Ted Cruz is up again.

As for the potential candidates listed, let’s just say that a lot of Democrats have nuanced feelings about Wendy Davis, and MJ Hegar will come under a lot of pressure to run again in CD31. This is the first I’ve heard of Amanda Edwards as a possibility. I’d always kind of assumed she’d run for Mayor in 2023, but who knows? I believe EMILY’s List is recruiting, I believe that at least some candidates will likely want to wait and see what Joaquin Castro does first, and I believe their list of potential candidates is longer than what the story suggests. We’ll see what happens next.

House moves its school finance bill

Step two of the process.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House Public Education Committee unanimously signed off on a comprehensive $9 billion school finance and property tax reform bill Tuesday — but only after removing a controversial educator merit pay provision that had angered teachers unions.

House Bill 3, filed by committee chair Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would put $6.3 billion into public schools and $2.7 billion into property tax reform. The bill will likely head to the full House soon, where more than 100 have already signed on as co-sponsors.

“Everybody’s opinion is welcome,” said Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, before voting to approve the bill. “I would just hate to see the destruction of a valiant effort because somebody didn’t like one little piece on it.”

The initial version of HB 3 included money for districts that wanted to rate their teachers and provide the top-rated ones with more money, modeled on a Dallas ISD program that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has touted.

“The language we ended up with to some degree could have been construed as tied to [the state’s standardized test] and created a little bit too much authority as we went forward,” Huberty said, explaining the change in the bill.

[…]

HB 3 does not include an across-the-board teacher pay raise, with Huberty and Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen arguing school districts should instead have local control to decide how to use additional funding. The Senate already unanimously passed Senate Bill 3, which would put $4 billion toward $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers and librarians.

Educators and advocates have appeared divided in their support for the two bills, which will need to be reconciled in some form later this session.

See here, here, and here for some background. Now is when the real sausage-making begins, as everyone agrees that Something Must Be Done, but views differ from there. The most likely scenario is that something gets hammered out in a conference committee in the very last days of the session. It’s hard to say at this point which chamber’s bill, or which provisions of each bill, have the advantage. Sometimes it just comes down to who gets on the committee. Expect there to be a bunch of amendments to both bills as they come to their respective floors, which may bring them closer together and may heighten their differences, with the extra joy of shenanigans and other partisan games always in the offing. It’s stuff like this that makes political junkies what they are.

Raising the smoking age

I’m fine with this.

A long-stalled push to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco and e-cigarettes in Texas has a puff of momentum, thanks to early hearings in both chambers, strong support from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a surprising and quiet change of position by one of Big Tobacco’s leading corporations.

GOP leaders of powerful committees in the House and Senate are again lead authors of proposals that would raise the legal age for buying cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. Since 2007, such proposals have failed to pass into law for lack of support from Republicans who control the Legislature.

But there’s another new twist: Big Tobacco registering support for raising the legal age for buying smokes. Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco company, “supports raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to twenty-one.” and encourages the Texas Legislature to enact the proposal “without delay,” an Altria Client Services executive, Jennifer Hunter, said in written testimony submitted to the House Committee on Public Health this month.

Hunter’s statement did not acknowledge that Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes and owns a stake in Juul, the leading maker of e-cigarettes, opposed a similar Texas proposal during the 2017 session. That year, an age-hiking measure offered by Republican Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond physician, died short of House consideration.

Hunter’s statement said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s 2018 call to address a national surge in the use of e-vapor products among 12- to 17-year-olds led Altria to “believe the time has come to enact legislation” raising the legal purchasing age to 21.

“We are supporting this step because we believe it is the most effective step available to reverse rising underage e-vapor rate,” Altria’s statement said. “Data shows that youth under eighteen get tobacco products — including e-vapor — primarily through ‘social access,’ that is, from friends or siblings who are” 18 or older, Hunter said.

Hunter added: “By raising the minimum age to twenty-one, no high school student should be able to purchase tobacco products legally.”

[…]

Several vape shopkeepers urged the House panel to reject the change in age while Schell Hammell of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association — which has as a slogan, “Saving Vaping Every Day” — said the group hopes lawmakers clarify the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate sales.

In 2017, Zerwas, who chairs the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee, shrugged off criticisms of the raise-the-age proposal.

“There’s obviously some people who are going to see this as an infringement on rights and stuff, and those voices need to be heard,” Zerwas said then. “And yeah, that’s a loss of potential revenue, but one we can probably make up somewhere else.

“What’s more important than the health of our youth and future generations?”

Multiple individuals told the Senate panel Monday that the move to raise the age is a bad idea, particularly because the change would incongruously keep young men and women who risk their lives by enlisting in the military from being able to make their own choices to use cigarettes and e-cigs.

That’s the one argument that has any merit, in my opinion. Eighteen isn’t universal, however, as the drinking age can attest. The very clear health benefits of a 21-year smoking age versus an 18-year smoking age is more than enough to outweigh the philosophical objections. According to the Chron, one of these bills – SB21 in the Senate, HB749 in the House – has a solid chance of passing. I’m rooting for them.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 18

The Texas Progressive Alliance stands against the threat of white nationalist violence as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Precinct analysis: 2018 Congress

The 2018 Congressional races were the most expensive, the most hotly and broadly contested, and by far the most attention-grabbing races in the non-Beto division. We hadn’t seen anything remotely like it since the 2004 DeLay re-redistricting year, but we will see another round of it next year. Let’s break it all down, starting with the two districts where Dems picked up seats.


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
CD07   52.5%   53.3%   45.8%   51.3%   52.3%   51.4%   45.9%
CD32   52.3%   54.9%   46.3%   51.6%   52.8%   51.3%   47.3%

Note that while Lizzie Fletcher had a slightly higher percentage than Colin Allred, Allred had a larger margin of victory, as there was a Libertarian candidate in CD32 who took two percent, thus giving Allred a six-and-a-half point win. As with the State Senate, I don’t believe these districts shift as far as they do in a Democratic direction without a significant number of habitual Republicans voting for Democratic candidates. Turnout was certainly a factor in the overall result, and that was driven by voter registration and relentless GOTV efforts, but these districts were plenty red below the Presidential level in 2016. Republicans other than Trump were still carrying these districts by double digits. And even in 2018, you can see that Republicans that didn’t carry a significant amount of Trump taint still did well. I believe conditions in 2020 will be similar to what they were in 2018 and as such make Fletcher and Allred early favorite to win. Ask me again next year at this time.


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
CD10   46.8%   49.6%   43.9%   47.9%   48.4%   47.7%   44.9%
CD23   48.7%   52.1%   45.7%   49.4%   50.4%   50.3%   48.0%
CD24   47.5%   51.3%   43.7%   48.1%   49.2%   48.1%   44.9%

These are the districts Beto won but Republicans held. As SD08 was the Senate district that got away, so was CD24 for Congress. The difference is that SD08 had a candidate that raised money and had a visible campaign, with SD08 being far enough down the target list that no one really saw it coming as a close race. CD24 should have been on the list after 2016, but for whatever the reason it wasn’t. You just have to wonder what might have been. Mike Siegel did a good job with CD10 and will be back in 2018, hopefully with more help from the beginning. I still don’t know what to make of CD23, which was clearly winnable on paper but wasn’t as Democratic as I thought it would be given the overall conditions. Someone needs to do a deep dive and figure that out, or we’re going to keep pouring in millions of dollars and getting close losses to Will Hurd, who still hasn’t topped fifty percent in any race he’s run. Gina Ortiz Jones seems poised to run again, though I expect she’ll have company in the primary.


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
CD02   45.6%   49.0%   42.7%   47.0%   47.8%   47.2%   43.2%
CD03   44.2%   47.9%   40.5%   45.0%   46.0%   44.5%   41.8%
CD06   45.4%   48.0%   42.2%   46.1%   46.7%   46.0%   43.5%
CD21   47.6%   49.5%   42.8%   46.8%   47.8%   46.9%   43.4%
CD22   46.4%   49.3%   42.9%   46.9%   47.9%   47.9%   44.6%
CD25   44.8%   47.0%   40.6%   45.0%   45.7%   44.6%   41.8%
CD31   47.7%   48.4%   41.5%   45.5%   46.4%   45.3%   42.9%

These were the other competitive districts; each Dem finished within ten points of the Republican winner. CDs 21, 22, and 31 are on the DCCC list for 2020. Honestly, I think all seven of these deserve at least second-tier consideration. Note that MJ Hegar outperformed every Dem other than Beto, while Joe Kopser outperformed them all other than Beto and Justin Nelson. Only Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred can make those claims. If Texas really is winnable by the Democratic Presidential nominee, well, you can imagine the possibilities. Keep an eye on CD02, which I believe will benefit from being in Harris County in a Presidential year, and CD03, where Collin County will have a couple of hot State House races.


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
CD12   33.9%   39.1%   33.5%   37.0%   37.6%   36.7%   34.2%
CD14   39.3%   41.1%   36.8%   40.2%   40.7%   40.6%   38.4%
CD17   41.3%   44.8%   39.3%   43.6%   43.4%   42.9%   40.1%
CD26   39.0%   42.5%   35.8%   39.6%   40.3%   39.2%   36.4%
CD27   36.6%   38.9%   33.0%   38.0%   38.3%   38.5%   36.0%
CD36   27.4%   28.0%   24.5%   28.0%   28.0%   27.8%   25.7%

These are the other races I followed, mostly because the candidates managed to raise a respectable – or, in Dayna Steele’s case, a truly remarkable – amount of money. CD17, which is mostly Brazos and McLennan and a piece of Travis counties, and CD26, which is mostly Denton with a bit of Tarrant, might bear watching in the way that CDs 03 and 25 did last year, if they get energetic and interesting candidates. It would take something truly seismic for more than that to happen.


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
CD15   59.7%   57.4%   51.3%   55.7%   56.8%   56.4%   56.2%
CD28      NA   58.7%   52.7%   57.0%   58.5%   57.8%   56.6%
CD34   60.0%   57.7%   50.1%   55.8%   57.0%   56.8%   55.9%

We’ll see something like this in the State House races as well, but Republicans do have some Democrats to target beyond Fletcher and Allred. I don’t think 2020 is the year for a real challenge, but in a bad year for Team Blue you can see where you’d need to concentrate your concern. Keep your eyes open for shenanigans with these districts when 2021 rolls around and new maps are drawn. I’d call that the real short-term danger.

Inevitably, we come back to a sales tax/property tax swap

It’s an idea we just can’t seem to quit.

Texas lawmakers are considering an infusion of $9 billion to improve public schools and lower property taxes over the next two years. The additional $6.3 billion in the classroom is being billed as a transformational effort to better educate the state’s 5.4 million students, while another $2.7 billion would stem the tide of escalating property taxes for homeowners.

“If we’re going to make some strides on these really big items, it really has to happen this session,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee.

While lawmakers are confident the state’s booming economy will provide big bucks to spend on public schools, they are also pitching a number of plans to increase the state sales tax in the future. The proposals include hiking taxes on items such as sweet snacks, gasoline, e-cigarette fluid and heavy machinery rentals. But the proposal with the most apparent momentum is a tax swap that would allow local governments to charge a higher sales tax in exchange for reducing property tax levies.

Even raising the sales tax by one percent “contributes a lot of money” that school districts, cities and counties could use to offset reductions in property tax revenue, Zerwas said. Some estimates predict such an increase would raise more than $5 billion a year. The statewide sales tax rate is now 6.25 percent a year. Local governments can add up to two percent.

Although Republicans are leading the charge with major tax swap proposals, it’s unclear how they will fare in the GOP-led House and Senate, particularly among lawmakers who narrowly won their reelections as Texas Democrats gain ground.

Financial implications of the bills are shaky. Several tax bills were filed a week ago, just under a deadline, and have yet to be analyzed by the Legislative Budget Board which predicts financial effects.

Increasing reliance on the sales tax troubles Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget and policy expert with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. Not only is a sales tax considered regressive for taking more money from low-income people than the rich, but its collections are more susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy, she said.

“You need to find a revenue source that doesn’t all the sudden tank on you. Or if you know that it is going to do that, you need to put most of it away for a rainy day and use it when that rainy day comes,” she said.

[…]

Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, is proposing Texas increase taxes on gasoline and close tax exemptions on items like ice cream, certain baked goods, e-cigarette vapor fluid and over-the-counter medicine.

“I don’t think people realize their ibuprofen is tax-free,” said Springer. In exchange, House Bill 2915 would allow the state to lower the maintenance and operations property tax that funds schools. His bill would also increase the homestead exemption to 50 percent of a home’s value. Texans in a home valued at $274,000 would average $1,400 a year in property tax relief, he said, amounting to $6.2 billion less in property tax collections statewide.

Another bill, House Joint Resolution 3, proposes inching up the sales tax and using money from that increase exclusively for public schools. The resolution is proposed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the architect of the House’s $9 billion school finance plan. The measure would require a vote in November to change the state Constitution and increase the statewide sales tax, which is now 6.25 percent. Huberty emphasized that raising the sales tax is just one measure under consideration, and that it’s still too early to pencil in numbers.

“We have to put more money into the system. It’s our responsibility,” Huberty said Thursday at an event hosted by the Texas Tribune.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie is proposing the state systematically examine each tax exemption every six years to decide whether it is needed. House Bill 3968 will raise revenue by expiring out-of-date tax “loopholes” over time, he said, and is a good alternative to raising sales taxes.

“It is important to note that Texas already has a high sales tax — 8.25 percent in most areas,” said Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “The lower someone’s income, the more it hurts, so an increase in the sales tax will hurt a lot of Texas families.”

This comes up every few years – in 2005, in 2007, in the 2012 and 2014 elections – and each time we confront the fact that swapping property taxes for sales taxes greatly benefits property owners while burdening lower income folks the most. That’s a feature and not a bug, as far as its Republican advocates are concerned. I appreciate that at least this time it’s being proposed in the context of putting more money into schools, which would then have the effect of easing the pressure on local property taxes, but the same problem remains. Rep. Turner’s proposal to evaluate tax breaks also comes up whenever sales-tax-increase bills are filed, and it usually gets quietly ignored as the higher-profile swap bills eventually die. It’s still a good idea, it just never gets any momentum behind it. Rep. Springer’s idea to expand the sales tax to more things also comes up in conjunction with swap bills, and there is merit to this approach as well, though the real money is in taxing services, which is pretty much as big a taboo as an income tax is.

To review: I support requiring a process to scrutinize and sunset every tax break we have on the books, and I support at least exploring the imposition of a sales tax on selected goods and services where it is not currently imposed. If the goal of that is to put more state money into public education, and one result is that it allows local governments to ease up on property tax collections because they are no longer trying to make up for the state’s inadequacies, I would consider that a good outcome. The Trib has more.

Driverless grocery deliveries

Coming soon to Houston.

Some local shoppers soon could see their produce pull up in a Prius in one of the first forays into autonomous vehicles in the Houston area, a move observers said is sure to spur more robot deliveries in the region.

Following its launch in suburban Phoenix, California-based robotics company Nuro will debut automated deliveries at Kroger supermarkets on Buffalo Speedway and South Post Oak, with each store serving two zip codes. Officials did not specify an exact date for deliveries to start, only that the vehicles are in place and operation will start before summer.

“We want to learn as much as possible when we are out there,” said Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro.

The zip codes covered will be 77401 and 77096 at the South Post Oak store, and 77005 and 77025 from the Buffalo Speedway location.

Deliveries will cost a flat fee of $5.95 regardless of delivery size or value, said Matt Thompson, vice president of digital business for Kroger. In Phoenix, delivery is to one zip code around a Fry’s market, a Kroger subsidiary.

“We are really encouraged about the repeat rate we are seeing from the Phoenix area,” Thompson said.

[…]

As Nuro did in Phoenix, deliveries will begin using converted Toyota Prius sedans. Customers will order their groceries online via Kroger and choose delivery instead of pickup. The store, working with Nuro, will load the vehicle and notify the buyer the delivery is on its way. Dispatchers hired by Nuro will monitor the trip from an office in Houston.

Eventually, the sedans will be replaced by Nuro’s own all-electric vehicle, the R1, which is built especially for deliveries. The vehicle, with a top speed of 25 mph, is capable of holding six grocery bags in a compartment, with two compartments per vehicle. The company is working on a second generation vehicle capable of holding ten full grocery bags in each compartment, with refrigeration built into the electric vehicle.

As the story notes, using autonomous cars for deliveries rather than for transporting passengers might be an easier path to optimizing the service and getting widespread acceptance, since deliveries are less time-sensitive and the ride experience is irrelevant. This would be the first implementation of autonomous vehicles in Houston, as Metro’s planned TSU shuttle has been delayed. Multiple cities in Texas have been investigating or piloting autonomous cars since the Lege passed a law in 2017 allowing for it. At this point, there have been a lot of tests or announcements of tests, but I haven’t seen any reporting on how successful they’ve been as yet. We’ll see how this one goes. Would you use a service like this?

Just a reminder, Will Hurd is still a Republican

That means he does Republican things.

Beto O’Rourke

Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd said he would vote for Donald Trump in 2020 over his friend, former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, should he decide to run and win the Democratic Party’s nomination.

“My plan is to vote for the Republican nominee,” Hurd told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”

“So, you would vote for President Trump over Beto O’Rourke?” Tapper asked.

“It’s most likely that Donald Trump is the likely candidate, right,” Hurd said.

“So, Trump over O’Rourke?” Tapper pressed again.

“That’s very clear,” Hurd replied. “Unless Beto O’Rourke decides to run as a Republican, which I don’t think he’s planning on doing.”

Normally, “Republican Congressman says he will vote for Republican President” is not news, but this is Will Hurd and Beto O’Rourke, stars of a buddy road trip video, in which Beto’s refusal to campaign against Hurd in the latter’s hotly contested Congressional race caused a minor kerfuffle before full-on Betomania made everyone forget the whole thing. Hurd survived his race by less than a point, in a district that Beto carried by five points, and it’s safe to say that some Dems think Beto’s hands-off approach to Hurd and his race was a decisive factor.

It’s really hard to say what the effect actually was, but here’s a look at some numbers.


Dist     Beto   Litton     Cruz Crenshaw
========================================
CD02  129,460  119,992  132,559  139,188

Dist     Beto  Sanchez     Cruz   Wright
========================================
CD06  124,144  116,350  132,290  135,961

Dist     Beto Fletcher     Cruz     Culb
========================================
CD07  130,185  127,959  115,642  112,286

Dist     Beto   Siegel     Cruz   McCaul
========================================
CD10  154,034  144,034  153,467  157,166

Dist     Beto   Kopser     Cruz      Roy
========================================
CD21  177,246  168,421  177,785  177,654

Dist     Beto Kulkarni     Cruz    Olson
========================================
CD22  147,650  138,153  149,575  152,750

Dist     Beto    Jones     Cruz     Hurd
========================================
CD23  110,689  102,359  100,145  103,285

Dist     Beto McDowell     Cruz Marchant
========================================
CD24  136,786  125,231  127,534  133,317

Dist     Beto    Hegar     Cruz   Carter
========================================
CD31  139,253  136,362  145,480  144,680

Dist     Beto   Allred     Cruz Sessions
========================================
CD32  152,092  144,067  122,736  126,101

First things first: Beto outscored every Dem in each of these Congressional districts, ranging from leads of 2,026 votes over Lizzie Fletcher and 2,891 votes over MJ Hegar to 11,555 votes over Jan McDowell. He led Gina Ortiz Jones by 8,330 votes, and in most cases led the Dem Congressional candidate by about 10,000 votes.

On the other hand, Ted Cruz trailed each Republican Congressional candidate/incumbent except for three: John Culberson, Chip Roy, and John Carter. Cruz had more votes in each district except the two that were won by Democrats, CDs 07 and 32, and Will Hurd’s CD23. Cruz trailed Dan Crenshaw in CD02 by 6,629 votes and Kenny Marchant in CD24 buy 5,883 votes, but otherwise was usually with three to four thousand votes of the GOP Congressional candidate.

In every case, there were more votes cast in the Senate race than in the Congressional race. In some but not all of these Congressional races, there was a Libertarian candidate. In CDs 02 and 22 there were also Independent candidates, while in CD07 it was just Fletcher and Culberson. Generally speaking, where it was an R/D/L race, the Libertarian candidate for Congress got more votes than the Libertarian candidate for Senate. For example, in CD21, Libertarian Congressional candidate Lee Santos got 7,542 votes, while Libertarian Senate candidate Neil Dikeman got 3,333. That accounts for some of the differences between the races, but not all of it.

What I’m left with is the impression that there was a set of voters, consistent across Congressional districts, who voted for Beto but skipped most or all of the downballot races, including the Congressional race. At the same time, there was a smaller but equally consistent number of Republicans who did vote downballot, particularly in the Congressional race, but skipped the Senate race. I presume these people refused to vote for Cruz but didn’t want to go all the way and vote for Beto.

That leads to two key questions: One, were there nominal Republicans who crossed over to vote for Beto, and – crucially – other Democrats. We know there were in CD07, because we see it in the varying levels of support for Republican candidates, at the local level as well as at the state level. How many were there, and did they exist in equivalent levels in other districts? That I don’t know.

Two, could Beto have moved votes in the CD23 election? Beto gained a lot of renown giving other candidates visibility and opportunities to campaign at his events. The gap between hit vote totals and those of the Congressional candidates suggests to me that such support only went so far. If Beto had explicitly stumped for Gina Ortiz Jones, might it have helped her gain the 900 votes she needed to win? Maybe. Maybe it would have pushed some of those non-Cruz voters to not skip the Senate race. Maybe it would have helped Hurd convince some Republicans who think he’s a RINO squish that he’s better than they give him credit for. Actions cause reactions, and they don’t always work in the same direction.

I wish I could give a more definitive answer to the question, but I can’t. The difference in the race is small, but there weren’t that many people who voted in CD23 but skipped that race. I certainly understand the frustration. I get why O’Rourke partnered with Hurd – he was in the minority in Congress, and he needed someone on the team that had a chance to pass bills to advocate for border issues, on which the two of them largely agreed. The larger picture is that nothing was going to change until Congress changed, and flipping CD23 could have been necessary for that to happen. Part of Beto’s brand was a certain maverick-ness that caused him to skip certain political norms when that suited him. That led him to not turn on his ally. As Harold Cook says, people can feel how they want to about that. I feel like the real difference in the CD23 race was more Will Hurd and Gina Ortiz Jones than Beto O’Rourke, but I understand if you feel otherwise.

Beto’s first day haul

He’s still got it.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke raised $6.1 million for his presidential campaign in his first 24 hours as a candidate, beating every other 2020 Democrat who has disclosed first-day figures, according to his campaign.

The haul surpasses that of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who raised $5.9 million in the 24 hours after his campaign launch.

O’Rourke’s campaign said the $6.1 million came from online contributions. He also said that he didn’t take any political action committee money — just like during his U.S. Senate campaign last year — and that he received contributions from every state and territory in the nation.

“In just 24 hours, Americans across this country came together to prove that it is possible to run a true grassroots campaign for president — a campaign by all of us for all of us that answers not to the PACs, corporations and special interests but to the people,” O’Rourke said in a statement.

I don’t particularly care about Presidential fundraising numbers, and I especially don’t much care about one day totals. I’m also steadfastly unattached in the primary right now – I’ll be voting for the nominee next November, and I’ll figure out who I want that to be when I’m good and ready. After the splashy announcement and quick reminder from the national press that he wasn’t in El Paso any more, there was a flood of hot takes about Beto’s ability to translate his appeal to the rest of the country and breathless speculation about what his initial reluctance to report an estimate of his take, and I must confess I enjoyed the subsequent dunking and “this one didn’t age well” responses on Twitter. Presidential campaigns are death marches, so you’ve gotta find your bliss where you can. I will now return to benignly neglecting the Presidential drama, at least for the most part.

House passes its budget out of committee

On to the full House, then the real fight occurs.

A panel of House budget writers gave initial approval Monday to a budget that would spend $115 billion in state funds, including a $9 billion infusion of new funds for Texas public schools and property tax relief.

Now that the House Appropriations Committee has approved the 2020-21 spending plan, House Bill 1, the legislation moves to the floor of the 150-member House.

[…]

Among the highlights of the House’s spending plan are:

$9 billion in new state funding for K-12 education and property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing reforms to the way the state funds public schools. The budget does not dictate the breakdown of those funds, but a bill backed by Speaker Dennis Bonnen would give about $6 billion to school districts and use the remaining $3 billion to pay for a reduction in local school district property taxes.

A $2.8 billion increase in state and federal funds for health and human services above what the House proposed in January. That includes a $25 million increase for early childhood intervention services, $6.7 million to reduce caseloads for Adult Protective Services workers, $31 million to expand capacity at local mental health clinics for low-income Texans and $87 million to raise the pay of personal attendants, who care for the elderly and disabled, by about 10 cents an hour.

A $168 million expenditure to give some Texas prison guards and parole officers a pay raise.

Rep. Matt Schaefer was the lone No vote in committee, so presume that this will get some pushback from the wingnuts. The story notes that the House budget draws $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, but it doesn’t specify what it’s used for. There’s more here on the House school finance proposal. The budget is the one thing the Lege absolutely has to do. With some cracks beneath the surface on other “priority” items, it’s nice to see this get a head start.

Precinct analysis: 2018 State Senate

The day I look forward to since November has finally arrived – all the data from the last election is now available on the Texas Legislative Council webpage. You know what that means: It’s statewide precinct analysis time! Let’s start where we started two years ago at this time, with the State Senate, for whom 2018 data is here. I will boil this down into the bits of greatest interest.


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
SD02   40.6%   41.3%   36.0%   40.1%   40.5%   39.5%   37.3%
SD05   41.5%   44.6%   38.1%   42.5%   42.8%   41.9%   39.2%
SD07   40.3%   43.9%   38.5%   42.3%   42.9%   42.5%   39.5%
SD08   48.8%   50.6%   43.0%   47.6%   48.6%   47.1%   44.3%
SD09   46.0%   48.9%   42.8%   46.0%   47.0%   46.2%   43.8%
SD10   51.7%   53.3%   47.1%   50.8%   51.6%   50.9%   48.3%
SD11      NA   41.5%   36.2%   39.9%   40.7%   40.6%   37.5%
SD12      NA   43.3%   36.5%   40.5%   41.2%   40.2%   37.3%
SD16   54.1%   55.9%   46.9%   52.6%   53.9%   52.3%   48.1%
SD17   46.8%   51.8%   44.6%   49.7%   50.7%   50.0%   45.1%
SD19      NA   56.8%   50.2%   53.7%   55.4%   55.3%   53.3%
SD25   42.3%   45.2%   38.4%   42.4%   43.6%   42.9%   39.2%

SDs 11, 12, and 19 were not on the ballot in 2018 and are thus the districts of interest for 2020. SD19, which Dems fumbled away in a special election last year, is the obvious, and realistically only target for 2020. The good news is that in a normal turnout context, it’s a sufficiently blue district to favor whoever challenges Sen. Pete Flores. No guarantees, of course, but as you can see it was more Democratic than SDs 10 or 16, the two seats that Dems won last year. A decent candidate and a November-of-an-even-year level of unity among Dems should be enough to win it back.

In SD05, it would appear that Sen. Charles Schwertner was not damaged by the sexual harassment allegations against him. He wasn’t the top performer among Republicans in his district, but he was solidly above average. The allegations, which were ultimately resolved in a non-conclusive fashion, were vague enough to let voters conclude that they didn’t really know what may have happened, and they voted accordingly.

I did not expect SD08 to be as close as it was. Looking at past data, it was a step below SDs 10, 16, and 17. The shift in suburban county politics, plus perhaps a bit of Paxton fatigue, put this one on the cusp for Dems. Might it have made a difference if more money had been dumped into Mark Phariss’ campaign. We’ll never know, but I’m going to be a little haunted by this one. It’s close enough to think that maybe it could have gone differently.

As for SD17, don’t be too mesmerized by the gaudy Dem numbers for the top candidates. SD17 contains the bulk of HD134, and that means a lot of nominal Republicans who crossed over in certain elections. It would seem that Sen. Huffman was not on their naughty list, and that enabled her to get by without too much discomfort.

One other way to look at this is to compare numbers over time. Here’s how this breaks down:


Dist  08Obama 12Obama 16Clinton 18 Beto 
=======================================
SD02   38.2%    35.5%     35.4%   41.3%
SD05   38.8%    34.5%     36.4%   44.6%
SD07   33.0%    32.0%     38.3%   43.9%
SD08   39.3%    36.6%     42.6%   50.6%
SD09   41.3%    39.2%     41.8%   48.9%
SD10   47.1%    45.4%     47.3%   53.3%
SD11   36.5%    33.5%     36.6%   41.5%
SD12   36.1%    32.2%     35.4%   43.3%
SD16   43.9%    41.6%     49.9%   55.9%
SD17   41.4%    39.2%     47.2%   51.8%
SD19   55.5%    54.6%     53.4%   56.8%
SD25   37.4%    33.9%     37.9%   45.2%

2018 had Presidential-level turnout, so I’m comparing it to previous Presidential elections. Some big shifts in there, most notably in SDs 08 and 16, but even districts that weren’t competitive in 2018 like SDs 07 and 25 moved by double digits in a Dem direction from 2012. Some of this is demographic change, but it sure seems like some of it is reaction to Trump and his brand of Republicanism. I do not believe that SD16 goes that blue without a lot of people who used to vote Republican switching sides. How long that effect lasts, in particular how long it lasts once Trump is a nightmare we’ve all woken up from and are trying to forget, is a huge question. If the shift is permanent, or at least resilient, Republicans are going to have some very tough choices to make in the 2021 redistricting process. If not – if things return more or less to what we’ve seen this past decade once a Democrat is back in the White House – then they can keep doing what they’ve been doing and dare Dems to do something about it. We won’t know till we experience it, which God willing will be 2022, a year when every Senator will be on the ballot. In the meantime, electing enough Dem Senators to force Dan Patrick to either change the three-fifths rule or get used to wooing Dems for his preferred bills is on the table for next year. I’ll have more numbers in the coming days.

Of course some voters were removed by that bogus SOS advisory

No one should be surprised by this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Fourteen Texas voters caught up in the secretary of state’s botched review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens had their registrations canceled but have since been reinstated, state officials told a federal judge Friday.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office informed the San Antonio court judge as part of the ongoing litigation over the state’s error-riddled review, through which almost 100,000 individuals were marked as possible noncitizens. Seven counties marked the voting registration of 14 individuals as canceled because the voters had failed to respond to letters that demanded they prove their citizenship.

Counties were canceling voters’ registrations as recently as Wednesday — well after federal District Judge Fred Biery halted the review effort on Feb. 27 and ordered local officials to hold off on removing any voters from the voter rolls without his approval.

The cancellations affected voters in Coke, DeWitt, Matagorda, Montague, Victoria, Willacy and Zavala counties.

In some cases, voters hit the 30-day deadline they were given to provide their local voter registrar with proof that they are U.S. citizens and therefore eligible to vote, according to a review by the secretary of state’s office. Two voters in DeWitt County were canceled on Feb. 4 before the end of that 30-day period because their notices were returned as undeliverable. In Willacy County, officials “mistakenly” removed an individual from the voter rolls on Feb. 20 before the end of that period.

See here for some background. You may say, it’s only fourteen voters and they’ve all been reinstated, so what’s the harm? I say none of this should have happened in the first place, and the fact that it did shows that when all is said and done there will remain a substantial risk of valid registered voters being disenfranchised despite having done nothing wrong. Our state leaders are dedicated to the point of zealotry to their self-appointed mission of ensuring that no illegal votes ever get cast. Should they not be equally concerned about illegal removals from the voter rolls?

I don’t care what Steve McCraw says, the bottom line is this is the Secretary of State’s fault. David Whitley set this ball in motion, and every resulting screwup is on him. All of us deserve a Secretary of State with a much higher level of basic competence than what Whitley has demonstrated.

Hogs in the city

Too close, y’all. Too close.

If you have noticed more feral hogs in your Houston-area neighborhood recently, you are not alone. Neighbors across the Greater Houston report the wild animals are more frequently making their way into their subdivisions and streets, leaving properties destroyed in their wake.

The Houston area is not unfamiliar with the battle between feral hogs and residents; last year the Chronicle reported hogs were disrupting neighbors in Liberty and San Jacinto counties; taking over Spring, Tomball and Cypress areas and driving neighbors in the Woodlands insane. 

The hog epidemic is a problem particularly in Texas; the state’s estimated feral hog populations are in excess of 1.5 million, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In 2017, feral hogs created an estimated economic toll exceeding $1.5 billion in the U.S. In Texas, it is estimated they cause $52 million in agricultural damages every year, according to the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute.

Steven Horelica, co-owner of Deep South Trapping, a Texas-based hog trapping business, said the Houston area has seen a significant increase in feral hog sightings. He has trapped pigs all over suburban areas in Houston, including Kingwood, Missouri City, Cypress and Liberty.

Over the last few years, the number of hogs he has trapped has increased significantly, from 742 in all of 2016 to 1387 in 2018. So far in 2019, he has already caught 306 hogs.

“Instead of being out in rural agricultural land, they are starting to move into subdivisions and cities,” Horelica said. “It is starting to affect everybody, not just farmers or ranchers.”

Now to be sure, feral hogs have been seen in Kingwood and the Woodlands, as well as western Harris County, for several years. They’re just getting more numerous, which is pretty much the core competency of these buggers. And unlike in rural areas, shooting them with automatic weapons from helicopters is frowned upon in the suburbs. All I know is if they ever make it into downtown Houston, we may as well surrender and hand over control of the state to them. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Weekend link dump for March 17

“Acknowledging the role of luck is the secular equivalent of religious awakening.”

“What Dollar Stores Tell Us About Electoral Politics”.

Behold Stevie Nicks’ magnificent shawl collection.

“What are you giving up for Lent? Well, instead of giving something up how about doing something positive. How about this: Be kind.”

“A look at history suggests we shouldn’t be surprised that voters care about whether presidents understand them and their problems.”

RIP, Julia Ruth Stevvens, last surviving child of Babe Ruth.

“Hiding in Plain Sight: PAC-Connected Activists Set Up ‘Local News’ Outlets“.

Preview a new film about the decades-long effort to suppress the vote.

“Facebook and Amazon appear to be helping hate groups fundraise through philanthropy tools hosted on their platforms.”

OMG, this college admissions scandal. I mean, seriously. It’s bonkers, and yet it’s a very real kind of thing in 2019.

Oh, and now I know way more about Lori Laughlin’s Hallmark Channel dominance than I ever wanted to know.

“There is no “balance” in giving a platform to peddlers of unscientific and irresponsible notions – climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers or those who call the moon landing a hoax.”

“New Zealand Attack Underscores Social Media Sites’ Tolerance of Anti-Muslim Content“.

Still a “no” on Whitley

As it should be.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Senate Democrats still pledge to block the confirmation of embattled Secretary of State David Whitley, even as a top Texas law enforcement official is taking blame for major errors in a list of suspected non-citizen voters.

“I take full responsibility as the leader of the Department of Public Safety,” Steven McCraw told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee this week. Had the department assigned a “senior level person” to the project, he said, it wouldn’t have turned over bad data that included thousands of people who had already proven their citizenship.

“I can tell you throughout the entire project, the secretary was not involved in any of it because he wasn’t there at the time,” McCraw said.

The mea culpa, however, is being met with skepticism from county election officials, who first identified mistakes in the state list, and from Senate Democrats, who still fault Whitley. He had been on the job about six weeks before launching the attempted purge.

“Ultimately he’s responsible, because he is the secretary of state,” state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said Thursday. “I still think he’s a fine gentleman, he just made the wrong decision.”

[…]

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said McCraw’s statement this week didn’t change his mind.

“I don’t know that changed anybody’s mind,” Whitmire said. “The harm has been done.”

The Democrats’ resistance is a rare show of force from the minority party this early in the legislative session, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. Abbott’s nominees don’t usually meet much pushback from the upper chamber.

“I can’t remember ever having someone this controversial in my 29 years in the Senate,” Lucio said.

See here and here for some background. All due respect to Sen. Lucio, but I’d argue that the David Bradley and Don McLeroy fiascoes were on par with this one. Be that as it may, the Abbott-McCraw blame-passing pas-de-duex doesn’t pass the smell test.

State Elections Director Keith Ingram acknowledged in federal court that the secretary of state’s office knew ahead of time that issue might pose some problems with the list. Some 50,000 people are naturalized each year in Texas.

“I don’t see why DPS is taking responsibility, other than it’s convenient for the Department of Public Safety to take the fall, rather than the secretary of state,” said Special Assistant Harris County Attorney Douglas Ray, who has said DPS data is notoriously unreliable.

Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis questioned why the secretary of state’s office didn’t spot the errors that were quickly evident to county officials.

“The secretary of state had a duty to vet this information,” said Davis, who is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. “So much of this could have been avoided had they done so.”

“I apologize to all of the voters whose citizenship was called into question by this advisory. In our effort to protect the integrity of our voter registration system, my office acted in haste to verify the rolls, and in doing so created unnecessary problems for county officials and many voters. I take responsibility for this, and I promise to take every step to improve and optimize our processes to achieve our goal of ensuring that elections are protected and all eligible citizens have the opportunity to vote.” See how easy that was? If David Whitley had said something like that at the beginning, we wouldn’t be having this discussion now. He’d have been confirmed, and we’d be obsessing about something else. Why hasn’t Whitley taken responsibility for his actions, and why does Greg Abbott insist on coddling him in this fashion?

Letting 17-year-olds vote

Sort of.

Hoping to fuel the next crop of young voters, state lawmakers filed bills that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in some primary elections if they are going to turn 18 before the general election. The 17-year-olds would only be allowed to vote for state and county offices — not in federal races, such as U.S. congressional or presidential elections.

If the legislation passes, Texas would join nearly 20 states that allow some form of voting at age 17, including Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.

Supporters say changing the law in Texas will get young people in the lifetime habit of voting, while critics – including some county elections officials – say implementing the policy could confuse more 17-year-olds than it would empower.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who is attempting to pass the bill for the third time, said last session it did not even receive a hearing. This year, Howard filed House Bill 512, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed an identical bill in the Senate.

Since passing similar legislation in 2013, Illinois has seen “an influx of younger voters,” according to Cook County’s March 2018 post-election report. At 29 percent, turnout in the 2018 gubernatorial primary – the second to include the 17-year-old vote – was the highest since 2002 for a gubernatorial primary in the county, Illinois’ largest.

In Texas, however, experts on political participation say allowing primary voting at age 17 would only marginally impact turnout, since a fraction of voters cast ballots in primaries. Statewide, overall turnout was 17 percent in the 2018 primary and 30 percent in the 2016 primary, according to the Secretary of State.

“This wouldn’t spike turnout by any large margin overall, but you might see some improvements or small improvement on the edges,” said Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at UT-Austin.

[…]

Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, said the association is opposed to the bills as written because the change would confuse 17-year-olds regarding which elections they can and cannot vote in.

“One of the predominant challenges is that there are quite a few elections that can occur between a primary, where we’re allowing that 17 to vote … and the general election in November later that year where they’d be 18,” said Davis, Williamson County Elections Administrator. “It makes for a complex situation … the implication being that when other elections happen in their county, in their city, in their school district … these voters would not be able to vote, only to be allowed to vote again when they become 18.”

If the legislation passes, Davis said county elections officials and poll workers will have to deal with a “log jam” of confused 17-year-old voters.

“What’s nice and neat and clean about the law as it exists, is when you’re 18, you can vote for any election that you qualify for,” Davis said. “This bill would only allow the 17-year-olds to vote in one election and they’re gonna be confused and they’re gonna think if they voted in that one, they can vote for a whole bunch of other elections when they see campaign signs come up in their neighborhood.”

Here’s HB512. On the one hand, I approve of efforts to expand the franchise, even in a not-all-the-way fashion. Some cities allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in their municipal elections, and I fully support that. That said, the way this is presented I do think it’s confusing and possibly unsatisfying to the very voters it would enable. The hottest primaries last year were for Congress, and none of the 17-year-olds in question would have been able to vote in them under this bill, as that’s a federal race. To me, the best way to do this would be to change the law to allow anyone who turns 18 in a given year on January 1 of that year to vote in all elections. That would require a federal Constitutional amendment, which needless to say ain’t gonna happen. I’m open to discussing what this bill wants to deliver, but I’m skeptical.

Enron’s other legacy

The company is long gone, its leaders have faded into history, but Enron’s emails are forever.

During its 2002 investigation of the bankruptcy of Enron, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) checked the energy company’s emails: more than 600,000 messages sent from 158 employees, mostly senior management.

The collected missives—a mixture of high-level business negotiations, discussions between managers and their spouses about holiday plans, and many, many requests to be unsubscribed from mailing lists—formed part of the evidence that led FERC to conclude the company had in fact engaged in illegal price manipulation, and the US Department of Justice to press criminal charges against former CEOs Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling.

After its investigation, the commission determined the emails were in the public’s interest and dumped them on a website.

Though ostensibly for research and academic use, the trove was so messy and unwieldy that it was effectively useless—until an MIT computer science professor named Leslie Kaelbling bought the data for $10,000 and handed it over to colleagues who cleaned it up, took out duplicates, organized the remaining 200,000 messages into folders, and released it into the world.

“What was weird was that the data itself was in the public domain, but we still had to pay a company for the service of giving it to us on a disk,” Kaelbling said. “After that, we just gave it away for free.”

If Enron went down for defrauding the public, the company has unwittingly repaid a small part of its debt to society through the gift of its emails.

The Enron Corpus, as the collection is known, has been used in more than 100 projects since that research team presented it to the public in 2004. As the biggest public collection of natural written language in an organizational setting, it has been used to study everything from statistics to artificial intelligence to email attachment habits. An online art project by two Brooklyn artists will send every single one of the emails to your personal inbox, a process which (depending on the frequency of emails you request) will take anywhere from seven days to seven years.

Making all this data public has had the benefit of allowing all kinds of research into corporate behavior that just wouldn’t be possible without it. The downside is that as these emails are used as training data for artificial intelligence projects – the Enron Corpus was the training set used for the prototype of Gmail’s “smart compose” feature, though not its final version – they represent a small and atypical slice of society. That’s an entry point for bias to creep into algorithms and other automated processes. I’m sure there’s plenty more to be done with and learned from the Enron Corpus. We just shouldn’t consider it to be the be-all and end-all of how people communicate.

(I found this story while doing a Google news search on Jeff Skilling following the news of his release. So credit the Enron Corpus for finding a way to spread the word about itself, too.)

Joaquin reportedly in for Senate

This would be exciting.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Joaquin Castro, the Democratic congressman from San Antonio, “is all but certain” to enter next year’s race for U.S. Senate and take on incumbent Republican John Cornyn, a source familiar with Castro’s thinking said Thursday.

The move would profoundly change the dynamics of the 2020 campaign and put Texas squarely on center stage, with two Texans already in the Democratic primary race and Joaquin taking on a longtime Republican senator who many see as vulnerable, especially during a presidential election year.

“We’ll be making an announcement in the very near future,” said Matthew Jones, Castro’s campaign adviser.

“This instantly makes the race very competitive,” Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist and longtime political observer, said of Joaquin’s potential entry into the race. Running in tandem with his brother, who announced his candidacy for president on January 12 in San Antonio, would only benefit both candidates, Miller said, and “doubles up on all the positives.” When asked if Cornyn was vulnerable, Miller said, “Every Republican senator up for election next year is vulnerable.”

“This is quite an important development,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Beto proved Texas can be competitive, and this means that Cornyn is really going to have to work hard to raise money and work hard to earn votes—and Republicans in Texas are not used to doing that.”

[…]

The source said a timeline has not been established for Joaquin to formalize any announcement, but one Democrat who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the congressman said that Joaquin has been reaching out and telling several key Democratic leaders in Texas that he has been leaning toward running. Castro’s decision may have further solidified on Thursday after O’Rourke announced he was running for president. There had been speculation that O’Rourke may have taken on Cornyn following his 2.5 percentage point defeat to Republican Ted Cruz last year.

See here for the background. If this turns out to be the case, then I would presume that all of the other potential Cornyn opponents will turn their attention elsewhere. That would suggest MJ Hegar and Joe Kopser take another shot at the Congressional races they ran in 2018, and Wendy Davis keep doing what she’s doing now, as an advocate and supporter of other candidates. All of which is fine by me – Joaquin Castro has always been my top non-Beto choice to run against Cornyn, I just didn’t think he’d give up his Congressional seat to do it. Expect a big scramble for that seat when and if this happens as well, by the way. We’ll save that for another day. Also, as the story notes, this likely forecloses the Senate fallback option for Beto – it’s not that he couldn’t try for Senate again if he gets no traction in the Presidential primary, it’s that it would be much more complicated and fraught for him to do so. We should know more soon enough. The Trib has more.

No more PSF investing for you, Land Board

Seems worth considering.

Austin Lawmakers filed bills this week that would strip the School Land Board of its ability to invest billions of dollars on behalf of Texas schoolchildren.

The bipartisan legislation, submitted Wednesday, comes amid mounting scrutiny over the management of the $44 billion Permanent School Fund, which is run jointly by the land board and the State Board of Education. The two boards are the subject of a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation that began publishing Sunday, which found that the fund has lost out on as much as $12 billion in revenue, fueled by anemic returns, skyrocketing fees and questionable investment deals.

At the same time, students in Texas have received less annually from the endowment over the past decade, in real dollars, than they did in the two decades prior, even as the overall size of the fund has swelled.

The land board’s role has been especially contentious. It manages its portion of the portfolio — now at $10 billion — by collecting the state’s oil and gas royalty revenues and investing them, primarily in private equity. The land board has only three members, often meets behind closed doors, and since 2006 has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

The bills would end that, revoking the land board’s investment power and returning it entirely to the education board. It would still gather fees from royalties, but pass them straight on to the education board.

Consolidating the two will “put more money to work for the benefit of our schoolchildren,” Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who is leading the effort, said in a statement. “The legislature created this flawed structure, and it’s time we fixed it.”

Five Republican Senate committee chairs have signed on to the legislation, including Jane Nelson, Brian Birdwell, Paul Bettencourt, Dawn Buckingham and Bob Hall. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

See here for the background, and here for the full series published by the Chron. The SBOE had full responsibility for the PSF until 2001, so this would revert things to the earlier setup. Not that the SBOE has been a perfect steward of the PSF, but they’ve been a little better than the Land Board. I would not object to an overall higher level of scrutiny on the whole process. This is at least a step in the right direction.

In a statement, Land Commissioner George P. Bush called the proposal a “power grab.” He said he welcomes reforms, but only if they’re based upon sound financial expertise.

“Without expert evaluation, the school children of Texas stand to lose,” he said.

Bush, who oversees the land board, said after a meeting on Tuesday that he had not read the Chronicle’s reporting and didn’t plan to.

“I’m trying a new strategy in 2019 by not reading my media,” he said. He said his office would review the series’ findings and follow up later.

Remember when George P. Bush was the fresh new exciting face of the Texas GOP? Boy, those were the days.

Space force!

Yippie.

Not the real Space Force

Gov. Greg Abbott wants the U.S. Space Force headquarters to be at Ellington Airport.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, Abbott said Texas has the universities and human capital needed to support a Space Force and pitched the location next door to NASA’s home for human spaceflight.

“Houston has supported the aerospace, aviation and defense industries for decades, giving it a workforce that can get the Space Command headquarters up and running as fast as possible,” he wrote.

[…]

“Houston, Texas, home of the Astros and the Rockets, has earned its ‘Space City’ nickname,” Abbott wrote. ” … I hope you will agree with me that the Space Command belongs in Space
City.”

Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4 on Feb. 19, calling on the secretary of defense to develop a legislative proposal establishing the Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces. The Space Force will initially be established within the Department of the Air Force.

The Department of Defense has since sent a bill to Congress. According to CNN, the bill seeks 200 people and $72 million to establish a headquarters for the Space Force.

On the one hand, I’m happy to have stuff come to Houston. If anyplace is appropriate for this, Ellington Field is. I just have a hard time taking the whole thing seriously. But hey, we’ll see.

Beto is in for President

Ready or not, here he comes.

Beto O’Rourke

After months of intense speculation, Beto O’Rourke is entering the presidential race Thursday, marking an extraordinary rise from little-known El Paso congressman a few years ago to potentially formidable White House contender.

“Amy and I are happy to share with you that I’m running to serve you as the next president of the United States of America,” O’Rourke says in a video with his wife released Thursday morning. “This is a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us.”

O’Rourke is making the announcement ahead of a three-day trip to Iowa that begins Thursday afternoon. In the video, O’Rourke says he will travel the country before returning to El Paso on March 30 for a kickoff rally.

“This is going to be a positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us, that seeks to unite a very divided country,” O’Rourke says in the announcement. “We saw the power of this in Texas.”

My position has not changed. If it had been up to me, Beto would be running for Senate again, which is what national Dems would have preferred as well. It’s clear by now that we’ll have a good Dem running against John Cornyn, which makes this easier to accept, but it’s hard to argue at this time (though we will revisit that question later) that anyone would have been a stronger challenger to Cornyn than Beto. That said, I’m putting a lot of value in the question of how much each Democratic Presidential wannabe will contest Texas in 2020 as I make up my mind who to vote for in the primary. Beto – who, like basically every other Dem, should beat Trump like a drum if he gets nominated – puts extra pressure on the non-Julian Castro parts of the field to make that kind of commitment. Everything else I’ll sort out later. For now, what I want to know is what these candidates are going to do to turn Texas blue in 2020.

For more reactions on Beto for President, see the Chron, Mother Jones, Texas Monthly, Slate, Daily Kos, Decision Desk, TPM, and the Observer. You tell me, what do you think of this?