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Harris County’s growth slows

We’re still growing, we just didn’t grow as fast last year as we had in previous years.

After eight straight years of boom – adding more new residents than any county in the nation – Harris County in 2016 felt some of the oil bust’s sting.

The county gained a total of about 56,600 people last year, a decline of 37 percent from the previous year, placing it behind Arizona’s Maricopa County, which added nearly 81,400 new residents.

The decline was largely attributable to the fact that for the first time in years more people – about 16,000 – left Harris County than moved here from elsewhere in the country, according to Census data released Thursday.

Despite the losses, Harris County held on to its No. 2 position in the nation in overall growth thanks to the number of people moving here from abroad and the number of births.

The greater Houston region, which includes The Woodlands and Sugar Land, also saw the total number of new residents fall by about 21 percent to just over 125,000 in 2016, the lowest in at least the last four years.

[…]

State demographer Lloyd Potter said Houston’s population growth is also powered by its high birth rates, especially among its young, rapidly expanding Hispanic population.

“The net out domestic migration was pretty substantial,” Potter said. “That’s kind of impressive, to still have the second-highest numeric growth. You would have expected it to slip a little more than that.”

Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor and founding director of its Kinder Institute for Urban Research, pointed to the fate of other cities that have seen similar dramatic job declines such as Detroit, where Wayne County last year lost about 7,700 residents, the most in the nation after Chicago’s Cook County. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, has in the past called for more visas for high-skilled immigrants for the Detroit area, citing the population losses and need for an economic jump-start.

“This is a powerful reminder of how much Houston benefits from immigration,” Klineberg said.

We sure do, in many ways. The flip side of that is that we have a lot to lose if immigration is curtailed the way Dear Leader Trump and his minions want to. Even with them being 0 for 2 on travel bans, we’re already seeing the effect of that. We’ll just have to see what the numbers look like next year.

You can’t talk about population growth without talking about redistricting. Texas is on track to get more Congressional seats in the 2020 reapportionment, probably two or three. It seems likely that the greater area, if not Harris County itself, will get a bigger piece of the Congressional pie. Of more interest is whether Harris County will remain at 24 members in the Legislature, or if it will go back to having 25 members. Too early to say, and things can certainly change, but it could happen. Keep that in mind as we go forward. This Chron story and the Trib, both of which have charts, have more.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

House hearing for pension bill

Another step in the process.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform plan got its first hearing Monday in the state House, where rows and rows of current and retired firefighters appeared to voice opposition to the plan.

Municipal and police leaders testified in support, however, as did representatives of the Greater Houston Partnership and, of course, Mayor Sylvester Turner, who spent most of his first year in office negotiating the package.

“It is not the perfect pension bill, because, quite frankly, I don’t know if you can get the perfect pension bill, but it is a very good bill for all parties concerned,” Turner said at the hearing.

Even the opposition of the firefighters was tempered somewhat by the testimony of their pension fund chairman, David Keller.

He said a series of talks since the bill cleared a Senate committee by a 7-1 vote last week have produced “great movement” in better aligning the current proposal to the general terms Keller’s board approved last October, before negotiations lagged and his group failed to reach agreement with the city on final legislative language. Disputes over sharing information led the city to propose deeper cuts than initially had been agreed to; Keller said those issues have been resolved in the last week.

Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he had even heard Monday morning from some firefighters who seemed to be in support of the bill. Keller said that was not quite right, but he was “hopeful” his board might ultimately wind up in agreement.

“Firefighters are not immovable,” Keller said. “We heard loud and clear that we should not expect status quo, and we did not expect status quo.”

That’s decidedly less contentious than the firefighters’ previous statement, so that’s good. No one has to love this bill, but everyone has to be able to live with it. The House bill (HB43 by Rep. Dan Flynn, who is the Chair of the Pensions Committee) differs from the Senate bill in that it does not require a vote on the pension obligation bonds. Hard to say at this point which version will prevail, but I’d expect both will have some changes made before all is said and done. HB43 was left pending in committee, so it’s not ready to advance to the House floor just yet.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

The North Carolina bathroom bill price tag

How does $3.76 billion, at a minimum, grab you?

Despite Republican assurances that North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” isn’t hurting the economy, the law limiting LGBT protections will cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Over the past year, North Carolina has suffered financial hits ranging from scuttled plans for a PayPal facility that would have added an estimated $2.66 billion to the state’s economy to a canceled Ringo Starr concert that deprived a town’s amphitheater of about $33,000 in revenue. The blows have landed in the state’s biggest cities as well as towns surrounding its flagship university, and from the mountains to the coast.

North Carolina could lose hundreds of millions more because the NCAA is avoiding the state, usually a favored host. The group is set to announce sites for various championships through 2022, and North Carolina won’t be among them as long as the law is on the books. The NAACP also has initiated a national economic boycott.

The AP analysis (http://apne.ws/2n9GSjE ) — compiled through interviews and public records requests — represents the largest reckoning yet of how much the law, passed one year ago, could cost the state. The law excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide antidiscrimination protections, and requires transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings.

Still, AP’s tally ( http://bit.ly/2o9Dzdd ) is likely an underestimation of the law’s true costs. The count includes only data obtained from businesses and state or local officials regarding projects that canceled or relocated because of HB2. A business project was counted only if AP determined through public records or interviews that HB2 was why it pulled out.

Some projects that left, such as a Lionsgate television production that backed out of plans in Charlotte, weren’t included because of a lack of data on their economic impact.

The AP also tallied the losses of dozens of conventions, sporting events and concerts through figures from local officials. The AP didn’t attempt to quantify anecdotal reports that lacked hard numbers, or to forecast the loss of future conventions.

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan — who leads the largest company based in North Carolina — said he’s spoken privately to business leaders who went elsewhere with projects or events because of the controversy, and he fears more decisions like that are being made quietly.

“Companies are moving to other places because they don’t face an issue that they face here,” he told a World Affairs Council of Charlotte luncheon last month. “What’s going on that you don’t know about? What convention decided to take you off the list? What location for a distribution facility took you off the list? What corporate headquarters consideration for a foreign company — there’s a lot of them out there ̵— just took you off the list because they just didn’t want to be bothered with the controversy? That’s what eats you up.”

[…]

Supporters are hard-pressed to point to economic benefits from the law, said James Kleckley, of East Carolina University’s business college.

“I don’t know of any examples where somebody located here because of HB2,” he said. “If you look at a law, whether or not you agree with it or don’t agree with it, there are going to be positive effects and negative effects. Virtually everything we know about (HB2) are the negative effects. Even anecdotally I don’t know any positive effects.”

The applicability of this to Texas is, I trust, clear to all. It’s that last point I want to zero in on for a minute. You can quibble wit the AP’s numbers if you want – I haven’t given them a close look as yet – though as he story notes if anything they are being conservative in their calculations. But even Dan Patrick isn’t arguing that SB6, like North Carolina’s HB2, would be an economic boon for Texas. He’s merely claiming that it won’t do any economic harm. Even if it were possible to put aside the human cost of SB6, isn’t that an awfully weak argument to make? Trust me, it won’t hurt a bit, and all those people with all their numbers who are saying otherwise are just trying to scare you. Is that really the best they have? Think Progress has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Stockman indicted

And here the troubles begin.

Steve Stockman

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman and a former congressional aide were indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury on charges they stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from charitable foundations to fund campaigns and pay personal expenses.

Stockman, 60, and his former director of special projects, Jason Posey, 46, were charged with 28 criminal counts, including mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, making false statements to the Federal Election Commission, making excessive campaign contributions and money laundering.

Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez in Houston called the indictment “a very significant case” for the office in a brief statement. “The indictment returned by the grand jury today is a significant case alleging serious violations involving use of official positions for personal gain. Violations of the public trust will not be tolerated,” he said.

The case is being jointly prosecuted by the Southern District of Texas and the Washington DC-based Public Integrity Section.

Stockman also faces a charge of filing a false tax return, and Posey is charged with falsifying a sworn statement to obstruct an investigation by federal elections officials.

[…]

Federal investigators say in the indictment that between from May 2010 and October 2014, Stockman brought in about $1.25 million in donations based on false pretenses. He then diverted nearly $285,000 donated to charitable causes to pay for his and Dodd’s personal expenses.

Stockman and Dodd also are accused of receiving $165,000 in charitable donations, which Stockman largely spent to fund his 2012 congressional campaign.

See here, here, and here for the background. Just a thought here, but defending oneself against these kinds of charges is an expensive prospect, and there were questions about how exactly Stockman was supporting himself back when he was in office. I don’t know how he’s going to pay for his lawyers, and I kind of doubt he’s going to be able to raise the money. We’ll see how it goes. The Trib has more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Voter ID 2.0 passes out of the Senate

Meh.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Senate tentatively approved legislation Monday that would revamp the state’s voter identification rules, a response to court rulings that the current law discriminates against minority voters.

Following more than an hour of debate, the chamber voted 21-10 to move the bill to a final vote, likely later this week.

Sen. Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 5 would add options for Texas voters who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. It would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

“I’m committed to constitutionally sound photo identification at polling places,” Huffman said.

Voting rights advocates have called the expanded list of options an improvement over the current embattled law, but they have pushed for ID options beyond those included in Huffman’s bill and raised concerns over the strict penalties for false claims.

[…]

“My intent with the bill is to take the roadmap that the 5th Circuit gave us,” Huffman said.

But those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID — by falsely signing the “reasonable impediment” form — could be charged with a third-degree felony under Huffman’s bill. Such crimes carry penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Sen. José Rodríguez of El Paso was among Democrats seeking to soften the punishment, calling it too harsh for the crime — particularly in cases where a Texan is otherwise casting a legal vote.

“It has the effect of scaring people, intimidating people,” he said. “We should not be putting people in jail for up to 10 years for a lie that is frankly of no consequence.”

See here for the background. The bill was amended to require “intentionally” making a false claim about not having ID in order to be prosecuted, which I appreciate. The whole thing still suffers from “solution in search of a problem” syndrome, but depending on how the question of discriminatory intent gets resolved, in the end it may not matter. Even if that doesn’t happen, I suspect there will be another lawsuit down the line, perhaps after someone gets busted. Voter ID will suck a little bit less under SB5, but it’s still voter ID.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

First shenanigan spotted

There will be more to come, I’m sure, but this will be happening today.

A Tuesday debate over the future of the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry could instead become a showdown over immigration and where transgender Texans use the bathroom.

House Republicans will look to force a vote on the regulations proposed in the Senate’s controversial “bathroom bill,” which House Speaker Joe Straus has decried as “manufactured and unnecessary.” Tyler Republican Matt Schaefer has filed two amendments that would essentially require the Railroad Commission to enact some of the bathroom-related regulations proposed in Senate Bill 6 — a measure that would require people to use the bathrooms in public schools and government buildings that align with their “biological sex.”

A separate amendment by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, appears to target transgender people by requiring the commission to define women business owners — who can qualify for certain benefits in contracting — on the basis of the “physical condition of being female, as stated on a person’s birth certificate.”

Schaefer and Tinderholt are members of the socially conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, which is expected to repeatedly offer up portions of the “bathroom bill” as amendments to other measures. On just the second day of the legislative session, Schaefer, who leads the caucus, unsuccessfully attempted to amend a routine resolution with language requiring people in the Capitol to use bathrooms corresponding with their biological sex.

See here for the background. According to the Chron, the bill in question in HB1818. As RG Ratcliffe notes, the amendment will likely be killed by a point of order, but that won’t put an end to the effort. The rest of the session may well turn into an exercise in swatting flies, as I doubt these guys will be deterred by reason, threats, or humiliating defeat. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

There’s also this:

On the immigration front, an amendment by state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, would require that a company regulated by or contracting with the Texas Railroad Commission certify that it doesn’t hire undocumented workers and charged with perjury if found to have lied. The amendment would also require the commission to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the local district attorney if a company CEO or supervisor is in violation of the provision.

Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said he has no desire to expand state-based immigration enforcement, and doesn’t expect his fellow Democrats to vote for the amendment. It’s symbolic: He wants businesses to be more vocal against what he called extreme immigration proposals the Legislature is considering this session, specifically Senate Bill 4. That measure, passed by the Senate last month and now pending in a House committee, would ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions in Texas and vastly expand the immigration enforcement powers of local police.

“For Republicans to only demonize immigrants but not talk about the insatiable appetite on the part of businesses for immigrant workers is hypocrisy at its best,” he said.

I respect Rep. Anchia and I get what he’s trying to accomplish here. I don’t know if it will work – if nothing else, I’m sure there’s a point of order with this amendment’s name on it as well – but it’s about making a point. We’ll see how it goes.

UPDATE: Schaefer’s shenanigan gets averted, while Anchia’s amendment gets adopted.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

A tale of two Congressmen

Rep. Ted Poe has a status update.

Rep. Ted Poe

U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican from Humble, announced Sunday afternoon he is resigning from the hardline Republican group that helped sink GOP attempts to repeal former President Obama’s 2010 health care law.

“I have resigned from the House Freedom Caucus. In order to deliver on the conservative agenda we have promised the American people for eight years, we must come together to find solutions to move this country forward,” Poe said in a statement. “Saying no is easy, leading is hard, but that is what we were elected to do. Leaving this caucus will allow me to be a more effective member of Congress and advocate for the people of Texas.”

“It is time to lead,” he added.

[…]

The Freedom Caucus does not publicize members, but several Texans and their offices have confirmed their membership to the Tribune: U.S. Reps. Joe Barton of Ennis, Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Randy Weber of Friendswood.

One and a half cheers for this, I guess. I mean, any time you can disassociate yourself from the likes of Barton, Gohmert, and Weber, you should, but then one may wonder what you were doing hanging out with them in the first place. Also, too, while we agree that the Freedom Caucus is a stain on the country, if the problem you have with them is their resistance to voting for a bill that would have stripped health care for 24 million Americans in order to fund a massive and everlasting tax cut for the rich, well, I don’t think “kudos” is the right word for that. Rep. Poe has his good points, but anything good one can say here is damning with very faint praise.

And then there’s Rep. John Culberson.

Rep. John Cumberson

A day after House Republicans’ efforts to repeal Obamacare collapsed, U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, did not back away from the GOP’s years-long push to scrap the law.

“The only way to fix it is to replace it,” Culberson said before a rowdy town hall audience of several hundred people, some of them chanting “Fix it!”

In an interview before the town hall, Culberson confirmed that he would have voted yes on the American Health Care Act, which House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled from the floor Friday when it became clear there was not enough support for it. Culberson said the legislation would have “repealed about 70 percent of Obamacare, and that’s good enough for me.”

“There’s always going to be another opportunity,” Culberson said. “We’re early in the congressional session, and there’s plenty of time. And we’re going to have an opportunity to do tax reform, and then I’m going to do everything in my power to get us back on track to get Obamacare repealed.”

[…]

After the town hall, attendees said they largely disagreed with Culberson on the issues, but some gave him plaudits for holding the event in the first place. Culberson ended up taking 20-some questions over an hour and a half, allowing audience members to read their questions to him and often wading into the audience to meet them.

“Begrudgingly I give him a B for sticking around and actually engaging with people,” said Frank Ortiz, a 43-year-old graphic designer from Houston. “As far as content, I’d probably give him a D+/C-. I felt he held to a lot of the conservative Republican line on a lot of issues.”

And a golf clap to Culberson for facing his none-too-happy constituents, unlike Ted Poe, among others. I lost count of the number of places I saw advertising this town hall and exhorting people to show up for it. The dynamic of these sessions was a fix of the Republicans’ own making, and they deserve no sympathy for it, but it still can’t have been a pleasant experience. Culberson got some cheers when he stated opposition to Trumpian things and boos when he didn’t – he was a Yes on ACA repeal – but I wouldn’t count on any of that to affect his behavior going forward. He is who and what he is, and he’ll be that for as long as he’s in office. The Chron and the HuffPo have more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Two for HISD V

Mike Lunceford

In the past week or so, I have become aware of two candidates for HISD Board of Trustees, District V, which is the seat that is now held by Trustee Mike Lunceford but will be open in November as Lunceford will be stepping down at the end of his term. Both of them are Democrats. The first candidate I heard about is Kara DeRocha, whose website identifies her as an engineer and mother of three kids who attend HISD schools. I didn’t find a whole lot on her in Google, but she’s quoted in this news story about the January 21 Women’s March on Washington. She has a campaign kickoff event planned for this weekend, if you want to know more about her.

The other candidate, who announced via Facebook post on Sunday, is Sue Deigaard, who has been a vocal public education advocate for some time now. She was a 2015 New Leadership Council fellow who has multiple Chron op-ed credits to her name. She was a finalist to replace Jim Henley on the HCDE Board after his resignation in 2013, and has been discussed as a Democratic candidate for HD134 in recent years. She also has two kids in HISD schools. I’ve known Sue for awhile – I actually knew her a million years ago in my first in the MOB at Rice, but got to know her better more recently – and I know she’ll have a lot of support.

This is of course a Republican seat – I unfortunately don’t have any precinct data for it, but it is a Republican seat. I’d bet good money that Hillary Clinton carried HISD V in 2016, but other than maybe Kim Ogg it was Republican elsewhere. Basically, like HD134, which I believe has some overlap with it. For certain there will be one or more Republican candidates running for HISD V as well, though if any have already declared I don’t know who they are yet. As with Anne Sung in District VII and Holly Flynn Vilaseca in VI, this will be a race worth watching.

Posted in: Election 2017.

January 2017 campaign finance reports: Harris County officeholders

We may or may not have City of Houston elections this year, but we will definitely have Harris County elections next year. Here’s a brief tour of the finance reports for Harris County officeholders. First up, Commissioners Court:

Rodney Ellis
Jack Morman
Steve Radack
Jack Cagle (PAC)

El Franco Lee
Gene Locke


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Ellis      283,394   336,611        0   2,012,250
Morman      17,500    48,609   48,863   1,700,320
Radack       4,000    47,466        0   1,419,710
Cagle      560,528   270,065        0     599,774

Lee              0         0        0   3,769,900
Locke            0    81,475        0      16,672

Jack Morman will likely be a top target in 2018 – he has one announced opponent already, and will almost surely have others – and no one can say he isn’t ready for it. I expect that cash on hand number to be well over two million by this time next year. Money isn’t everything, and returns on more campaign cash diminish beyond a certain point, but whoever runs against Morman will have some ground to make up to be able to get a message out and a ground operation going. Meanwhile, the campaign coffers of the late El Franco Lee have more in them than Morman and Rodney Ellis combined, and I still have no idea what’s happening with that. I have some suggestions, if anyone administering that account is curious.

Next, the countywide offices that are on the ballot next year:

Ed Emmett
Stan Stanart
Chris Daniel (PAC)
Orlando Sanchez

Diane Trautman


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Emmett      72,000   116,700        0     177,800
Stanart      1,100     8,272   20,000      22,956
Daniel      25,800    28,866        0       4,336
Sanchez      1,250    21,813  200,000     214,820

Trautman         0       554                3,029

I skipped the offices that were just elected, because life is short. Ed Emmett’s modest total is further evidence that he was not originally planning to run for re-election next year. I feel confident that he’d have more cash in his coffers if that had been the idea all along, and I also feel confident he’ll make up some ground before the next reporting deadline. Diane Trautman would be up for re-election to the HCDE Board, but as we know she is going to run for County Clerk, so I’m including her here. I’ll be interested to see if any money pours into this race. Orlando Sanchez has had that $200K loan on the books since at least the July 2014 report. I still don’t know where he got the money for it, or why he apparently hasn’t spent any of it since then, but whatever.

Here are the Constables:

Alan Rosen
Chris Diaz
Sherman Eagleton
Mark Herman
Phil Camus
Silvia Trevino
May Walker
Phil Sandlin


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Rosen       16,500    53,719        0     237,908
Diaz         5,600    26,127        0      10,479
Eagleton         0    18,426  102,550       2,132
Herman      10,000     8,713        0     248,578
Camus            0     1,259        0       4,650
Trevino      3,500     6,892        0         142
Walker      28,166    16,935        0      23,475
Sandlin      1,500    20,451        0      56,265

All of the Constables, as well as the Justices of the Peace in Place 1, were on the ballot last year, but as I have never looked at these reports before, I figure what the heck. Alan Rosen has always been a big fundraiser. Sherman Eagleton survived a primary and runoff, which is what that loan money is about. I presume all of the action for Mark Herman was in late 2015 and early 2016, after he got promoted and needed to win a primary. I’d have to check to see if Silvia Trevino raised and spent a bunch of money early on and then took a break, or if she just relied on name recognition to win. She did win without a runoff, so whatever she did do, it worked.

Finally, the JPs:

Eric Carter
David Patronella

JoAnn Delgado
George Risner

Joe Stephens
Don Coffey

Lincoln Goodwin
Laryssa Korduba Hrncir

Russ Ridgway
Jeff Williams

Richard Vara
Armando Rodriguez

Hilary Green
Zinetta Burney

Holly Williamson
Louie Ditta


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Carter       2,000     5,041  129,878       1,316
Delgado      1,500         0        0           0
Stephens     1,770     2,192   44,886          61
Goodwin          0       680  115,000      80,730
Ridgway          0     1,200        0      16,414
Vara         1,635       500    9,787       1,523
Green        1,700       236        0       1,684
Williamson   2,436     4,551        0      66,762


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Patronella  40,665     3,574        0
Risner      37,365     9,680        0      84,532
Coffey      50,125    26,323        0      64,906
Hrncir         910       999        0      13,681
Williams         0         0   60,000      13,396
Rodriguez        0         0        0       2,219
Burney           0         0        0         902
Ditta            0     4,248    2,000      18,914

The Place 1 JPs were elected last year as noted, while the Place 2 JPs will be up next year. David Patronella’s form did not list a cash on hand total. For what it’s worth, all three groups (Constables and the two sets of JPs) have the same partisan mix, five Dems and three Republicans. I don’t have any further insights, so we’ll wrap this up here.

Posted in: Election 2018.

This is not how you put the interests of the child first

It’s the opposite of that, honestly.

Rep. James Frank

Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, has authored House Bill 3859, which would protect faith-based providers from retaliation if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs” while caring for abused and neglected children.

The bill would include allowing faith-based groups to deny a placement if it’s against their religious beliefs; place a child in a religion-based school; deny referrals for abortion-related contraceptives, drugs or devices; and refusing to contract with other organizations that go against their religious beliefs.

Frank said the his bill is meant to give “reasonable accommodations” for faith-based groups and not meant to be exclusionary. He said the ultimate goal is to help find the right home for kids.

Faith-based organizations are closing their doors to foster children “because they can’t afford to stay in business when they’re getting sued on stuff,” Frank said. “They’re basically being told to conform or get out on stuff that’s important but it’s not core to taking care of foster homes.”

[…]

Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, an LGBT rights group, said he was scared of HB 3859 after watching similar legislation become law in Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia. He said Frank’s bill allows the possibility of children being denied services because of what a provider believes and that would not fly if it were any other state contractor.

“Any piece of legislation that would allow the personal or religious beliefs of a provider to override the best interest of the child is misplaced and I would suggest is a gross change in what religious liberty actually means,” Smith said.

[…]

Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, said it’s all about the most effective group getting the contract and following the state’s rules. However, she said if legislators are keen to give more protections, there needs to be a sit-down meeting with lawmakers and all of the faith-based groups. She said not all groups have the same needs and many feel current religious protections are enough. Texas Impact has not taken a position on HB 3859.

“This isn’t a topic that lends itself well to sound bites,” Moorhead said. “It’s too easy for politicians and advocates to short change the policy in favor of a glib soundbite and not realize the politics are too complicated and the stakes are too high.”

Not to mention “the devil is in the details” with HB 3859, said Joshua Houston, director of government affairs for Texas Impact. He pointed out allowing groups protection if they have “sincerely held religious beliefs” can apply to views on physical discipline, diets, medical care, blood transfusions, vaccinations and how boys and girls are treated. He said that kind of ambiguity is what made Roloff untouchable for decades.

“When you say ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ you’re opening the door wide,” Houston said. “There’s all kind of weird religious beliefs that are out there.”

I can’t put the objections to this bill any better than Chuck Smith and Joshua Houston did. The article opens with the story of Lester Roloff, who was once the poster child for why “sincerely held religious beliefs” are not a sufficient reason for something to be sanctioned by the state. Like SB6, this bill may not make it to the floor for a vote but could get attached to another bill as an amendment by those who are determined to push this boundary. Let’s please not create a new (and almost certainly worse) Lester Roloff for this generation.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

An ironic might-have-been on redistricting

From Rick Casey.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The three judges who decided the case include one Democrat and two Republicans. Ironically, the decision may have gone the other way if one of the judges hadn’t been punished for joining in an earlier ruling in the case. Here’s the backstory.

Judge Rodriguez, a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Texas law school, was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court by Gov. Rick Perry. He lost in the Republican primary, however, when he had to stand for election. He returned briefly to private practice before being appointed to a federal district bench here by President George W. Bush.

Back in 2013, Rodriguez was asked to fill out the voluminous paperwork to be considered for promotion to the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. President Barack Obama had selected a Democratic judge from Corpus Christi, but the two Republican senators reportedly made it clear they would block her nomination. So the Obama administration lit on Rodriguez — a nonideological choice who had been appointed to important benches by two Texas Republican leaders.

But the appointment languished until 2015 when, a friend of Rodriguez said, he was told his name was withdrawn because of a lack of support from the two senators. The reason: His previous rulings in the redistricting case.

Had Rodriguez been elevated to the appellate court, he might well have been replaced with a more conservative Republican on the three-judge panel hearing the redistricting case. The 2-1 decision could have gone in the other direction, with Rodriguez’s replacement joining the very conservative third member of the panel, Judge Jerry Smith of Houston.

We don’t know for certain that the ruling would have been different had Judge Rodriguez not been on the district court. I don’t know what the overall population of judges in that district is like, and I suppose the plaintiffs could have filed in a different district. For what it’s worth, where I think the plaintiffs got lucky was in having two judges of color hearing the case. We’ll never know how things might have been, but I for one am glad with how they turned out.

On a tangential note, this Texas Lawyer story from awhile ago talks about how the Fifth Circuit changed during the Obama years.

At first glance, the math confronting President Barack Obama’s three appointees on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit appears daunting.

If you include senior members of the bench, Obama’s appointees—Judges James Graves, Stephen Higginson, and Gregg Costa—are outnumbered more than 4-to-1 by judges who were chosen by Republican presidents.

Dig deeper, however, into court events and listen to appellate lawyers who make their livelihoods practicing before the Fifth Circuit and a more nuanced picture emerges. In the last eight years, the Fifth Circuit bench has begun shifting away from predictable conservative patterns, the appellate lawyers said.

Although Obama appointees may only be part of that change, they are using their youth, vigor and intellectual curiosity to influence outcomes, according to appellate lawyers including Jane Webre, a partner in Austin’s Scott Douglass & McConnico who practices civil appellate law and handles most of her firm’s appeals.

“It has moved away from how staunchly conservative it was known to be,” said Webre, who works with associates who have recently clerked for the Fifth Circuit.

Senior Fifth Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley, an appointee of former President Jimmy Carter, ranks among many who heap praise on the Obama picks. Reavley, who served as a state district and Texas Supreme Court justice before he started on the Fifth Circuit bench, observed its judges in the ’60s courageously enforce emerging civil rights protections. Asked by Texas Lawyer recently if he longed for the days of those judges, Reavley said Obama’s three appointees were equally equipped with the smarts and dispositions to handle such challenges: “I don’t think politics would enter into their decisions,” Reavley said.

Kurt Kuhn of Austin’s Kuhn Hobbs agrees. “They are not doctrinal. They are known as fair and not predisposed to any particular side,” Kuhn said.

[…]

On the Fifth Circuit, Higginson, Costa and Graves share the bench with six judges tapped by George W. Bush, six by Reagan and two by George H.W. Bush. Former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Carter together had appointed only five of the judges currently serving on the Fifth Circuit. Two vacancies are currently pending.

Obama’s ability to shape the Fifth Circuit has been hampered by the powerful sway held over the nomination process by Texas’ two Republican senators. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and also appoint the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee, which recommends federal judicial candidates to the White House.

It was three years before Obama made his first appointment to the Fifth Circuit. David Prichard, the committee’s chairman and partner in the San Antonio office of Prichard Hawkins Young, has no expectation that the court’s two vacancies will be filled before Obama leaves office.

“Those positions are just carefully negotiated between the Texas senators and the occupants of the White House,” Prichard said.

And yet, despite Obama’s difficulty seating judges on the Fifth Circuit, the passage of time and societal change has tempered the Fifth Circuit and made it less conservative, said Webre of Scott Douglass.

Given how few appointments he has made, Webre added, “I don’t know if we can say: ‘Thank you, President Obama,’ for those changes.”

But she, Gunn and Townsend detect a change. Before Obama took office, Webre and associates at her firm who clerked recently at the Fifth Circuit counted the active full-time judges on that court: There were 13 Republican and four Democratic appointees. That ratio has since shifted to 10-5.

But then Webre and the associates adjust for individual judges’ tendencies, regardless of who appointed them. “Not all Republicans are created equal,” Webre explained.

She and the former clerks put asterisks beside some of the Republican-appointed judges—she wouldn’t say which judges specifically—to denote that they lean less conservative than their fellow Republican appointees. Webre’s estimate is that eight of 15 judges are moderate or liberal compared with seven who are very conservative.

That has made a difference when lawyers receive an unfavorable panel decision.

“Now,” Webre said, “seeking an en banc hearing is a realistic venture.”

That story was published just before the November election, and I had flagged it at the time to discuss how things might change even more for the better post-Obama. Needless to say, that premise was scotched shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, this seemed like a reasonable time to dredge it up. Maybe we’ll get to discuss it again in a more positive way in four years.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Weekend link dump for March 26

Air pollution denial is the new climate change denial.

This is why I always use the Oxford comma.

That’s Sir Ray Davies to you, bub.

“Did you agree that FitBit owns your information? You probably didn’t think about that when you bought the device.”

Sesame Street‘s newest Muppet has autism.

“YouTube says it is looking into why some gay-themed content is being blocked to those browsing YouTube under its ‘restricted’ setting.”

An easy way to compare Obamacare and Trumpcare.

“Sanctuary is too old for that. This is a practice that goes back thousands of years in various forms, and one essential thing about all that long history is this: Sanctuary has always been completely legal.”

“What should be absolutely clear, however, is that the intelligence community was highly suspicious of Michael Flynn’s loyalty and his judgment long before he was announced as the incoming National Security Adviser. When Trump appointed him, that must have been met with the highest level of alarm.”

“While there is no modern precedent for an adult child of the president, I will voluntarily follow all of the ethics rules placed on government employees.” Yeah, sure.

The story of the giant inflatable Trump chicken. If you need more than that to want to click the link, we probably can’t be friends.

“The big question now is not what Trump and the White House are saying about the Russia story. They will evidently say anything. The questions are what really happened and who can uncover the truth.”

We were attacked by Russia — about this there is no doubt — and we’re too paralyzed by politics to respond.”

“You almost get the feeling that Fox executives want to take Trump aside and remind him it’s all an act, that most of the harebrained schemes promoted on Fox News are just grist for the outrage mill. They’re not really supposed to be taken seriously, and good grief, they’re not supposed to be acted upon by our nation’s commander-in-chief.”

The PantherBots are the best. Go PantherBots!

“If zebras can make Bolivian traffic jams better, what else could they help with?” Turns out, the answer is just about anything.

RIP, Jerry Krause, general manager of the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls.

Three things Paul Manafort said about his connections to Russia that are very awkward right now.

Related: Why did Donald Trump hire a guy who was apparently ripping off a Russian mobster in the first place?

The only Obamacare replacement that will work is Obamacare. Good luck with that, Republicans.

RIP, Chuck Barris, creator of The Gong Show.

“The Trump budget outline released last week could spell disaster for transit.”

“Gun violence is often identified as a political issue, or a matter of law enforcement. But a new study published Tuesday shows gunshot injuries have a very real health impact, costing Americans more than $6 billion in health care costs over the last decade.”

RIP, Dallas Green, former MLB player and manager, who won the World Series in 1980 with the Phillies.

“CC, the world’s first cloned cat, recently turned 15 and is living the sweet life in College Station with the scientist who created her.”

It’s all about the tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s always all about the tax cuts for the wealthy.

The state of Nevada has ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. Better late than never, but not late would have been a lot better.

Why do Republicans hate Internet privacy protections?

Blue state Attorneys General are now the front line of Trump resistance. How do you like that, Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton?

“[Paul Ryan has] always been more con artist than wonk. After the health-care fiasco, the whole world knows it.”

“But on Saturday, Trump headed to a golf course for the 12th time during the nine weeks he’s been president.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Stockman’s first day in court

Oh, this is going to be so much fun.

Steve Stockman

Appearing carefree and relaxed with his wife by his side, former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman told reporters outside a court hearing downtown Friday that he expected “to be vindicated” on allegations that he conspired with staffers to take $775,000 in donations intended for charitable purposes or voter education.

Stockman appeared briefly, in a charcoal suit and tie, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith and put a trio of lawyers from Smyser Kaplan & Veselka, LLP, on record to represent him. The judge set a preliminary hearing on the matter for April 11 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson.

On the sidewalk outside the federal courthouse, Stockman said he didn’t intend to plead guilty or enter into a plea agreement, adding, “I think ultimately we will be vindicated.”

Stockman’s attorney, Shaun G. Clarke, said he could not comment on the details of the case but he lauded Stockman’s reputation and integrity, while Stockman stood smiling beside him.

“We’ve just met Steve. But a couple of things have become clear — number one, that he’s a man of faith; number two, that he’s a fighter; number three, most of all, that he has tremendous faith in the Constitution of the United States of America,” Clarke said. “Steve has said he is going to fight to clear his name, and we’re going to be there next to him fighting to do it also.”

“We’re here to vindicate an innocent man – Steve Stockman – and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.”

See here and here for the background. Do yourself a favor and be sure to click on the Chron story link, to see the awesome graphic in that that has Stockman at the center of this bizarre web of PO boxes, shell corporations, and foreign addresses. The only way it could be better is if it were on some paranoid dude’s wall, with push pins and string connecting it all. I’m already visualizing the future documentary on A&E about the Stockman saga, with Bill Kurtis narrating. Don’t let me down, y’all. The Trib has more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

When your gender doesn’t match your birth certificate

The Daily Beast looks at what it means in practice to be a transgender person in Texas facing the prospect of having to use your birth certificate to use the bathroom.

According to the Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank based out of the UCLA School of Law, there are over 125,000 transgender adults in Texas, most of them black or Latino. North Carolina, for comparison, is home to about 45,000 transgender adults. The Texas total falls just shy of 9 percent of the 1.4 million transgender adults in the entire country. No other state besides California has a larger trans population.

And if SB6 clears the state house—an uncertain possibility, given that Republican House Speaker Joe Straus has said he’s “not a fan of the bill”—those 125,000 transgender adults and thousands of transgender minors would be barred from using public restrooms unless they have successfully updated the gender markers on their birth certificates.

That’s where things get especially tricky for transgender Texans.

“Getting your documents updated in the state of Texas is rather difficult,” Lou Weaver, Transgender Programs Coordinator for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Texas, told The Daily Beast.

“Rather difficult,” in this case, is an understatement. The majority of U.S. states have written policies allowing transgender people to change the gender markers on their birth certificates with either a doctor’s letter specifying that they have had “appropriate clinical treatment” or proof of sex reassignment surgery, which not all transgender people want or can afford. About twice as many states require surgery as those that do not.

But the state of Texas goes a step further, requiring transgender people to obtain a court order—generally after surgery—to change the sex on their birth certificates.

Not all judges are willing to provide such an order.

As the National Center for Transgender Equality notes, “current case law and evidence indicates that some Texas officials and judges are averse to issuing the necessary court orders.”

Transgender people may have to travel to a different county to locate a court that will accommodate their request. And even when they people do find a willing judge, the process takes time.

In other words, someone who has had gender reassignment surgery but who has not been able to get the arduous process of updating their birth certificate changed would still have to use the public restroom of their birth gender under SB6. You want to see people with penises in the ladies’ room? SB6 will do that.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Major League Rugby in Houston

Meet the Houston Strikers.

A group of rugby supporters are kicking around plans to build a rugby stadium in the area.

The ownership group behind the new Major League Rugby franchise the Houston Strikers is finalizing plans to develop a plot of land adjacent to the Houston Sports Park along TX-288 and south of Mowery Road. Now they’re sharing renderings of the $10 million rugby complex they’re looking to construct.

The Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash both practice at the complex which is ten miles south of downtown and just northwest of Pearland.

The Strikers would begin play in the city in 2018. The team would likely play in alternate parks as needed before their stadium is completed.

[…]

The group has started the lengthy permitting process necessary before construction can begin. The City of Houston is also on board and excited about a community outreach possibility with the neighboring areas starved for programs for kids. The two parties have signed a memorandum of understanding.

The new stadium would initially have room enough in bleachers for up to 5,000 fans, with plans for expansion to accommodate much more than that.

The Strikers are one of ten organizations around the country signed on to the Major League Rugby group. There are teams in Dallas and in Austin as well. Two more cities in other states are about to sign on, according to Turner.

Here are the Major League Rugby website and the Houston Strikers Facebook page. I confess, I’ve never seen a rugby game, and I’m pretty fuzzy on the rules. I might give it a try once the Strikers are in their new home. Any rugby fans out there? Swamplot has pictures, and This Is American Rugby has more.

Posted in: Other sports.

Saturday video break: Over You

For the second week in a row, here’s Roxy Music:

Sorry, couldn’t find a good live version, so I have no idea if there’s an oboe player on this one. Add Bryan Ferry to your list – OK, my list – of musicians you knew more about that you thought. Now here’s Ingrid Michaelson:

Lots of covers of this one out there, but again no good live version. Among other things, Ingrid Michaelson is an artist the girls and I both like. I keep trying to expand that list, but that tends to happen mostly when I decide I like one of their faves. Which, thankfully, does happen. I wouldn’t mind if it happened a bit more often in the other direction, but I take what I can get.

Posted in: Music.

Straus is a big No on SB6

Very good to hear.

Rep. Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Friday gave perhaps his harshest condemnation yet of the controversial “bathroom bill” championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Straus said the bill, which has drawn the ire of Texas businesses and been criticized as discriminatory against transgender people, felt “manufactured and unnecessary.”

“If we’ve gotten to the point in our civilization, in our society, that our politicians have to pass bills about bathroom stuff … I mean, we’ve gotten really out of control,” he said.

“For it to get this much attention in a legislative session is astounding to me,” he added.

[…]

“I oppose it,” Straus said. “… I don’t feel a great deal of fervor to promote that bill in the House.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project and a Texas Tribune pollster, Straus downplayed tensions between the House and the Senate and distanced himself from recent comments made by Gov. Greg Abbott about city and county policies.

Asked about Abbott’s Tuesday remark that he wants the Legislature to pass a “broad-based law” that pre-empts local regulations, Straus said he didn’t know “exactly” what the governor had said but that Straus preferred a “step-by-step” approach to issues of local control.

“I don’t think a blanket policy on exerting power from Austin over locals is a particularly attractive idea, and I don’t think it’ll happen,” Straus said.

Straus has consistently said that the bathroom bill was not a priority for the House, but as far as I know this is the first time he has expressed his own view of it. To be sure, Straus has generally not interfered with the will of the House – unlike Tom Craddick, he has let his committee chairs do their thing, and legislation has passed or failed on the actions of the members. But as I’m sure Straus would tell you, one of the Speaker’s jobs is to take care of the House members. They’re the ones who really elect him, after all. As I said before, while there is likely a majority of Republican House members who favor SB6, there’s not enough of them to pass it. Why make everyone – especially the ones who don’t support it – take a vote on it? I’m sure Straus has had a conversation or two about this with State Affairs Committe Chair Byron Cook.

Another way to look at this is that Straus is a business-establishment Republican to the core, and unlike Dan Patrick he’s actually listening to the concerns of the state’s business leaders, including the various visitors and conventions bureaus. Given that, why wouldn’t he oppose SB6? And given that, why wouldn’t he say so?

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Bail practices lawsuit wraps up

It’s up to the judge now.

The call by two civil rights groups for an immediate fix to Harris County’s bail system is now in the hands of a federal judge after high-stakes arguments over whether poor people should remain in jail on misdemeanor offenses because they can’t afford to post bail.

Key criminal justice leaders in the county – including the sheriff, district attorney, public defender, misdemeanor judges and hearing officers – have weighed in on a lawsuit filed last year challenging the local system as unconstitutional.

Now Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal will decide if the current bail system should be suspended temporarily until the lawsuit goes to trial, despite efforts already under way to alter the local system.

The county’s bail schedule punishes “working poor” people like Maranda ODonnell, a single mother who filed the lawsuit after spending two days in jail for driving without a valid license, attorney Alec Karakatsanis said during closing arguments Thursday.

The county’s lawyers argued changes already made to the system have brought an increase in defendants released on no-cash bonds.

“The present system is not perfect, it’s a compromise,” said John O’Neill, who represented the county judges. “It’s as imperfect as democracy.”

See here and here for some background. What’s at stake here is a preliminary injunction against the current system, with a full trial on the merits of the lawsuit to follow, if there is no settlement in the interim. I’m not sure what an injunction would look like in practice, but I’m sure Judge Rosenthal will have some ideas if she grants it. I get the sense that ruling will come sooner rather than later, but we’ll see. The Press has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Let’s use mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

What could possibly go wrong?

The Bayou City’s teeming mosquito population spawns in dark, wet nooks and carries a slew of deadly tropical diseases that could ravage the region.

So Houston is pondering a sneak attack, something akin to a Trojan Horse. Harris County officials are negotiating with a British biotech company, Oxitec, to create and release mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered so that after they’re set loose in the wild, offspring die, and the mosquito population dwindles.

Deric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, said it is a paradigm shift – “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes.”

If an agreement is finalized, Harris County could become one of the first locations in the United States to use the mosquitoes, going far beyond the chemicals and public-awareness campaigns the county has long relied upon.

[…]

Oxitec spun off from Oxford University 15 years ago to commercialize proprietary strains of insects, namely mosquitoes. The hope is that they can help reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, among other deadly illnesses. The mosquitoes are common in the Houston region.

Oxitec inserts a “self-limiting gene” into a male mosquito and releases several into the environment. Those mosquitoes then mate with females – Oxitec claims their special males out-compete normal males – and the resulting offspring die before they become adults. Over time, the overall population of the Aedes mosquito declines.

Male mosquitoes do not bite and can’t spread disease.

The company has conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and says it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent in each location.

“It looks like we’re going to do or plan to do some sort of trial initially to test out the system,” Nimmo said.

Oxitec has yet to try out its technology in the U.S.

[…]

According to the FDA, if Oxitec wanted to conduct a field trial in Harris County, the company would have to submit an environmental assessment to the agency.

Another complication: Regulatory authority over Oxitec’s mosquitoes would then likely shift to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, said working with Oxitec could provide another tool in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“We’re not abandoning the tried-and-true” approaches, said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who has been leading the efforts. “We’re willing to see – What can we add to the tried-and-true that can make this better, especially considering that the tried-and-true has some flaws?”

Unseasonably warm weather has prompted the division to boost staff during winter months. It has seven investigators now, compared to four, and two additional public education staffers, Debboun said.

In August, officials nearly doubled the number of Aedes mosquito traps across the county to 134. Harris County also continues to partner with Microsoft to develop high-tech traps that will sense and nab only certain species of mosquitoes, like those that carry Zika or dengue, and eventually hopes to utilize drones to find and target hot spots.

After receiving a federal grant, the county hopes by May to start research on whether mosquitoes in the region that could carry Zika are developing resistance to certain pesticides. The county also will use that money to test more mosquitoes for Zika, Debboun said.

“The crucial part of all this is to find out if the mosquito has the virus in it,” he said.

Yes, remember the Microsoft Mosquito Drone story? Nice to hear about it again, even if there isn’t much to report yet. As far as Oxitec goes, their approach is one I’ve heard about as a possible way to limit the growth of the A. aegypti population and the many diseases it helps propagate. Maybe it will work without serious unanticipated side effects, but we would be the US pioneers for such a test. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as the consequences of doing too little are West Nile and Zika, I’m not sure how wishy washy one can be about this. What do you think?

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Friday random ten: Ladies’ night, part 38

The boogie fever, it is going around.

1. Blue Shadows On The Trail – Syd Straw
2. Boogie Fever – The Sylvers (Olympis, Charmaine, Angelia, and Patricia Sylvers)
3. Heartbeat – Taana Gardner
4. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Taken By Trees (Victoria Bergsman)
5. Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads (Tina Weymouth)
6. Already Gone – Tanya Tucker
7. Vicious Rap – Tanya Winley
8. Boogie Oogie Oogie – A Taste Of Honey (Janice Marie Johnson, Hazel Payne)
9. I Knew Your Were Trouble – Taylor Swift
10. Square Biz – Teena Marie

Apparently, it’s Boogie Song Week. I forgot to mark it on my calendar, so it kind of snuck up on me. Also, am I the last person in America to realize that Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads were – and still are – married? The things I learn checking Wikipedia.

Posted in: Music.

Motion filed to block current Congressional map

From the Lone Star Project.

Moments ago the Plaintiffs in the ongoing Texas congressional redistricting case filed a joint motion asking the San Antonio Federal District Court for an injunction to block the use of the current congressional map during the 2018 mid-term elections.  The motion also suggests a schedule to adopt a new map for use in the 2018 elections.

On March 10, the three-judge Federal District Court in San Antonio with jurisdiction in the Texas case ruled that the congressional plan adopted by Texas Republican leaders in 2011 was intentionally discriminatory in violation the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.  The Court found violations in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin and the DFW area.

The Plaintiff’s motion explains that the current congressional map retains many of the violations identified by the Court in the 2011 map; therefore, it should not be used in the 2018 election.  Plaintiffs wrote:

“Delaying entry of an injunction following this Court’s finding that the 2011 congressional plan was illegal and unconstitutional, and that elements of these violations persist in C235, would unjustifiably risk forcing Plaintiffs, and, indeed, millions of Texans to elect members of Congress under a legally invalid plan.”

The motion also lays out a timeline to configure a remedial map to use in the 2018 elections.  Texas Republican leaders are given until May 5, 2017 to submit a remedial plan to the Court. Plaintiffs will be required to respond to the state’s map by May 12, 2017.  An order confirming a final remedial map would be issued by July 1, 2017.

Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle released the following statement:
“Every Texan is harmed when statewide leaders engage in intentional discrimination, and no Texan should be subject to the results of an election conducted under an intentionally discriminatory congressional plan.

“The federal court in San Antonio has made clear time and again that they will protect the rights of Texans, and the plaintiffs have laid out a common-sense process to put a legal map in place.”

See here and here for the background. We’re going to need to get something going if there’s to be a chance to have a proper map in place for 2018. (And remember, this is just the Congressional map. We’re still waiting for a ruling on the legislative map, which may require the same process.) As the Trib notes, the state will oppose this motion, so that may draw things out further. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Vouchers get their Senate hearing

Here we go again with this nonsense.

Senate Bill 3, authored by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, would establish educational savings accounts and tax credit scholarships to fund various costs associated with parents moving their children from traditional public schools to private, parochial, or charter schools.

In an online payment process, parents could use the accounts, called ESAs, to pay for items like private school tuition, educational software and tutoring for home school students. However, the bill would prohibit parents from using the money for food or child care.

SB 3 would also allow low-income students to qualify for a tax break, Texas businesses can donate to the scholarship fund, according to the proposal.

Senators did not take a vote on SB 3 after Tuesday’s meeting, leaving the matter pending for another day. However, Taylor’s counterpart in the House, Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty of Humble, long has opposed so-called ‘school choice’ measures and said the bill likely is dead on arrival in his committee.

At Tuesday’s hearing, which drew more than 100 witnesses, Taylor defended his bill from charges that it diverts public money from cash-strapped public school districts and gives it to private schools. He said districts would retain some funding in the first year that a student decides to leave a public school, giving it time to adjust without losing all per-pupil money they currently receive from the state.

“Basically, the school will have money without a student. It will actually have more money to spend on the kids who are still there,” he said. “It gives them a year to transition or maybe in the year, to see what they need to do to move their program forward, to be more competitive.”

I’m not going to rehash the arguments for why vouchers (by any name; there’s a reason they have been rebranded as “education savings accounts”) are lousy public policy. Search my archives for “vouchers”, or read this from the CPPP if you need a reminder. Though a vote wasn’t taken at the time of the hearing, the committee did subsequently pass it out on a 7-3 count, with Republican Kel Seliger voting No. This is one of Dan Patrick’s priorities, and a rare bill on which Greg Abbott has an opinion he’s willing to say out loud, so I’m sure it will pass the Senate, and most likely die in the House. This is what victory looks like these days.

In the meantime, there was this.

A number of House members said they have received fraudulent letters in the last couple of months addressed from constituents asking them to back the ESAs.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was suspicious when his office fielded 520 letters between mid-February and mid-March from constituents of his rural district, who are more likely to oppose private school choice than support it. All the letters were addressed from Austin and had the full names and addresses of each constituent at the bottom.

Springer started making calls. “We talked to a couple of dozen constituents. No one knows where they’re coming from. None of them agree with the positions that they’re even taking,” he said. He knows of about 10 other representatives who got similar letters.

One of Springer’s letters was addressed from former state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, who vacated the seat currently held by Springer about six years ago. “I don’t believe in vouchers of any kind,” Hardcastle said Monday. “It ought to be illegal … representing me for something I have no interest in supporting or helping.”

Asked about the letters, school choice advocate Randan Steinhauser said there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the issue. “We’re excited to see that many folks are contacting their legislators. We’re looking forward to hearing more about the ways these elected officials are being contacted.”

Sue Dixon, a public school teacher in Gatesville for the last 20 years, got a call from state Rep. J.D. Sheffield’s office asking whether she had sent a letter lobbying her representative to vote for vouchers.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not!'” Dixon said. “I’m upset that someone would hijack my views.”

Sheffield, a rural conservative from Gatesville, said he had received about 550 of those letters.

Here’s a more detailed article about this bizarre story. I am reminded once again of Daniel Davies’ words, that good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I don’t know if this was the work of amateurs or exceedingly hardened cynics, but I do know it is not the work of someone who is confident that the people are with them.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

“It’s harder to paint us as monsters when there’s a human face on it”

Words of wisdom from one very dedicated and engaged citizen.

Stephanie Martinez

Monday marked Stephanie Martinez’s 12th time participating in a lobby day hosted by Equality Texas at the Capitol. But this session, in response to Senate Bill 6, the 48-year-old transgender woman from Austin felt compelled to do more.

After waiting 16 hours to testify against the anti-trans “bathroom bill” during a Senate committee hearing March 7, Martinez called the offices of all 31 senators to encourage them to vote against SB 6.

She said she was “shocked” when she received a return phone call from the office of Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, the lone Democratic senator to support the bill, who requested a personal meeting. Lucio’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When they met last week, Martinez said Lucio told her she was the first trans person he’d spoken to one-on-one, which inspired her next campaign. Beginning last Thursday, Martinez visited the offices of all 181 members of the Texas Legislature over three days, using vacation time from her job as a programmer at AT&T.

“I decided I could not let this session go forward without visiting every office and saying, ‘I’m here, I’m real, I’m a Texan, I’m transgender, and this bill would hurt me,’” Martinez said. “It’s harder to paint us as monsters when there’s a human face on it.”

Read the whole thing, which includes a report from the Equality Texas Lobby Day. I sure hope Stephanie Martinez is right that by meeting with all the legislators, or at least their staffs, she is putting a human face on something they have been blithely abstract about, if they had given the matter any thought at all. Unfortunately, as the incredibly mean-spirited and downright un-charitable comments made by the likes of Sen. Lois Kolkhorst – who as literally one of the most powerful people in the state has no business claiming to be “persecuted” – and her ideological cohort in this story make clear, she has her work cut out for her. As do we all. I stand in awe of Stephanie Martinez’s effort and commitment.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

More on the Stockman arrest

I’m just going to leave this here.

Steve Stockman

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, a Republican whose district stretched from Houston to Beaumont, allegedly conspired with two staffers to bilk conservative foundations out of at least $775,000 in donations meant for charitable purposes or voter education, according to federal court records.

Details of the alleged scam are described in a plea deal signed in Houston by Thomas Dodd, Stockman’s former campaign worker and 2013 congressional special assistant. Dodd pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of conspiracy and has agreed to help authorities build a case against Stockman in return for consideration on his sentencing. The maximum penalty for each charge is 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000.

Stockman was arrested March 16 by a Houston-based FBI agent as he prepared to board a plane to the Middle East, but was released on $25,000 bond after surrendering his passport.

He has been charged with two counts of conspiracy for allegedly colluding with Dodd and another staffer to hide illegal campaign contributions and to divert $350,000 from the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, based in Lake Forest, Ill. Uihlein had donated funds to renovate a townhouse to be used as a place for congressional interns to gather in Washington D.C. The meeting spot was never created. Dodd’s plea agreement says that he and Stockman also diverted $425,000 from the Rothschild Charitable Foundation and the Rothschild Art Foundation Inc., based in Baltimore.

The Rothschild Foundations donated for charitable purposes and voter education.

Most of the $775,000 in foundation donations was spent on Stockman’s campaign and on credit card bills, according to allegations in Dodd’s plea deal.

Prosecutors claim those illegal acts were part of a larger and more complex scam, court records show. The plea deal outlines a conspiracy among Stockman, Dodd and another staff member that allegedly included two shell companies, bogus campaign contributions, lies to executives at the foundations and a trail of wire and mail fraud.

See here for the background. An earlier story has a copy of the aforementioned plea agreement, which you can see here. This Chron story summarizes the questions that remain about Stockman and his questionable finances, many of which first came up back in 2014. I just want to point out that had Stockman not gotten into his twisted little head to run against John Cornyn in 2014, he’d very likely still be a sitting member of Congress. Funny how these things work.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, Scandalized!.

What might it take to beat Ted Cruz?

Roll Call considers the question.

Not Ted Cruz

As Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro mulls a challenge to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Democrats and Republicans both say it would be a tall order in a deep-red state with little Democratic power.

“I think what Joaquin would have to do right is to begin with a premise that Texas Democrats have no idea how to run a statewide race,” said Colin Strother, who has worked on campaigns for Castro and his twin brother Julian, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary and San Antonio mayor.

“The trick is that Democrats can win if we get turnout. You are not going to do that with TV and radio,” Strother said. “The way you do it is through a state of the art, modern, professional field program.”

[…]

Banking on a lagging Cruz would not be a sound strategy, experts say. While the first-term GOP senator has developed a reputation of being disliked by some fellow Republicans — Arizona Sen. John McCain famously called Cruz and his allies “wacko birds” — he still has plenty of political support in Texas.

“Cruz is nothing if not calculating and he has a voracious appetite for politics,” Strother said, pointing to his 2012 upset win over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Republican Senate primary when Dewhurst had the support of Rick Perry, the state’s governor at the time.

Okay, it’s not a very deep consideration, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pick it up. The article focuses on Joaquin Castro even though Beto O’Rourke seems like the more committed candidate at this point, but that isn’t important for our purposes. I say there are three factors to watch for that could affect either candidate’s chances.

1. Solving the Democratic turnout problem – We’ve discussed this one ad infinitum. Off year turnout has been flat for Dems since 2002, even with a significant bump in Presidential year voters in 2008. There are signs that Democrats are more engaged now than ever before, and if that continues it’s all to the good. But even if that continues to be the case, it’s just a floor and not a ceiling. Getting those engaged and need-to-be-engaged voters to the polls is the key. Whatever a “state of the art, modern, professional field program” looks like – maybe it’s the TOP model taken statewide, maybe it’s something else – we need that.

2. Getting some help on the Republican turnout side – As with item #1, the possibility exists that Republicans will not be terribly enthused about going to the polls next year, as was the case in 206. Trump’s already mediocre approval numbers depend entirely on rabid Republican support. It wouldn’t take much to drop him into truly perilous territory. One of the many ongoing scandals could finally take a toll, or perhaps a spectacular failure with Obamacare repeal might do it. Trump has been operating without a net for a long time, and the Republicans have largely followed along. If it all comes crashing down, it’s going to be catastrophic for them.

3. The Dowd factor – I don’t think much of Matthew Dowd’s announced interest in running for Senate as an independent, but it could happen. If it does, the main effect will be to lower the number of votes needed to win. For example, in a straight three candidate race, if Dowd takes 20%, the number to win becomes 40% plus one. That’s a number Democrats can reasonably reach without anything else happening, and Dowd would presumably take more votes away from Cruz than he would from Castro or O’Rourke. Things get complicated quickly, and I don’t want to be overly simplistic or optimistic, but the bottom line remains that having Dowd in the race would mean a closer vote target to aim at.

A lot of this is highly theoretical – no one has officially announced a candidacy yet, and we’re still a year away from the 2018 primaries, let alone the general. But until then, these are things to think about.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Who loves budget gimmicks?

The Senate Budget Committee, that’s who.

Texas Senate budget writers on Wednesday unanimously approved their two-year budget, which avoided some steep cuts by using an accounting trick to free up $2.5 billion state dollars that were originally slated to go to the state highway fund.

By delaying a diversion of sales tax money from August 2019 to September 2019, and therefore moving the funding from the 2019 fiscal year’s budget to the first month of fiscal year 2020, Nelson said her two-year budget had an additional $2.5 billion to spend on needs such as health care and schools.

The accounting maneuver “solved a lot of our problems,” Nelson told reporters shortly after her Senate Finance Committee approved the budget unanimously. She said the move would not affect the Texas Department of Transportation’s ability to pay for highway projects in 2019.

But House Speaker Joe Straus called the move “gimmickry” and likened it to “cooking the books.”

“Counting money twice in order to balance a budget is not a good idea,” Straus told reporters Wednesday morning. “This is the Texas Legislature. We are not Enron.” He was referring to a Houston-based energy company that collapsed in spectacular fashion because of fraudulent accounting practices.

[…]

Nelson said her proposed budget “meets our responsibilities” and “keeps Texas on the path to success and prosperity.” The proposal now moves on to the full Senate, where a full chamber vote is expected on Tuesday.

Nelson told reporters the Senate had no appetite to use the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a $10.2 billion savings account lawmakers have available to address budget shortfalls or emergencies.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear about two things. One, this is far from the first time this particular accounting trick has been used. Indeed, accounting tricks of all kinds are baked in our legislative DNA. They are a natural and totally expected outgrowth of the many artificial budget constraints that our Legislature is subject to. I wouldn’t claim that there’s anything honorable about any of this, but given that the constraints aren’t going away, I’d greatly prefer a bit of financial prestidigitation to slashing critical services.

That said, it seems crazy to me to resort to this sort of trickery when there’s more than enough money in the Rainy Day fund to actually pay for the things that need to be paid for. There was a time when the general consensus was that this is what the Rainy Day fund is there for. The diversion tactic doesn’t make that $2.5 billion in obligations go away, it just shoves them into the next budget cycle. Which is fine of the state’s finances wind up being better than the Comptroller projects them to be for the next two years, not so fine if not. Remember, the House wants to use the Rainy Day fund to plug a gap in the budget from the last session, which resulted in part because expenses were higher than we thought they would be. We have the wherewithal to take care of this problem now. Why wouldn’t we do that? The Chron has more.

Posted in: Budget ballyhoo.

Bike plan finally gets approved

Long time coming.

Houston has a bike plan.

Though there’s no clear plan to pay for it and ongoing concerns with exactly where the planned trails and lanes will be located, City Council approved the bike plan on Wednesday morning.

Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le, Michael Kubosh and Greg Travis voted against the plan, citing various concerns with the force with which the city will require bike lanes in some neighborhoods and the cost, estimated at up to $550 million.

Travis said he fears the costs will be much greater, and thus far Houston lacks any way to pay for it.

“You start looking at the cost and it becomes exorbitant,” Travis said.

Even those who approved the plan acknowledged the city must respect neighborhoods that don’t want bike lanes along their streets, be willing to amend the plan and find ways to pay for it that do not reduce road spending.

“The last thing we want to do is develop a plan that pits bicyclists against the motorists,” said District J Councilman Mike Laster.

You can see the bike plan here, and the Mayor’s press release is here. The plan was approved last summer, and was tagged by Council two weeks ago. Here’s a preview story with more about what the plan means.

Developed and modified over nearly 18 months, the plan sets a goal of making Houston a gold-level city based on scoring by the League of American Bicyclists. In Texas, only Austin has been awarded a gold rating by the group, with Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and The Woodlands receiving bronze status, among others.

To improve Houston’s lot, supporters and city planners said the area needs high-comfort bike lanes where people feel safe riding.

The city has an extensive trail system popular with riders but it does not cover large portions of where people live and work in Houston.

The bike plan plots tripling the amount of off-street bike trails from the current 221 miles to 668 miles. Much of that relies on trail connections along bayous and within parks and electrical transmission utility easements. On Tuesday, city and Texas Department of Transportation officials announced construction would start soon on a long-awaited bridge spanning Bray’s Bayou.

“This is a big step in building complete communities,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the crossing helps connect neighborhoods north and south of the bayou on the east side that were often cut off from the city’s trail improvements over the last decade.

The bridge, when completed in about a year, will connect more communities to the Green Line light rail along Harrisburg, too, officials said.

Those connections are key. Without them, advocates said the only people riding – especially in non-ideal conditions – are committed, confident cyclists. Leisure riders and others are left out.

Core riders, meanwhile, said the current network of 495 miles relies heavily on 165 miles of shared space with cars along Houston streets to connect good places to ride. Those shared lanes – such as along Fairview – offer little buffer between cyclists and automobiles.

“It’s like taking your life in your hands,” said Steven Mulligan, 29, who lives in Midtown and rides daily to his job near Loop 610 and Richmond.

Just a reminder, the plan prioritizes different routes, some of which will require little more than paint to designate, and there are various funding sources available for other routes. As far as using Rebuild monies goes, if the roads in question are being redone anyway, I don’t see the problem. Reducing the number of short trips people take during the day alleviates traffic and frees up parking. Making it safer to bike, and making people feel safer while biking, is the key to getting more people to choose that option. I look forward to seeing this work.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 20

The Texas Progressive Alliance has not been wiretapped by the UK as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Seems like it’s just a matter of time before Beto O’Rourke announces his Senate campaign

Soon.

Re. Beto O’Rourke

Eyeing a takedown of Ted Cruz, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke may be on the verge of declaring his candidacy for a 2018 Senate race, the next best gauge whether Texas Democrats are enjoying the resurgence they claim.

O’Rourke, D-El Paso, made national news last week along with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, when they drove together to Washington in a rental car after an East Coast storm canceled many flights.

Their “bipartisan congressional town hall,” intended to show how members of different political parties can get along, drew thousands of followers via live streaming as the two talked about substantive matters, joked with one another and even joined in song along the way.

The congressmen announced Wednesday that the San Antonio to D.C. trip will become an annual event – to be called the Congressional Cannonball Run – and that other bipartisan teams from Congress will be invited to join.

Along with O’Rourke, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, is considering the 2018 Senate race and next month intends to make known his decision.

The whole O’Rourke-Hurd bipartisan road trip thing made me roll my eyes, but it accomplished the important purpose of generating a lot of positive attention for O’Rourke, which is no small thing for an otherwise not well known politician from El Paso who wants to mount a statewide campaign. Name recognition is a big deal, and getting that much publicity for free speaks well to his ability to campaign.

The Statesman has a longer profile of O’Rourke, which again speaks to his ability to get noticed. I’m going to focus here on the inevitable “can he win?” stuff.

Texas Democrats last won statewide office 1994. Cruz was elected to the Senate by a margin of 16 percentage points after a come-from-behind victory over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a GOP primary runoff. Cruz quickly became the most popular Republican in Texas, but his strong but failed presidential bid and his up-and-down relationship with candidate and now-President Donald Trump have brought his approval ratings down to earth.

Meanwhile, this is about the time in the political cycle when Democrats succumb to hope over experience.

In June 2013, Democratic hearts soared when then-state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth filibustered abortion legislation, drawing national attention and social media acclaim that led her to a run for governor in which she raised an enormous amount of money on the way to a 20-point drubbing.

[…]

Trump’s epic unpredictability adds an element of uncertainty for 2018 in Texas as everywhere else and, for Democrats, an urgency to harness all the anti-Trump energy at the grass roots.

“Talk to anybody who works in politics in Democratic and progressive circles in Texas,” said Jeff Rotkoff, a veteran Democratic political strategist who is now director of campaigns for the Texas AFL-CIO. “You would get near unanimous agreement with the statement that interest in political participation by average folks who have not participated in politics in the past is through the roof, and it’s impossible not to connect that to Trump.”

The state Democratic Party says it finds itself deluged with unusual interest by potential candidates at every level, and Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said that even the possibility of an O’Rourke-Castro contest does not distress him.

“Truthfully, after so many years having a difficult time getting strong candidates to run for the U.S. Senate, it’s a great problem to have,” Hinojosa said.

“I think it’s a healthy thing that both of them feel that they would seriously consider seeking the nomination for the U.S. Senate because they think that Ted Cruz is beatable and because they believe that the atmosphere that is being created in Texas and all across America by the Trump phenomenon is going to make a better atmosphere for Democrats in 2018,” Hinojosa said. “Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.”

O’Rourke said he has been buoyed by recent visits to Fort Worth, Wichita Falls, Amarillo, Austin, Killeen, Waco, College Station, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, Houston, Dallas and any number of smaller town in between, often meeting with veterans’ service organizations. O’Rourke serves on the Veterans Affairs and Armed Services committees.

Midland, Odessa, Big Spring and Abilene were on the schedule for this weekend.

I’ll address this in more detail in a separate post. For now, focus on the assertions that interest in political participation by folks who had not previously been terribly engaged is way up. The May elections may give us a bit of data to measure that, though we won’t really know until next year. I think we can all agree that getting people more engaged and involved is the first step towards getting more people to vote next year, and any chance Beto O’Rourke or Joaquin Castro – or Mike Collier or anyone else who runs statewide or in one of those target districts – has of being elected starts with that.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Senate proposes to make our tax system more broken

That’s what this will surely do.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday approved a controversial bill that seeks to curb the growth in property taxes that local government agencies like cities and counties levy on landowners.

Senate Bill 2, which passed in an 18-12 vote, could require taxing entities to hold an election if the amount of operating and maintenance funds they plan to collect from property taxes is, in general, 5 percent more than what they took in the previous year.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s bill has split scores of Texas homeowners and the local officials that they elect. Landowners and some government officials say the bill is needed to slow the increase in property tax bills they must pay every year.

Bettencourt, R-Houston, said from the Senate floor Tuesday that many homeowners are seeing increases of 8 percent to 10 percent in what they pay in property taxes each year. He said commercial property owners are repeatedly seeing 15 percent to 20 percent hikes.

“I for one don’t want to continue to climb the ladder above states like Illinois and New York,” Bettencourt said.

But many local and state officials say the Legislature is sidestepping the real issue that leads to rising tax bills: school districts levying more in property taxes because lawmakers won’t change the state’s system for funding education. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, conceded that point on Tuesday.

“It’s a fine balance between respecting our local elected officials and having an understanding that we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

Critics of the bill say it glosses over the fact that an election could be triggered when the actual tax rate remains flat because rising property values play a major role in calculating the election trigger. Many local officials also say the bill would threaten their ability to hire police officers, build new parks and fill potholes.

Many police and fire chiefs from across the state testified against the bill last week.

“What do I tell them?,” State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said Tuesday morning.

“Vote against the people who voted for this turd” would be my advice. One of the good things that has come out of the HISD recapture saga is the increased awareness of the Legislature’s addiction to local property tax revenues as a way of not only easing their own financial responsibilities, but also providing the godsend of being able to blame the whole mess on the local officials who have been left holding the bag. It just doesn’t get any sweeter than that. At least now some people have begun to recognize the con job for what it is, though it’s a long way from becoming a rallying cry. As with many things, we’ll see what happens with this in the House.

One more thing:

Bill proponents say that the automatic election would allow for more local control because it puts more power in the hands of voters.

What’s that you say? Local control?

As local control battles rage at the Texas Capitol, Gov. Greg Abbott is voicing support for a much more sweeping approach to the issues that have captured headlines.

“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to preempt local regulations, is a superior approach,” Abbott said Tuesday during a Q-and-A session hosted by the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank.

Such an approach, Abbott added, “makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives.”

Abbott made the remarks in response to a moderator’s question about legislation this session that would “prohibit any local ordinance from exceeding the standard set by the state.”

In other words, local control when we let you have it, or make you have it, but not when we don’t. The Observer has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Millennials for office

I have four things to say about this.

These days, Kylie Mugleston spends a lot of time on street corners, piquing drivers’ curiosity with a sign that says “Talk to Your Future Politician.”

The 19-year-old is heading a political campaign in her hometown of Vidor, northeast of Beaumont. A young independent in a mostly conservative area, the freshman at Lamar University has surprised the small city’s residents with her plans to run for mayor in 2019.

“I’ve always wanted to be in office,” she said, touting her nonpartisan approach as a political strength. “I like to solve things problem-by-problem.”

Mugleston was one of more than 100 millennials who gathered at Rice University on Saturday for an introductory course on how to run for office at an especially divisive time in politics. It offered those with little or no political experience a guide to organizing campaigns and chairing a county precinct for both major parties.

Houston Millennials, a nonpartisan nonprofit, organized the event, which was held for the first time. Ivan Sanchez, the group’s president, said he received overwhelming response to the idea and plans to offer similar courses in the future.

“I had no idea what I was creating,” he said.

[…]

Angie Hayes, president of Houston’s Clinic Access Support Network, expressed her dismay that women make up about half of the U.S. population but account for less than a fifth of the Texas Legislature. She used the event to announce for the first time her candidacy for District 134, which is currently held by Houston’s Sarah Davis.

“We have to stand up and run,” Hayes said.

Mike Floyd, an 18-year-old high school senior, noted that today’s elected officials have the power to shape the lives of young people for decades to come. He is the youngest candidate running for a seat on the Pearland ISD board in the May 6 election.

“We should have a seat at the table because the decisions being made today are going to affect us more,” he said.

1. I heartily approve of efforts to get more people invested and involved in elections and politics, especially at the local level. I would caution that anyone who may think about running for office should be careful to choose an office where their participation would add the most value. Don’t run for the sake of running, but seek out an office where you can say with confidence that your presence on the ballot represents a clear upgrade to the current field. If there is already a good candidate in a race, it makes more sense to support that candidate than to oppose them – we have seen enough examples recently of how having more good candidates in the same race does not lead to better outcomes. The goal is to get the best people elected.

2. Recognize that providing a good alternative will often have to be its own reward. A lot of races are not going to be competitive, for a variety of reasons – entrenched incumbents, gerrymandered districts, ideological cohesion in a given area, etc. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying, and yes lightning can strike, but a bit of perspective (which this event did seem to provide) is necessary.

3. My sense is that there will be more opportunities outside the Houston/HISD nexus than within it. City Council races like the 2005 contest between Shelley Sekula-Gibbs and James Partsch-Galvan, where the only sensible choice is to rage against the cruelty of one’s fate, are pretty rare these days. I’d have to do some study to get a better feel for this, but I do know that a lot of the smaller towns around Houston, including places that are now booming suburbs like Katy and Pearland and Pasadena have or have had Mayors who have served for multiple decades, in part because no one ever ran against them. Maybe they’ve always done a great job, and maybe they’re the best current argument there is for term limits, but these are the places I’d look for opportunities.

4. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are zillions of non-political ways to be engaged and improve one’s community. Every county, city, and school board is overflowing with boards, commissions, committees, and volunteer organizations that could desperately use your help. Your local park either has some kind of non-profit conservancy to help with its upkeep, or it needs one. Civic associations, PTAs, charities, non-profits, co-ops, the list goes on and on. They’re good things in their own right, and they serve as excellent experience and resume-building for a future candidacy. I’m just saying.

Be that as it may, this was a great and much needed event, which was also very well publicized. Kudos to all for making it happen.

Posted in: Local politics.

Whitmire Astrodome bill passes out of committee

Whatever.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

A Senate committee voted Monday in favor of a bill that would require Harris County residents to approve a county project to renovate the Astrodome by raising its floors and installing parking underneath.

The bill could effectively could torpedo the county’s $105 million project to raise the ground level two floors to fit in roughly 1,400 parking spaces.

County officials had said when the proposal was unveiled in September, that the plan would make the Dome suitable for festivals or conferences and usher in potential commercial uses in the more than 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core.

It had been viewed as a potential saving grace for the aging stadium, designated earlier this year a state antiquities landmark.

State Sen. John Whitmire is looking to put the brakes on the renovation plan, saying Harris County voters should weigh in.

See here and here for the background. The later version of the Chron story notes that Judge Emmett testified against the bill, not that it made any difference. I still think this is dumb and unnecessary, but all of the Senators who represent Harris County are coauthors, so I figure its passage in the upper chamber is a formality, and in the lower chamber a strong likelihood. What that means in November – in particular, who shows up to support this forced vote, and who shows up to oppose it – will add another dimension to an election season that’s shaping up to be a lot more interesting than we might have expected. Swamplot has more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Beware the coming shenanigans on SB6

The full House may not get to vote on Dan Patrick’s bathroom bill, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t get a chance to vote onwhat’s in the bill.

But speculation that SB 6 may not make it to the House floor for a vote by the 150-member chamber has left House Democrats on high alert for the possibility that some Republican members could attempt to attach bathroom-related legislative language to other bills that make it onto the House floor during the remainder of the session.

A small group of House members — particularly those who are anti-Straus and have organized as the Texas Freedom Caucus — are expected to repeatedly offer up portions of the “bathroom bill” as amendments to other bills in an effort to force a vote on the issues, according to sources familiar with the matter.

“It’s clear that the certain Republican members are going to try to add controversial bills to every piece of legislation that they can,” said one Capitol observer who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely.

James Bernsen, the Texas Freedom Caucus’ executive director, said that its members declined to comment. But caucus members have been clear in the past about their support for legislation like SB 6.

Echoing Senate Republicans’ defense of the bathroom legislation, one of the caucus’ legislative priorities is to “protect the privacy of women and girls in all publicly-owned settings.” One of its members — state Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano – filed his own version of the “bathroom bill,” which was referred to Cook’s State Affairs Committee. And on just the second day of the legislative session, Tyler Republican Matt Schaefer, who leads the Freedom Caucus, unsuccessfully attempted to amend a routine resolution related to House administrative issues to require people in the Capitol to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex and not their gender identity.

Since nearly the start of the legislative session, SB 6 has emerged among the most prominent disagreements between Straus and Patrick, with the lieutenant governor going as far as saying that Straus is “out of touch with the voters” on the bathroom legislation. The speaker for his part has emphasized that lawmakers must prioritize the state budget and pressing funding needs, including the state’s troubled child welfare system and school finance system.

Meanwhile, Patrick is turning to the religious community to help put pressure on Straus and the House. This month, he announced he was launching “Operation 1 Million Voices” to build support for the bill among Christians in Texas.

Religious groups are planning to host almost a dozen regional summitsbetween now and April to organize pastors in support of the bathroom legislation. The Texas Pastor Council is looking to recruit 3,000 pastors as part of their efforts to press Straus for a hearing and a vote on the legislation.

See here for the story about SB6’s likely fate in committee. These tactics are as old as the House itself, and while it’s more likely to cause the unexpected demise of a different bill than to work, the danger is definitely there. The thing to keep in mind here is that while a large number of Republicans in the House undoubtedly support SB6, only 22 of them need to oppose it – assuming there are no primary-needing turncoats in the House Democratic caucus – for it to fail. You can assume Joe Straus (who normally doesn’t vote anyway), Byron Cook, and Sarah Davis would oppose it, so the magic number starts at nineteen. Maybe they exist and maybe they don’t, but what Cook and Straus are trying to do is keep their fellow Republicans from having to take a side in public on it. There’s a reason why even our wishy washy Governor hasn’t expressed a definitive position on SB6, after all. The zealots want to force the issue, to clarify who’s with them and who they want to primary next year. Everyone else would prefer to let this cup pass them by. The rest of the session is about who wins that fight.

(By the way, for those who prefer to fight it out in November elections, Matt Shaheen’s HD66 is on the list of districts that need to be targeted next year. Just FYI.)

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Pension reform bill passes Senate committee

A major step forward.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform plan cleared a state Senate committee in its initial hearing at the Capitol on Monday, despite the fact that all those who testified – including Mayor Sylvester Turner – opposed at least some portion of the omnibus package.

Retirees were concerned about benefit cuts. Some conservatives said the only path to true reform wold be to move new hires into defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s, which the bill does not do. Firefighters, who never agreed to final language with the city, are opposed in part because the legislation would cut their benefits by what the state Pension Review Board estimates to be $970 million, up from about $800 million the firefighters agreed to in approving initial reform terms last fall.

Turner says those deeper cuts are to ensure the city gets the savings it needs in spite of the fire pension not providing comprehensive data to predict future costs; fire leaders say an ongoing lawsuit prevents them from complying. For his part, Turner – along with the city’s police and municipal worker groups – opposes the bill as written because Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, added a requirement that the public vote on pension bonds that are a key piece of the proposal; the mayor has called the clause a “poison pill.” Ultimately, city officials hope the provision could be excised at some point in the legislative process. Turner also listed seven technical changes he wants that he said appear to be drafting errors in the bill; Huffman took no issue with those, but defended her decision to call for a public vote on the pension bonds.

The provision is a pet project of another Houston Republican, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose standalone bill to require a vote on any Texas municipality’s pension bonds also passed the committee on Monday.

“It’s important that voters have input,” Huffman said, adding that she believes voters would approve, that she would campaign for the bonds’ passage, and that the underlying math of the proposal would work without the bonds.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. The Huffman bill is SB2190; the House companion bill, which will have its hearing next Monday, is HB43. You know I’m not philosophically opposed to voting on the pension bonds, but as I said before, elections have winners and losers. I’ll be very interested to see who joins Mayor Turner and Sen. Huffman in campaigning for that bond issue to win, and who will join with the sore losers in campaigning for it to fail.

Posted in: That's our Lege.