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Plaintiffs win in Census citizenship question lawsuit

Very good news.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, with an opinion that found the move by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

Furman’s decision, if not overturned by a higher court, is a monumental victory for voting rights activists and immigrant advocates, who feared the question would spook immigrant participation in the census. An undercount of those populations would shift political representation and governmental resources away from those communities, in favor of less diverse, less urban parts of the country. Furthermore, there were strong hints that the citizenship data procured would then be used to exclude non-citizenships from redistricting — a long-sought goal of conservatives that would boost Republicans’ electoral advantages.

In his 277-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan said that Ross “failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices — a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations.”

[…]

The case was a consolidation of two lawsuits — one brought by the ACLU and the other by a multi-state coalition — and is among some half dozen cases across the country challenging the decision, which was announced last March. Furman’s case was he first to go trial and he is the first judge to reach a decision on the merits.

It is also an issue already headed to the Supreme Court, so it is unlikely that Furman’s word will be the last one. After the Trump administration fought tooth and nail Furman’s order that Ross be deposed for the case, the Supreme Court blocked the deposition and scheduled a hearing on whether Ross’ motive for adding the question should play a role in the case for February.

Furman said that his decision Tuesday was based solely on the so-called administrative record — the official record that administration put forward justifying its process of coming to a decision on the question.

By basing his ruling only on the administrative record, Furman segregated his findings from the contentious issue at the heart of dispute the Supreme Court will hear next month.

“Looking beyond the Administrative Record merely confirms the Court’s conclusions and illustrates how egregious the APA violations were,” he said.

While ruling with the challengers on the Administrative Procedures Act claim, the judge did not find a constitutional due process violation, as the challengers alleged.

“In particular, although the Court finds that Secretary Ross’s decision was pretextual, it is unable to find, on the record before it, that the decision was a pretext for impermissible discrimination,” he said. “To be fair to Plaintiffs, it is impossible to know if they could have carried their burden to prove such discriminatory intent had they been allowed to depose Secretary Ross, as the Court had authorized last September.”

His opinion took a not-so-veiled swipe at Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote, when the dispute over deposing Ross was at the Supreme Court at an earlier stage, that there was nothing wrong with a new cabinet secretary “cutting through red tape.”

“[A]lthough some may deride its requirements as ‘red tape,’ the APA exists to
protect core constitutional and democratic values,” Furman wrote. “It ensures that agencies exercise only the authority that Congress has given them, that they exercise that authority reasonably, and that they follow applicable procedures — in short, it ensures that agencies remain accountable to the public they serve.”

See here for the previous update. Though you wouldn’t know it from the slavish devotion our state leaders pay to Donald Trump, this ruling is very good for Texas. There will of course be an appeal and as noted this will surely make its way to SCOTUS, but for now this is a big win. ThinkProgress, Slate, and Mother Jones all have good analyses of the opinion, so go check ’em out.

Five file for HD125

Our fourth and hopefully final special legislative election for this cycle is now queued up.

Justin Rodriguez

Five candidates have signed up for the Feb. 12 special election to fill the seat of former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

The candidates, four Democrats and one Republican, had until 5 p.m. Monday to file.

Rodriguez, a San Antonio Democrat, gave up the seat earlier this month after being appointed to replace longtime Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo, who died late last year.

The Democratic candidates for solidly blue House District 125 include:

  • Steve Huerta, a social justice activist
  • Ray Lopez, a former member of the San Antonio City Council
  • Coda Rayo-Garza, an education policy expert
  • Art Reyna, who represented HD-125 from 1997 to 2003

The lone GOP contender is Fred Rangel, a former member of the State Republican Executive Committee who unsuccessfully ran for Texas GOP vice chair last year.

These are the five we’d heard about at the end of last week, so no late surprises. As for the “solidly blue” qualifier, we’ve already talked about that. Here’s a handy chart for you:


Dist  Romney   Obama  Abbott   Davis   Trump Clinton
====================================================
079    34.1%   64.6%   39.3%   58.5%   26.5%   68.0%
125    39.5%   59.0%   42.5%   55.6%   33.3%   60.8%
145    38.3%   60.2%   40.8%   57.2%   28.7%   66.8%
SD19   44.1%   54.6%   49.1%   49.0%   41.9%   53.4%

As I said before, HD125 is solidly blue in a high-turnout context (we don’t have 2018 numbers yet), more moderately blue in a low-turnout context. It’s bluer than SD19, which is certainly reassuring, but it’s not blue enough to sleepwalk through it or fail to mend fences in a runoff. Honestly, I’d prefer in general to let numbers rather than adjectives do the describing of districts like these. The data’s easy enough to find. Let the reader be the judge of how solid or swingy a given district is. Early voting starts in HD125 on January 28. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

State House mulls big increase in school funding

That’s a good start.

As Texas’ Republican leadership calls for property tax cuts and a school finance overhaul, the Texas House on Monday pitched a bold proposal: Pump roughly $7 billion more state funds into public schools — but only if lawmakers can satisfactorily overhaul the school finance system to slow the growth of property taxes.

Budget documents published Monday evening show the House has offered up a whopping 17 percent increase in K-12 public education funding so long as lawmakers achieve a few lofty goals in reforming how the state pays for public schools: Reduce the state’s reliance on property taxes, decrease the need for the unpopular Robin Hood system that requires property-wealthy school districts to subsidize poorer ones, and maintain an equitable system of school finance, as required by the state Constitution.

Counting all sources of funding — including local property taxes, state revenue and federal dollars — the state’s public education budget would grow to about $70.6 billion in the two-year cycle from 2020 to 2021, according to a Legislative Budget Board summary of the proposed House budget. That’s an increase of 16.7 percent from the previous two-year budget cycle, when the state spent about $60.5 billion on public schools.

[…]

The state is forecasted to have about 8.1 percent more funding available to spend over the next, two-year budget cycle. The House’s proposed budget would also withdraw $633 million out of the state savings account, called the Economic Stabilization Fund, to pay for retired teachers’ pensions, school safety improvements and disaster-relief programs.

That account, also known as the rainy day fund, has grown to a record level thanks to booming oil and gas production. Even after the House’s proposed $633 million withdrawal, the fund’s balance is projected to reach $14.7 billion in 2021.

The budget recommends spending $109 million on school safety, which lawmakers have discussed as a priority item since the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting near Houston left 10 dead. Included in school safety funding would be about $12 million for children’s mental health programs.

Notably, the House budget decreases state funding for health care and human services by about 3.2 percent. Education and health care make up the vast majority of state spending.

Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, would see a decrease of $1.4 billion in state funds, for example.

There are a lot of details to be filled in here. Making this contingent on property tax reform can be dicey, as the last time the Lege “fixed” school finance by way of tax reform they screwed over the revenue stream for years to come. Cutting Medicaid payments is a serious no-go. All of this has to actually be written into the budget and then approved by both chambers and not line-item-vetoed by Abbott. Lots of things can go wrong or turn out bad. But all that said, this is a great starting point, and hugely refreshing after too many sessions of cuts.

Meanwhile, in the Senate:

Leaders of the Texas Senate are proposing giving schools $3.7 billion to provide $5,000 pay raises to all full-time classroom teachers — on the heels of a House budget proposal that includes $7 billion more for public education.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed Senate Bill 3 Tuesday morning, which would mandate that schools use the billions in additional funding specifically for teacher pay raises. Speaking at his inauguration Tuesday morning, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, lauded the proposal as one of his main priorities this legislative session and said the funding would be permanent.

[…]

Nelson’s proposal appears to build a new formula into the school finance system that would distribute state funding to schools based on the number of full-time classroom teachers they employ, and require they use that money for raises over the previous year.

Here’s SB3. We now know that while the Senate is also proposing more money overall for school finance, it’s not as much as what the House is proposing. This is what I mean when I say there’s a long way to go to get to a finished product. Be that as it may, this too is a good start.

The 2019 elections

We haven’t forgotten that there are some big elections on tap for us this year, have we? Let’s go a quick rundown.

May elections

Election campaigns are already in progress in the cities that have May elections, which includes big cities like San Antonio and Dallas, and smaller cities in our area like Pasadena, Sugar Land, and Pearland. Pasadena will be a hot zone again, with first-term Mayor Jeff Wagner up for re-election and local Democrats hoping to win the District A seat they came so close to in 2017, which would give them a 5-3 advantage on City Council. I don’t have much to say about these races yet, but I will note that my friend Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council in Sugar Land, so I wish her all the best with that.

Houston – Overview

This is the first city election since 2015, thanks to the change in the term limits law. It’s also the first city election since the election of Donald Trump, and the two high-turnout, Democratic-sweep elections in Harris County. How will that affect the course of this election? Normally, even if we have a hotly contested Mayor’s race, we’d be looking at 200 to 250K turnout max – less if the Mayor’s race was not contested – but with all the newly activated people from the past two years, will things change? The betting money always says No until events prove otherwise. The one other thing that may affect turnout this year is the Metro referendum, which itself will be conducted for the first time with no John Culberson in office. So many factors in play, so all I will say for now is don’t believe any firm, confident pronouncements. There’s a lot of room for variance and for doubt at this time.

Mayor

It’s Sylvester Turner versus Bill King, Round 2, with the extra zest (maybe) of Tony Buzbee. And maybe others, too – will anyone be surprised if Ben Hall manages to get a story published about how he’s “thinking about” taking another shot at it? The last Mayor to fail to be re-elected was Kathy Whitmire in 1991. Past performance does not guarantee future outcomes, but I figure there’s a reason for that. It’s Turner’s election to lose, and King doesn’t have his signature talking point from 2015 now that pension reform has been achieved, by Turner. He’s clearly going to attack Turner, but as to what he might campaign on beyond that, I have no idea.

City Controller

Honestly, I’ll be surprised if Chris Brown draws anything more than token opposition. Controller isn’t that sexy a job, and Brown hasn’t done anything to draw the bad kind of attention to himself.

City Council

Districts A, B, C, J, and At Large #5 are term limited. I’ve already received two invitations to like Facebook pages for District C candidates (Nick Hellyar and Bob Nowak), and I’m aware of at least two more such candidates (Shelley Kennedy and Abbie Kamin). Durrel Douglas listed some potential District B candidates a few weeks ago, and there are rumblings in the other slots as well. Raj Salhotra has announced a challenge to Mike Knox in At Large #1, while Laurie Robinson appears to be gearing up for another run in At Large #5. I’ll be reviewing the finance reports for January when they start to come out, which may yield a few more names. For now, let’s just say I expect a lot of activity, and not just in the open seats. Four years is a long time to go between city elections, and lots of people are in a mind to run for something.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Sallie Alcorn, who had been Steve Costello’s chief of staff, has announced her candidacy for AL5.

HISD

Assuming we have HISD Trustee elections this November – we should know that for sure by August – the following Trustees are up in 2019: Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Sergio Lira, Jolanda Jones, and Diana Davila. Far as I know, all are planning to run for re-election. Lira was elected to fill out Manuel Rodriguez’s unfinished term in 2017, Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015 and has had a rocky tenure as Board President, Davila upset Juliet Stipeche (now Mayor Turner’s education czar) in 2015, and Jolanda is Jolanda. I’m not currently aware of any opponents on the horizon, but I’m sure most if not all of them will draw someone. Assuming, again, we have HISD Trustee elections this November.

HCC

It will have been six long years, but we will finally have the chance to rid ourselves of the stain that is Dave Wilson, in HCC Trustee District 2, this November. Also up for election are Zeph Capo and Neeta Sane.

Metro

All of Harris County will have the Metro referendum, which is as yet unfinished, on their ballot in November. Again, I don’t have much to say about this yet, but this is one of my top interests for 2019. It will certainly be a component of the Mayor’s race as well. I figure if Metro could pass the 2003 referendum they have to be a favorite to pass this one, but you never know with these things.

That’s all I have for now. Next up will be the finance reports when they become available. If you know of any candidate announcements or other related news, leave a comment and tell us all.

Time again for craft brewers to get their legislative hopes up

We’ve seen this movie before. I hope for a better ending, but I’m keeping those hopes modest.

Texas is the only state in the country that prohibits some breweries from selling six-packs, bottles and growlers of beer to-go, but a pair of bills filed for consideration during the 86th legislative session aim to change that.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) introduced companion bills SB 312 and HB 672, respectively, which would allow manufacturing breweries to sell beer to drinkers for off-premise consumption.

[…]

In 2015, North Texas’ Deep Ellum Brewing Co. and the now-defunct Grapevine Craft Brewery sued the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission over the issue and lost. Earlier this year, the court ruled in favor of the TABC, citing the potential impact to Texas’ three-tier system, which aims to avoid conflicts of interest between alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

In the decision, however, the judge noted that off-premise sales were granted to distilleries and wineries by the legislature, not the courts. That and the support shown for to-go sales during both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2018 is giving the Texas beer industry hope that the legislation will pass.

I noted the lawsuit back in 2015, but missed that it had been decided. The story here has always been that the beer distributors’ lobbyists are mightier than everyone else. Maybe this year it will be different – hope springs eternal – but it is always safer to bet on the house. Alas.

Endorsement watch: Noriega for HD145

The Chron makes their choice for the special election in HD145.

Melissa Noriega

While the legislative session started in Austin last week, early voting begins today to select a representative for House District 145. That’s not the usual order of things.

This special election has been delayed because Republican Gov. Greg Abbott dragged his feet in scheduling the Senate District 6 special election to replace now-Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia. The winner was then-state Rep. Carol Alvarado, who now has to be replaced as well.

On the losing end of these political shenanigans are the voters in this largely Hispanic, Democratic-leaning district, which straddles Interstate 45 from downtown to Pasadena. They may see their political power diluted this year as the Legislature starts without their new representative in place. The victor in this eight-way race will need the skill and experience to effectively advocate for constituents despite a truncated timeline. Luckily, voters have that candidate in Melissa Noriega.

The former city councilwoman actually held this seat in 2005 while her then-husband, Rick Noriega, was on active military duty in Afghanistan. She then ran for the at-large position 3 seat on City Council, which she held until term-limited out in 2013. During that time she developed a reputation as a well-informed consensus-builder and routinely earned our endorsement. Since then she has worked as a vice president at Baker-Ripley, focusing on disaster response after Hurricane Harvey.

Appearing alongside four opponents at the editorial board’s endorsement meeting, Noriega, 64, spoke with specificity about the challenges facing this district, including overburdened schools, disaster recovery, flooding and the planned redesign of I-45 and Interstate 69.

I am as noted in the tank for Melissa, so I’m happy to see the Chron endorse her. This race is all about whoever gets enough people to the polls to vote for them to make the runoff. Several campaigns are out there working – I’ve been contacted one way or another by three or four of them – but the runway for this is extremely short. If you’re in HD145, make a plan to vote and get out there and do it.

It’s always possible to make a border wall proposal stupider

Here’s Exhibit A.

An emergency Trump administration plan to tap storm protection funds to pay for a border wall was slammed Friday by Houston lawmakers who said it could endanger the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey and jeopardize the region’s preparedness for future storms.

While details of the proposal remained unclear, lawmakers in both parties scrambled to win assurances from the White House and allay concerns about projects in the Gulf Region, including a proposed coastal barrier to protect Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.

Reports that President Donald Trump has been briefed on a plan to use unspent money from Army Corps of Engineers projects heightened tensions in Congress about his threat to use emergency powers to build hundreds of miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, much of it in the Rio Grande Valley.

The controversy also highlighted long-standing concerns about the slow pace at which Washington has released emergency disaster funds to Texas since Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

I wonder if this is what Trump meant when he said that Dan Patrick had offered to help pay for the wall? Maybe someone should ask him. There’s too much mendacity and stupidity here to waste time analyzing this, though my friend Amy Patrick took a crack at it from an engineering perspective. Not that any of this really matters, since Trump changes his mind every five minutes about what he does and doesn’t want. It does serve as a good distraction from the reporting that Trump is an asset of Russian intelligence, so there’s that. Happy Monday, everyone.

Trying again to primary Cuellar

Good luck. It’s not going to be easy.

Rep. Henry Cuellar

A grass-roots Democratic group that helped power the upset victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has identified a Texas Democrat as its first target ahead of the 2020 congressional primaries — but as of now, Ocasio-Cortez herself is staying neutral.

Justice Democrats, a political committee founded after the 2016 election to reshape the Democratic Party through primary challenges, is working to recruit a challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar, a seven-term congressman from a strongly Democratic district who’s one of the few anti-abortion-rights voices in the party’s House conference.

In a statement, the group compared Texas’s 28th Congressional District, which gave the president just 38.5 percent of the vote in 2016, to other districts where left-leaning candidates have unseated incumbents. It is launching a “primary Cuellar fund” to encourage any potential candidate that there will be resources if he or she jumps into the race.

“There’s an Ocasio-Cortez and [Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna] Pressley in blue districts across America, tired of seeing long-standing incumbents serve corporate interests, work with Trump’s agenda, and work against the progressive movement,” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats. “These grass-roots leaders just need a little bit of encouragement and support.”

[…]

The Justice Democrats’ campaign to oust “corporate Democrats” was restarted after the 2018 elections, with Ocasio-Cortez, one of her party’s biggest stars, as its de facto spokeswoman. In a mid-November call with activists, Ocasio-Cortez said that they could “save this country” by either shaming incumbents out of accepting “money from oil and gas companies” or by ousting them at the polls.

“We’ve got to primary folks,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, who would become the congresswoman’s chief of staff.

But Ocasio-Cortez is not intervening in the “primary Cuellar” campaign right now. In her first days in office, the congresswoman has publicly criticized a House rule that required offsets for any spending increases, while privately working to get appointed to at least one committee with jurisdiction over taxes or health care.

While she was not appointed to the Ways and Means Committee after a left-wing campaign on her behalf, Ocasio-Cortez is expected to get a seat on the Financial Services Committee. She is not part of Justice Democrats’ primary recruitment push.

As the story notes, Cuellar gave Democrats in Texas another reason to be annoyed with him when he contributed to Republican Rep. John Carter’s re-election campaign. Let’s state up front that it’s hard to defeat an incumbent in a Congressional primary in Texas. Since 1992, by my count it has happened four times in a Democratic race:

1994 – Sheila Jackson Lee defeats Rep. Craig Washington
2004 – Al Green defeats Rep. Chris Bell
2004 – Henry Cuellar defeats Rep. Ciro Rodriguez
2012 – Beto O’Rourke defeats Rep. Silvestre Reyes

The two from 2004 have an asterisk next to them, as they came after the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, which made each of those incumbents’ districts less hospitable to them. Most years most incumbents face no or token opposition. It’s no easier on the Republican side, as only two incumbents have been ousted during this time. Ron Paul knocked off Greg Laughlin in 1996 after Laughlin had switched parties following the 1994 election, and John Ratcliffe beat the 91-year-old Ralph Hall in 2014.

Anyway. Washington had some ethical issues and a high rate of missing votes at the time SJL took him out. Bell’s CD25 was taken out of Harris County and replaced with CD09, which was drawn to elect an African-American Democrat. CD28 was redrawn to include Webb County, which heavily favored the Laredo-based Cuellar. The 2012 race was the closest thing on this list to an ideological race, but Reyes also had some ethical issues that O’Rourke hit on.

The two ideology-based primary races I can think of are Ciro Rodriguez’s rematch against Cuellar in 2006 (he lost 53-40 in a three-candidate contest) and Adrian Garcia against Gene Green in 2016 (Green prevailed, 57-39, in another three-candidate race). There’s not a viable model in the state for the Justice Dems to follow, is what I’m saying. If they want my advice, I’d say find a candidate with deep ties to the Laredo area, and make your main issue Cuellar’s too-close ties to Republicans. Try to pin him to Donald Trump, if only by association. Downplay as much as you can any and all support your candidate will receive from outside the district and outside the state. And good luck. I wouldn’t advise anyone to get their hopes up, but one never knows.

FIFA World Cup update

Still a year away from a decision.

Houston is among 17 American cities vying to become one of 10 host cities selected when the finalists are trimmed by 2021. The 2026 World Cup will also include 10 games each in Canada and Mexico. A host city would get six games during the 32-day event.

Bid committee president Chris Canetti is hopeful of Houston’s chances but sees the addition of [John] Arnold as another boon for the bid.

“One of the things that we’re going to need to do as a committee here and as a city is raise funds,” Canetti said. “So when you agree to host a World Cup, there’s an expense that comes with it. This is really the same exact formula that existed when the Super Bowl came a couple years ago, so to have someone like John who’s so well-respected in the community, so well-connected in the community … it’s really important to us to be able to open some doors.

“When you look at Houston as a package, we’ve got everything in place,” Canetti said, referring to the city’s recent history hosting national events and its broad infrastructure. “We look at it as, ‘What’s going to put us on top with the decision makers and let them know that Houston belongs.’ And we think being funded is a great thing.”

Committee members believe Houston’s preparation has helped distinguish the city from its competitors. Still, it’s a cautious optimism. And to an extent, they see the potential for collaboration.

“FIFA’s indicated that they have a preference for some geographic concentration to make travel easier for both teams and fans, so … Dallas and Houston can work together, and they can be complements rather than an either-or situation,” Arnold said, pointing to Houston’s relative proximity to Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey, three Mexican cities included in the joint bid among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. “The geographic spread of cities will be important, the amount of fan support and community support that each city can show and demonstrate will be important, and I think the culture of soccer that each city shows will be important in that process.”

See here for the previous update. Houston really does have a lot going for it, including a track record of doing well hosting other big sporting events. The World Cup would be bigger still, thanks to the number of matches and influx of international fans, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. Here’s hoping for the best.

Weekend link dump for January 13

“This island was on the brink of disaster. Then, they planted thousands of trees.”

“It seems strange that spending money to convince people to vote is protected as free speech, while voting itself is not. In fact, though, this reasoning is in line with the way free speech is discussed in the public sphere.”

“The 10 new Democratic House committee chairs who are about to make Trump’s life hell”.

RIP, Dr. Waun Ki Hong, trailblazing doctor and researcher at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“In short, there is no such thing as parity in college athletics.”

I don’t endorse the idea of using fake social media accounts as a political tactic, even against a monster like Roy Moore. But at least if such things are equal-opportunity destroyers, then perhaps the odds of getting a decent regulatory solution improve.

The remarkable and uncanny political career of Jerry Brown.

“Buying heavily discounted, popular software from second-hand sources online has always been something of an iffy security proposition. But purchasing steeply discounted licenses for cloud-based subscription products like recent versions of Microsoft Office can be an extremely risky transaction, mainly because you may not have full control over who has access to your data.”

The town of Marfa gets the Simpsons treatment.

When are R. Kelly and Bryan Singer – and the people who have enabled them – going to be held accountable for their actions?

The “Gameday” model for campaign coverage needs to change.

“Paul Manafort shared 2016 presidential campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate the FBI has said has ties to Russian intelligence, according to a court filing.” I’m sure there’s an innocent explanation for that.

RIP, Howell Begle, attorney who worked to get royalty payments to R&B musicians who’d been screwed by the recording industry.

I love stories like this. Just read and enjoy.

RIP, Ron Mock, controversial death penalty lawyer.

Presidenting is hard. Also, Donald Trump is really bad at it.

“A gambling site is paying out thousands of dollars to people who correctly bet that President Donald Trump would tell more than 3.5 lies in his Oval Office address on Tuesday.”

RIP, Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, the “godmother of Title IX”.

“Here’s our mega-giant list of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero shows we’re most looking forward to, with the standard caveat that any and all air dates are subject to change.”

Julian Castro makes it official

Here he comes.

Julian Castro

The former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor made the long-anticipated announcement at Plaza Guadalupe, near where he grew up on the city’s West Side. It came a month after Castro formed an exploratory committee, a mere formality on his way to unveiling a 2020 bid that for months appeared likely.

“I’m running for president because it’s time for new leadership, it’s time for new energy and it’s time for a new commitment to make sure that the opportunities that I had are available to every American,” he said.

Castro joins what is expected to be a crowded race for his party’s nod to take on President Donald Trump. It is a race that could include more than one Texan as former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso faces calls to run after his closer-than-expected loss last year to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

[…]

Castro starts the race as a long shot, barely registering in most polls. But he argued he is used to facing an uphill battle as a son of San Antonio’s West Side.

“There are no frontrunners that are born here, but I always believed with big dreams and hard work, anything is possible in this country,” Castro said.

His announcement was heavy on themes that have long animated Castro’s political career: generational change, education and the opportunities that come with it, and the challenges he faced in his upbringing.

Following his announcement, Castro was set to visit Puerto Rico — an uncommon first stop after a presidential campaign reveal. Castro will attend the Latino Victory Fund’s political summit there Monday and see recovery efforts for Hurricane Maria, the storm that devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 and to which the Trump administration’s response was roundly criticized. Next week, Castro is scheduled to visit a more traditional venue for White House hopefuls: New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state.

See here for the previous update. I don’t have anything like a favorite for President yet, and I don’t expect to have one any time soon. I plan to evaluate the contenders on three main criteria:

1. How much I like and agree with their stated policy positions, paying special attention to what they emphasize and what they downplay, and where they have concrete proposals versus broad themes and outlines.

2. How well they get under Donald Trump’s skin, and how effectively they brush off the farrago of hate, nonsense, and stupid nicknames he will send their way.

3. Their level of commitment to compete in Texas next November. If they don’t have a plan to make Texas a battleground, they’re not for me.

So welcome to the race, Julian Castro. Show us what you’ve got. Texas Monthly and the Rivard Report have more.

A first look at contenders in HD125

Gilbert Garcia of the SA Express News points to a potential frontrunner for the HD125 special election.

Justin Rodriguez

Ray Lopez never appears to be in a hurry.

During his eight years on the City Council, the gray-haired, mustachioed former AT&T marketing director was legendary for his calm assurance and willingness to speak at length — often at great length — on any subject. He came to be seen by his colleagues as the council’s easygoing, consensus-building uncle.

But Lopez finds himself in a hurry now, thanks to Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor announced Monday that the special election to fill the Texas House District 125 seat, vacated last week by new Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, will be held on Feb. 12, with early voting starting on Jan. 28.

After getting the green light last Friday from Evelyn, his wife of 48 years, Lopez has decided to run for the seat. That means a sprint for a man who likes to live his life at the pace of a casual stroll (or boating excursion on Medina Lake).

The race likely will get crowded between now and next Monday’s filing deadline. Former District 125 Rep. Art Reyna and policy advocate Coda Rayo-Garza already have declared their interest and others will follow. Like Lopez, they will run as Democrats.

[…]

One of the most timeworn clichés in politics involves the reluctant politician — the elected official who frequently runs for office yet claims to hate the political game.

Nonetheless, when Lopez says he loves governance but doesn’t get much enjoyment from campaigning, it’s easy to believe him. After all, there’s evidence to back him up.

Most observers of his first City Council campaign, a 2005 runoff with Delicia Herrera, concluded that Herrera won primarily because she knocked on more doors and outworked Lopez. He had to wait until 2009 for his opportunity to join the council.

In 2013, Lopez sought a third term on the council and faced hard-charging challenger Greg Brockhouse. Lopez survived the challenge, but there were moments when it looked like his nonchalant approach might cost him his seat.

That’s why the abbreviated nature of this special election only works to Lopez’s benefit. His name recognition and long history of service provide him a built-in advantage over any other candidate in this race.

See here and here for the background. Garcia doesn’t identify any Republicans running for HD125, but the Rivard Report fills in some other names:

Former District 125 Rep. Arthur “Art” Reyna filed as a Democratic candidate Wednesday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Policy advocate and Democrat Coda Rayo-Garza and Republican Fred Rangel, who ran for HD 125 last year, both filed Thursday. Steve Huerta, who currently serves as the Bexar County Democratic Party rules committee co-chair and was formerly incarcerated, told the Rivard Report he will be filing on Monday. And former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez filed as a Democratic candidate on Friday.

Another multiple-Dem-and-one-Republican race, at least potentially. Lopez’s name recognition is surely an advantage, but he first has to make sure people know there’s an election so that they can show up to vote for him. The filing deadline is Monday the 14th, so we’ll know soon enough how big this field is.

Give your input on the HISD Superintendent search

Public meeting notice.

The Houston Independent School District Board of Education is conducting a nationwide search for a permanent superintendent, and trustees are seeking input from the community about the qualities and traits they would like to see in their next district leader.

HISD Board of Education trustees have scheduled several meetings to gather feedback from the community that will be used to develop a superintendent candidate profile. The dates and times for the meetings are listed below.

In March, Dr. Grenita Lathan was named by trustees as HISD’s interim superintendent. Lathan will continue to serve in that capacity during the duration of the search.

The Board of Education has exercised a warranty provision with executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates to conduct a superintendent search at no cost to the district.

The Illinois-based firm will help trustees host a series of community meetings, including a districtwide meeting on Saturday, Jan. 19, to gather input from various district stakeholders, including parents and students, school-based staff, district employees, and business and community members. The board will then use that feedback to finalize its superintendent profile and begin searching for candidates.

Input on the search for HISD’s permanent superintendent can also be provided via an online survey on the district’s website, www.HoustonISD.org.

Click over to see the meeting schedule. There’s one in each district, plus at HISD headquarters on West 18th Street just outside the Loop. These run from the 14th through the 24th, so make your plan to attend.

Early voting begins Monday for HD145 special election

From the inbox:

First week Early Voting hours for the January 29, 2019 Special Election To Fill A Vacancy For State Representative District 145 will now be extended from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.  Extended voting hours will now give voters an extra 18 hours to make it to the polls.

“One of my goals upon taking office is making voting easier for Houstonians and expanding Early Voting hours is just one way to do that,” stated Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

The Early Voting locations and schedule are as follows:

Harris County, TX Early Voting Schedule and Locations

January 29, 2019 Special Election To Fill A Vacancy For SRD 145

Location Address City Zip
County Attorney Conference Center 1019 Congress Avenue Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Hours of Operation
Day(s) Date Time
Monday to Saturday Jan 14 – 19 7am – 7 pm
Sunday Jan 20 1 pm – 6 pm
*Monday Jan 21 CLOSED for MLK Day
Tuesday to Friday Jan 22 – 25 7 am – 7 pm

“Extended hours match the needs of the hard working Houstonians hoping to cast a ballot during the first week of Early Voting,” added Dr. Trautman.

State Representative District 145 registered voters can find their sample ballot as well as their nearest Early Voting location by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

The schedule and map can be found here. I’m voting for Melissa Noriega, and given that I don’t work anywhere near the early voting locations, those extended hours for week one – which ought to be the norm going forward – will be nice and convenient for me. Early voting for HD79 will start on the same day, but I don’t get those press releases. Get out there and vote if you’re in the district, y’all.

Confederate plaque at the Capitol to be removed

Hallelujah.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Following more than a year of complaints from elected officials of all political stripes, a state board that oversees the Texas Capitol grounds voted unanimously Friday to remove a controversial Confederate plaque that falsely asserts that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

The decision comes more than a month after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who chairs the six-member State Preservation Board, called for it in a letter to Executive Director Rod Welsh. State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, has led a crusade to get rid of the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque, which was erected in 1959, for more than a year. He has said that the plaque “is not historically accurate in the slightest, to which any legitimate, peer-reviewed Civil War historian will attest.”

Texas House speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, serve as co-vice chairs on the preservation board under Abbott.

[…]

In a statement after Friday’s vote, Johnson said he was glad the board voted unanimously to remove the plaque but added the caveat that “none of us in state government should be high-fiving each other or patting ourselves on the back today.”

“The plaque should never have been put up by the Legislature in the first place, and it certainly shouldn’t have taken 60 years to remove it. And that’s on Republicans and Democrats alike, to be perfectly honest,” Johnson wrote.

See here for the background. Kudos to all for making this happen, but especially to Rep. Johnson, who has been the driving force behind it since 2017. (Several of Johnson’s Democratic colleagues got the ball rolling two years earlier; Johnson took it across the finish line.) He’s also right that this stupid and offensive monument to slavery and lying about our history should never have been there in the first place, and shouldn’t have taken sixty years to remove. It’s good that it’s finally going, but we need to do a lot better than that. The Observer has more.

A switch to cider

Some craft brewing news of note.

The taps, they are a-changin’ at Town in City Brewery, where owner Justin Engle has decided to pause beer brewing and focus instead on creating hard cider.

The folks at Town in City began building their reputation in cider about a year ago, when they launched Houston Cider Co., in a shared space with the beer-brewing operation. But this month, Engle said he decided not to renew his brewer’s permit when it expires.

“We were given legal advice that if we were to renew our brewer’s permit prior to the TABC Sunset hearings, that we may be stuck for two years in old TABC rules,” Engle said of the current fight between brewers and legislators to modernize state laws for alcohol sales. “If the new rules are passed, it would still take us two years to get to the next rules. So we decided not to take that gamble, and so we’re not going to renew right now.”

But that doesn’t mean things at the brewery on Cavalcade near the Heights are going quiet.

On Dec. 18, Houston Cider Co. took a leap that Town in City never attempted: It began canning. Now, three of the cidery’s mainstays — Dry, Cherry and Rosé — are available at Whole Foods and a few other shops across the city.

Cider production began outpacing beer production at the Heights brewery back in August, Engle said.

Still, cider isn’t exactly a sure thing — especially not when compared with the ever-growing popularity of craft beer. According to Drizly, an eCommerce marketplace for alcoholic beverages, only 7.1 percent of sales in the beer market went to cider in October, the most recent month for which data are available. At that same time, 26.7 percent of sales were for craft beer.

But there’s another way to read that: Cider isn’t as crowded a space.

See here for some background on the ongoing legislative battle, which begins again in earnest as the Lege reconvenes. I note that one of the two incumbents that CraftPAC had been supporting as of that January publication date was defeated in November (Tony Dale of HD136). Sure hope they backed some other winners, or the slog will be harder than it needs to be. As for cider, the story notes that there are only eight such breweries in the state, with Houston Cider Company being the only one in our fair city (there is another one based in Dickinson that is the nearest neighbor). Here’s a Leader News story from January about their debut.

I blogged about Lerprechaun Cider Company, the first local cider company, back in 2011; they had a product relaunch in 2015 and according to a footnote at the end of this 2017 Houstonia story were never brewing here and had stopped distributing here. Their domain has expired, which I think tells you all you need to know. That Houstonia story was about Permann’s Cider Company, which as of last July was on track to have a taproom downtown. Not sure where that stands – they have a Facebook page that’s had five posts since February and a Twitter account that hasn’t tweeted since last August. I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that I wish the Houston Cider Company good luck, and that hopefully some day they’ll be able to brew beer again, too.

The TEA could have already taken over HISD

I had not known this.

For more than a year, Houston ISD leaders have fretted over the possibility of a state takeover mandated under a recently passed law, known as HB 1842. The statute directs the Texas Education Agency to close schools or replace a district’s locally-elected board of trustees if any campus receives five straight “improvement required” ratings for poor academic achievement. Houston narrowly avoided that punishment in 2018, when six long-struggling schools met state standard. Four campuses still could still trigger sanctions this year.

However, a lesser-known law quietly has loomed over the district. Texas law states that the education commissioner may replace the school board in a district under scrutiny from a state-appointed conservator for two consecutive years — a threshold Houston crossed in September 2017. Houston’s conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, was appointed in September 2016 to monitor Kashmere High School, which has failed to meet state academic standards for nine consecutive years. Her responsibilities expanded to monitoring the district’s school board and other long-struggling schools in mid-2017.

To date, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath has chosen to not replace Houston’s school board, exercising discretion granted to him under the conservator law. Instead, the TEA has taken several steps to work with Houston administrators and board members: keeping Delaney in place, requiring on-the-ground assistance from outside educators, overseeing campus turnaround plans and offering governance training, among other supports. Lira said trustees have not been threatened with immediate replacement by TEA officials, and that the agency’s staff has been “willing to work with us as long as we have a plan in place.”

In a statement, TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland said Abbott and Morath are working in concert to help Houston.

“Any action taken by Commissioner Morath or TEA to ensure Houston ISD has been given ample time, resources and support to achieve the best outcomes for students has also come with the full support of the governor and is in alignment with their shared vision of improving education outcomes in the district,” Wieland said.

Here’s the Chron story about Delaney’s appointment in 2016. This story from July of last year mentions that she had been appointed in January to keep an eye on district governance and the then-10 turnaround schools. I’m a little surprised no one has made anything of this before now, but here we are.

It should be clear why the state has been reluctant to step in, despite Greg Abbott’s nasty tweet. If the TEA takes over, then the TEA owns all of the problems that HISD is trying to solve. That’s a much tougher task than their current advisory role. I strongly suspect that Mike Morath and the TEA really really want the four schools to meet standard this year, in part because they want the schools and the kids to succeed, and in part because they really really don’t want to be saddled with the job of running a massive, diverse, sprawling school district. That’s not their job, and there’s nothing in the track record of past takeovers by state agencies, here and elsewhere, to suggest they’ll do any better at it than HISD has done. There’s a reason why Abbott hasn’t had much to say about this since his Trumpian Twitter moment.

By far the best possible outcome is for these schools to meet standard this year. The question that matters is what can everyone do to help make that happen.

House firms up harassment rules

Good.

Rep. Donna Howard

Amid continued scrutiny over how lawmakers handle reports of sexual misconduct by their colleagues, members of the House on Wednesday approved a measure that will strengthen the way the chamber addresses complaints of sexual harassment.

As part of a unanimous vote on the House’s standard housekeeping resolution that governs its operations, the chamber approved a new internal policy that would move investigative duties for complaints of inappropriate behavior to a legislative committee with subpoena power. It also cements the use of independent investigations of elected officials.

The policy is meant to add more teeth to the chamber’s process for investigating harassment complaints and would place the House more in line with congressional practices. It was prompted by a work group created last year by former Speaker Joe Straus, who asked the group to recommend measures to address and prevent sexual misconduct in the Legislature after reports shined a light on how entrenched the issue is at the state Capitol.

“[We worked] to ensure we were providing a policy that was honoring those who had been subjected to harassment so they felt they would get a safe and fair hearing, that they had a place to go to that they could count on,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and co-chair of the work group that worked to revise the chamber’s policies.

Under the new policy, sexual harassment complaints would go through the chamber’s general investigating committee, which would investigate and recommend sanctions based on the severity of the harassment. If the complaint involves a member of the House, the committee would be required to appoint an independent investigator.

House members made a slight change to the proposed policy that specified any independent investigation of a state representative would be a fact-finding mission only and not involved in any potential remedial action.

That committee, whose members would be appointed by the speaker of the House, emerged as the preferred venue for such investigations because it already has authority to hold closed meetings to ensure confidentiality and can eventually make reports public, Howard said. It also can cite someone for contempt if they ignore a subpoena.

See here for the background. This seems like a workable approach, and I trust Rep. Howard and her co-chair Rep. Nicole Collier to be thorough and thoughtful. We’ll just have to see how it works in practice, because for sure there will be need for this sooner or later.

Another look at the state of recycling

One part supply, one part demand.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Reducing contamination is largely considered the starting point for creating a more stable U.S. recycling market. And that means teaching consumers what they can and cannot put in recycling bins.

For example, a triangle with a number on the bottom of a plastic container does not automatically mean it’s recyclable. Nos. 1, 2 and 5 are widely accepted in recycling programs across the country. Garden hoses and plastic bags, which can get tangled in sorting equipment, are always prohibited. Food-stained cardboard boxes are considered contamination, too.

“If our customers are saying, ‘Hey, how can I help out the economics of my current program?’ The No. 1 thing they can do is get the contamination rate down lower,” Bell said.

Waste Management is investing in machinery to better reduce contamination. Optical sorters, for instance, can identify a specific material and then use gusts of air to separate that material from the pack.

[…]

Once the sorting process is improved, the materials will need more places to go.

Large household brands are helping create these markets. PepsiCo, for instance, announced in October that it’s seeking to use 25 percent recycled content in its plastic packaging by 2025. This goal builds upon previously announced goals such as designing 100 percent of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable.

Such policies pressure suppliers to incorporate recycled materials if they want to keep or win that company’s business. But more brands need to take similar steps if the United States is to find uses for all the materials recycled by neighborhoods, job sites and businesses.

“There is a lot of supply and there’s not a lot of demand for the material,” said Bell of Waste Management. “We’ve got to make sure the materials that people intend to recycle every day, that we’ve got a demand for that.”

The demand for plastic pellets made from recycled materials already is robust, said Robin Waters, director of plastics planning and analysis for the research firm IHS Markit. But equipment for collecting and sorting waste needs extensive upgrades to provide the high-quality used plastic fit for making plastic resins.

Other countries are addressing this, in part, with a policy called Extended Producer Responsibility. This policy requires companies creating consumer products to pay fees for the plastic products and packaging they produce. The money collected from companies goes toward things such as upgrading recycling equipment and processing plants.

Ultimately, the fees provide incentives for companies to use less plastic, different materials or more recycled materials.

“It’s a concept that hasn’t really hit the U.S.,” Waters said, “but it will be here in five to 10 years.”

See here for some background. We need to do a lot more to reduce the amount of waste plastic. It’s going to take investment in public education and recycling infrastructure. Should have done this a long time ago, but given that we haven’t we better get started on it now.

Dan Patrick declares victory on the bathroom bill

Um, okay.

The “bathroom bill” won’t be back this session, its loudest champion suggested Wednesday morning.

At a Governor’s Mansion press conference on the second day of this year’s legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who last session was the top state leader championing the measure, which would have regulated the use of certain public facilities for transgender Texans — suggested there’s no need to bring back the divisive proposal that headlined the last legislative year in 2017.

“When you win the battle, you don’t have to fight the battle again,” Patrick said, sitting beside Gov. Greg Abbott and recently elected Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. “I think it’s been settled, and I think we’ve won.”

[…]

In the months since the 2017 legislative sessions, Patrick has made similar suggestions that the issue no longer requires the Legislature’s attention. But his answer carried extra weight Wednesday as he and the state’s other top two leaders projected a unified front, promising to tackle bread-and-butter policy reforms like school finance, property tax reform and disaster recovery.

Without citing evidence, Patrick claimed that the school district behavior necessitating the measure has “stopped.”

“Sometimes a bill doesn’t pass, but you win on the issue,” Patrick said.

Hey, you know what? If this means we’ll never see another bill like the bathroom bill again, then I’m more than happy to admit I was wrong and concede that Dan Patrick did in fact win. So congratulations, Dan! Do your victory dance (*) and celebrate that big win for whoever it is you’re celebrating it for. May all of your legislative priorities meet with the same success going forward. The DMN has more.

(*) – Am I the only one who thinks Dan Patrick would totally do the Ickey Shuffle?

2020 is starting early

Example One:

The calendar just turned to 2019, but the 2020 race for Congressional seats in Texas is already on.

A few days after Christmas, San Antonio resident Liz Wahl, 33, a former cable television news anchor, filed papers in Washington, D.C. to run in the 23rd Congressional District held now by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes. Her filing came just 37 days after Hurd was declared the winner in his re-election by just 926 votes over Air Force veteran Gina Ortiz Jones.

Jones told supporters in late December that she is also “very likely” to run again in 2020 for the seat.

That story makes Wahl seem like some boring nobody. Turns out, she’s a lot more interesting than that.

Former RT anchor Liz Wahl announced Thursday that she is planning to run as a Democrat against Texas Rep. Will Hurd (R), who won reelection in November to a third term.

[…]

Wahl made headlines in 2014 when she quit her hosting job at the Russian-owned news network on air, while denouncing Russia’s involvement in Crimea, which voted to secede from Ukraine and is currently occupied by Russian-aligned forces.

“I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning,” Wahl said during a March broadcast that year.

The news network, which was forced to register in 2017 as a foreign agent, denounced her resignation at the time as a PR stunt.

Definitely not what I had envisioned when I read “former cable TV new anchor”. Wahl’s Facebook page is here, and it includes a link to this Crowdpac post she wrote explaining her motivation for running. I feel confident saying that Wahl will have company in the primary if she does run. Getting an early start, and having such a distinctive background, will help her stand out if she follow through.

Closer to home, we have this post to Pantsuit Nation by Elisa Cardnell:

Happy New Year! This year, my resolution is a little bigger than usual. I’m exploring a run for the Democratic primary in Texas’ 2nd Congressional District (Houston, Texas). The primary is next spring, but fundraising is a huge hurdle, so I have to start now.

I’m a Navy veteran – I served on active duty for five years after college and then for six years in the Reserves. I just hung up my uniform for good last April due to health issues (some related to my time in the service, some not). I’m also a teacher and a single mom, and I’ve seen just how desperately we need ethical leadership in DC to serve as good role models.

Before 2016, I tried to stay out of politics, especially since as a member of the military I viewed my role as necessarily nonpartisan (at least in public life). But now I feel that I have to do something, and my entire career of serving my country and my community has led me to this point. In Houston, we have a chance to flip some more House seats in 2020, and my district will be a particularly tough race (against Dan Crenshaw) in the general election.

It’s going to be a long two years – but it starts now!

Elisa is a friend of mine and a fellow member of the Rice MOB. She had reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, so I knew she was thinking about this. Todd Litton is still out there, and CD02 will be an attractive target for others in Harris County, so don’t be surprised to hear other names along the way. But as above, and as I’ve been saying, if this is something you’re thinking about, there’s no reason not to start as soon as possible. The election may be a log way off, but the filing period begins this November, and if 2020 is anything like 2018, you’re going to see a lot of fundraising activity happen well before then. Don’t get left behind.

And just so we’re clear, incumbents are going to feel the same pressures.

Shortly after participating in the official group swearing-in for House members, [Rep. Colin] Allred got down to business and voted for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. That’s all it took for the National Republican Congressional Committee to come after him with one of its first paid campaign ads of the 2020 election cycle.

“Immediately after the Speaker vote, voters in districts across the country received text messages, paid for by the NRCC, informing them that with their first vote as a member of Congress, their Democrat Representative has already sold them out to the radical left and voted to hand the Speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi,” the NRCC said in a press release. “Today’s vote sets the tone for what voters can expect from congressional Democrats as the party continues to follow their radical base and march to the left on everything from immigration to taxes to national security.”

The NRCC targeted 15 new House members with the ads, including Allred and fellow Texan Lizzie Fletcher, who knocked off longtime Houston-area Republican John Culberson in a district that, like Allred’s, voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump despite a long history of favoring Republicans.

I don’t expect the usual misogynistic squawking about Nancy Pelosi will be more effective than it was in 2018, though of course that depends on how well this Congress follows through on its promises. The other team is still out there making noise about every little thing, though. Keep your eye on the ball, and remember that the offseason ain’t what it used to be.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 7

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a happy and healthy new year as it brings you the first roundup of 2019.

(more…)

Our pretty decent revenue estimate

We’ve seen much worse.

At a time when legislators are vowing to spend more money on public schools and slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills, the state should have enough money at its disposal to do just that.

That is, if its newest predictions hold true.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday offered a cautiously optimistic outlook for the Texas economy, telling lawmakers they will have about 8.1 percent more state funds available to budget for public programs — primarily schools, highways and health care — in 2020 and 2021. Hegar projected there would be about $119.1 billion in state funds available for the next two-year budget, up from $110.2 in the last two-year budget.

But falling oil prices in the last month, along with heightened uncertainty in the U.S. economy and international financial markets, led Hegar to deliver a “cloudy” forecast with some trepidation.

“We remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we’re unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we’ve seen in recent months,” he said.

[…]

Meanwhile, the state’s savings account, known as the rainy day fund, is projected to reach a record high balance of $15 billion. Lawmakers will debate whether to dip into that Economic Stabilization Fund to pay for bills coming due from the last two-year budget period, including Hurricane Harvey recovery, and in the upcoming two-year budget.

Advocates for greater investment in public schools reacted positively to the revenue estimate, saying lawmakers now have no excuse not to increase spending, given a growing budget and unprecedentedly large savings account balance.

“This is good news,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a state budget analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “This is enough to not cut state services.”

It is good news, but as always it comes with a warning label.

[T]he Republican-controlled Legislature has excelled at finding new ways to squander available funds on everything from inefficient property tax relief, piecemeal school finance fixes and heaps of corporate subsidies and tax cuts. Dan Patrick and the tea party faction are also intent on keeping the overflowing Rainy Day Fund under lock and key, despite the continued urgency of Hurricane Harvey relief. That could be a big wild card — given that Governor Greg Abbott never called a special session after Harvey, the Legislature has yet to allocate any state relief money. Leaders in the affected Gulf Coast region, from Rockport to Port Arthur, are sure to call on legislators to step up.

Of course, the devil will be in the details — GOP lawmakers are experienced at promising to tackle weighty, complicated issues like property tax relief and school finance reform while pushing policy that doesn’t really fix anything, or makes things worse. Abbott is intent on settling the property tax dilemma by handcuffing local governments’ ability to levy property tax increases, all while ignoring the larger problem at hand: the state needs to dedicate a lot more money for schools.

The state school finance system is in desperate need of an overhaul. Texas’ spending per student is around $10,000 a year, about $2,300 below the national average. Funding has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade and the state has plummeted to 36th in the nation in terms of per pupil spending. Meanwhile, as the state’s population has grown rapidly, the Legislature has forced local governments to pick up a larger share of the education tab through property tax revenues (thus fueling the current property tax crisis). In 2008, the state and local funding shares were split evenly, but the state’s contribution has since fallen to its current rate of 38 percent, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Without a fix, that number is projected to fall even further. This has created a perpetual underfunding of the school system and has worsened the inequities between rich and poor districts.

But Hegar’s estimate is a heartening sign for advocates hoping for a substantial injection of state funding for public education — as much as $5 billion, which is what [outgoing Speaker Joe] Straus has said the state can afford. Perhaps an emboldened caucus of House and Senate Democrats, in tandem with Republicans who saw the writing on the wall in November, will be able to succeed in pushing for a more comprehensive solution.

The need is great, but the temptation to splurge on wasteful tax cuts that they call “school finance reform” is greater still. Even if there’s a zombie bathroom bill, that’s going to be the fight of the session. Texas Monthly has more.

Speaker Bonnen

It’s official.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Talking about dreams, honesty and courage, the members of the Texas House unanimously elected Rep. Dennis Bonnen House speaker, making him one of the most powerful Republicans in the state.

Members of the House voted 147-0 in favor of Bonnen.

His election was expected after announcing he had secured the nomination less than a week after the November election. Bonnen, who has been a member of the House for more than 20 years, drew no opponents for the position. More than a half-dozen other candidates vying for the position dropped out in early November.

Basically, once Bonnen was in for Speaker, he went from zero to 60 in a heartbeat. The only question was whether someone would make an out-of-the-blue protest vote, or vote “Present”, for whatever the reason. Given the three current vacancies, the answer to that is a clear No. So congratulations, Speaker Bonnen. This is a good way to start.

In 2017, one of the most talked about bills in Texas would have required transgender people to use bathrooms matching the sex on their birth certificates, spurring a flood of protests at the capitol as civil rights groups and business leaders rallied against it. Though the bill did not pass, this year hardly anyone is talking about another push for it.

New Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wants it to stay that way.

“I would be very discouraged if a distraction of that type derailed the opportunity of significant school finance reform or property tax reform,” the newly elected speaker told Hearst Newspapers.

[…]

Since [last session], [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick has said the battle over bathroom legislation is “settled.” The lawmaker who carried the bill in 2017, Republican Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, lost his re-election. And [Gov. Greg] Abbott said while running for re-election that a bathroom bill is “not on my agenda” but declined to say whether he’d sign such a bill if it reached his desk.

I mean, we should all cast a wary eye at the reform proposals, but the sentiment is appreciated nonetheless. Dan Patrick wasn’t even in Austin for Opening Day, and boy howdy is the quiet nice. The bathroom bill may be on the back burner, but it will never truly go away as long as the horrible lying liars who have been pushing it continue to do so. The Trib has more.

Now we talk about vote centers

Good.

New Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman on Tuesday [proposed] to Commissioners Court a non-precinct based countywide polling system, where voters can cast ballots at the locations most convenient to them.

“Life gets in the way; you’ve got to pick up the kids, or go to another job,” Trautman said at her office Monday. “But if people actually had a choice of when and where to vote, I think you would see a big difference in turnout.”

Fifty-two Texas counties, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, have used voting centers.

In last November’s mid-term election, Harris County residents could vote at any of 46 county locations during the two-week early voting period. They had to cast ballots at their assigned precincts on Election Day, when the county operates more than 700 polling sites.

It is unclear how many voting centers would be needed, which could vary depending on what is on the ballot and projected turnout. Trautman said she would begin by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to its precinct polling sites. Her office, she said, would use the resulting turnout data to make future decisions about the number of centers needed.

During her campaign, Trautman pitched voting centers as a way to increase turnout by 2 to 5 percent. She said voters are more likely to participate when they can cast ballots on Election Day near their work or school, which may be outside their precincts.

The idea first came up in Harris County back in 2015. Fort Bend adopted them that same year, as did Galveston, while Travis has used them since 2011.

The new clerk said she has studied Travis County’s voting centers model, which debuted in 2011, and hired away Michael Winn, that county’s elections director. Winn said voters needed several cycles to get used to the new system, which he said eventually boosted turnout 10 to 12 percent.

“Voters really enjoyed the fact that during lunchtime or after work, in that crunch time before polls close … vote centers make it so they can go without worry to a place within their proximity,” Winn said.

Through studying turnout patterns and consulting with neighborhood leaders, Winn said Travis County was able to close about 20 percent of its traditional polling places without hampering turnout.

Trautman said she is open to consolidating Harris County polling sites, but only after consulting with communities. She acknowledged the role polling places play in the civic fabric of neighborhoods — especially where residents once had been denied suffrage — and said she would leave open sites that hold such significance.

The Harris County Democratic Party endorsed the proposal, and a spokeswoman said County Judge Lina Hidalgo supports the idea. A spokesman for the county Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

We may get a pilot as early as this May – as Trautman notes, it makes far more sense to test this out in a lower-turnout election, rather than debut it during a Presidential race. Commissioners Court has approved the idea. so we can move ahead with it. I look forward to the discussion and planning process, and especially to the final product.

Omnibus lawsuit against Texas abortion laws begins

Gotta say, I’m less optimistic about this now than I was when it was filed.

State attorneys and lawyers representing reproductive rights groups argued in federal court Monday over whether a sweeping lawsuit challenging more than 60 Texas abortion regulations should move forward.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel told state attorneys that their 73-page argument confused him. He also expressed confusion about what reproductive rights groups were arguing over.

“This needs to be something not that the court understands but the public understands,” Yeakel said. “I find this case difficult to understand with the status of the record.”

[…]

Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Lawyering Project and lead attorney for the reproductive rights groups in the case, said during the hearing that “once upon a time, Texas started off with a reasonable regime to regulate the system of abortion.”

“The system has become so burdensome that it’s increasingly difficult for patients and providers to navigate,” Toti said.

Reproductive rights groups also argue that the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” booklet for patients is medically inaccurate. The suit targets a University of Texas System policy barring students from getting credit for internships and field placements at institutions that provide access to abortions.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said in a news release that the organization is “proud to lead another legal challenge in Texas.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, this lawsuit was filed in June, with the main argument being that the Whole Women’s Health SCOTUS ruling of 2016 made a bunch of previously-passed laws illegal as well. It seemed like a great idea at the time, right up until Anthony Kennedy decided to hang up his robe. Be that as it may, the hope here is to get at least a partial injunction from the district court, and see where we go from there. For that, we’ll have to wait on Judge Yeakel. The Chron has more.

HD125 special election set

It will overlap the ones going on now.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

Gov. Greg Abbott has picked Feb. 12 as the date for a special election to replace former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who stepped down last week to become a Bexar County commissioner.

The candidate filing deadline is Jan. 14, and early voting begins Jan. 28, according to a proclamation Abbott issued Monday.

Rodriguez vacated the seat in House District 125 after he was appointed Friday to succeed Paul Elizondo, the longtime Bexar County commissioner who died last month.

The Feb. 12 special election will determine who completes Rodriguez’s term, which ends in January 2021. It also will be the fourth such contest since the November elections, with two more special elections — to replace former state Reps. Carol Alvarado and Joe Pickett — coming up Jan. 29.

See here and here for the background. Early voting for HD125 begins the day before the HD79 and HD145 elections, so assuming at least one runoff in those races we’ll have continuous campaigning through the end of February or so, likely later as this one ought to go into overtime as well. So much for the usually-quiet part of the beginning of the session. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

Our increasingly non-dry state

There are now only five counties in Texas where you can’t buy alcohol.

On Election Day in Stanton, just north of Midland, Ron Black was skeptical that a particular measure on the ballot would pass.

“Well, I think at first it was uh, nobody thought it would go through because they’ve tried it so many times, you know. I can’t tell you how many times it’s gone to the ballot,” Black said.

Black manages the Lawrence Brothers grocery in Stanton. The vote was whether to keep Stanton dry – that is to prohibit the sale of alcohol – or to allow the sale of beer and wine at stores like Black’s. But to his surprise, Stanton went wet after all. And it’s part of a long-term trend that’s washing over Texas.

To put it in perspective: in 1996, there were 53 dry counties in Texas. By 2011 that number dropped to 25. And as of Election Day when Stanton, the seat of Martin County went wet, there are now just five dry counties in Texas – in a state whose attitudes toward alcohol have always been complex, but tended to be more conservative than the country as a whole.

“Texas is slightly earlier than the nation and slightly later than the nation in terms of how long its Prohibition was enforced,” said Brendan Payne, a history professor at North Greenville University and an expert in Prohibition in Texas.

[…]

But the real shift toward dry county extinction came from the passage of House Bill 1199 during the Texas legislative Session in 2003.

“That is what revolutionized our alcohol laws,” said John Hatch, president of Texas Petition Strategies. To hold a wet-dry election in Texas prior to 2003, you had to get signatures from 35 percent of a jurisdiction’s registered voters, each of which had to sign their name exactly as it appeared on their voter ID card, with their voter ID number. And you only had 30 days to do it. It was more difficult to get booze on the ballot than an actual candidate. Hatch asked the legislature to change the law.

“They gave us everything we asked for,” Hatch said. “We went from needing 35 percent of all voters to 35 percent of the last election for governor. So it made it a lot more manageable. We doubled the amount of time from 30 days to 60 days. We made the signature requirement the same as any other petition: if you sign your name “Michael Marks,” that’s good enough.”

A flood of elections followed. In the 15 years preceding the law, there were about 150 wet-dry elections statewide. In the 15 years following the law, there were close to 950 elections. Nearly 80 percent of those went wet.

Fascinating. I’ve noted a few of these elections over the years – Lubbock County, whose dryness I experienced as a visitor in the 80s, was a big one – but I didn’t realize how close to extinction the notion of a dry county was. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer the last five holdouts hang on. Congratulations to the people of Martin County. Please celebrate responsibly.

Schwertner gives up committee chair

Another unusual development in a continuing odd story.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

After facing an allegation of sexual harassment, state Sen. Charles Schwertner has told the Senate’s leader he no longer wants his post as chair of the powerful health and human services committee.

In a letter sent to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday and obtained by The Texas Tribune, the Georgetown Republican indicated he planned to remain in the Senate but no longer wished to serve as a chairman during the upcoming legislative session.

“Per our discussions, I have asked not to serve in that capacity this session so that I can work and lead on other policy issues for my district as well as spend more time with my family,” Schwertner said in the letter.

Schwertner, a physician, won re-election to the Senate in November after the University of Texas at Austin opened an investigation into allegations that the senator sent lewd messages and a sexually explicit photo to a graduate student. UT-Austin ended its investigation in December, concluding that the “available evidence does not support a finding” against Schwertner but did not clear him of any wrongdoing.

[…]

The Senate’s anti-sexual harassment policy doesn’t appear to explicitly cover this situation. Though the policy indicates that the Senate’s sexual harassment prohibition may apply outside the workplace, it is largely focused on interactions between senators, staffers and individuals, such as lobbyists and reporters, whose work requires them to regularly visit the Capitol.

See here for the previous update. I can only speculate as to why Sen. Schwertner would choose to give up his chair; the story notes that Dan Patrick did not comment when asked if he had asked Schwertner to relinquish it. I feel like even though the UT investigation has concluded there are still shoes to be dropped, but again I’m just speculating. The one thing we know for sure is that there are a lot of unanswered questions remaining. Whether we’ll ever get answers to them is another question I can’t answer.

Ron Reynolds released

Good for him.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

State Rep. Ron Reynolds was released Friday from the Montgomery County Jail after serving nearly four months of his yearlong sentence — just days before the 86th Legislature kicks off in Austin.

The Missouri City Democrat, who won an unopposed re-election campaign from jail in November, had been in jail since turning himself in there in September. A personal injury lawyer, Reynolds was convicted in 2015 on misdemeanor charges for illegally soliciting clients, a practice sometimes called “ambulance chasing.”

Reynolds was sentenced to a year, but it wasn’t clear how long he would serve; county jails often allow “good time credit” to cut down time served. Reynolds said in a statement at the time that he “voluntarily revoked his appeal bond so that he could be prepared to start the 86th Legislative Session on time.”

See here for the background. This appears to close the books on his barratry conviction, and now there is no longer the threat of jail time hanging over his head. He has a clean slate, and I wish him well in making the most of it. It remains my opinion that he should step down and let someone else represent HD27 while he continues to get his life in order, however.

The recycling recession

Not good.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

A joint report by the trade groups American Chemistry Council and Association of Plastic Recyclers estimated that plastic bottle recycling decreased 3.6 percent last year, dipping to 2.8 billion pounds in 2017. The decrease is partially due to containers becoming lighter weight, but also because the rate of bottle recycling hasn’t grown significantly in recent years.

In “an exceedingly difficult year for plastic bottle recycling,” the report said, about 29.3 percent of plastic bottles were recycled in 2017, down about a half percentage point from a year earlier. Over the past five years, the rate of plastic bottle recycling has remained essentially flat.

“Americans are continuing to recycle and recycling behavior continues to grow, however there is also more material continuing to go into waste stream and plastics are growing,” said Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics division of American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical and plastic makers.

The report is here. A big part of the problem is China scaling way back on the recyclable materials it accepts, which has created an oversupply problem even as the recycling rate has stagnated. There needs to be more capacity for recycling in the US to deal with this. Getting people to do recycling properly – basic things like not throwing trash in recycling bins, for example – would also help. It’s a big deal, because there’s already way too much plastic waste in the environment, and that has all kinds of bad effects. We need to figure this out.

Weekend link dump for January 6

“The U.S. national parks are using the growing popularity of astrotourism to protect the night sky from light pollution.”

Happy 45th birthday to the Endangered Species Act. We need it now more than ever.

“Trump’s approval rating is, remember, unusually low considering the economy.”

The unsolved political micro-mysteries of 2018.

Let’s make “exvangelical” a common word.

The Mark Burnett connection to Donald Trump.

“I’m not foolish enough to predict when Mueller will close his case, but I’m brave enough to venture that Trump’s troubles are only now beginning.”

“I didn’t think much could stun me. But then the Miami Herald published Julie Brown’s exposé of how prosecutors cozily negotiated with Jeffrey Epstein’s defense team to minimize his punishment for raping and trafficking underage girls—and presiding over a sex ring of sorts that he allegedly shared with powerful friends—and my depleted capacity for shock was refreshed.”

“The frequency and the audacity of Trump’s disinformation is the *whole point* of it — to wear you down. More and more of the lies slip past, undetected and uncorrected.”

“When 2018 began, the president had made 1,989 false and misleading claims, according to The Fact Checker’s database, which tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. By the end of the year, Trump had accumulated more than 7,600 untruths during his presidency — averaging more than 15 erroneous claims a day during 2018, almost triple the rate from the year before.”

An entomology professor who really likes Game of Thrones has named a new species of beetle after Daenarys’ dragons.

RIP, Don Lusk, animator and director who worked on Disney classics like Fantasia and Pinocchio.

RIP, Sister Wendy Beckett, Roman Catholic nun who starred in multiple BBC documentaries.

This is what censorship looks like.

RIP, Tyler Trent, Purdue fan and inspiration to many. Also, fuck cancer.

It’s too late to vote for the 2018 Worthy Awards, but you owe it to yourself to review the nominees.

“As of Jan. 1, you are able reproduce the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening without fear of copyright infringement.”

RIP, Bob Einstein, Emmy-winning actor from Curb Your Enthusiasm and the creator of the Super Dave Osborne character.

RIP, Daryl Dragon, the Captain half of The Captain and Tennille.

RIP, Al Reinert, Houston Chronicle reporter and co-writer of the film Apollo 13.

RIP, Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines.

Good effing riddance to the outgoing Congress.

Anti-Obamacare ruling appealed

The big non-Mueller story to follow for 2019.

Best mugshot ever

The Democratic coalition of states battling Texas over the fate of the Affordable Care Act has formally begun the process of challenging a Dec. 14 decision ruling the law unconstitutional in its entirety.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who’s leading the charge, filed a notice of appeal Thursday morning before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The blue states will ask the federal appeals court to overturn last month’s ruling from U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, who declared that President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is unconstitutional after Congress in December 2017 gutted one of its major provisions, the individual mandate.

The notice of appeal marks the next stage of what is expected to be a long-running litigation process that could reach the U.S. Supreme Court. A Texas-led coalition of 20 states kicked the process off nearly a year ago by suing the federal government to kill the law; after the Justice Department sided partially with Texas, the California-led coalition of states stepped in to defend Obamacare in court.

“The wheels start turning as of now,” Becerra said on a press call Thursday morning.

See here and here for the background. Every legal scholar with a shred of integrity has denounced this ruling as ridiculous, but we all know that what matters is what five members of SCOTUS think is legal. One story I read about this noted that the coalition of states defending Obamacare picked up an ally after the 2018 election, the new Attorney General of Colorado. One can only wonder what might be happening today if we could have added a new Attorney General of Texas to this. Alas, we’ll have to file that under What Might Have Been.