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Undead “religious liberty” bill passes House

This is why people caution that no bill is truly dead at the Lege until sine die.

Over the tearful opposition of the Legislature’s first-ever LGBTQ Caucus and several failed attempts at a procedural block, the Texas House passed a religious liberty bill Monday that LGBTQ advocates fear would license discrimination against their communities.

When the lower chamber first considered the bill just over a week ago, the LGBTQ Caucus torpedoed it with a procedural move. This time, an attempt to do the same failed, as did emotional exhortations from the five women who make up the caucus.

After two hours of debate, Senate Bill 1978 — which prohibits government entities from punishing individuals or organizations for their “membership in, affiliation with, or contribution … to a religious organization” — passed on a nearly party-line preliminary vote, 79-62. If the House grants formal approval and the Senate agrees to a change made on the lower chamber’s floor Monday, the bill will head to the governor.

“This bill is going to pass; let’s face it,” state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said from the front of the chamber minutes before her colleagues cast their votes. “It’s been cloaked in religious freedom, but the genesis, the nexus of this bill, is in hatred.”

When the bill was first filed, it contained sweeping religious refusals language that had the potential to gut the few existing protections for gay communities, hailing from a national sweep of anti-LGBTQ model legislation. As it’s made its way through the Legislature, the bill has been progressively stripped of its most controversial provisions, leaving a version that largely codifies existing legal protections: freedom of religion and freedom of association.

On Monday, House sponsor Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, weakened the measure further, removing a provision that would have empowered the Texas attorney general to bring lawsuits against governmental entities accused of religious discrimination.

Krause said removing the provision was a show of “good faith,” as it had proved a “big sticking point” with opponents of the bill. Given the changes he described as efforts to compromise, Krause said he was surprised at the level of opposition to the measure.

“Look at the language in this bill,” Krause said. “There is nothing discriminatory in the language. … There is nothing discriminatory in the intent.”

But despite the revisions, the bill “perpetuates the rhetoric that leads to discrimination, to hate and ultimately bullying that leads to the consequence of people dying,” said state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, who chairs the LGBTQ Caucus.

[…]

Proponents have said it is necessary to reaffirm protections based on religion, citing incidents like the San Antonio City Council’s decision earlier this year to prohibit Chick-fil-A from opening in the city’s airport, with one council member citing the franchise’s “anti-LGBTQ behavior.” Some supporters of the bill labeled it the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill.” Krause said no business should be discriminated against based on its donations to religious organizations.

See here and here for the background. I have three things to say.

1. In any dispute between a class of people who have been historically discriminated against and are still today discriminated against and a class of people who have not been historically discriminated against over whether or not a particular thing promotes discrimination, I’m going to tend to take the word of the class of people who have been discriminated against, as they have a much clearer perspective on what it means to be discriminated against. You would think this would be common sense, but you would be greatly disappointed if you did.

2. What does it say about our state, and the political party that runs our state, that we will gladly pass a bill to protect a multimillion dollar business from being discriminated against, but we refuse to even consider passing a bill to protect a large class of people who have been historically discriminated against from being discriminated against?

3. Just a reminder that Westboro Baptist Church and the World Church of the Creator both count as “religious organizations”.

I’ll say it again, the solution here is a political one. The legislators who voted for this bill need to be voted out and replaced by people who would vote against anything like it. Our next chance to do that is in 2020. The Chron has more.

Sometimes, bad bills do die

The calendar giveth, and the calendar taketh away.

One of the the biggest priorities for Texas Republicans this session appears to be on the verge of legislative death. A series of bills that would broadly prohibit local governments from regulating employee benefits in the private sector died quietly in the House this week.

The business lobby has long been used to getting what it wants from the Republican-controlled Legislature, but now it’s waving the white flag. “It is dead. … The discussion got completely derailed,” lamented Annie Spilman, lobbyist for the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, in an interview with the Observer. The group is one of the lead advocates for the preemption bills. “They really haven’t left us with any hope at all.”

Senate Bill 15 started as a straightforward measure to stomp out a broad swath of emerging local labor policies, like mandatory paid sick leave, in cities including Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. But it ended in the political gutter after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick insisted on removing language that explicitly protected local nondiscrimination ordinances (NDOs) for LGBTQ Texans in several cities. Patrick’s move was reportedly made at the behest of Texas Values, the state’s leading social conservative pressure group.

With the high-profile failure of Patrick’s 2017 bathroom bill and now the fight over NDOs, Texas businesses are growing increasingly furious that the lieutenant governor appears unable to stop poisoning their political agenda with right-wing social warfare.

Spilman said she sees it as another example of Patrick putting the priorities of the religious right before businesses. “I don’t think the lieutenant governor has listened to the business community in quite a while,” she said. “Our No. 1 priority was this preemption legislation to stop cities from overreaching, and despite our efforts to compromise with everyone involved, at the end of the day we were ignored and set aside.”

[…]

The House calendars committee finalized the House’s remaining floor agenda Sunday evening, meaning anything that wasn’t placed on the calendar is all but certain to be dead. The preemption bills were not on the list.

It’s suspected that part of the reason the bills died is that Patrick refused to consider any sort of NDO protection language in a compromise bill, according to conversations with multiple sources. Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think the lieutenant governor was holding a firm line against that,” state Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, told the Observer. But Rodriguez also attributes the preemption bills’ procedural defeat to Democrats’ willingness to hold together. “One of the calculations was about is the juice worth the squeeze. What would happen on the floor? We Democrats were holding a firm line of opposition … and [willing to] do whatever to kill them.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The NFIB can go pound sand as far as I’m concerned; they’re a bunch of ideologues who deserve to taste some bitter defeat. The best thing they can do for the state of Texas is get into a fanatical pissing contest with Dan Patrick. They’re now lobbying Greg Abbott for a special session, which is something I’m a little worried about anyway, if some other Republican priorities like the vote suppression bill don’t get passes. I can’t control that, so I’m just going to enjoy this moment, and you should too.

Two for HD134

From the inbox:

Ruby Powers

Local attorney and business owner Ruby Powers announced on Thursday that she is running to represent District 134 in the Texas House of Representatives.

“Our district deserves a state representative who will ensure that families can send their children to quality school programs, champion smart public policy that keeps us safe, and strengthen the Houston economy,” Powers said. “I’m running to be that voice for District 134 in the Texas Legislature.”

The Houston-based attorney, entrepreneur, and mother launches her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination with a background she believes will appeal to a wide range of district voters.

“As a mother with two children in public schools, I’m concerned by the lack of funding from our state that shorts our Houston-area schools and robs our children of a quality education,” Powers added. “If elected, I’ll fight to pay our teachers a quality salary, shore up our schools, and keep our school districts in the hands of their local communities.”

With nearly 10 years of experience running her own law firm, Powers understands the day-in, day-out issues that often confront Houston-area businesses. The Houston Business Journal recognized her business savvy with a 40 Under 40 Award in 2014 and named her a Women Who Mean Business Women to Watch finalist in 2016.

Her role as a community leader continues to lead her back to Austin. In 2017, Powers testified before the Texas Senate on the public safety issues that Senate Bill 4 creates. These days, she routinely speaks on programs like those on MSNBC and NPR and receives coverage for her work in news media outlets ranging from the Houston Chronicle and the Texas Tribune to the BBC and the New York Times.

“A humane immigration policy and safe community are not mutually exclusive ideas, and when we have both we strengthen our local economy,” she said. “I look forward to running a positive campaign on these issues and working with District 134 residents to pass laws that work for all of us.”

Powers will launch her campaign at a kickoff event on Wednesday, June 5.

Her website is here. Ann Johnson, the 2012 candidate for HD134, is also running; her website is here. I’ve known Ann since 2012 and think highly of her. Ruby reached out to me a couple of months ago to talk politics, so I knew she was interested in this seat, and I was impressed by her background and determination. HD134 shifted Democratic in a big way in 2018, and while it had always had a majority of voters willing to support Democrats against some Republicans, it went full blue last year. Rep. Sarah Davis did not have a strong challenger in 2018, but that will not be the case in 2020. Expect to see and hear a lot about this race.

There’s always time for an attack on Planned Parenthood

This one comes with an attack on local control, so it’s a twofer.

Right there with them

Texas and its local governments would no longer be able to partner with abortion providers or their affiliates — even for services like sexual health education and pregnancy prevention initiatives — under a bill the Texas House passed in a preliminary vote late Friday after hours of emotional debate.

Senate Bill 22, which critics call the biggest threat to Planned Parenthood this legislative session, would forbid a government entity from transferring money to an abortion provider, even for services not related to the procedure. It would also bar a transfer of goods or services and any transactions that offers the provider “something of value derived from state or local tax revenue.” Abortion rights advocates fear that the bill could even prohibit privately funded programs held on government property, like pop-up sexual health education booths at community colleges.

The controversial bill dominated the lower chamber’s agenda Friday for more than seven hours and tentatively passed in an 81 to 65 vote.

“This is a taxpayer protection bill,” said Rep. Candy Noble, R-Allen. “Taxpayers who oppose abortion should not have to see their tax dollars subsidizing the abortion industry.”

The bill needs one more vote in the lower chamber before it heads back to the Republican-controlled Senate. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, added an amendment that clarifies the bill would not restrict a city or county from banning abortions. If the upper chamber agrees with that change, the bill will then head to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The bill would also apply to an affiliate of an abortion provider, so no Planned Parenthood clinic could partner with a local government — even clinics that don’t provide abortions. That would include programs like one in Dallas County where Planned Parenthood staffers have provided sexual health education, including information on how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, at juvenile detention centers.

[…]

Planned Parenthood partners with Texas cities and counties to provide services like HIV testing, teen pregnancy prevention initiatives, and breast and cervical cancer screenings — along with assistance in public health crises. During the 2016 Zika outbreak, the Harris County Health Department provided mosquito repellent and prevention brochures to Planned Parenthood patients. After Hurricane Harvey, Houston city government offices distributed vouchers for no-cost care at local Planned Parenthood clinics.

Opponents of the bill say providers like Planned Parenthood are an integral part of the healthcare safety net for low-income residents in a state that has the highest rate of uninsured adults in the country. Furthermore, they say low-cost and free reproductive health services are especially critical given Texas’ high rate of teen pregnancy, maternal mortality, and sexually transmitted diseases. Cutting off birth control services, they argue, could even drive up abortion rates. And many bill opponents called the measure “an attack on local control.”

As the Texas legislature has rolled back funding for abortion providers, lawmakers have boosted funding for state-run programs like Healthy Texas Women, which provides free or low-cost family planning services. Bill supporters hope to divert women away from abortions clinics and their affiliates and instead direct them toward these state-run alternatives.

But abortion rights advocates argue that such programs are ineffective because they don’t reach enough people. Almost half of the approximately 5,400 Healthy Texas Women providers saw no patients in the 2017 budget year, according to the Texas Observer. If less women can access reproductive health care, some lawmakers unsuccessfully argued, abortion rates would ultimately rise.

So just to recap, this will have no effect on abortion, but it will make it harder to stop Zika outbreaks. How much more pro-life can you get?

The one possible piece of good news here is that according to Scott Braddock, the Stickland amendment may make SB22 vulnerable to a point of order. If that’s true, it’ll happen this morning when the bill comes up for third reading. Hope for the best. And remember, the only way to prevent shit like this from happening is to elect a Democratic majority in the Lege. Nothing will change until that happens. The Observer has more.

UPDATE: On the plus side, vote suppression bill SB9 is not on the House calendar today or tomorrow, so it will not get a House floor vote before the deadline. It could still get in via the back door of being tacked onto another bill, but it’s on life support now.

Double dipping

You almost have to admire the nerve.

CM Steve Le

Houston’s highest-paid city council staffer has continued to collect his $119,600 salary despite being out of the state in a U.S. Army military law training program since January.

Daniel Albert, chief of staff to District F Councilman Steve Le, deployed to Fort Benning in Georgia as part of the Judge Advocate General’s Officer Basic Course from Jan. 21 through March 1, learning military skills and tactics. He then reported to the JAG Legal Center & School in Virginia, where he studied military law from March 4 until Wednesday.

During his training, Albert was on active duty status, earning a lieutenant’s pay. For the first two months of his deployment, however, Albert listed standard 40-hour work weeks on his city time cards.

On March 22, Le and Albert were informed that the Houston Chronicle had requested records relating to Albert’s city work. Two days later, Albert logged into the city payroll system and scheduled six weeks of paid leave, entering 30 days of vacation or other leave — though he had accrued only 11 such days at the time. The next night, records show, he deleted those entries and used the 40 days of paid sick leave he had accumulated instead, scheduling the sick leave to run through this Friday.

City ordinance prohibits employees from working outside jobs while on sick leave. Houston city workers can use 15 days of paid military leave if they apply for that status, but city officials have no record of Albert submitting the required paperwork.

JAG school officials said Monday that Albert still was on site participating in the program, which will train him in military law and begin a years-long commitment representing the Army or Army soldiers as a reservist with the San Antonio-based 1st Legal Operations Detachment.

Le said he asked the city’s Human Resources department and Office of Inspector General to look into the issue several weeks ago after community members raised concerns.

Albert, who did not return calls for comment, said in an email that this OIG probe prevents him from discussing the matter, though he said he was concerned that unspecified “misunderstanding(s) … would condemn a person in public shame before a thorough investigation.”

“I am confident that this matter will be resolved,” he said.

Councilman Greg Travis, who said he feels a kinship to Le as a fellow political conservative, nonetheless blasted the arrangement.

“He doesn’t show up to work, and I think the frustration is shared by everyone on this floor, council staffers and council members,” Travis said of Albert. “When you have somebody in your office who’s unethical, who’s taking money for work not performed, you’ve got to fire them. There’s no way you’re out in another state and you’re performing your job.”

Councilman Dave Martin, another conservative district council member, echoed that.

“It doesn’t smell right and it has never smelled right ever since the day I found out how much money he was making and the fact that I’ve never seen the guy at City Hall — and I see every chief of staff at City Hall every single day because I go to City Hall every day,” he said. “This guy is the anomaly.”

[…]

Le, who is responsible for approving Albert’s time cards, said he approved the lengthy sick leave after Albert told him he had broken his leg and was advised by a doctor to take time off.

Le said he was unaware, however, that city rules prohibit employees from working outside jobs while on sick leave or that Albert had not used vacation days earlier in his deployment. Le said he examines Albert’s time cards but not which types of leave are used. He also said computer problems prevented him from approving time cards for part of the year.

Emphasis mine. This is not the first time that Daniel Albert’s work habits have been questioned, but this particular instance is really egregious. Putting aside CM Le’s professed ignorance of city rules (reminder: Le was elected in 2015, so he is not a dewy-eyed newbie), based on his own words either Albert lied to him about why he was claiming sick leave, or he is lying to us about why he approved the request. I mean, one either has a broken leg or one does not, and that fact ought to be easily verified. I don’t know what the mechanism is to get Daniel Albert to pay back the salary he didn’t earn to the city, but it needs to be used. And the voters in District F will want to know about all this as they decide who to support this November.

Bullet train dodges more bullets

More good news for Texas Central.

The Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project dodged a bullet this week when lawmakers hashing out the state budget released their decision to strike a provision that could have delayed the project.

A committee of Texas House and Senate members ditched language that would have prevented the Texas Department of Transportation from coordinating with a high-speed rail company so its project could cross state highways until a court definitively affirms the company’s ability to use eminent domain with an unappealable ruling. That provision, called a budget “rider,” could have delayed the project for several years, according to Patrick McShan, an attorney for an opposition group and more than 100 landowners along the train’s planned route.

Project developer Texas Central Partners LLC lauded the legislative move. The company has been battling legislative efforts that it says could cripple the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

“Today’s action ensures the project continues to be treated like any other major infrastructure project in Texas,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.

[…]

The Senate added the rider in its proposed 2020-21 budget, but the House’s spending plan didn’t include the language. So that was one of several differences that a conference committee of members from both chambers are hashing out behind closed doors. Once that process is done, both chambers will vote on the revised budget.

Houston Democrat state Rep. Armando Walle, one of the members of the conference committee, said the rider was removed out of fear that a lawmaker could argue the language changes general law, something that House rules don’t allow the budget to do. If such an argument were successful, that could have threatened the entire spending plan.

“In order to not have the whole appropriations bill go down, I think that was the safest way to address the issue,” Walle said.

See here for some background. In the time it’s taken you to read this post, the odds of anything bad happening to Texas Central have decreased. I’ve said this twice before, and so far I’ve been wrong each time, but I’ll take my chances and say again that if Texas Central can make it through this session without anything bad happening to them, they ought to be in good shape going forward. I mean, at some point they’re going to have full-blown construction happening, right? Anyway, one more session mostly over, one less thing for Texas Central to worry about.

Weekend link dump for May 19

“If bitcoin is so safe, why does it keep getting hacked?”

“Why abortion access is not only a right according to the 14th amendment (privacy) but also the 1st (prohibiting free exercise of religion.)”

“Instead of obtaining plum positions in Fortune 500 companies or major think tanks, most Trumpworld alumni are working in far less illustrious jobs than their predecessors. Those jobs offer a telling window into the priorities and values of the people he’s hired—and how they’ll influence the country after his presidency eventually ends.”

RIP, Doris Day, legendary actress and singer from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

“The young children of women who are refused access to an abortion are less likely to hit development milestones on time, and more likely to live in poverty, than the children of women who sought an abortion and got one.”

What happens when a patient with no identification arrives at a hospital.

“It is uncommon for any team to have no triples at this late date. In fact, just four teams since 1908 (the Play Index era, and for all intents and purposes, all-time) have reached May 14 without having hit a triple.”

More like this and this, please.

You always knew that “constitutional originalism” was nothing but a pretext to justify a particular preferred outcome, right?

RIP, Tim Conway, actor and comedian best known for killing it on The Carol Burnett Show.

“In hindsight, I seemed convinced that abortion supporters didn’t appreciate the gravity of later-term abortion. But the opposite is true. Nobody understands this issue better than women who have actually had a late-term abortion. By listening to their stories, I’ve come to see that the tragedy of this procedure, sought in desperation, is well understood by the women receiving it.”

On the “stay and fight” question.

“One way or another, Roe v. Wade becomes a dead letter. It could happen very fast. And it is likely to happen just months before the 2020 election.”

“Again, he’s really the caricature of a militarist, the kind of one-dimensional, clownishly hawkish type who gets described in small circulation left-wing magazines but can’t possibly exist in real life, only he does exist and his name is John Bolton.”

“And so Rodion Raskolnikov butchered an old woman and her daughter with an axe. And so Paul Jennings Hill murdered a doctor and a security guard in cold blood.”

“In light of the recent horrific developments in Georgia, Ohio, Alabama and other GOP-run states, it’s time once again to remember that Republican ignorance of, cruelty about and obsession with all things rape-related has been a thing for decades.”

“But no matter what he does next, the story Roberts likes to tell—and that we prefer to hear—about the slow, incrementalist, precedent-loving Supreme Court, is falling apart. It’s openly collapsing under the weight of the death penalty fight, but it’s also disintegrating as states vie with one another for more extreme ways to punish and humiliate women. I feel sorry for the chief justice largely because all this is happening just when the court’s reputation matters most. Roe v. Wade is in the news this month not because it’s in the crosshairs (yet), but because amateurs in Alabama and Georgia are drunk on God, and as a consequence, the Supreme Court’s slip is showing. The path to ending abortion in America was smooth and seamless in the hands of John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh; most of us would never have seen it happen. But so long as Alabama and Georgia keep saying the quiet parts at the tops of their lungs, the court’s conservatives cannot accomplish what they had been on track to accomplish—at least, they cannot do it quietly. The question for the chief justice is no longer whether he prefers to win quietly on reversing Roe. He’s going to win ugly. He needs to decide if he can live with that.”

RIP, YTMND, one of the earliest and most influential meme culture websites.

RIP, I.M. Pei, renowned architect who designed the Louvre’s pyramid.

“Former national security adviser Michael Flynn told investigators that people linked to the Trump administration and Congress reached out to him in an effort to interfere in the Russia probe, according to newly-unredacted court papers filed Thursday”.

An early review of the Senate campaign so far

I have thoughts about this.

MJ Hegar

When U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro announced earlier this month that he would not run for U.S. Senate in 2020, the San Antonio Democrat cleared up one major question hanging over his party’s primary. But the field is anything but settled.

Two weeks later, the clock is ticking for Democrats to mount serious campaigns to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an uphill battle even with Texas’ changing political landscape. Arguably the most prominent Democrat already running, MJ Hegar, announced her campaign three weeks ago but has been — on the surface, at least — off to a slow start that has done little to dissuade at least three other Democrats from considering their own runs.

Among them is Amanda Edwards, an at-large Houston City Council member who has been mulling a campaign since at least early March and appears to be moving closer to running. She has been in conversations with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is heading to Washington, D.C, next week to continue those discussions, according to a source familiar with her plans.

Edwards, who is African American, has been emphatic that Texas Democrats need a U.S. Senate nominee who can mobilize the party’s base, particularly underrepresented groups that suffer the most from low turnout.

“It is imperative — there is no way around it,” she told reporters earlier this month in Houston. “If you don’t galvanize people of color, young people under the age of 35 … Democrats are not going to be successful.”

In addition to Edwards, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, also continues to draw discussion as a prospective candidate though he has said he is focused on the ongoing legislative session that ends later this month. And Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman, announced Monday that he was seriously considering a bid. Bell, the 2006 gubernatorial nominee, suggested he was not intimidated by the nascent field, saying competitive primaries can be difficult but healthy in the long run.

“It’s sort of like having a family fight, but we all get through Thanksgiving and come together the next day,” Bell said, approvingly citing Castro’s recent declaration — before he opted against running — that the era of “uncontested primaries in both parties in Texas is over.”

While it remains to be seen how viable Edwards, West and Bell would be — Bell is the only one with experience running statewide — they all appear to be undeterred by the opening weeks of Hegar’s campaign. Beyond a barrage of fundraising emails, she has kept a low profile, not holding any public campaign events and doing only a handful of media appearances — all things one would expect as a candidate looks to establish early momentum in a nationally watched race.

“It’s concerning,” said one Democratic strategist unaffiliated with any of the declared or potential candidates. “At this time two years ago, Beto was criss-crossing the state. The question I’m seeing now is where exactly has MJ Hegar been?”

At this point in his blockbuster 2018 campaign, Beto O’Rourke had visited a dozen cities throughout the state and was on his way to hitting twice as many by the end of his first month.

Oh good Lord. You know what else was happening two years ago at this time? Beto was trying very, very hard to raise his name recognition. He started out at a pretty low level. In the first poll I tracked that measured his approve/disapprove numbers, the UT/Trib poll from June of 2017, 55% of respondents answered “don’t know/no opinion” of O’Rourke (question 19). In the next few months, in addition to stories about how O’Rourke was criss-crossing the state, there were also stories about how little known he was, especially compared to Ted Cruz, about whom nearly everyone had an opinion. Just before the primary, in the February 2018 UT/Trib poll, the numbers were 58% “don’t know/no opinion” of O’Rourke. And if you want to be skeptical of the UT/Trib polling methodology, rest assured that other pollsters were finding the same thing. For example, PPP, January 2018 – “Sixty one percent of respondents had never heard of O’Rourke”. Beto’s relentless travel schedule and nonstop live appearances were a huge part of his brand and his strategy, and they paid off bigtime for him. They also took a long time to get off the ground, because Texas is a huge state with millions of voters and you can only ever hope to contact a small share of them via in-person events.

My point here is that if we’re going to be making with the Beto comparisons already, let’s be sure to tell the whole story. It’s not like any of this was a mystery, but as so often seems to be the case, I feel like I’m the only person in the state old enough to remember what had happened. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, there’s no reason to believe that Beto’s exact strategy from 2018 has to be replicated. I for one would advocate for not having a “visit all 254 counties” strategy, but more like a “visit somewhere between 100 and 150 counties”, with much more emphasis on the counties that have trended Democratic since 2012, and less on the (mostly very small, mostly rural) counties that voted more Republican in 2018 than in 2016. Call it the “Willie Sutton strategy”, where you put a higher priority on the places that have more people who have voted for you and might vote for you. Knowing who those voters are likely to be would be a good optimization on the Beto strategy, too. The advantage that MJ Hegar or any of these other candidates will have is that they can learn from and build on what Beto did. They can do more of what worked well and less of what didn’t. Crazy, I know, but true.

One more thing:

The day after announcing her campaign, Hegar was endorsed by VoteVets, the national progressive group for veterans. Beyond that, other prominent groups are waiting to see how the primary takes shape before potentially getting involved. Among them is EMILY’s List, the influential organization that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, which backed Hegar in her U.S. House bid last year and made clear in March that it wanted a woman to challenge Cornyn.

“As of right now, we’re closely watching the race,” EMILY’s List spokesman Maeve Coyle said. “We’re always thrilled to see women step up and take on these tough flip seats, especially fantastic candidates like MJ.”

In addition to Hegar, the Democrats already running include Michael Cooper, Sema Hernandez and Adrian Ocegueda.

Typically, Washington Democrats bristle at competitive U.S. Senate primaries. They often can become bloody affairs, resulting in unelectable candidates who are broke once they win the nomination. But Texas is different from most states.

[…]

Despite the renewed interest in flipping Texas, national Democratic operatives are privately shrugging off the notion of a competitive primary in the state. It is no secret that Texas Democrats have miles to go in building out their party infrastructure, and some argue that several candidates fanning out around the state for nearly a year could accomplish some of that goal.

Yet a crowded Democratic primary sets up the possibility of a primary runoff that won’t be settled until next May, leaving the eventual nominee with perhaps three months to replenish a depleted war chest for what is likely to be a multi-million dollar ad war across Texas air waves.

Concern-trolling about runoffs aside, you know that I agree with that assessment competitive primary. I hope we have one, because money spent on it is not an expense that is lost but an investment that is made in engaging voters. And for the zillionth time, MJ Hegar and any other “serious” candidate needs to take the primary seriously, no matter who else is in it. We are very likely to have record turnout in the Dem primary next March. If those voters don’t know who they’re voting for in the Senate primary, then anything can happen and most of it won’t be good. If Hegar is doing behind-the-scenes stuff now, that’s fine. There’s time for that. As long as she and everyone working with her understands that the real campaign season starts a lot earlier than we have been used to thinking that it does.

So long, red light cameras

Like ’em or not, they’re on their way out, barring a veto from Greg Abbott.

Going, going…

The Republican-led push to rid Texas intersections of red-light cameras moved one step closer to becoming law after the state Senate signed off on a measure with that aim Friday, sending the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

House Bill 1631 cleared the chamber on a 23-8 vote after several back-and-forths among senators about studies that both support and challenge the efficacy of the devices when it comes to promoting safer streets. The Senate left in place a key provision to allow local governments to continue operating cameras until they finish out any contracts in effect as of May 7.

“Red-light cameras violate the right to due process guaranteed under Article 1 of the Texas Constitution by creating a presumption that the registered owner of the car committed a violation when in fact that may not have been the case,” said state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who is sponsoring the legislation originally offered by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.

Many city officials and local law enforcement officials oppose the legislation, arguing that cameras reduce deadly accidents and bring in revenue for trauma care centers and local governments. Gesturing toward a binder with 25 studies that suggest the opposite, Hall fended off questions from fellow senators who asked about the potential loss of revenue, particularly the dollars that go to trauma care centers, from fines on drivers who run red lights.

I am officially retired from the business of arguing about red light cameras. I have come to the conclusion that the available data is just simply insufficient to answer the basic questions about their efficacy. You either believe they’re a common sense tool to discourage and penalize running red lights, or you believe they’re an unacceptable infringement on freedom. (You may also think that the contracts cities sign with camera providers are highly sketchy and will lead to cities becoming dependent on the revenue the cameras generate, with the accompanying incentive to mess with yellow light times to maintain the cash flow.) I’m sure I’d have some feelings about this if Houston still had its cameras, but this is the one incursion on local control this session that does not directly affect us. I guess I’m glad that unlike cable franchise fees, the Lege saw fit this time to allow cities that were affected some time to make adjustments.

Anti-Israel boycott law amended

For whatever this is worth.

Gov. Greg Abbott this week signed a bill into law that limits the scope of a controversial anti-Israel boycott law, just weeks after a federal judge temporarily blocked its enforcement in an ongoing First Amendment lawsuit.

The 2017 law — which seeks to combat the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement, an international protest over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — prohibits state agencies from investing in and contracting with companies that boycott Israel. It also requires anyone contracting with the state to pledge in writing that it will not boycott Israel.

The changes Abbott signed into law Tuesday make it only applicable to contracts of at least $100,000 with companies with 10 or more full-time employees. Legislators who support the law have said they never intended for it to impact individuals or small businesses.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had appealed the preliminary injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, did not waste time in filing a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit brought by several Texas contractors who claimed it violated their right to free speech.

In the motion filed Wednesday, Paxton argued that “this legislative enactment is exactly the kind of development that the Fifth Circuit has recognized will render a case moot.”

ACLU of Texas spokeswoman Imelda Mejia said the agency, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the agency is “analyzing the new law and its possible implications on our case.”

[…]

Federal judges have struck down laws in Arizona and Kansas and upheld one in Arkansas; all are on appeal but the Kansas law.

There, after the Kansas Legislature made nearly identical changes to those signed by Abbott on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, lacking an affected plaintiff, agreed to dismiss its lawsuit.

See here for the background. Given that the lawsuit in question involved an individual who would no longer be affected by the law, it probably is the case that a motion to dismiss would succeed. That said – and here I put on my I Am Not A Lawyer hat – I don’t think the change to the law fixes the underlying constitutional problem. We’ll see if the court agrees.

SB9 clears House committee

Let the stalling tactics begin!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The House Elections Committee voted Friday to advance a controversial election bill, setting up a race to get it onto the full chamber’s agenda ahead of bill-killing deadlines that start this weekend.

The committee approved Senate Bill 9 by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes on a 5-4 party-line vote during a short meeting on the House floor called two days after the panel heard hours of public testimony — a vast majority in opposition of the bill — during a marathon hearing that ran past midnight.

SB 9 is a wide-ranging bill that makes more than two dozen changes to election practices. Among the provisions are one to make it a felony for Texans who vote when they’re ineligible — even if they do so unknowingly — and another to allow partisan poll watchers or election officials to be present at a voting station if a voter is getting help from someone who isn’t a relative. Those individuals would then be allowed to examine the voter’s ballot before it’s submitted to determine whether it was filled out “in accordance with the voter’s wishes.”

The legislation also grants the state attorney general direct access to the voter rolls and essentially allows Texas to participate in a controversial, Kansas-based voter verification program that has proved to be unreliable and riddled with cybersecurity weaknesses.

[…]

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which sets the full chamber’s agenda. If it makes it onto the House calendar, the chamber will need to approve it before a midnight deadline Tuesday. Already running against the clock, the House Elections Committee delayed a vote on the bill twice, canceling a Thursday vote when too few Republicans would be in the room to get it out of committee.

See here for the background. AT this point, there are two main questions. First, can the Democrats do enough to delay this bill from getting to the House floor? (Assuming it gets on the calendar, which I figure it will.) And second, if the Dems manage to delay it to death, does Greg Abbott call a special session to revive it? My best guesses are Yes for the first, and Too Soon To Tell for the second. Let’s take it one step at a time and see where we go. In the meantime, keep calling your legislators to let them know that SB9 is a bad bill. The Observer has more.

Paxton again refuses to comply with House Oversight Committee

It’s like he has no interest in oversight, or something.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office this week again denied a request for a records by a U.S. House panel seeking to investigate the state’s botched voter purge program.

[…]

While the Attorney General’s office has refused to release documents, Secretary of State David Whitley’s office said Tuesday it has released more than 1,000 pages of documents in response to the request and plans to produce more by the end of the week now that the federal lawsuit has been settled.

Whitley’s office continues to withhold other documents it says are exempt from disclosure because of attorney-client privilege.

First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer in a letter Monday reiterated his claim that the House committee lacks the authority to force the secretary of state to produce documents.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has rejected that claim but last month stopped short of threatening a subpoena if the Texas officials don’t hand over the documents requested — including emails with Gov. Greg Abbott and Trump administration officials about the attempted voter purge.

In the letter Monday, Mateer said the ability of Congress to pass laws to protect voter rights does not “override the inherent and reserved power” of the state to maintain its own voter rolls.

“Granting Congress the power to exercise ‘oversight’ over the constitutional officers of a state engaged in the lawful exercise of that state’s core authority would undermine the fabric of our system of dual sovereignty,” Mateer wrote. “In this case, that risk would be made particularly acute by the committee’s attempt to force the constitutionally-designated attorney for the State of Texas to divulge privileged and confidential communications with a client concerning the client’s enforcement of Texas law.”

Mateer added that the committee lacked a “valid legislative purpose” for the investigation, which the committee has disputed.

See here and here for the background. Note the similarity in the responses by Jeff Mateer and Donald Trump’s attorneys. It’s not an accident or a coincidence. I say it’s time to break out the subpoenas, and to go to court as needed to enforce them. If this is how they want to play this, then let’s quit fooling around and cut to the chase.

Lineup shuffling at the DA’s office

This was a surprise.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s top lieutenant is out the door after the latest staffing shake-up at an office already plagued by high turnover and ongoing retention problems.

Tom Berg, a former defense attorney who came on board at the start of Ogg’s administration, confirmed his departure early Tuesday – and though initially he described it to the Chronicle as a firing, officials later said that he resigned when offered a different job title.

“I realize that as the office has evolved its needs have necessarily changed,” Berg wrote in a letter to Ogg dated Tuesday. “I could not anticipate or adjust to each aspect of the transformation and acknowledge your need to have a First Assistant who is philosophically more aligned with your course for the future.”

It’s not clear if a specific incident prompted the move. Two other employees – Human Resources Director Dean Barshis and Outreach Coordinator Shekira Dennis – are shifting roles in similarly unclear circumstances.

[…]

As of April, more than 140 prosecutors had left under her tenure, generating a sharp uptick in turnover.

Ogg has attributed the turnover to fallout from Hurricane Harvey, which has left courtrooms scattered across a number of buildings and prosecutors working in makeshift offices.

Some local attorneys chalked up the departures to leadership issues.

“There’s a lot of different things going around — they’re overworked because of the hurricane or they’re not going to trial — but really it’s that there’s no leadership,” said Josh Phanco, a longtime felony prosecutor who left the office earlier this year. “There’s no one you look at and say, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ They all got fired.”

As the story notes, a lot of assistant DAs and other employees left – some voluntarily, others not – after Ogg was inaugurated, and it has continued since then. The same thing happened following Pat Lykos’ victory in 2008 (and would have happened if C.O. Bradford had won instead), as both of these elections represented a change of direction for the office. It’s been bumpy, and that has had a negative effect on how the office has performed, but that is what happens when a large organization undergoes a significant shift in philosophy and operation. I’ve no doubt that plenty of things could have gone better, and of course plenty of experience has been lost. That’s by definition, and it’s part of the point. Kim Ogg will have to defend her record when she runs for re-election next year, but in the meantime and with all due respect, I’m going to take the criticism of people who worked for the previous DAs with a certain level of skepticism.

I’ve met Tom Berg and I’m friends with him on Facebook. I’m sorry to see him go, I don’t know what might have happened, but I wish him all the best. His successor is now in place.

A day after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg forced out a top lieutenant in the latest office shake-up, officials confirmed Trial Bureau Chief David Mitcham will step in to assume the role as First Assistant District Attorney.

“David has a long and distinguished career as a criminal trial lawyer and prosecutor; he’s handled thousands of cases and understands the needs of our staff because he has walked in your shoes,” Ogg wrote Wednesday in an office-wide email announcing the change. “While you all have known him over the past two and one half years as the Trial Bureau Chief, I have known David for more than three decades as a colleague, friend and outstanding lawyer.”

Best of luck to David Mitcham.

So what’s happening with SB9, the vote suppression bill?

The big House committee hearing was on Wednesday.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Filed in early March, Senate Bill 9 by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes emerged as a priority for Senate leadership and first appeared to seize on bipartisan support for modernizing outdated voting equipment and enhancing election security.

In opening his pitch on the Senate floor in mid-April, Hughes said the “heart of SB 9” was a provision requiring counties to use voting machines by the 2024 general election that provide an auditable paper trail that can be verified by voters.

“It’s our responsibility on behalf of the people of Texas to make sure each county is conducting elections in the most secure way possible or practicable and that voters can truly trust the results,” Hughes said. “This shift to systems with a paper component, with those audits that will follow, will give certainty to every Texan that their vote will be counted fairly.”

The Senate signed off on the measure on a party-line vote. But when it made it to the House Elections Committee on Wednesday, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Fort Worth Republican and the panel’s chair, offered a substitute version of the bill that stripped the voting machine language altogether.

The most recent version of SB 9 still makes more than two dozen changes to election practices that proponents have generally described as election security and integrity measures meant to zero in on wrongdoers, not legitimate voters. Hughes previously chalked the other changes up to an attempt to address problems he had heard about from election administrators, district attorneys and the attorney general’s office.

But those changes — many of which election administrators actually oppose — are extensive and significant. To name a few:

The legislation would make it a state jail felony for Texans to vote when they’re ineligible even if they did so unknowingly, elevating that offense from a Class B misdemeanor to include possible jail time and a fine of up to $10,000. Although federal law generally allows a voter to receive assistance in filling out a ballot by the person of their choice, SB 9 would authorize partisan poll watchers or election officials to be present at a voting station if a voter is getting help from someone who isn’t a relative. Those individuals would then be allowed to examine the voter’s ballot before it’s submitted to determine whether it was filled out “in accordance with the voter’s wishes.”

SB 9 would require people who drive at least three voters to whom they’re not related to the polls at the same time for curbside voting — popular among the elderly and people with disabilities — to sign a sworn statement affirming those voters are physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or health risks.

And the legislation grants the state attorney general direct access to the voter rolls and essentially allows Texas to participate in a controversial, Kansas-based voter verification program that’s intended to allow states to compare voter rolls to find people registered in multiple states. It has proved to be ineffective, inaccurate and mired in cybersecurity weaknesses.

Laying out SB 9 before a packed committee room Wednesday morning, Klick told her colleagues the intent of her version of the bill was “neither voter suppression nor to enable voter fraud.”

“Ultimately, the intent of SB 9 is to strengthen election integrity and make sure all votes cast are legitimate votes and no legal voter is inhibited from casting their ballot,” Klick said.

But most of the individuals who testified before the committee countered that.

You should read the rest. Suffice it to say that volunteer deputy registrars and county election administrators like Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman were among the many who opposed SB9. Testimony went well into the night, and in the end the bill was left pending, to be taken up on Thursday and voted out on party lines.

But then a funny thing happened.

Representative Valoree Swanson had a strange day. The backbencher from Spring was absent from the Legislature most of the day with an illness, putting a highly contentious voting bill in jeopardy. Yet somehow, Capitol wags noted, she was voting on other legislation. To move Senate Bill 9 out of committee in these waning days of the legislative session, Swanson was needed in the House Elections Committee, which is split between five Republicans and four Democrats. A 4-4 tie would mean the legislation wouldn’t advance. But Swanson was apparently ailing somewhere away from the Capitol. Until she returned, SB 9 was stuck. Yet meanwhile the massive vote tally boards located at the front the House chamber showed her voting on other legislation.

“Ghost voting”—where lawmakers vote for their colleagues on the House floor for usually innocent reasons—is not really controversial at the Capitol. But being AWOL on legislation desperately wanted by top Republicans is. Her absence left Democrats cheerful, if apprehensive, that they could run out the clock on legislation they see as yet another voter suppression bill aimed at discouraging the elderly and people of color from voting. (SB 9 would, among other things, make it a felony to vote if ineligible, even unwittingly, allow poll watchers to inspect the ballots of disabled people who use non-relatives to help them vote, and require registration of volunteers who drive three or more disabled voters to polling places.)

Even though Swanson showed up mid-afternoon, the House adjourned for the day without setting a hearing for the bill in committee. Though a hearing could still be set, its prospects dim by the hour.

[…]

Instead of voting on the bill late Wednesday, Klick delayed the vote until Thursday morning. As members began to assemble for the committee hearing they learned she had cancelled the meeting because of Swanson’s absence. When Swanson showed up in the House chamber just before 2:30 p.m. (theatrically coughing in the direction of the press), the chairman told another committee member that she had not decided when she might reschedule a vote.

The decision comes at a critical moment for the Texas Legislature as the legislative session draws to a close on Memorial Day. Saturday is the last day for House committees to vote out Senate bills; Tuesday is the last day for the House to consider any Senate bills on the House floor. Given the complexity of the voter bill, one Democrat said it would be easy to load it up with a lot of amendments, which could delay passage of the legislation and endanger other legislation. For now, Swanson’s cough might be enough to kill SB 9.

That would be outstanding. One cannot rule out the possibility of a special session for the purpose of passing SB9 – Greg Abbott has had no qualms about doing that sort of thing in the past – but for today at least, there’s hope.

Ortiz Jones 2.0

Gina Ortiz Jones is back for another go at CD23.

Gina Ortiz Jones

Gina Ortiz Jones, the Democrat who narrowly lost last year to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, is running again.

Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, launched her long-anticipated 2020 bid Tuesday morning, setting the stage for a rematch in Texas’ most competitive congressional district.

“Last November, I came up a little bit short in my run for Congress — 926 votes — but I’ve never been one to back down because the promise of our country is worth fighting for,” Jones said in a brief video posted to Twitter.

Jones had been expected to run again after her razor-thin loss in November, when she declined to concede for nearly two weeks while all outstanding ballots were counted. Within several weeks of accepting defeat, she informed supporters that she was “very likely” to pursue a rematch.

She is the first major candidate to enter the 2020 Democratic primary in the massive 23rd District, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and covers hundreds of miles of Texas-Mexico border. The field already includes Liz Wahl, the former U.S. anchor for Russia Today who quit live on-air in 2014.

This was expected – she kind of never stopped running after her close loss in 2018. The main question I have is how big the primary field will be this time around. In 2018, she had two opponents with establishment backing and fundraising chops, and wound up in the runoff with a Bernie type. Ortiz Jones starts out as the frontrunner, and she was a prodigious fundraiser in the last cycle, but this is a very winnable seat and there will be plenty of support available to whoever the nominee is, so I can’t imagine that Liz Wahl, who hasn’t raised anything yet, will be her main competition. Ortiz Jones herself didn’t get into the CD23 race till Q3 of 2017, so there’s still plenty of time for someone else to emerge. I’ll be very interested to see if she gets a relatively free shot at it.

To recap for the other races of interest:

CD02 – Elisa Cardnell is in.
CD03 – 2018 candidate Lorie Burch is in.
CD06 – I’m not aware of anyone yet. Jana Sanchez hasn’t given any indication she’s running. Ruby Woolridge made an unsuccessful run for Mayor of Arlington this year, which doesn’t mean she can’t or won’t try for this seat again, but does indicate she might have moved on.
CD10 – Mike Siegel and Pritesh Gandhi are in.
CD21 – Joseph Kopser is out, Wendy Davis is thinking about it, I’m not aware of anyone else.
CD22 – Sri Kulkarni and Nyanza Moore are in. Letitia Plummer, who lost the primary runoff to Kulkarni in 2018, is running for Houston City Council this fall. As with Ruby Woolridge, this doesn’t mean she couldn’t shift gears if that doesn’t work out, but she’d be on a tighter turnaround in that case, with the filing deadline in December.
CD24 – Kim Olson, Candace Valenzuela, and Jan McDowell are in.
CD25 – 2018 nominee Julie Oliver is in.
CD31 – MJ Hegar is running for Senate, and I am not aware of anyone else running for this at this time.

If you know of a candidate that I don’t know of, please leave a comment.

Injunction ordered in Skull Creek lawsuit

Hope this helps.

Three months after the waters of Skull Creek first turned black, a Travis County state district judge issued a temporary injunction Tuesday against Inland Environmental and Remediation and David Polston, its president, requiring the company to stop accepting waste and halt any further polluting of the creek.

The injunction prevents Polston from storing or processing any waste at the company’s site near Altair, just south of Columbus, in a manner that “causes, suffers, or allows discharge into or adjacent to waters” in the state. The agreement – reached between the Texas attorney general’s office, the Lower Colorado River Authority and Polston’s lawyers – also requires the defendants to “abate and contain all spills and discharges at the site” and start removing and properly disposing of waste.

Inland processes oil and gas drilling waste and turns it manufactured products like road base, according to its website. Its site is adjacent to Skull Creek, which flows for more than 10 miles before emptying into the Colorado River, which ultimately flows into Matagorda Bay, a popular fishing and boating spot on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

Under the injunction, every Monday Polston is required to submit progress reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the LCRA and the attorney general’s office detailing the actions Inland has taken to comply with the injunction’s stipulations. They include assessing the extent of the contamination, removing road base material along the creek and creating a detailed inventory and a map of all waste at the site.

“I hope I have not left any doubt in your mind as to how serious I am taking this – the court is taking it,” Judge Dustin Howell told lawyers on Tuesday. “Certainly, having heard the day of evidence that I heard yesterday, it’s obvious that there is something that needs to be addressed here.”

See here for the background. This is just an injunction pending the outcome of the lawsuit, for which the court set a January 2020 date to proceed. Be sure to check out the Colorado County Citizen for ongoing coverage of this issue.

Prop B ruled unconstitutional

Oh, my.

A state district judge on Wednesday ruled Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that grants Houston firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority, unconstitutional and void.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought in November by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which contended that the city charter amendment conflicts with the Texas Constitution.

In her ruling, state District Judge Tanya Garrison found that Chapter 174 of the local government code preempts Prop B. The city, which was named in the police union’s suit, has alleged that the parity measure section conflicts with a provision of Chapter 174 tying compensation for firefighters and police officers to that of comparable private sector employees.

Mayor Sylvester Turner briefly stopped the weekly city council meeting to announce the ruling. The fire union quickly announced it would appeal.

After the council meeting, Turner said the 60-day layoff notices he proposed and council approved sending in recent weeks to 220 firefighters and more than 110 fire cadets and municipal workers to help close a budget deficit exacerbated by Prop. B would be rescinded, along with hundreds of proposed demotions within HFD.

Turner cast the ruling as a “tremendous positive” for the city as a whole, saying he hoped it could spur a “reset” to reduce widespread acrimony over the issue. He also stressed that firefighters deserve a pay raise and looked forward to negotiating one with union leaders.

“They’re deserving of a pay raise that the city can afford and I do look forward to sitting down and talking with them about what would be an acceptable pay raise within the confines of the city’s financial capability,” Turner said. “We’ll do everything we can to move it forward.”

A release with the Mayor’s comments following the ruling, which came down while Council was in session, is here. Judge Garrison had sent the parties to mediation originally, saying she didn’t want to get involved if they could work it out among themselves. They did not, and so here we are. You can see a copy of her ruling here, which is an order granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs, the HPOU. The city is listed as the defendant and their motion was also granted, while the HPFFA’s motion was denied; someone who understands the law way better than I do will hopefully step in to explain how all that worked. Be that as it may, the firefighters will appeal, but that almost certainly means the city is off the hook for this fiscal year, possibly for the foreseeable future.

Undead “religious liberty” bill passes Senate

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Scott Braddock:

Here’s the story.

Over the fierce opposition of Democrats, the Texas Senate on Wednesday advanced a significantly watered-down version of a religious liberty bill whose original form some LGBTQ advocates labeled the most discriminatory piece of legislation filed this session.

The bill requires one more vote from the Senate before it can return to the Texas House, whose LGBTQ Caucus killed a nearly-identical proposal on a procedural motion last week. But the House is likely to advance the measure if given a second pass, at least according to the lower chamber’s leadership.

As filed, Sen. Bryan Hughes’ Senate Bill 1978 contained sweeping religious refusals language that brought LGBTQ rights advocates out against it in force. Proponents, for their part, have labeled the Mineola Republican’s proposal the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill,” in reference to a provision that would empower the Texas attorney general to sue San Antonio for excluding the Christian-owned chicken franchise from its airport.

Senate Democrats used every means they had — long lines of questioning, a slew of proposed amendments and a procedural point of order — to fight the bill, or at least tweak it as it was debated. But ultimately, after three hours of discussion, the measure passed on a 19-12 vote, with Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. voting for it and Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger voting against it.

Still, the messy floor fight many advocates feared would load up the bill with discriminatory amendments did not materialize.

The original version of Hughes’ proposal prevented government retaliation against an individual based on that “person’s belief or action in accordance with the person’s sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage” — language advocates feared would embolden businesses to discriminate against gay Texans. The revision, which Hughes made on the floor, outlaws government retaliation against someone based on their association with or support of a religious organization. That revised language is largely duplicative of existing protections for freedom of religion and freedom of association.

But advocates — pointing to the bill’s origins, and to its roots as model legislation from anti-gay efforts across the nation — adamantly opposed the bill, lobbying lawmakers to do so as well. Samantha Smoot, interim director of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said this week the measure is “part of an insidious, coordinated strategy to advance anti-LGBTQ messages and discriminatory public policies.”

[…]

As senators slogged through the debate, one recurring theme from Democratic opposition was: Why spend time on a controversial measure when there are so many other priorities to complete? And, some added, if the bill is largely just a codification of existing protections, why bring it forward at all?

“Can you identify the shortcomings of the Constitution in protecting religious freedom?” asked Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

“This is covered under the First Amendment, so I’m not sure what your angle is,” she added, after reading from it.

Responding to such questions, Hughes called the measure an important “vehicle for protecting those First Amendment rights.”

That vehicle could come in the form of a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general, who under Hughes’ legislation would be empowered to sue governmental entities accused of discriminating based on religious affiliations. One likely candidate for such a lawsuit is the fast food franchise Chick-fil-A, which was recently blocked from opening a restaurant in the San Antonio Airport after a member of the city council said he could not support a company with “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

See here for the background. Lord knows, if there’s one thing we need, it’s an excuse for Ken Paxton to launch another religion-fueled legal crusade. The main thing to keep an eye on here is the clock, as time is running down for this to be approved by the House. Call your State Rep and urge them to oppose SB1978. Every little bit will help.

(Also, too: How long has it been since I’ve wondered when the hell we’ll finally rid ourselves of Sen. Eddie Lucio? Because holy cow, he sucks.)

House votes to raise smoking age

This could happen.

The Texas House voted Tuesday to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, except for military personnel.

Senate Bill 21 received preliminary approval from the lower chamber more than one month after the Senate approved a slightly different version of the legislation. The bill now awaits final approval in the House, which is usually a formality. Then the Senate will vote to either appoint a conference committee for the two chambers to iron out differences in the bill or accept the House’s changes and send the legislation to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rep. John Zerwas, a physician who sponsored the legislation, said the measure would protect young adults who are”highly susceptible” to an addiction to tobacco products.

“The idea behind this bill is essentially to move that risk away from those people that are most susceptible to it,” said Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would become the 14th state to raise the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21 and the third to include military exemptions. The stricter age restriction would apply to tobacco products such as cigarettes, as well as e-cigarette products.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, added a floor amendment Tuesday that broadens the bill’s military exception to allow all members of the military over the age of 18 with a valid military ID to purchase tobacco. The bill previously only allowed members of the military on active duty with a valid ID.

See here for the background. Rep. Zerwas had filed his own bill on this topic, but in the end went with the Senate bill. That will have to go back to the Senate due to the House amendments, but my guess is that shouldn’t cause a problem. I thought that bill was fine as it was, but I can live with the broadened military exemption. That addresses the one substantive criticism of the original bill, so I hope this means it’ll be on to Greg Abbott’s desk for a signature.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 13

The Texas Progressive Alliance practices saying sine die in the mirror as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.

Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.

When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”

The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.

Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.

Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.

“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.

“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”

“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.

The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.

There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.

Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:

“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”

El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.

“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.

That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.

Federal lawsuit filed over homeless feeding ordinance

I’m kind of surprised that this hadn’t been filed before now.

On a recent evening in April, a few dozen people experiencing homelessness lined up outside Central Library in downtown Houston for a free — and illegal — meal of vegetarian chili, macaroni, rice and fruit salad. Volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an international organization with hundreds of local chapters, often serve free dinner here, violating a local ordinance against publicly feeding groups of people without city permission.

Houston’s so-called charitable-feeding ordinance was enacted in 2012 and allows groups and individuals to feed up to five homeless people, no strings attached. To feed more, though, you must register with the city — or face fines up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor charge for violating the Houston Code of Ordinances. Additionally, would-be do-gooders have to take a food handling training class; provide the proposed schedule, time and location of the ad-hoc soup kitchen; detail the food being served; and fill out an online form to receive permission from the city to give food in public.

On Monday, activists filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance on First Amendment grounds. Food Not Bombs and three of its members are plaintiffs in the suit, filed against the City of Houston in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. The lawsuit accuses the city of infringing on freedom of speech and religious liberties of the anti-war, food-sharing activists. It asks Houston to overthrow the ban and seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The ordinance infringes on “freedom of association” and “political organizing” and is “unconstitutionally vague,” the lawsuit argues. It cites at least 19 pro-food-sharing verses from the Bible. Randall Kallinen, who has filed numerous civil rights lawsuits in Houston, is representing the activists. In interviews with the Observer, he described the ordinance as “totally ridiculous” and part of an effort to “get the homeless out of town.”

While the lawsuit adds to pressure against Houston, the effort to overturn the city’s ban is not new. A parallel lawsuit also involving Kallinen has been floundering in state district court since 2017, and over 75,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an end to the “cruel” ordinance.

See here for some more on the state court lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit is embedded in the story, and it’s something else. I like to make I Am Not A Lawyer jokes, but I can read legal briefs and motions and generally understand what they’re getting at. This one is in a way a lot easier to read because there’s almost no legal language in it. I mean, there’s a page quoting from the Food Not Bombs website. There’s more than two pages quoting bible verses, and three pages listing organizations that they say oppose the law. The legal arguments section does cite a couple of court cases, but it never quotes anything from the cited decisions, which leaves one to wonder just how those decisions apply to the case at hand.

Most of the arguments they make themselves have to do with the vagueness of the term “those in need” from the ordinance’s definition of “charitable food service”, which is “providing food without charge, payment or other compensation to benefit those in need at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food.” I mean, I was a math major and I Am Not A Lawyer, but that seems pretty straightforward to me. Their point seems to be that an organization that was handing out food (at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food) to random passersby would not be in violation of the law. Maybe that could work as a theoretical construct, but I have a hard time imagining it happening in real life.

The writer of this story is clearly sympathetic to the plaintiffs. I get that, but even the lightest critical analysis of the lawsuit shows the problems with it. I’m not sure how the reader is served by that omission. We’ll see what the court makes of this, but color me skeptical.

We could have had an excise tax on e-cigarettes

But then Greg Abbott got involved.

At the urging of the nation’s biggest tobacco company, Gov. Greg Abbott launched a late-hour push to change Texas legislation creating a 10% state retail excise tax on e-cigarette and vapor smoking products.

That bill died in House action Thursday night due to a legislative maneuver, known as a point of order, offered by Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford. It has no realistic chance of revival because of legislative deadlines and the mandate that tax measures originate in the House, not the Senate.

Stickland said Friday his aides spotted the technical error and he pointed it out in the House out of concern about ladling taxes on e-cigarettes and vape products.

“A lot of people have used e-cigarettes to quit other bad habits,” Stickland said Friday. “It’s just a freedom issue for me. I think that taxes are theft.”

After the bill’s death, Dallas Democrat Nathan Johnson, the author of the Senate version of the bill, said in a text message: “I’m disappointed, to say the least. This bill would protect kids and save public costs. It had overwhelming support in the House.”

Critics said earlier that Abbott’s late move — targeting a bill touted as deterring youths from buying addictive e-cigs — would effectively ease taxation of products such as Juul pods that concentrate nicotine in not much liquid.

[…]

Abbott’s suggested changes would have scrapped a proposed first-in-the-nation retail tax predicted to generate about $20 million a year for public education. Instead, Texas would tax vape products at the wholesale level at five cents per milliliter of “consumable liquid solution.”

Four states — Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana and North Carolina — tax vape products at five cents per milliliter, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, with New Jersey and West Virginia levying higher rates.

The Abbott-backed changes also would have put a $1 per ounce tax on every initial sale of heated tobacco products, which produce an inhalable aerosol primarily by heating, not burning, tobacco. The FDA authorized U.S. sales of the products, made by Philip Morris International, late last month. Corey Henry of Philip Morris International said in an email that the product will be commercialized by Altria in the U.S. through a licensing agreement.

Proceeds from the double-barreled tax were to help fund public schools.

Rob Crane, an Ohio State University physician who heads the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, said in an email that the resulting e-cig tax would have been so light, it would make “no difference” to children or adults considering purchases of such nicotine delivery products.

The first link in the story gives some background on the bill, as it was and what it was intended for. I confess, I wasn’t aware of any of this before I read the story, so I don’t have much to add beyond what you can read at the two links. Mostly, this is a reminder of why it’s hard to pass bills in the Lege. Time is against you, there are many veto points, and the closer you get to the end of the session the easier it is kill things. All you can do is note how far you got this time, and vow to try again in two years.

Chris Bell looking at a Senate run

We haven’t had one of these stories in a couple of weeks.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell, the former Democratic congressman and gubernatorial nominee from Houston, is mulling a bid for U.S. Senate in 2020 against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Bell told the Tribune on Monday that he is taking a “serious look” at the race in the wake of the recent decision by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, to pass on a bid against Cornyn. Bell said he is in the “very early” stage of deliberations but believes he would need to make a decision by this summer to be able to run a viable campaign.

There are already several Democratic candidates, including former U.S. House contender MJ Hegar, and a couple of other prominent names are still weighing whether to run. Bell expressed confidence that he could break through.

“I certainly think it’s a field I could compete in,” Bell said, touting his long record helping build up the party in Texas. “Many of us believe this is the year the pendulum finally swings.”

[…]

Bell, who now has his own law firm in Houston, said he thought he was done with running for office but like many Democrats, he felt compelled to “stay involved or get involved” after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Bell said he had hoped Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso Congressman who made an unsuccessful but high-profile bid for U.S. Senate last year, would run for the U.S. Senate again in 2020. After both O’Rourke and Castro opted against challenging Cornyn, Bell began considering what he could bring to the race.

“I think a big part of my message would be a lot of people are looking to Texas now for guidance, and we’re in a perfect position to lead,” Bell said, pointing to issues such as immigration reform and climate change. He also echoed other Democrats in claiming Cornyn has been afraid to stand up for Texas, shrinking behind Trump as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

I like Chris Bell. He was a good member of Congress, whose career there was cut short by the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003. He was a better candidate for Governor in 2006 than he’s ever gotten credit for, and if the trial lawyers had gotten over their obsession with Carole Keeton Strayhorn and figured out they needed to help push Democratic voters to support the Democratic candidate in that year’s multi-candidate pileup for Governor, he might have won. (VaLinda Hathcox, the Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner in 2006, got more votes in her race than Rick Perry did. Look it up.) He ran a progressive campaign for Mayor in 2015. (*)

All that said, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who’d be excited by a Chris Bell candidacy. Going by the criteria I suggested for potential John Cornyn opponents, he doesn’t really meet any of them. He’s held office and run statewide before, and he’ll have some measure of support in Houston. That gives him a shot in a primary, but it would also probably spur Emily’s List to quit waiting to see if Amanda Edwards jumps in and start getting behind MJ Hegar now. It’s fine by me if Chris Bell want to run for Senate. As stated before, I’d prefer a primary with more than one serious candidate in it, if only to ensure that everyone starts engaging voters now. Chris Bell is welcome to run, and may the best candidate win. But that’s about as enthusiastic as I’m gonna get about it.

(*) – He then threw that all away to endorse Bill King in the runoff. Democratic primary voters will remember that. The Chron has more.

“What is dead may never die”, bad bills edition

That nasty anti-LGBT bill that was killed in the House has been revived in the Senate.

After LGBTQ lawmakers in the Texas House killed a religious liberty bill they feared could be dangerous to their community, the Texas Senate has brought it back — and looks to be fast-tracking it.

House Bill 3172, by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, effectively died on Thursday after members of the lower chamber’s first-ever LGBTQ Caucus torpedoed it with a pair of procedural ploys. On Monday, a companion bill filed in the Senate by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, moved for the first time in weeks: After being unexpectedly added to an afternoon committee docket, it was swiftly voted out of the panel on a party-line vote.

Within the hour, the bill was placed on the Senate’s agenda, making it eligible for a vote later this week.

As filed, the Senate bill prevents the government from taking “adverse action” against individuals for acting in accordance with their own “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage.” Advocates fear that would embolden businesses to decline service to members of the LGBTQ community.

[…]

Five Republicans on the committee voted for the bill and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voted against it.

If the bill is to proceed, it will have to maintain its current blistering pace: Next Tuesday is the deadline for the House to approve Senate bills. Before it reaches the House floor, the measure would need to win approval from the full Senate, be referred by the House speaker to a committee, get scheduled for a hearing and earn a positive vote from a House committee.

Advocates have long feared that floor debate on the bill in the socially conservative Texas Senate could result in a slew of anti-LGBTQ amendments. In a one-page handout issued to Texas House members last week in anticipation of floor debate, the advocacy group Equality Texas warned that if the measure came up for debate, it could spark a “‘bathroom bill’ style floor fight.”

The Texas Senate has already passed a different religious refusals bill. Senate Bill 17, which advocates call a “license to discriminate,” would allow occupational license holders like social workers or lawyers to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” when their licenses are at risk due to professional behavior or speech. Advocates say the Hughes bill moving this week — at least in its original form — contains all that language and more troubling provisions.

See here for the background. The Hughes bill is SB1978. The House bill had been amended to water it down somewhat; the Hughes bill is what that bill was originally, but Sen. Hughes says he wants to amend it in the same fashion. Even if that made the bill all right, the concern as noted in the story is that amendments proposed by individual legislators could wind up making it much worse, which is why the best course of action is for it to not come to a vote. The good news there is that time is short, but you can be sure Dan Patrick will do his best to move it along. Now is a good time to call your Senator and let them know they need to oppose SB1978. The DMN has more.

What’s going on in Skull Creek?

Here’s a story from a couple of weeks ago that you may have missed. I know I missed it until it was pointed out to me.

For more than two months, the waters of Skull Creek have flowed black, its surface covered in an iridescent sheen. Yellowed fish skeletons line the pebbled banks of the Colorado River tributary, and a dizzying chemical odor hangs in the air.

The odor is so strong that Julie Schmidt says she can smell it inside her house.

She and her husband bought 10 acres along the creek in December with visions of an idyllic country upbringing for their children, ages 10 and 2. Now, she isn’t sure they should play outside.

“Last summer, you could go into the creek behind the house and it was crystal clear. You could play in it, you could fish,” said Schmidt, who moved from nearby Garwood and has lived in Colorado County her entire life. “Now you don’t want to touch it. You pick up a rock, turn it upside down, and it’s completely black.”

Locals and elected officials in this small southeast Texas community near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Texas 71 say the source of the problem is obvious: an oil and gas waste recycling facility near the creek that is owned by Columbus-based Inland Environmental and Remediation. Although Inland has denied wrongdoing, the Texas attorney general sued the company Friday — 10 weeks after citizens first began complaining — alleging the company illegally discharged industrial waste into the creek and stored that waste without a permit.

On Friday, a state district court in Travis County granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its president, David Polston, saying he must “cease and prevent all discharges of waste” from the site into state waters.

The state’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages of up to $1 million.

The Texas Railroad Commission ordered the facility to stop storing oil and gas waste in 2017 as a result of a bankruptcy court reorganization. (The permit was held by Boundary Ventures, a company at the same location that lists Polston as its president and director.)

Records obtained by The Texas Tribune show that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dispatched inspectors to the facility Feb. 10 — the same day that Colorado County Judge Ty Prause says he made a formal complaint — and hand delivered a letter two days later demanding that Polston take immediate action to halt the discharge of waste into the creek. The letter described conditions at the facility as an “imminent threat and substantial endangerment to human health and/or the environment.”

But Prause, the county’s chief executive, said the agency left him and other officials in the dark for weeks about the origins of the pungent substance and what guidance he should give to his constituents to protect themselves.

“It’s hard to imagine that the state agencies in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources in Texas would not act quicker to tell people that live on this creek whether there’s a threat to their health or their livestock,” said Prause, who oversees emergency response for the county.

I encourage you to read the rest. Most of the coverage of this story has come from the Colorado County Citizen, with reporting by my friend and former blogging colleague Vince Leibowitz, who was the one to alert me to all this. Their first story, about the appearance of the black water and dead fish, is here, datelined February 15. The litigation referred to in the Trib story is ongoing, and I hope it will help uncover the truth about what happened, and hold the parties responsible for it to account. As Leibowitz wrote in an editorial, the “alphabet soup” of state agencies that have authority here have not been doing a good job, with the exception for the most part of the Railroad Commission. I don’t know what it’s going to take to figure out and clean up a big toxic waste spill like this, but we sure need to get on it.

How should we feel about Joaquin Castro not running for Senate?

The Chron’s Erica Greider has opinions.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

In announcing that he won’t challenge Republican U.S. Sen John Cornyn next year, Texas congressman Joaquin Castro explained that he wanted to focus on the “important and meaningful work” he is doing in Congress.

Many Texas Democrats were saddened by this news because they were hoping Castro would run statewide. Others were disgruntled by it because they would like to flip the Senate seat, and Castro would have been a strong candidate in a year when Democrats hope to recapture control of the U.S. Senate.

I would have been proud to vote for Castro, but have little sympathy for those who denounced his decision as overly cautious. Both he and his twin brother, Julián, have faced this criticism at various points during their respective careers in electoral politics, and it’s not entirely baseless. The Castro twins are deliberate in their decision-making, and reluctant to take unnecessary risks.

[…]

Cornyn was re-elected by a 26-point margin in 2014, but he can hardly be considered invincible given the strong showing of Democrats in last year’s midterm elections. Other Democrats have taken notice. M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran and the 2018 Democratic nominee in Texas’ 31st Congressional District, threw her hat in the ring last month. Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards is also mulling a bid, and other contenders may come forward now that Castro has taken a pass on a 2020 Senate race.

And although there’s a sense among Democrats that now is the time to stand up Preisdent Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that Castro is already in a position to do that as a member of Congress. He represents a heavily Democratic district, and is unlikely to face a primary challenge. His stature in Washington has grown with the Democratic takeover of the House last fall, as has his presence in the national media: he’s a frequent guest on cable TV news shows to discuss the Russia investigation or Trump’s border policies.

Frankly, Castro can probably serve as the congressman from Bexar County until he decides to do something else.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the issue is not that Joaquin Castro decided to stay put in Congress. The issue is that someone on behalf of Joaquin Castro let it be known that he was “all but certain” to announce his candidacy. If you do that, and then you follow it with weeks of silence and an announcement that you’re not running, well, people are going to wonder what you were thinking, and doing. Had it not been for that initial “all but certain” trail balloon, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. I wish I knew the story behind how and why that story got floated in the first place. Maybe some day we will.

In the meantime, there’s another person out there pondering a possible run, and this story about Stacy Abrams’ visit to Houston checks in on her.

The annual fundraising event drew a who’s-who of local Democrats, some of whom expressed similar optimism about the upcoming election cycle — including At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, who told reporters she still is mulling a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“I’m feeling encouraged right now,” Edwards said. “I think that change is on the horizon in Texas, and I think the 2020 election cycle is when it will take place.”

Edwards said the Democratic nominee would have to “galvanize the base” to beat Cornyn, adding that her prospective campaign would draw lessons from the one run last cycle by Beto O’Rourke, whom Edwards said she has spoken with about her own possible run.

I remain skeptical of an Edwards candidacy, for basically the same reason why I was initially skeptical of Joaquin for Senate: Edwards has no opposition of note for re-election to Council At Large #4, and four years from now she’d make a very credible candidate for Mayor if she wants to do that. Would you give that up for a longshot at the Senate? Maybe Amanda Edwards would, I don’t know. I feel like she’s unlikely to draw this decision out for too long – if nothing else, the filing deadline for Houston municipal elections is the end of August – but we’ll see.

Census outreach

I am puzzled why this is controversial.

A divided city council on Wednesday approved a $650,000 contract aimed at boosting the number of Houston residents who participate in the 2020 census, a measure that generated partisan debate in which some council members worried the outreach would have a liberal bent.

Under the contract, Lopez Negrete Communications — a firm specializing in Hispanic marketing — will conduct outreach intended to improve response rates in the 2020 national survey. Council members passed the deal on an 11-6 vote, with most of the council’s conservative cohort voting against it.

The hour-long debate centered around allegations from a handful of council members who said subcontracting companies or partnering organizations may conduct census outreach in a way that is slanted toward Democrats or liberals.

Mayor Sylvester Turner repeatedly dismissed the idea, telling council members the contract “has no partisan bent at all,” and would bring in more money to Houston, because the federal government distributes funds to cities and other local communities based on census data.

The mayor has said a signficant undercount could impact city services, with each uncounted person costing the city about $1,500 in federal funding. In 2018, the Census Bureau posted a slow population growth estimate for Houston, creating a $17 million hole in the city budget.

At-Large Councilman Mike Knox clashed with Turner over the deal, expressing concern that the main firm would partner with organizations that have unknown “missions and agendas.” For instance, Knox said council could not prevent organizations from conducting voter registration efforts amid census outreach.

[…]

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, a vocal supporter of the contract, criticized his colleagues for opposing it, saying outreach is needed to counteract the impact of a possible census citizenship question.

“Residents in my district are fearful of filling out that census,” said Gallegos, whose southeast Houston district is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

He also said it was “frightening” that Knox took exception to the deal over concerns that those conducting census outreach may also register people to vote.

“That right there, I just thought it was a joke,” Gallegos said after the meeting. He said Houston would risk losing social programs and political representation if the city’s population is under-counted.

Either Lopez Negrete will do a good job of delivering the service they have been contracted to provide – boosting the response rate on the Census, to ensure that Houston is properly counted and thus gets its fair share of political representation and federal resources – at a fair price, or they won’t. I’m not saying a firm’s politics or values can’t be an issue, but the job has to be the first priority, and I don’t see anyone raising concerns about that. As for Mike Knox’s issues with Lopez Negrete possibly registering voters, I presume this is the usual Republican fear and loathing, and I have no time for that. Let’s make sure all our people get counted. That’s what matters. KUHF has more.

The Sandra Bland cellphone video

Wow.

Sandra Bland

New cellphone footage from the now infamous traffic stop of Sandra Bland shows her perspective when a Texas state trooper points a Taser and yells, “I will light you up!”

Bland, 28, was found dead three days later in her Waller County jail cell near Houston. Her death was ruled a suicide.

The new video — released as part of a WFAA-TV exclusive in partnership with the Investigative Network — fuels the Bland family’s suspicions that Texas officials withheld evidence in her controversial arrest and, later, her death.

Until now, the trooper’s dashcam footage was believed to be the only full recording of the July 2015 traffic stop, which ended in Bland’s arrest. The trooper claimed he feared for his safety during the stop.

The 39-second cellphone video shot by Bland remained in the hands of investigators until the Investigative Network obtained the video once the criminal investigation closed.

Bland’s family members said they never saw the video before and are calling for Texas officials to reexamine the criminal case against the trooper who arrested Bland, which sparked outrage across the country.

“Open up the case, period,” Bland’s sister Shante Needham said when shown the video.

Read the rest, and read this interview with Sharon Cooper, also a sister of Sandra Bland. It doesn’t look like there will be any reopening of the case, but for sure we need to know why this video hadn’t come to light before now. It’s hard to accept official explanations of tragedies like this when that explanation suddenly changes a couple of years later. We have to know that we have all the available information, and that there are no more surprises lurking in an evidence box somewhere.

Weekend link dump for May 12

“And the most important thing to understand about Thomas of Monmouth’s massively, enduringly influential and culture-shaping story is this: It’s a lie. It’s a vicious, outrageous fabrication — the product of an evil, deceitful man with a twisted mind.”

“So why the reluctance to attribute white supremacist violence to white supremacist ideology?”

“Of all religious or ethnic groups in America, Jews have by far the most positive attitudes toward Muslims. Equally striking: by far the most negative attitudes toward Muslims are held by white evangelicals.”

“The players behind #ForTheGame don’t believe that the NWHL holds the keys to a viable future for the sport. Rather, many want to see the National Hockey League (NHL) to put legitimate resources into a professional women’s hockey league.”

“My question, though: how do you say Mike Pence in Valyrian?”

“What we’re going to have is capitalism with some level of taxation. Most people really aren’t arguing against capitalism. There may be a few, but most people are just saying that the taxes should change.”

“The reason this story makes tears come to our eyes is because it is a story about goodness. A story about someone who was brave and generous, someone selfless who believed and nurtured and demonstrated the good of the human race.”

“Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”

“This is a huge step forward after a giant leap backwards. It promises that the citizens of Brunei won’t be executed for being gay. It also sends a very crucial message to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia that there is a cost for enacting these laws. And the cost isn’t folks boycotting their hotels. The cost is that corporations and big banks won’t do business with you. The financial institutions stepping up had a huge impact. Having said that, the law to stone their citizens is still in place. Meaning that as soon as the pressure dies down they could simply start the process of carrying out executions. So in reference to the boycott everyone should do what they feel is correct. For my family and me we simply can’t walk away until this draconian law is no longer on the books.”

Sadly, doctors are a big part of the opioid problem, too.

“Would it further unsettle you to know that 50,000 to 75,000 bees weigh about 10 pounds? Sorry about that, then.”

“For roughly 18 months, AirPods play music, or podcasts, or make phone calls. Then the lithium-ion batteries will stop holding much of a charge, and the AirPods will slowly become unusable. They can’t be repaired because they’re glued together. They can’t be thrown out, or else the lithium-ion battery may start a fire in the garbage compactor. They can’t be easily recycled, because there’s no safe way to separate the lithium-ion battery from the plastic shell. Instead, the AirPods sit in your drawer forever.”

“Let’s talk about this eye-popping story from Reuters which claims that back in 2015 Michael Cohen helped early Trump endorser and now-consummate supporter Jerry Falwell, Jr. make some embarrassing photos disappear. This is at least the third story Aram Roston has written on this saga (this one at Reuters, the earlier two when he was at Buzzfeed). Each has reported a series eye-popping or bizarre facts. But each has also read with the clear sense that Roston either knows more than he can write or believes there’s much more to the story than he can prove.”

“Keeping Trump’s tax returns private is not like keeping Mitt Romney’s tax returns private. This is a man who was handed hundreds of millions of dollars, flushed it down the toilet, and was desperate to maintain his image of wealth and success. You couldn’t invent a more inviting target for a foreign intelligence service to manipulate.”

“An attorney general spinning for a president who might have criminally obstructed justice is important. But, arguably, it is not as important as what has prompted all this hubbub: the Trump-Russia scandal itself.”

“Unfortunately, ectopic pregnancies cannot continue to a live birth. If untreated, as a pregnancy grows, the Fallopian tube (where 96% of ectopics develop) gets stretched to the point of rupture & can cause massive bleeding. 4% of maternal deaths are related to ectopic pregnancy.”

RIP, Jim Fowler, naturalist and former host of TV’s Wild Kingdom.

RIP, Peggy Lipton, actor best known for The Mod Squad and Twin Peaks.

Bad bill alert: SB9

We’re a bit more than two weeks out from the end of this legislative session. It feels like it’s been pretty quiet, but perhaps that’s just in comparison to the last session when it was a nonstop fight over the bathroom bill. I’m not going to say this has been a good session, but it hasn’t stood out as a terrible one yet, which again may just be a comment on other recent Leges than a statement about this one. Be that as it may, we are at the point where bills can be killed by virtue of the constrained calendar that remains. The Texas House LGBTQ Caucus knocked off one bad bill recently, and now the time comes to go after another. Progress Texas explains.

After historic voter turnout in the 2018 midterms, Republicans started to get a little nervous. Too many new voters spell a disaster for the GOP that has long been out of touch with everyday Texans, so Republicans in the legislature got to work to prevent our fellow Texans from voting.

The “Slow Down the Vote” bill, known as SB 9, proposes a long list of changes to state voter laws, some of which could make access to the polls more difficult for our friends and neighbors. We need lawmakers to protect the fundamental right of every eligible citizen to vote and create an election system that works for all Texans.

Here’s everything you need to be up to date on the Republican voter suppression scheme:

Act Now: Stand up for Fair Elections: Say NO to the “Slow Down the Vote” Bill

Blogs:

There are some videos at that Progress Texas link with some good discussion about SB9, so click over to see them. This link provides the details of what SB9 would do.

The “Slow Down the Vote” bill, known as SB 9, proposes a long list of changes to state voter laws, some of which could make access to the polls more difficult for our friends and neighbors. Some of the items include:

Require people giving rides to the polls to sign sworn affidavits

Make it harder for people with disabilities to receive assistance at polls

Make it harder for some people to vote by mail

Take away the safe harbor to cast a provisional ballot

Allow registrars to reject voter registrations if any item is left blank

Allow campaigns to observe voters who require assistance

Allow the currently indicted Attorney General direct access to the state voter registration database

Allow the Secretary of State to share voter Social Security numbers with other states and jurisdictions

Create a mandate that countywide polling places be located within 3 miles of every registered voter, but only for the five most populous counties

We’ve previously written on the dangers of this bill, as have our friends at the Texas Civil Rights Project. The bill passed the Texas Senate in March and is on its way to the House.

The Current also had a story about an anti-SB9 rally at the Capitol. The good news here is that it’s just now getting a committee hearing in the House, which is scheduled for Wednesday, May 15, at 8 AM. That brings tactics like delays and points of order into play, with the goal of running out the clock before this thing can get a vote on the House floor. You can show up to testify against this bill – you should register as a witness beforehand. You can also call your own representative and urge him or her to oppose SB9. If you’ve been looking for a chance to Do Something this session, here it is.

Firefighters get Prop B back pay

Good for them.

The city of Houston on Friday issued lump-sum paychecks to more than 3,900 firefighters, a move Mayor Sylvester Turner said reflects the implementation, retroactive to Jan. 1, of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and experience.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston fire union, said that contrary to the mayor’s “Orwellian claims,” the paychecks did not fully equalize base and incentive pay between fire and police, as laid out in Proposition B. Lancton said the city “badly botched” implementation of the measure.

The back pay, worth $27.4 million, comes a week after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association ended court-ordered mediation without an agreement to phase in the raises over several years.

[…]

For now, the fire department’s biweekly payroll will increase from about $10.2 million to $12.3 million, Turner said. The city has dipped into its reserves to fund raises from Jan. 1 through June 30, which Turner said will cost $31 million. Lancton also has questioned the accuracy of that figure.

Both sides, meanwhile, are awaiting a state district judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, in which the police union and city have alleged Prop B violates the Texas constitution.

I don’t have anything to add to this, I’m just noting it for the record. I look forward to the day when I will be able to get all of this out of my brain, as I hope to do with Game 6 of Rockets-Warriors.

Revitalizing recycling

This is encouraging.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini

On Monday, bipartisan legislation designed to help offset the sapped demand for recyclables abroad cleared a final legislative hurdle at the Texas Capitol.

Senate Bill 649, which passed the Senate last month on a 21-10 vote, cleared the Texas House on an informal voice vote. The bill aims to increase the number of Texas plastics and paper manufacturers using recyclables as industrial feedstock to produce consumer and other products.

It will require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Economic Development and Tourism Office to figure out how best to increase demand for recyclable materials among the manufacturing industry, identify the quantity and type of recyclables cities and industrial sources are currently collecting and estimate how much of it isn’t currently being reclaimed. The bill also calls for the development of a statewide campaign to educate the public about the economic benefits of the recycling industry and how to properly recycle.

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State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who authored the bill, said in a statement that the legislation is not only about propping up the recycling industry but spurring business growth. The Laredo Democrat noted the results of a recent economic impact study that discovered the recycling industry has a meaningful economic footprint in the state.

We’ve discussed some of the challenges faced by the recycling business at this time. It’s going to take building up our domestic infrastructure for recycling to get things where they need to be. I don’t know how much this bill would do, and of course it still has to pass the House and get signed, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Cable franchise fees

Hey, remember how the city of Houston had to lay off a bunch of workers to to close a $179 million budget deficit? Well, there’s more where that came from.

The Texas House on Thursday approved legislation that would limit fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way, likely opening up a new spending gap of at least $12 million two days after Mayor Sylvester Turner laid out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Senate Bill 1152, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, passed the House on a 92-50 vote on the third and final reading Thursday. The legislation, which had received Senate approval early last month, heads back to the upper chamber, where lawmakers will decide whether to approve the House version.

The measure would eliminate what cable companies and some lawmakers say is an outdated double tax levied on companies that transmit cable and phone services over the same lines. The bill would eliminate the lesser of the two charges, starting next January.

Opponents say the bill amounts to a gift for large telecom firms, which would not be required to pass the savings on to consumers because the state is barred from regulating cable rates. Turner had urged lawmakers to oppose the measure, saying it would deliver a financial hit to Houston.

Those who back the bill say companies still would pay millions for the remaining charge, arguing that cities would lose only a small portion of their revenue. The House companion bill’s author, state Rep. Dade Phelan, noted Wednesday that only one other state — Oregon — still charges both fees.

Turner blasted lawmakers in a statement Thursday, accusing them of attempting to “unconstitutionally take the value of Houston’s right-of-way” through the bill. He also lauded state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, for attempting to stop the legislation through a procedural maneuver.

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A Legislative Budget Board analysis determined that Houston would take in $17.1 million to $27.5 million less revenue under the bill. Estimates for other cities include $9.2 million in Dallas, $7.9 million in San Antonio and $6.3 million in Austin.

An updated estimate provided by the city Thursday projected it would receive $12.6 million to $24.4 million less revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

It sure has been a great session for cities, hasn’t it? Here’s that earlier story, which I confess I never got around to blogging about. You know who else has had nothing to say about it? Bill King and Tony Buzbee. Way to be looking out for the city’s financial interests, y’all.

As for the fee itself, I can see the argument for getting rid of it, but let’s be clear about two things. One, if you believe this will result in a reduction in your cable or internet bill, I have some oceanfront property in Lubbock you might be interested in. And two, given the financial hit this will impose on cities, would it have killed anyone to phase this in after a year or two, so cities – all of which are required to have balanced budgets – could have had some time to adjust? What exactly was the rush here? Look at the roll call vote, and if you’re in one of those cities – especially Houston – and your Rep supported this, please call their office and ask them that question.