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Precinct analysis: Dallas county elections

One more look at Dallas County, this time with the county-level judicial races. I like to use these partly because they’re a pretty good proxy for partisan preference, and partly because they provide a straight up two-party comparison, which is more useful for assessing possible legislative races. There were seven contested district and county court races in Dallas in 2016. Rather than go with the averages, I thought this time I’d show the low, middle, and high cases for both parties. Here they are, beginning with the top end for the Republicans.


Dist     Rankin    Ewing
========================
CD32    142,570  108,735
		
HD100    10,395   31,810
HD102    30,060   26,476
HD103    11,050   26,444
HD104     8,064   24,006
HD105    22,991   23,584
HD107    27,272   26,642
HD108    45,627   30,928
HD109    11,824   52,412
HD110     4,453   30,457
HD111    13,106   43,945
HD112    29,511   24,313
HD113    28,463   25,957
HD114    37,179   28,877
HD115    30,771   27,446
		
HD100    24.63%   75.37%
HD102    53.17%   46.83%
HD103    29.47%   70.53%
HD104    25.14%   74.86%
HD105    49.36%   50.64%
HD107    50.58%   49.42%
HD108    59.60%   40.40%
HD109    18.41%   81.59%
HD110    12.76%   87.24%
HD111    22.97%   77.03%
HD112    54.83%   45.17%
HD113    52.30%   47.70%
HD114    56.28%   43.72%
HD115    52.86%   47.14%


Dist        Lee    Garza
========================
CD32    136,511  114,646
		
HD100     9,818   32,426
HD102    28,758   27,772
HD103    10,256   27,316
HD104     7,180   25,078
HD105    22,441   24,238
HD107    26,312   27,665
HD108    43,290   33,182
HD109    11,526   52,739
HD110     4,211   30,739
HD111    12,738   44,367
HD112    28,664   25,192
HD113    27,864   26,603
HD114    35,097   30,885
HD115    29,832   28,411
		
HD100    23.24%   76.76%
HD102    50.87%   49.13%
HD103    27.30%   72.70%
HD104    22.26%   77.74%
HD105    48.08%   51.92%
HD107    48.75%   51.25%
HD108    56.61%   43.39%
HD109    17.94%   82.06%
HD110    12.05%   87.95%
HD111    22.31%   77.69%
HD112    53.22%   46.78%
HD113    51.16%   48.84%
HD114    53.19%   46.81%
HD115    51.22%   48.78%


Dist   Spackman  Kennedy
========================
CD32    131,796  118,915
		
HD100     9,347   32,845
HD102    27,670   28,774
HD103     9,899   27,564
HD104     7,192   24,892
HD105    21,784   24,772
HD107    25,377   28,466
HD108    41,780   34,604
HD109    10,973   53,215
HD110     4,025   30,894
HD111    12,239   44,758
HD112    27,734   26,008
HD113    27,065   27,265
HD114    33,824   32,002
HD115    28,767   29,380
		
HD100    22.15%   77.85%
HD102    49.02%   50.98%
HD103    26.42%   73.58%
HD104    22.42%   77.58%
HD105    46.79%   53.21%
HD107    47.13%   52.87%
HD108    54.70%   45.30%
HD109    17.10%   82.90%
HD110    11.53%   88.47%
HD111    21.47%   78.53%
HD112    51.61%   48.39%
HD113    49.82%   50.18%
HD114    51.38%   48.62%
HD115    49.47%   50.53%

So the best case for the Republicans is a clear win in six districts, with two tossups. Democrats can reasonably hope to have an advantage in eight districts, and in a really good year could mount a decent challenge in 11. These are Presidential year conditions, of course, though as we’ve discussed several times, there’s every reason to believe that 2018 will not be like 2010 or 2014. It still could be bad – Dems will definitely have to protect HD107 – but if the off-year cycle has been broken, there are a lot of opportunities in Dallas to make gains.

(Note: The Texas Legislative Council only does state races, so I don’t have this data for Senate districts.)

One more race to look at, the Sheriff’s race:


Dist    Launius   Valdez
========================
CD32    125,590  116,091
		
HD100     8,596   32,042
HD102    26,259   27,959
HD103     8,960   27,368
HD104     6,471   24,651
HD105    20,582   24,156
HD107    24,177   27,828
HD108    39,618   33,712
HD109    10,515   51,923
HD110     3,700   30,414
HD111    11,691   43,836
HD112    26,468   25,014
HD113    25,962   26,459
HD114    32,131   31,998
HD115    27,305   28,607
		
HD100    21.15%   78.85%
HD102    48.43%   51.57%
HD103    24.66%   75.34%
HD104    20.79%   79.21%
HD105    46.01%   53.99%
HD107    46.49%   53.51%
HD108    54.03%   45.97%
HD109    16.84%   83.16%
HD110    10.85%   89.15%
HD111    21.05%   78.95%
HD112    51.41%   48.59%
HD113    49.53%   50.47%
HD114    50.10%   49.90%
HD115    48.84%   51.16%

There were actually four candidates in this race, but I’m just showing the top two. As mentioned in an earlier post, Lupe Valdez came closest to carrying the Dallas portion of CD32. She also came within a whisker of carrying HD114, which no one else did. She’s basically equivalent to the high end judicial race above, maybe even a teeny bit better.

Posted in: Election 2016.

State Supreme Court hears same sex marriage appeal today

Gird your loins.

Almost two years after same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, Texas Republicans are still fighting the ruling — and they’re getting another day in court.

The Texas Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on Wednesday in a Houston case challenging the city’s benefits policy for married same-sex couples. Though such policies have been in place since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, Texas conservatives are betting the Houston case opens up a path to relitigate the high court’s decision.

“This particular opinion will go to the U.S. Supreme Court and is a potential vehicle for overturning Obergefell given the changing composition of the court,” said Jared Woodfill, one of the lawyers leading the lawsuit filed against Houston on behalf of two taxpayers, and a prominent conservative activist in the city. “Ultimately, I would like to see Obergefell overturned.”

At the center of the Houston case is whether Obergefell, which legalized same-sex marriage across the country, requires the city and other governmental agencies to extend taxpayer-subsidized benefits to same-sex spouses of government employees.

In Obergefell, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that bans on marriages between couples of the same sex are unconstitutional and that states must recognize same-sex marriage as legal. Following that ruling, public employers in the state quickly extended benefits for same-sex spouses of public employees.

But opponents argue that interpretation was far too broad.

Obergefell may require states to license and recognize same-sex marriages, but that does not require states to give taxpayer subsidies to same-sex couples — any more than Roe v. Wade requires states to subsidize abortions or abortion providers,” lawyers challenging the Houston policy wrote in a filing with the Texas Supreme Court.

They argue that the right to marry does not “entail any particular package of tax benefits, employee fringe benefits or testimonial privileges.” (In a separate case against the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage, the Texas Attorney General’s office actually argued that marriage is a right that comes with benefits the state is entitled to control.)

[…]

For observers, the court’s reversal was an unusual move. And it’s difficult to ignore the politics involved, considering that the legal issues in the Houston case seem to be “tap dancing around what is already a fairly established right,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor and Texas Constitution expert at the University of Houston.

“There has been an emerging litmus test for state judges that wasn’t necessarily so apparent 20 years ago,” Rottinghaus said. “Republicans have party control of the court but not necessarily ideological control, and I think these kinds of cases are those that can be used in the future to be a bulwark for conservative activists looking to change even a Republican court to a more conservative direction.”

See here and here for the background, and here for an amicus brief filed on behalf of Equality Texas and a married couple who would be negatively affected by a ruling for the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court is gonna do what the Supreme Court is gonna do, and I’m not in a position to analyze the legal minutiae. What I will emphasize is that not only does this lawsuit go against any common sense idea of fairness – if you’re married, you’re married, and you have the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else who is married; I do know that the underpinning of the Obergefell ruling was a rejection of this argument that same-sex couples are somehow “less than” opposite sex couples – but it’s well against the mainstream of public opinion. Even before Obergefell was handed down, a plurality of Texans supported same sex marriage. I can’t find any more recent results, mostly because it’s not even worth polling on these days. Corporate America has been providing benefits to same-sex couples for years now. This is a settled matter for everyone except pea-brained individuals like Jared Woodfill. I can only hope the Supreme Court is better than this.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Huberty says vouchers are dead this session

Always nice to hear.

The top education policy official in the Texas House said Tuesday that he would not allow the approval of school vouchers this legislative session, a blunt pronouncement that could be fatal to the prospects for legislation that is a priority for many top Republicans in the state.

The official, House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said during a Texas Tribune event here that he and his colleagues in the House already had debated the issue at length and determined that vouchers would reduce school accountability by putting public dollars in private schools that are not subject to the same rules and also would distract from more pressing challenges, such as fixing the school finance system.

Asked whether that meant a high-profile voucher proposal from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was “dead, dead, dead,” Huberty said yes. Asked whether there was anything that could change his mind, Huberty said no.

“Why don’t we talk about the real issues?” Huberty said.

Excellent question. You can see the video of this conversation here. Rep. Huberty has been backed by the Texas ParentPAC, which came into existence back in 2005 for the purpose of supporting legislators who support public schools, which among other things means opposing vouchers. Why should we oppose vouchers? Well for one thing, they just don’t work.

Education secretary Betsy DeVos has been a champion of school vouchers for decades, and has claimed students don’t benefit from better funding of public schools. But a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that vouchers do not improve student achievement in any meaningful way.

A significant body of research on vouchers over the past 15 years has found that there is not enough evidence to support the claim that vouchers significantly improve student achievement, wrote Martin Carnoy, Vida Jacks Professor of Education and Economics at Stanford University. In some cases, vouchers exacerbate issues that hurt students’ quality of education, such as racial and economic school segregation and a flow of inexperienced young teachers into schools.

Research on voucher experiments in New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. showed that there were no significant improvements for students, especially for students Republicans argue will benefit from them the most: students of color.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., which is directly funded by Congress, showed no significant reading or math gains for students who used vouchers and scholarships compared to students who did not. Still, the Trump administration may move to expand the program, The Washington Post reported.

In Milwaukee, which has the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, only one in four students attend their public school. But black students, who are the main recipients of the vouchers, had lower eighth grade math scores than students in every city but Detroit. The scores were even worse for reading, where Milwaukee eighth graders scored lower than black eighth graders in all other 12 cities included in the study. Although Milwaukee students made large gains in the 2007–2008 school year, there were not significant gains in reading between 2007 and 2011.

Although proponents of vouchers say that competition forces public schools to improve, Carnoy came to the conclusion that it is more likely that accountability measures are driving improvements in struggling public schools.

You can see that well-timed research here. Closer to home, RG Ratcliffe highlights another issue with the Patrick plan: There just aren’t many private schools in poor neighborhoods, which is both screamingly obvious when you think about it and also kind of a logistical problem.

Dallas County has more than 30,000 children attending about 100 accredited private schools. The majority are clustered in wealthier areas of North and East Dallas, the News’ analysis of education and demographic data shows.

Meanwhile, entire swaths of southern Dallas County lack a single private school. These poorer neighborhoods have lots of low-rated public schools — the very schools that voucher supporters say they want to help kids escape.

And of course, the Patrick plan wouldn’t pay the full tuition for poor kids who wanted to go to St. John’s or Hockaday or wherever, so the end effect would be even more limited. You can see why Rep. Huberty isn’t excited. What’s far less clear is what Patrick and Abbott and so on keep pushing this idea.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

“Texas lives on immigrant labor”

Ain’t that the truth.

In Texas, an estimated 400,000 construction workers reside illegally, according to one study. If they were forced to leave the country, contractors say, state construction companies would face a difficult fallout, including higher labor costs, construction delays, and some projects canceled altogether.

“Texas lives on immigrant labor,” said Jeff Nielsen, executive vice president of the Houston Contractors Association. “Our economy is the way it is partly because cost of living is cheap and the reason for that is labor is cheap.”

Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump advocated a “deportation force” to track down and remove millions of immigrants here illegally. This week, he moved closer to that goal with a memo instructing federal authorities to broaden the scope of targeted deportations.

The president’s actions dovetail with a current push in the Texas Legislature to outlaw so-called sanctuary cities, requiring local law enforcement to cooperate with federal authorities on immigration enforcement.

On Friday, the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association and its Austin-based Texas arm sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, warning that immigrants in Austin have been wary of showing up to work after an escalation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity.

“Our fear is that because of the perception that the public has on what the elimination of sanctuary cities means,” the contractors wrote, “it will be difficult to find and retain experienced workers, which is especially damaging to small businesses.”

[…]

Efforts at comprehensive reform have stalled repeatedly, most recently under the Obama administration, and has been wiped from the agenda under Trump, whose stated goal is to remove immigrants living here illegally from the country. Proponents of hard-line immigration policy have argued that unauthorized workers should simply attain legal status, but experts contend that there is no such option for the class that builds Texas.

“The ability for these workers to come in legally for a temporary work program is about as close to zero as you can get,” said Charles Foster, a veteran Houston immigration lawyer who advised on immigration policy for the George H.W. Bush administration. “There is no line to get legal. It’s all a myth.”

The closest thing, he said, was the H-2B visa program for temporary non-agricultural workers, which allows in about 66,000 people across the 50 states each year – hardly enough to account for the hundreds of thousands of laborers in Texas.

It would of course be better if we lived in a country where undocumented workers were not exploited as cheap labor for the rest of us but instead got to live and work here legally at a fair market wage. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for getting to that place any time soon. In the meantime, this is the reality. You want to deport ’em all? Then get ready for construction work, among other things, to grind to a halt. And if you don’t want that to happen, the don’t vote for politicians who stand for it, whether or not we’re supposed to take them seriously when they say it.

Posted in: Bidness, La Migra.

Our first look at Senate district data

The Trib looks at the data we now have.

Sen. Don Huffines

In the state Senate, one Republican — Don Huffines of Dallas — is now representing a district that Clinton easily won, while two more — Konni Burton of Colleyville and Joan Huffman of Houston — are now sitting in areas that Clinton almost carried. In the House, 10 Republicans are now representing districts that Clinton won, while several more are now sitting in areas she came close to winning.

The question in those districts, like so many surrounding Trump’s election across the country, is whether the dramatic swings in 2016 were meaningful shifts that could have implications in future elections. That question is particularly pressing for the 11 Texas Republicans now representing districts that voted for Clinton, all of whom are up for re-election in 2018.

[…]

In addition to [Rep. Pete] Sessions’ [Congressional] district, [Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Carol] Donovan said the party is already zeroing in on Huffines’ district, which Clinton won by 5 points after Romney carried it by 15 points four years prior. Aware of the swing, Huffines’ team does not blame Democrats for prioritizing the district — but also is not sweating 2018 quite yet.

“We take it seriously, but it’s not a hair-on-fire moment,” said Matt Langston, a Republican consultant who works for Huffines.

While Huffines’ district was the only GOP-held state Senate district that Clinton won, she almost carried two others. She came within a point of winning Burton’s and Huffman’s districts, which in 2012 went for Romney by 8 points and 20 points, respectively.

I should note that the comprehensive data for the 2016 elections are not yet available at the Texas Legislative Council’s FTP site, but as of two weeks ago the data for each individual district can be found via the following formulation:

http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/fyiwebdocs/PDF/senate/dist16/r8.pdf
http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/fyiwebdocs/PDF/house/dist66/r8.pdf

Just substitute the appropriate district number as needed and you’re good. Eventually, that data will be linked on each Member’s bio page on the official House and Senate sites, but for now this will do.

I’ve been talking about Huffines and the need to make him a top electoral target next year, and so I am delighted to see these numbers. As always, though, some context and perspective is needed, so with that in mind, here’s a larger view of the field of play.


Dist     Incumbent  Clinton%  Trump%    Obama%   Romney%
========================================================
SD08      V Taylor     42.6%   51.2%     36.6%     61.7%
SD09       Hancock     41.8%   53.1%     39.2%     59.3%
SD10        Burton     47.3%   47.9%     45.4%     53.3%
SD16      Huffines     49.9%   45.3%     41.6%     57.0%
SD17       Huffman     47.2%   48.1%     39.2%     59.4%

Dist     Incumbent   CCA16D% CCA16R%   CCA12D%   CCA12R%
========================================================
SD08      V Taylor     37.8%   57.9%     35.3%     61.1%
SD09       Hancock     39.2%   56.3%     37.9%     58.4%
SD10        Burton     44.5%   51.6%     44.4%     52.7%
SD16      Huffines     42.7%   52.9%     40.6%     56.0%
SD17       Huffman     42.2%   54.3%     39.1%     58.2%

All five of these Senators are on the ballot next year. “CCA16” refers to the Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race for Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 6, while “CCA12” is the Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race. The latter was the only R-versus-D race for the CCA in 2012, and like the Keasler/Burns race this year it featured a Libertarian but not a Green candidate, so the comparison is as apt as I can make it. For these purposes, the CCA races will suffice as a proxy for the “true” partisan split in these districts.

And not too surprisingly, things look distinctly less rosy when you pull back to that level. While Huffines’ district is a couple points bluer than it was in 2012 by the CCA metric, it’s still a ten-point district in the GOP’s favor. A big part of that is due to the fact that SD16 encompasses nearly all of HDs 108, 112, and 114, which as we’ve discussed before are the three most Republican State House districts in Dallas County. The good news is that there are clearly a sizable number of people in SD16 who are willing to vote Democratic against a sufficiently bad Republican. The bad news is that so far the only example of a race where that has happened is Clinton versus Trump. The challenge for Dallas Democrats will be threefold: Find a strong candidate to challenge Huffines, work to ensure the Dem base turns out in the off year (a task for which the track record is not great), and try to tie Huffines to Trump as closely as possible in order to entice the Hillary-voting Republicans in SD16 to cross over again.

As for the others, Konni Burton’s SD10 remains the closest thing to a swing district the Senate has, though it didn’t change much since 2012. It does have the distinction of electing a Democrat in part on the strength of Republican crossover votes as recently as 2012, though, and it probably wouldn’t take much of an erosion in Republican turnout to put her in peril, if 2018 is a year where Republicans don’t get fired up to vote. SD17 covers parts of Fort Bend and Brazoria in addition to Harris County. It will take coordination across the three counties as well as a commitment to turn out Dems in Fort Bend and Brazoria to be on the radar in 2018. SD08, which includes most of Collin County plus a small piece of Dallas, and SD09, which includes Dallas and Tarrant, aren’t really competitive in any sense, but they did move a bit in a Dem direction and included a fair number of crossovers as well. If we ever want to get closer to parity in the Senate, Dems are going to have to make serious gains in these suburban counties.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Justice Department wants out of voter ID case

As expected.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed Monday it plans to ditch its longstanding position that Texas lawmakers purposefully discriminated against minority voters by passing the nation’s strictest voter identification law in 2011.

The move comes one day before a federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments on that high-stakes voting rights question, and it highlights yet another instance in which President Donald Trump has dramatically departed from the path of his predecessor.

Former President Obama’s Justice Department originally teamed up with civil rights groups against Texas throughout the long-winding legal battle over the ID law, known as Senate Bill 14. But on Monday, lawyers for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told parties that they were dropping a claim that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and African-American voters.

The Justice Department’s immediate plans do not include changing its position that the ID law has a “discriminatory effect” on certain voters. A federal appeals court has already resolved that issue, ruling against Texas.

But U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos is scheduled to weigh a more specific question Tuesday: Whether lawmakers knowingly discriminated.

A soon-to-be-filed Justice Department motion “seeks to dismiss the discriminatory purpose claim, but not the discriminatory effect claim,” Mark Abueg, a department spokesman, confirmed to the Texas Tribune.

A ruling against Texas could ultimately put it back on the list of states needing federal approval (called “preclearance”) before changing election laws. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling sprung Texas and other states with a history of discrimination from that list.

Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, one of several groups challenging the Texas law, vowed to press on in the case — even without the federal government’s help.

“None of the facts have changed, just the administration,” she said in an interview. “We will be arguing the same claim, and we think it’s really disappointing that the Department of Justice is backing away from its enforcement of voting rights.”

See here for some background. Today’s hearing was rescheduled from January; the DOJ and the State of Texas tried to get today’s hearing postponed as well, to give the Lege a chance to pass the voter ID 2.0 bill, but were denied. Even if Sen. Huffman’s update to the voter ID law, which would incorporate the so-called “softening” agreements from the 2016 Fifth Circuit ruling, were to be passed, it wouldn’t affect this litigation anyway, since the question being litigated is whether the Lege acted with discriminatory intent in 2011 when SB14 was passed. It will be interesting to see if today’s hearing has any effect on the Huffman bill.

So this is where we are. The private plaintiffs will have more work to do now, but as they note the facts haven’t changed, just who’s sitting at the table with them. Rick Hasen believes (and I agree with him) that “eventually DOJ will be on the other side of this issue, supporting the right of states to make it harder to register and vote (purportedly on anti-fraud or public confidence grounds)”. Among other things, that means that Texas will get a much warmer reception from the feds if they pass bills this session or next that restrict voting rights, but that day hasn’t happened yet. Today we will hopefully move one step closer to a ruling that Texas didn’t just accidentally discriminate with SB14. The Lone Star Project, Political Animal, the Current, and the Chron have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Bathroom bills are floundering

Good.

Bills to curtail transgender people’s access to public restrooms are pending in about a dozen states, but even in conservative bastions such as Texas and Arkansas they may be doomed by high-powered opposition.

The bills have taken on a new significance this week following the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to revoke an Obama-era federal directive instructing public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender. Many conservative leaders hailed the assertions by top Trump appointees that the issue was best handled at the state and local level.

Yet at the state level, bills that would limit transgender bathroom access are floundering even though nearly all have surfaced in Republican-controlled legislatures that share common ground politically with Trump. In none of the states with pending bills does passage seem assured; there’s been vigorous opposition from business groups and a notable lack of support from several GOP governors.

The chief reason, according to transgender-rights leaders, is the backlash that hit North Carolina after its legislature approved a bill in March 2016 requiring transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. Several major sports organizations shifted events away from North Carolina, and businesses such as PayPal decided not to expand in the state. In November, Republican Pat McCrory, who signed and defended the bill, became the only incumbent governor to lose in the general election.

[…]

National LGBT-rights groups are closely monitoring the fluctuations, recalling how North Carolina politicians took activists by surprise last year when they passed the divisive bathroom bill in a fast-paced special session.

“That experience makes us very wary about when and how legislation will move,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. “On the other hand, the American public has been incredibly vocal against these bills… so we’re hopeful that legislators have learned a lesson from North Carolina.”

Even if all the new bathroom bills fail, Warbelow said activists will continue to push for explicit and effective federal protections for transgender students — protections have been undercut by this week’s revocation of the Obama-era guidance.

In addition to Arkansas, I counted fourteen other states where legislators have tried or are trying to pass a North Carolina-like bill, though none of the ones that are trying are getting any traction. The fact that states like South Dakota and Kentucky have explicitly rejected such bills should give you some idea of how far out on a limb Texas would be if we follow Dan Patrick and pass SB6. All these other states saw what happened in North Carolina, and they have stepped back from the abyss. Are we really dumber than they all are? Call Dan Patrick’s office, as so many others have, and ask him that.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Interview with Holly Reed of Texas Central Railway

As you know, I’ve been following the ins and outs of Texas Central Railway and its efforts to build a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas since it was first proposed several years ago. Along the way, the proposal has picked up some dedicated opposition, mostly in rural counties where the line would pass through, and from the Representatives and Senators in those counties. Last week, a slate of bills were filed with the express intent of at least slowing down, if not killing, the train project. I’ve sort of made it a mission to talk to people involved with issues that are getting a lot of attention this legislative session, so of course I wanted to speak to someone at Texas Central about them and the bills that are aimed at them. Holly Reed is the managing director of external affairs for Texas Central Partners, LLC, so it’s her job to work with the Legislature on issues like this. I talked with her recently about how TCR is dealing with this slate of bills and other related items. One clarification, when I asked about the Surface Transportation Board, Texas Central is not seeking to ask the Board to reconsider its decision to not provide oversight during the approvals process, but that if things change then Texas Central could re-evaluate. With that, here is what we talked about:

Let me know what you think.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, That's our Lege.

Mack Beggs

I guarantee, we have never paid as much attention to the Texas high school wrestling championships as we did this past weekend.

If the fervor over Euless Trinity transgender wrestler Mack Beggs during the last week could be swelled into one match, it was the junior’s final one at the state wrestling championships on Saturday.

Beggs, who is transitioning from female to male but competing as a girl because of a University Interscholastic League rule, won gold in the Class 6A 110-pound bracket after a 12-2 major decision win over Morton Ranch’s Chelsea Sanchez on Saturday at the Berry Center.

It caps a perfect season for Beggs (56-0), who easily won his four matches this weekend. Beggs defeated Clear Springs’ Taylor Latham in the first round by major decision, 18-7, and Tascosa’s Mya Engert by major decision, 12-4, in the quarterfinals Friday.

His semifinal win came against Grand Prairie’s Kailyn Clay via pin earlier Saturday.

The controversy surrounding Beggs deals with the testosterone treatments part of his transition, with some believing it is an unfair advantage although it is allowed by the UIL because it is administered by a physician and for medical reasons. Beggs also has been denied the request to compete in the boys division because of a new UIL rule that states athletes must compete under the gender on their birth certificate.

Beggs competed in the previous two state tournaments but he become a national story after two opponents forfeited their match against him at regionals last week.

After Saturday’s events, Beggs gave a statement to the media, deferring attention to his teammates.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my teammates,” Beggs said. “That’s honestly what the spotlight should’ve been on is my teammates. The hard work that I put in the practice room with them beside me, we trained hard every single day. That’s where the spotlight should’ve been on. Not me. All these guys. Because I would not be here without them.”

ESPN, Reuters, and the Washington Post (mirrored at the Texas Tribune) were among those covering the event. Here’s an earlier story in the Chron with some more details.

Beggs, 17, a junior at Euless’ Trinity High School, is transitioning from female to male, and because his birth certificate designates him as female, he was required under Texas high school regulations to compete against girls at the state meet here Friday and Saturday.

It’s a rule that represents a sharp departure from anything on the national or international level, and it’s not likely to go away. And so, as a senior in 2018, Beggs – and any other transgender athlete – is likely to face questions again about why a boy is competing against girls.

“Given the overwhelming support for that (birth certificate) rule, I don’t expect it to change anytime soon,” said Jamey Harrison, the deputy executive director for the University Interscholastic League, which governs high school competitions in Texas.

“Those decisions are made by our elective body who makes our rules. Again, they spoke. … These were superintendents who are members of the UIL. Ninety-five percent of them voted for the rule as is.”

Texas is one of seven states that require high school students to provide a birth certificate, proof of gender-reassignment surgery or documentation of hormone therapy, according to TransAthlete.com.

League officials said the UIL “strives to provide fair and equitable competitions for all students.” Harrison said the UIL is “following both what our legislative council wants to follow and certainly what the overwhelming majority of our school membership wants to follow.”

Harrison, while not mentioning Beggs by name, said Saturday night that the UIL stands by its birth certificate rule. However, he said the agency hopes to obtain legislative support that would allow it more leeway to police student-athletes who are using performance-enhancing drugs under a doctor’s care.

“The real issue here is the use of performance enhancing drugs,” Harrison said. “The UIL does not have the authority to tell a student they are ineligible if they are using a performance-enhancing drug under the supervision of a doctor, as written in state law. We look forward to working with lawmakers to fix that law.”

Harrison said he hopes the Legislature will help the UIL reach a better description of what constitutes a “valid medical reason” to use banned substances.

“Something that would be a little more proscriptive in what that means is something that I think that lawmakers will review, and we will be happy to work with lawmakers,” he said. “This is not about our birth certificate rule. This is about performance enhancing drug use.”

Others outside the UIL disagree, however. North Texas attorney and wrestling parent Jim Baudhuin earlier this month filed suit against the UIL, saying that the rule is nonsensical and that Beggs should be allowed to compete against boys.

“The NCAA has shown what should be done,” Baudhuin said. “The NCAA’s policy is that if you are transitioning from woman to man, once you take those injections, you close the door on competing against women and can compete against men. I think that is eminently fair.”

Similarly to the NCAA rule, which was enacted in 2011, the International Olympic Committee last year said that transgender athletes who are transitioning from female to male could compete in men’s events without restrictions.

The UIL is wrong about this. Mack Beggs and the girls he has to compete against are not being well served by the birth certificate requirement. Mack Beggs is a boy. He was not born one, but he is one now. Not recognizing that and not accommodating that serves no one well. It’s way past time the UIL understood that.

Posted in: Other sports.

Let’s talk about sex education

We’re not good at it.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez

A Democratic state lawmaker is looking to bolster high school sex education requirements in hopes that Texas can lower its teen birth rates.

Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, filed House Bill 1547 to require sex education classes to include “medically accurate, age-appropriate” human sexuality education. The bill would allow students to be excused from the course with the written request of a parent or guardian.

“It’s deeply troubling that Texas has one of the highest teen birth rates in the nation,” González said Tuesday. “Our young people deserve to have correct, accurate information.”

Teen birth rates in Texas are among the highest in the country. According to a 2014 report from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the teen birth rate among Texas women ages 15 to 19 was nearly 40 in 1,000 girls. The national birth rate in 2015 for teenagers of the same age was 22 births per 1,000 girls, according to the agency.

González filed the bill on the heels of the Texas Freedom Network’s most recent report that found that more than 80 percent of the state’s public school districts are not teaching sex education or exclusively teach abstinence-only birth control.

The study found that the number of school districts that do not teach sex education has increased to more than 25 percent in 2016 from 2.3 percent in 2008.

The group also found that another 58 percent of school districts took an abstinence-only approach to sex education last year. Those districts did not include information about condoms or other forms of contraceptives.

“All of these findings make clear that policy makers need to create common-sense, very necessary solutions,” González said.

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? For lots of things. There are lots of reasons why this would be a good thing for the Lege to do, and at least as many reasons why they won’t. We’re going to need a different Lege for that. The Trib and the Observer have more.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

TxDOT accelerates I-45 construction timeline

Gird your loins.

For many long-suffering Houston drivers, a solution to the infuriating bottleneck on Interstate 45 through downtown is likely something they thought they wouldn’t live to see.

More than a decade ago, a plan pitched to solve the problem – moving the interstate to the east side of downtown and demolishing the Pierce Elevated – appeared so preposterous they thought it would never get off the ground. It was too big of a change, too ambitious, too expensive and too disruptive.

Turns out it was also too good to pass up, leading to efforts by local transportation officials to now include the first phases of the project in an updated, expanded statewide transportation plan. So the project some only dreamed about is, at least on paper, a reality, pending the allocation of more than $900 million for the reconstruction of two major interstate intersections in the downtown area.

Though these first steps are incremental compared to the overall plan, officials say they are important and send the clear message: The I-45 freeway is relocating and the elevated portion along Pierce will be abandoned and maybe demolished within the next dozen years.

“We are turning the key and starting the engine and moving,” said Quincy Allen, district director for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

Work on revamping the freeway intersections is slated for late 2020 or early 2021, years ahead of when state officials first predicted when they unveiled their construction plans in 2014.

For the Houston region, it might be the most significant freeway project in anyone’s lifetime. That’s because it reconfigures the three interstates that form the backbone of how Houstonians move – I-45, I-69 and Interstate 10 – in the one area where they are so closely tangled and reliant on drivers making transitions from one to another as smooth as possible.

No doubt, those interchanges are the worst, but let’s not forget that a big part of the reason why is because one or both of the intersecting highways has narrowed or will soon narrow down from three or more lanes to two at these points of intersection. I guess the massive reconstruction plan will address that in some fashion, but that’s the problem in a nutshell, and there’s only so much you can do to engineer it away. And oh Lord, the mess even this preliminary construction is going to make. My head hurts just thinking about it.

One more thing:

The first part of the project, along I-69 near Spur 527, aims to lessen the congestion caused where traffic from the Greenway Plaza area flows into a bottleneck where I-69 drops to three lanes, with two others for the spur. It would add another lane, and widen the already depressed freeway through Montrose and Midtown.

The project’s next part takes that even further, burying the portion of I-69 that now is elevated east of Spur 527. Local streets that now flow beneath the freeway will stay where they are, but cross atop it.

“I expect us to continue to progress and go in a counter-clockwise motion around downtown,” Allen said.

Based on projections, when the entire downtown ring is completed and I-45 is in place parallel to I-69, the amount of congestion drivers endure will be cut in half, based on 2040 traffic estimates.

[…]

Eventually, the proposal is to widen I-45 from downtown to the Sam Houston Tollway in Greenspoint. Combined with the downtown efforts, it is estimated to cost at or near $7 billion.

Remember when we spent nearly $3 billion to widen I-10 from 610 to whatever point out west we stopped? On Friday, I had to be at the Lifetime Fitness in the Town and Country mall area at I-10 and Beltway 8 by 6 PM. I hit I-10 at Heights at 5:20. As I approached 610, there was one of those TxDOT marquees telling me the travel time to the Sam Houston Tollway was 29 minutes. That turned out to be a bit of an overestimate, but not by much. How many years do you think we’ll have to enjoy the lessened congestion this is promising to bring us before we’re right back to where we were before we began?

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for February 26

Egregious, intelligence-insulting lying by public officials is still a bad thing even if it isn’t illegal.

“You’re about to see a big change to the sell-by dates on food”.

Fourteen TV shows that blazed a path of inclusion for LGBT characters.

“Brillian parody Twitter account/depressing vision of our global future President Supervillain—created by D.M. Higgins, creator of the excellent Jill Trent, Science Sleuth—takes classic Silver Age panels from Marvel comics featuring the Red Skull, erases the text, and then puts in honest-to-god quotes from Trump.”

Our tiny little president. Hilarious and deeply, deeply disturbing.

Solving the poop problem for astronauts.

You are being morally judged for this decision. We believe that you will come to learn that you made a mistake, but what we’re really interested in is making sure you understand where we’re coming from.”

RIP, Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown’s “funky drummer”.

“Donald Trump’s election was merely an accelerant for a change that was already sweeping across sportswriting. On issues that divided the big columnists for years, there’s now something like a consensus.”

The morality and economics of pirated scientific papers.

“The shameful sound bite inspired a new, 30-foot long mural titled, We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident, now on view at New York Live Arts, that makes art out of quotes from nearly 40 politicians who have, for decades, made odious public remarks about women’s bodies and rights.”

RIP, Larry Coryell, jazz guitarist known as the “Godfather of Fusion”.

How to be a successful game show host, in four easy lessons.

“We have friends who have kids who are just a little bit older, and they remember feeling like they had to choose between medical care and bankruptcy. We never had to do that, thankfully.” Thanks, Obamacare.

“State legalization of same-sex marriage appears to be linked to a decrease in adolescent suicide, based on a new analysis published today in JAMA Pediatrics.”

“Now my head hurts and also I wasted half of my psych session discussing vagina glue. And that’s how my whole day has gone.”

“If Trump became a full-fledged autocrat, it will not be because he succeeds in running the state. It’s not going to be like Julius Caesar, where we thank him and here’s a crown. It’ll be that he fails, and he has to find a narrative for that failure. And it will not be a narrative of self-criticism. It will not be that he let you down. He will figure out who the villains are, and he will focus the public’s anger at them.”

“Once you embrace that narrative of decline, then the white male backlash of the Trump administration is your logical conclusion.”

“The truth, though, is that this is an issue not so much about one hateful writer, but about conservatives’ tolerance and support of hateful ideology more generally.”

RIP, Alan Colmes, longtime token liberal on Fox News.

“Astronomers have found at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the same star 40 light-years away, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.”

This is how you punk people.

RIP, Bill Paxton, actor behind iconic roles in Aliens, Titanic, and Apollo 13, among many others.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Some dude opposes pension reform

Presenting this in a slightly redacted form.

[Some dude] has joined friend and ally Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, in rallying opposition to [Mayor Sylvester] Turner’s [pension reform] proposal among conservatives. He has attended at least three dozen forums on the topic, by his count, and has been running social media ads touting his views on Facebook, has traveled to Austin to lobby legislators and has formed a pension-focused political action committee with Bettencourt.

The recent mayoral runner-up’s central role in his rival’s most important initiative is unprecedented, political observers say.

“It does somewhat seem like sour grapes for a defeated mayoral candidate to continue to campaign against his victorious opponent,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “It perhaps would have been more productive to allow Sylvester Turner to handle this himself for the first legislative session of his tenure and only get more actively involved if that session had not resulted in a significant improvement.”

[…]

[Some dude] insists the aim of his critiques is to improve Turner’s proposal, not kill it, and says he is not using the issue to position himself for another mayoral run.

His critics aren’t buying that. They accuse [some dude] of acting out of self-interest in seeking to torpedo the reforms, or of at least failing to grasp that his actions will make that result far more likely.

In particular, [some dude] and Bettencourt want to move all new city workers to defined contribution, or “DC,” pensions similar to 401(k)s – which the employee groups despise because it leaves their retirement pay vulnerable to market fluctuation – and to force a referendum on the $1 billion in pension bonds that are a key piece of the reform package.

“I would concede that it’s unusual, but I don’t understand why there’s anything wrong with it,” [some dude] said of his role. “Just because one candidate advocates some things and loses an election doesn’t mean that all those things are wrong and are off the table forever.”

[Some dude] acknowledges his dozen email blasts attacking the proposal as a “secret” attempt to pass “a bad deal” that is “not real reform” and would “make the city a financial cripple” have sometimes been “harsh” or indulged in “hyperbole.”

[…]

“My role here is to fire up the Republican base to support the two reforms that I want added to the bill,” [some dude] said. “It is a Republican-controlled Legislature. The Republican base is not a little bit in favor of DC plans, they are way in favor of it.”

Not accounting for the union’s certain negative response to these controversial provisions, lawmakers and legislative observers said, means [some dude] might as well say he wants the deal dead.

“[Some dude] feels strongly that there should be defined contribution plans. He ran on that. We had a vote, and he lost,” said Robert Miller, a former Metro chairman and a longtime lobbyist for the city’s three pensions, among dozens of other clients. “That was not something the employee groups were willing to agree to. If you stick that in, there’s a high likelihood that the agreement falls apart. He is seeking to kill the deal.”

I’m sure you can tell who this story is about, but I have no desire to give him any more attention for it. I neither know nor care what this guy’s motivations are, but I do know this: He’s seeking to use the Legislature to overrule the voters who rejected him in 2015. I have no respect for that, and as such I no longer have any respect for him. Hope you’re happy, dude.

Posted in: Local politics, That's our Lege.

Beto O’Rourke profile

From the WaPo, via the Trib, a profile of Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who may or may not be a candidate for Senate against Ted Cruz next year:

Re. Beto O’Rourke

Democrats might look at O’Rourke — a small-business owner with hipster credentials, a Gen Xer who speaks fluent Spanish and looks more like a Kennedy than the Kennedys do — and see a candidate of thrilling national potential, marred only by where he happens to live. But then again, maybe it’s where he lives that makes him exciting.

With its growing Hispanic population, Democrats have long believed that Texas would eventually belong to them — just not imminently. But the 2016 election has scrambled the way people think about these things.

“I wouldn’t have said it last year, but I think he has a chance,” said Anne Caprara, of the Priorities USA super PAC, who is advising O’Rourke on his 2018 potential.

Naturally, others see opportunities as well. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat deemed a rising star, is considering the race, too.

“You won’t have a problem raising money. Cruz will basically fundraise for you,” said Castro’s twin brother, Julián, the former housing and urban development secretary who recently ruled out a 2018 bid for governor of Texas.

The Cruz camp maintains that it isn’t worried about either but sees Castro as slightly more of a threat than O’Rourke. But while the Castros have the fundraising prowess and name recognition, their pragmatism and caution could keep both from seeking higher office so soon.

In El Paso, regarded by many as more Mexican than Texan, O’Rourke is far removed from the Democratic megadonors of Houston or Austin, and he has decided not to take PAC money if he runs. Still, he hopes to turn a necessity into a virtue with a Bernie Sanders-style approach — excite the grass roots and rake in smaller donations.

O’Rourke may be suffering from the bug that’s going around — the one causing mass delusions that the old rules of politics no longer apply. Can a Democrat really win in this deeply red state — against Cruz, who will be running one of the best financed campaigns in the country? And can he do so on a positive message about Mexicans in an era when calling them rapists helped make a man president?

The timing might not be right for O’Rourke, but that hasn’t stopped him in the past.

There’s more, so go take a look. I think Rep. O’Rourke has been a good member of Congress and I think he’d make a fine Senator. I also think he’ll have a lot of work to do to raise his profile enough to be competitive in a Senate race. Given his electoral history, I would not underestimate him. But the road ahead is tough, and far more people are able to talk about exciting the grass roots than are able to do it. I wish him luck in his quest.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Still talking vaccines and measles

Because it keeps needing to be talked about.

Earlier this month, Dr. Peter J. Hotez, a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, detailed a disturbing prediction for 2017 in an op-ed for the New York Times: the country could be facing a measles outbreak, and the Lone Star State could among the earliest casualties. “Texas, where I live and work,” Hotez wrote, “may be the first state to once again experience serious measles outbreaks.”

[…]

The spread of measles—one of the most contagious and deadliest diseases—could be stopped by the Eighty-fifth Texas Legislature, where there are currently pending bills that take aim at correcting the anti-vaccination trend. In December, State Representative Donna Howard, a Democrat representing Austin, filed a bill that would require parents and students who choose not to be vaccinated to indicate that they will “opt-out,” as opposed to the current system in which people must “opt-in” in order to be vaccinated. The bill would also require education for parents and students before they choose to opt-out. A similar bill filed by Representative Sarah Davis, a Republican from Houston, would require parents to complete an online educational course to inform them about the dangers of opting out of vaccination.

But anti-vaxxers make up a strong political bloc, and they’ve successfully thwarted pro-vaccination efforts in the Lege before. In 2015, state Representative Jason Villalba of Dallas tried to pass a law that would have entirely removed the exemption protection for parents who claimed to have a “conscientious objection” to vaccinations. His proposal was promptly torn to pieces by a few thousand members of a Facebook group for Texas anti-vaxxers, which formed a PAC, Texans for Vaccine Choice, that ultimately killed Villalba’s bill.  “These people, they literally said it to my face—they hate me,” Villalba told the Texas Tribune in April 2016, after his bill flopped. “This is a group that is very dedicated, very organized; this issue is very important to them.” Even after the bill failed, the PAC kept on Villalba. Jackie Schlegel, the PAC’s creator, told KUT in January that PAC members “knocked on nearly 10,000 doors for his challenger.” Villalba narrowly avoided defeat. Villalba told KUT that he supports Representative Davis’s bill, but it seems unlikely he’ll try to revive his own. “I’m not interested in a suicide mission on this issue,” Villalba told the Tribune last April.

Texas remains one of only seventeen states that allow parents to exempt their children from receiving vaccinations due to philosophical objections. None of the currently pending bills in the Lege would change that. Still, the Texans for Vaccine Choice PAC has already started to push back against the pro-vaccine billse. The anti-vax crowd is active on social media, and let Davis know that they were upset about her bill. In several exchanges with these folks on Twitter in late January, Davis shot down claims that vaccines cause autism by calling such assertions “alternative facts.

See here and here for some background, then go read Rep. Davis’ Twitter battle with the anti-vaxxers. I’ve never been a big fan of hers, but my respect for her is higher than ever after seeing that. Despite the fact that the anti-vaxxers have a friend in the White House, I do believe we can get one or both of Rep. Davis and Rep. Howard’s bills passed. The anti-vaxxers are as we know an organized and vocal minority, but in the end they are still a minority. We do have them outnumbered, and we need to remember that. If you’ve gotten yourself in the habit of calling your legislators about this and that these days, please add these two bills to your list of things you ask them to support.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Saturday video break: Operator

The classic gospel song by the great jazz/a capella group The Manhattan Transfer:

Oh, those outfits. I confess, I don’t actually have a ManTran version of this song in my library right now, though I have owned this on cassette in the past. I’ll get around to fixing that one of these days. I do have two versions by Eddie from Ohio, both of them live recordings:

EFO hasn’t toured much since 2005, when lead singer Julie Murphy Wells was diagnosed with breast cancer. That video is from 2012, and it makes me happy to see her healthy and dancing around. I like the coda they add that leans into the gospel-ness of the song. I keep hoping they’ll release another CD and maybe take another trip to Texas, but until then at least there’s some newer material on YouTube.

Posted in: Music.

On pot and potties

Two more poll results to note.

Opposition to legal marijuana is dropping in Texas, with fewer than one in five respondents to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll saying they are against legalization in any form.

Support for marijuana only for medical use has dropped over the last two years, but support for legalization for private use — both in small amounts or in amounts of any size — has grown since the pollsters asked in February 2015.

“We’ve seen this movie before on a couple of social issues,” said Daron Shaw, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. He thinks the changes in Texas have more to do with shifting attitudes than with news of legalization in other states. “There’s a little bit of normalization. I don’t think this is a states-as-laboratories issue. Voters don’t care about that kind of stuff.”

Overall, 83 percent of Texans support legalizing marijuana for some use; 53 percent would go beyond legal medical marijuana to allow possession for any use, the poll found. Two years ago, 24 percent of Texans said no amount of marijuana should be legal for any use and another 34 percent said it should be allowed only for medical use.

[…]

Most poll respondents — 54 percent — said Texans should use the public restrooms based on their birth gender, while 31 percent said they should base their choice on their gender identities.

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would require people to use facilities in public buildings that match their ”biological sex” but would not regulate which restrooms transgender and other people should use in privately owned buildings. Republicans are more likely to agree with that position than Democrats: 76 percent said transgender people should use restrooms that match their birth gender, while 51 percent of Democrats said gender identity should be the standard.

Neither group is convinced this is an important issue, however. Overall, 39 percent of Texans said it’s important for the Legislature to pass a bathroom law, while 51 percent said it’s not important. While 24 percent rated passing a law “very important,” 38 percent said it is “not at all important.”

“The proponents of [Senate Bill 6] are onto something in saying that the basic underlying impulse in a conservative state like Texas is to think that bathroom access should be determined by birth gender,” Henson said.

“What seems to be a big part of the debate right now is whether the Legislature should be spending a lot of time on this issue,” he said.

Again, there’s a partisan split, but it’s not enormous: 44 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats said the issue is important; 49 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats said it’s not an important issue.

“On most social issues, when they come to live-and-let-live, when you talk about the government mandating something, conservatives get uncomfortable about that,” Shaw said. “When it comes to letting people live, Republicans are fine with that.”

On the first point, you can see why Kim Ogg is unlikely to care too much what Dan Patrick thinks about her new pot diversion policy. On the second point, you can see that while a lot of people may agree with Dan Patrick, most of them don’t care all that much about the bathroom issue. Which has been a big problem for him all along, overcoming the “there are more important things to deal with” argument. The good news is that he only has a limited amount of time to do that. The bad news is that we know he’ll never give up, so as long as he’s in office this will be something he pushes for. Changing minds and changing Lite Guvs are our two best options for countering him.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

The Trib and the DMN on the train

The Texas Tribune and the Dallas Morning News are teaming up on a deep dive into the Texas Central Railway’s high-speed rail proposal. This story, the third in their set, explains where the money to build this thing may come from.

But, really, how does a private company go about lining up the billions of dollars it needs to pay for a 240-mile bullet train line? And is it possible for it to actually turn a profit?

First, it’s important to distinguish between financing and funding a major infrastructure project, said Michael Bennon, managing director of Stanford University’s Global Projects Center.

Financing is how Texas Central will get enough money to build the high-speed rail line in the first place. Funding is the revenue that will keep the train running.

“They’re two very different things and people get them really mixed up,” Bennon said.

Financing is the more complicated side of the equation because it’s essentially a high-stakes gamble that may not pay off for decades.

Texas Central executives are confident they’ll be able to find the money, in large part because investors are hungry for “real assets” — tangible projects, basically — that could provide bigger returns than what’s available in today’s market.

Managers of huge pots of money, like private equity funds or pension funds, “have obligations to pay their plan holders and they need long-dated assets,” Keith said.

In other words, low interest rates and other factors have meant that there aren’t a lot of places to park portions of those pools that will reliably pay out to investors over long periods of time.

That’s part of why pension funds, which are supposed to be how workers get paid their retirement, are seeking out safer investments.

Upfront money from investors will pay for roughly a third of the project, Keith said. The other two-thirds will be debt.

So far, Texas Central has raised about $115 million from investors.

Keith said Texas Central is considering a range of financing options, including federal credit programs that would essentially provide cheap loans aimed at spurring infrastructure construction.

[…]

More private capital is finding its way into projects that were once the domain of government.

The McKinsey Global Institute recently noted that institutional investors — like the pension and private equity funds Keith mentioned — “seem like an obvious source of capital” in a world where increasingly urgent infrastructure projects are seriously underfunded.

Its report said institutional investors have $120 trillion to move around. Blackstone Group, the world’s biggest private equity firm, is reported to be raising as much as $40 billion for infrastructure investments.

Of course, there are caveats.

“To attract these investors, governments and other stakeholders need to develop their project pipelines, remove regulatory and structural barriers, and build stronger markets for infrastructure assets,” the McKinsey report said.

Public-private partnerships, like toll roads, have had mixed success, including in Texas.

Still, the McKinsey report underscores the hunger for worthy projects.

“Insurance companies and banks recount instances in which investors outbid each other in a rush to finance the rare infrastructure deals they consider ‘bankable’ and that have appropriate risk-return profiles,” the report said.

All that goes to say there are institutions that could theoretically bankroll a high-speed rail line. But only if it’s a sustainable business.

And that points back to the second part of paying for a big infrastructure project: funding.

Infrastructure projects rely on two main sources of funding — taxes or user fees, Bennon said. For public transit, it’s usually a combination of both.

Texas Central has promised not to use tax money as funding. That leaves ticket sales, plus smaller sources of side revenue from station parking fees and concessions. Texas Central has said the project passes muster, by that measure.

“This project is fully financeable based on ticket sales,” Keith said.

That’s what experts — and critics — are skeptical about.

There’s more, so go read the whole thing. If you want to read the other stories, here they are:

Texas’ rural roots and urban future are on a high-speed collision course

“Come and take it”: Eminent domain dispute at heart of bullet train battles

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Two election-related bills to watch

From the Texas Election Law Blog:

For this legislative session, Representative Mike Lang has filed two bills to further a couple longstanding goals that have been planks in the Texas Republican Party’s party platform; namely (1) enforcing voter registration by party (see party plank 66), and (2) drastically cutting down on the frequency with which elections take place (party plank 76).

I. CLOSING THE DOOR ON OPEN PRIMARIES – VOTER REGISTRATION BY PARTY

H.B. 1072 — Sometimes, voters who philosophically identify with one party or the other will “cross over” to vote for spoiler candidates who happen to be running for nomination in the other party’s primary election. To combat this, Representative Lang has authored legislation to enforce closed primaries by requiring voters to register by party

Voter registration by party is a common feature of registration in a number of states that have so-called “closed” primary elections, such as New Mexico, New York, and Oregon. (In this context, a primary election is “closed” if the election is administered in such a way as to exclude participation by voters who are not registered as members of the same party).

Current state law already specifies that by voting in a party primary, a person affiliates with that party for a full calendar year, and is prohibited from voting for or signing a nominating petition for any candidate not affiliated with that party.

But under current Texas law, registered voters are not compelled to self-identify as being members of one party or another, and functionally are unaffiliated with any party unless and until they decide to vote in one or another party primary election. Additionally, under current law, Texas voters aren’t permanently assigned to be members of one party or another.

H.B. 1072 proposes a change in the existing law by outlining a procedure for permanent voter registration by party affiliation in Texas.

[…]

II. FEWER ELECTIONS

H.B. 1271 – A reduction in the number and frequency of local elections is (as noted above) a key legislative goal of the Republican Party.

Prior to 2005 (and the enactment that year of H.B. 57, which eliminated the winter and summer election dates, and severely curtailed the capacity of local governments to order special elections for non-uniform election dates), elections in Texas were traditionally conducted on one of four days in a year. Winter elections took place in January (later moved to February), Spring elections happened in April (later moved to May), Summer elections were held in July (later moved to August), and Fall elections were held in November.

Winter elections tended (for reasons relating to fiscal budget cycles) to be bond elections for cities and school districts. Spring elections were officer elections for local governments. Summer elections were used for run-offs, local incorporations, and some small government officer elections. And the November elections were (as they are now) the “big show” – federal and state officer elections in even-numbered years, and state constitutional amendment elections in odd-numbered years.

In a bold stroke as part of an omnibus school finance bill enacted in the third called special legislative session in 2006, local elections in odd-numbered years were largely eliminated with a change in the Texas Education Code regarding school district board election schedules.

Subsequent legislative efforts have been focused on “cleaning up” all those nooks and crannies of state law that still permit some flexibility on election scheduling, in order to further limit the number of elections taking place in any particular year.

H.B. 1271 would get rid of all elections in odd-numbered years, and all May elections.

The bill would limit all elections (including bond elections, water district elections, local government elections of all forms, etc.), by requiring that these elections either take place on the same day as the political primaries or the statewide officer elections (i.e., the first Tuesday of March or the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years).

The main effect of HB1072 would be to lower turnout in primary elections. There’s certainly a case to be made that only Republican voters should choose Republican candidates and only Democratic voters should choose Democratic candidates (*), which is not how it is with open primaries. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about this bill, but as it is with many other bills these days I don’t see that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. I’ve never felt the need to vote in a Republican primary, but I do know some people who have done that for a variety of personal and strategic reasons. I don’t see any reason to believe enough people do that to make a difference, but whatever.

As for HB1271, I recall during Tom Craddick’s time as Speaker that some people pushed for even-year-November-only elections on the grounds that it would make all elections more explicitly partisan, which (given that this was being pushed by conservative groups) would presumably redound to the benefit of the Republicans. I have a hard time understanding the logic of that now – in Houston, at least, the main effect would be for turnout in city elections to be much higher, with a more diverse electorate, which I think we can all agree would not be beneficial for Republican candidates. I’ll put it to you this way – under the pre-2011 Houston Council Council map, only Districts A, E, and G would be clearly Republican-leaning, with the city as a whole being easily over 60% Democratic. We would not have the Council we have today if our most recent city election had been this past November. Beyond the illusory “savings” outlined in the post, I’m honestly not sure what the goal of this bill would be, given who its supporters are. Be careful what you wish for, is what I’m saying.

(*) Green and Libertarian candidates are chosen by convention rather than primary, so this doesn’t directly apply to them.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Friday random ten: Ladies’ night, part 34

Up, up to the sky…

1. Fill Me Up – Shawn Colvin
2. Little Saint Nick – She & Him (Zoey Deschanel)
3. 9 to 5 (Morning Train) – Sheena Easton
4. Thought It Would Be Better – Shelby Lynne
5. Swim – Shelita Burke
6. My Favorite Mistake – Sheryl Crow
7. Soldier Boy – The Shirelles (Addie “Micki” Harris, Shirley Owens, Beverly Lee, and Doris Coley)
8. The Devil Is All Around – Shovels & Rope (Cary Ann Hearst)
9. Chandelier – Sia
10. Fly, Robin, Fly – Silver Convention (multiple performers)

You know the Weird Al song “(This) Song Is Just Six Words Long”, which parodies George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You”? It should really be about “Fly, Robin, Fly”, which literally has just six words in it. I admit, the meter doesn’t work as well with that one. I discovered Shovels & Rope in a collection album, then later got their “Swimmin’ Time” release from NoiseTrade. I’m a big fan now, and recommend them to anyone who likes somewhat bluesy rock with a folk and country feel to it. Find ’em on YouTube and see what you think.

Posted in: Music.

January 2017 campaign finance reports: Houston officeholders

Normally, at this time I would be scanning through Houston candidate campaign finance reports, to see where incumbents stand at the start of the season. Of course, barring near-term court action there is no season for Houston municipal officeholders this year, and unlike past years they have been able to raise money during what had once been a blackout period. It’s still worth it to check in and see what everyone has, so let’s do that.


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Turner     681,972   177,867        0   1,312,028

Stardig *   39,361    24,088        0      79,980
Davis *      8,500    27,439        0     154,707
Cohen *      8,350    21,563        0      77,451
Boykins     26,400    23,820        0         186
Martin       4,250    17,469        0      95,896
Le          13,100    13,519   42,823       2,023
Travis           0    12,984   76,000      23,606
Cisneros     7,500    15,295      273       4,959
Gallegos    20,834    14,742        0      33,077
Laster *     3,000     6,292        0     145,071
Green *     10,000    52,652        0     107,248

Knox         6,275    20,061        0      16,737
Robinson    44,750    15,277        0      52,408
Kubosh      10,925    12,907  276,000      20,824
Edwards     42,401    18,379        0     110,660
Christie *   1,367    22,653        0      18,563

Brown       30,520    52,814        0      41,245


Parker           0    36,503        0     136,368
King             0        50  650,000           0

Asterisks indicate term-limited incumbents. I included Annise Parker and Bill King mostly out of curiosity. Parker can’t run for anything in Houston, but if she does eventually run for something else she can transfer what she has in this account to whatever other one she may need.

Clearly, Mayor Turner has been busy. Big hauls by incumbent Mayors are hardly unusual, it’s just that Turner had the benefit of more time to make that haul. A few Council members plus Controller Chris Brown were busy, though there was nothing that was truly eye-popping. I didn’t look at the individual forms beyond the totals page, so I can’t say what everyone spent their money on, but if I had to guess I’d say recurring fees for things like consultants and websites, plus the usual meals, travel, donations, and what have you. Loan amounts always fascinate me – you have to wonder if any of them will be paid back. Probably not.

It’s not too surprising that the term-limited members are among those with the largest cash on hand totals. They have had the longest to build it up, after all. I have to assume some of them – in particular, Jerry Davis, Mike Laster, and Larry Green – have a run for something else in their future. For what will be mostly a matter of opportunity. Of those who can run again in 2019, I’ll be very interested to see how their fortunes change between now and the next two Januaries. One way or another, 2019 ought to be a busy year.

Posted in: Local politics.

Here come the anti-Texas Central bills

From the inbox:

[Tuesday], a group of key state lawmakers filed a slate of legislation to push back against Texas Central Railway’s controversial proposal to construct a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Senators Birdwell (R-Granbury), Creighton (R-Conroe), Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Perry (R-Lubbock), and Schwertner (R-Georgetown) joined with Representatives Ashby (R-Lufkin), Bell (R-Magnolia), Cook (R-Corsicana), Schubert (R-Caldwell), and Wray (R-Waxahachie) to file a total of 18 bills addressing a number of concerns ranging from protecting landowners threatened by eminent domain abuse to ensuring the state isn’t later forced to bail out the private project with taxpayer dollars.

[…]

The following bills were filed this morning:

SB 973 by Creighton/HB 2168 by Bell (Railroad Determination Before Surveys) – prohibits a private high-speed rail entity from entering private property to conduct a survey unless the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) first determines that the surveying entity is, in fact, a railroad.

SB 974 by Creighton/HB 2181 by Cook (Option Contract Protection) – voids any high-speed rail option contracts held by a high-speed rail entity upon a bankruptcy initiated by or against the entity.

SB 975 by Birdwell/HB 2169 by Schubert (Security Requirements) – provides a framework of minimum security requirements to be followed during the construction and operation of a private high-speed rail line. Requires the high-speed rail authority to coordinate security efforts with state and local law enforcement, as well as disaster response agencies.

SB 977 by Schwertner/HB 2172 by Ashby (No Taxpayer Bailout) – prohibits the legislature from appropriating new funds, or allowing state agencies to utilize existing funds, to pay any costs related to the construction, maintenance, or operation of a private high-speed rail in Texas.

SB 978 by Schwertner/HB 2104 Bell (Property Restoration Bond) – requires a private high-speed rail entity to file a bond with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sufficient to restore property used for the rail service to the property’s original conditions if the service ceases operation.

SB 979 by Schwertner/HB 2179 by Cook (Right of Repurchase for Non-HSR Use) – prohibits an entity that operates or plans to operate a high-speed rail from using property acquired for purposes other than high-speed rail. If the high-speed rail authority doesn’t use the property for that specific purpose, the original landowner must be given the opportunity to repurchase the land.

SB 980 by Schwertner/HB 2167 by Schubert (Put Texas First) – prohibits any state money from being used for any purpose related to a privately owned high-speed rail, unless the state acquires and maintains a lien in order to secure the repayment of state funds. Requires that the state’s lien be superior to all other liens, effectively making Texas a priority creditor.

SB 981 by Kolkhorst/HB 2162 by Wray (Interoperability) – requires an entity constructing a high-speed rail line in Texas to demonstrate compatibility with more than one type of train technology.

SB 982 by Perry/HB 2173 by Ashby (High-Speed Rail Feasibility Study) – upon request of a legislator, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) must generate a feasibility study of a proposed high-speed rail project. The study must indicate whether the project is for a public use, whether it will be financially viable, and what impact of the project will have on local communities.

The full press release is here, and a Chron story about it is here. I was expecting some bills to be filed for the purpose of throwing sand in TCR’s gears, but this was more than I expected. Still, the basic dynamics of this fight have not changed as far as I can tell. The legislators leading it are primarily rural – even the ones who are based in suburban areas represent a lot of rural turf as well – and there are only so many of them. I’ve yet to see any legislator from a big urban area sign on to this. Which is not to say that at least some of them won’t go along with their rural colleagues, especially the urban Republicans, but that’s the ground on which this battle will be fought and won. If these legislators can convince enough of their urban colleagues to join them, then TCR is in a world of hurt. If not – if TCR can hold on to the urbanites – then it can survive the session and maybe get to a point where actual construction begins. Getting one or more of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Joe Straus, and Ken Paxton to pick a side would help that faction greatly as well. Keep an eye on these bills as the committee hearings get off the ground. The DMN has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, That's our Lege.

There’s more than SB6 to watch out for

Keep an eye out for other anti-LGBT bills, because any of them might pass even if SB6 goes down.

With the media seemingly preoccupied by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s bathroom bill, three Republican state senators have quietly introduced a sweeping anti-LGBT “religious freedom” measure.

Senate Bill 651, filed last week, would bar state agencies that are responsible for regulating more than 65 licensed occupations from taking action against those who choose not to comply with professional standards due to religious objections.

Eunice Hyon Min Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, said SB 651 would open the door to rampant discrimination against LGBT people, women seeking reproductive health care and others. Rho said the bill could lead to doctors with religious objections refusing to perform medical procedures, teachers not reporting child abuse if they support corporal punishment, or a fundamentalist Mormon police officer declining to arrest a polygamist for taking underage brides.

“This is incredibly broadly written,” said Rho, who monitors religious freedom legislation across the country. “It’s just really alarming. There are no limitations to this bill.”

Rho said only one state, Arizona, has passed a similar law, but unlike SB 651 it includes exceptions related to health care and law enforcement. She also warned that anti-LGBT state lawmakers may be trying to use the bathroom bill as a distraction.

“I think because some of the bills are receiving more attention than others, it’s a way for them to sneak some stuff through with a little bit less fanfare,” Rho said. “This is a tactic we’ve seen in countless states.”

[…]

As of Thursday, nine anti-LGBT bills had been filed in the 2017 session, according to Equality Texas, compared to at 23 in 2015. But there were indications that additional anti-LGBT “religious freedom” proposals are coming before the March 10 filing deadline.

Take a look at that Equality Texas list, and if you’ve gotten yourself into the habit of calling your legislators, add the bad bills there to your recitations. There’s nothing subtle about any of this, but with SB6 taking up all the oxygen, there’s cover for those bills. They would allow discrimination of the Woolworth’s lunch counter kind, and they cannot be allowed to pass.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Trump and the anti-vaxxers

In case you needed another reason to dislike Donald Trump.

President Trump’s embrace of discredited theories linking vaccines to autism has energized the anti-vaccine movement. Once fringe, the movement is becoming more popular, raising doubts about basic childhood health care among politically and geographically diverse groups.

Public health experts warn that this growing movement is threatening one of the most successful medical innovations of modern times. Globally, vaccines prevent the deaths of about 2.5 million children every year, but deadly diseases such as measles and whooping cough still circulate in populations where enough people are unvaccinated.

Here in San Antonio, 80 miles southwest of the state capital, Texans for Vaccine Choice convened a happy hour to encourage attendees to get more involved politically. The event was among dozens of outreach events the group has hosted across the state. The relatively new group has boosted its profile, aided by a savvy social-media strategy, and now leads a contentious fight over vaccines that is gearing up in the current legislative session.

The battle comes at a time when increasing numbers of Texas parents are choosing not to immunize their children because of “personal beliefs.” Measles was eliminated in the United States more than 15 years ago, but the highly contagious disease has made a return in recent years, including in Texas, in part because of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. A 2013 outbreak in Texas infected 21 people, many of them unvaccinated children.

The modern anti-vaccine movement is based on a fraud. A study published almost 20 years ago purported to show a link between childhood vaccines and autism. The data was later found to be falsified, and the study was retracted.

[…]

Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, predicts that 2017 could be the year the anti-vaccination movement gains ascendancy in the United States. Texas could lead the way, he said, because some public schools are dangerously close to the threshold at which measles outbreaks can be expected. A third of students at some private schools are unvaccinated.

“We’re losing the battle,” Hotez said.

Although the anti-vaccine movement has been strong in other states, including California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, experts say the effort in Texas is among the most organized and politically active.

“It’s a great example of an issue that has a targeted, small minority but an intense minority who are willing to mobilize and engage in direct action,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

We’ve discussed this plenty of times before, and as you know I agree with Mark Jones. There’s no reasoning with these people. There’s only organizing, and making it so that being anti-vaccination – and let’s be clear, that’s what allowing broad parental-choice exemptions for vaccinating children is – is a disqualifier for public office. Either we vote these enablers out, or we suffer the consequences.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math, That's our Lege.

Cutting ICE

Another campaign promise gets fulfilled.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has ended a controversial partnership with federal immigration authorities that trained a team of county deputies to determine the immigration status of jailed suspects and hold those selected for deportation.

Gonzalez, a Democrat who took office in January, said he will reassign 10 deputies trained under a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program known as 287(g) that cost at least $675,000 in salaries and deploy them to other law enforcement duties.

The withdrawal of sheriff’s deputies still will allow ICE officials to come to the jail and screen jail inmates to determine their immigration status, and the county will hold them for deportation if requested, Gonzalez said.

The sheriff said overcrowding in the county jail complex, where staff shortages have hiked overtime costs to $1 million every two weeks, has forced him to deploy his ICE-trained deputies elsewhere. He said his decision was not political “but an issue of resources,” explaining the deputies may be assigned to help improve clearance rates of major crimes or bolster the patrol division.

“After thoughtful consideration, I’ve decided to opt out of the voluntary 287(g) program,” said Gonzalez, who sent ICE officials notification of his decision Tuesday. “We’ll still be cooperating with local, state and federal authorities as we always have, we just won’t have our manpower resources inside the jail doing that.”

In addition to the annual cost-savings, he said, “We’ll be able to release that personnel to offset some of our overtime costs inside the jail and local public safety priorities we have.”

[…]

The exit from the ICE program could put Harris County in the crosshairs of Gov. Greg Abbott and local GOP senators, who are working to pass a “sanctuary city” law that would withhold funding from law agencies that do not cooperate with federal requests to hold inmates. The term sanctuary city has been used to criticize the refusal by certain cities and counties to cooperate with the enforcement of federal immigration law.

Gonzalez, however, said Harris County will hold anyone at ICE’s request no matter what criminal charge the inmate may be facing. The jail will hold the inmate until ICE agents can take custody and move them to a federal detention facility, which Gonzalez said in the past has been done quickly.

“It’s my understanding that I need to comply with the law,” Gonzalez said. “If ICE makes a determination there is someone they have identified and they make a request (for detention), then I plan to honor that request.”

I’d have preferred to go a little farther along the Sally Hernandez path, but Sheriff Gonzalez will not have the backing of Commissioners Court the way Sheriff Hernandez does, so it’s hard to argue with the path he has chosen. The Texas Organizing Project and the ACLU of Texas both applauded the Sheriff’s announcement, with neither of them bringing up my nitpicky point, so I’d say that he hit his target here, and as the TOP statement points out, reminded us that local elections matter, too. Stace and Campos have more.

UPDATE: More from the Press.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, La Migra.

Voter ID 2.0

Well, this is interesting.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Top Texas Republicans unveiled legislation Tuesday that would overhaul the state’s voter identification rules, an effort to comply with court rulings that have found that the current law discriminates against minority groups.

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

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has granted the bill “priority” status, carving it a faster route through the Legislature. Nineteen other senators have signed onto the bill, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who is still defending the current ID law in court — applauded the legislation Tuesday.

In a statement, Paxton said the proposal would both ensure the “the integrity of the voting process” and comply with court rulings that have found fault with the current law, considered the nation’s strictest.

Chad Dunn, a Houston-based attorney for groups suing the state over that law, called the legislation “a step in the right direction.”

“The state is acknowledging the federal court’s conclusion that the (current) law is discriminatory,” he said Tuesday.

I’ll reserve judgment for now, but this seems like a sign that the Republicans are not terribly optimistic about their chances with the ongoing lawsuit, with the question in district court about discriminatory intent. Actually, we don’t have to suppose, because we have this.

The U.S. Justice Department joined Texas’ attorney general Wednesday in asking a federal court to delay a hearing on the state’s voter ID law, the latest signal that the federal government might drop its opposition to the law now that Donald Trump is president.

In the joint filing, the Justice Department and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked to delay next Tuesday’s hearing until summer because the Texas Legislature is considering changes to the existing law, which a federal court has found to be discriminatory. Barack Obama’s Justice Department had joined the lawsuit contesting it.

[…]

In the filing, the Justice Department and Texas asked for the hearing to be pushed back until after June 18, the last day Gov. Greg Abbott has to sign or veto legislation.

“If new Texas state voter identification legislation is enacted into law, it will significantly affect the remainder of this litigation,” Texas and the Justice Department argue.

Just hours after Trump was sworn in as president, the Justice Department asked for a January hearing to be delayed to February, saying they needed more time to brief new leadership. Lawyers in the case say it’s still too early to know for sure if Trump’s Justice Department change positions in the case.

In August, Ramos denied a request from Texas to delay hearings in the case until after the legislative session wraps up in June.

“The question to be determined at the hearing is whether there was intent to discriminate during the legislative session in 2011,” said Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who is part of a legal team representing Democrats and minority rights groups challenging the law. “Whatever happens with this bill doesn’t address that question.”

See here and here for the background. I will just point out that the GOP could have passed SB5 back in 2011 and saved themselves a lot of trouble. It would still be a bad idea and a non-solution in search of a non-existent problem, but it would have been harder to beat in court. But here we are, and in this environment that counts for progress. A statement from Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is beneath the fold, and the Star-Telegram has more.

Continue reading →

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Global investors against SB6

From the inbox:

Led by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer and Trillium Asset Management, a group of some of the largest investors in the world, with a combined $11 trillion of assets under management, today spoke out against Texas Senate Bill 6 (or SB6), a “Bathroom Bill,” as well as similar discriminatory legislation. In the wake of hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity in North Carolina after HB2 – a similar bill – was signed into law in that state, major investors are standing up against this discriminatory legislation.

The 40 signatories include some of the biggest investors in the world, such as BlackRock, State Street Global Advisors, T. Rowe Price, and AllianceBernstein, as well as New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, California Controller Betty Yee, Connecticut Treasurer Denise L. Nappier, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, Rhode Island Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and Vermont Treasurer Elizabeth Pearce.

The investors’ letter urges Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Joe Straus to oppose the legislation, which would discriminate against transgender individuals in Texas. This not only makes it more difficult for companies to attract and retain the best talent, but could have real effects on the Texas economy by undermining businesses operating there and delivering extraordinary reputational harm to the Texas business environment. The state could lose hundreds of millions – if not billions – of dollars in economic activity. Tourism dollars, sporting and other entertainment events, and corporate expansions – all are vital to Texas’s economy and could be at risk. As just one indication of the potential impact, organizations including the National Football League and the NCAA have already warned that the siting of future events in Texas would be jeopardized.

The investors’ letter also highlight opposition to SB6 from more than 1,200 companies doing business in Texas, including major firms like American Airlines, Dow Chemical, Southwest Airlines, Texas Instruments, and Waste Management.

“This bill is the 2.0 version of North Carolina’s HB2, and we saw how that bill impacted North Carolina. Not only is SB6 wrong for Texas residents, it also undermines anyone who is invested in companies in that state. SB6 would take Texas in the wrong direction,” New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said. “This group of investors represents a truly extraordinary level of assets, and the market is unquestionably speaking out about the economic consequences of such bills. We hope that message will be heard. I couldn’t be prouder to lead this massive effort to protect not just the interests of New York’s retired firefighters, police officers, and teachers, but also fundamental human rights.”

“The evidence is overwhelming that inclusive corporate and public policy that embraces diversity and equality are essential to strong businesses and financial success. Trillium Asset Management, and the trillions of dollars of assets that support this letter, unequivocally and emphatically urge Texas legislators to maintain a healthy and vibrant climate for business in the State of Texas,” said Trillium Asset Management, CEO Matthew Patsky, CFA. “Senate Bill 6 must be defeated and not allowed to negatively impact the economy of Texas, the second largest in the United States.”

SB6, introduced in early January 2017, is similar to North Carolina’s HB2’s bathroom restrictions, and requires individuals to use the public restroom that aligns with the gender on their birth certificate, discriminating against transgender individuals. The bill also eliminates municipal bathroom access non-discrimination laws, effectively legalizing discrimination against the LGBT community in both public and private accommodations. SB6 allows the Texas Attorney General to impose fines of up to $10,500 a day for violation of bathroom access regulations.

North Carolina has faced significant financial harm since enacting a similar bill, HB2, in March 2016. In the months since the bill was enacted, sporting events, concerts, TV shows, and conventions were canceled and business expansions were halted. By some estimates, the cost to the state reached over $600 million.

To read the investor letter, and see a full list of signatories, click here.

Here’s a Chron story about this letter.

[Trillium CEO Matthew] Patsky told the Chronicle, “We didn’t have this level of support for divestment from South Africa during apartheid.”

[…]

Stringer and others said the state lost more than $600 million in economic activity after passing HB2, with the NBA and NCAA pulling championship games. Given that Texas’ economy is the second largest in the country, Stringer said there is fear that negative economic impact in the state as a result of passing the bathroom bill here could be felt across the nation.

“I’m worried that pension fund investments could suffer,” he said.

Patsky said Trillium Asset Management, which has business ties to Texas, has previously coordinated efforts to get investors to speak out against the North Carolina law. He said it didn’t take much to convince them to speak out against the Texas proposal.

T. Rowe Price and others echoed the concern over an economic backlash.

“Our decision to participate was taken out of concern for the likely adverse economic impact of the proposed legislation and its inconsistency with our commitment to fostering diverse and inclusive communities,” a T. Rowe Price spokeswoman said in a statement.

A representative of BlackRock said the company has previously signed a letter to North Carolina lawmakers in opposition of their law as well as signed an amicus brief in defense of marriage equality when the Supreme Court was reviewing it.

Patsky said passage of the bill also could deter venture investors looking for startup activity in the state or companies that might look to expand here. He also projected municipal bonds could be hurt as investment falls.

He also questioned the rationale behind the bill and said he recalled seeing misleading campaign ads during an effort in Houston a year and a half ago to overturn the city’s equal rights ordinance that guaranteed protections for transgendered people seeking to use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable.

No comment on this from Abbott or Patrick. I guess telling these folks to “stay out of politics and stick to business and finance” would sound weird even to them. It’s certainly possible that as with that TAB study that Stringer and Patsky et al are overstating the possible effects of SB6, but even if they are there’s no question that the effect we will have will be negative. A lot of investing comes down to perception in how things are and belief about where they are going, and the passage of SB6 would negatively change both of those things about Texas, for no real purpose. That is what this debate has always been about.

Posted in: Bidness, That's our Lege.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 20

The Texas Progressive Alliance will light a scented candle outside Ikea in solidarity with the confused people of Sweden as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Trump approval

The Trib does its poll thing.

In his second month in office, President Donald Trump is getting overwhelmingly good grades on his job performance from the state’s Republicans, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Trump is popular enough to cast positive light on Russian President Vladimir Putin, a world figure who turns out to be markedly more unpopular with Texas Democrats than with Texas Republicans.

Overall, 46 percent of Texans approve of the job Trump been doing and 44 percent disapprove. But Republicans are crazy about him: 81 percent approve of Trump’s work so far, and only 10 percent disapprove. Moreover, 60 percent of Republicans said they “strongly” approve; another 21 percent approve “somewhat” of the president.

“He looks good,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “Republicans as a group were tentative in their embrace of Donald Trump during the election campaign. They are hugging him now. His favorability rating among Texas Republicans increased 21 points between October and February.”

Likewise, 81 percent of Texas Republicans have a favorable opinion of Trump, while 12 percent have an unfavorable impression of the president.

As you might expect, Texas Democrats fiercely disagree in what amounts to an almost equal but opposite reaction to the Republicans: 83 percent of Texas Democrats disapprove of the job Trump has done as president, 76 percent of them “strongly.” And 85 percent of Democrats said they have an unfavorable opinion of the new chief executive.

“If you’re a Republican, even if you don’t like the guy, well, there’s the Supreme Court and the repudiation of a bunch of smug ideologues [on the left]; this isn’t the worst thing in the world,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a professor at UT-Austin. “The reaction of the left — the resistance — probably reinforces that.”

Independents were split almost evenly on both questions in the poll, with 39 percent approving and 36 disapproving of the job Trump is doing; 42 percent saying they have a favorable impression of the president, while 45 percent have an unfavorable one.

Overall, 45 percent of Texans have a favorable impression of Trump and 46 percent have an unfavorable one.

For comparison purposes, here’s a poll from four years ago that included approval numbers for President Obama. While the data isn’t broken down by party affiliation, one can reasonably infer that Republicans were as negative about Obama as Democrats are about Trump, while Democrats were not as intensely positive. Obama was beginning his fifth year as President, so the comparison isn’t exact, but it’s a snapshot in time to consider as we go forward. On the presumably safe assumption that Trump will not do any better among Dems in the future, he needs to maintain his big edge among Republicans or improve among indies (*), lest he risk sliding under water. If we believe, as I do, that this will have an effect on the 2018 elections, this very much bears watching.

(*) – Trump’s national numbers among independents aren’t very good, either. I’m going to guess there’s a correlation here, so keep an eye on that as well.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Deportation nation

Appalling.

The Trump administration on Tuesday moved one step closer to implementing the president’s plans to aggressively rid the country of undocumented immigrants and expand local police-based enforcement of border security operations.

In a fact sheet outlining the efforts, the Department of Homeland Security said that though their top priority is finding and removing undocumented immigrants with criminal histories, millions more may also be subject to immediate removal.

“With extremely limited exceptions, DHS will not exempt classes or categories of removal aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to enforcement proceedings, up to and including removal from the United States,” the fact sheet explains. “The guidance makes clear, however, that ICE should prioritize several categories of removable aliens who have committed crimes, beginning with those convicted of a criminal offense.”

The memo did not include instructions to halt the 2012 executive action called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which has allowed about 750,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to live and work in the country legally.

The guidelines also state that the Department of Homeland Security has authority to expedite the removal of undocumented immigrants who have been in the country illegally for at least two years, a departure from the Obama administration’s approach of concentrating mainly on newly arriving immigrants.

“To date, expedited removal has been exercised only for aliens encountered within 100 air miles of the border and 14 days of entry, and aliens who arrived in the United States by sea other than at a port of entry,” the agency states.

The action also seeks to expand a police-based immigration enforcement program known as 287(g), which allows local and state officers to perform immigration duties if they undergo the requisite training. The program fell out of favor under the Obama administration after Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced in 2012 that it wouldn’t renew contracts that were in place at the time.

“Empowering state and local law enforcement agencies to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law is critical to an effective enforcement strategy, and CBP and ICE will work with interested and eligible jurisdictions,” the memo reads.

This is going to be a humanitarian catastrophe. It’s going to be devastating for a lot of industries – agriculture, construction, hospitality – all of which will be a drag on Texas’ economy. It will do further damage to our already dented international reputation. And it won’t do a damn thing to make us safer. I wonder what Jeff Sessions will do when churches start offering sanctuary to people who are being targeted. Oh, and it will be a big unfunded mandate on cities and counties, in the same way that the “sanctuary cities” bill in the State Senate will be, if local cops are being required to enforce immigration law. This is going to be very, very ugly. Political Animal, Daily Kos, the Current, and ThinkProgress have more.

Posted in: La Migra, National news.

On those “improper” votes

Let’s be clear about this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas election officials have acknowledged that hundreds of people were allowed to bypass the state’s toughest-in-the-nation voter ID law and improperly cast ballots in the November presidential election by signing a sworn statement instead of showing a photo ID.

The chief election officers in two of the state’s largest counties are now considering whether to refer cases to local prosecutors for potential perjury charges or violations of election law. Officials in many other areas say they will simply let the mistakes go, citing widespread confusion among poll workers and voters.

[…]

An Associated Press analysis of roughly 13,500 affidavits submitted in Texas’ largest counties found at least 500 instances in which voters were allowed to get around the law by signing an affidavit and never showing a photo ID, despite indicating that they possessed one.

Others used the sworn declarations to lodge protest statements against the law.

One affidavit from Hidalgo County, along the Texas-Mexico border, read: “Did not want to ‘pander’ to government requirement.” In Tarrant County, an election judge noted on an affidavit: “Had photo ID but refused to show it.”

“If we see that somebody blatantly says ‘I have ID’ and refused to show it, we’re going to turn that over to the D.A.,” said Stephen Vickers, chief deputy elections administrator for Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth. “If they tried to use the affidavit to get around the system, yeah, I see that as a violation.”

[…]

In Fort Bend County, a suburb of Houston, more than 15 percent of voters who submitted 313 affidavits said they possessed a photo ID, but they were not required to show it.

Under a court order issued last year, election officials were not allowed to question a voter’s reason for signing an affidavit.

The cases do not amount to voter fraud because people still had to be registered to vote to qualify for an affidavit, said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s elections chief.

Poll workers were trained to “err on the side of letting people use the affidavit instead of denying them the chance to vote,” Oldham said.

“We don’t consider it something that we want to go out and prosecute people over,” Oldham said. “But I wish we didn’t have this affidavit process. It makes the whole photo ID law entirely meaningless.”

First of all, these were all votes cast by registered voters. The only impropriety, if there is one, lies in how the court order that “softened” Texas’ voter ID law is interpreted. The affidavit process was to allow registered voters who didn’t have one of the accepted forms of ID to cast their ballot if they produced another form of ID and signed a statement swearing 1) that they were who they said they were, and 2) that they didn’t have an accepted form of ID. Some election officials, like Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart took that to mean that the affiant did not own one of those forms of ID, like a drivers license. Others, including attorneys representing plaintiffs in the ongoing litigation, thought that was too strict. What if someone’s license had been lost or stolen, and they didn’t have the opportunity to get a replacement? What if someone arrived at the polling location only to realize they had left their license at home? Maybe the voters in those situations would be permitted to vote – I certainly think the first group ought to be – but until the question comes before a judge, we’re all just guessing. And remember, we’re talking about a few hundred voters who may not have followed a set of rules that were interpreted in a variety of ways versus sixteen thousand people who got to vote in the first place. Perspective, y’all.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Texas cannot bar Planned Parenthood from Medicaid

Good.

Right there with them

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled Tuesday afternoon that Texas clinics affiliated with Planned Parenthood can continue to care for patients under the state’s Medicaid program, a phew-worthy victory for reproductive rights advocates and a loss for the state’s GOP leaders.

In a 42-page ruling, Sparks wrote that the state’s arguments in the case were “the building blocks of a best-selling novel rather than a case concerning the interplay of federal and state authority through the Medicaid program.”

“After reviewing the evidence currently in the record, the Court finds the Inspector General, and thus [the Texas Health and Human Services Commission], likely acted to disenroll qualified health care providers from Medicaid without cause,” the ruling read. “Such action would deprive Medicaid patients of their statutory right to obtain health care from their chosen qualified provider.”

[…]

In court, Planned Parenthood attorneys argued that not allowing the reproductive health provider to stay in the Medicaid program, which is largely funded by the federal government, would severely curb access to care for poor Texas men and women seeking preventive and sexual health services. The attorneys also argued that the state did not have the capacity to deliver these services in the same way Planned Parenthood does and reiterated that state and federal law already prohibit taxpayer dollars from being spent on abortion services.

State attorneys, meanwhile, leaned heavily on the web video throughout court proceedings, pointing out various clips as part of their evidence. While the video appeared to back up their claims, Planned Parenthood attorneys forced several of the state’s witnesses to concede that no employees were seen committing illegal acts in the undercover video.

Throughout the ruling, the phrase “no evidence” appears multiple times. Sparks said Texas Health and Human Services Commission Inspector General Stuart W. Bowen Jr. “did not have prima facie of evidence, or even a scintilla of evidence” for the termination. He cited that the Center for Medical Progress video, the evidence against Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and dragging in other Planned Parenthood affiliates were “three overarching bases for termination.”

Sparks said that “for those not blessed with eight free hours to watch” the video, it mostly contained a Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast employee and Center for Medical Progress representatives talking in “unclear and ambiguous dialogue” that was open to interpretation. He said the Texas Health and Human Services Commission did not provide evidence that they had authenticated the video before going forward with termination efforts.

While state attorneys tried to show that the reproductive health organization had “a willingness” to profit from procuring fetal tissue, Sparks said he did not find evidence of that.

“The Court is unconvinced mere willingness, without any evidence of attempt, is enough to deprive a Medicaid beneficiary of the right to her otherwise qualified provider,” the ruling read.

See here for the previous update. Shockingly, the fraudulent anti-PP videos made by the lying liars at the Center for Medical Progress turned out to have no evidentiary value for the state. Who’d a thunk it, am I right? I presume the state will appeal from here, and if the Trump scandal machine ever lets up enough to allow legislation to be passed by Congress, a federal bill could be passed to change the law that PP relied on here to get this action overturned. It’s a little premature to celebrate, is what I’m saying. Still, this is a big deal, and it’s always nice to see Ken Paxton lose in court. The Chron, the AusChron, and Trail Blazers have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Latino turnout was up in 2016

That’s what the numbers say.

Nearly 30 percent more Texas Latinos went to the polls in 2016 than in 2012, reducing the participation gap with other Texas voters and signaling to some observers that elections will become increasingly competitive in the Lone Star State.

Non-Latino voters increased by a more modest 9.2 percent between presidential elections, according to newly released numbers from the Texas Legislative Council.

The percentage of registered Latinos who went to the polls also increased from 2012, from 47.2 percent to 49.8 percent. But that turnout rate remained well below that of non-Latino voters, which was 62.9 percent in 2016. That represented a decrease from 2012 when turnout was 65.4 percent among non-Latino voters.

As a result, the share of the electorate with a Spanish surname increased from 17.2 percent in 2012 to 19.4 percent in 2016. Latinos make up 38 percent of the Texas population, but historically vote at lower rates than Latinos in other states and other groups in Texas.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones called the increase “notable, but not dramatic,” and said it mirrored jumps in past presidential elections.

“The Texas electorate becomes more Latino and less Anglo with every passing electoral cycle,” Jones said. “But the increase is fueled primarily by natural demographic trends rather than by a dramatic spike in participation rates among Latinos.”

State officials obtained the numbers using a count based on a list of Spanish surnames; the numbers don’t account for every Latino voter.

[…]

According to an analysis of early voting figures in 20 large counties, Derek Ryan, a political consultant and former research director of the Texas Republican Party, found that new voters are driving the increase in Latino participation: 18.7 percent of ballots cast by voters with Spanish surnames came from those with no electoral history in Texas; for non-Latinos, only 12.8 percent came from new voters.

Voter registration among Latinos also increased 20 percent over 2012 compared with 14 percent for non-Latinos. Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said the registration and turnout numbers for 2016 elections are higher than her group anticipated, but she said Texas remains a state that puts high barriers to voter registration.

I don’t think any of this is surprising, but I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, for the reasons articulated in the second section I highlighted. What are the trend lines here? How does the turnout rate compare to the voting age population and the share of the VAP that is registered? Latino voters are everywhere, but the bulk of them are in two distinct places, along the border and in big urban areas, primarily Harris, Bexar, and El Paso counties. How have these rates changed over time in those places, and everywhere else? There’s a lot more information I’d like to have before I drew any conclusions about what this particular piece of data may mean.

One thing I do agree with is that a big driver in the increase in Latino participation is the increase in voter registration. That’s what drove the increase in overall turnout in Harris County. No question that needs to be a Democratic priority going forward, as a lot of those new registrations are going to come from people who have just turned 18, new citizens, and people whose registrations had lapsed because they had moved. You want to understand why the Legislature is not interested in making it easier to register, there’s your answer right there.

Posted in: Election 2016.

Metro preps regional transit plan

This could be on our November ballot as well.

A pending long-term regional transit plan, and likely voter referendum as early as November, will determine where Metro goes. More importantly, they will show what level of support people in the Houston region have for more buses, longer train routes and commuter service to increasingly urbanizing suburban communities.

What’s clear, transit officials acknowledged on Feb. 15 during their first in-depth discussion of the transit plan’s focus, is many solutions to traffic congestion will sit on transit agency shelves for years to come.

“We know we will never have enough resources to build everything,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “How do we choose which projects are most worthwhile?”

Board members during the discussion said a host of factors will influence transit project priorities, though the critical litmus test will be whether a project can reliably and quickly serve a large number of riders and solve a congestion challenge. Officials predict as the region grows freeways will clog even more with cars and trucks for more hours of the day. Expansion of many freeways is limited, so using the lanes more effectively or drawing people off the freeway will be critical.

“We’re all going to be more transit-dependent because we can’t spend two hours getting to work,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said.

Transit agency staff has started compiling a list of unfinished projects, including those left over from the contentious 2003 referendum and financial commitments from an extension of Metro’s 1 percent sales tax voters approved in 2012.

Along with public input and ongoing discussions, Metro could have a draft of a regional transit plan – incorporating not only service in Metro’s area, but beyond its own boundaries – by April under an accelerated timetable.

[…]

There are options for starting major transit projects within the next five years, but they require transit officials to either come up with alternative sources of money or ask voters to approve more spending, which could mean more borrowing and new taxes or fees to pay off the debt.

Officials are exploring both options. Last year, officials approved soliciting interest from private firms for development of a train line from the Texas Medical Center to Missouri City. The line, estimated to cost at least $400 million, has political support from many Houston area federal, state and local officials. Questions related to the proposal pushed the deadline for companies to express interest in partnerships with Metro from Feb. 7 to March 20.

Metro leaders, after new board members were installed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner last year, also have said a voter referendum for more spending is likely. Transit board chairwoman Carrin Patman said the regional transit plan could lead to a vote as early as November, though the plan itself will inform what could end up in front of voters.

“It’s possible,” she said of an election in nine months. “We’ll have to see what kind of response we get to the plan and what is the best course.”

A referendum, officials said, could be approval for a single project that transit supporters consider high-priority or politically palatable. A entire suite of projects also could be put in front of voters.

See here for some background. The plan doesn’t exist yet, so it’s more than a little premature to speculate. The howling chaos in Washington doesn’t help, either. I’d prefer a bigger package to vote on than a smaller one, but a bigger one carries a lot more risk, as the opposition will be more intense. Still, we did pass the 2003 referendum against a pretty fierce and well-funded No effort, and I’d guess the Metro service area is more amenable to transit in general and rail in particular now than it was then. But even people who do support those things may vote against a referendum if they don’t think it gives them something they want. And even if Metro wants to put something up for a vote, there’s an argument to be made to wait till 2018 and do as much public engagement as possible beforehand. There’s a lot of ways this can go, so we’ll just have to see what they present when they have something to show us.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.