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Harris County goes shopping for new voting machines

It’s time.

Diane Trautman

Harris County formally has begun searching for a new voting machine model with the aim of debuting the devices in a 2021 election, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Tuesday.

Speaking at the International Association of Government Officials trade show in downtown Houston, Trautman said the county plans to select a vendor for new voting machines by next July. She estimated the cost of purchasing about 5,000 machines would be $74 million.

“One of the issues that I campaigned on was making the election process simpler and more convenient, and more trustworthy,” Trautman said. She added, “Now it is time to address making the voting process more trustworthy by replacing our outdated voting machines.”

Trautman said replacing the current machines, some of which are 20 years old, is an important next step after her administration debuted countywide voting centers in May. Harris County awaits approval from the secretary of state to expand the system, which allows voters to cast ballots at any location, regardless of their assigned precincts.

The clerk’s office plans to form a community advisory group in the fall and issue a request for proposals to vendors in January. A voting selection committee comprised of election workers and staff from the county universal services and purchasing departments will help choose two voting machines as finalists in March.

John Coby was at that trade show as well, and he’s got some pictures if you want to see what Trautman et al were looking at. The goal is to have the new machines in place for the 2021 election, which will provide a nice lower-turnout environment for a shakedown cruise. The head voting honcho at the Clerk’s office is Michael Winn, who came over from Travis County, where they replaced their voting machines a few years ago and have been doing some design work for the next generation of them. Look for some of those features, which will include a printed receipt, as we go forward.

Mediation 3.0

Third time’s the charm, right?

The Houston firefighters union and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration will return to mediation Aug. 1 in the hopes of working out a new contract amid a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition B.

The ballot measure, which grants firefighters the same pay as police of similar rank and experience, passed last November but was struck down by a state district judge who ruled it unconstitutional and void. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association appealed the ruling, sending the case to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

Last month, the appeals court ordered the city and fire union to hold talks within 60 days. The union announced Wednesday the parties had agreed to hold the mediation session Aug. 1, which a spokesperson for the mayor confirmed. The two sides also agreed to have Houston attorney Daryl Bristow serve as mediator.

[…]

Asked Wednesday if there was any reason to expect a deal on the third mediation attempt, Turner repeated his claim that the firefighters deserve a pay raise “the city can afford” and said he would seek to reach a deal.

“The resolution has to be one that’s good for the people of the city of Houston,” Turner said.

See here for the background, and my thoughts on this process, which doesn’t seem any more likely to resolve things now than before, but you never know. They have a different mediator this time, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t know what timeline they may have, but most likely they will either come to an agreement or declare that it’s hopeless in a fairly short period of time.

Perspective on the anti-vaxx situation

Maybe it’s not as bad as we think.

It’s certainly true that pockets of vaccine refusal persist in this country, as they have for many years. If those pockets are now experiencing greater numbers of measles cases, it may be on account of dire trends in far-off places.

This global explanation only kicks the can a little farther down the road, however. Measles cases are spreading here because they’re spreading overseas—OK, fine. But why is measles spreading overseas?

[…]

Are vaccination rates really on a downward trajectory? Once again, the actual data complicate this narrative. Global immunizations against measles, like those in the U.S., are at or near an all-time high. Since the start of this century, the proportion of people around the world who have received at least one dose of the measles vaccine has increased by almost one-fifth. Meanwhile, the use of a second dose of the vaccine (which makes it more effective) has more than quadrupled on the global scale. In 2000, just 15 percent of people were getting both shots. Now, that number is up to 67 percent and still rising.

The salutary effects of all this work could not be more apparent. The global number of people who contract measles and the global number of people who die from it have each gone down by about 80 percent since 2000. As recently as 1980, more than 4 million cases of measles were reported every year. Despite massive population growth since then—an uptick of several billion people, worldwide—the annual number of measles cases has dropped to about one-fiftieth of what it used to be, to a few hundred thousand cases per year.

Given all this recent progress, the global measles crisis that’s underway seems somewhat paradoxical.

Basically, the argument is that outbreaks like we’ve seen with measles tend to burn quickly through the susceptible population, then run out of steam, and that the biggest cause of not being vaccinated in the US is not anti-vax foolishness but lack of access to medical care. The author argues that the full picture of the data is often not represented or mis-represented in media stories, which has caused some level of overreaction among vaccine proponents. There’s a lot of detail, so read it all and see what you think.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 15

The Texas Progressive Alliance has the people of Louisiana in its thoughts as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Mayoral candidates

All right, now that we are past the 15th, most of the campaign finance reports are in, so let’s start reviewing them. Because there are several thousand candidates running for office in Houston, I’m going to split them into several groups. We’ll begin with the Mayoral candidates and go from there. As a reminder, my look at the January 2019 finance reports for Houston candidates is here, and all of the finance reports that I have downloaded and reviewed are in this Google folder. I’ll be going by Erik Manning’s invaluable spreadsheet, which lists the following Mayoral hopefuls:

Sylvester Turner
Kendall Baker
Derek Broze
Dwight Boykins
Tony Buzbee
Anton Dowls
Naoufal Houjami
Bill King
Sue Lovell
Demetria Smith

And here are the totals from the reports they have filed:


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner     1,698,596  1,362,879        0   3,218,268
Baker         15,810     15,650        0         260
Broze          1,379        188        0       1,190
Boykins      140,174     93,219        0      69,783
Buzbee             0  1,814,754        0   5,140,725
King         684,842    580,062  210,000     318,320

Sue Lovell didn’t enter the race until this month, so she does not have a report yet. The others are I presume typical fringe candidates who have no idea what they’re doing. Place your bets as to how many of them actually file by the deadline.

Sylvester Turner is doing what you’d expect. Given that he’s running against someone who’s willing to set large bags of his own money on fire for this race, it’s possible he’ll step it up even further for the next report, but it’s hard to complain about what he’s done so far. As for Buzbee, who made two contributions worth $5.5 million to his campaign this cycle after dropping $2 million before January, I guess this is what you do when you have more money than brains and all your toys bore you. He’s the only contributor to his campaign, by design. I almost feel sorry for Bill King, who doesn’t have Buzbee’s moolah or Turner’s base. He’s going to have a hard time keeping up.

And then there’s Dwight Boykins. I don’t know what I expected from Boykins’ July report, but here’s a fun fact for you: Boykins reported raising $150K in his July 2013 finance report, when he was running for his first term in District D. You may note that the “Office Sought” field on Boykins’ current finance report is blank. I’m not saying that Boykins may change his mind before the filing deadline and run for another term in his current office, but I’m not not saying it, either.

Finally, out of sheer curiosity, I also looked at the report of the End Pay to Play PAC, the vehicle by which Bill King failed to put a campaign finance referendum on the ballot. End Pay to Play raised $95K, of which $20K came from King, $20K came from Nijad Fares, $10K came from Hartman Advisors LLC, $5K came from JBK Family Interests Ltd, and there were five other $5K donors. Not exactly a grassroots uprising. It spent $130K, thus leaving about $41K in “unpaid incurred obligations”, with most of the spending going to an outfit called Election Day Strategies in Corpus Christi. And now it sinks from sight, a minor footnote in this busy year.

Here’s some Chron coverage on the reports so far. I’ll start looking at the Council candidates, along with other races. There’s no shortage of these posts to do. As always, let me know what you think.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Naoufal Houjami filed his report on paper, which you can see here. Some other candidates have done this as well, and their reports are here. Houjami raised $1,080, spent $356, and has $154 on hand.

The next Census threat

From TPM:

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has directed the Census Bureau to prepare to offer states the data they’d need to do a redistricting overhaul that would boost “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” in the words of a deceased GOP consultant.

That the administration is taking that step is not surprising, given that President Trump said that it would last week while announcing that the 2020 census would not have a citizenship question.

But the government formally put that intention in writing in a regulatory notice that was published over the weekend.

The document was an update to a previous notice about the the government’s plans for the 2020 census that confirmed that the survey would not include a citizenship question due to the Supreme Court decision blocking it.

“Accordingly, the Secretary has directed the Census Bureau to proceed with the 2020 Census without a citizenship question on the questionnaire, and rather to produce Citizenship Voting Age Population (CVAP) information prior to April 1, 2021 that states may use in redistricting” the new version of the notice said.

[…]

The Supreme Court said in a 2016 unanimous opinion in the case, Evenwel v. Abbott, that use of total population was permissible. But the opinion didn’t address the question of whether CVAP could also be used.  Justice Clarence Thomas said in a concurrence that states should have the choice to use such a metric, while Justice Samuel Alito issued a concurrence of his own calling for another legal case to resolve this “important and sensitive”question.

It appears the groundwork is being laid for such a test case to be sent to the Supreme Court, which has shifted to the right — with the additions of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — since the Evenwel decision.

See here, here, and here for more on the Evenwel case. At the time, most of the experts expressed doubt that future attempts to draw districts based on CVAP rather than population would succeed in the courts. That was about a million years ago in political news cycle terms, and I don’t know how confident anyone would be of such a prediction now. For sure, if it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen here, but it will be that much harder to do with a Democratic majority in the State House. You know what to do about that. Ari Berman has more.

We’ll have a much better idea of who the candidates are soon

There are a lot of people filing to run for Congress as Democrats. It remains to be seen how many of them are viable.

Gina Ortiz Jones

Three times as many Democrats have already filed to run for Congress in Texas this year as in 2012 or 2016, yet another sign that Texas will be more of a battleground for the two major political parties in 2020.

With the elections still well over a year away, Democrats already have 66 candidates who have signed up to run in 30 different congressional districts. At this same point four years ago, Democrats had just 19 candidates ready to run in 16 of the state’s 36 congressional districts.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm statewide,” said Abhi Rahman, director of communications for the Texas Democratic Party.

The increase is a sign that fired-up Democrats want to take on President Donald Trump and his policies, and is a testament to the party’s success in 2018, when Democrats flipped two Congressional seats previously held by the GOP, picked up 12 seats in the Texas House and two in the Texas Senate. In addition, Beto O’Rourke came within 3 percentage points of defeating Republican powerhouse U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — the closest statewide race in Texas in decades.

[…]

It’s not just that Democrats flipped two congressional seats in 2018, but also how close they came to flipping a half dozen others in Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. Six Republican members of Congress won their elections in 2018 with 52 percent of the vote or less. Those six districts have become magnets for Democratic candidates, with 26 Democrats already filing official statements of candidacy to run with the Federal Election Commission.

Two San Antonio-area districts lead the way. In 2018, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, won his re-election in the 23rd Congressional District with 49 percent of the vote. And U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, won his seat with just 50.3 percent of the vote. Hurd already has four Democrats who have filed to challenge him, including his 2018 opponent Gina Ortiz Jones. Roy meanwhile has drawn three opponents.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, seven Democrats have filed to run in the 24th Congressional District, where Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, won his re-election with 50.7 percent of the vote. Similarly, near Austin, seven Democrats have filed to run in the 31st Congressional District where Republican John Carter won his re-election with 50.6 percent of the vote.

In Houston, U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul and Pete Olson won their districts with 51 percent of the vote. Three Democrats have filed to take on McCaul, and two to take on Olson.

It’s a little curious to me that they used 2012 and 2016 as a basis of comparison rather than 2018. We already know that 2012 and 2016 were not great years for Democratic Congressional campaign recruiting, while 2018 was off-the-charts good. I realize those were Presidential years, as 2020 is, but until further notice 2018 is the basis for all meaningful comparisons.

So as far as that goes, here’s my look at finance reports from Q1 of this year and Q2 of 2017. That doesn’t tell you how many people had filed – I mostly didn’t pay attention to the non-competitive districts, and there were plenty of fringey candidates I didn’t put much effort into – but it does tell you how many candidates of interest to me there were. The Q2 finance reports are still trickling in, so you’ll see an updated list of interesting candidates when the data is there. You can see some candidates’ names now, but until I see a finance report I don’t feel confident about who is a potential difference maker, and who is just taking up space. It’s good to know there are four contenders in CD31, for example, but I need to know more than that. Give it a week or so, and we’ll get that.

Here come the youths

There are a lot of younger candidates running for Houston City Council this year.

Raj Salhotra

Inspired by the recent electoral success of millennial and Generation Z-aged candidates, more young people are running for Houston city council than ever before, a trend local politicos attribute to the potent national surge of activism stemming largely from President Trump’s election in 2016.

In last year’s midterm election, many of those new, young activists ran for office and won. Since the election, 29-year-old U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent voices, while locally 28-year-old Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has led a dramatic political shift on Commissioners Court, which flipped to Democratic control for the first time in decades.

“I think we have to acknowledge the success in the 2018 cycle of millennials and very young candidates,” said education consultant Jay Aiyer, who served as former Mayor Lee Brown’s chief of staff at age 29.

A handful of candidates younger than 30, and at least a dozen more in their 30s, are seeking seats this year on Houston city council, the legislative body for the country’s fourth-largest city. Though council members have little formal power in Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, they approve an annual city budget north of $5 billion and handle constituent services for districts comprised of around 200,000 residents.

Among the youngest contenders are 18-year-old Marcel McClinton, a shooting survivor-turned-activist running for one of five at-large positions; 21-year-old Anthony Dolcefino, a candidate for District C; 24-year-old District D candidate Dennis Griffin; and 29-year-old Anthony Nelson, a Prairie View A&M University student running for District F.

[…]

Raj Salhotra, 28, is one of three candidates challenging At-Large 1 Councilman Mike Knox, a former police officer who is seeking a second four-year term. Also running are Michelle Bonton and Georgia Provost.

Salhotra is calling for the city to offer universal prekindergarten and more public transit, enforce more regulations on “pollutant-emitting plants” and require all new city vehicles be hybrid or electric.

Meanwhile, Knox repeatedly has pushed for the city to rein in what he calls “frivolous spending,” and to focus on core services — public safety, infrastructure, trash pickup — before thinking about anything else.

“The citizens of Houston want our government to spend money wisely and efficiently, and get the biggest bang for our buck,” Knox said. “My votes are designed to help the city stop its overspending habits and get back to focusing on our core responsibilities, and thereby staying within our means.”

Salhotra criticized Knox for, among other things, voting not to join a lawsuit challenging Texas’ anti-“sanctuary cities” law, and called Knox “really out of step with what the vast majority of Houstonians believe in.” Salhotra’s own policy views, he said, are rooted partly in his age.

“I think a lot about, how are the policies we put in place today affecting the next 30, 40, 50 years in Houston?” Salhotra said. “Because I’m going to be living here for the next 60 years of my life, God willing.”

[…]

The race for District C, which includes Montrose, Meyerland and Braeswood, has emerged as the most crowded contest: Thirteen people are running to succeed Cohen, who recently endorsed 32-year-old Abbie Kamin. Other candidates include Candelario Cervantez, 36, Nick Hellyar, 38, and the 21-year-old Dolcefino, son of former KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino.

“We’re living in a serious time, we’re at a critical juncture in this city, and certainly in the country, and it’s going to take everyone to be active and fighting — of all age groups,” Kamin said.

As is always the case, some of these candidates are more serious than others, and thus more likely to succeed than others. I’m starting to look through the campaign finance reports, which will give one indicator of how these and other candidates are doing. Turn your nose up however you like at the notion of fundraising being a proxy for candidate seriousness, the fact remains that it’s hard to get elected if no one knows who you are, and getting your name into the minds of voters doesn’t happen by magic or wishful thinking. It costs money to run a campaign, and that money has to come from somewhere.

Be that as it may, there’s another dynamic at play here that needs to be discussed. Historically speaking, at least, the voters in our city elections are old. How old? Here’s some research I did in 2015, which I’m just going to reprint here, as I think the numbers speak for themselves:


2013 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     9,786   5.6%
31-40    15,209   8.7%
41-50    23,508  13.5%
51-60    40,235  23.1%
61+      85,393  49.0%


2011 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     5,939   5.0%
31-40     9,488   8.1%
41-50    17,126  14.5%
51-60    28,601  24.3%
61+      56,664  48.1%


2009 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30    10,021   5.7%
31-40    16,798   9.6%
41-50    29,664  16.9%
51-60    43,814  25.0%
61+      74,730  42.7%


2007 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     5,791   5.0%
31-40    10,599   9.2%
41-50    21,090  18.4%
51-60    28,633  24.9%
61+      48,728  42.4%

So yeah, when between two-thirds and three-fourths of your voters are over the age of 50 (a group that includes me now), it’s going to be that much more of a challenge for 20-something and even 30-something candidates to be taken seriously. It can be done – judging by the year of her college graduation as shown on her LinkedIn page, CM Amanda Edwards was 33 when she was elected in 2015 – but it’s a hurdle that older candidates don’t face. Let me know when someone writes a story about that.

Now of course, this calculus can be changed to some extent by simply getting more young voters to the polls. I don’t have the data for 2018, but there’s plenty of evidence nationally that younger voters were a larger part of that electorate than they were in 2016, and much more so than in 2014. That only goes so far, of course – there are only so many people between the ages of 18 and 40, let alone registered voters, let alone actual voters – and turning them out at a higher rate is much, much easier said than done. Perhaps some of the 2018 energy will carry over – I’d expect it to have some effect, though not much – but the fact remains that the regular, reliable voters are the ones who largely determine these elections. That’s the task all of these candidates, of any age, have before them. Good luck.

(Is it just me, or does everyone else always hear the word “youths” spoken in the voice of Joe Pesci?)

There’s no reason to trust the Republican study to “reform” the judicial election process

Oh, hell no.

After a punishing election for Republican judges, state leaders are set to take a long look at Texas’ often-criticized judicial selection system — a partisan election structure that Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has described as “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

This summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law creating a commission to study the issue — signaling that the GOP-led Legislature could overhaul the system as soon as 2021. That move comes after Democrats killed a sweeping reform proposal that Abbott had quietly backed.

In Texas, one of just a few states that maintains a system of partisan judicial selection all the way up through its high courts, judges are at the mercy of the political winds. They are required to run as partisans but expected to rule impartially. They are forced to raise money from the same lawyers who will appear before them in court. And in their down-ballot, low-information races, their fates tend to track with the candidates at the top of the ticket.

That means political waves that sweep out of office good and bad, experienced and inexperienced judges alike. And while sweeps are perennial problems for the judiciary, 2018’s elections “set records,” said Tom Phillips, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice.

Democrats, riding on the coattails of Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, left the election with majorities on appeals courts where they had previously held zero seats. Republicans were entirely shut out of major urban counties. Voters, largely uninformed about judicial races, differentiated very little between well-funded, experienced candidates and those who had done little but throw their hats in the ring. The judiciary lost hundreds of years of experience.

“Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind,” Hecht warned lawmakers in January, exhorting them to change the system.

But reform is similarly fraught with politics. Voters don’t like having choices taken away from them, even if vanishingly few recognize judicial candidates’ names on the ballot. And any new system has to win the approval of both parties, as a two-thirds majority in each chamber is required for the constitutional amendment needed to change the system.

[…]

Texas Republicans dominate the state’s judiciary: All nine members on each of the state’s two high courts are Republicans, as are lower-court judges across much of the state. But that dominance began to wilt after last fall’s elections, particularly on intermediate courts of appeals, where Democrats now hold majorities on 7 of 14 courts.

After scores of Republican judges lost their jobs last fall, Abbott set about appointing many of them back to the bench. He also became more vocal on the issue of judicial selection reform.

Eyebrows went up in February, when he tweeted a Houston Chronicle column criticizing the partisan judicial election system. The governor commented, “We need judges devoted to the constitution and strict application of the law, not to the political winds of the day.”

Advocates began to believe this might be the year to push the issue — or at least to tee it up for a big swing in 2021. It was around that time that a group of would-be reformers — attorneys, former judges and donors — formed a non-profit organization, Citizens for Judicial Excellence in Texas, to push the issue in Austin. One lobbyist registered to represent the group at the Capitol this spring.

With powerful supporters in his ear calling for change, Abbott was also pushing the issue more quietly. In March, he met with state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican lawyer from Lubbock. Two days later, on the Legislature’s filing deadline, Landgraf proposed a constitutional amendment that would have overhauled the system, centralizing much of the power to pick judges in the governor’s office.

The Landgraf pitch — which ultimately stalled out for a lack of bipartisan support — would have scrapped the partisan judicial election system, replacing it with a multi-step process: gubernatorial appointment, qualifications evaluation by a non-partisan commission, Texas Senate confirmation and retention elections. Since judges tend to win retention elections, barring scandal, the proposal would effectively have allowed Abbott to appoint judges likely to serve for three four-year terms — giving Republican-appointed judges a dozen years in power even as Texas creaks toward the political center.

Landgraf’s proposal carved out small, rural — conservative — counties, where voters would still have had the opportunity to elect judges on partisan ballots, unless they voted to opt into the appointment system.

Landgraf’s pitch, blessed by Abbott, didn’t sit well with Democrats, who demanded to know why the urban centers they and their colleagues represent would be treated differently from Republican strongholds. They feared overhauling the system would mean losing the new class of Democratic judges elected in last year’s sweep — a class that brought unprecedented diversity to the bench. And they questioned whether centralizing that power in Abbott’s office might effectively give the Republicans control over the judiciary for longer than the party can hold the other two branches of government.

In April, a House committee hosted a spirited debate on the bill, then left the pitch pending. Landgraf said he wouldn’t push to advance it without bipartisan support; Democrats cheered its defeat.

First of all, no way is it acceptable to put this power in the hands of the Governor. Putting aside who the governor is now, how does that take the politics out of the process? All it does is incentivize anyone who wants to be a judge to suck up to the Governor. Sure, you could redesign things so that no one person or one party has control over the process, but any way you slice it you are granting this power to a small, unelected, unrepresentative group of people. But if this does get traction, then no way do “small rural counties” get exempted from it. If this is a good system for Harris and Dallas, it’s a good system for Loving and Deaf Smith.

But the bottom line remains that this is only ever an issue when Democrats have a good year at the ballot box. The first time Republicans started talking about changing the partisan election system was in 2008. It then got mostly dropped (except for its most ardent supporters, and I will admit that the likes of Wallace Jefferson and Nathan Hecht continued to bang this drum at every opportunity) in the 2010 to 2014 period, only to be revived in 2016. First they ended straight ticket voting (though not in time for 2018, poor things), and now this. The goal is to install Republican judges, hopefully before Democrats can elect a majority to either of the statewide courts. Come back with a proposal that isn’t primarily about that, and then maybe we can talk. Until then, there’s no reason for any Democratic legislator to support this.

Of being “White” or “Other” on the Census

Here’s something I hadn’t thought about before.

When Randa Kayyali reached the race and ethnicity portion of the 2010 Census, she stared at the form for a while.

Her options were white, Hispanic and/or Latino, black/African-American, Asian, Native Hawaiian and American Indian. She didn’t see a category for herself on the survey: Arab American. So she checked “Other.”

Kayyali is among millions of Middle Easterners living in the U.S. — hundreds of thousands in Texas and Houston — who are severely undercounted because they don’t have a precise category to denote their background on census surveys, researchers and advocates say.

Currently, the bureau defines “white” as those of European, Middle Eastern or North African descent. But many people of Middle Eastern and North African origins and descent argue otherwise— saying their background, culture and overall experience in the United States makes it clear that they are not white, nor viewed as white.

The U.S. Census Bureau came close to including a “MENA” category (for Middle East and North Africa) in the 2020 Census, recommending it as an optimal addition in a 2017 study. But in 2018, the bureau announced that it would not include the category at the direction of federal budget officials.

The communities have responded in frustration, fury, and in some cases, lawsuits. Not only are they being rendered invisible, but advocates fear they are losing out on political representation and services for their unique economic, health and educational needs. According to the 2020 Census website, the survey results determine the distribution of over $675 billion in federal funding.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Hassan Jaber, who is president of the Arab American nonprofit organization ACCESS and previously served on the Census Advisory Committee for six years. “All the research for the past six years indicated that if it were available, communities from MENA backgrounds would choose MENA instead of white.”

[…]

According to the group’s estimates, there are 3.7 million Americans of Arab descent. The census had estimated just 1.9 million. Texas has the fourth-largest Arab American population in the country at over 124,000, according to the Arab American Institute.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of long form census data found that the Middle Eastern population — which includes people from Turkey, Iran and Israel — was over 281,000 in Texas for 2013, and over 98,300 in the Houston metro area. However, the limited data yielded margins of error of 24,400 and over 27,700, respectively — decreasing the data’s reliability.

“There are many segments of our community that don’t recognize themselves on the existing race/ethnicity questions, and this could provide more encouragement for them to participate,” said Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It’s extremely important because many local, state and county governments rely on census data to provide services to their immigrant and foreign-speaking populations, and one of the ways those services can be allocated appropriately is if there is official data counts from the U.S. Census.”

As the story notes, people of Middle Eastern/Arabic descent had once fought to be classified as white in the Census, as there has always been an advantage to being considered white in America. But people don’t want to deny their own heritage, and that is the more prominent concern these days. There’s no question that the Census would have more accurate data with a more accurate set of categories, and it is likely that some people who aren’t responding to the Census because they feel there’s no designation that includes them would participate if there were one. I’d like to see us have a thorough discussion over what racial and ethnic categories the Census includes – and while we’re at it, let’s have the same discussion over gender categories – because it’s in everyone’s interest to have the most accurate and representative count of who is living in the USA. This will have to wait until we have a President that cares about things like representation, accuracy, and data, but let’s not wait any longer than that.

The field for Senate may keep growing

Another possible contender for the Democratic nomination for US Senate.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez

A group of progressive Democratic operatives is looking to draft one of the state’s top organizers of the Latino vote into running for U.S. Senate, a move that could further shake up Texas’ still-unsettled primary to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

The group is focused on Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the founder and executive director of Jolt, a nonprofit she started three years ago to mobilize young Latinos in Texas politics. She also is a co-founder of the Workers Defense Project, an older Austin-based group that fights for labor rights.

Tzintzún Ramirez is not publicly commenting on the Senate race. But among those encouraging her to run are Ginny Goldman, founding executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, and Zack Malitz, field director for Beto O’Rourke’s blockbuster U.S. Senate campaign last year, according to Democratic sources.

Tzintzún Ramirez’s fans see her as the right person at the right time — not unlike O’Rourke, a congressman who went from statewide obscurity to coming within 3 percentage points of the state’s junior GOP senator, Ted Cruz.

“I think she would be a very strong candidate,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston-based Democratic strategist who is not involved in the draft effort. “There are people that have the kind of background, life history, that fits the time in which we are. Those people tend to take off, and we saw that in Beto O’Rourke. … It was just the right timing and the right place to be. When I heard her name, I thought the same thing.”

Tzintzún Ramirez declined to comment for this story. However, people who have been in touch with her believe she is thinking about the race and has not ruled out a run.

The effort to recruit Tzintzún Ramirez underscores how the primary is still taking shape, even after MJ Hegar, the former U.S. House candidate, entered the race in mid-April and raised over $1 million. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston has since made clear he is running, and the field is likely to grow further in the coming weeks. State Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who is viewed as likely to run, has scheduled an announcement for July 22. And Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards is also moving closer to a campaign.

I don’t know any more about Tzintzún Ramirez than what is in this article, so I don’t have any particular reaction beyond “good luck” and “may the best candidate win”. As I’ve said before, I’m happy for there to be a competitive primary that will force the candidates to begin the process of engaging with the voters as early as possible. That’s going to require raising money, because there will be a lot of voters with which to engage.

It occurs to me that the serious candidates actually face two very different scenarios, because while the 2020 primary is likely to be a record-breaking affair, the inevitable runoff will be much, much smaller. How much? Well, the 2008 primary had 2,874,986 Presidential votes, and 1,951,295 votes cast in the three-way race for Railroad Commissioner. In the 2008 Democratic primary runoff, there were 187,708 votes cast for Railroad Commissioner. The 2020 Senate runoff will not drop off quite that much in turnout, as those candidates will have money, but still. Anyone in this contest needs to think about winning two races, with wildly varying conditions. Just a thought.

Anyway. Tzintzún Ramirez may well be an exciting candidate, but I’d like to hear the words that she’s considering the race come from her mouth before I get too invested in the possibility. I’m delighted people are seeing this as a good opportunity, now let’s see them turn that into action.

What can the county do about ethics?

Maybe something. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed two ethics reforms he says are needed to improve transparency in county government, though Texas counties’ limited rule-making power may scuttle his plan.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously backed Ellis’ request to study how the county can establish mandatory registration of lobbyists and a blackout period for campaign contributions to elected officials from firms who seek or receive county contracts.

“We’re living in a time when public trust in government is shaken and everyday people are concerned about the undue influence of special interests,” Ellis said in a statement afterward. “We have an opportunity and obligation to strengthen public trust by reducing any appearance of or actual preferential treatment when it comes to how public dollars are spent.”

[…]

Ellis said the county needs an ethics commission to enforce any new rules. His vision, however, may be hamstrung by the limited ability Texas counties have to enact such policies. Unlike municipalities, which can establish their own rules and ordinances, counties only can follow the lead of the Legislature, Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

That limitation tied the hands of County Judge Ed Emmett, who established a task force that recommended a series of ethics reforms in 2009. Among them: creating an ethics committee, posting officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms online and ethics training for county employees.

The county attorney at the time concluded Commissioners Court lacked the authority to act on many of the proposals. The ethics committee only met twice before the county attorney said state law prevented the body from meeting confidentially, granting protection to whistleblowers or having the authority to supervise elected officials or their departments.

Some county ethics rules remain in place. Elected officials still must complete the disclosure forms, and any county employee involved in negotiating contracts with vendors must declare conflicts of interest. Commissioners Court members often disclose during meetings why they are abstaining from a vote, though written conflict of interest forms are not filed with the district clerk until afterward.

Soard said the Legislature has not given counties any new powers to establish ethics rules in the decade since Emmett tried, though El Paso and Montgomery counties sought and received special permission from state lawmakers to set up their own ethics commissions. Harris County could try a similar approach, Soard suggested, though the Legislature will not return to Austin for a regular session until 2021.

“We’re certainly working with the commissioners to see what the county can do,” Soard said.

I’m sure I’ve been salty on this blog about past attempts to improve ethics in Harris County. In retrospect, the lack of authority as granted by the state seems obvious. Maybe we’ll have better luck this time, but I agree that getting a bill passed in the Lege would help. There’s always 2021.

Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Weekend link dump for July 14

“Cockroaches developing resistance to multiple classes of insecticides at once will make controlling these pests almost impossible with chemicals alone.”

Eh, who cares about honeybees, anyway?

“The sport should be so much further along by now; these women should be making so much more money; and these women shouldn’t have to fight so hard just to prove that they’re worthy of a modicum of the investment and attention that male athletes get simply because they’re men.”

RIP, Joao Gilberto, musician and composer and the father of bossa nova.

Megan Rapinoe is a mensch.

“But, finally, it looks like justice will be served to [Jeffrey] Epstein in the form of new sex-trafficking charges filed by the formidable U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York.”

In case it’s unclear: Fuck Jeffrey Epstein, and fuck everyone who may have abetted him.

“[T]his team is a reminder of the best of the American ethos—the promise of ever-expanding equality, the spirit of reform that yielded Title IX and laid the basis for American female soccer supremacy, the carnival of individuality that is the team’s roster. At a time of despair, the players represent a form of not-so-utopian hope: how a community of different backgrounds and sexual orientations relates to one another with familiar affection.”

John Roberts and Donald Trump deserve each other. The rest of us, not so much.

“At its most fundamental level, the backlash wasn’t about New Coke at all. It was a revolt against the idea of change. That story should sound familiar. We’re still living it.”

RIP, H. Ross Perot, billionaire and two-time Presidential candidate. I like this obituary for him better.

How Did Jeffrey Epstein Make His Fortune?” We may find out thanks to the current investigation.

“No one seems to have a clear idea of where Jeffrey Epstein’s money comes from.”

RIP, Rip Torn, versatile actor best known for The Larry Sanders Show.

“This is an old game at this point, but it’s impossible to dodge. Let us pretend, for a moment, that, let’s say, President Jimmy Carter owned a private club discovered to be hosting stripper golf caddy services. Let us imagine President Bill Clinton, during his first years in office, had a side business that dabbled in the occasional stripper auction. Let your mind wander over the response President Barack Obama, the subject of frothing outrage for the school he attended when he was but 6 years old, was as president making a few extra dollars pairing wealthy golfers with the nude dancers of their choosing. The Republican Party would, to use the scientific term for these things, have gone apeshit.”

Selig is lying when he said he had no idea about PEDs in baseball during the McGwire-Sosa chase. He is lying when he said he became aware of it in the years in between that and Bonds’ final pursuit of Aaron. He wants our sympathy for how saddened he was by Bonds’ PED-aided accomplishments yet says absolutely nothing — zero — about why he failed to act until bad press, Congressional pressure, a couple of books which put the game in a bad light and public opinion forced him to do so.”

RIP, Jim Bouton, former MLB pitcher and author of Ball Four.

The two word reason why the Trump executive order on the Census must fail.

Some questions for Alex Acosta.

RIP, Denise Nickerson, actor who played Violet Beauregard in the original Willy Wonka movie.

The local response (so far) to the ICE raids

This is good.

Houston’s top elected and law-enforcement officials sharply criticized federal authorities’ plans to arrest large numbers of immigrant families living without legal permission in major U.S. cities, contending that the raids targeting groups of recent arrivals would harm public safety and risk separating children from their parents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo took to nationally broadcast programs to weigh in against the raids, which are set to begin as early as Sunday in at least 10 cities, including Houston. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement appear likely to target immigrants who recently crossed the border and have been issued a final order of deportation.

“It’s one thing if the focus of these raids is on people with criminal records, people who have committed violent crimes, people who are part of gangs,” Turner said earlier this week on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The raids should not aim to deport people “who have been here for quite some time,” Turner continued, if “their crime is only coming here to seek a better way of living or to provide a better opportunity for their families.”

[…]

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said his office would not participate in the raids, arguing that local involvement would “drive undocumented families further into the shadows” and damage community safety.

“It silences witnesses & victims & (would) further worsen the challenges law enforcement officials face,” Gonzalez, a Democrat, said in a tweet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement containing information about the legal rights that people retain when interacting with ICE agents, such as their right to not answer the door if the agents do not present a warrant.

“These raids seek to subvert our sense of community by putting the very heart of Harris County, our diversity, in the cross-hairs of a shameful political maneuver,” said Hidalgo, a Democrat elected last year.

Turner issued a fresh statement Saturday saying the city would continue to offer services to all residents “regardless of who they are, where they are from, or their documentation status.” ICE had yet to contact the city about the raids, the mayor added.

“The president’s order for concentrated ICE raids against immigrant families in Houston and elsewhere stands against everything we represent as a welcoming city,” Turner said.

This is also good.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee met with faith leaders in Houston on Saturday to invite undocumented immigrants to seek refuge in churches, mosques and synagogues and call on religious organizations to open their doors ahead of Sunday’s anticipated deportation roundup by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

“It is to my dismay that I have to come home to find many of those who live in my jurisdiction, my constituency, are panicked, frightened and in fear of their lives,” said Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat. “I say to the federal authorities: that you are well aware and on notice that you are not able to come into a church and demand anyone that is a representative of the faith to give anyone to anyone.”

Jackson Lee gathered with faith and local leaders Saturday afternoon at the Living Water International Apolistic Ministries in Houston. The ministry, along with half a dozen other churches, announced it would shelter undocumented immigrants on Sunday who fear they are in danger of being taken by ICE.

“We want to be a beacon of light for those who may be in fear. So when I got the call, I couldn’t do anything but accept,” said Apostle Robert Stearns, leader of Living Water. “There is nothing strange to us in doing this. This is our heart and our passion.”

It’s a good start. Now we need to be ready for whatever the response to this is.

Libertarians and Greens sue over the petition process for ballot access

We’ll see about this.

Mark Miller

Ahead of the 2020 election cycle, a group of Texans, along with a number of nonmajor political parties, have sued the secretary of state’s office, alleging that Texas election law discriminates against third-party and independent candidates vying for a spot on the general election ballot.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Austin, plaintiffs argued that current state law would give nonmajor political parties in 2020 just 75 days to obtain over 80,000 valid signatures to gain ballot access — and that the cost of doing so could cost more than $600,000.

Currently, third parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party can secure a spot on the general election ballot by either having at least one candidate who wins more than 5% of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle, or by collecting a certain number of required signatures. That 5% threshold will soon be lowered to 2% of the vote in one of the past five general elections once a measure that passed the Texas Legislature this year takes effect Sept. 1.

Candidates unaffiliated with a political party, meanwhile, are allowed access to the general election ballot as long as they file the required paperwork and gather a certain number of signatures, which depends on which office they’re seeking.

For both third-party and independent candidates, signatures must come from registered voters who did not vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries or participate in another party’s convention that year.

“Collecting signatures by hand is inherently time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive,” Mark Miller, a plaintiff in the case and a two-time Libertarian candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, said in a news release. “And collecting 80,000-plus valid signatures in the limited time allowed under Texas law is all but impossible without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire paid petition circulators.”

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs suggested that Texas could modernize its signature petition procedure to help alleviate the burden they say has been placed on them. Plaintiffs pointed to Arizona, which they said has a secretary of state who recently implemented an online platform to allow voters to sign nomination petitions electronically — instead of in person and on paper.

Let me start by saying that if the minor parties win the right to collect electronic petition signatures so their candidates can get on the ballot in a state where electronic voter registration is illegal, that will be infuriating. The latter is by far the bigger affront to democracy.

Before I get to the main part of my analysis, let me add some more details about this from the Statesman.

State law offers three paths for candidates to land on the general election ballot:

Political parties that received at least 20 percent of the vote in the previous election for governor nominate their candidates for state and county office and the U.S. Congress via primary elections, with the winners advancing to the general election. “Since at least 1900, only the Democratic Party and Republican Party have qualified,” the lawsuit said.

Major-party candidates pay filing fees ranging from $75 to $5,000 or by submitting petitions with 5,000 signatures for statewide office. The law does not set a time limit on when they can begin collecting those signatures, the lawsuit said. Minor parties must nominate general-election candidates at a convention where participants equal at least 1% of the number of Texans who voted for governor in the prior election, or 83,717 participants in 2020. No minor party has met the 1% requirement in at least 50 years, the lawsuit said, but Texas law allows candidates to collect voter signatures within a 75-day window to make up the difference.

The tight deadline and limits on who may sign the petitions – registered voters cannot sign if they voted in a recent primary, attended another party’s convention or signed another party’s nominating petition for the same election – put minor-party candidates at a significant disadvantage, the lawsuit said.

Independent candidates are allowed on the general election ballot if they collect petition signatures equal to 1% of the voters in the previous gubernatorial election. Petitions cannot be circulated until after the major parties hold a primary or primary runoff election, meaning candidates could have 114 days, or as little as 30 days, to collect signatures, the lawsuit said. “This uncertainty alone imposes a significant burden that chills potential candidacies,” the lawsuit said.

Having to collect about 80,000 valid signatures by hand can cost $600,000, largely to hire people to circulate petitions, the lawsuit said. The result is an election scheme that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for candidates who are not wealthy to participate in the political arena, said Oliver Hall, a lawyer with the nonprofit Center for Competitive Democracy, which worked on the lawsuit without charge along with the Shearman & Sterling law firm, which has an office in Austin. “We think the federal courts will recognize that Supreme Court precedent prohibits Texas from limiting participation in its electoral process to those with financial means,” Hall said.

So the first thing to realize is that this cycle is an especially challenging one for parties or candidates who need to go the petition route to get on the ballot. That includes the Libertarians, whose best performance in 2018 was 3.42% in the Comptroller’s race. The Libertarians and to a lesser extent the Greens have benefited in the past from the Democrats not competing in all of the statewide judicial races, leaving at least one slot with a Republican running against an L and a G, with the two of them combining for 20% or so of the vote; there were two such races in 2014. In 2018 Dems had candidates in all of the judicial races, and that left the Libertarians (the Greens were not on the ballot because none of their candidates got to five percent in 2016) out in the cold. The other thing about 2018, you might recall, is that it shattered records for off-year turnout, which is why that “one percent of the Governor’s race” (*) requirement is as high as it is. Had the Ls and Gs needed petition signatures for 2016, they’d have only needed about 47,000 of them based on gubernatorial turnout from 2014. In addition, primary turnout, especially on the Dem side, is going to be through the roof, meaning that the pool of eligible petition-signers will be that much smaller. However you feel about the plight of the minor parties and would-be independents, this is a bad year to have to collect petition signatures.

The other fact to reckon with is that this isn’t the first time a federal lawsuit (which this one is, according to the Statesman) has been filed over this requirement. Back in 2004, after Ralph Nader tried and failed to get enough signatures to be on the ballot as an independent Presidential candidate, he sued and ultimately lost; his subsequent appeal was rejected. Federal judge Lee Yeakel ruled at the time that Texas’ ballot access laws did not create an unconstitutional burden. I’m not exactly sure what is different this time, other than the number of plaintiffs, but who knows. This is the main question, at least as far as I’m concerned, that will need to be addressed. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

For what it’s worth, while I have no warmth for the third parties, I’d be all right with a petition process that gave them more time, and even that allowed them to solicit any voter, not just non-primary voters. If and when we get electronic voter registration, I’d concede on the electronic petition gathering item. Beyond that, I don’t see much of a problem. We’ll see what the judge says.

(*) There were 8,343,443 votes cast in the 2018 Governor’s race, one percent of which is 83,434. I have no idea where that 83,717 figure comes from, unless it’s some kind of weird typo.

Does the partisan redistricting ruling change anything in Texas?

Maybe, but if so it will be indirect.

Robert Henneke, general counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the ruling was a clear sign that the high court wanted to discourage federal judges from micromanaging the redistricting process.

“I think it de-escalates the use of litigation as a way of seeking results that aren’t supported on election day,” Henneke said.

Chad Dunn, a lawyer who sued on behalf of the Democratic Party in Texas to block redistricting maps drawn earlier this decade, said he did not believe Thursday’s ruling would have a dramatic impact in the state.

Courts have cracked down on Texas-drawn maps every decade since the 1960s for violating the Voting Rights Act’s restrictions on diluting minority voting strength and gerrymandering along racial grounds, and those restrictions remain in place, Dunn said.

“I don’t think, really, anything changes,” he said. “Partisan gerrymandering (complaints) would have been another tool for voters to use in the courthouse.”

Renea Hicks, another lawyer who challenged the current set of Texas maps, wasn’t so sure.

Republicans who drew the most recent maps claimed they were using voters’ political affiliations to draw districts that helped one party succeed or benefited an incumbent, but Hicks said the reason could be used to mask a racial purpose, particularly because Latino and African American voters tend to favor Democrats.

“They can use partisanship to locate minorities, then draw lines,” he said. “Now they have even more to hide behind.”

I think Hicks has it right. Let’s not forget the previous ruling that found essentially no fault with the Texas legislative and Congressional maps despite the lower court rulings that they were racially discriminatory. SCOTUS accepted the fig leaf that the slightly tweaked 2013 maps, which were still 98% based on the discriminatory 2011 maps, absolved the state of all its sins. I don’t think the Republicans will have much to fear in 2021 if they have full control of the process. Heck, even if they have to defer to the Legislative Redistricting Board for the non-Congressional maps, I don’t think they’ll hold back. And remember, even if they do draw maps that somehow wind up being tossed, they’ll get multiple elections out of the bad maps before any consequences are enforced. The incentives point one hundred percent in the direction of maximal partisan advantage. The real questions are 1) How much more maximally can they draw districts now versus 2011, and 2) How much do the state’s changing demographics hold them back? There’s only one way to find out.

We need a coordinated strategy to fight these immoral immigration raids

I feel such despair about this.

Federal authorities are expected to try to arrest thousands of immigrant families in at least 10 cities, including Houston, beginning as early as Sunday, rattling communities across the country who faced a similar scare last month.

President Donald Trump postponed such an operation in June, partly because of conflict among his immigration enforcement officials on how to conduct the raids and out of concern for officers’ safety after the president publicized the plans on Twitter. Trump said he was giving Democrats time to come up with a solution to the immigration crisis in Congress.

This weekend’s operation would likely focus on thousands of immigrants who recently crossed the border and have been issued a final order of deportation — even if they were never informed of their court date or were unable to make the hearing. But agents also are authorized to make “collateral” arrests and detain other immigrants they encounter, even if they were not the target.

Several national news outlets reported Thursday that the raids were planned for the coming week. Tim Oberle, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to release details about any operation, citing “law-enforcement sensitivities and the safety and security” of agents.

Reports of an impending operation sparked renewed outrage and concern among immigrant communities and advocates. Nationwide protests outside immigrant detention centers are scheduled this weekend.

“People are very worried,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of FIEL Houston, an advocacy group that will be on-call for reports of any enforcement activity. “We are getting a lot of calls asking, ‘Is it true that this is actually happening now?’”

[…]

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday in New York to stop the enforcement operation, arguing that affected immigrants were denied due process because they were not able to make their case for protection in court. It said many are asylum seekers who failed to appear because of “massive bureaucratic errors and, in some cases, deliberate misdirection.”

Notices to appear in court were often sent to wrong addresses or after hearings had passed, or they listed dates when the courts were not open.

“The agencies’ flagrant and widespread errors made it impossible for people to know when their hearings were being held,” the ACLU said in a statement.

[…]

A large-scale enforcement action focused on families, rather than criminals, would be unusual and difficult, said John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE.

“There are serious operational challenges once you have that population in custody,” he said. “You need very tight plans on where you can hold families, for how long they are there, how you are going to transport them and where you can stage them.”

Remember, the cruelty is the point. The Trump administration cannot be trusted with families. It’s not just these raids, it’s also the inhumane conditions at detention centers and the continued state of fear and terror that immigrants are subject to. This is a crisis, and we don’t know how to respond to it. I know I feel paralyzed. It’s hard in part because there are so many crises, with new ones popping up each day. We all have a role to play, which we all need to figure out for ourselves, but it needs to start with leadership from all of our elected officials. Whatever part of this immoral machinery is within the jurisdiction of our city and our county, we need oversight, we need accountability, and where we can’t get these things we need resistance. Future generations are going to judge us for what we did and didn’t do.

UPDATE: Here’s a statement from Mayor Turner about the raids.

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls will step down

That sound you hear is a domino falling.

Troy Nehls

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls announced Wednesday that he would not seek a third term in 2020.

“My work in law enforcement, it’s been an honor and a privilege,” said Nehls. “I’ve done it (law enforcement) for almost 25 years. I think it’s time for me to do something else.”

News of Nehls’ decision prompted immediate speculation that he might run for Congress, a possibility he did not confirm or deny in an interview. Nehls said he announced his decision not to seek re-election now to provide time for others who may want to run for sheriff.

“I will again revisit that over the next four, five months,” Nehls said about a possible Congress run. “We’ll just wait to see what happens.”

[…]

Prior to being elected sheriff, Nehls served two terms as Precinct 4 constable in Fort Bend County.

Nehls said he has encouraged his twin brother, Constable Trever Nehls, to run to replace him as sheriff. Trever Nehls was elected Precinct 4 constable after his twin left the job to run for sheriff.

As you may recall, Democrats won all of the contested countywide races in Fort Bend in 2018. They would like very much to repeat that in 2020. Having a longtime incumbent like Nehls will help, as he had the best percentage among countywide Republicans in 2016 and was one of the top performers in 2012. Democrats do have a candidate.

Eric Fagan, a former Houston police officer with 34 years of law enforcement experience, has launched his campaign for Fort Bend County sheriff.

Born in Louisiana but raised in Texas, Fagan has been a Fort Bend County resident since 1991 and has received the ‘Officer of the Year’ award three times by at least two agencies.

“I want to bring the sheriff’s office in Fort Bend into the 21st century,” Fagan said. “I want to bring proactive police work to the county. We can’t be retroactive.”

Fagan, a Democrat, said his top priorities as sheriff include bringing back community-orientated policing, addressing human trafficking and domestic violence and creating partnerships with community groups to address crime and social issues.

Here’s his website. It’s possible there will be someone else – I mean, Dems have to be optimistic to begin with, and open seats don’t come along every day – but Fagan was there first, and he was who I found when I went looking.

As for Nehls, everyone and her cousin expects him to run for Congress in CD22. There were rumors that Pete Olson would step down in 2018, and I’m sure this will amplify them. As I’ve said in other contexts, Q3 is likely the last chance for serious candidates to get into these races, as the demands of fundraising require a lot of time. Sri Kulkarni has already announced a haul of $420K for Q2, so that’s the scope here. As such, if this is what Nehls has in mind, I expect these dominoes to fall quickly.

Scooters and the negative effect on disabled folks

A deep dive on the San Antonio experience.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

From the moment they appeared in cities across the country, the business model for electric scooters has depended on riders’ abandoning the machines wherever the ride ends. Users unlock scooters with a cell phone app, put $1 on their credit card plus 15 to 30 cents per minute to ride, and routinely ignore city rules against dumping the vehicles in the curb cuts that make sidewalk wheelchair use possible.

San Antonio’s new ban on riding scooters on sidewalks — if it’s enforced — will only partially restore a path to a freer life for disabled people. Scooters are still legal to park on the sidewalk itself, and the city’s “light touch” preference for warnings and education over police ticketing and confiscation leave the disabled skeptical that much will change.

Urban commentators might curse scooters as a metaphor for a hurried, narcissistic age, but disabled people generally see the glut of abandoned vehicles as a physical affront.

“We’ve spent 30 years making sidewalks accessible,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the Washington-based National Disability Rights Network, referring to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. “And then overnight we’re forced into asking cities, ‘Why have you allowed this to happen without thinking of their impact?’”

The problem is especially acute and visible in San Antonio, which U.S. Census figures show has the nation’s second highest rate of residents with “ambulatory difficulty” — 9.5 percent of San Antonians ages 35 to 64, or about 100,000 people. Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia had a higher rate.

Blind people feel especially harassed by the two-wheeled whippets, said Sandy Merrill, CEO of San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas, which trains service dogs for the vision-impaired.

“It’s difficult enough dealing with what’s in front of you,” Merrill said. “But now our dogs and people have to deal with something almost silent zipping behind them at 15 miles an hour. I wish young people would think about how they’re using them.”

[…]

John Jacks, director of San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department and the city’s de facto scooter czar, sounds sympathetic to the complaints of disabled citizens, but is loath to criticize the scooter companies or call for aggressive policing of a breezy business culture more determined to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The city won’t create the rules designed to change that culture. It has asked the companies to do it themselves, by submitting detailed proposals for bringing order to the scooter scrum. By October, the city will cut the number of permitted scooter firms from six to three and reduce their fleets of dockless vehicles from a total of 16,000 to 5,000. Jacks said the city’s request-for-proposals process offers the reward of a city contract to the three companies with the best ideas for reducing clutter and rider misbehavior.

“Our number one concern is the ability of all people to navigate the sidewalks safely,” Jacks said. Correcting the problem, he added, will be done mostly by creating incentives “for good behavior versus bad. It’s putting the burden on the companies for addressing the problem.”

Jacks said he had consulted the disabled community about the scooter roll-out and its concerns will be “embedded” in the process by having Malone, a former president of the National Federation for the Blind, on the selection committee.

The city’s scooter ordinance, thrown together last year to govern a six-month tryout of the new technology, contains rules against parking within a certain distance of curb ramps and other structures, but Jacks conceded that few, if any, riders actually know that.

“This is all still evolving,” Jacks said. “If the Council still doesn’t think it’s working, we may have to have more restrictive regulations.”

San Antonio Police confirm that they haven’t impounded any scooters in 2019, choosing instead to alert the scooter companies, call 311 or tidy up the sidewalks themselves.

“Sometimes I’ll just move them off to the side on the curb,” said SAPD Capt. Chris Benavides, the department’s head of traffic and special events.

Officers have given out 438 warnings since August, he said, but have written only 80 citations for scooter riders since last August, a period in which renters took nearly two million rides, according to city records. This month, SAPD deployed three overtime officers per day, seven days a week, to focus on downtown scooter enforcement.

“I like the ‘soft touch’ to scooter enforcement, if that’s what you want to call it,” Benavides said. “Our biggest problem is just educating people, especially the tourists.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. As noted, San Antonio has now banned scooters from sidewalks, which I think will help keep riders from menacing pedestrians, but those scooters are still going to be left on the sidewalk after being used, and that’s still going to be a problem for people with mobility issues. There’s clearly value in these “micro-mobility” options, which should reduce the number of short-hop car trips people take and may help encourage transit use, but their business models leave these problems to the cities to solve. I sure hope Houston’s plan for scooters will address this. In the meantime, there are federal lawsuits filed by people with disabilities in other states like California that allege that Lime and Bird and other scooter companies are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting their ability to navigate their cities. That’s going to take a few years to work its way through the courts, and who knows what SCOTUS will do with it. In the meantime, cities and states need to figure it out.

“Pay to play” petition drive falls short

Womp womp.

The political action committee that launched a petition drive aimed at limiting the influence of contractors and vendors at Houston City Hall failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, the group’s director said Wednesday.

The drive, which ended earlier this week, was for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, to amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls from King and fellow candidate Tony Buzbee to reform Houston’s campaign finance system, suggested the effort’s failure was an indictment on the “anti-pay-to-play” message being pushed by the political action committee backing the petition. The mayor urged reporters to “focus on real issues, real needs.”

“Let me just put it this way: I have not seen any problems,” Turner said. “I think that whole movement was more political than substantive.”

[…]

Ben McPhaul, the director of the PAC, said the committee still was receiving petitions Wednesday but would fall short of the roughly 40,000 signatures it needed to gather in 30 days under city rules.

“We are grateful for the hundreds of grass-roots volunteers who helped the effort with not a single paid petitioner,” McPhaul said in a statement. “The PAC plans to continue collecting signatures to raise awareness of the issue with hopes to get it on the ballot or in front of council in the future.”

See here for the background. Just so we’re clear here, this is not City Secretary Anna Russell counting the signatures and saying they don’t have enough valid ones. This is the PAC itself saying they didn’t get enough to even submit for inspection. They fell short of their goal.

The petition drive’s failure reflects the PAC’s lack of volunteers and funds more than the public’s interest in reforming Houston’s campaign finance reform system, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

“You can’t read anything into this regarding the attitudes of Houstonians toward ‘pay to play,’” Jones said.

Still, the outcome represents a win for Turner, Jones said, because it means the topic of campaign finance reform may gain less media coverage and traction from political pundits near election time.

“I wouldn’t put it as a major failure for King, but certainly it’s a setback,” Jones said. “Once he got behind the petition, he owned the petition.”

King said state law separately allows a longer period for petition drives, so the PAC would continue to collect signatures. Though King’s campaign is not affiliated with the PAC, it has supported the drive, and King made a point of being the first person to sign the petition.

“We’ve been carrying it around on our campaign and we haven’t had a single person refuse to sign it,” he said.

He also noted Houston’s charter bases the number of required petition signatures on a mayoral election held within the last three years. Since the last election happened in 2015 — more than three years ago — King contended a petition drive now technically needs just one signature.

If that were challenged in court, however, the litigation would get resolved well after November, said King, indicating he had no interest in taking action in court.

I can accept that this isn’t a “major failure” for Bill King, but it should be clear to everyone that he didn’t put any real effort into this cynical ploy. He has plenty of his own money, and could have raised more, to fund a sufficient petition drive if he really wanted this to be on the ballot. We’ve seen plenty of successful petition drives in the last decade. Did King really not know what it was going to take, or did someone tell him and he was like “eh, whatever, we’ll just wing it with some volunteers”? If “cleaning up City Hall” is the foundation of your campaign, and you go through the motions to mount this effort in the first place, what does it say about you and your commitment to this idea that you just let it fail without a fight?

The bit about the charter language is interesting. I think as a legal argument it’s mostly sophistry, but I could see a judge buying a plain-text reading and agreeing that even one signature is now sufficient until and unless the city cleans up that part of the charter. Here again, though, if King actually believed what he was saying he would have acted differently. Why not file that lawsuit before now? Theoretically, he could have filed it on November 4, 2018, which is three years and a day after the 2015 Mayoral election. Even if I’m wrong about that, I don’t see anything in the charter section on legislating by referendum that limits when a petition effort is allowed to begin. Maybe there still wasn’t a path to getting the question resolved in time for the 2019 election – though if you win the first round, it’s the city that has to start worrying about deadlines, not you – but boy howdy was this a limp production. It’s easy for me to take potshots at Bill King, but if you like him as a candidate and believed in this proposed charter amendment, you should be upset. At every step of the way, he did the very least he could do.

We have a candidate in CD06

Good.

Rep. Ron Wright

A Waxahachie Democrat who is business partners with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins is running for Congress in 2020 against Rep. Ron Wright, an Arlington Republican who was first elected to office last year.

Stephen Daniel, an attorney, on Wednesday announced his House campaign, telling The Dallas Morning News that residents in the suburban-rural district “haven’t been adequately represented” by the incumbent and that, politically, “it’s a closer district than people think.”

“A lot of people are disenchanted,” said the 42-year-old, who grew up just outside of the district in Itasca, a tiny town in Hill County, and then eventually moved to Ellis County after law school.

The campaign launch could signal that Democrats are serious about expanding the battleground map in Texas, which was already expected to host eight competitive House races next year. While Daniel is a political novice running in a traditional GOP stronghold — one that President Donald Trump won by 12 points in 2016 — the attorney’s ties to a prominent North Texas Democrat like Jenkins could give him a step up in fundraising, name ID and party support. Consider that Daniel is vowing to raise $4 million, which would be a stunning amount for a congressional seat that hasn’t been the subject of a full-on campaign bout in decades.

[…]

Democrats have already circled pick-up opportunities in six Lone Star State districts where the incumbent Republican House member last year won by 5 points or less. The only North Texan among that group is Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell. Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to win back two longtime GOP seats that they lost last year in Texas. One of those districts is now represented by Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat who ousted former Rep. Pete Sessions.

The contest for Wright’s seat could join that crowded docket. Daniel is pitching himself as a native son with humble roots. He “grew up very country,” he said, helping his dad work at a local landfill. He was also the first in his family to graduate from college, he said, ultimately earning a law degree from St. Mary’s University School of Law. He’s worked as a personal injury attorney for the last 15 years alongside Jenkins, who hailed Daniel’s “compassion, grit and tenacious spirit.”

“He cares about people and has earned the nickname ‘Bulldog’ for his zealous representation of his clients,” texted Jenkins, a longtime Democratic power player who was elected in 2010 as Dallas County judge.

As a reminder, this is Ron Wright. So yeah, I’m glad to see this. As noted, CD06 is not currently on the Dems’ target list, but Beto got 48.0% there, so it’s not a stretch to see it get on the radar. And the fastest way to get on that radar is via fundraising. Jana Sanchez, who is serving as Daniel’s treasurer, raised $734K last cycle, which in most other contexts would be excellent but is basically an opening bid here. I’ll definitely be looking for Stephen Daniel’s report at the end of this quarter. And with his entry, the only high profile district that still lacks a candidate is CD31; we’re still waiting on Wendy Davis in CD21, but we do have Jennie Lou Leeder, so that’s something. Let’s get that slate filled out.

UT’s new tuition policy

Nice.

Seeking to make college more affordable, the University of Texas will use some of its oil money to dramatically expand the financial aid it offers to low- and middle-income undergraduates on its flagship Austin campus.

The system’s governing board approved a special $160 million distribution from its endowment Tuesday, which school officials expect will fully cover the tuition and fees of students whose families earn up to $65,000 in adjusted gross income a year starting in 2020. The funding, which will be used to create a new financial aid endowment, will also let UT-Austin alleviate tuition costs for students whose families earn up to $125,000 annually, if they demonstrate financial need.

“Our main focus at the UT system is our students. That’s it, that’s what we’re in business for is to provide an affordable, accessible education for our students,” board Chair Kevin Eltife said in an interview after the vote. “We all know the struggles that hardworking families are having putting their kids through school. What we’ve done here is repurposed an endowment into another endowment that will provide tuition assistance to a lot of the working families in Texas.”

The funding marks a significant expansion for UT-Austin, which currently has a financial aid initiative that guarantees free tuition to students whose families earn up to $30,000 a year. The median household income in Texas was just over $59,200 in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

School officials estimate about a quarter of its undergraduates from Texas — 8,600 students — would have their tuition fully paid under the new plan, and an additional 5,700 would receive financial aid from it. The program will not pay for students’ living expenses, which were estimated to be around $17,000 for the 2019-20 academic year. Tuition and fees averaged $10,314 for Texas residents.

This is good, and a decent number of students will benefit from this policy. Remember, though, the main reason why tuition is as high as it is now, not just at UT but at all Texas public universities, is because the Republican-controlled Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003, as a way to help balance the budget by spending less on higher ed. You can see what happened next. It’s great that UT’s endowment allows them to take this step, but UT-Austin is just one school. If we really want to fix this, it’s going to take a lot more than this.

Royce West looks ready to announce

Mark your calendars.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West is one step closer to running against Republican incumbent Sen. John Cornym.

The Dallas Democrat has announced a news conference for July 22, where he’s widely expected to launch a campaign for Senate. The longtime state senator would join a Democratic Party primary that already includes former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar of Round Rock and former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston. And Houston council member Amanda Edwards is considering mounting a campaign as well.

[…]

West, 66, has hinted at a campaign against Cornyn for months, but has not officially gotten into the race.

He’ll make an announcement at 10 a.m., July 22 and Democratic Party headquarters in Dallas, according to a sign-up link on a website he’s developed for the occasion.

West has represented Texas Senate District 23 since 1993. He’s also a prominent Dallas attorney and one of the leading Democratic Party voices in the state.

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, the field now includes Chris Bell, with Amanda Edwards still on the periphery. I don’t know what if any timetable Edwards has beyond the late August filing deadline for Houston races, but I do know that another candidate for Edwards’ Council seat has emerged (*), so perhaps the consensus opinion is that this is about to be an open seat. My guess is that with West more or less formally in, we’ll hear something one way or the other from Edwards soon. But I’ve also been guessing that for awhile now, so take it with a sufficient quantity of salt.

(*) In the spirit of disclosure, AL #4 candidate Tiko Reynolds-Hausman is a friend of mine. I’ve served on two PTA boards with her, and her daughter and our elder daughter have been classmates and friends for years.

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

Next Dem debate will be in Houston

Cool.

The third debate in the Democratic presidential primary will be in Houston, party officials announced late Tuesday.

The event, sponsored by ABC News and Univision, is scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13.

“Texas is a battleground state, period,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “We know that when Texas goes blue, the White House will follow. We are pleased that our partners at the Democratic National Committee have agreed to host the third Presidential Debate here in Texas.”

Party officials did not immediately say where in Houston the debate would be held.

[…]

The Houston debate will be the first debate to use higher standards for candidates to qualify. They must get 2% support in four polls and receive 130,000 donors. For the upcoming Detroit debate, candidates only have to crack 1% in three surveys or accrue 65,000 contributors. That lower threshold was also used for the Miami debate last month.

It remains to be seen whether the two Texans running for president will make the September debate stage. Julián Castro announced Monday he had crossed the 130,000-donor threshold, but he has hovered below 2% in most recent polls. Beto O’Rourke has likely blown past the donor requirement based on previously released statistics, though he also has work to do in the polls.

Well, I did say that the road to the White House goes through Houston. It would be a little weird if both Castro and Beto are not there – maybe they can get some kind of home team discount if they need it? – but having a smaller field is fine by me. Kudos to all for making this happen. Here’s the TDP announcement, and the Chron has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 8

The Texas Progressive Alliance fondly recalls the story of Washington crossing the Jersey Turnpike to surprise the British at the Battle of Newark Airport as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

The Fifth Circuit Obamacare hearing

Remember, the Fifth Circuit is where hope goes to die. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On the left was Judge Carolyn Dineen King, an appointee of Jimmy Carter; on the right sat Judge Kurt Engelhardt, a nominee of Donald Trump, and in the center sat Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, the George W. Bush appointee expected to represent the critical swing vote on a three-judge panel now charged with deciding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

It was that perhaps fitting seating arrangement that greeted attorneys for Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the state and its allies asked this three-judge panel on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the sweeping health law known as “Obamacare,” a legal means to a political end that has eluded conservatives for the better part of a decade.

Texas won a major victory in its bid to end the law in December, when a federal district judge in North Texas sided with the state, declaring that the law is unconstitutional in its entirety after Congress in 2017 gutted one of its important provisions, a tax penalty for individuals who chose to remain uninsured. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a highly unusual move, has declined to defend the law.

A California-led coalition of blue states that has stepped in to oppose Texas in the lawsuit quibbles with that question of “severability,” arguing that even if one slice of the law must fall as unconstitutional, its other hundreds of provisions — including a host of popular patient protections — should stand. The question of how much of the law may rightly be salvaged was a focal point of court discussions on Tuesday.

Texas’ odds of total vindication remain in question after nearly two hours of questions before the three judges.

Most of the unusually-large courtroom audience of journalists and interested but unaffiliated attorneys focused on Elrod at the center. By far the most vocal judge of the three, Elrod probed both sides on the issue of standing — whether they have the right to participate in the lawsuit at all. And she seemed highly focused on her court’s options for ordering a remedy, seeming to weigh options for sending the case back to a lower court for further consideration.

Engelhardt, who is among the newest appointees to the court, was harsh and occasionally sarcastic, asking more questions of the blue state coalition than he did of the Texas-led team. He seemed skeptical of the standing of both the California-led coalition and the Democratic-majority U.S. House of Representatives, which intervened in the case although the Republican-majority U.S. Senate did not.

The Senate, Engelhardt remarked, “is sort of the 800 lb. gorilla that’s not in the room.”

King, meanwhile, did not speak at all.

See here and here for the background. The legal basis of this lawsuit is so ridiculous that anything short of tossing it and its lawyers out of court is insufficient, but given where we are I could find a way to live with the idea of sending it back to the idiot district court judge for reconsideration. I fear we’ll get some kind of split-the-baby decision that strikes down parts of the law but leaves some crippled skeleton of it intact, which dumbass pundits will then call a “moderate compromise”, in the same way that the midpoint between “I murder you and burn down your house” and “I leave you alone” is a moderate compromise. Not much to do at this point but wait and work your ass off voting these morons out in 2020. NBC News, CNN, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, and Think Progress have more.

Some Census shenanigans short-circuited

The head, it spins.

In a scalding order that called the Justice Department’s motion to change lawyers “patently deficient,” a federal judge in Manhattan on Tuesday blocked the move by the Justice Department to withdraw several of its attorneys from the census citizenship question case in New York.

With the exception of two DOJ lawyers who are withdrawing from the case because they have left their position at the Justice Department altogether, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman is not letting the other attorneys withdraw because the department failed to provide “satisfactory reasons” for their exit from the case.

“Defendants provide no reasons, let alone ‘satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel,” Furman said. Furman said that the government’s vague claim in its withdrawal motion that it did not expect the withdrawal to cause disruption to the proceedings was “not good enough, particularly given the circumstances of this case.”

[…]

“As this Court observed many months ago, this case has been litigated on the premise — based ‘in no small part’ on Defendants’ own ‘insist[ence]’ — that the speedy resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims is a matter of great private and public importance,” Furman said in his order Tuesday. “If anything, that urgency — and the need for efficient judicial proceedings — has only grown since that time.”

The Department of Justice has not offered many details as to why it was shaking up its legal team, prompting speculation that the career attorneys were not comfortable with the direction the administration was going in trying to get the question re-added.

In comments to the press on Monday Attorney General Bill Barr said that he could “understand if they’re interested in not participating in this phase.” But he also said he did not know the details as to why they were exiting the case.

On Tuesday, Furman raked the Justice Department over the coals for its failures to meet the procedural requirements for replacing its attorneys.

See here for some background, though note that that post is primarily about the Maryland case, while this is about the New York case. I could not tell if there was a similar effort by the attorneys in that case to withdraw. This all happened in a hurry, from the initial announcement to the pushback by the plaintiffs, to the judge’s order. What happens next is anyone’s guess, for both cases. Remember, the whole reason why SCOTUS took this case when it did was because the Trump administration insisted they needed to have everything resolved by the end of June to have enough time to actually do the Census. So much for that. How big a chump does Donald Trump think John Roberts is? We’re about to find out. A copy of the judge’s order is here, and Daily Kos and Politico have more.

UPDATE: The Maryland judge has also rejected a request for the Justice Department attorneys to withdraw, though he will allow the request to be re-submitted.

Ed Emmett is not a fan of SB2

So he opines.

Ed Emmett

At its core, SB 2 continues state leaders’ war against local governments. For years local governments have had to make up for the state’s underfunding of public education. But the state’s top elected officials, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, didn’t want the public to understand that those state budget decisions were the main reason property taxes were going up. So they criticized city and county policies.

In its final form, SB 2 limits revenue growth from property taxes for cities and counties to 3.5 percent annually. School districts are limited to 2.5 percent, although implementation for school districts is delayed for two years so that for now, the state won’t have to pay an even higher share.

The bill fails to recognize that Texas counties differ widely, so an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approach is bad policy for a county such as Harris, where almost 2 million people live in the unincorporated part of the county and so rely on county government to provide roads, flood control, parks and other infrastructure — as well as law enforcement.

To make matters worse, the state has saddled counties with unfunded mandates, particularly in criminal justice and courts. The bond rating agencies have already issued warnings that the legislation might cause Texas local governments’ credit ratings to be downgraded, which will increase the amount of interest that taxpayers pay.

So when county services or infrastructure lag behind growth, don’t blame county government. Blame the state officials who supported SB 2.

Beyond the impact on local governments, SB 2 is actually bad for homeowners because it keeps in place a complicated, convoluted property tax system. The big winners from the so-called property tax reform are property tax consultants and their clients.

It is not a coincidence that the author of SB 2, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, makes his living as a property tax consultant. Bettencourt even had the audacity to advertise his services on the radio during the legislative session while SB 2 was being considered.

Sick burn, y’all. There sure is a certain freedom in not having to run for re-election. Emmett is of course correct about the main purpose of SB2, but let’s not overlook the side benefit.

The lawsuit to kill Obamacare has its hearing at the Fifth Circuit today

Brace yourselves.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Last year, after a federal judge in Texas declared the entirety of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, throwing into question millions of Americans’ health coverage, the state’s Republican leaders promised they would come up with a plan to replace it.

But on Tuesday, after a legislative session that seemed to have no room for issues other than property tax reform and school finance, Texas will ask a federal appeals court in New Orleans to end the law in its entirety — without offering a replacement plan.

The conservative crusade against portions of the act, known as Obamacare, has spanned a decade. But Texas’ latest lawsuit, filed in February 2018, became an existential threat to the law after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled in December that it is unconstitutional in its entirety. At stake: the subsidized health coverage of roughly 1 million Texans, sweeping protections for patients with preexisting conditions, young adults staying on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26 and a host of low-cost benefits available to all people with health insurance, including those covered through their employers.

Texas already has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.

In a highly unusual — if not entirely surprising — move, the U.S. Department of Justice has declined to defend the federal law, leaving a California-led coalition of blue states to protect it. As the case proceeds, Obamacare has remained in place, and likely will until the litigation is finally resolved.

Attorneys for the state of Texas argue the health law cannot stand since the Republican-led Congress in 2017 zeroed out Obamacare’s individual mandate — a penalty imposed on people who chose to remain uninsured. Democrats had favored the penalty as a way to induce more people to purchase health insurance, with the goal of reaching near-universal coverage. Without it, Texas argues, the whole law must fall.

But the state’s Republican leaders have offered few ideas about what should replace Obamacare, a law that touches practically every aspect of health care regulations and includes several popular protections for patients. Gov. Greg Abbott — a vocal critic of the law — pledged in December that if the law remained struck down on appeal, “Texas will be ready with replacement health care insurance that includes coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

Since then, he’s been quiet on the issue, including during this year’s 140-day Texas legislative session. Abbott did not respond to questions for this story.

See here for the background. And of course Greg Abbott doesn’t have a single thing to say about reducing the extremely high uninsured rate in Texas. That’s because Abbott’s plan to reduce the uninsured in Texas, supported by Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and the rest of the Republicans, is for more of them to die. Just as a reminder, Republicans have been in complete control of Texas government since 2003. Not once during that time have they taken any steps to improve access to health care in the state. Indeed, on multiple occasions, beginning in 2003 with the savage cuts to CHIP and continuing through their assault on women’s health via attacks on Planned Parenthood, they have time and time again make accessing health care harder. That’s what is at stake here. The only fix, regardless of the ruling in this case, is to vote them out. The WaPo, the Chron, and Think Progress have more.

TxDOT wants H-GAC to commit money to the I-45 project

I don’t understand this.

To demonstrate local support for the mega-project, the Texas Department of Transportation is asking the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, the committee that doles out state and federal money controlled by local officials, to commit $100 million to the central 3-mile portion of the freeway rebuild, from Interstate 10 to Loop 610. State officials would cover the remainder of the $1.22 billion cost, or around 91 percent of the total.

If approved this month by the transportation council, the money would not move from HGAC to TxDOT until construction begins, estimated around early 2024. The more immediate effect would be showing support for the increasingly controversial project, and would be reflected in upcoming plans. Further, it would be $100 million that local officials could not direct elsewhere in a region rife with road improvement needs.

Committing the money would have no effect on projects already planned and funded, officials said.

During a June 28 discussion about the project and about whether to commit the money, members of the transportation council were divided. Despite years of community meetings and redesigns of the project, some on the council thought the I-45 plans lack solutions for some of the problems critics identified.

“My concern is we are forced to stick our neck out and put a down payment on a house we have not seen,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

[…]

Pass up the commitment, transportation officials said, and the state could send its money elsewhere.

“If this would not go forward,” Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT in Houston said of the state funding offer, “I don’t know when we would have the money to go forward.”

The transportation council is scheduled to meet July 26 and is poised to decide on the money then, though officials could choose to delay. The state’s long-range plan, to be unveiled during a public meeting in Austin that will be streamed online, is set for approval in August. State officials could amend it if Houston-area leaders balk at committing the region’s share.

I have questions.

1. Is this normal? Has TxDOT ever asked any other regional transportation agency to kick in local funds like this? “Local” is a bit misleading – I think what TxDOT is asking is for HGAC to commit $100 million of future grants, which come from state and federal sources, to this part of the I-45 project. My question stands, though – is this something TxDOT has ever done before? If yes, then what were the circumstances and how did it go? If no, why now?

2. What is this money for? I recognize that the I-45 project plans have not been finalized, so a high-level answer is the best we can do. My point here is about whether this money is for the actual highway construction or some ancillary things? I’m not even sure what that would mean, so any clarification would be helpful.

3. What exactly happens if HGAC says “nah, we’re good”? Clearly we can’t answer this without knowing the answer to #2, but at a high level, does this mean there would be some piece of this project that wouldn’t get done, or does it actually threaten the project as a whole? I have a hard time believing that, which brings me back to the question of why TxDOT is making this request. I can’t help but think the answer here is that the project will happen regardless, but there would be some petty repercussions down the line if we locals don’t play ball.

I’m sure there are more questions, but I think that’s a good start. My firm position on this is No until we get some answers.

David Temple re-trial is now underway

I continue to be fascinated by this.

It’s 1999 in Katy, Texas.

A seemingly perfect couple is falling apart at the seams. David Temple, a high school football coach, is having an affair with a beautiful teacher on campus. His wife, a beloved special education instructor, is becoming anxious. She’s also eight months pregnant.

It was an act of disloyalty, David Temple’s attorneys conceded with opposing state prosecutors. The legal parties disagree, however, on the events of Jan. 11, when Belinda Temple was found shot to death in the closet of her master bedroom.

Lawyers began to reconstruct the murder of Belinda Temple for Harris County jurors on Monday, launching testimony for her husband’s second criminal trial in 12 years. Unlike the first trial, when jurors found David Temple guilty in the killing – a decision that was later overturned by an appeals court – attorneys were tasked with making the panel understand a story from another era.

“We’re going to go back in time,” David Temple’s attorney, Stanley Schneider, began his opening argument on Monday. “We’re going to hear a story of betrayal, two betrayals.”

The lawyer told jurors that while the defendant was unfaithful to his wife, law enforcement also betrayed citizens by operating with “tunnel vision” in the case, which rocked the Katy area in the early 2000s and has maintained a hold in the county ever since.

[…]

“There was only one person on this Earth who had the motive, the means and the opportunity to cause her death,” said Lisa Tanner, a state prosecutor re-trying the case in lieu of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which recused itself after the initial verdict was reversed. Investigators didn’t charge anyone with the crime at first but had questions about Temple’s account, Tanner said. The family’s dog was aggressive and made it difficult for police officers to even gain entry into the yard, making them wonder how a burglar could have made it past. The break-in also seemed staged, Tanner said, as evidenced by the location of broken glass on the floor.

Surveillance videos located Temple being where he said he was on two instances, but the videos are separated by a nearly 45-minute gap, Tanner said.

See here for the background and here for all posts. Again, I don’t have anything to add. We just don’t see many re-trials like this, especially in cases where the original prosecutors had been found to have withheld possibly exculpatory evidence. We’ll never know the answer to the questiof what might have happened if they had played by the rules back then, but we’ll see what happens now that this evidence is known to all. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Another cure for partisan redistricting

From the Brennan Center, written before SCOTUS lit a match to judicial remedies for partisan redistricting, and even more relevant now.

Congressional redistricting is broken. In most states, districts are drawn by partisan lawmakers, and the manipulation of district boundaries for partisan or other discriminatory purposes is rife, with communities of color being amongst the hardest hit. While courts can provide a remedy, litigation is often slow and costly. This allows discriminatory maps to sometimes remain in place for years while court cases and the inevitable appeals run their course. But H.R. 1, the broad and historic democracy reform bill passed by the House in March, offers some smart, comprehensive ideas that would make the redistricting process fairer and more transparent.

This would of course require three things: Democratic control of the Presidency and both chambers of Congress, discarding the filibuster so Mitch McConnell can’t block it, and then hoping that SCOTUS doesn’t decide that, well, actually, Congress can’t do any of the things that HR1 enables. In that case, a little court-packing, or at least the sufficient threat of it, may do the trick. The first is within our power, the latter two may be as well. First things first, though.