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January 28th, 2013:

January finance reports for Harris County offices

For the most part, it’s way too early to start thinking about the 2014 Harris County elections – we have a legislative session and a city election cycle to get through first – but since January 15 is a reporting deadline for county officeholders, I figure I may as well have a peek at who has what. I’m only looking at offices that are up for election in 2014, so here we go.

County Judge Ed Emmett – $151,586 on hand.

Thanks to his graceful under pressure performance during Hurricane Ike and a generally low-key, get-things-done style, County Judge Ed Emmett has been the top-performing Republican candidate in two diametrically opposite elections, the Democratic wave of 2008 and the Republican tsunami of 2014. Assuming there are no similar forces at work next year, Democrats ought to be in pretty good shape countywide – as I’ve noted before, Democratic turnout was pretty decent in 2010 despite the butt-kicking – but if there’s one person I’d expect to prevail on the R side even if there’s a strong wind behind the Dems’ backs, it’s Judge Emmett. Assuming of course that he hasn’t decided by then that he’s had it up to here with all this stuff and makes a beeline for the private sector, in which case I’d expect a jumble of Dems lining up to run for this spot. I’m sure someone will run regardless, but barring anything unforeseen I’d make Judge Emmett the favorite going in.

County Clerk Stan Stanart – $16,869 on hand

Outside of the big three – County Judge, District Attorney, and Sheriff – countywide offices don’t draw much fundraising attention, so don’t read much into these numbers. That said, 2012 wasn’t exactly a stellar year for Stan Stanart. I don’t know how much people will remember that by next year, but as with Don Sumners it ought to provide his opponent (or opponents if he gets primaried) with a fair amount of ammunition. Talk of an elections administrator has predictably died down again, but if it pops back up that will just remind everyone of why we began speaking of it in the first place. Stanart has overseen the relocation of voting machines to a new home, and the county campaign finance reform page sucks somewhat less than it used to, but beyond that I can’t think of any major achievements he’s racked up. (If I’m wrong about that, please correct me in the comments.) Assuming we don’t have an elections administrator by this time next year, I expect Dems to make this race a priority.

District Clerk Chris Daniel – $15,184 on hand

Unlike Stanart, Daniel has had a fairly quiet term as District Clerk. There was a fair amount of griping after Daniel defeated the well-regarded Loren Jackson in the 2010 sweep – Jackson was easily the top Democratic vote-getter that year – but for what it’s worth I haven’t heard any lately. Daniel has overseen the implementation of a new efiling system for pleadings in criminal cases, FREEfax, so he will have that to point to next year. If Daniel loses in 2014, his successor will be the fifth District Clerk since 2007, when then-District Clerk Charles Bacarisse resigned to challenge Ed Emmett in a primary for County Judge. Theresa Chang, now a County Court judge, was appointed to replace Bacarisse; she was defeated by Jackson in 2008, and Jackson was defeated by Daniel in 2010.

County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez – $1,141 on hand.

2014 will be another quadrennial opportunity to wonder just what the heck any Treasurer does in Harris County, and in particular just what it is that Orlando Sanchez, who was first elected in 2006, does. All I can tell you is that he has a delightfully minimalist webpage, and that this finance report does not include an expenditure on “Glamour” magazine.

County Commissioner Jack Cagle – $99,990 on hand.

Cagle was appointed in October of 2011 to replace the felonious Jerry Eversole in Precinct 4. He easily won a three-way primary and the ensuing November election to complete Eversole’s unexpired term; this will be his first election for a full four-year term. I expect he’ll build his campaign treasury up considerably over the next year or so, but it almost doesn’t matter. Barring any Eversole-like behavior on his part, Cagle ought to be able to keep this job for the foreseeable future. Demographic change will eventually make Precinct 4 more competitive in general elections, but there’s at least one more redistricting cycle in between now and that point. He’s in for the long haul.

County Commissioner Jack Morman – $410,078 on hand.

This is, or at least it should be, the main event in Harris County in 2014. Morman’s win in 2010 was fueled mostly by the Republican wave of that year, but as currently drawn, Precinct 2 is highly competitive, with a slight lean towards the GOP. We are still awaiting a ruling in the federal lawsuit over the County’s redistricting plan. A full range of outcomes – a bit more Republican, a bit less Republican, exactly as it is under the interim map that was used last year – is possible for Precinct 2. The first question is who might run against Morman. To some extent, that may be determined by the result in the SD06 special election. Council Member James Rodriguez, whose is term-limited, is known to be interested in HD145 in the event Rep. Carol Alvarado wins a promotion to the Senate, but he has also expressed an interest in Precinct 2. I am certain he will not be the only person looking at this, and I for one will be a bit surprised if there isn’t a spirited Democratic primary for the right to oppose Morman. Demography, the lawsuit, Democratic GOTV efforts, the number of first-time off-year Republican voters from 2010 who decide to make it a habit, and of course the candidates themselves will be among the factors in determining the winner here. Buckle your seatbelts.

HCDE Trustee Jim Henley – No report, since he has not had a campaign fund since 2008 and thus is not required to file these reports
HCDE Trustee Debby Kerner – $774 on hand.

Going into the 2008 election, Republicans held all seven seats on the Harris County Department of Education Board of Trustees. Henley and Kerner’s 2008 wins in At Large seats, coupled with Diane Trautman’s At Large win and Erica Lee’s Precinct 1 win in 2012, transformed the Board into a 4-3 Democratic majority. If nothing else, that should tamp down on any talk about abolishing the agency, as that was something defeated member Michael Wolfe had pushed. HCDE Trustee is a fairly obscure office, with few resources available for candidates, so as with judicial and other low-profile races they are largely determined by partisan preferences. Henley and Kerner’s overperformance in 2008 – both got 52% of the vote – serves as a reminder that downballot dropoff isn’t always uniform. Still, they’ll rise or fall along with the Democratic Party.

Besides Henley and Kerner, there is exactly one more Democratic incumbent slated for the 2014 ballot: First Court of Appeals Judge Jim Sharp, who carried Harris County by a sufficient margin to win a seat on that bench in 2014. Since then, he has drawn attention to himself in a number of nonpositive ways, and as such it would not shock me if he were to face a primary challenge. Beyond that, it’s all Republican judges, and the slate is bigger in non-Presidential years than it is in Presidential years. If Democrats manage to sweep or nearly sweep these races, I can only imagine how loud the call will be in certain quarters to change the way judges are selected; if Republicans mostly or entirely hold on, I figure the subject will be dormant until after the 2016 election. As has been the case since 2008, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Appeals Court races. If Democrats can ever get a foothold on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, they’ll be in much better shape to find candidates for the statewide bench in the future.

Is there a way forward on expanding Medicaid in Texas?

It’s a little hard to know what to make of this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Affordable Care Act is the federal law that Texas Republicans love to hate, but one top lawmaker says expanding health care for the working poor could happen if federal authorities are willing to strike a deal.

Republican Sen. Jane Nelson, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said she hopes the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will allow Texas to receive $27 billion to expand Medicaid. But she said the key is to allow lawmakers to develop a Texas-specific program that will not blow the state’s budget.

“I am still open to anything that will allow us to have the flexibility that we need, and that will also give us the assurance that it’s not going to put us deeper in debt,” Nelson told The Associated Press in an interview.

[…]

Gov. Rick Perry has rejected the Affordable Care Act as an affront on state’s rights and said he wants the federal money with no strings attached in a block grant. The Perryman Group, an independent economic consulting company, estimated that Texas will miss out on $90 billion in increased economic activity and leave at least 1.5 million people uninsured if it does not expand Medicaid.

Nelson said a block grant was not the only way to reach a deal. She said a waiver that would allow the state to develop a tailor-made program within certain federal boundaries might be enough.

[…]

Nelson is among those who want to require some recipients to contribute toward their health care costs — such as paying income-based premiums or co-payments — something federal authorities have until now have rejected under Medicaid. She said Medicaid can also be made more efficient.

Last week Nelson announced legislation intended to make it easier to identify and punish those who defraud the program.

“We’ve got to address these root problems before I will support expanding it,” Nelson said.

Nelson identified Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, as a key player in working toward a deal with federal officials. Coleman has said he supports a limited requirement for some Medicaid patients to pay part of their health care costs, adding that he believes a deal is possible. Health and Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek has said his staff is working with federal authorities to see what’s possible.

I don’t know where that $27 billion figure cited by Sen. Nelson comes from. The number usually thrown around is $100 billion in federal funds for the first decade of expansion. If I had to guess, I’d say the $27 billion is for the first two or three years when the feds are picking up all of the tab; it goes down to 90% reimbursement after that. It would have been nice for the story to be more clear on that. As for the Perryman study, see here for the background.

Beyond that, it’s not clear what kind of plan Nelson has in mind. This is the first I’ve heard of this, and there’s no detail in the story to indicate what Nelson’s basic idea is. It’s true that the Obama administration has been flexible in working with the states on matters relating to the Affordable Care Act, but such flexibility only goes so far. What is the state willing to do to be in compliance with the law? If Rep. Coleman really is on board with this, then I have some optimism that a deal can be made, but let’s get some information first. And unless part of the plan is to get Rick Perry’s assurance that he won’t veto whatever bill gets passed, it’s all a waste of time.

Trace cases to be prosecuted as felonies again

So says our new DA.

DA Mike Anderson

Newly elected Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson said Thursday he will prosecute as felonies drug cases that involve trace amounts of crack cocaine, reversing his predecessor’s stand on the so-called “trace cases.”

“If there is enough evidence to test in a lab, then we’ll take the charges,” Anderson said.

Anderson campaigned on the issue last year after then District Attorney Pat Lykos implemented a policy that treated cases with drug residue of less than 1/100th of a gram as a misdemeanor.

Lykos said her policy ensured that crimes prosecuted as state jail felonies had enough of the illegal drug so an independent lab could test it on behalf of the defendant.

She said it was more fair and noted that it reduced the population in the county’s overcrowded jail system.

[…]

The change was applauded by law enforcement and criticized by one court official on Thursday.

“They are felons, the state has said they are felons and they need to be prosecuted as such,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union. “These persons, these crackheads are the people who are breaking in to motor vehicles to steal your laptop off the front seat, to grab the purse that’s visible, all those things they can sell for $25 to go buy another crack rock.”

He noted that state law is clear and said Lykos ignored it with her policy.

“If the legislators want to make this not a felony, then they can,” Hunt said. “But to say this is a felony and then have a district attorney say they’re not going to enforce state law is not the way elected officials are supposed to act.”

Harris County’s most senior criminal felony judge, Michael McSpadden, disagreed with Anderson’s change.

“I wish he would use his discretion to relieve the great number of cases that I don’t think are proper in felony court,” McSpadden said. “But I understand that the correct way is to address the Legislature.”

As the story notes, Anderson did make an issue of this, so having duly won the nomination and general election we should not be surprised that he is proceeding to do what he said he would do. It would have been nice to have had a debate about this for the general election, but after we Democrats Olivered ourselves, that wasn’t in the cards. Anderson says later in the story that he hopes many of these cases will be resolved by probation, so as not to overcrowd the jails. I hope so, too.

As you know, I agreed with Lykos’ policy on trace cases. You do get into some dicey issues when law enforcement officials start talking about what laws they will and will not enforce – witness all the idiot Sheriffs out there now saying they won’t enforce any new gun laws that they have decided are unconstitutional, because it’s in the Constitution that local law enforcement officials get to make that determination – but DAs do routinely exercise their discretion about what cases to pursue and what cases to move down the priority list. It is true that this is a job for the Legislature to fix, but until they get their act together – and in a 140-day session, they too have to prioritize – there’s a lot of people being needlessly jailed, labeled as felons, and not getting the help they need. This does not serve the public interest, and it puts DAs in this position. I thought Lykos took the right approach, but the point is that she shouldn’t have had to make that decision.

Are you ready for the hipness?

Because ready or not, here it comes.

Hipper than I am, not that this is difficult

A rapper, a ballerina and a host of top chefs are among the locals who will be featured in a new Houston image campaign launching next month.

The $425,000 promotional blitz targeting readers of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and even Cooking Light magazine will feature a number of other artists and performers to capitalize on Houston’s growing reputation as a regional culinary and cultural arts capital, city boosters say.

The “Houston Is” campaign will feature such notables as the rap star Bun B, the Houston Ballet’s Nao Kusuzaki and graffiti artist Gonzo247 in the largest effort of its kind in the city’s history in terms of its national reach, said Holly Clapham, vice president of marketing at the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, the group behind the effort.

The decision to emphasize dining and cultural arts was based on a 2012 study done by global travel research firm TNS, which found that among the cities with which Houston competes most directly for visitors – Dallas/Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and New Orleans – Houston ranks No. 1 in the categories of “variety of dining options” and “cultural/performing arts.”

The print ads feature 32 Houstonians, most of whom are in the restaurant and cultural arts communities, in themed group portraits. The campaign also highlights the city’s ethnic diversity.

We heard about this in December. As I said at the time, I’m pretty sure this effort will be more successful than some previous efforts were. We’ll see how it goes.