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March 8th, 2017:

The bathroom bill is still terrible (and still about bathrooms)

I don’t care what they do to it. It’s discriminatory, it solves no problems, and it will hurt many people as well as the state’s reputation and economy.

With the measure scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday, Texas Republicans are expected to offer a new version of the controversial “bathroom bill” with two significant changes.

The modified bill removes a section that would have increased penalties for certain crimes committed in a bathroom or changing facility, according to a copy of a committee substitute obtained by The Texas Tribune. It also adds a new “legislative findings” section that would write into statute the reasoning that the bill’s lead author, Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, has provided in pushing for the bill.

Senate Bill 6 would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities that match their “biological sex.” The measure would also pre-empt local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender residents to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

Those regulations are largely unchanged in the substitute language expected to be presented tomorrow, but the modified bill does not include a lesser-known section that would have increased penalties for certain crimes in bathrooms by one degree. That would have meant that the punishment for an individual who commits an assault, for example, would have been higher if the assault occurred in a bathroom versus a parking lot or on a sidewalk.

Here’s a report from the committee hearing, for which something like 400 people had signed up to testify. There was of course plenty of bathroom talk, but some of it went like this:

The tone of the hearing shifted slightly when Rev. S. David Wynn, the lead pastor of the Agape Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Worth, sat down to testify before the committee.

A transgender man sporting a full beard and a black suit, Wynn detailed the complications he would face under SB 6. Because the gender marker on his birth certificate still reads “female,” the legislation would require him to go into the same restroom as young girls while visiting government buildings like the state Capitol.

“There’s been a lot of conversation, too, about having men in the women’s bathroom,” Wynn said. “And I guarantee you there’s going to be a problem if I show up in a woman’s bathroom.”

I’ve still yet to hear Dan Patrick or Lois Kolkhorst or any other supporter of this travesty answer why they want the Rev. Wynn or people like Mack Beggs or any other transgender man in the state to be in women’s bathrooms. I mean, they can’t answer it, so they do their best to avoid the question. You will have to ask yourself why this is. If there is one good thing to come out of this mess, it’s that it has really fired up the trans community and their loved ones.

The strategy has also shifted to making this all about imposing a specific and narrow “Christian” morality on the population. It’s the anti-HERO playbook, right down to the lies and the utter perversion of religious faith. The pastors who are out there now saying things like “we’re attacking, ‘Did God really create us male and female?’” were saying things like “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” twenty years ago. Patrick and his acolytes have no answers for the business community. The only message he will ever understand is an electoral message. We need the business community, which by the way also opposes Patrick’s cherished SB4, to remember that next year. In he meantime, SB6 was passed out of committee late last night and will be taken up by the full Senate next week. RG Ratcliffe, the Observer, and Think Progress have more.

Bail practices lawsuit gets going

The first day in court for this lawsuit was Monday.

Neal S. Manne, a managing partner at Susman Godfrey, told Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in his opening statement Monday that ODonnell and hundreds of other poor people charged with minor crimes do not get a fair chance to win pretrial release here if they can’t afford to pay a bondsman.

He lauded the recent bail reforms the county has begun and those it plans to install, but he said none address the basic constitutional questions of equal protection under the law.

“If you have money, you can get out. If you don’t, you can’t,” Manne said. “That’s what we’re here about.”

The opening statements took on a question-and-answer format as Rosenthal peppered the lawyers with dozens of sharp questions and hypothetical arrest scenarios trying to get at the truth of how bail works here.

Melissa Lynn Spinks, who is heading the defense team on behalf of the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the premise that Harris County has a wealth-based bail system is “a woefully simplistic argument.”

“The defense believes there is a category of high-risk defendants that we simply can’t ignore,” she said, explaining that hearing judges weigh several factors in setting bail.

Four other attorneys representing the judges, the sheriff and the county presented a preview of their arguments, interrupted by lively questioning from the judge.

Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction against the county to force immediate changes in the bail process. There’s no monetary award being sought, just changes to the system. It’s not clear to me what the timeline is, so we’ll just have to follow along and see. In the meantime, as we know there have been some changes made that will address some of these issues, but there’s more that needs to be done. Grits for Breakfast quotes an email from UH law professor Sandra Guerra Thompson that begins with a discussion of two bail reform bills that have been filed in the Lege and then moves on to this lawsuit as a case in point.

Ending Pretrial Punishment. If your loved one is arrested tomorrow in Texas, he or she will almost certainly be required to pay money to get out of jail. For most people who cannot pay the entire amount of the bail set, the only viable way to get out of jail is by making a non-refundable payment to a bondsman. This amounts to punishment, a fine, without proof of guilt. As someone who has paid bail money to get a cousin out of jail in Houston, I will tell you that it feels very much like pretrial punishment. The same troubled cousin was later arrested in Austin where judges have implemented a risk-based system, and he was released on a PR bond within a few hours. This use of PR bonds, based on a validated risk assessment, is what the bail bill would implement. The vast majority of people arrested are low-level, low-risk people who should be promptly released on PR bonds upon a finding that they are safe to be released. Rather than pay for a bail bond, they can use their money to pay for an attorney so the county doesn’t have to appoint one at taxpayer expense.

[…]

Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . Houston officials defend the indefensible. Litigants have challenged the money bail system in Harris County, the state’s largest and deeply intransigent jurisdiction. The trial started today, March 6th. The litigation shake-up, combined with the election of reform-minded officials, has already brought some progress. Remarkably, the District Attorney Kim Ogg, following the lead of the Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, recently filed an amicus brief siding with the plaintiffs who are suing the county’s misdemeanor judges (see attached brief). So far, the county refuses to budge from its stance supporting the use of money bail, even though the system has been shown to be arbitrary, wasteful, cruel, and dangerous. The county’s lawyers went so far as to make the ludicrous statement that some people are in jail because they prefer to be there!

Holding tight to the Bail Schedule. To deflect the criticisms, Harris County officials have agreed to do everything short of getting rid of the bail schedule. Last month, they touted the implementation of the Arnold Foundation risk assessment instrument, which would be important if the judges were actually planning to make decisions based on risk assessments rather than simply following bail schedules. They have no plans to do away with money bail, and that is why the county has been unable to settle the lawsuit.

Here are other “baby steps” that Harris County has made, while desperately clinging to the money bail system. After years of feet-dragging, county officials have finally agreed to provide people with public defenders at bail hearings as part of a pilot project. (I will never understand why a “pilot project” is necessary. By what measure will they evaluate whether it is a good idea to give people access to a fair defense at bail hearings? Keep in mind that prosecutors have participated at these hearings for many years. That’s right—the county has held one-sided hearings with a prosecutor and magistrate, but no one to speak for the jailed person!)

To its credit, the county has started several programs to reduce the number of people in jail: the District Attorney’s policy to“legalize” of small amounts of pot, a “reintegration court” to get minor offenders out of the jail quickly, and very modest efforts to get the seriously mentally ill out of the jail and into treatment facilities. All of these programs are welcome and long-overdue, but they are not bail reform.

And that is what this lawsuit is about, for Harris County. For the state of Texas, that action is in the Legislature, and you should click over to Grits to learn more. I’ll be keeping an eye on the trial.

House releases school finance fix bill

A step in the right direction.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The top public education policymaker in the Texas House unveiled a $1.6 billion plan on Monday that he described as a first step to overhauling the state’s beleaguered school funding system.

At a Capitol press conference, state Rep. Dan Huberty said House Bill 21 would boost per-student funding for nearly every public and charter school in the state while reducing the amount of money wealthier school districts are required to give up to buoy poorer ones. The state’s so-called Robin Hood plan has become a hot-button political issue as large districts like Houston have recently had to begin making payments.

“House Bill 21 will not only improve our schools but it will also reduce the need for higher property taxes,” said Huberty, a Houston Republican who chairs of the House Public Education Committee.

[…]

He said HB 21 would increase the basic funding for almost all school districts from $5,140 to $5,350 per student per year. That would happen in part through an increase in transportation funding by $125 per student for all school districts, including property-wealthy districts that currently have limited access to that money.

It also would increase the amount of money the state gives to schools for students with dyslexia. And it would include additional funding for high schools and non-professional staff.

Huberty estimated it would lower payments that property-wealthy school districts pay to the state to subsidize property-poor school districts by $163 million in 2018 and $192 million in 2019. As the state’s share of school funding has decreased, more school districts with swelling enrollment are on the hook for such Robin Hood payments.

The bill is similar to an unsuccessful school finance initiative filed in 2015 that would’ve injected twice as much money into the system — $3 billion — and boosted per-student funding across the board. Still, $1.6 billion is a significant sum amid the current budget crunch.

This bill had a hearing yesterday as well, and despite being overshadowed by the sound and fury of the bathroom bill hearing, there was a report about it.

The bill would inject about $1.6 billion into the public education system, boosting funding for almost every school district in the state although a few would be left out. It also wouldn’t renew a soon-expiring program that awards supplemental state funds to more than 150 districts to offset a decade-old property tax cut — a major concern for education officials who depend on the funding. A provision in the bill that would award some grant money to make up for the loss isn’t enough, they told the committee Tuesday.

“My districts are going to lose,” said Mike Motheral, executive director of the Texas Small Rural School Finance Coalition. He said he represents 14 West Texas school districts that could lose up as much as 53 percent of their state revenue with the end of the state aid program.

“One of my districts will lose $4.5 million and they have a $10.5 million budget,” he said.

When the Legislature reduced property taxes by a third in 2006, it guaranteed school districts like the ones Motheral represents at least the same amount of funding they received in 2005-06 through a state aid initiative. The extra aid expires Sept. 1, so many districts have been asking for an extension to avoid falling off a funding cliff. About 156 school districts currently receive such aid.

As written, the bill proposes letting the initiative providing extra state aid expire and instituting a $100 million two-year grant program, prioritizing districts that would lose money through the new funding formulas. That’s not enough to cushion the blow, school officials told the committee Tuesday.

[…]

Numbers released Monday along with the bill show that about 35 of the state’s 1,200 school districts and charters would lose funding in 2018 and 58 would lose funding in 2019. The rest would see basic funding increase from $5,140 to $5,350 per student annually thanks to an increase in transportation funding and more money for students with dyslexia.

Many school officials and advocates who testified on the bill Tuesday said it leaves too many behind.

“We want a bill that has no losers,” said Christy Rome, executive director of Texas School Coalition, which represents mostly wealthier school districts.

Here’s HB21. I agree with Christy Rome and Mike Motheral. There shouldn’t be any losers in this. As much as HISD and the other districts affected by recapture should be made right, it should not come at the effect of these other districts. The right answer is the put enough money in to fix the formulas. Easy to say, and Lord only knows what kind of reception this gets in the Senate. But this is what it comes down to, and what needs to happen. The Chron has more.

We have an opponent for Commissioner Morman

From the inbox:

Miguel Leija

DEMOCRAT MIGUEL LEIJA JR. ANNOUNES CANDIDACY

For Harris County Commissioner Pct. 2

Houston, TX, March 6, 2017 Harris County is the most populous county in Texas and the third-most populous county in the United States with the fourth largest city in the United States.   It is known for its sports, ports and people. Our county is a centrally located place so many have come to raise a family, build a business and spend the best years of their lives.

I’m Miguel Leija Jr. and I’m running for Harris County Commissioner Pct. 2 because I want Harris County to be known as a place of opportunity.

We are at a pivotal place; will we continue to choose to only react to problems and simply make the quick fix or will we be proactive and cast a positive vision for the future of our County and maximize our opportunities over the next 10 to 20 years.

I believe the choice is clear and the time is now and my agenda is clear and focused.

First, we must prioritize with our budget and leadership the most important objective of government and that is Public Safety. We must protect our citizens by creating policies that protect our community no matter their legal status.  We will not be the county that tears families apart.

Second, if we are going to thrive and grow as a community we must commit to investing in our infrastructure and roads by anticipating growth; not merely reacting to it.  We will study where the population growth is and us innovation ways to combat heavy traffic.

Third, county government should create a consistent and predictable business environment when it comes to taxes; keeping taxes low allows all business, small and large to create jobs and to grow and succeed. We also need to impose a higher tax on refineries and put more regulation on these types of companies that pollute our county.

Fourth, we must provide more community services through our community centers.  We need to change how the community centers operate so we can accommodate new services.

  • Afterschool meals for all children under 18 years old.
  • Free Mental Health Counseling
  • Free individual/Marriage Counseling
  • Medicaid/SNAP application assistance
  • Healthy Precinct 2 Program which will bring gym equipment to all community centers.
  • Harris Health Financial Assistance application assistance
  • Employment and Volunteer opportunities for Senior Citizens.

And fifth, we need to provide our county employees Paid Family Leave. We need to start any new employee and adjust current employees to a $15.00 minimum wage. Our county staff can’t live on a poverty level wage.

Those are the priorities we must set, if we are going to have a county government that is responsive to tax-payers and employees.

That’s why I have invested myself in this community. Because I believe this is the best place to live, work and play. There is so much that is good about Harris County and I believe that together, we can leave this community better for the generations to come.  We will be hosting town halls around the precinct in the next few months so we can build out our platform around the citizen’s needs and not politician’s needs.

I look forward to meeting you as we knock on doors, visit community centers and get a chance to share and listen to your concerns, ideas and solutions.  I hope to earn your support and vote in the months to come. I want to make sure you stay connected to our campaign, make sure to sign-up for updates via email, connect with us via social media and consider making a contribution to fuel this effort.

Leija’s website is here. I have not had a chance to speak with Mr. Leija yet, so all I know about him at this time is in this post. I see three possibilities going forward. One is that Leija raises some money, picks up some establishment support, and positions himself as a strong challenger to Commissioner Jack Morman in what may be the highest profile race in the county next year. Option two is that someone who already has establishment support and fundraising chops gets in at some point in the near-to-medium future, and takes the mantle of top challenger to Morman for him or herself. And three, neither Leija nor any other candidate gains traction against Morman, leaving us with a candidate on the ballot next year but without the resources to really compete. Let’s just say that I’d find door #3 to be unacceptable, and I daresay I would not be alone in that. I welcome Miguel Leija, Jr to the race, and I wish him all the best in his campaign.