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March 13th, 2017:

Is there some fretting about Mayor Turner?

Maybe? I don’t know. I guess it depends on how you define “fretting”.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The resignation of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s top deputy – a social justice advocate and one of the mayor’s few confidants in a sea of senior staff appointed by the previous mayor – is fueling worry among aides and allies about the administration’s commitment to the progressive policy goals on which he campaigned.

Turner for months has downplayed his unusual decision to entrust much of the implementation and communication of his policies to his predecessor’s staff, urging focus on big-ticket accomplishments, such as bringing a pension reform deal to the state legislature, soothing tempers on City Council and closing last year’s $160 million budget gap.

However, chief of staff Alison Brock’s departure just 15 months into Turner’s term has stoked renewed angst among supporters who think Turner has not championed the progressive platform for which they worked to get him elected.

“We’re a little concerned, because she was that voice at the table, so we were confident our concerns were being heard,” said Tarsha Jackson of the Texas Organizing Project. “Now, we’re just hopeful the mayor gets someone that shares his vision, the vision that he had when he ran for office. We don’t have an ally in the mayor’s office right now.”

Jackson, who met and befriended Brock in 2004 when she was Turner’s legislative aide, said TOP’s attempts to reform city economic development policies have stalled, despite Brock’s support.

Labor leader Linda Morales said the same of her efforts to push an ordinance asking city contractors to provide better wages, community engagement and job training.

“Labor wants to be a partner with the mayor,” she said. “We want him to speak to his staff and get on the program with us because it’s his agenda we’re trying to push.”

Turner distinguished himself as a candidate on such issues, calling for a higher minimum wage and pushing the city to require recipients of tax incentives to pay higher salaries. He also decried Houston’s economic inequality, stressing the need to “build a city for the middle class.”

Despite maintaining similar rhetoric in office, the mayor has hesitated to bring forward sweeping progressive policy proposals. His much-hyped “Complete Communities” plan aimed at revitalizing Houston’s under-served neighborhoods, for example, still awaits implementation. As for employee benefits, the city passed an ordinance last year suggesting companies seeking tax breaks offer additional benefits but did not require them to do so.

“The mayor is being cautious, in my opinion maybe too cautious. He’s got issues he wants to pass at the state Legislature, so he’s trying to make his way through the land mines without having folks hurt his possibility of passing pension reform,” said Morales, of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. “I understand that totally, but there’s other things I know, as a collective, progressives want to move.”

The mayor bristled at any perception of sluggish progress.

“Compare my track record with any previous mayor, and if they did as much. Name me one mayor in the last 20 years that has brought forth a pension reform package to this point. … Name me one mayor that has attended more events than I have,” Turner told reporters. “Even though I came in on a very close vote, I have governed in a very uniform, universal fashion.”

Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer largely agreed.

“Other than (former Mayor Bob) Lanier, he’s probably the most successful first-term mayor I’ve seen,” said Aiyer, who served as former mayor Lee Brown’s chief of staff.

I get Tarsha Jackson and Linda Morales’ concerns. Mayor Turner did run a progressive campaign, and he did talk about a lot of non-pension things. To be fair, that was in part because the other guy was talking about it more than enough for everyone. Mayor Turner was always going to have to deal with that, and I feel like lots of things are sort of waiting in the wings until a pension bill gets through the Legislature. (Assuming one does; if that doesn’t happen, it’s hard to say what comes next.) That was basically the theme of look back at Year One story on the Mayor. I think it’s fair to say that if he gets a win on this big issue, it not only restores a lot of oxygen for everything else, it gives him some momentum and capital to push for things that will generate significant political opposition, which includes a lot of the agenda Jackson and Morales are hoping to see get enacted.

I recognize that it sucks to hear that these progressive items that Mayor Turner campaigned on have to wait. It’s far from the first time that has been the message, and I’m sure Jackson and Morales have lost count of the number of times they have heard it. I don’t know what else to suggest other than if you think Mayor Turner is still basically the same person as Candidate Turner was, you’ll need to have faith that he will do as he said he would. Easy for me to say, I know. The other thing I could add is that given the anti-local control nature of this legislative session, there are strategic reasons for waiting till after sine die to roll out a plan for an increased minimum wage or the like. Again, I know what that sounds like. Jackson and Morales clearly understand how and why things are. A little reminder to the Mayor that they’re still here seems like a reasonable strategy. A press release from the Mayor in response to this story is here.

Bill to restore some budget flexibility filed

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences Act of 2017.

The Texas House’s chief budget writer filed legislation Friday that would allow lawmakers to claw back billions of dollars that voters approved for state highways, freeing them up for other budget needs.

Texans overwhelmingly voted in 2015 to boost funding for the state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under a growing population. Proposition 7 amended the Texas Constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed a resolution Friday that would cut that initial cash infusion, aiming to free up money at a time when cash is tight.

House Concurrent Resolution 108 could cut the first transfer under Proposition 7 of nearly $5 billion in half, but only if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate support such a move.

It’s a prospect made possible by what some lawmakers have called a “safety valve” in Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that the Legislature approved in 2015 to send Proposition 7 to voters later that year.

See here for the background. I don’t expect this to pass – I really don’t think two thirds of the Senate will go for it – but I will be very amused if it does. Whether this is more or less likely to happen than tapping the Rainy Day Fund is now something we can test empirically. If nothing else, that’s a victory for science.

Why shouldn’t court records be made available online?

Seems clear to me that they should. What’s the case against?

Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, has noticed a curious trend in the state’s legal system: Folks are increasingly representing themselves in legal disputes, forgoing lawyers altogether.

“They really need legal help, but they don’t feel like they can afford it,” Hecht said.

But ditching a lawyer doesn’t make justice free. Obtaining legal records can be a big hurdle — time away from work, trips to a courthouse that may be far from home and copying fees that can run a dollar per page for documents that often run hundreds of pages.

“We’re talking about tens of thousands of people for whom getting a court record is probably impossible, at least practically,” said Hecht, who has long sought to help poor Texans navigate the legal system.

That’s just one reason he’s excited about efforts to deliver court records from all 254 counties to Texans’ fingertips through an online portal. Some urban counties — Dallas, Harris, Travis and Tarrant, for instance — individually put their records online. But scores of other counties rely only on old-fashioned paper, necessitating trips to the courthouse and making statewide research next to impossible.

The Texas Supreme Court, through its Office of Court Administration, has worked for years on a one-stop legal records shop. Called re:SearchTX, the project is coming out in phases, with plans to eventually provide widespread public access.

The Office of Court Administration last September extended a contract with Tyler Technologies, a Plano-based company that already has integrated every Texas county into a filing system allowing attorneys to electronically send documents to the clerks. Under that four-year $72 million extension, Tyler would keep that system running through 2021 and eventually open it to the public.

The public portal would be funded through fees that attorneys pay to use the system. It would function like PACER, a widely used federal portal that charges subscribers small fees for access.

“It’s just crucial,” Hecht said. “It’s important for transparency. The media and the public at large have a very fundamental interest in the public justice system.”

But county and district clerks are fuming. They’re pushing to kill the project in a wonky battle involving local control and privacy concerns, multimillion-dollar contracts and confusion about how the portal would ultimately work.

“Clerks have been doing this forever,” Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder said last week at rollicking meeting of the Judicial Committee on Information Technology, which advises the state Supreme Court. “It’s a duplication of effort.”

If the records get breached, he later told a reporter, “it’s our ass.”

At least 168 counties have adopted resolutions opposing re:SearchTX. They’ve found friendly ears in a Legislature that often shrugs off arguments for more local control on other issues, such as oil and gas drilling and penalizing polluters.

Court records are public documents, and they should be available online. That doesn’t mean they need to be unsecured or indexed by Google – it’s fine to require a logon account with a verifiable password to view records – but the days of having to trek to a District Clerk’s office to retrive paper files, for which one needs to pay a per-page printing fee, need to be over. I’m sympathetic to Clerk Wilder’s position, so if a county has already digitized its court records, that should be sufficient. It’s the counties that haven’t taken this basic step that need to be brought into re:SearchTX. Of course, one reason why many of those counties are reluctant to do so, and why HB1258 has been filed to kill the data project, is because these counties make money retrieving and printing those paper files. Sorry, y’all, but that’s not a good enough reason to lag behind the times. Justice Hecht is correct. Court records should be available online. If a county isn’t already doing that and has no plans to do it in the short-term future, they should be made to participate in re:SearchTX.

Let’s have a study of that hog apocalypse first

Maybe we should figure out what the effects of poisoning feral hogs might be before we start poisoning them.

Two bills from Texas lawmakers — state Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin — would require state agency or university research before the use of lethal pesticides on wild pigs.

The legislation comes after outcry from Texas hog hunters and meat processors over state approval of a new feral hog poison called Kaput, which they say would hurt their businesses and contaminate other game animals and livestock. A state judge issued a temporary restraining order against the rule on March 2. Wild Boar Meat, the Hubbard-based company that sued to stop use of the poison, processes hog meat to sell to pet food companies.

Kaput contains a chemical called Warfarin, which at varying concentrations is used as a rat poison and a blood thinner in humans. It causes hogs that consume it to die of internal bleeding, a process that takes four to seven days.

House Bill 3451 and Senate Bill 1454, both filed this week, would require scientific studies of the poison to include controlled field trials and assess the economic consequences to the state’s property owners, hunters, and agriculture industry.

[…]

When Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced a state rule change in February that allowed the use of Kaput — which the Environmental Protection Agency approved for feral hog control earlier this year — he called the poison a “long overdue” solution to the extensive damage the wild pigs cause every year.

“The ‘Hog Apocalypse’ may finally be on the horizon,” said Miller, who as a state legislator passed a measure known as the “pork-chopper bill” that allowed the hunting of hogs by helicopter in 2011.

The department has defended the new rule, saying it imposes licensing restrictions to protect against misuse of the poison.

See here for the background. On the one hand, it’s long been clear that hunting the hogs, even with no restrictions or bag limits and even from helicopters, will never be enough to slow down the population growth. Warfarin is approved by the EPA, and it just might work. On the other hand, it’s hard to take seriously any claim by Sid Miller that’s he’s being a careful and conscientious steward of the environment. On balance, I’d say it’s better to be a bit more deliberate with this.