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May 6th, 2017:

Saturday video break: Rescue Me

Here’s the Doc Thomas Group:

I have no idea how I got this CD. Maybe it was Tiffany’s, maybe someone gave it to me, whatever the origin was it has been lost to the mists of time. It’s a pretty good cover of the Fontella Bass original, and yes I had to look up who did the original.

I do know that the Madonna song of this name came from one of Tiffany’s CDs:

Must be post-80s Madonna. Still Madonna, just not quite peak Madonna.

Revenue cap will be on the November ballot

Here it comes, assuming the pension reform bill doesn’t get mugged in a dark alley.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask voters to lift Houston’s cap on property tax collections in November, a move that could loosen one of the city’s primary fiscal constraints as it confronts still-hefty pension and debt costs that leave little breathing room to maintain city services.

The referendum would fulfill the mayor’s pledge to try to overturn the revenue cap if he succeeded in reforming Houston’s pension systems.

“Repealing the revenue cap means a better credit rating for Houston and lower costs for taxpayers when we finance improvements to the city buildings, parks and libraries that serve our neighborhoods, aging fleet, bad streets, illegal dumping and deferred maintenance,” Turner told an audience of 1,400 Thursday at his annual State of the City address. “We must achieve sustainable structural budget balance by making sure that our recurring income is equal to or more than our recurring expenses, and in fact, we must always seek ways to reduce our expenses.”

[…]

Houston’s pension reform deal as passed by the Senate includes a requirement that voters approve the $1 billion in bonds Turner plans to inject into the under-funded police and municipal pensions. The bonds would not require a tax hike, but the bill would reverse the groups’ benefit cuts if voters reject the bonds.

Meanwhile, a petition submitted two weeks ago that is being reviewed by the City Secretary calls for a public vote to require a shift to 401(k)-style defined contribution plans for all city workers hired after the start of 2018.

Lifting the revenue cap, on the other hand, would increase homeowners’ property taxes. The owner of a $200,000 Houston home saved about $84 in taxes over the last three years, costing the city an estimated $220 million in revenue.

“You’re risking a lot by putting two potentially inflammatory items on the ballot that could stimulate an anti-Turner vote,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, noting that he thinks the pension obligation bonds alone would pass. “But if you put in bond plus revenue cap, that’s a bitter pill that conservatives would have to swallow all at once.”

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson said the party has not decided whether to back the issuance of pension obligation bonds, but it already has committed to campaigning against lifting the revenue cap.

“Without that cap there, there will be the inevitable pressure to solve every fiscal problem by raising taxes,” Simpson said. “It’s the best tool we have to actually impose fiscal discipline on the city.”

Turner appeared undaunted by the prospect of a financially weighty ballot.

“Protection – it’s not free. Police officers are not free. … Firefighters are not free. People who are fixing our streets – they are not free,” he told reporters after his speech at the downtown Marriott Marquis hotel. “When people have a need, they want the city to respond. Well, we want to respond.”

I’m all in on this, as you know. My preference would be to go for full repeal, though what the Mayor has generally talked about is building in an exception for public safety. Which I can live with, given that revenues tend to be fungible, but the honest and future-lawsuit-proof path is to ditch the stupid revenue cap altogether.

The likely presence of a pension obligation bond referendum on the ballot doesn’t strike me as a problem, as both items can be sold together as a package deal to get Houston’s finances on firmer ground. And if the people who are now insisting that we vote on the pension obligation bonds then show their true colors by opposing those bonds, well, now we’ve got a villain to run against. The Mayor can campaign for them by sending Greater Houston Partnership types out to the wealthy neighborhoods to talk fiscal responsibility, and he can send Democratic partisans to the clubs and other receptive audiences to tell them to send a message to the out of touch Republicans in Austin that they can’t meddle in our city. I’d feel pretty good about our chances with that kind of campaign.

It’s a different question whether Metro will want to join in and put its own referendum on the ballot as well or wait till 2018. There’s a case for waiting and a case for action, and I’m glad it’s not my decision to make.

Senate approves bail reform bill

Good.

Sen. John Whitmire

After weeks of politically touchy negotiations capped by a shove from a Houston federal judge, the Texas Senate on Thursday approved significant changes in the state’s bail bond system designed to keep low-level offenders from sitting in jail because they cannot afford to pay cash bail.

While the reforms had once been touted as one of the major criminal justice reforms of the legislative session, the final version of the bill dropped tougher provisions in the face of strong opposition from the politically connected bail bond industry.

Approved by a final vote of 21-10, Senate Bill 1338 mandates risk assessments for criminal defendants who are eligible for bail – an assessment that will mean more non-violent offenders who do not pose public safety risks can be released while they await trial, said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the bill’s author.

“This will mean significant changes in some counties that will improve how we administer justice,” Whitmire said, noting that a recent federal court in Houston mandates much of what the bill seeks to accomplish.

“It clarifies current law to require magistrates to impose the least restrictive conditions and minimum amount of bail necessary to ensure that the defendant appears in court and protect the public and victim.”

[…]

The measure approved by the Senate requires that defendants held on misdemeanors appear before a magistrate within 24 hours of their arrest, and that those held on felonies must be seen within 48 hours, Whitmire said.

“The risk assessments in this bill are an important component because bond setting and the amounts of bonds will be reflective of the real risk to public safety,” Whitmire said. “That element is missing now in many cases.”

See here and here for the background. As Whitmire notes, the injunction in the bail practices lawsuit helped nudge his bill along. It would be nice to think this could get it all the way to the finish line, but prospects in the House are unclear. Feel free to let your State Rep know that you support bail reform. There’s not much time left to get this done.

Judicial Conduct commission seeks suspension of JP Hilary Green

Holy moley.

In an explosive and rare move, Texas judicial authorities on Wednesday asked the Texas Supreme Court to suspend a Harris County justice of the peace accused of paying prostitutes for sex, misusing illegal drugs and ruling unethically in favor of a convicted con man.

The sordid list of accusations against Judge Hilary Green, Justice of the Peace in Houston’s 7th Precinct, was contained in a 316-page court filing by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to the state’s highest court.

The document describes four separate judicial misconduct complaints against Green made between 2012 and 2016 that were previously not released under commission rules.

In her response to the commission, Green admitted to many of the allegations, including illegally obtaining prescription drugs and using marijuana and ecstasy at the same time she was presiding over low-level drug possession cases involving minors in her court, the records show. She also admitted to sexting a bailiff while on the bench.

“Judge Green’s outright betrayal of the public’s trust warrants her immediate suspension pending formal proceedings,” the filing says.

The Texas Supreme Court has not yet taken action on the suspension request and there is no deadline for it to rule.

The commission filing confirms that the latest misconduct complaint against Green arrived in 2016 from a man who Green has admitted was her extramarital lover, Claude Barnes. Other allegations were made by Green’s ex-husband, former Houston Controller Ronald Green, as part of their divorce.

Green has not responded to the commission’s request she be suspended. But her attorney, Chip Babcock, said he plans to argue that Green cannot be removed from office for alleged misconduct that occurred prior to November 2016, when she was re-elected to office. He argues that her re-election occurred after most of the allegations against her were made public in articles in the Houston Chronicle, or by her opponents during the campaign.

In support of his argument, Babcock cited a Texas state law that says “an officer may not be removed … for an act the officer committed before election to office.”

Others have interpreted that statute to mean before a public official initially took office, which in Green’s case was in 2007.

But Babcock emphasized in an interview that allegations about Green’s illegal drug use and sexual misconduct came to light in 2015 and 2016 from “her ex-husband and an admittedly bitter and angry former companion.” Babcock said that during Green’s 2016 campaign, the bulk of the allegations against her “were aired publicly and after they were aired publicly, Judge Green ran in a contested Democratic Primary against a number of candidates opposing her and defeated them with a substantial amount of the vote and subsequently won the general election.”

There’s more, so read the whole thing, though if you’re like me you’ll feel a little dirty afterward. Some of what is in this story stems from Hilary and Ronald Green’s ugly and contentious divorce, and some of it was in the news prior to that. I have no idea what the State Commission on Judicial Conduct will do, and I don’t know enough to assess the legal merits of attorney Babcock’s defense strategy; for what it’s worth, it sounds sketchy to me, but again, I Am Not A Lawyer.

There will be a political effect from all this one way or another, maybe soon and maybe later depending on what the SCJC does. I don’t want to think too much about that right now. People often wonder in situations like this how someone with that kind of baggage can get elected. Voters vote based on the information they have, and having more information of this kind available to them doesn’t always have the effect one thinks that it might. Sometimes people file unsavory revelations about a candidate as “negative campaign stuff” and tune it out, and sometimes they decide that other factors in a given race are more important. Surely if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the 2016 election season it’s that the people will sometimes make confounding choices.

Who’s your lawyer?

Ross Ramsey has a simple question.

Not this guy

Do you remember the name of the lawyer who advised the Texas House and Senate when they wrote the 2011 voter ID bill? That’s the law a federal judge in Corpus Christi found to be intentionally discriminatory on the basis of race. An appeals court told her to throw out a particular argument without retrying the case and come to a fresh conclusion. She did, and she came to the same conclusion: intentional racial discrimination.

Do you remember the name of the lawyer who advised the House and the Senate — and don’t forget the governor at the time, Rick Perry — on congressional and legislative redistricting after the 2010 census, counseling them as they drew lines to maximize their Republican advantage? The legal expert who would have said “too much” if he had thought his clients might’ve stepped in a legal cow patty? They stepped in it just the same: A federal panel ruled lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

The state has stacked up a run of losses that could throw it back under federal supervision — forcing the great state of Texas to tuck tail and ask the federal government for permission for every change it makes to its voting and election laws. This state and many others used to discriminate habitually and creatively — so much so that federal law included Texas in the list of states that couldn’t be trusted to take care of their own citizens with fair laws and fair districts that would have allowed them to take part in the great democratic franchise, to choose the people who represent them.

Remember that lawyer’s name?

That would be Greg Abbott, in case you hadn’t figured it out. Now as noted in the article, it was ultimately the Republicans in the Lege who passed those bills, and for all we know they may eventually get bailed out by the Supreme Court. But still, you’d think a better lawyer might have given them better advice. No wonder Abbott hasn’t had much to say about any of this.