Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

July 11th, 2017:

Redistricting trial week begins

This will be the main event of the week.

Eight months ahead of the 2018 primaries, Texas and its legal foes on Monday will kick off a week-long trial that could shake up races across the state.

The state and minority rights groups have been squabbling for six years over new political district boundaries drawn following the 2010 census. As part of a long-winding legal battle, a panel of three federal judges this week will reconvene in a federal courthouse here to consider the validity of the state’s political maps and whether changes should quickly be made to the state’s House and Congressional boundaries ahead of the midterm elections. At issue is whether the current boundaries violate the voting rights of millions of Texans of color.

The showdown comes months after the panel of judges found fault with the state’s 2011 drafts of the political maps. In a pair of rulings this spring, the judges also found that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in crafting them.

Those rulings did not require an immediate remedy because the state has been running elections since 2013 under court-drawn maps that were crafted amid an election scramble and later adopted by the Legislature.

But the judges are now turning their attention to the existing boundaries.

There’s an overview of how we got here and what is at stake in that story and also in this Statesman story, which notes the time factor:

Don’t expect immediate gratification. When the trial closes Friday or Saturday, the judges will take the matter under advisement — though a written ruling is expected relatively quickly as the court labors under looming election deadlines.

State officials have advised the court that any new maps would have to be ready by around Oct. 1 to meet deadlines for setting precinct lines and to allow candidate filing for the 2018 primaries to begin, as scheduled, in mid-November. Complicating the timing will be the inevitable appeal that the losing side will make directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If new maps are needed, the judges likely will order additional input on how to redraw district boundaries, lawyers said Friday.

The maps in question are the Congressional and State House maps that were implemented in 2013. Those maps in turn are basically identical to the interim maps created in 2011 after preclearance was rejected; the Lege adopted them with a couple of tweaks. The state claims that since the current maps are based on ones that had been drawn by the court, they cannot be discriminatory. The plaintiffs note that the 2013 maps differ only a little from the 2011 maps, which were ruled to be discriminatory, and that many of the problematic elements of the 2011 maps exist in the same form in the 2013 maps. The trial this week is to answer the question whether the existing maps are discriminatory, and if so what should replace them and also should the state be bailed back into preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. This Brennan Center article explains it better than I just did, with more details.

Here’s the Trib Day One story. A couple of highlights:

With Texas becoming less white each day, lawyers for minority rights groups opened their push for new maps by parsing the state’s demographic growth, which shows that the population of eligible white voters has significantly declined since 2010.

When asked by federal district Judge Orlando Garcia how this relates to the 2013 maps, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus’ lawyer, Jose Garza, indicated it was proof that Texans of color don’t have proportional representation under the maps currently in place.

“Even today … minorities are underrepresented when measured against population data and population figures,” Garza said.

MALC also presented an alternative map to demonstrate that the state House boundaries could have been drawn in a way that minimized the slicing of municipalities and created additional “opportunity districts” where minority voters are able to select their preferred candidates.

Creating that type of district was not a legislative priority when the House took on redistricting in 2013; lawmakers only made “cosmetic changes” that didn’t “improve the overall map for minority opportunity,” former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer testified before the court.

In 2011, state lawmakers drew legislative and congressional maps following the 2010 census, but they were immediately challenged in court on the basis that they diluted the voting strength of Hispanic and black voters. The court drew interim maps amid an election scramble, and the Legislature in 2013 moved to adopt them.

Martinez Fischer argued that efforts to improve those maps for minority representation were rebuffed by the Republican majority.

“It was almost all upon deaf ears,” Martinez Fischer said.

All the plaintiffs’ briefs for the trial can be found here. The demonstration map mentioned in the story for the State House is H391, and C285 is for Congress, with the former drawn by MALC and the latter by MALC, LULAC, and the Perez plaintiffs. There more of these – go to http://gis1.tlc.state.tx.us/, choose a Shaded Plan, change the Category to All, and scroll down. The last maps listed for each type will be the ones being shown in the trial. Michael Li of the Brennan Center is live-tweeting the trial, so follow along with him for the play-by-play. I’ll do my best to keep up as well.

First finance reports for Congressional challengers start coming in

From the inbox:

Democratic candidate and nonprofit leader Alex Triantaphyllis announced he raised over $450,000 from more than 1,100 contributors since his entrance into the race for Texas’s 7th Congressional District. He will report over $400,000 cash on hand entering the third quarter of 2017. In just eight weeks of fundraising, Triantaphyllis nearly matched nine-term Congressman John Culberson’s best quarter across the incumbent’s 30-year career as a politician. The majority of contributions to Triantaphyllis’s campaign were $100 or less.

“We are thrilled by the outpouring of support for our campaign that we have seen from the start,” Triantaphyllis said. “In addition to the encouragement from community members, this strong, early financial support provides the foundation to build a grassroots campaign that connects with every voter in every neighborhood in Texas’s 7th Congressional District. The 7th district deserves a representative who will create jobs, make families safer and stronger, and engage with community members to address the goals and challenges that they identify.”

I’m expecting a few more press releases like that to come in. It’s a well known way to distinguish oneself in a large field of candidates like what we have in CD07. There are many angles one can take with these announcements – raw totals, cash on hand, number of contributors, average amount per contributor, percentage of contributions in the district or in the state, etc etc etc. If there’s something worth touting, it will be touted. If there isn’t, there probably won’t be a press release. Yes, I know, money isn’t everything – we have this same conversation every time there’s a finance report deadline worth mentioning – but not having it seldom helps.

Meanwhile, up in Dallas:

Democratic Party candidates for the 32nd Congressional District aren’t having any problems raising campaign cash.

Ed Meier, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton and the interim CEO of a Dallas nonprofit, raised a blistering $345,000 in just under two months. Meier’s campaign has $300,000 on hand, according to totals provided by his spokesman.

“I’m proud to start this campaign by building a broad base of support that we will continue to grow from now through election day,” Meier said in a statement. “From the conversations I’ve had with people across this community, one thing is clear: People want a leader who will stand up for Texas families and hold [Donald] Trump accountable, instead of one who enables Trump’s reckless agenda. That’s why they’re calling for a change and I’m glad to have their support.”

Meier got into the race in May. The second-quarter fundraising period was from April to June 30.

His opponent in the March Democratic Party primary, Dallas civil rights lawyer Colin Allred, raised $200,000 during the second-quarter fundraising period. His campaign aides say 71 percent of the money came from Texans.

The Democrats are vying for the chance to run against incumbent Republican Pete Sessions, R-Dallas.

Despite the hefty fundraising totals, the Democrats aren’t yet approaching the amount of money Sessions has access to. His campaign manager said Thursday that the longtime congressman has more than $900,000 on hand. Sessions’ full campaign finance report was not immediately available. Campaign finance reports aren’t due until July 15.

Note that Rep. Sessions didn’t have a specific rebuttal at this time. He may still be totting up his numbers, or he may not have anything too noteworthy to report. We should have a clearer picture by this time next week.

Who gets the VW settlement money?

That’s the fifty million dollar question.

Volkswagen faces billions of dollars in fines in Texas for its admitted cheating on emissions tests, but the potential payday is being held up as the state Attorney General and county officials fight in court over which government agencies will get to claim a share of the proceeds from the German auto giant.

Under Texas law, county governments are entitled to half the award that any legal action against Volkswagen brings – with the remainder going to state coffers. But with more than 20 counties suing Volkswagen in the aftermath of the emissions scandal, Attorney General Ken Paxton is attempting to toss out all but two of the counties from the case, leaving the state in charge and the counties with no chance to claim any of the penalties.

The stakes are high for both the state and counties. A single county could reap tens of millions of dollars in penalties, at a time when low oil and gas prices are straining budgets across Texas and leading to cuts in public services.

“It’s extremely important for the counties. We’re all strapped,” said Anthony Constant, a Corpus Christi attorney representing Dallas and other counties in the suit. “I have no idea what (the AG’s office) is doing or why they’re doing it, but it appears to me they have some concern it would somehow be bad for them if the counties were allowed (to) proceed.”

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment. But in a filing earlier this year, Paxton argued that it was their office’s right to uphold Texas’ environmental laws and allowing the county lawsuits to proceed would lead to “the unconstitutional result” of Volkswagen being tried and fined multiple times for the same violation.

[…]

In Texas, the company settled violations of the state’s anti-fraud laws for $50 million in November. But Volkswagen still faces far more costly violations of the state’s air pollution laws, which could potentially mean fines of between $50 and $5,000 per day for all 32,000 of its clean diesel vehicles registered in Texas. Some, which were sold under both the Volkswagen and Audi brands, have been on the road close to a decade.

But the process of determining the extent of those penalties is being held up by the infighting between the state and counties over who gets to sue Volkswagen.

After the trial court in Austin ruled the counties could remain in the case, the attorney general’s office filed an appeal in October with the Texas Third Court of Appeals. Sensing an opening, Volkswagen’s attorneys filed a motion to delay the entire trial until the question of the county lawsuits was resolved.

With the matter of the county lawsuits potentially headed to the Supreme Court – a process that can take years – the state and counties’ attorneys both argued against delaying the trial. But in January the appellate court sided with Volkswagen.

See here, here, and here for the background. This settlement is from state-level litigation; there was a separate federal lawsuit settlement that netted money for the state, as only the state was involved. As the story notes, Harris and Fort Bend Counties filed their lawsuits first, then the state got involved, and subsequently tried to boot all the counties out as plaintiffs. I personally see no reason for that, but this is what the judge will have to decide.

Special session officially set

Brace yourselves, it starts next week.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a declaration for a special session of the Texas Legislature Monday, formally inviting lawmakers back to Austin to pass “sunset legislation” that will keep several key state agencies open.

The long-awaited procedural move allows lawmakers to begin filing bills for the special session set to begin on July 18.

In addition to the formal declaration, Abbott also released a draft version of 19 additional items he plans to add to the special session agenda later on. Last month, Abbott announced that lawmakers would consider 20 total legislative items during the special session.

[…]

Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw said her office received a copy of the proclamation around 11:00 a.m., which she forwarded to senators to alert them that they could begin filing bills. A physical copy of the proclamation was also delivered to senators’ offices in the Capitol building. Senators began filing bills Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile the House, which has had an e-filing system in place for years, received over two dozen bills before 1 p.m.

Robert Haney, the House chief clerk, said the first bill filed Monday, House Bill 41 from state Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, was received at 11:42 a.m. The bill aims to change how the state calculates the constitutional spending limit, which restricts how much the budget can grow from one biennium to the next.

Within an hour, dozens of other bills were filed including two pieces of bathroom-related legislation from state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton. HB 46 would forbid “political subdivisions, including a public school district” from adopting or enforcing measures to “protect a class of persons from discrimination” in regulating “access to multi-occupancy restrooms, showers or changing facilities.” HB 50 is identical except applying only to a school district board.

See here and here for the background. Special sessions are limited to the agenda the governor sets. That has never stopped anyone from filing bills on whatever other subjects they wanted, some good, some bad, and some utterly pointless, because you never know when the governor may exercise his power to add to that agenda. The real question for this session is what happens when some number of Abbott’s bills don’t get passed – indeed, don’t even get a vote. “Sunset and sine die” may be the battle cry, but nothing would stop Abbott from calling everyone right back, as Rick Perry did in the past. How much is enough for Abbott? We’re about to find out.