Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

January 31st, 2018:

Interview with Jeff Stauber

Jeff Stauber

From the not-so-powerful office of County Treasurer we move on to County Commissioner, easily the most powerful county office anywhere in Texas. Commissioners get a lot of control over their budgets, and at least in Harris County tend to operate without too much pesky oversight from the public. All counties have four Commissioners, and despite Harris County’s Democratic trend, it has been a three-Republican, one-Democrat mix since 2010. There’s a lot of hope to change that this year, and while it is in Precinct 2 that the best odds of a flip lie, the post-2016 cycle has been all about competing everywhere and picking up wins in unexpected places. Jeff Stauber is one of two candidates who are aiming for that in Precinct 4. A resident of Kingwood and 32-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, Stauber serves as a commander in the HCSO, and ran for the Democratic nomination for Sheriff in 2016. You can listen to that interview here, and you can listen to this interview now:

You can see all of my interviews for candidates running for County office as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2018 Harris County Election page.

Judicial Q&A: Shampa Mukerji

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Shampa Mukerji

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Shampa Mukerji and I am running for the 269th Civil District Court in Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Some of the different case types heard in civil courts include malpractice, damages, breach of contract, personal injury, and multi-district litigation. My duty would be to preside over all civil litigation matters assigned to my court.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I have always been a true believer that the Constitutions of the United States and Texas create an equal playing field for all individuals and entities. I believe the next step in my journey is to make a difference in my community in the most effective way I am able and bring a unique perspective to the local judiciary. The Harris County Democratic Party slated me for this specific seat and I believe I am the strongest Democratic candidate to challenge the incumbent judge in November 2018.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I am a civil litigation attorney. I attended Northwestern University for college and University of Houston Law Center for my law degree. I have been practicing law in the Houston area for almost twelve years. I believe in the Seventh Amendment, the right to a trial by jury, and access to the courts for all. I believe my intelligence, integrity, and impartiality will allow me to succeed as Judge of a Civil District Court. As the daughter of immigrants, I have witnessed firsthand the struggles my parents faced moving to the United States and I am grateful for their perseverance. They overcame many obstacles in order to provide their children with tremendous opportunities, including my education at a renowned high school, a top-10 national university, and a top-tier law school where I was an editor for a law journal. As a jurist, my education, experience, and work ethic, as well as my ability to consider all points of view, will allow me to ensure that all litigants have their day in court.

5. Why is this race important?

Every judicial race is significant as the impact of the courts can affect the lives of every citizen. The courts are our last line of defense and it is paramount to have a judge with excellent education, experience, and dedication, but it is also necessary to have someone on the bench who will consider the perspective of every person who enters the courtroom and ensure all are welcome at the courthouse and part of our civil justice system.

6. Why should people vote for you in the March primary?

I will ensure equal access to the court for all. I will run the docket as efficiently as possible, while also moving it as quickly as is reasonable. Finally, I will treat everyone who enters my courtroom with dignity and respect and be impartial to all parties.

I have been a practicing attorney for almost twelve years, and most of that time I have practiced civil litigation representing individuals and families in their lawsuits. As a contingent-fee attorney, I have represented thousands of individuals who never had to pay for legal services until I was able to first recover financial restitution for the wrongs committed against them. I have practiced in the areas of real estate law, employment law, contracts law, wills and trusts, probate law, family law, insurance, and personal injury. I have handled complex civil litigation cases and multimillion-dollar cases. I have handled a docket of a thousand cases and managed different levels and sizes of staff throughout my career. I will make sure to equal the playing field for all parties who appear in my court. As stated previously, I believe the right to a trial by jury is of fundamental importance and I will do everything in my authority to ensure that all parties have their day in court. The depth and breadth of my legal experience, the diversity of my practice areas, and my experience managing dockets and staff make me the best candidate for Judge of the 269th Civil District Court.

From the “Nothin’ but good times ahead” department

Given the good economic conditions in Texas right now, you’d think the budget outlook would be better than it is.

The Texas economy is growing healthily, but that doesn’t mean state budget writers will have more money at their disposal next year, state officials said Tuesday.

In fact, though unemployment is low and tax revenue is on the rise, big bills coming due for the state’s highways and health care programs are giving Texas lawmakers reason for concern.

“I would like to offer a few words of caution for reading too much into the positive recent economic numbers,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

As they often do, state budget writers last year underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, which, alongside public education, makes up one of the largest shares of the state’s $217 billion two-year budget.

Then, during a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott over the summer, state lawmakers shifted another $500 million away from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to pay for public education programs.

As a result, lawmakers could face a $2.5 billion Medicaid bill shortly after they reconvene in Austin in 2019. Then there are the additional drains on Texas coffers from Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Hegar said.

That’s bad news for lawmakers given the comptroller’s prediction that the state will only have a $94 million “beginning balance” when lawmakers convene in 2019. By comparison, lawmakers had an $880 million beginning balance in 2017, which was ultimately a tight year for the state budget. Two years before that, lawmakers enjoyed a $7.3 billion beginning balance.

[…]

Another source of heartburn for budget writers is the ravenous state highway fund. In 2015, amid complaints of a highway system in disrepair, Texans voted to amend the state Constitution to require that up to $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue be dedicated to the highway fund.

That means that even as Texas collects more money from sales taxes — Hegar testified that sales tax revenue grew by an average of 10.3 percent over the last three months — the rest of the state budget will not benefit from that revenue since it is earmarked for the highway fund.

That was also an issue for budget writers in 2017. Last year, in order to free up some of that money for other purposes, Senate lawmakers pushed for an accounting trick that delayed a payment to the state highway fund into the next two-year budget cycle. That freed up about $1.6 billion for lawmakers last year, but it means there will be another bill to pay in 2019.

“In short, despite a strong economy and positive outlook for revenue growth in this biennium, it seems likely the next budget will be much like the one crafted in 2017, having to contend with restricted revenue relative to the spending trends of the state,” Hegar said.

Just a reminder: Underfunding Medicaid was a choice. Shifting money away from HHSC was a choice. The amendment to require all that highway spending was ratified by the voters, but it was there to be ratified because the Lege chose to put it there. Deferring that payment to the highway fund was a choice. And though the story doesn’t include it in its litany, spending nearly a billion dollars on boondoggle “border security” stunts was a choice, too.

We’ll probably be fine in the 2019 session, though the potential for shenanigans is always high. But remember, winter is coming, because it always does. When it does, we’re going to have a mess to clean up, one that was caused by the Republicans in charge of our state, one that could have been mitigated in many ways. I hope we’re ready for it.

(Note: This is the inspiration for the post title.)

One more judge for bail reform

Once again, credit where credit is due.

A long-serving Harris County Republican judge has broken with 14 Republican colleagues, withdrawing from the county’s appeal in a landmark federal lawsuit challenging its bail system for discriminating against poor, low-level offenders.

Criminal Court-at-Law Judge Mike Fields, who has presided in misdemeanor court since 1999, had a dramatic change of heart this week at a federal court hearing on the bail case, and he now wants the county to put its limited resources into settling the matter.

“If we just talk to one another, if we can just get in the room and talk, maybe we can resolve this issue,” said Fields, 52. “It’s costly on both sides — it costs in terms of human lives and it costs in terms of taxpayer dollars.”

The county has spent more than $5 million defending itself, and has appealed an April 28 ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal that the county bail practices violated the Constitution by setting up a “wealth-based” detention system. The county retained a top-dollar D.C. appellate firm to handle its appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fields said when he saw — during his first visit to the federal courthouse on Tuesday — how many lawyers the county had hired and how many county officials’ time was tied up with the lawsuit, he estimated the two hours for all those people amounted to $60,000.

“Two hours in a courtroom costs more than what the average citizen makes all year. Sixteen judges sitting in a courtroom (together), not doing the work of the people, think about the enormous expense of that,” Fields said.

He added: “We’re fighting about how many people get to stay in jail. I don’t see how anyone can sit in that room and not think maybe we should try another tack.”

Judge Fields had previously expressed concerns about the cost of the lawsuit, so this would be the natural next step. It won’t change anything – the appeal will go on, as all of Fields’ Republican colleagues want it to – but it is the right thing to do. He says he was convinced by Judge Rosenthal’s ruling in the case. Whatever his reason, I applaud his action. May others follow his lead.