Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

April 27th, 2018:

Still waiting for those other special elections

Ross Ramsey returned to a frequent topic a few days ago.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was found guilty of 11 felonies earlier this year. He has not yet faced sentencing and says he will appeal the convictions on charges including money laundering and fraud. He’s not required to quit the Senate in the face of that, but it’s safe to say many of his colleagues are eager to see him go. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stripped him of his committee assignments, and the Senate Democratic Caucus called on him to quit.

The other potential resignation is a happier story: State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, won her party’s nomination to succeed the retiring Gene Green in the U.S. House. It’s a Democratic district, but she’ll face the winner of a Republican primary in November’s election. And in the unlikely event that Garcia were to lose that race, she would still be a state senator; her term in the current job doesn’t end until 2021.

Without putting their names to their words, many of Garcia’s colleagues are hoping she’ll quit early, allowing a replacement to be seated before the Legislature convenes in January.

“A vacancy is never politically helpful, but no one is more harmed than the constituents who are in that district, who have zero representation,” said Harold Cook, a longtime Democratic operative and one-time staffer to the Senate’s Democratic Caucus. “Aside from the fact that it kind of screws with a few majority votes, and that is not unimportant, you’re leaving Texans with no representation — and you don’t have to.”

The idea is that Garcia’s election to Congress is all but certain and that her timely resignation would position Democrats in the Texas Senate at full strength next year, instead of leaving them waiting on a special election to fill her seat. Or Uresti’s seat, for that matter.

Since he wrote that, we have gotten an update on SD06. Also from Ross Ramsey:

A one-seat pickup [in the Senate] would leave the Democrats one vote short of the number needed to force debate. It would also put them in position, if they could hold their own folks together, to block debate by luring one Republican to their side.

Another way to put it: Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats would have any wiggle room — a generally rotten prospect for a group since it empowers any one member to hold an issue hostage by saying, “Do it my way or lose my vote.”

If the Democrats were to win more than one seat now held by Republicans, the Texas Senate would be back in the position it was in for years — when nobody could get an issue to the floor without brokering enough of a compromise to convince a supermajority that the issue is worth hearing.

That’s been used to keep all kinds of things — not all of them partisan, by the way — from coming to the Senate floor for a vote. For a moment, think like one of the swamp creatures; sometimes, it’s safer not to vote on something controversial than it is to take a stand. The three-fifths rule provides a way to either work on a compromise or just walk away without any political bruises.

One needn’t agree with that to appreciate its political value.

But even a big Democratic day in November could leave crafty Republicans with some breathing room. Two Democratic senators who aren’t on the ballot this year — Sylvia Garcia of Houston and Carlos Uresti of San Antonio — are contemplating resignation.

Garcia won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat in a district unlikely to elect a Republican to Congress. But she said [last] Thursday, in an interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, that she won’t resign until after the Nov. 6 election. She said she’s doing that out of consideration for the voters and doesn’t want to presume what they’ll do. If she wins and then resigns, it’ll take a special election to replace her — one that would likely leave her seat in the Senate empty for the early days of the legislative session.

Gotta say, I’m disappointed to hear that. I really believed Sen. Garcia would step down in a timely fashion, perhaps after the May 22 primary runoffs, to allow a successor to be in place by January. If she does wait till November to step down, then the Leticia Van de Putte experience kicks in, where the special election is in January and the successor is installed in March; that runoff actually happened in February, but the swearing-in didn’t take place till after the official canvass. As Ramsey goes on to say, even if the Dems have picked up one or more seats, they’d lose the numerical advantage if the Garcia and Uresti seats are empty.

So yeah, the timing up front can have a big effect on the back end, and that’s before we take into account the subsequent vacancies that may be caused by the Garcia and Uresti specials. I appreciate Sen. Garcia’s position. It’s honorable and respectful. It’s also completely impractical, and potentially very damaging. I really, really hope she reconsiders.

Why do business groups want to force sick people to go to work?

This is bad for society.

The city’s new ordinance mandating that most private businesses in Austin provide paid sick leave to employees — heralded by supporters as the most progressive labor policy in Texas when it won approval two months ago — is facing a legal challenge to prevent it from ever taking effect.

Proponents of Austin’s sick-leave rules, which are slated to begin Oct. 1, already faced the likelihood that some conservative state lawmakers would try to supersede the city’s authority by filing bills to overturn the new ordinance when the Legislature convenes again in January.

But a coalition of business organizations, including the Texas Association of Business and the National Federation of Independent Business, are aiming to render the rules toothless regardless. The group — with legal representation from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank — filed a lawsuit in Travis County state District Court on Tuesday, seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against city enforcement.

“We needed to move quickly and stop any bleeding that might occur from this ordinance,” said Jeff Moseley, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, which is the state’s most powerful business lobbying group. “It’s overreaching (by the city government), and it’s hard-hitting to small employers.”

Work Strong Austin, an activist group that supported the ordinance, called the lawsuit frivolous and said the business groups involved in it are “seeking to undermine the democratic process and take away this basic human right and public health protection right from 223,000 working families” in the city.

The ordinance requires that most private Austin employers give each worker up to 64 hours — or eight full eight-hour workdays — of paid sick leave per year. Small businesses with 15 or fewer employees are required to meet a lower cap of 48 hours of paid sick leave per year, or six workdays.

I’m going to let Ed Sills, in his email newsletter from Wednesday, break this one down:

The public policy rationales are solid as a rock. The public health argument alone should resonate for everyone. Who wants flu victims preparing food at a restaurant because they can’t afford to sit out an illness? Who wants to sit next to someone on a bus if they have a cold?

The arguments in the lawsuit are frivolous and fatuous. TPPF is saying the ordinance violates the state’s prohibition on local minimum wage increases because paid sick leave is a form of a wage increase. That is utter nonsense.

If a benefit like paid sick leave counted toward fulfilling the minimum wage, employers right and left would pay less than $7.25 an hour and count the value of benefits they already offer toward the wage floor. Employers know they would be laughed out of court and roasted in the court of public opinion if they tried that.

The other “big idea” from TPPF is something called “substantive due process,” and therein lies a danger. Substantive due process reasoning was used by some judges in the first few decades of the 20th Century to strike down minimum wage, maximum hour and other laws. Unlike procedural due process, which guarantees fair trials and other safeguards that enable people in our legal system to make their cases, “substantive due process” was historically a card for employers to play when they didn’t like laws enacted by majorities to protect working people.

The U.S. Supreme Court occasionally recognized substantive due process, and a few examples are instructive. In 1905, the high court overturned a New York law limiting bakery employees to 60 hour a week. In 1923, the high court struck down minimum-wage laws using substantive due process analysis. In 1925, the court struck down laws banning “yellow-dog contracts” that required employees to agree not to join a labor union (this was in the pre-National Labor Relations Act days).

A changing majority on the Supreme Court during the Franklin Roosevelt era eventually flushed away substantive due process. By 1955, a unanimous court declared in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma, “The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought.” The law upheld in the case was a state requirement that eyeglasses be fitted and duplicated by licensed optometrists or ophthalmologists.

The law is on the side of the paid sick leave ordinance, but the infection of the law by politics may be a different story. I would not bet my house, my car or even my fidget spinner that the Texas Supreme Court would uphold a paid sick leave ordinance. The high civil court is a haven for the business community in Texas. Moreover, Gov. Greg Abbott and elements of the Texas Legislature will take a shot at the ordinance – and potentially at ordinances that voters in San Antonio and Dallas might be considering in November – in the next legislative session.

One argument the business community will make to overturn Austin’s ordinance, and to preempt other cities from following suit, is that it’s just too hard on businesses that operate statewide to comply with different rules in different cities. (As if the more-than-statewide businesses don’t already have to do that outside Texas.) But fine, if that’s the problem, then pass a sick leave law at the state level, or even better in Congress. Sick people should be home getting better and not infecting everyone around them, so take away the economic incentive for them to drag their contagious selves to work. I do not understand the argument against that. KUT and Fox 7 Austin have more.

Reinventing Jones Plaza

Big changes coming to downtown.

Jones Plaza, the often-empty, 1.5-acre public space at the heart of Houston’s Theater District, may finally become a true people magnet courtesy of the second face-lift in its 51-year history.

This time, Houston First Corporation, which operates the plaza for the city, hopes to create an event and dining area that reflects the artful vitality of the plaza’s prime location — a place that will be welcoming day and night for area employees as well as theater patrons and downtown residents.

[…]

Officials said the redevelopment will cost about $25 million, most of which will be raised privately. The Downtown Redevelopment Authority has contributed $5 million. Houston Astros owner Jim Crane and his wife Whitney, along with the Astros Foundation, have contributed $1 million and will spearhead a capital campaign to raise the remaining funds.

With construction slated to begin next month, the project could be complete by late 2020.

Mayor Sylvester Turner called the plaza project a “game-changer” for downtown.

A major initiative of the Theater District Master Plan adopted in 2015, this redevelopment may finally solve a conundrum that has dogged the plaza from since it opened in 1967, in spite of its location next to the Alley Theatre and Jones Hall. Jones Plaza has long been like a forgotten ornament in the city’s jewel box because it was built above the district’s parking garage. Its stepped plaza design, necessary to accommodate the structure below, made access difficult for some. And it’s always been a hard place to beautify with shade trees and plants, since there’s not much soil to work with.

The site was best utilized from the late 1980s through the 1990s as the venue for Thursday night Party on the Plaza concerts that were not a particularly good fit for the surrounding fine arts venues. The Party on the Plaza brand has since been revived and relocated to Avenida Houston in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

I have some fond memories of those old Party on the Plaza events. Sure would be nice to find a purpose for Jones Plaza again. I look forward to seeing how this turns out.