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February 10th, 2019:

Weekend link dump for February 10

“With Trump, on the other hand, close to 50 percent of Americans have already said they definitely wouldn’t vote for him even though we’re still more than 600 days away from the election.”

“But in many local markets, the arrival and expansion of Airbnb is raising questions about its potential negative impacts on local housing costs, quality of life in residential neighborhoods, employment quality in the hospitality industry, and local governments’ ability to enforce municipal codes and collect appropriate taxes.”

It’s too damn cold for your phone.

“Lorena Gallo, formerly Bobbitt, is hoping that we’re ready to see her as more than a punchline about a severed penis.” I do remember the stories about how her former husband abused her, so I’m on board with this.

“Your Super Bowl Boxes [Were] Almost Certainly Illegal”.

“What replacement players did for the NFL in 1987, fights over steroids have done for MLB since 2002. You cannot separate the disparate treatment of drug-policy offenders, both internally and externally, from the labor dynamics of each league.”

RIP, Bob Friend, longtime Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher.

“Jonathan Edwards was the most influential American theologian of his day and he remains one of the most influential American theologians of our day. He was also completely and spectacularly wrong about the single most important and biggest ethical, moral, and theological question of his life. Hugely, magnificently wrong. (Spinal Tap voice: How more wrong could he have been? None. None more wrong.)”

Three words: Pringle stack mathematics. You’re welcome.

He’s an amateur in the White House. He doesn’t have a lot of experience in governing, and I don’t see a lot of learning going on. He looks hideously weak.”

I for one welcome our potential alien overlords.

The weirdest strikeout in MLB history.

Fargo news! Hooray!

The only SOTU recap you need.

Free Southside Johnny! And his co-plaintiffs, too.

Six facts reporters should know if they’re going to write about abortion”.

“Something unusual happened to me yesterday. Actually, for me it wasn’t just unusual — it was a first. I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Or at least that’s what the top people at the National Enquirer thought. I’m glad they thought that, because it emboldened them to put it all in writing. Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.”

“What it does show is that AMI is precisely the criminal enterprise, weaponizing pseudo-journalism and cash payoffs on behalf of wealthy associates, as we’ve come to suspect.”

RIP, Frank Robinson, Hall of Famer, MVP in both leagues, first black manager in Major League Baseball. Read this if you don’t know much about Frank Robinson.

RIP, John Dingell, longest serving member of Congress and Twitter genius.

RIP, Albert Finney, British actor and five-time Oscar nominee.

So how’s that Trump tax “cut” working for you?

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Early voting ends in HD125

I have to admit, I’d totally forgotten about this special election.

Justin Rodriguez

The special election for Texas House District 125 has been on a characteristically slow roll as early voting closed Friday in the contest to fill former State Rep. Justin Rodriguez’s seat.

Out of the 103,494 voters registered in the district, 3,354 cast ballots during early voting, putting turnout just above 3 percent. Election day is Tuesday, Feb. 12, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Northwest San Antonio district.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said she expected a low turnout during a special election.

People usually prefer to vote early rather than wait for election day, Callanen said, estimating that about 50 to 60 percent of voter turnout comes from early voting during an election. Based on that number, election day should draw another 2 percent of total registered voters in the district, she said. She predicted total turnout would be between 4 percent and 4.8 percent.

“If we can get 5 percent on this [election], that would be good,” she said.

Five candidates are up for Rodriguez’s House seat that became vacant in January when he was sworn in as Bexar County Commissioner for Precinct 2. Former HD 125 Rep. Art Reyna, former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, policy advocate Coda Rayo-Garza, and activist Steve Huerta are the four Democratic candidates, while businessman Fred Rangel is the only Republican in the race.

Just as a reminder, that’s right in line with the turnout for HD145, though in this case the majority of the vote would be cast early. If Tuesday in HD125 is like Election Day was in HD145, then they will exceed seven percent turnout. We’ll know soon enough. Unlike HD79, where Democrat Art Fierro was elected in one round, or HD145, where Dems Christina Morales and Melissa Noriega will face each other in the runoff, there’s a decent chance of a D-versus-R runoff here. This district just isn’t quite as blue as the other two, and the Republican here has Greg Abbott’s endorsement; the establishment largely ignored the other two races. This one could be a lot noisier in the runoff.

Speaking of runoffs, I have not yet seen a date set for HD145. However, based on my reading of the election code, I believe the deadline for the result of the January 29 election to be canvassed is Tuesday the 12th (same day as the HD125 election), and it has to occur between 12 and 25 days after that, on a Tuesday or a Saturday. Based on that, my money is on the runoff occurring on Saturday, March 2, which would mean early voting would run from Wednesday the 20th through Tuesday the 26th. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I do know these things are prescribed by law, and the options are limited. Again, we’ll know soon enough.

Let’s check in on the HCDE

How are things with the new Board?

Within an hour and 37 minutes of his first meeting as a trustee on the Harris County Department of Education’s board of trustees, Josh Flynn had a new role: President.

The former Harris County Republican Party treasurer and local accountant, who ran on a platform of bringing more transparency and accountability to Texas’ last remaining county education department, won the votes of three other trustees at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Minutes later, Flynn joined those same three in firing the department’s lobbying firm, a move that raised concerns among other trustees and Superintendent James Colbert Jr. that a lack of advocates in Austin could leave them with little recourse if lawmakers target the agency during the 2019 legislative session. Flynn did not return messages for comment.

Together, the votes signal a new majority on the seven-member board, one that Trustee Don Sumners said will provide a chance to lift the hood on HCDE’s departments and to make the agency more accountable to taxpayers. All four have questioned or criticized the department or some of its actions in the past, and one has filed motions to study closing the agency.

“We’ll probably go through the whole department one division at a time and do some evaluation,” Sumners said. “We really haven’t been able to get to the nuts and bolts very easily, and I think now that we have more interested participation, we’ll be able to realize this department for efficiency. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

Others, however, worry that actions like some of those taken at the Jan. 16 meeting could do irreparable harm to the state’s last remaining county department of education.

“I’m concerned, I’m definitely concerned,” said Trustee Danny Norris, a Texas Southern University law professor who also joined the board on January. “I think the vote to cancel our contract with (our lobbyists) specifically worried me a good bit, because we usually have a few bills to shut us down each session. This session, I’m the most worried.”

[…]

Trustee Eric Dick, a longtime Republican, noted at the meeting that other school districts, political parties and government entities also hire lobbyists. About a week after the vote, he said any government agency that is able to generate more than 70 percent of its budget from sources other than local tax dollars should be a model of good governance that conservatives should want to protect and other government agencies should look to for inspiration. About 28 percent of HCDE’s roughly $117 million budget in 2017-2018 came from property taxes, with the rest coming from state and federal grants, fees paid by local school districts and its cooperative purchasing program.

“You have an organization that actually runs at a profit, that’s actually in the black, that turns one dollar into five dollars. What should happen is ISDs should replicate and try to do something similar. So should the city of Houston,” Dick said. “I think worst thing that you could do is take something that works and cut it up.”

sigh Okay, three things here. One is that Flynn won his race by a tiny margin, 0.6 percentage points, less than 2,000 votes out of over 300K cast. Even in a dominant year for Dems in Harris County, one low-profile downballot race can make a difference by going the other way. Two, assuming the HCDE survives another legislative session, it’s very likely that it will flip back to a Democratic majority after the 2020 election, when At Large members Michael Wolfe (yeah, that guy again) and Don Sumners will almost certainly get voted out. And three, I can’t believe I’m about to say something nice about Eric Dick, but he has the right idea here, and I appreciate his vote on this matter. Let’s hope this is just a minor kerfuffle and nothing bad happens in the Lege.

(It should be noted that among other things, former County Judge Ed Emmett was not a fan of the HCDE and supported eliminating it. I hope Judge Hidalgo is up to speed on this. The HCDE may not have its own lobbyist in Austin, but the county has them. They could advocate for HCDE in a pinch if needed. Something to keep in mind.)

UPDATE: From an email sent out by Andrea Duhon, who was the Democratic candidate against Josh Flynn and who is planning to run for one of those At Large positions next year:

Community advocates, parents, and teachers plan to attend and make their perspectives known at an unexpected Special HCDE meeting this Monday, February 11th at 4:00 PM at 6300 Irvington Dr. to push back against the politically motivated distribution of legal contracts and privatization attempts by Austin politicians.

Expected on the HCDE agenda is an attempt by some trustees to fire the current unbiased education attorney and replace her with the highly partisan law firm Strahan-Cain, of which far right State Representative and education privatization proponent Briscoe Cain is a partner.

The meeting was called late Friday afternoon with little notice and comes at a time when the Texas Legislature is not only in session but is actively pursuing overhaul of state education policy. Also relevant are efforts both past and present by State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-SD7) to shutdown the department and consolidate public education resources into private buckets. The agenda also calls to replace Public Facilities Corporation board vacancies in an attempt to overturn contracts which have been approved.

Just last month, the HCDE surprisingly selected a first-term trustee as President of its board and voted to eliminate its own representation in Austin by firing HillCo Partners, leaving services vulnerable to attacks.

The community demands the department safeguard the programs and shared services it brings to Harris County and the jobs of more than 1,000 HCDE employees.

Here’s the agenda for that special Board meeting. Note that all of the action items on it were submitted by the Flynn/Wolfe/Sumners troika. Nothing good can come of this.