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May 6th, 2019:

The SOS voter purge may be over, but Ken Paxton is unaccounted for

Keep an eye on this.

Best mugshot ever

After the judge approved the settlement, the original list of voters was scrapped. Under the agreement, Texas officials now will only flag names of people who have said they’re not citizens after they have registered to vote.

[Joaquin Gonzalez, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project,] said the settlement requires that he and the other plaintiffs be able to oversee how the state carries out this more limited voter investigation.

“We get numbers of people that have been matched, so that we can tell if there is something that appears to be going wrong in the process,” he said.

[…]

But there’s one issue that wasn’t dealt with: Attorney General Ken Paxton’s plans.

When the original voter removal effort was announced, Paxton – the state’s top prosecutor – said he would “spare no effort in assisting” with those cases.

Because of that, plaintiffs named him in their lawsuits. A federal judge removed him, however, because he doesn’t have the power to actually cancel voter registrations.

Perales said it’s unclear what Paxton will do following the settlement.

“Ken Paxton has said contradictory things about this voter purge that came out of the Texas Secretary of State’s office,” she said.

For example, when lawmakers raised questions about the state’s effort earlier this year, Paxton said he didn’t have the time or resources to go through the list and investigate people.

“At the same time, Ken Paxton’s office has claimed that they are still investigating – or doing some kind of investigation – of registered voters who may be non-U.S. citizens,” Perales said.

Paxton’s Office also has been shielding documents related to the voter-removal effort from public view.

In a letter to media organizations and others, the open records division of his office has said, “the information at issue relates to an open criminal investigation conducted by the [Office of the Attorney General’s] Election Fraud Section of the Criminal Prosecutions Division. Further, the OAG states release of the information at issue would interfere with the pending investigation.”

See here for the background. I was wondering about this myself when the settlement terms were announced. It goes without saying that Ken Paxton cannot be trusted. If he has the opportunity to press forward with any of these cases, on whatever grounds, he will. I strongly suspect that all of the attorneys for the plaintiffs will need to keep their evidence files close at hand, ready to whip out for a new motion when and if Paxton strikes. Do not let him try to make wine from the fruit of the poisoned tree.

On a side note, this story also addresses the question of why the state settled instead of appealing, as they usually do:

Gonzalez said he thinks state officials did that partly because the legal challenge was looming over Whitley’s confirmation as secretary of state. He had only recently been appointed when he announced the voter list. Gonzalez said state officials backed off when Senate Democrats vowed to block his confirmation.

“Their opposition to the nomination, we believe, is [part of what] provided the leverage for the state to be willing to settle this in the first case, because the state doesn’t settle voting rights cases like this,” he said.

Maybe. Doesn’t seem to have helped, but I can see the logic. I still feel like there was more to it than this, but I can believe this was a factor.

Once again with how the property tax system is rigged

Your taxes are higher than they need to be so that large commercial properties can have lower taxes.

As property owners across Texas receive their notices this month of their tax values, appraisers are bracing for another round of appeals by hotels, office buildings and oil refineries making use of a 22-year-old law that has been wildly successful at knocking down their taxable values.

Over the years, appraisers say the law has increasingly shifted the state’s property tax burden onto homeowners, who now face the third-highest property tax rate in the nation.

“The only public policy reason behind it is to enrich commercial land owners at the expense of residential ratepayers,” said Jeff Branick, county judge in Jefferson County, where an appeal filed by owners of a huge industrial facility is creating a multimillion dollar hit on local government tax revenue. “If I had all properties being appraised at true fair market value, I could lower the tax rate.”

Protests and lawsuits related to the tax provision knocked a total of $44 billion off the tax rolls last year in the state’s five biggest counties: Harris, Bexar, Dallas, Tarrant and Travis, records from the Texas Comptroller’s Office show — an amount that equates to nearly $1 billion in tax revenue for local school districts and governments, according to a Hearst Newspapers analysis.

[…]

Jim Popp, a prominent Austin tax attorney who drafted the 1997 law, says the tax provision is working. The change, he said, ensures taxpayers have a way to protest when their property is assigned a value that’s higher than similar ones.

“To me, fair means treating similar taxpayers similarly,” said Popp, with Popp Hutcheson PLLC. If some properties are reduced below their market value, the next year appraisal districts “can come back and correct it so everyone is treated fairly,” he said.

Any property owner can file an equity appeal, but big businesses with the financial means to file lawsuits year after year make the most use of the law.

Property owners in Harris County filed over 5,000 lawsuits in 2017 making an equity argument. Roughly 90 percent came from commercial owners and together wiped more than $5.8 billion from the tax rolls, data from the Harris County Appraisal District shows.

Equity appeals let owners reduce their property’s taxable value by simply showing it’s higher than the median of similar properties — without any regard for what the property would sell for in the open market, a traditional measure of value.

But with so few guidelines in the law, appraisers say owners can find a median by pointing to lesser properties that are not really similar, or that aren’t even located in the same county.

While properties must be “appropriately adjusted” to account for any differences, appraisers say it can be impossible for unique buildings.

“It’s like comparing a 15,000 square-foot residential mansion to a two bed, two bath, two car garage,” said Jeff Law, chief appraiser for the Tarrant Appraisal District. “How do you make adjustments for that? You don’t, because they aren’t comparable.”

Once one property’s taxable value is reduced, the median drops, too. As a result, property owners often try to be the last to protest, said Brent South, Chief Appraiser at Hunt County Appraisal District and a past president of the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts.

“Each time one of their competitors gets an adjustment, it drives that median down,” South said. “It’s a continual spiral effect.”

We’ve covered this before. Fixing this basic problem – which again was a cornerstone of Mike Collier’s campaign for Lt. Governor – should be the first order of business for a Lege that wants to at least slow the rate of property tax growth for homeowners. Doing so would impose a cost on big businesses, though, and the Republicans can’t accept that. So here we are, wasting time again with regressive and unpassable property-tax-for-sales-tax swaps. You can’t fix what’s broken if you’re not honest about what is broken and why it’s broken. As they have done time and time again, the Republicans are demonstrating that this session.

House passes bill to legalize fantasy sports

Hey, what do you know?

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Wednesday to a bill that would classify fantasy sports as games of skill, not of chance, that are therefore legal.

House Bill 2303 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, passed the chamber on a 116-27 vote. It still needs another vote from the House before it can be sent to the Senate for consideration. (Update, May 2: The House voted to give the measure final approval.)

Fantasy sports allows fans to draft real players from various sporting leagues to create a fictional team. The players’ real-time statistics are then compiled, and the team with the highest overall ranking wins. Fans can track their teams through websites or apps.

While critics say fantasy sports sites are hubs for illegal online gambling, others contend the games are based on skill and are therefore legitimate. Lawmakers have filed similar measures in the past, but to no avail.

Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding opinion in January 2016 equating fantasy sports sites to online gambling, which is illegal.

“House Bill 2303 simply seeks to clarify state law and confirm that skill-based fantasy sports are legal and therefore not an act of gambling,” Moody said. “It’s very similar to what 19 other states in the country have done in recent years, and the United States Congress made this change in 2006.”

See here for the background. I hadn’t heard anything about this effort before this story was published, so it kind of came out of nowhere for me. Tiem is running down for bills to be heard in the Senate, and I have no idea where this is on the priority list. The odds always favor bills not getting passed. I’ll keep an eye on it.