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June 12th, 2019:

Here comes another referendum no one will understand

Be careful what petitions you sign, that’s my advice.

A political action committee is launching a petition drive Sunday aimed at limiting how much city contractors and vendors can contribute to municipal candidates, marking the start of a month-long effort to gather enough signatures to put the so-called anti-pay-to-play measure on Houston’s November ballot.

The drive is for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, that would amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Houston’s campaign finance laws allow individual donors to give candidates up to $5,000 every two years. Committees can contribute a maximum of $10,000 during the same span.

The amendment would further prohibit city board and commission members, as well as sexually-oriented business owners, from giving candidates any campaign money.

[…]

To put it on the ballot, the PAC — called “End Pay to Play” — must gather about 40,000 signatures from registered Houston voters within a 30-day window ending July 8. The city secretary would then verify the signatures, prompting city council to vote on holding an election to coincide with the Nov. 5 municipal contests.

We’ll see if this thing gets enough signatures in the allotted time. Collecting a sufficient amount of valid signatures takes resources, which is to say volunteers and/or paid canvassers. I don’t know how much grassroots energy exists for something like this, but I’ll be sure to look at the “End Pay to Play” PAC finance reports to see how they’re spending their money.

I have some questions about this. First of all, it sure seems to me like there may be some constitutional issues with the prohibitions this would impose. Last I checked, the First Amendment did not exclude strip club owners from the right to express their political beliefs. In a post-Citizens United world, where money is speech and corporations are people, it’s not clear to me that this would stand up to legal scrutiny. One possible outcome here is that not only is that provision struck down, but other parts of Houston’s campaign finance laws could be endangered. It’s not that long ago that the fundraising blackout rule got tossed by a federal judge. The potential here for unintended consequences is greater than zero.

I would also note that by going through the referendum process, this proposal will not get vetted by the legislative process. There will be no public hearings, no opportunities for Council members to ask questions or put forth amendments. I would argue that this is how you get a firefighter pay parity law passed that had no mechanism to pay for it (never mind the later ruling that it violated state law). There are times when the direct approach works well, and for sure there have been referenda that I have supported, such as Renew Houston, for which this criticism would also apply. Bill King, for one, has been critical of Renew Houston for this reason, among others. Here, though, King is actually running for Mayor, and it would be well within his capability if he wins to hand an ordinance for Council to vote on to do what’s in this referendum. Maybe he’s hedging his bets, maybe he just doesn’t want to get Council involved. Or, you know, maybe he sees a political advantage in taking this approach.

(Note that Bill King has taken it upon himself to crusade against campaign contributions from strip club owners. In case you were wondering why that particular legally questionable provision is in the petition, and why I say this is King working to his own advantage.)

(I know it’s a tedious bit of whataboutism, but Greg Abbott has made a career out of rewarding his campaign supporters. He went so far as to endorse the primary opponent of the Republican legislator who authored a bill that would have restricted this practice of Abbott’s. One can engage in government as one sees fit, but if there were evidence that, say, Bill King had encouraged people to email their State Rep in support of that bill, I might be a tad bit less cynical about his motives here.)

(The story notes that King himself used to be a player in this system that he now decries, as a partner at Linebarger Goggan. For this, I have no criticism of him. People are allowed to change their minds, and no one has to have a specific road to Damascus moment to do so. If he says he now regrets what he once did, I take him at his word. There’s plenty of room for me to snipe at his actions, as you can see.)

(No, I don’t know why I put all these last paragraphs in parentheses. Once I got started, it kind of built on itself. I’ll stop now.)

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t review our campaign finance and ethics ordinances. I just think we should do it in a more deliberative and rigorous process that ensures that the final product is compliant with existing federal law. I would also note that even outside that concern, we should be careful about how we regulate campaign contributions. If we make it harder for regular candidates to raise money for their campaigns, one effect of that will be that it confers an advantage to wealthy candidates who can self-finance their campaigns. I for one don’t think that’s much of an improvement.

Anyway. If you get accosted at the Kroger parking lot to sign a petition, please do be sure to know what it’s about before you affix your autograph. I personally would not sign this, but your mileage may vary.

Let the HD100 candidates come on out

With State Rep. Eric Johnson now also known as Dallas Mayor-Elect Eric Johnson, that means a special election for his legislative district is in the offing.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Dallas community advocate Lorraine Birabil has launched a campaign to replace outgoing state Rep. Eric Johnson, becoming the first of what’s expected to be a large field of contenders.

She told The Dallas Morning News that it’s critical for lawmakers to help develop criminal justice reform, access to affordable health care and quality public schools.

“This district has been home for me, and I know it’s important that we have opportunities for all,” Birabil said. “When we address these impediments, every Texan will be able to reach their full potential.”

Birabil won’t have the field to herself. The race to replace Johnson, who won Saturday’s runoff for Dallas mayor, is expected to be highly competitive.

At least 11 people have expressed interest or have been mentioned as possible candidates to fill his unexpired term in the Texas House.

That number could grow by the time Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sets a special election, presumably in November, to fill Johnson’s seat.

“People are interested in being involved,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “The fact is, a state representative seat doesn’t come open that often.”

Johnson has not resigned, and Abbott has not indicated when or if he’ll call a special election.

Looks like Inauguration Day for Johnson is Monday, June 17, so he’s going to have to resign before then. That leaves plenty of time to call a November special election, which I presume is what will happen. Assuming that is what does happen, whoever wins (in the runoff, of course) ought to be in good position to win the primary, which is what will really matter, as this special is only for the unexpired term. First, we need the resignation, and everything follows from there.

On prosecutor caseloads

I’m still thinking about this.

Kim Ogg

When a line of prosecutors stepped up to the microphone at Harris County Commissioners Court in February, they told tales of long hours, endless to-do lists and bloated caseloads well into the triple digits.

Their impassioned pleas and barrage of data were part of the push by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for an unprecedented $21 million expansion that would add more than 100 lawyers to its staff.

But despite a weeks-long campaign, District Attorney Kim Ogg’s budget request failed. Now, four months later, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle and The Appeal indicate that the attorney caseload figures used to justify the request appear to overstate the office’s workload.

The data presented to commissioners and the public did not reflect that about two-thirds of the felony trial bureau attorneys consistently handle a smaller number of complex cases. Instead, it frequently presented the caseloads of the remaining third of the attorneys — those who handle over 900 cases on average — as representative of the whole trial bureau. The office also counted every charge in an arrest as a separate case and included more than 200 cases put on hold after defendants had not yet been arrested or had fled after violating the conditions of their bonds.

Based on the numbers provided by the DA’s office, an average caseload for “felony two” and “felony three” prosecutors combined would be less than 600, if all positions were filled in each court — and would be even lower if chiefs were included. Exact staff assignments that month were not released with the data.

[…]

Four members of the Commissioners Court—including all three Democrats who voted against the budget request in February—did not comment on the caseload figures.

But Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who offered staunch support for Ogg during the budget cycle, said that he did not feel the DA’s office misrepresented data and reiterated his concern about the county’s refusal to fund Ogg’s request for more prosecutors.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that she didn’t get it,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a misjustice.”

During budget discussions in February, County Judge Lina Hidalgo — the Democrat who heads up Commissioners Court —questioned whether prosecutors could simply lower their caseloads by charging fewer people and leaning more heavily on diversion alternatives.

“This is not the only way,” she said, “and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads.”

Though Adam Gershowitz — a William & Mary Law School professor who co-authored a 2011 study on district attorney caseloads — raised concerns about the representations in the data, such as the inclusion of bond forfeitures, he stressed that too few prosecutors can have a negative effect on the legal system, leaving people waiting behind bars as their cases get reset instead of resolved.

“We could have debates about if (prosecutors) should charge less and maybe they should,” he said. “But they are overburdened and it’s bad on so many levels when the district attorney’s office is overburdened.”

There’s a lot more, so read on for the methodology and the questions about how cases were counted. One issue was with classifying all types of prosecutors as having similar workloads even though one group has many more cases than the others, and classifying things as active cases that aren’t really. The explanations for why things were counted as they were don’t really make sense. Even with that, there’s support – not unanimous by any stretch, but it’s there – for more prosecutors, and for managing caseloads. Maybe if we can all agree on what the case numbers actually are, we can better agree on what the number of prosecutors should be.