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July 12th, 2019:

“Pay to play” petition drive falls short

Womp womp.

The political action committee that launched a petition drive aimed at limiting the influence of contractors and vendors at Houston City Hall failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, the group’s director said Wednesday.

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls from King and fellow candidate Tony Buzbee to reform Houston’s campaign finance system, suggested the effort’s failure was an indictment on the “anti-pay-to-play” message being pushed by the political action committee backing the petition. The mayor urged reporters to “focus on real issues, real needs.”

“Let me just put it this way: I have not seen any problems,” Turner said. “I think that whole movement was more political than substantive.”

[…]

Ben McPhaul, the director of the PAC, said the committee still was receiving petitions Wednesday but would fall short of the roughly 40,000 signatures it needed to gather in 30 days under city rules.

“We are grateful for the hundreds of grass-roots volunteers who helped the effort with not a single paid petitioner,” McPhaul said in a statement. “The PAC plans to continue collecting signatures to raise awareness of the issue with hopes to get it on the ballot or in front of council in the future.”

See here for the background. Just so we’re clear here, this is not City Secretary Anna Russell counting the signatures and saying they don’t have enough valid ones. This is the PAC itself saying they didn’t get enough to even submit for inspection. They fell short of their goal.

The petition drive’s failure reflects the PAC’s lack of volunteers and funds more than the public’s interest in reforming Houston’s campaign finance reform system, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

“You can’t read anything into this regarding the attitudes of Houstonians toward ‘pay to play,’” Jones said.

Still, the outcome represents a win for Turner, Jones said, because it means the topic of campaign finance reform may gain less media coverage and traction from political pundits near election time.

“I wouldn’t put it as a major failure for King, but certainly it’s a setback,” Jones said. “Once he got behind the petition, he owned the petition.”

King said state law separately allows a longer period for petition drives, so the PAC would continue to collect signatures. Though King’s campaign is not affiliated with the PAC, it has supported the drive, and King made a point of being the first person to sign the petition.

“We’ve been carrying it around on our campaign and we haven’t had a single person refuse to sign it,” he said.

He also noted Houston’s charter bases the number of required petition signatures on a mayoral election held within the last three years. Since the last election happened in 2015 — more than three years ago — King contended a petition drive now technically needs just one signature.

If that were challenged in court, however, the litigation would get resolved well after November, said King, indicating he had no interest in taking action in court.

I can accept that this isn’t a “major failure” for Bill King, but it should be clear to everyone that he didn’t put any real effort into this cynical ploy. He has plenty of his own money, and could have raised more, to fund a sufficient petition drive if he really wanted this to be on the ballot. We’ve seen plenty of successful petition drives in the last decade. Did King really not know what it was going to take, or did someone tell him and he was like “eh, whatever, we’ll just wing it with some volunteers”? If “cleaning up City Hall” is the foundation of your campaign, and you go through the motions to mount this effort in the first place, what does it say about you and your commitment to this idea that you just let it fail without a fight?

The bit about the charter language is interesting. I think as a legal argument it’s mostly sophistry, but I could see a judge buying a plain-text reading and agreeing that even one signature is now sufficient until and unless the city cleans up that part of the charter. Here again, though, if King actually believed what he was saying he would have acted differently. Why not file that lawsuit before now? Theoretically, he could have filed it on November 4, 2018, which is three years and a day after the 2015 Mayoral election. Even if I’m wrong about that, I don’t see anything in the charter section on legislating by referendum that limits when a petition effort is allowed to begin. Maybe there still wasn’t a path to getting the question resolved in time for the 2019 election – though if you win the first round, it’s the city that has to start worrying about deadlines, not you – but boy howdy was this a limp production. It’s easy for me to take potshots at Bill King, but if you like him as a candidate and believed in this proposed charter amendment, you should be upset. At every step of the way, he did the very least he could do.

We have a candidate in CD06

Good.

Rep. Ron Wright

A Waxahachie Democrat who is business partners with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins is running for Congress in 2020 against Rep. Ron Wright, an Arlington Republican who was first elected to office last year.

Stephen Daniel, an attorney, on Wednesday announced his House campaign, telling The Dallas Morning News that residents in the suburban-rural district “haven’t been adequately represented” by the incumbent and that, politically, “it’s a closer district than people think.”

“A lot of people are disenchanted,” said the 42-year-old, who grew up just outside of the district in Itasca, a tiny town in Hill County, and then eventually moved to Ellis County after law school.

The campaign launch could signal that Democrats are serious about expanding the battleground map in Texas, which was already expected to host eight competitive House races next year. While Daniel is a political novice running in a traditional GOP stronghold — one that President Donald Trump won by 12 points in 2016 — the attorney’s ties to a prominent North Texas Democrat like Jenkins could give him a step up in fundraising, name ID and party support. Consider that Daniel is vowing to raise $4 million, which would be a stunning amount for a congressional seat that hasn’t been the subject of a full-on campaign bout in decades.

[…]

Democrats have already circled pick-up opportunities in six Lone Star State districts where the incumbent Republican House member last year won by 5 points or less. The only North Texan among that group is Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell. Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to win back two longtime GOP seats that they lost last year in Texas. One of those districts is now represented by Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat who ousted former Rep. Pete Sessions.

The contest for Wright’s seat could join that crowded docket. Daniel is pitching himself as a native son with humble roots. He “grew up very country,” he said, helping his dad work at a local landfill. He was also the first in his family to graduate from college, he said, ultimately earning a law degree from St. Mary’s University School of Law. He’s worked as a personal injury attorney for the last 15 years alongside Jenkins, who hailed Daniel’s “compassion, grit and tenacious spirit.”

“He cares about people and has earned the nickname ‘Bulldog’ for his zealous representation of his clients,” texted Jenkins, a longtime Democratic power player who was elected in 2010 as Dallas County judge.

As a reminder, this is Ron Wright. So yeah, I’m glad to see this. As noted, CD06 is not currently on the Dems’ target list, but Beto got 48.0% there, so it’s not a stretch to see it get on the radar. And the fastest way to get on that radar is via fundraising. Jana Sanchez, who is serving as Daniel’s treasurer, raised $734K last cycle, which in most other contexts would be excellent but is basically an opening bid here. I’ll definitely be looking for Stephen Daniel’s report at the end of this quarter. And with his entry, the only high profile district that still lacks a candidate is CD31; we’re still waiting on Wendy Davis in CD21, but we do have Jennie Lou Leeder, so that’s something. Let’s get that slate filled out.

UT’s new tuition policy

Nice.

Seeking to make college more affordable, the University of Texas will use some of its oil money to dramatically expand the financial aid it offers to low- and middle-income undergraduates on its flagship Austin campus.

The system’s governing board approved a special $160 million distribution from its endowment Tuesday, which school officials expect will fully cover the tuition and fees of students whose families earn up to $65,000 in adjusted gross income a year starting in 2020. The funding, which will be used to create a new financial aid endowment, will also let UT-Austin alleviate tuition costs for students whose families earn up to $125,000 annually, if they demonstrate financial need.

“Our main focus at the UT system is our students. That’s it, that’s what we’re in business for is to provide an affordable, accessible education for our students,” board Chair Kevin Eltife said in an interview after the vote. “We all know the struggles that hardworking families are having putting their kids through school. What we’ve done here is repurposed an endowment into another endowment that will provide tuition assistance to a lot of the working families in Texas.”

The funding marks a significant expansion for UT-Austin, which currently has a financial aid initiative that guarantees free tuition to students whose families earn up to $30,000 a year. The median household income in Texas was just over $59,200 in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

School officials estimate about a quarter of its undergraduates from Texas — 8,600 students — would have their tuition fully paid under the new plan, and an additional 5,700 would receive financial aid from it. The program will not pay for students’ living expenses, which were estimated to be around $17,000 for the 2019-20 academic year. Tuition and fees averaged $10,314 for Texas residents.

This is good, and a decent number of students will benefit from this policy. Remember, though, the main reason why tuition is as high as it is now, not just at UT but at all Texas public universities, is because the Republican-controlled Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003, as a way to help balance the budget by spending less on higher ed. You can see what happened next. It’s great that UT’s endowment allows them to take this step, but UT-Austin is just one school. If we really want to fix this, it’s going to take a lot more than this.