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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.

We’ll know soon enough if Beto is running for President

Thanks, Oprah.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke said Tuesday he will decide whether to run for president by the end of the month, signaling his closely watched deliberations over a 2020 run are entering their final stages.

The former Democratic congressman from El Paso and U.S. Senate nominee made the comment during an interview with media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who pressed him on his long-awaited decision — and whether he’s given himself a deadline.

“The serious answer is really soon,” O’Rourke replied. “Before the end of this month.”

[…]

The O’Rourke interview will air at 7 p.m. Feb. 16 on Winfrey’s OWN TV network. It will also be available on her “SuperSoul Conservations” podcast.

Winfrey tried several times to nail O’Rourke down on his 2020 decision to no avail. In a parting message, she said, “You seem like you’re getting ready to run.”

In the interview, O’Rourke also reflected on the lessons of his Senate campaign last year and the meeting he had with former President Barack Obama in the wake of the race. O’Rourke said Obama did not encourage him to run for president but that they discussed 2020 more generally — and the strain a White House bid can put on a family.

Getting a decision sooner rather than later would be nice, if only so we can sort out the who’s-running-against-Cornyn question in a reasonable fashion. Assuming the choice is between “running for President” and “running again for Senate” and not “running for something” and “not running for anything at this time”, I look at it this way: Beto’s odds of beating Donald Trump are higher than his chances of beating John Cornyn, but his odds of beating John Cornyn are higher than his chance of getting the chance to run against Trump. You need a clear assessment of how much higher those odds are in each of those comparisons if you want to make a rational, outcome-maximizing decision.

Not that these decisions are necessarily rational, of course. Beto’s gonna do what Beto thinks is best, however he arrives at that decision. I’m honestly not sure where “run for Senate” is on the list of choices for him, but I could believe it’s in third place, after “run for President” and “don’t run for anything”. If that’s the case, then where do Texas Dems stand in a no-Beto 2020?

But if O’Rourke doesn’t run against Cornyn, who will? The structural conditions that would make a Senate run in 2020 so enticing for O’Rourke would also be there for another Democratic candidate. You might think that ambitious Texas Democrats would be lining up to run, all but declaring their candidacies in the event that O’Rourke should decline to pursue the Senate seat. (If O’Rourke decides to run against Cornyn, he’ll almost certainly clear the Democratic field.) After all, O’Rourke discussed the possibility of running for Senate in 2018 in early November 2016. We’re already in February 2019. Where are the candidates?

“The conversations would be very quiet now,” said Matt Angle, the founder of the Lone Star Project, a progressive PAC. “You don’t want to say it would be really great if someone else runs and then Beto runs instead.”

[…]

When I spoke with Jason Stanford, a former Democratic strategist who is now an executive at the public relations firm Hill + Knowlton, he insisted that Democrats have a “deeper bench in Texas than people suspect.” He pointed to Dallas state representative Rafael Anchia, Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins, former gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, and Mark Strama, a former Texas state rep who is now an executive at Google Fiber. These four people might make fine candidates and senators, but aside from Davis, they have almost no statewide profile. They’re not the names you’d expect to hear bandied about if Democrats thought the 2020 Senate seat was theirs for the taking.

Maybe O’Rourke will run for Senate after all. Maybe a new face like Allred or Garcia or Hegar will gamble their political future on a Senate run. Maybe a big-city mayor like San Antonio’s Ron Nirenberg will go for the prize. Maybe a lesser-known name from the bench like Anchia or Jenkins will catch fire. Kim Olson, the Democrats’ 2018 candidate for agriculture commissioner, has suggested she’s considering a 2020 run.

But some Democrats aren’t convinced a strong option will materialize. “If Beto doesn’t run for Senate, I’m not convinced we’ll have a strong viable candidate,” Harold Cook, a Democratic political operative, told me. “I fear that a lot of the most prominent Democrats who might want to run may well conclude that Beto got so close either because Beto is a one-of-a-kind candidate or that Cruz is so intensely disliked that no other opponent would fare as badly as he did.”

I’m more optimistic than that. As for the “who”, surely none of the just-elected members of Congress would run for Senate in 2020, and it looks a lot like most if not all of the just-missed Congressional candidates from 2018 will try again, so they’re off the list. One person that I suggested as a possibility but is omitted here is Justin Nelson. Maybe he’s hoping that AG will be on the ballot in 2020 following a conviction of Ken Paxton. Or maybe Senate isn’t his thing. I continue to believe there are plenty of good candidates available, and one of them will step up if Beto doesn’t choose this path. Big John Cornyn is expecting and preparing for a fight, and he’s going to get it, one way or another.

Paxton manages to restrain himself from prosecuting anyone on the SOS list – yet

Mighty decent of you there, Kenny boy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told lawmakers Friday that his office has yet to take action on a deeply flawed list of nearly 100,000 Texas voters flagged last month for citizenship review.

Paxton wrote a letter to the Senate Nominations Committee the day after a hearing in which David Whitley, the governor’s nominee to be the state’s top election official, conceded that he was aware of potential problems with the list before he referred it to the state’s top prosecutors.

[…]

Paxton assured senators in the Friday letter that his agency would undertake such probes “only once some counties have completed their list maintenance.”

“To us, justice means charging and prosecuting only if the facts show the person committed the offense and had the required criminal state of mind,” Paxton wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman and obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Charging a defendant without that evidence is injustice.”

But Paxton’s letter also made clear that the delay in initiating prosecutions is largely due to a lack of resources.

“Our undersized Election Fraud Unit was experiencing a backlog of over 80 complex cases even before the SOS notification,” Paxton wrote. “Simply put, even utilizing every resource we have, it would not be possible to investigate tens of thousands of SOS matters before the voter registrars should be able to complete their list maintenance activity.”

Paxton’s agency has asked the Legislature for $2 million and 10 full-time staff members to investigate and prosecute election fraud cases, saying it has too many investigations and too few resources already.

See here for more on Whitley’s super fun day of admitting to the committee that he doesn’t know his rear end from his elbow. I’m sure this all must be grinding Paxton’s gears, poor baby. It has to be just a wee bit harder to justify all that money for his political vendettas when the numbers are so obviously wrong even he can’t act on them. As the story notes, he may never get any actual names from county election administrators, at least not any time soon. The lesson here is that it’s so much better to be right slowly than to be wrong quickly. And like many important lessons in life, it needed to be learned the hard way.

Buc-ee’s comes to Alabama

Tomorrow, the world.

Texas road stop institution Buc-ee’s has opened a store in Alabama, its first location outside the Lone Star State.

Despite chilly weather, more than 100 people were lined up outside the Baldwin County store when it opened at 6 a.m. Monday. They were eager to experience a Buc-ee’s supersized gas station and convenience store, renowned for its cartoon beaver logo, clean bathrooms and clever billboards. Some die-hard Buc-ee’s fans drove hours to get to the store opening, said Jeff Nadalo, Buc-ee’s general counsel.

“It was packed and very busy all day,” Nadalo said. “I think a lot of people had heard what Buc-ee’s was about from friends and family who had been and were familiar with the experience.”

The 52,000-square-foot store, in Robertsdale, features 124 fueling stations and the “biggest, most pristine bathrooms the state of Alabama has ever seen,” a Buc-ee’s press release crowed. The store, has a similar layout to the new Buc-ee’s in Katy, except the Alabama location doesn’t have a car wash, Nadalo said.

[…]

Since it was founded in 1982, Buc-ee’s has mostly stuck to its Texas roots, operating 34 stores across the Lone Star State. A couple of years ago, the Lake Jackson company began looking to expand across the southeastern U.S., which shares a similar customer profile to Texas, Nadalo said.

“We’re taking the great experience that is Buc-ee’s to other states,” Nadalo said. “We felt it was something that would work well, certainly in Alabama, and we think it’ll be well-received in Florida.”

We first heard about this almost three years ago, though at the time they were aiming for Louisiana. It’s on I-10, so if you’re driving to Florida (where Buc-ee’s plans future expansions), you’ll see the familiar signs. Less familiar was this:

A lawsuit claims that Buc-ee’s illegally priced gasoline when it opened its first Alabama travel center last month along Interstate 10 in Baldwin County.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court by Oasis Travel Center LLC, alleges that the Lake Jackson, Texas-based company violated the 35-year-old Alabama Motor Fuel Marketing Act, and demands that the company halt its pricing strategies while the case is pending.

The law, passed in 1984, prohibits big oil companies from selling gasoline to the public for less than it costs to buy and transport it to a retail outlet.

Similar lawsuits, over the years, have been filed in Alabama against big-box retailers like Costco and Murphy Oil Corp., which operates Walmart gas stations.

“We contend Buc-ee’s, when it opened up two weeks ago, it opened at prices for regular unleaded and other grades at below costs as defined under the Alabama law,” said H. Dean Mooty, a Montgomery-based attorney who has represented smaller-sized convenience stores in similar cases.

The lawsuit specifically cites several dates when Buc-ee’s posted a price of regular gasoline under what state law allows. Among the dates cited is Buc-ee’s Jan. 21 opener, when regular gasoline was sold at a rounded price of $1.80 per gallon.

Oops. You really are not in Texas any more, y’all. As for the rest of us, enjoy the beaver nuggets and the clean bathrooms while you can.

The Whitley hearing

Not a great day at the office for our Secretary of State and his advisory-ing ways.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Almost two weeks after calling into question the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, Texas’ new chief elections officer, David Whitley, defended his office’s decision to hand over those voters’ names to law enforcement around the same time his office was also acknowledging to local election officials that the list of names could contain mistakes.

At a Senate hearing to consider his confirmation as secretary of state, Whitley vacillated between telling lawmakers he referred the list of voters to the attorney general’s office because his office had no power to investigate them for illegal voting and describing the citizenship review efforts as an ongoing process based on a list that still needed to be reviewed by local officials. But he made clear is that his office knew from the start that the data could be faulty.

He stated that in response to a question from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, who asked whether the secretary of state’s office had “cautioned the counties that there may be mistakes on the data.”

“Yes,” Whitley responded.

But when he was pressed by Democrats over his decision to send the list to the statewide office that handles criminal voter fraud prosecutions before the list was fully vetted, Whitley responded he wanted to get the data “in the hands of someone who could do something with it,” given that the secretary of state’s office had no power to investigate. That prompted follow-up questions about whether he should have waited until the list was scrubbed by local election officials, and Whitley doubled down with his defense, despite describing the data as “preliminary.”

“I can tell you senator that 100 percent my reason for transmitting this data to the attorney general’s office was to ensure that these lists were as accurate as possible,” Whitley said to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Sitting before senators in a packed committee room, Whitley faced blistering questions from Democrats for the better part of two hours. After brief opening remarks in which he touted his long career as a public servant, he somberly defended the controversial citizenship review efforts he ordered. But at times he struggled to answer technical questions about the flawed data at the heart of it.

At one point, Watson asked Whitley whether he’d consider asking the attorney general to hold off on investigating voters until the list was cleaned up. Whitley responded it was a “reasonable request” but said he was unsure “that it’s appropriate coming from my office.”

“You were the one who made the referral and blasted it all over the state,” Watson said.

See here for the background. It goes from there, and it never gets any better for Whitley, who mostly comes across as unprepared. As discussed, he will need a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be confirmed, and right now he doesn’t look to be on track to win over any Democrats, from whom he will need at least one vote to clear the bar. As I understand it, if he does not get confirmed, he will serve till the end of the legislative session, then Abbott will have to name someone else. The last time I can recall such an appointment getting scuttled was in 2011, when we had the fortunately-doomed nomination of David Bradley to the Forensic Sciences Commission. Before that was the 2009 nomination of Don McLeroy as Chair of the SBOE. I don’t care who you are in Texas politics, those are not names you want to be associated with.

Anyway. It’s still early to say what will happen for sure, but David Whitley didn’t win anyone over yesterday. See Progress Texas’ Twitter feed for in-the-moment coverage, and the Chron editorial board, which calls for Whitley to be rejected, has more.

Cornyn’s 2020 strategy

I have three things to say about this.

Big John Cornyn

As the Texas GOP Party chairman from 2010 to 2015, Steve Munisteri warned that Republicans could no longer take the Lone Star State for granted and that the party needed to reach out to the state’s burgeoning minority population.

“I’ve consistently said since I first ran for state party chair that Texas should be considered a competitive swing state,” he said. “That was my whole schtick when I ran.”

On Wednesday, as he announced he would be leaving his White House job to join U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s 2020 reelection campaign, Munisteri again sounded the alarm, joining other state GOP leaders in warning that once reliably red Texas could be in play in the next presidential election.

“Texas is not as solidly Republican as people think,” he said. “You need to treat this as a swing state.”

Munisteri cited U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s narrow win over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, as well as a history of Democratic advances in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio going back to the 2008 presidential election.

“A decade ago, we lost the urban areas,” said Munisteri, who will be returning to Texas after two years in the Trump administration, where he serves as deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison.

[…]

“The Democrats are still riding the splash of the 2018 elections in hopes that it will carry over into 2020,” Dickey told the Chronicle. “But the reality is, they have shown Texas Republicans what can happen if any Republican stays home during these crucial elections. We are engaging a massive campaign effort which started the day after the election to ensure we not only will successfully defend Republican seats, we regain the seats Democrats won from the Beto bump of 2018.”

[…]

The Cornyn campaign said Munisteri will serve as chief liaison to the state party and its “2020 Victory” effort. As party chairman, Munisteri was credited with helping encourage minority outreach, hiring Spanish speaking staffers, and increasing the number of Republican office holders in the state by nearly 70 percent.

“I gained a great deal of respect for Steve when he successfully led our party to new heights as chairman of the (Texas Republican Party) and have been proud to work with him in Washington as he’s served President Trump in the White House,” Cornyn said in a statement Wednesday.

[…]

Despite Cornyn’s seemingly clear path to a fourth term, Munisteri, like other top Republican Party officials, warns that the Texas GOP cannot glide into 2020, despite the party’s generational dominance.

“It’s a competitive state,” he said. “It’s just that we keep winning the competition.” To continue that dominance, he believes that Cornyn is committed to campaigning in the Hispanic community, the fastest-growing segment of the Texas electorate.

In a minority-majority state, Munisteri said, Republicans have little choice but to find messages that resonate with minority voters, particularly Hispanics. “If the party doesn’t look on the inside the way it looks on the outside, it means that we have work to do. I also believe in the depths of my bones this is not just about being pragmatic and trying to win votes. There’s a moral element to that.”

One challenge facing Republican outreach to Latinos in Texas in 2020 could be Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on illegal immigration and his continuing campaign for a border wall – the central sticking point in a 35-day partial government shutdown.

But Munisteri noted that despite Trump’s focus on illegal immigration, exit polls showed that he won nearly 29 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2016, a slightly larger share than that of Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee. Trump did slightly better with Hispanics in Texas, though he only beat Hillary Clinton by 9 points – a margin that raised the eyebrows of strategists in both parties.

1. Everyone’s fully on board with the idea that Republicans were spooked by what happened last year, right?

2. The bit where Munisteri talks about what happens when Republicans don’t turn out is the most interesting part of the story. Turnout, at least statewide, wasn’t the Republicans’ problem last year. Greg Abbott got almost as many votes as Donald Trump did in 2016. They clearly left some votes on the table – I believe Dems did as well, despite blowing past all previous high-water marks – which leads me to wonder what Munisteri thinks the GOP’s natural level of turnout should be for a Presidential election. Eva Guzman was the high scorer in 2016, with almost 4.9 million votes (Trump got just under 4.7 million). What does Munisteri think the top of the Republican ticket – which is to say, Trump and Cornyn – will get in an “all things being equal” context? GOP Presidential candidates ranged between 4.4 million and 4.7 million from 2004 to 2016. I think Guzman’s total is a perfectly reasonable target for next year; it would mean Dems would have to exceed Beto’s total by nearly a million votes in order to win. Does Steve Munsteri think they can do better than that? I’d be interested to hear it.

The challenge Munisteri and the GOP faces is that as we saw in 2018, Dems had a majority in the most populous parts of the state, which is also where all the growth has been. They achieved that by turning out reliable voters, bringing in a ton of new voters, and getting a significant number of votes from people who had previously been voting Republican. Republicans can get some growth from new voters and irregular voters, though that pool is much shallower for them than it is for Dems. They will probably get a few of the pre-2018 voters who abandoned them last year back; surely the mainstream, establishment man Cornyn will do better with that crowd than Ted Cruz did. They might be able to woo a few disgruntled or disillusioned Dems. I don’t think any of that will amount to much, but they do start out with a lead, so they don’t need it to be too much. How much potential does Steve Munisteri think there is for growth? Again, I’d love to know.

3. This again is why I will base my vote in the primary in part on who I think will do the most to fight for Texas in 2020. We can and should build on what we did in 2018, but it’s not going to happen on its own, and it’s not going to happen without a fight from the Republicans. Republicans think Texas is a swing state now. Dems need to act accordingly. Politico has more.

Another AstroWorld auction

Warm up your credit cards.

Could be yours

If your wallet is as deep as your love for Houston’s AstroWorld, you’re in luck.

An online auction is selling off a little more than 300 items from the theme park that closed its gates in 2005. From character statues to giant welcome signs, now is the time to grab your piece of Houston history.

The number of items available is expected to at least double in the coming days, according to Ken Spicer, president and head auctioneer of SITE Auction Services.

[…]

SITE Auction Services is selling the items through an online venue but plans on holding a live, in-person auction on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Emiliano’s Sports Bark at 7710 East Freeway.

The bar will have the items on display during the week leading up to the auction.

The online auction catalog is here. We last had an AstroWorld auction back in 2006. Who knows when you may get another chance? Don’t miss out.

Trying again for bail reform at the Lege

A very worthwhile pursuit.

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, announced Monday at the Capitol that they have again filed legislation that would implement a risk-assessment tool for judges to use when making bail decisions, among other proposals. Joining them in support of the legislation were the state’s two top judges, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht — who has publicly called for a change to Texas’ system for years — and Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen anything more broken in the criminal justice system than our current bail bond process,” Whitmire said. “If we do not fix it, ladies and gentlemen, the federal courts will.”

Bail is a legal mechanism to ensure defendants appear in court for their hearings after being charged with a crime. The most common practice is money bail, in which judicial officers set a bond amount that defendants must pay in order to be released. In the last few years, lawsuits have popped up all over the country — including in Texas — arguing that the system wrongfully detains poor defendants until their case is resolved while similar defendants with cash are allowed to go free.

In a speech to the 2017 Legislature, Hecht argued for reforms by noting that 75 percent of people in Texas jails have not been convicted. To illustrate what he considers a flawed system, he cited the case of a grandmother who was kept in jail for about two months on a $150,000 bond after allegedly shoplifting $105 worth of clothes for her grandchildren.

The bipartisan legislation filed Monday aims to help poor, low-level defendants get out of jail on free bonds and keep in jail those thought to be flight risks or threats to public safety. The proposed risk-assessment tool would have to be used within two days of arrest to help judges determine the defendant’s level of risk based on criminal history, not just the current offense. The bills are similar to last session’s, when legislation passed the Senate but died before reaching the House floor.

Whitmire blamed his 2017 bill’s failure on the powerful bail bond industry, which includes companies that front the full cost of a bail bond at a fee of about 10 percent. (A defendant being held on a $1,000 bond, for example, could pay $100 to a bail bond company to be released.) He said last session that bail bond companies opposed the bill because it would cut into their cash flow, but those in the industry have argued the measure would lessen a judge’s discretion and threaten public safety by letting more people out of jail.

[…]

To set bail, most Texas jurisdictions use bail schedules, in which a bond amount is set based solely on the criminal charge. The proposed risk assessment tool would also take into account the defendant’s criminal history and age.

If the tool determines that a defendant shows a lower risk of skipping court hearings or posing a threat to public safety, the judicial officer would release the person on a no-cost “personal bond” with or without conditions, like GPS tracking or drug testing. Under the proposed measure, judges and magistrates could still impose money bail if they decided it was the least restrictive way to ensure court appearance and public safety, but they could not use it as a way to detain poor defendants before their trials.

The risk assessment tool is meant to keep poor defendants from being kept in jail before being convicted simply because they can’t afford a low-cost bond amount. Critics of current bail practices have argued that risk assessment tools considering criminal history can reinforce a system that prejudices against poor people of color. If someone was arrested on a charge earlier tied to race or poverty status, that person would be given a higher risk level. But the critics still support the tool over current practices.

“Until we can get some better tools, then the risk assessment system would need to work for now,” said Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director of the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income communities and people of color.

The other piece of the proposed legislation would change bail practices — and the Texas Constitution — to allow judicial officers to deny bail if they believe money bail or a personal bond couldn’t reasonably ensure the person would show up for court or if that person might endanger the safety of a victim or the public.

Since release on bail is a constitutional right in Texas except in capital murder cases, changing this part of the law requires voter approval even after the Legislature passes it.

See here and here for the background. Whitmire got his bill through the Senate in 2017, but neither his bill nor Murr’s made it out of committee in the House. This year, we have the settlement of the Harris County litigation and support for the idea of bail reform from Greg Abbott, so perhaps the odds are better. It’s never a bad time to call your legislators and let them know you would like them to support these bills.

Architect hired for Ismaili Center construction on Robinson Warehouse site

This is the most exciting bit of local news I’ve seen in years.

What once was there

The worldwide Ismaili Muslim community announced Wednesday it is moving forward with plans to make Houston the site of its first U.S. cultural center and to create an architectural landmark in the heart of the city that will reflect a spirit of tolerance, diversity and learning.

London-based Farshid Moussavi Architecture has won the commission to design the important new building on a high-profile, 11-acre site at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard. A rising star who also has taught for more than a decade at her alma mater, Harvard University, she was selected from a star-studded selection list of finalists that included David Chipperfield, Jeanne Gang and Rem Koolhaas.

“The rigorous competition was a vivid illustration of the global stature that an Ismaili Center holds in the architectural and built environment community, and of the attractiveness of Houston as a destination city for world-scale architecture,” said Dr. Barkat Fazal, president of the Ismaili Council for USA.

Houston’s Ismaili Center, the seventh globally, will be the institutional, intellectual and cultural center for the Shia Ismaili Muslim community in the U.S.

[…]

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the Houston property in 2006 and in 2011 donated the seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures of kneeling figures — that are situated just across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Moussavi said she was honored to partner with the Ismaili Muslim community. “Our team brings a broad perspective, with diverse skills and experience in international practice, scholarly research, multidisciplinary thinking and delivering cultural projects successfully in the U.S.,” she said. “It will bring Houston’s diverse communities together in a unique space for cultural, educational and social activities.”

This site has been vacant for twelve years now, since the old Robinson Warehouse was demolished to make room for this very long-awaited Ismaili Center. I have no idea what too it so long to begin to happen – as the story notes, it will still be a few years before construction is done – but after at least one false start, here we finally are. It’s almost as hard for me to believe this site will finally be redeveloped as it is for me to believe that this amazing piece of real estate has been left fallow for over a decade. Maybe now some other famous empty lots, including one just up the road a bit on Allen Parkway, will finally see new life as well. I wish them all good luck.

SOS Whitley still has to be confirmed by the Senate

His committee hearing is today.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Secretary of State David Whitley, who sent a flawed data analysis to every elections official in Texas warning that nearly 100,000 non-U.S. citizens may have illegally registered to vote, is due Thursday to meet with state senators who will decide whether he should keep his job.

Democratic lawmakers say they want answers from Whitley, appointed in December by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose list of possible illegal voters has spurred a flurry of civil rights lawsuits, denunciations from county elections officials — and applause from the Texas GOP as well as President Donald Trump condemning voter fraud.

Whitley will “need to be able to answer that there is not an effort to infringe people’s right to vote,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of the nominations committee that will hear testimony on Thursday. “This is, in my view, a very important step in the process and a unique opportunity to start getting on the record answers about why we’re in this situation.”

There are four Republicans and three Democrats on the committee.

[…]

The hearing Thursday will be the first with Whitley speaking publicly about the voter rolls. Whitely declined an invitation to discuss the matter with the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, although Whitley’s staff says the secretary has met privately with some legislators.

The issue is at best a “scandal of incompetence and at worse, it is a scandal of maliciousness,” said Anchia, who chairs the caucus. “The fact that a group of duly elected legislators is getting the stiff arm from the state is troubling.”

His confirmation is not assured.

Though Republicans hold 19 seats in the 31-seat upper chamber and can largely consider legislation without the say of any Democrat, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote among the senators present when the full Senate votes on his nomination. That means even with the support of all of the Republicans, he’ll need at least some Democratic support unless several senators are gone the day of the vote.

Whether he’ll clear that hurdle remains a question. Democrats on the Nominations Committee say they’re heading into Thursday’s hearing with a set of what are likely to be blistering questions about whether Whitley acted to suppress the votes of naturalized citizens.

“There is very little about this that doesn’t concern me — everything from intent to what a reasonable person would do under these circumstances to flaws in the system,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who serves as the vice chair of the committee.

Watson described Thursday’s hearing as a “very important step” in the confirmation process. It will allow senators to question Whitley about a review of the voter rolls “that has caused great concern — justifiable concern — about whether it’s an effort to infringe on people’s right to vote,” Watson said.

Whitley knows the appointments process well. Though he most recently served as Abbott’s deputy chief of staff, he previously oversaw appointments for the governor, remaining in that role during the confirmation of his predecessor, Rolando Pablos. Like Abbott’s first secretary of state, Carlos Cascos, Pablos was confirmed on a unanimous vote by the Senate.

But Abbott’s prior appointees haven’t had to explain themselves in the way Whitley might.

You can say that again. In the end, his nomination will surely advance out of committee for a vote by the full Senate, likely on a 4-3 vote. After that, who knows. He will finally get asked some questions about how this debacle came to be. Given all the lawsuits, getting him on the record, no matter how much he tries to dissemble and evade, will be both helpful and clarifying. Plus, you know, that ought to be part of the job description. The Statesman has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 4

The Texas Progressive Alliance would like to announce that it is not forming an exploratory committee to run for President, but it is bringing you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

The state of the state 2019

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that gets noticed.

Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address Tuesday, stayed on message about schools and taxes, continuing state leaders’ so far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.

Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises and property tax relief, the issues he and the state’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections. In doing so, he carefully avoided controversial social issues like the ones that headlined last session’s speech.

Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.

“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes — only 40 percent of third-graders are reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade year, he said, and less than 40 percent of students who take the ACT or SAT are prepared for college — “we must target education funding.”

[…]

Unlike in his first two State of the State addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. He tagged that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, but didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion. And there was hardly any other mention of health care, an expense that takes up nearly as large a share of the state’s budget as does education.

House and Senate Democrats called it “disappointing” that the governor didn’t propose expanding access to pre-K or lowering the costs of teachers’ health care.

And state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, who serves as the caucus’ second vice-chair, said that Abbott, for all his bragging on the state of Texas during his speech, failed to mention the state’s high uninsured rate for health care.

“Texas needs to expand Medicaid,” Rose said during the conference, “and we need to expand it today.”

Still, Democrats were optimistic about some of the notable absences. Two years ago, Abbott’s address was headlined by his call for an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that Democrats would staunchly oppose. This year, the governor mostly stayed away from hot-button social issues.

“It certainly was a different speech than we heard two years ago,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democrat who heads his party’s caucus in the House, said after the speech. “It seems as though election results have consequences.”

Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and civil rights groups have sued the state three times.

There’s still plenty of reason to be wary of the property tax proposals Abbott has made, and one reason why there are fewer red meat items on his agenda is that a lot of them – voter ID, “sanctuary cities”, campus carry – have already been passed. I will agree that this was much more temperate than the address from two years ago – there’s no way Abbott would admit this, but I think Rep. Turner is right in his assessment – and there are issues on Abbott’s list that will get broad bipartisan support. Let’s be glad for the small victories, and work to make them bigger. Ross Ramsey, Texas Monthly, and the Observer have more.

Paxton asks for summary judgement to end DACA

Not much coverage of this, and I’m not sure what that means.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Monday asked a federal judge to strike down Obama-era deportation protections for immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as children.

In a motion filed in Brownsville federal court, Paxton asked U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen to follow through on his ruling in August, when Hanen determined that the Obama administration did not have the authority to implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

At the time, however, Hanen declined to issue an injunction blocking enforcement of DACA.

In Monday’s motion for summary judgment joined by seven other states, Paxton asked the judge to end the program and block the federal government from issuing or renewing any more DACA permits to young immigrants.

Congress, not the president, has the authority to determine federal immigration law, he said.

“Whatever its policy merits, DACA is clearly unlawful, as this court has already held,” Paxton’s motion said. “Underlying the program is a limitless notion of executive power which, if left unchecked, could allow future presidents to dismantle other duly enacted laws. The court must not allow that to occur.”

[…]

If Hanen agrees to issue an order ending DACA, he would be in conflict with federal judges in California and New York who have blocked the Trump administration’s effort to end the program in 2017. DACA remains in force while appeals in both cases proceed.

See here and here for the background. The Statesman was the only news outlet with a story on this, which may mean there’s little chance it will go anywhere or it may mean we’re all so distracted by the eleventy jillion other news stories out there that no one is paying much attention to Paxton’s latest stunt. SCOTUS just declined to take up the Trump administration’s appeal of lower court rulings keeping DACA in place, which you’d think might give pause to even a Paxton-friendly judge. I’m never quite that optimistic. Anyway, I’m noting this for the record so when something happens I’ll be able to refer to this at that time.

(And a day later, he’s petitioning to have abortion and transgender health protections “wiped permanently” from Obamacare. I think he feels emboldened after having survived re-election. But don’t worry, I’m sure he’d use those new powers he wants responsibly.)

Measles comes back to Houston

We all vaccinated our kids, right?

Five cases of measles have been confirmed in the greater Houston area, a regional cluster that makes Texas the eleventh state this year to report the highly contagious disease until recently thought virtually eliminated in the U.S.

The cases, all announced Monday, include three in Harris County, one in Galveston County and one in Montgomery County. They involve four children, all under 2 years of age, and a woman between the ages of 25 and 35. All are doing well now.

“This is a reminder for people to be on guard and be up to date on their vaccinations,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health. “Measles, a serious disease, is in our community.”

Measles, caused by an airborne virus, is particularly dangerous, capable of causing serious neurological disorders and death in infants and the developing fetus in pregnant women. It is spread through direct contact with discharge through the nose and mouth as well as coughing and sneezing.

Shah said it was too early to say whether the five cases might be the start of a local outbreak. The counties are monitoring anyone exposed to the measles patients while they were contagious to see if they develop symptoms. None has so far.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said he’s concerned because in the pre-vaccine era, measles typically peaked in the late winner and early spring. He said “a perfect storm could be coming.”

[…]

It was unclear Monday if a lack of vaccination played a role in any of the Houston-area cases. All four children had received the first of the two shots — the second is given between the ages of 4 and 6 — and the woman said she’d been vaccinated, though the county is still working to confirm that through records.

Shah noted that the first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is fully protective in 85 percent of those who get it, but there’s no way of knowing if a child is in that group or the 15 percent who need the second shot to receive full protection.

Shah also noted that the person or persons who originally transmitted the virus may have been unvaccinated, he said.

The good news is that this outbreak is limited. This story said that Houston’s vaccination rate is above the national average, while this other story says just the opposite; I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s still a lot of cases at one time, and we’re already close to the nine cases total in Houston from last year. It could be worse, as the people in the greater Portland area can attest, but there’s no reason at all why it should be. You can listen to a short but timely interview with Dr. Hotez about the resurgence of measles here, and Texas Monthly has more.

Three times a lawsuit

Hat trick!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of civil and voting rights organizations is suing the state’s chief election officers and local election officials in five counties, claiming Texas’ voter citizenship review efforts are unconstitutional because they intentionally target naturalized citizens and voters of color.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in a Galveston federal court, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Jolt Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP allege that the state’s move to flag tens of thousands of voters for review using faulty data violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim the effort places an undue burden on the right to vote and treats naturalized citizens differently than those born in the county.

The groups also allege that the state violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by acting at least in part with the goal of discriminating against voters of color when it advised counties to verify the citizenship status of the voters it flagged.

The lawsuit against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Director of Elections Keith Ingram, and local election officials in Galveston, Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell and Washington counties is the third one filed against state officials since Jan. 25, when the state announced that it was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Safety they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

[…]

In their complaint, the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argue that Whitley “declined to include safeguards” in the process that would ensure naturalized citizens weren’t erroneously included on the list.

“The right to vote is a fundamental and foundational right, possessed equally by U.S. born and naturalized citizens,” the complaint reads. “The Secretary of State’s purge treats those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens whose right to vote can be uniquely threatened and burdened solely because at some point in the past, these individuals were not U.S. citizens.”

See here and here for the scoop on the other lawsuits, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had speculated in yesterday’s post about Lawsuit #2 that we could get this one as well, as the groups representing these plaintiffs had had specifically said they would sue if the SOS didn’t back all the way off. Gotta follow through when you say stuff like that, so folks will know you don’t mess around. At this point, we’re waiting to see what the courts will say. In an ideal world, they will force the state to do what these plaintiffs asked in the first place, which is to get their crap together before they put out baloney like this. Here’s hoping. On a related note, Mayor Turner released a statement urging Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett to reject the SOS advisory, which you can find here.

Paxton wants power to pursue political prosecutions

That’s the only rational interpretation of this.

Best mugshot ever

As he begins his second term, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is looking to expand the prosecutorial power of his office, asking the Legislature for more resources and expanded jurisdiction to go after crimes related to abortion and voter fraud.

The Republican attorney general’s office has asked lawmakers for millions more in funding to prosecute election fraud and human trafficking crimes. The agency has also requested expanded jurisdiction over abortion-related crimes, which are currently the purview of local officials.

Paxton’s office, which didn’t return multiple requests for comment for this story, says additional resources — and the additional grants of authority — are necessary to ensure laws are uniformly, and firmly, enforced across the state. But in Texas, most criminal enforcement falls to local prosecutors unless they seek the state’s help. And many of those prosecutors say there’s no need for the state to take over work they’re already handling.

Critics also point to the contested areas where two of Paxton’s major requests focus — abortion and election fraud — as evidence that he’s motivated by politics, not law.

There’s a lot more in the story, and you should read it all, but what you need to know is right there. It all started with Paxton’s minions making false statements to a Senate committee about local prosecutors. Never mind that there’s essentially no such thing as “abortion-related crime” – the story never even defined what that might be, and the anti-abortion advocate quoted in the story couldn’t supply an example of it. If Ken Paxton has the power to prosecute it, whatever it is, you can bet your bottom dollar he’ll find some to prosecute. Same for “election fraud” – I guarantee you, you give him millions of dollars to spend on it, he’ll spend them all. You’ll almost forget that the original role of the Attorney General is for civil cases.

New Braunfels hits pause on scooters

Swimming against the tide here.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

New Braunfels police on Wednesday issued a 90-day ban on commercial electric scooters in the city and will cite anyone caught using one with a Class C misdemeanor, city officials announced.

The temporary order was issued by Assistant Chief of Police Joe Vargas in an effort to address the scooter issue through “proper channels of city government,” according to a statement from David Ferguson, the communications coordinator for the City of New Braunfels.

“We understand it’s a national trend, but the reason behind this is getting something down on the books from city council and figuring out what the city wants to do about [the scooter companies] should they locate here,” Ferguson told mySA.com.

The ban applies to the commercial use of “electric motorized scooters on public streets, sidewalks and rights-of-way inside the incorporated city limits.”

“Under the temporary order, officers with the New Braunfels Police Department will be able to cite those using motorized scooters if they were acquired through a commercial business (shared mobility service) and if they are being used on public streets or sidewalks,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Each citation is the equivalent of a Class C Misdemeanor with a fine not to exceed $500.”

You can see the definitions of what’s allowed and not allowed here. I don’t know exactly where one would want to ride a scooter in New Braunfels – most of that town is either along a highway or in a residential area. Maybe near the Schlitterbahn or in the old-town-square district. Be that as it may, when Big Scooter comes to Austin to get a statewide law passed enabling their business, you’ll know where the first shot in that battle was fired.

Second lawsuit filed over bogus SOS advisory

Keep ’em coming.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of Latino voters is suing top state officials who they allege unlawfully conspired to violate their constitutional rights by singling them out for investigation and removal from the voter rolls because they are foreign-born.

Filed in a Corpus Christi-based federal court on Friday night, the suit alleges that the decision by state officials to advise counties to review the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters it flagged using flawed data runs contrary to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act because it imposes additional requirements to register to vote on naturalized citizens.

Joined in the suit by several organizations that advocate for Latinos in Texas, the seven voters suing the state all obtained their driver’s license before they became naturalized citizens and subsequently registered to vote.

Their lawsuit — which names Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas secretary of state David Whitley, attorney general Ken Paxton and one local official as defendants — asks the court to halt the state’s review and block officials from taking any action against them based on their national origin. It also asks Whitley to refrain from targeting new citizens for voter purges and to withdraw his current list “unless and until it acquires information that the voters are currently ineligible to vote.”

[…]

One of the plaintiffs — Julieta Garibay — has confirmed with Travis County election officials that she is on the list they received from the state. Five others believe they were included on the state’s list. Another plaintiff — Elena Keane — received a notice from Galveston County stating “there is reason to believe you may not be a United States citizen” and asking for proof of citizenship within 30 days to remain on the voter rolls.

Two days later, Keane received a second letter stating she had received the first letter in error.

Here’s the latest on that first lawsuit. This one was filed by MALDEF on behalf of the voters. The ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project have threatened to sue if the SOS doesn’t rescind the advisory, so we may get a third filing before all is said and done. Keep at it and don’t let up, I say. The Chron has more.

Bail reform settlement looks to be a go

Excellent news.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal on Friday offered initial support for new bail rules proposed by Harris County, signaling the three-year lawsuit challenging the county’s cash bond system soon may reach its conclusion.

The settlement of the case, which Harris County has spent more than $9 million defending, would seal victory for the poor misdemeanor defendants who brought the suit and allow Rosenthal and both legal teams to turn their attention to a similar lawsuit challenging the county’s felony bail system.

“We’ve actively been talking to each other,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the poor defendants. “I think we’d be ready in a month to come back to the court with a final, permanent order.”

For the first time in a federal court hearing, all the parties in the misdemeanor suit stood in agreement Friday afternoon about how the case should be settled. In an unusual scene in Rosenthal’s 11th-floor courtroom, the attorneys in the once-contentious case urged Rosenthal to sign off on new bail rules proposed by the newly elected slate of Democratic misdemeanor judges.

[…]

Rosenthal, who in 2017 agreed Harris County’s bail system was unfair to poor defendants, suggested waiting to see how well the new bail rules work in practice before issuing her approval. With the opening of the new joint processing center for inmates, the judge said minor, unforeseen problems may need to be addressed.

“The devil, in the broader issues, is in the day-to-day,” Rosenthal said. She ordered the parties to return March 8.

Allan Van Fleet, the attorney representing the misdemeanor judges, agreed that the revised bail system will require each part of Harris County’s criminal justice apparatus to cooperate.

“The judges are committed, with the sheriff, the DA, the plaintiffs, that we’re going to work together to get the best system that anybody can come with,” Van Fleet said.

See here for the previous update. We’re headed in the right direction, and we know where we’re going. It’s a new day.

Orlando Sanchez files $1 million lawsuit against water-pourer

Oh, good grief.

Orlando Sanchez

The former Harris County treasurer has sued a man for $1 million after water was poured on his head during a news conference about HISD in December.

Orlando Sanchez, who lost his re-election campaign in November, filed suit on Thursday against Steve Striever.

Sanchez and his attorney said that Striever assaulted Sanchez by “offensive physical contact” during the news conference on Dec. 28, and that he “knew or reasonably should have believed that Orlando Sanchez would regard the contact as offensive or provocative.”

“It’s not about the physical damage, it’s about the bigger effect the damage has,” Sanchez’s attorney Hector G. Longoria said. “It’s the visceral reaction it causes.”

[…]

The $1 million includes relief for past and future mental anguish, according to the lawsuit. The amount would ultimately be for the jury to decide, Longoria said.

Sanchez also demanded a jury trial and requested that Striever turn over material relevant to the incident, including any videos, documents, texts, or phone calls about the press conference or pouring water on Sanchez’s head.

See here for the background. I’ll say again, Steve Striever is an idiot who should at the least have been charged with some form of misdemeanor assault. But a million dollars? For “past and future mental anguish”? I don’t even know what to say to that. But hey, at least ol’ Orlando got his name in the newspaper again. At this rate, he’ll surpass his total coverage from twelve years as Treasurer in no time.

Weekend link dump for February 3

I’m so glad my kids are too old for the “Baby Shark” era.

Possibly better ways to do overtime in the NFL.

Flying cars still aren’t a thing, but jetpacks are on their way.

“It’s Now Clear None of the Supposed Benefits of Killing Net Neutrality Are Real”.

“The production-weighted cash cost to create one Bitcoin averaged around $4,060 globally in the fourth quarter, according to analysts with JPMorgan Chase & Co. With Bitcoin itself currently trading below $3,600, that doesn’t look like such a good deal.”

Meet Alice de Rivera, who as a 13-year-old girl in 1969 forced the NYC school board to let girls take the Stuyvesant High School entrance exam.

More than you ever wanted to know about the one-panel comic The Lockhorns.

Please, no more Margaret Court Arena at the Australian Open.

“There is no reason at all why Schultz’s preferred mix of policies should be considered “the center” of anything, and it’s important that people understand why.”

“Trump no doubt thinks he looks more reasonable if he gives Congress plenty of time to act before declaring an emergency. He might also think that Congress’s repeated failure to provide funds shows the need for emergency action. The truth is the exact opposite. By giving Congress time to definitively establish its unwillingness to fund the border wall, Trump is both taking away any legitimate justification for emergency action and proving his intent to subvert the constitutional balance of powers.”

“Why isn’t the original Law & Order — the flagship series in what’s arguably the most successful TV brand ever created — currently available on any American streaming platform?”

“My faith teaches me to engage in authentic solidarity, to see others’ oppression as our own. It’s just not an option to throw another community under the bus — even if it might make our lives easier or safer.”

“Howard Schultz is no longer CEO of Starbucks. But as de facto founder (he took it over as a small coffee roaster and developed it into what we know as Starbucks) I imagine he is still a major shareholder. Really he and Starbucks are inseparable. But I don’t think he’s really considered how vulnerable the company is to a boycott or simply enduring brand damage tied to this effort.”

RIP, Kim Bok-dong, human rights activist and “comfort women” survivor.

Don’t mansplain, Dan. It’s not a good look.

Don Junior takes the lead in the “dumbest Trump offspring” contest.

Look on the bright side: You are almost certainly polling better than Howard Schultz.

Ralph Northam must resign.

SOS advisory lawsuit update

Add another plaintiff, litigate till done.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A naturalized citizen — who immigrated to Texas from the United Kingdom and is a registered voter — is joining a Latino civil rights group in suing top Texas officials after her voter registration was flagged by the state for a citizenship check.

Signing onto a lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, Atascosa County resident Julie Hilberg on Friday alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s move to question the legality of tens of thousands of registered voters in Texas was an unconstitutional, discriminatory burden on the right to vote.

Hilberg — who also joined the League of United Latin American Citizens in its claims that Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton have violated a provision of the federal Voting Rights that prohibits the intimidation of voters — added her name to the suit, but she is also seeking to represent all of the legitimately registered voters who appear on the state’s list as a plaintiff class.

“The burden imposed by Defendant Whitley’s new voter purge program — both the current list of 95,000 registrants flagged for potential removal and the plan to continue this practice on a monthly basis — imposes a severe and plainly discriminatory burden on naturalized citizens who wish to exercise their right to vote,” the complaint reads.

[…]

After learning about the citizenship checks in the news, Hilberg on Thursday went to the local elections office with her naturalization certificate in hand to figure out if she was among those voters.

Hilberg suspected she would be on the list because she had most recently renewed her driver’s license in 2014 — the year before she took her oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in San Antonio. She had registered to vote in Atascosa County in June 2015, and then voted in several elections from 2016 to 2018.

When Atascosa County’s election administrator, Janice Ruple, confirmed Hilberg was on the list they had received from the state, Hilberg assumed any questions about her citizenship status would be resolved in that moment because Ruple knows Hilberg — and her citizenship status — personally, according to the complaint.

Instead, “Ms. Ruple was unable or unwilling to give Ms. Hilberg any information or assurances about whether her registration would be in jeopardy because her name was on Defendant Whitley’s list,” the lawsuit reads.

See here for the background. I don’t know what difference it makes from a legal standpoint to include a plaintiff who was directly affected, but I presume it can’t hurt. Ms. Hilberg was done wrong, and she deserves redress for it.

There sure was a lot of money spent on Congressional races in Texas

If we’re lucky, it will be the start of a trend.

Never has Texas seen as much money spent on Congressional campaigns as it did in 2018.

New campaign finance data shows that the state didn’t just beat its old campaign spending records for Congress, it obliterated them. More than $97 million was poured into the November general election in 2018 for the U.S. House. The previous spending record was in 2004 when just under $60 million was spent by candidates running for Congress in Texas.

The record spending for the state’s 36 House seats was spurred by Texas suddenly having a half dozen competitive races that became a key part of the national battle for the control of Congress. Three of those races accounted for nearly one-third of all the spending.

[…]

Overall, the 36 Congressional districts averaged more than $2.6 million spent per contest.

That spending doesn’t count candidates who lost in the primaries like Republican Kathaleen Wall, who spent $6.2 million of mostly her own money in a failed attempt to win the 2nd Congressional District primary in Houston. Despite not making it to the general election, Wall still ended up spending more money on her race than any House candidate in Texas. Republican Dan Crenshaw, a retired Navy SEAL won the 2nd Congressional District primary and defeated Democrat Todd Litton in November. Crenshaw spent almost $1.7 million on his campaign.

The 2004 election was the one following the Tom DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, so that money was being spent in the five Democratic-held districts where Republican challengers were seeking to oust the Dem incumbents with the help of the new, friendly map. In other words, the same basic dynamic of multiple competitive races, which led to a crap-ton of money being raised. I know people have a lot of negative opinions – for good reasons! – about money in politics, but the fact remains that money gets spent when there are competitive elections. When there are no competitive elections, much less money gets spent. All things being equal, I’d rather have the competitive elections.

Here’s the FEC summary page for Texas Democratic Congressional campaigns from 2017-18, and here’s the last roundup of reports I did, at the end of Q3. The three biggest-money races were the ones you’d expect – CDs 07, 23, and 32 – but as we know there were four other Dem candidates who raised over a million bucks for the cycle, and a lot more big-money primaries, of which CD07 was definitely one.

To me, the big under-reported story is in how much money was raised by candidates in “non-competitive” races. Dayne Steele, God bless her, raised over $800K. Julie Oliver, who was actually in a reasonably competitive race that no one paid attention to, raised over $500K. Candidates Vanessa Adia (CD12), Adrienne Bell (CD14), Linsey Fagan (CD26), and Eric Holguin (CD27), none of whom cracked forty percent, combined to raise over $500K. The candidates in the highest profile races brought in staggering amounts of money – and note that we haven’t even mentioned the candidates whose name rhymes with “Schmeto” – but I cannot overstate how mind-bogglingly impressive what these candidates did is. They deserve more credit for helping to generate and sustain the enthusiasm that led to the massive turnout and major downballot Democratic wins than they will ever receive. We should be so lucky as to have a repeat of this performance in 2020.

“Credible” abuse claims against clergy

I’m just going to leave this here.

Every Roman Catholic Diocese in Texas released a list Thursday of “credible abuse” claims against clergy going back decades, a move that comes as dioceses across the nation have released or prepared to release similar lists in response to a call from Pope Francis for greater transparency and accountability.

The ongoing sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church reached a new crescendo in August after a Pennsylvania investigation found more than 1,000 victims and more than 300 perpetrators throughout the state. Two months later, the 15 dioceses across Texas announced that they would be publishing their own lists by Jan. 31.

Gustavo García-Siller, the Archbishop of San Antonio, said at the time that Texas bishops “are working to further healing and restore trust, to take new actions to protect the vulnerable and offer support to survivors of clergy sexual abuse of minors.”

On Thursday, the names of accused clergy appeared on each diocese’s website: 42 in Galveston-Houston, four priests and a deacon in Lubbock, 22 in Austin, 53 in San Antonio. Many of the lists were accompanied by letters from bishops or videos like the one posted by Austin Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, who said, “I apologize and express my deepest sorrow to the victims and their families for the abuse that occurred and for any failures of the Diocese of Austin. I pray daily for these and all victims of sexual abuse.”

Jordan McMorrough, director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, said each list includes every credible allegation of sexual abuse going back as far as the 1940s and ’50s. The San Antonio archdiocese list, released on its website, stretches back to 1940.

The lists also included the church’s definition of a “credible allegation.” The Catholic Diocese of Dallas website said a credible allegation was “one that, after review of reasonably available, relevant information in consultation with the Diocesan Review Board or other professionals, there is reason to believe is true.”

“Although I have also provided this list of names to law enforcement, inclusion on this list does not indicate that a priest is guilty of, been convicted of, or has admitted to the alleged abuse,” Dallas Bishop Edward J. Burns said in a letter that accompanied his diocese’s list of 31 people — 17 of them deceased.

The Archdiocese of San Antonio also plans to release a document with an audit of all of its cases and how they were handled, written by an independent Lay Commission on Clergy Sexual Abuse of Minors.

Emphasis mine. I’m glad this is all coming to light, but boy has it taken a lot longer than it should have. Now we need an equally comprehensive report on who covered up for all these crimes. There’s still a lot more the Church needs to do before it can meet its own standards for absolution. The Chron has more.

Always beware revenue caps

They’re always a bad idea.

Flanked by the state’s top legislative leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that both chambers of the Texas Legislature will push to curb property tax growth by limiting how much money local governments collect without voter approval.

Fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as the heads of both chambers’ tax-writing committees, joined Abbott in making the announcement. Their news conference followed the filing of identical bills in both chambers, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2.

Abbott said it was “completely unprecedented” for lawmakers to be so closely aligned on such an important issue this early in the session.

“Most importantly, it’s a testament to the voters in this state,” he said. “The voters demanded this, and this demonstrates that the Texas Legislature is responsive to the needs of our voters.”

But two Democrats who sit on the House Ways and Means Committee said the proposed legislation is far from being a done deal. And an advocate for city governments said there are plenty of unintended consequences that need to be worked out. Chief among them is ensuring that cities aren’t suddenly unable to afford police officers and firefighters.

Thursday’s bills seek to require voters to approve tax rates that allow government entities like cities, counties and school districts to collect an additional 2.5 percent in revenues from existing property compared with a previous year. The threshold would not apply to small taxing units — those with potential property and sales tax collections of $15 million or less.

Currently, cities and counties can collect an additional 8 percent in revenues without involving voters. But even then, residents must collect enough signatures to force an election. The new pair of bills would automatically trigger what’s called a rollback election. If voters shoot down the measure, the government entity would have to set a tax rate that allows it only to collect revenues from existing properties that are less than 2.5 percent more than the previous year.

The rollback rate is also based on the appraised value of properties within a taxing unit’s borders. That means a city or county could hit the rollback election threshold without changing its tax rate — or even if it lowers the tax rate — if there is a significant increase in local property values.

The legislation does not apply a cap to individual property tax bills. Because it would limit only how much government entities can collect in property tax revenues before getting voter approval, an agency could stay below the rollback election rate, and that portion of a property owner’s tax bill could still increase.

Local officials are almost certain to to push back. Bennett Sandlin is the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which advocates for city governments. His organization estimates that about 150 of the state’s largest cities would be affected if the legislation passes. He said that the rollback threshold is lower than inflation and could prevent cities from paying for first responders’ raises, filling potholes, and keeping recreation centers or libraries open.

As the story notes, this is more ambitious than what Abbott and Patrick pushed for in 2017, and they’re doing it with smaller majorities. On the other hand, these are the highest-priority bills they have (hence the HB2 and SB2 designations), and they’re no doubt going to go all out. It’s very possible they could succeed.

But here’s the thing. This is what they rolled out after making big promises about reforming school finance and giving more money to schools. Did you notice what was missing in this rollowt?

They were so tuned in to their harmonic convergence, they didn’t talk much about what their legislation would actually do, leaving the details to the bill sponsors to explain later.

They did say they were going for a 2.5-percent growth limit on property taxes in local school districts, cities, counties and other government bodies. It’s aimed at overall taxes, a leash on the overall mix of property values and tax rates that determine what happens to the average taxpayer’s bill. Anything that increases a local government’s property tax revenues by more than that would trigger an automatic November election asking voters for permission.

You might wonder how public education is going to get more financial help, as proposed by this same group of elected officials, if the state is going to limit school districts’ ability to levy taxes.

The short answer is that the state’s going to pay for it. The House’s proposed budget for the next two years adds billions to what the state is spending on schools. The Senate’s plan doesn’t spend as much, but the increases are significant (and in one case, more specific: Patrick has proposed $3.7 billion in teacher pay raises). Abbott floated the idea of holding down local taxes and tax increases — an answer to loud and persistent complaints about property taxes — and increasing state spending to fill the gap. And Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the fourth official at those weekly breakfasts, has proposed requiring the state to pay at least 40 percent of the cost of public education, along with any increases due to inflation.

But they haven’t said where the state money will come from. Nobody in the state government’s high places has proposed raising a tax, cutting other state spending to produce money for education, or weeding through the state’s tax exemptions and loopholes to shore up the state’s share of the public education load.

In other words, right now it’s all underpants gnomes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not expecting much more in the way of details about how this is supposed to do all the things they say it will do.

SOS walks its advisory back even more

Just rescind the whole damn list and let’s pretend this never happened.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A week after it flagged tens of thousands of voters for citizenship checks, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now advising counties on how to check their lists for naturalized citizens — an indirect acknowledgment that legitimate voters could have been on the list from the beginning.

Those voters are in addition to the more than 20,000 others who should have been removed from the list earlier this week after state officials found they had been mistakenly included.

In a mass email sent to local election officials on Friday, the secretary of state’s director of elections, Keith Ingram, offered up additional guidance to counties looking to clear voters from their lists without sending notices demanding proof of citizenship. Among the advice he offered to those election officials “after speaking to a number of counties” was to review registration application files collected at ceremonies in which immigrants become citizens.

“Some county voter registrars or [volunteer deputy registrars] participate in naturalization ceremonies and maintain lists of naturalized citizens or can identify which applications were completed at a naturalization ceremony,” Ingram wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

[…]

“Like many other election and voter registration activities, we are working together on this,” Ingram wrote in the email. “We thank you for your feedback and continue to welcome any further feedback so that we can work together to ensure an effective and efficient process of maintaining an accurate list of registered voters going forward.”

The additional guidance to counties comes as civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers continue to call on the state to rescind its original advisory to local election officials regarding the voters flagged for citizenship checks, pointing to the errors that have already been discovered in the state’s data.

“We told the SOS what was going to happen, and this week we all saw that what we cautioned against has become true,” Andre Segura, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, said on a press call on Friday. “The list is entirely flawed.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Seems like the SOS is doing everything it can to disavow its original advisory without publicly admitting their initial advisory was trash. They also haven’t said whether they’ve given a less-bogus list of names to the AG’s office. They couldn’t have been more incompetent and buffoonish if they’d tried.

And it’s quite clear, they tried.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia had been alarmed by the actions of the Texas secretary of state’s office for days by the time the agency’s chief, David Whitley, walked into the Dallas Democrat’s Capitol office on Monday.

The Friday before, Whitley’s staff had issued a press release calling into question the citizenship of 95,000 registered voters in Texas. In the days since, advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers were raising serious questions about whether the majority of people on that list would soon be proven to be eligible voters.

But before those doubts emerged, Whitley, the top election officer in the state, had handed over information about those registered voters to the Texas attorney general, which has the jurisdiction to prosecute them for felony crimes.

So as he sat at the end of his green, glass-topped conference table, Anchia — the chair of the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus — wanted to know: Did Whitley know for sure that any of the names on his list had committed crimes by voting as noncitizens?

“No,” Whitley answered, according to Anchia.

“And I said, ‘Well, isn’t it the protocol that you investigate and, if you find facts, you turn it over to the AG?”

“I do not have an answer for that,” Whitley responded, according to Anchia’s recollection of the Monday meeting.

[…]

The citizenship check effort went public this week, but the seeds for it were planted in 2013. That year, Texas lawmakers quietly passed a law granting the secretary of state’s office access to personal information maintained by the Department of Public Safety.

During legislative hearings at the time, Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state’s office, told lawmakers that the information would help his office verify the voter rolls. The state had had a recent misstep when it tried remove dead people from the rolls and ended up sending “potential deceased” notices to Texans who were still alive.

One of the DPS records that the 2013 law granted the secretary of state’s office access to was a list of people who had turned in documentation indicating they weren’t citizens — such as a green card or a work visa — when they obtained a driver’s license or an ID in Texas.

But it appears that the secretary of state’s office held off for years before comparing that list with its list of registered voters. Former Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, a self-proclaimed skeptic of Republican claims of rampant voter fraud, said he had no memory of even considering using the DPS data when he served from 2015 to 2017.

“I don’t recall it ever coming to my desk,” Cascos said. “I don’t even recall having any informal discussions of that.”

And there was reason to be careful with the “lawful presence list.” Driver’s licenses don’t have to be renewed for several years. In between renewals, Texans aren’t required to notify DPS about a change in citizenship status. That means many of the people on the list could have become citizens and registered to vote without DPS knowing.

Other states learned the hard way that basing similar checks on driver’s license data was risky.

In Florida, officials in 2012 first drew up a list of about 180,000 possible noncitizens. It was later culled to about 2,600 names, but even then that data was found to include errors. Ultimately, only about 85 voters were nixed from the rolls.

Around the same time, officials in Colorado started with a list of 11,805 individuals on the voter rolls who they said were noncitizens when they got their driver’s licenses. In the end, state officials said they had found about 141 noncitizens on the rolls — 35 of whom had a voting history — but those still needed to be verified by local election officials.

But it was under the helm of former Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, who took over in 2017, that the state began processing the DPS list. That happened even though at least some people in the office knew the risk. Officials in the secretary of state’s office early last year acknowledged to reporters for The Texas Tribune that similar checks in other states using driver’s license data had run into issues with naturalized citizens. Pablos didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Still, on Dec. 5, Betsy Schonhoff, voter registration manager for the secretary of state’s office, told local officials that her office had been working with DPS “this past year” to “evaluate information regarding individuals identified by DPS to not be citizens.” In a mass email sent to Texas counties — and obtained by the Tribune — Schonhoff informed them that the secretary of state’s office would be obtaining additional information from DPS in monthly files and sending out lists of matches starting in mid-January.

The next day, Pablos announced he would resign after two years in office. In his place, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide who at the time served as the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

Makes you wonder if he saw this coming and hopped off the train while he still could. Texas is in the process of learning the same lesson that Florida and Colorado did. I just have no faith that it will stick, at least as long as the current crew is in charge.

The down side of scooters

Watch out for that tree. And that pedestrian, and that street light, and that strange bump in the sidewalk, and that abandoned scooter someone just left lying there…

Photo: Richard A. Marini, San Antonio Express-News

In September 2017, Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room doctor, and Catherine Lerer, a personal injury attorney, started seeing electric scooters everywhere. Santa Monica, California, where they live, was the first city where the scooter company Bird rolled out its rechargeable two-wheelers, which could be rented with a smartphone app and dropped off anywhere. Lime and other scooter companies soon followed. As riders zipped down the street, reaching speeds of 15 miles per hour without helmets, both Trivedi and Lerer thought of the inevitable injuries.

Soon enough, victims of e-scooter accidents, both riders and pedestrians, began to show up in the ER. “I started seeing patients who had significant injuries,” Trivedi recalls. Calls about scooter-related injures poured into Lerer’s office. She says she now gets at least one new call a day. “We recognized that this is a very important technological innovation that has a significant public health impact,” Trivedi says.

More than a year after the Birds landed, Trivedi and researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles have authored the first study to quantify the public health impact of e-scooters. Their peer-reviewed study, published in JAMA Network Open, details 365 days of scooter crashes, collisions, and wipeouts. Digging through records from two Los Angeles-area emergency rooms, the researchers found 249 patients with injuries serious enough to warrant a trip to the ER. In comparison, they found 195 bicyclists with injuries and 181 pedestrians with similar injuries during the same period.

The goal of the study was to characterize how people were getting hurt, as well as who was getting hurt. Of the 249 cases the study looked at, 228 were riders, most of whom were brought to the ER after falling, colliding with an object, or being hit by a moving vehicle. The other patients were injured after being hit by a rider, tripping over a scooter in the street, or getting hurt while attempting to move a parked scooter. About 31 percent of patients had fractures, and around 40 percent suffered from head injuries. Most were between the ages of 18 and 40; the youngest was eight and the oldest was 89. While many of the injuries were minor, severe and costly injuries like bleeding in the skull and spinal fractures were also documented. Fifteen people were admitted to the hospital.

Trivedi thinks that the actual number of scooter injuries was likely higher, since the study took a conservative approach to tallying up patients, focusing only on standing electric scooters and dropping many ambiguous cases. (It also eliminated instances where riding a scooter was not the cause of a scooter-related injury—such as assaults where a scooter was used as a weapon, or injuries during attempts to steal a scooter.)

That’s from California, and it’s a partial picture of what has been observed in Los Angeles, based on two emergency rooms. The authors didn’t extrapolate from there, but it’s clear there would be a lot more than just what they focused on. That’s the first study of its kind of scooter injuries, but we do have some anecdotal evidence from Texas cities where the scooters have invaded, including San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, where there has also been one reported fatality, though it is not clear if that person (the victim of a hit-and-run) had been using the scooter at the time of his death.

Let’s be clear, cars cause vastly more havoc every day than scooters do. The magnitude of injury and death resulting from our automobile-centric culture just dwarfs anything even an onslaught of electric scooters can do. In the long run, more scooters may lead to less vehicular damage, if it means more people rely on them in conjunction with transit to take fewer trips by car. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or minimize the potential for injury that scooters represent. It’s up to cities and states to figure out how to regulate these things in a way that maximizes their benefit and minimizes their risk. That means we need good data about the real-world effect of scooter usage, and we need to avoid being unduly influenced by the scooter companies and the venture capital behind them. Let’s pay attention to this stuff and be responsible about what we learn.

Eh, what’s a few thousand mis-identified non-citizens among friends?

No biggie.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott downplayed concerns Thursday about the voter citizenship review initiated last week by his secretary of state, even though it has since become clear that the state’s list of flagged voters swept up thousands of U.S. citizens who should not have been scrutinized.

“This is what you would categorize as a process, a work [in progress],” Abbott said. “They’ll get it right, but I do want to be emphatic: It is essential that the secretary of state, [the Department of Public Safety], counties, anybody with any authority over this whatsoever work collaboratively and swiftly together to make sure our voter rolls are accurate, to ensure integrity in the election process.”

Last Friday, Abbott’s newly named secretary of state, David Whitley, flagged a list of about 95,000 registered voters whom his office said had provided DPS with some form of documentation that showed they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or IDs.

[…]

Reacting to Whitley’s announcement Friday, Abbott thanked him for “uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration,” promising legislation to address it.

But when he was asked about the fiasco Thursday at an unrelated news conference, the governor recast the effort.

“They were clear that it was a weak match, and they were reaching out to counties saying, ‘Listen, this isn’t a hard-and-fast list,” Abbott said. “This is a list that we need to work on together to make sure that those who do not have the legal authority to vote are not going to be able to vote.”

Abbott’s remarks come two days after it became clear secretary of state’s office had mistakenly called into question the citizenship status of thousands of voters who were, in fact, citizens.

See here and here for the background. That is some relentless commitment to quality right there. Abbott sets a sterling example from the top.

In Bastrop County, Elections Administrator Bridgette Escobedo said she had worked her way through about one-third of a list of 145 names, finding 15 that did not belong there. She said she also found several names of people who had become naturalized citizens.

Also Wednesday, county officials said they have had little luck connecting with the secretary of state’s office to clarify the situation.

Escobedo said she asked Whitley’s office to provide a “clean” list of suspected noncitizen voters but had heard no response by early Thursday evening.

“We’re wasting a lot of resources and energy on nonissues,” she said. “Don’t make me go through all 145 people on my list if you know some shouldn’t be on there.”

In Williamson County, Davis said the secretary of state’s office had not responded to his request for written instructions on how to cull the list of suspected noncitizens — information Whitley’s office provided by telephone Tuesday.

Travis County also received no response to its request that Whitley revise his initial advisory, county spokeswoman Tiffany Seward said Wednesday.

[…]

While counties have begun removing names from their lists, the secretary of state’s website continues to promote — without revision or correction — its Friday notice claiming that 95,000 people were identified as registered voters who are possible noncitizens, a violation of state law, and that 58,000 of those people had voted in one or more elections, a potential felony.

Whitley’s office has not responded to questions posed Tuesday and Wednesday asking if there are plans to update the numbers or publicly acknowledge that the original list included U.S. citizens who were mistakenly included.

We joke, because we must in order to cope, but this is all clearly setting the stage to purge voter rolls as much as possible. Republicans saw what happened in 2018. They will do what they can to stop the same thing from happening in 2020. Texas Monthly, who quotes former SOS Carlos Cascos saying the whole list should be rescinded, and the Chron, have more.

Of course some anti-abortion bill will pass this session

Passing bills restricting abortion is one of the reasons the modern Republican Party exists, so of course some bill (or bills) which do that in some fashion will be passed in this legislative session. It’s as safe a bet as there is.

Right there with them

Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would further restrict abortion rights, including an outright ban on abortion and legislation that would forbid Texas cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood – possibly the next step in pulling government funding from the women’s health group that’s also an abortion provider.

While top state officials say they’re largely swearing off divisive social issues this legislative session in favor of focusing on school funding and property tax relief, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are getting ready for the next round.

Texas is one of the leading states in the nation for curtailing access to abortion. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have reiterated their support for protecting the unborn in the past week. Newly appointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has a sterling record of supporting anti-abortion legislation.

[…]

Political analysts expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to keep pressing.

“Abortion is still a meaty gold standard for conservative Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not going away. It is too central to the organizing and the politics of the Republican Party … they can’t avoid it because it will be seen as complete abdication of Republican Party principles.”

In the Texas House, any abortion bills would likely go through Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee. He has a stellar anti-abortion voting record, according to Texas Right to Life. The majority Republican committee is made up of 12 men and 1 woman. More than half of the members have at least a 90 percent voting recording with the anti-abortion group.

But while he says he’s not trying to dictate the actions of the committee, Phelan doubts that an outright ban of abortion would be passed into law.

“I don’t see us passing legislation that’s unconstitutional at this point in time. Passing something that will not stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the Texas House,” Phelan said.

Speaker Bonnen’s record on reproductive choice isn’t relevant here. I will remind you that the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was eventually overturned by SCOTUS in the Whole Women’s Health decision was passed while Joe Straus was Speaker. Straus’ appeal in the first place was that he allowed the will of the House to take precedence, unlike Tom Craddick and his iron-fist, top-down approach. Bonnen will follow that path, which means that other than a bathroom bill that seems unlikely to stalk the halls this session, he’s gonna let the Lege do what the Lege does. And what the Lege does is pass anti-abortion bills. I don’t know when the last session was that didn’t include at least one anti-abortion bill.

Of greater and more immediate concern is whether the Whole Women’s Health decision, which affirmed Roe v. Wade and the undue burden standard, will continue to have any meaning. The Louisiana legislature last year passed a bill very much like Texas’ overturned HB2, and the Fifth Circuit, being the garbage collection of lousy judges that it is, allowed it to stand on the grounds that it was not quite as bad as HB2. An appeal to SCOTUS to put enforcement of the Louisiana law on hold while the case goes through the courts is pending, and if SCOTUS allows it to be enforce in the interim, it will be a clear message that it’s open season on choice. Ian Millhiser and Mark Joseph Stern have the gory details. Keep an eye on this, because the fanatics in and around the Lege sure will.

Joint processing center opens

This was a long time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

More than a decade after city voters approved a bond measure to fund it, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center Thursday that officials say will eliminate the redundant practice of booking inmates at the city jail before transferring them to the county lockup.

The downtown center, replete with a digital processing system, open booking areas and dormitory-style units, was designed to be more efficient and to square with the city and county’s evolving attitude on criminal justice, officials said.

“This streamlined, expedited booking process is a true game-changer for Harris County law enforcement families,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a roomful of elected officials and law enforcement officers at the new facility Thursday. “Every minute an officer spends escorting a prisoner through the intake process is another minute that they’re off the street keeping our neighborhood safe.”

For years, Houston police have booked suspects at one of two city jails, before transferring them to the Harris County Jail and booking them again. Eliminating the excess work is anticipated to free up about 100 police officers assigned to jail duty.

The city is set to cover 30 percent of the facility’s annual operating costs, amounting to about $14.5 million, said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer.

[…]

The facility’s new digital booking system means officers will be freed from much of the paperwork that typically bogs them down. Officers also no longer will have to escort suspects across public streets, Gonzalez said, because they will be able to park in a sallyport attached to the building. He estimated officers would be in and out of the center within 20 minutes.

The facility, located across from the Baker Street Jail on San Jacinto Street, covers 246,000 square feet and will begin processing detainees Saturday.

See here for the previous update, which was in 2015 when ground was broken following the successful 2013 bond referendum. A 2007 county referendum that would have built more jail space had been voted down, and boy howdy does that look like a good decision in retrospect. This will get people processed through faster, and will cost less to operate. I just hope it won’t be prone to flooding. Kudos all around for finally getting this done.

As the SOS advisory numbers get revised down

This really can’t be emphasized enough.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

I included that bit at the tail end of yesterday’s post, but it needed to be its own entry. More than sixty percent of the names the SOS gave Harris County had to be removed because the SOS had failed to do any kind of due diligence. I’ve checked around and we don’t have solid numbers for this kind of correction elsewhere in the state (not that I can find, anyway), so perhaps Harris County was an outlier. I see no reason to give the SOS any benefit of that doubt. They need to recall the entire list, do their actual freaking job to vet it properly, and then get back to the counties with whatever is left. And put out a big statement walking back everything they said on Friday, which has been trumpeted far and wide by Republicans who desperately want to believe they need to take drastic measures to stop hordes of non-citizens from voting. This was both 100% grade A bullshit and some extremely convenient cover for whatever anti-voting bills that get pushed this session. Like I said yesterday, we can’t sue them hard enough.

Cornyn is not waiting on 2020

It’s what I’d do if I were Big John Cornyn.

Big John Cornyn

John Cornyn and other politicians say an incumbent should run in one of two ways: scared or unopposed.

Given that philosophy, Texas’s senior senator is having nightmares about his 2020 re-election bid.

Nothing wrong with being scared, especially if it’s early enough to stage the best campaign possible.

For Cornyn, running scared means being prepared.

He has already started his re-election bid, the earliest he’s fired up his machine since beating former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk in 2002.

[…]

After November’s election, Cornyn said he was aware that O’Rourke could challenge him in 2020. And even if the El Paso Democrat opted instead for a run for president, he certainly would receive a significant challenge.

Cornyn has called Cruz’s near loss and the Democratic Party push in the midterm elections a “confluence of events” that served as a “wake-up call.”

What’s more, from 2007 to 2011 he served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, getting a ground view of winning and losing campaigns across the country.

“We’re thinking through this and trying to be prepared,” Cornyn told The Dallas Morning News. “I can’t predict for you what 2020 will be like, but we will be ready.”

Cornyn will not be caught by surprise like Ted Cruz was, and he will not have to scramble to build a ground game like Ted Cruz did. He also benefits from the simple fact of not being Ted Cruz. He’s also going to be running in a Presidential year, with Donald Trump actually on the ballot. As well as Dems did last year, they clearly left votes on the table in some of their stronger districts. There’s room to grow, and as things stand right now I expect them to build on what happened in 2018. Cornyn is in for a tough race. He clearly knows that.

That said, it sure would be nice to get a better idea of who his opponent will, or at least may, be. Beto O’Rourke has the right to take as much time as he feels he needs to decide what he wants to do next, but in the meantime the potential field to challenge Cornyn is frozen. No one wants to jump into this race now, not knowing if Beto will choose to run again for Senate. It will be harder for any prospective candidates to fundraise, and it will be harder to line up institutional and volunteer support. I don’t expect Beto to take too long to make up his mind – as some people have observed, it’s going to start getting difficult to hire experienced campaign staff for a Presidential race soon, as more and more Dems make their own candidacies known – but it sure would be nice if we had an answer by, say, the end of March. People were already posting finance reports for Congress by the end of Q2 in 2017, remember. That helped a lot down the line. Beto is the big piece of the puzzle for Texas that needs to fall into place first. Here’s hoping he figures out his path sooner rather than later.