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Austin

The firefighter pay parity referendum won’t be decided by the voters

it will be decided by the courts. Here’s a story out of Austin to illustrate.

Former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire has sued the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the ballot language of a proposition up for a local vote in November.

The lawsuit filed Monday challenges ballot language related to Proposition K, which calls for an outside audit of government efficiency at City HallThe Austin City Council approved the ballot wording last week.

At that council meeting, some supporters of the proposition bristled at the language, which includes a cost estimate for the audit of between $1 million and $5 million. Proposition backers complain the inclusion of the cost estimate will bias voters against the measure because the wording does not mention any possible savings that could result from an audit.

You can follow the links and read the writ, which is embedded in that Statesman. I don’t care about any of that. My point here is that while Council has voted to put the measure on the ballot, we don’t have ballot language yet. Does anyone think for even a minute that the language that Mayor Turner will provide and Council will approve will be satisfactory to all of the stakeholders in this fight? Does anyone think it is possible for this referendum to be a) simple enough for everyone to be clear on what they’re voting on, and b) thorough enough for it to adequately cover all the relevant details? These were the points of contention in the lawsuits over the term limits referendum, and the Renew Houston referendum. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The losing side in this vote, whichever side it is, will file a lawsuit arguing that the ballot language was inadequate, inaccurate, unintelligible, whatever else. Given the lifespan of the Renew Houston battle – which as you know is still not over – we’ll be handing this fight off to the next Mayor, and that is very much assuming a second term for Mayor Turner. On top of all of the other reasons why this is a bad idea, this is why this is a bad idea.

Austin drops its bag ban

What choice did they have?

The City of Austin says it will no longer enforce a ban on single-use plastic bags at most retail outlets, following a state Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down Laredo’s bag ban.

The court ruled Laredo’s ban was at odds with state law, but urged the Legislature to pass more specific laws to allow similar bans in the future.

The Texas Health and Safety Code says that local governments in Texas may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Opponents of bag bans argued that language makes the bans illegal, and the court agreed, saying state lawmakers haven’t effectively defined how plastic bags fit into that regulatory framework.

[…]

“Following the recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, the City will not enforce our current rules,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While it’s disappointing that the City is losing a tool to help protect the environment, we are also confident that the Austin community will continue to do their best to minimize plastic bag waste. Meanwhile, the City of Austin will continue to educate Austinites about the benefits of bringing reuseable bags with them every time they shop.”

Austin officials say prohibiting retailers from giving away disposable plastic bags helped reduce litter, save wildlife and stop bags from clogging up storm drains.

“The people of Austin have gotten used to this. Not a single job was lost. Not a single business was harmed,” said Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We hope businesses and residents of this city will continue to do what works, regardless of what the Texas Supreme Court says.”

See here for the background. AG Ken Paxton has sent a letter to the other cities that had similar ordinances warning them they need to do the same, and I’m sure they will. The good news here, if you want to be optimistic, is that this was a statutory ruling, not a constitutional one. Which is to say, the Lege could fix this by amending the law in question. That’s not going to happen without a massive change in the type of legislator we elect, but it is possible, and something we can work towards.

More on flood tunnels

They’re a thing, I swear.

Japanese flood tunnel

While it’s far from clear whether it will ever happen, the concept almost immediately generated widespread response when it was announced earlier this spring. Local officials told the Houston Chronicle it’s outside-the-box thinking with benefits that could outweigh the heavy price tag. Residents reading about the project on social media have expressed fears of sinkholes from the underground construction. Even entrepreneur Elon Musk, who owns tunnel construction company The Boring Company, jumped into the conversation on Twitter.

So would such a tunnel system really be a logical solution for Houston’s flood woes?

Drilled 100 to 200 feet underground, the underground channels act as temporary storage for floodwater during intense rainstorms, said Larry Larson, a senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Once the rain has stopped, the stormwater can be used for a variety of purposes. It can be pumped back to the surface into a river or wetlands or even used to recharge aquifers.

If cities have a section of river that regularly overflows, a tunnel can convey extra water underground and help reduce the amount of water that flows onto land during storms, said Christof Spieler, project manager of the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. Large-scale tunnels can also act as an additional set of waterways, taking pressure off undersized drainage networks, he said.

But Larson and Spieler said it’s hard to tell if such a system would make sense for Houston — a low-lying coastal city that’s experienced three 500-year floods in the past three years.

[…]

Flood control tunnels are nothing new to Texas — San Antonio built the San Pedro Creek Tunnel in 1991 and completed the longer San Antonio River Tunnel in 1997. Austin continues to put the finishing touches on the Waller Creek Tunnel and a tunnel in East Dallas received the long-awaited go-ahead in February.

Should the district choose to pursue the project, tunnels could cost up to $100 million per mile, Steve Costello, the city’s chief resilience officer, told the Houston Chronicle.

See here for the background. There’s a longish and very wonky conversation with Larson and Spieler about flood control, which if you read it you will know is basically an oxymoron, so do read the full article. There wasn’t any mention of other Texas flood tunnels in the earlier article, so I appreciate the Trib bringing those examples. I have a hard time imagining that this will happen here, but as noted the cost of the study is negligible, so why not at least examine the possibility? The worst that can happen is you wind up crossing it off the list.

I got those “too many traffic lights between Houston and Austin” blues

But maybe not for long. Depending on which route you drive.

[T]he Texas Department of Transportation is in the final stages of a decadeslong effort to at least make that 170-mile trip from Austin to Houston free of traffic lights.

Right now, there are just five traffic signals left on Texas 71 between Interstate 35 in South Austin and I-10 in Columbus, all of them between Austin and Bastrop. And TxDOT has engineering plans and money set aside to eliminate four of those lights by adding overpasses over the next four years. The fifth one — at FM 1209 just west of Bastrop — is in the cross hairs as well, but the timing of its removal is less certain, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy told me.

[…]

Texas 71, other than in Austin and through Bastrop’s commercial district, has no frontage roads. And it has scads of roads and private drives entering it throughout the other, more rural sections. So to turn it into interstate now would require TxDOT not only to acquire a lot of right of way for what would be a wider highway in many places, but also to pay some property owners for lost access to the road.

Or, more likely, to build many, many miles of frontage roads. Either way, the cost would be enormous. This isn’t a project that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future.

What TxDOT is doing instead — trying to eliminate traffic lights little by little — is the next best thing.

During my youth in Austin, through the mid-1970s, a trip to Houston included going through Bastrop, Smithville, La Grange and Columbus, including a few lights in each town and the odd right or left turn. The towns broke up the trip and were interesting to look at out the window, but going through them added a lot of time to the trip. By the early 1990s, TxDOT had completed loops around all those towns and few traffic lights remained east of FM 973 in Del Valle.

But little by little, as development stretched southeast of Austin, traffic lights were added first to that Bastrop bypass and then to several other spots along the way. About 15 years ago, TxDOT began to take those on, building overpasses and associated frontage lanes at several spots in Bastrop and major roads along the way like Texas 21. More recently, TxDOT installed a deep underpass on Texas 71 at Riverside Drive and a short tollway to bypass traffic signals at Texas 130’s frontage roads.

But lights remain at Ross Road and Kellam Road in Del Valle, at Tucker Hill Lane and Pope Bend Road about halfway to Bastrop, and at FM 1209.

TxDOT has set aside $48 million to build overpasses at Ross and Kellam — work set to begin as soon as fall 2019 and be done by summer 2021 — and $52.6 million for overpasses at Tucker Hill and Pope Bend. That second set of projects, TxDOT hopes, will start in fall 2020 and be done by summer 2022. All of this, TxDOT officials caution, could be delayed somewhat by environmental clearance work and acquisition of right of way.

The FM 1209 overpass, TxDOT estimates, would cost an additional $35 million. That money has not been nailed down.

McCoy, by the way, said he would like to make similar progress on U.S. 290, the northern route to Houston, but it has far more traffic signals standing in the way.

So, something like five years from now, a driver might be able to get to and from Houston on Texas 71 without hitting a red light.

So good news if you take the I-10/SH71 route between Houston and Austin, which puts you into (or takes you out of) the southern end of Austin. If you’re coming to or from the northern side via US290, hang in there. That may be a more interesting challenge, since there are traffic lights far away from both endpoints, in places like Chappell Hill and Brenham. And like SH71, the story of how US290 has evolved over time is similar. It used to wend its way through lots of small towns – I still remember a McDonald’s in Hempstead that was the best available bathroom for miles in either direction – but has now ruthlessly bypassed them all, making the drive faster and more efficient but much less scenic. We’ll see what comes of this. In the meantime, if you’re wondering why I-10 doesn’t connect Houston directly to Austin instead of San Antonio – look at a map, if you drew a more-or-less straight line from Houston to El Paso, you’d go through Austin – click over and read the answer.

“Families Belong Together”

Make some noise, then make sure everyone you know gets out and votes.

As the temperature inched to the triple digits and sweating crowds swarmed the south lawn of the Texas State Capitol, speakers declared with grief, hope, indignation and determination that the Trump administration’s immigration policies do not reflect their values.

Parents brought their children. Grandparents brought their grandchildren. College friends and church groups all stood and cheered as, one after another, immigrants, activists, doctors and religious leaders took to the stage and called for the unification of the thousands of immigrant children who were separated from their parents by the federal government when crossing into the United States. The “Families Belong Together” rally in Austin was just one of many held across the state and nation, from Houston and El Paso to Washington, D.C. and New York to Dodge City, Kansas and Missoula, Montana.

“While our president and his supporters have sought to divide us, we are here in defiance,” said Michelle Castillo of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas, to a cheering crowd of thousands in Austin. “To see each other’s humanity. Across race, across party lines.”

[…]

Bishop Joel Martinez of the United Methodist Church told the crowd he was hopeful seeing so many people in attendance. But, he said, nothing will get accomplished unless they go out and vote.

“Those who legislate and govern must answer at the polls for their acts,” he said.

That’s exactly right, and we cannot forget it. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up on horror stories about life on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. So many times we were told about the horrible things that those repressive totalitarian governments did to the people who lived there. Well, the things we’re hearing right now, in our own country, about children being taken by force and deception, parents being told they can only get them back if they agree to be deported, preschoolers appearing by themselves in court – all of them would have been totally plausible if they’d been told about the Soviet Union by Ronald Reagan. I can’t adequately express what a fucking disgrace, embarrassment, travesty this is.

So get angry. Get inspired by the pictures of the protesters. And get fired up to vote in November. ThinkProgress and Daily Kos have more.

Where the anti-vaxxers are

A lot of them are right here.

Four Texas cities, including Houston, rank among the 15 metropolitan “hotspots” of vaccine exemptions, more than any other state, according to a new study.

The study found Austin, Fort Worth and Plano also are among the nation’s cities with the highest number of kindergartners not getting vaccinated for non-medical reasons. Since 2009, the proportion of children opting out of such recommended vaccines increased in Texas and 11 other states, the study showed.

“There are some scary trends we were able to identify,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a Houston vaccine scientist and one of the study authors. “They’re a sign that anti-vaccine groups, such as Texans for Vaccine Choice, have been very successful at lobbying efforts – both of the Texas legislature and through social media and other advocacy — to convince parents not to vaccinate their kids.”

[…]

The overall number of people invoking non-medical exemptions isn’t yet high enough to threaten herd immunity, the idea that vaccination of most of the population provides protection for those individuals without immunity to a contagious disease. But public health officials fear clusters of “anti-vaxxers” could leave some children vulnerable.

Texas’ increasing exemptions have been well documented. Though the number is still small, they have spiked from less than 3,000 in 2003 to more than 45,000 of the state’s roughly 5.5 million schoolchildren today, a 19-fold increase.

Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital said he undertook the study because of the Texas increase. He said wanted to look at whether it was a phenomenon unique to the state or mirrored elsewhere. National vaccination rates haven’t changed much in recent years.

You can see the study here. Dr. Hotez is correct to identify the political problem as being a key aspect to this. One clear pathway to getting more kids vaccinated is to take away or at least tighten up the so-called “conscience” objections to vaccines. If the law says you have to vaccinate your kids, the odds are pretty good that you will. But first you have to pass such a law, and right now we have a legislature that’s not inclined to do that.

Scooters come to San Antonio

Beware, y’all.

Scooter!

Electric scooters started popping up on the streets of San Antonio early Friday morning as part of an initiative by Los Angeles-based scooter-sharing company Bird to provide an alternative mode of transportation, mostly for those downtown.

The scooters, or “Birds” as the company calls them, are reserved through a mobile app that charges a base fee of $1 per ride with an additional 15 cents charged per minute of use. A map on the application shows the location of available scooters, which are typically clustered with others in a “Nest.” They may, however, be picked up and dropped off almost anywhere.

“As San Antonio rapidly grows and develops, it’s clear there’s an urgent need for additional transit options that are accessible, affordable, and reliable for all residents and local communities,” according to a statement released by Bird to the Rivard Report on Friday morning. “Birds are a great solution for short “last-mile” trips that are too long to walk, but too short to drive.”

[…]

“Right now, more than one-third of cars trips in the U.S. are less than two miles long,” according to Bird. “Bird’s mission is to replace these trips — get people out of their cars, reduce traffic and congestion, and cut carbon emissions.”

While the idea might seem like an environmentally friendly mode of transportation for San Antonians, City officials aren’t quite on board — yet. The City had hoped to delay local operations until rules could be established for dockless transportation options.

Releases of similar vehicles around the country have surprised city officials, prompting some, such as those in Austin, to temporarily impound the scooters.

John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations (CCDO) department, told the Rivard Report on Thursday that while the City hopes to coordinate with companies to keep their scooters on the street, it has the right to remove obstructing vehicles left in places such as public right of ways like sidewalks, streets, or trails.

The department first considered regulating dockless bikes in January, before the scooters became a widespread and highly-funded phenomenon. Jacks said his department would likely pitch a more comprehensive pilot ordinance to the City Council’s Transportation Committee in August.

“We’ve asked them to hold off until we at least have a briefing or some kind of pilot program for Council committee,” Jacks told the Rivard Report earlier this month. “There’s currently not any specific ordinance that prohibits it. … We may do nothing, it just depends [on the circumstances].”

Other scooter companies have expressed interest in entering the San Antonio market. Blue Duck Scooters, LimeBike, and Spin all have communicated with City officials in recent months.

See here for some background. Unlike Austin, San Antonio appears to have had some warning about the impending arrival of these thing, so maybe it will be a bit less disruptive. I guess the scooters are positioning themselves not just as an alternative to cars for those short trips, but also to bikes. I can’t speak to the San Antonio experience, but when I was working downtown and I needed to get somewhere that was too far to walk, I used BCycle. To be fair, that was dependent on the kiosk locations – there was one about a block from my office, so I just needed to pick my destination carefully – which is an advantage the scooters have, at least until dockless bike sharing gets implemented. Whether people will give up car travel for these short trips is likely more a function of how safe people think scooter travel is, and how inconvenient driving is. I’m skeptical, but I’m also old and cranky and not the target demographic here, so pay me no mind.

Too many people don’t get sick leave

From the CPPP:

All Texans should be able to care for themselves or a loved one if they get sick, regardless of what kind of job they do or how much they earn. Approximately 4.3 million Texas workers – or 40 percent of the total workforce – lack access to paid sick days, and it’s estimated that between 39 and 44 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. are not able to earn paid sick days.

Paid sick days are also a public health issue. When people are forced to go to work sick, everyone—employers, coworkers, and customers—is worse off. Children also face the consequences when their classmates come to school sick because their parents can’t afford to take the day off to care for them. Texas public employers, cities, and our state should work to implement paid sick days policies, which will improve the financial stability and health of all Texans.

Our new policy brief examines the inadequate access to paid sick days in Texas and highlights how businesses and families can thrive when workers are able to earn paid sick days. Across the country, there is growing momentum and support for city, county, and statewide paid sick days policies, which require employers to provide a certain number of paid sick days to workers each year based on the number of hours worked. To date, 44 cities, counties, states, and Washington, D.C. have passed paid sick days policies.

Everyone gets sick, and everyone should have the ability to earn paid sick days. A multi-city or statewide policy would ensure a high-quality standard so that all workers are able to care for themselves or a family member.

You can read the report here. I agree with this of course, as a matter of public health and of basic humanity, but as we know we live in a state where the business interests and Republican elected officials vehemently oppose the idea. The city of Austin has passed an ordinance to require sick leave, and the city of Dallas is poised to vote on a similar measure, but neither of those will matter if the current lawsuit or the sure-to-come legislation to preempt such ordinances succeed. You know what I’m going to say before I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: Nothing will change until we change who we elect. If you’re fine with being surrounded by sick people in the course of your daily life, then keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might consider fighting for something better.

The status of Confederate monument removal

We still have a long way to go.

Texas has removed the most Confederate symbols and statues in the country since 2015, according to a new Southern Poverty Law Center study. But the trend does not extend to the state Capitol, where lawmakers have been reluctant to take down monuments and plaques.

Texas cities removed 31 symbols, which include statues and renaming of schools and streets, according to the report. Austin led the way, with the removal of 10 symbols, the majority of them on the UT campus. Houston renamed seven schools and one street.

Cities in Texas and across the country have removed hundreds of symbols following the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston in 2015, which prompted lawmakers in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse.

“As a consequence of the national reflection that began in Charleston, the myths and revisionist history surrounding the Confederacy may be losing their grip in the South,” the SPLC argues in its report. “Yet, for the most part, the symbols remain.”

Houston ISD spent $1.2 million to change the names of eight schools that once honored figures of the Confederacy. Reagan High became Heights High; Davis High was changed to Northside High; Lee High took the name of longtime educator Margaret Long Wisdom; Johnston Middle was changed to Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School; Jackson Middle became the Yolanda Black Navarro Middle School of Excellence; Dowling Middle was renamed after Audrey Lawson; and Lanier Middle changed its first name to honor former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier instead of Confederate poet Sidney Lanier.

Dowling Street, named after Houston businessman Dick Dowling who served as a lieutenant in the Confederacy, was renamed Emancipation Avenue by the City of Houston in January 2017.

Two controversial monuments remain in city parks.

The Spirit of the Confederacy statue has stood in Downtown’s Sam Houston Park for 110 years. A monument commemorating Dick Dowling was erected in Market Square Park in 1905 before moving to its current location in Herman Park.

You can read the SPLC report here. There’s a sidebar story in there about the history and origin of Stone Mountain in Georgia, which, yeah. Go read that if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about. I don’t know if they counted this sort of thing, but in addition to the schools that got renamed, HISD also recently got rid of a Confederate-themed school mascot. So yes, progress.

One place where a lot more progress could and should be made in short order is in the state Capitol. State Rep. Eric Johnson, who has been leading the charge to get a particular historically false plaque removed, just submitted a brief to the AG’s office regarding the authority of the State Preservation Board, which includes Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, to remove that “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque. He subsequently got support from outgoing Speaker Joe Straus.

The Republican speaker of the Texas House says a Confederate plaque hanging in the state Capitol can — and should — be removed immediately.

In a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton, Speaker Joe Straus called the plaque offensive and misleading. And he agreed with Rep. Eric Johnson, the Dallas Democrat pushing for its removal, that the Texas Preservation Board has the power to remove the plaque immediately.

“Every year, thousands of visitors to the Capitol are exposed to this inaccurate plaque,” the San Antonio Republican’s staff wrote on the Speaker’s behalf. “Maintaining it in its present location is a disservice to them and to history. The plaque should either be removed or relocated to a place where appropriate historical context can be provided.”

[…]

Johnson said he was disappointed he hasn’t heard from Abbott in the seven months since the two men sat down to discuss the plaque. He wants the governor to call a meeting of the board and vote on his request to remove this plaque. If the agency fails to act quickly on his request, he wrote, a court of law could compel it to do so.

“The Curator similarly cannot let a request languish,” Johnson wrote. “Should the Curator fail to act on a change request within a reasonable period of time, mandamus can issue to require the Curator to act.”

One may be disappointed in Abbott, but one shouldn’t be surprised. Straus has previously backed removing the monument, so if Abbott and Patrick would get off their butts and take action, we could get this done tomorrow. What are you waiting for, guys?

Waymo moves forward on a self-driving car service

Get ready, because they’re coming.

Waymo, the driverless-technology company spun out of Google, has agreed to purchase as many as 62,000 minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for use in a ride-hailing service set to begin commercial operations later this year.

The announcement on Thursday is the latest sign that Waymo is counting on a rapid liftoff for the service. In March, it agreed to purchase up to 20,000 compact cars for the service from Jaguar Land Rover beginning in 2019.

Both the Chrysler Pacifica minivans and the Jaguar cars will be equipped with the radars, cameras and sensors that Waymo has developed to enable the vehicles to drive themselves on public roads. Waymo plans to start its service in Phoenix, then expand to the San Francisco area and to other cities across the country.

Waymo began working with Fiat Chrysler in 2016 and has built a fleet of driverless minivans that it has been testing in Phoenix; Mountain View, Calif.; Austin, Tex.; and Kirkland, Wash.

According to the Associated Press, Waymo aims to have an automated vehicle rideshare service in Phoenix by the end of this year, so look out for that if your travel plans include Phoenix. We could begin to see them in Texas following that – one presumes initially in Austin, since that’s where the tests have taken place – as a bill to regulate automated vehicles passed the Lege last year. Waymo appears to have taken the lead in getting this technology to work, so we’ll see how this goes. Would you ride in a driverless car if one is available in the next few months? I gotta say, I’ll probably wait till version 2 is available, but maybe I’m just being a wuss. What about you?

A flock of electronic scooters descending on Austin

Not actually one of the signs of the apocalypse, though I’m sure it was annoying.

Scooter!

Seemingly overnight, Austin was buzzing with electric scooters last month. Scooter riders weaved through crowded sidewalks and traffic downtown and zoomed out of drivers’ blind spots near the University of Texas campus, catching motorists and pedestrians alike off guard.

Bird Rides, a dockless scooter company, deployed a fleet of thin, black scooters in April that quickly grew to almost 700. Then came LimeBike, which flooded the streets with their own white and green Lime-S scooter models on April 16.

Then, just as quickly, they disappeared last weekend.

The appearance of rentable scooters across the city briefly threw Austin’s political leaders into a frenzy as city government officials rushed to roll out a plan to regulate the businesses, which had started operating before a city-led pilot program could begin.

“In order to forestall a predictable and unmanageable swamping of our streets with thousands of vehicles, ATD recommends a more nimble response than our previously expressed pilot timeframe,” Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, said in a letter to the mayor and Austin City Council members.

The council worked until after 2 a.m. Friday to change city code and prohibit leaving dockless scooters or bicycles on city sidewalks and streets until a permitting process begins. Violators can have their scooters impounded and face a $200 fine for each seized scooter.

Over the weekend, both California-based companies pulled their vehicles from Austin city streets — but not before the city’s transportation department impounded about 70 of them.

[…]

Both companies placed their scooters on sidewalks and street corners throughout the city. Customers could download a smartphone app that allowed them to see the vehicles’ locations in real time, unlock them and pay the rental fee. Both Bird and Lime-S charge a base fee of one dollar, then 15 cents per minute of use.

Austin initially planned to begin a pilot program for what it calls “dockless mobility” — meaning vehicles that aren’t kept in racks or docking stations — starting May 1, but Bird and LimeBike deployed their scooters before it went into effect.

So the city pivoted to the new permitting process, which will require a $30 fee for each vehicle and cap the initial number of vehicles per licensed operator at 500. The city plans to roll out the new process shortly.

And not a minute too soon: The Austin Transportation Department said it’s coordinating with 15 different dockless mobility companies that have expressed interest in coming to Austin.

If you’re having flashbacks to the early days of Uber in Texas, congratulations. You’re not alone. At least in this case the scooter companies were noticeably less pugilistic in their press releases. But then, both of them had done the same thing in San Francisco; as my old music teacher used to say, once is a mistake and twice is a habit. So be forewarned, Mayor Turner and Houston City Council, because these guys are coming, sooner or later. And that rumbling sound you hear in the distance is the early gestation of a lobbying effort to pass a statewide rideshare bill for scooters in the Lege. Again, don’t be caught off guard. We’ve seen this movie before.

Of course Ken Paxton opposes the sick leave ordinance

He wouldn’t be Ken Paxton if he didn’t.

Best mugshot ever

Less than a week after a conservative think tank sued Austin over the city’s paid sick leave ordinance, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has thrown the state’s support behind the suit, calling the ordinance “unlawful.”

According to a statement, Paxton filed court papers with a Texas state district court in Travis County on Tuesday. He argues in the filing that setting the minimum wage, which includes the minimum amount of paid time off, is a decision strictly entrusted to the Texas Legislature.

“The Austin City Council’s disdain and blatant disregard for the rule of law is an attempt to unlawfully and inappropriately usurp the authority of the state lawmakers chosen by Texas voters and must be stopped,” said Paxton, a Republican.

Paxton said the Texas Minimum Wage Act enacted by the Legislature was a “single, uniform policy for the entire state” — and made no requirement of employers to provide paid time off. He also said the law prevents cities from passing a different rule because they disagree with the state law.

See here for the background. Seems to me Paxton’s assertions are matters for the court to decide, but whatever. No one has ever accused Ken Paxton of being a towering legal intellect. The courts are gonna decide what they decide, but if this is a fine point of state law, then I would just note that state law can be changed. That will require a wholesale change of state lawmakers, but it would accomplish the task. Whatever the courts do say, in the end we have the power to make the law say something else. The Observer has more.

Why do business groups want to force sick people to go to work?

This is bad for society.

The city’s new ordinance mandating that most private businesses in Austin provide paid sick leave to employees — heralded by supporters as the most progressive labor policy in Texas when it won approval two months ago — is facing a legal challenge to prevent it from ever taking effect.

Proponents of Austin’s sick-leave rules, which are slated to begin Oct. 1, already faced the likelihood that some conservative state lawmakers would try to supersede the city’s authority by filing bills to overturn the new ordinance when the Legislature convenes again in January.

But a coalition of business organizations, including the Texas Association of Business and the National Federation of Independent Business, are aiming to render the rules toothless regardless. The group — with legal representation from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank — filed a lawsuit in Travis County state District Court on Tuesday, seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against city enforcement.

“We needed to move quickly and stop any bleeding that might occur from this ordinance,” said Jeff Moseley, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, which is the state’s most powerful business lobbying group. “It’s overreaching (by the city government), and it’s hard-hitting to small employers.”

Work Strong Austin, an activist group that supported the ordinance, called the lawsuit frivolous and said the business groups involved in it are “seeking to undermine the democratic process and take away this basic human right and public health protection right from 223,000 working families” in the city.

The ordinance requires that most private Austin employers give each worker up to 64 hours — or eight full eight-hour workdays — of paid sick leave per year. Small businesses with 15 or fewer employees are required to meet a lower cap of 48 hours of paid sick leave per year, or six workdays.

I’m going to let Ed Sills, in his email newsletter from Wednesday, break this one down:

The public policy rationales are solid as a rock. The public health argument alone should resonate for everyone. Who wants flu victims preparing food at a restaurant because they can’t afford to sit out an illness? Who wants to sit next to someone on a bus if they have a cold?

The arguments in the lawsuit are frivolous and fatuous. TPPF is saying the ordinance violates the state’s prohibition on local minimum wage increases because paid sick leave is a form of a wage increase. That is utter nonsense.

If a benefit like paid sick leave counted toward fulfilling the minimum wage, employers right and left would pay less than $7.25 an hour and count the value of benefits they already offer toward the wage floor. Employers know they would be laughed out of court and roasted in the court of public opinion if they tried that.

The other “big idea” from TPPF is something called “substantive due process,” and therein lies a danger. Substantive due process reasoning was used by some judges in the first few decades of the 20th Century to strike down minimum wage, maximum hour and other laws. Unlike procedural due process, which guarantees fair trials and other safeguards that enable people in our legal system to make their cases, “substantive due process” was historically a card for employers to play when they didn’t like laws enacted by majorities to protect working people.

The U.S. Supreme Court occasionally recognized substantive due process, and a few examples are instructive. In 1905, the high court overturned a New York law limiting bakery employees to 60 hour a week. In 1923, the high court struck down minimum-wage laws using substantive due process analysis. In 1925, the court struck down laws banning “yellow-dog contracts” that required employees to agree not to join a labor union (this was in the pre-National Labor Relations Act days).

A changing majority on the Supreme Court during the Franklin Roosevelt era eventually flushed away substantive due process. By 1955, a unanimous court declared in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma, “The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought.” The law upheld in the case was a state requirement that eyeglasses be fitted and duplicated by licensed optometrists or ophthalmologists.

The law is on the side of the paid sick leave ordinance, but the infection of the law by politics may be a different story. I would not bet my house, my car or even my fidget spinner that the Texas Supreme Court would uphold a paid sick leave ordinance. The high civil court is a haven for the business community in Texas. Moreover, Gov. Greg Abbott and elements of the Texas Legislature will take a shot at the ordinance – and potentially at ordinances that voters in San Antonio and Dallas might be considering in November – in the next legislative session.

One argument the business community will make to overturn Austin’s ordinance, and to preempt other cities from following suit, is that it’s just too hard on businesses that operate statewide to comply with different rules in different cities. (As if the more-than-statewide businesses don’t already have to do that outside Texas.) But fine, if that’s the problem, then pass a sick leave law at the state level, or even better in Congress. Sick people should be home getting better and not infecting everyone around them, so take away the economic incentive for them to drag their contagious selves to work. I do not understand the argument against that. KUT and Fox 7 Austin have more.

Scenes from the March For Our Lives

From Houston:

Nearly 15,000 descended Saturday morning on downtown Houston for the city’s March For Our Lives, advocating for greater gun control in light of last month’s Florida school shooting.

A mix of children and adults gathered in Houston’s Tranquility Park for the student-led march, many carrying signs that illustrated their fear of violence and demand for legislative action.

“I didn’t know what to expect here today, but I just expect change in the government,” said Austin Luchak, a ninth-grader at The Woodlands College Park High School who attended the march with his father. “I hope they follow through.”

Hundreds of marches are taking place across the country, largely driven by students who are organizing the events. The rally in Washington included Texans like Kay Hopper, a retiree from Austin who showed up with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild. “I’m hoping that what starts here will change the world in Texas,” Hopper said.

[…]

In Houston, organizers expected 10,000 to 20,000 attendees to gather in Tranquility Park and march toward U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s office.

“Today, I hope our voices are heard, because we are the ones that go to school,” said Azariah Haro, a junior from Langham Creek High School in Cy-Fair ISD, who traveled to Saturday’s event with three friends. “I really hope we’re able to make a change.”

As protesters milled about shortly before the 9 a.m. start, volunteers worked to register young voters inspired into political action. Many brought signs voicing opposition to the National Rifle Association, while others implored replacing legislators who have been more supportive of expanded gun rights.

Emphasis mine. I’ll get back to that in a minute. Mayor Turner spoke at the rally, and he announced the creation of the Mayor’s Commission to End Gun Violence. Details will be forthcoming. In the meantime, there were rallies around the state as well.

In more than 800 planned “March for Our Lives” events across the country – including in Austin, Houston and Dallas – students and families protested against gun violence and called on lawmakers to take decisive action.

Thousands clogged Austin’s Congress Ave and gathered outside the pink-domed Capitol building, chanting and applauding as speakers – including Mayor Steve Adler, actor Matthew McConaughey and the local high school students organizers of the event – took their turns rallying the crowd.

“We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make the choice to jump in front of an assault rifle,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “Not one more.” The crowd broke into chants of “Not one more!” as he spoke.

Many of the speakers at the Austin event pointedly described state lawmakers’ dithering on gun-control laws, and called for reforms – like a ban on assault-style weapons and bolstering the background-check process.

“Now there is not one solution that will prevent mass shootings,” Adler, the mayor, said at one point, “but there are common sense solutions most people can agree upon.” He suggested people on airlines’ “no-fly” lists should be banned from purchasing guns, and said, “if you can’t buy a gun in a gun store, you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun at a gun show.”

Watson dismissed a push to arm school staff and educators with weapons by saying teachers in the state are already-overburdened. “Adding sharpshooter to their list of obligations is ridiculous,” he said.

There were many more marches around the country and around the world as well. These are great to see, but what comes next is of greater importance. There is – correctly – a lot of focus on Congress, as there is a lot that can and should be done at the federal level to reform gun laws. Part of the reason for that is because Democrats have a decent chance of retaking the House, and even if they can’t get the Senate this year, it along with the Presidency are very doable in 2020.

It’s a much bigger challenge at the state level – the Lege isn’t flipping, and statewide offices are very much longshots. But we can make gains, and we can state our goals for state government, which if nothing else can serve as both vision and rallying cry. Right now, though, I don’t know what those goals are – I’m not even sure I could say what they should be. We’re pretty clear on things like education, health care, equality, the environment, and criminal justice, but gun issues have not been in the foreground except for when we have had to play defense. Someone asked me recently if I could point them to a legislative scorecard for gun control, and the only one either of us could find was from the NRA. There are local chapters here of national groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, but again that focus has been on the national scene. We know that if we want to change things in Texas we need to win more elections, but we need the candidates we are electing to have gun safety as one of their mandates. What is it we hope to accomplish on this issue in the Legislature in 2019? That needs to be our starting point.

Local control and local races

From Texas Monthly:

Rep. Paul Workman

At the end of last week, the Austin City Council voted to pass a new ordinance requiring local businesses to give their employees paid sick leave. It was the end result of a long and intense fight, which pitted labor leaders and a diverse coalition from Austin’s liberal community against more than one hundred local business owners and a national group backed by the powerful Koch Brothers. Supporters packed the council chambers to speak before the vote, and many gave impassioned pleas to vote in favor of paid sick leave. According to the Texas Observer, some speakers “broke down in tearsas they recounted times when they or their loved ones had to choose between accessing health care and paying rent.” When the 9-2 vote came in, the crowd broke out in raucous cheers, applauding Austin for becoming the first municipality in Texas and in the Southern U.S. to enact such an ordinance.

But the cheers were a little premature. Austin’s City Council may not have the final say in the the battle. Within hours of the ordinance’s passage, state representative Paul Workman, a Republican whose district covers much of western Travis County, said he’d introduce legislation on the first day of next year’s session in an effort to have the ordinance repealed. “I support employers providing paid sick leave for their employees, but it is not the role of government to mandate that employers do this,” Workman said at a press conference later Friday morning. “The council made good on their promise to add yet more regulations on private business. They have clearly declared war on the private businesses which make our prosperity happen. I will file legislation on the first day possible to reverse this and the other liberal Austin policies that they’ve enacted.”

Workman said he felt it was an overreach for the council to enact such an ordinance (when reporters at the news conference questioned him about whether it was also an overreach for the state legislature to intervene in a decision made by elected local officials, Workman said no). Austin’s paid leave ordinance is just the latest local target of conservative state lawmakers, who have repeatedly tried to overturn municipal policies—ordinances that are usually liberal-leaning and typically implement regulations on businesses or industry. It’s a story that’s played out again and again, and not just in Austin.

[…]

For now, it seems Austin’s paid leave is safe. Workman can’t do much until the start of the legislative session in 2019. But he claims he already has enough support from members of the House and Senate to pass legislation that overrides the ordinance. “We will have no problem whatsoever getting this through,” Workman said at the press conference. At least one member of the senate, Donna Campbell, a Republican from New Braunfels, has publicly said that she’s committed to overturning the rule.

Less than half of Workman’s district is actually in Austin, not that it matters to Republicans like him. But hold that thought for a minute.

From the Texas Tribune:

In 2011 — after Republican Paul Workman unseated state Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin — lawmakers redrew House District 47 to include a larger swath of western Travis County.

The new district, which gained more rural areas and lost some of liberal South Austin, stretched from Onion Creek to Lago Vista to Leander. It became a conservative stronghold, and to this day, Workman is the county’s only Republican state representative.

Seven years later, it’s a potential swing district again. Texas political experts point to rising frustration with President Donald Trump and the Republican Party that could rally the Democratic base and cause conservative voters to stay home on Election Day.

The effects of this trend would be more pronounced in districts Trump either lost or just barely won two years ago. And Trump carried HD-47 — where many residents are white and have a household income greater than $100,000 — with fewer than 200 votes.

Hoping to flip the seat for the first time since 2011, five Democrats are running in the March 6 primary: Elaina Fowler, the executive director of a union of retired government employees; Vikki Goodwin, a real estate broker; Sheri Soltes, the founder of a nonprofit that trains service dogs; Candace Aylor, a recovery room nurse; and Will Simpson, a technology field executive.

“We are seeing more money and more activity in this district than we have in a long, long time,” Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield said. “There is definitely greater energy from the Democrats than ever before.”

[…]

“The challenge here for Democrats is you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” said Harold Cook, an Austin Democratic political strategist. “At the end of the day, they will need to have nominated a candidate who is really articulate on messaging and has the funds with which to communicate with voters.”

None of the Democratic candidates have run for office before. But all of them said they’re fed up with the social ramifications of the state’s “bathroom bill” discussion and the 2016 election. They also hope to improve public school financing, transportation and the district’s environmental preservation.

The candidates’ policy stances are similar, but Fowler and Goodwin have emerged at the forefront of the race, Littlefield said. Fowler has the most legislative experience of the group, and Goodwin has raised the most money.

I don’t know anything about these candidates beyond what is in this story, but that’s not the point. The point is that the way to stop legislators like Paul Workman from passing bills expressly designed to strip cities of their power is to vote them out of office. Races like this are at least as important as the races for Congress that have dominated the coverage so far this cycle. Pay attention to your State Rep races – and your State Senate races, if you have one – especially if your current Rep or Senator is a Republican. This is our best chance since 2008 to make the Legislature a better, more inclusive, and more responsive institution. We can’t afford to blow it.

No Amazon HQ2 for Houston

Never really expected that we’d be a top contender, to be honest.

Amazon ruled out Houston as a candidate for its $5 billion second headquarters on Thursday, delivering a blow to local leaders who had hoped to lure the Seattle tech giant to a four-mile stretch between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

The largest U.S. online retailer whittled down more than 200 proposals from North America cities to just 20, eliminating Houston but keeping the city’s longtime rivals Austin and Dallas on its short list.

Amazon’s decision marks a setback for local leaders including the Greater Houston Partnership, which led an effort last fall to pitch the city as an attractive market for the company to set down stakes.

“I believe this is a wake-up call for Houston,” GHP CEO Bob Harvey said in a statement. “While there has been growing momentum in the innovation space over the last couple of years, this is a clear indication that we have much more work to do as a region to grow our digital economy.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called Amazon’s decision ” disappointing and heartbreaking.:

But, he added, “It serves as a wake-up call that we must move at a much quicker pace. The city is well positioned, but it’s also is an indication that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.”

[…]

In his statement Thursday, Harvey said Houston should focus on developing the Innovation Corridor and its technology sector further. He also said Houston should move forward with the proposed Houston Data Science Institute, a data center recently announced by the University of Houston.

“While we are the number one market in the country for STEM talent, we need to bolster our pipeline of digital tech talent that is relevant to tomorrow’s digital economy,” Harvey said. “This means working with our higher education partners across the region to develop and invest in programs that will produce the talent we need to succeed.”

But economists warned that Houston would rank low on Amazon’s wish list in the nationwide bidding war for a campus that could bring 50,000 jobs, saying the city lacked a robust public transportation system. Only 2 percent of the local population takes public transportation to work, according to Census data.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, it’s always a bummer to miss out. On the other hand, I wasn’t excited at the thought of giving zillions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to a behemoth like Amazon as deal-sweeteners. There’s too much of that going on already. Doing things like developing the Innovation Corridor and building a Data Science Institute, that’s fine and worthwhile as investments. And let’s be sure not to overlook the feedback about our public transportation infrastructure. Imagine where we could have been if we’d had a Congressional delegation that was unanimous in its support of of more robust transit system. We’ll have an opportunity to support that at the ballot box this November. If we’re serious about wanting to be more competitive with the cities we lost out to, we need to put our money where our mouths are. The Trib, Texas Monthly (which is very skeptical of the chase to lure in Amazon), Swamplot, and the Dallas Observer have more.

Hyperloop versus high-speed rail

I’ve been pondering whether our state is big enough for two high speed land-based forms of transportation, and I think the answer is “yes, at least for now”.

The Hyperloop is nearly twice as fast as Texas Central’s High-Speed Rail project already in the works to connect Houston and Dallas. To boot, the lightning-quick travel time is not even direct. The journey is routed through Austin, which would act as a hub connecting the Texas cities.

Hyperloop One could also be operational before Texas Central’s line. In its announcement, Hyperloop One declared its intent to begin shipping freight by 2020 and passengers by 2021.

One major factor will be ticket pricing. Texas Central has not released specifics but expects pricing to be on par with airline prices. That will likely be far cheaper than the Hyperloop, which is expected to be around $330 one-way.

If Hyperloop One does move forward in Texas, it will likely face many of Texas Central’s same growing pains; the company has met plenty of resistance from Texas landowners. Unlike Texas Central, which is developing its project privately, Hyperloop One will work with government agencies on development in some capacity. Though the specific arrangement has not yet been detailed, Hyperloop One is already working closely with the Colorado Department of Transportation and has said it intends to continue government relationships wherever it ends up.

[…]

A spokesperson for Texas Central told Bisnow the two projects are not in competition. Hyperloop One is not building a direct line from Houston to Dallas. Texas Central sees the two different modes of transportation as complementary, similar to airlines.

See here for some background. I’m glad to hear that both Hyperloop One and Texas Central see their systems as complimentary and not competitive at this time. Things may change if they’re both successful, of course, but we’re at least a few years out from that. Unlike high speed rail, hyperloops are brand new and untested technology, so who knows what will happen with the development, but like high speed rail there is likely to be opposition from communities that this project will pass through. I have to think we’ll begin to hear more about this now that the chances of it happening here are greater. In the meantime, one of the lead planners with AECOMM on this project has been talking to the press about it – see this followup story in Bisnow and this DMN article for his thoughts. I remain excited by the possibilities, but still want to see this thing in action before I buy in all the way.

Texas remains in hyperloop competition

We’re still a long way from anything happening, but if it does it could happen here.

There’s still a chance Texans could be some of the first people in the world to whisk along in tubes at 700 mph.

Hyperloop Texas, a joint proposal of engineering firm AECOM and public agencies in the state, is one of 10 winners of the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, a competition to find the best routes for the system.

Hyperloop, the brainchild of Tesla founder Elon Musk, envisions vacuum tubes and travel pods making interstate travel at faster-than-flight speeds. In their proposal, AECOM estimated the trip from Houston to San Antonio could be made in 21 minutes. Getting to Austin would take another eight minutes. Houston-to-Dallas, not including the time for layovers, would take 48 minutes.

A freight component would use the Hyperloop system to ferry goods from Laredo to the Port of Houston.

[…]

Winning doesn’t mean anything will get built, but Hyperloop One said in a release it “will commit meaningful business and engineering resources and work closely with each of the winning teams/routes to determine their commercial viability.”

See here for the background. What I like about the proposed route is that it wouldn’t directly compete with the Houston to Dallas high speed rail line. You can get to Dallas from Houston via this route – indeed, you can get all the way to DFW Airport – but you have to go via San Antonio, so the total travel time is shown as 48 minutes, about what it would be for the Texas Central ride. Basically, this is the Texas T-Bone, with Laredo, DFW, and the Port of Houston as the endpoints. We can debate whether this technology is feasible or not, but if it is, then I hope subsequent routes include some of the spaces in between and elsewhere. Let’s add stations in New Braunfels and San Marcos and Waco, and do a similar T-Bone in the other direction, to bring in El Paso and Midland/Odessa and Lubbock and Amarillo. If it works, of course. I can dream, can’t I? KUT has more.

Enforcement of SB4 halted

Excellent!

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted a preliminary injunction of Senate Bill 4, one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s key legislative priorities that seeks to outlaw “sanctuary” entities, the common term for governments that don’t enforce federal immigration laws.

The bill was scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1, but opponents of the legislation, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued the bill violates several provisions of the Constitution. Garcia’s decision means the bill is on hold until that issue is decided; his court will now likely set another date to determine SB4’s constitutionality.

His decision is a temporary, but significant blow to Abbott and other Republican backers of the bill who said it would help keep Texans safe from undocumented immigrants that have been arrested on criminal charges but released from custody by sheriffs or other elected officials who refuse to hold the alleged criminals for possible deportation.

See here for the background. You know how I feel about this. The story broke late yesterday, so this was all that was available at the time. I’m sure there will be much more reporting soon.

UPDATE: From the Chron story:

“The best interest of the public will be served by preserving the status quo and enjoining, prior to Sept. 1, the implementation and enforcement of those portions of SB 4 that, on their face, are preempted by federal law and violate the United States Constitution,” Garcia wrote.

The decision, which can be appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, is a blow to one of the toughest immigration laws in the nation.

In order to obtain an injunction, the local governments and organizations challenging the law needed to prove they were harmed by it and likely to succeed in their claim that it is unconstitutional.

“We won over 90 percent of it,” said Luis Vera, a lawyer for the League of United Latin American Citizens, which represented the border city of El Cenizo in the lawsuit. “The state cannot mandate to the cities or police officers or sheriff’s offices how they run their police departments.”

[…]

The ruling found the plaintiffs made their case and were even helped during oral arguments by the state.

For instance, the judge noted the state “essentially concedes that the irreparable harm requirement is met.”

The judge quoted an argument made by one of the lawyers with the Texas Attorney General’s Office: “The state of Texas concedes, Your Honor, that if Senate Bill 4 is unconstitutional or a provision of it is severed by this court or this court finds it unconstitutional, if it is, and it would violate the constitutional rights of the public, then there is irreparable harm.”

The judge found that certain provisions of SB 4 conflict with, and are pre-empted by, federal law because enforcing SB 4 will interfere with the federal government’s authority to control immigration. The judge also found that enforcing SB 4 will result in First Amendment violations.

The judge also determined that vague prohibitions in SB 4 violate due process and “create a real danger of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

In addition, he found that enforcement of the mandatory detainer provisions “will inevitably lead to Fourth Amendment violations.”

I am sure this will be appealed, and who knows what happens next. But for now, this is a big win.

Confederate monuments in the Capitol

Get rid of them, too.

A state lawmaker wants all Confederate symbols removed from the Texas Capitol grounds, including a plaque that is 40 steps away from his office that rejects the idea that the South seceded from the Union over slavery.

Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, sent a letter to the State Preservation Board Wednesday asking that it immediately remove the plaque, which was mounted in 1959. It reads, in part, “We … pledge ourselves … to study and teach the truth of history (one of the most important of which is, that the war between the state was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery).”

“The plaque is not historically accurate in the slightest,” Johnson said in his letter. He called on the board, which maintains the Capitol’s artifacts, to immediately remove the plaque and asked for meeting with House Speaker Joe Straus, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to discuss the removal of all Confederate symbols.

“Given the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I cannot think of a better time than the present to discuss the removal of all Confederate iconography from the Texas Capitol Complex,” Johnson said.

You can see the full letter Rep. Johnson sent to the State Preservation Board here. I doubt this will go anywhere, and he certainly won’t get any support from Greg Abbott, but I stand with Rep. Johnson.

Meantime, over the weekend there was a protest at Sam Houston Park about the “spirit of the Confederacy” statue there. Mayor Turner has requested a study of artwork at city parks after people asked for that statue to be removed at last week’s Council meeting. My expectations for action are a lot higher than they are at the Capitol. It would be nice to know what the timeline on this will be.

Paxton’s preemptive “sanctuary cities” lawsuit dismissed

Good.

Best mugshot ever

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks on Wednesday dismissed the state of Texas’ lawsuit against Travis County and other defendants over the state’s new immigration enforcement law.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a pre-emptive lawsuit shortly after the bill was signed in May seeking a ruling that the controversial measure is constitutional. Among the defendants named in Paxton’s suit were the city of Austin; Travis County and its sheriff, Sally Hernandez; and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

[…]

But opponents of the measure, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties, have argued the law violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Those entities filed a separate lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton in San Antonio, trying to prevent the law from taking effect. Oral arguments in that case were heard in June.

Sparks’ ruling means the case will stay in San Antonio.

In a statement, the attorney general said he was disappointed in Sparks’ ruling but that Wednesday’s decision has no effect on the San Antonio case.

“We were first to file a lawsuit concerning SB 4, filed this case in the only proper court, and moved quickly to consolidate other lawsuits against SB 4 in Austin,” he said. “The health, safety, and welfare of Texans is not negotiable. We’re disappointed with the court’s ruling and look forward to pressing our winning arguments in the San Antonio cases and beyond (if necessary) on this undoubtedly constitutional law.”

Though Sparks’ ruling Wednesday is a small victory for SB4’s opponents, they must now wait and see what U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia decides following a seven-hour hearing in Bexar County on June 26.

So that means that Judge Garcia will get to decide whether the law goes into effect on September 1 or if it is put on hold pending final judgment in the lawsuit. I don’t think this ruling changes the basic contours of the case, but as I recall if Paxton had prevailed in his lawsuit, that would have put the defendants he filed against on the hook for court costs. That’s no longer the case now. Now we await what Judge Garcia has to say.

Abbott versus the cities

The continuing story.

If Gov. Greg Abbott has disdain for how local Texas officials govern their cities, it didn’t show in a Wednesday sit-down with three mayors who were among 18 who jointly requested a meeting to discuss legislation that aims to limit or override several municipal powers.

“Whether we changed anybody’s mind or not, you never know,” said Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough. “But I will say it was a healthy conversation.”

What also remained to be seen Wednesday: whether Abbott plans to meet with mayors from the state’s five largest cities — who were also among those who requested to meet with the governor. So far, Abbott hasn’t responded to the requests from the mayors of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Wednesday that when he was a member of the Texas House, Republican lawmakers repeatedly complained about government growing and overstepping its bounds.

“And now we find that the state government is really reaching down and telling local governments what they can or cannot do and pretty much trying to treat all cities as if we are all the same,” Turner said.

During invited testimony to the House Urban Affairs committee on Tuesday, several city officials and at least one lawmaker denounced what they said were overreaching and undemocratic attempts to subvert local governance.

“If people don’t like what you’re doing, then there are things called elections. I don’t see it as our job to overreach and try to govern your city,” said State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg testified that it felt like the state was waging a war on Texas cities.

“The fundamental truth about the whole debate over local control is that taking authority away from cities — preventing us from carrying out the wishes of our constituents — is subverting the will of the voter,” Nirenberg said.

At Wednesday’s meeting with Abbott, Yarbrough said he and his counterparts from Corpus Christi and San Marcos told the governor that local officials have a better finger on the pulse of city residents’ expectations and demands.

“We wanted to make sure we preserved the ability for local municipalities to be able to adjust and react to the needs of their community,” he said.

See here for some background. It’s mighty nice of Abbott to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule of threatening legislators to meet with these concerned constituents, but they shouldn’t have had to take time out of their busy schedules to try to persuade the Governor to leave over a century of accepted governance in place and butt out of their business. And not for nothing, but the cities whose Mayors Abbott has been ignoring are the reason he can make elaborate claims about how awesome the Texas economy is.

Let’s begin with population. The five counties that contain the state’s five largest cities have a combined 12,309,787 residents, which is 44 percent of the state’s total. If you want to talk about elections, the registered voters in those counties make up 42 percent of Texas’ electorate.

Those counties out-perform the rest of the state economically. Texas’ five biggest urban counties constitute 53.5 percent of total Texas employment. If you broaden it out to the metropolitan statistical areas, which include the suburbs as well, the proportion becomes 75.8 percent — and growth in those regions has outpaced growth in the state overall since the recession.

Not convinced Texas’ cities drive the state? Let’s look at gross domestic product: The state’s five biggest MSAs contribute 71 percent of the state’s economic output, a proportion that has increased by two percentage points over the past decade. Focusing just on counties again, workers in the ones that contain Texas’ largest cities earn 60 percent of the state’s wages.

If you look at the embedded chart in that story, you’ll see that the metro area that is doing the best economically is the Austin-Round Rock MSA, and it’s not close. It’s even more impressive when you take into account how busy the city of Austin has been systematically destroying Texas with its regulations and liberalness and what have you.

As I said in my previous post on this subject, quite a few of the Mayors that are pleading with Abbott to back off are themselves Republicans, and represent Republican turf. It’s good that they are trying to talk some sense into him, but I’d advise them to temper their expectations. Abbott and Dan Patrick and a squadron of Republican legislators, especially in the Senate, don’t seem to have any interest in listening. The one thing that will get their attention is losing some elections. What action do these Mayors plan to take next year when they will have a chance to deliver that message?

Mayors to Abbott: Don’t mess with our cities

Good luck getting through.

Less than 24 hours after Gov. Greg Abbott blasted local government restrictions like tree ordinances as a threat to the “Texas brand,” city government leaders statewide are seeking a meeting with the Republican leader.

“We would like the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the role cities play in attracting jobs and investments to support the prosperity of the State of Texas,” a letter signed by 18 mayors, including Houston mayor Sylvester Turner to Abbott states.

[…]

The letter from the mayors makes clear that they fear the Texas Legislature is overreaching and doing too much harm to local governments.

“Harmful proposals such as revenue and spending caps, limiting annexation authority, and other measures preempting local development ordinances directly harm our ability to plan for future growth and continue to serve as the economic engines of Texas,” the letter states.

The mayors on the letter include those from Houston, Amarillo, Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Worth, Frisco, Galveston, Irving, Lubbock, McKinney, Plano, San Antonio, San Marcos, and Sugar Land.

You can see the letter here. You might note that some of the cities in question are Republican suburban kind of places. It’s not just us smug urbanites that would like to have our current level of autonomy left alone. I’m going to say the same thing to these Mayors that I’ve been saying to the business folk that have been working to defeat the bathroom bill, and that’s that they are going to have to follow up all these words with actions, because Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t care what they have to say. If you’re not working to elect better leadership in 2018, which in this case means leadership that is not actively undermining and degrading Texas’ cities, then you’re part of the problem too, and your words have no meaning. The Current and the Press have more.

Hearing for that other SB4 lawsuit

The SB4 lawsuit that Ken Paxton filed, to get the law pre-emptively declared to be constitutional, had its hearing in Austin on Thursday.

A federal judge on Thursday criticized the politics surrounding Texas’ new immigration-enforcement law and hinted that he’d be unable to take the case over from his colleague in Bexar County.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks told attorneys for the state of Texas that he had a docket twice as busy as San Antonio-based Orlando Garcia after he was asked by the state to declare Austin the appropriate venue for what’s gearing up to be a lengthy court battle over Senate bill 4.

[…]

“San Antonio has a track record of evidence that Judge Garcia can take into consideration,” Sparks said, referring to a seven-hour hearing on Monday in San Antonio where attorneys for both sides argued over the legality of allowing state governments to enforce federal immigration laws. He added that he has a trial scheduled in August that could likely spill into September.

Thursday’s hearing was a dramatic shift from Monday’s display, where Garcia sat largely silent and appeared to take every motion, argument and counter-argument into consideration. Sparks instead often interrupted the attorneys and repeated what he said should be simple questions to answer when the attorneys strayed off topic. He also hinted that he believed parties that joined the lawsuit against the state did so for political purposes.

“The city of Austin just got in because it’s political and they get a lot of advertisement” [in the press], he said.

[…]

The judge also cast doubt on whether any court would be able to declare a law constitutional when it hasn’t gone into effect yet.

“I don’t have the authority to forecast the future and you have a statute that doesn’t come into effect until September,” he told David Hacker, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office.

Sparks didn’t give a time line on when he’d rule on the motion to move the case to Austin.

See here and here for the background. I’m sure there was a good helping of politics in the various cities’ and counties’ decisions to pile onto the anti_SB4 lawsuit, but then SB4 itself was all about politics. Based on the things Judge Sparks said during the hearing, I’d prefer he leave the San Antonio lawsuit be rather than combine it with the Paxton lawsuit. At least he doesn’t seem inclined to take any action before the law is scheduled to go into effect. The Statesman and the DMN have more.

City of El Paso joins in on SB4

Add one more to the list.

The city of El Paso voted on Tuesday to join the growing list of local governments that have filed a legal challenge in hopes of stopping Texas’ new immigration enforcement law from going into effect.

The city council’s vote to join El Paso County and the cities of Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston to halt the legislation, Senate Bill 4, means Fort Worth is the only major Texas city that hasn’t registered its opposition to the bill. Maverick and Bexar counties and the border city of El Cenizo are original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in a federal court in San Antonio in May, just one day after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill.

[…]

In a statement, the city council said even though El Paso is not considered a “sanctuary city,” they voted to join the effort because local leaders are “concerned with provisions in SB 4 that raise questions related to the compliance and integration of the proposed bill in current law enforcement operations.”

“The unfunded mandate is expected to put additional strain on the El Paso Police Department, as SB 4 will add an extra requirement on the workforce that is already seeing a shortage in staff,” the statement continues. “The City of El Paso has a long successful history of working alongside our federal law enforcement partners, to add additional mandates on local resources will only limit officers from performing their public safety responsibilities.”

As you know, the hearing for a temporary injunction was Monday, but there’s a long way to go to get to the arguments on the merits, so it is far from too late for any entity to join in. I had previously listed El Paso as a plaintiff in the litigation, but it was El Paso County; I had assumed the city was in there as well, which was my mistake. No big deal, they’re in there now. I hope they and the other plaintiffs have a lot more company by the time this gets to the main event.

Ellis seeks Harris County entry into SB4 litigation

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Ellis:

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Despite strong opposition from law enforcement officials, faith leaders, local governments, civil rights organizations, constituents, and advocacy groups, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the “show-me-your-papers” legislation, has been signed into law. The new legislation unfairly targets immigrant families, allows state-sanctioned racial profiling, and violates rights to due process. SB4 also undermines local governments by forcing them to choose between enforcing a blatantly unconstitutional law or facing strict punishment and excessive fines from the state.

As the nation’s third-largest county with the fifth-largest foreign-born population, Harris County is at particular risk under SB4. Immigrants are a vital part of our community and strengthen the social fabric of Harris County. This new legislation threatens to tear families apart. Immigrants cannot and should not be driven back into the shadows or live in fear because of this unconstitutional law.

Already, local governments have filed suit against SB4, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday in San Antonio. Just this past week, the Houston City Council voted to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Bexar County and other local governments in a consolidated lawsuit challenging the law.

As Commissioner, I will continue to stand with immigrant families and defend the right of local government and law enforcement to set their own priorities. In a June 9 letter, I asked Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan to seek authorization from Harris County Commissioners Court to join the lawsuit against SB4. I believe it is vitally important for Harris County to fight this unjust law and look forward to working with County Attorney Ryan on this important issue that we both care about. You can read the letter below:

SB4 is a reflection of the anti-immigrant sentiment permeating our society and stands in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. It upholds a flawed and outmoded form of immigration control that tears families apart, increases racial profiling, and violates due process. We need immigration solutions that attend to the complex issues surrounding reform with compassion, efficiency, and effectiveness in mind. And wherever there is discrimination, we must be prepared to speak out and take action.

I’ve got a copy of the letter, which was embedded as an image in the email that Commissioner Ellis sent, here. Houston-area Democratic legislators supported Ellis’ call with a letter of their own that calls on the Court to get involved. I can’t say I expect that to happen – unlike Houston City Council, Commissioners Court is 4-1 Republican – but given the unfunded costs on the county that SB4 will impose, as well as the decline in cooperation with law enforcement, you’d think there’d be a simple dollars-and-cents argument in favor of getting involved. Anything can happen, but I’m not holding my breath. Stace has more.

RideAustin tries to hang on

I wish them luck.

The return of Uber and Lyft to Austin has put the city’s only ride-hailing nonprofit in a fight for survival.

RideAustin, one of several small companies that started operations in Austin after the ride-hailing giants left the city in May 2016, is now seeing its ridership cut in half since the two returned to town. The company is slashing expenses and cutting staff, said CEO Andy Tryba.

“We always knew that at some point Uber and Lyft were going to come back. So we’ve always prepared for it,” Tryba said in an interview with The Texas Tribune, adding that RideAustin expected a big drop in rides — but didn’t think it would happen so fast.

[…]

RideAustin, which began operating in June 2016, was notable as the first ride-hailing company to run on a nonprofit model that promised better pay for drivers and allowed riders to donate to local charities through the app. It’s seen ridership steadily increase over the past year — which spiked to more than 110,000 weekly rides during the South by Southwest festival.

But RideAustin’s fortunes turned during the Legislature’s 85th regular session this year, when lawmakers passed a statewide regulatory framework for ride-hailing companies that supersedes local ordinances — including Austin’s. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law on May 29, and Uber and Lyft returned to Austin the same day.

The drop in ridership for RideAustin was swift and dramatic: last week, the company provided 22,000 rides — less than half of the 59,000 rides it operated in the week before Uber and Lyft returned. Tryba attributed part of the loss to UT-Austin students leaving town for the summer, but he also acknowledged that a large share of rides was recaptured by Uber and Lyft.

[…]

RideAustin is working to avoid the same fate as Fare, a Phoenix-based ride-hailing company that shut down operations in Austin just a week after Uber and Lyft’s return. In an email to customers, the company said it couldn’t “endure the recent loss of business.” Other ride-hailing services that had started operating in the initial vacuum have also gone out of business over the past year.

The city’s ride-hailing market changed significantly after Uber and Lyft left. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Texas A&M and other universities conducted a study about how Uber and Lyft’s departure changed riders’ behavior in Austin. They found that only 40 percent of respondents transitioned from Uber or Lyft to other ride-hailing companies, while 60 percent started making similar trips using other transportation, like biking, walking or driving a personal vehicle.

Chris Simek, a researcher at the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute that authored the study, said that among those who chose another service, “about half reported using RideAustin most often to make that type of trip. About a third reported using Fasten most often, and about one in 10 reported using Fare most often.”

Simek said the research team plans to do a follow-up study to analyze the market now that Uber and Lyft are back.

See here and here for some background. I had hope that the Uber-less Austin model of multiple firms actually competing to be better or at least different than each other would successfully fill the void, but either there wasn’t enough time for people to adjust or they just liked Uber and Lyft too much. That survey suggests there was something to the latter point. Be that as it may, I hope RideAustin can hold on and develop into something that could be replicated elsewhere. Anything that provides a better way for the drivers to earn a living is worth having.

SB4’s day in court

Sparks were flying.

Opponents of Texas’ state-based immigration law told a federal judge Monday that allowing the controversial measure to stand would pave the way for a nationwide police state where local officers could subvert the established immigration-enforcement powers of the federal government.

But the state’s attorneys argued in tandem with their colleagues from the U.S. Department of Justice that the issue was settled in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a state-based immigration-enforcement provision passed in Arizona.

The day marked the first skirmish in what could be a lengthy battle over Texas’ law, Senate Bill 4, which has been billed as the toughest state-based immigration bill in the country. Known as the “sanctuary cities” law, SB4 allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and seeks to punish local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation. Punishment could come in the form of jail time and penalties that exceed $25,000.

Opponents of the measure, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties, have argued the law violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including guarantees of equal protection and freedom of speech. They are seeking a temporary injunction of the rule, which is scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1.

Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union representing the city of El Cenizo, a small municipality in Webb County, argued that the law, as written is vague and provides such little guidance to officers that they will be forced to use a heavy hand when detaining or arresting someone. That, he said, will lead to a broad assumption that they need to ask nearly every minority their immigration status for fear of violating the provision of the law — the aftereffect of which would be an across-the-board erosion of Texans’ rights.

“The overriding point is that the penalties are so harsh that it’s simply unrealistic for any police officer to take a chance” of violating the law, Gelernt told U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. “[The lawmakers] knew what they were doing when they crafted the legislation.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. The state’s argument, among other things, was that SB4 was less strict than Arizona’s infamous SB1070, and that it adhered to the parts of SB1070 that were upheld by SCOTUS. The plaintiffs’ argument, also among other things, was that the law was so vague and broad it was hard to even say what it did and did not allow and require law enforcement agencies to do; they also noted that while the Arizona law punished agencies, SB4 targets individuals who fail to comply with it. The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect while the matter is being litigated; you can read the ACLU’s application for an injunction here. Judge Garcia did not say when he might rule, but he did note that he’s also one of the judges in the redistricting litigation, so maybe don’t expect anything till after those hearings in July. The Observer, the Chron, and the Current and Current again have more.

Feds join the state in defense of SB4

I suppose this was to be expected.

About a month ago, the city of El Cenizo filed a lawsuit against the state, calling the bill unconstitutional. On Monday, the Trump administration got involved.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the state of Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The fight started May 8, the day after Abbott signed SB 4 into law. The city of El Cenizo filed a motion for preliminary injunction against the state, attempting to stop SB 4 from taking effect in September.

“This is a violation of civil rights and human rights. It’s a reckless, dangerous and discriminatory bill that should not only be halted but declared unconstitutional,” El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes said.

“This is a battleground,” said attorney Luis Vera, with the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.

Vera represents El Cenizo. On Monday, his job got a lot more difficult.

“I received an email from the Department of Justice. President Donald Trump has ordered the Department of Justice to enter the case against El Cenizo and to file a brief and a statement of interest in support of the state of Texas, asking the federal courts to deny our motion for preliminary injunction,” Vera said.

I’m sure we’ll be hearing the outraged cries about the evil federal government messing in our precious local affairs any minute now. Until then, the Statesman fills in a few details.

The U.S. Department of Justice contacted Austin’s legal department on Monday indicating its intent to file a “statement of interest” and asked to be involved in the court hearings next week on SB 4, according to a city spokesman.

City officials learned of the Trump administration’s interest just as they were preparing to file a motion Monday asking a court to temporarily block the law, which is set to take effect Sept. 1. The city’s filing contains more than a dozen statements, including those from three Austin City Council members, Mayor Steve Adler, interim Police Chief Brian Manley and South by Southwest co-founder Roland Swenson.

The statements are intended to be used as evidence that SB 4 would create hardship and economic harm for the state if the law is implemented.

“Ultimately, my sincere belief — that I have expressed in multiple public statements to my constituents — is that implementation of SB 4 will make Austin less safe,” Adler said in a sworn declaration to the San Antonio federal court that will hold its first hearing June 26 on a legal challenge to SB 4 filed by San Antonio and Austin.

[…]

Meanwhile, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Monday that his office had joined nine other states in filing briefs in support of President Donald Trump’s executive order that would cut some Department of Justice grants to cities that prohibit local law enforcement from communicating with immigration agents. Austin and Travis County are in compliance with those laws.

Back in April, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order from taking effect while a court fight over that measure plays out. Austin and Travis County are among dozens of cities and counties challenging that order in court.

Paxton’s brief is a separate matter from the SB 4 lawsuits but reflects the growing number of fronts in the fight over “sanctuary cities,” regarded as local jurisdictions that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement.

I think it’s safe to say that all eyes will be on San Antonio on Monday. Hopefully, the city of Houston will have gotten involved by then.

Houston officially gets in the SB4 litigation business

Well done.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council voted Wednesday to sue the state over its new “sanctuary cities” law, joining Texas’ three other largest cities in challenging the controversial measure.

Council voted 10-6 to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, El Paso County and several other local governments and nonprofits in a consolidated case challenging the state. Councilman Jack Christie abstained.

A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday.

“This is not an issue of our choosing,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “But when it ends up on your plate, you have to address it.”

Turner, who had shied away from the sanctuary cities issue for months, decided two weeks ago to put a lawsuit to a vote.

He was joined by council members Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Dwight Boykins, Karla Cisneros, Robert Gallegos, Mike Laster, Larry Green, David Robinson and Amanda Edwards in voting for litigation.

Council members Brenda Stardig, Dave Martin, Steve Le, Greg Travis, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh voted against a lawsuit.

See here and here for the background. No surprises in the Council vote, not that I expected any. One can make the case that a Council vote wasn’t strictly necessary – the Mayor has the authority to direct the City Attorney to get involved – but on procedural and political grounds I think this was the right call. Give everyone the chance to do the right thing, and demonstrate that majority support for this action existed. It’s possible Houston could have gotten involved sooner without this formality, but in a world where we were trying to get a pension reform bill through the Legislature, I think Mayor Turner (or anyone in his place) was going to wait until that was in the bag first. For sure, he’s loosed his tongue now that he’s gotten what he needed from Austin and is now playing defense.

The bottom line is that Houston did the right thing, and did it in time for the Monday court hearing. Better to be right slow than wrong fast, as long as it’s not too slow. The Trib has more.

Getting ready for the first SB4 hearing

All eyes are going to be on this next week.

On Monday, June 26, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia will hear the City of San Antonio’s request for a preliminary injunction to block Senate Bill 4, the “sanctuary cities” law, from taking effect on Sept. 1.

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) is representing the City in the lawsuit, along with the following nonprofit organizations: The Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, the Workers Defense Project, and La Unión Del Pueblo Entero. The hearing, which is open to the public, will take place at 9:30 a.m. at the Federal Courthouse at 655 E. César E. Chavez Blvd.

“Judge Garcia consolidated three separate lawsuits into one,” MALDEF Vice President of Litigation Nina Perales told the Rivard Report Friday. “The City of Austin is now a part of our case, [along with] El Paso County, Texas Organizing Project, the City of El Cenizo in Webb County, and Maverick County,”

[…]

On Friday, the State of Texas dropped MALDEF from a pre-emptive lawsuit asking a federal court to declare the “sanctuary cities” law constitutional.

“We wrote them a letter and said that if they didn’t drop us we were going to ask the judge to fine Texas for bringing a frivolous lawsuit against MALDEF,” Perales said. “We’re the lawyers – you don’t sue somebody else’s lawyers. MALDEF has five cases against the State of Texas right now, so it’s not just about SB 4. They were draining our resources in other cases, including school finance and redistricting.”

The pre-emptive lawsuit was filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton on May 8 before any legal action was taken against Senate Bill 4. It still includes the following defendants: Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, all of Austin’s City Council members, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, and Austin Interim City Manager Elaine Hart. El Paso County, El Cenizo, Texas Organizing Project, and LULAC have since been added to the list.

“Today, after MALDEF made very clear its intention to pursue all available remedies against the state of Texas for filing a completely frivolous lawsuit against a civil rights law firm, the state relented and filed a voluntary dismissal of all of its claims against MALDEF,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel, in a statement. “This now permits MALDEF to devote its energies to the appropriate forum for resolving the many constitutional questions surrounding SB 4 – federal court in San Antonio.

“Today’s dismissal represents only a partial cure of Governor Abbott’s and Attorney General Paxton’s apparent problem with premature litigation. A more complete cure involves dismissing the entire preemptive lawsuit they filed in Austin, which is illegitimate against the remaining defendants, just as it was against MALDEF.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I’m sure there will be national coverage of this, which will remind everyone that we’re not just about bathroom bills here in Texas. Houston City Council may have voted to join the fight by this time, though I’d expect it to get tagged for a week. Mark this one on your calendar, next Monday is going to be a big deal. The Observer, which notes that there will be a hearing in Austin on the 29th for “all pending matters” pertaining to his pre-emptive lawsuit, has more.

Greg Abbott’s war on trees

This is just bizarre.

One of the 20 items Gov. Greg Abbott has asked lawmakers to consider during the upcoming special session, which will begin July 18, is outlawing local tree regulations. More than 50 cities and towns in Texas have ordinances aimed at protecting trees; many of the local rules require property owners to either pay a fee for removing trees or replant trees after they cut some down. Municipalities often design them to prevent the type of branch slashing Beatty said occurred on the property near her Dallas home.

But Abbott — joined by a number of Republican lawmakers and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank — are calling for the end of those local protections. They argue that the tree ordinances are an unconstitutional violation of private property rights, and Abbott, who grappled with Austin tree regulations as a homeowner, calls the rules a “socialistic” infringement on a landowner’s freedom.

“I feel like those who own their trees have the right to do with their trees what they want,” said state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville.

[…]

Keith Mars, who enforces Austin’s tree regulations as the city arborist, said trees are an important reason why Austin is a growing destination known for its quality of life. He points to the environmental and economic benefits of trees.

“We know about the quality that this urban canopy provides for our citizens and why so many people are moving here from all over the country,” he said. “There will be a real economic impact to the vitality of Austin and other cities.”

To Robert Henneke, the general counsel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, though, the tree regulations hamper economic growth in Texas cities.

“The compliance cost of these tree regulation ordinances is harmful because it drives up the cost of housing,” Henneke said. Henneke said the foundation worked with lawmakers who filed bills on the topic during the regular session.

Those efforts will run up against the Texas Municipal League, an organization that advocates for Texas cities and towns in the Legislature. Bennett Sandlin, the group’s executive director, said the organization plans to resist bills that nullify local tree regulations. He says municipalities have the constitutional power to protect trees.

“If you take that argument to the extreme — that you can do anything you want on your property in an urban area —then you wouldn’t have zoning,” Sandlin said. “You could have a strip club next to a home or you could have a liquor store next to a school.”

See here for the roots (sorry not sorry) of Abbott’s tree tirade. I find this just so petty and vindictive. I mean, maybe Austin’s tree removal ordinances and processes are byzantine and life-sucking – it happens, I have no idea. A normal person might view that as a city problem, since it was the city that put in these requirements, presumably for some justifiable reasons. One could complain to one’s Council member or the Mayor, one could form an organization devoted to reforming or repealing these rules, one could run for city office on a tree-regulation-reform platform – there are many options. To decide that all tree-related regulations in all cities are uniformly terrible and must be destroyed is some kind of special snowflaking right there. Also, some people refer to “driving up the cost of housing” as “enhancing property values”. Maybe talk to a realtor? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know how Texas ever got to be such a wonderful place when so much of it is clearly a dystopian hellhole. Thank God we have Greg Abbott and his million-dollar donors to set us straight.

An SB4 threefer

We have our first SB4 casualty.

A 15,000-member association of attorneys and law professors said on Wednesday that it is relocating its 2018 convention out of Texas in response to the state legislature passing Senate bill 4, a sweeping and controversial immigration enforcement measure.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association was scheduled to hold its 3-day event in Grapevine next year, but said the bill’s “dangerous, destructive and counter productive proposals” go against the group’s mission. About 3,000 people were expected to attend the convention.

“One of the issues that drove the board’s decision was concern on behalf of quite a number of our members that they might not be willing to bring themselves or their families to Texas,” AILA president Bill Stock told reporters during a conference call. “Our members are US citizens and green card holders but many of them come from ethnic communities where they felt that they [would] being unfairly targeted.”

[…]

The AILA Grapevine conference was booked years ago. The organization could face financial penalties for relocating, Stock said, but the group chose to cancel the event anyway due to the new law.

I don’t think it should surprise anyone that an association of immigration attorneys would want to take its business elsewhere after SB4 passed. Will other groups do likewise? It’s hard to say, especially given the vastly greater attention given to SB6, which will be re-focused on the state during the special session. With all the lawsuits getting filed, and with SB4 not officially taking effect until September 1 barring an injunction, perhaps that will change.

In the meantime, SxSW has come under some pressure to think about relocating. For now, at least, they are standing firm.

[SXSW CEO Roland] Swenson’s position is reasonable—and it’s notable that he doesn’t make the argument that leaving Austin is unrealistic, which while true, would come off as a smidge hypocritical from an organization that’s floated such ideas themselves. As the 2017 regular session proved, and which Abbott’s comments at a reception in Belton about the smell of the air in “the People’s Republic of Austin” on Wednesday confirmed, bashing Austin is good for politics if you’re a Texas Republican. Leading SXSW to pull out of Austin might have a negative economic impact on the city to the tune of $320 million a year, but it’s a safe bet that any politician who voted for SB 4 would probably get cheers from their base for chasing it out of town.

All of which highlights the actual issue that SXSW—and any business whose values involve a fairly progressive worldview—face in operating in Texas in 2017. Austin leads the state in startups, venture capital, and patents. The sort of industries that are likely to form the basis of Texas’s modern economy are growing out of a city that the state’s leaders are quick to bash. At some point, Austin, SXSW, and all of the constituencies that those two entities represent are going to have to make some decisions about whether the animosity coming from the state to their interests is mutual—and if so, what to do about it.

See the Chron for more. It’s crazy to think that our Republican overlords, who like to tout every business relocation to Texas, would cheer for a $300 million economic loss, but this is the world we live in. Texas’ urban areas are big engines of growth, but their politics differ from those of the state leadership, which has been doing all it can to stick it to them.

All of that is bad for business, and business is wondering when it lost its influence.

Dennis Nixon is the CEO of the International Bank of Commerce, the ninth biggest bank in Texas, the kind of person the state’s Republicans used to listen to. These days, however, he’s feeling woefully neglected.

“I personally think it’s a disaster,” Nixon says, about the legislative session that just ended. “They basically disregarded the business community of Texas, just threw us under the bus.”

Nixon is particularly exasperated by the passage of Senate Bill 4, which directs local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration officials in arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants. He says the immigrant workforce is essential to the state’s economic health, and that driving them out is self-sabotage.

He pointed to Arizona, where anti-immigration laws drove out workers, created labor shortages and hurt economic growth.

“This could have really serious consequences for Texas,” he says. “”My argument is, we have to have these people. They’re working already.”

It’s not just the immigration issue: Nixon is also fuming at the Texas legislature’s focus on social issues like abortion and transgender bathroom access, its failure to address high property taxes, and the Trump administration’s determination to build a wall on the border with Mexico. He says he’s brought these issues up with lawmakers, to no avail.

“I don’t get it,” Nixon says. “I’m just one guy in the night, screaming.”

[…]

“No amount of misinformation and fear-mongering about a law that keeps dangerous criminals off the street, and that a majority of Texans support, will stop business from thriving in Texas,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman, of the sanctuary cities bill. He also expressed confidence that the bathroom bill wouldn’t hurt the state’s economy.

“The truth is that businesses look at what is best for their bottom line, and Texas is that place,” Wittman says.

Nixon disagrees, and worries that Texas’ open-for-business reputation isn’t indestructible.

“That’s a very slippery slope to get on, when the government disregards the business message, you’re really getting yourself into trouble,” Nixon says. “Especially if you’re a Republican state, you want to retain the business community as a political ally.”

Still, businesses are in a little bit of a box: Democrats aren’t exactly their cup of tea either, with their preference for higher taxes and tighter regulations.

“They’ve moved to the left, and gotten so crazy out of whack,” Nixon says. “And we’ve got the Republicans who’ve moved far to the right, they’ve gotten crazy out of whack. So we’ve got to get back to the middle here.”

Sorry, dude, but you’re going to have to make a choice. You could try to elect some less-fanatical Republicans via the primaries, but good luck with that. Alternately, you can accept that while Democrats can, will, and should oppose you on some important things, they at least won’t work to destroy the state’s economy and reputation through legislative means. Last we checked, businesses were doing pretty well in Democratic-run states like California, too. What do you have to lose here?

Dallas gets in the fight against SB4

Good for them.

Mike Rawlings

Dallas is joining some other Texas cities, including Austin and San Antonio, in taking on the state’s so-called “sanctuary city” law.

Mayor Mike Rawlings made the announcement Wednesday afternoon, calling SB4 “unconstitutional” and a law that “greatly infringes on the city’s ability to protect” the public. According to Rawlings, the city attorney has “serious constitutional concerns” with the new measure, which goes into effect Sept. 1.

Rawlings said after Wednesday’s council meeting that he had already spoken with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor about potential litigation.

“I told them both this was a serious issue,” Rawlings said.

A San Antonio federal district court announced Wednesday it would consolidate the lawsuits filed by all of the cities against the bill and designate the city of El Cenizo as the lead plaintiff. A hearing in that case is set for June 26.

[…]

The Dallas city code allows the city attorney to initiate litigation without the council’s approval. Rawlings made his announcement moments after the City Council met with City Attorney Larry Casto behind closed doors.

Rawlings said he wanted to make sure the council was aligned before Dallas joined the fray. He said Wednesday that a majority of the council agreed with Casto’s recommendation to take on the state.

“We are not a sanctuary city,” he said. “We live by the national laws, and now the question is who’s boss in all this. And this is an unfunded mandate. They’re telling us how our police officers should spend their time and not giving us any money to do that.”

Add yet another city to the list. Dallas may have joined in without it being clear whether they’d be on their own or as part of an existing lawsuit, but that matter appears to have been cleared up for them.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia Wednesday ordered that lawsuits challenging Senate Bill 4, which limits local law enforcement policies on immigration, by San Antonio, the border town of El Cenizo and El Paso County be joined in one large case.

Garcia denied a request by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to move those suits to Austin and combine them with a preemptive suit the state filed to have the law declared constitutional.

That also addresses the motion filed by Ken Paxton to combine all the lawsuits with the one he filed. It’s not clear to me why the San Antonio court responded to that and not the Austin court, but I assume the judges have their reasons. In any event, whether one lawsuit or many, the more the merrier. And as far as Houston goes, there may be some action later this month. The Trib has more.