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Cindy Burkett

Republicans “against” Dan Patrick

RG Ratcliffe reports on a “loose coalition” of business and education interests who are seeking to clip Dan Patrick’s wings.

[FBSID Board President Kristin] Tassin is now running for a seat in the state Senate, and she is just one candidate in a growing coalition of education and business groups that want to roll back the social conservative agenda of Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott. And recognizing the ineffectiveness of the Texas Democratic Party, they are concentrating their efforts on the upcoming March Republican primaries instead of betting on candidates in the general election. “There is a perfect storm brewing, and it goes a lot deeper than just a vouchers vote,” Tassin told me. “What really led me to step into this race is I really see this past session as an indicator of failed leadership and, often, particularly in the Senate.”

This is, at best, a loose coalition. Some by law are restricted to urging people to vote based on certain issues, while others are gathering money to put behind candidates who will clip Patrick’s dominance in the Senate. If they just pick up a few seats, Patrick will no longer be able to steamroll controversial bathroom bills and school voucher bills through the Senate, because he will lack the procedural votes needed to bring the legislation to the floor for debate.

[…]

One of the main groups that fought against the bathroom bill was the Texas Association of Business, and its political committee currently is evaluating which candidates to support in the primaries. “You’re seeing more and more business leaders engaged in this election—this time in the primaries in particular—than you probably ever had,” TAB President Chris Wallace told me. He said the leaders are motivated because “we had such a divisive time” during the 2017 legislative sessions.

Most of the TAB endorsements will be made over the next several weeks, but the group already has endorsed state Representative Cindy Burkett in her Republican primary challenge to incumbent Senator Bob Hall. In the TAB scorecard for pro-business votes, Hall sat at 53 percent and Burkett was at 94 percent, even though she supported the “sanctuary cities” legislation that TAB opposed. Hall voted in favor of the bathroom bill, but it never came up for a vote in the House. Because Burkett also carried legislation adding restrictions to abortion last year, she probably would not gain much support among Democrats. But as an advocate of public education, she already is opposed by the Texas Home School Coalition.

Emotions already are running high. When Hall put out a tweet that he is one of the most consistently conservative senators, a former school principal responded: “No, @SenBobHall, the reason we’re coming after you is because you side w/ Dan Patrick over the will of your constituents time and again. That’s why we’ll vote for @CindyBurkett_TX in the Mar. Primary. We’re not liberals, just ppl who want to be heard. #txed #txlege #blockvote.”

The Tassin race may create divisions in this loose coalition. She is challenging incumbent Senator Joan Huffman of Houston in the primary. Huffman gave Patrick a procedural vote he needed to bring the voucher bill to the floor, but then voted against the legislation. Huffman also voted in favor of killing dues check-offs, which allow teacher groups to collect their membership fees directly from a member-educator’s paycheck. But Huffman’s pro-business score is almost has high as Burkett’s, even though Huffman voted for the bathroom bill. Huffman also received a Best Legislator nod from Texas Monthly for helping negotiate a solution to the city of Houston’s financial problems with its police and firefighter pensions. However, the firefighters are angry over that deal and likely will work for Tassin in the primary. Huffman, though, has received an endorsement from Governor Abbott. We can’t make a prediction in that race until the endorsements come out.

I agree with the basic tactic of targeting the most fervent Patrick acolytes in the Senate. Patrick’s ability to ram through crap like the bathroom bill and the voucher bill is dependent on their being a sufficient number of his fellow travelers present. Knocking that number down even by one or two makes it harder for him to steer the ship in his preferred direction. Neither Kristin Tassin nor Cindy Burkett are my cup of tea, but they have a very low bar to clear to represent an improvement over the status quo.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First and foremost, depending on Republican primary voters to do something sensible is not exactly a winning proposition these days. There’s a reason why the Senate has trended the way it has in recent years. To be sure, it’s been an uneven fight in that there has basically been no effort like this to rein in the crazy in favor of more traditional Republican issues. To that I’d say, were you watching the Republican Presidential primary in 2016? The traditional interests didn’t do too well then, either. The Texas Parent PAC has had a lot of success over the years supporting anti-voucher candidates, often in rural districts where that issue resonates. I have a lot of respect for them and I wish them all the best this year, along with their allies of convenience. I just don’t plan to get my hopes up too high.

That leads to point two, which is that there needs to be a part two to this strategy. The two purplest Senate districts are SDs 10 and 16, where Sens. Konni Burton (who also scored a 53 on that TAB report card, tied with Bob Hall for the lowest tally in the Senate, including Democrats) and Don Huffines (and his 60 TAB score) will face Democratic challengers but not primary opponents. It’s reasonable for TAB et al to not have any interest in those races now, as they work to knock off Hall and (maybe) Huffman. If they don’t have a plan to play there in the fall, then at the very least you’ll know how serious this “loose coalition” is. I fully expect TAB and the other business groups to roll over and show Patrick their bellies after March. But maybe I’m wrong. I’ll be more than happy to admit it if I am. I wouldn’t bet my own money on it, though.

Two GOP State Reps seek Senate promotions

Item One:

Rep. Cindy Burkett

State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, launched a challenge Tuesday to state Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood, setting up a Republican primary clash in North Texas.

“I am proud of what I have accomplished for Texas and for all people who share my conservative values,” Burkett said in a news release. “Serving in the Texas Senate will allow me to continue and expand this work.”

Burkett is serving her fourth term in the House, where she chairs the Redistricting Committee. She first won election to House District 101 in 2010. After HD-101 was altered by redistricting in 2011, Burkett successfully ran for House District 113, which she currently represents.

Hall, a Tea Party activist, won the Senate District 2 seat three years ago in an upset victory over Bob Deuell, the Republican incumbent from Greenville. Burkett was once an aide to Deuell in the Senate.

[…]

At least two candidates are already running for Burkett’s seat in HD-113. They include Garland Republican Jonathan Boos and Rowlett Democrat Rhetta Bowers, both of whom unsuccessfully challenged Burkett in 2016.

This race is of interest for several reasons. First and foremost, HD113 is a top target next year. Like all Dallas County districts, it was carried by Hillary Clinton, but it was also very close at the downballot level. Having it be an open seat is likely to be better for the Democrats, and may possibly be a signal that the Republicans don’t like their prospects. Bob Hall is a dithering fool, but much of SD02 is outside Dallas County, and some of that turf may not be very hospitable to a suburban establishment type, especially one who is already talking about playing well with others. If Burkett means what she says, she could be a marginal improvement on Hall – the bar is pretty low here, as Hall is awful – but Burkett was the author of the regular session omnibus anti-abortion bill, so don’t expect much.

Item Two:

State Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, is making it official: He is challenging state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls.

“They just desperately want somebody new,” Fallon said of voters in Senate District 30, which Estes has represented since 2001. “It’s been 16 years — it’s going to be 18 years. They want a change. They don’t see him around.”

Fallon had been seriously mulling a Senate bid for months, crisscrossing the 14-county district in North Texas since at least the end of the regular legislative session in May. He first shared his decision to run Tuesday with a newspaper in SD-30, the Weatherford Democrat.

In an interview with the Tribune, Fallon said he was “shocked” to learn in his travels how many local officials view Estes as an absentee senator. Fallon, who loaned his campaign $1.8 million in June, also said he was prepared to “spend every dime and then some” to get his message out in the race.

“It’s a moral obligation,” he said. “We simply need in this district to close one chapter and open up a new one.”

Not much to be said about this one. Estes is basically a waste of space, while Fallon is more of a new school jackass. Neither district is competitive. Someone will win the race, but no one will truly win.

Finally, along those same lines, Angela Paxpn – wife of you-know-who – has officially announced her candidacy for SD08, where she will face off against Phillip Huffines, brother of Sen. Don Huffines. We first heard about this a couple of weeks ago. With any luck, Huffines will spend a bunch of his money attacking Angela Paxton by attacking Ken Paxton. Surely that’s not asking for too much.

Maternal mortality bills pass the House

Good.

House lawmakers tentatively approved a series of bills Monday aimed at helping Texas curb its unusually high rate of women dying less than a year after childbirth.

The primary measure, House Bill 9, would direct the state’s Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity to continue studying pregnancy complications and maternal deaths until 2023. Last year, a study in the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology revealed that Texas’ maternal mortality rate had nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014. State task force data shows that between 2011 and 2012, 189 Texas mothers died less than a year after giving birth, mostly from heart disease, drug overdoses and high blood pressure.

State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale and the bill’s author, said giving the task force more time to make recommendations on how to prevent those types of health issues in pregnant women and new moms would help save lives and lower costs Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance programs for the poor and disabled.

“As in many things, prevention is better and often cheaper,” Burkett said.

HB 9 charges task force members with finding solutions to help Texas women struggling with postpartum depression; looking at what other states are doing on maternal care; and examining health disparities and socioeconomic status among mothers dying in Texas. The measure still needs one more House vote.

The Senate passed a similar bill on July 24. Both chambers will likely head into conference committee to reconcile the two measures.

See here and here for some background. Please note that the reason that this item is on the special session agenda is because bills like these were snuffed out at the end of the regular session as a result of stalling tactics by the House Freedom Caucus, whose pique at being treated meanly by Speaker Straus overrode their ever-present concern for unborn babies. I’m sure we can all appreciate the sacrifice they had to make.

Getting underway in Dallas

Candidate recruitment season is on.

Dorotha Ocker

For Texas Democrats, the road out of the political wilderness winds through Dallas County.

It’s here, in the Republican strongholds of the north, west and east, that Democrats hope to unseat up to seven GOP lawmakers.

Their operatives were in Dallas this week to interview potential House candidates, raise money and plot strategy to flip the turf made fertile by Hillary Clinton, who walloped Donald Trump in Dallas County. Clinton won seven Texas House districts in Dallas County that are represented by Republicans.

“The 2016 elections showed us that voters reject the tone and rhetoric of Donald Trump and the Texas Republicans who support him,” said Cesar Blanco, co-chairman of the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee. “Dallas County is ground zero in our fight to win seats now held by Republicans.”

Along with Blanco’s visit, Texas Democrats on Wednesday held a fundraiser at a private home in Dallas, hoping to convince donors that 2018 could be a successful election cycle.

Along with Dallas County, Democrats are targeting Republicans in House Districts 134 and 138 in Harris County and House District 136 in Williamson County.

[…]

Republicans hold a 95-55 advantage in the Texas House, and Democrats concede that they can’t retake control of the chamber in one election cycle.

In 2008, when Democrats gained four seats in Dallas County, they came within two seats from retaking the House for the first time since 2001.

But they were clobbered in the 2010 midterms. And the subsequent redistricting process resulted in Republicans solidifying what were once swing districts, including several seats in Dallas County.

As with the previous decade, population trends in urban areas have created opportunities for Democrats to break through.

In 2016, Democrat Victoria Neave beat incumbent Republican Kenneth Sheets in District 107, which includes eastern Dallas County.

More encouraging for Democrats, Clinton, their presidential nominee, won in seven Republican House Districts, including the GOP-dominated turf that includes Preston Hollow and the Park Cities.

Blanco said the House Democratic Campaign Committee is hoping to build on Clinton’s success.

On Wednesday, he met with several potential Democratic candidates for House, including Dorotha Ocker, who last year came within one percentage point of beating incumbent Republican Matt Rinaldi in House District 115 in far northwest Dallas County.

The rematch between Ocker and Rinaldi will now be one of the most watched races in Texas.

I’ve discussed Dallas County before, and it is indeed a target-rich environment for 2018. Some of those targets, like Matt Rinaldi in HD115 and Cindy Burkett (author of this session’s unconstitutional anti-abortion bill) in HD113, are more vulnerable than others. I presume the list in the story is a partial one, as there are several other districts that deserve strong challenges – right here in Harris County, that includes HDs 135 and 132, along with HD26 in Fort Bend. For now, the important thing is identifying potential candidates and getting them off to a good start. No time like the present for that.

No special session for redistricting

Buried in my Wednesday post about the SCOTUS ruling that declared North Carolina’s Congressional map to be an illegal gerrymander was a note that the court in the Texas redistricting case asked the state to consider a special session to redraw Texas’ map, taking that ruling into account. The DMN had a story about that:

In striking down North Carolina’s congressional district map, the Supreme Court sent Texas a firm warning Monday about how the state’s case may fare if it reaches that stage.

Hours after the ruling, the federal district court in San Antonio currently overseeing the Texas case issued an order to the relevant parties asking them to submit briefs detailing how the North Carolina ruling will affect their claims, with a deadline of June 6.

Judge Xavier Rodriguez, on behalf of the panel, also directed Texas to consider whether it would like to “voluntarily undertake redistricting in a special session” of the legislature in light of the North Carolina ruling, giving the state until Friday to decide.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the case, said he interpreted the district court’s new order as a message to the state.

“The way I read it is that the court is warning the state of Texas to fix these intentionally discriminatory maps or it will in a way the state might not like,” said Anchia, D-Dallas.

[…]

Michael Li, a redistricting expert and senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the North Carolina ruling will be an “important decision” for the other districting efforts winding through the legal system, including those in Texas.

“It makes clear that this isn’t about any sort of talismanic test or anything like that, but that you actually have to delve into the facts and circumstances about how maps are drawn,” Li said. “So even a district that looks pretty and has nice lines, and everything like that, can still be problematic. And it’s really up to the trial court to delve into that.”

Democrats in Texas celebrated the ruling as a promising indication of how their arguments will fare moving forward.

“I am happy that North Carolina voters secured another victory against the national Republican crusade to undermine the voting power of African Americans and Hispanics in local, state, and federal elections,” said Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, who has been on the front lines of another legal case against Texas’ voter ID law.

The request from the district court in San Antonio for new filings in the wake of the North Carolina decision confirmed the potential impact of the ruling. Matt Angle, the director of the Lone Star Project, a liberal advocacy group, said the court “is all but screaming in the ears of Texas Republican leaders to pull back from their culture of racial discrimination” by redrawing the map.

“Don’t count on Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick or other Texas Republican leaders to listen or care,” Angle said in a written statement. “Texas Republicans have adopted discrimination and vote suppression as essential tools to hold power.”

Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, sent two letters earlier this year to Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, asking her to hold a hearing on the matter as chairwoman of the House Redistricting Committee. But the committee has not met at all this session.

The court had given the state till today to decide whether or not to take its own shot at drawing a legal map first. Yesterday, they gave their answer.

In response to a question from the court, the State of Texas said in a filing today that it has no plans to hold a special session to redraw state house and congressional maps.

The state said that its position remained that the state house and congressional adopted in 2013 to replace earlier maps were free of discriminatory purpose, did not use race as a predominant factor, or violate the Voting Rights Act – saying that it acted in good faith when it adopted court-drawn interim plans on a permanent basis.

The state also said that “any further attempt to reconfigure the State’s electoral districts will only result in new legal challenges.”

All righty then. That filing may disappoint the Texas Republican Congressional delegation, however.

Several congressional Republicans told the Tribune they want Abbott to call a special session to redraw the Congressional lines. They believe such a maneuver would put their allies in the state legislature in the driver’s seat, circumventing Republicans’ worst fear: that a panel of federal judges will draw a less favorable map of its own.

“I can’t speak for my whole delegation but I’ve already reached out to some of my friends back in the legislature…I said, ‘Give me a holler,'” said U.S. Rep. Randy Weber R-Friendswood, on his hopes for a special session.

“My thought is, if the legislature doesn’t [redraw the map], then the court is going to drop the map, which I think is way outside their constitutional purview,” he added.

[…]

To be sure, the Congressional delegation would like to keep the current lines. But its calls for a special session are rooted in fears that the map will not hold up in court.

And even those fears are not uniform within the delegation itself.

“One attorney will tell you one thing, another attorney will tell you something different,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan. “There’s more confusion than consensus.”

I’m pretty sure there will be a new map, though it may be that the changes are fairly minimal, and it’s also possible that the state can force a delay until 2020. I don’t know that I’d bet my own money on those outcomes, however. Note that Greg Abbott may well call a special session for other reasons, just not for this because the state thinks it’s totally going to win. I have a feeling this subject will come up again during the scheduled hearing on July 10. Stay tuned.

It’s HB2 all over again

Here we go again.

Right there with them

GOP House lawmakers took a sweeping approach to anti-abortion legislation on Friday, preliminarily passing a measure that would ban the most common form of a second-trimester procedure and change how health care providers dispose of fetal remains.

Under the broad strokes of Senate Bill 8, abortion providers would have to bury or cremate fetal remains following an elective abortion and they would be banned from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers. The bill also bans “partial-birth abortions,” which are already illegal under federal law.

An amendment added to the bill during House debate would also ban providers from performing “dilation and evacuation” abortions — a common second-trimester procedure where doctors use surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue — unless the fetus is already deceased. Abortion opponents call the procedure “dismemberment abortions.”

House lawmakers passed the bill 96-47; the chamber must take a final vote on the measure before it returns to the Senate.

Opponents call “dilation and evacuation” abortions the safest way to perform the procedure on a pregnant woman, and say requiring the fetus to be deceased would subject women to an unnecessary medical procedure.

They have also said burying or cremating fetal remains — and taking away a woman’s right to donate fetal tissue to medical research — are additional ways to burden and stigmatize women who choose to have a legal procedure.

They predicted even more litigation.

“Why don’t we just stop passing unconstitutional laws for a change?” asked state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

But Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, the bill’s House sponsor, said the measure would “make sure tissue from aborted babies are not turned into a commodity.” And even though partial-birth abortions are already illegal, she said her measure helps align state and federal statute.

See here and here for some background. As the story notes, there is already an injunction in place against the “fetal remains” rule as it was enacted by HHSC, so the future lawsuit against SB8 is basically ready to go now. Of course as we know, even passing laws that will be killed by the courts exacts a price on reproductive choice and counts as a big win for the bad guys. The only way we’re going to change that is by changing the Legislature, and that needs to start right away. Note that Rep. Burkett is up top of that list, by the way. Quite a few of the “Freedom Caucus” members are in districts that aren’t really all that red. Channel that anger you’re feeling, there’s a lot of good that can be done. The Observer has more.

An early look ahead to the legislative races

The Trib takes a look at the legislative races that could end with a seat changing parties.

vote-button

• HD-23. Freshman state Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Dickinson, against former state Rep. Lloyd Criss, R-La Marque.

• HD-43. State Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, will face Democratic challenger Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley.

• HD-54. State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, decided not to seek reelection in a district where Republicans have only a narrow advantage over Democrats in presidential election years like this one. Killeen Mayor Scott Cosper apparently won the Republican runoff, but his 43-vote margin over Austin Ruiz has prompted a recount. The winner will face Democrat Sandra Blankenship in November.

• HD-78. State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, will contend with Jeffrey Lane, a Republican in a district where Democrats have demonstrated a slight advantage.

• HD-102. Freshman Rep. Linda Koop, R-Dallas, will face Democrat Laura Irvin.

• HD-105. State Rep. Rodney Anderson, R-Grand Prairie, currently holds this swing district. He’ll battle Democrat Terry Meza in November.

• HD-107. State Rep. Ken Sheets, R-Dallas, has fended off a series of challenges in his narrowly Republican district; this time, the chief opponent is Democrat Victoria Neave.

• HD-113. Like Sheets in the district next door, state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, has a district where the incumbent is always under attack. Her Democratic opponent this time is Rhetta Andrews Bowers.

• HD-117. State Rep. Rick Galindo, R-San Antonio, is one of two House Republicans defending a district where Democrats generally win statewide races. He’ll face the guy he beat, former Rep. Philip Cortez, a Democrat, in November.

• HD-118. The other of those Republicans is John Luhan, also of San Antonio, who won a special election earlier this year to replace Democrat Joe Farias, who retired. He’ll face Democrat Tomás Uresti — the loser of that special election — in a November rematch.

• HD-144. State Rep. Gilbert Peña, R-Pasadena, represents a district that has gone for Republicans in some years and Democrats in others. And it’s another rematch: He will face former Rep. Mary Ann Perez, the Democrat who lost in 2014 by 152 votes out of 11,878 cast.

Several incumbents got free passes in districts where an able opponent might have been dangerous. In HD-34, state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, drew no Republican challenger. In HD-45, Republican Jason Isaac didn’t draw a Democratic opponent.

That’s a pretty comprehensive list. Because I like numbers, I went and dug up the 2012 district results so you can get some idea of how steep a hill these are to climb for the Democrats:


Dist    Romney    Obama    Romney%   Obama%    Diff   Boost
===========================================================
023     31,282   25,365     54.56%   44.24%   5,917   23.3%
043     25,017   22,554     52.05%   46.92%   2,463   10.9%
054     25,343   21,909     52.90%   45.73%   3,434   15.7%
102     29,198   24,958     53.01%   45.31%   4,240   17.0%
105     23,228   20,710     52.11%   46.46%   2,518   12.2%
107     27,185   24,593     51.81%   46.87%   2,592   10.5%
112     28,221   22,308     55.01%   43.48%   5,913   26.5%
113     27,098   23,893     52.51%   46.30%   3,205   13.4%
114     35,975   28,182     55.21%   43.47%   7,793   27.7%
115     29,861   23,353     55.26%   43.22%   6,508   27.9%
136     35,296   26,423     55.06%   41.22%   8,873   33.6%

“Diff” is just the difference between the Romney and Obama totals. “Boost” is my way of quantifying how wide that gap really is. It’s the ratio of the Diff to the Obama total, which put another way is how big a turnout boost Democrats would need in 2016 over 2012 to match the Republican total. That doesn’t take into account any other factors, of course, it’s just intended as a bit of context. Note that for HDs 78 (where Obama won by more than ten points in 2012), 117, 118, and 144, Democrats already had a majority of the vote in 2012, so in theory all that is needed is to hold serve. Individual candidates matter as well, of course, though in 2012 there was literally only on State House race in which the winner was not from the party whose Presidential candidate carried the district, that being then-Rep. Craig Eiland in HD23. Point being, you can swim against the tide but it’s a lot more challenging to do so these days. I went and added a couple more races to the list that the Trib put together just for completeness and a sense of how big the difference is between the top tier and the next tier. I don’t have a point to make beyond this, I’m just noting all this for the record.

Legislative quick hits

This is the time of the session where there’s lots happening, and there isn’t always the time or space to stay on top of it all. So here are a few quick updates on things that are happening in an attempt to at least not be too far behind.

A bill to give Tesla Motors an opportunity to operate in Texas moves out of committee in the House.

The House Business and Industry Committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would allow Tesla Motors to circumvent the state’s franchise dealer system and sell cars directly to Texans, giving a shot in the arm to the company’s efforts to operate in the state.

Tesla says an exemption from the franchise dealer system is the only way the company can operate successfully in Texas, but the owners of state auto dealer franchises have objected, saying the effort weakens a business model that has been key to their success.

House Bill 3351, by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, was replaced by a committee substitute that offered auto dealers another layer of protection: If Tesla ever sells more than 5,000 cars a year in the state, it will become subject to existing regulation and must start to franchise its operations.

With Tesla projecting sales of only a few hundred cars a year in the state, the bill’s supporters, including Diarmuid O’Connell, the vice president of business development for Tesla motors, called this a workable approach.

“This would give us the space we need to introduce our technology in the state,” he said.

See here for the background. I’m rooting for this one.

A bill to allow online voter registration has passed the Senate.

[Tuesday] afternoon, the Texas senate approved SB 315, a bill proposed by State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) to allow holders of unexpired Texas driver’s licenses or state-issued IDs to register to vote online.

Currently, registered voters in Texas may change their addresses online if they move within the same county but must complete a paper application if they are registering to vote for the first time or have moved to a different county.

In testimony on the proposed bill, election administrators said the legislation would both save significant money by reducing the need to manually enter information and eliminate transcription mistakes that happen with the current process.

The version of the bill approved by the Texas senate differs slightly from the original filed version in that the passed bill no longer requires voters to use the address listed on their license or ID as their voter registration address.

A similar bill – HB 313 – by State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) is currently pending in the state house.

See here for the background. Another bill I’m rooting for. BOR has more.

Sen. Dan Patrick’s charter school expansion bill had its hearing in the House

Lawmakers didn’t let on too much of their feelings about the bill—but Killeen Republican Jimmy Don Aycock, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he didn’t consider the bill watered-down, because it allows the state’s charter network to grow. Charter school officials seemed to agree.

The bill still gives charter schools priority access to unused public school facilities, which Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of NYOS Charter School, said is the bill’s most important improvement. Zimmerman said she has to give up her office for tutoring sessions because unlike public schools, charters don’t get facilities funding.

Under the Senate version, the education commissioner would revoke charters of schools that performed poorly in three out of five years.

Zimmerman said she didn’t focus on those higher standards because she wanted to highlight the positives. But, she said, “as a charter operator, I don’t want poor performing charters either.”

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said she’s concerned that charters may have a hard time getting loans because some banks want them to plan to be open for more than five years.

Charles Pulliam, chief development officer of Life School charter in Dallas, said that prospect would undermine the flexibility charters need to test out innovative education strategies.

“It scares me a little,” Pulliam said. “To have one blanket way of determining if they are successful is a mistake.”

The bill is SB 2, and it easily passed the Senate after adding a bunch of mostly Democratic amendments. It is pending in the House Public Ed committee.

Speaking of charter schools, a bill to limit the role ex-SBOE members can play at one has advanced.

A measure to bar former State Board of Education members from taking a job at a charter school or related foundation within two years of serving on the board is headed to the full Senate.

Senate Bill 1725 by state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, is intended to close the revolving door between the SBOE and charter schools.

An amendment by Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, would allow former board members to take a job at a charter school within the two-year period so long as that member did not vote to create that particular school.

The Senate Education Committee passed the bill 6-3 late Tuesday.

The three nays all came from Republicans, which suggests this bill could have problems getting any farther.

The Lege has been trying to change the name of the Railroad Commission to something more reflective of reality for as long as I can remember. They’re still trying, and working on some other reforms as well.

The bill, SB 212 by State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, embodies a previous Sunset review of the Railroad Commission that didn’t pass in the last legislative session that would forbid certain campaign contributions. For instance, commissioners could not accept donations from a party involved in a contested case hearing. It would also limit campaign contributions to the 17 months before an election and 30 days after. Commissioners are elected to six-year terms.

A contested case hearing is the way citizens protest against an oil and gas company permit or action.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Railroad Commission, said during testimony that the campaign restrictions were “tricky” because the commissioner position is elected statewide, the state is big, travel is necessary and commissioners must raise money.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sits on the committee, said the Sunset Commission had thought hard about how to put reasonable limits on the campaign financing.

“Sitting there for a six-year term, being able to raise unlimited amounts of money from the industry that they regulate, there clearly is a perception problem,” said Ellis.

The Railroad Commission should be subject to restrictions that differ from other statewide elected officials, like senators and representatives, because the nature of the commission is unique, Nichols said, because the commissioners have six-year terms, they regulate a specific industry and they set rates.

Similar Sunset legislation for the commission originating in the House, HB 2166 by State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, recently passed out of committee, but largely stripped of the campaign and ethics reform, according to Texas Energy Report. That bill could end up competing with the Senate bill discussed Tuesday.

[…]

No one testified specifically against the name-change provision. [Commissioner Christi] Craddick suggested the more succinct Texas Energy Commission. State Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, who worked on the Sunset review that failed to pass in the last legislative session, also suggested a new name.

“I’d like to change it to Texas Department on Oil and Gas because it sounds cool … TDOG,” Hegar said.

The official name in the bill is Texas Energy Resources Commission. But I like Sen. Hegar’s suggestion.

We close with two from the inbox. First, from Equality Texas:

Moments ago, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence advanced House Bill 2403 by Rep. Mary González of El Paso on a committee vote of 5-3.

HB 2403 would remove existing inequity in Texas’ “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense law. The “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is a logical approach to the reality that adolescents sometimes make sexual decisions that adults wish they had not made, but that adolescents have been making since the beginning of time.

Under current law, if teen sweethearts are of opposite sexes, consensual intimate contact remains a matter between parents and their children. However, the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is not currently available to dating teens of the same gender. The state should not intrude on the right of parents to instill their values about sex into their children. Nor should the state interfere if teenage sweethearts make decisions that their parents believe are not what is best for them.

This needs to be a conversation between parents and their children. Not between parents, their children, an arresting officer, a prosecuting attorney, and a trial judge. That is why the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense exists.

HB 2301 will ensure that it applies equally to straight & gay teens.

Today’s House committee action follows advancement of identical legislation by the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. On April 9th, Senate Bill 1316 by Senator John Whitmire of Houston was advanced by the committee on a 4-1 vote. SB 1316 is on the Senate Intent Calendar for Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

See here for more. As far as I can tell, the full Senate has not taken up SB1316 as yet.

Last but not least, a non-good bill from Empower the Vote Texas:

HB 148 by Rep. Burkett is scheduled to be voted on by the full House tomorrow, April 25th. Please contact your State Representative and tell them to vote NO on this bill. If you are not sure who is your State Rep, you can use the “Who Represents Me” lookup tool. Emails addresses for all House members are firstname.lastname @ house.state.tx.us, however phone calls are much more effective.

Attached are the letter ETVT sent to all Representatives opposing this bill along with supporting documents. The original text of the bill as introduced, the new text of the committee substitute, witness list, and bill analysis can be found here.

A copy of the letter is here. The hearing is today, so we’ll see how it goes.

Protecting polluters

Ridiculous.

Ship Channel circa 1973

It’s never been easy fighting powerful polluters in Texas. A bill approved by a Senate committee today would make it even harder. With a big push from the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Association of Business, the Senate Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 today for legislation “streamlining” (read: weakening) the process that communities and environmental groups can use to challenge permits to pollute. (Democrats Rodney Ellis and Carlos Uresti as well as Republican Robert Duncan were the ‘no’ votes.)

“We are very disappointed by the committee’s vote today,” said Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger. “The deck is already stacked against residents when a powerful polluter applies for a permit to discharge chemicals in to our air, water and land.”

Senate Bill 957 by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) would put limits on contested case hearings, mini-trials in which each administrative law judges hear testimony and evidence from each side. Environmental groups already complain that the process is flawed: The judges can only offer recommendations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That agency, run by corporate-friendly Rick Perry appointees, often ignores or downplays the judge’s proposals.

However, SB 957 would weaken it even further. Fraser’s proposal would shift the burden of proof from the company seeking the permit—often some of the most lucrative and powerful corporations in the world—to the protestant, often a hastily-formed grassroots group or an environmental organization. The bill would also strictly limit how long the contested case hearing could last; limit who could participate; narrow the scope of the hearing; and eliminate discovery.

Here’s SB957. It’s not the only polluter-friendly bill out there.

Some county governments have found that when it comes to suing corporations over polluted property, hiring a private law firm on a contingency fee basis is the way to go.

But against the backdrop of a multi-billion dollar dioxin case in Harris County, there’s an effort to outlaw those arrangements in pollution lawsuits. The House Committee on Environmental Regulation has scheduled a hearing today on a bill that would ban counties from using private firms, HB 3119.

The bill has the support of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute that compiled a report on what it calls the “dubious practice of employing private lawyers on a contingency basis.”

“The arrangement creates a variety of perverse incentives. A county faces no risk in bringing a suit and the outside, contingency-based counsel has no incentive to settle the suit,” said Brent Connett, communications director for the group.

The group argues that instead, contingency fee deals encourage private firms to enrich themselves at the expense of adequately funding the cleanup of toxic sites.

Harris County, which was the focus of the conservative group’s report, says contingency fee arranagements are vital to its efforts to litigate pollution cases.

“We don’t have money to go out and hire lawyers. You’re talking about, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars that we would have to spend up front just to go to court. With the contingency fee, we don’t have to do that. We only pay if we win,” said Terrence O’Rourke, special assistant to the Office of the Harris County Attorney.

[…]

[Harris County] points out that the big corporations fighting the suits often use very experienced, highly-paid attorneys.

“They’re spending millions on their lawyers and Harris County can’t afford that. We’ve got contingent fee lawyers,” says O’Rourke, the county’s special assistant.

The point of taking cases on contingency is that it only pays to take cases you think can win. Otherwise, it’s a lot of hours down the drain for nothing. One could argue that it’s the attorneys for the polluters that have no real incentive to settle, since they get paid by the hour. But maybe as a compromise, we could set up a public defender system for the businesses that find themselves plagued by these suits, to represent them free of charge. Think the polluters would go for that? Yeah, me neither.

Here’s the Chron on these two bills:

“It surprises me a little bit because there is no history of us settling cases in opposition to the attorney general or against the wishes of the attorney general,” said Rock Owens, who heads the environmental division in the Harris County Attorney’s office, which historically has filed the most civil environmental lawsuits in the state.

Owens said the legislation would diminish an authority local governments have had for decades to punish environmental offenders, and also make for an uneven playing field as governments cannot afford to pay private attorneys on an hourly basis like the companies they sue.

While the county has been filing environmental cases for a long time, it only recently began recruiting outside counsel. Six cases have been relegated to private firms.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the county has not taken an official position on hiring outside lawyers on a contingency fee basis, but that all counties “ought to be able to make those decisions on their own.”

Once again I note the irony of people who rant and rage about the federal government telling Texas what it can and can’t do but who are lining up to tell various local governments, often in localities far from their own home districts (Rep. Cindy Burkett, author of HB 3119, is from the suburbs of Dallas), what they can and can’t do. The good news is that SB957 likely won’t get past the Senate’s two-thirds rule, while HB3119 hasn’t yet been voted on in committee. If we’re lucky, it won’t have enough time to make it through, or it too will die from insufficient Senate support. But until they both do die, they’re menaces to be watched.

Driver’s plea

So long, Joe.

A humbled Rep. Joe Driver, the Garland Republican who illegally pocketed state travel money, pleaded guilty to felony abuse-of-office charges Tuesday and agreed to five years’ probation.

As part of his plea agreement, Driver will get five years deferred adjudication, avoiding jail time as long as he doesn’t violate the terms of his probation. After spending about an hour at the Travis County Courthouse waiting to enter his plea, Driver made a brief statement to reporters.

“Basically, my family and I are thankful that this has been resolved,” Driver said. The longtime lawmaker’s attorney, Dan Guthrie, said Driver may have more to say after his sentencing on Dec. 19.

But don’t worry, he gets to keep his pension. Must be nice. Driver was paired with freshman Rep. Cindy Burkett in a district that now leans Republican. I don’t recall seeing an announcement that he will not be running, but BOR says he did make one. Not that it really matters – I daresay Burkett would have won the nomination regardless. Coby has more.

Primary news: HD90, HD113, HCDE

State Rep. Lon Burnam has an opponent in March.

Fort Worth School Board trustee Carlos Vasquez has announced he will challenge state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, in next year’s Democratic primary.

Vasquez, a former elementary school principal, has been on the board since 2008 representing the district’s north side.

“After careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that many of the problems faced with public education are attributable to a broken State Government in Austin,” Vasquez wrote on Facebook. “With over four billion dollars cut in public education we need to refocus on what matters most, a strong public school system.

“Today, I am announcing my candidacy for State Representative in District 90 in the Democratic Primary of 2012.”

I think it’s fair to say that Rep. Burnam was not part of the problem that Vasquez identifies, but that’s neither here nor there. HD90 is a heavily Latino district, and Burnam nearly drew a Latino challenger in 2010. It should be noted that the new district in Tarrant County, currently listed as HD101, was drawn with a Latino plurality, but in practice I believe is more likely to elect an African-American. Be that as it may, I like Rep. Burnam and think he plays a very useful role in the Legislature, but as I’ve said before nobody is entitled to a seat. If Vasquez believes he can do a better job protecting the interests of public schools and representing HD90, then let’s hear what he has to say.

Over in Dallas, one of the Republicans that was paired up in the legislative redistricting has announced her intent to run again.

Mesquite Republican Cindy Burkett announced Tuesday that she would seek re-election to the Texas House.

Burkett will run in the newly constituted District 113, where she was paired after redistricting with incumbent lawmaker Joe Driver of Garland.

It’s possible that Driver and Burkett will have meet each other in March for what would be a hotly contested Republican primary race.

Burkett won the former HD101 last year, ousting freshman Rep. Robert Miklos. The new HD113 is quite purple, so with any luck it won’t matter whether Burkett or Driver and his ethical issues emerges from the primary.

Finally, here in Harris County I had recently mentioned the Precinct 1 HCDE Trustee seat, currently held by Roy Morales and referred to by me as the single easiest pickup opportunity for Dems next year. I am pleased to report that via email, TaShon Thomas has informed me that he will make an official announcement of his candidacy for that seat next month. Thomas is a senior Administration of Justice major at TSU and the Chief of Staff in the President’s office of the TSU student government. I met him a year or so ago at a Harris County Young Democrats meeting; he actually qualifies as a Young Dem, I was there as a guest speaker. Here’s his Facebook page if you want to know more about him.

New map, new opportunities: The Metroplex

Dallas and Tarrant Counties will each have eight districts drawn to elect Republicans in them. For this entry, I’m going to look at each of these districts.

Dallas and Tarrant Counties

First up is Tarrant County, which gains a district (HD101) for a total of eleven. HD101 was drawn to elect a Democrat – Barack Obama received 61.59% of the vote, and no Democrat received less than 60%. The interesting question is what kind of Democrat it will elect. According to the district information, HD101 has a voting age population of 29.5% Anglo, 27.0% African-American, 32.5% Hispanic, and 11.6% Other. (Yes, I know that doesn’t add to 100%. I’m just telling you what it says.) VAP is not the same as Citizen Voting Age Population, however, and in general the Hispanic number will drop a lot more for that than other demographic groups. As such, if I were a betting man, I’d wager on African-American. But don’t be surprised if he or she gets a primary challenge from a Hispanic candidate before the decade is over.

So chalk up one sure gain for the Dems. For the eight Republican districts in Tarrant County, here’s the tale of the tape:

Dist Incumbent Elected 08 Dem High Score ============================================ 091 K Hancock 2006 Houston, 35.10 092 T Smith 1996 Houston, 39.76 093 B Nash 2010 Obama, 41.60 094 D Patrick 2006 Houston, 39.63 096 B Zedler 2010 Houston, 42.35 097 M Shelton 2008 Obama, 41.41 098 V Truitt 1998 Obama, 28.12 099 C Geren 2000 Houston, 38.38

None of these stand out as obvious pickup opportunities. Both HDs 93, which had been won by a Democrat in 2006, and 96, won be a Dem in 2008, were made redder to protect their new and recycled incumbents. I suspect that what looks safe now may not be in a couple of cycles. As Tarrant County got less white over the past decade, it also got less red. I don’t think either of those trends are likely to reverse themselves. It’ll be very interesting to see what the landscape looks like for the 2016 election.

Along those lines, I thought it would be worthwhile to compare the new districts to the old ones, to see who got what kind of protection. Here’s a look at the 2004 numbers in the old district for JR Molina, who was generally the high scoring Democrat that year, with the 2008 Sam Houston numbers in the new district:

Dist 04 Molina 08 Houston ============================== 091 34.1 35.1 092 33.2 39.8 093 46.0 41.5 094 34.1 39.6 096 40.0 42.3 097 36.9 41.3 098 36.9 26.7 099 23.9 38.4

I’m not sure what the deal is with the Truitt and Geren districts, but those numbers sure do stand out. Both districts 93 and 96 were made redder, though the latter only in comparison to what it would have been with no changes. Basically, the creation of a 60%+ Dem district in the county gave mapmakers a lot of room to spread the Republican population around enough to make sure no one was in any imminent danger. You can’t fight demography, but you can delay it a bit.

That will become more clear as we look over in Dallas County. First, the numbers for the eight remaining Republican-drawn districts:

Dist Incumbent Elected 08 Dem High Score ============================================ 102 S Carter 2010 Houston, 46.75 105 * L H-Brown 2002 Houston, 48.18 107 K Sheets 2010 Houston, 48.46 108 D Branch 2002 Obama, 44.88 112 A Button 2008 Houston, 45.68 113 * J Driver 1992 Houston, 47.87 114 W Hartnett 1990 Houston, 45.66 115 J Jackson 2004 Houston, 43.24

Driver was paired with freshman Cindy Burkett (HD101), and Harper-Brown with freshman Rodney Anderson (HD106). Here in a county that’s ten to fifteen points bluer to begin with, the most Republican district is bluer than the swingiest district in Tarrant. It ain’t easy making 57% of the legislative seats Republican in a county that’s 57% Democratic. Here the question isn’t if some of these seats will be ripe for the taking but when. Anywhere from two to six seats could be vulnerable right away, and for sure all of them need to be strongly challenged. While we have seen individual districts that are bluer, there’s no one place that has as many opportunities for gain as Dallas.

Here’s the same Molina/Houston comparison for Dallas:

Dist 04 Molina 08 Houston ============================== 102 43.3 46.7 105 42.8 48.2 107 43.0 48.5 108 39.8 42.2 112 36.0 45.7 113 37.4 47.9 114 38.1 45.7 115 32.7 43.2

Every district is bluer than it once was, some by ten points. Some day Dallas County will look like Travis. It’s already most of the way there. Next up, Harris County.