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2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters passed a $1 billion pension bond referendum by a wide margin late Tuesday, securing Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark reform package and, the mayor hopes, marking the beginning of the end of a 16-year fiscal crisis.

The ballot item’s passage now means the city can follow through on its plan to infuse $750 million into the police pension and $250 million into the municipal workers’ pension to improve their funding levels and lower Houston’s annual payments into its pension funds.

If voters had rejected the measure, up to $1.8 billion of the $2.8 billion in hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would have been rescinded, adding tens of millions of dollars in costs to the city budget overnight.

“This effort has not been easy,” the mayor said at an election night party. “Tonight is not a victory for Sylvester Turner. Tonight is not a victory for the members of city council. Tonight is not just a victory for the employees. Tonight is a victory for the city of Houston.”

[…]

Many City Hall insiders and political observers had predicted voters could balk at a $1 billion bond and produce a close vote. But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, because the GOP-run Legislature had approved the reform package earlier this year, there was no organized opposition to shake voters from their typical habit of granting approval to city bond issues.

“Because most conservative groups and Republicans and most big players on the state level endorsed the bonds, it was unlikely that there would be much of a fight, and there wasn’t,” he said. “My honest guess is that people probably weren’t that attentive to the importance of Prop. A; it was simply the case that the city was asking for more money, as they routinely do, and the good news is that people typically vote yes.”

I gave up and went to bed before the final results came in, but Prop A had over 77% support, with absentee, early, and Election Day totals all being at about the same level. Turnout was higher than predicted, with over 87,000 votes being counted with a fifth of precincts still not having reported. I’ll have more analysis of this for tomorrow, but in the meantime, the other bonds passed, too.

Houston residents can look forward to a smattering of facility upgrades – including repaired libraries, new community centers and renovated fire stations – thanks to what appeared to be overwhelming voter support for $495 million in public improvement bonds.

Propositions B through E passed easily Tuesday despite anemic local turnout in a city lacking a marquee race.

The bonds’ passage, which will not require a property tax increase, would authorize Houston to issue $159 million in public safety debt, $104 million for parks, $109 million for improvements to general government facilities and $123 million for libraries. They are the first the city has requested since 2012.

[…]

Meanwhile, residents of Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in the northwest, were set to further loosen restrictions on area alcohol sales.

Heights voters already had lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores last year, but customers who wanted to drink at neighborhood restaurants or bars still had to join a “private club” by submitting a driver’s license for entry into a database.

Passing Proposition F lifts that requirement, leaving the neighborhood nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

I don’t expect that last bit to change any time soon. Props B through E were at similar levels of support as Prop A, garnering between 72 and 76 percent; Prop F, limited to just part of the Heights, had over 62%. I should note that the other four citywide props did have official, if perhaps not organized, opposition, as the Harris County GOP and conservative groups like the C Club and the HRBC opposed them. Didn’t have much effect, I’d say.

Elsewhere, school bond issues in Spring Branch and Katy were approved, while all seven constitutional amendments were passed. As I said, I’ll have more to say on Tuesday’s results tomorrow.

UPDATE: Final turnout in the Harris County part of the city was 99,460, which is higher than anyone projected it to be.

Election Day 2017

It’s time to vote if you haven’t already. Not many people have, as we know.

Harris County turnout is expected to remain feeble through Election Day, with no marquee race to draw voters to the polls and thousands still displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Fewer than 59,000 of the county’s more than 2.2 million registered voters cast a ballot by the end of early voting Friday, a paltry showing even in a traditionally low-turnout state.

“Nobody’s voting because really nothing overly controversial is on the ballot,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, projecting total voter participation will reach of 80,000 to 100,000.

Unlike in recent off-cycle elections, Houston residents do not have mayoral or city council races to weigh in on, thanks to a recent change to term limits.

Instead, the city ballot features several propositions, as well as races for the Houston ISD and Houston Community College school boards.

What’s interesting about this is that Prof. Jones is suggesting that somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the total votes have already been cast. That’s a higher percentage than what I estimated, and it feels a bit peculiar to me because early voting has topped out at around half of the final total in odd-year elections. Maybe this year will be different – Lord knows, it’s different in many other ways – but I would like to understand the reasoning behind that projection. In any event, going by my “Houston is 70% of Harris County in odd year vote totals”, that suggests final citywide turnout of 56,000 to 70,000, which is similar to my estimate but with a lower ceiling.

Here’s the usual press release from the County Clerk’s office:

“Regardless of where voters reside in Harris County, voters will see seven state propositions on their ballot,”said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, alerting the registered voters in the County that Tuesday’s November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections is a countywide and statewide election. In addition to the State Propositions, the ballot also features items offered by 29 political jurisdictions within the County.  Polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm.

“Voters can view their individual sample ballot and review the items on which they may vote by visiting the County Clerk’s election website,  www.HarrisVotes.com,Stanart specified. “This election merits the attention and participation of all voters. Aside from the State, there are five cities, 14 ISDs, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot.”

“Voters should know the address of their voting location and the acceptable forms of identification required at the poll before going to vote,” advised Stanart.  “The polling location in approximately 30 voting precincts in areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey, have changed.”  There will be 735 Election Day polling location available throughout Harris County.  On Election Day, voters must vote at the voting precinct where they are registered to vote.

“Voters in the City of Houston should be aware that this is the first odd-numbered year election when the Mayor, Controller and City Council races are not on the ballot,” informed Stanart.  “Don’t be surprised if you don’t see those contests on your ballot.”

Voters may find their designated Election Day polling location, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at their poll at www.HarrisVotes.com. Voters may also call 713.755.6965 for election information.

Stan Stanart is the Clerk, Recorder and the Chief Elections Officer of the third largest county in the United States.

 

List of Political Entities on the Nov. 7, 2017 General & Special Elections Ballot in Harris County, TX
State of Texas Pasadena ISD
City of Baytown Spring Branch ISD
City of Bellaire Stafford Municipal SD
City of Houston Tomball ISD
City of Missouri City Crosby MUD
Houston Community College System Harris County MUD No. 61 (defined area)
Aldine ISD Harris County MUD No. 551
Alief ISD Harris County MUD No. 552
Crosby ISD Mount Houston Road MUD
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 6
Deer Park ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 22
Houston ISD Cypress-Klein UD
Katy ISD Prestonwood Forest UD
Klein ISD Harris County WC & ID No. 133
New Caney ISD The Woodlands Township

Finally, if you have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey, please read this information from the Secretary of State Short version: you can still vote in your original precinct, as long as it is your intent to return there at some point. Note that state election law says you don’t actually have to return, you just have to say you intend to. You can re-register another time. So no excuses, go and vote if you haven’t already. I’ll have results tomorrow.

2017 EV daily report: Just remember, the reports we get are all of Harris County

Here are today’s numbers, and here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   11,953   7,513   19,466   19,581
2015   36,322  19,789   56,111   42,520
2011   10,818   3,823   14,641   13,697
2007    8,080   3,126   11,206   12,775

So 2011 appears to be the closest comparison so far. That might imply a much higher level of turnout than what I’ve been suggesting, but I’m not prepared to believe that yet. The main reason for this is that less than 40% of the vote was cast early in 2011, and I seriously doubt that’s what we’re going to get this time. Odd year elections skew more towards Election Day and less towards early voting than even year elections – in 2015, just over half of the vote was cast early – but I think this year we will see a higher percentage of the vote cast early. The message from the County Clerk is to take advantage of the early voting period because a number of polling sites are unavailable thanks to Harvey, and I think people will heed that. We’ll take our guesses about that later in the EV period, but for now just keep that in mind. 2017 may be a bit ahead of 2011 in early voting, but I suspect that’s because more people will be voting early than usual.

It should also be noted that these reports encompass all of Harris County, so some of those numbers above are not for Houston or HISD. I’ve gone through this exercise before, but let’s review the percentage of county turnout that was in Houston in these elections:


Year   Harris  Houston   Share
==============================
2015  421,460  268,872   63.8%
2013  260,437  174,620   67.0%
2011  164,971  121,468   73.6%
2009  257,312  178,777   69.5%
2007  193,945  123,413   63.6%
2005  332,154  189,046   56.9%
2003  374,459  298,110   79.6%

“Share” is just simply the percentage of the county vote that came from Houston. There’s a big span here, but that comes with an asterisk, because the conditions were not the same each year. For example, in 2015 and 2007, Harris County had bond elections in addition to the state constitutional amendments. In 2005, the notorious state anti-gay marriage referendum was on the ballot, which coupled with a non-competitive Mayoral election meant a much larger county share. Finally, in 2003 there was the Metro referendum, which covered all of the county. There were also no state constitutional amendments on the ballot, as those had been voted on in September, to enhance the odds of the tort “reform” amendment passing.

Bottom line, with boring constitutional amendments on the ballot, I’d suggest that county/city ratio will be like the other years, which is to say between 67 and 73 percent. Let’s say 70%, just to split the difference. That’s another thing we’ll have to take into account when we do our projections later on.

What about those constitutional amendments?

Would you like someone to explain to you what those seven Constitutional amendments are about, in painstaking detail, with a recommendation for how to vote on each? Daniel Williams is here for you.

It’s that time of the biennium again! Time for voters to consider constitutional amendments on small minutia of public policy. Texas has the longest state constitution in the nation. It’s so detailed and specific that many ordinary and noncontroversial provisions of the law must be submitted to the voters for approval. That means that we the voters have a responsibility to educate ourselves on all that ordinary and noncontroversial minutia and do our best to vote in an informed and thoughtful way.

I’ve included the text of each proposed constitutional amendment, along with an attempt to briefly explain what the amendment is trying to do and how I’ll be voting when early voting starts tomorrow. I’ve also included information on how various advocacy groups and media outlets on all sides of the political spectrum have endorsed. If I’ve left off a group you think should be included let me know in the comments and I’ll add it.

Click over to read said painstakingly detailed explanations, the TL;dr version of which is “vote FOR props 1, 3, 5, and 7, and AGAINST props 2, 4, and 6”.

If you want further reading on the amendments, the League of Women Voters 2017 guide has you covered, though they don’t make recommendations. They do have information about the city of Houston bond referenda, and a brief Q&A with the HISD and HCC candidates; all but two of them provided answers. Finally, the Texas AFL-CIO has a guide to the amendments as well, along with their recommendations. You may find this exercise exasperating, but you can’t say you don’t have sufficient information to make good decisions.

On the matter of other elections, Instant News Bellaire has coverage on the elections for Bellaire’s Mayor and City Council. And if you live in Alief ISD, Stace has a slate for you. Now get out there and vote!

Early voting for November 2017 begins today

From the inbox:

“The best option to vote in the upcoming Nov. 7 election is during the early voting period,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. Early Voting for the November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections begins Monday, October 23 and will run through Friday, November 3. There will be 45 Early Voting locations across Harris County.

“Voters should be informed before heading to the polls as several of the usual Early Voting locations have changed”, said Stanart. “Locations hit hardest by flooding such as those running along Cypress Creek and those located near the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs have seen changes to several of their Early Voting locations”.

In addition to the 7 proposed State Constitutional Amendments, there are 5 cities, 14 ISD’s, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot. Voters can find their individual sample ballot at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“The impact of Hurricane Harvey to South Texas has been huge, and while we are recovering, please realize that government needs your participation in this election,” concluded Stanart. The pulling together of neighbors helping neighbors has been truly inspiring. Please join your neighbors as we meet at your neighborhood early voting location.”

To find polling locations for Early Voting and Election Day, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965. Stan Stanart is the Chief Elections Administrator and recorder for the third largest county in the United States.

Below is a list of early voting locations, some of which are new and one of which is a previously-used location that is not available due to Harvey. For a map and the EV schedule, see here. I’ll keep track of the daily totals as usual, and we’ll try to make our guesses as we go along about turnout. Feel free to place your guesses about how things go in the comments. When do you plan to vote?

Harris County, Texas – Early Voting Locations
November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections

Location Address City Zip
Harris County Administration Building 1001 Preston Street, 4th Floor Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Kashmere Multi Service Center 4802 Lockwood Drive Houston 77026
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Young Neighborhood Library 5107 Griggs Road Houston 77021
Fiesta Mart 8130 Kirby Drive Houston 77054
Metropolitan Multi Service Center 1475 West Gray Street Houston 77019
Harris County Public Health 2223 West Loop South Freeway, 1st floor Houston 77027
SPJST Lodge 88 1435 Beall Street Houston 77008
Northeast Multi Service Center 9720 Spaulding Street, Building 4 Houston 77016
Alvin D. Baggett Community Center 1302 Keene Street Galena Park 77547
John Phelps Courthouse 101 South Richey Street Pasadena 77506
Sunnyside Multi Purpose Center 9314 Cullen Boulevard Houston 77051
Hiram Clarke Multi Service Center 3810 West Fuqua Street Houston 77045
Bayland Park Community Center 6400 Bissonnet Street Houston 77074
Tracy Gee Community Center 3599 Westcenter Drive Houston 77042
Trini Mendenhall Community Center 1414 Wirt Road Houston 77055
Lone Star College Victory Center 4141 Victory Drive Houston 77088
Acres Homes Multi Service Center 6719 West Montgomery Road Houston 77091
Hardy Senior Center 11901 West Hardy Road Houston 77076
Octavia Fields Branch Library 1503 South Houston Avenue Humble 77338
Kingwood Community Center 4102 Rustic Woods Drive Kingwood 77345
Rosewood Funeral Home 17404 W. Lake Houston Pkwy Atascocita 77346
Crosby Branch Library 135 Hare Road Crosby 77532
North Channel Library 15741 Wallisville Road Houston 77049
Baytown Community Center 2407 Market Street Baytown 77520
Kyle Chapman Activity Center 7340 Spencer Highway Pasadena 77505
Freeman Branch Library 16616 Diana Lane Houston 77062
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Alief ISD Administration Building 4250 Cook Road Houston 77072
Harris County MUD 81 805 Hidden Canyon Road Katy 77450
Nottingham Park 926 Country Place Drive Houston 77079
Katy Branch Library 5414 Franz Road Katy 77493
Bear Creek Park Community Center UNAVAILABLE    
Lone Star College Cypress Center 19710 Clay Road Katy 77449
City of Jersey Village City Hall 16327 Lakeview Drive Jersey Village 77040
Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center 8440 Greenhouse Road Cypress 77433
Juergen’s Hall Community Center 26026 Hempstead Highway Cypress 77429
Prairie View A&M University Northwest 9449 Grant Road Houston 77070
Fallbrook Church 12512 Walters Road Houston 77014
Klein Multipurpose Center 7500 FM 2920 Klein 77379
Tomball Public Works Building 501B James Street Tomball 77375
Lone Star College Creekside 8747 West New Harmony Trail Tomball 77375
Spring First Church 1851 Spring Cypress Road Spring 77388
Lone Star College – North Harris 2700 W W Thorne Drive Houston 77073

 

Endorsement watch: More state propositions

The rest of the constitutional amendments, from the Chron.

State of Texas, Proposition 4: For

Everyone deserves to know if they’re being sued – even the state of Texas. The Legislature passed a bill in 2011 that would have required courts to provide notice to the attorney general if the constitutionality of a state statute was being challenged, and requiring a short waiting period before striking down a law.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 5: For

Fans of the Rockets, Astros or Texans are probably familiar with the charity raffles that have become a staple of gametime entertainment. Right now the state Constitution restricts these sorts of lotteries, which have routinely raised thousands for worthy causes, to the state’s 10 major league sports franchises. Voters should approve this amendment to expand the opportunities for charity to all the minor and major league teams in Texas.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 6: For

First responders put themselves at risk to keep the rest of us safe from criminals, fires and everything else that goes bump in the night. When one of Texas’ finest falls in the line of duty, we all have a responsibility to keep his or her family safe in return. This means guaranteeing that surviving spouses don’t have to worry about rising property taxes after losing not just a loved one, but also a breadwinner.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 7: For

Banks used to hand out toasters to lure first-time depositors. Maybe it’s time to bring that back. More than one-third of the state doesn’t have a simple savings account. About half lack an emergency fund that could last three months.

At this point, we’ll support almost anything that encourages people to open up a basic account and take the first steps to financial responsibility. That includes allowing credit unions and other financial institutions to entice savers with promotional raffles or lotteries.

See here for the first three. I’ve seen some differing opinions on these items, but for the most part I don’t think any of them amounts to much. Take whatever action you deem appropriate.

Endorsement watch: State propositions and Katy bonds

Hey, did you know that there are constitutional amendments on the ballot? It’s true! (Spoiler alert: There are constitutional amendments on the ballot every odd-numbered year.) The Chron has some recommendations for how to vote on them.

State of Texas, Proposition 1: For

This amendment would allow the Legislature to exempt partially disabled veterans and surviving spouses from paying property taxes on a home received from a charity at less than the market value. An exemption has already been granted when homes are given for free, and this opens the door to some cost sharing.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 2: Against

Consider it a form of post-traumatic stress. Any time banks ask for looser rules, we get flashbacks to the 2008 economic crisis. Financial institutions granted bad loans, good loans – some even made fake loans – knowing that the instruments would eventually be wrapped into a package and sold off. If the debt went bust, some other sucker would be stuck holding the bomb.

The global economic system ended up as the big loser in that game of hot potato.

Now the Texas Legislature is asking voters to tear down some regulations that help keep lenders in line. We recommend voting against.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 3: Against

The governor selects hundreds of unpaid appointees to serve on state boards and commissions, most of which run for four- or six-year terms. But if the term expires and no replacement is appointed, that volunteer is allowed under the state’s “holdover” provision to remain until the slot is filled. This amendment to the state Constitution would force out the incumbents even if there’s no new appointees and render the positions vacant.

We have no quarrel with the current “holdover” rule and recommend voting against.

There are seven of these in total, so I presume this was part one of two. I did receive a mailer the other day in favor of one of these, so there’s at least one active campaign involved. I don’t remember which one it was, though. This is why you need to send more than one piece of mail to ensure that your message penetrates, kids.

Moving a bit outside the usual boundaries, the Chron casts a virtual vote in favor of Katy ISD’s bond referendum.

Katy needs more schools.

That simple fact becomes obvious to anybody who looks at the Katy Independent School District’s explosive growth. During the decade between 2005 and 2015, Katy ISD’s enrollment rose by a whopping 47 percent.

Take a deep dive into the numbers and you’ll discover another telling insight from the state comptroller’s office, which diligently tracks data on Texas school districts. Between 2006 and 2015, Katy ISD’s tax-supported debt per student actually declined by a little less than 1 percent.

Now one of the fastest growing school districts in Texas wants voters to authorize a bond issue allowing them to borrow another $609 million. Katy ISD officials have earnestly made a compelling case for passing this referendum. Even some longtime activists in the district who’ve opposed previous bond issues fully support this one. Voters should, too.

As the piece notes, despite being one of the hardest-hit areas by Harvey, KISD’s enrollment was up this year, highlighting just how rapid its growth has been. This is one of those “you can pay now, or you can pay later” situations, and paying now – especially when interest rates remain low – is almost always the better choice.

Yes, there will be constitutional amendments on the November ballot

They’re not very interesting, which in this environment is a blessing, but they will be there.

House Joint Resolution 21

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of part of the market value of the residence homestead of a partially disabled veteran or the surviving spouse of a partially disabled veteran if the residence homestead was donated to the disabled veteran by a charitable organization for less than the market value of the residence homestead and harmonizing certain related provisions of the Texas Constitution.”

House Joint Resolution 37

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment relating to legislative authority to permit credit unions and other financial institutions to award prizes by lot to promote savings.”

House Joint Resolution 100

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment on professional sports teams’ charitable foundations conducting charitable raffles.”

Senate Joint Resolution 1

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of all or part of the residence homestead of the surviving spouse of a first responder who is killed or fatally injured in the line of duty.”

Senate Joint Resolution 6

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to require a court to provide notice to the attorney general of a challenge to the constitutionality of a state statute and authorizing the Legislature to prescribe a waiting period before the court may enter a judgment holding the statute unconstitutional.”

Senate Joint Resolution 34

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment limiting the service of certain officeholders appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate after the expiration of the person’s term of office.”

Senate Joint Resolution 60

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment to establish a lower amount for expenses that can be charged to a borrower and removing certain financing expense limitations for a home equity loan, establishing certain authorized lenders to make a home equity loan, changing certain options for the refinancing for home equity loans, changing the threshold for an advance of a home equity line of credit, and allowing home equity loans on agricultural homesteads.”

You can click over to see the brief explanation of what these mean, but honestly none of it is that interesting. This is the reason why you didn’t hear about any of this during the session. Only a few narrow interests care about any of this, and it’s unlikely there will be much of a campaign for any of it. Don’t expect there to be much turnout in places that don’t have some other elections on their November ballots.

Bill to restore some budget flexibility filed

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences Act of 2017.

The Texas House’s chief budget writer filed legislation Friday that would allow lawmakers to claw back billions of dollars that voters approved for state highways, freeing them up for other budget needs.

Texans overwhelmingly voted in 2015 to boost funding for the state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under a growing population. Proposition 7 amended the Texas Constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed a resolution Friday that would cut that initial cash infusion, aiming to free up money at a time when cash is tight.

House Concurrent Resolution 108 could cut the first transfer under Proposition 7 of nearly $5 billion in half, but only if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate support such a move.

It’s a prospect made possible by what some lawmakers have called a “safety valve” in Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that the Legislature approved in 2015 to send Proposition 7 to voters later that year.

See here for the background. I don’t expect this to pass – I really don’t think two thirds of the Senate will go for it – but I will be very amused if it does. Whether this is more or less likely to happen than tapping the Rainy Day Fund is now something we can test empirically. If nothing else, that’s a victory for science.

Turns out a little budget flexibility is a good thing

Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

More than a year after Texas voters approved routing billions in state sales taxes to roads and bridges, some lawmakers are questioning whether the first payment of $5 billion should move forward as planned.

Texans voted in 2015 to boost funding for state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under the state’s growing population. Proposition 7 — loudly cheered by top Texas leaders and supported by 83 percent of voters — changed the constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But in an unusually tightfisted legislative session, some Texas lawmakers are raising the prospect of reducing that initial cash infusion to the State Highway Fund scheduled for this year to free up money for other state programs.

No one has publicly backed such a move, but key budget writers have privately discussed the option. And at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday, Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown asked Legislative Budget Board staffers about how it might work.

It turns out that the enabling legislation for that referendum included an escape hatch, in which a two-thirds vote can be used to divert some of that $5 billion for other purposes. That probably won’t happen, though I presume it’s no less likely than a vote to tap the Rainy Day Fund to get through this session and hope that things will be better in 2019. We can certainly debate whether it should happen or not, but my reason for highlighting this is that it’s yet another example of why artificial budget constraints are so often a bad idea, whose main effect is to force budget writers to come up with creative ways around said constraints. I say it’s more honest to just let them have the flexibility to figure it out rather than be forced into certain choices, but that’s not how we do things.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

I want to return to something in that story about Mayor Turner’s 2017 agenda, which was near the bottom but which is a very big deal for the coming year:

A lawsuit over the ballot language used last year to extend terms to a maximum of two four-year terms, from three two-year terms, hovers in the background.

A state district judge ruled in March that the language was “inartful” but legal, and the case now is under appeal.

At stake in the near term is whether Turner and members of City Council must run for re-election in 2017 or wait until 2019.

See here for the background. Usually around this time I’m writing about the upcoming election year and what we have to look forward to. Thanks to this lawsuit, we could have a year with no city elections, or a year in which nobody knows we have city elections until April or May and everyone operates on an insanely accelerated schedule from there. With that in mind, let’s look at our Year of Elections 2017 with a frame of The Elections We Will Have, The Elections We May Have, and The Elections We Could Have.

The Elections We Will Have

Whatever else happens with the term limits lawsuit, there will be elections in HISD and HCC. The following trustees for each board are up for election this year:

HISD – Anna Eastman (District I), Mike Lunceford (District V), Greg Meyers (District VI), Anne Sung (District VII), Wanda Adams (District IX)
HCC – Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District 4), Robert Glaser (District 5), Chris Oliver (District 9)

Mike Lunceford is not running for re-election, so his seat will be open. Greg Meyers has already submitted his resignation, and a replacement Trustee will be selected by the Board in January. It is not clear if the Board will prefer a caretaker who will not run for election in November or if the new member will try to stake a claim. Anne Sung of course won the special election to succeed Harvin Moore a couple of weeks ago. Whatever happens in November, the Board will have three different members in the traditionally Republican districts than it had at the start of 2016. That has some negative potential, as all three were devoted to public schools in a way that is not necessarily characteristic of modern Republicans, meaning that whoever wins in November could be more antagonistic than what we are used to seeing. We’ll have a better idea when we know who is selected to replace Meyers, and who emerges to run for these seats. As for Eastman, she is my Trustee and as far as I know she is in for another term, but I haven’t spoken to her in the last few weeks, and she has not made any formal announcements. I’m not aware of any reason why Adams would not run for another term.

In HCC, both Shabazz-Evans and Glaser won elections to complete the unexpired terms for trustees who had resigned following their 2011 campaigns. Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson in District 4 in May of 2015, and then was unopposed for election. Glaser won a contested race to succeed Richard Schechter in 2013; appointed replacement Leila Feldman did not run for the seat. Oliver is a multi-term incumbent who easily defeated a challenger in 2011. Sometimes there are interesting things to say or look forward to in these races. This is not one of those times.

There will also be some number of constitutional amendments on the ballot in November, but we won’t know what they are until May or so when the Legislature finishes its business. If the term limits lawsuit goes down, preserving the new four-year terms for city officeholders, these referenda will be the only guaranteed items on your ballot this year.

The most interesting race in the area that is not in Houston will be in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is term-limited out and where the City Council lines may or may not be redrawn, pending the ruling in the voting rights lawsuit that is currently in the judge’s hands. That election will be in May. Other area cities such as Bellaire, West U, Sugar Land, and Rosenberg, also have elections in May. I hope to have some more information about some of these races in a subsequent post. Also of interest in May will be the San Antonio elections, where Mayor Ivy Taylor has some competition for a second full term. I’m sure I’ll do some writing about that as well.

The Elections We May Have

In addition to the statewide ballot propositions, there are two local ones that could be on your November eSlate machine, both of which could be quite contentious. Mayor Turner has stated his intention to put a referendum about the revenue cap on the ballot this year, though one presumes that could change if his pension reform bills do not pass. You can be sure that the opposition to this, mostly from the likes of Paul Bettencourt and no doubt with the help of the statewide Republican cabal, will be ferocious and very well-funded. Which in a way will be good for Mayor Turner, because if he can successfully cast this as a partisan issue, especially a “statewide Republicans meddling in our business AGAIN” issue, he ought to at least begin with the larger share of the vote. Getting those people to vote, whether or not there are other city elections to draw them out, will be the challenge. I suspect Mayor Turner doesn’t do anything without planning out how it will go, so I sure hope he has a plan for this one.

The other possible ballot item we might have is an updated Metro Solutions plan, which may include more rail construction projects, possibly including another shot at the Universities Line. This has been floated as an option by Metro Chair Carrin Patman, but it is not yet clear that it would be on the ballot, and if it would be there this year if so, and it is not yet clear what the scope of it would be. Needless to say, any rail component would generate some opposition, with a new Universities Line plan bringing out the usual suspects, some of whom would already be fully engaged in a revenue cap fight. It’s an interesting question whether you’d rather have this item on the ballot by itself, or in the same space as a revenue cap item. I’m glad that’s not my call to make.

The Elections We Could Have

This is the one that is entirely contingent on the Supreme Court, which as we know has not hesitated to stick its collective nose in our electoral business. If the 2015 term limits referendum is thrown out for having insufficiently clear wording, then the people who will be the most affected are the Council members who are in their last terms: Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie. Cohen’s District C and Laster’s District J represent challenges for Democrats, as Bill King carried both districts in the 2015 Mayoral runoff. The ideal District C candidate is in the Anne Clutterbuck-Ellen Cohen spectrum, while the low turnout District J will always be a bit of a wild card. Against that, Dems will have opportunities in both Christie’s At Large #5 and first-term CM Mike Knox’s AL #1, though as we have discussed before, cattle call races with lots of similarly-profiled Democrats have benefited Republican citywide candidates in the recent past. The ideal here is for a candidate who begins with a lot of backing to get in and largely hoover up all the support – think Melissa Noriega in 2007, or Amanda Edwards in 2015.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it’s even more speculative than usual, but I do want to at least put a marker on it, since if these elections do happen they may happen all at once, with little warning and not much time to prepare. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will be ready for either a busier or more relaxed interview season this fall.

Once again with “religious freedom” legislation

I have three things to say about this.

RedEquality

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, says he plans to re-file legislation next session that would supplement the state’s existing law to allow business owners to refuse services to people whose lifestyles clash with their religious beliefs.

“Nobody should be forced to go against their conscience or religious beliefs,” he said.

One of the key principles upon which the country and state were founded is the protection of religious beliefs, he said.

But just like in the 2015 legislative session, Krause is expected to face opposition from groups in the state’s business community. Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said corporations would look to other states when it is time to relocate if Krause’s vision becomes a reality.

“You have to weigh the negative impact on Texas if this were to become the law of the land,” Hammond said. “It’s flustering to see.”

Krause said next legislative session, he again would seek to change the state constitution – which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and voter approval at the ballot box, a much more difficult hurdle to clear than just the simple majority need to pass regular bills – because religious freedom deserves constitutional protection.

“I wanted to put it in the constitution to make it even stronger,” Krause said. “It is still something I think is very important.”

Hammond said the constitutional amendment would be harder to undo if a future legislature decided that the policy is harmful or discriminatory.

1. Of course a constitutional amendment would be harder to undo. That’s the reason why the 2005 Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage amendment was pushed through. We could have gone decades before there was a two thirds majority in both houses to repeal that, and the same would be true for Krause’s anti-equality measure. The good news is that even at current levels, there isn’t a two-thirds majority of Republican legislators in either house (*), so the task of blocking it is eminently doable. Yes, there are a few Democrats out there who can’t be counted on – and yes, I’m looking at you, Sen. Lucio – but we only need to block it in one chamber, and the prospects of picking up at least a seat or two in the House are pretty good. So while the threat of ordinary legislation making it through is very real, the bar for a constitutional amendment is likely too high to clear.

2. Let’s be very clear about this: Despite what Krause and others like him my say, a right to systematically refuse service, housing, employment, or whatever else – the list goes on and on – to a group of people is a right to discriminate, and a right to discriminate against someone is a right to discriminate against anyone. And I’m sorry, but if your sincerely-held beliefs tell you that you must not treat some group of people as fellow human beings, then your sincerely-held beliefs are immoral and wrong.

3. Have I mentioned lately that the business lobby could put its considerable resources towards defeating legislators like Matt Krause and electing ones that better represent their interests? Because they totally could if they really wanted to. Perhaps the North Carolina experience will provide them sufficient incentive to do so.

The Scalia effect on current cases

The Trib highlights a few cases pending before the Supreme Court that could be affected by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Antonin Scalia

Texas abortion law

On March 2, the court will hear oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which challenges Texas’ 2013 abortion law. Beyond deciding the constitutionality of a law that could shut down about half of the state’s 19 remaining abortion clinics, the Texas abortion case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to clarify how far states can go in restricting abortion.

In 1992, the court ruled that states can impose abortion restrictions as long as they do not place an undue burden on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

Lower courts across the country have disagreed, however, on what constitutes an “undue burden.” Activists on all sides are hoping the high court will provide a clearer definition in its decision in the Texas case. That case centers on the state’s requirement that abortion clinics meet hospital-like ambulatory surgical center standards — which include minimum sizes for rooms and doorways, pipelines for anesthesia and other modifications. In June, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld the new abortion restrictions, saying the new law does not impose an undue burden on a majority of Texas women seeking abortions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy could be the swing vote. If he sides with the conservatives on the court, the resulting 4-4 tie would affirm the lower court ruling.

The lower court also granted the relatively remote Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen an exemption to some narrow elements of the ambulatory surgical center requirements and from a separate provision of the law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic.

Barring a tied vote, a decision in the Texas case could also determine the constitutionality of restrictions in place in other areas of the country. As of November, 10 states had adopted admitting privileges requirements, but courts blocked enforcement in six of those states, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Six states had enacted ambulatory surgical center standards on abortion facilities. Those restrictions were not in effect in two of those states.

Immigration

The high court also agreed to hear the state’s case against the Obama administration’s controversial executive action on immigration that was announced in November 2014.

Known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, the action would shield more than 4 million undocumented immigrants in the country from deportation proceedings and allow them to apply for three-year work permits. Lower courts have ruled to halt the policy three separate times.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January but has yet to schedule arguments.

[…]

UT-Austin’s affirmative action policy

The death of Scalia cast uncertainty on many important cases before the Supreme Court, but probably won’t have a major impact on the decision in Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, which is a case about the constitutionality of affirmative action.

Justice Anthony Kennedy is still the likely swing vote, just as he was before Scalia died.

Abigail Fisher, who is white, contends she was unconstitutionally denied admission into UT-Austin in 2008 because of her race. UT-Austin considers the race of a small portion of its applicants, and black and Hispanic students often get a slight advantage in that pool of admissions. If Fisher wins her case, UT-Austin might be unable to consider the race of its applicants in the future. A broad ruling against UT-Austin could even end affirmative action nationwide.

Scalia, a longtime opponent of affirmative action, was almost certain to vote against UT-Austin. He was in the dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, when the Supreme Court upheld the practice of affirmative action in a limited way.

[…]

Redistricting

Finally, the justices heard arguments last year on a Texas case that questions a basic idea in American election law. In Evenwel v. Abbott, the plaintiffs argue that their voting power is diluted by the way Texas draws its state legislative districts, saying those lines should be based on the number of eligible voters in each district and not on population.

Congressional districts are based on population, as directed in the Constitution. The Evenwel case challenges Texas Senate district lines; a decision allowing states to use eligible voters as a base could shatter current lines here and in other states that want to make the change, remaking the distribution of power in state legislatures. That decision is pending.

The court has already accepted those four cases, among others, but doesn’t have to do anything this term if the justices decide to change course.

If the justices don’t want to rule on a case they’ve already accepted, they can announce it was “improvidently granted,” which means lower court ruling holds, [Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas at Austin] said. They can hold over any unheard cases they want until they have a ninth colleague, and they can rehear oral arguments with a ninth colleague if they want to wait or they think a ruling with a four-person majority would be too controversial.

“It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if they hold over some stuff where time really isn’t of the essence,” Levinson said. “You can make this argument of the election case [Evenwel]. If they hold it over, the world won’t come to an end.”

There’s a lot of good commentary out there about What This All Means, at least in the short term – see Think Progress, SCOTUSBlog, and Rick Hasen, for example. The main point to keep in mind is that in any case where SCOTUS winds up splitting 4-4, the ruling of the lower court would stand. From my perspective, that’s a good thing in some cases – Friedrichs being one example, Evenwel being another – and not so good in others, specifically Whole Woman’s Health and the DAPA case. In addition, in some cases that kind of result could also mean a split in the appeals courts. There are plenty of abortion restriction lawsuits out there, over laws similar to what Texas passed, and a number of other federal courts have struck them down. It’s not hard to imagine at least one appeals court upholding the lower court on those rulings, thus making laws like Texas’ legal in some states but not in others. Texas’ law is currently on hold thanks to SCOTUS, so one way to avoid this problem would be for the Court to delay hearing the appeal until they’re back at full strength. Or maybe the good Anthony Kennedy will show up and Texas’ law will get struck down on a 5-3 vote. Let’s just say that John Roberts has a lot to think about and leave it at that.

One other thing: Justice Scalia’s death has revived the idea of term limits for Supreme Court justices, an idea that has fairly broad support. Ted Cruz is a proponent of the idea, though as is always the case with Cruz, he has bad reasons for doing so. I’m perfectly fine with the idea of limiting Justices to 18 years on the bench. It’ll take a Constitutional amendment, so the odds of it happening are infinitesimal. but if it gains momentum that will be okay by me. For what it’s worth, prior to Scalia’s death, there were five Justices who had already served more than 18 years, and three of them were appointed by Republican Presidents: Scalia, Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Make of that what you will.

The Prop 7 funds are already being claimed

Get ready for a lot more road construction in the near future.

Voters have a little more than a week to decide whether to give Texas highways a $2.75 billion annual funding boost, but Houston-area officials are already making plans to spend the money.

In the event Proposition 7 passes – the proposal has silent, token opposition – officials with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Friday approved a revised 10-year spending plan that reflects when area road projects could begin, using the new money.

“Readiness will be the name of the game,” said David Wurdlow, program manager for short-range transportation planning at H-GAC. “We are going to be real aggressive to move projects forward.”

Without Proposition 7 the amount of money available for regional transportation projects is roughly $2.1 billion for the next decade, according to the current 10-year plan. Though not the only source of highway money, the funds directed by H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council are among the most significant to build or rebuild highways.

Adding Proposition 7, officials estimate, increases that total to more than $4.6 billion, taking long-sought projects and moving them much closer to reality much sooner. In fiscal year 2018, for example, Proposition 7 would increase highway spending in the Houston area from $211 million to $696 million.

In 2018 alone, Proposition 7 means an earlier start to two segments of widening Interstate 45 near NASA Bypass 1 in Webster and earlier construction on FM 2100 east of Atascocita.

Another project accelerated by planners is a long-sought widening of Texas 36. Though the road isn’t a major commuting bottleneck, widening it is a major focus Freeport and Waller County officials who contend the highway is a natural truck bypass for the Houston area.

[…]

Like Proposition 1, the money comes with some conditions. Officials cannot pay off any of Texas’ highway debt, which is how many previous transportation programs were paid. All of the funds must be used on state highways – meaning no tollways, transit or alternative modes such as bicycling can benefit.

Some non-highway projects, however, could benefit, if regional officials approve. The transportation council is made up of local elected leaders and the heads of transportation agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT’s Beaumont and Houston offices. Council members use a formula that divides the federal and state funds spent by the agency, which caps spending on non-highway projects, called alternative modes, to between 18 percent and 25 percent of total funds.

If the Proposition 7 windfall gives officials hundreds of millions of dollars more for highways, they could restructure.

“We might be able to move those (highway projects) to the proposition side and move some of those funds to alternative modes,” Wurdlow said.

Prop 7 isn’t raising any new money to spend on transportation, because we don’t do that sort of thing in Texas. It simply mandates that $2.5 billion of sales and use tax revenues in Texas specifically to transportation – in other words, it takes money from one pocket of the budget and puts it in the other. If you’re wondering why legislators who have been writing the state’s budget over the pasty few years were unable to allocate extra funds for transportation on their own, or thinking that this is just another band-aid that doesn’t actually solve anything, you would not be alone. Streetsblog and the Rivard Report present a more comprehensive case against Prop 7, but I doubt it will have much effect. Like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more highway construction in the near future. Better get used to it.

Endorsement watch: The state propositions

There are seven constitutional amendments awaiting your vote on the November ballot. The Chron evaluates them.

Constitution

Proposition 1

The amendment would boost homestead exemption amounts for school district property taxes from $15,000 to $25,000. It also would reduce the amount of taxes that could be levied on the homesteads of elderly and disabled Texans and would prevent public officials from reducing or eliminating already-approved property tax exemptions. In addition, it would keep the state from charging a transfer tax on the sale of the property.

Proposition 2

This amendment extends the property-tax exemption for spouses of deceased veterans who were 100 percent disabled. Voters approved a similar exemption in 2011, but that one applied only to spouses of veterans who died on or after Jan. 1, 2010. The current proposal eliminates the date restriction.

Proposition 3

This proposal would repeal the requirement that state officers elected by voters statewide reside in the state capital.

Proposition 4

This proposal authorizes the Legislature to permit professional sports teams to raise money through raffles during games for charity.

Proposition 5

This amendment would authorize counties with a population of 7,500 or less to perform private road construction and maintenance, raising the population cap from the current 5,000.

Proposition 6

This amendment “recognizing the right of the people to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife subject to laws that promote wildlife conservation” is the most ridiculous on the ballot.

Proposition 7

In an effort to address the state’s huge transportation needs, this amendment would require the Texas comptroller each year to dedicate the first $2.5 billion of vehicle sales use and rental taxes to the General Revenue Fund, dedicate the next $2.5 billion to the State Highway Fund and split between the two funds all revenue above that. The plan will generate an estimated $3 billion per year by 2020.

Not much to go on there, I admit. VoteTexas has the full statement of each amendment, and public radio station KUT in Austin has been doing a series of reports on each proposition; they’ve done one through five as of yesterday, so check back again later for the last two. The Chron opposes numbers 3 and 6 and supports the others. I’m “not just no but HELL NO” to those two, I’m leaning No on one and seven, and I’m fine with #s 2, 4, and 5. Kevin Barton argued against Prop 7 a few days ago. If you know of any good arguments for or against any of these, leave a link in the comments.

One side note: Proposition 1, which is basically a tax cut (and significant spending increase, not that anyone in our Republican leadership would ever admit to that), has an actual campaign behind it, as it is considered a top priority for the real estate industry and the Texas Association of Business. As such, I received a pro-Prop 1 mailer at home last week. You may note that the HERO referendum is also called Proposition 1. It’s City Proposition 1, whereas this is State Proposition 1, and it appears at the end of the ballot while the tax cut referendum is up front, but they’re both still Proposition 1. I can’t help but think that a few people will be moved to vote for the latter on the belief that they are voting for the former, or at least something related to the former. I can’t imagine there will be many people like this, but the number is surely greater than zero. Given that, I suppose it’s a good thing that the city lost its fight to word the referendum in such a way that a No vote was a vote in favor of HERO. So thanks, Andy Taylor, for seeing through the Mayor’s nefarious ploy and ensuring that this little bit of luck would favor the pro-HERO side. I’ll be sure to drink an elitist craft beer, served with quinoa chips and organic, locally sourced salsa, in your honor.

How much do you hate same sex marriage?

Not as much as this guy does.

RedEquality

Ammon J. Taylor of San Antonio is so vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage that he took the unusual step of forming a federal super PAC to fight it.

The 27-year-old salesman is taking a seldom-tried — some would say improbable — approach. He wants to muster a convention of states to amend the Constitution to enable states to quash the Supreme Court’s June ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

On July 16, Taylor registered the Restore Marriage PAC with the Federal Election Commission, naming himself president and treasurer. Moving methodically, he opened a bank account, issued a news release, created an Internet presence, and began seeking volunteers and support among fellow conservatives of all creeds.

“Most Americans think that since the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage, the issue is settled. It is not,” Taylor said when he announced the PAC.

With Congress not acting against same-sex unions, a convention of states “is our only constitutional recourse to save marriage,” he said.

For Taylor, the effort is part of living his Mormon faith. As a boy, he watched his father lead Nebraska’s initiative to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, which passed overwhelmingly in 2000 but was nullified by the court decision.

[…]

Taylor concedes it’s unlikely that enough states could be persuaded to “pass an amendment that would protect and restore marriage nationwide. We do believe we can get 34 states to come together to hold a convention to propose an amendment that allows each state to define for itself.”

With most states under Republican control, he said, “now is the best time ever to return to the states the right to determine key social and economic events that Washington has allowed to run out of control — like balancing the budget, stopping abortion and protecting traditional marriage,” Taylor said.

“How do we put the pressure on Congress to call for an amendment now? The answer is we hold a mock convention,” he said. Taylor hopes to conduct the “People’s Convention” around a July 2016 meeting of lawmakers at the American Legislative Exchange Council in Indianapolis.

A key motivation for Taylor was a Mormon leader’s prophesy that those outside Washington, D.C., would someday save the Constitution.

I’m not going to waste any time on Amman Taylor’s hateful nonsense, which he of course denies is motivated by hate because how could legally classifying millions of people as second-class citizens be anything but loving? The fact that he hopes to put his grand plan in motion at an ALEC conference is…I can’t even. Seriously. What I will do is go off on a brief rant about the difference between prophecy and prophesy, which are not only two different words that have two different pronunciations, they’re even two different kinds of words. Prophecy is a noun. It is the work product of a prophet. Prophesy is a verb. It is the action taken by a prophet to produce a prophecy. I don’t know if I blame the reporter or the copy editor (if they still have them at newspapers these days) more for this annoying and annoyingly common error, but either way, please get this right. It makes me twitch like Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther movies when I see “prophesy” used as a noun. You don’t want to do that to me, do you? Thanks.

A broader overview of the Mayor’s race

The TL;dr version of this is basically “meh, not much happening”.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With a bevy of candidates and midyear fundraising that collectively topped $7 million, Houston’s 2015 mayoral race has been poised to be a blockbuster.

Yet, just five weeks before the start of early voting, the race has remained relatively stagnant.

For the most part, the candidates still are spending little, agreeing often and floating only modestly different visions for the city’s future.

“This election has unfolded so far to be an election of single-interest forum after single-interest forum,” said local political observer Darrin Hall, who previously worked for mayors Annise Parker and Bill White. “There’s not a big picture – four major points that any candidate is exposing – like in years past.”

Put another way, the race to succeed term-limited Parker, essentially, is a popularity contest that at least five candidates still have a shot at winning, Democratic political consultant Keir Murray said.

It goes on, and while it won’t tell you much you didn’t already know if you’ve been following the race, it’s a good overview and I broadly agree with it. I am a little surprised that with all the money in the race there hasn’t been more TV advertising. If there’s one thing we should have learned from the last couple of municipal elections in this town, it’s that nobody should overestimate their name ID. Outside of Adrian Garcia, none of the candidates should be too comfortable in the percentage of voters who have heard of them. I get the argument that they;re keeping their powder dry until a runoff, but the harsh fact is that only two people are going to need it for the runoff, and if as everyone seems to think one of them will be Sylvester Turner, then I’m not sure what the purpose of waiting is.

Beyond that, the big x factor is what effect HERO will have on turnout. I feel confident saying turnout will be up from 2009, but I have no idea by how much, nor do I have any idea how many HERO-motivated voters will bother to cast ballots in the actual races. The number of HERO-only voters could be quite large. Consider that in 2005, the year of the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment, turnout in Houston was an amazing 332,154 voters, or well over 30%, but only 181,841 people cast votes in the Mayor’s race. To be fair, that year’s Mayoral election was a king-size snoozer, as Bill White cruised to re-election with over 90% of the vote, but still. Over 40% of all people who turned out to vote that year couldn’t be bothered to cast a vote for Mayor. I seriously doubt that will be the case this year, but I do believe that while more people than usual will undervote, that will still leave a lot of people casting ballots. Just compare 2005 to 2007 to see what things might have been like in the absence of a high-profile ballot item. The bottom line is that some number of people will show up specifically to vote on HERO, and some number of them will then decide that as long as they’re there, they may as well vote in those other races, too. What effect that will have on the outcomes is anyone’s guess, and the sort of thing that drives campaign managers to guzzle Pepto-Bismol.

SCOTUS rules for marriage equality

Boom.

RedEquality

Handing gay rights advocates a monumental victory, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that marriages between couples of the same sex are constitutional, a decision that overrides Texas’ long-standing ban on gay marriage.

In a 5-4 ruling, the high court found that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and that states must license a marriage between two people of the same sex.

“Today’s victory will bring joy to tens of thousands of Texans and their families who have the same dreams for marriage as any others,” Chuck Smith, executive director for the gay rights group Equality Texas, said in a statement. “We hope state officials move swiftly to implement the Constitution’s command in the remaining 13 states with marriage discrimination.”

Though the Supreme Court ruled specifically on four gay marriage cases out of a Cincinnati-based federal appeals court, its decision legalized gay marriage nationwide, dismaying Texas’ Republican leaders.

The ruling is here. I for one am thoroughly enjoying the bitter, bitter tears of those dismayed Republican leaders; you can see those and some other reactions here. Seriously, every time Ted Cruz says something hilariously apocalyptic, an angel gets its wings.

Texas’ ban, which had been on the books for a decade, defined marriage in the state Constitution as “solely the union of one man and one woman.” A legal challenge to Texas’ constitutional ban was making its way through the courts.

Two same-sex couples had sued Texas over its gay marriage ban, arguing that it did not grant them equal protection as intended by the 14th Amendment. Attorneys for the state of Texas defended the ban, saying it met equal protection laws and that the courts should not undermine a state’s sovereignty to impose such restrictions.

The Texas case was among dozens of challenges to state same-sex marriage bans that cropped up and barreled through the judicial system after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.

The Texas case was among the last to be heard at the appellate level, and it was left pending before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals at the time the Supreme Court ruled on the issue.

I wonder again, will the Fifth Circuit ever issue a ruling on that appeal, or will they simply point to SCOTUS and say “never mind”? What is the legal precedent for this? The good news is that Judge Orlando Garcia, who issued the original ruling knocking down Texas’ anti-gay marriage law, has officially lifted the stay on his ruling. There’s no legal force holding anyone back, just the obnoxiousness of some small-minded officials here.

June 26 was already a historic day for gay rights activists. On that same day in 2003, the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy ban, invalidating it and similar laws across the country. A decade later on the same day, the high court struck down key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits if they lived in states that allow same-sex marriage.

On Friday, Mark Phariss, a plaintiff in the Texas case, expressed joy at the Supreme Court ruling. “After almost 18 years together, we can soon exchange vows, place rings on each other’s finger, look each other in the eye and say, ‘I do,'” Phariss said in a statement, “all at a wedding surrounded by family and friends.”

Yes, I had thought this would wait till Monday, since there are several other decisions yet to be released, and I fell for the argument that this decision would be released last. Apparently, June 26 really is a magical day. I couldn’t be happier about it.

Look, we know that the legal wrangling is far from over, and the reactions from those bitterly crying Republican officials confirms that they are not about to give up just yet. I nearly got whiplash following the story of whether or not Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart would issue same-sex marriage licenses, and he was far from the only one dragging his feet. I’ll write up what I can for the next post. This one is all about the big accomplishment. It’s a huge step forward, one many people can’t believe they lived to see. I can hardly believe it was less than ten years ago when Texas voted to add that hateful anti-gay-marriage amendment to its constitution. I sure didn’t believe this day would happen so quickly, if a decade can be considered “quick”. But here we are, and while there will be more obstacles going forward, there’s no going back. So celebrate, rejoice, get married if that’s been on your do list, and forget the haters for a day or two. They’ll be with us always, but this weekend will only happen once. Mazel tov and God bless, y’all.

It always was about animus towards gays

TPM reviews the history of anti-gay marriage laws and constitutional amendments now that they’re on the verge of being thrown out. Opponents of marriage equality have been claiming that these laws were not enacted with any animus intended towards same-sex couples, but the arguments made at the time these laws were being debated clearly says otherwise.

RedEquality

The leading opponents of same-sex marriage have been attempting to re-write recent American history, where decades of sneering public attacks on gays and lesbians, condemnations of their “lifestyle,” and blaming them for a decline of America’s moral virtue are quietly forgotten.

Their argument, made in front of the Supreme Court, no less, is that gay marriage bans are not motivated by prejudice toward gays and lesbians, but by a more noble if newfound purpose. In the days to come, the justices will reveal whether they subscribe to this new version of history in a decision that could decide whether gay couples have the right to marry nationwide.

Sweeping cultural change coupled with past decisions by the Supreme Court have limited the options the states who continue to ban same-sex marriage have to defend those prohibitions. If gay couples are kept from marrying because of state-sanctioned “animus” — an intent to deny certain people their rights — there is little escaping a constitutional violation. As a result, the defenders of gay marriage bans had to come up with a new argument to justify the bans.

“[T]he State’s whole point is that we’re not drawing distinctions based on the identity, the orientation, or the choices of anyone,” John J. Bursch, the solicitor general of Michigan, said during the oral arguments in the case, Obergefell v. Hodges. “The State has drawn lines, the way the government has always done, to solve a specific problem. It’s not meant to exclude.”

The “problem” that bans on same-sex marriage were solving, in Bursh’s view, was keeping biological parents attached to their children. How allowing gay couples to marry threatened that attachment puzzled even some of the justices — Justice Elena Kagan called the reasoning “inexplicable.” But even more bewildering, to longtime observers of the issue, is how divorced such logic was from the original motivation for the bans.

“The states’ arguments don’t pass the straight face test, no pun intended,” Judith Schaeffer, vice president of Constitutional Accountability Center, a D.C.-based legal organization, said in an interview with TPM. “These are ridiculous arguments that are being made to cover up the fact that these discriminatory laws are motivated by a desire to keep gay people out of this important legal relationship.”

To say same-sex marriage bans were never meant to “exclude” anyone is to ignore years of anti-gay sentiments — vitriolic posters and inflammatory commentary — not to mention the comments made by elected officials when defending their opposition to same-sex marriage and enacting gay marriage bans.

Texas passed its constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage ten years ago, two years and one legislative session after passing a state Defense of Marriage Act. That meant that same-sex marriage was already illegal in the state of Texas, but the Lege wanted to make it even more illegal, and virtually impossible to overturn legislatively since a one-third minority in either chamber would be able to block it going forward. First it needed to be ratified via referendum, though, and that’s where some of the more colorful arguments in favor of the amendment took place. Looking through my archives from 2005, I spent most of my time following the folks who were working against this awful amendment, but I did link to a pair of op-eds in the Chronicle on the subject. The op-ed in favor of passing the anti-gay marriage amendment is worth your time to read. I have a hard time imagining anything like it, with its condescending and frankly insulting attitude towards same gay people in general and same sex couples in particular, would be deemed acceptable for print in a mainstream publication. I’m not going to quote any of it here because I want to encourage you to click the link and see it for yourself. We’ve come a long way in a short time, but we shouldn’t forget where we once were, and we surely shouldn’t let the people who continue to stand in our way rewrite history.

Meet your Constitutional amendments

A pretty uninspiring bunch, if you ask me.

vote-button

Now that the dust has settled on the 84th Texas Legislature, voters are getting the first official look at which constitutional amendments they will be voting on come November.

Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos on Wednesday took the last step to place seven propositions on this fall’s general election ballot, all of which were approved by two-thirds of all state lawmakers during the just-ended session. Per state law, they are chosen randomly in a drawing to assign the order in which each proposition will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.

All told, they run the gamut of state issues, from the serious to the mundane, and they create a narrative of the session that is not at all inconsistent with what really happened under the Pink Dome.

Here are the amendments, in the order they will appear on your ballot.

Proposition 1 (SJR 1)

“The constitutional amendment increasing the amount of the residence homestead exemption from ad valorem taxation for public school purposes from $15,000 to $25,000, providing for a reduction of the limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed for those purposes on the homestead of an elderly or disabled person to reflect the increased exemption amount, authorizing the legislature to prohibit a political subdivision that has adopted an optional residence homestead exemption from ad valorem taxation from reducing the amount of or repealing the exemption, and prohibiting the enactment of a law that imposes a transfer tax on a transaction that conveys fee simple title to real property.”

Proposition 2 (HJR 75)

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of all or part of the market value of the residence homestead of the surviving spouse of a 100 percent or totally disabled veteran who died before the law authorizing a residence homestead exemption for such a veteran took effect.”

Proposition 3 (SJR 52)

“The constitutional amendment repealing the requirement that state officers elected by voters statewide reside in the state capital.”

Proposition 4 (HJR 73)

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit professional sports team charitable foundations to conduct charitable raffles.”

Proposition 5 (SJR 17)

“The constitutional amendment to authorize counties with a population of 7,500 or less to perform private road construction and maintenance.”

Proposition 6 (SJR 22)

“The constitutional amendment recognizing the right of the people to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife subject to laws that promote wildlife conservation.”

Proposition 7 (SJR 5)

“The constitutional amendment dedicating certain sales and use tax revenue and motor vehicle sales, use, and rental tax revenue to the state highway fund to provide funding for nontolled roads and the reduction of certain transportation-related debt.”

I will be voting No on #s 3 and 7 and probably on 1, Yes on #2, and I have no idea yet on the others. What about you?

What happens if SCOTUS does not uphold marriage equality?

Nothing good, that’s for sure.

RedEquality

Gay and lesbian couples could face legal chaos if the Supreme Court rules against same-sex marriage in the next few weeks.

Same-sex weddings could come to a halt in many states, depending on a confusing mix of lower-court decisions and the sometimes-contradictory views of state and local officials.

Among the 36 states in which same-sex couples can now marry are 20 in which federal judges invoked the Constitution to strike down marriage bans.

Those rulings would be in conflict with the nation’s highest court if the justices uphold the power of states to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. A decision is expected by late June in cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

Top officials in some states, including California, seem determined to allow gay and lesbian couples to continue to marry no matter how the court decision comes out. But some county clerks, who actually issue marriage licenses, might not go along, experts said.

In other states, a high court ruling in favor of state bans would serve to prohibit any more such unions, but also could give rise to new efforts to repeal marriage bans through the legislature or the ballot.

The scenario may be unlikely, given the Supreme Court’s role in allowing those lower court rulings to take effect before the justices themselves decided the issue. But if the court doesn’t endorse same-sex marriage nationwide, “it would be chaos,” said Howard Wasserman, a Florida International University law professor.

Marriages already on the books probably are safe, said several scholars and civil liberties lawyers. “There’s a very strong likelihood these marriages would have to be respected, no matter what,” said Christopher Stoll, senior staff attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Gay and lesbian couples could continue to marry in the 16 states that have same-sex marriage because of state court rulings, acts of the legislature or statewide votes.

Similarly, the 14 states that prohibit same-sex couples from marrying, including the four directly involved in the Supreme Court cases, could continue enforcing their state marriage laws. That would include Alabama, where a federal judge has struck down the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but put her ruling on hold pending the high court’s decision.

Of the remaining 20 states, any that fought unsuccessfully to preserve marriage bans would not have much trouble resuming enforcement. “That state can immediately start saying we’re going to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples going forward,” said Cornell University law professor Michael Dorf.

That’s exactly what would happen here in Texas, with the main difference being that the stay on the original ruling has been in place all along, so with the exception of that one couple in Travis County, no one’s existing marriage would be any more threatened or in limbo than it is today. In this scenario, barring a subsequent SCOTUS ruling that changed course, we would need to repeal the 2005 anti-same-sex-marriage Constitutional amendment. That would require a two thirds vote in both the House and the Senate, followed by a majority vote of the people. I don’t see that happening any time soon, possibly not in my lifetime, since a one-third minority in either chamber would be enough to derail the effort. I have always believed that’s why opponents of equality pushed the Constitutional amendment in the first place, when there was already a state-level Defense of Marriage Act in place: It guaranteed that said state DOMA could not be repealed by a simple majority vote in the Lege.

So yeah, this would be really bad. The good news is that the Court’s actions up till now, primarily in allowing lower court rulings that lifted stays of rulings in favor of equality to stand without hearing the appeals, strongly suggest they are going to rule in favor. But I suppose you never know until it happens, so it’s worthwhile to reflect on what reality would be if they somehow do not.

Taking decentralization too far

Seriously?

The governor and attorney general might have to work in Austin, but under a proposed constitutional amendment, they won’t have to live there.

Under the proposed amendment, the century-old requirement that state leaders reside in the capital city would be erased and all statewide officeholders could live anywhere in Texas.

Supporters cited modern communications and transportation, saying that living in Austin is not a requisite to successfully manage their offices.

But critics suggested that elected officials should not be commuting “once a month, or once a week,” to their offices.

Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, the longest-serving House member, said the amendment could be open to abuse by allowing elected officials to live hundreds of miles away from their employment.

“A lot of people think if you’re a fulltime employee, you should be here full time,” Craddick said.

“I don’t know how you can be leading an agency if you’re living in Paint Creek,” he said.

He proposed altering the proposal to allow statewide officeholders to live within 50 miles of Austin, but it was defeated.

Opponents also raised the objection that state taxpayers could be footing the bill for long commutes. Several lawmakers pointed out that a daily round-trip flight could be considered business travel for statewide officials to get to Austin and back home.

This to me is a classic solution in search of a problem. I see nothing wrong with the current setup, and no compelling reason to change it. I agree with Tom Craddick and the other critics, and will vote No on this proposal when it appears on my November ballot.

Joining together for equality

Good to see.

RedEquality

Standing alongside Democrats, a representative for the state’s powerful business lobby Tuesday denounced two proposed amendments to the state constitution aimed at bolstering protection for people acting on religious beliefs, which detractors say would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“These amendments are bad for business,” said Bill Hammond, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, at a press conference. “They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business.”

It’s part of a larger debate taking place around the country, most notably in Indiana where public backlash over a similar law forced the state’s governor to sign an amended version that included protections for gays and lesbians. The question Texas lawmakers face is how they should balance their obligation to protect minority groups with a commitment to religious liberty.

[…]

“We’ve all seen the uproar in Indiana,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, at the press conference. “There’s absolutely no doubt that passing these amendments would bring the same uproar and condemnation to Texas.”

Yes, Indiana is an object lesson, though whether or not we heed it remains to be seen. Hammond and TAB are good allies to have in this fight, and as we’ve already seen they can move some votes on this, but it’s important to maintain some perspective.

The two amendments are among more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Legislature, including statutory bills that would similarly allow businesses to discriminate based on religious beliefs. But Hammond said the TAB board hasn’t voted whether to come out against those measures.

TAB President Chris Wallace told the Observer on Monday that he and Hammond plan to recommend that the board oppose bills making it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms according to how they identify.

“Business owners are going to have to be enforcers of this legislation, and we certainly do not want to place any more burdens on business than there already are,” Wallace said.

Wallace said other proposals to bar cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances may present a quandary for TAB. At least one of the bills, Senate Bill 343 by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), would also bar cities from regulating fracking, plastic bags and ride-sharing—a concept TAB supports.

Hammond said TAB likely will wait until other anti-LGBT legislation is scheduled for committee hearings to take an official position. None of the so-called religious freedom measures or bills targeting local LGBT protections has been scheduled for hearings as the session approaches its final 45 days.

“I think what happened in Indiana is hopefully a turning point,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Every day that goes by without a negative bill having a hearing is a good thing.”

So yeah, just because they’re on our side on this issue – and to be fair, they’re on our side on some other key issues, such as supporting the DREAM Act and opposing “sanctuary cities” – doesn’t mean they’re on our side. It’s a marriage of convenience, and as long as we keep that in mind we can team up when it makes sense. There’s more than enough crazy to fight against this session, and Hammond is the kind of old school, business-first conservative that isn’t into that sort of thing. But he’ll align with it when it suits his purpose, and he and his group are a bunch of wusses when it comes to enforcing consequences against politicians they support who then go on to work against their interests. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity, let’s just keep our eyes open as we do. Trail Blazers has more.

The state spending cap is a stupid idea

And the Republicans want to make it worse.

BagOfMoney

Texas Senate leaders on Tuesday announced another round of efforts to change the way the state determines its two-year spending limit, and keep tax cuts from counting toward the constitutional cap on spending.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joined state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, at a Capitol press conference to announce legislation that would not allow the state’s budget to grow faster than population growth plus the rate of inflation.

State budget leaders in December pegged the state’s economic growth over the next two years at 11.68 percent, based on the projected rate of growth in Texans’ personal income. That means state spending cannot exceed $107 billion for the next biennium, leaving several billions of dollars in state coffers.

Hancock said basing economic growth projections on personal income is “a false measurement.”

“Individual income typically grows at a faster rate than the state’s economy,” he said.

Hancock’s Senate Bill 9 and Senate Joint Resolution 2, assigned low numbers as a sign of importance, would also exempt tax cuts from counting towards the spending limit. That would allow Republicans to provide billions of dollars in tax relief without having to vote to exceed the spending limit.

The proposed constitutional amendment changes the number of votes needed in both houses to exceed the spending limit from a simple majority to a three-fifths majority.

This is a companion to the earlier proposal to exempt spending on tax cuts and reducing debt from the spending cap. It’s not about spending or limiting spending so much as it is about limiting options, and it has nothing at all to do with fiscal responsibility, despite what some people want to believe. If the only things you can easily spend money on are tax cuts and reducing debt, what are you going to prioritize? The Observer points out some of the problems inherent in these ideas.

Hancock’s Senate Joint Resolution 2 and Senate Bill 9 would ask voters later this year to redefine the spending cap and tie it to state population growth, plus inflation, instead of growth in Texans’ personal income, which rises faster. It would broaden the spending cap to apply to all of the state’s spending, instead of just certain kinds.

That would bind the hands of future legislatures even tighter, while ensuring that more and more revenue would be untouchable beyond the cap. Legislators could still vote to bust the cap—though few seem to have the political courage to do that now—but Hancock would make that harder, too. Right now, the cap can be lifted by a simple majority of both houses. Hancock would make it a three-fifths vote.

If passed, Patrick’s two budget proposals don’t technically contradict—actually, they’d be weirdly toxic (or synergistic, depending on your perspective) in combination, since more and more money would end up on the wrong side of the spending cap, and that money could only be used for tax cuts and debt—but it’s still a weirdly incomprehensible mess from a policy perspective, and put together seemingly on the fly. It’s the art of government as outlined on the back of a Gadsden Flag cocktail napkin.

What’s worse—it’s straight out of Sacramento. You know how the recent recession calcified a Texas meme about the Golden State being the worst place on earth? California is doing pretty well lately, though you won’t hear about it in Austin. But one of the ways California got itself into a mess over the last few decades was by tying the hands of future legislatures and restricting the state’s ability to raise revenue, all the while kicking tough (and easy) decisions to voters. All three are becoming more and prominent parts of the Texas model—paradoxically, done in the name of targeting “California-style” spending.

You think the Lege engages in shenanigans and sleight of hand now to meet the constitutional mandate for a balanced budget? (And by the way, doesn’t that already serve as a spending cap?) Just wait till they’re foolish enough to put more obstacles in their own path. Whether they like it or not, ultimately stuff needs to be done. Why make it harder than it needs to be? It’s even more ludicrous hearing anyone talk about this as if it represented “discipline”. Last I checked, being disciplined meant having the restraint to not do unwise but tempting things. If you have to be handcuffed to a pole to ensure you don’t do them, you’re not disciplined.

But there’s another factor to consider as well. The budget is in surplus now, but the state has many documented needs. Roads, water, education, pension funds, and a laundry list of deferred maintenance that’s causing some of the people responsible for deferring it some poetically just problems, and so on. As someone who is old enough to remember the budget crunch of 2011 – which largely turned out to be the fault of a Comptroller who couldn’t do arithmetic – I heard the hoary old “household budget” metaphor dragged out to justify savage cuts so many times that if I’d received a nickel each time, I’d have a bigger surplus than the state does right now. Well, there’s a household budget metaphor for good times, too. When households are sitting on a pile of extra cash, they tend to the needs that they have build up over time. They fix things. They upgrade. They maintain. They invest in the care and wellbeing of their household, both the physical structure and the residents of it. Everyone recognizes such behavior as being responsible and necessary. Putting another artificial constraint on spending, especially now, is the opposite of that. It ensures that the problems we have now, both the ones we try to deal with and the ones we continue to ignore, will get worse and be more expensive to deal with later. How is this a good idea? Republicans are going to do what Republicans are going to do, but any Democrat who signs onto this needs to rethink their priorities. Eye on Williamson has more.

Krause re-files Villalba’s anti-gay bill

Alas.

RedEquality

One of the state’s most anti-gay lawmakers is going forward with a “religious freedom” amendment dropped by another representative earlier this week amid opposition from the Texas Association of Business.

Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) announced Monday he would “reconsider entirely” House Joint Resolution 55, which critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the state Constitution. Villalba backed off HJR 55 after the Texas Association of Business passed a resolution opposing the measure over concerns about its economic impact.

On Wednesday, Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) introduced HJR 125, which is identical to HJR 55. When Villalba introduced HJR 55, he wrote on Facebook it was drafted with the help of Krause and Plano’s Liberty Institute.

Equality Texas rated Krause the state’s most anti-LGBT lawmaker following the 2013 session.

See here for the background. I suppose this isn’t a surprise. Haters gonna hate and all that. Lessons to be learned from this: For Rep. Villalba, be careful who you consult with on legislation in the future. For the Texas Association of Business, you really need to re-think what it means to be “pro-business” in this state, and act accordingly. And for the rest of us, it’s never a bad time to contact your State Rep and State Senator and let them know how you feel about a particular bill or issue.

One anti-gay bill pulled

One down, too many to count to go.

RedEquality

A House Republican will no longer seek to amend the Texas Constitution to prohibit state and local governments from “in any way” restricting the free exercise of religion, leaving several conservative legislators hustling Tuesday to file an alternate bill.

Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, said opposition from the Texas Association of Business cemented his growing discomfort with legislation he had filed in December, House Joint Resolution 55, that has also been criticized for potentially undermining nondiscrimination ordinances adopted by cities, including Austin, to protect gays and lesbians.

“When the Texas Association of Business let us know that in their opinion it would harm businesses, that’s when I just couldn’t continue in its support,” Villalba said Tuesday. “So I will not ask for a hearing. … and I will not be moving forward on that legislation.”

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said discussions are underway to determine if similar legislation can be submitted by Friday’s bill-filing deadline.

“I definitely feel there’s interest there. Who that is going to be, I couldn’t tell you at this point,” said Krause, who helped Villalba draft the proposed amendment. “But we’re three days away from the deadline, and that makes it a little harder to start those conversations again.”

A similar bill by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would bar government from infringing on Texans’ “sincerely held religious beliefs.” A public hearing, the first step in the legislative process, has not yet been set on Campbell’s Senate Joint Resolution 10.

See here, here, and here for the background. Kudos to Rep. Villalba, usually not one of the nutcases, for coming to his senses, though really one should not expect much praise for backing away from a destructive idea. More kudos go to TAB for having a positive effect on the Republicans they claim to have influence over for once. The job isn’t over until the deadline for bills to pass on first reading, and there is still time for another bill like HR55 to be filed, so let’s don’t get complacent. In the meantime, there’s still the larger issue of groups like TAB enabling legislators who go on to file the kind of bills they then have to spend time and effort fighting. Sadly, Donna Campbell won’t be on the ballot again until 2018, but there will be plenty of House members who could use a good primarying. If you really do care about this, TAB, put your money where your mouth is next March. RG Ratcliffe has more.

Villalba gets defensive about his pro-discrimination bill

I don’t know if Rep. Jason Villalba is willfully dense or just confused, but either way this is a big pile of BS.

RedEquality

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) remains adamant that a proposed constitutional amendment he filed earlier this month isn’t intended to undermine local ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

But Villalba also continues to tout the fact that he received input in drafting the amendment from a lawmaker known for his anti-LGBT views and from the Liberty Institute, which is actively fighting a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano.

Villalba has characterized his HJR 55 as a tamer version of SJR 10, a similar religious freedom amendment introduced in the Senate by Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

And Villalba has objected to a “license to discriminate” label that was attached to his amendment in an Observer headline and in a fundraising appeal from Progress Texas, denying accusations that the measure is designed to undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances by allowing business owners to claim religious exemptions.

“Not true at all,” Villalba told Breitbart Texas for an article published Sunday. “That was not our intention at all. … I’m not trying to pander to the right, or to offend the LGBT community or to support discrimination.”

Villalba told Breitbart he supports the authority of local governments to pass LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and said HJR 55 is instead designed to protect things like nativity scenes on government property.

But LGBT advocates continue to question Villalba’s motives—particularly since he unveiled HJR 55 on Facebook by posting an Empower Texans article slamming the Plano ordinance shortly after it passed. “We must stand athwart those who seek to eliminate every vestige of our religious heritage from the public square,” Villalba wrote. “Tomorrow, we fight back.”

On Monday morning, Villalba took to Facebook again to post the Breitbart article, writing above it: “Many of you have asked about what HJR 55 actually does. In essence, it protects the free exercise of religion in Texas. Here is an article that spells it out nicely. Special thanks to Matthew Krause and Liberty Institute for their help and insight in putting this together.”

Rep. Krause (R-Arlington) received the lowest score of any lawmaker on LGBT issues from Equality Texas following the 2013 session.

In response to a comment below his Facebook post Monday from this reporter, Villalba sent a chat message referencing Campbell’s resolution.

“Perhaps I should drop HJR 55 and let the alternative version pass,” Villalba wrote. “Is that what you would prefer?”

Asked whether he believes Campbell’s resolution, which has been defeated in three consecutive sessions, would pass in 2015, Villalba referenced an expected shift to the right in the Senate next year thanks to November election results.

“Have you not seen what just happened in the Senate?” Villalba wrote. “It [SJR 10] would easily pass.”

Asked whether he strategically introduced HJR 55 as a more moderate alternative to SJR 10, Villalba said: “My goal is to pass the best bill that advances the cause of religious liberty.”

See here for the background. It’s hard to know where to begin with all this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in recent years, it’s that when someone who isn’t me says that something will affect them negatively, it’s best for me to at least hear and try to understand their reasons why they say that thing will harm them before I try to explain to them why they’re wrong to feel that way. Perhaps such an approach might benefit Rep. Villalba as well. As for his insistence that his HJR 55 is but a heroic attempt to head off the much worse SJR 10, it might be worthwhile for someone to explain to Rep. Villalba that if he were to vote against SJR 10, the odds are very good that it would not be able to pass out of the House, what with Democrats being in near-unanimous opposition plus the expected No from Rep. Sarah Davis. But really, a little more listening to the people who would be harmed and a little less listening to the people who would harm them would go a long way.

Legislation to overturn same sex marriage ban filed

Someone’s gotta do it, and you know it won’t be Republicans.

RedEquality

Kriselda Hinojosa recalls how she unintentionally came out to her father in sixth grade.

“He actually saw me kissing my girlfriend at the time,” Hinojosa said. “So he caught me, but he didn’t get upset. He never yelled at me or anything. He was always very open-minded. I’ve never heard him talk bad about the LGBT community.”

Over the years, the now-32-year-old Hinojosa said, her father’s acceptance has evolved into righteous indignation over the fact that his only daughter doesn’t have equal rights. Two years ago, Hinojosa “eloped” to Las Vegas with her girlfriend for a same-sex commitment ceremony. When she returned to Texas, it hit home for her dad that their certificate means nothing in the eyes of the state.

In 2013, Hinojosa’s father, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), authored a bill to legalize civil unions in Texas. And on Father’s Day this year, he penned a heartfelt pro-equality letter to his daughter that was published in newspapers statewide.

On Monday, Sen. Hinojosa took his support a step further, introducing a bill to repeal Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the first day of pre-filing for the 2015 legislative session. Hinojosa’s bill, SB 98, is one of several that were set to be filed Monday that—if all were to pass—would have the combined effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in Texas pending a public vote.

“He says he’s proud of me, but I’m more proud of him,” Kriselda Hinojosa said. “He’s taking a risk, also, because he could actually lose supporters, but it doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s doing what he thinks is right.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed a companion to Hinojosa’s bill, HJR 34, aimed at repealing the marriage amendment, which was approved by 76 percent of voters in 2005. To pass, the amendment repeal bills would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers, as well as a simple majority at the ballot box.< Meanwhile, state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) and Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) were set to file legislation Monday that would undo Texas’ statutory bans on same-sex marriage, which passed in 2003. Anchia’s bill is HB 130, and Rodriguez’s measure was piggy-backed on Hinojosa’s SB 98. The statutory changes would have no impact until the constitutional amendment is repealed.

We’ve been down this road before. What I said then largely applies now, and I don’t expect any different outcome. An x-factor in this is the Fifth Circuit, whose actions on the appeal of DeLeon v. Perry could possibly inspire some backlash. If there’s one achievable thing I’d like to see happen on this, it’s for there to be a fully unified Democratic response to these bills. I’d like to see the few remaining holdouts in our caucuses finally get right on this issue.

Actually, there’s a bigger reason why we’ll need to stand together on this.

Texas tea party Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, introduced a measure Monday that could effectively allow businesses to turn away gay customers — or fire LGBT employees — under the guise of religious freedom.

On the first day of pre-filing for the legislative session that begins in January, Campbell introduced Senate Joint Resolution 10. The resolution, which proposes a constitutional amendment “relating to a person’s freedom of religion,” reads as follows:

Government may not burden an individual’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion or right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief unless the government proves that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. For purposes of this subsection, the term “burden” includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, and denying access to facilities or programs.

Campbell introduced a nearly identical measure two years ago, but it died in committee. The 2013 measure was supported by the anti-LGBT group Texas Values and opposed by Equality Texas.

Texas already has a statute, the Religous Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), that provides strong protections for religious freedom. However, critics say Campbell’s proposal would go much further than the Texas RFRA.

For example, while the RFRA says government “may not substantially burden” an individual’s religious freedom, SJR10 states only that government “may not burden” an individual’s religious freedom. Removing the word “substantially” would significantly alter the scope of the law, as outlined in testimony from former state Rep. Scott Hochberg in 2013. Also, unlike the RFRA, Campbell’s proposal doesn’t include exceptions for enforcement of civil rights laws.

In other words, this would overturn the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and a whole lot besides. Because “local control” goes out the window when the locals do something the hegemons don’t like. Be that as it may, no Democrat should consider voting for this. Let the Rs own every piece of the same sex marriage ban as well as this abomination when SCOTUS finally takes up the question, whichever way they go. The people are ready for the unjust marriage ban to be repealed. Let’s give them what they want. LGBTQ Insider has more.

UT/Trib poll says Texans would be fine with same sex marriage

A result of interest from the most recent UT/Trib poll:

Registered Texas voters narrowly oppose same-sex marriage, but a large majority is open to allowing either marriage or civil unions to gays and lesbians, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Asked whether those couples should be allowed to marry, 42 percent say yes and 47 percent say no, the poll found. When civil unions are added to the question, voters are more permissive: 39 percent say they would allow marriage, 28 percent would allow civil unions and 25 percent say they would not allow either sort of formal bond.

“The culture war is a lot more complex than you think,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s not like people have said everything should be Amsterdam. The way in which you execute it does matter. What you really find is that people are subtle. They appreciate conditions and context.”

Partisan differences show up in the poll responses. A strong majority of Democrats — 62 percent — would allow gay marriages, even with the alternative of civil unions available. Only 14 percent of Republicans would do that, but another 45 percent would allow civil unions. Voters who identify themselves as independents were closer to the Democrats on this question, with 53 percent approving of gay marriage and another 20 percent in favor of the civil unions option.

The most frequent churchgoers — those who say they attend more than one service per week — are most likely to oppose same-sex unions: 55 percent say they oppose both marriage and civil unions for those couples. A majority of other churchgoers, including those who say they attend services once a week, would allow some form of unions.

I’m not going to suddenly become a fan of this poll just because they produced a result I like, but this is generally consistent with other polling on the subject of same sex marriage in Texas. More to the point, it highlights another contradiction in the stance taken by Greg Abbott as Attorney General, an Ken Paxton as a candidate for AG, on the subject of same sex marriage and the ongoing litigation to overturn the state’s ban against it. Both of them like to cite the 2005 referendum that enshrined the ban on same sex marriage in the state constitution, which passed by a 3-1 margin, as justification for their support of continuing the fight to uphold that ban. Well, that 3-1 majority doesn’t exist any more. A lot of the people who voted for that referendum nine years ago would vote against it today if they had the chance. It’s just a matter of time before there is a solid majority in Texas in favor of same sex marriage. What would Abbott and Paxton say then? I remember what I said back in 2005, which is that the reason for the push to make something that was already illegal constitutionally banned was to ensure that a simple majority could not some day overturn that. We are at or near the point of that majority, and by now all of the other justifications for banning same sex marriage have been shown to be garbage. Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton are working not to uphold the will of the people but to thwart it.

The inadequacy of Prop 1

Better than nothing, but not by much.

The campaign to steer state reserve funds to road projects is not being waged with yard signs and televised debates but, rather, with chamber of commerce lunches and a smattering of direct mailings.

Though largely a quiet campaign, supporters of Prop. 1 said they are optimistic the proposal will pass muster with voters, and, they hope, set up subsequent efforts to shore up Texas’ teetering highway system.

“There is a basic underlying support among longtime Texas voters to funding highways,” said Lawrence Olsen, executive vice president of Texas Good Roads, one of the groups backing Prop. 1.

The measure, if passed by voters Nov. 4, would take half of the money from oil and gas production taxes now filling the state’s economic stabilization fund – also known as the rainy day fund – and redirect it to transportation. Texas Department of Transportation officials would use the money to maintain and expand state roads, many of which are choking because of population growth and rapid expansion of oil and gas production in Texas.

Based on current estimates by the state comptroller, splitting the money between the rainy day fund and transportation projects would mean about $1.7 billion for each in the first year. That figure, however, is dependent upon oil and gas production, which could be affected by recent drops in oil prices.

The money is not nearly enough to meet all of the state’s highway needs, making Prop. 1 more of a first step than a long-term solution, supporters said.

“Everybody is optimistic that the winds are at our back when we head into what will be a challenging legislative session,” said Brandon Janes, chairman of Transportation Advocates of Texas. “It would be nice to say we have a healthy margin on Prop. 1 to show the support to get legislators moving on this.”

To adequately maintain roads and improve those stressed by population and economic growth, TxDOT estimates the state should be spending $5 billion more a year, leaving a $3.3 billion gap even if Prop. 1 passes.

This is the problem with Prop 1 in a nutshell. It’s a painless little band-aid that will alleviate some of the immediate problems but doesn’t really do a damn thing to solve anything. We’re still not ready or willing to have a frank discussion about what our state’s transportation needs are – remember, TxDOT has been throwing around giant numbers for years that represent wish list items and other pie-in-the-sky ventures in addition to genuinely needed projects – or what the best solutions going forward will be – surely I’m not the only one who recognizes that investing gazillions of dollars on road building is kind of a 20th century approach, but it’s all there is from TxDOT and the Lege – never mind how to pay for them. Just about everybody has endorsed Prop 1 – their campaign website is here – and I suppose I’ll be a good soldier and vote for it as well, but I’m not enthusiastic about it. If I thought for a minute that defeating this would send a message of “We want you to work on solving the underlying problems!” and not “We don’t want you to spend any money on anything ever again!”, I’d vote No and feel good about it. As I know full well that’s not how the world works, I’ll vote Yes and bitch about it afterwards, then console myself with the thought that maybe now that the easy answers have been applied, we might be able to gingerly approach the somewhat harder answers. That won’t happen either, but I can tell myself it will. Burka, who is on the same page as I am, has more.

Ninety years later, we could still use an Equal Rights Amendment

I have three things to say about this.

Drafted by a suffragette in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment has been stirring up controversy ever since. Many opponents considered it dead when a 10-year ratification push failed in 1982, yet its backers on Capitol Hill, in the Illinois statehouse and elsewhere are making clear this summer that the fight is far from over.

In Washington, congresswomen Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., are prime sponsors of two pieces of legislation aimed at getting the amendment ratified. They recently organized a pro-ERA rally, evoking images of the 1970s, outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Recent Supreme Court decisions have sent women’s rights back to the Stone Age,” said Speier, explaining the renewed interest in the ERA. The amendment would stipulate that equal rights cannot be denied or curtailed on the basis of gender.

[…]

Written by Alice Paul — a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. a century ago — the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced annually in Congress from 1923 to 1970, when congressional hearings began in the heyday of the modern feminist movement. In 1972, the ERA won overwhelming approval in both chambers and was forwarded to the 50 state legislatures in search of the needed 38 votes to ratify.

Congress set a deadline of 1979, at which point 35 states had ratified the ERA. The deadline was extended to 1982, but no more states came on board, and the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the ERA was dead.

The states that did not ratify were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

Aside from Illinois, there have been few signs that any of those states are on the verge of ratifying the ERA. In politically divided Virginia, the Senate voted 25-8 vote this year for ratification, but the measure died in a committee in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

In Congress, ERA supporters have introduced two measures in pursuit of ratification.

One — known as the “three-state strategy” — is a resolution that would nullify the 1982 deadline so that only three more states would need to ratify the ERA in addition to the 35 that did so in the 1970s.

The other measure would restart the traditional process, requiring passage of the ERA by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate and House, followed by ratification by legislatures in three-quarters of the 50 states.

1. As a child of the 70s, I remember the debates about the ERA, though I doubt I really understood them at the time. I definitely remember the lies and FUD that were being spread by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly. Given the current events in Houston, it sure is the case that some things never change.

2. Hard to believe, but not only was Texas one of the states that ratified the ERA, the Lege did so almost immediately after passage of the originating bill in Congress. I can’t even begin to imagine that now. I guess some things do change, just not always for the better.

3. The alternate history possibilities for a universe in which the ERA got ratified are endless. Bear in mind, Richard Nixon endorsed the ERA when it was passed by Congress in 1972. Needless to say, the party of Erick Erickson does things a little differently these days. I still don’t quite understand why there was a deadline on state passage back then, but it’s never too late to try again.

What anti-gay bills?

From Lone Star Q:

RedEquality

Ken Paxton, the odds-on favorite to be Texas’ next attorney general, says he isn’t familiar with recent “license to discriminate” bills in Arizona, Kansas and other states even though he co-authored a similar measure in 2013.

Gay Realtor and LGBT activist Bob McCranie asked Paxton about his position on the anti-gay bills during a meeting of the Women’s Council of Realtors of Collin County on Wednesday.

[…]

It seems strange that Paxton doesn’t know anything about these bills, given that he authored a  similar measure during the 2013 session. In fact, the bill by Paxton and fellow tea party Sen. Donna Campbell, called the Texas Religious Freedom Amendment, went a step further. It  would have enshrined the right to discriminate against gays or any other group based on religious beliefs into the Texas Constitution. The bill was backed by anti-gay groups including the Liberty Institute and Texas Values, but it died amid opposition from groups like Equality Texas and concerns about unintended consequences. Namely, critics questioned whether the amendment would strengthen Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket funerals or establish abortion as a religious right.

It makes you wonder whether Paxton even considered the ramifications of his own bill, or if he was just blindly marching behind the banner of “religious freedom” to score political points.

LSQ has a transcript and recording of the conversation, so go check it out. The bill in question is SJR4, which thankfully never made it out of committee. The critical bit from the text of the joint resolution is “The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest.” I think we all understand what that means. Well, all of us except Sen. Campbell – seriously, click that Texas Monthly link and get an appreciation of just how dim a bulb she is. In any event, Paxton needs to be pinned down on this. Sam Houston, please pick up this ball and run with it.

A brief history of gay marriage legislation in Texas

From TM Daily Post.

RedEquality

Gay marriage supporters have made massive strides in a very short amount of time. Less than ten years ago, gay couples couldn’t get married anywhere in the United States. While the progress they did achieve shortly thereafter involved victories, they were handed down by judges—rather than their fellow voters—and the term “marriage” still didn’t apply—they could only have separate-but-equal “civil unions.”

Now, though, nearly a third of the states (containing nearly forty percent of the population) have legalized gay marriage, and in most cases, that’s been through the actions of elected legislatures or voters at the ballot box.

In Texas, meanwhile, if the status of gay marriage is going to change—at least in the short term—it’ll likely have to be in the courts. And there are four lawsuits pending that are challenging the various restrictions in the state that outlaw gay marriage. As we take a look at them, let’s also take a moment to trace the history of gay marriage bans in Texas.

Most of what’s in there will be familiar to you, though I at least didn’t realize that the first shot in this branch of the culture war was fired in 1997. The most recent developments in the state are the lawsuits, one about divorce and the other about marriage, that are likely to have a profound effect on the status quo going forward. Assuming that the federal lawsuit doesn’t make it all moot in the wake of the Utah decision, of course. In an ideal world, the existing laws would be repealed by the Legislature, but we may never get to a point where there’s a sufficient majority to repeal that awful constitutional amendment; a one-third minority in either chamber would be enough to block any such attempt. So I’m happy for the courts to do what needs to be done, but as I’ve been saying I just wonder how big and insane the freakout will be when it happens. We may get a good idea of that soon.

Theories abound about why the Dome referendum failed

I have three things to say about this.

We still have the memories

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said the outcome of both county bond propositions, as well as the Katy stadium, is indicative of resistance among conservative voters to big-ticket spending items they believe are not necessary, or, in the case of the Dome, that could be paid for with private instead of public dollars.

Rottinghaus noted that dozens of redevelopment proposals from private companies have been floated for the Dome since the Astros moved out after the 1999 season. None of them have panned out, but Rottinghaus said county leaders did not adequately address a “burden of proof” to explain why the proposed “New Dome Experience” project had to be paid for with public money.

“These are fairly large numbers, and I think people look at that amount of money and are worried about the rising tax burden of their house,” he said.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who conducted the pre-election poll, said the outcome of both county bonds proposals came down largely to lax, or disparate, campaigning by county leaders, not an unwillingness to spend.

“I just don’t think there was any significant effort to explain to people why they were doing this,” Stein said. “They just wanted the voters have a chance to say yes or no, which they clearly did.”

[…]

University of St. Thomas political scientist Jon Taylor pointed out that historic preservation groups, who drove a rented truck dubbed the “Dome Mobile” around Houston in the two weeks leading up to the election, actually campaigned fairly hard for the bond.

Considering there was no organized opposition, though, Taylor attributed the outcome to a “quiet conservative backlash,” with many voters “quietly without telling anybody saying ‘No, we are not going to accept this.’ And they didn’t.”

He and Rottinghaus also said they think that all the bonds approved last year could have led to “bond fatigue” for some voters.

“The voters may be wary of going back to what they consider a dry well,” Rottinghaus wrote. “Combine that with a growing sense that government should handle their fiscal matters more responsibly,” and you get “limited support for the Dome and the joint processing center.”

1. I doubt at this point that any of these professors have seen precinct data from this election yet. I know I haven’t. In the absence of such objective data, people will be influenced by their own opinions in explaining a vote like this. I personally lean closer to Prof. Stein’s explanation – all due respect, but driving a billboard around town doesn’t meet my definition of “campaigning hard”; to the best of my recollection, I got no mail, received no phone calls, or saw any ads relating to the Dome referendum. My personal opinion, as I have mentioned before, is that I think many people had become cynical about the whole thing. I think they didn’t trust the County after so many years of inaction and false starts, and I think they weren’t impressed by the New Dome plan. I do agree that many people were not willing to have their property taxes raised to renovate the Dome, but I think this was more about priorities than a general anti-spending mood. I base my opinions on anecdotes and hearsay, mostly resulting from talking to a few people on Tuesday night and from reading the arguments over the Dome at places like the Swamplot comments. I freely admit these are my own entirely non-scientific impressions, and I make no claim about their objective veracity.

2. To add on to Prof. Stein’s point about the city bonds from last year, I will note that Prop 6, the statewide referendum to create a $2 billion water infrastructure fund, received over 75% of the vote in Harris County (see page 2 here). That’s not quite the same as a bond, but that did have organized opposition who clearly cast it as a spending issue, yet that had little to no effect here, or overall. That said, the electorate for the city bonds in 2012 would be much more Democratic than the county voters this year, so the comparison to last year’s vote needs to be kept in perspective.

3. “Bond fatigue”, like “ballot fatigue”, strikes me as a lazy and meaningless expression that poli sci profs sometimes reach for when some pesky reporter is pressing them to explain something for which there is at best insufficient data. Let us please agree to drop these expressions from the vernacular.