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Department of Motor Vehicles

State offers no fixes for “motor voter” law non-compliance

I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Told it was breaking the law, and asked to propose a fix, Texas seems to have mostly declined.

Following a ruling last month that Texas was violating a federal law designed to ease the voter registration process, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia orderedboth the state and the voting rights advocacy group that sued Texas to submit detailed plans for fixing the violation. The Texas Civil Rights Project submitted its plan Thursday afternoon. About three hours later, Texas responded with a document criticizing that group’s proposal as overly broad and once again disputing the judge’s ruling. It did not present a clear, specific solution of its own.

[…]

Attorneys for the state argued this week — again — that the state was not violating the law, and that the voters who sued them had no standing to do so in the first place. They also objected strenuously to the advocacy group’s fix, which proposed giving the state 45 days to begin allowing Texas drivers to register online while updating their license information and forcing Texas to create a “broad-based public education plan” to advertise the new avenue for voter registration.

“It is one thing to issue a ‘simple injunction’ ordering a state official to comply with the [the Motor Voter Act], it is another to micromanage the details of that compliance,” attorneys for the state wrote. “[The law] does not give federal courts carte blanche to order the State to do anything they think may be beneficial.”

Texas emphasized that it doesn’t believe the court should order any remedy. But attorneys for the state did offer some guidelines as to how that fix should be ordered. Any solution, the state said, “must be narrowly tailored,” to the problem at hand and show what other courts have described as “adequate sensitivity to the principles of federalism.”

See here for the background. It’s a bit like Willie Sutton arguing that he was just making withdrawals, and that maybe the bank should look into shorter teller lines or something. Judge Garcia, who I’m sure appreciated the pointers, will make his ruling, at which point the state will file its appeal and we’ll get to see if that ruling is ever allowed to take effect. Stay tuned.

State ordered to come up with fix for voter registration problems

The clock is ticking.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas has less than a week to tell a federal judge in San Antonio how it will begin complying with the National Voter Registration Act, a decades-old federal law aimed at making it easier for people to register to vote by forcing states to allow registration while drivers apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled more than a month ago that Texas was violating the law, sometimes called the Motor Voter Act, by not allowing Texas drivers to register to vote when they update their driver’s license information online. But it wasn’t clear until this week what exactly state officials would have to do to address that — and by when they’d have to do it.

Now, Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project — which sued the state over the issue in 2016, saying Texas’ current system disenfranchised thousands of voters and violated the U.S. Constitution — have until Thursday to propose a detailed fix for the system. After that, Garcia will weigh the proposals and order a remedy.

“Defendants are violating [several sections] of the NVRA and their excuse for noncompliance is not supported by the facts or the law,” Garcia ruled in a strongly-worded 61-page opinion.

Texas Civil Rights Project President Mimi Marziani said her group will fight to get a fix in place in time for voters to register for this fall’s midterm elections. The deadline for Texas’ closest election — May 22 primary runoff races — has already passed.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has offered to work with the state to submit a remedy both sides can support. The Texas Attorney General’s Office said Friday it was “reviewing the order and weighing our options.” But a spokesman already pledged last month to appeal Garcia’s ruling.

“We are not surprised by the order … by this particular judge,” spokesman Marc Rylander said at the time. “The Fifth Circuit will not give merit to such judicial activism because Texas voter registration is consistent with federal voter laws.”

But, Marziani said, the state will not have the opportunity to appeal until after Garcia weighs in on the remedies each side proposes.

See here for the background. You’d think this would be a fairly straightforward thing to fix, for the two sides to figure out an acceptable way forward. But this is Texas, and Ken Paxton, and “solutions” and “compromise” are not their thing. So this is just another step in the process until we get to the next appeal. Round and round we go. The Chron has more.

Texas loses another voting rights lawsuit

Anyone else detecting a pattern here?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Handing the state another voting rights loss, a federal judge has sided with a civil rights group that claimed Texas violated federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their drivers’ license information online.

In a court order made public on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio ruled that Texas was in violation of the federal National Voter Registration Act. A portion of that law requires states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Garcia will direct the state to comply with the law; Garcia indicated he will provide more details in the next two weeks. But the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents several Texas voters in the case, said the state would “soon be forced” to change its voter registration policies — and possibly introduce its first mechanism for online voter registration.

[…]

The voter registration lawsuit was filed in 2016 against the Texas secretary of state and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Alleging that Texas was disenfranchising thousands of voters, the plaintiffs also claimed that Texas was violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online differently than those who register in person.

DPS followed the law for in-person voter registration, but residents trying to register online ran into convoluted and misleading language, the plaintiffs claimed.

Plaintiffs objected to what they called a misleading process on the agency’s website. When users checked “yes” to a prompt that said “I want to register to vote,” they were directed to a registration form that they had to print out and send to their county registrar.

Though the website specifies that checking yes “does not register you to vote,” that language has caused “widespread confusion” among Texans who incorrectly thought their voting registration had been updated, the plaintiffs claimed.

See here and here for the background, and here for the TCRP’s statement. As noted in the Trib story, this is the lawsuit in which the judge sanctioned the AG’s office for dragging their feet on meeting deadlines. We’ll know more about what this means when the opinion is published. If there is an online registration part to it, it will apply only to business related to drivers license applications or renewals. Whatever the case, you can be sure this will be appealed, and given the crapshow that is the Fifth Circuit, don’t be surprised if the ruling is put on hold pending appeals. I hate to say it, but we’ve seen that movie before and we know how it ends. Celebrate the ruling, but stay on task.

Some Texas voting rights lawsuit updates

This has been a busy week for litigation related to voting rights issues in Texas. Here are updates to some cases, all of which happened this past week.

From Texas Redistricting:

The three-judge panel in the Texas redistricting case has set a status conference for April 27, at 9:30 a.m. in San Antonio to discuss a trial schedule for the remaining claims in the case as well as the redistricting plaintiffs’ request to block the state’s use of its current congressional plan (Plan C235) on the grounds that defects found by the court in the 2011 plan continue to exist in the current plan. The court directed lawyers for the state to be prepared to discuss at the status conference “whether the Legislature intends to take up redistricting during this legislative session to remedy any violations that persist in the 2013 plans.”

The court also asked the parties to be ready to discuss the timing for its consideration of requests that Texas be bailed back into preclearance coverage under section 3© of the Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the court’s order setting a status conference can be found here.

See here and here for the background. The plaintiffs want a new map in place by July 1.

A couple of days after that happened, the plaintiffs responded.

On Friday, plaintiffs in the Texas redistricting responded in a court filing to the State of Texas’ position that it was premature to consider the plaintiff’s request to block and require a redraw of the state’s congressional map (Plan C235).

In the filing, the plaintiffs told the court that while there was sufficient time to remedy constitutional defects in the map if the process began now, “delaying all relief until the Court schedules and holds another trial and issues another merits determination would raise a serious risk that Plaintiffs will be forced to vote in yet another election under unconstitutional districts.” The plaintiffs noting that filing for the 2018 Texas primary will open on November 11 and that a number of steps would have to occur to finalize any map changes, including redrawing precinct boundaries.

Circle April 27 on your calendar. We won’t have final answers to these questions then, but we should have some idea of what answers to expect.

From the Texas Civil Rights Project:

[On April 3], Chief Judge Orlando Garcia of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas denied the state’s motion to dismiss Stringer v. Pablos, TCRP’s “motor voter” case.

This decision provides critical validation of the arguments advanced by the plaintiffs — disenfranchised Texas voters — who challenge voter registration processes at the Department of Public Safety under the National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA, and the U.S. Constitution.

One by one, Judge Garcia considered the state’s arguments for dismissal and rejected them. Judge Garcia found the state’s current procedures “inconsistent with the plain language of the NVRA,” refusing to adopt “circular and self-defeating” interpretations of the NVRA offered by the defendants. Instead, the Judge expressly found that the NVRA applies to the thousands of online transactions Texans initiated through DPS.gov every day. This ruling means that the Secretary of State should be registering and updating voter registrations for all of these individuals as a matter of course unless they opt out. Moreover, any alleged interest in avoiding the upfront expense in creating a modern system cannot justify “the burden imposed on voters” under the Equal Protection Clause.

From the beginning, TCRP has argued that “motor voter” failures have excluded countless eligible voters from the Texas electorate. The judge acknowledged the systemic nature of the state’s actions, noting that the plaintiffs had “produced evidence that thousands of Texans submitted complaints to the state that related in some way to DPS’s processing of voter registration information through its website.”

Judge Garcia’s decision comes on the heels of sanctions imposed against Texas on February 17th for causing undue delay and for repeatedly, and without justification, ignoring court orders to provide the necessary documents to move forward with the case. TCRP represents the plaintiffs with co-counsel at Waters Kraus LLP.

Mimi Marziani, Executive Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said:

“Today’s opinion is a resounding victory for the countless Texas voters who have been disenfranchised by the state’s failure to adhere with federal law. With this decision, we are hopeful that we can resolve the case before the 2018 election so that every eligible voter can cast a ballot that counts.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Link via Rick Hasen.

From the Express News:

A federal judge has denied the state of Texas’ attempt to quash a lawsuit that challenges the way the state elects judges to the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.

Seven Hispanic voters (six from Nueces County and one from El Paso) and a civic organization, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero Inc., allege in the suit that Latino candidates almost always lose statewide elections for judges to the two highest courts in Texas.

In an opinion issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos ruled that all the plaintiffs have standing to bring the suit under the Voting Rights Act.

The judge rejected the state’s argument that the plaintiffs had failed to state a cause of action under Section 2 of the law, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has already held that Section 2 applies to judicial elections.

The ruling clears the way for a trial, according to a news release from two law firms and an organization representing the plaintiffs.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the judge’s order. It’s not clear to me what a remedy for this looks like if the plaintiffs ultimately prevail, but in the meantime it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Rick Hasen has one of the press releases mentioned in the story; I couldn’t find any others googling around.

And finally, also from the Express-News:

Proposed legislative changes to Texas’ voter ID law won’t affect a lawsuit’s claim that the law is discriminatory, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, based in Corpus Christi, made the declaration in an opinion that also allowed the Justice Department to withdraw from the case.

The opinion follows a hearing in February in which — as directed by a federal appeals court, the U.S. Fifth Circuit — she heard more arguments about whether the law, SB 14, was passed with discriminatory intent.

The state argued that lawmakers planned fixes to be made in Austin with a measure called Senate Bill 5.

“The court holds that the Fifth Circuit did not direct this Court to withhold a decision on the discriminatory purpose claim and that the claim is not, and will not be, moot as a result of pending or future legislation,” Gonzales Ramos wrote.

The civil rights groups that brought the suit say the proposed changes, if passed in the newly introduced legislation, are irrelevant and that the GOP-controlled Legislature designed and passed the 2011 voter i.d. law with discriminatory purpose.

See here and here for some background. Judge Ramos did let the Justice Department officially withdraw from the case, so only the private plaintiffs will continue on. Her order can be seen here, in which she sets a status call on June 7 to discuss whether an evidentiary hearing on remedies is required, how long that might take, and what the deadlines for briefs and whatnot should be. This too came via Rick Hasen.

So the TL;dr summary of all this is:

1. The judges in the redistricting case will discuss wrapping up the other items and figuring out what to do with the Congressional map on April 27 with the litigants. This isn’t a hearing, just a discussion of what they all will be doing and when they will be doing it.

2. Similarly, the judge in the litigation to determine (again, under the standards set by the Fifth Circuit) whether the 2011 voter ID law was passed with discriminatory intent will discuss the schedule and logistics with the attorneys on June 7.

3. Two previously filed lawsuits, one that alleges the state of Texas does not comply with federal Motor Voter laws and one that argues that the statewide election of judges violates the Voting Rights Act, survived motions to dismiss.

Whew!

AG’s office sanctioned in voter registration lawsuit

They were warned.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge has ordered sanctions against the state of Texas for blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents in a lawsuit challenging its voter registration practices.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office’s “months-long delay” in producing the documents “has been disruptive, time consuming, cost consuming” and has burdened plaintiffs in the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio wrote in an order signed Thursday. Garcia ordered the state to pay some of the plaintiffs’ legal fees, including those tied to the sanctions request.

The Texas Civil Rights Project last March sued on behalf of four Texans who allege the Department of Public Safety denied them the opportunity to cast a ballot — and violated federal law — by failing to update their voter registration records online.

The group, hoping for quick action during the 2018 election cycle, argued in a motion for sanctions last month that foot-dragging from Paxton’s office was hampering its case. State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 requested pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas asked for several extensions.

Texas argued that the Secretary of State’s office was busy dealing with the 2016 general election and that its legal team — with only one attorney assigned to the case — lacked the manpower to respond to the information request.

Garcia rejected those and other arguments. He wrote that Texas had never asked for a deadline extension because of the election, and he suggested that Paxton’s office had plenty of resources.

“It is critical that these issues be resolved well before the 2018 election,” Beth Stevens, voting rights director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement Friday. “Today’s order is a strong sign the Court also recognizes the important issues at stake.”

See here, here, and here for the background. At this point, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the state is deliberately dragging its feet to prevent a ruling from being in place for the 2018 elections. If these sanctions aren’t enough to compel some action from Ken Paxton, then I think the next step needs to be to grant summary judgment for the plaintiffs. I mean, if the state doesn’t want to contest the allegations, maybe it’s because it can’t. A statement from the Texas Civil Rights Project is here, and the Statesman has more.

State fails to respond to voter registration lawsuit

Here’s an update on a different voting rights lawsuit from last year.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Civil rights lawyers suing Texas over its voter registration practices are asking a federal judge to sanction the state for allegedly blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents related to the case.

The Texas Civil Rights Project last March sued on behalf of four Texans who allege the Department of Public Safety denied them the opportunity to cast a ballot — and violated federal law — by failing to update their voter registration records online.

The plaintiffs say they were hoping for quick action as the 2018 election cycle looms, but claim the state is dragging its feet.

State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas requested multiple extensions, according to a filing this week in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio.

“It’s hampering our ability to prepare for the case,” said Cassie Champion, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The timing is so important.”

The filing asked Judge Orlando Garcia to hold Texas in contempt and order its lawyers to immediately produce the documents and pay any fees “resulting from their failure to comply” with his previous order. Champion said she wasn’t sure what such fees would total.

[…]

No one disputes that Department of Public Safety follows the law when Texans handle that business in person, but it’s a different story for folks who update their license information online, the lawsuit argues.

The DPS website eventually directs Texans who check “yes” to the statement “I want to register to vote” to the Secretary of State’s website. There, they can find a registration form that they must print out and send to their county registrar.

Though the website specifies that checking yes “does not register you to vote,” the process has spurred “widespread confusion” among Texans who erroneously thought the state had automatically updated their registrations, the lawsuit alleges.

Over a 20-month stretch ending in May 2015, the state fielded more than 1,800 complaints from Texans who erroneously thought their voter registration records were up-to-date after they dealt with their driver’s licenses online, according to court filings.

The lawsuit argues the Motor Voter law applies to all voters — regardless of how they deal with their driver’s licenses — and Texas violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating them differently.

See here and here for the background. I know, it’s hard to believe that Ken Paxton’s office would be uncooperative on something like this. Maybe this motion will shame them into action, and maybe it will require a slap on the wrist from the judge. Either way, I agree that it would be nice to get something accomplished before the 2018 cycle gets underway. KUT has more.

The Uberization of moving companies

For when you don’t have a friend with a pickup truck and you need to move on the cheap.

A new breed of online moving companies with names like Buddytruk and PICKUP has drawn interest from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which wants to ensure the companies are following state laws requiring moving truck drivers to be licensed.

“Anyone moving household goods in a pick-up truck for hire is required to register with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and show proof of insurance in the amounts required by law,” reads a letter the department sent to Plano-based PICKUP in October. “Something bought at a garage sale for home use would qualify as household goods.”

Since May, the department has sent letters to four app-based moving companies, warning each that they may be violating state law, according to spokesman Adam Shaivitz. Along with PICKUP, they include Austin-based Burro, as well as HashMove and Buddytruk, both based in California but offering services in Austin.

“Providers that refuse compliance can be referred to law enforcement because moving household goods without a license is a crime,” Shaivitz said. So far, the agency has not referred any cases involving these four companies to law enforcement.

Department officials say the issue is more than just the state keeping track of moving companies. The agency has pursued unregistered movers in the past who demand more money before delivering goods or fail to show up for delivery at all. Often, such movers advertise their services on sites like Craigslist, according to officials in several states.

The past two years have seen the launch of more than a dozen Uber-style moving or delivery companies, most debuting in cities on the West Coast. Many advertise themselves as being more convenient than traditional moving companies. Like Uber, some encourage those with access to a large enough vehicle to sign up as drivers to make extra money.

“You need to have a smart phone, a full-size pickup truck legally registered to you and insured to State requirements,” says PICKUP on the driver sign-up page of its website. The company, which promotes its drivers as “Good Guys With Pickups On Demand,” launched in 2014, serving the Dallas area. Asked if the company requires its drivers be registered with the state as household goods movers, CEO Brenda Stoner said in an email that the company was addressing that issue.

“We are working closely with a very collaborative Texas DMV, other regulatory agencies, and our attorneys and consultants to ensure that customers can adopt this new style of delivery service in a trusted, safe, insured and compliant manner,” Stoner said.

Both Burro and HashMove only employ drivers that comply with state laws, according to company officials. Buddytruk declined to comment.

I don’t expect to move again any time soon, and if I were anticipating a move I’m not sure I’d go for a service like this. Too many questions about liability and insurance and how good the service is. That said, the last time we did move we used a no-name company that was basically a guy with a repurposed bread truck and his three or four helpers, so who am I to talk? I guess overall I feel the same way about this as I do about major software releases – I’d wait till the bugs have been worked out first. Your mileage may vary, and if you’re looking at a soon-to-expire apartment lease, this may be a good way for you to go.

SOS to review motor voter complaints

I hope this amounts to more than lip service.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Secretary of State has agreed to study why thousands of Texans have complained over the past year and a half that they had problems registering to vote despite a federal law that requires all states to offer voter registration in offices where citizens apply for a driver’s license.

The state began its review only after Battleground Texas, a nonprofit voter registration aligned with the Democratic Party, said it might take legal action on behalf of individual Texans who have claimed they were disenfranchised because voter applications filed at driver’s licensing offices were not promptly processed, according to correspondence the Houston Chronicle obtained through public information requests.

In all, 4,600 individuals complained online between September 2013 and February 2015 about processing issues they experienced at motor vehicle offices run by the Department of Public Safety, public records show.

“Texas is failing to comply with the law and voters are being disenfranchised,” Mimi Marziani, legal director of Battleground Texas, wrote in a letter to the state. The fact that so many Texas voters complained through a relatively obscure online “portal” provided by the state, she said, indicates that the problem is likely much more common.

Alicia Phillips Pierce, communications director for the Secretary of State, told the Chronicle the office “is committed to fully complying with all State and federal law, and to safeguarding the voting rights of all Texans.”

“Our office is currently investigating the allegations in Battleground Texas’ letter, and, accordingly, is not in a position at this time to confirm or deny any of the allegations or characterizations contained therein,” she added.

[…]

One of the most common complaints is that driver’s licensing employees failed to process voters’ requests to register. Only if that voter later complained online or by contacting a county election official would state officials review scanned files to determine whether an individual had checked “yes” on a voter application. If that “yes” was verified, the individual was then registered to vote.

Other voters got confused when trying to update their Texas addresses on a Department of Public Safety website, which they wrongly assumed would simultaneously update their driver’s license file and their voter registration record. In fact, the Texas Secretary of State does not allow Texas voters to update their voter registration addresses online. Voters must do that separately by printing out and mailing in a new application.

Battleground Texas has argued that both of those glitches in Texas’ motor voter process violate the National Voter Registration Act. “Under the NVRA, every time an eligible resident obtains, renews or updates his or her driver’s license with DPS, DPS must simultaneously register that person to vote or update that person’s voter registration file. … There is considerable evidence that (Texas) is violating these mandates on an ongoing and continuing basis,” Marziani of Battleground Texas wrote in her letter.

Good for BGTX for pursuing this. Registering voters is tricky enough in Texas, and there’s no help on the way from the Legislature. The least we can do is make sure the registrations we do get don’t get screwed up.

Texas throws in the towel with the Fifth Circuit

Hallelujah.

RedEquality

The 5th Circuit should affirm a lower court ruling that overturned Texas’ long-standing ban on same-sex marriage, Scott Keller, the state’s solicitor general, wrote in a letter to the appellate court. That letter was in response to the appellate court’s request that the state and the plaintiffs advise the court on the next steps in the Texas case.

Citing the Supreme Court’s ruling, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit then affirmed a lower court ruling that the state’s ban is unconstitutional.

Same-sex marriage “is the law of the land and, consequently, the law of this circuit and should not be taken lightly by actors within the jurisdiction of this court,” wrote circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith, adding that the Supreme Court ruling also required the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

[…]

Though it was clear that the Supreme Court would have the final word on the matter, the parties in the Texas case had hoped the 5th Circuit would still rule on their case.

But after the high court legalized same-sex marriage, the attorney for the Texas same-sex couples, Neel Lane, asked the 5th Circuit to affirm Garcia’s ruling and direct him to wrap up the case.

In a letter to the court, Lane wrote that Garcia’s final judgment should prohibit the state from enforcing the state statute that banned same-sex marriage, any related provisions in the Texas Family Code, and “any other laws or regulations prohibiting a person from marrying another person of the same sex or recognizing same-sex marriage.”

Additionally, Lane asked that the courts “take any and all steps necessary to enforce” that final judgment.

In siding with the same-sex couples, the 5th Circuit directed Garcia to enter his final judgment on the case by July 17.

The Fifth Circuit’s opinion is here. There wasn’t any actual doubt about how this would be resolved at this point, but this gesture does save everyone some time and energy. It also highlights just how much all that “saber-rattling” has been little more than posturing for the rubes. They know the gig is up, they just don’t want to have to say it out loud.

Other signs of progress:

A local woman who wed her partner in a same-sex marriage in Hawaii last year has legally changed her name in Nueces County.

Bridget and Molly Brundrett married in Hawaii last October because the Aloha State already recognized same-sex unions. When they returned to Corpus Christi, Molly tried to legally take her wife’s last name. She took her Hawaii marriage license to the local Department of Motor Vehicles to legally change her name but was turned away. She says a female employee at the DMV office even threatened to have her arrested if she didn’t leave.

That was last November.

Fast forward to this week — and it’s a different story.

Following the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage last Friday, same-sex marriage is now recognized in Texas.

On Monday, the couple went to the DMV office off Interstate 37 with their Hawaii marriage license in hand and it was accepted. In fact, they say the DMV employees cheered for them.

“We actually walked up and she started applauding and cheering. It was like – oh my God, my first one! It was very moving. It was very sweet. They took our pictures,” said Molly.

That’s what marriage equality is all about – you get to have the same choices and options as anyone else. I hope this means that Connie Wilson can get her Texas drivers license, too. Congratulations, y’all.

UPDATE: The Fifth Circuit ruling applies to Louisiana and Mississippi too, though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal continues to be a jerk about it.

Vehicle registration renewal error notice

The following is a public service announcement. From the inbox:

320,000 Texas Drivers Receive Error in Renewal Notice
Mike Sullivan wants to ensure Harris County drivers are aware of issue

Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan wants to ensure Harris County drivers are aware of the issue concerning their vehicle registration notice.

According to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, two million vehicle registration renewal notices were mailed to customers on March 2, 2015 for their April renewals. From those notices, around 320,000 were printed with an incorrect inspection fee of $0.00 when a fee should have been printed. This only affects a select number of the April renewals.

“We don’t know how many Harris County drivers have been affected by this error, but my office is currently investigating the issue with the support of TxDMV staff,” said Mike Sullivan.

Affected drivers will receive a correct vehicle registration renewal and a notice in the mail from the TxDMV stating:

IMPORTANT NOTICE

Dear Customer: Please use the enclosed registration renewal notice when renewing your vehicle registration. The notice we sent to you earlier this month was printed with an incorrect fee and should be discarded. You are receiving a corrected renewal notice that displays the fee amount that is actually owed. You may disregard this notice if you have already received your registration sticker. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. If you have questions, please contact 1-888-DMV-GOTX (1-888-368-4689).

“If you have received your April vehicle registration renewal notice and have concerns if it is correct, please contact the TxDMV at 1-888-DMV-GOTX (1-888-368-4689),” said Mr. Sullivan.

If you have any questions please contact the Office of Mike Sullivan at (713)274-8000 or by email at tax.office@hctx.net.

A brief Chron story on this is here. This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming, already in progress.

Sticker reduction coming

From the inbox:

Harris County is gearing up for a new Texas Two Step. Beginning March 1, 2015, the state will no longer issue vehicle inspection stickers and will move to a “Two Steps, One Sticker” program. Under the new system, Texas vehicle owners will need to pass inspection prior to renewing their registration. The familiar blue-bordered Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TxDMV) registration sticker will serve as proof of both inspection and registration.

“We are prepared to make this transition as smooth as possible for our residents,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan. “During the first year of the program beginning March 1, 2015, all you will need to do is make sure you already have a valid passing vehicle inspection before you renew your registration in our office, online or by mail.”

When vehicle owners renew their registration, the system will verify whether the vehicle has a valid inspection. It’s recommended to bring the hard copy of the vehicle inspection report when renewing your registration. Without a passing inspection, the vehicle will not be eligible for registration renewal.

During the second year of the program, beginning March 1, 2016, vehicles’ inspection and registration expiration dates will align to the date that is on the registration sticker. Once the expiration dates are aligned in that second year, you will have a convenient 90-day window to pass inspection first and then renew your registration before the end of the month listed on your sticker.

“When the ‘Two Steps, One Sticker’ program is fully implemented, Harris County residents will appreciate having just one sticker in the corner of their windshield and only one expiration date to worry about,” said TxDMV Executive Director Whitney Brewster. “And because a passing vehicle inspection will be a requirement to renew your registration, more vehicle owners will comply with inspection requirements leading to safer and more environmentally sound cars on Texas roads.”

The implementation of “Two Steps, One Sticker” is a result of House Bill 2305 which passed during the 83rd Legislative Session in 2013. The program is joint effort by the TxDMV, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in collaboration with the 254 county tax assessor-collector’s offices which process vehicle registrations and vehicle inspection stations across the state.

For more information:
www.TwoStepsOneSticker.com

The Harris County Tax Office Automobile Division performs more than 4.5 million automobile transactions in Harris County each year. It also works closely with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to register motor vehicles, collect registration and title fees and distributes them to the proper entities. Learn more about the Automobile Services Division by visiting www.hctax.net.

See here and here for the background. I think this is a good idea, but I also expect there will be some confusion along the way. At the very least, having only one date to worry about instead of two, especially if you have more than one car at your household, will be nice.

Say goodbye to some specialty license plates

Nothing lasts forever.

Dr. Pepper, the National Wild Turkey Foundation and the Fort Worth Zoo are among 56 groups that will no longer grace the bumpers of Texas cars and trucks unless sales pick up.

Under new rules set between the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and My Plates, the company that sells specialty license plates for the state, any designs that do not record sales of at least 200 by mid-December will be permanently removed from circulation as part of an effort to make more money and sell more license plates.

“We have seen a proliferation of plates in the system. Currently, we’re at 160,” said Steve Farrar, president of My Plates, which has held an exclusive contract since 2009. “It is good to do a cleanse from time to time according to what is selling. And this time, it comes as a requirement in the extension of our contract.”

The company’s new contract, which runs through 2019, includes four deadlines over the course of the year. In order to prevent removal, all plates must have 50 pairs sold and in use by March 15. That threshold jumps to 100 in June, 150 in September, and 200 by mid-December, 2015.

Any plate failing to meet sales targets will be permanently removed from the state list, though people who already have those plates could use them until they expire.

Here’s the list of plates that do not currently make the cut; there are 56 in all that are in the danger zone. Rockets and Dynamo fans, you have till the December deadline to express your automotive love for your team. My fellow Trinity alums, we have our work cut out for us. Basically, if you’ve been thinking about getting one of these plates – the website is here – check that list and see if you have the luxury of continued procrastination.

MyPlates doing well

Good for them.

Specialty license plates sales have generated $10.5 million for the state’s general revenue fund so far, and the program will likely exceed the $25 million five-year-contract guarantee from My Plates, a marketing company that provides Texans more custom license plate choices.

My Plates has sold more than 98,000 new plates and renewals halfway through the contract. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles estimates My Plates will surpass it’s obligation if new orders and renewals stay on track.

“The Department is committed to the success of the My Plates program, authorized by the Legislature to raise badly needed revenue for the State’s general fund. I am pleased that My Plates is on track to meet or exceed their $25 million commitment to the State,” Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board Chairman Victor Vandergriff said.

The specialty license plate project “allows Texans to express themselves in a fun way, while also providing additional funding for the state, which benefits us all,” says Randy Elliston, director of the department’s Vehicle Titles and Registration.

The My Plates specialty license program started in November 2009 following legislative action. Lawmakers deserve credit for approving the program, My Plates’ board member Nina Vaca said: “Rather than mandate a new tax or fee to address the State’s debt burden, lawmakers got creative,” she said. “They saw a way that more choices in plates could mean more funding for services to all Texans—without costing taxpayers a dime.”

That’s nice and all, but let’s keep a little perspective amid the rah-rah stuff. That’s ten million bucks over a two year period. The state budget for a biennium is close to $80 billion, which makes the MyPlates revenue a bit more than 0.01% of the total. I’m glad to have it, but it’s not like we’ve uncovered a secret way to avoid taxes or deficits. It’s a tiny drop in a large bucket.

Texas SCV sues over Confederate license plate rejection

In November, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles unanimously rejected an application for a specialty license plate displaying the Confederate battle flag. The Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans has now filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn that decision.

The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a complaint Thursday in U.S. District Court in Austin against the eight DMV board members who voted.

It’s arguing its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. The DMV says it has yet to see the complaint.

More here.

Texas officials turned down a Sons of Confederate Veterans’ request for a specialty plate three years ago, citing rules that banned political or controversial plates. The rules changed two years ago, and the board has since approved all 89 proposed specialty designs.

“We said if we don’t get the plates we’re going to sue them,” Marshall Davis, a spokesman for the group in Austin, told The Times. “There are other organizations that have had to sue their states to get their 1st Amendment rights, and this is the same thing.”

Davis said his group was optimistic it would prevail because “a precedent has been set” in other states.

Nine other states have approved Sons of Confederate Veterans’ specialty plates, but Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina only did so after the group sued. A similar suit is pending in Florida.

Davis said the design, which features a Confederate flag as part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ logo, honors veterans. He said the group planned to use proceeds from plate sales, a portion of which return to the sponsoring group, to educate the public about Civil War history.

Many people, including Governor Perry, expressed opposition to the plates. You can see the SCV’s statement here. I couldn’t find a copy of the suit itself anywhere. I’m sure this will eventually wind up before the Texas Supreme Court, so I expect it will be a few years before we get a final ruling.

DMV votes down Confederate license plates

Good for them.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles’ governing board this morning voted down a controversial proposal for a specialty license plate displaying the Confederate battle flag.

The vote was 8-0, with Vice Chair Cheryl Johnson absent.

The decision brought cheers and applause from the packed hearing room near the State Capitol. The decision came after nearly two hours of sometimes-emotional testimony, highlighted by U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, leading a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance while holding up a large U.S. flag.

“There are always those who take the wrong side of history for the right side of politics,” he said. “”This is an opportunity to take the right side of history and the right side of politics.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, an ancestral history group, had sought the plate as a way to raise money for memorials and history projects.

Granvel Block, commander of the group’s Texas division, said a lawsuit was likely. Lawsuits in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland resulted in approval of the specialty plates, after initial turn-downs by a state agency.

“They listened to emotion rather than facts,” Block said, citing “inaccurate information that got off onto everything but our plates.”

I didn’t expect the vote to be unanimous, I’ll say that much. I’m glad they made the right decision, and I hope the state is successful in fending off the lawsuit that will follow. A statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman is here, and the AusChron has more.

Confederate flag license plate decision coming

Ready or not, here it comes.

The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles is scheduled to debate [this] week whether to create a state license plate with a rebel flag that commemorates Confederate soldiers.

The new agenda posted for the Nov. 10 meeting shows the board will tackle an issue they originally voted on last April, but deadlocked in a 4-4 tie. The motion failed at the time because of the tie, but the chairman promised to reconsider the issue when the full nine-member board would be present.

All board members are Perry appointees, a fact that has not gone unnoticed on the campaign trail.

The board — all appointees of Gov. Rick Perry — tied 4-4 on the tag last April. The member who was absent has since died, and his replacement has not indicated how he will vote.

With Perry now running for president, the controversy over the proposed plate has grabbed national headlines in recent weeks, pitting supporters — who say the tag is designed to honor fallen soldiers and raise money for memorials to them — against vocal opponents who insist the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism that should not be displayed on a state-issued license plate.

Top Perry aides earlier said the governor was only expressing his personal opinion, and planned to leave the decision to the motor vehicle agency’s board. But his opposition, expressed in an interview with a Florida TV station, had widely been seen as a signal that the plate would likely not get a vote anytime soon — if at all.

Once again, Perry may wind up getting punished by the insane Republican base for one of the few decent things he’s done as Governor. I’d relish the irony if it weren’t all so damn depressing.

You know where I stand on this. In the interest of equal time, here’s an op-ed by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson that aruges that the Confederate plates honor history, which he had sent to me after I wrote my piece. Like I said, you know how I feel about this, but you should read what Commissioner Patterson has to say and see what you think.

Perry opposes Confederate license plates

Credit where it’s due.

Gov. Rick Perry does not support a Confederate flag specialty license plate under consideration by the state Department of Motor Vehicles board, he said in Florida this morning.

In an interview with Bay News 9 following a breakfast fundraiser on St. Pete Beach, he said the proposed plates, brought before the DMV board by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, would bring up too many negative emotions.

“We don’t need to be scraping old wounds,” he said.

[…]

Opponents of the plates, like the liberal group Progress Texas, which collected 22,000 signatures against them, said they hope Perry does get involved and directs his appointees to vote against them.

“Since the governor appointed all nine members on the DMV board, we hope he makes sure they vote down the state -sanctioned use of this racist relic,” said Matt Glazer, the group’s executive director. “We further hope that Jerry Patterson and the Sons of Confederate Veterans will not tie up the courts and legal system on this unnecessary matter so that we can focus on the important issues facing Texas.”

Took him long enough to say something, but at least he said the right thing, and good on him for that. I join Progress Texas and my friend Matt Glazer in the hope that this is the end of it.

Say “No” to Confederate license plates

I’ve been in Texas over 25 years now, but sometimes I just can’t escape my Yankee heritage.

A group of elected officials said Saturday that Texas cannot allow the Confederate flag – which they consider a symbol of oppression – to be put on Texas license plates.

“We cannot allow the state to issue a symbol of intimidation,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said to a crowd of community leaders outside the Civil Courthouse in downtown Saturday.

Lee and other officials plan to go to Austin on Nov. 10, when the Department of Motor Vehicles votes on the design, with petitions and a letter from 17 state legislators to persuade them to vote against the license plates.

“We will not go backward; we are going forward,” Lee said.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said that allowing these license plates would be allowing the people who lost a war to write history. “I’m glad they (the Confederates) lost,” he said. “They were on the wrong side of history.”

Here’s a story about the petitions, a copy of the letter signed by the 19 legislators, a separate letter sent by Rep. Garnet Coleman, and an op-ed in the Statesman, which also ran in the Sunday Chron, against the Confederate plates by Matt Glazer.

Like I said, I’ve been in Texas a long time now, but stuff like this proves to me that you can never truly take the Yankee out of the boy. You can talk all you want about “heritage”, but to me the Confederacy represents a group of people that took up arms against the United States, resulting in the death of over a million people. If they had been successful, the United States as we know it would not exist, and there would be an entirely different country in place as its southern neighbor. (One wonders if either or both countries would be talking about border fences in that scenario.) I cannot understand why anyone would want to commemorate that. Remember it, study it, learn from it, sure, but put it on a license plate? No thanks.

None of this takes into account the racial aspect of the stars and bars, or its sordid history as a symbol of intimidation against African-Americans. Here, my Northernness makes me unqualified to discuss it because I have no experience with it. I can’t say that I ever laid eyes on a Confederate flag until I was in my 20s. But I take seriously the objections and concerns that those who do have a personal history with this have raised, and as Glazer noted in his op-ed, those objections are bipartisan. The reason this is coming to a head now is because a ninth member has been added to the DMV commission that originally voted on this, meaning the next vote will not be a tie. I stand with those who say that this is a bad idea and it should be rejected.

Balancing the budget on the backs of charities

Just another “accounting trick” from our Republican legislature.

Each year, more than 100 organizations — including the University of Texas, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Special Olympics and the Girl Scouts — earn a collective $2.5 million from specialty plates voluntarily purchased by drivers. The $30 plates earn $22 for nonprofits or state agencies, $7.50 goes to the state highway fund, and 50 cents goes to the county in which the vehicle is registered.

Now that money is at risk. In the main budget bill legislators passed last month, officials decided to defer payment on half the money organizations receive through the plates for the next two years. Nonprofits would get $11 per sale. The rest of their money could not be accessed until September 2013 .

The idea is to, in effect, turn that revenue into state income, which helps balance the budget, said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas , which has taken the lead on fighting the proposal and received $330,000 from the fund in 2010.

Nonprofits say the deferred payments will hurt them because they use that money to operate programs and leverage other sources of income, such as federal grants. They also worry that the state could come back in two years and pass another bill directing that money somewhere else.

“Nobody’s taking much comfort in that we’re supposed to get that money in two years,” Stallings said. “The longer it sits there, the more attractive it becomes for the state to want to keep it for some other purpose.”

This is not a new development, by the way. Rep. Geanie Morrison has filed an amendment that would prevent this from happening, so it’s not set in stone yet. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this kind of budget prestidigitation – just ask Rep. Sylvester Turner about the System Benefit Fund, and watch the smoke come out of his ears. Still, this is the sort of thing you should expect when the very idea of raising revenue is anathema. My advice would be to put off getting that “Animal Friendly” license plate till 2013, when the money you spend on it will again go to the cause behind it. We hope, anyway.

A little more room to express yourself

On your vanity license plate.

Texas drivers with more to say on their personalized license plates beyond the current six numbers and letters will have more options.

My Plates, which sells the state-authorized specialty vehicle plates, announced Monday that some plates will be expanded to seven characters starting March 7.

The vendor for the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles says the offer, for the new seven-character plate category called Freedom, will run through early March 14.

Go here to get yourself a seven-letter personalized plate while you can. As they say, “A portion of each purchase goes into the state’s general revenue fund”, and Lord knows it can use all the help it can get.

RIP, statewide smoking ban

I thought it still had a chance after it finally passed out of committee in the Senate, but the statewide smoking ban is officially dead.

[State Sen. Rodney] Ellis held a press conference to announce the death of the statewide smoking ban in public facilities and indoor workplaces after it failed to get enough Senate support.

The announcement comes at the end of a dramatic last minute push over the last two days by Ellis and others, notably Rep. Carol Alvarado who got one bended knee and pleaded with Sen. Mario Gallegos to change his “no” vote. “If you watch the tape you’ll either think I’m a dancer or I was working votes,” said Ellis. “I can assure you, I had very little to dance about.”

Yesterday, Ellis said he was at 20 votes in the Senate, just one short of the 21 needed to bring a bill to the floor. But, things changed between the end of yesterday’s floor session and this morning. “Some of the amendments that I was inclined to take [yesterday] became even more Draconian overnight,” he said. Ellis opted to end the fight rather than “gut the bill to the point where it’s almost meaningless.”

Advocacy groups like Smoke Free Texas vows to continue their fight as they look forward to the 2011 session. “Two years from now, when the Legislature returns,” Smoke Free Texas member and government relations director for the Texas High Plains Division of the American Cancer Society James Gray said in a statement, “more states will be smoke-free, more Texas communities will have passed local moke-free ordinances – and thousands more Texans will be ill or dead from secondhand smoke exposure.”

I thought this was the year for the statewide smoking ban, but it wasn’t to be. It did get farther than last time, so you have to like its chances in 2011. Better luck then, y’all. A statement from Sen. Ellis about this is beneath the fold.

Meanwhile, in other legislative news and notes:

– The handguns-on-campus bill gets new life in the Senate after an identical House bill had been declared dead. I can’t say I’m crazy about this, but given that private schools can opt out, I’m not too worked up about it. I thought at the time of its passage that the original concealed-carry law would be a disaster, and that has not proven to be the case. I suspect in the end this will not be any different. This still has to pass the House, however, and as Floor Pass notes, it may run out of time before that happens.

– Congratulations! It’s a bouncing new state agency.

The Texas Senate, GOP-controlled and usually advocating smaller government, voted this afternoon to create a new state agency — the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles — to help streamline vehicle registrations in the state.

Earlier approved by the House, the measure includes only a transfer of registrations and three other functions from the Texas Department of Transportation.

It does not include vehicle inspection and driver licensing, which legislative leaders had earlier threatened to strip from the embattled Texas Department of Public Safety.

“Maintaining these functions under the TxDOT umbrella does not allow that agency to focus on its core mission” of building and maintaining Texas’ transportation system,” said state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the Senate sponsor of the measure. “By separating these functions into a new agency, we can more rapidly automate the process.”

In addition to the Vehicle Title and Registration Division, the new agency will include the Motor Carrier Division, the Automobile and Vehicle Theft Prevention Division and and Motor Vehicle Division, Corona said. It will not include a transfer of overweight permits.

I thought this was a good idea when I first heard about it. I still do.

– Sen. Patrick’s slightly-watered down sonogram bill got somewhat undiluted in the House State Affairs committee. If we’re lucky, that will make it too rich to pass the Senate again.

HCR50, the states-rights resolution that Governor Perry embraced for the teabagging demonstrations, got derailed, at least for now, on a point of order.

– That burning smell you might have detected earlier today was TxDOT getting grilled by the House over HB300.

– A lot of good environmental bills are still alive.

– When you make a mistake, and you admit you’ve made a mistake, you try to fix it, right? Well, then you’re not the Texas Railroad Commission, which needs for the Lege to clean up after itself.

– And finally, it’s probably a bad idea to imply that your primary opponent’s supporters are somehow akin to prostitutes. Eileen explains. No, that’s not legislative in nature, but I couldn’t pass it up.

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