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Sandra Bland, one year later

The timing of this is tragically appropriate.

Sandra Bland

With confident, and sometimes vulnerable, lyrics, a group of poets and singers Sunday afternoon commemorated the life of [Sandra] Bland, who had been found dead in her Waller County Jail cell three days after her arrest. Authorities ruled the 28-year-old’s death a suicide. More than 75 people assembled over two hours to honor the young woman whose name in the year since had become familiar in households across Texas and the nation, repeated by those in the Black Lives Matter movement as another example of an individual they believed needlessly died following an encounter with law enforcement.

Bland’s name was joined last week by two more, Alton Sterling, who was shot to death by police last Tuesday in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, who was shot by an officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota on Wednesday.

Then, too, a lone sniper attacked in Dallas, fatally shooting five police officers, and injuring seven others.

Speakers remembering Bland sought to digest all of that.

Hannah Bonner, a United Methodist clergy member who helped lead the event, asked everyone to turn and face the nearby brick gates of Prairie View A&M, representations of safety, education and progress, she said.

They were also the gates Bland – who had recently returned to the city and her alma mater to take a job – had driven through when a state trooper “came up fast behind her,” Bonner said.

“And she got over to get out of his way,” Bonner continued. “And he ended up pulling her over right here in this spot. She asserted her rights and he did not respect them, and this week we are seeing through the death of Alton Sterling, through the death of Philando, through the death of these officers in Dallas, and the citizens … we are seeing that the lack of police accountability in this nation is a danger to black lives, but it’s also becoming a danger to other officers. Because when officers are not held accountable for their actions it puts everybody – including other officers – at risk.”

[…]

The Bland case sparked calls for bail reform and brought issues of jail suicide and indigent defense into the headlines.

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith, who is sitting for re-election in November, issued a citizen’s review of his office, as well.

Released in April, the report recommended a new jail, body cameras for officers, medical and mental health screening for all inmates, stress management training for deputies and a ban on demeaning language directed at inmates.

See here for more on the review report, and here for prior blogging on Sandra Bland. To the extent that reforms have been carried out in Waller County, it’s all to the good, but we need more of that everywhere in the state. No one should be in jail simply because they cannot afford to post bond, and no one should be hauled off to jail for being mouthy at a traffic stop. We know what we can do to make things better. We just have to do them. The Lege has a chance to do that in 2017. I can’t say I have much faith, but they’ll be the only game in town. Be prepared to let your legislators know what you want them to do to achieve justice for all.

Rangers investigating Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Busy days for them.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

The Texas Rangers have joined a Travis County District Attorney office criminal probe into state Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ use of staff, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed.

“At the request of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the Texas Rangers are assisting in an investigation into alleged criminal misconduct of Dawnna Dukes,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said in a statement released Tuesday.

The Texas Tribune reported in February that the State Auditor’s Office had launched an investigation after Dukes’ then chief of staff, Mike French, asked whether it was legal for the Austin Democrat to ask staff to work on the annual African-American Heritage Festival. The festival is an event Dukes helped create 17 years ago to raise money for scholarships to Huston-Tillotson University.

The auditor’s office referred the case to Travis County prosecutors on April 15, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

See here for some background. I’m sure if Rep. Dukes winds up getting indicted for something, Ken Paxton and Rick Perry will stand with her in solidarity over these overly politicized investigations. Until then, we’ll see what happens. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Weekend scandal news roundup

If anything comes from the Texas Rangers investigation into his questionable expenditures, Ag Commissioner Sid Miller would be prosecuted in Travis County.

Sid Miller

If embattled Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is prosecuted for misusing government funds, his trial would be in Travis County, officials said Friday, despite a new law that sends some corruption cases against state officials and employees to their home counties.

Before December, the public integrity unit in the Travis County district attorney’s office investigated and prosecuted alleged corruption by state officials and employees. House Bill 1690 changed that, moving investigation of accusations such as bribery, gifts to public servants, perjury and tampering with government records to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Under the new law, charges can be brought in the official or employee’s home county.

The Rangers are investigating Miller for two February 2015 trips he reportedly took on the state’s dime. Liberal advocacy group Progress Texas requested an investigation into Miller’s state-paid trips, following reports that he participated in a rodeo and received an injection called the “Jesus Shot” while he was supposed to be on the job.

But if Miller’s case leads to a prosecution, it wouldn’t be heard in his home county of Erath because the events in question occurred before the new law took effect in December, officials from DPS and the Travis County district attorney’s office told the Tribune.

See here for an apparently inoperative discussion of the issue. I’m sure Miller would prefer it that way, since it will be much easier for him to complain about political motivations if it’s the Travis County DA and not the Erath County DA prosecuting him.

In the meantime, the Travis County DA already has an investigation going on.

The Texas state auditor’s office has referred its investigation into possible misuse of state workers by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes to Travis County prosecutors, the Austin American-Statesman reported late Friday.

The Texas Tribune reported in February that the auditor’s office was investigating Dukes’ use of state workers for her personal project, the African American Heritage Festival, a nonprofit event Dukes has overseen for 17 years.

The auditor’s investigation was prompted by complaints from Dukes’ former chief of staff, Michael French, who approached House officials in January with concerns about the legality of the staff’s work on the festival.

Dukes acknowledged her staff worked on the festival but said their role was minimal. A Jan. 12 email obtained by the Tribune shows Dukes directing her staff to make the festival a priority.

“Festival is all hands on priority,” Dukes wrote in the email. “I don’t want any delays or fall throughs.”

Two members of Dukes’ staff also expressed concerns over personal errands the lawmakers asked them to run, a list that included smoothie runs, vet visits and babysitting. One staffer moved in with Dukes for three months last summer in exchange for helping the Austin Democrat care for her daughter.

Something to keep in mind amid all the calls for Ken Paxton and Sid Miller to resign. Want another reason to be wary of such an outcome? Here you go.

Texas doesn’t have a cabinet form of government, but in Gov. Greg Abbott’s case, it might soon have the next best thing.

Two of the state’s relatively new elected officials — Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — are in deep political trouble at the moment. If worst comes to worst for either or both of those fine gentlemen, Abbott would appoint their replacements.

That’s a lot more say than he had when they won the positions in 2014.

Yeah, I don’t want that. From a purely partisan perspective, it’s much better for Paxton and Miller to stay where they are and be embarrassments to the rest of the GOP than to let Greg Abbott swoop in and clean up the mess.

And finally, let’s get back to Ken Paxton for a minute.

The state is paying thousands of dollars in salaries and benefits to at least two former high-level staffers in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who haven’t worked there for over a month.

Charles “Chip” Roy resigned as first assistant attorney general March 9 but remains on the state’s payroll. He received his full month’s salary of $16,220.62 on April 1, according to the state comptroller, and remains on the payroll as an employee of the state even while working a new job for a national political committee.

Roy declined to comment about the payment arrangement, which the agency confirmed Wednesday after The Dallas Morning News raised questions. Despite its earlier public statement that Roy resigned, an agency spokeswoman said Thursday that he’s also on “emergency leave.”

“Roy resigned on March 9th. He is currently on emergency leave through June 10th,” spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said late Thursday.

If Roy’s arrangement continues until then, he will make $48,660 for the three months of emergency leave.

The agency at first offered no further explanation of the reason for the leave. When asked to clarify the emergency, Meyer said: “I’m not sure the answer.”

Texas’ “emergency leave” law says a state employee who has experienced a death in the family can take time off without seeing his or her pay cut. Agency heads also can approve other reasons for emergency leave if the employee “shows good case to take emergency leave.”

Employment law prohibits state workers from pulling down full-time salaries if they don’t work at least 40 hours a week for a public entity. There is no severance for workers who leave state employment, and the law that gives agency heads discretion in granting administrative leave also caps such time at 32 hours per year.

Austin-based campaign finance and ethics attorney Buck Wood questioned the arrangement.

“So, the emergency wasn’t so great that this person can’t work, or has any problems working? They just want to give her or him the money,” said Wood, who was not told the name of the individual or the agency in question. “This person obviously didn’t provide ‘good cause’ because they’re working. They’re just feeding you a line.”

So what was the emergency? Chip Roy needed health insurance.

Former First Assistant Attorney General Chip Roy on Friday defended receiving thousands of dollars in salary and benefits after leaving the attorney general’s office to join a pro-Ted Cruz super PAC.

[…]

Roy’s statement indicates that he will receive much less than that because he took the leave option partly for medical reasons that were resolved Thursday.

“The terms of my resignation included from the OAG [office of the attorney general] an option for leave beyond my earned vacation and holiday time,” Roy said in the statement. “The primary benefit to me would have been healthcare coverage in light of being in the five-year window after Stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma. My plan has been to go off payroll at OAG using only my earned vacation and holiday time unless it were absolutely necessary to stay on pending the uncertainty of medical tests and subsequent employment. Yesterday I was blessed to receive an all-clear from my Oncologist and my complete departure from the OAG is effective at the time of the expiration of only earned vacation and holiday time.”

So a former top lieutenant of the Texas Attorney General’s office is worried about not having health insurance. Let that sink in for a minute. Then go read what Lize Burr has to say.

Let me put it this way:

Chip Roy was given the option to keep his state-paid health insurance past the normal point of his compensation because he was facing health uncertainty.

Now we come to the genuinely important news this week from the Center for Public Policy Priorities. It’s very simple and completely awful: 1.7 million Texas children live in poverty. 1.7 million children. That means 1.7 million children being raised by adults living in poverty. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, guardians. All in poverty.

And what is one of the greatest threats facing Texas families living in poverty? The cost of health care. Not just the kids’ health care–the parents’ health care. Texas has both the highest number and rate of adults with no medical insurance. These Texans live with an uncertainty that borders on a form of terror. And that is fear is shared by everyone in the home.

Chip Roy probably understands that fear. It’s probably the reason his employer was willing to place him on a special type of leave that continued his state-paid insurance while he was facing health unknowns. That was a humane act that I can understand. However, for a Republican office holder who is committed to the overturning the ACA and is against Medicaid expansion for low income Texas–the rejection of which costs the state of Texas $6 billion in uncompensated care a year–making that gesture isn’t a sign of compassion. It’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

I can’t say it any better than that.

Immigrant harboring law blocked

Good.

A federal judge has blocked part of the state’s omnibus border security bill that makes harboring undocumented immigrants a state crime.

Under a provision of House Bill 11, which went into effect in September, a person commits a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

[…]

In an order signed on Thursday, federal District Judge David Alan Ezra said the plaintiffs would likely succeed on the Supremacy Clause claim, and ruled that state and local officials had no authority to enforce the harboring provision until a final decision on the case is made.

“In this case, Plaintiffs risk subjection to criminal penalties under laws that might be pre-empted by federal law and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution,” he wrote. “Thus, the Court finds that Plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreparable harm.”

[…]

Although MALDEF was victorious on one front, the judge rejected the group’s claim that the bill violates the plaintiffs right to due process and equal protection. Perales said the equal protection argument was made because the bill did not have a “rational purpose” and was arbitrary.

But in his order, Ezra said that although HB 11 might be pre-empted, the harboring provision fits in with the state’s intended goal of securing its borders.

“HB 11’s harboring provisions are rationally related to their stated purpose of ‘strengthen[ing] the state’s border security measures and help[ing to] stem the rising tide of human smuggling and human trafficking in Texas,’” he wrote.

See here for the background. The concern over this bill was that churches who work with immigrants, immigrants’ rights groups, and landlords who rent to immigrants may be criminalized by it. The plaintiffs in this case were in fact two landlords and the director of an immigrant services agency. The AG’s office didn’t say what they would do, but given their usual track record, it’s hard to imagine them not appealing the injunction. In either case, this will take awhile to resolve. Trail Blazers has more.

Second complaint filed against Miller

You do the crime

Sid Miller

A liberal advocacy group has filed another complaint against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who found himself in hot water recently over possible misuse of state and campaign funds.

The complaint, filed Wednesday by Progress Texas,asks the Texas Rangers to investigate Miller for using campaign funds to pay for a flight to Mississippi, where he won money in a rodeo competition. Miller, who said he met with donors while in Mississippi, has said he has done nothing wrong.

The group also has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Miller’s trip was revealed by a Houston Chroniclestory last week. Earlier this year, the Chronicle also reported that Miller may have used state funds to take a trip to Oklahoma for a controversial medical treatment. Miller reimbursed the state for that trip.

“This isn’t Sid Miller’s first rodeo,” said Lucy Stein, advocacy director of Progress Texas. “Miller has yet again demonstrated a pattern of abusing his office by misusing taxpayer and campaign funds.”

See here for the background. As with the previous complaint, the Texas Rangers would do the up front investigation before handing anything off to a District Attorney. The Rangers have now agreed to do their part, and Miller is totes sad that everybody is picking on him.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Wednesday called complaints filed against him over questions surrounding two taxpayer-funded out-of-state trips “harassment.”

The complaints were “filed by a very liberal left-wing organization, Progress Texas. They are just harassing me,” the Stephenville Republican said in a phone interview. “There’s nothing absolutely illegal or wrong with either of those trips … There is absolutely no validity to the complaint.”

[…]

One of the trips Miller took was to Oklahoma, where he received a controversial injection known as “the Jesus Shot” that is supposed to cure all pain for life.

When asked by the Houston Chronicle about the trip, Miller said he made it so he could tour the Oklahoma National Stockyards and meet with Oklahoma officials. But when those officials were contacted by the Chronicle, they said they had no plans to meet him in their state that day. Internal emails from the Agriculture Department later indicated that Miller had planned the trip around receiving the shot. After details about the trip became public, Miller said he would repay the state for the trip out of an “abundance of caution.”

Miller also traveled to Mississippi in February on the state’s dime. While there, Miller, who is a calf roper, participated in the National Dixie Rodeo. When asked about the trip, the Agriculture Department gave contradictory reports to media outlets.

I mean, come on, y’all. Why do there have to be all these rules and things taking all the joy out of life? Why can’t Sid Miller just be the Ag Commissioner he was always meant to be, without these professional busybodies poking their noses into his business? It’s just not fair, I tell you. The Trib and the Chron, which quotes a DPS spokesperson saying that the Travis County DA’s office will get this hot potato if there’s anything to it, have more.

More on the TCRP voter registration lawsuit

Here’s the first news story I’ve seen about that voter registration lawsuit that was filed two weeks ago.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The lead plaintiff is Jarrod Stringer of San Antonio, who relocated from Arlington in 2014. When he updated his driver license address online, Stringer believed that his voter registration records would be updated as well, the lawsuit said. That November, when he attempted to vote in Bexar County, Stringer was told he wasn’t registered here and was issued a limited ballot with only statewide candidates, the lawsuit stated.

The same thing happened to Benjamin Hernandez in 2014, when he moved from Odessa to Dallas, the lawsuit said. He, too, was issued a provisional ballot, “but later received notice that his vote was not counted.”

The four named plaintiffs each complained that they didn’t realize until it was time to vote that their voter registration wasn’t updated, as they believed.

“Even though the state does not use information from online change-of-address transactions to properly register a voter at his or her new address, these transmissions may be used to cancel a voter’s prior registration record,” the petition added.

[…]

Last year, the state rejected the plaintiffs’ proposals for dealing with transactions where the patron answers both yes and no to the prompt about registering to vote. The plaintiffs recommended automatically using the affirmative response, but the state said that could lead to registration of ineligible noncitizens.

The attorney general’s office also told the plaintiffs that “no state agency is in a position to provide online voter registration absent a legislative directive and appropriation for that purpose — nor does any applicable law so require.”

But plaintiffs’ attorney Mimi Marziani of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin said no legislation is required to remedy the problems.

“Texas is violating federal law and the U.S. Constitution by failing to take common-sense steps to register eligible voters who update their information online,” Marziani said Friday.

“Voters are supposed to be allowed to register to vote at their motor vehicle office at the same time they get a driver license or update their driver license. Under the law, that opportunity to register to vote has to be simultaneous … to the driver license process,” she said.

When applicants respond affirmatively to the statement “I want to register to vote,” Marziani said “nothing happens. You are not actually put on the rolls.”

The plaintiffs “are looking for an injunction that requires the state to simply transfer the information it’s already collecting online (at DPS) to state election officials,” Marziani said.

See here for the background. The plaintiffs aren’t exactly asking for a lot here, and it’s hardly unreasonable to think that when one answers Yes to an “I want to register to vote” prompt that one will in fact be registered. As the story notes, the vast majority of these problems could be avoided with a bit of double-checking. The state just needs to follow the law.

Former Trooper Encinia pleads not guilty in Sandra Bland perjury case

As expected.

Sandra Bland

A former Texas trooper pleaded not guilty to charges he lied about his actions last July while arresting Sandra Bland, whose death in Waller County’s jail three days later sparked a national outcry from civil rights activists.

Dressed in a gray suit and tie and flanked by his attorneys, former Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian T. Encinia said little Tuesday afternoon during a minutes-long arraignment hearing before State District Judge Albert M. McCaig Jr.

[…]

In an arrest affidavit, Encinia said he had ordered Bland out of the car to safely continue the investigation.

A Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia in January of misdemeanor perjury based on that statement, according to a special prosecutor in the case. If convicted, Encinia could spend up to a year in jail and have to pay a $4,000 fine.

Earlier this month, DPS Director Steve McCraw formally fired Encinia, saying he violated the department’s courtesy policy and procedures. Encinia is appealing the termination to the Texas Public Safety Commission. Separately, the trooper is named in a wide-ranging civil lawsuit filed by Bland’s family that alleges negligence and wrongful death. Attorneys representing Encinia in that case have asked – unsuccessfully – that it be delayed while his criminal trial plays out. The civil trial is set to begin next January.

Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and older sister, Shante Needham, both appeared at the arraignment, along with their lawyer, Cannon Lambert.

“To come all this way, I needed to do it,” said Bland’s mother after the hearing, as she embraced those who’d gathered in support of her and her family.

“I’m hopeful things go in the direction that [Encinia] eventually gets detained and he can remain there for the maximum amount of time that perjury carries,” Needham said. “At the end of the day, my sister, my mother’s daughter, is no longer here anymore. He needs to be held accountable for his actions.”

See here and here for the background. The Trib quotes Encinia’s defense attorney blaming his indictment on a “runaway” grand jury. I dunno, I thought that video of the traffic stop made it quite clear that at the very least, Encinia was unprofessional and antagonistic. We can argue if his behavior qualifies as perjury, but let’s see what happens in the courtroom first. And let’s not overlook the fact, as Grits notes, a law enforcement officer being called to account at all like this is quite unusual. A conviction, if it comes to that, would be even more so. The Press has more.

Lawsuit filed over voter registration problems

From the Texas Civil Rights Project:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a lawsuit filed this morning in a San Antonio federal court, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) challenged voter registration procedures at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). As the Complaint explains, Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal law by refusing to register eligible voters who submit changes through the DPS website. TCRP and its co-counsel Waters & Kraus, LLP represent several Texas voters who have been disenfranchised by the state’s unlawful practices.

Under the National Voter Registration Act, eligible voters have a right to register to vote every time they update or renew their driver’s license with DPS. The Plaintiffs, all eligible voters, attempted to update their driver’s licenses and voter registration records through DPS’ website but the state disregarded their registration request. When the Plaintiffs tried to vote, they were not allowed to cast a regular ballot.

“I felt that my voice was taken away from me when my vote wasn’t counted,” said Totysa Watkins, an Irving health insurance representative and mother of two. “Voting has always been something I value and is a right I have instilled in my children. Texas should not be able to take that away.”

Between September 2013 and May 2015, the state recorded complaints from nearly 2,000 voters who completed an online transaction with DPS and mistakenly believed that their registration records were updated too. These voters represent a mere fraction of the total number of Texas voters injured as a result of the state’s policies. Indeed, TCRP received numerous reports of additional voters who were disenfranchised in Texas’ primary election due to voter registration problems at DPS. Until Texas reforms its registration practices, countless voters will be excluded from the democratic process every election.

“The NVRA is very clear: The state must update registration records every time a voter updates his or her driver’s license files,” stated Peter Kraus, founding partner of Waters & Kraus, LLP. “We are asking Texas to take simple, commonsense steps to modernize its voter registration procedures and comply with longstanding federal law.”

“TCRP is a champion for equality and justice. We will fight to ensure that historically disenfranchised Texans are no longer shut out of the democratic process.” Mimi Marziani, Executive Director of TCRP, added: “Our clients updated their information with DPS and should have been placed on the rolls. Texas cannot ignore voting rights because it deems them inconvenient.”

For twenty-five years, TCRP has used impact litigation and advocacy to fight for equality and justice in Texas. Since its founding, TCRP has brought over 2,300 cases, challenging institutional discrimination, reforming systems of criminal justice, ensuring equal access to government services and vindicating the civil rights of countless marginalized Texans. Today — with offices in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and in the Rio Grande Valley; dozens of high-caliber attorneys and other professionals on staff; and an extensive network of pro bono counsel and community allies — TCRP has become the largest and most influential civil rights organization in the Lone Star State.

See here for a copy of the lawsuit. Apparently, getting an updated voter registration card is as hard to do as getting an election identification certificate. It’s wholly appropriate that this was announced the same day – within an hour or so, really – of Greg Abbott’s blithe dismissal of President Obama’s apt criticism that people like Greg Abbott are perfectly happy with Texas’ pathetic rate of voter participation. Maybe another loss in court will help drive the point home. The Current has more.

Shots fired at Sen. Whitmire’s office

Jesus.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire said Thursday afternoon he believes the gun used in the predawn shooting of his Houston-area office was likely an AR-15 assault rifle.

The Houston Democrat’s office was fired on at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday. No one was injured in the shooting, which was first reported by KHOU.

“[The bullets] were .223” he said, referring to the caliber of the slugs found. A somber-sounding Whitmire said the situation is “serious” as investigators are still determining whether his office was the sole target.

“We’ll take precautions. But it’s part of the job, unfortunately, in this day and time,” he said. “They are checking in this general area to see if anyone else received any gunfire. We don’t know yet. I don’t know yet.”

[…]

Whitmire said that as a lawmaker he gets his fair share of threats, but no single person or group immediately came to mind as a possible suspect in the shooting.

He said his position as chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee opens him up to criticism.

“I deal with some controversial issues,” he said. “[People] have expectations that I can’t meet or don’t want to meet. But it’d be total speculation to say where it came from.”

More from the Chron.

The Houston Police Department and the Texas Rangers are investigating the incident.

“No one was injured and the building was unoccupied,” HPD Spokesman Kese Smith said.

Police are trying to determine whether any surveillance cameras recorded the incident, Smith said, adding that 9-1-1 call logs show a neighbor reported hearing a “loud banging sound or possible gun shots” at around 12:30 a.m.

Throughout the day, small clusters of curious neighbors gathered outside the office, a two-story house with white wood siding, watching watch police and Texas Rangers comb the scene.

One bullet had torn through a transom supporting the structure’s wrap-around porch, ricocheting into the front of the structure. Bullets had also smashed through a window above the front door, a shutter, and through the side wall of the house.

Thankfully, no one was in the office, which is a really nice historic two-story house, at the time. I sure hope this was something random and not targeted, but we’ll see what the investigation says. And while these shots were fired at an office, which one might reasonably expect to be unoccupied late at night, it’s in a residential area. A stray bullet could have easily gone into a neighboring yard or house. Let’s hope they find the asshole who did this.

If you don’t have ID, you probably can’t get it

Just another reminder that our voter ID law sucks.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

At the time, civil rights groups and Democrats pointed out that hundreds of thousands of Texans lacked a driver license or other government-sanctioned forms of photo ID, and that cost and access could be a barrier to acquiring them. In one of the few concessions to opponents, Republicans agreed to create a new form of ID, the election identification certificate (EIC). The EIC is free to any qualifying voter as long as you can produce some combination of an array of underlying documentation, such as a birth certificate, Social Security card and proof of residence.

But years into the voter ID experiment, the EIC has been all but forgotten — by voters and by elections administrators alike.

In the three years since Texas began issuing EICs, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) has issued only 653 EICs across the state — only one ID for every 1,200 Texans who lack voter ID.

In a survey of 46 counties that issue their own EICs, the Observer found that many elections administrators had little to no familiarity with the ID, and some expressed surprise that anyone would inquire about it.

Most of Texas’ 254 counties have a DPS driver license bureau equipped to issue EICs. But at least 68 counties in rural, sparsely-populated parts of the state lack a DPS office. Of those, DPS deploys a mobile unit to 22. The remaining 46 counties issue EICs through their county offices. We were able to speak with elections personnel in 32 of those counties.

Employees at three of the counties we called — Kinney, LaSalle and Lynn counties – said they had never heard of EICs, and couldn’t direct us to place to learn more. (DPS has information on its website.) LaSalle County has issued three EICs since 2013, according to DPS data.

“About what?” said an employee at Lynn County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office, when the Observer called to ask about obtaining an EIC. “I have no idea. We do vehicle registration here — I’ve never heard of that.”

Nobody could have seen this coming, blah blah blah. The federal lawsuit against Texas’ voter ID law is awaiting an en banc ruling from the Fifth Circuit, and from there of course it will go to SCOTUS, which may or may not have a ninth member by then. There’s also a lawsuit in state court, which is still in the starting gates. Barring anything unusual, the law will be in effect this November. If you don’t have a drivers license and aren’t eligible to vote by mail, the odds are pretty good you won’t be able to vote.

MALDEF sues over provision of border bill

Worth watching.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, filed suit Sunday against Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and the Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees the DPS. The group alleges that the state has violated the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause because immigration enforcement is only a federal responsibility. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two San Antonio landlords and the director of an immigrant services agency, also says the new provision violates the plaintiffs’ guarantee to due process.

The provision in question is part of House Bill 11, a sweeping border security measure that went into effect in September.

Under that provision, people commit a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

MALDEF said the law was “enacted on dubious advice” because lawmakers were warned that the harboring provision would not withstand a constitutional challenge.

“The U.S. Supreme Court, as well as federal courts in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina have all struck down, as unconstitutional, state-enacted immigrant harboring laws like the one in HB 11,” Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation and the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, said in a statement. “Texas already has enough laws to protect us from human smuggling without targeting religious and nonprofit organizations that care for immigrants.”

[…]

Perales said recent testimony by McCraw at the state Capitol made filing the litigation more urgent.

“We do know from public statements that were made by Director McCaw that they are moving forward to implement the harboring law so now was the time to challenge it,” she said.

The lawsuit specifically cites McCraw’s testimony from last week where he told lawmakers about the agency’s preparations to further implement HB 11.

“Yes, we’ve educated [and] we’ve trained,” the filing quotes McCraw as telling the committee.

TrailBlazers has a copy of the lawsuit and some further detail.

Lawmakers said their goal was to target those engaged in the criminal business of smuggling. But codifying that intent proved difficult, as many raised concerns that pastors, immigration-rights groups and others could be roped in with felony charges.

“The bill that was filed … didn’t account for a lot situations that could put family members or people innocently going about their day in the sights of prosecution,” said Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass.

So Republicans and Democrats – along with a spate of attorneys – teamed up to allay those concerns.

They ended up focusing on those who “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.” The person would have to have the intent of obtaining financial gain.

That work helped the bill receive significant Democratic support. But it didn’t erase all worries.

“We needed to rifle shot that thing a little bit more,” said Nevarez, who worked on the language and still voted for the bill. “We tried, and it may be that this lawsuit is a good way of showing us how we need to tailor the statute a little bit better.”

[…]

The MALDEF suit focuses on two landlords – one in Farmers Branch – who don’t ask their tenants to prove their immigration status before renting, along with an aid group that provides shelter and legal services to those who are in the country illegally.

Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who also worked on the bill , said a prosecutor would be “ill-advised” to pursue those cases. He added: “The goal was to be precise in targeting people that were part of smuggling networks, part of a criminal element.”

That’s certainly a reasonable goal, but it sounds like it may not have been met. We know that immigration issues will be on the front burner for the 2017 Legislature, though much of that is about pandering and fearmongering. If we can get past that, perhaps this issue can be addressed constructively, whether or not the court has ruled on it by then. I hope so, anyway. The Current has more.

Trooper Encinia turns himself in

As expected.

Sandra Bland

Six months after arresting Sandra Bland during a now-infamous traffic stop, state trooper Brian Encinia on Thursday returned to the Waller County jail where Bland died – this time to surrender to authorities on perjury charges.

Encinia, 30, surrendered to Texas Rangers after a Waller County judge signed his arrest warrant, Sheriff R. Glenn Smith said. The Rangers took the trooper to the jail, where he arrived in a gray pickup at 3:26 p.m.

Encinia was fingerprinted, photographed and released on a $2,500 bond.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, one of five special prosecutors, said the grand jury’s indictment stemmed from Encinia’s statement, in an affidavit he filed in Bland’s arrest, that he pulled her out of her Hyundai Azera to “further conduct a safe traffic investigation.”

“They just didn’t believe it,” Jordan said, referring to the grand jurors.

Bland’s family and activists who have followed the case said the perjury charge was insufficient. Geneva Reed-Veal, Bland’s mother, compared the indictment to a “slap on the wrist.”

Cannon Lambert, who is representing the family in a civil lawsuit, questioned why the grand jury had not agreed on harsher charges, such as battery or false arrest. Encinia’s lawyer, Larkin Eakin, said Thursday the trooper planned to plead not guilty. The grand jury, Eakin said, misinterpreted Encinia’s statement.

“He is obviously upset but feels very much that he’s not guilty, that that particular phrase he used (in his affidavit) was proper,” he said.

See here for the background. He will be pleading not guilty, while also appealing his termination from DPS. I don’t want to make too big a deal about it because the respectful way that Trooper Encinia was treated during his arrest and arraignment should be the default and not the exception, but the contrast between how he was treated and how Sandra Bland was treated couldn’t be more stark. As for the matter of whether the charge against Encinia represents some kind of justice or not, I’ll simply note that such a question is predicate on whether or not he gets convicted. As commenter Steve Houston notes, there is considerable doubt about that. Texas Monthly has more.

Grand jury indicts trooper in Sandra Bland case

Wow.

Sandra Bland

Waller County grand jurors indicted Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia on a single charge of perjury Wednesday because they did not believe he was telling the truth about his actions during the arrest of Sandra Bland, special prosecutor Darrell Jordan confirmed.

The charge against Encinia stems from the trooper’s statement at the time of her arrest on July 10 about why he felt he needed to pull her out of her own vehicle, Jordan told The Texas Tribune.

“The statement in the probable cause statement is that Officer Encinia pulled her out of her car to further the traffic stop investigation,” Jordan said.

As a result of the indictment – the only one issued by the grand jury in the Bland case – a warrant will be issued for Encinia’s arrest. It was not immediately known whether Encinia will turn himself into authorities. If convicted of the charge, Encinia could face up to a year in the Waller County Jail and a $4,000 fine.

“This grand jury is done,” Jordan said. “We just came to do our job to present the evidence and they came back with an indictment and we’ll go forward to seek justice on behalf of Waller County.”

The grand jury had previously declined to indict anyone, including county jail employees, in the death of Sandra Bland, then reconvened on Wednesday to continue considering charges. I have no idea what the evidence looks like right now, but it’s not too hard to imagine the possibility of the trooper fudging his facts. We will have to wait to see what the prosecution’s case looks like, and to see how Officer Encinia responds. The Chron, the Press, which has a copy of Officer Encinia’s sworn statement, Newsdesk, ThinkProgress, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: More from Grits for Breakfast.

State strikes out again on Syrian refugees

0 for 2 and counting.

A judge on Wednesday denied a renewed attempt by Texas officials to block nine Syrian refugees from entering the state, describing the state’s safety concerns as “largely speculative hearsay.”

“The (state) has failed to show by competent evidence that any terrorists actually have infiltrated the refugee program, much less that these particular refugees are terrorists intent on causing harm,” U.S. District Judge David Godbey wrote in the two-page ruling.

The ruling came just hours after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a request for an emergency order blocking the nine refugees — a couple and their six children as well as a woman seeking to be reunited with her mother — who are scheduled to come to Houston.

The request was another stunning about-face for Paxton, who last week withdrew a similar request just two days after filing it.

In a court filing, the Republican said he filed the new motion after hearing two public speeches by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee and receiving a sworn statement from Texas Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Robert Bodisch.

“Evidence came to light after (a hearing earlier this week) that terrorist organizations have infiltrated the very refugee program that is central to the dispute,” Paxton wrote.

It was unclear if Paxton was only seeking more information about the refugees, as his office said would be his priority going forward, or if he had completely changed his mind and decided to try blocking refugees altogether due to pressure from colleagues such as Gov. Greg Abbott.

See here for the previous update. Lord only knows what was going through Paxton’s head, but it might be interesting if someone asked Mike McCaul, who has been reasonably pragmatic of late, what he thinks of Paxton’s filing. Be that as it may, let’s hope this is the end of it till January. You can see Paxton’s TRO request here, and Judge Godbey’s denial here. The Trib and Trail Blazers have more.

DNA mixtures

Grits reports on the latest developments in forensics at a hearing of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and what it means to the legal system in Texas and elsewhere.

First, a bit of background. DNA testing looks at two metrics on X and Y axes: Whether alleles are present at various loci, and the quantity of DNA available for testing at that spot. (The latter is complicated by allele drop-in, drop-out, and stacking, terms I’m only beginning to understand.) When examining the peak height of DNA quantity on the test results, DPS’ old method did not impose a “stochastic” threshold, which as near as I can tell is akin to the mathematical sin of interpreting a poll without ensuring a random sample. (The word “stochastic” was tossed around blithely as though everyone knew what it meant.) Basically, DPS did not discard data which did not appear in sufficient quantity; their new threshold is more than triple the old one.

That new methodology could change probability ratios for quite a few other cases, the panel predicted. One expert showed slides demonstrating how four different calculation methods could generate wildly different results, to my mind calling into question how accurate any of them are if they’re all considered valid. Applying the stochastic threshold in one real-world case which he included as an example reduced the probability of a match from one in 1.40 x 109 to one in 38.6. You can see where a jury might view those numbers differently.

Not every calculation will change that much and some will change in the other direction. The application of an improper statistical method generates all types of error, not just those which benefit defendants. There may be folks who were excluded that become undetermined, or undetermined samples may become suspects when they’re recalculated. The panel seemed to doubt there were examples where a positive association would flip all the way to excluded, but acknowledged it was mathematically possible.

DPS has identified nearly 25,000 cases where they’ve analyzed DNA mixtures. Since they typically represent about half the state’s caseload, it was estimated, the total statewide may be double that when it’s all said and done. Not all of those are problematic and in some cases the evidence wasn’t used in court. But somebody has to check. Ch. 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure grants a right to counsel for purposes of seeking a DNA test, including when, “although previously subjected to DNA testing, [the evidence] can be subjected to testing with newer testing techniques that provide a reasonable likelihood of results that are more accurate and probative than the results of the previous test.” So there’s a certain inevitability about the need to recalculate those numbers.

See here for the Texas Tribune story that Grits references – WFAA also covered the hearing – and be sure to read the whole post. There’s a lot of scientific info out there if you google “DNA Mixtures”, but I’m not informed enough to point you to something useful. As noted, DNA is still very exact when comparing known samples, or in isolating a suspect from a rape kit. It’s when there are multiple unknown DNA donors that things get complicated, and there isn’t a single standard for that now. What we do know is that the method that had been used to provide match/elimination probabilities were not accurate, and some number of convictions in Texas and elsewhere will need to be reviewed in light of reinterpreted DNA evidence. Ultimately, questions about what the standards are and how the evidence should be analyzed will be settled by the courts, from the CCA to SCOTUS. This will be a long and occasionally messy process, and we’re at the very beginning of it. On the plus side, this should provide all kinds of fodder for mystery writers and TV showrunners. So at least there’s that.

DPS seeks dismissal of Sandra Bland lawsuit

The expected response by the defendants.

Sandra Bland

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Trooper Brian Encinia filed motions Tuesday to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit in the death of Sandra Bland, five days after Waller County filed court papers rebutting claims that it was responsible for her death in the county jail.

DPS claimed immunity under the 11th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which limits the ability of the federal court system to hear lawsuits against states, according to court filings.

Encinia, the DPS trooper who pulled Bland over for not signaling a lane change and then arrested her after an altercation, also claimed immunity under different rules protecting the government from lawsuits. Encinia, who is still on administrative duty, also asserted that the plaintiff, Bland’s mother, needs to point out which specific constitutional rights he violated during Bland’s traffic stop.

[…]

In a Sept. 4 response, the county denied that they had “any actual knowledge of” or were “deliberately indifferent to any alleged serious risk of harm to Sandra Bland.”

The county also states that Bland’s suicide assessments did not indicate she faced a substantial or serious risk of suicide. Instead “Sandra Bland simply stated she had attempted to commit suicide by taking pills on one occasion in 2014, after losing a baby, and she confirmed that she was not suicidal.”

In response to questions about the claim, Larry Simmons, the attorney representing the Waller County defendants, said Wednesday that the “pleadings are going to speak for themselves.”

The county’s response also states Bland was treated with “courtesy and respect” and “was provided benefits and accommodations beyond what the law and County policies required.”

The county’s motion also supports severing the state defendants – DPS and Encinia – from the county defendants and trying both cases separately.

See here for the background. A copy of the DPS motion is at the Chron link above. I don’t know anything about the relevant case law, but a blanket immunity claim strikes me as too broad. I’m not sure why a lawsuit like this would not be allowed to proceed, but we’ll see what the courts have to say.

Sandra Bland’s mother sues DPS and Waller County

Can’t say this is a surprise.

Sandra Bland

The mother of Sandra Bland filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Texas Department of Public Safety trooper and several others she deems responsible for the death of her 28-year-old daughter at the Waller County Jail in mid-July.

Geneva Reed-Veal is seeking a jury trial and unspecified monetary damages in her wrongful death suit against DPS trooper Brian Encinia; Waller County jail screening officers Elsa Magnus and Oscar Prudente; Waller County; and the DPS.

“What happened to Sandy Bland?” Reed-Veal told members of the press, asking the question she hopes the lawsuit can answer and echoing a hashtag that has gained traction on social media: #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland.

Reed-Veal rubbed the back of her daughter Sharon Cooper as she explained that although the family still hasn’t seen enough evidence to convince them that Bland’s death was a suicide, they are prepared to accept whatever the truth turns out to be. Cooper emphasized that whatever the cause, Bland should not have died in jail.

“What remains constant is that she should not have been there in the first place,” Cooper said.

[…]

According to the 46-page lawsuit, Encinia “demonstrated a deliberate indifference to and conscious disregard for the constitutional rights and safety of Sandra Bland.” It noted that Encinia previously was reprimanded for “unprofessional conduct” and faulted Texas DPS for improper training, saying the agency should have known he “exhibited a pattern of escalating encounters with the public.”

In addition, the lawsuit accuses Magnus and Prudente, screening officers at the Waller County Jail, for inadequately monitoring Bland and failing to provide proper medical care when she was found injured in her cell.

Waller County deserves blame, according to the lawsuit, for not providing sufficient training to jail staff for handling inmates “who are mentally disabled and/or potentially suicidal.” The suit also said the jail failed to have a procedure for jailers to make face-to-face observations of all inmates at least once every hour.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit at the link above. As you know, I agree completely with Ms. Cooper about Sandra Bland not belonging in jail. We can’t undo what happened to Sandra Bland, but we can sure do everything we can to find out how and why it happened, and to make sure it never happens again. The Trib and the Current have more.

Sandra Bland’s death being investigated as a homicide

Doesn’t mean that’s how it will be ruled, but it’s at least a sign that it’s being taken with appropriate seriousness.

Sandra Bland

The probe into Sandra Bland’s hanging death inside a Texas jail — which a medical examiner ruled a suicide last week — now includes the possibility of murder.

“This is being treated like a murder investigation,” Elton Mathis, Waller County’s district attorney, said at a press conference Monday.

Mathis said he made the determination after talking to Bland’s family and to those who saw her last, including the bail bondsman, who was among the last to hear from her alive.

[…]

While the Harris County medical examiner ruled her death consistent with a suicide, Mathis said it is now being treated as a murder.

“There are too many questions that need to be resolved. Ms. Bland’s family does make valid points. She did have a lot of things going on in her life for good,” Mathis said.

The district attorney also said the dashboard video of the traffic stop in Prairie View that was retrieved from Encinia’s patrol car would be released on Tuesday.

After viewing the video, Mathis said Bland was not “compliant” with the officer’s directions.

“Sandra Bland was very combative. It was not a model traffic stop. It was not a model person that was stopped,” Mathis said.

See here for some background. I am sure that dashcam video will be all over social media later today. The Chron story provides a different assessment of its contents.

Mathis said he has requested scientific testing from the jail, including touch DNA evidence on the plastic trash bag that medical examiners in Harris County said Bland used to kill herself.

Mathis outlined some of the details of his investigation at a news conference Monday afternoon, hours after a separate news conference, where advocates for Bland raised questions into her death.

Advocates representing Bland’s relatives also said dash cam footage of her traffic stop in Prairie View contradicted information provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The family also called for the Department of Justice to investigate the circumstances of her arrest on July 10 and death three days later in the Waller County Jail, which officials have ruled a suicide.

“We know we’re standing at a crime scene,” said Jamal Bryant, an advocate for Bland’s relatives, outside the jail.

At a news conference, Bryant, a pastor at the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, said the footage, which had been shown to Bland’s relatives and their lawyer, but which has not yet been released publicly, showed the DPS trooper stopping her, walking to her car, and then speaking to her while she smoked a cigarette.

The trooper, 30-year-old Brian Encinia, told her to put it out, and she refused, Bryant said.

Bland began videotaping the stop with her cell phone, which enraged the trooper, Bryant said.

“You can’t see at any point where Bland attacks the officer,” Bryant said.

DPS officials have said that during the stop, Bland became “uncooperative” and kicked the officer. She was arrested and charged with assault of a public servant.

Cannon Lambert, a Chicago-based attorney representing the family, said Sunday on a Washington D.C. radio show that Encinia tried to pull Bland from the car when she reached for her cell phone. When that didn’t work, he pulled out a TASER and pointed it at her, and she voluntarily got out of the car, he said.

The dash cam did not record the entire encounter between the trooper and Bland.

I hope it’s enough to settle the arguments, but I suspect it will intensify them instead. We’ll see what it has to tell us.

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.

Abbott signs bill to remove Public Integrity Unit from Travis County DA office

As expected.

Ignoring calls for a veto, Gov. Greg Abbott signed controversial legislation this week that will allow elected and appointed state officials and state employees to bypass Austin prosecutors when they are accused of public corruption.

Abbott, a Republican, signed the bill Thursday without making a statement or staging a public signing ceremony. His press office did not respond to requests for comment left via email and over the phone.

The unique carve-out for politicians and state employees drew fire throughout the recently concluded session of the Texas Legislature. John Courage, state chairman of the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, said he believes the bill is unconstitutional and could be challenged in court by various watchdog groups.

“They’ve set up a separate legal process for the legislators,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. A normal person would be tried in the location where they committed the offense and not the legislators. It’s just an unfair, unbalanced system.”

That’s the first I’ve heard of a potential lawsuit. I get the rationale – Texas lawmakers have created a separate system of justice for themselves, which is arguably unconstitutional. I wish the Trib had quoted a law professor to get an opinion on that. There are other issues with having the DPS in charge of these investigations, and empowering local prosecutors may not be a better deal for legislators than what they have now. I continue to believe that this is a scandal waiting to happen. We’ll see how long that takes.

DPS, investigate thyself

What could possibly go wrong?

Set to take over statewide corruption investigations, the Texas Department of Public Safety must decide whether it will investigate itself.

In April, DPS Director Steve McCraw demanded that the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit re-start a probe into a no-bid border-security contract issued by his agency.

The director had objected to media stories about the deal and wanted the probe brought to a conclusion. But the head of the Public Integrity Unit responded that his agency was so devastated by a funding veto by former Gov. Rick Perry that it couldn’t reopen the probe even with financial assistance.

Now, thanks to a bill that awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature, DPS on Sept. 1 will take charge of the integrity unit’s investigations.

On Friday, the agency declined to say whether a look at the border-security contract with Abrams Learning and Information Systems would be among the ones it would pursue.

“I confirmed that the bill has not been signed yet, so it (is) still considered pending legislation, which we do not discuss,” Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said in an email.

In an email Sunday, Abbott’s press secretary, Amelia Chasse, declined to comment when asked whether Abbott plans to sign or veto, House Bill 1690.

However, a left-leaning watchdog group said the conundrum McCraw faces with the Abrams investigation starkly illustrates problems that the Legislature ignored when it passed the bill.

“Having DPS investigate its own contract with Abrams illustrates how the legislature turned the Public Integrity Unit into the Keystone Kops,” Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, said in an email. “But why stop there? Why doesn’t McCraw hire Abrams to investigate the contract? Then if Abrams finds evidence of its own wrongdoing, McCraw can refer the case to Abrams’s homeboy prosecutors back in Virginia. The whole thing is a farce.”

See here for the background. It should be noted that Abbott hasn’t yet signed the bill to move the Public Integrity Unit to DPS yet, so there is a way to work this out in a non-ridiculous fashion. I can’t imagine that he won’t sign it, however, so good luck to DPS figuring out how to untangle that mess. And for a Governor that made “ethics reform” an emergency item this session, he sure got some crappy results from his legislators. You’d think he’d have more to say about that.

Stickland not out of the woods

Despite what he says.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

A state investigation into allegations that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland improperly registered witnesses to testify on a bill banning red light cameras has cleared Stickland of wrongdoing, his office announced Monday. But two officials involved in the investigation disagreed with the Bedford Republican’s declaration Monday evening.

“I can confirm that we have met with the Texas Rangers working on the case and the investigation is still ongoing,” said Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit at the Travis district attorney’s office. Asked about Stickland’s claim that he was personally cleared of wrongdoing, Cox said, “I would not agree with that statement.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee referred an investigation into the hearing to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Stickland has denied any wrongdoing.

“Late Friday I spoke with one of the Rangers assigned to the case,” said Trey Trainor, Stickland’s lawyer. “I was told that the investigation was over and that I would not be hearing from DPS anymore.”

Trainor said the Travis County district attorney’s office declined to take up the case based on DPS’s evidence.

Cox said Trainor’s assessment is not accurate.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger also said the investigation remains ongoing.

“At this time, this investigation is under final review by the Texas Ranger management team,” Vinger said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I really have no idea why his lawyer would say something like this if he wasn’t one hundred percent sure he was right. Maybe he just jumped the gun a little, in which case no harm done, but if he’s wrong, you’d have to wonder about his competence. Note that even if this investigation ends with no charges being filed, Stickland may still face sanctions from the House, though in that case I wouldn’t expect much. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

Point/counterpoint on online voter registration

Point.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texans can use www.Texas.gov for nearly 1,000 services, such as applying for concealed handgun licenses and driver records, and renewing driver licenses, vehicle registrations and many state-required professional licenses. It is time to allow Texans to use this proven, secure online portal to register voters.

Online voter registration does not allow online voting. Under the process that has been proposed for our state, Texans with a current Texas drivers license or Department of Public Safety-issued photo ID could electronically register to vote so long as the license and three other identification measures authenticate them to do so.

[…]

The National Council of State Legislatures calls online voter registration a truly bipartisan election issue. A 2014 Pew study reports states have not seen any change in the balance of party affiliation of registered voters following the introduction of online voter registration. States also report no security breaches or voter impersonation. The study further finds online registration applications five times more accurate than paper applications.

The three Texas agencies – Secretary of State’s office, DPS and Department of Information Resources – that would execute online voter registration are confident in their ability. Their representatives testified that registering voters online can work in Texas.

Department of Information Resources Executive Director Todd Kimbriel told the House Elections Committee that the state-contracted Texas.gov vendor processes more than $2 billion in annual payments from taxpayers. Since initiation in 2001, Kimbriel told lawmakers, there have been no security breaches.

An existing Texas.gov platform for voter registration is already in place, used to update residential addresses when a voter moves within a county. To initiate registration online, a person would be required to possess a valid Texas driver license or DPS ID that can only be obtained in person.

More than 60 percent of Texans polled in 2014 favor registering voters online. State Reps. Celia Israel, D-Austin and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, bill authors, agree it’s an opportunity to work together to make our voter registration system more efficient, accurate and cost-effective.

That was written by Elaine Wiant, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. The arguments are familiar, and I at least think they’re pretty persuasive.

And counterpoint:

Proponents of online voter registration point out 20 states currently have such systems in place. But that means that 30 states do not. They also point out cost savings with online registration but cannot accurately identify what those would be in Texas.

[…]

The current voter registration system in Texas works and works well. Virtually no case has come to light of someone wanting to register within the applicable deadlines and being unable to do so.

Those who wish to register can exercise several options. Eligible citizens may register at the Texas Department of Public Safety, many social service organizations, local libraries, post offices and any of the 16 Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s branch offices. Potential voters also may print an application from many websites to be completed, signed and mailed.

The Voter Registrar’s experienced and nonpartisan professionals cross check data to ensure accuracy of each application. Officials code voters for the proper voting precinct, verify the data submitted and mail out a voter certificate. This both protects the registration process and provides new voters with relevant information, including the voter’s eligible jurisdictions.

During the most recent federal election, the state’s election management system temporarily shut down on Election Day, almost crippling local voter activity. The Secretary of State’s office is scheduled to undergo a major software upgrade this year. This is long overdue but full of unknowns. It would be very risky to implement a new system for online voter registration with this pending upgrade, especially leading into a presidential election.

That of course is from Harris County Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan, who as we know opposed the bill to enable online voter registration. His arguments are familiar as well, and until that last paragraph above, not terribly persuasive to me. The one part of his case that I do find effective is the reminder about the state’s website problems last November. Add that to the problems that DPS had with the One Sticker rollout, and one can understand why someone like Sullivan might be skeptical about this kind of bill and any assurance from DPS and/or the SOS that they can handle it. That may be a reasonable justification for delaying this implementation, but not for not doing it at all. Just because something works well enough doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be improved. Online voter registration should be the goal, and whatever needs to be done to make it feasible in the next session should be on the to do list. Let’s not have the same debate in 2017.

Rangers to investigate Stickland

It’s starting to get real.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

The Texas Rangers will investigate allegations that witnesses were improperly registered to testify last week on a bill banning red light cameras at a House Transportation Committee hearing.

The House General Investigating and Ethics Committee voted Thursday evening to refer the investigation to the Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Last week, the committee’s chairman, state Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, announced plans to look into the situation.

“The integrity of our committee process depends on reliable and accurate witness information,” Kuempel said Thursday evening.

[…]

After meeting for about two hours in executive session Thursday, Kuempel made a motion for the Texas Rangers to investigate the allegations involving improper witness submissions at the Transportation Committee hearing and report back to the General Investigating and Ethics Committee. The committee approved the motion.

The move represents the latest effort by lawmakers to give the Texas Rangers more authority into investigating allegations of impropriety in state government. The Legislature has also considered a proposal this session to move the state’s public integrity unit, which investigates public corruption cases, from the Travis County district attorney’s office to the Texas Rangers.

See here and here for the background. As noted before, this could be a violation of the law as well as a violation of House rules, hence the Rangers’ involvement. As with their involvement in L’Affaire Paxton, this will be an interesting test of the new “keep the Travis County DA out of it” procedures, though I’d have to assume that if they turn up evidence of something prosecutable they’d turn it over to the Travis County DA, since the crime in question certainly occurred there. But who knows?

Of course, this could also turn out to be a bunch of sound and fury. RG Ratcliffe has an interesting aside in a post comparing the styles and successes of Stickland and fellow “constitutional conservative” David Simpson.

(I have seen a witness testify from the London airport via Skype. Several lobbyists told me they register for or against a bill but aren’t in committee when it comes up. Although someone has to be in the Capitol complex to register over the Internet, I’m told it is possible to register merely by pulling into the driveway of the John H. Reagan Building. The House may have more problems with its electronic witness registration than just Stickland’s bill.)

Make of that what you will. You can see video of the critical exchange between Stickland and Pickett, where the latter calls a couple of the witnesses to verify their whereabouts, at TrailBlazers, and you can read a transcript of it on the Trib. The whole thing is bizarre, no question about it, but how much more than that is the key question. At a guess, I’d say Stickland is in line for some kind of slap on the wrist from his House colleagues, but I’ll be surprised if it goes beyond that.

House approves bill to move Public Integrity Unit

Like it or not, looks like this is going to get done.

Rosemary Lehmberg

The Texas House gave initial approval Monday to a stripped-down bill that would remove public corruption cases from Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit.

Final House approval is expected Tuesday.

House Bill 1690, initially approved 94-51, was amended on the House floor to apply solely to corruption allegations against elected or appointed state officials, who would be investigated by the Texas Rangers and prosecuted, if the allegations are confirmed, in the official’s home county.

House members adopted an amendment dropping state employees from home-county prosecution, keeping the status quo that would keep those cases in the county where a crime occurred — typically Travis County, where most state employees work.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, joined Democrats in arguing that home-county prosecution would create a special privilege, and a “home-court advantage,” for state officials that is not available to other Texans.

“I just want to plead with you that you not create, with this bill, a specially protected class,” Simpson said. “I urge you not to treat yourself better than the constituents who you serve.”

A Simpson amendment to allow corruption cases also to be prosecuted in the county where the crime occurred was defeated, 93-49.

The Senate has already passed a similar bill, moving Republicans much closer toward realizing a longtime goal — removing corruption cases from Travis County, a Democratic stronghold where, they believe, GOP officials cannot receive a fair hearing.

Like the Senate version, the bill by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, would not move the majority of cases handled by Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit — including fraud against state programs, insurance fraud and tax fraud.

King estimated public corruption cases affected by his bill would affect only about 2 percent of the unit’s caseload.

See here for background on the Senate bill. I don’t think this is the worst idea ever – it’s better than simply handing this off to the Attorney General’s office, for example – but I agree with Rep. Simpson about how it treats legislators versus everyone else, and I agree with RG Ratcliffe that this does not take the politics out of the process, it just changes them. It may take awhile, but I’d bet that one of these days there will be a scandal over how a future investigation into an officeholder is handled, or not handled, by the Rangers and that officeholder’s home county DA. Anyone want to bet against that proposition? Note that this isn’t a partisan thing – since the Governor appoints the head of DPS, a future Democratic Governor could be just as liable to engage in shenanigans as any other kind of Governor.

And speaking of shady officeholders and their buddies back home:

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, won approval of a provision potentially affecting [Attorney General Ken] Paxton. It would require a local prosecutor who currently or in the past has had “a financial or other business relationship” with the target of a probe to ask the judge to let him be recused “for good cause.” If the judge approved, the hometown prosecutor would be considered disqualified, Turner’s amendment says.

As he explained the amendment, Turner did not mention Paxton or Willis or their offices. Bill author Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, accepted the amendment, which passed on a voice vote.

[…]

The question of criminal prosecution of Paxton appeared to be going nowhere until grand jury members were given information about his licensure violations. One grand jury member expressed a desire to look at the matter. Willis asked the Texas Rangers to investigate and make a recommendation.

Turner, the amendment sponsor, said the original bill would let a local prosecutor seek to be recused “for good cause.” That’s insufficient, he said.

“Obviously, it’s not appropriate for the prosecutor to be involved in that case,” Turner said.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, won approval for a related amendment. It would let an investigation’s target ask a judge to recuse a prosecutor with a conflict of interest.

That’s something, but we’ll see if those amendments stick. There’s two competing bills now, so it’s a matter of which one gets passed by the other chamber first, and if a conference committee is ultimately needed. The House bill is far from great, but it’s better than the Senate bill. The question is whose approach will win. The Chron and the Trib have more.

Budget passes House as most amendments get pulled

It was a long day in the House on Tuesday and Wednesday but not a terribly bloody one as many of the budget amendments and riders that had been queued up got withdrawn. A brief recap of the action:

Border “security”:

BagOfMoney

House Democrats tried — and mostly failed — to divert funds allotted for border security and the Texas Department of Public Safety to other departments during Tuesday’s marathon budget debate.

But the rancor over immigration enforcement that many expected didn’t materialize after lawmakers agreed to pull down amendments that, if debated, would have aired ideological differences over the contentious issue.

After predicting a “bloody day” on the House floor, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, pulled an amendment that would have reduced the appropriations for a public college or university by the same amount that it awarded in grants or financial aid to undocumented students.

Last month, Stickland expressed frustration over the lack of traction for a bill he filed to eliminate a 2001 provision that allows undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

But on Tuesday, Stickland, with little attention or fanfare, withdrew the amendment after discussions with lawmakers.

“We did some negotiations,” he said.

An amendment by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, that would have defunded the state’s Border Faculty Loan Repayment Program, which was created to help keep doctoral students on the border to teach, was also withdrawn with little attention.

On the funding, Democrats made good on their promises to try and take money from border security operations, which was at about $565 million when the day began, to local entities or other state departments.

[…]

One border lawmaker had tentative success in transferring money from DPS to his district for local law enforcement grants. An amendment by state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, would take $10 million from the agency for that effort. But it’s contingent upon another measure — Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s House Bill 11, an omnibus border security bill — making it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk and getting signed.

Republicans had a bit more success in shifting money.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, was able to direct money into the state’s military forces for paid training for Texas’ 2,300 members of the reserve unit.

“Most of them reside in most of our districts, and we have zeroed out money for training,” he said.

But the success came after a lengthy back and forth between Huberty and members upset at where the funds would be taken from. Huberty offered one amendment that would have taken $2.2 million from the Texas Agriculture Department. That didn’t sit well with Democrat Tracy King, D-Batesville, the chairman of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Huberty eventually pulled that amendment and instead took $2.2 million from the Texas Facilities Commission.

Huberty specified on Monday that the money is not intended to extend the Texas National Guard’s deployment on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Senate wants to spend even more money on the ridiculous border surge, so this fight is far from over. The fact that this is a complete boondoggle that makes the rest of the state less safe, it’s one of the few things that certain legislators actually want to spend money on.

The voucher fight was similarly deferred.

A potentially contentious vote on a measure that would have banned spending public money on school vouchers was avoided after its author withdrew the amendment.

Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) said he pulled the amendment because it wasn’t necessary.

“Given the commitment of the House to supporting public education, I felt this amendment was duplicative,” Herrero said. It also would have forced some lawmakers to take a difficult vote, caught between turning their backs on their district’s public schools and potentially earning the ire of conservative interest groups.

A coalition of Democrats and rural Republican lawmakers has coalesced during the past two decades to defeat voucher legislation. Herrero said the anti-voucher coalition is still strong.

“The coalition is solid,” Herrero said, “Vouchers for all intents and purposes are dead in the House.”

The coalition may be strong, but Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler is working to weaken it. Mechler sent a letter to GOP legislators Tuesday pushing them to vote against Herrero’s amendment.

If you followed the budget action on Twitter, this was the first major amendment to get pulled, and it was a sign of things to come. Attention will shift to Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock when that loser of a bill passes the Senate.

Finally, you knew there had to be a moment that would be worthy of the Daily Show and the kind of viral mockery that makes us all heave deep sighs. Sure enough:

Seven hours into Tuesday’s debate on the House’s $210 billion two-year budget, things got first heated and then uncomfortable as state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, successfully pushed an amendment to move $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education.

A line of opponents gathered behind the podium as Spitzer laid out his amendment and proceeded to grill, quiz and challenge the lawmaker on his motives.

“Is it not significant that Texas has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the country?” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked. “Does it bother you to know there are people walking around with HIV, undiagnosed?”

Turner and Spitzer also had an exchange over how Spitzer had arrived at his price tag. “If we gave you a billion dollars for abstinence, would that be enough?” Turner asked. “Or would you need two?”

[…]

Texas allows school districts to decide whether and how to approach sex education, as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other preventive method, like condoms and birth control. But a number of representatives questioned the effectiveness of this program.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pointed out that the state currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and the single-highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy.

“It may not be working well,” said Spitzer, in reference to the current abstinence education program. “But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing.”

State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, took to the podium and asked Spitzer, “Were you taught abstinence education? Did it work?”

Spitzer replied that he was a virgin when he married at age 29. “I’ve only had sex with one woman in my life, and that’s my wife,” Spitzer said.

Dutton continued. “And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?”

“I’m not sure that’s an appropriate question,” Spitzer responded.

The House was called to order, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, took the microphone. “Earlier you stated that you could not get STDs without having sex,” she said.

“It depends on what your definition of sex is,” said Spitzer. “I can go through of all of this if you want to.”

“If you still think you can’t get an STD without having sex, then maybe we need to educate you,” Collier added.

Spitzer’s amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47.

Spitzer is a medical doctor, because having one Donna Campbell in the Lege just wasn’t enough. He must have been absent the day they went over how intravenous drug use is a frequent means of transmission for HIV. This is another lesson the state of Indiana could teach us if we cared to pay attention. The Observer, Nonsequiteuse, RG Ratcliffe, Trail Blazers, and Newsdesk have more.

The Senate’s opening budget

Could be worse, I guess.

BagOfMoney

Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson presented a $205.1 billion two-year base budget Tuesday morning, vowing to provide property tax cuts that Texans “actually feel” while keeping the state’s economy humming along.

The Senate budget is $3 billion larger than the $202.4 billion House budget that Speaker Joe Straus released nearly two weeks ago. However, the Senate budget includes $4 billion allocated for tax cuts. Straus opted to leave tax cuts out of the House’s opening proposal to allow members to formulate their own ideas on how to cut taxes.

At a Tuesday news conference, Nelson said that the Senate budget plan includes $3 billion set aside for “meaningful” property tax relief that homeowners would notice, as well as $1 billion for business franchise tax cuts. She and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the mechanisms by which they intend to cut property and margins taxes were still being worked out and could end up higher than the $4 billion currently proposed.

“We are taking in substantial revenue, and we have an obligation to return a large share of those dollars to the people who have worked hard and earned that in the first place,” Nelson said.

One could argue, as Rick Casey deftly does (via), that there’s a greater obligation to provide for the state’s many unmet needs. One could also argue that we just had an election to settle that argument, and we know which side won. Be that as it may, I guaran-damn-tee you that the people – and corporations – that will benefit the most from whatever tax cuts Patrick and Nelson have in mind will be those that need them the least. And yes, tax cuts we will get – for some value of “we”, anyway – oil prices be damned. I’m sure there will be plenty of “waste” to cut in the 2017 budget when we need to pay the piper. If we need a suggestion for where to look first on that score:

The Senate budget would add $815 million for border security, more than the previous seven years combined, according to Nelson’s office. The House budget allocates $396.8 million for border security, which House officials described as enough to maintain the increased presence of DPS officers that were sent to the border in June as part of a high-profile border surge.

I can’t even imagine what that will mean in practical terms. But I’m sure that whatever it is, it will be declared a success in two years’ time. PDiddie and Trail Blazers have more.

The veto that keeps on giving

I haven’t closely followed the burgeoning scandal at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which involves no-bid contracts, up front tuition reimbursements for top level staffers, and rampant cronyism. It’s already cost three people their jobs and will likely eventually result in the HHSC Commissioner, Kyle Janek, either falling on his sword or getting defenestrated. If nothing else, it’s been a nice little stink bomb for Greg Abbott and a timely reminder as Rick Perry exits the main stage that there’s a damn good reason why everyone should be glad to see him go. And since this is a scandal that happened on Rick Perry’s watch, there is as always more to it than meets the eye.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

A year and a half before a no-bid state contract collapsed in scandal last month, a criminal investigation into tens of millions of dollars worth of deals awarded through the same process by Rick Perry’s administration was derailed by the funding veto that got the governor indicted, according to the prosecutor who led the probe.

The earlier inquiry, which concerned Texas Department of Public Safety contracts for Perry’s highly touted and controversial border-security program, lasted more than a year before abruptly shuttering, said Gregg Cox, director of the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s office.

“We lacked the resources to continue that investigation,” Cox said. “Because the staff was cut when our budget was vetoed.”

[…]

The news also raises questions about whether a continuation of the inquiry could have alerted officials much earlier to vulnerabilities in the so-called “Cooperative Contracts” process.

The process, which allows state agencies to bypass competitive-bidding, but was designed for smaller purchases, was used for both the Department of Public Safety contract and the scandal-ridden Medicaid fraud detection deal given by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to Austin technology company 21CT.

That contract, which eventually was set to cost $110 million before abruptly being canceled last month, already has led to the resignations of four high-ranking state health officials, led some lawmakers to call for Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek to step down and triggered investigations by Cox’s Public Integrity Unit, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and the State Auditor’s Office.

Officials said the earlier Public Integrity Unit investigation focused on more than $20 million in no-bid contracts given to Virginia defense contractor Abrams Learning and Information Systems, Inc., to help Texas develop its border security strategies.

The Virginia firm, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, initially got a $471,800 contract in March 2006 to help the state establish a Border Security Operations Center in Austin, according to a state documents. The deal went through the no-bid process because officials said it was in response to “an emergency.”

An internal memo that later surfaced in news reports showed that the declaration of an emergency was based on public statements by Perry, who at the time was in a tough re-election campaign in which border security was a big issue.

Three months after its first contract, Abrams received a second emergency deal, for $679,600, that greatly expanded the company’s responsibilities.

Over time, state records show, officials quietly added more and more responsibilities to the contracts until they grew to more than $20 million and covered work in most segments of the state’s growing border-security programs.

See, that’s the sort of thing that happens when the one law enforcement authority over state government gets declawed. At the time that the threat and the veto were happening, the conspiracy theory was that Perry wanted to cut any investigations into the scandal-plagued Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). I don’t think there was any specific intent like that – though if some evidence turned up to suggest there was, I would hardly be shocked – I think Perry just didn’t care about any collateral effects of his actions. He had his own objective, and that was all that mattered. And stuff like this is the result. Thanks for interminable years of service, Rick.

The privilege of voting

It’s not a right if you aren’t allowed to do it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A day before Texans go to the polls, an unusual group gathered for lunch at a Mexican restaurant not far from downtown: an unemployed African-American grandmother; a University of Houston student originally from Pennsylvania; a pregnant mother who had recently moved back to the area with her family; and a low-income white woman who struggled to make eye contact and kept her money in a pack strapped around her waist.

They had not met each other before, but they had one thing in common: Thanks to Texas’s strict voter ID law, they all faced massive hurdles in casting a vote. Over fish tacos and guacamole, they shared their stories—hesitantly at first, then with growing eagerness as they realized they weren’t alone in being victimized by their state.

Lindsay Gonzales, 36, has an out-of-state driver’s license, which isn’t accepted under the ID law. Despite trying for months, she has been unable to navigate an astonishing bureaucratic thicket in time to get a Texas license she can use to vote. “I’m still a little bit in shock,” said Gonzales, who is white, well-educated, and politically engaged. “Because of all those barriers, the side effect is that I don’t get to participate in the democratic process. That’s something I care deeply about and I’m not going to be able to do it.”

As Texas prepares for its first high-turnout election with the voter ID law in place, the state has scrambled to reassure residents that it’s being proactive in getting IDs to those who need them, and that few voters will ultimately be disenfranchised. But those claims are belied by continued reports of legitimate Texans who, despite often Herculean efforts, still lack the identification required to exercise their most fundamental democratic right.

There’s a depressingly long list of people who have been disenfranchised by Texas’ law at the end of the article. Not theoretical possibilities, real people who were not allowed to vote. There are more and more of these stories out there as well. I’d love for Greg Abbott and Rick Perry and the six Supreme Court justices who thought letting this election proceed with that law in place despite its documented effects to have to look each one of these people in the eye and explain to them why this was necessary. Because the law is working as intended. What happened to these people was a feature, not a bug.

But they could have gotten free election IDs, I hear you say. Maybe, if they knew about that under-publicized option. And if they were able to navigate the bureaucracy successfully and pay their poll tax at the end.

Every document Casper Pryor could think of that bore his name was folded in the back pocket of his jeans. But sitting on a curb Thursday, a can of Sprite in hand, Pryor wasn’t sure whether those papers and the hour-long bus ride he had taken to get to Holman Street would result in a crucial new piece of ID. An ID that would allow the 33-year-old Houston native to vote.

Election identification certificates were designed for the 600,000 to 750,000 voters who lack any of the six officially recognized forms of photo ID needed at the polls, according to estimates developed by the Texas secretary of state and the U.S. Department of Justice. Legislators created the EICs, which are free, in part to quell criticism that enforcing the state’s much-litigated ID law amounted to a poll tax that could disenfranchise low-income and minority voters.

But as of Thursday, only 371 EICs had been issued across Texas since June 2013. By comparison, Georgia issued 2,182 free voter ID cards during its first year enforcing a voter ID law in 2006, and Mississippi has issued 2,539 in the 10 months its new law has been in place. Both states accept more forms of photo identification at polls than Texas does, so fewer voters there would need to apply for election-specific IDs.

In Texas, some would-be voters are hitting roadblocks.

Pryor said he has been spending more than four hours each trip trying to obtain an EIC, and he’s been back and forth several times. Though the cards are free, there are transportation costs and fees for supporting documents.

“It turned into a full-time job,” he said. “Going here, going there, it’ll make you give up.”

[…]

Some voters decided to pursue a Texas state ID card instead of an EIC. The requirements are similar, but the state ID can be used for more purposes than elections.

Money factors in the decision.

Applying for a Texas state ID costs $16, and if an individual does not have a birth certificate, getting that costs another $22. For those who want an EIC, a birth certificate can be obtained for a discounted price of no more than $3.

Another difference: EICs do not require a background check, while a Texas state ID does. For low-income applicants concerned about unpaid traffic tickets, that can be enough to decide on an EIC, said Marianela Acuña Arreaza, the Texas coordinator of VoteRiders, a nonpartisan nonprofit helping eligible voters cast ballots and not engaged in the ongoing litigation.

“Voting is not a luxury item,” Acuña Arreaza said. “It should be something you should be able to do because you’re a citizen and you’re eligible.”

[…]

Abbie Kamin, through the Campaign Legal Center, has been working with people who want to vote at the polls, sometimes driving an hour out of the city to obtain a birth certificate and accompanying them for lengthy waits in DPS offices. The center’s executive director was an attorney for the plaintiffs in the voter ID case, but Kamin’s work is ground-level. Beyond the transportation hurdles and costs for some voters lacking ID, there has been confusion among agencies and individual clerks, she said.

“I’ve had another woman working with me who called the DPS three different times and gotten three different answers,” Kamin said.

During a federal court trial that concluded in Corpus Christi in September, the judge found that the DPS process for granting EICs lacked consistency.

When asked if any training had since been provided, DPS spokesman Vinger responded, “No.”

Training costs money, don’t you know. Greg Abbott wants to take the gas tax money that currently goes to DPS and use it for road building. That means DPS will have to compete with other budget items to get general fund money. What do you think are the odds that extra funds for EIC training would be included in that?

The good news is that Casper Pryor did eventually win the game of running the DPS gamut, and in the end he got his EIC, making him one of the lucky few to do so. One wonders what the reaction would be if a random sampling of voter ID supporters had to go through what he went through to get to do what they take for granted. To end this post on a positive note, here’s another story about people who worked a lot harder to be able to vote than you and I did.

April Fisher walked into a brightly lit, flag-adorned room at the Harris County Administration Building on Wednesday and, for the first time in her life, contemplated a ballot.

“I’ve never voted in my life,” the 30-year-old Louisiana native said with a shrug. “I don’t even understand politics.”

Fisher came to Houston five years ago after her father gambled away their family’s life savings. The choices she made here ended in addiction, prostitution and criminal convictions.

But on this day, with her life on the mend, Fisher found the name of the judge who heard her most recent prostitution charge, a woman she credits with helping get her life back on track. She tapped the voting machine’s selector dial. It felt good.

In a booth next to her was the kind of authority figure who had been an adversary in Fisher’s past life – a sheriff’s deputy.

“I was proud to stand next to that deputy and he didn’t put handcuffs on me,” she said.

Fisher walked out of the downtown building and into a balmy fall day minutes later.

“I feel like my voice was being heard,” she said, before lighting up a cigarette.

A precious right for many Texans, voting for Fisher and a group of about 15 women – recovering drug addicts, former sex workers and others – was about something more: finding their voice.

They were enrolled in (or have graduated from) the “We’ve Been There Done That,” a program run through the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which seeks to rehabilitate women and help them avoid returning to their criminal past.

“These women have never been empowered, have been victims of sex abuse, of abuse, of imprisonment,” said Jennifer Herring, director of re-entry services for the Sheriff’s Office. “Now, for them to be able to seek for themselves a voice through this voting process, it’s liberating.”

Read the whole thing. No matter how you feel today about the election, I trust that story made you feel a little better.

What they didn’t tell us about voter ID

Republicans knew fully well that their voter ID bill would disenfranchise a lot of people. They just didn’t care.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Republican state officials working to pass a voter photo ID law in 2011 knew that more than 500,000 of the state’s registered voters did not have the credentials needed to cast ballots under the new requirement. But they did not share that information with lawmakers rushing to pass the legislation.

Now that the bill is law, in-person voters must present one of seven specified forms of photo identification in order to have their votes counted.

A federal judge in Corpus Christi has found the law unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the state can leave it in place for the November election while appeals proceed.

The details about the number of voters affected emerged during the challenge to the law, and were included in the findings of U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos.

During the 2011 legislative struggle to pass the voter ID law, she wrote, Republican lawmakers asked the Texas secretary of state, who runs elections, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, which maintains driver’s license information, for the number of registered voters who did not have state-issued photo identification.

The answer: at least a half-million.

There was evidence, the judge wrote, that Sen. Tommy Williams asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to compare its ID databases with the list of registered voters to find out how many people would not have the most common of the photo IDs required by the law. No match was done to see how many people did not have other acceptable IDs. “That database match was performed by the SOS, but the results showing 504,000 to 844,000 voters being without Texas photo ID were not released to the Legislature.”

Gonzales Ramos sourced that finding in a footnote, noting that in a deposition, Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands who has since left the state Senate, said he requested that information and then did not share it with fellow lawmakers.

Clearly, that was too inconvenient to share. Look, the Republicans could have passed a voter ID bill with broad bipartisan support if they had addressed two issues. One was the other facets of ballot integrity that they left out, like better procedures for mail ballots and improvements to electronic voting machines, like what Travis County is pursuing on its own. The other was taking real steps to ensure that everyone could still vote, by allowing more forms of ID, funding a real outreach program to those half-million-plus people, maybe making it easier to register to vote. One could argue that if you have to show a valid photo ID to vote, there’s no point in also requiring a voter registration card, for example. But of course they didn’t do any of that since the whole point of this law was to make it harder to vote, especially for certain classes of people. Repblicans across the country are perfectly willing to disenfranchise people in pursuit of their vision of “ballot integrity”. It’s a feature, not a bug, and they were called out for it by Judge Ramos. Only a deeply flawed ruling by SCOTUS has saved them for now. But we know the truth. It’s right there in the ruling.

It shouldn’t be this hard to get a driver’s license

And for most people it isn’t that hard. But for some people, it is.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Daniela Parker has two mothers, a circumstance that turned a typically routine matter – scheduling a road test for a Texas driver’s license – into a lengthy hassle.

Parker, Mayor Annise Parker’s daughter, was turned away from taking the road test on Thursday because, according to the mayor, there are inconsistencies on her personal identification documents.

In a tweet, the mayor said that in some documents she is listed as the girl’s mother, while in others Annise Parker’s wife, Kathy Hubbard, is listed as the mother. They adopted Daniela and younger sister Marquitta in 2003. Parker and Hubbard married earlier this year in California.

Two previous trips by Daniela to the Department of Public Safety were unsuccessful. A third trip Friday to the Rosenberg office did the trick.

“I’m just glad that on the third try someone cared enough to sort it out,” Parker said.

According to the Texas DPS website, information on documents used to verify identity must match. If, say, a name is different, the person must provide documents proving a legal name change.

As Hair Balls notes, getting a driver’s license has also proven a challenge for Connie Wilson, the California transplant who took her wife’s name when they got married out there. DPS did not recognize her California marriage license as being valid and thus turned her away because her legal name doesn’t match what is on her birth certificate. I don’t want to be too harsh on DPS here, as they are implementing the rules they have been given. The issue is that the rules are wrong and need to be changed, because Daniela Parker and Connie Wilson and everyone else in a similar situation deserves better. They deserve to be treated the same way I would be. I will never understand the reasons why anyone would disagree with that. I very much look forward to the day when stuff like this never happens again. Lone Star Q has more.

Texas woman denied driver’s license over same-sex marriage

That’s the headline of this Observer story, and it’s just as infuriating as you think it is.

A woman who recently relocated from California says the Texas Department of Public Safety refused to issue her an accurate driver’s license because her last name was changed through a same-sex marriage.

After Connie Wilson married her partner of nine years in California last year, she took her wife’s last name, Wilson, which now appears on both her California driver’s license and her Social Security card, in addition to all of the couple’s financial and medical records.

This summer, the couple relocated to the Houston area with their three children for work. With her California driver’s license nearing expiration, Wilson took her documents to a DPS office in Katy last week to obtain a Texas driver’s license. When a DPS employee noticed that Wilson’s name didn’t match her birth certificate, she produced the couple’s California marriage license identifying her spouse as Aimee Wilson.

“Her only words to me were, ‘Is this same-[sex]?’” Connie Wilson recalled. “I remember hesitating for probably 10 seconds. I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t want to lie, but I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t going to be able to get a license.”

Wilson eventually responded that although California doesn’t differentiate, she happened to be married to a woman.
“She immediately told me, ‘You can’t use this to get your license. This doesn’t validate your last name. Do you have anything else?’” Wilson said. “She told me I would never get a license with my current name, that the name doesn’t belong to me.”

Texas has both a state statute and a constitutional amendment prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages from other states. However, Wilson contends she isn’t asking DPS to recognize her marriage, but rather trying to obtain an accurate driver’s license reflecting her legal name according to the state of California and the U.S. government.

“I’ve been deprived the freedom to drive a vehicle once my current California driver’s license expires,” Wilson said. “I’m further being deprived the freedom to use air travel, make purchases that require a valid photo identification, seek medical attention for myself or my children, as well as other situations that would require proving who I am legally as an individual.”

You can add “the right to vote” to that list, since Wilson’s California driver’s license is not an acceptable form of ID for voting purposes. This is apparently DPS policy. Wilson could seek a court order for her name change, but that costs hundreds of dollars and can take weeks, and why should she have to do that? Her name has already been legally changed, it’s just that Texas mulishly refuses to recognize it. We’re all waiting for the Supreme Court to knock this foolishness down, but every single day that Greg Abbott and the reactionary worldview he’s representing fight this is a day that people like Connie Wilson and her family suffer needless harm. Equality Texas and Sen. Sylvia Garcia are working on Wilson’s behalf in this matter, but this is all so unnecessary. There’s no public policy rationale to justify this. Change cannot come fast enough.

Abbott does one last solid for Perry

He lets him keep his little secrets.

A code of silence sounds pretty good right now

After critics raised a stink about the tax dollars being spent to provide security for Gov. Rick Perry while he was gearing up to run for president, lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 designed to let Texans know — eventually — what they were getting for their money.

Now, thanks to a new ruling from the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Texas Department of Public Safety will not have to provide itemized travel records for the security detail after all. The DPS is still releasing the overall spending, with figures broken down into into five broad categories. But the ruling means that the public won’t know precisely what their tax dollars paid for when it comes to the governor’s security detail.

Relying on DPS assertions that releasing the old information represents an ongoing security threat, Abbott’s office blocked inspection of the travel records even though they were submitted years after the expenses were incurred. That includes the ones from Perry’s last presidential run, which ended in a spectacular nosedive a few months after it began.

Transparency advocates who had pushed for disclosure of the records, which once were available for public inspection, say Abbott’s ruling is another blow to open government in Texas. As attorney general, Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, decides what information government agencies have to provide under state transparency laws.

“It flies in the face of what the Legislature intended,” said Michael Schneider, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs at the Texas Association of Broadcasters, which has fought to lift the long-standing veil of secrecy over the records. “It’s just plain wrong.”

Abbott’s decision cites a loophole in the open records law that allows DPS to block release if it believes disclosure would present a “substantial threat of physical harm” to the governor or his family. Abbott’s office said there was no choice but to apply that provision and withhold the records.

[…]

Issued on July 31, Abbott’s ruling came in response to a public information request from The Texas Tribune — not for itemized records of the new expenditures for Perry’s latest travels, but for old ones.

The request was aimed at getting DPS travel vouchers that would show what the money was being spent on, including items such as hotels and restaurants or other incidentals, from late 2011 through 2012.

Spending on security for the well-traveled governor has been a source of regular controversy. In 2004, before the records were deemed to be secret, Perry traveled to the Bahamas, and the Austin American-Statesman obtained vouchers that revealed taxpayers had paid for the security guards’ rental of scuba gear and a golf cart.

In 2009, KEYE-TV reported that taxpayers shelled out $70,000 for a single trip the governor and first lady Anita Perry took to Jerusalem, including “$17,000 for rooms at the swanky King David Hotel.”

By the time Perry went on the road in pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, the DPS quit providing the voucher information and instead gave out raw totals for the security spending. The agency said giving out more detail could compromise the governor’s safety. At the height of his run, the state was spending as much as $400,000 a month to provide security for Perry, figures provided afterward revealed.

Three newspapers sued to get the travel vouchers in 2007, and in 2011 the courts ultimately ruled that the state could withhold them.

Amid the controversy, the Texas Legislature stepped in with what proponents described as a careful balance between government transparency and the security concerns raised by the DPS and the governor’s office.

The bill authored by then-state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, called for the the itemized records to remain confidential for a period of 18 months. After that, they “become subject to disclosure,” the 2011 law says.

This is a load of crap on so many levels. The “security” issue only became an angle when what was being revealed was embarrassing to Perry. It boggles the mind to think that details of travel in 2011 could cause a legitimate problem for a government official in 2014. The hypocrisy of Rick Perry, after years of bragging about cutting spending and zero-based budgeting telling us all to go suck an egg when we want to know just exactly what he did last summer is stunning, even for him. I accept that travel is part of his job description, and that in that capacity it is proper for the taxpayers to cover the cost of his security. But it’s not a blank check, and it’s certainly not justification for veiling the transactions. We have a right to know, and I guarantee you that if Wendy Davis gets elected this November she is not going to get anywhere near this level of deference from the people that are now defending Rick Perry.

And as for Greg Abbott, this totally says it all:

In an email, Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said the ruling is “dictated by the Supreme Court’s interpretation” of the exemption related to possible threats against the governor. That exemption remains part of the law Duncan passed.

“This ruling does not change existing law,” he said.

Strickland also said Abbott was not in the loop on the decision. With over 22,000 such rulings issued yearly, he said Abbott “does not and physically could not” review them all, but he appoints a staff that does the job.

“Consistent with that approach, General Abbott was not aware of this ruling,” Strickland said in a prepared statement.

He doesn’t even have the guts to own this. Remember when Abbott was campaigning as a champion of government transparency? Yeah, so much for that.

Get ready to go inspection sticker-free

Things are gonna be different next year.

Texas drivers will have a little less clutter on their windshield next year when the familiar green inspection sticker goes away, but it comes at the price of requiring inspections in order to renew vehicle registrations.

As of March 2015, vehicles registered in Texas will no longer need separate vehicle inspection and registration stickers. Inspections and registrations will continue, but the single registration sticker will act as proof of both, Texas DMV director Whitney Brewster told a state senate committee on Monday. The deadline for passing state vehicle safety and emissions tests shifts to sometime in the 90 days before the vehicle’s registration expires.

“This is a big impact on customers,” Brewster told state senators, citing the need for an aggressive public awareness campaign.

[…]

The rules and costs for vehicle owners do not change, though when the payments occur will. Owners in the Houston area will pay the station $25.50 when the inspection is done. The remaining $14.25 associated with Texas clean air programs and inspection oversight is paid when the person renews the vehicle registration.

The owner will get a printout when they submit for the inspection, then that information is relayed into the state database. The owner can go online prior to their registration expiring and renew. Officials can check the insurance and inspection databases for the information and issue the registration renewal.

For in-person renewals, the owner can take the proper insurance and inspection certificates and present them to the county tax assessor.

The change means a break from annual inspections for some drivers, because of the timing for inspections and registrations expiring. If someone’s registration expires in May and their inspection tag expires in June, for example, they will not have to get their car tested until prior to renewing their registration in May 2016.

See here for the background. This is the result of a bill passed last year by the Lege, and the idea is to cut down on inspection fraud. It will be a big change for pretty much everyone, so that public awareness campaign does need to be aggressive and pervasive. For now, be aware that a change is coming, and be prepared to look for the new procedures next year when inspection and registration time roll around.