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Election 2015

City responds to term limits mandamus

Here’s what the city had to say in response to the request that the Supreme Court vacate the district court ruling that let the 2015 term limits referendum stand and order an election for this November:

In an unusually blunt response filed last week, city attorneys accused plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Dick of an “unrelenting bum’s rush” and “near-hysterical ravings.”

“In short, (the plaintiff) cannot file a big pile of stuff, violate every rule designed to facilitate organization and efficiency, and expect other parties and the Court to try to sort through the mess and find any arguments and evidence in there on a ridiculously accelerated schedule,” lawyers from the City Attorney’s office wrote the state Supreme Court, responding to plaintiffs’ request to accelerate the case. “That is not due process. It is a tantrum.”

[…]

[The lower court ruling] positioned the case for a likely return to trial court for a hearing on the substance of whether the city’s ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms.”

Dick was anxious for a faster resolution.

“Because of the crucial election timelines, there are extraordinary circumstances,” Dick wrote in a request for Supreme Court intervention.

He followed up last week with a motion to expedite after the court asked the city to reply by July 3, less than two months before the Aug. 21 deadline to call a November election.

See here for the previous update. I wish I had a copy of the full city response, but alas they didn’t send it out. The statutory deadline for having an election is the end of August as noted above, but I figure the realistic deadline is the end of July. People need to have some time to decide whether or not to run; you can’t just spring this on everyone a week before then. I don’t put anything past this Supreme Court, but I agree that every passing day reduces the odds of an election, and if we make it to August without an order it’ll be like making it to October without a hurricane – technically, there’s still time, but in real life it ain’t happening. Stay tuned.

When might the Supreme Court speak on the Houston term limits lawsuit?

So as you know there is an ongoing lawsuit over the language used in the 2015 referendum that altered the city’s term limits ordinance. It was filed shortly after the election, with the city winning the first round in district court. Appeals are ongoing, with the most recent ruling coming this past January on a procedural matter. In addition to all this, the plaintiff in the original suit filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court on June 2 that asks them to direct the district court judge to vacate his previous order allowing the 2015 result to stand and to require city elections this November. I’m on the plaintiff’s attorney’s email list (for my sins, no doubt) and as he sent out a missive last week urging his followers to contact the Supreme Court and ask them to rule on the writ in time for an election to occur, I figured I ought to bring this up.

So as we are now halfway through June, I have to think that time is rapidly running out for a non-farcical election to be conducted this November. Normally at this time, multiple candidates for a variety of offices, especially the open ones, will have been at work for months. There are always people who pop up to run in July and August, including a few at the filing deadline, but by this point you usually have a pretty good idea of who is out there. Funds have been raised, materials have been printed, websites and social media presences have been built, volunteers have been recruited, etc etc etc. Campaigns require resources, and one of those resources is time. We’re basically four months out from the start of early voting. To get a campaign up and running from scratch, especially for an At Large position, that’s not a whole lot of time. It could be done, but it would greatly favor those who already have some of the other resources, namely money and some amount of name recognition. In other words, incumbents and people who can write a check to get their campaign going quickly.

For what it’s worth, the Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring a vote on HERO on July 24, 2015, which was in response to a writ of mandamus. That was about a referendum and thus didn’t directly involve any candidates, though I’d argue that it had a negative effect on the pro-HERO side, since the antis had been gearing up for a campaign for some time by then. Let’s call that the outer bounds of when a writ mandating city elections for this year may happen, though really I’d say that’s too late. Bear in mind that Council members Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie are all in their last terms one way or the other, so if those terms wind up ending this year instead of 2019, a whole gaggle of hopefuls are going to have to get up to speed immediately. There’s no question that the Supreme Court has no qualms about meddling in the affairs of the city of Houston, but that doesn’t mean it feels compelled to do so. We ought to know soon enough.

Final EV report for the May 6 election

Before I get to the numbers, here’s a Chron overview of the Pasadena Mayor’s race that mentions the numbers towards the end.

“I believe it’s a pivotal time in this city’s history – that it can either draw together and continue being one city, or it can divide apart and be fractured,” said John Moon Jr., a commercial real estate agent who grew up in Pasadena and worked as a banker for more than 30 years.

In addition to Moon, the field of candidates includes Pasadena city council members Pat Van Houte and Jeff Wagner; Robert Talton, who served as a state representative from 1993 to 2009; Gilbert Peña, who represented the same district from 2015 until 2017; David Flores, a former city employee who runs a Pasadena-based construction business; and Gloria Gallegos, an assistant superintendent with the Pasadena Independent School District.

[…]

The candidates are stressing different issues.

Talton is campaigning for increased investment in the city’s police and fire departments and senior services. Moon wants a five-year capital improvement plan. Gallegos, based on her experience with the school district, is pushing workforce development programs to bring people out of the city’s growing poverty.

Peña has said he will invest in programs to grow small businesses. Flores is calling for city departments to formally justify funding requests. Flores has five misdemeanor convictions from 2001 to 2004, including for theft, assault and evading arrest, and giving a false name to a police officer. He said his trouble with the law helped spur a commitment to public service.

Van Houte, among others, calls for increased transparency among the city and touts her ability to speak English and Spanish as a means to better communicate with voters. She once was escorted from a council meeting after questioning Isbell’s redistricting plan.

Wagner emphasized boosting employee morale.

But while there are differences in the candidates’ priorities, all emphasize a strong need to break from the past, including what some have described as a “political machine” associated with Isbell.

“That machine is not alive and well right now, without a doubt,” Wagner said. “In the past, I’m sure they had it. But, this is a new day.”

It’s unclear whether the alleged disparate treatment of Latino residents will result in higher turnout by Hispanic voters. Historically, Hispanic voters have turned out at lower rates than white voters.

As of Tuesday, just more than 3,200 had cast ballots at Pasadena City Hall, which University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said was high. Rottinghaus said roughly 50 percent of voters come out to early voting, with another 50 percent on Election Day. In 2013, the number who cast ballots early was 1,327, according to city records.

Here are the final EV totals, which I saved for posterity since you never know when I may feel the need to reference them. (Like, maybe for the Pasadena Mayor’s race runoff.) There were 3,204 in person early votes cast in Pasadena, but that’s not the sum total of all votes, as of course there are also absentee ballots. I asked around and was informed that as of yesterday 1,548 mail ballots had been returned as well, for a grand total of 4,752. If Professor Rottinghaus is correct about how many votes are cast early versus on Election Day, then we are headed for either about 8,000 total votes cast or 9,500 total votes cast, depending on whether he meant to include absentee ballots in the half of votes being cast early.

That’s obviously a lot more than 2013, when Mayor Isbell was very lightly challenged by current candidate and former State Rep. Gilbert Pena. A better comparison is to 2009, when a much more contested Mayoral race drew 7,539 votes. This year seems to be on track to exceed that, possibly by a fair amount.

I’m not exactly sure how to tally up the early votes for Humble ISD, as there are two early vote locations in Humble ISD buildings plus a third location at Humble City Hall. The first two have seen a combined 2,817 votes, with another 426 at Humble City Hall. There are also some number of absentee ballots, but I have no way of knowing how many. In 2015 there were 2,150 early in person votes cast and 1,358 Election Day votes cast; in 2013 it was 2,410 early in person and 1,767 on Election Day. No matter how you slice it, this year looks busier, though it’s hard to say by how much.

Finally, in Brazoria County there have been 3,139 early in person votes cast in Pearland, which I will presume covers both the city and Pearland ISD. Just that amount, which does not include absentee ballots, is more than the grand total for the 2014 Pearland ISD election (the trustees there appear to serve three-year terms), in which 2,868 total votes were cast. The city of Pearland also appears to be on three-year terms, so they have elections each year. Turnout figures for those last three years: 2,744 in 2016, 3,559 in 2015, and 3,387 in 2014, which was the previous Mayor’s race. Again, it would seem that turnout will be higher than in any of those years, though at least some of that may be fueled just by population growth, as the number of registered voters in Pearland climbed from 58,563 in 2014 to 63,584 in 2016. Still, we appear to be three for three in terms of increased voter participation. We’ll see what if anything that means for the results.

One last look at the recapture re-vote

There’s a lot at stake here, and not a whole lot of people voting on it.

For the second time in seven months, voters within the Houston Independent School District will determine how – and if – it should pay tens of millions to help subsidize districts that collect little in property taxes.

The vote Saturday comes as some HISD trustees have reassessed a decision by voters in November not to write a $77.5 million check to the state to comply with Texas’ “recapture” policy.

While district leaders don’t think it’s fair that an urban district with many poor students and English-language learners should be slapped with such a financial penalty, they’re split over the best way to respond.

Some trustees argue that Proposition 1 will deal a blow to progress in getting state legislators to rethink Texas’ widely criticized school finance system. They believe refusing to pay will allow the district to sue the state to free HISD of its recapture obligations.

Others believe that voters should hold their nose and vote for the measure, especially with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath threatening that a “no” vote would prompt him to move some of Houston’s most valuable commercial properties out of the district’s taxable area.

That “detachment” scenario has never happened in Texas and could cost HISD $98.4 million in lost tax revenue this year, district officials estimate.

“Either scenario is bad,” acknowledged Glenn Reed, HISD’s general manager of budget and financial planning, adding that the district could end up losing more than 15 percent of its annual budget in a few years under either option. “You get used to living at a certain level, but now you can’t deal with cost increases. You have to start selling off furniture and only eat out once a week. It causes you to change how you do business.”

[…]

While Houston will owe $77.5 million in recapture fees this year, that number will soon balloon to $376 million owed just for the 2019-2020 school year, according to Houston ISD budget estimates. That same school year, Houston could lose as much as $413.2 million under the “detachment” scenario if property values rise (it would lose less than that amount if property values remain stagnant or decline).

Trustees including board President Wanda Adams, Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Mike Lunceford said they now fear vindictive action from the Texas Education Agency and lawmakers if the district doesn’t pay the recapture fees. But other trustees, including Jolanda Jones and Manuel Rodriguez Jr., want the district to hold steadfast in its decision not to pay the recapture fees. Jones said the district could take the state to court and argue that detachment is unconstitutional.

She contends that Houston ISD – the state’s largest school district – has the power to pressure the state to change its funding formulas.

“We can’t debate detachment until there’s an actual detachment,” Jones said. “No district has voted to detach, so that hasn’t been heard at all (in the courts).”

It should be noted that TEA Commissioner Morath isn’t “threatening” to detach properties. The TEA has already identified the properties it will detach. It’s just that the process doesn’t formally take place for another month or two, which is why HISD had the opportunity for the re-vote, which could prevent detachment from going through. Either we buy the attendance credits – i.e., vote Yes on the recapture proposition – or we experience detachment. Those are the choices.

Well, except that Trustee Jolanda Jones argues that detachment is unconstitutional. Which I suppose it could be – I Am Not A Lawyer, remember – but as Jones notes since no district has ever undergone detachment, the issues has not been litigated. I take that to mean that if the No vote wins again, someone will sue the TEA to stop detachment from happening. That does not strike me as the soundest of strategies, but I can’t say that it wouldn’t work. I can say that I personally would not choose to risk it, which is why I voted Yes.

Anyway. To get back to the matter of how many people are voting in this election, the final EV turnout document indicates about 8,500 in person early votes cast in HISD (basically, take the overall total and subtract the bottom five lines, to remove Pasadena, Humble, and Lone Star College from the amount), plus maybe 3,000 mail ballots. That suggests a final overall turnout in the 18-20K range. There’s no way to do a direct comparison to other HISD elections because the Trustees are on staggered four year terms, meaning that in a given election only some of the Trustees are on the ballot. HISD elections are also concurrent with city of Houston elections (though that will be different this year barring an order throwing out the term limits referendum), so turnout numbers in HISD districts are at least somewhat affected by that as well. To give a small amount of context, in 2013 there were 41,392 total ballots cast in three contested Trustee races (the County Clerk doesn’t provide the returns on uncontested Trustee races; state law allows for uncontested races to be skipped, which may be what happens in these cases), while in 2015 there were 76,184 voters in four contested races. Turnout rates ranged from 17 to 22 percent in the three districts in 2013, and from 21 to 28 percent in the four districts in 2015. Make of all that what you will.

Early voting Day Five: Can we make any guesses yet?

Mike Snyder wonders about the turnout so far in the May elections.

When Pasadena last chose a mayor, in 2013, about 7 percent of its registered voters determined who would lead the industrial port city of 150,000. Mayor Johnny Isbell, who won re-election by an overwhelming margin, attributed the paltry turnout to public satisfaction with “the direction the city is headed.”

Four years later, there is ample reason to question that sanguine assessment. But history suggests that turnout will again be low as voters in Pasadena, Pearland and other Houston-area communities choose mayors, council members and school trustees. Early voting started Monday, and election day is May 6.

[…]

In Pasadena, for example, the mayor who was returned to office by 3,599 voters was the driving force behind a change in the City Council structure that a federal judge found intentionally diluted the influence of the city’s Latino majority. And reporting by some of my Houston Chronicle colleagues will provide new details about the inequitable allocation of city services on Isbell’s watch.

Low turnout in local elections is not limited to Pasadena.

A year ago, just 2,744 Pearland residents – 4.3 percent of the fast-growing city’s registered voters – cast ballots in an election that included three City Council seats and three school trustee positions, according to the Community Impact newspaper. In Friendswood, 9 percent of voters – 2,422 residents – cast ballots for two city council seats and two sales tax increases.

It’s really hard to find information about past Pasadena elections, because before this year the city conducted their own elections, and the Pasadena city website sucks eggs. You can find returns on the 2015 election in Pasadena here, but note that Mayor Isbell was not on the ballot. The only data I can find from the May 2013 election, which Snyder references in his piece, is in this Chron story, which notes that Isbell defeated Gilbert Pena by 3,599 (83 percent) to 751 (17 percent), for a total turnout (not counting undervotes) of 4,350. In that 2015 election, again without knowing how many people may have skipped the two At Large Council races, the District G At Large race received 4,150 votes. So let’s make 4,350 the mark to beat for Pasadena this year.

As you can see from the updated Harris County EV totals, after five days 1,611 in person votes have been cast in Pasadena. If the next four days are proportional to the first five, then about 2,900 in person early votes will be cast. I have no way of knowing how many mail ballots received by the Clerk are Pasadena ballots – the proportion of Pasadena votes to total votes is about 1/4, so with 4,362 mail ballots so far there may be between 1,000 and 1,100 Pasadena mail votes. Which, if true – and please note that I’m really guessing here – would put Pasadena’s total so far at roughly 2,700 cumulative votes, which is on pace to reach or exceed 4,000 before Election Day. I don’t know what the actual number of Pasadena mail ballots is, I don’t know if the next fours days will meet, exceed, or fall short of the pace of the first five, and I don’t know what the share of Pasadena’s votes are usually cast early, so I could be way off, but if I had to bet right now, I’d put my money on the over for turnout. I’ll review this projection after early voting ends, but that’s my guess at this time.

As for Pearland, you can see the daily EV totals for Brazoria County here. It is broken down by location, and I assume (though I don’t know for sure) that the Pearland East and Pearland West locations are the only ones we care about for this purpose. There were 3,387 votes cast in May of 2014, which is the better comparison for this year since there was a Mayoral race then as well. Pearland ISD had 2,868 voters that year. In each case, about two thirds of the total final vote was cast early, so when we have a cumulative early vote total for Pearland, we can take a reasonable guess at final turnout. The Brazoria elections site only has three days’ worth of data at this time, so I’m not going to go out on any limbs here, but I will venture to propose that whatever the final EV total is for Pearland and Pearland ISD, the ultimate number will be about half again that much. Feel free to mock any and all of my numbers in the comments.

Petitions submitted to force another pension vote

Oh, good grief.

Voters soon could decide whether to close Houston’s traditional pension plans to new employees after political activists submitted a petition to City Hall to force a referendum this November.

The petition further complicates Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to pass a pension reform bill, which already had hit a hurdle in the state Senate this week on precisely the same issue of whether new hires should be put into “defined contribution” plans similar to 401(k)s instead of one of the city’s three employee pension systems.

The petition, which began circulating at college campuses, grocery stores and elsewhere in February, calls for a public vote to require a shift to defined contribution plans for all city workers hired after the start of 2018.

Under traditional pension plans, the city promises employees specific payments based on their years of service and salaries and makes up for market losses by putting in more money. Defined contribution plans are those in which the city and employee set money aside in an account that rises and falls with the market.

Windi Grimes, a public pension critic and donor to the Megaphone political action committee that sponsored the petition drive, said the group submitted 35,000 signatures to the city secretary’s office Thursday. That easily would clear the 20,000 signatures required by law to trigger a charter referendum, provided City Secretary Anna Russell verifies the names.

Grimes, who also works with Texans for Local Control, a political group that wants Houston, not the Texas Legislature, to control city pensions, had described the petition effort as an “insurance policy” in case the Legislature does not move to defined contribution plans for new city employees.

[…]

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman ended weeks of negotiations with city officials, union leaders and conservatives over whether and how to incorporate defined contributions plans by releasing a new draft of the pension bill Wednesday. It said the city and workers could agree to move to a defined contribution plan, but did not require that change.

In response, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, another Houston Republican, said he would propose an amendment to ensure the result of any city charter change to defined contribution plans would be binding. That wording is necessary, he and others said, because some lawyers say amending the city charter alone would be insufficient, since Houston’s pensions are controlled by state statute.

“I’m just trying to stay on a public policy position I’ve had for over a decade,” Bettencourt said, adding that he is not working with Megaphone or Texans for Local Control and that he already had filed a separate bill mirroring the language of his amendment.

The Houston reform bill had been expected to reach a Senate vote Thursday, but Bettencourt’s amendment created an impasse: some bill supporters, led by the chamber’s Democrats, were unwilling to let the item come to a vote, fearing they lacked the votes to torpedo Bettencourt’s proposal.

“If he brings it up, (Huffman) says she won’t accept it, but she’s going to need about five or six Republicans to go with us to block it,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “That’s a tough vote for them.”

Turner accused Bettencourt of seeking to kill the pension reform proposal for political gain.

“Quite frankly, what he wants is not a pension resolution. It seems like he’s asking for a re-vote of the mayoral race in 2015, and that’s unfortunate because he’s not putting Houston first,” Turner said. Bettencourt in 2015 supported mayoral runner-up Bill King, who has spent months publicly criticizing Turner’s pension reform plan and calling for a switch to defined contribution plans for new city workers.

I found this story so annoying that I had a hard time putting my thoughts together about it. So I’m just going to say these four things for now:

1. We have already had an election on this question, in 2015 when Sylvester Turner won the Mayor’s race. A lot of people, led by Mayor Turner, have put in a ton of work, including political work, to put forth a workable solution for the city’s pension issues. You can feel however you want about the Mayor’s proposal – the firefighters are certainly not very happy about it – but it represents a Houston solution to a Houston problem, which the voters have already had a say on. These efforts to undermine it are the opposite of that, and the people pushing it are doing so because they don’t like the solution Houston and Mayor Turner have crafted for its problem. They would rather see the whole effort fail, and that is what they are working for.

2. You have to admire the shamelessness in calling this group that has come out of nowhere and is in no way complementary to the Turner plan “Texans for Local Control”. Who wants to bet that it’s funded by a bunch of rich conservative activists who are mostly not from Houston and will go to court to keep their identities secret?

3. The story quotes HPOU President Ray Hunt as saying the petition collection effort is a “sham” and that they have evidence of people signing the petitions multiple times. You’d think that would be a big deal, but then you remember that the Supreme Court ruled in the mandamus that forced the HERO vote in 2015 that the city secretary could only check that a signature belonged to a registered voter. It’s OK if it’s forged – the city secretary is not empowered to check that – as long as the forgery in question belongs to a valid voter.

4. There sure could be a lot of referenda on the ballot this November.

TOP responds to Chron story on Mayor Turner

Via the inbox, we come full circle:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The following is a statement by Tarsha Jackson, Harris County director of the Texas Organizing Project, in reaction to the article “Progressives fret over Turner’s focus”:

“Far from fretting over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s focus, I am energized that the mayor of the third-largest city in America is committed to rolling up his sleeves and working with organizations like TOP to make Houston a city where everyone is treated fairly and has access to opportunity.

“TOP agrees with Mayor Turner’s reaction to the Chronicle article, ‘Progressives fret over Turner’s focus.’ There are major fights ahead of us that will determine who we are as a city, and we all need to work together to win them.

“From protecting our immigrant communities, to reforming our criminal justice system, to expanding affordable housing and making real progress on closing the gap between rich and poor, we are proud to be working with this mayor to move Houston forward.

“There is much work to be done, including tackling decades-old problems like providing secure pensions for our retirees and protecting taxpayers, but I am excited by our progress so far and optimistic that we can tackle the work ahead.”

See here for the background. Seems to me we’ve written an awful lot about something that isn’t much of a story, but there you have it. I do agree with Campos that while TOP and the AFL-CIO represent a part of the progressive coalition, they are only a part of it. Even without this followup from TOP, it would have been nice to have heard from some other parts of that coalition before declaring that “progressives” are (maybe) fretting about Mayor Turner.

Is there some fretting about Mayor Turner?

Maybe? I don’t know. I guess it depends on how you define “fretting”.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The resignation of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s top deputy – a social justice advocate and one of the mayor’s few confidants in a sea of senior staff appointed by the previous mayor – is fueling worry among aides and allies about the administration’s commitment to the progressive policy goals on which he campaigned.

Turner for months has downplayed his unusual decision to entrust much of the implementation and communication of his policies to his predecessor’s staff, urging focus on big-ticket accomplishments, such as bringing a pension reform deal to the state legislature, soothing tempers on City Council and closing last year’s $160 million budget gap.

However, chief of staff Alison Brock’s departure just 15 months into Turner’s term has stoked renewed angst among supporters who think Turner has not championed the progressive platform for which they worked to get him elected.

“We’re a little concerned, because she was that voice at the table, so we were confident our concerns were being heard,” said Tarsha Jackson of the Texas Organizing Project. “Now, we’re just hopeful the mayor gets someone that shares his vision, the vision that he had when he ran for office. We don’t have an ally in the mayor’s office right now.”

Jackson, who met and befriended Brock in 2004 when she was Turner’s legislative aide, said TOP’s attempts to reform city economic development policies have stalled, despite Brock’s support.

Labor leader Linda Morales said the same of her efforts to push an ordinance asking city contractors to provide better wages, community engagement and job training.

“Labor wants to be a partner with the mayor,” she said. “We want him to speak to his staff and get on the program with us because it’s his agenda we’re trying to push.”

Turner distinguished himself as a candidate on such issues, calling for a higher minimum wage and pushing the city to require recipients of tax incentives to pay higher salaries. He also decried Houston’s economic inequality, stressing the need to “build a city for the middle class.”

Despite maintaining similar rhetoric in office, the mayor has hesitated to bring forward sweeping progressive policy proposals. His much-hyped “Complete Communities” plan aimed at revitalizing Houston’s under-served neighborhoods, for example, still awaits implementation. As for employee benefits, the city passed an ordinance last year suggesting companies seeking tax breaks offer additional benefits but did not require them to do so.

“The mayor is being cautious, in my opinion maybe too cautious. He’s got issues he wants to pass at the state Legislature, so he’s trying to make his way through the land mines without having folks hurt his possibility of passing pension reform,” said Morales, of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. “I understand that totally, but there’s other things I know, as a collective, progressives want to move.”

The mayor bristled at any perception of sluggish progress.

“Compare my track record with any previous mayor, and if they did as much. Name me one mayor in the last 20 years that has brought forth a pension reform package to this point. … Name me one mayor that has attended more events than I have,” Turner told reporters. “Even though I came in on a very close vote, I have governed in a very uniform, universal fashion.”

Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer largely agreed.

“Other than (former Mayor Bob) Lanier, he’s probably the most successful first-term mayor I’ve seen,” said Aiyer, who served as former mayor Lee Brown’s chief of staff.

I get Tarsha Jackson and Linda Morales’ concerns. Mayor Turner did run a progressive campaign, and he did talk about a lot of non-pension things. To be fair, that was in part because the other guy was talking about it more than enough for everyone. Mayor Turner was always going to have to deal with that, and I feel like lots of things are sort of waiting in the wings until a pension bill gets through the Legislature. (Assuming one does; if that doesn’t happen, it’s hard to say what comes next.) That was basically the theme of look back at Year One story on the Mayor. I think it’s fair to say that if he gets a win on this big issue, it not only restores a lot of oxygen for everything else, it gives him some momentum and capital to push for things that will generate significant political opposition, which includes a lot of the agenda Jackson and Morales are hoping to see get enacted.

I recognize that it sucks to hear that these progressive items that Mayor Turner campaigned on have to wait. It’s far from the first time that has been the message, and I’m sure Jackson and Morales have lost count of the number of times they have heard it. I don’t know what else to suggest other than if you think Mayor Turner is still basically the same person as Candidate Turner was, you’ll need to have faith that he will do as he said he would. Easy for me to say, I know. The other thing I could add is that given the anti-local control nature of this legislative session, there are strategic reasons for waiting till after sine die to roll out a plan for an increased minimum wage or the like. Again, I know what that sounds like. Jackson and Morales clearly understand how and why things are. A little reminder to the Mayor that they’re still here seems like a reasonable strategy. A press release from the Mayor in response to this story is here.

Bill to restore some budget flexibility filed

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences Act of 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some dude opposes pension reform

Presenting this in a slightly redacted form.

[Some dude] has joined friend and ally Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, in rallying opposition to [Mayor Sylvester] Turner’s [pension reform] proposal among conservatives. He has attended at least three dozen forums on the topic, by his count, and has been running social media ads touting his views on Facebook, has traveled to Austin to lobby legislators and has formed a pension-focused political action committee with Bettencourt.

The recent mayoral runner-up’s central role in his rival’s most important initiative is unprecedented, political observers say.

“It does somewhat seem like sour grapes for a defeated mayoral candidate to continue to campaign against his victorious opponent,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “It perhaps would have been more productive to allow Sylvester Turner to handle this himself for the first legislative session of his tenure and only get more actively involved if that session had not resulted in a significant improvement.”

[…]

[Some dude] insists the aim of his critiques is to improve Turner’s proposal, not kill it, and says he is not using the issue to position himself for another mayoral run.

His critics aren’t buying that. They accuse [some dude] of acting out of self-interest in seeking to torpedo the reforms, or of at least failing to grasp that his actions will make that result far more likely.

In particular, [some dude] and Bettencourt want to move all new city workers to defined contribution, or “DC,” pensions similar to 401(k)s – which the employee groups despise because it leaves their retirement pay vulnerable to market fluctuation – and to force a referendum on the $1 billion in pension bonds that are a key piece of the reform package.

“I would concede that it’s unusual, but I don’t understand why there’s anything wrong with it,” [some dude] said of his role. “Just because one candidate advocates some things and loses an election doesn’t mean that all those things are wrong and are off the table forever.”

[Some dude] acknowledges his dozen email blasts attacking the proposal as a “secret” attempt to pass “a bad deal” that is “not real reform” and would “make the city a financial cripple” have sometimes been “harsh” or indulged in “hyperbole.”

[…]

“My role here is to fire up the Republican base to support the two reforms that I want added to the bill,” [some dude] said. “It is a Republican-controlled Legislature. The Republican base is not a little bit in favor of DC plans, they are way in favor of it.”

Not accounting for the union’s certain negative response to these controversial provisions, lawmakers and legislative observers said, means [some dude] might as well say he wants the deal dead.

“[Some dude] feels strongly that there should be defined contribution plans. He ran on that. We had a vote, and he lost,” said Robert Miller, a former Metro chairman and a longtime lobbyist for the city’s three pensions, among dozens of other clients. “That was not something the employee groups were willing to agree to. If you stick that in, there’s a high likelihood that the agreement falls apart. He is seeking to kill the deal.”

I’m sure you can tell who this story is about, but I have no desire to give him any more attention for it. I neither know nor care what this guy’s motivations are, but I do know this: He’s seeking to use the Legislature to overrule the voters who rejected him in 2015. I have no respect for that, and as such I no longer have any respect for him. Hope you’re happy, dude.

January 2017 campaign finance reports: Houston officeholders

Normally, at this time I would be scanning through Houston candidate campaign finance reports, to see where incumbents stand at the start of the season. Of course, barring near-term court action there is no season for Houston municipal officeholders this year, and unlike past years they have been able to raise money during what had once been a blackout period. It’s still worth it to check in and see what everyone has, so let’s do that.


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Turner     681,972   177,867        0   1,312,028

Stardig *   39,361    24,088        0      79,980
Davis *      8,500    27,439        0     154,707
Cohen *      8,350    21,563        0      77,451
Boykins     26,400    23,820        0         186
Martin       4,250    17,469        0      95,896
Le          13,100    13,519   42,823       2,023
Travis           0    12,984   76,000      23,606
Cisneros     7,500    15,295      273       4,959
Gallegos    20,834    14,742        0      33,077
Laster *     3,000     6,292        0     145,071
Green *     10,000    52,652        0     107,248

Knox         6,275    20,061        0      16,737
Robinson    44,750    15,277        0      52,408
Kubosh      10,925    12,907  276,000      20,824
Edwards     42,401    18,379        0     110,660
Christie *   1,367    22,653        0      18,563

Brown       30,520    52,814        0      41,245


Parker           0    36,503        0     136,368
King             0        50  650,000           0

Asterisks indicate term-limited incumbents. I included Annise Parker and Bill King mostly out of curiosity. Parker can’t run for anything in Houston, but if she does eventually run for something else she can transfer what she has in this account to whatever other one she may need.

Clearly, Mayor Turner has been busy. Big hauls by incumbent Mayors are hardly unusual, it’s just that Turner had the benefit of more time to make that haul. A few Council members plus Controller Chris Brown were busy, though there was nothing that was truly eye-popping. I didn’t look at the individual forms beyond the totals page, so I can’t say what everyone spent their money on, but if I had to guess I’d say recurring fees for things like consultants and websites, plus the usual meals, travel, donations, and what have you. Loan amounts always fascinate me – you have to wonder if any of them will be paid back. Probably not.

It’s not too surprising that the term-limited members are among those with the largest cash on hand totals. They have had the longest to build it up, after all. I have to assume some of them – in particular, Jerry Davis, Mike Laster, and Larry Green – have a run for something else in their future. For what will be mostly a matter of opportunity. Of those who can run again in 2019, I’ll be very interested to see how their fortunes change between now and the next two Januaries. One way or another, 2019 ought to be a busy year.

Turns out a little budget flexibility is a good thing

Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

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

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

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

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

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

City loses appeal of procedural argument in term limits lawsuit

Stay with me, because this is going to take a bit of explaining.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

A state appeals court on Thursday rejected the city’s procedural challenge to a lawsuit that could force Houston’s mayor and city council members to revert to three two-year terms, from the two four-year terms voters approved in November 2015.

The Texas First Court of Appeals ruling did not address the merits of the underlying case, which centers on whether the city’s ballot language was misleading.

Rather, the court’s decision marks an incremental step in what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process that plaintiffs hope could trigger municipal elections as early as this fall.

Austin election lawyer Buck Wood, however, said he considers November mayoral and city council elections improbable, given the speed with which courts typically move.

[…]

The appellate court’s ruling affirms state District Judge Randy Clapp’s decision last year to reject Houston’s procedural challenge, which sought to get the case thrown out.

Clapp was not considering the substance of the case at the time, though he tipped his hand by calling the city’s ballot language “inartful” but not “invalid.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said Thursday the city attorney’s office is considering whether to appeal the procedural decision to the state Supreme Court.

If the trial court’s 2016 procedural decision holds, the case likely would return to Clapp for a hearing on the substance of whether Houston’s term limits ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms.”

See here for the background. Where this gets confusing is that the original story didn’t explain all of what was happening in that first hearing. There was a motion by the plaintiffs for summary judgment, which was denied. That was the win for the city, as now a trial is required to settle the question of whether the ballot language was misleading or not. The rest of it was about procedural matters: Whether plaintiff’s attorney Eric Dick properly served the city notice of his lawsuit, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether attorney Andy Taylor could intervene to assist Dick. District Court Judge Clapp ruled against the city’s motion to dismiss on these matters. The city appealed that ruling, and the First Court of Appeals upheld Judge Clapp.

The city can appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. If they do and they win, the lawsuit will be dismissed. If they lose, or if they choose not to appeal, the matter will be returned to Judge Clapp’s court for a trial on the merits of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are hoping to get a ruling in time for there to be city elections this November; they claim August is the deadline for that, though I’d argue that more time would be needed for real campaigns to occur. However, as the story notes, even if the plaintiffs win, there’s no guarantee that city elections would follow as a result. What might happen instead is that the city would have to put a differently-worded term limits referendum on the ballot. That maybe could happen this November, or it might happen in 2018. Or even later than that, depending on how long it takes to get a ruling and how long the appeals of that ruling take. Remember how long it took to get a Supreme Court decision in the Renew Houston lawsuit? The 2010 referendum was subsequently voided more than a year ago, and yet here we are, with no new election for it in sight. Mayor Turner has joked that it will be up to his successor to get the term limits issue straightened out because it won’t be settled till after his eight years in office. I’m not sure he’s joking about that.

This fight feels different

The more I read about the forthcoming fight between Dan Patrick and his minions and everyone else over the bathroom bill, the more I am struck by the thought that we have never seen anything quite like this before in Texas.

Standing in front of reporters Thursday, Patrick was still a man on the mission, but the political moment had shifted. In the months prior, a Texas judge had blocked the Obama guidance and the bathroom issue had largely cooled off on the national stage — even contributing to the re-election loss of North Carolina’s governor, by some accounts — and opposition to similar legislation in Texas had begun to gain momentum.

Patrick is now in for a self-admitted “tough fight” in the Texas Legislature, where he faces fierce opposition from the business community and lukewarm support from fellow Republicans, at least outside his Senate. That reality did not immediately change Thursday, when he joined state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to roll out the highly anticipated Texas Privacy Act, which would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex.” The bill would also pre-empt local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Patrick ally and a fellow Houston Republican who chairs the Texas Senate GOP caucus, acknowledged Thursday that it is “going to take some time to talk to the business community, make sure they understand what that bill is” — especially after alarm-sounding by business groups that Patrick allies have criticized as unfounded.

“The beginning of that was obviously” Thursday, Bettencourt said. “Once people can understand what the bill is, certainly the fear of [economic harm] will obviously disappear because it wasn’t real in the first place.”

Patrick was characteristically combative at Thursday’s news conference, saying he had never seen so much misinformation about a piece of legislation before it was filed. He singled out one recent report that suggested he had struggled to find a senator to carry the bill, revealing that he and Kolkhorst had been working on it since Sept. 1. Kolkhorst, for her part, said some of her staff did not even know she was taking up the cause.

The bill’s supporters are betting big that public opinion will overpower whatever resistance they encounter at the Capitol. Their reference point is polling that Patrick’s political operation commissioned last year, which it says shows there is broad support for making it “illegal for a man to enter a women’s restroom.” They also point to the 2015 demise of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, better known as HERO, which featured much of the same message Patrick is now using with the statewide legislation.

[…]

In the House, state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, has been outspoken on the issue. On Thursday, he said he was crafting legislation that would only “prevent any local government from regulating bathrooms,” which would be similar to one component of Senate Bill 6. By solely focusing on local governments, the House bill would avoid the more incendiary debates sparked by a potential statewide mandate, Shaheen suggested.

“This bathroom issue is just sucking up a bunch of time and resources,” Shaheen said. “I think because my approach is more of a scope-of-government-type of discussion — I avoid the whole bathroom dialogue in general — I think there’ll be a receptiveness to the bill.”

In any case, the business community has spent months looking to derail any bill related to the issue, warning it could lead to the same turmoil that visited North Carolina when its lawmakers pushed similar legislation. The Texas Association of Business and its allies have been the most vocal, touting a report the group released last month that said such legislation could cost the state between $964 million and $8.5 billion and more than 100,000 jobs.

Caroline Joiner, executive director for the Texas and the Southeast for TechNet, a technology industry group opposed to the bill, said one of its challenges is convincing “individual legislators and their constituents that this is not hypothetical — we will have real, devastating economic impacts.” And while Joiner, like many others, expects the issue to be better received in the Senate than in the House, she said TechNet has an interest in educating lawmakers from both chambers about the potential economic consequences.

“I think we absolutely need to be telling that story as aggressively in the House as we are in the Senate,” Joiner said. “Yes, it’s going to be less of a priority for Speaker Straus, but we want to make sure he has the support from his members to oppose it.”

For Democrats, the debate provides an opportunity to capitalize on the growing schism between the increasingly conservative Texas GOP and the more moderate business community. On Thursday, the state Democratic Party quickly branded Kolkhorst’s legislation as an “$8.5 billion bathroom bill,” citing the Texas Association of Business study.

The report itself has been a source of controversy, with Patrick and his allies denouncing it as misinformation and fear-mongering. Bettencourt said the study “had some holes you could drive a Mack truck through,” while Shaheen said he wants it known that he and several colleagues are “highly disappointed in TAB about they’ve misrepresented the business impact of these types of bills.”

Patrick continued to rail against the report Thursday, suggesting in a radio interview after the bill unveiling that the study’s findings were not uniformly supported by the business community.

“The members of the Texas Association of Business have already said they don’t even believe their own report,” Patrick told Tony Perkins, president of the socially conservative Family Research Council. “That report was based on not any economic data, but just extracting some numbers that some people who I believe are with the TAB who are just against the bill. Period. Just want to try to make their argument, but it’s no real data. It’s ridiculous.”

See here for more on SB6. Let me start by addressing the ccomparisons to the HERO fight being made by Patrick and Bettencourt, among others. They want us to think that because there were no real consequences for repealing HERO, there will be no consequences for passing SB6. This argument fails on a number of levels. First, it is legal today for a transgender woman to use a ladies’ room today, in Houston and anywhere else. It was legal before HERO was passed, and it is legal today. HERO didn’t make it legal, because it was already legal. SB6 would make it illegal, as HB2 in North Carolina did. Repealing HERO, as bad as that was, merely reset things to the previous status quo. SB6 would actively make it worse for transgender people, as was the case in North Carolina. This is why HERO repeal didn’t cause much of a stir, while SB6 passage would.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but we’ve already seen what those consequences are. We saw sporting events get relocated, conventions get canceled, business expansions get called off, jobs get lost. It happened, right before our eyes, in North Carolina. Sure, maybe the Texas Association of Business is presenting a worst-case scenario, pushing the biggest number possible in an attempt to ward off SB6. But even something that falls short of a worst-case scenario is still bad, and there’s nothing hypothetical about it. The warnings are there. The North Carolina experience – and the Indiana experience before that – happened. We all saw it. It’s on Dan Patrick to explain why it wouldn’t happen here. He’s not very convincing when he tries.

Which brings me to the nature of the disagreement between Patrick et al and the business community. There have been schisms between business and the Republicans before. The biggest one in recent years has been over anti-immigration policies, but the TAB has had things like improving education and infrastructure on their agenda as well. In the past, though, these disputes have been characterized as “disagreements between friends”, who are “held in high regard”. Look at the way Patrick and Bettencourt refer to the TAB study. They’re dismissive, to the point of being contemptuous. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this feels to me like it’s more personal, with each side maybe feeling disrespected by the other. And remember, the session hasn’t even started yet, which is to say that this fight hasn’t really gotten started yet, either. It could get a lot nastier.

Again, I may be overstating this. The invective has gone only one way so far, and it’s hardly anything that couldn’t be walked back later if it had to be. The TAB has no choice but to at least maintain a cordial relationship with Dan Patrick, and the “business as usual” urge is strong. I’m putting a marker down on this now because I noticed it, and if it does continue to develop this way I will point to this as the start of it. What I’m saying for now is that this looks and feels different to me. I’ve been saying for a long time now that at some point the business community needs to come to terms with the fact that Dan Patrick is not with them a significant and increasing amount of the time, and that maybe they need to think about doing something else. We should do what we can to encourage that line of thinking.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

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

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

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

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

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

The Elections We Will Have

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elections We May Have

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

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

The Elections We Could Have

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

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

Year Two for Mayor Turner

Year One was busy, but a lot of what was done this year depends on what happens next year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Tasked last year with distinguishing himself from a crowded field of mayoral candidates, Sylvester Turner styled himself as a progressive with expansive policy goals.

He pledged to boost wages, improve educational opportunities and implement a new road repair job training program, stressing that Houston’s future depends on pairing such initiatives with core services improvements.

“I am bullish on Houston,” Turner would repeat, radiating optimism in the face of a tight budget and looming pension crisis.

A year into office, however, the mayor has set aside much of that to-do list in favor of an ambitious but moderate “back to basics” approach.

Pension reform – a topic he shied away from on the campaign circuit – now is the linchpin in Turner’s two-year plan, and he is loath to discuss much else.

That focus has paid off in the form of a reform package that he says will eliminate the underfunding of Houston’s three retirement systems in 30 years and limit the city’s exposure to market downturns.

Crucially, the plan has received buy-in from the fire, police and municipal pension boards, as well as praise from experts.

“When you look at where we were on Jan. 1, 2016, on pensions and look at where we are today,” Turner said recently, “there is no question that we have come a long, long way from where we started.”

The deal now must earn approval from the Texas Legislature, which controls Houston’s pension systems.

[…]

If Turner is successful, however, he intends to spend his political capital – earned, principally, from pension reform and closing this year’s $160 million budget gap – on campaigning to lift Houston’s limit on property tax collections.

The voter-approved revenue cap was instituted in 2004 and limits the increase in the city’s annual property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Turner is not shy about pitching projects he would take on, absent the revenue cap, such as expanding the Houston Police Department by 540 officers by 2020. This plan may take on even more urgency, as HPD has seen a sharp spike in the number of officers filing papers indicating they plan to retire in the first half of 2017.

“We need more police officers. We need more equipment. We need more EMS units. We need more training,” Turner said in September, after a southwest Houston shooting wounded nine. “You can’t keep lowering the property tax rate because of this revenue cap and expect the city to be fully equipped with all of the assets that are needed.”

I’m pretty sure there’s more than one person on Team Turner who is grinding their teeth at the “back to basics” usage, since that was very much not Turner’s campaign slogan. Be that as it may, the general formulation is correct. Turner spent a lot of time this year working on a pension deal, and what he does next is tied to his success at getting the necessary legislation passed to implement that deal. And if he is successful, then the rest of 2017 will largely be focused on amending the revenue cap. If he can get both of those things done, then the sky is the limit and anything he wants to do is on the table. If not, it isn’t fatal, but it does leave him stuck. How much time can he spend on other things if he still needs to work on getting these things done? I’m sure he’d rather not have to find out.

How likely is Turner to get the pension legislation through? I have no idea, but if there’s anyone in a position to do it, it’s Turner. This is one of those times when experience really matters. No guarantees, because the Lege doesn’t work that way, but if anyone knows how to navigate these waters, it’s Turner. I should note that the pension bills aren’t the only thing on the city’s legislative wish list for 2017. Most of the specific items are pretty narrow and wonky, but the overriding principles laid out in the first few pages will keep the lobbying team busy, primarily I fear on defense. But if you want to know what the city does and doesn’t want from Austin next year, there’s your reference guide.

One more thing:

[Bill] King, last year’s mayoral runner-up, said he is considering challenging Turner, depending on his health and how pension reform plays out.

“If he ends up not solving the pension problem – which he promised he would do – then I think somebody needs to step in and save the city from going bankrupt,” King said.

King, who would like to see Houston switch from defined benefit to defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s, has gotten under the skin of Turner and his staff by sending regular email blasts criticizing the city, including on inauguration day, and holding occasional press conferences.

“The campaign is over, and the total focus should be on meeting the needs of all Houstonians in their moment of crisis,” the mayor tweeted in April, after King criticized the city’s flood response.

I get those emails, too. You can probably guess what my level of interest in them is. King is certainly able to be the next Ben Hall if he wants to – he’s got the money for it, and apparently the lack of anything better to do. The question is, what has Turner done so far to lose anyone’s support? Based on how things have gone so far, I’d say not much. But hey, keep hope alive.

Pasadena voting rights case in the judge’s hands now

We await a ruling.

Pasadena City Council

Armed officers guarded a closed-door committee meeting. Discriminatory comments surfaced at City Hall. Latino-backed council members were hustled from chambers by police.

The accounts of perceived intimidation and back-door dealings were detailed during testimony in a closely watched seven-day trial of a federal voting rights lawsuit that wrapped up Friday in a Houston courtroom.

Now, U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal will decide if Pasadena violated the federal Voting Rights Act by reconfiguring its city election system, a ruling that is expected in time for February filing deadlines for May elections in which city council seats and the mayor’s job are up for grabs.

A group of Latino voters filed the federal lawsuit, saying city leaders changed the structure of council elections in a deliberate attempt to quell the Hispanic vote.

“The city moved to dilute voting strength just as Latinos were starting to exercise it,” said Nina Perales, lead attorney in the suit for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in her closing arguments to the court.

City attorneys argued that leaders did not set out to diminish Hispanic representation by presenting an option to voters to change the city election systems. The growing Latino population has an equal chance to participate in the political process to elect their candidate of choice, said C. Robert Heath, a veteran attorney who specializes in voting rights and election law.

“No one said, ‘Vote yes (on the ballot measure) to diminish Hispanic representation,’ ” he said.

See here and here for the background. There were a couple of other stories related to this case published last week. From Monday, when Mayor Isbell took the stand:

The mayor of Pasadena chuckled and shook his head Monday when his defense lawyer asked if he had ever been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, which had its headquarters in the city for many years.

“No. It’s a despicable organization as far as I’m concerned,” Mayor Johnny Isbell, who is white, testified.

He is not racist, nor is Pasadena a racist city, he testified.

[…]

Isbell said he had appointed African-Americans and Hispanics to top jobs in his administration and actively backed a few Hispanic candidates’ campaigns. He said he supported redistricting and switching from eight single-member districts to six single-member districts plus two at-large seats because decades in public office taught him a mixed election system worked best.

He also contradicted testimony last week by Hispanic City Council member Ornaldo Ybarra, who said Isbell was known to have said to like-minded constituents that if they didn’t back his proposed revisions that the city government would be overpowered by “an invasion of Hispanics.”

The mayor testified that the changing demographics of Pasadena don’t bother him, and he quibbled with Ybarra’s portrayal of a north-south split in Pasadena, with Hispanics in the northern sector having to live amid urban blight, poorly maintained streets and subpar drainage.

The judge asked questions to clarify how the city divided.

Isbell said the north was mostly Hispanic and the south was majority white. But Isbell said the charter vote was not a white-versus-Hispanic issue.

“It was a Democrat and Republican issue, that’s the way it ended up,” he said.

The next day one of Isbell’s allies made an embarrassing admission during his testimony.

A top Pasadena official admitted on the witness stand that he violated state ethics laws by campaigning during work hours for the mayor’s re-election bid and for a 2013 charter amendment to change the city’s election system.

Richard Scott, the city’s director of community relations, testified in trial in a federal voting rights lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal that he’d used city workers and resources to do campaign work during business hours and sent campaign-related emails from his city account.

He said he regretted his actions and knew they were in violation of state law.

The statute of limitations has expired on the 2013 admission but Scott could be charged with a crime for working on the mayor’s 2015 campaign, according to Nina Perales, one of the team of attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund pursuing the lawsuit.

[…]

Scott’s testimony came during questioning by MALDEF attorney Ernest Herrera in the civil trial of a lawsuit filed by Hispanic voters.

Scott, a longtime confidante of Mayor Johnny Isbell, sat up tall and answered the questions without hesitation. Yes, he had used his work email address. Yes, he’d had city employees help him during work hours on the campaigns. Yes, he knew that was a violation of campaign law.

Okay then. Chron reporter Mike Snyder attended the trail and picked out a few key quotes to highlight from it.

“You don’t have to look at the budget to see that one side of town is clearly being treated differently than the other.” – Pasadena Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler.

The councilman, a Latino in his second term who is part of the faction that has opposed the mayor on contentious topics, was discussing the real-world consequences of the issues in the case. Residents of Pasadena’s mostly Latino north side have long complained that the quality of their streets, drainage and other essential services lags far behind conditions on the predominantly Anglo south side.

The most recently adopted council structure of six district seats and two at-large ones replaced a system of eight district positions. If, as the suit alleges, the new system makes it harder for the city’s growing Latino population to elect its preferred candidates, this under-representation is reflected in residents’ daily lives. This trial is not a theoretical exercise.

[…]

“Who are you to vote against me?” – Isbell to Wheeler, according to Wheeler’s testimony.

Wheeler said the mayor posed this question after Wheeler voted against a bond package that Isbell initially supported. Isbell has not confirmed or denied having made the statement, but it’s the kind of thing a longtime public official accustomed to having his way might say to a young, ambitious politician like Wheeler. Isbell, 78, has held elective office in Pasadena almost continuously since 1969 – 16 years before the 31-year-old Wheeler was born. A sense of entitlement can be a byproduct of all that experience.

[…]

“We’ve got to keep Pasadena Pasadena.” – unidentified Anglo precinct judge to Wheeler, explaining his support for the new council system on Nov. 5, 2013 – the day voters narrowly approved it.

I think this comment speaks for itself.

Indeed, though it’s up to Judge Rosenthal to decide if it merits legal redress. She has promised a decision in time to conduct the May elections in Pasadena, which all things considered probably means by February.

Time once again to discuss Latino political participation

Let’s jump right in.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

The long wait continues for Houston and Harris County residents eager for a steep uptick in elected Latino representation.

Hispanic residents last year were 42 percent of the county population, up from 23 percent in 1990, yet Houston has yet to elect a Latino mayor, and no at-large City Council members are Hispanic.

At the county, low-profile Treasurer Orlando Sanchez is the lone countywide Latino elected official, judges aside. Even Harris County’s congressional delegation lacks a Hispanic member.

By January, however, that will change. Four of the area’s most prominent public officials are going to be Latino, thanks to three recent Houston appointments – Police Chief Art Acevedo, Fire Chief Samuel Peña and school Superintendent Richard Carranza – paired with the election of Ed Gonzalez as county sheriff.

University of Houston political scientist Jeronimo Cortina framed the rise of these leaders as providing an opportunity to boost Hispanic civic engagement.

“It’s going to send an empowering message to Latino kids that they can do it. It doesn’t matter how you look or where you come from,” said Cortina, who specializes in American and Latino politics. “People are going to get motivated, especially the young generation.”

Hispanics punch below their weight at the ballot box nationally and locally, where voters with a Spanish surname represent just 21 percent of registered voters despite being a plurality of Harris County residents, according to Hector de Leon, who directs voter outreach for the county clerk’s office.

That relatively low percentage has grown, however, as the region’s young Latino population has come of age.

Spanish-surnamed voters now make up 31 percent of Harris County registered voters between the ages of 18 and 24, according to de Leon, and a quarter of registered voters between ages 25 and 29. The share of Spanish-surnamed registered voters drops below 21 percent only among voters ages 50 and above.

Even so, voters with a Spanish surname made up just 17 percent of Harris County’s early vote this year, de Leon said. Election Day data was not available.

“If you engage Latino voters at this early age and excite them to participate politically, civically, then you’re going to be creating a very robust voting bloc that is going to be the future of the state,” Cortina said.

I don’t have sufficient data to make any firm statements about how Latino voting this year compared to 2012. That really has to be done at the individual precinct level and with the full roster of all voters. What I can do is note that in the most heavily Latino districts, participation was up this year over 2012:

CD29 – 117,291 votes from 239,552 voters in 2012; 136,801 votes from 264,213 voters in 2016

SD06 – 137,993 votes from 284,248 voters in 2012; 158,365 votes from 311,045 voters in 2016

HD140 – 24,213 votes from 53,338 voters in 2012; 28,652 votes from 59,339 voters in 2016
HD143 – 31,334 votes from 62,715 voters in 2012; 34,279 votes from 65,713 voters in 2016
HD144 – 24,673 votes from 54,579 voters in 2012; 28,120 votes from 57,173 voters in 2016
HD145 – 30,346 votes from 60,056 voters in 2012; 35,918 votes from 66,975 voters in 2016
HD148 – 40,230 votes from 71,705 voters in 2012; 49,819 votes from 79,995 voters in 2016

This is a crude measurement in several ways. For one thing, there’s a lot of overlap between CD29, SD06, and the five State Rep districts. For another, just because there were more voters doesn’t mean there were more Latino voters. Voting was up overall in Harris County thanks in large part to a significant increase in voter registrations. I haven’t compared the increases in these districts to the others to see where they fall proportionally. The point I’m making is simply that there were more votes and more voters in each of these districts, with the turnout rate being a bit higher in each place as well. It’s a start, and a step in the right direction.

As for the issue of Latinos in city government, I’ve said this before and i’ll say it again: Part of the issue is that there aren’t many Latinos who run for Council outside of Districts H and I. Roy Morales has made it to the runoff of two At Large races, in #3 in 2013 and in #4 in 2015, but that was because he nudged into second place ahead of a large field of other candidates and behind a clear frontrunner who then easily defeated him in the second round. Moe Rivera ran for At Large #2 in 2013 and 2015, finishing third out of four in 2013 and last out of five in 2015. Roland Chavez was one of the candidates Roy Morales nosed out in 2013. And of course there was Adrian Garcia running for Mayor last year, and I think we all understand by now why he didn’t do as well in that race as he might have hoped.

That’s pretty much it for Latino citywide candidates in the last two elections. Way back in 2009, when we were first talking about expanding Council from nine districts to 11, I asked Vidal Martinez why people like him didn’t do more to support Latino candidates who ran for At Large seats. I still don’t know what the answer to that question is.

Council ratifies Turner’s pension plan

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

On a 16-1 vote, Houston City Council has endorsed Mayor Sylvester Turner’s historic package of pension reforms. The vote clears the way for the City to move forward in partnership with the pension systems to seek legislative approval of the reforms.

“I am bubbling over on the inside,” said Mayor Turner. “I am thankful to everyone who has helped get us to this point. That includes City Council, the pension systems, our City employees and many others. This plan is historic, transformative and budget neutral. We are solving our pension problem permanent and we are doing it without needed a tax rate increase. There is no other plan out there offering the same benefits. The Houston solution can be the model for other cities with similar challenges.”

The police, fire and municipal pension systems all signed off on the package of reforms prior to today’s City Council vote, marking the first time that the City and all of the pension groups have been united.

The plan immediately reduces the City’s nearly $8 billion pension debt by over 30 percent and then sets a 30-year fixed payoff schedule for the remaining $5.3 billion of debt. This immediate reduction is accomplished through a combination of benefits changes that include scaling back cost-of-living adjustments, higher employee payroll contributions and phasing out of the Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP, which allows employees to accept retirement benefits while continuing to work for the City. In return for the concessions, the City has agreed to issue $1 billion in Pension Obligation Bonds to make up for years of prior underfunding of the pension systems.

“It is a big deal that employees have agreed to these benefit changes,” said Turner. “I know this has not been easy, and I thank each of them for their patience, understanding and service. This plan will provide stable and sustainable retirements at an affordable cost to the taxpayers who foot the bill. Retirees won’t have to worry if the check will be there.”

Moving forward, predictions about the anticipated performance of pension system investments will be based on a more conservative seven percent assumed rate of return. If there are market changes that cause costs to exceed pre-agreed limits, there is a mechanism to force additional changes in benefits to bring everything back in line. A requirement that both sides share information will ensure compliance with the required 30-year payoff schedule.

State Senator Joan Huffman and State Representative Dan Flynn are expected to carry the Houston pension legislation. Bill filing for the 2017 legislative session begins mid-November 2016.

See here and here for the background. CM Mike Knox was the lone No vote, saying he couldn’t support it without there already being a bill written. The Chron story fills in a few details.

Turner secured the political chip of a prompt and lopsided endorsement by using an impassioned speech to persuade Councilman Michael Kubosh to remove his “tag,” a parliamentary maneuver that would have delayed the vote. Kubosh had said he initially tagged the measure at the request state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who has called for a delay until more information was available on the reform plan.

“Either you all are going to represent the people of the city of Houston or – I’m going to borrow your term Councilmember Kubosh – are you going to represent political interests? I stand with the people of the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I was voted (in) to represent their interests, not some party affiliation or some political interest or somebody who wants to be mayor.”

Turner’s comments plainly were directed at Bill King, who was runner-up in last year’s mayoral race and who joined Bettencourt at his news conference. The duo said the detailed reform proposals were public for too short a time and too vague to be properly vetted, particularly a key “corridor” provision that would force benefit cuts in the future if a market downturn led the city’s payments to increase above a specified threshold.

King and Bettencourt say the city should switch new hires to retirement savings plans similar to 401(k)s, but acknowledged a well-written “corridor” provision could offer the same benefits to the city.

[…]

Most council members, however, referenced the briefings they had received on the plan and echoed Turner’s point that no public speaker in the six weeks since the reform outline was first announced had appeared before City Council to criticize it.

“I want to make sure the public understands we have been briefed, and it wasn’t a 24-hour-ago briefing,” Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said.

Councilman Dave Martin, like Stardig, a conservative, offered even stronger comments.

“I did not vote for you. I did not support you. I’m supporting you 100 percent on this,” Martin told Turner. “I think it’s ridiculous for people to criticize this plan. It’s been transparent; it’s been thorough. We’ve been diligent. We don’t need any more information. Maybe the state does, but do your homework.”

Yeah. Just as a reminder, the Kinder Institute has analyzed the plan, so we are not operating in an information vacuum here. I’m sure if Sen. Bettencourt had called the Mayor’s office and asked for a briefing, he’d have gotten it. But it’s easier to preen than it is to prep, so here we are. My guess is we’ll see bills get pre-filed for this, probably in November, so we’ll know soon enough what that will look like. The next question is who will support it and who will try to kill it. The games have just begun.

Endorsement watch: Stay the course

Harris County Democrats have one incumbent up for re-election: County Attorney Vince Ryan. The Chron gives their approval for another term.

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

[Ryan] said that he actively pursues pollution enforcement lawsuits against big companies – such as Volkswagen after it lied about emissions tests, or the corporations responsible for the San Jacinto waste pits. But in a state where legislators and regulators routinely erect barriers to citizens seeking justice from the industries that poison our water and pollute our air, Ryan’s headlines over matters of public concern look more like necessary leadership than disregard for cooperation.

That’s not to say Ryan hasn’t been an important team player with other law enforcement agencies across the county. He’s harnessed the power of the county attorney’s office to go after dangerous gangs, sex traffickers and Kush merchants. He also helped the county cut through the Gordian Knot of same-sex marriage by quickly and clearly instructing judges to follow the U.S. Supreme Court after it held bans to be unconstitutionally discriminatory, yet refrained from hounding individual county employees who preferred to pass onto their coworkers the historic duty of marrying same-sex couples.

Running for his third term, the former District C councilman and longtime assistant under former County Attorney Mike Driscoll brings a steady and experienced hand to an important position that has a vast spectrum of responsibilities, including advising county officials, preparing contracts, defending the county from lawsuits and protecting communities through civil action. He’s served the county well, and voters should keep him in office.

Other than some judges, Vince Ryan is the only Democrat elected countywide in 2008 to remain in office. Loren Jackson, who won a special election to fill the remaining term of District Clerk, lost in the 2010 sweep. HCDE At Large trustees Jim Henley, who resigned in 2014, and Debra Kerner, who lost in 2014, and Adrian Garcia, who stepped down as Sheriff to run for Mayor in 2015, followed. I feel pretty good about the Dems’ chances of adding to that roster this year, but it starts with Vince Ryan.

Senate whinefest about ballot propositions

Spare me.

crybaby

Members of a state Senate committee called Monday for changes in Texas law to prevent cities from thwarting or blocking citizen petition drives, a key issue for conservative and tea party groups in Houston and other cities in recent years.

At a meeting of the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee, members made it clear they support changes to ensure that ballot language is not deceptive or misleading and to keep cities from using outside law firms already doing city business to drag out legal proceedings against citizen petitioners.

Representatives of Texas’ approximately 300 home-rule cities cautioned against making changes to the current process or tipping the laws too far in favor of citizen groups, saying that could dilute local control in favor of state mandates.

Tension between citizen activists and local officials who often are the targets of their ire has been bubbling across Texas in recent years, thanks to a boost of tea party activism. Much of the testimony at Monday’s hearing centered on contentious petition drives and ballot fights in Houston, including the city’s controversial drainage fee levied more than decade ago and the repeal of Houston’s equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, in 2015.

[…]

Austin lawyer Andy Taylor, who fought the City of Houston before the Texas Supreme Court on ballot issues such HERO and the city’s drainage fee, told the committee how citizens who have had to go to court on their petition drives have had to pay hefty legal fees even though they won the legal battles.

Taylor testified that the cost of one case alone totalled $650,000. Bruce Hotze, a Houston businessman who has fought the City of Houston in another case, said he has spent well over $350,000 and the case is not over yet, because the city will not implement a charter change approved by voters.

Witnesses testified that other issues include petition signatures being invalidated in questionable ways, and cities using outside attorneys to increase the costs to citizen petitioners, a move that could discourage them from pursuing an action the city leadership opposes.

Let’s remember three things:

1. Andy Taylor’s fight over the drainage fee has been about nullifying the petition-driven referendum that was approved by the voters. The claims about “confusing language”, which were rejected by a district and appeals court before finally being bought by a credulous and activist Supreme Court, were raised after the election, by people who didn’t like the outcome.

2. That same Supreme Court put the anti-HERO referendum on the ballot without considering a lower court ruling that the petition effort had been rife with petition sheets that did not meet state law and widespread forgery. It never even held a hearing to allow an argument from the city, but ruled solely on a motion from the plaintiffs.

3. Apparently, this entire hearing occurred without anyone mentioning the Denton fracking referendum, in which yet another petition-driven referendum that was ratified by the voters was nullified, first by a judge and then by legislators like Paul Bettencourt.

The point here is that this isn’t about process, and it sure isn’t about The Will Of The People being stifled. It’s about the voters doing things that state Republicans don’t like. It’s about cities having a different vision and priorities for themselves than Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Legislature do. Abbott et al don’t accept the authority of the federal government, and they don’t accept the authority of local government. That’s what this is about.

NCAA lays down a marker on anti-LGBT legislation

Hope the Lege is paying attention, because they can’t say they haven’t been warned.

RedEquality

The NBA and NCAA may have just dealt a preemptive, one-two knockout punch to anti-LGBT bills in the upcoming Texas Legislature, which convenes in January.

First, the NBA announced plans to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte over North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which restricts restroom access for transgender people and prohibits cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.

Then, the NCAA responded to HB 2 by saying it will quiz prospective championship host cities about whether they protect LGBT people against discrimination. Texas cities hosted three of the last six men’s basketball Final Four tournaments, and the event, with an estimated economic impact of $75 million, is slated for San Antonio in 2018.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and other GOP state lawmakers have indicatedthey plan to push legislation similar to HB 2 in next year’s session. However, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones told the Observer that even if such a bill were to clear the Patrick-led Senate, he believes it would die at the hands of moderate Republican House speaker Joe Straus.

“In the House, it’s difficult to see any HB 2-type legislation making it out of committee,” Jones said. “The speaker isn’t going to let something through that would have a negative impact on Texas businesses and could result in the cancellation of sporting events.”

A spokesman for Straus, who represents San Antonio, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. A spokesman for Patrick, who previously railed against“threats” of backlash from corporations and sporting events over anti-LGBT legislation such as HB 2, didn’t respond to multiple phone calls and emails.

In defense of anti-LGBT legislation, Patrick has pointed out the men’s Final Four was held in Houston in April despite voters’ decision to repeal the city’s Equal Rights Ordinance last November. But the NCAA Board of Governors didn’t adopt new diversity guidelines for host cities until after the 2016 Final Four, and Jones drew a distinction between voters repealing a nondiscrimination ordinance and legislators passing an anti-LGBT bill.

[…]

Jessica Shortall, managing director for Texas Competes, said the announcements from the NBA and NCAA are part of a growing pattern in which the corporate sector not only sees LGBT discrimination as incompatible with its values, but is increasingly willing to stand up against LGBT discrimination.

“This trend isn’t going away, and it will continue to have deep effects on municipal and state economies,” she said. “The sports community is sending strong and unified signals on this topic, and that’s something that has to have the attention of economic development professionals who work to secure lucrative bookings, as well as of everyday citizens who care about economic health and jobs in their communities.”

The Current covers the local angle.

Here in San Antonio, City Council approved adding gender identity and sexual orientation to its non-discrimination ordinance three years ago, and has since hired a diversity and inclusion officer and built a dedicated website that’s supposed to be a one-stop shop for non-discrimination complaints. Part of the NCAA’s new bidding policy for championships includes a non-discrimination ordinance requirement. However, the NCAA announced in 2014 that San Antonio will host the NCAA Final Four in 2018 — two years before the association’s policy change.

That doesn’t mean that San Antonio won’t be required to prove to the NCAA that its policies don’t discriminate and provide “an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event.” Last week, the NCAA announced it was sending questionnaires to all cities interested in hosting future NCAA championships but it’s also sending one to San Antonio, along with other currently awarded host sites, as first reported by the San Antonio Business Journal.

Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office didn’t respond to our request for comment on whether the mayor, who voted against the non-discrimination ordinance in 2013, thinks the city’s rule will pass that bar. However, it likely will. In basic terms, the NCAA wants to know whether a community even has a non-discrimination ordinance, whether it regulates bathrooms or locker rooms, and whether it has provisions that allow for the refusal of accommodations or services to any person.

Where it’s going to get hairy for San Antonio is that the questionnaire also wants to know whether state law clashes with the NCAA’s new criteria.

The NBA’s message to North Carolina was pretty clear. Like a child who’s been denied candy as an afternoon snack, Dan Patrick can pout and stamp his feet all he wants, but these are the rules of engagement. If Patrick and his brethren in zealotry want to propose legislation that would limit the ability of private companies to treat their employees with equality – because nothing says “party of small government” and “promoting a healthy climate for business” like that would – then he should go right ahead. This is all in character for Dan Patrick, who doesn’t handle entities that disagree with him well. Whether he likes it or not, he knows what the consequences for his behavior will be. What he does from here is entirely up to him. The Press has more.

July finance reports for State Rep candidates

Hey, it’s July, and you know what that means: Campaign finance reports! There aren’t many State Rep races of interest this November, but there are four that I wanted to look at.

HD134

Rep. Sarah Davis
Ben Rose


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Davis       92,972  252,457         0     53,839
Rose        83,047   31,278         0     54,691

I don’t really expect HD134 to be particularly tight – it will never be “safe” in the sense that most districts are, but it also won’t be any closer than 55-45 barring anything odd. Which, to be fair, could happen this year. Ben Rose has been pretty active so far, and he raised a decent amount of money; his campaign sent out an email on Tuesday bragging that they are “currently in 1st place with more cash on hand than our incumbent opponent”, which is true enough but not perhaps the most accurate way of viewing things, given that Davis spent a bunch of money in a contested primary. If he gets to make the same boast after the 30 Day reports come out, I will be genuinely impressed. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if Rep. Davis retains the endorsement she received in 2014 from Equality Texas. She hasn’t done anything to forfeit it as far as I know, but unlike 2014 she has a viable opponent. We’ll see what happens.

HD144

Rep. Gilbert Pena
Mary Ann Perez


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Pena        14,920   15,932         0     13,643
Perez       38,304   37,814         0     48,362

Bear in mind here that Gilbert Pena is the incumbent, not the challenger. How an incumbent, even an accidental one like Pena, could have that little to show for two years in office is a good question, but perhaps the answer is that he’s a clear underdog, based on 2012 results. Mary Ann Perez, who lost to Pena in 2014 by a close margin, had to win a three-way primary and will likely have an incumbent-sized bank account by the time the next report is filed.

HD149

Rep. Hubert Vo
Bryan Chu


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Vo          34,763   44,541    45,119     56,071
Chu         27,668   42,732    46,475     17,593

As with Hd134, I don’t expect anything exciting here, but Republicans sometimes throw a bunch of money at Rep. Vo, and sometimes they find a self-funder to spare them the effort. Chu actually had a decent number of small-dollar donations, but in the end I doubt it will amount to much.

HD137

Rep. Gene Wu
Kendall Baker


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Wu          42,851   35,928    45,000    124,611
Baker           20   23,424         0         20

This district is closer to safe than swing, but Rep. Wu’s opponent was one of the anti-HERO leaders, who ran for District F last year and finished third in a field of three. I was curious to see if any of Kendall Baker’s fellow HERO-haters would show him some love in this race, for old time’s sake if nothing else. I think you can guess what the answer to that is. Baker’s expenditures all came from personal funds, including $20K to Aubrey Taylor Communications for “Election related banners on blog posts thru 11/8/2016”. I’d always heard there was money to be made in blogging, I guess I was just too dumb to figure out how to do it. Maybe next election.

What will the NBA do with Charlotte?

We are still waiting to see if NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will follow through with a threat to move the NBA All-Star Game out of Charlotte after North Carolina passed its odious anti-LGBT law HB2.

RedEquality

Houston’s 2015 defeat of Proposition 1, an anti-discrimination ordinance known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), could jeopardize future efforts to land NBA All Star events if the league views the Houston laws as similar to the North Carolina law that has the league considering withdrawing the 2017 All Star week from Charlotte.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, while enumerating again the league’s objection to holding its showcase event in Charlotte following the controversial passage of HB2, said Tuesday the NBA has specifically looked at laws in Houston and NBA cities while examining options in Charlotte.

“We’ve been looking closely at the laws in all the jurisdictions in which we play,” Silver said when asked if the league has specifically considered the laws in Houston.

[…]

Silver said in April that the NBA has been “crystal clear” that the league would not hold the All-Star events in Charlotte if the law remains unchanged. No decision about the 2017 game was made at Tuesday’s Board of Governors meeting.

“We were frankly hoping they would take some steps toward modifying the legislation and frankly are disappointed that they didn’t,” Silver said. “Coming out of the legislative session, we wanted the opportunity to talk directly to our teams. This is a very core issue for us and we’re trying to be extremely cautious and deliberate in how we go about making the decision. We’re not trying to keep everyone in suspense. We realize we need to make this decision very quickly.”

Yes, they do. There are logistical issues with relocating the All-Star Game, as there would have been with moving the 2017 Super Bowl out of Houston, which was a campaign issue during the HERO fight. I never believed the NFL would even consider moving the Super Bowl, as they stayed on the sidelines throughout the campaign and were highly likely to embarrass Bob McNair even if he hadn’t made and then rescinded a contribution to the anti-HERO forces.

The NBA on the other hand has publicly drawn a line in the sand, and now has to decide whether they really meant it or not, whatever the logistical challenges may be. My view as a parent is that if you threaten a consequence for bad behavior and then fail to enforce that consequence, the message you send is that you are tolerating said behavior. They could spin it however they wanted to if they choose to take no action – the logistics were too much to overcome, HB2 wasn’t in effect at the time they awarded the game to Charlotte, etc etc etc – but the message would be clearly understood by all. That includes the Texas Legislature, some of whose members are planning their own version of HB2 and who would have every reason to laugh off statements about future All-Star Games not just in Houston but also in San Antonio and Dallas if nothing happens to Charlotte.

I largely don’t care about the economics of this. One supports HERO and opposes HB2 because it’s the right thing to do, not because of any risk management decisions that some billionaires may be making. Polling data from the HERO campaign suggested that potential economic harm was something that affected people’s view, so it definitely needs to be factored in. If having the NBA All-Star Game yanked out of North Carolina gets people’s attention and makes it even marginally less likely that Texas adopts a similarly harsh and stupid law, it’s all to the good. Mostly, I feel that if the NBA is going to say they are going to do something, they ought to then go ahead and do it. We await your decision, Adam.

Montgomery County Judge suspended for road bond allegations

This just keeps getting better.

A state commission has suspended Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal without pay after a grand jury charged him with violating Texas’ open meetings law while developing a bond package for new and improved roads.

The move by the State Commission on Judicial Review came four days after the indictments of Doyal, County Commissioners Jim Clark and Charlie Riley and a political adviser for allegedly engaging in behind-the-scenes negotiations before putting a $280 million road bond measure on last November’s ballot. Voters passed the bond package.

The commission’s order strips Doyal of the ability to perform official duties while the criminal case is pending. He has requested a hearing within 30 days to ask the commission to lift the suspension.

“I understand the open meetings laws,” Doyal said at a news conference at his attorney’s office. “I did not violate the open meetings laws, nor did I conspire to violate the open meetings laws.”

See here and here for the background. I have no opinion the merits of this, or on the likelihood of any particular outcome. I’m just enjoying the show.

Still waiting for a design for I-45

Pull up a chair and relax, this could take awhile.

After 15 years of discussion, study and ideas for improvements ranging from enormous tunnels to a massive circulating freeway loop, planners are still at least six months from unveiling their $7 billion plan for historic changes to I-45 and most of the downtown freeway network. Challenges remain, such as paying for it and securing stronger support from city officials who worry the region’s largest road-building project ever is too heavy on solving how to move more cars and too light on long-term public transit expansion.

“I am really concerned about the fact we are focusing solely on road expansion and highway expansion without incorporating rail and other methods,” Houston At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards said last week.

Recognizing they are suggesting a once-in-a-lifetime change to Houston’s freeways, transportation officials are going to unprecedented lengths to gauge reaction. They expect months more of meetings with city and transit officials, and residents living near more than 24 miles of freeway, mostly I-45.

“We’re meeting with several groups, it seems like every week,” said Quincy Allen, head of TxDOT’s Houston office.

[…]

A draft of the final plan for the entire corridor was expected to be released for public review later this year, but that likely will not happen until early 2017, said Pat Henry, director of advanced project development for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

“We have got some contract issues that are slowing us up a little bit,” Henry said.

Transportation officials think they can host what will be the fifth round of public meetings on the pivotal freeway project early next year, secure federal approval by 2018 and start construction on the downtown segments in 2020. The portions from downtown to Loop 610 and Loop 610 to Sam Houston Tollway would come later.

“Even if there is a hitch in the funding for the other parts we’re going to start (downtown),” Allen said.

The central business district segment likely would be split into numerous projects, as the U.S. 290 widening has been, officials said.

Boy, is this ever going to be a pain in the rear end when construction begins. There have been numerous tweaks and alterations to the initial designs, in response to feedback from the public. The I-45 Coalition does yeoman’s work tracking it all – see here for their latest update. It’s just as well that there will be more opportunities for the public to weigh in, because there have been some significant alternative ideas proposed. It’s more than fine by me if we take our sweet time getting started on this.

On a related note, Streetsblog speculates on what the final design could look like.

“The impacts on walkability and urbanism are real and are a big deal,” said Jay Crossley, former director of the smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow. “If they could only do those parts of the plan it would be an amazing plan.” But while TxDOT is starting to consider how its highway projects affect urban neighborhoods, said Crossley, it hasn’t quite embraced the “paradigm shift” away from highway widening that Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for. It’s still an open question whether TxDOT’s plan will result in a net increase in highway capacity, pumping more traffic into downtown. TxDOT’s current proposal calls for adding one high-occupancy toll lane in each direction on I-45. While the tolls could help manage traffic and speed up buses (if prices are set high enough — something political officials have been reluctant to do, says Crossley), the project would still increase total car traffic on the highway.

[…]

The potential highway widenings are still under negotiation, said Crossley, with TxDOT gearing up for a fifth round of public meetings on the project early next year. That will be the real test of Turner’s commitment to the new transportation policy approach he has championed. Crossley believes the city is negotiating with TxDOT over the details of the plan as part of the recently-elected mayor’s transition effort. Turner could tell TxDOT not to add additional car capacity, and the agency might listen. “If Sylvester Turner was to stand behind that, that would be revolutionary in Texas,” Crossley said.

As the story notes, last year’s constitutional amendment voting gives TxDOT a lot of incentive to spend on road-related projects, so it would be quite remarkable if I-45 through downtown wound up with no extra capacity other than the HOV lanes. We’ll see how it goes.

Montgomery County officials indicted over road bond shenanigans

I know I’m a bad person, but this continues to amuse me greatly.

A grand jury has indicted Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal and two commissioners, charging them with violating Texas’ open meetings law last year while developing a bond package for new and improved roads.

Traffic-weary voters in the rapidly growing county approved the $280 million financing proposal, but the indictments left Doyal and Commissioners Jim Clark and Charlie Riley to face criminal charges for their actions in getting it on the ballot.

Grand jurors also charged Marc Davenport, an adviser who helped to broker a deal on the bond proposal. He is married to the county’s treasurer, Stephanne Davenport.

Chris Downey, the special prosecutor who presented the case to the grand jury over six months, said that the misdemeanor charges are punishable by a fine up to $500, as many as six months in jail or both.

Downey said that it’s too early to know whether the case will go to trial.

“Like any criminal matter, whether or not a matter goes to trial is going to be a function of further discovery and negotiation,” he said.

See here for the background. The charges are fairly small potatoes, and I’ll be very surprised if they result in any kind of guilty verdict. I just find it all hilarious. The next time anyone tries to tell you that the suburbs are so much better at running things than the big cities, point to this and remind them that we can generally get bond measures on the ballot without anyone getting indicted.

Turner reiterates the need to rethink transportation

New audience, same theme.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s transportation future – and perhaps its economic vitality – relies on more options than new freeway lanes to make room for more cars, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“The solution is to increasingly take advantage of other modes of travel,” Turner told business and elected leaders at a lunch event hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region.

The mayor, who has talked about a transportation “paradigm shift” since taking office in January, mentioned a laundry list of mobility projects that Houston must embrace, ranging from regional commuter rail to improved pedestrian access.

Nothing by itself can abate Houston’s growing congestion, the mayor acknowledged, but together the options could reform how people travel. Also, he favors a better balance of state and federal transportation funding, which heavily supports highways over public transit in the region.

“We will have to make choices on how to use limited space on streets to move people faster,” Turner said, noting that nine out of 10 working residents in the area rely on their own vehicle to get to and from work.

Houston today – and in the future – is a far different place than the one its highways initially served. Rather than a development pattern focused solely on downtown, Houston is an assortment of small, concentrated job and housing centers. Turner said the city’s transportation should reflect that by offering walkable solutions and local streets capable of handling the traffic in places such as the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor.

“We can connect the centers together with regional transit,” Turner said. “We need to focus our limited funding in these areas.”

[…]

As mobility options increase, the mayor said it will be up to officials to focus attention where certain transportation solutions can do the most good and ignite the least political furor.

“I will not force light rail on any community that does not want it. I will not do it,” Turner said. “We must stop trying to force it on places that do not want it and give it to neighborhoods and people in this city who want it.”

Minutes after his speech concluded, listeners were already dissecting the mayor’s statement on light rail and its obvious reference to the decadelong discussion of a proposed east-west rail line along Richmond Avenue to the Galleria area.

See here for thoughts expressed by Mayor Turner to the Texas Transportation Commission in February. I wouldn’t read too much into that comment about “forcing” rail into places that don’t want it. For one thing, the opposition to the Universities line has always been loud, but there’s never been any evidence that it’s broad. The evidence we do have suggests there’s plenty of support for that line in the neighborhoods where it would run. In addition, recent remarks by Turner-appointed Metro Chair Carrin Patman suggest the Universities line is still on the agenda. Perhaps there’s a disconnect between the two – in the end, I can’t see Metro putting forth an updated rail referendum that includes the Universities line over Mayor Turner’s objection – but I doubt it. I would just not read too much into that one statement without any corroborating evidence. Houston Tomorrow, which has video and a partial transcript of Mayor Turner’s remarks, has more.

Beyond that, this is good to hear, and even better to hear more than once. The reality is that as with things like water and energy, there is only so much room to add new road capacity, and it starts getting prohibitively expensive, in straight dollar costs as well as in opportunity costs, to add it. It’s far cheaper to conserve the capacity that we already have, which in the case of transportation means getting more people to use fewer cars. I talked about all this at the start of the Mayoral race last year, and I’m heartened to see that Mayor Turner’s priorities have been in line with many of the things I was hoping for. A lot of this talk still needs to be translated into action, but you can’t have the action without the talk first, to make people aware of the issues and get them on board with the solutions. The Mayor has done a good job of that so far, and it’s great to see.

So far, so good for Mayor Turner

That’s the general consensus of his first four-plus months in office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Faced with a $160 million budget shortfall that would leave some wringing their hands until deadline day, Mayor Sylvester Turner presented his plan a month ahead of schedule. The proposal being reviewed by City Council includes a few one-off gimmicks, by Turner’s own admission, but would close Houston’s budget gap without huge layoffs or service cuts.

Four months into the job he dreamed of for a quarter century, the former lawmaker has eschewed the traditional pressure to sprint into office with a laundry list of policy objectives. Instead, Turner has concentrated primarily on formulating next year’s budget, the first of several fiscal hurdles.

Turner’s bet? Hitting targets such as next-day pothole repair and balancing the budget early will earn him the political capital to take on Houston’s longer-term problems, namely rising pension and debt costs.

Eager for unity in that process, Turner has kept his goals broad – for which he has drawn some criticism – and invested in bettering mayor-City Council relations, laying the groundwork for a first term built on corralling Houstonians around the painful task of shoring up city finances.

“We resolve the pension issue, we get the revenue cap removed, we satisfy Moody, S&P and Fitch, the credit rating agencies, oil prices start to go back up, this city will take off,” Turner said during a recent interview, laughing at the apparent simplicity of his plan.

[…]

A creature of the state Legislature, which starts slowly and builds toward the end, Turner has approached the mayor’s office with a similar rhythm, Houston lobbyist Robert Miller said.

“Those who are saying he’s not moving quickly enough or are not satisfied with the progress are missing that he knows exactly what he wants to do, and he knows exactly the timing in which he wants to do it,” Miller said. “The most important issue he had to deal with was the budget, and he’s doing that. … Then you will see him begin rolling out the other initiatives and personnel changes that he thinks need to occur.”

There’s not a whole lot in the story that will come as a surprise. As I said when writing about Mayor Turner’s State of the City address, he has stuck very closely to the things he spoke about on the campaign trail. A big part of his strategy to achieve some of the goals he has laid out is to build trust by getting certain things done first so that the tougher items can be done later, when everyone feels comfortable that he’s doing what he said he would do. One of the metrics to watch for is the amount of dissent and pushback he gets from Council members. On that score, there’s so far been very little – no public criticism of his budget proposals, no challenge to his standing firm against Uber’s ultimatum, no complaints about how his office handled flooding issues. Those things will come because they always do, but until then the harmony we’ve had so far is at least an indicator that everyone feels like they’ve been listened to. Whatever else you think, that’s a big accomplishment.

Mayor Turner delivers State of the City 2016

Here’s the press release.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Flooding, pensions, City finances and public safety were front and center as Mayor Sylvester Turner delivered his first State of the City before the Greater Houston Partnership. In a major move designed to produce tangible results and instill confidence among residents, the mayor announced the selection of Stephen Costello to fill the new position of Chief Resilience Officer, or Flood Czar. Costello, who is a civil engineer who has worked on numerous drainage projects, will report directly to the mayor and will have the sole responsibility of developing and implementing strategies that will improve drainage and reduce the risk of flooding.

“The April 18 floods had a dramatic impact on our entire region,” said Mayor Turner. “Hundreds of people sought rescue in hastily opened shelters, hundreds more elected to stay in their flooded apartments and homes. Nearly 2,000 homes in Houston flooded and some flooded for the second, third or fourth times. Property owners throughout our area have become weary of flooding in the Bayou City, impatient with elected officials who offer explanations with no practical solutions, and some have and others are close to packing up and leaving our city unless we can convince them that we are going to do exponentially more than what they currently see.”

The mayor also announced that he will soon unveil a plan to put 175 more police officers on the street, called for repeal of the revenue cap self-imposed on the City by voters in 2004 and detailed his plan to address the City’s unfunded employee pension liabilities, a growing obligation that is stressing the City’s overall financial stability.

“There are certain realities that cannot be ignored: the increasing costs to the City simply cannot be sustained,” said Turner. “As we look to 2018, City services will be adversely affected, hundreds of employees will be laid off, and our credit rating will most likely be damaged. But this is a course we need not travel. My mom said, ‘Tomorrow will be better than today,’ and as mayor of this City, I still believe what she said.”

The mayor is already in productive discussions with the employee pension groups about reigning in costs in a way that is least burdensome to employees, reduces the City’s escalating costs and avoids unintended consequences. He has laid out three objectives for those discussions:

  • Lower unfunded pension obligations now and in the future;
  • Lower annual costs for the city now and in the future; and
  • An agreement by the end of the year to present to the legislature for consideration in the 2017 session.

The mayor noted that the revenue cap, which was cited as one of the reasons for a downgrade of the City’s credit rating, puts Houston at an unfair advantage and hinders the City’s ability to meet the needs of its growing population. No other governmental entity in Texas is under similar constraints.

“The revenue cap works against creating one Houston with opportunity for all and the ability to address pressing needs like flooding, transportation and mobility, parks and added green space, affordable/workforce housing and homelessness,” said Turner. “We are competing not just against Dallas, San Antonio and Austin; not just against New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but against Vancouver, Berlin and Singapore. We are an international city speaking 142 languages, with 92 consulates and two international airports within our city boundaries.”

The mayor concluded his speech with a commitment to leading the nation in addressing homelessness and a personal appeal for Houston businesses to join his Hire Houston Youth summer jobs program. Information on the program is available at www.hirehoustonyouth.org.

The full text of the speech is here, and a Chron story about the additional patrol officers is here. It’s a concise reiteration of things Mayor Turner has spoken about often, with no new directions or surprises. You know what he wants to do, it’s a matter of doing it. If you’re wondering how Mayor Turner might be successful at getting the Lege to pass a pension-related bill – as you may recall, I was deeply skeptical of some other candidates’ approaches last year – the answer is that he intends to have an agreement on what changes should be made with all the relevant stakeholders. The Lege may not be interested in solving Houston’s problems, but they will ratify a solution that Houston itself comes up with. That’s the plan, anyway. As I said, the important part is doing it. If nothing else, we’ll have a pretty good idea of how it’s gone by the time of the 2017 State of the City address. The Chron and the Press have more.

Dan Patrick supports potty package check legislation

Of course he does.

RedEquality

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, weighing into a national controversy over transgender restrooms, said Tuesday he supports keeping men out of women’s restrooms, even if it takes legislation to do so.

Since the issue erupted into controversy nationally, some Texas lawmakers have said they will support a state law for single-sex restrooms, and the endorsement of that position by Senate-leader Patrick is likely to give that movement momentum.

“I think the handwriting is on the bathroom wall: Stay out of the ladies’ room if you’re a man,” Patrick said outside his Capitol office, confirming a post on his Facebook page that affirmed his opposition to cross-sex restrooms.

“If it costs me an election, if it costs me a lot of grief, then so be it. If we can’t fight for something this basic, then we’ve lost our country.”

[…]

Patrick, who last year along with Gov. Greg Abbott and other GOP officials supported the repeal of a Houston ordinance on transgender restrooms, dismissed threats of boycotts and business opposition in other states as “bluff and bluster.” he noted that since Houston repealed its so-called HERO ordinance, by a wide margin in an election, the city has hosted the Final Four basketball championships and will host the Super Bowl in 2017.

I guess the North Carolina experience doesn’t enter the equation. I mean, look, this is what the modern Republican Party is. The business community has been closely aligned with them for a long time due to shared interests on taxes and regulations and stuff like that. The same business community also supports comprehensive immigration reform, greater investment in infrastructure and public education, and LGBT equality. All of these things stand in opposition to what the GOP supports. Heck, the North Carolina Republicans are wearing the backlash as a badge of honor, and you can see in Dan Patrick’s language the same sentiment. Will this ever cause a schism? I keep thinking that one of these days it will, but I keep being disappointed, and they keep supporting the same old politicians who keep opposing the same things they say they support. I wish I could say I expect something different from the business community this time, but as of now at least, I can’t. Trail Blazers, the Trib, and the Current have more.

Why North Carolina and not Houston?

John Nova Lomax asks why Houston has not suffered the same backlash as North Carolina after the repeal of HERO last November.

HoustonUnites

In the aftermath of the repeal of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance in November, the bill’s proponents predicted dire economic consequences. Then-Mayor Annise Parker predicted a “direct, economic backlash” for the Bayou City. A #boycotthouston campaign erupted on Twitter. Greater Houston Partnership President Bob Harvey fretted about possible consequences for the city’s convention and tourism business, plus the future of corporate relocations. Some HERO supporters hoped that one or both of the organizers of the men’s 2016 Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl would choose to move those events in retaliation.

None of that has happened. To be sure, by the time the polls closed, it was probably too late for the NCAA or Roger Goodell to take such a drastic step. Yanking a Final Four or a Super Bowl from one city and dropping it the lap of another on such short notice is a recipe for logistical chaos and red ink. But thus far, Houston has suffered no other consequences—nothing, nada, zilch—thus emboldening the Houston anti-HERO leadership to lend both their support and their tactics to legislators in Mississippi and North Carolina.

Earlier this month, Dave Welch, president of the Texas Pastors Council, wrote an open letter to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant claiming that threats of economic consequences stemming from anti-HERO-type legislation were hollow:

As you know, the Final Four of the NCAA was just held in Houston and the radical LGBT movement’s threat to get this event, the Super Bowl, conferences and corporate bases out of Houston was shown to be a paper tiger and the raw use of intimidation. The churches and concerned citizens by the thousands refused to bow to the god of political correctness, the terrible ordinance was defeated overwhelmingly by the people and Houston continues to grow.

In other words, “We got away with it, and you can too.”

Or maybe not. At least not in North Carolina, where last month the state legislature enacted a law banning cities and counties from establishing their own anti-discriminatory policies based on gender identity, thus nullifying a recently-approved HERO-type ordinance in Charlotte and others elsewhere in the state.

[…]

The fact that HERO was defeated in a referendum rather than the legislature is one reason Houston has not been subjected to the same ire as North Carolina, according to Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, a group advocating LGBT equality on business grounds.

“In Georgia the business response was to prompt a veto from Nathan Deal,” she tells Texas Monthly. “There was a recourse. And in North Carolina there is pressure on the governor and the legislature to rethink and repeal, but in Houston, it wasn’t the decision of a governor, mayor or state legislature or city council. It was the voice of voters. And that’s a very different decision for businesses, having to punish voters.”

Southall believes that the Houston vote was an anomaly, one that took place in an odd “bubble in time” just a few months ago, when public awareness about transgender people—whose bathroom privileges formed the crux of the Houston vote—was still very low.

“We have all been going to the bathroom with transgender people this whole time and nothing has happened,” Southall says. “This is a solution in search of a problem. I think the calculation on their part was, ‘This is an easy wedge issue, because nobody’s gonna stand for transgender people. Nobody even knows a transgender person.’ And that’s turning out not to be true anymore.”

Netflix hit Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner, and Orange Is The New Black‘s Laverne Cox are all raising awareness about transgender issues, Southall believes, and the process is taking mere months rather than years. “People got to know gay people through popular culture,” she says. “Will & Grace mattered. Glee mattered. Maybe they didn’t know a gay person up to then, but then they start to know gay people in their lives and then that person is not the ‘other’ anymore, it’s my friend or my relative or whatever. And now that’s happening with transgender people too, and it’s happening so fast, I think people on both sides of the issue are surprised.”

Even so, the fact that Houston skated away from any kind of meaningful backlash is surprising. Residents of Charlotte are being punished because of the actions of their governor and state legislature, but the people of Houston are not being singled out for their own vote.

And where was the Houston business community on this score? Yes, pro-business groups like the Greater Houston Partnership (Houston’s chamber of commerce) spoke out in favor of HERO, but the actual components of Houston’s business community were silent in both the run-up to and the aftermath of HERO’s defeat.

Of the 26 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Bayou City, all but three are in oil and gas. That industry has thus far been content to maintain a stony silence on LGBT equality, at least in Texas. According to their web site, exactly none of the Houston-based O&G behemoths have signed on as Texas Competes supporters, though 34 Fortune 500 companies (and scores of smaller ones) have. Houston voters were neither advised how to vote by the CEOs of Phillips 66, Halliburton and Baker Hughes nor did those same captains of industry urge voters to reconsider or express regret after last year’s referendum.

Perhaps they feared a backlash from their customers or their employees. O&G is not known as the most socially liberal of fields. But neither is pro-sports, but that has not stood in the way of teams outside of Texas. Each of Atlanta’s four pro-sports teams urged Deal to veto the Georgia measure. That was not the case in Houston, where the Astros and Rockets made no statement on the vote, and Texans owner Bob McNair actually went the other way, for a time, at least, pledging (and then quickly rescinding) a $10,000 donation to opponents of HERO. Of the eight “Big Four” pro-sports teams in Texas, only the Dallas Mavericks are supporters of Texas Competes.

So there are two claims that Lomax examines, and two more that I can think of that I’ll discuss after those.

1. Lack of advocacy from the business community. Businesses have been heavily involved in the fight in North Carolina (and in Georgia, and in Mississippi), but were johnny-come-latelys in Houston. There’s been a lot of focus on the businesses that have canceled planned expansions or other future work, like the filming of a movie. Some of this, I think, is just fortunate timing: These projects had to be in the queue, but not so far along that canceling them would be logistically difficult or expensive. If there was anything like this in Houston similar to the PayPal and Deutsche Bank projects, I don’t know what they were. People here fixated mostly on the Super Bowl and Final Four, but these were never likely to be in doubt – they would have been prohibitively costly to relocate, and there was a serious risk that any substitute city could not provide the same level of experience. You will note that despite the calls to the NBA to take next year’s All Star Game out of Charlotte, they have declined to do so. Maybe if there had been a PayPal or a Deutsche Bank for Houston at the time, and a credible threat to not go through with it, things would be different.

2. The “bubble in time” theory, which says that Houston’s repeal occurred at a time when people hadn’t yet given much thought about transgender people or issues. There may be something to that, but remember that Houston was not the first city to repeal a civil rights ordinance, and like Houston those cities suffered no blowback. Again, something to this, and something to #1, but I think there are other reasons why Houston was different.

3. I believe a basic difference between North Carolina (and other states that have taken or come close to taking similar action) and Houston is that NC represents a step backwards, while Houston was a return to a previously existing status quo. It’s not a good status quo, of course – it’s one that absolutely needed changing, a long time ago – but it’s how things were as recently as 2014. North Carolina didn’t just undo Charlotte’s version of HERO. They took away the right of any other city to pass their own HERO, and they took away the remedy of suing in state court for any LGBT person who wanted to pursue a claim of discrimination, among other things. It was these extra, punitive steps, as well as the clear singling out of the LGBT community, that made what North Carolina did worse, at least in the public eye.

4. Elections matter. The biggest difference between Houston and North Carolina, in my opinion, was briefly touched on but not explored in Lomax’s article. HERO was repealed by a vote of the people. HERO’s supporters deplored this vote and the lies and hatred that led to it, but we accepted it as legitimate and moved on with a vow to try again, learn from our mistakes, and win the next fight. (Having the pro-HERO Mayoral candidate win the December runoff against his anti-HERO opponent probably helped mitigate things a little, too.) By contrast, North Carolina’s law was passed in a one-day special session of their legislature, called hastily after Charlotte passed its non-discrimination ordinance. There were no hearings or testimony on the bill – most legislators never even had a chance to see it before they voted on it – and in the end Democrats in North Carolina’s State Senate walked out on the vote to protest its non-legitimacy. The game was rigged from the beginning, and a part of the protest has been about the scurrilous way the law was passed, with the process being entirely about haste and avoiding scrutiny. The surprise of what happened in North Carolina, especially when no one had a chance to put up a fight about it, has magnified the pernicious and discriminatory effect of the law, and thus produced a louder and more visible outcry.

So yes, I do believe there were substantial differences between Houston’s HERO repeal and North Carolina’s broadside on LGBT equality, and that these differences contribute to why Houston escaped any significant loss of business post-HERO. I suspect that a part of Lomax’s point in this article is to suggest that Houston should have suffered more for repealing HERO, and on that I agree. I believe it’s clear that the lack of consequences to that vote have emboldened the bad guys and led to laws like those that were passed in North Carolina and Mississippi and vetoed in Georgia. Perhaps that will change now that we have seen what NC and MS have gone through, but don’t be too optimistic about that. I’m afraid the fight is once again just beginning.

Fundraising for the next city election cycle has begun

Whether you realized it or not.

BagOfMoney

Last year’s court ruling undoing Houston’s fundraising ban during non-election seasons means that the city’s contribution cycles reset immediately after last year’s general and runoff elections, according to the city, instead of in early spring.

As a result, unless a candidate is retiring old campaign debt, money raised post-election counts toward the contribution limits for the upcoming cycle, rather than the prior one, mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said. City rules cap contributions at $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political action committees, per election cycle.

[…]

Previously, general election candidates could replenish their coffers until March 4, and runoff candidates could do so until April 4, with the contributions counting against the limits for the most recent election rather than the upcoming one.

Asked if the city sent any clarifying information to officeholders or candidates, Evans pointed to a letter included in packets given to candidates last year.

The memo stated that the city’s temporal fundraising restrictions were no longer in effect but did not specify when the election cycle began and ended.

“It’s going to have very little impact on what we do, except obviously we want to know what the rule is now,” [fundraising consultant Pat] Strong said.

See here and here for background on the lawsuit. Unless I’ve missed something, the suit is still awaiting trial; it was the granting of an injunction by the judge in the trial against the city enforcing its blackout period that led to where we are today. It was quite common in elections past for successful candidates to have post-election fundraisers, partly because it was their last chance to do so for the calendar year and partly because the usual suspects generally wanted to make sure that all the winners got at least a little something from them. No more “late train” fundraisers now – either hedge your bets before November or make sure you back the right horse in the first place. The key to all this are the boundaries of the election cycle. In the old days, you could donate up to the max in these post-election days, then start all over when the blackout period lifted, which marked the beginning of the next cycle. Now the new cycle begins right after Election Day, so there’s not much point to these post-victory events – whatever you donate then is how much less you can donate later. As the people quoted in the story say, it probably doesn’t matter that much from a candidate’s perspective. It just means the timing of when things happen will be adjusted. I’m sure everyone will get used to the new rule quickly.

Strategizing for the next HERO fight

Good move.

Stung by setbacks related to their access to public restrooms, transgender Americans are taking steps to play a more prominent and vocal role in a nationwide campaign to curtail discrimination against them.

Two such initiatives are being launched this week — evidence of how transgender rights has supplanted same-sex marriage as the most volatile, high-profile issue for the broader movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.

One initiative is a public education campaign called the Transgender Freedom Project that will share the personal stories of transgender people. The other, the Trans United Fund, is a political advocacy group that will engage in election campaigns at the federal and state level, pressing candidates to take stands on transgender rights.

“We welcome the support of our allies,” said Hayden Mora, a veteran transgender activist who’s director of Trans United. “But it’s crucial that trans people build our own political power and speak with our own voices.”

From a long-term perspective, there have been notable gains for transgender Americans in recent years — more support from major employers, better options for health care and sex-reassignment surgery, a growing number of municipalities which bar anti-transgender discrimination.

[…]

“All the people who lost the marriage equality fight, they’ve now decided that trans people are fair game,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “They’re going to claim trans people are sexual predators, but the public is quickly going to learn that’s just nonsense.”

The outcome in Houston prompted many post-mortems among LGBT activists — What went wrong? How should the bathroom-access argument be countered in the future?

“It’s been an alarming wake-up call since November,” said Dru Lavasseur, Transgender Rights Project director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal. “We need to prioritize bringing transgender people into the movement in leadership positions, with transgender voices leading the way.”

There has been widespread agreement that a key plank of future strategy should be enlisting more transgender people to share their personal experience — a tactic that was successful for gays and lesbians during the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.

“In most parts of this country, people don’t know a trans person,” said Kasey Suffredini, a transgender attorney who’s director of the new Transgender Freedom Project. “The work in front of us is to put a face on who the trans community is. That’s the way that we win.”

The project, undertaken by an advocacy group called Freedom for All Americans, has a first-year budget of about $1 million, with plans to expand thereafter.

Nationwide success “will not happen overnight,” said Suffredini, suggesting a 10-year timeframe was plausible.

“What happened in North Carolina, as terrible as it was, has really galvanized people,” he added.

Part of the problem in last year’s HERO fight was that we were caught off guard – after winning the petition lawsuit in district court, we didn’t expect to have this issue on the ballot in the fall. The bad guys were way ahead of us in organizing and spreading lies. This is an attempt to counter that as the fight has shifted mostly to state legislatures. This can’t be all that there is, but it’s a good start.

And since we know that the fight is coming to our legislature, too, it’s vital to be out in front of it here as well. Thankfully, that is happening.

That’s in part why Lou Weaver is encouraging transgender Texans like himself to become more vocal and visible as the legislature approaches the 2017 session. “Something like 80 to 90 percent of Americans know an out gay or lesbian person now, and that’s led to a dramatically different discussion on issues like same-sex marriage,” Weaver told the Press. Surveys show only about 10 percent of Americans know an out transgender person, Weaver said.

Last week Weaver, transgender programs coordinator with Equality Texas, helped launch what the organization is calling its “Transvisible” project. The idea, Weaver says, is to reduce violence and prejudice against transgender people by introducing Houstonians to their transgender neighbors. “If you don’t know trans folks, it’s easy to be mystified and to believe the lies and stories that are spread about us,” Weaver said. “It’s much harder to do that when you realize we’re your neighbors, your co-workers, just everyday Houstonians.”

I agree completely. It’s a lot easier to fear or hate a faceless bogeyman than a neighbor or co-worker. Again, this is just a first step, but it’s a necessary one. I’m glad to see it.

I should note, this post started out as a discussion of this good report from the post-HERO referendum community forum on what happened and what happens next.

HoustonUnites

LGBT advocates plan to eventually launch a petition drive to get the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance back on the ballot.

First, however, they intend to draft a strategic plan, set up a citizens advisory committee, and conduct a robust public education campaign about the need for an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law.

Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said those were among the recommendations that emerged from a two-and-a-half-hour community debriefing on HERO that drew around 200 people on January 12. “We agree that whatever happens next has to be citizen-led, not council-led,” said Burke, who chaired the meeting. “But everybody is in agreement—both the organizing groups and the public at large—that we can’t even think about that until we figure out how to overcome the bathroom argument. We need a multi-pronged public education campaign that’s aimed at transgender prejudice reduction.”

Houston voters overwhelmingly repealed HERO on November 3, based largely on opponents’ false, fear-mongering ads suggesting the ordinance would lead to sexual predators entering women’s restrooms and preying on young girls.

“The truth is, nobody knows how to combat the bathroom message,” Burke said. “We don’t in Houston, and they don’t anywhere else in the country. All the great minds in the country are trying to figure out how to respond to it. We have to come up with our six-word response to No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”

That was from February. You can see why I’m glad that there’s some action on this, because at that time we really weren’t sure what to do. My response to this story was simple, only needing four words: They’re Lying To You. I know it’s more complicated than that, but it gets to the heart of the matter. Because these guys are shameless liars, if we do manage to come up with a perfect response to “no men in women’s bathrooms”, they’ll just invent some other lie to tell. I mean, they used to claim that it was the gays that were the depraved perverts and child molesters that threatened us all. The fact that people no longer believe that didn’t slow them down. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to debunk one piece of bullshit, because as soon as we do there’s plenty more where that came from, and now you’re fighting the last war. We have to attack their credibility so that people will be disinclined to believe them whatever they say. Easier said than done, I know, but that’s how I would approach the question.

That’s what I wrote in February, and I still believe it. But I’m more than happy to see another approach. As for what the future holds:

Burke said it’s unlikely any petition drive would be completed in time for HERO to appear on the November 2016 ballot. HERO supporters would need to gather 20,000 signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the city’s charter. But reviving HERO through a petition would take the political onus off of council members, who’ve said they’re in no rush to revisit the ordinance given that the public vote was so decisive.

Incoming mayor Sylvester Turner, who supported HERO, told OutSmart that his top priorities are addressing the city’s infrastructure needs and financial challenges—issues that have “universal agreement” among voters.

If he can first conquer potholes and pensions, Turner expects voters will give him permission to tackle other issues, including possibly HERO. “I think anything that’s a distraction from dealing with the infrastructure and the financial challenges really does a disservice to those particular areas,” Turner said. “So whether we’re talking about nondiscrimination, whether we’re talking about income inequality or educational initiatives, all of those things are important, but until we have met the challenges that are being presented by the infrastructure, and the financial challenges, I really don’t think at this point in time that Houstonians have an appetite for too much more than that.”

Turner is talking about building up some political capital before tackling a controversial topic like HERO, and I completely agree with his approach. That suggests to me that we’re unlikely to see any action on this until Mayor Turner’s presumed second term. Just a guess, but I do think letting some time pass is a smart idea. Not so great for the people who would benefit from HERO, unfortunately. I wish I had a better answer for that. ProjectQ Houston has more.