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Election 2019

Trying to make “pay for play” an issue

Good luck.

With more than nine months to go until Houston’s municipal elections, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first two opponents turned their attention this week to limiting political donors’ influence at City Hall.

Both challengers, millionaire lawyer and Texas A&M University System Regent Tony Buzbee and Bill King, the businessman and former Kemah mayor who lost to Turner in a close December 2015 runoff, announced they would spearhead separate petition drives to amend the city charter by temporarily blocking political donors from doing business with the city.

The issue of “pay to play” appears likely to become a focal point in the race for Houston mayor, and could feature prominently in city Council campaigns too, all of which will take place as national Democrats vie for their party’s presidential nomination amid growing calls for politicians to reject money that allegedly comes with strings attached.

Buzbee, in a full-page ad in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, said he intends to lead a petition drive to bar anyone who donates to a city official from doing business with the city for a year.

King on Monday morning announced a similar idea at a press conference, proposing a two-year moratorium for people who give more than $250 to a city official. His idea would extend the ban to prospective lobbyists and appointees to boards or commissions, and cover candidates for mayor, controller and city council. Buzbee has not yet specified if his proposal would cover non-incumbent candidates.

[…]

“The city has long-established rules that govern potential conflicts of interest regarding campaign contributions, including a black-out period and prohibitions on the members of certain boards and commissions,” Turner said. “As with all city policies, we continually evaluate these rules to ensure they are meeting the city’s needs. The city will always entertain ideas and proposals from anyone, especially if they’re not trying to score political points.“

Houston’s charter bars officials from taking or asking for contributions once the city publicly seeks proposals or bids for a contract. They cannot start accepting bids again until 30 days after City Council awards the contract, or decides not to award it at all.

The same section of the charter also prohibits officials from accepting or soliciting vendors’ contributions at any point they know the vendor has interest in a contract. A separate provision also restricts when candidates who are not in office can accept contributions from vendors.

King’s proposal would prevent people who contribute more than $250 to an official from entering into a contract with the city, registering as a city lobbyist or receiving appointments to city boards of commissions.

I mean, I support the idea, it’s just my experience that this particular issue is not one that gets a whole lot of traction among voters. County Judge Lina Hidalgo is being rightly held up as the model, but you may note that this wasn’t what she campaigned on. She campaigned primarily on bread-and-butter issues like flooding, criminal justice reform, quality of life, and making county government more accessible to more people. I’m not saying this can’t be an effective campaign issue. It’s definitely a meritorious issue. I am saying it’s not the sexiest thing to lead with.

One other thing. At the risk of lapsing into whataboutism, as someone whose mailbox is regularly inflicted with King’s grumpy-old-man emails, his interest in this particular aspect of good government is a tad bit limited. I mean, we just re-elected the heavyweight champion of pay for play politics in this state, but good luck finding any mention of Greg Abbott and his penchant for appointing moneybag donors to statewide positions in King’s missives. Yes, I know, King is running for Mayor and not Governor, but he also regularly complains about the national debt, and last I checked he wasn’t running for Congress or (God help us) President. I know, he’s got his own thing to worry about now, but he was emitting those emails back in 2017 when he wasn’t running for Mayor and Abbott was actively blocking a bipartisan anti-pay for play bill in the Lege. The track record is thin, is what I’m saying.

Five file for HD125

Our fourth and hopefully final special legislative election for this cycle is now queued up.

Justin Rodriguez

Five candidates have signed up for the Feb. 12 special election to fill the seat of former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

The candidates, four Democrats and one Republican, had until 5 p.m. Monday to file.

Rodriguez, a San Antonio Democrat, gave up the seat earlier this month after being appointed to replace longtime Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo, who died late last year.

The Democratic candidates for solidly blue House District 125 include:

  • Steve Huerta, a social justice activist
  • Ray Lopez, a former member of the San Antonio City Council
  • Coda Rayo-Garza, an education policy expert
  • Art Reyna, who represented HD-125 from 1997 to 2003

The lone GOP contender is Fred Rangel, a former member of the State Republican Executive Committee who unsuccessfully ran for Texas GOP vice chair last year.

These are the five we’d heard about at the end of last week, so no late surprises. As for the “solidly blue” qualifier, we’ve already talked about that. Here’s a handy chart for you:


Dist  Romney   Obama  Abbott   Davis   Trump Clinton
====================================================
079    34.1%   64.6%   39.3%   58.5%   26.5%   68.0%
125    39.5%   59.0%   42.5%   55.6%   33.3%   60.8%
145    38.3%   60.2%   40.8%   57.2%   28.7%   66.8%
SD19   44.1%   54.6%   49.1%   49.0%   41.9%   53.4%

As I said before, HD125 is solidly blue in a high-turnout context (we don’t have 2018 numbers yet), more moderately blue in a low-turnout context. It’s bluer than SD19, which is certainly reassuring, but it’s not blue enough to sleepwalk through it or fail to mend fences in a runoff. Honestly, I’d prefer in general to let numbers rather than adjectives do the describing of districts like these. The data’s easy enough to find. Let the reader be the judge of how solid or swingy a given district is. Early voting starts in HD125 on January 28. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

The 2019 elections

We haven’t forgotten that there are some big elections on tap for us this year, have we? Let’s go a quick rundown.

May elections

Election campaigns are already in progress in the cities that have May elections, which includes big cities like San Antonio and Dallas, and smaller cities in our area like Pasadena, Sugar Land, and Pearland. Pasadena will be a hot zone again, with first-term Mayor Jeff Wagner up for re-election and local Democrats hoping to win the District A seat they came so close to in 2017, which would give them a 5-3 advantage on City Council. I don’t have much to say about these races yet, but I will note that my friend Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council in Sugar Land, so I wish her all the best with that.

Houston – Overview

This is the first city election since 2015, thanks to the change in the term limits law. It’s also the first city election since the election of Donald Trump, and the two high-turnout, Democratic-sweep elections in Harris County. How will that affect the course of this election? Normally, even if we have a hotly contested Mayor’s race, we’d be looking at 200 to 250K turnout max – less if the Mayor’s race was not contested – but with all the newly activated people from the past two years, will things change? The betting money always says No until events prove otherwise. The one other thing that may affect turnout this year is the Metro referendum, which itself will be conducted for the first time with no John Culberson in office. So many factors in play, so all I will say for now is don’t believe any firm, confident pronouncements. There’s a lot of room for variance and for doubt at this time.

Mayor

It’s Sylvester Turner versus Bill King, Round 2, with the extra zest (maybe) of Tony Buzbee. And maybe others, too – will anyone be surprised if Ben Hall manages to get a story published about how he’s “thinking about” taking another shot at it? The last Mayor to fail to be re-elected was Kathy Whitmire in 1991. Past performance does not guarantee future outcomes, but I figure there’s a reason for that. It’s Turner’s election to lose, and King doesn’t have his signature talking point from 2015 now that pension reform has been achieved, by Turner. He’s clearly going to attack Turner, but as to what he might campaign on beyond that, I have no idea.

City Controller

Honestly, I’ll be surprised if Chris Brown draws anything more than token opposition. Controller isn’t that sexy a job, and Brown hasn’t done anything to draw the bad kind of attention to himself.

City Council

Districts A, B, C, J, and At Large #5 are term limited. I’ve already received two invitations to like Facebook pages for District C candidates (Nick Hellyar and Bob Nowak), and I’m aware of at least two more such candidates (Shelley Kennedy and Abbie Kamin). Durrel Douglas listed some potential District B candidates a few weeks ago, and there are rumblings in the other slots as well. Raj Salhotra has announced a challenge to Mike Knox in At Large #1, while Laurie Robinson appears to be gearing up for another run in At Large #5. I’ll be reviewing the finance reports for January when they start to come out, which may yield a few more names. For now, let’s just say I expect a lot of activity, and not just in the open seats. Four years is a long time to go between city elections, and lots of people are in a mind to run for something.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Sallie Alcorn, who had been Steve Costello’s chief of staff, has announced her candidacy for AL5.

HISD

Assuming we have HISD Trustee elections this November – we should know that for sure by August – the following Trustees are up in 2019: Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Sergio Lira, Jolanda Jones, and Diana Davila. Far as I know, all are planning to run for re-election. Lira was elected to fill out Manuel Rodriguez’s unfinished term in 2017, Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015 and has had a rocky tenure as Board President, Davila upset Juliet Stipeche (now Mayor Turner’s education czar) in 2015, and Jolanda is Jolanda. I’m not currently aware of any opponents on the horizon, but I’m sure most if not all of them will draw someone. Assuming, again, we have HISD Trustee elections this November.

HCC

It will have been six long years, but we will finally have the chance to rid ourselves of the stain that is Dave Wilson, in HCC Trustee District 2, this November. Also up for election are Zeph Capo and Neeta Sane.

Metro

All of Harris County will have the Metro referendum, which is as yet unfinished, on their ballot in November. Again, I don’t have much to say about this yet, but this is one of my top interests for 2019. It will certainly be a component of the Mayor’s race as well. I figure if Metro could pass the 2003 referendum they have to be a favorite to pass this one, but you never know with these things.

That’s all I have for now. Next up will be the finance reports when they become available. If you know of any candidate announcements or other related news, leave a comment and tell us all.

Endorsement watch: Noriega for HD145

The Chron makes their choice for the special election in HD145.

Melissa Noriega

While the legislative session started in Austin last week, early voting begins today to select a representative for House District 145. That’s not the usual order of things.

This special election has been delayed because Republican Gov. Greg Abbott dragged his feet in scheduling the Senate District 6 special election to replace now-Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia. The winner was then-state Rep. Carol Alvarado, who now has to be replaced as well.

On the losing end of these political shenanigans are the voters in this largely Hispanic, Democratic-leaning district, which straddles Interstate 45 from downtown to Pasadena. They may see their political power diluted this year as the Legislature starts without their new representative in place. The victor in this eight-way race will need the skill and experience to effectively advocate for constituents despite a truncated timeline. Luckily, voters have that candidate in Melissa Noriega.

The former city councilwoman actually held this seat in 2005 while her then-husband, Rick Noriega, was on active military duty in Afghanistan. She then ran for the at-large position 3 seat on City Council, which she held until term-limited out in 2013. During that time she developed a reputation as a well-informed consensus-builder and routinely earned our endorsement. Since then she has worked as a vice president at Baker-Ripley, focusing on disaster response after Hurricane Harvey.

Appearing alongside four opponents at the editorial board’s endorsement meeting, Noriega, 64, spoke with specificity about the challenges facing this district, including overburdened schools, disaster recovery, flooding and the planned redesign of I-45 and Interstate 69.

I am as noted in the tank for Melissa, so I’m happy to see the Chron endorse her. This race is all about whoever gets enough people to the polls to vote for them to make the runoff. Several campaigns are out there working – I’ve been contacted one way or another by three or four of them – but the runway for this is extremely short. If you’re in HD145, make a plan to vote and get out there and do it.

Early voting begins Monday for HD145 special election

From the inbox:

First week Early Voting hours for the January 29, 2019 Special Election To Fill A Vacancy For State Representative District 145 will now be extended from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.  Extended voting hours will now give voters an extra 18 hours to make it to the polls.

“One of my goals upon taking office is making voting easier for Houstonians and expanding Early Voting hours is just one way to do that,” stated Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

The Early Voting locations and schedule are as follows:

Harris County, TX Early Voting Schedule and Locations

January 29, 2019 Special Election To Fill A Vacancy For SRD 145

Location Address City Zip
County Attorney Conference Center 1019 Congress Avenue Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Hours of Operation
Day(s) Date Time
Monday to Saturday Jan 14 – 19 7am – 7 pm
Sunday Jan 20 1 pm – 6 pm
*Monday Jan 21 CLOSED for MLK Day
Tuesday to Friday Jan 22 – 25 7 am – 7 pm

“Extended hours match the needs of the hard working Houstonians hoping to cast a ballot during the first week of Early Voting,” added Dr. Trautman.

State Representative District 145 registered voters can find their sample ballot as well as their nearest Early Voting location by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

The schedule and map can be found here. I’m voting for Melissa Noriega, and given that I don’t work anywhere near the early voting locations, those extended hours for week one – which ought to be the norm going forward – will be nice and convenient for me. Early voting for HD79 will start on the same day, but I don’t get those press releases. Get out there and vote if you’re in the district, y’all.

HD125 special election set

It will overlap the ones going on now.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

Gov. Greg Abbott has picked Feb. 12 as the date for a special election to replace former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who stepped down last week to become a Bexar County commissioner.

The candidate filing deadline is Jan. 14, and early voting begins Jan. 28, according to a proclamation Abbott issued Monday.

Rodriguez vacated the seat in House District 125 after he was appointed Friday to succeed Paul Elizondo, the longtime Bexar County commissioner who died last month.

The Feb. 12 special election will determine who completes Rodriguez’s term, which ends in January 2021. It also will be the fourth such contest since the November elections, with two more special elections — to replace former state Reps. Carol Alvarado and Joe Pickett — coming up Jan. 29.

See here and here for the background. Early voting for HD125 begins the day before the HD79 and HD145 elections, so assuming at least one runoff in those races we’ll have continuous campaigning through the end of February or so, likely later as this one ought to go into overtime as well. So much for the usually-quiet part of the beginning of the session. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez resigns to take County Commissioner job

We will need that special election.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is leaving the Legislature to become a Bexar County commissioner.

The county’s judge, Nelson Wolff, appointed Rodriguez on Friday to replace Paul Elizondo, the longtime commissioner who died last week. The appointment creates a vacancy in Rodriguez’s House District 125, paving the way for a special election to finish his term.

Rodriguez was immediately sworn after Wolff announced the appointment at a news conference.

“I wanted someone that had the confidence of the citizens and voters of County Commissioner Precinct 2,” Wolff said, alluding to Rodriguez’s long record of public service in the area. “Justin Rodriguez has certainly exemplified that in a very important way.”

[…]

The special election for Rodriguez’s seat would be the fourth such contest since the November elections. State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, won the special election last month to replace former state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston — now a congresswoman — while Gov. Greg Abbott has set Jan. 29 special elections to fill the seats of Alvarado and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who is resigning due to health issues.

The 86th legislative session begins Tuesday, and Rodriguez said he was confident his seat would be filled before the session kicks into high gear in March. He told reporters he did not have a preference for who should succeed him.

See here for the background. My guess is that we’ll get an election in early February, with a runoff if needed in late March. Not optimal, but it is what it is. As I said before, this district is moderately blue, not dark blue, so the eventual election is not a slam dunk for the Dems. Unity, if there is a D-versus-R runoff following an initial race with multiple Ds, and turnout will be the key to not punting this seat. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

Eight file for HD145

It’s a big field.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Eight candidates filed by Thursday’s 5 p.m. deadline for the Jan. 29 special election to fill the Texas House seat vacated by Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. Early voting begins Jan. 14, a little more than a month after Alvarado won an open spot in the upper chamber.

The field consists of six Democrats — Elias De La Garza, Oscar Del Toro, Ruben Gonsalez, Christina Morales, Alfred Moreno and Melissa Noriega — Libertarian Clayton Hunt and Republican Martha Fierro, the third-place finisher in last month’s race for Senate District 6, which overlaps with part of Alvarado’s old House district.

[…]

Morales, the president and CEO of an East End funeral home, announced her candidacy the day after Alvarado’s win.

“I definitely feel like I’m well connected to the constituents of District 145. I know them intimately, especially through my business,” she said. “We hear their stories daily. We help them through their darkest hour.”

Morales has assembled a campaign team made up of Alvarado’s staffers, including consultant Jaime Mercado, lead strategist Marc Campos and campaign manager Linh Nguyen.

“I wanted a team that knew the district the way I know the district and would be capable of delivering my messages,” she said.

Noriega previously held the House District 145 seat when her then-husband, Rick Noriega, was deployed to Afghanistan during the 2005 legislative session. The thought of running entered her mind in 2017, when former U.S. Rep. Gene Green announced he would retire, setting off a chain reaction that ultimately left the seat open.

Part of Noriega’s pitch, she said, is that the special election winner will be sworn in amid a session that spans just 140 days — and she would be able to assimilate quickly because of her experience, she said.

“There are still people there that I know from before,” she said, mentioning presumptive House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican.

Noriega has also served as an at-large member of Houston City Council and worked for Houston ISD, while keeping an eye on the Legislature from afar.

“Last session, there was a lot of time spent on things that probably don’t benefit Texas,” she said. “There’s an opportunity to work with people and be collegial in a way that’s productive. That I think is still there.”

I’m going to say two things up front. One is that I’m not going to have time to do interviews before early voting starts. In the likely event of a runoff, I will see about doing interviews with the two finalists. And two, as someone who lives in HD145, I’m voting for Melissa Noriega. She’s a dear friend, she’s been there before, she was an excellent member of City Council, I trust her completely. I see no point in being coy about that.

I fully expect this race to be very low turnout – candidates may have been thinking about running for weeks, but no one has been campaigning before now, and early voting starts in just over a week. Turnout will be higher in the runoff, as there will be more time for the campaigns to develop and focus voters’ attention. It’ll still be low, but it will be higher than the January election. This is one of those times where endorsements will make a difference, as they will serve as one of the few things people will be able to hear about the candidates before they have to vote. For those of you in HD145, which needless to say includes a lot of people who just went through the SD06 special election, it’s time to get ready to vote again. The Trib, which also has the lineup for the HD79 special election, has more.

We may soon need another legislative special election

In Bexar County.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez is expected to fill the vacant Commissioners Court seat of political icon Paul Elizondo, a major local power broker and a veteran of the commission for more than 30 years who died last week.

Multiple sources said Wednesday that Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff likely will appoint Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2013.

Wolff declined to confirm that he plans to appoint Rodriguez, but he sketched out what he’s looking for in a successor, in deference to the death of his closest friend. Rodriguez declined to comment.

“I’ve had obviously a lot of time to think about this because Paul has had several challenges with his health,” Wolff said.

The county judge said he plans to appoint someone who has legislative experience and fiscal expertise and can help improve the county’s relationship with the city.

[…]

It’s unclear who might step in to run in a special election for Rodriguez’s seat, which would be called by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rodriguez and a few other close allies of Elizondo have been seen as his potential successors. Among them: City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who’d known Elizondo for some four decades.

We should know pretty soon whether Rep. Rodriguez will be the choice to fill that County Commissioners seat. You may recall from when Jerry Eversole stepped down, it is the County Judge who names the successor, so whatever Judge Wolff decides is what will happen. The Rivard Report makes it sound like the choice is more up in the air, and includes Queta Rodriguez, a former employee of Precinct 2 who nearly ousted Elizondo in the 2018 primary, as a potential pick as well.

Rodriguez represents HD125 in Bexar County; he was elected in 2012 after Joaquin Castro decided to run for Congress. After a decade of turnover, he’s the second-most senior member of the Bexar delegation, after Rep. Roland Gutierrez. HD125 was solidly Democratic in 2016, as Hillary Clinton carried it 61-33, but it was closer in 2014 as Wendy Davis took it by a 56-43 margin. If he gets appointed and this becomes a race, I’d expect the Republicans to seriously challenge it. The Dems would be favored to hold it, but it would not be a slam dunk. Keep an eye on this.

Orlando Sanchez’s bizarre press conference

What a weird thing.

Orlando Sanchez

It was an absolutely wild afternoon for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. He planned to have a news conference across the street from the HISD administration building, but things didn’t go as planned.

Protestors showed up and completely disrupted Sanchez’s news conference. When he tried to get it started, the group would chant things like, ‘Go away, TEA’ and ‘You got voted out.’

Things really got heated when he was answering one of our questions. Someone from the group ran up and dumped water on him.

Someone from Sanchez’s team confronted the man. He ended up on the ground and police were called. Both sides claimed they were assaulted.

The news conference was supposed to be for Sanchez to call for the state to take over HISD.

“Taxpayers are fed up and it’s time for the governor and the Texas Education Agency to step up and make sure that children in HISD, which 83 percent of them are minority, get an education,” said Sanchez.

“To have somebody like that step on my toes like that when I have sacrificed so much for these kids, yeah, it’s emotional,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern. “It is because it’s personal. These kids mean a lot to me; not just my five but all 215,000.”

Click over to see pictures and video. Far as I can tell, the only coverage of this fiasco has come from the TV stations; I’ve not seen anything in the Chron as yet.

Let me say up front that whoever poured water on Sanchez is an idiot, and what he did sure sounds like assault to me. It’s also terrible strategy from a public relations perspective. Sanchez’s purpose for calling the press conference was ridiculous on its face, and would have been easy to dismiss on its merits. Anyone who felt the need to attack Sanchez physically is someone who has no faith in their own political position.

Why do I say that Sanchez’s purpose is ridiculous? The law is clear that the authority of the TEA to step in only occurs after the schools fail to meet state standards. We won’t have that data for several months, a fact that everyone knows. It is entirely possible that the four schools in question, which were all granted one-year waivers due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, could meet standards this year, as the other schools that had originally been under scrutiny and which did not get Harvey waivers did. One could easily argue that by making this needless and premature call for a TEA takeover, Sanchez is expressing a complete lack of faith in the students at the four schools. That’s an insult to them and their parents and teachers. Maybe he had some qualifiers and weasel words in his prepared text, but still, the message is clear: Orlando Sanchez expects you to fail, and so he wants the consequences of your failure to begin now.

One also can’t help but notice that Orlando Sanchez, who just got voted out of a cushy elected position where he was basically invisible for twelve years and has never before expressed any opinions about education or ideas about how to improve it, is jumping up and waving his arms in front of Greg Abbott at a time when he really needs something to do. It’s a clear grab for attention at a time when the news cycle is quiet and he can still call it in his capacity as an elected official. There’s also the rumors that Sanchez is prepping to run for Mayor (again). No such thing as bad publicity, am I right?

Finally, there will surely be litigation over the process of replacing an elected board with an appointed one – for sure, there’s a Voting Rights Act complaint to be made. There were lawsuits over the closure of North Forest ISD and La Marque ISD, and while the state prevailed in each of them, the situation with HISD, which is a much bigger district with many successful schools and is financially solvent, is vastly different. The state may well prevail in any litigation that will occur, but it will take time. There’s also the very real possibility that the Lege could modify the law in question that delays or makes less likely a TEA takeover. The point here is that in every way, this was way premature, and served to do nothing more than call attention to Orlando Sanchez. On that score at least, mission accomplished.

HD145 and HD79 special elections set

Another sprint.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday set a Jan. 29 special election to fill state Sen. Carol Alvarado’s seat in the Texas House, hours after she was sworn in to the upper chamber.

Alvarado, D-Houston, won a special election Dec. 11 to fill the Texas Senate seat vacated by U.S. Rep.-elect Sylvia Garcia, who was elected in November to replace U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston. Green, who first was elected to the House from the newly-created District 29 in 1992, announced he would not run for reelection last November.

Candidates have until 5 p.m. Jan. 3 to file for the election, while early voting starts Jan. 14.

[…]

Christina Morales, the president and CEO of Morales Funeral Home in Houston’s East End, announced on Facebook earlier this month that she would seek the seat. Martha Fierro, a Republican who finished third in the race for Garcia’s Senate seat, announced on Twitter the next day that she intended to run for the seat.

Alvarado had held the seat since 2009, winning an open race after incumbent state Rep. Rick Noriega ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.

The district voted 67 percent to 29 percent in favor of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.

Melissa Noriega, Rick Noriega’s wife, has said she is considering a run for the seat. She previously served on Houston City Council and held the District 145 seat in 2005 while her husband served in Afghanistan.

See here for the background. Alvarado was sworn in yesterday, making her resignation official. I’m glad to see this get on the calendar. If there is a runoff, HD145 (which is my district) should have representation again by mid-to-late March or so.

As I expected, the special election for HD79 to succeed Rep. Joe Pickett was set for the same day. There are candidates lining up for that seat as well.

Two candidates have emerged in the race to replace state Rep. Joe Pickett, who will step down from his post on Jan. 4: Art Fierro, chairman of the El Paso Community College board, and Dr. Michiel Noe, who is finishing his last term as a city representative.

Pickett, who is the longest serving El Paso lawmaker at the statehouse, surprised many of his colleagues over the weekend when he announced that he will step down from his position on Jan. 4 to deal with health issues stemming from a 2016 cancer diagnosis.

Gov. Greg Abbott has 20 days from Pickett’s announcement to call for a special election.

“I am going to throw my hat in the ring,” Fierro said in an interview Tuesday morning. “I will be a great representative and a partner to our delegation in their efforts to continue to improve our community and let the rest of Texas see how wonderful El Paso is.”

Noe, who works as an OB-GYN, announced his intentions to run for the seat on Tuesday night.

“Joe Pickett is a friend of mine and I’ve always been an admirer of his,” he said in an interview. “When he broke the news that he would have to resign, it was kind of heartbreaking, but it left a spot open that would be empty. and with the background that I have, I will hopefully just transition into representing the district.”

Noe has served as a city representative for eight years, with his final term set to end in January, when incoming representative Isabel Salcido is sworn-in.

I figure it’s more likely than not that both races will wind up with more candidates than the ones named in these stories. They’re not wasting any time in HD79. I expect things to move quickly as well here in Houston. Ready or not, it’s soon going to be time for some of us to vote again.

Metro moving forward on 2019 referendum

I’m ready for it.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is expected to ask voters next fall for more than $3 billion in borrowing authority to implement its next wave of transit projects.

The 20-year plan laid out by Metro officials includes roughly 20 more miles of light rail, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and 110 miles of two-way HOV lanes along area freeways.

The plan, based on studies and public feedback, focuses on beefing up service in core areas where buses and trains already are drawing riders and connecting suburban residents and jobs in those areas.

“We are making sure what we are doing here in the metro service area blends into the region,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said. “How do we make sure we are putting together an environment and place that connects one mode of transportation to other modes of transportation.”

The overall price tag for the plan is $7.5 billion, more than half of which would be funded via state and federal transportation monies.

[…]

Unlike previous Metro capital plans that spent roughly $1 billion in local money on the Red Line light rail, its northern extension and the Green and Purple lines, the current plan would spend more on buses — specifically bus rapid transit — along key routes where officials believe better service can connect to more places and, in turn, lure more riders. The estimated cost of about 75 miles of bus rapid transit is $3.15 billion.

Officials believe BRT, as it is called, delivers the same benefits as rail, but at less cost with more flexibility, giving Metro the ability to alter service to meet demand. For riders, it would be a rail-like experience and different from buses that operate on set timelines.

“If you can get a service people can bank on and count on, you don’t need a schedule,” Lambert said.

BRT operates similar to light rail with major station stops along dedicated lanes used only by the buses, though they may share some streets with automobile traffic. The region’s first foray into bus rapid transit is under construction along Post Oak in the Uptown area. Service is scheduled to start in early- to mid-2020.

The MetroNext plan calls for at least five bus rapid transit projects:

Interstate 45 — which is poised for its own massive rebuild by TxDOT — from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport

Interstate 10 from downtown to the proposed Texas Bullet Train terminal at Loop 610 and U.S. 290

Gessner from Metro’s West Little York park and ride to its Missouri City park and ride

Extending Uptown’s planned rapid transit to the Gulfton Transit Center

A proposed fifth BRT is a revised version of the University Line light rail that Metro proposed and then shelved because of a lack of progress and intense opposition. The line, which some consider the most-needed major transit line in the region, would tie the University of Houston and Texas Southern University areas to downtown and then the Uptown area.

Since becoming chair of Metro in 2016, [Carrin] Patman has said the downtown-to-Uptown connection is the missing link in major transit investment within Loop 610. However, she has stressed that light rail may not be the best mode.

Though officials have pivoted from trains to buses with much of the plan, nearly $2.5 billion in new rail is being proposed, including the extension of both the Green Line along Harrisburg and the Purple Line in southeast Houston to Hobby Airport. The airport legs alone are estimated to cost close to $1.8 billion even though they are expected to draw fewer riders than any of the bus rapid transit routes.

All the details, which as Metro Chair Patman notes can and will change as the community dialogue continues, can be found at MetroNext.org. A press release with a link to Patman’s “State of Metro” presentation last week is here. I will of course be keeping an eye on this, and I definitely plan to interview Patman about the referendum once we get a little farther into the year. And let’s be clear, even if I didn’t have other reasons to dislike Bill King, I don’t want him to ever have any power over Metro. If we want to have any shot at having decent transit in this city, he’s the last person we want as Mayor.

Rep. Joe Pickett to resign

We will now need two special House elections to get to full membership.

Rep. Joe Pickett

State Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso will leave his post effective Jan. 4.

Pickett, a Democrat, made the announcement Saturday morning that he will step down after having served in the Texas House since 1995. He said in a statement that he learned he had cancer just before the start of the 2017 legislative session and has since sought treatment for it.

“In the last few weeks, I have learned of additional issues I must address,” Pickett said in a statement. “I could probably continue at a reduced work level while undergoing treatment, but I have been there and done that. I need to completely heal this time. I am told I am physically strong enough to hopefully make my recovery quicker than most. My body and mind need a break.”

Pickett didn’t face any general election opponents this year, winning re-election in November with 100 percent of the vote. He noted in his statement that he would return recent campaign contributions in light of his upcoming departure from the Legislature.

During the 2017 legislative session, Pickett held the 11th highest seniority in the Texas House and served as chair of the Environmental Regulation Committee. He previously chaired other House committees during his tenure including the Transportation, Defense and Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security and Public Safety Committees.

Rep. Pickett was definitely one of the more powerful members of the House thanks to his seniority. He will be missed as Democrats try to exert more influence with their largest caucus since 2009. I wish him all the best with his treatment and recovery.

We should expect Sen.-elect Carol Alvarado to submit her resignation this week, once the election results in SD06 are certified. My guess is that Greg Abbott will schedule both elections for the same day, probably in mid to late January. Assuming the need for runoffs, the new members in HDs 79 and 145 will be seated by early March or so. For the record, since I know you’re wondering, Hillary Clinton won HD79 68.0% to 26.5%, and won by 66.8% to 28.7% in HD145. Wendy Davis carried HD79 by 58.5% to 39.3%, and HD145 by 57.2% to 40.8%. I can imagine a Republican making it to a runoff in those districts, but winning would be very unlikely. And before anyone mentions SD19, Hillary Clinton carried it 53.4% to 41.9%, while Wendy Davis actually lost it, 49.1% to 49.0%. These districts are much bluer than SD19. (Beto won HD145 by a 70.9% to 28.3% clip; I don’t have the data for El Paso.)

Oh Lord, it’s Bill King again

siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh

Bill King, a Houston businessman who narrowly lost his bid for mayor in 2015, filed paperwork with the city secretary Wednesday marking his likely intent to challenge Mayor Sylvester Turner again in 2019.

King lost to Turner, then a state representative, in a runoff decided by about 4,000 votes, or 1.9 percentage points, out of more than 212,000 ballots cast.

Though King’s filing of a campaign treasurer’s report does not lock in his candidacy, he said in an interview that he is “leaning heavily” toward running.

“I’ve been watching City Hall for 40 years, and this is the most corrupt administration I’ve seen,” King said.

For now, King said he plans to conduct some polling — the reason he filed a treasurer’s report — and likely will make a formal decision in the next 60 days. Houston’s municipal elections will not take place until November 2019, with possible runoff elections occurring the following month.

Asked after Wednesday’s council meeting about King’s filing, Turner replied, “Next question.”

There was a time when I had respect for King’s fiscal conservatism. I didn’t agree with him, but he had a plan that he clearly articulated and seemed to believe in, and he repeated it often enough to make you think it might work. Then he supported Prop B, which demonstrated how little he actually meant any of it. But it was a bright shiny opportunity for him, so he took it. Gotta have something to run on now that pension reform has been done, I guess. On the plus side, the presence of Tony Buzbee means he has a chance to not be the worst candidate in the race.

HISD rejects partnership idea

The die is cast.

Houston ISD trustees narrowly voted Thursday to not seek proposals from outside organizations to run long-struggling schools, a decision that keeps those campuses under local control but sets the stage for a possible state takeover of the district’s school board.

Barring an unexpected legislative or legal change, four HISD schools now must meet state academic standards in 2019 after missing the mark for four-plus consecutive years to stave off major state sanctions against the district. If any of those four schools fail to meet standard, the Texas Education Agency is legally required to replace HISD’s entire school board and appoint new members, or close still-failing schools.

HISD could have preempted any punishment for two years if the district temporarily surrendered control of the four schools to outside groups. TEA leaders have previously said they do not see closing schools as a strong option for improving student outcomes, though they have not committed to either option.

In a 5-4 vote following about an hour of debate, interrupted several times by community members who vocally opposed seeking partnerships, trustees opted against directing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request for proposals to take control of an undetermined number of campuses. The four campuses that have repeatedly failed to meet state standard — Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — would have been considered for partnerships.

[…]

Trustees Wanda Adams, Diana Dávila, Jolanda Jones, Elizabeth Santos and Rhonda Skillern-Jones opposed seeking proposals. Trustees Sue Deigaard, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung supported the option.

Well, now Mayor Turner can quit pursuing the partnership plan he had proposed. At this point, either the four schools meet standards or we will say goodbye to the Board of Trustees for some number of years. I don’t foresee a bill getting passed to change the law that mandates the consequences, though that is a possibility that is worth pursuing because there’s nothing to lose and much to gain. While I expect there will be litigation over a state takeover – if nothing else, a Voting Rights Act lawsuit over the disenfranchisement of HISD voters seems likely – that kind of action can take years and is highly unpredictable. So it’s basically up to the students and parents and teachers and administrators at those four schools now. I wish them all the very best. The Press has more.

(On a side note, Diana Davila’s 2015 victory over Juliet Stipeche sure turned out to be consequential. I haven’t asked either of her opponents from 2017 how they might have voted, but Elizabeth Santos’ election in 2017 also looms large now. I sure hope we get to have HISD Trustee elections again next year.)

From the “Needlessly overstated answers to simple questions” department

I have three things to say about this:

Tony Buzbee, a Houston lawyer who recently announced his plan to run for mayor next year, has offered to “mediate” a long-running pay dispute between the city and firefighters, one week after a judge blocked implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment that would grant firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

In a joint statement Friday with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Buzbee said he believes it is time “we equally value our police and fire first responders in Houston,” seeming to indicate that he supports the push for “pay parity.”

A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner declined comment, referring to the mayor’s previous comments that a judge should first decide whether a collective bargaining agreement can supersede a voter-approved charter amendment.

1. No.

2. Whether or not the city has any ability to negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is an open question right now. (So is the pay parity referendum itself, but let’s set that aside right now.) Asking the city to come to the table and negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is basically equivalent to telling the city to agree that the firefighters are right about the big picture and to abandon its current course. Which the city may eventually wind up doing, depending on what the lawyers and the courts say, but now is not the time for that.

3. Even if we were to accept the premise of point #2, maybe find a mediator who’s more, you know, impartial? Like, maybe someone who hasn’t announced their candidacy against Mayor Turner? It’s a big city. We have lots of certified mediators. I’m sure someone else might have time in their schedule for this.

4. Again, no.

Oh, right, I said three things, not four. Better call in Tony Buzbee to mediate the difference between what I said and what I did.

The legal option for Prop B

Here we go.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask Houston city council Wednesday to hire a law firm to advise the city on possible litigation related to the firefighter pay parity measure, setting in motion a potential court challenge to the item approved by voters earlier this month.

While the firefighters union has urged the city to return to the negotiating table, Turner has questioned whether the city could preempt the ballot measure approved by voters, suggesting a judge should settle the question first.

Firefighters and labor attorneys contend the mayor does not need to seek a judge’s opinion, saying Texas’ collective bargaining laws preempt the city charter.

The city still has not sought a legal opinion on the matter.

[…]

The mayor, who instructed each city department in September to submit plans for reducing their respective budgets by 3.4 to 5.2 percent, has remained tight-lipped about how he plans to make the cuts he has warned are needed to square the city’s budget.

The Chronicle submitted a public information request seeking copies of the departments’ budget-cutting memos, but the city has sought an opinion from the Texas Attorney General on whether the documents can be exempted from disclosure.

Several city departments — including the Administration of Regulatory Affairs, the Solid Waste Department, and Public Works and Engineering — declined to say how Prop B-related cuts would impact their services and referred all questions to the mayor’s office. Alan Bernstein, a mayoral spokesman, referred the Chronicle to the months-old memo asking departments to submit “reduction scenarios.”

We knew this was coming. I’ve been expecting there to be litigation over this from the beginning, regardless of who won. Now we get to see what form this takes.

Houston city council on Wednesday approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s request to hire an outside law firm to provide the city with legal advice related to the firefighter pay parity measure approved by voters earlier this month, but not before cutting the contract’s potential cost in half.

Following a testy discussion that lasted nearly 80 minutes, council gave the green light on a 9-7 vote for a contract worth up to $500,000 with Norton Rose Fulbright, a global firm with ties to the political action committee that backed the campaign to oppose Proposition B.

The ballot item, approved by voters on Nov. 6, grants Houston firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

The firm is likely to help Turner’s administration address what has become a core question in the post-election debate over Prop B: whether state law in the form of a collective bargaining contract preempts the city charter. Council on Wednesday also adopted the pay parity item as a charter amendment, a procedural formality.

[…]

Turner told reporters after the meeting that he would have legally challenged Proposition B before the election, but found legal precedent that said such a move had to wait until voters approved the measure.

“There’s only one issue right here: whether or not it was preempted by state law,” Turner said. “If a judge should come back and say to the City of Houston it wasn’t preempted by state law, then we’ll have to move very quickly to implement it.”

Basically, as I see it there are three possible outcomes:

1. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does not conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, thus paving the way for Mayor Turner and the firefighters to sit down and hash out an agreement on how to implement Prop B in a way that doesn’t kneecap the city financially. This is the firefighters’ preferred resolution.

2. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely win a lawsuit because of that, or because of some other reason. You know what happens next in this case.

3. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely lose a lawsuit. This way leads to budget cuts, layoffs, quite possibly litigation from one or more of several other groups – the firefighters, the police who are threatening their own legal action anyway, some other aggrieved citizens – and an unknown amount of chaos going into the 2019 election. At least it won’t be boring.

More Metro regional transit plan meetings planned

There’s more to talk about now.

After gathering input over the past year on how to expand public transportation in the region, METRO says it will soon hold another series of meetings to see what people think of their draft Regional Transit Plan.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said they’re also expecting feedback from a new group of Harris County decision-makers.

“We have a new county government, there are some changes on the congressional level, and we need to take all those things into account,” said Patman. “Because some of the opinions of some of the stakeholders may have changed too.”

As the population grows, METRO says it needs to find better ways to move people to the region’s many employment centers. In the past, most people commuted into downtown Houston. But now, commuters are headed to places like the Med Center, the Energy Corridor, and The Woodlands.

Patman said they also want to tackle mobility challenges within the City of Houston, like providing better connections between downtown and the Galleria.

“The question is what form that will take,” said Patman. “What we’ve been looking at is the concept of bus rapid transit along part of Richmond, dropping down to Westpark, and connecting with the Post Oak BRT. But when we go back out for the public engagement process we’ll get a lot of input into that.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the project webpage. Changes to Commissioners Court as well as changes in Congress may allow for a more expansive definition of what is possible with this. The end result of the meetings and the engagement will be a referendum we vote on in 2019. Go and have your say so what we vote on later is what you were hoping for.

Garcia officially resigns from the Senate

We will finally get that special election to succeed her in SD06.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat elected to Congress earlier this week, announced Friday she is resigning from the Texas Senate, setting in motion a process to fill the seat that may be resolved after the Legislature convenes in January.

Garcia’s departure ramps up what had been a low-key race for her seat, which covers Houston’s north and southeast sides. Two Houston Democrats — state Reps. Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez — launched their candidacies after Garcia won her March primary.

Elected Tuesday in Texas’ 29th Congressional District, Garcia resigned Friday to coincide with the start of the “expedited election” period, a provision of Texas’ Election Code intended to speed up special elections for vacancies that occur during or close to a legislative session.

The “expedited” period kicks in the 60th day before the Legislature convenes, which in this case is Friday. The session begins at noon Jan. 8, so Garcia is making her resignation effective at 12:01 p.m.

Once Gov. Greg Abbott accepts Garcia’s resignation, the Texas Constitution gives him 20 days to order an election, though it could take up to eight days for the resignation to become official.

The election must then fall on a Tuesday or Saturday, 21 to 45 days after Abbott orders it, according to the election code. That means if Abbott accepts Garcia’s letter Friday and immediately orders the election, he could schedule it as early as Dec. 1.

Otherwise, the election could fall as late as Jan. 19, if Abbott orders the election a full 28 days after Friday and schedules it on the last possible day within the “expedited” window.

See here for the previous update. Abbott’s gonna do what Abbott’s gonna do. Maybe he’ll schedule it on the early side, but my expectation is we won’t have an election till January. Reps. Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez are in, and if it’s just them or maybe just them plus a no-name or two, we can get this resolved in one round. If there has to be a runoff, and the election is when I think it will be, we’re looking at early March before it’s all said and done. And then we get to elect a new State Rep, which may mean I’ll be in a district with a vacancy for that duration. Election season is never truly over, we just constantly rotate the cast of characters.

UPDATE: I missed a later version of this story, in which the special election date was set for December 11. Here’s the proclamation. That’s very good news, because it means that even with a runoff, we’ll have a successor in place no later than mid-January or so.

Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

Buzbee for Mayor?

Oh, good grief.

Tony Buzbee, a high-wattage trial lawyer, big-time political donor and Texas A&M University System regent, says he is running to be the mayor of Houston in 2019.

“The mayor’s race in Houston traditionally has been as boring as watching paint dry,” Buzbee said on Fox26 Houston Tuesday night, when he announced his bid. “I think that we have a city that is above average with below average leadership, and I’m considering very seriously, because there’s a lot of people asking me to do this, running for the mayor of this town.”

When pressed, Buzbee confirmed he is running and would donate his mayoral salary, if elected, to “a random voter that I choose every year.”

[…]

Buzbee, a former Marine, has a roster of high-profile clients to his name, including former Republican Gov. Rick Perry, whom he successfully defended in an abuse-of-power case.

Buzbee was appointed to the A&M System Board of Regents in 2013, by Perry, and has been known to host raucous and politician-studded parties at his River Oaks mansion, including a 2016 fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Last year, he was rebuked by a local homeowner’s association after he parked an operational World War II-era tank outside his house.

So basically, one part Ben Hall, one part Bill King, and one part MAGA bro. If that’s not a winning combination, I don’t know what is. The Chron has more.

The updated scenarios for a SD06 special election

It’s complicated.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

The resolution to the special election stalemate between state Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Gov. Greg Abbott likely will come after the November general election and could yield a special election after the Legislature convenes in January.

The likely solution — an “expedited election,” triggered by a vacancy within 60 days of the legislative session — comes out of a combination of codes and statutes that leave open a relatively wide election date window.

If Abbott follows timing laid out in the Texas Constitution and Election Code, the special election is likely to fall between early December and mid January, depending on when Garcia resigns.

[…]

The Legislature convenes Jan. 8, 2019, meaning the expedited period begins Nov. 9.

Once Garcia resigns, her resignation could take up to eight days to become effective. From there, the Texas Constitution gives Abbott 20 days to call an election before the “returning officer” in the district with the vacancy gains that authority.

Abbott has not indicated he would hold off on calling the election once Garcia resigns, but if it comes to that, the Constitution does not define the term “returning officer.” However, it has been generally interpreted to be the county clerk.

[…]

Garcia has not said when she would resign within the expedited period, but in an emailed statement to the Chronicle, she said she will do “whatever I can to make sure the 850,000 Texans in SD 6 are represented by the beginning of the next legislative session.”

If Garcia resigns Nov. 9 — the first day of the “expedited election” period — and her resignation quickly becomes effective, Abbott could schedule the special election in early December. If he wanted to delay the election until the session starts, he could order it in mid-January.

The governor has not stated that he would schedule the election in May or seek to delay it into session at all. But he has stopped short of promising a date before Garcia resigns. Abbott’s office sent the Chronicle the same statement it has stuck with for weeks, saying “the ball is in (Garcia’s) court.”

Basically, at this point’ we’re more or less back at the Letitia Van de Putte situation, in which I remind you that the special election to succeed her took place on January 6 and Sen. Jose Menendez was sworn in in early March. We could get the special election sooner than that, and maybe there won’t be a runoff, but that’s the best case. In the worst case, Abbott plays semantic games with what the various legal terms mean and we have to resolve this in court. All I can say I wish Sen. Garcia had resigned back in May, like I originally thought she might.

Second look at Metro’s long range transit plan

Still a work in progress, but there’s beginning to be some focus.

Transit officials inched closer Wednesday to asking voters next year for up to $3 billion for two-way express bus service along many Houston freeways, along with a few more miles of light rail.

The first stop for a new transit vision, however, is additional communication with community groups before a more refined plan is approved by Metropolitan Transit Authority, which ultimately will need voter approval to build any of it.

“The target date is still November 2019,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said of a voter referendum.

During a Wednesday workshop discussing the regional transportation plan, dubbed MetroNEXT, Metro staff detailed a number of proposed projects, developed after months of public meetings during the past 18 months.

The consensus preferences from the meetings, Metro vice president of systems and capital planning Clint Harbert said, is “really taking what we do well and making these trips faster and more reliable.”

As a result, many of the projects rely on roads and freeways, rather than rail. Metro has spent most of the last two decades mired in light rail debates and construction.

Instead, the early draft of the plan – which still will undergo months of community input before it is approved next year – includes only 12 miles of light rail, extending the Red Line north to Tidwell and south to Hobby Airport and the Purple Line to Hobby Airport.

Meanwhile, more than 34 miles of bus rapid transit – using large buses along mostly lanes solely for bus use – would spread westward from downtown. One of the key lines follows much of the path of the proposed University Line, a long-dormant light rail project that has been one of Metro’s most contentious.

The major bus rapid transit corridor would connect Kashmere to downtown, then head west to Greenway Plaza and Westchase. It would have a key connection to the bus transit planned along Post Oak, now under construction.

See here for some background. This represents the least ambitious of the possible plans, and it’s a combination of what’s most doable and what’s least controversial. Nothing wrong with that, I just wish we lived in a world where those conditions allowed for something more expansive. Even at this level, I expect plenty of friction from the usual suspects. Getting the eventual referendum passed will take a lot of engagement. I look forward to doing an interview with Metro Chair Patman about the final version of this for that election.

July 2018 campaign finance reports: HCC

We come to the end of the campaign finance reports for July. I’ll try to do the 30 day finance reports for Congress and the Lege, but in the meantime here are reports for the HCC Trustees:

Adriana Tamez
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz
Dave Wilson
Eva Loredo
John Hansen
Neeta Sane
Pretta VanDible Stallworth
Robert Glaser
Zeph Capo


Dist  Name             Raised    Spent    Loans   On Hand
=========================================================
3     Tamez                 0      267        0     5,701
4     Evans-Shabazz     5,600    4,134        0     1,653
2     Wilson                0        0   12,782         0
8     Loredo              700       70        0       255
6     Hansen                2        0    5,000     8,928
7     Sane                  0    3,823        0    11,319
9     Stallworth       14,175    2,758        0         0
5     Glaser                0        0    5,000     1,125
1     Capo                  0        0        0     2,064

The weird order to the reports is due to the idiosyncratic way that one accesses HCC finance reports – basically, things are sorted in alphabetical order by first name, so that’s how I prepared this. Sorry, even I have limits. As was the case with the HISD reports, there hasn’t been much fundraising activity for HCC, which isn’t that surprising given that there usually isn’t that much fundraising activity even when there are elections coming up. The main thing you need to know is that 2019 is the year we get the chance to rid ourselves of the stain that is Dave Wilson. Zeph Capo and Neeta Sane will also be on the ballot, but the race that matters is in District 2. Wilson spends his own money on his political endeavors, so pay no attention to his Raised and On Hand totals. Just be prepared to support his eventual opponent (hopefully there will be just one), and never forget this lesson in Why Every Election Matters.

July 2018 campaign finance reports: HISD

Every level of government requires finance reports in January and June, whether or not there is an active election cycle in that year. That includes HISD and HCC, which are the last two groups I’ll be examining. I didn’t get to their January reports, in part because they tend to post them later than other entities, and in part because I was hip deep in primary stuff. But that was then and this is now, and today I have the reports for HISD trustees.

Elizabeth Santos
Rhonda Skillern-Jones
Sergio Lira
Jolanda Jones
Sue Deigaard
Holly Flynn Vilaseca
Anne Sung
Diana Davila
Wanda Adams


Dist  Name             Raised    Spent    Loans   On Hand
=========================================================
I     Santos              525    1,048        0     4,806
II    Skillern-Jones        0        0        0     2,395
III   Lira              2,500        0        0     4,072
IV    Jones                 0        0        0    12,259
V     Deigaard              0    1,927        0     7,452
VI    Vilaseca          2,500      969        0     4,506
VII   Sung
VIII  Davila                0    1,500   19,178         0
IX    Adams             4,400    6,369        0     2,814

Anne Sung did not have a July report posted as of when I drafted this. As you can see, there’s not much to see here, as nobody did any fundraising in the past period. Diana Davila did not include a cash on hand total in her report, which I think is an error, but not one to worry about too much at this time. Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Sergio Lira, Jolanda Jones, and Diana Davila are up for election in 2019, so I figure we’ll start to see action from them soon. You will eventually see a 2019 Trustee Elections link on the Board of Trustees General Information page – the 2017 election link is still there – so until then I presume there’s no one who has formally declared an intent to run. I’ll have the HCC reports next, so let me know what you think.

July 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

Every level of government requires finance reports in January and June, whether or not there is an active election cycle in that year. That includes the city of Houston, whose january report data we inspected here. Our next election is in 2019, and while this is still traditionally a little early for there to be much activity, there are the finance reports. Here’s what we’ve got:


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
S Turner         Mayor   585,267    137,758        0  2,260,407

C Brown     Controller    13,070     17,650        0     59,164

M Knox      At Large 1    28,225     12,691        0     62,856 
D Robinson  At Large 2    61,650     21,468        0    162,079
M Kubosh    At Large 3    72,475     23,841  276,000     82,360
A Edwards   At Large 4    40,345     26,349        0    147,883
J Christie  At Large 5     3,263      6,055        0     25,918

B Stardig       Dist A    56,439     24,738        0    116,794
J Davis         Dist B    22,750     12,487        0    147,300
E Cohen         Dist C    33,990     18,591        0     57,264
D Boykins       Dist D   126,000     55,556        0     96,400
D Martin        Dist E    43,900     17,226        0    123,730
S Le            Dist F     4,000      6,445   30,823     10,570
G Travis        Dist G    69,468     81,775   21,000     56,571
K Cisneros      Dist H    34,399      5,660        0     49,176
R Gallegos      Dist I    32,875     21,319        0     80,288
M Laster        Dist J    20,330      7,524        0    173,358
M Castex-Tatum  Dist K    15,375        339    3,788     43,822

A Parker                       0     10,383        0     82,854
L Green                    5,500     42,118        0     40,492
Lift the Cap PAC               0          0        0      3,987
Citizens to Keep               0      1,803        0     47,564
 Houston Strong

As you may recall, there wasn’t much in the way of fundraising for anyone except Mayor Turner last time. I don’t know if it’s due to the time of year, the approach of the next election, or the overall political climate, but as you can see nearly all of our elected officials have been busy. The report for Martha Castex-Tatum, who was elected in May to succeed the late Larry Green, is in a shorter period than everyone else since she had to post 30-day and 8-day reports for her cycle; the others are all for the full January through June time frame.

Looking at these numbers, only Jack Christie has acted like the term-limited Member that he is. Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, and Mike Laster have been more or less business as usual. I’ve speculated before about the possible future ambitions they may have, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I’m sure there’s a reason why the three non-Cohen members have been stockpiling the loot like this, but until they do something tangible it’s hard to say what that might be.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t speculate at all. I look at what Dwight Boykins and David Robinson are doing and I wonder a little. Both are on the ballot next year for their final terms (as always, modulo future rulings in the interminable term limits litigation), and while Robinson had to fend off four challengers and win in a runoff in 2015, Boykins cruised home unopposed. It could be that Robinson is merely gearing up for the next battle while Boykins is doing his best to keep potential opponents at bay. It could also be that they’re looking beyond their next term to a time when both the Mayor’s office and the Controller’s office will be open seats. I have no idea and no evidence – like I said, I’m just speculating. Dave Martin is also in that “one more term and has a lot of cash” group, but we don’t tend to elect Mayors who fit Martin’s political profile, though perhaps Controller might appeal to him.

Be all that as it may, this is the first time since we switched to four-year terms and no blackout period for fundraising that we’ve seen incumbents establish a clear financial advantage for themselves. No one on the outside has yet taken a concrete step (like designating a campaign treasurer and raising their own money) towards running for a Council seat, but do keep in mind there are several now-former candidates for Congress in town who likely have some cash remaining in their coffers (sorry, I’m only checking on still-active candidates). Surely it would not be a surprise if one or more of them decided to act more locally next year. Given that possibility, it’s hard to blame any of the members who are up for re-election next year to take precautions.

The remaining reports I included because they’re there. As we learned after the death of El Franco Lee, the remaining funds in Larry Green’s campaign account are to be distributed by his campaign treasurer, whose name is Kevin Riles. As we see from Lee’s July report, there’s no particular rush to do whatever that turns out to be. I don’t remember what Citizens to Keep Houston Strong was about, but Bill White is their treasurer. I’m sure we’ll see plenty more PACs and PAC activity as we move towards referenda for firefighters’ pay parity and the revenue cap.

First look at Metro’s long range plan

It’s big, with smaller components that could be done as lower-cost alternatives.

After a bus system overhaul that garnered the attention of other cities looking to do the same, Houston’s transit agency is in the midst of creating its long-range plan, MetroNEXT, to take the multimodal system well into the future. The agency presented several preliminary draft plans Thursday that would update the previous long-range plan created in 2003 and that include projects like rail extensions to airports, a bus rapid transit network and big increases in potential riders.

The agency was careful to say, however, that, given current projections, any plan would likely face serious financial limitations, partly due to federal policies. “We’re going to have to pick and choose because we can’t do it all,” said Carrin Patman, the board chair.

Patman added that little was set in stone and that even the types of transit modes used in the draft plan were provisional; “it is entirely possible that new technologies will supplant some of the modes we use in this study.”

The agency offered three plans: a blockbuster conceptual plan and two, smaller alternatives given the agency’s current financial projections.

“This is big, it’s bold,” said Clint Harbert, vice president of system and capital planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, told the board of the $35 billion vision. “It would create a 460 percent increase in people served and a 120 percent increase in employment areas covered within one-half mile of high-capacity transit.” In total, the plan includes 90 miles of new bus rapid transit, 100 miles of extended light rail with 211 new light rail vehicles, 448 new buses and investments in 33 high-frequency corridors.

The plan would expand access to light rail and bus rapid transit for low-income households by 440 percent in the mayor’s Complete Communities, according to Thursday’s presentation. “A lot of this focused where we have transit-dependent populations,” said Harbert.

The preliminary plan was developed after 25 public meetings plus dozens of other meetings attended by board and agency representatives.

[…]

Patman described that vision as “almost a pie in the sky plan” given the financial constraints facing the agency, which estimates only 3 to 8 percent, or roughly $1 billion to $2.8 billion-worth, of the projects included in the long-term vision plan could be completed by fiscal year 2040. Art Smiley, Metro’s chief financial officer detailed those constraints, including projections about available tax returns, maintenance costs and cash reserves.

“I’m very curious about what we’re really accomplishing,” asked board member Troi Taylor. “It seems like it’s going to be a very small drop in the bucket.”

Given the projections, Harbert laid out two alternative plans.

You’ll need to click over to look at the diagrams and explanations. There’s also a long story in the Chron that captures a lot of the discussion and feedback. Nothing is close to being finalized, so what we will eventually vote on on 2019 is still very much up in the air and dependent on what feedback Metro gets and how much the usual gang of anti-transit ghouls scream and wail. The project website is here, with an events calendar and various ways to get updates and give input. It’s early days so there’s not much there yet, but there will be. What about this interests you?

The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

Assuming Houston does get to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, that could spur some major projects, for transportation and recreation and who knows what else.

Houston will not receive final word on the bid until 2020 or 2021, but officials remain optimistic the city is a strong competitor for what could be six to eight American cities, each hosting five or six matches over 30 days. That means weeks of hotel stays, restaurant and bar sales and other expenses for visitors.

Ultimately, that could pay off with long-term projects in Houston. Part of the city’s pitch to selectors is use of a new green space east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, a long-sought cap for Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for a redesigned and buried Interstate 45. Though TxDOT plans to spend $7 billion redesigning and widening the freeway, it cannot spend federal or state highway money on park space capping the buried sections.

A local World Cup committee, however, could focus on fundraising and organize and plan a park, [Doug Hall, vice-president of special projects for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority,] said.

“The World Cup Local Organizing Committee would help raise funds for such a legacy project if it becomes a final part of the plan,” Hall said in January when officials were finalizing the city’s bid. “The Sports Authority’s tax funds can only be used on voter-approved projects and all monies are currently pledged to the existing sports stadiums.”

[…]

Only the spot along the convention center has been mentioned as a possible legacy project of a World Cup hosting. Preparations for the World Cup coming to Houston would also include numerous other upgrades and close coordination with Metro because public transit would be crucial to any events.

Metro and local organizers are already discussing some alternatives, officials said, though it will be years before final plans are prepared. In preliminary discussions, Metro has said transporting around half of the 75,000 people expected to attend soccer matches at NRG Park will require extensive bus service, along with possibly running light rail vehicles in couplings of three, as opposed to the typical two vehicles per trip.

Metro is also researching with NRG Park officials a more permanent redesign of its rail stop near NRG Park to provide shelter and possibly seating for passengers as they wait in sometimes long lines as trains depart after events packed to capacity. During major events such as Houston Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, riders can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for room on the train.

Some transit officials during a January discussion said a World Cup event could also spur additional coordination with the city about dedicated bus lanes in more parts of Houston, and perhaps even more.

“I am thinking that would require additional light rail,” Metro board member Troi Taylor said of the potential deluge of visitors for the World Cup.

We’re far enough out from 2026 that anything Metro might propose for the 2019 referendum could be completed by then, though anything that would require federal funds would be up against some very tight deadlines. I suppose work could be mostly done on I-45 by then as well, though I wouldn’t want to bet on that. It’s hard to know without knowing what the specific plans may be, but for sure we should be talking about it now, and working to build consensus for what we can. Anything that develops into a big political fight is a lot less likely to get done.

Mayor makes Metro appointments

Only one change, but it’s a big one.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has nominated Teresa “Terry” R. Morales to serve in Position 5 of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) board of directors, for a term that expires April 7, 2020.

The METRO board consists of nine members. Five are nominated by the Mayor of Houston and confirmed by Houston City Council. Two are appointed by the mayors of METRO’s 14 other member cities and two are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Morales is a Senior Vice President of Amegy Bank in the Corporate Banking Division. She is involved in various internal group activities including the Amegy PAC, the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee, and the Amegy Women’s Initiative Diversity Markets Committee.

She replaces Christof Spieler whose term expired April 7, 2018.

Morales is a native Houstonian and grew up in Houston’s East End. She earned a BBA in Finance from the University of Houston, and is also a graduate of Leadership Houston and the Center for Houston’s Future. Her involvement in the community includes being a Senior Fellow of the American Leadership Forum Class XXXIV, and an active role in several community organizations.

“Terry’s background in business combined with her community involvement make her an exceptional addition to the METRO board,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “As roads get more crowded, more Houstonians are ready to start using transit, but we have to make it more efficient and more convenient by building connections to destinations in high demand.”

Mayor Turner also announced his intention to reappoint four current METRO board members whose terms will expire April 7, 2020.

  • Lex Frieden, position one
  • Sanjay Ramabhadran, position two
  • Troi Taylor, position three
  • Carrin F. Patman, position four

Houston city council is scheduled to vote Wednesday, July 11, on the mayor’s appointments.

You can see the current Board here. Christof Spieler was and is a visionary and probably the most knowledgeable person about transit and transportation the Board has ever had. The bus system reimagining was his baby. All things come to an end, and if we’re lucky he’ll get back to blogging about transit now that he’s free to talk about this sort of thing in public again.

Ms. Morales comes onto a Board that has gotten a lot done in the past few years and which now has the challenge of defining and selling a vision for the future to its constituents. I wish her and her returning colleagues all the best with that task, and I wish Christof all the best in his post-Metro life.

Your Houston PAC

There’s a new player on the local scene.

Bill Baldwin, a longtime real estate broker, volunteer and member of Houston’s planning commission, has launched a political action committee aimed at improving the city’s neighborhoods, schools and local governments.

The tenets of the nonpartisan PAC, called Your Houston, will center around issues of quality of life, resiliency, mobility and neighborhoods. It will focus on local elections and referendums.

[…]

The new PAC, he said, will work to support the efforts of local advocacy groups, many of which lack funding and influence.

“All of these groups are doing great advocacy work, but they don’t have money. They don’t have political power,” Baldwin said. “I’m going to add money and political power to advocacy, and elect amazing officials that think of our city as a 21st century city.”

Their Facebook page is here and their still-in-progress website is here. The Chron story says that they intend to engage in the Harris County flood bond election, “urging the county to clearly define the projects involved and then educating the public”. Which is fine, we can use all the engagement we can get on that. Beyond that, I’ll wait to see what they have to say on specific issues and which candidates they choose to back. A couple of their initial board members are people I know and trust, so that’s good, but as always the devil is in the details. Campos has more.

HISD begins prep on a 2019 bond issue

Wait till next year.

Administrators on Thursday recommended Houston ISD seek voter approval for a $1.7 billion capital projects bond in May 2019, charging forward with long-term spending plans even as the district faces uncertainty about its leadership and ability to maintain local control over decision-making.

District leaders said the $1.7 billion bond would finance much-needed rebuilding of 18 existing elementary and middle schools, construction of three new campuses, security upgrades at all 280-plus schools and the purchase of new buses, among other costs. HISD administrators said it was unclear whether the proposed bond package would result in a tax increase, saying they will have a better idea when the Harris County Appraisal District finalizes property values in August.

HISD trustees would have to approve a measure to send the bond referendum to voters, with board members likely making a decision in late 2018 or early 2019. If approved, the bond would be HISD’s first since 2012, when 67 percent of voters backed a $1.89 billion package.

The 2019 proposal, however, could meet more resistance than usual amid ongoing upheaval in the district.

[…]

Houston ISD voters have approved four capital projects bonds since 1998, totaling $4.2 billion. In recent years, residents of school districts throughout the five-county Greater Houston area also have overwhelmingly supported large school bonds, passing 30 out of 31 packages that totaled at least $100 million.

Few districts, however, have sought bonds amid such turbulence.

“Comparing ourselves to surrounding districts, they’re not making national news for negative reasons right now, so we need to remember what the public opinion is of our district overall,” HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard said, referring to media coverage of last month’s school board meeting.

University of Houston political science Professor Richard Murray said the district’s more affluent voters, who turn out in higher numbers during off-year May elections, likely will be key to the referendum. Those voters traditionally have supported school bonds, but they also have seen their local tax bills dramatically rise in recent years as property values have gone up.

The district’s upheaval, Murray said, also makes it more challenging to win support for a bond.

“It’s obviously a loss to have this vacuum of a visible superintendent in place that could be the public face of the effort,” Murray said. “You’ve also got a board that’s made some headlines that are not particularly attractive. It’s not going to be an easy thing.”

HISD’s recommendation Thursday represented a shift from its first presentation about a potential bond in January, before all the tumult. At that time, HISD leaders discussed the possibility of a $500 million bond issue that would result in no tax increase, or a $1.2 billion bond that would come with an increase of 3 cents to 7 cents per $100 in taxable value.

[HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian] Busby said the proposed bond amount has changed as district leaders further assessed campus and maintenance needs.

See here for more on what was presented in January. At that time, it looked like the goal was to get something on the November ballot, but like some other might-have-beens, that’s not what will happen. I don’t mind pushing this off till next year – I agree with everyone who says that a bit more time, as well as things like the hoped-for Harvey waiver, a new Superintendant, and a (hoped-for, again) return to normality will help their chances a lot – but I do object to doing it in May. Have it in November, when people expect to vote. The suggestion that May turnout levels would be better for this than November turnout levels is questionable to me, both as a logical proposition and as a matter of representative government. If we’re going to take the extra time to do this right, then do it all the way right. Campos, who sees a lot of obstacles ahead, has more.

No Metro vote this year

One thing that won’t be on your ballot this fall.

Voters will have to wait a few more months to decide Houston’s transit future, as Metro officials said Monday they are taking a more deliberative approach to developing a long-term plan for bus and rail service.

“We really want to get it right,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors.

As a result, Patman said she has no intention of placing any bond referendums in front of voters in Harris County and Missouri City in November, a delay from earlier plans for the MetroNEXT process.

[…]

Patman said she wants more analysis of possible modes along certain routes, something that could take staff more time to develop.

“We need to do a more thorough evaluation for each mode along each corridor,” she said. “Before we go to the voters, we need to take our best information back to them.”

Plans for MetroNEXT should be finalized by the end of the year, she said.

It was about this time last year that we learned there would be no Metro vote in 2017. I was hoping we’d get a vote this year, but ultimately I’d rather Metro get all their ducks in a row before they put something out there. We know there’s no such thing as a non-controversial Metro referendum, so best to have all the details nailed down and as much support as possible in place for each item. I am very much looking forward to the finished product.

Firefighters have their signatures

On to the next act in this drama.

A petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police contains enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum election, City Secretary Anna Russell reported to Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council Thursday.

Russell finished verifying the signatures a day ahead of a deadline given to the city by a state district judge last month. The judge originally set a deadline of April 27 after the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued the city last December, complaining Russell’s office had not validated its referendum petition in time for either the November 2017 or May 2018 ballots. Judge Dan Hinde agreed to give Russell another week after city lawyers said additional staff and overtime had been approved to finish the count.

Russell’s memo to the mayor and council said her office checked 26,708 signatures against Harris County’s list of qualified voters; 20,228 were verified. State law requires 20,000 qualified signatures on a petition to get a referedum on the ballot.

It is unclear when the item will appear before voters. City attorneys argued in court that the Turner administration does not intend to schedule a vote before the next regular municipal election cycle in November 2019, but the mayor, when asked about the petition count Wednesday, said the city council would have to discuss the matter.

[…]

Turner said Wednesday he presumed the petition contained enough names to trigger a vote, but suggested the proposal’s lack of clarity could undermine its validity, noting, for instance, that hundreds more firefighters than police officers carry the rank of “captain.”

“I don’t know what parity means,” Turner said. “Does it mean you scale everything down? If the voters vote on something, the voters need to know what they’re voting (on).”

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, so you know I agree with the Mayor’s assessment of what this means. As to when the election should be held, I suppose there’s an argument for 2019 instead of this November. I’m sure we’ll get to hear that argument from the city when the firefighters file a motion to force the election this year. Council does need to approve putting the item on the ballot, along with the language of it, whether this year or next. We’ll see how that goes.

Count of firefighters’ pay parity petitions needs to be done by Friday

Or else. Not sure what follows the “or else”, but maybe we won’t have to find out.

City Secretary Anna Russell has one week to finish verifying a petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police or risk being hauled into court, a state district judge said Friday.

Judge Dan Hinde had given Russell until Friday at 5 p.m. to verify whether the firefighters had reached the minimum threshold of 20,000 signatures needed for the item to appear before voters.

City attorneys asked the judge for an extension Friday morning, however, saying that, after a slow start, the count had reached 14,000 names and was proceeding briskly with the help of eight staffers who were assigned from other departments about two weeks ago and approved for overtime pay.

The judge denied the city’s request. However, he asked only that the firefighters’ attorneys submit a draft writ for him to issue by May 4, indicating that if he got word the count had finished before then, he would leave the paperwork unsigned.

“I understand the city has a variety of services and duties to its citizens. I don’t discount those,” Hinde said. “But it was not apparent that the city secretary was emphasizing enough the importance of the electoral franchise and referendum power, the legislative power, the citizens are entitled to.”

[…]

At the hearing Friday, Hinde asked why the count had not begun in earnest immediately after his March order was issued.

“Why didn’t she use the extra time I already gave her?” he asked Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

Amis said the secretary’s office began preparing the paperwork on which the formal count would be recorded on the day the judge’s order was issued, a process that includes individually numbering each signature line and stamping each page. Within a week of the order, Amis said, Russell asked Turner to approve money for overtime pay and to lend her additional staff.

Russell and her staff must verify that a sufficient number of the names on the petition are those of registered voters who live inside the city of Houston.

“With the diversion of resources from other departments, along with the expenditure of unbudgeted overtime, the city believes it can finish counting the petitions by or before next Friday,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, adding it was unclear how much the effort would cost.

“We see no need for an extension,” said Troy Blakeney, an attorney for the firefighters. “We’re not standing before the court to ask that Ms. Russell be brought over here on a writ, but we think timing is really important.”

It is unclear when the petition, if validated, would appear before voters.

City attorneys have indicated that Mayor Sylvester Turner intends to schedule a vote on the petition, if it is validated, during the next municipal election cycle in November 2019. Blakeney has said, he expects to wind up in court again to accelerate the vote.

See here for the previous update. You know how I feel about this, so let me just say that if there are sufficient valid signatures to force a vote, it should happen this November. Enough is enough already, let’s get this over with so we can skip to the part that really matters, the litigation.