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Gary Elkins

On straight tickets and other votes

I have and will continue to have more to say about straight ticket votes. Part of me is reluctant to talk about this stuff, because I feel like we’ve reached a point where straight ticket votes are seen as less than other votes, and I don’t want to contribute in any way to that. But given all the talk we’ve already had, and the unending stream of baloney about the ridiculously outsized effect they supposedly had in this election, I feel like I need to shed what light I can on what the data actually says. So onward we go.

Today I want to look at a few districts of interest, and separate out the straight ticket votes from the other votes. Again, I hesitated to do this at first because I object so strenuously to the trope that straight ticket votes tipped an election in a particular way, to the detriment of the losing candidate. If a plethora of straight ticket votes helped propel a candidate to victory, it’s because there was a surplus of voters who supported that candidate, and not because of anything nefarious. We call that “winning the election”, and it stems from the condition of having more people vote for you than for the other person. Anyone who claims otherwise is marinating in sour grapes.

So. With that said, here’s a look at how the vote broke down in certain districts.


CD02:

Straight R = 109,529
Straight D =  87,667

Crenshaw      29,659
Litton        32,325

CD07:

Straight R =  90,933
Straight D =  86,640

Culberson     24,709
Fletcher      41,319

If you want to believe in the fiction that straight ticket votes determined the elections, and not the totality of the voters in the given political entity, then please enjoy the result in CD02, where Dan Crenshaw rode the straight ticket vote to victory. Those of us who refuse to engage in such nonsense will merely note that CD02 remained a Republican district despite two cycles of clear movement in a Democratic direction. And then there’s CD07, which stands in opposition to the claim that straight ticket votes are destiny, for if they were then John Culberson would not be shuffling off to the Former Congressman’s Home.


HD126:

Straight R =  24,093
Straight D =  19,491

Harless        6,306
Hurtado        5,544

HD132:

Straight R =  27,287
Straight D =  26,561

Schofield      5,441
Calanni        6,280

HD134:

Straight R =  27,315
Straight D =  30,634

Davis         19,962
Sawyer        11,003

HD135:

Straight R =  22,035
Straight D =  22,541

Elkins         4,666
Rosenthal      5,932

HD138:

Straight R =  18,837
Straight D =  18,746

Bohac          5,385
Milasincic     5,429

HD126 and HD135 were consistent, with straight ticket and non-straight ticket votes pointing in the same direction. Gina Calanni was able to overcome Mike Schofield’s straight ticket lead, while Adam Milasincic was not quite able to do the same. As for HD134, this is one part a testament to Sarah Davis’ crossover appeal, and one part a warning to her that this district may not be what it once was. Republicans are going to have some tough decisions to make in the 2021 redistricting if they want to hold onto this district.


CC2:

Straight R =  86,756
Straight D =  92,927

Morman        25,981
Garcia        21,887

CC3:

Straight R = 132,207
Straight D = 122,325

Flynn         32,964
Duhon         40,989

CC4:

Straight R = 144,217
Straight D = 122,999

Cagle         42,545
Shaw          34,448

Finally, a Democrat gets a boost from straight ticket voting. I had figured Adrian Garcia would run ahead of the pack in Commissioners Court Precinct 2, but that wasn’t the case. I attribute Jack Morman’s resiliency to his two terms as incumbent and his millions in campaign cash, but in the end they weren’t enough. As was the case with CD02 for Dan Crenshaw, CC2 was too Democratic for Morman. That’s a shift from 2016, where Republicans generally led the way in the precinct, and shows another aspect of the Republican decline in the county. You see that also in CC3, where many Dems did win a majority and Andrea Duhon came close, and in CC4, which is at this point the last stronghold for Republicans. Democrats are pulling their weight out west, and that had repercussions this year that will continue to be felt in 2020 and beyond.

There’s still more to the straight ticket voting data that I want to explore. I keep thinking I’m done, then I keep realizing I’m not. Hope this has been useful to you.

Endorsement watch: Three for four

Four endorsements for the State House, and this time the Dems collect three recommendations from the Chron. All are challengers to incumbents, and all are in districts that have been trending blue.

HD132: Gina Calanni

Gina Calanni

Gina Calanni has written several novels, is a single mother with three boys and is making her first political run to represent this westside district. She has the backing of some major women’s organizations – Emily’s List, for example – and a number of local political groups. Add us to the list.

Calanni, 41, supports plenty of a reasonable plans we’ve heard from Democrats and Republicans alike running for House seats: She wants to bring soaring property taxes back to Earth by restoring the state’s full share of funding to public schools – it’s paying 37 percent of the school tab versus the usual 50 percent —and making corporations pay taxes on the full value of their properties. She has a dedicated focus on passing laws to help fight sex trafficking.

Calanni also told us that she wants the state to expand Medicaid, and is desperate for construction of the much-discussed third flood-control reservoir for Houston. It could be somewhere in or near her district, which runs north-south from Katy to Cypress, is bisected by the Grand Parkway, and was hit hard by Harvey.

“We don’t need any more studies; we need to build it right now,” Calanni said during her candidate interview.

They dinged Rep. Mike Schofield, whom they had previously endorsed, for meddling with the pension reform bill and redirecting clean air funds to “crisis pregnancy centers”.

HD135: Jon Rosenthal

Jon Rosenthal

Rosenthal is a 55-year-old mechanical engineer who has worked mostly in the oil industry and is making his first run at political office. Like just about everybody, Rosenthal complains about rising property taxes, which he blames in part on state leaders giving big corporations tax breaks by allowing them to greatly undervalue their properties, while at the same time directing money that should be going to public schools to charter schools.

Charter schools were supposed to be centers of innovation that would boost educational achievement, Rosenthal said, but their students are not doing any better on standardized tests than those in public schools. Rosenthal also said he wants to look at other ways of raising money to help fund schools, including the legalization of marijuana.

“I’m down with making it legal and regulating and taxing it just like we do with tobacco,” he said. “I’m an ex-hippie.”

He does not agree with plans to raise sales taxes because he thinks it will hurt the poor and the elderly. We found Rosenthal to be congenial, bright, well informed and very committed to the idea of making Texas a better place.

They really went to town on Rep. Gary Elkins, giving him one star and ending with an all-caps plea to all to not vote for him. As you know, I couldn’t agree more.

HD138: Adam Milasincic

First-time candidate Adam Milasincic has the potential to become a top-notch member of the Texas House of Representatives and voters in this district shouldn’t pass on the opportunity to see what he can do in Austin. Milasincic, 34, is a super smart, well-spoken lawyer with lots of good ideas and probably the savvy to get some of them through a Republican-dominated Legislature.

Milasincic has already stepped up to help his fellow Houstonians by volunteering to represent hurricane victims cheated by landlords.

Like most Democratic candidates — and plenty of moderate Republicans in the Texas House — Milasincic wants to restore the state’s share of school funding and reduce thetax burden on homeowners. He opposes school vouchers and what he calls “other schemes to privatize or def-und our public schools.”

On flooding, Milasincic also told us that he wants a regional flood control district, stricter rules on development in flood prone areas and a third flood control dam northwest of the city.

Incumbent Rep. Dwayne Bohac is another one the Chron has endorsed before, and as with Schofield they knocked him for meddling with the pension bill. You had one job, guys!

The one Republican incumbent they went for (in this round; there are four more Democratic challengers, plus a few Republican contestants) was Rep. Dennis Paul in HD129, though they gave an equal star rating to Democrat Alex Karjeker and had good things to say about him. I don’t know if the Chron plans to go outside Harris County in these races – Lord knows, they have plenty right here to keep them busy – but they’re making progress. You can find my interview with Calanni here, my interview with Rosenthal here, my interview with Milasincic here, and my interview with Karjeker here.

Chron overview of HD135

One more look at a local legislative race.

Rep. Gary Elkins

Rep. Gary Elkins

Novice political candidate Jesse A. Ybañez believes his focus on the people of the increasingly diverse Texas House District 135 makes him a better choice than longtime state Rep. Gary Elkins.

Ybañez, 70, is the Democratic candidate in the Nov. 8 general election challenging the incumbent to represent parts of northwest Harris County, including Jersey Village and subdivisions near the intersections of U.S. 290 with Texas 6 and Beltway 8.

The retiree said he was urged to run because of his experience as a volunteer in political organizations and community causes.

“We need to fix a lot of things in Austin,” Ybañez said. “If I win, I can be the voice of the people.”

[…]

Jesse Ybanez

Jesse Ybanez

Ybañez named education, health care, immigration, the environment and human trafficking as his priorities, if elected.

He said he would fight to restore some of the $5 billion in education funding cut during the 2011 legislative session and try to override the Republican firewall that has rejected calls to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Ybañez said the 287(g) program, in which local jailers identify inmates in this country illegally for transfer to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “criminalizes immigrants” who are “doing work that people from the United States don’t want to do.”

Ybañez, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, also would advocate for tougher regulations on industrial plants and support efforts to help people trapped in modern-day slavery or the forced sex trade.

Texas 135 is a district where voters chose Republican candidates in federal, statewide and local races two-to-one in 2014. They have sent Elkins back to Austin every two years for the last two decades.

Still, the first-time politician thinks a Democrat can claim the seat, depending on turnout among more diverse voters.

“When I first got here, this was pretty much a Republican area. We’ve had a lot of people come in from New York and California and Florida and we have a lot of African-Americans and Latinos who are more likely to vote Democrat,” said Ybañez, who has been block-walking since June. “I think I have a reasonable chance of winning.”

There are two reasons why I’m interested in this particular race. One is because incumbent Rep. Gary Elkins is so bad, beginning with but hardly being limited to his unwavering defense of payday lenders, a group to which he himself belongs. Some legislators recuse themselves from debates and votes on bills that directly affect them. Gary Elkins is not one of those legislators.

The other reason is that HD135 is one of two Harris County districts that were won by Republicans in 2012 that were less Republican that year than they were in 2008 (HD132 is the other, but sadly no Democrat is running there this year). John McCain beat Barack Obama there 60.6% to 38.7% in 2008, but Mitt Romney only carried it 58.8% to 39.8% in 2012. I’ve been waiting to see what would happen there this year ever since. Even with the Trump effect I don’t think we can quite call this district competitive, but it’s definitely the case that it’s more so than before. No matter what happens this year, HD135 needs to be on the radar going forward.

30 day finance reports: Pro- and anti-HERO

Some good news here.

HoustonUnites

Supporters of Houston’s contentious equal rights ordinance raked in $1.26 million during seven weeks of official fundraising, more than doubling opponents’ efforts and fueling a fierce and frenzied media campaign to court voters before the law hits the November ballot.

In campaign finance reports filed Monday that reflect late summer totals, both sides spent more than $550,000, largely on dueling TV and radio ads. But the more than $521,000 that supporters of the law still had left in campaign coffers as of Sept. 25 dwarfed the $58,000 that opponents reported in cash-on-hand.

[…]

In the battle over the city’s equal rights ordinance, Jared Woodfill, spokesman for opponents, said the campaign is unfazed by supporters’ significant fundraising totals.

Opponents reported a $100,000 donation from conservative developer Al Hartman, $25,000 from Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle and $5,000 from Houston state Rep. Gary Elkins, among others. Longtime anti-gay activist Steve Hotze also loaned the campaign $50,000.

“We’re absolutely not intimidated at this point,” Woodfill said. “I believe the momentum is in our favor and clearly this is an ordinance that the people in Houston don’t want.”

In a news release, the Houston Unites campaign said it expected to spend $2 million before the November election.

The campaign said 80 percent of its nearly 700 donors are Houston residents.

But its efforts were also fueled by big-ticket contributions from national groups and figures.

The Washington, D.C.- based Human Rights Campaign contributed more than $200,000, and New York philanthropist Jon Stryker, a frequent donor to LGBT causes, pitched in $100,000. Colorado’s Gill Action and New York-based American Unity Fund, both LGBT advocacy groups, donated a combined $200,000.

Campaign manager Richard Carlbom, in a written statement, said the group had “certainly done well on the money front so far.”

“But, there is a great sense of urgency around fundraising this week and next,” Carlbom said. “We know from past ballot campaigns that equal rights opponents spend significant dollars in the final weeks. We must remain competitive with them in what will, no doubt, be a close election.”

The story has some highlights of candidate finance reports as well. Those can be found here, same place as the July reports. Reports for PACs can be found on the usual city finance webpage – here’s the Advanced Search link; select either the “Specific-Purpose Political Committee” or “Both” radio button, then click the “Search” button next to the “Candidate/Committee” name boxes. Latest results are on the last pages, so go to page 4; the only relevant result on page 3 is for Brenda Stardig’s campaign PAC.

There are three PACs of interest regarding HERO. Two are pro-HERO: the Houston Unites Against Discrimination PAC and the Human Rights Campaign Houston Equal Rights PAC. One is anti-HERO, the Campaign for Houston PAC. There is a “No on Houston Prop 1” PAC that shows up in the search results, but it reports no funds raised or spent.

Here’s a summary of the reports for the three active PACs mentioned above:

PAC name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ============================================================== Houston Unites 1,262,893 597,299 0 521,462 Human Rights Campaign 218,480 205,810 0 11,503 Campaign for Houston 274,785 492,231 50,000 18,494

Houston Unites had $901K in cash contributions and $359K in kind. It also reports $6,800 in loans on summary page 3, though I didn’t see any explanation of that. Some of their big donors are as follows:

Human Rights Campaign 205,810 Gill Action LLC 100,000 American Unity Fund 100,000 ACLU of Texas 95,000 Freedom For All Americans 50,000 Wes Milliken 50,000 Texas Freedom Network 25,000 Equality Texas 12,500 Annise Parker campaign 5,000 Robert Gallegos campaign 1,000

So basically, the HRC PAC was a passthrough, as all the funds they raised ($200K of which came from themselves) went to the Houston Unites PAC. A lot of these same big donors were also the main suppliers of in kind contributions, which mostly amounted to staff time and office space:

ACLU Texas 137,187 Freedom for All Americans 124,017 Human Rights Campaign 50,144 ACLU (national office) 16,750 Texas Freedom Network 15,139 Equality Texas 10,625

The expenses listed were fairly straightforward. About $360K was allocated for advertising. Some $158K was for consulting to a group called Block by Block; there were some smaller consultant expenses as well. There was about $37K for printing, and $5K for polling.

And here are the big donors for Campaign for Houston:

Allen R Hartman 100,000 Jack Cagle PAC 25,000 Ralph Schmidt 25,000 Mickey Ellis 20,000 Texans for Family Values PAC 10,000 Mac Haik Ford 10,000 Law Office of Melanie Flowers 10,000 Ryan Sitton 10,000 Anthony McCorvey 10,000 Johnny Baker 10,000 Edd Hendee 5,000 Paul Pressler 5,000 Dan Huberty 5,000 William Carl 5,000 Jay E. Mincks 5,000 Malcolm Morris 5,000 Gary Elkins 5,000 Dwayne Bohac 1,000 Jodie L. Jiles 1,000 Norman Adams 1,000

That’s $268K of the $275K they reported raising. Grassroots, they ain’t. There are some familiar names in this list. Jack Cagle is County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Ryan Sitton is a Railroad Commissioner. Dan Huberty, Gary Elkins, and Dwayne Bohac are all State Reps. Texans for Family Values is the main source of anti-gay wingnuttery at a state level. Edd Hendee is (was? I don’t listen to AM radio) a talk radio host and the owner of the Taste of Texas restaurant. I don’t recognize a lot of the other names, but I’m glad I’ve never bought a car from Mac Haik or sought legal services from Melanie Flowers.

The expense side of their report is weird. Two line items totaling $200,350.50 are to American Express for unitemized expenses. I mean, these are presumably credit card bills, so they could be for just about anything – office supplies, food, consulting expenses, strippers and porn downloads, who knows? It’s their responsibility – requirement, actually – to specify what these expenses are. My guess, if I were forced to make one, is that these are their line items for advertising costs, as there’s basically nothing else for that. But that’s just a guess, and I should note that while they listed $492,231 in total expenses on their summary page, the individual expense items only add up to $291,880. Is there an error in their form, or are there another $200K in expenditures they’re not reporting? Like I said, it’s on them to tell us. I for one will feel free to speculate wildly until they do so.

Those are the highlights for now. I am posting 30 day reports as I find them to the Election 2015 webpage. I’ll have a closer look at the reports for citywide candidates next week. Any questions about this, leave ’em in the comments.

Red light camera bill dies in House committee

Better luck next time.

Gone

Gone

A drive to outlaw red-light cameras in Dallas and other Texas cities has reached a red light of its own.

The House Transportation Committee on Friday voted to reject a Senate bill that would’ve gradually phased out the divisive cameras. That means the effort, opposed by police departments, is effectively dead even after passing the Senate last month with ease.

A factor that apparently weighed down the proposal was that it would’ve also prohibited the cameras that capture drivers who ignore stop signs on school buses. And some lawmakers said that time simply ran out this session to sort through those kinds of issues.

“It’s just something that needs a little bit better vetting,” said Rep. Ron Simmons, a Carrollton Republican who voted against the bill in committee. “At least on the House side, we didn’t really have enough time.”

[…]

In years past, the House had passed red-light camera bans only to see them stopped up in the Senate. So Rep. Gary Elkins, long a critic of the cameras, decided to wait this year on the Senate, rather than needlessly put the House through another heated debate.

But when the Senate finally acted this year, he found himself unable to get the measure out of a House committee.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Elkins, R-Houston.

See here for the background. Remember the motto o the Legislature: It is designed not to pass bills, but stop them from passing. Those of you that oppose cameras will have to continue to vote them out of cities that have adopted them; as the story notes, that happened in Arlington this month. Beyond that, try again in 2017.

Gary Elkins thumbs his nose at local payday lending ordinances

Such a fine example he sets.

Rep. Gary Elkins

As a member of the Texas House of Representatives, Houston Republican Gary Elkins helps make laws. As a businessman, he is an owner of a chain of payday lending stores accused of breaking them.

Elkins opposed payday lending regulations during the 2011 and 2013 legislative sessions, arguing members should defer to his expertise and calling the bills a solution in search of a problem. Efforts at comprehensive statewide reform failed, leading Texas’ three largest cities to adopt their own restrictions on the products payday and auto title lenders can offer.

As the local ordinances have come into force, first in Dallas, then San Antonio and, as of this summer, Houston, Elkins’ Power Finance locations or store employees in all three cities have received citations, accused of ignoring the law by not registering with the cities or allowing regulators to inspect their books.

Elkins’ interests in San Antonio were among the plaintiffs who sued the city of San Antonio over its payday regulations; the case was dismissed last February. The same attorney who represented the lenders in that case, John Dwyre of San Antonio, directed Houston officials in a Sept. 10 letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle not to speak with, ask for identification or request records from Power Finance employees.

Having been blocked from enforcing the ordinance at the firm’s locations, Mayor Annise Parker said, Houston officials now plan to cite Power Finance as a company for failing to comply.

“The city of Houston has worked successfully with Rep. Elkins in other areas, but the fact that he would deliberately flout our local ordinances is not just unfortunate – it sends the wrong signal,” Parker said. “We all understand that the reason that our system of laws works is that people of goodwill voluntarily comply with the law. It undermines the entire system when a public official chooses not to comply with a legally passed law or ordinance.”

[…]

Dallas’ lone Power Finance store in January was issued four citations, three for allegedly violating zoning rules for payday lenders, and one for failing to register with the city. The cases are set for trial next month, said Assistant City Attorney Maureen Milligan.

“Here you have a lawmaker that makes law for everybody else, and then when it comes time for him to follow the law that other people follow, he thumbs his nose at it,” said Dallas City Councilman Jerry Allen, who has championed that city’s regulations. “We’re not going to tolerate it. ”

We should not be surprised by this. Elkins took the lead in fending off payday lending bills in the 2013 Legislature, and has zero shame about it. I don’t quite understand why there hasn’t been an ethics issue relating to this – Sen. Leticia Van de Putte had to sell her pharmacy shortly after being elected in order to avoid a potential conflict of interest, yet there’s Elkins up at the mike pushing his own business interests. It’s nothing new, either. Here’s an excerpt from the Texas Monthly Ten Worst Legislators list from 2001:

In the legislative pond, Gary Elkins is a minnow. he feeds in the shallows, far from the dangerous waters of floor debate and important bills. He’s such a small fish that he escaped the Worst list in 1999 with a onetime catch-and-release exemption—even though no less than the Wall Street Journal had documented his efforts to help the small-loan industry, in which he makes his living (“Legislator’s Slim Agenda Mirrors His Private Interests”). So what does Elkins do this session? He swallows the hook again. Exemption expired.

Elkins’ livelihood is the controversial sale-leaseback business, in which customers, usually low-income, get cash for a household item, which they retain, and pay stiff regular fees until they can repurchase it. The industry claims that these transactions are leases, not loans, and that the fees are not interest payments, which would be subject to regulation. The attorney general’s office has sued Elkins’ company (unsuccessfully), and the Legislature, after several previous attempts, finally gave state regulators authority over the industry this year—but not without some unseemly shenanigans by Elkins. After the chairman of the House Business and Industry Committee, on which Elkins sits, introduced a bill declaring that sale-leaseback transactions are not loans, a lawyer for Elkins’ company testified in favor of the bill—but neither he nor Elkins disclosed the connection. Later, Elkins’ name surfaced again involving a bill backed by the payday-loan industry, a competitor of Elkins’ sale-leaseback industry. A Nevada company with links to Elkins (but no other apparent Texas concerns) had hired a lobbyist to fight the payday-loan bill. Referring to Elkins, an ethics advocate for Common Cause told the Austin American-Statesman, “If I were a member, any bill [he] had would be suspect to me.”

Elkins’ involvement in the issue is not illegal but does create the appearance of self-dealing. It gets in the papers and it lowers public confidence in the Legislature. Perhaps he could be forgiven if he made any noticeable contribution to the public weal, but no. He filed ten bills this session and passed one, making it legal to stop, stand, or park your vehicle in your own driveway in a manner that blocks a sidewalk. If only he had quit while he was ahead.

See also this Observer story from July. The only difference between then and now is that Elkins has since moved into the payday lending business. I don’t know what Houston or other cities that want to rein in payday lenders can do to him. At some point, it will have to be up to the voters to kick him out.

Endorsement watch: State Reps and Sam Houston

The Chron made its State House endorsements in two parts. The highlight from Part One was a couple of key races.

Susan Criss

Susan Criss

District 23: Susan Criss

In one of the few competitive contests, Democrat Susan Criss and Republican Wayne Faircloth are battling to replace retiring Democratic state Rep. Craig Eiland in a district that includes all of Galveston County and part of Chambers County. Criss, a former judge and prosecutor, is supported by trial lawyers, while Faircloth, an insurance agent, is backed by insurance companies, who are not much loved in a region that had problems with them following Hurricane Ike in 2008. Faircloth’s campaign comes right out of the Republican textbook – less regulation and secure the border. Criss, 53, wants to restore all education funding cut in 2011’s budget crunch so that public school students are not short-changed. She says big corporations must pay their fair share of taxes so average people don’t have to pay more. She wants the proposed “Ike Dike” to protect against future storms so people won’t lose their homes again. And she wants insurance companies to treat people fairly. We agree, so we endorse Susan Criss for District 23.

District 149: Hubert Vo

Another of the rare competitive races pits longtime state Rep. Hubert Vo against Republican Al Hoang, 38, in a battle between two Vietnamese immigrants who share a culture but not political philosophies. Vo, 58, is a moderate Democrat who concentrates on bread-and-butter issues while Hoang, a former Houston city councilman, tends to echo conservative bromides. Hoang says he reflects the true values of the Vietnamese community, which makes up about 20 percent of the district that stretches from Alief to the Energy Corridor on Interstate 10. The low-key Vo has a list of modest accomplishments, including creation of the International Management District and sponsoring legislation that helped bring private space company SpaceX to Texas. He is a strong supporter of public education and wants the state to accept the Medicaid expansion offered under the Affordable Care Act. Buried in Hoang’s rhetoric about abortion, the death penalty and other red meat issues are a few good ideas. But the Legislature has enough members who think pushing hot political buttons is good policy, so we endorse Hubert Vo for a sixth term.

Wise choices if you ask me, obviously. Susan Criss also picked up an endorsement from Texas Parent PAC, which ought to help. The main thing that will help here is elevated turnout, to overcome the red lean of the district. My interview with Susan Criss is here in case you missed it. By the way, it was interesting to see the Chron venture outside Harris County, making recommendations in Galveston, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. I couldn’t swear to this, but my recollection is that this has not been their usual habit. Am I wrong about that?

Round Two was mostly about races featuring incumbents, all here in Harris and all but two getting the Chron’s nod. Those two races, plus one of the open seat races of interest:

District 132: Mike Schofield

Republican lawyer Mike Schofield, 50, handled legislative matters for Rick Perry for six sessions, which gives him an understanding of the lawmaking process that Democrat Luis Lopez does not have. Lopez, 25, has a compelling story: He came from Mexico as a child and has gone on to become a citizen, accountant and business owner. But Schofield can more immediately help the far west Houston district that includes Katy and the Cy-Fair area deal with the explosive growth expected there, so we endorse him.

District 135: No endorsement

As Republican incumbent Gary Elkins tells it, his biggest accomplishment during 20 years in the Legislature was the elimination of slower speed limits at night. His other unfortunate claim to fame was in 2011 when he disgraced the House by defending the payday lending business against state regulation in a massive conflict of interest – he himself owns payday lender businesses.

Elkins, 59, told us he will fight against overregulation, but couldn’t give any specifics. He couldn’t remember how many bills he filed last session or the details of a key constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot. Yet, this hapless spouter of Republican clichés keeps getting re-elected in the northwest suburban district that includes Jersey Village and the Cy-Fair area. His opponent, Democrat Moiz Abbas, 60, is a good guy and smart, but we haven’t seen much of a campaign, so we’ll make no endorsement.

District 150: Amy Perez

Incumbent Debbie Riddle, 65, is seeking a seventh term in the House where she is a dependable conservative vote with a bad habit of sticking her foot in her mouth. She is best known for her absurd – and telling – rant that free education “comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.” She also flamed out on CNN claiming “terror babies” were being born in the U.S. In contrast, Democrat Amy Perez is a history teacher in a local district and dedicated to public education and fully knows its problems. Once, she won teacher of the year in a local district, then got laid off because funds for social studies ran out. Perez, 29, has no political experience, but is super smart and might teach the Legislature something about education. In the district that goes from the Woodlands south to FM 1960 and includes Spring, it’s time for a change. We endorse Amy Perez.

Endorsing opponents to The Riddler is old hat for the Chron by now. She is the worst, after all. Here’s a brief Q&A from a neighborhood paper with Perez and Riddle if you want to know more. Elkins is right up there – or down there, I suppose – with Riddle, and he’s in a district that has a chance of being competitive before the next round of redistricting. Not really sure what their hangup was with Moiz Abbas, but whatever. As for HD132, another district that is trending the right way, I’d say that assuming Mike Scofield will use that experience he has to actually help his district may be assuming facts not in evidence.

Moving elsewhere, Sam Houston gets two more endorsements. Here’s the DMN:

Serious legal issues dogging Republican state Sen. Ken Paxton should rule him out for consideration to be the next attorney general of Texas. It’s fortunate for voters that there’s a solid alternative in a Houston attorney whose name isn’t easy to forget.

Career litigator Sam Houston, a Democrat, is making his second run for office, having been on the ballot in 2008 in an unsuccessful run for the Supreme Court of Texas.

This newspaper recommended Houston for office then and recommends him now, on the strength of his legal experience and ideas for the office.

Paxton’s impaired candidacy stems from his written admission that he broke state law by failing to register with the State Securities Board even though he solicited paying clients for a financial services firm that paid him a 30 percent cut. It wasn’t a one-time slipup on Paxton’s part. The Securities Board’s civil complaint against him cites solicitations from 2004, 2005 and 2012.

As if to make the situation vanish, Paxton, 51, a veteran lawmaker from McKinney, declined to contest the disciplinary order and paid a $1,000 fine in May. But the matter lives on. A complaint has been filed with the Travis County district attorney’s office, which has postponed any decision on taking the matter to a grand jury until after the election. That raises the possibility of felony charges against a sitting attorney general, the state’s chief law enforcement officer. Voters should not invite that kind of embarrassment for Texas.

And here’s the Express News:

We strongly urge Texans to elect Democrat Sam Houston, a native of Colorado City who has practiced law in Houston for 26 years.

Houston faces Republican state Sen. Ken Paxton, a McKinney lawyer. The Express-News reported that Paxton “admitted in May to referring clients to a North Texas investment firm without registering with state authorities as required by law. The Texas State Securities Board reprimanded Paxton and fined him $1,000, concluding that he violated state securities law in 2004, 2005 and 2012.”

The episode was a dominant theme for Paxton’s GOP primary runoff opponent and is being emphasized by Democrats this fall. A watchdog group filed a complaint with the Travis County district attorney’s office. Travis County prosecutors wisely will not consider the complaint prior to the Nov. 4 election.

Whether the issue results in a criminal investigation or not, the case raises disturbing ethical questions about Paxton. We believe voters should take this blemish on Paxton’s record seriously as they consider who should be the state’s top lawyer.

At this point we’re just waiting for the Chron to make it a clean sweep. They should have a pretty good idea of what the arguments are by now.

There oughta be an app for your auto insurance

This is a no-brainer.

Digging through a cluttered glove compartment to find proof of insurance while a police officer waits may soon be an antiquated frustration in Texas.

Lawmakers are considering bills that would allow drivers in the state to prove financial responsibility using a paperless method — their smartphones. Multiple versions of the bill have been filed including HB 239, authored by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and HB 336, authored by state Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio.

The measure would allow flexibility and convenience for both consumers and peace officers but would be optional, said Guillen.

“This change would put Texas on the cutting edge,” he said.

State Rep. Gary Elkins, who chairs the House technology committee, said the state should go one step further and include proof of state registration and inspection.

[…]

Guillen also said the bill bans law enforcement agents from searching any other location on the phone and holds wireless carriers harmless of wrongdoing or failure to show proof.

Gotta say, I’m not always so good about remembering to put one of those pieces of paper in my wallet and/or my glove compartment. I’d be all over this if it were an option. Given all the other formerly printed things that you can now carry on your smartphone – boarding passes, event tickets, and so forth – I can’t think of a good reason not to allow this. Please make this happen, OK? Thanks.

January finance reports for area legislative offices

Just to complete the tour of semiannual finance reports, here’s a look at the cash on hand totals for area legislators. First up, the Harris County House delegation.

Patricia Harless, HD126 – $308,221

Dan Huberty, HD127 – $69,058

Wayne Smith, HD128 – $218,425

John Davis, HD129 – $99,962

Allen Fletcher, HD130 – $46,559

Alma Allen, HD131 – $33,479

Bill Callegari, HD132 – $315,904

Jim Murphy, HD133 – $103,538

Sarah Davis, HD134 – $59,871

Gary Elkins, HD135 – $337,111

Gene Wu, HD137 – $32,504

Dwayne Bohac, HD138 – $28,286

Sylvester Turner, HD139 – $404,829

Armando Walle, HD140 – $72,571

Senfronia Thompson, HD141 – $345,547

Harold Dutton, HD142 – $85,127

Ana Hernandez Luna, HD143 – $111,652

Mary Ann Perez, HD144 – $118,832

Borris Miles, HD146 – $54,485

Garnet Coleman, HD147 – $173,683

Jessica Farrar, HD148 – $65,005

Hubert Vo, HD149 – $52,341

Debbie Riddle, HD150 – $67,757

I skipped Carol Alvarado in HD145 since we already know about her. Sarah Davis just finished running an expensive race – she got a much tougher challenge for her first re-election than either of her two most recent predecessors, so she didn’t get to build a cushion. I’m sure she’s start rattling the cup as soon as session is over and the moratorium is lifted. Borris Miles and Huber Vo do a fair amount of self-funding. Gary Elkins and Bill Callegari are in the two Republican held seats that were more Democratic in 2012 than their 2008 numbers suggested. Beyond that, nothing really remarkable. Here’s a look at the representatives from neighboring counties:

Cecil Bell, HD03 – $27,712

Steven Toth, HD15 – $25,832

Brandon Creighton, HD16 – $360,842

John Otto, HD18 – $480,066

Craig Eiland, HD23 – $92,623

Greg Bonnen, HD24 – $47,123

Dennis Bonnen, HD25 – $370,909

Rick Miller, HD26 – $30,561

Ron Reynolds, HD27 – $6,654

John Zerwas, HD28 – $470,622

Phil Stephenson, HD85 – $14,209

Ed Thompson, HD29 – $92,008

Bell, Toth, and Creighton represent Montgomery County – Bell in part, Toth and Creighton in full. Bell’s district also covers Waller County. Eiland is parts of Galveston and all of Chambers, while Greg Bonnen has the rest of Galveston. Eiland has two reports, both of which are linked with the sum of the two as his cash total. Dennis Bonnen and Ed Thompson share Brazoria County. Miller, Reynolds, and Zerwas are in Fort Bend, along with a chunk of Stephenson’s district. John Otto represents Liberty County, among others. Bell, Thompson, and Greg Bonnen are all ParentPAC candidates. Until such time as Democrats are in a position to retake, or at least come close to retaking, a majority in the Lege, sanity on public education is going to depend in no small part on people like them. I truly hope they’re up to that, because the ones that were there in 2011 sure weren’t. Of course, the more reasonable they are the more likely they’ll get teabagged by doofus chuckleheads like Steve Toth, who took out the unquestionably conservative but generally fact-based Rob Eissler last year. Not that Eissler distinguished himself last session, but still. You can perhaps see some higher ambitions in Creighton and Zerwas’ numbers – I have a feeling Zerwas will be very interested in Glenn Hegar’s Senate seat if Hegar makes a statewide run as some people think he will. I wouldn’t be surprised if Creighton has his eyes on CD08 someday.

And finally, the Senate:

Tommy Williams, SD04 – $1,164,109

Dan Patrick, SD07 – $1,485,091

Larry Taylor, SD11 – $183,826

Rodney Ellis, SD13 – $2,016,660

John Whitmire, SD15 – $6,167,111

Joan Huffman, SD17 – $707,914

Glenn Hegar, SD18 – $1,617,306

Hegar drew a four year term and can thus scratch his statewide itch without giving up his Senate seat. Dan Patrick was not so lucky, poor thing. As for Whitmire, all I can say is “wow”. As much cash on hand as Rick Perry, and no reason to believe any of it will be used for a significant purpose any time soon. I don’t even know what to say.

Point of disorder

New House, new rule.

"Objection Overruled", by Charles Bragg

The Texas House’s Democratic minority was dealt a blow Monday when the House passed an amendment to the chamber’s rules to limit legislators’ ability to derail a bill based on clerical errors. Calling “points of order” on such errors is a strategy lawmakers have often used to block measures they oppose.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, authored the amendment to the House rules to limit abuse of typographical mistakes to kill legislation. Points of order on those types of mistakes send bills back to committee to be corrected before they can return to the floor to be voted on.

“The practice has been to allow bill after bill after bill to be defeated because a clerk at midnight, a sleepy and tired 25-year-old, made a typographical error,” King said. “That’s just not appropriate.”

Several Democrats and one Republican spoke against the provision, arguing that it weakens minority power. Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said the amendment takes “tools out of the toolbox” for the minority party.

Since Republicans became the House majority in 2002, Democrats have often called points of order on the paperwork, including committee minutes and reports, that accompanies legislation. Under the new rule, a point of order may be overruled if it is “substantially fulfilled and the violation does not deceive or mislead.”

You can see the amended rule here. This is potentially a big deal, because Democrats have indeed been very adept at using points of order, known colloquially and amusingly as POOs, to stymie, delay, and sometimes kill outright bills they don’t like. Not just Democrats, of course, as anyone familiar with the oeuvres of Robert Talton and Arlene Wohlgemuth can attest, but it’s certainly been the main arrow in their quiver these past few sessions. Limiting their ability to wield this weapon will limit their ability to influence the outcomes. Having said that, I do have some sympathy for what Phil King says. There’s not really a principle behind POOs, and as they say about holding in the NFL, you could probably find such errors on every bill if you wanted to. It’s a matter of how much sway the minority is allowed, and how much authority the majority thinks it ought to have to enact its agenda. How you feel about these things is almost certainly directly proportional to your feelings about the majority and minority parties in the legislative body in question.

It occurs to me that this is also a potential trap for Speaker Straus. If he takes this rule to heart and regularly slaps down POOs he deems to be non-worthwhile, that could galvanize Democrats to abandon him and coalesce around a future challenger like David Simpson, who by the way was one of three Republicans (Jim Keffer and Gary Elkins were the other two) to vote against this amendment. If he continues to let Democrats knock bills down – and note that as a general rule, POOs only delay bills by a few days, so except in deadline situations they can be fixed and re-introduced; this happened several times last session – he’s unlikely to endear himself to his Republican critics. I think Straus is smart and slick enough to walk the tightrope, but it will be a challenge. BOR, Rep. Mike Villarreal, Trail Blazers and Texas Politics have more.

UPDATE: More from the Observer.

The payday lenders won’t go without a fight

Where there’s a fight, there’s sure to be lots of money.

Payday lenders were big spenders in the most recent Texas political campaigns – contributing more than $1.6 million to state races in the 2012 election cycle and giving most generously to Republican committee members who soon will be reviewing proposed reforms for their industry.

Storefront lenders – including payday, car title and similar businesses – splurged even more heavily on 2012 campaigns than they did for 2010 state races, according to a Houston Chronicle comparison of contributions reported so far from payday players as identified by the nonprofit Austin-based watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

And that’s likely a harbinger of a larger lobbying spree to come: The industry backed a multi­million-dollar push in the 2011 Legislature to defeat a proposed cap for payday loan rates, which most other states already control.

“Their clout comes from their ability to put some of their profits into politicians,” Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald told the Chronicle. “They’re not shy about pooling money and going after reps that don’t go along with their wishes.”

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the storefront lending industry’s recent campaign contributions was Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who chairs the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce and collected $64,000. Carona insists he’s committed to pushing payday reforms and reining in rates in 2013.

“I can’t speak for other legislators, but contributions obviously have no effect on my position,” he said. “There WILL be legislation to break the cycle of debt and bring down the (annual percentage rates).”

The lenders also contributed $81,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Dallas Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat who’s a major advocate of payday loan reforms, campaign finance data shows.

There are many legislators whose pronouncements that they will not be affected by large campaign contributions from a particular special interest would be laughably ridiculous. I’m willing to give Sen. Carona the benefit of the doubt here, however, since he did do an honorable job with payday lending-related legislation in 2011. Don’t let me down, Sen. Carona.

Payday lenders’ oversized campaign investments concern advocates like Lori Henning, executive director of the Texas Association of Goodwills, part of a coalition of anti-poverty and religious organizations that support limits for lenders whose fees can trap borrowers in a debt cycle and drain resources from charities forced to fund bailouts.

“Obviously it’s a concern when anybody is giving money and hoping they can influence a vote or a decision – what’s difficult is (that) the advocacy groups can’t compete in that level. We’re nonprofits,” she said.

[…]

Advocates like Henning hope that the Legislature will limit loan fees, cap renewals and ban particularly aggressive collection practices statewide.

But lawmakers also could consider simply making all or some of a payday loan industry group’s voluntary “best practices” part of Texas law – adopting laws that require lenders to follow more specific guidelines for disclosures and loan procedures for example.

The former is what real reform looks like, and until we get it we will continue to need such reform in Texas. The latter is what “reform” looks like, and it is to be resisted as being worse than nothing because it will make people think that something has been done when in reality it’s the same as it ever was. It should be noted that Rep. Gary Elkins, himself a payday lender and the leader of the successful opposition to new regulation on the industry in 2011, opposes even these window-dressing measures. For obviously different reasons, I agree with him on that. It’s real regulation or the fight isn’t finished.

The Lege will take another crack at payday lending

I’m glad to see this, because the Lege definitely left business unfinished last time.

About 83 percent of customers in Beaumont and 75 percent in the Houston and San Antonio metro areas are locked in a loan renewal cycle, latest lender reports show.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, both members of a Texas Senate committee examining the problem, said data and testimonials from payday customers statewide support legislation to prevent so many Texans from being financially exploited.

“In a perfect world you wouldn’t need (payday lenders),” Whitmire said. “But I do know that people can’t make it sometimes because they have no line of credit and no credit – and they can go to these institutions, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be held up.”

[…]

The new data confirms Texans typically pay more for short-term credit than consumers in other states. A $500 loan initially costs customers about $110 in Texas compared to only $55 in Florida and $65 in Oklahoma, where the industry is better regulated, said Ann Baddour, a policy analyst for Texas Appleseed, part of a coalition of secular nonprofits and religious groups that advocate stronger rules and lower-cost credit options.

“We find it extremely troubling that Texans are paying more for these products than others in other parts of the country – there has to be a limit to the number of fees set up for the same loan,” Baddour said.

[…]

Last month, members of the Senate Business and Commerce committee led by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, reviewed data and heard testimony.

“Landmark legislation in the 82nd Legislature enabled us for the first time to get some hard numbers about the payday and auto title loan industry,” Carona said. “We have enough information now to come back and address the abuses in the industry.”

We know what the problem is, it’s just a matter of the Legislature exerting the will to do something about it. This isn’t about ideology – the issue unites such disparate legislators as Rep. Tom Craddick and Sen. Wendy Davis. Unfortunately, the legislation that was passed last time was a water-down compromise that really didn’t do much of anything. As it happens, the person responsible for those watered-down bills, Rep. Vicki Truitt, the chair of the House Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee, lost her primary race this May, so someone else will be carrying this ball in the House. I hope that’s a good sign, but the even bigger problem over there remains.

Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, himself a longtime payday loan business owner, was among those who blocked the proposals. He said the cities’ regulations are unnecessary and unconstitutional and existing federal consumer and credit laws provide enough oversight.

“The Legislature clearly considered the issue … and the Legislature decided not to pass those restrictions,” he said. “Anybody can pay off their loan anytime they want so the consumers obviously have that choice. … You can stay in debt on MasterCard or Visa forever.

“Do we need a law to say every month you have to pay down your MasterCard or Visa because some city council thinks that’s what you ought to do?”

You kind of have to admire Rep. Elkins’ sheer brazenness here. He makes his living off the misery of other people, he will do whatever it takes to defend the money he makes through the immiseration of those people, and he doesn’t give a damn what you think about it. He’s a State Representative, he has lobby money and his personal relationship with other representatives in his corner, and you don’t. So there.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Forrest Wilder’s story about new frontiers in the payday lending industry. I’d ask how these guys could get any sleazier, but I fear the answer I’d get.

Payday lenders face new regulation

New regulations aimed at curbing the excesses of payday lenders are now in effect, but they will not be the last word on the subject.

Proponents of the new regulations passed by lawmakers during the 2011 session say they’re needed because the practice of offering short-term, high-interest loans to consumers has led thousands of Texans into a cycle of debt and dependency. Lawmakers heard horror stories about consumers being charged interest rates in excess of their initial loans.

Absent these regulations, the number of payday loan businesses in Texas has more than doubled, from 1,279 registered sites in 2006 to more than 3,500 in 2010. Opponents say this industry has flourished because of a 1997 law intended to give organizations flexibility to help people repair bad credit. A loophole allowed payday lenders to qualify, giving them the freedom to operate without limits on interest rates.

Though the new laws took effect on Jan. 1, state regulators have been working for months to finalize the language of the rules, and businesses are in the process of coming into compliance. Eventually, lenders will be required to disclose more information to their customers before a loan is made, including the cost of the transaction, how it compares to other types of loans and interest fees if the payment is not paid in full.

[…]

Consumer and faith-based groups say payday lenders have run amok with their promises of providing desperate Texans with quick money. (They started the website Texas Faith for Fair Lending to raise awareness about the problem.) In the midst of the regulation debate in the Texas Legislature, Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Catholic Diocese of Austin testified that nearly 20 percent of the people the diocese was assisting had reported using payday and auto title loans — and that debt was the reason they sought help from the church.

“If payday lenders were not making money from these families to line their own pockets, perhaps these families would not need the charitable and public assistance they receive,” Vasquez said in the February 2011 hearing. “They are generally embarrassed to admit they sought a loan without understanding the fees involved. We are concerned that our charitable dollars are in fact funding the profits of payday lenders rather than helping the poor achieve self sufficiency.”

See here, here, and here for some background. While the legislation passed in 2011 was a baby step in the right direction, I don’t really expect it to have much effect. As the story notes, a bill to cap interest rates on payday loans, which can be 500% or more, failed to pass thanks to a strong lobbying effort by the payday loan industry. There’s already legislative recognition that the job is unfinished, so we can hopefully expect more action in 2013, assuming it doesn’t get squeezed off the calendar by bigger issues like the budget, school finance, and re-redistricting. I don’t expect very much from the laws we actually got, but I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

One other factor that may be in play here is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which can start to fulfill its mission now that it has a director. While Richard Cordray did not directly address payday lending in his opening remarks, it’s not hard to imagine the subject coming up, and it’s not hard to imagine the feds taking a more aggressive approach than the state did. Given that one of the main proponents in the Lege for more aggressive action had been Rep. Tom Craddick, it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out if it comes to pass. Would Republicans like Craddick and State Sen. John Carona hew to the feds-bad, states-good party line even as the feds supported their position, or would there be some fractures in that front? It’ll be worth keeping an eye on this.

Crowdsourcing legislation

Perhaps the wisdom of crowds might help shape better legislation. It’s worth a shot.

[Steven] Polunsky is the director of the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which is presided over by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. In anticipation of the next legislative session, in 2013, the committee intends to try to crowdsource legislation addressing the issue of payday lending.

Payday lending is a divisive topic, and legislators are vigorously lobbied on it by the business community. Carona believes that the new electronic forum will help bring forward the experiences of people who may not have access to representation at legislative hearings.

“You really have to be careful in the legislative process that you’re not guided or overly influenced by special interests,” he said.

The committee is still determining what form the project will take. For example, it could operate like an entry on Wikipedia or incorporate communication tools like Twitter. The committee may team up with transcription services that would allow contributions over the telephone.

“We think the more people that can be involved, the better the legislative outcome,” Carona said. “I’d rather be making policy based upon what I know to be strong public sentiment than to leave it to guesswork here at the Capitol.”

Let me say up front that I think this is a worthwhile idea, I hope it works out, and I commend Sen. Carona for his efforts. I will be very interested to see how this goes.

Having said that, I have two concerns. One is that I’m not sure that a payday lending bill is the best vehicle for this. To my way of thinking, crowdsourcing works best when nobody really knows what the best practices are and there’s no good examples of how other entities have tackled the problem to study. But as we saw in the 2009 Lege, the policy wonks have a pretty good handle on what the specific problem is in Texas and on what needs to be done to fix it. I’m absolutely not saying there isn’t value in soliciting input from the public, especially from those who have direct experience with payday lending. By all means, that should be done. What I am saying is that this doesn’t seem to me to be a real test of the concept of crowdsourcing legislation because we’re far from starting from scratch. I expect the input that this may generate will help at the margins, but is unlikely to change the 2009 bills in a way that will make anyone say “We never would have thought of that”. That’s the sort of thing I’d love to see get thrown to the crowdsourcers. Which is easier said than done, because off the top of my head I can’t think of such an example.

The other concern is more fundamental and more mundane. The reason that a good payday lending bill didn’t pass in 2009 wasn’t because the bills that were put forward were somehow insufficient. The problem was that the good bills were beaten back and watered down by industry lobbyists, aided and abetted by a single unethical member of the House, Rep. Gary Elkins, working in his own self interest. Crowdsourcing isn’t going to help with those problems, unless you’re talking about something like Kickstarter as a tool for unseating the likes of Elkins. Again, this is not to say that the idea isn’t a good one. It’s just that the experience will have nothing to do with the ultimate fate of the bill it produces.

I can’t drive 75

If the Lege has its way, in addition to being able to drive 85 on the Interstates, you will also be able to drive 75 on some other highways.

Legislation that would eliminate lower nighttime speed limits in Texas, allow trucks to drive at the same speed as cars on all highways and authorize rural highway limits of 75 mph statewide was given initial approval by the Texas House on Friday . The so-called debate — no House member had questions or comments for the bill sponsor — lasted about three minutes, and House Bill 1353 passed on a voice vote without opposition.

The legislation by state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston , will need one more House vote before moving to the Senate, where Elkins said that Transportation Committee chairman Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, has agreed to carry the bill.

The legislation would abolish the 5 mph differential between day and night limits on many Texas highways. And in the 150 or so Texas counties, most of them in the eastern half of the state, where the maximum speed limit on rural highways is now 70 mph , the Texas Department of Transportation would be allowed to up it to 75 mph, following traffic and engineering studies.

Large trucks, now limited to 60 mph on farm-to-market roads, would have the same speed limit as other vehicles. Advocates for Elkins’ bill say that the difference in speed among various vehicles sharing the road — rather than higher speeds — more often leads to accidents.

[…]

Elkins said his main interest was in getting rid of the nighttime lower limits. Texas, according to an analysis by the Legislature’s House Research Organization, is the only state that still has lower night speed limits. That analysis says that better headlights have made such a deduction an anachronism.

That final House vote will be today, according to the Chron story. I presume this would apply to US and state highways, so if it passes you may be able to (legally) crank it up to 75 on US 290 in the rural areas where the limit is now 70. I don’t really have anything to add to this, so let me play the video again, because really, you just can’t get too much Sammy Hagar:

That will never get old.

Red light camera ban appears dead

So says the Star-Telegram, which has been the go-to source for these stories.

A final version of legislation restructuring the Texas Department of Transportation is not expected to include a ban on red-light cameras or a local option provision allowing county elections to raise money for road and rail projects, lawmakers said Saturday.

Members of a joint conference committee reconciling differences between the House and Senate versions of the transportation department bill are under a midnight deadline to release their report. Sen. Glenn Hegar Jr., R-Katy, the chief Senate negotiator, told the Star-Telegram that neither the local option provision or the red-light camera ban are likely to be in the final bill.

Asked if the local option provsion, strongly opposed by House negotiators, will be in the conference committee legislation, Hegar replied: “I don’t see how it does.”

He added: “I would assume there will be no ban on red light cameras, and then that the way the bill would focus on TxDOT and nothing more, nothing less.”

[…]

[Rep. Gary] Elkins acknowledged that his red-light camera ban apparently was out of the bill. He said his amendment “was being held hostage” during the conference committee deliberations, with a possible swap in which the Senate would agree to take the House-passed red-light camera ban in exchange for House acceptance of local option.

“My understanding right now is the House is not going to get its will on red-light cameras and the Senate is not going to get its will on the local option tax,” he said.

It’s also possible that HB300 won’t be able to pass – among other things, Sen. John Carona may filibuster it over its lack of a local-option provision – or if it does pass, Governor Perry, who not unreasonably thinks the whole thing has turned into a monstrosity, may veto it. In which case, the red light cameras will live on, since there would be no legislation to pass that would kill them. At this point, I’d say they’re in decent shape, though as always it ain’t over till it’s over. Hope all those contracts with camera vendors that got extended for however long don’t come back to bite anyone. EoW has more on the status of HB300 and the local option tax.

Houston extends red light camera contract

We’ll have red light cameras to kick around for at least a few more years.

The City Council extended the contract of the company that administers its red-light camera program for three more years Wednesday, aiming to thwart legislation pending in Austin that would sunset the use of the devices.

The ordinance, which passed Wednesday with only two nay votes — by members Mike Sullivan and Jolanda Jones — extends the camera program through May 2014. The action was a preemptive effort meant to keep the program active in case a bill in the Legislature succeeds in precluding municipalities from adding the cameras or extending contracts with vendors after June 1, 2009.

The provision was included as an amendment to a bill that already has passed in the House and is expected to be hashed out in the coming days in a conference committee. Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, sponsored the amendment.

The cities of Amarillo, Arlington, Baytown, Fort Worth and Irving all took similar steps to extend their programs, in some cases continuing them for an additional 15 to 20 years.

Mayor Bill White defended the council’s action Wednesday.

“The fact is that where we have these cameras, the number of people who are photographed running the red light goes down consistently over time,” he said, adding later in a news conference that he believes the cameras will become an integral part of law enforcement all over the U.S. within 10 years.

Maybe we’ll get a valid study of their effect in Houston by then. We all saw this coming, so if you don’t like the cameras, take solace in the fact that Houston only extended the contract that far, unlike some other cities.

Burleson extended its agreement with American Traffic Solutions for 15 years, a city official said this week.

The Fort Worth City Council gave the city manager permission this week to immediately sign an extension through 2018 if it appears that the Legislature will imminently approve a ban on future contracts.

North Richland Hills extended its deal with Redflex through 2013.

Last week, Arlington officials gave the city staff permission to sign a new deal with ATS through 2027, and Southlake extended its terms with Redflex through 2024.

Count your blessings, camera-haters. The House conference committee members on the TxDOT sunset bill that had the anti-camera amendment will be fighting to keep it, so their days may still be numbered.

Skinning a cat: Alternate methods

As you know, the TxDOT sunset bill HB300 included among its many House amendments a couple that were aimed at killing off red light cameras in Texas’ cities, by putting them under the authority of DPS and by forbidding the renewal of existing contracts with camera vendors. While it is entirely possible that these amendments will be removed by the Senate, it’s safe to say that there exists legislative will to do away with the cameras. As such, the cities that operate them and which by and large have made money off of them are taking action now to protect their investments.

Officials in Arlington and Southlake are moving swiftly to sign 15- and 20-year deals with their respective vendors in hopes of getting around a plan by lawmakers to phase out the controversial devices.

“It’s not the state’s business. It’s our business in terms of how we regulate local traffic,” Arlington Councilman Mel LeBlanc said Wednesday. “We feel the original decision to institute red-light cameras has a lot of validity to it and is a public safety benefit to Arlington.”

[…]

Meanwhile, Southlake signed a 15-year deal with Redflex Traffic Systems on Wednesday, extending the city’s red-light camera program through 2024.

And Tuesday night, the Arlington City Council authorized staff to sign an extension with American Traffic Solutions through 2027. That hasn’t happened yet, but city officials say they’ll continue watching the activity in Austin and, if it looks like a ban is inevitable, sign the long-term deal before June 1.

Pretty clever, if you ask me. You have to figure that the reps who led the charge against the cameras – Gary Elkins, Carl Isett, and Solomon Ortiz, Jr are the big three – are kicking themselves for not covering that particular base. And because I know you’re curious:

Houston is “reviewing what our possible options are should the legislation pass,” spokesman Frank Michel said. Houston’s contract with ATS expires in June 2011.

I presume the cities with cameras would have 90 days after the bill is signed, which is how long it takes for a new law to take effect, to get their affairs in order. Look for this to turn into a stampede if the amendments remain in place.

Finally, on a tangential topic:

[Arlington] has cameras at 17 intersections and could place them at up to 40 under the contract. Wrecks at intersections with cameras have decreased 30 percent on average, said Steve Evans, management services director.

“We are seeing tangible benefits from the cameras,” said Councilman Robert Rivera, who represents southeast Arlington. “We’re seeing a reduction in fatalities, a reduction in accidents and an increased sense of awareness of safety in intersections.”

[…]

Southlake installed its first two cameras last year and recently installed four more. Accidents at the first two intersections decreased by an average of 17 percent, officials said.

In North Richland Hills, nine cameras are in operation, spokesman Frank Fiorello said.

Crashes decreased by 54 percent at those intersections between September 2007 and August 2008.

Sure does stand in contrast to Houston’s experience so far, doesn’t it? Which leads me to wonder again if that red light camera study was so screwed up as to be completely useless, if the study was fine but Houston’s implementation was fatally flawed, or if it was all just a statistical fluke that will vanish over time. I guess we’ll have to wait till the next study to get some idea of that.

More on the House attempt to kill red light cameras

Grits notes with some pleasure a couple of amendments in HB300, the massive TxDOT sunset bill that passed yesterday, which would limit and ultimately end cities’ use of red light cameras. While I’ve never understood the fear and loathing these things have generated, I can’t say I’m surprised by the legislative about-face. The cameras’ opponents have been very vocal, whereas there’s no real pro-camera constituency outside of city officials and vendors. Further, the data on their efficacy has been at best inconclusive and at worst in direct opposition to proponents’ claims of safety improvements. I still think we don’t have a good grasp on the data, and I think it’s possible we’re not using the cameras properly, but frankly if they all do go away it won’t bother me. There are bigger fish to fry, and perhaps if this avenue is closed off cities will take a look at optimizing yellow light times, which to my mind has always been the strongest criticism of the cameras.

Having said that, I continue to be amazed at the gratuitous dishonesty of some camera critics. In one of the stories Grits links to, the claim made by Rep. Gary Elkins that “at intersections [in Houston] using red-light cameras, accidents, mainly rear-end collisions, increased by 118 percent” is reported uncritically. Here’s the much ballyhooed study (PDF) of the effect at camera-enabled intersections on the intersection rate (more here and here). Take a look and see if you can tell me where Elkins got that number from. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Of course, perhaps Elkins, who famously admitted he didn’t know what Medicaid was, despite being on the Health and Human Services Committee, is just confused. It wouldn’t be the first time, that’s for sure.

Finally, as Burka notes, the many amendments to HB300 made it a mess that will likely be completely redone in the Senate. As such, changes like these may or may not make it into the final bill. A separate bill by Isett that also attacked red light cameras passed out of committee at the end of April but doesn’t appear to be on the calendar at this time; if it isn’t approved on second reading by tomorrow, it’s dead. So we don’t know yet what if anything will change with red light cameras this session.

More on the House attempt to kill red light cameras

Grits notes with some pleasure a couple of amendments in HB300, the massive TxDOT sunset bill that passed yesterday, which would limit and ultimately end cities’ use of red light cameras. While I’ve never understood the fear and loathing these things have generated, I can’t say I’m surprised by the legislative about-face. The cameras’ opponents have been very vocal, whereas there’s no real pro-camera constituency outside of city officials and vendors. Further, the data on their efficacy has been at best inconclusive and at worst in direct opposition to proponents’ claims of safety improvements. I still think we don’t have a good grasp on the data, and I think it’s possible we’re not using the cameras properly, but frankly if they all do go away it won’t bother me. There are bigger fish to fry, and perhaps if this avenue is closed off cities will take a look at optimizing yellow light times, which to my mind has always been the strongest criticism of the cameras.

In the end, it may not matter. As Burka notes, the many amendments to HB300 made it a mess that will likely be completely redone in the Senate. As such, changes like these may or may not make it into the final bill. A separate bill by Isett that also attacked red light cameras passed out of committee at the end of April but doesn’t appear to be on the calendar at this time; if it isn’t approved on second reading by tomorrow, it’s dead. So we don’t know yet what if anything will change with red light cameras this session. Eye on Williamson has more on HB300.

Sunsetting TxDOT

Yesterday was Day One of the debate over HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill. The Lege is on Day Two now, and if you look at all the amendments they’ve gone through, you can see why this is taking so long. Some massive changes have been proposed and adopted, staring with this.

The first amendment to the bill, authored by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon and amended by Rep. David Leibowitz, makes an even bigger change than the base bill proposed, completely transforming TxDOT’s leadership structure.

Under current law, there are five TxDOT commissioners, all appointed by the governor. The base bill proposed maintaining five commissioners, allowing the governor to appoint three and allowing the lt. gov. and the speaker to appoint one each. And McClendon’s amendment would have replaced the five appointed commissioners with one elected commissioner.

She said she wanted to “restore public trust” to TxDOT by allowing the public to choose its commissioner.

Enter Leibowitiz, whose amendment to the McClendon amendment made an even more radical proposal. Rather than have a single elected commissioner, his amendment provided for the election of 14 regional commissioners and one commission chair elected at large.

Leibowitz said he didn’t think it was a perfect proposal (they’ll have time to tweak it later, since the bill is on second reading), but said it was “a step in the right direction.”

I like the idea and think it would have the potential to make TxDOT more responsive to localities than it has been. That’s the hope, anyway. It was adopted, as was a subsequent amendment aimed at red light cameras.

The Texas House late last night voted to strip cities of control over their red-light camera programs, granting the jurisdiction to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The change came in the form of an amendment, offered by state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, that moved authority over the cameras’ specifications, operations and maintenance to the transportation agency as part of its overall sunset bill.

An amendment to that measure, which was opposed by the city of Houston, also bans the installation of any new red-light cameras statewide after June 1.

Elkins told members that his amendment wouldn’t affect any current camera systems (the city has 70), but rather just allow the agency to craft one set of rules statewide.

“When you go from one city or the next, you don’t know if you’re in compliance,” he said. “The state needs to establish the policy.”

Presumably there’s a lot more to come. An overview of the base bill, pre-amendments, is here on the DMN’s Transportation blog, which has several other entries of interest as well. EoW and McBlogger have more.

UPDATE: HB300 passes to engrossment.

The House tentatively approved a Texas Department of Transportation “sunset” bill in a non-recorded voice vote. The proposal also calls for the election of 14 regional commissioners.

Currently the governor appoints a five-member transportation commission, so the House move limits Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s power over an agency that’s widely criticized as dysfunctional. The bill still must have another House vote before moving to the Senate.

The sweeping TxDOT overhaul vote came in response to a scathing state sunset report that called for a revamp of the department’s governing board and its dealings with lawmakers and the public.

The bill by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, removes some duties from the agency, including driver’s license oversight. It also would establish a legislative oversight committee, made up of six members, to study and make recommendations for the operation and needs of the state transportation system.

“No longer will the public be in the dark about construction projects in their own towns,” Isett said as he introduced the legislation. “No longer will the public trust be disregarded.”

One amendment attached to the bill would prohibit the state or local governments from adding automated cameras at intersections to catch traffic violations. Contracts for current red light cameras also could not be renewed once the bill becomes effective.

Lawmakers also added a provision that would require contractors for road construction projects to pay damages to businesses that have been adversely affected by project delays.

Obviously, there can still be changes made, and the Senate still needs to take action. More here, here, and here.

UPDATE: The AP story linked to in the first update contains a line that says the bill “removes some duties from [TxDOT], including driver’s license oversight”. That isn’t entirely accurate. I received an email from the office of State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who was on the Sunset committee for TxDOT, which gave the following clarification:

TxDOT now has no oversight of driver licenses, although in many states the Department of Motor Vehicles does administer that function. The driver license functions are housed at the DPS, and the TxDOT Sunset Bill would not make any change in that regard, at least not this Session. The changes coming about in regard to the new DMV concern the permitting and titling of motor vehicles, salvage vehicles, the Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, and similar related matters. Those divisions would move over from TxDOT and become part of the DMV, in order to house the administrative functions in an agency dealing directly with the public, private and commercial vehicle owners included. That would leave TxDOT in a better position to concentrate on infrastructure planning, design, maintenance and construction.

My thanks to Rep. McClendon for the information.

House passes veto override resolution

I’m a little surprised that this got taken up so (relatively) quickly, but not at all surprised that it passed.

The House today passed a measure that would allow Texas voters to decide whether to allow the Legislature to override gubernatorial vetoes in short sessions after regular legislative sessions.

The House voted 131 to 16 to approve a resolution by state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, that would put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The resolution now goes to the Senate.

Elkins said that although the Legislature has the authority to override a gubernatorial veto, legislators rarely get that opportunity because the session is typically over by the time the governor vetoes most bills.

“This will bring the power back to the people,” Elkins told his colleagues.

The House passed a similar measure in 2007, but it died in a Senate committee.

The measure is HJR29. All 16 No votes were Republicans, including former Speaker Tom Craddick. And yes, this was authored by Gary “What’s Medicaid?” Elkins. He was the author in 2007, too.

I don’t know if it’s due to April Fool’s Day or what, but apparently Burka has had a change of heart on this.

Is this a good idea? When this came up two years ago, I was opposed to the amendment. My reason was that Texas has a constitutionally weak governor, and this proposal would further weaken the governor. Rick Perry, however, has changed the nature of the governor’s office. His lengthy tenure has allowed him to appoint all of the officials who oversee the executive agencies. He is a very strong governor, at least in his ability to control the actions of the executive branch through what amounts to a de facto cabinet form of government. This amendment is needed to restore a balance of power. For example, the Legislature, which controls the purse strings, can pass a statute making Texas eligible for stimulus funds for unemployment insurance, but the governor can veto the statute.

I was ambivalent about this in 2007, and I think I’ve come to Burka’s viewpoint now. The way things work, the Lege’s veto power is more a theoretical one than a real one; as the Observer notes, the last actual veto override was in 1979. So yeah, I do think this would restore some balance, and as such if it does make it through to the November ballot, I’ll vote for it.

That’s assuming it gets that far, of course. Burka thinks the Senate version of this measure, SJR14 by Wentworth, will never come to a vote because Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst won’t allow it. It hasn’t been scheduled for a committee hearing yet, so who knows. RG Ratcliffe has more.

“What’s Medicaid?”

This isn’t too much to ask, is it?

Give State Rep. Gary Elkins some credit for being honest.

At a hearing [Thursday] of the House Committee on Human Services, Elkins and other members of the panel considered more than two dozen bills related to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Three hours into the hearing, Elkins asked: “What’s Medicaid?”

The Houston Republican continued: “I know I hear it — I really don’t know what it is. I know that’s a big shock to everybody here in the audience, OK.”

He could have kept quiet. He could have asked an aide. He could have Googled it. Instead, he asked the question into the microphone in the middle of a public hearing.

Or he could have known what it was all along, like even before he first got elected. It’s not exactly an obscure program, and it’s not unreasonable to think a state representative might have a passing familiarity with it. Guess not. Heck of a job, Gary. Whoever runs against you next year is grateful for the assist.