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Jason Villalba

2018 primary results: Legislative

Rep. Sarah Davis

Statewide Dem totals
Statewide GOP totals

Harris County Dem totals
Harris County GOP totals

(Please note that all results were coming in very slowly. I expect there will still be some precincts not yet reported by the time this publishes. So, I’m going to be less specific than usual, and may have to make a correction or two by Thursday.)

I’m gonna lead with the Republicans this time. Sarah Davis and Lyle Larson, both viciously targeted by Greg Abbott, won their races easily. Sarah, here’s that picture I mentioned before. Also, too, the anti-vaxxers can suck it (in this race; they unfortunately appear to have claimed a scalp elsewhere). Abbott did manage to unseat the mediocre Wayne Faircloth, who was the most conservative of his three targets. Party on, Greg!

Back to the good side: Rita Lucido was leading Fran Watson in SD17, but was short of a majority. Beverly Powell won in SD10, Wendy Davis’ old district. Mark Phariss was leading in SD08, but it was too close to call. On the Republican side, Rep. Pat Fallon destroyed Sen. Craig Estes in SD30, but Sen. Kel Seliger beat back the wingnuts again in SD31. Sen. John Whitmire won easily. Joan Huffman easily held off Kristin Tassin on her side of SD17. And Angela Paxton won in SD08 over the lesser Huffines brother. Apparently, two Paxtons are better than one, and also better than two Huffineses.

Other incumbents in both parties had more trouble. On the D side, longtime Rep. Robert Alonzo lost to Jessica Gonzalez in HD104; her election increases the number of LGBT members of the Lege by one. First term Rep. Diana Arevalo lost to former Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer in HD116, and first-term Rep. Tomas Uresti, no doubt damaged by his brother’s legal problems, lost to Leo Pacheco. And Dawnna Dukes’ odyssey came to an end as challengers Sheryl Cole and Chito Vela both ran way ahead of her. Other Dems, including (sigh) Ron Reynolds hung on, though Rep. Rene Oliveira was headed to a runoff with Alex Dominguez in HD37. For the Rs, Rep. Jason Villalba was going down in HD114 – he was an anti-vaxxer target, though there were other factors in that race, so it sure would be nice for Dems to pick that one off in November. Rep. Scott Cosper was headed to a runoff in HD54. Other incumbents, including those targeted by the extreme wingnut coalition, made it through.

For Harris County, the following challengers won: Natali Hurtado (HD126; she celebrated by going into labor, so double congratulations to her), Gina Calanni (HD132), Adam Milasincic (HD138). Sandra Moore was briefly above 50% in HD133, but ultimately fell back below it to wind up in a runoff with Marty Schexnayder. Allison Lami Sawyer had a slightly easier time of it, collecting over 90% of the vote against the idiot Lloyd Oliver. Maybe, just maybe, this will be enough to convince Oliver that his run-for-office marketing strategy has come to the end of its usefulness. Sam Harless was on the knife’s edge of a majority in HD126 on the R side; if he falls short, Kevin Fulton was in second place.

There will be a few runoffs in other races around the state. I’ll get back to that another day.

Going beyond “thoughts and prayers”

There are things we could do to reduce the prevalence of gun violence, if we wanted to.

At a news conference organized by Texas Gun Sense at the state capitol on Wednesday, state Reps. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, and Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, urged state leaders to declare gun violence a public health issue and reform existing gun regulations.

Nevárez proposed limiting the ability of Texans to “walk around” with long rifles, such as the AR-15 variant used by the shooter Sunday. Texas has allowed long gun owners to openly carry their weapons for decades.

Collier urged state leaders to declare gun violence a public health issue, comparing it to other health crises such as obesity and the opioid epidemic. She also denounced those, such as President Donald Trump, who have focused on addressing mental health issues following the shooting rather than guns themselves. While acknowledging mental health plays a critical role in gun violence, she said focusing entirely on mental health is a “distraction” from the role of easy access to guns and “stigmatizes” those with mental health issues.

“If any other consumer product resulted in a fraction of the injuries and deaths [that guns do],” Collier said, “we would be scrambling to find solutions.”

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, was also at the news conference and spoke briefly about a list she authored of steps to prevent gun violence. Her suggestions include increasing public education on safe gun usage and requiring a license to carry long guns.

The press conference came a day after state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, urged state leaders to create a bipartisan commission tasked with recommending “common sense” gun reforms ahead of the next scheduled legislative session in 2019.

Like Rep. Nevárez, I don’t think we need a commission to come up with reforms. There are plenty of good ideas already out there. If you can assure me that any reforms put forward by such a commission would get the support of the leadership in the next session, then sure, go ahead, but usually the creation of task forces like that are a substitute for action, not a catalyst for it. I don’t expect even weak sauce like that to get support as thing stand today, so the path forward, as always, is to elect more legislators like Collier, Nevárez, and Hinojosa. At the end of the day it’s a numbers game, and our numbers need to be bigger.

LGBT anti-discrimination bills voted out of House committee

One bit of good news this week.

In an unprecedented vote, a House committee on Wednesday approved two bills to prohibit housing and employment discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Dallas Republican Rep. Jason Villalba split with his party and provided the tie-breaking vote for both bills, which passed the House Committee on Business and Industry by one vote. Democrats have pushed both measures for years without success.

While the two bills still have very far to go before they could become law, Villalba said it was time Republicans begin to agree on the need to extend greater rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Texans.

“It was time for people from all across the political spectrum to acknowledge that LGBT citizens from the great state of Texas are Texans,” Villalba told The Dallas Morning News after the vote. “Will other Republicans follow my lead? I doubt it, but the time has come.”

House Bill 225 by Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, would prohibit businesses from discriminating against employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. House Bill 192, by San Antonio Democrat Diego Bernal, would make it illegal to refuse to sell or rent to someone because of these same

Johnson, who has authored the employment measure for at least two legislative sessions, said this is the most progress his bill has ever made.

This is as far as these bills will go, but just getting them approved by a committee is a big deal, as it had never been done before. To me, the best part of this story is what persuaded Rep. Villalba to say Yes.

The final straw, said Villalba, was “that email that I got.”

The weekend before the vote on Johnson’s bill, Hotze sent a text en masse to House Republicans urging them to support Senate Bill 6 — the “bathroom bill” that would bar transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity — or else the face political retribution of being placed on a list of Republicans who oppose the measure.

The texts were personalized. “Dear Jason,” his began, “Greetings! Do you support SB 6?”

What came next was a link to a blog Hotze wrote on April 27 that called LGBT people perverted and accused Republicans who oppose the bathroom bill of being “willing to sell out the safety of their mothers, wives, daughters and granddaughters to protect their financial interests.”

“No one should be considered a minority deserving of preferential treatment, because of their chosen sexual perversion, their so-called ‘gender identity’ or the types of sexual acts in which they engage. These are all chosen behaviors,” Hotze wrote. “Take this thought process to its natural progression; what would prevent some activist judge from ruling that those who practice prostitution, transvestitism, pedophilia or bestiality are part of this class deserving of special protection because of their sexual orientation?”

The text continued, “If you do not respond, then you will be considered a ‘No’ on SB 6. …Please respond today.”

“I saw that, and I’m like, ‘That’s enough,’ ” Villalba said. “I cannot stand on the sidelines when people who claim to share my political philosophy are so hateful.

“I don’t want to live that example. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. Believe me, he will be. In 20 years we’ll look back on these days and we’ll be astounded that there was ever a time in our country where people would discriminate against others merely because of their sexual preference.

Yes to all of that. Nothing could be sweeter than shoving Steve Hotze’s own words right down his throat. Kudos to Rep. Villalba for seeing the light, and to Rep. Johnson for pushing him to seek it out.

Still talking vaccines and measles

Because it keeps needing to be talked about.

Earlier this month, Dr. Peter J. Hotez, a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, detailed a disturbing prediction for 2017 in an op-ed for the New York Times: the country could be facing a measles outbreak, and the Lone Star State could among the earliest casualties. “Texas, where I live and work,” Hotez wrote, “may be the first state to once again experience serious measles outbreaks.”

[…]

The spread of measles—one of the most contagious and deadliest diseases—could be stopped by the Eighty-fifth Texas Legislature, where there are currently pending bills that take aim at correcting the anti-vaccination trend. In December, State Representative Donna Howard, a Democrat representing Austin, filed a bill that would require parents and students who choose not to be vaccinated to indicate that they will “opt-out,” as opposed to the current system in which people must “opt-in” in order to be vaccinated. The bill would also require education for parents and students before they choose to opt-out. A similar bill filed by Representative Sarah Davis, a Republican from Houston, would require parents to complete an online educational course to inform them about the dangers of opting out of vaccination.

But anti-vaxxers make up a strong political bloc, and they’ve successfully thwarted pro-vaccination efforts in the Lege before. In 2015, state Representative Jason Villalba of Dallas tried to pass a law that would have entirely removed the exemption protection for parents who claimed to have a “conscientious objection” to vaccinations. His proposal was promptly torn to pieces by a few thousand members of a Facebook group for Texas anti-vaxxers, which formed a PAC, Texans for Vaccine Choice, that ultimately killed Villalba’s bill.  “These people, they literally said it to my face—they hate me,” Villalba told the Texas Tribune in April 2016, after his bill flopped. “This is a group that is very dedicated, very organized; this issue is very important to them.” Even after the bill failed, the PAC kept on Villalba. Jackie Schlegel, the PAC’s creator, told KUT in January that PAC members “knocked on nearly 10,000 doors for his challenger.” Villalba narrowly avoided defeat. Villalba told KUT that he supports Representative Davis’s bill, but it seems unlikely he’ll try to revive his own. “I’m not interested in a suicide mission on this issue,” Villalba told the Tribune last April.

Texas remains one of only seventeen states that allow parents to exempt their children from receiving vaccinations due to philosophical objections. None of the currently pending bills in the Lege would change that. Still, the Texans for Vaccine Choice PAC has already started to push back against the pro-vaccine billse. The anti-vax crowd is active on social media, and let Davis know that they were upset about her bill. In several exchanges with these folks on Twitter in late January, Davis shot down claims that vaccines cause autism by calling such assertions “alternative facts.

See here and here for some background, then go read Rep. Davis’ Twitter battle with the anti-vaxxers. I’ve never been a big fan of hers, but my respect for her is higher than ever after seeing that. Despite the fact that the anti-vaxxers have a friend in the White House, I do believe we can get one or both of Rep. Davis and Rep. Howard’s bills passed. The anti-vaxxers are as we know an organized and vocal minority, but in the end they are still a minority. We do have them outnumbered, and we need to remember that. If you’ve gotten yourself in the habit of calling your legislators about this and that these days, please add these two bills to your list of things you ask them to support.

The coming measles outbreak

I hope we’re wrong about this.

Peter Hotez used to worry mostly about vaccines for children in far-away places. An infectious diseases researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, Hotez is developing shots against diseases in poorer countries such as hookworm and schistosomiasis.

But now, Hotez is anxious about children much closer to home. The number of schoolchildren not vaccinated against childhood diseases in Texas is growing rapidly, which means that the state may see its first measles outbreaks in the winter or spring of 2018, Hotez predicted in a recent article in PLOS Medicine. Disgraced antivaccine physician Andrew Wakefield has set up shop in the Texan capital, Austin, and a political action committee (PAC) is putting pressure on legislators facing a slew of vaccine-related bills.

“Texas is now the center of the antivaxxer movement,” Hotez says. “There is a big fight coming,” adds Anna Dragsbaek of The Immunization Partnership, a nonprofit organization in Houston that advocates for vaccinations.

Texas still has one of the highest vaccination rates for childhood diseases overall, 97.4%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the number of children not vaccinated because of their parents’ “personal beliefs”—as opposed to medical reasons—has risen from 2300 in 2003, when such exemptions were introduced, to more than 44,000 so far this year, according to numbers prepared by The Immunization Partnership based on Texas Department of State Health Services data. The actual number may be much higher because an estimated 300,000 Texan children are schooled at home, says Susan Wootton, an infectious disease pediatrician at the University of Texas in Houston; though the law requires these kids to be immunized too, parents don’t need to submit proof of vaccination.

Measles is an extremely contagious pathogen and often the first one to spread when vaccination rates dip below about 95%. The risk of outbreaks is even greater because unvaccinated children aren’t randomly distributed. In Gaines county in western Texas, for instance, the exemption rate is already 4.8%, and at one school in Austin, it’s 40%. “I would describe Texas as sitting on a ticking time bomb,” Wootton says.

[…]

Meanwhile, a PAC named Texans for Vaccine Choice has sprung up after state Representative Jason Villalba, a Republican lawyer from Dallas, proposed scrapping nonmedical exemptions last year. (The Texas House of Representatives voted down the bill.) “While they do not have a whole lot of money, they have a lot of people that they can deploy to interfere in primary campaigns,” Dragsbaek says. “They made Villalba’s primary campaign very, very difficult.” Rebecca Hardy, director of state policies at Texans for Vaccine Choice, says the group is not trying to convince parents that vaccines are dangerous, but fighting for their right not to immunize their children. (It’s also helping them apply for exemptions.)

Though almost all U.S. states allow religious exemptions from vaccination, only 18 permit exemptions based on personal beliefs; with 27 million residents, Texas is the most populous one. Another hotbed of resistance to vaccines, California, stopped allowing “philosophical exemptions”—which covered religious and personal beliefs—this year, after a measles outbreak that sickened more than a hundred people. The change in legislation led some Californians opposing vaccines to move to Texas, Hotez says.

The Texas legislature is now pondering several bills that would help shore up vaccination. One would make it compulsory for parents to complete an online course before refusing vaccination; another would require them to discuss their decision with a doctor. The bill with the best chances may be one that would allow parents to know the immunization rates at their child’s school. “This does not infringe on anyone’s right to have an exemption, it simply allows parents who need to protect their children to have adequate information to do so,” Dragsbaek says. But Hardy says her PAC is opposed to even this bill: “If it’s truly about a parent’s right to know the health status of a campus, then why are we not proposing bills that would give the rates of HIV-positive kids on campus, or hepatitis B-positive kids?” she asks.

The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that the anti-vax forces are vocal and organized, which gives them a disproportionate amount of influence in the Lege. If you’re still mad about the November election (and you should be!) and you’re looking to Do Something to make our state a better place, organizing in favor of pro-vaccination candidates and officeholders, in all levels of government, would be a good way to channel that energy. Note this does not have to be strictly partisan – Rep. Villalba, who drew the wrath of the anti-vaxxers in 2015, is a Republican. But until there’s a countervailing force against the likes of Texans for Vaccine Choice, they’re going to gain all the ground. You can’t fight something with nothing, and the pro-vaccine forces have nothing right now.

First rideshare legislative hearing

There will be a lot more where this came from.

Uber

Representatives from Uber and Lyft urged lawmakers to adopt statewide regulations for the ride-hailing industry during a Texas Capitol hearing on Wednesday, citing what they called burdensome local ordinances that have driven them to leave Austin and other Texas cities.

The companies fielded pointed questions from members of the House Committee on Business and Industry about safety concerns and how local regulations, like those in Austin, impact their operations.

“I think we first need to recognize the obvious – technology is changing our lives,” said Committee Chairman René Oliveira, D- Brownsville, at the start of the hearing. “These changes are going to be very profound; you’ve already seen that in Austin … but this is not just an Austin, Travis County issue.”

Currently, regulations for ride-hailing companies are handled on a city-by-city basis. The Legislature discussed potential regulations during the 2015 session, but those bills failed to gain any traction. Now, several months ahead of the next session, lawmakers are revisiting the issue after Austin citizens voted in May to keep in place a requirement for ride-hailing drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks.

[…]

Lyft

Oliveira said while he tends to favor local control, “there are some issues that demand state intervention.”

“I am neutral on this issue,” he said. “What I am concerned about is finding out the necessary facts to determine – is this an issue that the state of Texas should get involved in or is it an issue of local control?”

During the hearing, he asked both [Rena Davis, a public policy manager for Lyft] and Sarfraz Maredia, the general manager for Uber in Texas, if they had data to support claims that they offer safer rides than taxis. Neither Davis nor Maredia provided specific numbers, to the frustration of the committee.

“I can’t believe [Lyft] or Uber doesn’t have data that we could look at that involves drivers and what the incident rate is,” Oliveira said, referring to the number of violent encounters between drivers and riders.

Both Maredia and Davis assured the panel they would provide lawmakers more information.

So let’s talk about regulations and transparency. After that post was publushed, Uber pointed me to this safety report on their website that goes over their criteria for background checks and what causes a potential driver to be eliminated. I appreciate the feedback and commend them for making that public. I also have this memo from Sarfraz Maredia on Uber’s safety procedures, as well as Maredia’s written testimony to the committee. A lot of what’s in those documents are things we have heard before from Uber, though perhaps not as much lately as the argument has largely defaulted to “do it our way or we’ll leave and then you’ll be sorry”. The thing is, I think Uber and Lyft could have done a lot better in Austin if they had focused on the things they do for customer safety instead of bludgeoning everyone to death with nonstop misleading ads and automated text messages. They could still gain some ground, in Houston and in Austin if they want to, by going back to that emphasis on their methodology and by being forthcoming with their data to back up their claims. Show us the numbers, on how many drivers they reject and for what reasons, compared to the cities, and how many incidents per capita there are in cities that do it their way versus cities that impose “unnecessary” regs on them, however they want to define that. If the cities in question can’t or won’t provide adequate data to allow them to make the comparisons, then so much the better for them and their argument that the cities are making them jump through hoops for no good cause. And if some of the numbers don’t show them in as positive a light as they’d like, be honest about it and see what can be done to improve. These guys say they’re bold innovators leading the way to a better future, well then do the math and show us the analytics to prove it. I promise to keep an open mind.

Since the Austin election and Uber and Lyft’s departure, startups and smaller ride-hailing companies have swarmed the city and its newly open market.

One company that has seen success in the capital city is getme, which has offered rides since December. The company’s founder, Michael Gaubert, told lawmakers Wednesday the company opposes statewide regulation of fingerprint background checks .

“The notion that there should be a state law ban on fingerprinting is not the correct way to go on this,” said Gaubert, who was joined at the hearing by former Dallas Cowboys player Michael Irvin, who he described as a close friend.

But lawmakers seemed committed to pursuing some sort of regulation next session, particularly Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, who cited concerns with the “patchwork quilt” of regulations across the state.

“It may not get to the governor,” he said of potential legislation, “but we’re going to try something.”

It would be nice to think that the Lege will look at the data and put forth reasonable proposals to address what can be done while allowing cities to take the steps they need to get the service they want. I doubt that’s what will happen, but it would be nice to think. Trail Blazers has more.

Anti-vaxxers gain ground in Texas

There’s a lesson in here that we need to learn.

On a Friday night little over a year ago, a Texas mother of three was attending a school dance when she got a text message that stopped her cold.

A state lawmaker from Dallas had filed legislation taking aim at a provision in state law that allows parents to opt their children out of school immunization requirements.

“I looked at that text and I just kind of was like, ‘Oh no he didn’t,’” said Jackie Schlegel-Polvado, who lives near Bastrop. “This is Texas. We believe in parental rights in Texas. Like, that is just a fundamental belief that most Texans have that parents make decisions for their children, not the state.”

It was an issue that directly affected Schlegel-Polvado and her family. Since 2007, she has been one of a small but growing number of parents in Texas who obtain “conscientious exemptions” from state vaccine requirements.

What was several worried parents exchanging text messages over the next few days turned into a Facebook group that within two weeks had more than 1,300 members, and then, ultimately, a political action committee.

Texans For Vaccine Choice’s mission, according to Schlegel-Polvado, is to guard parents’ rights to opt out of vaccine requirements — whether that means targeting legislators who seek to close non-medical exemptions or pushing for policies that otherwise protect parents who choose not to vaccinate, like preventing physicians from excluding them from their practices.

In this year’s primary elections, that meant going after state Rep. Jason Villalba, the Dallas Republican who filed the bill.

“The animus that was leveled against me for that was very surprising to me,” said Villalba, who ultimately won his race. “These people, they literally said it to my face — they hate me. That was troubling. Because I get it, they care about their children — but I care about my children too, and the children of the community.”

[…]

State law requires that children at all public and private schools have 10 different immunizations, including for tetanus, measles and pertussis, the bacterial disease known as whooping cough. Generally, children must receive those vaccines by the time they are in kindergarten, though they receive others, like for hepatitis B, in later grades.

If parents wish to opt out of school immunization requirements, they must file a what’s known as a “conscientious exemption” form with their child’s school at the start of the year. All but two states — West Virginia and Mississippi — grant exemptions from school immunization requirements on religious grounds. Texas is among 18 that also waive requirements because of personal beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under Villalba’s initial measure, Texas would have only allowed students to receive exemptions for medical reasons, such as an allergic reaction or in instances where a weakened immune system could cause health complications.

Pediatricians — many of whom have watched with dismay as the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children has climbed — widely support the elimination of non-medical exemptions to immunization requirements.

[…]

During the 2015 legislative session, Villalba said he quickly became acquainted with the passion of the anti-vaccine movement’s supporters, many of whom believe the undue influence of pharmaceutical companies has led to an overabundance of immunization requirements that come at the expense of children’s health.

“This is a group that is very dedicated, very organized; this issue is very important to them,” he said.

[…]

For now, the new organization’s strength appears to lie in its mobilizing abilities. A February campaign finance report showed just over $1,000 in contributions. And while its members made their presence felt in Villalba’s race, he still managed to win with 55 percent of the vote.

But Villalba said that without the engagement of the group, he would have expected his margin of victory to be larger.

It also may have accomplished a broader goal. The lawmaker said that for the 2017 legislative session, he does not plan to re-file his bill narrowing exemptions to the state’s vaccine requirements.

“I’m not interested in a suicide mission on this issue,” he said. “I sense — and this is unfortunate — the only way a bill like this gets any traction is an even worse large-scale outbreak, between now and session. Short of that I just don’t think there is going to be the appetite to do this bill.”

See here for some background. The lesson here is that intensity matters. A group of people that care passionately about a single issue and organizes around it can often get what they want in our political system, even if they’re a distinct minority. These anti-vaxxers are but one example; I’m sure you can think of many others. The number of unvaccinated children in Texas schools is still fairly small, less than one percent of the total, but it’s grown by more than ten times since 2004. This kind of idiocy is the reason why measles has made a big comeback in the US and around the world after being declared eradicated. I can’t blame Rep. Villalba, who was left hanging by Greg Abbott, for not wanting to deal with this crap next session. If the rest of us want someone else to pick up the ball on this, we’re going to need to make at least as much noise about it as these dangerous fanatics have done. Complaining about them is easy. Doing something about it is hard. It’s up to us.

On succeeding, and defending, Ken Paxton

Ross Ramsay:

Best mugshot ever

While Ken Paxton fights to avoid convictions and jail time on indictments alleging securities violations — and to keep his job as Texas attorney general — a muted and unofficial conversation about who will succeed him is already underway.

[…]

That considerable legal predicament opens the conversation about whether Paxton can survive politically. Any felony conviction, whether it involves prison or not, would cost him his law license and probably whatever remains of his term. And that could set up an appointment of his successor by Gov. Greg Abbott — his predecessor as attorney general.

That leads to this: There is a political fluster underway that most people know nothing about.

Names of possible Paxton successors are floating around in Republican circles: Supreme Court Justices Don Willett and Eva Guzman; former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson; current and former first assistants to the AG Chip Roy and Daniel Hodge; [Dan] Branch and [Barry] Smitherman, the two also-rans in last year’s Republican primary. It goes on, picking up Education Commissioner Michael Williams and state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas.

The people in the preceding paragraph have a few things in common. They are Republicans. They are lawyers. They are not openly campaigning for Paxton’s job. Some support Paxton and hope he emerges without a mark. And they make up a pretty good list of viable candidates for state office, whether it turns out to be this one or something in the future. They’re from different parts of the GOP, and the infighting, should an opening occur, could be fierce.

I hope Paxton digs his heels in deep and hangs on to run for re-election even if he’s been convicted. What does he care what a bunch of insiders and establishment figures think about his “effectiveness” or “ability to govern?” They’re not the ones who elected him in the first place, and they’re not the ones who are steadfastly supporting him against all comers and all evidence. Scott Braddock explains.

Employees of Tim Dunn’s Empower Texans, a self-proclaimed conservative group, have tried to make the case that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is somehow to blame for the legal problems Paxton now faces.

As Quorum Report publisher Harvey Kronberg has pointed out, this alleged swindling of investors amounts to the same kind of shenanigans that helped give rise to the Tea Party in the first place back in 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent Wall Street bailouts.

What’s gotten less attention is the company at the heart of the Paxton indictment, Servergy, received government economic incentives that are strongly opposed by Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and others who claim to be as conservative as they come.

Sen. Ted Cruz – one of Paxton’s biggest supporters and the man who more than anyone put his political capital behind him in the GOP primary runoff against Rep. Dan Branch – regularly rails against government interference in the marketplace.

In his crusade against the Export-Import Bank, a top priority of many Texas employers, Cruz has called the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar and has repeatedly used the word “cartel” to describe lobbyists who represent job creators in his home state and elsewhere.

At the time Paxton was rounding up investors for Servergy, allegedly without disclosing his financial interest in the firm, the company was getting government incentives to move to his hometown. Among the details of Paxton’s situation is the fact that Servergy received rental assistance from the City of McKinney so that it could relocate to North Texas from California.

[…]

Many of those same folks in the business community are understandably unaware of the way in which scorecards created and promoted by Empower Texans are reverse-engineered with the goal of aiding GOP politicians who have been adversarial toward Speaker Straus. Sen. Burton and AG Paxton have been beneficiaries of those tactics.

Paxton was also the recipient of at least $1.4 million in Empower Texans political money in the form of a $1 million loan and $400,000 cash as he ran for the Republican nomination.

As far as we know, Paxton is the only one of their allies who possibly gained from government economic incentives that went to a company from which he stood to profit financially.

If consistency or conservatism were the priorities of Dunn, his spokesman Michael Quinn Sullivan, and Sen. Burton they would likely be among the loudest critics of Servergy’s rental assistance.

But the name of the game for this particular cartel is control, not consistency.

Indeed, and that’s why I think any talk of who might succeed Ken Paxton is premature. Paxton knows where his bread is buttered. Until that support dries up, or until the voters actually do boot him out, I don’t believe he’s going anywhere.

The new closet

From this Observer story about how Democrats finally managed to put a stake through Rep. Cecil Bell’s awful anti-same-sex-marriage-license bill, comes word of the legislative preference that dare not speak its name:

RedEquality

[Rep. Jason] Villalba’s statements were a clear reminder that it wasn’t just Democrats who killed anti-LGBT proposals. And they were another sign of evolution, albeit glacially slow, on LGBT issues within the Republican caucus—punctuated by Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), who last week came out in support of same-sex marriage.

“I think of the 93 members of the House that signed the letter, I think if you had private conversations with them, a significant number of them would feel like I do,” Villalba said. “I’m not ready to go on record saying that I support marriage yet, like Sarah has. Sarah was very brave and courageous to do that. I think she feels confident that she represents her district well. I’m not certain that my district feels that way yet, and I also believe this decision is not going to be within our hands.”

Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) said at times during the session, he felt as though it was his freshman year in 2005, when he served on a small floor team of Democrats working unsuccessfully to defeat the state’s marriage amendment.

“I thought the Republicans had sort of played out the anti-gay thing, because we hadn’t seen it for a couple of sessions,” Anchia said. “It’s clear that public opinion is moving away from them rapidly. This feels like a desperate last gasp to pander to the most hateful elements of the Republican primary electorate.”

Nevertheless, Anchia acknowledged that when members of his party worked to defeat anti-LGBT bills, they sometimes did so with the quiet encouragement of Republicans—both “moderate” and “not-so-moderate.”

“I can’t tell you how many members of the House have come up to me and said, ‘Will y’all please kill these bills, Democrats? Because we don’t feel good about them,’” Anchia said. “The reality is there are many Republican members of this Legislature who have gay children, gay siblings, who may be gay themselves but are just not out. As a result, they understand firsthand how hateful this legislation is.”

One often hears of these mythical Republican legislators, who are – to some measure, at least – secretly not anti-gay, or even anti-abortion. Doesn’t mean that they’re pro-equality or pro-choice in any fashion you or I would recognize, but they do have a limited appetite for tightening the screws any further than they already are. It’s just that they can’t admit to any of that in public, lest they be tarred and feathered by the howling fanatics who vote in the Republican primary elections. So they hide in the closet, their existence hinted at by the likes of Rep. Anchia, while the rest of us are left to speculate about their existence like some History Channel “expert”. Maybe this is who those American Phoenix Foundation yahoos have been hunting for. Anyway, I for one would like to know some names. I am sure that more than a few of them would surprise me. Feel free to speculate irresponsibly in the comments.

Joining together for equality

Good to see.

RedEquality

Standing alongside Democrats, a representative for the state’s powerful business lobby Tuesday denounced two proposed amendments to the state constitution aimed at bolstering protection for people acting on religious beliefs, which detractors say would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“These amendments are bad for business,” said Bill Hammond, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, at a press conference. “They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business.”

It’s part of a larger debate taking place around the country, most notably in Indiana where public backlash over a similar law forced the state’s governor to sign an amended version that included protections for gays and lesbians. The question Texas lawmakers face is how they should balance their obligation to protect minority groups with a commitment to religious liberty.

[…]

“We’ve all seen the uproar in Indiana,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, at the press conference. “There’s absolutely no doubt that passing these amendments would bring the same uproar and condemnation to Texas.”

Yes, Indiana is an object lesson, though whether or not we heed it remains to be seen. Hammond and TAB are good allies to have in this fight, and as we’ve already seen they can move some votes on this, but it’s important to maintain some perspective.

The two amendments are among more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Legislature, including statutory bills that would similarly allow businesses to discriminate based on religious beliefs. But Hammond said the TAB board hasn’t voted whether to come out against those measures.

TAB President Chris Wallace told the Observer on Monday that he and Hammond plan to recommend that the board oppose bills making it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms according to how they identify.

“Business owners are going to have to be enforcers of this legislation, and we certainly do not want to place any more burdens on business than there already are,” Wallace said.

Wallace said other proposals to bar cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances may present a quandary for TAB. At least one of the bills, Senate Bill 343 by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), would also bar cities from regulating fracking, plastic bags and ride-sharing—a concept TAB supports.

Hammond said TAB likely will wait until other anti-LGBT legislation is scheduled for committee hearings to take an official position. None of the so-called religious freedom measures or bills targeting local LGBT protections has been scheduled for hearings as the session approaches its final 45 days.

“I think what happened in Indiana is hopefully a turning point,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Every day that goes by without a negative bill having a hearing is a good thing.”

So yeah, just because they’re on our side on this issue – and to be fair, they’re on our side on some other key issues, such as supporting the DREAM Act and opposing “sanctuary cities” – doesn’t mean they’re on our side. It’s a marriage of convenience, and as long as we keep that in mind we can team up when it makes sense. There’s more than enough crazy to fight against this session, and Hammond is the kind of old school, business-first conservative that isn’t into that sort of thing. But he’ll align with it when it suits his purpose, and he and his group are a bunch of wusses when it comes to enforcing consequences against politicians they support who then go on to work against their interests. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity, let’s just keep our eyes open as we do. Trail Blazers has more.

Let Indiana be our guide

Chron business columnist Chris Tomlinson has a warning for us.

PetitionsInvalid

Watching Indiana Gov. Mike Pence call for a revision to a week-old religious freedom law this morning should be required viewing for every Houston politician and business person.

After refusing to denounce discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals for days out of fear of alienating his political base, Pence did what all politicians who see their careers slipping away do. He flip-flopped, called it a clarification and denied there was a problem.

Why did this conservative Republican suddenly speak out against LGBT discrimination? Because American consumers and businesses made it clear that they would not accept bigotry in any form, even when disguised as religiosity. Corporations announced they would not subject their LGBT employees to the chance they may face legally-sanctioned discrimination. Angie’s List announced it would not expand in Indiana and numerous other groups began canceling conventions in the state.

What happened to Pence could happen to Houston and Texas.

[…]

Can you imagine what would happen if the small number of Houston voters who actually show up to the polls approved a repeal of the law? Houston would be labeled a city of bigots and the firestorm over Indiana would look like a campfire.

I know business people don’t like to think about social issues, most are concentrating on running the best business they can. But the business community needs to pay attention to what’s happening to Houston’s civil rights ordinance in court and what could happen at the ballot box. If the repeal passes, those new hotels and the updated convention center may have a hard time finding customers.

We should know soon whether or not there were enough valid signatures after the recount. In the meantime, as Tomlinson noted, there are bills in the Legislature that would do to Texas what Mike Pence did to Indiana; Arkansas was also going down that path before their Governor had a dose of sanity. Maybe all that WalMart lobbying against it made a difference. In any event, you might think that organized opposition from the business community here might help sway some opposition, but 1) the type of person that supports this kind of law doesn’t believe any of the bad things that everyone tells them will happen will actually happen, even with the evidence of it happening now, and 2) I don’t believe the business community will follow up by actually opposing any of the supporters of those bills in the next election.

To be fair, the business community is talking a good game.

“This thing is equally bad or worse than Indiana, and look what’s happening there,” said Bill Hammond, head of the powerful lobbying group the Texas Association of Business. Organizations as disparate as NASCAR, Walmart and Apple have blasted Indiana and Arkansas for their laws, already prompting the governors of both states to backpeddle on their support.

Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, one of at least three lawmakers proposing so-called religious freedom legislation this session, said she will narrow her bill in the face of a slew of similar concerns.

Campbell’s Senate Joint Resolution 10 seeks to enshrine the 15-year-old Texas law in the state Constitution, but without the key civil rights and local control protections. Her original proposal also removed the word “substantially,” which critics said would have allowed anyone who thinks the government is infringing upon his free expression, however slightly, to sue the state.

On Wednesday, however, Campbell’s staff confirmed she will re-insert the word “substantially.” Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who has proposed an identical bill in the House, said he is not opposed to amending his legislation the same way.

“That’s an improvement,” Hammond said. “But we have a long list of concerns with the legislation and the issue of ‘substantial burden’ is just one of them.”

Hammond cited the civil rights protections and local control issue, saying not exempting cities and municipalities could put local nondiscrimination ordinances like those in San Antonio and Houston on the chopping block. Enshrining the law in the Texas Constitution would make it much harder to amend or repeal if problems arise, he said. He also noted Campbell’s bill does not include a $10,000 cap on damages included in the existing law, potentially opening the state to unlimited litigation costs.

The impact on the Texas’ economy could be substantial, Hammond and other opponents said. Houston and other cities could lose the opportunity to host valuable sporting events and companies planning to expand their Lone Star State footprint could pull out – like Angie’s List did with its now-canceled expansion in Indianapolis.

“The motivation is to permit discrimination on the basis of religious belief,” said Rebecca Robertson, legislative and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “That’s not the brand we want to be associated with.”

The opposition was heavy enough to lead Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, to drop his religious freedom proposal in early March, after which Krause picked it up. Krause said he would be amenable to tweaking his bill, but he chalked up business opposition to opponents simply not understanding the legislation.

“I think it’s a bunch of overreaction, and not understanding what the law really does or what it means,” Krause said.

Oh, I think we all understand it just fine, but thanks for demonstrating my point. Like I said, people like Bill Hammond talk a good game but they are notoriously short on action. A credible threat of primary opposition might open some eyes. If one is not inclined to do the right thing, one needs to fear the consequences of doing the wrong thing. I don’t think enough legislators do.

Targeting straight ticket voting

From Trail Blazers:

Texas is one of only 10 states still doing straight-ticket voting but a North Texas legislator is hoping to change that.

At a hearing today, Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) told the Elections Committee that doing away with such an option here would lead to a more informed voter and improve turnout in non-partisan ballot measure.

“The purpose of this bill is to increase the number of Republican elected officials thought out the state of Texas,” he halfway joked. “However I do believe the added benefit will be a more educated voter.”

But Glenn Maxey, of the Texas Democratic Party, said such a move could discourage voters.

“People are going to be standing in line for hours and hours because it’s going to take people not 10 minutes to vote but a half hour to do that kind of marking,” he said.

Bill Fairbrother, of the Texas Republican County Chairman Association, said cost is a concern.

“Think of all the additional machines, clerks, polling places … That instead of being able to click one box to take care of those races, you have to go back and choose on average 25 separate races,” he said.

However, both Maxey and Fairbrother noted that within their parties, there was division as those in more rural areas favored the bill.

Rep. Simmons wrote a TribTalk piece in February about this:

Rep. Ron Simmons

Every campaign season, candidates and interest groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to “inform” voters. I use that word — rather than “educate” — on purpose.

Informing is nothing more than providing information to another party. Educating requires action on the part of the recipient, who must want to understand the information and absorb it. There’s no better example of this than at the ballot box. Anyone who has read our Founding Fathers’ writing would agree that their intent was for voters to be educated on the candidates and issues of the day. Unfortunately, current Texas law provides a way for citizens to skip spending the time and energy needed to become educated voters. It’s called straight-ticket voting.

Straight-ticket voting allows someone to simply select one box to vote for an entire slate of candidates from a particular political party. This often leads voters to elect candidates without any knowledge whatsoever of who they are. This subverts the purpose of our electoral process and puts the citizens of Texas at a severe disadvantage.

Virtually all voters educate themselves on candidates at the top of the ticket (president, governor, etc.). But many voters, partially because of straight-ticket voting, make little or no effort to educate themselves on the candidates at the bottom of the ticket running for offices that have the most direct effect on individual citizens — think county clerk, county commissioner, justice of the peace and state representative. These voters simply check the one box, either Democrat or Republican, and move on without giving it a second thought. This is bad for Texas.

I drafted a post at the time but had not gotten around to publishing it. Now seems like as good a time as any to rectify that, so here’s what I wrote in response to that.

Rep. Simmons has filed HB1288 to eliminate straight ticket voting. A different bill, to exempt judges and county officials from straight-ticket ballots in Texas’ largest counties, has been filed by Rep. Jason Villalba. I’ve nattered on about straight ticket voting in the past, and I’ll neither defend it nor condemn it today. I do, of course, have a couple of thoughts about this.

I agree that many voters are not fully educated about downballot candidates. Hell, a lot of voters are misinformed about the top of the ticket candidates, and of the top issues of the day. That problem is outside my scope here, but as a matter of general principle, eliminating straight ticket voting isn’t going to do anything to solve that problem. What it can and likely will do is reduce the number of people voting in those races. Maybe that means the average voter will be slightly more educated in those races, and maybe one can claim that’s a “better” outcome. I think that’s at best an open question.

Which leads to another question: Just how big an effect would this be? Putting it another way, if straight ticket voting were eliminated, how many more people would wind up skipping downballot races? I don’t have the bandwidth to do a thorough study, but here’s a quick and dirty look at the last four non-Presidential elections in Harris County:

Year Straight% CClerk% DClerk% Treas% ========================================= 2002 54.78% 6.74% 2006 47.67% 6.89% 7.99% 6.68% 2010 66.89% 4.50% 4.71% 3.93% 2014 68.04% 3.90% 4.09% 3.46%

“Straight%” is the total percentage of straight ticket votes, which as you can see has been much greater in the last two elections than the first two above. “CClerk%”, “DClerk%”, and “Treas%” are the undervote percentages for the County Clerk, District Clerk, and County Treasurer races. I picked those because they’re pretty far down on the ballot and they’d be targeted by Rep. Villalba’s bill. The County Clerk and District Clerk races were uncontested in 2002, so I don’t have a complete data set, but this suggests that more straight ticket votes means fewer undervotes, which is not too surprising. I wouldn’t draw too much of a conclusion from this, as the partisan environments are stronger now, with both parties making a priority out of urging their voters to fill in an oval in each race. The total effect isn’t that great – three percentage points in a 700,000 voter turnout context is a 21,000 vote difference – but it’s not nothing.

I don’t know what the numbers might look like if straight ticket voting were eliminated. I’m sure the parties would work that much harder to convince their voters to vote in each race. Not being able to depend on straight ticket voters for a potentially significant chunk of their final tally would likely spur these candidates to do more fundraising to raise their name recognition. Outside groups, for which there’s no shortage of money, might also take a greater interest in these races. There are a lot of factors to consider, but it wouldn’t shock me if 50,000 or even 100,000 voters in Harris County might have dropped off without participating in these past races in the absence of straight ticket voting. That’s a wild guess of up to 15% or so of total turnout. I’d expect something similar in other large counties. How much that might change if the parties, candidates, and outside interests responded as I envision is a question I can’t answer.

(If you’re wondering about Presidential years, the rate of straight ticket voting in the last three Presidential elections has been about the same in each – 64% in 2004, 62% in 2008, 68% in 2012. I don’t feel I have enough data to say anything even marginally useful.)

One point that I’ve made before in the context of proposals to separate judicial elections from the partisan voting process is that partisan labels are sometimes the only reliable piece of information voters have about a candidate. Most candidates who call themselves “Democratic” or “Republican” fall within a reasonably well-defined range of policy positions and cultural identifiers. There are plenty of variations, both mainstream (think Sarah Davis and Eddie Lucio and their respective stances on equality, for example) and extreme (think Kesha Rogers), but if you consider yourself a D or an R and you vote for a candidate with the same label but without knowing anything else about that candidate, the odds are pretty good that you’ve just voted for someone that you’d basically like and approve of. More to the point, you’ve probably just voted for someone you’d basically like and approve of more than any of the other options available to you in that race, and yes that includes races with more than two candidates. Is that enough information to justify one’s vote? Is it enough to justify the convenience of being able to vote quickly, instead of having to make the same choice you’d have made anyway several dozen times in a big county like Harris? If all we’re doing is making it take longer to vote, will we also take steps to mitigate that, like having more voting stations available at busy locations so the lines don’t get too long, or making it easier to vote by mail at one’s convenience? I know there are bills filed to do those things, but I don’t expect them to go anywhere.

These are some of the things I think about when I hear someone make the kind of proposals Reps. Simmona and Villalba are making. If Rep. Simmons’ bill were to pass and we found that the number of people voting in, say, County Clerk races was 20% less than in Governor’s races, would we consider that to be a good thing or a bad thing? You tell me. On the one hand, it would be harder to argue that the results of those elections were determined by uneducated voters. On the other hand, a lot of people spend a lot of time every post-election period bemoaning the low number of people who show up to vote. Bemoaning low turnout, and enabling it for what could be a lot of races by eliminating the one-button vote seems to me to be contradictory. Do we want everyone to vote or not? Do we think having some people vote in some races but not in others is the better way to do it? Killing straight ticket voting is an easy answer, though none of these bills may have an easy path to passage. How to get a better-educated electorate is a much harder question. What is it we really want? I’d say we should answer that first. PDiddie has more.

Krause re-files Villalba’s anti-gay bill

Alas.

RedEquality

One of the state’s most anti-gay lawmakers is going forward with a “religious freedom” amendment dropped by another representative earlier this week amid opposition from the Texas Association of Business.

Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) announced Monday he would “reconsider entirely” House Joint Resolution 55, which critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the state Constitution. Villalba backed off HJR 55 after the Texas Association of Business passed a resolution opposing the measure over concerns about its economic impact.

On Wednesday, Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) introduced HJR 125, which is identical to HJR 55. When Villalba introduced HJR 55, he wrote on Facebook it was drafted with the help of Krause and Plano’s Liberty Institute.

Equality Texas rated Krause the state’s most anti-LGBT lawmaker following the 2013 session.

See here for the background. I suppose this isn’t a surprise. Haters gonna hate and all that. Lessons to be learned from this: For Rep. Villalba, be careful who you consult with on legislation in the future. For the Texas Association of Business, you really need to re-think what it means to be “pro-business” in this state, and act accordingly. And for the rest of us, it’s never a bad time to contact your State Rep and State Senator and let them know how you feel about a particular bill or issue.

One anti-gay bill pulled

One down, too many to count to go.

RedEquality

A House Republican will no longer seek to amend the Texas Constitution to prohibit state and local governments from “in any way” restricting the free exercise of religion, leaving several conservative legislators hustling Tuesday to file an alternate bill.

Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, said opposition from the Texas Association of Business cemented his growing discomfort with legislation he had filed in December, House Joint Resolution 55, that has also been criticized for potentially undermining nondiscrimination ordinances adopted by cities, including Austin, to protect gays and lesbians.

“When the Texas Association of Business let us know that in their opinion it would harm businesses, that’s when I just couldn’t continue in its support,” Villalba said Tuesday. “So I will not ask for a hearing. … and I will not be moving forward on that legislation.”

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said discussions are underway to determine if similar legislation can be submitted by Friday’s bill-filing deadline.

“I definitely feel there’s interest there. Who that is going to be, I couldn’t tell you at this point,” said Krause, who helped Villalba draft the proposed amendment. “But we’re three days away from the deadline, and that makes it a little harder to start those conversations again.”

A similar bill by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would bar government from infringing on Texans’ “sincerely held religious beliefs.” A public hearing, the first step in the legislative process, has not yet been set on Campbell’s Senate Joint Resolution 10.

See here, here, and here for the background. Kudos to Rep. Villalba, usually not one of the nutcases, for coming to his senses, though really one should not expect much praise for backing away from a destructive idea. More kudos go to TAB for having a positive effect on the Republicans they claim to have influence over for once. The job isn’t over until the deadline for bills to pass on first reading, and there is still time for another bill like HR55 to be filed, so let’s don’t get complacent. In the meantime, there’s still the larger issue of groups like TAB enabling legislators who go on to file the kind of bills they then have to spend time and effort fighting. Sadly, Donna Campbell won’t be on the ballot again until 2018, but there will be plenty of House members who could use a good primarying. If you really do care about this, TAB, put your money where your mouth is next March. RG Ratcliffe has more.

Discrimination is bad for business

Good for TAB.

RedEquality

The Texas Association of Business has come out against two religious freedom resolutions that critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution.

TAB, which is the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, unanimously adopted a resolution last month opposing House Joint Resolution 55 and Senate Joint Resolution 10, by Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), respectively.

Chris Wallace, president of TAB, said more than 100 members of the board voted to add opposition to the resolutions to the group’s legislative agenda at a statewide meeting Feb. 17.

“We feel that this will certainly make our state look very much unwelcoming when it comes to business recruitment,” Wallace said of the resolutions. “We also have several businesses within the state, our large corporations for instance, that have diversity policies already in place, and what we’re hearing from them is they want their state to look the same way.”

Wallace pointed to the example of Toyota, which is moving its U.S. headquarters to Plano and worked with the city to pass an Equal Rights Ordinance protecting LGBT people against discrimination. He also cited damage to Arizona’s business reputation when similar legislation passed last year before it was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer.

In addition to LGBT issues, the chamber is concerned the resolutions would allow people to claim religious exemptions to criminal, tax, health and safety, environmental quality and zoning laws. Wallace said the resolutions would also lead to a spike in litigation, costing businesses and taxpayers.

In opposing the ordinances, TAB joins progressive groups, including Equality Texas, the ACLU and the Texas Freedom Network.

“We are a very conservative business association as the state chamber, and it’s not our typical partners we have at the table with us,” Wallace said. “But we’re proud we have these partners at the table with us because we’re all working together to make sure we keep Texas open for business, and that we are seen as a place that welcomes all people and not one that excludes any groups of people.”

See here and here for some background. I pound on TAB pretty regularly around here. Often it’s because they support things I oppose, and vice versa. And often it’s because they support Republicans who then oppose the things they (and I) support. Their to-the-end patronage of immigrant hater Leo Berman remains an indelible stain on the organization. But every once in a while, they do the right thing for a good reason, and for that they should be commended. This is one of those times. Whether this will have any sway over their favored Republicans in the Lege, and whether there will be any consequences for TAB-approved candidates that cross them on this, remains to be seen. For now, kudos to them for being on the right side.

Abbott waffles on vaccinations

Come on, dude.

Weighing in on a national debate, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made clear this week that he supports laws that include exemptions to requirements that parents vaccinate their children.

“Abbott recognizes the public health benefits of vaccines and encourages all parents to have their children vaccinated, as he and the First Lady did with their daughter,” spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said, but the governor “supports current Texas law that he believes strikes the right balance of requiring vaccinations while still allowing parents to opt out under certain circumstances.”

That law gives parents the right to opt out if they have religious or personal objections to vaccines, or if they can cite valid medical reasons.

The governor’s position pits him opposite a high-profile suggestion that Texas eliminate the religious and personal exemptions in response to several recent outbreaks of measles.

I’m sorry, but that’s a load of bull. Unless you’re a Christian Scientist, your right to endanger yourself and/or your kids ends where my and my kids’ immune systems begin. There’s no longstanding tradition here, and no reason to needlessly put children’s health at risk. Go talk to Rep. Villalba, Governor. This isn’t about ideology, and it isn’t about “freedom”. There’s a right answer and a wrong answer here. Don’t screw it up.

Ending exemptions for vaccines

Hear, hear.

A Texas Republican is taking aim at a provision in state law that allows parents with personal or religious objections to vaccines to opt their children out of school immunization requirements.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, said Friday he will soon propose legislation to eliminate what are called “conscientious exemptions” because of the reemergence of diseases like measles and whooping cough attributed to growing numbers of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.

“We are just saying, ‘Look, if you are going to send your children to public schools, they need to be vaccinated,'” he said. “We are going to ask that you keep other children safe.”

The measure, which Villalba said he would file next week, comes as several other states are reevaluating their immunization laws as they battle a measles outbreak linked with exposure to an unvaccinated woman in a California amusement park.

Texas is among 20 states that waive school vaccine requirements because of personal beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. All but two states — Mississippi and West Virginia — grant exemptions from school immunization requirements on religious grounds.

Under Villalba’s proposal, Texas would not allow an exemption for either of those reasons. Students would still be able to receive medical waivers, which doctors grant in cases where an allergic reaction or a weakened immune system could cause health complications.

As you know, I’m down with this. Texas’ overall rate of getting exemptions isn’t that high, but in some places it is. That’s an outbreak waiting to happen, so I hope the rest of the Lege falls in behind Rep. Villalba’s bill when it is filed. On that score, the Senate may be a challenge.

Even with a measles outbreak dominating headlines, don’t expect an avalanche of immediate support for a high-profile idea to cut down on the ability of Texas parents to opt their children out of school immunization requirements.

Two state Senate committee chairmen told the Houston Chronicle they have hesitations about a bill that state Rep. Jason Villalba said Friday he plans to introduce to eliminate religious and philosophical exemptions to the requirements.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who leads the Health and Human Services Committee, said through a spokesman that while he views vaccines as a “critical component of protecting the public health…(he) would prefer to increase education about the safety of these vaccines rather than imposing new mandates that would ask Texas parents to act against their own conscience or their deeply-held religious beliefs.”

The chairman of the Senate education committee, Republican Larry Taylor of Friendswood, offered a more moderate response but noted that in Texas, “there is also a long standing tradition of giving parents the right to make decisions regarding their children’s healthcare.”

“I stand ready to hear parents’ and legislators’ opinions on this very serious issue,” Taylor said.

I hope he’s also ready to hear doctors’ opinions, too. California’s legislature is taking similar action, as are legislatures in several other states. Hopefully, at least one good thing will come out of the Disneyland measles epidemic of 2015.

Tesla brings the lobbyists

Nothin’ but good times ahead if you’re a Republican-connected lobbyist, thanks to Tesla and the auto dealers.

Locked in a brawl with auto dealers, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is unleashing some of the most powerful lobbyists and consultants in the state to persuade lawmakers to make it easier for his company to sell electric cars in Texas.

Ahead of the legislative session, Musk has assembled an all-star team of politically well connected forces at the Capitol – almost all entrenched with top Republican leaders – to lay the groundwork for a full Tesla blitz come January.

Musk, the California billionaire who also heads the rocket company SpaceX, is pressing the Legislature to allow Tesla to bypass traditional dealerships and sell cars in Texas through its stores.

An attempt failed last session, as Tesla was squashed by a network of state auto dealers and their own team of well-connected hired guns.

This time, according to lawmakers and lobbyists, Musk has revved up the Tesla influence machine to make sure he doesn’t lose again in Texas.

“Tesla is going to move in force to bring significant resources to this debate this session,” said state Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican who last session supported the electric-auto maker’s push. “You’re going to see a lot of pressure on these young new members in the Legislature, a lot of movement on the floor and the backrooms to get people convinced this a good deal for Texas.”

Playing the influence game at the Texas Capitol is nothing new for Musk, who employed a team of lobbyists last session and parachuted into Austin on two occasions to personally push for legislation to help SpaceX and Tesla.

He is set to hit Texas again next month – two days after the legislative session starts – to headline a state transportation forum.

But this time, he’ll be coming back to Texas just months after disappointing state officials with a decision to pass up on the Lone Star State for Tesla’s $5 billion lithium-ion battery plant in favor of Nevada.

And the company’s opponents know it.

“They tried to use the giga­factory as leverage to get their foot in the door, but the gigafactory was never coming to Texas,” said Bill Wolters, president of the Texas Automobile Dealers Association. “I can’t imagine what kind of tale they can spin.”

See here for the background. I’ve compared Tesla’s efforts to those of the microbreweries, but this is where the analogy breaks down, since they never had a phalanx of gold-plated lobbyists at their disposal. Anyone in the vicinity of the Capitol next spring ought to keep an eye out on the sidewalk as you walk around – you may see stray $100 bills lying around. We’ll see whose lobbyists are mightier. PDiddie has more.

Villalba gets defensive about his pro-discrimination bill

I don’t know if Rep. Jason Villalba is willfully dense or just confused, but either way this is a big pile of BS.

RedEquality

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) remains adamant that a proposed constitutional amendment he filed earlier this month isn’t intended to undermine local ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

But Villalba also continues to tout the fact that he received input in drafting the amendment from a lawmaker known for his anti-LGBT views and from the Liberty Institute, which is actively fighting a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano.

Villalba has characterized his HJR 55 as a tamer version of SJR 10, a similar religious freedom amendment introduced in the Senate by Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

And Villalba has objected to a “license to discriminate” label that was attached to his amendment in an Observer headline and in a fundraising appeal from Progress Texas, denying accusations that the measure is designed to undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances by allowing business owners to claim religious exemptions.

“Not true at all,” Villalba told Breitbart Texas for an article published Sunday. “That was not our intention at all. … I’m not trying to pander to the right, or to offend the LGBT community or to support discrimination.”

Villalba told Breitbart he supports the authority of local governments to pass LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and said HJR 55 is instead designed to protect things like nativity scenes on government property.

But LGBT advocates continue to question Villalba’s motives—particularly since he unveiled HJR 55 on Facebook by posting an Empower Texans article slamming the Plano ordinance shortly after it passed. “We must stand athwart those who seek to eliminate every vestige of our religious heritage from the public square,” Villalba wrote. “Tomorrow, we fight back.”

On Monday morning, Villalba took to Facebook again to post the Breitbart article, writing above it: “Many of you have asked about what HJR 55 actually does. In essence, it protects the free exercise of religion in Texas. Here is an article that spells it out nicely. Special thanks to Matthew Krause and Liberty Institute for their help and insight in putting this together.”

Rep. Krause (R-Arlington) received the lowest score of any lawmaker on LGBT issues from Equality Texas following the 2013 session.

In response to a comment below his Facebook post Monday from this reporter, Villalba sent a chat message referencing Campbell’s resolution.

“Perhaps I should drop HJR 55 and let the alternative version pass,” Villalba wrote. “Is that what you would prefer?”

Asked whether he believes Campbell’s resolution, which has been defeated in three consecutive sessions, would pass in 2015, Villalba referenced an expected shift to the right in the Senate next year thanks to November election results.

“Have you not seen what just happened in the Senate?” Villalba wrote. “It [SJR 10] would easily pass.”

Asked whether he strategically introduced HJR 55 as a more moderate alternative to SJR 10, Villalba said: “My goal is to pass the best bill that advances the cause of religious liberty.”

See here for the background. It’s hard to know where to begin with all this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in recent years, it’s that when someone who isn’t me says that something will affect them negatively, it’s best for me to at least hear and try to understand their reasons why they say that thing will harm them before I try to explain to them why they’re wrong to feel that way. Perhaps such an approach might benefit Rep. Villalba as well. As for his insistence that his HJR 55 is but a heroic attempt to head off the much worse SJR 10, it might be worthwhile for someone to explain to Rep. Villalba that if he were to vote against SJR 10, the odds are very good that it would not be able to pass out of the House, what with Democrats being in near-unanimous opposition plus the expected No from Rep. Sarah Davis. But really, a little more listening to the people who would be harmed and a little less listening to the people who would harm them would go a long way.

Republicans will push pro-discrimination bills

I have three things to say about this.

RedEquality

Two days after the Plano City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, a Texas legislator filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the ability of cities to enforce such laws.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) filed House Joint Resolution 55, which is similar but not identical to Senate Joint Resolution 10, filed last month by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), one of several lawmakers who sent a letter to the Plano City Council opposing the nondiscrimination ordinance, also announced on Twitter Tuesday that he’s drafting a bill “to protect Texas business owners from unconstitutional infringements on their religious liberty.” As of Thursday morning, Leach’s bill hadn’t been filed, and he didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Nevertheless, a month before the session begins, the flurry of legislation suggests that, thanks in part to the legalization of same-sex marriage across much of the nation, conservatives will challenge gays rights in the name of religious freedom in the 84th Texas Legislature.

The resolutions from Campbell and Villalba would amend the Texas Constitution to state that government “may not burden” someone’s “sincerely held religious belief” unless there is a “compelling governmental interest” and it is the “least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

Experts say such an amendment would effectively prevent cities that have passed LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances from enforcing them. In addition to Plano, those cities include Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

That’s because business owners could claim exemptions from the ordinances if they have sincerely held religious beliefs—such as opposition to same-sex marriage—making it legal for them to fire employees for being gay or refuse service to LGBT customers.

“It blows a hole in your nondiscrimination protections if people can ignore them for religious reasons,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal.

But Pizer and others said an even bigger problem could be the amendments’ unintended consequences.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said in addition to the First Amendment, the state already has a statute that provides strong protections for religious freedom—known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. But Williams said the proposed constitutional amendments would supplant RFRA and go further, overriding exceptions in the statute for things like zoning regulations and civil rights laws.

[…]

Williams noted that similar resolutions from Campbell have failed in previous sessions. Amending the state Constitution requires two-thirds support in both chambers as well as a majority public vote.

“That’s a very high bar, and the Legislature’s a deliberative body,” Williams said.

But Williams said the key to defeating the legislation this go-round will be economic arguments.

“This would have a detrimental affect on businesses that are looking to relocate to Texas,” he said. “Businesses that want to relocate to Texas will think that their LGBT employees and the family members of their LGBT employees are not going to be welcome.”

1. Between equality ordinances, plastic bag bans, payday lender regulations, and anti-fracking measures, the obsession that Republican legislators may have this session with nullifying municipal laws may overtake their obsession with nullifying federal laws. I continue to be perplexed by this obsession.

2. We are all clear that these “freedom to discriminate” bills are, intentionally or not, also about the freedom to discriminate against Jews or blacks or whoever else you don’t like, right? I mean, every time they get pinned down on it, proponents of such bills admit as much. I don’t suppose it has ever occurred to the Donna Campbells of the world that one of these days they themselves could be on the receiving end of such treatment, if someone else’s sincerely held religious beliefs hold that antipathy towards LGBT folks is an abomination before God. I’m just saying.

3. Assuming Speaker Straus maintains the tradition of not voting, the magic number is fifty, as in fifty votes in the House are needed to prevent any of these travesties from making it to your 2015 ballot. There are 52 Democrats in the House, plus one officially LGBT-approved Republican, so there are three votes to spare, assuming no other Republicans can be persuaded to vote against these. We know that there are four current House Dems that voted for the anti-gay marriage amendment of 2005. One of them, Rep. Richard Raymond, has since stated his support for marriage equality. Another, Rep. Ryan Guillen, may be persuadable. The current position of the others, Reps. Joe Pickett and Tracy King, are unknown. Barring any absences or scheduling shenanigans, we can handle three defections without needing to get another R on board. This is the key.

(Yes, eleven votes in the Senate can also stop the madness. Unfortunately, one of those votes belongs to Eddie Lucio. I’d rather take my chances in the House.)

Unfair Park and Hair Balls have more.

Yes, Greg Abbott owns the RPT platform

Sorry, Greg. You can mumble all the vague platitudes you want, but this baby’s all yours.

You want to be the boss, you get to deal with boss problems

In the wake of the GOP’s approval of a platform that includes a hardline stance on immigration, Attorney General Greg Abbott finds himself at the top of the ticket for a party whose members are deeply divided over the subject and under fire from opponents who say the Republicans’ position is offensive to Hispanic Texans.

And it all comes during an election cycle in which Hispanic Texans are seen as an especially critical voting bloc that Abbott has worked to woo.

“It effectively puts him in an awkward position,” said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, because the attorney general does not want to risk alienating Hispanic voters or contradicting the official party stance.

Last week, the Republican party adopted a political platform that no longer endorses a provisional visa program for immigrants and calls for ending in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and for prohibiting “sanctuary cities” that do not enforce immigration laws.

Abbott has largely been silent on the issue. Representatives for the Abbott campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and they have not responded to previous inquiries about his position on the immigration plank of the platform.

The Chron has a similar story, though they did get a mealy-mouthed reply from the Abbott campaign.

Young conservatives. Gay Republicans. Hispanic GOPers. Take your pick – they are all fuming at the platform approved over the weekend by the Texas Republican Party.

With a return to a hard-line stance on immigration and a resounding endorsement of psychological therapy to cure gays of their homosexuality, Texas Republicans in a single stroke alienated a small but emerging faction of the party and handed Democrats a new set of talking points to wield against them in the midst of a heated election cycle.

It also has provoked fervent responses within the party.

Take state Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican considered one of the leading Hispanic voices in the Texas House. He penned an open letter to delegates in Texas Monthly on Monday, saying they essentially “adopted a ‘deport them all’ strategy that compares human beings to foreign invaders.”

Jeff Davis, chairman of the Texas Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group, said Tuesday the platform will “haunt the party for the next two years.”

And Mark Brown, chairman emeritus of the Texas Young Republican Federation, which touts itself as the premier organization for conservative politicos under 40, called the party’s platform “quite abominable.”

“It’s divisive,” Brown said, adding that the party’s rejection of a plank supportive of medical marijuana also will hurt its image with young voters. “It will make it so much harder for some of us who want to grow this party to keep recruiting new members.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Wendy Davis’ campaign attempted to tie Attorney General Greg Abbott, the GOP nominee for governor, to the Republican platorm.

Zak Petkanas, a Davis spokesman, said the GOP took “their cues directly” from Abbott to craft the planks, imploring the attorney general to make his support for the platform clear.

But [RPT Chair Steve] Munisteri noted that statewide elected officials never embrace every tenet in the platform.

“I’ve yet to see a candidate say ‘I support 100 percent of the platform, otherwise we’d have people endorsing nonpasteurized milk,” he said. “It’s not the Greg Abbott platform. He has his own platform.”

Avdiel Huerta, the attorney general’s spokesman, agreed Tuesday.

“Greg Abbott has unveiled his own platform that focuses on jobs, education, roads, water and securing the border,” he said in a statement.

Let me digress for a moment to deal with the likes of Rep. Villalba, Messrs. Davis and Brown. If you really, truly don’t like the platform and really, truly think that it’s hurtful to people you want to reach out to, and you really, truly think it will harm the party’s long-term prospects, but then you go ahead and vote straight-ticket R anyway, you’re part of the problem. I don’t expect any of these three to publicly support a Democrat or oppose a Republican, but in their heart of hearts I think they know who on their ballot is most closely aligned with this platform (hint: his name rhymes with Pan Datrick, though he’s hardly the only one), and it would not be a betrayal of their principles to skip the race or races involving those candidates in November. It’s a secret ballot, fellas. No one will know, I promise. Otherwise, you own this platform just as much as Greg Abbott and the rest of the statewide slate does.

As for Abbott, I’ll stipulate that party platforms have since the beginning of time contained bits of effluvia, wishcasting, personal grievances, and other things that would not be universally supported. Even for the more mainstream things, candidates have the right to be all mavericky and distance themselves from whatever they personally do not buy into. Democrats are no strangers to any of that. The big difference, especially this year, is that the non-universal parts of Democratic platforms have always been either things that would never come up for serious consideration (like, sadly, single-payer healthcare) or that are on the horizon of becoming totally mainstream (like marriage equality was a couple of years ago). The RPT platform, on the other hand, is chock full of things that can and likely will get real hearings in the Legislature and barring shenanigans or heroic levels of lobbying may well pass. They’re not historical curiosities or back-bench saber rattling, they’re real live legislative priorities, shared by people that will be working and voting on actual for-real bills.

That’s why Greg Abbott doesn’t get to wave his hands and say we’re all our own people here and I’m not bound by what a bunch of yahoos in flag-themed clothing came up with. What happened in Fort Worth is going to come to the floor in Austin next year. If Greg Abbott wants to be Governor, it’s totally fair to know, unequivocally, what parts of that platform he supports and what parts he doesn’t. If a bill banning sanctuary cities comes to his desk, does he sign it or does he veto it? If the answer is “it depends”, what does it depend on? What’s acceptable and what isn’t? If a bill that repeals the Texas DREAM Act of 2001 comes before him, does he sign it or veto it? How about a bill that authorizes “reparative therapy” for LGBT teenagers in some form? What does he do with that? This isn’t a hypothetical situation. We all know that someone is going to file these bills, and we all know that if Dan Patrick is elected, he will do everything in his power to pass them out of the Senate. What will Greg Abbott do? He should be asked that question every day until he puts on his big boy underpants and answers it.

One more thing, from this Texas Public Radio story:

Texas Association of Business CEO Bill Hammond said not having the support for a guest worker will leave huge gaps in the state economy and doesn’t only involve jobs in construction, agriculture or hospitality.

“In the Austin area alone, I’m told some 8,000 information technology jobs are left vacant because there’s not the workforce to fill those jobs,” Hammond said. “We could easily do that if we allowed more legal immigration through a guest worker program.”

Hammond said that the platform stance weakens the Texas economy and may have companies looking to relocate to Texas looking at other states that can support their needs.

“We’ve got many, many openings in Texas that could be filled by legal immigration by a guest worker program that would allow people to come and also go when the work was simply no there,” Hammond said.

Hammond said he agrees with Villalba that the removal of the party’s support for a guest worker program isn’t reflective of the entire Texas Republican Party, but is reflective of delegates at the party convention and some of those who are running in statewide elections in 2014.

Bill Hammond, I know you’re not stupid, and I know you’re not naive. We both know that the parts of the party platform that you find objectionable are also supported by large numbers of Republican legislators and legislators-elect. We know this because your organization has given or will give money to many of them. You and your toothless talk about immigration have been a big part of the problem for a long time because it has never been accompanied by any real action. Either work to defeat – or at the very least, publicly refuse to support – the politicians that are pushing the things you say you oppose, or shut up about it.

Sriracha post-mortem

The Motley Fool wonders if State Rep. Jason Villalba should get the credit for the resolution of the Great Sriracha Dispute of 2014.

In early January, Texas state representative Jason Villalba made a public invitation to David Tran to pack up and move Huy Fong to Texas. In his announcement, Villalba contrasted “excessive government interference” by “government bureaucrats” in California to Texas’ “low regulations and limited government interference.”

This could have come across as one-off political grandstanding, but Villalba didn’t let go of the issue. His pitch later expanded to include the notion of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley as a possible pepper-farm location—despite the fact that the valley and Dallas are 500 miles apart, which would hike Huy Fong’s transport costs considerably. And on May 12, he brought a delegation of state legislators and Texas officials to Irwindale for a high-profile tour of Huy Fong’s plant and a private meeting with Tran.

Whether or not Tran was seriously considering relocating or expanding to Texas, the visit and the publicity it generated gave him leverage in his conflict with the city. And it gave GOP leaders both in Texas and in California a national platform to criticize what they saw as shortcomings in the Golden State’s business climate.

The dispute’s endgame began Tuesday, when representatives from Democratic governor Jerry Brown’s office held a private meeting with Tran and city officials. Wednesday night, Irwindale’s council voted to drop the issues.

Whether that settles the matter for residents living near the plant won’t be clear until this summer when the pepper harvest comes in for processing. But for now, it looks like Huy Fong will stay put and its most popular sauce will keep flowing.

This was of course a local dispute, one that had nothing to do with state regulations, and the leading suitor for a relocated Huy Fong factory was surely elsewhere in California. Be that as it may, California Gov. Jerry Brown wasn’t taking any chances.

Afraid of losing a few hundred jobs and the world’s best hot sauce, Los Angeles officials urged Brown’s office to take action. The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development and the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. began reaching out early this year to try to get the two sides talking, an adviser with knowledge of the meetings said.

Brown’s economic development team got the South Coast Air Quality Management District to evaluate Irwindale’s air — they found no significant odorous problems — and arranged for the mayor of Irwindale, Mark Breceda, and a city council member to visit the factory and begin making peace.

Leslie McBride, deputy director of business investment services in the economic development office, represented the Brown administration during the walk-through on Tuesday. Huy Fong showed city officials their new filtration system upgrades, which should help mitigate future air quality problems.

Brown was briefed several times on the progress of negotiations, the adviser said, though the governor’s office didn’t offer any specific incentives.

This LA Times story has more detail on the backstage activity. Honestly, I think this was more of a communications problem than anything else. For whatever the reason, the city of Irwindale and David Tran dug in their heels as the rhetoric escalated, and it wasn’t until the cooler heads from Gov. Brown’s office intervened, and the reality of maybe actually turning the business completely upside down as represented by the arrival of Team Villalba seeped in, that everyone came to their senses and worked out a resolution that should have been obvious six months ago. You can give credit to Brown, and if there is a real expansion opportunity in the future – still no word on that as far as I can tell – you can give plenty of kudos to Villalba, but from where I sit this was always how this should have ended up. Stuff does happen sometimes – ask a Cleveland Browns fan, or a Baltimore Colts fan, for two such examples – but what really mattered in the end was that the two sides finally started talking to, and listening to, each other. Isn’t that usually how it goes?

Sriracha dispute settled

The City of Irwindale’s long national nightmare is finally over.

Sriracha’s spicy relationship with the City Council cooled off a bit Wednesday after officials unanimously dismissed a lawsuit and public nuisance declaration against manufacturer Huy Fong Foods.

The standoff between the city and Sriracha creator David Tran began in October when the city filed a lawsuit against his iconic company. The battle sparked fears among Sriracha fans there would be a global shortage of the popular condiment and its bottle with the tell-tale green cap.

An informal meeting Tuesday between Tran and city officials, accompanied by a written statement from Tran, provided the council the assurance it needed that Huy Fong will address residents’ odor complaints.

“We forged a relationship. Let’s keep that going,” City Councilman Julian Miranda said Wednesday.

[…]

Before the vote to dismiss the public nuisance order, Irwindale Chamber of Commerce President Marlene Carney gave a presentation to the council announcing the chamber will launch a marketing campaign “to talk about the positives of doing business” in Irwindale.

Tran on Tuesday credited representatives from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development for bringing the city officials to his factory.

Residents complained last fall the fumes seeping from the factory during the chile grinding season burned their eyes and throats and forced them to stay indoors.

The company recently installed stronger filters on its rooftop air filtration system, which Tran said he tested with pepper spray.

It is unknown if the new filters will be adequate until the company begins to process chiles, which is expected to begin in August.

“At the commencement of this year’s chile harvest season, if the air filtration system does not perform well, then Huy Fong Foods will make the necessary changes in order to better the system right away,” Tran wrote in a letter to the council.

With the settlement of this dispute, there’s now no impetus for Huy Fong to consider relocation, so this should bring the entire sriracha saga to a close. There may yet be expansion possibilities, but the prospect of moving the manufacturing facility, which never really progressed the “vague threat” status, is no longer operable. We can all now resume our normal lives.

I will say, it’s a bit mind-boggling that Huy Fong and the city of Irwindale could have had such a breakdown in communication. You would think this was the sort of routine disagreement that could have been resolved with some ordinary conversations and negotiations, instead of turning into international news. David Tran says in this LA Times story that he “fears that he’s lost market share because he has been forced to reveal so much about his production process”. Maybe, but I think he’s also discovered just how strong his brand is, and by all indications his business is continuing to grow. I’m pretty sure this will all be a net positive for Huy Fong in the end, if it isn’t already.

Finally, regarding that expansion possibility, a Google News search for “Jason Villalba”, the State Rep that has spearheaded the wooing of Huy Fong shows nothing new since his much-ballyhooed visit earlier this month. If there really is something to this possibility, I figure it’ll get mentioned as part of whatever ceremonial recognition of the peace accord with Irwindale takes place. If nothing like that happens, I figure it’s at best a long-term, not-yet-on-the-road-map idea. We’ll see.

The other reason why Huy Fong won’t move to Texas

In a word, water.

Huy Fong Foods, which is staying put for now, is different from Toyota and other companies that have recently been wooed or moved to Texas. It is an agribusiness, relying on thousands of tons of local fresh chiles to operate. And in rapidly growing Texas, where the population is approaching 90 percent urban, some farming advocates complain that agriculture is being left behind in the scramble to accommodate growth. That is especially true when it comes to water policy, water planning specialists say.

“One of the dominant water management strategies for meeting future water supply needs is a conversion away from agriculture” in Texas and most of the West, said Bill Mullican, a former state water planner in Texas who now writes plans for nearby states.

With that in mind, he said, “if you’re going to bring agribusiness to Texas, I would think that you want to focus on those activities that were not water-dependent or at least heavily water-dependent.”

[…]

Most of the stories of Texas agriculture recently have been about high-profile closings and economic losses in the midst of drought, including the loss of a Cargill beef processing plant that employed more than 2,000 people in the Panhandle and the decimation of the Gulf Coast rice processing industry.

Some legislators have suggested that certain crops should not be grown in Texas at all. As the reservoirs that supply both Austin and rice farmers downstream continue to shrink, Austin-area lawmakers argue that growing rice requires too much water, and that those who live and do business alongside the reservoirs have more economic muscle. Along the Brazos River basin, Texas regulators prioritized cities and power plants over rice growers when the river’s users were asked to cut back.

“You already hear in the political realm, ‘Well, agriculture uses 95 percent of the water. We just need to turn the irrigation wells off,’” said Darren Hudson, an agricultural economist at Texas Tech University. “Those conflicts are going to just intensify.”

Villalba has suggested that the red jalapeño peppers needed to supply Huy Fong could be grown in the Rio Grande Valley. But the water rights system there, the result of a court case from the 1950s, prioritizes municipal use over agriculture.

“Agriculture is basically the user of last resort. They get what water is not for cities,” said Ray Prewett, the executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association, which is based in the border city of Mission. Even before the drought, agriculture in the region had suffered because of dwindling water supplies and urbanization, Prewett said. Farmers have found it more profitable to sell their water rights to growing cities, and to shift to dryland farming, which pays more in crop insurance.

Water for cities is also much more highly valued than irrigation water, according to the 2012 state water plan. The plan forecasts a shortfall of 260,000 acre-feet of agricultural water in the Rio Grande region by 2060, resulting in a loss of $48 million and 655 jobs. The water deficit for municipal users in the region is slightly above that, but its estimated impact is much greater — $2.2 billion and 54,000 jobs lost.

[…]

While chiles are a relatively drought-tolerant crop, requiring far less water than rice, other issues the agricultural industry faces could create problems. Ben Villalon, a well-known horticulturalist from Texas A&M University dubbed “Dr. Pepper” for his expertise in growing chiles, said chiles are largely gone from Texas because of higher labor costs and the difficulty of finding farm workers. Most Texas Republicans favor immigration policies that could further tighten the farm labor supply.

“It’s a sinking boat,” Villalon said. “They’ll never make it. The money’s just not there. It’s not profitable anymore.” Huy Fong’s pepper supplier has used mechanization and other techniques to cut costs, and in 2011, chile yields per acre were almost 10 times higher in California than in Texas.

See here for prior Sriracha blogging. I don’t really have a point to make about this, I just thought it was a useful perspective that hasn’t exactly been prominent amid the drama and the flood of Texas-versus-California stories. Besides, there’s nothing new to report since the Texas delegation visited the plant last week – the city of Irwindale still hasn’t taken action that might force Huy Fong’s hand, and may yet delay that decision again for at least another week – so here’s a picture of Rep. Jason Villalba in a hairnet to keep you amused until there is something new to note.

The Sriracha delegation arrives in California

Can you feel the excitement?

The self-styled “sriracha delegation” of Texas lawmakers heads to Irwindale, Calif., on Monday to woo the maker of a popular hot sauce to the Lone Star State. And the makeup of the delegation makes clear that bringing sriracha back to Texas is a spicy topic for both parties.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas — who has led the charge to bring the Huy Fong Foods sriracha factory to Texas since residents in its current host city in California complained of itchy eyes and unbearably spicy smells — will be joined by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who represents the district where most of the chili peppers needed for the sauce are grown. San Antonio or a nearby city could be a good fit for the factory’s location, Villalba and Uresti have said.

State Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, will also be in the delegation. Vo speaks Vietnamese, the native language of Huy Fong Foods founder and chief executive David Tran. Representatives from the offices of Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples will also be attending.

Tran has said he is not ready to make a final decision about moving his business. Huy Fong Foods has been in California since it was founded in 1980, and the Irwindale facility relies on a single pepper grower for the chilis used in its famous sauce. California congressmen and other politicians have risen to Huy Fong’s defense. And the Irwindale City Council has backed off of its plan to deem the factory a public nuisance.

See here for all my previous Sriracha-blogging. David Tran may say he’s not made a final decision about moving his business, but he sort of has.

Since the rumble with Irwindale, almost two dozen cities have urged Tran to relocate to their part of the country. For a while, he actually considered it.

City attorney Fred Galante says the problem can be fixed and he hopes it doesn’t come to a move.

“We continue to try to work this out informally,” he says.

And after thinking it over, Tran has decided to stay in his Irwindale factory. He’s lived in California for more than 30 years, and he says he’s not planning to move.

But he might open another site, outside Southern California. An additional location would allow him to keep up with the ever-growing demand for Sriracha, and develop an added source for peppers, in case climate change threatens his current supply.

The Trib confirms this, and point out some obstacles to Texas as a viable Sriracha location:

Tran said Monday the odor controversy hasn’t convinced him to leave California. He told reporters forcefully that he has no intention to move his business, which has been in Irwindale since 2010 and made $80 million in gross revenue last year.

[…]

Actually moving or expanding into Texas wouldn’t be easy, though, for the company. Tran works with a single pepper grower, Underwood Farms, and expects to get 58,000 tons of fresh chile peppers this season. In 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas produced only 8,000 tons of chile peppers.

Crop yields in California and New Mexico are also much higher than they are in Texas — Underwood Farms can grow more than 10 times as many chiles on the same amount of land as Texas growers did in 2011. And most of the chile peppers grown in Texas are green; Huy Fong exclusively uses red chile peppers.

Craig Underwood, of Underwood Farms, said his business has produced all of Huy Fong’s chile peppers for 25 years. The company accounts for 75 percent of his revenue. A move to Texas would also be difficult because the weather patterns are very different, he said, and could make growing the chile peppers challenging.

Still, Tran said, Texas is a more viable state than most others because it’s possible to grow chiles there. While other states have expressed interest in his business, Tran said he has only had in-depth negotations with Texas officials, and he likes what he knows of the state so far.

“First-come, first-serve,” he told reporters, grinning.

So expansion is a possible option, and Texas – specifically, San Antonio – is in play for that. It’s too early to say how realistic that is. What is clear is that Tran and Huy Fong Foods have a very close relationship with their existing suppliers.

The jalapeño peppers that will be ground later this year at an embattled Irwindale factory and pureed into the red-hot chili sauce known as Sriracha are now being planted.

Wednesday morning in a Ventura County field off Highway 126, workers unloaded cartons of pepper plants from a Santa Maria nursery and then loaded up a tranplantation machine, which drops the plants into the soil.

Craig Underwood, 72, whose family has been farming in Ventura County for four generations, has been growing the jalapeño peppers that fill the bottles with the iconic rooster on the front and topped with bright-green lids for 25 years. That first year, he called Huy Fong Foods CEO David Tran and asked him if he could grow 50 acres of peppers for him. This year, Underwood will plant 2,000 acres, with plans to harvest 2,200 acres next year.

The international demand for Sriracha sauce has caused Underwood to double the acreage of his crops and expand his operation into Kern County.

“It’s amazing that the sauce has gotten such attention and it has such a cult following. Who would have guessed?” Underwood said.

[…]

Underwood said he and Tran have a special relationship. While most processors are trying to get the grower that will sell them the product for the cheapest amount of money, Tran cares about quality.

Tran insists on peppers that are bright red and have good flavor. He has even brought a taste-tester to Underwood’s fields.

“I don’t know how she did it,” Underwood said, eyes widening at the thought of the heat.

Peppers are always on Tran’s mind.

Underwood said at Tran’s daughter’s wedding, Tran pulled him outside on the balcony to talk about the crop.

“He’s very focused,” Underwood said of Tran.

Underwood will be present at the meetings Rep. Villalba and his posse will have with Tran, and he says in the story that he doesn’t think Tran will move. Who are we to argue with that?

Sriracha for San Antonio?

State Rep. Jason Villalba will finally make his pilgrimage to California to visit Huy Fong Foods and try to convince them to pick up stakes and move to Texas.

State and city officials are hoping to woo the CEO of Huy Fong Foods Inc. into moving or expanding production of Sriracha, the company’s increasingly popular spicy Asian sauce, to San Antonio.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, is leading a delegation of Texas officials May 12 to meet with CEO David Tran and tour the company’s embattled factory near Los Angeles.

A California judge forced the company to shut down some production after complaints that fumes emitted from the facility caused asthma, nosebleeds and sinus irritation.

“These talks are still very preliminary and we haven’t drilled down on site-selection yet, but with it’s proximity to the Rio Grande Valley and the economic infrastructure to support this type of factory, San Antonio is high on the list,” Villalba said.

Mario Hernandez, president of San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, said the organization reached out two months ago to Tran, who indicated an expansion is more likely than a full-fledged relocation to the Alamo City, which would cost millions.

“We would welcome the opportunity on a complete relocation, but a more likely scenario is future expansion,” Hernandez said.

San Antonio is an ideal location for production of the spicy condiment because it is close to the Rio Grande Valley, a region with a large agriculture industry that could easily grow chilies for the product, Villalba said.

Because the chilies must be transported to a factory for production soon after being harvested, San Antonio, the largest city in South Texas, logistically would be a prime location for a manufacturing plant.

[…]

The Dallas Republican received an invitation from Tran last week and will be joined by state Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, who speaks fluent Vietnamese; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples; and officials from Gov. Rick Perry’s and Attorney General Greg Abbott’s offices.

“In one of the fastest-growing areas of the country there is an insatiable need for jobs of all types,” said state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who was invited by Villalba but couldn’t attend because of a scheduling conflict.

See here for all my previous Sriracha blogging. You have to admire Rep. Villalba for being a team player – it was originally the city of Denton that made a move on Huy Fong, but despite being in Rep. Villalba’s back yard, he’s going with the more practical possibility. I still don’t think Huy Fong is going to move its operations to Texas – if it moves anywhere, it’ll be elsewhere in California – but expansion is an intriguing possibility, one I don’t recall seeing mentioned before. If that really is on the table, it’s an attainable goal and would be a very nice coup.

Here’s a bit more on the expansion possibility from Forbes:

The city of Irwindale voted unanimously [last] Wednesday to table a vote on a resolution until the next meeting, delaying a final decision for another two weeks. If the city council had cemented their vote, the factory would have had until July 22 to stop releasing the peppery fumes that residents were complaining of suffering from heartburn, asthma and nosebleeds.

But aside from the meeting, Tran has given little indication that he is seriously considering moving out of California, where his business has operated for the last 34 years.

“We have never had any issues, so moving was never discussed,” Tran told Forbes. “But why would we need to move if we do not have harmful odors?”

One deterrent for the company to move is that the chili peppers used for the company’s sauces are geographically closer to the factory and must be immediately processed after being picked. But Tran doesn’t see either the proximity to the pepper farms or the city council’s decision to be the end of Huy Fong Foods.

“We could grow in the state [of Texas] if need be,” Tran said. “But after seeing the supporters yesterday, I don’t feel alone, so I need to try to stay here instead of relocating. There is, however, the possibility of expansion to other locations due to growing sales.”

See here for more on Irwindale City Council’s actions. I find it hard to believe the two sides won’t get this worked out. Given that Villalba and crew will be in town two days before Council votes on that resolution, perhaps his visit will serve as incentive towards a resolution.

Even if the Sriracha factory moves, that doesn’t mean it will move to Texas

There’s a lot of competition for them.

After months of heated negotiations with the city of Irwindale over the smell of Sriracha hot sauce, Huy Fong Foods Chief Executive David Tran is appealing to a higher power: a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) visited the hot sauce factory Tuesday and spoke with Tran about potentially relocating to the San Fernando Valley. Cardenas is one of dozens of politicians nationwide who have publicly invited Sriracha to locate within their jurisdiction. Offers have poured in from Alabama, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico and West Virginia.

Last week, Tran signaled his intent to consider relocating his factory and invited potential suitors to pay a visit. Cardenas was one of the first. His own experience of the odor was pleasant, Cardenas said.

“Full disclosure, they weren’t in chile grinding mode…but it was a mild smell in my opinion,” Cardenas said.

[…]

Cardenas and Tran also discussed some federal tax incentives for companies that export a certain proportion of their product overseas – which Huy Fong Foods does – but they did not identify any sites for relocation or discuss any specifics of a deal.

“There’s lots of places in Socal, and Tran provides more than 200 jobs making a nationally and internationally recognized product,” Cardenas said.

See here for the background. Rep. Jason Villalba can talk all he wants about what a great climate for bidness we have in Texas – he can even pay a visit out there and say those things in person – but that only gets you so far. There are a lot of logistical reasons for Huy Fong to stay put, or at least stay nearby, and it’s not like California doesn’t have a card or two it can play. Also, and I know this will be hard to believe, some people prefer to live in states that aren’t Texas. I know, I don’t get it either, but there it is. Bottom line, if I were a Vegas oddsmaker, I’d have “Huy Fong does not relocate anywhere” as the favorite, with “Huy Fong moves to some other location in California” as the runnerup. Sorry, Denton.

Sorry, the Sriracha factory will not be coming to Texas

The ongoing battle between the makers of Sriracha sauce and their hometown flared up again last week.

The Irwindale City Council has voted unanimously to declare the spicy smell of Sriracha hot sauce production a public nuisance.

Once the council adopts an expected official resolution at its next meeting, hot sauce maker Huy Fong Foods will have about 90 days to mitigate the odor, which residents say burns their eyes and throats at certain times of day.

The 4-0 vote during a Wednesday night hearing came despite assurances from company attorney John Tate that Huy Fong Foods planned to submit an action plan within 10 days and have the smell fixed by June 1.

Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District have been performing tests at the facility and have offered to help the company craft a mitigation plan. Although they would not release the test results, AQMD officials indicated that the smell issues could be resolved with active carbon filters — a technology the company has used in the past.

“The City Council is determined to assert its authority regardless of the status of the odor remediation efforts,” Tate said.

[…]

No demonstrators showed up Wednesday night. But state Sen. Ed Hernandez sent a representative to deliver a statement, calling Huy Fong Foods one of the “shining stars” of the San Gabriel Valley’s vibrant business community and offering to help the sauce maker find a home in a neighboring city.

“I ask that the city of Irwindale reject this inflammatory and unnecessary ‘public nuisance’ designation and constructively work with Huy Fong Foods to resolve these issues,” Hernandez said in a statement.

Councilman Albert Ambriz said that the city wants to keep the hot sauce factory.

“I respect the fact that they are here. But they know there’s a problem and it needs to be fixed,” Ambriz said.

The fuss is basically a tempest in a Rooster Sauce bottle.

But company owner David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who founded Huy Fong Foods in 1980, has insisted the odor concerns are overblown — and indeed there are signs the controversy may be as manufactured as Sriracha itself.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which includes Irwindale, has never issued a citation to the company and Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the district, says that many of the 70 odor complaints the district had received as of April 7 came from just a handful of households. The first person to file a formal complaint was the relative of a city official, according to court documents. Atwood says inspectors from the district visited the Huy Fong Foods factory and determined the company was not in violation of current air quality regulations. If a smell is bad enough that the district would take action, he says, “You’re going to get dozens if not hundreds of complaints.”

That hasn’t happened yet, but the factory remains in danger of being shut down. Irwindale officials have even said they may have the right to install air-filtering equipment inside the factory and bill Huy Fong Foods for the expense.

Some locals seem baffled by all the fuss. Tania Bueno, who owns a salon a few blocks from the factory, told TIME in February she’s never detected an odor from the Huy Fong Foods factory. “None of my clients have mentioned any smells.” Tran recently opened his doors for public tours to allow Irwindale residents to decide for themselves how strong the smell is.

But then maybe it’s more than that.

After a months-long battle with the city of Irwindale over complaints about a spicy odor, Sriracha sauce creator David Tran said Wednesday he is now seriously considering moving his factory to another location.

Tran responded Wednesday to the politicians and business leaders from 10 states and multiple cities in California that have offered to host the Sriracha factory. He invited them to tour the facility in Irwindale and decide if their communities would complain about the odors that arise during production.

Tran stressed he has not decided whether to move, but would like to explore his options.

The Irwindale City Council voted unanimously to designate the factory a public nuisance last Wednesday despite promises from the saucemaker that they would submit an action plan and fix the smell by June 1.

Tran said he fears the city won’t accept any solution he proposes. If Irwindale residents continue to complain even after smell-mitigation technology is installed, Sriracha’s legal troubles could have no end, Tran said.

“[City officials] tell you one thing, but think another,” Tran said in an interview at Huy Fong Foods on Wednesday. “I don’t want to sit here and wait to die.”

Irwindale City Attorney Fred Galante said he was confused and disappointed by Tran’s actions. Irwindale officials just want an action plan to be submitted, and Galante said that Tran has not proposed any solutions for the city to reject.

“This seems very extreme,” Galante said. “It’s disappointing giving that [air quality officials] have explained that there are readily available solutions.”

[…]

Relocating Sriracha production would not be simple. Tran has been working with a single pepper grower in Ventura County for years, and the businesses have shaped their operations around each other, expanding in tandem. Since peppers for Sriracha hot sauce must be fresh ground on the day they are harvested, Tran said he’ll have to find a new grower if he moves, as well as replace or relocate 60 to 200 employees.

Tran said his first choice is to stay in Irwindale, but the city government’s actions have created an uncertain business climate.

“I have had the bad luck to move into a city with a government that acts like a local king,” Tran said.

See here, here, and here for the background. State Rep. Jason Villalba has been beseeching Huy Fung Foods to consider moving to Texas, where we care a lot less about such niceties as clean air, and he’s back on Facebook pitching his message again. Until this week, his message had not been received by Huy Fung, but now Villalba may get his chance.

Villalba says he’s received a call from the Sriracha maker about setting up a meeting “as soon as possible.” Says the state rep, “We’re assembling our team now and getting ready to go to California.” That meeting will likely take place in early May, he says, and include Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples and other state politicians.

“We’re pretty excited,” says Villalba.

Well, good luck with that, but as the title of this post suggests, I remain highly skeptical. Not being near their supplier of peppers would be a significant change to their business, and likely a significant cost increase. Lots of other groups are lining up to make their pitch as well, including other cities close by in California. Anything is possible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Still seeking Sriracha for Texas

State Rep. Jason Villalba has a dream.

Rep. Jason Villalba wants to move production of his favorite spicy condiment to the North Texas area.

A plant in Dallas, Richardson, Plano, or another Texas community could help bring jobs to the state, he said.

Citing “greater opportunities for success” thanks to Texas’ business-friendly environment, the Dallas Republican sent a letter to Huy Fong Foods, the makers of the chili and garlic hot sauce Sriracha.

In the letter, he offered to organize a delegation of Texas dignitaries to talk about the benefits of moving to Texas.

“As a public official and a corporate attorney for small businesses, I am extremely troubled by excessive government interference in the operations of private, job-creating businesses like Huy Fong Foods,” Villalba said in the letter. “You have worked too hard and have helped too many people to let government bureaucrats shut down your thriving business.”

[…]

Villalba said if the plant were to move to Texas and if complaints were filed, “we’d have to address that.”

“We’d want to make sure we can continue to create a strong and vibrant economy and we’re very safe with the companies we do have here,” he said.

That’s in regard to the environmental concerns that temporarily halted production back in November. Hard to imagine Texas being any harder on the environmental regulatory front than California, which the Huy Fong folks may see as a plus or a minus. In the meantime, Villalba’s entreaty comes as the hot sauce makers are at the end of a thirty day moratorium on shipping their product out of state “to ensure that the contents of the uncooked sauces are free of microorganisms, according to a California Department of Public Health order.” Again, whether a Texas approach to such things would work in Huy Fong’s favor or not is open to debate, but moving here could cause other problems.

Huy Fong has been buying peppers from the same Southern California farm for decades. The peppers arrive at the plant within hours of being harvested and are used quickly after that.

It’s all about the local sourcing, y’all. I respect Rep. Villalba for chasing a dream, but good luck solving that.

Monday House action

The main action on Monday in the House was the House Redistricting Committee hearing. Where there’s a redistricting hearing, there’s Greg with a liveblogging session. Pay close attention to the stuff Greg writes about the questions that the Dems, in particular Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer (TMF) are asking, because they’re all about the future court fights. A big part of this has to do with who is advising the committee on legal matters, and why the Attorney General is not being made to testify before the committee.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

TMF turns his attention to [David] Archer [of the Texas Legislative Council], asking if there are legal issues seen in [Rep. Yvonne] Davis’ map. Archer notes that the plan is within the committee’s “discretion.” This is pretty much what TMF wants to hear. [Rep.] Senfronia [Thompson] has some questions for Archer, affirming his redistricting bona fides, which leads TMF to follow up with questions to affirm his legal bona fides re: redistricting. He then turns his back & forth with a point that it is the Att. General that ultimately defines those legal points on behalf of the state. He’s trying to back Archer up to a point where Archer can’t offer the answer TMF is fishing for. Archer says he’s “not trying to pass the buck …”, but he seems to realize the corner TMF is trying to paint him into. TMF notes that there is a limit to the advice that Lege Council can give, which builds from Archer’s own statements. He’s building the new court case for MALC pretty well. There are points in this line of questioning that are pure genius to observe. Archer is doing his best to just not break down and say: “Yeah, you need to talk to the Att. General’s office about that.”

TMF is done with Archer for now. Davis follows up by asking Archer about Sec. 2. This is going to be her strongest case for her plan being “legally required.” Ultimately, that definition comes down to the mood of the chair, the barometric pressure, and a number of other issues having nothing to do with law. But it’s a good marker for her to put down on this plan. Davis is exasperated with his analysis, saying he’s not being helpful to the committee by not giving any solid yesses and nos. The nut of this is that Archer’s position with the Lege Council isn’t an advocacy position, it’s a non-partisan role. With that, Davis picks up on TMF’s bigger argument – that this isn’t helping the committee determine what is legally required. It’s coming across as picking on Archer a little (something that TMF avoids in his questioning). But this is aimed at the court, not [David] Archer.

[…]

TMF picks up his opening from [Rep. Jason] Villalba’s questioning, asking again whether Archer is the best person to testify. Let me repeat: Villalba not only extracted testimony from Archer that wasn’t helpful to his side, but he also allows TMF to work in a further point about the inadequacy of Lege Council to be the ones offering legal advice to the committee. He also asks whether Archer would advise that there should be more minority-opportunity districts. Archer begins by answering that he “sees opportunities” but concludes with a “no.” TMF is also asking more questions that sidestep whether or not he thinks Lege Council is the appropriate resource for the committee. This is some more impressive TMF-ery. If the state wants to make the case that Lege Council is perfectly valid and fine, then expect comments like “sees opportunities” to come back around in the courts. This is the grand pitfall of the Lege Council not being in a position to advocate for anything – Archer is obviously trying to be neutral to all sides, but the flipside of that approach is that they aren’t going to say that the interim map is a solid slam dunk that doesn’t need tweaking. It gives TMF the ability to take Archer’s comments to court and get some kind of win (major or minor) regardless of whether the Att. General’s unwillingness to testify is ruled significant. Seriously, this is better than Perry Mason reruns. Along the same lines as above, TMF asks Archer to clarify his comment about “minimizing risk” and “insulation of risk” by taking more legislative action on the map. This won’t be the last time we hear those terms.

[Rep. Richard] Raymond follows that up with some clarity on whether a plan passed by the Lege would have to get preclearance from the DOJ (Yes, it will). Raymond then replays some history by noting that the AG’s office took the preclearance route of the DC Circuit court rather than DOJ last time. Archer notes that the AG has the same discretion of where to take preclearance this time around. Bottom line: I think we can expect this to go back through the DC court.

Texas Redistricting has a more concise wrapup. Both note that HB3, the bill for the House, passed 9-5 when motioned to a vote, but that’s not a majority of the committee and thus technically can’t be brought to the full floor. Instead, HB1 – the bill that does all of three of the affected bodies – was brought up and passed along part lines, despite objections that it brings up the same measure, since HB2 (the Senate bill) had already been approved. It’s getting wild around here, so be on high alert for shenanigans and points of order. I suspect that in the end the House will be as pro forma as the Senate was, and will do whatever it needs to do to get the maps approved.

There were other items of business in the House as well. The possibilities for the Public Integrity Unit warranted their own post. On the matter of the recent items added to the session call, these are the words of a House Speaker who has to deal with wingnut abortion legislation but isn’t exactly thrilled about it.

The House State Affairs Committee is expected to have a hearing on abortion bills Thursday, with consideration by the full chamber possible this weekend.

[…]

“I haven’t seen a bill come from the Senate yet, but I would assume that there would be support in the House, yes,” House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said Monday.

Asked about Perry adding the abortion issue to the agenda, Straus said, “It’s the governor’s prerogative to add issues to a special session. He controls the agenda during a special session. It’s certainly a right he exercises freely.”

The Senate is expected to approve the bill that was voted out of committee on Friday today. The session ends on the 25th, and while Perry can call more sessions till the cows come home, if this or any other bill hasn’t passed by then, it would have to start over from scratch in a new session.

Finally, a panel of House members will join Perry and Abbott in calling on President Obama to reconsider the denial of federal emergency aid to West. I don’t have any issue with that, though you’d thin that the Congressional delegation, including our two Senators, would be the ones to take the lead on this.

White Ds and non-white Rs

A few points to make about this.

White Democrats are an increasingly vanishing species in the Texas Legislature, where there will be only 10 when the new legislative session starts in early January.

The face of the Legislature has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past 25 years, and the state’s rapidly changing demographics are expected to guarantee even more profound changes over the next quarter century.

Twenty years ago, the Legislature included 83 white Democrats. Today, the white Democratic lawmaker is a rarity in the 181-member Legislature.

Vanishing rural, white Democrats account for most of the changes. There were 56 rural, white Democrats sitting in the 1987-88 Texas Legislature. Today, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, (Zavala County) is the only rural white Democrat remaining. He did not return phone calls for comment.

The Chron needs to check its math. By my count, there will 11 Anglo Dems sworn in to the Lege in 2013:

Rep. Craig Eiland – HD23
Rep. Donna Howard – HD48
Rep. Elliott Naishtat – HD49
Rep. Mark Strama – HD50
Rep. Joe Pickett – HD79
Rep. Tracy King – HD80
Rep. Lon Burnam – HD90
Rep. Chris Turner – HD101

Sen. Wendy Davis – SD10
Sen. Kirk Watson – SD14
Sen. John Whitmire – SD15

I suspect Rep. Chris Turner, who was elected in 2008 then wiped out in 2010 before coming back in a newly-drawn district this year, is the one they overlooked. Note that in the three biggest counties (Harris, Dallas, Bexar), there are no Anglo Dems in the House and only one in the Senate. After the 2008 election, Harris had Reps. Scott Hochberg, Ellen Cohen, and Kristi Thibaut; Dallas had Reps. Robert Miklos, Carol Kent, Kirk England, and Allen Vaught; and Bexar had Rep. David Leibowitz. All except Hochberg were defeated in the 2010 massacre, and Hochberg retired after the 2011 session.

You really can’t overstate the effect of the 2010 election. As I said before, the loss of all those rural Dems means that the road back to parity for Democrats is that much steeper. It also significantly de-honkified the existing party. The rural Dems were for the most part dead men walking whether they realized it or not, but losing them all at once rather than over the course of several cycles radically changed things. The Dems have a number of possible pickup opportunities for 2014, some of which may elect Anglo Dems, but even in a wildly optimistic scenario, you’re looking at a tough slog to get to 60, and that’s a long way from parity, even farther away than they were after the 2002 election. Beyond that, you’re either waiting for demographic change in some of the suburban districts, or hoping for some kind of external game-changer. It’s not a pretty picture, at least in the short term.

The long term is a different story, even if the writing on the wall is in a six-point font:

For years, Republicans made a high priority of targeting white Democrats for defeat, via election when they could win, or redistricting when they couldn’t, contended former Texas Democratic Party executive director Harold Cook.

“The irony is that in their efforts to limit Democrats to minority real estate through redistricting, they also separated themselves from the fastest growing demography. In 20 years they may well see that they wrote their own political obituary,” Cook said.

Twenty years is an awfully long time, and I think we can all agree that way too many things can affect current trajectories to have any confidence in them. That said, while there are 11 Anglo Dems out of 67 total Dems in the Lege (16 percent of the total), there are all of six non-Anglo Republicans out of 114 total, which is five percent. (The six are, by my count, Reps. JM Lozano, Larry Gonzales, Jason Villalba, James White, Stefani Carter, and Angie Chen Button.) That’s down from eight last session – nine if you count Dee Margo – as Reps. Aliseda, Garza, Pena, and Torres departed but only Villalba and the turncoat Lozano arrived. To Cook’s point, Aliseda, Pena, and Torres were all adversely affected by redistricting – Aliseda and Pena (another turncoat) declined to run because they didn’t have a winnable district, and Torres ran for Senate after being paired with Connie Scott, who wound up losing by 15 points. Only Garza had a shot at re-election, and his district was a major point of contention in the redistricting litigation. Barring a 2010-style election in 2014, the Rs don’t have many obvious targets in Latino-heavy districts. You can’t assume the current trajectory will continue, but as long as it does this is the way it’s going.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, I also overlooked an incoming freshman, Rep. Scott Turner in the new HD33, who is a non-white Republican, thus upping that total to seven. My apologies for the oversight.

Responding the only way they know how

That’s our Legislature.

In response to last week’s Connecticut school shooting, state Rep.-elect Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, says he will file legislation to allow public school teachers to carry concealed weapons while on campus.

The bill, which Villalba is calling the Protection of Texas Children Act, would permit Texas schools to appoint a member of their faculty as a “school marshal.” The marshal, with training and certification, would be able to “use lethal force upon the occurrence of an attack in the classroom or elsewhere on campus,” according to a press release from Villalba, a newly elected state representative.

“Unfortunately, law enforcement personnel cannot be everywhere at all times,” Villalba said in a statement. “We need to talk very frankly about how we can protect our children if the unthinkable should occur.”

So, to recap:

Will the state of Texas do anything to increase access to mental health services? Well, we’re not going to expand Medicaid, which will put a large burden on counties because of the loss of funding for uncompensated care at public hospitals, and counties are the largest providers of mental health services, so that would be a “no”.

Will the state of Texas do anything to restrict access to the kind of weaponry whose only use is to hunt humans? Please. Don’t you know that the right to high-capacity magazines is protected by the Constitution?

And we haven’t even gotten to the best part:

Villalba’s proposal would create a training system for potential concealed-weapon holding employees of public schools, which would be paid for either by school districts or the employees themselves. Under his plan, there would be one armed employee for every 400 students, marshals who would be unidentifiable except to the school principal, law enforcement and school district administrators. The employees would purchase and maintain their own weapons.

So these “school marshals”, who will presumably be expected to put themselves in the line of fire in the event there ever is an armed intrusion of a school, will be volunteers using their own equipment, and they may have to pay for their own training, because the state of Texas won’t be providing any funding for it. How will principals ever be able to choose from the flood of applicants they’ll surely get for this plum assignment? I’m hard pressed to think of a “solution” to a problem that more thoroughly embodies the current philosophy of the Republican Party than this. Bravo, Rep. Villalba.

To be fair, Land Commissioner/Lite Guv candidate Jerry Patterson has a sensible suggestion for closing the gun show loophole, which ought to help keep a few guns away from bad guys. Obviously, no single solution will cover all contingencies, and ultimately there’s only so much that can be done to deter a determined criminal. But there are simple and obvious things we can and should do to try and prevent gun-related tragedies, and if there’s ever a time to be seeking those answers, it’s now. Kudos to Patterson for taking it seriously. I just hope he has some company.

UPDATE: The following press release just hit my inbox:

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten react to proposals by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, and William Bennett to arm teachers as a way to prevent school violence.

“Our duty to every child is to provide safe and secure public schools. That is the vow we take as educators. It is both astounding and disturbing that following this tragedy, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, Bill Bennett, and other politicians and pundits have taken to the airwaves to call for arming our teachers. As the rest of the country debates how to keep guns out of schools, some are actually proposing bringing more guns in, turning our educators into objects of fear and increasing the danger in our schools.

“Guns have no place in our schools. Period. We must do everything we can to reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools, and concentrate on ways to keep all guns off school property and ensure the safety of children and school employees.

“But this is not just about guns. Long-term and sustainable school safety also requires a commitment to preventive measures. We must continue to do more to prevent bullying in our schools. And we must dramatically expand our investment in mental health services. Proper diagnosis can and often starts in our schools, yet we continue to cut funding for school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists. States have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. It is well past time to reverse this trend and ensure that these services are available and accessible to those who need our support.

“Greater access to mental health services, bullying prevention, and meaningful action on gun control—this is where we need to focus our efforts, not on staggeringly misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms. Lawmakers at every level of government should dismiss this dangerous idea and instead focus on measures that will create the safe and supportive learning environments our children deserve.”

I completely agree.

Endorsement watch: The Parent PAC November slate

For your approval.

Texas Parent PAC is delighted to endorse the following candidates in the general election.  They are men and women of integrity, open and responsive to parents, actively involved in their communities, and committed to investing in public education to achieve economic prosperity in Texas.

Please vote for these endorsed candidates and encourage your friends and family to vote as well!  Early Voting is October 22 – November 2 and Election Day is Tuesday, November 6.

Read about the endorsement process here.  To find out your district number for State Senator and State Representative, look on your voter registration card or enter your address on the “Who Represents Me?” section at the Capitol web site.

Texas Parent PAC is a bipartisan political action committee.  In the 2012 Texas primary and general elections, the PAC has endorsed 28 Republicans and 25 Democrats.

Texas Senate
S.D. 10: Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth  www.wendydavisforsenate.com
S.D. 25: John Courage, D-San Antonio www.couragefortexassenate.org
S.D. 29: Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso www.senatorjoserodriguez.com

Texas House of Representatives
H.D. 23: Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston  www.craigeiland.net
H.D. 24: Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood  www.drgregbonnen.com
H.D. 29: Ed Thompson, R-Pearland  www.electedthompson.com
H.D. 34: Abel Herrero, D-Robstown  www.abelherrero.com
H.D. 41: Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen  www.voteguerra.com
H.D. 43: Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, D-Alice  www.voteyvonne.com
H.D. 45: John Adams, D-Dripping Springs  www.votedonna.com
H.D. 54: Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen   www.jdaycock.com
H.D. 59: J. D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville  www.jdfortexas.com
H.D. 74: Poncho  Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass  www.ponchonevarez.com
H.D. 78: Joe Moody, D-El Paso  www.moodyforelpaso.com
H.D. 85: Dora Olivo, D-Richmond  www.doraolivo.com
H.D. 94: Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington  www.dianepatrick.org
H.D. 95: Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth  www.votenicolecollier.com
H.D. 101: Chris Turner, D-Arlington  www.votechristurner.com
H.D. 102: Rich Hancock, D-Richardson   www.hancockfortexas.com
H.D. 105: Dr. Rosemary Robbins, D-Irving   www.voterosemaryrobbins.com
H.D. 107: Robert Miklos, D-Dallas  www.robertmiklos.com
H.D. 115: Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell  www.bennettratliff.com
H.D. 117: Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio   www.philipcortez.com
H.D. 118: Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio  www.joefarias.com
H.D. 125: Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio  www.justin125.com
H.D. 134: Ann Johnson, D-Houston  www.voteannjohnson.com, TV spot
H.D. 136: Matt Stillwell, D-Cedar Park  www.mattstillwell.com
H.D. 137: Gene Wu, D-Houston  www.genefortexas.com
H.D. 144: Mary Ann Perez, D-Pasadena   www.votemaryannperez.com
H.D. 149: Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston   www.hubertvo.com

Here was their slate from the primaries, and an accounting of who won among those candidates. You may notice that there are four candidates that were endorsed in the GOP primary that are not on this list – Cecil Bell (HD02), Chris Peddie (HD09), Trent Ashby (HD57), and Jason Villalba (HD114). The first three have no Democratic opponents and are therefore for all intents and purposes already elected. As for Villalba, I asked Carolyn Boyle about that race, and received this response:

From the beginning, Jason was a “primary only endorsement” because Texas Parent PAC had endorsed Carol Kent in the past and she is great. Jason agreed that once the primary was over he would delete any reference to the Parent PAC endorsement for the primary, and the PAC did as well. It was important to defeat Bill Keffer in the primary, and Jason is a supporter of public education. We are staying out of the general election with Jason vs. Carol…let the voters decide, as both will advocate for public education.

So there you have it. As I did with the primary, I’ll check the scoreboard for Parent PAC after the election is over.