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Joan Huffman

The other Senate races that Republicans are worried about

They’re concerned about the State Senate, too.

Beverly Powell

Republican lawmakers in the Texas Senate were sitting pretty last year.

For years, the GOP had faced roadblocks to passing some conservative measures by the chamber’s two-thirds rule, which normally required the support of 21 members to get a bill to the floor. With 20 Republicans in the chamber, that left Republicans one short of moving out bills without the help of a single Democrat.

But then in 2015, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led a successful move to lower the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths. Suddenly, any measure with the backing of all of the chamber’s Republicans had all the support it needed. For that session and the ones that followed in 2017, the GOP effectively ran the Senate floor.

Now, with less than two months until Election Day, Republicans are finding that keeping that supermajority in the Texas Senate is no longer a sure thing.

Nathan Johnson

“We’re emphasizing the possibility of losses,” said Darl Easton, the Republican Party Chairman in Tarrant County, where state Sen. Konni Burton’s re-election bid as seen is a potential toss-up. “The more complacent you become, the more likely it is that you won’t win. We definitely have to keep the voters alert to the possibility of losing some seats. We’re not going to take anything for granted.”

“We are working and making sure we’re leaving no stone unturned,” added Missy Shorey, the Dallas County Republican Party Chairwoman, speaking of the party’s efforts in assisting state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “People in Dallas certainly know there’s no chance that seat is going to flip. [Huffines] is working for every vote out there.”

The Senate is still poised to remain GOP-dominated during next year’s legislative session. What’s at stake for the chamber’s Republicans this election cycle is losing their three-fifths majority — the crucial threshold for bringing legislation to the Senate floor without any support from Democrats.

[…]

If at least two of [Konni Burton, Don Huffines, and Joan Huffman] lose their seats this election cycle, the political repercussions could be far-reaching: not only would it loosen Patrick’s stronghold over the upper chamber, Republican senators themselves would have to work across the aisle to get their bills passed.

Rita Lucido

“When you have to cross the aisle, you have to cross the river and that changes everything,” said Bill Miller, a veteran political consultant and lobbyist. “If [Dan Patrick] were to lose that three-fifths majority, his power would be diminished. That doesn’t mean he won’t be powerful, but he won’t be the most powerful person to ever hold the office — which is what he’s been up to this point.”

“If you haven’t had any power in a while and I give you power, it’s going to be tasty,” he added. “It’s a tasty morsel. If Democrats get back at the table, that will change how the Senate behaves.”

What’s also at risk is the ability to get conservative legislation to the governor. Without a Republican Senate supermajority, Easton said, measures important to hard-line conservatives might not get a hearing in the Texas House — let alone be brought up for debate on the Senate floor.

“Obviously, it’s going to be harder to get conservative stuff through the Senate if we don’t have the numbers, and if we don’t get it through the Senate then the House doesn’t even have to look at it,” Easton said. “It’s politics as usual. The stronger your base is, the more likely it is you’re going to get stuff through the House and eventually to the governor’s desk.”

Miller agreed, adding that Republicans in the Senate might have reason to worry.

“In recent cycles, Republicans have looked at every election cycle as just a reaffirmation of their dominance, and that has absolutely been the case,” he said. “This is the first time in memory where not only is that dominance in question, but there’s a high degree of confidence on the part of Democrats. So it’s a whole new world out there.”

There’s at least some polling evidence to suggest that both Powell and Johnson are in decent shape, though it’s one poll in each case and you know what we say about individual polls. I just want to observe that I wrote about the effect of Dems picking up two Senate seats last year, right after the filing deadline. Patrick could of course seek to eliminate the three-fifths rule in the same way that he eliminated the two-thirds rule; the Senate adopts the rules it abides by each session, and it only takes a majority vote to do so. All I know is that anything that clips Dan Patrick’s wings, even a little bit, is a good thing. Both Powell and Johnson have been endorsed by the DMN, for whatever that’s worth. These are all winnable races. It’s a matter of proving Dems can win in districts that weren’t drawn for them.

The Huffman influence

Oops.

Sen. Joan Huffman

A lawsuit filed in state district court Monday alleges that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission improperly fired one of its sergeants after he told federal law enforcement that state Sen. Joan Huffman had blocked an investigation into a Longview bar she and her husband partially owned.

The whistleblower lawsuit against the TABC — where the former sergeant, Marcus Stokke, worked for 16 years — says that last year Stokke told the FBI, a federal prosecutor and the agency’s internal affairs department that Huffman interfered in an investigation into Graham Central Station. The bar had drawn scrutiny for failing to report multiple “breaches of the peace” that took place on or near its premises, including a sexual assault, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Austin.

[…]

According to the lawsuit, agency officials told Stokke to discontinue an investigation into Graham Central Station and erase digital and print records documenting the bar’s alleged wrongdoing.

Stokke, who the lawsuit says oversaw 24 counties in northeast Texas for the liquor agency, contacted law enforcement authorities in May 2017 and lost his job the following October. Stokke provided the Tribune with a copy of his termination letter which outlines a number of reasons for his dismissal, including insubordination and unethical conduct. The lawsuit says those claims are false.

“It was total retaliation,” Stokke said in an interview. He is seeking at least $200,000 in damages as well as reinstatement to his old job at the TABC.

Asked how he knew Huffman had interfered in the investigation, Stokke said he does “not have any evidence that she actually, you know, conspired or told anybody to falsify records or delete records or anything like that.”

But, he said, the reason the agency officials gave when they instructed him to end the investigation was, “this is really political and there’s a state senator involved.”

That’s pretty thin, to be honest. Huffman denies the allegation, and it’s easy to see why. I hope there’s something to this, because if not it would have been better all around to not say anything.

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.

Endorsement watch: Close choices

The Chron endorses on both sides in SD17.

Republican State Senator, District 17: Joan Huffman

State Sen. Joan Huffman has been on board for some pretty bad bills, but it’s hard to overlook her herculean efforts to resolve the city of Houston’s formidable pension problems.

In last year’s legislative session, she carried the ball on a bill to reform the city’s public pensions and did a lot of heavy lifting in negotiations with the affected parties to come up with legislation that didn’t please everybody but, as she told us, likely “saved the city of Houston from bankruptcy.”

That and a sense that Huffman had been less intransigent than in the past earned her the selection by Texas Monthly as one of the best legislators in the 2017 session.

[…]

Huffman, 57, voted in favor of the silly “bathroom bill” that became a national laughing stock and for the macabre bill requiring burial or cremation of an aborted fetus, one of several she supported aimed at making it more difficult to get an abortion.

There were others, but we think Huffman plays below her weight when she panders to her party’s worst instincts.

I get the urge to reward Huffman for her work on the pension reform bill, I really do. But we need to be clear that this kind of productive output is the exception, not the norm. Bathroom bills, “fetal remains”, “sanctuary cities”, vouchers, the continued assault on home rule and local control – this is what Joan Huffman is about. She, like most of her Republican colleagues, will do Dan Patrick’s bidding whenever he tells them to. She was able to do the work she did on the pension bill because Patrick didn’t care to oppose her. As long as she’s there – and as long as he’s there – that’s what she’ll do. Thank her for the good work she was allowed to do if you want, but if you support her this is what you’re going to get. It’s not clear to me the Chron understands that.

On the other side:

Rita Lucido

State Senator, District 17: Rita Lucido

Democrats have two strong candidates running for the opportunity to challenge Republican incumbent Joan Huffman in November.

When Rita Lucido and Fran Watson, both attorneys, speak about the March 6 primary their words reflect their party’s rising anger at Republican extremism and a determination to put an end to it.

People want to “stop the nonsense” of bathroom bills and school vouchers and would “like to see their legislature get down to business and stop wasting time and money,” said Lucido, 61.

Watson, 40, has a youthful, enthusiastic organization seeking votes others have ignored by reaching deep into the neglected nooks and crannies of the district.

Her message is that everyone in Texas should have “equal access to the opportunity to succeed,” but the way is being blocked by state leaders, including Huffman.

Both candidates cited the need for state action on flooding in a post-Harvey world and for stopping the meteoric rise in property taxes.

This was a difficult call between two very talented women, but we endorse Lucido, 61, because, apart from being thoughtful and eloquent, she’s been on the frontlines for change for a long time and is tough as nails.

Much the same could be said of Watson so you can’t go wrong with a vote for either one.

Or you could break the tie in Watson’s favor by citing the need for more youthful enthusiasm in our legislature. I was excited for Watson’s entry in this race, and I remain excited by her candidacy. That’s in no way a knock on Lucido, who is all that the Chron says she is. It is a tough choice between good candidates.

On a side note, several people have reported to me that they don’t see full information on the various 2018 Election pages above. I get a complaint like this every cycle, and it’s very frustrating for me because there’s no pattern to it that I can see. I’m working on it, but I can’t make any promises about fixing a problem that I’m not yet able to diagnose. That said, I want people to be able to see this information, so I’ve come up with a workaround by grabbing the HTML code from my view of the pages and creating new ones based on that. So, if you are one of the people who have had trouble with these pages, try the following instead:

Backup 2018 Congressional
Backup 2018 Legislative
Backup 2018 Judicial
Backup 2018 Harris County

Republicans “against” Dan Patrick

RG Ratcliffe reports on a “loose coalition” of business and education interests who are seeking to clip Dan Patrick’s wings.

[FBSID Board President Kristin] Tassin is now running for a seat in the state Senate, and she is just one candidate in a growing coalition of education and business groups that want to roll back the social conservative agenda of Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott. And recognizing the ineffectiveness of the Texas Democratic Party, they are concentrating their efforts on the upcoming March Republican primaries instead of betting on candidates in the general election. “There is a perfect storm brewing, and it goes a lot deeper than just a vouchers vote,” Tassin told me. “What really led me to step into this race is I really see this past session as an indicator of failed leadership and, often, particularly in the Senate.”

This is, at best, a loose coalition. Some by law are restricted to urging people to vote based on certain issues, while others are gathering money to put behind candidates who will clip Patrick’s dominance in the Senate. If they just pick up a few seats, Patrick will no longer be able to steamroll controversial bathroom bills and school voucher bills through the Senate, because he will lack the procedural votes needed to bring the legislation to the floor for debate.

[…]

One of the main groups that fought against the bathroom bill was the Texas Association of Business, and its political committee currently is evaluating which candidates to support in the primaries. “You’re seeing more and more business leaders engaged in this election—this time in the primaries in particular—than you probably ever had,” TAB President Chris Wallace told me. He said the leaders are motivated because “we had such a divisive time” during the 2017 legislative sessions.

Most of the TAB endorsements will be made over the next several weeks, but the group already has endorsed state Representative Cindy Burkett in her Republican primary challenge to incumbent Senator Bob Hall. In the TAB scorecard for pro-business votes, Hall sat at 53 percent and Burkett was at 94 percent, even though she supported the “sanctuary cities” legislation that TAB opposed. Hall voted in favor of the bathroom bill, but it never came up for a vote in the House. Because Burkett also carried legislation adding restrictions to abortion last year, she probably would not gain much support among Democrats. But as an advocate of public education, she already is opposed by the Texas Home School Coalition.

Emotions already are running high. When Hall put out a tweet that he is one of the most consistently conservative senators, a former school principal responded: “No, @SenBobHall, the reason we’re coming after you is because you side w/ Dan Patrick over the will of your constituents time and again. That’s why we’ll vote for @CindyBurkett_TX in the Mar. Primary. We’re not liberals, just ppl who want to be heard. #txed #txlege #blockvote.”

The Tassin race may create divisions in this loose coalition. She is challenging incumbent Senator Joan Huffman of Houston in the primary. Huffman gave Patrick a procedural vote he needed to bring the voucher bill to the floor, but then voted against the legislation. Huffman also voted in favor of killing dues check-offs, which allow teacher groups to collect their membership fees directly from a member-educator’s paycheck. But Huffman’s pro-business score is almost has high as Burkett’s, even though Huffman voted for the bathroom bill. Huffman also received a Best Legislator nod from Texas Monthly for helping negotiate a solution to the city of Houston’s financial problems with its police and firefighter pensions. However, the firefighters are angry over that deal and likely will work for Tassin in the primary. Huffman, though, has received an endorsement from Governor Abbott. We can’t make a prediction in that race until the endorsements come out.

I agree with the basic tactic of targeting the most fervent Patrick acolytes in the Senate. Patrick’s ability to ram through crap like the bathroom bill and the voucher bill is dependent on their being a sufficient number of his fellow travelers present. Knocking that number down even by one or two makes it harder for him to steer the ship in his preferred direction. Neither Kristin Tassin nor Cindy Burkett are my cup of tea, but they have a very low bar to clear to represent an improvement over the status quo.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First and foremost, depending on Republican primary voters to do something sensible is not exactly a winning proposition these days. There’s a reason why the Senate has trended the way it has in recent years. To be sure, it’s been an uneven fight in that there has basically been no effort like this to rein in the crazy in favor of more traditional Republican issues. To that I’d say, were you watching the Republican Presidential primary in 2016? The traditional interests didn’t do too well then, either. The Texas Parent PAC has had a lot of success over the years supporting anti-voucher candidates, often in rural districts where that issue resonates. I have a lot of respect for them and I wish them all the best this year, along with their allies of convenience. I just don’t plan to get my hopes up too high.

That leads to point two, which is that there needs to be a part two to this strategy. The two purplest Senate districts are SDs 10 and 16, where Sens. Konni Burton (who also scored a 53 on that TAB report card, tied with Bob Hall for the lowest tally in the Senate, including Democrats) and Don Huffines (and his 60 TAB score) will face Democratic challengers but not primary opponents. It’s reasonable for TAB et al to not have any interest in those races now, as they work to knock off Hall and (maybe) Huffman. If they don’t have a plan to play there in the fall, then at the very least you’ll know how serious this “loose coalition” is. I fully expect TAB and the other business groups to roll over and show Patrick their bellies after March. But maybe I’m wrong. I’ll be more than happy to admit it if I am. I wouldn’t bet my own money on it, though.

Filing roundup: State Senate

In 2014, Democrats contested five of the eleven Republican-held State Senate seats on the ballot, plus the seat that was vacated by Wendy Davis, which was won by Republican Konni Burton. This year, Democrats have candidates in eleven of these twelve districts. I wanted to take a closer look at some of these folks. For convenience, I collected the filing info for Senate and House candidates from the SOS page and put it all in this spreadsheet.

Kendall Scudder

SD02Kendall Scudder (Facebook)

SD03 – Shirley Layton

SD05Brian Cronin (Facebook)
SD05Glenn “Grumpy” Williams
SD05Meg Walsh

SD07David Romero

SD08Brian Chaput
SD08 – Mark Phariss

SD09Gwenn Burud

SD10Allison Campolo (Facebook)
SD10Beverly Powell (Facebook)

SD16Joe Bogen (Facebook)
SD16Nathan Johnson (Facebook)

SD17Fran Watson (Facebook)
SD17Rita Lucido (Facebook)
SD17 – Ahmad Hassan

SD25Jack Guerra (Facebook)
SD25Steven Kling (Facebook)

SD30Kevin Lopez

I skipped SDs 14, 15, and 23, which are held by Democrats Kirk Watson, John Whitmire, and Royce West. Whitmire has two primary opponents, the others are unopposed. Let’s look at who we have here.

Kendall Scudder is a promising young candidate running in a tough district against a truly awful incumbent. First-term Sen. Bob Hall is basically Abe Simpson after a couple years of listening to Alex Jones. If he runs a good race, regardless of outcome, Scudder’s got a future in politics if he wants it.

Shirley Layton is the Chair of the Angelina County Democratic Party, which includes Lufkin. Robert Nichols is the incumbent.

All of the contested primaries look like they will present some good choices for the voters. In SD05, Brian Cronin, who has extensive experience in state government, looks like the most polished candidate to take on Charles Schwertner. Grumpy Williams is easily the most colorful candidate in any of these races. There wasn’t enough information about Meg Walsh for me to make a judgment about her.

I’ve previously mentioned Mark Phariss’ entry into the SD08 race at the filing deadline. He doesn’t have a website or Facebook page up yet, but you could read this Texas Monthly story about him and his husband for a reminder of who Phariss is and why he matters. This seat is being vacated by Van Taylor, and the demonic duo of Angela Paxton and Phillip Huffines are running for it on the GOP side.

I couldn’t find much about either David Romero or Gwenn Burud, but in searching for the latter I did find this Star-Telegram story, which tells me that the Tarrant County Democratic Party did a great job filling out their slate. The incumbent here is Kelly Hancock.

Elsewhere in Tarrant County, the primary for SD10, which is overall the most closely divided district, ought to be salty. Powell is clearly the establishment candidate, having been endorsed by folks like Wendy Davis and Congressman Mark Veasey. Campolo identifies herself as a Bernie Sanders supporter. I expect there will be some elbows thrown. The winner gets to try to knock out Konni Burton.

Joe Bogen and Nathan Johnson seem pretty evenly matched to me. They’re battling for the right to take on the awful Don Huffines, whose SD16 is probably the second most vulnerable to takeover.

In SD17, Fran Watson, who is a former President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, has been in the race for a few months. Rita Lucido, who was the candidate against Joan Huffman in 2014, filed on deadline day. The presence of perennial candidate Ahmad Hassan means this one could go to a runoff.

Both Jack Guerra and Steven Kling look like good guys in SD25. No doubt, both would be a big improvement over the zealot incumbent Donna Campbell.

Last but not least, Kevin Lopez is a City Council member in the town of Bridgeport. He joins Beverly Powell, who serves on the Burleson ISD Board of Trustees, as the only current elected officials running for one of these offices. The incumbent in SD30 is Craig Estes, and he is being challenged in the Republican primary.

Winning even one of these seats would be great. Winning two would bring the ratio to 18-13 R/D, which would be a big deal because the old two thirds rule is now a “sixty percent” rule, meaning that 19 Senators are enough to bring a bill to the floor, where 21 had been needed before. Needless to say, getting the Republicans under that would be a big deal, though of course they could throw that rule out all together if they want to. Be that as it may, more Dems would mean less power for Dan Patrick. I think we can all agree that would be a good thing. None of this will be easy – Dems are underdogs in each district, with more than half of them being very unfavorable – but at least we’re competing. National conditions, and individual candidates, will determine how we do.

Huffman gets a Republican challenger

This is definitely one to watch.

Kristin Tassin

Kristin Tassin, the president of the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees, is running against state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, in the 2018 GOP primary.

“I’m officially running,” Tassin told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “The final decision really came down to the fact that the state Legislature is just not getting the job done on many issues that are important to families in Texas.”

Tassin citied issues including property tax reform and public education. “I feel like we need somebody in the Legislature who’s going to stand up for those things and bring real solutions and not be afraid to stand up to special interests,” she said.

Tassin has been an outspoken advocate for public education, penning a number of op-eds that have taken aim at the Senate — and Huffman — for how they have approached the issue. In one of those op-eds, Tassin took Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to task for his derisive use of the term “educrats.” 

“Most of us are parents, many with conservative views and values, who ran for the school board or got involved in our school districts in order to improve education and make a difference for the children in our communities and across the state of Texas,” Tassin said.

In the interview, Tassin said Huffman has “really been no friend to education,” pointing to Huffman’s vote during the regular session paving the way for a private school tuition subsidy bill to reach the floor. Huffman was among three Republicans who ultimately voted against the bill, but Tassin has argued the legislation would have never been able to make it to the floor without Huffman’s initial sign-off.

I’m Team Fran Watson all the way, but Kristin Tassin would be an upgrade over Joan Huffman. Huffman isn’t a freak like Bob Hall or Don Huffines, but she is a reliable vote for Dan Patrick, and anything that loosens Patrick’s grip on power is a good thing. We’ve seen plenty of wingnut challenges to establishment Republican incumbents before, but we’ve not seen a serious (much less successful) challenge by a more moderate R to a conservative incumbent. Mainstreamers have withstood challenges and they’ve won their share of open seat battles, but this is something new. I will be very interested to see who lines up behind whom in this race. I don’t expect any establishment Republican support for Tassin – that’s the way things are when an incumbent who is otherwise in good standing gets a primary challenger – but there’s plenty of room for outsiders to support her. Surely pro-education groups like Parent PAC will have to take a look at this race, and of course she can demonstrate strength in grassroots fundraising. If that happens, this could be a fascinating race. The odds are against Tassin, but the potential for shockwaves is real, and it would be amazing. I wish Tassin all the best.

Fran Watson for SD17

Awesome news.

Fran Watson

It’s OFFICIAL!

I have launched my campaign for TX State Senate District 17. The campaign slogan is People First.

“When the people are part of the legislative process instead of a few leaders in Austin, our laws are more expansive, which in turn provide families access to healthcare, jobs, stronger public schools, and equitable opportunities to succeed. This leads to a better quality of life and a stronger Texas.”

You can visit franwatsonfortexas.com to donate, sign up to volunteer or learn more about me. Like the campaign Fran Watson for Texas on Facebook. You can also follow the campaign on Twitter using the handle, @franfortexas
Let’s do this y’all! #FranforTexas #PeopleFirst

The webpage is here and the Facebook page is here. As you know, I’ve been awaiting this announcement for awhile, and I’m delighted to see it happen. Watson is an attorney, community organizer, past president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and an all-around super person. SD17 is an uphill battle, like all of the Senate districts, but if anyone can do it, Fran can. Get to know her, and give her your support.

July 2017 campaign finance reports: State Senate targets

The Trib highlights a couple of races of interest.

Senate District 8

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, has not yet announced he’s running for Congress — he is expected to after the special session — but the race to replace him is already underway. Phillip Huffines, the chairman of the Dallas County GOP who has been campaigning for the Senate seat since March, put $2 million of his own money into his campaign and raised another $547,000, leaving him with $2.4 million in the bank. State Rep. Matt Shaheen, the Plano Republican who is likely to run for the Senate seat but has not yet made it official, had $495,000 cash on hand after raising $62,000 at the end of June and loaning himself $187,000 in June.

Senate District 10

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, already has two Democratic challengers in her battleground district, where she has a $352,000 war chest after raking in $196,000 at June’s end. One of her Democratic foes, Beverly Powell, raised $50,000 in just under a month and has $32,000 in the bank. Powell’s cash-on-hand figure is closer to $46,000 when factoring in online donations she received at the end of June, according to her campaign. Another Democratic candidate, Alison Campolo, posted smaller numbers.

Senate District 16

State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, is also on Democrats’ target list for 2018. He reported raising $222,000 at the end of June and having $930,000 in cash on hand. One of his Democratic rivals, Nathan Johnson, began his campaign in early April and has since raised $80,000, giving him a $65,000 cash-on-hand tally. Another Democratic candidate, Joseph Bogen, kicked off his bid in May and had raised $32,000 by the end of June. He has $21,000 in cash on hand.

Do I have finance reports for Senate districts and candidates of interest? Of course I do.

Van Taylor
Matt Shaheen
Phillip Huffines
Texans for Kelly Hancock
Konni Burton
Beverly Powell
Alison Campolo
Don Huffines
Nathan Johnson
Joe Bogen
Texans for Joan Huffman


Dist   Name         Raised     Spent      Loans     On Hand
===========================================================
SD08   Taylor        1,000   191,355    850,000     370,852
SD08   Shaheen      61,835     7,633    466,844     495,310
SD08   P Huffines  546,656   202,474  2,000,000   2,356,109
SD09   Hancock      87,655    86,634          0   1,205,070
SD10   Burton      196,058    49,152    240,000     351,787
SD10   Powell       51,200     1,265          0      31,704
SD10   Campolo       8,004     5,163          0       3,604
SD16   D Huffines  222,297   151,336  1,680,000     929,698
SD16   Johnson      80,260    14,851      5,286      64,728
SD16   Bogen        31,988     4,010          0      21,118
SD17   Huffman      10,025    54,606          0     410,465

Here’s my look at State Senate precinct data, with an eye towards evaluating potential electoral targets for 2018. The three of greatest interest are SDs 10, 16, and 17, more or less in that order. We’ve met the SD10 hopefuls, but this is the first I’ve heard of challengers in SD16. Here’s Nathan Johnson‘s webpage, and here’s Joe Bogen‘s. I don’t know anything more about either of them than that, so if you do please feel free to speak up. As for SD17, I sure hope Fran Watson or someone like her makes her entry soon, because right now the only opponent for Joan Huffman is Ahmad Hassan.

Here come the LGBT candidates

Keep your eyes on these folks.

Fran Watson

At least four Houstonians are among the numerous LGBTQ Texans eyeing campaigns in 2018 and 2019. One of the Houston candidates has formally announced, and three others are strongly considering runs.

“People are fed up, and they want a better Texas,” said Fran Watson, who’s considering running as a Democrat in Texas Senate District 17, which covers parts of Harris, Brazoria, and Fort Bend counties. That district is currently represented by Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston).

“Texans deserve leaders who have the everyday issues of Texans in mind, rather than focusing on who uses what bathroom,” said Watson, an attorney who serves as president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Huffman voted in favor of Senate Bill 6, the anti-transgender “bathroom bill.”

“There are people in the district who are hurting, and I know how to identify with these people,” Watson said. “I also have the skill set to draft legislation to help them.”

[…]

Other potential LGBTQ candidates are eyeing Houston City Council races in 2019. Ashton Woods, the founder of Black Lives Matter: Houston, said he may run for either the District K or an at-large seat. District K is represented by Council Member Larry Green, who will be term-limited in 2019.

“We have to stand up and fight back,” Woods said. “People are being left behind and treated as nonexistent. People have basic human needs—if they are missing a meal, they can’t think about fighting back. We had Donald Trumps before there was a President Trump. They are in our backyards and in elected offices. We need to fight the Trumps in our backyards.”

Nelvin Adriatico, who owns a Sugar Land real-estate firm, is considering a run for the District J seat held by openly gay Council Member Mike Laster, who is also term-limited.

Adriatico has been involved with the highly successful back-to-school backpack program in District J. He said he wants to focus on education, small business, and combatting domestic violence.

“If you have a voice, it can be magnified by serving in an elected office,” Adriatico said, adding that he watches the news every day and is troubled by what Trump is doing.

“I have friends who are minorities and immigrants,” said Adriatico, who would be among the first openly LGBT Asian-Americans elected to public office in Texas. “We’ve got to raise our voices and make a change.”

Watson is no longer the President of the Houston LGBT Political Caucus; she stepped down a few days ago, presumably in advance of announcing her candidacy. I could try to summarize the things she has done in recent years, but better for you to read this OutSmart profile and this Girls Like You And Me interview with her to see just how impressive she is. I know of at least one other person looking at this race, but Watson would be a formidable candidate if she does run.

As for Woods and Adriatico, I hope they have to wait till 2019 to actually run for Council, but I’m glad they’re thinking about it now, just in case. Let’s just say there’s more than a bit of anxiety about the possibility of a mad sprint for candidates this November. The other person mentioned in the story, the one who is already a candidate, is Jerry Simoneaux, who is among the Democratic judicial hopefuls. He’s running for Harris County Probate Court #1, and has a primary opponent. He also happens to be Watson’s law partner. There are a few non-Houston LGBT candidates in there as well. We’ll need to revisit the topic after the filing deadline.

Do we really have to have a pension bond vote?

So as we know, the Houston pension reform bill that passed contains a provision that requires a vote on the pension obligation bonds that Mayor Turner intends to float as a down payment. Pension obligation bonds have been floated in the past, by Mayor White, without a vote, but for whatever the reason some members of the Senate insisted on it, so here we are. Now it turns out that with interest rates likely to increase later in the year, waiting till after a vote in November to float the bonds will cost the city millions in extra payments. You would think the responsible thing to do would be to float them now while it’s less expensive, and so Mayor Turner has suggested that as a possibility.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner did not rule out Wednesday issuing the $1 billion in bonds that are central to his pension reform deal without a public referendum, a move that would sidestep a hotly debated requirement the Legislature added to ensure passage of the city-negotiated plan.

Turner said he and his staff are proceeding as though there will be a referendum, but the mayor said he may seek to issue the bonds without a vote if he can gain consensus among City Council members, state lawmakers and others that moving more quickly would benefit the city.

Specifically, he referenced the benefit of preempting an anticipated jump in interest rates. Waiting six to nine months to issue the bonds, the city finance department estimates, could cost taxpayers $135 million to $273 million more over the life of the debt.

“I find it highly unlikely that anything is going to take place other than the vote in November, and that’s how we’re proceeding,” Turner said. “If we can all agree on a certain course and it may be able to expedite things, then we’ll do that.

“I’m talking about agreement with everybody. We’ve come this far with everybody, both on the local levels as well as on the state level and my approach is to always move in collaboration with everyone. But if not, then we’ll proceed with the vote.”

[…]

Though much of the rhetoric surrounding the bill during legislative debates referenced that voters would have a chance to weigh in, the mayor’s team simply points to the text of the legislation as proof that they can proceed without a vote.

Current state law requires only that City Council enter into agreements with the pension funds that are to receive the bond proceeds – in this case, the police and municipal workers’ pension funds – in order to issue the bonds. The reform legislation adds the referendum requirement, but also states that the referendum provision applies only to those agreements signed on or after the effective date of the bill, which is July 1.

Turner plans to bring those agreements to council June 21, city officials said. Though adopting them would in no way obligate the city to issue the bonds without a vote, doing so would preserve that option.

Now you’d think the prospect of saving a couple hundred million bucks would appeal to pretty much everyone, but at the mere mention of this, several self-styled fiscal conservatives immediately contracted the vapors – seriously, CM Mike Knox walked out of the committee hearing upon being presented with this – so that would seem to scuttle the “if everyone is on the same page” possibility. And indeed, Mayor Turner has now walked back the idea and reassured everyone that we will indeed have a referendum, whatever the eventual cost may be. I get that not having a vote when everyone thought there was going to be a vote seems bait-and-switch-y, but 1) having a vote was not a requirement until people like Paul Bettencourt made it a requirement, and 2) interest rates are gonna go up, so it’s going to be more expensive to wait. But a deal’s a deal, so here we are. Hope everyone’s happy.

Voter ID 2.0 gets final passage

Hopefully, this will turn out to have been a waste of time.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas House and Senate have approved a deal to relax the state’s voter identification requirements, meaning the closely watched legislation now only awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval.

The Republican is expected to sign Senate Bill 5, capping a flurry of late activity that pushed the legislation to the finish line after some state leaders feared its demise — and legal consequences from inaction.

The House approved the compromise bill Sunday in a 92-56 vote — one day after the Senate backed the deal along party lines.

Sen. Joan Huffman’s bill, which would soften voter ID requirements once considered strictest in the nation, responds to court findings that the current law discriminated against black and Latino voters.

[…]

Under the final bill, Texans who own qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: a state driver’s license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate. Such IDs may be expired up to four years, thanks to a provision in the House bill that survived the compromise. Voters 70 years and older may use such IDs expired for any length of time.

The final bill stripped some provisions from the House legislation, including requirements that the secretary of state to study ways to boost the state’s perennially low voter turnout and that the agency reveal details — currently withheld — about its spending on voter education efforts.

House Democrats on Sunday voiced disappointment with those changes.

“The attempt was to try and bring some type of transparency, said Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who had pushed the spending disclosure provision. “My concern is basically handing a blank check over to the Secretary of State’s office.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sure the state and the Republicans didnt want to go into the June 7 status call with Judge Ramos empty-handed, but I really don’t see how this bill changes anything. It (barely) mitigates the effect of the 2011 voter ID law, but does not – cannot – address the discriminatory intent of the law. Add in the completely half-assed way the state implemented the court-ordered mitigations in 2016, as well as its refusal to be transparent about those efforts should make it clear that they are trying to do the tiniest minimum to get out from under the court order. The only answer here, the only way to get their attention, is to throw the law out entirely, and invoke Section 3 to make it harder for a new voter ID bill to get passed. Here’s hoping.

Houston pension reform bill passes

It’s done.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas House on Wednesday approved the controversial Senate version of a bill that aims to overhaul Houston’s failing pension funds — over the passionate objections of current and former firefighters.

Senate Bill 2190, which passed in a 103-43 vote, now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. But the months of rancor between firefighters and Houston officials promise to linger long after the legislative session ends Monday.

[…]

The Houston bill passed Wednesday without two amendments the House had previously added in an apparent attempt to appease firefighters. One amendment would have prevented the bill from impacting current firefighter retirees. The other could have allowed the firefighter pension system to bear a smaller burden in paying down unfunded liabilities shoring up billions in shortfalls in three city employee retirement funds.

That drew the anger of firefighter pension members, dozens of whom sat in the House gallery Wednesday. Some shouted down to representatives as they walked out after the vote. One woman could be heard yelling, “Shameful!”

After the vote, Houston firefighter pension board chairman David Keller said he was disappointed in the vote. During the session, pension officials had suggested such legislation could be unconstitutional because it determines the financial boundaries the fund should stay within. Keller said the Constitution says that power is left solely to the pension board.

Keller said it was too soon to determine if the pension board will file a lawsuit.

“We will explore every option available to us,” he said.

But state Rep. Dan Flynn, who carried the bill in the House, said that killing the bill because firefighters remained unhappy would have exasperated the dire financial situation the city and the retirement funds are experiencing. The bill addresses pensions for firefighters, police and municipal employees.

“If we don’t pass it, there won’t be any pensions,” the Canton Republican told The Texas Tribune earlier this year.

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, authored the amendment that could have helped the firefighter pension fund bear less of the burden shoring up the city’s shortfalls. The amendment would have given pension officials more time to provide data showing that financial forecasts estimate the fund will be in better shape than Houston officials estimated.

But on Wednesday, he urged his colleagues to vote for the bill without the amendment.

“We’ve done everything we can to work hard in good faith,” Huberty said.

Keller, the pension chairman, said the pension board offered to provide the data under licensing agreements that included confidentiality provisions. He said the city never responded.

When asked if firefighters would campaign against any Houston-area state officials who backed the bill, Keller said “it’s hard to say.”

“But I know the firefighters are having a lot of emotions right now: loss, anger,” he said. “And they’ve been shown to be politically active.”

See here for the background. The firefighters are gonna do what the firefighters are gonna do. I get they’re unhappy and to an extent I don’t blame them, but this is where we are, and it took a lot of effort to get here. At this point, the main thing I’ll be looking for is who will be campaigning against the pension obligation bonds. It’s one thing to say we need to vote on those things (even if we hadn’t voted on them before), it’s another to say we should vote against them. Until then, kudos to all for getting this done, and congratulations to Mayor Turner for doing what once seemed to be impossible. The Mayor’s press release is here, and the Chron has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the longer Chron story.

House passes Voter ID 2.0

Some minor changes, but the same basic idea.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas House on Tuesday tentatively approved legislation to overhaul the state’s embattled voter identification law, moving it one step closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Senate Bill 5 would in several ways relax what some had called the nation’s most stringent ID requirements for voters — a response to court findings that the current law discriminated against black and Latino voters.

The 95-54 vote followed a six-hour debate that saw fierce pushback from Democrats, who argued the legislation wouldn’t go far enough to expand ballot access and contains provisions that might discourage some Texans from going to the polls. Democrats proposed a host of changes through amendments, a few of which surprisingly wriggled through.

Tuesday’s vote was part of flurry of last-minute efforts to salvage a bill that languished in the House for nearly two months, worrying Republican leaders who believed inaction would torpedo the state’s position — and bring down federal election oversight — in ongoing litigation over the current ID law.

[…]

Before it reaches Abbott, the bill must return to the Senate, which must weigh seven House amendments or request a conference committee to squabble over each chamber’s legislation. One amendment would allow voters to present IDs that had been expired for four years, rather than two years, as the Senate bill would. Another would require the secretary of state to study ways to boost the state’s perennially low voter turnout, and a third amendment would require the secretary of state’s office to reveal details — currently withheld — about its spending on voter education efforts.

Democrats said the amended SB 5 would not pass legal muster, arguing lawmakers should instead scrap all vestiges of the 2011 law.

“We’re in for a long, hot summer of having to defend this in court,” said Rep. Alfonso Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass. “And guess what? We’re going to lose again.”

See here for the background. I agree with Rep. Nevarez. Changing how voter ID is enforced now has no bearing on the intent of the law when it was passed. That can’t be fixed by amending the law. I grant, the state will have a better defense with SB5 on the books, but I’m skeptical and Judge Ramos ought to be as well. The Chron has more.

House and Senate concur on pension bill

One more vote in each chamber, then it’s on to get a signature.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Legislature is expected to take its final votes on Houston’s pension reform legislation within days after a group of House and Senate lawmakers Sunday night hashed out the differences between their chambers’ versions and produced a final bill.

Stripped from the proposal that emerged Sunday evening were three amendments backed by firefighters and opposed by City Hall, said state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who carried the measure in the upper chamber and who was among the 10 lawmakers tasked with reconciling the bills. The excised amendments had been added earlier this month when the House followed the Senate in approving its version the reform package.

“It’s a great bill that’s good for the taxpayers, for retirees and for the employees,” Huffman said late Sunday. “I think it is a good solution.”

The development puts Mayor Sylvester Turner on the doorstep of a landmark achievement that he has made the central focus of his first year and a half in office and that aims to end a 16-year crisis that has increasingly imperiled the city’s finances.

“There is only one step left for the Legislature to take,” the mayor said late Sunday. “Houston needs their support for our police officers, municipal employees, firefighters and Houston taxpayers. We cannot afford to fail. I believe the Legislature won’t let us down.”

See here and here for the background. Basically, it sounds like the original Senate version of the bill was restored. The firefighters aren’t happy with the loss of the House amendments, all of which benefited them, but that’s the way it goes. There are no guarantees in this world, but this looks pretty set for passage.

Texting while driving ban passes the Senate

We’ll see if this one gets signed into law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Legislation that would create a statewide texting-while-driving ban overcame a last-ditch attempt in the Senate on Friday to gut the bill. The bill’s author, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said he will concur with the changes the Senate made. The measure will then head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed an amendment that would’ve outlined an offense as both having been committed in the presence of an officer and having required evidence the driver was not paying attention. The current version of the bill requires either threshold rather than both.

In laying out his amendment, Taylor said that given the list of exceptions to the law that would permit drivers to use their phone — such as operating a navigational tool, reading what the driver believes to be an emergency message, and playing music — requiring more evidence is warranted.

Taylor held up his cell phone and asked his fellow members, “What am I doing? I’m actually looking at [navigational app] Waze, looking for the quickest way out of here,” he joked. “Now I’m searching the greatest hits of the 60’s. These are all things that are legal. So I have issue with that.”

Several Republican and Democratic members rose to say his change would make the law unenforceable.

“It won’t stop all behavior, but I believe when something is against the law, people will hesitate,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. “And if this law saves one life, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

The amendment ultimately failed with a 12-19 vote.

After amendments, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the bill’s Senate sponsor, took the floor.

“I have waited 10 years to make this motion: I move final passage of HB 62,” the Laredo Democrat said.

Without any further discussion, House Bill 62 passed the Senate on a 23-8 vote.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, Sen. Huffman’s argument about the Taylor amendment – I can’t quite tell if she’s arguing for it or against it, not that it really matters – is my view of texting-while-driving bans as a whole. The act of making it illegal will almost certainly cause a significant number of people who are now texting and otherwise fooling around on their phones while driving – and in my observation there’s a lot of those people out there – to stop doing it, just because it is illegal. That to me makes it worthwhile. I strongly suspect that recent massive fatal crash that occurred while one driver was busy texting helped move a few votes. As the story notes, a Craddick texting ban bill was vetoed in 2011 by Rick Perry. Craddick says that Greg Abbott’s office has assured him this one will be signed. We’ll know within the next three weeks or so. The Chron has more.

A bipartisan bill to address actual vote fraud

Miracles do happen.

Here’s something folks rarely see in Austin, or other statehouses, in these politically prickly times: a bipartisan effort to crack down on voter fraud.

In the waning days of the 85th Texas Legislative Session, a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers — backed by party leaders — are pushing to tighten oversight of absentee ballots cast at nursing homes, which experts have long called vulnerable to abuse.

This effort has another twist: It could also bolster ballot access among the elderly.

“When was the last time you heard about a voter fraud bill that actually made it easier to vote?” said Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, one of the Republicans championing the proposal.

A bill he filed died this week after failing to reach the House floor. But a unanimous Senate committee vote Thursday gave some life to identical legislation, Senate Bill 2149, filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.

It would create a process for collecting absentee ballots at nursing homes — essentially turning them into temporary polling places during early voting — to ensure facility staffers or others aren’t manipulating residents’ votes. That’s been a well-documented threat surrounding such vulnerable voters.

“Many of our elderly voters in Texas are being disenfranchised,” Eric Opiela, a lawyer for the Texas Republican Party, told lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Committee on State Affairs.

[…]

State law allows Texans with disabilities, those who are at least 65 years old, or those who plan to be out of the county during voting to request a mail-in ballot. That typically includes voters at residential care facilities. Huffman’s bill would change the process for homes that request five or more absentee ballots. During early voting, counties would send election judges to deliver the ballots and oversee voting at those homes, providing assistance if need be. And political parties could send registered poll watchers, just as they do at regular polling places.

Qualified voters who might have forgotten to request an absentee ballot could fill out such paperwork on site and cast a vote during the election judges’ visit.

“This is just going to help seniors vote. It’s going to allow them to participate in greater numbers,” said Rep. Eric Johnson, a Dallas Democrat who authored the House legislation with Oliverson, and has closely followed the Dallas fraud investigation.

Glen Maxey, legislative director for the Texas Democratic Party, on Thursday called the bill “the biggest expansion of voting rights in Texas since we moved to early voting.”

Would it be churlish of me to say that Democrats have argued in vain for years that voter ID laws have no effect on mail ballot fraud, and that if the Republicans had been serious about combating the kind of vote fraud that actually happens they wouldn’t have gotten their asses handed to them in the voter ID lawsuit? Because if it would be churlish of me to say that, well, too bad, I’ve already said it. As far as this bill goes, if Glen Maxey says it’s a good bill, it’s a good bill. Let’s hope it makes it to the finish line.

Senate rejects House changes to Houston pension reform bill

Conference committee, here we come.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas Senate on Wednesday refused to concur with House-passed amendments to a reform bill designed to resolve financial problems for Houston’s pension system.

Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who is the author of the legislation, said the House changes would be too costly and would derail a tentative agreement brokered by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Huffman, saying the passage of the bill “is absolutely essential to the city’s future,” said one of the House amendments alone would add an additional $26.7 million to the cost of the reforms, an unaffordable amount.

Huffman was appointed chair for Senate negotiators assigned to negotiate a final version of the bill, joined by Sens. Jane Nelson, Charles Schwertner, Kelly Hancock and Carlos Uresti.

See here for the background. The amendment in question was authored by Rep. Dwayne Bohac; the Chron called for its removal, so there’s that. My guess is that the final version of the bill will be more or less the Senate version, and it ought to be approved without too much difficulty.

Senate passes pension reform bill

Progress.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform package passed the Texas Senate by a 25-5 margin Monday, as a possible political blockade dissolved to provide the landmark proposal a speedy passage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s reforms now await a hearing in the state House on Saturday.

“I believe this current version is our best chance at significant pension reform and, members, be assured: This is significant pension reform,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who carried the measure in the upper chamber. “Without this reform, the city might head toward bankruptcy.”

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, another Houston Republican, had indicated he planned to offer an amendment to allow voters to impose 401(k)-style “defined contribution” plans on future city employees, which worker groups view as providing insufficient security in retirement.

Bettencourt stood down and praised the final version of the legislation, however, thanks to a compromise — negotiated among business groups, city leaders and pension officials over the weekend — that added a pathway to “cash balance” plans, a typically less generous type of traditional pension plan.

New hires would be forced into those plans only if the existing pensions financial health eroded to a specified point.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release. I’m sure there will be a longer Chron story this morning – I’ll link to it when it’s up – but this is sufficient for now. This “failsafe” that was grafted on as an alternative to the Bettencourt forced-401(k)-vote amendment, which bubbled up to the surface over the weekend, may or may not ever amount to anything and I’m not sure what I think of it, but it’s probably better than the Bettencourt amendment, so I’ll take it for now.

The House companion bill is on the calendar for Saturday, so this is where the rubber meets the road. This bill already differs in that it doesn’t have the provision requiring a vote on the pension obligation bonds. We’ll see what happens with this amendment as well. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: Here’s that longer Chron story.

Petitions submitted to force another pension vote

Oh, good grief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill to fix voting interpreters considered

This needs to happen, and it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

Almost three years after Mallika Das, a naturalized citizen who spoke Bengali, was unable to vote properly because she was not proficient in English, Texas lawmakers are considering a change to an obscure provision of Texas election law regarding language interpreters.

Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday took up Senate Bill 148 by Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, which would repeal a section of the state’s election code that requires interpreters to be registered voters in the same county they are providing help.

The measure will ensure that voters are able “to meaningfully and effectively exercise their vote,” Garcia told the committee. “This ensures that voters have the capacity to navigate polling stations, communicate with election officers and understand how to fill out required forms and answer questions directed at them by any election officer.”

Garcia’s proposal comes amid an ongoing legal battle over the state’s interpreter provision in a lawsuit brought by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund on behalf of Das, who has since died, and the Greater Houston chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

Because she had found it difficult to vote in the past, Das in 2014 brought her son, Saurabh, to help her cast her vote at a Williamson County polling place. But when her son told poll workers he was there to interpret the English ballot for his mother, they ran into the state’s interpreter requirements. Saurabh could not serve as an interpreter for his mother because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County.

[…]

One provision of the state election code allows for “assistors.” It says voters can receive help reading or marking a ballot and states that assistance “occurs while the person is in the presence of the voter’s ballot.”

Yet a separate provision allows voters to select an “interpreter” to help them communicate with an election officer and “accompany the voter to the voting station for the purpose of translating the ballot to the voter.” The interpreter, unlike an assistor, must be registered to vote in the same county.

In Das’ case, had her son simply told poll workers he was “assisting” his mother — and not that the assistance involved interpreting the ballot for her — he would have been able to go into the voting booth with her.

Garcia’s proposal would essentially consolidate all forms of assistance and remove any requirements related to voter registration.

While the measure has picked up support by the Texas Association of Election Administrators, representatives with the Harris County Clerk’s Office, including Ed Johnson, testified against Garcia’s proposal.

“In Harris County, we think the role of an interpreter is different to the role of an assistant,” Johnson said, adding that the issue was a currently a “moot point” because the law has been put on hold and court is “still working through that process.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The lawsuit in question is being appealed to the Fifth Circuit, but if Sen. Garcia’s bill were to pass, it would (I assume) moot the issue. I honestly don’t get the argument against this, but that doesn’t mean Stan Stanart isn’t going to do Stan Stanart things. Sen. Garcia’s bill was left pending in committee, and an identical bill by Rep. Ramon Romero was not withdrawn from the House Elections Committee schedule, so there has been no action taken yet. Contact your Senator on the State Affairs Committee if you want to see this bill get passed.

Pension reform bill passes House committee

Two for two.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform bill will now move to the floor of each legislative chamber after a Texas House committee joined its Senate counterparts in passing the measure 6-1 Wednesday.

With Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, opposed, the pensions committee adopted House Bill 43, which will now head to a scheduling committee to be set for its next hearing.

“I am thankful to the committee members and Chairman Dan Flynn,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a prepared statement, referencing the Dallas-area Republican who oversees pension discussions. “Our solution continues to make historic progress in Austin. I am happy to see that our state lawmakers understand how important this is to Houston’s future. We are going to keep up the pressure until our plan becomes law.”

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman’s committee passed the bill last month by a similar margin of 7-1. The main difference between the bills is that Huffman’s version seeks a referendum on pension bonds such as the $1 billion in bonds that are a key part of the reform package; the House version does not include that language.

See here and here for the background. The easy passage in the House committee, coupled with the passage of the Huffman bill in the full Senate, bodes well for the reform effort despite the opposition from the firefighters. Assuming HB43 does pass the full House, either it will need to go through the Senate or Sen. Huffman’s SB2190 will have to pass the House. The matter of whether or not to require a vote on the pension obligation bonds will be worked out one way or the other, and then we’ll go from there.

Let the clerks out of it

I approve of this.

The state’s leading LGBT advocacy group has thrown its support behind a bill that would accommodate county clerks with religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Under Senate Bill 911, by state Senator Joan Huffman, R-Sugar Land, marriage licenses in Texas would no longer specify the names of clerks who issue them, instead listing only the counties where they’re obtained.

Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, said though he hasn’t spoken with anyone from Huffman’s office about SB 911, his group is supporting the bill as “a simple solution.”

“If there are county clerks who want to make a stink, then this proposed legislation cuts their feet off,” Smith said. “Your name isn’t on it [the license]. Nobody would know. Do your job.”

[…]

SB 911 is one of at least four proposals in the 85th Legislature dealing with county clerks and marriage licenses. Others would allow clerks to opt out of issuing licenses to same-sex couples altogether, in some cases forcing them to travel to adjacent counties, which experts say would run afoul of the Obergefell decision.

“The delivery of the service, the access to a license, has to be the same for all people, and if that can be accomplished, we are supportive of that,” Smith said. “I would suggest that [SB 911] is the solution to eliminate any of the other proposed legislation related to county clerks or related to marriage licenses that we would oppose.”

The story notes the Hood County saga, and quotes the Irion County Clerk, who allows that this might satisfy the objections of people like her. I personally don’t think that County Clerks should need to be accommodated in this way since none of this is about them, but whatever. If something as simple as this will get the complainers to knock it off, then I’m all for it.

Busy day in the Senate

They got stuff done, I’ll give them that. Whether it was stuff worth doing or not, I’ll leave to you.

1. Senate bill would let Houston voters weigh in on fix to pension crisis.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 21-10 to give preliminary approval of a bill that would require voters to sign off before cities issue pension obligation bonds, a kind of public debt that infuses retirement funds with lump-sum payments. Issuing $1 billion in those bonds is a linchpin of Houston officials’ proposal to decrease the city’s unfunded pension liabilities that are estimated to be at least $8 billion.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told The Texas Tribune earlier this month that if the bill becomes law and voters reject the $1 billion bond proposition, a delicate and hard-fought plan to curb a growing pension crisis would be shrouded in uncertainty. He also argued that the debt already exists because the city will have to pay it at some point to make good on promises to pension members.

But lawmakers said voters should get to weigh in when cities take on such large amounts of bond debt.

“Of course the voters themselves should be the ultimate decider,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who authored the bill.

[…]

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said at a hearing on several pension bills last week that Houston voters would likely approve the pension bonds – and that she would publicly support the measure. Nonetheless, holding an election on the issue is worthwhile, she maintained.

“The voters want to have a say when the city takes on debt in this way,” she said.

See here and here for the background. The referendum that the Senate bill would require is not a sure thing as the House bill lacks such a provision. We’ll see which chamber prevails. As you know, I’m basically agnostic about this, but let’s please skip the fiction that the pension bonds – which the city has floated in the past with no vote – represents “taking on debt”. The city already owes this money. The bonds are merely a refinancing of existing debt. Vote if we must, but anyone who opposes this referendum is someone who wants to see the pension deal fail. Speaking of voting…

2. Senate OKs measure requiring public vote on Astrodome project.

In a move that could block Harris County’s plans to redevelop the Astrodome, the Texas Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that would require a public vote on using tax funds on the project.

Senate Bill 884 by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would require a public vote before Harris County can spend any taxpayer money to improve or redevelop the Astrodome. “Elections are supposed to matter … and this is an example of how a governing body is trying to ignore an election and go contrary to a popular vote,” Whitmire said.

[…]

The proposal has drawn opposition from Houston lawmakers who said that move violates the 2013 decision by voters.

Sens. Paul Bettencourt and Joan Huffman, both Houston Republicans, said voters should be given the opportunity to determine whether the new project goes forward because they earlier rejected spending tax money on the restoration.

“The taxpayers of Harris County would be on the hook for this project, and they should be allowed to have a say in whether they want to pay for it,” Huffman said.

Added Whitmire, “After the voters have said no, you don’t go back with your special interests and spend tax money on the Astrodome anyway.”

See here, here, and here for the background. You now where I stand on this. Commissioners Court has to take some of the blame for this bill’s existence, as the consequences of failure for that 2013 referendum were never specified, but this is still a dumb idea and an unprecedented requirement for a non-financed expenditure.

3. Fetal tissue disposal bill gets initial OK in Texas Senate.

Legislation that would require medical centers to bury or create the remains of aborted fetuses won initial approval in the Texas Senate Wednesday.

Because Senate Bill 258 by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, did not have enough votes to be finally approved, a follow-up vote will be needed before it goes to the House.

In the Republican-controlled Senate, where anti-abortion fervor runs strong, that step is all but assured.

[…]

After lengthy debate on Wednesday, the measure passed 22-9. Final passage in the Senate could come as soon as Thursday, after which it will go to the House for consideration.

It is one of several abortion-related measures that have passed the Senate this legislative session. Republican lawmakers supported Senate Bill 8 that would ban abortion providers from donating fetal tissue from abortions for medical research, and Senate Bill 415, which targets an abortion procedure known as “dilation and evacuation.”

Bills also have been filed by Democrats to reverse the 24-hour period a woman must wait to get an abortion and to cover contraceptives for Texans under age 18. The likelihood of those being approved in the GOP-controlled Legislature is considered almost nil.

I have no idea what that second paragraph means; all bills are voted on three times. Whatever. That sound you hear in the background are the lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights loosening up in the bullpen.

4. Texas Senate approves ban on government collecting union dues.

A controversial bill to prohibit state and local governments from deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks was tentatively approved Wednesday by the Texas Senate after a divisive, partisan debate.

The Republican author, Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, denied the measure was anti-union or was designed to target a historical source of support for Democrats, even though she acknowledged that Republican primary voters overwhelmingly support the change.

Police, firefighter and emergency medics’ organizations are exempted from the ban, after those groups had threatened to kill the bill if they were covered the same as teacher groups, labor unions and other employee associations.

Groups not exempted will have to collect dues on their own, a move that some have said will be cumbersome and expensive. Those groups include organizations representing correctional officers, CPS workers and teachers, among others.

I’m going to hand this off to Ed Sills and his daily AFL-CIO newsletter:

Huffman, knowing she had the votes, repeatedly fell back on the argument that government should not be in the business of collecting dues for labor organizations. She never offered any justification for that view beyond ideology. Nor did she provide evidence of a problem with using the same voluntary, cost-free payroll deduction system that state and local employees may steer to insurance companies, advocacy organizations and charities.

Huffman tried to make the distinction between First Responders, who are exempt from the bill, and other state and local employees by saying police and firefighter unions are not known to “harass” employers in Texas. But she had no examples in which other unions of public employees had “harassed” employers.

“One person’s harassment is another person’s political activism,” Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said while questioning Huffman about the bill.

Watson noted the main proponents of the bill are business organizations that do not represent public employees.

Huffman was also grilled by Sens. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, John Whitmire, D-Houston, Royce West, D-Dallas, and Borris Miles, D-Houston. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, offered several strong amendments, but they were voted down by the same margin that the bill passed. The senators relayed testimony from a variety of public employees who said SB 13 would be a significant hardship to them and they could not understand why the Legislature would pursue the bill.

At one point, Huffman declared, “This is a fight against unions.” But it was beyond that, even though the measure was first conceived by the rabidly anti-union National Right to Work Foundation and even though the Texas Public Policy Foundation published a report estimating a substantial decline in public union membership if the bill becomes law. It’s a fight against teachers, against correctional officers, against child abuse investigators and against most other stripes of public employees who only want what most working people would consider a routine employer service.

Particularly galling was Huffman’s general assertion that correctional officers, teachers and other dedicated public employees fall short in some way when it comes to meriting payroll deduction, which state and local governments basically provide with a few clicks of a keyboard.

Huffman was under certain misimpressions. In questioning by Whitmire, she repeatedly declared that it would be “easy” for unions to collect dues through some automatic process outside payroll deduction. Whitmire stated, however, that many state employees make little and do not have either checking accounts or credit cards. Huffman was skeptical that some union members essentially operate on a cash-in, cash-out basis.

Despite her assertion that it would be easy to collect dues from public employees outside payroll deduction, Huffman clearly recognized that when other states approved similar bills, union membership dropped.

To use an oft-spoken phrase, it’s a solution in search of a problem. And as with the other bills, further evidence that “busy” is not the same as “productive”. See here for more.

House hearing for pension bill

Another step in the process.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform plan got its first hearing Monday in the state House, where rows and rows of current and retired firefighters appeared to voice opposition to the plan.

Municipal and police leaders testified in support, however, as did representatives of the Greater Houston Partnership and, of course, Mayor Sylvester Turner, who spent most of his first year in office negotiating the package.

“It is not the perfect pension bill, because, quite frankly, I don’t know if you can get the perfect pension bill, but it is a very good bill for all parties concerned,” Turner said at the hearing.

Even the opposition of the firefighters was tempered somewhat by the testimony of their pension fund chairman, David Keller.

He said a series of talks since the bill cleared a Senate committee by a 7-1 vote last week have produced “great movement” in better aligning the current proposal to the general terms Keller’s board approved last October, before negotiations lagged and his group failed to reach agreement with the city on final legislative language. Disputes over sharing information led the city to propose deeper cuts than initially had been agreed to; Keller said those issues have been resolved in the last week.

Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he had even heard Monday morning from some firefighters who seemed to be in support of the bill. Keller said that was not quite right, but he was “hopeful” his board might ultimately wind up in agreement.

“Firefighters are not immovable,” Keller said. “We heard loud and clear that we should not expect status quo, and we did not expect status quo.”

That’s decidedly less contentious than the firefighters’ previous statement, so that’s good. No one has to love this bill, but everyone has to be able to live with it. The House bill (HB43 by Rep. Dan Flynn, who is the Chair of the Pensions Committee) differs from the Senate bill in that it does not require a vote on the pension obligation bonds. Hard to say at this point which version will prevail, but I’d expect both will have some changes made before all is said and done. HB43 was left pending in committee, so it’s not ready to advance to the House floor just yet.

Voter ID 2.0 passes out of the Senate

Meh.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Senate tentatively approved legislation Monday that would revamp the state’s voter identification rules, a response to court rulings that the current law discriminates against minority voters.

Following more than an hour of debate, the chamber voted 21-10 to move the bill to a final vote, likely later this week.

Sen. Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 5 would add options for Texas voters who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. It would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

“I’m committed to constitutionally sound photo identification at polling places,” Huffman said.

Voting rights advocates have called the expanded list of options an improvement over the current embattled law, but they have pushed for ID options beyond those included in Huffman’s bill and raised concerns over the strict penalties for false claims.

[…]

“My intent with the bill is to take the roadmap that the 5th Circuit gave us,” Huffman said.

But those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID — by falsely signing the “reasonable impediment” form — could be charged with a third-degree felony under Huffman’s bill. Such crimes carry penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Sen. José Rodríguez of El Paso was among Democrats seeking to soften the punishment, calling it too harsh for the crime — particularly in cases where a Texan is otherwise casting a legal vote.

“It has the effect of scaring people, intimidating people,” he said. “We should not be putting people in jail for up to 10 years for a lie that is frankly of no consequence.”

See here for the background. The bill was amended to require “intentionally” making a false claim about not having ID in order to be prosecuted, which I appreciate. The whole thing still suffers from “solution in search of a problem” syndrome, but depending on how the question of discriminatory intent gets resolved, in the end it may not matter. Even if that doesn’t happen, I suspect there will be another lawsuit down the line, perhaps after someone gets busted. Voter ID will suck a little bit less under SB5, but it’s still voter ID.

Pension reform bill passes Senate committee

A major step forward.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform plan cleared a state Senate committee in its initial hearing at the Capitol on Monday, despite the fact that all those who testified – including Mayor Sylvester Turner – opposed at least some portion of the omnibus package.

Retirees were concerned about benefit cuts. Some conservatives said the only path to true reform wold be to move new hires into defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s, which the bill does not do. Firefighters, who never agreed to final language with the city, are opposed in part because the legislation would cut their benefits by what the state Pension Review Board estimates to be $970 million, up from about $800 million the firefighters agreed to in approving initial reform terms last fall.

Turner says those deeper cuts are to ensure the city gets the savings it needs in spite of the fire pension not providing comprehensive data to predict future costs; fire leaders say an ongoing lawsuit prevents them from complying. For his part, Turner – along with the city’s police and municipal worker groups – opposes the bill as written because Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, added a requirement that the public vote on pension bonds that are a key piece of the proposal; the mayor has called the clause a “poison pill.” Ultimately, city officials hope the provision could be excised at some point in the legislative process. Turner also listed seven technical changes he wants that he said appear to be drafting errors in the bill; Huffman took no issue with those, but defended her decision to call for a public vote on the pension bonds.

The provision is a pet project of another Houston Republican, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose standalone bill to require a vote on any Texas municipality’s pension bonds also passed the committee on Monday.

“It’s important that voters have input,” Huffman said, adding that she believes voters would approve, that she would campaign for the bonds’ passage, and that the underlying math of the proposal would work without the bonds.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. The Huffman bill is SB2190; the House companion bill, which will have its hearing next Monday, is HB43. You know I’m not philosophically opposed to voting on the pension bonds, but as I said before, elections have winners and losers. I’ll be very interested to see who joins Mayor Turner and Sen. Huffman in campaigning for that bond issue to win, and who will join with the sore losers in campaigning for it to fail.

Voter ID 2.0 clears Senate committee

Seems likely this will go the distance.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A Texas Senate panel cleared legislation Monday that would overhaul the state’s voter identification rules, an effort to comply with court rulings that the current law discriminates against black and Latino voters.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-0 to send the legislation to the full chamber.

Filed by Committee Chairwoman Joan Huffman, Senate Bill 5 would add options for Texas voters who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. It would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

Huffman’s bill would allow voters older than 70 to cast ballots using expired but otherwise acceptable photo IDs. The bill would also require the Texas secretary of state to create a mobile program for issuing election identification certificates.

“The people of the state of Texas demand integrity at the ballot box,” Huffman said Monday. “I am committed to constitutionally sound voter ID.”

Voting rights advocates call the expanded list of options an improvement over the current embattled law, but have raised concerns over the strict penalties for false claims.

[…]

Huffman’s bill would follow that format, allowing voters without photo identification to present documents such as a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck. And election officers could not question the “reasonableness” of the excuse for not having photo ID. But those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID could be charged with a third-degree felony under Huffman’s bill. Such crimes carry penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Celina Moreno, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, testified Monday that Huffman’s bill was a “major improvement” over the current law. But she pressed lawmakers to remove the felony penalties, calling them “voter intimidation.”

Matthew Simpson, with the ACLU of Texas, suggested that a third-degree felony is often reserved for violent conduct.

See here, here, and here for some background. Let me state up front that voter ID is and will always be hogwash, a non-solution to a non-existent problem whose primary purpose is making it harder for some people to vote. A real fix for voter ID, if we must have voter ID, requires allowing more forms of acceptable ID and ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote has easy access to at least one form of acceptable ID. This bill doesn’t do that. It does make our existing and now-illegal system of voter ID slightly better, and as such I agree with Moreno and Simpson. If SB5 does pass in this form it won’t surprise me if someone eventually sues over the harshness of the penalties. And if it does pass, even in a form that is much more to my preferences, it does not affect the big question of whether or not the Republicans who passed it in 2011 did so with discriminatory intent. I’d rather see SB5 pass than fail, but my first choice will always be for it to not be needed at all.

Once more with feeling on voter ID

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern says that Tuesday’s arguments about whether Texas’ voter ID law was enacted with discriminatory intent or not went well for the plaintiffs, and not for the state or its new buddies in the Justice Department.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Tuesday’s hearing was supposed to be all about the question of intent. But the DOJ’s last-minute move to side with Texas rather than the coalition challenging the law threw it for a loop, necessitating a discussion of the agency’s new position. John Gore, the deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, spoke briefly, urging the court to dismiss the discriminatory intent claim. (The agency’s acting head of the Civil Rights Division, Thomas Wheeler, recused himself because he advised Texas legislators as they wrote the bill. Small world!) Gore pointed out that Texas is considering an amendment that will allegedly address the legal problems with the bill, SB14.

“If it follows through,” he said, “and we are hopeful it will, that resolves this case.”

But does it? Judge Ramos wasn’t so sure.

“How,” she asked, “does a new bill affect a ruling on discriminatory purpose on SB14?” After all, an amendment can’t alter the legislature’s intent in passing the original bill. (The Trump administration may face a similar problem in its efforts to scrub Islamophobia from its next travel ban.)

“It creates a new legislative mosaic,” Gore said, with lots of feeling, if not much logic. “It paints a new picture of Texas’ intent with regard to voter ID.”

Chad Dunn, a member of the legal team representing the plaintiffs in the case, tried his best not to look aghast and very nearly succeeded.

“The Voting Rights Act does not deal around the edges,” he said in rebuttal to Gore. “It requires courts to strike down a discriminatory law and all of its tentacles. Texas may change the staging or the dress of SB14, but the underlying architecture remains.”

To Dunn, the key problem with SB14 is the limitations it places on the forms of ID voters may use at the polls. A handgun license, for instance, is sufficient to cast a ballot; a student ID is not. Minorities are significantly less likely to have the required IDs than whites. Dunn argues that SB14 was crafted with the aim to create “a disparate impact on Latinos.” Even if Texas remedies this problem, its original bill may still have been enacted with discriminatory intent, meriting federal oversight of future voting-related laws.

In her previous ruling, Ramos laid out a comprehensive case demonstrating why the legislature had intentionally endeavored to restrict the suffrage of minority voters. On Tuesday, attorneys for the plaintiffs took turns reciting her reasoning back to her. The argument here is not rocket science. In support of SB14, the Texas legislature professed fears about voter impersonation that were unsupported by evidence. It also approved IDs that minorities are much less likely to have and rejected amendments designed to lessen the bill’s impact on minorities. Gov. Rick Perry declared the bill an “emergency item,” allowing the legislature to rush it through committee to an up-or-down floor vote, altering or suspending multiple procedural rules along the way. And it did all this in the face of dramatic demographic changes that could give minorities unprecedented influence over state representation.

In short—as Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said on Tuesday—“your honor, and the United States, got this right the first time around.” The court, Rosenberg said, “may infer from these shifting and tenuous rationales that there is pretext at work.” There is, he alleged, “a mountain of evidence” that Texas acted with racist intent, even if it is all circumstantial. Janai Nelson, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, hit the same themes. “An overwhelming majority of factual findings unassailably supports your previous opinion,” she told Ramos. “The legislature designed SB14 with surgical precision to discriminate against minority voters. Republicans chose IDs that that Anglos were more likely to possess and excluded IDs minorities are more likely to possess. Impersonation fraud is largely mythical.” And “this aggressive fixation on an illusory problem” is evidence of unlawfully discriminatory intent.

Up until this point, Ramos remained mostly quiet, though she took extensive notes. When Angela Colmenero stood up to argue on behalf of Texas, the dynamics shifted dramatically. Colmenero, aided by a nifty PowerPoint presentation, explained that in passing SB14, the legislature was acting upon extensive evidence that voter impersonation was a serious problem in Texas. Ramos suddenly leaned forward, looking genuinely confused.

“Why was this not introduced at trial?” she asked, referring to the lengthy bench trial she held in 2014 during which Texas could not prove that voter fraud was real. “Texas,” she continued, “did not present any evidence about any of these things.”

Colmenero admitted that the purported evidence was really just testimony in House and Senate committee hearings, testimony that was not supported by any proof.

“But that’s all hearsay,” Ramos observed. “People saying X, Y, Z—that’s not evidence for a trial court. ‘So-and-so’s [deceased] grandfather voted’—that’s not court evidence.”

See here for the background. I Am Not A Lawyer, but having the judge lecture you about standards of evidence seems like an indication that your case is not going well. Nonetheless, as the Express News notes, Judge Ramos has asked for briefs on how the voter ID 2.0 bill will affect the case, with a March 21 deadline. We’ll see what happens then. The Brennan Center, the NYT, and the Chron have more.

Our first look at Senate district data

The Trib looks at the data we now have.

Sen. Don Huffines

In the state Senate, one Republican — Don Huffines of Dallas — is now representing a district that Clinton easily won, while two more — Konni Burton of Colleyville and Joan Huffman of Houston — are now sitting in areas that Clinton almost carried. In the House, 10 Republicans are now representing districts that Clinton won, while several more are now sitting in areas she came close to winning.

The question in those districts, like so many surrounding Trump’s election across the country, is whether the dramatic swings in 2016 were meaningful shifts that could have implications in future elections. That question is particularly pressing for the 11 Texas Republicans now representing districts that voted for Clinton, all of whom are up for re-election in 2018.

[…]

In addition to [Rep. Pete] Sessions’ [Congressional] district, [Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Carol] Donovan said the party is already zeroing in on Huffines’ district, which Clinton won by 5 points after Romney carried it by 15 points four years prior. Aware of the swing, Huffines’ team does not blame Democrats for prioritizing the district — but also is not sweating 2018 quite yet.

“We take it seriously, but it’s not a hair-on-fire moment,” said Matt Langston, a Republican consultant who works for Huffines.

While Huffines’ district was the only GOP-held state Senate district that Clinton won, she almost carried two others. She came within a point of winning Burton’s and Huffman’s districts, which in 2012 went for Romney by 8 points and 20 points, respectively.

I should note that the comprehensive data for the 2016 elections are not yet available at the Texas Legislative Council’s FTP site, but as of two weeks ago the data for each individual district can be found via the following formulation:

http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/fyiwebdocs/PDF/senate/dist16/r8.pdf
http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/fyiwebdocs/PDF/house/dist66/r8.pdf

Just substitute the appropriate district number as needed and you’re good. Eventually, that data will be linked on each Member’s bio page on the official House and Senate sites, but for now this will do.

I’ve been talking about Huffines and the need to make him a top electoral target next year, and so I am delighted to see these numbers. As always, though, some context and perspective is needed, so with that in mind, here’s a larger view of the field of play.


Dist     Incumbent  Clinton%  Trump%    Obama%   Romney%
========================================================
SD08      V Taylor     42.6%   51.2%     36.6%     61.7%
SD09       Hancock     41.8%   53.1%     39.2%     59.3%
SD10        Burton     47.3%   47.9%     45.4%     53.3%
SD16      Huffines     49.9%   45.3%     41.6%     57.0%
SD17       Huffman     47.2%   48.1%     39.2%     59.4%

Dist     Incumbent   CCA16D% CCA16R%   CCA12D%   CCA12R%
========================================================
SD08      V Taylor     37.8%   57.9%     35.3%     61.1%
SD09       Hancock     39.2%   56.3%     37.9%     58.4%
SD10        Burton     44.5%   51.6%     44.4%     52.7%
SD16      Huffines     42.7%   52.9%     40.6%     56.0%
SD17       Huffman     42.2%   54.3%     39.1%     58.2%

All five of these Senators are on the ballot next year. “CCA16” refers to the Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race for Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 6, while “CCA12” is the Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race. The latter was the only R-versus-D race for the CCA in 2012, and like the Keasler/Burns race this year it featured a Libertarian but not a Green candidate, so the comparison is as apt as I can make it. For these purposes, the CCA races will suffice as a proxy for the “true” partisan split in these districts.

And not too surprisingly, things look distinctly less rosy when you pull back to that level. While Huffines’ district is a couple points bluer than it was in 2012 by the CCA metric, it’s still a ten-point district in the GOP’s favor. A big part of that is due to the fact that SD16 encompasses nearly all of HDs 108, 112, and 114, which as we’ve discussed before are the three most Republican State House districts in Dallas County. The good news is that there are clearly a sizable number of people in SD16 who are willing to vote Democratic against a sufficiently bad Republican. The bad news is that so far the only example of a race where that has happened is Clinton versus Trump. The challenge for Dallas Democrats will be threefold: Find a strong candidate to challenge Huffines, work to ensure the Dem base turns out in the off year (a task for which the track record is not great), and try to tie Huffines to Trump as closely as possible in order to entice the Hillary-voting Republicans in SD16 to cross over again.

As for the others, Konni Burton’s SD10 remains the closest thing to a swing district the Senate has, though it didn’t change much since 2012. It does have the distinction of electing a Democrat in part on the strength of Republican crossover votes as recently as 2012, though, and it probably wouldn’t take much of an erosion in Republican turnout to put her in peril, if 2018 is a year where Republicans don’t get fired up to vote. SD17 covers parts of Fort Bend and Brazoria in addition to Harris County. It will take coordination across the three counties as well as a commitment to turn out Dems in Fort Bend and Brazoria to be on the radar in 2018. SD08, which includes most of Collin County plus a small piece of Dallas, and SD09, which includes Dallas and Tarrant, aren’t really competitive in any sense, but they did move a bit in a Dem direction and included a fair number of crossovers as well. If we ever want to get closer to parity in the Senate, Dems are going to have to make serious gains in these suburban counties.

Justice Department wants out of voter ID case

As expected.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed Monday it plans to ditch its longstanding position that Texas lawmakers purposefully discriminated against minority voters by passing the nation’s strictest voter identification law in 2011.

The move comes one day before a federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments on that high-stakes voting rights question, and it highlights yet another instance in which President Donald Trump has dramatically departed from the path of his predecessor.

Former President Obama’s Justice Department originally teamed up with civil rights groups against Texas throughout the long-winding legal battle over the ID law, known as Senate Bill 14. But on Monday, lawyers for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told parties that they were dropping a claim that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and African-American voters.

The Justice Department’s immediate plans do not include changing its position that the ID law has a “discriminatory effect” on certain voters. A federal appeals court has already resolved that issue, ruling against Texas.

But U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos is scheduled to weigh a more specific question Tuesday: Whether lawmakers knowingly discriminated.

A soon-to-be-filed Justice Department motion “seeks to dismiss the discriminatory purpose claim, but not the discriminatory effect claim,” Mark Abueg, a department spokesman, confirmed to the Texas Tribune.

A ruling against Texas could ultimately put it back on the list of states needing federal approval (called “preclearance”) before changing election laws. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling sprung Texas and other states with a history of discrimination from that list.

Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, one of several groups challenging the Texas law, vowed to press on in the case — even without the federal government’s help.

“None of the facts have changed, just the administration,” she said in an interview. “We will be arguing the same claim, and we think it’s really disappointing that the Department of Justice is backing away from its enforcement of voting rights.”

See here for some background. Today’s hearing was rescheduled from January; the DOJ and the State of Texas tried to get today’s hearing postponed as well, to give the Lege a chance to pass the voter ID 2.0 bill, but were denied. Even if Sen. Huffman’s update to the voter ID law, which would incorporate the so-called “softening” agreements from the 2016 Fifth Circuit ruling, were to be passed, it wouldn’t affect this litigation anyway, since the question being litigated is whether the Lege acted with discriminatory intent in 2011 when SB14 was passed. It will be interesting to see if today’s hearing has any effect on the Huffman bill.

So this is where we are. The private plaintiffs will have more work to do now, but as they note the facts haven’t changed, just who’s sitting at the table with them. Rick Hasen believes (and I agree with him) that “eventually DOJ will be on the other side of this issue, supporting the right of states to make it harder to register and vote (purportedly on anti-fraud or public confidence grounds)”. Among other things, that means that Texas will get a much warmer reception from the feds if they pass bills this session or next that restrict voting rights, but that day hasn’t happened yet. Today we will hopefully move one step closer to a ruling that Texas didn’t just accidentally discriminate with SB14. The Lone Star Project, Political Animal, the Current, and the Chron have more.

Some dude opposes pension reform

Presenting this in a slightly redacted form.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Voter ID 2.0

Well, this is interesting.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Top Texas Republicans unveiled legislation Tuesday that would overhaul the state’s voter identification rules, an effort to comply with court rulings that have found that the current law discriminates against minority groups.

Filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, Senate Bill 5 would add options for Texans who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. It would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has granted the bill “priority” status, carving it a faster route through the Legislature. Nineteen other senators have signed onto the bill, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who is still defending the current ID law in court — applauded the legislation Tuesday.

In a statement, Paxton said the proposal would both ensure the “the integrity of the voting process” and comply with court rulings that have found fault with the current law, considered the nation’s strictest.

Chad Dunn, a Houston-based attorney for groups suing the state over that law, called the legislation “a step in the right direction.”

“The state is acknowledging the federal court’s conclusion that the (current) law is discriminatory,” he said Tuesday.

I’ll reserve judgment for now, but this seems like a sign that the Republicans are not terribly optimistic about their chances with the ongoing lawsuit, with the question in district court about discriminatory intent. Actually, we don’t have to suppose, because we have this.

The U.S. Justice Department joined Texas’ attorney general Wednesday in asking a federal court to delay a hearing on the state’s voter ID law, the latest signal that the federal government might drop its opposition to the law now that Donald Trump is president.

In the joint filing, the Justice Department and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked to delay next Tuesday’s hearing until summer because the Texas Legislature is considering changes to the existing law, which a federal court has found to be discriminatory. Barack Obama’s Justice Department had joined the lawsuit contesting it.

[…]

In the filing, the Justice Department and Texas asked for the hearing to be pushed back until after June 18, the last day Gov. Greg Abbott has to sign or veto legislation.

“If new Texas state voter identification legislation is enacted into law, it will significantly affect the remainder of this litigation,” Texas and the Justice Department argue.

Just hours after Trump was sworn in as president, the Justice Department asked for a January hearing to be delayed to February, saying they needed more time to brief new leadership. Lawyers in the case say it’s still too early to know for sure if Trump’s Justice Department change positions in the case.

In August, Ramos denied a request from Texas to delay hearings in the case until after the legislative session wraps up in June.

“The question to be determined at the hearing is whether there was intent to discriminate during the legislative session in 2011,” said Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who is part of a legal team representing Democrats and minority rights groups challenging the law. “Whatever happens with this bill doesn’t address that question.”

See here and here for the background. I will just point out that the GOP could have passed SB5 back in 2011 and saved themselves a lot of trouble. It would still be a bad idea and a non-solution in search of a non-existent problem, but it would have been harder to beat in court. But here we are, and in this environment that counts for progress. A statement from Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is beneath the fold, and the Star-Telegram has more.

(more…)

We may be voting on pension obligation bonds

Oh, boy.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state lawmaker carrying Houston’s pension reform bill says her version of the proposal will require a public referendum on a $1 billion cash infusion central to the negotiations, an idea Mayor Sylvester Turner called a “poison pill” that could derail the reforms and force “massive” layoffs.

The requirement that voters have a say on the $1 billion in pension obligation bonds is the brainchild of Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. Fellow Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, who is carrying the reforms in the higher chamber, said she understands the mayor’s frustration but said her bill – which still is being drafted – will not pass without the provision.

“It is a billion-dollar bond, and though it’s not new debt – it’s debt that the city owes to both the police pension fund and to the municipal pension fund – I can understand how the voters would want to have a voice in the issuance of the bonds,” Huffman said. “To get it out of the Senate, it’s a necessary addition to the bill.”

Turner’s reform plan, despite ongoing wariness from the firefighters’ pension fund, emerged from a year of negotiations in Houston with broad support from civic think-tanks, business leaders and pension experts, as well as a 16-1 endorsement from City Council.

[…]

“That is a poison pill, and you are saying you want this deal killed – and it will kill this deal,” Turner said at Wednesday’s council meeting. “If that’s the course that the Legislature chooses to take, then the Legislature must also say to people in this city – to businesses and property owners – ‘We are assuming responsibility because the state can do it better.'”

Turner also sought to spell out the consequences if the reforms fail: still-rising pension debts, an additional $134 million added to an already sizable deficit in the coming budget, and “massive layoffs” touching every city department.

Boy, between this and the Astrodome and the revenue cap and maybe another Metro referendum, not to mention the May recapture re-vote, this may wind up being a far busier election year than it would have with just the usual slate of city races on the ballot. I’ll be honest, I had thought from the beginning there would have to be a vote on the pension obligation bonds, but it turns out that’s not the case thanks to a law passed in 2003. The rationale is that this is not new debt, since the city in this case already owes the money. Be that as it may, I don’t necessarily object to voting on them, though I have to wonder once again why Houston is being singled out like this. What’s the rationale for having a vote, other than “it’s a lot of money”, which as a reminder the city already owes? Paul Bettencourt says “anytime you consider $1 billion of anything, the public should vote on it first”, but if that’s the threshold then why is there a bill to vote on $100 million of Astrodome spending? The thing about having a vote is there’s a winner and there’s a loser. If there is a vote on pension obligation bonds, who’s rooting for Yes to win, and who’s rooting for No? It would be nice to be clear about that before we go on.