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John Whitmire

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.

More judges caught up in the bail scandal

More judges to vote out.

For more than a decade, most of Harris County’s felony court judges directed magistrates to deny no-cash bail to all newly arrested defendants, in apparent violation of state judicial conduct rules, according to internal documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

The documents include charts with explicit court-by-court instructions from 31 district judges to reject all requests for no-cash bonds when defendants made initial appearances in court.

Records and testimony show that misdemeanor judges also routinely told magistrates for years to decline personal bonds, which allow a person to gain pre-trial release from jail without posting cash bail.

The previously undisclosed bail and bond instructions, which surfaced during disciplinary hearings against three Harris County magistrates, appear to corroborate longstanding complaints from criminal justice activists that the county’s bail system deprived defendants of a fair chance at pre-trial liberty.

[…]

Among those listed in the documents with no-bond policies are former judges Ryan Patrick, now the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas; former Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson, now deceased, and his wife, Devon, who succeeded him in office after his death; and state Sen. Joan Huffman.

State District Judge Michael McSpadden, a long-serving jurist in Harris County, said he also had a no-bond policy for magistrates for at least a dozen years because he didn’t trust the lower-level jurists not to make errors.

“Almost everybody we see here has been tainted in some way before we see them,” he said. “They’re not good risks.”

“The young black men – and it’s primarily young black men rather than young black women – charged with felony offenses, they’re not getting good advice from their parents,” he said. “Who do they get advice from? Rag-tag organizations like Black Lives Matter, which tell you, ‘Resist police,’ which is the worst thing in the world you could tell a young black man … They teach contempt for the police, for the whole justice system.”

Please, Judge McSpadden, tell us how you really feel. You all know how I feel, so I’m going to outsource this one to Scott Henson, whose continuation after the ellipses is addressed specifically to McSpadden:

The truth about Harris County judges misleading the courts and intentionally violating the constitutional rights of defendants before them is finally coming out.

When Texas state Sen. John Whitmire filed a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct against Harris County’s magistrate judges, they defended themselves by saying the elected judges directed them to deny personal bonds, which the judges themselves at first denied. The magistrates were sanctioned anyway, and sources in this must-read Houston Chronicle story by Gabrielle Banks suggested that the Commission is likely now investigating the judges who gave those orders, which is basically all of them.

During the case before Judge Rosenthal, the county claimed they could come up with no evidence that judges directed magistrates. But when the magistrates were accused of misconduct, they produced 600 pages of evidence in that regard that implicated many current and former judges.

Now we know for certain the policies were explicit, widespread, and top-down. This wasn’t a case of rogue magistrates denying bond without the knowledge of the judges. This is a case of magistrates serving as dependent vassals with no capacity for independent decision making whatsoever. And they obviously weren’t too keen on revealing that truth to the federal judge presiding over the case, who justifiably felt blind-sided when representations made in the magistrate’s disciplinary case flat-out contradicted those made in her court.

[…]

Let’s be clear: A) This was happening for DECADES before Black Lives Matter was on the scene, and B) the county NOT letting defendants be advised by lawyers at bail hearings was a big part of the suit! In fact, the county has now begun providing lawyers at bail hearings, so this is the first time they’re being advised by anybody.

It wasn’t Black Lives Matter or defendants’ families causing their dilemma, it was people like Judge McSpadden, who clearly has lost the ability to make individualized judgments in these cases, if he ever possessed it.

Vote ’em out. There’s never been a better time.

Endorsement watch: A veritable plethora, part 4

Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, and the full endorsements page is here. I had thought this would finish up all the races of interest for us, but then I decided the Republican races were sufficiently interesting as well, so I’ll do those tomorrow.

CD18: Sheila Jackson Lee

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Sheila Jackson Lee is so deeply entrenched in her congressional seat, knocking her off her throne is pretty close to mission impossible.

She won her post 24 years ago after downtown power brokers — notably Enron CEO Ken Lay — abandoned then-congressman Craig Washington over his opposition to NAFTA and the space station. Since then Jackson Lee has become legendary for her aggressive self-promotion, whether it’s speaking at Michael Jackson’s funeral or planting herself on the aisle before State of the Union speeches to get her picture on television shaking the president’s hand.

But even Democratic politicos who joke about her insatiable appetite for camera time have come to respect Jackson Lee as a hardworking voice for progressive causes. With almost a quarter-century of seniority, she now serves on the House Judiciary, Homeland Security and Budget committees. She likes to brag about her role in securing federal funds for a wide range of needs — from education to veteran services — for constituents in her district.

As you know, I agree. Nothing to see here, let’s move on.

SBOE4: Lawrence Allen

Lawrence Allen, Jr. who was first elected to the board in 2004, has been a principal, assistant principal and teacher across town and is now community liaison at Houston Independent School District. He holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from Prairie View A&M University. As the senior Democrat on the board, Allen, 56, says that he sets the tone for his fellow Democrats about how to approach an issue in a professional way that’s not cantankerous. His collaborative style has been useful in steering this board away from the shores of political controversy and toward fact-based governance.

Since Allen has been on the Board for more than a decade, some could argue that it’s time for a change. However, Allen’s opponent, Steven A. Chambers, is not the person that voters should turn to as his replacement. Chambers, a pastor and educator, told the editorial board that he believes creationism should be taught as an option alongside evolution in Texas schools. After years of struggles with religious fundamentalists, the board has finally started embracing science standards and rejecting dogma. Electing Chambers to the board would risk reigniting this debate and undo the progress made by the board.

This isn’t my district, but I’ll sign on to that. Say No to creationism, always and in every form.

SD15: John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Long-time State Senator John Whitmire, 68, is facing two talented challengers in the March 6 Democratic primary, but we endorse him for re-election because his experience and political skills will be needed as recovery from Hurricane Harvey continues.

State storm aid has been hard enough to come by even with him in Austin. We can only imagine how it would be without him and his 44 years in the state legislature, the last 35 in the Senate.

He is the dean of that body, has a deep knowledge of how it works and a rare ability in these polarized times to bridge political differences to get things done.

[…]

Of his two opponents, we were particularly impressed by Damian Lacroix, 43, a lawyer who offers a vision of a Texas Democratic Party that fights for its ideals and tries to heighten the contrast with Republicans rather than working behind the scenes for smaller and smaller gains.

“Being a state senator is more than just passing legislation and regulation,” Lacroix told the editorial board. “It is also being able to galvanize people and getting a message out to people, bringing them into the fold.”

There’s something to what LaCroix says, but especially when you’re in the minority you need some of each type. Whitmire’s the best we’ve got at the first type. There are more appealing options elsewhere in the Senate to add to the LaCroix type.

HD147: Garnet Coleman

Rep. Garnet Coleman

After 27 years on the job, state Rep. Garnet F. Coleman, 56, knows his way around the Texas Legislature about as well as anybody there and better than most. He’s a liberal Democrat in a sea of conservative Republicans who manages to get a surprising number of things done.

“Some people know how to kill bills, some people know how to pass bills. I know how to do both,” he told the editorial board.

[…]

Coleman has a long history of working on issues of mental and physical health and of seeking funds for the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, both in his district, which extends from downtown southeast past Hobby Airport.

He also says the state needs a revolving fund like the water development fund that local governments can tap into for flood control projects.

It was an oversight on my part to not include Rep. Coleman on the list of people I endorse. He’s one of the best and he deserves our support.

HD146: Shawn Thierry

Rep. Shawn Thierry

Freshman state Rep. Shawn Nicole Thierry, a 47-year-old attorney, showed a lot of promise in her first session of the Texas Legislature last year as she learned the ropes of being a Democratic legislator in a heavily Republican body.

She was successful enough to get six bills through the House of Representatives — not bad for a rookie legislator — and worked with Republican state Senator Lois Kolkhorst to pass a bill in the special session that extended the Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity.

The task force, which is studying our state’s Third Worldish maternal mortality rate and what to do about it, was scheduled to end next September, but now will continue until 2023.

Thierry has learned the importance of the personal touch in legislating – it was her letter to Gov. Greg Abbott that convinced him to include the task force issue in the special session.

As noted, Rep. Thierry was selected by precinct chairs as the substitute nominee for HD146 in 2016 after Borris Miles moved up to the Senate to succeed Rodney Ellis. She wasn’t my first choice for the seat – I’d have voted for Erica Lee Carter if I’d been one of the chairs who got to vote – but I agree that she’s done a good job and deserves another term. And with all due respect to her two male opponents, the Lege needs more women, not fewer.

HD142: Harold Dutton

Rep. Harold Dutton

State Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr. has served as representative for District 142 since 1985 and we see no compelling reason to lose his seniority and its advantages at a time when Democrats need all the help they can get.

The 73-year-old attorney has been a loyal fighter for his heavily black and Hispanic district that starts in the Fifth Ward and goes east then north to 1960. In last year’s legislative session he authored 106 bills, a big part of them having to do with criminal justice.

He cites improvements to the Fifth Ward’s Hester House community center as his proudest achievement, but he also passed laws that restored the right to vote to ex-felons, effectively stopped red-lining by insurance companies and protected home-buyers from fraud in the use of contracts for deeds. He is involved in efforts to improve struggling district high schools Kashmere, Worthing and Wheatley.

He is also responsible for the state bill under which the Texas Education Agency is threatening to shutter those schools. That might make him vulnerable to a strong challenger.

Rep. Dutton is definitely getting dragged on social media over his authorship of that bill, and also over some nasty remarks he’s directed at Durrel Douglas, who’s been among those fighting to save the mostly black schools that are at risk. His opponent isn’t particularly compelling, but he could be vulnerable going forward. I don’t have a dog in this fight – like most veteran legislators, Dutton has some good and some not-so-good in his record, but his seniority gives him a fair amount of clout. I expect him to win, but this is a race worth watching.

HD139: Jarvis Johnson

Rep. Jarvis Johnson

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson is being challenged by former Lone Star College board chairman Randy Bates in the largely black and Hispanic District 139 on the city’s near northwest side.

He served three terms on the Houston City Council before winning his first term in the Texas House in 2016, succeeding Sylvester Turner who left to run for mayor.

Johnson, 46, is a strong supporter of vocational education, proposes that police officers be required to get psychological exams every two years, holds job fairs in the district and wants to prevent gentrification of historic neighborhoods such as Acres Homes.

Bates, 68, was on the Lone Star board for 21 years, seven of those as chairman, and the main building on its Victory Center campus is named for him. He’s an attorney who heads Bates and Coleman law firm.

He ran for the state seat in 2016 and is running again because he said people in the community complained that Johnson “is not doing enough for our district.”

We have a lot of respect for the work Bates did on the Lone Star board, but he didn’t give us a compelling reason to support him over Johnson.

This is almost certainly the best chance to defeat Rep. Johnson, who doesn’t get the seniority argument that most of the other incumbents listed above have. He didn’t do much as a freshman, but that’s hardly unusual for a member of the minority caucus. I don’t have a strong opinion about this one.

HD27: Wilvin Carter

Four-term incumbent state Rep. Ron Reynolds is running for re-election despite the fact that he may be facing a year in jail for his conviction in 2016 for five cases of misdemeanor barratry, also known as ambulance chasing for his law practice.

He’s being challenged in his Fort Bend district by another lawyer, Wilvin Carter, a former assistant attorney general and Fort Bend County assistant district attorney. The district includes Sienna Plantation, Stafford and most of Missouri City. No Republicans are running for this seat so this Democratic primary essentially serves as the general election for District 27.

[…]

The unfortunate thing about Reynolds is that he is has a strong record for supporting environmental protection and gay rights, but with the possible jail sentence hanging over his head it’s hard to support him. He is a lawmaker who has been convicted of breaking the law, which is a breech of trust. Also, practically speaking, how much can he do for his constituents if he’s behind bars?

Voters should support Carter instead.

Reynolds is good on reproductive choice and a whole host of other issues as well. The Chron has endorsed Reynolds’ opponents in recent years due to his legal troubles and they have been pretty harsh about it, but here they recognize the dilemma. Reynolds’ voting record and personal charm have helped him maintain support, and I would bet on him being re-elected. I continue to hope he will step down and get his life straightened out, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Interview season begins tomorrow

We’re a month into primary season, and we’re also six weeks out from the start of early voting. You know what I did over Christmas vacation? I interviewed a bunch of candidates, that’s what. You will begin to see the results of that labor tomorrow, with more to come. Doing a bunch of interviews is always a challenge, but this year I had the additional task of trying to decide which interviews to do, as there just wasn’t the time to get to every race.

I have done interviews for a long time. I do them mostly to give candidates in races where there usually isn’t much media coverage the chance to be heard, and thus to give the voters who may not otherwise be able to know anything about them beyond what they can find on the Internet a chance to hear them speak for themselves. I usually stay neutral in the races where I do interviews (the 2009 Mayor’s race, where I was open about supporting Annise Parker, is an exception) because I want all the candidates to feel like I’m being fair to them, but also because I see my mission in doing these interviews as informative. I have always wanted to be broad and inclusive.

This year, the huge slate paired with the compressed primary timeline makes that goal unattainable. I thought about ways I might try to work around that, but in the end I decided that was neither practical nor desirable. And as I thought about that and considered my options, I realized I could approach things a little differently, and in doing so help me decide which races to prioritize.

What that means is this. For this year, I have decided there are some races where the better use of my platform is to make an endorsement rather than schedule and try to execute multiple interviews. If people come here to learn about candidates, then for this year I think it would be best for me to just say who I’m voting for in certain races. I’ve not done this before, and I may never do it again, but this year this is what feels right.

So with that long-winded preamble out of the way:

I endorse Beto O’Rourke for US Senate. Do I really need to say anything about this one?

I endorse Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in CD18. She works hard, she votes the way I want her to vote, I have supported her in previous elections, and I see no reason to do otherwise this year.

I endorse Sen. Sylvia Garcia in CD29. I was redistricted out of SD06 before she was elected there, but she has been an excellent successor to my former Senator, the late Mario Gallegos. She’s the clear choice in CD29.

I endorse Sen. John Whitmire for re-election in SD15. In the hostile environment that is the State Senate under Dan Patrick, Whitmire’s experience and institutional knowledge are vital. Four years ago, I asked his primary opponent Damien LaCroix why we should forsake Whitmire’s seniority and clout for a freshman. He didn’t have a good answer then, and I doubt he has one now. We hope to get a lot of new Democratic blood in every branch of government this year, but we still very much need John Whitmire.

I endorse Allison Lami Sawyer in HD134. I do plan to interview Sawyer – I’m in discussion with her to set a time and place at the time of publication – but I can’t say enough that her primary opponent, Lloyd Oliver, is a clown and an idiot, and we would be doing ourselves a grave disservice if we let him slip through the primary. Not that there’s ever a good year to screw around and nominate a deeply problematic schmuck like Oliver, but this is an especially bad year for that. Vote for Allison Sawyer in HD134.

I dual-endorse Marty Schexnayder and Sandra Moore in HD133. They both look like fine people (I haven’t reached out to them for interviews yet but probably will), but with all due respect to them this isn’t really about them. It’s about the third candidate in the race, who is even more of a problem than Lloyd Oliver. This other candidate, whom I will not name, has a long history of harassing me over a silly thing I said about him back in 2002. You can vote for Marty Schexnayder in HD133, or you can vote for Sandra Moore in HD133, but please do not even think about voting for the other candidate in HD133.

I endorse Diane Trautman for Harris County Clerk. I’ve known Diane for a long time. She’s a hard worker, a great Democrat, and she has served ably as HCDE Trustee. She was also the first Democrat to announce for anything for this cycle, and has been on the ground campaigning for months. Gayle Mitchell is a nice person who ran against Ann Harris Bennett for this nomination on 2014. You can listen to the interview I did with her then here. Ann Harris Bennett was the better candidate that year, and Diane Trautman is the better candidate this year. Nat West is the SDEC Chair for SD13, and is by all accounts I’ve heard a fine person. As far as I can tell, he has no web presence for his candidacy. With all due respect, Diane Trautman is the clear choice.

I endorse Marilyn Burgess for District Clerk. I only met her during this cycle, but like Diane Trautman she’s been out there campaigning for months, and she has great credentials for this office. All three of her opponents entered the race in the last days of the filing period. Two have no web presence – one was a candidate for SBOE in 2016, and had no web presence then, either – and one has a mostly unreadable website. District Clerk is – or at least should be – one of the least political elected offices out there. It’s about doing a straightforward information management job. I have faith Marilyn Burgess can do that job, and I’m voting for her.

I endorse Adrian Garcia for County Commissioner in Precinct 2. I’d been pining for him to run for this office for months, so I may as well be consistent.

So there you have it. Interviews begin tomorrow. Let me know what you think.

The Harris County slates

Let’s talk about the filings for Harris County. The SOS filings page is still the best source of information, but they don’t provide shareable links, so in the name of ease and convenience I copied the Democratic filing information for Harris County to this spreadsheet. I took out the statewide candidates, and I didn’t include Republicans because they have not updated the SOS office with their slate. Their primary filing site is still the best source for that. So review those and then come back so we can discuss.

Ready? Here we go.

– If there was an announcement I missed it, but HCDE Trustee Erica Lee, in Position 6, Precinct 1, did not file for re-election. Three candidates did file, Danyahel Norris, an attorney and associate director at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law; John F. Miller, who was a candidate for HCDE Chair earlier this year; and Prince Bryant.

– While there are contested races up and down the ballot, there’s one race that is no longer contested. Mike Nichols withdrew his filing for Harris County Judge, leaving Lina Hidalgo as the sole candidate to oppose Judge Ed Emmett next fall.

– The SOS page also shows that Sammy Casados withdrew his filing for County Commissioner. However, his campaign Facebook page makes no such announcement, and there’s no evidence I can find to confirm that. It’s possible this is a mistake on the SOS page. We’ll know soon enough, when the HCDP publishes its official final list. Anyway, the cast for Commissioner in Precinct 2 also includes Adrian Garcia, Daniel Box, Roger Garcia, and Ken Melancon, who was previously a candidate for Constable in Precinct 3 (note that Constable precincts, like Justice of the Peace precincts, do not correspond to Commissioner precincts). Also, there are now two candidates for Commissioner in Precinct 4, Penny Shaw and Jeff Stauber, who was a candidate for Sheriff in 2016.

– All other county races save one are contested. Diane Trautman has two opponents for County Clerk: Gayle Mitchell, who ran for the same office in 2014, losing to Ann Harris Bennett in the primary, and Nat West, who is the SDEC Chair for Senate District 13 and who ran for County Commissioner in Precinct 1 in that weird precinct chair-run election. Two candidates joined Marilyn Burgess and Kevin Howard for District Clerk, Michael Jordan and former Council candidate Rozzy Shorter. Dylan Osborne, Cosme Garcia, and Nile Copeland, who ran for judge as a Dem in 2010, are in for County Treasurer. HCDE Trustee Position 3 At Large has Josh Wallenstein, Elvonte Patton, and Richard Cantu, who may be the same Richard Cantu that ran for HISD Trustee in District I in 2005. Only Andrea Duhon, the candidate for HCDE Trustee for Position 4 in Precinct 3, has a free pass to November.

– I will go through the late filings for legislative offices in a minute, but first you need to know that Lloyd Oliver filed in HD134. Whatever you do, do not vote for Lloyd Oliver. Make sure everyone you know who lives in HD134 knows to vote for Alison Sawyer and not Lloyd Oliver. That is all.

– Now then. SBOE member Lawrence Allen drew an opponent, Steven Chambers, who is a senior manager at HISD. That’s a race worth watching.

– Sen. John Whitmire has two primary opponents, Damien LaCroix, who ran against him in 2014, and Hank Segelke, about whom I know nothing. Rita Lucido, who ran for SD17, threw her hat in the ring to join Fran Watson and Ahmad Hassan.

– Carlos Pena (my google fu fails me on him) joins Gina Calanni for HD132. Ricardo Soliz made HD146 a three-candidate race, against Rep. Shawn Thierry and Roy Owens. There are also three candidates in HD133: Marty Schexnayder, Sandra Moore, and someone you should not vote for under any circumstances. He’s another perennial candidate with lousy views, just like Lloyd Oliver. Wh you should also not vote for under any circumstances.

– The Republican side is boring. Stan Stanart has a primary opponent. Rep. Briscoe Cain no longer does. There’s some drama at the JP level, where Precinct 5 incumbent Jeff Williams faces two challengers. Williams continued to perform weddings after the Obergefell decision, meaning he did (or at least was willing to do) same sex weddings as well. You do the math. Unfortunately, there’s no Democrat in this race – it’s one of the few that went unfilled. There was a Dem who filed, but for reasons unknown to me the filing was rejected. Alas.

I’ll have more in subsequent posts. Here’s a Chron story from Monday, and Campos has more.

UPDATE: Two people have confirmed to me that Sammy Casados has withdrawn from the Commissioners Court race.

Filing news: Jerry’s back

Former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson would like his office back, please.

Jerry Patterson

Patterson, who was first elected as the state’s land commissioner in 2003, wants to head the agency that manages state-owned lands and the Alamo. He gave up the job to run for lieutenant governor in 2014, but came in last in a four-way GOP primary race.

Patterson has long been critical of Bush, including the office’s response to Hurricane Harvey. Since 2011 the office has also overseen housing recovery efforts after natural disasters.

“If your headline is that Jerry Patterson wants his old job back, that would be wrong,” Patterson told the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t need this job and I would prefer to be praising George P. Bush.”

He decided to run himself — after looking for someone else to make the race against Bush — because he believed he was “watching this agency crater for the past three years.” That criticism comes after watching the agency refuse to disclose details about the Alamo restoration project that the Land Office is overseeing and after seeing tens of thousands of Texas homeless after Hurricane Harvey while just two homes have been rebuilt so far.

“This morning, Harvey victims who have been sleeping in tents awakened to the snow,” Patterson said.

I’ll say this about Jerry Patterson: I disagree with him on many things, but he was without a doubt one of the more honorable people serving in government while he was there. He took the job of Land Commissioner seriously, he was a stalwart defender of the Texas Open Beaches Act, and in my view he always acted with the best interests of the state at heart. He’s not going to be my first choice, but I’d take him over Baby Bush in a heartbeat.

Land Commissioner was one of two statewide offices for which there had not been a Democratic candidate, but as the story note, that is no longer the case:

[Miguel] Suazo, an attorney from Austin, announced Friday he would run for the post as a Democrat.

No stranger to politics, Suazo worked as an aid to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, in Washington D.C. and has also worked as an energy and environment associate for Wellford Energy Advisors, a manager for regulatory affairs for the the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. He has also worked as an oil and gas attorney in Houston.

“I am running for Land Commissioner because I am qualified for the office and eager to bring new leadership to Texas,” Suazo in a statement declaring his candidacy. “I represent small and large companies and also regular folks who need a job done. I know business and I know people . . . I’m self-made, nothing’s been handed to me. I intend to bring that approach to the General Land Office.”

Suazo, a proponent of block-chain technology, said he may be the first candidate in Texas to launch his campaign using proceeds from Bitcoin investments.

Here’s his campaign Facebook page. I’m so glad there will be a choice in November.

Other news:

– The other statewide office that was lacking a Democratic candidate was Comptroller. That too is no longer the case as Tim Mahoney has filed. I don’t know anything about him as yet beyond what you can see on that website.

– Someone named Edward Kimbrough has filed in the Democratic primary for Senate. Sema Hernandez had previously shown up on the SOS candidate filings page, but hasn’t been there for several days. Not sure what’s up with that, but be that as it may, it’s a reminder that Beto O’Rourke needs to keep running hard all the way through. On the Republican side, someone named Mary Miller has filed. As yet, neither Bruce Jacobson nor Stefano de Stefano has appeared on that list. It will break my heart if Stefano de Stefano backs out on this.

– Scott Milder’s campaign sent out a press release touting an endorsement he received for his primary campaign against Dan Patrick from former Education Commissioner Dr. Shirley J. (Neeley) Richardson, but as yet he has not filed. He did have a chat with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune the other day, so there’s that.

– Believe it or not, Democrats now have at least one candidate for all 36 Congressional offices. CD04 was the last holdout. Among other things, this means that every county in Texas will have the opportunity to vote in March for at least one non-statewide candidate. Very well done, y’all. Republicans are currently skipping a couple of the bluer Congressional districts. They also have nine candidates for CD21, which is the biggest pileup so far.

– Here in Harris County, in addition to the now-contested race for County Judge, there are a couple of challenges to incumbent legislators. Damien LaCroix is once again running against Sen. John Whitmire in SD15, and Richard A. Bonton has filed in HD142 against longtime State Rep. Harold Dutton. Also, there is now a Democrat running in SD07, the district formerly held by Dan Patrick and now held by his mini-me Paul Bettencourt, David Romero, and a candidate in HD129, Alexander Karjeker. Still need someone to file in HD135.

The filing deadline is Monday, and that’s when any real surprises will happen. Enjoy the weekend and be ready for something crazy to happen on the 11th, as it usually does.

The DPS two-step

First, there was this.

Despite a two-year budget of $2.4 billion, the Texas Department of Public Safety, with little notice, has reduced office hours at 11 of the state’s busiest driver’s license offices and plans to lay off more than 100 full-time employees to deal with a $21 million funding crunch.

The statewide police agency’s primary function is to patrol state highways and issue driver’s licenses, but in recent years has spent hundreds of millions on security operations along the 1,200-mile border with Mexico.

The effects of the reduced driver’s license office hours were apparent on Monday morning, where nearly 200 customers formed a long, snaking line outside the large DPS facility at 12220 South Gessner. On June 5, the DPS abruptly scaled back operating hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the large centers. The offices are still open after 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.

[…]

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said Monday the department is not allowed to use funds set aside for border security to offset shortfalls in other areas of operation, like the driver’s license division. The cuts were necessary after DPS was instructed by state legislators to reduce 2018-2019 funding for the division by 4 percent.

DPS management of the driver license operation has not only angered customers, it is being criticized by elected officials.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said DPS did not notify lawmakers of the reductions in driver’s license operations until after the Legislature adjourned late last month.

“We’re stuck now with a severe reduction in service hours and employees at multiple centers around the state, including two here in Houston in my district, that we know are already overcrowded,” Whitmire said.

“It’s pretty alarming – we leave after sine die (adjournment), and leave (DPS) a budget of $800 million for border security, which involves essentially two border counties, and we leave $11 billion in the rainy day fund, and we have to tell people they’re going to have to stand in longer lines to get a driver license.”

But Sen. Whitmire, just think of all those speeding tickets being handed out in South Texas as a result of our sacrifice. Would that not make it all worthwhile? Perhaps someone realized how bad this all looked, and also considered the voter ID implications, as people who lacked drivers licenses had to get approved state election IDs from DPS offices. If the state of Texas was hoping that its slightly modified voter ID law would be enough to counter a motion to pitch the whole discriminatory thing, then maybe DPS needed to reconsider. And indeed, they did.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has reversed a controversial cutback in staffing hours at 11 of the state’s largest driver’s license offices including those in Houston, Dallas, and El Paso, according to a veteran Houston lawmaker who protested the reductions.

St. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he spoke early Tuesday with the chief of staff for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and at the end of the conversation he was told the schedule reductions were reversed.

Whitmire added that he received an e-mail from Col. Steven McCraw, the DPS director, who confirmed the office hour reductions which were instituted June 5 would be restored.

[…]

“I talked to the Governor’s chief of staff, who totally agreed it was unacceptable. At the end of the conversation, it was reversed,” Whitmire said. “And then I heard from McCraw that it had been reversed, and he looked forward to visiting me with any further changes.”

Funny how these thing work. It all worked out in the end, but only because someone noticed. Had that not been the case, this could have gone on indefinitely. Always pay attention to the details.

No Astrodome vote this fall

This is a bit of a surprise.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

[Sen. John] Whitmire filed a bill that would force the county to get voter approval before spending any money on the Dome.

“It’s a dream and you shouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars on a dream,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire’s bill sailed through the Senate, but hit a brick wall in the House.

After passing the Senate, the bill was sent to the House County Affairs committee.

State Representative Garnet Coleman is the chair of that committee.

“The Astrodome is a symbol of our ‘can-do’ spirit,” Coleman said. “I want it left as a symbol of what my city is and has been.”

The bill never made it out of Coleman’s committee, so it died. Coleman wouldn’t say whether he agreed or disagreed with the Commissioner’s plans.

“I don’t have to agree or disagree because I don’t want it torn down,” Coleman said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I confess I’m surprised, I had expected this bill to zip through based on its easy adoption in the Senate, but like the AirBnB bill, one must never assume that a bill will make it to the finish line. I didn’t care for the Whitmire bill, so this outcome is fine by me.

With the demise this bill, what could have been a very busy November has been scaled back quite a bit. With no Astrodome vote and no Metro vote (this year), what we are left with are the pension obligation bonds and the revenue cap; it remains to be seen if there will be a vote on forcing city employees onto a defined-contribution retirement plan, as the petitions have not yet been verified and the instigator behind the drive says she’s not interested in it any more. Things can still change, and there will be some number of low-profile constitutional amendments on the ballot, but all in all expect there to be fewer campaigns this November than there could have been. Link via Swamplot.

UPDATE: In case you’re wondering what this means from the county’s perspective.

The end of the session on Monday means the county can move forward with a revitalization project that officials say could be the key to the stadium’s long-term preservation, as well as resume a broader study of the maintenance of the NRG park that was set aside as lawmakers considered Whitmire’s bill.

“I don’t see any potential road blocks,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, on the revitalization project.

Emmett said 2020 would be a rough, early estimate of when the project could be completed.

Architects and engineers are working on the first phase of the project. That first phase began in September, and was seen as one of the most concrete steps toward securing the Dome’s future. It has been vacant for years, and hosted its last Astros game in 2000.

Commissioners Court will have to give another green light for the actual construction to begin.

County Engineer John Blount said the architects and engineers are examining the stadium as part of the design process, verifying that the county’s blueprints match how the stadium actually looks. Blount said, for example, that modifications to the stadium’s drainage system made in the 1960s after it was built were not reflected in its original blueprints.

“We might find things that take some time to go investigate,” Blount said.

[…]

“There’s no reason why the House couldn’t have taken a vote on this,” said Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who supported Whitmire’s bill.

Bettencourt said the 2013 referendum and general fund money being used by the county to fund the project – estimated to be about one-third of the total cost – necessitates a referendum.

“As long as that’s in there, in my mind they’re going to have to bring this to a vote,” he said.

I take Bettencourt’s words to mean that the fight is not over yet. Don’t be surprised if someone sues to stop things once the county begins spending money on this, and don’t be surprised if another bill like SB884 is introduced in 2019.

Sandra Bland Act passes

Good.

Sandra Bland

The Texas House initially approved the Sandra Bland Act on Friday with a unanimous vote. The body now has to vote on the mental health bill one more time before it reaches Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. (Update, May 20: The House voted 137-0 to give the bill final approval)

Senate Bill 1849 would mandate that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, make it easier for defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability to receive a personal bond and require that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.

[…]

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire struck several provisions from the original bill amid criticism from police groups that it would hamper law enforcement’s work, including adding extra steps to legally secure a consent search. Bland’s family expressed disappointment in the Senate version of the bill, calling it a missed opportunity because it removed language relevant to Bland’s stop.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, and other lawmakers have said they understand the disappointment, but there will be other opportunities to address in legislation interactions with police.

See here for the background. Sandra Bland’s family was not happy with the Senate changes to the bill, but it’s almost always better to pass something that can be built on later rather than pass nothing and hope to try again from scratch. It may take several sessions before anything else gets done, and nothing will happen without a big push, but this was progress and I’m glad it succeeded. A statement from Rep. Coleman is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Sandra Bland bill clears the Senate

Good news.

Sandra Bland

The Texas Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill aimed at protecting people with mental illnesses who are arrested and may harm themselves in jail.

The legislation — Senate Bill 1849 — was filed after a high-profile incident in 2015 in which Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Illinois woman, was found dead in the Waller County jail days after being arrested during a routing traffic stop.

The so-called “Sandra Bland Act” evolved as it moved through the legislative process amid criticism from law enforcement officials. The version the Senate unanimously approved on Thursday — authored by state Sen. John Whitmire — would mandate that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, make it easier for defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability to receive a personal bond and require that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths. (The agency would be any appointed by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and cannot be the agency that operates the county jail.)

The legislation now heads to the House, where state Rep. Garnet Coleman filed a similar bill that was left pending in committee. The Houston Democrat first introduced the legislation and named it in honor of Bland.

[…]

Under the legislation, jails also would be required to ensure prisoners continue to have access to health care while in custody and report serious incidents – including attempted and completed suicides, deaths and assaults. And, if the money is available, counties would have to install electronic sensors or cameras to better monitor inmates. Law enforcement officers also would be required to learn de-escalation techniques that may reduce the use of force.

Whitmire struck some provisions in the original version of the bill amid criticism that it would hamper law enforcement’s work, including requiring police officers to learn how to identify implicit bias. It also would have required counseling and training for officers who racially profiled drivers and prohibited what are called “pretext stops” — traffic stops for one offense that are used to investigate another.

None of those provisions were in the bill the Senate approved Thursday. A day earlier, Whitmire said that police groups opposed earlier provisions regarding consent searches and implicit bias and that the only way the legislation had a chance of passing was if it was written as a mental health bill. Two police organizations told the Tribune that language about racial profiling and bias came from a place of distrust of law enforcement.

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee took public input on Coleman’s bill last month but never voted on it amid a lack of support.

See here for some background. The Observer spoke to Rep. Coleman about the Senate version of this bill.

“I would’ve preferred a more robust bill, but I’m happy — I’m elated — that there is a bill,” said Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who penned the initial version. “This is not an environment that most people believe would’ve allowed for the passage of a bill carrying the name of the victim of a state trooper.”

[…]

The bill that cleared the chamber Thursday no longer bans controversial pretext or “investigative” stops, which Coleman has likened the vehicular equivalent of “stop and frisk.” It also would require law enforcement to collect and review data regarding these stops to check for racial or ethnic disparities. These were the most disappointing sacrifices, Coleman said.

Lawmakers also removed provisions preventing people from being incarcerated for Class C misdemeanors and ensuring that offenders without prior violent convictions be released on personal bonds, which require no up-front cash. These provisions, Coleman pointed out, have found homes in other bills that that are “still alive and moving,” such as Whitmire’s SB 1338, a bond-reform bill that cleared the Senate earlier this month.

The bill requires county jail operators to undergo more mental health training, as well as better monitoring the health of inmates. To that effect, it mandates that jails install cameras and electronic sensors in cells when funding is available. Those measures could’ve changed the circumstances of Bland’s death. (Coleman said he is working with the budget conference committee to secure funds for cameras and sensors — totaling $1 million.)

Coleman is looking to carry the measure across the finish line in the House and doesn’t expect much will be changed, he told the Observer Thursday.  It’s not likely to clear his chamber with unanimous support — “that doesn’t happen over here,” he said. Coleman said he’s working to gather support from members and House leadership, whom he said seems receptive.

“The issue has transcended politics, brought together people who used to be diametrically opposed,” Coleman said. “With this one, we really have to do something now.

Yes, we do. Good work all around, let’d get this finished. The Chron has more.

Senate approves bail reform bill

Good.

Sen. John Whitmire

After weeks of politically touchy negotiations capped by a shove from a Houston federal judge, the Texas Senate on Thursday approved significant changes in the state’s bail bond system designed to keep low-level offenders from sitting in jail because they cannot afford to pay cash bail.

While the reforms had once been touted as one of the major criminal justice reforms of the legislative session, the final version of the bill dropped tougher provisions in the face of strong opposition from the politically connected bail bond industry.

Approved by a final vote of 21-10, Senate Bill 1338 mandates risk assessments for criminal defendants who are eligible for bail – an assessment that will mean more non-violent offenders who do not pose public safety risks can be released while they await trial, said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the bill’s author.

“This will mean significant changes in some counties that will improve how we administer justice,” Whitmire said, noting that a recent federal court in Houston mandates much of what the bill seeks to accomplish.

“It clarifies current law to require magistrates to impose the least restrictive conditions and minimum amount of bail necessary to ensure that the defendant appears in court and protect the public and victim.”

[…]

The measure approved by the Senate requires that defendants held on misdemeanors appear before a magistrate within 24 hours of their arrest, and that those held on felonies must be seen within 48 hours, Whitmire said.

“The risk assessments in this bill are an important component because bond setting and the amounts of bonds will be reflective of the real risk to public safety,” Whitmire said. “That element is missing now in many cases.”

See here and here for the background. As Whitmire notes, the injunction in the bail practices lawsuit helped nudge his bill along. It would be nice to think this could get it all the way to the finish line, but prospects in the House are unclear. Feel free to let your State Rep know that you support bail reform. There’s not much time left to get this done.

Bail bondsmen complain about bail reform bill

I understand their concerns, but that doesn’t mean I agree with them.

Sen. John Whitmire

Legislation touted as a fix-all to reform Texas’ controversial jail-release system was blasted Tuesday by bail bondsmen and attorneys who said it would destroy the bail-bond industry and leave taxpayers footing a multimillion-dollar tab.

“The whole industry will be out of business” if the proposed measure passes, warned Harris County bail bondsman Rodney Vannerson, in testimony that echoed the sentiments of others. “The cost of replacing this system will be astronomical.”

During a standing-room-only hearing at the Texas Capitol, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, sparred with several witnesses over whether his Senate Bill 1338 would improve Texas justice by allowing thousands of poor Texans to get out of jail before trial on minor charges – as the state’s top two jurists testified it will.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, in a rare joint appearance, both endorsed the legislation. They said it is a much-needed overhaul of an antiquated system that keeps too many Texans in jail and gives violent offenders who have money the ability to get out of jail when they should not.

Targeted for the most criticism during the hearing was Harris County, which Whitmire and other witnesses said keeps thousands of indigent defendants in a chronically overcrowded jail because they cannot afford to make bail.

[…]

“This legislation is a radical sea-change in how bail is handled in Texas,” said Michael Whitlock, with American Surety Co., warning that similar changes in other states have proven controversial and costly.

Jeri Yenne, the criminal district attorney in Brazoria County, complained that the changes would add court time to current bail procedures.

Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims cautioned that justices of the peace who supervise bail hearings in many counties may be legally overwhelmed by the changes as many are not attorneys.

Randy Adler, an attorney who represents bail-bond companies, said $7 million in fees now paid to counties on bonds and millions more in forfeiture fees could no longer be collected.

See here for the background. I am sure that if these bills pass, it will have a negative effect on the business of bail bonding, and I am sure some bail bondsmen will go under as a result. That’s unfortunate for them, but it doesn’t mean that these reforms aren’t right or necessary. The number of people who are held in jail because they can’t afford bond even though they represent little to no risk to anyone and even though their being in jail imposes a significant cost to themselves, their families, and all of us taxpayers, is simply unconscionable. I challenge the assertion that changing how bail is determines will be detrimental to society. And not to put too fine a point on it, even if the opponents of these bills get their way in the Legislature, the federal courts may force the issue anyway. Perhaps the better approach is to figure out how to adjust to a world that’s going to change one way or another, whether bail bondsmen like it or not.

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.

Whitmire Astrodome bill passes out of committee

Whatever.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

A Senate committee voted Monday in favor of a bill that would require Harris County residents to approve a county project to renovate the Astrodome by raising its floors and installing parking underneath.

The bill could effectively could torpedo the county’s $105 million project to raise the ground level two floors to fit in roughly 1,400 parking spaces.

County officials had said when the proposal was unveiled in September, that the plan would make the Dome suitable for festivals or conferences and usher in potential commercial uses in the more than 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core.

It had been viewed as a potential saving grace for the aging stadium, designated earlier this year a state antiquities landmark.

State Sen. John Whitmire is looking to put the brakes on the renovation plan, saying Harris County voters should weigh in.

See here and here for the background. The later version of the Chron story notes that Judge Emmett testified against the bill, not that it made any difference. I still think this is dumb and unnecessary, but all of the Senators who represent Harris County are coauthors, so I figure its passage in the upper chamber is a formality, and in the lower chamber a strong likelihood. What that means in November – in particular, who shows up to support this forced vote, and who shows up to oppose it – will add another dimension to an election season that’s shaping up to be a lot more interesting than we might have expected. Swamplot has more.

Bail reform bills

Glad to see this.

Sen. John Whitmire

An unusual bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and judges has teamed up to back broad reforms in Texas that could eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenders who are not deemed dangerous or a flight risk.

Bills introduced simultaneously in the House and the Senate this week by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, would require all judges statewide to use a proven risk assessment tool and quickly determine within 48 hours whether a defendant accused of a nonviolent crime might be eligible for a so-called personal bond — a measure that carries a financial penalty only if the person fails to how up for court. Now, defendants who can’t afford to pay bail are left in jail, even for minor crimes.

The proposals have been hammered out by jurists and legislators following reports that show more than 1,100 people died in Texas jails in the last decade – most of them pretrial detainees such as Sandra Bland, who committed suicide in the Waller County jail after being locked up after a traffic stop.

Nonviolent defendants detained after the first hearing would be re-evaluated within 10 days. And judges would be required to seek alternatives for those deemed mentally ill or disabled.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, who is backing the measures, said he and other members of the National Conference of Chief Justices of the United States generally have concluded that America’s bail bond system “simply doesn’t make any sense.”

He said he’d like to see Texas follow the model of New Jersey, Washington D.C., Kentucky, Arizona and other states in pursuing reforms that restrict or eliminate monetary bail for defendants who pose no real risks.

Hecht said bail reforms elsewhere already have saved taxpayers’ money by eliminating unnecessary jail expenses and spared hardships for low-risk defendants who often lose jobs, homes or their health while being locked-up awaiting trial.

“There are constitutional problems, there are practical problems, there’s a burden on taxpayers — change is just the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re just talking about low-level crimes —we’re not talking about crimes of violence. So across the country, there’s been an effort to change bail procedures to get away from high bond and jail time in all of these low-level crimes.”

Hecht chairs the Texas Judicial Council, 22-member group that includes Murr. Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is vice chair. He said the council studied bail reforms and recommended changes last fall.

See here for some background. Via Grits, the bills in question are HB3011 and SB1338. Grits also notes that the bail bondsmen are fighting these bills, which is not surprising. A later version of this Chron story goes into that.

“We have a very conservative governor, lieutenant governor, Senate and House,” said Michael Kubosh, a Houston City Council member and long-time commercial bondsman. “To get all that through, there’s going to be a real battle, and our lobbyists are talking to them. They’re not going to want to let crime run rampant and give everybody free bonds.”

Kubosh and other industry supporters say bondsmen help make sure low-level defendants appear in court – and track them down when they fail to appear. They say they also get families involved, since relatives often must post cash or property to back bail bonds even when commercial bondsman are involved. He and other advocates are simultaneously monitoring a federal court challenge to a fairly rigid bail schedule used for years by Harris County judges even for low-level misdemeanor offenses.

[…]

The legislation also says that defendants are entitled to have lawyers present at pretrial detention hearings – not a common practice today.

On any given day, the Harris County Jail is crowded with 1,500 or more misdemeanor offenders awaiting trial. The county has spent more than $1.2 million in legal fees so far defending county court-at-law judges and hearing officers in the federal civil rights case before Judge Rosenthal.

Kubosh, the commercial bondsman, said he agrees that truly indigent defendants often don’t get personal bonds in Harris County. But he argues that bondsmen routinely save the county money by helping ensure that those who are released on commercial bond follow court conditions and by tracking down those who fail to appear. With fewer commercial bonds, he argues, “you’re going to see a spike in people thumbing their noses at the courts … you’ll see huge increases in warrants.”

No question, this would affect the bail bond business, and I can’t blame them for opposing these bills. I don’t agree with CM Kubosh’s assessment of what may happen if these bills pass, but there ought to be an objective way to evaluate it. Personal recognizance bonds are used with far greater frequency in other states. Is there any evidence to suggest that crime “runs rampant” where PR bonds are more the norm? Show me some numbers, or this is just going to sound like scaremongering.

More on the Whitmire Astrodome bill

I still don’t care for this.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett voiced concern Tuesday that a bill filed by a veteran state senator jeopardizes the county’s plan to revitalize the Astrodome, adding that county representatives would continue to try to persuade legislators to support the $105 million project.

Emmett said state Sen. John Whitmire’s bill, the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, was misleading and that Whitmire’s statements that some Astrodome renovation funds could be spent on Minute Maid Park or the Toyota Center were “demonstrably incorrect.”

“This bill is an example of state government making it more difficult for local government to do its job,” Emmett said.

[…]

At a press conference Tuesday in Austin, Whitmire and other state senators from the Houston area gathered to express their support of legislation that would effectively block – or at least delay – Emmett’s plan.

Whitmire noted that voters four years ago defeated a $217 million bond package that would have renovated the Astrodome and transformed it into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space,

“With the dire problems we have with home flooding, too few deputies, roads still in disrepair … I have to represent my constituents and say, ‘Go back and get voter approval,'” Whitmire said. “This puts in a very good safeguard that the public vote be honored.”

Whitmire was joined Tuesday by Democratic Sens. Borris Miles and Sylvia Garcia and Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose districts include parts of Harris County.

“This is a vote that the public expects to take,” Bettencourt said. “They’ve taken it in the past.”

Garcia took issue with the county’s plans to spend $105 million to create new parking before deciding how the Astrodome would be re-purposed. Voters need to hear the entire plan before any construction starts, Garcia said.

“I’ve always loved the Astrodome. I would assist the county commissioners court and anybody who wants to keep it alive,” Garcia said. “However, I don’t think this is the right way to get there.”

See here for the background. I guess I’m in a minority here, but I still disagree with this. When the time comes to spend money on NRG Stadium improvements, as some people want us to do, will we vote on that? (To be fair, not everyone is hot for Harris County to spend money on NRG Stadium.) If bonds are floated, sure. That’s what we do. (*) If not, we won’t. I don’t see why it’s different for the Astrodome. And however well-intentioned this may be, I’m still feeling twitchy about the Lege nosing in on local matters. I can also already see the lawsuit someone is going to file over the language of the putative referendum, however it may turn out. So I ask again, is this trip really necessary? I’m just not seeing it.

(*) Campos notes that we did not vote on Mayor White’s pension obligation bonds, as apparently there’s a state law that doesn’t require it. I’m sure there’s a story that requires at least two drinks to tell behind that. My assumption that we always vote on borrowing authority may be wrong, but my point that we don’t usually vote on general revenue spending still stands.

Harris County really needs to settle that bail practices lawsuit

Enough already.

Two Houston-based lawmakers called on Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan Friday to dismiss an attorney hired to represent county judges in a federal civil rights lawsuit, after that attorney claimed in a hearing that many people jailed in Harris County were there by choice – not because they could not afford to post bond.

Among other statements, the attorney, James G. Munisteri, told a federal judge Wednesday that as few as “zero” defendants are jailed pretrial who can’t afford to pay and some choose to stay locked up in one of the nation’s largest jails because it’s cold outside.

The ongoing civil rights lawsuit challenges Harris County judges and other officials for granting very few no-cost pretrial bonds to misdemeanor offenders – as few as 8 percent in May when the suit was filed, according to county statistics. The lawsuit claims that judges routinely violate the civil rights of the poor by failing to consider the inability to pay before jailing thousands of people annually before trial for minor crimes like marijuana possession and trespassing.

The county argued in a hearing this week that the lawsuit should be tabled because officials have made improvements and that 23 percent of those accused of misdemeanors were released on no-cost bond as of October 2016.

But Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal declined to put the case on hold Wednesday, saying there was not enough evidence to support the county’s claims.

[…]

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former state senator, both of whom support bail bond reform, challenged Munisteri’s remarks as “indefensible.” Both argued that “tax dollars should not be used to fund this reprehensible representation.”

Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that officials planned to review the matter.

“The quote should be placed in the context of presentations being made by both attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants during a hearing that lasted over one hour. We are awaiting a copy of the actual transcript to determine the actual context and an appropriate response,” he said via email.

See here for the last update, and here for previous blogging. The Press was the first on this story late last week. I’m not a lawyer, but I know a ludicrous argument when I see one, and when a competent attorney makes a ludicrous argument, I figure it’s because said attorney is saddled with a loser of a case. Which is why, as I have been saying all along, Harris County needs to settle this and be done with it. We should take our medicine and quit paying attorneys like Mr. Munisteri to make dumb arguments on our behalf in service of a policy that neither our Sheriff nor our District Attorney wants defended. More from the Press is here.

We don’t need another vote on the Astrodome

Not for this we don’t, anyway.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Less than five months ago, the future of the Astrodome seemed to be more secure than it has been in the decades since it hosted its last Astros game, with Harris County commissioners moving forward on a massive renovation project they said would usher in festivals, conferences and commercial development to the aging stadium.

Now, that future again might be getting hazier. Veteran state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Friday he plans to introduce legislation next week that would require the county to hold a referendum on its $105 million project to raise the floor of the stadium and create 1,400 parking spaces, a move many thought would be its saving grace.

Citing concerns about how the county is spending taxpayer dollars, Whitmire’s move is the latest in a series of skirmishes over the stadium, the world’s first multi-purpose domed stadium for sporting events. It comes more than three years after voters rejected a $217 million proposal to turn the Dome into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space, which many believed doomed it to demolition.

“I’m trying to allow the public to have a vote, the taxpayers to have a vote, before we spend over $100 million on the Dome with no stated purpose,” Whitmire said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has long championed repurposing the Dome and was one of the chief advocates of the $105 million plan, said Friday that Whitmire’s proposal “risks derailing” that solution, which he called a “fiscally prudent decision.”

“The Dome is a vexing issue,” he said. “But to me, it’s an asset.”

Emmett said he had not heard about Whitmire’s plans to file the bill before Friday.

“It’s a little unusual for a legislator to file a piece of legislation that affects a specific piece of property that’s totally paid for,” Emmett said. “I have never heard of that before. It’s also unusual to have legislation filed directly that tells a county how tooperate without talking to the county.”

[…]

The exact language of Whitmire’s bill, which he said he is calling the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, will not be finalized until it is filed next week. He said it would be worded to target projects like the Astrodome that had been targeted by referenda in the past. He said it had “broad bipartisan support.”

Gov. Dan Patrick could not be reached for comment. But state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Patrick confidante and Houston Republican, said he supports Whitmire’s proposal.

“It’s a good idea,” Bettencourt said. “We had a referendum. The vote was no. Everyone was promised they would not use property tax money in that project. And now that’s effectively what they’re proposing to do.”

Whitmire also said: “I just think it’s a very hazardous way and irresponsible way to deal with taxpayer monies.”

He said he took issue with different components of the funding, saying that some of the funds used for the $105 million project could also be used for other facilities, like NRG Stadium.

See here and here for some background. I do not support this bill, whatever winds up being in it. We require a vote when a government entity like Harris County wants the authority to borrow money via bonds, which was the case with that $217 million proposition from 2013. We do not require a vote on individual budget items, any more than we require a vote on (say) the county’s budget as a whole. We elect people to write those budgets, and if we don’t like the way they do it we can vote them out. Requiring a vote for how a county government spends county money is a gross incursion on local control, which is something we’re already had way too much of. I will not support this.

Now to be sure, part of the problem here is that the stakes of that 2013 referendum were never made clear. “The people rejected this specific plan that was put forward to rehab the Dome” and “The people rejected the idea of rehabbing the Dome and want it demolished instead” are both valid interpretations of that vote. Commissioners Court and Judge Emmett did not communicate to the public what their intentions were if that referendum was voted down as it was, and as a result we have been in a state of confusion since. Many ideas continue to be put forth for the Dome, which has since gained Historical Antiquity status, making demolition that much harder to do if that’s what we wanted to do. There’s no clear consensus. That may be the best argument for requiring a vote, but it’s still a violation of local control, and any such election would occur in either a low-turnout context (as in this November) or one where it was overshadowed by other campaigns, as would be the case next year. I say let Commissioners Court move forward with what they are doing, and if you don’t like it take a lesson from your friends and neighbors who are busy raising their voices on many other issues and tell the Court what you think. Isn’t that the way this is supposed to work? Swamplot has more.

City sued over bail practices

One more lawsuit going after the practice of jailing people who can’t afford to post bonf.

go_to_jail

Two civil rights groups sued the city of Houston late Monday, alleging the city jail has detained people for days at a time without offering them a hearing to determine if there was probable cause for the initial arrest.

According to the federal civil rights lawsuit, those who experience the wait — which ranges from eight hours to several days — for their transfer to Harris County custody are individuals who can’t afford bail. The county conducts probable cause hearings, but the groups said the lengthy delay is woefully routine and is unconstitutional.

They are suing under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments — for violations regarding probable cause and due process.

The lawsuit states that in July and August hundreds of people were arrested and kept in the city jail for more than three days without being granted a hearing. Part of the problem is overcrowding at the county jail, which creates a bottleneck.

[…]

The Civil Rights Corps, a criminal defense group based in Washington, D.C., and the Texas Fair Defense Project, an indigent defense advocacy group, filed the lawsuit in federal court in Houston. They’re seeking to have the case certified by a judge as a class action. The lawsuit also seeks compensation for individuals allegedly kept in the facility in violation of their constitutional rights.

As we know, there was a lawsuit filed against Harris County over their practices back in May. Both the Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project are involved in that litigation as well, along with Equal Justice Under Law. It is my understanding that this new lawsuit is intended to be a completely separate action, not to be joined to the previous lawsuit. A longer version of the Chron story adds on about the first lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Harris County officials are awaiting a federal judge’s ruling on a motion to dismiss a separate federal case that accuses the county, sheriff judges and hearing officers of unfairly denying release to misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford their bail.

Last week, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, filed a related judicial misconduct complaint against three hearing officers who have routinely denied release on personal bonds. Their behavior, described in a Houston Chronicle story last week, violated both judicial ethics and state law, he said.

Whitmire on Monday urged Harris County District Judge David Mendoza to immediately remove the three hearing officers from presiding over bond hearings.

Mendoza said he would present Whitmire’s unusual request to a group of district court judges for consideration.

Robert Soard, a spokesman for the county attorney’s office, said the law firm handling the county’s bail case had offered to provide offer free legal counsel to the hearing officers, if needed.

See here for the background on that. To get back to the previous point, it is my hope that the city will work towards a settlement rather than fight this in court. The Press has more.

Whitmire files complaint against bail-denying magistrates

Good.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

An influential Texas lawmaker on Thursday filed formal complaints against three Harris County magistrate judges after they were captured on videotape rushing misdemeanor defendants to jail without considering no-cost bonds.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, filed the complaints with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, citing an article published Thursday in the Houston Chronicle about the hearings and videos.

He complaints were lodged against Magistrates Eric Hagstette, Joseph Licata III and Jill Wallace. The hearing officers could not be reached immediately for comment.

Whitmire said he named the magistrates specifically in his complaint because of “obvious failures” to conduct hearings as required by statute.

“The total disregard for citizens and the complete lack of judicial temperament and professionalism are unacceptable,” Whitmire told the Chronicle. “I am requesting a thorough investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to determine if these violations are intentional, individual, or the responsibility of the elected judges who appoint these magistrates,” Whitmire said.

“Texas governing statutes clearly state that a magistrate should exercise their full discretion when conducting probable cause hearings and setting bond amounts,” Whitmire said. “It is clear from the video of their hearings that this is clearly not the case with these magistrates. It appears the probable cause hearings in Harris County not only violate the intent of these statutes, but also the letter of the law.”

See here for the background, and here for Sen. Whitmire’s press release. What we saw on those videos was a disgrace and a mockery of justice. I hope the State Commission on Judicial Conduct takes this seriously. Grits and the Press have more.

The answer is to always cram more people in the jails

Seriously?

go_to_jail

Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman is asking the state jail commission to let nearly 200 inmates sleep on plastic cots on the floor of the already overcrowded county jail system, a request challenged by more than a dozen Houston-area lawmakers.

The lawmakers note that county officials have not fully followed the advice of their own criminal justice consultants, who since 2009 have advocated increased use of low-cost personal recognizance bonds as well as jail diversion programs for low-level drug offenders and the mentally ill to reduce jail population.

Today, the average daily population exceeds 9,400 inmates and nearly 80 percent are awaiting trial, county records show.

Hickman and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett are asking the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to extend their existing variance of 580 bunk beds and add another 192 plastic cot-like bunks known as “low riders.” Also called “boats,” the plastic cots would be used by inmates in both the 1200 Baker St. and 701 San Jacinto jail buildings in downtown Houston, the county’s application states.

Hickman’s request is on the agenda for Thursday’s jail commission meeting in Austin, and the sheriff acknowledged that the use of the plastic cots could cause “heightened apprehension” by jail regulators.

The sheriff said “low riders” are necessary due to a jail population that has risen dramatically since January from an average daily population of 8,500 to 9,400 last month, as well as the need to do preventative maintenance in various cellblocks.

“Harris County and the Sheriff’s Office realize variance beds are temporary in duration and not a permanent replacement for sound criminal justice policy or correctional practices,” Hickman stated in an Oct. 6 letter to the jail commission.

Ryan Sullivan, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, stressed late Wednesday: “Sheriff Hickman has been the foremost advocate for reforms of the criminal justice system and bail reform in Harris County. On multiple occasions, the sheriff has testified in the Texas legislature asking the state to bear its burden in criminal justice reform. Likewise, the sheriff has used the full force of his office to advocate for criminal justice and bail reforms locally.”

In the Oct. 6 letter to the commissioner, Hickman stated: “The department is committed to working with all stakeholders to reduce the jail population and lessen our dependence upon variance beds and we will continue to explore all options and opportunities to mitigate their necessity.

Sullivan pointed out “that variances are temporary fixes requiring more permanent solution.”

I’m sorry, but no matter how temporary this may be, the answer should be No. It is and has always been within our power to address this problem by not putting people in jail for the crime of not being able to afford to bond themselves out. For the umpty billionth time, even a small increase in the number of personal recognizance bonds would go a long way towards fixing these ever-recurring problems. I recognize that no Sheriff can make the misdemeanor court judges do this, but we can at least consistently identify the problem for what it is, in the hope of maybe applying a little pressure. Commissioners Court could help with that, too. Regardless, the Legislature should not do anything to enable the problem. The voters will have a chance to apply an electoral fix to this in 2018, but that’s two years off and the track record in off-year elections is not promising. Having the Lege say “fix this yourselves” is our best bet for now.

UPDATE: Grits is thinking the same thing.

Endorsement watch: Labor for Thompson, the Mayor for Miles

From the inbox:

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

The Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO today announced their support of Senfronia Thompson for State Senator District 13.

“Our unions screened two candidates for Senate District 13 — Representatives Senfronia Thompson and Borris Miles,” said Zeph Capo, President of the Area Labor Federation. “Both candidates have been steadfast allies in our efforts to give workers a voice on the job, raise wages for all, adequately fund public services, and defend civil rights. Ultimately, Thompson’s deep experience and long record as a champion for working families led us to back her.”

“Over her twenty-two terms of public service, Senfronia Thompson has been an energetic and consistent advocate of initiatives to help better the lives of working families,” said John Patrick, President of the Texas AFL-CIO. “She is one of the most reliable, influential, and effective leaders with whom I have ever worked. Her knowledge of how state government works is what sets her apart from the other candidates.”

“Representative Thompson has the integrity, the vision, and the will to advocate for all of SD 13’s constituents. Labor will work hard to get her elected to office and help her achieve that goal,” added Hany Khalil, Executive Director of the Area Labor Federation.

The release, which came out on Thursday, is here. It was followed on Friday by this:

Rep. Borris Miles

Rep. Borris Miles

Dear Fellow Democrat,

Please join me in supporting Borris Miles for State Senate, District 13.

With the departure of Senator Rodney Ellis to join Commissioners Court, we need to make sure that we have an energetic warrior for the people representing us in the State Senate. That’s my friend and former House colleague, Borris Miles.

I’ve worked with Borris for years and watched his commitment and skill in moving our Democratic priorities forward.

From giving misguided kids a second chance at a better life, to doubling fines for outsiders who dump their trash in our neighborhoods, to increasing access to health care and expanding educational opportunities for us all – Borris gets the job done.

Believe me, it’s tough getting things done as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled legislature. But that’s exactly what our communities deserve.

I’m for Borris because Borris is a warrior for the people. That’s why I respectfully ask you to cast your vote for Borris as the Democratic Party’s nominee for State Senate, District 13.

Warm regards,

Mayor Sylvester Turner

But wait! There’s still more!

Thompson, who first was elected in 1972, has picked up a slew of endorsements from area Democratic congressmen and state legislators.

They include U.S. Reps. Al Green and Gene Green, as well as state Reps. Alma Allen, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton, Jessica Farrar, Ana Hernandez, Ron Reynolds, Hubert Vo, Armando Walle and Gene Wu.

Fort Bend County Commissioner Grady Prestage and the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation and the also have endorsed Thompson, among others.

[…]

Miles also touted Dutton’s support, in addition to that of former Mayor Annise Parker, state Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, among others.

Dutton could not immediately be reached for comment to clarify which candidate he has in fact backed.

Asked if he has received any endorsements, Green said he is focused on earning precinct chairs’ support.

I’m a little surprised at how active Mayor Turner has been in intra-Democratic elections so far. Mayor Parker was a lot more circumspect, and Mayor White basically recused himself from party politics for his six years in office. I guess I’m not that surprised – the Lege was his bailiwick for a long time – and while these family fights often get nasty, I’m sure he’s fully aware of the pros and cons of getting involved. Whatever the case, this race just got a lot more interesting.

Shots fired at Sen. Whitmire’s office

Jesus.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire said Thursday afternoon he believes the gun used in the predawn shooting of his Houston-area office was likely an AR-15 assault rifle.

The Houston Democrat’s office was fired on at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday. No one was injured in the shooting, which was first reported by KHOU.

“[The bullets] were .223” he said, referring to the caliber of the slugs found. A somber-sounding Whitmire said the situation is “serious” as investigators are still determining whether his office was the sole target.

“We’ll take precautions. But it’s part of the job, unfortunately, in this day and time,” he said. “They are checking in this general area to see if anyone else received any gunfire. We don’t know yet. I don’t know yet.”

[…]

Whitmire said that as a lawmaker he gets his fair share of threats, but no single person or group immediately came to mind as a possible suspect in the shooting.

He said his position as chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee opens him up to criticism.

“I deal with some controversial issues,” he said. “[People] have expectations that I can’t meet or don’t want to meet. But it’d be total speculation to say where it came from.”

More from the Chron.

The Houston Police Department and the Texas Rangers are investigating the incident.

“No one was injured and the building was unoccupied,” HPD Spokesman Kese Smith said.

Police are trying to determine whether any surveillance cameras recorded the incident, Smith said, adding that 9-1-1 call logs show a neighbor reported hearing a “loud banging sound or possible gun shots” at around 12:30 a.m.

Throughout the day, small clusters of curious neighbors gathered outside the office, a two-story house with white wood siding, watching watch police and Texas Rangers comb the scene.

One bullet had torn through a transom supporting the structure’s wrap-around porch, ricocheting into the front of the structure. Bullets had also smashed through a window above the front door, a shutter, and through the side wall of the house.

Thankfully, no one was in the office, which is a really nice historic two-story house, at the time. I sure hope this was something random and not targeted, but we’ll see what the investigation says. And while these shots were fired at an office, which one might reasonably expect to be unoccupied late at night, it’s in a residential area. A stray bullet could have easily gone into a neighboring yard or house. Let’s hope they find the asshole who did this.

Another way to achieve bail reform

From the Quorum Report:

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

The unnecessary death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail last summer has now put the reform of bail bonds in focus as a key criminal justice issue ahead of the next legislative session.
Last month, a Waller County grand jury declined to indict those involved in [Sandra] Bland’s arrest and incarceration, either at the jail or in her widely publicized traffic stop near the Prairie View A&M University campus in July.

The Department of Public Safety trooper who arrested Bland subsequently was fired after being indicted for perjury in connection with the traffic stop.

Many put blame for Bland’s death on her inability to quickly find the $500 for her bond, extending her stay in the county jail into the following week, when she took her life. What Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, sees is a woman charged with a traffic stop who should have been in and out of the county jail within 18 hours of being booked.

“She was offered a bond. She needed $500 to get out,” Whitmire told an audience at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference last week. “When she saw the magistrate, she was not able to come up with the $500. They could verify she had a new job at Prairie View A&M. They could verify she had a local address. It would have served them well to offer her a PR bond and let her go on with her life, and then all of our lives would have been different.”

A “PR” bond is a personal recognizance bond, one that bypasses bail and relies on a defendant’s signature as a promise to return to face charges on a court date. It is usually offered to low-level non-violent offenders who do not pose a flight risk.

In the case of Harris County, 60 percent of those in jail fall into that category, yet magistrates offer a fraction of defendants PR bonds as an option, Whitmire said. Such a decision can often be heartless for people who are living from paycheck to paycheck. The cost of bail ends up outweighing the price of the crime.

“Some people couldn’t raise $1,000 to save their lives,” Whitmire said of bail bonds. “We need to get them in and get them out and save the resources for the really bad people. I think that really should be our priority.”

More than half the people sitting in the Harris County Jail today are awaiting a trial, rather than completing a sentence, Whitmire said. The system would be better served if they were released in order to get back to work to pay court fines.

We are well familiar with the problem. Obstacles to making this happen are the bail bond industry, and judges in places like Harris County that refuse to use Pretrial Services and set rational bonds. If the first obstacle can be overcome in the Legislature, the second one will be reduced in scope, which ought to make a big difference. If Sen. Whitmire says this will be a priority for him, you can be sure there will be some action on it. Grits has more.

Endorsement watch: Latino electeds for Gene Green

Not a big surprise.

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, will pick up support from several Houston political players Tuesday.

The 12-term congressman faces what could be a formidable primary challenge in the form of former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. According to a Green campaign press release, seven Houston Democrats are ready to back his re-election: state Sens. Sylvia R. Garcia and John Whitmire, state Reps. Ana Hernandez, Garnet F. Coleman, Armando Walle and Carol Alvarado, and Harris County Constable Chris Diaz.

The endorsements’ apparent aim is to give Green cover against Garcia’s argument that the mostly-Hispanic district would be better served with Hispanic congressional representation. With residual name identification from his unsuccessful run for Houston mayor, Garcia could pose a viable threat to Green’s re-election.

I received a copy of the press release as well as the pre-release on Friday that didn’t contain the officials’ names. The event will take place at 11 AM at the Vecino Health Center (Denver Harbor Family Clinic), 424 Hahlo St., in case anyone wants to attend. As I said before, I was looking to see who might be endorsing whom in this race. Whatever the effect is on the final result, this does affect the narrative of the race. Reps. Walle, Hernandez, and Alvarado all once worked for Green, so their solidarity with their former boss is to be expected, but Sylvia Garcia was one of the candidates for the seat back in 1992; she finished third, behind Green and Ben Reyes, whom Green then defeated in the runoff and again in the 1994 primary. She had previously been talked about as a potential opponent for Green in more recent years, before her election to the State Senate. Make of that what you will.

Going back through my archives, I came across this post from 2014 about Green representing a Latino district and when that might change. Here’s what Campos, who is now working on the Garcia campaign, said at the time:

Having a Dem Latino or Latina in Congress from the H-Town area would be empowering to the community. What is missing is an articulate voice for us in Congress like on a day when the immigration issue is front and center. Who is going to argue with that?

I don’t buy into the notion that just because the local Latino leaders aren’t for something, it won’t happen. I can still recall the spontaneous immigration marches a few years ago that local Latino leaders were scrambling to lead.

I can picture a scenario where an articulate bilingual Latino or Latina leader steps up, grabs an issue and captures the attention of the community. That is certainly not racist, that’s politics. This discussion isn’t going away.

And my comment on that:

Sure, that could happen, and I agree that if it were to happen it would likely be a talented newcomer who can inspire people to pose a serious threat to Rep. Green. The problem is that that’s not sufficient. Look at the recent history of Democratic primary challenges in Texas legislative races, and you’ll see that there are generally two paths to knocking off an incumbent that don’t rely on them getting hosed in redistricting. One is via the self-inflicted wounds of an incumbent with some kind of ethics problems – think Gabi Canales or Naomi Gonzales, for example – or an incumbent that has genuinely lost touch with the base. In the past decade in Texas that has mostly meant Craddick Democrats, though one could argue that Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s win over Silvestre Reyes had elements of that.

What I’m saying is simply that there has to be a reason to dump the current officeholder. Look no further than the other Anglo Texas Democrat in Congress for that. The GOP has marked Rep. Lloyd Doggett for extinction twice, each time drawing him into a heavily Latino district in the hope of seeing him get knocked off in a primary. He survived the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, then he faced the same kind of challenge again in 2012. His opponent, Sylvia Romo, was an experienced officeholder running in a district that was drawn to elect a Hispanic candidate from Bexar County. Having interviewed her, I can attest that she’d have made a perfectly fine member of Congress. But she never identified a policy item on which she disagreed with Doggett, and she never could give an answer to the question why the voters should replace their existing perfectly good member of Congress and his boatload of seniority with a rookie, however promising.

That’s the question any theoretical opponent to Gene Green will have to answer as well.

I think both my statement and Marc’s would stand up today. I’d say we’re likely to hear some form of these arguments over the next two months. In the meantime, I wonder if Garcia will roll out his own list of supporters soon. Better still if that list is accompanied by reasons why Garcia is the superior choice, and where he differs in matters of policy. I know that’s what I’d want to hear about if I lived in that district.

Will Sandra Bland’s death help lead to bail reform?

That would be a fitting and just outcome if it does.

Sandra Bland

Harris County and the state should reform an unfair bond system that punishes the poor more harshly, according to civil rights leaders, legislative officials and criminal experts who gathered Wednesday in front of the county’s criminal justice center. Reform, they argued, could prevent another tragedy like that involving Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her Waller County jail cell in July after failing to make bail.

“The death of Sandra Bland was a travesty of justice,” said Johnny Mata of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. “Sandra Bland would probably be alive today if Texas would’ve had a system that is fair.”

[…]

Advocates familiar with the bail process and statutes like the Fair Defense Act said it never should have come to that.

“There’s still an investigation being done,” Mata said of Bland’s death, which an autopsy shows was a suicide by hanging. “We respect that. However, we feel that an injustice has been committed.”

His coalition reflects more than 25 organizations across the area. He was joined Wednesday by experts like law professor Sandra Guerra Thomspon, director of the University of Houston Law Center’s Criminal Justice Institute, who said the need for bail reform is a national concern but is especially needed in Houston.

By following pre-determined bail schedules, magistrates ignore their responsibility to take individual factors into consideration to ensure that the bond does not merely become a punishment for being poor, she and others argued. Instead it’s meant to reflect an individual’s flight risk and potential public safety concerns. Had a more nuanced risk assessment instrument been used in Bland’s case, she argued, “the question would not be, ‘Does she have $500?’ but, ‘Is she a risk to come to court?'”

[…]

In Texas, defendants are supposed to have the added protection of the Fair Defense Act passed in 2001. The act, authored by [Sen. Rodney] Ellis, addresses issues like indigent defense and the timely appointment of counsel. But it also contains language about when a defendant should be granted representation. According to some, that right extends to the bond hearing itself, though this is rarely ever the case. Hargrave said in her more than 20 years of working in Waller County, an individual never had a defense lawyer present during the bond hearing.

Advocates also question what they see as the low rate of personal bonds granted to individuals. If an individual is granted a personal bond, he or she is released on the promise to appear in court. Only 7 percent of bonds issued in Harris County are personal bonds, according to Randall Kallinen, a lawyer and the former head of the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

With so few personal bonds issued, said Kallinen, “the person who has the money gets out.” In other words, “the Harris County jail is housing poor people,” he said.

I’ve written about this topic a number of times, usually in the context of jail overcrowding, but Sandra Bland’s death is a tragic reminder of another aspect of people not being able to post bail: A significant number of people die in jail every year. Grits puts a number to it: “183 have died in Sheriffs’ custody since January 2014, including 80 so far in 2015, a statistic which includes Sandra Bland and appears on pace to exceed last year’s number.” There are many different reasons why these deaths happen, and unfortunately the data we have doesn’t go into much detail about them, but the point is that some number of those people shouldn’t have been in jail at all, and wouldn’t have been there if they could have posted bail. This is not acceptable.

On a related note, the Texas Senate has convened a committee to study jail safety standards, which was another issue in Sandra Bland’s death. This is commendable, and I hope it produces some action items for the next Legislature, but 1) any such legislation is two years away from being enacted; 2) there’s no guarantee anything ever gets passed, and; 3) fixing how bail is set is something that can be done right now. Kudos to the Senate for addressing this, but let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. More from Grits here.

Grand jury reform bill in trouble

Not good.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Six weeks after sailing through the Texas Senate, efforts to reform the state’s controversial grand jury selection system have stalled in the House.

A closely watched bill to end the “pick-a-pal” system suffered an unexpected setback late Monday when the lawmaker carrying the bill in the House weakened it and then withdrew the measure altogether amid opposition from a Brazoria County judge.

The moves transformed the proposal from a political sure-shot to a long-shot.

“To say I’m totally disappointed at what happened in the House is an understatement,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the sponsor of the measure in the upper chamber. Whitmire vowed to redouble his push for what he called potentially the most important legislation in this year’s session. “This bill is clearly too important to let it not pass.”

[…]

On Monday, Republican Rep. Ed Thompson of Pearland rallied opposition to the measure on the House floor, citing the feelings of a judge in his district.

“He said, ‘we have this system, we know it and it’s working well,'” Thompson said in an interview.

Sensing the risk of defeat, bill sponsor Harold Dutton, D-Houston, put forward an amendment. The compromise would allow judges to continue to use the “pick-a-pal” system if they came up with a written justification.

The change also made sense, he said later in an interview, because of the importance of flexibility in some rare cases.

Still, Thompson moved to amend the bill to make it apply only to Harris and Dallas counties. On a 73-69 vote, he won.

While supporters managed to push through yet another amendment to make it apply to a few other large counties, Dutton at that point decided to voluntarily withdraw the bill, postponing debate.

“I just don’t think it makes good policy to apply different laws to different counties in the criminal justice system,” Dutton explained afterward.

Dutton chalked up the setback to a “unique set of circumstances,” with several amendments flying around and some members not understanding what they were voting on.

He said he soon would bring up the Senate version of the bill. Because it is cleaner, he said, he was optimistic he could find a few votes to get it through.

“I’ll twist some arms if I have to,” Dutton said.

See here for some background. I’ve got to say, I don’t understand the reluctance, and I’m more than a little boggled to see an unnamed judge in Brazoria County wielding that much influence. Maybe this was a matter of some members not understanding the issue, but geez, it’s not like this came out of nowhere. It’s been a hot topic for months. Can we pay a little more attention to issues that matter, please? Grits has more.

UPDATE: This version of the Chron story, plus Lisa Falkenberg’s column identify the judge in question as Patrick Sebesta.

Turner & Whitmire

No, not the latest buddy cop movie, just two old legislative friends helping each other out.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Texas’ most senior state senator turned to the crowd during a September fundraiser for state Rep. Sylvester Turner and ribbed his friend and would-be Houston mayor.

“My name is John Whitmire, and I’m Sylvester Turner’s state senator,” he said, a go-to laugh-line that landed in a sea of donors. “Everyone in my district is important, but Sylvester Turner kind of stands out.”

Kind words like those – exchanged again and again over the past 12 months in both directions – have gone a shade past the standard “good friend” lavished by nearly every politician on their predecessors at a dais. The alliance between Turner, a powerful Democratic state representative, and Whitmire, the most senior Democrat in the Senate, say people familiar with their ties, is genuine yet politically potent and already is sculpting the local Democratic landscape.

“The moon, the sun and all the planets have come together in the Sylvester-John orbit,” said Carl Whitmarsh, a longtime Democratic activist close to both men.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

[…]

Facing his first primary challenger since winning the seat in 1992 – and an African-American one at that, in a district that is only 28 percent Anglo – Whitmire called on Turner to introduce him to his Acres Home base. Other black legislators rallied behind Whitmire in the final months before his primary against Damien LaCroix. Turner hugged Whitmire tightest, introducing him to ministers and bringing him to black churches.

“I don’t think it was a race that John was in danger of losing,” said Mark Clark, who directs the police union’s political work. “But it seemed to me that Sylvester was investing as much as he possibly could to communicate with voters out there that Sen. Whitmire was the guy and still is the guy.”

Some point to that backing to explain Whitmire’s prominence in the mayoral race.

“They’ve been allies for a long time. It doesn’t surprise me that they support each other,” said Turner opponent Oliver Pennington, a city councilman who is critical of the pension deal struck by the Democratic pair.

I see this story as kind of a Rohrschach test. How you feel about Rep. Turner and/or Sen. Whitmire going in almost certainly correlates to how you feel about them teaming up like this. The main takeaway for me is that Turner isn’t going to leave the Anglo Dem bloc to the Bell/Costello/McVey/King/Garcia (*) crowd. He had very little traction with those voters in 2003, thanks in part to Bill White’s months-earlier entry into the race and heavy TV advertising. Things are different this time. We’ll see how much effect it has.

(*) Until he actually says he’s in, I’m giving Sheriff Garcia an asterisk.

Decriminalizing truancy

This is important.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Senate Bill 106, filed by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would make major overhauls to current truancy law, including referring students to a civil court that hears truancy cases rather than a criminal court.

Under current law, children as young as 12 who miss 10 or more days or parts of days in a 6-month period and their parents must appear in court, where they face a Class C misdemeanor charge and a fine up to $500. School districts can file truancy charges when a student misses at least three full or partial days in a four-week period.

Advocates told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that many truant students miss school because they are are pregnant, bullied or are the sole financial providers for their families. They said current law unfairly punishes them, labeling them a criminal at an early age.

“We have to find a way to encourage students and we’re finding that if you come through with a punitive manner it just doesn’t work,” said Yvonne Williams, a Travis County judge who deals with dozens of truancy cases a week.

Sen. Whitmire is acting on the tireless advocacy of Texas Appleseed, which has been banging the drum over the school-to-prison pipeline for several years. Decriminalizing truancy is at the top of their legislative agenda for this session. It’s great to see this move forward, especially (as Grits reported from the hearing) in the face of some heated but misleading opposition. Kudos to all for this, but let’s make sure it crosses the finish line.

Meanwhile, Sen. Whitmire has some other reforms on the burner as well.

Legislation that would take the biggest step in eight years to reform Texas’ juvenile-justice system by keeping more teen-aged offenders in community and regional treatment centers, rather than in a remote state lockup, was approved late Tuesday by a state Senate committee.

Under Senate Bill 1630, up to 80 percent of juvenile offenders who are now sent to state lockups could instead be held in local treatment programs – a move that could significantly downsize the state’s long-troubled youth corrections system and save taxpayers perhaps as much as $40 million.

“This is the next huge step to keep the youth closer to their communities in programs that work, instead of state programs that have not,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the author of the measure. “We’ll not only have better results, but this will save money.”

Officials and justice experts testified during a public hearing the plan, if approved, would mark the most significant change in Texas’ juvenile justice system in years – a change recommended seven years ago, when the number of youths in state lockups was cut by more than half in favor of local treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Under the bill, youths serving time for so-called indeterminate sentences – most held for less-serious crimes and who remain in the program until they successfully complete it – would be sent to regional facilities, many of them operated by counties, instead of the state’s five high-security lockups that more resemble prisons than rehabilitation centers.

Tom Brooks, chief juvenile probation officer of Harris County, and his counterpart in Bexar County, Lynne Wilkerson, were among a long list of witnesses voicing support for the legislation, which has also been endorsed by officials of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

[…]

Whitmire said Senate budget writers refocused the agency’s two-year budget to fund more local rehabilitation and treatment programs and to hire more parole officers.

“It currently costs about $140,000 a year to house a youth in a state facility, and it costs just $60,000 in a local or regional program – with much better outcomes,” Whitmire said.

I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. Again, I’m glad to see this moving, and I hope to see it go the distance.

There is one reform that won’t happen at this time, however.

Armed with research on the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult jails and prisons, children’s groups and criminal justice advocates have made the cause a top priority this session. Texans Care for Children convened a summit on the issue last fall, and a January report from a House committee has recommended changing the law.

Texas’ law, the committee notes, is out of step with both federal law and all but eight other states. The report notes research that says adolescent brains are still developing, which calls into question whether they should be held as culpable as adults, and suggests they might have a better chance at rehabilitation.

Sheriffs and jailers have supported the idea as well, in part because federal law already requires them to keep 17-year-olds out of “sight and sound” from older inmates, which is an expensive proposition. In practice, especially in smaller county facilities, 17-year-olds are confined alone instead. Juvenile court judges in Bexar and Harris counties have also signed on, editorial boards at the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman have all called for change this year.

With such a drumbeat of support, moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system seems like just the sort of research-based, bipartisan idea that a reform-minded Legislature would embrace. On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee will hear a handful of bills to do so.

But for now at least, the proposal is likely headed nowhere in the Senate, where the most visible opposition has come from an unlikely source: Whitmire.

“I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year-old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult. I just think that a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” Whitmire told the Observer. “I just am not of the opinion that it’s a broken system, and I’m not prepared to change the law to assist the sheriffs in the management of their jails.”

Well, we’ll have to disagree on that. I think the wind is blowing in the direction of less incarceration, and we should take advantage of any opportunity we can to pursue that. Maybe next session for this part of it.

The pension deal

Not sure yet how I feel about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and Houston’s firefighter pension trustees have reached a deal that would lower the city’s payments for three years, a move that would mark an abrupt reversal for the mayor.

The announcement came late Thursday from the fire pension board, whose leaders for years have fought any mention of changes to benefits as Houston’s enormous pension burden has continued to grow. The pension fund estimates the city would pay $77 million less over the next three years.

In a memo Thursday to the City Council, Parker said the agreement is a “modified version” of a proposal the pension board pushed last fall.

“The terms will deliver significant budget relief to the city of Houston,” Parker wrote. “As with any true compromise, both sides have surrendered hard positions to realize a mutually beneficial outcome.”

Craig Mason is a pension consultant who represents the city on the police, fire and municipal pension boards. Mason, who followed the talks but had not seen the final deal, said the deal would see firefighters contribute more of their pay toward their retirement and have the city contribute less, for a term of three years.

Mason and other pension reformers have said, however, that without changing pension benefits the city will not be solving the problem long term.

“I’m opposed to people calling that a savings,” Mason said of the deal. “It’s a temporary reduction in contributions, but it’s going to increase contributions in the future. It’s a short-term focus, which is typical for city administrations.”

[…]

Parker’s support for the deal is curious, given that she said the pension trustees’ proposal from the fall “reflects no true pension reform” and repeated the same stance as recently as Wednesday, saying, “There’s no reform in that … we’re just putting more money into a system that I think needs help.”

The announcement said that as part of the deal the city would drop two lawsuits against the fire pension, one that seeks more data to better predict future costs and another that challenges the constitutionality of the city being on the hook for payments over which it has no control; the pension and the city’s contributions are set by the Legislature. The city would agree not to lobby the Legislature for pension reforms for the three-year duration of the deal, Mason added.

The fire pension trustees’ plan from last fall that Mason said forms the basis of the deal would not touch current or future firefighters’ benefits, but would have them contribute 12 percent of their paychecks into the pension fund, up from 9 percent. In that proposal, the fire pension projected the city’s contribution rate would drop from 33 percent of firefighter payroll to 24 percent.

Before I say anything about this myself, let me quote from the reactions I received in my inbox to this, in the order I received them. First, from CM Stephen Costello:

“Our firefighters deserve to have their pensions covered in full and this deal, negotiated without City Council input or approval, not only leaves their pensions cut short but continues to put the city’s financial well-being at great risk over the long haul. This agreement simply continues the damaging cycle where the City of Houston fails to fund the pension, racking up tens of millions of dollars in new debt in the future. The ultimate solution in the long term is local control. Houstonians should have the authority to craft their own solution rather than continuing to leave our fate in the hands of politicians in Austin.”

From Bill King:

The proposed agreement regarding the Houston Fire Fighter pension plan announced yesterday represents a further abdication of fiscal responsibility. The parties to this deal owe taxpayers an explanation how borrowing $77 million at 8.5 percent is a good deal, or saves the City money. This deal does absolutely nothing to contain the costs to Houston taxpayers, but instead pushes off millions of dollars of pension obligations to the next administration.

I do not believe the City should incur this kind of additional liability without a full and open debate — and approval — by City Council especially when the City’s pension debt has soared by $1.2 billion over the last five years.

From Controller candidate Bill Frazer:

Once again, Houston’s taxpayers have been left holding the bag while its pension issues get kicked down the road for another 3 years. The City Controller stands idly by while the Mayor, a candidate for Mayor and a candidate for City Controller craft a backroom deal based purely on political expediency.

While kicking the can down the road, the Mayor has borrowed another $77 million at “credit card interest rates”, leaving the taxpayers with more debt and no solutions. Houston deserves a higher standard.

From HFRRF Chairman Todd Clark:

Today Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) and Houston Mayor Annise Parker agreed on a set of legislative provisions that will save the City $77 million over three years while assuring soundness of the pension and putting a halt to the City’s lawsuits against the Fund. Mayor Parker supported the plan which increases firefighters’ contributions by 3% of their salaries and will reduce Houston’s General Fund expenses to the HFRRF by $21.4 million in Fiscal Year 2016 alone.

“The proposal protects Houston’s citizens by keeping and recruiting the best firefighters we can get,” said HFRRF President Todd Clark. “We are pleased the Mayor supports our proposal because it protects promises made to our firefighters and avoids reduction of benefits to new hires, which would be harmful to all parties.”

The Firefighters’ proposal, as accepted by the Mayor, provides a sustainable plan for the City while avoiding additional costly litigation and discontinuing current litigation while not impacting retirees at all.

And finally, from Mayor Parker:

Under the terms of the arrangement, which still needs legislative approval in Austin, firefighters will contribute three percent more to the pension system for the next three years. Correspondingly, the City’s payroll contribution to the fund will be locked in at 25.8% for Fiscal Year 2016, and 24% for both Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018. This represents a more than $70 million decrease from the amount the city would have to pay in the absence of this arrangement.

The HFRRF board proposed that the firefighters who benefit from the system should pay more. “This protects taxpayer interests and provides budget certainty for the next three years,” said Mayor Parker. “The agreement was achieved through good faith negotiations by both parties. While it is not the pension reform I have sought, it is a step forward. The work must not end here.”

The agreement is the result of informal discussions between the City and HFRRF over the last several months. State law gives the city the ability to meet and confer with the police and municipal pensions, but no such mechanism exists for HFRRF.

“Despite our differences, both of us came together to do what is best for the City,” said Parker. “This doesn’t change my position. I still strongly believe that those who fund our employee pensions should have a say in how we pay for them. These are decisions that must be made here at home, not in Austin.”

The Mayor’s full press release is here. Clearly, one’s view of this deal is dependent on how one views the overall pension situation. Also, if one is running for Mayor and one is not Sylvester Turner, who was credited by the firefighters for helping to broker this deal, one doesn’t like it. My view is that while this is clearly a kick-the-can-down-the-road proposal, the fact is that Houston is facing a (hopefully short term) fiscal crunch in the next few years, and will have to make cuts somewhere to cover those bills. Reducing the amount that the city will have to cut by $77 million over the next three years is nothing to sneeze at, especially if one is unwilling to try to lift the stupid revenue cap as a means of helping to mitigate those cuts. If this is a loan that needs to be paid back, or if there is a gap between what the city would have contributed and what the firefighters will wind up kicking in, then this deal doesn’t look as good. I’d like to see an analysis from a disinterested third party before I sign off on any interpretation, but the prospect of having to make $77 million less in cuts over the next three years counts for something to me. Campos and PDiddie have more.

Statewide non-discrimination ordinance filed

From the Inbox:

Sen. Jose Rodriguez

On the 179th anniversary of Texas Independence Day, Senator José Rodríguez (D-El Paso) filed Senate Bill 856, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment, public accommodation, housing, and state contracting based upon sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. The bill was joint-authored by Senators John Whitmire (D-Houston), Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Kirk Watson (D-Austin), and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston).

“Fair treatment for workers, families, and people who visit our state—including gay and transgender people—is a crucial factor in the ongoing strength of the Texas brand. An inclusive Texas is crucial to recruiting and retaining talent, attracting entrepreneurs and company relocations, and maintaining a strong travel and tourism industry. Moreover, discrimination of any kind runs counter to the values of opportunity, personal faith, and freedom from discrimination that all Texans hold dear,” Senator Rodríguez said.

“Discrimination of any form has no place in Texas. Not in our schools, our government, or our services. I am proud to co-author this legislation and proud to stand strong for the fair treatment of all Texans especially our friends in the LGBT community who for too long have been the target of discrimination,” stated Senator John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate.

“I’m proud to coauthor legislation to prevent fellow Texans from being discriminated against due to who they love,” said Senator Ellis. “All hardworking Texans, including our LGBT neighbors, should have the chance to earn a living, provide for their families, and live like everyone else without fear of getting fired or evicted solely because of who they are. ”

“Every Texan deserves to be treated fairly, and this legislation will make our state stronger by protecting this important ideal,” Senator Watson said.

“All Texans should enjoy equal protection under the law. This important legislation would ensure that our LGBT brothers and sisters can express who they are without fear of discrimination. It would also send a message to the rest of the world that Texas welcomes anyone that wants to contribute to our great state, regardless of sexual orientation,” Senator Garcia said.

According to the 2012 FORTUNE 500 Non-Discrimination Project from the Equality Forum, 48 of 52 Fortune 500 companies in Texas already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Many others also extend that protection to gender identity or expression. In 2012, the Center for American Progress reported that work environments hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees cost companies $1.4 billion in lost output every year.

Because Texas does not protect people who are gay or transgender from discrimination, many municipalities have already acted to extend discrimination protection to those residents. Currently 35.5% of Texans live in a city where discrimination against sexual orientation is prohibited. 33.9% live in a city where gender identity is protected.

“It is time—past time,” said Senator Rodríguez, “to make sure that all Texans have the independence our state claimed for itself almost 200 years ago. To be free of discrimination based on who you are, and to be treated fairly and equally is an environment Texas should be leading the way in creating, not being late to adopt. That’s what businesses want. But most importantly, all Texans deserve the right to provide for themselves and their families, secure a place to live, participate in the Texas economy, and contribute to the Texas economy, no matter what city they live in or visit and regardless of who they are or whom they love.”

Business leaders agree.

Catherine Morse, General Counsel and Director of Public Affairs at Samsung Austin Semiconductor: “Like so many other companies in Texas, Samsung is competing globally for the best talent. We believe that nondiscrimination measures will help us in that regard.”

Mellie Price, serial entrepreneur and Managing Director of Capital Factory: “For small and large businesses across Texas to compete for top talent, we must have workplaces and communities that are diverse and welcoming to all people.”

“I chose today—Texas Independence Day—to file this important legislation,” Senator Rodríguez concluded, “because Texas values—such as hard work, opportunity, and the Golden Rule—are the reason why Texas remains strong 179 years later. That is why we must act definitively to ensure everyone in the Lone Star State is treated fairly and equally.”

Here’s SB856. It’s not going to go anywhere – it’s going to be a hell of a fight to fend off legislation that would nullify local non-discrimination ordinances; yet another such bill was filed around the same time as Sen. Rordiguez’s bill – but that doesn’t matter. I’ll say again, if we don’t stand up for what we believe in, what are we even doing? I commend Sen. Rodriguez and his four co-authors for doing the right thing. I hope the rest of their colleagues follow their example. The full press release is here, and Equality Texas has more.

Reforming the grand jury system

Harris County DA Devon Anderson comes out in favor of changing how grand juries are selected.

DA Devon Anderson

I have been the Harris County district attorney for 17 months now. In that time, one of the most frequently recurring issues I have been asked to address has been the selection of grand jurors by jury commissioners.

Until now, my answer to those questions had been simple:

I don’t have the authority as district attorney to tell our elected district court judges how they should select their grand juries. They are each accountable to the voters for their own choices.

We work with the grand juries that the courts empanel, and we do our very best to avoid conflicts. If it’s a police shooting we are presenting, we try to find a grand jury that is diverse and that does not have law enforcement officers on the panel. We do this regardless of how the grand jury was selected.

If the way the district courts select grand juries engenders distrust but is still lawful, the solution is for the Texas Legislature to change the law.

The public is losing confidence in the grand jury system. I can no longer take a neutral position on this issue. The use of jury commissioners to select grand jurors unnecessarily gives critics of the grand jury system ammunition to challenge the jurors’ independence and integrity. The jurors deserve better. The public deserves better.

[…]

I support the efforts in the Texas Legislature to abolish the jury commissioner system. Whatever concerns the remaining district court judges have about using jury pools should have been assuaged long ago – other district courts have been using the jury pool system successfully for long enough that its viability cannot be questioned.

Good for her. As the accompanying Chron story notes, there’s already a vehicle to make this happen.

State Sen. John Whitmire, who authored the bill to abolish the “key man” system, said recent events and local reporting reinforced his concern about how grand juries are put together and convinced him it is time for a change.

“People of all colors have lost confidence in the system,” he said. “We don’t need a handpicked group of the judge’s friends making these decisions.”

Whitmire said he attended a town hall meeting where it was apparent that minority communities in Houston have lost faith in the current system.

“I’ve become convinced from personal observation and knowing people – judges, prosecutors – that it’s a flawed system,” he said. “It’s alarming when you hear the examples of what some judges are doing.”

Whitmire applauded Anderson’s decision to support the effort to create more diverse grand juries. He said he looked forward to partnering with her administration.

“She’s the district attorney of the largest DA’s office in Texas. I’m the Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee,” he said. “I’m a Democrat, she’s a Republican, so I’m sure we’ll be able to get some things done.”

Whitmire’s bill is SB135. From the story, it sounds like the main opposition to this idea is from the judges themselves. Doesn’t mean Whitmire’s bill will pass even with Anderson’s support, but that seems like a surmountable obstacle. Grand jury reform, like body cameras, is a high priority for criminal justice reformers. I look forward to the hearings on this, to see what else comes out. Grits and Campos, who notes Lisa Falkenberg’s advocacy on this issue, have more.

Expect to hear more about Perry vetos and no-bid contracts

Bring it on.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Democratic lawmakers and government watchdog groups on Saturday called for the reopening of an investigation into no-bid state contracts that ended in 2013 after Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the team conducting it.

The critics decried the millions of dollars in Department of Public Safety contracts and another set of similar deals given by the state health commission under Perry, who will step down Tuesday after 14 years in office and is considering a 2016 presidential run. They said a thorough evaluation of contracting is needed to assure taxpayers that their money is being spent responsibly.

“Hell, yes, we need to review everything,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has served in the upper chamber longer than any other member. “There seems to be an awful lot of no-bid this and no-bid that, and I just think we need to look at it all so we can tell where the problems are and what needs to be changed.”

[…]

Democratic state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Armando Walle of Houston were among those calling Saturday for the investigation of no-bid contracts to be reopened.

“Using state resources to bolster a political career by fomenting a non-existent border crisis, then giving no-bid contracts to a company that has limited experience in border security seems like an issue the Public Integrity Unit should be investigating,” Walle said.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based government watchdog group whose complaint initiated the investigation that led to Perry’s indictment, agreed. He added that if the investigation had continued, it may have prevented some of the issues now surfacing with state health contracts.

Four high-ranking Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials have so far resigned as a result of those issues, stemming from no-bid Medicaid fraud detection contracts with Austin technology company 21CT that got tentative approval to balloon to $110 million before being canceled.

The deal is now being investigated by the Public Integrity Unit.

Unit director Gregg Cox on Saturday cited that investigation as a reason why it was unlikely that his office could reopen the probe into DPS contracts.

“I just don’t have the horsepower right now to open new investigations, with everything else we have going,” said Cox, who added that he would review the option next week. He added that for now, he “would prefer to see other agencies investigate this, and then we can work with them.”

See here for the background. If nothing else, one hopes this is the fulcrum by which the Public integrity Unit gets its funding restored, which is something the House budget would do but not what Dan Patrick wants. Regardless, this is a giant turd that Rick Perry is leaving in Greg Abbott’s punch bowl, and I plan to enjoy watching the fallout.

DA’s office to help buy body cams

Very good news.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson plans to purchase hundreds of body-worn cameras for Houston police officers and sheriff’s deputies, weeks after widespread protests erupted when a white Missouri police officer was not charged for fatally shooting an unarmed black teen.

In the aftermath of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 24, civil rights groups have called for increased accountability during police encounters, including the use of small cameras worn on officers’ uniforms. This month the Chicago police department, the nation’s second-biggest force, announced a pilot program for body cameras to begin in January. The Obama administration also recently asked Congress for approval to spend $263 million to help states acquire 50,000 body cameras.

A sheriff’s spokesman and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, confirmed the purchase of the body cameras locally.

[…]

Local officials with the NAACP called the camera initiative “good news.”

“That’s a very positive step,” said Carroll Robinson, treasurer-elect with the Houston Branch of the NAACP. “The body camera won’t solve every problem but the more we can see the less we have to rely on he-said, she-said.

“They will help improve community trust in the law enforcement system and bring confidence to those who want to make sure the criminal justice system is hearing their voice and their concerns.”

Carmen Roe, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said body cameras are “essential to provide transparency out on the streets, for the protection of law enforcement as well as citizens in the community.”

Roe and others said policies and guidelines for the cameras’ use are critical.

“I hope there will be some written policies in place to ensure the cameras are not used at the discretion of officers,” Roe said. “Any time there are officers out on the street, their cameras should be activated to record any interaction with citizens in the community.”

Agreed on all counts, and major kudos to DA Devon Anderson for taking this initiative. This also addresses something I’ve been thinking of since the push for body cameras for HPD began, which is what about Sheriff’s deputies? There’s a lot more cops than just HPD, after all. Of course, there’s more than HPD and the HCSO, too, but you have to start somewhere.

You also have to keep in mind that body cameras are a tool and one piece of a much larger puzzle. They’re not a solution in and of themselves.

Justin Ready, an assistant professor of criminology at Arizona State University who has conducted research on the use of body cameras in the Mesa, Ariz., and Phoenix police departments, said the technology may not be enough to prevent another Ferguson.

“Any interaction is complex. The cameras might show you five pieces of a 10-piece puzzle, and we tend to fill in those blind spots with our own biases,” he said.

Though body cameras can raise transparency and accountability on both sides of the lens, experts also urge caution about unrealistic expectations for the devices.

One study released in September, “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program” – a joint report from the Police Executive Research Forum and the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – examined how agencies were using the devices and offered recommendations for those considering outfitting officers with cameras.

“There’s a lot of public support for it right now and agencies are really wanting to jump on board, but what we say is: Do this cautiously and think about what your policies are going to be and how this is going to impact your community and how officers are going to do their jobs,” said Lindsay Miller, the report’s co-author and a senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum.

Most cameras cost $1,000 to $1,500 each, but deploying the units also requires a more expensive component: video storage and management.

“Every video, no matter how you store it, has to be uploaded, characterized, properly tagged and sometimes linked to a document system,” Miller said. “This program requires a considerable amount of money and manpower.”

Absolutely, and it also requires a lot of thought, and ideally a lot of engagement with the public, to do this effectively and appropriately. That we are going to start thinking about these things, and again getting the public involved in the process, is a positive step. I commend DA Devon Anderson, whose action will enable all Sheriff’s deputies to get body cameras, for doing her part to make this happen. Grits, who notes pushes for body cameras all over Texas, and Hair Balls have more.