Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Kelly Hancock

And now for some statewide whining about straight ticket voting

I have four things to say about this.

Straight-ticket voting will end before the 2020 elections, bringing Texas into line with the vast majority of states. But the change didn’t come early enough to save Emmett — or a host of other down-ballot Republican candidates like judges, who are disproportionately affected by the practice by virtue of their low profiles and low ballot placement.

Republicans — who lost numerous down-ballot officials, a dozen state House members and scores of judges, particularly in big cities — in some ways brought those losses upon themselves: The law that ended straight-ticket voting was written and approved by GOP lawmakers. It was originally set to go into effect before this year’s elections, but was at the last minute delayed until 2020.

If the top culprit for down-ballot Republican losses last week is a certain El Paso Democrat credited with drawing flocks of new voters to the polls, the second spot might go to straight-ticket voting. Yes, the argument goes, a lot of new Democrats came to the polls to cast their ballots for U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke in his campaign for U.S. Senate. In the process, many voted for other Democrats down the ballot who they knew little or nothing about. But without the one-punch option, GOP operatives argue, many of those voters would have walked out before dooming Republicans at the bottom of the ballot.

Straight-party voting “is the story” of this year’s election, said Dallas County GOP Chair Missy Shorey, whose county saw a rout of local Republicans.

Among the casualties: 12 members of the Texas House, many of them in the Dallas area; two state senators representing North Texas districts; down-ballot county officials in a host of purpling regions; and nearly two dozen Republican judges on state appeals courts.

After the 2020 elections, when straight-ticket voting ends, candidates will still appear beside their party affiliations, but most strategists expect fewer voters will make it all the way down to the local races. It’s hard to say what the statewide impact of that will be — many Republicans straight-ticket vote, too, and voters can still choose to select all the candidates in their chosen party manually — but in the wake of a tough election for down-ballot Republicans, especially on the fringes of the state’s biggest cities, some are wishing the option had ended in 2018.

At first, that was the plan. Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons’ House Bill 25, which ended straight-ticket voting, was originally set to go into effect before the 2018 midterms; it passed the House with that language, and made it all the way to the Senate floor. Just before the bill passed in the upper chamber, Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock, of North Richland Hills, tacked on an amendment delaying the effective date to 2020.

The delay, some local GOP officials said, particularly doomed down-ballot Republicans in or near urban areas like Houston, Dallas and Austin.

“I’ve been warning about it for years,” said Harris County GOP Chairman Paul Simpson. “At the last minute, they put it back in for 2018, and I told some legislators then, ‘2018 will not be the same as 2014.’”

[…]

No one predicted the consequences better than the lieutenant governor, who warned of such an outcome during campaign season.

“Their plan was to give all the money, on the Democratic side, to Beto the Irishman O’Rourke,” Patrick warned at a New Braunfels campaign event in October. “Understand their strategy. If they can get to 4 or 5 [percent margin], if they can get a 75 or 80 percent straight-ticket vote on their side, guess what? Beto loses. But then they pick up judges down ballot. They pick up House members down ballot. They pick up state senators down ballot. They pick up local races down ballot.”

Emmett faulted the upper chamber, which Patrick leads, for failing to prevent that possibility.

“When the state Senate decided to keep straight-ticket voting for one more year, a lot of us thought that was a really dumb decision,” Emmett told a Houston TV station shortly after his loss last week. “It turned out to be even dumber than any of us could’ve predicted.”

1. Once again, I am old enough to remember the 2010 election, and how Republicans who voted straight ticket helped to sweep out a dozen or so Democratic State House members who had represented mostly rural areas, where the locals generally voted Republican but had continued to support Democrats in downballot races. I know that was, like, a hundred years ago, and I acknowledge that the Trib story acknowledged that Republicans have also been known to cast straight party votes, but seriously, enough with the whining.

2. To some extent, I feel like these stories are as much about Republicans trying, and failing, to come to grips with what happened. They’re not used to losing races like these, they’re certainly not used to losing races in counties like Denton and Williamson and Fort Bend, and they’re not used to sweating it out at the statewide level. It can’t be because of anything they did, and it can’t be because of Dear Leader Trump, so obviously it must be due to something they couldn’t control and wasn’t fair. Darn that Beto O’Rourke and his widespread appeal to voters across the spectrum! How dare he do this to us?

3. If you must take this complaint seriously, the logic behind it is that more Democrats would not have voted in these downballot races than Republicans if straight ticket voting were not an option. I have no idea where this notion comes from, other than an obvious disdain for people who vote Democratic from Republican officeholders, but I doubt there’s any actual political science behind it. (At least, I haven’t seen any actual political scientists claim that there is merit to the idea that Republicans will benefit from the elimination of straight ticket voting.) Well, there is the fact that a long ballot means that it will take longer for each person to vote if they can’t be one-and-done, and so maybe the lines at voting locations in Democratic (read: minority) neighborhoods will be even longer, thus discouraging more people from bothering. If we’re going to entertain this otherwise unsupported, and only implicitly stated, assumption, we should at least try to pin down what underpins it. Be that as it may, in the five statewide judicial races with both a D and an R, there were about 663K Democratic votes cast in Harris County and about 521K Republican votes. With there being 410K straight ticket Republican votes and 515K Democratic straight ticket votes, that means about 78% of each party’s voters picked the straight ticket option. Each party will have some work to do to get their people to understand the new world in 2020.

4. Going farther down the ballot, in the appeals court races the undervote rate ranged from about 31K to 33K, and in the district court races it ranged from 33K to 36K. About 292K voters overall in Harris County did not vote a straight ticket, so the actual undervote rate was in the 11-12% range. My guess is that in two years’ time, with education from the parties and with the recognition that some straight ticket voters all along would have clicked all the buttons if they needed to, the undervote rate will be less than ten percent, maybe more like eight percent. I’m just guessing, and I certainly could be wrong. We’ll know much more in another decade or so, after we’ve had a few of these under our belts. What I do know is that if Republicans think that the single greatest adversary they faced in 2018 was the straight ticket option, I believe they will be surprised and disappointed again in 2020.

Filing roundup: State Senate

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

Kendall Scudder

SD02Kendall Scudder (Facebook)

SD03 – Shirley Layton

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

SD07David Romero

SD08Brian Chaput
SD08 – Mark Phariss

SD09Gwenn Burud

SD10Allison Campolo (Facebook)
SD10Beverly Powell (Facebook)

SD16Joe Bogen (Facebook)
SD16Nathan Johnson (Facebook)

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

SD25Jack Guerra (Facebook)
SD25Steven Kling (Facebook)

SD30Kevin Lopez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2017 campaign finance reports: State Senate targets

The Trib highlights a couple of races of interest.

Senate District 8

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

Senate District 10

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

Senate District 16

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

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

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


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

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

Pushing the NFL Draft angle

Every angle is going to be needed, and this is one that ought to speak to some folks.

The Cowboys’ efforts to land the NFL draft and how it could be derailed by the legislative push for a bathroom bill is part of a $1 million ad buy that will begin to play on radio stations Tuesday.

The Texas Association of Business is behind the ads. The Cowboys aren’t associated with the campaign, but they are featured.

A woman describes herself as a lifelong Cowboys fan and talks about how she’s thrilled that the 2018 draft could be in North Texas. She then says the NFL could reject the club’s bid to host the festivities, costing Texas “millions of dollars in lost revenue and leaving a lot of Cowboys fans angry” if the bathroom bill passes in Texas.

The one-minute ad ends by asking fans to contact their legislators to tell them to reject the bill and bring the NFL draft to Texas. The spot, which will run on 26 stations in the Dallas area, is designed to expand the debate and spotlight potential consequences.

“The bathroom bill distracts from the real challenges we face and would result in terrible economic consequences–on sporting events, talent, on tourism, on investment, on growth, and on small businesses,” said Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Texas Association of Business. “That’s why TAB and the Keep Texas Open for Business coalition are investing heavily in radio ads in DFW and focusing on potentially losing the NFL Draft and remain steadfastly opposed to this unnecessary legislation.”

[…]

Behind the scenes, multiple sources say the Cowboys are letting lawmakers know how passage of this bill could negatively impact the franchise’s ability to book sporting and entertainment events at AT&T Stadium and The Star in Frisco. One source described the club’s lobbying efforts against the bill’s passage as “quiet and aggressive.”

The club, like so many other businesses, finds itself in a delicate position. It doesn’t want to antagonize Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the bill’s primary proponent, since there will be a variety of bills down the road that can aid the Cowboys and officials will seek support from the two. But the Cowboys want to get across how they believe altering existing law will impact their bottom line.

Corporations outside the state can threaten not to build or move existing projects and operations out of Texas if the bill passes. The Cowboys don’t have that sort of leverage.

What will Jones do if the bill passes? Move the franchise to Little Rock?

No. But club officials can discreetly point out that the U2 concert that recently took place at AT&T Stadium would not have found its way to Texas if this bill had been law. It can question whether the Big 12 Championship Game and other marquee college matchups and events will be staged in Arlington going forward.

There’s embedded audio of the ad in the piece linked above if you want to hear it. The NFL Draft and the Cowboys’ efforts to bring it to Dallas next year has come up before; this is just a way to bring more attention to that. Whether this campaign will affect how any member of the House votes on bathroom bills I can’t say, but I can say this: AT&T Stadium is located in Arlington, and it is represented in Austin by a total of six people: Sens. Kelly Hancock and Konni Burton, and Reps. Jonathan Stickland, Matt Krause, Tony Tinderholt, and Chris Turner. All but Turner are Republicans, and all but Turner are Yes votes on potty-related legislation. In fact, Stickland and Krause and Tinderholt are all members of the lunatic House Freedom Caucus, whose bill-killing maneuvers at the end of the regular session allowed Dan Patrick to take the sunset bills hostage and force the special session we are now enduring. So, while I greatly appreciate the Cowboys’ lobbying efforts, which no doubt carry far more weight than most, there very much is something they can do afterwards, whether one of these bills passes or not: They can put some of that weight behind an effort to get themselves better representation in the Legislature. It’s not a high bar to clear in this case. Just a reminder that the fight doesn’t end at sine die. The Chron has more.

AirBnB bill fails to pass

One minor surprise from this now-ended legislative session.

A conference committee Saturday voted to strip an amendment that would have blocked cities from regulating short-term rentals like Airbnb, all but killing the measure with less than two days left in the legislative session.

The move comes during a legislative session in which lawmakers have otherwise been willing to overrule local ordinances — including regulations for ride-hailing services.

Senate Bill 451 by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, aimed to prevent Texas cities from banning short-term rentals and rein in their ability to write ordinances restricting the practice. Austin and Fort Worth are among the cities that have enacted such restrictions.

The Senate passed Hancock’s bill, but both SB 451 and a similar House bill languished in the House without receiving committee votes.

Hancock later tried to revive his bill by adding it as an amendment to House Bill 2445, a measure to regulate the use of the hotel occupancy taxes collected in each municipality. But the conference committee stripped it back out, and with the legislative session ending Monday, only extraordinary measures could revive it.

See here for the background. The Trib published that on Sunday, when there was still a theoretical chance the bill could be passed in some form, but it was not to be. I figured this bill would sail through in more or less the same fashion as the rideshare bill, but apparently not. Well, it took two sessions for a rideshare bill to pass, so maybe next time. I’m fine with it not passing, but I’ll be surprised if one never passes.

Senate passes ban on straight-ticket voting

It’s happening.

The Texas Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to legislation that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in all elections.

By a vote of 20-10, senators passed House Bill 25 over objections from Democrats who warned of unintended consequences — including a disproportionate impact on minority voters.

“Frankly, I don’t see any purpose for this legislation other than trying to dilute the vote of Democrats and, more specifically, minorities,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

The bill’s supporters say it would force voters to make more informed decisions in individual elections. “What we’re doing is showing every race matters,” the Senate sponsor, Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, said Wednesday.

The legislation’s backers also argue it would bring Texas in line with at least 40 other states that do not allow straight-ticket voting, the option for voters to automatically cast their ballot for every candidate from a single party. Straight-ticket ballots made up nearly 64 percent of total votes cast in the state’s 10 largest counties in 2016.

The preliminary approval of HB 25 on Wednesday came after Hancock amended it to postpone its effective date from September 2017 to September 2020. That will allow candidates more time to prepare for the change, Hancock said.

You know how I feel about this. I’ve got no more arguments to make. There’s been talk of a lawsuit, and I won’t be surprised if one gets filed. The Republicans could improve their position by addressing the issue of the longer lines that will result from the removal of this option – more money to counties to buy more voting machines for early and precinct voting locations would help a lot. I don’t they’re any more likely to do this than they were to mitigate the 2011 voter ID bill, but they have that option and they’ll have the 2019 legislative session in which to exercise it. We’ll see what they do. The Press has more.

Bill to ban straight-ticket voting advances in the Senate

This could happen.

Rep. Ron Simmons

A Texas Senate panel approved legislation Thursday that would end straight-ticket voting in all elections.

The Senate Committee on Business & Commerce voted 7-0 to send House Bill 25 for potential consideration by the full chamber. Two members, the only Democrats on the panel, were absent.

The vote came less than a week after the House passed the legislation, mostly along party lines. Starting with the 2018 elections, the bill would take away the option for voters to automatically cast their ballot for every candidate from a single party.

[…]

In the Thursday hearing, proponents of the bill — including its Senate sponsor, Hancock — said it would force voters to make more informed decisions when casting their ballots. Critics suggested it could lead to voting rights violations.

“We believe that this takes away one method of voting that minority voters overwhelmingly use to choose the candidates of their choice,” said Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Maxey also questioned why the bill wound up in the Business & Commerce Committee, not the State Affairs Committee. Such a maneuver is “what the federal courts have noted as abnormal legislative procedure,” Maxey said.

A federal judge blocked a similar law last year in Michigan, saying it would disproportionately affect black voters. After that ruling came up in Thursday’s hearing, Hancock noted that the Michigan law moved through a “completely different court system than we’ll move through” if HB 25 becomes law and it is challenged.

Hancock also sought to reassure critics of the bill who said it would lead to longer lines at polling places, saying more locations would solve the problem.

See here for the background. Sen. Hancock is correct that more locations – and more machines per location – can solve the problems, but those words are meaningless without funding from the state to cover the costs. Not covering costs, going through a different committee, taking a vote when the two Dems on the committee were absent – none of this is going to look good when the inevitable lawsuit is filed.

House Democrats on Friday argued eliminating the “one-punch” choice would constitute an attack on Texans’ voting rights, particularly the disabled, the elderly and voters in large cities, where ballots and lines are longer and more people rely on public transportation.

Multiple lawmakers said minority voters rely on the straight-ticket option more than Anglos, evidence that was used as the basis of a 2016 federal court ruling that blocked a similar law in Michigan.

“This bill hasn’t been vetted,” said Representative Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City. “We don’t know how much it will cost; we don’t know if it will violate the Voting Rights Act of 1964. What we do know is that federal courts have ruled recently that laws passed by Texas discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters.”

Three federal court rulings since March have found that Texas intentionally discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters in voter ID and redistricting cases. The author of HB 25, Representative Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said repeatedly during debate Friday night that he was not aware of the rulings.

“I’ve been busy down here,” he said on the House floor, defending his lack of knowledge of the widely reported court decisions.

Representative Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, predicted the bill would be challenged “as a voter suppression bill.”

In the Michigan ruling last July, a federal judge wrote that abolishing the straight-ticket option would disproportionately impact African-American voters, who use it more often and already face longer voting lines in urban areas. The measure was designed “to require voters to spend more time filling more bubbles,” which could “discourage voting,” wrote Judge Gershwin A. Drain. The Supreme Court declined to hear Michigan’s appeal in September.

We’ll see what happens. There’s still time for the bill to be amended to address the concerns that Democrats have raised. I don’t expect that – why should the Republicans change their ways now? – but at least they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Senate passes “driverless car” bill

This is a first.

Sen. Kelly Hancock

Texas took a step toward self-driving vehicles zipping up and down its highways and streets under a first-of-its-kind measure approved Thursday by the Texas Senate.

Approved by a 31-0 vote, Senate Bill 1622 would implement minimum safety standards for so-called “autonomous vehicles” and “automated driving systems” — the first time the new technology will be regulated in the Lone Star State.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said oversight is needed to ensure the rapidly-evolving technology — some of which involve human navigators and others that are fully automated — remains safe on Texas streets and highways.

He said the legislation defines “automated driving system” to mirror current requirements of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has set nationwide safety standards.

The bill also pre-empts local officials in Texas from imposing their own rules or requiring a franchise for companies to operate autonomous vehicles — the latest such measure approved in this legislative session to curb local regulations on a variety of issues.

Owners of “autonomous” vehicles would have comply with state registration and title laws and follow traffic and motor-vehicle laws; the vehicles must be equipped with a data-recording system, meet federal safety standards and have insurance.

In the event of an accident, the “autonomous” vehicle immediately would have to stop and notify the proper authorities.

The bill number listed in the story is incorrect – SB1622 is a completely different piece of legislation, authored by Sen. Carlos Uresti, though as you can see it too passed the Senate on Thursday. The correct bill appears to be SB2205. As noted before, this is the third session in which a driverless car bill has been introduced. A bill by then-Sen. Rodney Ellis in 2015 failed to pass after being opposed by Google. Either Google has changed its tune, or this bill satisfied its objections from last time, or this time the Senate didn’t care, I can’t tell. A similar House bill has not yet received a hearing, so if this is going anywhere, it will surely be via Hancock’s SB2205.

As for the by now standard pre-emption of local regulations, at least in this case I’d say it’s appropriate. The state has been the regulator of vehicles in the past and has the infrastructure in place to deal with those regulations. My fear is that we’re creating a new norm here, and that bills that don’t contain local pre-emption clauses are going to be seen as the exceptions. Be that as it may, this bill overall seems like a good idea. We’ll see what happens to it in the House.

Senate passes AirBnB bill

As you know, I don’t care for this.

A Senate bill that would limit local government control of short-term home rentals in Texas passed out of the upper chamber Tuesday in a 21-9 vote.

Under Senate Bill 451 by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, Texas cities would be prevented from banning short-term rentals and their ability to write ordinances restricting the practice would be narrowed. Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth are among the cities that have enacted such restrictions.

Critics of the bill said it would lower property values and allow Texans to rent houses to people who might host disruptive parties and increase traffic in their neighborhoods.

Proponents say SB 451 would protect homeowners from strict local laws that infringe on property rights while still allowing a limited amount of local regulation, such as prohibitions on short-term renters housing sex offenders or selling alcohol or illegal drugs to guests.

“The bottom line is you cannot ban short-term rentals,” Hancock said Tuesday.

Among local policies that would be limited in scope by Hancock’s bill: a Fort Worth regulation that requires property owners to obtain a bed-and-breakfast permit only available to homes built before 1993 and an ordinance in Austin that has capped the number of short-term rentals with no live-in owners.

During Tuesday’s debate, several legislators expressed concerns about the effects the measure would have on their communities. State Sen. José Menendez, D-San Antonio, even proposed a failed amendment to exempt his home district from the bill.

The lower chamber’s companion to Hancock’s legislation, House Bill 2551 by state Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, was heard in the House Urban Affairs Committee on Tuesday afternoon. Testimony was divided over whether short-term rentals would be better regulated at the local or state level.

See here for the background. The reservations I expressed then remain with me now. At the very least, if the Legislature is going to insist on taking away cities’ autonomy on this matter, they could include a provision to require collection and remittance of state hotel taxes, so individual cities don’t have to negotiate their own deal with AirBnB as Houston just did. A little consistency would be nice, though apparently too much to ask. The House bill was left pending in committee, so this is may be as far as this effort goes this time. If so, you can be sure it will be back in 2019.

Senate committee hears rideshare bills

One of these, in some form, is likely to become law.

Senate Bill 176, by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Senate Bill 361 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, received a joint hearing after [Senate Business & Commerce Committee] chairman Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, noted their similarities. Both bills establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

A majority of about 30 witnesses supported the bills at Tuesday’s hearing, including representatives with Uber and Lyft. Austin councilwoman Ellen Troxclair, who opposed the city’s ride-hailing rules last year, testified in favor of a state law that would override them. Troxclair said the departure of both ride-hailing companies hurt Austin businesses and led to a rise of a transportation black market.

“A Facebook group with over 40,000 members offers to connect people, anybody who wants a ride or anybody who’s willing to give one, regardless of an affiliation to a ride-sharing platform or a background check required,” she said.

Critics of the bills included the Texas Municipal League and Austin City Council member Ann Kitchen. Kitchen, the City Council member who introduced the rules establishing the Austin fingerprinting requirements that prompted Lyft and Uber to leave the city, defended the city’s fingerprinting requirement, and said that the city has fingerprinted 8,000 drivers. At the time the city adopted the rules, she said, the city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, told the council that fingerprinting increased security.

“Fingerprinting is the most effective means to make sure the person you are checking is the person who they say they are,” she said.

See here for some background. Both bills were left pending, but as noted I expect one of them to get a floor vote and to pass. There’s a very similar bill to these two in the House, authored by Rep. Chris Paddie. Any of them could wind up crossing the finish line, and I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t happen.

And on a somewhat tangential note:

Uber and Lyft ramped up their Texas lobby expenditures after Austin voters invited the ride-hailing giants to leave their hi-tech city in 2016 if they refused to comply with a local law requiring them to fingerprint their drivers.

With Texas lawmakers [Tuesday] considering several bills to block cities from regulating such ride companies,1 Uber has increased its state lobby spending 23 percent over last year. It now is spending up to $1.6 million on 26 lobbyists. Lyft meanwhile boosted its lobby spending 88 percent, to pay 14 lobbyists up to $760,000. Together, the two San Francisco-based
companies are spending up to $2.3 million to preempt the powers of local Texas governments.

The two ride giants handed out a total of $40,500 in corporate contributions in 2016 to Texas’ two dominant political parties and to several legislative caucuses.

[Tuesday] the Senate Business and Commerce Committee also is hearing proposals to prevent local governments from curtailing the use of plastic grocery bags or to regulate short-term property rentals.

You can think whatever you want about these bills, but you can’t argue that they don’t come cheap. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Restricting restrictions on AirBnB

I have issues with this.

A legislative proposal that would limit local government control of short-term home rentals in Texas has reawakened a fight over regulations that has already played out in cities across the state.

Senate Bill 451 by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R- North Richland Hills, would prevent Texas cities from banning or restricting short-term rentals. Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth are among the cities that have enacted such restrictions.

Critics of the bill said it would lower property values and allow Texans to rent houses to people who might host disruptive parties and increase traffic in their neighborhoods.

One of those critics, David King, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said houses with no live-in residents are sometimes rented to rowdy visitors. Neighborhood disapproval of these houses led cities like Austin to enact local ordinances that limit their presence.

However, bill proponents say SB 451 would protect homeowners from strict local laws that infringe on property rights while still allowing local regulations that limit or prohibit short-term rentals. Under the bill, local governments could still prohibit short-term renters from housing sex offenders or selling alcohol or illegal drugs to guests.

Through an aide, Hancock declined to comment on his bill. State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, the bill’s co-author, said it shields Texas property owners from governmental overreach.

“Private property rights in Texas are sacred,” she said.

Here’s SB451. I can understand the logic behind wanting to have a statewide framework for short-term rentals, in the same way I can understand it for transportation network companies. There’s a legitimate interest in providing something like a uniform regulatory environment for them. That said, hotels and traditional bed and breakfast places are generally subject to local zoning laws, land use requirements, and deed restrictions. Allowing the AirBnBs of the world to skirt those rules sounds more like an unfair advantage than a level playing field to me. In some cities, the proliferation of AirBnB properties has led to concerns about housing shortages in some neighborhoods. Neighborhood issues and quality of life are the province of local government, and as with many things this session I have concerns about the state stepping in to override their authority.

One more point, which I suppose was outside the scope of this story: Lots of cities levy hotel taxes, for a variety of purposes. AirBnB puts the responsibility for following local codes and collecting such taxes on the hosts. Here’s their advice for Houston hosts – you’re gonna have to do some reading to know what you’re supposed to do. The long and short of it is that the growth of AirBnB means that cities and states have been missing out on potential tax revenue, which in some cases is a substantial amount. To their credit, AirBnB is beginning to work with cities on this. The text of SB451 doesn’t address this at all. If the state wants to mandate a uniform regulatory code for short-term rentals, then the least the state can do is provide a uniform mechanism for collecting hotel occupancy taxes as well.

Our first look at Senate district data

The Trib looks at the data we now have.

Sen. Don Huffines

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Counting to 19 on SB6

That’s the number of votes needed to move the Patrick potty bill to the floor of the Senate for a full vote.

At times, it seemed like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was a bit like a man on an island when it came to one of his signature priorities this legislative session: the Texas Privacy Act, otherwise referred to as ‘the bathroom bill.’

He has worked for the weeks to rally support for the measure, facing stiff opposition from the traditionally GOP-friendly Texas business community. House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, has thrown cold water on the proposal at various private and public events. Not only did Gov. Greg Abbott not list it as an emergency item in last week’s State of the State address, he didn’t mention it at all.

Senate Bill 6, sponsored by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, would prohibit city or county officials from adopting an ordinance that prevents a business from making policies for their bathrooms and dressing rooms. It also would bar local officials from considering these measures when awarding government contracts.

[…]

Getting the state’s largest business lobby on board is one challenge for Patrick, and using the PolitiFact article to weaken opposition is a start on that journey. However, he and Kolkhorst still are working on their Republican Senate caucus, too.

On Monday, Kolkhorst said she has 14 co-sponsors, 15 including her vote. No Democrat has signed onto the bill, and Patrick needs at least 19 senators to move the measure to the floor for a full chamber debate and eventual vote.

She said she respected her colleagues for letting her explain the bill to them, adding that she has verbal support from some senators who are not listed publicly as co-sponsors on SB 6.

The five Senators who are not coauthors (*) of SB6 are Schwertner, Burton, Nelson, Huffman, and Seliger. Doesn’t mean they don’t support it and wouldn’t vote for it, just means they’re not listed as coauthors. I have a hard time believing that at least four of them won’t vote to bring it to the floor once it has passed out of committee, but I suppose anything can happen.

Possibly of interest: The two Republican Senators in the most competitive districts are Konni Burton and Don Huffines, while the two in the next-most competitive districts are Joan Huffman and Kelly Hancock. Huffines and Hancock are coauthors, Burton and Huffman are not. I don’t know that that means anything, I was just curious if competitiveness of a district had any effect on support for SB6. I’ll say again, the single best thing Democrats and progressives can do to make the Senate a better place in 2018 is to take out Huffines, who is a total buffoon as well as being far more extreme than a district like his should allow. The other three need to be targeted as well – Burton’s district is the least red of the four – but Huffines, whose district is entirely within Dallas County, offers a lot of bang for the buck, especially given that a significant portion of his district overlaps with CD32, where the DCCC will be going after Pete Sessions. You don’t have many new worlds left to conquer, Dallas Democrats. Please make this one a priority.

(*) If you visit the link for SB6, you will see that Kolkhorst’s colleagues are listed as coauthors, not co-sponsors. I’m not quite enough of a legislative geek to be able to explain the difference, but I’m sure someone will enlighten us in the comments.

It’s all bathrooms, all the time

People are paying attention to Dan Patrick’s anti-LGBT bathroom bill, and for the most part they do not like it.

In early February, the Super Bowl will be in Houston and in late March, the women’s Final Four will be in Dallas. If Patrick pushes the bathroom bill through the Senate by then, as expected, there will be a lot of unflattering stories.

For a taste of things to come, consider Monday’s subhead in The Economist: “In the toilet.”

How about this comment from a writer at The New York Daily News: “We probably should have stopped playing big-time sports in Texas a long time ago because gay rights have been under siege in Texas for decades.”

Then there’s Rick Riordan, the Texan who wrote the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. After the bathroom bill was filed last week, he turned down an offer to attend a celebration of authors by the Texas Legislature.

“If they want to honor me, they could stop this nonsense,” Riordan wrote on Twitter.

[…]

There’s already been a backlash. Over a dozen large events, slated to bring in roughly 180,000 visitors, have contacted Dallas officials and said they would cancel, said Phillip Jones, CEO of Visit Dallas, the organization that promotes conventions and other tourism business here.

“That’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

An education group with about 20,000 members had penciled in Dallas for 2020, he said. Because of the bathroom bill, the group is considering a Midwest city instead.

Jones cited a survey that showed 53 percent of meeting planners are avoiding cities that don’t have universal bathroom use. Many planners are putting off decisions on Dallas until they see what happens with the Lege.

“We’re already suffering because of this negative perception,” Jones said.

Perception is the right word. Patrick pledged to make transgender bathrooms a top priority for the Legislature. He said it’s about safety and privacy, and not giving in to political correctness. But that’s not how others see it.

“The message to transgender people is stark — we do not and will not accept you,” wrote The Economist.

Dan Patrick, of course, disputes the very notion that Texas would lose any business at all due to his bathroom bill. So whatever you do, don’t show him this.

An academic group is threatening to pull an upcoming conference from Houston next year, citing concerns with a bill before the Texas legislature that would require transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their assigned sex at birth.

The American College Personnel Association, a trade group based in the nation’s capital, expects more than 3,100 people to travel to Houston over three days in March 2018 for the conference. Executive Director Cindi Love cited concern for transgender college students’ and attendees’ safety as a reason for potentially relocating the conference.

“We cannot bring transgender-identified members to a city and risk (discrimination) if they leave the facility where we’ve contracted,” Love said Wednesday morning. The group backed out of a conference in North Carolina scheduled for last summer after that state passed a similar law.

Love said the group’s withdrawal from Houston would mean $5.129 million in lost revenue for the city and state, calculating that figure from airfare, ground transportation, hotels, food, entertainment and other conference arrangements.

Yeah, but they’re a bunch of filthy academics, so their money doesn’t really count, right? Everything can be rationalized if you need it to be.

Meanwhile, the business lobby still wants no part of this.

Chris Wallace, the new president of the Texas Association of Business, said his priorities are better roads, expanded education, smarter taxation, sustainable heath care and no legislation that will tarnish the state’s brand.

“Infrastructure … that’s an issue for every legislative session,” Wallace said. “In any taxation discussion, we want to ensure it is fair for business, because business makes up more than 60 percent of the tax base.”

To improve the future workforce, the association wants to see free full-day pre-kindergarten, implementation of the A-through-F school accountability ratings and a way to link 10 percent of a four-year college’s funding to responsible graduation rates.

“Businesses put a lot of money into the education system, and many are questioning the return on investment,” Wallace said.

Other priorities include lowering health care costs by expanding telemedicine access and giving advanced-practice registered nurses more authority.

Stopping the transgender bathroom bill introduced by Houston-area Sen. Lois Kolkhorst may be the biggest fight to save the state’s reputation.

Former Chronicle reporter R.G. Ratcliffe recently explained in Texas Monthly magazine how Toyota Motor Corp. agreed to move its North American headquarters to Plano only after the city council promised an anti-discrimination ordinance that Kolkhorst’s bill would repeal. A non-discrimination ordinance was also a top priority for Apple when it created thousands of jobs in Austin. Major corporations care about this issue more than lawmakers realize.

“We’ll oppose any kind of legislation that would impact any our members’ abilities to recruit their workforce, or that would negatively impact economic development, such as recruiting corporate relocations,” Wallace said.

The association can’t defend business’s interests by itself, though. Wallace needs business leaders to do their part.

“They’ve got to speak up,” he said. “Whatever the issue is, we encourage businesses to make their voices heard with legislators.”

Look, there are plenty of things the business lobby likes that I don’t. The A-F grading system for schools is at best a very rough work in progress, and of course they’re all about tax cuts. But my argument is that almost by default these guys are more in line with the Democrats these days than they are with the Republicans, and they need to recognize that whatever reservations they may have about the Dems, one-party rule in this state is not a good thing for them. They don’t need to link hands with the SEIU, but a limited strategic alliance could be quite beneficial. The fact is, they may well succeed in killing the bathroom bill this session, but as Patrick himself told the Trib, he’s never going to give up on it. If they want this thing to be well and truly dead, there are two ways to ensure that. One is to defeat Dan Patrick in 2018. The other is to reduce the number of Patrick minions in the Senate.

After the vote rejecting West’s amendment to the rules, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, suggested another solution: “I think what we need to do is elect two more Democrats. Then we’d be forced to work together.”

I don’t have precinct data from the Senate districts that will have elections next year, but the names to look at are Konni Burton, Don Huffines, Joan Huffman, and Kelly Hancock. I guarantee, the 2016 numbers will make those seats look at least somewhat competitive, and winning even one of them would make a real difference. If the business lobby is serious about defeating not just this bill but the next however many incarnations of it, this is what it’s going to take. Are they in or are they not? The Observer has more.

Abbott signs pollution enhancement bill

Still sucks to be us, Harris County.

San Jacinto River waste pits

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed legislation that could make it tougher for local governments to sue big-time polluters – an effort that largely targets Harris County prosecutors.

House Bill 1794, set to become law on Sept. 1, will set a five-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air. It’s another win for a wide range of business groups in a rough legislative session for environmental advocates.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, pushed the bill through both the House and Senate, drawing little debate.

Proponents say that curbing the civil penalties assessed on top of those state regulators issue would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.

“If someone is remediating the violations they have, I don’t believe they should be assessed these additional penalties,” Geren said in an interview last month. “I don’t believe it’s a setback for environmentalists at all because we didn’t take away any authority from the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality].”

Environmentalists beg to differ. With other critics, they say state environmental regulators don’t do enough to hold polluters accountable, and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health.

“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County attorney’s office, told The Texas Tribune last month. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, and I can’t say it any better than Terry O’Rourke just did. So here’s a little blast from the past to bring it on home:

The more things change, y’all…

Compromise property tax appraisal bill signed

It’s better than nothing, though not by that much.

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bill that partially closes a loophole that allowed a powerful oil company to take back millions in tax dollars from Houston-area school districts while draining hundreds of millions more from local government coffers.

The measure that won final approval, HB 2083, from the Republican-controlled Legislature doesn’t go nearly as far in reforming the law as the Legislative Budget Board wanted. The board noted earlier this year that the law is costing the state $70 million to $80 million a year because Texas has to help maintain a certain level of funding at school districts, which are having to repay companies winning court cases based on a 1997 amendment to the state’s tax law.

When the measure takes effect in January next year, though, companies for the first time will be forced to use generally accepted appraisal methods in court cases challenging assessed values under the 18-year-old “equal and uniform” clause of the tax law.

The bill was pushed by county appraisal districts, who complained that often questionable methods were being used during tax appeals to arrive at appraisal values, said Charles Gilliland, a research economist at Texas A&M’s Real Estate Center at College Station.

“I think it will have some effect on it. How much … depends on how much unconscionable activity has been going on,” Gilliland said.

The new standard could give an advantage to appraisal districts, he said. “If they see the numbers being cooked, it gives them ammunition to raise that issue without going to district court,” Gilliland said.

The tax code section at issue gained attention after the Valero oil company forced the Port Arthur school district to refund about $30 million in taxes and other fees, and the Texas City school district about $5 million.

“I think the law was so bad that anything they could do was an improvement,” said Harris County chief appraiser Sands Stiefer, whose county school districts lost $685 million from 2011 to 2014 because of the loophole.

Stiefer, who took part in negotiations over the bill, said the measure leaves much to be desired. He said the issue will be revisited next legislative session. “We would like to see more done,” he said.

See here for the background, and here for a reminder of just how badly the current system is rigged. This bill will help a little, and that’s a good thing. Real Value$ for Texas calls it a “step forward”. I would agree with that and I appreciate the hard work they did to get that step forward taken. My concern is that now that we have taken this step, the perception in Austin will be that the problem is solved, and there will be no appetite to do anything further. I hope I’m wrong and that this is indeed just a first step. Be that as it may, I’m glad to see us get this far. It will make things a little fairer, and that’s never bad news.

Local control still under assault

Sucks to be us, Harris County.

San Jacinto River waste pits

With Harris County in its crosshairs, the Senate on Wednesday tentatively approved legislation that could make it tougher for Texas Counties to sue big-time polluters.

If finally passed, House Bill 1794 would notch another victory for a wide range of business groups in a legislative session that’s been kind to industry at the expense of environmentalists and advocates for local control. The proposal would set a 5-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air.

A 24-6 vote with no debate set the bill up for a final Senate vote. The legislation already sailed through the House, pushed by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Proponents say that curbing civil penalties assessed on top of those doled out by state regulators would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.

“This bill is about enforcing a policy that encourages people to do the right thing and not punish them,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who carried the proposal in the chamber.

But critics say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) doesn’t do enough to hold polluters accountable, and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health.

“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County Attorney’s office. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”

[…]

Under HB 1794, local governments and the state would evenly split the first $4.3 million awarded in a suit, and the state would pocket any amount above that limit.

County officials say the cap on local government collections would make it difficult, if not impossible to prosecute the most complex, egregious cases of pollution, because contingency fee lawyers would not sign on for such lower pay.

The counties, not the state typically initiate such actions, said O’Rourke, who has been prosecuting environmental cases since 1973.

“It is only by contingent fee litigation that you can prosecute global corporations that are operating in Houston – Harris County, he said. “You can’t attract people to that if you’re going to kill them with contamination.”

Anyone who thinks that this bill will be any kind of positive for counties – not just Harris, though it is the main target of this bill – is living in a fantasyland where voluntary compliance with environmental regulations would be sufficient. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the TCEQ wasn’t a giant bag of industry-coddling suck, then lawsuits like these wouldn’t be necessary. All this will do is push the cost of pollution from the polluters where it belongs to the population at large. Hope no one reading this lives close to a site that won’t get cleaned up now.

And it’s not just county governments that are taking it in the shorts.

Norman Adams isn’t the kind of guy who is sensitive to smells, or much else. He wears cowboy boots and boasts of changing lots of his children’s and grandchildren’s diapers without gagging.

But the smell that wafts on the southerly breeze from a waste treatment processor toward buildings he owns on West 11th Street is “like an open septic tank, or worse.”

“Abusive,” he called the stench in a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opposing an application by Southwaste Disposal, to increase capacity at its liquid waste treatment facility near Houston’s booming Timbergrove neighborhood.

Adams begged regulators not to grant the expansion, instead requesting a “contested case hearing.” Such proceedings allow citizens who convince TCEQ that their health or pocketbook would be impacted by a permit to compel the company to demonstrate it can comply with environmental requirements.

But legislation awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature would make industry-friendly changes to the proceedings. It would set time lines to speed up the process, restrict who qualifies to ask for hearings and – most significantly – shift the burden of proof from companies seeking the permits to people opposing them.

The bills, which sailed through the Senate and House, have the backing of industry leaders who say contested case hearings make it harder for Texas to attract businesses by injecting uncertainty and expense into the process.

[…]

The bills tilt “the balance in favor of the polluters,” said Jim Marston, regional director with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office. He also warned that Texas could jeopardize losing the Environmental Protection Agency’s authorization to administer permitting programs if signs the bills.

EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard on Tuesday said the legislation creates a “problematic” legal presumption. “We can’t speculate what action the (EPA) should take if the bills are passed and signed into state law,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I’d feel sorry for Norman Adams, but he’s a well-known Republican activist, so in a very real sense he’s getting the government he deserves. I do feel sorry for his neighbors, and for everyone else that will be put in this position. In Houston, where residential development is encroaching on former (and sometimes still active) industrial areas, that could be a lot of people. But hey, at least our ability to attract more pollution-oriented businesses will remain strong.

Tesla going nowhere

We have entered the period of the legislative calendar where bills that have not been voted out of committee or aren’t scheduled for a vote begin to get pronounced dead. Here’s the Tesla bill’s obituary.

A crusade waged by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk to change Texas law to allow his company to sell electric cars directly to customers is on life support at the Legislature.

After getting crushed by state auto dealers at the Capitol two years ago, Musk all but declared war in the name of Tesla, assembling a deep bench of powerful lobbyists and spreading out a total of $150,000 in political contributions to dozens of lawmakers in recent months.

However, bills backed by Musk and his money-losing electric-auto firm have not just stalled in the Senate and House – where unfriendly committees have suffocated the proposals – but appear to be heading in reverse as key legislative deadlines approach.

The latest blow: the senator authoring a bill to allow Tesla to sell directly in up to 12 locations across Texas said recently that he’s abandoned plans to push the measure forward.

“We’re not looking at pursuing the bill at this time,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said.

[…]

Hancock, the senator carrying the Tesla proposal, did not elaborate on why he was burying his proposal. But his sudden cold shoulder reflects the less than enthusiastic public response the bill received in the Senate, where it sits with no champion, no joint authors and no co-sponsors. Tesla never received a hearing, and won’t unless the House moves its version of the bill over, said Sen. Troy Fraser, who chairs the committee considering the legislation.

“Even the members in favor, which were not very many, do not want to have a hearing,” said Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who polled the committee two weeks ago on whether to hold a Tesla hearing.

In the House, Tesla’s bill is actively being worked by an Austin Democrat, but also has been met with resistance. A panel of lawmakers gave the measure a lukewarm reception at a hearing last month in which a Tesla official said the company may have to resort to taking Texas to court to get what it wants.

The House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee left the bill pending, and the panel’s No. 2 says he doesn’t think it has enough support to move forward.

“It’s fair to say that Tesla is dead in committee for this session,” said state Rep. Roland Guitterez, a San Antonio Democrat who serves as the committee’s vice chair and opposes the bill. “If there was a willingness to move Tesla, I think we would have taken the vote already.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I’ve made the comparison to microbreweries often enough that even I’m tired of it, but keep two things in mind. One is that it took the craft brewers four sessions to get a bill passed; this is only the second session that Tesla has tried. And two, the brewers built a pretty good grassroots organization to bolster their cause. That’s easier for them to do since they have far more customers than Tesla does, but it worked where the spend-tons-of-money-on-lobbyists approach didn’t, or at least hasn’t so far. Draw your own conclusions. In the meantime, I’m sure Tesla will be back again in 2017.

Senate bill to kill high speed rail advances

Didn’t know there was one of these.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 5-4 to pass out Senate Bill 1601, from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, which would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway is developing a privately financed bullet train to carry passengers between Houston and Dallas in less than 90 minutes, with a single stop in between near College Station. The company has said it hopes to have the train running by 2021 and has vowed to not take any public subsidies. While the project has drawn strong support in Houston and Dallas, officials in the largely rural communities along the proposed route have expressed opposition.

Kolkhorst said Wednesday that she didn’t want to see private landowners lose their land for a project that she believed is likely to fail.

“While I think in some countries it has worked, I don’t see a whole lot of high-speed rail across the United States,” Kolkhorst said. “I just don’t see it, and I’m not sure I want Texas to be the guinea pig on this.”

Four Republicans joined Kolkhorst in voting for the bill: Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Bob Hall of Edgewood. Voting against the bill were two Houston Democrats, Rodney Ellis and Sylvia Garcia, and two North Texas Republicans, Don Huffines of Dallas and Van Taylor of Plano.

[…]

Texas Central Chairman and CEO Richard Lawless told the committee he felt his company was being unfairly singled out.

“All that we ask that this train be treated like any other private train in Texas,” Lawless said. “It does not seem fair to us that this train should be prohibited in Texas just because it goes faster than other trains.”

Those informational meetings sure look like a necessary idea. I noted a bill filed in the House that would have required each city and county along the route to approve the idea. Maybe that was overkill, as that bill has not been scheduled to be heard in committee as yet. What’s most interesting here is that the vote against it was bipartisan, with two Metroplex-area Senators not joining with their mostly rural colleagues (Kelly Hancock being the exception) on this. That suggests to me that this bill might have a hard time coming to the floor, or even getting a majority. If that’s the case, I’m okay with that. Hair Balls has more.

Compromise bill to reform property tax appraisals

Better than nothing, I guess, but not clear to me yet how much better.

State lawmakers are looking to partly close a tax loophole that has allowed big companies to drain tens of millions of dollars from local government coffers in recent years, but any reforms that pass may still not end the legal battles that have been driving down appraisals on industrial and commercial properties.

Several reform bills were filed this year as counties began putting pressure on legislators to do something about an increasing number of lawsuits by major companies trying to take advantage of the loophole, which allows property owners to avoid the traditional fair-market system of appraisals.

School districts have been among those hardest hit. Valero Energy Corp. used the loophole to force the Texas City school district to refund about $5 million, while two other lawsuits by the company compelled the Port Arthur school district to pay $32 million in refunds and other charges. The company has new lawsuits pending that could mean even more tax refunds from the two school districts.

The loophole is also costing the state an estimated $70 million to $80 million a year in six counties, according to a January report by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board that called for sweeping reforms. The state must pay its share of tax revenue lost by school districts.

Although several reform measures have been introduced, the one that appears to have the broadest support in the GOP-controlled legislature is a measure introduced jointly by state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-Richland Hills, a Fort Worth suburb.

The compromise bill would require that property values used in court cases be arrived at using generally accepted appraisal methods instead of arbitrary estimates arrived at, in the words of the budget board, “independently of the market values of those properties or the appraisal district in which they are located.”

The measure also addresses the board’s concern that the law now allows commercial and industrial property owners challenging their tax assessments to compare their properties with dissimilar ones in other appraisal districts, or even other states. The bill requires that the comparisons be made within the same county unless there are no comparable properties there.

Alvin Lankford, Williamson County’s chief appraiser, said owners of large apartment buildings in his county typically search for such properties in neighboring Travis County to make comparisons rather than use apartment buildings on the same street. “They are able to pick these properties and get the answer they want,” he said.

Many appraisers, citizens’ groups and officials in affected counties wanted a bill that included more of the reforms recommended by the budget board. However, some of the attorneys, consultants, real estate firms and big businesses that benefit tremendously from the loophole refused to negotiate, said Ed Nolan, Dallas County’s chief appraiser and the chairman of the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts’ legislative committee.

“We didn’t get as much as we wanted,” Nolan said. “But it’s a start.”

[…]

In Houston, property owners concerned about having to shoulder higher property taxes because of tax reductions on industrial and commercial property formed Real Value$ for Texas, which has chapters statewide. The group found that from 2009 to 2013, owners of large commercial properties in Texas’ six largest counties shed $5.6 billion in property taxes that were made up for through higher taxes paid by homeowners.

“It’s unfair, it’s bad public policy and it needs to be changed,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in announcing his own reform bill this month. He said large commercial property owners are using the loophole to “exploit the appeals process to drive down the appraised values of their properties to well below the market value.”

Ellis’ bill was the most ambitious of six reform bills, four by Democrats and two by Republicans. The compromise bill that emerged calls for the most modest changes. It also has the imprimatur of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

I support Sen. Ellis’ bill, and would like to know what he and groups like Real Value$ for Texas think before I decide how I feel about these compromise bills. They may represent a step forward, but they may also represent a point at which the forces who like things the way they are can say “we’ve already addressed this” and block further progress. The fact that Jim Popp, who may be the single biggest individual profiteer off the current system, appears to have signed off on the Darby/Hancock bills is the surest sign that there’s a lot more that could be done. I don’t think he’s complaining enough for these bills to do enough, but this may be the best we can do for now.

Local control deathwatch: Environment

Unsurprisingly, the Denton fracking ban has provoked a strong reaction.

As policy dilemmas go, the one triggered when Denton voters decided last fall to ban hydraulic fracturing in their city looked like a whopper: The oil and gas industry versus local control — two things Texas holds dear — in intractable opposition. There seemed little doubt lawmakers would weigh in upon their return to Austin.

But four months after the North Texas city’s historic vote, top state lawmakers don’t appear to be scratching their heads. Petroleum is winning hands down, and local control appears headed for a beating.

Several legislative proposals so far leave less wiggle room for Texas cities to regulate oil and gas production. 

“We need to restate that principle that the state has responsibility to regulate the oil and gas industry,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee. “I don’t know where people might have believed that the state was not going to assert fully its rights to regulate that.”

Texas lawmakers this session have filed at least 11 bills that would discourage local governments from enacting or amending certain drilling rules. Meanwhile, those watching legislation on the issue say they haven’t noticed one proposal to bolster – or even support – local control on petroleum development.

“We didn’t expect these to be just completely one-sided,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “Instead, they’re swinging for the fences, and it’s quite alarming.” 

The trend is part of a broader debate — touching on issues including plastic bag bans and sanctuary cities — that some Republicans have sought to reframe as a debate about the size of government.

Supporters of Denton’s fracking ban “accused me of violating my conservative principles, arguing that since a local government passed a measure, any attempt to overturn it would be using ‘big government’ to squash dissent,” state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They have it backwards, because ‘big government’ is happening at the local level.”

One of King’s bills would require cities to get the attorney general’s blessing before enacting or repealing any ordinance by voter initiative or referendum, the tool Denton activists used to push that city’s fracking ban. Another would require cities that tighten drilling regulations to reimburse the state for any lost tax revenue.

Other bills have addressed compensation for mineral rights owners harmed by a local ordinance, while legislation from state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, gets right to the point of the Denton debate: It would ban fracking bans.

Perhaps the most controversial proposals, however, are those most likely to pass. Identical bills from Darby and Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, would limit cities’ power to regulate the industry to “surface activity that is incident to an oil and gas operation, is commercially reasonable, does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation, and is not otherwise preempted by state or federal law.”

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power isn’t absolute. The Texas Railroad Commission oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.” 

See here for past coverage. I would have voted for the Denton ban, but I can understand the objections to it. Mineral rights are complex in Texas, and anyone who had such rights within Denton could reasonably complain that his or her property was taken away. It’s also generally better to have a uniform regulatory environment to facilitate business compliance. But that gets to the crux of the matter here, which is that the regulatory environment in Texas is a joke. The Railroad Commission is a complete lapdog for corporate interests. It’s precisely because activists in Denton felt they were being ignored and pushed aside that they sought out an alternate remedy. If we had a useful, functioning Railroad Commission, we would not have had this ballot referendum or interest in having such a referendum in other cities. This is not hard to understand, but the campaign coffers of people like Phil King and Konni Burton depend on them pretending to not understand it.

And speaking of the environment.

In another fight over local control this session, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), one of the more powerful lawmakers in the House, is pushing a bill that would erode the ability of cities and counties to collect civil penalties from polluters. This morning, Geren described the latest version of his House Bill 1794 to the House Environmental Regulation Committee as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” by capping the maximum penalties that can be assessed on environmental violators at $4.3 million and imposing a five-year statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits.

The legislation appears to be a response to high-profile litigation between Harris County and three companies considered liable for the San Jacinto River waste pits, an EPA Superfund site that has been leaking dioxins into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay for decades.

While Geren jettisoned some of the most far-reaching parts of the original version of HB 1794—a requirement for local governments to prove that a company “knowingly or intentionally” violated the law, for example—local authorities and environmentalists said they were still opposed.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the veteran head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak.

“We think the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] is a toothless tiger,” he said. The agency doesn’t have the resources or “the guts to go after biggest polluters.”

[…]

County- or city-led lawsuits seeking penalties from water polluters are relatively rare, but Harris County, with its vast petrochemical facilities, 20 known Superfund sites and loose rules that allow homes next to industry, is probably the most litigious. In the last 19 years, the county has issued 18,000 violation notices to companies and filed 205 civil actions, said Cathy Sisk, a retired environmental attorney with Harris County. She said the county only resorted to the lawsuit because the three successor companies hadn’t done anything to clean up the site, even going so far as to defy EPA’s orders.

“We feel like in those cases we need a hammer,” she said.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, made a pitch for keeping local control. “Government is best when it’s closest to the people,” he said. Sometimes, state officials are “removed from the passion of the folks who actually live in the neighborhoods, where we work, where we breathe, where we play and live.”

HB 1794 was left pending. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1509, by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) has yet to be assigned a committee.

Indeed, the TCEQ is as useless as the Railroad Commission and as deeply in the pocket of the people and businesses they are supposed to regulate. What else is one to do but take the avenue that is available? If you don’t want the Harris County Attorney filing so many lawsuits against polluters, then provide a regulatory agency that will, you know, actually regulate. That includes going after the bad actors and levying punishments as needed. Again, this is not hard to understand. It should not be this hard to do.

The state spending cap is a stupid idea

And the Republicans want to make it worse.

BagOfMoney

Texas Senate leaders on Tuesday announced another round of efforts to change the way the state determines its two-year spending limit, and keep tax cuts from counting toward the constitutional cap on spending.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joined state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, at a Capitol press conference to announce legislation that would not allow the state’s budget to grow faster than population growth plus the rate of inflation.

State budget leaders in December pegged the state’s economic growth over the next two years at 11.68 percent, based on the projected rate of growth in Texans’ personal income. That means state spending cannot exceed $107 billion for the next biennium, leaving several billions of dollars in state coffers.

Hancock said basing economic growth projections on personal income is “a false measurement.”

“Individual income typically grows at a faster rate than the state’s economy,” he said.

Hancock’s Senate Bill 9 and Senate Joint Resolution 2, assigned low numbers as a sign of importance, would also exempt tax cuts from counting towards the spending limit. That would allow Republicans to provide billions of dollars in tax relief without having to vote to exceed the spending limit.

The proposed constitutional amendment changes the number of votes needed in both houses to exceed the spending limit from a simple majority to a three-fifths majority.

This is a companion to the earlier proposal to exempt spending on tax cuts and reducing debt from the spending cap. It’s not about spending or limiting spending so much as it is about limiting options, and it has nothing at all to do with fiscal responsibility, despite what some people want to believe. If the only things you can easily spend money on are tax cuts and reducing debt, what are you going to prioritize? The Observer points out some of the problems inherent in these ideas.

Hancock’s Senate Joint Resolution 2 and Senate Bill 9 would ask voters later this year to redefine the spending cap and tie it to state population growth, plus inflation, instead of growth in Texans’ personal income, which rises faster. It would broaden the spending cap to apply to all of the state’s spending, instead of just certain kinds.

That would bind the hands of future legislatures even tighter, while ensuring that more and more revenue would be untouchable beyond the cap. Legislators could still vote to bust the cap—though few seem to have the political courage to do that now—but Hancock would make that harder, too. Right now, the cap can be lifted by a simple majority of both houses. Hancock would make it a three-fifths vote.

If passed, Patrick’s two budget proposals don’t technically contradict—actually, they’d be weirdly toxic (or synergistic, depending on your perspective) in combination, since more and more money would end up on the wrong side of the spending cap, and that money could only be used for tax cuts and debt—but it’s still a weirdly incomprehensible mess from a policy perspective, and put together seemingly on the fly. It’s the art of government as outlined on the back of a Gadsden Flag cocktail napkin.

What’s worse—it’s straight out of Sacramento. You know how the recent recession calcified a Texas meme about the Golden State being the worst place on earth? California is doing pretty well lately, though you won’t hear about it in Austin. But one of the ways California got itself into a mess over the last few decades was by tying the hands of future legislatures and restricting the state’s ability to raise revenue, all the while kicking tough (and easy) decisions to voters. All three are becoming more and prominent parts of the Texas model—paradoxically, done in the name of targeting “California-style” spending.

You think the Lege engages in shenanigans and sleight of hand now to meet the constitutional mandate for a balanced budget? (And by the way, doesn’t that already serve as a spending cap?) Just wait till they’re foolish enough to put more obstacles in their own path. Whether they like it or not, ultimately stuff needs to be done. Why make it harder than it needs to be? It’s even more ludicrous hearing anyone talk about this as if it represented “discipline”. Last I checked, being disciplined meant having the restraint to not do unwise but tempting things. If you have to be handcuffed to a pole to ensure you don’t do them, you’re not disciplined.

But there’s another factor to consider as well. The budget is in surplus now, but the state has many documented needs. Roads, water, education, pension funds, and a laundry list of deferred maintenance that’s causing some of the people responsible for deferring it some poetically just problems, and so on. As someone who is old enough to remember the budget crunch of 2011 – which largely turned out to be the fault of a Comptroller who couldn’t do arithmetic – I heard the hoary old “household budget” metaphor dragged out to justify savage cuts so many times that if I’d received a nickel each time, I’d have a bigger surplus than the state does right now. Well, there’s a household budget metaphor for good times, too. When households are sitting on a pile of extra cash, they tend to the needs that they have build up over time. They fix things. They upgrade. They maintain. They invest in the care and wellbeing of their household, both the physical structure and the residents of it. Everyone recognizes such behavior as being responsible and necessary. Putting another artificial constraint on spending, especially now, is the opposite of that. It ensures that the problems we have now, both the ones we try to deal with and the ones we continue to ignore, will get worse and be more expensive to deal with later. How is this a good idea? Republicans are going to do what Republicans are going to do, but any Democrat who signs onto this needs to rethink their priorities. Eye on Williamson has more.

Why only Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart stands to benefit from legislation that would change how retail liquor licenses are granted, but some potential competitors would not.

While two state lawmakers recently filed legislation that would allow retail giant Wal-Mart and other public corporations to sell hard liquor in Texas, the proposed bills maintain provisions that would prevent grocery chains H-E-B and Whole Foods from joining the competition.

The state’s alcoholic beverage code currently prohibits publicly traded companies, such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Target, from selling spirits here. But House Bill 1225 and Senate Bill 609 would eliminate that prohibition and remove a cap on the number of liquor stores one company can operate.

However, those bills would continue to ban operators with mixed-beverage permits or permits for on-site wine and beer consumption from enjoying the same access to the state’s lucrative liquor market.

H-E-B and Whole Foods, both based in Texas, currently hold both those permits and so would remain in the excluded category.

As of Tuesday, it was unclear whether the bills could be amended to include H-E-B and Whole Foods without opening the door to bottled liquor sales at other establishments – for example bars and restaurants – that operate with similar permits.

State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, introduced HB 1225 last month, but said he was unaware the bill’s language wouldn’t benefit H-E-B or Whole Foods. And Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who filed companion legislation in the Senate, confirmed his office has started researching the issue.

“This concern has been brought to our attention by several retailers, and we are looking into ways to address this issue,” Hancock wrote in an email.

See here and here for the background. I’m okay with changing the law as it now stands, but not like this. Either open it up to all, or don’t bother. A supermarket shouldn’t have to choose between having an in-store cafe and being able to sell booze. This should not be that hard.

Tesla tries again

They’ve brought more firepower to the fight this time, by which I mean “more lobbyists”, but we’ll see if they can break through.

Let the car haggling resume at the Texas Capitol.

A group of state lawmakers on Thursday filed legislation that would allow Tesla Motors to sell its luxury electric cars at as many as 12 stores in Texas, renewing the California-based company’s challenge to a state law protecting auto dealers.

Tesla’s business model is to sell directly to consumers, bypassing the middleman dealers as it does in many states. But a longstanding law bars that practice in Texas.

New legislation — House Bill 1653 and its companion, Senate Bill 639 — would allow manufacturers that have never sold their cars through independent dealerships in Texas to operate the limited number of stores. It’s modeled on deals Tesla has forged in other states, including New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“Free market principles are the foundation of our strong Texas economy,” said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who filed the Senate bill. “SB 639 helps sustain a competitive marketplace and gives consumers more choices.”

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin filed the House bill, along with with Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco; Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker; Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound; and Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton.

Tesla currently showcases vehicles at “galleries” in Austin, Dallas and Houston, but because the galleries are not franchised dealerships, state law prohibits employees from discussing the price or any logistical aspect of acquiring the car.

Tesla calls the traditional dealership model unworkable, because it doesn’t mass-produce its cars — at least not yet. The company allows customers to order customized cars that it later delivers, and it can’t depend on independent dealers to champion its new technology, it says.

“Fundamentally, this company was founded to produce a new technology,” Diarmuid O’Connell, vice president of business development, said in an interview. “No one is as unconflicted as we are in our desire to promote electric vehicles.”

Some Texas dealers have approached Tesla about selling its cars, O’Connell said, and the company has “respectfully declined.”

Tesla and others have also questioned whether a traditional dealer could succeed in selling its cars, because dealerships make much of their money on maintenance — something the company’s highly touted models require little of.

O’Connell said the legislation would let Tesla employees educate Texans about its cars in person, allowing the company to grow its footprint here. He envisions adding stores in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth and San Antonio, if given permission.

See here for previous Tesla blogging. The Trib also had an interesting story about the auto dealers’ attempt to get Tesla to work with them; some of that is recapitulated in the story above, but it’s worth reading on its own. Tesla insists that their model doesn’t work with dealerships, though I get a whiff of “the lady doth protest too much” in their argument. I’ve compared Tesla’s efforts to the microbreweries more than once, and one of the things that characterized that saga was that in the end they didn’t get everything they wanted. They scaled their wish list back to the point where they were able to minimize opposition from the big brewers and the distributors, and from there the task became doable. It would not surprise me if in the end Tesla needs to find some form of accommodation with the auto dealers.

Wal-Mart booze update

The Lege gets involved.

One week after Wal-Mart sued the state for the right to sell hard liquor, two Texas lawmakers and a new coalition of businesses are taking the same fight to the Capitol.

Wal-Mart, Kroger and the Texas Association of Business on Wednesday helped birth a new nonprofit group calling itself Texans for Consumer Freedom to push for laws allowing publicly traded corporations like Wal-Mart and Kroger to own and operate liquor stores. Public companies are barred from the Texas booze market by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — an arbitrary exclusion from the free market, group members say.

“Free markets transcend any individual retailers whether they’re publicly or privately held,” said Travis Thomas, a spokesman who helped form Texans for Consumer Freedom. “It should be open to everybody to compete.”

Bills filed this week by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, would repeal parts of the alcohol code that exclude publicly traded corporations and limit the number of liquor stores a company can own.

If the bills pass, grocery stores that want to sell hard alcohol would still be required to do so in a separate building with its own entrance.

“This does not mean that publicly traded companies are going to be selling spirits next to bread and candy,” said Scott Dunaway, another spokesman with Texans for Consumer Freedom.

See here for the background. The bills in question are HB1225 and SB609. Texas law also limits a single owner to five liquor stores, though immediate family members can consolidate permits under a single company. Normally, I’d make fun of a big business-fronted group name like “Texans for Consumer Freedom”, but I don’t have any particular objection to the goal of updating this part of the alcohol code. It’s not a remnant of Prohibition, as Ross’ comment on my previous post notes, but it doesn’t make any sense as it stands now. We’ll see if they get any traction or if this will be a multi-session affair. In the meantime, RG Ratcliffe asks a darned good question.

Taking back the Texas Senate

Colin Strother says the Democrats should not overlook opportunities to make gains in the upper chamber of the Legislature.

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats need a miracle to pick up any single seat, much less turn the chamber Blue. The numbers show this reaction is based more on assumptions rather than any empirical evidence.

Here are some districts that should be immediate targets:

Low-Hanging Fruit

SD9 Kelly Hancock (R) Non-White VAP*= 47% (272,400) 2012 Total Vote=233,577

SD16 John Carona (R) Non-White VAP= 47% (288,695) 2012 Total Vote=181,746

SD17 Joan Huffman (R) Non-White VAP=47.5% (287,575) 2012 Total Vote=238,707

*voting age population

First of all, I am well aware that a sole reliance on non-White voters would mean we need astronomical turnout (except in SD 16 where a mere 35% turnout of non-white voters bests Carona). Non-White voters are a piece of the puzzle–not the panacea some think it is. I am also aware that Romney rolled in these districts, as he did in 20 of the 31 districts.

It is also important to note that the 3 districts hold meaningful populations in counties that are nearly 100% Blue from top to bottom (Dallas & Harris), so we are not exactly talking about a handful of voters scattered across a 37-county district like District 31. We are talking about large concentrations of non-white voters in large, urban counties where active GOTV programs are already in place.

For the sake of comparison, SD 10′s non-white VAP is 47.3%, the 2012 total vote was 287,759, Romney won it in the mid-50s, it has numerous down ballot Democratic officeholders, and it holds a meaningful population in an urban county where active an active GOTV program is already in place. Basically, it looks identical to 9, 16, & 17 on paper. The only difference? We made SD 10 a priority, got a good candidate, dedicated the resources, and made it happen.

These 3 districts have good bones, a good bench, and access to existing infrastructure. For a party that desperately needs to grow its market share, these look like a good place to start. (I can assure you that when the Republicans swiped SD 3 in 1994 and SD 5 in a 1997 special, their numbers didn’t look this good.) With a dash of candidate recruitment, a splash of smart staffers, and a chunk of cash, Texas Democrats can be knocking on the door of a 16-15 minority status…not in 10 cycles, but in 2-3.

I looked at the Senate district numbers back in February, and while I agree with Colin about which ones are the most targetable, I’m less sanguine about our chances in the near term. As a reminder, you can find the 2008 results by district here, and the 2012 results here. The basics are as follows:

Dist McCain Obama McCain% Obama% ====================================== 09 145,020 103,614 57.8% 41.3% 10 158,677 143,651 52.1% 47.1% 16 161,779 129,105 55.0% 43.9% 17 174,371 124,939 57.8% 41.4% Dist Romney Obama Romney% Obama% ====================================== 09 142,499 94,117 59.3% 39.2% 10 155,936 132,707 53.3% 45.4% 16 159,759 116,603 57.0% 41.6% 17 178,241 117,562 59.4% 39.2%

I think you can only call SDs 9 and 17 “low hanging fruit” in the sense that there is no fruit besides those districts and SD16. Romney not only did better than McCain in all three districts – and in SD10, home of Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, whom I include for perspective – he also had a wider margin in SDs 9 and 17 than he did statewide. Other than the fact that every other district is worse, one normally wouldn’t look at these and see much in the way of opportunity.

That said, Colin is right that we’re not going to get anywhere if we sit around waiting for easy races, and whether we run a decent statewide slate this year or not, we need to aim at some targets bigger than State Reps. If nothing else, the VAP numbers suggest there’s material here for Battleground Texas to work with. There is a huge benefit for each additional Senator – among other things, without Sen. Davis, we wouldn’t have been able to block all those awful abortion bills this session – and the Senate is a great proving ground for future statewide campaigns. Even as longshots, there’s enough value in a Senate seat to support any good candidate.

It may be instructive to review Sen. Davis’ two wins to see what we can learn from them for future campaigns. A lot of stars came into alignment in 2008. It all began with Wendy Davis, who was an excellent candidate and who has proven to be an outstanding Senator, but equally important is the fact that she was available and ready to take on the race in the first place. She was a term-limited Forth Worth City Council member, so had no incumbency to lose by filing for another office. That’s an important consideration when you remember that the bulk of our up and coming stars are State Reps, who would be giving up their seats to challenge a Senator in a regular election. She went up against an ethically-challenged incumbent, which is always a bonus. The seat was clearly winnable and was seen as such, which surely helped Davis with fundraising and campaign energy. And of course, 2008 was a pretty good year for Democrats – no doubt, Davis was helped by the Obama surge.

As an incumbent herself in 2012, Sen. Davis needed less help, but she still got a gift in the form of her opponent, then-Rep. Mark Shelton, who was one of only a handful of House members to vote against a bill by Davis to provide state grant money to local law enforcement agencies to help clear rape kit backlogs. It was such a bad vote that even Sen. John Cornyn, who was sponsoring similar legislation in Washington, couldn’t defend it. Votes like that are an oppo researcher’s dream, and making it in the same cycle that gave us the likes of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock was icing on the cake. We know Sen. Davis drew crossover support in her successful re-election bid. I don’t have polling data handy, but I’d bet good money a significant chunk of that crossover support came from female voters.

So what lessons can we take from this? Well, first and foremost, the best candidate is no help if he or she is unavailable or unwilling to make the race. We all agree that the future of the Texas Democratic Party is largely in the House, but we can’t expect tomorrow’s stars to risk that status on races where they’d be big underdogs. That means we need to be thinking outside the box for potential Senate candidates, and as a corollary to that it means getting involved in city, county, and school board races, where new talent can be incubated and other offices can at least some of the time be explored because there’s no filing conflict.

Two, it means seek out candidates that can best exploit the weaknesses of the incumbents. In the case of SD09, Sen. Kelly Hancock is a slash-and-burn teabagger, and I’m sure his House record will show plenty of anti-education votes, and surely more than a few anti-women votes. A female candidate with an education background, perhaps a school board member, would be high on my list. Sen. Joan Huffman is coming off a session where she carried a lot of water for the prosecution lobby, and got was responsible for an emotional outburst by the brother of Tim Cole, the man who died in prison after being convicted of a crime for which he was later exonerated. Here, a person of color with a background in criminal justice reform and/or innocence advocacy would be ideal. Do such people exist? Very likely. Is anyone talking to them about their future in politics? Very likely not.

And three, keep focus on the stuff we’re already working on, or at least that we say we’re working on. Register those unregistered folks, and engage them in a manner that will get them to the polls. Remind our Presidential year voters that we need them in other years, too. Figure out why Texas Democrats aren’t doing as well with female voters – specifically, Anglo female voters – as Democrats elsewhere. I’m thinking Wendy Davis and her campaign team might have some insights of value there. As Colin says, this isn’t rocket science. I’ve given Battleground Texas plenty of goals already, but taking back at least one Senate seat this decade needs to be on that list. The targets may not be easy, but they are there. We just have to make sure we take our best shots at them.

Can we take a step forward without also taking one back?

From last week’s Texas Tribune on the subject of plastic bag recycling.

On Tuesday the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources heard testimony on a bill sponsored by the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, that would require large retailers like Wal-Mart to have well-labeled bag recycling canisters in their stores. This afternoon the House’s Environmental Regulations committee heard testimony on a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-Fort Worth.

“It encourages more eco-friendly behaviors,” said Hancock, who said that plastic bags cannot be recycled at curbside. It was a “free market-based solution,” he emphasized, that would result in more bags being recycled and made into items like benches or flower pots.

Environmental groups, however, oppose the bills because a clause at the end of both would “preempt” local rules that are in conflict with the bill. They fear this would prevent cities from banning the bags outright. Already, Brownsville has instituted a plastic bag ban, which took effect in January, and two other locations — Fort Stockton and South Padre Island — have approved bag bans that will come into effect in the coming months.

“We shouldn’t tie the hands of local communities trying to reduce solid waste,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, in an email. Metzger did not testify but opposes the bill.

Fraser said that the bill aimed to bring a “transition” period for plastic bags. “We’ve got plastic bags in the system and we’re moving toward trying to eliminate them,” he said.

But Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, noted that there was “nothing in this bill that eliminates plastic bags in the waste stream,” and he feared that cities wanting to ban bags would be preempted from doing so under the bill’s language. Fraser said the three cities with bag bans would not be preempted, but it appeared that other cities that moved to ban bags in the future would be preempted.

Large retail groups like Wal-Mart and the Texas Restaurant Association back the bill, and several bag manufacturers also testified in favor.

I’ve noted the Brownsville and South Padre bag-banning efforts; Fort Stockton was news to me. Fraser’s bill is SB908; it was approved by the committee and is on the intent calendar for tomorrow. Hancock’s bill is HB1913; it’s still in committee. While there are times when it makes sense for the state to establish a single standard for something and in doing so override what cities have done, this isn’t one of those times. I’m confident that this provision is in there to get support from those large business interests. I’d prefer the Lege take no action at this time than take a step to prevent other cities from following Brownsville or South Padre or Fort Stockton’s example. Let’s let there be some experimentation to see what works best, and let’s leave some flexibility in place for the future rather than impose a one-size-fits-all solution. We should have bag recycling dropoffs at these locations, but we should be allowed to have more than that if we want it as well.