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Montgomery County

CCA refuses to hear Ron Reynolds’ appeal

It’s getting awfully close to midnight.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has refused to review state Rep. Ron Reynolds’ criminal conviction and one-year jail sentence, according to online court records.

The Missouri City Democrat had asked the court to overturn a 2015 misdemeanor conviction in Montgomery County for illegally soliciting clients for his personal injury practice. Reynolds still has 15 days to file a motion for a rehearing, according to a staffer at the court, but it is likely that Reynolds will soon serve his year-long jail sentence.

Joel Daniels, the main prosecutor in Reynolds’ trial and chief of the white collar division in the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, said the court’s next step would be to issue a mandate to the trial court to carry out the sentence.

“That will mean that Mr. Reynolds’ case will be put back on the docket, and he’ll be brought into court” and taken to jail, Daniels said.

Before then, Reynolds can request a rehearing, as the court staffer said, and, in theory, he could request time to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Daniels said. But that would be “extremely unusual and very rare.”

See here and here for the background. I don’t know if Rep. Reynolds has any tricks remaining in his bad to stay out of jail at this point. If not, then this will come to exactly the point I’ve been saying it will, which is that he’ll be in jail while a legislative session is happening, leaving his constituents without representation during that time, all because he was too self-centered to recognize the need to put their needs first and step down. To be fair, he can still do that: If he resigns effective November 6, we can at least get a special election in January and a new rep in place by March. Not ideal, but better than a Rep in the pokey. Reynolds sent me a whiny message via Facebook back in 2015 when I first called on him to leave office and get his personal life in order so I have no illusion that he’ll listen to me this time, but there it is. You did some good things in the Legislature, Ron Reynolds. Now do one more good thing and let someone else take your place. There’s nothing more to say about this.

Harris County is not growing the way it used to

And the reason for that is that people aren’t moving here the way they used to. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There’s been a lot of publicity lately about the fact that in the last couple of years, Harris County has not been the population growth machine it’s been in the past – while nationwide the suburbs are now growing faster than core urban areas.

As we reported not long ago, the most recent Census estimates show that metro Houston fell far behind metro Dallas in population growth last year, after several years in the No. 1 spot. Meanwhile, the Census found that last year Harris County fell far behind Maricopa County, Arizona, which is now the No. 1 county in the nation for population growth. And recently the respected demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution found that population growth in core urban areas like Harris County has now fallen behind growth rates in the suburbs, the exurbs, and rural areas.

Further analysis by the Kinder Institute finds that underlying all three of these trends are two striking facts: First, the decline in population growth in metropolitan Houston is all occurring in Harris County. And second, that decline in population growth is due entirely to a striking reversal in domestic in-migration in Harris County. Natural increase (births over deaths) and international migration are holding steady, but in 2017 far more people moved out of Harris County to go to other places in the United States than moved into Harris County from other places in the United States, according to the recently released Census data.

Clearly, many of these out-migrants may simply be going to the Houston suburbs. But the population dynamics in the suburbs have not changed much in the last couple of years. And the idea that Harris County is losing domestic migrants flies in the face of Houston’s own self-image. After all, the idea that you live off of natural increase and international migration – while losing your own residents to other places – is often viewed in Houston as a California kind of thing, not a Texas kind of thing.

Click over and read on for the charts and the details. For Harris County, both natural population growth – i.e., births minus deaths – and international migration have held steady, and those numbers are enough so that even with more people moving out rather than moving in, Harris County is still growing, just more slowly than it was as recently as 2014. But natural growth is contingent on having a young population, which we have in part because of migration, and with the lunatic xenophobe in the White House right now I wouldn’t bank on these things continuing as they have, at least in the near-to-medium term. Population is power in our world, so if these trends continue then we may see Harris County lose influence relative to the big suburban counties as the city of Houston has lost influence relative to the county in the past couple of decades. If this is a trend, it’s the beginning of one, so it may still be a blip and there may be things we can do to affect it. I’d say it’s worth our time to try and figure this out.

This is our most “run everywhere” election ever

We already knew this, and have quantified it in a number of ways, but it’s still worth taking a moment to marvel at the surge of Democratic candidates this year.

Lisa Seger

Before she could talk about her campaign for the Texas House of Representatives, Lisa Seger needed to check on her goats. Seger, who lives with her husband and 30 goats on a farm 40 minutes outside of Houston, had a doe in the maternity stall that was due any minute. “Spring is kidding season,” she explained.

If elected, the 47-year-old Seger, a sustainable agriculture proponent who got into farming after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, would likely be the only member of the legislature with her own brand of yogurt. But what makes her so unusual in the state’s third district isn’t her background, it’s her party—Seger is the first Democratic candidate to run for the seat since 2010, when the Republican incumbent Cecil Bell Jr. was first elected. Seger’s state senator also ran unopposed in her last election.

“I couldn’t remember the last time I was even able to vote for a Democrat in one of our elections here,” Seger says.

In West Texas, two millennial friends, Armando Gamboa, a 25-year-old from Odessa, and 24-year-old Spencer Bounds of Midland, decided to run for neighboring state house districts where Democrats have been AWOL for at least a decade. No one has run in Gamboa’s district since 2004; Bounds’ opponent is a 50-year incumbent who last faced a Democrat in 2008.

Seger, Gamboa, and Bounds are part of a trend. Call it the “Virginia Effect”: A little more than a year after the inauguration, Democrats in deep-red districts are running for office at a historic clip, determined to find and turn out progressive voters in places where no one has competed in years. It’s a sign that the enthusiasm that swept progressive activists in the first year of the Trump administration and led the party to big gains in the Old Dominion and elsewhere in 2017 is still burning heading into the midterm elections. These local races, flying mostly under the radar, could also give a party struggling for relevance in large swaths of the country a quiet boost this fall.

I should note to begin that my wife is friends with Seger, and we are regular buyers of her farm’s goat cheese. Let’s be clear that Seger, Gamboa, and Bounds are running in really tough districts – Donald Trump got 75.2% in HD03, 70.3% in HD81 (the one in Odessa), and 75.7% in HD82 (Midland, and yes that’s Tom Craddick’s district). I don’t know what set of circumstances might be needed to win one of these races, but it would not be something I would expect. That said, there are three obvious reasons why what these folks are doing is important:

– Their odds of winning may be minimal, but they are still greater than zero. You can’t beat something with nothing, and having no candidate to run is the definition of “nothing”.

– Having local candidates to vote for – remember, everyone will have a Democratic Congressional candidate on their ballot this year as well – gives people in these “can’t remember the last time I had a Democrat to vote for” places a reason to show up and vote. Beto O’Rourke is doing a great job getting out to places that seldom if ever get visited by a Democratic candidate, but it’s still the case that someone in Odessa or Midland or the nether regions of Montgomery County is more likely to have their door knocked by one of these three. If we want Beto and maybe some other statewide candidates to win, they’re going to have to do better in these places than previous Dems have done as well as better in the big cities.

– Long term, of course, things can and do change – remember, Republicans were once an extreme minority in Texas. They built up their base one election at a time, competing and eventually winning in places where they had once not existed. There’s no reason why Democrats can’t do well in the not-quite-as-big cities like they do in the big cities, but it’s not going to happen by itself.

That latter point about the medium-sized cities is one I’ve mentioned before – I mentioned it and covered a lot of this same ground in that Rural Dems post – and one I think deserves a lot more thought and effort, but I don’t want to sidetrack this post. What I do want to do to finish this up is to note that right now, Democratic legislative candidates are not doing so hot in fundraising. Some of that as I noted before is due to late entrances, some is due to the zealous focus on the Congressional races as well as Beto’s butt-kicking in that department, and some of it is because the rest of us aren’t paying much attention to State House races. Which, not to state the obvious, we need to do a lot more of, since the Lege is where the really bad stuff will happen if the Republicans have the numbers and the wingnut concentration to run amok again.

So let me put forth a modest suggestion to the big-money types that exist in Democratic politics here: Put together a pool of money to distribute to these lower-profile candidates running in unusual places, so they can at least pay for some campaign materials and maybe hire a manager or the like. I’m thinking something like $50K per candidate, which once you subtract out the incumbents and the candidates in higher-profile races who are already on track to raise plenty of their own money, would probably require $3-4 million all together. That’s actually not much at all in the grand scheme of things – I mean, Sen. John Whitmire could pay for that by himself, twice over – but it could make a real difference in the performance of these candidates as a group, which again would be a boon for Beto and probably more than a few Congressional hopefuls. If nothing else, it would be a loud signal that we’re not screwing around this year. Everyone likes to talk about the examples that Virginia and Alabama set for us in recent months. It would be nice if we did more than just talk about it.

Meanwhile, in Montgomery County

There they go again.

The Republican primary defeat of embattled Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal — and close contests in two county commissioner races headed for runoffs — could signal major leadership changes and a shift further to the right in the fast-growing Houston suburb.

State Rep. Mark Keough, who defeated Doyal, was among several candidates favored by the county’s influential tea party movement — and like-minded statewide groups — who fared well Tuesday. Others in this cohort include Steve Toth, who overwhelmingly won the Republican nomination for the legislative seat that Keough is vacating, and Greg Parker, who got 43 percent of the vote in a three-person race and forced County Commissioner Charlie Riley, with 43.5 percent, into a primary runoff.

Toth and Parker have staked out positions aligned with the most far-right elements of their party. Parker’s campaign website says he wrote a book described as “a critical look at the myth and liberal hysteria surrounding climate change.” Toth, who was instrumental in the formation of the county’s tea party movement, has advocated eliminating property appraisal districts and freezing appraisals at the purchase price of a home.

[…]

Political observers agreed that toll roads emerged as a dominant issue in the county, where tea party groups carry a lot of clout, particularly in The Woodlands. Texas lawmakers have gone from championing to criticizing toll roads, a shift that some Houston-area leaders worry has gone too far and could limit coming projects.

“Without toll roads and that funding, I don’t know what we are going to do,” Doyal said late last year, citing the need for new roadways in rapidly growing parts of the Houston area.

Keough took a hard stance against toll roads.

“I think toll roads are another form of taxation,” Keough said last December. “I’m out on toll roads. Toll roads are about a bigger issue; it’s about big government.”

Doyal was embattled for a reason, and I’m sure that had something to do with it. I figure as long as the developers are able to keep building things life will go on more or less as normal up there. I mean, at some point they’re going to need to come up with a politically acceptable way to pay for the roads they want to build, but that’s their problem.

I confess, I don’t quite get the diatribe against toll roads. The whole idea with toll roads is that you only pay for them if you use them. Everyone pays gas taxes, whether they use the roads that get built with them or not. Which is fine by me, of course, but I’m one of those big-gubmint-loving-liberal types. If gas taxes, floating bonds, and toll roads are all off the table, what’s left? Perhaps Montgomery County will show us.

(Just a reminder, there is a choice if you think all of this is messed up.)

2018 primary early voting, Day Four: On to the suburbs

The Chron’s Mike Snyder ventures outside Harris County for early voting numbers.

As the Chronicle’s Jeremy Wallace reported, nearly 50,000 people voted in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, the first day of early voting, in the state’s 15 most populous counties. That’s more than twice the total from the first early voting day in 2014, the last midterm election.

 Despite the Democrats’ improved turnout, however, Republican numbers were greater. Through Wednesday, 14,493 people had voted in the Republican primaries compared to 12,627 in the Democratic primary in Harris County, Wallace reported.

The Republican primaries also drew more voters in the two other Houston-area counties that rank among the 15 most populous in the state.

In Montgomery County, 8,364 early votes had been cast through Thursday in the Republican primary, compared to 1,437 in the Democratic primary.

The numbers were closer in Fort Bend County: Republicans 4,878; Democrats 3,403. (Totals in both counties include in-person and mail-in ballots.)

This is true, but it’s also not the whole story. Let’s go back to the SOS early voting page for a little context.


Party     County      2010    2014    2018
==========================================
Rep   Montgomery     3,851   6,944   8,364
Dem   Montgomery       383     393   1,437

Rep   Montgomery     1.58%   2.57%   2.61%
Dem   Montgomery     0.16%   0.15%   0.45%

Rep    Fort Bend     3,486   3,755   4,878
Dem    Fort Bend       871     921   3,403

Rep    Fort Bend     1.16%   1.07%   1.18%
Dem    Fort Bend     0.29%   0.26%   0.82%

Democratic turnout is up by a lot more in Fort Bend than Republican turnout is. Democratic turnout isn’t up as much in Montgomery County as Republican turnout is, but relatively speaking it’s up by a lot more. Another way of saying this is that as a share of registered voters, which is what those percentages represent, Republicans are up a pinch from 2014, while Dems are at triple their levels from 2014. I submit that’s a notable development.

So what about Harris County? Well, here you go:

EV 2010
EV 2014
Day 4 EV 2018 totals


Year  Party     Mail In Person    Total
=======================================
2010    Dem    4,129     8,229   12,358
2010    Rep    8,498    12,571   21,069

2014    Dem    3,592     5,949    9,541
2014    Rep   12,288    13,901   26,189

2018    Dem    8,844    16,110   24,954
2018    Rep   12,530    16,053   28,583

Dems had 5,214 people show up yesterday, which as you can see is only a bit less than their entire four-day total from 2014. Republicans had a few more than that and have nearly closed the in-person gap, but it’s the increase from previous years that is the real story. And while Dems still haven’t done as good a job returning their mail ballots, the 8,844 they have returned is more than the entire number of returned mail ballots in every primary before 2016, and should be on track to beat that year’s total. The news continues to be good. Let’s keep it going.

Filing roundup: Outside Harris County

A look at who filed for what on the Democratic side in the counties around Harris. These are all predominantly Republican counties, some more than others, so the Democrats are almost all challengers. On the flip side, there are many opportunities for gains.

Lisa Seger

Montgomery County

CD08 – Steven David

HD03 – Lisa Seger
HD15 – Lorena Perez McGill
HD16 – Mike Midler

County Judge – Jay Stittleburg
District Clerk – John-Brandon Pierre
County Treasurer – Mandy Sunderland

First, kudos to Montgomery County, hardly a Democratic bastion, for having so many candidates. They’re a County Clerk candidate away from having a full slate. I’m not tracking judicial candidates, County Commissioners, or Constables, but the MCDP has those, too. Steven David is a business and efficiency expert for the City of Houston. He’s running against Kevin “Cut all the taxes for the rich people!” Brady. Lisa Seger, whose district also covers Waller County, is a fulltime farmer in Field Store Community who has helped feed first responders during the fires of 2011 and is also involved in animal rescue. Her opponent is Cecil Bell, who was possibly the most fanatical pusher of anti-LGBT bills in the State House. She’s also a Facebook friend of my wife, who knows a lot of local farmers through her past work with Central City Co-Op. Jay Stittleburg is a Navy veteran and Project Management Professional who has worked in oil and gas. John-Brandon Pierre is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. A very solid group.

Fort Bend County

CD22 – Letitia Plummer
CD22 – Margarita Ruiz Johnson
CD22 – Mark Gibson
CD22 – Sri Preston Kulkarni
CD22 – Steve Brown

SD17 – Fran Watson
SD17 – Rita Lucido
SD17 – Ahmad Hassan

HD26 – Sarah DeMerchant
HD27 – Rep. Ron Reynolds
HD27 – Wilvin Carter
HD28 – Meghan Scoggins
HD85 – Jennifer Cantu

County Judge – KP George
District Clerk – Beverly McGrew Walker

Gotta say, I’m kind of disappointed in Fort Bend. They had a full slate for county offices in 2014, but this year there wasn’t anyone to run for County Clerk or County Treasurer? I don’t understand how that happens. Mark Gibson and Steve Brown list Fort Bend addresses, while Letitia Plummer and Margarita Johnson are from Pearland and Sri Kulkarni is from Houston. The Senate candidates we’ve already discussed. For the State House, Sarah DeMerchant ran in 2016, while Wilvin Carter is the latest to try to take out Rep. Ron Reynolds, who is the only incumbent among all the candidates I’m listing in this post and whose story you know well. Meghan Scoggins has a background in aerospace but works now in the nonprofit sector, while Jennifer Cantu is an Early Childhood Intervention therapist for a Texas nonprofit. KP George is a Fort Bend ISD Trustee and past candidate for CD22.

Brazoria County

CD14 – Adrienne Bell
CD14 – Levy Barnes

SBOE7 – Elizabeth Markowitz

HD29 – Dylan Wilde Forbis
HD29 – James Pressley

County Judge – Robert Pruett
County Clerk – Rose MacAskie

CD22 and SD17 also contain Brazoria County. HD25, held by Dennis Bonnen, is in Brazoria but it is one of the few districts that drew no Democratic candidates. I haven’t focused much on the SBOE races, but as we know longtime Republican member David Bradley is retiring, so that seat is open. It’s not exactly a swing district, but maybe 2018 will be better than we think. Adrienne Bell has been in the CD14 race the longest; she’s a Houston native and educator who was on both the Obama 2012 and Wendy Davis 2014 campaigns. Levy Barnes is an ordained bishop with a bachelor’s in biology, and you’ll need to read his biography for yourself because there’s too much to encapsulate. Dylan Wilde Forbis is one of at least three transgender candidates for State House out there – Jenifer Pool in HD138 and Finnigan Jones in HD94 are the others I am aware of. The only useful bit of information I could find about the other candidates is the Robert Pruett had run for County Judge in 2014, too.

Galveston County

HD23 – Amanda Jamrok
HD24 – John Phelps

CD14 and SBOE7 are also in Galveston. Remember when Galveston was a Democratic county? Those were the days. I don’t have any further information about these candidates.

Hope these posts have been useful. There are more I hope to do, but they’re pretty labor intensive so I’ll get to them as best I can.

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. The DMN has more.

You can’t legislate from jail

That’s the Ron Reynolds story.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

There’s a chance state Rep. Ron Reynolds could be sentenced to serve a year in jail next year. If that happens, he wouldn’t have to resign, according to state officials.

The Houston-area Democrat recently lost his appeal to a 2016 conviction of five misdemeanor barratry charges for illegal solicitation of legal clients. Reynolds, a once-practicing personal injury lawyer, says his attorney is working to submit a petition to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals to review the opinions issued by Texas’ 8th Court of Appeals, which upheld his conviction. It’s a last-ditch attempt to avoid serving his sentence of a year in jail.

In an interview with the Tribune, Reynolds refused to address what he would do if his final appeal fails.

“We’re very – and I’ve even got a second opinion – are very confident that we’ll prevail, so I don’t think it will get to that point,” Reynolds said in a phone interview.

Should Reynolds end up in jail next year, the four-term lawmaker could still hold office and continue to run for re-election. According to Sec. 141.001 of the Texas Election Code, the only criminal misconduct that would require an elected official to resign would be a felony conviction. Reynolds’ convictions qualify as misdemeanors.

“So technically, the representative could be serving out his sentence for a misdemeanor and still be a state representative,” said Sam Taylor, communications director for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

[…]

Joel Daniels, a Montgomery County assistant district attorney who was among the lawyers who tried Reynolds’ case, noted that the opinions issued by the three-judge Eighth Court of Appeals on Nov. 29 were unanimous for each of the five charges. That bodes well for the prosecution’s case, he said.

“We are greatly gratified by the appeals court rejecting Mr. Reynolds’ attempt to overturn a jury’s verdict,” Daniels said. “This important decision brings Mr. Reynolds one step closer to justice.”

See here for the last update. I honestly don’t know what Reynolds’ end game is. I understand having hope, but you gotta be realistic, too. Reynolds received a decent amount of establishment support in his re-election bid two years ago. I got the sense at that time that patience was running out for him. In this environment, I have a hard time seeing how anyone could endorse him again, regardless of his voting record and their past personal relationship. Wilvin Carter is Reynolds’ opponent this time around. Perhaps the voters will render moot any concern about how Rep. Reynolds could perform his legislative duties while in jail.

Appeals court upholds Reynolds barratry conviction

Not good.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

A Texas appeals court has upheld the conviction of state Rep. Ron Reynolds, who was found guilty in 2015 of engaging in a scheme to illegally solicit potential clients for his law firm.

The three-judge appellate panel ruled Wednesday that there was sufficient evidence to convict Reynolds and that the trial judge did not violate any rules relating to the introduction of evidence.

[…]

In a phone interview Thursday, Reynolds said he plans to continue appealing his conviction and remain free on a $25,000 bond. He said he couldn’t respond to the appellate judges’ ruling because he hadn’t read their opinion.

“It would be premature of me,” Reynolds said. “Once (my lawyer) gets everything filed and once everything is adjudicated, I feel very confident I’ll be vindicated and cleared on appeal.”

In his appeal, Reynolds argued that he believed Valdez did not initiate contact with the potential clients for legal representation. Reynolds said he thought Valdez referred clients who had initially sought out Valdez for treatment at his medical clinics.

The judges found enough evidence to uphold the conviction, noting that Reynolds paid Valdez in cash, did not document the payments and used code words in text messages to cover potentially nefarious motives, among other tactics.

“The evidence here supports a rational construct that (Reynolds) was aware of Valdez’s scheme and knowingly permitted his conduct,” Eighth Court of Appeals Chief Justice Ann Crawford McClure wrote.

Rep. Reynolds was convicted of misdemeanor barratry in November of 2015, and received the maximum sentence of a year in jail a couple of days later. He has alleged that racial bias was a factor in his prosecution and conviction. His law license is on suspension while his case is being litigated. You know how I feel about this – I wish Rep. Reynolds would step down so he can better take care of his own business. I have no idea what his plan is for dealing with his legal issues at this time, but he’s once again running for election, and once again he has a primary opponent. One way or another, at some point this saga will come to an end.

Filing news: The “What’s up with Lupe Valdez?” edition

On Wednesday, we were told that Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez had resigned her post in preparation for an announcement that she would be filing to run for Governor. Later that day, the story changed – she had not resigned, there was no news. As of yesterday, there’s still no news, though there are plans in place if there is news.

Sheriff Lupe Valdez

Candidates are lining up to replace Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez if she resigns to file for governor.

Valdez, who has led the department since 2005, has said she is considering the next stage — and earlier this month said she was looking at the governor’s race. Her office said Wednesday night no decision has been made.

Valdez could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

On Wednesday afternoon, media outlets, including The Dallas Morning News and WFAA (Ch. 8) reported that Valdez had resigned.

Lawyer Pete Schulte announced his candidacy Wednesday but later walked his intentions back after it became clear Valdez had not resigned.

He tweeted “Trying to find out how @dallasdemocrats Chair confirmed to some media today about @SheriffLupe retirement to run for Governor. Let me be clear: I have NO plans to run for DalCo Sheriff unless the Sheriff does retire early and will only run in 2020 IF Sheriff chooses to retire.”

At this point, I’m almost as interested in how the news got misreported as I am in actually seeing Valdez announce. Someone either said something that was true but premature, or not true for whatever the reason. I assume some level of fact-checking happened before the first story hit, so someone somewhere, perhaps several someones, has some explaining to do. I have to figure we’ll know for sure by Monday or so.

Anyway. In other news, from Glen Maxey on Facebook:

For the first time in decades, there are a full slate of candidates in the Third Court of Appeals (Austin), the Fifth Court (Dallas area) and the First and Fourteenth (Houston area). We can win control of those courts this election. This is where we start to see justice when we win back these courts! (We may have full slates in the El Paso, Corpus, San Antonio, etc courts, too. Just haven’t looked).

That’s a big deal, and it offers the potential for a lot of gains. But even just one or two pickups would be a step forward, and as these judges serve six-year terms with no resign-to-run requirements, they’re the natural farm team for the statewide benches.

From Montgomery County Democratic Party Chair Marc Meyer, in response to an earlier filing news post:

News from the frozen tundra (of Democratic politics, at least):
– Jay Stittleburg has filed to run for County Judge. This is the Montgomery County Democratic Party’s first candidate for County Judge since 1990.
– Steven David (Harris County) is running for CD08 against Kevin Brady. He has not filed for a spot on the ballot, yet, but has filed with the FEC.
– All three state house districts in the county will be contested by Democrats, but I’m not able to release names at this time.
– We have a candidate for District Clerk as well – he has filed a CTA, but is trying to get signed petitions to get on the ballot.
– We are still working on more down-ballot races, so hopefully there will be more news, soon.

It’s one thing to get Democrats to sign up in places like Harris and Fort Bend that have gone or may go blue. It’s another to get people to sign up in a dark crimson county like Montgomery. Kudos to Chair Meyer and his slate of candidates.

Speaking of Harris County, the big news is in County Commissioners Court Precinct 2, where Pasadena City Council member Sammy Casados has entered the primary. As you know, I’ve been pining for Adrian Garcia to get into this race. There’s no word on what if anything he’ll be doing next year, but that’s all right. CM Casados will be a great candidate. Go give his Facebook page a like and follow his campaign. He’ll have to win in March first, so I assume he’ll be hitting the ground running.

Adrian Garcia was known to have at least some interest in CD29 after Rep. Gene Green announced his retirement. I don’t know if that is still the case, but at this point he’s basically the last potential obstacle to Sen. Sylvia Garcia’s election. Rep. Carol Alvarado, who lost in SD06 to Sylvia Garcia following Mario Gallegos’ death, announced that she was filing for re-election in HD145; earlier in the day, Sylvia Garcia announced that Rep. Green had endorsed her to succeed him. I have to assume that Rep. Alvarado, like her fellow might-have-been contender in CD29 Rep. Armando Walle, is looking ahead to the future special election for Sen. Garcia’s seat. By the way, I keep specifying my Garcias in this post because two of Sylvia’s opponents in the primary are also named Garcia. If Adrian does jump in, there would be four of them. That has to be some kind of record.

Finally, in something other than filing news, HD138 candidate Adam Milasincic informs me that Greg Abbott has endorsed HD138 incumbent Rep. Dwayne Bohac. Abbott has pledged to be more active this cycle, as we’ve seen in HD134 and a few other districts, but Bohac has no primary opponent at this time. Bohac does have good reason to be worried about his chances next year, so it’s probably not a coincidence that Abbott stepped in this early to lend him a hand. Milasincic’s response is here, which you should at least watch to learn how to pronounce “Milasincic”.

UPDATE: I didn’t read all the way to the end of the statement I received from Rep. Alvarado concerning her decision to file for re-election. Here’s what it says at the very end:

I also look forward to following through on the encouragement that many of you have given to me about laying the groundwork for a campaign for a possible vacancy in Senate District 6.

As expected and now confirmed. Thanks to Campos for the reminder.

The rural/suburban tradeoff

Martin Longman returns to a point he has been making about the way the vote shifted in the 2016 election.

Let’s try to be clear about what we mean. Hillary Clinton won a lot of votes in the suburbs from people who had voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney. She lost even more votes from folks in small towns and rural areas who had voted for Barack Obama.

So, if I understand what Jeet Heer and David Atkins are saying, it’s basically that the Democrats can’t make much more progress in the suburbs than they’ve already made and that the easier task is to win back Democrats that they’ve recently lost. Either that, or they’re just wrong about how likely Romney Republicans are/were to defect.

I don’t have a strong opinion on which would be the easier task. But I do know that so far this trade has not favored the Democrats. The left’s votes are already too concentrated and I can make this point clear fairly easily.

When suburban Chester County was voting 50-50 in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, it was possible for the Democrats to also win down ballot seats. And the Democrats have succeeded in electing representatives from Chester County to the state legislature. Gaining 25,000 votes at the top of the ticket helps, but the area is still competitive. But in many other counties in Pennsylvania, the Democrats went from winning 50 percent or 40 percent to winning only 30 percent or 20 percent. The result is that many more legislative seats became so lopsidedly red that downticket Democrats no longer have a fighting chance.

In this sense, not all votes are equal. It’s more valuable for the Democrats to add a voter in a rural area than one in a competitive suburb, and rural votes are definitely of more use than added votes in seats where Democrats are already winning by comfortable margins.

Longman confines his analysis to Pennsylvania, which is obviously a critical state in Presidential elections as well as one that has been greatly affected by strongly partisan gerrymanders. Be that as it may, I wanted to look at how this perspective applies to Texas. It’s been my perception that Texas’ rural legislative districts, which had already been strongly Republican at the federal level but which still elected Democrats to the State House, had become more and more hostile to Democrats since the 2010 election, when nearly all of those Democratic legislators from rural districts were wiped out. If that’s the case, then the increased redness of these districts, while problematic as a whole for statewide purposes, doesn’t change anything in terms of legislative opportunities. On the other hand, if the suburbs are becoming less red, that would open up new possibilities, both now and in the future as this is where much of the population growth is.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. To check it, I took the electoral breakdown of the State House districts for the 2012 and 2016 elections from the Legislative Council, and put the results from the Presidential election into a new sheet. I also added the results from the Keasler/Burns (2016) and Keller/Hampton (2012) Court of Criminal Appeals races in there, to act as a more neutral comparison. I then sorted the spreadsheet by the Romney percentage for each district, in descending order, and grouped them by ranges. I calculated the change in R and D vote from 2012 to 2016 for each district in both the Presidential and CCA races, then summed them up for each of the ranges I defined. That’s a lot of words, so let’s see what this looks like, and I’ll explain it again from there:


Romney 70%+ (42 districts)

Trump     + 143,209    CCA R   + 267,069
Clinton   +  36,695    CCA D   -   8,330


Romney 60-70% (31 districts)

Trump     +  15,054    CCA R   + 135,280
Clinton   + 164,820    CCA D   + 116,534


Romney 50-60% (23 districts)

Trump     -  32,999    CCA R   +  69,230
Clinton   + 148,633    CCA D   + 101,215


Romney 40-50% (9 districts)

Trump     +   3,081    CCA R   +  16,418
Clinton   +  45,233    CCA D   +  39,721


Romney 30-40% (20 districts)

Trump     -   9,360    CCA R   +  17,429
Clinton   +  84,385    CCA D   +  69,785


Romney < 30% (25 districts)

Trump     -   3,485    CCA R   +  23,031
Clinton   +  90,251    CCA D   +  76,447

Let’s start at the top. There were 42 district in which Mitt Romney collected at least 70% of the vote in 2012. In those 42 districts, Donald Trump got 143,209 more votes than Romney did, while Hillary Clinton gained 36,695 more votes than Barack Obama. In the CCA races, Republicans gained 267,069 votes while Democrats lost 8,330 votes. Which tells us two things: The pro-Republican shift in these already very strong R districts was pronounced, but even here there were some people that refused to vote for Trump.

Now that doesn’t address the urban/suburban/rural divide. You get into some rhetorical issues here, because West Texas includes some decent-sized metro areas (Lubbock, Midland, Abilene, etc), but is still more rural in character than anything else, and some primarily suburban counties like Montgomery and Williamson include sizable tracts of farmland. Keeping that in mind, of the 42 counties in this group, I’d classify nine as urban/suburban, and the other 33 as rural. To be specific:


Dist  County      Romney   Trump   Obama  Clinton     Diff
==========================================================
015   Montgomery  57,601  56,038  16,348   24,253 D +9,468
016   Montgomery  45,347  52,784  10,229   12,666 R +5,000
020   Williamson  49,271  56,644  17,913   20,808 R +4,478
024   Galveston   49,564  51,967  16,936   20,895 D +1,556
033   Collin      51,437  56,093  18,860   27,128 D +3,612
063   Denton      50,485  53,127  18,471   24,600 D +3,487
098   Tarrant     58,406  57,917  18,355   25,246 D +7,390
128   Harris      40,567  40,656  14,907   17,165 D +2,347
130   Harris      53,020  55,187  15,928   22,668 D +4,583

These are urban/suburban districts among those were 70% or more for Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton gained votes everywhere except in the two, with the two exceptions being the most rural among them; HD16 is the northernmost part of Montgomery County, including Conroe, while HD20 has most of its population in Georgetown and includes Burnet and Milam Counties as well. In the other 33 districts, all of which I’d classify as rural, Clinton did worse than Obama in all but three of them, CDs 82 (Midland County, Tom Craddick’s district, where she had a net gain of 16 – yes, 16 – votes), 81 (Ector County, which is Odessa and Brooks Landgraf’s district, net gain of 590 votes), and 06 (Smith County, home of Tyler and Matt Schaefer, net gain of 871).

I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you here, so let me sum up: Hillary Clinton absolutely got blitzed in rural Texas, with the gap between her and Donald Trump increasing by well over 100,000 votes compared to the Obama/Romney difference. However, all of this was concentrated in legislative districts that were far and away he least competitive for Democrats to begin with. The net loss of potentially competitive legislative races in these parts of the state is exactly zero.

Everywhere else, Clinton gained on Obama. More to the point, everywhere else except the 60-70% Romney districts, downballot Democrats gained. Even in that group, there were big steps forward, with HDs 66 and 67 (both in Collin County, both held by Freedom Caucus types) going from over 60% for Romney to under 50% for Trump, while HD26 in Fort Bend went from nearly 63% for Romney to barely 50% for Trump. They’re still a challenge at lower levels, but they’re under 60% red and they’re the swing districts of the immediate future.

Now I want to be clear that losing the rural areas like this does have a cost for Democrats. The reason Dems came as close as they did to a majority in 2008 is because they held about a dozen seats in rural areas, all holdovers from the old days when nearly everyone was a Democrat. Those seats went away in 2010, and with the exception of the one that was centered on Waco, none of them are remotely competitive going forward. The end result of this is that the most optimistic scenario I can paint barely puts the Dems above 70 members, not enough for a majority. To have a real shot at getting a majority sometime in the next decade or two, Dems are going to have to figure out how to compete in smaller metro areas – Lubbock, Abilene, Tyler, Odessa, Midland, San Angelo, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, etc etc etc – all of which are a little bit urban and a little bit more rural. Some of these places have growing Latino populations, some of them are experiencing the same kinds of problems that the larger urban areas are facing. Becoming competitive in the suburbs is great, but there’s still a lot more to this very large state of ours.

Anyway. I can’t speak for places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, but in Texas I’d call the rural/suburban tradeoff we saw in 2016 to be a positive step. There are plenty more steps to take, but this was a good one to begin with.

Another look at redistricting in Texas

We’re in the spotlight right now.

The odd shapes tell the story.

A huge Republican majority in the Houston-area 2nd congressional district represented by Ted Poe curls around the region from Lake Houston, northeast of the city, makes a meandering, snakelike loop out to the western suburbs, and ends south of downtown near Loop 610.

Nearby, the 29th congressional district has a big Democratic majority and is represented by Gene Green. It resembles a partially-eaten doughnut, forming an undulating shape from north to east to south.

Like virtually all 36 congressional districts in Texas – Republican Will Hurd’s West Texas district being the only exception – neither Poe’s nor Green’s district is particularly competitive in general elections.

The political art of drawing boundaries to protect incumbents is called gerrymandering – a word derived from salamanders, lizard-like creatures known for their slender bodies and short limbs. The whole idea behind the practice is to carve up the political map for partisan advantage.

It happens everywhere, and has been the subject of legal challenges for years.

And now the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled it may take a fresh look in a Wisconsin redistricting case that has the potential to fundamentally alter the political landscape from Texas to Washington, D.C.

[…]

“Clearly the Texas congressional map, and the state House map and state Senate map, are partisanly gerrymandered, and they are way out of balance with the political performance of the state,” said Matt Angle, head of the Lone Star Project, which seeks to make Democratic gains in Texas.

Some Republicans downplay the significance of the Wisconsin case, saying that they believe Texas’ political boundaries are already fair and, most importantly, legal.

“Unless the court does some serious overreach, we shouldn’t be facing needing to redraw those lines at all,” said James Dickey, the newly-elected chairman of the Texas Republican Party.

The problem for Texas Republicans is that the state’s congressional district boundaries already are under legal challenge over alleged racial discrimination for the way minorities were packed into a limited number of urban districts.

Some of the boundaries drawn in 2011 already have been ruled intentionally discriminatory, and a federal court is set to hear a challenge next month on a new map drawn in 2013.

Unlike the Texas challenge, which focuses in the racial makeup of political districts, the legal fight in Wisconsin is over the partisan makeup of the state’s boundaries, which also favor Republicans.

But the two criteria are closely related. “If you correct for the racial discrimination in Texas, you go a long way toward balancing the partisan makeup of these districts,” Angle said.

[…]

In Texas, Angle argues, “There’s no question what’s happened is you’ve got safe districts created, Democrats packed into as few districts as possible, and the rest of them cracked into as many safe Republican districts as possible, and what that’s done is it’s made the primaries matter the most, and primaries are driven by the most ideological people within their party.”

In the Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, the court will be asked to look at the allegedly skewed results of the state’s recent elections. In 2012, Republicans won 60 of 99 legislative seats despite winning only 48.6 percent of the state’s two-party statewide vote. In 2014, Republicans won 63 seats with only 52 percent of the statewide vote.

Texas Democrats say they could make the same case. While Democratic presidential candidates won more than 40 percent of the statewide vote in the past three elections, Democratic voters were distributed in such a way that their party controls only about a third of the state’s legislative and congressional seats.

Critics call that an “efficiency gap,” which can only be explained by partisan gerrymandering. Now before the high court, they hope to find a way to close the gap.

“This is a historic opportunity to address one of the biggest problems in our electoral system,” said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning law and public policy institute at the New York University School of Law. “Gerrymandering has become so aggressive, extreme and effective that there is an urgent need for the Supreme Court to step in and set boundaries.”

Conservative groups argue that there is no way to estimate what each party “should” win in a fair election. The redistricting tests that have been proposed to close the “efficiency gap” in Wisconsin, they say, are arbitrary.

See here for more on the Wisconsin case, which will not affect the ongoing Texas litigation at this time. Poe’s district is certainly a Republican one, and for most of this decade it was deep red, but after a significant Democratic shift in 2016, it’s still very favorable to Republicans but not overwhelmingly so. Given the overall trends in Harris County, I suspect that the fate of CD02 in the 2021 redistricting cycle will be to take on a piece of Montgomery County in order to keep it sufficiently Republican, much as Pete Sessions’ CD32 needed to incorporate some of Collin County in 2011 to stay red.

It’s really hard to say what will happen going forward. Between the Texas case and the Wisconsin and North Carolina cases, the range of outcomes stretches from “no real difference” to multiple seats flipping this year with fewer ways for the Republicans to put their thumb on the scale in 2021. As I’ve noted before, Texas isn’t all that out of whack in terms of how many seats each party wins, but Republicans have gained a huge advantage in multiple swing states thanks to having gained control of those states’ legislatures in 2010. SCOTUS could put a stop to that going forward, or they could just apply a remedy to Texas for its own brand of egregious gerrymandering, or they could shrug their shoulders and decline to get involved. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Here comes Conroe

Not so little anymore.

This isn’t the first time Conroe, population 82,286, has recorded notable growth.

In 2015, it was one of the 13 fastest-growing cities by percentage, ranking sixth below other Texas cities like San Marcos, Georgetown and Frisco. The next year, according to Census numbers released Thursday, Conroe zoomed to the top spot and became the headline on news stories across the country.

Forty miles north of downtown Houston, Conroe is the county seat of one of the fastest growing counties in Texas. Montgomery County netted more than 19,700 residents between July 2015 and July 2016, as Houston-area suburbs continued to expand.

In fact, Texas had four of the five fastest-growing large cities in the U.S., each near a major city. Following Conroe were the Dallas suburbs of Frisco and McKinney, which grew by 6.2 percent and 5.9 percent, respectively. Georgetown, an Austin suburb, was the fifth-fastest growing city with a population increase of 5.5 percent.

Officials in the Texas cities and the state’s demographer attribute the growth to various factors, including the state’s robust jobs market and the cities’ diversified economies, lower costs of living and skilled workforces that earn higher wages.

“A lot of times when people think of Texas, they think about cowboys and roping cows. But really we have … cutting edge manufacturing, technology and finance, and certainly all of the oil extraction activity as well,” Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter said.

For Conroe Mayor Toby Powell, a self-described “ol’ boy” who has lived in the city all his 76 years, the growth is no surprise.

In fact, Powell said, Conroe officials already had been planning for increased demand for city services and infrastructure. A new police station has just opened, and a new fire station is under construction. The city also has purchased 75 acres of land to build a second sewer plant.

Traffic congestion already can be seen just a few minutes away from its town square lined by old-fashioned street lamps and dotted with benches extolling the city’s history. Along Highway 105, which runs east-west through Conroe, shopping centers are home to chain stores and restaurants like Target, Home Depot, Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill, and queues of cars back up at lights and turn lanes.

Maybe I shouldn’t have joked about Conroe trying to annex The Woodlands back in the day. The former-small-town-turned-booming-suburb narrative isn’t new, and like so many other places – Katy, Pearland, Spring, etc etc etc – two facts remain: The original small town and the booming suburb that supplants it are two very different places, and the secret ingredient in all of them is an abundance of cheap, undeveloped land on which to build. That was Houston’s secret once upon a time, too. I don’t have any large point to make here, but I will note that just as the politics in places like Katy and Pearland have started to change as their populations have increased and diversified, so too will this happen in Conroe. It would be nice to have a bit of Democratic infrastructure in place for when that happens.

Ogg launches her pot prosecution reform program

We’ve been waiting for this.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County district attorney’s plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana drew reactions swift and strong Thursday from both sides of the debate.

District Attorney Kim Ogg made the announced Thursday backed by a bevy of local officials, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“The sky will not fall,” Acevedo said as he voiced his support. “There are already critics out there. We’ve been down this path before with my old department. Rather than see an uptick in crime, in the city of Austin we reduced violent crime between 2007 and 2014 by 40 percent.”

Bellaire Police Chief Byron Holloway, however, said the program seems similar to a program former District Attorney Devon Anderson put into place.

“At first blush, I’m not seeing a difference,” he said. “This is basically giving deferred adjudication up front.”

Yes, that’s my impression as well. This earlier story gives the details.

The policy, set to begin March 1, means that misdemeanor offenders with less than four ounces of marijuana will not be arrested, ticketed or required to appear in court if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class, officials said.

Ogg said the county has spent $25 million a year for the past 10 years locking up people for having less than 4 ounces of marijuana. She said those resources would be better spent arresting serious criminals such as burglars, robbers and rapists.

“We have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” she said. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.”

Officials have said it could divert an estimated 12,000 people a year out of the criminal justice system and would save officers hours of processing time now spent on low-level cases. More than 107,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the past 10 years, officials said.

Since there is no arrest, there is no arrest record. Since there is no court date, there are no court documents connected to the encounter. The plan calls for officers to seize the marijuana and drop it off at a police station at the end of their shift, along with a record of the encounter in case the suspect does not take the class.

“You do not get charged with anything,” Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham, who heads the DA’s trial bureau, said Wednesday. “You have a pathway where you can avoid going to court.”

[…]

At the sheriff’s office, the new policy will save up to 12 hours of processing time per month for as many as 1,000 suspects, a move that will ease the workload on administrators and jailers who transfer and process inmates, officials said.

“We’re really encouraged by these swift actions by the district attorney,” said sheriff’s spokesman Ryan Sullivan. “And we are looking forward to working with Harris County’s criminal justice leadership identifying common-sense solutions to our broken criminal justice system.”

Sullivan said the move would likely not affect the jail population significantly, since most misdemeanor marijuana offenders move quickly in and out of jail. On Wednesday, just 12 people were jailed on misdemeanor marijuana offenses and unable to make bail, he said.

Elected district attorneys are given wide latitude in their discretion about how to enforce laws in their jurisdictions. Diversion programs, such as drug courts, have been widely used across Texas, and Austin has launched a “cite and release” program in which low-level drug offenders are given tickets and required to appear in court.

Under the new local program, police would identify a suspect to make sure they do not have warrants or other legal issues, then would offer them the option of taking the drug education class. If the suspect takes the class, the drugs are destroyed and the agreement is filed away.

A suspect would be able to take the class over and over again regardless of past criminal history, officials said.

The new program will keep police on the streets longer each day and reduce costs for lab testing of the drugs, Mitcham said.

If the suspect does not take the class, the contraband will be tested, and prosecutors will file charges and issue an arrest warrant. Offenders could then face up to one year in jail if convicted of the Class A misdemeanor.

The model to think about here is traffic tickets – speeding, running a stop sign, that sort of thing. You get a ticket instead of getting arrested (generally speaking, of course), and you have various options for disposing of the ticket without it appearing on your record. As with speeding tickets but unlike the program put in place by former DA Devon Anderson, you can get a do-over if you get cited again. Given all the strains on the jail lately, keeping some number of mostly harmless potheads out of jail, while keeping cops on the street instead of hauling said potheads downtown for booking, sure seems like a win to me.

As for Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon, whose press release is here, last I checked Montgomery County was not part of Harris County. State law allows for police departments to write citations for low-level drug busts instead of making arrests, and prosecutors have a lot of discretion in how they handle criminal charges. He’s as free to do his thing as Kim Ogg is to do hers, as long as the voters approve. Well, as long as the Lege approves as well, which given that Dan Patrick is having the vapors over this, could change. As we are seeing with many things, the Dan Patricks are out of step with the mainstream. It may take awhile, but that will catch up to them eventually. The Press and Grits for Breakfast have more.

Precinct analysis: Don’t be mesmerized by the Clinton/Trump numbers

From the DMN:

Donald Trump may have carried Texas and clinched the White House in November, but support for the Republican presidential nominee waned in parts of the Dallas area — news that, in a typical election year, could spell trouble for some Republican-held congressional seats.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of nine North Texas congressional districts revealed that, across the board, fewer voters backed Trump than backed Mitt Romney four years ago.

Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions saw his once-firmly red district turn blue as voters cast a majority of ballots for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Sessions cruised to re-election, as Democrats fielded no candidate.

Coppell Rep. Kenny Marchant, like Sessions, handily won his re-election bid, but the gap between those who voted for the Republican and the Democrat in the presidential race fell to just a single-digit margin.

There are signs the same holds true in other urban parts of Texas, such as Houston, where Republican Rep. John Culberson saw his district turn blue for Clinton and Democrats won every countywide seat.

Texas bucked the trend nationwide, with Trump winning the state with a smaller margin — 9 points — than any GOP nominee in decades. On the surface, that seems to be good news for Texas Democrats. But given the peculiarities of Trump’s candidacy, it’s not so clear-cut.

The drop in Dallas-area Republican support doesn’t necessarily indicate voters are moving away from the GOP, several experts say; rather, that many voters moved away from the controversial candidate.

Republican House members outperformed Trump in each of the GOP-controlled North Texas districts reviewed by The News, and the drop in support for the Republican presidential candidate didn’t result in an equal and opposite rise in support for Clinton.

Had Romney earned the same numbers four years ago, “it would indicate a decline in normal Republican vote share,” said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “Romney is very much a normal Republican. Trump is anything but a normal Republican.”

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, suggested that Romney’s 2012 high numbers were at least partially due to Obama’s low approval ratings.

The drop in support this year could be from “an artificial high … to an artificial low created by the presence of a presidential candidate who alienated a subset of otherwise reliable GOP voters,” he said.

Or, you know, it could simply be that a lot of Republicans voted for Hillary Clinton in Texas. This is why I’ve been emphasizing the judicial races as a more accurate way of measuring partisan support in a given area, and for making comparisons to 2012. I don’t have that data for the Dallas-area districts at this time, but as we know from Harris County, CD07 still looks pretty red when viewed through that lens. I’d say Culberson has a little bit to worry about between now and the next round of redistricting in 2021, when I fully expect more of CD07 will be shifted to the west and north, but barring anything unusual and bearing in mind that no one has any idea what the short term political effects of the Trump regime will be, I’d bet Culberson will still be there.

There’s an image in the DMN story from this tweet by Miles Coleman, which in turn points to this story he wrote about the larger Houston metro area. Basically, it’s a color map of precincts in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery County, all based on the Presidential race. That’s a lot of blue in Harris County, and while it’s concentrated in the center of the county, it’s spread out quite a bit, with a significant incursion into Fort Bend. I’d have liked to have seen Galveston and Brazoria included in this map as well, but what we have is still useful. As is the case with Pete Sessions’ CD32, which pokes into Collin County, there are a lot of districts that cross county borders, and that’s something we need to think about more. That’s for another day. For now, even with the proviso that there’s a lot of crossover votes in the blue of that map, take a look and ponder the potential.

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

vote-button

There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

(more…)

Early voting starts today

From the inbox:

EarlyVoting

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart announced today that 46 locations will be open Monday, October 24 to Friday, November 4 where voters in the third largest County in the nation may cast ballots during the early voting period for the November 8, 2016 Election.  The total is approximately 25 percent more than the number of early voting locations available in the County during the previous presidential election.

“Since the 2012 Election, nine additional early voting locations have been added. Additionally, the time to vote during the first week of early voting has been extended to 6:00 pm,” said Stanart, the chief election official of the County.

“I expect approximately 800,000 voters will choose to vote during the early voting period for this election.  Preparedness on the part of the County Clerk’s Election Division, as well as voters,  is key to a successful election,” added Stanart.

To ensure the voting process is a pleasant experience, the chief election officer of the County  has a few suggestions for voters heading to the polls:

1.   Voters should confirm voter registration status. A voter registration search can be performed athttp://www.hctax.net/voter/search;

2.   Voters should study a sample ballot, mark it, and take it to the poll. Voters can download a voter-specific ballot at www.HarrisVotes.com;

3.   Voters should identify the nearest or most convenient early voting location. Voters can vote at any one of the 46 early voting locations;

4.   Voters should find out what photo identification is acceptable to vote at the poll, what other identification options are now available to vote a regular ballot, and what identification expedites the qualification process. The voter identification guidelines are available at www.HarrisVotes.com;

5.   Voters should NOT wear clothing or paraphernalia that promotes a party, a candidate or a proposition to the poll;

6.   Voters should be aware that the use of electronic devices is prohibited inside the poll. The right to cast a secret ballot must be respected;

7.   Voters should not wait until the last minute to vote early. During peak voting hours, the wait time could be  longer than we wish.

“Don’t procrastinate. Do your homework.  Then, go vote early,” summed up Stanart. “For voters in Harris County, voting early is the simplest and easiest method of voting. ”

To obtain the early voting schedule, a list of acceptable credentials to vote at the polling location and other election information, voters may visit the Harris County Clerk’s website at www.HarrisVotes.com or call 713.755.6965.

Early Voting Days and Hours

October 24 – October 28: 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

October 29: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

October 30: 1:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

October 31 – November 4: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

November 8, 2016 Early Voting Locations, Harris County, Texas
Location Address City Zip
Harris County Administration Building 1001 Preston Street Houston 77002
Champion Forest Baptist Church 4840 Strack Road Houston 77069
Prairie View A&M University Northwest 9449 Grant Road Houston 77070
Baldwin Boettcher Branch Library 22248 Aldine Westfield Road Humble 77338
Kingwood Branch Library 4400 Bens View Lane Kingwood 77345
Lone Star College Atascocita Center 15903 West Lake Houston Parkway Houston 77044
Crosby Branch Library 135 Hare Road Crosby 77532
Kyle Chapman Activity Center 7340 Spencer Highway Pasadena 77505
Freeman Branch Library 16616 Diana Lane Houston 77062
Harris County Scarsdale Annex* 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Juergen’s Hall Community Center 26026 Hempstead Highway Cypress 77429
Tomball Public Works Building 501B James Street Tomball 77375
Hiram Clarke Multi Service Center 3810 West Fuqua Street Houston 77045
Katy Branch Library* 5414 Franz Rd Katy 77493
Lone Star College Cypress Center 19710 Clay Road Katy 77449
Harris County MUD 81 805 Hidden Canyon Road Katy 77450
Nottingham Park 926 Country Place Drive Houston 77079
Harris County Public Health Environmental Services 2223 West Loop South Freeway Houston 77027
Metropolitan Multi Service Center 1475 West Gray Street Houston 77019
City of Jersey Village City Hall 16327 Lakeview Drive Jersey Village 77040
Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center 8440 Greenhouse Road Cypress 77433
Bayland Park Community Center 6400 Bissonnet Street Houston 77074
Tracy Gee Community Center 3599 Westcenter Drive Houston 77042
Bear Creek Park Community Center 3055 Bear Creek Drive Houston 77084
Trini Mendenhall Community Center 1414 Wirt Road Houston 77055
Acres Homes Multi Service Center 6719 West Montgomery Road Houston 77091
Fallbrook Church 12512 Walters Road Houston 77014
Lone Star College Victory Center 4141 Victory Drive Houston 77088
Hardy Senior Center 11901 West Hardy Road Houston 77076
Northeast Multi Service Center 9720 Spaulding Street, Building 4 Houston 77016
Octavia Fields Branch Library 1503 South Houston Avenue Humble 77338
Kashmere Multi Service Center 4802 Lockwood Drive Houston 77026
North Channel Branch Library 15741 Wallisville Road Houston 77049
Alvin D. Baggett Community Center 1302 Keene Street Galena Park 77547
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
Baytown Community Center 2407 Market Street Baytown 77520
John Phelps Courthouse 101 North Richey Street Pasadena 77506
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Fiesta Mart 8130 Kirby Drive Houston 77054
Sunnyside Multi-Purpose Center 9314 Cullen Boulevard Houston 77033
Palm Center 5300 Griggs Road Houston 77021
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
SPJST Lodge 88 1435 Beall Street Houston 77008
Alief ISD Administration Building 4250 Cook Road Houston 77072
Champion Life Centre 3031 FM 2920 Road Spring 77388
Lone Star College – Creekside Center 8747 West New Harmony Trail Tomball 77375
* Indicates New Location

www.HarrisVotes.com

That of course is for Harris County. Early voting information for some other counties of interest:

Fort Bend
Brazoria
Galveston
Montgomery

Check your local county clerk or election administrator if you are elsewhere.

Battleground Texas reminds you what form of ID is acceptable:

The state of Texas has made it easier for more Texans to vote in this election by expanding the types of identification that a voter can present at the polls!

If you don’t have a photo ID (reminder of the accepted forms of photo ID here), you’ll just need to fill out a short form stating the reason why you haven’t been able to get one and swearing that you are who you say you are.

Then you can present any government document that lists your name and address. A copy of the document will do, unless it has a photo, in which case be sure to bring the original. Poll workers cannot question or challenge you regarding your lack of a photo ID.

If you don’t have a photo ID, bring one of these documents to the polls:

  • Voter registration certificate (the card mailed to you shortly after you register to vote)
  • Certified birth certificate (original)
  • Current utility bill (copy or original)
  • Bank statement (copy or original)
  • Government check (copy or original)
  • Paycheck (copy or original)

Election poll workers are prohibited by law from challenging your reason for being unable to obtain a photo ID. If you experience any issues at the polls, call our Voter Protection Hotline at 1-844-TXVOTES, and we can help.

Voters with a disability may apply with the county voter registrar for a permanent exemption to showing ID at the polls.

And here’s a guide as to what poll watchers may and may not do.

Poll watchers may look on as voters cast ballots or as officials count them. They can also observe inspection of voting machines. But they can’t talk to voters or election officials unless they are reporting an irregularity to an election officer. They also can’t make audio or video recordings or take photos inside a polling place.

The Texas Election Code includes several other rules governing poll watchers:

  • They must be eligible to vote in the county where they they are serving (or in elections limited to a smaller jurisdictions, they must be eligible to vote in those communities).
  • They must present a “certificate of appointment” to the election judge at a polling station and the certificate must come from the political party, candidate or ballot measure group that appointed them (Groups of registered voters may also appoint poll watchers on behalf of certain write-in candidates.).
  • They may not access a voting station while someone is casting a ballot.
  • State law also prohibits poll watchers — or any voter, for that matter— from wearing a badge, insignia or emblem related to a candidate, measure or party on the ballot within 100 feet of a polling place’s door.

Here are two other relevant rules:

  • Parties, candidates and campaigns may not appoint more than two watchers at each precinct polling spot, early voting ballot board meeting or central counting station. They may appoint as many as seven watchers to each early voting polling location, but no more than two may serve at the same time.
  • Candidates on the ballot may not serve as poll watchers during their own elections. State law also bars from the following from serving: current public office holders, close relatives of election judges at the polling place and people convicted of election-related offenses.

Bottom Line: Poll watching is a common practice in Texas elections, but those who do it must follow plenty of rules.

Here’s a Chron story about poll watchers and the Trump-inspired hysteria that has boosted their numbers. Make no mistake, some number of them will be up to no good and should be closely watched themselves. On the plus side, there will be no Russian poll watchers, which is a sentence I never thought I’d type. If you see poll watchers engaging in activities they shouldn’t be, I strongly urge you to call your elections administrator and county party. I haven’t seen an announcement that the HCDP has set up a hotline for such complaints, but their main number is 713-802-0085 if you need it. Now go forth and vote. I expect it will be a busy early voting period.

Stuck in the MUD

Tricky things, these municipal utility districts.

MUD 187 came to be when a Houston developer arranged for two people to move their trailer onto a 519-acre site on the edge of Richmond in Fort Bend County, which at the time was an empty field.

As the only “residents” within the municipal utility district’s boundaries, the couple headed for the polls in November 2008. The ballot asked whether the state’s approval of MUD 187 should be confirmed and whether the district should be authorized to sell up to $188 million in bonds for water and sewage systems, drainage, parks, recreational facilities, roads and a fire station.

The vote was unanimous – 2-0.

“That’s not how democracy is supposed to work,” said Clifford Gay, a retired construction superintendent who now lives in Del Webb Sweetgrass, a retirement community that owes its existence to MUD 187 – and the taxes it is levying to pay off $24 million in bonds.

Gay and his neighbors wonder how high those taxes might go as more bonds are sold, especially with extraordinary bond issuance costs of 9 percent, according to IRS documents. MUD 187’s bonds are rated Baa3 by Moody’s, which says they may have “certain speculative characteristics.”

[…]

There are 1,751 active water districts in Texas, a class of special purpose districts tracked by TCEQ, ranging from large river authorities to tiny irrigation districts, including 949 MUDs, according to the state.

The epicenter of water district financing: Houston’s suburbs.

Forty-four percent of those 1,751 districts are in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. Sixty-five percent of the 949 MUDs are in those three counties – 389 in Harris County, 146 in Fort Bend County and 85 in Montgomery County.

MUDs are the most popular type of water district in Texas with developers, in large part because they hold enormous sway over how they’re created and because MUDs are empowered to issue tax-exempt bonds covering the developers’ infrastructure costs.

Taxpayers’ advocates increasingly view them as a problematic way to pay for infrastructure in the face of climbing local government debt, given their sweeping power to sell bonds and raise taxes.

Since 2000, 207 water districts were created in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties, with voters approving more than $39 billion in bonds to be used for various infrastructure projects. There is more than $60 billion in outstanding debt statewide, according to the most recent financial audits that water districts are required to submit to TCEQ.

Water district debt makes up at least 15 percent of Texas’ debt. It’s also the fastest-growing debt, according to recent data from the state Comptroller’s Office.

Read the whole thing – for as dry and wonky a subject as this would seem to be, the behind-the-scenes stuff is quite intricate and rather fascinating. And that’s without taking into account the bizarre voting procedures that “govern” MUDs and related beasts like Road Improvement Districts (RUDs) and Levee Improvement Districts (LIDs). Say what you want about cities, but at least you get to vote for people who are supposed to represent you.

In past discussions of MUDs and RUDs, I’ve been asked what the alternative is, since everyone seems to agree that as things are now, there’s no way for the kind of development that needs to happen to keep up with Texas’ booming population to take place in the absence of this structure. That may be, but let me turn the question around. If we were (as a thought experiment) to do with the state of Texas and the greater Houston region what Metro did with its bus system and redesign it all from scratch, would you set things up the same way they are now, or would you try to come up with something different? I don’t know about you, but I’d lean strongly towards the latter. I freely admit, I have no idea what that might look like, though I’m sure there are actual experts out there who could offer a suggestion or two. My point is, just because this is what we have to work with, doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.

One more thing: Given the current Republican obsession with dictating to cities how to run their business as well as their obsession with property taxes and debt of all kinds, you’d think the plight of people like Clifford Gay might interest them a bit. I’ll leave it to you to speculate why cities must be brought to heel, but MUDs and RUDs and so forth can do pretty much what they want. The Chron editorial board has more.

Have we reached a tipping point on flood mitigation?

That’s a question that is alluded to but not directly addressed in this story.

“This is how the land is supposed to act,” said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust. “It’s supposed to absorb water and filter out pollutants. It’s not supposed to send it roaring into the rivers and bayous and homes.”

In the greater Houston area, though, the staggering increase of impervious surfaces — roads, sidewalks, parking lots, anything covered with asphalt and concrete — has exacerbated the effects of flooding as development in the region has exploded. When land is covered by these surfaces, it loses ability to act like a sponge and soak up water. Things are further complicated in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, where much of the soil is heavily compacted and acts like pavement anyway, sending sheets of storm water to the nearest low-lying area.

A recent analysis of federal satellite data by the Houston Advanced Research Council for the Houston Chronicle shows that 337,000 acres of 1.1 million acres in Harris County were covered by impervious surfaces in 2011, the most recent year of data. That dwarfs surrounding counties, but the analysis shows many are catching up as the onslaught of development continues pushing from the city farther into the suburbs.

Between 2001 and 2011, Fort Bend County, for example, had a 53 percent increase in impervious surfaces, more than twice the percentage increase in Harris County during the same period. Waller County, home to much of the Katy Prairie, saw a 17 percent increase.

That kind of development comes with a price, namely the loss of the region’s natural landscape, including wetlands, prairies, coastal marshlands and forests, and thereby a greater risk of flooding. Even with federal regulations in place to preserve wetlands, the 14-county Houston region lost more than 54,000 acres of wetlands between 1996 and 2010, according to HARC’s analysis.

“Pitiful,” said John Jacob, a Texas A&M University professor and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.

As large tracts of undeveloped land have been transformed by new roads, homes and businesses, city and county planners have relied almost exclusively on detention basins — often referred to as detention ponds — to solve the water runoff problem created by the region’s vast asphalt and concrete surfaces.

Detention basins are man-made structures designed to capture storm-water runoff and temporarily store it. Harris County first began requiring them of developers in the early 1980s, and neighboring counties quickly followed. Today, each county in the region has hundreds of the ponds, both dry and wet.

However, these detention requirements have fallen short in attempting to tackle the source of the flooding problem because they do not require developers to eliminate runoff from their projects.

Many Houston-area homeowners blame inadequate storm-water mitigation rules for their flooding woes. City and county officials disagree, but concede it’s difficult to untangle the effects of new development, flood control projects and climate change when trying to determine the culprit for the region’s worsening flood problem. The issue came to a head recently for a group of west Houston residents who sued the city a couple of months ago claiming it is allowing developers to circumvent storm-water safeguards.

“I can show you on any individual project how runoff has been properly mitigated,” Montgomery County Engineer Mark Mooney said. “Having said that, when you see the increase in impervious surfaces that we have, it’s clear the way water moves through our county has changed. “It’s all part of a massive puzzle everyone is trying to sort out.”

This story is part five of a series, for which earlier and related stories are here. It notes that Fort Bend appears to be doing better than Harris County in terms of mitigation, as they had our example to learn from and mandated more stringent rules for its detention ponds. Fort Bend has also seen an awful lot of its permeable land become impervious in recent years, so who knows how well that will hold up as development continues. The scary thing to me is the shrinking of the Katy Prairie, which does so much of the heavy lifting for the region. It’s not like we can make more of that, and it’s getting harder to find space for the often-inadequate detention ponds that we build here in Harris County. It would help if we had fewer 23-inches-in-14-hours type rainstorms, but the feeling I get is that we’re in a new normal, and we need to figure out how to cope with that.

Montgomery County Judge suspended for road bond allegations

This just keeps getting better.

A state commission has suspended Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal without pay after a grand jury charged him with violating Texas’ open meetings law while developing a bond package for new and improved roads.

The move by the State Commission on Judicial Review came four days after the indictments of Doyal, County Commissioners Jim Clark and Charlie Riley and a political adviser for allegedly engaging in behind-the-scenes negotiations before putting a $280 million road bond measure on last November’s ballot. Voters passed the bond package.

The commission’s order strips Doyal of the ability to perform official duties while the criminal case is pending. He has requested a hearing within 30 days to ask the commission to lift the suspension.

“I understand the open meetings laws,” Doyal said at a news conference at his attorney’s office. “I did not violate the open meetings laws, nor did I conspire to violate the open meetings laws.”

See here and here for the background. I have no opinion the merits of this, or on the likelihood of any particular outcome. I’m just enjoying the show.

Montgomery County officials indicted over road bond shenanigans

I know I’m a bad person, but this continues to amuse me greatly.

A grand jury has indicted Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal and two commissioners, charging them with violating Texas’ open meetings law last year while developing a bond package for new and improved roads.

Traffic-weary voters in the rapidly growing county approved the $280 million financing proposal, but the indictments left Doyal and Commissioners Jim Clark and Charlie Riley to face criminal charges for their actions in getting it on the ballot.

Grand jurors also charged Marc Davenport, an adviser who helped to broker a deal on the bond proposal. He is married to the county’s treasurer, Stephanne Davenport.

Chris Downey, the special prosecutor who presented the case to the grand jury over six months, said that the misdemeanor charges are punishable by a fine up to $500, as many as six months in jail or both.

Downey said that it’s too early to know whether the case will go to trial.

“Like any criminal matter, whether or not a matter goes to trial is going to be a function of further discovery and negotiation,” he said.

See here for the background. The charges are fairly small potatoes, and I’ll be very surprised if they result in any kind of guilty verdict. I just find it all hilarious. The next time anyone tries to tell you that the suburbs are so much better at running things than the big cities, point to this and remind them that we can generally get bond measures on the ballot without anyone getting indicted.

Reynolds loses another request in court

More bad news.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

State Rep. Ron Reynolds has lost his bid to resume practicing law while he appeals his conviction for illegally soliciting clients.

Montgomery County County Court-at-Law Judge Mary Ann Turner on Thursday denied the request by Reynolds, who argued that the bond condition prevents him from being able to financially support his family.

Turner also rejected his request for a new trial, prosecutors said. His case was assigned to the state’s Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso.

[…]

Reynolds, the first African-American elected to the Texas House from Fort Bend County since Reconstruction, has drawn three opponents in a Democratic primary set for March.

See here and here for the background. I assume the story means that the appeal of his case was “assigned to the state’s Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso”, though I don’t know why that would be so. Can someone explain that to me? Not being able to practice law while his appeal is ongoing is definitely going to be a hardship for Reynolds, but barring anything unexpected it’s not an injustice. He’s in a tough spot, but unless he can prove his bias claim, he didn’t get there by chance.

Reynolds receives jail sentence in barratry case

He got the max for the misdemeanor charge on which he was convicted.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

State Rep. Ron Reynolds could spend up to a year in jail after he was sentenced Monday to the maximum penalty following his conviction on charges arising from what prosecutors called an “ambulance chasing for profit” scheme.

A Montgomery County jury sentenced Reynolds to up to 12 months in jail and a $20,000 fine following the attorney’s conviction last week on five counts of misdemeanor barratry, or illegally soliciting clients.

The Missouri City Democrat showed no emotion as County Court-at-Law Judge Mary Ann Turner read the sentence late Monday. He took off his suit jacket and tie and handed it to a friend, and gave his cellphone and watch to his wife. Then he was escorted from the courtroom by deputies and taken to county jail.

The sentence comes as Reynolds, the first African-American since Reconstruction elected to the Texas House from Fort Bend County, was starting to campaign for a fourth term. The misdemeanor convictions don’t require him to give up his seat, but deal a blow to his political and legal careers.

Reynolds’ attorney said he intends to appeal, and the court scheduled a hearing for Tuesday on his request to remain free pending that appeal.

See here for the background. You know how I feel about this, so let me just note that a lot of people have called for our indicted Attorney General to step down from his office. To be sure, the charges hanging over Ken Paxton have had an effect on his ability to do his job, but he’s a long way from seeing a courthouse, much less being convicted of something. If one believes Paxton is unfit to serve, it’s hard to see how one argues in favor of Rep. Reynolds staying in office, and that’s before taking into account the possibility that his jail sentence (if it stands) might overlap with a legislative session. Rep. Reynolds has been barred from practicing law while his appeal is ongoing, which I suspect will put a lot of pressure on him and his family. Again, it brings me no joy to say any of this, but the facts are the facts. The Press has more.

Rep. Ron Reynolds convicted of misdemeanor barratry charge

The word “tawdry” applies to this.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

State Rep. Ron Reynolds was convicted Friday of illegally soliciting clients in an “ambulance chasing for profit” scheme, a verdict that carries the threat of jail time and deals a blow to his political career but won’t require him to leave office.

A Montgomery County jury convicted Reynolds, a Missouri City Democrat, of five counts of misdemeanor barratry after a week-long trial in which he represented himself. He was among eight Houston-area lawyers charged in 2013; Reynolds is the only one who did not accept a plea deal.

A teary-eyed Reynolds hugged his wife after the verdict was read. “I always respect the jury’s verdict. But while I respect it, I disagree. Based on the evidence, it did not show that I ever knowingly accepted a solicited case,” said Reynolds, the first African American elected state representative in Fort Bend County since Reconstruction.

Reynolds said he planned to appeal because he doesn’t believe the law was followed.

See here for the past history, and be sure to read the whole story to see why I described it the way I did. I’ll say again what I’ve said before: I like Rep. Reynolds personally, and I value his service as a State Representative, including and especially his leadership on important issues. It is with no joy that I say it’s time for him to conclude his service in the Legislature so he can straighten out his personal life. However well he has served the people of HD27, it’s time for them to have another choice.

The struggle is real in The Woodlands

One last opportunity – for this year, at least – to mock the flailing efforts at self-governance in Montgomery County.

[Bruce] Tough believes the tea partiers are after “control’ and, in so doing, could stamp out independent thought.

“I don’t want to see any single group control the fate of our community,” Long said. “We’re bigger than one group. All the folks who live here should have a say.”

Mike Bass, a township director who was opposed in 2012 by tea partiers who had once backed him, agreed.

“They want to win control of the township board and then have us incorporate our township into a city,’ Bass said. “We have a perfect limited government and free marketplace now. But they really don’t want that.”

Community leaders agree on one thing: resident frustration over the area’s rapid growth is driving the discontent. Montgomery County’s population, now a half million, is expected to double over the next half-century.

“The Woodlands is a victim of its own success,” said Tough. “Once people build a house here, they want that one to be the last one built. I heard these special interest people saying, ‘Elect me and I’ll stop development.’ It may play well politically, but legally you can’t tell someone what to do with their land.”

The Texas Patriots’ Turner said that while nobody can stop growth, it could be better managed, possibly through incorporating as a city.

Bass said incorporation was put off three years ago because a study then showed it would triple the property tax rate.

So basically, The Woodlands is like Austin, though perhaps with fewer skinny-jeans-wearing hipsters. And the first-time candidate who defeated Bruce Tough last Tuesday is on a self-appointed mission to rescue America from the clutches of evil leftists, presumably beginning with those Alinsky sympathizers on the Woodlands Township Board of Directors. I’m sorry, but Houston politics just can’t hold a candle to this for sheer ridiculousness.

Bondings

Congratulations, Montgomery County!

After rejecting two bond measures for new and improved roadways in four years, including one last spring, traffic-weary voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a $280 million plan to unplug bottlenecks in rapidly growing Montgomery County.

With all precincts reporting, the road bond received the support of more than three-fifths of county voters – a ballot-box reversal that officials attributed to the increasing difficulty in driving the once mostly rural county’s outdated roads.

“It’s a recognition that we’re growing rapidly, and congestion is getting worse every day,” County Judge Craig Doyal said. “It’s time for us to move forward.”

County leaders intend to use the money on 54 projects, including the widening of Texas 105 east of Conroe, a half-loop bypass for Magnolia and improvements along increasingly congested Rayford Road southeast of The Woodlands.

The previous road bond proposal, for $350 million, was defeated by a 14-point margin in May, primarily because of heavy opposition to a proposed extension of Woodlands Parkway for 6 miles through mostly undeveloped land west of The Woodlands. The project riled Woodlands residents who believed it would worsen the master-planned community’s traffic woes.

Backers rushed to get another bond measure before voters this fall, contending that drivers couldn’t wait for new and improved roadways.

The revised bond package didn’t include the controversial project, but opponents argued that it was still a flawed proposal because county leaders placed another measure on the ballot before the completion of two studies identifying the county’s most urgent road needs.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether county officials put the bond package together outside the public view in violation of the state’s open meetings law. Chris Downey, the prosecutor, said Tuesday he does not know when the inquiry will be complete.

The measure was placed on the ballot after Doyal reached a last-minute agreement with the Texas Patriots PAC on the new proposal. The tea party group, which had opposed the bond in May, campaigned for the trimmed-down improvement plan and focused on winning over voters in The Woodlands, where the previous bond failed by a nearly 9-to-1 margin.

So there you have it. What do you think will come next – the bond money will all get spent, or the next bond issue will get put on the ballot because the traffic up there is still too damn bad? Good luck, MontCo, you’re going to need it.

Harris County also scored some bond money.

The four bond measures – $700 million for roads and bridges, $64 million for flood control improvements, $60 million for parks and $24 million to update the overcrowded animal control facility – scored decisive victories in complete but unofficial returns.

The bonds will not result in tax increases.

“Citizens of Harris County spoke volumes tonight that they understand the growth that has occurred and the challenges that loom,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack. “In a county that hasn’t had a property tax increase in almost 20 years, these bond proceeds will help the county build the infrastructure people need.”

Radack said “the county will spend this money prudently, over numerous years, not quickly.” He said it will be structured wisely.

About 1 million more people now live in the county than in 2000 and 75 percent of those new residents live in the unincorporated portions of the county where government-funded roads and infrastructure projects have had to hustle to catch up with vast commercial and residential development.

Radack said the burden will continue to grow if Houston continues its recent non-annexation policy, citing statistics showing that 51 percent of county residents now live in Houston, down from 77 percent 50 years ago.

I’m sure sometime before Harris County starts spending their bond money, they’ll tell us what they plan to spend it on. Those of us here in Houston don’t need to worry ourselves about it, since none of it will be spent here anyway.

More on MUDs

The Chron covers this topic.

A few months ago, a cabinet maker and his wife were recruited to move into a manufactured home parked on a dirt road that was plowed into the woods on the west side of Conroe in Montgomery County.

Daniel and Deborah Spiecher are now the only residents of a newly created municipal utility district, or MUD, carved from 82 acres of land there. They are also the only ones eligible to vote Tuesday on $500 million in proposed bonds to develop that tract.

In fact, they are among just seven voters who will decide the fate this week of $1.07 billion in bonds for roads, water, sewer and recreational facilities in three such districts that were recently formed in this fast-growing county north of Houston. The debt will be repaid with taxes imposed on future residents and businesses. While some believe the MUDs provide a means to bring about high-end development in an orderly way, critics say they are out of control, with developers manipulating the democratic process to essentially take on the roles of cities and borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to make public improvements.

Montgomery County resident Adrian Heath decries the lack of transparency and citizen input into what critics call “rent-a-voter” MUD elections. Heath notes that the billion-dollar MUD proposals make the contentious, countywide election over a $280 million road bond package look like “kid stuff.”

Yet an attorney representing one of the developers for the three MUDs refers to these initial seven voters as “urban pioneers.”

“They move onto the land and help establish new communities, paving the way for the future homeowners,” said Angela Lutz, the attorney for Stoecker Corp., which plans to develop land covered by a separate MUD on Conroe’s west side and also north of The Woodlands. She stressed these elections are completely legal, as well as being “typical and ordinary” and the way MUDs have operated for decades.

[…]

Without MUDs, much of Harris County and The Woodlands would not exist today, he said. In order for MUDs to be confirmed in an election as state law requires, developers have to move residents onto their property to vote, Melder said.

“While the method may seem unusual, it has led to hundreds of thousands of high-quality and affordable homes in the Houston area,” said Lutz, the attorney for Stoecker.

However, others, such as University of Connecticut School of Law professor Sara Bronin, question the “lack of formal democratic process” in these MUD elections, utilizing a small voter pool that is “handpicked by the developer.”

Bronin, who wrote an article for the Fordham Law Review on Texas’ MUDs, notes how MUDs were originally designed only as a vehicle for supplying water to unincorporated areas. Since then, as the number of MUDs has proliferated, their power also has grown, she said.

“The lines are so blurred that you can’t tell much difference between a MUD and what a city can do,” she said.

See here for recent coverage from Your Houston News. The defenders of these MUDs (and their cousin, road utility districts or RUDs) make some good points, but the whole thing feels like magic to me – just put a few people in trailers on some undeveloped rural land, and voila! instant access to hundreds of millions of dollars in credit for your construction dreams – not to mention completely non-transparent. I mean, school bond issues have their share of problems, but at the end of the day every penny gets accounted for. Does anyone believe there isn’t a little grease built in to this process? Good luck finding it. I’d also guess that the sudden appearance of these subdivisions in what used to be pastures and piney woods contributes more than a little to Montgomery County’s inability to keep up with its own infrastructure needs, but that’s their problem. I get that this is legal, but it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and it doesn’t mean that the original intent of these districts hasn’t been swept aside. Chalk this up as another reason why I prefer city living. We may have our own problems, but I at least have some say in how things are done.

When low turnout is the goal

You really have to admire the sheer brazenness of this.

Montgomery County Municipal Utility District No. 142 is yet another special-purpose district this election cycle using what appears to be a service that hires voters to pass MUD elections in areas without existing voters.

MUD No. 142 will be the site of The Woods of Conroe, a 92-acre subdivision west of Conroe that will include about 400 residential lots, according to previous Courier articles.

According to voter registration records, two voters list their residence at 5283 Old Highway 105 W. in Conroe, which happens to also be the site of early voting for MUD 142. The MUD 142 election is being held separate from the Montgomery County joint elections and therefore is not on the sample ballot provided by Montgomery County Elections Central.

The two voters in MUD 142 also happen to list their mailing addresses at 20615 Marilyn Lane in Spring, which is the home site of Stingray Services. According to the Stingray Services website, the company specializes in providing turn-key voter trailer installation services, and election services,” their website “About Us” says. “We have completed over 70 trailer installations in Texas over the last 10 years, and have supported nearly 100 elections. We locate residents, perform landlord services, support residents in changing their license and voter registration, and assist with the district election. We have worked with a host of major developers and engineers including Lennar, Toll Brothers, Friendswood, Land Tejas, Taylor Morrison, Pate Engineers, Brown & Gay … to name just a few.”

Emphasis mine. Read the whole thing, and see here for more on one of the other MUDs mentioned in the story. I know that all the “concern” about “voter fraud” and “election integrity” in the Legislature is so much partisan grandstanding and security theater, but you’d still think that something as egregious as this might attract a little bit of attention. Instead, the only people to get in trouble are the ones who tried to expose the sham. But hey, at least these MUD voters have to show photo ID when they vote, right? KTRK has more.

Chron overview of the Montgomery County bond referendum

The voters there are engaged in this issue, that much is for sure.

Life is on hold in the parking lot that is Rayford Road, 4 miles of too many cars squeezing into too few lanes. Even when it isn’t so busy, which isn’t often, there is a chance a passing train can bring traffic to a halt.

It is just the sort of bottleneck Montgomery County leaders intend to unplug with a $280 million bond measure to build new and wider roadways that voters will decide on Nov. 3.

The measure would set aside the biggest chunk of money – $60 million – for improvements along Rayford Road, one of the county’s most congested streets. While the project could bring needed relief to traffic-weary drivers, the roadway represents only a small part of the rapidly growing county’s mobility problems.

That’s because there are far more projects across the county than could be covered by a one-time burst of cash. A new study estimated road needs to be about $1.6 billion over the next quarter-century for just south county, roughly the area from the Harris County line to FM 1488 and Texas 242, including The Woodlands.

“The bond issue is only the start of the process,” said retired Montgomery County Judge Alan Sadler, who backs the measure. “The county has billions of dollars of road needs.”

If voters approve the borrowing, those funds could generate hundreds of millions more in state and federal aid for road projects, Sadler said. But voters have rejected the last two requests for new transportation money.

[…]

Sadler, the former judge, said he expects the county to ask voters to approve more borrowing within next four or five years.

While H-GAC’s study made recommendations with cost estimates, it’s not a comprehensive mobility plan, said Carlene Mullins, a transportation planner for the regional council.

“It’s a concept,” she said. “It’s going to be up to local officials on how to implement a plan.”

But Mullins said they need to act. “Doing what you can with the funds you have would be better than nothing at all,” she said. “If you don’t build any roads, the people are still going to come. It’s just going to get more congested.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I have no dog in this fight and don’t really care what happens with this referendum, I just continue to be amused by it all. It’s a lovely combination of parochial self-interest, severe dislike of spending money, and utter lack of planning, which is ironic given the super-master=planned status of The Woodlands, with a dash of back-room dealmaking thrown in for good measure. I’ve wondered before what Montgomery County will do if they continue being unable to pass these bonds, but it’s also worth wondering if they can solve their problems even with a compliant electorate. There’s an awful lot of demand on their roads, with a rapidly growing population and few if any other tricks in their bag beyond building more roads. What does Montgomery County look like in 20 or 30 years if can’t ever get anywhere in a timely fashion? I’m glad that’s not my problem.

Day 5 EV 2015 totals: Early voting is up (almost) everywhere

Here are your Day Five totals:


Year    Early    Mail   Total   Mailed
======================================
2015   48,027  21,141  69,168   42,938
2013   28,303  14,342  42,645   30,544

EarlyVoting

The running 2015 totals are here, the full 2013 totals are here, and for completeness the full 2009 totals are here. With one work week in the bag, it’s clear that early voting is a lot brisker than it was two years ago. You might think that it portends a much higher level of turnout this year. You might be right, though as you know I have been cautioning against reading too much into these numbers. More people are voting early now than they used to, and some of what we are seeing is merely the result of regular voters getting out earlier than usual and/or shifting to early voting from voting on Election Day.

Now to be sure, we do expect some higher level of turnout this year, thanks to the contested Mayor’s race and the HERO referendum. Indications I’ve gotten from people who have access to the daily voter rosters suggests that about 40% of the voters so far are not from the “at least two out of the last three elections” group. That’s actually not much higher than what we saw in 2009, when 36.1% of voters had not participated in either 2005 or 2007. It’s way too early to place your bets on what final turnout might be, but if I had to guess I’d lean more towards a modest increase, say from 180,000 to 200,000. Ask me again when the final early voting totals are in and I’ll take another guess then.

There’s another factor to consider here, and that’s that the increase in early voting in Harris County is not unique. Take a look at the four-day early voting totals from this year and from 2013 for the state’s biggest counties. The SOS is always a day behind on this, so all we have is the numbers through Thursday, but they tell the same basic story as in Harris County:


County   In person    Mail    Total    2013
===========================================
Harris      36,316  19,789   56,105  34,412
Dallas      10,558   1,570   12,128   5,649
Tarrant     10,713   2,601   13,314   6,939
Bexar       11,285   2,865   14,150   9,117
Travis       7,231     164    7,395   9,880
Collin       7,374     168    7,542   4,546
El Paso      3,081     968    4,049   1,583
Denton       4,388     315    4,703   3,455
Fort Bend    4,780     691    5,471   2,890
Hidalgo      3,456     211    3,667   4,661
Montgomery   5,779     429    6,208   1,483
Williamson   4,192     116    4,308   3,402
Galveston    2,222      58    2,280   1,264
Nueces       1,072      51    1,123   4,978

Total      112,447  29,996  142,433  94,239

As Harris County’s EV totals are up 62% over the five day period, the top 14 counties have seen their four-day EV totals climb 51%. There’s some variation in there – I’m not sure what is causing the dip in Travis County, and the huge increase in Montgomery County is surely the result of their second contentious road bond proposal of the year – but still, that’s pretty sturdy. Harris County is up more than the overall total, and its increase is relatively larger if we take it out of the state total – the rest of the state’s EV total is up only 24% – but it remains the case that more people are voting early everywhere, not just here. And as always, the lesson is to not read too much into what’s happening in one place till we have more data.

The Woodlands versus its neighbors

I have three things to say about this.

The Woodlands prides itself on being the best-planned community around, with tree-studded neighborhoods, miles of trails, sprawling parks and a town center with a distinctly urban feel.

Across Montgomery County, however, some see The Woodlands as a snooty, well-off enclave that grouses about its tax dollars subsidizing services elsewhere.

Unfair or not, those hard feelings are coming into view as the county nears a Nov. 3 vote on whether to invest in new and improved roadways. The $280 million bond measure is a slimmed-down version of one that failed four months ago amid heavy opposition in The Woodlands.

After urging county leaders to try again on the coming ballot, the township’s governing board has come out against the revised bond measure, saying that the package is tainted because it was put together in negotiations outside public view.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether the county’s dealings broke the state’s open meetings law. Even then, some local officials and residents are upset by The Woodlands’ hasty turnaround.

“You can’t overcome the fact that we still need the roads,” said Alan Sadler, who recently retired after 24 years as Montgomery County’s judge. “It’s dire. If we wait another year, we won’t have the roads built until 2020, 2021 or 2022. We can’t wait that long.”

The Woodlands board’s opposition to the measure before the investigation is complete has widened a divide between township and county leaders. Sadler, among others, was irked by the township’s sudden decision last year to pull out of a deal to help pay for a new customs facility at Montgomery County’s airport. Township leaders complained about a lack of responsiveness from county leaders.

And in May, voters in The Woodlands rallied to defeat the initial road bond because it included a controversial extension of Woodlands Parkway west of the master-planned community, a project that critics said would worsen traffic woes. Forty percent of the voters in the countywide election came from its largest community, and they opposed it by a 9-1 margin.

Penny Benbow, who resides in southeast Montgomery County, said voters outside The Woodlands listened to its concerns, and many rejected the bond measure, too. But the parkway extension isn’t part of the new bond package, and it’s time for the town to support it, she said.

“We can’t do it without you,” Benbow told the township’s governing board last week. “Your neighbors stood by you in May. Now it’s time for you to stand by your neighbors.”

See here and here for the background. I know I’m a horrible person for saying this, but I find this whole saga to be hilarious. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in the suburbs! You guys should be setting a good example for those benighted city residents! Stop fighting before you make Joel Kotkin cry!

Bruce Tough, the board’s chairman, bristles at the suggestion that The Woodlands isn’t a good neighbor. He noted that the township has supported the Conroe Independent School District’s bond measures and pays “the lion’s share” of taxes in the county.

Of course The Woodlands pays the lion’s share of the property taxes in the county. That would be because the Woodlands has the lion’s share of the property value in the county. If the Woodlands would like for its share of the property taxes to be lower, they’ll need for the rest of the county to be built up more. I don’t know what share of Harris County’s property taxes Houston pays, but I’ll bet it used to be more back when more of Harris County was uninhabited or undeveloped.

The highest priority is Rayford Road, an artery that has become a backed-up pool of frustration for the unincorporated neighborhoods east of The Woodlands. Plans call for widening the road to as many as six lanes and building an overpass over railroad tracks.

“The Woodlands has a good road grid,” said Thomas Gray, a planner for the area council. “The east side doesn’t, so that’s why they’re experiencing the problems they have right now.”

I predict that regardless of what happens with this particular bond issue, the problems won’t go away. In fact, I’d bet the projects that the bond would provide for give little more than temporary relief. This is partly because of the fast growth in Montgomery County – there’s only so much you can do when that many people are moving in – but it’s also partly by design. You pretty much have to drive everywhere in Montgomery County, and that’s not going to change. There are plenty of places you can live in Houston and do a minimal amount of driving. Until that becomes the case in Montgomery County, they’re going to have to keep paving to try to keep up. Good luck with that.

No way to run a road bond election

Am I a bad person for being unreasonably amused by this?

A special prosecutor has been assigned to determine whether behind-the-scenes negotiations could void a last-minute deal struck by Montgomery County commissioners to get a scaled-back $270 million road bond package on the upcoming November ballot.

At question is whether some commissioners and a powerful tea party group violated the open meetings law. It would mark the third defeat of a road bond proposal in the past decade, with the last one coming four months ago when voters rejected a 20 percent larger bond proposal.

“We’re going to aggressively inquire into all communications and activities that led up to commissioners putting this latest bond proposal on the ballot,” said Chris Downey, the Houston attorney appointed as special prosecutor. “We need to move quickly to determine if anything criminal was done before the Nov. 3 election is held. It could be voidable.”

A Texas Ranger has been ordered to gather emails, phone records and statements from those involved in the negotiations. Downey will then use the information to determine whether a quorum of elected officials intentionally held secret deliberations with the Texas Patriots PAC tea party that decided upon the bond proposal.

County Judge Craig Doyal and Commissioner Charlie Riley have acknowledged meeting with the tea party group, but that doesn’t represent a quorum of the five-member court. However, if emails or phones were used to include other commissioners in the decision process, it could become a “walking quorum,” which violates the law.

“This can be a way for officials to avoid open discussions in a public venue. Under the law, the public is to be notified of when and where a meeting is held so that anyone can attend,” said Dan Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “It sounds like elected officials in this case might later come together in public only to rubber-stamp decisions made earlier in private.”

On Thursday night, The Woodlands Township Board voted unanimously to withdraw support given to the November bond package in light of the investigation.

“It stinks. It’s a back-room deal that lacks transparency,” said Township Chairman Bruce Tough. “A special interest group (Texas Patriot PAC) is dictating terms of the road bond to the county. They are not elected to represent us.”

See here and here for some background. I haven’t followed the details of Montgomery County’s efforts to get another road bond on the ballot, and I don’t have anything constructive to say. I’m just laughing at the comedy of errors going on here. For a region that has so much growth and projected growth, they sure have a hard time governing themselves. You have to wonder if this inability to do anything will eventually hinder all that growth they’re supposed to have.

And then there’s this:

The Texas Patriot PAC issued a written statement: “All private citizens have a right to petition people they elected to serve them. Meeting with two commissioners is not a violation of the open meetings laws. Any suggestion that these meetings violated such laws is entirely without merit.”

Because of the fast-approaching deadline to get a bond proposal on the ballot, the organization said there was insufficient time for more input from residents.

“Throughout this process, we thought of ourselves as representatives of all the conservative citizen groups. The framework ultimately agreed to was representative of what all the groups had been proposing since (the last bond defeat),” the statement said.

However, Duane Ham, who had served on the committee that supported the last failed bond proposal, disagreed. He recently formed the Texas Conservative Tea Party Coalition that the Patriot PAC called the “fake tea party.” “It’s sad when a few are controlling and dictating what happens in our county instead of our people.”

I’m not the only one who thought of this, am I?

I don’t know what this world is coming to when tea party groups start turning on each other.

Who needs wetlands?

Development is all that matters, right?

More than 38,000 acres of wetlands vanished in greater Houston over the past two decades despite a federal policy that “no net loss” can be caused by encroaching development.

That’s an area about the size of The Woodlands and Sugar Land combined turned into neighborhoods, office buildings, strip malls, parking lots and roads.

To remedy the damage, federal permits require developers to create man-made wetlands or preserve them elsewhere, often by a ratio of at least 2 acres for every one destroyed. But the Army Corps of Engineers, by statute the nation’s primary steward of wetlands, doesn’t track whether most developers satisfy the requirements of their permits, a recent study found.

More than half of the permit records reviewed by researchers revealed little or no evidence of compliance in an eight-county region. The lack of documentation suggests wetlands probably are not being protected as the federal Clean Water Act requires, said John Jacob, director of Texas A&M University’s coastal watershed program, which worked on the study with the Houston Advanced Research Center.

“The disappearance of wetlands is widespread and pervasive,” Jacob said. “These are the wetlands that improve water quality and reduce flooding, but there is no mitigation.”

Upstream development worsens downstream flooding, said Jim Lester, president of HARC, based in The Woodlands. “It’s crazy to me that we cover up wetlands, and then we spend a lot of money to build retention ponds.”

[…]

The study comes amid political anger over new Obama administration rules that aim to clarify which wetlands, streams and tributaries should be protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act. Texas and 15 other states have filed suit to block the rules, which were proposed last year by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers.

Farmers, developers and landowners say the rules are an overreach by the government.

But the researchers say the new rules could help protect wetlands that are hydrologically isolated from bays, rivers, streams or other “waters of the United States.” Since 2001, the Corps’ office for the Houston region has claimed jurisdiction only over wetlands within the 100-year floodplain or with distinct channels.

“We’re not arguing for no development, but we can be smarter about it,” [Lisa Gonzalez, one of the study’s authors and vice president of HARC] said. HARC was started by the late oilman and developer George Mitchell, who used the natural drainage of The Woodlands to structure its development.

The isolated wetlands found in the Katy Prairie and wooded Montgomery County, for example, are prime targets for builders as the region continues to grow. With a projected wave of some 4 million new residents over the next four decades, it’s possible to lose another 100,000 acres of wetlands to development.

“This is the time in the next 20 to 30 years that we really need to save stuff,” she said. “It’s going ever so quick, and we need that mitigation hammer.”

I can’t find a copy of the study on the HARC website; this link is the best I can do. None of this should be a surprise – there’s vastly more incentive to not comply than to comply, and there’s basically no enforcement mechanism. Just keep in mind that when you read or hear about all that booming growth out in the far-flung suburbs, a lot of it is making the flooding problems we see here in the older parts of Houston worse. There’s only so much that ReBuild Houston and all the Mayoral promises you’re going to hear over the next few months can do about that.

More on voting centers

I’ll be interested to see how this goes in Galveston.

vote-button

Just in time for the November election, Galveston County has launched the first mobile app of its kind in the state, called “Galveston Votes.” It uses GPS to direct people with lightning speed to the closest voting center.

Fort Bend County in November will make its first foray into using “voting centers” that are open to all voters county-wide, rather than restricting them to their neighborhood precinct.

Montgomery and Harris counties are studying whether to do the same thing.

These efforts are part of a growing trend to counter Texas’ low voter turnout – ranked nationally in 2014 third from the bottom. More and more counties across the state are moving toward using these voting centers. They are looking for any way they can to make voting more accessible and entice voters to the polls.

The centers, which can be located anywhere from grocery stores to shopping malls, may be used by any eligible voter within a county. Voters will no longer be restricted to one precinct site.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says the possible advantages include convenience, financial savings and increase in turnout. Possible drawbacks include a loss of the tradition of neighborhood voting, confusion if the scheme isn’t properly explained to voters and the cost of new equipment and technology.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart plans to test new infrastructure at a few polling locations during the primary next March that could be used for future voting centers.

But Stanart warns that converting a county as large as Harris, with its 4.3 million people and 769 polling stations, would be logistically challenging and costly. Each polling station has to be electronically linked to update in “real time” the names of those who are voting at various stations.

“We do that now in early voting with 41 stations, but don’t have the ability to do 769 yet,” he said.

About 13 percent of all Texas counties are now using county-wide voting centers and the number keeps rising, said Alicia Pierce, spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State, who said many voters enjoy the convenience it affords.

“I live in Travis County, where they have adopted this system, and was able to cast my vote at a Fiesta store while getting groceries,” she said.

While the centers have proven convenient, the state is continuing to assess their impact on turnout.

See here, here, and here for some background. Fort Bend (as noted in the last link) is implementing voting centers for this election, which will have some effect on the Mayor’s race since there are a few thousand Houston voters in Fort Bend. Voting centers basically replicate the early voting experience on Election Day – there are a smaller number of locations, but you can use any of them – though this story makes it sound like there could be a lot more of them than the traditional early voting places, at locations that aren’t currently used. It would be nice to have a better idea of how many voting centers there are compared to EV locations and traditional polling places. Enough counties in Texas are doing this already, that data ought to be readily available.

As for claims that voting centers will help increase turnout, I’m skeptical. There is concern (again, in that last link above) that it could have the opposite effect, partly due to voter confusion, and partly due to vote centers not being as close to or as convenient for voters with mobility issues. I’ve said before that I believe these obstacles can be overcome, with sufficient outreach and care in the selection of vote center sites – perhaps some existing precinct voting locations can be used as vote centers – but the concerns need to be taken seriously. It’s not out of the question that if done poorly, vote centers could increase turnout in affluent areas while depressing it in lower income and minority neighborhoods, which would be completely unacceptable. Vote centers have existed in Texas since 2005, with 23 counties currently employing them and nine more piloting them this fall. We really should have some hard data by now to show the effect of this idea. Again, it would be nice to know more. I support the idea behind voting centers, but I’d like to know that we’ve been doing them right.