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West sets up Senate campaign committees

This would seem to end the suspense, if there were any suspense remaining.

Sen. Royce West

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, appears to be in for the U.S. Senate race.

He has an announcement planned for Monday in Dallas, but on Friday, paperwork was filed with the Federal Election Commission establishing a “Royce West for U.S. Senate” campaign and declaring him a Democratic candidate for the seat. Moments later, his name showed up as a U.S. Senate candidate on the Democratic fundraising site Act Blue.

West didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Neither did the campaign’s treasurer, Barbara Radnofksy.

The assistant treasurer is listed as Mike Collier, the 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Collier said he has been discussing the race with West for months and plans to help with economic policy as well as rural and suburban messaging. Collier came within 5 percentage points of GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the state Senate.

[…]

West has been mostly tight-lipped about the race, but during a Dallas TV appearance Sunday, he offered a potential rationale for running.

“We’ve got to get people who can build bridges to help resolve some of the issues as opposed to continuing to stay in the red corner or the blue corner,” West said. “And so if I decide to do it, that’s gonna be one of the reasons I decide to do it.”

See here, here, and here for the background. That’s not the most compelling rationale to run for federal office in the year of our Lord 2019 if you ask me, but there’s plenty of room in the field for that conversation. As noted in the story, Amanda Edwards stole some of West’s thunder by getting her own announcement in on ahead of West’s. I wonder if this prep work, which could have been done next week, was in part motivated by that. Not that it really matters, I’m just amused by the palace intrigue possibilities.

Anyway, the field now includes MJ Hegar, Chris Bell, Amanda Edwards, Royce West, and three walk-ons, with Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez still in the picture. It’s true that none of them are well-known statewide, but there’s plenty of time to fix that, and the mere existence of a contested primary among people who have all raised money and run sizable campaigns in varying degrees will help. Having a multi-candidate primary isn’t in itself a positive indicator – there were four Senate hopefuls in 2012, and five in 2014 – but the candidates this year are surely a sign of optimism about the possibilities. I’m excited about what will come next.

Amanda Edwards joins the Senate race

And then there were three, with a fourth likely to follow and a fifth out there as a possibility.

CM Amanda Edwards

Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards announced Thursday morning she is running for U.S. Senate, joining an increasingly crowded primary to challenge Republican John Cornyn.

It will be a campaign against several Democratic rivals and, possibly, a three-term incumbent whose reelection war chest tops $9 million. But should Edwards win, she would be the first African American Texan to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“As a woman, as an African American, as a millennial — and in certainly as someone who generally … believes in solutions and not just rhetoric — I think I’m going to be the candidate that can do the job,” she said in an interview with The Texas Tribune, emphasizing the need for a nominee who can persuade voters to vote Democratic but also “galvanize our base.”

Edwards, who had been considering a run since at least March, is finishing her first term as an at-large City Council member after being elected in 2015. She said she does not plan to run for a second term in November but will serve out her term, which ends in December.

Edwards launched her bid with a video, set to drum-line music, that reflected on her family’s middle-class struggles and highlighted a key part of her council tenure — the Hurricane Harvey recovery. Over images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ann Richards, Edwards appealed to “all of the people who have ever been locked out or told that they can’t wait or to wait their turn because the status quo or establishment was not ready for change.”

[…]

So far, Cornyn’s most serious Democratic challenger has been MJ Hegar, the 2018 U.S. House candidate and retired Air Force helicopter pilot. She launched her bid in late April and raised over $1 million through the second quarter.

Since then, another Democrat, Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman and 2006 gubernatorial nominee, has entered the primary, and some progressive operatives have mobilized to try to draft top Latina organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez into the race.

As the story notes, State Sen. Royce West is set to make an announcement on Monday, which is widely expected to be his own entrance into the race. If Edwards’ announcement, which I at least wasn’t expecting, was intended to steal some of West’s thunder, then kudos to her for doing so. I admit I’d been skeptical about Edwards’ intentions, as there had been a lot of “Edwards is considering” mentions in other stories but very few direct reports about her, but here she is.

Edwards anticipates raising $5 million for the primary, and “potentially you’re looking at several million dollars” for the general election, she said. Over and over, she stressed that the Senate race could be nationalized.

“I think with the general, however, this will be a national phenomenon because people will recognize Texas is such a key piece” to changing the direction of the country, she said.

She told the Tribune that she has met with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — as did Hegar and West — and had “very, very positive discussions” with him and the Senate Democratic campaign arm. She suggested another heavyweight group, EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, is “very much looking at this and looking to get involved in this race.”

“I think they’re very, very excited to see Texas flip, and they’re going to spend resources” to make it happen, Edwards said of national Democrats’ interest in the race.

I imagine EMILY’s List is happy with these developments, though now they’ll either have to pick a favorite among the female candidates or wait till one of them (hopefully) wins and then get involved. As for Edwards, five million is a decent sum for the primary, but the target for November has to be a lot higher than that. John Cornyn is not going to be outraised like Ted Cruz was.

One more thing, from the Chron:

Though she began mulling a run for Senate months ago, Edwards waited to join the race until city council approved Houston’s budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Edwards serves as vice chair of the city budget committee and helmed several department budget workshops in chairman Dave Martin’s absence.

Edwards’ city campaign account had about $193,000 cash on hand through the end of June. She cannot transfer the money to her Senate campaign, though she may send unspent campaign funds back to donors and ask them to re-contribute.

That helps explain the timeline. With Edwards not running for re-election, the At Large #4 seat is now open, the eighth open seat on Council this election, joining Districts A, B, C, D (for now, at least), F, J, and At Large #5. The impact has already been felt in the field of candidates for AL4. There were four challengers at the start of the week – Christel Bastida, Tiko Reynolds-Hausman, Ericka McCrutcheon, and Jason Rowe – and now there are six, with Nick Hellyar moving over from District C and Letitia Plummer swapping out from AL5. Don’t be surprised if that field grows further, too. We live in exciting times. The DMN has more.

We’ll have a much better idea of who the candidates are soon

There are a lot of people filing to run for Congress as Democrats. It remains to be seen how many of them are viable.

Gina Ortiz Jones

Three times as many Democrats have already filed to run for Congress in Texas this year as in 2012 or 2016, yet another sign that Texas will be more of a battleground for the two major political parties in 2020.

With the elections still well over a year away, Democrats already have 66 candidates who have signed up to run in 30 different congressional districts. At this same point four years ago, Democrats had just 19 candidates ready to run in 16 of the state’s 36 congressional districts.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm statewide,” said Abhi Rahman, director of communications for the Texas Democratic Party.

The increase is a sign that fired-up Democrats want to take on President Donald Trump and his policies, and is a testament to the party’s success in 2018, when Democrats flipped two Congressional seats previously held by the GOP, picked up 12 seats in the Texas House and two in the Texas Senate. In addition, Beto O’Rourke came within 3 percentage points of defeating Republican powerhouse U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — the closest statewide race in Texas in decades.

[…]

It’s not just that Democrats flipped two congressional seats in 2018, but also how close they came to flipping a half dozen others in Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. Six Republican members of Congress won their elections in 2018 with 52 percent of the vote or less. Those six districts have become magnets for Democratic candidates, with 26 Democrats already filing official statements of candidacy to run with the Federal Election Commission.

Two San Antonio-area districts lead the way. In 2018, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, won his re-election in the 23rd Congressional District with 49 percent of the vote. And U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, won his seat with just 50.3 percent of the vote. Hurd already has four Democrats who have filed to challenge him, including his 2018 opponent Gina Ortiz Jones. Roy meanwhile has drawn three opponents.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, seven Democrats have filed to run in the 24th Congressional District, where Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, won his re-election with 50.7 percent of the vote. Similarly, near Austin, seven Democrats have filed to run in the 31st Congressional District where Republican John Carter won his re-election with 50.6 percent of the vote.

In Houston, U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul and Pete Olson won their districts with 51 percent of the vote. Three Democrats have filed to take on McCaul, and two to take on Olson.

It’s a little curious to me that they used 2012 and 2016 as a basis of comparison rather than 2018. We already know that 2012 and 2016 were not great years for Democratic Congressional campaign recruiting, while 2018 was off-the-charts good. I realize those were Presidential years, as 2020 is, but until further notice 2018 is the basis for all meaningful comparisons.

So as far as that goes, here’s my look at finance reports from Q1 of this year and Q2 of 2017. That doesn’t tell you how many people had filed – I mostly didn’t pay attention to the non-competitive districts, and there were plenty of fringey candidates I didn’t put much effort into – but it does tell you how many candidates of interest to me there were. The Q2 finance reports are still trickling in, so you’ll see an updated list of interesting candidates when the data is there. You can see some candidates’ names now, but until I see a finance report I don’t feel confident about who is a potential difference maker, and who is just taking up space. It’s good to know there are four contenders in CD31, for example, but I need to know more than that. Give it a week or so, and we’ll get that.

The field for Senate may keep growing

Another possible contender for the Democratic nomination for US Senate.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez

A group of progressive Democratic operatives is looking to draft one of the state’s top organizers of the Latino vote into running for U.S. Senate, a move that could further shake up Texas’ still-unsettled primary to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

The group is focused on Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the founder and executive director of Jolt, a nonprofit she started three years ago to mobilize young Latinos in Texas politics. She also is a co-founder of the Workers Defense Project, an older Austin-based group that fights for labor rights.

Tzintzún Ramirez is not publicly commenting on the Senate race. But among those encouraging her to run are Ginny Goldman, founding executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, and Zack Malitz, field director for Beto O’Rourke’s blockbuster U.S. Senate campaign last year, according to Democratic sources.

Tzintzún Ramirez’s fans see her as the right person at the right time — not unlike O’Rourke, a congressman who went from statewide obscurity to coming within 3 percentage points of the state’s junior GOP senator, Ted Cruz.

“I think she would be a very strong candidate,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston-based Democratic strategist who is not involved in the draft effort. “There are people that have the kind of background, life history, that fits the time in which we are. Those people tend to take off, and we saw that in Beto O’Rourke. … It was just the right timing and the right place to be. When I heard her name, I thought the same thing.”

Tzintzún Ramirez declined to comment for this story. However, people who have been in touch with her believe she is thinking about the race and has not ruled out a run.

The effort to recruit Tzintzún Ramirez underscores how the primary is still taking shape, even after MJ Hegar, the former U.S. House candidate, entered the race in mid-April and raised over $1 million. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston has since made clear he is running, and the field is likely to grow further in the coming weeks. State Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who is viewed as likely to run, has scheduled an announcement for July 22. And Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards is also moving closer to a campaign.

I don’t know any more about Tzintzún Ramirez than what is in this article, so I don’t have any particular reaction beyond “good luck” and “may the best candidate win”. As I’ve said before, I’m happy for there to be a competitive primary that will force the candidates to begin the process of engaging with the voters as early as possible. That’s going to require raising money, because there will be a lot of voters with which to engage.

It occurs to me that the serious candidates actually face two very different scenarios, because while the 2020 primary is likely to be a record-breaking affair, the inevitable runoff will be much, much smaller. How much? Well, the 2008 primary had 2,874,986 Presidential votes, and 1,951,295 votes cast in the three-way race for Railroad Commissioner. In the 2008 Democratic primary runoff, there were 187,708 votes cast for Railroad Commissioner. The 2020 Senate runoff will not drop off quite that much in turnout, as those candidates will have money, but still. Anyone in this contest needs to think about winning two races, with wildly varying conditions. Just a thought.

Anyway. Tzintzún Ramirez may well be an exciting candidate, but I’d like to hear the words that she’s considering the race come from her mouth before I get too invested in the possibility. I’m delighted people are seeing this as a good opportunity, now let’s see them turn that into action.

Does the partisan redistricting ruling change anything in Texas?

Maybe, but if so it will be indirect.

Robert Henneke, general counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the ruling was a clear sign that the high court wanted to discourage federal judges from micromanaging the redistricting process.

“I think it de-escalates the use of litigation as a way of seeking results that aren’t supported on election day,” Henneke said.

Chad Dunn, a lawyer who sued on behalf of the Democratic Party in Texas to block redistricting maps drawn earlier this decade, said he did not believe Thursday’s ruling would have a dramatic impact in the state.

Courts have cracked down on Texas-drawn maps every decade since the 1960s for violating the Voting Rights Act’s restrictions on diluting minority voting strength and gerrymandering along racial grounds, and those restrictions remain in place, Dunn said.

“I don’t think, really, anything changes,” he said. “Partisan gerrymandering (complaints) would have been another tool for voters to use in the courthouse.”

Renea Hicks, another lawyer who challenged the current set of Texas maps, wasn’t so sure.

Republicans who drew the most recent maps claimed they were using voters’ political affiliations to draw districts that helped one party succeed or benefited an incumbent, but Hicks said the reason could be used to mask a racial purpose, particularly because Latino and African American voters tend to favor Democrats.

“They can use partisanship to locate minorities, then draw lines,” he said. “Now they have even more to hide behind.”

I think Hicks has it right. Let’s not forget the previous ruling that found essentially no fault with the Texas legislative and Congressional maps despite the lower court rulings that they were racially discriminatory. SCOTUS accepted the fig leaf that the slightly tweaked 2013 maps, which were still 98% based on the discriminatory 2011 maps, absolved the state of all its sins. I don’t think the Republicans will have much to fear in 2021 if they have full control of the process. Heck, even if they have to defer to the Legislative Redistricting Board for the non-Congressional maps, I don’t think they’ll hold back. And remember, even if they do draw maps that somehow wind up being tossed, they’ll get multiple elections out of the bad maps before any consequences are enforced. The incentives point one hundred percent in the direction of maximal partisan advantage. The real questions are 1) How much more maximally can they draw districts now versus 2011, and 2) How much do the state’s changing demographics hold them back? There’s only one way to find out.

Royce West looks ready to announce

Mark your calendars.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West is one step closer to running against Republican incumbent Sen. John Cornym.

The Dallas Democrat has announced a news conference for July 22, where he’s widely expected to launch a campaign for Senate. The longtime state senator would join a Democratic Party primary that already includes former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar of Round Rock and former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston. And Houston council member Amanda Edwards is considering mounting a campaign as well.

[…]

West, 66, has hinted at a campaign against Cornyn for months, but has not officially gotten into the race.

He’ll make an announcement at 10 a.m., July 22 and Democratic Party headquarters in Dallas, according to a sign-up link on a website he’s developed for the occasion.

West has represented Texas Senate District 23 since 1993. He’s also a prominent Dallas attorney and one of the leading Democratic Party voices in the state.

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, the field now includes Chris Bell, with Amanda Edwards still on the periphery. I don’t know what if any timetable Edwards has beyond the late August filing deadline for Houston races, but I do know that another candidate for Edwards’ Council seat has emerged (*), so perhaps the consensus opinion is that this is about to be an open seat. My guess is that with West more or less formally in, we’ll hear something one way or the other from Edwards soon. But I’ve also been guessing that for awhile now, so take it with a sufficient quantity of salt.

(*) In the spirit of disclosure, AL #4 candidate Tiko Reynolds-Hausman is a friend of mine. I’ve served on two PTA boards with her, and her daughter and our elder daughter have been classmates and friends for years.

Ed Emmett is not a fan of SB2

So he opines.

Ed Emmett

At its core, SB 2 continues state leaders’ war against local governments. For years local governments have had to make up for the state’s underfunding of public education. But the state’s top elected officials, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, didn’t want the public to understand that those state budget decisions were the main reason property taxes were going up. So they criticized city and county policies.

In its final form, SB 2 limits revenue growth from property taxes for cities and counties to 3.5 percent annually. School districts are limited to 2.5 percent, although implementation for school districts is delayed for two years so that for now, the state won’t have to pay an even higher share.

The bill fails to recognize that Texas counties differ widely, so an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approach is bad policy for a county such as Harris, where almost 2 million people live in the unincorporated part of the county and so rely on county government to provide roads, flood control, parks and other infrastructure — as well as law enforcement.

To make matters worse, the state has saddled counties with unfunded mandates, particularly in criminal justice and courts. The bond rating agencies have already issued warnings that the legislation might cause Texas local governments’ credit ratings to be downgraded, which will increase the amount of interest that taxpayers pay.

So when county services or infrastructure lag behind growth, don’t blame county government. Blame the state officials who supported SB 2.

Beyond the impact on local governments, SB 2 is actually bad for homeowners because it keeps in place a complicated, convoluted property tax system. The big winners from the so-called property tax reform are property tax consultants and their clients.

It is not a coincidence that the author of SB 2, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, makes his living as a property tax consultant. Bettencourt even had the audacity to advertise his services on the radio during the legislative session while SB 2 was being considered.

Sick burn, y’all. There sure is a certain freedom in not having to run for re-election. Emmett is of course correct about the main purpose of SB2, but let’s not overlook the side benefit.

Another cure for partisan redistricting

From the Brennan Center, written before SCOTUS lit a match to judicial remedies for partisan redistricting, and even more relevant now.

Congressional redistricting is broken. In most states, districts are drawn by partisan lawmakers, and the manipulation of district boundaries for partisan or other discriminatory purposes is rife, with communities of color being amongst the hardest hit. While courts can provide a remedy, litigation is often slow and costly. This allows discriminatory maps to sometimes remain in place for years while court cases and the inevitable appeals run their course. But H.R. 1, the broad and historic democracy reform bill passed by the House in March, offers some smart, comprehensive ideas that would make the redistricting process fairer and more transparent.

This would of course require three things: Democratic control of the Presidency and both chambers of Congress, discarding the filibuster so Mitch McConnell can’t block it, and then hoping that SCOTUS doesn’t decide that, well, actually, Congress can’t do any of the things that HR1 enables. In that case, a little court-packing, or at least the sufficient threat of it, may do the trick. The first is within our power, the latter two may be as well. First things first, though.

A look at the Constitutional amendments we will see this November

There are ten of them, including a couple I will vote against as hard as I can.

House Joint Resolution 4 would let the Texas Water Development dole out dollars from a flood infrastructure fund — created by Senate Bill 7, which would spend $1.7 billion from the rainy day fund — to be used for planning, seeking permits for or constructing flood-related projects. SB 7 is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

If approved by voters, the flood infrastructure fund would be created at the start of next year.

HJR 34 would let the Legislature temporarily lower tax rates on property damaged during a disaster declared by the governor. House Bill 492 would set the initial tax exemption rates, up to a full exemption, according to the extent of the damage.

HJR 38 would ban the creation of a state income tax, doubling down on a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1993 that requires voters’ permission for the Legislature to create a state income tax.

[…]

HJR 95 creates a tax exemption for precious metals held in the Texas Bullion Depository, which opened in North Austin in June 2018 with its permanent location in Leander expected to open in December.

While that depository made Texas the only state to have a state-operated depository, HJR 95 author Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said it is at a competitive disadvantage because it is also the only state allowing local property taxes on precious metals.

HJR 72 intends to ease the pressure put on smaller communities to find municipal judges by allowing one person to be elected to multiple cities’ judgeships. Currently a person can only hold multiple municipal judgeships by being appointed to each one.

Senate Joint Resolution 32 would let police dogs and other law enforcement animals retire in their old age to live with their handler or other caretaker. The state constitution currently prevents law enforcement from transferring valuable property to a private person or organization for free.

The other four are HJR12, HJR151, SJR24, and SJR79, all of which are financial in nature. As you know, I’m going to cast an enthusiastic but almost certainly futile vote against HJ38, the double secret illegal anti-income tax proposition. HJR95 also looks ridiculous to me – the whole Texas Bullion Depository thing is ridiculous, so it comes with the territory, while HJR72 and SJR32 seem reasonable. The rest I’ll figure out later. The ballot wording should be set in August. What do you think about these?

Bell says he’s in for Senate

We have a competitive primary now.

Chris Bell

Former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell is running for the Democratic nomination for Senate, joining what could be a crowded field of candidates looking to oust incumbent Republican John Cornyn.

Bell on Tuesday filed a fundraising committee with the Federal Elections Committee, signaling that he’s off and running in what will be Texas’ marquee race in 2020.

“I’m definitely running, but I won’t make an official announcement until later,” Bell told The Dallas Morning News. “This allows me to raise money.”

The Houston Democrat was trying to haul in cash through an exploratory committee, which can be a non-starter for some political donors who want to know if a candidate is serious about a campaign.

He’ll join former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar in the Democratic field. State Sen. Royce West of Dallas and Houston council member Amanda Edwards are considering jumping into the race.

Edwards would have to resign her seat on the council to run, while West, re-elected last year, can run from his perch in the Texas Senate.

See here for the background. That’s actually not true about Amanda Edwards. She would presumably have to not run for re-election to Council this November if she wants to run for Senate, but she won’t have to quit her seat if she announces. I’ve heard conflicting things about her intentions, and I’ve heard that Royce West is all in. With the June fundraising deadline passed, so the pressure is back down to normal for reporting totals, I figure we’ll start hearing yeses or noes from these folks soon.

As for Bell, he’d been fundraising – I’ve gotten some of his emails – but being committed is a far better way to get the cash than being curious. He’ll need to set a date for his official announcement, and start getting out there to meet folks. I wish him luck. The Trib and the Chron have more.

The real goal of SB2

Let’s take a look at the quotes from the supporters of SB2, the new law that will impose revenue caps on all Texas cities, to see what they say about it.

“They’re going to have to start looking at spending this money like it was their own and not somebody else’s money,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “And they’re going to have to look at priorities.”

[…]

But Ellen Troxclair, senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Austin City Council Member, said those dire warnings imply a city has no control over its spending.

The reason this bill was one of legislators’ top priorities this year, Troxclair said, is because Texans are frustrated by rising taxes, and if it forces cities to rethink their spending, that’s a positive.

“The bottom line of SB 2 is it brings the rate at which cities are spending money more in line with the people’s ability to pay,” Troxclair said. “I hope that what the cities do is hear the pleas from citizens who elected them to make more responsible decisions when it comes to spending.”

Troxclair added that the bill doesn’t stop cities from going to taxpayers and asking to raise their taxes above 3.5 percent if officials deem it necessary.

[…]

Austin and San Antonio, which both have the highest credit rating of AAA, are also concerned that the caps will have an effect on their ability to borrow. The nation’s three major credit rating agencies have warned that the caps could have a negative impact.

Bettencourt and Troxclair, however, dismissed those concerns, saying that as long as cities are being fiscally responsible, credit rating agencies will have no reason to dock their scores. Bettencourt added that SB 2 doesn’t affect the debt portion of the tax rate, which are set by bond elections.

SB2 was sold as a way of reining in property taxes, to provide savings to homeowners. (Renters are on their own, the Republicans don’t care about them.) But no honest broker actually believes there will be any real savings. Literally no one is going to review their household expenses at the end of a year and say “thank goodness for that revenue cap, it saved us so much money”. Just look at the Houston experience, in which the typical reduction in taxes is less than $100 per year, while the city has been starved of revenue. The whole point of this exercise to to constrain cities’ ability to prioritize its spending needs, because with a revenue cap property tax reduction, no matter how trivial, always comes first. Paul Bettencourt and his cronies want cities to spend less. If that means laying off employees, if it means deferring maintenance and repairs, if it means not offering new services to meet the needs of a changing and growing population, that’s too bad. Or not bad at all, from his perspective, because what does he care about any of that? He wants government at all levels to spend less – more specifically, to spend less on things he doesn’t like – and SB2 will help accomplish that goal. Mission accomplished.

Lawsuit planned over cable franchise fee bill

I sure hope Houston gets involved in this.

Fort Worth and cities across Texas stand to lose millions of dollars due to a new law that slashes fees telecom providers pay to them. But before the savings go into effect next year, it’s likely cities will challenge the legislation in the courts.

The bill, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month, would slash right-of-way fees telecom providers pay cities to supply cable and phone service. For years, companies paid cities two separate fees to run phone and cable TV lines in right-of-ways — even when delivered over the same line. The bill changes that practice, and allows providers to only pay the higher of the two fees.

Supporters of the bill, like Walt Baum, the president of the Texas Cable Association, said it’s necessary to end an “outdated double tax” on companies. But Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said he thinks the legislation violates sections of the Texas Constitution.

“The use of public land is a privilege, not a right,” Sandlin said. “They could certainly decide to run those wires through people’s backyards, but they would pay a lot more. They have to pay for that rental of public space.“

Fort Worth estimates a little over $4 million will be lost in revenue due to the law, according to a presentation given to the Fort Worth City Council outlining the legislative session’s impact. And in some cities, those losses are more than six times that, with Houston pinning its potential losses at up to $27 million.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, authored Senate Bill 1152 and chairs the Senate Business and Commerce committee. Since 2006, telecom providers — some who stand to potentially cut costs due to Hancock’s bill — have contributed over $150,000 to Hancock’s campaign, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics.

“I don’t know who saves millions more than the constituents that I work for,” Hancock said about providers paying less.

This wouldn’t be the first time one of Hancock’s bills spurred a lawsuit.

In 2017, a group of over 30 cities filed a lawsuit against the state alleging that a bill authored by Hancock violated articles of the Texas Constitution that prohibit the legislature from directing local municipalities to make gifts or grants to a corporation. The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court, is ongoing, and Kevin Pagan, McAllen’s city attorney, said he believes the newly signed legislation violates the same tenets.

Pagan said the new bill wrongly requires cities to make a gift to private companies by allowing providers to use the right-of-way at a lesser charge.

The telecom providers are, “already in the right-of-way. You’re already using our facilities. You’ve already agreed to pay us a franchise fee. And now under this law, you’re just going to stop paying,” Pagan said. “It’s a gift from the state legislature back to those companies.”

See here for the background. I have no idea what the odds of success are for this lawsuit, but as I said up front I sure hope the city of Houston signs on as a co-plaintiff, because we’re definitely taking it in the shorts from this bill. As for the claims from the cable lobbyist that this bill will lead to lower costs for cable subscribers, well, if you think that will happen I’ve got a nice beach house in Abilene to sell you.

The battle for the Lege is gonna be lit

Fasten your seat belts.

While the Texas Senate appears safe for Republicans, Clinton’s comments underscored the emphasis that some Democrats — both in Texas and outside it — are already putting on the fight for the majority in the state House, where their party is nine seats away from control of the chamber. Views vary on just how within reach the majority is for Democrats, but few disagree that 2020 will be a frenzied cycle for House races as Democrats work to protect — and potentially build on — their recent gains. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to take back seats and head off the worst-case scenario: a Democratic-led House heading into the 2021 redistricting process.

The early contours of the fight are taking shape in the wake of a legislative session that saw Republicans largely eschew divisive social issues for a bread-and-butter agenda following a humbling election cycle in which they lost a dozen seats in the lower chamber. There is also a new speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, who appears intent on keeping the GOP in power by minimizing the kind of internecine conflict that has previously bedeviled the party.

“Everything is focused on redistricting,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at a recent tea party meeting as he fielded questions about the demise of some controversial legislation this session. “There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House … going into redistricting because if you look at the nation — we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there’s no other place to go.”

[…]

As Republicans have sought to get their own in order for 2020, state and national Democrats have been drawing up preliminary battle plans to take the House. Their path runs through a group of 18 districts — 17 where Republicans won by single digits last year as well as House District 32. That’s where Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, ran unopposed while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won by just 5 points.

Of course, Democrats have to simultaneously defend the 12 seats they picked up last year, some of which have already drawn serious GOP opposition.

The path is “tough but possible to flip the chamber,” said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “We feel like there are enough potential targets out there that nine is doable, but it is gonna take a lot of work and resources.”

The NDRC spent $560,000 in Texas last cycle, and Rodenbush called Texas “one of our top priorities for 2020.” It recently hired an Austin-based Democratic consultant, Genevieve Van Cleve, to oversee its advocacy and political efforts here as Texas state director.

Other national groups are zeroing in on Texas this cycle as a state House battleground. They include the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Forward Majority, a super PAC that injected $2.2 million into Texas House races in the closing days of the 2018 election.

The state Democratic Party is expanding its campaign and candidate services as part of what will ultimately be a seven-figure effort in House races. Over the past weekend in Austin, the party held a training for 55 people to become campaign managers in state House races.

[…]

Abbott’s political operation plans to go after Democratic freshmen, as do well-funded organizations such as the Associated Republicans of Texas.

“ART is focused on candidate recruitment earlier than ever this cycle,” ART’s president, Jamie McWright, said in a statement. “We are identifying qualified, knowledgeable candidates who are willing to tackle the state’s biggest issues in order to win back the seats Republicans lost in 2018.”

Republicans are particularly focused on the seven seats they lost last cycle that Abbott carried.

You can see the potential targets here. There’s really only one competitive seat in the Senate this cycle, and that’s SD19, which Dems ought to be able to win back. On the House side, the top GOP targets based on the given criteria are going to be HDs 45, 47, 52, 65, 114, 132, and 135. I’ll be surprised if they don’t expand their list beyond that, but those are the seats I’d go after first if I were them. On the Dem side, there are the nine seats Beto carried but that Republicans won, plus however many others where he came close. It’s very likely that a seat no one is worried too much about becomes more competitive than expected, thanks to changing conditions and candidate quality and other unforeseen factors. So far, no one other than Mayor-elect Eric Johnson has announced a departure, which is unusual; normally at this point in time we’ve had a couple of people say they’re not running again. Open seats are more likely to be a problem for Republicans than they will be for Democrats, but Dems don’t want to have to play defense when there are gains to be made.

At this point, the name of the game is one part candidate recruitment and one part raising money, which will be the job of the various PACs until the candidates get settled. In Harris County, we have two good candidates each for the main targets: Akilah Bacy and Josh Wallenstein (who ran for HCDE in 2018 and was the runnerup in the primary to Richard Cantu) in HD138, and Ann Johnson and Ruby Powers in HD134. In Fort Bend, Sarah DeMerchant appears to be running again in HD26, while Eliz Markowitz (candidate for SBOE7 in 2018) is aiming for HD28. We still need (or I need to do a better job searching for) candidates in HDs 29, 85, and 126, for starters. If you’re in one of those competitive Republican-held State Rep districts, find out who is or may be running for the Dems. If you’re in one of those targeted-by-the-GOP districts, be sure to help out your incumbent. Kelly Hancock is absolutely right: This is super-duper important.

Royce again

The “Royce West for Senate” thing is officially a thing.

Sen. Royce West

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, met this week with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as he nears a decision on whether to run for U.S. Senate — a decision that West now says will come sometime next month.

West had a positive meeting with Schumer and staff at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a Democratic source familiar with the meeting said. West, the source added, signaled that he is likely to run.

Asked for comment Friday, West said in a text message, “I’ll make a decision whether to run next month.”

West has been viewed as a potential candidate for months but has not said much publicly about his deliberations over whether to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. If West enters the U.S. Senate race, he would have to contend with a Democratic field that already includes MJ Hegar, the former U.S. House candidate. Schumer met with Hegar in March.

See here for the background. As it happens, this story appeared on the same day that I received another fundraising email from the Chris Bell exploratory campaign; I wonder if Bell has met with Chuck Schumer. I’ll say this much: If Royce West is our nominee in 2020, I will be happy to vote for him and to advocate for him. I’m going to need to be convinced to vote for him over MJ Hegar in the primary, because right now she’d still be my preference. I doubt polling will tell us anything about who might have a better chance of winning next year, as I doubt either West or Hegar has enough name ID to be more than a generic Democrat in a horserace question. Hegar is the more exciting candidate, but that’s not enough to project a significant difference at this time. We’ll see what he – and Chris Bell, and Amanda Edwards, and anyone else who might be lurking out there – decides to do.

The lamentations of Big John

You guys, he may finally lose a race. I’m serious!

Big John Cornyn

There is no ghostwritten Cornyn memoir. His ego does not seem to live and die on how many times he appears on Sunday morning talk shows. And he’s never launched a presidential bid, exploratory campaign or even a vice presidential lobbying effort.

“I haven’t run for president,” he said. “My wife told me if I decided to run for president, I needed to get a new wife. And I’ve been married 39 years, and I’m not going to go down that path.”

It is that understated quality — what some observers describe as “boring,” “vanilla” and “not Ted Cruz” — that lends so much uncertainty to his 2020 reelection campaign.

But Cornyn’s calmness may also prove to be his greatest asset amid potential Texas political tumult. He is the de facto leader of state Republicans this cycle, with his name set to appear on the 2020 ballot below only the presidential contest.

And from this perch, Cornyn, despite his usually steady manner, is cranking the alarm as loudly as he can to his fellow Texas Republicans.

“We are, I think, no longer the reliably red state we have been,” he said. “We are at risk of turning purple. And if we don’t do our job, then we could turn blue in the coming years. “

Some of the most respected minds in Texas politics agree.

“He’s unbeatable in a regular year, but this is not a regular year,” said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist who ran Cornyn’s first statewide race in 1990. “A presidential year like this one changes the outlook. Otherwise, he’s unbeatable in the state of Texas.”

Now, thanks to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s near-ouster of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s midterm elections, Texas Democrats smell blood. An endless stream of Democrats across the state spent the winter and spring floating their own names to run against Cornyn. At this point, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar is the most prominent Democrat to officially enter the fray.

Cornyn is the first to agree that the ground is moving.

“Everything’s changed [since 2014],” Cornyn said. “I think 2018 woke up everybody on the Republican side to the fact that we not only need to be competitive in the primaries, but we need to talk to broader general election voters, too.”

There’s not really anything new in this story, which is mostly about how steadfast and unexciting the big lug is. News flash, John Cornyn is not Ted Cruz, both in his boring style and his more substantive manner, as has had passed actual legislation of consequence in his time in office. Some of it has even been bipartisan. He goes into 2020 a favorite for re-election (with, obviously, an awful lot of things still to happen that can and will affect that outlook) but not a lock. Honestly, I think he’s more at the mercy of Donald Trump and the voters he will inspire to go to the polls than anyone wants to admit. It occurs to me that if he does lose, there will be a bit of an echo of the 2006 Senate race in Rhode Island, in which longterm and generally well-liked incumbent Lincoln Chaffee, one of the last liberal Northeastern Republicans standing, was ousted by an electorate that liked him personally but wanted to send a message to then-President George W. Bush, whom they did not like. Other than being a multi-term Republican incumbent Senator, Cornyn isn’t anything like Chaffee, but it’s hard for me to imaging him losing in a world with anything but a deeply unpopular Republican President. I mean hell, he might not be seriously challenged in such a world. But here we are, and say what you want about the guy, he recognizes the peril he’s in. It’s just that there’s only so much he can do about it.

Will Ken Paxton ever be prosecuted?

At this point, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely.

Best mugshot ever

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.

See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.

At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.

Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.

The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.

That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.

That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.

Ten Best and Ten Worst 2019

Here’s that famous biennial list from Texas Monthly.

The Best

  • House Speaker Dennis Bonnen
  • Representative Joe Moody
  • Representative James White
  • Representative Donna Howard
  • Representative Dade Phelan
  • Representative Victoria Neave
  • Senator Kirk Watson
  • Representative Tom Oliverson

The Worst

  • Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick
  • Representative Tom Craddick
  • Senator Bryan Hughes
  • Representative Poncho Nevárez
  • Senator Angela Paxton
  • Representative Jeff Leach
  • Senator John Whitmire
  • Senator Brandon Creighton

Special Awards

  • Most Improved: Governor Greg Abbott
  • Cockroach: Representative Jonathan Stickland
  • Freshman of the Year: Representative Julie Johnson
  • Bull of the Brazos: Senator Paul Bettencourt
  • Furniture

Click over to read the stories. Many of these had me nodding my head, others had me saying “huh, I hadn’t realized that”. None of them stood out as egregiously wrong based on the reasons cited, which has not always been the case. Anyway, read and enjoy, and as always consult with Harold Cook for the proper way to respond.

What about Royce?

Gromer Jeffers examines the question of whether State Sen. Royce West will jump into the Democratic primary for US Senate in 2020.

Sen. Royce West

For several months, there’s been speculation that Democrats, against the wishes of some party leaders and donors, will have a competitive contest for the party’s Senate nomination.

Former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston, the Democratic Party’s 2006 nominee for governor, is considering running. Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards is also contemplating a campaign, according to numerous Democrats.

Three mostly lesser-known Democrats are already running: Michael Cooper, Sema Hernandez and Adrian Ocegueda.

But the most intriguing potential candidate is state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who has contemplated statewide campaigns before. He’s now weighing running for his party’s Senate nomination.

West has not spoken publicly about his plans and has shrugged off questions about the timing of his decision. But he’s been making the rounds in party circles, getting pledges from colleagues in the Legislature and testing whether he can raise the money needed not only to get past [[MJ] Hegar, but also beat Cornyn.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said West and Edwards would be formidable opponents for Hegar because they have strong Democratic vote bases in Dallas and Houston. Jones added that West is more of a centrist, which would help him against Cornyn.

The prospect of a contested Senate primary signals that Democrats are entering a new era in Texas politics. They don’t have to find sacrificial lambs to fill out candidate slates.

“We’re at a point where a credible Democrat may not want to give Hegar a free ride,” Jones said.

There are several reasons this may be the year West takes the plunge. It’s kind of now or never. At age 66, his window for a Washington career is closing. And the changing face of Texas means voters could prefer other emerging politicians in future election cycles. West wouldn’t have to give up much to make the run. He was re-elected last year and won’t be up again until 2022, so he wouldn’t have to surrender his Texas Senate seat. In politics, there’s nothing more sought after than a free look at a campaign for higher office. All that would be at stake is pride.

The longtime Texas lawmaker would also come into the Democratic Party contest with the ability to win — and win big — in North Texas. No other candidate can boast such a launching pad. And he’ll be strong in other parts of the state, particularly where black voters are influential, such as Houston and East Texas. West’s challenge would be garnering support where he’s not well-known, which is most of the state. And he’ll have to prove that he can raise tens of millions of dollars, while captivating the fancy of Texas voters.

Hegar is out there campaigning now – she was just in Houston, at an event I was unable to make. Bell has put out some fundraising emails – I got one in my inbox a few days ago. I have no idea what Amanda Edwards is doing, but like Bell she has not said anything formal. As for West, he’s a good State Senator and he’d for sure start out with a sizable base in a Democratic primary. I’ll be honest, I’d be more excited about him if he’d been the first one to jump in, or if he’d run for Governor or Lt. Governor in 2018. But as I’ve said before, I’m happy for there to be a competitive primary. We need to make sure candidates are out there campaigning hard now, not later on once they’ve won the nomination. An awful lot of people are going to vote in the Dem primary in March, so no one who wants to pursue the nomination can sit around and hope for the best. Whatever Royce West – or Chris Bell, or Amanda Edwards, or anyone else – is thinking about doing, my advice would be to think fast.

How good a stepping stone is Mayor of Dallas?

Stephen Young notes that being Mayor of Dallas has not been particularly helpful to others’ ambitions.

Rep. Eric Johnson

If he’s anything, Dallas mayor-elect Eric Johnson is an ambitious guy. He’s got degrees from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, and took his seat in the Texas House of Representatives before turning 40. In the legislature, he’s sought out high-profile fights, sparring over things like criminal justice reform, gentrification and corruption in municipal politics. The resume that Johnson’s put together is almost too perfect for someone who aspires to hold higher state or federal office.

That’s what makes his current position so interesting. Saturday night, Johnson won the keys to one of the most useless big-deal jobs in the United States. Dallas’ mayor is, essentially, just an at-large member of the City Council. He or she gets to run the council’s meetings and can place an item on the council agenda if he or she wishes to do so, but the city manager draws up the city’s budget and has all the real power. Johnson has long been at the top of the list whenever people talk about potential replacements for longtime Dallas U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, but one has to wonder if that’s changed, given the mayor’s office’s challenges and history.

To find a former Dallas mayor who sought and won higher office after leaving city hall, one has to look at the way back to Earle Cabell, who resigned as mayor in February 1964 to run for Congress against incumbent Republican Bruce Alger. Since Cabell’s successful campaign, former mayors Wes Wise, Ron Kirk and Tom Leppert have all run unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. House or Senate. Laura Miller, Kirk’s successor, couldn’t even win a Dallas City Council race 12 years after leaving office, getting trounced by incumbent Jennifer Staubach Gates in May.

I noted when Mayor-elect Johnson won the runoff that he was a politician with ambitions. Does this mean those ambitions are doomed? I don’t think so. I can’t speak to Wes Wise’s experience, but Ron Kirk ran for Senate as a Democrat in 2002, while Tom Leppert joined a primary that already had David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz. I wouldn’t extrapolate much from that.

I’d say three things will matter. One, does a good opportunity come along at a good time? I’d suggested Johnson might want to run statewide, but Young notes he has had his eye on Rep. Eddie Berniece Johnson’s CD30 seat. Maybe the timing will work for one of those options, and maybe it won’t. Two, does he build up his fundraising network enough to be a force in a more expensive race? And three, does he does a good enough job to make him look like an appealing candidate for whatever comes next? It’s not rocket science. This is one of those times where past history isn’t a great guide, but the basic fundamentals still apply.

Our vaccine exception rates keep going up

A small change to the law in 2003 has had a big effect over time.

As measles cases hit a 25-year high in the United States, Texas medical experts fear the state could see the next outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease. Texas has reported 15 confirmed cases of measles so far in 2019, six more than in all of 2018.

Health officials are watching pockets of Texas closely because of the number of parents requesting exemptions under Texas’s broad vaccine exemption law. Texas is one of 16 states that allow parents to bypass vaccine requirements for enrolling their kids in school by claiming a conscientious exemption, along with citing medical or religious concerns. Just last month, Washington ended conscientious exemptions on the heels of a large measles outbreak with over 70 reported cases. Three states — California, West Virginia and Mississippi — only allow medical exemptions.

Texas’ exemption law used to be stricter. In 2003, a state senator proposed loosening restrictions via a three-page amendment to a 311-page bill. After five minutes of discussion, the amendment was approved. The bill was soon signed into law. Sixteen years later, former state Sen. Craig Estes said the change to Texas’ vaccine laws that he helped enact should be reviewed in the current public health climate.

“Obviously we didn’t ever imagine what would happen,” Estes, a Republican from Prosper, told The Texas Tribune. “With what’s happened recently, I would encourage the legislature in the future to revisit that issue and debate it.”

The speedy way in which the Texas Legislature weakened the state’s vaccine exemption rules suggests that, like Estes, few in office at the time thought it would put Texas at risk for future outbreaks. However, while experts suggest Texas is now vulnerable, efforts to change the exemption law have been dead on arrival in the Capitol.

“There will be a terrible measles epidemic in Texas, and children will be hospitalized in intensive care units, just like they are in New York right now,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said last month. “That will wake up the state Legislature to realize that there’s a problem and close those exemptions.”

Kindergarteners must have 10 immunizations to be enrolled in Texas schools. Since 2006, when the state first started reporting the data, the exemption rate for kindergarteners in Texas has risen from 0.3% for the 2005-06 school year to 2.15% for the 2018-19 school year.

In Texas, school districts, private schools and charter schools are required to report their vaccine exemption rates per vaccine. The data collection is done through a survey administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services, but some schools don’t report consistently, leaving gaps in the data.

The data shows certain communities — like the Dallas Independent School District — have seen a recent spike in conscientious exemptions for kindergarteners. Others — like El Paso ISD — have seen exemptions recently plummet. Some smaller private schools, meanwhile, have exemption rates that are significantly higher than those of other schools. The Austin Waldorf School had the highest vaccine exemption rate for the 2018-19 school year, at 52.9%. Alliance Christian Academy had the second-highest rate at 40.6%.

When enough of a community is immunized against a disease, that group has what’s known as herd immunity, meaning there is a low risk of a disease spreading. Vaccine-preventable disease have different herd immunity thresholds. Measles, which is highly contagious, has a high herd immunity threshold of 95%. According to a state report for the 2018-19 school year, Texas kindergarteners statewide had coverage levels higher than 95% for all required vaccines. Yet the data from individual school districts and private schools suggests that some communities may fall short of meeting that threshold for some vaccines.

The fact that a Waldorf school is atop this list shows the problem is very much bipartisan, though the main anti-vax legislators these days are all Republicans. I’ve repeated this a million times, but the only way to improve things is to throw those anti-vax legislators out of office. Next year is a great opportunity to do that as three of them – Jonathan Stickland, Bill Zedler, and Matt Krause – all had close elections in 2018. The rest is up to us. Now go read the rest of the story for the history of how we got to this point.

A starter agenda for when we have a Democratic state government

I’ve been pondering the recent legislative session, which as we have discussed wasn’t great but also wasn’t nearly as bad as some other recent sessions have been. The qualification for all this is that the key defining factor for our legislative sessions is defense. How well did we do preventing bad bills from becoming law? Oh, there are occasional good bills, on things like criminal justice reform and medical marijuana and the injection of money into public education this session, which should be good until the lack of a funding mechanism becomes an issue. But actually moving the ball forward, on a whole host of items, is a non-starter.

That’s not a surprise, with Republicans in control of all aspects of state government. But Dems picked up 12 seats in the House and two in the Senate, and came close in several statewide races in 2018. There’s a decent chance that Dems can win the House in 2020, and I have to believe we’ll have a stronger candidate for Governor in 2022. The Senate remains a challenge, but after the 2021 redistricting happens, who knows what the landscape may look like. Dems need to aim for the House in 2020, and have a goal of winning statewide in 2022. It won’t be easy, and the national landscape is a huge variable, but we know we’re moving in the right direction, and if not now then when?

And if these are our goals, and we believe we have a reasonable chance at achieving them, then we need to talk about what we want to accomplish with them. It’s a cliche that our legislature is designed to kill bills and not to pass them, but having a unified, overarching agenda – which, let’s not forget, can get a boost by being declared “emergency items” by the Governor – can help overcome that.

So towards that end, I hereby propose a starting point for such an agenda. Moving the ball forward is the ultimate aim, but I believe we have to first move the ball back to where it was before Republicans assumed full control of the government in 2003 in order to really do that. That’s the idea behind this list, which I want to stress is a starting point and very much open to discussion. There are a lot of things a Democratic government will need to do, from health care to voting rights to equality to the environment to climate change and so much more, but we can’t overlook fixing the bad things first.

My list, therefore, covers bills passed since 2003 when Republicans took over. I am skipping over constitutional amendments like the 2003 tort “reform” item, because they will require a supermajority to pass, which we surely will not have. I’m aiming for simplicity, in that these are easy to understand and rally around, and for impact. So without further ado, here are my ideas:

1. Repeal voter ID.
2. Repeal “sanctuary cities”.
3. Repeal anti-Planned Parenthood legislation, from prohibitions on PP receiving Medicaid to this session’s ban on cities partnering with PP on anything, and restore the previously used Women’s Health Program.

Like I said, simple and straightforward, with a lot of impact. The first two are obvious and should have unanimous Democratic support. The third is more of a challenge because even with a Democratic majority in the Senate, we won’t necessarily have a pro-choice majority. Eddie Lucio, and to a somewhat lesser degree Judith Zaffirini, are both opponents of reproductive rights, though Zaffirini is more nuanced than Lucio and ought to be gettable on this kind of bill via an appeal to health care access.

As I said, this is a starting point. There are things I have deliberately left off this list, though I am not by any means discounting or overlooking them. The “Save Chick-fil-A” bill from this session, whose real life effect is not yet known, needs to go but might be better handled as part of a statewide non-discrimination law. (Also, too, there’s the Eddie Lucio problem in the Senate.) Campus carry and open carry are terrible laws, but might be better handled via comprehensive gun control legislation. Tuition deregulation, a big cause of skyrocketing college costs at public universities, which was passed in 2003 as one of many cut-the-budget effort over the years, will be a more complex issue that may require time to study before a consensus solution can be brought forward. All these things and more need to be on the agenda, but some things are more involved than others.

Again, this is a starting point. I make no claim that this is a be-all or end-all. Hell, I make no claim that I’m not forgetting anything equally simple and substantive. I welcome all constructive feedback. Ultimately, what I want out of this is for Dems to recognize the need to decide what our priorities are before we get handed the power to affect them, and to make it part of the case we will be making to the voters to give us that power. I believe having some uniformity to our message will help us. Now it’s up to us to figure out what that message needs to be.

Republicans are worried about Texas, part 583

When was the last time you head about a Republican-oriented mass voter registration effort?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Wealthy Republican donors are preparing a multimillion-dollar effort to register more than 1 million new GOP voters in Texas for 2020 amid anxiety that President Trump could be in more trouble in this reliably red state than some in the party realize.

Richard Weekley, a Houston real estate developer and veteran Republican campaign contributor, is spearheading the new group, dubbed Engage Texas. According to GOP sources, the organization was set up as a 501(c)4, political nonprofit organization and plans to raise and spend $25 million by Election Day next year.

Engage Texas has garnered the support of top Republicans in the state and appears to have the support of party insiders in Washington. They believe the group could be critical to compensating for demographic trends that favor the Democrats — and to holding Texas for Trump and GOP Sen. John Cornyn.

“In 2018, we got hammered not only in the urban areas but in the suburbs, too,” Cornyn, 67, told the Washington Examiner. The third-term senator, who has sounded the alarm about the dangers of taking Texas for granted, described with a sense of relief the “substantial focus and investment, now, that will be made on voter registration.”

[…]

Some Republicans have attributed the outcome last fall, in which the GOP also suffered losses in state legislative races, to Cruz’s unpopularity and the resources invested by O’Rourke and his allies, a feat Democrats are unlikely to repeat in a national presidential contest. Senior Republican strategists in Texas are warning against that line of thinking.

“Everybody thinks it was a Cruz-Beto thing. But it’s a mess,” a GOP adviser said, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly. “Independents are behaving like Democrats — like they did in 2018.”

I wonder if they’ll come to regret supporting politicians who are dedicated to making it hard to register voters. Sure would be nice if y’all could do this electronically, am I right? We should keep an eye on this, but someone with more knowledge of the demography of not-registered voting-age citizens will have to answer the question of whether there are enough likely Republicans (i.e., white people) out there for this to be worth the effort. Link via Political Animal.

Checking in on the national political atmosphere

From the inbox, via G. Elliott Morris’ weekly email blast:

Are Democrats doing as well as they were in 2017-2018?

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, but that’s what special elections and the generic ballot are for. These numbers point to stability in the pro-Democratic political environment.

The 2017 Women’s March was one of the largest mass-mobilizations in American history. It was estimated that as many as 5.6 million people marched nationwide in a show of solidarity with women and resistance to then-newly-inaugurated President Trump. That type of mobilization is hard to sustain, though, and it ~anecdotally~ seems like enthusiasm among Democrats has faltered. Matt Grossman, a political scientist, presented this take on Twitter:


Data on public opinion show a similar story, with a few notable exceptions.

The first datum from 2019 that we can compare to last year’s figures is Democrats’ margin in generic congressional ballot polling. A reminder: This is the survey question that asks voters how they would cast their ballot in the election for their congressional representative “if it were held today”. In November 2019, the average poll put Democrats up about 8.7 percentage points. That number ended up being almost perfectly predictive; nationwide, Democrats won the House popular vote by 8.6.

This year, Democrats are hitting a similar benchmark. Though the absolute level of support for their party has waned—this is due to the tendency for voters to drift toward the “not sure” option after an election—so too has the level of support for Republicans, so Democrats’ margin remains at roughly 9 points. Here are the crosstabs from The Economist’s latest polling from YouGov.

Note the pro-Democratic lean of every age group besides 65+ year-olds, and the only slightly-bad 2-point deficit among Males.

Democrats’ margin on the generic ballot is the first point in support of the hypothesis that the national mood is about as liberal and pro-Democratic as it was in the run-up to the 2018 midterms.

The second datum I’d like to consider is Democrats’ performance in special elections. If you recall, the swing from Democrats’ lagged presidential performance in state and federal legislative districts to their off-year margin in special elections in those same districts has historically been highly predictive of the party’s eventual House popular vote. Tracking these special elections from November 2016 to 2018, Daily Kos Elections found that Democratic candidates were running ahead of Hillary Clinton by about 11 percentage points. What is that number for special elections that have occurred since November 2018, you ask? A 7 percentage point swing to Democrats. That’s high, but not *as* high, as last year. This suggests a modest shift back toward the political equilibrium—or, if I may, a reversion to the political mean.

Note the just 2-point swing from Obama’s 2012 margin in those districts. Interesting. Will 2020 look more like 2012 than 2016? That, my friends, is the million-dollar question.

Combined, these data—a lack of comparable mass mobilization, the generic ballot, and leftward swings in special elections—indicate that the Democratic Party is performing slightly below their high-water mark in 2018. Of course, given how well they did last time, this slight decline still puts Democrats’ margin high enough to win the House of Representatives again in 2020. Further, given the high correlation between presidential and congressional vote choice, this also suggests a poor showing for President Trump in November. But my mission here is not to predict what will happen 18 months from now. Instead, it’s to point out the stability in America’s political environment. The Caribbean-blue waters from the wave that washed Democrats to a House majority last year appear to have yet to recede.

I don’t have any grand point to make here, I just wanted to note this for the record. From where I sit, there’s plenty of candidate energy, not just for Congress but also for the Lege and the SBOE. There’s still a lot of engagement, not at 2017 levels but the baseline is higher. People are more experienced now, they’ve learned from the 2018 cycle, and they have their sights on bigger goals. The city races this fall, especially the Mayor’s race, is going to put some strain on everyone, but with primary season following that almost immediately, I figure we’ll get back on track. As always, this is one data point, a snapshot in time as we move forward. Things will change, and I’ll check in on the way they look and feel as we go. For now at least, the data says that Dems are in roughly the same place they were during the 2018 cycle. That’s a fine place to start out.

In which I plead for a boon from national writers

Dear national political writers:

MJ Hegar

The former Texas congressman and one-time Senate hopeful has attended at least 67 Iowa town halls, driven nearly 3,000 miles across the state, and hired dozens of staffers there. He’s tall, white, charismatic, and handsome—traits that should serve him well in the famously monochromatic Hawkeye State.

And yet, in the latest Des Moines Register poll, O’Rourke only has 2 percent support. He’s also not faring much better in national polling, where he hovers around 3-4 percent, and his numbers have sharply declined since an early and splashy entry into the race.

Perhaps worst for O’Rourke is that his strategic persona—youthful, well-spoken, vaguely left-liberal, smart yet inoffensive—is being done better and more effectively by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has surged to a top-five position in the race. Nor does O’Rourke’s presence in the campaign, unlike other candidates like Washington Governor Jay Inslee, serve to highlight issues that would make his candidacy worth the effort even in defeat.

Fortunately for O’Rourke and for Democrats, there is another useful path for him, one that would serve the country far better: making another run for the U.S. Senate against Republican John Cornyn. The filing deadlineisn’t until December 9, which gives him plenty of time to reconsider. And a large number of Texas Democrats would like to see him come back home to do it.

Please, for the love of Molly Ivins, if you must opine about how Beto shoulda run for Senate, could you at least acknowledge, even in passing, that there’s already a strong and exciting Democratic candidate in the race? Like Beto, MJ Hegar raised a ton of money in 2018. Like Beto, MJ Hegar was a viral sensation who drew a lot of favorable press during her campaign. Like Beto, Hegar came very close (within two points in Beto’s case, within three points in MJ’s) of knocking off a Republican incumbent in a race that was originally on no one’s radar. Indeed, MJ Hegar arguably had the more impressive performance, as Trump carried CD31 by 12.5 points while winning statewide by only 9 points. Any way you look at it, Hegar is at least as well positioned to do well at this point in time as Beto was in 2017.

Now, if you want to argue that Beto would be the stronger candidate against John Cornyn, by virtue of his previous experience running statewide and his national profile, that’s fine…as long as you are arguing for Beto versus MJ Hegar, not Beto versus an existential void. My point here, and all that I’m asking, is that you argue based on the situation that actually exists, not the situation you seem to be imagining because you’re not paying attention or because you have a bee in your bonnet about the size of the Democratic Presidential field or Beto’s not-great Presidential rollout or whatever. Beto may well be, or have been, the best candidate to beat John Cornyn, and Lord knows the Dems need to win every Senate seat they can to have a hope of actually governing. But Beto is not the candidate who is running. Please, I beg of you, give me some reason to believe that you are aware of that fact. That’s all I’m asking.

UPDATE: And in the short period of time between drafting this and scheduling it for publication, this story from The Hill arrives. At least it quotes someone who notes that anyone who puts in the work that Beto did in 2018 could win, as Texas is “fundamentally competitive”. I’ll try to be okay with that.

Could Beto-Cornyn still happen?

According to that same Quinnipiac poll, some people would like for it to happen.

Beto O’Rourke

Most Texas Democrats say they’d prefer for former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke to abandon his campaign for president and instead take on Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the 2020 U.S. Senate race, a new poll released Wednesday shows.

Sixty percent of about 400 Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters polled by a Quinnipiac University said they’d prefer to see a Cornyn-O’Rourke showdown. The poll surveyed 1,159 voters overall and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points overall and plus or minus 5.8 percentage points for Democrats and Democratic-leaners.

Yet O’Rourke was still preferred over most other Democratic candidates for president other than former Vice President Joseph Biden, who led the pack as the top choice for 30 percent of Texas Democrats polled.

O’Rourke was behind him with 16 percent, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 15 percent and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren with 11 percent.

[…]

A change in course for O’Rourke, or even Castro, would not be entirely unexpected to Cornyn, who had a 44 percent approval rate among those polled by Quinnipiac.

This is all from that same Quinnipiac poll that I noted yesterday. I don’t actually think there’s any chance Beto will switch back to the Senate race. Remember, the filing deadline in Texas is in December, which is still before any state actually votes in their Presidential primary. I just don’t see him dropping out that early, unless the fundraising train really grinds to a halt for him. He never expressed any interest in running for the Senate again, so even if he does somehow drop out in time to file for Senate, I think he’d just sit it out.

And you know, that’s okay. It really is. I say that in part because I’ve made my peace with his decision, and in part because I’ve come to believe that the next Democratic Senate candidate needs to use Beto’s 2018 campaign as a starting point and a platform on which to construct a better and more robust campaign that absorbs and applies the lessons we have learned from the Beto 2018 experience. I think that will have a better chance of success than Beto 2.0 would have. Of course, Beto could do that himself – it doesn’t need to be a new candidate for this. Some fresh eyes would likely help, though.

This is also going to be the place where I say I’m tired of people complaining that if Beto had run for Senate instead of for President, the Dems would be that much closer to winning the Senate, which they need to do at least as much as they need to defeat Trump in order to get this country back on track again. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Steve Bullock of Montana also get this criticism, though Stacy Abrams, who is not running for President or US Senate in Georgia, escapes it. If Beto were literally the only candidate of merit who might run that would be one thing, but we have a perfectly good candidate in the race in MJ Hegar, and we may have other getting in. I don’t deny that Beto would have started off in the strongest position of any Dem, and if he were running for Senate that race would already be on the national radar. I’m just saying it’s not Beto or nothing. I would like it if more people considered that.

Finally, I hope that as we go forward, Quinnipiac et al will begin to include Senate race questions, so we can compare the levels of support for Trump and Cornyn and whichever Dems they are matched against. Despite being a Senator for 17 years (and Attorney General before that) Cornyn’s name recognition is so-so, which is in part why his approval (and disapproval) numbers are lower than Ted Cruz’s. A Cornyn/Hegar question (and a Cornyn/Amanda Edwards question or a Cornyn/Chris Bell question) would serve fairly well as a “somewhat well-known R versus generally unknown D” question, which would help illustrate how much each Democratic Presidential hopeful might be affecting the data. Maybe in the next Q-poll we’ll see something like this.

It was Abbott all along

Who was behind that botched voter purge that caused now-former Secretary of State David Whitley to not get confirmed by the Senate? Greg Abbott, that’s who.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Two top officials at the Department of Public Safety named Gov. Greg Abbott’s office as a driving force in the state’s program to purge nearly 100,000 suspected non-U.S. citizens from Texas’ voter rolls, emails made public Tuesday show.

Abbott’s office, however, on Tuesday denied it had any contact with the agency before the launch of the effort in late January.

[…]

The emails were made public Tuesday by the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, which represented plaintiffs who sued the state.

In an August 2018 email, John Crawford, a top official of the driver license division at the Texas Department of Public Safety, told employees that DPS had previously turned over records to compare with state voter rolls, and “we have an urgent request from the governor’s office to do it again.”

That same day, the director of the driver license division, Amanda Arriaga, wrote in a separate email that “the Governor is interested in getting this information as soon as possible.”

In a statement, Abbott denied talking to the Department of Public Safety about the issue until March of this year.

“Neither the Governor, nor the Governor’s office gave a directive to initiate this process,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman. “No one speaks for the Governor’s office, but the Governor’s office.”

Sure is amazing what you can find out when public records are made public, isn’t it? There’s a reason why Ken Paxton is fighting the release of other SOS files so hard. Abbott’s flunky can claim that the DPS spokesperson doesn’t speak for Abbott, but I think we all know she didn’t make that rationale up on her own. Glen Maxey was right: A scheme like this doesn’t come out of nowhere. One way or another, it comes from the boss. We just now have some documentation to back that up. The Statesman and Think Progress have more.

UPDATE: Ross Ramsey weighs in.

Who cares about new mothers?

Not the Lege.

The new mothers contracted infections. They overdosed on drugs. Their hearts failed. They committed suicide.

The women died in different ways, but all perished within a year of giving birth. Rising rates of maternal mortality spurred Texas leaders in 2017 to reauthorize a special task force to study the deaths and figure out what to do.

But at the end of this year’s legislative session, public health advocates are frustrated that lawmakers left Austin without adopting the task force’s top recommendation: giving women access to health care for a full year after they give birth.

The Legislature agreed to spend $15 million over the next two years on postpartum depression and substance abuse treatment for some low-income women. But a far more sweeping and higher cost plan to expand Medicaid coverage for all eligible new mothers failed, despite having support from Republicans and Democrats.

“We’re disappointed state leaders basically ignored the needs of uninsured moms and uninsured low wage workers this session, by not taking action on bills to extend postpartum coverage,” said Adriana Kohler, a senior health policy associate for the Austin-based advocacy group Texans Care for Children.

[…]

The funding, however, will likely cover only some of the roughly 136,000 pregnant women on Medicaid in any given month. And pregnant women who relied on Medicaid for their diabetes medication or other prescription drugs could still lose those benefits in the transition, some public health advocates said.

Other bills filed by Republicans and Democrats to expand the state’s Medicaid coverage for new mothers from two to 12 months, post delivery failed. The change would have cost the state upwards of $75 million a year, according to a fiscal note. The legislation passed the House, but died after not receiving a public hearing in the Senate.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chalked it up to politics. “Republicans don’t want to be viewed as expanding Medicaid,” he said.

Just as a reminder, Greg Abbott made a last-minute attempt to put an extra $100 million into the budget for “border security”. The budget as adopted is spending over $5 billion to buy down property taxes. The Lege passed a tax cut on yacht sales, which won’t actually cost that much money but is still a tax cut on yacht sales. My point here is that this was not a decision based on a lack of available funds. It was a failure to act because the Republican leadership had no interest in doing it, for the reason Rep. Coleman cites. It was a choice they made, one that reflected their values. Keep that in mind when you hear the usual blather about being “pro-life”.

Lege passes on helping with the Census

Typically short-sighted.

But in a time when the census is tinged with partisan politics — mostly over Trump’s proposed inclusion of a citizenship question — Texas lawmakers adjourned without taking action to ensure a complete count.

State Representative César Blanco, D-El Paso, and Senator Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, filed bills to create a committee that would develop a strategy to ensure everyone is counted. The bills also would have allocated money to offer grants for local outreach efforts such as town hall meetings, community events, newsletters and other promotional documents, and census worker recruitment. Neither of the bills was given a committee hearing.

The two Democrats also unsuccessfully attempted to apportion money in the state budget for census outreach. Blanco’s proposal called for $50 million for the statewide complete count commission and another $50 million to offer local community grants; Hinojosa’s rider asked for a much more conservative $5 million for grants. Neither made it to the final state budget.

“It’s disappointing that we lost our shot,” Blanco told the Observer. “It wasn’t a priority for this legislative body, unfortunately.”

[…]

Texas could gain up to three new congressional seats after the 2020 Census, more than any other state stands to gain, but an undercount could cost Texas those potential seats. That shift in political power could be significant as the state shows signs of turning blue.

Many Texas Republicans believe it’s up to the U.S. Census Bureau to shoulder costs for census outreach, Blanco said, but the bureau has been underfunded by a total of $200 million since 2012. Supporters say the money is an investment that should return more than the upfront costs. That’s why more than half of states have made their own plans to ensure an accurate count of their populations in 2020. California has allocated more money for census outreach than any other state, with $100 million for 2018-19 and another $54 million proposed by Governor Gavin Newsom for 2019-20.

“If we don’t step up, the reality is California’s going to eat our lunch,” Blanco said at a press conference in April.

Gotta say, if we miss out on one of the Congressional seats we’re projected to get because of an inadequate count, this is sure going to look foolish. I hope other cities follow Houston’s example and do their own outreach. I don’t understand the Lege’s penury on this, they spent plenty of money on other things, but here we are.

Whitley lands on his feet

Were you surprised?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Former acting Secretary of State David Whitley, who resigned Monday after failing to be confirmed by senators following his botched oversight of an investigation that questioned the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters in Texas, has landed back at Gov. Greg Abbott’s office where he will return to a $205,000 annual salary.

After an Abbott full-court press to get Whitley confirmed failed, Whitley resigned as secretary of state on the final day of the legislative session, giving up his $197,415 salary – a decrease from his previous position at the governor’s office but a 49% pay raise over the last secretary of state, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

On Tuesday, Whitley ended his tenure at the secretary of state’s office through a direct transfer to the governor’s office, the state comptroller’s office – which cuts state employee’s checks – confirmed. He will return to the same salary he previously made as a deputy chief of staff in 2018 but will now be designated a special advisor to Abbott.

“David Whitley has been an exemplary public servant to the state of Texas for many years and the Governor is proud to welcome him back to our organization as a Special Advisor,” said John Wittman, an Abbott spokesman.

Advocacy groups who opposed Whitley’s confirmation as secretary of state, immediately denounced his return to the governor’s office.

“Whitley was caught suppressing the right to vote, settled with nearly $500,000 of taxpayer money in court, and fired by Texas Democrats, only to be promoted by Republicans only to be rewarded with even more taxpayer money,” said Sam Robles, advocacy director for Progress Texas. “Whitley’s position in the governor’s office clearly demonstrates Abbott’s priorities.”

The Texas Democratic Party excoriated the move.

“Once again, Republican Greg Abbott shows us he could care less what Texans think. While folks are working hard trying to make ends meet, Abbott is giving his incompetent friends millions on the taxpayer’s dime,” said Manny Garcia, the party’s executive director. “In the Abbott Administration, being incompetent and malicious gets you a cushy new gig with a fancy job title. In the rest of the world, it gets you fired.”

I don’t know about exemplary, but David Whitley is certainly an exemplar of the Abbott administration. At least this should end the speculation that Abbott would just turn around and re-appoint Whitley. There are plenty of other hacks Abbott can tap, and so now he will. What else did you expect?

How Texas Republicans did not make their case to women this session

They did have a not-excessively-misogynist session, but see if you can spot what’s missing in this recap and preview story.

Texas could have tried to beat Alabama to become the first state in the nation to ban all abortions this year, taking a shot at overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Republican leadership in Austin hit the brakes.

It was staunch pro-life Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who put a stop to the Texas version of the bill, which would have authorized criminal charges against any woman who has an abortion.

“I think it’s the exact wrong policy to be criminalizing women who are in that extremely difficult, almost impossible situation,” said Leach, a chairman who refused to let the bill out of his committee. “We don’t need to be going after these women.”

That sentiment voiced in April was just one example of a new message that Texas Republicans tried to send in the 2019 legislative session after a wake-up call in the November midterm elections. Hundreds of thousands of educated, suburban Republican women had crossed party lines to vote for Democrats, who picked up 12 seats in the Texas House and came within three percentage points of winning their first statewide election since 1994.

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen explained the Texas GOP’s predicament in a speech to young Republicans in February, just as the legislative session got underway.

“The clearest indication of the November election — and this is horrifying — is intelligent women said we’re not interested in voting for Republicans,” Bonnen said. “We have to remember that women matter in this state … The reality is that if we are not making women feel comfortable and welcome to telling their friend or neighbor that they voted for Republican candidate X, Y or Z, we will lose. And we should lose, truthfully.”

[…]

Returns from the last three statewide general elections show the need for urgency from Republicans.

About 57 percent of Texas women voted Republican in 2014. But that began to change in 2016 with a near split in the presidential race, according to CNN exit polling. Women split again in the 2018 governor’s race, and 54 percent of Texas women voted for Democrat Beto O’Rourke over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who ultimately won the election.

“Republicans may have taken women voters for granted to the point where when they need them to hold the line politically, they may not be there if they don’t make appealing to women voters an emphasis,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political professor and analyst from the University of Houston.

I mean, sure, the Lege didn’t go full Alabama or full Dan Patrick this session, and that will probably help Republicans a bit with the suburban and college-educated white women who fled them in hordes in 2016 and 2018. They could have grabbed onto some anvils and they managed not to, so good for them. But you know what drove those big swings in how women voted in the past two elections, and will be the single biggest thing on the ballot next year? I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes with “Ronald Dump”. Short of secession or a mass party-switch, there’s not much the Republicans in the Lege could have done about that. Happy campaigning, y’all.

Will the next SOS be any better than David Whitley?

Anything is possible, but don’t count on it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Voting rights advocates are celebrating Whitley’s forced departure, but said they have no illusions that his successor will be any more committed to upholding voting rights for all Texans.

“There is certainly every reason to believe that these types of voter suppression tactics will continue with the next nominee,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, told ThinkProgress.

Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party, told ThinkProgress that Whitley had promised Democratic and Republican officials shortly after assuming office in January that he would run a fair election system.

Within weeks, however, Whitley drew up a list of nearly 100,000 people he wrongfully identified as non-citizens, saying they had to be deleted from voter rolls. Most, as it turns out, actually were U.S. citizens, and a federal judge blocked his plan to expunge the names.

Abbott — who himself has a long history of pushing voter suppression efforts — will now get to pick someone to replace Whitley as the state’s chief election official, a critically important position looking ahead to 2020.

Gutierrez said he was not overly optimistic that a change in personnel will lead to the end of Republican voter suppression efforts.

“Texas has a long history of using systemic obstacles to limit participation,” Gutierrez said. “I have no question that we’ll keep seeing a variety of voter suppression tactics until we have a greater number of legislators and statewide elected officials who want to see more Texans voting and participating in our democracy.”

[…]

Maxey said he believes the massive voter purge attempted by Whitley was probably the brainchild of Gov. Abbott or Attorney General Ken Paxton, and suspects that Whitley simply was carrying out orders.

“He did not come up with this plan on his own. He wasn’t even in office long enough to come up with it,” he said. “Either he was boldface lying to us or it was something that happened that was cast with his signature or his name attached.”

I think that’s probably right. At the very least, I think if Whitley had done all this on his own, and screwed it up in such spectacular fashion, he wouldn’t have Abbott and all the rest of the DPS-blaming enablers backing him. Ken Paxton surely had a hand in it as well. The best case scenario here is Abbott appoints someone competent and conscientious who actually does care about the integrity of the data, which leads them to stay away from hair-brained schemes to “cleanse” the voter rolls via noisy data and weak matches. The worst case scenario is that Abbott appoints someone who is competent at carrying out such a scheme. Either way, we can’t afford to ease up on vigilance.

On a related note, the Trib has a deep dive into how things went down in the Senate in the latter days as Abbott tried to get Whitley confirmed.

The pressure on the Democrats intensified as the legislative session pressed on. Some senators had received calls from business associates, clients and donors, who had apparently been nudged by the governor’s office to encourage them to back Whitley, and they were facing veto threats, said Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat who did not receive such overtures but said he heard from his colleagues about them.

But with the i’s dotted and the t’s soon to be crossed on Abbott’s top legislative priorities, his office made a final, last-minute push to sway Senate Democrats in the final days of the legislative session, multiple sources said.

And some Democrats whom Abbott hoped to turn were brought in individually. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was called to Abbott’s office on Saturday, where the governor asked her, in a one-on-one meeting, to support his nominee.

“He said he would like for me to vote for David, and I said that I couldn’t — I wished I could, but I couldn’t,” Zaffirini said in an interview this week. “I like David … and he’s a good person. But he made a terrible mistake.”

On Monday, two of her bills were vetoed — one to increase transparency at the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and one to allow for specialized courts for guardianship cases. Both had passed both chambers with near-unanimous support and were championed by Republican sponsors in the House.

“I was surprised to see them vetoed, and I was surprised to see the veto so early,” Zaffirini said, and she “disagreed” with the reasoning Abbott gave.

[…]

Miles, who said he wasn’t facing threats of vetoes, said tit-for-tat menacing would seem out of character for Abbott — a governor the Democrats say is generally professional. But he confirmed that some of his colleagues had clearly been targeted with pressure.

“Yes, there were runs at individual members, and we had to secure them and let them know this was not something we could go on without,” Miles said. “There were some threats of vetoing bills.”

On Sunday evening, the day before the Legislature had to gavel out, [Sen. Jose] Rodríguez said the Senate GOP Caucus Chair, Paul Bettencourt, came by to test the waters.

“At one point, he came over and said, ‘Would y’all be okay with the lieutenant governor calling up Whitley to take an up and down vote? He doesn’t want any questions or speeches. We know you have him blocked, but the governor wants a vote on it,’” Rodríguez recalled.

Rodríguez told Bettencourt that if a vote were called, he and other Democrats were prepared with “pages and pages” of questions, enough to delay for hours — effectively killing the bills still sitting vulnerable on the calendar on the last day the Senate could approve legislation.

Ultimately, no vote was called.

It’s worth reading. I know Abbott really likes Whitley and all, but I continue to be amazed that no one ever thought to advise him to take responsibility, admit his errors, apologize, and promise to do better. Did they not think it was necessary, did they think that some combination of sweet talk and veto threats would be enough, did they have some other strategy in mind? I wish I knew.

Adios, David Whitley

Sine die and see ya.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The ill-fated tenure of Texas Secretary of State David Whitley has come to an end.

The Texas Senate gaveled out Monday without confirming the state’s top election official, who served for less than half a year and whose tenure was mired in controversy over a failed attempt to scour the voter rolls for noncitizens — a review that questioned the citizenship of thousands of legitimate voters.

But minutes before that happened, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Whitley had submitted his resignation. The secretary of state is constitutionally required to leave office immediately if the Senate goes through an entire legislative session without confirming him.

His departure is an unusual end; gubernatorial appointees typically sail through the Senate.

[…]

All 12 Democratic senators went on the record as “nays” on Whitley’s confirmation in February, citing concerns over the fear the review had caused among legitimate voters who were not born in the U.S. and who are more likely to be people of color. During the review, some of those individuals received letters demanding they prove their citizenship to avoid being kicked off the rolls.

“The reality is that Democrats showed solidarity on that issue because of Whitley’s position of voter suppression,” state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, told reporters after the Senate adjourned. “That was the issue.

“It was not that he was not a good person — he seemed like he was a great person — but not the secretary of state, especially concerning the issues the secretary of state has to deal with as it relates to voting.”

You can see Whitley’s resignation letter, and Abbott’s acceptance of it, here. This is what accountability looks like. It wasn’t just that Whitley screwed up, it was that he never owned his screwup or tried to make it right. In that regard, he was not helped at all by Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, who tried to shenanigan him in rather than help him take responsibility for his actions. It’s arrogance on top of incompetence, and it got what it deserved. Abbott will get to appoint someone else, who one hopes will be good at the job and thus not get humiliated when his or her nomination gets reviewed by the next Senate, and David Whitley can go do something else. This is as it should be.

At least, that should be how it should be. The Lege junkies on Twitter have speculated that since Whitley resigned before sine die, he was not officially rejected by the Senate, since they never voted on his nomination and he left before the end of the session. That means that technically, Abbott could appoint him again. I have no idea if he would do that – I’ll say again, there must be some other Republican ladder-climber out there with decent credentials who could fill this role – but I wouldn’t put it past Abbott, who has already vetoed four Democratic-authored bills, to stick his finger in everyone’s eye. We should know soon if he goes this route.

Pickle ’em if you got ’em

A victory for home foodies.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst

In a victory for home cooks across Texas, the Legislature has expanded the state’s definition of the word “pickle,” allowing for pickled beets, carrots and other produce to be easily sold at farmers’ markets alongside pickled cucumbers.

The legislation, pushed by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, was passed by the House Tuesday and given final approval by the Senate Thursday. It still needs a signature from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott before becoming law.

Judith McGeary, head of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said her group is excited to see the measure advance and that it would broaden “options for the farmers and the consumers who are looking for healthy, locally-made foods.” Texas has been among the more restrictive states in allowing foods to be sold at markets, she said.

Texans have been able to hawk pickled cucumbers in local venues since 2013, when Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, authored a law that let cooks sell certain goods without first becoming licensed food manufacturers. But an unexpected rule authored by the state’s Department of State Health Services has barred home chefs from selling any other kind of pickled produce without first installing a commercial kitchen, taking a course, and obtaining a special license.

“Only pickled cucumbers are allowed,” an FAQ section on the agency’s website specifies. “All other pickled vegetables are prohibited.”

The rule was drafted to implement the new law, and a department spokesperson told the Texas Tribune last May that the agency did not receive objections to the pickle definition. The spokesperson declined to comment Tuesday.

[…]

Laws authored by Kolkhorst and Rodriguez had already made it easier for home cooks to peddle their goods at local markets, by exempting them from regulations that some consider onerous. An old rule that small-batch bakers have a commercial kitchen, for example, was jettisoned in 2011. The exemption was extended to a host of other foods in 2013, including fruit butters, popcorn and pickles — though the State Health Services department took that to mean pickled cucumbers only.

As the story notes, a couple who intended to make some money pickling vegetables filed a lawsuit against State Health Services, which brought the issue to light. The story also notes the cottage food law, which passed in 2011 in its second attempt. I am as before on the side of the home foodies, so I’m glad to see this bill get passed. Hopefully, there will be no more weird bureaucratic interpretations necessitating further bills like this one.

More info on the school finance bill

Here’s what we know.

Before final negotiations, the House’s version of HB 3 cost $9.4 billion, and the Senate’s cost a whopping $14.8 billion, according to Texas Education Agency calculations. The final cost is around $11.6 billion, according to lawmakers, though an official cost analysis has not been made public.

The House wanted to raise the base funding per student from $5,140 to $6,030, while the Senate wanted to raise it to $5,880. They decided on an even higher number of $6,160.

Both chambers had previously agreed to spend $6.3 billion on public education, including salary increases for teachers, and $2.7 billion for property tax cuts. This final bill appears to include about $6.5 billion for public education, including extra raises and benefits for school employees, and $5.1 billion for tax cuts.

Lawmakers estimated the negotiated version of the bill would lower tax rates by an average of 8 cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021. That would mean a tax cut of $200 for the owner of a $250,000 home in 2020 and $325 in 2021. Legislators also said it would increase the state’s share of public education funding to 45% from 38%. They said it would lower school districts’ cumulative recapture payments, which wealthier districts pay to subsidize poorer districts, by $3.6 billion over two years.

[…]

In the negotiation, lawmakers also decided to drastically change the formulas that determine how local and state funding is allocated to school districts — taking heavily from the Senate’s school finance proposal.

The House had proposed a decrease in school district tax rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation statewide, as well as a mechanism to further decrease higher tax rates. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, unveiled a version of HB 3 near the end of April — relatively late in the legislative process — that included billions of dollars to lower rates by about 15 cents per $100 valuation, more than either chamber had budgeted.

The negotiated bill lowers tax rates statewide by 7 cents per $100 valuation, with the potential to go lower in future years. That’s a $175 annual cut for the owner of a $250,000 home, not counting other mechanisms in the bill to lower tax rates further.

According to lawmakers, HB 3 includes about $5.1 billion for school district tax cuts — again, more than the initial budget proposal of $2.7 billion. Some of the additional money comes from a new fund established to pay for those cuts. The state comptroller is required to deposit some money from the Available School Fund, which provides funding for schools derived from state-owned land and fuel taxes, and some money from an online sales tax into the new fund.

It is not immediately clear exactly what other sources of money contribute to cuts this biennium or how lawmakers expect to pay for tax cuts in the future. The bill requires the state’s nonpartisan budget board to study potential sources of money for future school district tax cuts and their anticipated impacts on taxpayers, schools and the state.

There’s more, but it doesn’t really answer my initial questions. I hope someone I trust who knows this stuff well comes forward with an analysis, because this is big stuff and it’s going to get passed in the next day or two without a whole lot of public vetting.

Also, too, there are the property tax changes.

In its final form, Senate Bill 2, the reform package, appears to have changed little from when it passed out of the House earlier this month on a 109 to 36 margin.

If signed into law, the measure would require cities, counties and emergency service districts to receive voter approval before raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. Community colleges and hospital districts will need to hold an election before surpassing 8% property tax revenue growth.

The constraints only apply to revenue collected on existing property, not new developments.

School districts appear to have been carved out of the bill, but their tax revenue increases are constrained in a high-priority public education bill, House Bill 3. That legislation could lower school tax rates by an average of 8 cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021. For the owner of a $250,000 house, that could yield a tax cut of $200 in 2020 and $325 in 2021.

Currently, taxing units can raise 8% more property tax revenue before their voters can petition to roll back the increase. The 8% figure was set during a period of high-inflation in the 1980s.

The final version of the bill, now titled the Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act, appears to have several provisions intended to add flexibility around the reduced election trigger.

Some of the money taxing units spend providing indigent defense attorneys and indigent healthcare would not be factored into the revenue growth calculation. Taxing units would be able to bank unused revenue growth for three years, allowing them to exceed the 3.5% threshold in some of them. And tax districts can raise $500,000 without having to hold an election, as long as that increase does not exceed 8% revenue growth.

Again, what I really want to know is how this will affect the big cities like Houston, because we’ve had a big target on our backs this session. Thankfully, some of the nastier bills did not survive, but cities’ revenues have already been reduced, for no obvious reason. I just want to know at this point how much worse things will be. And how it will change in the coming years.