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Texas

Our freshman legislators

Good luck, y’all.

Gina Calanni

When the Legislature convenes in Austin on Jan. 8, Harris County’s House delegation will include two new Democrats who flipped seats long held by Republican lawmakers.

Last month, state Rep.-elects Gina Calanni, D-Katy, and Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, knocked off two-term state Rep. Mike Schofield and 12-term veteran Rep. Gary Elkins, respectively.

Both wins demonstrated the changing political makeup of Harris County’s fast-growing west suburbs, areas that played a major role in turning the county solidly blue during the midterms. Republicans are sure to take aim at the seats in 2020 and beyond, though Calanni and Rosenthal say they recognize the conservative constituencies in their districts and plan to focus on issues that work for both sides of the political aisle.

“I won my district with 50.8 percent. The Republican guy got 47.7,” said Rosenthal, who considers himself a progressive Democrat. “So, I had a 3-point margin, which means I represent a district that’s pretty much 50-50. I feel like, no matter what I have in my heart, I have to represent the district 50-50. That’s what the job is.”

Jon Rosenthal

Both new lawmakers undoubtedly were bolstered by a combination of favorable trends for Democrats, including an unpopular Republican president and galvanizing Democrats running at the top of the ticket and in an overlapping congressional district.

Still, if the political forces of President Donald Trump, Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Rep.-elect Lizzie Pannill Fletcher helped the two Democrats get near the finish line, their campaigns helped them cross it. Calanni, for instance, personally knocked on more than 10,000 doors in the 132nd District and raised nearly $139,000 in the month or so before the election.

[…]

Calanni, 41, and Rosenthal, 55, both say they will focus on the topic that appears set to dominate the legislative session: reforming how the state funds public education. The two Democrats made it a top issue of their races, with Rosenthal putting “the focus of the campaign” on his calls for the state to kick in more funds for public education.

Calanni, a former bankruptcy and tax paralegal in the Travis County attorney’s office, considers herself a moderate and said she previously has voted for candidates from both parties. She was among the numerous candidates who joined the political fray for the first time in 2018 after growing upset over the divisiveness between the two parties.

“I definitely identify as a Democrat, but I think there are a lot of things, especially on a local level, that are not really separated into party issues,” she said.

Calanni’s campaign focused on topics that fit that description: flood control and mitigation, sex trafficking and, foremost, the need to reform education funding.

“When I’m knocking on a door and talking to people that I know are Republicans, then I talk specifically about public education and that we don’t have enough funding for it,” she said.

Already, Calanni plans to introduce legislation that would address sex trafficking, a pervasive issue in Houston and one that has drawn the attention of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike. Before she ran for office, Calanni worked for several nonprofits focused on the issue.

Calanni said she would aim to provide work programs to teach job skills to sex trafficking victims, similar to an initiative already operating in Harris County. Calanni also wants to provide counseling services for victims and to strengthen business licensing requirements to prevent businesses from operating as brothels.

[…]

Looking ahead to the session in Austin, Rosenthal intends to play a role in the effort to reform public education funding, but also hopes to introduce legislation to regulate how much interest payday lenders can charge. The measure would reverse some of the regulations lifted by Elkins, who owns several payday lending businesses and authored bills to lift interest caps on payday loans.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is as follows:

1. Serving in the Lege is a job and should be treated as one. Show up on time and every day unless you have a good reason not to (illness, family emergency, that sort of thing), prepare for the day’s agenda and know what’s on the horizon, don’t miss votes, and file all your campaign finance and financial disclosure forms accurately and on time. Basically, don’t commit the kind of stupid self-inflicted harm that will make it easy for your 2020 opponent to run against you.

2. Similarly, be as true to the things you said you wanted to do on the campaign trail as you can be. Introduce the bills you said you would introduce – and be sure they are in good shape – and work to get them a committee hearing or a place on the local and consent calendar. Support the type of bills you said you would support, and oppose the type of bills you said you would oppose. Give your supporters a reason to feel good about having backed you, and don’t give anyone else a reason to think you’re just another “say and do anything to get elected” politician.

3. Do constituent services very well. Phone calls are answered or returned promptly. Emails are acknowledged and responded to. People who ask for it can get time on your calendar. Your staffers all have answers or know how to get them, and when they’re asked about things that are not in your office’s purview, they know how to point teh asker in the right direction. Basically, make sure everyone who contacts your office feels like they were listened to and taken seriously.

You get the idea. None of this is a guarantee of anything for 2020. As we well know, the national environment has an outsized impact on all elections. Do the basics well, avoid the obvious pitfalls, be the person you said you’d be when you ran in the first place, and you’ll have done your best to be the kind of candidate who outperforms the baseline in their district. You can’t ask for much more than that.

The dino turtles of Buffalo Bayou

I love this story.

The creature didn’t growl and didn’t need to.

The alligator snapping turtle held menace enough in its massive, gaping jaws, which ended in a sharp beak poised like the fangs of an agitated rattlesnake. Its long, plump claws dug into the sand above thorny, wrinkled skin and a deeply-ridged carapace about the size of a large dinner platter.

Wildlife biologist Eric Munscher has wrangled bigger alligator snappers than the young, 42-pound male he hauled onto land Saturday with help from two assistants. But every one he finds matters, because he’s studying the species in a part of Houston so unlikely it has become the talk of the turtle world.

During the past two years, Munscher and his team have tagged 60 alligator snappers — officially Macrochelys temminckii — in an area no one expected to find them, along a nine-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou.

Munscher, who leads the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, does not want to reveal exact study locations, to protect what he believes may be the largest population of alligator snapping turtles in Texas, and potentially one of the largest anywhere. And he believes the turtles have survived not in spite of, but because of, their heavily populated, citified surroundings. “They lucked into the whole metro thing,” he said. “It’s a good habitat, surprisingly, with a riparian shelf where females can climb up and lay eggs.”

Buffalo Bayou’s opaque brown waters have long yielded other scary-looking predators, including prehistoric-looking alligator gars and the occasional, actual gator. And there are plenty of other reasons not to swim there, including possible bacterial pollution.

“Nobody in their right mind would think of Buffalo Bayou as a refuge,” said Jordan Gray, a former Houston zookeeper and a collaborator on the study who now works at the Turtle Survival Alliance’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C. “It’s not this pristine habitat like the Upper Trinity River, but that’s what makes it so cool, to find this gem of a population.”

[…]

Munscher discovered the bayou’s turtles almost by accident through his day job with SWCA Environmental Consultants, while he was surveying wildlife across one of the city’s large parks. He put out turtle traps near the end of the study, not expecting to find anything special, and was astonished to haul up six alligator snappers.

Those first critters ranged from a 3-pound juvenile to a 96-pound male that could be 80 years old, which suggested an active breeding population.

Munscher contacted Texas Parks & Wildlife, which had not included Harris County in a previous survey of alligator snappers across East Texas, and secured a grant to purchase equipment for a long-term population study in Buffalo Bayou and associated watersheds of Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He is trapping, tagging and releasing turtles at least once a month — a task he plans to continue for 10 years.

“It’s an unheard of study for the species,” he said. “We want to do it because it’s such an unheard of habitat … . If you find a lot of turtles, it means they’re doing pretty well. Nobody’s done anything to them yet; they don’t have a lot of predation going on. We study them over time to see how and why they’re doing so well.”

The largest turtle species in the U.S. and largest hard-shelled turtles in the world, alligator snappers are native to swamps and rivers from Florida to southern Illinois. Experts can’t say how many of them still exist, but they know numbers have declined significantly in the past century, and conservationists have petitioned to have alligator snappers added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. The last time I blogged about alligator snapping turtles, it was because of a story that painted them as in dire straits as a species. This story is a much more pleasant surprise. I hope Munscher and crew find a thriving population in the Bayou.

Precinct analysis: The county candidates

Let’s just dive right in and have a look at the countywide candidates, shall we?


Dist   Emmett  Hidalgo Gatlin  Under  Emmett% Hidalgo% Gatlin%
==============================================================		
CD02  150,630  103,625  5,842  5,005   57.91%   39.84%   2.25%
CD07  135,016  100,412  4,967  4,819   56.16%   41.77%   2.07%
CD08   18,697    9,447    637    423   64.96%   32.82%   2.21%
CD09   28,593   88,998  2,100  2,138   23.89%   74.36%   1.75%
CD10   75,149   36,392  2,371  1,559   65.97%   31.95%   2.08%
CD18   49,933  129,017  4,024  3,463   27.29%   70.51%   2.20%
CD22   16,749   14,075    615    577   53.27%   44.77%   1.96%
CD29   35,187   79,825  2,027  2,255   30.06%   68.20%   1.73%
CD36   65,147   32,155  2,000  1,572   65.60%   32.38%   2.01%

SBOE6 324,964  237,414 12,576 11,692   56.52%   41.29%   2.19%

HD126  31,509   22,699  1,137    879   56.93%   41.01%   2.05%
HD127  43,967   22,708  1,428  1,003   64.56%   33.34%   2.10%
HD128  36,488   14,551    913    716   70.23%   28.01%   1.76%
HD129  39,456   23,578  1,434  1,218   61.20%   36.57%   2.22%
HD130  53,835   20,641  1,569  1,046   70.79%   27.14%   2.06%
HD131   8,046   33,121    717    658   19.21%   79.08%   1.71%
HD132  34,890   30,219  1,421    842   52.44%   45.42%   2.14%
HD133  46,358   23,211  1,452  1,532   65.27%   32.68%   2.04%
HD134  49,748   36,624  1,967  2,626   56.31%   41.46%   2.23%
HD135  28,937   25,825  1,142    804   51.76%   46.20%   2.04%
HD137   8,332   15,311    544    464   34.45%   63.30%   2.25%
HD138  25,835   21,425  1,035    914   53.49%   44.36%   2.14%
HD139  13,097   33,093    889    792   27.82%   70.29%   1.89%
HD140   5,999   17,238    371    438   25.41%   73.02%   1.57%
HD141   4,913   25,991    516    408   15.64%   82.72%   1.64%
HD142  10,202   28,780    661    570   25.73%   72.60%   1.67%
HD143   8,651   19,512    478    593   30.20%   68.13%   1.67%
HD144   9,710   13,289    432    384   41.44%   56.72%   1.84%
HD145  11,430   20,587    722    723   34.91%   62.88%   2.21%
HD146  10,903   31,500    849    870   25.21%   72.83%   1.96%
HD147  13,678   39,732  1,333  1,129   24.99%   72.58%   2.44%
HD148  20,031   26,116  1,339  1,374   42.18%   55.00%   2.82%
HD149  15,412   22,824    702    732   39.58%   58.62%   1.80%
HD150  43,674   25,371  1,532  1,096   61.88%   35.95%   2.17%

CC1    79,769  202,915  5,730  5,571   27.66%   70.36%   1.99%
CC2   116,353  106,823  4,548  4,096   51.09%   46.91%   2.00%
CC3   184,649  140,535  6,765  6,036   55.63%   42.34%   2.04%
CC4   194,330  143,673  7,540  6,108   56.24%   41.58%   2.18%

Ed Emmett was of course the best case scenario for Republicans. He won everywhere it was possible for a Republican to win. He won CD07 by fifteen points, which is a wider margin than John Culberson had in 2016. And with all that, he still didn’t win Harris County. This recalls what I was saying when we first saw poll numbers from CD07, which were showing a close race there. If Republicans, who had carried CD07 by double digits in 2016 and gotten shellacked in Harris County overall were now fighting to have any lead in CD07 in 2018, what did that portend for them countywide? Or statewide, for that matter. You can see how that played out, and why I keep hammering on the theme that the Republicans’ main problem in Harris County is that they are now badly outnumbered. There’s a potentially credible case to be made that Ed Emmett was harmed by straight ticket voting. He lost a close race, so any change of conditions might have helped him. But the notion that Republicans overall were harmed by it is laughable.

One other point: There were about 46K people who either voted Libertarian in this race or who did not vote at all. For Emmett to make up the almost-19,000 vote deficit he had against Lina Hidalgo, he’d have had to win a bit more than 70% of all those voters, if you could go back in time and identify them all and force them to pick their second choice. As it happens – I’m going to skip the table for this, so just trust me – the undervote rate, once you subtract out straight ticket voters, was higher in the Dem districts. That’s probably not the friendliest constituency for him to retroactively woo. Ed Emmett served Harris County with honor and dignity, and he leaves behind a distinguished record. He also lost, fair and square.


Dist  Stanart Trautman  Gomez  Under Stanart%   Traut%  Gomez%
==============================================================
CD02  135,427  116,744  6,717  6,221   52.31%   45.09%   2.59%
CD07  116,383  116,488  5,648  6,706   48.79%   48.84%   2.37%
CD08   17,784   10,221    679    520   62.00%   35.63%   2.37%
CD09   23,329   93,625  2,504  2,376   19.53%   78.37%   2.10%
CD10   71,172   39,707  2,623  1,970   62.71%   34.98%   2.31%
CD18   39,159  138,311  4,892  4,087   21.47%   75.84%   2.68%
CD22   15,265   15,184    857    711   48.76%   48.50%   2.74%
CD29   30,313   82,449  3,916  2,627   25.98%   70.66%   3.36%
CD36   60,467   35,918  2,452  2,036   61.18%   36.34%   2.48%

SBOE6 287,300  269,837 14,477 15,045   50.26%   47.21%   2.53%

HD126  29,277   24,586  1,293  1,074   53.08%   44.58%   2.34%
HD127  41,017   25,198  1,634  1,260   60.45%   37.14%   2.41%
HD128  34,735   15,876  1,142    915   67.12%   30.68%   2.21%
HD129  35,567   26,799  1,739  1,582   55.48%   41.80%   2.71%
HD130  51,064   22,942  1,722  1,365   67.43%   30.30%   2.27%
HD131   6,110   34,855    864    717   14.61%   83.33%   2.07%
HD132  32,579   32,090  1,680  1,023   49.10%   48.37%   2.53%
HD133  40,721   28,089  1,552  2,192   57.87%   39.92%   2.21%
HD134  37,977   47,211  2,090  3,692   43.51%   54.09%   2.39%
HD135  26,584   27,712  1,379  1,033   47.75%   49.77%   2.48%
HD137   7,257   16,167    678    552   30.11%   67.08%   2.81%
HD138  23,336   23,515  1,257  1,100   48.51%   48.88%   2.61%
HD139  10,545   35,238  1,128    961   22.48%   75.12%   2.40%
HD140   5,269   17,569    722    490   22.36%   74.57%   3.06%
HD141   3,921   26,852    622    438   12.49%   85.53%   1.98%
HD142   8,579   30,125    850    662   21.69%   76.16%   2.15%
HD143   7,405   20,178    952    699   25.95%   70.71%   3.34%
HD144   8,949   13,629    786    450   38.30%   58.33%   3.36%
HD145   9,596   21,809  1,226    834   29.41%   66.84%   3.76%
HD146   8,082   34,044    931  1,065   18.77%   79.07%   2.16%
HD147  10,013   42,972  1,576  1,316   18.35%   78.76%   2.89%
HD148  15,587   29,671  1,907  1,695   33.05%   62.91%   4.04%
HD149  14,042   23,985    859    785   36.11%   61.68%   2.21%
HD150  41,087   27,535  1,699  1,354   58.43%   39.16%   2.42%

CC1    61,603  218,965  6,875  6,563   21.43%   76.18%   2.39%
CC2   105,901  114,124  6,772  5,028   46.69%   50.32%   2.99%
CC3   164,601  157,515  7,843  8,035   49.89%   47.74%   2.38%
CC4   177,194  158,043  8,798  7,628   51.50%   45.94%   2.56%

Stan Stanart was very much on the low end of the spectrum for Republican candidates. Nearly every judicial candidate drew more votes than he did. Note in particular the stark difference between himself and Ed Emmett in HD134. The swing/lean R voters were not there for him. He was one of two countywide Rs to lose in HD138, though he did manage to carry HD132.


Dist   Daniel  Burgess  Under  Daniel% Burgess%
===============================================
CD02  141,260  116,519  7,334   54.80%   45.20%
CD07  123,371  114,006  7,852   51.97%   48.03%
CD08   18,163   10,443    598   63.49%   36.51%
CD09   24,355   94,774  2,710   20.44%   79.56%
CD10   72,943   40,231  2,301   64.45%   35.55%
CD18   41,900  139,805  4,756   23.06%   76.94%
CD22   15,794   15,389    836   50.65%   49.35%
CD29   31,677   84,520  3,107   27.26%   72.74%
CD36   62,225   36,222  2,429   63.21%   36.79%

SBOE6 301,347  267,739 17,585   52.95%   47.05%

HD126  30,045   24,900  1,285   54.68%   45.32%
HD127  42,379   25,207  1,525   62.70%   37.30%
HD128  35,350   16,229  1,092   68.54%   31.46%
HD129  37,093   26,728  1,868   58.12%   41.88%
HD130  52,331   23,186  1,577   69.30%   30.70%
HD131   6,394   35,330    823   15.32%   84.68%
HD132  33,433   32,741  1,199   50.52%   49.48%
HD133  43,049   26,936  2,570   61.51%   38.49%
HD134  42,398   44,322  4,252   48.89%   51.11%
HD135  27,386   28,119  1,204   49.34%   50.66%
HD137   7,631   16,369    654   31.80%   68.20%
HD138  24,200   23,659  1,351   50.57%   49.43%
HD139  11,114   35,635  1,125   23.77%   76.23%
HD140   5,450   18,021    577   23.22%   76.78%
HD141   4,114   27,220    501   13.13%   86.87%
HD142   8,918   30,566    735   22.59%   77.41%
HD143   7,755   20,637    843   27.31%   72.69%
HD144   9,208   14,084    524   39.53%   60.47%
HD145  10,182   22,269  1,012   31.38%   68.62%
HD146   8,681   34,241  1,203   20.23%   79.77%
HD147  11,052   43,323  1,504   20.33%   79.67%
HD148  17,008   29,859  1,996   36.29%   63.71%
HD149  14,449   24,305    918   37.28%   62.72%
HD150  42,068   28,023  1,585   60.02%   39.98%

CC1    66,296  220,197  7,525   23.14%   76.86%
CC2   109,601  116,240  5,988   48.53%   51.47%
CC3   172,133  156,516  9,354   52.38%   47.62%
CC4   183,658  158,956  9,056   53.60%   46.40%

Dist  Sanchez  Osborne  Under Sanchez% Osborne%
===============================================
CD02  143,554  114,652  6,909   55.60%   44.40%
CD07  125,682  112,399  7,148   52.79%   47.21%
CD08   18,412   10,220    571   64.31%   35.69%
CD09   25,189   94,006  2,646   21.13%   78.87%
CD10   73,755   39,560  2,159   65.09%   34.91%
CD18   43,632  138,230  4,601   23.99%   76.01%
CD22   16,131   15,097    791   51.66%   48.34%
CD29   33,727   82,733  2,854   28.96%   71.04%
CD36   62,909   35,668  2,300   63.82%   36.18%

SBOE6 306,826  263,570 16,277   53.79%   46.21%

HD126  30,564   24,473  1,195   55.53%   44.47%
HD127  42,897   24,755  1,459   63.41%   36.59%
HD128  35,601   16,037  1,033   68.94%   31.06%
HD129  37,714   26,225  1,750   58.98%   41.02%
HD130  52,878   22,739  1,475   69.93%   30.07%
HD131   6,681   35,063    801   16.00%   84.00%
HD132  33,941   32,283  1,150   51.25%   48.75%
HD133  43,732   26,575  2,250   62.20%   37.80%
HD134  43,286   43,737  3,949   49.74%   50.26%
HD135  27,906   27,692  1,112   50.19%   49.81%
HD137   7,819   16,212    622   32.54%   67.46%
HD138  24,737   23,257  1,216   51.54%   48.46%
HD139  11,586   35,228  1,060   24.75%   75.25%
HD140   5,833   17,684    533   24.80%   75.20%
HD141   4,259   27,067    509   13.60%   86.40%
HD142   9,169   30,316    735   23.22%   76.78%
HD143   8,184   20,271    782   28.76%   71.24%
HD144   9,529   13,786    502   40.87%   59.13%
HD145  10,827   21,703    936   33.28%   66.72%
HD146   9,038   33,897  1,190   21.05%   78.95%
HD147  11,483   42,904  1,494   21.11%   78.89%
HD148  17,912   29,056  1,897   38.14%   61.86%
HD149  14,769   24,032    872   38.06%   61.94%
HD150  42,646   27,573  1,457   60.73%   39.27%

CC1    68,703  217,956  7,362   23.97%   76.03%
CC2   112,338  113,891  5,610   49.66%   50.34%
CC3   175,031  154,383  8,589   53.13%   46.87%
CC4   186,919  156,335  8,418   54.46%   45.54%

Dist   Cowart    Cantu  Under  Cowart%   Cantu%
===============================================
CD02  136,367  120,574  8,171   53.07%   46.93%
CD07  116,611  119,973  8,648   49.29%   50.71%
CD08   17,953   10,600    651   62.88%   37.12%
CD09   23,168   95,724  2,949   19.49%   80.51%
CD10   71,965   41,047  2,462   63.68%   36.32%
CD18   39,150  142,169  5,144   21.59%   78.41%
CD22   15,358   15,745    916   49.38%   50.62%
CD29   29,829   86,321  3,165   25.68%   74.32%
CD36   60,960   37,258  2,656   62.07%   37.93%

SBOE6 288,532  278,836 19,307   50.85%   49.15%

HD126  29,470   25,363  1,399   53.75%   46.25%
HD127  41,600   25,816  1,693   61.71%   38.29%
HD128  34,987   16,505  1,177   67.95%   32.05%
HD129  35,892   27,731  2,065   56.41%   43.59%
HD130  51,661   23,756  1,677   68.50%   31.50%
HD131   6,016   35,627    904   14.45%   85.55%
HD132  32,893   33,181  1,299   49.78%   50.22%
HD133  40,783   28,895  2,879   58.53%   41.47%
HD134  37,785   48,422  4,767   43.83%   56.17%
HD135  26,756   28,684  1,269   48.26%   51.74%
HD137   7,294   16,661    699   30.45%   69.55%
HD138  23,374   24,339  1,497   48.99%   51.01%
HD139  10,484   36,185  1,205   22.46%   77.54%
HD140   5,165   18,317    569   22.00%   78.00%
HD141   3,963   27,323    549   12.67%   87.33%
HD142   8,541   30,867    813   21.67%   78.33%
HD143   7,319   21,069    849   25.78%   74.22%
HD144   8,953   14,300    564   38.50%   61.50%
HD145   9,481   22,947  1,038   29.24%   70.76%
HD146   8,001   34,803  1,322   18.69%   81.31%
HD147   9,954   44,255  1,671   18.36%   81.64%
HD148  15,471   31,235  2,158   33.12%   66.88%
HD149  14,072   24,620    980   36.37%   63.63%
HD150  41,446   28,510  1,719   59.25%   40.75%

CC1    61,305  224,448  8,270   21.45%   78.55%
CC2   106,277  119,247  6,313   47.12%   52.88%
CC3   165,385  162,387 10,232   50.46%   49.54%
CC4   178,394  163,329  9,947   52.20%   47.80%

These three races did not feature a Libertarian candidate. District Clerk was actually one slot above County Clerk on the ballot, followed by County Treasurer and the At Large HCDE Trustee race. Abel Gomez, the Libertarian County Clerk candidate, got 30K votes. Chris Daniel outpolled Stan Stanart by 22K votes, while Marilyn Burgess took 3K more than Diane Trautman. There were 5K more undervotes in the District Clerk race. For those of you who speculate about the effect of Libertarian candidates in races like this, make of that what you will. I would also note that Abel Gomez is a Latino candidate, and these other two races featured Latino candidates. Orlando Sanchez pulled in 33K more votes than Stanart, with Dylan Osborne lagging Diane Trautman by 6K. In the HCDE race, Marc Cowart only got 2K more votes than Stanart, while Richard Cantu outpaced Trautman by 20K. Again, make of that what you will.

That’s all I’ve got from Harris County, at least for now. I’ve got a post on Fort Bend in the works, and we should soon have the state data available to ponder. I know there will be more to look at, but for now I hope this has been useful to you.

Ridiculous anti-Obamacare ruling remains on hold

It is what it is.

Best mugshot ever

The federal judge in Texas who ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional said today that the law can stand while his judgment is under appeal.

In his order issuing a stay and final partial judgment in the controversial case, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor reiterated that he believes the entire ACA cannot stand without its individual mandate penalty, which Congress zeroed out last year. O’Connor argued that appellate judges will agree with his judgment, but said it should not take effect while the case is being appealed. “[M]any everyday Americans would otherwise face great uncertainty,” he wrote.

The judge’s order means that Obamacare will likely remain the law of the land for at least another year. Depending on how the appeals proceed, it also tees up the possibility of a Supreme Court ruling on the case in 2020, during the presidential campaign.

[…]

In his new filing, O’Connor expanded his reasoning for siding with the conservative states seeking to strike down Obamacare, arguing that they have standing to bring the case. This point has been disputed, because the conservative states have struggled to show how the ACA has harmed them.

O’Connor also stressed that “courts must refrain from resolving policy disputes” created by Congress. His conclusions were widely panned, including by conservative legal scholars who maintain that O’Connor continues to misread the law and is engaging in the same judicial activism that he decries.

“I’ve been very critical of Judge O’Connor’s severability analysis, but the standing analysis in these opinions may be even worse — and that’s saying something,” tweeted Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve University law professor who was a legal architect of another major ACA challenge. “I will be gobsmacked if O’Connor’s opinion survives review in the Fifth Circuit.”

O’Connor also noted that four other counts remain unresolved — signaling that even if the appeals court overturns his ruling, conservative states could find further paths to weaken the ACA. The remaining issues include challenges under the Administrative Procedures Act and the Fifth and 10th amendments.

See here for the background. Basically everyone has panned this ruling as legally unsound – I’m being kind here – and most people believe that the ruling will be reversed. I have less faith in the Fifth Circuit than that, but we’ll see. In the meantime, we can’t get a Congress and a President who are committed to providing health care for all soon enough.

Trying again with online voter registration

Fingers crossed.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas voter registration might be heading to the internet if any of several bills filed for the upcoming legislative session finds its way to the governor’s desk.

Five bills, all filed by Democratic legislators, would require the state to create an online voter registration system if passed into law. Texas is one of just 10 states without such a system.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is a good government issue,” said Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, who filed House Bill 361 to create an electronic voter registration system in Texas. “I’m pledging to continue the fight, because now it’s embarrassing that so many states have it and Texas doesn’t.”

[…]

[Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of Common Cause Texas] said he thought there was a lot of bipartisan support building behind the idea of an online registration system. Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, agrees.

“Just about everything in our lives has been enveloped with the digital age, and I don’t know why voting would be any different,” said Larson, who shares a seat on the House Elections Committee with Israel. “I think a lot of it is unwarranted fear,” he said of concerns that online registration could welcome fraud. “People are banking online, paying bills online. Everything is online and digital, and I think the state needs to evolve so our registration is the same way.”

Other states with online registration include Georgia, which adopted the practice in 2012, and Alabama, which made the change administratively in 2016. Arizona was the first state to create an online voter registration system, in 2002. Larson said he thinks other conservative southern states’ use of an online system provides a strong case to the Texas Legislature to pass a similar law.

“If we were the first large Republican state to try this, I could understand the snail’s pace to implementing this — but we’re not pioneering, we’re following,” Larson said.

Despite her previous efforts, Israel is confident the upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 8, will be different.

“Texas has a sad and tortured history of making it harder to vote, not easier,” Israel said. “One enthusiastic freshman (legislator) was not going to change the world, but that enthusiastic freshman is now a revived and rejuvenated, enthusiastic junior, who has found I can make friends and make a case for this bill.”

I don’t want to oversell this, but one other difference is that now the Harris County Clerk’s office will favor such a bill instead of opposing it. The Harris County Tax Assessor’s office also now favors such a bill, and has done so since the last session. This is one of those “elections have consequences” situations. That may not be enough – if Dan Patrick doesn’t want an online voter registration bill to pass, it will not get a vote in the Senate – but it can only help. And as always, now is a good time to contact your legislators and let them know that you support online voter registration.

The losers of 2018

Allow me to point you to the Observer’s list of six Texas political players who lost power in 2018. I’d call it five-sixths of a good list, plus one entry I don’t quite understand.

3) Bexar County Democrats

Want to understand the dysfunction and ineptitude of Texas Democrats? Look no further than Bexar County, where the local party is dead broke and mired with infighting. It’s a small miracle that Democrats were able to flip 24 county seats in November. But they still managed to bungle several other potential pickups.

After felon Carlos Uresti resigned from his San Antonio state Senate seat this year, Pete Gallego and the local party apparatus managed to lose the special election runoff, handing over a predominately Hispanic district that Democrats have held for 139 years to Republican Pete Flores. Ultimately, losing that seat allowed Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to keep his GOP supermajority in the upper chamber, as Democrats picked up two Dallas senate districts in November.

On top of that, San Antonio native Gina Ortiz Jones narrowly lost her bid to oust “moderate maverick” Will Hurd in the 23rd Congressional District. In a blue wave year, the perennial swing district that stretches from San Antonio to the western border should have been a gimme. But Ortiz Jones ultimately lost by about 1,250 votes — a margin that a functioning local party in the most important part of the district easily could have made up.

Then there’s Julián Castro, the Alamo City’s hometown hero. Along with his twin brother, the supposed face of the Democratic Party’s future decided to sit out the most important election cycle of his career because he didn’t want to risk sullying his profile with a statewide loss in Texas. Then he watched from the sidelines as some nobody from El Paso became a political phenom and now sits atop the 2020 presidential wishlists.

Castro also wants to run for president and is scrambling to lay down his marker in a crowded Democratic primary field, as if nothing has changed since he became a party darling in the late 2000s. The thing is, political power doesn’t last if you try to bottle it up to use at the most opportune time.

My first thought is, do you mean the Bexar County Democratic Party? The Democratic voters of Bexar County? Some number of elected officials and other insider types who hail from Bexar County? Every other item on the list is either an individual or a concise and easily-defined group. I don’t know who exactly author Justin Miller is throwing rocks at, so I’m not sure how to react to it.

Then there’s also the matter of the examples cited for why this nebulous group deserves to be scorned. Miller starts out strong with the Pete Flores-Pete Gallego special election fiasco. Let us as always look at some numbers:

SD19 runoff, Bexar County – Flores 12,027, Gallego 10,259
SD19 election, Bexar County – Flores 3,301, Gallego 3,016, Gutierrez 4,272
SD19 2016 election, Bexar County – Uresti 89,034, Flores 54,989

Clearly, in two out of three elections the Bexar County part of SD19 was key to the Democrats. Carlos Uresti’s margin of victory in 2016 was about 37K votes, which as you can see came almost entirely from Bexar. The first round of the special election had the two top Dems getting nearly 70% of the vote in Bexar. It all fell apart in the runoff. You can blame Pete Gallego and his campaign for this, you can blame Roland Gutierrez for not endorsing and stumping for Gallego, you can blame the voters themselves. A little clarity, that’s all I ask.

As for the Hurd-Ortiz Jones matchup, the numbers do not bear out the accusation.

CD23 2018 election, Bexar County – Hurd 55,191, Ortiz Jones 50,517, Corvalan 2,260
CD23 2016 election, Bexar County – Hurd 59,406, Gallego 45,396, Corvalan 6,291

Gallego trailed Hurd by 14K votes in Bexar, while Ortiz Jones trailed him by less than 5K. She got five thousand more votes in Bexar than Gallego did. Hurd had a bigger margin in Medina County and did better in the multiple small counties, while Ortiz Jones didn’t do as well in El Paso and Maverick counties. They’re much more to blame, if one must find blame, for her loss than Bexar is.

As for the Castros, I don’t think there was room for both of them to join the 2018 ticket. Joaquin Castro, as I have noted before, is right now in a pretty good position as a four-term Congressperson in a Dem-majority House. I hardly see how one could say he was wrong for holding onto that, with the bet that the House would flip. Julian could have run for Governor, but doing so would have meant not running for President in 2020, and might have ended his career if he’d lost to the surprisingly popular and extremely well-funded Greg Abbott. Would Beto plus Julian have led to better results for Texas Dems than just Beto did? It’s certainly possible, though as always it’s easy to write your own adventure when playing the counterfactual game. I agree with the basic premise that political power is more ephemeral than anyone wants to admit. I think they both made reasonable and defensible decisions for themselves, and it’s not at all clear they’d be better off today if they’d chosen to jump into a 2018 race. Life is uncertain, you know?

Now how much would you pay for that emergency room visit?

Guess higher, and it is a guess because who knows what you’ll wind up getting charged for it.

Fifteen months after Texas enacted a law to bring transparency to the state’s for-profit free-standing emergency rooms, many of the facilities continue to send mixed messages about insurance coverage that could expose unsuspecting patients to surprise medical bills.

A Houston Chronicle review of websites representing the 52 free-standing emergency rooms in the Houston area shows a pattern in which many of the facilities prominently advertise that they “accept” all major private insurance. Some even list the insurers’ names and logos.

But often tucked under pull-down tabs or at the bottom of the page is a notice that the facilities are outside the networks of those insurers, followed by a reassurance that under the Texas insurance code, network status does not matter in emergency treatment, implying patients needn’t worry about coverage.

What the websites fail to disclose is that out-of-network status can result in insurance reimbursements far below the charges, leaving patients on the hook for the remainder of the bill — sometimes thousands of dollars.

“The word ‘accept’ means something very different to them than to the consumer, and they know that when they write their websites,” said Stacey Pogue, senior health policy analyst at the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “They do not tell the rest of the story.”

For example, many of the Houston-area facilities advertise that they accept Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, the state’s largest insurer. But the Chronicle’s review found that only five — about 10 percent — are in that insurer’s network.

Those findings are consistent with a statewide report by AARP Texas, to be released Monday at a state Senate committee hearing, that found 77 percent of the state’s 215 free-standing emergency rooms said they “take” or “accept” Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance, but were out-of-network.

Free-standing emergency rooms defend their websites, describing concerns raised by advocacy groups and Texas lawmakers as manufactured outrage.

“I don’t see a problem with saying they ‘accept,’” said Dr. Carrie de Moor, CEO of Code 3 Emergency Partners, a Frisco-based network of free-standing emergency rooms, urgent care clinics and a telemedicine program. She insisted that patients understand that accepting someone’s insurance is different from being in that company’s network.

It may seem like a hair-splitting distinction, but it can carry high costs, health policy experts said.

Obvious point #1: It’s ridiculous that we live in a society where basic medical needs, including emergency care, are not met. It’s utterly scandalous that prior to the Affordable Care Act, there were thousands upon thousands of bankruptcies caused every year by medical issues. Plenty of other countries have figured this out. Our standard of medical care is no better than theirs. It’s just more expensive.

Obvious point #2: For those who believe in the power of the free market, why is it that medical services, especially those tied to emergency and hospital care, are so utterly opaque when it comes to their pricing? Think of all the other goods and services you buy. In nearly all of them, you know up front how much it’s going to cost. That is universally untrue for the vast majority of medical services, from basics like painkillers and bandages to anaesthesia and specialist fees to higher-end products like EKGs and colonoscopies. There’s no such thing as a free market with unknowable prices. You want to move towards something like a free market in health care, fix that.

Here come the new judges

They’re going to be fine. Seriously, everyone chill out.

[Frank] Aguilar said some of his Democratic colleagues may not have a lot of judicial experience, but most have had long careers as lawyers and have the experience they need to improve the system.

That sentiment has been a constant among the new Democrat judges. In the days after the election, Dedra Davis, who was elected to civil bench, said the new judges would be using a “wheel” to appoint attorneys at random instead of continuing a system of judges appointing a small roster of attorneys they know.

“A little more fairness, a little more impartiality, and a little more equality is coming, and not everybody’s happy about that,” she said. “Lawyers who made $500,000 a year from their relationship with a judge who always gave them appointments aren’t going to see that anymore.”

In the days after the election, attorneys who had been elevated to the bench were busy winding up their practices while judges who lost were looking at their options.

Josh Hill, a newly elected Democrat criminal court judge, said there is a learning curve in any new job. He expects some “hiccups and speedbumps” around the courts, but said he and the other new judges are fair and will work hard to improve the system.

“I don’t have any reason to think that any of the incoming judges will be incapable of handling the task. I think they’ll do fine,” he said. “Ultimately, you’re going to see a more progressive criminal justice system.”

Hill noted that some of the departing judges came to work late and did not seem to be diligent about getting things done with their dockets. He said practical experience and a strong work ethic are more important than the belief that judges are somehow “better” qualified just because they’ve been on the bench longer.

“Some of them did a great job and some did a terrible job and some were just in-between,” he said. “It just comes down to the individual and what they’re willing to put into it and how hard they’re willing to work.”

[…]

JoAnne Musick , felony division chief at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said new judges are elected every other year and they all seem to learn the job.

“It takes them four to six weeks to get their feet wet and then they’re off and running,” she said.

Many criminal defense attorneys agreed.

“I’ve seen so many transitions and everybody figures it out. It’s going to be fine,” said Cheryl Irvin, a longtime criminal defense lawyer who has practiced since 1980. “Nobody’s going home who should be going to prison. Nothing like that is happening and anybody who says anything like that is just immature.”

Yeah, pretty much. I know it’s de rigeur to dump on the system we have of partisan judicial elections, and for sure there are some departing judges who would have been fine to keep on the bench. But let’s be honest, appointment systems will pick some duds, too. Every company that has ever hired an employee has hired people who just didn’t work out for one reason or another. Maybe an appointment system, if properly built and maintained, would do a better job of picking winners than the system we have now. But all those good judges whose loss everyone is now lamenting were chosen by this same partisan election system we have. It’s not like nobody good got elected.

And hey, guess what: The Legislature is about to be in session. Everyone who believes the system we have for electing judges is terrible is welcomed and encouraged to lobby their legislators to design and implement something better. Come up with a plan, get a legislator to sponsor it, and go from there. There’s never been a better time to turn complaints into action. And if six months from now we make it to sine die without such a bill appearing on anyone’s radar, I’ll know how serious the complainers were about their grievances.

Paxton prosecutors take their shot at a do-over

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

In a fiery filing that amounts to a legal Hail Mary, the attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton implored the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yielded “a patently absurd result.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in November that a six-figure payment originally approved for the special prosecutors was outside legal limits — a move that boosted Paxton and threatened to derail the case against him, as the prosecutors had indicated they might withdraw if they could not be paid. A month later, the prosecutors have asked the court to reconsider their decision in a crucial case “where the ‘x’ axis of justice and the ‘y’ axis of politics intersect.”

Rehearing, they argued in a filing last week, is critical for ensuring that the high court’s proceedings “appear fair to all who observe them.” [Read the filing here]

[…]

In the Dec. 21 filing, prosecutor Brian Wice wrote that the prosecutors “would never have accepted the formidable task of prosecuting the Texas Attorney General over the last three-plus years had they been able to look into the future and discern that their pay would come within a coat of paint of minimum wage.”

From the opening sentence, the 18-page filing doesn’t mince words.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, you can lawfully create and endow a defense fund to pay for an armada of top-flight legal talent that most defendants can only dream of to defend yourself against three felony offenses,” Wice wrote.

In the motion for rehearing, which includes references to Atticus Finch, Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan and the impending “Sword of Damocles,” the prosecutors implore the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yields “a patently absurd result” that would pay the special prosecutors “unconscionable” rates.

Letting the ruling stand, Wice argued, would allow any local government in Texas “to derail what it sees as an unjust prosecution by de-funding it.” And that type of funding dispute can be influenced by major political players, he suggested.

“Make no mistake,” he wrote. “While it was the Commissioners who prevailed in this Court, Paxton first recognized that the best, indeed, the only way to derail his prosecution was to de-fund it by challenging [prosecutors’] fees three years ago.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, the prosecutors are 100% right on the merits, and they lay it out with utter clarity. I maintain that the Legislature can and should fix this by making the state pick up the tab for prosecutions like this, but that won’t help here, even if we could be sure that a bill to address this would pass. We need the Court to do the right thing, which they failed to do the first time around. It’s either that or they show that they don’t care about the law when one of their own is on the sharp end of it.

From the “If at first you don’t succeed” department

Three Dem Congressional candidates from 2018 may try again in 2020.

Todd Litton

Among the typically deep-red districts that came down to single digits were three races around Harris County. Incumbent Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, won by margins of 4.3 and 4.9 percentage points in Texas’ heavily gerrymandered 10th and 22nd Congressional Districts. Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, R-Spring, won by more than 7 points an open race for the 2nd Congressional District, one also drawn to elect Republicans.

In recent elections, the districts had gone to Republicans by no fewer than 19 percentage points, with margins as high as 38 points.

Now, as they parse the results and consider what comes next, Democrats in these races must grapple with important questions. Did they come close because of a boost from Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s Senate bid and anger among voters prodded to the polls by President Donald Trump, or did they offer a preview of what is to come? Is a 40-something percent result the ceiling, and if not, where might they find more votes?

All three losing Democrats — Todd Litton, Mike Siegel and Sri Preston Kulkarni — said they may take another swing at the districts in 2020, when Trump could appear atop the ballot and galvanize even more voters than in 2018.

[…]

Litton acknowledged he was unlucky to draw an opponent as tough as Crenshaw, saying the former Navy SEAL “was not your standard first-time candidate.” For now, the defeated Democrat plans to see how Crenshaw’s first term goes, and decide later if he wants to run.

“I’d consider it. I don’t know that I’m going to do it,” said Litton, who directed an education nonprofit before seeking office. “We’ll see how Dan does and what he says.”

[…]

Mike Siegel

Texas’ 10th Congressional District covers much of the rural area between Travis and Harris counties, stretching across nine counties from Katy and Cypress all the way through downtown Austin to Lake Travis. It is one of four GOP-held districts dividing up deep-blue Travis County, the only county Siegel won.

Compared to McCaul’s 2016 race, turnout this year grew by more than 3,400 votes in Travis County, where McCaul’s support fell by about eight percentage points. In the remaining eight counties, turnout fell by 8,200 votes from two years ago, and McCaul’s support dropped from 70 percent to 65 percent.

All told, McCaul lost ground in every county from 2016, though his support dipped by fewer than two percentage points in Austin, Colorado, Fayette, Lee and Washington counties — all areas where Siegel failed to break even 23 percent.

[…]

One reason for Democratic optimism, Siegel said, is the changing nature of Bastrop and Waller counties, located next to Travis and Harris, respectively. Two years ago, McCaul won Bastrop and Waller by 22 and 32 percentage points, respectively, while this year the margin was 11 and 25 points. Siegel also drew 36 percent of the vote in Harris County, about 7 points ahead of Cadien in 2016.

[…]

Sri Kulkarni

Olson never had won a general election by fewer than 19 points — his margin in 2016 — but several trends gave Kulkarni reason to contest the district. Notably, it shifted 17.5 points in favor of Democrats from the 2012 to 2016 presidential election, the fourth most dramatic change in the country.

Kulkarni’s preliminary data also found that both parties had ignored major swaths of the district. In particular, Asian residents make up about 20 percent of the district’s population, far more than any other Texas congressional district, but Kulkarni found that three-quarters of Asian voters had not been contacted by any political party.

Kulkarni’s efforts hinged on turning out the scores of college-educated immigrants who moved to the district during the last several years. He ultimately lost by 4.9 percentage points, a result he attributes partly to not reaching enough Hispanic voters. He did not rule out giving it another shot in 2020.

“If I’m the best candidate, I’ll run again,” Kulkarni said. “I don’t want to throw away all the hard work that we did in organizing here, because going from 19 points two years ago or 34 points four years ago, to 4.9 — there’s obviously a change going on in terms of who’s participating.”

A few general thoughts…

1. Obviously, it’s very early to say who may or may not be running in 2020. Even if all three of these guys say they’re in, they could face primary opponents, and who knows what might happen in a Presidential-year primary, where I think we might see 2008-level turnout. That said, there are always advantages to getting in early – among other things, you can start fundraising right away – and whether we like it or not, the 2020 campaign is already underway. Take all the time you need to decide, but don’t take any longer than that.

2. Of the three, Litton or anyone else in CD02 will likely have the toughest race. Dan Crenshaw has star potential, and he doesn’t yet have any Trump stink on him. He also had the biggest margin of victory in 2018. On the other hand, he will have to start making tough choices about Trump and the Trump agenda, and with CD07 in Democratic hands, CD02 is (along with County Commissioner Precinct 3) the top target for Team Blue in 2020. In addition, no one has to be convinced now that CD02 is worth targeting. It will be on the national radar from the beginning, which will help.

3. That “key for Democratic optimism” paragraph about CD10 is the key for 2020. The Harris County part of the district is fast-growing, and offers a lot of opportunity to find, register, and turn out new Dem voters that year. Looking at the 2016 and 2018 election returns, there were 21K more voters this year in the Harris part of CD10 than there were two years ago. Turnout was 69% in there in 2016, and 59% in 2018, though that meant 6K more voters thanks to the larger voter pool. I feel like if you can get the Dem number in Harris County above 40%, you can win this district. You’ll still need a strong showing in Travis, and there’s room for growth as noted in Bastrop and Waller, but if you get to 40% in Harris I feel like this one is in reach.

4. As noted before, Pete Olson may or may not make it to the ballot in 2020. Generally speaking, having an open seat makes it more winnable for the opposing party. That may be less true in the Trump era, but an open seat will definitely push this up a notch on the national radar. If Kulkarni runs again, my advice is “keep doing what you’re doing”. If it’s someone else, my advice is “do what Sri Kulkarni did, and do more of it”.

Normally, this is the time when I say things like “I want to get through 2019 before I start thinking about 2020”. This is the world we live in now. 2019 is important, but given that everyone who wants to run in 2020 will have to file for office before 2019 is over, we really do have to be thinking about it now.

The Harris County GOP has not hit bottom yet

I have four thing to say about this.

Never forget

Drubbed. Shellacked. Whooped. Walloped. Routed.

However you want to describe November’s midterm election, it was disastrous for Harris County Republicans. They were swept from the remaining countywide posts they held — the other shoe to drop after Democrats booted the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago — and lost all 55 judicial seats on the ballot. For the first time in decades, Democrats will hold a majority of Commissioners Court.

The path forward for the local GOP is unclear. The party’s statewide slate went undefeated yet rebuked by Harris County voters, raising questions about whether its pitch to rural voters alienated urban ones. In the state’s most populous county, and his home base, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz got just 41 percent of the vote.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson, however, is optimistic. He said several local Republicans would have won, chief among them County Judge Ed Emmett, if straight-ticket voting had been eliminated before the election. Republicans in the Texas Legislature decided to retire the straight-ticket option after 2018, which traditionally benefited their party, but proved disastrous for the GOP in urban counties this cycle.

“Pendulums will swing back,” Simpson said. “I’m confident in the near future, we’ll be back.”

Scholars and Emmett, the county executive for 11 years before his upset loss, offered a less rosy assessment — that of a party catering to a largely white, graying base that is failing to adapt to changing demographics and awaiting the return of a “normal” electorate that has ceased to exist. November 2018 should be a wake-up call, they say, but they wonder if the local Republican Party is listening.

“If you look at ’18 as a turning point for Harris County, there’s nothing data-wise that would give you any indication this was an aberration and not a structural change,” said Jay Aiyer, who teaches political science at Texas Southern University. “If anything, you could see it actually swinging harder to the Democrats in ’22.”

Mark Jones, who studies Texas politics at Rice University, offered a more tepid view. He said the broad unpopularity of President Donald Trump drove some voters to the polls this fall who may not have participated otherwise.

“If you take Trump out of the equation and put in a more liberal Democrat … it’s not clear to me that Democrats have the same level of advantage,” Jones said. “The county is trending from red, to pink, to purple. But I would not say Harris County is blue.”

[…]

Republicans have not won a countywide post in a presidential election year since 2012. University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the local GOP would be wise to lower its expectations for 2020, which likely will feature an unpopular president at the top of the ticket.

“The Republicans need to show they’ve still got a pulse after the disaster that befell them in ’18,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s about the best they can hope for in a presidential year.”

Simpson, who has led county Republicans since 2014, said the party will focus on recruiting fresh candidates who can appeal to a wide swath of voters, rather than the sliver of partisans who vote in primaries. He lauded the success of Dan Crenshaw in the 2nd Congressional District, a young, charismatic combat veteran who beat better-funded candidates in the primary.

Crenshaw’s win, Simpson said, showed candidates “can be conservative and still be cool.”

The Texas 2nd, however, is a district drawn for Republicans that has a far greater proportion of white residents than Harris County as a whole.

1. I’ve said all there is for me to say about straight ticket voting. The embedded image is a reminder that Republicans used to be big fans of straight ticket voting. Turns out that straight ticket voting works really well for the party that has more voters to begin with. There’s an awful lot of Republicans in this state who never contemplated the possibility that they would not be the majority party.

2. As noted in the title of this post, Republicans in Harris County have not hit rock bottom quite yet. One thing I discovered in doing the precinct data analyses is that Beto O’Rourke carried all eight Constable/Justice of the Peace precincts. I didn’t write about that in part because I didn’t quite believe it, but there it is. The three Republican Constables and three of the six Republican JPs are on the ballot in 2020. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that after the 2020 election, the only Republicans holding county office will be the three JPs in Place 2 (the of-year cycle), County Commissioner Jack Cagle, and the three not-at-large HCDE Trustees. Those last three JPs could then be wiped out in 2022, along with the HCDE Trustee for Precinct 2, with the Trustee for Precinct 3 (who won this year by less than a percentage point) on track for elimination in 2024. Yes, lots of things can change, and I’m assuming that Commissioner Steve Radack will either be defeated in 2020 or will step down and the Republicans will fail to hold his seat. My point is, the Republicans not only have very little left, what they have is precarious and fragile, and there are no obvious opportunities to make gains in county government.

(You may now be saying “But Adrian Garcia will have to run for re-election in 2022, and he won a close race this year under favorable circumstances, so he could lose then.” Yes, but do you know what happens between now and the 2022 elections? The County Commissioner precincts undergo redistricting. Jack Morman benefited from that process after his win in 2010; what I wrote here was premature but in the end turned out to be accurate. I guarantee you, Precinct 2 will be friendlier to Commissioner Garcia’s re-election prospects, and if a Dem wins in Precinct 3 in 2020, it will be friendlier to that Commissioner’s prospects in 2024 as well.)

Legislatively, Dems have more targets (HDs 138, 134, and 126, with longer shots in 129 and 133 and even 150) than they have seats to defend. Lizzie Fletcher will have to defend CD07, but Dan Crenshaw will have to defend CD02, and he didn’t win his seat by much more than Fletcher won hers by (7 points for Crenshaw, 5 points for Fletcher). CD10 and CD22, which cover more than Harris County, are already on the national radar for 2020 as well. We’re not watching the battleground any more, we’re in the thick of it.

3. The Republicans’ problems in Harris County run deeper than Donald Trump. Every statewide elected official, most especially Dan Patrick (here shilling for the ludicrous “wall”) and Ken Paxton, who is spending all of his energy outside his own criminal defense on destroying health care, is a surrogate for Trump. People were just as fired up to vote against Patrick, Paxton, and Sid Miller as they were to vote against Ted Cruz, and the numbers bear that out. They’ll get another chance to do that in 2022, so even in a (please, God, please) post-Trump landscape, there will still be reminders of Trump and reasons to keep doing the work that we started in 2018.

4. All that said, we know two things for sure: One is that there are more Democrats than Republicans in Harris County, which is a combination of demographic trends, Donald Trump laying waste to American values, and sustained voter registration efforts. Two, Republicans have been unable to compete in a high-turnout election in Harris County since 2008. (2010 was a relatively high turnout year, for an off year, but it was still only 41.7%, quite a bit less than this year’s 52.8%.) It is a reasonable question to ask if Dems can be dominant in a low-turnout scenario. 2014 was a terrible year for turnout, and Republicans swept the county, but with the topline Rs mostly winning by four to six points. There’s definitely a scenario under which Rs could do well in 2022 and in which the demographic and political patterns we have seen do not fundamentally change. It’s hard to see how they compete going forward without a serious effort to rebrand, and every day that Donald Trump and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and Sid Miller are in office, that rebranding becomes harder to do. Lots of things can change. The Republican Party needs to be one of them.

More Congressional retirement speculation

From Roll Call:

Rep. Kenny Marchant

Life in the minority will be a new experience for most House Republicans next year. And many of them may not remember what happened the last time the GOP lost the House.

After the 2006 Democratic wave, about two dozen Republicans opted to retire the following cycle instead of languishing in the minority. And some in the party are worried about a repeat.

“I don’t know if people have gotten over the shell shock yet, but there ought to be,” said Rep. Tom Cole when asked if there was concern about potential retirements.

The Oklahoma Republican knows firsthand the costs of losing the majority. He chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2008 campaign cycle and was tasked with convincing Republicans in tough districts not to retire. Twenty-three members ended up choosing to leave.

Convincing someone not to retire is a difficult, but important, sell — especially after a huge wave of GOP retirements in the 2018 cycle opened the door to Democratic victories last month.

“We saw how devastating that was for us this year,” Cole said. “Another round of that would be really bad.”

[…]

Close attention is likely to fall on lawmakers who survived close races last month, particularly in suburban areas where President Donald Trump is unpopular. And a few names are already starting to circulate.

A handful of Texas Republicans survived closer-than-expected contests. Rep. Pete Olson, who won re-election by 5 points in a district outside Houston, had been rumored to be eyeing the exit. But his chief of staff Melissa Kelly denied it. Rep. Kenny Marchant, who won his Dallas-area seat by just 3 points, said he “absolutely” is also running again, calling his recent victory margin an “anomaly.”

A handful of GOP ranking members who are facing their last term at the top of their committees could also be looking to leave. Republicans can only serve a combined six years as chairman or ranking member of a committee, and that influenced several retirements last cycle.

Rep. Olson has been the subject of retirement rumors for some time now. I don’t think anyone will be surprised if he bows out. Marchant is a new name for this, and it’s one that I think may have been more about speculation than actual chatter. That said, people have noticed how close CD24 was, and it’s a virtual certainty that Marchant will be in the spotlight this cycle. Beto carried CD24, a fact that you should expect to hear many more times over the next two years. (Beto also carried CD10, by a smaller margin.)

Along those lines, here are the way-too-early Cook Political Report rankings for the 2020 House elections. CDs 07 and 32, the two won by Dem challengers this year, are Lean Democratic. CDs 23 and 24 – there’s that district again – are Republican Toss-Ups. CDs 10, 21, 22, and 31 are Lean Republican, while CD06 is Likely Republican. I for one think CDs 02, 03, and 25 deserve mention as well. No matter how you look at it, Texas is going to get a lot of attention in 2020.

Watch your packages

They’re disappearing off porches at an increasing rate.

Package thefts have become a growing problem across the country, Texas and Houston as more people shop online. Nearly 26 million Americans have had a holiday package stolen, according to a study by InsuranceQuotes, an Austin-based online insurance marketplace.

In Houston, police say, package thefts have increased by 80 percent since 2015, when the Houston Police started tracking the crime. SafeWise, a home security company research firm, estimates that nearly 20 out of every 1,000 Houston residents have had packages stolen and ranks the city No. 7 in the nation for package theft.

Houston was the largest city on SafeWise’s national list, which was dominated by Texas cities including No. 1 Austin and No. 8 Dallas.

The problem, of course, is exacerbated during the holidays, the busiest shopping season of the year. Americans spent a record $110.6 billion online between Nov. 1 and Dec. 19, an increase of 17.8 percent from last year, according to Adobe Analytics, a research firm tracking online shopping

“When the number of packages goes up, thefts go up,” Houston Police spokesman John Cannon said.

Package theft is difficult to solve — even with the proliferation of security cameras and video doorbells — because it’s a crime of opportunity, said Sgt. Eugenio Gonzalez with Houston Police’s burglary and theft division While there are some groups of so-called porch pirates roaming around snatching packages, many are first-time criminals.

“It’s easy pickings,” said Gonzalez.

[…]

Some consumers are taking matters into their own hands by setting out decoy packages. Recently, a former NASA engineer rigged a package that sprayed glitter and a fart-smell cologne on porch pirates when they opened it — and filmed their reactions. The resulting video went viral on YouTube, with more than 42 million views.

Houston police don’t recommend people set out bait packages to try to catch package thieves. Instead, they encourage residents to call and report thefts and have officers investigate.

Residents should schedule deliveries when someone is home, or have it delivered to people’s workplace or a neighbor’s house, police said. The department also encourages installing video cameras, buying shipping insurance and using package lockers.

“I never tell anyone to take the law into their own hands,” Gonzalez said. “I myself will be getting a Ring video doorbell for my family.”

I wouldn’t recommend the decoy package thing either, but I thank the guy who did do it for the lolz. There are various ways to mitigate against the problem, from secure pickup locations to letting delivery people enter your home to the old-fashioned “drop it off with a neighbor” and “be at home when they deliver” strategies. Or, you know, maybe buy more stuff in stores. I’m just saying.

Recruiting more women for 2020

We made a lot of progress towards better gender balance in our various legislative bodies this year. If we want to make more progress in 2020, it starts with finding and recruiting more female candidates.

Kim Olson

Even on a rainy Thursday night in the busy weeks before Christmas, nearly two dozen women crowded into a country club meeting room here, fired up about the possibility of running for office.

Democratic recruiters report that about 100 women attended similar “Candidate 101” classes across Texas last week. The party is searching far and wide for potential candidates as Democratic leaders look to capitalize on momentum from the November midterm election, when women claimed a greater share of political power in Congress than ever before.

The 102 women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November represent 23 percent of House members. Women will hold 38 of the 181 available seats when the Texas Legislature convenes in January — about 20 percent.

“I think there’s more work to be done for increasing diversity so everybody has a seat at the table,” said Pooja Sethi, who is Indian and who worked as a fundraiser for several Austin-area Democratic candidates. She wants to see more South Asians in the Texas Legislature. “The future is bright.”

Hmm. I count 41 women currently in the Lege, with Reps. Carol Alvarado and Joe Pickett needing to be succeeded. I also counted 37 from the previous session. I may have miscounted – feel free to double check me – but I’m not sure where that 38 comes from. Be that as it may, eight of the 12 Democratic challengers in the House that won were women.

Kim Olson, a Democrat and retired Air Force Colonel, said she awoke after Trump’s election “mad as hell” and determined to run for office — she just didn’t know which one.

After learning Democrats were having a tough time finding candidates to run for Texas agriculture commissioner, the beekeeper and farmer decided that was the office she wanted, she told the women gathered at the “Candidate 101” course in Cedar Park.

With no name recognition but a strong personality, she earned 3.8 million votes — more than any other woman who has run statewide in Texas, including former Gov. Ann Richards and former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson and failed gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. Olson, who raised close to $450,000 — largely in donations of less than $200 — fell 5 percentage points short of defeating Republican Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

Olson said she wants to use the political capital she has built to find a female candidate to run against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, whose seat is up for re-election 2020.

Noting that 2020 will mark the 100-year anniversary of women’s winning the right to vote, she said, “Some woman is going to run. If Beto (O’Rourke) doesn’t do it, let’s find the right woman.”

Olson hinted she would be willing to run herself if no suitable candidate emerges, but stressed she wants to help “take these kids from JV to varsity.”

“I’m going to be unapologetic — it’s got to be all about women,” she said. “This what the long game looks like.”

I’m down with Kim Olson running for Senate if Beto opts out. We’re only about halfway to where we should be, so this very much is about the long game.

Santa’s employment agency

Good work if you can get it.

If you have had a picture taken with Santa Claus in San Antonio this holiday season, there’s a good chance he was booked through a local business run by a head elf.

That head elf is Renee Davis, CEO of San Antonio-based Santa Express Central, who manages more than 50 professional Santa Clauses across the state, a business Davis said keeps her busy year-round.

“In order to get a really professional Santa, retailers get on it a good 18 months to a year in advance, because it’s that competitive to get a good Santa,” she said.

All of the Santas with Santa Express Central have real beards, Davis said. She puts them through a background check, insures them, outfits them with Santa uniforms, and enrolls them into her own Santa school. There they practice their ho-ho-ho’s and learn how to style themselves properly, speak around children, preserve the magic of Santa Claus, and strike the best poses for the camera. Her training prepares them to be the best Santas they can be, she said.

“My Santas book out very fast, and it’s because of the difference we make,” she said. “They’re taking that extra moment and time, letting the child know, ‘I care, I see you, and I hear you.'”

Between November and December, Davis estimates she books more than 600 events with her Santa Clauses. She has 57 Santas across Texas, though the majority live in the San Antonio and Hill Country area.

Hey, Santa has better things to do than figure out where his next gig is. It’s good that he has someone to do this sort of thing for him. Visit the charmingly retro Santa Express Central webpage to learn more.

Pete Sessions’ fine whine

There ain’t enough cheese in the entire state of Wisconsin to accompany this.

Rep. Pete Sessions’ campaign might be over. But he isn’t over it.

The Dallas Republican is still smoldering about the circumstances that led to his decisive loss in November to Democrat Colin Allred, a first-time political candidate who ended Sessions’ 22-year career in Congress and helped tip the House back to Democratic control.

“It required an incredible amount of money and an overwhelming sense of mischaracterization,” Sessions told The Dallas Morning News at his Capitol office.

That indignation burned through a recent exit interview, one that included a matter-of-fact assessment by the chairman of the House Rules Committee that he’s “not done with politics.”

His biggest campaign regret, he allowed, was that he didn’t “take more credit for the things that I do.” The campaign’s X factor had nothing to do with his own race, he said, but instead the success that Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke had in bringing Democrats to the polls.

He struggled to win over new voters, he vented, because of the “Democratic Party and their allies who smeared” him as an out-of-touch Beltway insider — and worse.

“I got tattooed this election,” he said. “People fell victim to thinking, ‘Wow, he’s for dogfighting. Wow, he does nothing for seniors. Wow, he voted against cancer drugs.’”

There’s more, and you should click over and savor every last word of it. Honestly, there’s no sweeter sound than those of a PAC-fattened kingpin complaining about how unfair it is that he has to get a real job now. Don’t worry, Pete, I’m sure the gravy train will make a stop at your office before you have to vamoose. In the meantime, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Recapture reinterpretation lawsuit update

This is a bit in the weeds, so bear with me.

Houston ISD likely will keep an additional tens of millions of dollars more in property tax revenues each year following a widely expected Texas appeals court decision Friday.

Judges from the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled against two small school districts and a nonprofit that sued the Texas Education Agency over its re-interpretation of statutes related to “recapture,” the state’s method of redistributing tax revenues from property-wealthy districts to property-poor districts. The ruling means that property-wealthy districts, such as HISD, will face lower “recapture” payments back to the state moving forward.

HISD officials projected the ruling would result in the district keeping an additional $51 million in 2018-19. District leaders expected the Texas Education Agency to win the lawsuit, so the already factored the $51 million in revenue into the current budget. As a result, the district will not see a windfall that can be spent on additional costs.

The plaintiffs alleged the Texas Education Agency improperly re-interpreted state law to include optional property tax homestead exemptions into “recapture” calculations for districts with wealthy property tax bases relative to their student enrollment totals.

A district court judge granted a temporary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the appellate court found the plaintiffs could not prove they were harmed by the re-interpretation because it did not cause a shortfall in the state’s Foundation School Program, the fund through which state money is distributed to school districts.

See here and here for the background. Back when we were all arguing about HISD making recapture payments to the state, HISD successfully managed to get the TEA to interpret the law over how such payments are calculated to take into account the Local Option Homestead Exemption (LOHE) that some districts like HISD offer. Taking the LOHE into account, which the TEA had not previously done, causes the recapture formula to produce a smaller bill for districts like HISD that use it. That’s where that $51 million figure comes from. A couple of smaller school districts, along with MALDEF, filed suit over this reinterpretation on the grounds that it would cost them money, which was in conflict with the Foundation School Program. The Third Court of Appeals has ruled that the smaller districts could not prove that they were harmed, so the TEA rule as now interpreted was upheld, which in turn saves HISD some money. Makes sense? Of course, if the Lege follows through on its latest plan to reform school finance, any or all of this could change in ways we don’t yet know. But for now, this is where we stand.

Will Amazon ruin Christmas trees?

Maybe!

Amazon this year launched a new service to deliver full-sized, fresh Christmas trees to customers’ homes, betting that lots of people will prefer convenience over experience. The mega-etailer has shown time and time again that it can change consumer buying habits and longtime traditions, and that is making purveyors of fresh Christmas trees around Houston nervous.

Devine said he was flabbergasted that Amazon would try to break into the business. Shortly after Amazon began selling trees, Devine said, he burned his Amazon Prime card and swore to never buy anything from the online retailer again.

“Amazon has just gone too far with this, coming after our livelihood,” Devine said. “They’re going to hurt small, independent nurseries like us. We rely a lot on tree sales.”

Amazon isn’t the first retailer to ship Christmas trees direct to consumers. Specialty retailers, such as Williams-Sonoma and Hammacher Schlemmer, have delivered fresh Christmas trees for years, while Home Depot, which sells 2.5 million Christmas trees a year, started shipping trees in 2014. Third-party retailers have sold Christmas trees through Amazon.com for some time.

But Amazon’s direct entry into the market raises the threat to Christmas tree lots to a new level. Over the years, Amazon’s relentless drive into new markets has wiped out book stores, sellers of toys and electronics and long list of other retailers. When Amazon bought Whole Foods last year, the $13.7 billion acquisition sent a shock wave throughout the grocery industry, ushering in a new era of e-commerce.

Today, most major grocers in Houston offer online ordering, curbside pickup and home delivery of groceries. H-E-B, Kroger and Walmart are investing heavily in new technologies to compete with Amazon.

[…]

Tree farms, where Houstonians can cut down their own trees, said they’re not that worried about Amazon. Many farms host activities such as photo shoots with Santa and Christmas light shows, which Amazon can’t match online.

Larry and Mary Emerson have sold Christmas trees at Dewberry Farms since 2009. The husband-and-wife owners have planted nearly 17,000 Cypress and Blue Ice trees on some 20 acres on their farm in Brookshire, just 10 miles from a new 1-million-square-foot distribution facility where Amazon’s trees will be shipped.

The Emersons sell between 2,000 and 2,500 Christmas trees a year, ranging in price from $40 to $300. Tree sales are down a little from last year, but the farm is still doing well, Emerson said, declining to give specifics. Dewberry Farms attracts as many as 100,000 visitors a year to its fall pumpkin patch, Christmas tree farm and attractions, like big slides, a carousel and petting zoo.

“Our customers, they’re not just looking for trees,” Mary Emerson said. “They’re looking for tradition.”

I’m the wrong person to ask about this. I grew up with an artificial tree, and we buy our tree at Lowe’s every year. I figure when the kids are grown, we’ll just get something smaller. If we wind up getting that from Amazon, it won’t be a net loss for the tree farmers, since we were never their customers to begin with. Does tradition matter, and if so how much? I will note that there are still some independent bookstores out there, and they do the sort of in-person amenities that the tree farmers do to stay in business, so there’s at least some hope.

HD145 and HD79 special elections set

Another sprint.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday set a Jan. 29 special election to fill state Sen. Carol Alvarado’s seat in the Texas House, hours after she was sworn in to the upper chamber.

Alvarado, D-Houston, won a special election Dec. 11 to fill the Texas Senate seat vacated by U.S. Rep.-elect Sylvia Garcia, who was elected in November to replace U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston. Green, who first was elected to the House from the newly-created District 29 in 1992, announced he would not run for reelection last November.

Candidates have until 5 p.m. Jan. 3 to file for the election, while early voting starts Jan. 14.

[…]

Christina Morales, the president and CEO of Morales Funeral Home in Houston’s East End, announced on Facebook earlier this month that she would seek the seat. Martha Fierro, a Republican who finished third in the race for Garcia’s Senate seat, announced on Twitter the next day that she intended to run for the seat.

Alvarado had held the seat since 2009, winning an open race after incumbent state Rep. Rick Noriega ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.

The district voted 67 percent to 29 percent in favor of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.

Melissa Noriega, Rick Noriega’s wife, has said she is considering a run for the seat. She previously served on Houston City Council and held the District 145 seat in 2005 while her husband served in Afghanistan.

See here for the background. Alvarado was sworn in yesterday, making her resignation official. I’m glad to see this get on the calendar. If there is a runoff, HD145 (which is my district) should have representation again by mid-to-late March or so.

As I expected, the special election for HD79 to succeed Rep. Joe Pickett was set for the same day. There are candidates lining up for that seat as well.

Two candidates have emerged in the race to replace state Rep. Joe Pickett, who will step down from his post on Jan. 4: Art Fierro, chairman of the El Paso Community College board, and Dr. Michiel Noe, who is finishing his last term as a city representative.

Pickett, who is the longest serving El Paso lawmaker at the statehouse, surprised many of his colleagues over the weekend when he announced that he will step down from his position on Jan. 4 to deal with health issues stemming from a 2016 cancer diagnosis.

Gov. Greg Abbott has 20 days from Pickett’s announcement to call for a special election.

“I am going to throw my hat in the ring,” Fierro said in an interview Tuesday morning. “I will be a great representative and a partner to our delegation in their efforts to continue to improve our community and let the rest of Texas see how wonderful El Paso is.”

Noe, who works as an OB-GYN, announced his intentions to run for the seat on Tuesday night.

“Joe Pickett is a friend of mine and I’ve always been an admirer of his,” he said in an interview. “When he broke the news that he would have to resign, it was kind of heartbreaking, but it left a spot open that would be empty. and with the background that I have, I will hopefully just transition into representing the district.”

Noe has served as a city representative for eight years, with his final term set to end in January, when incoming representative Isabel Salcido is sworn-in.

I figure it’s more likely than not that both races will wind up with more candidates than the ones named in these stories. They’re not wasting any time in HD79. I expect things to move quickly as well here in Houston. Ready or not, it’s soon going to be time for some of us to vote again.

Asking the unanswered questions

Ross Ramsey goes there on Sen. Charles Schwertner.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The problem is that the investigation at UT didn’t reach any final conclusions. The investigator couldn’t prove Schwertner was at fault, but also couldn’t prove he was not. There is no evidence here to clear his name. In that way, it’s as though no investigation had taken place; Schwertner is in the same fix he was in after the allegations were known and before Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney who is now in private practice, started digging around. The only publicly available part of his inquiry is a two-page executive summary. His conclusions might be worse than what he was sent to find out in the first place[.]

[…]

Schwertner’s continued presence in the Legislature will be a measure of the other senators’ confidence that this is, as Schwertner asserted in a news release, all behind them — that this is an isolated case that doesn’t reflect on the Senate in particular or the Legislature in general. They’re also betting that his standing as a public official had nothing to do with any of this — that it was a purely personal matter that didn’t depend on his official standing or power. And that the remaining questions about his behavior don’t reflect on the rest of them.

It comes at a particularly inopportune time, with a 140-day legislative session starting less than three weeks from now. All legislators are more closely watched when they’re actually in Austin doing work. The best situation for an alleged miscreant is to be out of sight and out of mind. That’s the opposite of what happens to lawmakers during a session.

If this was a closed file, the investigators might’ve been able to answer more of those lingering questions that would have allowed the Legislature to begin a new session without this latest distraction. Some examples:

  • Who sent the messages in Schwertner’s name? Did Schwertner send it or did someone else?
  • What device were the messages sent from? Who does it belong to?
  • Where’s the full report?
  • Why wasn’t this done in a way that could clear his name? And if that’s on him, as the investigator implies, why didn’t he cooperate and provide information to make his innocence apparent?
  • The investigation said Schwertner gave the complainant his card with a cell phone number purchased from Hushed, an application that allows users to communicate via cell phones without revealing their actual cell phone numbers. Why?
  • Why would someone going to that extent to disguise themselves give away their password for Hushed to a third party?
  • Who is this third party (if there is one at all)? Why won’t Schwertner identify the person? Why did he or she have access to his Hushed account? Was that person’s phone used to send the messages?

“This unfortunate matter is now closed,” Schwertner said in a written statement sent to news media after the executive summary of Sutton’s report was made public. He got one letter wrong in that sentence, using a “W” where a “T” would be more apt.

This unfortunate matter is not closed.

See here for the background. As I suggested, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Schwertner is covering up for somebody, which raises even more questions. Ramsey is right that this matter is not closed, and that these and other questions will linger, not just over Schwertner but the whole Senate, throughout the session. It’s just that Schwertner has already faced the voters – who clearly did not have all of the information they could have had – and with the decline of the Capitol press corps, there’s not much of a mechanism for keeping a spotlight on these questions. There’s still a story out there, and I’m sure someone will continue to pursue it. But unless and until someone finds and publishes answers to these questions, this unfortunate matter will remain dormant. For Sen. Schwertner’s purposes, that’s good enough.

El Nino 2018

Here it comes.

Houstonians can expect more rain than usual — and possibly street flooding — this winter, thanks to El Niño.

The National Weather Service forecasts an 80 percent chance for a weak to moderate El Niño this winter, starting around Christmas and lasting through February. In Houston, El Niño means a warmer and wetter winter that could have more severe storms and a higher risk of localized flooding.

Last week’s storm, which brought high winds and street flooding to the region, is indicative of an El Niño storm, said Ken Prochazka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Houston.

“After our wet fall, the ground out there is saturated,” Prochazka said. “When we don’t get a chance to dry out, we’re more likely to have runoff and street flooding.”

El Niño occurs when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America is warmer than usual. The warm Pacific water affects the atmosphere and causes changes in weather patterns around the world.

In the U.S., El Niño accelerates the North American jet stream, pushing storms from the Pacific across the the country at a faster speed. Storms can move across Texas every three to four days during El Niño, dropping more rain than usual.

Houston typically sees 3.6 inches of rain in January. El Niño can bring more rain than that, Prochazka said.

[…]

Houston last saw El Niño-related storms between 2014 and 2016. The city saw particularly strong El Niño storms in 1997 and 1998. El Niño, which occurs unpredictably, can last for a couple of years, Prochazka said.

It is what it is. All we can do is try to be ready for it.

Here comes the latest school finance report

I figure the smart money is always on efforts like this to fail, but you never know.

After hours of discussion Wednesday, a state panel studying school finance stripped its final report of language that blamed the state for inadequate education spending — and that added urgency to a need for more money to improve student performance.

The original version of the report, unveiled last Tuesday, included stronger language that held the state accountable for the lack of education funding and urged lawmakers to immediately inject more than a billion dollars of new funding into public schools. Scott Brister, the panel’s chairman and a former Texas Supreme Court justice, led the charge to make those changes, which he said would be more palatable to lawmakers and keep Texas from being sued in the future.

“I do have a problem several places where it says our school system has failed. I do think that’s asking for trouble,” he said.

Some lawmakers and educators on the panel pushed back before agreeing to compromise.

“I think we have failed our schools and we haven’t funded them, in my view, adequately or equitably,” responded state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.

Despite the conflict, the 13-member commission unanimously approved more than 30 recommendations on Wednesday aimed at boosting public education funding, improving student performance, cleaning up a messy funding distribution system — and providing property tax relief for Texans.

A final report will be sent to lawmakers, who are convening next month amid calls from state leadership to overhaul a long-embattled school finance system. Gov. Greg Abbott supported the panel’s vote in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “Today’s school finance commission report made clear that the state must reform the broken Robin Hood system and allocate more state funding to education. This session, we will do just that.”

[…]

Among the recommendations the commission plans to send to lawmakers are:

  • $100 million a year to school districts that want to develop their own teacher evaluation metrics and tie pay to performance. The total amount available should increase $100 million each year until it reaches $1 billion.
  • Up to $150 million to incentivize school districts to offer dual language programs, which instruct students in both English and Spanish, and to improve their dyslexia programs.
  • $800 million to incentivize school districts to improve students’ reading level in early grades and to succeed in college or a career after graduating high school.
  • $1.1 billion to improve education for low-income students, with school districts that have a higher share of needy students getting more money.
  • Create a new goal of having 60 percent of third-grade students reading on or above grade level and 60 percent of high school seniors graduating with a technical certificate, military inscription, or college enrollment without the need for remedial classes.
  • Cap local school district tax rates in order to offer property tax relief and a small amount of funding for schools — a proposal from Abbott.
  • No extra funding for special education programs until the state has completed overhauling those programs in line with a federal mandate.

The report hasn’t been published yet, so this is all we know. I don’t see any reason to trust Greg Abbott, who is more interested in cutting property taxes than in providing schools with the resources they need, and of course Dan Patrick will be heavily involved in whatever happens. I think the commission has generally good motives and for the most part the ideas are fine, but we could do a lot more, and that’s before we address the huge need for special ed funding. It’s all a matter of our priorities, and of our view of what “fixing” school finance looks like. The Chron has more.

Time for the biennial annotation of gambling bills that will not pass

This one is creative, I’ll give it that.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

A Texas lawmaker has proposed subsidizing the state’s underfunded windstorm insurance and flooding assistance by building casinos in coastal counties.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel filed the bill on Dec. 7 to cover the cost of the Texas Insurance Agency by proposing to tax licensed casinos, Galveston County Daily News reported . The measure would give the Texas Lottery Commission the authority to issue six licenses to operate casinos across six counties.

The proposal would generate an 18 percent gaming tax of a casino’s revenue and use some of the money to ensure the windstorm association has sufficient capital to cover its insured deficits and operating expenditures.

Deshotel, who first filed a similar bill in 2015, said this latest iteration would send part of the tax to a flooding assistance trust fund. The governor’s office could then use the trust fund for emergency assistance during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

“Just like the lottery, where a portion of funds go to public education, this is a need that’s underfunded,” Deshotel said. “If the lottery helps education, we can help with the problem of windstorm, which is disproportionately paid for by the coastal counties.”

It’s not just a bill – Rep. Deshotel has filed HJR 36, a “constitutional amendment authorizing the operation of casino gaming in certain coastal areas of this state by licensed persons to provide additional money for residual windstorm insurance coverage and catastrophic flooding assistance in the coastal areas”. There is a bill as well, HB494, since all constitutional amendments need enabling legislation to go with it. That means of course that this needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass, and I don’t think I need to tell you what the odds are of that. Tying it to revenue for windstorm insurance is brilliant, but it still has to overcome the fact that some people oppose gambling in any form, and some people who support gambling only support it in the form of slot machines at horse-race stadia. A good idea, and perhaps a sign that we’ll see some Is This The Year That Texas Finally Expands Gambling stories (spoiler alert: no, this is not the year), but not much more than that.

Precinct analysis: Collier versus Beto

The Trib looks at some numbers.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Mike Collier, the Democrat who ran for and lost the race for lieutenant governor last month, wasn’t the star of his party’s ticket. But by some measures, Collier did better in this year’s general election than Beto O’Rourke.

In 171 of the state’s 254 counties — counties O’Rourke famously visited during the campaign — Collier got more votes than the Democrat at the top of the ticket.

In terms of wins and losses, it wasn’t enough of a difference to make a difference: Texas Republicans won all of the statewide races. With this year’s victories, they’ve now done that a dozen times in a row, starting in 1996.

But the Democrats lost by smaller margins than usual. The state didn’t turn blue, as some of their most exuberant partisans had hoped, but it edged toward the purple territory that marks a swing state. Texas hasn’t had margins like this at the top of the ballot since 1998 — 20 years ago.

Overall, O’Rourke got more votes than Collier (or any other statewide Democrat) — more than 4 million of them in the general election. Justin Nelson, the party’s candidate for attorney general, got 3.9 million — coming in with 147,534 fewer votes than O’Rourke. Collier and Kim Olson, who ran for agriculture commissioner, weren’t far behind him.

O’Rourke beat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, his Republican opponent, in 32 counties; by that measure, he outdid his Democratic ticket-mates. Nelson won in 31 counties, Olson in 30, Collier in 29 and so on. Lupe Valdez, the party’s candidate for governor, won in just 20 counties, the least of any of the statewide non-judicial candidates.

I remain fascinated by the fascination with the smaller counties, where a tiny fraction of the vote comes from in Texas. I mean, every vote counts, but you don’t get bonus points for winning a particular county. (Anyone remember the old Continental Basketball Association, where teams could win a point in the standings for outscoring their opponent in a single quarter? Politics isn’t like that.) Because the story doesn’t provide any more context about this Collier-versus-Beto comparison, I put together a spreadsheet that did the dirty work for me. Here are the top 21 counties in which Mike Collier got more votes than Beto O’Rourke:


County    C - B   P - C  Tot Vot
================================
BOWIE       584    -975   59,618
ANGELINA    567  -1,041   51,751
UPSHUR      526    -749   27,708
PANOLA      445    -575   16,392
GREGG       438    -944   69,893
TOM GREEN   437  -1,305   66,826
CASS        416    -450   20,119
LAMAR       403    -612   31,591
VAN ZANDT   396    -633   36,982
RUSK        334    -647   31,242
HARRISON    327    -636   44,462
HOCKLEY     281    -428   13,582
CARSON      264    -364    4,263
HUTCHINSON  247    -398   13,547
CHEROKEE    243    -327   27,949
FREESTONE   236    -351   11,978
HOPKINS     235    -392   22,706
LIMESTONE   235    -365   13,621
WOOD        234    -262   30,065
GRAY        231    -304   12,493
RANDALL     221  -1,304   87,827

The column “C – B” represents the difference between Mike Collier’s vote total and Beto O’Rourke’s vote total in the given county. The “P – C” column is the same thing for Dan Patrick and Ted Cruz. In every single one of these 171 counties, the Patrick-Cruz difference was bigger than the Collier-Beto difference. In other words, everywhere that Mike Collier picked up more votes than Beto, Dan Patrick had even fewer votes than Ted Cruz.

Before we talk about what that might mean, let me mention the last column in the table above. It represents the total number of registered voters in that county. I went to 21 on this list so I could include Randall County, which is easily the largest of the counties among the 171. Not surprisingly in the least, all of this occurred in the smaller counties. To put it in a bit of perspective, Collier garnered an extra 19,837 votes over Beto in these 171 counties combined. In Travis (21,534), Bexar (22,260), Harris (24,487), and Dallas (26,822), Beto’s vote total exceeded Collier’s by more than that. Like I said, there’s no bonus for winning a county.

So why did Collier do better in these places than Beto, despite Beto’s omnipresent campaign? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Ted Cruz also campaigned, and I’m betting he ran more ads and had more of a (borrowed from Greg Abbott) field game out in the rural areas than Dan Patrick did. While many Republicans in urban and suburban counties abandoned Cruz with vigor, their country cousins may have been less willing to put the Senate in play for the Democrats. Maybe in these parts of the state, it was Dan Patrick who was the least-liked Republican on the ballot. Justin Nelson also outperformed Beto in a bunch of counties, but he did so in 149 of them, and the difference was as much as 100 votes in only two of them, Van Zandt and Hopkins. It’s worth thinking about these things, but it’s the sort of task you should give to a summer intern, not a senior analyst. It’s interesting, but in the end it’s not that big a deal.

The Russia-Texas-secession connection

So many people got played.

A sprawling Russian disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 elections found success with social media accounts promoting the idea of Texas secession, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Senate that was released Monday.

When it came to stirring up social divisions and exerting political influence, two accounts about the Lone Star State proved especially effective: a “Heart of Texas” Facebook page and a @rebeltexas account on Instagram.

Both accounts were created and managed by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company that’s been characterized by the U.S. government as a “troll farm” and was indicted by a federal grand jury.

Heart of Texas, which amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, promoted an image of the state as a land of barbecue and guns while sharing posts that attacked immigration.

The page had the most shares of all IRA Facebook accounts, at 4.8 million, according to the report, which was prepared by an Austin-based company, New Knowledge.

“Heart of Texas visual clusters included a wide swath of shapes of Texas, landscape photos of flowers, and memes about secession and refugees,” the report said.

Posts by the Facebook page cited in the report include a truck with a giant state flag and a photo of Texas wildflowers as well as another laying out the “economic grounds for Texas secession.” The page also shared memes criticizing immigration.

You can read that report here. The extent of this activity is mind-boggling, and in just about any other context we’d call it highly aggressive, if not warlike. Every now and then I see one of these yahoos with a “Secede” sticker on their car, and I wonder if they have any idea. We’re doing this to ourselves, that’s the really scary part.

UT issues report on Schwertner

It raises more questions than it answers, honestly.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The University of Texas at Austin has ended its investigation of state Sen. Charles Schwertner, concluding that the “available evidence does not support” a finding that the Georgetown Republican, accused of sending sexually-explicit text messages to a graduate student, had violated university policy and the federal gender equity law Title IX.

An executive summary of the report, released Tuesday, said Schwertner had not fully cooperated with investigators, but that it was “plausible” a third party had sent the lewd messages from an application that both that party and the senator had access to.

[…]

The two-page executive summary says that Schwertner “refused to meet with” Johnny Sutton, an outside lawyer retained to help with the inquiry, or to “answer five questions that were designed to bring clarity to the investigation.” The summary says the senator did convey information through his attorneys, who told investigators that a third person sent the messages through an application called Hushed that “allows a user to purchase one or more private phone numbers to communicate via cell phone without revealing the user’s actual cell phone number or revealing that a text or call was sent through the Hushed app.”

Schwertner’s lawyers told investigators that the senator had shared the username and password for his LinkedIn and Hushed accounts with the third party, whom Schwertner knows but would not identify. An attorney for that party “did not disclose the third person’s relationship” with Schwertner, and did not reveal why the messages were sent, the summary says. That attorney also would not disclose the identity of the third party, but claimed the individual sent the messages without Schwertner’s prior knowledge and “signed an affidavit attesting to the truth of his or her statements.”

The summary concludes that it’s clear the student “received the uninvited and offensive text messages and photograph, and that she reasonably believed those came from” Schwertner.

“It is also clear that the text messages and photograph were not sent from” the senator’s cell phone and that “though an unidentified third person, through an attorney, claims responsibility for sending the text messages and photograph, we cannot test the truthfulness of that claim,” it says. The third party’s cell phone was not made available for investigators to review.

Schwertner’s “refusal to fully cooperate prevented the investigators from determining whether” he had multiple devices from which the messages could have been sent, the summary says, and the university lacks the authority to compel Schwertner to provide more information, the summary says.

See here for the last update. I’m hesitant to speculate, but it’s hard to escape the thought that Sen. Schwertner is protecting someone. I have no information beyond this story, and people often have complex motives for their actions, but one would think that he would want to cooperate with an investigation that he knew would declare him to not be the source of the texts. I’m going to leave that there, because from here it’s all the land of What If. We know that the student did receive offensive text messages that she legitimately believed came from Sen. Schwertner. We know that his phone was not the source of these texts. We know that someone known to Sen. Schwertner has admitted to being the sender, using an app that allowed them to impersonate Sen. Schwertner. Beyond that, we don’t know. Unless some further information leaks out, that’s all we’ll ever know. I’ve been writing this blog since 2002, and I’m damned if I can remember a weirder story than this one.

Beto v Julian?

It could happen.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

The presidential race could force Texas Democrats to choose between two of their brightest rising stars, in El Paso’s O’Rourke, 46, and San Antonio’s Julián Castro, 44.

Castro, like O’Rourke, has never won a statewide race in Texas.

He’s never lost one, either.

Unlike O’Rourke, Castro has executive experience. He was San Antonio’s mayor for five years, after serving for four years as a member of its city council. President Obama then selected him as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a post he held until January 2017. He was touted as a vice presidential candidate for Hillary Clinton before she chose U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia for that role.

Julian Castro

Castro and his twin brother, Joaquin, a congressman from San Antonio, have been the subject of sometimes overheated election speculation in Texas for years. Both have turned back numerous entreaties to run for state office; their names were in the mix as recently as last year, when Democrats were shopping for candidates to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

But Julián’s presidential studies were already underway. He had a book in the works; that totem of nearly every presidential campaign is now in print, under the title “An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream.”

And this week, he took another step in the presidential dance, saying — on letterhead that included the words “Julián Castro for President Exploratory Committee” — that he will be announcing his plans next month.

As for Beto, he’s keeping his options open.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Friday that fellow Texas Democrat Julián Castro’s decision to seriously consider a run for the White House isn’t going to affect O’Rourke’s own decision about his political future.

“I think it’s something positive for the United States that he can offer and share ideas,” O’Rourke said of Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who also served as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama.

Castro has said he is likely to run for president, and announced Wednesday that he formed an exploratory committee to consider a bid. He will make an announcement about his decision Jan. 12.

O’Rourke lauded Castro’s service to Texas and the country and said he was proud of the former mayor.

Discussing his own plans, O’Rourke said he hasn’t ruled anything out, including a possible challenge to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is up for re-election in 2020.

“Though it’s now five plus weeks since the [2018] election … I am no closer to deciding,” he said. “I thought I’d have a level of clarity or an epiphany at this point.”

You know what my preference is. If Beto really does want to run for President, we’ll see the signs of it early on. Beyond that, I remain of the opinion that the man deserves a little family time before he needs to make any decisions about his future.

The next eminent domain fight

Coming to a Lege near you.

Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs, said the company prefers not to use eminent domain “at all” and would rather work out amicable sales agreements for the thousands of parcels needed to construct the 240-mile project across 10 counties. And the company vows to minimize how much the line will impact the land around it.

“Each person has a different story about what’s important to them,” Reed said. “We listen to hear, you know, are we impacting your driveway or your stock tank, and we come back, and we work to see what we can do to solve for those problems.”

Given the fierce opposition to the project in rural areas, eminent domain is likely to become a necessity at some point. Texas Central remains embroiled in the ongoing debate about its authority to condemn land. In one Harris County case, a judge agreed the company has such powers. But that same legal question is at the heart of other ongoing court cases across Texas.

Meanwhile, a newly elected lawmaker who has long opposed the project plans to file legislation that addresses what he calls “systemic flaws” in state statutes that arguably allow the company to condemn the land it will need.

“It’s nothing more than you and I sitting in a room with a couple hundred million dollars and saying, ‘We’re a railroad company, and we’re going to condemn your property,’” said state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson. “And then the landowner is sitting there scratching his head and saying, ‘Who do I turn to?’”

One of Leman’s biggest concerns about the project is that even if Texas Central can use eminent domain, there is apparently no state agency explicitly charged with determining if its plans for high-speed rail would benefit the public enough to warrant condemnation proceedings in the courts.

But once upon a time, there was.

[…]

Kyle Workman, the chairman and president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said the company will still face intense battles at the county level.

“At every one of those intersections where the railroad crosses a county road, there is going to be a permit that is required,” Workman said. “They’re going to have to prove that they have eminent domain, and the counties are not going to allow them to take the property.”

Reed said that Texas Central would like to work “collaboratively” with the counties in order to get the project built and become a “major economic engine” for Texas.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will return to Austin for a new legislative session that begins in January. And Leman expects Texas Central to be the target of legislation. In 2017, 10 lawmakers filed more than 20 bills aimed at the high-speed rail line. But for the second legislative session in a row, the project emerged relatively unscathed after bills aimed at hamstringing or killing it failed to get much traction.

Leman, though, thinks there could be movement in the regulatory chess game facing Texas Central as he and others file bills next year that try to balance private property rights and economic enterprise. What would upcoming legislation look like? Well, Leman’s playing that one close to the vest.

“This should be a big session to discuss this project,” Leman said. “But I don’t want to tip my hand too quick because they are not giving me their hand.”

I’ll leave it to you to click over and see what the agency of the past, which may be revived in some form, was. Rep. Leman is the former Grimes County Judge, and is almost certainly the leading opponent to Texas Central in the Lege right now. Whether he succeeds or not, who knows, but I agree this will be a big fight in 2019, and it won’t necessarily break down along predictable lines. Texas Central is getting to a point where it will become difficult to stop them if that is one’s goal, but they’re not quite there yet. Making eminent domain difficult or impossible for them to use would be a significant obstacle.

Here come the e-bikes

To Dallas.

Uber is about to jump into Dallas with a brand-new rent-a-ride for this market: rechargeable electric bikes.

Jump, which Uber bought in April for $200 million, has filed an application with Dallas City Hall to bring 2,000 stationless e-bikes to town. The company is waiting for city staff to review and approve the permit, which would also include 2,000 Jump-branded electric scooters.

Chris Miller, Uber’s public policy manager for Texas, said the roll-out is expected early next year.

“It just makes sense in a city with a large population, a desire for innovation — and a lot of ground to cover,” Miller said.

City transportation officials have long expected the arrival of electric-pedal-assisted bikes, referring to them as a sort of sweet spot between the bikes that flooded the streets in the summer of 2017 and the seemingly ubiquitous electric scooters that have mostly replaced them in recent months. Riders still have to move their feet, but the motor does the hard work — and allows the bikes to hit speeds up to 20 mph.

[…]

Uber’s Miller said Jump’s e-bikes are a “real commuter option” because they do so much of the hard work for the rider. In San Francisco, he said, riders pedal up to 2 miles on their Jump bikes; in Austin, where Jump made its debut in the summer, even farther.

Uber hasn’t set prices for Dallas yet. But in Austin, the cost is $1 for the first 5 minutes and 15 cents for every additional minute.

The e-bikes will arrive with scooters having supplanted the buck-an-hour bike as Dallas’ preferred mode of rented transportation. The city, once filled with 20,000 of the older bikes, now has just 1,000 — 500 from Lime, 500 from Garland-based VBikes.

To San Antonio.

In a year that saw e-scooters take over the city – eventually multiplying to more than 8,000 vehicles – seated e-scooters have arrived, and about 2,000 dockless bicycles are set to enter the fray.

Razor USA quietly recently rolled out new scooters with a cushioned seat and front-mounted basket.

Meanwhile, Uber’s micro-mobility arm Jump is planning to launch 2,000 e-bikes this month, the City of San Antonio confirmed. On top of that, Jump is applying to bring 2,000 scooters to the city.

“People probably have more experience riding bikes than scooters,” said John Jacks, who heads the City’s Center City Development and Operations department. “To use an old cliché, it’s just like riding a bike. … That may increase opportunities for some that would be hesitant to try a scooter.”

Jacks added the new Razor scooter model provides an additional option for scooter-averse riders because it’s similar to a bike.

“We’ll see if they prove to be more popular,” he said.

[…]

If and when Jump launches in San Antonio, the City’s dockless vehicle fleet would eclipse Austin’s total. With e-scooter company Spin’s impending arrival, the total number of operators would climb to six – including Bird, Lime, Razor, and Blue Duck – and its total fleet would rise to about 12,600 vehicles, according to data provided by the City.

Gotta figure these things will be coming to Houston sooner or later. I hope Dallas and San Antonio do us the favor of figuring out what the regulatory structure should look like for these things. They will add something beneficial, mostly in that they will help to keep people out of cars for short trips, but safety for riders and pedestrians needs to be a priority. Also, we should try to make sure that people don’t throw scooters into the bayou, because that would be bad. Anyway, we’ll see how this goes, and how long it takes to come to our streets. Would you ride on one of these things?

Rep. Joe Pickett to resign

We will now need two special House elections to get to full membership.

Rep. Joe Pickett

State Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso will leave his post effective Jan. 4.

Pickett, a Democrat, made the announcement Saturday morning that he will step down after having served in the Texas House since 1995. He said in a statement that he learned he had cancer just before the start of the 2017 legislative session and has since sought treatment for it.

“In the last few weeks, I have learned of additional issues I must address,” Pickett said in a statement. “I could probably continue at a reduced work level while undergoing treatment, but I have been there and done that. I need to completely heal this time. I am told I am physically strong enough to hopefully make my recovery quicker than most. My body and mind need a break.”

Pickett didn’t face any general election opponents this year, winning re-election in November with 100 percent of the vote. He noted in his statement that he would return recent campaign contributions in light of his upcoming departure from the Legislature.

During the 2017 legislative session, Pickett held the 11th highest seniority in the Texas House and served as chair of the Environmental Regulation Committee. He previously chaired other House committees during his tenure including the Transportation, Defense and Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security and Public Safety Committees.

Rep. Pickett was definitely one of the more powerful members of the House thanks to his seniority. He will be missed as Democrats try to exert more influence with their largest caucus since 2009. I wish him all the best with his treatment and recovery.

We should expect Sen.-elect Carol Alvarado to submit her resignation this week, once the election results in SD06 are certified. My guess is that Greg Abbott will schedule both elections for the same day, probably in mid to late January. Assuming the need for runoffs, the new members in HDs 79 and 145 will be seated by early March or so. For the record, since I know you’re wondering, Hillary Clinton won HD79 68.0% to 26.5%, and won by 66.8% to 28.7% in HD145. Wendy Davis carried HD79 by 58.5% to 39.3%, and HD145 by 57.2% to 40.8%. I can imagine a Republican making it to a runoff in those districts, but winning would be very unlikely. And before anyone mentions SD19, Hillary Clinton carried it 53.4% to 41.9%, while Wendy Davis actually lost it, 49.1% to 49.0%. These districts are much bluer than SD19. (Beto won HD145 by a 70.9% to 28.3% clip; I don’t have the data for El Paso.)

The ACA decision

Utterly ridiculous, and likely to be short-lived.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas threw a dagger on Friday into the Affordable Care Act, ruling that the entire health-care law is unconstitutional because of a recent change in federal tax law.

The opinion by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor overturns all of the sprawling law nationwide.

The ruling came on the eve of the deadline for Americans to sign up for coverage in the federal insurance exchange created under the law.

Since the suit was filed in January, many health-law specialists have viewed its logic as weak but nevertheless have regarded the case as the greatest looming legal threat to the 2010 law, which has been a GOP whipping post ever since and assailed repeatedly in the courts.

The Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional in 2012 and 2015, though the first of those opinions struck down the ACA’s provision that was to expand Medicaid nationwide, letting each state choose instead. No matter how O’Connor ruled, legal experts have been forecasting that the Texas case would be appealed and could well place the law again before the high court, giving its conservative newest member, Justice Brett Kavenaugh, a first opportunity to take part.

Not mentioned in this story, as it came out very quickly after the ruling was released late Friday afternoon (*), is that the judge also denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction. This means that the ruling, which is so absurd that even conservative legal experts who oppose the ACA were appalled by it. What happens next is a bit unclear – there will of course be an appeal, and this will almost certainly go to SCOTUS – but for now this is mostly a big legal turd in the punch bowl. Enjoy that health insurance while you can, sure would be a pity if something happened to it. The Trib, Nicholas Bagley, and Daily Kos, among many others, have more.

It really is all or nothing for HISD

I hope we’re ready for this.

Barring a change to the sanctions law, litigation or a change of heart by the board of trustees — none of which are expected — HISD will learn in August whether the district will face state penalties for the four schools’ 2018-19 academic performance. HISD leaders could have staved off sanctions for two years by agreeing to temporarily surrender control of campuses in danger of triggering sanctions.

As HISD leaders pledged to march onward with current efforts to improve academic success at long-struggling campuses, some Houston-area civic leaders envisioned a future in which a state-appointed governing board took control of Texas’ largest school district. Under a state law authored by Dutton in 2015, the Texas Education Agency must close failing schools or replace the school board in any district with a single campus receiving five straight “improvement required” ratings. The four HISD campuses in danger of triggering sanctions this school year are Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools.

Some local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, have expressed dismay at the idea of the state’s Republican-leaning government taking control of HISD, where all nine elected school board members are Democrats. School board members also have argued HISD does not need state takeover, pointing to successful efforts to reduce the number of “improvement required” schools and navigate significant budget cuts.

“While we have had bad board relations, we have managed to handle the two largest pieces of governance in a way that have not been detrimental to the district, but instead have had a positive impact,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said. “We’ve invested a lot of money in turning these schools around, a lot of resources, a lot of time. To allow those people to do the jobs they’re entrusted with is the best course of action.”

[State Rep. Harold] Dutton, however, said he is convinced HISD trustees — who have drawn intense criticism for failing to improve performance at low-rated schools and engaging in public displays of acrimony — no longer deserve the responsibility of governing Texas’ largest school district.

“I don’t have any evidence that (the state) would do better, but I do know that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting the same results,” Dutton said. “And for me, it’s unacceptable to do that.”

One of the Houston area’s longer-serving elected Republicans, Harris County Treasurer and two-time mayoral candidate Orlando Sanchez, also called Friday for state intervention in HISD. Sanchez implored state legislators and the Texas Education Agency to take responsibility for HISD, urging them to replace the district’s school board and devote more resources to low-performing campuses.

“I just can’t watch this slow-motion train wreck continue, so I’m going to speak out as a Republican and encourage my friends in Austin to give some serious attention to this matter,” Sanchez said. “We can’t wait, and that’s all we’ve done over the past several years.”

See here for the background. I feel confident saying two things. One is that if these four schools do not meet the state standards, there will be basically no one in Austin advocating on behalf of the HISD Board of Trustees. The odds that anyone in a position to influence the outcome will be persuaded by the argument HISD doesn’t need to be taken over is basically zero. To be clear, I do think Trustee Skillern-Jones’ position has merit. HISD did get significant improvement from a lot of schools, under adverse conditions. The risk that blowing up their governance structure will do more harm than good is significant. I just don’t expect the TEA or anyone that can make the TEA change its mind will buy it. And two, for all the complaints about the people that were on the board of the proposed city partnership, the people who the TEA are likely to name to take on the HISD Board’s responsibilities are almost certainly going to be seen as even worse. The difference is that the TEA will not be susceptible to the same community and activist pressure that the HISD Board was. And nobody is going to like that.

The Blake Farenthold Memorial Sexual Harassment Bill

That’s what this should be called.

Blake Farenthold

Less than a year after Corpus Christi Republican Blake Farenthold left Congress behind with an $84,000 settlement for sexual harassment, the House and Senate have agreed to make lawmakers pay their own misconduct judgments.

The legislation, which the House and Senate each passed unanimously on Thursday, caps a year of acrimonious debate over how to handle sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill.

Under the terms of a bipartisan deal reached this week, members of the House and Senate would assume financial liability for settlements and judgments stemming from sexual harassment complaints. Historically, taxpayers have picked up the tab.

The issue came to a head last April when Farenthold, a four-term congressman, resigned amid an Ethics Committee investigation into allegations of improper conduct by at least three former staffers. That followed revelations that Congress had already covered an $84,000 settlement reached in a 2014 harassment suit brought by Lauren Greene, his former communications director.

The payment came to light last December only after House administrators, under pressure in the early months of the #MeToo era, agreed to release summary data on payouts involving Capitol Hill offices.

[…]

While denying any personal wrongdoing in the case, Farenthold initially vowed to repay taxpayers. He later reneged, however, on the “advice of counsel.”

He also refused a request by Gov. Greg Abbott to help defray the estimated $200,000 in expenses for the special election prompted by his early departure. Victoria Republican Mike Cloud was elected to replace him.

Farenthold later took a job lobbying for the Calhoun Port Authority, a move that sparked further controversy because of his involvement as a member of Congress in trying to steer a contract to Randy Boyd, the port’s chairman.

Campaign finance reports also showed that Farenthold, who had a net worth in the millions, spent more than $100,000 from his campaign account on legal bills before and after the Ethics probe.

From the bottom of my heart, Blake: Go fuck yourself.

No cannabis for you

Good luck getting your hands on medical marijuana in Texas.

It’s been about a year since the first legally grown marijuana plants were harvested in Texas for their medicinal oils. But since then, fewer than 600 patients have seen any benefit out of the estimated 150,000 who suffer uncontrollable epileptic seizures that the medicine is meant to help.

Roughly 45 doctors, mostly concentrated in urban areas, have signed up to prescribe the cannabidiol. Just three companies in Central Texas have been licensed to distribute the drug. One doesn’t seem to have opened its doors, and another reports losing money with such a small client base.

“The way to assure the Compassionate Use Program has a future is by expanding access to more patients,” said Morris Denton, CEO of Compassionate Cultivation in the Austin area. “The worst thing that can happen is nothing gets done, because then we set the program back.”

Texas’ therapeutic marijuana program is among the strictest in the nation, giving only patients with intractable epilepsy access to cannabidiol that’s low in THC, the element that gives pot users a high.

[…]

The Texas Compassionate Use Act became law in 2015, but the rollout has been slow and rocky.

Despite getting more than 40 applications, the Texas Department of Public Safety licensed just three companies last year to distribute cannabidiol, the minimum number allowed by the law.

Patients need sign-off from two doctors to use the marijuana-derived oil. But so far, fewer than 50 certified epileptologists and neurologists have registered to participate. None is in the Rio Grande Valley or West Texas, records show, meaning patients there must travel far to see a qualified physician.

Some doctors are reluctant to enroll because Texas law requires they prescribe the drug instead of recommending it, a phrase other states use to sidestep federal marijuana prohibitions, advocates said. So far, 574 patients have been issued prescriptions, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program.

See here for some background, and here for a map of where the registered doctors are. If you live west of San Antonio, it’s Amarillo or nothing. There will be bills introduced to expand medical marijuana in Texas – Sen. Jose Menendez has already filed one such bill – and they may have a chance to get through. Greg Abbott has softened his stance, both party platforms are calling for marijuana reform, there’s popular support, and so forth. It’s just that it’s not easy to get any bill passed, and if a given bill isn’t a priority then it will be in line behind those that are. I don’t think there’s much in the way of opposition to expanding medical marijuana, and maybe to some other reforms, but I don’t think it’s a priority, either.