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A second win for plaintiffs in Census citizenship question lawsuit

It’s all up to SCOTUS now.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acted in “bad faith,” broke several laws and violated the constitutional underpinning of representative democracy when he added a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In finding a breach of the Constitution’s enumeration clause, which requires a census every 10 years to determine each state’s representation in Congress, the 126-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco went further than a similar decision on Jan. 15 by Judge Jesse Furman in New York.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to review Furman’s narrower decision, with arguments set for April 23, but may now need to expand its inquiry to constitutional dimensions.

[…]

Unable to find any expert in the Census Bureau who approved of his plan to add the citizenship question, Seeborg wrote, Ross engaged in a “cynical search to find some reason, any reason” to justify the decision.

He was fully aware that the question would produce a census undercount, particularly among Latinos, the judge said.

That would have probably reduced the representation in Congress — and thus in the electoral college that decides the presidency — of states with significant immigrant populations, notably California.

Because census data is used to apportion distribution of federal funds, an undercount would also have cheated these same jurisdictions, the judge said.

Seeborg, like Furman, found after a trial that Ross misrepresented both to the public and Congress his reasons for adding the citizenship question last March. Ross claimed he was acting at the request of the Justice Department in the interest of enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

In reality, the “evidence establishes” that the voting rights explanation was just “a pretext” and that Ross “acted in bad faith” when he claimed otherwise.

See here for the background. A copy of the ruling is embedded in this Mother Jones story. I don’t have much to add to this other than it’s a big honking deal and would have a negative effect on Texas just as it would on states like New York and California that filed the lawsuits against it. You wouldn’t know that from the words and actions of our state leaders, though. USA Today and NPR have more.

Senate files its school finance bill

Here it is.

Sen. Larry Taylor

On the night of the deadline to file bills this legislative session, Texas Senate leaders turned in their first crack at legislation designed to reform school finance — rounding out a series of proposals in the upper chamber aiming to address rising property taxes and fix the way the state pays for its schools.

The bill was clearly incomplete and included some placeholder language. But its Republican author, Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, said it includes proposals that would fund full-day pre-K, incentivize school districts to improve their third-grade reading performance, offer money for teacher merit pay and increase funding for low-income students. The bill does not appear to require school districts to use standardized tests to determine funding.

Taylor didn’t give an indication of how much the bill would cost, or how it would affect local school district property taxes.

“Our focus should be on improving the academic outcomes of our low-income students, who make up the largest and fastest growing demographic in our public school system,” he said in a statement.

Some of the proposals in the bill appear similar to recommendations from a state school finance commission, which Taylor helped create.

See here, here, and here for some background. We don’t know enough about this bill yet – if there’s ever an application for the old saying about the devil being in the details, it’s with school finance bills – but so far I don’t see anything that makes me want to put my shields up. We’re starting out in a better place now than we’ve done in previous sessions. We still need to finish there.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Two state legislators are aiming to restore a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that was struck down last week by the state’s highest criminal court.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, filed identical bills to reverse the court ruling that the “walking quorum” provision of the act is “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision made it a crime for government officials to secretly discuss the public’s business in small groups. Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 will reword the passage to make it more precise and remove confusion, Watson and Phelan say.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson said Wednesday. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”

[…]

The bills already appear to have strong support, as Phelan is the chairman of the House of Representatives State Affairs Committee, which is likely the first stop for the bills before a hearing on the House floor.

Rep. Dade Phelan

“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Phelan said in the press release. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

Watson and Phelan’s legislation come two days before the bill filing period ends for the session, leaving Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas President Kelley Shannon thankful that the court’s ruling left enough time for legislators to address the issue.

“We’re really glad that several lawmakers are interested in fixing this situation, and we’re fortunate that we still have the bill filing period so they can address it this session,” Shannon said. “It just goes to show how important the Texas Open Meetings Act is for this state and how widely recognized that is.”

The court’s ruling stems from the indictment of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who met privately with a county commissioner and a political consultant about a road bond when he was a member of the county commissioners court in 2015. A misdemeanor criminal charge against Doyal was thrown out by the ruling.

Doyal argued the law is too vague and violates his free speech rights.

Impacts of the court’s ruling are already being seen in the Houston area, where prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against six current and former members of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., who were indicted last year for violating the Open Meetings Act. Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts to discuss potential designs for a new civic center.

See here for the background. SB1640 is here, and HB3402 is here. I was skeptical that anything would get done by the Lege about this, at least in this session, but there does seem to be a chance. We’ll keep an eye on this.

What’s wrong with the I-45 expansion plan?

Urban planner Jeff Speck, in a recent lecture in Houston, lays out the following problems with the planned I-45 expansion:

The brief list of negatives include:

I-45 will wreck your bayou parks.
I-45 will destroy wildlife habitat.
I-45 will make flooding worse.
I-45will impede neighborhood connectivity and access.
I-45 will reduce city revenues.
I-45’s bike facilities are a cruel joke.
I-45’s caps are not likely to succeed.
I-45 is so much money.

Other than that, though, I’m sure it’s fine. Chron writer Allyn West digs a little deeper into that last point.

In 2012, Houstonians were asked to vote on a $166 million proposition to pay for 150 miles of greenways along our bayous. In 2018, Harris County residents were asked to vote on a $2.5 billion proposition to pay for hundreds of projects that would help the entire region with flood control. This year, Metro says it will ask us to vote on a $3 billion proposition to pay for 20 miles of light rail extensions, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and other “systemwide improvements.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, too, is planning to spend $7 billion (and maybe more than that) to rebuild about 24 miles of freeways. The project will reshape roads between Midtown and Beltway 8, some of the most congested stretches in Texas, by merging Interstate 45 with Interstate 69 and rerouting them together northwest around downtown. Unlike with those greenways, flood projects or transit plans, TxDOT never had to ask permission from voters.

Because TxDOT doesn’t have to do that, its massive projects often ignore the reality of people on the ground — the thousands of Houstonians whose neighborhoods will be impacted both directly and indirectly as a result of the I-45 expansion.

“There has never been the same (political) pressure for specificity for highway projects,” Kyle Shelton, the transportation historian and the director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told me. Unlike transit, for example, freeways have historically been viewed and funded as a “public good.”

It should be noted that the city, the county, and Metro were and will be asking voters to authorize borrowing the money needed for those projects. Had they been funded out of their operating budgets, no vote would have been needed. The point West is making is that this makes the politics of these projects very different. TxDOT starts out with the assumption that it can do whatever it wants, as long as it goes through the regulatory approval process. TxDOT is required to solicit public feedback, and they do incorporate that into their designs, but it’s a lot harder to drum up public opposition and basically impossible to kill whatever it is they’re working on. That’s the nature of the system. It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking about how the system might be different if, say, TxDOT and Metro – and we may as well throw in HCTRA and the other toll road authorities around the state – had identical hurdles to clear in order to build anything. I don’t know what that might look like, but it’s fair to say it would be different.

In the meantime, the final environmental impact statement for the I-45 project is now available on the project website. You have one last chance to give your feedback to TxDOT on it, so get moving before the 17th of March. Speck’s video will be available on the Kinder Institute YouTube channel, so go watch it when you can.

Add one more to the list of potential Cornyn opponents list

Joe Kopser, who made a strong showing in CD21 in 2018, puts himself on the roster of possible not-Beto challengers for John Cornyn in 2020.

Joseph Kopser

Call it the other “Beto Effect“.

Just months after Democrat Beto O’Rourke outperformed expectations by coming within three points of defeating Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Democrats are lining up to run against the sate’s other U.S. Senator, John Cornyn, in 2020.

The latest possible contender is veteran and 2018 Congressional candidate Joseph Kopser, who lost to Republican Chip Roy for an open seat previously held by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.

“Everything’s on the table for me,” Kopser said in a Wednesday phone interview with the Tribune.

Kopser spoke admiringly of Cornyn, but said he was still considering a run against the state’s senior senator.

“He’s a guy I respect,” Kopser said. “But also, I think if you’ve been in Washington too long, you need to come home.”

[…]

All of the interest in running against Cornyn is a striking contrast to two years ago, when multiple Democrats passed on challenging Cruz, leaving O’Rourke as the most prominent name in the primary.

Along with looking at challenging Cornyn, both Hegar and Kopser are also debating whether to run in U.S. House rematches in 2020. Both ran in GOP-leaning districts yet came within three points of defeating their Republican opponents – U.S. Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and Roy, respectively.

See here and here for the background. Kopser was not on my list of possible candidates for this slot in 2020 – neither was Wendy Davis, for that matter – but there’s no reason he couldn’t have been. At this point, I’d say if Beto really is out then Joaquin Castro is my first choice, MJ Hegar is my second choice (though that may mean a greatly diminished chance of taking CD31), and after that it’s a tossup for me between Wendy Davis and Joe Kopser. If he’d rather take another shot at CD21, that’s fine, too. I feel like there may be a wider range of decent candidates there than in CD31 if it comes to it, but if we’ve learned anything from 2018 it’s that there are many more strong possible candidates out there than we’d been giving ourselves credit for. And, as the story notes, now many of them are much more interested in running for something. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a more-good-candidates-than-available-races problem. As I said in the beginning of this cycle, I’m confident we’ll have someone worthwhile running against Cornyn. I feel that has already come true.

One more thing:

We may get multiple strong candidates in a primary for Senate regardless of how the Congressional situation sorts itself out.

Vote centers approved for Harris County

From the inbox:

Diane Trautman

Today, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley approved Harris County as one of six Texas counties with a population of more than 100,000 to participate in the Countywide Polling Place Program. With over 2 million registered voters, this makes Harris County the largest county in the country to implement this program. The state program allows eligible counties to establish non-precinct based Election Day Voting Centers.

“The voters of Harris County have made it clear that a Countywide Polling Place Program would have a positive impact on elections and I am confident that the transition to a Countywide Polling Place Program will be successful”, announced Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

Voters will now be able to vote anywhere in Harris County on Election Day, beginning with the May 4, 2019 Joint Election. All elections, including general, special, joint, primaries, and runoffs will be recommended to use the Countywide Polling Place Program.

“The Countywide Polling Place Program will allow more Houstonians to exercise their most precious right, the right to vote”, stated Dr. Trautman.

Voters can find more information on the Countywide Polling Place Program by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

See here and here for the background. The Vote Centers section of the County Clerk page is here, and the plan outline is here.

The Chron story has more:

Proponents of the countywide system tout it as a way to boost voter participation. Supporters also say it eventually could cut election costs because counties can replace smaller precinct sites with larger voting centers. More than 50 Texas counties successfully have implemented the countywide program, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, and some have seen an uptick in voter participation.

Trautman has said she would start by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to traditional precinct polling sites, which she would not close before first seeking the approval of residents.

Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political analyst, said Trautman should wait at least a few election cycles before removing any precinct sites to avoid disenfranchising voters.

“Harris County is basically a state,” Aiyer said. “So, what we’re talking about is a pretty fundamental change of an electoral process for an area, or at least a population base, that’s larger than 25 states.”

Some concerns, Aiyer said, include the vast length of Harris County’s ballot and the lack of straight-ticket voting in 2020, the first time Texas voters will be without that option. The change likely will create longer lines at the polls, Aiyer noted.

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson decried the move, contending that Trautman, “in a rush to revamp Harris County voting,” is using unreliable technology that would actually depress turnout.

“Trumpeting her new system as voter-approved, Ms. Trautman, in fact, hand-picked groups to support her voting center scheme despite the risk it poses to all Harris County voters,” Simpson said in a statement. “Her unproven voting center scheme might work in a smaller county. But in the large and diverse community of Harris County, it risks vote dilution and discouraging, confusing, and disenfranchising countless voters on election day.”

Lubbock County became the first in Texas to run a countywide polling operation in 2006, under what was then a pilot program enacted by the Legislature. Since then, state lawmakers have made the program permanent, and Travis County, with about 788,000 registered voters as of the November midterms, is the largest Texas county to use the voting centers.

Trautman deliberately sought state approval before the May elections so she could roll out the program during a low-turnout election, instead of during the November 2019 city election or 2020 presidential election when turnout runs much higher. Harris County must secure approval from the secretary of state’s office after the May 4 election to continue using the countywide polling program.

Still, Simpson said he worried that voting centers would be unable to communicate electronically on Election Day to ensure no one votes more than once. County officials have said otherwise, and the state’s elections director, Keith Ingram, wrote in a letter to County Judge Lina Hidalgo Thursday that documentation provided by the county reflects that its polling devices can update the master voter database even upon losing cellular connection.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, a Republican whom Trautman defeated, said during the campaign he was open to countywide polling sites. The option is only available, Stanart said, because the county began using electronic poll books, or modified iPads, that communicate with each other to prevent people from voting more than once.

Not that there’s ever a reason to listen to Paul Simpson, but every one of his objections has been contradicted. The vote to apply for state approval was unanimous in Commissioners Court as well, so at every step of the way this has been a bipartisan process. Plus, you know, this is something Trautman explicitly campaigned on, and she won. As they say, elections have consequences.

In the cloud

Gotta say, this makes sense.

What do a warehouse in North Austin and a building at Angelo State University have in common? They hold trillions of bytes of data about some of Texans’ most sensitive information, including health and education records.

The Texas Legislature created the twin data centers in 2005 to consolidate disparate data management operations at dozens of state agencies. But since then, as government programs churned out more and more electronic information about health care, highways, public schools and other key services, the cost to operate the facilities has ballooned.

This session, lawmakers are considering an overhaul of how the state uses its data centers, with an eye toward private tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft that own private networks of remote servers known as a “cloud.” Proponents say hiring such a firm to be the official keeper of much of the state’s data could save millions of dollars and modernize vulnerable government tech infrastructure. But detractors say the current set-up is working fine and that any kind of structural change would be laborious, expensive and potentially risky.

A decade ago, it cost $278 million to run the centers over the state’s two-year budget cycle; under the current spending plan, it costs about $489 million to operate them.

“What can we do to try to reduce those costs?” state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, asked state information officers at a recent committee hearing. “Today there’s a lot of options in terms of what we can do with the data center.”

Though some lawmakers have bristled at the idea of private companies storing Texans’ personal information in far-flung locations, proponents of the reforms say data security will be at the forefront of any decision they make.

“We are not signing a contract with anybody until we have a chance to find out what’s really going on here,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “The discussion about whether we do cloud and all that, we can have that discussion. I want to make sure — A, we’re protecting that information, [and] B, that we are keeping that information in Texas.”

Much of the data center debate this session has centered on a $1.5 billion deal that the Texas Department of Information Resources made with a French-headquartered company, Atos, to operate the facilities. In recent committee hearings, lawmakers have encouraged the agency to look at data storage options offered by cloud-computing service providers.

“I don’t understand why we’re so far behind here on this,” said state Rep. Donna Howard at a recent legislative hearing on data centers. The Austin Democrat noted that her city’s — and Texas’— reputation as a tech hub doesn’t jibe with the state government still “doing Medicaid on Excel spreadsheets.”

[…]

Last week, Nelson filed a bill that would require state agencies to consider cloud-based storage options when creating new government software applications. Another bill, authored by Capriglione, would create a technology modernization fund that agencies could use to pay for a transition to cloud-computing services.

State agencies already have some authority to bypass the data center and hire outside companies for certain data management projects, but only if the agency gets permission from the Department of Information Resources.

In an interview, Capriglione said he had heard from state officials, whom he declined to name, who recounted their frustrations working with a state data center they said was expensive and cumbersome.

“Here’s the reality — anyone that’s looking at this has come to the conclusion that cloud-based technology is significantly more secure, more resilient, more future-proof, than any sort of in-house data center client service,” Capriglione said.

As someone who works in IT, I agree with Rep. Capriglione. It’s not magic and it’s not set-it-and-forget-it, but it is industry standard now, and not to move in that direction would be weird and almost surely more expensive in the long run. Texas doesn’t have a great track record with large IT projects, but a lot of that was driven by bad ideas about cost-saving. Both of the bills above seem like the right idea. If you’re not moving forward in IT, you’re stagnating.

Cornyn still thinks he may face Beto

He could be right, but I would not expect it.

Big John Cornyn

Beto O’Rourke has ruled out another run for the Senate, and as he edges closer to a bid for president, Texas Democrats are still searching for someone to challenge Sen. John Cornyn.

But Cornyn isn’t convinced O’Rourke has given up his Senate aspirations.

On Tuesday, he sent donors an email blast warning of “Beto’s Texas,” hinting that the El Paso Democrat could yet come after him, and asking for help filling a new “Stop Beto Fund.”

“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of the possibility that that could happen,” Cornyn said Wednesday when asked about his fundraising message. “The filing deadline is December the 9th, I believe. So my expectation is that perhaps Beto, perhaps Julian Castro or others who have indicated that they’re running for president — if they’re not getting a lot of traction then obviously it’s very easy to pivot into the Senate race.”

Cornyn is correct that no matter what Beto (or Julian, for that matter) says now, there’s a lot of time between now and December 9, and a lot of people running for President. Some number of them may very well not make it to the starting line, and if so they could easily jump into another race like this. Bill White was running for Senate, in anticipation of Kay Bailey Hutchison stepping down to run for Governor, for quite some time in 2009 before he finally figured out that KBH was staying put. Only then did he shift gears to run for Governor. It could happen. I don’t think it will because I don’t think anyone who has the capability of raising money and building a team is going to drop out before the first votes are cast, and that won’t happen till after the filing deadline. But I could be wrong. Cornyn is not wrong to tout the possibility – I figure Beto is at least as big a boogeyman among Republican campaign donors as Nancy Pelosi. May as well ride that horse till it drops.

Other interesting bits:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, had urged O’Rourke to run against Cornyn.

After O’Rourke decided against it, Schumer met with Hegar, who lost to Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, by about 8,000 votes out of 281,000.

Nearly 3 million people have viewed a 3-minute campaign video that Hegar, a decorated Air Force helicopter pilot, used in her effort to unseat Carter.

But Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the party’s House campaign arm — is urging Hegar to run against Carter, The Hill reported Wednesday.

Bustos also said that Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq War veteran, will take a second shot at Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio.

“I would say over the next, you know, one, two, three cycles, that that state’s going to look very different,” Bustos said.

Seems clear that what the national Dems want is Beto for Senate, and basically all of the 2018 Congressional candidates – CD24 not included – back for another go at it. Second choice is Joaquin for Senate and the rest as above. We need to know what Beto is doing before we can know what Joaquin is doing, and the rest follows from that. That’s another reason why I think it’s either/or for Beto – once he’s all in for President (or for not running at all), he will no longer have a clear pathway to the nomination for Senate. Someone else will be in that lane, and the surest way to evaporate one’s good will among the party faithful is to be a Beto-come-lately into a race where a perfectly fine candidate that some number of people will already be fiercely loyal to already exists. As someone once said, it’s now or never.

Senate presents disaster relief bills

Better late than never, though why they’re late remains a subject of interest.

More than a year and a half after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state, Texas Senate leaders announced a $1.8 billion trio of disaster relief bills on Wednesday that they said would create “a roadmap to prepare our state for future hurricanes and natural disasters.”

The legislation — Senate Bill 6Senate Bill 7 and Senate Bill 8 — would require the Texas Department of Emergency Management to create a disaster response plan for local officials, direct the state’s water planning agency to devise a statewide flood plan and create a “resiliency fund” to support flood projects.

Flanked by senators who represent Harvey-impacted districts, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick acknowledged at a Capitol news conference that storm-ravaged communities have been waiting for a long time to see what the state might do to help them recover. But Patrick and the senators who authored the bills emphasized in their Wednesday remarks that the result was the product of “a lot of thought and input” and is the best possible outcome.

“We said at the time [of the storm] we would dedicate ourselves to helping people rebuild their homes, their businesses, their communities and do all we could to mitigate,” Patrick said.

[…]

Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who authored SB 7, which would create the flood infrastructure fund, described the package as the “most comprehensive, forward-reaching approach that any state has offered following a disaster.”

His bill is the most expensive of the three. It would withdraw $900 million from the state’s historically flush Economic Stabilization Fund to help local officials put up the so-called “matching dollars” they’ll need to draw down billions more in federal recovery funds.

That’s far less than the $1.3 billion that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked for on behalf of all 55 Harvey-impacted counties to help with local matching funds. He has said that would draw down another $11 billion in federal dollars for debris removal, for repairs of storm-battered government facilities, and to harden public and private structures so they can better withstand future storms.

A similar bill Creighton filed in early February would allocate $3 billion from the state’s emergency savings account for the fund. But he said in an interview after the news conference that the total price tag of the projects local communities have told the state they want to complete is less than that.

Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference, said about $200 million of the $900 million allocated under SB 7 would go to draw down federal funds for a multibillion-dollar project to construct nearly 27 miles of coastal levees in southern Orange County and to shore up nearly 30 miles of existing coastal levees in Port Arthur and Freeport. That project is a significant component of a larger coastal protection system that local officials and scientists have long envisioned to safeguard the state from deadly storm surges during hurricanes.

We can certainly debate whether or not there should have been a special session to get all this done. For now, this is what is on the table. I’m going to wait and see what the experts have to say about these bills before I draw any conclusions. Feel free to chime in if you have opinions already.

What about Wendy?

If not Beto and not Joaquin

Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis of Texas said Tuesday she is considering a U.S. Senate run in 2020 but is waiting to see whether another high-profile Democrat, Rep. Joaquin Castro, goes through with challenging Republican incumbent John Cornyn.

Davis hasn’t run for office since badly losing the governor’s race in 2014 following her star-making filibuster of an anti-abortion bill in the Texas Capitol, catapulting her into the national spotlight and making her a prominent voice for women’s rights.

She told The Associated Press she has urged Castro to run, calling him “uniquely poised” in Texas to give Democrats a chance at winning their first statewide office in 25 years. Castro said last week he was giving “serious” consideration to a Senate campaign but set no timetable for a decision.

Davis said she wants him to decide soon so that someone else — including her — could step up if he sits out. She said she also discussed a Senate run with MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who last year lost a close congressional challenge near Austin.

“I’m proud of the way that all of us are working together to decide how can we best beat John Cornyn. What’s the best approach? Who has the strongest opportunity?” Davis said. “As we answer that question, we are going to circle behind that person and do all we can to support them — whether it’s me, whether it’s MJ, whether it’s Joaquin, whether it’s someone else. You are going to see us come together cohesively.”

See here and here for the background. The pro-Davis side is easy to see: She’s run statewide before, she has some name recognition, she has demonstrated fundraising ability, this is a good time for female candidates, and in the Gorsuch/Kavanaugh era being strongly pro-choice is more of an asset than it was four years ago. The downside is just as obvious, and it all basically boils down to the disaster that was 2014. To be fair, that was a national disaster for Dems, and at the very least the turnout issue should be muted somewhat in a Presidential year, especially with Trump on the ballot. She’d still need to convince people that she’s learned from that awful experience and would run a different and better campaign this time around. I kind of think she’s positioning herself as a fallback plan, which is fine. I too would prefer Castro or Hegar, but I’ve always been a Wendy Davis fan and I’m happy to see that she’s still in the game.

One more thing:

If she doesn’t go for Senate, Davis said it was unlikely she’ll run for Congress this cycle, pointing to no obvious seats around Austin for now.

Well, Mike Siegel is running in CD10. I don’t know if Joseph Kopser is up for another shot at CD21, but I’m sure the DCCC has been in touch with him. If MJ Hegar winds up running for Senate, that would open up CD31, though as an Austin resident Davis would be quickly painted as a carpetbagger. Maybe she could talk to Julie Oliver about what it was like to run in CD25. That’s a longer shot than these other three, but I bet Davis could raise some money and put a scare into Roger Williams. Just a thought.

What’s wrong with the Permanent School Fund?

For starters, it should have more money in it.

It was a grand promise, one our forefathers made 165 years ago to all Texas children, to theirs and ours and those not yet born.

With $2 million and the state’s most abundant and precious resource — its land — they created the Texas Permanent School Fund to forever support public education. It was called a “sacred trust.”

That trust, dedicated to K-12 schools, is now valued at $44 billion, bigger than even Harvard University’s endowment.

It is also broken.

The Permanent School Fund has failed to match the performance of peer endowments, missing out on as much as $12 billion in growth and amassing a risky asset allocation, a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation reveals.

Outside fund managers have charged the endowment at least a billion dollars in fees during the past decade, records show. Some of them have had professional or personal relationships with Texas School Land Board members, who govern a portion of the fund.

And, critically, the fund is sending less money to schools than it did decades ago, in real dollars. The amount dropped to an average of $986 million annually over the past decade from an average of $1.14 billion in the previous 20 years, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Last year, the fund distributed only 2.8 percent of its value — roughly half the share paid out by many endowments.

That decline, coupled with a 2 million increase in the number of students over 30 years, has slashed the fund’s per-student distribution.

Per student, the fund has paid an average of $207 annually over the past decade compared with $322, adjusted for inflation, over the prior two decades, a drop of more than one-third.

According to the Congressional Research Service, between 1998 and 2017, the average payout from higher education endowments has ranged between 4.2 percent and 5.1 percent. If the Texas fund paid out 5 percent of a four-year average market value, as many endowments try to, Texas schools would have received $720 million more in 2018.

That’s the opening of part one of a promised four-part series. Here’s part two, in which we find that however the fund is doing, the fund managers are doing great.

Since the land board started investing with outside fund managers on behalf of the state’s K-12 endowment in 2006, it has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

Those donors together have given more than $1.4 million since 2006 to board members or elected officials with the power to appoint them, a Houston Chronicle investigation reveals.

And they’ve since charged the fund more than $218 million in fees, records show.

While the fees climbed during the past decade, the amount of money the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund sends to schools has declined, in real dollars, compared with the two decades prior.

Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat from Austin, said it’s time to reassess how the school fund is managed.

“Without the right oversight, the PSF is ripe for conflicts of interest,” she said. “We have a responsibility for due diligence here.”

Read the rest, and come back for parts three and four. A better-managed PSF would not solve school finance by itself, but it sure would help. Seems like this is a prime opportunity for some high-profile legislation to improve how this works.

Scooter study bill

From the inbox:

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

State Representative Eddie Rodriguez filed a bill directing the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, in consultation with the Texas Department of Transportation, to conduct a study on the use of motor-assisted scooters.

Under HB 2715, the study must examine:

  1. The legal definition and existing local regulation of motor-assisted scooters;
  2. The liability issues related to motor-assisted scooter use and accidents;
  3. The operation of motor-assisted scooters, including:
    1. safety standards;
    2. interaction with pedestrians;
    3. shared infrastructure; and,
    4. operator qualifications;
  1. The economic impact of motor-assisted scooters, including any burdens on or benefits to local governments;
  2. Accessibility of motor-assisted scooters;
  3. Motor-assisted scooters’ impact on public transportation;
  4. The social norms of motor-assisted scooter use, including motor-assisted scooter etiquette; and,
  5. How motor-assisted scooters have been and may be integrated into the overall transportation system.

Rep. Rodriguez represents East Austin’s and Southeast Travis County’s District 51 in the Texas House of Representatives. He serves on the House Committees on Calendars, State Affairs and Ways & Means in the 86th Legislative Session.

Rep. Rodriguez issued the following statement regarding HB 2715:

“The deployment of motor-assisted scooters for rental in Texas cities has the potential to reduce congestion and pollution by solving the ‘last mile’ problem and filling a vital role in the multimodal transportation systems of the future.

“This technology and the businesses pushing its adoption, however, are new to our communities. The abrupt, and, in some cases premature, deployment of scooters has revealed thorny issues that suggest the need for regulation. But without rigorous, objective data, it is unclear what combination of policies would best serve Texans and their local governments without stifling innovation.

“HB 2715 would direct the state government’s subject matter experts to explore questions raised by the deployment of motor-assisted scooters in Texas and inform future efforts to regulate this fledgling industry.”

There’s already one study about scooter-related injuries going on, but nothing I am currently aware of about the other points Rep. Rodriguez raises. It’s been my assumption since the various venture capital-funded firms started scattering scooters around some cities that there will be action to legalize and regulate them at a state level, much as happened with the ridesharing companies. If this bill can allow us to have some objective data about scooters and their effects before we dive into that process, that would be nice.

Ridiculously early UT/TT poll: “Not Trump” leads

I’ll take it.

A slight majority of Texas voters would choose someone other than Donald Trump in a presidential race held right now, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

While 45 percent said they would “definitely vote for someone else,” 39 percent said they would “definitely vote to re-elect Donald Trump.” But the president got 10 percent who said they would “probably vote to re-elect Donald Trump,” and only 6 percent said they would “probably vote for someone else.”

If you count the leaners on both sides, that would be a virtual tie between Trump and an unnamed opponent.

“President ‘Else’ is doing pretty well,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The definitely-vote-for-somebody-else is pretty solid, I think.”

The president is strong with Republicans (88 percent would re-elect) and weak with Democrats (93 percent want someone else). He’s got some work to do with independent voters. Only 24 percent would definitely vote for him, while 42 percent say they would definitely vote against him.

The poll is of 1,200 registered voters; for obvious reasons, there’s no such thing as a “likely voter” at this time. The advantage of the “generic Dem” approach is that it avoids any variance due to name recognition. Forty-five percent of RVs saying they will “definitely vote for someone else” – and 51% saying “definitely” or “probably” – is a strong statement, though of course how many of them show up to vote is another question.

The disadvantage to the “generic Dem” approach of course is that our hypothetical Democrat has no strengths or weaknesses, no record to tour or defend, no demonstrated ability to campaign or fundraise or what have you. All Dems are equal in this calculus, but as we well know some are more equal than others. But re-elections are always first and foremost a referendum on the incumbent, and this is a weak showing by Trump. It’s one result, it’s stupid early, blah blah blah, but this is not the kind of number to make Republicans breathe a sigh of relief. I suspect we’re going to get an awful lot more polling done in Texas over the next year and eight months. Buckle up.

Here comes the House school finance plan

Not surprisingly, they go bigger than the Senate.

Rep. Dan Huberty

With Texas House lawmakers unveiling their long-awaited school finance proposal Tuesday and the Senate’s version likely close behind, teacher pay appears to be emerging as one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, laid out their reform proposal at a press conference Tuesday, calling for raising minimum salaries for a broad group of educators, increasing health and pension benefits, and offering opportunities for merit pay programs. That approach differs substantially from the $4 billion proposal that sailed through the Senate on Monday that would provide mandatory across-the-board $5,000 raises for classroom teachers and librarians.

When asked about the Senate’s proposal, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise … with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach” a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” he added. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

[…]

The House proposal, House Bill 3, would increase the base funding per student while requiring school districts to meet a higher minimum base pay for classroom teachers, full-time counselors, full-time librarians and full-time registered nurses. Many districts already exceed the current minimum salaries for educators at different experience levels.

It would work hand-in-hand with House Bill 9, filed Monday by the speaker’s brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would increase the state’s contribution to Teacher Retirement System pensions over time while keeping active member and district contributions the same.

HB 3 would also provide funding for districts that offer a merit pay program, rating their teachers and providing the top-rated ones with more money — modeled on a Dallas ISD program touted among lawmakers. The Senate is expected to include a similar proposal in its school finance bill later this week.

The politics surrounding the Senate’s teacher pay raise bill this session are unusual, with Patrick, who has previously clashed with educators, advocating for a proposal many teachers like. Meanwhile, conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick’s campaign, has come out against the bill, with one employeecriticizing conservatives like Patrick for “kowtowing” to liberals.

That bill has divided the education community, with superintendents and school boards arguing they need more flexibility with additional funds and many teachers supporting the directed raises.

Huberty said Tuesday that the House would “certainly have a hearing on that [Senate] bill” but that the school finance panel that worked to develop recommendations for lawmakers did not include across-the-board raises.

He said HB 3 provides more opportunity for local school boards and superintendents to decide how to use increased funding. More than 85 House members have signed on as co-authors of HB 3, and in a public show of support, many of them were present at Tuesday’s press conference.

See here and here for some background. A preview story about the House bill is here, and a story about that Senate bill is here. The Senate bill covers raises for teachers and librarians, but not other support personnel like nurses or bus drivers, which is one reason why the more-flexible approach is favored by school districts; that said, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association released a statement emphasizing the need for a Senate-style guaranteed teacher pay raise. The House is also taking a different approach on property taxes, as noted in that preview story:

According to the summary, the bill would increase the base funding per student by $890 to $6,030 — the first time that allotment has been raised in four years. It would also lower school district property tax rates statewide by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value, helping to reduce so-called Robin Hood payments that redistribute money from wealthier districts to poorer ones. The compression could save the owner of a home with $250,000 in taxable value about $100 annually in school district taxes.

That method of property tax relief is different than one proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, which would cap annual increases in school districts’ tax revenues at 2.5 percent.

There’s also the Democratic proposal, some of which is in HB3. All of this is a starting point, so I don’t want to get too far into the weeds. None of these bills will be adopted as is, and some of them may not get adopted at all. This and the budget will be the last pieces of business the Lege deals with, and the main reason why there could be a special session. We’ll keep an eye on it all. The Chron has more.

Morales wins HD145

Here’s the election night report. The margin was basically 61-39 with 42 of 45 precincts reporting, and turnout in the 3,000 range. Morales’ election fills two of the seats that were vacated by resignations following the November election. Dems won twelve seats to give them 67 total, but in actuality they have had between 64 and 66 since everyone was sworn in. They’re now officially at 66, and if they can win in HD125 next week they’ll get to that 67 figure we’ve been bandying about. In the meantime, my congratulations to Rep.-elect Christina Morales. I wish you all the best as you take office. My thanks to my friend Melissa Noriega for running a good campaign and giving it her best. One way or the other we were going to be well-represented.

Blaming DPS

Meet your new scapegoat for the SOS non-citizen voter advisory fiasco.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Amid the fallout surrounding his administration’s botched review of the voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott has picked a side.

Who’s to blame for the state’s mistaken challenge to the voting rights of thousands of Texans? The longtime head of the Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw.

During a radio interview last week, Abbott slammed McCraw’s department for not “adequately” communicating to the secretary of state that the data at heart of the controversial voter review was “admittedly flawed.” And he specifically passed the blame onto McCraw for “faulty information” that “hamstrung” the state’s review efforts.

Then on Monday, Abbott referred to McCraw’s alleged mistakes as “unacceptable,” describing the review as a mishandled “law enforcement issue.”

It was a striking, two-punch rebuke of a high-ranking state official who has long backed Abbott’s priorities, particularly on security concerns at the Texas-Mexico border. But recent court testimony and documents obtained by The Texas Tribune paint a more complicated picture. In reality, the voter citizenship review was flawed in two major ways.

For one, officials from the Texas secretary of state’s office based their review on data DPS had warned would not be up-to-date. In addition, miscommunication between different state offices led state election officials to misinterpret the citizenship status of 25,000 Texans who had already proved to the state that they were citizens.

But Abbott has downplayed Secretary of State David Whitley’s role in the foul-up as Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide, faces a tough confirmation fight in the Senate that could result in him losing his job. That has left opponents of Whitley’s nomination questioning Abbott’s motivations.

“I think the governor is either misinformed or he’s trying to save his nominee despite what the facts are,” said Chad Dunn, one of the civil rights lawyers suing the state over the constitutionality of the review effort. “I don’t think there’s any evidence to support the governor’s comments.”

You should read on for the details, but this is a pretty good summary. Steve McCraw is a longtime hack and hatchet man, and I’m sure not going to hold anyone back from using him as a punching bag. This is still a remarkable evasion of the facts and defense of a guy who is both clearly beloved by Greg Abbott (warning: you may feel the need to brush your teeth after reading that sticky-sweet profile of Whitley) and in way over his head. At some level, I don’t care whose fault this idiocy was. It’s very clear that the intent was to bulldoze people off of the voter rolls without any concern about accuracy, and it’s equally clear that a similar effort done with more care and deliberation would have been much less controversial. It also would have ended up with a scope of maybe a couple hundred voters, which isn’t going to look nearly as sexy in a Ken Paxton press release. Them’s the breaks.

One more thing:

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley will tell Texas counties they may continue to look into the citizenship statuses of voters on his list of suspected noncitizens, according to an advisory approved by a federal judge Monday.

The advisory, which will be sent to all 254 counties in the state, notifies election offices that they must abide by the Feb. 27 court order that bars them from alerting people on the list that they’re under examination or removing anyone from the rolls without approval from the court and “conclusive” evidence that they’re ineligible.

It also clarifies that the counties may still vet voters on the list as long as they do not directly contact them. If, however, a voter reaches out to a county elections administrator first, the advisory says, then the office may communicate with them.

See here for the background. The effect of this is likely to be a continuing stream of voters being removed from the list of alleged non-citizens. As long as that is all that it is, it’s fine by me.

Today is Runoff Day in HD145

From the Inbox:

Tuesday, March 5, 2019, is Election Day for voters in Texas State Representative District 145. There will be 27 Voting Locations open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit the County Clerk’s election page, www.harrisvotes.com for more information.

“Only individuals who are registered to vote in SRD 145 may vote in this election,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, the Chief Election Official of the county.

At the end of the Early Voting period, only 1,417 votes had been cast in the election. This election will determine who will be the next Texas State Representative for District 145.

“While Harris County is seeking approval to implement a Countywide Polling Place Program, voters should remember that currently on Election Day, they must cast a ballot at the polling location where their precinct is assigned,” stated Dr. Trautman.

State Representative District 145 registered voters can find their sample ballot, as well as their Election Day location, by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

The list of polling places is here. You can vote in the runoff whether or not you voted in the original special election, you just have to be registered in HD145. Not many people have voted so far, so your vote counts for a lot. I voted for Melissa Noriega, and I encourage you to vote for her as well.

Meanwhile, early voting in the HD125 runoff is underway.

After a special election with four Democratic candidates and one Republican, the runoff has turned into a classic face-off between one candidate from each party. Former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, a Democrat, narrowly won a spot in the runoff election last month with 19.5 percent of the vote, while businessman and Republican Fred Rangel easily led the pack with 38 percent.

Lopez said he doesn’t consider the previous margin to be indicative of how the runoff will shake out because the district is made up of mostly Democratic voters.

“Crystallizing the message for all Democrats to get behind is important, and I believe we’re doing that,” he said. “All my co-candidates [from the previous election] have endorsed me and supported me. They all realize party unity is important. We don’t want to lose a predominantly Democratic area to a Republican.”

Both candidates have acknowledged school finance reform is paramount in their district, as it is in the Legislature, but differ on secondary priorities. Lopez has championed veteran services and job creation, while Rangel said he wants to see property tax relief and lists his anti-abortion stance as a priority on his campaign’s Facebook page. But most of Rangel’s efforts currently focus on telling people an election is happening, he said.

[…]

Early voting for the runoff is Monday through Friday. The lack of weekend early voting is typical for this type of election, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said. There are seven early voting sites, and there will be 31 poll sites on election day, which is March 12. Callanen also reiterated that all of the 101,000 registered voters in the district are eligible to vote in this election.

“There’s always confusion when we have a runoff, where some people still think you must have voted in the first election to be able to vote in the runoff,” she said. “That’s not true. If you’re a registered voter in that area, you’re eligible to come to the polls.”

Voters can go to any poll site during early voting but must go to their precinct on election day. Check here for locations. If you’re unsure in which House district you live, you can search by address or ZIP code here. Bring a Texas driver’s license, a U.S. passport, or one of five other valid forms of ID.

Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

Get this one done, Bexar Dems. We don’t need any more accidents.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Congress

We come to the last of our January finance report roundups. The next one will be in April, for Congressional candidates, which will be our first indicator of who among the repeaters and the newcomers has gotten off to a fast start and who is still biding their time. This post covers the last three months of 2018, though as always remember that unlike other systems, the FEC reports are cumulative for the cycle. You have to compare to earlier reports to see how much was raised and spent in the period in question. Given that this period covered the month before the election, you will see from the vastly diminished cash on hand totals just how much was being spent at this time. As it should have been, of course.

Here are the July 2017 finance reports, here are the October 2017 finance reports, here are the January 2018 finance reports, here are the April 2018 finance reports, here are the July 2018 finance reports, here are the October 2018 finance reports, and here’s the FEC summary page for Democratic Congressional candidates in Texas.

Todd Litton – CD02
Lori Burch – CD03
Jana Sanchez – CD06
Lizzie Fletcher – CD07
Steven David – CD08
Mike Siegel – CD10
Vanessa Adia – CD12
Adrienne Bell – CD14
Rick Kennedy – CD17
Joseph Kopser – CD21
Sri Kulkarni – CD22
Gina Ortiz Jones – CD23
Jan McDowell – CD24
Julie Oliver – CD25
Linsey Fagan – CD26
Eric Holguin – CD27
MJ Hegar – CD31
Colin Allred – CD32
Dayna Steele – CD36


Dist  Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
02    Litton        1,536,148  1,515,116        0     21,032
03    Burch           292,395    322,136   25,649     -1,278
06    Sanchez         734,004    707,924        0     58,590
07    Fletcher      6,226,876  6,184,824        0     42,067
08    David            34,332     30,263        0      3,565
10    Siegel          489,172    485,681   10,000      3,490
12    Adia            208,585    198,453        0      9,987
14    Bell            211,652    211,652        0          0
17    Kennedy         132,158    130,830   11,789      1,427
21    Kopser        3,251,295  3,241,756   49,231      9,538
22    Kulkarni      1,637,103  1,609,335        0     27,767
23    Ortiz Jones   6,216,644  6,098,297        0    118,346
24    McDowell        108,709     95,507        0     13,320
25    Oliver          645,926    645,926      644          0
26    Fagan           176,157    106,139        0     53,142
27    Holguin         200,712    198,801        0     -1,460
31    Hegar         5,122,102  5,069,600        0     47,481
32    Allred        5,972,679  5,869,234        0    103,445
36    Steele          902,066    901,866        0          0

Please note that some of those report links about will not take you directly to the candidate’s summary page. At this juncture, before any 2019-2020 reports are filed, candidate who span cycles will go to a landing page asking you to pick what cycle you want. That includes first-time-candidates-who-won, like Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, for whom the link will say that nothing from this cycle has been filed yet. You can then choose the 2017-2018 cycle from the dropdown and see the data I’m reporting on here.

I don’t know how a candidate can report a negative cash on hand balance. I’m just giving you what the website gave me. I tried in some previous posts to differentiate between the cash actually raised by the candidate and money that came from loans or transfers from committees like the DCCC, but that was too much work for this effort, so what you get in the Raised column is the top line number indicated by the candidate.

Reps. Fletcher and Allred start with fairly modest balances, but I’m not at all worried about that. Both will rake it in, as the Republicans try to win those seats back. Allred is already drawing interest, and I’m sure so is Fletcher, but if so I’ve not seen any stories about who might want to take her on. I’ll be honest, no names pop into my head as obvious challengers for her.

Mike Siegel and Sri Kulkarni are known to be interested in running again – Siegel is already a declared candidate, Kulkarni may be although I can’t independently verify that. Gina Ortiz Jones is acting like someone who may take another crack at it, though I’d expect she will have company in a primary, while Siegel and Kulkarni are more likely to have either a clear path or token opposition. MJ Hegar may run again or may run for Senate. I don’t know what Todd Litton, Jana Sanchez, or Joseph Kopser are up to, nor do I know about Julie Oliver or Lorie Burch. I also don’t know about Jan McDowell, but as CD24 is now firmly on the national radar, I’m 100% sure that other potential candidates are being courted, or making themselves known. McDowell may be a candidate next March, but I’ll be more than a little surprised – and disappointed – if she’s the candidate next November.

That’s it for this round of campaign finance reports. Tune in again in April for the first look at Congress 2020, and in July for the first real indicators of who’s got it going on for Houston City Council. Let me know what you think.

Can we turn the anti-vax tide in the Lege this session?

It sure would be nice, and this needs to be the primary goal.

In Texas, children are required to have certain sets of vaccinations before they can be enrolled in public school – including the vaccine for measles.

But parents who have “reasons of conscience” for not wanting their children to be vaccinated are allowed to opt out of vaccinations, a practice that experts say is forming a dangerous trend that helped fuel the most recent measles outbreak.

Statewide, there was only one confirmed case of measles in each of 2016 and 2017. In 2018, there were nine confirmed cases of measles, authorities say.

There are seven confirmed cases so far in 2019.

The legislature does not define what constitutes a “reason of conscience,” meaning that any parent, for any reason, can decide not to immunize their children against dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases.

Close to 57,000 children in Texas went to public schools unvaccinated in 2018 for non-medical reasons, according to Allison Winnike, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership. She said those numbers are growing year-over-year since the non-medical, “reasons of conscience” exemption went into effect almost two decades ago.

Concerns about the rise in measles cases is the fulcrum for this. Anti-vaxxers had a good session in 2017, but their advantage is more partisan than non-partisan, and a couple of their leading advocates – Reps. Bill Zedler and Jonathan Stickland – both had close wins in 2018 and will be big targets in 2020, along with others in Tarrant County.

All this is good, but so far the only vaccine-related bill I could find of any value was SB 329 by Sen. Kel Seliger would require a biennial report on any outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and the number of children without vaccines under the “reasons of conscience” law, but it doesn’t change the “reasons of conscience” law itself. That’s where we need to go, and we may as well get started on it this session. And we’d better not wait, because the anti-vaxxers are actively trying to make things worse.

A bill filed in the Texas Legislature this month by Representative Matt Krause, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, would make it easier for parents to request vaccine exemptions. A similar version was left pending after a House Public Health Committee hearing in 2017, but Krause’s new bill would go further, explicitly preventing the state health department from tracking the number of exemptions. Even though the exemption data doesn’t include anything that could identify individual students and is only available at the school district level, Krause and Zedler point to fears among anti-vaxxers that they will be tracked and bullied. “We’ve seen instances in California, stuff like that, where they start hunting people down,” [anti-vax Rep. Bill] Zedler said.

Public health officials say the proposal would curb their ability to identify and stop disease outbreaks, and parents of immunocompromised kids would have even less information to decide where to send their children to school.

“This is the modus operandi for anti-vaxxers in Texas: to promote exemptions, obfuscate and minimize transparency,” said Peter Hotez, a leading vaccine scientist and dean for the National School for Tropical Medicine at Baylor Medical School. “To do this in the middle of a measles outbreak in Texas is especially unconscionable.”

[…]

Krause, who is also backed by Texans for Vaccine Choice, argues that his legislation merely streamlines the process for parents who will obtain the exemptions anyway. He dismissed the many concerns raised by medical professionals last session. “They did a very good job of painting the worst-case scenario,” Krause told the Observer. “I’m not so sure those fears are founded.”

Krause acknowledged that he has already fielded concerns about his bill, in particular the clause preventing the state from tracking vaccine exemptions. He said he would be willing to scrap that language “if Texans for Vaccine Choice or some other vaccine choice groups or other folks from the medical community say that’s a bad idea.” Texans for Vaccine Choice did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Krause’s bill is HB1490. He won by eight points in 2018, so be sure to find a good opponent for him too. As I’ve said many times before, the anti-vaxxers are better organized and far more vocal – Rep. Gene Wu notes his recent encounter with this bunch – but I continue to believe they’re a small minority. This needs to be an issue people lose election over, because the stakes are getting higher. Vox, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos have more.

What can you legally wear when you go to vote?

That’s the subject of a lawsuit involving voters from Houston and Dallas.

A Houston woman who was forced to turn a firefighters T-shirt inside out at the polls and a Dallas-area man who tried to vote in his Trump MAGA cap are suing a long list of public officials in federal court here for violating their free speech rights.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June invalidating a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue oriented” apparel at the polls. The case filed in Houston federal court Thursday on behalf of two Texas voters was brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group that won the free speech victory in the Minnesota case.

The conservative foundation wants a Houston judge to overturn the Texas law that restricts what people can wear when they vote. Texas is one of several states that still have clothing restrictions on the books. The concern is not just that voters won’t feel free to express themselves, but also that enforcement by poll workers will be “arbitrary and erratic.”

Douglas Ray, an special assistant overseeing election issues at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. said the county will defend itself but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who was also sued — will likely take the lead. County officials last dealt with this issue in 2010, when voters showed up at the polls with Obama-related gear, Ray said. President Barack Obama was not on the ballot, but several measures that reflected his policies were, he said.

“What we tell the election judge is they have the power to adjudicate when they think electioneering is going on and when it’s not,” said Ray. “We tell them to make that determination based on a totality of the circumstances and if it’s consistent with advocacy for somebody or some party that’s on the ballot.”

In the case of the firefighters shirts, Ray acknowledged the county was aware the shirts caused friction at the polls. “We had a lot of trouble with that during the last election because there were people wearing these yellow shirts with red lettering that said ‘Vote for Prop B’ but they were almost identical to a shirt that just said ‘Houston Fire Fighters.’”

He said the shirts had the same colors, logo and lettering but one had “Vote for Prop B” and one didn’t. The county attorney’s office advised election judges that the yellow shirts were problematic if they said something specific about voting.

“But that is just advice,” Ray said. “The election judge in that situation makes the adjudication.”

[…]

The Texas law is more specific than the Minnesota one that the Supreme Court addressed last year, which could help or hurt the case, according to David Coale, a constitutional law expert at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas. The Minnesota law prohibited voters from wearing political badges, buttons or other political insignia to the polls, while Texas law prohibits inside or within 100 feet of the voting site the wearing of badges, insignia, emblems representing any a candidate, measure or political party appearing on the ballot or to the conduct of the election.

“The Supreme Court said it was a legitimate state interest to have a polling place free of distracting political activity. But by doing so, it still requires the election official to make judgment calls about what ‘relates to’ the election…and also means that the official can get it wrong,” Coale said. “The argument that a ‘MAGA’ hat ‘relates to’ the subject of this election is not a strong one. I think that is why the Pacific Foundation focused on this case as its test case, to get some law made on how far away from the specific subject of an election you can be and still ‘relate to’ it.”

There are always going to be some issues when you are relying on individual election judges to exercise their own judgment in interpreting election law. We see plenty of examples of this every year with the voter ID law and whether or not the name on their ID matches what’s on their voter registration card. Restricting what is allowed at the polling place is much more fraught than that. Wherever a line is drawn for what is acceptable, there will be cases right on that line where reasonable people may disagree. I have a certain amount of sympathy for these plaintiffs, but I don’t know that it adds up to enough weight to warrant throwing out the existing law. I suspect the courts will say that it does, but we’ll see.

Final EV totals in HD145

A bit less than Round One so far.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Early voting in the House District 145 special election runoff ended Friday with a spike in turnout, though only a small fraction of registered voters have cast ballots so far in the election.

A total of 1,417 votes were cast in person and by mail through five days of early voting, not far from the 1,526 votes cast through the first round’s 11-day early voting period.

About 73,000 registered voters live in the district.

[…]

In the first round of the special election, 1,879 voters turned out on Election Day, Jan. 29. Overall, 3,499 people voted in the first round, amounting to about 4.8 percent of registered voters.

Here’s the final EV report. Friday was easily the busiest day, which is usually how this goes. If you look at the official report from January, you see that there were actually 1,609 early ballots cast. The difference between this figure and the 1,526 the Chron reported is the mail ballots that arrived between the final Friday of early in person voting and the Tuesday Election Day. There are still 188 mail ballots outstanding – there were 120 not yet returned in January – so there’s room for more growth. Tuesday’s turnout will need to be a little higher than it was in Round One in order for the runoff to exceed the first election. It will be close.

The Heidi Group grift

You’re not mad enough right now. Read this, that’s fix it.

Right there with them

On a Monday evening in May 2016, Carol Everett sent an email to fellow anti-abortion activists detailing “an extraordinary pro-life opportunity.” Her nonprofit, the Heidi Group, she said, had spent the past year pushing for nearly $40 million in funding to help Christian pregnancy centers “bless many poor women” across Texas.

“It is no exaggeration to say this is the greatest possibility for expansion of pro-life care for the poor ever,” she wrote.

The enthusiasm might have sounded familiar to those who knew Everett, whose decades of work in the anti-abortion movement had earned her accolades from the state’s leading conservatives. But this wasn’t an advocacy project she was describing, and these weren’t private dollars. It was an application she had just submitted to become one of the state’s leading family planning providers.

Everett had never contracted with the state and had no clinical background. Many of the pregnancy centers she cited don’t provide contraception, a core service. Yet state health officials gave her much of the money anyway, ignoring warning signs and overruling staff who recommended millions less in funding, according to a review of the contracting by the Houston Chronicle. When Everett’s clinics began failing, the state delayed for months in shifting money to higher performing clinics, instead devoting vast amounts of time to support Everett and her small, understaffed team.

Though it’s impossible to say how many more women could have been served had the resources been shifted sooner, several competing clinics burned through their funding early in the grant cycle, surpassing their targets for both spending and patients treated. Had they been sent some of the $6.75 million sitting in wait for the Heidi Group, the door could have opened for thousands more women to receive access to contraception, STD screenings and breast exams.

It goes from there, and you should read the rest. I’ve blogged about the Heidi Group before. They’ve wasted millions of your tax dollars not providing health care to women who desperately need it, all in the service of ideology. If this doesn’t make you mad, I don’t know what it’s going to take.

Bush coins

Feels like it’s been awhile since we’ve had a good dollar coin story.

We can only aspire to be like Millard

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate would authorize the U.S. Treasury to mint $1 coins honoring former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, for the year.

The Bushes, who lived in Texas and Maine, both died in 2018.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said the coin will pay tribute to the Bush legacy of “courage, duty, honor, and compassion” and serve as a reminder of their contributions to the country.

Sponsors include Collins and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, along with GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, and Rob Portman of Ohio.

I’m down for some Bush coinage. The previous Presidential coin series, which also included First Spouse coins, ceased after the Reagans, so there’s a void to be filled. Note that there is not yet a Jimmy Carter coin, as this is only a posthumous honor. I figure this will eventually happen, though given the current state of things it may take more than one session for it. But sooner or later you’ll be able to plunk down a couple of George and Barbaras to pay your bar tab.

What about Joaquin

If Beto O’Rourke is indeed not running for Senate, Rep. Joaquin Castro may step up to do it.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro told the Associated Press on Thursday that his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, is considering challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, for the U.S. Senate in 2020.

“He’s considering that, but he really has not made a decision about whether he’s going to do that,” Castro said while on the presidential campaign trail in Las Vegas.

“I think he’d beat him. My brother would win,” Castro said. “There are a lot of Texans that clearly have problems with the way that (Cornyn) has represented the state. Most recently, refusing to stand up to Trump even though a lot of land is going to get taken, a lot of Texas landowners’ property is going to get taken if there’s a wall.”

Matthew Jones, a campaign advisor to Joaquin Castro, confirmed Friday morning that, “Congressman Castro will seriously consider running for Senate in 2020.”

“Right now, he’s focused on protecting Texans—and all Americans — from the most consequential challenge to our constitutional separation of powers that we have seen in a generation,” Jones said. “He will not stand by while the president attempts to unilaterally strip Texans of their land to build a wall in a manner that most Americans, especially Texans, disagree with.”

A Joaquin Castro Senate candidacy would be an answered prayer for Texas Democrats amid the expectation that former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who narrowly lost a Senate challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in November, has decided to pass on challenging Cornyn and may soon join Julián Castro as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.

[…]

Julián Castro’s dropping his brother’s name into the race also comes the same week that Joaquin’s promising congressional career — one reason he chose not to run for Senate in 2016 — truly delivered on its promise, with Castro leading the successful effort by House Democrats to pass a resolution he drafted to block President Trump’s emergency declaration, which Trump issued to secure border wall funds that Congress has denied him.

“This is the most consequential vote we will take in a generation on the balance of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government,” Castro said before the House voted Tuesday 245 to 182 in favor of the resolution. The resolution still has to pass the Senate, which is possible, and survive a certain presidential veto, which is almost certainly beyond reach. But it has already succeeded as an effective political response to the president.

The Castro twins have pursued parallel political careers, but Julián Castro, born a minute earlier, has been first among equals, serving as mayor of San Antonio and as a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, was considered for vice president by Hillary Clinton in 2016, has written a memoir, and is now running for president while his twin brother remains in Congress.

But in the less than two months since Julián Castro launched his bid for president, it is Joaquin who has had the higher political profile, punctuated by this week’s moment of triumph. He was elected chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the new Congress, and was elected vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as serving on the Education and Labor and House Intelligence committees On Homeland Security. He has been integrally involved in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and any potential Russian collusion by Trump and his campaign, and a frequent cable news presence.

As of this writing we still don’t have direct-from-Beto’s-mouth confirmation of his plans for 2020, but this seems like a decent sign that Beto is truly not a candidate for Senate next year. Which is a shame, in my opinion, but it’s his choice to make. As for Joaquin, he’s always been high on my list, but I remain skeptical that he will give up a very good gig in the Democratic-majority House for at best a coin flip for Senate. Obviously, I could be wrong about that – I’m not Joaquin Castro (spoiler alert), I don’t know what his risk profile and ambition levels are. If he does run, I think that’s a good sign that he thinks he can win, though how much of that is irrational exuberance and how much is a cold, hard assessment of the political landscape and strategic options is anyone’s guess. For certain, the fact that it even makes sense for him to publicly think about it is a clear indicator that Texas is being viewed as an opportunity for Dems next year. He may not rake in $80 million, but Joaquin Castro will have no trouble raising money if he hops in.

There are other potential candidates out there – MJ Hegar, Kim Olson, Wendy Davis, probably more though those are the most prominent ones to make noise about it. There’s a good case to be made that Dems should want a female candidate to oppose Cornyn. I feel confident saying that Beto and Joaquin are the first two in line, and if either of them says they’re in they will almost certainly have the nomination with at most token opposition. But one of them has to say they’re in first. The Trib has more.

Schlitterbahn indictments dismissed

Some good news for the company, following the worst thing that ever happened at a Schlitterbahn water park.

A Wyandotte County judge on Friday said that the Kansas Attorney General ‘irreparably tainted’ a grand jury with prejudicial evidence to obtain indictments against several Schlitterbahn employees and associates involved in the design, construction and operation of a water slide that killed a 10-year-old boy in 2016.

Judge Robert Burns dismissed indictments against three individuals and two corporate affiliates of Schlitterbahn, the company that built the 17-story Verruckt water slide in Kansas City, Kan., in 2014. It drew large crowds until Caleb Schwab, son of Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, was killed by decapitation on the ride. The water slide, once billed as the world’s tallest, was torn down last year.

Burns sided with defense attorneys who argued that lawyers in Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office showed a Wyandotte County grand jury evidence that would not have been admissible in trial — clips of reality television, misleading expert testimony and references to an unrelated death from years ago — that improperly influenced the grand jury in handing down criminal charges.

Taken all together, Burns found the grand jury had been abused to obtain indictments, which contained charges as serious as second-degree murder for two of the defendants.

“The court has grave doubts as to whether the irregularities and improprieties improperly influenced the grand jury and ultimately bolstered its decision to indict these defendants,” Burns said. “Quite simply, these defendants were not afforded the due process protections and fundamental fairness Kansas law requires.”

For now, Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, Verruckt designer John Schooley and former Schlitterbahn operations manager Tyler Miles face no criminal charges in Caleb’s death. The Kansas Attorney General can seek criminal charges again, either through another grand jury, through a preliminary hearing or seek an appeal of Burns’ decision. Or they could just walk away from the case.

See here for the background, and here for a deeper dive. I still have very mixed feelings about all this, and if you keep reading the story you’ll see that the reasons for the dismissal were more technical and procedural than substantive. I don’t feel like the Schlitterbahn folks were exonerated in any way, just that maybe the Kansas AG didn’t do a good job. (To be fair, the story notes that a lot of people thought the indictments were problematic in the first place.) The Schlitterbahn settled a civil case related to Caleb Schwab’s death for $20 million, so it’s not like there were no consequences. I’m just still not ready to forgive and move on. Texas Monthly has more.

Ridiculously early Quinnipiac poll: Trump has a small lead

Consider this to be for entertainment purposes only.

In a very early look at possible 2020 presidential matchups in Texas, President Donald Trump is essentially tied with former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders or former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. President Trump leads other possible Democratic contenders by small margins.

Hypothetical matchups by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University Poll show:

  • President Trump at 47 percent, including 41 percent of independent voters, to Biden’s 46 percent, including 46 percent of independent voters;
  • Trump at 47 percent, including 41 percent of independent voters, to Sanders’ 45 percent, including 48 percent of independent voters;
  • Trump at 47 percent, including 41 percent of independent voters, to O’Rourke’s 46 percent, including 48 percent of independent voters.

Trump has leads, driven mainly by a shift among independent voters, over other possible Democratic candidates:

  • 46 – 41 percent over former San Antonio Mayor and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro;
  • 48 – 41 percent over U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California;
  • 48 – 41 percent over U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke share similar support among Democrats and voters 18 – 34 years old.

“The 2020 presidential race in Texas, and how some of Democrats stack up against President Donald Trump, begins as a two-tiered contest. There are three more well-known contenders who run evenly against President Donald Trump. Another group, less well-known, are just a little behind Trump,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

“Former Vice President Joe Biden has the highest favorability of any of the contenders and has a better net favorability than President Trump,” Brown added. “Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke also does relatively well on favorability and in a matchup with Trump, but that may well be due to O’Rourke being a home-state favorite.

“But former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, who is also a former San Antonio mayor, does not do as well as O’Rourke.”

Among Texas voters, 47 percent have a favorable opinion of Trump, with 49 percent unfavorable. Favorability ratings for possible Democratic challengers are:

  • Biden: 48 – 38 percent;
  • Sanders: Negative 41 – 47 percent;
  • O’Rourke: Divided 44 – 40 percent;
  • Harris: Negative 24 – 33 percent;
  • Warren: Negative 27 – 42 percent;
  • Castro: Divided 23 – 27 percent;
  • U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey: 51 percent haven’t heard enough to form an opinion;
  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: 53 percent haven’t heard enough to form an opinion;
  • U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York: 68 percent haven’t heard enough to form an opinion;
  • U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota: 70 percent haven’t heard enough to form an opinion.

Texas Senate Race

In an early look at the 2020 U.S. Senate race in Texas, Republican incumbent Sen. John Cornyn and possible Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke are tied 46 – 46 percent. Independent voters go to O’Rourke 47 – 40 percent.

From February 20 – 25, Quinnipiac University surveyed 1,222 Texas voters with a margin of error of +/- 3.4 percentage points, including the design effect.

I’m gonna bullet-point this one:

– It’s ridiculously early. Don’t overthink this.

– Differences between the top three Dems and everyone else is at least 95% about name recognition and nothing else.

– We just don’t have any polls from similar time frames to compare to. The earliest polls from the 2016 and 2012 cycles that I tracked were from the actual election years, mostly after the nominees had been settled. More than a year later in the cycle from where we are now, in other words.

– That said, the high level of responses is interesting, and probably reflects the fact that basically everyone has an opinion about Donald Trump. In that sense, the dynamic is more like 2012, which was also a Presidential re-election year. Look at the numbers on the right sidebar for 2012, and you’ll see that there were very few “undecided” or “other” respondents. If that is a valid basis for comparison, then Trump starts out at least a couple of points behind Mitt Romney. Given that Romney wound up at 57%, that’s not necessarily a bad place for him to be. Romney also never polled below fifty percent, so there’s that. Again, it’s stupid early. Don’t overthink this.

– There are reports now that Beto will not be running for Senate, in which case we can ignore those numbers even more. I’ll wait till I see the words from Beto himself, but to be sure he’s not talked much if at all about running for Senate again, so this seems credible to me. Without Beto in the race, if that is indeed the case, Cornyn will probably poll a bit better than Trump, at least early on when name recognition is again a factor. In the end, though, I think Cornyn rises and falls with Trump. I can imagine him outperforming Trump by a bit, but not that much. If it’s not Beto against Cornyn, I look forward to seeing who does jump in, and how they poll later on in the cycle.

Not so open meetings

We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.

In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.

Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”

Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”

But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.

“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”

See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.

The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.

TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.

Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.

TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.

While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.

TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”

I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.

Senate committee advances Whitley nomination

I’ll take Pointless Wastes of Time for $200, Alex.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A Texas Senate committee voted Thursday to advance the nomination of Texas Secretary of State David Whitley — the most forward motion he’s made in weeks in a stalled nomination that faces increasingly steep odds.

After a 4–3 vote along party lines, with all the committee’s Republicans backing Whitley and all Democrats voting against him, Whitley can be considered by the full Senate, where he’d need a two-thirds majority that he doesn’t appear to currently have.

[…]

Whitley, who appeared before the committee three weeks ago for a two-hour grilling over the bungled review effort, had been left pending in committee in its last two hearings even as other nominees sailed through. That seemed to bode poorly for his chances. The governor’s office has continued to back him “100 percent.”

And Gov. Greg Abbott said in a radio interview Thursday morning that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Democrats change their minds on Whitley.

“We’ve had ongoing conversations with them and we maintain good relationship with them. And so we’ll see how things turn out,” Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty. And he defended Whitley’s handling of the bungled probe, saying “secretary of state was relying on data from the Texas Department of Public Safety that was admittedly flawed by DPS, and DPS did not adequately communicate that to the secretary of state.”

“So the secretary of state was hamstrung by faulty information from the Department of Public Safety from the beginning and did not know that, and so the part of the fault goes to Steve McCraw, the director of the Department of Public Safety for causing the error in the first place,” Abbott said.

Don’t forget to blame the counties, too. There’s lots of room under that bus. I understand why Abbott is loyal to his former minion, but there’s gotta be some other party apparatchik with less baggage and more competence who can do this job. I have no idea who Abbott thinks is being wooed here, but in the absence of a real, genuine mea culpa plus a solid plan to get this right and a pledge to oppose any fruit of the poisoned tree bills, I see no reason why any Democratic Senator would give a damn.

UPDATE: Ross Ramsey suggests a way that Whitley could get confirmed: Not having all Senators present at the time his nomination is brought up for a vote, as two thirds of those who do vote are what is needed for confirmation. David Dewhurst tried this trick to pass the voter ID bill a couple of times in 2007, before the two thirds rule was changed to allow voter ID to pass on a simple majority. It’s definitely something to watch out for.

Today is the last day to vote early in HD145

Not many people have so far. I expect today will pick up as it usually does – better weather will help – but it’s been a quiet affair so far. Here’s where you need to go to vote, in case you’ve forgotten. I’ll be dropping by Moody Park later today, where there almost certainly won’t be a line. Get out there and vote, and if you want my advice vote for Melissa Noriega. Thanks very much.

Judge blocks any voter purges from the SOS advisory

Good. Let’s hope this lasts.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a major victory for voting rights groups, a federal judge has ordered that no Texas county should purge suspected noncitizen voters from the rolls or issue letters demanding that they prove their citizenship “without prior approval of the Court with a conclusive showing that the person is ineligible to vote.”

The Wednesday order from U.S. District Judge Fred Biery comes a month after the Texas secretary of state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship review — and a flurry of civil rights groups filed three lawsuits to block state and county officials from purging voters based on what has proven a deeply flawed set of data.

Biery ordered that as the litigation continues, counties can “continue to find out if in fact someone is registered who is not a citizen” — some local officials have proposed comparing lists of flagged voters with names of individuals made citizens at recent naturalization ceremonies, for example — but may not communicate directly with any particular individual on the list. Reaching out to a voter to demand proof of citizenship starts the clock on a process that can lead to that voter being purged from the rolls.

[…]

Biery’s order directly addresses the more than a dozen counties that are named defendants in the flurry of lawsuits. It also directs the state to inform Texas’ other 200-plus counties that they may not purge voters or demand proof of citizenship without his approval.

Last week, eight counties agreed voluntarily to halt their efforts, and on Monday, Biery extended that order to a total of 15 counties.

[…]

Much like his remarks in court this week, Biery’s order contained harsh words for the state’s bungled attempt to review its rolls, and good omens for the civil rights groups aiming to prove that Texas has treated two groups of people, native-born citizens and naturalized citizens, differently.

“Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the Court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us,” Biery wrote. “No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment.”

Biery also wrote — as civil rights groups and voting experts have long maintained — that “there is no widespread voter fraud” in Texas and that an attempt to root out noncitizens on the voter roll forces officials to figure out “how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack.”

State officials have said that moving forward, they plan to watch for noncitizens who are registered to vote by comparing voter rolls with more recent lists of individuals who present proof of legal status, but not citizenship, at DPS. Biery’s Wednesday order allows that process to proceed but advises that officials may not purge those voters or demand proof of citizenship without approval from him.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, this is just the wrangling over an injunction, to determine whether or not the state and counties can continue to pursue this purge while the case is being litigated. It’s not a decision on the merits, just a stop sign for the state until a decision is reached. Assuming the Fifth Circuit doesn’t step in and screw things up as it usually does, of course. No word as of the publication of that story as to whether or not the state would appeal. Judge Biery made a good call, but as always this is far from over. The Lone Star Project, which picks out some highlights from Biery’s order, has more.

The state of equality 2019

From Equality Texas:

IN 2019, THE STATE OF EQUALITY IS: OUT OF STEP WITH TEXAS VALUES

As the 2019 Texas Legislature approaches the mid-point, Equality Texas has surveyed the current state of equality and concluded that urgent legislative action is needed. Public support for equality has never been higher. But from kindergarten to the retirement home, LGBTQ people still experience worse outcomes across nearly every metric and, for many, equality remains stubbornly out of reach. The 86th Texas Legislature must act to remove the antiquated legal barriers that put LGBTQ Texans at a marked disadvantage compared to their neighbors.

VISIBILITY & ACCEPTANCE

According to an analysis by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, approximately 930,000 Texans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. If LGBTQ Texans were a city unto themselves, they’d be the 5th most populous municipality in the state, just behind Austin, and significantly larger than El Paso.

LGBTQ people are more visible in their communities than ever before: according to a 2017 study, 70% of Americans report that they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, while the number of Americans who say they personally know someone who is transgender has nearly doubled, from 11% to 21%.

Public support for equality is also at an all time high in the state. The Public Religion Research Institute recently analyzed Texans’ attitudes and reported that 64% of Texans support non-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people. That strong support is consistent across political party, religious affiliation, demographic group, and region of the state. Similarly, a solid majority of Texans oppose laws that permit permit religiously motivated discrimination.

However, as detailed in this report, there is a stark gap between the strong public support for equality in the state and the actual lived reality of many LGBTQ Texans. LGBTQ people experience worse outcomes across almost every metric, often as a direct result the legal barriers to equality that persist in Texas law.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. See here for more on the referenced poll. While the 2018 elections produced results that are more in line with the attitudes that Texans have expressed towards LGBTQ people, the Lege is still way out of step.

It’s no surprise that the bigots in the Texas legislature are mounting a serious, multi-pronged assault on the LGBTQ community.

But events this week at the Capitol have made it clear just how serious the fight will be this session.

We have a number of pieces of bad news to report:

  1. Two new religious refusal bills have been filed in the Texas Senate, bringing the total to four. SB 1009 by Sen. Brian Birdwell (Granbury) would allow government officials to refuse to marry couples based on “sincerely held religious belief.” And SB 1107 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (Brenham) would let health care providers refuse care to members of our community.
  2. SB 15 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (Conroe), the ‘preemption’ bill which would gut local ability to set policies like paid sick leave, today was given a rush-assignment for a committee hearing in Senate State Affairs. This bill is a potential vehicle for amendments that could gut nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Texans living in six major cities. That hearing has now been scheduled for this Thursday morning.
  3. HB 1035 by Rep. Bill Zedler (Arlington), arguably the most poisonous of the religious refusal bills because it is so sweeping, had been thought by Capitol insiders to be ‘dead on arrival’–but today, HB 1035 was referred to the House State Affairs committee.

Just how bad are these bills?

HB 1035, titled the “Free to Believe Act,” creates special rights to discriminate for people who hold anti-LGBTQ religious beliefs. This bill would empower anyone who holds those views to fire or refuse to hire, refuse to rent or sell housing to, refuse to serve or sell goods to, refuse to provide healthcare, and refuse to issue marriage licenses to LGBTQ Texans. HB 1035 even includes a “bathroom bill” clause.

SB 1107 and HB 1035 would allow health care providers to refuse medical care to LGBTQ people and families–the sole exception being life-saving measures.

SB 1009 not only would allow government officials to refuse to marry same-sex couples, it would also let them discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.

Make no mistake, these people are determined to roll back the progress we have made.

Now would definitely be a good time to contact your State Rep and your State Senator and let them know that you oppose these bills. The Current has more.

Of course there are bills to do something with that bogus SOS advisory

What else did you expect?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Among other things,  Senate Bill 960 and Senate Bill 953, filed late last week, would require voter registrars across the state to kick every person off the voter rolls who at one point said they were not a citizen to any government agency.

Beth Stevens, voting rights program director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the bills could potentially reduce “protections that a voter has to address a claim that they are a noncitizen.” The nonprofit is one of many groups challenging the state’s effort in court.

“It further adds an element of intimidation of voter registrars,” she said.

[…]

If enacted, SB 960 and SB 953 would require registrars to immediately remove flagged voters from voter rolls. The bills wouldn’t require registrars to notify individuals their citizenship was being questioned. SB 960 would also subject any registrar who does not immediately remove those voters to a civil penalty and a possible Class A misdemeanor charge.

SB 960 would also give the Attorney General’s office the power to petition a court to remove a registrar from office if he or she does not kick those voters off the rolls.

“These two bills – and particularly SB 960 – are very much voter suppression on their face,” Stevens said.

SB 960 was filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston. Bettencourt did not respond to a request for comment. He did, however, weigh in on the issue last year and admonished local officials for not pursuing and removing alleged noncitizens from voter rolls.

“This really strikes at the fabric of the integrity of the whole election process,” Bettencourt said in a written statement last June. “The fact is that non-citizens simply cannot vote in our elections.”

SB953 was authored by Sen. Pat Fallon. Of course Bettencourt would have a hand in this. He made his bones as Harris County Tax Assessor finding many creative and legally questionable ways to purge voters he didn’t like. There’s a reason why voter registration numbers in the county were flat for so long. Whether this particular ploy will work or not remains to be seen. These bills can probably pass if the leadership wants them to, but in the absence of a push they may die the usual death by natural causes. I’ll try to keep an eye on them.

HD145 runoff early voting: More mail ballots

We are now two days into the early voting period for the HD145 special election runoff. Here’s your Day 2 EV report. Four hundred and seventy-four votes have been cast so far, which is more than the first four days of EV in the first round. That’s not a surprise – as I’ve said, one big difference between Round One and the runoff is that there was more time for the candidates to prepare for the runoff. And one big way that manifests itself is in mail ballot. Two hundred and two of the early votes have come from mail ballots. In Round One, there were 166 total mail ballots cast. Here, 202 of 602 (so far) mail ballots have been returned. That’s a function of the campaigns having the time to cajole voters into requesting and returning ballots, and it will be a bit of a boost to overall turnout. It’s a quiet race – no animosity, no mud flinging, that sort of thing – so if you’re the kind of person that longs for civility in politics, this one is for you. Now show your support for that and be sure to vote.

Testimony ends in SOS advisory lawsuit

Now we wait for a ruling. We’ve already sort of gotten one, but it’s not all official yet.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As part of an ongoing flurry of litigation in federal court here over the state’s bungled citizenship review of its voter rolls, a federal judge on Monday told a handful of Texas counties they may not — for now — purge registered voters or send them letters demanding proof of citizenship.

Eight counties named in one of three pending lawsuits over the review effort agreed last week that they will not cancel any voter registrations as lawyers from a host of civil rights groups tangle with the state in court. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery said from the bench Monday that the other counties named in a separate lawsuit should consider themselves restrained in the same way as litigation proceeds.

That doesn’t apply to the other 200-plus counties in the state, but “we expect all the counties are watching these proceedings,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups suing Texas and several counties.

[…]

Still to come from the judge’s chambers is a decision on civil rights groups’ broader requests to block the state from taking any further action related to the list as the lawsuits proceed. And the judge seemed at least somewhat amenable to that argument during a day of testimony that revealed fresh troubles with the state’s initial rollout of what it has come to characterize as “routine list maintenance activity.” Critics label it as an attempted widespread voter purge.

State officials conceded in federal court here Monday that a quarter of the nearly 100,000 voters flagged for citizenship review are naturalized citizens whose voter registration should never have been questioned in the first place.

And the list is only expected to get smaller, Keith Ingram, elections director for the Texas secretary of state’s office, acknowledged during cross-examination Monday.

The initial number shrank to about 74,000, Ingram explained, after “additional refinement” of data sourced from DPS, where Texans can register to vote while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses.

About half of the 25,000 flagged erroneously were what Ingram called “code 64s” — a bureaucratic tag indicating that the voters registered at DPS while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses. Since Texans have to present documentation, either as a citizen or as a legal permanent resident, to receive an identification card from the state, voters who registered at DPS would have demonstrated citizenship status.

The other half of the 25,000 “refined” off the flagged list had demonstrated citizenship to DPS but not registered to vote at the same time, Ingram said.

Before the original list was rolled out at the end of January, the state wasn’t aware it could utilize DPS data in order to narrow its target list, elections officials said Monday.

“I wish all of this could’ve been done back as the original effort,” Biery said. “Would you agree that all of this refinement would not have been done but for the sunshine light of the press and litigation?”

“The thing is that it’s the category of Donald Rumsfeld, the ‘unknown unknown’ — the things you don’t know you don’t know,” Ingram responded. “We didn’t know until the counties reported to us.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, sure, mistakes were made and all, but you know what made those mistakes so much worse? Handing the original, unvetted, known to be full of mistakes list to the rabid dogs at the AG’s office and then offer “these things happen” regrets when the Twitter crapstorms get unleashed. David Whitley is bad at his job – frankly, I’m not all that impressed with Keith Ingram, either – and everything he did made this worse. There were many ways in which this could have been handled in a more professional, less messy fashion. Maybe the next Secretary of State will be capable of doing that. The DMN has more.