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The Lege

Five file for HD125

Our fourth and hopefully final special legislative election for this cycle is now queued up.

Justin Rodriguez

Five candidates have signed up for the Feb. 12 special election to fill the seat of former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

The candidates, four Democrats and one Republican, had until 5 p.m. Monday to file.

Rodriguez, a San Antonio Democrat, gave up the seat earlier this month after being appointed to replace longtime Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo, who died late last year.

The Democratic candidates for solidly blue House District 125 include:

  • Steve Huerta, a social justice activist
  • Ray Lopez, a former member of the San Antonio City Council
  • Coda Rayo-Garza, an education policy expert
  • Art Reyna, who represented HD-125 from 1997 to 2003

The lone GOP contender is Fred Rangel, a former member of the State Republican Executive Committee who unsuccessfully ran for Texas GOP vice chair last year.

These are the five we’d heard about at the end of last week, so no late surprises. As for the “solidly blue” qualifier, we’ve already talked about that. Here’s a handy chart for you:


Dist  Romney   Obama  Abbott   Davis   Trump Clinton
====================================================
079    34.1%   64.6%   39.3%   58.5%   26.5%   68.0%
125    39.5%   59.0%   42.5%   55.6%   33.3%   60.8%
145    38.3%   60.2%   40.8%   57.2%   28.7%   66.8%
SD19   44.1%   54.6%   49.1%   49.0%   41.9%   53.4%

As I said before, HD125 is solidly blue in a high-turnout context (we don’t have 2018 numbers yet), more moderately blue in a low-turnout context. It’s bluer than SD19, which is certainly reassuring, but it’s not blue enough to sleepwalk through it or fail to mend fences in a runoff. Honestly, I’d prefer in general to let numbers rather than adjectives do the describing of districts like these. The data’s easy enough to find. Let the reader be the judge of how solid or swingy a given district is. Early voting starts in HD125 on January 28. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

State House mulls big increase in school funding

That’s a good start.

As Texas’ Republican leadership calls for property tax cuts and a school finance overhaul, the Texas House on Monday pitched a bold proposal: Pump roughly $7 billion more state funds into public schools — but only if lawmakers can satisfactorily overhaul the school finance system to slow the growth of property taxes.

Budget documents published Monday evening show the House has offered up a whopping 17 percent increase in K-12 public education funding so long as lawmakers achieve a few lofty goals in reforming how the state pays for public schools: Reduce the state’s reliance on property taxes, decrease the need for the unpopular Robin Hood system that requires property-wealthy school districts to subsidize poorer ones, and maintain an equitable system of school finance, as required by the state Constitution.

Counting all sources of funding — including local property taxes, state revenue and federal dollars — the state’s public education budget would grow to about $70.6 billion in the two-year cycle from 2020 to 2021, according to a Legislative Budget Board summary of the proposed House budget. That’s an increase of 16.7 percent from the previous two-year budget cycle, when the state spent about $60.5 billion on public schools.

[…]

The state is forecasted to have about 8.1 percent more funding available to spend over the next, two-year budget cycle. The House’s proposed budget would also withdraw $633 million out of the state savings account, called the Economic Stabilization Fund, to pay for retired teachers’ pensions, school safety improvements and disaster-relief programs.

That account, also known as the rainy day fund, has grown to a record level thanks to booming oil and gas production. Even after the House’s proposed $633 million withdrawal, the fund’s balance is projected to reach $14.7 billion in 2021.

The budget recommends spending $109 million on school safety, which lawmakers have discussed as a priority item since the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting near Houston left 10 dead. Included in school safety funding would be about $12 million for children’s mental health programs.

Notably, the House budget decreases state funding for health care and human services by about 3.2 percent. Education and health care make up the vast majority of state spending.

Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, would see a decrease of $1.4 billion in state funds, for example.

There are a lot of details to be filled in here. Making this contingent on property tax reform can be dicey, as the last time the Lege “fixed” school finance by way of tax reform they screwed over the revenue stream for years to come. Cutting Medicaid payments is a serious no-go. All of this has to actually be written into the budget and then approved by both chambers and not line-item-vetoed by Abbott. Lots of things can go wrong or turn out bad. But all that said, this is a great starting point, and hugely refreshing after too many sessions of cuts.

Meanwhile, in the Senate:

Leaders of the Texas Senate are proposing giving schools $3.7 billion to provide $5,000 pay raises to all full-time classroom teachers — on the heels of a House budget proposal that includes $7 billion more for public education.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed Senate Bill 3 Tuesday morning, which would mandate that schools use the billions in additional funding specifically for teacher pay raises. Speaking at his inauguration Tuesday morning, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, lauded the proposal as one of his main priorities this legislative session and said the funding would be permanent.

[…]

Nelson’s proposal appears to build a new formula into the school finance system that would distribute state funding to schools based on the number of full-time classroom teachers they employ, and require they use that money for raises over the previous year.

Here’s SB3. We now know that while the Senate is also proposing more money overall for school finance, it’s not as much as what the House is proposing. This is what I mean when I say there’s a long way to go to get to a finished product. Be that as it may, this too is a good start.

Time again for craft brewers to get their legislative hopes up

We’ve seen this movie before. I hope for a better ending, but I’m keeping those hopes modest.

Texas is the only state in the country that prohibits some breweries from selling six-packs, bottles and growlers of beer to-go, but a pair of bills filed for consideration during the 86th legislative session aim to change that.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) introduced companion bills SB 312 and HB 672, respectively, which would allow manufacturing breweries to sell beer to drinkers for off-premise consumption.

[…]

In 2015, North Texas’ Deep Ellum Brewing Co. and the now-defunct Grapevine Craft Brewery sued the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission over the issue and lost. Earlier this year, the court ruled in favor of the TABC, citing the potential impact to Texas’ three-tier system, which aims to avoid conflicts of interest between alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

In the decision, however, the judge noted that off-premise sales were granted to distilleries and wineries by the legislature, not the courts. That and the support shown for to-go sales during both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2018 is giving the Texas beer industry hope that the legislation will pass.

I noted the lawsuit back in 2015, but missed that it had been decided. The story here has always been that the beer distributors’ lobbyists are mightier than everyone else. Maybe this year it will be different – hope springs eternal – but it is always safer to bet on the house. Alas.

Endorsement watch: Noriega for HD145

The Chron makes their choice for the special election in HD145.

Melissa Noriega

While the legislative session started in Austin last week, early voting begins today to select a representative for House District 145. That’s not the usual order of things.

This special election has been delayed because Republican Gov. Greg Abbott dragged his feet in scheduling the Senate District 6 special election to replace now-Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia. The winner was then-state Rep. Carol Alvarado, who now has to be replaced as well.

On the losing end of these political shenanigans are the voters in this largely Hispanic, Democratic-leaning district, which straddles Interstate 45 from downtown to Pasadena. They may see their political power diluted this year as the Legislature starts without their new representative in place. The victor in this eight-way race will need the skill and experience to effectively advocate for constituents despite a truncated timeline. Luckily, voters have that candidate in Melissa Noriega.

The former city councilwoman actually held this seat in 2005 while her then-husband, Rick Noriega, was on active military duty in Afghanistan. She then ran for the at-large position 3 seat on City Council, which she held until term-limited out in 2013. During that time she developed a reputation as a well-informed consensus-builder and routinely earned our endorsement. Since then she has worked as a vice president at Baker-Ripley, focusing on disaster response after Hurricane Harvey.

Appearing alongside four opponents at the editorial board’s endorsement meeting, Noriega, 64, spoke with specificity about the challenges facing this district, including overburdened schools, disaster recovery, flooding and the planned redesign of I-45 and Interstate 69.

I am as noted in the tank for Melissa, so I’m happy to see the Chron endorse her. This race is all about whoever gets enough people to the polls to vote for them to make the runoff. Several campaigns are out there working – I’ve been contacted one way or another by three or four of them – but the runway for this is extremely short. If you’re in HD145, make a plan to vote and get out there and do it.

A first look at contenders in HD125

Gilbert Garcia of the SA Express News points to a potential frontrunner for the HD125 special election.

Justin Rodriguez

Ray Lopez never appears to be in a hurry.

During his eight years on the City Council, the gray-haired, mustachioed former AT&T marketing director was legendary for his calm assurance and willingness to speak at length — often at great length — on any subject. He came to be seen by his colleagues as the council’s easygoing, consensus-building uncle.

But Lopez finds himself in a hurry now, thanks to Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor announced Monday that the special election to fill the Texas House District 125 seat, vacated last week by new Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, will be held on Feb. 12, with early voting starting on Jan. 28.

After getting the green light last Friday from Evelyn, his wife of 48 years, Lopez has decided to run for the seat. That means a sprint for a man who likes to live his life at the pace of a casual stroll (or boating excursion on Medina Lake).

The race likely will get crowded between now and next Monday’s filing deadline. Former District 125 Rep. Art Reyna and policy advocate Coda Rayo-Garza already have declared their interest and others will follow. Like Lopez, they will run as Democrats.

[…]

One of the most timeworn clichés in politics involves the reluctant politician — the elected official who frequently runs for office yet claims to hate the political game.

Nonetheless, when Lopez says he loves governance but doesn’t get much enjoyment from campaigning, it’s easy to believe him. After all, there’s evidence to back him up.

Most observers of his first City Council campaign, a 2005 runoff with Delicia Herrera, concluded that Herrera won primarily because she knocked on more doors and outworked Lopez. He had to wait until 2009 for his opportunity to join the council.

In 2013, Lopez sought a third term on the council and faced hard-charging challenger Greg Brockhouse. Lopez survived the challenge, but there were moments when it looked like his nonchalant approach might cost him his seat.

That’s why the abbreviated nature of this special election only works to Lopez’s benefit. His name recognition and long history of service provide him a built-in advantage over any other candidate in this race.

See here and here for the background. Garcia doesn’t identify any Republicans running for HD125, but the Rivard Report fills in some other names:

Former District 125 Rep. Arthur “Art” Reyna filed as a Democratic candidate Wednesday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Policy advocate and Democrat Coda Rayo-Garza and Republican Fred Rangel, who ran for HD 125 last year, both filed Thursday. Steve Huerta, who currently serves as the Bexar County Democratic Party rules committee co-chair and was formerly incarcerated, told the Rivard Report he will be filing on Monday. And former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez filed as a Democratic candidate on Friday.

Another multiple-Dem-and-one-Republican race, at least potentially. Lopez’s name recognition is surely an advantage, but he first has to make sure people know there’s an election so that they can show up to vote for him. The filing deadline is Monday the 14th, so we’ll know soon enough how big this field is.

Early voting begins Monday for HD145 special election

From the inbox:

First week Early Voting hours for the January 29, 2019 Special Election To Fill A Vacancy For State Representative District 145 will now be extended from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.  Extended voting hours will now give voters an extra 18 hours to make it to the polls.

“One of my goals upon taking office is making voting easier for Houstonians and expanding Early Voting hours is just one way to do that,” stated Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

The Early Voting locations and schedule are as follows:

Harris County, TX Early Voting Schedule and Locations

January 29, 2019 Special Election To Fill A Vacancy For SRD 145

Location Address City Zip
County Attorney Conference Center 1019 Congress Avenue Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Hours of Operation
Day(s) Date Time
Monday to Saturday Jan 14 – 19 7am – 7 pm
Sunday Jan 20 1 pm – 6 pm
*Monday Jan 21 CLOSED for MLK Day
Tuesday to Friday Jan 22 – 25 7 am – 7 pm

“Extended hours match the needs of the hard working Houstonians hoping to cast a ballot during the first week of Early Voting,” added Dr. Trautman.

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

The schedule and map can be found here. I’m voting for Melissa Noriega, and given that I don’t work anywhere near the early voting locations, those extended hours for week one – which ought to be the norm going forward – will be nice and convenient for me. Early voting for HD79 will start on the same day, but I don’t get those press releases. Get out there and vote if you’re in the district, y’all.

Confederate plaque at the Capitol to be removed

Hallelujah.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Following more than a year of complaints from elected officials of all political stripes, a state board that oversees the Texas Capitol grounds voted unanimously Friday to remove a controversial Confederate plaque that falsely asserts that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

The decision comes more than a month after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who chairs the six-member State Preservation Board, called for it in a letter to Executive Director Rod Welsh. State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, has led a crusade to get rid of the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque, which was erected in 1959, for more than a year. He has said that the plaque “is not historically accurate in the slightest, to which any legitimate, peer-reviewed Civil War historian will attest.”

Texas House speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, serve as co-vice chairs on the preservation board under Abbott.

[…]

In a statement after Friday’s vote, Johnson said he was glad the board voted unanimously to remove the plaque but added the caveat that “none of us in state government should be high-fiving each other or patting ourselves on the back today.”

“The plaque should never have been put up by the Legislature in the first place, and it certainly shouldn’t have taken 60 years to remove it. And that’s on Republicans and Democrats alike, to be perfectly honest,” Johnson wrote.

See here for the background. Kudos to all for making this happen, but especially to Rep. Johnson, who has been the driving force behind it since 2017. (Several of Johnson’s Democratic colleagues got the ball rolling two years earlier; Johnson took it across the finish line.) He’s also right that this stupid and offensive monument to slavery and lying about our history should never have been there in the first place, and shouldn’t have taken sixty years to remove. It’s good that it’s finally going, but we need to do a lot better than that. The Observer has more.

A switch to cider

Some craft brewing news of note.

The taps, they are a-changin’ at Town in City Brewery, where owner Justin Engle has decided to pause beer brewing and focus instead on creating hard cider.

The folks at Town in City began building their reputation in cider about a year ago, when they launched Houston Cider Co., in a shared space with the beer-brewing operation. But this month, Engle said he decided not to renew his brewer’s permit when it expires.

“We were given legal advice that if we were to renew our brewer’s permit prior to the TABC Sunset hearings, that we may be stuck for two years in old TABC rules,” Engle said of the current fight between brewers and legislators to modernize state laws for alcohol sales. “If the new rules are passed, it would still take us two years to get to the next rules. So we decided not to take that gamble, and so we’re not going to renew right now.”

But that doesn’t mean things at the brewery on Cavalcade near the Heights are going quiet.

On Dec. 18, Houston Cider Co. took a leap that Town in City never attempted: It began canning. Now, three of the cidery’s mainstays — Dry, Cherry and Rosé — are available at Whole Foods and a few other shops across the city.

Cider production began outpacing beer production at the Heights brewery back in August, Engle said.

Still, cider isn’t exactly a sure thing — especially not when compared with the ever-growing popularity of craft beer. According to Drizly, an eCommerce marketplace for alcoholic beverages, only 7.1 percent of sales in the beer market went to cider in October, the most recent month for which data are available. At that same time, 26.7 percent of sales were for craft beer.

But there’s another way to read that: Cider isn’t as crowded a space.

See here for some background on the ongoing legislative battle, which begins again in earnest as the Lege reconvenes. I note that one of the two incumbents that CraftPAC had been supporting as of that January publication date was defeated in November (Tony Dale of HD136). Sure hope they backed some other winners, or the slog will be harder than it needs to be. As for cider, the story notes that there are only eight such breweries in the state, with Houston Cider Company being the only one in our fair city (there is another one based in Dickinson that is the nearest neighbor). Here’s a Leader News story from January about their debut.

I blogged about Lerprechaun Cider Company, the first local cider company, back in 2011; they had a product relaunch in 2015 and according to a footnote at the end of this 2017 Houstonia story were never brewing here and had stopped distributing here. Their domain has expired, which I think tells you all you need to know. That Houstonia story was about Permann’s Cider Company, which as of last July was on track to have a taproom downtown. Not sure where that stands – they have a Facebook page that’s had five posts since February and a Twitter account that hasn’t tweeted since last August. I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that I wish the Houston Cider Company good luck, and that hopefully some day they’ll be able to brew beer again, too.

The TEA could have already taken over HISD

I had not known this.

For more than a year, Houston ISD leaders have fretted over the possibility of a state takeover mandated under a recently passed law, known as HB 1842. The statute directs the Texas Education Agency to close schools or replace a district’s locally-elected board of trustees if any campus receives five straight “improvement required” ratings for poor academic achievement. Houston narrowly avoided that punishment in 2018, when six long-struggling schools met state standard. Four campuses still could still trigger sanctions this year.

However, a lesser-known law quietly has loomed over the district. Texas law states that the education commissioner may replace the school board in a district under scrutiny from a state-appointed conservator for two consecutive years — a threshold Houston crossed in September 2017. Houston’s conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, was appointed in September 2016 to monitor Kashmere High School, which has failed to meet state academic standards for nine consecutive years. Her responsibilities expanded to monitoring the district’s school board and other long-struggling schools in mid-2017.

To date, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath has chosen to not replace Houston’s school board, exercising discretion granted to him under the conservator law. Instead, the TEA has taken several steps to work with Houston administrators and board members: keeping Delaney in place, requiring on-the-ground assistance from outside educators, overseeing campus turnaround plans and offering governance training, among other supports. Lira said trustees have not been threatened with immediate replacement by TEA officials, and that the agency’s staff has been “willing to work with us as long as we have a plan in place.”

In a statement, TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland said Abbott and Morath are working in concert to help Houston.

“Any action taken by Commissioner Morath or TEA to ensure Houston ISD has been given ample time, resources and support to achieve the best outcomes for students has also come with the full support of the governor and is in alignment with their shared vision of improving education outcomes in the district,” Wieland said.

Here’s the Chron story about Delaney’s appointment in 2016. This story from July of last year mentions that she had been appointed in January to keep an eye on district governance and the then-10 turnaround schools. I’m a little surprised no one has made anything of this before now, but here we are.

It should be clear why the state has been reluctant to step in, despite Greg Abbott’s nasty tweet. If the TEA takes over, then the TEA owns all of the problems that HISD is trying to solve. That’s a much tougher task than their current advisory role. I strongly suspect that Mike Morath and the TEA really really want the four schools to meet standard this year, in part because they want the schools and the kids to succeed, and in part because they really really don’t want to be saddled with the job of running a massive, diverse, sprawling school district. That’s not their job, and there’s nothing in the track record of past takeovers by state agencies, here and elsewhere, to suggest they’ll do any better at it than HISD has done. There’s a reason why Abbott hasn’t had much to say about this since his Trumpian Twitter moment.

By far the best possible outcome is for these schools to meet standard this year. The question that matters is what can everyone do to help make that happen.

House firms up harassment rules

Good.

Rep. Donna Howard

Amid continued scrutiny over how lawmakers handle reports of sexual misconduct by their colleagues, members of the House on Wednesday approved a measure that will strengthen the way the chamber addresses complaints of sexual harassment.

As part of a unanimous vote on the House’s standard housekeeping resolution that governs its operations, the chamber approved a new internal policy that would move investigative duties for complaints of inappropriate behavior to a legislative committee with subpoena power. It also cements the use of independent investigations of elected officials.

The policy is meant to add more teeth to the chamber’s process for investigating harassment complaints and would place the House more in line with congressional practices. It was prompted by a work group created last year by former Speaker Joe Straus, who asked the group to recommend measures to address and prevent sexual misconduct in the Legislature after reports shined a light on how entrenched the issue is at the state Capitol.

“[We worked] to ensure we were providing a policy that was honoring those who had been subjected to harassment so they felt they would get a safe and fair hearing, that they had a place to go to that they could count on,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and co-chair of the work group that worked to revise the chamber’s policies.

Under the new policy, sexual harassment complaints would go through the chamber’s general investigating committee, which would investigate and recommend sanctions based on the severity of the harassment. If the complaint involves a member of the House, the committee would be required to appoint an independent investigator.

House members made a slight change to the proposed policy that specified any independent investigation of a state representative would be a fact-finding mission only and not involved in any potential remedial action.

That committee, whose members would be appointed by the speaker of the House, emerged as the preferred venue for such investigations because it already has authority to hold closed meetings to ensure confidentiality and can eventually make reports public, Howard said. It also can cite someone for contempt if they ignore a subpoena.

See here for the background. This seems like a workable approach, and I trust Rep. Howard and her co-chair Rep. Nicole Collier to be thorough and thoughtful. We’ll just have to see how it works in practice, because for sure there will be need for this sooner or later.

Dan Patrick declares victory on the bathroom bill

Um, okay.

The “bathroom bill” won’t be back this session, its loudest champion suggested Wednesday morning.

At a Governor’s Mansion press conference on the second day of this year’s legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who last session was the top state leader championing the measure, which would have regulated the use of certain public facilities for transgender Texans — suggested there’s no need to bring back the divisive proposal that headlined the last legislative year in 2017.

“When you win the battle, you don’t have to fight the battle again,” Patrick said, sitting beside Gov. Greg Abbott and recently elected Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. “I think it’s been settled, and I think we’ve won.”

[…]

In the months since the 2017 legislative sessions, Patrick has made similar suggestions that the issue no longer requires the Legislature’s attention. But his answer carried extra weight Wednesday as he and the state’s other top two leaders projected a unified front, promising to tackle bread-and-butter policy reforms like school finance, property tax reform and disaster recovery.

Without citing evidence, Patrick claimed that the school district behavior necessitating the measure has “stopped.”

“Sometimes a bill doesn’t pass, but you win on the issue,” Patrick said.

Hey, you know what? If this means we’ll never see another bill like the bathroom bill again, then I’m more than happy to admit I was wrong and concede that Dan Patrick did in fact win. So congratulations, Dan! Do your victory dance (*) and celebrate that big win for whoever it is you’re celebrating it for. May all of your legislative priorities meet with the same success going forward. The DMN has more.

(*) – Am I the only one who thinks Dan Patrick would totally do the Ickey Shuffle?

Our pretty decent revenue estimate

We’ve seen much worse.

At a time when legislators are vowing to spend more money on public schools and slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills, the state should have enough money at its disposal to do just that.

That is, if its newest predictions hold true.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday offered a cautiously optimistic outlook for the Texas economy, telling lawmakers they will have about 8.1 percent more state funds available to budget for public programs — primarily schools, highways and health care — in 2020 and 2021. Hegar projected there would be about $119.1 billion in state funds available for the next two-year budget, up from $110.2 in the last two-year budget.

But falling oil prices in the last month, along with heightened uncertainty in the U.S. economy and international financial markets, led Hegar to deliver a “cloudy” forecast with some trepidation.

“We remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we’re unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we’ve seen in recent months,” he said.

[…]

Meanwhile, the state’s savings account, known as the rainy day fund, is projected to reach a record high balance of $15 billion. Lawmakers will debate whether to dip into that Economic Stabilization Fund to pay for bills coming due from the last two-year budget period, including Hurricane Harvey recovery, and in the upcoming two-year budget.

Advocates for greater investment in public schools reacted positively to the revenue estimate, saying lawmakers now have no excuse not to increase spending, given a growing budget and unprecedentedly large savings account balance.

“This is good news,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a state budget analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “This is enough to not cut state services.”

It is good news, but as always it comes with a warning label.

[T]he Republican-controlled Legislature has excelled at finding new ways to squander available funds on everything from inefficient property tax relief, piecemeal school finance fixes and heaps of corporate subsidies and tax cuts. Dan Patrick and the tea party faction are also intent on keeping the overflowing Rainy Day Fund under lock and key, despite the continued urgency of Hurricane Harvey relief. That could be a big wild card — given that Governor Greg Abbott never called a special session after Harvey, the Legislature has yet to allocate any state relief money. Leaders in the affected Gulf Coast region, from Rockport to Port Arthur, are sure to call on legislators to step up.

Of course, the devil will be in the details — GOP lawmakers are experienced at promising to tackle weighty, complicated issues like property tax relief and school finance reform while pushing policy that doesn’t really fix anything, or makes things worse. Abbott is intent on settling the property tax dilemma by handcuffing local governments’ ability to levy property tax increases, all while ignoring the larger problem at hand: the state needs to dedicate a lot more money for schools.

The state school finance system is in desperate need of an overhaul. Texas’ spending per student is around $10,000 a year, about $2,300 below the national average. Funding has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade and the state has plummeted to 36th in the nation in terms of per pupil spending. Meanwhile, as the state’s population has grown rapidly, the Legislature has forced local governments to pick up a larger share of the education tab through property tax revenues (thus fueling the current property tax crisis). In 2008, the state and local funding shares were split evenly, but the state’s contribution has since fallen to its current rate of 38 percent, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Without a fix, that number is projected to fall even further. This has created a perpetual underfunding of the school system and has worsened the inequities between rich and poor districts.

But Hegar’s estimate is a heartening sign for advocates hoping for a substantial injection of state funding for public education — as much as $5 billion, which is what [outgoing Speaker Joe] Straus has said the state can afford. Perhaps an emboldened caucus of House and Senate Democrats, in tandem with Republicans who saw the writing on the wall in November, will be able to succeed in pushing for a more comprehensive solution.

The need is great, but the temptation to splurge on wasteful tax cuts that they call “school finance reform” is greater still. Even if there’s a zombie bathroom bill, that’s going to be the fight of the session. Texas Monthly has more.

Speaker Bonnen

It’s official.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Talking about dreams, honesty and courage, the members of the Texas House unanimously elected Rep. Dennis Bonnen House speaker, making him one of the most powerful Republicans in the state.

Members of the House voted 147-0 in favor of Bonnen.

His election was expected after announcing he had secured the nomination less than a week after the November election. Bonnen, who has been a member of the House for more than 20 years, drew no opponents for the position. More than a half-dozen other candidates vying for the position dropped out in early November.

Basically, once Bonnen was in for Speaker, he went from zero to 60 in a heartbeat. The only question was whether someone would make an out-of-the-blue protest vote, or vote “Present”, for whatever the reason. Given the three current vacancies, the answer to that is a clear No. So congratulations, Speaker Bonnen. This is a good way to start.

In 2017, one of the most talked about bills in Texas would have required transgender people to use bathrooms matching the sex on their birth certificates, spurring a flood of protests at the capitol as civil rights groups and business leaders rallied against it. Though the bill did not pass, this year hardly anyone is talking about another push for it.

New Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wants it to stay that way.

“I would be very discouraged if a distraction of that type derailed the opportunity of significant school finance reform or property tax reform,” the newly elected speaker told Hearst Newspapers.

[…]

Since [last session], [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick has said the battle over bathroom legislation is “settled.” The lawmaker who carried the bill in 2017, Republican Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, lost his re-election. And [Gov. Greg] Abbott said while running for re-election that a bathroom bill is “not on my agenda” but declined to say whether he’d sign such a bill if it reached his desk.

I mean, we should all cast a wary eye at the reform proposals, but the sentiment is appreciated nonetheless. Dan Patrick wasn’t even in Austin for Opening Day, and boy howdy is the quiet nice. The bathroom bill may be on the back burner, but it will never truly go away as long as the horrible lying liars who have been pushing it continue to do so. The Trib has more.

Omnibus lawsuit against Texas abortion laws begins

Gotta say, I’m less optimistic about this now than I was when it was filed.

State attorneys and lawyers representing reproductive rights groups argued in federal court Monday over whether a sweeping lawsuit challenging more than 60 Texas abortion regulations should move forward.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel told state attorneys that their 73-page argument confused him. He also expressed confusion about what reproductive rights groups were arguing over.

“This needs to be something not that the court understands but the public understands,” Yeakel said. “I find this case difficult to understand with the status of the record.”

[…]

Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Lawyering Project and lead attorney for the reproductive rights groups in the case, said during the hearing that “once upon a time, Texas started off with a reasonable regime to regulate the system of abortion.”

“The system has become so burdensome that it’s increasingly difficult for patients and providers to navigate,” Toti said.

Reproductive rights groups also argue that the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” booklet for patients is medically inaccurate. The suit targets a University of Texas System policy barring students from getting credit for internships and field placements at institutions that provide access to abortions.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said in a news release that the organization is “proud to lead another legal challenge in Texas.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, this lawsuit was filed in June, with the main argument being that the Whole Women’s Health SCOTUS ruling of 2016 made a bunch of previously-passed laws illegal as well. It seemed like a great idea at the time, right up until Anthony Kennedy decided to hang up his robe. Be that as it may, the hope here is to get at least a partial injunction from the district court, and see where we go from there. For that, we’ll have to wait on Judge Yeakel. The Chron has more.

HD125 special election set

It will overlap the ones going on now.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

Gov. Greg Abbott has picked Feb. 12 as the date for a special election to replace former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who stepped down last week to become a Bexar County commissioner.

The candidate filing deadline is Jan. 14, and early voting begins Jan. 28, according to a proclamation Abbott issued Monday.

Rodriguez vacated the seat in House District 125 after he was appointed Friday to succeed Paul Elizondo, the longtime Bexar County commissioner who died last month.

The Feb. 12 special election will determine who completes Rodriguez’s term, which ends in January 2021. It also will be the fourth such contest since the November elections, with two more special elections — to replace former state Reps. Carol Alvarado and Joe Pickett — coming up Jan. 29.

See here and here for the background. Early voting for HD125 begins the day before the HD79 and HD145 elections, so assuming at least one runoff in those races we’ll have continuous campaigning through the end of February or so, likely later as this one ought to go into overtime as well. So much for the usually-quiet part of the beginning of the session. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

Our increasingly non-dry state

There are now only five counties in Texas where you can’t buy alcohol.

On Election Day in Stanton, just north of Midland, Ron Black was skeptical that a particular measure on the ballot would pass.

“Well, I think at first it was uh, nobody thought it would go through because they’ve tried it so many times, you know. I can’t tell you how many times it’s gone to the ballot,” Black said.

Black manages the Lawrence Brothers grocery in Stanton. The vote was whether to keep Stanton dry – that is to prohibit the sale of alcohol – or to allow the sale of beer and wine at stores like Black’s. But to his surprise, Stanton went wet after all. And it’s part of a long-term trend that’s washing over Texas.

To put it in perspective: in 1996, there were 53 dry counties in Texas. By 2011 that number dropped to 25. And as of Election Day when Stanton, the seat of Martin County went wet, there are now just five dry counties in Texas – in a state whose attitudes toward alcohol have always been complex, but tended to be more conservative than the country as a whole.

“Texas is slightly earlier than the nation and slightly later than the nation in terms of how long its Prohibition was enforced,” said Brendan Payne, a history professor at North Greenville University and an expert in Prohibition in Texas.

[…]

But the real shift toward dry county extinction came from the passage of House Bill 1199 during the Texas legislative Session in 2003.

“That is what revolutionized our alcohol laws,” said John Hatch, president of Texas Petition Strategies. To hold a wet-dry election in Texas prior to 2003, you had to get signatures from 35 percent of a jurisdiction’s registered voters, each of which had to sign their name exactly as it appeared on their voter ID card, with their voter ID number. And you only had 30 days to do it. It was more difficult to get booze on the ballot than an actual candidate. Hatch asked the legislature to change the law.

“They gave us everything we asked for,” Hatch said. “We went from needing 35 percent of all voters to 35 percent of the last election for governor. So it made it a lot more manageable. We doubled the amount of time from 30 days to 60 days. We made the signature requirement the same as any other petition: if you sign your name “Michael Marks,” that’s good enough.”

A flood of elections followed. In the 15 years preceding the law, there were about 150 wet-dry elections statewide. In the 15 years following the law, there were close to 950 elections. Nearly 80 percent of those went wet.

Fascinating. I’ve noted a few of these elections over the years – Lubbock County, whose dryness I experienced as a visitor in the 80s, was a big one – but I didn’t realize how close to extinction the notion of a dry county was. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer the last five holdouts hang on. Congratulations to the people of Martin County. Please celebrate responsibly.

Ron Reynolds released

Good for him.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

State Rep. Ron Reynolds was released Friday from the Montgomery County Jail after serving nearly four months of his yearlong sentence — just days before the 86th Legislature kicks off in Austin.

The Missouri City Democrat, who won an unopposed re-election campaign from jail in November, had been in jail since turning himself in there in September. A personal injury lawyer, Reynolds was convicted in 2015 on misdemeanor charges for illegally soliciting clients, a practice sometimes called “ambulance chasing.”

Reynolds was sentenced to a year, but it wasn’t clear how long he would serve; county jails often allow “good time credit” to cut down time served. Reynolds said in a statement at the time that he “voluntarily revoked his appeal bond so that he could be prepared to start the 86th Legislative Session on time.”

See here for the background. This appears to close the books on his barratry conviction, and now there is no longer the threat of jail time hanging over his head. He has a clean slate, and I wish him well in making the most of it. It remains my opinion that he should step down and let someone else represent HD27 while he continues to get his life in order, however.

Crashing the Legislative Ladies Club

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Legislative Ladies Club, but now that I do I’m glad to hear that it’s adapting with the times.

Rep. Julie Johnson

Julie Johnson knew she’d made history in November as one of the first two openly gay lawmakers from Dallas County elected to the Legislature on the same night.

But she didn’t expect her wife, Susan Moster, to make history of her own a few weeks later when she became the first same-sex spouse invited to join the Legislative Ladies Club, a social group made up of the spouses of the members of the Texas House.

Although it’s called the Legislative Ladies Club — a remnant of when only men held political office in the state — the group also includes male spouses. Because the group requires members to be legally married and same-sex marriage only became legal in Texas after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015, Moster became the first same-sex spouse admitted into the group in November.

She and Johnson married in 2014 in San Francisco but celebrated their 12th anniversary as a couple on New Year’s Eve. Johnson will be the first married openly gay lawmaker in the Texas Legislature’s history.

“It’s wonderful,” Johnson said. “I’m really proud to be in the Legislature. I’m proud to show the world that LGBT families are just like them. We get married, we have kids, we celebrate the same losses and tragedies in our lives as everyone else.”

Although she is the first same-sex spouse in the club’s 31-year history, Moster said her membership is a sign that even people in the highest positions of power in the state are becoming more accepting of same-sex couples.

[…]

Johnson and Moster didn’t know the group existed until they received a formal invitation from the group addressed to “Dr. Susan Moster” inviting her to Austin for an orientation session. (Moster is a physician.)

While Johnson joined newly elected lawmakers in an orientation session, Moster and the other new legislative spouses got a crash course in campaign finance and ethics to make sure they knew how to avoid inadvertent troubles.

Moster also learned about group members’ other responsibilities, such as taking charge of the annual Christmas ornaments that each of the 150 Texas House districts produces, participating in the Easter egg hunt at the Governor’s Mansion, and deciding what local food or drink to bring to the annual “Taste of Texas” luncheon highlighting the cuisines of each district. The group also holds regular meetings during the session.

The LLC was formed in 1987 – there’s a Senate Ladies Club that dates back to 1917 – and as noted now includes husbands. I couldn’t find a webpage with the membership of the State House in 1987, but at the very least we know Rep. Senfronia Thompson was there. I wonder what she thought of this at the time. Anyway, the LLC seems like a nice enough thing despite its anachronistic name, and a little extra diversity for it is a fine development. Welcome to the club, Dr. Moster.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that the Legislative Reference Library can address my question about how many female members of the House there were in 1987. By my count, the answer to that question is 15, which is frankly higher than I thought it would be. This includes such familiar names as Debra Danburg, Wilhemina Delco, Lena Guerrero, Irma Rangel, and of course the aforementioned Miss T. So now you (and I) know.

How legal pot affects Texas

It has many effects.

In just two weeks in October, the legal landscape for marijuana use in North America changed dramatically.

First, Canada opened sales of legalized pot for recreational use, and then Mexico’s high court delivered a definitive ruling that citizens have the right to possess the weed for their personal use. That leaves Texas virtually surrounded by states that allow marijuana for medical use — but not for recreational purposes — as well as being sandwiched between two neighboring countries that have liberalized their stance on personal usage of the drug.

And while the Lone Star State is a long way from following the example of Canada and Mexico, there seems to be growing support for at least reducing stiff criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the weed. Currently, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a six-month jail term and a $2,000 fine.

“Even in Texas, public opinion seems to have shifted from criminalization to at least decriminalization, with strengthening support for legalization,” said Nora Demleitner, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia and the lead author of the textbook “Sentencing: Law and Policy.”

[…]

Despite the criminal penalties, Texas has two of the Top 10 consumer cities in the country. Houston occupies the fourth spot with an estimated 21 metric tons of weed consumed last year, after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to the 2018 Cannabis Price Index from the German company Seedo, which tracks the market around the world. Dallas is number seven with 15 metric tons.

That high demand in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, some experts say, is not being met by traditional drug smuggling networks alone.

“Today in Texas, consumers easily find a wider variety of cannabis products than a few years ago coming from all over the place,” said Dean Becker, a Baker Institute contributing expert in drug policy.

Becker explained that states like Colorado, California and Oregon are growing more than their markets can absorb, and smugglers are flourishing moving the merchandise to other marketplaces. Mexico, he said, isn’t the main Texas supplier anymore as their producers are struggling to compete with the higher quality of U.S. grown products.

[…]

“The cannabis industry is a job creator, which Mexico and Canada realize, and it also cuts into the portfolio of criminals by making its use and sale a legitimate business that (creates) jobs and revenue,” said Grissom, the former federal prosecutor.

Grissom says Colorado is a good example, which reported total cannabis sales of $1.5 billion in 2017, and a staggering $5.7 billion since sales began in January 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

“These funds did not go to criminals but to entrepreneurs who created over 20,000 new full-time jobs that paid a living wage as well as a new source of (tax) revenue for the state,” he said.

Overall, “the nascent U.S. cannabis market is already double the size of Canada’s, at $8.5 billion dollars,” said Brad Alexander, a senior adviser at McGuireWoods Consulting, a public policy advisory firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He predicts that by 2022, this market could top $20 billion.

As the story notes, multiple DAs, mostly in big counties, are now de-emphasizing pot prosecutions, and Texas legalized – in a very limited way – a form of medical marijuana. Greg Abbott has made some comments recently about supporting a reduction in penalties for possession, but I’ll believe that when I see an anointed bill that is supposed to accomplish that. As for the prospects for legalization, I’ll just note that the arguments for it – economic benefit, especially as we are currently losing business from Texans who want to engage in it to neighboring states – sound an awful lot to me like the perennial arguments for expanded gambling. I don’t need to tell you how successful that pursuit has been. I think some small reforms by the Lege, with broader reforms pushed at the county level, will happen. Beyond that, keep your hopes in check.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez resigns to take County Commissioner job

We will need that special election.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is leaving the Legislature to become a Bexar County commissioner.

The county’s judge, Nelson Wolff, appointed Rodriguez on Friday to replace Paul Elizondo, the longtime commissioner who died last week. The appointment creates a vacancy in Rodriguez’s House District 125, paving the way for a special election to finish his term.

Rodriguez was immediately sworn after Wolff announced the appointment at a news conference.

“I wanted someone that had the confidence of the citizens and voters of County Commissioner Precinct 2,” Wolff said, alluding to Rodriguez’s long record of public service in the area. “Justin Rodriguez has certainly exemplified that in a very important way.”

[…]

The special election for Rodriguez’s seat would be the fourth such contest since the November elections. State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, won the special election last month to replace former state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston — now a congresswoman — while Gov. Greg Abbott has set Jan. 29 special elections to fill the seats of Alvarado and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who is resigning due to health issues.

The 86th legislative session begins Tuesday, and Rodriguez said he was confident his seat would be filled before the session kicks into high gear in March. He told reporters he did not have a preference for who should succeed him.

See here for the background. My guess is that we’ll get an election in early February, with a runoff if needed in late March. Not optimal, but it is what it is. As I said before, this district is moderately blue, not dark blue, so the eventual election is not a slam dunk for the Dems. Unity, if there is a D-versus-R runoff following an initial race with multiple Ds, and turnout will be the key to not punting this seat. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

Eight file for HD145

It’s a big field.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Eight candidates filed by Thursday’s 5 p.m. deadline for the Jan. 29 special election to fill the Texas House seat vacated by Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. Early voting begins Jan. 14, a little more than a month after Alvarado won an open spot in the upper chamber.

The field consists of six Democrats — Elias De La Garza, Oscar Del Toro, Ruben Gonsalez, Christina Morales, Alfred Moreno and Melissa Noriega — Libertarian Clayton Hunt and Republican Martha Fierro, the third-place finisher in last month’s race for Senate District 6, which overlaps with part of Alvarado’s old House district.

[…]

Morales, the president and CEO of an East End funeral home, announced her candidacy the day after Alvarado’s win.

“I definitely feel like I’m well connected to the constituents of District 145. I know them intimately, especially through my business,” she said. “We hear their stories daily. We help them through their darkest hour.”

Morales has assembled a campaign team made up of Alvarado’s staffers, including consultant Jaime Mercado, lead strategist Marc Campos and campaign manager Linh Nguyen.

“I wanted a team that knew the district the way I know the district and would be capable of delivering my messages,” she said.

Noriega previously held the House District 145 seat when her then-husband, Rick Noriega, was deployed to Afghanistan during the 2005 legislative session. The thought of running entered her mind in 2017, when former U.S. Rep. Gene Green announced he would retire, setting off a chain reaction that ultimately left the seat open.

Part of Noriega’s pitch, she said, is that the special election winner will be sworn in amid a session that spans just 140 days — and she would be able to assimilate quickly because of her experience, she said.

“There are still people there that I know from before,” she said, mentioning presumptive House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican.

Noriega has also served as an at-large member of Houston City Council and worked for Houston ISD, while keeping an eye on the Legislature from afar.

“Last session, there was a lot of time spent on things that probably don’t benefit Texas,” she said. “There’s an opportunity to work with people and be collegial in a way that’s productive. That I think is still there.”

I’m going to say two things up front. One is that I’m not going to have time to do interviews before early voting starts. In the likely event of a runoff, I will see about doing interviews with the two finalists. And two, as someone who lives in HD145, I’m voting for Melissa Noriega. She’s a dear friend, she’s been there before, she was an excellent member of City Council, I trust her completely. I see no point in being coy about that.

I fully expect this race to be very low turnout – candidates may have been thinking about running for weeks, but no one has been campaigning before now, and early voting starts in just over a week. Turnout will be higher in the runoff, as there will be more time for the campaigns to develop and focus voters’ attention. It’ll still be low, but it will be higher than the January election. This is one of those times where endorsements will make a difference, as they will serve as one of the few things people will be able to hear about the candidates before they have to vote. For those of you in HD145, which needless to say includes a lot of people who just went through the SD06 special election, it’s time to get ready to vote again. The Trib, which also has the lineup for the HD79 special election, has more.

Greg Abbott to HISD: Drop dead

I have four things to say about this.

A post sent from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Twitter account Thursday lambasted Houston ISD’s leadership as “a disaster” that has failed children in the state’s largest school district — a rare public condemnation of the district from the state’s top executive.

“What a joke. HISD leadership is a disaster,” read a tweet posted from Abbott’s official account. “Their self-centered ineptitude has failed the children they are supposed to educate. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed, it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change.”

The comments come as HISD faces potentially major sanctions, including a state takeover of its locally elected school board, tied to chronically low academic results at four schools. They also come as HISD’s board of trustees has been bombarded with criticism in recent months for its acrimonious public displays and its widely-panned effort to covertly oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

[…]

The post linked to a commentary authored by three community members and printed in the Houston Chronicle that criticized Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to partner with HISD to operate several long-struggling schools. The authors of the commentary also argued for taking legal action against the Texas Education Agency to prevent a state takeover of HISD’s board of trustees.

[…]

Abbott’s education commissioner, Mike Morath, must replace HISD’s school board or close underperforming schools if any one of four long-struggling campuses fail to meet state academic standards in 2019. Earlier comments by Morath and his deputy commissioner of governance, AJ Crabill, suggest Morath is more likely to install a replacement school board instead of shuttering any under-performing schools.

1. Just a reminder, the HISD Board is composed entirely of Democrats right now. Throwing them out of office is all dessert and no vegetables as far as Abbott is concerned.

2. Along those lines, remember that Abbott was just re-elected by over a million votes. He’s got the highest approval rating of any statewide elected official. He doesn’t face voters again until 2022. He could not possibly care less what a bunch of Pantsuit Nation or Indivisible members think, about this or about himself. There is no amount of activism or noise-making that will affect his opinions or his actions.

3. Again, this is why I have been extremely queasy about the all-or-nothing strategy that HISD has adopted, at the urging of some activists. I continue to believe that a TEA takeover is the worst possible outcome, and a partnership – if not with the city of Houston, then with HCC, which was never explored and now cannot be explored – for the purposes of forestalling such a takeover is a reasonable way to mitigate this risk. I understand that people have strong objections to this. I’m not here to relitigate that question, as the matter is settled. I’m just stating what my risk-averse nature is telling me. But look, none of this matters now. We’re not going to win a staredown with Abbott over this. He holds all the cards.

4. As for the litigation idea, someone is going to need to explain to me 1) on what grounds we would sue at this time, prior to a takeover, and 2) why a lawsuit filed in advance of a TEA takeover would be allowed to proceed. A lawsuit filed afterwards I understand, as then an alleged injury that the courts could correct has occurred. But before that, I feel confident that a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the issue is not ripe and no one yet has standing would be accepted. As always, I Am Not A Lawyer, so if someone knows better than me on this, please say so. The Trib has more.

We may soon need another legislative special election

In Bexar County.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez is expected to fill the vacant Commissioners Court seat of political icon Paul Elizondo, a major local power broker and a veteran of the commission for more than 30 years who died last week.

Multiple sources said Wednesday that Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff likely will appoint Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2013.

Wolff declined to confirm that he plans to appoint Rodriguez, but he sketched out what he’s looking for in a successor, in deference to the death of his closest friend. Rodriguez declined to comment.

“I’ve had obviously a lot of time to think about this because Paul has had several challenges with his health,” Wolff said.

The county judge said he plans to appoint someone who has legislative experience and fiscal expertise and can help improve the county’s relationship with the city.

[…]

It’s unclear who might step in to run in a special election for Rodriguez’s seat, which would be called by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rodriguez and a few other close allies of Elizondo have been seen as his potential successors. Among them: City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who’d known Elizondo for some four decades.

We should know pretty soon whether Rep. Rodriguez will be the choice to fill that County Commissioners seat. You may recall from when Jerry Eversole stepped down, it is the County Judge who names the successor, so whatever Judge Wolff decides is what will happen. The Rivard Report makes it sound like the choice is more up in the air, and includes Queta Rodriguez, a former employee of Precinct 2 who nearly ousted Elizondo in the 2018 primary, as a potential pick as well.

Rodriguez represents HD125 in Bexar County; he was elected in 2012 after Joaquin Castro decided to run for Congress. After a decade of turnover, he’s the second-most senior member of the Bexar delegation, after Rep. Roland Gutierrez. HD125 was solidly Democratic in 2016, as Hillary Clinton carried it 61-33, but it was closer in 2014 as Wendy Davis took it by a 56-43 margin. If he gets appointed and this becomes a race, I’d expect the Republicans to seriously challenge it. The Dems would be favored to hold it, but it would not be a slam dunk. Keep an eye on this.

Our freshman legislators

Good luck, y’all.

Gina Calanni

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

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

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

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

Jon Rosenthal

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying again with online voter registration

Fingers crossed.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here come the new judges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Many criminal defense attorneys agreed.

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

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

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

Orlando Sanchez’s bizarre press conference

What a weird thing.

Orlando Sanchez

It was an absolutely wild afternoon for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. He planned to have a news conference across the street from the HISD administration building, but things didn’t go as planned.

Protestors showed up and completely disrupted Sanchez’s news conference. When he tried to get it started, the group would chant things like, ‘Go away, TEA’ and ‘You got voted out.’

Things really got heated when he was answering one of our questions. Someone from the group ran up and dumped water on him.

Someone from Sanchez’s team confronted the man. He ended up on the ground and police were called. Both sides claimed they were assaulted.

The news conference was supposed to be for Sanchez to call for the state to take over HISD.

“Taxpayers are fed up and it’s time for the governor and the Texas Education Agency to step up and make sure that children in HISD, which 83 percent of them are minority, get an education,” said Sanchez.

“To have somebody like that step on my toes like that when I have sacrificed so much for these kids, yeah, it’s emotional,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern. “It is because it’s personal. These kids mean a lot to me; not just my five but all 215,000.”

Click over to see pictures and video. Far as I can tell, the only coverage of this fiasco has come from the TV stations; I’ve not seen anything in the Chron as yet.

Let me say up front that whoever poured water on Sanchez is an idiot, and what he did sure sounds like assault to me. It’s also terrible strategy from a public relations perspective. Sanchez’s purpose for calling the press conference was ridiculous on its face, and would have been easy to dismiss on its merits. Anyone who felt the need to attack Sanchez physically is someone who has no faith in their own political position.

Why do I say that Sanchez’s purpose is ridiculous? The law is clear that the authority of the TEA to step in only occurs after the schools fail to meet state standards. We won’t have that data for several months, a fact that everyone knows. It is entirely possible that the four schools in question, which were all granted one-year waivers due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, could meet standards this year, as the other schools that had originally been under scrutiny and which did not get Harvey waivers did. One could easily argue that by making this needless and premature call for a TEA takeover, Sanchez is expressing a complete lack of faith in the students at the four schools. That’s an insult to them and their parents and teachers. Maybe he had some qualifiers and weasel words in his prepared text, but still, the message is clear: Orlando Sanchez expects you to fail, and so he wants the consequences of your failure to begin now.

One also can’t help but notice that Orlando Sanchez, who just got voted out of a cushy elected position where he was basically invisible for twelve years and has never before expressed any opinions about education or ideas about how to improve it, is jumping up and waving his arms in front of Greg Abbott at a time when he really needs something to do. It’s a clear grab for attention at a time when the news cycle is quiet and he can still call it in his capacity as an elected official. There’s also the rumors that Sanchez is prepping to run for Mayor (again). No such thing as bad publicity, am I right?

Finally, there will surely be litigation over the process of replacing an elected board with an appointed one – for sure, there’s a Voting Rights Act complaint to be made. There were lawsuits over the closure of North Forest ISD and La Marque ISD, and while the state prevailed in each of them, the situation with HISD, which is a much bigger district with many successful schools and is financially solvent, is vastly different. The state may well prevail in any litigation that will occur, but it will take time. There’s also the very real possibility that the Lege could modify the law in question that delays or makes less likely a TEA takeover. The point here is that in every way, this was way premature, and served to do nothing more than call attention to Orlando Sanchez. On that score at least, mission accomplished.

The Harris County GOP has not hit bottom yet

I have four thing to say about this.

Never forget

Drubbed. Shellacked. Whooped. Walloped. Routed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recruiting more women for 2020

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

Kim Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HD145 and HD79 special elections set

Another sprint.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the latest school finance report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Joe Deshotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next eminent domain fight

Coming to a Lege near you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But once upon a time, there was.

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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