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Todd Smith

The state’s voter ID failure is much bigger than you think

You really have to read this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The confusion started in the first hour of the first day of early voting in San Antonio last October.

Signs in polling places about the state’s controversial voter ID law contained outdated rules. Poll workers gave voters incorrect information. Lines were long — full of people who were full of uncertainty.

The presidential election of 2016 was off to a sputtering start in Texas, where years of angry claims about illegal voting had led to a toughening of identification requirements for those going to the polls.

On that day last October, Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, was met with a line out the door when she arrived at her San Antonio polling place.

“A poll worker stood in front of me where I was and said, ‘You are at the one-and-a-half-hour mark,'” Perales said. “And she insisted your ID needed to be out when you got to the front of the line.”

But that, in fact, wasn’t the law. A compromise a federal court had settled on months before allowed those without photo IDs to fill out an affidavit and show alternate ID.

“So, we filed suit against the county,” Perales said.

Days later, Bexar County, home to San Antonio, agreed to try and remedy its mistakes — poll workers would be retrained, signs would be corrected and voicemail instructions for voters would be updated.

But a ProPublica review of the 2016 vote in Texas shows that Bexar County’s problems were hardly isolated — and, in many cases, were beyond fixing.

Indeed, the state’s efforts to enact and enforce the strictest voter ID law in the nation were so plagued by delays, revisions, court interventions and inadequate education that the casting of ballots was inevitably troubled. Among the problems that surfaced:

  • The promised statewide effort to inform Texans about voter identification requirements failed terribly. ProPublica contacted hundreds of community organizations and local county party officials to see if they’d received a voting instruction manual the state said it had sent but could not find one who had used it. The largest voter education groups — League of Women Voters Texas, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, MALDEF and several disability rights groups — said they didn’t get copies at all.
  • The fiscal note attached to the 2011 bill indicated voter education would cost the state $2 million. That’s one-fifth what a similar bill in Missouri — a state with 21 million fewer people than Texas — allocated. While the Texas secretary of state’s office spent the majority of its voter education budget in 2016 to educate voters about the law, the money appears to have been wasted on an ineffective campaign.
  • The Texas Department of Public Safety, a law enforcement agency tasked with issuing free IDs for voting purposes, initially required those who applied for the ID to be fingerprinted, a decision many say scared off potential voters. DPS also didn’t have Spanish translators in all of its offices and didn’t initially provide applications or information about the free IDs in any language other than English.
  • Remarkably, the very aim of the legislation — to thwart people from voting illegally — was not fully addressed by the law, which allowed three versions of identification obtainable by non-citizens.

Jacquelyn Callanen, the election administrator for Bexar County, said she is still furious about the state’s performance in handling last November’s vote.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” she said. “This was the most complicated and emotionally charged election I have ever seen.”

There’s a ton more, and you need to read the whole thing. It will piss you off, and it should. We know that the state’s so-called voter ID education effort last year was a boondoggle and a failure, but you can’t fully appreciate how big a failure it was without this. Among other things, the story recounts the history of voter ID legislation in Texas, how the Elections department at the Secretary of State’s office became politicized and denuded of competence, and more. As noted by the Brennan Center, there will be a status call on June 7 to sort out the issues in determining a remedy in the wake of the ruling last month that the voter ID law was passed with discriminatory intent. I say any such remedy needs to begin with a complete scrapping of the existing law and an eight-figure campaign to do real voter (and elections administrator) education, done by multiple firms that don’t make BS claims about “proprietary” information. Then maybe, just maybe, we can claim to have set things right. Read the story and see what I mean.

Another point of order delays Eissler’s school bill

HB400, the bill by Rep. Rob Eissler that among other things raises the 22:1 student:teacher limit in grades K-4, came up for debate last night after the “sanctuary cities” bill got sidetracked by a point of order. Here was the original AP story about this bill going into the debate.

Districts could increase class sizes, cut employee pay and give teachers unpaid furloughs under the bill by Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. Schools could also wait until the end of the academic year to notify teachers that contracts won’t be renewed. Current law says teachers have to be notified 45 days before the end of the year.

GOP House leaders say the bill will free schools from state mandates while saving teacher jobs. They say districts have been begging for more leeway in dealing with lower funding because of massive budget reductions.

“These changes should have been made a long time ago,” Eissler said, citing current law that only gives school districts the option of laying off teachers.

But key teacher groups statewide say the bill will devastate educators and their ability to stay in the classroom. They say Eissler’s bill is launching an attack on educators that will result in severe pay cuts and make it even easier to fire teachers.

[…]

Teacher advocates argue that the reforms Eissler seeks should be temporary, much like a Senate bill that allows teacher furloughs and salary reductions only while the state faces a budget crisis.

Democrats in the House argued that the bill was just paving the way for legislators to continue underfunding public schools.

“This is a conciliation bill that says we are prepared to downsize and dumb down the educational system of Texas,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “It is nothing to do about quality education, nothing to do about excellence, and everything to do with us not wanting to spend one additional dollar from the rainy day fund.”

Eissler did give some ground on these points as the debate opened.

Eissler, R-The Woodlands, demonstrated he came ready to deal when he offered an amendment from the floor that kept the 22-1 class size ratio for kindergarten through fourth grade but made it significantly easier from districts to get a waiver exemption as long as they maintained a 22-1 district wide average. And teachers’ groups scored a victory when Eissler agreed to make the bills’ measures temporary — something he previously said he would not do.

“As much as I hate weakening our 22-1 law at all, all I’m saying is that if we have to do it, we should sunset it,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, the author of the amendment.

Eissler initially said he believed making the measure temporary would be “creating havoc” in school districts. But after a few moments of deliberation, he approved the amendment.

That sunsetting would be for the 2014 school year. These gains did not stop the bill from being put on hold by another point of order from Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, who had previously stalled the “sanctuary cities” bill as well.

[Martinez-Fischer] objected to Eissler’s bill because the committee minutes reflect that Rep. Todd Smith, R- Euless, offered a committee substitute for the bill, but the bill printing says it was offered by Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

“So you either have a committee meeting problem, or you have a printing problem,” Martinez Fischer said.

“But – you don’t have a chairman problem,” he said within earshot of Eissler.

The San Antonio legislator told Eissler he could have avoided the problem had only he “put in his two cents” and influenced House Speaker Joe Straus to make Martinez Fischer a chairman. Eissler and Straus are close allies.

“I’d be fixing all these bad bills,” Martinez Fischer said.

“That’s why I love Trey,” Eissler responded.

This morning, Speaker Straus upheld the point of order, saying the bill needed to be reprinted, so it will be Monday at least before it can come back to the floor. Seems like some Republicans must have been expecting this, because many of them didn’t show up on Saturday, enough to endanger the quorum in the House. Despite some frayed tempers, it appears that the House did indeed still have a quorum, and after a motion to stifle debate, the House rammed through the so-called “loser pays” rule, which was the most recent “emergency” declared by Rick Perry, then finally adjourned for the weekend. Monday is going to be a lot of fun.

Will the Lege change the rules about corporate campaign contributions?

I think the answer to that question is probably “No”, but given the Citizens United ruling and the effect it had in the 2010 election, one cannot rule it out.

Immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, the Texas Ethics Commission, acting within state law, issued rules for individual corporations or unions to disclose their spending to elect or defeat candidates. But the commission was silent on whether groups or associations have to disclose their donors and left that issue to the Texas Legislature, which will return Jan. 11.

Rep. Todd Smith , a Euless Republican and chairman of the House Elections Committee, favors more transparency if the Legislature can agree on how to do it.

He questioned whether the new reporting requirement at the Ethics Commission gives the public a true picture of what happens during elections.

“My best sense is, it may be impossible to ensure people actually know who’s paying for a campaign,” Smith said. “We may have given citizens a false impression that they know who is spending money.”

[…]

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an organization that monitors campaign spending in Texas, opposes legalizing corporate donations to campaigns.

He argued that corporate donations would skew a campaign finance system already dominated by wealthy individuals.

State lawmakers may be tempted to avoid the issue altogether.

To begin with, the surge in outside spending in federal elections was driven in large part because federal election law limits donations to candidates. Those limits on individuals and political action committees motivated much of the outside spending. Other than some judicial campaigns, Texas has no limits on campaign donations.

“When you can give the governor $500,000 out of your pocket, why create a front group?” McDonald asked.

Second, changing the campaign finance law is controversial.

Smith, who has written legislation for more disclosure of political spending in the past, said there is always a backlash against more transparency.

“There are many special interests that don’t want to disclose,” he said.

Austin political consultant Bill Miller said there’s little momentum for major changes in the Texas campaign finance system.

“Outside of some isolated do-gooder groups, I don’t see anyone advocating for change,” he said. “The system works quite well for people who are incumbents.”

Those last three quotes, from McDonald, Smith, and Miller, sum it up nicely. And despite the example cited in the story of the Texas Association of Business and the scars it now bears from trying to act like a PAC while maintaining nonprofit status, the fact is that you can do an awful lot as a nonprofit. We remember TAB’s experience because it’s so unusual, but the truth is that if Bill Hammond had kept his pie hole shut after the 2002 election, instead of bragging to the nearest reporter about “blowing the doors off”, it’s likely nothing would have happened to them. Finally, there’s not really all that much holding back corporations from donating to PACs as they see fit. How often does doing so cause either the donor or its recipients all that much grief? There’s just not enough attention that gets paid to it, so the risks are pretty small.

On a related note, Citizens United did not affect Tom DeLay and his felony conviction, as the ruling did not address the Texas under which DeLay got zapped. However, it may come up in a future appeal, which Team DeLay is clearly counting on. It’d be nice if Congress pre-empted that by passing legislation to address the shortfalls that SCOTUS identified in the CU ruling, but I don’t see that happening with the current crop in DC.

Deferred adjudication for DWI

There are thousands of drunk driving cases on district court dockets around the state. To try and help get them cleared out, a bill has been filed to allow first time offenders to get deferred adjudication.

First-time offenders could be acquitted of the offense if they complete supervision and treatment. If the offense were repeated, it would become grounds to boost future punishments.

“Generally we do not support deferred adjudication bills, but we are going to support this one,” said Bill Lewis, public policy liaison for the Irving-based nonprofit group MADD. “Right now, we are hearing that many cases are not getting prosecuted for DWI but for a bogus charge. We hope the practice of reducing charges will be reduced if this bill does indeed pass.”

The proposal, filed by Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, marks a shift away from a long-standing notion in Texas that all drunken drivers should face fines and jail time. Deferred adjudication for such offenses was abolished in the state in the mid-1980s when opponents, including MADD, argued that prosecuting offices and judges were accepting the form of probation for repeat offenders.

Supporters say the plan could ease court backlogs by routing cases out of courtrooms, give prosecutors a new negotiating tool and remove the threat of jail that makes some first-timers refuse guilty pleas in DWI cases.

By the time a House legislative committee held a hearing on the issue in August, more than 122,000 misdemeanor DWI cases were pending in state district courts. Prosecutors argue they are too limited in the options they can offer first-time offenders.

“Our alternatives that we can offer have diminished such that our bargaining positions have weakened, and cases are backing up,” testified Richard Alpert, a 24-year Tarrant County prosecutor who has become a key figure in the fight against drunken driving.

The bill in question appears to be HB 189. My initial impression on reading this story was that it sounded like a good idea. But I’m not a defense attorney, and no one from the criminal defense bar was quoted reacting to Rep. Smith’s bill. Someone should have called Mark Bennett for an opinion, because that would have significantly changed the way this was presented:

What would deferred-adjudication probation add to defendants’ options, either in Harris County or elsewhere?

A deferred-adjudication probation is not, as the Chronicle article would have it, an acquittal. It cannot be expunged. In most non-DWI cases, deferred-adjudication probation has two advantages over straight probation: 1) it is not, for purposes of Texas criminal law (but is, for purposes of Federal sentencing and immigration law, among other things), a conviction; and 2) it can be sealed from public view with a petition for nondisclosure at some point after the probation is successfully completed.

Nondisclosure is important because of the opprobrium that attaches to many criminal convictions. Try renting an apartment with a felony drug offense on your public record; try getting hired when the boss finds out about your misdemeanor theft deferred. While deferred is not technically a conviction, there is nothing to stop private individuals from treating it as one, so they do.

But nondisclosure would be less important in DWI cases because the stigma of a DWI conviction is not nearly that of a crime involving dishonesty, violence, or even drugs. It would not be unimportant—there might be some employers reluctant to hire (or eager to fire) employees with DWI—but I’m betting that if deferred adjudication becomes available for DWI, nondisclosure will be unavailable for DWI (as it is for sex-offender-registration and family violence offenses, among others). So deferred adjudication will not provide an advantage to DWI defendants over straight probation.

What about the fact that a DWI deferred would not, for purposes of Texas criminal law, be a conviction? The only real effect of a deferred not being a conviction is that it is not available for enhancement, as a conviction would be, if the accused gets charged with something else. The supporters of DWI deferred have a plan to wire around that: “[I]f they do reoffend, it can be used to enhance their punishment,” says Tarrant County prosecutor David Alpert.

(Note: Mark linked to the Chron reprint of this story.) Doesn’t sound so appealing now, does it? Well, it likely would help clear out that backlog, but not in a way that is helpful to anyone facing a DWI charge. I think this bill has enough support from the usual suspects that it has a decent chance of passing, so it’s worth keeping an eye on it. Grits, who reacts favorably to the story, has more.

Texas Voices update

Grits gives a report.

I was pleased to get to spend a little time with Mary Sue Molnar and the folks at Texas Voices (a group made up of families of registered sex offenders) at their statewide conference here in Austin. By the time I showed up in the late morning there were perhaps 60-70 folks there; I walked in just in time to hear most of their legislative update.

They were, of course, all devastated at Governor Perry’s veto of legislation to allow defendants to petition judges in Romeo and Juliet cases to be taken off the registry. But this was the first legislative session they’d even been involved as a newly formed group and that same bill could probably pass again whenever it’s somebody else’s turn to be Governor. In the meantime, about 100 new people per month are being placed on Texas’ sex offender registry, Molnar reported to the group.

The bill Grits refers to is HB3148; another bill that was favorable to Texas Voices never made it out of committee. blogged about this group before and am glad to hear they are continuing to organize. We spend an awful lot of time, energy, and money punishing people who really aren’t a threat to anyone, and in doing so we cause a lot of harm – to the offenders, to their loved ones, and to the state of Texas, which suffers a large economic loss from all this wasted effort. We’ll be much better off the day we recognize this and do something about it.

Smith bashes Perry for vetoing HB3148

Rep. Todd Smith takes Governor Perry to task for vetoing HB3148, which would have exempted some teenagers who had engaged in consensual sex with a minor less than four years younger than themselves from having to register as sex offenders.

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed one of the most morally compelling bills I have ever filed in the Texas House.

I authored the bill because of heartbreaking letters received from parents and grandparents describing how their son or grandson has been permanently scarred because of a consensual teenage relationship. All the bill would have done was to give a judge discretion to not place a teen on the sex offender registry for having consensual sex with someone who was at least 14 and not more than four years younger than the defendant.

Perry apparently believes that every teenager who has a consensual relationship with someone more than three years, but less than four years younger should be labeled for life as a sex offender.

The purpose of sex offender registration is to protect children from child molesters. The monitoring and supervision of nonthreatening people wastes law enforcement resources and detracts law enforcement from closer scrutiny of the sex offender for whom registration was intended — those who are dangerous to children.

HB 3148 was passed by a vote of 131-12 in the House and unanimously in the Senate. Sixteen witnesses testified in committee in favor of the bill. There was no opposition.

In his veto statement, Perry said that “sex offenders would be eligible to petition a court for an exemption from sex offender registration, regardless of the age of the victim.” That is simply not true.

The bill expressly stated that the victim must be at least 14 years old with the perpetrator less than four years older. He said he feared this bill would not protect young victims, but it only would allow a judge to grant an exemption when it is in the best interest of the victim. Some of these “victims” are now married to the “perpetrators.”

The bill wouldn’t change the criminality of the offense of statutory rape, which is a punishable crime. It only gave certain teens in consensual relationships an opportunity to ask a judge for an exemption from lifetime registration as a sex offender.

Good for you, Rep. Smith. There’s “tuff on crime” and there’s being smart about crime; HB3148 was an example of the latter, while Perry’s needless veto was the former. The people affected by it deserved better. EoW has more.

Friends and foes

The Texas Observer poo-poos the idea of “Best Of” and “Top Ten” lists, then gives us its stab at a Best and Worst tabulation by naming six of “The People’s Friends” and five “Foes”. Where Texas Monthly focuses more on effectiveness in getting things done, the Observer takes the position that it’s not just about getting results but working to get good results that matters. That will necessarily lead to a more subjective list, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The TPPF/TAB crowd can and do produce their own lists, too, after all.

The five Foes are all Republicans, not that this should come as a surprise. I will say this, the fall of the house of Craddick made this task harder than it might have been in other years, as some of the historically bad actors were at least somewhat marginanalized this time around. Still, there’s always room for the likes of Debbie Riddle, Leo Berman, and Dan Patrick, just on general principles. Perhaps they should have included those who just missed the cut as well, as Honorable – or in this case, Dishonorable – Mentions.

The six Friends are an even mix of Ds and Rs. The one that will surely cause some consternation is this one:

Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless

Todd Smith had a thankless job. As chairman of the House Elections Committee, he was tasked with shepherding voter ID through the chamber. Partisan Republicans badly wanted the bill to pass. Democrats were desperate to kill it. To Smith’s credit, he tried to find a compromise on an issue so polluted by partisanship that compromise might have been impossible. In the end, it did prove impossible, but Smith gets an “A” for effort. Later in the session, Smith broke again with the hardcore members of his party. Some House Republicans, suspecting a Democratic ploy, opposed a bill by Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchia that was designed to register more high-schoolers to vote. Smith spoke in favor of the bill on the House floor, informing his colleagues that registering voters was a nonpartisan activity that everyone should support. He was one of just two Republicans to vote for the bill, putting good public policy ahead of rank partisanship.

That’s a generous interpretation of Smith’s role in the voter ID debacle. I don’t really care to wade in on that, as I hope we’ve seen the last of voter ID legislation for the foreseeable future, but I will say that if one insisted on balancing the Ds and the Rs, I might have gone for Sen. Kevin Eltife, who did yeoman’s work in getting the unemployment insurance bill through the Senate, or Rep. Rob Eissler, who has been a key ally of designated Friend Rep. Scott Hochberg on education matters. Greg plumps for Rep. John Zerwas, on the grounds that saving a life = automatic inclusion on any Best list. Hard to argue with that. Be that as it may, I might have decided instead that there was no need for partisan balance here, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Anyway, it’s an interesting list and a good way to frame the discussion. Check it out.

Campaign finance bill passes the House

I’ve had plenty of harsh things to say about House Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith this session, but he’s always been one of the good guys on campaign finance reform.

Texas could start regulating how political parties use corporate and union campaign contributions under a bill the Texas House passed Friday 71 to 63.

House Bill 2511 would close what author Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, has called an “absurd” loophole that enables corporations and labor unions to escape a century-old ban against political donations by funding issue ads that stop short of urging a vote for or against a candidate.

Under the bill, donations from corporations and unions could only go toward a political party’s or political action committee’s administrative costs.

You may recall that a broad definition of just what “administrative costs” are was a key part of the fight over what TAB and TRMPAC did in the 2002 elections, as they had claimed things like polling were “administrative” in nature.

The Texas Pastor Council sent an email blast urging a vote against the bill.

“HB 2511 will censor free speech and drastically change how nonprofit organizations communicate with their supporters about important policy issues,” the group wrote. “This very email could be ruled illegal under this proposed law, prohibiting nonprofits from highlighting elected officials and their bad votes on legislation affecting all Texans.”

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he head received a letter from a host of conservative groups including Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas Eagle Forum and the Texas Alliance for Life that were worried about the bill.

“They are concerned that this will limit their ability to come out and talk about issues,” King said.

If all those folks are against this bill, it must be doing something right. Though HB2511 only got 71 votes to pass, six of them were Republicans – Delwin Jones, Charlie Geren, Will Hartnett, Brian McCall, Tommy Merritt, and Smith; the latter three were coauthors of the bill, along with Rafael Anchia and Mark Strama. Still, I suspect that this won’t make it through the Senate; that two-thirds rule that ol’ Dan Patrick hates so much will surely see to its demise. A previous version of this bill died a messy death in the 2005 Lege amid allegations of partisan sniping at then-Speaker Tom Craddick. I like how now-former Rep. Terry Keel basically tells Tommy Merritt he’ll never eat lunch in this town again in the aftermath of that. Karma sure is a strange thing sometimes.

UPDATE: Burka figures out the reason for the partisan split on this one.

High school registrars

We know that the Republicans like voter ID. We shouldn’t be too surprised that they don’t much like voter registration.

[The House] barely passed a bill Monday night that would allow high school principals to appoint four deputy registrars to help 18-year-old students sign up to vote.

The bill passed, 73-72, before a roll-call verification vote to make sure all members had properly voted. The verified vote was 72-70 for the bill. However, the outcome could change during a final vote on Tuesday.

All 70 opposition votes came from Republicans.

“You are taking a principal and directing them to register voters. We know in some school districts that will be done in a very partisan fashion,” Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said.

Texas ranks behind 41 other states when it comes to registering 18-to-24-year-olds.

HB 1654 would require each high school principal to designate four people as deputy registrars. The four deputies could be either employees of the high school or employees of the school district in which the high school was located and who were serving at the high school. At least three of the four would have to be classroom teachers or certified full-time counselors.

All GOP members of the Elections Committee voted for the bill in committee. But only Elections Chairman Todd Smith, R-Bedford, and Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, voted for it on the floor.

One Democrat, Rep. Tracy King of Eagle Pass, voted against it; unclear to me what his deal was with it. The bill passed yesterday on final reading 75-71, with the difference being a function of fewer absent members.

Of course, given the narrow passage and partisanized nature of this bill, it seems unlikely to get through the Senate. Add that to the failure of Rep. Vo’s measures to allow those who turn 18 between March and November to vote in the primaries to make it out of committee, and Republicans can relax. It won’t be any easier for the kids to vote in 2010 than it is now.

Voter ID passes out of House committee

The session that’s been all about voter ID is finally headed into its final act as SB362 gets approval from the House Elections Committee on a 5-4 vote. It wasn’t actually a straight-party vote – Rep. Joe Heflin, who had tried to work a compromise, voted for it so as to retain the ability to make a motion sending the plan back to committee from the House floor, and Rep. Dennis Bonnen voted against it because it wasn’t punitive enough. And after all that, it may amount to nothing in the end.

Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith then told the press he doesn’t expect the bill to survive as is — that unless there are compromises from both sides when the bill hits the floor, then voter ID will “die”. Smith predicted the bill has a less than 50% chance of surviving, as is.

“What I’m trying to do is act in a way that satisfy [the conservative wing’s] concerns but also doesn’t blow up this body,” said Smith. “But I don’t pretend to control the votes on the House floor and it seems to me there are two possibilities: Either we reach some sort of consensus in a bipartisan fashion, or we will simply make a statement, have a record vote and go home having not passed a voter ID bill.”

Smith said that conceptually he’s in favor of a phase-in, a signature or verification process, and spending money to expand the number of registered voters to make clear the net effect of Voter ID isn’t intended to suppress the vote.

Smith continues:

“It would satisfy the concerns of my constituents, but then it would also address the reasonable concerns on the other side of the political aisle,” he said. “The question is, how many people want or care about satisfying the reasonable concerns on the other side of the political aisle. If there aren’t more than a handful, we may simply have a very divisive vote that in my opinion, is likely to fail.

“Unless we develop a more pragmatic approach, member by member, and a stronger desire to reach some sort of bipartisan compromise, then my guess is that it’s something less than 50%, the chances of passing a voter ID bill.

“We got a choice to make. Do we want to pass a bill or make a statement? And it’s clear to me that some members that simply want to make a statement. They’re not interested in passing a bill.”

Well, I’m not interested in passing a bill because it’s been clear from the beginning that the goal was to make it harder for folks who tend to support Democrats to vote. The alleged “problem” that this bill is supposed to address is rarer than getting hit by lightning while being eaten by a shark, yet it’s been deemed the single most important issue facing Texas today by those who fear for their electoral future if those damn voters can’t be stopped. One certainly could have put forth a bill that would have genuinely addressed legitimate issues, ranging from verifiable audit trails to obstacles to getting registered to actual fraud involving absentee ballots, but Smith’s Republican colleagues have never been interested in passing such a bill, as they have made perfectly clear. Given all this, the most sensible thing to do would have been to conclude that there are many more pressing issues that require the Lege’s attention, but that wasn’t gonna happen, either. So from the GOP’s perspective, they either get a half a loaf, ot they get what they think will be a juicy campaign issue, or possibly both. You have to give them credit for keeping on with the wedge issues in the age of Obama, for however much longer that will work. I suppose if your piano only has one key, you play that note for all it’s worth and hope nobody notices how monotonic you are. Good luck with that.

Updates on some criminal justice bills

As Grits notes, this is the time of the session in which bills die because there’s no longer the time for them to make it through the process. Fortunately, as he writes in that post, many of the bills related to innocence and exoneration are in a position to be debated and voted by both chambers before the close of business on the session. Hopefully, they will have a clear path to the finish line.

Meanwhile, remember Tehena, the town where the cops steal your stuff as a matter of budget policy? SB1529, by Whitmire, is getting set to put an end to that sleazy practice. Grits has the details on that one as well.

Vince reports that HB3148, which would allow judges to exempt teens and young adults who engage in consensual sex from being required to register as sex offenders, passed out of the House on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it looks like HB3564, the “Romeo and Juliet Fair Defense Act”, which would extend the defense of “indecency with a child” for age-appropriate dating by straight kids to gay and lesbian teenagers, is not going to make it out of committee. That would be a shame.

Finally, it’s not strictly speaking a criminal justice bill, but since I linked to Equality Texas in the preceeding paragraph, I thought I’d mention that HB1323, the anti-bullying bill, will be on the House calendar Monday. You can learn more about that bill, which Equality Texas helped to draft, here. You can help by contacting your Rep and asking him or her to vote for this bill when it comes to the floor. Thanks very much.

Smith caves in to the Browns

No surprise, really.

Rep. Todd Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Elections, confirmed today he’s intending to have the committee vote Monday on a voter ID plan.

The twist: Smith is backing off his attempts to rewrite the plan.

Bowing to a request from two GOP colleagues, Smith simply intends to seek the committee’s approval of the Senate-approved version of Senate Bill 362.

Presuming the five Republicans on the committee stick together, this means that barring unforeseen hang-ups, a clean version of the Senate plan will ultimately be taken up on the House floor.

The colleagues, Reps. Betty Brown of Terrell and Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, had resisted Smith’s attempts to rewrite the Senate bill.

Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned. If there are any unforeseen hang-ups, the bill is dead, since Monday is the deadline for passing bills out of House committees. Which doesn’t mean it couldn’t be inserted as an amendment somewhere, of course, so even if it dies one way or another – has anyone talked to Reps. Tommy Merritt or Delwin Jones lately? – it’s not truly dead until sine die and the threat of a special session passes.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, the Monday deadline is for House bills, so SB362 would be exempt from that. So I daresay the best hope is for it to not pass on the House floor.

The voter ID “compromise” bill

Here we go.

The voter identification bill likely to reach the House floor would allow Texans to cast ballots if they can show two forms of non-photo ID, despite pressure from many Republican members to require picture identification for all voters. Rep. Todd Smith’s compromise bill – circulated on the House floor this morning – also calls for increased funding for voter registration, greater acceptance of provisional ballots and a four year transition into the new voter identification system, lawmakers who received copies of it said.

The bill is expected to be considered by the House Elections Committee, which Smith chairs, this weekend, and could come up in the House as early as next week.

Smith’s current legislation is similar to the voter ID bill that passed the Senate – a bill that would allow voters to produce two non-photo IDs in lieu of a photo ID. One key difference: Smith’s bill allows for a four-year phase in of the new rules, while the bill the GOP-dominated Senate passed requires them by the 2010 elections.

Gardner Selby has more.

—Smith envisions any voter who doesn’t completely fulfill the ID requirements getting to cast a ballot that would be counted later than regular ballots, if their signature at the polling place matches their signature on the voter’s voter registration application or another public record in the possession of their county’s voter registrar.

A twist: Smith’s rewrite leaves the verification of signatures to local signature verification committees consisting of five voters or more, chosen on nomination by the local Democratic and Republican county chairs. Each board is to be chaired by a nominee from the party whose gubernatorial candidate drew the most local votes in the latest governor’s election. The committees would be appointed by the early voting ballot board, which I suspect exists now in each county.

—Smith’s version would not take effect unless the Legislature appropriates $7.5 million in 2010-11 to register voters.

I’ll say this much for Smith, he hasn’t (yet) bowed to pressure from his fellow Republicans, who seem bent on making voting a damn-near punitive experience. He still hasn’t gone far enough for me to consider his alternative acceptable – sorry, but same day voter registration is a must-have for anything to be considered – but it seems clear he’s listened to Democratic concerns and is at least making some effort to accommodate. Which isn’t to say I trust him, but he hasn’t gone over the edge and that’s something. I suspect he’s also aware of the fact that the GOP wet dream legislation almost surely doesn’t have the votes to pass the House. Keep an eye on that list of pledge signers – if Tommy Merritt and Delwyn Jones show up, then it’s a whole new ballgame, but until then I think there’s a decent chance the House won’t pass anything too horrible. Which makes me a lot more optimistic than I was in the beginning. I still want this whole thing to die a messy death amid savage Republican infighting. But if that’s not going to happen, passing something relatively toothless would be a victory, especially given how this session began.

UPDATE: Vince has more.

The Speaker speaks, and a Voter ID update

So how is Speaker Joe Straus doing?

Three months into his first term leading the 150-member chamber, Republican Speaker Joe Straus is emerging as a bipartisan compromise-seeker, rejecting much of the power that his predecessor so coveted.

Straus still faces some tough tests, but just four years after Craddick was anointed as the most powerful Texan by Texas Monthly magazine, observers say the young GOP leader has shifted power back to the House.

“Not some, probably all,” said Rep. Tommy Merritt, a Longview Republican when asked if the speaker has given up some of the office’s power. “He’s doing exactly what a good speaker should do. He’s wielding the gavel and trying to make fair rulings to make the will of the House work for Texas.”

Straus’ first big victory came last week when the normally raucous House unanimously approved the $178 billion budget. It was the first time in a decade that the usually thorny state budget came out with 149-0 approval.

In a rare sit-down, on-the-record interview with The Associated Press, Straus said the unanimous vote was the result of weeks of negotiations and compromise.

“No one, right or left, Republican or Democrat, urban or rural, is going to crush somebody by sheer force this session,” said Straus, the state’s first Jewish speaker.

I’d say that’s a fair interpretation. As I’ve said before, Straus hasn’t been exactly what I’d hoped for in a non-Tom Craddick Speaker, but he’s still a lot better than Tom Craddick. The House has been remarkably free of strife, and more importantly it’s been completely free of attempts by the Speaker to impose his will on everything in his path. That’s as much a function of the near-even split as anything else, but the point is that Craddick couldn’t have managed under those conditions; he would have been what he has always been. The House would have been a disaster area with him in charge.

Of course, there’s still a lot of time left, and at least one big stinking partisan blob of an “issue” that remains unresolved.

Lately, Straus has been working to forge a compromise on an effort to strengthen voter identification requirements, a measure so divisive it sparked partisan meltdown in the Senate and triggered threats of lawsuits.

The legislation is expected to be debated by the House within the next couple of weeks. But by many accounts, a House compromise is on the horizon. Unlike the Senate, Straus said, the House wasn’t going to “pull the pin on the grenade and be irresponsible, which I think they were.”

“They just didn’t care about the consequences of the emotional side of it,” he said. “And we’re trying to be deliberate and slow … we’re trying to find solutions, not just talking points for somebody’s political agenda.”

Rep. Aaron Pena writes that voter ID could be on the agenda for the Elections Committee as early as tomorrow, with some kind of compromise voter ID bill to be debated. That’s assuming that the whole thing doesn’t get blown up by the Republican hardcore, as documented by Gardner Selby:

I’m hearing from Capitol sources that Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, privately told GOP colleagues today he’d reached closure on his intended-to-be-a-compromise version of voter ID legislation and might even issue an afternoon press release saying so.

To which, some Republicans reportedly reacted: “Whoa, Nelly (or Toddy).”

Their beef: They’d prefer not to see Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Elections, running out a softened-up approach that they don’t think meets the intended ID mandate.

True, it’d be a painful political boomerang for Republicans to see House Democrats (on the short end of the 76-74 House split between the parties) wrest control of the GOP’s most-valued legislative proposal (though the flip side, perhaps fueling Smith’s hunt for common ground, is that if the Senate-approved version of voter ID isn’t tweaked, he could fall short of getting the proposal out of his committee or off the House floor; tough cookies).

Until Smith speaks out (yup, I’ve tried to reach him), I’m left with separate statements from Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, who takes a hard line on the voter ID front, and from 51 House Republicans (including Brown) similarly saying they’re not interested in phasing in changes or making it easier for most anyone to vote without presenting proof of their identity.

GOP blow-up? I’m waiting to hear more.

For what it’s worth, Rep. Smith says it was all sweetness and light when he addressed the caucus about his bill. Sure it was. I can’t think of a better resolution to this mess than a GOP implosion as no bill gets passed because the hardliners refuse to accept a compromise, while their version fails to get enough votes. Nothing could illustrate the point that this is all just a naked partisan power grab than that. Form a circle, Republicans, and load up those AK-47s! We’ll start popping the popcorn now.

More on Day One of the House hearings on voter ID

House Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith is full of ennui at how things have gone so far.

Throughout today’s proceedings, Chairman Todd Smith, R-Bedford, has repeatedly insisted that he is “unimpressed,” and even on one occasion, “fabulously unimpressed,” with both sides of the debate.

[…]

“Both sides are guilty of speculating without any substantiating evidence that this has any impact on turnout at all one way or the other,” Smith said.

Upon which side Smith believes the burden of proof falls has yet to be established, though past statements indicate that it might not matter.

Regardless, the show Smith is currently running on the House side is markedly different from the Senate’s handling of Voter ID, which left many witnesses unable to testify. The decision to break the testimony up into two days will undoubtedly allow more to have their voices heard. The discussion also seems to have taken on a more productive tone.

“It is encouraging that, in the House, some members of both parties seem interested in considering reforms targeted at access and turnout in addition to security,” says Dustin Rynders of Advocacy, Inc., which advocates for the legal rights of disabled Texans. “This more comprehensive approach was completely absent in the Senate debate.”

Well, I can think of a way in which we could have avoided boring Rep. Smith. But here we are having the hearing anyway.

According to RG Ratcliffe, it’ll be a little while before any bills come to the floor.

Elections Chairman Todd Smith, R-Euless, said he does not expect his committee to vote on the bill until sometime in the next week or two.

[…]

Smith said he hopes to add language to the bill that would delay implementation for two years to educate the public about the need to have identification to vote. He said that change might win him enough votes to get this bill out of the House.

That’s as may be, but it’ll take a lot more than that to keep said bill from being harmful. I’ll say it again, if anyone who’s pushing this is serious about wanting to mitigate the effects, including same-day registrations in the final bill would be a big step in the right direction.

I see in that story that one of the witnesses testifying was Diane Trautman, who made an unsuccessful attempt to oust Paul Bettencourt last year as Tax Assessor before he decided to traipse off to greener pastures. She sent me a copy of her testimony, which I’ve posted as a Google document. I’m glad to see her hit back at Bettencourt, who was a tireless promoter of voter fraud myths, for his office’s shamefully sloppy handling of voter registrations last year. Check it out.

Today is the day for public testimony, so anyone who gave up before the Senate allnighter got around to that has a second chance to speak up. And believe it or not, there are other committee hearings going on in this shortened week, including one by Appropriations on the Senate budget bill.

Blaming the nuns

So as we know, today is expert testimony day for the voter ID hearings in the House. It’s still going on as I type this, and is expected to last till about midnight. Vince is liveblogging, Rep. Pena has a report, and the Lone Star Project takes a swipe at Elections Committee Chair Rep. Todd Smith for “bait and switch” tactics.

So remember the nuns in Indiana from last year who were turned away from the ballot box because they didn’t have drivers’ licenses? Well, among the witnesses testifying today was Indiana’s Secretary of State. According to Glenn Smith, that was their own damn fault:

Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita also blamed the nuns for the voting debacle that embarrassed Indiana backers of the new identification restrictions. “Those nuns weren’t disenfranchised, they just didn’t want to follow the law.”

Oh, I bet these guys wouldn’t say that to the faces of these spiritual leaders.Rulers, anyone? Back of the knuckles? Ring a bell?

Yeah, we all know what a bunch of miscreants those elderly nuns can be. Gotta show ’em who’s boss.

All I can say is if that’s how today has gone, tomorrow will be even more fun.

Let the shenanigans begin!

Boy, we only thought voter ID would not be brought up in the House till next week. Apparently, Rep. Betty Brown tried to attach a voter ID bill she has pending in its entirity to HB71, an otherwise fairly innocuous bill “relating to the establishment of a program to provide a ballot by electronic mail to military personnel serving overseas and their spouses and dependents residing overseas”. The amendment was not germane to the bill caption and would likely have been knocked out on a point of order, but in the end the amendment was withdrawn and the fight was saved for another day. As Burka notes, don’t expect this to be the only time such a maneuver is attempted. One way or another, the Republicans will do everything in their power to push this through, even as Elections Chair Todd Smith tries to strike a conciliatory tone. All of which is makes the Heflin plan seem that much less crazy.

The Heflin plan for voter ID

While I still have hope that voter ID can be stopped one more time, I can certainly understand the viewpoint that a sufficiently determined Republican majority can push through what it wants to if it really tries, especially if we do wind up having one or more special sessions, and that as such the best tactic is to try to mitigate the inevitable damage. So I don’t have a problem with State Rep. Joe Heflin coming up with a “compromise plan” for this essentially uncompromisable issue. It’s just that in doing so, he (probably unintentionally) points out how absurd it all is.

Rep. Joe Heflin of Crosbyton is drafting an approach that he believes could bring members of both parties together. Early this week, he outlined some of his ideas to Smith, who didn’t reject any ideas out of hand, though he said today he wants to hear testimony on their feasibility and potential costs before making commitments.

Heflin hopes to have a draft proposal ready by Tuesday including these elements:

— Phasing in the ID mandate over four to six years to soothe Democratic qualms that the Republican ID push is driven by partisan desires to tamp down turnout among minority, Democratic-leaning voters next year in legislative elections. Their fret: The 2011 Legislature (elected in 2010) will be tasked with redrawing congressional land legislative districts based on the 2010 U.S. Census; more Republican legislators means a more Republican map.

— Exempting voters 65 and older from the ID mandate, with the exemption age increasing by one year every year after the law takes effect;

— Placing each voter’s photo on their registration cards, which also would newly have bar codes linked to PIN codes that voters wishing to submit ballots by mail would have to mark down in order to do so;

–Ensuring there’s funding for ID cards in some cases and to support expanded voter education and registration efforts.

The “phase-in” idea, which was also floated by David Dewhurst leads one to wonder just how much some of the Republicans believe their own rhetoric if they go for this. I mean, if you truly believe that elections are being stolen left and right because of swarms of voter impersonators, would you find a waiting period before implementing the solution you claim will stamp it out to be acceptable? Either this is the single most important issue facing Texas today or it isn’t. Phillip, who notes that by Rep. Todd Smith’s own admission, voter ID is really about creating a wedge issue, asks the same question.

Exempting voters over the age of 65 sounds nice, and would solve some of the problems of disenfranchisement. It’s just that by enacting such an exemption, you’re stipulating to the disenfranchisement problem, which the Republicans have adamantly denied. And given that one reason why some people have a hard time getting state-issued ID is that they don’t have their original birth certificates (some folks, who were born at home, never had them), how are we going to ensure that those who are eligible for the exemption, and only those who are eligible, receive it?

Putting photos on voter registration cards is a nice idea, and might have avoided this whole stupid issue had we been doing that all along. But how exactly are we going to do that? Will everyone have to go to their county’s voter registrar office to get a photo taken? If we just use existing driver’s license or state ID photos for voter reg cards, what about the folks who don’t have them? That’s what Democrats have been complaining about all along. And how much would this cost?

Speaking of which, does anyone really believe that the party that doesn’t want to fully fund the unemployment insurance trust (among many other things) is going to want to put up an appropriate amount of coinage to pay for ID cards and expanded voter education and registration efforts? Remember, officially SB362 has no fiscal note, meaning that “no significant fiscal implication to the State is anticipated”. Even if we managed to create some pool of money for this, we have a pretty lousy track record of late in ensuring that the funds collected go to the purpose for which they were intended. I see this as a huge trap.

Other than all that, of course, I think this is a reasonable idea. Again, I don’t blame Rep. Heflin for trying. I just don’t see how he can succeed, at least on the terms of the debate as they have been advanced so far.

Voter ID coming to the House

Well, that didn’t take long.

Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, chair of the House Elections Committee, announced today his committee will devote two days of hearings to voter ID on April 6 and 7. The first day will be devoted to expert testimony, with an equal number of people for and against the bill invited. The second day will be for public testimony.

Smith said he thought splitting the hearing over two days would help the House avoid the tense, all-night, marathon session the Senate endured on the issue.

“We’re going to meet two days that week just because I didn’t like that the public testimony (did) not start ‘til midnight,” Smith said. “I thought that was not the best way to approach it.”

The best way to approach it is to leave it alone and deal with other matters. But I suppose since voter ID is the single most important issue facing Texas today, this was going to happen. Given that, we can use this thorough analysis by the Legislative Study Group to answer – again – the allegations and wild accusations that are sure to come up again. Not that it’s likely to change anyone’s mind, but there it is anyway. Sometimes having the facts has to be its own reward. And remember, unlike the Senate, this will go through a committee before coming to the full House for a vote, if indeed that happens. Which means we’d get two opportunities to wallow in this. Joy.

House committee assignments are out

At long last, we know who’ll be working on what in the House. The full list is here (PDF); a list of chairs only is beneath the fold. Evan notes that Dems got 16 of 18 chairs. The main concern of course has been with Voter ID. I would have preferred a Democratic chair, or a Republican chair with a Democratic majority, but what we got was a 5-4 GOP split with the generally non-crazy but still partisan Todd Smith as chair and an all-ideologue supporting cast: Betty Brown, Linda Harper Brown, Dennis Bonnen, and Dwayne Bohac. The Dems on the committee – Vice Chair Aaron Pena, Alma Allen, Rafael Anchia, and Joe Heflin – will have some work to do to keep anything onerous from escaping.

(I should note at this point that even with the shenanigans in the Senate, there are still things that can be done in that chamber to keep a voter ID bill from passing. And if there’s a compromise along the lines of same day voter registration plus an aggressively-pushed free ID distribution program, I might be able to live with that. Needless to say, this will be a highly visible issue.)

Beyond that, I’d have preferred an urban rep or two as the leaders of the Environmental Regs committee, but at least the seniority appointments are good, with Lon Burnam, Jessica Farrar, and Jim Dunnam. Marc Veasey was a good choice as well. For everything else, we’ll just have to see how it plays out. I still think we’re way better off now than we’d have been with another term of Tom Craddick. BOR has more.

And on a moderately related side note, you can follow Speaker Straus on Twitter. Hopefully, he’ll have a better idea of when not to use it than some other Republicans have had. Thanks to Elise for the link.

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