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Wayne Smith

Cain retains lead in HD128 after recount

It’s all over.

Rep. Wayne Smith

After a recount, Briscoe Cain remains the winner in his Republican primary challenge to state Rep. Wayne Smith of Baytown.

Cain, an attorney from Deer Park, edged out Smith, a longtime incumbent, by 23 votes last month in House District 128. After initially conceding defeat in the May 24 primary runoff, Smith requested a recount.

The Texas Republican Party said Friday afternoon that Cain has won the recount. It was not immediately clear whether he prevailed by the same margin.

[…]

The deadline for requesting a recount of last month’s primary runoffs is 5 p.m. Monday.

See here for the background. We had previously been told that Thursday, June 2, was the deadline for requesting recounts. Not that it really matters at this point. In any event, as there is no Democrat running in HD128, Cain is the newest member of the legislative caucus from Harris County, so congratulations to him on his election.

Two runoff recounts in the works

It’s not over yet in HD128.

Rep. Wayne Smith

In a reversal, state Rep. Wayne Smith is now pursuing a recount in his narrow loss in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff.

Deer Park attorney Briscoe Cain beat Smith, a longtime incumbent from Baytown, by 23 votes in the runoff. As soon as the outcome became clear in House District 128, Smith conceded the race, and his campaign confirmed the next morning that he was not interested in a recount.

But in a statement issued Thursday night, Smith indicated he had changed his mind.

“After much thought and careful consideration, I have decided to move forward with a recount,” Smith said. “Whenever a race is this close, the option for a recount must be considered. In the past two days, I have been overwhelmed by friends and supporters who have encouraged this option.”

Smith lost in the closest race of the runoffs, though not the closest race of the cycle. I was surprised when he initially declined to ask for a recount, so I’m not surprised he changed his mind.

The other recount was announced immediately in the aftermath of Tuesday’s runoffs.

Tuesday’s Republican primary runoffs may not be over yet for at least one candidate.

The contests produced a number of narrow margins — including in House District 54, where Killeen Mayor Scott Cosper won by just 43 votes. His opponent, Killeen optometrist Austin Ruiz, said late Tuesday night he has “decided to pursue filing for a recount.”

[…]

A losing candidate can ask for a recount if the number of votes by which he or she lost is less than 10 percent of the total number of votes his or her opponent received, according to the secretary of state’s office. The deadline to apply for a recount is by the end of the fifth day after the election or the second day after the vote totals are canvassed.

That deadline is Thursday, June 2, at 5 PM, according to the Secretary of State. I can’t imagine there will be any other requests, as the only other runoffs for which the races were close have had the losing candidates concede. But if Wayne Smith can change his mind then someone else could, too.

Republican primary runoff results

vote-button

Harris County results

Statewide results

Trib liveblog

Your new State Senators are Bryan Hughes, who defeated his former House colleague David Simpson, and Dawn Buckingham, who defeated former Rep. Susan King. Hughes is a Dan Patrick buddy, who will fit right in to the awfulness of the upper chamber. Buckingham is a first-time officeholder who needs only to be less terrible than Troy Fraser, but I don’t know if she’s capable of that. She has a Democratic opponent in November, but that’s not a competitive district.

The single best result in any race on either side is Keven Ellis defeating certifiable loon Mary Lou Bruner in SBOE9. Whether Bruner finally shot herself in the foot or it was divine intervention I couldn’t say, but either way we should all be grateful. State government has more than enough fools in it already. Here’s TFN’s statement celebrating the result.

Jodey Arrington will be the next Congressman from CD19. There were also runoffs in a couple of Democratic districts, but I don’t really care about those.

Scott Walker easily won his Court of Criminal Appeals runoff. Mary Lou Keel had a two-point lead, representing about 6,000 votes, with three-quarters of precincts reporting, while Wayne Christian had a 7,000 vote lead for Railroad Commissioner. Those results could still change, but that seems unlikely.

Two incumbent House members appear to have fallen. Rep. Doug Miller in HD73 lost to Kyle Biedermann after a nasty race. Miller is the third incumbent to be ousted in a primary since 2006. They sure are easily dissatisfied in the Hill Country. Here in Harris County, Rep. Wayne Smith has been nipped by 22 votes by Briscoe Cain. That race was nasty, too. You have to figure there’ll be a recount in that one, with such a small margin, but we’ll see. For other House runoffs, see the Trib for details.

Last but not least, in another fit of sanity Harris County Republicans chose to keep their party chair, Paul Simpson. Better luck next time, dead-enders. Final turnout was 38,276 with 927 of 1,012 precincts reporting, so well below the Stanart pre-voting estimate of 50,000. Dems were clocking in at just under 30K with about the same number or precincts out. That’s actually a tad higher than I was expecting, more or less in line with 2012 when there was a Senate runoff.

Final runoff early voting numbers

EarlyVoting

Here are your final early voting numbers for the Republican and Democratic primary runoffs in Harris County. Note that in both cases, mail ballots have accounted for the majority of the total so far: On the Dem side, there have been 10,913 mail ballots to 10,364 in-person votes, and for the Rs it’s 15,297 to 12,742. For that reason, I don’t expect Tuesday’s results to provide a big boost to turnout, though there are still plenty of people who could vote if they wanted to. We’ll see how good a job the campaigns do at getting their people out.

There are two legislative runoffs in Harris County. In the increasingly nasty HD128 runoff between Republican incumbent Wayne Smith and challenger Briscoe Cain, the effect can be seen in the daily totals from the County Clerk. There were 1,858 in person votes in HD128, nearly double the amount of the next busiest district. It’s more muted on the Democratic side, where 932 people have shown up to pick between Jarvis Johnson and Kimberly Willis. That total trails HDs 146 (984) and 142 (949), not to mention the 1,012 votes cast at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. Of course, the dailies from the Clerk are for in person votes only. We won’t know how many absentee ballots have been cast in each district until Tuesday night.

Speaking of Jarvis Johnson, I could swear I saw a story late last week saying he had been sworn into office after his win in the May 7 special election to fill the remainder of now-Mayor Sylvester Turner’s term, but if so now neither Google nor I can find it. Johnson did pick up Mayor Turner’s endorsement for the primary runoff last week, and he has been endorsed by the Texas AFL-CIO COPE as well. Kimberly Willis has the support of the Texas Parent PAC, but not as far as I can tell Annie’s List. The Houston GLBT Political Caucus did not make an endorsement in this runoff.

Outside of Harris County, you know about the HD27 runoff. The other legislative runoff of interest is in HD120, where candidate Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (who is endorsed by Annie’s List) kicked up a bit of a fuss with labor by appearing to give support to “right to work” laws at a candidate forum. That cost her one endorsement she’s previously received; you can read Express News columnist Gilbert Garcia for the details. By the way, the basically useless special election to fill the unexpired term in HD120, which involved four people who are not in the primary runoff, will have its runoff election on August 2. Lord help us all.

Finally, in the Republican runoff for State Board of Education, District 9, Mary Lou Bruner, this cycle’s winner of the Biggest Idiot Who May Actually Get Elected To Something award, may have inadvertently demonstrated that even in a Republican primary runoff for SBOE in East Texas, there are some limits on stupidity. Maybe. That’s not a proposition I’d want to bet my own money on, but we’ll see. SBOE 9 did elect Thomas Ratliff once, so there is hope and precedent. Ask me again on Wednesday.

Runoff watch: Legislative races

I’m going to spend a few posts looking at the runoff elections that will be on the ballot this May. Primary runoffs are completely different than regular primaries, mostly because the races involved are low profile and only the hardest of hardcore voters come out for them. Remember how much time we spent this primary cycle talking about the 2008 Democratic primary and how off-the-charts high the turnout was? Well, turnout for the 2008 Democratic primary runoff in Harris County, which decided one District Judge nomination and one Justice of the Peace nomination, as well as voting on the nomination for Railroad Commissioner, drew all of 9,670 votes. Republican primary runoff turnout that year was 40,457, considerably higher but still quite paltry. The exception to this rule is when there is an actual high-profile race on the ballot, such as in 2012 when Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst went into overtime for the US Senate nomination. That year, in a runoff that happened in July, over 135,000 people came out to vote. The Democratic runoff, which also included a Senate race, drew 30,000 votes. Point being: Don’t expect much this year.

The bottom line is that there are two types of primary runoff voters: Those who are super plugged into the process and who turn out any time there’s an election, and those who are brought out by a campaign. In the absence of a high-profile campaign, the kind that draws news coverage and maybe TV advertising, the main kind of campaign that will draw out voters is one with a ground game. Legislative races are the best for that. There are three legislative runoffs of interest, two in Harris County and one in Fort Bend.

HD128 – Republican runoff

Rep. Wayne Smith

I don’t pay that much attention to most Republican primary races, and even if I did I doubt I’d have given this one much thought. Rep. Wayne Smith in HD128 is a low-key guy, serving as the Chair of the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee and generally not doing much to attract my attention. He hadn’t had a competitive primary since he was first elected in 2002, and hadn’t had a non-third party opponent since 2004. Yet there he was on Election Day, trailing some guy named Brisco Cain by four points and coming close to losing outright in a three-candidate field. What happened?

I’ll leave you to read this Big Jolly post to get an idea. Basically, it’s one part Smith not being “conservative” enough – Cain drew a ton of support from the “grassroots” organizations – and one part this being yet another proxy fight over Speaker Joe Straus. That’s likely to be how the runoff plays out, though so far it’s been as under the radar from the perspective of an interested outsider like myself as the March race was. Smith’s best chance, it seems to me, is for Straus’ money to buy him some voter outreach, and get as many people who think he’s been good for Baytown to the polls. Cain, who ran for HD129 in 2014 but finished fourth in the seven-candidate primary, needs to harness the same seething anger that propels candidacies like his. He had a 500-vote lead on March 1, and the kind of people that vote for the kind of candidate that he is tend to be highly motivated to turn out, so I see this as Cain’s race to lose. I predict there will be at least one controversy over a mailer or online ad attacking Smith, because that’s the way these things tend to go and also because groups like Empower Texans are backing Cain. If you’re a Republican, how do you see this race?

HD139 – Democratic runoff

This is the race for Mayor Turner’s open seat, with the winner of the primary runoff the winner of the office, since there is no Republican running. (The same is true for the HD128 runoff.) Candidate Randy Bates collected the most institutional support, and he led the field when the initial results, from early and absentee voting, were published. He then collected only 20% of the vote on Election Day, and slid into third place behind Kimberly Willis and Jarvis Johnson. I’m not sure what happened there, but if I had to guess I’d posit that 1) Willis had a better ground game, and 2) Johnson benefited from the high turnout on Election Day, as perhaps it featured a higher percentage of voters who were voting for a familiar name. Like I said, that’s just a guess.

I could see this runoff going either way. I have not yet seen updated endorsements from the groups that had backed Bates in March, but I’ll be surprised if it isn’t the case that Willis cleans up among them. She has been by far the more active campaigner of the two, and Johnson’s legacy as Council member isn’t the best. I think Willis will be able to turn out some voters for this race, and that gives her the edge, but Johnson’s name recognition can’t be denied. Willis’ model needs to be Erica Lee’s runoff win for HCDE in 2012, which she accomplished despite Johnson nearly taking a majority in the first round. If she can reach enough voters, she can win.

On a side note, there is a complicating factor for this race, and that’s the special election to fill out the remainder of Turner’s term, which will be held on May 7, a mere 17 days before the primary runoff. I don’t know when the filing deadline is for this, and I don’t know who all will be in that race, but surely Willis and Johnson will file for it. If nothing else, it’s another opportunity to get out there before the voters. As long as they understand that their obligation doesn’t end with that race and they come out again on May 24, that is.

HD27 – Democratic runoff

The one non-Harris County race of interest, and the one with the highest profile so far. You know the story – three-term Rep. Ron Reynolds and his tsuris, with Annie’s List-backed Angelique Bartholomew the last candidate standing against him. Reynolds, like Briscoe Cain in HD128, was above 50% for most of the night on March 1. In fact, I went to bed around midnight having stated that Reynolds had pulled it out. Not so fast, as it happened.

What Reynolds has going for him is that a lot of people still genuinely like him – for all his self-inflicted wounds, even his opponents have compassion for him – and he hasn’t lost the support of elected officials and many establishment groups. What he has going against him, besides his conviction for barratry, is at least one establishment group that is sure to spend money to try to defeat him, money that he doesn’t have and probably won’t be able to raise. There’s also ammunition to use against him that goes beyond the barratry issue. I think he’s buoyant enough that this is still his race to lose – again, he came very close to winning outright in the first place – but he’s not invulnerable. If there are any further cracks in his support, it could shatter on him.

2016 primary reactions and initial impressions

First, a couple of minor notes. Rep. Byron Cook ultimately pulled out a win in his nasty and high-profile primary. That’s good news for Speaker Joe Straus and the general forces of “government that isn’t like a three-year-old coming off a sugar high”. Rep. Wayne Smith was forced into a runoff but did not lose outright. Also forced into a runoff was Rep. Doug Miller in HD73 – I missed that one on Tuesday night – and on the Democratic side, Rep. Ron Reynolds in HD27. That one apparently happened after midnight; Reynolds will face Angelique Bartholomew in May.

With all 7,963 now having reported, Democratic primary turnout statewide was 1,433,827, with over 800,000 votes coming on Election Day. To put that into some perspective, since the only point of reference any news story I’ve seen lately seems to be the off-the-charts year of 2008, here’s was turnout was for every Democratic primary through 1992, which is as far back as the SOS archives go:


Year      Turnout
=================
2016    1,433,827
2014      554,014
2012      590,164
2010      680,548
2008    2,874,986
2006      508,602
2004      839,231
2002    1,003,388
2000      786,890
1998      654,154
1996      921,256
1994    1,036,907
1992    1,483,047

In other words, 2016 will have had the second highest turnout in any Democratic primary since 1992. Yes, I know, there are a lot more voters now than there were in 1992, but still. That’s not too shabby. Republican turnout with all precincts in was 2,832,234, so while it’s obviously a record-breaker for them, it falls short of the Dem number from 2008. So there.

One thing to touch on here is that in both primaries, well more than half the vote came on Election Day, which as a result meant that the final turnout projections were low. Over 1.6 million Republicans voted on E-Day, so in both primaries about 43% of the vote was early, and 57% came on Election Day. You may recall that the early/E-Day split was similar in 2008, whereas in 2012 the early vote was about 52% of the total. The two lessons I would draw from this are 1) Final turnout projections are always a guess that should always be taken with a healthy serving of salt, and 2) The more hotly contested and high-profile a race is, the more likely that people will wait till the last minute to decide. Someone with more resources than I have should take a closer look at the makeup of the early and late voters to see what percentage of each are the hardcore and the casual voters; my guess, based on a completely unscientific survey of my Facebook friends, is that more hardcore voters than you might think waited till Tuesday. There’s an opportunity here for someone with an enterprising spirit and some number-crunching skillz.

Also on the matter of turnout, 226,825 Democrats and 329,014 Republicans cast ballots in Harris County. 61.4% of all Democratic votes and 59.1% of all Republican votes were cast on Tuesday. See my previous paragraph for what that means to me.

On the matter of the Republican primaries for Court of Criminal Appeals, here’s what Grits had to say during early voting:

Statewide, I’ll be watching the Sid Harle/Sid Smith race on the Court of Criminal Appeals to see if Texas GOP voters have flat-out lost their minds, and the Keel-Oldner-Wheless race to see if Judge Wheless’ strategy of ignoring the establishment and seeking Tea Party, pro-life and generally conservative movement support is enough to win a primary in a low spending, low-profile race.

Well, of the four candidates running in the primary for Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 5, Steve Smith and Sid Harle came in third and fourth, respectively. A couple of guys named Scott Walker and Brent Webster will be in the runoff. As for Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 2, Raymond Wheless came in second and will face Mary Lou Keel in the runoff, while Chris Oldner of Ken Paxton grand jury fame is on the outside looking in. I’ll leave it to Grits to tell me What It All Means.

There were a few races on the Dem side that had people shaking their heads or their fists, but there weren’t any truly bizarre results. For sure, there was nothing on the Dem side that compares to this:

The newly elected chair of the Republican Party in the county that includes the Texas Capitol spent most of election night tweeting about former Gov. Rick Perry’s sexual orientation and former President Bill Clinton’s penis, and insisting that members of the Bush family should be in jail.

He also found time to call Hillary Clinton an “angry bull dyke” and accuse his county vice chair of betraying the values of the Republican Party.

“The people have spoken,” Robert Morrow, who won the helm of the Travis County GOP with 54 percent of the vote, told The Texas Tribune. “My friends and neighbors and political supporters — they wanted Robert Morrow.”

Morrow’s election as Republican chair of the fifth-largest county in Texas left several members of the Travis County GOP, including vice chair Matt Mackowiak, apoplectic. Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, immediately announced over social media that he would do everything in his power to remove Morrow from office.

“We will explore every single option that exists, whether it be persuading him to resign, trying to force him to resign, constraining his power, removing his ability to spend money or resisting any attempt for him to access data or our social media account,” Mackowiak told the Tribune. “I’m treating this as a coup and as a hostile takeover.”

“Tell them they can go fuck themselves,” Morrow told the Tribune.

All righty then. Morrow, whose comedic stylings are collected here, was a regular inhabitant of the comment section at BurkaBlog, back when Paul Burka was still writing it. He was also Exhibit A for why one should never read the comments. I’d feel sorry for Travis County Republicans, but as the story notes Morrow is now Greg Abbott’s county party chair, and that’s just too hilarious for me to be empathetic about. Have fun with that, y’all, because there’s not much you can do to make him leave before his term expires. Trail Blazers has more.

I’ll start digging into the data tomorrow, when I hope all the precinct results will be in for the SOS website, and when I get a draft canvass from the Harris County Clerk. The Trib has a graphical view for the Presidential race if you can’t wait for me. Any other results or tidbits you want me to look at? Let me know. David Collins lists the races that will go to runoffs, and Harold Cook, Marc Campos, PDiddie, the Obserer, and the Current have more.

2016 primaries: State races

Let’s start with the Democratic race for Railroad Commissioner, and a few words from Forrest Wilder:

Not that Gene Kelly

The Gene Kelly Effect: Texas Democrats are almost perennially embarrassed by what you might call the Gene Kelly Effect — the depressing tendency of many Democratic primary voters to vote for a name they recognize on the ballot, without any regard to the person’s experience or qualifications.

Gene Kelly is the clever/annoying fellow who shares a name with a long-dead dancer and ran repeatedly in the ’90s and ’00s, garnering millions of votes and forcing expensive and time-consuming runoff elections without even pretending to run a campaign. (Perhaps it’s also a reflection of the electorate’s average age, since the dancer Gene Kelly’s heyday was in the ’40s and ’50s.)

Though Gene Kelly hasn’t run for office since 2008, a new spoiler has arrived on the scene. His name is Grady Yarbrough and his last name sounds awfully similar to (but is in fact different from) Ralph Yarborough, the legendary liberal Texas senator. In 2012, Yarbrough won 26 percent of the vote in a four-way race to be the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. That was enough to muscle his way into a runoff with former state Representative Paul Sadler and score 37 percent of the vote.

This year, Yarbrough is running against former state Rep Lon Burnam and Democratic labor activist Cody Garrett for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission. Burnam is by far the most serious candidate — if measured by endorsements, money raised, legislative experience, etc. Can Burnam (or Garrett) clear 50 percent and avoid a costly runoff, or will Yarbrough, like Gene Kelly, be singin’ in the rain (of ballots)?

Sadly, that was not to be, as Yarbrough led the field with about 40% and Burnam coming in third at 26%. I’ll be voting for Cody Garrett in the runoff, thanks. Burnam did raise a little money, but it was a pittance, the kind of total that would get you laughed at in a district City Council race. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, one of these days the big Democratic check-writers are going to have to realize that they need to robustly support qualified candidates in these low-profile primaries, or we’re going to stop getting any qualified candidates for these offices. I know that the Republican nominee is the overwhelming favorite to win in November, but that’s not the point, and besides, who knows what might happen with Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. One of these days a Democrat is going to win one of these races, and if we’re not careful it’s going to be whatever schmo that bothered to pay the filing fee. Do we want to avoid that fate or actively court it?

Anyway. The marquee race was the rematch in SD26, and it was headed for the same result as before, with Sen. Jose Menendez holding a comfortable lead. However you viewed this race, I’m sad for TMF and sorry to see him leave the scene. He’ll be missed. Congratulations, Sen. Menendez. Also winning, by a much wider margin, was Sen. Carlos Uresti over the widow of former Sen. Frank Madla.

For the State House races, I had said yesterday that I was a little worried about the four Harris County Democratic incumbents who had drawn challengers. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about. Reps. Alma Allen and Jessica Farrar cruised with nearly 90% (!) of the vote, while Gene Wu and Hubert Vo were up by two-to-one margins. Whew! There was good news also out of El Paso, where Rep. Mary Gonzalez was over 60% against former Rep. Chente Quintanilla. In not so good news, Rep. Ron Reynolds was headed towards a clear win in HD27. All I can say is that I hope he’s not in jail when the gavel bangs next January. As long as he’s still in office, any calls for Ken Paxton to resign are going to ring just a little hollow.

For the open seat races, Randy Bates led in early voting in HD139, but as the evening wore on he was passed by Kimberly Willis and Jarvis Johnson. Former Rep. Mary Ann Perez started slowly but eventually won a majority in HD144, with Cody Ray Wheeler next in line behind her. Other races of interest:

HD49: Gina Hinojosa, daughter of TDP Chair Gilbert Hinojosa, was headed towards a clear win to succeed Elliott Naishtat. Huey Ray Fischer was in third place.

HD77: Lina Ortega wins big to succeed Rep. Marissa Marquez.

HD116: Diana Arevalo was over 50% to succeed TMF. Runnerup Martin Golando was TMF’s chief of staff. To say the least, not a good day for Trey Martinez-Fischer.

Hd118: Tomas Uresti gets another shot at winning that seat. Hope he does better than in that special election runoff.

HD120: Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, daughter of former Spurs legend George Gervin, will face Mario Salas in a runoff.

SBOE6: Jasmine Jenkins and Dakota Carter head to the runoff.

SBOE1: Georgina Perez, the more interesting candidate, won without a runoff.

On the Republican side, there is too much so I will sum up: Supreme Court incumbents all won, while there will be runoffs for the Court of Criminal Appeals. Reps. Byron Hughes and Susan King were the leading candidates for the two open Senate seats. Speaker Joe Straus won his race handily, but several incumbents were losing at last report: Stuart Spitzer, Byron Cook (a top lieutenant for Straus), Marsha Farney, Molly White, Wayne Smith (surprise #1), and Debbie Riddle (surprise #2). I can’t wait to hear some of those stories. Here’s the story on the GOP Railroad Commissioner race, one in which there was a lot of money spent. Last but not least, the crazy may be back in the SBOE, as Mary Lou Bruner was close to a majority of the vote. Praise the Lord and pass the bong.

For plenty of other information on these and other races, here’s your supplemental reading assignment:

Trib liveblog

Observer liveblog

Chron live coverage

Rivard report

Austin Chronicle

BOR

Harris County Dem resultsHarris County GOP results

Democratic statewide resultsRepublican statewide results

Craft beer bills pass out of House committee

From Open The Taps.

After waiting in a long queue of bills that were sent from the Senate to the House, the Craft Beer Bills (SBs 515-518 and 639) should see some movement again this week. Our team in Austin has been in regular communication with the House sponsor (Chairman Wayne Smith) and his committee – the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee – and they are confident that the bills will be voted out unanimously this week. Because the companion bills in the House already had a public hearing, these bills only need to be brought up during a meeting of the committee to get a vote. The next step in the process will be for the Calendar Committee to schedule the bills for consideration by the full House, and we anticipate that happening sometime next week or the following week. More to follow as the week progresses, but stay tuned.

The bills in question passed the Senate on March 25. True to Rep. Smith’s word, the bills were unanimously passed out of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee yesterday afternoon, so the next step is Calendars and a vote on the House floor. We are truly in the home stretch here. I suppose there’s still the chance of something going wrong, but at this point I’m beginning to feel it. After four legislative sessions, this looks like it’s finally going to happen.

Harris County wants to be like the city in regulating eight-liners

One of the main differences between Houston and Harris County is that the city can generally do what it wants to do while the county had to get a law passed to do the same thing.

When the city of Houston began enforcing stricter regulations on topless clubs and massage parlors, officials saw complaints against those sexually oriented businesses increase in the unincorporated parts of Harris County. Then in 2009, the Legislature granted counties the authority to regulate those kinds of establishments, which law enforcement officials said were operating as fronts for prostitution and human trafficking.

Now, Harris County is seeking similar authority from the state to regulate game rooms outside Houston city limits, which the Sheriff’s Office says have tripled in number in the last five years after the city tightened laws to combat what officials say have become hotbeds for armed robberies, homicides and other illegal activity.

“Our goal here is to make sure our law enforcement has adequate tools to make sure the law is being followed,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who said game rooms are “popping up” in north and northeast Harris County. “Whenever I’m visiting the precinct, the east side in particular, the little ladies in the Baptist church come out and say, ‘Will you please shut down the game hall that’s going on behind my church?’ ”

Bills sponsored by Houston-area lawmakers, modeled after city of Houston ordinances, would require game rooms with five or more machines, known as “eight-liners,” to receive permits from the county, which would inspect them. The bills also would give the county the power to cite violations, which would be elevated from Class C to Class A misdemeanors, as well as limit the location and number of game rooms.

“Whenever the city bans something, then it gets moved out into the unincorporated areas, so we’ve got to be able to deal with some of these less-than-desirable activities in the unincorporated areas, and game rooms are clearly one of them,” said County Judge Ed Emmett.

Sgt. Christopher Montemayor, who supervises the vice unit in the Sheriff’s Office, told state lawmakers earlier this month that Houston-area game rooms have seen 90 aggravated robberies, six homicides – with employees, patrons or security guards as victims – in the past few years.

“These businesses are growing, and we are trying to do something to deter these illegal establishments,” Montemayor said while testifying in favor of House Bill 1127, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown. He added that “25 percent of these robberies go unreported because of the fact of the illegal activity going on there.”

See here and here for some background, and here for HB1127, which is currently pending in committee. I don’t see any obvious reason why it won’t pass, but sometimes these things happen. I just want to note that what Sgt. Montemayor says here about crimes going unreported at illegal eight-liner establishments is pretty much exactly what immigration advocates and law enforcement officials were saying two years ago during the “sanctuary cities” debate, which is that crimes against immigrants in general and undocumented immigrants in particular would increase under such a law since the victims of those crimes would be unwilling to call them in. I’m glad we didn’t have to learn that lesson the hard way.

Bike trail on utility rights-of-way bills filed

This is a big show of support for making bike trails on CenterPoint’s rights of way happen.

Houston voters last fall approved a $166 million bond measure to expand the city’s trail system, to be matched by $105 million in private donations via the Houston Parks Board. About 78 miles of trails would get built, limited largely to east-west paths that run along bayous. Many of the utility easements run north-south.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 633 and state Reps. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 200. Both drafts were filed Monday.

In a prepared statement, the lawmakers cast their proposals as a way to cut time and cost in trail development.

“The people of Houston have said loud and clear that they want more hike and bike trails,” Ellis said in a statement. “But it has become very difficult to acquire the land in urban areas like Houston that is suitable for development of trails. This legislation is a unique and innovative compromise solution to develop new trails without undue delays and excess cost.”

See here for the background. I’m not a lawyer, but comparing the text of the original bills that were filed by Reps. Sarah Davis and Jim Murphy, HB 404 and HB 258, to the updated bills HB 200 and SB 633, the main difference seems to me to be that the original bills basically exempted the utility from any and all liability, while the updated bills “[do] not limit the liability of an electric utility for serious bodily injury or death of a person proximately caused by the electric utility’s wilful or wanton acts or gross negligence with respect to a dangerous condition existing on the premises”. That, frankly, was my main concern, so I’m glad to see that saner heads have prevailed. It may be that CenterPoint is still getting away with something here – again, I Am Not A Lawyer, and I don’t know what level of protection CenterPoint would have without this bill – but on the surface at least this looks better to me. Barring any further revelations, I’ll be happy to see this pass. Hair Balls has more.

Harris County minus one?

Despite essentially keeping up with the state growth rate, Harris County may lose a legislative seat in the next round of redistricting.

As Texas lawmakers turn their attention to the complex and contentious task of redrawing their own districts, that loss will set in motion a game of musical chairs to determine who has a place among the 150 House seats. That number does not change despite a 20 percent increase in population statewide, which means the kaleidoscope of voters each lawmaker represents will shift. Harris County is expected to go from 25 to 24 state House seats.

Legislative districts, redrawn every 10 years in the wake of federal census results, must be roughly the same size, somewhere near 167,637 people per district. Although Harris County is home to more people than in 2000, its growth lags behind such suburban areas as Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

Much of the redistricting process is a legalistic one involving adherence to federal law and state redistricting principles, said Trey Trainor, an Austin lawyer who advises Republicans on redistricting.

“From a political standpoint,” Trainor said, “it gets bloody when you start looking at population loss, and you have members of the Legislature who just don’t have the sheer numbers in their district, and you’ve got to go someplace else to get them. You start cutting into core constituencies of other members.”

In Harris County, the question is, who will be the odd man (or woman) out?

“It’s not necessarily that the seat goes away,” Trainor said, “but you’re going to end up with one or two incumbents in the same district having to run against each other, if they decide to do that. Of course, you know a lot of times what happens in these cases is somebody who’s been here awhile decides to retire and makes it easier on everybody else.”

A few thoughts:

Greg saw this coming months ago. The final Census totals put Harris County right on the knife’s edge of maintaining 25 seats, so I suppose it’s still possible that could happen. We still haven’t heard anything from those that are actually going to draw the maps, and dealmaking is always a possibility. I’m inclined to think that 24 is more likely than 25, however. Remember, for big counties like Harris state law forbids State Rep districts from crossing county boundaries, so sharing a district with Fort Bend or Montgomery is not an option.

– The story suggests that Republicans may target Rep. Scott Hochberg, the only Anglo Democrat currently serving in Harris County, for elimination. I say it’s far too early to write anyone’s political obituary. Hochberg was similarly drawn out of a district in 2001, but found a new home and won there. You just never know.

– Having said that, I might suggest that one person with a reason to be nervous is two-term State Rep. Ken Legler, whose district is centered in Pasadena. While the west, northwest, and north ends of Harris County grew like gangbusters, the eastern portion stagnated or shrunk; what growth there was out that way was mostly nonAnglo. It may be awfully hard to draw two sufficiently Republican districts with enough population out there to support both Legler and Rep. Wayne Smith, whose Baytown area is easily the redder. Again, you never know. My point is that there are a lot of moving parts to this, and you can’t affect one district without affecting all of them.

– Trainor is correct that sometimes these problems solve themselves via a member’s retirement, whether voluntary or not. Retirement isn’t the only way that a member may decide to free up a seat, however. There may be a different office available to them, for instance. Who do you suppose might become Ed Emmett’s bestest buddy in the event that Jerry Eversole gets convicted in his trial, which was actually supposed to begin this past week? Dwayne Bohac has been rumored to be interested in that job; I’m certain he’s not alone in that desire. Keep an eye on this.

– As we’ve seen, electoral results can differ greatly in Presidential and non-Presidential years. If nothing were changing this year, the most endangered incumbent in Harris County would be Jim Murphy, whose track record so far is winning in 2006 and 2010 and losing in 2008. As I said before, figuring out which electoral data to base the boundaries on will be extra challenging this time around, and could lead to some districts whose predisposition is dependent on the year.

All that and we haven’t even had the barest hint of a possible draft map yet. Just wait till that starts to happen. Greg and PDiddie have more.

Westpark zealots try to pull a fast one

Just yesterday, the Chron wrote an editorial about how everything was coming up roses and daffodils for Metro lately, thanks to some federal funding (with more in the pipeline) for the light rail expansion and a generally favorable political climate. So naturally, what do we see today but this article about a sneak attack in the Lege on the Universities line.

The proposal, which still faces an uphill battle in the final days of the legislative session, was quietly attached last week to a loosely related bill by House lawmakers.

“It effectively kills the light rail program,” said George Smalley, Metro’s vice president for communications and marketing.

The new restrictions, if enacted, would limit the agency’s eminent domain authority, needed to buy property for the rail lines, if a route differs from the 2003 referendum that authorized the light rail program.

The restrictions mirror the rhetoric of rail critics, who say the location of the controversial University Line down Richmond and Westpark doesn’t conform to the referendum.

“If you lose a line like the University Line because you lost the power of condemnation, then the whole thing is at grave risk,” Smalley said.

[…]

State Rep. Joe Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he added the new restrictions at the request of rail critics by amending another bill, which regulated fare enforcement by mass transit agencies.

The El Paso Democrat said they convinced him that the transit agency hadn’t complied with the referendum. He said he hadn’t talked with the agency, though, before adding the language.

At issue is whether it’s lawful to build a line partially on Richmond when the ballot described it as being on Westpark.

The agency says the largest share of the line would, in fact, be on Westpark, adding that the ballot referred to a general location, the details of which should be based on federally required cost and ridership studies. Those indicate that a segment should be on Richmond.

Pickett said he is open to changing the language.

“If … they intend to meet their promise that they made, then they shouldn’t have a problem,” he said. “It was pretty clear that there was a referendum that did state where (the line) was going, and we were just asked to ratify that.” The legislation came to light just as agency officials were hopeful that, after years of debate and uncertainty, they would have the funding and political support to move forward.

So once again, the people who lost the election and whose lawsuit is currently going nowhere have shown that they will do anything to overturn the will of the people and stop light rail in Houston. I’m amazed that they were able to influence Rep. Pickett, and appalled that he couldn’t have been bothered to at least ask Metro for a response. I’m sorry, but that’s just ignorant. Clearly, Rep. Pickett needs to hear from some people who are not anti-Metro crusaders. Feel free to give his office a call and tell him – politely! – that you support light rail in Houston, that you support Metro’s current expansion plans as they now stand, and that you oppose any effort by the Legislature to affect those plans. His Austin office number is (512) 463-0596 and his district office number is (915) 590-4349. If you do make a call, leave a comment here and tell us what kind of response you got. Thanks very much.

The bill in question is SB1263. Here’s the committee substitute version of the bill. The relevant text is the underlined section that begins “This subsection applies only to an authority created under Chapter 451, Transportation Code, that operates in an area in which the principal municipality has a population of 1.9 million or more.” You could mention that you oppose this amendment that’s been added to the committee substitute version of SB1263 when you call Pickett’s office.

By the way, there’s a real irony here in a sneak attack, made behind closed doors with no public input or notice, on an agency that’s often criticized for not operating in a transparent manner. I daresay some of the people who are behind this covert operation have been quoted in the Chronicle at one time or another berating Metro for not being more open about what it’s doing. And yet here they are, skulking through a back door, without the rest of us even having any idea who’s behind it. Way to go, y’all.

The good news is that Houston lawmakers are not going to take this lying down.

The bill had been planned for a local and consent calendar reserved for non-controversial or limited measures that draw little debate, perhaps on Wednesday. But the controversy appeared likely to force the measure to be considered like any other complex legislation.

With only a week left in the session, and with hundreds of bills in line for consideration, the bill might never get a vote.

Several lawmakers have also said they would fight any attempt to tie the agency’s hands.
“I’ve got my eye on it,” said state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who predicted that the bill wouldn’t survive in its current form.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, also planned to investigate the issue, saying that prohibiting the agency’s eminent domain powers “would prevent the common good.”

“I’ll get after it with all my might,” he said. “I’m a great supporter. Rail is a vital component of our future and our transportation system.”

That’s nice to hear. It would also be a good idea to call your own Rep and Senator and tell them you oppose Pickett’s amendment that removes Metro’s eminent domain power in the committee substitute for SB1263. Especially with all that’s going on right now in the House, let’s take nothing for granted.

Taking taxation aversion to its logical extreme

This story just boggles my mind.

Think traffic congestion is bad now? Wait until 2012.

That’s when Texas’ highway fund — which relies on a motor fuels tax that hasn’t been raised since 1991 — will be out of money for new construction contracts, according to state senators and transportation officials urging action now on new funding options.

“The course we’re on will result in no new roads in Texas in the very near future,” Sen. John Carona, Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee chairman, said Wednesday.

To try to address the problem, the Texas Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval 23-8 to a bill by Carona, R-Dallas, to allow local-option elections in regions around the state to raise fees or taxes for local projects.

The bill in question is SB855.

While lawmakers consider the issue, Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes of Houston said the state motor fuels tax has dipped even as the population increased.

Not only will funding for new construction contracts be gone in 2012, money for maintenance of existing roads will be insufficient, leaders said.

“There will be no new capacity money after about 2012,” Holmes said. “None. … So we have this growing population, we have an increasing average mile per gallon in the fleet (motor vehicles) and we have a fixed gasoline tax. There is no way that we can fund the needs that we have with this formula.”

The state also gets federal money and uses bonds to fund roads, but several senators said continued reliance on debt isn’t sustainable.

The 20-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax that fuels the highway fund, meanwhile, hasn’t been raised since 1991, and there appears little appetite to do so this session.

I can understand to some extent the reluctance to raise the gas tax, or ideally to index it to inflation. I think it’s lousy that that’s off the table, but it is the political reality, and it’s why we wind up with crazy privatized toll road schemes and convoluted local option bills like this one. It’s very basic – we need new roads, we need to maintain and improve the roads we already have, and we need to find the money to do these things, because the revenue source we have, which we refuse to enhance, is inadequate. It doesn’t get more basic than this.

And yet the idea that the government may need more money to do something as basic and necessary as build and maintain roads is enough to get the usual crowd of taxophobes into a lather.

Opponents included Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who voiced concern that county officials would have the opportunity “to tax their citizens and tax their citizens and tax their citizens.”

GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who will have the opportunity to sign or veto the bill if it passes the House, is committed to working with Carona on transit issues but “has strong concerns about the host of significant tax increases,” said his spokeswoman, Allison Castle.

Hold that thought for a second while we read more about those diabolical tax increases here:

The bill, which will need a state constitutional amendment as well to go into effect, would allow county commissioners in the Metroplex, Central Texas, Bexar County and a few other spots to call elections asking voters for permission to raise one or more of six fees or taxes. This includes up to a 10-cent-a-gallon local gasoline tax.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation and some other conservatives oppose the bill. Although it doesn’t raise taxes, instead allowing others (well, voters really) to make that decision, an aspiring politician could argue in a future Republican primary that the Legislature was part of a multi-part scheme to raise taxes. Convoluted perhaps, but enough to have spooked Dewhurst and some other Republicans.

Okay, so before some dastardly county official gets to tax, tax, tax his citizens, first the citizens of Texas must vote to approve a constitutional amendment, which had to be approved by a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Once all that is done, the citizens who are going to be taxed, taxed, taxed would then have to vote in a special election to impose those new taxes, taxes, taxes on themselves. How much more public input is needed here?

The mindset just confounds me. I mean, either you think there’s no legitimate way to impose a tax, or you think there’s some magic alternate way to fund this need that somehow won’t be borne by the citizens. I suppose you could favor toll roads for all new construction, financed by bonds to be paid off by toll revenues, but what about existing roads? Do the Dan Patricks and the Rick Perrys have an alternate plan, or do they think none is necessary because it’ll all take care of itself? Burka and Eye on Williamson have more.

UPDATE: You may have noticed that Harris County is not part of SB855, which is a curious omission. Burka notes the reason for that:

What [Harris County officials] didn’t want was to give Senator Dan Patrick a platform for opposing the bill on the Senate floor. So the decision was made that the Houston region will be included when the bill reaches the House floor, by an amendment, probably authored by Wayne Smith.

Just call him Sen. Dan “Needs to be worked around, not worked with” Patrick. Really says a lot, doesn’t it?