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That’s our Lege

Legislative diversity report 2021

It’s a tiny bit more diverse, but not by much.

In a perennial takeaway of The Texas Tribune’s demographic analysis, the Texas Legislature remains mostly white and male.

When the 2021 legislative session begins Tuesday, 3 of every 5 lawmakers in the state House and Senate will be white, although white Texans make up just 41% of the state’s population. That’s largely a function of the Republican dominance of the Capitol and the dearth of diversity in the party’s ranks. All but five of the 100 Republicans in the Legislature are non-Hispanic white people.

Women have seen gains in the Legislature in recent years, but their underrepresentation is underscored by how marginal those gains have been. Four years ago, women held just 20% of seats; on Tuesday they’ll take roughly 27%. And unlike at the start of the legislative session two years ago, there won’t be more lawmakers named “John” than Republican women in the House.

There will be an equal number.

Click over to see the charts. There are 13 Republican women this session, up one from 2019. For what it’s worth, I believe the Trib has undercounted Anglo Democratic legislators. They have it at sixteen, but my count is seventeen. There were eighteen Anglo Dems following the 2018 election, a significant increase over previous years in which retirements and electoral defeats, both in March and in November, had whittled that number down to six. Looking at that list the changes from the 2019 session are as follows:

– Sen. Sarah Eckhardt replaces Kirk Watson, who stepped down to take a job at the University of Houston.
– Rep. Gina Calanni was defeated, but Rep. Ann Johnson was elected, leaving the Harris County share of the contingent unchanged.
– The drop from 18 to 17 is the result of Joe Pickett’s retirement due to health concerns. Rep. Art Fierro won the special election to succeed him.

The number of LGBTQ legislators went up by one as well with the election of Rep. Ann Johnson.

Finally, I should note that if we include the SBOE in this scope, then the Anglo Democrat number goes back up to 18, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau was elected in SBOE5, winning the seat vacated by Republican Ken Mercer. I won’t be surprised if the SBOE is redistricted back to a ten R/five D situation, and of course who knows where the House and the Senate will end up, but for now, this is what we have. Tune in following the next election for further updates.

And we already have our first COVID cases from the Lege

Surely not the last.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

A Texas House member tested positive for the coronavirus after being on the chamber floor for three straight days, giving lawmakers an early indication of the dangers of governing during the pandemic.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, told The Texas Tribune he tested positive Thursday — three days after lawmakers gaveled in for this year’s legislative session. The Democrat said he received a rapid test outside the Capitol because it was “free and quick” as he was heading home Thursday afternoon.

He has “no idea” how he contracted it, said Deshotel, who is currently quarantining and reported minor symptoms. “I don’t know where it came from. It rather shocked me when the guy told me.”

“Getting tested is important and wearing a mask is important,” he added. “You can certainly have [the coronavirus] and not know it, I can tell you that.”

Deshotel said his last test for the virus prior to testing positive on Thursday had been on Monday. He did not opt to receive a test before entering the Capitol on Tuesday or Wednesday.

[…]

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, tweeted Friday morning that she had been informed the night before of a “member in my 3 foot radius” testing positive for the virus.

“They did not test on Tuesday prior to the swearing in ceremony,” Beckley tweeted. “10 day self quarantine.”

Another House member, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, told the Tribune on Friday that she would also self-quarantine according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said she appreciated Deshotel notifying those who he came into contact with after testing positive.

“With COVID-19 cases soaring across the state, including here in Central Texas, it’s inevitable that legislators will test positive and expose our colleagues,” Zwiener said. “Rep. Deshotel is setting a tone of transparency that’s essential as we move forward.”

Before the House gaveled in Tuesday, House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, had asked lawmakers to take a test ahead of the opening day ceremony. State Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, responding to Beckley’s tweet, called it “very selfish and irresponsible” to not do so.

“Anyone that objected to take one prior to Tuesday clearly did so out of pride,” Holland tweeted. “Shame on them.”

Obviously, I hope Rep. Deshotel has a quick recovery, and that no one else became infected. This is the limit of testing – there’s a lag between when you get sick and when you might first test positive. That’s also the reason why wearing masks is so damn important, because anyone could be sick and not only not know it but also have a recent negative test to show. Until we’re all vaccinated, we’re all at risk. At least the House is adjourned till January 26, so no one should miss any time in session as a result of this. But please, for everyone’s sake, wear the damn mask. Texas Monthly has more.

Here comes the casino push

Expect this to get louder and louder, though whether it’s successful or not remains to be seen.

Casino1

When a big political player comes waltzing into Texas spending big money from out of state, it’s usually a good sign that he wants something from lawmakers. So when Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, spent $4.5 million to help Republicans keep control of the Texas House in 2020, heads turned.

While Adelson is known for cutting big checks—he’s one of the most powerful GOP mega-donors in the country—he doesn’t usually spend so lavishly on state-level politics. What did he want with Texas?

After the election, it became clear that Adelson was embarking on an all-out push to legalize casino gambling in Texas. In November, his corporation Las Vegas Sands started hiring some of the most powerful, well-connected lobbyists in Austin. The company declined to comment, though in early December, Andy Abboud, the company’s senior vice president for government relations, made the plans official. In an online panel at Texas Taxpayers and Research Association’s annual conference, he laid out the company’s hopes that Texas lawmakers would approve legislation lifting the casino ban, allowing for the establishment of a limited number of luxury destination casinos in the state’s major metro areas. “Texas is considered the biggest plum still waiting to be [picked],” Abboud said.

Gaming laws in Texas are among the most restrictive in the country, with bans on almost all gambling—including slots, table games, and sports betting—enshrined in the Texas Constitution since the Prohibition Era. Currently, gaming is restricted to wagers on dog and horse racing, charitable bingo, and the state lottery. The state’s three federally recognized Native American tribes are allowed to operate casinos with limited games, though the state has repeatedly contested their rights in the courts. Republican leaders like Governor Greg Abbott and U.S. Senator John Cornyn have aggressively resisted tribes’ attempts to expand gaming.

Abboud encouraged hesitant lawmakers to think “like you’re attracting Tesla or an Amazon facility or an entirely new industry to the state that’s going to create tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and ancillary benefits of hotels and tourism.”

[…]

Adelson’s casino push comes as lawmakers head into a session facing deep revenue shortfalls spurred by the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. In past sessions, casino proponents have argued that the state’s gaming prohibition has allowed billions of dollars to abscond into Oklahoma and Louisiana, where casinos are conveniently located just across the border. But opponents say that promises of revenue windfalls are overblown and would not provide a sustainable new revenue stream.

Abboud argued that Las Vegas Sands’ model for casinos in Texas would build another economic pillar in the state, helping to ease the state’s dependence on the oil and gas industry. “Will they solve all economic problems? No. Will it stabilize the economy? Yes,” he said.

So far, the only casino gambling legislation filed is from state Representative Joe Deshotel, a Beaumont Democrat, whose bill would legalize casinos to fund insurance programs for those living in hurricane-prone areas along the Gulf Coast.

Who ends up authoring the Adelson camp’s bill in the Texas House and Senate will have big implications for its success. If an ally of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick authors casino legislation in the Senate, that could be a sign that Patrick would allow it to get a vote on the floor, says Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “If Patrick is on board, it passes. If Patrick is not on board, it doesn’t. It’s about as simple as that,” Jones says. A signal of support from Patrick, a social conservative who has previously opposed gambling, could also sway House Republicans who would otherwise worry about primary challenges from the right, he adds.

This Chron story from early December is the reference for those Andy Abboud quotes. We go through something like this every two years, and the smart money has always been to bet against any expansion of gambling, including casinos. The financial arguments have some merit, though they are surely being overblown by the casino interests. The catch there is that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick et al don’t see a lack of revenue as a problem but as an opportunity to cut costs. Maybe this time it’s different, I don’t know, though now that the revenue picture isn’t as bad as it once looked, whatever financial argument the casinos may have made has less heft.

The casino interests have certainly hired a bunch of expensive and well-connected Republican lobbyists, so I do expect they’ll be able to get some facetime and bend a few ears. Maybe this is a long-term play, as Jim Henson suggests, where the groundwork gets laid this session and ultimate success comes a few years down the road. Who knows?

I remain ambivalent on the whole thing – I don’t have a problem with gambling and generally think adults should be allowed to partake in it, but I don’t see casinos as a net positive, and I believe the economic benefits that get touted will be extremely limited to a small class of renters, and not much good to anyone else. If we do someday get to vote on it as a constitutional amendment, I’ll have to see what the specifics are before I decide. We’ll keep an eye on this because it’s likely a high tide year for gambling interests, but as always don’t expect much.

UPDATE: I drafted this over the weekend, and since then Sheldon Adelson has passed away. I don’t believe that changes the calculus in any way, but I’m sure someone would have noted that in the comments if I hadn’t, so here we are.

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

The Texas House unanimously adopted rules Thursday that will require members to wear masks in the chamber and during committee hearings and allow them to cast votes on legislation from outside the House floor.

But the chamber opted to not require testing for lawmakers as they meet during the coronavirus pandemic and did not expand its virtual testimony options to allow members of the public who have not been invited to testify to comment at committee hearings remotely.

“We’re new to this pandemic, and the whole point about these rules — the key is respect, the key is courtesy,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, while introducing the rules proposal earlier Thursday. “What’s the rules? It’s 150 people, that’s what the rules are.”

The coronavirus requirements were part of a broad resolution setting rules for the House during the Legislature’s 2021 session. Members debated amendments on the resolution for hours. In addition to voting on health protocols, the chamber overwhelmingly shot down proposals that would have kept Democrats from serving as committee chairs in the Republican-controlled House.

House members, staff and the public will be required to wear face masks while inside the chamber or a committee hearing room, though witnesses and lawmakers may remove them while speaking from a microphone. Members may also remove masks during a committee hearing if protected by a barrier and socially distanced from others.

The House’s decision to not require testing for people entering the chamber or attending a committee hearing differs from protocols the Senate passed Wednesday. Every senator will be required to test negative for the virus before entering the upper chamber or attending a committee hearing. Senate staff must be tested the first day of the week they enter the Capitol and before accessing a hearing or the chamber.

Addressing the House’s testing approach, Hunter told members that the chamber could not mandate testing until it’s “available in our courthouses and … schoolhouses,” saying it “would be wrong” for members to prioritize their health and safety above others.

“That is the people’s House,” said Hunter, one of the House members spearheading the rules proposal. “And for us to prioritize our own health and safety above others would be wrong.”

The House rules also authorized members to cast votes for legislation “from a secure portable device” if they are inside the chamber, in the gallery, or “in an adjacent room or hallway on the same level as the House floor or gallery,” such as the speaker’s committee room or member lounge. That expansion could help space out the chamber’s 150 members should a lawmaker wish to do so.

See here for some background. The rules are codified in HR4, and you can see a long Twitter thread about the housekeeping rules that were the preliminaries for all this here; note that some of the proposed amendments were later withdrawn. One of the two House members who got up to some mischief but was roundly rejected by the rest of the chamber. I mean, when Briscoe Cain is speaking eloquently for tradition and bipartisanship, you know you’ve gone off the rails somewhere.

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

The five-ninths rule

All hail the new “smaller than three-fifths” rule.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the minority party’s ability to block legislation it unanimously opposes in the Republican-controlled upper chamber.

In a 18-13 vote, lawmakers voted to lower the threshold of support that legislation needs to make it onto the Senate floor. In past sessions, the Senate required a three-fifths supermajority, or 19 votes, to bring legislation to the floor. But after the defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, reduced the number of Republicans from 19 to 18, lawmakers lowered the threshold to 18 members — a move Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing for.

Passage of the rule required a simple majority — or 16 members. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted that the resolution passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans on the floor hailed the move. Patrick, who presides over the Senate, first floated the idea of lowering the threshold last January, later contending in December that the 2020 election proved voters support conservative candidates and that he planned on “moving a conservative agenda forward.”

[…]

In introducing the resolution, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said: “I believe our tradition of requiring a supermajority is good and we should retain it, but … it’s my view that there are enough big items that the majority of Texans have asked for that would be blocked with a 19-vote requirement, which would put us in a special session where we have no control over the agenda.” (To be clear, only Gov. Greg Abbott can call lawmakers back for a special legislative session.)

While the procedure may sound like parliamentary arcana, the impact could spell trouble for Democrats. The change essentially allows Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without the minority party’s input.

See here and here for the background. As you know, I oppose having artificial anti-majoritarian rules in place, for reasons you can peruse at those earlier posts. I have no illusions that this will be a good thing in this session. It’s going to suck, bigtime. I totally get all the complaints that the Democratic Senators have raised. I just disagree with them about the merits of this tradition.

One thing that was not clear to me, from this story or from the Chron story, was just exactly how this new, lower threshold for bypassing the blocker bill was to be determined. As noted in my previous post, the fraction used could be 5/9, or it could be 4/7, or it could just be “minimum eighteen Senators needed”. Neither of these stories explored that or the potential ramifications of it – I’ll get to that in a minute – but I eventually found it in Senate Resolution 2, the text of which is here (hat tip to Kimberly Reeves for providing the vital #SR2 hash tag that gave me the clue I needed to find this):

Any bill, resolution, or other measure may on any day be made a special order for a future time of the session by an affirmative vote of five-ninths [three-fifths] of the members present.

Further references to “three-fifths” were similarly struck and replaced by “five-ninths”. What this means is that on any day where there’s a full complement of Senators, eighteen votes are needed to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. That’s because, in math terms, 5/9 < 18/31. With a three-fifth requirement, 19 was the magic number (again, 3/5 < 19/31, but 18/31 < 3/5). The reason I'm obsessing over how this was officially expressed is because of the likelihood that at any point in the session, one or more Senators could be sidelined by COVID. If a Republican Senator is out, they're out of luck as long as the Dems are at full strength (17/30 < 5/9). They would need two Dems to be out to make the math work (5/9 < 17/29). Under normal circumstances, you'd shrug your shoulders and say these things happen, but in Pandemic Times, with the Republicans being very devil-may-care about masks, the risk of a self-own is higher than usual. This is one of the reasons why I thought Dan Patrick would give up on the fractions and just push a rule that does away with the pretense and enables majority rule. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be conservative in this sense, but here we are. We’ll see how it plays out.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

Hard to say, but there’s no reason to be particularly optimistic.

As the country’s political polarization reaches a boiling point — illustrated vividly Wednesday by the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the president who believed his false claims that the election was stolen — Texas Republicans are seeking to make some of the nation’s strictest voting laws even stricter.

They say the unrest sparked by the events Wednesday is likely to invigorate discussions over the matter in the state Legislature, where the 2021 session will begin Tuesday.

Several election-related bills have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — though their aims are in direct opposition, with Democrats looking to ease up laws they see as suppressing the vote and Republicans trying to curb the opportunities for the fraud they say plagued the 2020 election.

Democrats have filed about two-thirds of the election-related bills, with the other third coming from Republicans.

“If this week has highlighted anything, it’s that we need to protect and encourage democracy and that it’s fragile,” said Rep. John Bucy III, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House Elections Committee. “And so these types of bills are worth the investment.”

Election integrity was voted one of the Texas GOP’s top eight legislative priorities in 2020 by its members. Republican bills include measures to tighten mail voting restrictions and stop governors from changing election laws during disasters, two concerns that President Donald Trump raised in his election challenges.

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Texas is one of 16 states that require voters to have an excuse to vote by mail.

Bettencourt said Harris County’s move to mail the applications “would have certainly caused more voter confusion” because most recipients would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that voters’ lack of immunity to the coronavirus alone does not qualify as a disability that makes them eligible to vote by mail, but could be one of several factors a voter may consider.

Other bills filed by Republican lawmakers aim to correct the voter rolls, such as one filed by newly elected Sen. Drew Springer that would require voter registrars to do various checks for changes in address on an annual basis.

Springer said the bill was inspired by an Ohio law that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld that allows the state to purge voters from the registration rolls if they do not return a mailed address confirmation form or don’t vote for two federal election cycles. The Texas bill would require registrars to use data from the U.S. Postal Service and property records for inactive voters to identify possible changes of address, then to send the notice requesting confirmation of their current residence.

The Bettencourt bill, as described, doesn’t concern me much. Even in 2020, and even with all of the COVID-driven changes to election procedures, not that many people voted by mail, and the vast majority of those who did were over 65. Those folks will get their vote by mail applications one way or another. Unless there’s more to this, this bill is all show.

The Springer bill is potentially more concerning, but the devil will be in the details. I continue to have hope for a revamped federal law that will do a lot to protect voting rights that will blunt the effect of efforts like these, but it’s very much early days and there’s no guarantees of anything yet.

I did not excerpt a section of the story in which Rep. Steve Toth will propose a constitutional amendment that would require a special session of the Legislature in order to renew a state of disaster or emergency declaration past 30 days. It’s presented as a voting rights-adjacent measure, prompted in part by Greg Abbott’s extension of the early voting period, but as we discussed many times last year, there’s a lot of merit in asserting the role of the Legislature in these matters. I don’t trust Steve Toth any more than I trust Steven Hotze, but on its face this idea is worth discussing. It also would require a substantial number of Dems to support it, so there’s room for it to be a positive force. We’ll see.

There are bills put forth by Dems for obvious things like online voter registration, same day registration, no excuses absentee balloting, and so forth, all of which have little to no chance of being adopted. I’ve said before that I think people like voting to be easy and convenient for themselves and that Democrats should campaign on that (among other things), so I’m delighted to see these bills. I just know they’re not happening this session.

Beyond that, I’m sure there will be worse bills filed than what we’ve seen here. I won’t be surprised if there’s a push to amend the voter ID law to include absentee ballots, now that those are no longer seen as Republican assets. I’m sure there will be a bill officially limiting mail ballot dropoff locations, and maybe one to limit early voting hours. For sure, there’s a significant contingent of Republicans that would like to make voting extra super inconvenient for everyone, as well as make the penalties for whatever minor offense Ken Paxton can find to charge someone with as harsh as possible:

Laugh at the lunacy that is Allen West all you like, the man is in a position of influence. Note also the attack on drive-through voting, which is another likely target even without this hysteria. I don’t know how far the Republicans will go, but they’ll do something. We can do what we can to stop them, and after that it’s all about winning more elections. It’s not going to get any easier.

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

The Texas House on Tuesday elected state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next House speaker, ushering into office a new leader who will oversee a chamber facing its toughest set of legislative challenges in years against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The House voted 143-2 for Phelan, with four members not voting. The two members who voted against Phelan were GOP freshmen Bryan Slaton and Jeff Cason.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, replaced former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who retired from office thanks to a secret recording scandal that fractured relationships in the 150-member lower chamber. Phelan has billed himself as a figure who has earned the trust of his colleagues and who wants to lead the House by letting members drive the business of it.

Phelan’s election to the gavel was one of the House’s first orders of business Tuesday, when the Legislature gaveled in for the 2021 legislative session.

Best of luck in the new session. My advice is to never, ever speak to anyone associated with Michael Quinn Sullivan if you can avoid it, and if you can’t avoid it remember that they are almost certainly recording you in the hope that you will say something dumb and they can torpedo you over it. Learn from the mistakes of your overly self-confident predecessor. And don’t let anyone get away with sedition, insurrection, or not wearing a mask. Good luck, we’re all counting on you.

There was also this.

The Texas Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for its biennial session with a heavy security presence after the U.S. Capitol insurrection last week and rampant reminders of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

The state House and Senate met in the early afternoon without incident, and there was only a small protest outside the Capitol beforehand. Still, the sight of state troopers clustered around the building’s entrances and lining the halls inside was striking, especially after the unrest in the nation’s capital on Wednesday that left five people dead and has led to dozens of arrests.

“This is my 19th session, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I felt today when I recognized that we had to have all this security,” Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said in the minutes before the session began. “And my first question to myself was, How far have we come? I mean, have we come forward or have we gone backward?”

“I told the DPS officers and the military I felt safe,” Dutton added, “but I didn’t know I needed them to feel safe.”

[…]

Nothing remotely close to what happened in Washington, D.C., unfolded Tuesday in Austin. There was a small protest — appearing to number less than a dozen people — outside the Capitol’s north entrance, at least partly related to vaccines, about an hour before the session began, and a wall of DPS officers were lined up on the perimeter of it.

After the chambers let out around 1:30 p.m., DPS troopers were still in place on the outdoor perimeter of the Capitol, but there were no protests in sight.

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

Even as members of both parties came together for the opening remarks and swearing in of new members, they remained visibly at odds over proper health precautions amid the pandemic. In the Senate, masks were not required and at least half of lawmakers declined to wear them while seated at their desks.

Plexiglass barriers lined administrative desks at the front of the room, but only Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, had a protective shield around his desk.

“We’re here to do the people’s business,” said Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate and has been a vocal opponent of mandated restrictions. “We want our Capitol open this session, unlike many states,” he added. “We want the public to be here and have your voice heard in committee, to be able to visit your representative.”

Members and their guests were required to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the Capitol.

The new session arrives as infections in Austin have reached all-time highs. On Tuesday, state and local emergency officials opened a temporary facility for overflow hospital patients as the city’s hospitals continued to be overrun with coronavirus patients.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was among those who declined to wear a mask in the chamber. His spokesman said “everyone was tested prior to coming into the Capitol this morning, including all senators and guests that were sitting in the gallery today.”

Yeah, no one’s ever heard of a false negative test result. What do you think is the over/under on legislators who get COVID? Not counting the two (Drew Darby and Tracy King) who were not present because they already had a positive test. I’m at least as worried about the staffers and folks who work at the Capitol, but we’re much less likely to hear it when they get sick. Just please, let’s try not to turn this session into a superspreader event.

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

Don’t get your hopes too high. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Five years after Texas legalized medical marijuana for people with debilitating illnesses, advocates and industry experts say the state’s strict rules, red tape and burdensome barriers to entry have left the program largely inaccessible to those it was intended to help.

But with a new legislative session gaveling in next month, some Texas lawmakers see an opportunity to fix the state’s medical cannabis program — known as the Compassionate Use Program — by further expanding eligibility and loosening some restrictions so Texas’ laws more closely resemble those of other states that allow the treatment.

There are 3,519 Texans registered with the state to use medical marijuana, though advocates say 2 million people are eligible based on current law.

Texas’ program pales in overall participation and scope compared with other states: It has fewer enrolled patients and businesses than most other states with medical marijuana programs. At least some form of medical marijuana is legal in 47 states nationwide, but Texas’ restrictions put it in the bottom 11 in terms of accessibility, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We’re pretty dang close to the bottom. We’re pretty far behind,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, referring to how access to Texas’ medical marijuana program fares compared with other states. Menéndez will push legislation in the next session to further expand the program.

[…]

As of Dec. 14, at least seven bills had been filed by lawmakers seeking to expand the Compassionate Use Program. Menéndez is authoring a far-reaching bill that would make more patients eligible, strike the THC cap and lower business fees, among other changes.

“I think we’d see a lot more participation if we had a real medical cannabis program,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

In the past, medical cannabis bills have faced opposition from lawmakers who see it as a path to legalizing recreational marijuana, Menéndez said. But he says expanding the program will put decisions about who can access the medicine into the hands of doctors.

When the Senate voted to include more patients in 2019, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said he was concerned the legislation was more of a “cliff” than a slippery slope.

“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to recreational use,” Birdwell said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable going any further than this because of what I’m seeing in Colorado, Washington and Oregon and what’s happening in those states. I am highly guarded.”

There are a lot more words in there about what Texas does and doesn’t do, and who is affected, and how much better things would be if we had more legal pot, not to mention the economic boost, and you should read them. And then you should remember that nothing is going to pass as long as Dan Patrick – who is for some reason not mentioned in the story – remains opposed to any further loosening of marijuana laws. I support a wholesale loosening of these laws, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that such a loosening would have popular support. Which is why I’d like to see the Democratic slate in 2022 go all in on this. It’s a winning issue, and we’re going to need winning issues if we hope to push Dan Patrick out of there. In the meantime, by all means call your Rep or your Senator and tell them what you support. Maybe your preferred bill will pass the House, or get a Senate committee hearing. That’s likely the best you’ll get for now, but at least it’s something.

The Republican war against Harris County

To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.

Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.

The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.

“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”

Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”

[…]

Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.

Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.

A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.

Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Swanson filed the House companion bill.

That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:

During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.

I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.

This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.

Another way Ken Paxton is costing you money

He’s something else, this guy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas may pay tens of millions of dollars to outside attorneys hired to handle a major lawsuit against Google — money the state did not plan to spend before a scandal enveloped Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this fall.

That’s under agreements signed last month with outside lawyers based in Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C., including high-profile plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Lanier and the law firm Keller Lenkner, who will lead Texas’ multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

The lawsuit came out of a Texas-led investigation launched more than a year ago. But until fall 2020, top agency staff intended to handle the case internally, instead of paying costly outside lawyers, a former senior Paxton aide told The Texas Tribune. The Associated Press first reported the timeline on Tuesday.

Jeff Mateer, who led the attorney general’s office for years as Paxton’s top deputy, said that when he resigned in October, the agency had no intention of hiring outside lawyers. Darren McCarty, another senior attorney, was leading an internal team on the case.

“Darren was more than able to do it,” Mateer told the AP.

But Mateer and McCarty were among the eight whistleblowers who left the agency after telling law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by doing favors for a political donor. Both resigned last fall, part of a notable exodus of the agency’s top staff.

The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation, but Paxton has insisted that the agency’s work has not been interrupted by the criminal investigation of him. Still, the contracts for the Google lawyers are an early indication of what cost taxpayers may bear for the latest drama surrounding Texas’ embattled attorney general.

The attorney general’s office will ask the Legislature for $43 million to pay the outside lawyers, according to a contract obtained by The Texas Tribune. If lawmakers do not grant that money — which may be a tall order during what’s expected to be a tight budget debate — the outside attorneys will be paid solely out of whatever monetary damages are recovered from Google, dollars that would have otherwise flowed into state coffers.

[…]

The expensive outside counsel contracts were inked in December, the same day the case was filed in federal court. The law firms were brought on only after the agency staff leading the probe fled the attorney general’s office in the wake of a fresh Paxton scandal.

Lanier told the Tribune he met with Paxton in Austin in November to discuss the possibility of working on the case, and emphasized that his team’s work was not intended to be “a big financial bonanza for the Lanier firm,” but rather to force a major restructuring of Google.

Lanier has given political contributions to Paxton, among a number of other top Texas officials.

The case, which comes alongside a number of other major government lawsuits against Google and other tech giants, takes aim at the company’s advertising practices.

Though it’s not yet clear exactly how much Texas could end up losing to the outside attorneys, it could be a massive figure. The outside lawyers’ contingency fee will either be based on an hourly rate equation — which could net the most senior attorneys as much as $3780 per hour — or be calculated as a percentage of the total Google settlement, whichever is less.

See here for the last update on the latest Paxton scandal. I will try, at least for a moment, to be as objective as I can about this. Paying the fee up front is a hedge against having to cough up a much larger amount of a hypothetical future award or settlement agreement, not to mention the time and effort it will surely take to haggle over the proper cut of said award. Lawyers cost money, this is going to run into some bucks no matter how you slice it, may as well get some certainty.

On the other hand:

1) The plaintiffs may lose this lawsuit, or have it overturned or any award reduced on appeal. We’d also be splitting any award a couple dozen ways, so it would have to be pretty freaking big for the attorneys’ cut to be more than $43 million.

2) Any future award is just that, in the future, likely years in the future. $43 million bucks now is worth more than an equivalent amount in, say, 2027. This is why Lottery winners who get the up-front payout instead of the over-20-years payout get a lot less than the stated prize amount.

3) Not to put too fine a point on it, but we don’t have an extra $43 million lying around right now. Yeah, sure, Rainy Day Fund yadda yadda yadda, but we know how that works. And yeah, $43 million is couch money compared to the real budget, but what would you rather spend it on this biennium – Ken Paxton’s fancy outside attorneys, or vaccines and the people to administer them? I know where my money would go.

4) Again not to nitpick, but if Ken Paxton hadn’t been a fucking awful Attorney General, we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. He drove off the senior staff who could have handled this in house. Every dollar that Texas loses out on as a result of this, either up front or down the line, is his fault.

So yeah, I’m a big No on paying the outside attorneys at this time. I’ll roll the dice on the future award being either sufficiently small that the contingency fee is a bargain compared to the $43 million, or so freaking enormous that who cares if the Lanier firm makes out like bandits. And maybe, just maybe, we can get a new Attorney General in 2022 and we can hire another good senior staff, and maybe take the case back from the outsiders. I’ll be very, very interested to see what the Republicans in the Legislature make of this.

The Senate outlines its opening plans

Seems inadequate to me, but what do I know?

All Texas senators attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be tested for the coronavirus and media and public access to the chamber will be limited, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Monday morning.

In a public memo, Patrick outlined a list of protocols for the Texas Senate’s Jan. 12 opening day, which typically sees the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and families.

“Senators have agreed to a much shorter opening day ceremony to reduce the time spent in a large gathering,” he wrote. “The Senate is reducing all ceremonial events and gatherings this session to focus solely on their constitutional legislative duties.”

Access to the Senate floor will be restricted to lawmakers and one family member at each senator’s desk. There will be no floor seating outside the brass rail or anywhere else on the Senate floor — a stark difference from past years when the chamber floor was fully in use for family and guest seating.

A pool of four members of the media who have been granted credentials will be allowed in the second-floor gallery on opening day. In normal times, credentialed members of the media are allowed to sit at a table on the Senate floor.

Each lawmaker or incoming member will have three guest seats for family, friends or constituents in the gallery, a move Patrick said will limit the gallery to fewer than 100 guests and ensure space for social distancing. Patrick’s memo made no mention of masks and it was not immediately clear whether masks would be required in the chamber. The state House has announced that it will require them on opening day.

See here and here for the background. Visitors to the Capitol are required to wear masks, but Senators are special, so you know. They’re also, you know, old: Bob Hall, Chuy Hinojosa, Eddie Lucio, Robert Nichols, John Whitmire, and Judith Zaffirini – not to mention our very own Dan Patrick – are all over 70, and at least five others are over 60. I hate to be morbid, but just in the past week we’ve learned of two state legislators and one incoming member of Congress who died from COVID, and all of them were younger than that. Maybe everyone will show up wearing masks and it won’t be a big deal, but I cannot get over the casualness. Even worse, I’m not sure that someone in the Lege dying of COVID will change anyone’s behavior or beliefs. All I know is, I’m glad I don’t have to be there, and I fear for everyone who does.

State Capitol reopens to the public today

From Twitter:

The Capitol grounds had reopened three weeks ago, but the building itself remained closed until today. This doesn’t address how the Legislature will operate – note the last paragraph for how that is deferred to the two chambers – so you will almost certainly be free to remove your mask and breathe in Rep. Briscoe Cain’s face at your discretion. We’ll know what the Lege has in mind for its own operations next Tuesday.

The Lege will start out with masks

We’ll see how it goes from there.

Rep. Charlie Geren

People attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be required to wear a mask and asked to take a coronavirus test ahead of the event, the chair of the House Administration Committee wrote in a memo to lawmakers Monday.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said there may be additional screenings or temperature checks upon entering the building for the festivities, which typically see the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and family. If a House member tests positive for the virus, he wrote, “arrangements will be made … to allow them to take the oath of office.”

“The duration of the ceremony will be shortened,” he wrote, “and there will be a significant reduction in the number of people admitted to the House floor and gallery.”

Access to the House floor will be restricted to lawmakers, essential staff, ceremony participants, temporary officers and approved guests, according to Geren. Members of the media, the public and additional guests who have been approved to attend the ceremony will be seated in the House gallery.

Each lawmaker or incoming member will have two guest seats for family or friends either on the chamber floor or in the gallery. Guest seats will be spaced approximately three and a half feet from each other side-to-side and staggered front to back, Geren wrote. That spacing, coupled with the requirement of a face mask, “is acceptable to medical professionals consulted by the House,” he wrote.

Geren also wrote that hand sanitation stations will be located outside the chamber and on members’ desks and that ultraviolet light disinfecting units will be used on the floor and in the gallery.

See here for the background. The Senate has not settled on its protocol yet, so this could theoretically be a one-chamber rule. The bigger question remains what if anything the House plans to do with anti-mask jackwads like Briscoe Cain, because I fully expect that those types will be present, and they will kick up a huge fuss if they’re not given the special treatment they believe they are entitled to. We could be getting things off to quite the inauspicious start. Not my problem, but I hope they have a plan.

One possible path for police reform in the Lege

Keep an eye on this.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees licensing of the state’s 102,000 police officers and jailers, could be in for a major overhaul, state officials hinted Monday morning.

“This is the time to get it done,” John Cyrier (R-Lockhart), chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission, said at a combination in-person and virtual hearing Monday. The commission, charged with evaluating state agencies every decade or so, last month issued a blistering report on the law enforcement oversight commission, finding it lacked meaningful ability to oversee the state’s law enforcement agencies and discipline bad cops.

It also concluded the state’s educational requirements for police were outdated and insufficient. To qualify for a peace officer license, Texas cops need fewer hours of basic training than licensed cosmetologists and less than half the education required of air-conditioning and refrigeration contractors.

Testifying to the Sunset commission — composed of five representatives, five senators, and two public members — Kim Vickers, the law enforcement commission’s executive director, agreed, saying the state’s approach to regulating law enforcement has been ineffective. “I’ll be frank,” he said. “That’s true. We’ve been saying that.”

The heart of the Sunset commission’s critique was that although the law enforcement commission is supposed to be responsible for licensing police, it has little authority to discipline bad cops. Instead, each of the state’s 2,800 local law enforcement agencies is responsible for enforcing its own standards, which can vary across departments, resulting in “inconsistently set and enforced local standards.”

Unlike in the agencies that regulate other professions such as teachers and doctors, state law gives the law enforcement commission authority to revoke a police officer’s license in only limited circumstances: if the officer falls behind on mandated continuing education, if he or she receives two dishonorable discharges, or when an officer is convicted of felony or serious misdemeanor crimes.

As a result, the Sunset commission concluded, Texas’s regulation of police was “toothless.”

For example, its examination of the licensing agency found that of 600 officers who had received “dishonorable” discharges, more than a quarter had been rehired.

There are of course a lot more things we can and should do at the state level to reform criminal justice as a whole, with marijuana decriminalization as the biggest ticket item. (Yes, full legalization would be better, but some small incremental decriminalization is the best we can hope for, given the realities of having Dan Patrick as Lt. Governor.) Banning no-knock warrants is another. I support the vast majority of them, though I know any step forward is going to be hard won. I would hope that improving the minimum standards for law enforcement training, and making it easier to permanently remove bad cops from the pool would be something that will have broad enough support to get enacted. Grits for Breakfast, writing about that original sunset report from last month, has more.

Patrick will push to lower the Senate threshold for voting on bills

Completely unsurprising, except that I’d have thought he’d go all the way.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Wednesday that he wants to lower the threshold of support legislation needs to make it on to the Senate floor to match the size of the new, smaller Republican majority. It’s the second time during his tenure that he’s sought such a change, which would allow Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without Democratic input.

Patrick, who presides over the Senate, floated the idea in January, but until now, he has not spoken publicly about it since the November election. That’s when his party lost its supermajority in the upper chamber with the reelection defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton.

“Texans reaffirmed in the 2020 election that they support conservative candidates and conservative policies and I am committed to again moving a conservative agenda forward,” Patrick said in a statement.

Currently, Senate rules say 19 of the chamber’s 31 members — three-fifths — must agree to call up a bill for debate. Patrick said in the statement that he is recommending lowering that threshold to 18 senators, aligning with the size of the GOP majority heading into the legislative session that begins next month.

Patrick already oversaw a decrease in the threshold during his first session as lieutenant governor in 2015. The Senate began that session by dropping the threshold from two-thirds, or 21 members, to three-fifths, or 19 members, at a time when there were 20 Republican senators.

See here for the background. I guess we can call this the five-ninths rule, since 18/31 is greater than 5/9 but 17/31 is not. I really don’t know why Patrick wouldn’t just go to the logical conclusion and ditch the anti-majoritarian requirements altogether, which as you know would be my preferred approach, in hope/anticipation of a future Democratic Senate. Maybe that’s what’s holding him back, the belief that Dems will leave this bit of leverage for the Republicans when they finally win a sixteenth seat. I can’t say he’s wrong to take that bet, and as such I reiterate my position: Majorities should rule, even when I won’t like how they’ll rule. Especially at this point in our history, we really need to respect that idea.

More about how the Lege will operate

Still a lot of questions to be answered.

As the latest discussions over how the Texas Legislature should operate during a pandemic continue to surface, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told members of the Texas Senate this week that people wishing to testify on legislation before a committee may need to register days beforehand and take a coronavirus test ahead of the hearing.

Patrick, the Republican head of the upper chamber, mentioned a number of possibilities to the Senate Democrat Caucus during a conference call Friday. Patrick said people may have to register online three days before a committee hearing to testify and take a rapid test for the virus 24 hours beforehand. People have typically been allowed to sign up to speak on a piece of legislation the day of a committee hearing.

Patrick said that the National Guard could test between 10 to 12 people at the Capitol in an hour. Once results are back, which could take up to an hour, persons cleared would be allowed into the building. He also mentioned that most committee hearings may only take place Tuesday and Wednesday — at least for the first 60 days of the 87th Legislature, which convenes in January.

Sherry Sylvester, a senior adviser to Patrick, told The Texas Tribune on Saturday that conversations are still ongoing on specific protocols and that Patrick and Republican state Rep. Dade Phelan, the likely next House speaker, have been in talks and “hope to be able to make an announcement regarding the Session shortly.”

[…]

Patrick said during his meeting with Senate Democrats there were still questions over whether senators would be allowed to cast votes for legislation remotely, particularly if a member is in quarantine.

See here for the background. Rapid testing sounds good, but I’d be concerned about the rate of false negatives. Some big questions, such as mask requirements – and, one hopes, enforcement for infractions – will be settled when each chamber adopts its rules. Whether or not members can vote remotely, and whether or not committees or even the Lege as a whole can meet remotely, is a big deal, since it seems like a cinch to me that there will be outbreaks. And I will note again, multiple members are over sixty, so any such outbreak could be significant. I hope they take this seriously enough.

Will we get redistricting hearings?

Please?

Voting groups in Texas want lawmakers to open up the state’s redistricting process to the public before they redraw political boundaries next year.

Public hearings are aimed at giving communities input in the process. But since the pandemic, those meetings have completely stopped.

Stephanie Swanson, who works on redistricting and census issues for the League of Women Voters of Texas, said the Texas House had held only 13 of its 25 scheduled hearings in the months before the pandemic starting in September 2019.

“The Senate, however, has not held a single public input hearing,” she said, “which is very concerning.”

A coalition of civic groups, including the League, had sent letters to state lawmakers earlier this summer asking them to consider holding the meetings virtually. Swanson said she never received a response.

On Wednesday, the League — as well as other groups who have previously raised concerns — sent another round of letters to leaders in the Texas House and the Texas Senate.

“Although the need for creating a forum for holding virtual public input hearings is a new procedural necessity because of the COVID pandemic, the importance of facilitating public input into the legislative redistricting process is not new,” the groups wrote. “Public input, at every stage of the map-making process, is critical to a fair redistricting process and essential to compliance with the Voting Rights Act.”

[…]

State lawmakers have claimed they can’t move the hearings to a virtual format because there are rules that prohibit virtual hearings in the legislature.

However, Swanson said she doesn’t think these rules should apply to these public hearings.

“These are public input hearings — they are not voting on legislation that they would need an official body for,” she said. “They are not taking any official vote.”

New rules will be voted on when the House gavels in next month. I don’t really expect much from public hearings, but it would be nice to do things in the orderly and old-fashioned way that we have been accustomed to, if only for the sake of good form. I could definitely do with that.

How is the Lege going to operate?

It’s going to be an interesting session.

Rep. Charlie Geren

In the most detailed public glimpse yet at how the 2021 legislative session might play out during a pandemic, the chair of the committee that handles administrative operations in the Texas House told a group of lobbyists Tuesday that masks may be required in all public parts of the Texas Capitol and that a limit could be placed on the number of people allowed inside the building.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, listed a number of details during a presentation to the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, a lobbyist and government affairs group. He also said that the House was looking at remote voting options for the chamber’s 150 members, which would allow lawmakers to vote on bills from elsewhere inside the building if they decide to not be present on the floor.

Geren said people entering the Capitol during the session will likely be tested and that lawmakers might require visitors to schedule appointments before arriving. They can limit the risks, he said, but can’t expect to completely prevent COVID-19 cases.

“We’re going to plan for an outbreak in the Capitol,” he said. “I think we have to.”

The Senate, he said, is having its own chamber-specific conversations over what protocols should be in place. Spokespeople for Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Later Tuesday, Geren told The Texas Tribune that details he shared at the event are not set in stone — and emphasized that “there’s nothing in concrete yet, and there won’t be for a while.”

Geren is a member of a workgroup tapped by state Rep. Dade Phelan, the next likely House speaker, to make recommendations on legislative operations during the coronavirus pandemic. He said the ideas were being shared with a separate group Phelan recently created to solicit input on potential changes to the lower chamber’s rules.

“We won’t know until we adopt the rules,” Geren said, “and the rules are being talked about now.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. What the Lege can do may be constrained by the state constitution, which among other things mandates that the session be open to the public. You can already watch the legislature online, as each day’s events are streamed live, but would that pass muster if it’s the only option? I’m sure there are lawyers pondering that now. You can expect mask wearing to be a tiresome flashpoint, as professional jackasses like Briscoe Cain have already stated their intention (repeated in this story) to not wear masks or require any visitors to their office to wear them. We’ll see how contentious the rule-setting process is.

(I should note, by the way, that Charlie Geren’s bio page says that he is 71 years old. Preparing for a COVID outbreak at the Capitol is going to be a bigger deal for some folks than for others. And let us not forget the staffers, the security guards, the maintenance and cafeteria and groundskeeping and other workers who will also be affected by the rules the Lege adopts, and the shameful indifference of the likes of Briscoe Cain.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol:

Nine months before the November election, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made headlines by suggesting that if Republicans lost their supermajority in the Senate, he would pursue a bold procedural move: further lowering the threshold that is required to bring legislation to the floor.

Now that the election has come and gone — and the GOP indeed lost its supermajority — it remains to be seen how serious Patrick is about the idea, which would strip Senate Democrats of the one tool they have to block legislation they unanimously oppose.

The lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, has not made any known public comments since the election about the potential rule change, and senators are being tight-lipped or saying they have not heard anything. The uncertainty comes less than a month and a half before the Legislature gavels in for the 2021 session — and each chamber takes up its rules as one of the first orders of business.

Right now, Senate rules require 19 members, or three-fifths of the body, to vote to bring legislation to the floor. With the reelection loss of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, this November, Republicans are set to begin the session with 18 members.

Patrick already led the charge to decrease that threshold from 21 members — two-thirds — during his first session as lieutenant governor five years ago.

Since the election, Patrick’s office has not responded to requests for comment on whether he plans to push a rule change that would lower that threshold so Republicans can keep steamrolling Democrats. Such a change would happen at the beginning of the legislative session and only require the support of a simple majority in the chamber, or 16 members.

Four GOP senators’ offices said Tuesday they were unavailable to discuss the topic of Senate rules going into the session.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said Tuesday he is completing his term as chairman and cannot comment “in advance of the caucus taking a position or not” on a rule change. The caucus is holding a retreat this week.

I am on record as being in support of ditching anti-majoritarian traditions like the two-thirds rule, which is now the three-fifths rule. I wasn’t always this way – when the two-thirds rule was first threatened, I stood in defense of it, because I knew it was the only real tool Democrats had at their disposal to stop bills they hated. I’ve since abandoned that thinking, because we’ve seen far too much minority rule in our federal government, and when the blessed day comes that Democrats have control in Austin, I want them to be able to use it. If that means giving up our best tool for obstruction now, then so be it. I know that puts me at odds with current Senate Democrats, several of whom are quoted in that story. I totally get where they’re coming from, and I have no doubt that an unfettered Dan Patrick is a fearful thing. But I can’t defend that practice any more, and I won’t. Majority rule is the better way, and the day is coming when that will be in our favor. Hold tight until then.

So now we start to prep for redistricting

It’s gonna make for a long session, or more likely sessions.

Wielding the map-drawing power will not be entirely painless for Republicans, who have seen their grip on dozens of state and federal districts erode since the last round of redistricting. Though Democrats failed to flip any of their targeted congressional seats in 2020 and fared about as poorly in state House contests, their single-digit defeats in once ruby red districts point to Democrats’ growing advantages in urban and suburban counties, even as Republicans retain an overwhelming advantage in rural Texas.

Republicans, then, will have to decide how aggressive they want to be in redrawing political boundaries to their benefit, balancing the need to fortify their numbers in battleground districts with the opportunity to flip back some of the districts they lost in 2018, when Democrats picked up 12 seats.

“I see this redistricting opportunity for Republicans as more of a defensive play than an offensive play,” said Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “This is one of the tough things when you’re engaging in redistricting if you’re the party in power, because you can be sort of allured by the short-term potential to win an extra seat or two. But you can take two steps forward to eventually take three steps back if you’re not thinking about demographic changes over a 10-year period.”

For now, the looming redistricting fight is far from the minds of most state lawmakers. Though the U.S. Census Bureau is supposed to deliver updated population data to states by April 1 next year, the agency suspended field operations for the 2020 Census due to the COVID-19 pandemic and wrapped up the count in October, well after the original July 31 deadline. Bureau officials also sought to push back the deadline for sending data to the states until July 2021, prompting speculation that Texas may not get the census numbers until after the Legislature gavels out in late May.

“If the data is not delivered during the regular session, it creates a whole set of cascading problems that impact the drawing of lines, even down to the county and municipal levels, because everyone is going to be put on an even greater time crunch,” said Eric Opiela, an attorney and former executive director of the Texas Republican Party who has worked on prior redistricting efforts.

During normal times, officials might already be using population data from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS) to strategize or even draw up preliminary maps. But the pandemic has forced census workers to adopt unconventional survey tactics and generated unprecedented population shifts due to the rise in remote working, factors that make any pre-2020 population data highly unreliable, Opiela said.

“Those (ACS) projections can be used to allow you to do things like work through scenarios before the official data comes, and it’s actually fairly accurate,” Opiela said. “I don’t know that that’s going to be the case this time. I think it’s going to be very important to wait until the official data is received to draw any conclusions as to where Texans live.”

It’s not just the uncertain timeline. Even if the Census data arrived on time, COVID-19 would likely hamper redistricting efforts by forcing lawmakers to prioritize filling the state’s pandemic-inflicted budget gap and perhaps providing economic and medical relief to COVID-19 victims.

“The challenge with redistricting is it’s such a naturally partisan issue that it’s really hard to sort of box half the day and then be ballet dancers the other half of the day,” Mackowiak said. “It’s hard to be bipartisan on other issues but then super, super partisan during redistricting. So, having a special session just related to redistricting after the major issues are taken care of seems to me to be the smartest pathway.”

See here for the most recent news on the Census situation. I think it’s very likely that we don’t get the data in time for the regular session, in which case redistricting will be done in a special session later in the year. Depending on how late that is, and on how long it takes to hammer out maps, and whether any initial court challenges result in temporary restraining orders, we could see the 2022 primaries get pushed back. The filing period begins in mid-November, after all, so there’s a non-zero chance of it being affected by how this plays out.

It’s worth remembering that if the Dems had managed to win the State House, they still would have had limited influence over redistricting. As the story correctly notes, the Legislative Redistricting Board, a five-member panel that would have had only one Democrat (the House Speaker, in this hypothetical), would draw the State House, State Senate, and SBOE maps if the House and Senate had been unable to agree on them. The Congressional maps would go to a federal court, however, and that’s where the Dems might have had some influence. If Republicans didn’t want to take the chance of putting map-drawing power in a third party like that, they might have been open to some compromises on the other maps. We’ll never know now, but that was the basic idea.

As it is, how this goes with Republicans once again in full control will come down to how they answer a few key questions. (For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the State House. The issue are mostly similar for Congress and the State Senate, but my examples will come from House elections.) Will they be constrained by established rules like the county line rule, which puts only whole House seats in sufficiently large counties (this is why all Harris County State House seats are entirely within Harris County), or do they change that? How constrained do they feel by the Voting Rights Act, and by other established redistricting precedents – in other words, do they bet big on the courts overturning past rulings so that they can more or less do whatever they want, or do they pull it in so as not to risk losing in court?

Most of all, what do they consider a “safe” seat to be? Look at it this way: In 2012, Republicans won 16 of the 95 seats they took with less than 60% of the vote. Of those, only five were decided by fewer than ten points:

HD43 – Won in 2010 by then-Democrat JM Lozano, who subsequently switched parties.
HD105 – Barely won by the GOP in 2008, by less than 20 votes.
HD107 – Won by a Dem in 2008, it became the first Republican-held seat to flip in this decade, won by Victoria Neave in 2016.
HD114 – Nothing special, it was won by eight points in 2012.
HD134 – The perennial swing district.

Note that four of those five are now Democratic. Other “less than 60%” seats from 2012 now held by Dems include HDs 45, 47, 65, 102, 115, and 136. (*) The point is, that looks like an extremely durable majority, with enough 60%+ seats on their own to ensure a mostly Republican House. And indeed it was for the first three elections of the decade. There will be books written about why all of a sudden it became precarious, but you’d be hard pressed to do a better job than the Republicans did in 2011.

But as noted, things look different now. In 2020, Republicans won 26 of the 87 seats they took with less than 60% of the vote. Of those, seventeen were won by less than ten points:

HD26, HD54, HD64, HD66, HD67, HD92, HD93, HD94, HD96, HD97, HD108, HD112, HD121, HD126, HD132, HD138

We can talk all we want about how things might have gone differently in 2020, but the fact remains that it wouldn’t have taken much to change many of those outcomes. How many Republican incumbents will insist on a 55%+ district for themselves? Whatever assumptions you make about the 2020 electorate and what it means for the future, that’s going to be a tall order in some parts of the state.

This more than anything will drive their decision-making, and may well be the single biggest source of friction on their side. Who is willing to accept a 51% Republican district, and who will have to take one for the team? In 2011, Republicans were coming off an election that they had won by more than 20 points statewide. This year they won at the Presidential level by less than six points, and at the Senate level by less than ten. They have a smaller piece of the pie to cut up. They have full control over how they do it, but the pie isn’t as big as it used to be. What are they going to do about that?

(*) In 2012, Cindy Burkett had no Democratic opponent in HD113, and Gary Elkins was re-elected in HD135 with 60.36% of the vote. Both of those districts are now held by Democrats. Always in motion, the future is.

I remain pessimistic about the chances of good voting bills passing

This Trib story suggests that with Republicans doing well in the high turnout 2020 election, and with the emergency measures that were implemented to expand voting access, the odds of getting a bill passed to make some forms of voting easier are as good as they’ve ever been.

Lawmakers and voting rights groups have been fighting over updates to Texas’ election systems for years, but issues heightened by the coronavirus pandemic have launched a new conversation over voter access.

This January, primarily Democratic lawmakers heading into the next legislative session are honing in on problems like backlogs in processing voter registrations, an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots and applications that overwhelmed some elections offices, and a lack of viable alternatives to voting in person.

Outnumbered by GOP members in both chambers, Texas Democrats have seen their efforts to expand voter accessibility thwarted at virtually every turn for years.

But the pandemic-era challenges combined with strong Republican performance at the polls — which may have been boosted by record-breaking voter turnout across the state — has some lawmakers and political operatives believing there’s potential for conservatives to warm up to voting legislation that could improve accessibility.

A main reason is that voters of all political camps experienced some of these new ideas when they were introduced during the pandemic — things like drive-thru voting pilot programs, multiple ballot drop-off sites, turning in mail ballots during early voting and extended early voting — or realized that others, like online registration, would have made voting in the pandemic easier.

“My guess is [lawmakers are] going to hear from their Republican voters that they like to do this, and there will start to be Republicans championing these things, and they’re championing them from a majority point of view,” said Trey Grayson, a former Republican Kentucky secretary of state who was previously director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “I would be shocked in five years if Texas didn’t have more of these reforms in place.”

Quinn Carollo Jr. is one of those Republican voters who said he applauded efforts in Texas to make it easier to vote. He was thrilled by Texas’ lengthy early voting period — which had been expanded from two weeks to three weeks because of the pandemic. He moved in recent years from Alabama, which doesn’t have early voting.

“There was plenty of opportunity to get by there and vote without dealing with a lot of lines on Election Day,” said Carollo, a 49-year-old transportation manager for a chemical company in Houston. “So I really enjoyed that. I’m all for it.”

Carollo said he’d like to see the longer voting period become a permanent part of Texas law, along with other reforms that might make voting easier and more accessible.

[…]

Bills already filed include legislation that would allow for online voter registration for those with driver’s licenses or state IDs, on-site voter registration at the polls during early voting and on election day, making election days state holidays, universal mail-in balloting, easing voter ID restrictions and allowing felony probationers and parolees to vote.

The idea of moving registration online is worth considering, given that some 41 other states have already implemented it, said Justin Till, chief of staff and general counsel for Republican state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who sponsored the 2019 bill that eliminated mobile polling sites and who has filed election fraud legislation to be considered this session.

“I don’t think it would be a problem if we were to transition. I know a lot of people are still hung up on the IT security part of it, which I get.” Till said. “So long as it’s a sound system, it will work fine and the other states that have implemented it thoughtfully have done so successfully.”

Till said Bonnen’s office would consider measures that could ease or expand access during early voting and eliminate long travel and wait times, such as extending the early voting period to three weeks and allowing counties to keep polling sites open beyond the state required minimum.

“If you can achieve that satisfaction point where everyone gets an opportunity to vote as quickly and as easily as they can, then you’re good,” Till said.

Voting rights advocates say that the experiences of millions of new voters in Texas this year could translate into election changes that are driven by the voters, not politics.

“I think a lot of people that had not been affected by some of the problems in our election systems were affected this time,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “So there are probably a lot more legislators who are hearing about it more from all walks of the aisle.”

A new “driving force” behind some legislation will be pressure to address or retain some voting initiatives that were born out of the pandemic, said Derek Ryan, a Republican consultant and voter data analyst in Austin.

These could include increased access to curbside voting, extended early voting periods and expanding countywide voting and online voter registration — the latter of which Ryan said was hit or miss with Republicans and “one of those issues that kind of splits the party.”

Among those that are anticipated but haven’t been filed yet are bills dealing with drive-thru voting, allowing 24-hour polling sites and making permanent a pandemic-era order by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott extending the early voting period to three weeks — all of them ideas that first appeared in some counties during the pandemic, several activists and lawmakers said.

”I think that after any election, we figure out that there are better ways to do things, and so there’s always some election legislation that kind of tries to clean up some of the process, but I think you’re probably going to see that even more so because of the pandemic,” Ryan said.

Maybe, but I’m going to see some hard evidence of this before I buy into the idea. The one place where maybe I can see something happening is with online voter registration, mostly because Republicans made a show of trying to register new voters this cycle, and running into the same problems everyone else who has ever tried to do this has run into, and that was even before the pandemic hit. The fact that there’s a staffer for a Republican legislator talking about it is of interest. I’m willing to believe something may happen here. As for everything else, my counterarguments are as follows:

1. The first bill out of the gate is a bill to restrict county election administrators from sending vote by mail applications to eligible voters, for no particular reason other than Paul Bettencourt’s sniffy disapproval of Chris Hollins doing it. It’s not an auspicious start, is what I’m saying.

2. While Greg Abbott did extend the early voting period and did allow for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period (before then cracking down on where they could be dropped off), all of the prominent innovations like drive-through voting and 24-hour voting and multiple drop boxes were pioneered by local election administrators, most of whom were Democrats, with Chris Hollins in Harris County and Justin Rodriguez in Bexar County being among the leaders. I’d feel like this would be more likely if Abbott and the Lege were ratifying Republican ideas, rather than giving their stamp of approval to Democratic inventions. I admit that’s attributing a level of pettiness to Abbott and the Republicans in the Lege, but if we’re talking about the process being driven by feedback from the voters, I’ll remind you that the chair of the state GOP, several county GOP chairs, activists like Steven Hotze, and more were the plaintiffs in lawsuits that targeted not only the Hollins/Rodriguez-type innovations, but also Abbott orders like the third week of early voting. Plus, you know, the extreme animus that Donald Trump fed into Republican voters about mail ballots and other vote-expanding initiatives. What I’m saying is that while some Republican voters undoubtedly liked these new innovations and would approve of them becoming permanent, the loudest voices over there are dead set against them. We’d be idiots to underestimate that.

3. All of which is a longwinded way of saying, wake me up when Dan Patrick gets on board with any of this. Nothing is going to happen unless he approves of it.

4. Or to put it another way, even if these innovations help Republicans, even if everyone can now say that expanding turnout is just as good for Republicans as it is for Democrats, it’s still the case that making it harder to vote is in the Republican DNA; I’m sure someone will post that decades-old Paul Weyrich quote in the comments, to illustrate. I don’t believe that the experience of one election is going to change all these years of messaging.

5. To put that another way, Republicans might be all right with things that make it easier for them to vote, as long as they don’t make it easier for Democrats to vote. They’re absolutely fine with things that make it harder for Democrats to vote – and by “Democrats” I mostly mean Black voters, as far as they’re concerned – and if those things also make it harder for some of their people to vote, it’s an acceptable price to pay. Making it easier to vote, as a principle, is not who and what they are. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, but until then I’ll be taking the under.

Our nanny state and vote by mail applications

Sen. Paul Bettencourt purses his lips and wags his finger and is very disappointed in your county government.

Republican state lawmakers have filed bills to codify the Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to all of its 2.4 million registered voters.

Senate Bill 208, authored by Sens. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; Brian Birdwell; Bob Hall and Kel Seliger, would stop election officials from sending absentee ballot applications, regardless of eligibility. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, a Republican from Houston, filed a companion bill, House Bill 25.

“We must recognize the obvious that we didn’t need to mail 2M+ absentee ballot applications to registered voters in Harris County to have a record 11.2 million Texas voters cast their ballots in November,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “It is important to note that the 66.2% turnout in 2020 was without wasting taxpayer money by doing shotgun mailings to everyone on the voter roll.”

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to do so, an attempt to make voting easier during the pandemic, was thwarted after the county’s Republican Party sued. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in early October that Hollins would be exceeding his authority, though two lower courts had previously approved of the mass mailings.

Hollins had already sent out nearly 400,000 applications to Harris County voters who were 65 and older by the time the suit arose. The proposed legislation filed this month would extend to even such mailings to eligible voters because they would prevent counties from sending any unsolicited mail ballot applications.

Emphasis mine. So that first sentence about codifying the State Supreme Court decision is misleading, since this bill would now prohibit something the Court explicitly allowed. Let’s be clear about that.

Let’s also be clear that there’s no valid justification for this bill. If the voters of Harris County don’t like the way that Commissioners Court appropriates and spends money, the voters of Harris County have a simple and direct way to express that disapproval. This is Paul Bettencourt and others expressing their disapproval of Harris County voters, because he has that power.

I’m sure there will be more bills like this one, and while most of them probably won’t pass I’ll be surprised if this one manages to fail. the good news, for what it’s worth, is that the Harris County Democratic Party can continue its very successful campaign of sending mail applications to its voters, then following up with them to ensure they get and return their mail ballots. I won’t be surprised if there’s some dropoff in mail voting in the next couple of elections, as people were motivated to vote by mail due to the pandemic, but I’d expect most of those voters to just go back to voting in person. This is a legislative temper tantrum, and it can some day be fixed, but don’t forget that it happened. Republicans like Paul Bettencourt want it to be hard to vote, and they will do what they can to make it hard to vote. We should make a bigger deal about this in our campaigns.

Texas Central once more gets to deal with the Lege

They’re both farther along, and not as far along, as they might like heading into this session.

Less than two months before the Texas Legislature begins its next session, the yearslong battle over a controversial high-speed rail project is expected to spark more legislative skirmishes.

And after years of public skepticism, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled his support for the project in a letter to Japan’s prime minister, although his spokesperson later said that Abbott’s office will “re-evaluate this matter.”

Last month, Abbott sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying: “This venture has my full support as Governor of Texas, and I am hopeful that final negotiations of this project with Japan can be concluded so that construction can begin. Public support and momentum are on our side, and this project can be completed swiftly.”

The Oct. 2 letter also included a significant error. Abbott told Suga that the company developing the high-speed rail line had “all the necessary permits to begin construction.”

The Texas Tribune found that Texas Central, the Dallas- and Houston-based company in charge of the project, is far from receiving all permits needed to build the 240-mile line, which would stretch from Dallas to Houston and cost around $20 billion, according to the company. When contacted by the Tribune with this information, Abbott’s office said it would review the matter.

“From the beginning of this project, the Governor made clear that he could support this project if, and only if, the private property rights of Texans are fully respected,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the Tribune on Oct. 7.

“The Governor’s team has learned that the information it was provided was incomplete. As a result, the Governor’s Office will re-evaluate this matter after gathering additional information from all affected parties,” Wittman added.

The governor’s office has not responded to multiple follow-up questions about the results of its review and has not explained why Abbott didn’t know the project lacked permits or who Abbott was relying upon for information about the project.

[…]

Texas Central has said that it plans to start construction by the first half of 2021 and that it has already secured sites for stations in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley.

But the Tribune found that Texas Central still hasn’t applied for a key permit from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates transportation projects, for the construction and operation of the proposed rail line, according to an STB spokesperson.

And two Texas agencies, the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said they haven’t received all the necessary permit applications from the company, including the route proposal and a permit to discharge stormwater during the construction process.

A third agency, the Texas Department of Transportation, must approve permits for the rail line to cross state roads during construction, but a spokesperson said the agency would consider any proposals from the company only after the STB approves the project.

The company did receive two key approvals in September from the Federal Railway Administration, which provided the regulatory framework and the environmental review for the high-speed train. The railway administration explained that these rulings covered several of the permits needed by the project in areas like railroad safety, protection of parkland and protection of cultural resources.

See here for the previous update, about the approval provided by the Federal Railroad Administration. I have no idea where the other permits stand, or how long that part of it is supposed to take. We’re about to enter at least the third legislative session where I find myself saying “if they can just make it through this session, they’ll probably be okay”. They did fine in 2019, but their opponents are organized and dedicated, and even though I suspect they’re a minority, I have no idea offhand who their best champion in the Lege is. A small group of people who really care about something can often beat a larger group of people who don’t feel all that strongly about whatever it is they’re being asked to care about. TCR might also want to check in with Greg Abbott and make sure he has up to date information from them – assuming he bothers to respond to their requests, of course. On the plus side for TCR, the Lege has a pretty packed agenda, which may crowd out anything their opponents want to do. But I wouldn’t count on that.

A bill to ban no-knock warrants

Probably won’t go anywhere, but well worth the effort.

Rep. Gene Wu

A bill pre-filed this week by state Rep. Gene Wu would ban no-knock warrants across Texas, marking the first major legislative response to last year’s botched drug raid that led to the deaths of two Houston residents and murder charges for a police officer.

Wu’s proposal, which he filed Tuesday, would bar magistrates from issuing warrants that allow police to break into residents’ homes without warning. After the practice came under scrutiny in Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo began requiring approval from top-ranking police officials and the signature of a district court judge — not municipal court judges or county magistrates — before officers could carry out no-knock warrants.

Acevedo implemented the policy change after narcotics officers in January burst into a home on Harding Street in search of heroin, sparking an eruption of gunfire that killed residents Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas and injured five officers. Police discovered only small amounts of cocaine and marijuana during the bust.

Shortly after the raid, Acevedo said no-knock warrants “are going to go away like leaded gasoline in this city,” prompting headlines that claimed the Houston Police Department would end the practice altogether.

Rep. Wu’s bill is HB492. The story references the recent HPD audit of the atrocious Harding Street raid, of which Rep. Wu was a harsh critic. I will note that the Mayor Turner task force report on police reform includes the recommendation of “a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses”. This bill would go farther than that, and it’s not clear to me if the Harding Street fiasco would have been covered by the recommended task force policy.

As with marijuana reform bills, there is bipartisan support for banning (or at least restricting) no-knock warrants, but any bill to do that seems doomed to me. As the story notes, a bill from 2019 that simply called for law enforcement agencies to submit reports on their use of no-knock warrants to DPS never got a vote in committee. Things have changed since then, but that’s just not a great sign. I hope I’m wrong about that.

There’s a raft of pro-pot bills that have been filed so far

And one formidable obstacle to them all, in the form of Lt. Gov. Dan “One Million Dollars!” Patrick.

Texas lawmakers set a record with over 60 marijuana-related bills in 2019 — and this year, they’ve already introduced 11 measures that could potentially loosen the legal restrictions on the drug, with two months to go before legislative session begins in January.

“The shift in public opinion has led to lawmakers taking more action on this issue,” said Heather Fazio, the director of the advocacy group Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, pointing to 2019’s legalization of hemp products containing less than 0.3 percent THC. “What we’re seeing is this huge movement where lawmakers are responding to their constituents who no longer support the status quo.”

Still, Texas is among the states with the most restrictive marijuana laws in the nation. The state counted the most total arrests for marijuana possession in the country in 2018, according to a April ACLU report on racial disparity and drug possession, making up 44 percent of all drug-related arrests statewide.

And the Texas Highway Patrol made 250 arrests for small amounts of weed between July 2019 and the end of the year, after the state’s hemp law took effect.

At the top of advocates’ list is House Bill 447, filed by state Rep. Joseph Moody, a Democrat from El Paso. If passed, it could be the most far-reaching cannabis legalization bill to come out of the House so far, allowing Texans over 21 years old to consume, transport and grow marijuana with some limitations.

The bill also opens the door for marijuana businesses, offering guidelines on proper licensure and distribution of cannabis. A portion of tax revenue from sales would contribute to public school teachers’ salaries and retirement.

In 2019, Moody unsuccessfully tried to pass a decriminalization bill. It failed in the Senate, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick saying the measure would have been a step toward legalization, which he would not support.

Opponents have said any steps to lessen the legal penalties for possessing, using or distributing marijuana could lead to increased crime or push users into more dangerous and more addictive drugs.

But with a pandemic-induced budget slump to handle, Moody said lawmakers from both parties are beginning to look to the marijuana industry as a potential gold mine for sales tax revenue.

There’s a quote a little farther in the article from Sen.-elect Roland Gutierrez, who has filed a companion bill in the Senate, that touts the revenue that these bills could generate. I think that would be a great pitch in a campaign to get a statewide referendum passed, but that’s not an option in Texas. It’s also the case that people like Dan Patrick don’t care about the revenue potential, because they’re not interested in generating revenue. They don’t want to pay for things (well, most things), they want to cut them. Patrick opposes legalization of pot, and anything that looks like a step towards legalization of pot. I admire and support what Rep. Moody and Sen.-elect Gutierrez are doing, but those bills will never get past Dan Patrick.

There is, as noted, bipartisan support for easing up on marijuana. Even a wingnut like Rep. Steve Toth has a bill to make marijuana possession a Class C misdemeanor, which would greatly reduce punishment for it. Dan Patrick opposed a similar bill in 2019. If we want to make progress on this, the first step has to be to get rid of Dan Patrick. The Trib has more.

What might the Lege do to make voting easier, or harder?

I confess, I didn’t read most of this story about the various problems some people had in voting, and the various theories as to what was happening during voting, mostly because it contained way too many quotes from Jared Woodfill. I’m going to focus on one piece of this, and then jump to the question I posed in the title.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In Texas, which was recently ranked 50th in the nation by the Election Law Journal for ease of voting, the stories of disenfranchisement in this election are plentiful, because the hurdles state lawmakers have erected to registering and voting create many chances for the system to fail.

The state GOP leadership has steadfastly resisted modernizing voter registration, including blocking attempts at online registration. Voter ID laws, limits on qualifications for absentee ballots and rigidity in the mechanics of balloting all weed out untold numbers of voters along the way.

“These things will feed into the ability of someone to either participate easily and conveniently and effectively, or for someone to encounter barrier after barrier after barrier and at some point throw up their hands in disgust and quit trying,” said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections team at the Democracy Fund in Washington, D.C.

It certainly was difficult for East Texas resident Serena Ivie, who had to reeducate herself on the registration process after sitting out elections for 20 years.

Ivie wanted to vote for President Donald Trump because she worried about the direction of the country if he left office. She sent in her voter registration application in early September, she said.

She figured out too late that her registration was never activated, and she still has not gotten an explanation, she said.

Ivie, 49, is angry that the state hasn’t created easy, online registration since the last time she voted.

“I was disappointed that I’d let myself down, and I really felt that I screwed up,” Ivie said. “It’s a huge letdown, and I, in turn, feel like I am letting my country down.”

There really is no good reason why our voter registration process is so antiquated. There is a good reason why the law that controls how voter registration may be done has not been updated in forever, and that’s because the Republicans have opposed it, as we have covered here numerous times. Not all Republicans, to be sure – the bill cited in that post had numerous Republican co-sponsors, but never got a hearing in committee. The difference now is that Republicans have been actively registering voters these days, and as they discovered, it’s harder than it needs to be. There is also now a very limited form of online voter registration available, thanks to a federal lawsuit. These two factors may finally allow for our voter registration laws to be dragged into the 21st century. I wouldn’t bet on it until someone like Greg Abbott announces support for it, but the possibility exists.

Unfortunately, that’s probably about where the potential good news ends. There’s a zero percent chance that any expansion will be made to voting by mail – I’d be more worried about some bills that will attempt to make it harder, or perhaps to define “disability” in a way that would explicitly exclude pandemic-related risk factors. Along the same lines, I expect there to be bills that codify limiting ballot dropoff locations to one per county, and to limit if not outlaw drive-through voting that isn’t part of the already-allowed curbside voting for people with (perhaps more strictly defined) disabilities. Finally, as part of the larger conversation about the role and power of the Governor and the Legislature during a disaster, there may be legislation that codifies the Governor’s ability to do things like extend early voting hours as part of a disaster response. A bill like that doesn’t have to be bad, but it would be easier to make it bad than to make it good.

As far as I’m concerned, the best case scenario here is keeping trash like that from getting passed. Maybe the new Speaker will put his thumb on the scale in a good way, or maybe Republican legislators will have heard from enough voters that they liked the longer early voting period and/or drive-through voting to mess with it, or maybe they’ll just be too damn busy with all of the other business they’ll have to deal with to have time for this. I’m just saying be prepared for some nonsense here. It’s coming, and we need to be ready for it.

UPDATE: Bill pre-filing is now open, and there are numerous election-related bills already, including one that would “prohibit state officers and employees from distributing applications for early voting ballots”. I’m sure you can guess what motivated that. Remember that zillions of bills get filed but only a handful make it through, so don’t draw conclusions from any of this just yet.

Republican Party Chair craps on Republican presumed Speaker

I expected this upcoming legislative session to be interesting, but I didn’t think it would be this interesting this quickly.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas GOP Chair Allen West said Monday that the state party “will not support, nor accept” state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next speaker of the Texas House, after the Beaumont Republican said last week he has the votes to win the gavel.

In an email to supporters, West took issue with the fact that Democrats had backed Phelan even though Republicans retained a majority in the 150-member lower chamber after Election Day.

Phelan said last week he had support from a “supermajority of the Republican caucus” and a “broad coalition of support” from Democrats. That support, should it hold until January when the Legislature convenes, would mean Phelan has more than enough votes needed to become the next speaker when House members elect a leader as one of the chamber’s first orders of business.

“Texas will not allow the undermining of our ‘Texas Republic.’ This is why the Republican Party of Texas is perplexed, and will not support, a potential Texas Speaker of the House who would seek affirmation from progressive socialist Democrats to attain that position,” West wrote, calling it “utterly absurd and demonstrably idiotic” that a Republican would join with Democrats to lead the GOP-controlled House.

West does not get to vote on the next speaker since he is not a House member. And past speaker candidates, including current Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who will retire at the end of his term, have claimed support from Democrats in their bids to help get to a majority of votes needed to preside over the House.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Tom Craddick and Joe Straus also had Democratic supporters when they were elected Speaker. It was Straus’ ouster of Craddick in 2009, in which the bulk of his support came from Dems (who had 74 members in the House that year, remember) plus a handful of renegade Republicans, that led to a GOP rule that Speaker candidates are supposed to be ratified by a majority of the Republican caucus first. Bonnen got around that, and no one other than West seems too exercised about it now, but throwing tantrums is a good way to raise one’s profile, so here we are. I regret to say that while we can now all begin the process of detoxing our brains of Donald Trump, we must acquaint (or re-acquaint) ourselves with Allen West. I’m so sorry, y’all. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

We need an official Speaker candidate tracker

We’re up to five now, and we’re likely not done yet.

Rep. Trent Ashby

State Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Cyrier of Lockhart join two Democrats in seeking the gavel: Senfronia Thompson of Houston and Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio. More candidates are expected to file, perhaps after the Nov. 3 election once it’s clear which party will be in control of the chamber.

In statements, both Ashby and Cyrier pointed to the legislative session beginning in January — and the challenges state lawmakers will all but certainly have to tackle — to help make their pitch for why they’re the best candidate for the job.

“Given the collective challenges we will face in upcoming legislative session, as we continue our battle with COVID-19 and work to balance a budget despite revenue challenges, it is critically important that the next Speaker fosters the trust and cooperation necessary to overcome these challenges and deliver the results that all Texans expect and deserve,” Ashby, who has served in the House since 2013, said.

Cyrier, who has served in the House since 2015, said the session “will be a demonstration of Texans’ resilience.”

“My top priority as speaker will be to work with all members of the House and build consensus during what is sure to be a challenging session,” Cyrier said.

Paddie, who has served in the lower chamber since 2013, did not immediately release a statement about his bid.

As noted, Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Trey Martinez Fischer are already in. None of the three Republicans were among the crowd that had made a move towards running for Speaker before the last session; five of those seven will be in the 2021 Lege, so there is definitely the possibility of a larger field. I should note that Rep. Thompson picked up the endorsements of her fellow Harris County Democratic legislators, and also of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, thus giving her the most supporters for now, though still far from a majority.

We’ll have a much better idea of how this may shake out once we know how many Ds and how many Rs there will be. And as a reminder: Right after the election is when some number of members announce their intent to step down, thus necessitating a special election to replace them. Rep. Drew Spinger is in the runoff for SD30, scheduled for December 19, so his seat may become vacant right before the opening gavel as well. I say this all because the number we have on November 4 may be different than the number we have on January 4, and that could have a real effect on who has enough votes to actually become Speaker. The potential for chaos, and maybe even some shenanigans, is quite high. The Lege is never more entertaining when those things are true.

UPDATE: And now there are six:

Possibly by the time you read this, there will be more announced candidates. You see what I mean when I say we need a tracker.

UPDATE: And now there are seven:

All members of the House that are not running for Speaker, please raise your hand.

TMF files for Speaker

Now it’s a race.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer announced Monday that he is running for Texas House speaker, becoming the second Democrat in the lower chamber to launch a bid for the gavel.

Martinez Fischer, from San Antonio, joins state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, in the race. Both filings come ahead of a November election in which Democrats are within striking distance of winning control of the Republican-held House for the first time in nearly two decades.

Martinez Fischer would be the first Latino to hold the position, if elected. Thompson would be the first woman and Black person to serve as speaker.

No Republicans have filed paperwork yet with the Texas Ethics Commission to run for the job, which Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will vacate at the end of his term when he retires from office. More members from both parties are expected to enter the race in the coming days.

[…]

Martinez Fischer nodded to the upcoming legislative challenges in a statement announcing his speaker bid, saying he is running “because I believe that I am best prepared to deliver the solutions Texans expect, navigate the redistricting process, and protect the House as we chart our path forward as Texans.” Martinez Fischer also said as speaker his goal would be to “make historic changes” to the makeup of House committees in an attempt to address “the disparities in the lack of women and people of color in our leadership ranks.

“The Texas House operates on trust,” he said in his statement. “For the last twenty years, Members know that even when we may disagree, I have never been shy about saying where I stand. As Speaker, I will always deal straight.”

See here for the background. I had said that it was my belief that if Rep. Thompson wanted this, she’d have a clear path. That’s not the case, but it is early days. There were multiple people floated as possible challengers to Tom Craddick before a majority coalesced around Joe Straus, and when Dennis Bonnen succeeded Straus, it was after several other Republicans (and one Democrat) had made their intentions known. In each situation, the others simply backed down and got on board with the winner. If Dems have a clear majority in the House, I would expect there to be only one Dem in the running for Speaker at the end.

Does it mean anything that TMF filed so quickly after Thompson did? Probably not – his ambition is as good as anyone’s, he’s likely been talking about it for some time, and there are many ways to be a Speaker if one gets elected to that spot. Most of what will happen between now and when the members take a vote will not be visible to us. That said, if this ever does get ugly, we will surely hear about it. I’m sure a Republican will file at some point, but I figure there’s still some factional healing that needs to happen post-Bonnen, and no one may be ready to go public yet. This is the Lege nerds’ equivalent of fantasy football – it’s of extreme interest to a few, and means nothing to normal people. Enjoy the ride, or feel free to tune out until something interesting happens, it’s your call.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson files for Speaker

One hat in the ring, who knows how many to go.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, filed Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making her the first to enter what’s been a quiet race so far to replace retiring Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Thompson, a Houston Democrat, has filed ahead of a November general election in which Democrats are confident they will regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades. If elected, she would be the first Black woman to serve as speaker.

Thompson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thompson is not the only candidate expected to enter the race, which has had a different tempo and tone from the last one in 2018. The uncertainty surrounding which party will be in control of the lower chamber in 2021 has kept the race relatively quiet; by this time two years ago, several candidates had already declared that they were seeking the gavel.

[…]

Thompson, known better as “Ms. T” to colleagues and other Capitol goers, has served in the chamber since 1973, making her the second longest-serving member in the House. She has been mentioned repeatedly among both Republicans and Democrats as a potential candidate, with members pointing to her legislative experience and inroads with colleagues as perhaps her best case for a House that has a challenging agenda heading into the 2021 legislative session.

There are many potential Speaker candidates, but as I said in that post, if Rep. Thompson wants this, it’s hard to imagine other Dems opposing her. I’m sure she will be talking to those other potential candidates over the next few days, if she hasn’t been already. It won’t surprise me if they line up behind her.

There are of course a bunch of important things the next Legislature will have to tackle, from COVID response to a crap-ton of election and voting issues to redistricting to the budget to executive authority and the role of the Lege in dealing with crises. But even before we get to any of that, there’s a big question about how the Lege will operate. I mean, maybe you haven’t heard, but the COVID situation isn’t getting any better right now. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in Greg Abbott to impose restrictions again, so I’m not expecting it to be all that different come January. How exactly is the Lege going to conduct its business if it’s not safe for them all to be clustered in a stuffy room for hours at a time? What are they going to do if twerps like Briscoe Cain ignore a rule mandating masks in the Capitol? I don’t mean to be indelicate, but Rep. Thompson is 81. Rep. Alma Allen is 81, Tom Craddick is 77, Doc Anderson is 75, Harold Dutton is 75, and Phil Stephenson is 75. More than a few others are north of 60; not all of them have their age listed when I look them up on the Trib directory of State House members, but you get the point. The health and safety of every Member, as well as their staff and everyone who works at the Capitol is on the line, and as of today we have no idea what they plan to do about it. The next Speaker has some big things to do before a single vote is taken.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

How not to be “ground zero” for voter suppression

It starts with winning elections. Which would be easier to do if Republicans weren’t hell-bent on making it hard to vote, but then that’s why they do what they do.

Fewer and fewer states are standing with Texas as it continues to resist calls to expand mail-in voting amid the coronavirus outbreak, with South Carolina on Wednesday becoming the latest to allow anyone to cast a ballot by mail this fall.

Texas is now one of just five states won’t accept concerns about the coronavirus as an excuse to vote by mail and state leaders have blocked attempts by local officials in Harris County to make voting by mail more accessible.

That Texas is out on the edge on an issue of voting access should come as no surprise, experts in voting laws say.

The Republicans who run state government have made Texas a national leader in voting restrictions, ground zero in a series of long-running fights over voting rights, and hotly debated allegations of potential voter fraud. It’s a battle President Donald Trump has escalated in the past week, tweeting repeatedly about mail-in voting, which he alleges will lead to “MAYHEM!!!” despite no evidence of such in the states that already have widespread voting by mail.

Democrats have poured millions into at least 18 different legal battles against Texas over mail-in voting and a host of other election issues — more than anywhere in the nation — as the state’s elections have grown more competitive. They charge that the Republicans who run state government have placed hurdles at every step of the electoral process to keep their power despite demographic changes that have diminished their public support.

Texas’ sluggish voter turnout rates are frequently cited as evidence that GOP suppression efforts are working. The state’s decision not to make it easier to vote by mail, critics say, is just the latest example.

You can read the rest for a recitation of the greatest hits in making it harder to vote, but it’s all familiar. (This was also written before the Abbott order about mail ballot dropoff locations, which shows that there will always be new frontiers in this field.) The key to this whole thing is right there in the fourth paragraph, “The Republicans who run state government”. The only way this is going to change is for the Republicans to not be running state government. We can take an important step in that direction in this election, especially if we can get an all-Democratic federal government that will pass an expansion of the Voting Rights Act and other protections. We can finish the job in 2022 and pass laws to repeal voter ID, allow for no-excuses vote by mail, enable online voter registration, and more. The courts aren’t going to save us. The Republicans have no interest in any of this – indeed, as I’ve argued before, if they maintain their trifecta after this election, they are now strongly incentivized to rein in efforts to send out vote by mail applications to those who hadn’t requested them. We win these elections and we move forward, or we don’t and we move back. The fact that it’s harder for us to win these elections is just too bad. That’s how it is. It’s all up to us.

Speaker’s race? What Speaker’s race?

Just a reminder that one of the three most powerful political offices in the state is on the ballot this November, even if it’s largely invisible to us.

Found on the Twitters

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?

“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.

Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”

The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.

[…]

Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.

Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.

In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.

None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.

Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.

Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.

“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”

[…]

In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.

On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.

Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.

I agree that which party has the majority, and by how much, will matter a lot. And hoo boy, what might happen if we have a 75-75 split – there would surely be a compromise power-sharing agreement out there, but just agreeing about who chairs what committees gives me a headache. I tend to believe that if Dems have a majority, the job will be Rep. Thompson’s if she wants it, but she may not want it. She might prefer to be in the trenches passing the priority bills, or she may just decide the job is too much trouble to be worth it. Joe Moody may be best positioned to be a compromise candidate if the parties are tied or even if Republicans have a 76-74 lead but can’t settle their ideological rifts and find their own consensus; in other words, he could be the Democratic Joe Straus. I feel like TMF is the choice if Dems wind up with a bit of a cushion and are feeling a bit salty. I’m totally spitballing here.

Whoever wins the job in the event of a Dem house, he or she will have a slightly easier go of it than a Dem Speaker from before 2010 would have had, as the caucus is more unified on issues these days. That’s largely because there are no more conservative Dems from rural districts, and thus no one who has to be appeased or coddled on things like LGBTQ equality or gun control or immigration. Passing a budget that fully funds education and prioritizes coronavirus relief, and maximizing Democratic leverage on redistricting, are the two top tasks. When the Dems get together after the election to plan their strategy for the session, those have to be the main questions that any Speaker wannabe must answer. We know how important this election is, but in part that’s because what comes after it is so damn important, too.

Will we have redistricting hearings?

Not looking great for it right now.

In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Republicans have quietly halted plans to hold a series of public input hearings across more than 20 cities, slated to occur earlier this year, to collect public testimonials from Texans about redistricting. These testimonials would be a critical tool to help group communities which share common social and economic interests, voting patterns, and local preferences as new district maps are being drawn.

A coalition of 42 advocacy groups have taken notice of this indefinite stoppage and are demanding for the resumption of public hearings on redistricting in a safe and accessible format.

[…]

In an effort to remedy urgent concerns about the lack of preclearance and increase transparency in the upcoming 2020 redistricting process, Texas lawmakers planned for a series of public input hearings earlier this year, led by the House and Senate Redistricting Committees. Both committees are led by Republicans, Rep. Phil King and Sen. Joan Huffman, respectively.

The House and Senate originally planned for a limited public hearing schedule, however, the Texas Civil Rights Project built a coalition of groups to successfully agitate for the geographic expansion of these public hearings to reach across every corner of the state, from Austin and Houston to Amarillo and Weslaco. Then, COVID-19 swept across the state.

Because state leadership prematurely opened the state and failed to enact safety measures to control the pandemic, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed to nearly 600,000 infections and have claimed nearly 11,000 lives, disproportionately killing Black and Latinx Texans. South Texas communities along the U.S.-Mexico border have the highest infection rates across the entire nation.

Due to the pandemic, public hearings for redistricting were indefinitely postponed in March. However, in the past four months since, the legislature has failed to provide a plan to resume the hearings with a modified schedule or different format.

The Texas Civil Rights Project argues that resuming this process to hear from Texans and receive community input is both urgent and vital to avoid further suppression and the dilution of voting power of Black and Brown communities.

You can see a copy of the letter and who signed it, along with a list of the cities where hearings had been tentatively scheduled, here. I attended one of these for the 2011 reapportionment, and there was a lot of interesting information that was presented, with several members of the public having useful things to say. The point of these hearings is to give the public a chance to understand what the data looks like and how any proposed new maps may affect their communities, while also giving the committee members a chance to hear about concerns and issues that they might not otherwise know about. It’s the least they can do, in my opinion, and even with a pandemic there needs to be a way to bring this opportunity to the people. Zoom meetings have their pros and cons, but they could certainly be used here, and would allow for people not in any of those 20 cities to attend without having to travel. Something is better than nothing, and right now nothing is what we have.

Dan Patrick’s Confederate posturing

Whatever else you can say about Dan Patrick, he’s always on brand.

n response to a letter by Democratic state senators urging the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols at the Texas Capitol, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed Democrats on Monday for past discrimination in the state and said the party is not committed to a “sincere” or “serious conversation” about the future of the monuments.

He did not directly answer whether he supported removing the symbols.

“If you are truly sincere about a serious discussion, then you need to openly examine the role Democrats have played in our state’s history on this issue,” Patrick wrote in a letter to the Democrats. “It is time to be transparent. A first step in addressing these issues is for Democrats to acknowledge that it was your party who carried out those past discriminatory policies and injustices and who built those monuments and hung those paintings.”

That kind of rhetoric has become common in the era of President Donald Trump, but it ignores the history of how in Texas and the rest of the South, many conservative Democrats switched parties after their former party embraced civil rights legislation. Texas was dominated by white, conservative Democrats for the first three quarters of the 20th century, a time during which the state passed numerous racist laws that enforced or promoted segregation and violated the rights of Texans of color.

But Republicans have been in near-complete control of the Texas government this century, and in that time have passed multiple voting measures found by federal courts to have intentionally discriminated against people of color.

In the last decade alone, federal courts have repeatedly scolded the Legislature under Republican leadership for discriminating against voters of color in redrawing political maps that undermined the political clout of Hispanic and Black voters and in passing one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country that disproportionately burdened voters of color who were less likely to have the identification the state required people to show at the polls.

At the start of the most recent legislative session, about 80% of Democrats in the Texas Legislature were people of color, compared with about 4% of Republicans.

You can see a copy of the letter, which was sent on August 12, here. As the story notes, there’s a select Senate committee that had been named by Patrick to review artwork in the Senate chambers, but for a variety of reasons it has not yet had a meeting. Clearly, that is not a priority on Patrick’s part, given his response to this gentle prodding. It was just last year that a Confederate plaque was removed from the Capitol following several years of lobbying by mostly Black legislators, so we know this can be done. On the other hand, the Senate that same year passed a bill that would have made it much harder for Confederate monuments to be removed; that bill thankfully never passed the House. Again, it’s clear what Dan Patrick cares about here. The ironic thing is that if he really wanted to stick it to the Democrats of fifty or a hundred years ago – the ones he blames for the presence of these monuments in the first place – he could work to remove those monuments that he claims are such a part of their legacy. I’m sure you can guess why he’s not interested in that.

So, as with the plaque in the Capitol, it’s going to take some work to get this done. Most likely, the removal of Dan Patrick from the Senate chambers as well will be a prerequisite. Be that as it may, let me close by applauding the Trib for putting Patrick’s bullshit in its proper context. A little truth can go a long way.