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That’s our Lege

Interview with Rep. Chris Turner

Rep. Chris Turner

I’ve done two interviews about redistricting so far, with both of them focused on the litigation aspect of it, which in turn had a focus on Congress. Today I want to pay more attention to the Legislature, which is not only where redistricting originates but also itself a big part of the fight. State Rep. Chris Turner is the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, representing HD101 in Tarrant County. That was a new district created in 2011 due to population growth in Tarrant County, and while it represented a third Democratic district in Tarrant, it was also a place to pack Democrats so the eight-member Republican caucus from Tarrant could have easier elections. Turner was elected to a different Tarrant County seat in 2008, lost it in the 2010 wave, and has served in HD101 since 2013. Tarrant is a major battleground for control of the State House in 2020, in part due to demography and in part due to the Trump effect on college-educated white voters. We talked about the effects of the 2011/2013 maps, and what we have to look forward to in the Lege in 2021. Here’s the conversation:

Previous interviews in this series: Redistricting legal expert Michael Li, and Congressman Marc Veasey. I have more of these in mind and will bring them to you as I can.

Interview with Michael Li

Michael Li

As we know, among the many monumental tasks that the Legislature has before it in 2021 is redistricting. That will almost certainly be done in a summer or even autumn special session, since Census data will be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will happen next year, with all the usual pomp and partisan fighting that accompanies it. And as we also know from living in Texas, litigation and redistricting go together like chips and salsa. This past decade was particularly eventful for redistricting and the courts, and I wanted to have a chance to review where we are now before we embark on the next round. The best person I could think of to have this conversation with is Michael Li, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights, and elections. I was of course a dedicated reader of his Texas Redistricting blog, and I follow him now on Twitter, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him all my questions about the state of redistricting litigation:

I have a number of interviews in mind on this topic that I would like to do. I’m working on making that happen, but have no set schedule for any of it at this time. Please let me know what you think.

Let’s fix the Sandra Bland Act

Let’s make it what it was supposed to have been in the first place.

Sandra Bland

After Sandra Bland’s death in a rural Texas jail drew outrage across the nation, two Texas lawmakers filed a comprehensive bill to address racial profiling during traffic stops, ban police from stopping drivers on a traffic violation as a pretext to investigate other potential crimes, limit police searches of vehicles and other jail and policing reforms.

But by the time the Legislature passed it, most of the sweeping provisions related to policing had been stripped out.

Now, on the heels of the death of George Floyd, those lawmakers say they’re determined to try again to push those reforms through when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021.

State Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, both Houston Democrats who chair relevant committees in their respective chambers, said in a joint news release Tuesday they would continue to work together on criminal justice reform efforts next year. Whitmire’s chief of staff and Coleman confirmed to The Texas Tribune that they will begin with pushing again for measures they hoped to achieve with the 2017 law — like investigations into racial profiling and officer consequences. Many provisions were removed from the bill after law enforcement opposition.

[…]

Coleman told the Tribune on Tuesday that he and Whitmire will start with filing legislation that was removed from the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, such as measures to increase the standards by which law enforcement can stop and search a vehicle and ban law enforcement from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations to allow an officer to look into other suspicions. Coleman said they will also look at filing measures related to what constituents are asking for in the wake of Floyd’s death, “specifically getting rid of choke holds” and ensuring that, “if a peace officer is standing around watching their colleague do something wrong, that they must intervene.”

See here for some background. The Chron adds some details.

Lawmakers in 2019 tried to revive the limitation on arrests but faced steep opposition from police unions and lost support from some Democrats who disagreed with parts of its language that they felt gave police too much discretion.

This time around, however, Gov. Greg Abbott is already speaking publicly in support of legislation that would prevent a death like Floyd’s from happening in Texas, which he called a “horrific act of police brutality” in a news conference Tuesday.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who authored the Sandra Bland Act, was listening.

“When Sandra Bland happened, we didn’t have Gov. Abbott coming out and saying that this was appalling,” said Coleman, a member of the newly formed bipartisan House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “We do on this case. Across the country, people who ordinarily would not side with the protesters in terms of what happened, they are. We have peace officers kneeling with protesters saying enough is enough. … That’s the great thing about life. Things can evolve.”

[…]

The Sandra Bland Act has already seen some early success: According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the number of annual suicides declined by 50 percent from 35 in 2015 to 17 in 2018 after the implementation of new standards for mentally ill inmates and independent investigations of jail deaths

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said he also hopes to bring back discussion of the misdemeanor arrest restrictions missing from the Bland Act, as well as reforms of grand juries and the death penalty.

“It’s just a nightmare scenario with not only Mr. Floyd’s death but all of the stories — they’ve got to compel us not just to say the right things but to do the right things,” Leach said. “So, yes, my hope is that we will come together quickly and act, and I think you’re going to see the House and Senate do that next session.”

Other reforms lawmakers’ said they’d like to revisit in 2021 include deeper training on racial bias, stronger laws to prevent racial profiling in arrests and, like the Blands, ending “pretext stops.”

[…]

The fiercest political opposition has tended to come from police unions, including the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, better known as CLEAT.

Last session, the group fought the measure blocking arrests for class C, low-level misdemeanors because of a concern about taking away officer discretion.

It also opposed a bill written by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would have made more records regarding in-custody death public. The police union said it was concerned that alleged misconduct would become public before the completion of an investigation.

After a bitter fight, the group declined to meet with Moody and certain other lawmakers.

“There’s a philosophical shift that we have to undertake next session,” Moody said. “Being told that we can’t even have a conversation about it, that is a nonstarter. We are going to have a conversation about this. … So while some cop lobbyist in Austin says we’re not allowed to talk about it, it’s not his decision to make. It’s our decision to make, and we have to get to work on this in a real way.”

There’s lots of things the Lege could do, and this all sounds like a good start. Overcoming opposition from law enforcement will be the main challenge. The head guy at CLEAT says they’re willing to talk to anyone speaking “in good faith”, and you can take that as you see fit. As I see it, they’re welcome to sit at our table if they have something constructive to offer, but no one has to go sit at theirs if they don’t want to. This session looks like the best opportunity to take positive action. Let’s keep that momentum going.

UPDATE: Well, what do you know?

In the first statewide policy change since George Floyd’s death shook the nation, the Texas agency that regulates police has agreed to add implicit bias training to a course required for every officer, upon the request of Houston Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman.

The requirement was one that had been included in an early iteration, but not the final version, of the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, which requires all officers to take de-escalation training.

This time, Coleman went a different route and simply asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement if it would make the change administratively as opposed to waiting for new legislation. To his delight, the commission responded a day later that it would adopt the policy.

Coleman said he will work with the agency on crafting and finalizing curriculum, but the purpose will be to train officers about the possibility that they may be unconsciously carrying preconceived notions or prejudices that can affect their actions on the job.

“It does what the public is asking for,” Coleman said. “When a police officer doesn’t understand that they have this bias, the only way to change it is for them to recognize that they have a bias that may be a racial bias.

“When people say, ‘How do you change how people think?’ This is how you change how people think.”

Who knew it could be that easy? May the rest of it be the same.

A bipartisan equality bill

I appreciate the effort, but we can’t expect too much to come of this.

Five Democratic and two Republican state legislators announced plans Wednesday to file a bill next legislative session that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ Texans in housing, employment and public spaces.

The bill, which has the early support of state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that already have enacted such policies.

“Quite frankly, we are already behind the curve on this issue,” Davis said. “Nondiscrimination is not just good for LGBTQ community, but it’s good for all Texans.”

Lawmakers rolled out the bill during a virtual news conference where they touted an economic study that found a statewide nondiscrimination policy would generate $738 million in state revenue and $531 million in local government revenue next biennium. It also would add 180,000 new jobs in technology and tourism by 2025, the study found. The benefits, the authors said, largely would come from Texas’ greater ability to attract talent and heightened opportunity for tourism and conventions.

“We should want to treat people fairly because it’s the right thing to do, whether it has economic effects or not,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist who led the study. “This shouldn’t be the reason to do it, but it is a very important aspect of it in today’s society, and there are very significant economic costs associated with discrimination.”

The legislation likely will face strong headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, prominently opposed a similar measure that was rejected by Houston voters in 2015, and later backed the so-called bathroom bill opposed by LGBTQ advocates that would have required people to use facilities matching the gender identity on their birth certificates.

The lawmakers largely dismissed political concerns Wednesday, arguing instead that their early push for the bill — more than seven months before the session is slated to begin — heightens their odds of passing it.

“I think a lot of this is going to take talking to our colleagues and explaining the results of this study,” said Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a member of the House LGBTQ Caucus and author of the bill. “It’s going to take a lot of groundwork.”

[…]

The bill faces good odds of passing the lower chamber, where Democrats have gained ground and some Republicans have moderated their positions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. He was less bullish on the bill’s chances in the Senate.

“It’s a different animal on that side of the chamber,” Rottinghaus said. “You do all the political calculations and it’s a tall order to get it passed. But, in some ways it’s a marker: these members see the future of Texas as one where the economy needs to be put front and center, and if that theory can get some grip among the members, then there’s hope for it in the future. But as it is now, it’s a pretty tough sell.”

That’s really about all there is to it. This bill may pass the House, but if so then Dan Patrick will stick it in a shredder, have the shredder blown up by the bomb squad, and then have the debris shipped to Oklahoma. We ain’t getting a bill like this passed while he’s Lite Guv, and that’s even before we consider getting it signed and then having it reasonably enforced by the Attorney General. It’s nice that there are two House Republicans willing to sign on to this – no, really, that is important and could very well matter if we oust Patrick in 2022 but still have a Republican-controlled Senate – but it will take either more of them than that to get this passed, or fewer Republicans in the House overall. I don’t know who our next Speaker will be, but I like the odds of this passing with a Democrat appointing committee chairs than with pretty much any Republican that could inherit the gavel. Needless to say, one way of getting the requisite number of Dems in the House is to oust Sarah Davis, as her seat is high on the list of pickup possibilities. Todd Hunter’s HD32 is on that list as well, but farther down; if he loses in November, Dems have had a very, very good day.

Let’s be clear that lots of substantive bills take more than one session to get passed, so bringing this up now even without any assurance that it could get out of committee is the right call. Start talking about this now – the real benefits a true equality bill would bring, the ridiculous arguments that opponents will throw at it, and very importantly the potential legal pitfalls that the true wingnuts and their sympathetic judges will try to exploit – and we’ll be better positioned when the timing is better. I can’t say when that might be – elections have consequences, I’m told – but it’s best to be prepared.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

More on the potential delay of redistricting

Some further details from the Statesman.

On Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, all Census Bureau field operations would be canceled until June 1, and the agency would not be able to complete the count until Oct. 31.

Ross wants Congress to enact legislation delaying the deadline for delivering apportionment counts to President Donald Trump from Dec. 31 to April 30, 2021, and for delivering redistricting data to the states from March 31, 2021, to July 31, 2021. Ross said he couldn’t rule out further delays.

That would mean that Texas lawmakers would not have the numbers they need to redraw political districts in the upcoming 140-day regular session, which ends on May 31, 2021.

The Texas Constitution requires that the Legislature redraw state Senate and House maps “at its first regular session after the publication of each United States decennial census.”

But, with the delay, that would not be until 2023, too late for the 2022 elections.

“Texas will have to have a special session to do redistricting,” said Michael Li, the former Dallas attorney who is now senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections.

Depending on the census count, Texas is expected to add three seats to the 36 it already has in the U.S. House. Li said that, under federal election law, if new maps have not been drawn in time for the 2022 election, any new seats would be elected at-large.

“Or alternatively, a court might draw maps,” Li said.

The same likely would be true if the Legislature fails to draw state House and Senate districts in time for the 2022 election.

[…]

[If] the Legislature were able to take up redistricting in the 2021 session, Republicans would be well situated even if the House and Senate were unable to pass a state legislative redistricting plan that was signed by the governor, because responsibility for devising a plan would then fall on the Legislative Redistricting Board made up of the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the Texas attorney general, the state comptroller and the land commissioner. Unless Democrats take control of the Texas House in 2020 and elect a Democratic speaker, all those officials are Republicans.

That Legislative Redistricting Board provision does not apply in a special session.

The provision in the Texas Constitution means that even if the Legislature, meeting in special session, drew new state legislative lines in 2021, it would have to repeat the process when it convenes in regular session in 2023, said Eric Opiela, an election lawyer and former executive director and associate general counsel to the Texas Republican Party, with long experience in redistricting.

That means that Democrats, who have made flipping the Texas House the centerpiece of their 2020 campaign, “might have two bites at the apple” — the 2020 and 2022 elections — to gain control of the House in time for the last word on redistricting, he said.

The 120-day delay makes redistricting in time for the March 2022 primary, “tough but still manageable, but if there are further delays, then you start bumping into the filing period for candidates and potentially the primary,” Li said.

“The extension is in everyone’s interest, however,” Li said. “Texas is behind in census responses, and it’s important from the standpoint of Texans that the bureau have the time to get the census as right as possible.”

See here for the background. The relevant Constitutional amendment is this one. The 2013 Legislature did indeed revisit the House and Senate maps following the 2011 special session that drew them, but that was also for the purpose of amending the maps to conform with the interim districts the federal court had already drawn for the 2012 election. There are two scenarios where Dems have real leverage. One is in 2021 with a Dem majority in the House. The Legislative Redistricting Board can draw most maps if there’s no agreement between the House and the Senate, but it can’t draw a new Congressional map. That would go to a three-judge panel if all else failed, and it’s not hard to imagine the Republicans not wanting to roll the dice on that. In that situation, there would be lots of room for some horse trading, with legislative maps and a Congressional map that all cater to incumbent protection over maximal partisan gain. I’m not saying this would happen, but it could.

Alternately, Democrats could win or maintain the House in 2022 and win enough statewide offices, including Governor, to force a redraw in 2023 or direct it if a redraw is mandated because the previous exercise had been done in a special session. It should be noted that the same opportunity exists for Republicans, who start out in a much stronger position to make it happen – they would just need to take back the House (this situation only applies if they didn’t have control of the House in 2021) and re-elect Greg Abbott. I definitely have some fear of this scenario playing out, as it is not at all far-fetched, and the 2003 experience shows that they have no shyness when it comes to a bit of mid-decade map-drawing.

All this is getting way ahead of ourselves. For now, the main point is that any delay in the Census has a big ripple effect in Texas, thanks to the legislative calendar and our early-in-the-year primaries. Such a delay is almost certainly necessary to get an accurate count, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and we need to be aware of what would happen as a result. This is a subject we will come back to again and again between now and January.

It’s even harder to prosecute pot cases now

Such a shame.

What if lawmakers writing one of the most consequential laws to come out of last year’s legislative session, legalizing hemp in Texas, forgot to include a small, but crucial detail that could get your marijuana possession charges dropped?

That’s what happened last week, after a Brazos County court judge concluded the new law omitted a date typically included in state crime legislation. As a result, misdemeanor charges against a Texas A&M University student arrested on the day of his 2018 college graduation were summarily tossed.

The decision is the latest stumbling block that Texas’s nine-month-old hemp law has presented for police and prosecutors committed to pursuing low-level marijuana possession cases. Although the decision does not bind other judges, attorneys said the successful tactic had the potential to change the course of hundreds of pending cases across the state.

[…]

New state crime laws always include a clear dividing line, typically written as a date, said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Before the date, the old law applies; after, the new law does.

Yet the hemp bill, which was passed through the Agriculture and Livestock Committee instead of the regular criminal justice panels, neglected to specify when the new pot definition started. A little-known provision of Texas law says that without clear transition instructions, if a new law lowers the penalty for a crime it can be applied retroactively.

The district and county attorneys association noted the missing language early on. “The law went into effect on June 10, 2019, but it is unclear whether it applies to previously-filed marijuana cases pending on that date,” it warned In a June letter to member prosecutors.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, did not return a call to his office seeking comment on the AWOL date.

Criminal defense attorneys noticed it, too, and began seeking cases to test if the new law could also be used to challenge older possession charges.

Long story short, they found a defendant in College Station who wanted to have his day in court, and their argument that the new law applied resulted in the dismissal of the case because the cops hadn’t tested the pot they said they found. Testing is another problem for prosecutors, and the DPS has said they don’t have enough money to handle the demand from the locals, leaving them in limbo. Which is fine by me. Let’s keep this natural experiment going and see for ourselves once and for all how little there is to fear from not being hardasses about weed.

Republican former Senators defend anti-majoritarian practices

I appreciate the spirit in which this was offered, but it’s completely out of touch with reality.

The purpose of the 31-member Texas Senate is similar to that of the U.S. Senate: to cool down some of the fevered legislation filed in the Senate or passed by a simple majority of the Texas House of Representatives.

This is accomplished by a Senate rule that requires a super-majority vote (60% of senators on the floor at this time) to bring up a bill for debate. This rule was enacted in 2015; for 70 years previously, a larger, two-thirds vote was required (21 votes of those present).

It’s no coincidence that the 2015 rule change mirrored the Senate’s partisan balance. It allowed Republicans, who held 20 seats, to bring up and pass a bill without any Democrat support. Now — with the possibility that Democrats may gain Senate seats in the general election — the idea has been raised to further lower the threshold during the 2021 legislative session to require only a simple majority vote.

As former Republican senators — with a total of 80 years of service in this wonderful, deliberative body — we oppose this possible change. Requiring only a simple majority would be bad for the Texas Senate, the Texas Legislature, and the State of Texas.

[…]

A stronger rule encourages, even forces, senators to work with colleagues across the political aisle. In our experience, working in a bipartisan manner led to better legislation and made the Texas Senate a more collegial body.

It also ensures legislators from rural and urban areas work together. In our heavily urban state, rural areas could be more easily outvoted under a rule change. In fact, some senators believe this issue is more about the urban/rural split than a partisan one.

Democrat and Republican Lt. Govs. Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock, Rick Perry, Bill Ratliff and David Dewhurst had successful terms under the two-thirds rule. It could be argued that this rule made them better leaders and improved the landmark legislation they passed (school finance, criminal justice reform, tort reform, tax cuts, worker comp reform, etc.).

Anyone notice which Lite Governor they left out of that recitation in the last paragraph? It’s not a coincidence, I assure you.

Let’s put aside the fetishization of super-majorities and the mythmaking that it’s the House producing all of the fever dream legislation these days while the Senate awaits with calm and wisdom to sort out the wheat from the chaff. (Tell me again, which chamber passed the “bathroom bill” in 2017?) The whole “require Senators to work across the aisle for the betterment of The People” thing sounds all nice and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”-like, but it ignores the utterly predictable reality of what will happen when and if Democrats achieve a majority in the upper chamber: Republican State Senators will immediately adopt of a model of intractable opposition to any bill that represents a Democratic priority, in the same way that Republican US Senators under Mitch McConnell used the filibuster to block literally everything President Obama wanted to do.

One reason for this is because Democratic State Senators have, to a large degree, taken similar action on many high-profile Republican priorities: redistricting, voter ID, more abortion restrictions, de-funding Planned Parenthood, “sanctuary cities”, “bathroom bills”, and so on. This is exactly why Dan Patrick, and to a lesser extent before him David Dewhurst, first weakened and then replaced the two-thirds rule, on the grounds that an elected legislative majority should be able to pass its bills with majority support. I hate these bills and I hate the effect they have had, but that’s why we have elections. I want a Democratic majority to be able to pass its bills with majority support when it is in that position as well.

But it’s the notion that requiring bipartisan consensus will be a net improvement to the process that is so laughable. Perhaps former Senators Deuell and Estes have forgotten, but the entire reason they are former Senators is because they were defeated in Republican primaries by opponents who successfully argued to the Republican voters in their districts that Deuell and Estes were too bipartisan, and too accommodating to the Democratic minority. They showed insufficient fealty to the Republican orthodoxy, and they needed to go. Would either of them argue with a straight face that Senators Bob Hall and Pat Fallon would “work with colleagues across the political aisle” in a hypothetical 16-15 or 17-14 Democratic Senate, in order to encourage better legislation and a more collegial atmosphere? I couldn’t even type that last sentence without snorting. The outcome we will get in a Senate with a modest Democratic majority and any kind of super-majoritarian rules is a Senate that passes no bills.

Again, I understand why this super-majority idea has some appeal. Maybe in a Democratic Senate where the likes of Krier and Ratliff and Sibley and Ogden and Deuell and Estes were the typical Republican Senators and none of them feared being tarred and feathered by their seething primary voters, we could indulge in this little fantasy. We don’t live in that world any more. I can’t even see it in my rearview mirror. The only thing this proposal would accomplish is the extended lifespan of every Republican priority from the past 20 years, possibly forever. I suspect they all know this, and that it appeals to them a lot more than the let’s-all-join-hands-and-work-together ideal ever would.

Dan Patrick makes the most predictable announcement ever

Really, who didn’t see this coming?

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Thursday he may further lower the threshold required to bring bills to the Senate floor if Republicans lose one or two seats in November.

Patrick made the comment at a conservative policy conference in Austin while discussing the current makeup of the upper chamber, which has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Currently, 19 votes are required to put legislation on the floor for passage. But Republicans are facing the real possibility of losing at least one caucus member in 2020. Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, is running for reelection in a solidly Democratic district after winning his seat in 2018 special election upset.

“I’m right there at that number, and if we lose one or two seats, then we might have to go to 16 next session,” Patrick said. “We might have to go to a simple majority because we will not be stopped in leading on federalism in the United States of America.”

Honestly, this is good news and we should be thankful for it. For one, this is the closest thing any Republican will come to admitting in public that they expect to lose SD19, a seat that they had the very good fortune to borrow for the 2019 session. There’s no reason Dan Patrick would voluntarily say this out loud to people who might report on it otherwise. He’s laying the groundwork. But look, while the two-thirds-that-is-now-three-fifths rule had its place in an older time, when the parties were less sorted by ideology and that rule wasn’t generally used for partisan reasons, it’s an anti-majoritarian abomination that just has no place in a democracy. Just look at the devastation that the filibuster wrought in the US Senate during the Obama presidency. You can’t be in favor of killing the filibuster and preserving the 2/3-3/5 rule. At least, I can’t.

Sure, in the short term, if Dems don’t take the House this year, losing the 3/5 rule will suck. Patrick and his cronies will get another session to shove through all the ridiculous wingnut crap they can, and may get to keep doing it even longer given that they’d be in control of redistricting. But someday, maybe even someday in the 20’s, the Dems are going to retake the Senate. Maybe it’ll happen in 2022, when all of the Senate is on the ballot, and maybe it’ll happen in conjunction with Dems winning statewide and keeping the House. Now ask yourself, in a Senate where Dems have 16 or 17 members: Do you want to let Senate Republicans control that chamber’s agenda by blocking every single bill the House passes that they don’t like? Or would you rather let those 16 or 17 Dem Senators do the job they were elected to do?

The brilliant thing is that when the Democratic Lieutenant Governor announces the Senate rules, which do not include a 2/3 or 3/5 rule, no one can cry about the vicious partisanship of it all, because Dan Patrick will have already set the precedent. He’ll get to have it first, but we’ll get it next, and we won’t have to do any work to make it happen. If you don’t see that as a golden opportunity, even if it is one whose timeline is unknown, I don’t know what to tell you.

We’re not going to get an independent redistricting commission

Nice to think about, but the set of circumstances that might lead to it are exceedingly narrow.

Most of the seven states that have independent commissions adopted them by a citizens’ initiative. Since Texas doesn’t have that option, the only way it would happen would be if lawmakers voluntarily gave up their redistricting power.

Kathay Feng, national redistricting director of the progressive government watchdog group Common Cause, said that’s unlikely to happen in Texas, but not impossible.

“The reality is that when a legislature is looking at potentially split control or the changeover of control from one party to another, they’re the most likely to entertain the possibility of redistricting reform,” Feng said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said it would take a unique set of circumstances.

“It would take us reaching a tipping point where Republicans are pessimistic about their prospects for retaining a majority, but Democrats are also pessimistic about their prospects for taking a majority as well,” Jones said.

I think Jones’ assessment is basically accurate, but it’s important to understand what Republican pessimism about retaining a majority means. We’re talking about them being afraid that they might face unified Democratic government in 2031, the next time redistricting will come around. And not only must they fear this thing that might happen ten years and three statewide elections from now, they must conclude that their best option now would be to curb that future theoretical Democratic hegemony via the creation of an independent redistricting commission. All this happens following a Democratic takeover of the State House, because otherwise Republicans can do what they’ve done before, which is draw whatever districts they want without fear. You see what I mean by exceedingly narrow?

Let’s keep one other thing in mind here. If we do get a Democratic State House, Republicans can still push for whatever maps they want for the SBOE, the State Senate, and the State House. That’s because if the two chambers can’t agree on maps for those three entities, the job gets thrown to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which is the Lite Governor, the Speaker, the AG, the Comptroller, and the Land Commissioner. In other words, a Board on which Republicans would have a 4-1 majority, and thus no trouble passing those Republican maps. The one map that would still be up in the air would be the Congressional map. If there is no map passed legislatively, it gets thrown to a federal court, over which neither side would have any control.

There is room in this scenario for some compromise. Republicans would prefer not to let a court do this work. Democrats would of course like to have some influence in the mapmaking process. You can imagine an agreement to draw maps for all four entities – Congress, SBOE, Senate, House – that leans towards incumbent protection rather than greatly advantaging or disadvantaging one party over the other. If that happens, you could also imagine them including an independent commission as a bonus Grand Bargain, but that seems a bridge too far. But compromise maps that mostly don’t make any incumbents’ lives too difficult, that I can see maybe getting done.

Maybe. The situation I’ve just described here is like what happened in 2001, which was the last time Dems controlled the House. The LRB drew the state maps, which led to the massive GOP takeover in the 2002 election, and a court drew the Congressional map. And then, once Republicans had control of the House, they went back and redid the Congressional map. That was the original, stated motivation when Tom DeLay pushed for re-redistricting in 2003: The Congressional map should be drawn by the legislators, not by a court. Obviously, they wanted a map that was much more favorable to Republicans, but that was the original reason they gave. It seems to me that this is a very plausible outcome in 2021 as well – the Republicans decide to let a court draw the map, which in all likelihood would be quite deferential to incumbents anyway, then take their chances on retaking the House in 2022 and doing a new Congressional map again. Hey, it worked once before, and now they have a more favorable Supreme Court to back them up.

Honestly, this may be the single most likely scenario – the LRB draws the state maps, a court draws the Congressional map, and everything hinges on the 2022 election. Maybe Dems keep the State House. Maybe we manage to elect a Democratic Governor, who could then veto any new Congressional map. Maybe Republicans win and do their thing. Heck, even in the Great Map Compromise scenario, who’s to say that Republicans wouldn’t tear it all up and start over in the event they retake the House and retain the Governor’s Mansion? I’d put money on that before I placed a bet on a redistricting commission. 2031 is a long, long way away. It’s not at all irrational to prioritize the now over what maybe could possibly happen if everything goes wrong.

Bonnen “likely violated” the law

Well, isn’t that special?

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The House General Investigating Committee on Friday unanimously adopted a report from its legal advisers that said House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “likely violated” state law during a June meeting with a fellow member and a hardline conservative activist — though members didn’t raise the idea of any possible action against Bonnen and said the investigation was closed.

“Today’s action concludes the committee’s investigation,” said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, after members met behind closed doors for over an hour.

Meyer, who left the hearing room at the Texas Capitol without taking questions from reporters, said the full report from the three legal advisers retained in October by the committee would be “promptly transmitted” to House members. The committee did not immediately release the report to the public, though a copy was later obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The report concluded by saying the information produced “militates against criminal prosecution” against either Bonnen or state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican considered one of the speaker’s top lieutenants who involved in the political fallout — a line that the speaker’s office reiterated in a statement after the news.

“The committee has confirmed what we have known for months and the conclusion of their report speaks for itself,” Cait Meisenheimer, a spokesperson for Bonnen, said in a statement.

Bonnen “likely violated” section 572.051(a) of the Texas Government Code, according to Meyer, who was reading from the report during the committee hearing — but advisers in the report said the law provided no “independent statutory consequences” for a state official who breaches it.

[…]

Democrats, for their part, said that Friday’s news reiterated the need for the Texas Legislature to pass “substantial ethics reforms.”

“It is unfortunate that Chairman Meyer scheduled today’s hearing to be part of a Friday news dump right before the holidays,” state Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “If the committee has found that there is no consequence for transacting campaign business in the state capitol building or exchanging House media credentials for political favors, then we need to pass new laws. House Democrats will be ready to lead that effort when the Legislature convenes in 2021.”

Further action is now up to the full 150-member House. The General Investigating Committee, according to House rules, can propose articles of impeachment — but did not do so during Friday’s hearing.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the report. It’s a little frustrating to see the committee acknowledge that there was likely a violation of the law, then state that there’s basically nothing to be done about it. Not that I think Dennis Bonnen needs to be thrown in jail, just that it’s always annoying to see powerful people get away with abusing their power. Then again, at least Bonnen will be out of power soon enough, and not by his preference. It’s something, if not wholly adequate. Read the report and see what you think. And very much yes, this is a thing Democrats should make a priority out of, on the trail and in the Lege next session.

Every Speaker’s race is unique

The one to come has a more uncertain outcome than the last few we’ve seen.

Found on the Twitters

The current party mix is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Republicans hope to hold their advantage after the 2020 elections, while Democrats, encouraged by their 12-seat gain in 2018, hope to win back the majority they lost in 2002.

The next race for speaker, a certainty with Bonnen’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection, probably won’t happen quickly — unless Bonnen can be persuaded to leave office earlier than January 2021 to allow a faster switch to new management.

Why? If the House majority isn’t overwhelming — in either party’s favor — it will probably take a coalition to replace Bonnen. A Republican speaker will need some Democratic votes to win; a Democrat, some Republicans. And until they know what the mix will be, uncertainty will prevent most state representatives from committing to any speaker candidate.

[…]

The list of people who might succeed Bonnen probably starts with the list of people he beat last time in a race that started slow, percolated for about a year, and then sprinted to a close. Straus announced in October 2017 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. A couple of aspirants announced quickly, and more trickled in as the year went on — especially after the primary elections were over.

But nobody could put together 76 votes. Bonnen, who had demurred when he was first mentioned as a candidate, became a late entry. Within a matter of days after the 2018 general election, he had the votes he needed.

And a year later, the House is back where it was two years ago, looking for new leadership with a tough election ahead, doing the preparatory work for a redistricting session with high political stakes, a huge budget to write and other big issues to confront.

And no strong incentive to hurry.

In early September of 2018 there were seven candidates for Speaker, six Republicans and one Dem. Two of them – Republican John Zerwas and Democrat Eric Johnson – are no longer in the Lege, while the others are in safe seats. Seems like those five would be in the mix, but there would be plenty of others, including who knows how many Dems. Bonnen got in as Zerwas got out just before the 2018 election, and he was the clear choice shortly thereafter. My guess is that while there are a lot of members who can envision themselves as Speaker right now, they’re mostly going to keep it on the down low until after the election, when it will at least be known which party will have the numerical advantage. After that, it will all be about counting votes. We may not know who the Speaker will be until the start of the session. The potential for excitement, and some bruised feelings, is quite high.

The next bathroom bill

You can see it coming from here.

The Texas House LGBTQ Caucus is counting on Democrats flipping the Republican-held House to keep another possible ‘bathroom bill’ off the table during the 2021 legislative session.

Texas Republicans last week rallied around a child custody case of a Dallas 7-year-old whose mother says is transgender, pledging to intervene against children’s gender transition. Members of the caucus, who fought the controversial “Chick-fil-A bill”, said flipping the House will be key to winning the brewing battle over the care of transgender children.

“The only way we’re going to avoid that is by flipping the House,” Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said at a caucus town hall at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. “We are nine seats away from controlling the flow of legislation in the House so that we don’t feed that beast anymore.”

[…]

Rep. Julie Johnson, a freshman Dallas Democrat, said the government has no right to intervene in the “personal decision” for children to transition. The child lives in Johnson’s district.

She agreed that winning the House is the best strategy to combat bills such as the one promised by Rep. Matt Krause to ban puberty blockers for children to transition. Johnson noted that the Fort Worth Republican also authored the “Chick-fil-A bill” banning governments from taking “adverse action” against someone based on affiliation to a religious organization.

LGBTQ advocates say the law, which gained traction after San Antonio’s city council booted Chick-fil-A from its airport for its donations to Christian organizations that oppose expanding LGBTQ rights, gives a license to discriminate.

“He’s going to be filing those bills, so hopefully if Democrats are in charge those bills won’t get a hearing,” Johnson said.

See here for the background. I agree with Reps. Israel and Johnson, and I daresay Republicans also believe that whether a bill targeting trans kids gets a House hearing or not depends very much on which party has a majority. There’s not really anything else to say at this time, so let me encourage you to read this Twitter thread, and reflect on the fact that Greg Abbott et al would consider that man to be an abusive parent.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

So now what with Bonnen?

Democrats will wait and see.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

On Thursday night, as Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s political fate continued to hang in the balance, some of the most influential Democrats were in El Paso for a town hall and were split on whether the first-term leader should immediately resign from his post.

“That decision, ultimately, isn’t mine,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a top Bonnen ally. “Like all other situations, that decision is best left up to the voters in the state of Texas. I trust them.”

“There is this urgency to respond in kind with negativity or delight in this situation,” Moody added. “[But] I am sad about this, I am disappointed in it. I don’t delight in this.”

Others were less measured.

“He’s done damage to the body,” state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, the new head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, told a reporter for The Texas Tribune. “And for that reason, I think he should resign.” (Just months before, at the end of the legislative session, Israel said Bonnen was “the right man at this point in Texas history.”)

Those two answers — and that vast departure from where most members stood earlier this year — provide a glimpse into a caucus that’s navigating how to respond as the minority party to the drama that has dogged Bonnen over the past few months.

[…]

On Wednesday evening, roughly half the House Democratic Caucus met in Austin for a meeting that was already on the calendar. The Bonnen issue, of course, took center stage, and while no formal action was taken, multiple members there said there was talk of calling another meeting sometime soon to discuss potential further actions.

“I think there’s a desire to bring the entire caucus together with a specific agenda to have a discussion that could result in a vote,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, told the Tribune on Thursday. “Certainly [Wednesday’s] discussion was clear that there was no one in the room who felt anything but anger and betrayal and disappointment.”

“The general consensus … was that people should feel free to put their own messages out there and that we should be united as a caucus moving forward,” Howard said. “So far I’ve heard nothing that would indicate that we’re not all on the same page.”

But there has been variation in Democrats’ public positions. There’s also the question of whether it would be politically advantageous for Democrats to act beyond what the caucus chair, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, has already said — that the latest “revelations are incompatible” with Bonnen serving another term — before Republicans have a chance to move on the issue themselves.

I don’t have any problem with deliberation, and the potential is there for the Republicans to fracture and generate some heat for us, but at some point we need to be speaking with one voice on the topic. Pick a direction and take it.

Meanwhile, the Republicans use harsh language.

After gathering behind closed doors for hours Friday, the House GOP Caucus released a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms” language used by Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants during a secretly recording meeting with hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“Both members violated the high standards of conduct we expect of our members,” the statement said. “Their conduct does not reflect the views of our Caucus membership.”

[…]

“We completely and fully support the [House] members mentioned in the recording,” the statement said. “Further, the views expressed in the taped recording in no way reflect the high regard we have for our locally elected officials.”

The statement was released as members, on the tail end of their annual retreat, left the ballroom at a resort in Austin. Most of them declined to comment as they departed the meeting, which was originally scheduled for 45 minutes but lasted for just over four hours.

But soon after, a group of four Republican lawmakers from North Texas — state Reps. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; Matt Shaheen, R-Plano; Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano — issued a joint statement calling on Bonnen “to work diligently to prove to all 149 House members and, more importantly, to the people of Texas, that he can rebuild trust and continue to faithfully lead the House and our state forward.

“If that is not possible, the people of Texas expect and deserve a new Speaker of the House during the 87th Legislature,” the members said.

You can see the full statement here. Like I said, there’s plenty of potential for further dissension on the GOP side, and it’s fine to give them some room to express it. Just have a strategy and a plan to execute it, that’s all I ask.

So are there any legal consequences to the Bonnen tape?

Probably not, but maybe a little. Does that help?

It was, according to his critics, “hurtful,” “vindictive” and “unbefitting of the high office he holds.” But was House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s June 12 meeting with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan illegal?

In June, when Bonnen met with the hard-charging Tea Party activist, he asked Sullivan to stay out of, and get into, certain electoral battles — “help us out, and maybe kill off one or two or three [moderate Republican House lawmakers] that are never going to help” — and in return offered Sullivan media credentials for the news arm of his organization — “If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

During that meeting — a recording of which was released to the public Tuesday — Bonnen seemed to blur the line between the official and the political. It prompted the Texas House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena power, to request a probe by the state’s elite investigative unit, the Texas Rangers.

With that investigation ongoing and little word from Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne, who is expected to make the decision on whether to bring a criminal charge, there’s been ample room for speculation — which only escalated after the secret recording was made public Tuesday morning. In Capitol circles, the rule is generally: Don’t offer official tit for political tat. But whether the smudging of those boundaries constitutes criminal activity is a case-by-case consideration, a decision ultimately made by a prosecutor and, if it gets that far, a jury.

“With just the information we know at this time, it’s not clear that a crime was committed,” said Buck Wood, an Austin ethics lawyer who helped rewrite the state’s restrictions in the 1970s after a major political scandal. “But it’s also not clear that a crime wasn’t committed.”

See here for the background. Long story short, while the DPS is still doing its investigation, it seems unlikely that any criminal charges will ever result. The law in question is narrowly tailored to be about personal financial gain, and it would take a pretty broad reading of it to try to get an indictment. Unless there’s new evidence to uncover, I don’t see any danger for the Speaker here.

What about a civil case, though?

Democrats were in court in Travis County Tuesday pressing forward with their lawsuit arguing that Sullivan’s recording revealed serious violations of Texas campaign finance law. The party, along with state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, sued Sullivan in August, demanding the release of the full recording of the meeting.

The lawsuit was also filed against an “unknown political committee” that the lawsuit said includes Bonnen and Burrows. But the two lawmakers are not named defendants. At the hearing, attorney Chad Dunn argued for the Democratic Party that the newly released recording confirms there was discussion in the Capitol about political spending and requested the release of more documents about the meeting.

He said if the judge orders the information released, the party will use those documents to decide if Bonnen and Burrows should also be named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Under Texas election law, a political contribution can’t be made or authorized inside the Capitol. A violation of the law could result in up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. In civil court, it could mean having to pay back targeted candidates or opposing PACs. Dunn said the recording contains “a whole lot of authorizing.”

“If we live in a state of laws, there’s not going to be private conversations with the Speaker in the people’s Capitol authorizing illegal political contributions and expenditures,” he said.

Roark said in the August memo to the Texas Rangers that there was no political contribution authorized at the June meeting, so the law was not applicable in this case.

See here for the background. I don’t have enough information to make a reasoned guess about this one. I will say, one thing the next Lege could do is review the existing laws on what constitutes bribery and political contributions, to see if they could be improved. That would never get through Dan Patrick’s Senate, but as was the case with ethics-related bills last session, it would still be worth the effort. Would be more likely to happen with a different Speaker, that much is for sure.

The Bonnen tape is out

It’s a doozy.

During a June conversation at the Texas Capitol, Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urged hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and suggested he could get Sullivan’s group media access to the House floor, according to a secret recording of the conversation released Tuesday.

Bonnen could also be heard speaking disparagingly about multiple Democrats, calling one House member “vile” and suggesting that another’s “wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The 64-minute recording of Sullivan’s June meeting with Bonnen and another top House Republican, then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows, was posted on Sullivan’s website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas on which Sullivan appeared Tuesday morning. The recording largely aligned with Sullivan’s initial description of that June 12 meeting — and with what certain Republicans who listened to the audio before it was public had described.

While its release prompted immediate outcry from Democrats and silence from Republicans, Bonnen said in a statement that the audio makes clear he did nothing criminally wrong in the conversation, adding that the “House can finally move on.”

Roughly nine minutes into the recording, after discussing Sullivan’s recent trip to Europe, Bonnen tells Sullivan he’s “trying to win in 2020 in November.”

“Is there any way that for 2020 we sort of say … let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November,” Bonnen says. “I wanted to see if we could try and figure that out. … If you need some primaries to fight in — I will leave and Dustin will tell you some we’d love if you fought in. Not that you need our permission.”

Roughly five minutes later, the speaker said, “Let me tell you what I can do for you. Real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan responded.

[…]

Before Bonnen made his offer, he also disparaged a number of House Democrats. The speaker said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” Bonnen, after saying he’s”begging this is all confidential,” then recounted a meeting with the freshman, after which he asked his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, what he thought about the new House member.

“Massingill said it best,” Bonnen recalled. “Well, his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The room dissolved in laughter before Bonnen turned to discuss other members of the lower chamber’s minority party.

“We’ve got Michelle Beckley, who’s vile,” he said, referring to the freshman Democrat from Carrollton who unseated a Republican in 2018. He exhorted Sullivan to help target these Democrats in competitive districts.

See here for the previous update. I kind of don’t think there’s going to be any “moving on”, except in the sense that no Democrat has any reason to support Bonnen’s re-election as Speaker now. All well and good if Dems take the House in 2020, and still theoretically possible even if they come up a member or two short. Remember, Bonnen was also targeting ten of his fellow Republicans, who may well want to keep their own options open. It’s hard to imagine a Republican in a Republican-majority House backing a Democrat for Speaker, but at this point I think we can all agree that crazier things have happened.

By the way, in regard to those ten targeted Republicans, the Rick Casey theory that they were in Bonnen’s crosshairs because they opposed a bill to ban local government entities from hiring lobbyists sure looks on the money given this quote from the tape: “My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Quite the sentiment, no?

Anyway, there’s plenty more out there. The Signal has some clips, the Trib – which is all over this – has choice excerpts, and other outlets like the Chron, the Observer, Texas Monthly, and the Dallas Observer are going to town. If that’s still not enough, go search the #txlege hashtag on Twitter. On a side note, the TDP claimed victory in their lawsuit now that the tape has been released, but there was still a court hearing about it. All that’s left – before the next election, anyway – is for the DPS to finish their investigation. Hope this helps with evidence collection, guys.

How’s that investigation into the Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle going?

About how you’d expect.

Found on the Twitters

If recent history is any indication, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has little to fear from a Texas Rangers investigation into allegations he offered a bribe to a conservative activist.

Investigators who have delved into accusations of impropriety against the state’s most powerful politicians over a 15-year period delivered just five cases that led to convictions. The Rangers inherited the public integrity caseload in 2015 and have yet to secure a conviction of a lawmaker at any level, records reviewed by Hearst Newspapers show.

Experts say these cases are difficult to prove, often caught in the gap between suspicious behavior and violations of law.

“Is this really a corrupt move or was this just some stupid thing that a politician did, or a cop did, or just a normal citizen did? Usually it’s pretty clear,” said Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas from 2001 to 2009. “That’s why we tend to look for the real bribes, the cash-in-the-pocket type of activities, which there’s plenty of, even to this day here in Texas.”

[…]

Investigators for the Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit will have to unearth facts to help a committee of lawmakers — and possibly a prosecutor — decide whether Bonnen offered a bribe or committed offenses such as official misconduct or retaliation. But that could be a difficult case to make.

Bonnen says he has no control over whether any group receives press credentials, which guarantee access to the House floor and lawmakers while they debate and vote on bills. The Texas Scorecard, which is affiliated with Empower Texans, has been denied the credentials in the past because Empower Texans makes millions of dollars in political donations, and House rules forbid interest groups from having them. But the credentials also seem to have little, if any, monetary value — one of several potential sticking points in the investigation.

Without having heard the tape, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Bonnen said and what the understanding was, said Buck Wood, a prominent ethics lawyer of more than 50 years. But investigators don’t need a “magic word” from Bonnen to determine whether the offer constitutes a bribe or threat, he said.

“All you have to do is ask someone to do something and, ‘If you do that, I will do something for you,’” said Wood. “You don’t have to say, ‘By the way, I want to give you a bribe.’”

See here and here for the background. The rest of the story goes into the long and often unsuccessful history of pursuing prosecutions against politician peccadilloes, the transfer of the responsibility for such prosecutions from the Travis County DA to local DAs with unfunded assistance from DPS, and so forth. In short, don’t expect much (or for it to happen soon), and never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. That said, with the pending release of the tape, we may at least get a bit more clarity than we have now. The Texas Standard has more.

MQS says he will release the Bonnen tape

Well, well, well.

Hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan said Thursday he will release a secret recording of his controversial meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and another top GOP member next week.

“I have been given the green light to do so by my legal team,” Sullivan wrote in his morning “Texas Minute” email to subscribers. “Later today I will announce that the audio will be released next week.”

Sullivan could share the recording ahead of an already-scheduled House GOP caucus meeting on Oct. 18, which will mark the first official Republican gathering since the head of Empower Texans accused the speaker of planning to politically target members from his own party. That allegation has, for the past couple of months, thrown the 150-member House into turmoil.

[…]

In August, at the request of a House committee, the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit launched an investigation to look into the allegations surrounding that June 12 meeting. It’s been unclear when that investigation could wrap up. Earlier this week, the Rangers were hand-delivering letters to House offices at the Capitol requesting members to provide “any testimony, recordings, documents, records, or other information relevant” to the investigation by Oct. 17.

Before then, on Oct. 15, Sullivan is scheduled to appear in a Travis County court as part of a lawsuit spearheaded by the Texas Democratic Party, which has sued over the recording. A couple of days later, the House Republican Caucus will be in Austin for its annual retreat, which was on the books before Sullivan’s allegations first surfaced.

See here for more on that Travis County court action, and here for previous blogging on this saga. It has always been my belief that MQS would release the tape when and if he decided it was better for him to have it out there than to have people continue to speculate about it. I still believe that, and while it’s possible that the court could have forced him to turn it over, that hasn’t happened yet, and he’s not known for walking away from a fight. So we’ll see what this means. The Texas Signal has more.

What kind of laws might have helped mitigate our recent violent incidents?

The DMN asks a good question.

Texas politicians are looking anew at ways to reduce gun violence in the wake of the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa. Dozens of policies, from the piecemeal to the comprehensive, have been proposed.

But would any have applied to the four massacres Texans have experienced since November 2017? The Dallas Morning News sought to answer this question by breaking down the circumstances behind some of the shootings to learn which preventive measures, criminal penalties or enforcement mechanisms would have applied in each case.

The News then compared these measures to the proposals Texas elected officials are now discussing and have proposed in the past, in addition to similar laws in other states. Here’s what we found.

In order, they suggest the following:

Midland-Odessa shooting: Private gun sales
El Paso shooting: Welfare checks and red flag laws
Santa Fe shooting: Child access prevention laws
Sutherland Springs: Domestic violence laws

To me, “gun control” is a lot like cyber security. You can’t just do one thing and expect it to be sufficient. Any robust cyber security program in an enterprise includes patching, vulnerability scans, firewalls, intrusion detection, anti-virus software, a control framework, incident detection and response, and so much more. There’s overlap and redundancy, with the philosophy being that if one thing doesn’t do it the next thing will. This article is a good illustration of how the metaphor applies to gun violence. There is no one single solution. There are many tactics and strategies that work together. We need to understand that or we’ll never make any progress.

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

Abbott’s gun suggestions

Weak leader makes timid proposals. Film at 11.

Gov. Greg Abbott called for the Texas Legislature to consider laws that would make it easier for private gun sellers to perform voluntary background checks on buyers — declining to go as far as other Republicans in backing mandatory ones — in one of a series of recommendations released Thursday.

The safety action report, which comes after a town hall Abbott convened last month to discuss possible solutions in the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, contains nearly a dozen recommendations to the Legislature, which won’t meet again until 2021 — after the next election.

Select committees in the Texas House and Senate will meet to review and discuss the recommendations in the meantime. It remains to be seen what kind of legislation could come from the report.

Abbott has indicated he has no plans to call a special session, despite calls from a growing chorus of Democratic lawmakers, saying he wants to avoid “hastily” called votes that split along party lines. Instead, earlier this month, he issued a handful of executive orders meant to strengthen the statewide suspicious activity reporting system.

[…]

The 13-page report recommends laws that would speed up the reporting of criminal convictions, crack down on people who illegally buy or possess guns and impose a lifetime ban on convicted felons purchasing firearms.

But the report makes no mention of background checks for private sales between strangers, as Lt. Gov Dan Patrick suggested last week when he side-stepped traditional party lines and the National Rifle Association.

Texas has faced five major mass shootings in the past three years — including two last month. In early August, 22 people were killed by a lone gunman who drove hours to at an El Paso Walmart. At the end of the month, seven died when a shooter went on a spree as he drove through Odessa and Midland.

Ed Scruggs, president of the board of directors for Texas Gun Sense, said it’s “mystifying” how few of Abbott’s recommendations relate to what happened in those shootings.

“The failure to strongly support closing the private sales loophole is mystifying because both the governor and lieutenant governor expressed discomfort what that hole in the system and speculated about how it could be abused,” Scruggs said. “We saw how it was abused in Odessa, so I am really surprised we didn’t see anything more direct on that.”

Here’s the report. It’s not that these are bad ideas, but most of them are reactive – stiffer penalties, better reporting of criminal convictions – and the more proactive ones are presented as things the Lege “may want to consider” rather than as priorities Abbott himself wants to see get done. I mean, unless Abbott calls a special session, as only he can do, the next time any of this will be relevant will be a year and a half from now, and who knows what might be going on then. Not taking immediate action is wiggle room for Abbott and Dan Patrick to let everyone else get distracted and lose focus. Abbott doesn’t want to take real action. He’ll do what he thinks he needs to do to take the heat off, and then he’ll be on to the things he actually wants to do. That’s what this is about. The Trib has more.

As the Bonnen turns

Drip, drip, drip

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

In the hours after hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan exploded his political bombshell in late July — alleging House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wanted to target some of his own GOP members in 2020 — the lower chamber’s top Republican lawmaker made a series of phone calls to assure his flock that Sullivan was lying.

“This is Dennis,” the speaker said to a House member in a 22-second voicemail soon after Sullivan lobbed his allegations. “Hopefully, you know better than to believe anything Michael Quinn Sullivan would bother to say. … I did meet with him to tell him he should not campaign against any Republican in the primary — um, obviously the opposite of what he’s trying to present.”

Now that voicemail, obtained by The Texas Tribune, is giving more ammunition to critics who say it was Bonnen — not Sullivan — who has lied and misled the people who elevated him to the powerful elected position he could be in danger of losing.

Such a response from the speaker in the aftermath of Sullivan’s allegations, multiple members say, has prompted some to wonder whether the chamber will ever fully trust Bonnen again — or if the damage that’s been done is simply beyond repair. For House speakers, who owe their job not to nameless Texas voters but instead to a few dozen fellow members they know well, trust is the coin of the realm in the lower chamber.

At least five members on the alleged 10-person political target list were told either by Bonnen or by someone on his team that Sullivan’s allegations were downright false in the hours after the news broke, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

In most cases, Bonnen batted down the allegations and questioned the credibility of Sullivan, who many state lawmakers already loathed thanks to his track record of criticizing — and, oftentimes, spending against — members in his own party.

In a statement to the Tribune late Wednesday, Bonnen’s office renewed the speaker’s call for Sullivan to release his secret recording of a June meeting from which his allegations stem.

“There is significant context missing from reports, namely, the hour long recording that has been strategically withheld from the public despite repeated calls from the Speaker, state leaders, and objective journalists for its release,” said Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary. “The Speaker believes that Members are owed the opportunity to draw their own conclusions based on the full context of the conversation — not the slow leak of cherry-picked information that has been used to fuel speculation.”

Since his immediate denial though, according to those familiar with the matter, the speaker hasn’t spoken with at least a few of those members who were allegedly mentioned during that June 12 meeting at the Texas Capitol between Bonnen, another top House Republican and Sullivan.

And though Bonnen has since apologized to members for saying “terrible things” during the meeting, he hasn’t directly addressed Sullivan’s allegations about a 10-member list — which has fed into a frustration that’s been simmering for almost two months among a broader coalition of Republicans.

“He’ll deny, deny, deny, a little more will come out, then he will dial back his denial and get a little more technical about it,” one person who works closely with multiple Republicans on the alleged target list told the Tribune. “It’s a constant walking back of previous details.”

There’s more, so read the rest. As a reminder, all of the reasons why Bonnen and others want MQS to release the full recording are also exactly the reasons why he won’t. MQS is in it for himself, as he always is. You can’t overstate how big a self-own by Bonnen it is to make the loathsome and sleazy Michael Quinn Sullivan look like a truth teller.

On a side note, we’ve been wondering from the beginning why Bonnen would target these particular members of the House, since they included seeming allies. Rick Casey puts forth a theory:

What did the 10 on Bonnen’s would-be hit list have in common? They all voted against one of Bonnen’s pet bills, a measure that would have made it illegal for cities, counties, school districts, and other local government agencies to hire lobbyists to represent them at the state legislature and in Washington.

It’s a very bad bill that had been pushed for years by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. Speaker Straus had made sure it didn’t see the light of day in previous sessions, but Bonnen signed on as a co-author.

The only Bexar County legislator on the hit list was, somewhat ironically, Straus’s successor, Allison, to whom Bonnen had made an in-kind contribution of $20,000 earlier this year. While he was a rookie in the 86th Legislature, Allison is no stranger to local government. He has served on both the Alamo Heights school board and on the VIA Metropolitan Transit board. Like Straus, he is not an ideologue. He is conservative, but he wants government to work.

Bonnen’s bill would not only have prohibited local governments from hiring lobbyists, but it also would have barred them from belonging to associations that hire lobbyists. So the school board would not have been able to belong, at a very modest cost, to the Texas Association of School Boards, which lobbies on behalf of the more than 1,000 school boards in the state. Likewise the City of San Antonio would have had to quit the Texas Municipal League unless it fired its lobbyists, considerably reducing its value to its members.

[…]

What’s stunning is that Bonnen would react by secretly asking a sworn enemy to do something he himself had so publicly criticized – working against incumbents. Being so vindictive against those who vote for the interests of their constituents rather than acceding to the speaker’s desires is, ironically, what led to the downfall of former Speaker Tom Craddick.

It’s an interesting hypothesis and Casey is the first person I’ve seen identify a common thread among the Bonnen Ten. That doesn’t mean this is the reason, but until someone comes up with a better explanation I’m willing to go with it. Every way you look at this, it’s such a bad look for Bonnen.

Life after the Voting Rights Act

A good long read from the Trib about where we are with redistricting and what may lie ahead.

Since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas has been barred by law from discriminating against voters of color. Yet in every decade since then, federal judges have ruled at least once that the state violated federal protections for voters in redistricting.

Now, as Texas Republicans are facing the possibility of losing their political dominance, the state is gearing up for a new cycle of mapmaking. The House Redistricting Committee [held] the first of more than a dozen hearings Tuesday in advance of what’s expected to be a contentious legislative session in 2021, when new political boundaries will need to be drawn to account for the state’s booming population.

But because of voting rights advocates’ repeated court losses over the past decade, state lawmakers facing an incredibly pivotal and politically fraught moment will instead have much more freedom to set those lines — and the power that comes with them — without any federal government oversight. And once they’re enacted, the voters of color and civil rights groups that have fought the maps in the past may not have the same tools with which to challenge the discrimination that may tarnish them.

“It’s just extremely disappointing as far as they went to sort of kick us down and kick minority voting rights down,” [civil rights attorney Jose] Garza said after the Supreme Court ruling came down.

That was the ruling that upheld the Texas Congressional and legislative maps; the subsequent SCOTUS ruling that batted away partisan redistricting claims was just another ton of dirt on the coffin. It’s very likely that Republicans will pursue maximal advantage through redistricting in 2021, including drawing districts based on Citizen Voting Age Population instead of just population – this is what the Census fight and the Hofeller project were about. The only possible kink in that plan would be a Democratic-majority House, which might force some compromises. Anyway, read the story and brush up on your history, because we’re all going to be living it again soon.

Dan Patrick says he’s for slightly expanded background checks

It’s a start.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says he’s “willing to take an arrow” and defy the National Rifle Association by pressing Texas to close one loophole in gun-purchaser background checks.

On Friday, Patrick said it’s “common sense” to tighten background-check laws because in many instances, stranger-to-stranger sales now are exempt from the requirement that buyers be vetted through a federal database of people not eligible to purchase firearms.

Patrick wants to protect transfers among family members from triggering a check. He’d also continue to exempt friends, though he acknowledged that could be abused. Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, said he’s willing to accede to the preferences of senators on whether to maintain that loophole — and if so, exactly how.

But he said Texas must strongly discourage selling guns to strangers without a background check.

“That gap of stranger to stranger we have to close, in my view,” Patrick, a staunchly conservative Republican and avid gun-rights advocate, said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.

“When I talk to gun owners, NRA members and voters, people don’t understand why we allow strangers to sell guns to total strangers when they have no idea if the person they’re selling the gun to could be a felon, could be someone who’s getting a gun to go commit a crime or could be a potential mass shooter or someone who has serious mental issues.”

“Look, I’m a solid NRA guy,” he said, “but not expanding the background check to eliminate the stranger to stranger sale makes no sense to me and … most folks.”

You can add in the Abbott executive orders that won’t do much but do help give the impression that they’re doing something, or are at least in favor of doing something. Patrick’s idea would be something, though it’s not clear to me how much of something. Does this also close the gun show loophole, or is that outside the scope? If it does include gun show sales, then I’d call it a real step forward, and I will admit to being pleasantly surprised. If not, it’s still not nothing, but it’s also not much. Until we see a bill, and until the Lege is in session to take action on that bill, it’s hard to say. And even if something does get introduced, there will continue to be resistance to it getting passed in any meaningful form. But I’ve been saying that Republicans will take no action, and this is the first indication that I could be wrong about that. We’ll see.

UPDATE: The Texas Signal is also skeptical.

Greg Abbott is not going to take action on gun violence

Why would he? It’s not who he is.

When Gov. Greg Abbott first convened the new Texas Safety Commission last month after the El Paso shooting, he brought with him a stack of papers and wasted little time directing the media’s attention to it.

“In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Santa Fe, we had discussions just like what we are having today,” Abbott said, holding up thick, paper-clipped packets for the cameras. “Those discussions weren’t just for show and for people to go off into the sunset and do nothing. They led to more than 20 laws being signed by me to make sure that the state of Texas was a better, safer place, including our schools for our children.”

The intended message was clear: He had been here before, and it led to results. But over a year later — with two more mass shootings rocking the state just weeks apart — the pressure that the second-term Republican governor faces to do more to keep Texans safe is higher than ever. And the political divisions are just as intense, as Abbott seeks to navigate between an increasingly influential gun control movement and those in his own party who demand that he hold the line on gun rights.

“My impression is the governor’s in a tight spot … because the majority legislative coalition doesn’t really give anyone on that side a chance to move on this,” said Ed Scruggs, the board vice chair of Texas Gun Sense who has participated in both the post-Santa Fe and post-El Paso roundtables. “They’ve been absolutists for so long that it’s very, very difficult. I really can tell you that the governor wants to do something to prevent this, but politically what is possible — he may be the only one who knows that.”

[…]

However, with Abbott’s response to the shootings still in the roundtable phase, skepticism runs amok. In addition to leaving a trail of gleeful social media posts about Texas gun culture in recent years — tweets that have routinely resurfaced after recent mass shootings in the state — Abbott has overseen a dramatic expansion of gun rights in Texas, from an open carry law in 2016 to the slew of new laws that went into effect Sunday loosening firearms restrictions. And for gun control advocates, the memory is still fresh of Abbott asking lawmakers after the Santa Fe shooting to consider a “red flag” law that would allow local officials to take guns away from people if a judge declares them a danger — only to back away from the idea amid an intraparty backlash.

“I would say I am more cynical about Greg Abbott’s leadership than I am optimistic,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group Giffords, who participated in the safety commission meeting in El Paso. “However, I do think there’s a path forward on gun safety legislation. I think that means that Abbott is gonna have to get out of the NRA’s box and take a leadership position that is basically a repudiation of what he’s done in the past and where he’s been in the past.”

Remember first and foremost that the Legislature is not in session, and barring the very unlikely calling of a special session, there’s nothing that can be done in Texas except talk and study until 2021. But look, Greg Abbott believes in more guns and fewer restrictions on them. That’s what he has pushed for, that’s what he advocates, that’s what he is. He may be feeling some political pressure to Do Something about gun violence now, though I’d say that’s more a concern for Republican legislators and Congressfolk losing races than for his own political fortunes, but he also feels a lot of pressure to hold fast against such action. Why would he go along with what Democrats want? It makes no sense, and it collides with everything Abbott has done as a politician. When that changes (spoiler alert: it won’t), let me know. The Chron, the Chron editorial board, Erica Greider, Texas Monthly, the Texas Signal, and the Observer have more.

Beer to go is here

Hooray!

The highly anticipated beer-to-go legislation officially [went] into effect Sunday, and local breweries [celebrated] the occasion by offering up cans, growlers and crowlers of beer for visitors to bring home — a simple act that has been illegal in the state of Texas until now.

“We still don’t really believe it,” said John Holler, who along with his wife Kathryn, owns Holler Brewing in Houston’s Sawyer Yards district. “Without this, our beer would never be in a can, because at our size, it just wouldn’t make sense to sell cans unless we could sell them directly to the consumer.”

John Holler has been a key part of the push to help Texas become the 50th state in the nation to allow beer-to-go sales, joining the board of the Craft Brewers Guild. While Texas craft brewers spent more than a decade advocating for beer to go, it wasn’t until the run-up to this 86th Legislature that the movement reached is full force with the formation of the guild, a political action committee.

[…]

For some of the city’s larger breweries, the novelty of being able to sip their beer from cans isn’t quite as potent as it is for Holler, where beers have always been available exclusively from the tap.

At Southern Star Brewing in Conroe, brewers will celebrate by releasing some of their specialty beers, like a tequila-aged Trippel and others in can and growler-fills.

It’s been too long since I’ve visited some of these places. Time to start planning some Saturday outings, now that the heat should begin dissipating a bit. We wanted this for a long time, now let’s make it count.

The Lege will not take any action on guns

By all means, keep calling for a special session to address the issue. Just do keep in mind who holds all the cards.

At least 17 Texas state lawmakers are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address gun violence following a mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead and dozens injured.

The list includes four state representatives from San Antonio, including Roland Gutierrez, Diego Bernal, Leo Pacheco and Ina Minjarez.

“Our state leadership has failed to be proactive and adopt laws that would allow gun safety,” said Gutierrez, who has secured more than 500 signatures in a related online petition. “All Texans should feel safe in their communities. Every year we lose too many to gun violence. Over 3,353 gun-related deaths occur in Texas each year. One death is too many – time for change.”

Others on the list are: state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston; state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin; state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton; state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston; state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas; state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin; state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood; state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City; state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin; state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo; state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Fort Worth and state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

In case you didn’t read through that whole list, none of the legislators in question are Republicans. That tells you everything you need to know.

(To be fair, there are other political reasons why there won’t be a special session.)

After the massacre of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart by an attacker with a military-style rifle, Texas’ Republican leadership is still unlikely to push for gun restrictions in a state that has long embraced firearms and has nearly 1.4 million handgun license holders, experts and advocates on both sides of the gun issue say. The shooting comes nearly 21 months after the Sutherland Springs massacre that killed more than two dozen people and more than a year after the Santa Fe shooting that killed 10.

“When Texas Republicans look at these massacres, they don’t blame guns, or gun laws. They blame people. They may blame institutions, schools, families, mental health, but not guns,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “If a school massacre and a church massacre didn’t change people’s opinion, the El Paso massacre isn’t going to.”

[…]

Abbott met last week with Democratic lawmakers from El Paso who have pushed for gun control and said he wants to keep guns away from “deranged killers.” Abbott said the state should battle hate, racism and terrorism, but made no mention of gun restrictions.

“Our job is to keep Texans safe,” Abbott said. “We take that job seriously. We will act swiftly and aggressively to address it.”

Abbott said he will meet with experts this month to discuss how Texas can respond – much as he did after shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe.

Those meetings resulted in Abbott issuing a 43-page report with proposals for more armed guards in schools, boosting mental health screenings, new restrictions on home gun storage, and consideration of red flag laws.

Gun rights supporters immediately pushed back on anything that could be interpreted as restricting gun ownership, and the Legislature’s Republican majority pivoted to expanding run rights. The only victory gun control supporters could claim was a small item in a $250 billion state budget: $1 million for a public awareness campaign on safe gun storage at home.

“They made things worse,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “I went naively into the session thinking ‘Progress here we come.’ But we ran head on into this idea that more guns make us safer.”

Well, more armed guards in schools, in churches, at WalMart, and now after Midland/Odessa, in cars and on the roads. Maybe if we station an armed guard on every street corner, inside every shop and restaurant, and on every floor of every office building in America, we’ll finally be safe from gun violence. We won’t have time to do anything else because we’ll need literally everyone to serve as all those armed guards, but hey, at least we’ll have done something that the Greg Abbotts and Matt Schaefers of the world can abide. Alternately, we can vote them out and elect people who want to do more rational, sensible, and effective things to curb gun violence. Decisions, decisions.

MQS-Bonnen secret meeting investigation update

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The top prosecutor in House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s home district has joined the probe into Bonnen’s secret meeting with a conservative political activist, in which the activist alleges he was offered an illegal quid pro quo.

Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said Tuesday that she asked the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit to investigate the meeting on Aug. 13, one day after the House General Investigating Committee made the same request.

“Upon completion of the investigation by the Public Integrity Unit, the investigation will be expeditiously reviewed to determine whether any laws were violated,” Yenne said.

Yenne is the top prosecutor in Bonnen’s county of residence, so under a law passed in 2015, the investigation would ultimately have been referred to her for review if the Rangers had reasonable suspicion that Bonnen had committed a crime.

[…]

Earlier Tuesday, the Department of Public Safety, the agency that houses the Rangers, said investigators were “gathering evidence related to the meeting, to include a copy of the recording.”

“To protect the integrity of the investigation, no additional information will be provided, and we request additional questions be referred to the Brazoria County District Attorney,” the agency said in a statement.

Prior to 2015, investigations into public corruption by state lawmakers were conducted by the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit. But that year, state lawmakers changed the law to put the Texas Rangers in charge of those investigations. If the Rangers find reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, they refer the case to “the appropriate prosecutor of the county in which venue is proper,” usually a lawmaker’s county of residence.

See here for the background. I have a hard time imagining criminal charges coming out of this, and even if they somehow did (if a grand jury gets empaneled, then maybe) I can’t see this ever going to trial. I mean, we may never see Ken Paxton go to trial, and that was a long time ago with a much clearer crime. I also still think the Republican vendetta against the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County DA’s office will come back to bite them one way or another, some day. We’ll see how this one goes.

Pretty much everybody wants MQS to release the Bonnen recordings

From Twitter:

Rep. Stephanie Klick is the current Chair of the House Republican Caucus, having replaced Rep. Dustin Burrows after he resigned from that post. Burrows and several of his friends in high places, such as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, have also called for the release of the tape. So have some unspecified number of House Republicans. I’m sure more will add on the longer this drags out.

And I appreciate their efforts. It’s very much in the public interest for the full recording to be released. As Scott Braddock notes in an interview with Chad Hasty, “if Empower Texas really is media, which they’re suing to try to be, then they ought to act like media and publish the findings of what they say is their investigative journalism.”

All of this is unquestionably true. It’s also unquestionably true that what MQS is the rights of being classified as “media”, but without any of the responsibilities. This is when Rep. Klick and others find out that what MQS cares about is himself, and that releasing the tape would be in conflict with his own interest of keeping everyone attention on himself. So again, while I appreciate the gesture, I’m pretty sure it’s going to go unrewarded. Thanks for trying, though. The DMN has more.

Here comes beer to go

Hooray!

Starting Sept. 1, Texans will be able to leave brewery taprooms with a case of their favorite craft beer, and order wine and beer for delivery, thanks to two laws passed by the Legislature this year.

Brewers and beer lovers around the state fought for beer to go, saying it will boost business and drive tourism to Texas.

“It’s going to be a really cool opportunity to showcase our ability in a different light,” said Rachael Hackathorn, taproom manager at the Austin-based Zilker Brewing Co. “For an out-of-town guest to take our beer back home with them and share it with their friends, that’s really what beer culture is about.”

Texas beer sales run on a system of three tiers: manufacturers who make the product, distributors who take it to market and retailers who sell it to customers. In the past, some beer distributors were opposed to beer to go, saying it would interrupt the state’s beer market and that Texas should continue its strict separation of the three tiers. The rationale behind the system is that it prevents anyone in one tier from controlling any of the activities of the other two tiers.

But this year, the distributors and brewers came to an agreement to allow brewers more access to the retail tier.

“Quite frankly, we were just tired of all the negative publicity and people not understanding the nuances of the three-tiered system,” said Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, an organization that represents distributors. “That’s the reason we agreed to a very limited amount of beer to be sold per customer per craft brewer.”

Sen. Dawn Buckingham, who authored the legislation, said although it was first met with some “significant opposition” from the distribution and retail tiers, she was happy to see the parties eventually come to an agreement.

“Beer to go was kind of the perfect example of the little guys being overrun by the process,” said Buckingham, a Lakeway Republican. “It seemed a little crazy that Texas would be the only state where you can’t go to a brewery and bring home a little bit of beer.”

See here for the background. Another bill, to allow home delivery of beer and wine, via Amazon or other means, will also take effect on the first. As you know, I think the three tier structure is an anachronistic load of hooey that should be chucked into Lake Houston, but whatever. Somehow, the beer distributors decided it was in their best interests to declare peace, and this was the result. I’m happy with the outcome, regardless of my feelings for the underlying structure. Bottoms up, y’all.

The Bonnen-MQS saga makes the Times

Gotta love it when our little intramural squabbles go national.

Found on the Twitters

In Texas, they are calling it the case of “The Speaker and the Creeper.”

The political imbroglio started last month, when Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative pit bull who routinely antagonizes establishment politicians, accused the Republican House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, of offering his organization coveted House media credentials if it would work to defeat 10 incumbent House members from Mr. Bonnen’s own party.

Mr. Bonnen denied it, and the bombshell was initially greeted with some skepticism. Why would one of the state’s top politicians court a back-room deal — to undermine his own bench — with a man Texas Monthly recently described as “one of the biggest snakes in Texas politics”?

Except there was a tape.

Now Mr. Sullivan’s accusations are at the heart of the biggest scandal to hit Texas in years, one that is throwing the state’s Republican-led House of Representatives into turmoil and threatening to bring down the speaker.

[…]

The big question many are trying to answer now in the Texas capital is why Mr. Bonnen would have approached a group about which he has been openly dismissive.

After Mr. Sullivan criticized the latest “amazing LOSER #Texlege session” on Twitter, Mr. Bonnen brushed it off. “They speak only for themselves,” he told reporters. “They aren’t worth responding to. The reality of it is, if we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state they would say we have not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

That was at the end of May. Then came the meeting in the speaker’s office, in June. Mr. Sullivan said he was expecting a “tongue-lashing” for not supporting what he called the “lackluster results” of the legislative session, but instead, according to his account, he was asked by the House speaker to refrain from further criticizing the just-ended legislative session, leave a select group of Republicans alone and target 10 others.

In exchange, Mr. Sullivan said, he was offered press credentials for Texas Scorecard, the media arm of Empower Texans — though the House speaker has since pointed out he would not have the authority to grant such credentials.

Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Mr. Bonnen may have been seeking to soften the “enmity” between Republican factions and head off “incoming fire” from Empower Texans and affiliated groups in the future. “What Sullivan did was lay a trap for him,” Professor Jillson said.

In a July 29 press statement before Mr. Sullivan revealed that he had taped the conversations, Mr. Bonnen said that he had “one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do in the past several cycles.”

Mr. Bonnen has said he supported the Texas Rangers investigation and has called on Mr. Sullivan to release the statement “in its entirety.”

Texas is no stranger to scandal, and a few old hands around the Capitol still remember the granddaddy of them all — the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal of 1970-72, which centered on quid pro quo stock purchases that resulted in charges against more than two dozen current and former state officials and led to a wholesale turnover in state government.

The latest investigation, which is becoming known as “Bonnenghazi” or “Bonnghazi,” will determine whether the current speaker hangs on to power or is forced to the sideline, further casting Republicans in disarray in a race for a new leader and perhaps even giving an opening to Democrats in their perennial efforts to regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades.

The question of what exactly Bonnen was doing talking to MQS in the first place remains the big mystery to me. None of it makes sense, including the list of alleged targets. I’m happy to continue to stoke the flames on this, but I think we would all be well advised to maintain some skepticism until such time as the full tapes come to light. The odds that MQS has been bullshitting us all this whole time via selective editing or other trickery remain non-trivial. Bonnen deserves a heaping pile of criticism for his actions, but that doesn’t mean we should believe anything MQS says.

Rep. Dustin Burrows steps down as House GOP Caucus Chair

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dustin Burrows

State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock has resigned as chair of the Texas House GOP Caucus, according to two people familiar with the matter. Burrows’ departure comes amid allegations that he and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen planned to politically target members from their own party in the 2020 primaries — and it marks the largest fallout yet since the accusations surfaced.

Burrows has served in the House since 2015. His resignation is expected to be announced to House Republicans sometime Friday. State Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, who serves as vice chair of the caucus, will be elevated to chair.

Burrows has not yet publicly responded to the accusations made by Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist who heads Empower Texans. Over the past few weeks, a number of House Republicans have privately expressed frustration that their caucus leader was largely remaining silent on the accusations made against him.

In a statement, Bonnen said that Burrows “was a strong leader for the caucus.” He added, “I respect his decision and I remain committed to strengthening our majority.”

Normally, this is super-deep Inside Baseball stuff, of interest to almost no one outside of the people who actually inhabit the Capitol. But these are not normal times, and Burrows is enmeshed in the current unpleasantness surrounding Speaker Dennis Bonnen and professional troglodyte Michael Quinn Sullivan. The fact that Burrows has maintained such strict radio silence is either a tribute to his loyalty to Bonnen or a measure of how deep the doo-doo is. Some day, perhaps we’ll find out which is the case.

Here come the Rangers

I don’t know where this is going to go, but it sure will be fun getting there.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas House General Investigating Committee voted Monday to request that the Texas Rangers look into allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants in the lower chamber.

The committee vote, which was unanimous, followed roughly an hour of closed-door deliberations among the five House members who serve on the panel. At issue is whether Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan media credentials for his organization in exchange for politically targeting a list of fellow GOP members in the 2020 primaries.

[…]

State Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the House committee, said Monday that the Texas Ranger’s Public Integrity Unit “will conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding” that meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows. Meyer also requested that the Texas Rangers provide a copy of its final investigative report to the committee at the end of its investigation.

See here for the background. What might happen next could get complicated.

Aside from the quid pro quo aspect of the scandal, exchanging money in the Capitol or directing expenditures from a Capitol office has been a Class A misdemeanor ever since the Legislature reacted to a 1989 public outcry over the late chicken producer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim handing out $10,000 checks to nine senators in the Senate chamber during a hearing on workers compensation reform.

Besides the issue of whether there was bribery involved, there are also potential election law crimes, including not disclosing the source of campaign contributions directed by Bonnen. The Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against Sullivan on Thursday, alleging nine different potential criminal violations of the Texas Election Code, each a Class A misdemeanor. The lawsuit seeks to preserve evidence and damages of $100,000.

Given the potential for criminal wrongdoing, what happens next?

First, consider the dramatic changes that the Texas Legislature made to how public corruption cases are handled in Texas. Under a state law passed in 2015, the Travis County public integrity unit no longer has jurisdiction over elected officials at the Capitol. Potential criminal cases must be investigated first by the Texas Rangers. As of Thursday, the Rangers had not been asked to investigate the Bonnen/Sullivan controversy, nor had they initiated an investigation on their own, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson.

If the Rangers do investigate and decide further action is warranted, the case is referred to the home county of the public official. That means any corruption charges against Bonnen would have to be brought by the Brazoria County DA. For Burrows, it would be the Lubbock County DA. Travis County would retain jurisdiction only over Sullivan. In cases of multiple jurisdiction, the Texas attorney general’s office can take charge.

Funnily enough, Attorney General Ken Paxton is under indictment on securities fraud charges in his home territory of Collin County. Paxton is accused of failing to register as a securities agent as part of his private law practice. He claims he is innocent and that the case is politically motivated. Paxton counts among his allies the funders of Empower Texans. (The plot always seems to thicken in this scandal.)

You know what this would mean: Special prosecutors would be needed. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that approach. It’s almost as if abolishing the prosecutorial power of the Public Integrity Unit was a bad idea with all kinds of potentially unwanted consequences. We are getting way ahead of ourselves here, so let’s reel it in a bit and say we can’t wait to see what happens next. Ross Ramsey has more.