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April, 2015:

Voter ID appeal report

The Trib reports from New Orleans.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal appellate judge on Tuesday questioned why the Texas Legislature had not addressed concerns that its four-year-old voter ID law discriminated against minority voters.

U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Catharina Haynes stopped short of rebuking state lawmakers while listening to attorneys spar over what are widely considered the nation’s strictest rules on the identification that voters must present at the polls. But she sounded perplexed that lawmakers had not made the law more palatable to critics as it winded through the federal court system.

“They’re meeting right now. They had that opportunity. What are they doing?” Haynes asked from a perch on a three-judge panel of the appeals court.

“Why wouldn’t the legislative system fix the [Texas] rules?” added Haynes, who was appointed to the court by George W. Bush. “Why should we fix the [Texas] rules?”

[…]

Haynes, known for playing devil’s advocate on both sides of various issues, did the most talking – and grilling – on Tuesday while Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller and lawyers for the plaintiffs, including minority groups and the U.S. Department of Justice, made their cases.

The 5th Circuit is considered among the most conservative in the nation, but Democrats appointed her colleagues on the panel — Judge Nannette Brown, who did not ask any questions Tuesday, and Chief Judge Carl Stewart.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the evidence of Texas’ intent to disenfranchise would-be minority voters was sound, supporting Ramos’ ruling, which relied on statements from lawmakers who were opponents of the ID measures and said that state lawmakers did not accommodate poor Texans. The law was passed during what Ramos called a “racially charged” legislative session that also saw debates about immigration and sanctuary cities.

“What Texas has done is more severe than any other state in the nation,” said Chad Dunn, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Keller on Tuesday reiterated the state’s claim that the law has not disenfranchised any voters, saying Ramos’ decision was plagued by “some clearly erroneous fact-finding.”

“There was been no showing of any voter not able to vote because of Senate Bill 14,” he said, pointing out that those who faced difficulties obtaining the right documents could still vote by mail.

Keller argued that the plaintiffs had found no smoking gun – a statement or email for instance – in which proponents of the law overtly described an intention to discriminate.

Haynes and Stewart sounded skeptical of that critique.

“It’s unlikely that someone’s going to get up and say overtly: ‘Let’s discriminate,’ in a debate in the House or Senate,” Haynes said.

Stewart said “strong circumstantial evidence” is a typical standard in proving discrimination cases.

But the judges also questioned the plaintiffs’ partial reliance on testimony from lawmakers opposed to the law to prove the Legislature’s intention to discriminate.

“Using the evidence about what the opponents of the law thought proponents thought,” Haynes said, “just seems like the rankest speculation.”

See here for the background. Zachary Roth at MSNBC adds on.

Again and again, Judge Caterina Haynes seemed to argue for sending the case back to Judge Gonzales Ramos. She noted that a major statewide election had been held since the district court’s ruling last October, which could offer key evidence about the controversial law’s real world impact.

“Were people having trouble? Were there in fact problems?” Haynes asked, suggesting that the district court should be asked to incorporate the election as additional evidence.

Erin Flynn, a lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department, which is challenging the law, countered that looking at one election doesn’t tell you much. “Turnout is not a good proxy for identifying how burdensome requirements are,” Flynn said.

And Dunn said that the record would show the last election was a “disaster” for the plaintiffs and thousands of others. Numerous stories have emerged of would-be voters who were disenfranchised by the law last fall, which was put into effect by a last-minute Supreme Court order.

Haynes, an appointee of President George W. Bush, also at times raised the idea of asking the district merely to find a narrower remedy, rather than striking down the law in full, as it did.

She suggested that voters at least be required to show a registration card. “Why wouldn’t that cure the problem?”

“The questions of the judges suggested that they were looking at both whether or not the remedy was more broad than it needed to be, and whether or not additional fact-finding would be helpful,” Myrna Perez, a top lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice, which is helping to bring the challenge, said after the hearing.

The panel’s other two judges, Chief Judge Carl Stewart and Judge Brown, both appointed by Democratic presidents, held their cards closer to their chests. But Stewart at times suggested he too might favor returning the case to the district court.

That result would leave the law, and the fate of hundreds of thousands of potential voters, in limbo, four years after the measure was first passed.

To answer Judge Haynes’ question, showing one’s voter registration card was the system we had before voter ID. I for one would be in favor of returning to that. Beyond that, who knows what the panel will make of this. They have no set schedule for ruling, so we’ll know what they think when they’re good and ready to tell us.

No one is going to be forced to perform a same sex wedding

Would someone please reassure Dan Patrick of this before he wets himself?

RedEquality

Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, said he sponsored Senate Bill 2065 at the urging of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The Senate suspended its rules to allow the bill to be introduced on Tuesday, weeks past the session’s filing deadlines.

The legislation would allow a religious organization or affiliated individual, such as a member of the clergy or officiant, to refuse to preside over any marriage “if the action would cause the organization or individual to violate a sincerely held religious belief.” It also would allow them to refuse to provide “services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges” toward the “solemnization, formation, or celebration” of any such marriage.

“I don’t think it would be advisable to compel men or women of the cloth to do marriages that violated their closely held religious beliefs,” said Estes. “There’s a companion bill in the House, and we filed the Senate bill at the request of the lieutenant governor.”

Chuck Smith, head of the gay rights group Equality Texas, said the bill is more wide-reaching than it may appear on first reading. Because it is not restricted to officiants acting in their official capacities, Smith said, the bill would allow anyone who is ordained to discriminate against anyone at any time.

The bill is also needless, Smith added, if its purpose is to allow officiants to refuse to marry certain couples since that right already exists.

“We respect the religious freedom of clergy to determine who to marry,” said Smith. “That right is already constitutionally protected. So, in some respects, that statute is unnecessary.”

My maternal grandmother was widowed at a young age, in the early 1960s. A decade or so later, she remarried. Her new husband, my step-grandfather, had been divorced, and since his first marriage had not been annulled, they could not be married in the Catholic Church, since the Church did not recognize divorce. They had a civil marriage, and though she continued to be a regular churchgoer, she never again received Communion, since she was in a state of sin for her non-church wedding.

I bring this up to make the obvious point (as Justice Kagan did for her deliberately-being-obtuse colleague, Justice Scalia) that it has always been the case that churches and clergy have always been able to refuse to officiate at a wedding for couples that do not meet the requirements of their faith. That remains true today – divorce is still not recognized by the Catholic Church, and divorced people cannot be married in the Church without going through Church-mandated hoops, despite the fact that divorce has been legal in America for decades, if not centuries. We also now have the experience of thousands of same-sex weddings that have been performed in the country, going back ten years in the case of Massachusetts. I for one am not aware of any priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or whatever being forced to officiate at one against his or her will. Given all the publicity that every rogue baker and florist has received in the 37 states where same sex marriage is allowed, I feel confident we’d have heard of such a person if one existed.

So it should be clear that this bill is at best completely superfluous, and at worst an unconstitutional attempt to extend this right that religions and their clergy have beyond what is accepted today. So why do this – in particular, why go out of the way to do this when so much other legislation is struggling for time? A matter of values, I suppose, and a good reminder that not all values are virtuous. I just hope the state doesn’t wind up wasting too much of our tax dollars fighting unsuccessfully to salvage this in court down the line.

UPDATE: Debate on this bill has been delayed, most likely until Monday.

Not everyone likes the idea of online voter registration

And most of them are from Harris County.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A House panel got a taste late Monday of the deep skepticism toward bringing online voter registration to Texas, skepticism coming from at least one population-rich part of the state.

It was mostly shared by a handful of Harris County officials who expressed concerns the practice could compromise voter privacy and lead to fraud at the ballot box. Some members of the House Elections Committee took note of the common thread, and Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, ended its meeting by cautioning her colleagues against letting the “negative comments of one county in the state of Texas rule the evening.”

The panel nonetheless heard praise for two pieces of legislation, House Bill 76 and House Bill 953, both with the same purpose: adding Texas to the list of 20 states that already let its citizens sign up to vote online. The committee left both bills pending late Monday.

Israel touted her HB-76 as a sign of the bipartisan support the idea enjoys under the dome, pointing out it has several dozen co-authors from both parties. Rep. Carol Alvarado, the Houston Democrat sponsoring HB-953, pitched it as a way of curbing the government waste that comes with paper registration, which is costlier and more labor-intensive than the online alternative.

“This bill is about efficient government. It’s about cutting wasteful spending,” said Alvarado, who has estimated Texas could save more than $11 million by ditching paper registration.

Alvarado had some back-up from several speakers including Samuel Derheimer of The Pew Charitable Trusts. He cited recent polling from the organization that showed more than 60 percent of Texans support online voter registration, and a third think the state already has it.

Among those from Harris County opposing the bills were Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, Ed Johnson of the County Clerk’s Office and Alan Vera, chairman of the Ballot Security Committee of the Harris County GOP.

“Our current system works, and it works well,” said Sullivan, who like the two other speakers from Harris County expressed unease with the security of the state software that would handle registration.

Vera added that online sign-up could make it easier for voters to be impersonated at the polls, saying the “main fuel for voter fraud is registered voters who don’t show up to vote.”

See here for the background. Someone is going to have to explain to me what Alan Vera is talking about, because what he said makes no sense to me. To all those people who say they’re worried about fraud, I have to ask: Isn’t this the stated rationale for passing voter ID legislation? I mean, I could submit a registration request for Mickey Mouse, but unless someone shows up at the ballot box with one of the very few legally accepted forms of photo ID showing that he is in fact Mickey Mouse, what good would it do? I don’t see what the problem is here.

What about voting by mail? You don’t need a photo ID for that. That’s true. It’s also true that opponents of voter ID have made that exact same point about a billion times since the state GOP decided to push voter ID laws beginning in 2007. If you are concerned about the possibility of fraud via mail ballot, then you should discuss these concerns with your state legislators, since they most pointedly did not address any of those concerns in the voter ID law that they passed back in 2011. I’ll leave it to you to review the history of the voter ID fight to understand why the focus of that bill was entirely on in person voting and not at all on absentee voting.

But look, sooner or later we are going to transition from our current methods of voting, with the increasingly archaic and outdated machines we use now, to something more modern and in tune with the way people live their lives these days. Which is to say, we will do this via mobile technology. For sure, that introduces risks and security challenges. Believe me, I do that sort of thing for a living, I get that. If you think there aren’t glaring security holes in the systems we use now, you’ve got your head in the sand. We can choose to work with the technology of today and the emerging tech of tomorrow and meet those challenges head on, or we can pretend that what we’re doing now will be good enough forever and resist all attempts to change. I know which path I would prefer to take.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 27

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes that Blue Bell can get its act together before it’s too late as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

SCOTUS finally tackles same sex marriage

We all know what went on at the Supreme Court yesterday, so I’m just going to link to some of the coverage:

TPM
Daily Kos 1
Daily Kos 2
Buzzfeed
The Slacktivist
Washington Post
SCOTUSBlog analysis
SCOTUSBlog liveblog

I think we all know what the stakes are, but let’s bring it back to Texas, where numerous anti-gay bills are in various stages of progress in the Legislature.

RedEquality

Even if any of the measures pass, their own legality is dubious, legal experts say. If the Supreme Court finds that gay marriage is a national right, state law could not trump that decision, said Texas A&M University law professor Meg Penrose.

“This legislation that is being proffered by Texas is actually completely irrelevant on the question of the national right to marriage,” Penrose said. “Right now, Texas has the right as an independent state to decide for itself whether same-sex marriages can be entered into in Texas or recognized. But if the United States Supreme Court says the U.S. constitution answers these very questions, then because we’re a constitutional democracy, Texas will lose its right to prohibit or continue to prohibit those relationships.”

The four cases pending before the Supreme Court are from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky. The court will address whether the states must allow same-sex marriages, and if they have to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state. If the court rules gay couples have a national right to marry, Penrose said, it “will have a revolutionary effect on Texas as a state.”

“If in this question the United States Supreme Court disagrees with Texas, Texas does not have the legal ability to avoid that ruling,” Penrose said. “The Constitution is the supreme law of the land.”

[…]

Daniel Williams, a legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said the bills could delay bringing gay marriage to Texas if the Supreme Court rules in favor of it.

“Where state officials are recalcitrant in their opposition to the freedom of marrying, it can create a chaotic transition,” Williams said. “That’s not necessary — but if [Attorney General] Ken Paxton wants to create chaos, he certainly has the power to do so.”

And you know he will. More to the point, anything short of a big win, where marriage is established as a right for all Americans, and you can be sure that Texas will put up as many obstacles to recognizing marriages performed elsewhere as it can. Kicking and screaming indeed. We will know in June where we are.

House passes sales tax cut

Over to you, Danno.

BagOfMoney

The Texas House tentatively approved a $4.9 billion tax relief plan Tuesday that includes a cut to the state’s sales tax, marking a clear line in the sand against the Senate, which favors property tax cuts.

The House voted 141-0 for House Bill 31 by Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, which would cut the state sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent. If the bill reaches the governor’s desk, it would be the first cut in the state’s sales tax in Texas history.

Bonnen presented his sales tax cut as more impactful than the Senate’s proposal, which would increase homestead exemptions to lower local school property taxes. The Legislature passed an even larger property tax cut in 2006 that was widely viewed as underwhelming by homeowners due to increases in property values and local tax rates.

“A sales tax cannot be eroded by a local tax hike or rising appraisals,” Bonnen told the House. “We would be using our tax dollars for a tax that we control.”

My personal choice would be to invest this money in education, infrastructure, shoring up the pension system, that sort of thing, but you know what they say about elections and consequences. If we have to cut taxes, I’ll take the sales tax cut, as it’s more progressive and doesn’t require advanced shenanigans with the spending cap. But let’s keep things in perspective here. What this cut means is that if you spend $100, you will save a grand total of thirty cents on your sales tax – instead of paying $108.25, you’ll owe $107.95. The claim is that this cut will save the average family something like $170 per year, well to get that amount of savings that family would have had to spend some $57,000 on taxable goods and services during the year. That’s more than most families of four in Texas make in a year. I guarantee you, nobody is going to notice this. That’s the real problem here – any tax cut will cost the state billions, but will accrue only modest benefits to the people. I can only wonder what if any effect this will have on the next campaign, assuming this goes through the Senate as well. BOR has more.

System reimagining will be mostly better for most

But not quite all better for all.

Metro staff analyzed 452 hypothetical trips along the new [bus] network, most in low-income and minority areas. The standard for disproportionately affecting a trip is that trip taking 15 minutes longer than under current conditions. By the standard, 8 percent of the trips involving minorities and 6 percent of the trips involving low income areas will take 15 or more additional minutes in the new system.

With more than 90 percent of trips in minority and low-income areas unaffected, the new system complies with Title VI, said the agency’s ridership analyst, Jim Archer. He cautioned, however, that some riders will have longer trips.

“We can expect to hear from them,” Archer told board members during an April 20 review of the analysis.

A more detailed look at the analysis shows Metro’s assertion that most trips are improved is correct, but the biggest improvements come in non-minority and more affluent areas. In minority and non-minority areas, 16 percent of trips are reduced 20 minutes or more. Non-minority areas, however, have a higher percentage of trips that save 10-to-19 minutes and less than 10 minutes. Overall, 69 percent of trips analyzed in non-minority areas have some time savings, compared to 57 percent in minority areas.

No non-minority trips analyzed experienced a time increase of 15 minutes or more.

The same tendency for better time savings holds true for low income and wealthier areas. A larger percentage of trips in areas not identified as low-income, 73 percent, enjoy a time savings, compared to 60 percent of trips in low income areas. Meanwhile, 16 percent of trips in low-income areas will take 5 minutes or more longer than they do in the current system, compared to 8 percent of trips in wealthier areas.

As with minority areas, the analysis showed zero trips in wealthier areas that increased by 15 minutes or more.

[…]

Officials conceded when the system overhaul began that resources would have to shift to reflect community demand, which would mean longer trips for some residents and transit dependent riders. Officials said they have reduced the impact as best as they can, but cannot promise every rider the same level of service available now.

As we know, system reimagining is hard work. The wealthier areas tend to be those with greater population density, and also where many job centers are, so they were a priority. The only way to eliminate the remaining gaps is to spend more money maintaining legacy routes that have low (but heavily transit-dependent) ridership. Maybe with greater overall ridership, the resources and the political will will be there to address this. We’ll just have to see.

Pierce Skypark

How’s this for a big idea?

“Imagine something big,” says John Cryer, an architect at Page Southerland Page. “Really big.”

He’s talking about the Pierce Elevated Freeway, the raised stretch of I-45 that hooks around the west side of downtown Houston. With an eye toward improving traffic flow, the Texas Department of Transportation is proposing to re-route I-45 — and to do so in such a way that would leave the roughly two miles of the Pierce Elevated out of a job.

And that, say Cryer and other urban dreamers, could be a huge opportunity for Houston. What if, instead of tearing down the Pierce Elevated at an enormous cost, the freeway structure became the base for an elevated linear park — a Houston version of New York’s High Line or Paris’s Promenade Plantée?

Pierce Skypark,” Cryer and two other Page architects call the idea. He, Tami Merrick and Marcus Martínez have been working on it pro bono, hoping that a powerful public or private entity would take the idea and run with it. Their presentations have been received warmly: Pierce SkyPark’s Facebook page has more than a thousand “likes.”

Martínez’s dream-big conceptual sketches give a sense of the proposal’s size and potential. The park that he and the rest of his team imagine would be 1.97 miles long, and cover 37.7 acres — an astonishing swath of parkland so near downtown. By comparison, New York’s High Line, built atop an unused freight-rail line, is significantly shorter (only 1.45 miles) and much, much skinnier (13 acres).

Besides the obvious paths for bikes and pedestrians, Martínez says, there’d be room atop the Pierce Elevated to install all sorts of attractions. Maybe a golf range; or a bike-in theater; a conference center; gardens; or a greenhouse for native plants to be installed along Buffalo Bayou.

It sounds a little crazy, but as the story notes, such things do exist elsewhere, with the High Line in New York being a prominent recent example. I would think the main objection to this would be that if the Pierce were to be torn down when TxDOT rebuilds I-45 is that downtown would gain a huge swath of newly developable real estate, which in today’s market would be worth a ton of money. But Piece Skypark as envisioned could be a truly massive amenity for the city, and it wouldn’t necessarily preclude development on or underneath it. I’d at least like to see the idea get discussed and taken seriously. We have two years or more before anything starts to happen. What’s to lose by considering all options? Check out Pierce Skypark’s Facebook page and give it a like if you’re interested.

Fifth Circuit to hear Texas voter ID appeal

There’s more than one big appellate case being heard today.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas voter identification law will make a stop at a federal appeals court in New Orleans on Tuesday on a likely path to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller and lawyers representing plaintiffs, including the U.S. Justice Department, will present arguments to a three-judge panel, with a ruling to come later.

The Texas case, one of several legal challenges of state voter ID laws, is unique because a judge found evidence of intentional racial discrimination by legislators in crafting the law, said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert in election law.

“It is Texas’ motivations on trial,” Hasen said. “Texas is going to be out there front and center, arguing that the finding is wrong.”

[…]

The panel of judges will have to decide if Ramos was “clearly wrong” in her ruling, and that could be a hard decision for any appellate court, said Myrna Pérez, director of Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “There was a very strong record in this case.”

Two plaintiffs’ lawyers will participate in the oral arguments: Erin Flynn with the U.S. Justice Department, and Chad Dunn, who is representing the lead plaintiffs in the Texas case — U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Dunn said he intends to show the judges the “overwhelming evidence against this law” and how it compels them to reach the same conclusion as Ramos.

“It’s not that Texas can’t adopt an identification law for voting, it’s that the individual decisions made with this law make it unconstitutional,” Dunn said, noting the narrow list of valid IDs needed to vote.

As a review, Judge Ramos ruled against the voter ID law in October, but it was allowed to be enforced after the Fifth Circuit (naturally) lifted Judge Ramos’ stay on the ruling. In late November the plaintiffs asked the Fifth Circuit to hurry up with the appeal already; I’m not sure if the timing of this hearing reflects a favorable response to that or not. In any event, here we are, and for once things are a tad bit different:

The three-judge panel set to hear arguments on the Texas voter ID case includes two Democratic appointees.

On the panel: Chief Judge Carl Stewart, appointed by President Bill Clinton; Judge Catharina Haynes, appointed by President George W. Bush; and Judge Nannette Brown, appointed by President Barack Obama.

Who knew such a thing was even possible? The panel’s decision can still be appealed to the full court, and then to SCOTUS, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are other lawsuits against state voter ID laws, but this one is farther along than they are, and would be first in line at SCOTUS when it comes to that. I’m very eager to see what these judges make of the appeals. The Brennan Center has a three part series on people who were directly affected by the enforcement of voter ID last November, and the Huffington Post and Texas Election Law Blog have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, which reminds us that putting Texas back under the auspices of preclearance is also at stake.

Anti-immigration bills dying on the vine

I think I’m going to just got to the executive summary at the bottom of this DMN story.

AT A GLANCE: WHERE 3 KEY MEASURES STAND

1. Repeal of tuition law: Seeks to change the 2001 law that allows some students who are in the country illegally to pay college tuition at in-state rates.

Status: Out of Senate committee. May not have enough votes to be heard on Senate floor. No House committee hearing scheduled.

2. “Sanctuary cities” bill: Would bar local rules that prohibit police from asking the immigration status of people they stop.

Status: Out of Senate committee. May not have enough votes to be heard on Senate floor. No House committee hearing scheduled.

3. Interstate border security compact: Would potentially allow Texas and other states to enforce federal immigration laws — and perhaps to create their own border security force.

Status: Out of Senate committee. Prospects in full Senate unclear. No House committee hearing scheduled.

See here and here for the background, and read the story for the details. Having been pessimistic about these bills before, I’m delighted to see this. The real question is whether the lack of action on one or more of these bills will cause Greg Abbott to call a special session, a topic Ross Ramsey discussed in the Trib on Monday. I’m not going to speculate, I’m just going to keep rooting for these bills to stay bottled up, and we’ll take our chances from there.

What’s next for Wendy Davis

Back to issues advocacy, which in this case is a fine thing.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis, whose fight against tighter abortion restrictions catapulted her into the national spotlight and an ill-fated race for governor, said Monday she is planning a national initiative on gender equality.

“My hope is to supplement the work of organizations that are striving to create equal opportunities for women,” Davis said via text. She confirmed she is “fine tuning details” of an initiative aimed at “fostering positive momentum toward the gender equality movement,” but said it was too early to talk specifics.

Davis has given speeches at venues such as Princeton University and the University of California in Berkeley since her campaign ended and is set Tuesday to give a speech sponsored by the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Midland. The Odessa American, in previewing that West Texas speech, first reported that Davis was creating an initiative to advance gender equality nationally.

“I hope to garner a cohesive force of women who can advance gender equality in a myriad of ways, whether it’s pay equity, (or) access to reproductive rights, and pull together women from all walks of life, all generations, all races, to use our power at the ballot box and elsewhere to drive change,” Davis told the newspaper. “There are too many women right now who are staying out of the conversation, and if we joined it collectively, we could drive the conversation.”

The rest of the story is about various talking heads’ opinions of Wendy Davis, a subject in which I have no interest. I think we’re still a little too close to last November to talk about any of that in a reasoned fashion, so let’s just skip it. What she’s doing here is good work and I’m glad she’s doing it. Lord knows, there are far less dignified things that former legislators wind up doing. Let’s just leave it at that for now.

Driverless car bill is dead

So much for that.

A bill to update Texas law for the age of driverless cars has stalled due to two serious roadblocks: Google and major car manufacturers. Both the technology giant and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group, have come out against a proposal from state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to create a pilot program aimed at monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in Texas.

Google has previously encouraged the development of similar laws in other states including California and Nevada, yet is refusing to publicly explain why it is opposed to such a measure in Texas. At last week’s committee hearing on the bill, a Google representative registered as opposed to the measure — but declined to testify as to why. The Texas Tribune got a similar response from Google after repeated requests: “We have no comment to offer on this.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology.

“We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.”

[…]

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, adjourned the hearing without a vote on the bill. Ellis said Tuesday that he does not plan to ask Nichols for a vote on the bill. He described the opposition from Google and the automobile manufacturers as likely insurmountable this session, but predicted both groups will regret that the state didn’t create a clear legal framework for testing the technology in Texas.

“I’m willing to bet that you’ll have people in the industry coming back to the Legislature saying, ‘We want some clear instructions on what we can and cannot do,’” Ellis said.

See here for the background. I get the logic of waiting to see what technologies actually come out before acting, but the Lege’s every-other-year schedule plus its often-clogged pipeline for getting bills that aren’t considered a top priority passed could leave it well behind said technology. That would be true of anything they did pass as well, as it could become quickly obsolete, so I suppose it’s a matter of what approach one prefers. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in 2017.

Hillary Clinton’s Texas staffer

Here he is.

Hillary Clinton is dispatching a full-time organizer to Texas, part of a 50-state strategy to build support for her presidential bid.

Manfred Mecoy, the Texas grassroots organizer, is a Fort Worth native and University of Texas at Austin graduate. He has worked as a Democratic organizer in North Carolina last year, and in Ohio in 2010 and 2012.

He’ll be based in the Dallas area, and will travel statewide, a Clinton campaign aide said.

The “Ramp Up Grassroots Organizing Program” includes one paid campaign staffer in every state, with more in the four states with the earliest contests in 2016 – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

They’ll recruit and train volunteers, at least through the end of May.

Obvious question #1: What role, if any, does Battleground Texas play in this? We know there’s a connection between BGTX and Ready for Hillary, but where does Manfred Mecoy fit in? How does it all work together? As of Friday afternoon when that item hit the web, I had not received a press release from either organization. Maybe someone will say something on Monday, I don’t know.

Obvious question #2: What’s the goal here? Having an organization in place just in case it’s needed in a contested primary? Continuing to carry on the original mission of BGTX, which despite the 2014 debacle was about boosting turnout in Presidential elections? Checking off the “implement a 50-state strategy” box on their to do list? Leading us to believe we’ll be putting in effort to organize in Texas but really looking for people who will make GOTV calls to Florida and Ohio next year? It would be nice to know.

Perry meets his appellate judges

He knows one of them very well.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs are great icebreakers

Rick Perry may be somewhat familiar with one of the judges picked to hear an appeal in the criminal case against him.

That’s because Justice Bob Pemberton has worked for the former governor, representing him in court as his deputy general counsel. After that job, Perry appointed him to the Third Court of Appeals, which is now considering a request from Perry’s lawyers to dismiss the abuse-of-power charges against him.

Pemberton also clerked for Tom Phillips, the retired chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court who is now on Perry’s defense team. Pemberton’s website features a photo of him being sworn in by Phillips — “his friend, supporter, and former boss.”

In addition to once working for Perry, being appointed by Perry and having clerked for one of Perry’s current lawyers, Pemberton has been a political supporter of the former governor. Pemberton chipped in $1,000 for Perry’s 2002 re-election campaign, according to state records.

The justice’s connections to Perry are unusual, even in a state under yearly scrutiny for a judicial system critics say is too tainted by politics. Judicial elections in Texas are partisan, and the Third Court of Appeals is controlled by Republicans.

Judges are bound to have some connection to Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, but Pemberton’s relation is beyond the pale, according to some good-government experts.

“That court has always acted in a partisan manner, but in this case, Justice Pemberton should definitely recuse himself,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal-leaning watchdog group responsible for the complaint that led to Perry’s indictment. “There should definitely be a recusal.”

According to the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, a judge must recuse himself or herself in any proceed in which “the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Yeah, I think that might reasonably be the case here. I don’t know if this is specifically what Team Perry was hoping for when they filed their latest appeal to this court, but I’m sure it wasn’t a disappointment to them. What happens from here I couldn’t say, but if one wants to take an optimistic view of things, one could say that if Perry’s motion is denied by these judges, it will be very hard to continue claiming he’s a victim of politics. Yeah, I know, that’s pretty thin, but it is what it is. One way or another, some number of judges friendly to Rick Perry were going to get involved. That’s the state we live in. PDiddie has more.

Senate passes anti-red light camera bill

Is this finally the end?

Gone

Gone

Red-light cameras in Dallas and other Texas cities would be gradually turned off under legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate.

The measure by Sen. Bob Hall, a Republican whose district includes part of Dallas County, along with Rockwall and Kaufman counties, would initially prohibit the future use of the cameras at intersections. Existing camera programs would have to be shut down as contracts between cities and camera vendors expire.

Senators passed the bill on a 23-7 vote and sent it to the House, where it has a good chance of passing.

“This is a concept that sounded good on paper but failed miserably in real world application,” Hall said, citing strong opposition from the public to cities’ use of red-light cameras.

[…]

Hall argued that red-light cameras originally were “sold to the public as a tool to improve public safety with a carefully worded and cleverly designed sales pitch by corporations who expected to make great profits.”

But the red-light camera programs “trample on constitutional rights” while doing little to make roads safer, he said.

The bill in question is SB714. I don’t have any desire to re-litigate any of this, but for what it’s worth I don’t think the constitution has anything to say on this subject. I also see this as yet another attack on local control, which I’m not crazy about. All that said, if it passes the House, it passes the House. I think if it gets to a vote in the House it will pass, but given how crazy things have been so far, there’s no guarantee of that. I do find it interesting that this bill was passed with all but one Republican Senator voting for it, given that in the 2010 referendum in Houston, Republicans strongly supported red light cameras. Just a reminder that partisan preferences can and do change sometimes.

Endorsement watch: Express News goes for LVdP for Mayor

Early voting has begun in San Antonio, and the Express News has made its choice for Mayor.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Will San Antonio be blessed enough to elect three exceptionally strong mayors in a row? That’s a tall order.

But if any of this year’s crop of 14 mayoral contenders has the potential to wield maximum clout at City Hall, it is former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. The 60-year-old former lawmaker has the best combination of political skill and understanding of policy among the contenders. And we recommend that voters elect her as the city’s next mayor.

Only four of the 14 candidates have a plausible case for election — Van de Putte, former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, appointed Mayor Ivy Taylor and former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.

Van de Putte’s more than 25 years of legislative service and her track record of working well with colleagues are the strongest credentials in the 2015 mayoral field.

After emerging as a surprise victor in a 1990 contest for the Democratic nomination to a Texas House seat, Van de Putte proceeded to put together a solid legislative career marked by her determination to help the state’s needy and ensure that military veterans are treated well in Texas. She also led the charge to pass legislation to fight human trafficking and played a vital role in expanding health care for needy children.

And Van de Putte was a steady voice for better public education, as well as an influential force on behalf of San Antonio’s institutions of higher education. Van de Putte worked well with her colleagues in Austin, including Republicans.

[…]

Villarreal has shown that he is a serious student of municipal issues, but his track record of clashing with colleagues in the Bexar County delegation raises doubts about his ability to consistently muster majority support on City Council and be an effective leader.

While being an appointed mayor imposes limitations, Taylor has not grown in stature or demonstrated that she has the ability to take charge during her several months as mayor.

Adkisson’s quirky approach to the campaign and city issues is entertaining but does not inspire confidence in his leadership.

Van de Putte is the candidate best suited to dealing with the routine grind of hammering out policy agreements and being the city’s ambassador to political and business leaders on a national and international level. The city is most likely to maintain political stability and continue successfully nurturing its economic development efforts with Van de Putte at the helm.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. From my perspective, either Van de Putte or Villarreal would be fine by me. Current Mayor Ivy Taylor’s vote against San Antonio’s updated Equal Rights Ordinance, followed by her pandering to a church crowd about it, disqualifies her in my mind. I know little about former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, and to the extent that I have paid attention to this race, I’ve not seen anything interesting or notable from him. The place where I might break a tie would be in future statewide potential. LVdP has already run statewide and didn’t do anything wrong, it just wasn’t a good year. Still, she’d be 68 at the end of four Mayoral terms, so you have to wonder if this would be her swan song. As for Villarreal, he is 45 and has had statewide ambitions for awhile, so serving as Mayor would be a good jumping off point for him in the future. That’s an edge for him, but as I said either of them would be fine by me. For a dissenting view on that, see Randy Bear, who strongly backs Villarreal. If you’re in San Antonio, who is your first choice for Mayor?

Weekend link dump for April 26

The war on acronym overuse continues apace.

“Universal Television, which developed the project and is producing it, always had been high on Emerald City, initially trying to shop it elsewhere and then taking a new stab at the premise, described as a modern and dark reimagining of the classic tale of Oz in the vein of Game Of Thrones, drawing upon stories from Baum’s original 14 books.” I will totally watch that, and I bet Olivia will watch it with me.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a few of these outbound interactive voice response robocalls. It’s easy enough to tell you’re talking to a computer, but it is a little freaky the first time or two. Someone needs to figure out a smarter way to do inbound call whitelisting, because I don’t think any other method of screening out crap calls like these will work as a general matter.

The case against one-way streets.

Who knew that owning a machine that presses vinyl records would be such a lucrative proposition these days?

I can’t help but feel that the Hugo Awards nominations saga has some lessons in it for those of us who would like to see greater participation in American elections. I’m not sure what those lessons are yet, though.

RIP, FM radio, at least in Norway and likely on the horizon elsewhere. Yeah, I feel really old right now.

Food service workers have more than twice the poverty rate of the overall workforce, and thus more often seek out public benefits.”

Public opinion on abortion is way more complicated than you might think.

RIP, Betty Willis, designer of the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.

Now that‘s an epic rant. Somewhere, Lee Elia is smiling. At least none of his guys were lollygagging, so that’s something.

What click farms are all about.

How does a TV series based on the movie Galaxy Quest grab you?

The opposite of binge-watching, and why a week between episodes can be a good thing.

What the neighbors of those free range kids think about them.

RIP, Mary Keefe Doyle, model for Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Rosie the Riveter” painting.

“Scientific consensus isn’t always right, but it’s our best guide to understanding the world. Can reporters please stop pretending that scientists, like politicians, are evenly divided on guns? We’re not.”

Not sure how I feel about a “more adult” version of The Muppet Show. Give me corny jokes and wacky hijinx, that’s what I want from my Muppets.

“The quest for a good battery that can store home-generated power is kind of like the holy grail for a renewable energy future. This one product might change everything.”

Happy 25th birthday to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Jailhouse woes for the Sheriff

Been a bad couple of weeks for Sheriff Garcia.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

A year and a half after a mentally ill inmate was found festering in squalor in a Harris County jail cell – apparently for weeks – Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia on Friday fired six jailers and suspended 29 others, the largest disciplinary action within the department in recent memory.

The county’s top lawman also said his second-in-command, Chief Deputy Fred Brown, would be resigning at the end of April, and a major in charge of inmate housing had been removed from her command and demoted.

The action comes three weeks after a grand jury indicted two detention officer sergeants in the case involving Terry Goodwin, the mentally ill inmate found in his cell in the fall of 2013 surrounded by bug-infested food containers, a feces-clogged toilet and ropes from his shredded jail uniform hanging from the ceiling.

“Disciplining employees is never pleasurable,” Garcia said, flanked by several subordinates at a news conference at the sheriff’s headquarters at 1200 Baker St. “But the reality is, when employees fail to take action when action is necessary, and when it results in conditions no inmate should be subjected to, this discipline is called for.”

Longtime sheriff’s office observers took note of the severity and the breadth of the punishment.

“I’ve never seen this much punishment handed down over a single incident. It’s unprecedented,” said Robert “Bob” Goerlitz, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, and a 24-year veteran of the sheriff’s office. In 2012, Garcia fired half a dozen jailers – both deputies and civilian detention officers – after allegations the year before of sexual misconduct between jail staff and other employees, as well as between jailers and inmates.

[…]

Garcia dodged a question about whether the scandal had impacted or delayed the expected announcement he’d be running for mayor.

He sought to mitigate criticism by pointing to the scale of the challenge of the job his jailers deal with and noting the steps the jail had made to prevent similar incidents. Garcia said the jail processes about 120,000 bookings a year, with a daily population of about 8,600 inmates, more than a quarter of whom receive medication for mental illnesses.

“In spite of the challenges we face in an operation of this size, my staff does a great job,” he said.

There was also a story about a no-bid contract in the news this week. The conventional wisdom, at least among those who talk about this sort of thing, is that these stories have delayed his expected Mayoral announcement, since of course he’d like to have this stuff in the rear view mirror before launching a campaign. That’s not the only possible explanation – one theory holds that he’s waiting to announce because the longer he delays the lower the expectations will be for his July fundraising totals. You can make up your own mind about this.

The question is what effect this may have on his chances in the Mayoral race, since everything comes down to the Mayoral race these days. PDiddie, who is not a supporter of the Sheriff’s, and Campos, who’s on Bill King’s team, both think this is detrimental to him. I wouldn’t argue any of this helps, but I seriously doubt it means much now. Most people – for better or worse – just don’t pay that much attention to this stuff, and those that are paying attention are either already aligned with a particular candidate or who are political junkies like me who may not be sure who they are voting for but who have a pretty good idea who they’re not voting for. I don’t think any of this has changed anyone’s vote, is what I’m saying.

To be sure, this will be ammunition to be used against the Sheriff later on, assuming he does in fact still run. In a campaign with seven viable candidates, where “viable” means “should have enough resources to mount at least an adequate voter outreach campaign”, the most important thing these guys have to do is introduce themselves to the voters. Attacking another candidate in communications to the voters is at best a secondary consideration, especially given that the main beneficiaries of such attacks in multi-candidate races are the ones who stay out of them. Recent problems with the jail are certainly an issue and the other candidates can and will take advantage of it where they can, but I don’t think it becomes a main feature of the race until a runoff, if the Sheriff makes it that far. Even in a runoff, negative campaigning his its risks. When you consider the buzz Adrian Garcia will get for his potential to be Houston’s first Latino Mayor, direct attacks against him may help to galvanize the kind of voters he’ll need to win in a runoff. We just don’t know yet how this will play out, and in my view anyone who says otherwise is overstating things.

Judicial bypass is already a huge obstacle

Jane’s Due Process highlights just how hard it is for a pregnant teenager to get a judicial bypass for the purpose of obtaining an abortion under existing law.

Never again

Never again

The Survey.
Jane’s Due Process (JDP) is a 501(c)(3) organization that formed shortly after Texas’ parental involvement law went into effect in 2000. Our mission is to ensure free legal representation for every pregnant minor in Texas whether she chooses to obtain an abortion or become a parent. Among a laundry list of services, we guide minors through the judicial bypass process, guaranteeing non-biased and judgment-free legal representation. Every few years, JDP surveys the district clerks offices around Texas to ensure that clerks are in fact providing callers seeking judicial bypass with correct and comprehensive information.

This report is based on a district clerk call-around completed in February-March 2015. The caller posed as a pregnant minor seeking information about how to obtain a judicial bypass in her residing county. We chose to survey all counties in Texas with populations above 50,000 (62) and spot-check the smaller counties (19). In total, we surveyed 81 counties. The caller asked the following questions:

1. How do I apply for a judicial bypass?
2. Where do I go to file my application for a judicial bypass?
3. Whom do I ask to help me fill out my application?
4. Will anyone else find out that I am applying for a judicial bypass?
5. How do I get a lawyer?

The Results.
Our results were overwhelmingly disappointing and highly concerning. A mere 26% of counties provided the caller with factually correct information. Even more frightening, 37% of counties denied entirely their office’s involvement with judicial bypass filings, and a vast 81% of counties had no immediate knowledge of the existence of judicial bypass. A stunning 43% of counties provided the caller with blatant misinformation. Several district clerks went a step further and provided the caller with personal, religious advice, referencing “God’s plan” for the minor. One clerk announced she was an “advocate for Crisis Pregnancy Centers” and wanted to meet with the minor in person after work. Other clerks simply told the caller to “pick up the phone and call a lawyer” with one abruptly hanging up the phone.

While our results depend largely on the clerk who happened to answer the phone under Texas law, clerk’s offices should help any and all minors who seek to file a bypass application. While one clerk may be more knowledgeable than another, the clerk who answers the phone should be able to connect a minor to help immediately. This survey’s methodology replicates precisely what could happen in a real-life situation if a pregnant minor were to simply call her district clerk’s office seeking information. In cases where a clerk does not have any information, he or she should at least be able to transfer the caller immediately to someone who can provide the caller with the correct information, rather than providing the caller with misinformation or no information at all.

We cannot stress enough our concern regarding these findings. The judicial bypass provision is in place as a safety net for pregnant teens who cannot involve a parent or legal guardian in their pregnancy, often times for fear of abuse or abandonment. Judicial bypass absolutely must be accessible to this highly vulnerable population. District clerk’s offices must be trained properly to provide complete and accurate information so that every Texas minor has access to this constitutionally protected provision. Indeed, when the State is not upholding this legal requirement in practice, it creates very serious constitutional problem that may place minors in danger.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for elected officials to know and follow the law, do you? Of course, they may not have to worry about it in the near future if pending legislation makes it through the process and gets signed into law. I’m old enough to remember when the parental consent law that created the judicial bypass process was first enacted. Opponents at the time argued that all it would do was put up obstacles and create danger for a vulnerable population. Apparently, it wasn’t enough of an obstacle for some people. Nonsequiteuse has more.

Ted Cruz still really dislikes gay people

Though he’s happy to take their money if they’re foolish enough to offer it to him.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

Nobody tell the adoring fans at U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential announcement at Liberty University that he was palling around liberal New York City with well-known gay activists.

On Wednesday, Cruz attended a small New York City event hosted by two “prominent gay hoteliers” who used to be an item, The New York Times reported. According to one of the men, Ian Reisner, the Texas senator said he would love his daughters no less if one came out as a lesbian. That’s good and well and something most parents would understand, but something else happened that night.

A couple of attendees at the event told The Times that Cruz said the states should independently decide whether same-sex couples should be able to wed, his long-time position. When the paper of record followed up, a Cruz aide said the senator is still opposed to same-sex marriage.

[…]

Cruz, an Ivy League-educated lawyer, has long said this issue should be left up to the states, which is a non-starter among the proponents of so-called marriage equality. Just last October, he called for a constitutional amendment prohibiting the federal government from overriding state marriage laws, a sign that even Cruz, a consummate politician, knows which way the wind blows. At the time, he assailed the U.S. Supreme Court for “abdicating its duty to uphold the Constitution” after a ruling that he said “permitted lower courts to strike down so many state marriage laws.”

The problem for Cruz and every GOP presidential candidate who opposes a federally-recognized right to marriage, regardless of someone’s sex, is that the question is mostly answered. Even the most cautious court observers cannot argue with the proposition that legal trends point toward full-fledged marriage equality across the country by this summer.

If that’s the case, then, Cruz and his allies really have no reason to shun wealthy gay donors who disagree with him on this specific issue but find his standing on other topics – the Times article specifically mentioned his fervent support of Israel – more agreeable.

You wold think that those wealthy gay donors would have plenty of reasons to shun Cruz, however.

Sen. Ted Cruz really wants to make sure you know he opposes same-sex marriage.

After Cruz attended a Manhattan reception hosted for him by two gay hoteliers–Ian Reisner and Mati Weiderpass–the senator introduced bills to protect state same-sex marriage bans, according to Bloomberg News.

One bill would amend the Constitution to definitively allow same-sex marriage bans. The other would halt federal court action on the issue until the amendment is enacted. Several district courts have stricken down same-sex marriage bans, and the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on April 28.

Cruz is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and believes states should be allowed to ban it. Though the New York reception focused on national security and foreign policy, Cruz–when asked–said he’d still love his daughters if they were gay.

He just wants to treat them like second-class citizens, that’s all. Very simply, what this all boils down to is that Cruz, like most of his fellow Republican Presidential candidates, wants to have it both ways, and hopes everyone is too stupid or distracted by other issues to notice.

Ted Cruz has now responded to the brouhaha over his Manhattan fundraiser hosted by two prominent gay hoteliers. He argues that there’s no contradiction between his opposition to gay marriage and saying that he would love his daughter if one of his two daughters was gay. In truth, there really is not a necessary contradiction. That’s a totally valid point. But that hardly exhausts the issue or the balancing act (to use a generous formulation) that national Republicans are trying to pull off. They have to balance between a base that remains committed to opposing not only gay marriage but what we might call the normalization of gay life under the law, and a general public that has really moved on from this issue and is beginning to see legal inequality as on the par with de jure racial discrimination. As I said yesterday, we’re seeing the rise of a gay rights policy mullet – same old same old when talking to the base, but a very different way of talking about attitudes toward LGBT Americans when talking to the general public – and specifically, super-rich campaign donors.

Back to this point of whether there’s a contradiction. I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction. But there is quite a tension, to put it mildly. What’s the tonality? It’s one thing to oppose gay marriage as a legal matter. Quite another to rail against gay ‘activists’ forcing their ‘lifestyle’ on ordinary Americans, like Cruz and his fellow base Republican candidates do.

We’ve already seen how many national Republicans remain opposed to gay marriage but seem, when making the argument, to want to focus on how they believe homosexuality is not a choice, have gay friends and really can’t wait to go to a gay wedding, even though they don’t think there should be any. When Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tried to find a middle ground on his state’s ‘religious liberty’ bill, he said basically, I’m so meh on this, even my son thinks I’m behind the times.

[…]

In Maggie Haberman’s follow up on Cruz’s Manhattan fundraiser, she notes that Cruz told the guests at the event that he thinks gay marriage should be left to the states. That’s not totally inconsistent with his rhetoric on the campaign trail, since most of his proposed policies focus on protecting anti-gay marriage states from federal interference. But does Cruz really think the federal government should be agnostic on this issue? Does he think married gay couples should get federal benefits like Social Security and so forth as married couples? I doubt very much that’s an argument he’s willing to get behind on the campaign trail.

This is going to be a constant issue going forward through the 2016 campaign – even the candidate who is trying to stand out with his anti-marriage equality cred tries to hem and haw when he’s raising money in New York. In New York, marriage equality is a minor, principled policy disagreement amidst warm feelings about respect and compassion for all Americans; on the campaign trail it’s the beating heart of the rearguard fight in defense of traditional America. You can muscle those two visions into alignment if you really press hard. But they still can’t fit together.

Clearly, the answer to that first question in the penultimate paragraph is no, he does not think the federal government should be agnostic. Quite the opposite, in fact. I think we all know the answer to the second question, too. These questions may indeed be “minor, principled policy disagreements” for people like those two idiot hoteliers (who are now deservedly coming under fire for their tone-deaf actions) who live in places like New York where same sex marriage is legal. (At least until Ted Cruz gets elected President, anyway.) But for many thousands of people in places like Texas where the old laws still apply, it’s real life with real legal and financial consequences. Where’s the compassion for them?

SCOTUS rejects North Carolina redistricting

Of interest.

On Monday, the Supreme Court vacated a ruling from North Carolina’s highest court that had upheld Republican-drawn maps of the state’s congressional and legislative districts. While we don’t yet know what the final outcome will be, the court’s decision could have a real impact on one of the most aggressively partisan gerrymanders in the nation.

Democrats had argued that the new lines were unconstitutional because they’d improperly taken voters’ race into account; while this line of attack did not receive a receptive audience in state court, the SCOTUS decreed that in light of a recent decision of theirs in a similar case out of Alabama, the North Carolina Supreme Court had to reconsider its decision.

So what did that Alabama decision say? In that case, plaintiffs claimed that Republicans—who had their hands on the cartographer’s pencil there as well—had packed black voters into too few districts, “bleaching” surrounding districts and thus diminishing Democratic voting strength in those areas (because African-Americans almost always vote heavily for Democrats). There as here, a lower court sided with the defendants, but the Supreme Court disagreed and sent that case back down for a re-hearing last month. We’re still awaiting the results, and may yet for a while.

Opponents of North Carolina’s maps raised very similar arguments—take a look at the skinny, snake-like 12th District, which crams in a black majority running along a hundred-mile stretch of I-85 from Greensboro to Charlotte. They now find themselves in the same place as their peers in Alabama: waiting to see how a lower court decides the second time around. However, as legal scholar Rick Hasen explained when the Alabama decision was handed down, the Supreme Court’s ruling may only offer plaintiffs a “small” and “temporary” victory.

The reasons why this victory could be small and temporary are that this will go back to the state trial court, which will then give the NC legislature directions for drawing a new map. It may be that some fairly small fixes are all that’s needed, and of course one should never underestimate the motivation to draw maximal maps. Still, that’s two redistricting maps struck down by SCOTUS in recent months, which is certainly suggestive for the Texas redistricting litigation. The issues are somewhat different here, and we haven’t even gotten an appellate ruling yet, so we’re a long way off from hearing from SCOTUS. Keep it filed away for future reference anyway. The Hill has more.

Saturday video break: Girls Just Want To Have Fun

In a world where music videos had plot lines, there was Cyndi Lauper’s 80s classic:

Lauper went on to do several remakes and remixes of this song, which stands up pretty well 30 years later.

While this is absolutely Lauper’s song, it was written by Robert Hazard five years before Lauper recorded it. She changed the lyrics to make it a song of female empowerment. Here’s a stripped-down version of it by Greg Laswell:

Some songs work better when slowed down, but I don’t think this is one of them. It is different, though. And if you want something different, there’s always Big Daddy:

More songs should be mashed up with “Duke of Earl” if you ask me.

Early voting for May elections begins Monday

From the inbox:

EarlyVoting

Almost one million of Harris County’s registered voters will be eligible to vote in elections conducted during the May 9, 2015 Uniform Election, according to Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief elections officer of the county. Early Voting begins Monday, April 27th.

“Fifty political entities whose boundaries are solely or in part in Harris County have scheduled an election” said Stanart. “These include 21 cities, 11 independent school districts, 17 utility, service or improvement districts and one college district.”

The County Clerk’s Office is conducting three of the May 9 elections: the Klein ISD Bond election along with the joint election for Humble ISD and the City of Humble. Voters residing in these three jurisdictions can find Early Voting, Election Day voting locations, and view a sample ballot at www.HarrisVotes.com.

Forty-seven political entities are conducting their own election. “Voters should know that during the May Election cycle, sovereign political jurisdictions within the County can order an election and can conduct an election without the involvement of the County Clerk’s Office,” said Stanart. The cities include, Missouri City, Deer Park, Friendswood, Galena Park, Hedwig Village, Hilshire Village, Hunters Creek Village, Jersey Village, Morgan’s Point, Pasadena, Pearland, Piney Point Village, Seabrook, Shoreacres, South Houston, Southside Place, Stafford, West University Place, Waller and Webster. The Independent School Districts (ISD) include Alief, Clear Creek, Deer Park, Goose Creek, La Porte, New Caney, Pasadena, Pearland and Spring Branch. The Municipal Utility Districts (MUD), Service Districts (SD), Improvement Districts (ID) and Emergency Service Districts (ESD) include Chelford City MUD, Faulkey-Gully MUD, Trail of the Lakes MUD, Westador MUD, HC MUD 122, HC MUD 200, HCMUD 217, HC MUD 248, HC MUD 536, DOWDELL PUD, Stafford Municipal SD, HMW Special UD, HC ESD 16, HC ESD 21, Waller-Harris ESD 200, HC ID 15 and HC ID 17. The only college district conducting an election is Lee College.

As a service to the voters of Harris County, the voter Election Day Poll search on www.HarrisVotes.com will display the May 9th elections for which a voter is eligible to vote, if the entity provided Harris County notice of their intent to hold an election on May 9, 2015. The entity website and contact phone numbers, as provided by the entities, are also displayed as a result of the voter search on www.HarrisVotes.com.

“To obtain Early Voting and Election Day information for entities holding elections not conducted by my office, voters are encouraged to use the search result’s web link or phone number to contact the entity directly,” concluded Stanart.

The city of Houston does not have May elections, and neither do HISD and HCC, so if you’re like me you have no action to take. That said, there are elections of interest in Pasadena and across the county line in Fort Bend, and of course there’s the big Mayoral race in San Antonio. Every election matters, and the more local the election the more direct the effects on your day to day life will be. So check www.HarrisVotes.com if you’re in Harris County, or your county’s elections webpage if not, and make sure you participate if there’s an election that affects you.

Profiling the high speed rail opponents

City Lab takes a look at the people who are resisting the proposed Texas Central Railway.

Turns out you don’t need to rely on public money to be hated as a U.S. high-speed rail project. That much is becoming clear from the battering being given to a big Texas bullet train plan that’s privately funded.

A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

But with the project advancing toward route selection and environmental review, an intense opposition has emerged. It’s taken the form of anti-HSR groups (e.g. No Texas Central and Texans Against High Speed Rail), local legislation designed to stop the project, packed and panicked community meetings, and pleas for Congressional representatives to block any applications made by Texas Central to the Surface Transportation Board.

So far the high-speed rail pushback seems to be falling into three broad categories.

Click over and see how they were categorized. Nothing really new here, but it’s a succinct summary and a good quick reference guide if you need it.

Speaking of the legislation that has advanced out of committee, the Trib notes that its author, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, hasn’t always been anti-rail.

Yet as recently as 2012, Kolkhorst was listed as a member of the legislative caucus of the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation, a nonprofit that has advocated on behalf of cities and counties to encourage private sector development of high-speed rail in the state.

Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, Chris Steinbach, said there was no contradiction in her actions, as she is not uniformly opposed to high-speed rail.

“While she was involved with discussions about high-speed rail as a concept years ago, that is very different from endorsing the current specific route and methodology,” Steinbach said in an email. “In fact, her bill this session does not speak to the concept of rail, but rather the potential abuse of eminent domain.”

Kolkhorst was a state representative from 2001 to 2014, when she won a special election to take a seat in the Senate. The Dallas-based Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation identified Kolkhorst as a new member of its legislative caucus in 2007. Steinbach said the senator joined the corporation at the request of some of her constituents. She has not been a member of the organization’s legislative caucus as a senator.

“She lent her name as a goodwill gesture for constituents who supported the idea of researching rail projects,” Steinbach said. “While she is she known for her open-minded approach to problems, that trait should not be mistaken for any advocacy or endorsement of the current high-speed rail project being discussed in the 84th Legislature.”

The Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation launched in 2002 with a focus on encouraging private sector development of the Texas T-Bone, a proposed high-speed rail system connecting San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, according to David Dean, the corporation’s public policy consultant. The corporation has more recently encouraged private sector high-speed rail development anywhere in the state but is not officially endorsing Texas Central’s project, Dean said.

“We’re glad they’re here,” Dean said. “We hope they’re very successful because we need that true high-speed intercity passenger rail.”

Whatever. Look, people can change their minds, and they can decide that this project is OK but that one is not. As I’ve said before, there are valid reasons for folks in the affected rural reasons to oppose this project. But if this does succeed – and to be clear, I remain in favor of it – then perhaps that also-long-discussed Texas T-Bone would be more likely to finally get built, and it might very well be the kind of boon to the rural communities that TCR will be for Houston and Dallas. A little big-picture thinking would be nice here, that’s all I’m saying.

More on the Texas Compassionate Use Act

The Chron covers the legislation that has been introduced to loosen medical marijuana laws just a bit.

The twin bills, both authored by Republicans and supported by lawmakers across the aisle, await hearings in Senate and House subcommittees.

The bills are far more restrictive than those that legalized medical marijuana in 23 states, broad laws that in general green-light the marketing of “whole plant” products to a wide range of patients, such as those with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV and other illnesses.

The Texas bills would allow for the implementation of “compassionate use” of CBD oil by 2018, a move that would effectively bypass FDA drug trials, which can take as long as a decade.

“These are families that have run out of options,” said Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, a nurse and lead author of the House bill. “Other states have legalized CBD oil with promising results. We want Texans with intractable epilepsy to have that option.”

The bills face opposition from conservative lawmakers, who fear a yes vote might cast them as champions of marijuana, and from the Texas Medical Association, which is opposing the lack of testing available on CBD oil.

Even some parents of children with intractable seizures are against it, arguing their kids need higher levels of THC to make their convulsions stop, a dose ratio the Texas law wouldn’t allow. A botanical derived from plants, CBD oil would have to be calibrated from different batches to conform to the strict, low-THC ratio the Texas law would mandate.

It’s that very ratio that has made Dean Bortell an opponent of the Texas Compassionate Use Act.

His daughter Alexis, now 9, began having seizures at age 7, convulsing wildly and foaming at the mouth. The various medications doctors gave her actually made her condition worse, he said.

Bortell moved his family from the Dallas area to Colorado, becoming “medical refugees.”

Bortell said his daughter’s epilepsy now is well-controlled on CBD oil – $150 for a 40-day supply – but one of her doses contains more THC than would be allowed under the proposed Texas law. To get the right ratio, he must add pure THC oil to the CBD oil.

“If I got caught with that in Texas, I’d go to prison,” he said. “I’ve talked to tons of parents here in Colorado, and for many of them, the ratios in the Texas bills wouldn’t help their children because they require more THC. For no other medication does the law dictate dosing levels.”

See here for the background; most of what is in this story is also in the one I blogged about there. Time is beginning to get short for any bills that have not yet been heard in committee, so unless these bills get scheduled to be heard in the next couple of weeks, they won’t be going anywhere. One bill that has already gotten a hearing is Rep. Joe Moody’s bill to change possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a civil penalty, like a traffic ticket. That bill has picked up some Republican cosponsors, which may be a sign that it could go the distance, or at least go farther. I’d like to see more done, and I’d go a lot farther on medical marijuana than the Compassionate Use Act, but this just doesn’t look to be the session for it.

B-Cycle’s future

There’s some trouble in San Antonio.

San Antonio B-Cycle could be on the verge of following rideshare and disappearing from the San Antonio landscape, multiple sources have told the Rivard Report, unless it can win the local government, corporate and philanthropic financial support that bikeshare enjoys in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, and Austin. The same sources said Cindi Snell, the unpaid executive director since B-Cycle’s started here, announced at a Tuesday B-Cycle board meeting that she has decided to step down later this year. Snell has recently told friends and colleagues in the cycling community that she is exhausted after four years of unsuccessful efforts to win any major sponsorships and operating on a bare bones budget and pro bono support services to survive.

Sources say the B-Cycle board will have to consider shutting down or scaling back operations even as it seeks a new executive director, which it lacks funds to pay. One option would be to turn down the $1.2 million TXDOT grant to avoid the increased operating costs associated with an expanded network, but that would signal an end to rideshare’s growth in San Antonio, disappoint many neighborhoods awaiting stations, and the board would still face an underfunded system that would have to operate after losing Snell, bikeshare’s strongest and most visible advocate in San Antonio.

The bulk of funds that have built the San Antonio B-Cycle system flowed through the City’s budget from federal stimulus programs, and like the pending TXDOT grant, were for bikes and stations. Snell, co-owner of the Bike World cycling stores, has worked full-time for free while B-Cycle’s seven employees are paid modest salaries or hourly wages. The City, County and regional government entities do not contribute any funding to support B-Cycle. The 80/20 Foundation and Baptist Health Foundation have each contributed $50,000 grants this year, but no national company or locally-based company has shown interest in sponsoring bikeshare in the city.

That story, which has been shared 126 times after being posted to the San Antonio B-Cycle Facebook page, has generated promises from city leaders that they would work to save the program, but as yet I’ve not seen any reports saying that a sponsor or other funding source has been found. San Antonio was the first city in Texas to get B-Cycle, and it’s been very successful, with more stations and bikes and checkouts than Houston’s B-Cycle. It would be a big loss for them if it can’t sustain that success. Next City has more.

Meanwhile, Houston has a sponsor for its existing B-Cycle stations and is looking for more grant money to allow for further expansion.

Houston so far has avoided pitfalls, said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle, by stretching the seed money it received from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas in 2013 to expand the system.

“That and the fact that we have operated on a very lean basis,” Rub said. “We have been able to cover approximately 70 percent of our operating expenses through the income generated by the system, therefore we’ve been able to stretch the sponsorship dollars. We’ve even had a few months where the system income has exceeded our monthly operating expenses.”

More money would help Houston to expand the system. Right now it is focused on downtown and nearby areas such as the Museum District, Midtown and Montrose. Adding stations or offering service in additional neighborhoods, like the Heights or close to the University of Houston and Memorial Park, would require corporate partnerships or grant funding.

Rub said he has applied for funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal money for transportation options such as biking. The proposal would be for $3.4 million from H-GAC, with the local B-Cycle matching 20 percent of that with money they collect from fares or raise via other sources.

“If we receive the award we will put a plan into action that will result in adding 71 more stations over the next two-plus years,” he said.

The plan would also add 600 bikes.

“That would establish a very well networked bike share program,” Rub said.

If the H-GAC proposal does not happen, Rub said, finding a title sponsor would be hugely important to maintaining and expanding the system.

“We, along with the entire bike share industry, feel that we can provide a great deal of value to a title sponsor,” Rub said. “But bike share is still a relatively new industry and doesn’t have the advertising industry metrics to justify the investment, from a sponsor’s perspective. That is the challenge faced by many of the programs around the country.”

I hope they can get that grant and execute that expansion plan. I also hope they will have the same kind of backing from the next Mayor as they have had from the current one. You know how I feel about this sort of thing.

Friday random ten: Parenthetically speaking, part 12

Twelve! Twelve lists of song names with parentheses in them! Ah ha ha!

1. Strangest Party (These Are The Times) – INXS
2. Sweet Dreams (Of You) – Patsy Cline
3. (Take A) Beetle To The Badlands – The Slip
4. Take Me (I’m Yours) – Bob deGrande
5. Tell Me (That Our Love’s Still Strong) – Southside Johnny and The Jukes
6. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again) – Sly And The Family Stone
7. That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) – Ray Charles
8. There’s A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon) – The B-52’s
9. The Things (That) I Used To Do – Stevie Ray Vaughan
10. This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds) – Peter Gabriel

I believe that SRV song is the first one we’ve seen where the parenthetical is in the middle of the song name. I feel like an argument about proper grammar must have been involved. Also, once you come up with “Excellent Birds” as a title, I don’t know why you’d want to add on to it. But if Peter Gabriel hadn’t, his song wouldn’t have made this list.

TxDOT reveals its I-45 plan

Wow. Just, wow.

A massive reconstruction of Interstate 45 through most of Houston would topple one of downtown’s most frustrating barriers – the Pierce Elevated – and move the freeway east of the central business district.

That’s just one of the major changes Texas Department of Transportation officials included in the $6 billion-plus plan to be unveiled Thursday. It would make I-45 practically unrecognizable to those familiar with its current downtown-area configuration.

Two managed lanes in each direction will be added to the freeway between the Sam Houston Tollway and U.S. 59 south of the city’s central business district. Planners recommend moving I-45 to the east side of the city’s core, a change that an analysis suggests could increase downtown freeway speeds. Officials called it a once-in-a-lifetime change that would increase mobility and improve the city center.

“After having those freeways in the city for the better part of 70 years, it’s challenging and exciting to have the opportunity to come back and reshape how they fit,” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District.

The first of three public meetings this month [was] scheduled for Thursday night, when residents and businesses will get their first detailed look at the plans. In 2013, when neighborhood leaders got a look at early versions, some feared the reconstruction would leave a big, concrete scar across their communities.

“I am really looking with dreaded anticipation for what they are going to propose,” said Jim Weston, president of the I-45 coalition, a group of residents tracking the freeway project. “There’s a lot of engineering and lots of questions about the design that really, I feel, TxDOT hasn’t answered.”

Remaking I-45 will take years, with numerous public meetings and more detailed analysis remaining. Officials said it is too early to pinpoint an exact cost, but transportation officials predict all of the work will cost “north of $6 billion,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office.

The final cost will be determined by when officials can start construction, likely in phases starting in downtown Houston after 2017. The central business district parts of the plan alone will cost about $3 billion.

Much of that cost comes from moving the freeway. Eventually, I-45 will move from the west side of downtown and follow the same route U.S. 59 does now east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, according to the plans. The two freeways will split where they now cross near Pierce Street.

Perhaps just as importantly, transportation officials are designing segments of the new or combined freeways as depressed roadways, meaning local street traffic flows above them, similar to U.S. 59 west of Spur 527. East of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets, the space above the freeways could be developed as open green space or a park-like setting.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The public meeting documents are here. I’m still working my way through them. I’m happy that the roundabout idea appears to be kaput, but there’s a billion details to work out, and until we really understand what this is all about, it’s impossible to say if this is good, bad, or indifferent. I’m more hopeful now than I was before, but I need to read the docs and hear what the folks who have followed this more closely than I have are saying. And – and I really cannot say this often enough – we need to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this. Forget pensions and potholes, if this project goes forward more or less as detailed here, this will be the defining issue of the next Mayor’s tenure. What is your impression of this?

Two anti-gay bills advance

Look out.

RedEquality

Gay rights advocates began sounding the alarm Wednesday after two anti-LGBT bills cleared House committees and another received a favorable hearing.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said if LGBT groups and their corporate allies don’t work quickly to generate the type of backlash seen over a religious freedom bill in Indiana last month, it could soon be too late.

Miller made the statement on a day when separate House panels advanced bills that would bar county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses and allow state-funded adoption agencies to turn away gay couples based on religious beliefs. The two bills, which breached a dam that had kept a record number of anti-LGBT measures at bay for the first 100 days of the session, now head to the Calendars Committee.

“My fear is that if the Indiana-style outrage doesn’t happen now, before these bills make it to the floor of the House, it will be too late, because the membership of the House will pass these bills, and then the Senate will fly them through, and Gov. [Greg] Abbott will have no choice but to sign them in his mind,” Miller said.

Miller and others said with the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments on same-sex marriage Tuesday, moderate Republicans in the Legislature are feeling the heat from social conservatives.

“I feel like the Republican base is desperately afraid of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage this summer,” Miller said. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the leadership in the House to pass anti-LGBT legislation. I think some of Speaker [Joe] Straus’ lieutenants are more likely to cave in to that pressure than others.”

[…]

The House Committee on State Affairs voted 7-3 along party lines to advance House Bill 4105, which would prohibit state or local funds from being used to license or recognize same-sex marriages.

Among those voting in favor of the bill was Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a moderate who chairs the committee and has come out in support of one pro-LGBT bill.

“For me, I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, so that’s why I voted for it,” Cook said.

All due respect, and I do respect Rep. Cook for his support of the birth certificate bill, but he’s not a moderate. As I noted before, he received an F on the 2013 Equality Texas report card. His support of Rep. Anchia’s bill is great and appreciated, but it doesn’t change who he is.

The Texas Association of Business, the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, has come out against two proposed religious freedom amendments that critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution. But the TAB has remained silent on the bills that cleared committee Wednesday.

“We have not taken a position and doubtful (with timing of the session) that we will be able to,” TAB President Chris Wallace said in an email. “We will continue to monitor the business-related implications.”

Late Wednesday, the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Affairs voted 6-1 to advance House Bill 3864, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), which would allow state-funded child welfare providers to discriminate based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

Meanwhile, dozens of pastors gave hours of testimony in support of House Bill 3567, also by Sanford, which he said is designed to prevent clergy from being forced to perform same-sex marriages. Critics of HB 3567 say it’s so broadly written that it could allow any religiously affiliated organization—from hospitals to universities and homeless shelters—to discriminate against LGBT people.

None of this is good, so now would be an excellent time to call your State Rep and ask him or her to vote against these bills. It would also be nice if the TAB and its other corporate allies would remember that not only are these bills bad for business, they will inevitably lead to expensive litigation (that the state will lose) because they’re clearly unconstitutional. The cheaper and safer route is to keep them bottled up in the House.

It’s hard to overstate just how out of step with public opinion all of this is. I can only conclude that the GOP is more in thrall to its zealot wing than it is to the business lobby. Maybe this will finally help cause a bit of a schism. As far as those “Christians” that were there to lobby for these bills, they don’t represent all people of faith. Not by a longshot. And finally, if Indiana and Arkansas weren’t object lessons enough for Republicans, just keep an eye on Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal has decided that the best strategy is to double down. Imitating Arkansas is bad enough – do we have to do what Louisiana does, too? The Trib has more.

A different push for health care expansion

This ought to spark some interesting conversations.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Two Democratic lawmakers called Wednesday for Texas leaders to explore a new type of Medicaid waiver that they say could provide health coverage to many of the state’s millions of uninsured.

The waiver, characterized by the legislators as the kind of block grant that Republicans favor, is not predicated on a Medicaid expansion and would allow Texas to avoid many provisions of the Affordable Care Act unpopular with the leadership in the Legislature – including the individual and employer mandates. The waiver, known as 1332, takes effect in 2017.

“Based on where we are now in this state, (the waiver) probably is the best chance or possibility of an agreement… toward coverage expansion,” Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said at a news briefing with Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

In a letter sent to colleagues earlier this week, Coleman added that the waiver must not reduce access to care, increase costs to the federal government, or make insurance more expensive than under the current law. The waiver effectively tells states that “if they know a better, more efficient way to provide health care, then have at it,” Coleman wrote.

[…]

Arlene Wohlgemuth, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin think tank, said she had spoken to Coleman Wednesday morning about developing a 1332 waiver aligned with the principles laid out by the foundation.

“Of course, we are interested in reform of the program that truly gives flexibility to the states to provide for better health outcomes in a way that is affordable for the taxpayer,” Wohlgemuth said. “Thus far, the federal government has been unwilling to give exception to the requirements in the Social Security Act (the law that embodies Medicare) that have hamstrung true reform. We are interested to see what Representative Coleman has in mind through a 1332 waiver.”

Vivian Ho, a health care economist at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said there are so many unknowns about the waiver that it’s hard to know what to conclude.

“I can’t believe any waiver is the answer unless the state agrees to some sort of Medicaid expansion, and I don’t see how 1332 is going to help that,” said Ho. “It’s unclear how much money it would actually supply and whether it would provide access to tax credits for people below 100 percent of the federal poverty level.”

Ho added that block grants are a questionable idea unless the amount of money increases with population growth, given Texas’ continual migration and growing uninsured pool.

But Ken Janda, CEO of Community Health Choice, a nonprofit health care organization, called the suggestion “a very good idea” and said it “definitely seems worth talking about.” He said it answers a lot of concerns raised about Medicaid expansion and presents a possible solution to the health-care crisis that’s caused the closure of some private hospitals and threatens the existence of safety-net hospitals.

Rep. Coleman and Sen. Rodriguez filed bills this session to pursue this waiver and the reforms that it would allow. Here’s the letter they sent to fellow legislators outlining what this waiver would mean. Here’s the key bit:

However, there is a catch – the waiver must not reduce access to care, increase costs to the federal government, or make insurance more expensive than it is under the current law. The 1332 Waiver effectively tells states that if they know a better, more efficient way to provide healthcare, then have at it. Texas should take the federal government’s offer and consider ways to reform both Medicaid and private marketplace coverage in this state.

Basically, this is a put-up-or-shut-up challenge to Greg Abbott and the Republicans that have dug their heels in so fiercely against Medicaid expansion, the insurance exchanges, and every other aspect of the Affordable Care Act. You think you can do better? Prove it. My guess is that this will be roundly ignored, since Abbott and Rick Perry before him have shown zero interest in doing anything about the millions of uninsured Texans. Abbott appears to be perfectly willing to set fire to billions more dollars in his continued quest to not do anything about health care. But who knows, maybe someone will rise to the challenge. I agree that it’s at least worth exploring to see what might be possible.

Prosecutors respond to latest Team Perry filings

Back and forth, forth and back.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog has done nothing wrong

The special prosecutor in the case against Rick Perry is asking a judge to deny the former governor’s latest two efforts to quash the indictment against him.

Perry, meanwhile, is once again showcasing a high-profile group of legal scholars who think the case against him should be dismissed.

The two filings by special prosecutor Michael McCrum of San Antonio – and the filing on behalf of Perry by lawyers from Republican and Democratic backgrounds – are the latest moves in a long court dance that has taken place since Perry was indicted last August.

[…]

Perry has maintained that he properly used his veto authority and that the indictment is improper, politically motivated and injurious to free speech and gubernatorial authority.

His high-powered legal team led by Houston lawyer Anthony Buzbee has said that misusing a veto “cannot constitutionally be considered a criminal act” under the statute cited by McCrum, and that McCrum’s effort to fix problems identified in the indictment is “woefully deficient.” Perry’s team also has said the indictment doesn’t give Perry enough notice to defend himself.

McCrum and Austin attorney David M. Gonzalez, who is assisting him in the case, said in a Friday filing that Perry’s third motion to quash the indictment should be denied because the indictment tracks the law, and that Perry doesn’t lack clarity about why he is being prosecuted. They said the matters raised in Perry’s indictment “may be appropriately addressed when evidence has been presented.”

McCrum and Gonzalez said in responding to Perry’s supplemental motion to quash in trial court, “Texas’ highest court for criminal cases has held that the State does not have to lay out its case in the indictment.”

See here and here for the background. The first of the filings mentioned in the third paragraph was filed after the initial ruling by Judge Richardson, which denied his first motions to dismiss but which noted some issues with the indictments. The second filing came after special prosecutor Mike McCrum refiled the charges, in response to the questions Judge Richardson raised. Perry has also filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals, which is a separate matter. There may be more filings to come – I presume McCrum will respond to the Third Court of Appeals motion if nothing else – and then we wait for rulings. Trail Blazers has more, including a copy of the latest paperwork.

On a side note, it’s interesting that this happened on the same day as the House passing the bill to move the Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County DA’s office. The Perry indictments have been repeatedly cited as the fulcrum for getting that long-sought legislation through. A bit ironic, given that the action has been driven by a nonpartisan special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge, but never mind that. At this point, I’d say that if Team Perry succeeds in getting the indictments tossed, that will be a lot of ammunition for the advocates of moving this function elsewhere. If it does go to trial, I don’t know that it changes any of the office-movers’ minds, but it may take some wind out of their sails. We’ll see who if anyone winds up feeling vindicated.

A little trouble in paradise

It’s that time of the biennium, y’all.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tea party advisory panel on Tuesday blasted Gov. Greg Abbott’s quality pre-K legislation as “socialistic” and “a threat to parental rights,” contributing friction to the already tense balancing act between the state’s top Republican leaders.

“We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young children from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers’ day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG-TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade,” read the letter sent to the state Senate on Tuesday.

It was signed by all 20 members of the lieutenant governor’s “Grassroots Advisory Board,” a group of Tea Party leaders Patrick chose soon after taking office to meet regularly and discuss public policy, especially as it related to border security, education reform, and tax relief legislation.

“This interference by the State tramples up our parental rights,” the letter added. “The early removal of children from parents’ care is historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights.”

[…]

While Patrick quickly distanced himself from the letter Tuesday, saying it was “unsolicited” and expressed “the individual viewpoints of Texas citizens,” House Bill 4 has not yet been approved by the chamber he oversees. It passed easily in the lower chamber earlier this month but has stalled in the Senate.

The letter – and any further delay in the Senate hearing Abbott’s pre-K bill – is sure to create friction between the state’s two most powerful elected officials, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The language of the letter is certainly inflammatory in a way that is likely to exacerbate the expected tensions,” said Henson. “It’s hard not to look at this without concluding that we’re in for a pretty fractious end of session.”

Who knew that inviting a bunch of nihilistic prevaricators into your inner circle would be such an ill-advised move? No one could have seen that coming. As the Observer notes, there’s no love lost between the House (read: Joe Straus) and the Senate (Danno, of course) over the border surge bills, among other things. Some of this is just the way things are at this point in the session. It’s like going on a long road trip with your family – no matter how much you may love them, after enough time together without a break, tensions can get a little high. Some of it is ego and the kind of inside baseball that no one outside of the Capitol hothouse cares about. And some of it is genuine differences, not all of which will get resolved. How big a mess it becomes, and how much gets salvaged and smoothed over, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I hope we hear a lot more of stuff like this.

Food fight!

The weekly kumbaya breakfast between the big three Texas lawmakers broke down today into a round-robin of recriminations that concluded with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick declaring he was tired of Governor Greg Abbott and Speaker Joe Straus “picking on me.”

The blow-up, confirmed by multiple sources, represents the boiling point of long-simmering disputes. The House has been upset that Patrick declared his inauguration marked a “New Day” in Texas and that he pushed a conservative agenda quickly through the Senate with expectations that the House would just pass his legislation. But, instead, most of the Senate’s bills on tax cuts, licensed open carry of handguns and moving the Public Integrity Unit have languished in the House without even being referred to committee by Straus.

The House instead has passed its own version of the same legislation, putting the Senate in a take-it-or-leave-it position. To pass the Senate bills now, the House would have to have an entirely new debate on controversial measures it already has approved.

So the Senate, in what looked like retaliation on Tuesday, ignored a House-approved border security bill to vote on its own measure, putting the House into a take-it-or-leave-it position on border security – a measure that House Ways and Means Chair Dennis Bonnen had crafted to win support of border Democrats.

This may be Patrick’s New Day, but Straus’ Old Guard still runs the House.

[…]

Once in the breakfast, Patrick and Straus began arguing over the House not moving on Patrick’s agenda bills, while Straus was critical of the Senate action on the border security bill. At that point, Abbott interjected his displeasure with the letter attacking the pre-k bill that he supported.

With Abbott and Straus coming at him, Patrick declared that he was tired of them “picking on me.”

LEAVE DAN PATRICK ALOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONE!!!

(The Trib and Juanita have more.

Statewide Uber/Lyft bill passes out of committee

It’s gotten better, but it’s still not good enough.

Uber

A bill to establish statewide rules for “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft has been tweaked to address some concerns that its background check requirements weren’t stringent enough.

That change – which would allow cities to require that drivers be fingerprinted as part of such a check – was enough for the bill win passage out of the House Transportation Committee with a 10-2 vote on Wednesday.

The revised bill still isn’t likely to win over cities like Dallas, which would still see their recently crafted vehicle-for-hire regulations essentially wiped out. And with just 40 days left in the session, the legislation still has a long road ahead to become law.

But the bill’s author, Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, said he was optimistic.

“We’ve eliminated the vast majority of concerns,” said Paddie, who added that Uber and Lyft remain on board with the legislation.

The legislation would create statewide rules for companies like Uber and Lyft on issues ranging from vehicle standards to insurance requirements to permitting. The Department of Motor Vehicles would administer the rules, which wouldn’t apply to cabs and limos.

[…]

A sticking point in the Legislature has been driver fingerprinting – which isn’t required in Dallas, but is in other cities. And Paddie’s latest amendment to his bill could perhaps allay the worries of some lawmakers and cities who wanted that flexibility.

See here and here for the background. The Chron explains why cities are still opposed to HB2440.

Lyft

The original bill would have pre-empted local ordinances in favor of statewide regulation, eliminating the ability of a city to regulate background checks for Uber drivers.

State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, who authored the bill, said it will allow cities across the state to enforce local ordinances requiring fingerprint background checks for drivers, a major sticking point for local authorities.

He said that change will happen on the House floor because a reworked version introduced Wednesday had a “drafting problem” that muddled the language on local control of background checks.

“That will give the authority to the cities that if they chose to require more in that they want to require fingerprints, as Houston does, with this change they will be able to do that,” he said.

Paddie, R-Marshall, added: “We basically said ‘cities, we heard ya.”

Uber has vigorously fought against attempts to require its drivers to be subjected to fingerprint-based background checks. Paddie said Uber and Lfyt have agreed to changes giving cities the ability to write and enforce rules for background checks.

New language inserted into the bill also allows cities to require Uber and similar companies that link riders and drivers by smartphone to access a state criminal fingerprinting database, potentially key to help win support from skeptical lawmakers. Paddie, however, said he planned to replace that section of the bill with new language making clear that his bill does not pre-empt cities from requiring fingerprint-based checks.

The bill passed the transportation committee 10-2, with Democratic Reps. Yvonne Davis of Dallas and Celia Israel of Austin opposed.

Davis questioned if allowing cities to set their own ordinances for background checks would keep in place a “mish-mash” of local regulations that the bill originally sought to undo.

“There’s still potential for a mish-mash,” Paddie said, highlighting that standards for fees and insurance would still be regulated statewide.

The new language in the bill “does not prohibit a municipality from requiring by ordinance a transportation network company to access the electronic clearinghouse and subscription service under Section 411.0845, Government Code, for transportation network drivers.”

That assurance, however, doesn’t go nearly far enough and is “useless” in assuring drivers are properly screened, said Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director in the city’s Regulatory Affairs Department.

Conducting background checks and accessing the clearinghouse are very different things. The clearinghouse is a database of fingerprints collected by various municipal and state agencies.

Honestly, this sounds a lot better, and I’m glad to hear Rep. Paddie talk about working with the cities on this, but the devil remains in the details, especially given that the bill is not yet a finished product. As we know, the experience in Houston has shown that anything less than full fingerprinting is insufficient. The “mish-mash” of not overriding stricter city ordinances on background checks is a feature, not a bug. If that stays in place, I think I’ll be all right with this. Let’s keep an eye on this as it progresses to the House floor, and do feel free to contact your State Rep and let him or her know how you feel about it. And of course – broken record alert – it would be nice to know how the Mayoral candidates feel about it, too. At least with Rep. Sylvester Turner, if it does go to a vote in the House we’ll have his opinion on the record. The rest of them will have to tell us on their own.

Meet your Paxton prosecutors

Technically, they’re district attorneys pro tem, for those of you keeping score at home.

Ken Paxton

Two Houston attorneys have been appointed to replace Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis in any potential prosecution of his friend and business partner Attorney General Ken Paxton. The Texas Rangers are looking into whether Paxton should be criminally prosecuted for violating state securities law.

Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice will serve as criminal district attorneys pro tem, according to an order signed Tuesday by Scott Becker, a judge in Collin County district court. The order leaves open the possibility of “further additional appointments.”

[…]

While neither Schaffer nor Wice have worked as prosecutors, both have extensive criminal defense backgrounds. Wice recently worked on the defense team of NFL Star Adrian Peterson with attorney Rusty Hardin and is the legal analyst for KPRC-TV in Houston. He is most known as the appellate attorney for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Shaffer has represented high-profile politicians and business leaders including R. Allen Stanford, former Congressman Craig Washington and handled legal affairs for athletes and celebrities including Farrah Fawcett.

See here for the background. It’s interesting to name two lawyers who have never worked as prosecutors for this, but they are certainly well qualified to handle the procedure. One might surmise that if they wind up going forward with charges against Paxton, their case will be pretty darned solid. I look forward to seeing what happens next.