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April 4th, 2016:

Interview with Jasmine Jenkins

Jasmine Jenkins

Jasmine Jenkins

As was the case in 2012, there is a three-way primary for the nomination in SBOE District 6, the one electoral entity that is subject to redistricting containing a Republican who represents me. I hadn’t planned to do interviews in this race for the primary, as there was only so much time available and so many other races that needed attention, but I would up interviewing Dakota Carter after he reached out to me. It’s only fair then that I present an interview with the other candidate in the May runoff for this slot, Jasmine Jenkins. Jenkins is a former bilingual 4th grade teacher in Alief ISD who went on to get a master’s degree and Ph.D. in public policy, with a research focus on education policy and school leadership. She now serves as the Manager of Community-Based Initiatives with Advantage Testing of Houston. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2016 Election page.

The Chron looks at Rodney Ellis

Not a very flattering look.

Sen. Rodney Ellis

Sen. Rodney Ellis

Over the past 26 years, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has voted to confirm gubernatorial appointments to the Lower Colorado River Authority, a powerful electric utility in Central Texas. During the same time, financial firms he either owned, worked for, or owned stock in have profited handsomely by helping underwrite $3.7 billion in bonds sold by the authority.

Ellis, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s endorsement for a seat on the Harris County Commissioners Court, has an impressive legislative record well-known to voters – 676 bills he has authored or served as the lead Senate sponsor have become law, including major reforms to Texas’ criminal justice system, schools and community colleges.

But because of Texas’ lax ethics law, much less is known about Ellis’ equally impressive career in the lucrative government bond business, which repeatedly has placed him in a position to exercise authority over local governments and public agencies whose bond proceeds were being used to pay Ellis’ firms. His dual role as lawmaker and bond underwriter has left him straddling the line between politics, municipal finance and public policy, raising questions about potential or actual conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts.

Since first being elected to the Texas Senate in 1990, Ellis has been involved directly or indirectly in municipal bond deals totaling at least $50 billion in Texas, an analysis by the Houston Chronicle has found. Nearly all of those deals have involved several firms doing “underwriting” – when firms are chosen or bid to buy bonds from a government agency and then sell them to investors.

The cost of issuing government bonds is about 1 percent of the bond’s principal amount, or $1 million for every $100 million in bonds sold. About half that issuance cost, or $500,000, would go to underwriters’ fees, according to Public Sector Credit Solutions, a California-based research firm that has examined 800 bond deals nationwide since 2012.

Ellis, in recent interviews via email, said he has not violated any ethics laws and has not done anything unethical in his votes as a legislator.

“There is no connection between my votes in the Senate and any bond underwriting,” he said. “I’m a businessman, lawyer, and African-American involved in public finance. I’m proud of the fact that I’m one of the first to combine those four experiences and also have a successful legislative career at the same time.”

Asked how his involvement with firms underwriting government debt would affect his work as a Harris County commissioner, Ellis told the Chronicle that if elected, he would “sever all ties with public finance companies.”

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog group, has watched Ellis in action from the start of his legislative career. During that time, Ellis has taken the lead on ethics issues, from requiring more disclosure to overhauling how judicial campaigns are financed, Smith said.

“There’s the good Rodney and the bad Rodney. The good Rodney knows what needs to be done, but he also has made a lot of money off of connections, knowing who to talk to, and selling bonds,” Smith said.

There’s a lot more, so read the whole thing. There’s no allegation of any wrongdoing – indeed, as Smith notes, Sen. Ellis has been a leader on ethical issues. He’s also made money off the system as it exists, playing within the rules while also having a hand in writing those rules. How you feel about this is up to you. I’m of a mind that we imperfect human beings to office, and human beings by their nature seek to do well for themselves. What I want from my political leaders is a commitment to making things better for everyone. On that score, Sen. Ellis has a lot of accomplishments. You tell me what the rest of it means to you.

From the “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup” department

Oh, Sid. You’re such a naughty boy.

Sid Miller

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s office withheld public records that suggest he obtained a medical procedure known as “The Jesus Shot” on a taxpayer-funded trip to Oklahoma, the Houston Chronicle has learned.

In response to a February public records request, Miller’s office had said that no email messages about the trip existed, even though it had more than a dozen of them, a spokeswoman acknowledged Friday.

The emails disprove Miller’s initial account of the trip and show that he tried to set up business meetings for that day only after scheduling an unspecified “appointment” in Kingfisher – a small town in north central Oklahoma that is the only place where it is possible to obtain “The Jesus Shot,” which is billed as able to take away all pain for life.

Friday’s disclosure marked the second time Miller’s office has withheld public records about the Oklahoma trip. Last November, it did not include any information about the trip in its response to a request for documents on all of Miller’s travel. A subsequent request specifically about the Oklahoma trip led the office to produce records, which did not include those released Friday.

Texas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Lucy Nashed called both omissions inadvertent, noting the agency only has two public records staffers and received nearly 1,000 requests for documents last year.

“TDA thoroughly reviews each public information request that is received and works to provide a timely and complete response of any records we maintain,” Nashed said in a statement. “Transparency is our highest priority, and we are constantly reviewing our processes to ensure we continue to provide public information as required by law and expected by the taxpayers we serve.”

The state lawmaker charged with overseeing the department’s budget called the withheld emails “very troubling.”

“Inadvertent? At this point, what should we believe?” said Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, who serves on the House Government Transparency & Operation Committee in addition to chairing the budget subcommittee that deals with agriculture issues. “The Open Records Act exists for a reason. We are the stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, and we should all, as elected officials, be accountable, transparent and honest in dealing with an open government.”

Government watchdog Tom “Smitty” Smith, the longtime director of Public Citizen Texas, said it is common for politicians trying to hide information to not fully disclose records and then, if caught, claim it was an accident.

See here and here for the background. I’ll say again, if there’s one thing that can hasten the demise of Republican hegemony in Texas, it’s scandal and corruption. (If there are two things, I’d add having the state’s economy go into the crapper, but that one will still require overcoming the slash-and-burn argument, so it’s not as clear and compelling as “throw the bums out”.) We should all take a moment to be grateful to Sid Miller for his dogged determination to not let Ken Paxton carry that burden by himself. Trail Blazers has more.

AG upholds Dallas Zoo ban on guns

For now.

It’s back

The Dallas Zoo can continue to ban guns at its 106-acre campus in Oak Cliff after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this week rejected a citizen complaint that the zoo’s firearms policy violated state law.

Paxton’s office said in a letter dated Wednesday that the zoo qualifies as an amusement park. That’s an area where state law says the licensed carrying of handguns can be prohibited, so long as the proper notice is given.

So the privately-run zoo can keep up the signs prohibiting both concealed carry and open carry that it has posted at its entrance.

“We’re heartened that the Attorney General realizes that our zoo … isn’t the place for weapons,” Gregg Hudson, the zoo’s president said in a news release. “The vast majority of our guests are families with children, and they have strongly supported us on this issue.”

Edwin Walker, a Houston attorney, had challenged the zoo under a new state law that allows Texans to formally complain about some local “no guns” policies. His complaint was one of about 50 that have been filed in Texas since September.

He said on Friday that he disagreed with the ruling – arguing that the zoo shouldn’t be able to ban guns since it is owned by the city of Dallas. He predicted that the Legislature, run by gun-friendly Republicans, would take up the issue next year.

“I certainly don’t think that the Legislature envisioned, whenever they created the exception for amusement parks … that a piece of government property would be viewed as an amusement park,” Walker said.

[…]

The zoo offered a multi-pronged argument for why it could ban firearms, including that it should count as an educational institution. But the attorney general’s office ignored those other claims and focused only on the Dallas Zoo’s amusement park exemption.

The carve-out dates back to 1995 and the legislation that created concealed carry in Texas. Then-Rep. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, amended the bill create an exemption aimed at the state’s major theme parks, such as Arlington’s Six Flags Over Texas.

“The nature of the rides and the activities at these theme parks are such that they could create a hazard,” he said during the House debate on the bill.

Today, privately owned theme parks like Six Flags don’t need that specific exemption to ban guns. That’s because the state’s gun laws were tweaked in 1997 to create a process for all private property owners to be able to prohibit guns if they so choose.

The eight-point definition for an amusement park exemption, however, remains part of the gun statutes. And the Dallas Zoo – which, for instance, has security guards on its premises at all times – meets all of those listed standards.

Point being, the Houston Zoo, which had taken down its “no guns” signs then put them back up after declaring itself an “educational institution”, can’t take any comfort from this opinion. And even if they could, I’m certain that Walker is correct and the Lege will trip over itself to accommodate the people like Walker who can’t feel safe anywhere unless they’re armed. So enjoy the reprieve while you can, zoo fans.