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April 25th, 2016:

Early voting for May 7 elections begins today

Hey, remember that special election to fill out Mayor Turner’s unexpired term in HD139? Early voting for it – and for the other elections on the May 7 ballot – begins today. Who knew, right? Here’s the press release from the County Clerk’s office:

HD139_early_voting_locations

The Early Voting Period for the May 7, 2016, Special Election in State Representative District (SRD) 139 begins Monday, April 25, and continues through Tuesday, May 3. The election is being held to fill the position vacated January 1 by City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. A detailed Early Voting Schedule can be found at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“This Special Election provides voters in SRD 139 the opportunity to let their voices be heard and familiarize themselves with the new Early Voting locations in the area,” said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. “Since the last presidential election, we have added two early voting locations in the SRD 139 area to relieve voting lines at the Acres Homes Early Voting site.”

In total, there will be four early voting locations where registered voters in SRD 139 may cast votes in the Special Election, including:

  • Acres Homes Multi-Service Center, 6719 W. Montgomery Rd., Houston, Texas 77091;
  • Lone Star College, Victory Center, 4141 Victory Dr., Houston, Texas 77088;
  • Fallbrook Church, 12512 Walters Rd., Houston, Texas 77014; and
  • The Harris County Administration Bldg., 1001 Preston, Houston, Texas 77002

“I encourage voters in SRD 139 to vote at any one of the four early voting locations,” emphasized Stanart, the chief election officer of the County. “Voting early is the best option because, by law, voters are limited to voting at their designated polling location on Election Day.” There are approximately 91,000 registered voters in State House District 139.

To obtain more information about the SRD 139 Special Election, including an early voting schedule, a personal sample ballot, or a list of acceptable forms of photo identification required to vote in person, voters can call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965 or visit the Harris County Clerk’s election website, www.HarrisVotes.com.

Harris County voters may also visit www.HarrisVotes.com to find out if they are able to vote in any of the over 85 political entities within Harris County that are conducting elections on May 7, 2016.

The full early voting schedule is here. Now you may ask yourself, who exactly is running in this special election? Turns out, there are two candidates: Jarvis Johnson, who as you know is in the primary runoff for the Democratic nomination (the winner of which will be elected in November), and Rickey “RayKay” Tezino, who also has a Congressional campaign website that doesn’t specify a district, and an unclear idea about how long the term of office he is running for is. I’m going to step out on a limb and suggest that Jarvis Johnson will win this race, which will give him a leg up on seniority if he also wins on May 24. Here’s my interview with Jarvis Johnson from the March primary if you happen to be thinking about voting in the special. At least there won’t be a runoff for this one.

Also on the ballot on May 7 is Katy ISD Board of Trustees, which has one contested race and one uncontested race. Katy ISD, like the city of Katy, exists in Harris, Fort Bend, and Waller Counties, so this election is not being administered by the Harris County Clerk. Katy ISD voting precinct information is here, and early voting information for it is here. I interviewed candidate George Scott for the contested race, in District 1, and you can listen to that here.

Beyond that, there are various races in Fort Bend County – you can see a list of the entities holding elections and sample ballots for them here, and the early voting schedule and locations here. I know nothing about any of these races, so I’m afraid you’re on your own there. And of course there’s the Uber ordinance referendum in Austin, which will likely have implications around the state and maybe the country. Any races of interest in your area? Leave a comment and let us know.

The state is starting to feel the squeeze

Things are tough all over.

BagOfMoney

The state is facing big problems affecting vulnerable populations that will take significant money to fix at the same time that a slump in the energy industry is chipping into its revenues, House Speaker Joe Straus warned Tuesday.

“Writing a balanced and disciplined budget that appropriately funds our top priorities is going to be a significant challenge,” Straus said in a letter to House budget-writers, expressing confidence they are up to the challenge.

“This is not a theoretical exercise, but rather a task that affects children, taxpayers, and our state’s future,” he wrote.

Oil prices that stood at close to $60 a barrel when the Legislature adjourned last year are averaging “closer to $37 a barrel,” Straus wrote. And the state sales tax has marked five monthly declines.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar last year reduced his estimate of anticipated tax revenue for the current budget period by billions of dollars, while still leaving more than enough money for the state to pay its obligations.

Even before this week’s costly flooding, lawmakers were facing budget challenges such as addressing a foster care system in crisis, Straus wrote. A federal judge has ruled that the system violates the rights of children who most often “leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”

The public school funding system also is under court challenge. A state district judge already has ruled it unconstitutional, suggesting that a fix could cost up to $11 billion. The state has appealed the case to the Texas Supreme Court, which could rule this year.

In addition, Straus said, the program providing health-care benefits to retired teachers is in need of a long-term solution.

Those challenges will require “significant financial resources,” wrote Straus, R-San Antonio, and they alone would pose a challenge for lawmakers who return in regular session in January 2017.

[…]

In addition to looking at state program needs, leaders including [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick are setting the stage for additional tax relief in the next legislative session. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican named by Patrick to head the Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief, said there will be room for reducing taxes and that zero-based budgeting, in which all spending items must be justified, will help accomplish that goal.

Of course there’s room for property tax reductions. There’s always room for property tax reductions. We can do those other things with whatever’s left. Wafer-thin mint, anyone?

I don’t know what the Lege will do about this next year – who knows, the price of oil may go back up and we’ll all have forgotten any of this happened by then – but I do know how I’d be planning to run a campaign in 2018. The Republicans running this state are all crooks or crook-coddlers. They busted the budget giving tax breaks to big corporations, while the rest of us get standardized tests, jam-packed highways, a foster care system that kills kids, and no solutions from state leadership. They’ve been in complete control for 15 years. It’s time for a change.

Maybe that would work and maybe it wouldn’t. I doubt it could be any worse than what we’ve done before, and who knows? Maybe the business community will finally have had enough by then, especially if the Lege goes all North Carolina on gays and all Trump on immigration. Democrats would still need good candidates running on a whole lot of faith, the money to get that message out, and some clue how to boost turnout past the pathetic 1.7 million in off years level we’ve been stuck at. I can dream, can’t I? Trail Blazers has more.

Don’t expect Congress to pay for a Gulf Coast floodgate system

I sure don’t.

After nearly a decade of bickering and finger pointing, Texas scientists and lawmakers finally seem to agree that building some version of a “coastal spine” — a massive seawall and floodgate system — would best help protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane.

But with a price tag sure to reach into the billions, the spine will almost certainly require a massive infusion of federal money, state officials agree. Whether Texas’ congressional delegation has the political backbone to deliver the cash remains to be seen.

While state officials say the project enjoys the full support of Texans in Congress, almost every member has been silent on the issue, including those who hold the most sway.

“Everything depends on how long it takes us to get Congress,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a local economic development organization. “We could have a hurricane in three months.”

In March, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive look at what Houston’s perfect storm would look like. Scientists, experts, and public officials say that such a hurricane would kill thousands and cripple the national economy.

Building some sort of coastal barrier system around Galveston and Houston would rank as one of the nation’s most ambitious public works projects and would be unlikely to succeed without champions in Washington. State leaders and Houston-area congressmen cited U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Kevin Brady of Houston as those most likely to fill the role of standard bearer.

Cornyn and Brady, both Republicans, declined repeated interview requests about the coastal project over a period of months. The state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, is busy running for president, and his staff has said he is waiting results of further studies. Of the 36 members representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, only five agreed to interviews on the subject.

At the state level, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has made coastal protection one of his top priorities, said he hopes for support from Brady, who chairs one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. House. He also mentioned Cornyn.

Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, said he is already pushing the issue, but added that a senator’s support will be critical.

“John Cornyn, of course, a senior senator, majority whip over on the Senate side, would be a great one to champion the cause,” he said.

[…]

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also just started studying the issue, and Cornyn’s office emphasized that he signed a letter last October in support of that effort. But the study will take at least five years.

In another letter sent last November, 32 members of the House delegation urged the Army Corps to speed up the process even though it is at the mercy of funding from Congress.

Meanwhile, the next hurricane season is just two months away.

“Don’t just write a letter and think that you’re done with it,” said Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, an industrial town on the Houston Ship Channel that was nearly wiped out during Hurricane Ike in 2008. “Let’s get some dollars flowing down here and let’s build it.”

Republican Congressman Pete Olson said the Corps is taking too long and should have started its efforts earlier. But for years it didn’t have the money to study hurricane protection for the Houston region. The agency was able to start last fall only because the Texas General Land Office agreed to pay for half the $20 million study at the insistence of Bush.

Congress is supposed to provide the rest, but the Army Corps will have to ask for it every year until the study is complete.

Asked if he thinks Congress will commit to the $10 million, Olson said the Corps had never given him that dollar figure. “They told you that, but not me that,” he said.

[…]

Weber said he thinks the federal government should help pay for a hurricane protection barrier, but he wouldn’t comment on whether his colleagues in Congress agree with him.

“I don’t know, well, maybe,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I say the odds of Congress agreeing to pony up some $10 billion or so for a coastal floodgate system are pretty damn low. I cannot imagine Randy Weber’s nihilistic teabagger caucus members going along with it. Hell, I’d bet money right now that the Texas Republican Congressional caucus is not all on board with the idea, and I’ll even exclude Ted Cruz from consideration. Look at the recent track record of Congressional Republicans not wanting to appropriate funds to places that had been hit by actual disasters (two words: Superstorm Sandy) and ask yourself why they would vote to spend money on a disaster that hasn’t happened and may never do so in their lifetime. All spending is political now, and the death of earmarks makes dealmaking a lot harder. The fact that there isn’t unanimity about the best kind of flood mitigation system doesn’t help, either. Maybe someday, in a different political climate, but not now. Don’t be surprised if you see another article like this being written a couple of years from now.

Oh, Borris

Not good.

Borris Miles

Borris Miles

State Rep. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, repeatedly failed to disclose his business interests in three companies as state law requires.

The lawmaker did not report on state ethics forms for several years that he had an ownership stake in two hospice agencies or that he owned an entertainment company that operates a cigar bar in south Houston.

Miles rectified these omissions in recent days after the Houston Chronicle inquired about them. Through his attorney, he filed “corrected” ethics statements and “good-faith” affidavits in which he says, “I swear, or affirm, that any error or omission in the report as originally filed was made in good faith.”

On the new forms, Miles disclosed that he had business interests in Attentive Hospice from 2012 through 2015, in A-1 Hospice of Houston in 2009, and in Goodlife Management from 2009 through 2013.

Ethics watchdogs consider Texas’ ethics act weak but say its requirement that lawmakers, other public officials and candidates disclose business ownership can enable the public to determine whether they are engaged in conflicts of interest.

And when they don’t disclose? Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, said public officials rarely are punished sufficiently for failing to properly report.

“When the minimum disclosure standards that we have are violated, we need tougher and swifter penalties for it,” he said. “It’s a lack of enforcement. That comes from an unwillingness among legislators to regulate themselves with respect to transparency on their finances.”

The penalty for failing to file required items on the ethics statements ranges from $500 to $10,000 if the Texas Ethics Commission takes action under its rules. If a sworn complaint is filed alleging a violation, the commission can order a fine up to $5,000 or triple the amount at issue, whichever is more. A prosecutor also can pursue a misdemeanor charge.

The issue of whether Miles should be sanctioned for not initially disclosing three of his business interests highlights flaws with the ethics law, said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog group.

The state ethics commission doesn’t audit personal financial statements filed by public officials and candidates to track whether they disclose everything about their businesses, he said. “And we don’t prosecute them for their failure to fully disclose,” Smith added. “As a result, people can blatantly ignore the personal financial statement requirements and there’s really no consequence except for a fine that is less than the rounding error on the business income at question.”

I like Rep. Miles and I hate to have to write about this stuff, but our disclosure requirements are woefully inadequate enough as it is, and there’s no excuse for this. It would help if the Legislature got around to creating real penalties for failing to comply with these requirements – Greg Abbott has paid lip service to this, but failed quite miserably in the last session to achieve anything – but even in the absence of penalties that sting, compliance is not optional. If someone wants to file a complaint over this with the TEC and/or the Harris County DA, that’s their right, and Rep. Miles will need to face whatever consequences follow from that. In the meantime, I hope everyone else is reviewing their own disclosure statements and bringing them into compliance if they are not fully there. I also hope the Lege revisits the issue of penalties for non-compliance. In effect, the Legislature has the power to oversee itself, since they have the power to grant or rescind oversight authority to the TEC. Let’s take that job a bit more seriously, shall we?