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January, 2021:

If we’re lucky, Congress will short circuit the Lege’s attempts to curtail voting

That would be nice.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Elections have consequences. So does the Republican enabling of the worst, most corrupt chief executive in the nation’s history. Hence, the first piece of legislation to be introduced in the new Democratic Senate will be S. 1, The for the People Act of 2021. The bill from Incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is a companion to H.R. 1 in the House, a bill with the same title and largely similar provisions to restore and protect voting rights, tackle dark money in politics, and make ethics reforms for public servants.

This could be the legislation that breaks the filibuster, and that will be a challenge for some Republicans to oppose. The House passed a version of the bill soon after retaking the majority in the last Congress, but no Republican in the Senate had to face a vote on it because Mitch McConnell just refused to bring the bill to the floor. Upping the stakes is Project Lincoln, the never-Trumper Republicans who made a big splash against Trump and his enablers in the GOP. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has the scoop that Project Lincoln supports it. “If Republicans want to move past Trump and repudiate Trumpism in all its forms, they need to pass foundational reforms to democracy,” Reed Galen, co-founder of the group told Sargent. “Senate Republicans must make a choice: Do they stand for democracy or are they the new Jim Crow caucus?”

Here’s some of what they have to decide on: universal registration of eligible voters and simple voter registration maintenance available to all voters online, Election Day voter registration, limiting voter purges by states and requiring early voting, as well as restricting hurdles states can impose on voting and vote by mail; restoration of the protections in the Voting Rights Act overturned by the Supreme Court and blocked by McConnell; and independent redistricting commission in the states to end gerrymandering. On the dark money front, it would impose new disclosure requirements both on donations and on lobbying, and require presidents and vice presidents to release their tax returns.

Some of these things directly address bills that will be or have been introduced this session, while others would allow Democratic agenda items to bypass that insurmountable obstacle. HR1 also addresses redistricting, but it is not clear that it will address it for this reapportionment cycle or if it would wait till 2031. That seems like a risk to me, but it may also be a moot point if the legislation can’t be passed in a timely fashion. And of course, anything Congress passes will be litigated, and that which is not litigated will be subject to various weaselly attempts to get around it. So no matter what, this is a long-term story. But at least there’s a chance it could be one with a more affirming narrative.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

More vaccination hubs

Keep ’em coming.

State health officials Saturday announced 79 hub providers that are expected to receive allotments of COVID-19 vaccines this week, including newly designated hubs in some suburbs of Houston.

The hub providers include two in Galveston County, one each in Fort Bend County, Montgomery County and Liberty County and six in Harris County, according to a list of the hubs that are intended to focus on mass vaccination efforts. Officials plan to distribute 333,650 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 260 providers across the state. Additionally, the state will order about 500,000 doses expected to be the second ones for people who received their first shot a few weeks ago.

Earlier this month, the Houston region’s three hubs were all in Harris County, making officials in some surrounding counties fear they’d been forgotten. The Texas Department of State Health Services previously said more hubs were likely to be added but that the main obstacle was a short supply of vaccines.

“In the past week, Texas became the first state to administer 1 million doses of vaccine, and vaccine has been administered to residents of all 254 counties,” state health officials said in announcing the allocation breakdown of the week’s doses. “Vaccine remains limited based on the capacity of the manufacturers to produce it, so it will take time for Texas to receive enough vaccine for all the people in the priority populations who want to be vaccinated.”

The vaccine first arrived in Texas on December 14, so that million doses was administered over about five weeks, or less than 30K per day. Things have surely picked up since the first few days, with the emergence of hubs. We’re still working to get to that 50K per day minimum target, which as we have discussed is still a 20-month time frame. Getting the rate higher than that is going to depend on the federal supply, which was very much over-promised and under-delivered by the Trump administration. But today is a new day, and now we have a new President, and things should be looking up soon. Let’s all hope so.

Precinct analysis: County Clerk 2020 and 2018

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor

We weren’t supposed to have a County Clerk race on the ballot in 2020, but we did following the health-related resignation of Diane Trautman in May. That gave us a battle of Stan Stanart, former County Clerk whom Trautman had deposed in 2018, and Teneshia Hudspeth, former chief elections person under Stanart. Hudspeth won easily, and though her 835K total votes were on the lower end for Democratic countywide candidates, her 53.76% of the vote was pretty close to Trautman’s 54.60% from two years before. The 2018 election was a non-Presidential year, with record turnout for such a contest, and the 2018 Clerk race also featured a Libertarian candidate, so comparisons are a bit tricky. My advice is to look at Hudspeth’s percentages compared to Trautman’s. Here’s the 2020 race:


Dist  Stanart Hudspeth Stanart% Hudspeth%
=========================================
CD02  181,707  151,509   54.53%    45.47%
CD07  153,335  147,437   50.98%    49.02%
CD08   26,037   14,710   63.90%    36.10%
CD09   37,941  119,087   24.16%    75.84%
CD10  103,442   58,506   63.87%    36.13%
CD18   60,497  178,172   25.35%    74.65%
CD22   22,018   19,747   52.72%    47.28%
CD29   50,483   99,634   33.63%    66.37%
CD36   83,484   47,160   63.90%    36.10%
				
SBOE4 108,536  332,265   24.62%    75.38%
SBOE6 389,609  343,285   53.16%    46.84%
SBOE8 220,799  160,413   57.92%    42.08%
				
SD04   56,013   22,252   71.57%    28.43%
SD06   58,816  115,690   33.70%    66.30%
SD07  237,989  168,687   58.52%    41.48%
SD11   77,992   45,722   63.04%    36.96%
SD13   38,148  158,482   19.40%    80.60%
SD15  115,748  191,422   37.68%    62.32%
SD17  118,870  122,163   49.32%    50.68%
SD18   15,368   11,547   57.10%    42.90%
				
HD126  39,346   32,856   54.49%    45.51%
HD127  54,464   34,684   61.09%    38.91%
HD128  48,497   21,457   69.33%    30.67%
HD129  48,407   34,399   58.46%    41.54%
HD130  70,686   31,495   69.18%    30.82%
HD131  10,184   44,299   18.69%    81.31%
HD132  51,079   47,460   51.84%    48.16%
HD133  51,079   35,518   58.98%    41.02%
HD134  49,424   56,156   46.81%    53.19%
HD135  36,914   36,293   50.42%    49.58%
HD137  10,430   20,635   33.57%    66.43%
HD138  32,119   30,383   51.39%    48.61%
HD139  15,914   44,364   26.40%    73.60%
HD140   9,567   21,385   30.91%    69.09%
HD141   7,122   35,961   16.53%    83.47%
HD142  14,114   41,357   25.44%    74.56%
HD143  12,295   23,775   34.09%    65.91%
HD144  13,990   16,257   46.25%    53.75%
HD145  15,404   26,341   36.90%    63.10%
HD146  11,411   43,173   20.91%    79.09%
HD147  15,494   52,686   22.73%    77.27%
HD148  22,919   35,897   38.97%    61.03%
HD149  21,718   30,328   41.73%    58.27%
HD150  56,366   38,803   59.23%    40.77%
				
CC1    94,155  277,561   25.33%    74.67%
CC2   152,576  141,645   51.86%    48.14%
CC3   229,070  206,538   52.59%    47.41%
CC4   243,143  210,221   53.63%    46.37%
				
JP1    94,708  161,313   36.99%    63.01%
JP2    34,728   47,948   42.00%    58.00%
JP3    52,202   67,235   43.71%    56.29%
JP4   236,302  181,977   56.49%    43.51%
JP5   205,591  211,174   49.33%    50.67%
JP6     8,522   26,546   24.30%    75.70%
JP7    18,695   99,939   15.76%    84.24%
JP8    68,196   39,833   63.13%    36.87%

Nothing we haven’t seen before by this point. It’s possible Stanart did a little better than expected because of name recognition, but who can tell. The 2018 analysis was part of a package deal. Here’s the County Clerk’s race on its own:


Dist  Stanart Trautman  Gomez  Under Stanart%   Traut%  Gomez%
==============================================================
CD02  135,427  116,744  6,717  6,221   52.31%   45.09%   2.59%
CD07  116,383  116,488  5,648  6,706   48.79%   48.84%   2.37%
CD08   17,784   10,221    679    520   62.00%   35.63%   2.37%
CD09   23,329   93,625  2,504  2,376   19.53%   78.37%   2.10%
CD10   71,172   39,707  2,623  1,970   62.71%   34.98%   2.31%
CD18   39,159  138,311  4,892  4,087   21.47%   75.84%   2.68%
CD22   15,265   15,184    857    711   48.76%   48.50%   2.74%
CD29   30,313   82,449  3,916  2,627   25.98%   70.66%   3.36%
CD36   60,467   35,918  2,452  2,036   61.18%   36.34%   2.48%

SBOE6 287,300  269,837 14,477 15,045   50.26%   47.21%   2.53%

HD126  29,277   24,586  1,293  1,074   53.08%   44.58%   2.34%
HD127  41,017   25,198  1,634  1,260   60.45%   37.14%   2.41%
HD128  34,735   15,876  1,142    915   67.12%   30.68%   2.21%
HD129  35,567   26,799  1,739  1,582   55.48%   41.80%   2.71%
HD130  51,064   22,942  1,722  1,365   67.43%   30.30%   2.27%
HD131   6,110   34,855    864    717   14.61%   83.33%   2.07%
HD132  32,579   32,090  1,680  1,023   49.10%   48.37%   2.53%
HD133  40,721   28,089  1,552  2,192   57.87%   39.92%   2.21%
HD134  37,977   47,211  2,090  3,692   43.51%   54.09%   2.39%
HD135  26,584   27,712  1,379  1,033   47.75%   49.77%   2.48%
HD137   7,257   16,167    678    552   30.11%   67.08%   2.81%
HD138  23,336   23,515  1,257  1,100   48.51%   48.88%   2.61%
HD139  10,545   35,238  1,128    961   22.48%   75.12%   2.40%
HD140   5,269   17,569    722    490   22.36%   74.57%   3.06%
HD141   3,921   26,852    622    438   12.49%   85.53%   1.98%
HD142   8,579   30,125    850    662   21.69%   76.16%   2.15%
HD143   7,405   20,178    952    699   25.95%   70.71%   3.34%
HD144   8,949   13,629    786    450   38.30%   58.33%   3.36%
HD145   9,596   21,809  1,226    834   29.41%   66.84%   3.76%
HD146   8,082   34,044    931  1,065   18.77%   79.07%   2.16%
HD147  10,013   42,972  1,576  1,316   18.35%   78.76%   2.89%
HD148  15,587   29,671  1,907  1,695   33.05%   62.91%   4.04%
HD149  14,042   23,985    859    785   36.11%   61.68%   2.21%
HD150  41,087   27,535  1,699  1,354   58.43%   39.16%   2.42%

CC1    61,603  218,965  6,875  6,563   21.43%   76.18%   2.39%
CC2   105,901  114,124  6,772  5,028   46.69%   50.32%   2.99%
CC3   164,601  157,515  7,843  8,035   49.89%   47.74%   2.38%
CC4   177,194  158,043  8,798  7,628   51.50%   45.94%   2.56%

I included undervotes in the county candidates’ analyses in 2018 because I was trying to analyze the effects of straight ticket voting as well. As I said, if you compare just the Democratic candidates’ percentages, you see that Hudspeth and Trautman had fairly similar performances, with the drops we have noted before in some of the Latino districts. Trautman knocked it out of the park in HD134, which was more Republican in 2018. Hudspeth had among the higher scores this year in HDs 131 and 141. I fully expect she’ll build on her performance in 2022, when she will be the incumbent running for re-election, though as always the first question is what will the national atmosphere look like.

It’s going to be lawsuit season again

Not looking forward to it, but it’s better than the alternative.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

President-elect Joe Biden has big plans for his first 100 days in office, when he’s vowed to roll back the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, push policies addressing climate change and potentially forgive student debt for thousands of Americans.

He’s also said he’ll push a mask mandate to combat COVID-19 and wants Congress to pass another massive stimulus package. And in the longer term, Biden has talked about rewriting the tax code to raise taxes on the rich.

Texas is almost certain to fight him every step of the way.

The state is about to be back on the front lines battling against the federal government, a long tradition for its Republican leaders, from former Gov. Rick Perry to Gov. Greg Abbott — who as the state’s attorney general famously said, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.”

Abbott’s successor, Attorney General Ken Paxton, has been just as committed to pushing back on federal laws and mandates championed by Democrats. Most recently he led a failed lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden’s victory in four battleground states at the U.S. Supreme Court. Paxton did not respond to a request for comment.

As Biden takes office next week, many expect the state to pick up where it left off after suing the Obama administration dozens of times to stop initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan, scrap protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and end the Affordable Care Act.

The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation — which filed the Obamacare challenge that Paxton joined and is now before the Supreme Court — is gearing up to start grinding out challenges to a slew of White House priorities regarding immigration, energy and taxes.

“On the eve of the election we were discussing internally, ‘Well, what would happen if Biden won?’ One thing everyone pretty much agreed on is our litigation center would probably increase in size significantly,” said Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at TPPF. “We’re kind of excited about it.”

Robert Henneke, general counsel at the TPPF, wouldn’t say whether the group’s legal staff has grown as expected, but did say they are bracing for battles ahead as he expects the Biden administration to “pick up where the Obama administration left off.”

The story goes on to list some likely future battles, a couple of which are ongoing now. It should be noted that Texas’ record suing the Obama administration wasn’t particularly good, though now there are all those Trump judges on the bench, so who knows what can happen. One other thing that can happen is we can boot our felonious Attorney General out of office next year. That won’t stop bad actors in the private sector from bringing cases, but it will at least keep them from having the state’s imprimatur on them. All I can say beyond that is I hope they feel the need to file lawsuits for a lot longer than the next four years.

Maybe this is the year we get rid of Confederate Heroes Day

I know it shouldn’t boggle my mind that we even still have such a thing as “Confederate Heroes Day” in Texas in the year of our Lord 2021, but we do and it does. And so, some lawmakers will try, try again to make that a thing of the not-nearly-distant-enough past.

Rep. Nicole Collier

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring a leader of the American civil rights movement, some Texas employees will also take a paid day off this Tuesday for Confederate Heroes Day — a state holiday falling on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, intended to celebrate him, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate soldiers.

For years, a handful of Texas lawmakers have tried in vain to pass legislation that would remove or replace the holiday celebrating leaders of the Confederate army.

But they say this year feels different.

Demonstrators across the nation spent months over the summer protesting police brutality and racial injustice, leading many states to initiate mass removals of Confederate memorials.

“The killing of George Floyd, a Texan, and the killing of Atatiana Jefferson, another Texan, at the hands of law enforcement, certainly do underscore the importance of removing a day of remembrance that brings to the mind slavery and oppression,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, chairperson of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Texas isn’t alone in its recognition of the controversial holiday. Eight other states have similar Confederate memorial days throughout the year: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia. Mississippi and Alabama also have a joint Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day.

The birthdays of Lee and Davis used to be separate Texas holidays, but lawmakers consolidated them in 1973 to create Confederate Heroes Day.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, filed one of two bills for this session attempting to remove the holiday from the state’s calendar. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed the other in support.

“This is an opportunity for us to bring and shine light on social injustice, how Black people across this country have been demonized and have been treated unfairly by the judicial system, the criminal justice system,” Johnson said. “I think this is another way that we have to wipe away and erase harmful, hurtful imagery that continues to remind us of our horrible past.”

Johnson filed the same bill to abolish the holiday during the 2019 legislative session, but it never got a vote in the State Affairs Committee, which House Speaker Dade Phelan chaired at the time.

Phelan will ensure lawmakers have a “level playing field to advocate for legislation important to them and their communities” this session, said Enrique Marquez, spokesperson for the speaker.

We’ll see about that. I mean, it was just two years ago that we were finally able to get a Confederate plaque removed at the Capitol, though later in that same session the Senate approved a bill that would make it virtually impossible to remove any other Confederate monuments around the state. (That bill did not come to a vote in the House, so at least there was that.) I would hope that seeing an actual insurrectionist carrying an actual Confederate flag inside the actual US Capitol earlier this month, a thing that the Confederate Army itself failed to do, might shock some people out of whatever it is that made them not be reviled by this sort of thing, but I would not bet on it. But as someone once said, it’s always the right time to do the right thing.

Precinct analysis: Presidential results by Congressional district

From Daily Kos Elections, the breakdown of how Presidential voting went in each of Texas’ 36 Congressional districts:

Two districts did in fact flip on the presidential level: Trump lost the 24th District in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs while recapturing the 23rd District along the border with Mexico. Biden, however, made major gains in a number of other suburban districts and nearly won no fewer than seven of them. Trump, meanwhile, surged in many heavily Latino areas and likewise came close to capturing three, but except for the 24th, every Trump seat is in GOP hands and every Biden seat is represented by Democrats. The 24th, which includes the suburbs north of Dallas and Fort Worth, is a good place to start because it saw one of the largest shifts between 2016 and 2020. The district began the decade as heavily Republican turf—it backed Mitt Romney 60-38—but Trump carried it by a substantially smaller 51-44 margin four years later.

Biden continued the trend and racked up a 52-46 win this time, but the area remained just red enough downballot to allow Republican Beth Van Duyne to manage a 49-47 victory in an expensive open-seat race against Democrat Candace Valenzuela.

Biden fell just short of winning seven other historically red suburban seats: the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 10th, 21st, 22nd, and 31st, where Trump’s margins ranged from just one to three points and where the swings from 2016 ranged from seven points in the 22nd all the way to 13 points in the 3rd, the biggest shift in the state. However, as in the 24th, Biden’s surge did not come with sufficient coattails, as Republicans ran well ahead of Trump in all of these seats. (You can check out our guide for more information about each district.)

Two seats that Democrats flipped in 2018 and stayed blue last year also saw large improvements for Biden. The 7th District in west Houston, parts of which were once represented by none other than George H.W. Bush from 1967 to 1971, had swung from 60-39 Romney to 48-47 Clinton, and Biden carried it 54-45 in 2020. Democratic Rep. Lizzie Fletcher won by a smaller 51-47 spread against Wesley Hunt, who was one of the House GOP’s best fundraisers. The 32nd District in the Dallas area, likewise, had gone from 57-41 Romney to 49-47 Clinton. This time, Biden took it 54-44 as Democratic Rep. Colin Allred prevailed 52-46.

Biden’s major gains in the suburbs, though, came at the same time that Trump made serious inroads in predominantly Latino areas on or near the southern border with Mexico. That rightward shift may have cost Team Blue the chance to flip the open 23rd District, which stretches from San Antonio west to the outskirts of the El Paso area.

A full breakdown by county and district is here, and a comparison of percentages from 2016 and 2020 is here. CD23 went from being a Romney district to a Clinton district to a Trump district, though in all cases it was close. The red flags are in CDs 15, 28, and 34. In CD15, incumbent Vicente Gonzalez won by only three points, in a district Biden carried by one point, a huge drop from Clinton’s 57-40 win in 2016. Everyone’s least favorite Democrat Henry Cuellar had an easy 19-point win, but Biden only carried CD28 by four points, down from Clinton’s 20-point margin. It’s not crazy to think that Jessica Cisneros could have lost that race, though of course we’ll never know. This wasn’t the scenario I had in mind when I griped that CD28 was not a “safe” district, but it does clearly illustrate what I meant. And Filemon Vela, now a DNC Vice Chair, also had a relatively easy 55-42 win, but in a district Biden carried 52-48 after Clinton had carried it 59-38. Not great, Bob.

We don’t have the full downballot results – we’ll probably get them in March from the Texas Legislative Council – but the Harris County experience suggests there will be some variance, and that other Dems may do a little better in those districts. How much of this was Trump-specific and how much is long-term is of course the big question. The Georgia Senate runoffs, coupled with the 2018 results, suggest that having Trump on the ballot was better for Republicans than not having him on the ballot. On the other hand, 2022 will be a Democratic midterm year, and the last couple of them did not go well. On the other other hand, Trump is leaving office in complete disgrace and with approval levels now in the low 30s thanks to the armed insurrection at the Capitol, and for all the damage he did to the economy and the COVID mitigation effort, Biden is in a position to make big progress in short order. It’s just too early to say what any of this means, but suffice it to say that both Ds and Rs have challenges and opportunities ahead of them.

There are some very early third-party efforts at drawing new Congressional districts – see here and here for a couple I’ve come across. We still need the actual Census numbers, and as I’ve said before, the Republicans will have to make decisions about how much risk they want to expose themselves to. The way these maps are drawn suggests to me that “pack” rather than “crack” could be the strategy, but again this is all very early. There is also the possibility that the Democratic Congress can push through voting rights reform that includes how redistricting can be done, though the clock and potentially the Supreme Court will be factors. And if there’s one thing we should have learned over the last 20 years, it’s that due to Texas’ rapid growth, the districts you draw at the beginning of the decade may look quite a bit different by the end of the decade. We’re at the very start of a ten-year journey. A lot is going to happen, and the farther out we get the harder it is to see the possibilities.

SCOTUS rejects TDP petition on vote by mail

Back to the lower court, I think.

The U.S. Supreme Court turned away a Democratic bid to force universal vote-by-mail in Texas, leaving intact a state law that lets people cast no-excuse absentee ballots only if they are 65 or older.

The Texas Democratic Party and its allies argued unsuccessfully that the law violates the Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age.”

Voting by mail became a sharply partisan issue amid President Donald Trump’s unsupported contentions that the practice led to widespread fraud in the November election. Texas’s Republican governor and attorney general urged the Supreme Court to reject the Democratic appeal.

A divided federal appeals court in September rejected the 26th Amendment claim, saying the Texas law didn’t make it more difficult for anyone to vote. The panel left open the possibility the law could be challenged as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The Supreme Court also rejected Texas Democrats in June, when the justices refused to reinstate a trial judge’s order that would have let any voter request an absentee ballot to avoid the risk of contracting Covid-19. That order, which was blocked by the appeals court, was designed to govern the 2020 election and might have boosted Democrats’ prospects.

See here for the last update, which was a petition for review of the Fifth Circuit ruling that kept intact the existing law on vote by mail in Texas as the original lawsuit that claimed the existing law violated the 26th Amendment is litigated. If I understand this correctly, the original case needs to be re-argued, with guidance from that Fifth Circuit ruling, and then once there is a ruling on the merits, we’ll go through the appeals process again. Or maybe not, if Congress and President Biden can pass a new Voting Rights Act that would allow for this nationally. I don’t see that particular provision in there now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t or wouldn’t be there. Anyway, it’s kind of a non-starter now, since the effort was to make that happen in 2020, but it’s never too late to make it easier to vote. Just don’t expect anything to happen in the short term, outside of what Congress may do. Reuters has more.

Drinks to go on the legislative menu

Looks likely to succeed.

As the 87th legislature kicks into high gear in Austin tomorrow, a new bill introduced in both the Texas House and Senate is aiming to make to-go alcohol from restaurants and bars permanent.

Venues in Texas have been able to sell beer, wine and liquor with takeout food orders since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when Gov. Greg Abbott signed an emergency waiver in an effort to help the struggling service industry as it navigated shutdowns and other safety regulations.

The governor allowed to-go mixed drinks in June 2020 after bar and restaurant operators lobbied him to ease the restrictions further. Before that, many offered cocktail kits with the liquor in its original package.

Sen. Kelly Hancock and Rep. Charlie Green filed Senate Bill 298 and House Bill 1094, respectively, on Jan. 7. The bills would allow Texans to buy alcohol from licensed venues, via pick-up and delivery, for off-premise consumption.

“Without Governor Abbott’s temporary waiver allowing restaurants to safely sell alcohol with their to-go food orders, Texas would have seen many more restaurants – small and large – close their doors and lose their employees because of this pandemic,” said Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), in a statement. “We know the road to recovery will be long, which is precisely why we need tools like alcohol to-go to become permanent.”

Here’s SB298; HB1094 had not been filed as of when I went looking. You know I support this, and from all evidence so does Greg Abbott, which is perhaps a bit more important. There will likely be some concern about the potential for increased drunk driving, but we do have open container laws, and I’m not aware of any increases in DUI since May when the prohibition on drinks to go was first lifted. There’s still plenty of other things we can do to clean up the byzantine system of alcohol regulation in this state, but I’ll take this as a start.

Weekend link dump for January 17

“David Hasselhoff is auctioning off KITT from Knight Rider“.

“The ongoing breach affecting thousands of organizations that relied on backdoored products by network software firm SolarWinds may have jeopardized the privacy of countless sealed court documents on file with the U.S. federal court system, according to a memo released Wednesday by the Administrative Office (AO) of the U.S. Courts.”

“For Biden’s Justice Department, tackling domestic terrorism will now be front and center.”

“Even Trump Loyalists Can No Longer Defend His Legacy”. But don’t let that let them off the hook even a little.

“Every Republican—all 147 of them but especially Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz—who voted to overturn election results even after the insurrectionist mob of terrorists drove them out of the House and Senate chambers must be held to account and ostracized. Hitting them where it hurts by taking away their big donors is exactly the right lane for the [Project] Lincoln gang to be in.”

That defamation lawsuit against Sidney Powell looks pretty solid.

“The PGA of America will strip Donald Trump of the 2022 PGA Championship, which is scheduled to be held at Trump National Bedminster golf club in New Jersey.” There’s similar action in Scotland, affecting Turnberry.

“When historians eventually tally the cost of the Donald Trump era, the manifold indecencies of which culminated in Wednesday’s sacking of the United States Capitol during a failed insurrection, golf will not be counted among its casualties. The game will instead be portrayed as Trump’s refuge, something he did while ignoring a pandemic that has claimed 365,000 lives, refusing to acknowledge a resounding electoral defeat, and inciting feeble-minded fascists to violence that left five people dead at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s the best case scenario.”

“It is the main cause of our current crisis – and of the difficulty in solving it. Today’s Republican party is one where it is considered divisive to take decisive action against a faction that was trying to hunt down Democratic _and_ Republican politicians a few days ago.”

“Preferring such lies seems strange, given that they involve a massive evil conspiracy that includes nearly everyone at every level of government and in every institution. It’s an awful thing to imagine that the entire world is out to get you and that the situation is so dire that you’ve got to arm yourself and begin stockpiling food so you can flee to the woods as your only slim hope for survival. But it’s an even more awful thing to reach the point where you consider your whole life — your job, your family, your home, your church, your passions — as so entirely meaningless and unrewarding that you’d be better off as someone on the run from such a massive, evil conspiracy.”

RIP, Michael Apted, award-winning director of the 7 Up documentary series and much more.

RIP, Pat Loud, matriarch of the family featured in An American Family, the first TV reality series.

“Let it be known to the business world: Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.”

“Republican Attorneys General Association Encouraged Supporters To Attend Wednesday’s Action At The Capitol”.

“I’ve received several DMs from friends asking what do to about parents/family members who believe misinformation regarding the election, vaccines and COVID. Here’s a research-based thread to help explain the roots of these beliefs and how to (and how *not* to) address them.”

Losing his law license should be the first of a very long list of consequences for Rudy Giuliani.

Facial recognition technology is still a bad thing, even if right now it is being used against bad people.

“If you want to understand the real Deep State, the biggest thing you need to know is it’s institutional, impersonal, and operates on a national scale.”

Here’s one thing Parler was good for.

As far as I’m concerned, Elizabeth Smart has a lifetime pass to do most anything she wants.

RIP, Siegfried Fischbacher, the “Siegfried” part of Siegfried & Roy.

“I think it’s reflective of where Trump’s own status is these days in which he has relatively little to offer and people don’t want to be associated with him generally. The fact is he’s not going to get the A team.”

RIP, Joanne Rogers, pianist, humanitarian, and widow of Fred “Mr.” Rogers. You should read this LA Times profile of her, it’s terrific.

““Unity” begins with repentance, and Republicans should get started. Supporting Trump’s removal from office and instituting his permanent exile from American politics are the necessary first steps.”

RIP, Charlie Thomas, former owner of the Houston Rockets.

“Situation with new #sarscov2 variants is becoming harder to follow (and not just because of the names), so let me try and give a brief overview: Where are we at? What should we be worried about? And how worried?”

Legislative diversity report 2021

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

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

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

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

There will be an equal number.

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

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

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

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

Vax and the cities

Makes sense.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A group of mayors representing some of the United States’ most populous cities — including Austin, San Antonio and Houston — is asking President-elect Joe Biden to give them direct access to coronavirus vaccines.

In a Wednesday letter, the 22 mayors urged the Biden administration to establish a national vaccine distribution plan for cities, instead of allocating all available doses to state governments.

“Cities have consistently been on the front line of our nation’s COVID-19 response,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote on Twitter. “I’m proud to join my mayoral colleagues in requesting that the Biden Administration prioritize a direct line of vaccines to our communities. We must do all we can to expand and improve access.”

Direct shipments of the vaccine would allow local leaders to plan and connect directly with their constituents, including disadvantaged communities, and help distribute vaccines more swiftly, the mayors argue.

“While it is essential to work with state and local public health agencies, health care providers, pharmacies, and clinics, there is a need to be nimble and fill gaps that are unique to each local area,” they wrote. “Very few cities are receiving direct allocations, and as a result, the necessary outreach needed to lay the groundwork for your vaccination goals are not being met.”

It’s basically an argument for streamlining the supply chain. I favor this because I don’t have much faith in the state’s apparatus, but I’ll listen to your counterargument if you have one. President Biden is proposing a big COVID relief plan that includes a bunch of money for “community vaccination centers”, which kind of sounds like vaccination hubs to me. We’ll see what kind of response this gets.

State Capitol closed again

At least through Inauguration Day, which is to say Wednesday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety abruptly announced the closure of the state Capitol Friday evening after uncovering new intelligence that intensified security concerns and prompted the agency to ramp up security further.

The closure affects the building and the Capitol grounds, which only reopened to the public this month after being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and damage that officials said protestors did to state property during protests in May and June.

The closure begins Saturday and continues through Wednesday.

In a statement, DPS Director Col. Steve McCraw said that “the Texas Department of Public Safety is aware of armed protests planned at the Texas State Capitol and violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events. As a result, DPS has deployed additional personnel and resources to the Capitol and are working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Austin Police Department to monitor events and to enforce the rule of law.”

Authorities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were bracing Friday for what law enforcement said could be violent protests this weekend through Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden. The caution stems from intelligence gained after the deadly pro-Donald Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Earlier this week, McCraw told state senators that authorities are monitoring multiple sects that could threaten Capitol security in coming days but stressed that the agency stood ready to neutralize any possible attack.

He said the groups have different political ideologies with 200 to 600 members each, according to three senators who attended the briefings. The senators did not want to comment publicly because DPS deemed the information confidential and said that releasing it could jeopardize safety.

McCraw said officials have ample troopers and other officers to respond should one of the groups travel to Austin to protest or riot. Their bigger concern, however, is that if the groups consolidate and mobilize together, that would pose a greater risk and prompt officials to call in reinforcements, the senators said.

We all know what this is about. I just hope it turns out to be a lot more talk than action. But whatever happens or doesn’t happen between now and January 20, the long-term threat isn’t going away and needs to be taken very seriously. The Chron has more.

And we already have our first COVID cases from the Lege

Surely not the last.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the casino push

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

Casino1

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the Metro security robot

Looks like this is finally getting rolled out.

Typically, when a security guard weighs 400 pounds, it means they are not well suited for foot patrols. K5, however, was built for it.

Soon the spaceship-shaped sentries will roll into action at transit stops and continue keeping watch on a parking garage at Bush Intercontinental Airport, under tests to see if more mechanized monitoring can help people navigate places and provide a bit more security in spaces that could use an extra set of eyes.

Airport officials deployed two K5s, built by Silicon Valley-based Knightscope, in early December. In the coming weeks, once they are properly branded with logos, Metropolitan Transit Authority said it will roll out K5s at a park and ride lot and a transit center in the area. A stationary K1, also built by Knightscope, will be installed at a rail platform. Metro’s board approved a $270,000 contract with Knightscope about 11 months ago.

Robots likely will hit the beat in a few weeks, transit agency spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said. Officials have not confirmed the locations where the units will be deployed.

The intent at Bush, airport parking director Walt Gray said, is to see if the robots prove helpful addressing minor issues that come up in the garage, such as someone who cannot find their car or a traveler who returns with a trip to find a flat tire. A button on the robot can be pressed to speak directly with someone, with the robot able to pinpoint the exact location.

Gray said the robots are supplemental tools to on-site security, though airport officials could have bigger plans to let K5 loose in the terminals to help travelers with directions.

See here for the background. That contract was approved about a month before COVID shut everything down, so I presume that that is the reason why it took so long to get from contract approval to actual pilot test. I don’t have anything to add to what I said back then, I just look forward to the day when I can find myself on a rail platform and encounter one of these things.

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

The five-ninths rule

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Paxton couldn’t be more on brand if he tried

News item: Texas laws protecting whistleblowers don’t apply to Attorney General Ken Paxton, his agency argues in bid to quash lawsuit. Who among us didn’t already know that Ken Paxton doesn’t think the law applies to him?

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s Office is attempting to fight off efforts by four former aides to take depositions and issue subpoenas in their lawsuit claiming they were illegally fired after telling authorities they believed Attorney General Ken Paxton was breaking the law.

The agency is arguing that Paxton is “not a public employee” and thus the office cannot be sued under the Texas Whistleblower Act, which aims to protect government workers from retaliation when they report superiors for breaking the law.

Four former Paxton aides claim they were fired in retaliation for telling authorities they believed Paxton had done illegal favors for a political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul. The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation.

In seeking reinstatement and other financial damages, the whistleblowers want to question Paxton himself under oath, as well as Brent Webster, his top deputy at the attorney general’s office, and Brandon Cammack, a Houston lawyer Paxton hired to investigate complaints made by Paul in what aides say was a favor to the donor. They also issued subpoenas to Paul’s company and a woman alleged to have been Paxton’s mistress.

[…]

The whistleblowers sought to question Paxton, Webster and Cammack under oath as soon as next week. Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, accepted the subpoenas for both World Class and the woman, court documents show. She could not be reached for comment and Wynne did not return a request for comment.

But in a filing last week, the attorney general’s office asked the judge to quash the depositions and the subpoenas, and prevent the whistleblowers from conducting any discovery.

“The OAG is doing everything they can muster to avoid having Ken Paxton answer basic questions under oath about the facts,” said Carlos Soltero, an attorney for one of the whistleblowers.

Instead, the agency said, the Travis County judge should dismiss the case entirely on procedural grounds.

The Texas Whistleblower Act — the basis for the lawsuit — is designed to provide protection for public employees who, in good faith, tell authorities they believe their superiors are breaking the law. But the attorney general’s office claims the agency cannot be sued under the law because Paxton is an elected official.

“The Attorney General is neither a governmental entity nor a public employee and, thus, the Whistleblower Act does not extend protection to reports of unlawful conduct made against the Attorney General personally,” the agency argued. “The Act does not apply… for reports made about actions taken personally by the elected Attorney General.”

Comparing Paxton’s authority to that of the president of the United States, the agency claimed that the attorney general had the right to fire the employees, despite their claims of retaliation.

Under that theory, “he’s saying that elected officials aren’t accountable” for violating the Whistleblower Act, said Jason Smith, a North Texas employment attorney who has handled whistleblower cases.

“It appears that General Paxton is trying to get off on a technicality that doesn’t exist,” he added.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have anything clever to add here, just that I hope this defense is as successful as his lawsuit to overturn the Presidential election was.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would he condemn something he supported?

We know who and what Ken Paxton is.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton is the only state attorney general to decline to join letters over the past week condemning the Capitol riot.

In a Jan. 12 letter, 50 state and territorial attorneys general who belong to the National Association of Attorneys General denounced the “lawless violence.” The three remaining state attorneys general not included in that letter wrote their own Wednesday, leaving Paxton as the only holdout.

Paxton is a staunch Trump supporter who co-chaired the re-election group Lawyers for Trump. He spoke at the “Save America” rally at the Capitol in the hours prior to the riot last week, telling the crowds “we will not quit fighting” to overturn the election results. Neither Paxton’s office nor his campaign spokesman responded to requests for comment.

“The events of January 6 represent a direct, physical challenge to the rule of law and our democratic republic itself,” the Jan. 12 letter read. “Together, we will continue to do our part to repair the damage done to institutions and build a more perfect union. As Americans, and those charged with enforcing the law, we must come together to condemn lawless violence, making clear that such actions will not be allowed to go unchecked.”

In a separate letter Wednesday, the attorneys general of Indiana, Montana and Louisiana wrote: “In all forms and all instances, violent acts carried out in the name of political ideology have no place in any of our United States.”

To be fair, you can’t expect a serial lawbreaker to venerate the rule of law. It just gets in his way. Also, that “rally” he was at was organized in part by people who also helped organize the storming of the Capitol. Like I said, why would he condemn something he supports?

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, which contains this bit of tangential business at the end:

On Wednesday, Paxton’s office was also hit with the loss of one of its top staffers.

Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins is leaving the agency, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. The exit comes in the wake of a scandal at the agency, and also Paxton’s controversial lawsuit at the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn the election results, which Hawkins — the agency’s appellate expert — did not sign onto. Hawkins has not answered questions about his decision to leave or why his name did not appear on the case.

Perhaps some day we’ll hear that story. In the meantime, chalk this up as another example of Ken Paxton being bad at his job.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price not running for re-election

Here now is the most interesting election for May 2021.

Betsy Price

Betsy Price, the longest serving mayor in Fort Worth’s history, will not seek another term after a decade in office.

Price made the announcement that she wouldn’t run for an unprecedented sixth term Tuesday at City Hall, ending speculation about whether her time leading the city would continue and creating the most contested race for mayor since she ran in 2011. Campaign filing opens Jan. 13.

“You know, serving as mayor has been one of the greatest joys of my life, next to having my children and my grandchildren. It’s been amazing,” Price, slightly choked up, said as she announced she would step aside.

Price, 71, did not immediately say what her future political aspirations might hold, but noted she still has “that Energizer Bunny energy and passion.” She said in the short term she’ll focus on spending time with her family. She also declined to make an endorsement in the May election.

[…]

She served as Tarrant County tax assessor for 10 years before running in 2011 and faced little opposition in following elections. In 2019 she bested Democratic Party Chairwoman Deborah Peoples by 14 points in an election that saw all nine council members reelected. Turnout in Tarrant County was about 9%.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, who has been on the council the longest, watched Price’s speech from the back of the council chamber. Councilmen Dennis Shingleton, Carlos Flores and Cary Moon were also seen at the event.

“I hate to see Betsy go,” Jordan said. “She’s been a great face for our city, even nationally.”

There are a number of potential mayoral candidates.

Tarrant County Democratic Chairwoman Deborah Peoples, 68, was Price’s strongest opponent in 2019. She has said for months she’ll make another bid, but hedged her commitment in a message to the Star-Telegram last week, saying she wanted to meet with her family and campaign team.

Following Price’s announcement Tuesday, Peoples said she would run.

There are other names out there, and you can read the rest for more of that and more on Mayor Price’s career. I don’t know a whole lot about here and have no opinion to offer of her tenure, but I wish her all the best in her next phase.

I am of course interested in this election, for all the obvious reasons. Daily Kos does a lot of the leg work here.

Republican Mayor Betsy Price announced Tuesday that she would not seek a sixth two-year term in the May 1 nonpartisan primary. Price, who is Fort Worth’s longest-serving chief executive, is also one of just two Republicans to lead any of the nation’s 20 largest cities. (The other is Lenny Curry, the mayor of Jacksonville, Florida.) The candidate filing deadline is Feb. 12, so Price’s potential successors will only have a little time to decide what they’ll do. All the contenders will face off on one nonpartisan ballot in May, and a runoff would take place later if no one took a majority of the vote.

Price was decisively elected in 2011 to succeed retiring Democratic Mayor Mike Moncrief, and she won her next three campaigns without any trouble. Politics in Fort Worth’s Tarrant County has been changing over the last few years, though, and Team Blue was encouraged by 2018 victories up and down the ballot. Price faced a serious challenge the following year from Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples, and while the incumbent won 56-42, the margin was considerably closer than any of Price’s other re-election campaigns.

The 2020 presidential results give Democrats some reasons for optimism about the race to succeed Price: Joe Biden won Tarrant County by a narrow 49.3-49.1, a showing that made him the first Democrat to carry the county since Texan Lyndon Johnson took it in his 1964 landslide.

Peoples has been preparing for a second campaign for a while, and she confirmed on Tuesday that she was inRepublican City Councilman Brian Byrd also said just before the Price’s announcement that he’d be running if the incumbent didn’t, while his Democratic colleague Ann Zadeh also expressed interest. Attorney Dee Kelly, who called himself a friend of Price’s, also said he’d consider an open seat race, while Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero also didn’t dismiss the idea on Tuesday. Romero, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, said, “I believe it would be irresponsible for any leader of a community of color across the city to prematurely rule out a run.”

We’ll see who else gets in. Rep. Romero would be an interesting candidate, but he’d almost certainly have to resign to make a serious run at it, and I don’t know that he’ll want to do that. But he might, so stay tuned. An odd year election, especially in May, is a very different dynamic than a Presidential year election, so Tarrant County’s shift doesn’t tell us anything about how Fort Worth, which among other things has less than half the population of Tarrant County. I’d love to see an analysis of how Fort Worth proper voted in 2020 and 2018, but even knowing that, we have to acknowledge the vast differences in turnout conditions. If you’re from Fort Worth and have any thoughts on this, please let us know.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 11

The Texas Progressive Alliance calls for the swift prosecution and punishment of everyone involved in the violent assault on the Capitol as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Precinct analysis: Tax Assessor 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff

Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett is the third incumbent from 2016 running for re-election. Like Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, she improved her performance pretty significantly from four years ago. Unlike either Gonzalez or DA Kim Ogg, she came off a close race – she was actually trailing after early voting, and did just well enough on Election Day to pull out a eight thousand vote victory. In 2020, she won by ten points, with a Libertarian candidate also in the mix. Here’s how 2020 looked for Bennett:


Dist    Daniel  Bennett     Lib Daniel%Bennett%   Lib%
======================================================
CD02   174,454  151,148  11,516  51.15%  44.32%  3.38%
CD07   148,007  146,906   9,535  47.97%  47.62%  3.09%
CD08    24,960   14,786   1,419  59.88%  35.47%  3.40%
CD09    35,972  117,815   4,676  22.43%  73.47%  2.92%
CD10    98,983   58,837   5,631  59.77%  35.53%  3.40%
CD18    57,057  175,920   8,077  23.44%  72.28%  3.32%
CD22    20,650   19,913   1,660  48.18%  46.46%  3.87%
CD29    46,205  101,024   4,961  30.09%  65.80%  3.23%
CD36    79,503   48,053   4,570  59.41%  35.91%  3.42%
						
SBOE4  100,919  330,636  13,852  22.66%  74.23%  3.11%
SBOE6  374,836  342,677  24,239  50.53%  46.20%  3.27%
SBOE8  210,036  161,090  13,954  54.54%  41.83%  3.62%
						
SD04    53,982   22,540   2,570  68.25%  28.50%  3.25%
SD06    53,863  117,046   5,997  30.45%  66.16%  3.39%
SD07   227,833  169,249  13,705  55.46%  41.20%  3.34%
SD11    74,156   46,328   4,608  59.28%  37.04%  3.68%
SD13    36,043  156,250   5,976  18.18%  78.81%  3.01%
SD15   110,239  189,765  10,747  35.48%  61.07%  3.46%
SD17   115,088  121,733   7,376  47.13%  49.85%  3.02%
SD18    14,587   11,494   1,066  53.73%  42.34%  3.93%
						
HD126   37,713   32,939   2,327  51.68%  45.13%  3.19%
HD127   52,360   34,525   3,193  58.13%  38.33%  3.54%
HD128   46,291   22,223   2,192  65.47%  31.43%  3.10%
HD129   46,005   34,465   3,291  54.92%  41.15%  3.93%
HD130   67,940   31,860   3,420  65.82%  30.87%  3.31%
HD131    9,557   43,780   1,586  17.40%  79.71%  2.89%
HD132   48,284   47,303   3,782  48.59%  47.60%  3.81%
HD133   49,924   35,385   2,408  56.91%  40.34%  2.75%
HD134   48,604   55,747   2,949  45.30%  51.95%  2.75%
HD135   34,905   36,408   2,567  47.25%  49.28%  3.47%
HD137    9,845   20,352   1,178  31.38%  64.87%  3.75%
HD138   30,750   30,377   2,169  48.58%  47.99%  3.43%
HD139   14,994   44,096   1,832  24.61%  72.38%  3.01%
HD140    8,661   21,724   1,000  27.60%  69.22%  3.19%
HD141    6,617   35,561   1,217  15.25%  81.95%  2.80%
HD142   13,268   41,110   1,631  23.69%  73.40%  2.91%
HD143   11,211   24,369   1,121  30.55%  66.40%  3.05%
HD144   12,895   16,646   1,072  42.12%  54.38%  3.50%
HD145   14,110   26,467   1,630  33.43%  62.71%  3.86%
HD146   10,878   42,506   1,661  19.76%  77.22%  3.02%
HD147   14,762   51,621   2,518  21.42%  74.92%  3.65%
HD148   21,733   35,555   2,479  36.36%  59.49%  4.15%
HD149   20,767   30,361   1,522  39.44%  57.67%  2.89%
HD150   53,716   39,022   3,300  55.93%  40.63%  3.44%
						
CC1     89,315  274,496  11,676  23.79%  73.10%  3.11%
CC2    143,799  143,691  10,434  48.27%  48.23%  3.50%
CC3    220,064  206,206  14,217  49.96%  46.81%  3.23%
CC4    232,613  210,012  15,718  50.75%  45.82%  3.43%
						
JP1     90,963  160,043   8,734  35.02%  61.62%  3.36%
JP2     32,249   48,712   2,804  38.50%  58.15%  3.35%
JP3     49,382   67,843   3,512  40.90%  56.19%  2.91%
JP4    226,115  182,066  14,185  53.54%  43.11%  3.36%
JP5    196,782  210,577  13,981  46.70%  49.98%  3.32%
JP6      7,542   26,611   1,383  21.22%  74.88%  3.89%
JP7     17,840   98,244   3,456  14.92%  82.19%  2.89%
JP8     64,918   40,309   3,990  59.44%  36.91%  3.65%

Bennett’s 834K vote total was the lowest among the non-judicial countywide candidates, and only ahead of five judicial candidates. Thanks in part to the 52K votes that the Libertarian candidate received, however, she led challenger and former District Clerk Chris Daniel by over 148K votes, which is one of the bigger margins. If you want to examine the belief that Libertarian candidates mostly take votes away from Republicans, look at some of the district totals, especially HDs like 132, 135, and 138. We can’t know for sure how Daniel might have done in a two-person race, but it seems reasonable to me to say he’d have improved at least somewhat. Bennett did about as well as you’d expect someone who got 53% of the vote would do. If the final score would have been closer in a two-person race, it’s not because she’d have received fewer votes or gotten a lower percentage.

Here’s the 2016 comparison, in which Bennett knocked off incumbent Mike Sullivan. She trailed by about five thousand votes when the totals were first displayed on Election Night, with Sullivan having slight leads in both mail ballots and in person early votes – yes, that’s right, Republicans used to try to compete on mail ballots – but got nearly 52% of the Election Day vote, which was a big enough part of the vote to push her over the top.


Dist  Sullivan  Bennett  Sullivan%  Bennett%
============================================
CD02   168,936  105,778     61.50%    38.50%
CD07   147,165  106,727     57.96%    42.04%
CD09    29,855  103,511     22.39%    77.61%
CD10    83,213   34,795     70.51%    29.49%
CD18    53,558  148,586     26.49%    73.51%
CD29    41,555   88,942     31.84%    68.16%
				
SBOE6  357,083  249,953     58.82%    41.18%
				
HD126   37,003   24,186     60.47%    39.53%
HD127   50,028   23,460     68.08%    31.92%
HD128   42,659   16,238     72.43%    27.57%
HD129   44,072   24,777     64.01%    35.99%
HD130   60,429   20,277     74.88%    25.12%
HD131    8,121   37,906     17.64%    82.36%
HD132   39,094   29,321     57.14%    42.86%
HD133   50,116   25,241     66.50%    33.50%
HD134   49,352   39,410     55.60%    44.40%
HD135   33,528   26,112     56.22%    43.78%
HD137    9,664   17,099     36.11%    63.89%
HD138   28,827   22,096     56.61%    43.39%
HD139   13,707   38,266     26.37%    73.63%
HD140    7,556   19,790     27.63%    72.37%
HD141    5,934   32,109     15.60%    84.40%
HD142   11,599   33,182     25.90%    74.10%
HD143   10,372   22,294     31.75%    68.25%
HD144   11,810   15,188     43.74%    56.26%
HD145   12,669   21,519     37.06%    62.94%
HD146   11,323   36,903     23.48%    76.52%
HD147   14,119   43,254     24.61%    75.39%
HD148   20,434   26,999     43.08%    56.92%
HD149   16,639   26,389     38.67%    61.33%
HD150   50,472   25,358     66.56%    33.44%
				
CC1     82,916  231,040     26.41%    73.59%
CC2    134,067  117,084     53.38%    46.62%
CC3    202,128  149,943     57.41%    42.59%
CC4    220,415  149,294     59.62%    40.38%

Again, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, but as Mike Sullivan nearly hung on, you can see what an almost-successful Republican looked like in 2016. Note the margins he had in CDs 02 and 07, and the various now-competitive State Rep districts. I mean, Sullivan won HD134 by eleven points. He won CC4 by almost 20 points, and CC3 by fifteen. We don’t live in that world now.

What is the direction of voting by mail?

It was different in 2020, but that doesn’t mean it’s permanently different.

Democratic voters in Texas were more likely to cast their ballots by mail than Republican voters in the last election.

Today, that may sound like a forgone conclusion, but that wasn’t the case four years ago. Absentee ballots, which only certain groups of Texans are eligible to use, have traditionally been a tool utilized by the GOP, and in 2016, counties reported that higher percentages of Republican voters cast absentee ballots than Democratic voters.

The reason for the swap? It came from the top. Experts and political operatives note that President Donald Trump spent months attacking the credibility of mail-in voting to his Republican base while national and state Democrats launched their largest-ever push to support the method as a safe option to vote in the pandemic.

Other factors at play this election season in Texas included an increase in participation by younger voters who lean Democratic, many of them college students living out of state. Democrats also were more likely to take coronavirus risks and precautions more seriously, leading them to look for ways to stay out of the polls during the pandemic, experts on both sides of the aisle said.

In total, Texans cast 1 million absentee ballots before Election Day, up from less than 500,000 in 2016, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

[…]

In November, about 39% of all ballot-by-mail voters had most recently voted in the Democratic primary, compared to about 26% who had most recently voted in the Republican primary, said GOP consultant and data analyst Derek Ryan, who tracks statewide voting trends. The rest did not vote in the primaries, Ryan said. Just over 2 million people voted in each primary in March.

That’s almost a complete flip from 2016, when 41% of people who voted by mail in the general election had voted in the Republican primary, while only 26% had voted in the Democratic primary, Ryan said.

More than 120,000 mail-in voters in November had never voted in a primary or general election before, Ryan said.

Overall, the influx of mail-in votes for Democrats didn’t give them a notable advantage, given that the GOP kept their majorities in state offices.

What it means for the future of participation in mail voting in Texas remains to be seen after an outlier year in which the pandemic led to an election unlike any other.

The story has more data about how voting by mail went in 2020, and quotes a friend of mine who’s a COVID long-hauler and took advantage of voting by mail for the first time this year because her health is now fragile. Some of this data we’ve discussed before, mostly from the daily early voting reports that Derek Ryan was putting out.

My personal sense is that for all the obvious reasons 2020 was mostly an outlier, and will not cause a large change in voting behavior. To the extent that it does cause changes, it will be mostly from the over-65 crowd that is already allowed to vote by mail. There may be some lasting damage to Republican vote by mail efforts, but as that did not appear to have any significant effect on the past election, it’s unlikely to have much effect on future elections. I think there is some risk inherent in a “do most of your voting on Election Day” strategy that hasn’t been discussed, and that’s the greater risk that an exogenous event on Election Day, such as bad weather or physical problems like a sewer overflow, that can have a negative effect on turnout. Not my problem, of course, and if it ever does happen in a way that might affect the outcome of an election, the irony will be so rich it will clog your arteries.

That said, there has been a multi-year effort by Democrats to push voting by mail for eligible voters. The HCDP has been aggressively pushing mail ballot applications to its over-65 voters for several cycles now, and there are similar programs being done by the TDP and other county parties. I don’t see that changing, and it may well be that more people respond to those entreaties in future years, but by its nature this is somewhat limited. The total number of mail ballots returned in Harris County in 2020 was about 180K, making it about 10.8% of all ballots cast last year. In 2016, there were 101K mail ballots cast, which was 7.6% of the total. It’s just not that big a change.

Really, the seismic change in 2020 was the shift to early in-person voting, where nearly as many people voted in 2020 (1,273,936) as in all of 2016 (1,338,898). That was aided by the third week of early voting, which we won’t have going forward barring any changes to the law, as well as the intense interest in that election. That’s a change in behavior that I could see sticking, as was the case with early voting after the 2008 election. Before 2008, it was assumed that less than half the vote came in early. In recent elections before 2020, the general wisdom was that about 70 to 75% of the vote was early (including vote by mail). In 2020, almost 88% of the vote was cast before Election Day. Maybe it won’t be quite that high in 2022 and 2024, but I think the expectation is that early voting is make or break, and Election Day matters that much less. (Which, to be fair, mitigates that risk I spoke of earlier. As we just saw in Georgia, though, if you’re not getting your voters out early, you may not be able to catch up later.)

Even then, this was one year, and who knows what the next election will bring. Also, as discussed elsewhere, this pattern holds much more for even-year elections than odd-year elections. We kind of get the year off in 2021, as there are no city of Houston races to be had, though there are some races of interest elsewhere in the state. If there’s one lesson to be taken from the 2020 voting experience, I say it’s that people liked having options for how and where and when to vote. To the extent that Republicans try to take that away, which remains to be seen, the Dems should be up front about the fact that we like having those options as well, and we think they should be a permanent feature of our elections. Vote how you want, we say.

Vaccine roundup

Just a few news stories (and a Twitter thread) of interest from recent days.

How do you get a COVID-19 vaccine? In Texas’ rollout, it’s a game of luck and chance

Still, the contrast shows just how sharp and seemingly random the divide has emerged between those who are able to get the vaccine easily and those who cannot. In the fourth week of Texas’ vaccine rollout, a dermatology practice in Bellaire got 300 doses while Hope Clinic, which serves Houston’s poor and immigrant communities, got 100, according to the state’s most current list.

County registration hotlines have crashed under the volume of applicants while some doctors reported fielding calls from friends asking how to move to the front of the line.

In the month since the vaccines got federal approval, getting them into arms of the most vulnerable has been anything but smooth. Distribution has lagged. Demand has far outstripped supply. Critics call it yet another chapter in the failed government response to a virus that arrived nearly a year ago.

“There does seem to be no discernible distinction between those who are getting the vaccine and those who aren’t,” said Elena Marks, CEO of Houston’s Episcopal Health Foundation, an organization that works to improve health care access for poor.

Such unevenness is happening not just among the public but also within the medical community. At some small and midsize private practices, access to the vaccine remains elusive for front-line health care workers who regularly treat COVID patients, doctors say. Yet employees of large medical practices and big-name facilities are vaccinating staff that is not in direct contact with patients and in some cases working from home.

Clogged phone lines and ethical dilemmas: Texas health providers scramble to roll out vaccine with little state guidance

Texas has largely left the vaccine rollout process in the hands of local providers like Tarrytown Pharmacy, one of more than 1,000 providers approved to vaccinate Texans. And outside of dictating the first two groups allowed to receive it, providers say the state has given little instruction or information on when allotments will arrive, how immunization operations should be organized and what principles ought to be followed in prioritizing within groups 1A and 1B.

As they spearhead vaccination in a state of 29 million people, hospitals, pharmacies and community health centers alike across Texas built new scheduling systems from scratch, struggled to sync their patient information systems with the state’s and answered to an increasingly anxious public wondering when their turn for the shot will come — all while helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic during its highest peak in Texas.

“Every space I have is booked. I have phones going off the hook saying, ‘Where’s mine?’” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive for the Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. “The demand is insatiable right now. Everybody wants it today, and we just don’t have enough vaccines. It will take months.”

The state’s initial allocation of 1.2 million doses had been shipped by Jan. 3, according to state health officials, and another January shipment was expected to bring the state’s total allotment to 1.7 million. That’s still hundreds of thousands of doses short of the roughly 1.9 million necessary to provide just a first dose of vaccine to those Texas health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities eligible in group 1A.

But before many of those first in line had received a dose, the state allowed providers to start administering the vaccine to the second group — about 8 million people older than 65 or at least 16 with certain medical conditions. A Department of State Health Services official said there is some overlap between groups 1A and 1B (doctors and other health care workers over age 65, for example).

The sudden announcement to open vaccinations to the second group — just a week after the first distribution of vaccines for the first group — caught many providers off guard.

“It was in response to all of the chatter and angst to ‘Oh my God, they haven’t given all their vaccines out,’ and it’s been five days,” said McCarthy of Memorial Hermann. “I thought we would get all the health care workers done, and then we would move on. I didn’t think we’d be doing them simultaneously.”

Greg Abbott’s Politics Create a Vaccine Stampede

But Texas decided to do things differently than the CDC. While the state’s designated first tier matched that of the feds, its second tier included all Texans age 65 and older, as well as those with preexisting health conditions that make them vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19. This approach put lower priority on police and younger essential workers, like grocery clerks or restaurant servers, many of whom were bitter about the state’s decision. Then, just before the new year, Governor Greg Abbott and his state health department changed the game further. On December 29, state health commissioner John Hellerstedt ordered providers to start vaccinating those in the second tier immediately, even though many in the first tier remained unvaccinated. Abbott backed him up in a tweet: “The state urges vaccine providers to quickly provide all shots.”

In an instant, I effectively had been moved to the front of the vaccination line. The problem was finding where that line began. Abbott had started a stampede.

There were too many eligible people chasing too little vaccine. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported that it had received 1.3 million doses. But Abbott had authorized another 8 million people to receive the vaccine even though providers weren’t anywhere near finished inoculating the 1.9 million Texans in what was supposed to be the first-tier priority group. Abbott’s declaration got too many in the state (even those under 65 and without any severe health conditions) thinking vaccines were more widely available. With few providers actually offering shots to the general public, the Hunger Games of vaccination had begun.

Advocates worry vaccines will be out of reach for Black and Hispanic neighborhoods devastated by COVID-19

COVID-19 has been disproportionately deadly for communities of color in Texas. And advocates for those communities are worried that they will have more trouble accessing vaccinations than the white population because of where vaccination sites are located.

“We already saw huge disparities in death rates and people getting [coronavirus] infections, and there wasn’t availability of resources like health care for brown and Black communities suffering tremendously,” said Kazique Prince, interim executive director for the Central Texas Collective for Racial Equity, a nonprofit association based in Austin. “I’m very nervous and anxious that this [vaccination effort] is not going to work out for us.”

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services data, more than half of the fatalities in Texas due to COVID-19 have been Hispanic individuals and almost 10% have been Black people. Yet the state’s designated vaccination sites — mostly hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and pharmacies — are concentrated in more affluent areas where those facilities tend to be located.

And, just as a reminder:

Health officials in Austin are considering opening a makeshift hospital as its intensive care units fill up. Patients in North Texas are being treated in lobbies or in hallways. And hospitals around Laredo, Abilene and College Station have three or fewer intensive care unit beds open, according to state data.

A week into the new year, hospitalizations in Texas have well-surpassed a deadly summer wave that overwhelmed health care workers in the Rio Grande Valley. Health experts have long warned of a dark winter — with a public tired of following safety precautions, a raging pandemic and cold weather drawing people indoors where the virus can more easily spread. Add to that holiday gatherings and increased levels of travel, which health officials say are already being reflected in the growing numbers of hospitalized coronavirus patients.

New year, same story. We deserve so much better. We’ll get better soon from the federal government. When will we get it from our state government?

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

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

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

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

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

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

There was also this.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

Texas lawmakers will enter the legislative session this week with an estimated $112.5 billion available to allocate for general purpose spending in the next two-year state budget, a number that’s down slightly from the current budget but is significantly higher than what was estimated this summer when the coronavirus began to devastate the economy.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday announced that number in his biennial revenue estimate, which sets the amount lawmakers can commit to spending when they write a new budget this year. But he acknowledged that Texas’ economic future remains “clouded in uncertainty” and that numbers could change in the coming months.

Hegar also announced a nearly $1 billion deficit for the current state budget that lawmakers must make up, a significantly smaller shortfall than Hegar expected over the summer. That number, however, doesn’t account for 5% cuts to state agencies’ budgets that Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered this summer or any supplemental changes to the budget lawmakers will have to make.

Hegar’s estimates portend a difficult budget-writing session for lawmakers. But Hegar acknowledged that things could have been a lot worse. The $112.5 billion available is down from $112.96 billion for the current budget.

See here for the previous update. I continue to hope that Congress will throw a boatload of state and local aid our way in the coming months, which will also help, but at least we’re not in truly dire territory. And bizarrely enough, there may be a silver lining in all this.

But advocates hope the pandemic, combined with the revenue crunch, could lead to an unlikely bipartisan agreement. Before the pandemic hit, Democrats saw a takeover of the Texas House as key for advancing the prospects of Medicaid expansion in the state. But as COVID-19 has ravaged the state economy and thrown even more Texans into the ranks of the uninsured, Democrats are guardedly optimistic this could persuade enough Republicans to put aside their political hangups and support expansion—even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton leads a national lawsuit to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act.

Texas is one of 12 remaining states that have refused the federally subsidized Medicaid expansion, despite having the highest rate and largest population of uninsured residents in the country. Expanding Medicaid would cover 1 million uninsured Texans and bring in as much as $5.4 billion to the state, according to a September report by researchers at Texas A&M University.

State Representative Lyle Larson, a moderate Republican, voiced his support for expanding Medicaid soon after the election, pointing to six GOP-led states that have done so in the past three years. “It is a business decision,” Larson wrote on Twitter, noting that the move would help with the revenue shortfall and COVID-19 response, address rural hospital closures, and expand access to care. Dallas County Representatives Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, both Republicans, pulled out razor-thin victories to keep their House seats after voicing support for some type of Medicaid expansion in their campaigns.

Even conservative state Senator Paul Bettencourt acknowledged that the fiscal crunch will force consideration of Medicaid expansion. “My back-of-the-napkin analysis shows that’s a $1.6 billion item, like that—boom!” he told the Dallas Morning News in September. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have that falling out of trees,” he said. “You can put Medicaid expansion up at the top of the list. There will be a debate.”

But there’s still plenty of staunch opposition. “For those that promote [expansion], I haven’t heard what they’re willing to cut,” state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee, said in November. “It’s easy to talk about it until you have to pay for it, especially going into this budget cycle.”

As with casinos and marijuana, the smart money is always to bet against Medicaid expansion happening. But this is a bigger opening than I’ve seen in a long time, and while that’s still not saying much, it’s not nothing.

Abbott speaks about the vaccination effort

It’s going great! We swear!

More than 877,000 Texans have received a COVID-19 vaccine since they first began arriving in Texas nearly four weeks ago, and that number is expected to increase by at least 50,000 more per day, Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday.

“Never before in the history of this state has Texas vaccinated so many people so quickly, “ Abbott said during remarks at the Esports Stadium Arlington & Expo Center, a newly-designated “vaccination hub” that local health officials said can vaccinate thousands per day. “It’s stunning to see what we’ve accomplished.”

The Arlington center, home to the city’s mass vaccination effort since December, is among 28 sites designed by the state as hubs.

“Our goal is, by the end of the week, we have no vaccines left,” said Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley. The county’s health district was allotted 9,000 doses in the most recent shipment this week.

The hubs are meant to streamline vaccinations at a time when the state is seeing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. Texas continues to prioritize vaccinating health care workers, people who are 65 and older, and those with medical conditions that increase their risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the virus.

The large sites will receive most of the state’s next shipment of 158,825 COVID-19 vaccine doses this week. Just over 38,000 doses will go to 206 additional providers across the state, including several in rural counties that until recently had not received an allotment.

Officials promise bigger allotments in the weeks and months to come, but a patchwork local system of vaccine distribution, among other issues, has created a tumultuous rollout to the long-awaited vaccine.

On Monday, Abbott said Texas expects to see an additional 310,000 first doses per week for the rest of January and up to 500,000 second doses earmarked for those who have already received the injection in Texas. Continued increases are expected, Abbott said, depending on the federal government allotments.

[…]

The data on the number of doses administered has a reporting lag of at least two days, Abbott said, but added that Texans will start to see a significant uptick in those numbers as this week’s vaccinations are reported.

“You are going to see those numbers increase, as it turns out, somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 per day,” Abbott said.

Texas Health Commissioner John Hellerstedt said the rate and scale of the state’s rollout has been “a really amazing operation” and said the creation of the hubs would ratchet up the rate of administration.

“Through the kind of vaccination operation we see here, we’re very confident it’s going to accelerate here even more,” Hellerstedt said. “It is really the way forward.”

That’s a lot of number being thrown at us. For sure, 50K per day is a big improvement over the “100K per week” we were at earlier in the year. That was a six-years-to-full-vaccinations pace, whereas 50K per day will get everyone vaccinated in 20 months. At the promised high end of 75K per day, we’re at about 13 months. Still not great – we sure would like to finish this task before 2022, wouldn’t we? – but at least in a timeframe we can envision. Note though that we are not at that pace yet – the 310K first doses per week rate is less than 50K per day, and puts us back at an almost-two-years duration. Again, I do expect things will get better, assuming of course that Abbott and the rest of our state leaders don’t reject federal assistance in the name of stupid partisan politics, but every week it takes us to get up to speed is that much longer to get to where we want to be. The hub approach is a sensible model, but it’s going to take a lot of effort and resources to make it work.

The Minute Maid mega-vaccine center

More like this, please.

The city partnered with the Astros organization to transform [Minute Maid Park] into a site to provide the Moderna vaccine to up to 3,600 health care workers, residents ages 65 and older, and patients with underlying medical conditions. Vaccine distribution was moved from the Bayou City Event Center, which was needed for a different event, giving the city a sneak peek at how the stadium would operate as a mega-site when it officially opens in the coming week.

Divided into three sections, the stadium’s lower level was reserved for the elderly and those with mobility challenges. Volunteers first led participants to a section to complete additional paperwork for the vaccine, then to a waiting area and the official vaccination stations, and finally, an observation area, where health workers watched for any adverse or allergic reactions at least 15 minutes.

[…]

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner, who toured the site, greeting residents with fist and elbow bumps and encouraging volunteers and essential workers, said Minute Maid Park is the largest vaccination site that the city has hosted so far — inoculating 350 people an hour and tripling the total amount of people vaccinated last Saturday at the Bayou City Event Center.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who attended an afternoon press conference at the ballpark, said it’s also the first model of a mega-site in the country, which could serve as an example for other major cities also looking to establish similar sites.

The outcome, however, was more than Turner and health officials had originally expected.

The city had around 1,000 doses of the vaccine as of Thursday and decided to scale back vaccinations for the weekend when a delivery was not received, but by Friday morning, the city unexpectedly received an additional 2,600 vaccines, Turner said. The city and the Houston Health Department quickly switched gears, scheduling appointments with people who had pre-registered to ensure that the vaccine was distributed and not sitting, wasted on shelves. They also opened up registration, receiving an additional 1,000 applicants within 20 minutes, Turner said.

Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations, said the stadium had already begun preparing earlier in the week and officials were confident in the infrastructure.

“It was more about the logistical flow” and ensuring that there was enough physical space within the building to allow for social distancing in waiting areas and immunization pods, Braithwaite said.

This is great, and as a proof of concept it’s clear that this model can work well. I meant it literally when I said “more like this”, because we’re going to need to replicate this on a much bigger scale in order to make progress against COVID. Remember what I said about the scope of the problem. There’s nearly five million people in Harris County. If we want to get everyone vaccinated by the end of the year, we need to be doing over sixteen thousand inoculations per day, every day. That means we need the equivalent of five of these mega-centers, again operating every day. We need them to be accessible by public transit, we need them open at night so as to get people who can’t get off work (remember those 24-hour early voting centers we had last year? Like that), we need them to take all comers whether they have insurance or a personal physician or access to the Internet to make an appointment, we need people working at these locations who speak a broad variety of languages, and we need all of the personnel for this to be local, both to minimize COVID risk (so no one has to travel) and because literally everywhere else will be doing the same thing so we can’t expect to bring in volunteers from other places. Oh, and baseball season will start in April, so at some point Minute Maid becomes unavailable. How’s all that sound? It’s what we need. And we’re going to need a highly-functional federal government, as well as a much better response from the state government, to have a chance.

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precinct analysis: Sheriff 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney

Behold your 2020 vote champion in Harris County: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, running for his second term in office. I’ll get into the details of Gonzalez’s domination in a minute. Here are the numbers for 2020:


Dist     Danna  Gonzalez    Danna%  Gonzalez%
=============================================
CD02   170,422   166,902    50.52%     49.48%
CD07   141,856   162,417    46.62%     53.38%
CD08    24,788    16,406    60.17%     39.83%
CD09    35,308   122,871    22.32%     77.68%
CD10    98,458    65,239    60.15%     39.85%
CD18    54,869   186,236    22.76%     77.24%
CD22    20,466    21,710    48.53%     51.47%
CD29    43,503   109,304    28.47%     71.53%
CD36    79,327    52,648    60.11%     39.89%
				
SBOE4   96,435   349,282    21.64%     78.36%
SBOE6  363,916   378,161    49.04%     50.96%
SBOE8  208,646   176,291    54.20%     45.80%
				
SD04    53,758    25,277    68.02%     31.98%
SD06    50,944   126,617    28.69%     71.31%
SD07   224,433   186,884    54.56%     45.44%
SD11    74,078    50,852    59.30%     40.70%
SD13    35,054   162,823    17.72%     82.28%
SD15   106,009   204,899    34.10%     65.90%
SD17   110,189   133,749    45.17%     54.83%
SD18    14,532    12,635    53.49%     46.51%
				
HD126   36,979    36,165    50.56%     49.44%
HD127   51,960    38,105    57.69%     42.31%
HD128   46,345    24,235    65.66%     34.34%
HD129   45,743    37,938    54.66%     45.34%
HD130   67,658    35,780    65.41%     34.59%
HD131    9,271    45,531    16.92%     83.08%
HD132   47,705    51,772    47.96%     52.04%
HD133   47,629    39,951    54.38%     45.62%
HD134   44,590    62,513    41.63%     58.37%
HD135   34,389    39,591    46.48%     53.52%
HD137    9,680    21,648    30.90%     69.10%
HD138   30,004    33,385    47.33%     52.67%
HD139   14,623    46,351    23.98%     76.02%
HD140    8,109    23,412    25.73%     74.27%
HD141    6,449    36,900    14.88%     85.12%
HD142   12,684    43,278    22.67%     77.33%
HD143   10,463    26,455    28.34%     71.66%
HD144   12,685    17,965    41.39%     58.61%
HD145   13,322    29,035    31.45%     68.55%
HD146   10,562    44,351    19.23%     80.77%
HD147   13,955    54,824    20.29%     79.71%
HD148   20,375    39,637    33.95%     66.05%
HD149   20,574    32,068    39.08%     60.92%
HD150   53,242    42,844    55.41%     44.59%
				
CC1     85,139   289,925    22.70%     77.30%
CC2    141,416   156,934    47.40%     52.60%
CC3    214,450   226,063    48.68%     51.32%
CC4    227,992   230,814    49.69%     50.31%
				
JP1     84,929   174,954    32.68%     67.32%
JP2     31,274    52,644    37.27%     62.73%
JP3     48,485    72,207    40.17%     59.83%
JP4    223,758   199,021    52.93%     47.07%
JP5    191,671   229,696    45.49%     54.51%
JP6      6,846    28,930    19.14%     80.86%
JP7     17,135   102,122    14.37%     85.63%
JP8     64,899    44,162    59.51%     40.49%

Only Joe Biden (918,193) got more votes than Sheriff Ed (903,736) among Dems that had a Republican opponent; District Court Judge Michael Gomez (868,327) was next in line. Gonzalez’s 235K margin of victory, and his 57.46% of the vote were easily the highest. He carried SBOE6, HD132, HD138, and all four Commissioners Court precincts, while coming close in CD02 and HD126. He even made SD07, HD133, and JP4 look competitive.

How dominant was Ed Gonzalez in 2020? He got more votes in their district than the following Democratic incumbents:

CD07: Gonzalez 162,417, Lizzie Fletcher 159,529
CD18: Gonzalez 186,236, Sheila Jackson Lee 180,952
SD13: Gonzalez 162,823, Borris Miles 159,936
HD135: Gonzalez 39,591, Jon Rosenthal 36,760
HD142: Gonzalez 43,278, Harold Dutton 42,127
HD144: Gonzalez 17,965, Mary Ann Perez 17,516
HD145: Gonzalez 29,035, Christina Morales 27,415
HD149: Gonzalez 32,068, Hubert Vo 31,919
JP1: Gonzalez 174,954, Eric Carter 166,759

That’s pretty damn impressive. Gonzalez is the incumbent, he’s in law enforcement and may be the most visible county official after Judge Hidalgo, he had a solid term with basically no major screwups, he’s well liked by the Democratic base, and he ran against a frequent flyer who had no apparent base of support. At least in 2020, this is as good as it gets.

Obviously, Gonzalez did better than he did in 2016, but let’s have a quick look at the numbers anyway.


Dist   Hickman  Gonzalez  Hickman%  Gonzalez%
=============================================
CD02   162,915   111,689    59.33%     40.67%
CD07   139,292   113,853    55.02%     44.98%
CD09    26,869   106,301    20.18%     79.82%
CD10    81,824    36,293    69.27%     30.73%
CD18    48,766   153,342    24.13%     75.87%
CD29    35,526    95,138    27.19%     72.81%
				
SBOE6  341,003   265,358    56.24%     43.76%
				
HD126   36,539    24,813    59.56%     40.44%
HD127   48,891    24,516    66.60%     33.40%
HD128   41,694    17,117    70.89%     29.11%
HD129   41,899    26,686    61.09%     38.91%
HD130   59,556    21,256    73.70%     26.30%
HD131    7,054    38,887    15.35%     84.65%
HD132   38,026    30,397    55.57%     44.43%
HD133   47,648    27,378    63.51%     36.49%
HD134   44,717    43,480    50.70%     49.30%
HD135   32,586    27,180    54.52%     45.48%
HD137    8,893    17,800    33.32%     66.68%
HD138   27,480    23,366    54.05%     45.95%
HD139   12,746    39,223    24.53%     75.47%
HD140    6,376    20,972    23.31%     76.69%
HD141    5,485    32,573    14.41%     85.59%
HD142   10,801    33,924    24.15%     75.85%
HD143    9,078    23,689    27.70%     72.30%
HD144   10,765    16,194    39.93%     60.07%
HD145   10,785    23,462    31.49%     68.51%
HD146   10,144    37,991    21.07%     78.93%
HD147   12,100    45,136    21.14%     78.86%
HD148   17,701    29,776    37.28%     62.72%
HD149   15,702    27,266    36.54%     63.46%
HD150   49,904    26,142    65.62%     34.38%
				
CC1     74,178   239,211    23.67%     76.33%
CC2    125,659   125,416    50.05%     49.95%
CC3    193,214   158,164    54.99%     45.01%
CC4    213,519   156,417    57.72%     42.28%

Gonzalez ran against Ron Hickman, former Constable in Precinct 4, who was appointed following Adrian Garcia’s resignation to run for Mayor of Houston in 2015. Hickman had been well respected as Constable and wasn’t a controversial selection, but he was quickly dogged with a scandal involving lost and destroyed evidence from his Constable days, as well as the usual bugaboo of jail overcrowding; his opposition to misdemeanor bail reform did not help with that. With all that, Gonzalez got “only” 52.84% of the vote in 2016, which was ahead of most judicial candidates but behind both Kim Ogg and Vince Ryan. My thought at the time was that Gonzalez maxed out the Democratic vote, but didn’t get many crossovers. Clearly, he knocked that second item out of the park this year. I’m not going to go into a more detailed comparison – I’ll leave that to you this time – but it should be obvious that Gonzalez built on his performance from 2016. We’ll see what he can do with the next four years.

Sheriff Gonzalez hires jail administrator

Interesting.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

A former state jail inspector will oversee Harris County’s jail, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Wednesday.

Shannon Herklotz, who worked for the Texas Commision on Jail Standards for more than 20 years, began serving as the jail’s chief of detentions on Monday, according to a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Harris County commissioners have for years tried to install a civilian administrator to oversee the county’s sprawling jail, which houses some 9,000 inmates at any given time and in recent years has been the site of several inmate suicides, assaults, or other violent incidents.

Herklotz was deputy director for the regulatory agency, which ensures all 239 Texas jails meet state standards.

“Our search for a Chief of Detentions targeted someone with the experience, values and vision to achieve our goal of cementing the Harris County Jail’s reputation for safety, innovation and professionalism,” stated Gonzalez. “These are qualities that our team displayed while managing the ongoing pandemic, and I am excited to see the continued transformation of the Harris County Jail under Shannon Herklotz’s leadership.”

Herklotz said he takes his duty seriously to ensure “care, custody and control of every person living inside our jail.”

“Keeping every person in the jail – including our staff and those entrusted into our care – safe and healthy is our first priority,” he said. “But more than that, we are committed to making sure people leave our jail better prepared to make a positive contribution to our community by connecting them with the resources and support they need to do so.”

The Harris County Jail is the largest jail in Texas, and the third-largest in the nation, with a current population of just over 9,000. Harris County officials have flirted with the idea of a civilian administrator several times over the last 30 years.

Commissioners considered trying to appoint a civilian administrator at least as far back as 1991, according to Chronicle archives. The move was driven by the soaring cost of the jail, and the increase in the sheriff’s budget, and as the sheriff’s office had struggled to control overcrowding in its facility.

As the story notes, this idea most recently surfaced in 2015, with the administrator being hired by and answering to Commissioners Court. That was shelved when a study concluded that a change in state law would be required for that. Existing law allows for the Sheriff to make such an appointment, however, and that’s what has happened here. I was skeptical at the time, mostly because I don’t trust Steve Radack, who was the original advocate for the idea, but then-Commissioner Gene Locke made what I thought were some decent arguments, so I was willing to listen. Locke’s main argument was that Sheriffs want to put their budget into patrol, which takes money away from jail administration, so having a jail administrator with a seat at the table can be a counterweight for that. We’ll see how that works when the administrator reports to the Sheriff. If Shannon Herklotz can help the jail consistently meet state standards – a problem it has had for some time now – and maybe also help figure out how to reduce its population, that will be a huge win.

A parting gift of pollution

Gee, thanks.

Texas may soon get authority over the disposal of ash from coal-fired power plants, a change that could insulate coal companies from tougher rules expected under a Biden administration.

A proposal introduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month would allow Texas to regulate coal ash instead of the federal agency. The move comes just after the EPA this year weakened the Obama-era rule on coal ash pollution amid other rollbacks and rule-making maneuvers cementing the Trump administration’s environmental agenda.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for power generation. The ash is typically dumped into detention ponds or pits and can leach toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, lead and mercury, into groundwater. All of the coal power plants in Texas have coal ash disposal sites that are leaking contaminants, according to data analyzed by the Environmental Integrity project in 2019.

President-elect Joe Biden’s reported pick to head the EPA, Michael Regan, currently leads North Carolina’s environmental agency and has a record of cracking down on coal ash pollution: In North Carolina, he fought to obtain a huge settlement over an 80 million ton coal ash cleanup by Duke Energy — the largest coal ash contamination cleanup in U.S. history.

But if Texas gets authority to implement the coal ash rules before Biden’s new EPA chief has a chance to strengthen the standards, the program could act as a temporary shield for the industry because the state would need to work through a lengthy process to modify already-issued registrations to coal companies.

“It’s always better for industry if the state has control instead of EPA,” said Abel Russ, a senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project who helped draft the organization’s comments on Texas’ coal ash program. “States are typically more favorably inclined to what industry wants. That’s true not just in Texas, but across the country.”

Oklahoma and Georgia are the only two states that currently have approval to operate the EPA’s coal ash program. Texas’ program won’t be effective until at least February, when the public comment period ends.

The Texas Mining and Reclamation Association, an industry group that represents coal and other mining industries in the state, supports the proposal, arguing that state-level environmental regulation is more effective.

“This system is designed to give decision-making authority to a level of government that is closer to the people and recognizes that states are in a better position to address specific problems as they arise,” said Michael Nasi, an Austin lawyer, on behalf of the industry group.

[…]

The EPA must review state programs within three years after any change in federal regulations, and the agency has the authority to withdraw approval if the state program is not as protective as federal requirements. The EPA will retain its authority to inspect coal ash facilities. That’s why Nasi, the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association lawyer, said the industry group’s stance is that coal ash standards in Texas will be as protective as federal rules.

The EPA proposed the Texas program for partial approval this month. Because sections of the federal program were being challenged in court by both industry and environmental groups — including a rule allowing unlined coal ash pits to operate, a proposal overruled in court — Texas did not apply to assume all of the EPA’s oversight authority. That means facilities in Texas would have to comply with some federal and some state requirements if the state’s application is approved.

It’s not clear to me what the full implications of this are, if Texas manages to get approval before any further rule changes are made, and it’s not clear to me if any changes can be made before that approval is given. The Congressional Review Act may come into play here as well. My preference would be for Texas to be under much tougher standards, even though as we know from the Obama experience that’s basically a full employment program for lawyers. On the plus side, coal is on the decline in Texas, so whatever kind of fight this turns into will be over a smaller piece of the action. It would still be nice if Texas is subject to the same kind of standards that the rest of the country is.