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May, 2022:

DMN/UT-Tyler: Abbott 46, Beto 39

Here’s the story, which I currently can’t access. A very brief summary of it is in this Current article. The data is here and I’m going to riff on that, with references to the February version of this poll, for which the data can be found here. I will note that there are some primary runoff results in this sample, and I am ignoring all of them – that kind of polling is too tricky to be worth worrying about.

“In a race for Governor would you vote for Governor Abbott, Beto O’Rourke, or someone else?” I’ll generally be quoting the poll questions, which thankfully are the same in each sample. In May, as noted in the post title, it’s 46-39 for Abbott, basically identical to the 45-38 Abbott result from February. The shape of those numbers are a bit different. In February, possibly because both Beto and Abbott were in contested primaries, there was a considerable amount of crossover support for each, Dems were only 76-16 for Beto, while Rs were just 76-11 for Abbott. In May, those numbers were 82-9 among Dems for Beto and 85-7 for Abbott among Rs. Independents were 36-29 for Abbott in February and show as 16-6 for Abbott now, with 29% going to the Libertarian (there is a Green candidate named as well, who also gets 6%) and an astonishing 38% for “someone else”. This has to be a mangling of the data – among other things, given the size of the Indy subsample, it would have put the Libertarian candidate at nearly 10% overall, but the topline result gives him just 3%. Most likely, the 38 is for Abbott and the 29 is for Beto, or possibly all of these numbers are just wrong. I will shrug and move on at this point.

For approval numbers, President Biden checks in with 39-58 approval, which is obviously not good. Greg Abbott is also underwater at 46-50, while Beto has a 42-44 approval rating, which is the only one of the three to improve since last time. It was 39-57 for Biden, 50-46 for Abbott, and 40-46 for Beto in February.

Weirdly, Dan Patrick has 50-41 approval, and Ken Paxton has 42-41. Usually, Abbott does better in approvals than any other Republican, in part because fewer people have opinions about the rest of them. A separate question about Paxton asks “do you agree or disagree that he (Paxton) has the integrity to serve as attorney general?”, and it’s 30 for agree, 37 disagree, and 33 unsure. He was at 34-33-33 in February, so a bit of a dip there.

For some other questions of interest, the numbers are not bad for the Dems, and usually a little better than they were in February.

“If the general election was today, would you vote for a Republican candidate or Democratic candidate for the Texas House?” That was 49-48 for Republicans in May, 52-45 for Republicans in February.

“On orders from Governor Abbott, Texas Child Protective Services recently began investigating families who provide gender-affirming care to transgender children. Was this action” needed or unnecessary, with various reasons for each? There were three sub-options for each of those choices, and if you add them up it comes to 52-48 combined for “unnecessary”. Honestly, that’s better than I expected. There was no February comparison for this one, as that order had not yet been given at that time.

“Should the Supreme Court overturn its Roe v. Wade decision and allow states to decide abortion policy?” This was 53-46 for “no it should not be overturned” in May, and 50-47 in February. Again, a little better than I might have thought, and a tick up from before, which is to say before the draft opinion got leaked. Put those numbers in your back pocket for the next time someone claims that Texas is a “pro-life” state.

“Do you agree or disagree that K-12 teachers should be permitted to discuss how historical examples of discrimination in our laws apply to inequalities today?” Here, 61-24 strongly or somewhat agreed in May, and it was 59-22 for Agree in February. That means that for abortion, trans kids, and book banning, the Republican position is the minority one. Obviously, one poll and all that, but there’s nothing to suggest Dems should be running scared on any of this. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Now as we’ve said a zillion times, it’s one poll, opinions on issues often don’t drive voting behavior, and we’re still months away from an election where many other factors will affect the outcome. I’m quite scared of another COVID wave, especially if Congress doesn’t get some more funding for vaccines and treatments and whatever else passed in the very near future. But for now, and bearing in mind that it’s still a 7-point lead for Abbott, the numbers ain’t that bad. We’ll see what other polls have to say.

SCOTUS asked to again block that stupid social media censorship law

Please save us from the lawless Fifth Circuit. Having to make such an ask of this SCOTUS sure is a jaw-grinding experience.

Lobbying groups representing Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech companies filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, seeking to block a Texas law that prohibits large social media platforms from banning users based on their political views.

The Texas law went into effect on Wednesday when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the state’s request for a stay of a district judge’s injunction blocking the law.

The law forbids social media companies with more than 50 million active users per month from banning members based on their political views and requires them to publicly disclose how they moderate content.

[…]

Internet lobbying groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association filed a lawsuit against the measure, and U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin, Texas, issued a preliminary injunction in December.

Pitman had found that the law would harm social media companies’ free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The tech groups, in their emergency request, asked the Supreme Court to “allow the District Court’s careful reasoning to remain in effect while an orderly appellate process plays out.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a more detailed analysis of why the Fifth Circuit’s no-words ruling was so bad. You know how much faith I have in this court to ever do the right thing, but maybe this was a bridge too far. Maybe. Ars Technica and The Verge have more.

“Silver loading”

I did not know this.

Sen. Nathan Johnson

The latest state to take strong action to improve affordability in its ACA marketplace is … Texas?

[…]

But let me explain some background details first. Below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (that is, $25,760 for an individual or $53,000 for a family of four in 2022), benchmark silver plans on the exchanges are both very cheap—costing nothing up to 150 percent of FPL, and just 0 to 2 percent of income between 150 and 200 percent of FPL—and further enhanced with cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies, which make them roughly equivalent to platinum plans.

At incomes over 200 percent of FPL, however, the marketplace’s offerings will be greatly improved by Texas’s new state-enforced pricing regime.

More than two-thirds of Texas enrollees in ACA plans (69 percent) have incomes below 200 percent of FPL. But thanks to the more generous subsidies created last March through 2022 by the American Rescue Plan—which removed the prior income cap on subsidy eligibility—2022 enrollment in Texas grew fastest at higher incomes. Enrollment at incomes over 200 percent of FPL rose 57 percent, to 566,000. Those enrollees stand to gain most by the change in law. At higher incomes, silver plan deductibles average over $4,500 (though many services are not subject to the deductible). Gold plan deductibles, by contrast, average $1,600.

So if gold plans have lower deductibles, why should they be cheaper than silver plans? As mentioned above, for low-income enrollees, CSR raises the value of silver plans (by reducing out-of-pocket costs) to a roughly platinum level, with average deductibles under $200 for the lowest-income enrollees and $800 at the next level (150 to 200 percent of FPL). In Texas, 89 percent of silver plan enrollees have incomes below 200 percent of FPL, and so the average silver plan sold in the state really does match a platinum-level “actuarial value,” or the percentage of the average enrollee’s costs the plan is designed to cover.

During the Obama administration, the federal government reimbursed insurers directly for providing CSR, and silver plans were priced as if no CSR were attached. When Trump abruptly cut off those direct CSR payments in October 2017, however, almost all state regulators responded by allowing or encouraging insurers to price the value of CSR directly into silver plans—a process that came to be known as “silver loading.”

Here’s where the quirk comes in. Because ACA premium subsidies, designed so that the enrollee pays a fixed percentage of income, are set to a silver plan benchmark (specifically, the second-cheapest silver plan), higher silver premiums mean higher premium subsidies across all plans—and discounts for subsidized buyers in bronze and gold plans.

But silver loading has stopped halfway. As the author of the “focused rate review” bill, Texas state Sen. Nathan Johnson, points out in the bill analysis, “insurers have not approached silver loading in a uniform manner. The resulting misalignment of premiums has caused Texans to lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal marketplace subsidies, making coverage less affordable.”

Why? Since a majority of marketplace enrollees have incomes below 200 percent of FPL, silver is still the most popular metal level, and so when insurers are in a competitive market, the price of a silver plan gets competed down (though when there is just one insurer, or a dominant insurer, they can and do take advantage of the rules, often to create huge discounts).* In most of the country, gold plans are still priced well above silver, and bronze plan discounts are not as big as analysts (including the Congressional Budget Office) expected them to be when anticipating Trump’s cutoff of direct payments for CSR. A handful of states, however, have effectively ordered insurers to fully price the value of CSR into silver plans.

With Johnson’s bill, Texas joined them. S.B. 1296 directed the Department of Insurance to, as the bill analysis phrases it, “focus its rate review in a manner that uniformly maximizes the benefits of silver loading, making coverage more affordable.”

On March 28, the Texas Department of Insurance issued a proposed rule to flesh out that legal directive. The rule directs insurers to use a “CSR pricing factor” of 1.35—that is, to price silver plans at 1.35 times what they would charge if there were no CSR. That rule effectively prices silver plans close to a platinum level. Gold plans are generally priced at about 1.2 times the cost of silver with no CSR.

The CSR pricing factor is slightly below the level implemented in 2022 in New Mexico, 1.44, which led to the lowest-cost gold plan in each rating area being priced an average of 11 percent below the benchmark silver plan. In New Mexico markets, several gold plans are priced below benchmark. Accordingly, in 2022, 69.5 percent of New Mexico enrollees with incomes above 200 percent of the federal poverty level chose gold plans, compared to 24.4 percent of Texas enrollees above the same threshold.

The rest of the story is about how momentum for this idea came from a couple of conservative actuaries plus a former aide to Greg Abbott now working at the non-partisan think tank Texas 2036, who were able to get Republican buy-in for the idea, and the House sponsor for Sen. Johnson’s bill, Rep. Tom Oliverson. The details are wonky and I definitely don’t understand all of them, but the bottom line is that in Texas another 200,000 people now have access to affordable heal insurance. And the guy that wrote the bill to make it happen is the guy that escorted the vile Don Huffines out of the Senate in 2018. Not too shabby. Charles Gaba, who brings even more wonkiness, has more.

2022 primary runoff Day One EV report: Lots of mail ballots

No news story yet as I write this, so let’s just jump right in. Here is the Day One EV report for the primary runoffs. Note that there are only five days of early voting in the runoff – as of this morning, there are now four days left – so I won’t be doing any comparisons with March, and since every runoff is its own little universe I won’t compare with previous years. You can see the final EV report for March here, though do note that several thousand more mail ballots arrived between the Friday and the following Tuesday – in total, there were about 29K total mail ballots returned as of the final results. Just over 50K mail ballots were sent out to the primary voters – we know what happened to a bunch of them, but however you want to think about it a bit less than sixty percent of all mail ballots were successfully returned.

Here are the totals so far after the first day of early voting for the runoffs:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    20,357   3,050   23,407
GOP    20,733   8,049   28,782

That’s 41K mail ballots returned, with just under 55K ballots being sent out, for a successful return rate close to 80% so far, and that will go up as more ballots come in. Maybe, just maybe, that’s a sign that the problems of March have been at least somewhat ameliorated. To be sure, these are people who almost certainly voted in March and thus have learned their own lessons from that experience. This is why I was so keen to see numbers from the May election, because that had to include a lot more first-timers. This is still an encouraging sign, even if it’s for a smaller population.

This also means that the main thing to watch for going forward is the in person voting population, as there aren’t that many mail ballots left to return and there won’t be any more sent out. I don’t feel like trawling through the past to see what the pattern for these five-day EV periods looks like, but I’d bet a dollar that Friday will be the busiest day. It’s probably not too busy now, so take advantage of the shorter lines while you can.

Primary checkup

Let me start this post off by once again noting that I cannot find any reporting, like at all, about how many mail ballots were rejected for the May elections. Just nothing. It’s as if interest in the subject by anyone but me disappeared after all of the March stories. Maybe that will change with the primary runoffs, I don’t know. But man, am I discouraged by the lack of curiosity about this.

In searching for such stories, I came across this instead.

Texas lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Wednesday to examine the reasons for election result delays and the effectiveness of new requirements for poll watchers.

When Texans took to the polls on March 1 for the first primary of the 2022 midterm elections, it was the first time statewide voting had taken place under a controversial new law that made several changes to the state’s voting system. Senate Bill 1 was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last September, after months of Democrats rallying and using procedural measures to block any action from being taken on it.

The Texas House Elections Committee began Wednesday’s meeting by asking state and county election officials why election results were delayed for the March primary election.

Speaking first before the committee was Isabell Longoria, elections administrator for Harris County, the state’s largest county and home to Houston. Longoria said that many challenges larger counties face in reporting election results quickly are caused by the state’s new paper ballot system and rigid requirements on when to report results.

“This paper ballot system that we are moving to, I think has some, let us call it, paper challenges that have not yet been contemplated by the Texas Election Code,” Longoria told the lawmakers.

The challenges she cites include issues keeping track of and recording ballots that could be up to two pages long. In Texas, a person’s ballot is first inserted into a machine that records the choices made and prints them out on a physical copy. After that, the ballot is inserted into another machine where the votes are recorded and the paper ballot is stored before being transported to a central counting facility.

When asked by Representative John Bucy, D-Cedar Park, what else could be done to alleviate challenges for election workers, Longoria responded that defining what timely reporting means would be helpful. She pointed to the time needed to ensure every voter in line by 7 p.m. has an opportunity to vote, the time it takes to transport ballots through traffic and the time required to correct human errors. All of these factors lead to delays, Longoria said, stressing that the best solution could be to give larger counties more leeway, so they are not held to a strict time requirement.

The Chron also covered this. I get the concern, and I agree that Harris is an outlier, though the other big urban counties are also geographically large and have bad traffic, too. As I said, I thought Harris County’s reporting on the May election was basically fine, with the posting of regular updates going a long way towards alleviating anxiety about how it was going. Final results were available by the time most people would have been getting ready to begin their day on Sunday. I don’t see why anyone should freak out about that.

Which again isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t try to do better. I strongly suspect Harris County could crib a bit from other counties’ processes. If there is some change that could be made to SB1 to make it easier on them, that should be considered as well – if we all care about getting results in a timely fashion, that should be an easy sell. But we should also note that in some states, like the ones that actually promote and widely use mail ballots, sometimes final results are not known for a few days. I don’t remember there being much discussion about the effect that adding paper ballots might have on election reporting as SB1 was being passed. Harris is also one of the newcomers to using printed ballots along with their electronic voting machines. There have been a lot of changes – maybe we just need to let things work themselves out a bit.

This story did at least mention the topic that now obsesses me:

Notably absent from the committee’s agenda was the increased number of rejected mail-in ballots as a result of a new Identification requirement in SB 1. The law requires voters who fill out a mail-in ballot to provide their driver’s license or Social Security number, depending on which was used to register to vote in the state.

Of the over 3 million ballots cast in the March primary, 24,636 mail-in ballots were not counted due to the new requirements. In many instances, voters failed to include the identification number on their ballot and others put a number that did not match the form of identification they used to register to vote, leading to their ballot being rejected.

[James Slattery, senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project] said that the issues discussed during the committee hearing should not have been their primary focus.

“The most important issue facing our elections right now is the catastrophic rate of vote-by-mail rejections that SB 1 caused,” said Slattery. “The committee is not facing this crisis of democracy that they caused.”

The absence of this issue was also noted by Representative Bucy before the meeting came to a close.

“We have 24,000 vote-by-mail ballots thrown out this last primary, did you say we will have a hearing to address that?” Bucy asked committee Chairman Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park. “I just think that is a crisis and I want to make sure this committee is on top of it.”

“Yes,” Cain responded. “The chair intends to do so.”

Cain said that after the May 24 runoff election, the committee will have more information to better examine the issue, leaving the impact of SB 1 still under the watchful eye of lawmakers, election officials and voters.

I mean, there’s still no reason why reporters at the newspapers can’t ask their local election admins about this. Surely there are some numbers out there to be had.

Dallas gender affirming care unit can reopen

Some good news for transgender kids and their families.

A Dallas-based program that offers mental health services and hormone treatments to transgender children may resume the therapy for new patients for the first time since November, after a judge on Thursday temporarily cleared away legal barriers to the practice.

The program director, Dr. Ximena Lopez, had filed a lawsuit in March against Children’s Medical Center in Dallas for shutting down operations to new patients last fall at the GENder Education and Care, Interdisciplinary Support (GENECIS) program, which is housed at the hospital and run jointly by it and UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Thursday’s temporary restraining order banned those restrictions for the next two weeks, and within hours after the decision, five new patients had been scheduled at the center.

“It’s powerful,” said Dallas lawyer Charla Aldous, who represents Lopez. “This is going to affect the lives of children. It really is.”

The GENECIS center was formally dissolved in November, which meant that patients already enrolled in the program still had access to the hormone therapies, but that new patients had to be turned away for those services.

Since November, the clinic has had to turn away about 100 families with children who wanted to begin the treatment at the center, Aldous said. The center had also been told that starting next month, it would no longer be allowed to start gender-affirming hormone therapy for any patients, including those already being seen by mental health doctors there.

Another hearing is set for May 26 in Dallas County Court-at-Law Judge Melissa Bellan’s courtroom to determine the path forward for the clinic. The lawsuit demands the hospital allow clinic doctors to offer what they describe as lifesaving treatment to young people with gender dysphoria and similar issues.

The clinic does not offer surgical options or gender confirmation surgery for either children or adults. Under the gender-affirming model of care, more time is spent allowing kids to socially transition instead of focusing on medical treatment. A social transition consists of the steps a child takes to affirm their identity. An example could include allowing a child assigned male at birth to wear clothing, grow their hair or use a different name that better fits their identity.

GENECIS was dissolved after facing months of pressure by socially conservative political leaders and activists, who organized protests targeting hospital board members and accused the program of committing child abuse.

Bellan wrote in her Thursday order that Children’s Medical Center had violated the law by “interfering with, controlling, or otherwise directing any physician’s professional judgment” and by “discriminating against patients on the basis of the patient’s gender identity and directing (Lopez) to violate the law by discriminating against patients on the basis of a patient’s gender identity.”

The ruling barred Children’s Medical Center from prohibiting GENECIS doctors from restricting puberty blockers or hormone therapy to existing or new patients to treat gender dysphoria as part of gender-affirming care.

If the hearing in two weeks goes in their favor, Aldous plans to ask for an immediate ruling on the suit “to make this decision final.”

“Dr. Lopez is very relieved that she can now treat her patients in the manner in which she has been trained to do and what the standard of care requires,” Aldous said. “She’s thrilled with the court’s decision.”

See here and here for some background. Assuming the subsequent hearing gets the same result, the main question to me is whether there is an appeal, and if so by whom. I don’t think UT Southwestern would care to continue to fight this, but for sure there will be plenty of others who would. Would they be allowed to intervene, I wonder? You lawyers may feel free to speculate, the rest of us will have to wait and see.

Bad news for the crazy ants

They have found a mighty foe.

Several years ago, staffers at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Texas, noticed a new type of invasive ant species. Tawny crazy ants were so aggressive that they were driving birds out of their nests and occasionally swarming over visitors who paused to sit on a trail. Populations of other native species—like scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, and lizards—sharply declined, while rabbits were blinded by the ants’ venom.

That’s when University of Texas at Austin biologist Ed LeBrun got involved. The park “had a crazy ant infestation, and it was apocalyptic—rivers of ants going up and down every tree,” he said. Crazy ants have since spread rapidly through every state on the Gulf Coast, with over 27 Texas counties reporting significant infestations. The usual ant-bait traps and over-the-counter pesticides have proven ineffective, so the EPA has approved the temporary (but restricted) use of an anti-termite agent called fipronil. But a more targeted and less toxic control strategy would be better.

LeBrun has worked extensively on fire ants, another invasive species that has plagued the region. He has spent the last few years investigating potential sustainable control strategies based on crazy ants’ natural enemies in the wild. LeBrun and his colleagues have now discovered that a specific type of fungus can effectively wipe out crazy ant colonies while leaving other native species alone, according to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See here, here, here, and here for some background. I can’t believe I’ve not had any crazy ant posts since 2011, but there you have it. I’ll take my good news where I can get it.

Weekend link dump for May 15

“The case against the Supreme Court of the United States”.

“So the $35 sculpture you got at an Austin Goodwill was looted from a museum during WWII. Now what?” A delightfully bonkers story that the reporter had apparently needed to sit on for four years until the legal stuff got worked out.

“This is a weaponized grimness. It feeds on isolation and silence and gaslighting; it tells us that we are reactionary and foolish for worrying about getting sick or making someone else sick. It tells us that we are wrong and bad to protect ourselves and others. It mocks us for ever having believed things could have been different: that systemic change was possible, that a pandemic could shift the future of public health. This grimness tells us that we must throw away our old masks, the ones that protected our lungs and bodies, and put on new ones: happy faces unconcerned with 1 million people dead from COVID in this country alone.”

“Roe has long protected the fertility industry from regulation of IVF & fertility care decision making. My take on WHAT COULD HAPPEN TO Embryos, IVF, and ART IF THE LEAKED DOBBS DECISION STANDS. Note: most IVF cycles involve “extra” embryos.” (Note: “ART” = “Assisted Reproductive Technology”.)

“Apple, Google and Microsoft announced this week they will soon support an approach to authentication that avoids passwords altogether, and instead requires users to merely unlock their smartphones to sign in to websites or online services. Experts say the changes should help defeat many types of phishing attacks and ease the overall password burden on Internet users, but caution that a true passwordless future may still be years away for most websites.”

“I’m just going to throw a bunch of graphs in this thread about views of abortion. Here’s a good place to start – allow abortion for any reason.”

“We are going to see threats to basic assumptions of how states work together. Normally, states cooperate. Normally, states leave their laws within their borders. But because anti-abortion states are going to get so aggressive in trying to solve this problem of what do we do for people traveling out of state, it’s going to create all these issues.” And that’s why you don’t throw issues like this back to the states, kids.

More than you wanted to know about the weird music on reality TV shows.

“A group of Republican senators is calling for a TV ratings system to warn parents about LGBTQ content in children’s programs. Their statement singles out Disney repeatedly.”

“Just read this translation of Putin’s speech. Reaction—that’s it? Completely out of ideas. Either doesn’t now understand the reality of the situation in Ukraine, or wilfully ignoring it.”

“One America News, the right-wing cable network, aired a 30-second segment yesterday essentially admitting the falsity of its previous “reporting” on supposed voter fraud by two Georgia election workers. The prerecorded statement aired shortly after OAN settled a defamation suit brought by Fulton County election workers Ruby Freeman and her daughter Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, whom the network had falsely accused of participating in a conspiracy to steal the 2020 election.” I hope they also got a ton of money from that settlement.

RIP, iPods. I listen to a lot of podcasts on my iPod – you know, the source of the “pod” part of “podcast” – and now I don’t know what I’m going to do when this device goes belly up. I don’t like iPhones, so I guess I will eventually have to figure out a workable-for-me podcast-playing solution for my Android phone. This feels about like how I felt when Google announced it was killing off Google Reader. It’s still perfectly good technology that lots of people like! Couldn’t you just, like, license it to someone?

“Demanding civility from those you seek to oppress is absurd. But considering the anti-abortion movement has, for decades, turned the front door of an abortion clinic into a war zone, it’s the height of hypocrisy.”

“Suddenly startups are having trouble raising money. Why?”

RIP, Bob Lanier, basketball Hall of Famer and NBA global ambassador.

RIP, Ray Scott, known as the “Father of Modern Bass Fishing” and the creator of the Bassmaster TV show.

What the January 6 Subpoenas Say About Kevin McCarthy“. Nothing good, obvs.

RIP, Fred Ward, versatile actor who will live forever in my heart for his starring role in Tremors.

“For the first time, astronomers have captured an image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.”

SCOTx ponders the questions the Fifth Circuit asked it about SB1

Seems like there’s not that much in dispute, but there’s always something.

Texas Supreme Court justices questioned during oral argument if they should answer certified questions from a federal appeals court about challenges to an election law that created penalties for soliciting voters to use mail-in ballots.

The case, Paxton v. Longoria, concerns a First-Amendment issue over how provisions in Senate Bill 1, a 2021 law, could lead to civil penalties and or criminal prosecution of county election administrators and volunteer deputy registrars.

During a Wednesday hearing before the court, the foremost issue that appeared to concern the justices was whether they should provide an advisory opinion to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals at all.

Since the case has progressed from federal district court to the Fifth Circuit and on to the state Supreme Court, the parties positions have changed and the justices find themselves in the unusual position of being asked to answer three questions where there is very little if any disagreement between the parties.

The Fifth Circuit asks the justice to answer whether a volunteer deputy registrar, or VDR, is a public official under the Texas Election Code; whether speech the plaintiffs intend to use constitutes “solicitation” within the context of the state code; and whether the Texas Attorney General has the power to enforce that code.

The plaintiffs are Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who assists people with mail-in ballots in Travis and Williamson counties.

The state, represented by Lanora Pettit, a principal deputy solicitor general with the Office of Attorney General, acknowledged in her brief that volunteer deputy registrars are not public officials subject to prosecution; the term “solicit” does not include merely providing information but instead requires “strongly urging” a voter to fill out an application that was not requested; and the Attorney General is not a proper official to seek civil penalties.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law submitted a brief that was in line with Pettit on the first and third questions, but had a nuanced distinction on the question of solicitation’s meaning.

Justice Jeff Boyd asked Morales-Doyle, “I’m just not sure why the dispute matters. If everybody agrees that the VDR is not a public official, so therefore has no standing, everybody agrees that Ms. Longoria has not … indicated any intent to violate in Williamson County, and everybody agrees the attorney general has no enforcement authority , where’s the case or controversy?”

Morales-Doyle said that Morgan began the case with a reasonable fear of prosecution and while the state has indicated a disinclination to prosecute she does not know the position of the Travis County district attorney, nor what future district attorneys would do.

If the questions are not answered, she would therefore still need to have the temporary injunction in place, he said.

On defining solicitation, because a felony criminal prosecution is possible, Justice Jane Bland asked if the state should limit its meaning to the penal code’s definition, which would restrict the term to situations where a public official induces someone to commit a criminal act.

Morales-Doyle supported that approach, noting that every criminal solicitation statute that he is aware of applies only to solicitation of criminal conduct.

“What is troubling everybody—and apparently troubling the attorney general who wants to give a definition of solicitation that I’m not aware existing in any criminal code—is the absurd result that someone could be held criminally liable for encouraging their fellow citizen to vote,” Morales-Doyle said.

On rebuttal, Pettit argued that sanctionable solicitation is not limited to criminal inducement. She cited the example of barratry, where lawyers unlawfully solicit clients for profit.

See here for the background. The bottom line is that the plaintiffs have asked for a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The motion was granted by a district court judge and then put on hold by the Fifth Circuit. I think the Fifth Circuit is evaluating whether to put the injunction back in place while the rest of the initial lawsuit is litigated, but we are in the weeds here and I don’t have certainty about that. Let’s see what SCOTx says first and maybe that will clue me in. (Any lawyers out there that want to help, by all means please do.)

How much is Greg Abbott sweating right now?

I hope it’s a lot. It should be a lot.

With temperatures soaring statewide, Gov. Greg Abbott is scrambling to reassure Texans he’s closely monitoring the state’s shaky electric grid as other GOP officials vow to get back to work fixing a system many, including Abbott, declared they had repaired after deadly outages during last year’s winter storms.

An hour after high-level meetings with Abbott, the state’s electricity monitor warned the public that six power plants had failed, forcing the state to call on Texans to reduce air conditioning usage and watch their energy consumption through the weekend. Electric Reliability Council of Texas did not disclose which units had gone offline or when they’d be back up.

ERCOT data showed demand for power in Texas was projected to be within 2,000 megawatts of the total supply by mid-afternoon on Saturday, triggering the conservation alert. Typically the state has a much bigger cushion. When operating reserves drop below 1,750 megawatts for more than 30 minutes, ERCOT can interrupt power for large industrial customers and can call for rotating blackouts if reserves drop to 1,000 megawatts. A megawatt is about enough electricity to power 200 homes on a hot day.

Peak demand on the grid was expected between 5 and 6 p.m on Saturday.

Abbott, who said last June that lawmakers did “everything that needed to be done” for the grid, released a photo of himself on Friday, meeting with officials from ERCOT and the Public Utilities Commission in his office just over an hour before the conservation warning was sent out.

“We continue to work closely to ensure Texas’ power grid remains reliable & meets the needs of Texans,” Abbott said.

[…]

Democrat Beto O’Rourke has been blistering at rallies, reminding voters that more than 700 Texans died, by some estimates, when the grid failed in 2021 during the winter storms. Lawmakers had been repeatedly warned that the power grid needed reforms, but those warnings had largely been unheeded until millions of Texans were left without power during the record freezing temperatures last winter.

O’Rourke has been campaigning on forcing more weatherization requirements on energy providers and connecting the Texas grid to the national grid to ensure the state can tap into national emergency supplies when needed, something Republicans who control the Legislature have declined to do.

On Friday, he blasted Abbott for waiting until after 5 p.m. on Friday to make ERCOT put out their conservation alert, even though he had been meeting with them well before that.

“He doesn’t want Texans to know that he STILL can’t keep the power running in the energy capital of the world,” O’Rourke said on Friday after the ERCOT alert went out.

By the time you read this, the worst is likely to be over, and maybe there haven’t been any power outages resulting from the extra demand on the grid. But you know, it’s not even halfway through May yet. There will be more opportunities for us to be told to turn the A/C down as the temperatures creep up towards 100. Maybe if Greg Abbott had spent some of that federal COVID relief money on fixing the grid instead of having the National Guard write jaywalking tickets we’d be better off now.

Here are some tweets to sum it up:

The classics always have something to say to us.

Early voting for the May 24 primary runoffs starts tomorrow

You know the drill. Primary runoffs are on, with early voting going on this week, Monday to Friday May 16 to May 20. Because it’s a runoff, you only get those five days. Voting happens from 7 AM to 7 PM each day, and you can find your EV locations here with the PDF here. As with the May special election it’s a smaller list of EV locations – it looks to me like there’s a handful more, but definitely fewer than it was for March and will be for November. Look to see if your favorite place is in use before you head out.

I’ve talked about the Chron’s lack of endorsements in the three judicial races they skipped for March till I’m blue in the face, for all the good it did me. The Chron chose instead to just re-run their original endorsements instead of considering the other races, which is not what I would have had them do. You can find all the judicial Q&As and interviews I did for the primary here, plus the ones I did for Janet Dudding, Staci Childs, and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot. The Erik Manning spreadsheet is still there, too.

We still have no idea how mail ballots went in the May election. Maybe if we’re good and we eat all our vegetables someone will report on that for this election. If you are a mail voter or know someone who is, please let us know if the experience was any different this time around versus in March. These were our chances to get it (more) right. It sure would be nice to know if that was successful. In the meantime, go vote.

SCOTx issues mixed ruling on transgender child abuse investigations injunction

We’ll just have to see what happens next.

Texas’ child welfare agency remains blocked from investigating the family of a transgender teen that sued the state in March, but can once again investigate other families that provide gender-affirming care after the Supreme Court of Texas struck down a statewide injunction Friday.

Though it overturned the injunction on procedural grounds, the high court raised questions about why the Department of Family and Protective Services opened these investigations in the first place. The court affirmed in Friday’s ruling that neither Attorney General Ken Paxton nor Gov. Greg Abbott had any grounds to direct the agency’s actions.

[…]

“The Governor and the Attorney General were certainly well within their rights to state their legal and policy views on this topic, but DFPS was not compelled by law to follow them,” Friday’s ruling reads. “DFPS’s press statement, however, suggests that DFPS may have considered itself bound by either the Governor’s letter, the Attorney General’s Opinion, or both. Again, nothing before this Court supports the notion that DFPS is so bound.”

The ruling does note the myriad “informal mechanisms” through which elected officials can influence a state agency, but “ultimately, however, one department or another has the final say.”

[…]

In this case, the ruling said, DFPS was responsible for deciding whether these investigations aligned with current state regulations — and will now have to decide whether to continue these investigations and allow new ones to be opened.

DFPS employees have told The Texas Tribune that agency leadership has acknowledged that these investigations do not meet the current requirements for child abuse and have said policy would need to be generated to match the governor’s directives.

In March, a district judge granted an injunction blocking the state from continuing these investigations or opening new ones. Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, which reinstated the statewide temporary injunction.

He then petitioned the Supreme Court of Texas to review that appeal. In Friday’s ruling, the high court agreed with Paxton that the appeals court overstepped — while the appeals court can reinstate an injunction if it “preserves the parties’ rights,” they cannot reinstate a temporary injunction of any nature.

In this case, the justices ruled, the “parties” are the family that sued the state initially — not all parents of all transgender children.

Ian Pittman, an Austin attorney representing two families of transgender children that are under investigation for child abuse, said the injunction had allowed his clients to “breathe a sigh of relief” while their investigations were paused. Although the investigations can resume, he’s hopeful that DFPS will now close out the cases.

“This ruling reaffirms that [DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters] acted improperly when she acknowledged the directive and said they would follow it,” he said. “She was abdicating her responsibilities as commissioner to a political stunt that has no legal authority.”

If DFPS does not close out the cases, he expects other families may consider bringing suits to get any investigations against them similarly blocked.

See here and here for the most recent entries. There were multiple written opinions plus some concurrences and dissents, so just go here and look for case 22-0229 if you want to slog through them. I’ve seen varying reactions to the ruling and will link to them, but this Daily Kos piece is the closest to my own feelings.

Now, some folks are celebrating Friday’s ruling as a win, as the court does explicitly say the governor does not have the “authority to investigate, prosecute, or impose reporting requirements regarding child abuse allegations.” The court also pointed out that neither Abbott nor Paxton could “bind” the Department of Family and Protective Services’ (DFPS) “investigative authority.”

This all sounds encouraging, but again, the court didn’t rule on the ethics of the situation, but whether or not the lower courts were overstepping with the injunction holds. So … What happens now?

DFPS will decide whether or not to continue investigations, as well as whether or not they will open new ones. According to this ruling, the agency was responsible for determining if the investigations met state regulations, to begin with. Per The New York Times, it is not clear whether the ruling will cause the agency to resume investigations right away (or at all) or not.

If the department closes the cases, we can breathe a sigh of relief. If it doesn’t close the cases? It’s likely many more parents will sue the state.

For me? I’m taking it as a cautious win, but I’m not outright celebrating until the agency confirms those cases are closed and that more aren’t on the way.

I’m open to persuasion on this, but until and unless someone changes my mind, I’m waiting to see what DFPS does next, and hoping that as many parents of trans kids are preparing to file their own suits as possible, just in case. Here are statements from the ACLU and Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, and the Chron, the Texas Signal, and the Texas Observer have more.

Treasury Department opens investigation into Abbott’s use of federal funds for border mission

Good, though I have a hard time believing there will be any real consequences.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of COVID-19 relief dollars to support his border security mission has come under scrutiny in Washington this week as questions grow about whether it’s the proper use of the federal funds.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general opened an inquiry into the spending on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported. The action came a day after a group of Texas Democrats in the U.S. House called on U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to investigate.

Those steps followed a Post analysis of money intended to combat the effects of the pandemic, showing that Texas “leaders rerouted public health and safety funds to their border operations, while relying on federal pandemic funds to replace some of the money.”

Those border operations included Operation Lone Star, a state border security program that Abbott launched in March 2021 to deal with increased border crossings. The initiative involves the deployment of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to the border. Abbott has used state resources to patrol the border, build border barriers and arrest migrants for trespassing on private land and then turn them over to immigration authorities.

The state has spent around $4 billion on the operations; the Post has reported that around $1 billion in coronavirus aid was used.

The money came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act, which had a key provision to support the medical response to the pandemic.

“In exercise of that responsibility … we are currently conducting a review of Texas’s uses of [Coronavirus Relief Fund] monies,” Richard K. Delmar, the U.S. Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, said to the Washington Post.

[…]

Texas Democratic U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Veronica Escobar of El Paso spearheaded the letter to Yellen asking for her department to investigate the matter.

“It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor [Abbott] to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” the Texas Democrats wrote.

U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Sylvia R. Garcia, Al Green, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston joined in signing the letter.

“As you continue your oversight of the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds, we urge you to ensure all states are using these crucial funds for the reasons they were meant to be used,” they continued. “Governor Abbott must not be allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds to further his political theater at the expense of Texas families.”

I’m happy for this, but let’s be clear that there are no circumstances under which Greg Abbott will be chastened by the outcome of the investigation, and no circumstances under which he will admit to any wrongdoing or make any changes in his behavior, except for the worse. Voting him out is still the only real hope at this point. Daily Kos has more.

Are road signs that warn about highway fatalities a danger?

Could be.

Driving along Texas highways, drivers will likely see electric signs that provide real-time traffic alerts, weather information or unique public safety announcements. While these signs are designed to increase public safety, new evidence suggests that one type does more harm than good.

recent study from Joshua Madsen and Jonathan D. Hall outlines how dynamic message signs (DMSs) displaying the year-to-date number of fatalities actually distract drivers and cause more accidents.

“The intention of these messages is to hopefully reduce crashes and encourage safe driving, and our findings are showing that it’s backfiring,” said Madsen, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “We’re finding an immediate increase in crashes, very small, but its clearly going in the wrong direction.”

After analyzing data on 880 fatality signs and all crashes occurring in Texas from 2010 through 2017, Madsen and Hall found that the number of crashes increased as drivers got closer to the signs.

The number of crashes increased by 1.35% within 10 kilometers of the signs, and raised to 1.52% within five kilometers of the signs. Those numbers only increased in areas with complicated road segments.

“What’s the cost of a two-second distraction?” Madsen asked. “If I’m on a straight highway between Austin and Houston, there’s not many consequences to a two-second distraction. If I’m dealing with an interchange, there’s five lanes of traffic. I need to be switching lanes and getting out. That would be a much more complicated road segment and having a two-second distraction could certainly be more costly.”

The research suggests that the signs cause an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 fatalities every year in Texas, with an annual cost of $377 million. The study says the effects of displaying fatality messages are comparable to raising the speed limit by 3-5 miles per hour or reducing the number of highway troopers by 6-14 percent.

[…]

In a statement to the Chronicle, a TxDOT spokesperson said the “real issues around traffic fatalities in Texas are speed, distracted driving, impaired driving and people not wearing seat belts.”

“We appreciate any focus on safety and the critical need to inspire drivers to make the best decisions behind the wheel,” the statement reads.” In relation to this particular study, there are too many unknowns to draw any firm conclusions, to include assumptions made by the study authors regarding driver psychology and behavior.”

“We continually evaluate the effectiveness of our safety messages, and for quite some time now, we have not shared fatality numbers on the dynamic messaging signs (DMS). We look for every way to make our roads as safe as possible, and to use effective measures to remind drivers that most of the time they have the power in their hands to help prevent fatalities on our roadways.”

The study is here. I read through the abstract, and if I’m reading this correctly they are comparing collisions during the weeks that TxDOT is displaying these dynamic messages (called “campaign weeks”, which as the authors note has been one week per month since August 2012) to the weeks when it is not. The comparison is for the areas near the signs in the campaign weeks to the off weeks. The method seems reasonable to me, and the time span is long enough that there ought to be enough data to draw conclusions, but I don’t fully buy it. The large area in which the crash data was measured, which I presume is to allow for a sufficient number of crashes to measure, is broad enough that I don’t think you can assume enough of these drivers even saw the signs in question on the journey that included the crash.

I don’t want to speculate about what else might be in play here. The way they defined the data sets does a pretty good job of eliminating a lot of randomness, and the hypothesis that the signs can be distractive has merit. I just feel like this is a broad conclusion to make from inferential data. I can certainly believe that the signs don’t have any positive effect, and I can believe they could have a negative effect. I’d just like to see some more data before I’m convinced.

Is that San Antonio airport tunnel really going to happen?

Reality check:

In March, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority unanimously approved a feasibility study for a proposal from billionaire Elon Musk’s Boring Co. to build subterranean “public transit” from the San Antonio International Airport to downtown.

At the meeting, RMA Board Member Michael Lynd Jr. and Bexar County Director of Public Works Renee Green affirmed that the Boring Co.’s proposal — a nine-mile underground tunnel that would transport passengers in Teslas from the airport to the Pearl and downtown — was the most feasible option among the bids it considered.

Questions have swirled about what problem Musk’s $247 million-plus overture would solve, whether it qualifies as public transit and whether transportation dollars would be better spent on better-proven, if less-flashy, solutions to San Antonio’s traffic woes.

As the Boring Co.’s $247 million bid undergoes a feasibility evaluation, it’s worth considering whether Musk’s latest pie-in-the-sky venture has any prospect of working. According to local experts across a variety of disciplines, the project is doomed from the start.

See here, here, and here for the background. You should read the rest, but I’ll summarize it as concerns about water and other environmental issues (more on that here), property rights, and the fact that the San Antonio transit agency VIA is already in the process of implementing an express bus service from the airport to downtown; this would happen before the Musk tunnel and would directly compete with it. I’m also deeply skeptical of the price tag, which just seems awfully low to me. But hey, we’ll see what that feasibility study says. Maybe we’re all wrong.

That stupid social media censorship law has been unblocked

The Fifth Circuit continues to debase itself.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a Republican-backed Texas law that prohibits large social media companies from banning users over their political viewpoints.

The decision hands a win to Republicans who have long criticized social media platforms such as Twitter for what they call anti-conservative bias — disapproval that was amplified when President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on inciting violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The order did not evaluate the law on its constitutionality but instead allows the law to go back into effect while the case proceeds in district court, according to a statement from one of the plaintiff groups. The ruling came from a three-judge panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which is often considered the most conservative appeals court in the country — and was not accompanied by a written opinion explaining the decision at the time of publication.

Two large industry trade groups that represent companies such as Google and Twitter sued to block the law last fall.

In December, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the groups and blocked the law while the lawsuit continues, reasoning that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to moderate content and called parts of the law “prohibitively vague.” As a result, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district judge’s decision to the circuit court.

Passed during a special session last year, House Bill 20 also requires social media platforms with more than 50 million monthly users to publicly disclose information about content removal and account suspensions.

“HB 20 is an assault on the First Amendment, and it’s constitutionally rotten from top to bottom,” Chris Marchese, counsel for the NetChoice industry trade group, tweeted after the ruling. “So of course we’re going to appeal today’s unprecedented, unexplained, and unfortunate order by a split 2-1 panel.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve been beaten down by the constant flow of atrocities from this outlaw court, so I’m going to hand it off to one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys:

Which means we have to hope there are still a few people on that bench who understand what the First Amendment says. I don’t have any faith, but what are you gonna do? Slate and Reform Austin have more.

Yes, you can use toll road funds for non-road projects

Who knew?

Surplus revenues from Harris County’s toll road system for years have paid for improvements to nearby roads and infused funds into street rebuilds around the county.

Now, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is about to go off-road. Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, the tolling agency will spend $53 million connecting existing cycling, running and hiking trails and building new ones. The projects, sketched out in a sweeping plan presented to Commissioners Court, aim to reconnect neighborhoods on opposing sides of the county’s tollways and leverage county money with that of management districts and other local agencies aiming to add trails.

“The toll road for a long time has been focused on finishing its system,” Executive Director Roberto Trevino said. “That’s changing to how do we manage it, and provide better mobility and connectivity even if you are not on the toll roads.”

The court approved the plan on a 3-2 vote, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voting against it.

If fully built, the plan envisioned by HCTRA officials is a network of 236 miles of trails, usable by cyclists, runners and others, mostly adjacent to the sprawling county toll road system, primarily the 82-mile Sam Houston Tollway that rings the metro area. Made up of longer “network spine” projects of 5 miles or more, smaller community connectors that link local neighborhoods and targeted projects to build onto existing trails proposed by others, the total cost of all the links could reach $600 million or more and take years to build.

The effect, Trevino said, would be a much more inclusive transportation system.

“We are putting a focus on the areas around the toll road and putting back quality of life,” he said, noting the safety challenges some areas face because of the region’s large roads and the “divisive” discussions about how to integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety without compromising automotive travel.

Actually, we appropriated toll road funds for flood mitigation projects just last year, so we did actually know this. That won’t stop some heads from exploding at the thought of spending this money on (gasp!) BIKE TRAILS, but who cares? It’s legitimate transportation infrastructure, it will help mitigate road traffic a little by giving people safe options for not driving when they just have a short distance to go, and it will absolutely be a boon to quality of life. People use the heck out of the White Oak and Heights bike trails in my neighborhood. A lot of it is leisure travel rather than commuter or task-focused travel, but that’s fine. Quality of life is a big deal, and it’s a big return on the investment. It’s about time we used some of this money for this purpose. Stace has more.

The injury totals from AstroWorld

A lot of people were seriously hurt at that event.

More than 700 people were seriously injured during November’s Astroworld Festival tragedy, according to new court documents filed in Harris County this week.

Plaintiffs attorneys Jason Atkin, Richard Mithoff and Sean Roberts notified 11th Judicial District Judge Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins that they’d conducted a survey of people affected by the lethal Astroworld tragedy, which claimed the lives of 10 concertgoers late last year, including a 9-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.

According to the attorneys’ survey, some 732 people filed claims tied to injuries requiring significant medical treatment. An additional 1,649 claims were tied to injuries that required less extensive treatment, and they were also reviewing 2,540 claims for injuries where the severity was not fully ascertained.

The filing provides the latest and most complete picture, so far, of the toll of the Astroworld Festival, a local music festival which drew tens of thousands of visitors to Houston from across the region and the rest of the country.

[…]

The defendants in the lawsuit, Live Nation Worldwide, Scoremore Mgmt, ASM Global, Travis Scott, and others, generally deny the allegations, court records show.

One of the companies, Contemporary Services Corporation, has come under additional criticism, after a man successfully jumped onstage during a comedy show in Los Angeles last week and attacked Dave Chappelle.

Scott — who pleaded guilty to reckless conduct after urging fans to rush the stage during a 2015 show in Chicago and to a charge of disorderly conduct for similar behavior during a 2017 show in Arkansas — has consistently denied wrongdoing and asked to be removed from the lawsuits.

See here for the most recent update. The deaths of the ten concertgoers have been the headline of this story, but the sheer number of people that were badly injured would be grounds enough for the litigation that has followed. We can and should have investigations and task forces to look into what happened and why, but the discovery process is going to tell us a whole lot about this tragedy that we otherwise would not have known.

Endorsement watch: Still in reruns

The Chron re-endorses Duncan Klussman in the CD38 runoff.

Duncan Klussman

Last fall, Texas Republicans drew a new congressional district in western Harris County. This red-red-red seat was designed to specifically advantage Wesley Hunt, an Iraq war veteran who came within four points of beating U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher in another district in 2020.

The new district — the 38th — encompasses affluent parts of Houston such as River Oaks and stretches into conservative areas such as Tomball and Cypress. Hunt, who won the Republican primary, will be tough to beat. He’s been endorsed by both Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and has a formidable campaign war chest, with $1.8 million on hand as of March 31.

It will take a Democratic candidate with public service experience and a willingness to work across the aisle to make this race competitive. Of the two candidates in the primary runoff, we believe Democrats stand the best chance in November with Duncan Klussmann, a former Spring Branch ISD superintendent.

Diana Martinez Alexander, 48, a Houston ISD teacher and local activist, impressed us, and we admired her command of the issues facing the next Congress. She has fought hard to advance crucial issues near to the hearts of Democratic primary voters, such as voting rights, while also talking up local concerns such as flood mitigation and protecting Texas’ energy grid.

Okay, CD38 is not “red-red-red”. It went 58-40 for Trump in 2020, after having gone 72-27 for Mitt Romney in 2012. To be sure, it’s more red downballot, in the 62-35 range for most of those races, and I’d call that pretty red. I’m not disputing that it was drawn to elect a Republican, I just like a wee bit more precision in my quantitative analyses.

Anyway. My interview with Duncan Klussman is here, and my interview with Diana Martinez Alexander is here. One of these days I’d like to get a full oral history of the candidacy of Centrell Reed. I’ve seen a lot of strange things in this world over the past 20 years, and that whole thing was a new one on me.

Meanwhile, the Chron also re-endorsed Staci Childs for SBOE4.

Staci Childs

The Texas State Board of Education has a lot of power but perhaps not as much as some voters might think. Taxes? Budget decisions? As we wrote back in February: save it for another race. One of the important roles the state board does have, however, is shaping curriculum by setting standards and approving instructional materials. Curriculum has long inspired heated debate here in Texas but it’s especially relevant now in the era of anti-Critical Race Theory hysteria.

That’s why we’re thankful to see two educators in the SBOE District 4 Democratic runoff, including our pick Staci Childs.

Childs is a former teacher from Georgia turned lawyer who kept her foot in the education world through her nonprofit Girl Talk University. As a candidate for SBOE, her focus is on making the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards more flexible so teachers have more ability to address specific knowledge gaps for individual students while still helping them get on grade level and move on. Sometimes, she said, students fail to remain at grade level only because they didn’t catch on to a small part of the curriculum. The standards, she told us, should be flexible enough to allow them to get some special attention in those areas, so they can catch up without having to start from ground zero.

“I don’t want to say remedial, because that has a negative connotation,” Childs told us in February. “But we need a serious plan to address the TEKS, since … they do not address these learning gaps.”

My interview with Staci Childs is here and with Coretta Mallet-Fontenot is here. Meanwhile, they picked some dude in the GOP runoff for CD07 (now a 64-34 Biden district, but not called “blue-blue-blue”) and declined to pick either of the yahoos in the GOP runoff for CD29 (68-31 Biden, also not “blue-blue-blue”). Why they chose to spend time on that and not on the ignored judicial races, I couldn’t tell you. Whether they will complete their set of reruns in time for Monday’s start of early voting, I couldn’t tell you either.

Republicans are not going to stop passing anti-abortion bills

It’s what they do. There is no finish line for them.

During their 20 years in control of the Texas Legislature, Republican lawmakers have steadfastly worked to chip away at abortion access.

Bound by the limits of Roe v. Wade, which stopped them from enacting an outright ban on the procedure, lawmakers got creative. They required abortion clinics to have wide hallways and deputized private citizens to sue providers in an effort to shut down facilities that offer the procedure.

Future lawmaking on the topic will likely not require such ingenuity. A leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, published last week by Politico, suggests the court will reverse the landmark abortion ruling in the coming weeks, allowing states to regulate abortion as they see fit. Texas has a “trigger law” that would make performing an abortion a felony, which would go into effect 30 days after the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Their decadeslong goal achieved, Republican lawmakers said there’s still work to be done. Texas GOP leaders and members of the Legislature said it is now time to turn their attention to strengthening the social safety net for women and children and investing in foster care and adoption services.

“It only makes sense,” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands. “The dog’s caught the car now.”

At least some of the more conservative members of the House said they also want to ensure strict enforcement of the abortion ban and to prevent pregnant Texans from seeking legal abortions in other states.

“I think I can speak for myself and other colleagues that align with my policy beliefs — we’ll continue to do our best to make abortion not just outlawed, but unthinkable,” said Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

Texas already has an arsenal of statutes to punish virtually anyone involved in the procurement of an abortion, said University of Texas at Austin law professor Liz Sepper. These include last year’s Senate Bill 8, which empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “abets” an abortion after six weeks of gestational age, as well as unenforced pre-Roe abortion statutes criminalizing a person who gets the procedure, which the Legislature never repealed — some dating to the 1850s.

“If Roe is overturned, there’s already a criminal ban, there’s already an aiding and abetting ban, there’s already a ban on mailing medication abortion,” Sepper said. “In terms of law’s ability to change behavior, they’ve almost filled all the gaps — with the exception of criminalizing the pregnant person involved in an abortion.”

And you better believe that’s where they’ll be going next, though to be sure there are plenty of other avenues for them to pursue as well. This is what gives creeps like Briscoe Cain their purpose in life. If somehow they do eventually run out of things to ban, next up after that is increasing penalties and making it easier for law enforcement to go after whoever the likes of Cain thinks are getting away with something. Listen to what they’re saying – they are not being coy at all about this.

Now as for the claims that maybe now it’s time to do a little something to “strengthen the safety net”, well, let’s just say that they are starting from a position of abolutely no credibility.

With a near-total abortion ban looming in Texas, advocates and experts say the state’s support systems for low-income mothers and children are already insufficient — and won’t easily bear an increase in need.

“When you say ‘social safety net’ in Texas, it sounds like a joke,” said D’Andra Willis of the Afiya Center, a North Texas reproductive justice group. “Everything they could have set up or increased to protect people if they really cared, they’re not doing it here.”

Pregnant women in Texas are more likely to be uninsured and less likely to seek early prenatal care than the rest of the country. They’ll give birth in one of the worst states for maternal mortality and morbidity. And low-income new parents will be kicked off of Medicaid sooner than in many other states.

This would make many Texans want to avoid pregnancy altogether. But learning about, let alone accessing, contraception can be a challenge in a state that does not require sex education and has narrowed family planning options in recent years.

Republican lawmakers, many of whom have focused on restricting abortion access in recent years, have said strengthening the state’s social safety net will now become a top priority. But advocates who have been working on these issues for years say any help will likely be too little, too late.

“People fail to realize that this is bigger than abortion access,” Willis said. “We’re going to be setting people up for generational poverty.”

As with so many other policy items, like boosting mental health care as their prescription to reduce mass shootings, the single biggest thing they could do to achieve that goal would be to expand Medicaid. More than 55% of all births in Texas are paid by Medicaid. I think you can guess how high that is on their priority list. But even if you want to give them a tiny bit of benefit of the doubt, note that it’s just now that they are on the verge of achieving an abortion ban that they’re even beginning to think about maybe doing something to benefit those who are pregnant and have given birth. Look at their priorities, that will tell you how much that counted for them. Why would you expect that to change going forward?

Crystal Mason’s conviction to be reconsidered

Good news.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has told a lower appeals court to take another look at the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, who was given a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters on Wednesday ruled a lower appeals court had wrongly upheld Mason’s conviction by concluding that it was “irrelevant” to Mason’s prosecution that she did not know she was ineligible to cast a ballot. The ruling opens the door for Mason’s conviction to ultimately be overturned.

Mason’s lawyers turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after the Tarrant County-based Second Court of Appeals found that her knowledge that she was on supervised release, and therefore ineligible to vote, was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction. Mason has said she did know she was ineligible to vote and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom.

On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the lower court had “erred by failing to require proof that [Mason] had actual knowledge that it was a crime for her to vote while on supervised release.” They sent the case back down with instructions for the lower court to “evaluate the sufficiency” of the evidence against Mason.

[…]

In Wednesday’s ruling, the court held that the Texas election code requires individuals to know they are ineligible to vote to be convicted of illegal voting.

“To construe the statute to mean that a person can be guilty even if she does not ‘know[] the person is not eligible to vote’ is to disregard the words the Legislature intended,” the court wrote. “It turns the knowledge requirement into a sort of negligence scheme wherein a person can be guilty because she fails to take reasonable care to ensure that she is eligible to vote.”

The court on Wednesday ruled against Mason on two other issues. They rejected her arguments that the lower court had interpreted the state’s illegal voting statute in a way that criminalized the good faith submission of provisional ballots, and that the appeals court had wrongly found she “voted in an election” even though her provisional ballot was never counted.

See here, here, and here for some background. Of particular interest is that the recent voter suppression law played a positive role in this outcome.

Insisting they’re not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake, Tarrant County prosecutors have said Mason’s case is about intent. The case against her has turned on the affidavit she signed when submitting her provisional ballot.

But the legal landscape underpinning Tarrant County’s prosecution shifted while the case was under review, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals noted.

Last year, the Texas Legislature included in its sweeping new voting law several changes to the election code’s illegal voting provisions. The law, known as Senate Bill 1, added new language stating that Texans may not be convicted of voting illegally “solely upon the fact that the person signed a provisional ballot,” instead requiring other evidence to corroborate they knowingly tried to cast an unlawful vote.

The Legislature’s change to the election code — along with a resolution passed in the Texas House regarding the interpretation of the illegal voting statute — are “persuasive authority” that the lower court’s interpretation of the law’s mens rea requirement was incorrect, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Wednesday.

Good. This isn’t over for Mason, as this is just about the appeal of her conviction. Even if the appeals court ultimately throws it out after reconsideration, Tarrant County could still pursue this case and who knows, they might be able to convict her again. It sure seems like the spine of the case against her has been removed, though. And no matter how you look at it, she has already suffered consequences far in excess of her original sin, however you measure it. Please let this be over for her. The Dallas Observer has more.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 9

The Texas Progressive Alliance stands with the people of Ukraine, and also decries the misogynist and regressive SCOTUS draft opinion on abortion, as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

We’re still talking about West 11th Street

My neighborhood sure can monopolize the discussion. Sorry about that.

A discussion planned to laud Houston’s efforts to expand bicycling access Thursday turned into a debate on the merits of a two-mile stretch of 11th Street.

The city’s plan to reduce 11th to one lane in each direction from Shepherd to Studewood — cheered by cyclists — has faced late opposition as construction nears. Residents concerned over the traffic impacts of taking away an automobile lane and the benefits of adding protected bicycle lanes used a scheduled discussion about the city’s bike lane progress to reiterate their concerns to City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee.

Critic Ann Derryberry, who lives near 11th, said numerous residents have raised alarms, concerned that adding bike lanes will force residents to sit in heavy traffic longer, re-route cars onto nearby residential streets, complicate deliveries for area businesses and lead to little safety benefit for cyclists.

“You say it is a protected lane, but it will be mostly painted because of all the driveways and alleys,” Derryberry told council members and their staff, noting the need to paint green warnings where cars and turns will turn across the lane.

Rather than reduce and slow traffic, critics of the plan said the city should commit to cycling and safety improvements elsewhere, and perhaps add a signal at 11th and Nicholson where the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses.

Cyclists and safety advocates argue that diverting attention from 11th would be ignoring that the street is the problem and speeds along it are what make traveling by car, bike or foot unsafe.

“Houston has prioritized cars for decades,” said Kevin Strickland, a Heights resident active with various cycling and neighborhood groups. “We have a right to safe streets we are not getting.”

City planners, citing an average speed well above 40 mph — 10 mph over the limit — opted to narrow the street to one lane after three years of discussion with community groups and study. The single lane and a center median with dedicated turn lanes at some locations, planners say, will keep traffic speeds lower and provide room for adding protected bike lanes along 11th. Unlike the four-lane thoroughfare runners and cyclists dart across now, supporters said, narrowing the road also will allows safer crossings, and space at Nicholson to safely wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To sort out some of the concerns, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wanted to take “a closer look” at the project, convening stakeholders and city staff for a review. Turner did not indicate any change to the project is forthcoming, or that the delay would offset plans for construction to begin later this year.

See here and here for some background. I’ve noted the opposition to this before, and in the past week I’ve seen some new handouts for them – see here and here for what this latest one was saying. I looked at the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage, and it just redirects to a change.org petition. I’ve also noticed some road signs on 11th with the same information. I have no idea what is meant by the “eliminating turns from White Oak to Michaux” claim, as it makes no sense on its face and doesn’t appear anywhere I can find on the project page. The opposition to this is vocal and they have some organization, though I can’t tell how big they are. If there’s an organized effort in favor beyond what the BikeHouston folks are doing, I’m not currently aware of it. We’ll see what if anything comes out of this review by Mayor Turner, which I believe is supposed to take 30 days.

A bunch of well-financed wackos won school board races in Tarrant County

Not great.

All but one of the 11 Tarrant County conservative school board candidates, who were backed this year by several high-profile donors and big-money PACs, defeated their opponents during Saturday’s statewide election, according to unofficial election results. The one candidate backed by the groups who didn’t win outright advances to a runoff election in June.

The 10 candidates won the school board races for the Grapevine-Colleyville, Keller, Mansfield and Carroll school districts.

The candidates’ sweep shows a large swath of voters across the county responded to their calls to eradicate so-called critical race theory from classrooms and remove books discussing LGBTQ issues, which concerned parents have described as “pornographic.” Education experts, school administrators and teachers all say that critical race theory, a university-level concept that examines the institutional legacies of racism, is not taught in classrooms.

The victories also show that the staggering amounts of money that were poured into the once low-profile and nonpartisan local races are producing their intended effect. PACs organized by parents, as well as a newly-formed PAC from a self-proclaimed Christian cell phone company, collectively raised over half a million dollars for the local races this year. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on top political consulting firms that bolstered an anti-CRT platform with flyers saying the candidates were “saving America.”

See here for some background, and here for the cumulative election results. Turnout was way up from 2018 and I’m sure the money and the hot-button issues played some role in that, but it was also the case that many of those races were uncontested four years ago, and I daresay the population of these suburbs is a lot higher now, so the turnout as a share of registered voters (we don’t have that data on the 2022 report, it may be there after the official canvass) may be up by a smaller amount. I don’t mean to diminish what happened, I’m just trying to give some context. Anyone who knows more about the area or those races, please feel free to chime in.

It’s also instructive to compare to the 2020 election, where you may recall that the May races were postponed until November of that year due to COVID. Not all of those ISDs had races in 2020, or at least races that were reported by the Tarrant County election office, but Grapevine and Mansfield did, and the turnout comparison is of interest – I’ve listed the races in ascending order of total voters:

Grapevine 2018 = 6,666
Grapevine 2022 = 12,001
Grapevine 2020 = 45,453

Mansfield 2018 = 4,022
Mansfield 2022 = 11,035
Mansfield 2020 = 74,523

The 2020 totals for Grapevine and Mansfield are exaggerated a bit, as there were 10K undervotes in Grapevine (so about 35K actual voters there) and 23K undervotes in Mansfield (51K actual voters). It’s still the case that the November elections had vastly more participants, even in this charged and big-money environment. I don’t know how the Grapevine and Mansfield wingnut candidates might have done in a turnout context like that, or like what this November would be, which is to say less than 2020 but still considerably more than May, but those were the closest races among those reported in this story. For sure, it was easier for those outside agitators to have a more effective channel to the voters, without a much-bigger-money top of the ticket drowning them out. Against that, it may be that the default voter in those districts would have leaned towards the wingnuts anyway, just based on what they might have absorbed by osmosis. I say this all to note once again that the right wing activists once thought that forcing school board elections to be held in November of even-numbered years would partisanize them in their favor. I don’t think they think that now, and you can cite these races as evidence for it.

Chron editorial board wins another Pulitzer

Congratulations!

The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board on Monday won a 2022 Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for a series on voter suppression in Texas.

The prize, which is the nation’s most prestigious for journalists, was awarded to writers Lisa Falkenberg, Michael Lindenberger, Joe Holley and Luis Carrasco. Mostly published in a series called, “The Big Lie,” their winning work examined and debunked GOP-driven falsehoods about voter fraud that have persisted for decades.

“Our editorial team is committed to journalism excellence each and every day,” Houston Chronicle Publisher Nancy Meyer said following the announcement. “The award-winning work surrounding voter fraud and reform continues to prove the positive impact our reporting has for improving the lives of Houstonians and the people of Texas.”

Jurors who decided the award wrote that the Chronicle won for a “campaign that, with original reporting, revealed voter suppression tactics, rejected the myth of widespread voter fraud and argued for sensible voting reforms.”

This is the Chronicle’s — and Falkenberg’s — second Pulitzer. She won the newspaper’s first prize in 2015 for commentary.

The series in question is indeed excellent, and you should read it if you haven’t. I wish we lived in a world where that kind of writing could have a positive effect on the public discourse, but then if we did live in that world there would have been no need for those editorials. I really hate this timeline.

Now, Chron editorial board, please, I implore you, use that prize-winning space to give us some endorsements in the primary runoffs for the judicial races you ignored in March. You can do it, I know you can. Thanks.

Endorsement watch: Reruns

The Chron re-endorses Lesley Briones for Commissioners Court Precinct 4 in the Democratic primary runoff.

Lesley Briones

The crowded Democratic race for Harris County Precinct 4 commissioner has narrowed, but the runoff remains competitive. Because of new precinct boundary lines, which include most of western Harris County before reaching into the West University area and curving back up and around Interstate 10, Republican and incumbent Jack Cagle will face the Democratic runoff winner with perhaps less of an edge than usual for incumbents.

Our pick for the spot, Lesley Briones, secured 34 percent of the vote, impressive in a field with three other candidates that got vote shares in the double digits. She will face challenger Ben Chou, who got 25 percent of the vote. At least one internal poll now shows him neck and neck with Briones in the lead-up to the runoff.

We wrote in February that the choice before voters was a tough one. That hasn’t changed. Neither has our endorsement.

Yes, I can confirm that the Chron endorsed Briones for March. That’s fine, and it’s fine if they want to remind us of who they have already recommended as we approach early voting for the primary runoffs – as I noted before, all of their March endorsees who were in Democratic races that went to runoff made it to that runoff, so they have no races on our side to revisit. They had at least one on the Republican side and made a new choice for County Judge. All I’m asking is that in addition to however many ICYMI pieces they go back and revisit the three judicial races that they ignored in March and make a choice now. I swear, it is not too much to ask.

BTW, my interview with Lesley Briones from the primary is here and my interview with Ben Chou is here. All my interviews from March plus judicial Q&As can be found here, and you can add the interviews with Janet Dudding for Comptroller, and Staci Childs and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot for SBOE4, plus a judicial Q&A with Beverly Armstrong for the 208th Criminal District Court.

How will the evisceration of abortion rights affect the election in Texas?

I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows.

Less than two hours after Politico reported Monday evening that the U.S. Supreme Court appeared ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, Beto O’Rourke leaped into action.

“It’s never been more urgent to elect a governor who will always protect a woman’s right to abortion,” the Democratic gubernatorial candidate tweeted.

The next morning, he hosted an Instagram Live with Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood and the newest member of his campaign. By noon, he emailed supporters asking for a donation to help him fight for reproductive rights. He quickly scheduled abortion rights events in Austin and Houston through the end of the week.

O’Rourke, who is polling 11 points down from Gov. Greg Abbott, is seizing on a moment that Democrats have long feared was coming — the end of a constitutional protection for the right to have an abortion. But many Democrats said they’re hopeful that the looming threat of such a stunning political sea change could provide the strongest opportunity yet to energize their voters heading into an election year in which Republicans have been expected to dominate in Texas and beyond.

“Everyone’s got to pull their oar in the same direction, and we’ve got to do it with a common purpose,” said Wendy Davis, a former Democratic state senator who rose to prominence in 2013 for a 13-hour filibuster of a bill to restrict abortion access in Texas. “I know I intend to really lean into that message as we go into November — that we have a real opportunity to break through and elect Democrats at the statewide level from Beto O’Rourke down in a way that we haven’t before.”

The poll cited is one by the Texas Politics Project; It was from mid-April, so well before the draft opinion leaked. It was also the first poll result we’ve seen since mid-March, and looking at the Reform Austin poll tracker, it’s on the high end of results for Abbott. I suppose it made sense to cite the most recent polling data, but a little more context might have helped.

Beyond that, who knows? Maybe there will be a polling effect – the first national poll since the opinion leaked didn’t show much of an effect, but it’s very early days. It’s also important to remember that the words and actions, or lack of actions, by the various political actors will have their own effect, either to amplify or dampen people’s initial reactions. We also don’t know how long any of this may last, or if the official release of the opinion, whether toned down a bit or not, will stir everything up again or just get an echo of the current reaction since it will be in a sense old news. There’s a 100% chance that numerous red states will use the Dobbs ruling as a springboard for all kinds of crazy things, and who knows how that will go. Right now, there are big crowds attending protest rallies and Beto events that are doubling as protest rallies; Beto’s been drawing good crowds for months now, but the protest part of it is new. How long will that last? What will Greg Abbott and his team of dark artists do with the millions he’s been hoarding in response? What might come along to take attention away from what is happening now? Like I said, I don’t know. Neither do you, and neither does anyone else. We’ll all learn about it in real time.

Is there anything to say about Jolanda Jones’ win in the HD147 special election?

First, here are the facts.

Jolanda Jones

Democrat Jolanda Jones edged out her opponent Danielle Keys Bess in a special election on Saturday to finish the term of former state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

According to unofficial returns, Jones got 52% of the vote, with 48% going to Keys Bess. They were separated by a difference of 202 votes, which means the election is eligible for a recount if Keys Bess petitions for one. Keys Bess did not respond to a request for comment.

Jones is a former member of the Houston City Council and Houston ISD board. Keys Bess is a real estate agent with a background in political campaigns.

Coleman resigned in February after announcing last year that he would not seek reelection due to health reasons. His Houston-area district favors Democrats in November.

A win for Jones means she would hold the seat through the end of this year, but the Legislature is not set to meet again until January.

Jones and Keys Bess are also candidates in the May 24 primary runoff for the next full term in the seat, which begins in January. Jones got 42% of the vote in the crowded March primary, while Keys Bess received 20%.

As the story notes, both candidates got some endorsements from various elected officials. What was potentially of interest was how Jones won. Campos explains.

Commentary is kind of surprised that former H-Town city council member and HISD Trustee Jolanda Jones only squeaked by in the special election this past Saturday with a 52% to 48% win. She won by 202 votes over Danielle Keys Bess.

Jones won mail ballot voting by 364 votes. Bess won in person voting by 162 votes.

[…]

Mail ballots for the runoff have already been sent to voters so Jones will probably maintain that advantage. Early voting in person begins next Monday and only lasts for five days.

I am curious to know why mail ballot voters who for the most part are 65 and older would support Jones. Just like I would like to know why in person voters would favor Bess. Could it be that momentum was swaying toward Bess toward the end?

A lot of folks said this race was supposed to be a slam dunk for Jones. It wasn’t.

Here’s a chart for the votes by type each candidate got:


Candidate  Mail  Early  E-Day
=============================
Jones       845    769    691
Bess        481    817    805

Does it matter? Mail votes count as much as any other kind. When a race has this shape it can look like one candidate has late momentum, which I get and am subject to myself, but I feel it’s an illusion. You could argue that if there has been more time to vote, maybe Bess would have eventually caught up to Jones. You could also argue that if Bess had done better in mail voting, she wouldn’t have needed more time. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

For what it’s worth, Jones dominated mail voting in the March primary, too. She had 56% of the mail vote, and she led in both the early and e-day voting, though by smaller percentages each time. Looks to me like this is a successful strategy so far.

The March primary had 11,800 voters, the May 7 special election had 4,400 voters; I’d guess the runoff will be in between the two. Jones won in each, in the same way. Unless there is something to suggest that the May 7 election actually took a turn late in the race, I’d say she’s in solid shape for May 24. We’ll know soon enough. The Chron has more.

Actually, May Election Day vote reporting was basically fine

This headline is correct, but it leaves out some relevant details.

Even with help from constable’s offices, Harris County again was the last of the state’s largest counties to finish counting Saturday’s election results, turning its final tally to the Texas Secretary of State’s office after 9:30 Sunday morning.

In a move touted by the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office, constable deputies picked up ballot boxes from the 465 polling locations on Election Day and delivered them to the county’s central counting station. Typically, that responsibility has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. Even with deputies taking over delivery duties, results from Harris County slowly trickled in hours after other big Texas counties had reported their tallies.

Dallas County and Tarrant County sent complete results to the state shortly after midnight, while Harris County’s results came in around 9:37 am on Sunday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. With hundreds of polling locations spread out over 1,700 square miles, the state’s most populous county has a history of delayed election returns.

Outgoing Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria announced her resignation following a botched March primary election. The county took 30 hours to finish counting and then two days later announced it found 10,000 ballots that had not been included in its final vote count. Longoria took the blame for the miscues and resigned days later. Her resignation takes effect July 1.

The Harris County Election Board — consisting of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and the heads of the county Democratic and Republican parties — voted last month to hire a national search firm to find Longoria’s replacement.

Deputy constables have picked up and delivered ballot boxes during early voting in previous elections, but this time they delivered ballot boxes on Election Day, as well. Nadia Hakim, a spokesperson for the Elections Administrator’s Office, said the constables also will assist with the primary runoff election set for May 24.

The county’s elections office boosted its staff on Election Day by bringing in employees from most constable’s offices, along with Harris County employees across several divisions who were available to help, Hakim said. The process, she said, went smoothly.

Asked why the county was the last to report results, Hakim noted Harris County still was within the 24-hour deadline for reporting results to the state, and said there was no issue. Harris County is the third largest county in the country, she added.

Here’s the thing: The Elections Office was updating its results every hour on the hour Saturday night. I know this because I get an email from that office every time there are new results, and I have an email from them with those updated results every hour from 7 PM when the EV totals were posted up until 3 AM, when 95% of the results were in. Maybe that’s slower than you want – as of the midnight report, only about a third of the votes had been counted – but as someone who has spent many an hour by the computer hitting Refresh on the browser, it’s the lack of updates, and the unpredictability of when the next one will arrive, that truly drives us up the wall. This might have felt drawn out, but at least you knew when to check again.

Can we do better than this? I think we can certainly try, and I would hope that whoever the Election Board hires in July will have some solid ideas for how to achieve that. Until then, getting updates on a regular schedule will help most of us keep our blood pressure under control.

Missing In Harris County Day 2022

From the inbox:

For those with missing loved ones and those who would advocate for them, an annual event May 14th in Houston is the place to be for resources, awareness, and more.

May 14, 2022, is Missing in Harris County Day (MIHCD).  To celebrate and commemorate this occasion, local, state and national agencies with a mission to find missing persons ask you to attend Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday, May 14, from 10 AM to 3 PM at The Children’s Assessment Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005. MIHCD’s mission is to help those with missing loved ones make connections that can help bring the missing home.

Families and friends of missing persons as well as interested members of the community are encouraged to attend the event to learn how to navigate the missing persons system. Agencies at the event to assist families and friends of missing persons include social service agencies and various missing persons networks, such as Texas Center for the Missing.

The event will feature:

  • Local law enforcement agencies accepting missing persons reports and updates from families of the missing
  • Trained DNA collection specialists collecting voluntary family reference DNA cheek swabs to upload into a national missing persons database
  • Bilingual guides assisting all attendees in the completion of a missing persons report or directing attendees to resources
  • Private roundtable discussion for family members with a missing loved one
  • Panel discussions addressing missing persons issues and more!

Families or friends should plan to bring information to the event for data entry or information updates in the national missing persons database, including:

  • Photos of the missing with identifying features (e.g., tattoos or birthmarks) or personal items (e.g., favorite earrings or shirt)
  • X-rays, dental or medical records
  • Police reports or other identifying documents that can be scanned and placed on file
  • Two biological relatives from the mother’s side of the missing loved one to voluntarily submit DNA samples, if desired

More information is available at: http://centerforthemissing.org/missing-in-harris-county-day/.

Attendees are welcome to wear memorial t-shirts and bring posters, photos, or literature to display to commemorate their missing loved ones on the “Wall of the Missing.” The “Wall of the Missing” is a centralized location at the event for all attendees to view missing persons information. Documents placed on the board will not be returned after the event.

About Missing in Harris County Day

Partners in the Missing in Harris County Day event include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Texas Center for the Missing, and The Children’s Assessment Center. Other collaborators and in-kind sponsors of the event include: Alexandria Lowitzer Recovery Fund, Alzheimer’s Association, CODIS, Consulate General of Mexico in Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Doe Network, Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office, Harris County Community Services Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Pasadena Police Department, Project Guardian, Project Lifesaver, Texas Equusearch, and TEXSAR Gulf Coast Division. Law enforcement connected to the event will not be checking for citizenship documentation or for arrest warrants.

See here for more. The event takes place on Saturday, May 14, at the The last MIHCD was in 2019; I’m sure you can guess what caused the interruption. The Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences sent me all of the press information on this. There’s free parking available at the location, so drop by and learn something. Maybe you’ll have some information to impart, who knows.

Along those lines, the IFS also sent me this list of people who have died and are in the county morgue but have not been claimed by their next of kin. It may well be that their families don’t know what has happened to them, which is another way to be missing. If you know anything about any of these folks, call the IFS with what you know at 832-927-5000 – there’s a case number for each.

Oh yeah, Hotze knew all about the Aguirre attack

Who could have ever guessed that a lifelong lying lair was lying to us?

Two days before a private investigator looking into a voter fraud conspiracy theory smashed into an air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on him, far-right activist Steven Hotze called then-U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick and told him about the plans to have “a wreck,” court documents show.

Hotze, who funded the investigation and now faces felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, asked Patrick whether he could send federal marshals to help his private investigator. The investigator, former Houston Police Department captain Mark Aguirre, faces the same charges.

Hotze’s attorneys long have claimed Hotze was unaware of the encounter between Aguirre and the repairman until he saw it on the news after the episode. The transcript suggests otherwise.

“We’ve surveilled them for the last two nights and still my, my, Mark Aguirre, he said he wants to capture them when they bring (the ballots) out and leave tonight to deliver them but he needs a federal marshal with him,” Hotze says in the Oct. 17 call, according to a transcript submitted in Hotze’s criminal case by the Harris County district attorney’s office.

Hotze added later in the call: “In fact, (Aguirre) told me last night, hell, I’m gonna have, the guy’s gonna have a wreck tomorrow. I’m going to run into him and I’m gonna make a citizen’s arrest.”

Two days later, Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into the back of the air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on the man around 5:30 a.m.. He expected to find thousands of ballots in the man’s truck, but there only were repair tools.

In addition to the criminal case, the repairman has sued Hotze in a civil case.

The transcript says Patrick recorded the call. It is unclear what Patrick did with the information or the recording after talking with Hotze.

[…]

According to the transcript, Patrick rejected Hotze’s request, telling him that as U.S. attorney he did not have marshals that report to him or investigative staff. Even if he did, Patrick said, he would need probable cause and approval from the Department of Justice to assist.

“I can’t just send marshals. That’s not, the marshals don’t work for me,” Patrick said. “I don’t have any, there are no federal agents that work for me. I don’t have officers, I don’t have investigators, like a DA’s office. I don’t have any peace officers or federal agents that work for me.”

Both Hotze and Aguirre have denied wrongdoing.

A former Harris County prosecutor called the recording “extremely significant,” because the district attorney’s office will have to use the “law of parties” principle — which can hold people criminally responsible for the actions of someone else — in their case against Hotze.

“Having a conversation ahead of time, whether recorded or with a reputable individual such as Ryan Patrick, that there was a plan to have an accident — that certainly shows he was involved in this conspiracy,” said Nathan Hennigan, a former prosecutor who worked at the district attorney’s office from 2008 to 2017.

“It’s basically what you would need to prosecute this case,” he said.

[…]

Previous court documents said Aguirre had called the attorney general’s office days before the alleged assault and asked it to conduct a traffic stop of the repairman.

In the new transcript, Hotze tells Patrick the attorney general’s office “is just AWOL” and he cannot try enlisting the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, “obviously because they’re Democrats.” Hotze suggests he may try to find a constable who would assist Aguirre.

Hotze also said Aguirre planned to have an official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement there, in hopes of threatening to deport the man to coerce a confession. Hotze said the people “running the ring are all illegals.”

About six minutes into the call, Patrick tells Hotze he has received the information but he has to go. Patrick, the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, then was serving as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

There’s a ton of backstory here, but this is a good place to start. I have some sympathy for Ryan Patrick, who I can picture with a pained expression on his face as he’s trying to disconnect from this raving lunatic on his phone. In retrospect, maybe he could have tried to warn someone about what Hotze was up to, but it’s not clear to me who he could have tipped off, and what could have been done about it by whoever he informed. The fact that he declined to get involved in the seditious insanity is sufficient, with a lot of bonus points for recording the call. He did not disgrace himself or his office, and honestly that’s all I really want from most Republicans these days.

Anyway, Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill, who has as strained a relationship with truth and reality as Hotze does, claims in the story that this recording will actually bolster Hotze’s defense and prove that he’s innocent, and yeah, no. Given how this has gone so far, and the depraved character of the main players, it won’t shock me if more evidence along these lines surfaces. I’m sure the attorneys for David Lopez, the AC repairman that Hotze’s goons attacked who is suing Hotze for hopefully every last penny he has, are busy taking notes right about now. In the meantime and in conclusion, lock him up. The streets are not safe as long as Steven Hotze is free to walk them.

Two judges sanctioned by Judicial Conduct Commission

Not a good look, and really bad timing for one of them.

A pair of Harris County civil court judges have been sanctioned for behavior in their courtrooms, with one judge allowing the shackling of attorneys and another erupting into fits of rage during a trial.

The reprimand applies to Judge Barbara Stalder in the 280th Family Protective Order Court for holding an attorney in contempt during a February 2020 hearing and then ordering the bailiff to shackle him to a chair in the jury box, according to State Commission on Judicial Conduct documents. A week later, the judge did the same with another attorney.

The commission also ordered that Judge Clinton “Chip” Wells in the 312th Family District Court be admonished and undergo two hours of education on how to appropriately conduct himself for courtroom outbursts of anger aimed at lawyer Teresa Waldrop during an April 2019 divorce trial.

Stalder could not be reached Friday as the commission’s ruling from April 20 was made public. Wells acknowledged that his actions were wrong.

“I made a mistake and I’m not hiding from that,” said Wells, who is facing Waldrop in the Democratic runoff election. “My behavior was not acceptable.”

You can read on for the details – as I said, it’s not a good look for either of them. Stalder was defeated in the March primary, so her situation is short-term no matter how you look at it. Wells is in the May primary runoff, and as it happens Waldrop is his opponent. I know from previous correspondence that she has pursued this matter for some time – the precipitating event was in April of 2019, so you can do the math.

I received judicial Q&A responses from Wells and Waldrop, so consult those if you still need to know more. I know these procedures take time, and I know that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct tends to release their orders in groups on a regular rather than ad hoc basis, but it would have been nice to have known all this before we voted in March, especially given the Chron’s grievous lack of endorsements in non-criminal court races. You don’t have to hold this against either Judge Wells or Judge Stalder if you don’t want to – it would be perfectly defensible to conclude that their merits outweighed these incidents, or that they were still better than their opponents, or that this was just one bad day on the job, or whatever. Obviously, fair minds may disagree on that. All I’m saying is that I’d have preferred to have had as full a picture as possible before I voted. Given that Stalder lost her primary and that Waldrop led Wells 46-28 in March, perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference. It still would have been nice.

Legal pot may mean less driving while stoned

So says one study.

A new study has determined that people in states where cannabis is legal are less likely to drive while stoned than people in states where weed remains criminalized.

The study, published this month in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, analyzed self-reported data from a national survey on cannabis use. Respondents in states where cannabis has been legalized for medical or recreational use said they were less likely to get behind the wheel within three hours of consuming the substance than those in states where pot is legally prohibited.

The results appear to contradict claims that decriminalizing weed will lead to upswings in impaired driving, a criticism sometimes voiced by anti-reform lawmakers.

The study considered Texas a state where cannabis is illegal since researchers collected their survey data between August 2016 and May 2017, a time before the legislature expanded its medical marijuana program to include more than a narrow range of ailments.

Researchers said the results suggest that states with legalized cannabis have done a better job educating residents about potential dangers of driving while impaired. Labeling requirements on legal cannabis also may help by providing warnings that deter people from getting behind the wheel.

“In legal states, cannabis users may receive more information about the risks of cannabis use from sources like physicians who issue medical cannabis cards or dispensary staff than users living in neither states,” the study’s authors wrote.

One exception in the findings was that medical cannabis patients who report frequent use had driving behavior on par with pot users in states where pot is illegal.

The study is here, and it’s too wonky for me to try to evaluate. It is just one study, and it is of self-reported behavior, though as they note in the study that has statistical validity. But it’s still just one study, and there’s clearly a lot of room for more analysis. It’s a starting point for the inevitable claims that legalizing pot will unleash countless stoned drivers on the roads.