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Adrian Garcia

Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week unanimously agreed on a proposal to cut the overall property tax rate for the coming year, a compromise that avoids a potential quorum break by Republicans that would have forced an even deeper cut.

The rate of 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value is 3 percent less than the current levy. This means the owner of a home valued at $300,000, with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption already factored in, could save up to $54 in the first year. However, as Harris County Appraisal District valuations continue to rise, homeowners could see slightly higher tax bills, despite the lower rate.

The overall rate is the sum of the rates Commissioners Court sets for four entities: the county as a whole, the flood control district, the hospital district and the Port of Houston. Compared to the current levies, the flood control district rate will increase slightly, while the other three entities would see a rate cut.

Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia last week proposed a rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, a 2.2 percent cut from the current rate of 59.9 cents.

The two Republican members wanted more significant savings for taxpayers, noting economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey proposed a rate of 57.9 cents.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned against cutting the tax rate, and thus revenues, too much because it will make raising more revenue in the future more difficult. That is because of a revenue cap the Legislature placed on cities and counties last year which limits year-over-year growth to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

“We should be negotiating on what the county needs,” Hidalgo said. “It does not benefit me, politically, to want to cut taxes less. I simply know we’re headed down a dangerous path.”

After hours of haggling at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, the panel agreed on the 58.1 cent rate, which Garcia offered as a compromise. The court at one point was mulling a half dozen options and County Administrator David Berry confessed he was struggling to keep track of who had proposed which.

See here for the background. They say in baseball that you gain more by avoiding dumb decisions than you do by making brilliant ones. I’m just glad we were able to avoid the dumb outcome here.

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.

A look ahead to Commissioners Court redistricting

As we know, the Census redistricting data is out, and that means a whole lot of map-drawing is in our future. The main focus on this will be in Austin where the Congressional and legislative maps are re-drawn, but those are not the only entities that have this job to do. Harris County will be redrawing its Commissioners Court map, and this time for the first time in decades it will be done with a Democratic majority on the Court. What might be in store? Benjamin Chou with the Texas Signal provides an advance look at the possibilities.

Over the course of the last decade, population in Harris County boomed, growing by over 630,000 residents from 4.1 million in 2010 to 4.7 million today. Most of the population growth occurred in Precincts 3 and 4, which are also the same precincts currently held by the two Republicans.

In this round of redistricting, the Court will need to tweak the districts so that the four precincts have relatively similar population numbers. For this year’s sake, that means increasing the population in Precinct 2 and decreasing the population in Precincts 3 and 4. To do so, the Democratic-majority can attempt a range of actions that can be simplified into 3 main results: maintain the same 3–2 Democratic majority or increase their majority to 4–1.

The current Commissioners Court map was drawn a decade ago, by the then 4–1 Republican majority. At that time, Republicans held Precincts 2, 3, 4 and the county judge position. The map was drawn with the intent to solidify the Republican 4–1 majority by increasing Republican voters in those three precincts, particularly Precinct 2. The court did so by replacing Hispanic Democratic voters with Anglo Republicans.

They were successful through much of the decade. In the high-Republican turnout year of 2014, Republicans crushed Democrats. Republican Governor Greg Abbott won Precinct 2 by more than 16% of votes and Precincts 3 and 4 by more than 20% each. Even in 2018, when Beto O’Rourke lifted Democratic performance to its most competitive level in a generation, the Republican majority barely crumbled. County Judge Hidalgo, the only one of the five members of the court to be elected county-wide, won by less than 2%. Commissioner Garcia won Precinct 2 by 1%. Last year, when Democrats had a chance to flip Precinct 3, the Democratic candidate lost by 5%.

When considering how to redraw the map, the new Democratic majority will likely keep Precinct 1 solidly Democratic while shoring up Precinct 2 for Commissioner Garcia. The question is whether the court makes Precincts 3, 4, or neither more Democratic so a future challenger has a better chance of ousting the Republican incumbents.

The problem with choosing neither means the Republicans have a chance of flipping the current Democratic 3–2 majority in the event Democrats lose the County Judge position. Similarly, if the Court decides to make only Precinct 3 more Democratic, there remains a risk that Republicans win control because Precinct 3 is not up for election until 2024. Because Precinct 4 is up for election in 2022, the safest bet for Democrats to retain uninterrupted control will be to redraw Precinct 4 more Democratic.

Chou goes on to draw three potential new maps, one that just makes Precinct 2 more Democratic, which would end up with the same Court if Judge Hidalgo wins re-election, and one that shores up Precinct 2 while also turning a radically redrawn Precinct 4 Democratic as well. I’ll let you have a look and see what you think. You can also review this tweet from Hector DeLeon to see the Census population figures for each of the four precincts.

It’s a good writeup, and it captures the choices well. A couple of things that were not directly addressed: One, the Latino drift towards Trump in 2020, which we have discussed before multiple times. We saw that manifest here, though perhaps not as much as in South Texas, but in areas that would affect Precinct 2. Biden carried Precinct 2 in 2020 by a tiny margin, while other Dems generally fell short; in 2018 Beto won Precinct 2 by seven points, while other Dems generally carried it by four or five. For a variety of reasons we don’t know how this will play out in 2022, but we should start with the assumption that Latino voters are a little softer than we’d like, so that we don’t overestimate our position.

Two, we can’t just shove Anglo Republicans into Precinct 1 as a way to aid Precinct 2, because the Voting Rights Act is still more or less in effect, and retrogressing its Black population would be a violation of the VRA. Yes, the thought of a Republican plaintiff filing a VRA lawsuit over this is ironic to the point of causing nosebleeds, but care must still be taken.

Three, as Harris County continues to grow and change demographically, Precinct 3 as it is now will likely become more Democratic in time for the 2024 election without much else being done. Betting on that does entail the risk that the Court could swing Republican in 2022, either via Commissioner Garcia losing or Judge Hidalgo losing. I’m less worried about the latter, and the former can certainly be mitigated against, but this would allow for the possibility of getting to 4-1 without a complete redesign of the county map, which might be controversial politically in ways that are not currently apparent.

It should also be noted that redrawing the Commissioners Court map does the same for the HCDE Trustees map. As it happens, due to resignations and appointments, Dems have a 6-1 majority on that body right now, with all three At Large seats plus the Precincts 1, 2, and 3 positions in their column. I’m certain this will be a lower priority for consideration by the mapmakers, but it is worth keeping in mind.

Beyond that, we’ll see. Commissioners Court is under the same time constraints as the Lege, in that they need to get a new map in place in time for the 2022 primaries, whenever they wind up being. Assuming that will take place in May, and the filing period will be pushed back commensurately, they have a couple of months. Expect to see some action soon – if this is like last time, they’ll hire a consultant to do the actual work, with their specifications, and they will formally approve it once it suits their needs and the public has a chance to weigh in. I will of course be keeping an eye out for this.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: Harris County

PREVIOUSLY: Congress

There will be plenty of crucial races in Harris County in 2022. Because of the Democratic sweep in 2018, all of the countywide offices are held by Dems, meaning this is the first non-Presidential year in which Democrats will be running for re-election. That also includes two of the three Democratic members of Commissioners Court, which obviously has played a huge role in Harris County politics these past two-plus years.

It’s early in the cycle, but that doesn’t mean that no one has an announced opponent. There are a few names out there that I hadn’t heard before I went looking. That’s another reason why these July-the-year-before rituals are worth doing – you never know what you’ll find. With that, let’s get started.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
John Manlove, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Clarence Miller, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Desiree Broadnax, District Clerk

Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Stephen Kusner, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo         660,776    102,858    1,400  1,023,311

Garcia          948,820    102,120        0  1,735,396
Manlove          53,750         46   10,000     53,703
Cagle           990,021    164,080        0  1,291,557
Miller           10,243      2,093        0      8,013

Hudspeth          1,066      5,597    1,000      6,162
Burgess           3,068      7,207        0      8,207
Broadnax            325         75        0        249
Osborne               0        174        0        505
Kusner              100          0        0        100

Probably a few names on there that you don’t recognize as well. Let’s take it from the top.

The big question surrounding County Judge Lina Hidalgo, now that she has officially announced her re-election bid, is whether she would draw a primary challenger. As we’ve discussed before, there are many reasons why someone might challenge Judge Hidalgo in the primary, none of which are directly related to the job she has done. One thing that may scare off potential rivals is a show of force in the fundraising department, which I’d say we have here. Hidalgo was not a big fundraiser in 2018, which is no surprise given she was running against a well-established incumbent and was a first-time candidate that was widely underestimated. She has stepped things up in the last year – as of July 2020, she had $371K on hand, after having raised $173K in that filing period. She wasn’t on the ballot, and surely didn’t want to compete with Dems who were, but still. She’s showing she can raise money with anyone, and she would start out in a primary with a big cash advantage. Maybe that scares off competitors and maybe it doesn’t, but it definitely sends a message.

I should note that if you search for campaign finance reports on the HarrisVotes website, and you sort by Office, you will see that there is another person listed for County Judge, Juanita Jackson. My first thought was that she is challenging Hidalgo next year, but I needed to double check that, because we have seen people whose intended office is actually one of the County Court benches be listed like this before. Indeed, it appears that Jackson is really running for Harris County Criminal Court #10 – the picture there matches the one on her Facebook page, and it appears she may have run for a similar position in 2010. I feel pretty confident she is not challenging Judge Hidalgo but the incumbent judge on that bench, Lee Harper Wilson.

Both of Hidalgo’s colleagues on Commissioners Court who are up in 2022 do appear to have opponents, though both are November challengers. Running against Commissioner Adrian Garcia in Precinct 2 is John Manlove, a former Mayor of Pasadena and a two-time Congressional candidate. He previously ran for CD22 in 2008 – he finished third, behind Shelley Sekula Gibbs and eventual winner Pete Olson – and for CD36 in 2014, following Steve Stockman’s switch to the Senate race – he finished third again, though this time much farther out of the money. Of his modest total, all but one donation was for at least $1,000, so this is not what you might call a grassroots movement. His report lists a $10,000 contribution to himself, and also a $10K loan – it’s on the Subtotals page, not the topline summary. I don’t know if the is an error is in how he filled out the form or if he double-counted that $10K. Not that big a deal, and he may file a corrected report, we’ll see. Garcia’s total speaks for itself and it’s what you’d expect from someone in his position.

The same can be said for Jack Cagle, who has been a Commissioner for longer than Garcia but who is (for now, at least) in a less competitive district. Remember, Commissioners Court will be redistricted as well, and we have no idea yet what that map will look like. Clarence Miller has been running for this position for awhile – I know I have spoken to him, maybe in early 2020, it must have been in person because I can’t find a written message. He doesn’t have a lot of cash to show for it yet, but he’s there and he’ll have an easier time of things when in person events begin happening with frequency again.

Teneshia Hudspeth was on the ballot in 2020 to complete the unexpired term of office that had been vacated when Diane Trautman resigned. She is now running for a full term and has no opponents as yet. Generally speaking, County Clerk is not a big fundraising office, so her totals here are perfectly normal.

The other two incumbents, both in their first terms, appear to have opponents. Desiree Broadnax looks like a primary opponent for District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, and according to her personal Facebook page, she works at the Harris County District Attorney’s office. I didn’t find anything for “Stephen Kusner” at first, until I made the obvious decision to look for Steve Kusner, and there I found the announcement of his candidacy. While I infer that Desiree Broadnax is a Democrat, it’s quite obvious that Steve Kusner will be running as a Republican. As with County Clerk, neither of these races draws much in the way of campaign contributions. Everyone will rise or fall more or less on the topline partisan vote in the county.

Finally, while I didn’t include them in the table above, there are two other reports of interest. As you know, I’ve been checking in on the finances of the late El Franco Lee, since there was over $3 million in his account at the time of his death. While there was a report in 2019 that “all campaign funds have been allocated for the El Franco Lee campaign account in accordance with the guidelines from the Texas Ethics Commission”, there still remains $900K in his account, with expenditures of just $1,000 over the past six months. The deadline for disposing of the rest of that is 2022.

The other report belongs to the now-retired Steve Radack, who remains with $1.1 million on hand. As with Lee, he can give it to other candidates or campaigns, the state or county Republican Party, the state treasury, a tax-exempt charity, a school or university for a scholarship program or as a refund to donors who gave in the final two years the candidate accepted contributions. He has a deadline of 2026 to do something with the funds.

So that’s what’s going on at the county level. I’ll take a look at the city of Houston – yes, I know, there are no municipal elections, but they can fundraise now and I like to check in – and HISD/HCC next. Let me know what you think.

FBI looking into Constable “bachelor party sting” mess

Never a good sign.

Constable Alan Rosen

Federal investigators are probing the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office after several current and former female employees accused superiors of sexually exploiting them during undercover anti-human trafficking operations, a lawyer for the women confirmed Thursday.

Attorney Cordt Akers, who is representing several of the women, confirmed Thursday that federal investigators had subpoenaed his clients to learn more about their allegations.

“Our clients have been in full cooperation with the federal authorities in their investigation into the horrible misconduct in the Precinct 1 Human Trafficking Unit,” he said, in response to questions from the Chronicle. “The serious nature of these crimes deserves serious attention, and we are happy that this conduct will no longer go unchecked.”

FBI Spokeswoman Christina Garza declined to comment on the case.

“Per Department of Justice policy, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” she said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware” of the allegations and “obviously concerned,” but said the lawsuit prevented her from saying anything more.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia — who has previously clashed with the constables over questions about efficiency or redundant or wasteful law enforcement operations — said the FBI “must have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate these allegations.”

“Without knowledge of specific facts, this is not a time to speculate on what may have transpired,” he said. “That being said the allegations that have been made public are extremely disturbing and these women deserve to have their allegations thoroughly investigated.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I did call for an outside investigation into this case. Not what I had in mind, but it counts. Unless something leaks, we’re not going to know any more about this until such time as the FBI finishes its business. So sit back and wait patiently, and be glad you’re not Alan Rosen right now. The Press has more.

The Harris County Administrator of Departments

I have three things to say about this.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday created a new administrator position to oversee departments, which the three Democrats described as a wonky internal move to improve efficiency but the two Republicans decried as a radical and dangerous usurpation of their power.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to hire the administrator to oversee the day-to-day activities of the 20 departments that directly report to Commissioners Court. David Berry, the county budget director, will fill the administrator role.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the move is long overdue, arguing that too often departments duplicate efforts addressing some needs, ignore others and fail to work together on big-picture problems that have plagued the county for decades.

“I’m so proud of the things that have been achieved, but would it have taken three 500-year floods for us to have a flood bond that, by the way, isn’t enough?” said Hidalgo, a Democrat. “(Tropical Storm) Allison happened in 2001. But because it’s a parochial system, these kind of things went hush-hush.”

Democratic Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the administrator role will be nonpartisan and noted the other largest counties in Texas, except Travis, already have adopted the model. He said it also would leave intact the longstanding practice in which each commissioner oversees his precinct’s roads, parks and community centers without meddling from other court members.

“Look, I think this makes sense,” Ellis said. “This doesn’t take away from anybody’s fiefdom.”

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have a different view. Ramsey said the county has a long history of competent department heads and said he failed to see a need for a new layer of bureaucracy, which the budget office estimates will cost $2 million annually. He also accused his Democratic colleagues of trying to sneak a “power grab” past residents.

“Public transparency we get an F on, in terms of this issue,” Ramsey said.

Cagle said since Democrats control the court, and, thus, get to appoint the administrator, the new position merely allows them to grow their power. He echoed Ramsey’s concerns about redundancy and said the administrator would allow the Democrats to outsource unpopular decisions — such as firing personnel — to an unaccountable bureaucrat.

“We’re accountable to the people in our precincts,” Cagle said. “But the county administrator has no duty except to the majority of three here on the court. In essence, we become isolated.”

1. I dunno, this seems like pretty normal reorganization to me. I’ve been a drone in the corporate world for almost 30 years, I’ve lived through dozens of these. The reason for this reorg makes sense. Whether it achieves success or not will depend on a number of factors, including how the metrics of success are defined (trust me, this is always key). But it’s just normal, boring stuff. I do not understand the freakout.

2. Along those lines, spare me the “power grab” rhetoric. It’s called “having a majority”, and if the voters don’t like it they will get their chance to express that opinion soon enough. The “unaccountable bureaucrat” thing is especially laughable. By that logic, each individual department head is also an “unaccountable bureaucrat”. We elect people to run the government. That comes with a lot of hiring people to do the actual government work. Again, calm yourself down.

3. Whoever this person turns out to be, they’re gonna need a better title than the one I suggested in this post. Feel free to leave your best suggestion in the comments.

Let’s try again to fix that flood bond deficit

Hope this works.

Harris County on Tuesday [unveiled] a new plan to address a funding gap for its flood bond program, which will rely more heavily on diverted toll road revenue instead of federal aid that may never arrive.

The goal is to give the county greater control over its own flood control future instead of waiting on unreliable state and federal partners. To that end, the Commissioners Court also is expected to approve a new, permanent fund for flood control purposes and give priority to the most vulnerable areas to receive aid from it.

The plan still leaves approved projects $950 million short, however, raising the possibility that a new bond or flood control tax increases may be needed in the future to pay for all planned projects, according to budget office documents. Additional money would not be needed for about five years, according to the budget office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said the fund, called the Flood Resilience Trust, is a good idea because it allows the county to stockpile money for projects in advance.

“It allows the county to, in a very effective way, set aside money every year, and that money will be there when they make any federal or state applications,” Ramsey said. “With a trust, we can move forward with a project while anticipating those (matching) dollars will come in.”

[…]

Because the Harris County Flood Control District purposefully underfunded some bond projects in anticipation of receiving federal aid, the snub resulted in lopsided spending across the county’s 23 watersheds. In March, the county announced that some of the watersheds with the wealthiest communities, such as White Oak and Buffalo bayous, had their projects close to fully funded.

Watersheds with some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Halls and Greens bayous, had less than half the necessary dollars. That angered the commissioners who represent those areas, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, because the court agreed in proposing the bond three summers ago that funds would be spent equitably.

The new plan aims to fix that. First, it would direct Harris County Toll Road Authority revenue — a lump sum of $230 million plus $40 million annually — to a new Flood Resilience Trust. This account would be used to plug funding holes in projects where federal aid failed to arrive.

Projects would be eligible based on their scores on the county’s prioritization framework, which considers factors such as how many structures would benefit from a project, how frequently a target area has flooded and the socioeconomic makeup of the residents there. This “worst first” framework, approved in 2019, initially dictated only the order in which projects were started.

The two Republican commissioners on the court, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the equity language; Cagle said he saw no connection between social factors such as education or poverty and flood risk.

The county budget office estimates that if no other federal or state aid comes, the Flood Resilience Trust will be able to make up bond project shortfalls until about 2026. After that, the commissioners may need to issue a new bond to cover the remaining costs.

See here for the background. This was a preview story, published before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. I presume this was passed, but the meeting ran late, and so as of Wednesday afternoon there wasn’t an updated version yet. I think this is a reasonable plan, and if it can buy them five years (and hopefully some real progress in getting projects done) before having to do another bond, then that’s a good outcome and the odds of having that bond passed will improve. It also allows for some time to un-screw the federal fund distribution, which would make all of this a lot simpler. For now, this will do.

Harris County and Houston appeal to HUD for flood funds

Hope this helps.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday asked U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge to set a 30-day deadline for the Texas General Land Office to formally request $750 million in federal flood control aid that Land Commissioner George P. Bush recently said he would seek.

“Given this matter involves funds allocated in February of 2018, the rules were promulgated in August of 2019, and hurricane season has already begun for 2021, HUD (the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department) should require the GLO to submit this amendment within the next 30 days,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote.

Since late May, when the GLO announced its plan to distribute an initial round of about $1 billion in mitigation funds approved by Congress after Hurricane Harvey, Houston-area officials have hammered Bush for not directing a penny of the aid to the city or the county. In response, Bush said he would ask HUD, which oversees the federal relief money, to directly send $750 million to Harris County — essentially bypassing the GLO’s criteria for scoring flood project applications.

Hidalgo and Turner have said the $750 million falls well short of the $2 billion they believe the city and county should receive — $1 billion apiece — to fund projects aimed at mitigating the effects of future storms. In the letter to Fudge and at a congressional hearing Friday, they sought HUD’s help in securing roughly that amount from the $4.3 billion that Congress allotted for Texas after the 2017 storm.

“We’re asking that HUD approve this amendment (for $750 million) … as a down payment toward an equitable share for all governmental entities within Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Turner noted that Houston still has not been promised any flood mitigation relief because Bush has said he plans to ask HUD to send the $750 million directly to Harris County. Bush said the county, which faces a $1.4 billion funding gap for its $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018, could then decide how much to give the city.

The city and county collectively applied for $1.34 billion to cover 14 flood projects: five from the city and nine from the county.

See here for the background (there are more links to previous posts in that one). I don’t know what is likely to come of this, but the goal is to get more funding for the region, and for both the city and the county to have their own projects funded, rather than have the city depend on the county to give it a share of its allocation. We’ll keep an eye on this. The Texas Signal and the Press have more.

What are P Bush’s pledges worth?

Something less than $750 million would be my guess.

When Republican Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced Wednesday evening that he would ask federal officials to send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid, he told Houstonians the move was a response to their “overwhelming concerns” over his agency’s decision to deny the city and county any relief days earlier.

Bush’s announcement, however, raised new questions about where the money would come from and how it would affect future rounds of funding. Local leaders, who are not guaranteed any money until federal housing officials sign off on Bush’s plan, said the amount remained well short of the $1.3 billion they had sought from the Texas General Land Office for a range of projects intended to mitigate future floods.

County officials are particularly worried that in accepting the $750 million, they would be disqualified from future funding competitions. And Mayor Sylvester Turner questioned why Bush would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make the payment, effectively ensuring the money will not arrive for months, instead of allocating it himself.

Houston, meanwhile, remains shut out. A GLO spokeswoman said the county could consider sharing its allotment, if it arrives. But Harris County may be reluctant to do so because it is trying to close a $700 million gap in its flood bond program without raising taxes.

“I see this as a failed attempt on (Bush’s) part to try to pit the city and county against each other,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Turner called it “foolishness” for Bush to not request any mitigation aid for the city. The mayor’s appointed chief recovery officer, Steve Costello, said city officials would continue to seek funding for the city that aligns with their share of the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

“Right now the city is under the assumption we have no money for any of our projects,” Costello said.

See here for the previous entry. If this is taken seriously and pursued, it would take up to 90 days for the money to come through. It’s hard to see why Harris County and especially Houston would take this seriously, with there being so many unanswered questions. This has the feel to me of Bush just scrambling to find something that will take the heat off. It doesn’t look like Houston or Harris will take the bait, so either Bush figures out a way to undo the colossal mess he created or it remains awfully awkward for the foreseeable future.

GLO to Harris County: Drop dead

Hard to see this as anything but a hatchet job.

Houston and Harris County officials said the Texas General Land Office informed them Thursday they would receive nothing from the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for federal flood mitigation funding the state is disbursing.

Instead, about $1 billion in U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds the GLO is managing will flow to other local governments in 46 Southeast Texas counties that are eligible for the aid. Four smaller municipalities in east Harris County — Pasadena, Jacinto City, Galena Park and Baytown — will receive about $90 million combined.

The snub, delivered by GLO staff in meetings this week, surprised local leaders, who had expected the city and county to receive hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I would like to tell you the meeting was informative and productive. Unfortunately, the meeting was ridiculous,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who suggested the state had political motives for its decision. “The GLO is saying today that the largest county in Texas, the county home to the most significant elements of our state, local and national economy, does not merit the fair share of billions of dollars.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it was “unconscionable” that federal funds Congress intended for Hurricane Harvey recovery would not flow to the Houston area, by far the most populous affected by the storm.

“Our community needs this federal funding and we have already begun the process of reaching out to the Biden Administration to identify alternatives — including a potential review of the process for this allocation and a direct carve-out going forward,” Hidalgo said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration said the city was preparing a letter Thursday evening in which it would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene. In a statement, the mayor called on the federal agency to “immediately halt the distribution” of the funds until it could review the situation.

“For the state GLO not to give one dime in the initial distribution to the city and a very small portion to Harris County shows a callous disregard to the people of Houston and Harris County,” Turner said. “And it is unfathomable that the state GLO would redirect most of these dollars to areas that did not suffer much from Hurricane Harvey.”

[…]

An appropriation from the state is crucial to closing a roughly $900 million funding gap Harris County has for its flood bond program. Without it, the county faces the prospect of issuing a new bond, diverting toll road revenue or scaling back the size or scope of flood projects.

Russ Poppe, the Harris County Flood Control District executive director, said he struggled to understand how roughly $300 million in applications his engineers prepared failed to secure a single dollar. He said he thought the county’s projects exceeded the criteria for awards.

“We’re curious to see how the GLO scored our projects, and why they declared us ineligible,” Poppe said. “I just don’t know until I see the numbers.”

See here and here for some background. I’d like to see those numbers too, because I cannot envision a scenario in which absolutely none of Houston or Harris County’s requests made the cut. Hell, if it had been looking likely along the way that Houston and Harris County were coming up short, you’d think it would make sense for the GLO to give them a heads up so they could maybe shore up their applications. Indeed, the exact opposite appears to be the case.

One might argue that the fix was in from the beginning.

It should be self-evident why the state should want Harris County to get its fair share of these funds. For that matter, the same is true for the federal government. As such, I hope Mayor Turner’s letter to HUD has an effect. I know George P. Bush has a primary challenge to run, but there are other concerns to deal with. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Said letter to HUD, signed by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Rodney Ellis, can be seen here.

UPDATE: Judge Hidalgo sent her own letter to HUD as well.

Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court took initial steps this week to plug a $1.4 billion funding hole for its flood bond program by diverting revenue from the county’s toll roads system.

Court members also laid out a “backstop” plan to use Harris County Toll Road Authority debt for drainage projects in case federal matching funds, distributed by the state General Land Office, do not arrive.

“The hope is that GLO comes in before we have to use either of those,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “If they don’t, we’ll look at HCTRA funds first, and then, worst comes to worst, we’ll look at the road and bridge funds.”

Repurposing the toll road revenue, which court members unanimously approved Tuesday, ensures that $535 million worth of drainage projects across all four commissioner precincts are fully funded and can be completed in the next three to five years.

That will allow the Harris County Flood Control District to provide a modicum of immediate protection to neighborhoods while the county searches for money to complete larger, longer-term projects. The 91 projects will protect about 45,000 homes, according to the district.

The court transferred $230 million in surplus toll road revenue, which largely was derived from last year’s refinancing of Harris County Toll Road Authority debt. The sum will be divided evenly between the precincts.

In addition, Commissioners Court approved using $315 million in toll road revenue, road debt or funds from other county sources to complete the drainage projects in case federal help never comes. Toll road debt must be used for a transportation purpose, and therefore can only be used for flood control projects that in some way involve a road or bridge.

That will free up $115 million in flood bond money that was intended for this purpose. That money now can be used to fill massive funding shortfalls in several watersheds, including Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River.

See here and here for the background. There was a Chron story from a couple of days before this that went into the experiences of the neighborhoods that were the most affected by the way the funding was structured for this. I drafted a post for that but didn’t get to publishing it before the Court acted. Fine by me for that to become obsolete. There’s still more to be done to fix this, but we’re off to a good start.

Sheriff Gonzalez nominated to lead ICE

Wow.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he will nominate Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, a vocal skeptic of cooperating with federal immigration authorities in certain circumstances, to serve as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As head of ICE, Gonzalez would help oversee one of the most contentious parts of Biden’s agenda: enforcing U.S. immigration law. Biden has promised to unwind much of predecessor Donald Trump’s hardline border policies.

Gonzalez is a former Houston police officer who served on the City Council before first getting elected sheriff in 2016. He won a second four-year term in 2020. During his first term, he was a vocal critic of Trump’s approach to immigration.

In 2019, when Trump tweeted that his administration would be deporting “millions of illegal aliens,” Gonzalez posted on Facebook that the “vast majority” of undocumented immigrants do not proposed a threat to the U.S. and should not be deported.

“The focus should always be on clear & immediate safety threats,” he said.

And soon after taking office, Gonzalez ended a Harris County partnership with ICE that trained 10 deputies to specifically screen jailed individuals for immigration status and hold any selected for deportation. According to the Houston Chronicle, cutting the program still meant Harris County would hold inmates for deportation regardless of their charge, but only if ICE officials themselves made the request. According to a 2020 report by Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, ICE responded to the program’s cancelation by stationing nine ICE officers in the jail, who continued to screen and detain Harris County residents.

The program ended in late February of 2017, but between Jan. 20 and May 4 of that year, the number of people transferred into ICE custody from Harris County was 60% higher than it was for the same period in 2016. TRAC, a federal agency research center run by Syracuse University, found that Harris County received the most ICE immigration holds in both fiscal year 2018 and 2019, but it’s unclear how many resulted in deportations. The HILSC report estimated that ICE physically deported 6,612 Harris County residents in 2018.

Syracuse University found that Harris County had the third most immigrants transferred to ICE from local law enforcement in fiscal year 2018, in large part due to fingerprint records shared under the Secure Communities program. Harris County is the third most populous county in the United States.

Gonzalez also vocally opposed 2017 legislation that would prevent cities from banning local law enforcement from asking about immigration status and would push civil fines and a misdemeanor offense on law enforcement who don’t comply with federal immigration enforcement.

In a letter to the Senate Committee on State Affairs, Gonzales opposed what supporters dubbed “anti-sanctuary city” legislation, saying it would take public safety resources away from addressing other local safety issues, such as human trafficking and murder.

“I am also concerned about the risk of an unintended consequence: creating a climate of fear and suspicion that could damage our efforts to reinforce trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” he wrote.

Let’s just say that ICE is an institution in need of some big, big reforms. I have a ton of faith in Sheriff Gonzalez, and I believe he is up to the challenge. He’s going to have his work cut out for him.

More from the Chron.

Lina Hidalgo, Harris County Judge, lauded the nomination and called Gonzalez her friend.

“I’ll be sad for him to leave us, but President Biden will gain a compassionate, thoughtful and courageous leader,” Hidalgo said in a tweet. 

Under state law, Harris County Commissioners Court, which Hidalgo leads, is tasked with appointing Gonzalez’s replacement, who would then serve until the winning candidate from the November 2022 election is sworn in.

Gonzalez took office after defeating Republican Ron Hickman, his predecessor and a Commissioners Court appointee, in 2015 after former sheriff Adrian Garcia resigned to run unsuccessfully for Houston mayor.

Garcia, now a Commissioners Court member, would be among the county leaders to pick Gonzalez’s replacement.

“He brings with him such a wealth of experience — the wealth of experience coming from the fact that he is a long-time law enforcement leader,” Garcia said.

Past immigration enforcement leaders, Garcia said, have not brought that experience to the table.

Garcia pointed to Gonzalez’s decision to end a contested ICE partnership — known as 287G — in which some Harris County sheriff’s deputies were trained to perform the functions of federal immigration officers. Under the program, deputies were trained to determine the immigration status of jailed suspects and hold those selected for deportation.

Gonzalez said the sheriff’s office saved at least $675,000 by redeploying deputies to other law enforcement duties.

“I supported him in abolishing that policy,” Garcia said.

[…]

Immigrant advocates expressed guarded optimism to the Biden administration’s ICE choice, with FIEL Houston officials calling him a listener.

“We can attest to is the fact that he has been and continues to be a man who listens to and takes input from the community,” Cesar Espinosa, FIEL executive director, said in a statement. “We understand that the role he is about to undertake is a huge and controversial role and we wish him well in this endeavor.”

Regardless of who leads the law enforcement agency, Espinosa said he would like for ICE leadership to end immigration raids, the use of the 287G program elsewhere and stop forcing ankle monitors on those “who do not pose a flight risk.”

Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, called Gonzalez a humane choice for ICE leadership.

“His proven track record of pushing for smarter immigration enforcement, as well as advocating for Dreamers in his community, is an encouraging sign that he would run ICE with both practicality and compassion,” she said.

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver focused on immigration, noted Gonzalez’s “complicated history” with ICE, given his decision to end the controversial 287(g) agreement with the agency.

“It will be interesting to see how much that decision is reflected in his work as head of ICE assuming he confirmed by the senate,” he said.

He also noted that while Gonzalez, if confirmed, would take over a significantly larger agency, but would be accepting a role where he would no longer be the top decision maker or policy setter — and instead accept direction from the Biden White House or Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

True, but Sheriff Gonzalez was also a City Council member, so he has experience in not being the top person in the organization. He’ll do fine, as long as he has the resources and the mandate to do what needs to be done.

As for the local political implications, we may get a current Constable elevated to the Sheriff’s job, or we may get one of Gonzalez’s top assistants. I’m sure we’ll start hearing some names soon, and I expect Commissioners Court to fill the spot within a month or so of his departure. Which will not be until after he’s confirmed, so we’ll see how long that takes. Whatever the case, all the best wishes to Sheriff Gonzalez. We’ll miss you, but the country as a whole will be better off.

(The same press release also announced that former CD23 candidate Gina Ortiz Jones was nominated to be under secretary of the Air Force. She is highly qualified for that job, and I wish her all the best as well.)

On vaccine equity

This was predictable, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as such.

Black and Latino Harris County residents received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than their white counterparts, according to a county analysis that also found a person’s likelihood of vaccination, to date, largely has depended on where they live.

The findings underscore what a Houston Chronicle analysis found last month: Even though African-American and Latino communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in Texas, they are being vaccinated at a much slower pace.

The gap exists despite a Harris County public health campaign crafted to convince residents of color to get the vaccine. And it is significant: In the highest-participation ZIP code, 77046 in Upper Kirby, 87 percent of residents have received at least one dose. Fourteen miles north in Greenspoint, 77060, 8 percent of residents have.

“That disparity is so disappointing, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho. “A large portion of the vaccines in the state went to the hospital systems, who just went through their electronic records — so if you’re insured, which means you’re more likely to be white, then it was easy for them to sign you up.”

Of the 20 Harris County ZIP codes with vaccination rates of at least 31 percent, 18 have predominantly white residents. Sixteen are in the so-called Houston Arrow, the section of Houston from Oak Forest southeast to downtown, southwest to Meyerland, north to the Galleria and west through the Energy Corridor that is significantly whiter and more affluent than other parts of the city.

Much of the data from 77030 likely is incorrect, the report notes, since the Texas Medical Center is located there and many hospitals appear to have listed that ZIP code as a way of expediting patient appointments.

Of the 20 county ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates, none of which exceed 15 percent, 18 are mostly nonwhite. None are in the Arrow.

[…]

The two commissioner precincts with the highest share of white residents, 3 and 4, had the highest vaccination rates, both above 16 percent. Precinct 1, which has the largest proportion of African Americans, was just below 16 percent. Just 13 percent of residents in [Commissioner Adrian] Garcia’s Precinct 2, which is mostly Latino, have received at least one dose.

Garcia said he asked for the study because he wanted to identify areas in Harris County that need greater vaccine outreach. He praised the county’s mass vaccination site at the NRG campus, but said many of his constituents lack access to public or private transportation to travel to the site or the Texas Medical Center, which are in Precinct 1.

“We want to make sure we’re being creative and thoughtful about where are the masses in the precinct that may be a way to help us move that needle in a better direction?

“The Medical Center, for most of the people in my precinct, doesn’t really exist because they can’t get to it,” Garcia continued. “We need to serve those tough, underserved areas of the precinct that have gone underserved for quite some time.”

Precinct 2 has partnered with unions and community groups to set up local vaccination sites. The portable SmartPod mobile medical units Garcia debuted last year to help with COVID-19 testing now are used also to assist with administering the shots.

Garcia said he also would urge the county health department to waive its requirement that residents register for appointments online. He predicted walk-in appointments would be popular among seniors who may not be technologically savvy, as well as undocumented residents wary of entering their personal information into a government database.

There are a lot of reasons for which, a primary one being that the state prioritized people over 65, who are disproportionately white, and not essential workers like grocery store employees or meatpackers or teachers or government employees. Not much we can do about that now other than try to catch up from here. Commissioner Garcia has the right idea, but it’s going to take time to make a difference.

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail.

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

See here for more on the data. It’s meager, and I don’t see anything on the Data for Progress website to supplement it, so take it for what it is. As with all DfP polls, it was done via web panel, with 478 respondents. I point this out not because I think it’s a huge vindication of my own opinions, but because I’d really like to see a closer examination of these questions, and of the (frequently emotional rather than fact-based) arguments against them. I suspect that the potential to move these numbers, especially among partisans, is quite large, but we don’t know enough yet to say by how much. To the extent that we can have a thoughtful conversation about the costs and benefits of a policy to minimize the jail population along these lines, we should.

TxDOT plows ahead with I-45

What did we expect?

Texas highway officials [last] Thursday gave themselves the green light to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, a crucial step in the process, despite lingering concerns from critics that the proposed $7.5 billion widening project is out of step with the region’s future needs.

The record of decision, essentially a declaration that the project met all the steps laid out in federal transportation rules, clears the way for construction of the revamped freeway, but also allows for changes, Texas Department of Transportation officials said.

In a statement, Houston District Director for TxDOT Eliza Paul said the decision “is a necessary step in moving into the detailed design phases of project development, which is where we will have the opportunity to fully explore many of the project refinements requested.”

Those proposed changes, which critics have sought for more than three years as the project moved through its environmental process, include significant revisions in more than a dozen neighborhoods.

“‘Refinements’ is a blatant mis-characterization of the critical changes requested by Harris County, the City of Houston, and other elected officials representing the people of the directly impacted communities,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, an advocacy group that has worked with local neighborhoods to oppose the project.

See here for the background. I don’t know what to expect from here, but I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic. Still, the only way to get something like what you want is to keep asking for it. I don’t know how much better it’s possible to make this, but there’s only one way to find out.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also good:

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precinct analysis: The judicial averages

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

As you know, I use the average totals and percentages from local judicial races as my go-to metric for determining partisan indexes for each district. That’s because these are two-candidate races, and generally speaking people vote in them on the party label and not on detailed knowledge of the individual candidates. I’ve looked at this data in various ways over the years – in 2018, it was all about undervoting, as my contribution to the deeply annoying great straight-ticket voting debate. This year, I just want to provide as comprehensive a look as I can at what the partisan index of each district is, so without further ado here are the averages and minimum/maximum values for each district:


Dist    Avg R    Avg D  Avg R%  Avg D%
======================================
CD02  180,657  152,260  54.26%  45.74%
CD07  152,705  147,943  50.79%  49.21%
CD08   25,930   14,830  63.62%  36.38%
CD09   37,855  119,136  24.11%  75.89%
CD10  103,043   58,975  63.60%  36.40%
CD18   59,751  178,574  25.07%  74.93%
CD22   21,796   19,965  52.19%  47.81%
CD29   49,285  100,975  32.80%  67.20%
CD36   82,990   47,534  63.58%  36.42%
				
SBOE4 106,801  333,572  24.25%  75.75%
SBOE6 387,513  345,132  52.89%  47.11%
SBOE8 219,698  161,490  57.64%  42.36%
				
SD04   55,837   22,370  71.40%  28.60%
SD06   57,502  117,156  32.92%  67.08%
SD07  236,992  169,822  58.26%  41.74%
SD11   77,482   46,126  62.68%  37.32%
SD13   38,020  158,384  19.36%  80.64%
SD15  114,322  192,386  37.27%  62.73%
SD17  118,535  122,335  49.21%  50.79%
SD18   15,323   11,618  56.88%  43.12%
				
HD126  39,112   33,088  54.17%  45.83%
HD127  54,309   34,783  60.96%  39.04%
HD128  48,197   21,688  68.97%  31.03%
HD129  48,127   34,606  58.17%  41.83%
HD130  70,364   31,748  68.91%  31.09%
HD131  10,092   44,290  18.56%  81.44%
HD132  50,934   47,797  51.59%  48.41%
HD133  50,892   35,660  58.80%  41.20%
HD134  49,172   56,015  46.75%  53.25%
HD135  36,694   36,599  50.07%  49.93%
HD137  10,422   20,732  33.45%  66.55%
HD138  31,922   30,597  51.06%  48.94%
HD139  15,711   44,501  26.09%  73.91%
HD140   9,326   21,677  30.08%  69.92%
HD141   7,106   35,937  16.51%  83.49%
HD142  13,933   41,496  25.14%  74.86%
HD143  11,999   24,126  33.21%  66.79%
HD144  13,786   16,469  45.57%  54.43%
HD145  14,992   26,765  35.90%  64.10%
HD146  11,408   43,008  20.96%  79.04%
HD147  15,323   52,737  22.51%  77.49%
HD148  22,392   36,300  38.15%  61.85%
HD149  21,640   30,536  41.47%  58.53%
HD150  56,160   39,038  58.99%  41.01%
				
CC1    93,365  277,707  25.16%  74.84%
CC2   150,891  143,324  51.29%  48.71%
CC3   228,295  207,558  52.38%  47.62%
CC4   241,461  211,606  53.29%  46.71%
				
JP1    93,441  162,045  36.57%  63.43%
JP2    34,172   48,572  41.30%  58.70%
JP3    51,782   67,626  43.37%  56.63%
JP4   235,236  182,956  56.25%  43.75%
JP5   204,805  212,367  49.09%  50.91%
JP6     8,152   26,921  23.24%  76.76%
JP7    18,654   99,583  15.78%  84.22%
JP8    67,769   40,125  62.81%  37.19%


Dist    Max R    Min D  Max R%  Min D%
======================================
CD02  185,931  148,006  55.68%  44.32%
CD07  159,695  144,247  52.54%  47.46%
CD08   26,439   14,393  64.75%  35.25%
CD09   40,013  116,625  25.54%  74.46%
CD10  105,177   57,133  64.80%  35.20%
CD18   63,096  174,763  26.53%  73.47%
CD22   22,436   19,262  53.81%  46.19%
CD29   55,680   94,745  37.02%  62.98%
CD36   84,840   45,634  65.02%  34.98%
				
SBOE4 117,378  322,667  26.67%  73.33%
SBOE6 401,507  336,009  54.44%  45.56%
SBOE8 224,690  156,133  59.00%  41.00%
				
SD04   56,905   21,704  72.39%  27.61%
SD06   64,474  110,326  36.88%  63.12%
SD07  242,602  164,480  59.60%  40.40%
SD11   79,333   44,482  64.07%  35.93%
SD13   40,293  155,638  20.56%  79.44%
SD15  118,813  187,188  38.83%  61.17%
SD17  124,541  119,169  51.10%  48.90%
SD18   15,619   11,279  58.07%  41.93%
				
HD126  40,053   31,945  55.63%  44.37%
HD127  55,452   33,703  62.20%  37.80%
HD128  49,089   20,798  70.24%  29.76%
HD129  49,387   33,547  59.55%  40.45%
HD130  71,729   30,669  70.05%  29.95%
HD131  11,027   43,306  20.30%  79.70%
HD132  52,228   46,423  52.94%  47.06%
HD133  53,008   34,318  60.70%  39.30%
HD134  53,200   53,340  49.93%  50.07%
HD135  37,600   35,481  51.45%  48.55%
HD137  10,831   20,255  34.84%  65.16%
HD138  32,956   29,493  52.77%  47.23%
HD139  16,700   43,426  27.78%  72.22%
HD140  10,796   20,276  34.75%  65.25%
HD141   7,844   35,148  18.25%  81.75%
HD142  15,015   40,325  27.13%  72.87%
HD143  13,599   22,554  37.62%  62.38%
HD144  14,965   15,326  49.40%  50.60%
HD145  16,455   25,318  39.39%  60.61%
HD146  11,924   42,368  21.96%  78.04%
HD147  16,147   51,800  23.76%  76.24%
HD148  23,754   35,054  40.39%  59.61%
HD149  22,315   29,713  42.89%  57.11%
HD150  57,274   37,933  60.16%  39.84%
				
CC1    98,310  271,971  26.55%  73.45%
CC2   158,199  135,874  53.80%  46.20%
CC3   236,301  201,920  53.92%  46.08%
CC4   248,120  205,046  54.75%  45.25%
				
JP1    99,574  157,709  38.70%  61.30%
JP2    36,841   45,917  44.52%  55.48%
JP3    54,016   65,253  45.29%  54.71%
JP4   240,145  177,376  57.52%  42.48%
JP5   211,698  206,389  50.63%  49.37%
JP6     9,694   25,425  27.60%  72.40%
JP7    19,825   98,162  16.80%  83.20%
JP8    69,422   38,580  64.28%  35.72%


Dist    Min R    Max D  Min R%  Max D%
======================================
CD02  175,786  157,942  52.67%  47.33%
CD07  145,575  154,644  48.49%  51.51%
CD08   25,520   15,264  62.57%  37.43%
CD09   36,275  121,193  23.04%  76.96%
CD10  101,112   61,042  62.36%  37.64%
CD18   56,673  182,314  23.71%  76.29%
CD22   21,218   20,673  50.65%  49.35%
CD29   45,744  105,745  30.20%  69.80%
CD36   81,336   49,507  62.16%  37.84%
				
SBOE4 100,933  342,178  22.78%  77.22%
SBOE6 373,961  359,113  51.01%  48.99%
SBOE8 215,025  167,034  56.28%  43.72%
				
SD04   55,047   23,216  70.34%  29.66%
SD06   53,562  122,474  30.43%  69.57%
SD07  231,452  175,578  56.86%  43.14%
SD11   75,844   48,065  61.21%  38.79%
SD13   36,086  160,806  18.33%  81.67%
SD15  109,597  198,247  35.60%  64.40%
SD17  112,679  127,956  46.83%  53.17%
SD18   15,000   11,985  55.59%  44.41%
				
HD126  38,215   34,107  52.84%  47.16%
HD127  53,344   35,933  59.75%  40.25%
HD128  47,390   22,477  67.83%  32.17%
HD129  46,964   36,012  56.60%  43.40%
HD130  69,298   32,900  67.81%  32.19%
HD131   9,584   44,980  17.56%  82.44%
HD132  49,625   49,260  50.18%  49.82%
HD133  48,359   37,729  56.17%  43.83%
HD134  45,698   59,519  43.43%  56.57%
HD135  35,662   37,653  48.64%  51.36%
HD137   9,997   21,240  32.00%  68.00%
HD138  30,912   31,792  49.30%  50.70%
HD139  14,891   45,442  24.68%  75.32%
HD140   8,496   22,687  27.25%  72.75%
HD141   6,751   36,444  15.63%  84.37%
HD142  13,366   42,296  24.01%  75.99%
HD143  11,100   25,218  30.56%  69.44%
HD144  13,029   17,345  42.90%  57.10%
HD145  14,011   28,167  33.22%  66.78%
HD146  10,824   43,630  19.88%  80.12%
HD147  14,469   53,867  21.17%  78.83%
HD148  21,053   38,031  35.63%  64.37%
HD149  20,955   31,398  40.03%  59.97%
HD150  55,070   40,198  57.81%  42.19%
				
CC1    88,636  283,723  23.80%  76.20%
CC2   146,468  149,847  49.43%  50.57%
CC3   220,181  215,729  50.51%  49.49%
CC4   234,765  219,028  51.73%  48.27%
				
JP1    87,533  168,977  34.12%  65.88%
JP2    32,564   50,632  39.14%  60.86%
JP3    50,336   69,338  42.06%  57.94%
JP4   230,567  188,394  55.03%  44.97%
JP5   197,305  219,993  47.28%  52.72%
JP6     7,269   28,198  20.50%  79.50%
JP7    17,578  100,870  14.84%  85.16%
JP8    66,324   41,925  61.27%  38.73%

There were 15 contested District or County court races, with another 12 that had only a Democrat running. All of the numbers are from the contested races. The first table is just the average vote total for each candidate in that district; I then computed the percentage from those average values. For the second and third tables, I used the Excel MAX and MIN functions to get the highest and lowest vote totals for each party in each district. It should be noted that the max Republican and min Democratic totals in a given district (and vice versa) may not belong to the candidates from the same race, as the total number of votes in each race varies. Consider these to be a bit more of a theoretical construct, to see what the absolute best and worst case scenario for each party was this year.

One could argue that Democrats did better than expected this year, given the partisan levels they faced. Both Lizzie Fletcher and Jon Rosenthal won re-election, in CD07 and HD135, despite running in districts that were tilted slightly against them. The one Republican that won in a district that tilted Democratic was Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap, who won as his JP colleague Russ Ridgway fell; as previously noted, Dan Crenshaw clearly outperformed the baseline in CD02. The tilt in Commissioners Court Precinct 3 was too much for Michael Moore to overcome, though perhaps redistricting and four more years of demographic change will move things in the Democratic direction for 2024. As for Precinct 2, I believe Adrian Garcia would have been re-elected if he had been on the ballot despite the Republican tilt in that precinct, mostly because the Latino Democratic candidates generally carried the precinct. He will also get a hand from redistricting when that happens. I believe being the incumbent would have helped him regardless, as Jack Morman ran ahead of the pack in 2018, just not by enough to hang on.

The “Republican max” (table 2) and “Democratic max” (table 3) values give you a picture of the range of possibility in each district. At their high end for Republicans, CD02 and SBOE6 don’t look particularly competitive, while CD07 and HD135 look like they really got away, while HD144 looks like a missed opportunity, and JP5 could have maybe been held in both races. HD134 remained stubbornly Democratic, however. On the flip side, you can see that at least one Democratic judicial candidate took a majority in CD07, HD135, HD138, and CC2, while CC3 and CC4 both look enticingly close, and neither HDs 134 nor 144 look competitive at all. If nothing else, this is a reminder that even in these judicial races, there can be a lot of variance.

On the subject of undervoting, as noted in the Appellate Court posts, the dropoff rate in those races was about 4.7% – there wasn’t much change from the first race to the fourth. For the contested local judicial races, the undervote rate ranged from 5.06% in the first race to 6.54%, in the seventh (contested) race from the end. There was a downward trend as you got farther down the ballot, but it wasn’t absolute – as noted, there were six races after the most-undervoted race, all with higher vote totals. The difference between the highest turnout race to the lowest was about 24K votes, from 1.568 million to 1.544 million. It’s not nothing, but in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty minimal.

The twelve unopposed Democrats in judicial races clearly show how unopposed candidates always do better than candidates that have opponents. Every unopposed judicial candidate collected over one million votes. Kristen Hawkins, the first unopposed judicial candidate, and thus most likely the first unopposed candidate on everyone’s ballot, led the way with 1.068 million votes, about 200K more votes than Michael Gomez, who was the leading votegetter in a contested race. Every unopposed Democratic candidate got a vote from at least 61.25% of all voters, with Hawkins getting a vote from 64.44% of all. I have always assumed that some number of people feel like they need to vote in each race, even the ones with only one candidate.

I’m going to analyze the vote in the non-Houston cities next. As always, please let me know what you think.

Precinct analysis: Other jurisdictions

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial

You may be wondering “Hey, how come you haven’t reported on data from SBOE and State Senate districts?” Well, I’ll tell you, since the SBOE and Senate serve four-year terms with only half of the races up for election outside of redistricting years, the results in the districts that aren’t on the ballot are not discernable to me. But! I was eventually able to get a spreadsheet that defined all of the relevant districts for each individual precinct, and that allowed me to go back and fill in the empty values. And now here I present them to you. Oh, and as a special bonus, I merged the data from the 2012 city of Houston bond elections into this year’s totals and pulled out the numbers for the city of Houston for the top races. So here you have it:


Dist     Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn  Trump%  Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
===================================================================
SBOE4  110,192  350,258  3,530  1,787  23.66%  75.20%  0.76%  0.38%
SBOE6  371,101  391,911  8,796  2,157  47.95%  50.64%  1.14%  0.28%
SBOE8  219,337  176,022  4,493  1,185  54.69%  43.89%  1.12%  0.30%
								
SD04    55,426   25,561    936    145  67.54%  31.15%  1.14%  0.18%
SD06    61,089  123,708  1,577    770  32.64%  66.10%  0.84%  0.41%
SD07   232,201  188,150  4,746  1,216  54.47%  44.13%  1.11%  0.29%
SD11    77,325   51,561  1,605    389  59.08%  39.40%  1.23%  0.30%
SD13    38,198  166,939  1,474    753  18.42%  80.51%  0.71%  0.36%
SD15   110,485  208,552  3,444  1,045  34.15%  64.46%  1.06%  0.32%
SD17   110,788  140,986  2,706    720  43.41%  55.25%  1.06%  0.28%
SD18    15,118   12,735	   331     91  53.47%  45.04%  1.17%  0.32%

Hou    285,379  535,713  8,222  2,704  34.30%  64.39%  0.99%  0.32%
Harris 415,251  382,480  8,597  2,425  51.34%  47.29%  1.06%  0.30%


Dist    Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn Cornyn%  Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
===================================================================
SBOE4  110,002  330,420  8,479  5,155  23.62%  70.94%  1.82%  1.11%
SBOE6  387,726  359,196 13,130  4,964  50.68%  46.95%  1.72%  0.65%
SBOE8  220,500  164,540  7,608  2,770  55.76%  41.61%  1.92%  0.70%
								
SD04    56,085   23,380  1,405    393  69.02%  28.77%  1.73%  0.48%
SD06    59,310  115,620  3,609  2,257  32.80%  63.95%  2.00%  1.25%
SD07   237,216  173,948  7,682  2,796  55.64%  40.80%  1.80%  0.66%
SD11    77,887   47,787  2,508    854  60.36%  37.03%  1.94%  0.66%
SD13    39,386  157,671  3,502  2,149  19.43%  77.78%  1.73%  1.06%
SD15   114,616  195,264  6,065  2,657  35.43%  60.35%  1.87%  0.82%
SD17   118,460  128,628  3,892  1,603  46.42%  50.40%  1.53%  0.63%
SD18    15,268   11,859    554    180  54.80%  42.56%  1.99%  0.65%

Hou    297,735  498,078 14,537  7,021  36.43%  60.94%  1.78%  0.86%
Harris 420,493  356,080 14,680  5,868  52.75%  44.67%  1.84%  0.74%


Dist    Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn Wright%  Casta%   Lib%   Grn%
===================================================================
SBOE4  102,521  332,324  8,247  7,160  22.01%  71.35%  1.77%  1.54%
SBOE6  379,555  347,938 16,311  9,217  50.40%  46.21%  2.17%  1.22%
SBOE8  214,771  163,095  8,573  4,631  54.92%  41.70%  2.19%  1.18%
								
SD04    54,997   22,915  1,715    685  68.48%  28.53%  2.14%  0.85%
SD06    54,732  118,635  3,389  2,751  30.49%  66.09%  1.89%  1.53%
SD07   232,729  169,832  9,084  4,902  54.59%  39.84%  2.13%  1.15%
SD11    75,580   47,284  2,906  1,454  59.41%  37.17%  2.28%  1.14%
SD13    37,009  156,577  3,653  3,306  18.45%  78.08%  1.82%  1.65%
SD15   111,109  192,351  6,833  4,347  34.34%  59.45%  2.11%  1.34%
SD17   115,654  124,174  4,931  3,219  45.32%  48.66%  1.93%  1.26%
SD18    15,037   11,590    620    344  54.50%  42.01%  2.25%  1.25%

Hou    286,759  491,191 16,625 11,553  34.47%  59.04%  2.00%  1.39%
Harris 410,088  352,168 16,506  9,455  50.71%  43.54%  2.04%  1.17%

Dist     Hecht  Meachum    Lib  Hecht% Meachum%  Lib%
=====================================================
SBOE4  104,675  334,600 10,745  23.26%  74.35%  2.39%
SBOE6  387,841  349,776 17,294  51.38%  46.33%  2.29%
SBOE8  217,760  164,210  9,466  55.63%  41.95%  2.42%
						
SD04    55,773   22,920  1,721  69.36%  28.50%  2.14%
SD06    56,313  117,884  4,832  31.45%  65.85%  2.70%
SD07   235,317  172,232  9,800  56.38%  41.27%  2.35%
SD11    77,081   47,122  3,169  60.52%  37.00%  2.49%
SD13    37,495  158,731  4,500  18.68%  79.08%  2.24%
SD15   113,248  194,232  7,612  35.94%  61.64%  2.42%
SD17   119,941  123,630  5,196  48.21%  49.70%  2.09%
SD18    15,108   11,836    675  54.70%  42.85%  2.44%

Dist      Boyd   Will's    Lib   Boyd% Will's%   Lib%
=====================================================
SBOE4  104,397  336,102  8,832  23.23%  74.80%  1.97%
SBOE6  380,861  354,806 15,618  50.69%  47.23%  2.08%
SBOE8  217,360  164,288  8,525  55.71%  42.11%  2.18%
						
SD04    55,481   22,982  1,621  69.28%  28.70%  2.02%
SD06    56,932  117,444  4,132  31.89%  65.79%  2.31%
SD07   234,080  173,025  8,683  56.30%  41.61%  2.09%
SD11    76,633   47,377  2,834  60.42%  37.35%  2.23%
SD13    36,755  160,184  3,557  18.33%  79.89%  1.77%
SD15   111,564  195,699  6,798  35.52%  62.31%  2.16%
SD17   116,011  126,731  4,723  46.88%  51.21%  1.91%
SD18    15,162   11,755    627  55.05%  42.68%  2.28%


Dist     Busby   Triana    Lib  Busby% Triana%   Lib%
=====================================================
SBOE4  104,071  335,587  9,074  23.19%  74.79%  2.02%
SBOE6  389,317  343,673 17,392  51.88%  45.80%  2.32%
SBOE8  218,278  162,376  9,125  56.00%  41.66%  2.34%
						
SD04    55,864   22,402  1,739  69.83%  28.00%  2.17%
SD06    55,719  118,801  4,006  31.21%  66.55%  2.24%
SD07   235,948  169,843  9,532  56.81%  40.89%  2.30%
SD11    77,324   46,265  3,101  61.03%  36.52%  2.45%
SD13    37,498  158,536  3,962  18.75%  79.27%  1.98%
SD15   113,780  192,651  7,220  36.28%  61.42%  2.30%
SD17   120,435  121,393  5,349  48.72%  49.11%  2.16%
SD18    15,098   11,746    682  54.85%  42.67%  2.48%


Dist    Bland    Cheng  Bland%   Cheng%
=======================================
SBOE4  112,465  336,620  25.04%  74.96%
SBOE6  401,946  350,154  53.44%  46.56%
SBOE8  225,783  164,516  57.85%  42.15%
				
SD04    57,378   22,793  71.57%  28.43%
SD06    60,243  118,418  33.72%  66.28%
SD07   243,089  172,941  58.43%  41.57%
SD11    79,757   47,134  62.85%  37.15%
SD13    40,242  160,069  20.09%  79.91%
SD15   119,474  194,619  38.04%  61.96%
SD17   124,299  123,453  50.17%  49.83%
SD18    15,712   11,864  56.98%  43.02%


Dist     BertR  Frizell  BertR% Frizell%
=======================================
SBOE4  107,445  340,670  23.98%  76.02%
SBOE6  392,514  355,217  52.49%  47.51%
SBOE8  221,860  166,900  57.07%  42.93%
				
SD04    56,609   23,176  70.95%  29.05%
SD06    57,800  120,402  32.44%  67.56%
SD07   239,113  175,071  57.73%  42.27%
SD11    78,483   47,818  62.14%  37.86%
SD13    38,419  161,433  19.22%  80.78%
SD15   115,389  197,276  36.90%  63.10%
SD17   120,576  125,566  48.99%  51.01%
SD18    15,430   12,046  56.16%  43.84%


Dist     Yeary  Clinton  Yeary%Clinton%
=======================================
SBOE4  107,727  339,999  24.06%  75.94%
SBOE6  387,309  359,489  51.86%  48.14%
SBOE8  221,725  166,780  57.07%  42.93%
				
SD04    56,405   23,323  70.75%  29.25%
SD06    58,285  119,666  32.75%  67.25%
SD07   238,608  175,225  57.66%  42.34%
SD11    78,085   48,109  61.88%  38.12%
SD13    38,214  161,577  19.13%  80.87%
SD15   114,407  197,949  36.63%  63.37%
SD17   117,277  128,438  47.73%  52.27%
SD18    15,480   11,982  56.37%  43.63%


Dist    Newell    Birm  Newell%   Birm%
=======================================
SBOE4  110,449  336,329  24.72%  75.28%
SBOE6  392,944  352,514  52.71%  47.29%
SBOE8  223,453  164,440  57.61%  42.39%
				
SD04    56,669   22,936  71.19%  28.81%
SD06    59,575  117,944  33.56%  66.44%
SD07   240,463  172,769  58.19%  41.81%
SD11    78,816   47,161  62.56%  37.44%
SD13    39,166  160,126  19.65%  80.35%
SD15   116,700  195,074  37.43%  62.57%
SD17   119,849  125,464  48.86%  51.14%
SD18    15,608   11,810  56.93%  43.07%

To be clear, “Harris” refers to everything that is not the city of Houston. It includes the other cities, like Pasadena and Deer Park and so forth, as well as unincorporated Harris County. There are some municipal results in the 2020 canvass, and maybe I’ll take a closer look at them later – I generally haven’t done that for non-Houston cities in the past, but this year, we’ll see. Please note also that there are some precincts that include a piece of Houston but are not entirely Houston – the boundaries don’t coincide. Basically, I skipped precincts that had ten or fewer votes in them for the highest-turnout 2012 referendum, and added up the rest. So those values are approximate, but close enough for these purposes. I don’t have city of Houston results for most elections, but I do have them for a few. In 2008, Barack Obama got 61.0% in Houston and 39.5% in non-Houston Harris County. In 20122018, Beto reached a new height with 65.4% in Houston; that calculation was done by a reader, and unfortunately he didn’t do the corresponding total for Harris County. Joe Biden’s 64.39% fits in just ahead of Adrian Garcia in 2012, and about a point behind Beto. Not too bad.

SBOE4 is a mostly Black district primarily in Harris County with a piece in Fort Bend as well; Lawrence Allen, son of State Rep. Alma Allen and an unsuccessful candidate for HD26 in the Dem primary this year, is its incumbent. SBOE8 is a heavily Republican district with about half of its voters in Harris County and about a third in Montgomery County. It was won this year by Audrey Young over a Libertarian opponent, succeeding Barbara Cargill. Cargill was unopposed in 2016 and beat a Dem candidate in 2012 by a 71-29 margin, getting about 66% of the vote in Harris County. Like just about everywhere else, that part of the county is a lot less red than it used to be. SBOE6 was of course the focus of attention after Beto carried it in 2018. Biden fell a tad short of Beto’s mark, though Trump also fell short of Ted Cruz. No other Dem managed to win the vote there, with the range being about four to seven points for the Republicans, which does represent an improvement over 2018. Michelle Palmer lost by two points here, getting 47.38% of the vote (there was a Libertarian candidate as well; the victorious Republican got 49.76%), as the Dems won one of the three targeted, Beto-carried seats, in SBOE5. I presume the Republicans will have a plan to make the SBOE a 10-5 split in their favor again, but for now the one gain Dems made in a districted office was there.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a full accounting of State Senate districts in previous precinct analyses. Only three of the eight districts that include a piece of Harris County are entirely within Harris (SDs 06, 07, and 15; 13 extends into Fort Bend), and only SD17 is competitive. Beto and a couple of others carried SD17 in 2018 – I don’t have the full numbers for it now, but Rita Lucido won the Harris County portion of SD17 by a 49.4-48.8 margin in 2018, and every Dem except Kathy Cheng won SD17 this year, with everyone else except Gisela Triana exceeding Lucido’s total or margin or both. An awful lot of HD134 is in SD17, so this is just another illustration of HD134’s Democratic shift.

The other interesting district here is SD07, which Dan Patrick won by a 68.4-31.6 margin in 2012, and Paul Bettencourt won by a 57.8-40.3 margin in 2018. Every Dem had a smaller gap than that this year, with most of them bettering David Romero’s percentage from 2018, and Biden losing by just over ten points. It would be really interesting to see how this district trended over the next decade if we just kept the same lines as we have now, but we will get new lines, so the question becomes “do the Republicans try to shore up SD07”, and if so how? SD17 is clearly the higher priority, and while you could probably leave SD07 close to what it is now, with just a population adjustment, it doesn’t have much spare capacity. If there’s a lesson for Republicans from the 2011 redistricting experience, it’s that they have to think in ten-year terms, and that’s a very hard thing to do. We’ll see how they approach it.

Precinct analysis: Commissioners Court and JP/Constable precincts

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts

We now zoom in for a look at various county districts, which are also called “precincts”. I don’t know why we have County Commissioner precincts and JP/Constable precincts to go along with regular voting precincts – it makes for a certain amount of either monotony or inaccuracy when I have to write about them – but it is what it is. Dems made a priority of County Commissioner Precinct 3 and didn’t get it, but did flip a longstanding Republican Justice of the Peace bench.


Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn  Trump%  Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    90,536  295,657  3,355  1,338  23.16%  75.64%  0.86%  0.34%
CC2   154,159  154,516  3,250  1,028  49.26%  49.37%  1.04%  0.33%
CC3   220,205  234,323  4,876  1,328  47.79%  50.86%  1.06%  0.29%
CC4   235,730  233,697  5,338  1,435  49.50%  49.08%  1.12%  0.30%

Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn  Trump%  Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    85,426  182,182  3,199    822  31.45%  67.07%  1.18%  0.30%
JP2    35,864   51,624    741    330  40.50%  58.29%  0.84%  0.37%
JP3    53,543   70,746  1,055    375  42.59%  56.27%  0.84%  0.30%
JP4   232,147  199,750  4,698  1,250  53.02%  45.62%  1.07%  0.29%
JP5   199,292  236,253  4,525  1,384  45.14%  53.52%  1.03%  0.31%
JP6     8,554   28,500    357    158  22.77%  75.86%  0.95%  0.42%
JP7    17,977  104,457    835    464  14.53%  84.42%  0.67%  0.38%
JP8    67,827   44,681  1,409    346  59.36%  39.10%  1.23%  0.30%

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn Cornyn%  Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    94,601  278,805  6,735  3,743  24.20%  71.33%  1.72%  0.96%
CC2   152,772  144,150  6,038  2,703  48.82%  46.06%  1.93%  0.86%
CC3   229,016  214,734  7,608  3,129  49.71%  46.61%  1.65%  0.68%
CC4   241,839  216,469  8,836  3,314  50.79%  45.46%  1.86%  0.70%

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn Cornyn%  Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    93,109  167,648  4,655  2,101  34.28%  61.72%  1.71%  0.77%
JP2    35,186   48,126  1,638    946  39.73%  54.34%  1.85%  1.07%
JP3    52,663   67,120  2,257  1,121  41.89%  53.39%  1.80%  0.89%
JP4   235,664  186,072  8,077  2,923  53.82%  42.50%  1.84%  0.67%
JP5   205,996  217,791  7,543  3,288  46.66%  49.33%  1.71%  0.74%
JP6     8,342   26,680    795    472  22.20%  71.02%  2.12%  1.26%
JP7    19,157   99,241  2,051  1,291  15.48%  80.21%  1.66%  1.04%
JP8    68,111   41,480  2,201    747  59.61%  36.30%  1.93%  0.65%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn Wright%  Casta%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    90,035  276,291  7,330  5,863  23.03%  70.68%  1.88%  1.50%
CC2   146,598  145,934  6,329  3,756  46.84%  46.63%  2.02%  1.20%
CC3   223,852  208,983  9,167  5,678  48.59%  45.36%  1.99%  1.23%
CC4   236,362  212,151 10,305  5,711  49.64%  44.55%  2.16%  1.20%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn Wright%  Casta%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    90,194  163,531  5,804  3,640  33.20%  60.20%  2.14%  1.34%
JP2    32,881   49,373  1,605  1,218  37.13%  55.75%  1.81%  1.38%
JP3    50,924   67,644  2,207  1,398  40.51%  53.81%  1.76%  1.11%
JP4   230,575  183,069  9,233  5,036  52.66%  41.81%  2.11%  1.15%
JP5   200,704  213,004  8,895  5,800  45.46%  48.25%  2.01%  1.31%
JP6     7,490   27,172    730    651  19.94%  72.33%  1.94%  1.73%
JP7    17,970   98,421  2,115  2,039  14.52%  79.54%  1.71%  1.65%
JP8    66,109   41,145  2,542  1,226  57.86%  36.01%  2.22%  1.07%

First things first, the Justice of the Peace and Constable precincts are the same. There are eight of them, and for reasons I have never understood they are different sizes – as you can see, JPs 4 and 5 are roughly the size of Commissioners Court precincts, at least as far as voting turnout goes, JP1 is smaller but still clearly larger than the rest, and JP6 is tiny. When I get to have a conversation with someone at the county about their plans for redistricting, I plan to ask if there’s any consideration for redrawing these precincts. Note that there are two JPs in each precinct – Place 1 was up for election this cycle, with Place 2 on the ballot in 2022. The Constables are on the ballot with the Place 1 JPs. I’ll return to them in a minute.

You may recall from my first pass at Harris County data, Donald Trump had a super slim lead in Commissioners Court Precinct 2, home of Adrian Garcia. That was from before the provisional ballots were cured. There were something like five or six thousand provisional ballots, and overall they were pretty Democratic – I noted before that this almost pushed Jane Robinson over the top in her appellate court race – though they weren’t uniformly pro-Dem; Wesley Hunt in CD07 and Mike Schofield in HD132 netted a few votes from the provisionals, among those that I looked at more closely. In CC2, the provisional ballots put Joe Biden ever so slightly ahead of Trump, by a teensy but incrementally larger lead than Trump had had. MJ Hegar lost CC2 by a noticeable amount, and Chrysta Castaneda missed it by a hair.

Now, in 2018 Beto won CC2 by over six points. Every statewide candidate except for Lupe Valdez carried it, and every countywide candidate except for Lina Hidalgo carried it. Oddly enough, Adrian Garcia himself just squeaked by, taking the lead about as late in the evening as Judge Hidalgo did to claim the majority on the Court for Dems. I’d have thought Garcia would easily run ahead of the rest of the ticket, but it was largely the reverse. The conclusion I drew from this was that being an incumbent Commissioner was an advantage – not quite enough of one in the end for Jack Morman, but almost.

I say that for the obvious reason that you might look at these numbers and be worried about Garcia’s future in 2022. I don’t think we can take anything for granted, but remember two things. One is what I just said, that there’s an incumbent’s advantage here, and I’d expect Garcia to benefit from it in two years’ time. And two, we will have new boundaries for these precincts by then. I fully expect that the Dem majority will make Garcia’s re-election prospects a little better, as the Republican majority had done for Morman in 2011.

The bigger question is what happens with the two Republican-held precincts. I’ve spoken about how there’s no spare capacity on the Republican side to bolster their existing districts while moving in on others. That’s not the case here for Dems with Commissioners Court. Given free rein, you could easily draw four reasonable Dem districts. The main thing that might hold you back is the Voting Rights Act, since you can’t retrogress Precinct 1. The more likely play is to dump some Republican turf from Precincts 2 and 3 into Precinct 4, making it redder while shoring up 2 for the Dems and making 3 more competitive. I wouldn’t sit around in my first term in office if I’m Tom Ramsey, is what I’m saying.

I should note that Beto also won CC3, as did Mike Collier and Justin Nelson and Kim Olson, but that’s largely it; I didn’t go back to check the various judicial races but my recollection is that maybe a couple of the Dem judicials carried it. Overall, CC3 was still mostly red in 2018, with a few blue incursions, and it remained so in 2020. I feel like it would be gettable in 2024 even without a boost from redistricting, but why take the chance? Dems can set themselves up here, and they should.

What about the office Dems flipped? That would be Justice of the Peace, Place 1, where longtime jurist Russ Ridgway finally met his match. You will note that Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap held on by a 51.5 to 48.5 margin, almost the exact mirror of Israel Garcia’s 51.4 to 48.6 win over Ridgway. What might account for the difference? For one, as we’ve seen, candidates with Latino surnames have generally done a couple of points better than the average. For two, it’s my observation that more people probably know their Constable’s name than either of their JPs’ names. Your neighborhood may participate in a Constable patrol program, and even if you don’t you’ve surely seen road signs saying that the streets are overseen by Constable so-and-so. I think those two factors may have made the difference; I’m told Garcia was a very active campaigner as well, and that could have helped, but I can’t confirm that or compare his activity to Dem Constable candidate Mark Alan Harrison, so I’ll just leave it as a second-hand observation. Dems can certainly aim for the Place 2 JP in Precinct 5, and even though Precinct 4 was in the red I’d really like to see someone run against Laryssa Korduba, who is (as of last report, anyway) the only JP in Harris County who no longer officiates weddings following the Obergefell ruling. She’s consistent about it, and acting legally by not doing any weddings, and that’s fine by me as a personal choice, but that doesn’t mean the people of Precinct 4 couldn’t do better for themselves. I’d like to see them have that choice in 2022.

Next up, some comparisons to 2012 and 2016. Next week, we get into judicial races and county races. Let me know what you think.

The next phase of the I-45 fight is about to begin

Where it goes from here is still up in the air. The opening of this story was at a rally on Sunday that opposed the current I-45 plan.

The rally, part of a flurry of events from concerts to block-walking that members of Stop I-45 have organized, comes days before the deadline for comments on the $7 billion plan to remake I-45 and the downtown freeway system. Comments on the final environmental report are due to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office by Wednesday.

Construction on segments, starting downtown, could start as soon as late 2021.

In advance of the deadline, groups such as LINK Houston and Air Alliance Houston that have opposed the project have mobilized online efforts to solicit comments and even petition local elected officials to oppose it.

“We’re going to do whatever we can,” said Susan Graham, organizer of the Stop I-45 group. “We’re calling elected officials. We’re set to speak at City Council on Tuesday. If there’s something we can do, we’re going to do it, but we can’t do anything unless people show up.”

Scores of groups and individuals, including the city’s planning department, plan responses in their last chance to comment. Elected officials, notably County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, are also increasing their criticism of the plan.

“They want to continue to do the same old, same old, but that dog won’t hunt,” Garcia said of TxDOT’s plan. “We need to make sure they understand it is about the future, not what used to be.”

TxDOT and some supporters also have coalesced, with TxDOT releasing its own documents online and groups such as the NAACP and North Houston Association submitting comments at recent meetings in the Houston area and with the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin, which oversees TxDOT.

Certification of the project’s environmental process is not the end of the discussions or opportunities to address concerns, but it largely gives TxDOT the approval to proceed. Most of the money comes from state transportation funds, though about $100 million in locally controlled money is budgeted; members of the the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council can rescind it.

To address concerns raised by Harris County and Houston officials — who in the past year began to rethink their support of the project — H-GAC sought to craft a deal outlining what state and local officials hope to accomplish with the freeway rebuild. That memorandum of agreement between TxDOT, Houston, Harris County, H-GAC and the Metropolitan Transit Authority would allow all of the groups to have a single set of goals to achieve.

As that agreement has taken shape, however, much of the binding language H-GAC staff started with has been watered down, at the behest of TxDOT lawyers. For example, the original introduction said areas where the freeway fails to meet modern standards “must be corrected.” Now it reads “should be improved.”

TxDOT lawyers also inserted language stating the environmental review supersedes any agreements, in effect noting that the federal process governs how a freeway is designed.

“TxDOT’s legal obligations under the (federal environmental) process remain unchanged, and nothing in this document commits or obligates any party to any action against, or in addition, to those obligations,” lawyers wrote.

Susan Graham, quoted in the excerpt above, had a recent op-ed that outlined the opposition to the project, the bulk of which is that TxDOT has not adequately taken into account the concerns and the input from the people and communities that would be most directly affected by the rebuild. I’m sure TxDOT would say they’ve bent over backwards to provide opportunities to give feedback and that they have listened and adjusted as much as they can. I feel like this project has been looming over all of us who live within a mile or so of I-45, and while it has gotten better, there’s only so much you can do to mitigate its effects. I think the opposition has the stronger argument, and if TxDOT can’t stick to the agreement that H-GAC hammered out about consensus goals for the project, then maybe this project isn’t worth doing. Or at least, it’s not worth doing the way it’s currently set up to be done.

More 2022 speculation

From Campos:

Judge Lina Hidalgo

I was watching “What’s Your Point” yesterday and the 2022 election was brought up. Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo would face an opponent in the Democratic Primary. My friend Bill King went a bit further and said that Judge Hidalgo would face an African American or former H-Town Mayor Annise Parker in the primary. Huh?

Anyone can plop down the $1,250 filing fee to run. I am not hearing among Democrats that Judge Hidalgo is doing a lousy job. I think she is doing a pretty good job. She’s promoting issues that Democrats like. What is wrong with rental assistance and supporting small businesses during a pandemic. She would be tough to beat in the Democratic Party Primary if you ask me.

I wonder where Bill and Mark are getting their local Democratic Party intel.

I have no idea where Mark Jones may get his intel, but let me state for the record that I am extremely skeptical of the idea that Bill King is in any way plugged into the local Democratic scene. I strongly suspect that neither of them have heard real chatter from reliable sources, but instead are speculating based on three factors:

1. The 2018 “That could have been me” hangover. I noted this before. As we know, there was a lot of talk about who might have run for County Judge in 2018, with Judge Hidalgo ultimately being the only person to file. Lots of people didn’t want to run against then-Judge Emmett for a variety of reasons, with Annise Parker being the best known of them. It is possible that someone who now regrets not throwing their hat into the ring in 2018 is considering a 2022 run, now that the main challenge is in March and not in November. For what it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything to this effect, but I don’t claim to be especially plugged in at this time, either.

2. The business interests. I am very much in the “Judge Hidalgo has done a fine job” camp, and I agree that she has acted very much in ways that Democratic primary voters would approve. But there are groups that don’t like bail reform, and there are groups that don’t like putting extra regulations on development, and there are groups that likely feel like their influence has waned under Judge Hidalgo and the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. If these folks now believe that Republicans are at a disadvantage running countywide, then one way to do something about that is to recruit and support a candidate for County Judge for the Democratic primary that will be more amenable to them and their concerns. It’s not the only thing they could do – I’m sure Commissioner Garcia will be targeted in November of 2022, though the Commissioners Court redistricting process may make that a less attractive option for them – but it’s on the menu. And let’s just say that I do believe Bill King is a reliable source of information for what the big capital crowd is thinking.

3. The real question is, can I win? Elections are funny things, and as we well know, the “best” candidate doesn’t always win. One question anyone who runs for office has to answer is who are my voters? Are there enough of them to get me past the finish line? I’m sure Bill King’s suggestion of a Black candidate running against Judge Hidalgo is based on the observation that there are a lot of Black voters in the Harris County Democratic primary, and that candidates often attempt to appeal to voters on affinity more than issues. Doesn’t mean such a person would be successful, or even a credible threat, but it’s a possibility.

All of this is my speculation about their speculation. We’re at the time in the calendar when people like to take early looks ahead to the next election, and no one ever keeps track of this sort of nattering, so why not put out a hot take or two. I’ve certainly indulged in this sort of thing before. It’s all fun and games until someone files a designation of Treasurer report. If there’s anything to any of this besides filling up some air time, we’ll know soon enough.

Initial thoughts about the election

And now for some reactions and analysis…

– The polls were garbage. Oy vey. Not just here, though they were definitely off here, underestimating Trump and the Republicans after doing the same to Beto and the Dems in 2018. This time, after all that national soul-searching following the 2016 state-level misfires (the national polling was fairly accurate overall in 2016), we got this flaming mess. Not my problem to solve, but I wonder how much of this is the known issue of “differential response” writ large. We know that in some circumstances, like when there’s been a big news event, one candidate’s supporters, or members of one party in general, may be more or less likely to answer the phone and respond to a pollster. It may be that just as a matter of course now, Republicans are less likely to respond to polls, in a bigger way than previously thought, and that had a disproportionate effect on the numbers. I’m just guessing here, but if that’s the case then perhaps the web panel approach to polling needs to be used more often. For what it’s worth, the UT/Texas Tribune and UH Hobby School polls from October, both of which had Trump up 50-45, used web panels. Maybe that’s a fluke, maybe they had a better likely voter model going in, maybe they were onto something that the others weren’t, I don’t know. But they came the closest, so they get the glory. As for the rest, thanks for nothing.

– Along those same lines, pollsters who did deeper dive polls on Latino voters, such as Univision and Latino Decisions, really need to question their methods and figure out how they went so mind-bogglingly wrong. I get that what we had, at least to some extent, appears to have been lower-propensity Latino voters turning out at surprisingly high levels for Trump, but damn, this is your job. You need to be on top of that.

– The old adage about “Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a non-voting state” can be safely buried for now. We had record-breaking turnout, over 11 million votes cast when we’d never surpassed nine million before, and yet Trump still won by six points while other statewide Republicans were winning by nine to eleven points. To be sure, that’s closer than 2016 was, but at this rate we’ll need to have thirty million people voting for Dems to catch up, and I feel confident saying that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. The lesson here is that there are low-propensity Republican voters, too, and they are capable of showing up when they are persuaded. We saw that happen in 2018, and we saw it again this year.

I admit I bought into the hype, and put too much faith into the idea that the non-voters would be more consistently Democratic than Republican. To be fair, I think that was the case in 2018, as Democrats made huge gains relative to past off years. It’s certainly been the case in Harris County that increases in voter registration have led to significant increases in Democratic votes – I’ll get to this in more detail later in the post, but this can be pretty easily quantified, and it’s why Dems have been dominating the countywide races with increasing ease. It’s where those gains came from that seems to have been a difference-maker.

I don’t want to sell short what was accomplished here. Joe Biden got over 1.3 million more votes than Hillary Clinton; Trump improved on his total by about 1.15 million. Chrysta Castaneda got 1.36 million more votes than Grady Yarbrough. The statewide judicial candidates got between 3,378,163 and 3,608,634 votes in 2016; in 2020, the range was 4,762,188 to 4,899,270 votes. If you want to be particularly gruesome, Biden got 3.3 million more votes than Wendy Davis did for Governor in 2014. Granted, Trump outdid Greg Abbott by just over 3 million votes, but still. A lot more people now have voted for a Democrat in Texas than at any other point in history. Even as we pick through the wreckage, that’s worth keeping in mind.

So how do we close that remaining gap of 700K to one million voters statewide? One, we should remember that off year elections are far more volatile from a turnout perspective, and we need to do everything we can to make these new folks habitual voters while we continue to register and recruit new voters. Two, having dynamic statewide candidates, who can learn the lessons of these past elections while applying them to the environment they’re in, would help. And three, maybe we need to give another look to the reviled old “persuasion” strategy, and see how we can do a better job of peeling away some of the other guy’s voters. Easier said than done, but then that’s why I’m a blogger and not a campaign professional.

– By the way, if anyone asks you who the current all-time vote leader in Texas is, the answer as of 2020 is Supreme Court Justice Jane Bland, who tipped the scales at 6,002,233 votes. No one else topped six million. She was helped by not having a third-party opponent in the race; the Libertarians in three other races got between 254L and 283K votes.

– I take no position on the question about whether the Republicans’ continued use of traditional door-to-door campaigning during the pandemic, which the Democrats largely eschewed out of a sense of safety for their campaign workers and as a statement of living their values, was a factor in this election. The academic research on various methods of increasing turnout and persuading swing voters is mixed, and does not suggest that one method (such as door-knocking) is clearly superior to others (such as phone-banking). Winning teams always point to their methods and strategies as the reason why they won and the other team lost. I’m not saying this couldn’t have made a difference, or that it didn’t make a difference. It may have, and I have no way to disprove the assertion. I’m just saying that it’s anecdotal data, and I consider it to be such.

– Also, too: I saw people again cursing Beto’s name for not running for Senate this year. All I can say is that anyone who thinks Beto would have done better than Biden is not thinking clearly. He probably would have exceeded MJ Hegar, but there’s a lot of room between that and winning. With all the money that was spent in Texas this year, I do not buy the argument that having Beto on the ticket would have moved the needle for Dems.

– Speaking of money, hoo boy. I hope this isn’t the end of our candidates being able to raise enough of it. We’re going to need plenty in 2022.

– How much of an effect did the lack of straight ticket voting have? Far as I can tell, very little. In Harris County, there were 1,633,557 votes cast in the Presidential race. Way down at the bottom of the ballot, in the two At Large HCDE races, there were 1,551,731 and 1,548,760 votes. In other words, about 95% of the people who voted in the Presidential race also voted in these two HCDE races.

Now, if you look at the various judicial races, you will see that Democratic judicial candidates generally got 60-80K fewer votes than Biden, while most Republican judicial candidates (though not all) exceeded Trump’s total. Some of that was just crossover voting, which we knew was happening, but some of it may have been a greater propensity by Dems to skip some number of downballot races. It’s hard to say how much is each. For what it’s worth, 12 out of 15 Dem judicial candidates (district and county courts) who had a Republican opponent had fewer votes than MJ Hegar, who had 848K to Biden’s 911K, while 8 out of those 15 Republican opponents did better than John Cornyn’s 717K votes; Trump got 699K, and all but two of those Republicans did better than that, while no one came close to Biden.

So did the absence of straight ticket voting mean more crossovers in general? I will remind you, as I have done before, there’s always a range of outcomes in the judicial races, so there has always been some amount of crossover voting, just usually not that much. Why did MJ Hegar get so many fewer votes than Joe Biden did? Some of it was more voting for third party candidates – there were 22K votes for the Libertarian and Green Presidential candidates, and 42K such votes in the Senate race – some of it was the 26K fewer votes cast in the Senate race (about 98.5% of all Presidential voters also voted for a Senate candidate), and some of it was the 18K people who voted for Cornyn but not Trump. Make of that what you will.

– While I’m thinking about it, let me update that range-of-results table I just linked to:


2004 
Rep 524K to 545K
Dem 460K to 482K

2008
Rep 526K to 564K
Dem 533K to 585K

2012
Rep 550K to 580K
Dem 555K to 581K

2016
Rep 580K to 621K
Dem 643K to 684K

2020
Rep 690K to 740K
Dem 812K to 865K

So congratulations to Republicans, who have boosted their base vote by almost 200K since 2004, while Dems have increased theirs by over 380K. Five points was as close as any Republican got.

– Despite their successful defense of their Congressional and legislative seats, Republicans still face some tricky decisions in redistricting. Look at it this way – in an election year that clearly wasn’t as good for Dems as 2018 was, they still managed to hold onto all but one of the seats they won that year. The same map that gave Republicans 95 House members was only good for 83 this year, and it wouldn’t have taken much to knock that number down by a half dozen or so. Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button may have survived, but Dallas County is a problem for the GOP. Harris County has three safe Republican districts – HDs 127, 128, and 130 – four that are still pretty safe but have gotten a lot less so over the decade – HDs 126, 129, 133, and 150 – and two on the knife’s edge, HDs 132 and 138. That may have been hard to see from the vantage point of 2011, but the broad outlines of it were there, and as I have noted before, HDs 132 and 135 were already trending Dem in 2012, with both being a little bluer than they were in 2008 despite 2012 being a slightly lesser year for Dems overall. Who’s going to need protection, and whose seat may wind up on a target list a couple of cycles later because you didn’t understand the demographics correctly? In Congress, Dan Crenshaw won by a comfortable 14 points…in a district Ted Poe won by 24 points in 2016, and 32 points in 2012. How do you shore him up? Splitting pieces of Travis County into four Republican districts was a great idea, until it threatened the re-election of three of those Republicans. Who even knows how many Congressional seats we’ll have, given the chaotic nature of the Census?

Oh, and here in Harris County, I’m sure the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court will bolster Adrian Garcia in CC2, as the Republicans did for Jack Morman in 2010. The bigger question is do they go after their new colleague Tom Ramsey, or do they just not help him out and hope nature takes its course? That’ll be fun to watch.

I think that’s it for now. I’m sure more things will occur to me as we go. When I get a draft canvass, I’ll start doing the usual slicing and dicing.

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $10 million fund to invest in early childhood development programs proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, her chief policy goal for 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the county government to shift its priorities.

The first-of-its-kind county initiative will provide seed investments over two to three years in programs and strategies aimed at improving health and educational outcomes for young children and their families, Hidalgo wrote in a memo to Commissioners Court. Those include reducing health disparities at birth, promoting responsive and nurturing parent-child relationships, reducing adverse childhood experiences and maltreatment and expanding access to high-quality childcare.

“Early childhood development is a fundamental determinant of long-term and societal health and wellbeing,” Hidalgo wrote.

Hidalgo pledged during her State of the County address last November to make significant investments in improving the lives of children. Since March, however, the pandemic has occupied much of Commissioners Court’s time.

The $10 million will be distributed among entities that provide services to children and at least one firm tasked with evaluating their effectiveness. Requests for proposals would be due Jan. 29, with the goal of launching programs by the end of March.

Hidalgo cited the effectiveness of similar programs in other metro areas, including a Chicago effort aimed at steering teens away from gun violence.

As noted, this was something Judge Hidalgo discussed in the State of the County address last year, and it was also something she campaigned on. She had and has a vision of county government that is more involved, and with the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court, she is acting on it. Speaking of which:

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the proposal, which they said is beyond the scope of county government.

I first heard the name Jack Cagle about thirty years ago. I was pretty active with Planned Parenthood back then. I reached out to the main clinic, which was then on Fannin, in early 1990 in advance of the economic summit that was held that year at Rice (I was still a grad student there at that time), because I had heard about various anti-abortion groups coming into town for the summit to picket and disrupt things at the clinic, and I wanted to do something about it. So I wound up spending the week of the summit as a clinic defender, where a bunch of other folks and I formed a human barrier on the sidewalk to keep those jackasses away from the front door. Got yelled at a lot on their one big day of protest, which was cool, but we succeeded in keeping the clinic running without disruption.

I was back for more in 1992 when the GOP held its convention in Houston, at the Astrodome. Clinic defense that year was a lot more fraught, and a lot more tense, as the threat from the national anti-abortion groups that poured into Houston felt a lot more real. We were boosted by a court ruling that kept them across the street from us, but it was a tense couple of weeks, let me tell you.

It was during this time that I encountered an attorney named Jack Cagle, who was representing those anti-abortion agitators as they sought the right to harass our staff and volunteers and especially our patients in an unfettered manner. He even had the cheek to show up at a reception the clinic held for its defenders. He got his start in Houston politics as a staunch “pro-life” activist, and within a couple of years had been elected to a misdemeanor court bench, from which he was eventually plucked by then-County Judge Ed Emmett to fill a vacant seat on Commissioners Court.

And now here he is, this champion of “the unborn”, one of the most powerful people in Harris County, and when presented with the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of actual born living children, he declines, on the grounds that it’s not his job. That’s some kind of “pro-life” philosophy, isn’t it? May he be haunted every day by the images of children that he could have helped but couldn’t have been bothered to care about.

Meet your new Election Administrator

Solid choice.

Isabel Longoria

The Harris County Elections Commission on Friday appointed Isabel Longoria as the county’s first election administrator, who will assume the voter registration and election management duties that currently fall to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.

Longoria, a 32-year-old currently serving as a special adviser to the county clerk on voting rights, will lead the new elections administration office created by Commissioners Court in July. Most of the large urban counties in Texas already had adopted the administrator model, which allows one official to be responsible for all election-related duties.

County Clerk Christopher Hollins, who is running the current general election, will step down from his role next month. He previously told the Chronicle he had no interest in the administrator job.

[…]

An obscure five-member body called the county election commission selected Longoria on a 3-2 vote. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Hollins and Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schecter voted in favor; Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen and Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett were opposed.

Nielsen and Bennett previously had objected to appointing an elections administrator who is not accountable to voters.

Harris County will still have an elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector. However, they no longer will be responsible for any election-related duties. Historically, the roles were bifurcated because the tax assessor until the 1960s was responsible for collecting a poll tax.

See here for the background, and give my interview with Commissioner Ellis a listen to understand why he pushed for this. I was at best ambivalent about the idea, but he did a lot to persuade me. Picking Isabel Longoria, who is smart and accomplished and will for sure be a force for good with respect to voting rights and expanding access to the vote, does even more. I know that the ideal was to have someone in place before the election, so that person could get familiar with Harris County’s elections operations, but Longoria is already there, so that’s also a plus. Here’s an interview I did with Longoria last year when she was a candidate for City Council District H. I think she’ll do a great job, and I have high expectations.

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

Harris County tried to make it easier. The state GOP, various other Republican contingents, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, and others fought that choice every step of the way.

Much of the Democrats’ dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.

In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters’ options during the pandemic.

Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county’s election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.

The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access.

“As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas,” the GOP lawsuit read. “If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected.”

Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston’s residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.

“This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it’s just going to disperse from there,” said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. “I think in some ways they’re going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they’ve decided to hobble them at every turn.”

It’s no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation’s most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country’s most diverse cities.

“If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend,” Hollins said. “If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target.”

The piece will be largely familiar to anyone who has been following along, but go read the rest for a review. Again, I want to emphasize, Harris County – by which I mean Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia and County Clerk Hollins – made a choice to invest the time and money to make it easier to vote. They did things that I think were revelations to all of us, who have been so used to the old ways for so long. “Wait a minute, we can have a lot more early voting locations? And more voting by mail, with options to drop off ballots instead of waiting on and worrying about the postal service (but we can also track our ballot if we do mail it), and with drive-through service? Who even knew any of this was possible?” Just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and see the many selfies and videos people have posted with their enthusiastic reaction to all this.

And then remember that every step of the way, Republicans of all stripes have tried to stop any of this from happening. From the two Republican Commissioners voting against that money that was budgeted for the election, to the Governor (who, to be fair, did extend the early voting period, and did extend the period during which mail ballots could be dropped off to all of early voting, even if he did later limit it all to one location) and the Attorney General and the Steven Hotze/Allen West minions filing lawsuit after lawsuit, every single innovation was opposed with a barrage of lies about “vote fraud” and not much else. Thanks to a batch of sympathetic Republican judges, though, they have been quite successful at it.

I’ve made this point before, but this is a long-term loser for the Republicans. People like ease and convenience. They want new ways to do things that take less time and require less effort. The Democrats, in Harris County and elsewhere, want to give it to them. The Republicans want to take it away or make sure they never get it in the first place. What side of that argument do you want to be on in the next election, or even before that in the next legislative session? Texas is a lousy state in which to vote, with obstacles everywhere you look. That’s a policy choice, enabled by the Republicans who run the state. The only way to change that is to change who runs the state. Look at Harris County’s vision for how voting could and should be, and then look at what the Republicans have done about it. What happens when the voters want something to be done about this?

October Census deadline restored

Good news, though as with everything we can’t be sure just yet that it’s for real.

A federal judge in California late Thursday blocked the Trump administration from stopping the 2020 Census count next week, saying it should continue until Oct. 31, the date the Census Bureau had planned on before the administration abruptly shortened the count.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction in the case brought by the National Urban League — a group of counties, cities, advocacy groups and individuals — and other groups. Koh had, earlier this month, issued a temporary restraining order to keep the count underway. The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a hearing Tuesday, Koh had expressed irritation with Justice Department lawyers for missing a deadline she had set for them to produce internal documents connected to the case.

She referred repeatedly to documents finally released over the weekend and Monday in which career bureau officials said the data could not be properly collected and delivered to the president on the government’s new timeline.

See here and here for the background. The Chron lays out what’s at stake locally.

Natalia Cornelio, legal affairs director for [County Commissioner Rodney] Ellis, said at the point Trump yanked back the deadline in early August, only 63 percent of households nationwide and 54 percent in Houston had responded to the census.

Despite those numbers, on Aug. 3, the census director abruptly announced what the court is calling the “re-plan,” which shortened the timeline for households to respond by Sept. 30.

Cornelio said the accuracy of the census count is critical to Harris County’s future.

“Its outcome determines political representation and billions of dollars of funding for healthcare, education, disaster relief, and housing,” she said.

Right now, Harris County is looking at an estimated undercount of 600,000 households, based on data from Civis Analytics, the company the county has partnered with to track its census outreach, she said.

One area likely to suffer from an undercount is the southern portion of the county, a pie-slice-shaped region extending from downtown Houston to Bellaire to League City, according to Steven Romalewski, who maps census data for the Center for Urban Research at CUNY. In that area, 11 percent of the door-knocking has yet to be completed, a feat that would likely would have been impossible with less than a week to spare to the Sept. 30 deadline, he said.

In parts of Fort Bend and Galveston counties, nearly 18 percent of the door-knocking needs to be finished. And in Montgomery County 12 percent of homes have yet to be documented.

Romalewski said the ruling could have a major impact on areas with a relatively low “completion” rate for the door-knocking operation that’s meant to visit every household that has not responded. With more time to complete the process, census enumerators can attempt to visit households more than once and will be likelier to talk with someone in-person or determine that a unit is vacant. The fallback, which census officials consider less accurate, is to to count residents through administrative records.

I have a hard time understanding why any decent person would think this was a good state of affairs. At least we have a chance now to try and get this close to correct. That’s pending the likely appeal to SCOTUS, and who knows what they may do at this point. But at least for now, there’s a chance.

County’s plan to make in person voting safer is having an effect

So says this poll.

Voters with the highest risk of suffering COVID-19’s worst effects say they’re more likely to vote early this November, according to a Rice University study.

A poll of nearly 6,000 Harris County voters found roughly 80% said they will vote in the presidential election regardless of the threat from COVID-19. That jumped to 90% among African Americans, according to Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who authored the study.

“Among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, there’s a greater fear of COVID-19 – for obvious reasons, they have suffered more,” Stein said. “Yet, they were more likely to vote given what the county clerk has been doing.”

Stein said that’s largely the results of steps Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins took to make voting safer during the July primary runoff – such as providing PPE for poll workers, as well as hand sanitizer and finger coverings for voters.

The study, however, found substantial confusion among voters about how to cast a mail-in ballot – with more than a third wrongly believing they could hand in a mail-in ballot at an in-person polling location.

Stein said that confusion is in no small part because of the legal wrangling over voting by mail. Texas election law allows registered voters to request a mail-in ballot if they meet one of four conditions: if they are older than 65, if they are disabled, if they will be out of their home county during voting, or if they are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.

The poll data is embedded in the story, so click over to see. In short, if you go all in on expanding voting access, people will respond positively. Funny how that works. I’m not too worried about the confusion over returning mail ballots – there will be a number of dropoff locations as it is, and I expect there will be plenty of messaging over how to return them. The bottom line is, this is how it should be done. Kudos to County Clerk Chris Hollins, County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia for making it happen.

Scrambling to finish the Census

It’s a hell of a job, and it’s so important.

With a deadline looming for local governments to complete a population count for the 2020 Census, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is warning that the city could miss out on billions in federal funding for services such as road repairs and school lunches.

The reason? Less than 57 percent of the city’s residents have filled out the census form, a nine-question survey that can be completed by mail, phone or online. The city of Houston was planning a major outreach effort to avoid an undercount among young and poor people, immigrants and communities of color. The pandemic and economic insecurity from shuttered businesses, however, hampered outreach efforts and hobbled participation, officials say.

“September is the final month to respond to the Census,” Turner tweeted this month. “Over 40% of Houstonians have yet to answer 9 questions @mycensus2020.gov which could cost Houston $1500 person per year for 10 years. Please do so now.”

Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a city planner who has been coordinating outreach efforts, attributed low participation to political interference, civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. She is “terrified” about the economic and social reverberations of an undercount that’s now running about 15 percentage points behind 2010.

Every 1 percent of the population that’s not counted means $250 million in federal funding that the city is entitled to will be directed to another city, she said. “It’s that serious.”

“I tell people, ‘It’s our federal tax dollars… God forbid it goes to Dallas,’” she said. “Whether you were born here or not, it’s our job to make sure people here have basic services.”

Harris County faces a similar predicament, with just under 61 percent of residents having participated.

“There are so many pockets in Harris County where we haven’t heard from most people — perhaps a fraction of the people have responded but most have not responded,” said Tazeen Zehra, a senior census staffer in Houston.

Galveston County has had such a low return rate — 58 percent — that census workers have sought helpers from neighboring counties. Montgomery County is doing slightly better with just under 66 percent reporting. Fort Bend County has the highest participation rate in the state with more than 73 percent responding overall, including nearly 80 percent in Sugar Land.

The current deadline for local governments to complete their counts is Sept. 30. But outreach workers are hoping a federal judge will extend that deadline to Oct. 31 for the entire country at a court hearing in California next week. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined as plaintiffs in the California case because they’re concerned that their districts will be undercounted without an extension. The Trump administration previously offered an extension, then withdrew the offer.

We’ve discussed the challenges of the Census many times. The undercounting issue is so pervasive that even our retrograde state leadership has been forced to try to do something about it. There’s a temporary restraining order in that California lawsuit to which Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are parties, with a hearing scheduled for the 17th. I think the odds are good that the plaintiffs will prevail since “arbitrary and capricious” is the standard operating procedure for this administration, but even with those extra 31 days it’s going to be tough to get an adequate count. As with so many other things these days, this did not have to happen.

On a related note:

A three-judge federal panel in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers reapportion congressional districts next year — an effort that could have potentially cost Texas several seats in Congress.

In a significant departure from the way representation is typically divided up, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants from the base population used to distribute seats in Congress. But in its Thursday ruling, the panel of judges deemed the memo an “unlawful exercise of authority granted to the President.”

The constitutionally mandated count each 10 years of every person residing in the country is used to determine congressional representation from each state. Excluding undocumented residents from the counts used to parcel out congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of political power throughout Texas.

Trump pursued the change by arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not define “which persons must be included” in that base population. But the New York panel of judges blocked Ross, who oversees the census, from providing any information on the number of undocumented people in each state.

See here for the background. This would almost certainly cost the state of Texas at least one if not two of the Congressional seats that it’s otherwise likely to get. Not that any of our state leaders care, going by their utter lack of any reaction to that memorandum. The courts can’t save us from everything, but they have been there at times like this.

Census shenanigans halted for now

Good.

[On] Saturday, US District Judge Lucy Koh issued a temporary restraining order to stop Census Bureau officials from winding down door-knocking and online, phone, and mail response collection by September 30—a month early—writing that the shortened census timeline could cause “irreparable harm.”

“Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services, and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” Koh wrote.

The US Census Bureau had originally planned to end their count by October 31, a date chosen to accommodate delays caused by the pandemic. But on August 3, the bureau announced that it would stop collecting census responses by the end of September, and was attempting to “improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness.” At the time, just 63 percent of households had responded. Immediately afterward, four former census bureau directors issued a public statement explaining that a shortened timeline would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas of the country.” Later that month, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog, also reported that “compressed timeframes” in the 2020 census could undermine the overall quality of the census count.

Now, at least until a hearing on September 17, the Census Bureau may not take steps to wind down its counting operations, such as terminating field staff.

The Chron adds some detail.

At a hearing Friday, Justice Department attorney Alexander Sverdlov told Koh that any “anxiety” about the census was “not warranted” and that operations were shutting down only when 85% to 90% of residents in a particular locale had responded. He argued in a court filing that said the government’s “decisions on how and when to complete a census turn on policy choices that are unreviewable political questions.”

The population count is crucial for states’ U.S. House representation and the distribution of $800 billion in federal aid each year. Separately, President Trump is seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, an action challenged by California and other states in multiple lawsuits.

Koh questioned the government’s explanations at Friday’s hearing and was equally skeptical in Saturday’s ruling.

The administration has insisted that moving the deadline up to Sept. 30 was necessary to deliver the census results to the president by Dec. 31, rather than by next April, under a previous timetable. But Koh said the Census Bureau’s deputy director, Albert Fontenot, “acknowledged publicly less than two months ago that the bureau is ‘past the window of being able to get accurate counts to the president by Dec. 31.’” She said the bureau’s head of field operations made the same admission in May.

Koh also quoted Fontenot as saying, in a court filing Friday night, that the bureau has begun terminating its temporary field staff in areas that have completed their work, and it is difficult to bring them back. That underscores the need for a restraining order halting any further cutbacks until the legality of the one-month delay is resolved, she said.

See here for the background. Harris County, along with Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, are among the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. Perhaps if we can wait to deliver the results to the President until, say, January 21, we can feel a bit more comfortable that they will get a proper review, and that the data is sufficiently accurate. Perhaps we could also then see about fixing anything that was clearly effed up thanks to the Trump team’s constant efforts at sabotage. If we are blessed with an all-Democratic government, we can pass a bill to allow statistical sampling, which would help a lot. There’s no reason to trust anything this administration has done with the Census, and every reason to give a new administration a chance to fix the more egregious errors. The Trib has more.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

Harris County voters this November will have more time and more than a hundred additional places to cast ballots in the presidential election, including drive-through locations and one day of 24-hour voting, under an expansive plan approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

With the additional polling locations, an extra week of early voting and up to 12,000 election workers, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is pledging a smooth November election.

On a 3-2 vote, the court agreed to spend an additional $17.1 million — all but about $1 million to come from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund Hollins’s ambitious election plan. The money is on top of the $12 million the court approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting amid fears that in-person balloting could spread the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.

The clerk’s plan includes extended early balloting hours, including multiple nights to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, as well as new equipment to process an expected record number of mail ballots.

“The County Clerk’s office has made it our top priority to ensure a safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient election for the voters of Harris County this November,” Hollins told court members. “And to ensure this outcome, our office has … executed a robust set of 24 initiatives, many of which were piloted in the July primary runoff election.”

Hollins’ plan is among the boldest unveiled by a Texas elections administrator to improve a voter’s experience and increase turnout in a state with historically low participation, said University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

“These changes would rocket Harris County to the top of the list as the most progressive approach to voting,” Rottinghaus said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the plan could inadvertently undermine a push by Democrats to expand mail voting for voters under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hollins is making sure that voting in person is safer than going to the grocery store,” Jones said. “To the extent to which other county clerks follow his lead, it’s more and more difficult to make the case that voting in person represents a risk to someone’s health.”

In previous elections, Harris County operated about 40 early voting and 750 Election Day sites. The additional funding, Hollins said, will allow the county to operate 120 early voting and 808 Election Day locations.

He estimated 1.7 million voters may turn out, a record in any Harris County election and an increase of 361,000 since the 2016 presidential contest.

The two Republican commissioners voted No to this, one complaining that it cost too much and one complaining that there were too many voting locations inside Precinct 1, which is where the city of Houston is. Remember how Commissioners Court was 4-1 Republican before last year? Apparently, elections do have consequences.

See here and here for some background. I had mentioned Hollins’ assertion of 120 early voting locations following the HCDP precinct chairs meeting, where he addressed us after we voted for County Clerk and HCDE nominees. It’s still kind of amazing to see this all actually move forward. There’s also another piece to mention:

Doubling down on increasing the use of voting by mail in November, Harris County will send every registered voter in Texas’ most populous county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election.

The move, announced Tuesday by the county clerk’s office, puts Harris County — which has more than 2.4 million residents on its voter roll — ahead of most other counties when it comes to proactively working to bump up the number of voters who may request mail-in ballots. Election officials expect a record number of people to vote by mail this year, but not all of Harris County’s registered voters will ultimately qualify.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has said he was encouraged by the county’s return rate ahead of the July primary runoff election when it sent applications to every registered voter who was 65 or older. Typically, voters must print out or request applications for ballots by mail from the county or the state and deliver or mail them to their local elections office. In between the March primary election and the July primary runoff, the county saw a more than 100% increase in vote-by-mail applications, Hollins said.

“If you’re eligible to vote by mail, we want you to vote by mail. It’s safest for you. It’s safest for all your neighbors,” Hollins said in a previous interview, arguing that every additional mail-in voter would make the election safer for those voting in person because they’d have to stand behind one less voter who could potentially infect them. “Voting by mail is the safest way to vote, and all those who are eligible to vote should strongly consider casting their vote in that manner — not only for themselves but as a service, a duty to other residents.”

Wow again. The county will purchase mail-sorting equipment and hire a bunch of temporary workers to deal with all the mail. We definitely saw a lot of people who had not voted in the March primary return mail ballots in the runoff. That certainly suggests that sending out the mail ballot applications in such a universal fashion helped boost turnout, though without a deeper study of other runoffs I can’t say that for sure. The Texas Democratic Party is also sent out mail ballot applications, though of course they sent them just to Dems. I don’t know how many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over, and I don’t know how many people will apply for a mail ballot under the disability provision, but the potential certainly exists for there to be a lot of voting by mail this fall. Just remember to send everything in as early as you can, and consider using the mail ballot dropoff locations at the County Clerk annex offices.

You may think that this is a lot of mail ballot applications being sent to people who can’t or won’t use them, and you may think this is a lot of money being spent to conduct this election. I got a press release from usual suspect Paul Bettencourt complaining about how the County Clerk was making it too darn easy for people to vote. (Remember when he was in charge of voter registration in Harris County as Tax Assessor? Remember how voter registration totals lagged well behind population growth during his term, and never started to catch up until after he was gone? Good times, good times.) My scalding hot take is that what County Clerk Chris Hollins is doing this year should be the norm going forward. Open up a ton of early voting sites, have really convenient hours for them, send mail ballot applications to everyone, and more. All of us expect, every day, a level of ease, convenience, and time-savings in the things we do. I can’t think of any reason why “voting” shouldn’t be on that list. Maybe starting with this year, it finally will be.

Lawsuit filed to restore original Census deadline

Good.

Citing the high stakes of a botched census, Harris County and two of its Democratic county commissioners have signed on to a federal lawsuit trying to block the Trump administration’s efforts to end counting for the 2020 census a month earlier than planned.

The constitutionally required count of everyone living in the country had been extended due to the coronavirus pandemic and was to run through Oct. 31. But the Census Bureau announced earlier this month it will end the count sooner, moving up the deadline for responding to Sept. 30.

A federal lawsuit filed Monday in California alleges that the shortened schedule is unconstitutional because it will not produce a fair and accurate count and that the Census Bureau’s move violates federal administrative law because the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The lawsuit is led by the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters. Harris County, which is the state’s largest, joined in along with other local entities including the city of Los Angeles and King County in Washington. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia are signed on as individual plaintiffs.

“Undercounted cities, counties, and municipalities will lose representation in Congress and tens of millions of dollars in funding,” the lawsuit reads. “And communities of color will lose core political power and vital services. In contrast to these dire stakes, the immediate solution to this problem is simple: set aside and enjoin implementation of the impossibly-shortened Rush Plan, which is based on an unexplained change of position, and allow the Census Bureau to implement the plan that it had designed to fulfill its constitutional duties during the pandemic.”

[…]

The October cutoff had offered organizers crucial overtime for the count after the coronavirus pandemic derailed canvassing and outreach efforts that in some regions of the state, like in Harris County, had been in the works for years.

But those efforts have been further disrupted by what Harris County and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit dubbed as the “rush plan.” Mailers ordered before the change had to be redone, with county workers forced to purchase stickers to cover the old deadline on those materials.

In announcing the new deadline, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the bureau planned to hire more employees “to accelerate the completion of data collection” and avoid a delay in reporting counts for seats in Congress and the distribution of redistricting data.

“The Census Bureau’s new plan reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce,” Dillingham said in a statement.

But the earlier deadline has heightened the possibility that Texas will be undercounted and that low-income and Hispanic Texans in particular — who were already at the highest risk of being missed — will go uncounted at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging their communities.

here for some background, and here for a peek at the lawsuit. Combined with Donald Trump’s surely illegal order to keep undocumented immigrants from being counted for the purposes of apportionment, it’s like Trump and his enablers really don’t want Texas to get any additional Congressional districts next decade. I continue to marvel at Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton’s ability to shrug that kind of insult off. By the way, that “arbitrary and capricious” language is a sign that the plaintiffs are aiming for a ruling that Trump has once again violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the federal law that has killed multiple similar efforts by Trump in the past. Let’s hope we can add this one to that trash heap.

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.

Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.

Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.

“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”

Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.

The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.

This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:

Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.

By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.

“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.

“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”

Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.

“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.

Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.

The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.

As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.

I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.