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Commissioners Court

What to expect when you’re expecting a (larger) Democratic majority

I have three things to say about this.

Despite narrowly winning reelection against bruising campaigns by well-funded challengers, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court has made clear it intends to continue its progressive remake of Harris County.

Though neither County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia or Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis invoked the word “mandate,” their public promises of four more years of what they have been doing leaves little doubt about their intentions.

Adding a fourth Democrat in Precinct 4, where former county court at law judge Lesley Briones ousted incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle will only strengthen that resolve.

It also will prevent the lone Republican remaining on court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey from pulling off a quorum break as he did this year with Cagle to prevent the Democratic majority from passing its preferred property tax rate.

“Democrats will likely lean into a more progressive agenda now that they have uniform control of the court,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “They as much as campaigned on this promise.”

The question, Rottinghaus said, is how far Democrats should go in a progressive direction.

“Voters didn’t provide an overwhelming mandate for a major left shift and probably signaled some modest opposition to or, at least, different emphasis on priorities from the prior four years,” Rottinghaus said.

I’m old enough to remember the 2006 election, you know, the one where Rick Perry was elected with 39% of the vote. There was some Discourse at the time about how Perry should be humbled by his weak showing and should mend his ways and just somehow not be so Rick Perry-like. He did none of those things, was easily re-elected again in 2010, was briefly a Presidential candidate in 2012, and eventually became a Cabinet member. Mandates are what you make of them.

With the new stronger majority on the court, Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said she is concerned Democrats will be punitive toward those who have challenged them, pointing to Hidalgo’s victory speech delivered the day after the election.

In those remarks, Hidalgo spoke about her critics who have accused Democrats on the court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.” She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“That was sort of what was implied with her statement addressed to those people who didn’t support her. So, does that mean she’s not going to be supportive of the constables and the DA’s office?” Siegel said. “Because it’s one thing saying that you’re for funding and you want to make crime go down, but now it’s time to deliver. That’s what she told people.”

Oh, Cindy. Have you seen what Republicans are promising to do in Congress now that they have a slim majority? That’s what being punitive looks like. There are some significant policy differences between Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court on the one hand and Kim Ogg and the Constables on the other. Judge Hidalgo has – I’m gonna say it – a mandate to use her office to implement the policies she and the Court campaigned on and think are best. If Ogg and the Constables, who are all up for election in 2024, disagree about that, they can make a campaign issue out of it and hope to get their own mandate at that time. If Hidalgo and the Court really do overstep, that can be ammunition in their fight.

Still, Rottinghaus said, the opposition Democrats faced during the election cycle reflected the difficulty they had messaging on crime issues.

“Governing a massive and ideologically diverse county like Harris means compromising,” he said. “So, despite a solid majority, the close election shows Democrats on the Court need to encourage Republicans to come back to the table.”

This is just your periodic reminder that Harris County Commissioners Court operated with a Republican majority for at least 40 years – I’m only able to verify the Court’s makeup via election results back to about 1974 – before Dems took it in 2019. We operated under Republican laws, rules, norms, and assumptions for a long, long time. Only so much of that can be changed to reflect the current political reality in four years’ time, especially when a Republican minority was still able to wield a budget veto. The fact is that this now-larger Democratic majority – which even with the benefit of redistricting was still hard won – will continue to modify, update, and undo some of the things that we had long done under Republican rule. Everyone needs to wrap their heads around that.

SCOTx allows provisional votes to be counted

Good.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Harris County can include about 2,100 ballots cast during an extra hour of Election Day voting when officials certify the midterm results. But the state’s highest civil court also ordered Harris County to determine whether those late-cast ballots would affect the outcome of any races — and kept alive Attorney General Ken Paxton’s challenge to counting them.

It’s a win, at least temporarily, for Harris County officials in a fight against Paxton’s attempt to discard thousands of midterm ballots as election results are set to be certified Tuesday.

In an interview Tuesday, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee said that about 2,100 provisional ballots cast after 7 p.m. Election Day should be counted. Those ballots were cast after a district court judge ordered Harris County polling places to remain open an extra hour because many locations had opened late that morning.

“The votes that were cast during that time period pursuant to a court order are still perfectly legal. And there’s nothing in the law that prohibits them from being counted,” Menefee said. “So our perspective is that those provisional ballots are no different than any other provisional ballots — they are to be counted.”

Harris County officials argued as much in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday. That came one day after Paxton petitioned the Supreme Court to toss the late-cast ballots.

[…]

In at least one race, the provisional ballots could impact the outcome. After provisional and mail-in ballots were counted, the incumbent for Harris County’s 180th Criminal State District Court, DaSean Jones, went from trailing Republican Tami Pierce to leading by less than 500 votes, the Houston Chronicle reported.

See here for the background and here for the court’s order. It’s just one page long, and the gist of it is this:

In this mandamus proceeding, which challenges Harris County election officials’ processing of the “later cast votes,” we grant the following temporary relief under Rule of Appellate Procedure 52.10(b):

  • Respondents are directed to conduct the canvass of the November 2022 election as required by the Election Code.
  • As part of the canvass, respondents are ordered to separately identify in the vote tabulations the number of “later cast votes” for each candidate in each race and for or against each proposition, so that candidates, the parties, and this Court may ascertain whether the “later cast votes” would be outcome-determinative and so that the parties can assess the extent to which further litigation is warranted.
  • Respondents are ordered to provide the Court with a copy of the canvass results, including the separately tabulated “later cast votes,” as soon as they are available.

The petition for writ of mandamus remains pending before this Court.

I presume that last line is there in the event the provisional ballots have an effect on the 180th Criminal District Court race, in which event (again, I presume) the merits of the arguments will have to be addressed. Lawyers, please feel free to correct me as needed. The only other race that is close enough to be even theoretically affected by the provisional ballots is the County Criminal Court #3 race, where Porsha Brown trails by the even smaller margin of 267 votes. However, given that the provisional votes cast on Election Day favored Democrats, it’s even less likely for that race to be affected, and it would be impossible for both of them to be in a position to change.

I maintain as I said yesterday that it is highly unlikely that the 180th Court will be affected. If you throw out all of the Election Day provisional ballots, DaSean Jones still leads by 89 votes. There are apparently 2,100 provisional Election Day ballots in question, out of 2,555 total E-Day provisionals and 2,420 that included a vote in this race. The odds that Jones could lose the entire 360 vote net he got from the E-Day provisionals plus another 90 votes in this subset of the total ballots just strike me as extremely remote. I wish the stories that have been published about this would go into more detail about this as I have done – yes, I know, math is hard, but you could at least use “highly unlikely” language to offer some context. By the time this runs in the morning we’ll know what the official canvass says, and from there we’ll see if an election challenge will follow.

The Chron story, from a bit later in the day, has more details.

While the provisional ballots are included in the official count certified by Commissioners Court, the Supreme Court also is ordering the county to include in the final canvassed results a separate report that details the votes of the “later cast votes for each candidate in each race.” That way, candidates can determine whether this group of ballots would change the outcome of their race and “assess the extent to which further litigation is warranted.”

Given that Harris County voters cast more than 1.1 million ballots overall, the 2,000 provisional ballots have little chance of changing most election outcomes. However, a handful of candidates in tight races may consider legal challenges over election results.

“At this point, we do not anticipate that it impacts the outcome of any races,” Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Fombonne said. “Of course the [Texas Supreme Court] proceedings remain pending and the court could rule on something. And of course there can always be election contests. Many of those races were close, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see candidates filing election contests.”

[…]

On Election Night, the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and ACLU of Texas obtained a court order from a judge requiring all Harris County polling locations to extend voting hours until 8 p.m. after the groups argued in a lawsuit that late openings at some polling locations prevented some residents from voting.

Voters who were in line by 7 p.m. were able to vote normally, while those who arrived between 7 and 8 p.m. were allowed to cast provisional ballots.

That evening, in quick succession, Paxton’s office filed its writ of mandamus asking the Texas Supreme Court to vacate or reverse the court order, and the Supreme Court responded by staying that order, saying votes cast after 7 p.m. “should be segregated,” without specifying whether they must be excluded from the final count.

Because the proceedings are still ongoing, it is too soon to know whether the ability to extend voting hours in the future could be impacted.

“The court hasn’t specified whether or not that’s legal,” Fombonne said. “The proceedings are pending. There may be an opinion in the future that addresses that question.”

Hani Mirza, legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program, was part of the team that sought the court order extending voting hours this year. The group also filed a lawsuit in 2018 obtaining a similar court order in Harris County. Mirza said in the case four years ago, Paxton’s office did not ask the Texas Supreme Court to intervene.

Nor did Paxton’s office intervene this year when voting hours were also extended by one hour in Bell County because of early morning glitches with check-in systems. The Bell County attorney confirmed last week that a court order there had not been challenged by the Attorney General’s Office or another party.

“It doesn’t make any sense outside of, obviously, cynical partisanship and these targeted actions against Harris County, the most diverse county in the state” Mirza said.

That sort of addresses my question above about the last line in the SCOTx order. We’ll just have to keep an eye on that. The election has been certified by Commissioners Court, which if nothing else avoids the drama of any further delays. As to who might file a contest, again we’ll have to see. Seems like a lot of fuss for something that is unlikely to go anywhere, but who knows.

A few words from Judge Hidalgo

Plus a few words that she could have said but didn’t, which I will fill in.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who narrowly won re-election last week over a strong push from GOP candidates and donors, outlined plans for her next four years in office, including continuing anti-crime efforts and doubling down on early childhood education.

“In some ways, it’s a continuation of the past four years — the work we’ve done to tackle violent crime, for example. We’ve already been able to bring down that violent crime rate by at least 10 percent. These are August numbers. We need to do more. We’re going to continue doing that,” Hidalgo said in a press briefing held Thursday.

Hidalgo took a jab at the two Republicans on commissioners court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who broke quorum for more than six weeks to stop Democrats from passing their proposed property tax rate. While the Democrats were proposing a tax rate decrease, Ramsey and Cagle argued for a slightly lower rate on the grounds that residents needed more tax relief.

Because the court was not able to reach a state-required quorum of four members present to set the tax rate by the end of October, the county defaulted to what is known as the no-new revenue rate, the levy that would generate the same revenue as last year. The county is projected to take in an additional $45 million from new properties on the tax roll.

Facing a lower tax rate, the court voted to approve a lower budget, cutting nearly $100 million that was to be allocated to law enforcement, including raises for sheriff deputies.

“I’m proud of the record investments we’ve made in public safety, even despite the fact that two colleagues boycotted our budget process and forced us to cut some expenses we’d planned,” Hidalgo said. “Even with that, we’ve been able to see results and we’re working really hard, including with the recent bond that passed, to try to strengthen our criminal justice system.”

County government will keep tackling issues that traditionally have not been on the agenda, she said.

That’s what she said. She didn’t say anything about Constable/JP redistricting, either as a political goal or a policy goal. She didn’t say anything about taking all of those $100 million in forced budget cuts from Tom Ramsey’s precinct, which I would totally tell her to at least publicly muse about if I were advising her. She didn’t say anything about whiny crybaby sore losers pursuing their completely bogus “investigation” of the Elections office. She’s a responsible elected official, and I’m a yahoo on the Internet, so that probably has something to do with it. But these are things that could be said, and maybe will be said in a more measured and nuanced way at some point in the coming weeks. We’ll see. Oh, and be sure also to see the hilariously thin-skinned response she drew for her victory celebration from a local furniture salesman and gambling aficionado. Someone needs a nap, I’d say.

UPDATE: Said furniture salesman gets roundly panned by Chron readers.

DaSean Jones wins after provisional and cured mail ballots are counted

I’m sure someone is going to throw a fit over this.

Judge DaSean Jones

The Harris County felony judge race for the 180th criminal state district court flipped Friday night in favor of incumbent DaSean Jones after new mail and provisional ballots were counted.

Jones, who assumed office in 2019, has taken a 449-vote lead over Republican Tami Pierce. Pierce led by more than 1,200 votes the morning following the election. That number dwindled to 165 votes on Nov. 10.

Nearly 5,300 new ballots were counted in the latest update by Harris County Elections — including a little under 1,000 mail, nearly 1,800 early provisional and about 2,500 E-Day provisional.

[…]

According to Harris County Elections, the results posted Friday are the “final unofficial posting” before Tuesday when Harris County Commissioners Court is scheduled to canvass the results. The Elections office is still working on the reconciliation form.

See here, when I published the previous count, which was as of November 10 at 2:42 PM. Those were the last results before provisional votes were counted – as we know, those always take a few days for review. With the new restrictions on mail ballots, the same law that added those restrictions also allows for mail ballots that have a defect in them, such as lacking the correct ID number (drivers license number or last four digits of the SSN, depending on which you used to register with), to be corrected up to six days after the election, as noted by the Secretary of State. I presume that means up through Monday the 14th, I haven’t checked to see what the exact specification in the law is.

Be that as it may, here’s the November 10 report, which as noted had no provisional ballots and still some uncounted mail ballots. At that time, a total of 60,302 mail ballots had been counted, and as we know they favored Democrats countywide. Beto was leading in mail ballots in that report 62.25% to 36.76% over Greg Abbott, a net of 15,151 votes, while Lina Hidalgo had a 60.26% to 39.65% (11,960 votes) advantage. DaSean Jones was up 31,382 (56.12%) to 24,541 (43.88%) as of the 10th.

In the report from the 18th, which included the final mail totals as well as the provisionals, Jones gained 259 net votes, going to a 31,914 to 24,814 lead. Counted provisional votes were sorted into those from Early Voting and those from Election Day. His opponent Tami Pierce netted five votes in the former, winning them 850 to 845, but Jones added another 360 to his margin by taking Election Day provisional votes 1,390 to 1,030.

Overall, the EV provisional votes had a slight Democratic lean – looking just at the judicial races, the Democratic share of the EV provisionals was generally a fraction of a point to a point higher than the overall early vote percent. Jones was one of three Democratic judicial candidates to not carry the EV provisionals – Genmayel Haynes, one of the four remaining Democrats who lost, and Tami Craft, who had the closest margin of victory among the Dems who won before Jones’ ascent, were the other two. Dems won the Election Day provisional vote by a much more solid margin, in the 57-60% range in the judicial races I looked at. That right there suggests to me that the Republican claims about voting location problems affecting them disproportionately are bogus.

For what it’s worth, Beto now has 54.03% of the vote in Harris County; my previous post with the 2022 update on how statewide results compared to Harris County is now out of date, which is a lesson I’ll learn for next time. Lina Hidalgo increased her lead to 1.67 percentage points, now 0.09 points bigger than her percentage margin from 2018 though her raw vote margin of 18,183 is still slightly less. The Democrat among the four who lost who came closest to winning is now Porsha Brown, who now trails Leslie Johnson 50.01% to 49.99%, a 267 vote margin. Final turnout is 1,107,390, or about 43.75% of registered voters.

Commissioner-elect Briones

Good story.

Lesley Briones

Yes, Lesley Briones secured a victory that handed Democrats a stall-proof majority on Harris County Commissioners Court.

And yes, she upset Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle in a precinct where he has won reelection every cycle since 2011, beating the incumbent by about 3 points when polling in the week before the election marked Cagle with a firm lead in the race.

It’s also true that Briones’ election to office marks the first instance in its 145-year history that two women have served on Harris County Commissioners Court at the same time. It should also be noted that her presence adds a third representative with Latin American heritage to the five-member body in a county where Latinos make up the largest racial demographic group and have been growing every year since 2010.

But Briones maintains that the circumstances and implications surrounding her victory will not color her decisions as she prepares to assume her role as Harris County’s newly elected Precinct 4 Commissioner. A former Harris County Civil Court Judge who graduated from Harvard and went to law school at Yale, told Chron that she plans to approach her role as commissioner “just the way I did in court.”

“In my court, I wear a black robe, not a blue robe, not a red robe or any other color. And I listen to both sides of a case, or all sides if there are multiple parties. And I listened to the evidence and made my rulings in the fairest way possible,” Briones said.

“I am a proud lifelong Democrat, but it’s beyond partisanship,” said Briones. “It’s about being Americans, being Houstonians, being Texans. It’s about fixing potholes, improving parks, maintaining ditches. It’s about making sure we have the number of law enforcement officers we have,” she added.

Looking back at her and Democratic Judge Lina Hidalgo’s re-election victories, Briones said that “when people box themselves into corners, if it’s hyperpartisanship or polarization or however you want to frame it, it wasn’t serving people, and things weren’t getting done.”

First, that was the same poll that had claimed Judge Hidalgo was losing in her race; it underestimated her support by six points. To be fair, that poll showed a lot of undecided voters and noted that they came primarily from demographics that would favor Democrats. I’m just noting this all for the record, so we can examine the polls of 2024 more carefully.

I like the subtlety with which Commissioner-elect Briones calls out her vanquished opponent for his quorum busting – there’s more later in the story – which she had taken the opportunity to attack as it was happening in the latter stages of the campaign. I have no idea if this had an effect on the outcome – we don’t have any data on that – but as the victor one gets to write the narrative. Seems like a pretty good way to start telling the story of her tenure.

Finally, given that we will be talking a lot about Latino representation on Houston City Council in the coming year, not to mention the promised lawsuit to get rid of the At Large Council seats, it’s worthwhile to compare Harris County to Houston and note the disparity in their governing bodies. I will note that County Commissioner races are a lot more expensive than At Large City Council races, and that Briones won in a district that was not specifically drawn to elect a Latino. She had to defeat a diverse slate of opponents in her primary to get onto the November ballot. To be sure, she’s running in a partisan race, which can be (but isn’t necessarily) a boost to one’s fundraising prospects. She’s also running in an even-numbered year, which as we’ve discussed before in the City Council context means much higher turnout and thus a more diverse electorate than our odd-year municipal elections. If we had city elections in even-numbered years, we would almost certainly have a different-looking City Council. There are good reasons to not want to have those elections in even years, I’m just saying it’s another option, and something to keep in mind as we have this longer conversation in 2023. Campos has more.

If Greg Abbott demands an investigation, Greg Abbott will get an investigation

This is all still so dumb.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is launching an investigation into “alleged irregularities” during last week’s election after receiving a referral from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Ogg sent a letter to Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw asking for the Texas Rangers’ assistance on Monday, the same day Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation and the Harris County Republican Party filed a lawsuit accusing Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum and the county of numerous violations of the Texas Election Code.

The allegations include paper shortages at 23 polling locations, releasing early voting results before polls closed at 8 p.m., the improper disposition of damaged ballots and inadequate instructions on how poll workers were to manage instances in which the two-page ballots were not completely or adequately scanned into machines.

Under Harris County’s countywide voting system, residents had 782 locations to cast their ballots on Election Day. The paper shortages affected a small number of polling places.

The GOP lawsuit, however, claims “countless” voters were turned away due to the paper shortages and did not go to a second location to vote.

See here for the background. Ogg, who was not exactly an asset to Democrats in this election, has taken some heat for this. I get that and I’m not here to defend any of her recent actions, but I’m not exercised about this. There was going to be an investigation of some kind once Abbott threw his tantrum, and given that it can’t be Ken Paxton unless he’s invited in, it may as well be the local DA. Having the Texas Rangers assist makes sense in that it’s best to have outside help for an internal political matter. If this turns out to be much ado about nothing, as I believe it is, then let the Rangers take the blame from the Republicans for not finding anything. I am not going to waste my energy sweating about this at this time.

In the meantime:

Harris County Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum, speaking at length publicly for the first time since Election Day, pledged a complete assessment of voting issues Tuesday but said the county is in “dire need” of improvements to the way it conducts elections.

“A full assessment is in order,” Tatum told Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. “We have started that assessment, but I’d like to remind you and the public we are still counting votes.”

He said his office still was working its way through about 2,100 provisional ballots cast after 7 p.m. last Tuesday. A state district judge ordered the county to keep the polls open until 8 p.m. because some voting locations failed to open on time. Those provisional ballots are being kept separate from the unofficial count, pending a court ruling on the validity of those votes.

The deadline for the county to canvass the vote is Nov. 22.

[…]

Tatum told Commissioners Court his staff is contacting each election judge to gather feedback and assess challenges they faced, including any technical difficulties and the response they received.

At least one polling place had a late opening and certain locations ran out of paper, Tatum confirmed.

Tatum took over the job in August, just two months before early voting in the November election began. So far, he noted the county is in “dire need” of some critically needed improvements, including a better communication system, more maintenance and operations personnel and a tracking system for monitoring requests from the election workers running polling locations.

Tatum said he has spoken with election judges who requested technical help and did not receive it.

“Because I can’t track that technician within the system that I have, I can’t tell you what happened,” Tatum said.

I dunno, maybe wait until all the work is done and see what happens before storming the barricades? And yes, especially now that they have full control over the budget, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court needs to ensure this office has sufficient resources. We need to do better. Reform Austin has more.

This is all so dumb

I’m going to quote a large swath of this Reform Austin story because it sums up what has been happening the past couple of days better than I could.

Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation into Harris County’s election practices last Tuesday, saying that he wanted to get answers as to why a myriad of election administration issues occurred. Delayed openings at some polling places openings, a shortage of paper ballots at some polls, and understaffing problems plagued the county on election day.

“The allegations of election improprieties in our state’s largest county may result from anything ranging from malfeasance to blatant criminal conduct,” Abbott said in a statement but did not offer further details.

He added: “Voters in Harris County deserve to know what happened. Integrity in the election process is essential. To achieve that standard, a thorough investigation is warranted.”

But Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum responded that the county is “committed to transparency” and is already participating in the state’s election audit process.

“The office is currently reviewing issues and claims made about Election Day and will include these findings in a post-elections report to be shared promptly with the Harris County Elections Commission and the County Commissioner Court,” Tatum said in an emailed statement.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said that any problems on Election Day were technological and were related to the new voting machines Harris County was forced to purchase to bring the county into compliance with the new state law.

That law mandated the new models would be used as they produce a paper backup in addition to electronically capturing voter input. GOP state legislators passed the legislation called SB1 in their post-2020 “election integrity” campaign, despite any evidence of irregularities or fraud.

“Rather than waste resources on this nonsense, Gov. Abbott ought to investigate how many permitless guns have been used in violent crime,” Garcia said.

Also Monday, the Harris County Republican Party filed a lawsuit against Tatum and the county, alleging paper shortages at some voting centers amounted to violations of the Texas Election Code.

But Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu disputed the GOP’s assertions, saying that “The claim that there was, like, thousands and thousands of people who were disenfranchised, there’s no claim to that, there’s no proof of that,” Evbagharu said.

The delayed openings of roughly a dozen polling places on election day led a state district judge to allow an extra hour of voting time at those sites in response to a last-minute lawsuit filed by progressive advocates.

The Texas Civil Rights Project argued the case on behalf of the Texas Organizing Project, which sued to keep polls open. The suit stated it felt compelled to take legal action because election operation disruption earlier that day had caused voter disenfranchisement.

Hani Mirza, voting rights program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project said in a statement “We went to court because these closures and errors, especially in communities of color across Harris County, robbed voters of the opportunity to cast their ballot.”

Harris County District Judge Dawn Rogers ruled the effort was likely to prevail, and that the government had infringed upon voters’ rights, and thus she approved the additional time.

Not surprisingly, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office appealed the organization’s suit immediately, prompting the Texas Supreme Court to order the county to segregate votes cast during the extension while it reviews the judge’s action.

Honestly, all things considered, I thought Election Day didn’t go as badly as some people are saying. There were some glitches, and for sure we could do a better job with the paper, but we’re talking twenty-some locations out of 782. One reason we have so many locations is to give people plenty of other options if the place they went to is having issues. It’s a pretty small percentage, and so far as I can tell, no one has come forward to say that they were prevented from voting. Even more, the obvious remedy to voting locations that opened late or had to shut down for a period while paper issues were being sorted would have been to allow voting to go on for some extra time, so that anyone who was unable to get to another location and could not return before 7 PM would still have a chance to vote. Which the Texas Organizing Project and the Texas Civil Rights Project sought to do and got an order from a district court judge, which was then opposed by Ken Paxton and shot down by the Supreme Court. You can’t have it both ways.

The Elections Office is going to have to make its mandated reports. There was already going to be an audit of the November election, in case anyone has forgotten. Paxton is going to do whatever he’s going to do. If the local GOP is claiming that there was some kind of conspiracy to make it harder for Republicans to vote – pro tip: never believe a word Andy Taylor says – all I can say is good luck proving intent. Until shown otherwise, this all looks like a bunch of hot air and sour grapes. The Trib, the Chron, and the Press have more.

The case for redrawing Constable/JP precincts

A Twitter thread of interest:

Note that he means the Justice of the Peace courts. Current maps for those precincts are here. Note that the Constable and Justice of the Peace precincts are the same. Note also how large geographically precincts 4 and 5 are. I’m sure they were quite empty in the 70s, but that was a long time ago. That’s one of the main theses in the accompanying article, which focuses on population growth and caseloads, and how they affect people facing evictions, which are handled by the JP courts.

Every Monday morning, Judge Israel Garcia, Jr., who serves as Harris County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5, stares down a punishing docket of eviction, debt collection, and traffic cases for the week. His courtroom has a line out the door of parents and children, desperate to resolve a dispute with their landlord or settle a longstanding debt. But the law can be unfriendly to these defendants, and Judge Garcia must know that relief will never come.

All Justice of the Peace Courts in Harris County deal with large caseloads, but the number of cases in Precinct 5 is seemingly endless. If you visit our Harris County Evictions Dashboard, you’ll see how imbalanced the caseload really is – there are 10 times as many cases in Precinct 5 compared to Precinct 6.

What’s going on here? Do renters in Precinct 5 have a much higher risk of eviction than renters in other areas? Are its residents that much more likely to fall behind on their credit card payments or speed through a school zone? No. The reason why Precinct 5 has more cases is because it has more people –  a lot more people. And it has more people because Harris County hasn’t redrawn the boundaries of JP courts since 1973.

For this blog post, I explore just how lopsided the caseloads in Harris County’s JP Courts have become due to a lack of redistricting over the past 50 years. I also show the results from a simulation I ran of 1,000 new maps for the courts that account for population change. Every single one is better than what we have today.

I discussed the political case for redistricting the Constables in an earlier post. That’s a separate matter from what David McClendon is advocating. The two goals, if they are indeed goals for Commissioners Court, would be in some tension here. My first thought is whether McClendon took the Voting Rights Act into account in this exercise, because Precinct 6 – one of two precinct with Hispanic Constables and (with the election of Dolores Lozano in Precinct 2) all Hispanic JPs – would be first in line to be made larger. Precinct 2, the other of those two precincts, is right next to it. Precincts 3 and 7 have Black Constables and JPs. Any potential redrawing of these precincts needs to ensure that Black and Hispanic voters aren’t losing representation.

The Constables are currently five Dems and three Republicans, with Precincts 4 and 8 being all-GOP, while Precinct 5 has one JP from each party following Israel Garcia’s win in 2020. As a practical political matter, Commissioners Court is not going to draw a new set of maps that will make it harder for Democrats to win. Again, as far as I can tell, McClendon didn’t take that into account.

And that’s fine. That wasn’t his idea, and his goal was to even out the caseloads to enable a better process and hopefully better outcomes for tenants facing eviction. The good news here is that McClendon ran a thousand maps, each of which were better than the existing one for his purposes. That strongly suggests to me that the political purpose of not making it harder for Dems to get elected – while also at the least not making it easier for a few specific Constables to get re-elected – can be achieved at the same time as making the courts function better for everyone. Maybe there’s not an optimal solution for each in the same map, but surely improvements can be made. I would absolutely advocate for Commissioners Court to take a long look at this.

In which Harris County Republicans look for moral victories

Believe me, as a Texas Democrat and a longtime fan of the Rice Owls, I know what it looks like to search for moral victories in the face of defeat. It looks like this.

Feel the power…

Harris County Republicans on Tuesday posted their strongest showing in years, appearing to capture their first countywide race since 2014 and nearly unseating County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

In the end, though, Hidalgo eked out a narrow victory over Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, leaving the party all but empty-handed despite massively outspending Democrats and launching an all-out push to reclaim control of Harris County Commissioners Court.

Under new precinct boundaries crafted by Democrats last year to expand their court majority, Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle also came up short against Democrat Lesley Briones, whom he trailed by more than 3 percentage points with all voting centers reporting. Democratic Commissioner Adrian Garcia also held off Republican Jack Morman by more than 5 points in Precinct 2.

Mealer conceded early Wednesday morning, cementing a 4-1 majority for Democrats on Commissioners Court.

Even Republicans acknowledged this year could be their last realistic chance, and certainly their best shot in recent years, at winning a county that has seen pronounced demographic shifts over the last couple of decades. Harris County’s population is growing younger and more racially and ethnically diverse, while adding more college-educated residents — groups that all tend to favor Democrats, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

However, Harris County Republicans saw a confluence of factors — the felony indictment of three Hidalgo aidesa rise in homicidesDemocrats bracing for a Republican wave year nationally — that appeared to put the county judge race and other countywide seats in play. Also fueling their optimism was the removal last cycle of straight-ticket voting, meaning voters no longer can cast their ballots for every candidate from one party by pressing a single button.

“The best chance to unseat a Democrat in Harris County is when they’re new to office, when they’re somewhat vulnerable, and when national trends cut against the Democrats,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s the perfect storm.”

Typically a low-profile affair, this year’s county judge race unfolded into one of Texas’ marquee election battles. Republican and business community donors, sensing Hidalgo was vulnerable, poured millions of dollars into Mealer’s campaign and political action committees backing Republican candidates, leaving Hidalgo and other local Democrats financially overwhelmed in a race few expected to be truly competitive a year ago.

The conditions in Harris County’s high-profile races appeared to boost Republicans in down-ballot judicial contests, five of which swung in favor of the GOP. Through unofficial results, Democrats appeared to lose control of two criminal district courts and three county misdemeanor courts, marking the party’s first countywide defeats in eight years.

Republicans also held a number of Democratic judicial candidates under 51 percent, far narrower results than their recent courthouse sweeps.

“We are light years from where we were four years ago. Light years,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said to a crowd at the Harris County Republican Party’s election night watch party.

Atop the ballot, Democrat Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County over Republican Gov. Greg Abbott by about 9 percentage points — far less than his 17-point margin over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

That year, O’Rourke helped usher in a wave of Democratic wins in down-ballot county races. Under less favorable conditions atop the ticket this year, Democrats running for administrative countywide offices still narrowly retained the seats they had first captured four years ago.

I wrote three posts talking about the connection between statewide performance and Harris County performance for Democrats. This might be a good time to point out that when Republicans were running the table in Harris County in the off-year elections, they were also absolutely stomping Democrats statewide. This was a worse year for Dems statewide than 2020 and 2018 were, but it was (ahem) light years from where they were in 2014 and 2010. Light years.

I mean, I had plenty of moments of doubt and worry going into this race. Some of those late polls, the ones that had Beto down by 12 or 13 points, were in line with the expectation that Harris County would be at best a mixed bag for Dems, with the real possibility of not only losing Judge Hidalgo’s race but also the majority on Commissioners Court. Hell, having both Lesley Briones and Adrian Garcia also lose wasn’t out of the question if things were really going south. I would have preferred to not lose any of those judicial races, but I can live with it. At least now there will be benches to run for that don’t require primarying someone. Oh, and by the way, all five of the losing Democratic judges had a higher percentage of the vote than Mealer did. Just so you know.

I will say, and I’ll say it again when I write another post about the state-county connection to update it for 2022, I do think the campaign to blame Democrats for crime, and all the money spent on it, probably moved the needle enough to get at least a couple of those Republican judicial candidates over the hump. They still needed the good statewide showing to be in a position to take advantage, but every little bit helps. But crime has been declining, and the crime rate has basically nothing to do with who’s on the bench anyway, so good luck replicating that in 2026.

I must note, by the way, that some people (on Twitter and on the CityCast Houston podcast) have mentioned that the five losing Democratic judicial candidates were all Black and all had names that might suggest they are Black. On the podcast, Evan Mintz noted this and mentioned the 2008 election, in which several Democratic judicial candidates with uncommon names had lost. I will just say that if you scroll through the Election Day results you will see quite a few Democratic candidates who are Black and whose names might also suggest they are Black that won. I’ve said before, there is always some variation in the range of performance for the Democratic judicial candidates. I’ve never found a pattern that consistently explains it, and that includes this year. As such, I am very reluctant to offer reasons for why this happens. I do think as I have just stated that the millions of dollars spent on blaming crime on the judges had some effect, but if it did then the effect was an overall one, with the range of scores being a bit lower than it might have been. That was enough to push a handful of Dems below fifty percent.

By the way, the two Republican judicial candidates who lost by the largest margins were named “Geric Tipsword” and “Andrew Bayley”. Make of that what you will.

I guess the question I’d ask is how confident are you right now that things will be better for your team in 2024, and in 2026? I feel pretty confident right now that Dems will sweep Harris County in 2024. The track record in Presidential years is a bit longer and more decisive. For 2026, it’s much harder to say. The possibility of a bad year in what could be Year 6 of President Biden or Year 2 of President Some Other Democrat is one that can’t be dismissed. You couldn’t get me to wishcast a 2026 gubernatorial frontrunner right now for love or money. Current trends suggest Dems would be in a better position in four years even with those possibilities, but trends don’t always continue as they have in the past, and even when they do they can slow down or bounce around a bit. With all that said, I still like our chances. Ask me again in three years when it’s filing season for that election.

Judge Hidalgo celebrates her win

Winning is sweet. Victory laps are even sweeter.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Fresh off a narrow reelection that was anything but assured, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday held a news conference to praise colleagues, thank supporters and call out some members of her own party for not backing her campaign.

“There were some elected officials that weren’t there because they didn’t think it was convenient, those in my own party that wouldn’t do an ad for me, that wouldn’t have a fundraiser, that wouldn’t help when it got tough,” Hidalgo said. “And oh, I remember who they are.”

The Hidalgo campaign declined to specify which officials she was addressing.

Hidalgo also addressed critics during the election cycle who accused the Democrats on Commissioners Court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.”

She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“This person who is supposed to represent justice in this county more than once said with a straight face ‘stop the defunding’ knowing full well that the budget had increased,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Despite being significantly out-funded by Republican newcomer Alexandra del Moral Mealer, Hidalgo emerged from early voting ahead of her opponent and narrowly maintained that lead throughout the night as votes were counted. The final unofficial tally, released just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, put Hidalgo in front of Mealer by slightly more than 17,000 votes, or 50.8 percent of the nearly 1.1 million votes cast. That was a narrower margin of victory than her surprise election in 2018, when the then-27-year-old ousted popular Republican Ed Emmett.

Mealer tweeted her concession around 9:30 a.m.

“While we did not accomplish our goal of changing leadership in Harris County, we were successful in elevating the profile of critical issues like the need to appropriately resource our law enforcement and criminal justice system as well as the desire to eliminate corruption and increase transparency in local government,” Mealer said in a statement. “This campaign was always about good government and I am hopeful that we have played a role encouraging that going forward.”

Hidalgo acknowledged her opponent’s hard-fought campaign, much of which centered on crime, blaming policies championed by Hidalgo for rising numbers of homicides the past two years, and accusing the first-term judge of corruption, mostly related to a controversial COVID vaccination outreach contract that resulted in indictments against three of her aides.

Since July 1, Mealer raised more than $8.5 million, much of it from large donors like Gallery Furniture owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, an early supporter of her campaign. Hidalgo, who has refused to accept campaign contributions from county vendors, raised $2.4 million in that period.

“She had almost $10 million in the bank and she had a U.S. senator and she had a furniture salesman,” Hidalgo said in her speech, taking a swipe at McIngvale who ran several campaign ads in support of Mealer.

“I want to thank Alex Mealer for running a hard fought campaign,” Hidalgo said. “I want to thank her for her concession. And I want to thank her again for her service to our country.”

Surrounded by union leaders and Democratic party elected officials, Hidalgo thanked her supporters for helping her block walk, raise money and host campaign events.

Much of her speech was of a celebratory nature, citing past accomplishments with current Commissioner Court colleagues Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia.

“We have done so much from the very first meeting,” Hidalgo said, citing countywide voting as one example of successes while she has been in office. “We did that at the first meeting in 2019.”

In re: the margin of victory, they are referring to the raw vote differential. In 2018, Judge Hidalgo won by 19,277 votes, while in 2022 it was 17,397 votes. Of course, there were more total votes cast in 2018 than in 2022, which has an effect. As it happens Judge Hidalgo’s margin of victory as a percentage of the vote is greater now than it was then: In 2018 she won 49.76% to 48.18% (there was a Libertarian candidate that took the rest). In 2022, it was 50.79% to 49.19%, with a write-in candidate getting the other 0.02%. That means she won this year by 1.60 percentage points, compared to 1.58 in 2018. Pick your preferred measure of expression.

As for what may be on the agenda for 2023, I’m not the first person to suggest this, but don’t be surprised if Commissioners Court looks at redrawing the Constable/JP precincts. Most counties just have the Constable and JP precincts be the same as the Commissioners Court precincts. Harris has its own weird precincts for them that don’t match up in population and (as I understand it haven’t been updated since the 70s. There’s also no shortage of bad blood between (at least some) Constables and the Court, so a bit of payback may be in order. I suspect this would be a complex matter and would surely invite litigation so I don’t think it will be undertaken lightly, but I will be surprised if it doesn’t at least come up.

Beyond that, I expect the Court to do more of what it’s been doing, with the freedom of knowing that their next budget can’t be busted by no-shows. The main obstacle will continue to be interference from the state and whatever new BS legislation may come down. This is where I remind you that Harris County was under a Republican majority on Commissioners Court going back to at least the mid-70s, which is as far back as I’ve been able to verify, up until 2019 when Dems finally achieved a 3-2 advantage. We’ve done things a certain way for a long damn time. Making changes to make things better will take time, too. For now, we can celebrate a bit as we look forward. Let it out, Judge Hidalgo. You’ve earned it. The Press has more.

Some opening thoughts on the 2022 election

Done in the traditional bullet-point style. There may or may not be a part 2 to this, depending on the usual factors.

– Obviously the overall result was disappointing. It was harder to see a Beto victory this year from the polling data than it was in 2018, but that doesn’t lessen the sting. There were polls that had the race at about five or six points and there were polls that had it at about 11 to 13. One of those groups was going to be more right than the other, and unfortunately it was the latter.

– I’m not prepared to say that turnout was disappointing. I mean sure, Beto didn’t get the margins he had gotten four years ago in the big urban counties, and that was partly due to lower turnout. But look, turnout was over 8 million, which up until the 2020 election would have been considered Presidential level. Indeed, more votes were cast in this year’s Governor’s race than in the 2012 Presidential race. We didn’t build on 2018, certainly not as we wanted to, and turnout as a percentage of registered voters is down from 2018, but this was still by far the second highest vote total in an off year election, not too far from being the first highest. There’s still plenty to build on. And for what it’s worth, election losers of all stripes often complain about turnout.

– That said, I think any objective look at the data will suggest that more Dems than we’d have liked stayed home. I don’t know why, but I sure hope someone with access to better data than I have spends some time trying to figure it out. How is it that in a year where Dems nationally outperformed expectations the same didn’t happen here? I wish I knew.

– Turnout in Harris County was 1,100,979, according to the very latest report, for 43.21% of registered voters. A total of 349,025 votes were cast on Election Day, or 31.7% of the total. That made the pattern for 2022 more like 2018 than 2014, and the final tally came in at the lower end of the spectrum as well.

– For what it’s worth, predictions of a redder Election Day than Early Voting turned out to be false, at least when compared to in person early voting; Dems did indeed dominate the mail ballots, with statewide and countywide candidates generally topping 60%. Those five judicial candidates who lost only got about 55-56% of the mail vote, and did worse with early in person voting than their winning peers. On Election Day, most Dems did about as well or a little better than early in person voting. The Dems who fell a bit short of that on Election Day were generally the statewides, and it was because the third party candidates did their best on Election Day; this had the effect of lowering the Republican E-Day percentages as well. Go figure.

– In answer to this question, no I don’t think we’ll see Beto O’Rourke run for anything statewide again. If he wants to run for, like Mayor of El Paso, I doubt anyone would stake their own campaign on calling him a loser. But his statewide days are almost surely over, which means we better start looking around for someone to run against Ted Cruz in 2024. We know he’s beatable.

– Before I let this go, and before the narratives get all hardened in place, one could argue that Beto O’Rourke was the most successful Democratic candidate for Governor since Ann Richards. Consider:


Year  Candidate       Votes    Deficit    Pct   Diff
====================================================
2002    Sanchez   1,819,798    812,793  39.96  17.85
2006       Bell   1,310,337    406,455  29.79   9.24
2010      White   2,106,395    631,086  42.30  12.67
2014      Davis   1,835,596    960,951  38.90  20.37
2018     Valdez   3,546,615  1,109,581  42.51  13.30
2022   O'Rourke   3,535,621    889,155  43.80  11.01

He got more votes than anyone except (just barely) Lupe Valdez, but he came closer to winning than she did. He got a better percentage of the vote than anyone else, and trailed by less than everyone except for Chris Bell in that bizarre four-way race. Like Joe Biden in 2020, the topline result fell short of expectations, but compared to his peers he generally outperformed them and you can see some progress. It will take someone else to move to the next steps.

– I’ll take a closer look at the State House data when it’s more fully available, but overall I’d say Republicans did pretty well compared to the 2020 baseline. That said, there are some seats that they will have a hard time holding onto. Getting to 75 will probably take continued demographic change and the continuation of the 2016-2020 suburban trends, and a lot of work keeping up with population growth. All that will take money and wise investment. That’s above my pay grade.

– In Harris County, I was swinging back and forth between confidence and panic before Tuesday. In the end, I’m pretty happy. Getting to that 4-1 margin on Commissioners Court is huge, and that’s before savoring the end of Jack Cagle’s time in power and the enormous piles of money that were set on fire to oust Judge Hidalgo. I may have made a few rude hand gestures at some houses with Mealer signs in my neighborhood as I walked the dog on Wednesday. One of the pollsters that was close to the target statewide was the UH Hobby Center poll, but they botched their read on the Harris County Judge race, finding Mealer in the lead and underestimating Hidalgo by six points. Hope y’all figure that one out.

– In the end there were 59,186 mail ballots counted, after 57,871 mail ballots were returned at the end of early voting. These took awhile to be fully counted – as of the 5 AM tally, only 55,393 mail ballots had been tabulated in the Governor’s race, with fewer in the others. In the past, we have seen the mail ballot total go up by quite a bit more in the days between the end of early voting and the Tuesday results – for example, in 2018 there were 89,098 ballots returned as of the end of the EV period and 97,509 mail ballots tabulated. I have to assume this is about the rejection rate, which if so I’ll see it in the post-canvass election report. If not, I’ll try to ask about it.

– By the way, since there were more mail ballots counted at the end, they had the effect of giving a small boost to Democratic performance. There was a slight chance that could have tipped one or more of the closest judicial races where a Republican had been leading, but that did not happen. It almost did in the 180th Criminal District Court, where incumbent Dasean Jones trails by 465 votes – 0.04 percentage points – out of over a million votes cast. If there are any recounts, I’d expect that to be one. Unless there are a ton of provisional ballots and they go very strongly Democratic it won’t change anything, so just consider this your annual reminder that every vote does indeed matter.

I do have some further thoughts about Harris County, but I’ll save them for another post. What are your initial impressions of the election?

UPDATE: There were still votes being counted when I wrote this. I think they’re done now. Turnout is just over 1.1 million as of this update.

Omnibus 2022 election results post

It’s already midnight as I start writing this. I’m just going to do the highlights with the best information I have at this time.

– Nationally, Dems are doing pretty well, all things considered. As of this writing, Dems had picked up the Pennsylvania Senate seat and they were leading in Georgia and Arizona. They held on in a bunch of close House races. The GOP is still expected to have a majority in the House, but not by much. The Senate remains very close.

– Some tweets to sum up the national scene:

– On that score, Republicans appear to have picked up CD15, which they drew to be slightly red, while the Dems took back CD34. Henry Cuellar is still with us, holding onto CD28.

– Statewide, well. It just wasn’t to be. The running tallies on the SOS Election Result site are a bit skewed as many smaller red counties have their full results in while the big urban counties have mostly just the early votes counted. Heck, they didn’t even have Harris County early results there until after 10:30 PM (the point at which I went and snoozed on the couch for an hour because I was driving myself crazy). It will be a ten-point or more win for Abbott, I just can’t say yet what. A survey of some county results early on suggested Beto was around where he’d been percentage-wise in most of the big counties (Tarrant, where he was a few points behind, being an exception) but was going to need some decent Election Day numbers to approach his raw vote margins. He didn’t do as well as he had done in 2018 in some of the larger suburban counties like Collin and Denton and didn’t do as well in South Texas.

– He also didn’t do as well in Harris, which made for some close races and a few Republican judicial candidates with early leads. A couple of those had eroded by the 11:30 addition of more Election Day and mail ballots, but we might see a few Republican judges on the bench next year. As of that 11:30 PM vote dump, Beto was leading Harris County by nine points, well short of where he had been in 2018.

– But as of this time, and with the proviso that I don’t know which voting centers have reported and which are still out, the Harris County Democratic delegation was all ahead, though not be a lot. This includes Lesley Briones for County Commissioner, which if it all holds would give Dems the 4-1 margin on Commissioners Court that they sought. There are still a lot of votes to be counted as I type this.

– Going back to the state races, Republicans may pick up a seat or two in the Lege. HD37 was leaning their way, and they may hold onto HD118. Dems were leading in HDs 70 (by a little) and 92 (by a more comfortable amount), two seats that had been drawn to siphon off Dem voters in formerly red areas. As of this writing, the open SD27 (Eddie Lucio’s former fiefdom) was super close but all of the remaining votes were from Hidalgo County, where Dem Morgan LaMantia had a good lead in early voting. That one will likely be a hold for Dems. On the other hand, SBOE2 was leaning Republican, so Dems may be back to only five members on the SBOE.

– There were of course some technical issues.

Tight races in Harris County, where around 1 million votes will be tallied, could hinge on whether ballots cast after 7 p.m. will be included in the count, after an Election Day filled with glitches and uncertainty for voters and poll workers alike.

Harris County District Court Judge Dawn Rogers signed an order keeping all county voting sites open until 8 p.m., only to have the Texas Supreme Court stay her order just in time to create confusion at voting locations letting voters arrive late.

In a three-sentence order, the court said voting “should occur only as permitted by Texas Election Code.” The high court also ruled that votes cast in the final hour should be segregated. That means those votes can’t be counted until the court issues a final ruling.

That ruling could be critical in the event that certain county races, including the hard-fought battle for county judge between Democratic incumbent Lina Hidalgo and Republican challenger Alexandra del Moral Mealer, are close enough to be decided by those set-aside votes.

“Every single vote counts,” said Laila Khalili, a director at the voter engagement group Houston in Action. “Some elections can be won by just a couple of votes.”

Khalili watched a handful of voters file provisional ballots at the Moody Park voting location.

The request to keep the polling sites open late was made by the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and ACLU of Texas, citing what they said were late election location openings and poor planning that disenfranchised some voters.

“These delays have forced countless voters to leave polling places without being able to vote,” the groups said.

Harris County was unable to estimate or confirm how many votes were cast after the typical 7 p.m. cutoff that allows for anyone in line by that time to cast a ballot.

Voters who arrived between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. cast a provisional ballot, according to the county attorney’s office. Some voters, later in the evening, complained that election workers even denied them that option, as the Supreme Court stay was broadcast to the 782 polling locations.

There were some issues with temporarily running out of paper at some locations and some long lines at others. We’ll just have to see how many provisional votes there are.

– Finally, for now, all of the county and city bond issues were passing. The closest ones as of this time were city of Houston prop E, up by eight points, and Harris County prop A, up by 11.

I’m going to hit Publish on this now and go to bed. I’ll make updates in the morning, either here or in a new post.

UPDATE: It’s 2:30 and I never actually got to sleep. With 334 of 782 voting centers reporting, Dems have gained some more ground in Harris County. Beto leads by nine points, while Judge Hidalgo is up by almost two full points and over 15K votes. She has led each aspect of voting. A couple of Dem judges who trailed early on are now leading, with a couple more in striking distance. There will be some Republican judges next year barring something very unexpected, but the losses are modest. All things considered, and again while acknowledging there are still a lot of votes out there, not too bad.

UPDATE:

An email with the summary file hit my inbox at 4:51 AM. Democrats officially have a 4-1 majority on Harris County Commissioners Court. By my count, Republicans won five judicial races in Harris County.

Here’s the result of the Republican Commissioners’ budget busting

The Republican minority on Commissioners Court made this happen.

Harris County will eliminate more than 500 vacant jobs, delay some flood control projects, postpone a sheriff deputy cadet class, and cancel raises and cost of living adjustments for county law enforcement after the default to a lower tax rate forced by the two Republican commissioners.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle skipped six straight Commissioners Court meetings to block the adoption of any property tax rate by the Democratic majority, saying taxpayers deserved a break amid soaring inflation and the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

With early voting underway and three members of Commissioners Court on the ballot, the county’s annual budget process also played out amid escalating political rhetoric, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of defunding the police.

State law requires a quorum of four members of the court to adopt a tax rate. By preventing the court from setting the rate last week — the last week it legally could — the Republican commissioners forced the county to default to what is known as the no new revenue rate, the levy at which the county will take in the same revenue as last year, plus $45 million from property added to the tax rolls in the last 12 months. Only $15 million of that additional revenue will go toward operations, the county budget office said recently; the remaining $30 million will be used for debt payments.

The no new revenue rate is 53 cents per $100 of assessed value, down from the previous rate of 58.1 cents. In a bid to reach a compromise with Cagle and Ramsey, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia had proposed a rate 56.3 cents, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority. It would have included 200 additional members of law enforcement. Cagle earlier had pitched a rate of 55.6 cents and included 200 new lawmen. For the owner of a $300,000 home, the difference between the two commissioners’ proposals would have been about $16.

[…]

Budget Director Daniel Ramos said departments have eliminated an estimated 560 vacant positions as a result of the lower-than-expected tax rate.

He said most of those positions were planned to be filled and that in some cases, departments have used savings from not filling vacant positions to pay for other expenses such as contractors, overtime and maintaining services. Eliminating those vacant positions will mean reduced services in those departments, including the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, he said.

“IFS has medical examiner vacancies because of how specialized the position is, so they use the savings from positions being vacant to offset medical contractors to complete autopsies,” Ramos said. “Harris County will do less autopsies because they don’t have that funding anymore.”

The eliminated vacancies in the sheriff’s office will result in the department reducing the number of people it can hire and the amount of overtime it can pay patrol officers.

The $16.6 million loss for the sheriff’s office is the equivalent of 175 entry-level deputies, according to a memo from Ramos.

Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez will decide what gets funded and what does not as the department makes “some tough decisions.”

The postponed cadet class could be restored later, Spencer said.

“We expect to continue to lose deputies at the usual attrition rate, so it might be a situation where we have a cadet class down the road just to keep our heads above water with staffing,” Spencer said. “It wouldn’t be adding positions. It would just be replacing ones that we’re able to afford.”

Ramos said county staffers, including law enforcement officers, are feeling the effects of the county receiving less tax revenue than expected as planned cost of living adjustments and pay increases have been canceled.

“Most departments were able to absorb it into their vacant positions,” Ramos said. “We don’t have a final number quite yet, but there are hundreds of vacant positions that got eliminated across basically all departments.”

The Harris County Flood Control District lost its proposed $23 million increase, while the Harris Health System budget decreased from a proposed $957 million to $822 million.

Some flood control maintenance projects will be deferred to future years, Ramos said in a memo to county leaders last month.

“The type of projects that will be deferred include erosion repair, outfall repairs, sediment removal and conveyance improvements,” Ramos said. “Further deferral of maintenance projects will increase the risk of infrastructure failures during flood events.”

Additionally, the lower funding for the flood control department could jeopardize a $290 million federal grant for sediment removal that requires the county to advance the cost of the project before being reimbursed.

See here and here for some background. There’s a separate story about the effects this will have on Harris Health. My “favorite” detail from this story is that the cuts will affect “cybersecurity upgrades”, which speaking from my professional perspective sure seems like a bad idea. And the most fun part about all this is that unless there’s a 4-1 split on Commissioners Court, all this can happen again. Doesn’t seem like a great way to run a government, but it’s what we’ve got.

Ramsey and Cagle finish sabotaging the budget

They got what they wanted.

Harris County’s prolonged political battle over the budget came to an end today. For over a month, the two GOP members of Commissioners Court have broken quorum, skipping meetings to prevent Democrats from passing their proposed tax rate and budget for fiscal year 2023.

They skipped again Tuesday, despite multiple major items on the budget that impacted millions in funding for law enforcement, flood control and the Harris Health System. Here’s a play-by-play of how it all went down, from the Houston Chronicle’s government reporter Jen Rice.

You can read the rest, but it’s more of what we’ve seen before. If you don’t like the cuts to the Sheriff, the DA, and the constables that will now happen, take your complaints to Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey. They’re the ones that made this happen.

UPDATE: Chron editorial: Harris County Republicans just defunded the police.

UH/Hobby poll: Mealer 47, Hidalgo 45

They’re the only outfit that has polled Harris County so far, so at least there’s a basis for comparison.

A new poll of Harris County voters shows that Alexandra del Moral Mealer and Lina Hidalgo are neck and neck in the race for county judge as early voting begins Monday.

Mealer, a Republican, held a slight lead over the Democratic incumbent Hidalgo, winning 47 percent of likely voters compared to Hidalgo’s 45 percent, according to the new poll from the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

The margin of error in the poll, however, is 3.9 percent, and 8 percent of likely voters were still undecided. That suggests that “the county judge race in Harris County is a statistical dead heat, with del Moral Mealer and Hidalgo effectively tied in regard to the vote intention of Harris County likely voters,” the poll said.

The Hobby School conducted the poll by texting likely Harris County voters and directing them to an online survey, which 625 people filled out.

Poll results show that the county judge contest is significantly closer than the gubernatorial race in Harris County, with Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke holding an 8-percent lead over Republican Greg Abbott.

[…]

Mealer held a 19-percent lead over Hidalgo among white voters, 56 percent of whom said they plan on voting for Mealer. The race is neck and neck among Latino voters, who favor Mealer over Hidalgo 47 percent to 44 percent, within the poll’s margin of error. Black voters overwhelmingly support Hidalgo, the poll said, by a rate of 73 percent to 17 percent.

The Hobby School also polled 350 likely voters in Precinct 4 for their opinions on the commissioner race between Jack Cagle and his Democratic challenger, Lesley Briones. Cagle, the Republican incumbent, leads Briones 40 percent to 35 percent, but 25 percent of likely voters remain undecided, the poll shows.

The poll also indicated that the county’s $1.2 billion bond proposals, supported by county Democrats and opposed by Republicans, could pass a referendum in the November election. The most popular proposal was the most expensive — a $900 million bond for road improvements, including drainage projects. It enjoyed support from 63 percent of likely voters, according to the poll.

See here for their previous poll from July, which had Hidalgo up 48-47 among likely voters, for which the poll data is here. I’ll be referring to that in a minute. The poll’s landing page is here and data for this poll is here. Note that in the early version of this story, the Chron had Cagle up 45-30, but if you look at the poll data document, it’s supposed to be 40-35. A huge number of Democrats in the poll are undecided, so there’s plenty of room for Briones to grow.

The one other sort-of poll of Harris County was the UH-TSU Texas Trends poll from September, which had Hidalgo up by 52-42 and winning Latino voters by a wide margin. This is not a direct comparison, however, because that was a smaller sample (195 voters) taken from a statewide poll. This October poll has a sample size of 625 while the July poll was from 325 voters, which meant the earlier one had a larger margin of error. Hold onto that thought for a minute.

The July poll has a slightly more Republican electorate – 43% Dem, 40% GOP, to 36-30 in this sample, with more independents in October – and basically no self-proclaimed Dems voting for Mealer. The July poll had Beto up over Abbott 51-42 among likely voters, while this one has Beto up 50-42. Assuming nothing weird with the undecided voters, this would have Beto on track for about 54% in Harris County, and we know what that means. This poll says that about 6% of Beto voters are voting for Mealer with 10% of Beto voters undecided; 95% of Abbott voters are voting for Mealer, only 1% for Hidalgo, and the rest undecided.

Taken as a whole, this would suggest that Mealer has had some success chipping away at Hidalgo’s base of support. Maybe that’s true, and if so that would be a key to her winning. I’ve expressed my skepticism about the Latino vote breakdown in these polls before, but the thing that really made me cock and eyebrow this time around was Mealer leading Hidalgo 48-43 among millennial/Gen Z voters; Hidalgo had led among this cohort 52-42 in July. These are the most Democratic voters in the state, and while this is surely a small enough subsample to make comparisons across the two polls dicey at best, I have to say, I find that unlikely. Alas, they don’t break down the Governor’s race data in the same fashion, so I can’t tell if their younger voter sub-population is weird as a whole or just weird in this way. For what it’s worth, in what is an even smaller subsample, Lesley Briones leads Jack Cagle among the younger cohort 33-32, with a bunch of undecideds. Make of that what you will.

Speaking of subsamples and margins of error, this bit from the Chron story made me grind my teeth:

The race is neck and neck among Latino voters, who favor Mealer over Hidalgo 47 percent to 44 percent, within the poll’s margin of error.

Emphasis mine. That’s not how this works. You have to calculate the margin of error for the subsample if you want to invoke it in this way, not the MoE for the entire poll. Latinos were 27% of the sample in this poll, which is about 170 voters total. The margin of error for 170 voters is about 7.5% – just google “margin of error calculator” to see for yourself. This is why you have to be extra careful with subsamples in a poll.

Endorsement watch: Briones, Garcia, Garza

The Chron attempts to make some amends for their tortured endorsement of Judge Lina Hidalgo’s opponent by endorsing Lesley Briones for Commissioners Court in Precinct 4 over the incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle.

Lesley Briones

What do we want out of county government? Public safety. Roads. Flood control. The traditional core services of Commissioners Court must be carried out with integrity, focus and competency. But we also want more, particularly in a county where double-digit gaps in life expectancy exist between some neighborhoods. We think we can do better and we think can do both.

So does Lesley Briones, who represents the “yes and” candidate for Precinct 4.

Originally from Laredo, she became a lawyer and worked in litigation and tax law before eventually serving as a civil court judge here. Briones, 42, is bilingual and one of the few candidates we’ve seen whose website has a Spanish-language page.

Thanks to her professional experience, she has a good grasp of the nuances of the crime problem, many of which are particular to Harris County. She favors misdemeanor bail reform but also, as a crime victim herself, expressed an urgency during the Democratic primaries and, now, in the general election to addressing violent crime through smart, targeted efforts. She supports, for example, the micro-zone approach launched last year. And she noted that calls for more boots on the ground — a key platform among Republican candidates in local races this year — need to contend with the already funded but vacant positions in law enforcement agencies.

And while she has detailed plans for the basic services county government must provide, she is also supportive of the quality-of-life efforts we believe county government should pursue. Many of these, she said, can be aided through more strategic grant applications and philanthropic partnerships.

This kind of robust vision for county that doesn’t skimp on the core services but wants to leave things better than it found them is even more appealing because she promises to deliver it without partisan politics.

The incumbent has struggled to do that as of late.

Much of the rest is about Cagle’s failures, though they have more nice things to say about Briones at the end. They give Cagle no inch on his budget-preventing quorum breaking, noting how Cagle’s actions stand in contrast with his previous words. I’m never going to not be mad about their County Judge endorsement, but at least they got this right. My interview with Lesley Briones from the primary is here if you want to know more about her.

Over in Precinct 2, they endorse Commissioner Adrian Garcia for another term.

Adrian Garcia

To hear Adrian Garcia tell it, his first four years as a Harris County commissioner were a repudiation of his predecessor, Jack Morman.

Garcia, a Democrat, likes to say that he brought Precinct 2 — which encompasses Aldine and Northside, along with much of east Harris County, including Galena Park, Deer Park, Pasadena, La Porte and Baytown — “out of the stone age.”

Garcia claimed Morman, a Republican now running to reclaim his old seat, was tracking the precinct’s infrastructure projects in a red notebook with pencil and paper. Lower-income neighborhoods that Garcia claims were long neglected under Morman are safer, healthier and more vibrant with better sidewalks, hike-and-bike trails and parks. Parts of the county that for years were acutely vulnerable to flooding would now have first dibs on flood mitigation projects.

That narrative of rebalanced priorities certainly benefits Garcia politically; it also has some truth to it. Garcia, 61, former Houston police officer, city councilman and Harris County sheriff, has delivered on a number of the issues he ran on in 2018, from criminal justice reform to environmental justice to health care. Few would argue that his precinct is worse off than when he took office, and in some corners it is markedly better.

[…]

No, Garcia isn’t perfect. But even his detractors would acknowledge that he’s been effective. Morman’s personal style may be more agreeable, but his vision for the office lacks ambition. We want a county commissioner who will continue to use the levers of power to make their constituents’ lives tangibly better beyond fixing potholes and digging drainage ditches.

Voters should send Garcia back to Commissioners Court for another term.

I’ve seen more ringing endorsements, but I’ll take it. The editorial board really has a burr in their saddle about the redistricting of Commissioners Court, for which they ding Garcia, and I just have no patience with the argument that Democrats need to be angels about that while Republicans are actively working to completely repeal the Voting Rights Act. When the Legislature, and Congressional Republicans, and especially the cabal on SCOTUS, make even a small step in the direction of actual fairness and equity and racial equality, then I’ll be willing to hear those complaints. Until then, please spare me. My interview with Commissioner Garcia is here.

The third spoke in the Sunday trifecta is Rochelle Garza for Attorney General, because no decent person supports a repeat and unredeemed criminal for elected office.

Rochelle Garza

Rochelle Garza, Democratic candidate for attorney general, may or not enjoy a good joke. Although we see her smiling and laughing in photos and newsreels, we didn’t ask her that question when she visited with the Chronicle editorial board a few days ago. If she happens to be a connoisseur of jokes, we have one she might appreciate:

A lawyer walks into the HR department of a major law firm. Filling out a job application, he includes the following information on his resumé:

Under felony indictment since 2015 on securities fraud charges; trial postponed repeatedly (although under order from a judge to sit for a deposition in the case next month)*** Under FBI investigation for assisting a real estate developer who allegedly hired a woman with whom he, the applicant, was having an extra-marital affair*** Is being sued by four former top aides in the office he now heads; they claim they were fired in violation of the state’s whistleblower protection law for reporting their boss’ potential crimes to the FBI*** Instigated a frivolous lawsuit seeking to throw out 2020 presidential election votes in states where he did not reside or represent; court laughter ensued*** Faces court sanctions from the state ethics association for peddling false claims about 2020 voter fraud*** Was warm-up act for former President Donald Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021,“Stop the Steal” rally*** Recently headed major investigation into human trafficking and child sexual assault; rank incompetence wrecked investigation*** Vacancies abound in his sprawling office; can’t seem to find attorneys eager to work for him.

A job applicant with such a resume would be laughed out of any law firm in the land, any corporation with a legal department, any government agency. We Texans, though, have elected such a man as our attorney general — not once, but twice and some among us want to make it three times. Ken Paxton is his name. As long as he remains in office, the joke’s on us.

You get the idea. My interview with Rochelle Garza is here. You know what to do.

Also in the endorsement bucket: Ginny Brown Daniel for HD150 over her wingnut incumbent opponent, and Sen. Joan Huffman for re-election in SD17. Note what they say about Huffman’s role in redistricting at the state level this cycle, and compare it to their words about redistricting in Harris County. See what I mean?

Interview with Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

I’m going to guess you’re probably familiar with Adrian Garcia, who is serving his first term as Harris County Commissioner in Precinct 2. He served three terms as Houston City Council member in District H, with his first election in 2003. He was then elected Sheriff, by a large margin, in 2008 and served until 2015 when he made an unsuccessful run for Mayor. After an unsuccessful primary challenge to US Rep. Gene Green in 2016, he returned to county politics by knocking off two-term Commissioner Jack Morman in 2018. He’s facing Morman again and he’s had himself a busy term on Commissioner’s Court. I could have talked to him for a lot longer than I did – there’s just so much to cover – but I did my best to hit the highlights. You can listen to it all here:

PREVIOUSLY:

All interviews and Q&As through the primary runoffs
Rochelle Garza – Attorney General
Susan Hays – Ag Commissioner
Luke Warford – Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Chuck Crews – HD128
Cam Campbell – HD132
Stephanie Morales – HD138
Robin Fulford – CD02
Laura Jones – CD08
Teneshia Hudspeth – Harris County Clerk
Amy Hinojosa – HCDE Trustee, Precinct 2
Andrea Duhon – HCDE Trustee, Precinct 4

As always, everything you could want to know about the Democratic candidates can be found at the Erik Manning spreadsheet.

Republican Commissioners skip the meeting they called

On brand. So very on brand.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court have announced they will skip a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, reversing the position they took Friday, potentially ending a month-long impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

On Friday, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

By Monday, Cagle’s position had changed.

In a statement, Cagle said, “I have read that Commissioner Adrian Garcia is now calling his most recent tax increase proposal his ‘final offer.’ There can be no good-faith negotiations with someone who announces publicly that he has made his final offer. In addition, Commissioner Tom S. Ramsey has announced that he will not attend Monday’s special session of Commissioners Court. Given Commissioner Garcia’s publicly announced refusal to negotiate in good faith and given the absence of a full quorum of court members in attendance, I will not attend the special session of Commissioners Court scheduled for Monday afternoon.”

Cagle on Friday said he would attend the special meeting hours after Garcia held his news conference in which he called his proposal his final offer.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey has reversed his decision, as well, according to a statement from his office released on Saturday: “He was hopeful in attending Monday’s special meeting of a ‘discussion’; however, vagueness around the “possible action” in that meeting paired with Tuesday’s meeting details leaves the door open to take other actions relating to the massive tax increase. Commissioner Ramsey is officially rescinding his offer and will not be attending Monday’s meeting.”

See here for the previous entry. I’m sure you can imagine just how shocked, shocked I am at this turn of events. We’re way into the farce zone at this point, so barring an unlikely change of heart on their part it’s time to move on to other political solutions. Let’s get that 4-1 majority and not have to worry about this going forward.

UPDATE: You know what Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey had time for yesterday? A little golf, and some fundraising.

There may be a county budget deal available

I don’t trust anything Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey say, but we’ll see.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court said Friday they would attend a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, potentially ending a monthlong impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey announced he would attend the meeting a short time later.

The two Republican commissioners have skipped the last three Commissioners Court meetings to block the three Democrats on the court from adopting a property tax rate. They view the Democrat-supported rate as too high at a time residents are dealing with the highest inflation in years amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They also want the county to fund more law enforcement.

Garcia’s proposal, unveiled in a Friday morning news conference, would set the overall property tax rate at 56.3 cents per $100 of assessed value, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority.

The current overall county tax rate is 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Under the rate of 57.5 cents originally proposed by the Democrats, the owner of a $250,000 home with a standard 20 percent homestead exemption would save about $12 in the first year, assuming the appraised value was unchanged from the previous year.

Under Garcia’s proposal, that homeowner would pay $36 less.

Garcia’s plan calls for an additional $20 million to hire 200 additional law enforcement officers, echoing Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey’s call for 200 additional law enforcement “boots on the ground.” It also includes a 2.5 percent pay increase for law enforcement officers.

“Today I make you my final offer,” Garcia said. “It checks every box that each of my colleagues has stated as a priority. … If my Republican colleagues continue to refuse to show up to work, it proves, once and for all, they had no intention on getting any deal done.”

State law requires a quorum of at least four members to set the property tax rate. The court has until Oct. 28 to set the tax rate. Failure to come to an agreement would force the county to adopt what is known as the “no new revenue rate,” a levy that generates the same amount of money as the previous year. In Harris County’s case, the no new revenue rate would include an additional $45 million from developed properties added to the tax roll this year.

Again, this is a legislative minority getting to set the terms because of an anti-majoritarian component of our state constitution. If we are going to bring up the quorum-busting by Democratic State House members again, I will remind you that 1) unlike the State House Dems, Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can do their thing from the comfort of their homes – they do not have to flee to another state to avoid being detained by the cops and dragged back to the county courthouse; and 2) the Republican legislative majority eventually got everything they wanted and all they had to do was wait it out, while the Democratic Commissioners Court majority has no choice but to negotiate. Either way, they cannot do what they would have done if the two Republican Commissioners didn’t have this power. These are two very different situations.

As far as the fear that somehow the three Democratic members of Commissioners Court will suddenly appear, gavel them into an official meeting, and pass their preferred budget before they can abscond again, the following is from the Harris County Attorney’s office:

Harris County Commissioners Court has issued a notice for a special meeting on Monday, October 17 that will focus on proposed tax rates and changes to the budget.

In response to members of court claiming they will skip the meeting because of concerns that a tax rate may be adopted, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee issued the following statement:

“There is no ‘vagueness’ about whether Commissioners Court can adopt a tax rate at Monday’s special meeting. The answer is no. Nor does the court having the Monday meeting mean that they could adopt a tax rate at some subsequent meeting with fewer than four members present.

If any member of court plans to skip Monday’s meeting, they should be honest about why, and not claim that they’re doing so out of fear that a tax rate could be adopted.”

State law requires that prior to a Commissioners Court holding a tax hearing those rates must first be noticed to the public at least 5 days prior to the hearing. Any vote to adopt those rates must take place after the hearing but not later than 7 days after the hearing.

Like I said, we’ll see. I don’t trust these guys and neither should you. Even if there’s an agreement reached, it was done under ridiculous circumstances. The Adrian Garcia deal, if that’s what we get, is fine as it is, it’s the process that’s the problem.

Just keep staying away, Commissioners

At this point the pattern is clear. They’re just going to keep staying away, at least until after the election. At which point one can hope that one of them will have a more permanent vacation from these duties.

For those of you who like to bring up the Democratic legislators’ quorum busting from last summer, I will say again that these two have the right to do what they are doing, per the law and the rules of the chamber. That doesn’t mean they’re free from being criticized for it. I will also note that for a variety of reasons, the quorum-busting Democrats eventually came back, and the thing they were trying to stop got passed by the legislative majority in place. Also, for those of us old enough to remember 2003, the Legislature made some subsequent rule changes to make it harder to break quorum, and there were some penalties in terms of committee assignments and other bureaucratic matters in the next session. Assuming there’s still a Democratic majority on the Court in 2023, it would be well within their rights to see about making life a little less pleasant for whichever of their Republican colleagues are still there. I hope someone is at least thinking about that.

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Community meetings about the Harris County bond referenda

Ask your questions, get some answers.

Harris County voters will decide in November whether to approve a bond package totaling $1.2 billion, with the vast majority aimed at road construction. On Monday, the county [began] a series of 24 community engagement meetings to share information and gather input about where the money will go if the bond propositions pass.

Voters will see three bond propositions on the ballot:

  • Proposition A: Up to $100 million for public safety, which could include law enforcement facilities, courtrooms, technology and improved data systems for court management and crime prevention.
  • Proposition B: Up to $900 million for transportation, including road rehabilitation and added capacity; roadway and neighborhood drainage improvements; walking, biking, and mass transit access; and safety projects to reduce transportation-related fatalities and injuries.
  • Proposition C: Up to $200 million for parks and trails, including construction and maintenance of parks facilities and trails, including floodable parks, trail projects, and inclusive parks for people with disabilities.

If all are approved, at least $220 million would be spent in each of the county’s four precincts, while the $100 million in public safety investments would be countywide.

The county will hold community meetings through Oct.. 20, including 16 in-person meetings divided evenly among the four precincts and eight virtual meetings. Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese interpreters will be available.

[…]

The dates and locations of the meetings are subject to change. Residents can check the latest schedule or submit their comments online at harriscounty2022bond.org.

See here for the background. The schedule as known at the time of publication is in the Chron story, but it is subject to change so check out that Harris County 2022 Bond page before heading out.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Meet Clifford Tatum

Harris County’s new Elections Administrator has a chat with the Chron’s Jen Rice about his new job and the fact that early voting starts in less than seven weeks.

Why did you start working in elections and why do you continue doing it?

I started out with the Georgia Secretary of State as a securities enforcement attorney. And after a couple of years, enforcing the securities law, the elections division needed a staff attorney. So I became the assistant director of legal affairs for the state elections division, which then worked with the Georgia Secretary of State on a number of issues related to the state election board, election law enforcement, election code enforcement. And I guess you could say that … I kind of got bit by the public service bug, and that foray into the elections division in 2002 has turned into a lifetime of public service. I enjoy the fact that I’m supporting democracy and helping voters express their voice.

When election-related topics come up at Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, two of the commissioners typically raise the argument that elections should be run by elected officials, not an appointed election administrator, which was the model used in Harris County until 2020. Do you have a response to that criticism?

If we talk about the the county clerk who was running the election side of the process, they were responsible for the election side, but they had to get the information to actually conduct the election from the tax assessor. The tax assessor was responsible for the voter registration side. At the end of the day, you’re looking to two separate entities for accountability. And that gap allows for there to be this flux of, what really happened here? So, combining the two offices, you avoid that. It now becomes a single unit that’s responsible for the entire operation. And you actually have a greater level of accountability because both operations are now under the same unit and the information flows much better because there’s not a go-between.

The mail ballot rejection rate is an ongoing issue in Harris County. What is your plan for getting the mail ballot rejection rate down and to what extent are you expecting to be able to address that for this election?

The good news is that the team here has now experienced the new mail ballot requirements for now, I think, three elections. We’ve made a lot of internal strides on how to assist voters in making sure they provide the correct information to allow their ballot not to be rejected. And then if they, for whatever reasons, fail to include that information, we’ve identified internal procedures to immediately respond back to the voter, highlighting what needs to be corrected in order for that ballot to be resolved and counted. The unfortunate aspect about all of that is time. If a voter waits too late, then there’s a likelihood that the voter can’t cure an issue if they didn’t provide the correct information.

I’m fairly optimistic that we’ll have a good experience this fall. Some of the factors on which Tatum will be judged are how well the equipment works and how easily equipment errors are overcome, how long the lines are, how many mail ballots are rejected, and how long it takes to see results and updates on Election Night. My hope is that he and his office will communicate quickly and effectively when there are any issues – it’s a big county, probably over a million people will be voting, there will be issues – so that at least everyone will have a chance to be informed and make adjustments. I intend to do an interview with him myself at some point, but that can wait until after this election.

All interviews and judicial Q&As with nominees so far

Back in February, right before the primary, I posted a list of all of the candidate interviews and judicial Q&As I had done. A couple more Q&A responses came in after that, and I did some further interviews for the primary runoffs, so that post is out of date and also now contains people who will not be on the November ballot. So with that in mind, here’s a full updated list as I prepare to bring you more of these for November. Enjoy!

Interviews

Duncan Klussman, CD38

Jay Kleberg, Land Commissioner
Janet Dudding, Comptroller

Staci Childs, SBOE4

Sen. John Whitmire, SD15

Jolanda Jones, HD147

Lesley Briones, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Carla Wyatt, Harris County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, Harris County District Clerk (Incumbent)

Judicial Q&As

Cheri Thomas, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2

Gemayel Haynes, 183rd Criminal District Court
Katherine Thomas, 184th Criminal District Court
Andrea Beall, 185th Criminal District Court
Beverly Armstrong, 208th Criminal District Court
Judge Chris Morton, 230th Criminal District Court
Angela Lancelin, 245th Family District Court
Judge Hilary Unger, 248th Criminal District Court
Judge Dedra Davis, 270th Civil District Court
Dianne Curvey, 280th Family District Court
Teresa Waldrop, 312th Family District Court
Judge Natalia Oakes, 313th Family District Court
Judge Leah Shapiro, 313th Family District Court
Veronica Monique Nelson, 482nd Criminal District Court

Manpreet Monica Singh, County Civil Court At Law #4
Porscha Natasha Brown, County Criminal Court At Law #3
Judge Kelley Andrews, County Criminal Court At Law #6
Judge Andrew Wright, County Criminal Court At Law #7
Erika Ramirez, County Criminal Court At Law #8

Steve Duble, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2
Dolores Lozano, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2 Place 2
Judge Lucia Bates, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2

As before, you can see a full list of my interviews and a whole lot more info about the Democratic candidates on the Erik Manning spreadsheet. Look for many more to come starting tomorrow.

Harris County approves the option of suing Comptroller over baloney “defunding” claim

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday authorized a pair of private law firms to sue Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement last week, forcing a halt to consideration of its $2.2 billion budget.

The move, approved by a 3-1 vote, came a week after Hegar sent a letter to county officials saying the court could not approve its proposed fiscal 2023 budget without approval of voters because of a change in policy that he said would result in the county funding two constable offices at a lower level in violation of a new state law.

The constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott last year after the county changed its policy to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to keep unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles. Hegar’s letter said the change would result in the county, under its proposed budget, cutting funding to the two constable offices by $3 million.

[…]

In a letter to Hegar on Tuesday, County Administrator David Berry asked the Comptroller’s Office to clarify its investigation and whether it prevents the county from adopting a tax rate and budget.

The comptroller responded Wednesday by modifying his claim, alleging the proposed budget would result in a cut in law enforcement spending for a different reason — by comparing the proposed spending plan to this year’s 2022 short fiscal year budget, when broken down by month.

In addition to eliminating rollover budgeting, the county is changing its fiscal year to begin Oct. 1 rather than March 1. To accomplish that, Commissioners Court planned to pass two budgets this year. The first, a shortened budget, was approved in February and runs through September. The second, beginning Oct. 1, will span a full year.

Berry criticized the comptroller for using “fuzzy math,” saying the short fiscal year budget covered 16 pay periods.

“There’s no other reasonable way to do it,” he said. “When you properly annualize the budget, it’s clearly higher in FY23 (the proposed budget).”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Hegar’s second letter suggests the Comptroller’s Office is walking back its original defunding claim.

“They’re beginning to realize that the allegations they made make little sense,” Hidalgo said. “They’re moving away from talking about the rollover. They know that that’s absolutely nonsensical and are trying to take a different tack that also doesn’t make sense.”

Berry also took issue with the comptroller’s assertion the county should work the issue out with the constables.

“We believe we’ve complied with the law,” Berry said. “If the comptroller doesn’t, they have to explain. All we’ve gotten so far is some fuzzy math.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioners Court hired two law firms to represent the county — Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP — in a split vote, with the court’s three Democrats in favor and Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey was absent.

Hidalgo said she is willing to move forward through legal action or negotiation, but the county needs to be careful in how it responds to allegations of violating the new state law.

“I am pretty opposed to giving in to any kind of extortion,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t know what precedent that would set.”

See here for the background. This new explanation is even dumber and more insulting than the original one. Of course an eight-month budget is going to have less of pretty much everything in it than a 12-month budget. If the Comptroller had been at all serious about this, the matter could have been easily resolved. Instead, they charged ahead with this stupid allegation, which unfortunately comes with the power to prevent the county from passing a budget, a situation which as noted would result in an actual decrease in funding to the Sheriff and Constables. It’s like they looked around to make sure there was a rake in easy stepping distance before they moved forward.

The response from Harris County – minus Commissioner Cagle, of course – and Judge Hidalgo was entirely appropriate. The county cannot take lightly an accusation that it is violating the law. The fact that the accusation itself is completely specious is almost beside the point, but given that it is there are only two acceptable resolutions: The Comptroller retracts its claim and absolves Harris County of any alleged wrongdoing, so that it can pass its budget as planned, or we go to court and let them try to prove their foolish claims. No concessions, because there’s nothing to concede.

Which brings me to this:

Herman and Heap said the court’s action on Wednesday took them by surprise. The two Republican constables said they had met with county officials late last week and Monday and thought they had come up with a solution.

The pair, Herman said, had agreed to write letters saying their concerns had been resolved. Hegar would have to write his own letter rescinding his previous communications with the county.

“Both sides were agreeing,” Herman said. “We agreed to put this thing to rest.”

Then, he said, he learned that Hidalgo had put an item on the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting to pursue possible legal action against Hegar.

“It’s almost like a slap in the face,” he said. “We’re kind of disappointed. We’ll see what happens.”

Herman said if the county continues forward with a strategy of suing Hegar, he and Heap would request their own legal counsel to represent their interests in the broadening fight.

In a brief text message, Heap confirmed he had met with county officials in recent days and echoed Herman’s frustration.

“We have been in negotiations with the office of budget management for several days and I was very encouraged with the progress,” he texted. “However, the actions of Commissioners court today as well as some of their post on social media platforms disappoint me.”

You dudes started this fight. If you don’t like the way the Court is finishing it, that’s tough. Maybe don’t be such crybabies next time.

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

With hopefully more to come, as well as something for Houston.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive.

The funding from the Texas General Land Office — the state agency charged with distributing Hurricane Harvey relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — comes more than a year after the GLO awarded the county and the city of Houston zero dollars in its first round of grants even though the area accounted for half the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

The county last year revealed a $1.4 billion gap in funding to supplement the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018. County officials attributed the shortfall to expected funding from state and local partners that had not materialized.

The new funding from GLO will help narrow that gap, which now is down to $400 million, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos. However, Ramos said the county’s plans were based on the assumption it would receive $1 billion from the GLO.

“We’re building billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and it costs money to maintain it,” Ramos said.

County officials said they will continue negotiating with the GLO for the remainder of the money they expected.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the $750 million allocation good news, but not enough.

“When the bond was passed, it didn’t account for increases in cost,” Hidalgo said. “It didn’t account for increases in maintenance costs. So, we need additional funds to make sure we can complete everything.”

See here for the previous update. As noted in the Tuesday preview story, this is the same $750 million that the GLO offered to Harris County after initially allocating zero to both Harris and Houston. Houston is still getting a goose egg – to their credit, all of the Commissioners spoke about the need for Houston to get what it’s due, about $1 billion – but there is still money to be disbursed, and there is still that HUD finding that the GLO used a discriminatory process to screw the city. I don’t know when the next appropriations are to be made, but if we’re very lucky Jay Kleberg will be in charge of the process by then.

Harris County looks to sue over Comptroller’s BS “defunding” claim

Tell it to the judge.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week is expected to hire an outside law firm to take legal action against the state and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement in violation of state law.

The accusation by Hegar, delivered in a letter to county Judge Lina Hidalgo last week, blocks Harris County from approving its proposed $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The court will hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider hiring the law firm of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP to pursue legal action against Hegar and other state officials.

Hegar threw the curveball just before county officials presented their proposed spending plan last tuesday, saying the county should reconsider its budget plan or gain voter approval for it. The letter, however, was sent on Monday, the last day the county could get a measure onto the November ballot.

Senate Bill 23, passed by the Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, bars counties with a population of more than 1 million from cutting law enforcement spending without the approval of voters.

The defunding accusation was sparked by two Republican Harris County constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — who had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott after the county changed its policy last year to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to save unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles.

Herman and Heap did not respond to requests for comment.

In his letter, Hegar said doing away with the rollover funds resulted in a loss of $3 million previously dedicated to the constables office in fiscal 2021. However, by preventing the county from adopting its proposed budget, the letter could cost the sheriff, constables and district attorney’s office an additional $100 million in funding included in the new spending plan, county officials said.

On Wednesday, Commissioners Court could vote to authorize two outside law firms to file a lawsuit against the comptroller. If the county does pursue legal action, other state officials could be named, as well.

See here for the background on this completely ridiculous claim. The vote in Commissioners Court is today; I’ll be interested to see if it’s unanimous or not. I also have no idea what to expect from the courts, but I sure hope they get it right, because this is a terrible precedent to set otherwise. Finally, a special shoutout to Constables Herman and Heap for going radio silent after leaving this bag of poop on the Court’s front porch. Mighty courageous of you two there.

CC4 poll: Briones 44, Cagle 42

From the inbox:

Lesley Briones

Lesley Briones, candidate for Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4, released the results of a new poll today that shows her in the lead: Briones 44% / Cagle 42%.

The poll was conducted August 9-13 by the national firm, Lake Research Partners, and surveyed 400 likely 2022 general election voters in Precinct 4.

Click here to read a summary memo prepared by the polling firm.

Among the key findings:

• Briones leads Cagle by a margin of 44% to 42%

• After positive information about both candidates was provided, Briones’ lead grew to 47% to 42%

• The new Precinct 4 has a 7-point Democratic advantage: 41% Democrats / 34% Republicans / 15% Independents

It’s an internal poll, so adjust your expectations accordingly. The only other Harris County data we have so far was that UH/Hobby poll that had Judge Hidalgo up by a point over Alexandra Mealer. We’re in a new Commissioners Court map, and Judge Hidalgo was an atypical candidate in 2018, with a lot of Dems crossing over to vote for then-Judge Ed Emmett, so I have no sense of the correlation between the two races at this time. Maybe one can win if the other loses, maybe not, I just don’t know. I will say I found this bit from the memo heartwarming:

Cagle is uniquely vulnerable to attacks on abortion and birth control. Of all the tested negatives against Cagle, his anti-choice views and extreme actions to deny women health care in the past generate the most serious doubts about him (39% serious doubts, 47% total doubts). Meanwhile, 41% of voters are very convinced, and 57% are convinced overall, to support Briones due to her commitment to fight to protect abortion access.

You know how I feel about this. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

The Constables’ and Comptroller’s ridiculous complaint

This is transparent bullshit.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar this week accused Harris County commissioners of defunding local constables and threatened to prevent the county from implementing its proposed 2023 budget if the county does not reverse course.

In a letter sent late Monday, Hegar said the county’s move to do away with “rollover” budgeting led to more than $3 million dedicated to the constables last year being returned to the general fund.

“If the county proceeds with the Constable budget as proposed without obtaining voter approval, the county may not adopt an ad valorem tax rate that exceeds the county’s no-new-revenue tax rate,” Hegar wrote.

Harris County Administrator David Berry on Tuesday afternoon said Hegar’s position would prevent the county from adopting a budget that increases funding to Harris County Constables’ and Sheriff’s offices by “millions of dollars.”

“The Comptroller’s position would keep us from making these new investments,” he said, “which is contrary to the intent of SB 23. … I hope the Comptroller’s position does not prevent us from achieving our goal, and we look forward to working with the state to resolve this matter.

Berry said that in the past, county departments could “roll over” their unspent budget from one year to the next “with no questions asked.”

“This practice was unique to Harris County and is not the practice of other local governments,” he said. “Under the current policy, departments, including the Constable’s Offices, can request the use of unspent funds on vehicles, equipment, and other one-time expenses. The County has continued to support these investments.”

Paradoxically, by preventing Harris County from adopting the new tax rate, Hegar’s actions would prevent the county from implementing $96.7 million in increases to the sheriff and constable offices, and a proposed $10 million increase to the District Attorney’s Office.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman — one of the two constables who first raised the issue with Abbott — said he was “thankful” to the governor and to Hegar for looking into the matter.

“We look forward to a resolution one way or another,” he said, explaining that he and other constables had used their rollover funds to purchase new patrol cars and safety equipment, and in some cases, to pay employees’ salaries.

“All that’s been taken away from us,” he said. “What it’s come to is an elected official has no say in his own department, basically, and it’s jeopardized public safety and officer safety.”

[…]

Hegar said his investigation began after Harris County Precinct 4 and Precinct 5 Constables Mark Herman and Ted Heap wrote to the governor complaining about losing their “rollover” funds last year. Prior to County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s election in 2018, county commissioners had allowed county agencies to keep unspent funds, which “rolled over” into the following year’s budget. Constables used the money for a variety of projects and other issues — including paying for some staff.

Eva DeLuna Castro, who oversees budget and fiscal policy analysis for Every Texan, said that within state agencies, rolling over unspent money from one budget cycle to the next was permitted only in a very limited number of circumstances, and generally required the specific approval of the legislature.

After Hidalgo’s election, the county did away with the unusual budgeting technique and adopted more traditional budgeting practices — similar to what the state requires of its own agencies and their funding.

Hegar sent the letter to commissioners late last night — the deadline for when the county would potentially be able to add any voter initiatives to the ballot.

County officials disputed Hegar’s claims, noting that the decision to do away with rollover funds took place before SB23 went into effect. They also disputed Hegar’s numbers.

A review of county records show that the county allocated $205,290,000 to its constables in 2020. This year, its proposed budget includes a 13 percent increase to the constables budget, for a total of $231,491,249.

The two constables who first complained to Gov. Greg Abbott about losing their rollover funds have also seen increases to their budget. In 2020, Precinct 4 received about $57 million in funding; Precinct 5 received $44 million. This year, county commissioners have proposed giving Pct. 4 $65 million, while Pct. 5 is slated to receive more than $48 million.

I mean, come on:

1. Harris County is increasing its spending on public safety across the board.

2. The two Constables in question are each getting more money in this budget than in the previous one. The Constables overall are getting more money.

3. “Rollover budget” means unspent funds from the previous cycle. These two Constables didn’t even spend all the money they had been allocated before!

4. The practice of not rolling over funds is exactly how the state does its own budgeting, including for DPS.

From every angle this is ridiculous, and clearly driven by partisan motives – the two Constables in question are Republicans. I don’t expect to get better arguments about public policy from these clowns, but I am insulted that they can’t come up with a better pretext for their crap than this. Shame on everyone involved. The Trib has more.

Commissioners Court approves its bond package

But not without some bitching and griping.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Thursday to put a $1.2 billion package on the November ballot this year, with the vast majority aimed at road construction.

Tensions flared when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cut off questions and moved forward with a vote over the protests of the two Republican commissioners, who were in the midst of arguing the bond measure lacked transparency and the plan for distributing the funds was unclear.

The debate grew heated after Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey raised his voice demanding transparency, earning loud applause from members of the public in attendance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle insisted Hidalgo explain how the county would decide where the money goes, and what it meant for the county to prioritize areas deemed most in need: “What is ‘worst first’? What is the definition?”

“I am voting for this because I believe your precinct needs this money,” Hidalgo shot back, arguing the money would benefit all precincts.

When Hidalgo abruptly moved ahead with the vote, leaving Cagle uncertain about whether he had missed the opportunity to oppose the measure, the commissioner asked, “Do I not even get to vote on calling this?”

Faced with Ramsey and Cagle’s rising frustration, Hidalgo insisted members of the court “have had hours of discussion on this” at previous meetings.

The two Republicans criticized Hidalgo for cutting off further debate to take the vote.

“When those who are elected with the responsibility of delving into questions to be asked aren’t even allowed to debate those issues at the table, that’s wrong,” Cagle said.

The decision to place the debt issue before voters required the court to vote on three separate bond issues. Each was approved along party lines with the three Democrats voting in favor and the two Republicans opposed.

Likewise, the November ballot will include three separate bond requests: $900 million earmarked for roads; $200 million for parks; $100 million for public safety bonds.

See here for the background. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I don’t give Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle’s complaints much weight. I don’t trust them to be acting in good faith. What I hear in their words is a demand for reassurance that their needs will be given priority, as this had been the way of the world for however many decades of bond issuances before now. Any indication otherwise, that more neglected areas will come first, or that people will be given equal or greater value than property values, is unacceptable. They may have some legitimate objections in there. That’s not what I’m hearing from them.

Commissioners Court plans to put a bond issue on the ballot

First one in seven years.

Harris County voters will have more on their November ballot, after a divided commissioners court Tuesday took the first step toward a $1.2 billion bond package for police, parks, drainage and roads.

Common with many votes, the court was split 3-2 on the matter, with County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia in favor and Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle opposed.

Tuesday’s debate reiterated much of what divided county officials leading up to the vote, including the ability to put a robust plan in front of voters by November, concerns about future needs such as flood control and how exactly officials would split the windfall of money should voters approve.

The plan would likely lead to three bond votes on the ballot — $100 million for public safety, $200 million for parks and $900 million for transportation and drainage projects ranging from street maintenance to sidewalks and safety-related road repairs.

“People want to see that money spent yesterday,” Garcia said, noting the litany of improvements county residents are demanding.

Tuesday’s vote moved the county closer to a bond referendum, but did not finalize it. To call the election and set it for the November election, commissioners court must meet and call for the election between Aug. 12 and Aug. 22, per state law. They must also approve ballot language, which will guide the terms of the bond.

[…]

Though split on the plan, no one disputed Harris County has massive needs across a host of categories.

“I think people are clamoring for more capital investments,” Ellis said.

Local roads are in disrepair, drainage worries dot unincorporated communities who remember rising waters from Tropical Storm Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda all too well and sheriffs operate out of outdated and crumbling buildings.

Voters “don’t need to be sold on flood control, roads and public safety,” said State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, who spoke Tuesday in favor of the bonds.

Commissioners, however, struggled to find common ground on how they would share the money. Ellis and Garcia pressed for a “worst-first” approach that would focus funding in areas they said were previously neglected in their Precinct One and Precinct Two areas, and away from doling the money based on population and lane miles of road. Ramsey and Cagle, concerned about the inequity of that plan, said some equal divisions were needed so Precinct Three and Precinct Four could make needed repairs.

To satisfy her own concerns that funds needed to address problem areas but fairly include projects in each commissioners’ area, Hidalgo proposed the $100 million in public safety remain countywide, but that the road and parks money be divided in a way by the county that assured each precinct at least $220 million — leaving another $220 million to be spent where needs are greatest.

“Everybody has a base level of revenue from this bond,” she said.

Despite that compromise, other doubts remain, Ramsey said, citing the lack of project specifics provided by county staff.

Here’s the Tuesday morning version of the story, which in turn references that 2015 bond package. A total of four propositions that year passed easily, with percentages ranging from 61 to 74. I don’t have a strong opinion at this time about how the funds should be divvied up – I don’t recall that particular debate coming up in the past, for what it’s worth, but Commissioners Court was a lot clubbier in those days – nor am I particularly worried about a detailed project list at this time. We should have one, to be sure, but I think most people don’t get too far into those details when casting their vote. It’s for law enforcement/roads/bridges/parks/flood control/etc etc etc? That’s likely enough info for most voters. We’ll see what details we get when the final ballot language is proposed.

Who audits the auditors?

A novel idea. Not sure it will get anywhere, but it does send a message.

Harris County Commissioners Court, by a 3-2 partisan vote, agreed to explore legal options, including a possible lawsuit, to challenge the results of a random drawing by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office that means another round of election scrutiny for Texas’ largest county.

“It ought to be the state of Texas that is audited,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the lawsuit. “This place has gone back to the bad old days.”

Harris County learned last week it was one of two large counties chosen for an election audit by state officials, under new procedures lawmakers approved for election scrutiny. It is the second audit of Harris County, after another approved weeks following the 2020 general election.

[…]

Harris and Cameron counties were the two large ones chosen in a drawing from a bucket, the Secretary of State’s office announced; Eastland and Guadalupe counties were the two small counties selected.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, however, questioned the authenticity of the drawing, saying the broadcast of the drawing “looks like a video out of a sketch comedy show.”

“The camera does not show the slips going into the bucket,” Menefee said, noting various aspects of the drawing that are not filmed. “They don’t even show the slips to the camera.”

See here for the background. Just as a reminder, while there have been issues in other elections in Harris County, the November 2020 election ran incredibly smoothly. And the SOS has already done an “audit” of that election, even if they never bothered to release a report on their “audit”.

My guess is that this doesn’t go anywhere, because I can’t see what grounds there are to sue. (Remember: I Am Not A Lawyer. There is an excellent chance that I am full of beans here.) One could argue that Harris County should have been exempted from this year’s drawing, as the law states that counties cannot be subjected to this audit in consecutive cycles. But the previous audit was not done under the auspices of that law, so the legal response to that would be some form of “tough luck”. Again, I don’t know what the actual attorneys who will be looking into the legal possibilities may find here, so take all this with an appropriate amount of skepticism. But if you were to bet me a dollar right now that 1) Harris County would file a suit as threatened, and 2) it would result in a temporary restraining order, I would take that bet.

If on the other hand the point of this is to denigrate the audit process, which was created in response to Big Lie mania, I’m fine with that. If the idea is to suggest that the state can’t be trusted to conduct a fair random drawing, let alone a fair audit process, that works for me. Judge Hidalgo spoke about the need to combat Big Lie hysteria, which is doing immense damage to the election process and a whole lot more, in the story. That’s a worthwhile mission. If it turns out there really is more to it than that, I’ll be happy to have been proven wrong.