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Commissioners Court

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaintiff in Constable Precinct 1 lawsuit responds

She’s not having it with the dismissal of Constable Alan Rosen as a defendant from the lawsuit.

Constable Alan Rosen

The booze-fueled undercover hotel operations were bad. Felecia McKinney’s worst moment at the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, however, came two years ago, during an undercover sting at a Massage Heights near the Texas Medical Center.

Another Precinct 1 employee had been assaulted at the business. Her bosses wanted her to pose as a customer, wait to see if he acted again, and then give a signal to bust him and take him down.

When she emerged from the spa, a superior told her to drive herself to the hospital to get a sexual assault examination while Constable Alan Rosen held a celebratory news conference in the business’ parking lot, she said at a press conference Friday.

[…]

After the spa sting, McKinney and Erica Davis — the Precinct 1 employee whose assault led to the investigation of Massage Heights — sued the establishment, saying the budget spa chain, its employee, owner and franchisor were negligent in training and supervision. Davis agreed to a monetary settlement in the case but McKinney’s complaint is still pending. Criminal charges against Wenjin Zhu, the massage therapist accused of sexually assaulting Davis and McKinney on the massage table two days apart, are also still pending. Zhu is detained in the county jail.

Though her lawyers have described her experience in court filings, McKinney had never addressed the public about her sexual assault in August 2019 until her brief remarks to reporters at her attorney’s office Friday morning.

“He knows what happened to me,” McKinney said of Rosen. “He intended it. He ordered it. And to hear him claim victory — and that he wouldn’t be held personally accountable for something he’s admitted to doing makes me feel attacked, unheard, and very alone.”

What angered her the most, she said, was reading comments from Rosen’s defenders that the constable should never have been included in the lawsuit in the first place.

“This case was never about money for me. It was about exposing the truth and holding people accountable,” she said, her voice catching. “When I read his comments and his attorney’s comments, I felt really victimized in ways I never expected. …When I saw the claim that he never should have been in the lawsuit, after ordering an operation that I go in to be sexually assaulted, I broke down.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know if the decision to remove Rosen as a defendant was a good one or not – I presume it can be appealed, but regardless of that the lawsuit itself if still ongoing. The allegations still refer to things that happened under Constable Rosen’s watch. I’m still far from convinced that any of the undercover actions were a good use of law enforcement resources, whether or not the deputies in question were put in needless danger. I don’t know what will come of this case, but we need to hear what Ms. McKinney and her fellow plaintiffs have to say.

A look ahead to Commissioners Court redistricting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

More lawsuits against Abbott’s ban on mask mandates

From Dallas County:

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins filed a legal challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates Monday, the North Texas official said on Twitter.

Jenkins said he’s asking for a court to rule that Abbott’s prohibition on local officials requiring people to wear masks — part of the governor’s July 29 executive order regarding the pandemic — is unenforceable.

Jenkins filed his request as part of an ongoing lawsuit between himself and Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch, according to The Dallas Morning News. That paper, which first obtained a copy of the court filing, reported that Jenkins is asking to be allowed to require mask wearing.

[…]

“The enemy is the virus and we must all do all that we can to protect public health,” Jenkins said in a tweet late Monday. “School districts and government closest to the people should make decisions on how best to keep students and others safe.”

Koch sued Jenkins Thursday after the county judge ordered the commissioner to be removed from a public meeting where Jenkins mandated mask wearing, according to The News.

This joins the lawsuit filed in Travis County seeking a broader injunction against Abbott’s anti-mask order. Commissioner Koch was denied a temporary restraining order in his action against Judge Jenkins on the ground that being made to wear a mask did not cause him any injury; a hearing for an injunction is still to come. One can only hope it’s that easy for Jenkins in this litigation. The legal hair that is being split here, as far as my not-lawyer self can tell, is that while Abbott clearly has the power to impose a mask mandate during an emergency, the statute does not allow him to forbid other entities from imposing their own mandates. WFAA appears to confirm my guesses.

The court document cites the Disaster Act, which delegates authority to county judges to declare local disasters and to seek to mitigate the disaster. It says that the Delta variant is increasingly affecting the city.

It also mentions how Jenkins tried to require face masks in commissioners’ court but there were threats from Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Last week, Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch was escorted out of the commissioner’s meeting after refusing to wear a face mask.

“Such injunctive relief is necessary because there is immediate and irreparable harm that will befall Dallas County – and others outside Dallas County – if they cannot require the public health-advancing mitigation measure of mandatory face coverings in public,” the court document says.

It also says that Abbott is attempting to prevent Jenkins from protecting citizens, which threatens lives.

“The Disaster Act does not provide any authority to the Governor to limit the local county judge’s actions,” the document says.

I figure there should be a quick ruling on whether there can be a temporary restraining order or not, and after that we’ll see. I don’t know the text of the statute in question, and I don’t know if coming from a county, which is essentially a subsidiary of the state, versus a home-rule city or school district or third party makes a difference.

In the meantime, Bexar County and San Antonio joined in the fun.

The city and county joined other governmental entities Tuesday in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s July executive order prohibiting them from issuing mask mandates. This is not the first lawsuit over Abbott’s order; Dallas County sued on Monday night. Dallas Independent School District and Austin Independent School District also announced Monday that they would be requiring masks in schools despite Abbott’s executive order.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said that the lawsuit was to challenge Abbott’s authority to suspend local emergency orders during the pandemic. Find a copy of the lawsuit here.

“Ironically, the governor is taking a state law meant to facilitate local action during an emergency and using it to prohibit local response to the emergency that he himself declared,” he said in a news release.

A temporary restraining order is necessary as San Antonio and Bexar County face “imminent irreparable harm,” from transmission of the coronavirus, plaintiffs wrote.

If the city and county are able to secure a temporary restraining order against the governor, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District intends to immediately require masks in public schools and unvaccinated students to quarantine if they come in “close contact” with someone that tested positive for COVID-19.

[…]

The city and county argued in its filing that Abbott exceeded his authority, as Texas law “gives the governor authority to suspend statutes and regulations governing state officials and agencies, but not the statutes giving local governments the authority to manage public health within their own jurisdictions,” city and county representatives wrote in the lawsuit filed Tuesday. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff reiterated that point during a county commissioners meeting Tuesday morning.

And just like that

A Texas district judge granted the city of San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary restraining order, blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s restriction on localities imposing mask mandates.

On Tuesday, Judge Antonia Arteaga made the ruling following almost an hour of arguments from attorneys. Arteaga said she did not take her decision lightly, citing the start of the school year and public guidance given by Dr. Junda Woo, medical director of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District, concerning the need for masks in public schools as the highly contagious delta variant contributes to a surge in coronavirus cases across the state.

The decision is temporary, pending a hearing on Monday.

We’re a long way from actual victory here – even if the plaintiffs win on Monday, we all know the state will appeal, and who knows what happens from there. The legal argument sounds reasonable to me, but what matters is what the law says, and whether the appeals courts/Supreme Court want to find a way to accommodate Abbott regardless of what the law says. But at least we’re off to a good start.

UPDATE: Score one for Dallas, too.

Judges in Harris County implement mask mandate

It’s what all the responsible public officials are doing.

State judges in Harris County voted unanimously Tuesday to implement a mask mandate in courthouses that will supersede Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on such mandates, according to three judges who participated in the meeting.

The anticipated courthouse ban comes as Dallas County officials and school officials in districts across the state have begun bucking up against Abbott’s latest coronavirus ban, which prioritizes Texans’ right to make their own choices over the health emergency.

The local judges’ order comes amid a surge of COVID-19 infections boosted by the delta variant. The judges, who asked to remain anonymous because the order was not yet official, said the mandate should go into effect imminently, as soon as it is signed by an administrative judge.

The new rule calls for masks to be used by everyone — vaccinated or not — inside civil, criminal, family and juvenile court buildings. County Attorney Christian Menefee said it would also apply to county judges if they are in a shared building with district judges.

The state judges’ mandate follows a memo Friday from the Office of Court Administration that informed judges, clerks and court staff that the infection, hospitalization and death rates have recently spiked and that they have power to enact rules independent of the executive branch. This delineation of executive and judicial power derives from the Texas Constitution, but also the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, according to judges, lawyers and law professors interviewed by the Chronicle.

The state courts take their direction on operation orders from the Texas Supreme Court, which allows judges to continue holding hearings remotely and to “modify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures, and take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings and participants to the threat of COVID-19,” according to the Friday memo from court administration in Austin.

[…]

“My understanding is that judges have been free to handle this whatever way they want,” said Menefee, the county attorney. “The Supreme Court has allowed judges to retain their authority to set conditions for their own courts. The Texas Supreme Court has not politicized the issue by issuing a rule.”

Menefee declined to comment on whether the county is contemplating a mask mandate for employees.

This has come up before, with Williamson County implementing a similar mandate last week, following Dallas and Bexar counties. I noted it in passing here, as it happened at the same time as the city of Houston mask mandate for its employees. So far, no pushback from Abbott or Paxton on either of those, and as such it is reasonable to assume this will pass by without fallout as well. Until it does draw a response, I guess – I can’t figure out what those guys are thinking right now. Maybe they’re too busy with all the lawsuits. I expect this will come up at the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, and I look forward to seeing what they do given the current set of facts on the ground.

Sheriff Gonzalez approved by Senate committee

We are one step closer to needing a new Sheriff.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday advanced the nominations of two Texans tapped by President Joe Biden to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Census Bureau.

While San Antonio native Rob Santos, Biden’s nominee to lead the Census, advanced easily on a 10-3 vote, Republicans on the committee unanimously opposed Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s nomination to lead ICE — a sign Democrats may need to bring in Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie in the Senate and get him confirmed.

Republicans said Gonzalez’s past criticism of the agency and moves to end a partnership with it as sheriff were “deeply concerning.”

“On numerous occasions during his time as sheriff, he criticized ICE and stated that he only worked with them because he was compelled to do so under a Texas law — a law that he openly and vocally opposed while it was being debated in the Texas Legislature,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the committee.

“The law enforcement agents of ICE need strong leadership now more than ever given what’s happening on the border and what’s happening in the interior,” Portman said. “The leader of ICE needs to believe in the importance of the agency’s mission. And for purposes of morale, I think it’s very important that the leader be one who supports ICE strongly.”

During his confirmation hearing last month, Gonzalez said that if confirmed, he would not end the controversial ICE program in which local law enforcement agencies screen jailed suspects to identify those who are in the country illegally. He said he believes in the agency’s mission and would be “aggressive” in going after people who pose a threat to public safety.

It wasn’t enough to sway any Republicans as the committee voted 7-6 to advance his nomination.

“Sheriff Gonzalez is a proven leader and dedicated law enforcement professional,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee. “At his confirmation hearing, he demonstrated his deep commitment to the rule of law and his understanding of the complex mission and challenges that ICE faces.”

See here and here for the background. I have no idea how the Senate’s calendar is likely to work, and I don’t know if a vote to confirm will come up before or after the August recess, which may wind up being shortened because of the infrastructure bill. So maybe he’s confirmed in the next week or so, and maybe it doesn’t happen till mid-September or later. Either way, I assume that Commissioners Court is thinking about who will be the next Sheriff. We’ll find out soon enough.

Back to Code Red

Pretty much inevitable at this point.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and urged unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

At a news conference, Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded with residents to get vaccinated, wear masks in public settings, and avoid hospitals except for life-threatening conditions.

“We find ourselves retracing our steps toward the edge of a cliff,” Hidalgo said. “It’s very conceivable that we can once again be heading toward a public health catastrophe.”

[…]

The county’s data report Wednesday evening showed how far and fast the situation has deteriorated: an explosion of new cases and a positivity rate of 16 percent. Hospitalizations in the Houston area have increased for 20 straight days and show no signs of slowing; they are on pace to set a pandemic record in about a week.

At its heart, the stay-home request of unvaccinated residents is toothless. Hidalgo lacks the authority to enforce it, let alone issue less restrictive edicts, such as mandatory mask wearing. As one of the most popular local elected officials, however, she hopes to shake residents from a sense of complacency that the pandemic is over.

“I know there’s a lot of conflicting messages, there’s a lot of confusion, so I don’t want to talk about what I don’t have the ability to do,” Hidalgo said of the state pre-emptions. “The truth of the matter is, the best we can do right now, the most we have the authority to do right now, is what we’re doing. So, we’re going to continue to make the most of that and really be direct about what we want the community to do.”

The mayor, who bucked the governor in requiring city workers to wear masks this week, said the numbers would dictate the city’s response to the virus. As of Thursday, 197 city employees had active cases of COVID-19.

“The numbers will dictate my response, and then we’ll deal with whatever happens after that. But I’m not going to be constrained by some order,” Turner said. “Wherever this virus goes, and whatever we need to do to check it and to save lives, is what I’m prepared to do.”

As the story notes, several other big counties have taken this step already, and more will surely follow. For those of you who like visuals, here you go:

Not a pretty picture at all. There’s nothing more Judge Hidalgo can do, since Greg Abbott has cut off any power that local officials had once had. I note that as of this writing, Mayor Turner’s employee mask mandate has not yet drawn a response from Abbott or Paxton. Makes me wonder if there’s more room to push the envelope a little, or if further provocation will draw their wrath.

While we can count on Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to mitigate the spread of the virus, we can also count on her colleague to the north to do nothing.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are continuing to increase dramatically in Montgomery County and around the region as the delta variant surges in unvaccinated residents.

While the Department of State Health Services recently started tracking cases in vaccinated people and specific data is not yet available, county health officials are reporting most new cases in unvaccinated residents.

“We can say that the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have not been vaccinated,” said Misti Willingham with the Montgomery County Hospital District. “Vaccines help reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death. Being vaccinated does a great job prepping your immune system should you encounter the virus.”

[…]

According to data from the health district since July 7, total hospitalizations in Montgomery County increased from 42 to 238 with 48 of those patients in critical care beds. MCPHD noted 157 of those 238 are Montgomery County residents.

The county’s active cases jumped 767 to 4,219. Since July 7, active cases in the county have surged by 3,624. The county’s total number of cases is now 60,941, increasing from 55,838 since July 7. Additionally, the county added three more reinfections bringing that number to 26.

However, health officials did not report any additional deaths from the virus. The total number of deaths remained at 354.

The county’s testing positive rate has climbed from 4 percent in early July to 19 percent. To date, 30,742 people have fully recovered.

Note there’s no comment from Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough in that story. Which is just as well, because when he does talk, this is the sort of thing he says. I have no words.

Since it’s all up to us to keep ourselves safe, we may as well remind ourselves of what we can do. Or at least, what we could do with just a little cooperation from our state government.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations growing exponentially in Houston and Texas, responsibility for blunting the surge is still largely a matter of personal choices, leaving medical and public-health professionals pleading with Texans to be vaccinated, mask up and maintain social distancing.

On Wednesday, Texas reported 8,130 hospitalizations, a 44 percent increase since last Wednesday. At Texas Medical Center hospitals, 311 patients were hospitalized for COVID, up from 61 only a month before.

“When all the indicators head in the same direction, that gives you a good idea,” said epidemiologist Catherine Troisi, who teaches at UT School of Public Health. “Right now everything is looking bad.”

[…]

“Delta is so transmissible, it’s picking off anyone who’s unvaccinated,” said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor. “That’s what’s been happening in Louisiana and Mississippi, and now it’s starting here.”

Of the three main strategies to blunt the effect of the coming surge — vaccinating, masking and social distancing — Hotez favors vaccinations, and says it’s crucial to administer as many as possible immediately.

“If we wait until mid-surge, a vaccine campaign will be much less effective,” he said. “If ever there were a time to vaccinate, it’s now.”

He continued: “The single best thing we could do is mandate vaccinations for schools, but in Texas we’re not even talking about that. We can’t even mandate masks.”

Troisi agreed that urging individuals to act responsibly isn’t enough.

“From a public health standpoint,” she said, “we need to get people vaccinated, and we need to increase testing. Maybe we don’t have to mandate vaccines. But you shouldn’t be able to go into Target or eat at McDonald’s if you’re not vaccinated. There have to be consequences for not getting the vaccine. You can’t just put other people at risk.”

The delta variant moves faster than previous coronavirus strains, notes Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

“With the traditional coronavirus, if someone is infected, on average they’re infectious starting two-and-a-half days after infection and show symptoms at five days,” he said. “But with delta, a key difference is that the time between exposure and being infectious is shorter by a day.”

A percentage of people infected today are almost certain to need hospitalization within one to two weeks. So preventive measures taken today, he said, “will help reduce hospitalizations a week from now, and will have major impacts two weeks from now.”

In other words, all of the same risk-minimization techniques we had before, back when we didn’t have an amazingly effective vaccine that was free and available to everyone over the age of 12 to really truly minimize the risk. I’m going to boil it all down to “get you and everyone in your family who is eligible vaccinated, and do everything you can to avoid any contact with unvaccinated people”.

For sure, stay the hell away from this.

Texans for Vaccine Choice will host a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol later this month, protesting “the current state of medical mandates” as the state grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases and stagnating vaccination rates.

The rally is scheduled for Aug. 21 at 11:30 a.m. A panel discussion will address the state’s current COVID protocols and vaccine requirements.

“I’m speechless,” Dr. Peter Hotez said Thursday morning. “To do that when there’s a public health crisis, with COVID rates going up — it’s terrible.”

As someone once said, terrible is as terrible does. If the COVID they will spread could be limited to just them it would be one thing. But it’s not, and so here we are.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: Harris County

PREVIOUSLY: Congress

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

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

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge

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

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Desiree Broadnax, District Clerk

Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Stephen Kusner, County Treasurer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

County Court judge Barnstone resigns

Ugh.

George Barnstone

A Harris County civil court judge has resigned amid several allegations of judicial misconduct, including showing bias or prejudice toward litigants and attorneys on the basis of race, sex or socioeconomic status, according to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

George Barnstone, of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1, was the subject of six complaints encompassing at least seven allegations of misconduct. Those also included claims he used his judicial office to advance his private interests and made appointments violating the Texas Government Code, which bars conflicts of interest, the resignation agreement states.

He signed the agreement on July 12, records show, and state commission Chair David Hall approved the decision Monday.

[…]

Other complaints — all listed in the agreement — alleged the judge didn’t comply with the law related to awarding attorneys fees or statutory interest post-judgment; failed to give a defendant their right to be heard; failed to treat attorneys with patience, dignity and courtesy; and failed to require and maintain order and decorum in court proceedings.

The state commission had not made any findings related to the complaints, and Barnstone’s resignation will take place instead of disciplinary action, the document reads. The resignation, however, is not an admission of guilt.

Barnstone won’t be able to run for judicial office or sit in a judicial capacity again, the agreement stipulates.

We won’t get a lot of details because the Commission will not make any findings due to the resignation, but all of this sounds bad. I found this story from 2019 while image searching, and that isn’t a good look, either. I’ve known George Barnstone for a few years – he’s a genuinely affable guy – and he made at least one other run for judge before winning in 2016, but it clearly wasn’t a good fit. I’m sorry it came to this, but it’s the right call.

Because this is a County court and not a District court, County Commissioners will get to name a replacement, as they have done before in recent years. Between this and the forthcoming replacement of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, they’ll have some big decisions to make. I would assume they’ll have a new judge on the bench in a couple of weeks. Get your name in the hat quickly if you think it should be you.

Sheriff Gonzalez gets a confirmation hearing date

Mark your calendars.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s nomination to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 15, the committee announced Wednesday.

President Joe Biden nominated Gonzalez to lead the agency in May, potentially positioning Gonzalez as a key player in the administration’s effort to build what Biden has called a more “humane” immigration system.

Gonzalez will appear before the Democrat-led committee, which does not include either Texas senator, as the administration is working to handle a record numbers of encounters with migrants crossing the border. Republicans have hammered Biden for months over the influx, which they say he created by moving away from former President Donald Trump’s stricter immigration policies, even though encounters began rising when Trump was still in office.

ICE was in many ways the face of Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration, which Biden has sought to move away from. If confirmed, Gonzalez would be instrumental in setting its course under Biden, a difficult task as ICE has become one of the most politicized agencies in the federal government.

See here for the background. This is just the committee hearing. Once the committee advances his nomination, which should be a formality, then the full Senate will vote on him. Barring anything weird, he’ll be confirmed, though I have no idea how much longer it may take from here. But at least we’re on the way. Once he is confirmed, he will formally resign as Sheriff, and Commissioners Court will pick someone to fill his spot. I’ll talk about that more as we get closer, but for now I’ll just say that Constable Alan Rosen is highly unlikely to be on the short list.

FBI looking into Constable “bachelor party sting” mess

Never a good sign.

Constable Alan Rosen

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

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

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

FBI Spokeswoman Christina Garza declined to comment on the case.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The Harris County Administrator of Departments

I have three things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s try again to fix that flood bond deficit

Hope this works.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flood Control District director to resign

Interesting.

Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe submitted a letter of resignation to Commissioners Court on Friday, saying he plans to step down July 2.

Poppe, 45, said the demands of the job, which have grown significantly since Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the passage of the historic $2.5 billion flood bond program the following year, had grown too great.

“While I greatly appreciate your continued support for making Harris County more resilient with natural disaster, the growing expectations associated with these efforts have adversely affected the quality of my personal life to a point I can no longer sustain,” Poppe wrote.

His departure comes at a precarious time for the agency, which is attempting to close a $700 million funding gap in its flood bond program. Poppe is due to present a plan to Commissioners Court June 29 to ensure all planned projects can be completed.

Poppe, who has worked as an engineer for Harris County since 2005, became head of the flood control district five years ago.

The rest of the story recaps the history of those five years, from Harvey to the 2018 bond referendum that is now massively underfunded thanks to a miscalculation in how federal matching funds would be allocated, the relationship Poppe has had with the Democratic-majority Commissioners Court, and the current mishigoss with the General Land Office and George P. Bush. HCFCD may have been a sleepy place when Poppe got there, but it’s on everyone’s radar now.

We can speculate as to the reasons why he is leaving now, but none of that really matters. What does matter is who and what comes next. The next director will have a full plate and a lot of directions to be going at once, with a state government that is outright hostile to the county. I hope whoever that is enjoys a challenge, because they’re going to get one. Best of luck to Russ Poppe in whatever comes next, and let’s all light a candle for his successor.

Bring in an outside investigator

That’s the Chron editorial board’s advice for Constable Alan Rosen.

Constable Alan Rosen

Rosen’s office declined to comment to the editorial board Thursday, but in an earlier statement, he said that when he was made aware of the allegations, he “proactively” ordered an internal affairs investigation months ago and “immediately” replaced the supervisor of the human trafficking unit. The investigation, he said, found no violations of law or policy. The constable, whose name has been floated as a replacement for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez if he joins the Biden Administration, suggested the allegations were being brought to impugn his department’s reputation.

“I have a zero-tolerance stance against sexual assault and sexual harassment and would never allow a hostile work environment as alleged,” he said.

If Rosen means that, he shouldn’t hesitate to call for an independent investigation by the FBI’s public integrity unit or the Texas Rangers to get to the bottom of the disturbing claims. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and others on the commissioners’ court should be seeking the same probe and certainly not consider Rosen for the sheriff’s post until they get to the bottom of what happened.

We don’t encourage public officials to cast early blame without all the facts. And indeed, people other than Rosen have pushed back on the lawsuit’s claims, including that the implication that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg wasn’t willing to get involved.

“The allegation that our office failed to take action is completely false. It’s offensive,” said DA spokesman Dane Schiller. “There was no cover-up, no laziness, no lack of caring by our prosecutors.”

Still, somebody must investigate — other than the department accused. If the allegations don’t pan out, Rosen’s name is cleared. If they are true, the officers’ actions suggest far more than workplace harassment but deeper corruption, potentially criminal wrongdoing and a toxic culture in urgent need of reform.

See here and here for the background. I basically agree with all of this, and I agree that it’s what Constable Rosen himself should want. It’s the best way to get at the truth and have it accepted as such. If Constable Rosen resists this idea, then Commissioners Court should give him a push, or take the decision out of his hands. Let’s not waste time on this, we the voters in Precinct 1 deserve to know what’s going on.

Another deputy constable files suit

More bad.

Constable Alan Rosen

When Precinct 1 Constable deputies accused their bosses of sexually exploiting them during undercover vice operations last week, their attorney vowed there would likely be more allegations in the near future.

On Wednesday, Cordt Akers returned to the podium in the foyer of his Montrose firm, and introduced Pct. 1 Deputy Constable Jasmine Huff. And Huff, he said, had also been sexually exploited during so-called “bachelor party stings” while working on the department’s human trafficking task force.

“She is not hiding behind the anonymity of Jane Doe lawsuit, as is her right to do,” Akers said.

Huff is the fourth current or former deputy of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office to say she was sexually mistreated while working on the the agency’s Human Trafficking Task Force. A fifth employee —Jacquelyn Aluotto, who worked for the agency as an advocate for victims of human trafficking — has also sued Precinct 1, saying she was ignored and then fired when she conveyed concerns about the department’s vice operations to superiors.

The suit, initially filed last month, names Rosen, Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore, and Lt. Shane Rigdon. The alleged incidents occurred in the department’s human trafficking task force in 2019 and 2020. In response to the initial lawsuit, which raised similar allegations of sexual misconduct and other improprieties, Rosen released a statement late last month saying his office had previously investigated the alleged incident, but found no violations of law or department policy.

In response to the latest accusations, Rosen on Wednesday issued a statement declining to comment on the case because “there is a legal matter pending” and privacy issues.

In an amended 45-page complaint filed in federal court Wednesday morning, Huff’s attorneys alleged that she was a young deputy when her bosses assigned her to the HCCO-1 Human Trafficking Unit.

See here for the background. I’m skipping over the details of the allegations for the same reason as before, it’s disturbing stuff and you can read it in the story. I have the same reaction as before, that this is bad on every level, and even if you believe that Rosen had no direct involvement, this happened on his watch. He’s responsible for that.

Brock Akers, another attorney on the case (and Cordt Akers’ father) also rejected accusations that the lawsuit was an attempt to hamstring Rosen’s political ambitions. Prior to the lawsuit’s filing, Rosen had been widely rumored to be interested in seeking appointment to replace Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, or to run for sheriff in 2024.

Akers called such speculation “flat out wrong.”

“These things happened,” he said.

County commissioners have yet to address the allegations against Precinct 1, or Rosen, a fellow elected official. In response to questions, a spokesman for Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware of these allegations and obviously concerned,” before declining to comment further because of the ongoing court fight.

I have not seen any names floated as possible replacements for Sheriff Gonzalez as yet – I daresay that will wait at least until his confirmation hearing is on the Senate calendar. Rosen would normally be an obvious possibility, and he is known to have bigger ambitions, but again, this happened on his watch. I don’t know how this turns out, but it sure seems like a bad time to be seeking a promotion.

It’s time for another Astrodome redevelopment effort

Astrodome redevelopment for a new generation.

Ready and waiting

Nineteen years after the Astrodome last hosted an event, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Houston’s most famous building hopes to finally develop a renovation plan that will actually come to fruition.

The nonprofit Astrodome Conservancy is seeking the public’s input to craft a pitch to Harris County Commissioners Court, which oversees the building.

Beth Wiedower Jackson, the group’s president, said the goal is to develop a realistic proposal that can garner the support of local leaders and the public, as well as the other tenants of the NRG campus: the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

“When we have this collection of creative ideas and feedback from the public of Harris County, we will then step back and create a community-supported vision for the future of the Astrodome,” Weidower Jackson said.

The key to any redevelopment plan will be paying for it.

That has always been the case, and it is even more so since County Judge Linda Hidalgo and Commissioners Court are not in the Astrodome renovation business any more. Judge Hidalgo has said she is ” open to proposals that would allow the Astrodome to serve a public purpose that include significant funding from private sources”, and so here we are. The URL you need to know if you’re interested is future-dome.com, which redirects to the Astrodome Conservancy website, where you will find a survey you can take and information about the project and upcoming meetings. I wish them the best of luck.

Threat level down

Been waiting for this for some time.

Harris County finally will downgrade from its highest COVID-19 threat level, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday evening, after 47 weeks of urging residents to stay home.

Hidalgo said the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines and improving local metrics were among several factors that convinced her to revise the threat level system the county debuted last summer. The U.S. Centers From Disease Control also told fully vaccinated Americans last week they may resume their pre-pandemic lives.

“We’re very much at a turning point,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t want to claim victory because there certainly there’s a possibility that amongst the unvaccinated, the virus gets out of control. But we do have reason for celebration.

Hidalgo said she would make a formal announcement Tuesday. Remaining guidelines would only apply to unvaccinated residents.

The two Republican county commissioners had urged the Democratic leader for weeks to abandon Level Red, which states that virus outbreaks are uncontrolled and worsening; data show the opposite is true.

The pair, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have said that while COVID-19 still must be taken seriously, the Level Red designation obscures the progress the county has made in containing the virus.

[…]

Currently, Harris County meets four of five criteria to downgrade to the next-highest threat level, including 14-day averages of new cases below 400 and share of ICU beds occupied by virus patients below 15 percent.

The remaining barrier is a test positivity rate below 5 percent; currently that metric stands at 9.4 percent. That result differs greatly than the positivity rate recorded by the Texas Medical Center system, which currently is 3.7 percent.

The TMC rate comes from tests conducted on patients at member hospitals in the Houston region; the county rate comes from tests taken by the Houston and Harris County health departments, as well as local pharmacies.

Hidalgo said experts she consulted said since few residents were being tested, Harris County’s rate likely was artificially high. She said her team would revise the metrics so positivity rate and new cases are secondary criteria.

See here for the previous update, which was a month ago. We’re a lot farther along on vaccinations, and all of the numbers have moved in accordance with that. I like the fact that we’re being true to the metrics, and that we are making adjustments to them based on new facts on the ground. I commend Judge Hidalgo for consistently doing the right thing, which would have been a lot easier to do if we didn’t have Threat Level Super Duper Bright Red stupidity and malevolence from other parts of our government. The later story also notes that government buildings would reopen to 50 percent capacity, and the county is reviewing that dumb anti-mask mandate order. The Press and the Trib have more.

A little incentive

If it takes a reward of some kind to get a few more people to be vaccinated against COVID, I’m fine with that.

Could be yours

To increase the rate of vaccinations, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved giving incentives to citizens.

At Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting, the court authorized for up to $250,000 for gift cards, events and other incentive programs, to increase vaccine participation among Harris County citizens.

The money will come from the county’s Public Improvement Contingency fund.

“We desperately need these people to get vaccinated, particularly the young people,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “I asked you to be as creative as we possibly can because I don’t want to sit here a month from now and see the numbers worsen, or see this pandemic extended, and say ‘If we had just done X, would we have avoided this situation?’”

[…]

Commissioners pitched vaccine-promotion concerts, gift cards to local businesses, firework shows and Jose Altuve bobblehead dolls as incentives.

The immediate goal is not to use county coffers to pay for gift cards, said Hidalgo, who suggested the county find corporate partners to offer gift cards as a contribution to the community.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey worried that people may take advantage of direct cash payments or gift cards by returning for multiple shots.

“I do not think giving out gift cards or other pecuniary financial incentives is a good thing,” Ramsey said. “You may have people who get multiple shots so they could get their new gift card, so I have some concerns on that side of the equation.”

Ramsey said he didn’t have a problem with trying to promote vaccinations in the community through other means, such as bobblehead giveaways or veteran-centered events during Memorial Day weekend, complete with a fireworks show.

“If we give them out during a ‘Bobbleheads Weekend,’ we would pretty much max it out,” he said. “We could have a whole initiative around this… ‘What better way to honor our vets than to come get your vaccine.’”

We’ve discussed how it’s more challenging to vaccinate people now, because everyone who really wanted the vaccine and had no barriers to getting it has gotten it. What we have left for the most part is the people who need assistance and/or incentive (I’m not counting the absolute refusers, since there’s no reaching them), and this plan tries to provide some of the latter. Other places have tried similar strategies, and there is evidence that it is effective. Seems simple enough to me.

I do not believe that double-dipping is a concern, though perhaps there will be some people who will wait till there’s a reward available rather than get a shot at their earliest possible time. That seems like a minimal risk. I do think the approach of offering rewards at specific publicized events rather than making them a new default part of the experience could be worthwhile – it’s the vax incentive equivalent to the retail strategies of “blowout sales” and “everyday low prices”. Keep an open mind and track your data for every different method used. Finally, please keep to yourself any complaints about how you personally did not need any gift cards or Altuve bobbleheads to get your shot. You got the reward of getting the shots and their accompanying freedoms weeks if not months ahead of these slower-moving folks. That’s how economics works, bud.

Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheriff Gonzalez nominated to lead ICE

Wow.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More from the Chron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On vaccine equity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.

Is it time to pay jurors more?

Not yet, but maybe soon.

Marilyn Burgess

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and her colleagues on Commissioners Court declined to support a proposal to increase pay for jurors and instead referred the idea for more study.

District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, a Democrat, pitched the idea of hiking juror pay from $6 to $50 for the first day of service and from $40 to $80 for any subsequent days. The hike would make Harris County jurors the highest-paid in Texas.

Burgess’s office had commissioned a study that found residents, especially people of color, said they would be more likely to show up for jury duty when summoned if the pay was higher. He proposal also included free parking for jurors.

The liberal majority that controls Commissioners Court was unconvinced. Hidalgo said she supported paying jurors more, but said Burgess had not produced any evidence showing that her proposal would help make Harris County juries more diverse. She questioned the accuracy of the district clerk’s study, which was performed by a third party.

“That’s one survey of Harris County, which is not clear to what extent the results are statistically significant, or to the extent the sample is representative,” Hidalgo said.

Budget Officer David Berry, who reports to Commissioners Court, said his office had reviewed Burgess’s proposal but did not endorse it.

[…]

Several community leaders, including from the Super Neighborhood Alliance and Mi Familia Vota, spoke in support of the pay increase. Burgess said if court members were skeptical, they could simply revert to the old system at the end of the fiscal year if it did not produce results.

She said the cost of the increases, estimated at $1.8 million in the current fiscal year, would be cheaper now because courts are holding fewer trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The judges have signed on in support of it. The community civic leaders say it’s the only way you’re going to get the lower socioeconomic people to appear for jury duty,” Burgess said. “We have discussed this for two years and now is the time to implement it.”

Here’s the Monday story, which previewed the item before Commissioners Court. I haven’t seen the study Burgess presented, so I can’t comment on its data. Burgess’ proposal would make the Harris County courts pay a bit more than the federal courts do for jury duty. I think this is the right direction and it doesn’t cost that much, but if Commissioners Court wants to take 30 days and review it before deciding what to do, fine. I hope that they do choose to take this up afterwards. The Press has more.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

Precinct analysis: Brazoria County

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3

Once more around the block, this time in Brazoria County. Let’s just dive in:


Dist    Trump    Biden     Lib     Grn
======================================
CD14   44,480   19,715     823     160
CD22   45,953   42,513   1,037     257
				
HD25   38,939   16,277     727     132
HD29   51,494   45,951   1,133     285
				
CC1    19,383    8,439     407      72
CC2    22,456   17,024     494     106
CC3    24,355   12,614     496     102
CC4    24,239   24,151     463     137

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar     Lib     Grn
======================================
CD14   43,874   18,748   1,440     357
CD22   46,831   40,011   1,579     522
				
HD25   38,413   15,432   1,251     314
HD29   52,292   43,327   1,768     565
				
CC1    19,080    7,985     687     182
CC2    22,849   15,885     742     209
CC3    24,398   11,802     736     228
CC4    24,378   23,087     854     260

Dist   Wright    Casta     Lib     Grn
======================================
CD14   43,325   18,349   1,620     508
CD22   45,672   39,005   1,980     989
				
HD25   37,900   15,098   1,435     434
HD29   51,097   42,256   2,165   1,063
				
CC1    18,727    7,834     791     253
CC2    22,351   15,535     885     399
CC3    23,844   11,430     927     394
CC4    24,075   22,555     997     451

Dist    Trump    Biden     Lib     Grn
======================================
CD14   68.24%   30.25%   1.26%   0.25%
CD22   51.20%   47.36%   1.16%   0.29%
				
HD25   69.44%   29.03%   1.30%   0.24%
HD29   52.09%   46.48%   1.15%   0.29%
				
CC1    68.49%   29.82%   1.44%   0.25%
CC2    56.03%   42.48%   1.23%   0.26%
CC3    64.83%   33.58%   1.32%   0.27%
CC4    49.48%   49.30%   0.95%   0.28%

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar     Lib     Grn
======================================
CD14   68.11%   29.10%   2.24%   0.55%
CD22   52.65%   44.98%   1.78%   0.59%
				
HD25   69.33%   27.85%   2.26%   0.57%
HD29   53.39%   44.23%   1.80%   0.58%
				
CC1    68.30%   28.59%   2.46%   0.65%
CC2    57.58%   40.03%   1.87%   0.53%
CC3    65.65%   31.76%   1.98%   0.61%
CC4    50.18%   47.52%   1.76%   0.54%

Dist   Wright    Casta     Lib     Grn
======================================
CD14   67.91%   28.76%   2.54%   0.80%
CD22   52.11%   44.50%   2.26%   1.13%
				
HD25   69.08%   27.52%   2.62%   0.79%
HD29   52.91%   43.75%   2.24%   1.10%
				
CC1    67.84%   28.38%   2.87%   0.92%
CC2    57.06%   39.66%   2.26%   1.02%
CC3    65.16%   31.23%   2.53%   1.08%
CC4    50.07%   46.91%   2.07%   0.94%

As an extra point of comparison, here are the numbers from the four district races:


Weber     45,245  70.76%
Bell      18,700  29.24%

Nehls     44,332  50.51%
Kulkarni  38,962  44.39%
LeBlanc    4,477   5.10%

Vasut     38,936  71.38%
Henry     15,613  28.62%

Thompson  54,594  56.69%
Boldt     41,712  43.31%

Not really a whole lot to remark upon. Brazoria County has slowly shifted blue since 2012, but not by that much. There’s still a lot of work to be done there, and in the short term the most likely place where any effect would be felt is in the appellate courts. HD29 was a dark horse swing district following the 2018 election, but as you can see Rep. Ed Thompson punches above his weight, so it’s going to take more than some demography to seriously challenge him, and that’s assuming the Republicans don’t touch up his district a bit later on this year. I have no idea what Congressional districts will have a piece of Brazoria County going forward, but I’d bet that at least at the beginning they’re all some shade of red.

The main opportunity for Dems here is at the local level, where Commissioners Court Precinct 4 is pretty close to even. None of the county offices – Commissioners Court, Constable, Justice of the Peace – were challenged in 2020, so there’s the starting point to improve things on the ground and begin construction on a bench. That may change with redistricting as well, of course, but county elections can see change happen quickly under the right circumstances. My wish for Brazoria County is for there to be more activity at this level, starting next year.

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 3

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

We wrap up our look at Fort Bend County with a look at the three executive offices that were on the ballot – County Attorney, Sheriff, and Tax Assessor.


Dist   Rogers   Lawson Rogers% Lawson%
======================================
CD09   15,023   50,782  22.83%  77.17%
CD22  145,087  127,054  53.31%  46.69%
				
HD26   43,626   39,504  52.48%  47.52%
HD27   24,389   56,616  30.11%  69.89%
HD28   66,099   54,828  54.66%  45.34%
HD85   26,625   26,552  50.07%  49.93%
				
CC1    37,971   37,058  50.61%  49.39%
CC2    17,680   50,002  26.12%  73.88%
CC3    62,634   44,214  58.62%  41.38%
CC4    41,822   46,562  47.32%  52.68%


Dist    Nehls    Fagan  Nehls%  Fagan%
======================================
CD09   14,833   51,165  22.47%  77.53%
CD22  146,932  128,505  53.35%  46.65%
				
HD26   44,560   39,723  52.87%  47.13%
HD27   24,035   57,421  29.51%  70.49%
HD28   66,891   55,267  54.76%  45.24%
HD85   26,899   26,911  49.99%  50.01%
				
CC1    38,247   37,720  50.35%  49.65%
CC2    17,442   50,439  25.69%  74.31%
CC3    63,111   44,910  58.42%  41.58%
CC4    42,964   46,599  47.97%  52.03%


Dist Pressler   Turner  Press% Turner%
======================================
CD09   15,165   50,611  23.06%  76.94%
CD22  147,338  124,999  54.10%  45.90%
				
HD26   44,460   38,767  53.42%  46.58%
HD27   24,799   56,167  30.63%  69.37%
HD28   66,903   54,081  55.30%  44.70%
HD85   26,904   26,301  50.57%  49.43%
				
CC1    38,516   36,606  51.27%  48.73%
CC2    17,829   49,779  26.37%  73.63%
CC3    63,433   43,533  59.30%  40.70%
CC4    42,722   45,692  48.32%  51.68%

The most remarkable thing about these three races is the consistency. There’s less than a point of variance in the three races, in whichever district you look. That was not the case in Harris County, where Sheriff Ed Gonzalez ran well ahead of the pack, and where we often see a fairly wide range of results at the countywide level. Bridgette Smith-Lawson and Eric Fagan had identical percentages overall – there were about 3500 more votes cast in the Sheriff’s race, but the marginal voters broke for each candidate exactly as the overlapping voters had – and they both finished about 0.7 points ahead of Carmen Turner. I’ve often said that blowout races are boring to analyze because they don’t offer much insight into anything, but sometimes the same is true for close races. A few more people voted for James Pressler than for Steve Rogers, but not in a way that demonstrated any strengths or weaknesses on the part of anyone involved. Just one of those things, and it ultimately meant nothing as far as the outcome was concerned.

I’ve mentioned Commissioners Court Precinct 1 a few times, and here I should note that incumbent Commissioner Vincent Morales won with 52.30% of the vote, ahead of the other Republicans here indeed every other Republican in Fort Bend. Judicial candidate Maggie Jaramillo was next best in that district, with 52.17% of the vote. Another piece of evidence for the relative advantage that Latino Republicans had, in this election at least, and perhaps a cautionary tale for the 2024 campaign by Democrats to unseat Morales and cement a 4-1 membership on the Court. Morales’ incumbency and his appeal to independent/soft Dem Latino voters will make it that much harder to oust him. If the plan is to endanger him via the redistricting process, my advice is to add in a bit of buffer, because he will likely overperform the baseline.

That’s it for Fort Bend. I’ll try to work on Brazoria County next. Let me know what you think.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 2

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

This post is going to focus on the judicial races in Fort Bend County. There are a lot of them – seven statewide, four appellate, five district and county – and I don’t want to split them into multiple posts because there’s not enough to say about them, nor do I want to present you with a wall of numbers that will make your eyes glaze over. So, I’m going to do a bit of analysis up top, then put all the number beneath the fold for those who want a closer look or to fact-check me. I’ll have one more post about the Fort Bend county races, and then maybe I’ll take a crack at Brazoria County, which will be even more manual labor than these posts were.

The point of interest at the statewide level is in the vote differentials between the three races that included a Libertarian candidate and the four races that did not. Just eyeballing the totals and bearing in mind that there’s some variance in each group, the Republican candidate got an increase of a bit more than half of the Libertarian vote total in each district, while the Democrats were more or less around the same level. That comports with the general thesis that Libertarians tend to take votes away from Republicans more than Democrats, though the effect here was pretty small. It’s also a small sample, and every county has its own characteristics, so don’t go drawing broad conclusions. For what it’s worth, there wasn’t anything here to contradict that piece of conventional wisdom.

For the appellate court races, the thing I have obsessed over is the incredibly small margin in the election for Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals, which Jane Robinson lost by 1500 votes, or 0.06 percentage points. We saw in Harris County that she trailed the two victorious Democrats, Veronica Rivas-Molloy and Amparo Guerra, who were part of a trend in Harris County where Latino candidates generally out-performed the rest of the ticket. That wasn’t quite the case in Fort Bend. Robinson again trailed Rivas-Molloy by a little – in overall vote total, Robinson trailed Rivas-Molloy by about two thousand votes, while Republican Tracy Christopher did an equivalent amount better than Russell Lloyd. But unlike in Harris, Robinson outperformed Guerra, by about a thousand votes, and Guerra barely beat out Tamika Craft, who was farther behind the pack in Harris County. I don’t have a good explanation for that, it looks to me just like a weird result that has no obvious cause or correlation to what we saw elsewhere. It’s also the case, as we discussed in part one of the Fort Bend results, that if Dems had done a better job retaining voters downballot, none of this would matter all that much.

Finally, in the district court races (there were four of them, plus one county court), the results that grabbed my attention were in a couple of contests that appeared one after the other. Republican Maggie Jaramillo, running for the 400th District Court, was the closest member of Team GOP to win, as she lost to Tameika Carter by ten thousand votes. In the next race, for the 434th District Court, Republican Jim Shoemake lost to Christian Becerra by twenty-two thousand votes. This was the difference between a three-point loss for Jaramillo, and a six-and-a-half point loss for Shoemake. Jaramillo was the top performing Republican candidate in any race in Fort Bend, while Becerra was sixth best among Dems, trailing Joe Biden, three statewide judicial candidates, and Sheriff Eric Fagan. You may have noticed that they’re both Latinos, though the effect appears to have been a bit greater for the Republican Jaramillo. Becerra was the only Dem besides Biden to carry Commissioners Court Precinct 1, though that may not have been strictly a Latino candidate phenomenon – Elizabeth Frizell had the next highest percentage, with Veronica Rivas-Molloy and Tina Clinton close behind. (Amy Clark Meachum and Staci Williams, both in three-candidate races, came closer to carrying CC1 than any other candidates, but their percentage of the vote was lower.) Again, no broad conclusions here, just an observation.

Click on for the race data, and remember I had to piece this together by hand, so my numbers may be a little off from the official state totals when those come out. County races are next. Let me know what you think.

(more…)

Harris County approves its budget

Good priorities.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $3.3 billion general fund budget that includes new investments in pollution control, public health and attorneys for indigent criminal defendants.

The $64 million in new spending represents a 2 percent increase over the current budget.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia praised the spending plan, which he said is based on a new model that seeks to fund needs rather than departments, as a more sensible approach to meeting the needs of residents.

“With a metrics-based budget … this is another new day in county government,” Garcia said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget process is more transparent and said the county has made key improvements after events in the past two years, including the 2019 series of chemical fires and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were in terms of ensuring we’re using every dollar wisely to help tear down barriers no individual can take on alone,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

[…]

By streamlining services and spending less on debt service, the new budget includes $132 million in new investments. Those line items include increases for the fire marshal and Pollution Control Services, totaling $1.3 million, to improve the county’s response to chemical incidents, and $5 million to launch a non-law enforcement 911 system to handle incidents including mental health crises.

The budget also includes $18 million for several justice and safety initiatives, including the hiring of visiting judges to help clear a backlog in criminal cases, expanding the Public Defender’s Office and studying racial and ethnic disparities in policing, non-punitive responses to social problems and strategies to prevent violence.

Berry proposed holding back $19 million in reserve to potentially allocate when Commissioners Court does its mid-year budget review in September, and members agreed.

An additional round of federal stimulus aid for local governments would help in the future, Berry’s budget summary states, though the county is not counting on another influx of cash.

Most of the money that the county had to spend on COVID-related expenses has been reimbursed via the CARES act. We’re probably in good enough shape that we don’t need much more from the current COVID relief bill, but I’ll be happy for us to get something anyway. There’s plenty more we can invest in if the funds are there for it.

Since the subject has come up and will no doubt continue to come up, we can discuss how Judge Hidalgo goes about her business and what it might mean for 2022 all we want. What I know is that she’s done excellent work, the county is in solid shape, and we’ve got good priorities. I’ll play that hand in a re-election campaign any day of the week.

There’s a real lack of consensus about the I-45 project

It seems unlikely that TxDOT could just throw up its hands and walk away from this, but it’s at least a possible scenario.

A proposed agreement devised to bring planners and critics of a massive redesign of Interstate 45 together has left officials in many ways further apart and opponents with a chance to convince more people the $8 billion project is stuck in the past.

No one is pulling the plug on the freeway rebuild or its design, but transportation officials said the lack of consensus between the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, Houston and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council has the region’s largest-ever freeway rebuild at a crossroads. It is a hurdle a proposed memorandum of understanding was intended to clear, but the various agencies could not even agree on the agreement.

Transportation Policy Council members tabled a resolution last Friday after TxDOT said that even voting on an agreement that had no legally binding effect could complicate the project. That left some officials struggling to understand how various concerns about the project can even be addressed.

“I think it is a huge black mark on TPC and H-GAC that after all of this work and all of this community involvement nothing happens,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and a member of the committee that worked on the now-scuttled agreement. “I just can’t imagine this thing foundering at this point and how it will affect the public’s perception.”

[…]

The Transportation Policy Council, which doles out federal money for highways and must include the project in its spending plans for the next decade, brought TxDOT and others together in June 2020 to create an agreement outlining what each hoped to gain from the project and some outline of the design’s goals. A committee was formed to develop a memorandum of understanding, an agreement between the entities outlining what they jointly commit to and who is responsible for certain particulars. The committee was headed by Carol Lewis, director of Texas Southern University’s Center for Transportation Training and Research.

Lewis said the various groups achieved a lot, developing what she called a framework from which to build consensus even with “extremes of positions” among TxDOT and the project’s critics.

“The opinions were not necessarily all aligned but we got to a good place,” Lewis said.

TxDOT’s legal review, however, called for sweeping changes, eliminating any part of the proposed agreement that conflicted with the current environmental plan. Otherwise, lawyers concluded, TxDOT would not able to sign a deal that differs with what it proposed to federal officials.

Unable to get a firm, binding agreement, Lewis said the committee sought a resolution that would go to H-GAC’s transportation council. The reasoning was that a resolution could at least serve as a guidepost of what everyone wanted to achieve.

Even that ran into opposition from TxDOT. The concern, state officials said, is a resolution would send mixed signals that the project did not have regional support, although the transportation council’s 10-year plan has set aside money for it.

In a statement some said boded ominously, [TxDOT Houston District Engineer Eliza] Paul noted if the Houston area slowed or stopped its support of the project, it could lose its place in line for state funding.

“I know TxDOT is not going to let the $8 billion sit around until we know what we are going to do,” Paul said.

I don’t know what to make of that, so go read the rest. As noted in the last update, Harris County and the city of Houston oppose the design as it is now but still want to see the project work. Other groups like LINK Houston, Air Alliance Houston, and Stop I-45 are firmly in opposition, and there’s some hope among them that this could be a way to kill the project. I have a hard time believing that, but given how long this idea has been in the works, I could imagine it being delayed for another few years, with the current pot of money being re-apportioned. The TPC has another meeting in late February to try again with this resolution, so we’ll see if they’ve made any progress on it by then.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 1

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

I’ve finally run out of Harris County races from 2020 to analyze, so let’s move over to Fort Bend County. I’ve said before that while Fort Bend provides downloadable Excel files on their county elections page, they format these results in a way that makes it harder for me to do the same analysis I do with Harris County. Basically, Harris County puts all the results on one worksheet, with the totals for every candidate given in each precinct. For district races, that means a blank in the results when the precinct in question is not in that district, but the cell for that district is there. That makes it super easy for me to use Excel functions to add up the vote totals for, say, the Presidential candidates in the precincts where, say, the HD134 voters are. I can do practically every race in a matter of an hour or two, and indeed I spend more time formatting the blog posts than I do the calculations.

Fort Bend, on the other hand, separates each race into its own worksheet, which is fine in and of itself, except that for district races they only include the precincts for that race on the worksheet in question. That completely nullifies the formulas I use for Harris County, and when I went and looked to see how I did it in 2016, I saw that I manually added the relevant cells for each of the countywide races, an approach that is inelegant, labor intensive, and prone to error. But it was the best I could do, so I did it again that way here. I can tell you that my results are not fully accurate, and I know this because the subtotals don’t add up correctly, but they’re close enough to suffice. The one exception is for the County Commissioner precincts, which are fully grouped together in Fort Bend – each precinct number is four digits, with the first digit being a one, two, three, or four, and that first digit is the Commissioner precinct. So those at least are easy to add up correctly. The rest is messy, but I did the best I could. When the official state reports come out in March and they’re off from mine, you’ll know why.

Anyway. That’s a lot of minutia, so let’s get to the numbers.


Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   15,527   52,998    414    292
CD22  142,191  142,554  2,614    799
				
HD26   42,389   45,097    743    283
HD27   24,191   59,921    576    296
HD28   65,043   61,103  1,212    313
HD85   26,661   29,016    503    197
				
CC1    37,765   40,253    699    261
CC2    18,054   52,525    441    307
CC3    61,437   49,976  1,120    247
CC4    40,460   52,798    768    276

Dist   Trump%   Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.43%   76.55%  0.60%  0.42%
CD22   49.34%   49.47%  0.91%  0.28%
				
HD26   47.89%   50.95%  0.84%  0.32%
HD27   28.47%   70.51%  0.68%  0.35%
HD28   50.95%   47.86%  0.95%  0.25%
HD85   47.29%   51.47%  0.89%  0.35%
				
CC1    47.82%   50.97%  0.89%  0.33%
CC2    25.31%   73.64%  0.62%  0.43%
CC3    54.48%   44.31%  0.99%  0.22%
CC4    42.90%   55.99%  0.81%  0.29%


Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   15,345   49,730  1,082    639
CD22  145,632  129,254  4,277  1,473
				
HD26   43,650   40,478  1,264    506
HD27   24,695   55,984  1,308    672
HD28   66,532   55,483  1,859    580
HD85   26,653   26,678    949    355
				
CC1    38,088   37,124  1,318    447
CC2    17,948   49,130  1,123    626
CC3    63,061   45,045  1,614    489
CC4    41,877   47,685  1,304    550

Dist  Cornyn%   Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.97%   74.45%  1.62%  0.96%
CD22   51.89%   46.06%  1.52%  0.52%
				
HD26   50.82%   47.12%  1.47%  0.59%
HD27   29.88%   67.73%  1.58%  0.81%
HD28   53.46%   44.58%  1.49%  0.47%
HD85   48.78%   48.83%  1.74%  0.65%
				
CC1    49.48%   48.23%  1.71%  0.58%
CC2    26.08%   71.38%  1.63%  0.91%
CC3    57.22%   40.87%  1.46%  0.44%
CC4    45.81%   52.16%  1.43%  0.60%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   14,727   50,118    923    769
CD22  142,842  125,932  4,794  2,479
				
HD26   42,848   39,268  1,367    860
HD27   23,874   55,827  1,267    850
HD28   65,253   54,232  2,115  1,011
HD85   26,165   26,418    968    521
				
CC1    37,302   36,877  1,341    640
CC2    17,328   49,299    984    776
CC3    61,909   43,760  1,924    863
CC4    41,027   46,114  1,468    969

Dist  Wright%   Casta%   Lib%	Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.13%   75.32%  1.39%  1.16%
CD22   51.75%   45.62%  1.74%  0.90%
				
HD26   50.80%   46.56%  1.62%  1.02%
HD27   29.18%   68.23%  1.55%  1.04%
HD28   53.22%   44.23%  1.72%  0.82%
HD85   48.39%   48.86%  1.79%  0.96%
				
CC1    48.98%   48.42%  1.76%  0.84%
CC2    25.34%   72.09%  1.44%  1.13%
CC3    57.08%   40.35%  1.77%  0.80%
CC4    45.80%   51.48%  1.64%  1.08%

The first number to consider is not about any of the districts. It’s simply this: John Cornyn received 3K more votes in Fort Bend County than Donald Trump did, but MJ Hegar got over 16K fewer votes than Joe Biden. Jim Wright got about as many votes as Trump did, but Chrysta Castaneda got 19K fewer votes than Biden. That trend continued in the district races as well. Troy Nehls got 2K more votes than Trump did in CD22, while Sri Kulkarni got 19K fewer votes. Jacey Jetton got a thousand more votes than Trump did in HD26, while Sarah DeMerchant got 4,500 fewer votes than Biden did. Biden clearly got a few Republican crossover votes, but by far the difference between his performance and everyone else’s on the ballot was that there was a significant number of people who voted for Joe Biden and then didn’t vote in other races. That was just not so on the Republican side.

I don’t have a single explanation for this. It’s a near reverse of what happened in Harris County in 2004, when George Bush clearly got some Democratic crossovers, but by and large there were a lot of Bush-only voters, while the folks who showed up for John Kerry generally stuck around and voted for the other Dems. I don’t think what happened here in Fort Bend is a function of straight ticket voting, or its removal in this case, because there’s a world of difference between someone who picks and chooses what races to vote in and someone who votes for President and then goes home – I just don’t believe that latter person would have selected the “straight Democratic” choice if it had been there. In 2004, my theory was that Bush was a brand name candidate who drew out more casual voters who didn’t really care about the other races, while Kerry voters were more hardcore. I don’t buy that here because if anything I would have expected the Trump voters to be more likely to be one and done. It’s a mystery to me, but it’s one that state and Fort Bend Democrats need to try to figure out. At the very least, we could have won HD26, and we could have elected Jane Robinson to the 14th Court of Appeals if we’d done a better job downballot here.

One other possibility I will mention: Sri Kulkarni wrote an article in the Texas Signal that analyzed his loss and cited a large disinformation campaign against him that contributed to his defeat. That may be a reason why the Libertarian candidate did as well as he did in that race. I don’t doubt Kulkarni’s account of his own race, but I hesitate to fully accept this explanation. Dems had a larger dropoff of the vote in CD09 as well – about 3K fewer votes for Hegar and Castaneda, less than 1K fewer for Cornyn and Wright – and the dropoff in CD22 was pretty consistent for other Dems as well, though Kulkarni did generally worse. It may have moved the needle somewhat against him, but it doesn’t explain what happened with other Dems. Again, someone with more time and resources available to them – the TDP, in particular – should do a deeper dive on this. I do believe that disinformation was an issue for Dems last year, and will be an increasing problem going forward, and we need to get our arms around that. I just believe there were other causes as well, and we need to understand those, too.

One more thing: Kulkarni ran a lot closer to the Biden standard in Harris County than he did in Fort Bend. Biden and Trump were virtually tied in CD22 in Harris County, with the vote going 21,912 for Trump to 21,720 for Biden; Nehls defeated Kulkarni 20,953 to 19,743 in Harris. That’s the kind of result that one can easily attribute to Biden crossovers, and doesn’t raise any flags about the level of undervoting. I haven’t looked at Brazoria County yet, but my point here is just that Fort Bend County was very different in its behavior than Harris County was. And again, for the Nth time, we need to understand why. That is the point I’m trying to sledgehammer home.

Moving on, HD28 was a steeper hill to climb than perhaps we thought it would be. Eliz Markowitz got about 1,500 fewer votes than MJ Hegar did, and about 300 fewer than Castanada, while Gary Gates outperformed both Jim Wright and John Cornyn. It should be noted that while Dems in general lost HD28 by 20 points or so in 2016, Markowitz and other Dems were losing it by ten or eleven points in 2020. In total vote terms, a gap of 16-18K votes in 2016 was reduced to 12-13K votes in 2020. The shift is real, and even if it didn’t net us any extra seats, it’s still there.

The other way that shift manifested was in the County Commissioner precincts. In 2016, Republicans won three of the four precincts, with two-term Democrat Richard Morrison in Precinct 1 finally getting unseated after he had won against badly tainted opponents in previous years. There was a lot of movement in the Dem direction in Precinct 4, however, and that came to fruition in 2018 when Ken DeMerchant (yes, Sarah’s husband) flipped that seat. As you can see, there was no retreat in CC4 in 2020, and it probably wouldn’t take too much tinkering to make Precinct 1 a fifty-fifty or better proposition for Dems. It didn’t happen in either county this year, but in 2024, aided by demography and maybe a bit of gerrymandering, both Harris and Fort Bend counties can have 4-1 Democratic majorities on their Commissioners Courts.

I do have totals for the other Fort Bend races, though they’re not dramatically different from what you see here. I will put them together in a future post just to have it on the record. As always, let me know what you think.