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Congressional Dems ask Paxton to release Uvalde info

He won’t, because he sucks, but you gotta ask.

Best mugshot ever

Nine Democratic members of the U.S. House from Texas on Tuesday called on Attorney General Ken Paxton to order the release of government records related to the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde that local officials are attempting to withhold.

In a letter, the group said that authorizing the release of records would help the families of victims heal by revealing the full truth about what happened at Robb Elementary School that day. They also said disclosure was important because officials have repeatedly changed their story about law enforcement’s response to the shooting.

“A first step in restoring trust in law enforcement and healing requires transparency from state and local officials,” the letter states. “You have a choice: shine a light on what went wrong to help Uvalde heal or be part of the cover up.”

It is signed by U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio; Colin Allred and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas; Lloyd Doggett of Austin; Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Sylvia Garcia, Lizzie Fletcher and Al Green of Houston; and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth. Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents Uvalde County, declined to join, Castro’s office said.

The city of Uvalde has declined to fulfill any records request from The Texas Tribune since the shooting, even those unrelated to the incident. In Texas, public agencies seeking to block the release of records must forward requests to the attorney general, citing specific exemptions under the Texas Public Information Act.

[…]

The members of Congress who signed the letter also said public officials should not hide behind what is known as the “dead suspect loophole,” an exemption to releasing public records meant to protect individuals who are never convicted of a crime. However, this exemption can also be applied to suspects who have died and thus won’t face prosecution, as is the case with the shooter in Uvalde.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said last month it would be “absolutely unconscionable” for officials to use the loophole to withhold records related to the shooting.

See here, here, and here for some background. That sure was a show of courage from Rep. Gonzales, wasn’t it? As for Paxton, he does six unconscionable things before breakfast, so I would not hold out much hope for him to do something non-hideous here. But as I said, you have to at least put him on the spot about it.

Biden signs modest gun control bill

It’s now the law. We’ll see for how long.

President Joe Biden on Saturday signed into law a bipartisan measure to address gun violence, less than 24 hours after the bill was approved by the U.S. House and a month and a day after the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

“Today, we say more than enough. We say more than enough,” Biden said at the White House. “At a time when it seems impossible to get anything done in Washington, we are doing something consequential.”

The measure was negotiated by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead. That shooting had come less than two weeks after a massacre in a Buffalo supermarket that left 10 people dead.

In a statement announcing the signing, the White House thanked Cornyn and a small bipartisan group of other senators involved in its drafting.

The law is widely viewed as a series of modest changes to current gun regulations, falling far short of proposals pushed by House Democrats and Biden to raise the age to purchase a gun, ban assault weapons and expand universal background checks. The most noteworthy provision of the law would close what is known as “the boyfriend loophole.”

Current federal statutes prohibit firearm purchases for those convicted of committing domestic violence against spouses or partners who live together or share a child. To close the loophole, the new law will leave to the courts the contours of expanding how to define and include dating partners who commit such abuse.

Conservatives previously raised concerns that an expansive definition of a partner could threaten constitutional rights. The law will also permit offenders to regain their gun rights if there are no further offenses over five years.

See here for the background. Please note that first sentence in the last paragraph above, because I’ve been speculating about legal challenges to this new law ever since it became apparent that it was about to become law. I was called out in the comments of that earlier post for my assertion that “SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal”. I will admit that was a bit of hyperbole, but it’s absolutely the case that state gun control measures of all kinds around the country are now going to be challenged in federal court. Where do you think this Supreme Court will draw a line and say okay, no, that’s a reasonable and constitutional restriction and may stand? It’s not at all clear to me that they believe there is one. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – and even happier if we finally get around to reforming this completely radicalized and out of control SCOTUS – but I wouldn’t bet any of my own money on it. In the meantime, let’s see when – and yeah, I mean “when” and not “if” – the first suit is filed against this law.

PS – I know I make a lot of podcast recommendations as supplemental material for my posts, so here’s another for you: This week’s Amicus podcast talks for about 30 minutes about the Bruen decision, with the actual legal expert doing the talking sounding a lot more sanguine about certain types of state gun laws surviving future review; he also specifically thinks this federal law will survive. I’m the opposite of an expert, but I am deeply cynical and have zero faith in the consistency or fidelity of this court. You make the call which of us will be more accurate about the future.

A big part of the Cornyn gun bill will do nothing in Texas

Just a reminder.

The bipartisan gun bill that is on a fast track through Congress and backed by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn includes new state grants to incentivize red flag laws, which allow judges to temporarily seize firearms from people who are deemed dangerous.

That means it’ll be up to states as to whether they want to take advantage of one of the key provisions of the landmark gun legislation. But despite last month’s Uvalde school shooting being the inspiration for the bill, Texas is unlikely to get on board.

Red flag laws likely remain a nonstarter among Republican leaders in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott already faced a conservative backlash after he asked the Legislature to consider them four years ago.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate and wields tremendous sway over what legislation is considered, indicated Wednesday he still opposes such an effort.

“After the Santa Fe shooting, we had the same move to do this and we did not support it,” he said in a radio interview. “I did not support [that], the Senate did not support that.”

Patrick said that if he were in the U.S. Senate, he would have been among the 36 Republicans — including Texas’ junior senator Ted Cruz — who sided against the bipartisan gun bill in an initial vote Tuesday. Patrick added that he was “very, very concerned about that and where that goes.”

See here for some background, in which the subject of red states and red flag laws was thoroughly discussed. I don’t really have anything to add to that, so go listen to this week’s episode of the Josh Marshall podcast, in which they discuss the politics of this bill and what might happen next. Our job here remains to elect leaders that will not be obstacles to sensible and meaningful gun reform.

One more thing:

Red flag laws are nonetheless popular with Texas voters. A poll released Tuesday found that 75% of the state’s voters support laws that “give family members or law enforcement a way to ask a judge to issue an order temporarily removing guns from someone who poses a violent threat to themselves or others.” The survey was conducted by Third Way, a centrist think tank, and GS Strategy Group, a GOP polling firm.

The poll doesn’t break any of their issues questions down by party (or any other subgroup, like gender or race or age), so it’s not very useful. That said, in addition to the number cited above, the poll had 89% support for “Requiring a background check before every gun purchase, including at gun shows and for online sales”, 80% support for “Increasing the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic weapon from 18 to 21 years old”, 80% support for “Allowing law enforcement to access sealed juvenile records to ensure that young adults with a history of violent criminal behavior are restricted from purchasing firearms”, and 68% support for ” Funding research around the effectiveness of gun safety policies”. You’re not going to get those kind of numbers without a fair amount of Republican support. Getting them to vote for candidates that also support those positions, that’s a different matter. As we well know. The Chron has more.

Lock Louie up

He believes he committed at least one federal crime. Who are we to disbelieve him?

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert was one of a handful of Republicans in Congress who asked former President Donald Trump for a pardon after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, according to testimony shown by the House committee investigating the insurrection.

Witnesses told the committee that the president had considered offering pardons to several individuals, said U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican on the committee.

Cassidy Hutchison, who served as an aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said in recorded testimony shown Thursday that the Tyler Republican was one of the members who had sought a pardon. Others included U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.

“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime,” Kinzinger said.

Gohmert did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What could he possibly say? His actions speak for themselves. Over to you, Justice Department.

Cornyn-Murphy gun bill gets final passage

What great timing, huh?

Exactly one month after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers in a Uvalde elementary school, the most significant new gun laws in decades were headed to President Joe Biden’s desk on Friday after the U.S. House cleared a bipartisan package of reforms requiring greater scrutiny of young buyers, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and more.

The gun laws, authored by a group of senators including John Cornyn of Texas, easily passed the Democratic-controlled House on a 234-193 vote, just hours after 15 Senate Republicans joined every Democrat in approving the bill in the Senate late Thursday night. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

“When I met with families from Uvalde, they asked me how it was possible for the man who murdered their loved ones to get a dangerous weapon so easily,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement. “Today, Congress has voted to pass historic gun safety reforms that will save lives and keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people who present a clear danger to their communities. We need to make more progress on gun safety, but today’s vote is an important step forward.”

It is the first tightening of federal gun laws since 1994. It bolsters background checks on buyers under 21 years old and restricts access to firearms for dating partners convicted of domestic abuse. The bill creates stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and “straw” purchasing, in which someone buys a firearm for someone prohibited from owning one.

The legislation also provides funding for mental health programs, school security and for states to enact red flag laws or other intervention methods meant to stop shootings before they happen.

Just 14 Republicans voted for the bill in the House, where GOP leaders had urged members to oppose the legislation. Only one Texan was among them: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde. The rest opposed the legislation.

See here for the background. It would be nice to feel good about this, even as watered down as this bill is, but with SCOTUS on a rampage, it’s hard to feel good about anything. The fact that this got initial passage in the Senate on the same day that SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal was the kind of irony none of us needed. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before a federal lawsuit is filed to invalidate even this modest effort, and who would take a bet on those plaintiffs losing? But here we are anyway. If we can ever find our way to fixing the courts, we can improve on this and do a lot more besides. One step at a time. The Trib has more.

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

Our electric car charging stations future

Lots more are coming.

Texas is planning to add enough electric vehicle charging stations throughout the state to support 1 million electric vehicles with dozens of new stations to allow for easier long-distance travel.

In a draft plan released this month, the Texas Department of Transportation broke down a five-year plan to create a network of chargers throughout the state, starting along main corridors and interstate highways before building stations in rural areas.

The plan is to have charging stations every 50 miles along most non-business interstate routes.

In most other areas in the state, there will be charging stations within 70 miles, according to the plan. Each station is designed to have multiple stalls so there will likely be one available whenever someone stops to charge.

The chargers will be high-powered at 150kW, able to bring most electric vehicles from 10% to 80% in about half an hour, according to the report.

The funding is coming from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year, which is estimated to allocate about $408 million over five years to Texas for the purpose of expanding its electric vehicle charging network. No funds from the state budget will be used. Nationally, the goal is to create a network of 500,000 convenient and reliable electric vehicle chargers by 2030. In total from the infrastructure act, Texas is expected to receive about $35.44 billion over five years for roads, bridges, pipes, ports, broadband access and other projects.

[…]

Chandra Bhat, a University of Texas transportation engineering professor and the director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Center on Data-Supported Transportation Operations and Planning, said the additional charging stations are a welcome upgrade to Texas transportation. Some of Bhat’s research has been funded by TxDOT.

Bhat said there are several barriers to electric vehicle adoption by consumers: the upfront cost, anxiety over how far a driver can travel and the wait times for charging.

This new plan addresses range anxiety by providing many options only 50 miles apart — however, it doesn’t address cost or fully address wait times, he said. Although the planned chargers will be high speed, it still takes around half an hour, he said. A driver might not know how long they may have to wait if someone else is already using the stalls.

That uncertainty can cause consumers to pass on purchasing electric vehicles altogether, he said.

This is a good thing. There aren’t many electric cars in Texas right now, but the number is growing, and making it easier to charge them will help people overcome whatever concerns they have in considering them. I mean, with gas prices what they are right now, who wouldn’t be thinking about going electric?

Cornyn’s gun control bill passes the Senate

Happy to have had my cynicism proven wrong.

Exactly four weeks after a teenage gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle massacred 19 elementary schoolers and two teachers in Uvalde, the U.S. Senate voted 64-34 Tuesday night to advance a bipartisan compromise that, if enacted, would become the first major legislation on gun safety since 1994.

The legislation does not restrict any rights of existing gun owners — a nonstarter for Senate Republicans. Instead, it would enhance background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21; make it easier to remove guns from people threatening to kill themselves or others, as well as people who have committed domestic violence; clarify who needs to register as a federal firearms dealer; and crack down on illegal gun trafficking, including so-called straw purchases, which occur when the actual buyer of a firearm uses another person to execute the paperwork to buy on their behalf.

The legislation includes $11 billion for mental health services and $2 billion for community-based antiviolence programs. It also includes money to help young people access mental health services via telemedicine, money for more school-based mental health centers and support for suicide hotlines.

Republican John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, who was formally rebuked by the Republican Party of Texas on Saturday evening for taking part in the bipartisan negotiations, said he felt confident that senators would see the deal as a reasonable compromise. If it holds up, that would itself be an extraordinary achievement after years in which mass shootings have devastated American communities with numbing reality.

“This is an issue that divides much of the country, depending on where you live, and maybe divides people living in the same household. But I think we have found some areas where there’s space for compromise and we’ve also found that there are some red lines and no middle ground,” Cornyn said on the floor of the Senate. “We’ve talked, we’ve debated, we’ve disagreed and finally we’ve reached an agreement among the four of us but obviously this is not something that is going to become law or fail to become law because of a small group of senators. The truth is we had a larger group of 20 senators, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, come together and sign on to an agreed set of principles, and I believe that as the senators see the text that supports those principles, they will see we’ve tried our best to be true to what those agreed principles should be.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the bill. It still has to pass the House, but I expect that will happen. This bill started out as modest and got watered down further – I mean seriously, we couldn’t just raise the minimum age for buying gun to the same as it is for buying a beer? – and yet it’s the first real advance in a long time. It remains the definition of “better than nothing”, but we’re so used to nothing it feels like more.

To be sure, there are issues.

There’s still a fundamental problem on the Democrats’ part in getting here: They ceded to Republican arguments that the problem is mental health and school safety and not simply the fact that the country is awash in deadly weapons. The extra funding in the bill for mental health support is a good thing, but a good thing that could have been achieved through Medicaid expansion to the hold-out states without pushing the myth that mental illness is intrinsically tied to violence and further stigmatizing it. It accepts school massacres as inevitable by beefing up school security—which does not make Black and brown students safer, since they’re often targets of abuse from cops at school—and creating programs for trauma support in schools for after the attacks occur.

There are some improvements, though none is without a downside. It enhances background checks for 18 to 21 year olds seeking to buy assault weapons. That imposes a waiting period on them from three to 10 days,  which could prevent some impulse massacres. But that provision sunsets in 10 years, ending in 2032.

The bill includes $750 million that could help states that don’t have red flag or crisis intervention laws implement them. These laws allow for courts to order weapons removed from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The grant money, however, is in the form of Byrne JAG grants and can be used for a variety of law enforcement and judicial programs, including mental heath courts, drug courts, and veteran courts. This is a win for Republicans whose states don’t have and won’t pass red flag laws. They want their states to still be able to access the money, so other “crisis intervention” programs will receive it and guns don’t necessarily have to be removed from people in crisis.

The loophole that allows dating partners convicted of domestic violence to keep their guns is partially closed. Current law only bars individuals who have committed violence against a spouse, live-in partner, or someone with whom they share children from owning guns. The ban has been expanded to anyone convicted of domestic violence against someone they have a “continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with, including “recent former” dating partners. It does not stipulate what “recent” means. It is not retroactive, so survivors from past attacks can’t petition to have their abuser’s weapons taken away. It also allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to get their guns back in five years if they don’t commit other crimes.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline calls it “partially closing” the loophole, and a “significant step,” but advocates warn that there’s still a loophole in the “recent” language. “He doesn’t need to be ‘recent’ to cause harm,” Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies family violence, told The Washington Post. “Feelings, not all of them positive, live on long after a relationship has ended.”

One of the more significant parts of this bill just flat won’t mean anything in a lot of states.

But even if it passes, federal funding for the bill’s most-discussed provision is unlikely to persuade many of the 30 states that don’t have red flag laws—most of them Republican-led—to adopt them. Some of these states have repeatedly voted down red flag legislation; at least one has formally outlawed their implementation. This means the federal gun control bill, aimed at reining in the epidemic of mass shootings, could have limited impact in a large swath of the country.

[…]

In a deadlocked Congress that has struggled to pass bills to keep kids fed and local governments running, the Uvalde shooting spurred momentum for this package to come together, though it falls short of many Democrats’ goals. The House, with its stronger Democratic majority, was able to pass a slate of gun control measures immediately after the Texas shooting that would have blocked semiautomatic rifle sales to people under the age of 21, created stricter gun storage regulations, and outlawed the sale of magazines holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition. That package stood no chance in the evenly divided Senate, where most bills have to garner the support of at least 60 senators because of the filibuster. An idea to create a national red flag law emerged in the hours immediately following the Uvalde shooting, but Democratic lawmakers saw both logistical challenges to that proposal and political ones.

Thus, optional funding for states to create their own red flag laws seemed like the safest bet to get anything across the finish line with Republicans wary of taking any action on guns, lest they lose their re-elections. Tellingly, several of the GOP senators in the bipartisan Uvalde-response contingent are retiring.

But while the incentive money could be used to help states that already have red flag laws, half a dozen state lawmakers and experts tell Mother Jones it is unlikely federal funding will persuade states that don’t already have red flag laws to create them.

This includes the state where tragedy prompted the bipartisan legislative framework in the first place: Texas. “I don’t believe any federal requirements or incentive would get Texas to move on this,” says Texas state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat in favor of stricter gun control.

He draws a comparison to Texas, joined by 11 other historically red states, opting not to take federal funds in order to expand Medicaid healthcare access to more poor residents: “If we’re not willing to take tremendous amounts of federal money, at no expense to us, in order to insure our uninsured residents, then I don’t see any daylight for financial incentives to get us to adopt a red flag law.”

I haven’t seen any discussion of what kind of legal challenges might get filed against this bill, assuming it does pass as now I believe it will. You know the NRA, which opposes the Cornyn/Murphy bill, will not sit quietly, and there are plenty of wingnut Attorneys General and Trump judges out there. That’s an issue for another day, I suppose. For now, be glad we got what we got, and let’s keep working to make it possible to get more in the future. The Chron has more.

Cuellar officially wins CD28 runoff

All over now.

Rep. Henry Cuellar

A recount has confirmed U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, as the winner of his hard-fought primary runoff, according to the Texas Democratic Party.

The recount wrapped up Tuesday, and Cuellar picked up eight votes, defeating progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros by 289 votes overall, the party said.

“As I said on election night, ‘the margin will hold’- and it has not only held but grown,” Cuellar said in a statement earlier Tuesday. “I am proud to be your Democratic nominee for the 28th District of Texas.”

Cisneros conceded in a statement, saying she will “keep fighting to create a more progressive and accountable Democratic Party this year and work to turn Texas blue in November.”

Cuellar’s Democratic primary runoff was one of two in South Texas that had gone to recounts. In the other runoff, for the open seat in the 15th Congressional District, Michelle Vallejo remained the winner after a recount wrapped up last week.

Cuellar led Cisneros by 177 votes after election night nearly a month ago. His lead grew to 281 votes by the time the final ballots were counted.

Cuellar had repeatedly declared victory, starting on election night, and dismissed the notion that a recount would change the outcome.

See here for the previous update, and here for the TDP statement. Not much to add, so let’s get on with it for November.

So how’s that bipartisan agreement on a framework for a gun control deal going?

Let’s check in.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn arrived at the Texas GOP convention in Houston Friday to address his role as chief negotiator for a bipartisan gun package head on — and was promptly booed for it.

“No gun control!” the crowd jeered, even as Cornyn reiterated popular Republican talking points — that Republicans would vote out President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Audience members shouted back, “You too!”

Cornyn was speaking to the state’s most dedicated Republicans, many of whom are more conservative than the general electorate. And none were shy in voicing their opposition to the gun deal, which emerged just weeks after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school.

The senator defended his role in the negotiations, saying the compromise would not impact law-abiding Texans. The package, which is still in its early stages, would expand background checks, introduce greater scrutiny of young buyers and encourage states to pass “red flag” laws that temporarily remove firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

It also includes billions of dollars for mental health resources and school safety plans.

“Let’s see if we can find a better way of enforcing existing law and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” Cornyn said. “But I will not, under any circumstance, support new restrictions for law-abiding gun owners. That will always be my red line. And despite what some of you may have heard, the framework that we are working on is consistent with that red line.”

The audience members were not impressed, chanting “no red flags!”

That’s always the problem with bipartisan deals, isn’t it? They involve Republicans.

Look, whether this is a matter of Cornyn’s legacy or it’s an old familiar game of perpetually moving goalposts, one fact remains: Nothing is ever assured in the US Senate. I mean, we don’t even have a bill here. Maybe we’ll get there, and maybe what eventually passes, if indeed something passes – the default in the Senate is always for nothing to happen – we can talk about what it means and what it might do. Until then, it’s vaporware. It’s more advanced vaporware than we’ve seen before, and it’s easy to feel optimistic about that. But until we have a bill and a cloture vote, that’s all it is. Reform Austin, the Chron, and Stace, who was properly in touch with his inner cynic from the beginning, have more.

Recount updates

We have a winner in CD15.

Today, after Wednesday’s manual recount of the votes in the CD-15 primary runoff election, the Texas Democratic Party announced that Michelle Vallejo has secured enough votes to earn the Democratic nomination for U.S. Congress from the 15th Congressional District.

“The Texas Democratic Party is fully behind our nominee, Michelle Vallejo, and we’re going to put in the hard work required to send her to Washington D.C. to represent South Texas,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “We congratulate Michelle and her team for the work they put into this campaign to show voters that Democrats are fighting for them – and thank Ruben Ramirez and his campaign for their dedication to this community as well.”

See here for the background. Vallejo had already declared victory, while Ramirez said he would until the state officially canvasses the results next week before issuing a statement. I suspect that a concession will be forthcoming soon. In the end, Vallejo added seven votes to her total, while Ramirez picked up two, making the final margin 35 votes.

Meanwhile, in CD28, we’re still waiting.

A recount was underway Thursday in a Texas primary race between Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros following their tight runoff in May.

Before the recount, Cuellar had been leading Cisneros by 187 votes, or 0.4 percentage points, out of 45,429 ballots counted as of last week, according to an Associated Press count. The AP will not declare a winner until the recount is completed.

It was not clear Thursday when the recount would be finished.

I don’t expect anything different. I’ll let you know when I see a further update.

Flores wins CD34 special election

Groan.

Republican Mayra Flores prevailed Tuesday in a special election for an open congressional seat in South Texas, marking a major breakthrough for Republicans eager to blaze new inroads in the historically blue region.

She beat Dan Sanchez, the leading Democrat, outright in the closely watched race and will be the first Mexican-born congresswoman. She will get to serve only until January, but Republicans heralded her win as a shot of momentum in their new South Texas offensive.

With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Flores had 50.98% of the vote and Sanchez had 43.33%. There were two other, lesser-known candidates — Democrat Rene Coronado and Republican Juana “Janie” Cantu-Cabrera — in the race.

Sanchez is a Harlingen lawyer and former Cameron County commissioner, while Flores, a respiratory therapist, is the Republican nominee for the seat in November.

[…]

Sanchez conceded in a statement that pointed the finger at national Democrats for not doing enough to defend the seat. They had argued the race was not worth the investment.

“Based on the results, we came up short tonight despite being outspent by millions of dollars from out of state interests and the entire Republican machine,” he said. “Too many factors were against us, including little to no support from the National Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.”

The special election was called to finish the term of former U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who resigned in March to work for the lobbying firm Akin Gump.

See here for some background. I don’t want to overreact or underreact to this result. Obviously, it’s not great – a longtime Dem seat, making the existing Dem margin that much smaller, furthering a lot of bad narratives about Dems and the 2022 election, etc etc etc. It’s also the case that this election was created in a lab to be friendly to Republicans, who had a ready-made candidate in place with money and an existing infrastructure, while Dems had to go looking for someone to run specifically as a temp. I was hoping to get this to a runoff, but nope. It is what it is, and what it is basically sucks.

It is true that Dems have done rather poorly in special elections in purple Latino districts in recent years, with HD118 in 2016 and SD19 in 2018 as Exhibits A and B. The SD19 result was for a brief minute seen as a bad sign for Dems in 2018, and we know how that turned out. Dems retook those seats, in 2020 in both cases. The new lines for CD34 are considerably more Dem-leaning than the old ones (CD15 took the brunt of that exchange), so Rep. Flores is probably also going to be a temp. Probably. It would have been nice to get some evidence of that in this race. We seem to like playing with matches, for some reason.

Not much else to say except to say once again that this is all because Filemon Vela couldn’t wait a couple of months to glom onto that cushy lobbyist gig he now has. If he had resigned in August instead of April, this election would have been in November and no one would have cared about it. He is forever invited to kiss my ass. The Observer has more.

March For Our Lives

I sure would like to think that all this activist energy means that things are different this time.

Hundreds of Houstonians gathered near City Hall in downtown Saturday for the student-led March for Our Lives, one of dozens of events planned across the nation today to rally for stronger regulations on guns.

The protest comes almost three weeks after 21 were killed in a mass shooting at a Uvalde elementary school. In Houston, demonstrators marched just over a half mile from City Hall to outside the office of Sen. Ted Cruz.

Some explicit chants broke out as demonstrators called for voters to oust Cruz in the next election.

The event followed a demonstration of about 150 people in The Woodlands, where advocates also worked to register voters.

Katherine Chen, high school senior and executive director of MFOL Houston, said her experience as a student has included three instances of gun violence.

“The first time I had a brush with gun violence was the community college across the street from my middle school had an active shooter,” she said, remembering the sounds of helicopters and the commotion of the scene directly facing her classroom.

“That’s not something that should happen to kids at school. Especially not when you’re 12 years old.”

[…]

MFOL started in 2018 following the shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and rallies in support of new gun safety laws.

Among MFOL’s sought reforms: banning assault-style weapons or raising the age to purchase one from 18 to 21; outlawing high-capacity magazines that can hold many rounds of ammunition; implementing “red flag” laws to temporarily remove firearms from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others; expanding background checks to include all gun sales; and establishing a “cool-off” period for someone seeking a firearm.

There were other rallies like this one around the state and around the country. The next step is to turn this into action at the ballot box, for all the reasons we have discussed a million times before.

I hesitate to be optimistic, because we have certainly seen this kind of outrage and emotion in other public rallies, and we know how they all ended up. But maybe this time it is a little different. It feels a little different, though I admit that may just be extremely wishful thinking on my part. But then, this part is actually different.

A bipartisan group of senators on Sunday announced a deal on framework of legislation aimed at reducing gun violence that includes funding for mental health and school security. Thus far, 10 Republican senators stated their support of the deal.

The agreement is currently in principle as legislative text has yet to be drafted. The deal comes in the wake of a series of mass shootings nationwide, including the tragic elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas late last month.

The deal includes enhanced background checks for buyers under the age of 21, funding for the expansion of mental health services and school security, and state grants to implement so-called “red flag” laws championed by Republicans that permit law enforcement to seek temporary removal of firearms from those who pose threats to themselves or others.

The deal closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in order to prevent a domestic abuse from purchasing a gun if they are convicted of abusing their partner.

Additionally, it seeks to crack down on illegal straw purchasers and firearms dealers without a license.

It’s still not enough – the House bill that passed included banning the purchase of these weapons by anyone under the age of 21, which really should be the starting point – but we’ve not gotten this far on anything like it in the filibuster-everything era. It still needs to actually pass, and it may face resistance from the more progressive wing of House Democrats, who have some leverage here, but it would be something. That’s almost shocking, which says a lot of other things about where we are. But it’s something. The Trib has more.

Two redistricting lawsuit updates

Legislators involved in the most recent redistricting effort can be made to sit for depositions.

The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to block the deposition of Texas lawmakers in redistricting suits.

Mum as to whether there were any dissents, the order from the justices keeps in place a lower court ruling that will force Republican lawmakers to appear for depositions in suits claiming that Texas’ redistricting plans are discriminatory. Per their custom, the justices also did not offer any explanation for their ruling.

The United States subpoenaed three Texas lawmakers at the beginning of the month to testify in a challenge to the state’s 2021 congressional and state House redistricting plans. The Department of Justice and voting rights groups claim the new maps violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against minority voters in West Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Representatives Ryan Guillen, Brooks Landgraf and John Lujan tried to limit their testimony to matters in the public record, but a federal judge denied their motion and their attempt to block the testimony altogether. Likewise the Fifth Circuit refused to enter a stay pending appeal that would block their testimony.

In their application to the high court, Texas lawmakers claim they have the privilege and immunity to avoid testifying in the suits.

“The legislators’ depositions will probe the very innerworkings of the legislative process, examining the legislators’ thoughts, impressions, and motivations for their legislative acts,” wrote Taylor A.R. Meehan, an attorney with Consovoy McCarthy representing the lawmakers.

He also warned that lawmakers would have to answer questions in full the “proverbial ‘cat is out of the bag.’ And the twin safeguards of legislative immunity and privilege — older than the country itself — are no safeguards at all.”

The Justice Department said the depositions were routine.

“Courts, including this Court, often rely on such testimony both in assessing the motive and justification for districting choices and in considering the ‘totality of circumstances’ relevant to minority voters’ electoral opportunities, as the VRA directs,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the government’s opposition brief.

The government notes that Lujan has a particularly weak claim to legislative privilege since he was not in the Legislature when the redistricting plans were passed.

“Representative John Lujan, does not have even an arguable claim of legislative privilege with respect to the challenged districting plans because he was not in the legislature when the plans were passed — a critical fact that applicants do not mention,” Prelogar wrote.

This is from the LULAC lawsuit, which is now consolidated with most of the other federal lawsuits. The order is from a couple of weeks ago, as the depositions were set to begin the week of May 24. SCOTUS just never took up the defendants’ motion, so they did not get an order to protect them from being deposed. This is not going to change the overall trajectory of the litigation, but it ought to lead to some interesting facts for the eventual hearings. Lujan as noted was not a legislator when the maps were passed in the special session, so who knows what he thinks he has to keep quiet about, while Guillen was still a Democrat when this was all happening. Should make for some fun questions, if nothing else.

The other federal lawsuit, which was not combined with the LULAC et al complaint, is the one filed by the Justice Department. That one survived a motion to dismiss:

A federal judge has ruled that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland can proceed with voting and civil rights claims against Texas over a state law passed last year to address purported voter fraud.

State officials had asked U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez to dismiss the case, arguing that federal officials did not have standing to sue them. They argued that local election officials — not state ones — were charged with implementing the new law.

The George W. Bush appointee disagreed in an order Tuesday, finding the U.S. attorney general has “broad constitutional power to protect the right to vote” and is “congressionally authorized” to go after voting rights violations.

The federal government had a “significant stake” in protecting “the general welfare of its citizenry,” Rodriguez wrote. He found the U.S. government had plausibly alleged that Texas law would “disenfranchise eligible Texas citizens who seek to exercise their vote,” including those with disabilities, limited knowledge of English and “members of the military deployed away from home.”

[…]

In November, the U.S. attorney general’s office intervened, expressing an interest the [LULAC et al consolidated] case and urging Rodriguez not to dismiss the claims. Voting lawsuits brought by private groups were necessary, the filing argued, due to the “limited federal resources available for Voting Rights Act enforcement” and because states with histories of voter restrictions no longer had to seek federal preclearance for voting changes following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

Later that month, the AG’s office also filed suit against the Lone Star State. In a strongly worded complaint, federal officials argued that Texas already had some of the “strictest [voting] limitations in the nation” and that SB1 would “impermissibly” restrict and disenfranchise voters.

Texas’s “history of official voting-related discrimination against its disfavored citizens is longstanding and well-documented,” the complaint said. “Federal intervention has been necessary to eliminate numerous devices intentionally used to restrict minority voting in Texas.”

This lengthy and complex legal battle, involving a variety of parties, led up to Tuesday’s order. Over the months, Texas officials have tried numerous avenues to dismiss the case.

Among other things, state officials zeroed in on the state’s new voter ID and mail-in ballot requirements. Because the state allows voters to “cure” their ballots, they argued, the law did not deny the right to vote.

Rodriguez rejected this argument and others, writing that a voter’s opportunity to cure their ballot “does not necessarily mean” that SB 1 did not violate the Civil Rights Act. The law does not allow state officials to “initially deny the right to vote…as long as they institute cure processes,” he wrote. Instead, it bars these actions altogether.

He also found that, while local elections officials may be in charge of implementing the law, SB 1 was in fact “traceable” to state officials, and therefore they could be sued. Since the law has so far been in effect for the state’s primary elections, the U.S. government had also alleged an injury, he found.

Rather than issuing an injunction preventing enforcement of parts of SB 1, Rodriguez’s order instead simply allows the U.S. government to continue with its lawsuit. It remains to be seen how the case will play out, including whether controversial aspects of SB 1 will remain in effect for the 2022 midterm elections later this year.

There’s a long road ahead for this litigation, and at the end awaits a US Supreme Court that is extremely hostile to voting rights. But you have to start somewhere, and who knows, maybe the landscape will change by that time.

House passes Ike Dike bill

Getting closer, but there’s still a big obstacle to overcome.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday night voted 384-37 to approve the plan for the $31-billion “Ike Dike,” a massive project designed to protect the vulnerable region from storm surge.

The plan centers on gates that would be built across the mouth of Galveston Bay and lowered ahead of hurricanes to block waves of water from pushing up the ship channel, and flooding industrial facilities and homes.

A House committee in mid-May approved the bill, known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2022. A Senate committee has also cleared similar legislation approving the project. That bill awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

If the measure is approved by the Senate, the bills will then be merged for a bicameral vote. Federal funding for the project still needs to be approved. The state legislature created a government district that can levy taxes in the Houston region to pay the local share.

The Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, as the federal plan is formally known, is the largest engineering recommendation of its kind that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ever proposed.

See here and here for the background. The big bipartisan vote gives some hope for it passing the Senate, but the calendar may be a tougher issue than the filibuster. Hoping for the best, prepared as always to be disappointed. The Trib has more.

(PS – I changed the embedded image I’ve been using for Ike Dike posts after Ed Emmett left a comment on the previous post noting that I had been using a picture of the SSPEED proposal instead. Hope this one meets with your approval.)

So what’s going on in the CD34 special election?

We started with this.

Early voting continues for the June 14 special election for CD34 open (Lean R) through June 10. Candidates for that special election were required to file pre-special election reports today (Thurs.) if they meet the reporting thresholds. These reports disclose contributions received and expenditures made between April 1 and May 25.

Mayra Flores (R) out-raised former Cameron Co. Comm. Dan Sanchez (D), $734K to $46K, and outspent him, $754K to $42K. They each have just over $100K on hand. Sanchez has a $100K loan balance. Flores has raised $1.1M for the race so far including funds raised for the March 1 primary election, which she won outright with 60% of the vote.

Not great! Flores’ report is here, and Sanchez’s is here. Flores had raised $347K as of the April report, which means her combined total is now over a million, while Sanchez had not yet filed a report as of then as he had barely entered by that time. There’s now some national Democratic money in the race, which closes the gap a little, but not that much (Politico link via Daily Kos Elections).

Then we got this.

Early voting continues for the June 14 special election for CD34 open (Lean R) through Friday. As of yesterday (Mon.), just over 8K people – 2.1% of registered voters – have cast ballots early in person (78%) or by mail (22%). About three quarters of all early votes have been cast in Cameron Co., representing 2.7% of registered voters there. Those voters break down as follows:

  • 49% also voted in the March 1 Democratic primary election (2,982 voters)
  • 29% also voted in the Republican primary election (1,767 voters); and
  • 22% did not vote in either party’s primary election (1,360 voters).

These numbers suggest Democrats Dan Sanchez and Rene Coronado could receive a majority of early votes combined. Republican candidates this cycle have tended to perform better among Election Day voters. The difference-makers will likely be non-primary voters who are motivated to cast ballots in a low-turnout election. Republican Mayra Flores and allied PACs have greatly outspent the Democrats so far, which could provide more motivation for those non-primary voters who lean Republican.

Democratic PACs are making a late, albeit significantly smaller, push this week. The House Majority PAC released a new Spanish-language ad, “Lawless,” which uses an endorsement from a gun rights group to tie Flores to images of the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

You can see the ad in question there. The next-biggest piece of the existing CD34 is in Hidalgo County, which was also comfortably Dem in 2020; it would be nice to know how it’s going there. I agree that a Sanchez-Flores runoff is the single most likely outcome here, and if that happens this race will surely get louder and more expensive. Whether Dems up their investment or not may depend on how next Tuesday turns out. Stay tuned. The Trib has more.

McConaughey opines for gun control

Not bad.

I believe that responsible, law-abiding Americans have a Second Amendment right, enshrined by our founders, to bear arms. I also believe we have a cultural obligation to take steps toward slowing down the senseless killing of our children. The debate about gun control has delivered nothing but status quo. It’s time we talk about gun responsibility.

There is a difference between control and responsibility. The first is a mandate that can infringe on our right; the second is a duty that will preserve it. There is no constitutional barrier to gun responsibility. Keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people is not only the responsible thing to do, it is the best way to protect the Second Amendment. We can do both.

Depraved acts of violence, with guns as the weapon of choice, are ripping apart families, tearing at people’s faith, and shredding the fabric of our society. We have an epidemic of indiscriminate mass shootings, of parents burying their children, of inaction, and buck-passing. Saving the unnecessary loss of lives is not a partisan issue.

The need for mental health care, school safety, the prevalence of sensationalized media coverage, and the decaying state of American values are all long-term societal factors that must be addressed, but right now, we don’t have the luxury of time. We need to focus on corrections and countermeasures that can also and immediately reduce the gun violence tragedies that have become too common in our country.

We need to make the lost lives matter. Our leaders must make bipartisan compromises on a few reasonable measures to restore responsible gun ownership in our country.

He goes on to support enhanced background checks, raising the age for buying assault weapons to 21, national red flag laws, and a national waiting period for assault rifles, and he’s also now advocating for them in public. You could certainly go farther on a number of these, like all the way to an assault weapons ban like we once had, and he studiously refuses to name the reason why no gun control laws can be passed (it’s so much easier to make grand “both sides” pronouncements), but if we did manage to get these items it would be a step forward, and it can’t hurt to have someone like Matthew McConaughey make the case for them. So, two and a half cheers, B+ for the effort, and so on. Via Reform Austin.

Here come the recounts

As expected.

Progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros announced Monday she will request a recount in the hard-fought Democratic primary runoff against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, after she finished 281 votes behind him.

Another Democrat in a key South Texas congressional race, Ruben Ramirez, also said Monday he will ask for a recount. He finished 30 votes behind Michelle Vallejo for the open seat in the 15th District.

The recount announcements came shortly after the Texas Democratic Party certified its primary runoff results, confirming the margins for Cuellar and Vallejo that counties finalized last week.

“Our community isn’t done fighting, we are filing for a recount,” Cisneros said in a statement. “With just under 0.6 percent of the vote symbolizing such stark differences for the future in South Texas, I owe it to our community to see this through to the end.”

[…]

The recounts mean it will be at least weeks before an undisputed winner emerges in each runoff. Any runoff candidate can request a recount as long as their margin is less than 10% of the number of votes received by their opponent. The deadline to request a recount is 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Both Cuellar and Vallejo have claimed victory, and I do not expect these recounts to change that. They’ll just take time off the clock. Both Cisneros and Ramirez have the right to request these recounts, and I’d do the same in their position. The elections are close enough that you can imagine there being some possibility of the result being in question. I’m not them, and all I care about is November, so I’d prefer we not go down this path. That’s not my call, so here we are. I hope this doesn’t take too long.

We’ve seen this movie before

I appreciate the sentiment, but I know how this ends.

Major Republican donors, including some that have contributed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaigns, joined other conservative Texans in signing an open letter supporting congressional action to increase gun restrictions in response to the mass shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two teachers dead last week.

The letter, which [was] expected to run as a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, endorses the creation of red flag laws, expanding background checks and raising the age to purchase a gun to 21. More than 250 self-declared gun enthusiasts signed it.

“Most law enforcement experts believe these measures would make a difference,” the letter reads. “And recent polls of fellow conservatives suggest that there is strong support for such gun-safety measures.”

The letter voices support for Texas’ senior senator, John Cornyn, who has been tapped to lead bipartisan negotiations in Congress over possible gun reform measures.

“We are grateful that our Senator John Cornyn is leading efforts to address the recent tragedies in Uvalde and elsewhere across our great Country,” the letter says. “He’s the right man to lead this bipartisan effort, as he has demonstrated throughout his career.”

[…]

The letter was paid for by Todd Maclin, a former senior executive at J.P. Morgan Chase who now runs the Dallas-based finance firm Maclin Management. Maclin said he is a conservative gun owner who has been stirred to action by the shooting in Uvalde.

“These events have really motivated me and really gotten under my skin and encouraged me to support the effort that’s underway,” Maclin told The Texas Tribune. “I just felt like I needed to do something, and I also believe that there are reasonable things that can be done.”

He said he is still hearing from more conservative gun owners who are feeling a “great sense of urgency and a great need to support [Cornyn] as he does his best to address these issues.”

Maclin said the group is focusing on federal legislation, which he believes is the best avenue to passing gun safety laws and ensuring they are applied uniformly across the country. He declined to comment on the state response to the shooting or gun legislation, except to say that he hopes any federal plan led by Cornyn and passed with conservative support would be embraced by state governments.

Among the signatories are deep-pocketed Abbott supporters, including billionaires Robert Rowling, whose holding company owns Omni Hotels, and Ray L. Hunt, executive chairman of Hunt Consolidated Inc.

A decade ago it was big-money donors to the Republicans warning against making deep cuts to education and racist anti-immigration bills. We know how that has turned out. While it’s nice to see some Republican voices calling for actual legislation to curb gun violence, there are many recent examples we can point to where the likes of John Cornyn were “tapped” to lead “negotiations” on similar measures that everyone knew were doomed because Mitch McConnell would never let them pass. Who’s fooling who here?

I believe that Todd Maclin is sincere in his desire to get some modest form of gun control legislation to President Biden’s desk, just as I believed in Bill Hammond’s desire to invest in public education and push for sensible immigration reform. The problem is that Hammond didn’t have, and I strongly suspect Maclin doesn’t have, a backup plan for when the legislators he has supported and to whom he is now appealing tell him “No”, or string him along with vague promises and then just drop it when the heat is off. Is Todd Maclin going to stop supporting the Republicans that do this to him, or is he just going to shrug it off and go on as if nothing bad had happened because we’re all friends here? Like I said, I’ve seen this movie and I know how it ends. I’ll be delighted to be proven wrong, but years and years of recent history suggest I won’t be.

Cuellar claims victory in CD28

He has a bigger lead now than he did on Election Night.

Rep. Henry Cuellar

With every vote counted in a fiercely contested South Texas Democratic primary runoff, longtime congressman Henry Cuellar was 281 votes ahead of progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros.

Cuellar declared victory last week, after coming in 177 votes ahead of Cisneros on Election Day. The remaining uncounted ballots expanded his lead by another 104 votes, final results from each county in the district showed.

“As I said on election night, the margin will hold — and it has not only held but grown,” Cuellar said in a statement.

Cuellar called for those who voted against him in the runoff to back him in the general election, when Republicans hope Cassy Garcia, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, will flip the long blue district.

“While we may differ on certain positions, we share a common ground on many issues to improve our communities and strengthen families,” Cuellar said.

The final tally is still well within the bounds of a possible recount, however. Texas law allows candidates to request one if the vote difference is less than 10 percent of the leading candidate’s vote total; Cuellar finished with 22,895 votes.

Cisernos’s campaign, which did not immediately comment on the final tally, spent the last week raising money for a “recount fund” and telling supporters that “a recount is looking more and more likely.”

Cuellar’s lead is considerably larger than Michelle Vallajo’s in CD15, though as noted both races are subject to recount. On that subject, among the thousands of emails I get each day are several from Cisneros asking for donations to her “recount fund”, which is silly since her campaign would not have to pay for a recount due to the closeness of the election. Such appeals do work, though, so here we are. As I said with CD15, either ask for a recount (which is Cisneros’ right under the law) or don’t, but either way it’s time to wrap this up and move on to November. Whatever you think of Cuellar (and as you know, I’ve never liked him), he’s always a strong performer in November and should be in decent shape to win even in a non-favorable environment. Big picture, y’all. The San Antonio Report has more.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

Vallejo claims victory in CD15 runoff

Her opponent demurs, but it probably doesn’t matter.

Michelle Vallejo

Michelle Vallejo declared victory Wednesday in the Democratic primary runoff for the national battleground 15th Congressional District in South Texas.

Her declaration came eight days after election night, when she emerged with a 23-vote margin over opponent Ruben Ramirez. Her margin grew to 33 votes as the largest counties in the district began to report their final unofficial results Wednesday.

But Ramirez was not ready to concede. His campaign said in a statement that “it is essential that every voter has their say before a final call is made.” The statement suggested the campaign still saw a path to victory.

“South Texas politics has a long tradition of upset victories,” the statement said.

Counties have until the end of day on Thursday to report their final numbers to the state, and even then, candidates can still request recounts. Since election night, counties have been counting mail-in ballots that were postmarked in the 11th-hour, military and overseas ballots that were due Tuesday and provisional ballots.

It was one of two key Democratic runoffs in South Texas that were unsettled coming out of election night. The other is the runoff for the 28th Congressional District, where the moderate nine-term U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, faced progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. He led by 177 votes after election night, but as most counties reported their final unofficial results Wednesday, his margin widened to at least 192 votes.

[…]

Candidates can request recounts if their margin is less than 10% of the number of votes their opponent received. Ramirez and Cisneros are currently well within that range.

See here for some background. I would expect both Ramirez and Cisneros to request recounts – the races are close, the recounts won’t cost them because they’re close – though as discussed many times I don’t expect that to make any difference. I’d like to get these settled quickly because they’re the two of the closest districts in the state, with CD15 redrawn to be 51-48 Trump in 2020, and we have our work cut out for us. Let’s get to the November part of the race, we don’t have time to lose.

HCC special election runoff will be June 18

From last week:

The Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System has called a Special Trustee Runoff Election for June 18, 2022 in HCC geographic District II. The position for geographic District II is to be filled for a term continuing until December 31, 2025.

The candidates entitled to a place on the ballot for the Runoff Trustee Election in Trustee District II are:

Charlene Ward Johnson

Kathy “Lynch” Gunter

For additional election information, please contact Harris County Election Administrator: https://www.harrisvotes.org/ or HCC Office of Board Services at 713-718-8398.

Johnson and Gunter were the top two votegetters in the May election. There were 4,662 ballots cast for that in May, helped in part by the statewide special Constitutional amendment election. This time around it will be the only show in town, and I’ll be surprised if it gets as many as half as that total. The winner may receive about a thousand votes total. I hope I’m underestimating, but did you even remember this was a thing? Had you heard anything about it before reading this post? I’m guessing no, and thus my pessimism about turnout. My interview with Kathy Gunter is here, and my interview with Charlene Ward Johnson is here. If you live in this district or know someone who does, please vote or make sure they vote.

By the way, there is also the CD34 special election on June 14, featuring two Democrats and two Republicans; one of those Republicans is their nominee for the new CD34 and had raised some $300K as of the April finance reports. As of the weekend, there were no finance reports for any of the other candidates, so I have no idea if the (decent-looking on paper) stand-in candidate that the Dems managed to recruit has had any success raising money. Early voting for this race starts today, which means that it will go the full two weeks (minus Memorial Day). It’s not listed yet on harrisvotes.com, but given that the HCC runoff is on a Saturday, I would expect early voting for it to run from Wednesday, June 8 to Tuesday the 14th. I’ll let you know when I can confirm that.

Oh, and if no one in the CD34 election gets to 50%, we’ll have a runoff there, which will mean an election in (I presume) July as well. Isn’t this fun?

We won’t know the official status of the two super close runoffs until next week

The CD28 race is not done with us.

Jessica Cisneros, the progressive immigration attorney trailing longtime Laredo congressman Henry Cuellar by 177 votes in a blockbuster South Texas runoff, said Thursday that ballots are still being counted and a final tally likely will not be available until after Memorial Day.

“We are within reach to go on and win this thing,” Cisneros said. “There’s still a lot up in the air right now.”

Cisneros said her campaign has been told by elections offices that there are still “hundreds” of uncounted mail-in and provisional ballots across the district and that many will not be counted until after the holiday weekend.

Her campaign has also urged voters who mailed in ballots to check whether they were rejected and has set up a call for those whose were. Cisneros said the hotline has been “ringing nonstop all day since yesterday when we put out that call.”

“Because the race is so, so close and the margin is very close, we need to make sure that everyone who casted a ballot gets their ballot counted,” she said.

Cuellar declared victory Tuesday night in the race, which drew national attention and millions of dollars in political contributions.

“The votes are in, the margin will hold,” Cuellar tweeted at the time. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Cisneros’ claims that hundreds of ballots are still out.

I’d like to hear the status of the vote counting from election officials rather than one of the candidates, but I can believe that there are still mail votes being counted. I don’t know if it’s still possible to do something about a rejected mail ballot at this point. I’m sure the lawyers will sort that one out.

Meanwhile, in CD15:

It’s been a nail-biting race for the congressional District 15 runoff election between Democrats Ruben Ramirez and Michelle Vallejo.

More than 24 hours after polls closed, it’s unclear who will face off against Republican Monica De La Cruz in November.

Both Ramirez and Vallejo have sent statements saying it’s too soon to consider a virtual winner.

For now, election departments in counties within District 15 have to count mail-in ballots, votes from abroad and provisional ballots.

“In 15, without question, we’re going to have to wait until at least next week to have a good idea about who the winner is,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

As noted before, the vote will be canvassed on Wednesday, and the official final result will be posted on Thursday. That may not be the end of it, of course.

On that subject:

In the 15th District, Vallejo came out of election night with a 23-vote lead, and both she and Ramirez agreed it was too close to call. At least two counties — Hidalgo and Jim Wells — have since updated their results, changing her lead to 27 votes. But like in Cuellar’s race, a final resolution likely will not come into focus until early next week.

[…]

A timeline is now playing out at the county level where outstanding ballots can still be counted. Mail ballots that were postmarked by 7 p.m. Tuesday could still be counted by 5 p.m. Wednesday. The deadline for military and overseas ballots is Tuesday, May 31, a day later than usual due to Memorial Day. And then counties have until Thursday to finalize their results and report them to the state.

A candidate can request a recount if their margin is less than 10% of the votes received by their opponent. Both Cisneros and Ramirez are well within that, though candidates typically wait until all the outstanding ballots are counted before deciding whether to pursue a recount.

Not much to do now except have patience.

A few remaining threads from the runoffs

It was, as noted, a smooth and easy night in Harris County, despite the folderol from earlier in the day.

Harris County election drama in the courts did not prevent voting officials from what could be a record speedy count.

At midnight, only two of the 520 ballots boxes used for Tuesday’s election were outstanding, meaning the vast majority were in the hands of officials who were rapidly counting them.

“I will be a happy girl if we get everything in by 1 a.m.,” said Isabel Longoria, Harris County elections administrator. “This is what happens with a well executed plan.”

By 11:30 250 Democratic and 246 Republican polling sites had turned in their ballots, while about 20 more were on site and awaiting a procedural check before officials signed off on the receipt. Each party had 260 locations, which they shared, meaning election counters at NRG Arena had 189 of the needed 520 ballot boxes.

About 150 cars snaked through the NRG parking lot earlier in the night, Longoria said, moving “slow and steady.”

On the official count, five ballot boxes were listed as outstanding at 11:45 p.m., which quickly ticked down.

See here for the background. Still no word from SCOTx as far as I know. It sure would be nice if this “easy night, returns posted in a timely fashion” became the new narrative.

There are still a couple of unresolved elections. CD15 is way too close to call.

With all precincts reporting on Tuesday night, Democratic primary candidate for Congressional District 15 Michelle Vallejo led the race ahead of Ruben Ramirez by only 23 votes. Of the 12,063 total votes reported on Wednesday morning, Vallejo received 6,043 votes and Ramirez received 6,020 votes district-wide.

Hilda Salinas, assistant director of the Hidalgo County Elections Department, said that the race was too close to call on Wednesday morning, with a final result expected on Thursday, June 2.

“We still have to wait for all the out of county ballots and mail-in ballots to come in,” Salinas said. “The Ballot Board will be meeting on Wednesday to finalize everything so that everything can be canvassed on Thursday.”

The canvassing process is the final step before certification of results, and it includes a careful tally of all ballots.

“As per Texas election code, there’s certain ballots that still have time to come in and be counted by our ballot board,” Salinas added.

Both campaigns declined to comment on Wednesday morning on whether a call for a recount could occur over the next week.

Vallejo issued a statement late Tuesday night: “Though the race is too close to call, we are heartened by the clear path to victory.”

A statement from the Ramirez campaign Wednesday morning stated, “Our campaign trusts in the democratic process and integrity of this election. We know that our election workers are doing all they can to get us a result, and we thank them for their tireless work.”

We’ll see what happens. CD15 is the closest district based on the new map and the 2020 returns, and it’s a big target for Republicans, with their candidate already rolling in cash. It would be nice to get this resolved quickly so the nominee can move forward.

And of course, there’s CD28, which is almost as close.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the last anti-abortion Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, boldly declared victory just before midnight in his nail-biter primary runoff race. But his progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, refused to concede, as the race was separated by less than 200 votes with all counties reporting their votes.

“This election is still too close to call, and we are still waiting for every ballot and eligible vote to be counted,” she said in a tweet, shortly after Cuellar declared himself the winner.

Just before midnight in Texas, Cuellar led Cisneros by a mere 177 votes.

At the time he declared victory, no major news organization had called the race.

“Tonight, the 28th Congressional District spoke, and we witnessed our great Democratic system at work,” he said in a statement. “The results are in, all the votes have been tallied — I am honored to have once again been re-elected as the Democratic Nominee for Congress.”

With such a narrow margin, it is likely the race may not be decided for days. Mail-in votes from domestic voters can still be counted if they were postmarked by Tuesday and are received by counties by 5 p.m. Wednesday. The race is also within the margin that Cisneros can request a recount.

I’m ready for this race to be over. Just tell me who won so we can move on with our lives. I fully expect there will be a recount, however.

Runoff results: Around the state

After the primary, I rounded up the Democratic runoffs we’d have in May. I’m going to use that post to round up the results from last night, as best as I can tell as of when I gave up the ghost and went to bed. I started filling this in around 10 PM.

Statewide Dem

Lite Guv – Mike Collier vs Michelle Beckley.
AG – Rochelle Garza vs Joe Jaworski.
Comptroller – Janet Dudding vs Angel Vega.
Land Commissioner – Sandragrace Martinez vs Jay Kleberg.

Garza and Dudding were both up 61-39 as of 9:30 PM, with Garza being declared the winner. Collier (54.8 – 45.2) and Kleberg (52.2 – 47.8) were leading but it was too soon to say with them. Kleberg was up 62-38 in Harris County, and Collier was up 60-40, so that bodes well for them.

Congressional Dem

CD01 – JJ Jefferson vs Victor Dunn.
CD15 – Ruben Ramirez vs Michelle Vallejo.
CD21 – Claudia Zapata vs Ricardo Villarreal.
CD24 – Jan McDowell vs Derrik Gay.
CD28 – Rep. Henry Cuellar vs Jessica Cisneros.
CD30 – Jasmine Crockett vs Jane Hope Hamilton.

Jefferson (75%), Zapata (62%), and Crockett (75%) all had huge leads and were on their way to victory. Henry Cuellar (52.75 – 47.25) had a smaller lead but looked to be in pretty good shape. The other two races were ridiculously close – Ramirez was up by 78 votes, McDowell up by 20 votes. You’ll want to check them again today, and don’t be surprised if they wind up in recount territory.

SBOE Dem

SBOE1 – Melissa Ortega vs Laura Marquez.
SBOE2 – Victor Perez vs Pete Garcia.

Ortega (58%) and Perez (56%) looked to be in good shape.

State Senate Dem

SD27 – Morgan LaMantia vs Sara Stapleton-Barrera. LaMantia was at 57% and appeared to be in good shape.

State House Dems

HD22 – Joseph Trahan vs Christian Hayes.
HD37 – Ruben Cortez vs Luis Villarreal
HD70 – Cassandra Hernandez vs Mihaela Plesa.
HD76 – Suleman Lalani vs Vanesia Johnson.
HD100 – Sandra Crenshaw vs Venton Jones.
HD114 – Alexandra Guio vs John Bryant.

Lalani (64%), Jones (70%), and Bryant (62%) looked to be headed to victory. Lalani would be the first Muslim to serve in the Lege. Jones is openly gay and HIV positive and was the subject of a bizarre homophobic rant by his opponent, so his win is especially sweet. Bryant, who is 75 and served in Congress 30 years ago, wins one for the old white guys.

As of 10 PM, the other races were too close to call, with Hayes (50.86%), Villarreal (52.44%), and Plesa (52.91%) holding the advantage.

Republicans

Ken Paxton easily beat George P. Bush, which launched multiple (likely written in advance) eulogies to the “Bush dynasty” in Texas. Good riddance, if P is what that had fallen to. Dawn Buckingham (Land Commissioner) and Wayne Christian (RR Commissioner) were also cruising to victory.

UPDATE: All of the Dem statewide candidates that were leading when I signed off won. Michelle Vallejo (50.1%) edged ahead in CD15, while Jan McDowell (51.15%) increased her lead. It got super tight towards the end, but yes, Henry Cuellar (50.2%) once again came out ahead. All of the state office candidates that were leading last night were still ahead this morning.

Runoff results: Harris County

As with the statewide roundup, here are the results from Harris County. As of 10 PM, 99 of 260 voting centers had reported, so while these results aren’t final, it seems likely to me that not much will change.

Congressional Dem

CD38 – Diana Martinez Alexander vs. Duncan Klussman. Klussman had a 67-33 lead after early voting (65-35 as of 10 PM) and looked to be an easy winner.

SBOE Dem

SBOE4 – Coretta Mallet-Fontenot vs Staci Childs. Childs was up 56.5 to 43.5, and was leading big in early in person voting (62%) and Tuesday voting (65%), which helped her overcome a 1,200 vote deficit in mail ballots. Given that trend, I’d say she’s on her way to winning.

State House Dems

HD147 – Jolanda Jones vs Danielle Bess. Jones was up 55-45, and unlike the special election led in mail ballots (by 300 votes) and early in person voting (by 200 votes), while running nearly even on Tuesday (the tally was 520-508 for Bess as of 10 PM). She seems likely to hold on.

Harris County Dems

185th Criminal District Court – Andrea Beall vs Judge Jason Luong. Beall led 54-46 and had the advantage in all three forms of voting.

208th Criminal District Court – Beverly Armstrong vs Kim McTorry. Armstrong had a big lead in mail ballots, while McTorry had small margins in in-person voting, but it doesn’t look like it will be enough as Armstrong was up 52-48.

312th Family District Court – Teresa Waldrop vs Judge Chip Wells.
County Civil Court at Law #4 – Manpreet Monica Singh vs Treasea Treviño.

Waldrop (63%) and Singh (65%) were in command from the beginning. I believe Manpreet Singh will be the first Sikh on the bench if she wins in November.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 4 – Lesley Briones vs Ben Chou. Briones led 55-45, with similar margins across all three voting types.

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Place 2 – Sonia Lopez vs Steve Duble. Duble also led 55-45, using a 59-41 advantage in early in person ballots to overcome a modest deficit with mail votes.

Republicans

Alexandra Mealer cruised to victory for the County Judge nomination, while Jack Morman got his rematch in Precinct 2. The HD133 race was too close to call, with less than 100 votes separating Mano DeAyala and Shelley Barineau. Check on that one in the morning.

UPDATE: All of the Dems that were leading last night won. Mano DeAyala won in HD133 51-49.

Is there any chance the GLO won’t screw Houston this time around?

I mean, maybe. Things can happen. I just wouldn’t count on it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday commended the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ordering Texas to fix a Hurricane Harvey recovery plan that the federal agency concluded “disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic residents.”

HUD told the state’s General Land Office in the letter, dated Monday, it had 10 calendar days to become compliant by coming to a resolution. The federal department had found GLO discriminated against minority residents when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

To date, Houston has not received any funds, Turner said, “despite the city and the county incurring 50 percent of the damages from Harvey.”

“This is a step in the right direction. I appreciate HUD for ordering the GLO to bring its Hurricane Harvey Recovery Plan into compliance within ten days, or HUD will refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “This is about equity and fairness. It is time for the GLO to allocate a fair (or proportional) share of the federal funds to allow our communities to have adequate climate change mitigation and resilience resources. I urge the GLO to do the right thing for our most vulnerable communities.”

See here for the background. I use the embedded GIF in these posts as a reminder to everyone, including Chron editorial writers, that what the GLO has been doing isn’t “bungling”, it isn’t “a mistake”, it isn’t a matter of the GLO “getting its act together”. It’s all been a deliberate choice by the GLO, which knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The solution to that isn’t trying to get them to see the error of their ways, it’s to take the job away from them because they don’t have any interest in doing it correctly.

Along those lines, this is the right attitude to adopt.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said [US Rep. Al] Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

[…]

Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.

The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.

“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.

Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.

Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.

“If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended,” Green said.

That’s at least providing the proper incentives. We’ll see what happens next.

The editorial notes that bypassing the GLO and allocating the federal funds directly to the affected localities is an option and that the city is prepared for it, but that the city’s past track record with distributing Harvey funds isn’t good, either. That was the GLO’s rationale for stepping in as the middleman, though the city claims it was existing GLO bureaucracy that caused their problems in the first place. Be that as it may, I’d rather take my chances with the city than the GLO because at least I know the city will try to do right by Harvey victims. I can’t say that for the GLO, not as it is currently governed. Give me a different Land Commissioner and then we can talk, though really it would be nice to have made more progress by then. The bottom line is, George P. Bush cannot be trusted with this. Once that is accepted as the reality, we can figure out what the best way forward is.

House committee passes Ike Dike bill

Another step forward.

A House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that gives the go-ahead to the so-called Ike Dike project, a massive $31 billion proposal that includes building giant gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay with the goal of stopping hurricane storm surge.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure voted to move the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 toward the full House for a floor vote. This follows a vote two weeks ago by a similar committee in the Senate, which also included language in its bill approving the project.

Getting the sign-off from key committees in both chambers of Congress marks a significant step forward for a plan that has been spiritedly debated since Hurricane Ike hit with devastating force in 2008. Both bills must be approved by their respective bodies, then merged for a final bicameral vote.

“The Water Resources Development Act is our legislative commitment to investing in and protecting our communities from flooding events, restoring our environment and ecosystems and keeping our nation’s competitiveness by supporting our ports and harbors,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

Her comments prior to the vote addressed the big picture: “Through the biannual enactment of WRDA, this committee has addressed local, regional, national needs through the authorization of the new US Army Corps of Engineers projects, studies and policies that benefit every corner of the nation.”

The Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, as the federal version of the Ike Dike plan is formally known, is the largest engineering recommendation of its kind that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ever proposed. It was one of 16 finalized projects included in the House bill.

See here for the background. I still need to see it pass a cloture vote and not get doomed to procedural hell by the likes of Rand Paul, but for now it is moving forward. For now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement watch: Still in reruns

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

Duncan Klussman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staci Childs

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

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

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

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

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

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal funding for the Ike Dike

This would be a big step forward.

Congressional members this week are moving one step closer to authorizing a massive, $31-billion-dollar system to block storm surge along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula and at the mouth of Galveston Bay.

A proposed draft of the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 released Friday suggests the U.S. should carry out the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, informally known as the “Ike Dike.”

If approved, the federal government would pick up $19.2 billion of the cost of the multifaceted project that would mean building dunes, flood walls and giant gates to try to protect the most populous stretch of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Texas legislators already created a local government district that is able to impose taxes to help pay for the non-federal share of the cost, which is $11.7 billion.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will review the text of the draft bill on Wednesday. Legislation for these types of projects is written at regular intervals so that work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can get off the ground.

The U.S. House of Representatives version of the bill hasn’t been released. Both measures will need approval from their congressional chambers. Then they will be combined into one bill and put up for a final vote.

There are eight million ways for a bill to die in the Senate, so it’s best to think of this as vaporware up until it’s actually on President Biden’s desk. The reporting on this makes it sound routine, and maybe it would be in less stupid times than these, but we’re not fooled. Let me know how the cloture vote goes, and then we can talk.

I’m just going to say this one thing about the pending evisceration of abortion rights

Chris Tomlinson gets at the issue but doesn’t take it all the way.

The Supreme Court’s apparent decision to allow state lawmakers to make women’s health care choices puts chief executives in a tough spot, forcing them to choose between their employees’ rights and right-wing backlash.

Disney’s recent experience defending LGBT rights against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s demagoguery will sadly encourage cowardice.

Millions of Texans are waiting to hear how their employee health insurance will handle abortion coverage when the procedure becomes a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison.

Texas Republicans have made banning abortion their marquee issue for decades. In addition to prohibiting government health insurance from paying for abortions, the Legislature also banned state-regulated plans from covering them.

Employers of 60 percent of Americans with company-sponsored health insurance, though, use self-funded plans. These are exempt from state regulations, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care research organization. Only 14 percent of self-funded plans exclude some or all abortions.

Polling shows 59 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal under all or most circumstances, according to Pew Research.

After Gov. Greg Abbott allowed Texans to privately prosecute other Texans who seek an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, many companies stepped up. Amazon, Citigroup, Salesforce, Apple, Bumble, Levi’s, GoDaddy, Match, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, have all promised to help employees get abortions outside Texas.

“We are pro-woman. We will support a woman’s right to make health care decisions for herself, even if that means traveling out of state. It’s an investment that’s not just right, but good business too,” Curtis Sparrer, a principal at Houston-based PR firm Bospar told me in an email.

The company will pay for travel and other expenditures should a Bospar staff member need reproductive health care banned in any state where they live, Sparrer added.

“We want other companies and PR agencies to join the fight, especially since many are composed of women and are led by women. The rights of women are not just on the line,” he added. “As someone who credits his same-sex marriage to the legacy of Roe, I am imploring my colleagues and friends to end their silence and speak truth to power.”

Taking a stand on anything, though, is becoming more perilous for corporations and executives who would rather generate profits than controversy. Employees, especially younger workers, expect their company’s leadership to reflect their values.

“More than half of consumers will buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs, while six in 10 employees will choose employers based on shared beliefs and values,” according to Edelman, a global PR firm. “A stunning 81 percent of respondents want CEOs to be front and center discussing public policy.”

The first thing to realize is that the forthcoming overturn of Roe and Casey is the beginning, not the end. Next up will be a nationwide ban on abortion, for which Senate Republicans are already writing a bill. Now that they will no longer have to pretend that this has anything to do with women’s health, rape and incest exceptions will go away, and it won’t be just doctors who are targeted for arrest and prison. I guarantee you, lowlife creeps like Briscoe Cain cannot wait to throw women in jail for anything that looks like an abortion. Lizelle Herrera was not an aberraion.

If you think I’m being alarmist, go find a copy of that draft opinion and read it for yourself. Note carefully the section in which Sam Alito claims that this opinion is only about abortion and not all of those other things that people like him despise and want to get rid of, like the previous SCOTUS decisions on same-sex marriage and contraception and “sodomy”. I will remind you that most if not all of the justices who have signed onto Alito’s opinion also swore under oath during their Senate confirmation hearings that they considered Roe to be “settled law” and that they respected precedent. There’s no reason at all to believe anything that a known liar says.

So get mad, get organized, and get everyone you know who has the same concerns as you to vote. Businesses are going to have to do more as well, if they actually do care about their employees. But it’s on us, to vote and to put pressure on the people we’ve voted for to act. The clock has struck midnight. What are we going to do about it?