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Congress

Interview with Michael Li

Michael Li

As we know, among the many monumental tasks that the Legislature has before it in 2021 is redistricting. That will almost certainly be done in a summer or even autumn special session, since Census data will be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will happen next year, with all the usual pomp and partisan fighting that accompanies it. And as we also know from living in Texas, litigation and redistricting go together like chips and salsa. This past decade was particularly eventful for redistricting and the courts, and I wanted to have a chance to review where we are now before we embark on the next round. The best person I could think of to have this conversation with is Michael Li, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights, and elections. I was of course a dedicated reader of his Texas Redistricting blog, and I follow him now on Twitter, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him all my questions about the state of redistricting litigation:

I have a number of interviews in mind on this topic that I would like to do. I’m working on making that happen, but have no set schedule for any of it at this time. Please let me know what you think.

It’s really hard out there on the restaurants

I feel for them, but none of this is unsurprising.

Celebrating her birthday in Galveston, Melinda Prince walked out of Yaga’s Cafe on Thursday full of coconut shrimp. What she didn’t realize was one of the employees at the restaurant may have been working while infected with the coronavirus.

Prince found out three days later through a post from the restaurant’s Facebook account.

“I freaked out,” said Prince, who plans to quarantine for two weeks and get tested if COVID-19 symptoms arise.

Facebook posts from Yaga’s Cafe, whose managers did not respond to requests for comment, indicate other employees have since been tested for the coronavirus, the restaurant voluntarily closed, a professional cleaning crew was hired and recent customers were also encouraged to get tested.The Galveston eatery is not alone. Restaurants and bars across Texas — including in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and San Marcos — have closed recently due to concerns about potentially spreading the coronavirus, according to social media posts and local news reports.

I wish there were a better answer. What should happen is another round of stimulus money from Congress – the original PPP idea was fine, if incredibly clunky at first – because we really can’t just reopen everything and hope for a return to normalcy. The virus is still out there, and we’re not doing nearly enough about it. At least we will have some new face mask orders, which should help a bit. Restaurants are a huge piece of our economy, with a ton of jobs at stake, and we’re not doing nearly enough to help them through this crisis. I don’t know what else to say.

Runoff reminder: Congress

Previously, we looked at the two statewide runoffs in the Democratic primary. Today we’re going to look at four Congressional primary runoffs. There are more than four total runoffs in Congressional primaries, but these are in the districts that are at least somewhat competitive, including a couple that are high on the national target list. As a reminder, here’s a look at the April campaign finance reports for Congress.

CD03

CD03 is held by freshman Rep. Van Taylor, who won by a 54-44 margin in 2018; Beto O’Rourke got 47.9% in the district. It’s not a first-tier opportunity, but the primary features two candidates who are way ahead of the 2018 fundraising pace, Sean McCaffity and Lulu Seikaly, who was a later entrant into the race. Seikaly has gotten more press that I could find of the two of them. Here’s a profile/interview with her on the Shondaland website. She recently picked up the endorsement of Rep. Marc Veasey after having been endorsed by the DMN for the primary. As for McCaffity, I found this profile of him from February. I don’t have a whole lot of insight to add to this race. Both candidates look good to me, either could break through and generate some national attention if they keep up the good fundraising or someone does a poll in the district. CD03 is entirely within Collin County, so if the suburbs do wind up abandoning Trump in a big way – in other words, even more than in 2018 – this race could be a sleeper.

CD10

CD10 of course has been on the radar all cycle, since Mike Siegel lost to longtime Rep. Mike McCaul by a bit more than four points, in a district that Beto carried by a hair. Siegel faces Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, who has been a strong fundraiser so far. As a working doctor who’s treating COVID-19 patients when he’s not on the campaign trail, Gandhi has also been featured in numerous new stories, getting both local and national coverage for his dual role. Siegel has made his way into some of that coverage, and was the subject of a nice recent profile. He also picked up a couple of endorsements, from Rep. Veronica Escobar and State Rep. Erin Zwiener.

CD24

This may be the spiciest runoff of the four, for a seat that Beto won with 51.5% of the vote in 2018. Precisely because this is such an clear-cut target – it’s been on the DCCC’s radar from day one – there’s been some fighting over who the DCCC should be backing in this race, Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela. Olson is the 2018 nominee for Ag Commissioner (she got 46.4%, losing by five points) and is one of six Dem challengers so far to have raised over a million bucks as of April. Olson has a military background that’s a big part of her biography, but the circumstances surrounding her exit from the Air Force have some people worried that could be a drag on her campaign. Meanwhile, Valenzuela has also been a strong fundraiser and has picked up some notable endorsements including EMILY’s List, which is a fascinating decision on their part given that there were multiple pro-choice female candidates in the primary, including, you know, Kim Olson. Some of Valenzuela’s allies will be running ads against Olson over the issues with Olson’s military record. There’s a nice profile of Valenzuela here if you want to know more about her. As with these other races, I don’t have a strong preference. I feel like this race is there for the Dems to win, we just have to not screw it up.

CD31

Finally, there’s CD31, which started out the cycle high on the target list but has been slipping down since. While there have been a ton of candidates cycling through this race, none have caught fire the way MJ Hegar did in 2018, and none have distinguished themselves in fundraising. The two who survived the first round, Christine Eady Mann and Donna Imam, were the top fundraisers, but neither is close to the top tier among Dem challengers, and only Imam has a decent amount of cash on hand. Eady Mann, who lost in the 2018 primary runoff to Hegar, is also a medical doctor and has also been featured in some stories for her candidacy and career in a time of COVID. I couldn’t find any recent stories about Imam. I don’t see this race as being all that competitive anymore, but the trend in Williamson County will keep it reasonably close regardless. A surprise is still possible, but I’m going to want to see the winner of this runoff start to rake in some bucks before I’ll buy into it.

I’ll be looking at SBOE and State Senate next. Let me know what you think.

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

Chief Acevedo brought it up, so let’s go there.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s voice cracked several times and his eyes welled as he railed against the death of George Floyd beneath a policeman’s knee and implored protesters to demonstrate peacefully with him.

“I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city,” Acevedo shouted on Sunday to the group of mostly black Houstonians surrounding him at one of many protests in the wake of video showing Floyd’s fatal encounter with police in Minneapolis. “Pay close attention! Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all the s–t.”

Video of Acevedo’s profanity-laced remarks went viral and, along with his other blunt statements this week, won the chief acclaim from those outraged by the death of Floyd, a former Third Ward resident.

It has also drawn anger from those who say Acevedo has failed to address the very things he’s condemning at home. His calls for police to be more transparent and enact “meaningful reform” have refocused attention on a series of fatal shootings by his own officers, and his refusal to release body camera video of the incidents.

“We’re looking at him say one thing on camera, but locally, we know different,” said Dav Lewis, a local activist who was friends with Adrian Medearis, one of the men who died in the spate of shootings. “We know different locally. We have not seen police accountability.”

The chief has also resisted calls to release the results of an audit of his narcotics division, rocked last year by one of its worst scandals in decades, and he has downplayed calls to bolster the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, long criticized as a “toothless watchdog” group.

“While these are great photo ops, and maybe the chief has political aspirations, and this is all warm and fuzzy kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s time for some action,” said Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

Protesters intensified their calls on Tuesday for Acevedo to make the videos public. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s remarks at City Hall were punctuated by several people chanting “release the tapes,” and hours later Acevedo was directly confronted by a group of critical protesters at the downtown park Discovery Green.

Some lawmakers questioned Acevedo’s rationale for not releasing the body camera video.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to worry about prosecution,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “It’s their job to be law enforcement.”

Wu, a former prosecutor who has called on Acevedo previously to release his audit, said Acevedo’s attitude “does more of a disservice to taint the public’s perception than anything else.”

“Right now you have the general public believing the police hide things,” Wu said. “When other cities during this crisis have shown they can release body cams immediately — that they can fire and discipline officers immediately — the fact we can’t get videos released months, sometimes even years later, is very telling.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. On balance, I think Art Acevedo has been a pretty good Chief of Police. It’s not at all hard to imagine someone worse in his position – the current Chief of Police in Austin, for example. I also think that some of these reform ideas should be taken out of his discretion and mandated by the appropriate governing body. For releasing body camera footage and just generally being more transparent about it, that could be the Legislature or it could be City Council. Point being, the less room he or any Chief has to stall on releasing said footage, the less time we have to have this debate about transparency.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, at all levels of government, with the local stuff having the greatest potential for swift adoption. Tarsha Jackson, formerly with the Texas Organizing Project and now on hold in the City Council District B runoff, recommended several changes to the police union contract. CM Letitia Plummer, thankfully recovering from COVID-19, has proposed a budget amendment that would:

-Require officers exhaust all reasonable means before shooting
-Ban chokeholds and strangle holds
-Require de-escalation
-Require officers give verbal warning before shooting
-Notify Independent Police Oversight Board when death occurs
-Give IPOB subpoena power

It would also redirect funds currently allocated for a police cadet class as follows:

$2M, fund separate IPOB investigations
$1M, build online portal for residents to report misconduct
$3M, police training
$2M, permanent revolving fund for the Office of Business Opportunity, no-interest loans to minority-owned biz
$2M, enhance Health Dept’s Community Re-Entry Network Program
$500k, enhance Health Dept’s My Brother’s Keeper program
$1M, equipment and implementation of a “CAHOOTS” program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)

The point of that last item is to redirect a class of 911 calls that now go to law enforcement to this Crisis Assistance program, so the police can handle higher priority calls. Look at the photos she embedded in this Facebook post (specifically, this and this) to get a better feel for this. The city of Eugene, Oregon has used a program like this successfully since 1989. I strongly suspect most police officers would be happy to not have to respond to these kinds of calls for the most part going forward.

Stace adds recommendations from 8CantWait, which largely overlap the items noted by CM Plummer and Tarsha Jackson. Again, these are things that could be done now, if we wanted to. If there’s something you want to do in this direction, call Mayor Turner’s office and your district Council member along with the At Large members in support of these proposals. There are many ways to make noise.

There’s still more. Looking at the federal level, Sherrilyn Ifill and a triumvirate at The Atlantic have a list of action items for Congress, including an end (or at least a serious cutback) to qualified immunity, national data collection and tracking of police conduct and use of force, stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more. Ifill notes that “Currently, officers fired for misconduct and brutality against innocent civilians can be hired by other departments”. This will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who remembers the story of Tulia.

I personally would add: Decriminalization of marijuana and a complete shift of focus on other drug offenses from arrest and incarceration to treatment; Expanding Medicaid, which as I have said a gazillion times before will do so much to provide mental health services to countless Texans; Really attacking the homelessness problem by funding housing for the homeless and raising the minimum wage so that more people can afford housing in the first place; and repealing SB4, the odious “show me your papers” law. I believe these things will drastically reduce the interactions that ordinary people – overwhelmingly people of color – have with the police and the criminal justice system.

None of these things are panaceas, and none of them directly address systemic racism – I will defer on that to those who can speak more directly from their own experience – but I do believe all of them will have the effect of reducing harm to the black and brown people who have always received the brunt of the violence that comes from encounters with the police. Again, much of this is doable right now. Clearly, some other items will require winning more elections, in Texas and around the country, but we can still get started on what can be done now. If Chief Acevedo wants to come out in support of any or all of these things, that would be nice, too. Whether he does or he doesn’t, we can make them happen anyway.

There won’t be furloughs after all

A slightly confusing bit of good news.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will not need to furlough roughly 3,000 city employees nor cancel its police cadet classes in the upcoming budget year, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin announced during a city council budget committee meeting Tuesday.

Instead, the city will use federal coronavirus relief funds to help bridge its projected $169 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“No employee in the (City of Houston) will be furloughed,” Martin said.

The administration has updated Mayor Sylvester Turner’s initial budget proposal, eliminating many of the most dire consequences attributed to the revenue gap. The revised budget plan eliminates furloughs and adds back five cadet classes for police, Martin said.

It also adds another fire department cadet class, giving that department four classes. The new proposal also adds $15 million back into the city’s rainy day fund as hurricane season gets underway; Turner’s original spending plan would have exhausted that fund entirely.

The changes comes as the city has weighed how it can spend $404 million in federal funds it received through the CARES Act, part of a stimulus package approved by Congress.

The administration plans to use roughly $19 million of those funds to cover expenses for redeploying city employees from their normal duties to address the coronavirus pandemic, freeing some budgetary space. It is not clear if the city plans to use additional federal funds to cover the remaining costs of the budget revisions.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’ve said all along that the city could avoid all of the issues for this year if it could use that federal money for previously budgeted items. Apparently, they have decided that they can, or at least that there’s enough of the money available to fill other needs to make the math work. I can’t tell from this story what may have changed to go from apocalyptic warnings about layoffs and furloughs to this – maybe the city got clarity from the feds, maybe they came to this conclusion on their own, maybe there was enough wiggle room to allow for budget items to get moved around, who knows? This is the outcome that should have been from the beginning. Remember, a large part of budgeting is determined by the calendar – if these federal dollars had been allocated earlier, there wouldn’t have been so many “previously budgeted items” to worry about. I’m a little worried that someone is going to come along and try to stop the city from doing this, maybe by lawsuit or some other decree, but until then, I’m glad they worked this out. There are plenty of things to worry about going forward, like sales tax revenues, but buying a year’s time before that reckoning allows for another CARES Act or other positive development to occur. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is all you need to do.

Sharing is CARES-ing

I’m still trying to understand this.

The state of Texas and its 12 largest counties are in a tug-of-war over who is responsible for handing out federal coronavirus relief funding for some small cities.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March sent $11.24 billion in aid to the state. Of that, six Texas cities and 12 counties with a population more than 500,000 received more than $3.2 billion.

The other 242 counties and cities within those counties were allowed to apply for per capita funding allocations from the state out of the remaining $1.85 billion earmarked for local governments.

With an apparent gray area in the legislation, the CARES Act did not specify which entity — the state or the dozen large counties — should cover the small cities within the dozen counties that received direct funding. State leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott want the counties to pay; the counties want the state to share more of its cut.

The skirmish has meant that months after the major relief package was passed, funding for some Texas cities is in limbo, including for Houston-area suburbs such as Pasadena that have been hit with major outbreaks.

[…]

Abbott — as well as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the state Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations committee chairs and vice-chairs — in a May 11 letter placed the responsibility on the counties.

Two days later, the counties wrote to state leadership to ask for their reconsideration. While the counties account for about 69 percent of all COVID-19 cases, they received just about 29 percent of the relief funds, they wrote in a letter shared with Hearst Newspapers.

“We ask you to address this shortfall,” they wrote. “Counties are your frontline partners in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Help us help Texans stay in their homes, keep their jobs, and have food on their table.”

I guess I need to know more about what the priorities are here. It seems clear to me that the funds should be distributed based primarily on need, with any other considerations coming after that. By “need” I mean testing and support for frontline responders and hospitals, food and housing for those in financial distress, buying supplies like hand sanitizer and PPEs, that sort of thing. Whether that should come from the money allocated to the state or the money allocated to the larger counties, I don’t care. It should come from both, depending on their capacity. Maybe there is a good objective case for it to come from one source or the other – I can’t tell from this story – but even if that’s so, I’d want the state and counties to be working together to maximize the return on these federal dollars. That’s what really matters, doesn’t it?

School districts set to get financial relief for coronavirus

Good.

Texas will distribute the vast majority of a $1.29 billion federal stimulus package to school districts this summer, using it to deliver on a promise that schools will remain fully funded this school year despite statewide closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school officials on a call Thursday.

State officials told school districts in March there would be no financial penalties for attendance declines, as COVID-19 fears spread and school districts were required to close their buildings. Now, Texas has decided to use its share of the federal stimulus package to fund that promise, distributing 90% directly to districts based on their student poverty rates, aiming to forestall layoffs and budget cuts.

Texas school districts can see how much they can expect to receive on the Texas Education Agency’s website. Houston Independent School District, the state’s most populous, will receive the highest award of $81.7 million.

On top of that stimulus package, Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers agreed to reimburse all school districts for up to 75% of their pandemic-related expenses to date, using money from a federal grant awarded to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. School districts have spent a state total of about $392 million on COVID-19 expenses.

School districts in Texas are funded based on student attendance, meaning the statewide school closures could have been a major financial hit. “With school closed to in-person attendance for nearly a third of the school year, generating the remainder of that entitlement would be impossible without us stepping in and making some changes,” Morath said Thursday.

States are allowed to use the federal stimulus funding to offset budget holes. “Federal guidance explicitly authorizes it as a way for states to sustain their school finance system, as long as net state funding remains above prior years,” Morath said.

From the description in the story, I don’t have any specific concerns. It sounds like the districts are going to have their COVID expenses mostly covered, which is what should happen in times like these. Now we just need the same thing for cities and states.

Biden campaign says it will compete in Texas

That is what we want to hear.

Former vice president Joe Biden is planning to compete against President Trump in traditionally Republican states such as Arizona, Texas and Georgia as his campaign bulks up in size and turns to a general election made highly unpredictable by the coronavirus.

“We believe that there will be battleground states that have never been battleground states before,” said Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, on a call with reporters Friday. “We feel like the map is really favoring us if you look to recent polling.”

Biden’s campaign said it will also compete in other states such as Iowa and Ohio that Hillary Clinton lost by large margins in 2016.

The campaign’s public announcement of targets — which some Democrats feel are overly ambitious — is driven by what it sees as weaknesses for Trump that have been magnified by his response to the virus. It comes after weeks of criticism from Democrats, who worry Biden isn’t being aggressive enough.

[…]

Biden’s staff, on the call with reporters Friday, frequently pointed to national polling and surveys in battleground states that give Biden an edge. Recent public polls in Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin show Biden leading. Trump is beating Biden by small margins in Iowa and Texas.

The FiveThirtyEight average of the four polls of Texas post-primary have Trump leading Biden by two in Texas. That can change, of course, and there are a whole host of other factors to consider, from fundraising to organization to how the election will be conducted, but it’s hard to see Texas as un-competitive right now. It’s true that if Biden does actually win Texas he’s almost certainly run up the score to such an extent that he surely didn’t need to win Texas, but there are plenty of other considerations as well, from a US Senate race to multiple potential Congressional pickups to winning the State House and having a voice in the 2021 redistricting process. The Chron covers some of this ground:

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton came within 5 percentage points of winning Texas in both 1992 and 1996, but both those races had eccentric Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot taking voters from the Republican nominees. Minus those races, Hillary Clinton coming within 9 percentage points of beating Trump in 2016 is the closest a Democrat has come to winning Texas since Jimmy Carter won the state in his first election in 1976.

The chairman of the Texas Republican Party James Dickey has been warning the party faithful that Democrats are energized and are going to put a lot more money into Texas to try to flip it and Republicans need to be prepared. He’s been touring the state since last year outlining how the party is more aggressively fundraising, hiring field staff and registering voters than in past cycles. While he dismisses the state being a blue state, he has been emphatic that “Texas is on Red Alert” for 2020.

But while Republicans scoff at the idea of Texas turning blue, Trump has already spent more time and money in Texas than many past Republican presidential contenders.

Before the pandemic had even hit, Trump had made 14 trips to Texas since he was inaugurated. That is more than three times as many visits as President Barack Obama made during his first term in office. And with a big financial advantage over the Democrats, Trump has been able to do more to shore up Texas, rather than just focusing on traditional battle grounds in Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.

It is not hard to imagine a race that is decided by 5 percentage points or less in Texas, said Jillson, the SMU political science professor. But Jillson said if Trump struggles to hold Texas, it would be a sign of a bigger problem nationwide.

“If Texas is in play, it probably means Joe Biden has won 40 other states,” Jillson said.

Forty is an overstatement. If you think I’m being pedantic, go ahead and list the nine states Trump would definitely still win in the event Biden carried Texas. I feel pretty confident saying you’d be leaving off a few obviously red states in such an exercise, all of which would be a much bigger shift towards the Democrats than Texas would, and without the corresponding poll numbers to suggest it. Here’s an illustration of this:

That’s not intended to be a rigorous predictive model, just as noted a simple way of viewing the state of play right now. Point being, Texas really has shifted, and it’s time to think about in those terms. How much of an investment it merits from a Presidential campaign perspective is open to debate, but the fact that it is competitive is not.

More runoff debates

In case you had not seen this, as I myself had not before Sunday.

Watch Democratic Candidate Debates Here!

Every Tuesday and Thursday in May, join us for our debate series:

Debate Schedule:
Tuesday, May 5 – Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner
Thursday, May 7 – Texas State House District 138
Tuesday, May 12 – Texas State House District 142
Thursday, May 14 – Texas State House District 148
Tuesday, May 19 – US Congressional District 10
Thursday, May 21 – Texas State Board of Education Position 6
Tuesday, May 26 – Texas Railroad Commission
Thursday, May 28 – United States Senate

Video of past debates are on the page, so for example if you want to hear Anna Eastman and Penny Shaw, go here. In some cases, one of the candidates in the runoff has declined or not responded, but in most cases you can hear both candidates. Early voting begins June 29, so remind yourself of who’s on your ballot and start making up your mind.

What the next CARES act could mean for Texas cities and counties

Short answer, a lot.

Cities and counties across Texas would get more than $29 billion from the $3 trillion coronavirus relief package House Democrats want to pass as soon as Friday.

That includes more than $1.7 billion to Houston and nearly $1 billion to San Antonio as both cities stare down massive budget holes caused by the outbreak. Harris County’s funding could top $2.6 billion and Bexar could be on tap for more than $1 billion, as well. Texas, meanwhile, could get nearly $35.5 billion from a separate pool of funding to aid states.

That’s all according to estimates compiled by the Congressional Research Service, Congress’ public policy institute. The estimates, which cover the rest of 2020 and 2021, are based on some factors not yet known, such as unemployment and infection rates, so they’re not exact.

[…]

At the top of the Democrats’ list is sending $875 billion to states, cities and counties to help plug huge budget deficits. Cities can’t use the aid that Congress has offered so far to close those budget holes and cities across the country, including Houston and San Antonio, are starting to lay off employees and cut programs.

The bill would also for the first time offer coronavirus relief aide to smaller cities, as past relief packages have only directed funding to cities with 500,000 or more residents, meaning suburbs could get tens of millions. New Braunfels, for instance, could get nearly $30 million. Sugar Land could get more than $58.5 million.

There’s a list of cities and counties in Texas and the amounts they would get here. As noted, it’s broken out over two years, so Houston would get $1.18 billion this year and $580 million next year, while Harris County would get $1.76 billion this year and $881 million next year. That’s way more than the current Houston budget gap, so I presume a lot of that money is intended for other purposes as well, such as perhaps rental assistance and maybe rebuilding public health infrastructure. The main point here is that this is a demonstration that someone has learned the lesson from 2009, which is that massive cuts and layoffs in city and state budgets is a huge drag on any economic recovery effort. (That someone is the Democrats, though for at least a few minutes the Republicans have decided that they need to take whatever steps they have to in order to keep the economy from completely collapsing on Trump.) I don’t know what a final version of this might look like – there are certainly things the Dems could concede on – but if something like this passes and cities and counties and states can “balance” their budgets without taking a chainsaw to them, it would be a bug freaking deal. Daily Kos has more.

Here come the furloughs

We said this was gonna be bad, right?

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, facing an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and collapsing oil prices, on Tuesday proposed to close an upcoming budget gap by furloughing about 3,000 municipal workers, deferring all police cadet classes and exhausting the city’s entire $20 million “rainy day” fund.

The proposals are in response to an estimated $169 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Emptying the rainy day fund “leaves the city in a precarious state for the upcoming hurricane season,” the mayor acknowledged in a message to city council members that accompanied his budget plan. The account holds money in reserve for emergency situations, such as cash flow shortages and major disasters.

The city had just recently replenished the fund after using all $20 million in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It will not have that option if a storm hits Houston this year.

“The dollars from the economic stabilization fund are gone,” Turner said. “There is no rainy day fund.”

Under Turner’s plan, the city also would draw $83 million from its cash reserves to balance the budget.

The city’s tax- and fee-supported general fund, which covers most basic city operations, would spend $2.53 billion under Turner’s plan, a decrease of about 1 percent from the current budget. Despite the narrow spending cut, the city would be left with a general fund balance that dips below the amount required by city ordinance.

[…]

The proposed spending plan, which is subject to approval by city council, only says that the city would furlough “thousands of municipal employees.” At a news conference Tuesday, Turner said the number would be around 3,000 of the city’s nearly 21,000 employees. The workers would forego 10 days of pay, saving the city roughly $7 million.

Turner did not specify which departments would be required to send workers home without pay, though he said the city would not place anyone on furlough from the police, fire and solid waste management departments.

The city will not implement any cuts until the new fiscal year begins July 1, Turner said.

See here and here for some background. The story mentions the $404 million Houston received in the first cornavirus stimulus package, which it can’t spend on previously budgeted expenses. Maybe the city will be allowed some leeway in that, and maybe the next relief package, which in its current form includes money for cities and states, will arrive in a timely fashion. Mayor Turner says he’d reinstate the police cadet class and un-furlough the other employees as his first priorities if the funding becomes available. In the meantime, this is our reality. All we can do is hang on and hope for the best.

The bad guys will be spending a lot in Texas, too

Don’t get complacent.

The Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity is planning an unprecedented push into Texas in 2020, throwing its support behind a slew of Republican candidates and expecting to spend millions as Democrats also commit more resources to the state ahead of November elections.

Americans For Prosperity Action, a super PAC affiliated with the nonprofit funded by billionaire Charles Koch that has long supported conservative causes. It announced Wednesday its plans to spend heavily to support Republicans in three key congressional races in the suburbs of Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. The group also plans to spend seven figures defending U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, for whom it has already spent more than $700,000 on ads, as Democrats try to win their first statewide race in a generation. And it’s supporting a dozen Republicans — and one Democrat — in state House races.

[…]

Americans For Prosperity Action says it plans “robust” spending in three of those races: U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a Central Texas Republican facing a challenge Davis; Wesley Hunt, an Army veteran challenging Fletcher in the west Houston suburbs; and Genevieve Collins, a Dallas business executive running against Allred.

That support will include ads, direct mail and efforts to reach voters through text messages, phone calls and virtual events.

The group says it has already spent more than $700,000 supporting Cornyn. It plans to run digital ads supporting the Texas Republican constantly through the election, as well as larger ad buys, such as $500,000 it spent on ads just after Super Tuesday.

While the group is mostly throwing its support behind Republicans, it is backing one Democrat this cycle: Longtime state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., locked in an unexpected runoff to hold onto his Brownsville district against Sara Stapleton Barrera, who ran at him from the left.

Yes, that’s Chip “You get coronavirus! And you get coronavirus!” Roy. We’ve begun to see the money for progressive candidates come in. This was inevitable, and it’s in many ways a good sign. They can’t take Texas for granted any more. Now we have to show them their money’s no good here. How sweet will it be for them to spend all that dough and lose?

Here comes Everytown

Bring it.

Gun safety groups planning to spend millions to turn Texas blue this year are rolling out their first round of ads, which say COVID-19 isn’t the only public health crisis facing the state.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the Michael Bloomberg-backed group that plans to spend $8 million in Texas this year, is launching $250,000 in digital ads targeting Republicans including Houston-area U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Michael McCaul, as well as Central Texas U.S. Rep. Chip Roy.

The group shared the plan exclusively with Hearst Newspapers. It includes ads targeting Central Texas U.S. Rep. John Carter and Beth Van Duyne, a former mayor of Irving running for a Dallas-area congressional seat. The ads say the Republicans “ignored our safety” by opposing universal background checks and other gun laws.

[…]

Everytown isn’t alone in targeting Texas, the top target in 2020 for groups pushing for more restrictive gun laws. BradyPAC, the political affiliate of one of the country’s oldest gun violence prevention groups, plans to spend more than $500,000 on elections in the state, more than it’s spending anywhere in the nation by far.

See here for the background. I approve of the target list, though I assume at some point these groups will turn to the State House races, since taking over the State House serves the goal of winning and holding Congress as well. But part of this is just about boosting Dem turnout, in the places where it grew the most in 2018. That should lift all the boats. The Trib, which has a longer story, has more.

Appeals court rules that Texas Central is in fact a railroad

Seems obvious, but these things are more complicated than you’d think.

Planners of a Houston-to-Dallas bullet train scored a victory in Corpus Christi Thursday when a state appeals court said the company — despite not operating yet — is a railroad in the eyes of the law.

“This decision confirms our status as an operating railroad and allows us to continue moving forward with our permitting process and all of our other design, engineering and land acquisition efforts,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

Writing for the 13th Texas Court of Appeals, Judge Nora Longoria said a Leon County judge who sided with landowners erred when he said the lack of current operations or equipment meant Texas Central was not a railroad, and therefore had no claim to survey land or acquire it through eminent domain. Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles sued Texas Central in early 2017, claiming the company had no authority to survey their land, after they refused to grant the company’s hired surveyors access.

In their challenge, lawyers for the Miles’ argued since Texas Central is not operating as a railroad and currently owns no trains, it cannot claim to be railroad under Texas law to take land. The company, created in 2012 specifically to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, said owning and operating trains was not necessary, noting it still is designing and developing its 240-mile route.

[…]

Aguilar and others said Texas Central remains ready for federal approvals of the project’s safety and engineering, expected later this year.

“Today’s ruling supports the enormous amount of work Texas Central has done to date,” he said.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this is a fight over whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain to acquire right of way; there have been various attempts to pass a law along these lines in the Lege without success. If this ruling stands, that’s one less obstacle for Texas Central, which is facing other attacks related to the current economic situation. The plaintiffs will appeal to the Supreme Court, so this is not over yet. For now at least, Texas Central is officially a railroad.

Still trying to avoid total budget disaster

That federal money sure would help.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As the prospect of mass furloughs and severe spending cuts looms over the city’s next budget, Houston officials are sitting on a pile of coronavirus stimulus money that amounts to more than double the shortfall projected by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The rub, at least for now, is that the strings attached to the $404 million Houston received from the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund — a $150 billion trove sent to states and local governments as part of the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — bar officials from spending the aid on expenses they already had budgeted.

Mayors, governors from both parties, congressional Democrats and even some Senate Republicans have pushed for looser restrictions that would allow sales tax-deprived governments to use the money to plug budget holes, instead of limiting them to expenses tied directly to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as Congress weighs a second stimulus package for local and state governments that may earmark funds for lost revenue after all, Turner is under pressure to squeeze as much money as possible out of the initial round of CARES Act aid.

Prompting the tension was the Treasury Department’s April 22 guidance that eligible spending includes payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care and other employees “whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding” to the pandemic.

Last week, City Controller Chris Brown penned a letter to Finance Director Tantri Emo and Turner-appointed COVID-19 recovery czar Marvin Odum in which he urged the administration to craft a spending plan for the funds. He told city council members last week that officials in other Texas cities have begun determining how much of their public safety expenses are directly related to COVID-19.

“The potential exists for these costs to be offset by CARES Act funds, which could help alleviate added pressure placed on the General Fund,” Brown wrote, referring to the city’s $2.5 billion tax-supported fund that pays for most day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear, it’s more than just Houston facing this kind of problem. Every city, every county, every state has been affected. Federal funds, and a lot of them, are going to be needed. All this caterwauling you hear from haircut-freedom-fighters and grandma-sacrificers about getting the economy going again, none of it means anything if they aren’t willing to save local and state governments from making devastating cuts, which among other things will cause loads of people to lose their jobs and act as a huge drag on any economic recovery. If we could be sure we’d get this in the next round of stimulus then fine, use this money for whatever other purposes it’s intended for. But really, why wait? Let’s get a bit of certainty to bolster confidence.

Chip Roy would also like you to die for the economy

Truly, I struggle to understand this kind of thinking.

Rep. Chip Roy

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a firebrand freshman Republican, on Wednesday called for a return to economic normalcy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to secure an “overall net positive outcome” for Americans.

“The goal here is for the least amount of human harm, right?” the Austin conservative said in a Wednesday interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith. “And so the virus is one piece of a much larger puzzle. So should we reopen our society? I believe yes.”

“I think it is important for us to engage as human beings together, to worship together, to work together. Can we do it in a way that protects the most vulnerable?…It’s important that we do that, and we can do that.”

Roy argued that the American economy cannot freeze for the months or years it will take for scientists to develop a vaccine.

“We need immune systems that are strong. We need immunity systems that can fight this,” he said. “We need herd immunity. So we have to work through this together to get re-engaged so we can build that up.”

When pressed over whether the herd immunity concept will lead to unnecessary deaths, Roy countered that the nationwide lockdown and its subsequent delays in cancer screenings, addiction treatment and mental health ramifications from unemployment have added to indirect death and suffering.

Just so we’re all on the same page here, the “herd immunity” strategy only works if something like 60% of the population becomes infected. Remember those very early projections of one to two million deaths if we did nothing and just let the virus run its course? That’s based on 150 to 200 million people getting COVID-19, and a one percent death rate. Are one to two million dead people an acceptable price to pay? I wish that question had been posed more directly.

Please note, that’s one to two million deaths from coronavirus, and that’s assuming it burns out after infecting 60% of the population – there isn’t anything magical to stop it from getting to, say 80% of the population, which adjusts the death toll up to about three million. That also doesn’t take into account deaths from heart attacks and strokes and falling down the stairs and whatnot that couldn’t be treated because the hospitals are completely overwhelmed from COVID-19 cases. Remember when we were concerned about that? Back before we all agreed that “flattening the curve” was for the collective good? Boy, those were the days.

But let’s say we get lucky and manage to limit ourselves to “just” one million deaths. It turns out that a significant number of COVID-19 patients experience serious and lasting health effects from the disease, and may need lifelong health care as a result. So maybe add in another five to ten million people with permanent health conditions, some of which will be disabling, some of which will be very expensive to treat. Are we approaching a price point that is too high yet?

I mean, it sure seems to me that all that death and destruction would also be bad for the economy, and that’s before we mention the effects of a society where anyone can just get infected at any time. I’m sure the places in America that rely heavily on tourists and foreign travelers will be happy with this. “Come visit Disneyland! You probably won’t get COVID-19 and die, but even if you do, YOLO!” I can’t decide if Chip Roy hasn’t fully thought this through, or if he has and he’s decided it’s still better to let pestilence win.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: We don’t know yet that getting COVID-19 means that you’ll be immune to it afterwards. You may be immune to it for awhile, but maybe not for all that long. What would be worse than getting COVID-19? Getting it a second time. That’s gotta suck.

So yeah. Even when you factor out the utter depraved sociopathy, it’s still a bad idea. Don’t you wish now that Donald Trump had been pushing full-tilt for universal testing and contact tracing? In his defense, he had a lot going on. Maybe next pandemic, if he’s not too busy. In the meantime, support Wendy Davis for Congress in CD21. She would prefer not to let millions of people die.

Comparing the April finance reports

In my roundup of April finance reports for Congress, I said I’d do a comparison of the 2018 numbers to 2020. I’m a blogger of his word, so let’s have that look.


Dist  Year Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
=================================================================
02      18 Litton          546,503    304,139        0    242,363
02      20 Ladjevardian  1,133,296    930,810   50,000    202,485

03      18 Burch           104,700    116,639   25,649     14,085
03      18 Johnson          62,473     59,143    3,100      6,490
03      20 McCaffity       387,506    313,098        0     74,407
03      20 Seikaly         252,591    232,038    3,000     20,552

06      18 Sanchez         241,893    188,313        0     56,456
06      18 Woolridge        75,440     45,016   15,000     47,708
06      20 Daniel          196,861    187,942    7,500      8,918

10      18 Siegel           80,319     65,496    5,000     19,823
10      18 Cadien
10      20 Siegel          664,291    542,317   10,000    125,464
10      20 Gandhi        1,011,877    948,927        0     62,949

21      18 Kopser        1,100,451    846,895   25,000    278,556
21      18 Wilson           44,772     51,041   26,653     20,384
21      20 Davis         3,047,765  1,094,009        0  1,953,755

22      18 Kulkarni        178,925    158,369   35,510     56,067
22      18 Plummer         108,732     99,153        0      9,578
22      20 Kulkarni      1,564,263  1,226,088        0    365,942

23      18 Ortiz Jones   1,025,194    703,481        0    321,713
23      18 Trevino          16,892     20,416    3,285      3,915
23      20 Ortiz Jones   3,310,358  1,024,041    3,024  2,377,835

24      18 McDowell         33,452     16,100        0     17,470
24      20 Olson         1,231,183  1,028,804   20,000    202,378
24      20 Valenzuela      647,105    506,708        0    140,397

25      18 Oliver           78,841     37,812    3,125     40,860
25      18 Perri           139,016    133,443   24,890     30,603
25      20 Oliver          464,623    427,972    2,644     36,651

31      18 Hegar           458,085    316,854        0    141,240
31      18 Mann             56,814     58,856    2,276          0
31      20 Mann            277,815    278,885   44,500        367
31      20 Imam            363,194    223,126  100,000    140,068

I included losing candidates from primary runoffs in 2018 as well, as they were still in the race at that time. I did not include the high-dollar races in CDs 07 and 32 – Lizzie Fletcher and Laura Moser had each raised over $1M by this point, with Colin Allred and Lillian Salerno combining for close to $1.4M – because I wanted to focus only on challengers. Reps. Fletcher and Allred are doing quite well in this department now, they’re just in a different category. It’s clear there’s a lot more money now than there was in 2018, which I attribute mostly to the national Democratic focus on many of these races. Only CDs 03, 06, and 25 are not official targets, but any of them could get bumped up if the environment gets more favorable or the nominees step it up another level. Both CD03 candidates and the 2020 version of Julie Oliver are well ahead of the 2018 pace, while Stephen Daniel was a later entrant in CD06 and may catch up in the next report.

We eventually got used to the big numbers from 2018, which I repeatedly noted were completely unprecedented for Democratic Congressional challengers in Texas, and so there’s less of an “ooh, ahh” factor when we look at this year’s numbers, but let’s not totally lose our ability to be wowed. Joe Kopser raised a ton of money in 2018, and Wendy Davis has left him in the dust, taking in three times as much at this point. Sri Kulkarni has nearly matched his entire total from 2018, while Gina Ortiz Jones is doing to herself what Wendy Davis is doing to Joe Kopser. Throw in Sima Ladjevardian and both Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela, and wow. We do need to appreciate where we are now, because there was a long time when anything like this would have been unthinkable. Hell, you can count on one hand the number of statewide candidates from 2004 to 2016 who raised as much as these Congressional candidates have done so far.

There’s also a lot more spending, as four candidates have already dropped a million bucks, with Ladjevardian and Pritesh Gandhi not far behind. Those two plus Sri Kulkarni and Kim Olson were in competitive primaries, with Olson and Gandhi in the runoffs, while Wendy Davis and Gina Ortiz Jones had much less formidable opposition. I have to assume the latter two did most of their spending with an eye towards November.

I will admit that some of the cash on hand totals from this year’s report had me nervous, but doing this comparison mostly alleviates those concerns. I am of course still worried about the environment for raising money now, but there’s only so much one can worry about it, and as we saw in the previous post there was no noticeable slowdown for the month of March. We’ll see what the July numbers look like.

If there is a cause for concern, it’s in CD31, which has been a soft spot in the lineup from the beginning. Christine Eady Mann and Donna Imam seem to have finally hit a stride in fundraising after the entire field, including several who dropped out along the way, got off to a slow start, though Mann continues a pattern from 2018 of spending every dollar she takes in. Neither has matched MJ Hegar’s pace from 2018, and I seriously doubt they’ll do any better going forward. That’s a high hurdle to clear – Hegar eventually raised over $5 million – but I’m more hopeful now that whoever emerges in that race can at least be competitive.

The next finance reports of interest will be the 30-day reports for state candidates, and then the June reports for county candidates. You know I’ll be on them when they come out. As always, let me know what you think.

April 2020 campaign finance reports: Congress

Hey, remember politics? You know, races and finance reports and stuff like that? Yeah, it’s still happening, weird as that may seem right now. As we are well into April, the Q1 Congressional finance reports for 2020 are in, and thankfully for me the number of candidates whose reports I need to review is much smaller. Let’s have a look. The January 2019 roundup is here, which closed out the 2017-18 election cycle, the April 2019 report is here, the July 2019 report is here, the October 2019 report is here, and the January 2020 report is here. For comparison, the January 2018 report is here and the April 2018 report is here. The FEC summary page for Congress is here and for the Senate is here.

MJ Hegar – Senate
Royce West – Senate

Lizzie Fletcher – CD07
Colin Allred – CD32

Hank Gilbert – CD01
Sima Ladjevardian – CD02
Sean McCaffity – CD03
Lulu Seikaly – CD03
Stephen Daniel – CD06
Elizabeth Hernandez – CD08
Mike Siegel – CD10
Pritesh Gandhi – CD10
Adrienne Bell – CD14
Rick Kennedy – CD17
David Jaramillo – CD17
Wendy Davis – CD21
Sri Kulkarni – CD22
Gina Ortiz Jones – CD23
Kim Olson – CD24
Candace Valenzuela – CD24
Julie Oliver – CD25
Carol Ianuzzi – CD26
Christine Eady Mann – CD31
Donna Imam – CD31


Dist  Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
Sen   Hegar         4,830,038  3,781,873        0  1,095,647
Sen   West          1,363,387  1,242,563  242,162    242,162

07    Fletcher      3,375,004    723,963        0  2,693,107
32    Allred        2,370,113    555,774        0  1,917,783  

01    Gilbert         190,941     44,804   50,000    146,136
02    Ladjevardian  1,133,296    930,810   50,000    202,485
03    McCaffity       387,506    313,098        0     74,407
03    Seikaly         252,591    232,038    3,000     20,552
06    Daniel          196,861    187,942    7,500      8,918
08    Hernandez
10    Siegel          664,291    542,317   10,000    125,464
10    Gandhi        1,011,877    948,927        0     62,949
14    Bell             84,724     71,740        0     16,061
17    Kennedy          65,908     59,041   11,953      8,294
17    Jaramillo        20,681     17,864        0      2,816
21    Davis         3,047,765  1,094,009        0  1,953,755
22    Kulkarni      1,564,263  1,226,088        0    365,942
23    Ortiz Jones   3,310,358  1,024,041    3,024  2,377,835
24    Olson         1,231,183  1,028,804   20,000    202,378
24    Valenzuela      647,105    506,708        0    140,397
25    Oliver          464,623    427,972    2,644     36,651
26    Ianuzzi          82,254     63,909   47,032     18,344
31    Mann            277,815    278,885   44,500        367
31    Imam            363,194    223,126  100,000    140,068

Some real separation in the Senate race, as MJ Hegar approaches five million total raised. She is in a much stronger position for the runoff than Royce West, though there’s still time for him to raise a few bucks. Hegar has a long way to go to be on par with John Cornyn, but she’s at least putting herself into “reasonably viable for a statewide candidate” range. For what it’s worth, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez and Amanda Edwards did eventually top a million dollars raised, and in the end they both spent nearly all of it. I still don’t know why Tzintzún Ramirez was unable to do better in this department, but that’s water under the bridge now.

As was the case in 2018, everyone in all of the interesting races is raising a ton of money. The two incumbents are doing what they should be doing. Six challenger candidates have now topped a million dollars raised, with Wendy Davis and Gina Ortiz Jones both over three million. Pritesh Gandhi and Kim Olson still have to make it through the July runoff, by which time their runoff opponents – Mike Siegel and Candace Valenzuela – may have also topped that mark. Of course, right now is kind of a lousy time to be raising money, so hold that thought for a minute. We’re at a point where it’s basically routine for everyone to pile up big money-raised numbers, so let me note that the thing that stands out here is the amount that some of these candidates have spent. It’s more than a little mind-boggling that four candidates so far have spent over a million bucks, and some people, even the big moneybags, have left themselves a bit bereft in the cash-on-hand department. I’m glad to see both CD31 candidates finally start to get on the board, but that’s quite the hole Christine Eady Mann left herself in cash-wise. I’m going to do a separate post with a direct comparison to April 2018 later, but let’s put a pin in that. We don’t know what the fundraising environment is going to be like over the next few months. Dems benefited from a lot of Congressional cash in 2018. We had every reason to believe the same thing would happen this year as of the last report, but that was in the Before Times. Now, who knows?

We can take a little peek at how the fundraising environment may be. Everyone had to report their totals as of February 22 as well, thanks to the March primary. So here’s a look at how the Raised totals varied from January to April:


Dist Candidate         Jan01      Feb22      Apr01
==================================================
Sen  Hegar         3,225,842  3,864,201  4,830,038
Sen  West            956,593  1,134,953  1,363,387

07   Fletcher      2,339,444  2,481,687  3,375,004
32   Allred        2,370,113  2,577,348  2,370,113

02   Ladjevardian    407,781    660,853  1,133,296
03   McCaffity       267,288    308,240    387,506
03   Seikaly         109,870    173,031    252,591
06   Daniel          148,655    179,330    196,861
10   Siegel          451,917    527,802    664,291
10   Gandhi          786,107    869,277  1,011,877
21   Davis         1,850,589  2,186,063  3,047,765
22   Kulkarni      1,149,783  1,246,943  1,564,263
23   Ortiz Jones   2,481,192  2,684,696  3,310,358
24   Olson           861,905    967,032  1,231,183
24   Valenzuela      333,007    442,351    647,105
25   Oliver          325,091    387,523    464,623
31   Mann            170,759    198,783    277,815

Donna Imam did not have a February 22 total when I went looking for these numbers, so I omitted her from this table. Honestly, it doesn’t look like there was much of a slowdown in March, which is what I had been afraid of. Hell, Wendy Davis raised nearly a million bucks just in the last five weeks of the period. With the primaries over, the federal contribution limits get reset, so I think Davis and at least a couple other candidates who emerged victorious reaped a benefit from becoming the official nominee. Certainly Sima Ladjevardian and Gina Ortiz Jones took in a decent haul in the latter half of the filing period. Julie Oliver and Stephen Daniel did not get such a boost, however. I don’t have much more to say about this, I was just curious about how this went. We’ll see what the next quarter brings. As always, let me know what you think.

UT/Trib: Trump 49, Biden 44

Our first post-primary poll.

Donald Trump would beat Joe Biden by five points in Texas if the presidential race were held now, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In a Trump-Biden contest, Democratic and Republican voters overwhelmingly back their own party’s candidate. But independent voters are on the fence, with 39% favoring Trump, 29% favoring Biden and 32% saying they haven’t formed an opinion.

The five point difference in support — 44% for Biden, 49% for Trump — is in line with previous UT/TT Polls taken before Democrats had settled on a nominee. In November 2019, the president was 7 percentage points ahead of Biden in a hypothetical general election matchup. In the February survey — conducted shortly before the presidential primaries in Texas and before the coronavirus outbreak was widespread — the two candidates were 4 percentage points apart. In all three of the most recent surveys, Trump’s lead was small, but outside the margins of error; none of the results could be called a statistical tie.

Trump has a harder race against himself. Ask Texans whether they would vote today to re-elect the president and, as they have done in four previous UT/TT polls, they split down the middle: 50% say they would vote for him, 49% said they’d vote against him.

Among Republican voters, 81% say they would definitely vote for Trump, and another 11% say they probably would. Democratic voters are just the opposite, with 85% definitely planning to vote for someone else, and 9% probably planning to. Most independent voters — 61% — would vote for someone else, while 39% say they’d vote for the president.

It’s only when you add Biden to the mix that Trump pulls ahead. “When you put a flesh-and-blood opponent against them, they do better,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here’s the previous UT/Trib poll, from February, and here’s four other poll results from just before the primary. Those were indeed the last polls taken, according to FiveThirtyEight. Biden has been closer in some polls and a little farther back in some others. There are probably still a few Dems who are in the “don’t know/no opinion” bucket right now, as was definitely the case during the primary campaign, so he ought to inch up a bit all else being equal.

The main thing I will note is that not only does Biden start out scoring higher than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 – she only reached as high as 44% in two polls the whole cycle – he’s also above where Beto was in 2018. Beto only reached the 44% mark once before August, then was pretty consistently at or above it after that. Beto was still a fairly unknown candidate at this point in 2018, and his rise later was a sign that he was genuinely growing his support. I said this a few times during that cycle that while we had seen occasional polls that showed a Democrat “close” to a Republican statewide, the actual numbers would usually be something like 42-36, with a ton of “don’t know/no opinion” answers. It was truly rare before 2018 to see a Dem score as much as 42 or 43 percent in a poll, let alone 44 or 45. Wendy Davis in 2014 and Barack Obama in 2012 seldom touched 40 percent. For good reason, it turned out – Davis finished at 39%, Obama at 41. Seeing Biden start out at 44 is a sign that the gains Dems made in 2018 seem to be durable, and while we may not win statewide again, we’ll have enough of a share of the vote to do some damage downballot, as we did then. Winning the Texas House, and picking up some Congressional seats, is likely going to depend on Biden at least coming close to the 48% Beto got in 2018. The polling we have so far, which goes back to those pre-primary polls, suggests this is within range. The rest is up to us.

And now, a few words about tigers

We have a lot of them in Texas, and as is the way in this state, there’s little to no regulation of them.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas, announced on Monday that he is co-sponsoring the Big Cat Public Safety Act. The legislation would tighten restrictions regarding the private ownership, exhibition, and breeding of big cats like lions, tigers, and jaguars.

The move comes as the Netflix docu-series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” grips millions of Americans stuck in quarantine. The seven-part series, which tells the bizarre story of an Oklahoma Tiger breeder named Joe Exotic as well as other big cat owners, broke records as the most-watched title on Netflix for the longest period of time.

The private ownership of tigers and other dangerous wild animals is a particularly acute problem in Texas, where regulations are incredibly lax and the rules that do exist are loosely enforced. The exact number of tigers in Texas is impossible to know given that a large number of them are unregistered, but many estimates place it in the thousands. According to some, the Lone Star State has more tigers in captivity than the total number of tigers in the wild.

Just recently, on March 25, authorities in South Texas seized several exotic animals during a drug bust, including a Bengal tiger. One law enforcement described the location as a “pseudo-narco zoo.”

Some kind of federal legislation protecting exotic animals held by private owners has been needed for a long time. If it took Tiger King to get legislation like this passed – and note, Joe Exotic treated his big cats badly – then so be it. I should note that there is a state law called the Dangerous Wild Animal Act, which was passed in 2001, and I have since received this press release from the Texas Humane Legislation Network calling for it to be updated and strengthened. The Observer has more.

Turner to ask feds for some relief

Can’t hurt to ask.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is asking the federal government to let Houston use an estimated $400 million in aid to help close its ballooning budget gap and reduce the number of expected furloughs in the fiscal year that begins in July.

Turner said the CARES Act, part of the $2 trillion stimulus passed by Congress last month, will give the city much-needed resources, but the rules accompanying those funds prevent the city from using the dollars where they are most needed: the budget.

“You don’t have to appropriate us more dollars, just allow us to have flexibility with regard to those dollars that have already been awarded,” Turner said he told lawmakers. The mayor said the request was made in a letter to Congress signed by 110 other Texas mayors.

There are three rules for the federal aid, according to Turner: expenditures must be directly related to COVID-19, it cannot previously have been budgeted, and it must be spent by the end of this year.

That helps, Turner said, but it would help more to use the funds as a budget stopgap. Southwestern cities like Houston have incurred fewer direct pandemic expenses than northeast cities because they took earlier social distancing actions, Turner said. The real brunt for governments here is the projected drop in sales taxes, which is expected to punch a massive hole in the Houston’s already cash-strapped budget. Sales taxes are the city’s second largest revenue stream, after property taxes.

It’s that or budget catastrophe, and there’s no good reason why we should have to have the latter. Which doesn’t actually matter, since I’m sure the Trump administration will say No, and even if somehow they say Yes or the Turner administration tries to find some clever way around the obstacles in their path, state Republicans will turn fire and fury our way. Because, obviously, being able to stave off massive cuts from a budget shortfall that was unforeseen and no one’s fault is totally irresponsible. That’s just math. Anyway, this is the process before us. May as well see where it leads.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

Examination of a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas should be halted as the country addresses the new coronavirus pandemic and the company rethinks its financial shape, 30 elected officials in Texas told federal regulators.

In two separate letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 28 state lawmakers and two members of Congress said work by the Federal Railroad Administration on the Texas Central Railway project — which has faced stiff opposition for six years even as Dallas and Houston officials showed support — should stop entirely.

“It has become clear Texas Central simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, wrote. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process.”

Leman, a long-time critic of the project which rural residents have assailed as a boondoggle that will ruin the Texas countryside and never be financially sound, said the aim of the letter is to stop all analysis of the project’s safety procedures and environmental effects, which the FRA has been working on since 2014 with Texas Central. Federal regulators must approve the safety of the trains — unlike any other trains in the United States — and apply federal soil, air, noise and species protection rules to the construction and operations.

Texas Central last month said COVID-19’s effect on financial markets could impact the project, tightening its ability to secure the $15 billion or more necessary to build a 240-mile sealed corridor along a utility alignment between Houston and Dallas. Global response to the pandemic hits every sector of the company’s plans, which rely on Japanese trains, a Spanish rail operator and engineering from Italy. Within Texas, the company has laid off 28 employees.

It was also last month, right before the coronavirus shit hit the fan, that Texas Central was expressing hope they would begin construction this year. That sure seems like a no-go at this point, regardless of what effect this may have on their finances. As far as that goes, I would expect the process would take into account the financial solvency of the firm in question – certainly, Metro’s finances were closely scrutinized during its journey to get funds for the light rail expansion – so I don’t see why this would carry any more weight than that. This seems more like a signal from the prominent bullet train opponents to their supporters that they’re still out there fighting the good fight than anything else, but you never know.

Speaking of which, the signers of this epistle are for the most part the usual suspects who have opposed the high speed rail line all along. The two names on there that caught my eye are Rep. Tom Oliverson, whose HD130 in northwest Harris County would be on the path of the train, and Sen. Joan Huffman, the one legislator in there from a mostly urban area. I’d think at least a few of her constituents might actually want to ride this thing some day, so my eyebrows went up a notch upon seeing her name. Make of that what you will. The DMN has more.

More on the potential delay of redistricting

Some further details from the Statesman.

On Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, all Census Bureau field operations would be canceled until June 1, and the agency would not be able to complete the count until Oct. 31.

Ross wants Congress to enact legislation delaying the deadline for delivering apportionment counts to President Donald Trump from Dec. 31 to April 30, 2021, and for delivering redistricting data to the states from March 31, 2021, to July 31, 2021. Ross said he couldn’t rule out further delays.

That would mean that Texas lawmakers would not have the numbers they need to redraw political districts in the upcoming 140-day regular session, which ends on May 31, 2021.

The Texas Constitution requires that the Legislature redraw state Senate and House maps “at its first regular session after the publication of each United States decennial census.”

But, with the delay, that would not be until 2023, too late for the 2022 elections.

“Texas will have to have a special session to do redistricting,” said Michael Li, the former Dallas attorney who is now senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections.

Depending on the census count, Texas is expected to add three seats to the 36 it already has in the U.S. House. Li said that, under federal election law, if new maps have not been drawn in time for the 2022 election, any new seats would be elected at-large.

“Or alternatively, a court might draw maps,” Li said.

The same likely would be true if the Legislature fails to draw state House and Senate districts in time for the 2022 election.

[…]

[If] the Legislature were able to take up redistricting in the 2021 session, Republicans would be well situated even if the House and Senate were unable to pass a state legislative redistricting plan that was signed by the governor, because responsibility for devising a plan would then fall on the Legislative Redistricting Board made up of the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the Texas attorney general, the state comptroller and the land commissioner. Unless Democrats take control of the Texas House in 2020 and elect a Democratic speaker, all those officials are Republicans.

That Legislative Redistricting Board provision does not apply in a special session.

The provision in the Texas Constitution means that even if the Legislature, meeting in special session, drew new state legislative lines in 2021, it would have to repeat the process when it convenes in regular session in 2023, said Eric Opiela, an election lawyer and former executive director and associate general counsel to the Texas Republican Party, with long experience in redistricting.

That means that Democrats, who have made flipping the Texas House the centerpiece of their 2020 campaign, “might have two bites at the apple” — the 2020 and 2022 elections — to gain control of the House in time for the last word on redistricting, he said.

The 120-day delay makes redistricting in time for the March 2022 primary, “tough but still manageable, but if there are further delays, then you start bumping into the filing period for candidates and potentially the primary,” Li said.

“The extension is in everyone’s interest, however,” Li said. “Texas is behind in census responses, and it’s important from the standpoint of Texans that the bureau have the time to get the census as right as possible.”

See here for the background. The relevant Constitutional amendment is this one. The 2013 Legislature did indeed revisit the House and Senate maps following the 2011 special session that drew them, but that was also for the purpose of amending the maps to conform with the interim districts the federal court had already drawn for the 2012 election. There are two scenarios where Dems have real leverage. One is in 2021 with a Dem majority in the House. The Legislative Redistricting Board can draw most maps if there’s no agreement between the House and the Senate, but it can’t draw a new Congressional map. That would go to a three-judge panel if all else failed, and it’s not hard to imagine the Republicans not wanting to roll the dice on that. In that situation, there would be lots of room for some horse trading, with legislative maps and a Congressional map that all cater to incumbent protection over maximal partisan gain. I’m not saying this would happen, but it could.

Alternately, Democrats could win or maintain the House in 2022 and win enough statewide offices, including Governor, to force a redraw in 2023 or direct it if a redraw is mandated because the previous exercise had been done in a special session. It should be noted that the same opportunity exists for Republicans, who start out in a much stronger position to make it happen – they would just need to take back the House (this situation only applies if they didn’t have control of the House in 2021) and re-elect Greg Abbott. I definitely have some fear of this scenario playing out, as it is not at all far-fetched, and the 2003 experience shows that they have no shyness when it comes to a bit of mid-decade map-drawing.

All this is getting way ahead of ourselves. For now, the main point is that any delay in the Census has a big ripple effect in Texas, thanks to the legislative calendar and our early-in-the-year primaries. Such a delay is almost certainly necessary to get an accurate count, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and we need to be aware of what would happen as a result. This is a subject we will come back to again and again between now and January.

Coronavirus and redistricting

Big surprise.

A delay in census counting because of the coronavirus pandemic could push Texas redistricting into legislative overtime next summer.

Trump administration officials on Monday proposed delaying reapportionment counts and the distribution of redistricting data by four months, which would kick the delivery of data Texas lawmakers need to redraw political districts from March 2021 to July. That puts it past the end of the next scheduled legislative session.

The proposal must be approved by Congress. Under that plan, census counting would extend to October 31.

[…]

The Texas Legislature meets once every two years from January to late May. Under the bureau’s proposal, the redistricting data would come “no later than July 31,” meaning Gov. Greg Abbott may have to call lawmakers back for a special legislative session to redraw congressional and legislative maps.

It was not immediately clear what this would mean for the involvement of the Legislative Redistricting Board, a five-member board that steps in to redraw state Senate and House maps if lawmakers fail to redraw them during the regular legislative session following “the publication of the decennial census.”

No one could have seen this coming. In truth, I’m kind of glad to see it. I’d much rather have a delayed redistricting process than one based on a rushed and surely inaccurate Census. We all know the Census cannot proceed normally now. By far the best thing to do is give it some extra time (and money) so we can get the best count we can. Delaying the redistricting process by a couple of months, which in turn may force the 2022 primaries to be later in the year as they were in 2012, is a small price to pay for it.

That said, there must be heavy oversight of any changes to the process.

The bureau’s plans were first made public Monday by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

In a press release describing a phone call Ross held with some members of Congress about the plans, Maloney says the committee “will carefully examine” the request to change the census deadlines, while also criticizing the administration for not providing more information and not allowing Dillingham, the bureau’s director, to brief the committee about its plans in response to the pandemic.

“If the Administration is trying to avoid the perception of politicizing the Census, preventing the Census Director from briefing the Committee and then excluding him from a call organized by the White House are not encouraging moves,” Maloney said in the written statement. “The Constitution charges Congress with determining how the Census is conducted, so we need the Administration to cooperate with our requests so we can make informed decisions on behalf of the American people.”

According to the House oversight committee’s press release, Ross “acknowledged that the Administration had not sought input from Congress about this request in advance of this call because of concerns about leaks to the press.”

Asked by NPR why no Census Bureau officials participated in the call, Cook responded in an email that Dillingham now plans to speak with members of Congress “as soon as possible,” noting: “The Secretary of Commerce is statutorily delegated responsibility to conduct the decennial census and took the role of calling key congressional leaders to continue the consultation process.”

The bureau’s changes for the 2020 census were supported by Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the main groups advocating for participation in the count.

“If it’s not safe to have census takers visiting people’s homes by June, then Congress has an obligation to consider other options to protect census workers and the communities they serve, and to ensure an equitable count,” Gupta said in a statement. “We cannot afford to compromise the health of our communities or the fairness and accuracy of the census.”

I agree with Vanita Gupta that this is the right thing to do. But I also agree with Stacey Abrams that we cannot trust the Trump administration to have good intentions, and we need to watch them like a hawk to make sure they are doing what they are legally obligated to do. Anything else would be just as bad an outcome.

Metro will get some stimulus money

Good.

Transit agencies in southeastern Texas are set to receive more than $300 million to stem revenue losses linked to COVID-19, federal officials announced Thursday, most of it coming to Houston.

As part of the first round of Congress-approved stimulus funding, $25 billion will go to transit agencies nationwide, doled out by the Federal Transit Administration. The money “will ensure our nation’s public transportation systems can continue to provide services to the millions of Americans who depend on them,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a release.

Money will be distributed by urban areas, with most of Houston’s $258.6 million going to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has seen ridership to drop to less than half its normal workday use. Bus and rail ridership Wednesday was 129,000, a 55 percent decline from the same day last year, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

[…]

Fewer riders means less money coming in from fares, but that pales in comparison to the expected drop in sales tax collections Metro relies on for most of its funding. With various businesses closed and most of the Houston area hunkered down, collections from Metro’s 1 percent sales tax are expected to nosedive.

We’ve talked about the effect of the sales tax revenue decline before. This should help a bit, and there may be more coming. Having a fully functional transit system for when everyone gets to go back to work is going to be a big deal, so this is very encouraging.

The digital divide

Online learning is great, if you can get online.

The lack of access to technology among students — commonly referred to as the “digital divide” — has come into sharper focus in recent weeks as school districts across Houston transition to online-based learning amid widespread school shutdowns.

Districts throughout the region are scrambling to equip tens of thousands of children with computers and internet access, jockeying with each other to secure coveted devices in high demand during the pandemic. In the meantime, many districts are providing those students with rudimentary paper materials, asking families to return completed coursework to their schools or take pictures of completed worksheets and send them to teachers.

“This has been on the education docket for, gosh, probably at least 20 years,” said Alice Owen, executive director of the Texas K-12 CTO Council, an association that supports school district chief technology officers. “It’s been a struggle for people to realize that this is an important piece of learning for students if we want to keep them competitive on a global scale.”

Educators and advocates long have warned about the digital divide facing American children, with the nation’s most impoverished children suffering most. The ubiquity and declining cost of computers and internet access has helped shrink the gap, but stark disparities remain.

In the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts, about 9 percent of households — nearly 142,650 — do not have a computer, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. Nearly twice that number — about 267,250 households — lack broadband internet access.

Three of the region’s largest and most impoverished districts — Alief, Aldine and Houston ISDs — face the greatest shortages, according to Census data and estimates from district leaders.

[…]

Despite extensive warnings about the digital divide, state and federal legislators have not allocated nearly enough funding to schools to cover costs associated with providing laptops, wireless internet devices and broadband services to all students at home.

Districts can obtain some technology and internet access at steep discounts through a federal program known as E-Rate, but the benefit does not extend to take-home computers or wireless hotspots for students.

“If we want our kids to be competitive and stay up-to-date with tech, we need to be investing in our students for the future,” Owen said. “We’ve got to get over the way school used to be run, and we need to think about the ways that schools are run in the future.”

In a letter sent last week to the top four ranking members of Congress, 35 Democratic senators called for providing $2 billion in E-Rate funds that would allow schools and libraries to deliver wireless internet devices to students without connectivity at home.

“Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education,” the senators wrote. “Congress must address this issue by providing financial support specifically dedicated to expanding home Internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.”

Maybe addressing this could be part of Infrastructure Week, or maybe it can be its own item. As the story notes, HISD and some other districts issue laptops to high school students – my daughter has one – which helps with those students, but obviously only goes so far. Charters are not exempt – KIPP reports a similar issue with its students. This is, plain and simple, an issue of poverty. If fixing the underlying issue is too hard, then maybe we can agree that all students need to have the equipment required for an education, and provide them all with laptops and Internet access. The choice is ours – are we going to learn from this crisis, or are we going to face the same problems the next time, without the excuse that we didn’t know any better?

Coronavirus is taking its toll on the Census

The timing of this pandemic really sucks.

The nonprofit Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston had more than 15 tabling events planned over the next several weeks where volunteers were going to post up at festivals, fairs and other community gatherings and educate people about the value of filling out the census.

Then the coronavirus crisis hit. One by one, gatherings were canceled, and Texans increasingly became subject to stay-at-home orders.

“This is a very challenging census,” said Ana Mac Naught, census coordinator of the Houston in Action coalition, a collaboration between the city of Houston, Harris County and more than 50 local organizations, including Interfaith Ministries. “We are focusing on what we’re able to do at this moment.”

Local governments and nonprofits knew they already had their work cut out for them when Texas — in keeping with many other Republican-led states — declined to approve funding for grassroots census outreach.

Initial returns show Texas is already behind the rest of the nation: The self-response rate statewide is 31.3 percent compared to 36.2 nationally, as of Monday, the most recent data available. Most households have responded online. After the last census in 2010, Texas tied for the 7th lowest response rate in the country at 64.4 percent.

Now, leaders of groups helping with the count say they’re facing a whole new set of challenges as the coronavirus crisis thwarts their efforts to engage people face-to-face, and they’re forced to quickly pivot to digital and phone-based alternatives.

[…]

Harris County trails the rest of the state with a 30.7 percent response rate while Bexar County is ahead at 32.7 percent. So far, the more affluent, suburban parts of both metropolitan areas are participating at higher rates than the urban cores. That’s something local leaders say they are watching closely, as they try to target the large Hispanic and other hard-to-count communities in both cities.

It’s too early to tell whether the decline is related to coronavirus, but Texas has faced an uphill battle.

According to the Center for Urban Research, one in four Texans belong to a hard-to-count population, which includes racial and ethnic minorities, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants and refugees, renters, college students, children under the age of 5, and the LGBTQ community.

This time period of self-response is especially important, local leaders say, because the more households participate now, the fewer people that stand to be missed later and the fewer households that will require a visit from a census taker.

“People definitely understand that the census is not on the top of people’s priority list,” said Katie Martin-Lightfoot, coordinator of Texas Counts, a statewide initiative from the left-leaning Center for Public Policy. “We are trying to look for these very non-intrusive ways to get the message out there about the census.”

See here for the background. As I said before, the most obvious answer is to do to the Census what has been done with the primary runoffs, the Olympics, and so many other things – push the deadlines back by however long you think it may take to get past the worst of this, and adjust from there. There’s no reason at all why we have to be slaves to the original schedule, given the life-altering event that has disrupted literally everything else on the planet. If that pushes back the 2021 redistricting process and the 2022 primaries, then so be it. The only impediment is our own willingness to recognize the truth. Houston Public Media, which interviews County Judge Lina Hidalgo about this, has more.

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

Cities and counties are going to need their own bailout

This story is about the rough financial future that the city of Houston faces as we go through the coronavirus shutdown, but it’s not just Houston that is in this position.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration continues efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Houston, another dire challenge looms for City Hall: its budget.

The economic downturn caused by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices has thrown an already cash-strapped spending plan into more arduous territory, raising the specter of the first furloughs or layoffs of city employees since 2011.

Controller Chris Brown, who recently finished a recession stress test for the city’s coffers, has said he thinks the situation is likely to rival the recession that began in 2008, approaching the test’s worst-case scenario: a budget deficit in excess of $300 million.

He told council members Tuesday they should begin dusting off the recession playbook.

“Unfortunately, they had to do some furloughs and cut some expenses and things like that, because you can’t control the revenue right now,” said Brown, the city’s independently-elected financial watchdog. “These are tough decisions that are going to have to be made, I think.”

Turner said budgeting is always difficult under a revenue cap, but the city in the past has forged its way through challenging deficits and will do so again.

The mayor would not say whether he thinks layoffs will be necessary, but he sees other actions that can help cut the deficit. Turner plans to use some of the city’s current fund balance, which is projected between $187 and $203 million. The rainy day fund, he pointed out, will also have $15 million when it comes time to adopt the budget.

Some job vacancies have already gone unfilled, he said.

“We always assume there is going to be a budget shortfall with the revenue cap,” Turner said, referring to Houston’s voter-imposed ceiling on increased property tax revenue. “There’s always some elephant in the room. The elephant here now is the coronavirus and the impact on your sales taxes.”

The city’s two largest streams of money are property and sales taxes. All eyes are on the latter, which are expected to take an unprecedented hit as most businesses have been ordered to close and the region’s residents have been told to stay home in a bid to slow the virus’ spread.

It’s not just sales tax revenue, which will hammer the state budget as well. No one’s flying into or out of the airports, no one is staying in hotels or renting cars or booking conventions. All of those things affect the enterprise fund, which is a part of the city’s budget that is largely not subject to the revenue cap. And as noted, it’s not just Houston. Every city, in Texas and elsewhere, will be facing this. Part of the solution here, very simply, needs to be a federal relief package for local and state governments, all of which would otherwise have to lay people off and drastically cut back on services, all of which would just further exacerbate the recessionary effects we are now feeling. Just as we expect business activity to more or less return to normal once everyone can leave their homes again, we should expect local tax revenues to more or less return to normal. All of that assumes that the business are still there to return to, which is why we needed the first stimulus bill, to prevent them all from suffocating in the meantime. We all want to return to normal, but we have to do everything we can to preserve what was normal until we can get back to it. That’s what the federal government can do, and what it needs to do.

But we should also recognize that forcing cities and counties and states to observe “balanced budget” requirements at a time like this is not only ridiculous, it’s self-mutilating. Mandating an artificial deadline for when one number must be shown to equal or exceed another is beyond stupid and pointless, and that’s even more so if we not-unreasonably assume that the feds will eventually come in with a check to make up for the sales taxes that did not happen. The single best thing Greg Abbott could do with his emergency powers once we’re at or near a point where we can begin to think about easing up on the stay-at-home rules is to declare that all “balanced budget” requirements are suspended for the next two budget cycles, along with the revenue cap that was passed in the last Lege. That won’t be carte blanche for cities and counties to start spending like crazy – they’ll still have to get their budgets to “balance” later on – it will just be a recognition that this was something entirely beyond their control, and they deserve a chance to recover from it. It won’t happen, of course – I’m sure Greg Abbott and the entire army of financial ghouls he has behind him are salivating at the prospect of forcing their local nemeses to slash their budgets – but it should. I will never stop beating this drum.

The federal stimulus package includes money for elections

What we’ll do with it remains unknown at this time.

Be like Hank, except inside

The $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package Congress is working to pass this week includes $400 million for election costs states face in wrestling with how to hold high-profile 2020 elections in a time of social distancing.

Advocates estimate the that could mean as much as $20 million for Texas, where state officials have so far opted to delay election dates — including pushing back a runoff to pick the Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn until mid-July — rather than expand vote-by-mail options or offer up online voter registration.

It’s unclear how the state would use the funding — which still has to clear Congress and get signed by President Donald Trump — but advocates were already pushing for state leaders to consider expanding mail-in voting and offering online registration, something 39 states do now.

“Every Texan needs should be able to safely register to vote and cast their ballot whether by mail or in person,” Anthony Gutierrez, Executive Director of Common Cause Texas, said in a statement. “The way we make that happen is to use these funds to implement online voter registration, expand vote by mail, extend early voting, recruit more election workers, and ensure all poll sites meets public health safety standards.”

I don’t know if $20 million is enough to accomplish that, but then I also don’t know what if any conditions there are on this money. I hope there are some and that they are clear, because I have no doubt that our state leadership would use the money in some way that they could claim was about supporting the 2020 elections but really wasn’t. I have no idea what that may be, but I have faith in their ability to conjure something.

Does getting to 40% make you likely to win the runoff?

Anna Eastman

I was talking with some fellow political nerds last week, and one of the topics was the forthcoming runoffs. As is usually the case, this year we have some runoffs between candidates who finished fairly close together in round one, and some in which one candidate has a clear lead based on the initial election. The consensus we had was that candidates in the latter category, especially those who topped 40% on Super Tuesday, are basically locks to win in May. The only counter-example we could think of off the tops of our heads was Borris Miles beating Al Edwards, who had been at 48%, in the 2006 runoff for HD146.

So, later on I spent a few minutes on the Secretary of State election archive pages, looking through past Democratic primary results and tracking those where the leader had more than forty percent to see who went on to win in the runoff. Here’s what I found:

2018

Winners – CD03, CD10, CD23, CD31, Governor, SD17,
Losers – CD27, HD37, HD45, HD64, HD109*, HD133*

2016

Winners – CD15, HD27
Losers – SBOE6

2014

Winners – Senate, SBOE13
Losers – HD105

2012
Winners – CD34, HD95, HD137
Losers – CD23*, SBOE2

2010
Winners – CD10, HD76*

2008
Winners – CD32, RRC

2006
Winners – Senate, Lt Gov, HD42, HD47*
Losers – HD146

In each of the cited races, the leading candidate had at least 40% of the primary vote. Races that have asterisks indicate that the runnerup also had at least 40%. As you can see, up until 2018, having forty percent or more in the primary was indeed a pretty good indicator of success in overtime. The last cycle provided quite a few counterexamples, however, including one incumbent (Rene Oliveira, who had been busted for a DWI earlier) who went down. So maybe 40% isn’t such a magical number, or maybe it’s harder now than it was before 2012. Or maybe this is just a really small sample and we should be careful about drawing broad conclusions from it.

Fortunately, we have quite a few races this year to add to this sample:

CD03 – Lulu Seikaly 44.5%, Sean McCaffity 43.8%
CD10 – Mike Siegel 44.0%, Pritesh Gandhi 33.1%
CD13 – Gus Trujillo 42.2%, Greg Sagan 34.7%
CD17 – Rick Kennedy 47.9%, David Jaramillo 35.0%
CD24 – Kim Olson 40.9%, Candace Valenzuela 30.4%
SBOE6 – Michelle Palmer 46.8%, Kimberly McLeod 34.6%
SD19 – Xochil Pena Rodriguez 43.7%, Roland Gutierrez 37.3%
SD27 – Eddie Lucio 49.8%, Sara Stapleton-Barrera 35.6%
HD119 – Liz Campos 46.1%, Jennifer Ramos 43.7%
HD138 – Akilah Bacy 46.7, Jenifer Pool 29.3%
HD142 – Harold Dutton 45.2%, Jerry Davis 25.3%
HD148 – Anna Eastman 41.6%, Penny Shaw 22.1%
138th District Court – Gabby Garcia 48.0%, Helen Delgadillo 31.0%
164th District Court – Cheryl Elliott Thornton 41.3%, Alexandra Smoots-Thomas 33.1%

I’ll be sure to do an update in May, when we can see if the leading candidates mostly held serve or not. Place your bets.

Elisa Cardnell suspends campaign in CD02

From the inbox:

Elisa Cardnell

Monday morning, Elisa Cardnell, Democratic candidate for US House of Representatives in Texas’s 2nd District, suspended her campaign. She released the following statement.

“When we began this campaign no one thought this race was possible. Every rating had Dan Crenshaw in a safe seat with no chance of flipping, but we knew that wasn’t true. We organized, we built a movement here in Houston, and showed that voters across the spectrum want to hold their leaders accountable. That’s what this race has always been about, putting country over party and holding Dan Crenshaw accountable.

“Our movement is strong. We received over 5,000 contributions to our campaign. We received over 17,000 votes, more than the past Democratic nominee for TX-02. But unfortunately, after a hard look at the numbers, we do not have the resources and clear path to reach a majority in the runoff. That is why today I am suspending my campaign for the US House of Representatives for the Texas 2nd district.

“This is not the outcome any of us were hoping for, but ultimately it is the best thing for our party so the fight against Dan Crenshaw can start today, not in May. Dan Crenshaw has built a multi-million warchest funded by private prison groups, Big Pharma, the Koch’s, and other corporate donors. He has voted with Trump over 93% of the time and is the 5th most frequent Congressional visitor to the Trump properties. If we are going to hold him accountable, we need to start that work today instead of giving him more time to build a corporate war chest.

“I am deeply humbled by the support we have received. The fight for working class representation in DC doesn’t end here. I’m not done fighting for universal healthcare, a living wage, a green economy, safe schools, our veterans, and ending the influence of money in politics.

“I hope you’ll join me in supporting Sima Ladjevardian in this fight against Dan Crenshaw and his corporate donors.” said Cardnell.

The statement doesn’t say so it’s not clear at this time if Cardnell is withdrawing or just not campaigning. If she withdraws, there is no runoff in CD02 and Sima Ladjevardian becomes the nominee. My reading of the Elections Code is that the deadline for officially withdrawing is three days after the result is canvassed. She can work that out with the county and state parties as needed.

Of more importance right now is that this is a selfless and generous act by Cardnell, who was the first candidate in the race – indeed, one of the first candidates for any race in this cycle – and who ran hard and did a decent job fundraising. The DCCC has put CD02 on its target list, and they have affirmed their support of Sima Ladjevardian in this race. I’ve mentioned before that Cardnell is a friend of mine from the Rice MOB. I was happy to see her enter this race, and I’m proud of her and the race she ran. This had to be a tough decision to make, and I salute her for making it. Thank you, Elisa. The Trib and the Texas Signal have more.

DNC to target Texas

Game on.

The Democratic National Committee [added] Texas to its list of 2020 targets just days before Super Tuesday, vowing to invest heavily in the state to help Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in the latest sign that the national party is taking Texas more seriously than it has in years.

That investment includes getting more organizers on the ground as the party also seeks to take control of the Texas House from Republicans who have held it for a generation. While the DNC is focused on helping the Democratic presidential nominee beat President Donald Trump, the party also says it will help with the race against Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, as well as efforts to win the nine seats needed to flip the state House.

[…]

“You’ve got a whole new era of Democratic politics in Texas, and you have a national party making a commitment to lift Texas up,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “This is a significant investment from the DNC to make sure we lay the groundwork necessary for a competitive and strong battleground presidential race.”

The party would not disclose how much the national arm plans to pour into Texas and said it will roll out more detailed plans for the funding in the coming weeks. But the investment will include additional staff and organizers.

The DCCC is already here in multiple races, and the DSCC is backing MJ Hegar, though what that might mean for November is unclear at this time. There’s enough polling to suggest that Texas can be competitive in November in the Presidential race, but the downballot rewards are great as well, including and especially at the legislative level where flipping the House would give Dems leverage for Congressional redistricting. The surprise here would have been if the DNC had decided to stay out of state for November.

Runoff roundup

Here, as best as I can determine, are the runoffs of interest for May:

US Senate – MJ Hegar versus Royce West

CD02 – Sima Ladjevardian versus Elisa Cardnell
CD03 – Lulu Seikaly versus Sean McCaffity
CD10 – Mike Siegel versus Pritesh Gandhi
CD17 – Rick Kennedy versus David Jaramillo (D), Pete Sessions versus Renee Swann (R)
CD22 – Troy Nehls versus Kathaleen Wall (R)
CD23 – Tony Gonzales versus Raul Reyes (R)
CD24 – Kim Olson versus Candace Valenzuela
CD31 – Christine Eady Mann versus Donna Imam

Note that Wendy Davis (CD21), Sri Kulkarni (CD22), Gina Ortiz Jones (CD23), and on the Republican side Wesley Hunt (CD07) all won outright. I skipped a couple of Republican runoffs in safe D districts, because life is short.

Railroad Commissioner – Chrysta Castaneda versus Roberto Alonzo

SBOE5 – Robert Morrow versus Lani Popp (R, wackadoo versus what passes for normal)
SBOE6 – Michelle Palmer versus Kimberley McLeod

SD19 – Xochil Peña Rodriguez versus Roland Gutierrez
SD27 – Eddie Lucio versus Sara Stapleton-Barrera

Didn’t mention this yesterday, but Susan Criss prevailed in SD11.

HD02 – Dan Flynn versus Bryan Slaton (R)
HD25 – Ro’Vin Garrett versus Cody Vasut (R, this is Dennis Bonnen’s old seat)
HD26 – Suleman Lalani versus Sarah DeMerchant (D), Matt Morgan versus Jacey Jetton (R)
HD45 – Carrie Isaac versus Kent Wymore (R)
HD47 – Jennifer Fleck versus Don Zimmerman (R)
HD59 – Shelby Slawson versus JD Sheffield (R)
HD60 – Jon Francis versus Glenn Rogers (R)
HD67 – Tom Adair versus Lorenzo Sanchez
HD100 – Lorraine Birabil versus Jasmine Crockett
HD119 – Liz Campos versus Jennifer Ramos
HD138 – Akilah Bacy versus Jenifer Pool
HD142 – Harold Dutton versus Jerry Davis
HD148 – Anna Eastman versus Penny Shaw

Note that in that HD47 primary, one (1) vote separates second and third place, according to the Travis County Clerk. I assume there will be a recount, and even before then late-arriving mail ballots could change this. In the event of an actual tie, there will be a coin flip to determine who goes to the runoff. I’m rooting so hard for that outcome, you guys.

In the HD67 primary, 63 votes separate Lorenzo Sanchez and Rocio Gosewehr Hernandez, or 0.3 percentage points. I would expect a recount there as well, but with a far lesser chance of affecting the outcome.

Lorraine Birabil was the winner of the special election in HD100 to fill out the unexpired term of Eric Johnson, who is now Mayor of Dallas. Anna Eastman was the winner of the special election in HD148 to succeed Jessica Farrar.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 7 – Tamika Craft versus Cheri Thomas

164th District Court – Cheryl Elliott Thornton versus Alex Smoots-Thomas
339th Criminal Court – Te’iva Bell versus Candance White

County Commissioner, Precinct 3 – Diana Martinez Alexander versus Michael Moore

Moore was leading most of the night, but Alexander caught and passed him as final results came in. I don’t care to go through the various Constable and JP races, but the good Jerry Garcia was leading problematic incumbent Chris Diaz going into the Precinct 2 Constable runoff.

Whatever turnout there will be in the runoffs will be driven primarily by the Dem Senate race and the Congressional races on both sides. Won’t be much, but it ought to be a bit more than usual, and surely more on the D side if there were no Senate runoff.