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constitutional amendments

2019 election results: State

Nine out of ten Constitutional amendments are on their way to passing.

Amendments to the state constitution that would make it harder to enact a state income tax, stabilize funding for state parks and allow retired law enforcement animals to be adopted by their handlers received wide support from voters Tuesday.

Supporters of one of the most contentious issues on the ballot — Proposition 4 — proclaimed victory within hours of the polls closing, with about three fourths of voters supporting the proposal in early voting returns.

[…]

The only item on the ballot that looked as though it might not pass was Proposition 1, which would permit elected municipal court judges to serve multiple municipalities at the same times. With votes still being counted late Tuesday, returns indicated that it had received just over one-third of the vote.

The other propositions were poised to pass easily. Proposition 5 would stabilize funding for state parks and received overwhelming support. The proposition allows money accumulated from existing sales tax on sporting goods to be used for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission. Current law allows the Legislature to allocate that money however they see fit.

Proposition 10, which had the highest level of support, amends the state constitution to allow retired service animals, such as dogs or horses, to be adopted by their handlers or other qualified caretakers. These animals are currently classified as surplus property or salvage and can be “auctioned, donated or destroyed.”

Prop 4 is terrible, but that usually doesn’t stop us. I just hope it’s not as bad as I fear it may be.

Meanwhile, in Fort Bend:

Eliz Markowitz

A Democrat and a Republican were leading in unofficial returns Tuesday night in a nationally targeted special election for a historically Republican Texas House seat.

Democrat Eliz Markowitz — the only Democrat in the race — was in first place, while Republican Gary Gates was in second, according to unofficial returns. The race will head to a runoff if no candidate gets over 50%.

Gates was one of three serious GOP candidates out of six total. The two other viable Republicans in the race, Tricia Krenek and Anna Allred, were third and fourth, respectively. Allred appeared to concede at about 10:30 p.m., saying she was “disappointed with the results” but “pleased with our campaign.”

The race for House District 28 — where former state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, stepped down at the end of September — was one of three contests Tuesday to fill state House seats. The two others happened in solidly Democratic districts where runoffs were also looking likely, based on the early vote and initial Election Day results.

In House District 100, where former Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, vacated his seat earlier this year after becoming Dallas mayor, Democrat Lorraine Birabil had a wide lead over three Democratic rivals but had not clinched more than half the vote. James Armstrong III, Daniel Davis Clayton and Sandra Crenshaw were in a close race for second place and a spot in an expected runoff.

Here are the results from Fort Bend County for HD28, and Dallas County for HD100. The SOS election night results webpage is bizarre and not up to date, so skip it for now.

Markowitz got 39.1% of the vote, with Gates getting 28.5%, Tricia Krenek 18.1%, and Anna Allred 9.3%. While I expect Republicans to unite for the runoff, I can’t help but feel that Gates was their third best choice in this race. His main asset is that he’s loaded and willing to spend on himself, which I figure helped him in this race. How much he’ll excite voters as that kind of candidate in December is the question. I feel very certain he won’t have a clear path to the GOP nomination in the March primary. Here’s the Chron story on this race.

I’m saving the HD148 race for last, because of the delay in Harris County results (see here for why that happened.) As of 5 AM, we still didn’t have full results. The best I can tell you at this time is this:


Eastman     1,870  17.87%
La Rotta    1,818  17.37%
McConnico   1,266  12.10%
Garcia      1,261  12.05%
Leal          904   8.64%
Shaw          853   8.15%
Watt          667   6.37%
Camarena      473   4.52%
Carmona       433   4.14%
Block         311   2.97%
Nunez         185   1.77%
Denson        165   1.58%
Trevino       140   1.34%
Mundy          71   0.68%
Isaacson       49   0.47%

There’s still a lot of votes out as of this post, so things can change quite a bit. My initial speculation that some people may vote for Adrian Garcia based on the belief that he’s the County Commissioner appears to have had some validity. Beyond that, we’re just going to need to wait and see what the final tally says. Note that the total Republican vote is 34% – Ryan McConnico got 32% against Jessica Farrar a year ago. Put a pin in this one, we’ll come back to it. Oh, and as with the Republicans in HD28, I don’t think Anna Eastman (assuming nothing weird happens between now and the final count) will have a clear path in March, either.

Endorsement watch: Constitutional amendments

As you know, there are ten constitutional amendments up for a vote on the November ballot. They will be on everyone’s ballot, and depending where you are may be the only things on your ballot. The Chron makes their recommendations on them. I’ll highlight three of the ten:

Vote no on Proposition 1. To allow certain municipal judges to be elected to more than one office at the same time. We urge voters to reject the amendment. Even in small communities, candidates running for local office ought to be local residents. Existing law already allows for elected municipal judges to be appointed to serve in another court, but expanding that laxity to elected positions as well is unnecessary and unwise.

Vote no on Proposition 4. To ban outright an income tax for Texas.

There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead, as any fan of the cult classic Princess Bride knows well. If you’re mostly dead, Miracle Max the Wizard can work up a chocolate-covered pill to bring you back to life. If a person is all dead, the wizard says there’s only one thing to do: “Go through his pockets and look for loose change.”

Proposition 4 was designed to make sure that the wildly unpopular notion of a statewide personal income tax in Texas is not just mostly dead but all dead.

Voters already approved a constitutional amendment in 1993 that prevents lawmakers from enacting an income tax unless voters agree to it.

Proposition 4 would ban an income tax outright.

Yet, while that sounds awfully final, Miracle Max could still find a way around it. Say Prop 4 passes and becomes part of the Constitution. Any constitutional provision can be changed by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and a popular vote.

In the end, though, it’s unclear why a change is needed. What’s more, some argue Prop 4’s wording of “individual income tax” is vague enough to draw a court challenge that could extend the ban to businesses, which could cost the state billions in revenue. Why take that risk?

We say vote “Against” and leave dead enough alone.

Vote yes on Proposition 9. To create a tax exemption for precious metal stored in the Texas Bullion Depository. Texas is the only state with a state-run metal depository, but some legislators thought allowing property taxes on precious metals puts the state at a competitive disadvantage. In one way, the amendment is superfluous, in that counties already don’t enforce property tax on precious metals. But by putting that exemption in law, it could boost the chance of the Texas depository joining COMEX, the leading marketplace for precious metals exchange. That’s a good thing and we urge voters to support this proposition.

See here for further discussion of the amendments. The Chron recommended a Yes for the rest; I agree with that, and with the No on Prop 4. I lean towards a Yes on Prop 1, and I’m a definite No on Prop 9. The whole Texas Bullion Depository thing is ridiculous, and I refuse to legitimize it in any way. The vast majority of these pass, usually with a strong majority, so to some extent this is just an expression of one’s feelings more than an exercise in democracy. But you never know, and some of these really do matter. Read up and do your duty.

More on the Constitutional amendments

I found this while answering a question from a reader, and figured it was worth publicizing to a wider audience.

Ten proposed constitutional amendments will be on the November ballot. The Texas League of Women Voters has compiled a nice list of the amendments along with important voting deadlines. Compare the pros and cons of each proposed amendment, and prepare to cast your vote on Election Day, November 5, 2019.

Proposed Constitutional Amendments

  1. Municipal Judges

  2. Assistance for Water Projects in Distressed Areas

  3. Tax Relief for Disaster Areas

  4. Personal Income Tax

  5. Sporting Goods Tax to Support State Parks

  6. Cancer Prevention & Research

  7. Funding Public Education

  8. Flood Control

  9. Tax Exemption of Precious Metals

  10. Law Enforcement Animals

See here for previous blogging on the topic. The links above go to League of Women Voters of Texas pages, each with For and Against arguments for each item, and a video explaining it. I’d have gone deeper on the reasons to vote against Prop 4, and I’d definitely have mentioned the “individual” versus “natural person” loophole that may make this thing a whole lot more expensive than it looks, but overall the LWV did a good job. In the meantime, the Trib and the Chron have written about the proposed amendments, Prop 5 is being pushed by environmentalists, and the latest edition of the H-Town Progressive podcast features Andrea Greer and host Rob Icsezen discussing them. Read – or listen – up and know what you’re voting on.

A look at the Constitutional amendments we will see this November

There are ten of them, including a couple I will vote against as hard as I can.

House Joint Resolution 4 would let the Texas Water Development dole out dollars from a flood infrastructure fund — created by Senate Bill 7, which would spend $1.7 billion from the rainy day fund — to be used for planning, seeking permits for or constructing flood-related projects. SB 7 is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

If approved by voters, the flood infrastructure fund would be created at the start of next year.

HJR 34 would let the Legislature temporarily lower tax rates on property damaged during a disaster declared by the governor. House Bill 492 would set the initial tax exemption rates, up to a full exemption, according to the extent of the damage.

HJR 38 would ban the creation of a state income tax, doubling down on a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1993 that requires voters’ permission for the Legislature to create a state income tax.

[…]

HJR 95 creates a tax exemption for precious metals held in the Texas Bullion Depository, which opened in North Austin in June 2018 with its permanent location in Leander expected to open in December.

While that depository made Texas the only state to have a state-operated depository, HJR 95 author Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said it is at a competitive disadvantage because it is also the only state allowing local property taxes on precious metals.

HJR 72 intends to ease the pressure put on smaller communities to find municipal judges by allowing one person to be elected to multiple cities’ judgeships. Currently a person can only hold multiple municipal judgeships by being appointed to each one.

Senate Joint Resolution 32 would let police dogs and other law enforcement animals retire in their old age to live with their handler or other caretaker. The state constitution currently prevents law enforcement from transferring valuable property to a private person or organization for free.

The other four are HJR12, HJR151, SJR24, and SJR79, all of which are financial in nature. As you know, I’m going to cast an enthusiastic but almost certainly futile vote against HJ38, the double secret illegal anti-income tax proposition. HJR95 also looks ridiculous to me – the whole Texas Bullion Depository thing is ridiculous, so it comes with the territory, while HJR72 and SJR32 seem reasonable. The rest I’ll figure out later. The ballot wording should be set in August. What do you think about these?

We’re going to vote on making an income tax double secret illegal

It’s definitely time for sine die.

Sen. Pat Fallon

Texas voters will decide in November if they want to bar the imposition of an income tax, following approval of the constitutional amendment by the state Senate on Monday.

The Texas House had approved House Joint Resolution 38, which prohibits the imposition of an individual income tax, earlier this month.

The seemingly anodyne proposal ran into pushback Monday from some Senate Democrats who suggested the bill could cut business taxes, a major source of state money.

There appears to be no threat of an income tax currently — no such bill appears to have been filed, let alone have reached the floor of either chamber, where it would be political kryptonite. And a 1993 constitutional amendment already holds that Texas can adopt a state income tax only if voters approve and that the money would go for the “support of education.”

But Senate Democrats on Monday sparred with Republicans over a seemingly arcane bit of language that could carry big budget implications.

The resolution says that the Legislature may not impose a net income tax on “individuals.”

Democrats, pointing to an analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, said that could be interpreted by courts to apply to businesses, especially because the measure’s language uses that term rather than “natural persons,” which is often used in statutes.

The business levy, long a target of Republicans eager to shave taxes, brings in about $8 billion per biennium, helping to fund public schools.

“The term ‘individuals’ is not defined and could be interpreted to include entities that are currently subject to the state’s franchise tax,” the Legislative Budget Board analysis reads. “To the extent the joint resolution might exempt some entities from the franchise tax, there could be a loss to state revenue.”

[…]

Earlier during the debate, [author Sen. Pat] Fallon said the constitutional amendment would firm up the state’s opposition to income tax.

“I’m always in fear of an income tax,” he said. “Every day I wake up, the thought of Texas having an income tax makes me shudder. Physically shudder, not metaphorically.”

Seriously? Mere words cannot adequately express my reaction to Sen. Fallon’s delicate sensibilities, so mark me down as being somewhere between here and here. I do hope you sleep better tonight, Senator, and if not I recommend warm milk and a bedtime story, preferably one with a happy ending. As for my reaction, here it is:

“Why would pesky LBB fiscal facts be any help when discussing a major source of state revenue for schools?” Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, wrote on Twitter. “I mean, it’s not as if major business conglomerates have highly paid tax lawyers waiting in the wings to explain why they are ‘individuals’ too.”

What could possibly go wrong? The Trib and the DMN have more.

Daylight Saving Time lives

Oh, thank goodness.

Rep. Lyle Larson

A House-approved plan to stop Texans from having to change clocks twice a year and let them pick either daylight saving or standard time year-round is dead.

On Monday, author Rep. Lyle Larson said he was “very disappointed” that his proposal was “summarily dismissed by the Senate.”

Though Larson’s proposed constitutional amendment and an enabling bill easily cleared the House last month, the idea of letting voters weigh in on clock changes never gained traction in the Senate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick didn’t refer either Larson measure to a Senate committee. As end-of-session deadlines approached, Patrick’s inaction all but killed them.

Also, Senate State Affairs Committee chairwoman Joan Huffman, R-Houston, sat on two Senate-authored measures. One, by San Antonio Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez, would have abolished daylight saving time. The other, by Houston GOP Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would have let voters decide on keeping or ditching daylight saving time for good.

Huffman never gave either a hearing.

“She said no ‘time bills’ were going to be heard. That’s her public policy decision,” Bettencourt recounted from a conversation with Huffman.

[…]

One criticism of Larson’s measures was that he wouldn’t offer Texans the option of staying with the current system. One House member warned that Sunday churchgoers might miss the start of Dallas Cowboys games. Other critics noted that while a state can go to year-round standard time — joining Arizona, Hawaii and various U.S. territories — it would require an act of Congress for Texas to go to year-round daylight saving time.

See here and here for the background. I like Daylight Saving Time, so this is fine by me. I find the first criticism listed above to be particularly relevant. If you put this to a vote, there has to be a No option. That would complicate things, if the intent is to give people more than one option for how to change, but as a confirmed No voter that’s not my problem. And as noted, only one of the options presented is currently legal. There’s a bill in the US Senate to make that other option available, but if you think Mitch McConnell cares about doing anything legislative, well, I admire your idealism. I figure this is an issue that will never go away, and sooner or later the anti-DST forces are going to prevail, but until then I’m going to enjoy some sweet status quo.

Where goes the tax swap plan from here?

We start with the double down.

Showing their usual united front, the state’s “Big Three” political leaders on Friday tried to remake their case for why the Texas Legislature should deliver on long-term, ongoing property tax relief before the session wraps up this month.

They also expressed confidence that they would get the work done — even as House Democrats said they appeared to have the votes to block the lower chamber’s current main vehicle to provide the biggest property tax cut.

“Our goal is really simple: We’re going beyond the point of hoping to reform property taxes to the point where we’re hoping to to deliver true property tax relief through property tax reductions,” Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Capitol press conference Friday afternoon, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the Republican leaders of the Senate and House, respectively.

The three reaffirmed their commitment to a proposal that would increase the state sales tax one percentage point, raising about $5 billion per year to lower school district tax rates — which many have seen as a long shot from the start, with lawmakers from both parties skeptical about a sales tax hike.

The proposal has been moving through the Capitol so far in the form of a joint resolution, which needs two-thirds of each chamber to pass — at least 100 votes to pass the House and 21 votes to pass the Senate. If it passed both chambers, the proposal would then land on the November ballot for voters to decide, which leaders in support of the resolution have framed as a more democratic process.

House Joint Resolution 3 — which would ask voters to approve the sales tax swap for property tax relief — and its enabling legislation, House Bill 4621, passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. The tax swap is expected to head to the lower chamber for a debate Tuesday.

The original version of the bill would have used 20% of the increased sales tax revenue to fund schools and 80% for property tax relief. That changed earlier this week, when state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who authored the legislation, tweaked the proposal to instead funnel all new sales tax dollars into property tax relief.

The move seemed to be an effort to bring on some of the Legislature’s more conservative members who had signaled they could be on board with a proposal if the new revenue was entirely dedicated to property tax relief. But it also seemed to solidify Democrats’ opposition to it, especially since the sales tax is regressive, meaning it takes a higher percentage of income from poorer people than richer people. A sales tax swap would raise taxes overall for Texas households earning less than $100,000 and would bring tax relief for households above $100,000.

State Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs his House Democratic Caucus, told The Texas Tribune that there are more than 60 “hard no” votes from Democrats against the proposal. If that opposition sticks for Tuesday’s expected vote on House Joint Resolution 3, its chances of passing the lower chamber would seem unlikely.

Patrick said he hoped both chambers would be able to get the needed two-thirds approval for the joint resolution from each chamber, but indicated he was open to getting it passed in different ways, exclaiming, “If it doesn’t, we’ll make it happen anyway!”

Sure, Dan. If you want to know why some of us are so skeptical of this, while plutocrats like Dan Patrick love it, consider this.

The state-run Legislative Budget Board estimated that the top 40% of wealthiest Texas households would see enough property tax savings to offset their increased sales tax payments in fiscal 2021. The bottom 60% of Texas households would pay more in taxes overall.

Households that make less than $99,619 would pay a total of $171 million more in taxes under the tax swap. Households that make more than that would pay a total of $424 million less in taxes, according to the analysis.

The disparity is because poor Texans tend to spend a greater portion of their money on taxable items.

The bottom fifth of Texas household incomes — those with incomes less than $37,630 — spend about 7.3% of their income on state sales tax while households in the top fifth of incomes — those with incomes of $149,453 and more — spend 1.6% of their income on state sales tax, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Of course, we’ve known this forever, but the same bad idea crops up every few years and gets beaten down by the club of the same evidence. So we go through the motions. You can catch up on reading about this at various locations – the DMN, the Chron, Better Texas Blog with a handy chart – but be sure to read the analyses of the politics of this by Ross Ramsey and Scott Braddock. The reason the Big Three are putting on such a show of bravado is because they’re holding an eight-high hand in a game of five card stud, and they know it. And as Braddock notes on Twitter, so do members of the Lege.

Which may be why in the end, we got this.

The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.

After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.

The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.

“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.

[…]

Taylor stripped the [sales tax] increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.

The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.

“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.

Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.

“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.

So does this mean that the tax swap is dead? Well…

In for a penny, in for a million pounds, I guess. Have fun taking that vote, Republicans.

Looks like we’re headed for a vote on Daylight Saving Time

Ugh.

Rep. Lyle Larson

On Tuesday, The Texas House passed the first proposal in a two-part legislative plan that would kill twice-a-year time changes and let voters decide in November on Texas’ permanent time. The measure passed on a 133-9 vote.

Proposals to end the back-and-forth time changes have often failed because Texas lawmakers can’t agree on what the state’s permanent time should be: year-round daylight saving time or year-round standard time. Daylight saving time would provide an extra hour of sunlight in the evening whereas standard time would offer an extra hour of sunlight in the morning.

“We shouldn’t be subject to our own prejudice or preference on this. We should allow voters to make the decision,” said San Antonio state Rep. Lyle Larson, the author of the resolution. “I think it’s time to allow the voters to make the decision on whether they want standard time or daylight saving time.”

If both parts of the legislative package are approved by the Legislature, then Texans will see two propositions on their ballots this November.

The first proposition — which would be added by House Joint Resolution 117 — would ask whether a referendum on daylight saving time may take place. The Texas Constitution does not permit a statewide referendum on the issue, so this first question would be necessary for voters to weigh in on the second proposition.

The House will debate the second part of the legislative package on Wednesday, which would prompt the second ballot question: voters’ preference between year-round daylight saving time or year-round standard time.

No matter what Texans pick, the legislative package would nix the current twice-a-year time changes.

While voters would get to weigh in and decide the future of Texas time, there’s a key caveat. If they chose year-round daylight saving time, the state of Texas would need federal approval for this decision — but pending legislation in Congress could squash the need for that approval.

See here for the background. I’m a little confused here – if the first proposition fails, what exactly happens? Does the vote on the second proposition matter in that event, and what if anything changes? I mean, I fully expect that first proposition to pass – lots of people have an irrational hatred of the system, and I can’t envision a pro-DST group springing up to urge its retention – but a clearer explanation would have been nice. Whatever does happen, I wonder how long it will take before people start complaining about whichever system we do adopt. One way or the other, I hate this already.

UPDATE: For clarity, the status quo is not an option.

The ballot language on whether Texas should go year-round to either Daylight Saving Time or Standard Time won tentative approval from the House Wednesday — but not before a vigorous tussle between two experienced and influential Republicans.

If Rep. Lyle Larson’s proposed referendum on time wins a final House nod and then the Senate’s blessing, state voters on Nov. 5 would face this question on the ballot:

“Which of the following do you prefer? Observing standard time year-round. Observing daylight saving time year-round.”

On Wednesday, veteran GOP Rep. John Smithee of Amarillo tried to amend Larson’s enabling bill that would spell out the fine points of how the referendum would be conducted.

Under Smithee’s proposal, voters would be given a third option — as he said, “Leave things as they are, where we switch.”

[…]

On an unrecorded “division vote,” the House shot down Smithee’s attempt to give voters the option of keeping the status quo, 72-70.

Terrible, just terrible. It will be up to the Senate once this gets final approval on Thursday. Call your Senator and demand that if we must vote on this stupid thing, we be given the option of keeping things as they are. As it is, this isn’t a choice at all.

Yes, they really are now pushing a sales tax for property tax swap

Some bad ideas never die.

Texas’ top three political leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — threw their support Wednesday behind a proposal to increase the sales tax by one percentage point in order to lower property taxes across the state.

But that’s only if lawmakers agree to limit future local property tax increases.

The proposal would raise the state’s sales tax from 6.25% to 7.25%, generating billions of additional dollars annually for property tax relief, if voters approve a constitutional amendment. But the idea will be a hard sell to Democrats, since the sales tax is considered regressive, meaning lower-income Texans end up paying a larger percentage of their paychecks than higher-income Texans.

“Today we are introducing a sales tax proposal to buy down property tax rates for all Texas homeowners and businesses, once Senate Bill 2 or House Bill 2 is agreed to and passed by both Chambers. If the one-cent increase in the sales tax passes, it will result in billions of dollars in revenue to help drive down property taxes in the short and long term,” said a joint statement from the three Republicans.

Neither chamber has passed HB 2 or SB 2, which would require voter approval of property tax increases over 2.5%.

The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take public testimony on the House’s sales tax swap proposal this week but delayed hearing the bills. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who authored House Joint Resolution 3 and House Bill 4621, is considering changing the legislation to use a fraction of the additional money generated by the sales tax for public schools — in order to get more Democrats on board.

The bills are intended to provide another revenue source to help significantly cut down local school property taxes, which make up more than half of the local property taxes levied in Texas.

If the Legislature approves the resolution, the constitutional amendment would go to voters to approve in November, and if voters sign on the tax rate change would apply in January 2020.

See here for the background and my opinion about this lousy idea. Given that a constitutional amendment is needed for this, it will be easy enough to prevent it from happening. The progressive case against swapping out property taxes, which will disproportionately benefit commercial real estate and wealthy homeowners, for regressive sales taxes, is clear cut, and likely to hold a lot of sway with the current Democratic caucus. There’s also polling evidence to suggest that the public doesn’t care for a sales tax increase. I’m a little skeptical of that, since the question was not asked in conjunction with a potential cut in property taxes, but that’s an argument for the Republicans to make, and given the baked in doubt about anything actually reducing property taxes (for good reason!), I’d take that bet. HB2 is up for debate today, so we’ll see how this goes. The Chron and Texas Monthly have more.

They’re coming for Daylight Saving Time

Mark me down as opposed.

Rep. Lyle Larson

A powerful House committee chief on Monday said he’s building support for a constitutional amendment that would stop twice-yearly clock changes.

Rep. Lyle Larson laid out his legislation that would commit the state to following Daylight Saving Time year-round or exempting the state from it, which would make Standard Time the year-round practice.

On Nov. 5, Texans would choose between the two options. The measure would be on the ballot in an off-year, low-turnout constitutional amendment election.

Larson said in an interview he expects the tourism industry, which mostly supports Daylight Saving Time, “might spend some money to educate folks.” Potential opponents include parent and teacher groups, which are concerned that Daylight Saving endangers children by making them wait in the dark for school buses, he said.

Larson’s constitutional amendment and enabling legislation received a hearing before the House State Affairs Committee. The panel didn’t take a vote. Larson, a San Antonio Republican who is head of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he will press for one next week.

“I haven’t heard of any opposition in [State Affairs] committee,” he said.

Martha S. Habluetzel of Ingleside, with the Campaign to Opt Out of Daylight Saving Time in Texas, testified the bill has a least two big defects.

“Congress hasn’t passed a bill to allow year-round Daylight Saving Time,” she noted. Under current federal law, a state only may opt for year-round Standard Time, she said.

Potentially, Larson’s amendment could lead to a bad outcome, Habluetzel said. On Monday, the sun rose at 7:25 a.m., she noted. On Christmas Day, if Texas somehow managed to get itself on year-round Daylight Saving Time, sunrise would be at 8:25 a.m., she said.

“I don’t want the sun coming up at 8:25,” she said.

There is also a joint resolution in the Senate to abolish Daylight Saving Time, which would also require a public vote to be enacted. I’m one of those people who goes to work at a stupidly early hour. It might be daylight when I arrive in the middle of summer, especially if we abandon DST, but otherwise it’s always dark for me in the morning. As such, I appreciate having as much daytime as possible when I get home, which is when it is best experienced. I hope this effort fails, but I fear that sooner or later someone is going to succeed at killing off the late summer sunsets that I so enjoy. Whatever you think, please note that it’s really not DST that you hate, it’s standard time. Please let us not attempt to fix that which is not broken.

Texas is not going to expand Medicaid

Don’t get me wrong, Texas should have expanded Medicaid at its first opportunity. It would do so much to improve health care in the state, including and especially mental health care, which would have significant spillover effects on criminal justice. Other states have passed voter referenda mandating Medicaid expansion, but those states can do that via citizen petition. They don’t have to go through their legislature, which is a requirement here and the place that the effort will go to die.

Rep. Celia Israel

Seeing other states take Medicaid expansion to voters is what Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, says gave her the idea to file House Joint Resolution 40. She said she’s frustrated that Texas “has not shown the political fortitude” to expand the program and that giving the decision to voters may take political pressure off of Republicans.

Expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — has been a nonstarter in the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature. Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry have argued that expanding Medicaid would increase health care costs for the state — especially if the federal government ever breaks its promise to help pay for the surge of newly eligible people.

Israel’s strategy so far has included courting Republicans in districts that have lost rural hospitals. Nineteen rural hospitals have closed permanently or temporarily since 2013, according to the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals.

“I’m getting mixed responses,” Israel said of her progress. “I’m making the case that we have lost so many rural hospitals in Texas, and one of the reasons we wouldn’t have lost those rural hospitals is if we had said yes to expanding Medicaid.”

Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning policy organization, said the 2018 election cycle and polls showed that health care is a top issue for voters.

“The bottom line is even though individual members have seen desirability moving in this direction, it’s not something they’re going to fall on their sword and buck their leadership over,” Dunkelberg said.

[…]

State Rep. John Zerwas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, attempted an alternative to Medicaid expansion during the 2013 session. The Richmond Republican’s House Bill 3791 would have allowed Texas to receive federal money in the form of block grants to enroll individuals in a private health plan using a sliding-scale subsidy, rather than expanding Medicaid to cover them. The bill also had a “pull the plug” provision if the federal government failed to continue funding. It had some bipartisan support but never reached the House floor for a vote.

He said Medicaid expansion in general still “comes with political radioactivity” that Republicans are hesitant to deal with. Just pursuing a waiver is still “a pretty steep hill to climb.” Zerwas said he doesn’t plan on bringing his bill back and also doesn’t believe Medicaid expansion needs to be taken to voters. He acknowledged that Texas has the highest number of uninsured people in the country but says there’s not a cost-effective way to provide care for the Medicaid population.

“It’s just politics, you know, and I’ve lived through this by virtue of carrying the bill in 2013 and was portrayed as someone who just loved Obamacare and was looking to grow it in the state of Texas,” Zerwas said. “Politically and in my party especially at that time and still so … it continues to be one of those things that Republicans rail against because they see it as a very heavy cost to the state.”

But Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who filed Senate Joint Resolution 34, which also would create a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, said that “it should not take a leap of courage to put this on the ballot.” Amid Texas’ problems with the opioid epidemicmaternal mortality and access to mental health services, he said, it would be difficult for lawmakers to go back to their constituents and tell them why they refused to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot.

“It starts to become a bit of an embarrassment,” Johnson said. “I think we have the potential to be a leader in health care. … We have vast resources and tremendous amount of power and will when we decide to employ it.”

I agree with everything Rep. Israel and Sen. Johnson say. As you know, I’ve been beating the drum for Medicaid expansion in Texas since 2011. It’s just that there’s zero Republican support for it – Rep. Zerwas’ watered-down version went nowhere, and no one is coming up behind him with something else. A constitutional amendment, which is what a Joint Resolution is and the only way the Lege can send something to the voters, requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber to pass. It’s highly unlikely there’s a simple majority for this in the House, and zero chance of that in the Senate. What Israel and Johnson and others are doing is valuable and necessary and sure to be a big campaign issue again in 2020. What it’s not is legislation that will pass, not while Republicans are in charge.

Things the Rainy Day Fund was not intended for

This, for one.

A pair of conservative lawmakers want Texans to help pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall and plan to ask lawmakers to take $2.5 billion out of its rainy day fund to cover the costs.

Reps. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, and Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, told Breitbart, a conservative news publication, they plan to file legislation that would cover costs to “design, test, construct, and install physical barriers, roads, and technology along the international land border between the State of Texas and Mexico to prevent illegal crossings in all areas.”

Texans and Texas-owned companies would be given preference on all bids and contracts, the publication reported.

“If Congress refuses to keep Americans safe, then Texas will answer the call,” Cain said in a statement. “Our office is receiving many calls in support of this effort. We’ve even received calls from citizens of other states offering to help fund the wall.”

[…]

Texas now spends about $400 million a year on border security. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suggested that lawmakers will renew that commitment over the next two years. The proposal from Cain and Biedermann would spend $2.5 billion by Aug. 31, according to Breitbart.

You know, I’m old enough to remember when this was known as the Economic Stabilization Fund. I’m also old enough to remember what its original intent was:

Texans approved a constitutional amendment creating the ESF in 1988, following an oil price plunge and economic recession that forced lawmakers to raise taxes to keep state government in the black. The Legislature structured the fund to automatically set aside some tax revenues in boom years to help the state during downturns.

It actually worked that way for awhile, too. Then Rick Perry came along and used the cover of the 2011 budget deficit to declare that the ESF was actually a fund for helping the state cope with natural disasters, and not to be used to avoid the deep and damaging cuts to things like public education and Medicaid that happened during that session. That change by executive fiat, along with the popular moniker of “The Rainy Day Fund” led to many people demanding its use in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which Greg Abbott refused. It’s still not clear what the state will do to help further the recovery from Harvey, but tapping into the ESF in a time of need for one-time expenditures is at least within hailing distance of its original purpose. The Cain/Biederman exercise in pants-wetting and xenophobia, on the other hand, is not. I’m glad we had the chance to have this little conversation. The Observer has more.

Time for the biennial annotation of gambling bills that will not pass

This one is creative, I’ll give it that.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

A Texas lawmaker has proposed subsidizing the state’s underfunded windstorm insurance and flooding assistance by building casinos in coastal counties.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel filed the bill on Dec. 7 to cover the cost of the Texas Insurance Agency by proposing to tax licensed casinos, Galveston County Daily News reported . The measure would give the Texas Lottery Commission the authority to issue six licenses to operate casinos across six counties.

The proposal would generate an 18 percent gaming tax of a casino’s revenue and use some of the money to ensure the windstorm association has sufficient capital to cover its insured deficits and operating expenditures.

Deshotel, who first filed a similar bill in 2015, said this latest iteration would send part of the tax to a flooding assistance trust fund. The governor’s office could then use the trust fund for emergency assistance during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

“Just like the lottery, where a portion of funds go to public education, this is a need that’s underfunded,” Deshotel said. “If the lottery helps education, we can help with the problem of windstorm, which is disproportionately paid for by the coastal counties.”

It’s not just a bill – Rep. Deshotel has filed HJR 36, a “constitutional amendment authorizing the operation of casino gaming in certain coastal areas of this state by licensed persons to provide additional money for residual windstorm insurance coverage and catastrophic flooding assistance in the coastal areas”. There is a bill as well, HB494, since all constitutional amendments need enabling legislation to go with it. That means of course that this needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass, and I don’t think I need to tell you what the odds are of that. Tying it to revenue for windstorm insurance is brilliant, but it still has to overcome the fact that some people oppose gambling in any form, and some people who support gambling only support it in the form of slot machines at horse-race stadia. A good idea, and perhaps a sign that we’ll see some Is This The Year That Texas Finally Expands Gambling stories (spoiler alert: no, this is not the year), but not much more than that.

It’s bill-filing season

Here are some highlights from Day One:

  • House Bill 49, by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would get rid of daylight saving time in Texas. Some lawmakers have tried to do this in past sessions.
  • House Bill 63, by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would make it a civil offense — not a crime — to be caught with less than one ounce of marijuana. Moody’s bill was one of several filed Monday aiming to loosen marijuana laws in Texas.
  • House Bill 84, also by Moody, would repeal the section of the Texas penal code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that the section is unenforceable, but it remains on the books.
  • House Bill 222, by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would prohibit Texas cities from adopting or enforcing ordinances that would require employers to offer their employees paid sick leave. San Antonio and Austin have passed paid sick leave ordinances this year. Soon after Austin passed its ordinance, state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, announced that he would file legislation banning the ordinances, but Workman was defeated in Tuesday’s election.
  • House Joint Resolution 24, by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would propose a constitutional amendment requiring the state to fund at least half of the cost of funding public schools. If the amendment were approved by voters, local property tax collections would not apply to the state’s share.
  • Senate Bill 66, by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would reduce and eventually eliminate the state’s franchise tax.

My reaction, in order: Oppose, favor, favor, oppose, favor, neutral. It makes me happy that the pro-sick employees faction had to find a new lackey after their original sponsor got tossed. I’ll be following this stuff as usual as we morph into the legislative season.

2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters passed a $1 billion pension bond referendum by a wide margin late Tuesday, securing Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark reform package and, the mayor hopes, marking the beginning of the end of a 16-year fiscal crisis.

The ballot item’s passage now means the city can follow through on its plan to infuse $750 million into the police pension and $250 million into the municipal workers’ pension to improve their funding levels and lower Houston’s annual payments into its pension funds.

If voters had rejected the measure, up to $1.8 billion of the $2.8 billion in hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would have been rescinded, adding tens of millions of dollars in costs to the city budget overnight.

“This effort has not been easy,” the mayor said at an election night party. “Tonight is not a victory for Sylvester Turner. Tonight is not a victory for the members of city council. Tonight is not just a victory for the employees. Tonight is a victory for the city of Houston.”

[…]

Many City Hall insiders and political observers had predicted voters could balk at a $1 billion bond and produce a close vote. But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, because the GOP-run Legislature had approved the reform package earlier this year, there was no organized opposition to shake voters from their typical habit of granting approval to city bond issues.

“Because most conservative groups and Republicans and most big players on the state level endorsed the bonds, it was unlikely that there would be much of a fight, and there wasn’t,” he said. “My honest guess is that people probably weren’t that attentive to the importance of Prop. A; it was simply the case that the city was asking for more money, as they routinely do, and the good news is that people typically vote yes.”

I gave up and went to bed before the final results came in, but Prop A had over 77% support, with absentee, early, and Election Day totals all being at about the same level. Turnout was higher than predicted, with over 87,000 votes being counted with a fifth of precincts still not having reported. I’ll have more analysis of this for tomorrow, but in the meantime, the other bonds passed, too.

Houston residents can look forward to a smattering of facility upgrades – including repaired libraries, new community centers and renovated fire stations – thanks to what appeared to be overwhelming voter support for $495 million in public improvement bonds.

Propositions B through E passed easily Tuesday despite anemic local turnout in a city lacking a marquee race.

The bonds’ passage, which will not require a property tax increase, would authorize Houston to issue $159 million in public safety debt, $104 million for parks, $109 million for improvements to general government facilities and $123 million for libraries. They are the first the city has requested since 2012.

[…]

Meanwhile, residents of Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in the northwest, were set to further loosen restrictions on area alcohol sales.

Heights voters already had lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores last year, but customers who wanted to drink at neighborhood restaurants or bars still had to join a “private club” by submitting a driver’s license for entry into a database.

Passing Proposition F lifts that requirement, leaving the neighborhood nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

I don’t expect that last bit to change any time soon. Props B through E were at similar levels of support as Prop A, garnering between 72 and 76 percent; Prop F, limited to just part of the Heights, had over 62%. I should note that the other four citywide props did have official, if perhaps not organized, opposition, as the Harris County GOP and conservative groups like the C Club and the HRBC opposed them. Didn’t have much effect, I’d say.

Elsewhere, school bond issues in Spring Branch and Katy were approved, while all seven constitutional amendments were passed. As I said, I’ll have more to say on Tuesday’s results tomorrow.

UPDATE: Final turnout in the Harris County part of the city was 99,460, which is higher than anyone projected it to be.

Election Day 2017

It’s time to vote if you haven’t already. Not many people have, as we know.

Harris County turnout is expected to remain feeble through Election Day, with no marquee race to draw voters to the polls and thousands still displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Fewer than 59,000 of the county’s more than 2.2 million registered voters cast a ballot by the end of early voting Friday, a paltry showing even in a traditionally low-turnout state.

“Nobody’s voting because really nothing overly controversial is on the ballot,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, projecting total voter participation will reach of 80,000 to 100,000.

Unlike in recent off-cycle elections, Houston residents do not have mayoral or city council races to weigh in on, thanks to a recent change to term limits.

Instead, the city ballot features several propositions, as well as races for the Houston ISD and Houston Community College school boards.

What’s interesting about this is that Prof. Jones is suggesting that somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the total votes have already been cast. That’s a higher percentage than what I estimated, and it feels a bit peculiar to me because early voting has topped out at around half of the final total in odd-year elections. Maybe this year will be different – Lord knows, it’s different in many other ways – but I would like to understand the reasoning behind that projection. In any event, going by my “Houston is 70% of Harris County in odd year vote totals”, that suggests final citywide turnout of 56,000 to 70,000, which is similar to my estimate but with a lower ceiling.

Here’s the usual press release from the County Clerk’s office:

“Regardless of where voters reside in Harris County, voters will see seven state propositions on their ballot,”said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, alerting the registered voters in the County that Tuesday’s November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections is a countywide and statewide election. In addition to the State Propositions, the ballot also features items offered by 29 political jurisdictions within the County.  Polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm.

“Voters can view their individual sample ballot and review the items on which they may vote by visiting the County Clerk’s election website,  www.HarrisVotes.com,Stanart specified. “This election merits the attention and participation of all voters. Aside from the State, there are five cities, 14 ISDs, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot.”

“Voters should know the address of their voting location and the acceptable forms of identification required at the poll before going to vote,” advised Stanart.  “The polling location in approximately 30 voting precincts in areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey, have changed.”  There will be 735 Election Day polling location available throughout Harris County.  On Election Day, voters must vote at the voting precinct where they are registered to vote.

“Voters in the City of Houston should be aware that this is the first odd-numbered year election when the Mayor, Controller and City Council races are not on the ballot,” informed Stanart.  “Don’t be surprised if you don’t see those contests on your ballot.”

Voters may find their designated Election Day polling location, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at their poll at www.HarrisVotes.com. Voters may also call 713.755.6965 for election information.

Stan Stanart is the Clerk, Recorder and the Chief Elections Officer of the third largest county in the United States.

 

List of Political Entities on the Nov. 7, 2017 General & Special Elections Ballot in Harris County, TX
State of Texas Pasadena ISD
City of Baytown Spring Branch ISD
City of Bellaire Stafford Municipal SD
City of Houston Tomball ISD
City of Missouri City Crosby MUD
Houston Community College System Harris County MUD No. 61 (defined area)
Aldine ISD Harris County MUD No. 551
Alief ISD Harris County MUD No. 552
Crosby ISD Mount Houston Road MUD
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 6
Deer Park ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 22
Houston ISD Cypress-Klein UD
Katy ISD Prestonwood Forest UD
Klein ISD Harris County WC & ID No. 133
New Caney ISD The Woodlands Township

Finally, if you have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey, please read this information from the Secretary of State Short version: you can still vote in your original precinct, as long as it is your intent to return there at some point. Note that state election law says you don’t actually have to return, you just have to say you intend to. You can re-register another time. So no excuses, go and vote if you haven’t already. I’ll have results tomorrow.

2017 EV daily report: Just remember, the reports we get are all of Harris County

Here are today’s numbers, and here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   11,953   7,513   19,466   19,581
2015   36,322  19,789   56,111   42,520
2011   10,818   3,823   14,641   13,697
2007    8,080   3,126   11,206   12,775

So 2011 appears to be the closest comparison so far. That might imply a much higher level of turnout than what I’ve been suggesting, but I’m not prepared to believe that yet. The main reason for this is that less than 40% of the vote was cast early in 2011, and I seriously doubt that’s what we’re going to get this time. Odd year elections skew more towards Election Day and less towards early voting than even year elections – in 2015, just over half of the vote was cast early – but I think this year we will see a higher percentage of the vote cast early. The message from the County Clerk is to take advantage of the early voting period because a number of polling sites are unavailable thanks to Harvey, and I think people will heed that. We’ll take our guesses about that later in the EV period, but for now just keep that in mind. 2017 may be a bit ahead of 2011 in early voting, but I suspect that’s because more people will be voting early than usual.

It should also be noted that these reports encompass all of Harris County, so some of those numbers above are not for Houston or HISD. I’ve gone through this exercise before, but let’s review the percentage of county turnout that was in Houston in these elections:


Year   Harris  Houston   Share
==============================
2015  421,460  268,872   63.8%
2013  260,437  174,620   67.0%
2011  164,971  121,468   73.6%
2009  257,312  178,777   69.5%
2007  193,945  123,413   63.6%
2005  332,154  189,046   56.9%
2003  374,459  298,110   79.6%

“Share” is just simply the percentage of the county vote that came from Houston. There’s a big span here, but that comes with an asterisk, because the conditions were not the same each year. For example, in 2015 and 2007, Harris County had bond elections in addition to the state constitutional amendments. In 2005, the notorious state anti-gay marriage referendum was on the ballot, which coupled with a non-competitive Mayoral election meant a much larger county share. Finally, in 2003 there was the Metro referendum, which covered all of the county. There were also no state constitutional amendments on the ballot, as those had been voted on in September, to enhance the odds of the tort “reform” amendment passing.

Bottom line, with boring constitutional amendments on the ballot, I’d suggest that county/city ratio will be like the other years, which is to say between 67 and 73 percent. Let’s say 70%, just to split the difference. That’s another thing we’ll have to take into account when we do our projections later on.

What about those constitutional amendments?

Would you like someone to explain to you what those seven Constitutional amendments are about, in painstaking detail, with a recommendation for how to vote on each? Daniel Williams is here for you.

It’s that time of the biennium again! Time for voters to consider constitutional amendments on small minutia of public policy. Texas has the longest state constitution in the nation. It’s so detailed and specific that many ordinary and noncontroversial provisions of the law must be submitted to the voters for approval. That means that we the voters have a responsibility to educate ourselves on all that ordinary and noncontroversial minutia and do our best to vote in an informed and thoughtful way.

I’ve included the text of each proposed constitutional amendment, along with an attempt to briefly explain what the amendment is trying to do and how I’ll be voting when early voting starts tomorrow. I’ve also included information on how various advocacy groups and media outlets on all sides of the political spectrum have endorsed. If I’ve left off a group you think should be included let me know in the comments and I’ll add it.

Click over to read said painstakingly detailed explanations, the TL;dr version of which is “vote FOR props 1, 3, 5, and 7, and AGAINST props 2, 4, and 6”.

If you want further reading on the amendments, the League of Women Voters 2017 guide has you covered, though they don’t make recommendations. They do have information about the city of Houston bond referenda, and a brief Q&A with the HISD and HCC candidates; all but two of them provided answers. Finally, the Texas AFL-CIO has a guide to the amendments as well, along with their recommendations. You may find this exercise exasperating, but you can’t say you don’t have sufficient information to make good decisions.

On the matter of other elections, Instant News Bellaire has coverage on the elections for Bellaire’s Mayor and City Council. And if you live in Alief ISD, Stace has a slate for you. Now get out there and vote!

Early voting for November 2017 begins today

From the inbox:

“The best option to vote in the upcoming Nov. 7 election is during the early voting period,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. Early Voting for the November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections begins Monday, October 23 and will run through Friday, November 3. There will be 45 Early Voting locations across Harris County.

“Voters should be informed before heading to the polls as several of the usual Early Voting locations have changed”, said Stanart. “Locations hit hardest by flooding such as those running along Cypress Creek and those located near the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs have seen changes to several of their Early Voting locations”.

In addition to the 7 proposed State Constitutional Amendments, there are 5 cities, 14 ISD’s, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot. Voters can find their individual sample ballot at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“The impact of Hurricane Harvey to South Texas has been huge, and while we are recovering, please realize that government needs your participation in this election,” concluded Stanart. The pulling together of neighbors helping neighbors has been truly inspiring. Please join your neighbors as we meet at your neighborhood early voting location.”

To find polling locations for Early Voting and Election Day, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965. Stan Stanart is the Chief Elections Administrator and recorder for the third largest county in the United States.

Below is a list of early voting locations, some of which are new and one of which is a previously-used location that is not available due to Harvey. For a map and the EV schedule, see here. I’ll keep track of the daily totals as usual, and we’ll try to make our guesses as we go along about turnout. Feel free to place your guesses about how things go in the comments. When do you plan to vote?

Harris County, Texas – Early Voting Locations
November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections

Location Address City Zip
Harris County Administration Building 1001 Preston Street, 4th Floor Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Kashmere Multi Service Center 4802 Lockwood Drive Houston 77026
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Young Neighborhood Library 5107 Griggs Road Houston 77021
Fiesta Mart 8130 Kirby Drive Houston 77054
Metropolitan Multi Service Center 1475 West Gray Street Houston 77019
Harris County Public Health 2223 West Loop South Freeway, 1st floor Houston 77027
SPJST Lodge 88 1435 Beall Street Houston 77008
Northeast Multi Service Center 9720 Spaulding Street, Building 4 Houston 77016
Alvin D. Baggett Community Center 1302 Keene Street Galena Park 77547
John Phelps Courthouse 101 South Richey Street Pasadena 77506
Sunnyside Multi Purpose Center 9314 Cullen Boulevard Houston 77051
Hiram Clarke Multi Service Center 3810 West Fuqua Street Houston 77045
Bayland Park Community Center 6400 Bissonnet Street Houston 77074
Tracy Gee Community Center 3599 Westcenter Drive Houston 77042
Trini Mendenhall Community Center 1414 Wirt Road Houston 77055
Lone Star College Victory Center 4141 Victory Drive Houston 77088
Acres Homes Multi Service Center 6719 West Montgomery Road Houston 77091
Hardy Senior Center 11901 West Hardy Road Houston 77076
Octavia Fields Branch Library 1503 South Houston Avenue Humble 77338
Kingwood Community Center 4102 Rustic Woods Drive Kingwood 77345
Rosewood Funeral Home 17404 W. Lake Houston Pkwy Atascocita 77346
Crosby Branch Library 135 Hare Road Crosby 77532
North Channel Library 15741 Wallisville Road Houston 77049
Baytown Community Center 2407 Market Street Baytown 77520
Kyle Chapman Activity Center 7340 Spencer Highway Pasadena 77505
Freeman Branch Library 16616 Diana Lane Houston 77062
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Alief ISD Administration Building 4250 Cook Road Houston 77072
Harris County MUD 81 805 Hidden Canyon Road Katy 77450
Nottingham Park 926 Country Place Drive Houston 77079
Katy Branch Library 5414 Franz Road Katy 77493
Bear Creek Park Community Center UNAVAILABLE    
Lone Star College Cypress Center 19710 Clay Road Katy 77449
City of Jersey Village City Hall 16327 Lakeview Drive Jersey Village 77040
Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center 8440 Greenhouse Road Cypress 77433
Juergen’s Hall Community Center 26026 Hempstead Highway Cypress 77429
Prairie View A&M University Northwest 9449 Grant Road Houston 77070
Fallbrook Church 12512 Walters Road Houston 77014
Klein Multipurpose Center 7500 FM 2920 Klein 77379
Tomball Public Works Building 501B James Street Tomball 77375
Lone Star College Creekside 8747 West New Harmony Trail Tomball 77375
Spring First Church 1851 Spring Cypress Road Spring 77388
Lone Star College – North Harris 2700 W W Thorne Drive Houston 77073

 

Endorsement watch: More state propositions

The rest of the constitutional amendments, from the Chron.

State of Texas, Proposition 4: For

Everyone deserves to know if they’re being sued – even the state of Texas. The Legislature passed a bill in 2011 that would have required courts to provide notice to the attorney general if the constitutionality of a state statute was being challenged, and requiring a short waiting period before striking down a law.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 5: For

Fans of the Rockets, Astros or Texans are probably familiar with the charity raffles that have become a staple of gametime entertainment. Right now the state Constitution restricts these sorts of lotteries, which have routinely raised thousands for worthy causes, to the state’s 10 major league sports franchises. Voters should approve this amendment to expand the opportunities for charity to all the minor and major league teams in Texas.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 6: For

First responders put themselves at risk to keep the rest of us safe from criminals, fires and everything else that goes bump in the night. When one of Texas’ finest falls in the line of duty, we all have a responsibility to keep his or her family safe in return. This means guaranteeing that surviving spouses don’t have to worry about rising property taxes after losing not just a loved one, but also a breadwinner.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 7: For

Banks used to hand out toasters to lure first-time depositors. Maybe it’s time to bring that back. More than one-third of the state doesn’t have a simple savings account. About half lack an emergency fund that could last three months.

At this point, we’ll support almost anything that encourages people to open up a basic account and take the first steps to financial responsibility. That includes allowing credit unions and other financial institutions to entice savers with promotional raffles or lotteries.

See here for the first three. I’ve seen some differing opinions on these items, but for the most part I don’t think any of them amounts to much. Take whatever action you deem appropriate.

Endorsement watch: State propositions and Katy bonds

Hey, did you know that there are constitutional amendments on the ballot? It’s true! (Spoiler alert: There are constitutional amendments on the ballot every odd-numbered year.) The Chron has some recommendations for how to vote on them.

State of Texas, Proposition 1: For

This amendment would allow the Legislature to exempt partially disabled veterans and surviving spouses from paying property taxes on a home received from a charity at less than the market value. An exemption has already been granted when homes are given for free, and this opens the door to some cost sharing.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 2: Against

Consider it a form of post-traumatic stress. Any time banks ask for looser rules, we get flashbacks to the 2008 economic crisis. Financial institutions granted bad loans, good loans – some even made fake loans – knowing that the instruments would eventually be wrapped into a package and sold off. If the debt went bust, some other sucker would be stuck holding the bomb.

The global economic system ended up as the big loser in that game of hot potato.

Now the Texas Legislature is asking voters to tear down some regulations that help keep lenders in line. We recommend voting against.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 3: Against

The governor selects hundreds of unpaid appointees to serve on state boards and commissions, most of which run for four- or six-year terms. But if the term expires and no replacement is appointed, that volunteer is allowed under the state’s “holdover” provision to remain until the slot is filled. This amendment to the state Constitution would force out the incumbents even if there’s no new appointees and render the positions vacant.

We have no quarrel with the current “holdover” rule and recommend voting against.

There are seven of these in total, so I presume this was part one of two. I did receive a mailer the other day in favor of one of these, so there’s at least one active campaign involved. I don’t remember which one it was, though. This is why you need to send more than one piece of mail to ensure that your message penetrates, kids.

Moving a bit outside the usual boundaries, the Chron casts a virtual vote in favor of Katy ISD’s bond referendum.

Katy needs more schools.

That simple fact becomes obvious to anybody who looks at the Katy Independent School District’s explosive growth. During the decade between 2005 and 2015, Katy ISD’s enrollment rose by a whopping 47 percent.

Take a deep dive into the numbers and you’ll discover another telling insight from the state comptroller’s office, which diligently tracks data on Texas school districts. Between 2006 and 2015, Katy ISD’s tax-supported debt per student actually declined by a little less than 1 percent.

Now one of the fastest growing school districts in Texas wants voters to authorize a bond issue allowing them to borrow another $609 million. Katy ISD officials have earnestly made a compelling case for passing this referendum. Even some longtime activists in the district who’ve opposed previous bond issues fully support this one. Voters should, too.

As the piece notes, despite being one of the hardest-hit areas by Harvey, KISD’s enrollment was up this year, highlighting just how rapid its growth has been. This is one of those “you can pay now, or you can pay later” situations, and paying now – especially when interest rates remain low – is almost always the better choice.

Yes, there will be constitutional amendments on the November ballot

They’re not very interesting, which in this environment is a blessing, but they will be there.

House Joint Resolution 21

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of part of the market value of the residence homestead of a partially disabled veteran or the surviving spouse of a partially disabled veteran if the residence homestead was donated to the disabled veteran by a charitable organization for less than the market value of the residence homestead and harmonizing certain related provisions of the Texas Constitution.”

House Joint Resolution 37

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment relating to legislative authority to permit credit unions and other financial institutions to award prizes by lot to promote savings.”

House Joint Resolution 100

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment on professional sports teams’ charitable foundations conducting charitable raffles.”

Senate Joint Resolution 1

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of all or part of the residence homestead of the surviving spouse of a first responder who is killed or fatally injured in the line of duty.”

Senate Joint Resolution 6

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to require a court to provide notice to the attorney general of a challenge to the constitutionality of a state statute and authorizing the Legislature to prescribe a waiting period before the court may enter a judgment holding the statute unconstitutional.”

Senate Joint Resolution 34

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment limiting the service of certain officeholders appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate after the expiration of the person’s term of office.”

Senate Joint Resolution 60

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment to establish a lower amount for expenses that can be charged to a borrower and removing certain financing expense limitations for a home equity loan, establishing certain authorized lenders to make a home equity loan, changing certain options for the refinancing for home equity loans, changing the threshold for an advance of a home equity line of credit, and allowing home equity loans on agricultural homesteads.”

You can click over to see the brief explanation of what these mean, but honestly none of it is that interesting. This is the reason why you didn’t hear about any of this during the session. Only a few narrow interests care about any of this, and it’s unlikely there will be much of a campaign for any of it. Don’t expect there to be much turnout in places that don’t have some other elections on their November ballots.

Bill to restore some budget flexibility filed

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences Act of 2017.

The Texas House’s chief budget writer filed legislation Friday that would allow lawmakers to claw back billions of dollars that voters approved for state highways, freeing them up for other budget needs.

Texans overwhelmingly voted in 2015 to boost funding for the state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under a growing population. Proposition 7 amended the Texas Constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed a resolution Friday that would cut that initial cash infusion, aiming to free up money at a time when cash is tight.

House Concurrent Resolution 108 could cut the first transfer under Proposition 7 of nearly $5 billion in half, but only if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate support such a move.

It’s a prospect made possible by what some lawmakers have called a “safety valve” in Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that the Legislature approved in 2015 to send Proposition 7 to voters later that year.

See here for the background. I don’t expect this to pass – I really don’t think two thirds of the Senate will go for it – but I will be very amused if it does. Whether this is more or less likely to happen than tapping the Rainy Day Fund is now something we can test empirically. If nothing else, that’s a victory for science.

Turns out a little budget flexibility is a good thing

Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

More than a year after Texas voters approved routing billions in state sales taxes to roads and bridges, some lawmakers are questioning whether the first payment of $5 billion should move forward as planned.

Texans voted in 2015 to boost funding for state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under the state’s growing population. Proposition 7 — loudly cheered by top Texas leaders and supported by 83 percent of voters — changed the constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But in an unusually tightfisted legislative session, some Texas lawmakers are raising the prospect of reducing that initial cash infusion to the State Highway Fund scheduled for this year to free up money for other state programs.

No one has publicly backed such a move, but key budget writers have privately discussed the option. And at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday, Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown asked Legislative Budget Board staffers about how it might work.

It turns out that the enabling legislation for that referendum included an escape hatch, in which a two-thirds vote can be used to divert some of that $5 billion for other purposes. That probably won’t happen, though I presume it’s no less likely than a vote to tap the Rainy Day Fund to get through this session and hope that things will be better in 2019. We can certainly debate whether it should happen or not, but my reason for highlighting this is that it’s yet another example of why artificial budget constraints are so often a bad idea, whose main effect is to force budget writers to come up with creative ways around said constraints. I say it’s more honest to just let them have the flexibility to figure it out rather than be forced into certain choices, but that’s not how we do things.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

I want to return to something in that story about Mayor Turner’s 2017 agenda, which was near the bottom but which is a very big deal for the coming year:

A lawsuit over the ballot language used last year to extend terms to a maximum of two four-year terms, from three two-year terms, hovers in the background.

A state district judge ruled in March that the language was “inartful” but legal, and the case now is under appeal.

At stake in the near term is whether Turner and members of City Council must run for re-election in 2017 or wait until 2019.

See here for the background. Usually around this time I’m writing about the upcoming election year and what we have to look forward to. Thanks to this lawsuit, we could have a year with no city elections, or a year in which nobody knows we have city elections until April or May and everyone operates on an insanely accelerated schedule from there. With that in mind, let’s look at our Year of Elections 2017 with a frame of The Elections We Will Have, The Elections We May Have, and The Elections We Could Have.

The Elections We Will Have

Whatever else happens with the term limits lawsuit, there will be elections in HISD and HCC. The following trustees for each board are up for election this year:

HISD – Anna Eastman (District I), Mike Lunceford (District V), Greg Meyers (District VI), Anne Sung (District VII), Wanda Adams (District IX)
HCC – Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District 4), Robert Glaser (District 5), Chris Oliver (District 9)

Mike Lunceford is not running for re-election, so his seat will be open. Greg Meyers has already submitted his resignation, and a replacement Trustee will be selected by the Board in January. It is not clear if the Board will prefer a caretaker who will not run for election in November or if the new member will try to stake a claim. Anne Sung of course won the special election to succeed Harvin Moore a couple of weeks ago. Whatever happens in November, the Board will have three different members in the traditionally Republican districts than it had at the start of 2016. That has some negative potential, as all three were devoted to public schools in a way that is not necessarily characteristic of modern Republicans, meaning that whoever wins in November could be more antagonistic than what we are used to seeing. We’ll have a better idea when we know who is selected to replace Meyers, and who emerges to run for these seats. As for Eastman, she is my Trustee and as far as I know she is in for another term, but I haven’t spoken to her in the last few weeks, and she has not made any formal announcements. I’m not aware of any reason why Adams would not run for another term.

In HCC, both Shabazz-Evans and Glaser won elections to complete the unexpired terms for trustees who had resigned following their 2011 campaigns. Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson in District 4 in May of 2015, and then was unopposed for election. Glaser won a contested race to succeed Richard Schechter in 2013; appointed replacement Leila Feldman did not run for the seat. Oliver is a multi-term incumbent who easily defeated a challenger in 2011. Sometimes there are interesting things to say or look forward to in these races. This is not one of those times.

There will also be some number of constitutional amendments on the ballot in November, but we won’t know what they are until May or so when the Legislature finishes its business. If the term limits lawsuit goes down, preserving the new four-year terms for city officeholders, these referenda will be the only guaranteed items on your ballot this year.

The most interesting race in the area that is not in Houston will be in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is term-limited out and where the City Council lines may or may not be redrawn, pending the ruling in the voting rights lawsuit that is currently in the judge’s hands. That election will be in May. Other area cities such as Bellaire, West U, Sugar Land, and Rosenberg, also have elections in May. I hope to have some more information about some of these races in a subsequent post. Also of interest in May will be the San Antonio elections, where Mayor Ivy Taylor has some competition for a second full term. I’m sure I’ll do some writing about that as well.

The Elections We May Have

In addition to the statewide ballot propositions, there are two local ones that could be on your November eSlate machine, both of which could be quite contentious. Mayor Turner has stated his intention to put a referendum about the revenue cap on the ballot this year, though one presumes that could change if his pension reform bills do not pass. You can be sure that the opposition to this, mostly from the likes of Paul Bettencourt and no doubt with the help of the statewide Republican cabal, will be ferocious and very well-funded. Which in a way will be good for Mayor Turner, because if he can successfully cast this as a partisan issue, especially a “statewide Republicans meddling in our business AGAIN” issue, he ought to at least begin with the larger share of the vote. Getting those people to vote, whether or not there are other city elections to draw them out, will be the challenge. I suspect Mayor Turner doesn’t do anything without planning out how it will go, so I sure hope he has a plan for this one.

The other possible ballot item we might have is an updated Metro Solutions plan, which may include more rail construction projects, possibly including another shot at the Universities Line. This has been floated as an option by Metro Chair Carrin Patman, but it is not yet clear that it would be on the ballot, and if it would be there this year if so, and it is not yet clear what the scope of it would be. Needless to say, any rail component would generate some opposition, with a new Universities Line plan bringing out the usual suspects, some of whom would already be fully engaged in a revenue cap fight. It’s an interesting question whether you’d rather have this item on the ballot by itself, or in the same space as a revenue cap item. I’m glad that’s not my call to make.

The Elections We Could Have

This is the one that is entirely contingent on the Supreme Court, which as we know has not hesitated to stick its collective nose in our electoral business. If the 2015 term limits referendum is thrown out for having insufficiently clear wording, then the people who will be the most affected are the Council members who are in their last terms: Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie. Cohen’s District C and Laster’s District J represent challenges for Democrats, as Bill King carried both districts in the 2015 Mayoral runoff. The ideal District C candidate is in the Anne Clutterbuck-Ellen Cohen spectrum, while the low turnout District J will always be a bit of a wild card. Against that, Dems will have opportunities in both Christie’s At Large #5 and first-term CM Mike Knox’s AL #1, though as we have discussed before, cattle call races with lots of similarly-profiled Democrats have benefited Republican citywide candidates in the recent past. The ideal here is for a candidate who begins with a lot of backing to get in and largely hoover up all the support – think Melissa Noriega in 2007, or Amanda Edwards in 2015.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it’s even more speculative than usual, but I do want to at least put a marker on it, since if these elections do happen they may happen all at once, with little warning and not much time to prepare. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will be ready for either a busier or more relaxed interview season this fall.

Once again with “religious freedom” legislation

I have three things to say about this.

RedEquality

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, says he plans to re-file legislation next session that would supplement the state’s existing law to allow business owners to refuse services to people whose lifestyles clash with their religious beliefs.

“Nobody should be forced to go against their conscience or religious beliefs,” he said.

One of the key principles upon which the country and state were founded is the protection of religious beliefs, he said.

But just like in the 2015 legislative session, Krause is expected to face opposition from groups in the state’s business community. Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said corporations would look to other states when it is time to relocate if Krause’s vision becomes a reality.

“You have to weigh the negative impact on Texas if this were to become the law of the land,” Hammond said. “It’s flustering to see.”

Krause said next legislative session, he again would seek to change the state constitution – which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and voter approval at the ballot box, a much more difficult hurdle to clear than just the simple majority need to pass regular bills – because religious freedom deserves constitutional protection.

“I wanted to put it in the constitution to make it even stronger,” Krause said. “It is still something I think is very important.”

Hammond said the constitutional amendment would be harder to undo if a future legislature decided that the policy is harmful or discriminatory.

1. Of course a constitutional amendment would be harder to undo. That’s the reason why the 2005 Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage amendment was pushed through. We could have gone decades before there was a two thirds majority in both houses to repeal that, and the same would be true for Krause’s anti-equality measure. The good news is that even at current levels, there isn’t a two-thirds majority of Republican legislators in either house (*), so the task of blocking it is eminently doable. Yes, there are a few Democrats out there who can’t be counted on – and yes, I’m looking at you, Sen. Lucio – but we only need to block it in one chamber, and the prospects of picking up at least a seat or two in the House are pretty good. So while the threat of ordinary legislation making it through is very real, the bar for a constitutional amendment is likely too high to clear.

2. Let’s be very clear about this: Despite what Krause and others like him my say, a right to systematically refuse service, housing, employment, or whatever else – the list goes on and on – to a group of people is a right to discriminate, and a right to discriminate against someone is a right to discriminate against anyone. And I’m sorry, but if your sincerely-held beliefs tell you that you must not treat some group of people as fellow human beings, then your sincerely-held beliefs are immoral and wrong.

3. Have I mentioned lately that the business lobby could put its considerable resources towards defeating legislators like Matt Krause and electing ones that better represent their interests? Because they totally could if they really wanted to. Perhaps the North Carolina experience will provide them sufficient incentive to do so.

The Scalia effect on current cases

The Trib highlights a few cases pending before the Supreme Court that could be affected by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Antonin Scalia

Texas abortion law

On March 2, the court will hear oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which challenges Texas’ 2013 abortion law. Beyond deciding the constitutionality of a law that could shut down about half of the state’s 19 remaining abortion clinics, the Texas abortion case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to clarify how far states can go in restricting abortion.

In 1992, the court ruled that states can impose abortion restrictions as long as they do not place an undue burden on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

Lower courts across the country have disagreed, however, on what constitutes an “undue burden.” Activists on all sides are hoping the high court will provide a clearer definition in its decision in the Texas case. That case centers on the state’s requirement that abortion clinics meet hospital-like ambulatory surgical center standards — which include minimum sizes for rooms and doorways, pipelines for anesthesia and other modifications. In June, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld the new abortion restrictions, saying the new law does not impose an undue burden on a majority of Texas women seeking abortions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy could be the swing vote. If he sides with the conservatives on the court, the resulting 4-4 tie would affirm the lower court ruling.

The lower court also granted the relatively remote Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen an exemption to some narrow elements of the ambulatory surgical center requirements and from a separate provision of the law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic.

Barring a tied vote, a decision in the Texas case could also determine the constitutionality of restrictions in place in other areas of the country. As of November, 10 states had adopted admitting privileges requirements, but courts blocked enforcement in six of those states, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Six states had enacted ambulatory surgical center standards on abortion facilities. Those restrictions were not in effect in two of those states.

Immigration

The high court also agreed to hear the state’s case against the Obama administration’s controversial executive action on immigration that was announced in November 2014.

Known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, the action would shield more than 4 million undocumented immigrants in the country from deportation proceedings and allow them to apply for three-year work permits. Lower courts have ruled to halt the policy three separate times.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January but has yet to schedule arguments.

[…]

UT-Austin’s affirmative action policy

The death of Scalia cast uncertainty on many important cases before the Supreme Court, but probably won’t have a major impact on the decision in Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, which is a case about the constitutionality of affirmative action.

Justice Anthony Kennedy is still the likely swing vote, just as he was before Scalia died.

Abigail Fisher, who is white, contends she was unconstitutionally denied admission into UT-Austin in 2008 because of her race. UT-Austin considers the race of a small portion of its applicants, and black and Hispanic students often get a slight advantage in that pool of admissions. If Fisher wins her case, UT-Austin might be unable to consider the race of its applicants in the future. A broad ruling against UT-Austin could even end affirmative action nationwide.

Scalia, a longtime opponent of affirmative action, was almost certain to vote against UT-Austin. He was in the dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, when the Supreme Court upheld the practice of affirmative action in a limited way.

[…]

Redistricting

Finally, the justices heard arguments last year on a Texas case that questions a basic idea in American election law. In Evenwel v. Abbott, the plaintiffs argue that their voting power is diluted by the way Texas draws its state legislative districts, saying those lines should be based on the number of eligible voters in each district and not on population.

Congressional districts are based on population, as directed in the Constitution. The Evenwel case challenges Texas Senate district lines; a decision allowing states to use eligible voters as a base could shatter current lines here and in other states that want to make the change, remaking the distribution of power in state legislatures. That decision is pending.

The court has already accepted those four cases, among others, but doesn’t have to do anything this term if the justices decide to change course.

If the justices don’t want to rule on a case they’ve already accepted, they can announce it was “improvidently granted,” which means lower court ruling holds, [Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas at Austin] said. They can hold over any unheard cases they want until they have a ninth colleague, and they can rehear oral arguments with a ninth colleague if they want to wait or they think a ruling with a four-person majority would be too controversial.

“It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if they hold over some stuff where time really isn’t of the essence,” Levinson said. “You can make this argument of the election case [Evenwel]. If they hold it over, the world won’t come to an end.”

There’s a lot of good commentary out there about What This All Means, at least in the short term – see Think Progress, SCOTUSBlog, and Rick Hasen, for example. The main point to keep in mind is that in any case where SCOTUS winds up splitting 4-4, the ruling of the lower court would stand. From my perspective, that’s a good thing in some cases – Friedrichs being one example, Evenwel being another – and not so good in others, specifically Whole Woman’s Health and the DAPA case. In addition, in some cases that kind of result could also mean a split in the appeals courts. There are plenty of abortion restriction lawsuits out there, over laws similar to what Texas passed, and a number of other federal courts have struck them down. It’s not hard to imagine at least one appeals court upholding the lower court on those rulings, thus making laws like Texas’ legal in some states but not in others. Texas’ law is currently on hold thanks to SCOTUS, so one way to avoid this problem would be for the Court to delay hearing the appeal until they’re back at full strength. Or maybe the good Anthony Kennedy will show up and Texas’ law will get struck down on a 5-3 vote. Let’s just say that John Roberts has a lot to think about and leave it at that.

One other thing: Justice Scalia’s death has revived the idea of term limits for Supreme Court justices, an idea that has fairly broad support. Ted Cruz is a proponent of the idea, though as is always the case with Cruz, he has bad reasons for doing so. I’m perfectly fine with the idea of limiting Justices to 18 years on the bench. It’ll take a Constitutional amendment, so the odds of it happening are infinitesimal. but if it gains momentum that will be okay by me. For what it’s worth, prior to Scalia’s death, there were five Justices who had already served more than 18 years, and three of them were appointed by Republican Presidents: Scalia, Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Make of that what you will.

The Prop 7 funds are already being claimed

Get ready for a lot more road construction in the near future.

Voters have a little more than a week to decide whether to give Texas highways a $2.75 billion annual funding boost, but Houston-area officials are already making plans to spend the money.

In the event Proposition 7 passes – the proposal has silent, token opposition – officials with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Friday approved a revised 10-year spending plan that reflects when area road projects could begin, using the new money.

“Readiness will be the name of the game,” said David Wurdlow, program manager for short-range transportation planning at H-GAC. “We are going to be real aggressive to move projects forward.”

Without Proposition 7 the amount of money available for regional transportation projects is roughly $2.1 billion for the next decade, according to the current 10-year plan. Though not the only source of highway money, the funds directed by H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council are among the most significant to build or rebuild highways.

Adding Proposition 7, officials estimate, increases that total to more than $4.6 billion, taking long-sought projects and moving them much closer to reality much sooner. In fiscal year 2018, for example, Proposition 7 would increase highway spending in the Houston area from $211 million to $696 million.

In 2018 alone, Proposition 7 means an earlier start to two segments of widening Interstate 45 near NASA Bypass 1 in Webster and earlier construction on FM 2100 east of Atascocita.

Another project accelerated by planners is a long-sought widening of Texas 36. Though the road isn’t a major commuting bottleneck, widening it is a major focus Freeport and Waller County officials who contend the highway is a natural truck bypass for the Houston area.

[…]

Like Proposition 1, the money comes with some conditions. Officials cannot pay off any of Texas’ highway debt, which is how many previous transportation programs were paid. All of the funds must be used on state highways – meaning no tollways, transit or alternative modes such as bicycling can benefit.

Some non-highway projects, however, could benefit, if regional officials approve. The transportation council is made up of local elected leaders and the heads of transportation agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT’s Beaumont and Houston offices. Council members use a formula that divides the federal and state funds spent by the agency, which caps spending on non-highway projects, called alternative modes, to between 18 percent and 25 percent of total funds.

If the Proposition 7 windfall gives officials hundreds of millions of dollars more for highways, they could restructure.

“We might be able to move those (highway projects) to the proposition side and move some of those funds to alternative modes,” Wurdlow said.

Prop 7 isn’t raising any new money to spend on transportation, because we don’t do that sort of thing in Texas. It simply mandates that $2.5 billion of sales and use tax revenues in Texas specifically to transportation – in other words, it takes money from one pocket of the budget and puts it in the other. If you’re wondering why legislators who have been writing the state’s budget over the pasty few years were unable to allocate extra funds for transportation on their own, or thinking that this is just another band-aid that doesn’t actually solve anything, you would not be alone. Streetsblog and the Rivard Report present a more comprehensive case against Prop 7, but I doubt it will have much effect. Like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more highway construction in the near future. Better get used to it.

Endorsement watch: The state propositions

There are seven constitutional amendments awaiting your vote on the November ballot. The Chron evaluates them.

Constitution

Proposition 1

The amendment would boost homestead exemption amounts for school district property taxes from $15,000 to $25,000. It also would reduce the amount of taxes that could be levied on the homesteads of elderly and disabled Texans and would prevent public officials from reducing or eliminating already-approved property tax exemptions. In addition, it would keep the state from charging a transfer tax on the sale of the property.

Proposition 2

This amendment extends the property-tax exemption for spouses of deceased veterans who were 100 percent disabled. Voters approved a similar exemption in 2011, but that one applied only to spouses of veterans who died on or after Jan. 1, 2010. The current proposal eliminates the date restriction.

Proposition 3

This proposal would repeal the requirement that state officers elected by voters statewide reside in the state capital.

Proposition 4

This proposal authorizes the Legislature to permit professional sports teams to raise money through raffles during games for charity.

Proposition 5

This amendment would authorize counties with a population of 7,500 or less to perform private road construction and maintenance, raising the population cap from the current 5,000.

Proposition 6

This amendment “recognizing the right of the people to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife subject to laws that promote wildlife conservation” is the most ridiculous on the ballot.

Proposition 7

In an effort to address the state’s huge transportation needs, this amendment would require the Texas comptroller each year to dedicate the first $2.5 billion of vehicle sales use and rental taxes to the General Revenue Fund, dedicate the next $2.5 billion to the State Highway Fund and split between the two funds all revenue above that. The plan will generate an estimated $3 billion per year by 2020.

Not much to go on there, I admit. VoteTexas has the full statement of each amendment, and public radio station KUT in Austin has been doing a series of reports on each proposition; they’ve done one through five as of yesterday, so check back again later for the last two. The Chron opposes numbers 3 and 6 and supports the others. I’m “not just no but HELL NO” to those two, I’m leaning No on one and seven, and I’m fine with #s 2, 4, and 5. Kevin Barton argued against Prop 7 a few days ago. If you know of any good arguments for or against any of these, leave a link in the comments.

One side note: Proposition 1, which is basically a tax cut (and significant spending increase, not that anyone in our Republican leadership would ever admit to that), has an actual campaign behind it, as it is considered a top priority for the real estate industry and the Texas Association of Business. As such, I received a pro-Prop 1 mailer at home last week. You may note that the HERO referendum is also called Proposition 1. It’s City Proposition 1, whereas this is State Proposition 1, and it appears at the end of the ballot while the tax cut referendum is up front, but they’re both still Proposition 1. I can’t help but think that a few people will be moved to vote for the latter on the belief that they are voting for the former, or at least something related to the former. I can’t imagine there will be many people like this, but the number is surely greater than zero. Given that, I suppose it’s a good thing that the city lost its fight to word the referendum in such a way that a No vote was a vote in favor of HERO. So thanks, Andy Taylor, for seeing through the Mayor’s nefarious ploy and ensuring that this little bit of luck would favor the pro-HERO side. I’ll be sure to drink an elitist craft beer, served with quinoa chips and organic, locally sourced salsa, in your honor.

How much do you hate same sex marriage?

Not as much as this guy does.

RedEquality

Ammon J. Taylor of San Antonio is so vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage that he took the unusual step of forming a federal super PAC to fight it.

The 27-year-old salesman is taking a seldom-tried — some would say improbable — approach. He wants to muster a convention of states to amend the Constitution to enable states to quash the Supreme Court’s June ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

On July 16, Taylor registered the Restore Marriage PAC with the Federal Election Commission, naming himself president and treasurer. Moving methodically, he opened a bank account, issued a news release, created an Internet presence, and began seeking volunteers and support among fellow conservatives of all creeds.

“Most Americans think that since the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage, the issue is settled. It is not,” Taylor said when he announced the PAC.

With Congress not acting against same-sex unions, a convention of states “is our only constitutional recourse to save marriage,” he said.

For Taylor, the effort is part of living his Mormon faith. As a boy, he watched his father lead Nebraska’s initiative to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, which passed overwhelmingly in 2000 but was nullified by the court decision.

[…]

Taylor concedes it’s unlikely that enough states could be persuaded to “pass an amendment that would protect and restore marriage nationwide. We do believe we can get 34 states to come together to hold a convention to propose an amendment that allows each state to define for itself.”

With most states under Republican control, he said, “now is the best time ever to return to the states the right to determine key social and economic events that Washington has allowed to run out of control — like balancing the budget, stopping abortion and protecting traditional marriage,” Taylor said.

“How do we put the pressure on Congress to call for an amendment now? The answer is we hold a mock convention,” he said. Taylor hopes to conduct the “People’s Convention” around a July 2016 meeting of lawmakers at the American Legislative Exchange Council in Indianapolis.

A key motivation for Taylor was a Mormon leader’s prophesy that those outside Washington, D.C., would someday save the Constitution.

I’m not going to waste any time on Amman Taylor’s hateful nonsense, which he of course denies is motivated by hate because how could legally classifying millions of people as second-class citizens be anything but loving? The fact that he hopes to put his grand plan in motion at an ALEC conference is…I can’t even. Seriously. What I will do is go off on a brief rant about the difference between prophecy and prophesy, which are not only two different words that have two different pronunciations, they’re even two different kinds of words. Prophecy is a noun. It is the work product of a prophet. Prophesy is a verb. It is the action taken by a prophet to produce a prophecy. I don’t know if I blame the reporter or the copy editor (if they still have them at newspapers these days) more for this annoying and annoyingly common error, but either way, please get this right. It makes me twitch like Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther movies when I see “prophesy” used as a noun. You don’t want to do that to me, do you? Thanks.

A broader overview of the Mayor’s race

The TL;dr version of this is basically “meh, not much happening”.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With a bevy of candidates and midyear fundraising that collectively topped $7 million, Houston’s 2015 mayoral race has been poised to be a blockbuster.

Yet, just five weeks before the start of early voting, the race has remained relatively stagnant.

For the most part, the candidates still are spending little, agreeing often and floating only modestly different visions for the city’s future.

“This election has unfolded so far to be an election of single-interest forum after single-interest forum,” said local political observer Darrin Hall, who previously worked for mayors Annise Parker and Bill White. “There’s not a big picture – four major points that any candidate is exposing – like in years past.”

Put another way, the race to succeed term-limited Parker, essentially, is a popularity contest that at least five candidates still have a shot at winning, Democratic political consultant Keir Murray said.

It goes on, and while it won’t tell you much you didn’t already know if you’ve been following the race, it’s a good overview and I broadly agree with it. I am a little surprised that with all the money in the race there hasn’t been more TV advertising. If there’s one thing we should have learned from the last couple of municipal elections in this town, it’s that nobody should overestimate their name ID. Outside of Adrian Garcia, none of the candidates should be too comfortable in the percentage of voters who have heard of them. I get the argument that they;re keeping their powder dry until a runoff, but the harsh fact is that only two people are going to need it for the runoff, and if as everyone seems to think one of them will be Sylvester Turner, then I’m not sure what the purpose of waiting is.

Beyond that, the big x factor is what effect HERO will have on turnout. I feel confident saying turnout will be up from 2009, but I have no idea by how much, nor do I have any idea how many HERO-motivated voters will bother to cast ballots in the actual races. The number of HERO-only voters could be quite large. Consider that in 2005, the year of the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment, turnout in Houston was an amazing 332,154 voters, or well over 30%, but only 181,841 people cast votes in the Mayor’s race. To be fair, that year’s Mayoral election was a king-size snoozer, as Bill White cruised to re-election with over 90% of the vote, but still. Over 40% of all people who turned out to vote that year couldn’t be bothered to cast a vote for Mayor. I seriously doubt that will be the case this year, but I do believe that while more people than usual will undervote, that will still leave a lot of people casting ballots. Just compare 2005 to 2007 to see what things might have been like in the absence of a high-profile ballot item. The bottom line is that some number of people will show up specifically to vote on HERO, and some number of them will then decide that as long as they’re there, they may as well vote in those other races, too. What effect that will have on the outcomes is anyone’s guess, and the sort of thing that drives campaign managers to guzzle Pepto-Bismol.

SCOTUS rules for marriage equality

Boom.

RedEquality

Handing gay rights advocates a monumental victory, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that marriages between couples of the same sex are constitutional, a decision that overrides Texas’ long-standing ban on gay marriage.

In a 5-4 ruling, the high court found that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and that states must license a marriage between two people of the same sex.

“Today’s victory will bring joy to tens of thousands of Texans and their families who have the same dreams for marriage as any others,” Chuck Smith, executive director for the gay rights group Equality Texas, said in a statement. “We hope state officials move swiftly to implement the Constitution’s command in the remaining 13 states with marriage discrimination.”

Though the Supreme Court ruled specifically on four gay marriage cases out of a Cincinnati-based federal appeals court, its decision legalized gay marriage nationwide, dismaying Texas’ Republican leaders.

The ruling is here. I for one am thoroughly enjoying the bitter, bitter tears of those dismayed Republican leaders; you can see those and some other reactions here. Seriously, every time Ted Cruz says something hilariously apocalyptic, an angel gets its wings.

Texas’ ban, which had been on the books for a decade, defined marriage in the state Constitution as “solely the union of one man and one woman.” A legal challenge to Texas’ constitutional ban was making its way through the courts.

Two same-sex couples had sued Texas over its gay marriage ban, arguing that it did not grant them equal protection as intended by the 14th Amendment. Attorneys for the state of Texas defended the ban, saying it met equal protection laws and that the courts should not undermine a state’s sovereignty to impose such restrictions.

The Texas case was among dozens of challenges to state same-sex marriage bans that cropped up and barreled through the judicial system after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.

The Texas case was among the last to be heard at the appellate level, and it was left pending before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals at the time the Supreme Court ruled on the issue.

I wonder again, will the Fifth Circuit ever issue a ruling on that appeal, or will they simply point to SCOTUS and say “never mind”? What is the legal precedent for this? The good news is that Judge Orlando Garcia, who issued the original ruling knocking down Texas’ anti-gay marriage law, has officially lifted the stay on his ruling. There’s no legal force holding anyone back, just the obnoxiousness of some small-minded officials here.

June 26 was already a historic day for gay rights activists. On that same day in 2003, the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy ban, invalidating it and similar laws across the country. A decade later on the same day, the high court struck down key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits if they lived in states that allow same-sex marriage.

On Friday, Mark Phariss, a plaintiff in the Texas case, expressed joy at the Supreme Court ruling. “After almost 18 years together, we can soon exchange vows, place rings on each other’s finger, look each other in the eye and say, ‘I do,'” Phariss said in a statement, “all at a wedding surrounded by family and friends.”

Yes, I had thought this would wait till Monday, since there are several other decisions yet to be released, and I fell for the argument that this decision would be released last. Apparently, June 26 really is a magical day. I couldn’t be happier about it.

Look, we know that the legal wrangling is far from over, and the reactions from those bitterly crying Republican officials confirms that they are not about to give up just yet. I nearly got whiplash following the story of whether or not Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart would issue same-sex marriage licenses, and he was far from the only one dragging his feet. I’ll write up what I can for the next post. This one is all about the big accomplishment. It’s a huge step forward, one many people can’t believe they lived to see. I can hardly believe it was less than ten years ago when Texas voted to add that hateful anti-gay-marriage amendment to its constitution. I sure didn’t believe this day would happen so quickly, if a decade can be considered “quick”. But here we are, and while there will be more obstacles going forward, there’s no going back. So celebrate, rejoice, get married if that’s been on your do list, and forget the haters for a day or two. They’ll be with us always, but this weekend will only happen once. Mazel tov and God bless, y’all.

It always was about animus towards gays

TPM reviews the history of anti-gay marriage laws and constitutional amendments now that they’re on the verge of being thrown out. Opponents of marriage equality have been claiming that these laws were not enacted with any animus intended towards same-sex couples, but the arguments made at the time these laws were being debated clearly says otherwise.

RedEquality

The leading opponents of same-sex marriage have been attempting to re-write recent American history, where decades of sneering public attacks on gays and lesbians, condemnations of their “lifestyle,” and blaming them for a decline of America’s moral virtue are quietly forgotten.

Their argument, made in front of the Supreme Court, no less, is that gay marriage bans are not motivated by prejudice toward gays and lesbians, but by a more noble if newfound purpose. In the days to come, the justices will reveal whether they subscribe to this new version of history in a decision that could decide whether gay couples have the right to marry nationwide.

Sweeping cultural change coupled with past decisions by the Supreme Court have limited the options the states who continue to ban same-sex marriage have to defend those prohibitions. If gay couples are kept from marrying because of state-sanctioned “animus” — an intent to deny certain people their rights — there is little escaping a constitutional violation. As a result, the defenders of gay marriage bans had to come up with a new argument to justify the bans.

“[T]he State’s whole point is that we’re not drawing distinctions based on the identity, the orientation, or the choices of anyone,” John J. Bursch, the solicitor general of Michigan, said during the oral arguments in the case, Obergefell v. Hodges. “The State has drawn lines, the way the government has always done, to solve a specific problem. It’s not meant to exclude.”

The “problem” that bans on same-sex marriage were solving, in Bursh’s view, was keeping biological parents attached to their children. How allowing gay couples to marry threatened that attachment puzzled even some of the justices — Justice Elena Kagan called the reasoning “inexplicable.” But even more bewildering, to longtime observers of the issue, is how divorced such logic was from the original motivation for the bans.

“The states’ arguments don’t pass the straight face test, no pun intended,” Judith Schaeffer, vice president of Constitutional Accountability Center, a D.C.-based legal organization, said in an interview with TPM. “These are ridiculous arguments that are being made to cover up the fact that these discriminatory laws are motivated by a desire to keep gay people out of this important legal relationship.”

To say same-sex marriage bans were never meant to “exclude” anyone is to ignore years of anti-gay sentiments — vitriolic posters and inflammatory commentary — not to mention the comments made by elected officials when defending their opposition to same-sex marriage and enacting gay marriage bans.

Texas passed its constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage ten years ago, two years and one legislative session after passing a state Defense of Marriage Act. That meant that same-sex marriage was already illegal in the state of Texas, but the Lege wanted to make it even more illegal, and virtually impossible to overturn legislatively since a one-third minority in either chamber would be able to block it going forward. First it needed to be ratified via referendum, though, and that’s where some of the more colorful arguments in favor of the amendment took place. Looking through my archives from 2005, I spent most of my time following the folks who were working against this awful amendment, but I did link to a pair of op-eds in the Chronicle on the subject. The op-ed in favor of passing the anti-gay marriage amendment is worth your time to read. I have a hard time imagining anything like it, with its condescending and frankly insulting attitude towards same gay people in general and same sex couples in particular, would be deemed acceptable for print in a mainstream publication. I’m not going to quote any of it here because I want to encourage you to click the link and see it for yourself. We’ve come a long way in a short time, but we shouldn’t forget where we once were, and we surely shouldn’t let the people who continue to stand in our way rewrite history.

Meet your Constitutional amendments

A pretty uninspiring bunch, if you ask me.

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Now that the dust has settled on the 84th Texas Legislature, voters are getting the first official look at which constitutional amendments they will be voting on come November.

Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos on Wednesday took the last step to place seven propositions on this fall’s general election ballot, all of which were approved by two-thirds of all state lawmakers during the just-ended session. Per state law, they are chosen randomly in a drawing to assign the order in which each proposition will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.

All told, they run the gamut of state issues, from the serious to the mundane, and they create a narrative of the session that is not at all inconsistent with what really happened under the Pink Dome.

Here are the amendments, in the order they will appear on your ballot.

Proposition 1 (SJR 1)

“The constitutional amendment increasing the amount of the residence homestead exemption from ad valorem taxation for public school purposes from $15,000 to $25,000, providing for a reduction of the limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed for those purposes on the homestead of an elderly or disabled person to reflect the increased exemption amount, authorizing the legislature to prohibit a political subdivision that has adopted an optional residence homestead exemption from ad valorem taxation from reducing the amount of or repealing the exemption, and prohibiting the enactment of a law that imposes a transfer tax on a transaction that conveys fee simple title to real property.”

Proposition 2 (HJR 75)

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of all or part of the market value of the residence homestead of the surviving spouse of a 100 percent or totally disabled veteran who died before the law authorizing a residence homestead exemption for such a veteran took effect.”

Proposition 3 (SJR 52)

“The constitutional amendment repealing the requirement that state officers elected by voters statewide reside in the state capital.”

Proposition 4 (HJR 73)

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit professional sports team charitable foundations to conduct charitable raffles.”

Proposition 5 (SJR 17)

“The constitutional amendment to authorize counties with a population of 7,500 or less to perform private road construction and maintenance.”

Proposition 6 (SJR 22)

“The constitutional amendment recognizing the right of the people to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife subject to laws that promote wildlife conservation.”

Proposition 7 (SJR 5)

“The constitutional amendment dedicating certain sales and use tax revenue and motor vehicle sales, use, and rental tax revenue to the state highway fund to provide funding for nontolled roads and the reduction of certain transportation-related debt.”

I will be voting No on #s 3 and 7 and probably on 1, Yes on #2, and I have no idea yet on the others. What about you?