Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Joan Huffman

Senate approves pointless appeals court

There’s more than one way to attack Democratic appellate court justices.

Sen. Joan Huffman

The Texas Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create a new statewide court of appeals that would hear cases that have statewide significance — including ones that challenge state laws, the constitution or when the state or its agencies are sued.

Currently, when such cases go to the intermediate appellate level, they are mostly heard by the 3rd Court of Appeals based in Austin. That court’s judges are elected by voters in Democratic-leaning Travis County. Senate Bill 1529, though, would send the cases to the new appellate court whose judges would be elected by voters statewide — an electorate that skews Republican.

Some of the state’s highest profile cases could be affected by this proposed court. Bill author Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said that recent lawsuits surrounding Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic emergency orders are examples of types of litigation the proposed court would have jurisdiction over.

Critics say the proposed new court is a Republican attempt to yank jurisdiction of these cases from Democrats.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals has five Democrats and only one Republican. Currently, all statewide elected judges are Republican, including on the Texas Supreme Court — and it’s likely the proposed court would also be all Republican.

“Since the [3rd Court of Appeals] deals with issues facing state government, it’s a thorn in the Republican Party side,” Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, said in an interview. “And so by transitioning that by moving that to a statewide election where Republicans have the advantage, they would be able to, most likely, flip from being a Democratic majority… to a [5-0] Republican advantage.”

Huffman maintains that she wrote the bill to promote consistency — not for partisan reasons.

“The new court has five justices elected statewide so that all Texans have a voice in electing those who decide cases of statewide significance,” she said from the Senate floor Tuesday. “It’s important for judges deciding cases of statewide importance to be familiar with specialized jurisprudence to provide consistent rulings for state litigants.”

[…]

Democrats on Tuesday raised constitutional concerns related to this bill, asking if the Legislature has the authority to create an appellate court with statewide jurisdiction, overlapping the current district system. Huffman maintains that it does.

“We’ll have to see you in court on this one,” Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said.

Darlene Byrne, chief justice on the 3rd Court of Appeals and a Democrat, said in an interview she thinks the bill is “bad policy and bad for statewide jurisprudence.”

Byrne also said the new structure would promote large campaigns.

“I don’t know of a Supreme Court race that costs less than a million dollars per candidate,” she said. “So this new statewide court is going to be mega-big donors infusing big money to influence the judiciary. And I thought we were trying to get away from that — but apparently not.”

Linda Thomas, a former Republican chief justice of the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals, said she believed the bill was unnecessary.

“As a retired judge, I think it’s a little disingenuous, and in some ways, insulting to the sitting justices of this state to indicate that they are not capable of handling complex business cases,” Thomas said.

I noted this in passing in my initial post about appellate court redistricting, the bill for which has since been withdrawn for the time being. I tend to agree with Justice Thomas, and I also think that insult was a feature and not a bug. Sen. Huffman’s justification for this new court is ridiculous on its face, because all of the lawsuits in question start out in a district court, with a judge that was elected by local voters in far lesser numbers than for appellate court justices. That’s not exactly conducive to “consistent rulings for state litigants”. Why not go whole hog and create an entirely separate court system for “cases of statewide importance” (whatever that means, and I’ll bet that very topic becomes a contentious point of appeals in itself) so as to avoid local yokel judges making insufficiently erudite rulings? One could argue that Sen. Huffman is actually making a back-handed case for ending the election of judges in the first place. At least that would be a more honest approach to this.

I have no idea what the prospects are for this in the House, but I do feel confident that there will be litigation if and when this does pass. That lawsuit would eventually come before a district court of appeals, as one presumes it would be halted from taking effect pending the litigation, before ultimately being decided by the Supreme Court. I’ll leave it to you to sort out where that all lands on the Irony-o-Meter.

Bill to delay primaries passes Senate

As expected.

Sen. Joan Huffman

The 2022 primary elections in Texas could be pushed back to April or May under a bill moving through the state Legislature.

Because of delays in U.S. Census Bureau data needed to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts, the Texas Senate passed a bill on Thursday that could push the state’s primary to April 5, or if the delays persist, to May 24.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, said at this point Texas might not have the needed census data until deep into the summer. If they get the maps drawn up and passed into law fast enough, the March 1 primary would go on as planned. But if the maps aren’t put into law until after Nov. 22, the primary would shift to April 5.

If the maps are not done until after Jan. 3, the primary would shift to May 24.

[…]

Huffman said she’s trying to put the Legislature in the best position possible in light of the census data delays.

“The bill will serve as a signal that the Legislature fully intends to complete the redistricting task once the census data is received,” she said.

We’ve known about the need for this for months, due to issues with receiving the Census data. It was just a question of how far back the primaries would need to be pushed. Sen. Huffman’s bill is SB1822, and I expect it will easily pass the House and be signed with no fuss.

Appellate court redistricting bill withdrawn

I had a post all ready to go yesterday with more on the bill to redistrict the appellate courts, and then this happened on Thursday night:

This is not the end of it – there will be at least one special session on legislative redistricting, after all – but whatever does happen, it won’t be in this session. So the post that I had queued up for Friday morning became out of date, and so here we are. The original post is beneath the fold because it’s still worth reading, so click on for more. Whatever made this delay happen, I’m glad for it. Hopefully we will get a better bill out of this in the end, but we can’t take that for granted. The Chron story from Friday about this is here.

(more…)

Let’s get rid of Democratic appellate court justices

If that’s the Legislature’s goal, then this would be an effective way of accomplishing it.

A Texas Senate committee [heard] public comment Thursday on a controversial proposal to consolidate the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts into just seven, a move opponents have criticized as gerrymandering but that supporters say will make the courts more efficient and cure knotty court splits.

A committee substitute to S.B. 11 proposes dramatic changes to the organization of the state’s appellate districts: It would combine Houston’s two appellate courts, merge the Dallas and Austin districts together, lasso Waco and Eastland into a division with Texarkana and Fort Worth, and move two San Antonio justices to Midland in a district that would span roughly 500 miles — from Kendall County just southwest of Austin to the state’s western edge and include El Paso — among other changes.

The state’s current number and location of appellate courts largely reflects the state’s demographics, economy and travel conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP partner Scott Brister wrote in a 2003 Houston Bar Association article.

Brister, who formerly served as a Texas Supreme Court justice and chief justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston, told Law360 the districts need to be updated and consolidated.

“I just think 14 is too many,” he said. “They’re not located where all the people and the cases are.”

Yet opponents of the consolidation plan say it is blatant gerrymandering, and the worst instance of it they’ve seen in the Texas judiciary.

Elsa Alcala, a former justice on the First Court of Appeals in Houston and Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals, took to Twitter to call out the plan, writing “This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with electing Republicans to the bench.”

Since the 2018 general election, a wave of Democratic justices have ousted Republican from Texas appellate benches in record numbers, largely concentrated in urban population centers.

Alcala told Law360 that in the past the Legislature has changed jurisdictions one county at a time, but lawmakers have never proposed completely eradicating certain appellate courts like the proposed committee substitute bill does.

“This is the most significant and blatant change I’ve ever seen,” she said.

S.B. 11 originally called for a realignment of five counties that are currently under the jurisdiction of two appellate courts outside of the Houston district to eliminate overlapping jurisdiction between multiple courts.

Details for the new bill were leaked and spread on social media Tuesday, but the bill’s text [hadn’t] yet been made public. Law360 has reviewed a map detailing the new appellate districts as well as a bill summary and a table explaining how the 80 Texas justices would be distributed among the new districts.

According to the bill summary, consolidating the appellate districts would balance a “highly unbalanced” workload across the courts, an issue the Texas judiciary has dealt with for years through a docket equalization program that transfers cases when needed. The summary cites workload data showing that, between 2015 and 2019, the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso received an average of 79 appeals per justice compared to 158 appeals per justice in the Third Court of Appeals in Austin.

[…]

During her time on the First Court of Appeals, which has nine justices, Alcala said she would frequently review opinions handed down by her colleagues to make sure she didn’t have any qualms about their rulings. But on a court with 21 justices, it would be impossible to review all those decisions, she said.

Lawyers are also concerned that larger benches could cause issues at the ballot box.

Alcala said there’s already an issue with the public being able to make informed choices during elections about the various judges on the ballot. Expanding the court’s jurisdictions would mean more judges for the public to inform themselves about before voting.

Brister acknowledged that under the committee’s substitute, voting would look different. He would be concerned if he were a judge in Texarkana on the state’s eastern border with Arkansas, for example, because under the new district alignment, there’s a good chance voters from the more populous Fort Worth would control outcomes in the district and knock some small-town judges off the bench.

Christopher Kratovil, managing partner of Dykema Gossett PLLC’s Dallas office, told Law360 he can see both sides of the consolidation argument but believes the committee’s substitute isn’t the proper way to redistrict the state.

“I do think there are some good-faith efficiency arguments for reducing the number of intermediate appellate courts in the state,” he said. “That said, this is not based on efficiency. If we’re being honest about this, it is a partisan gerrymandered map to return control of the majority of the state intermediate appellate courts to the Republican party.”

Other attorneys, like solo appellate practitioner Chad Ruback, are upset that information about the committee substitute bill hasn’t been released ahead of Thursday’s public hearing. The original version of S.B. 11 is currently attached to agenda materials for the meeting.

“That doesn’t give the appellate judiciary — or appellate lawyers who regularly practice in front of them — much time to analyze the potential ramifications of the proposed changes in advance of the hearing,” he said. “That looks awfully suspicious.”

See here for the background. Not being transparent about the process or giving anyone the time to review the bill in question is on brand for the Republicans. To give you a sense of what this looks like, here’s a picture from the story:

This Twitter thread from Dylan Drummond gives you the data:

Maybe the new Fifth Circuit, with Dallas and Travis Counties, or the Third, with Bexar County and South Texas, would lean Democratic. I’d have to do a more in depth analysis. Katie Buehler, the reporter of the story linked above, attended the hearing and reported that Sen. Nathan Johnson said it would be a 5-2 split. Whatever the case, I guarantee you that someone with strong Republican credentials has already done such an analysis, and these districts are drawn in a maximally beneficial way for Republicans. What would even be the point from their perspective if that wasn’t the case?

You’ve read many bloviations from me over the years about why calls to change the way we select judges from the current system of partisan elections to something else were mostly a smokescreen to disguise complaints about the fact that Democrats were now winning many of those elections. It has never escaped my notice that we only began seeing those calls for change after the 2008 election, when Dems broke through in Harris County, and it moved to DefCon 1 following the 2018 election. If nothing else, I thank Sen. Joan Huffman for putting the lie to the idea that the motivating factor behind those calls for change was a fairer or more equitable or more merit-based system for picking judges, or that “taking politics out of the system” had anything to do with it. No, it is exactly what I thought it was from the beginning, a means to ensure that as many judges are Republican as possible. There may well be legitimate merits to rethinking the appellate court system in Texas – I’m not an appellate lawyer, I have no idea – but it’s crystal clear that this ain’t it. This is a full employment program for Republicans who want to be judges. That’s what we’ll get if this bill passes.

Which it has now done from the Senate committee, on a partisan 3-2 vote. For a report from the committee hearing, where multiple appellate court justices from both parties testified against SB11, see Law360 and The Texas Lawbook. This is easily the biggest redistricting matter going on right now it’s getting very little attention so far. (The DMN has a story, but it’s subscriber-only, which limits the impact.) Let’s not let this slip through without being noticed.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story as well, and it contains this knee-slapper:

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, also an attorney, asked Huffman if she took partisanship into consideration when making the maps.

“Some people think this is going to result in five Republican courts and two Democratic courts,” Johnson said. “Do you think that would accurately represent the partisan breakdown of this state?”

Huffman said she did not consider political makeup in drawing the maps and didn’t know how her plan might alter that.

Yeah, that’s obvious bullshit. Anyone with a list of counties per appellate district and access to recent state election results could tell you in five minutes what the likely orientation of each district would look like. Joan Huffman isn’t stupid, but if that’s what she claims then she thinks the rest of us are.

One more thing:

Another bill introduced by Huffman would create a statewide Court of Appeals that would have exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases of statewide significance filed by or against state agencies or officials. The justices on the court, seated in Austin, would be elected on a statewide ballot. No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.

That bill was met with similar opposition and accusations of partisan motivation. It, too, was referred to the full Senate on a 3-2 party line vote.

This appears to be SB1529, and I heard about it yesterday for the first time. I have no idea what problem (real, imagined, or political) this is intended to solve. Any thoughts from the lawyers out there?

Republicans take aim at bail reform

Lots of bad ideas in here.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Members of the Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence held their first hearing this week over Senate Bill 21, a controversial bail reform bill backed by Republicans.

The purpose of the bill according to its author Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) is to prevent repeat violent offenders from committing new crimes after being released on personal bond. A personal bond is an agreement to appear in court that allows a defendant to be released without any financial obligation, unlike a cash bond or a surety bond with a bail company.

Opponents who testified against the legislation Thursday warned that language of the bill goes much further than simply attempting to keep violent criminals locked up.

“This is a work in progress, I know this bill is not perfect, I know it’s not ready to be passed,” Huffman, who chairs the committee said at the beginning of the hearing.

Under the text of the bill, a person charged with a crime would not be eligible for release if they have recently failed to appear in court for another offense, if they have been charged with any other crime after being released on bond, or if they have been recently convicted of a felony, Class A or B misdemeanor. That includes charges for resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, prostitution and many other non-violent offenses.

To be clear, so-called violent repeat offenders would still be able to be bailed out of jail, just not on personal bond, which waives the financial obligation meant to incentive someone to appear in court.

[…]

Mike Fields, a former Republican judge in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 14, testified against the bill calling it an “overreach” and a return to the bad old days.

Fields said he was an original defendant in the O’Donnell lawsuit, the major lawsuit that was filed against the county’s wealth-based bail detention system and which ended in a settlement that allowed for the release of a majority of misdemeanor defendants.

“I switched from my position of opposition to the O’Donnell lawsuit to agreeing with it, I was only one of two judges who did,” Fields said.

He said that the 72 homicides in Harris County committed by people out on bond in 2020 — a figure cited by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg earlier in her testimony in support of the bill — were largely done by defendants with surety bond, or bonds posted by a bail bond company.

“I learned after 20 years of being a Republican judge in Harris County, that money does not make us safer,” Fields said. “Conditions make us safer. Assessment makes us safer. Using smarter strategies to keep people who need to be incarcerated, incarcerated, and those who don’t out. That’s what makes us safer.”

Fields said the conflation with misdemeanor and felony cases had led to legislation like SB 21 that would cast a broad net hurting taxpayers and slowing the work of criminal courts.

Emily Garrick, an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a criminal justice nonprofit and one of the groups involved in the O’Donnell v. Harris County lawsuit, said SB 21 would allow people who don’t have money to stay in jail and those who do to be released from jail despite having similar charges — a violation of the decision by federal judges that ruled Harris County’s wealth-based pre-trial detention system to be unconstitutional for that very reason.

Another aspect of SB 21 grilled during the hearing was the bill’s restrictions on charitable bail organizations, or groups (often churches or advocacy groups) that organize bail funds to help defendants who could otherwise not pay for their release. Among other things, the bill would only allow charitable bail organizations to pay bail bonds for defendants charged with misdemeanors and would restrict them from paying no more than $2,000 for each defendant they want to help.

This Trib story from earlier in March covered a lot of this ground already, while Grits has noted that much of this bill is or will be in conflict with federal court rulings. This is a classic “solution in search of a problem” situation, with a side order of retaliation against Harris County and its Democratic judiciary. It’s very likely that this bill will evolve before it comes to a vote, but it’s much less likely that it will transform into something productive.

Republicans are determined to learn the wrong lessons from the blackouts

It’s kind of amazing, and yet completely on brand.

With millions of Texans having lost power during the winter storms, key players in the Legislature say one of the most immediate reforms they will push for is recalibrating the state’s electricity grid to ensure more fossil fuels are in that mix and fewer renewables.

While all energy sources were disrupted during the historic freeze, Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature say renewables have been given all the attention over the years, yet proved to be unhelpful during the state’s crisis.

“It’s cool to be into wind and solar these days, but the problem is it leaves us frigid in the winter,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who leads the GOP caucus in the Texas Senate.

Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said most of the generating plants that went offline this week were natural gas, coal or nuclear facilities. But still, Republicans have singled out wind and solar as targets over the objections of Democrats and renewable energy advocates.

Texas utilities ratepayers have funded more than $7 billion over the last eight years building transmission lines to take wind power from West Texas to the big cities. It’s made Texas the biggest wind producer in the nation.

But Bettencourt and other Republicans say advantages like federal subsidies for wind and solar have to be evened out.

“We need a baseload energy generation strategy in Texas that is reliable and not based upon renewables so strongly,” he said.

Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, this week reupped a bill he filed last session that would require ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission to write rules that would “eliminate or compensate for market distortion caused by certain federal tax credits.”

“It’s not just the frozen wind turbines; it’s the fact that they even exist that is creating the problem,” said Patterson, who works as an energy consultant. “Their existence, their heavily subsidized existence on our grid is creating a shortage of energy supply because no one else can compete against them.”

[…]

Blaming renewables is misguided and politically motivated, said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

“There is no energy source that doesn’t receive subsidies,” Shelley said. “There have been energy tax credits for fossil fuel sources for a hundred years, so to target the renewable tax credit … it’s pretty disingenuous.”

[…]

But while there may be reforms to ERCOT, not many Republicans are talking about the prospect of ordering the state’s nearly 700 power plants to invest in weatherization and what that would cost.

ERCOT officials said earlier this week in a statewide press conference that while it was recommended power plants weatherize after winter storms in 2011 knocked out power, those were voluntary requests and not mandatory.

Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat and senior mechanical engineer in the oil and gas industry, said he is working on legislation that would build in more reserve energy supply for Texas, such as by hooking up the state to the nationally interconnected system, or offering financial incentives for providers to increase back-up power.

Rosenthal would also like to see reliability standards introduced that require generators to weatherize their systems. He said he knows that adding more regulations will be an uphill battle in the Republican-majority Legislature but believes there is a “happy medium” that can be struck.

“While the common argument ‘we don’t want regulation so we can provide electricity as cheaply as possible’ does provide cheap energy a lot of the time, these disasters are horrendously expensive,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve heard insurance folks saying this could be the costliest ever natural disaster in Texas. So you make a little bit of an investment in your infrastructure to ensure that you don’t have these disastrous consequences.”

He added: “And it’s not just the cost of it. It’s the human suffering.”

How it is that they could have missed the voluminous reporting about how the same freeze we all just endured also caused problems for gas and coal plants since they both involve water and that water was frozen solid is an eternal mystery, but here we are. We’ve literally had thirty years’ of warnings about the need to weatherize our power plants and wind turbines, and this is the response we get from Paul Bettencourt and his cronies. It would cost money – I forget where I read this now, but I saw one back-of-the-envelope estimate of about $2 billion for the whole system – but that can be paid in part by the power generators and in part by the state, with cash from the Rainy Day Fund or a bond issuance if need be.

Doing that might require changing the financial incentives for the operators, and it might require shudder regulating the energy market – certainly, ERCOT or some other governing body will need enforcement power, because simply asking the operators nicely to invest in weatherizing hasn’t worked so far – and it even might require rejoining the national power grid, which has its own pros and cons but would come with federal enforcement of weatherization standards. There are many viable options. We don’t have to choose the stupid, head-in-the-frozen-tundra option that Bettencourt et al seem hellbent on doing.

One more thing, which I find equal parts amusing and puzzling: All this antagonism towards wind energy seems to overlook the fact that a large number of wind farms and turbines are in the Panhandle and West Texas, easily two of the most Republican parts of the state. Do these Republican legislators and other currently trashing wind energy – the Observer quotes a Facebook post by Sid Miller that says “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas”, for instance – not realize that they’re kicking sand on their own people? I don’t even know what to make of that, but I do know that part of the 2022 Democratic message needs to be targeted at those folks. Texas Monthly has more.

Appellate court redistricting

We’ll need to keep an eye on this.

Justice Bonnie Sudderth

Justices on the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts are talking—some are concerned—about a pair of bills filed in the Texas Legislature that propose redistricting the courts’ boundaries.

House Bill 339 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, currently only propose minor tweaks to the Fifth, Sixth and 12th Courts of Appeal to remove their overlapping jurisdictions over five rural Texas counties.

However, multiple sources told Texas Lawyer that the current versions are only “placeholders” or “shell bills” that would change during the legislative session to make bigger changes to the appellate court boundaries.

King and Huffman each didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.

But the uncertainty about what the bills will wind up doing is leading to concern among justices.

“I can’t speak for 80 justices across the state, but I’d say there are certainly justices who are talking about it,” said Chief Justice Bonnie Sudderth of Fort Worth’s Second Court of Appeals, who is chairwoman of the Council of Chief Justices. ”What is there to talk about, until we see what it is?”

David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said that staff for the House and Senate committees that handle bills about the justice system have requested data from his office about the courts’ workloads and the number of appeals that are transferred between appellate courts.

“I think they are looking at it for those reasons,” he explained, adding that his office isn’t taking any position about redistricting. “We haven’t seen a plan. It’s hard to read or think of how it would affect the administration of justice, without seeing a plan.”

He added that the idea to redistrict the appellate court lines did not come from inside of the Texas judiciary.

“There’s some proposals out there from groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform that reduce the number of appellate courts,” said Slayton.

[…]

That plan proposes:

  • First District: Merger of current First and 14th Courts of Appeal in Houston with 18 justices.
  • Second District: Merger of Third, Fourth and 13th Courts of Appeal in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi with 19 justices.
  • Third District: Merger of Fifth and Sixth Courts of Appeal in Dallas and Texarkana, but without four counties that overlap in another district, with 16 justices.
  • Fourth District: Merger of Second, Seventh, Eighth and 11th Courts of Appeal in Fort Worth, Amarillo, El Paso and Eastland, with 16 justices.
  • Fifth District: Merger of Ninth, 10th and 12th Courts of Appeal in Beaumont, Waco and Tyler, with 11 justices.

The other proposals in the paper would create different mixes based on mergers of existing appellate districts.

The paper in question is here, and TLR’s priorities for the appellate courts are here. It should go without saying that Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a villain, and while some of their ideas in this instance may have merit, everything they do should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

George Christian, senior counsel with the Texas Civil Justice League, another tort reform advocacy group, said that the current districts aren’t in line with modern Texas. Redrawing the boundaries could make the judiciary more efficient. Yet he acknowledged redistricting involves politics and stirs up intense debate.

In recent elections, appellate courts in Travis, Harris and Dallas counties were swept by Democratic candidates. The discussion about redistricting the appellate courts now may lead to questions.

“There is a very legitimate question people will ask,” Christian said. “Why the sudden interest in the appellate courts, now that a lot of Democrats are winning those elections?”

I think we know the answer to that question. I’ve raised this point before, and it’s just another thing we have to watch out for. In theory, this could be done during the regular session, as these court districts are not based on Census data and don’t have a mandate to have equal sizes. We’ll know when and if HB339 and SB11 get committee hearings.

Census apportionment shenanigans to be officially curtailed

As it should be.

The Trump administration’s protracted efforts to keep some immigrants from being counted when congressional seats are divvied up after the 2020 census ended with the former president’s departure from the White House, but President Joe Biden’s administration inherits a census running far behind schedule.

Among his first acts after being inaugurated, Biden on Wednesday is expected to sign an executive order undoing his predecessor’s plan to keep undocumented immigrants from being included in the state-by-state tallies that determine how those living in the U.S. are represented in Congress for the next 10 years.

Trump’s scheme to fundamentally alter the process had already been foiled by processing delays, but Biden’s order serves as an official reversal as state lawmakers wait for the detailed census results they need to reconfigure political districts to reflect a decade’s worth of population growth.

The most significant effect for Texas politically remains an extended delay in the Legislature’s efforts to redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative districts, and part of the job could ultimately fall to a Legislative Redistricting Board or the courts.

Texas lawmakers would ordinarily expect to receive detailed data from the census as soon as mid-February — marking an unofficial kickoff to the redrawing of political districts so they’re roughly equal in population. Instead, the Texas Legislature is operating on uncertainty.

The coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country last year just as it was set to begin the high-stakes, once-a-decade count of every person living in the U.S., setting back elaborate plans for counting communities and the deadline for tallying by several months. With the release of that data delayed — and amid political turmoil at the Census Bureau — it remains unclear whether lawmakers will even be able to embark on the redistricting process before the end of the regular legislative session in May.

“It appears to me [that] a reasonable person would look at what is occurring today and believe the numbers would not come until early summer, but don’t hold me to that,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who chairs the Senate redistricting committee, said on the Senate floor last week.

[…]

The Census Bureau was statutorily required to produce the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats each state gets by Dec. 31, but lawyers for the federal government indicated in court hearings that those counts won’t be ready until early March because anomalies in the data must be fixed. The detailed census results used to redraw districts come in a second dataset that must be delivered to states by March 31. The federal government has not provided details on when that data will be available.

In 2011, the Census Bureau began delivering the second dataset to Texas lawmakers on Feb. 17.

In announcing his executive order on Wednesday, the Biden transition team indicated the president would “ensure that the Census Bureau has time to complete an accurate population count for each state” in search of apportionment that is “fair and accurate so federal resources are efficiently and fairly distributed for the next decade.”

“I think at this point the delays are probably a good thing” because the data is being scrubbed for accuracy, said Joaquin Gonzalez, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has been pushing for a more transparent redistricting process at the state Capitol.

In a joint statement released earlier this month, a group of former directors of the Census Bureau indicated it was “appropriate” for the bureau to take the necessary time to ensure the count was accurate given the delays caused by the pandemic.

However, state lawmakers are up against a constitutional clock that says state House and Senate seats must be redrawn by the Legislature during the first regular legislative session after the census is published. If they fail to do so, the Legislative Redistricting Board — a panel made up by the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the attorney general, the state comptroller and the state land commissioner — takes over the mapping with no requirement to hold hearings for public input.

“In some ways, the worst case scenario is that the data comes down to the states in May or something like that because then the Legislature really doesn’t have time to do its job correctly, but because of the state constitution, the state districts would automatically get sent to the [Legislative Redistricting Board],” Gonzalez said. “In terms of public participation and transparency, that’s sort of the worst case scenario.”

See here for the previous update. I have been assuming that the redistricting process would have to occur in a special session anyway – it just never seemed like there would be enough time to fit it into the regular session. Dems strategy will apparently be to force the matter to the courts, which was the scenario for Congressional map-drawing if they had taken the House and no agreement could be reached. Don’t know if that can work, but it’s a strategy. Putting that aside, the main result here is that Texas will get a full count, and will get the likely three new Congressional districts that it merits. I’ll never get over the fact that our state leaders didn’t fight for that, but it happened anyway without them. You’re welcome.

No consensus on partisan judicial elections

Even the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection can’t agree.

There’s always been room for disagreement on the question of how to select judges in Texas. That won’t change in recommendations by the Lone Star State’s latest commission looking at the issue.

With a report to the Texas Legislature coming due this month, the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection met on Friday to vote on the recommendations it would include for Texas lawmakers to consider. The commission members’ votes were split down the middle when they were asked if Texas should stop electing judges as Republicans or Democrats and switch to a method where a commission initially appoints judges, who then run in retention elections. But the members found more agreement with smaller reforms, such as increasing the minimum qualifications to be a judge or further regulating how judges can use money in their campaigns.

When the final report comes out, it will say that Texas should not continue with partisan judicial elections. But that decision was highly divisive, with an 8-7 vote.

Most of the “no” votes came from Texas senators and representatives—both Republicans and Democrats—who serve on the commission. If their view is similar to their colleagues in the Texas Legislature, the recommendation has a slim-to-none chance of passing the lawmaking body.

“Constituents have relayed to me they do not want to have their rights taken away from them on judges they want to serve on these benches,” said Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he would not take away Texans’ constitutional rights.

“I’m going to be voting to stay with the current method of partisan selection, but I’m encouraging us to increase qualifications on the judges,” he said.

Considering that a majority of the commission did vote to recommend eliminating partisan judge races, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she would not sign off on the commission’s report, and did not want her name associated with it, unless the report clearly explained her disagreement.

“We’re going to set forth exactly what the vote was, so everyone knows what they are agreeing to and what they are not,” replied commission Chairman David Beck, a partner in Beck Redden in Houston who added that Huffman could write a separate statement in the report about her viewpoint.

Another divisive vote asked if the commission should recommend that Texas create a judicial selection commission that would initially appoint judges to the bench, and then they would run in retention elections to keep their seats. The commission was tied on the idea by a 7-7 vote, with one member abstaining. Again, it was the legislator-members of the commission who said no.

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, and I said quite a bit of it in those two posts, so I’ll leave it at that. The Commission‘s report is due today, so we’ll see what they have to say. They did find more agreement on questions of mandating more experience for judicial candidates and for further regulating campaign contributions for judicial races. As a philosophical matter, I’m fine with those ideas, though of course the details will matter. The bottom line here seems to be that there’s zero appetite in the Legislature to make fundamental changes to our judicial election system. As I’ve said many times, until someone actually comes up with a viable alternate system that addresses the actual complaints people have with the current system without introducing other problems, this is how it should be.

UPDATE: Here’s a Trib story about this.

Will we have redistricting hearings?

Not looking great for it right now.

In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Republicans have quietly halted plans to hold a series of public input hearings across more than 20 cities, slated to occur earlier this year, to collect public testimonials from Texans about redistricting. These testimonials would be a critical tool to help group communities which share common social and economic interests, voting patterns, and local preferences as new district maps are being drawn.

A coalition of 42 advocacy groups have taken notice of this indefinite stoppage and are demanding for the resumption of public hearings on redistricting in a safe and accessible format.

[…]

In an effort to remedy urgent concerns about the lack of preclearance and increase transparency in the upcoming 2020 redistricting process, Texas lawmakers planned for a series of public input hearings earlier this year, led by the House and Senate Redistricting Committees. Both committees are led by Republicans, Rep. Phil King and Sen. Joan Huffman, respectively.

The House and Senate originally planned for a limited public hearing schedule, however, the Texas Civil Rights Project built a coalition of groups to successfully agitate for the geographic expansion of these public hearings to reach across every corner of the state, from Austin and Houston to Amarillo and Weslaco. Then, COVID-19 swept across the state.

Because state leadership prematurely opened the state and failed to enact safety measures to control the pandemic, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed to nearly 600,000 infections and have claimed nearly 11,000 lives, disproportionately killing Black and Latinx Texans. South Texas communities along the U.S.-Mexico border have the highest infection rates across the entire nation.

Due to the pandemic, public hearings for redistricting were indefinitely postponed in March. However, in the past four months since, the legislature has failed to provide a plan to resume the hearings with a modified schedule or different format.

The Texas Civil Rights Project argues that resuming this process to hear from Texans and receive community input is both urgent and vital to avoid further suppression and the dilution of voting power of Black and Brown communities.

You can see a copy of the letter and who signed it, along with a list of the cities where hearings had been tentatively scheduled, here. I attended one of these for the 2011 reapportionment, and there was a lot of interesting information that was presented, with several members of the public having useful things to say. The point of these hearings is to give the public a chance to understand what the data looks like and how any proposed new maps may affect their communities, while also giving the committee members a chance to hear about concerns and issues that they might not otherwise know about. It’s the least they can do, in my opinion, and even with a pandemic there needs to be a way to bring this opportunity to the people. Zoom meetings have their pros and cons, but they could certainly be used here, and would allow for people not in any of those 20 cities to attend without having to travel. Something is better than nothing, and right now nothing is what we have.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Ken Paxton ever be prosecuted?

At this point, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely.

Best mugshot ever

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.

See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.

At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.

Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.

The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.

That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.

That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.

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.

Senate passes scooter safety bill

Cool.

Sen. Royce West

Texans could soon be banned from riding electric scooters along sidewalks in the cities where the divisive devices have recently popped up. The Texas Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would add that prohibition and require that scooter users be at least 16 years old.

Citing safety concerns, some local governments have imposed restrictions on electric scooters, like creating restricted areas where they can’t be used — but Texas legislators wanted to impose minimum statewide guidelines.

“It’s like the wild, wild west out there with no rules,” said state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Senate Bill 549, authored by Dallas Democrat state Sen. Royce West, would also prohibit more than two people from riding a scooter at once. Plus, the bill adds new guidelines for parking, so a rider can’t obstruct a road or sidewalk when they finish their ride.

[…]

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, decried the prohibition from riding on sidewalks, saying that there are some situations where it’s safer for a rider be on the sidewalk than on the street. But Houston Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, who says she’s been nearly hit three times by a scooter, said the sidewalk ban is key for safety.

“What about my personal liberty, my personal safety, when I’m walking on a sidewalk?” she said. “Not a side scooter-way, a side runway, or a side speedway — but a sidewalk.”

See here for the background. I don’t know what Sen. Hughes’ experience is, but we ban bicycles on sidewalks, too, and for the same reason. I’ll be rooting for this one in the House.

Raising the smoking age

I’m fine with this.

A long-stalled push to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco and e-cigarettes in Texas has a puff of momentum, thanks to early hearings in both chambers, strong support from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a surprising and quiet change of position by one of Big Tobacco’s leading corporations.

GOP leaders of powerful committees in the House and Senate are again lead authors of proposals that would raise the legal age for buying cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. Since 2007, such proposals have failed to pass into law for lack of support from Republicans who control the Legislature.

But there’s another new twist: Big Tobacco registering support for raising the legal age for buying smokes. Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco company, “supports raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to twenty-one.” and encourages the Texas Legislature to enact the proposal “without delay,” an Altria Client Services executive, Jennifer Hunter, said in written testimony submitted to the House Committee on Public Health this month.

Hunter’s statement did not acknowledge that Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes and owns a stake in Juul, the leading maker of e-cigarettes, opposed a similar Texas proposal during the 2017 session. That year, an age-hiking measure offered by Republican Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond physician, died short of House consideration.

Hunter’s statement said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s 2018 call to address a national surge in the use of e-vapor products among 12- to 17-year-olds led Altria to “believe the time has come to enact legislation” raising the legal purchasing age to 21.

“We are supporting this step because we believe it is the most effective step available to reverse rising underage e-vapor rate,” Altria’s statement said. “Data shows that youth under eighteen get tobacco products — including e-vapor — primarily through ‘social access,’ that is, from friends or siblings who are” 18 or older, Hunter said.

Hunter added: “By raising the minimum age to twenty-one, no high school student should be able to purchase tobacco products legally.”

[…]

Several vape shopkeepers urged the House panel to reject the change in age while Schell Hammell of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association — which has as a slogan, “Saving Vaping Every Day” — said the group hopes lawmakers clarify the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate sales.

In 2017, Zerwas, who chairs the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee, shrugged off criticisms of the raise-the-age proposal.

“There’s obviously some people who are going to see this as an infringement on rights and stuff, and those voices need to be heard,” Zerwas said then. “And yeah, that’s a loss of potential revenue, but one we can probably make up somewhere else.

“What’s more important than the health of our youth and future generations?”

Multiple individuals told the Senate panel Monday that the move to raise the age is a bad idea, particularly because the change would incongruously keep young men and women who risk their lives by enlisting in the military from being able to make their own choices to use cigarettes and e-cigs.

That’s the one argument that has any merit, in my opinion. Eighteen isn’t universal, however, as the drinking age can attest. The very clear health benefits of a 21-year smoking age versus an 18-year smoking age is more than enough to outweigh the philosophical objections. According to the Chron, one of these bills – SB21 in the Senate, HB749 in the House – has a solid chance of passing. I’m rooting for them.

Precinct analysis: 2018 State Senate

The day I look forward to since November has finally arrived – all the data from the last election is now available on the Texas Legislative Council webpage. You know what that means: It’s statewide precinct analysis time! Let’s start where we started two years ago at this time, with the State Senate, for whom 2018 data is here. I will boil this down into the bits of greatest interest.


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
SD02   40.6%   41.3%   36.0%   40.1%   40.5%   39.5%   37.3%
SD05   41.5%   44.6%   38.1%   42.5%   42.8%   41.9%   39.2%
SD07   40.3%   43.9%   38.5%   42.3%   42.9%   42.5%   39.5%
SD08   48.8%   50.6%   43.0%   47.6%   48.6%   47.1%   44.3%
SD09   46.0%   48.9%   42.8%   46.0%   47.0%   46.2%   43.8%
SD10   51.7%   53.3%   47.1%   50.8%   51.6%   50.9%   48.3%
SD11      NA   41.5%   36.2%   39.9%   40.7%   40.6%   37.5%
SD12      NA   43.3%   36.5%   40.5%   41.2%   40.2%   37.3%
SD16   54.1%   55.9%   46.9%   52.6%   53.9%   52.3%   48.1%
SD17   46.8%   51.8%   44.6%   49.7%   50.7%   50.0%   45.1%
SD19      NA   56.8%   50.2%   53.7%   55.4%   55.3%   53.3%
SD25   42.3%   45.2%   38.4%   42.4%   43.6%   42.9%   39.2%

SDs 11, 12, and 19 were not on the ballot in 2018 and are thus the districts of interest for 2020. SD19, which Dems fumbled away in a special election last year, is the obvious, and realistically only target for 2020. The good news is that in a normal turnout context, it’s a sufficiently blue district to favor whoever challenges Sen. Pete Flores. No guarantees, of course, but as you can see it was more Democratic than SDs 10 or 16, the two seats that Dems won last year. A decent candidate and a November-of-an-even-year level of unity among Dems should be enough to win it back.

In SD05, it would appear that Sen. Charles Schwertner was not damaged by the sexual harassment allegations against him. He wasn’t the top performer among Republicans in his district, but he was solidly above average. The allegations, which were ultimately resolved in a non-conclusive fashion, were vague enough to let voters conclude that they didn’t really know what may have happened, and they voted accordingly.

I did not expect SD08 to be as close as it was. Looking at past data, it was a step below SDs 10, 16, and 17. The shift in suburban county politics, plus perhaps a bit of Paxton fatigue, put this one on the cusp for Dems. Might it have made a difference if more money had been dumped into Mark Phariss’ campaign. We’ll never know, but I’m going to be a little haunted by this one. It’s close enough to think that maybe it could have gone differently.

As for SD17, don’t be too mesmerized by the gaudy Dem numbers for the top candidates. SD17 contains the bulk of HD134, and that means a lot of nominal Republicans who crossed over in certain elections. It would seem that Sen. Huffman was not on their naughty list, and that enabled her to get by without too much discomfort.

One other way to look at this is to compare numbers over time. Here’s how this breaks down:


Dist  08Obama 12Obama 16Clinton 18 Beto 
=======================================
SD02   38.2%    35.5%     35.4%   41.3%
SD05   38.8%    34.5%     36.4%   44.6%
SD07   33.0%    32.0%     38.3%   43.9%
SD08   39.3%    36.6%     42.6%   50.6%
SD09   41.3%    39.2%     41.8%   48.9%
SD10   47.1%    45.4%     47.3%   53.3%
SD11   36.5%    33.5%     36.6%   41.5%
SD12   36.1%    32.2%     35.4%   43.3%
SD16   43.9%    41.6%     49.9%   55.9%
SD17   41.4%    39.2%     47.2%   51.8%
SD19   55.5%    54.6%     53.4%   56.8%
SD25   37.4%    33.9%     37.9%   45.2%

2018 had Presidential-level turnout, so I’m comparing it to previous Presidential elections. Some big shifts in there, most notably in SDs 08 and 16, but even districts that weren’t competitive in 2018 like SDs 07 and 25 moved by double digits in a Dem direction from 2012. Some of this is demographic change, but it sure seems like some of it is reaction to Trump and his brand of Republicanism. I do not believe that SD16 goes that blue without a lot of people who used to vote Republican switching sides. How long that effect lasts, in particular how long it lasts once Trump is a nightmare we’ve all woken up from and are trying to forget, is a huge question. If the shift is permanent, or at least resilient, Republicans are going to have some very tough choices to make in the 2021 redistricting process. If not – if things return more or less to what we’ve seen this past decade once a Democrat is back in the White House – then they can keep doing what they’ve been doing and dare Dems to do something about it. We won’t know till we experience it, which God willing will be 2022, a year when every Senator will be on the ballot. In the meantime, electing enough Dem Senators to force Dan Patrick to either change the three-fifths rule or get used to wooing Dems for his preferred bills is on the table for next year. I’ll have more numbers in the coming days.

The other Senate races that Republicans are worried about

They’re concerned about the State Senate, too.

Beverly Powell

Republican lawmakers in the Texas Senate were sitting pretty last year.

For years, the GOP had faced roadblocks to passing some conservative measures by the chamber’s two-thirds rule, which normally required the support of 21 members to get a bill to the floor. With 20 Republicans in the chamber, that left Republicans one short of moving out bills without the help of a single Democrat.

But then in 2015, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led a successful move to lower the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths. Suddenly, any measure with the backing of all of the chamber’s Republicans had all the support it needed. For that session and the ones that followed in 2017, the GOP effectively ran the Senate floor.

Now, with less than two months until Election Day, Republicans are finding that keeping that supermajority in the Texas Senate is no longer a sure thing.

Nathan Johnson

“We’re emphasizing the possibility of losses,” said Darl Easton, the Republican Party Chairman in Tarrant County, where state Sen. Konni Burton’s re-election bid as seen is a potential toss-up. “The more complacent you become, the more likely it is that you won’t win. We definitely have to keep the voters alert to the possibility of losing some seats. We’re not going to take anything for granted.”

“We are working and making sure we’re leaving no stone unturned,” added Missy Shorey, the Dallas County Republican Party Chairwoman, speaking of the party’s efforts in assisting state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “People in Dallas certainly know there’s no chance that seat is going to flip. [Huffines] is working for every vote out there.”

The Senate is still poised to remain GOP-dominated during next year’s legislative session. What’s at stake for the chamber’s Republicans this election cycle is losing their three-fifths majority — the crucial threshold for bringing legislation to the Senate floor without any support from Democrats.

[…]

If at least two of [Konni Burton, Don Huffines, and Joan Huffman] lose their seats this election cycle, the political repercussions could be far-reaching: not only would it loosen Patrick’s stronghold over the upper chamber, Republican senators themselves would have to work across the aisle to get their bills passed.

Rita Lucido

“When you have to cross the aisle, you have to cross the river and that changes everything,” said Bill Miller, a veteran political consultant and lobbyist. “If [Dan Patrick] were to lose that three-fifths majority, his power would be diminished. That doesn’t mean he won’t be powerful, but he won’t be the most powerful person to ever hold the office — which is what he’s been up to this point.”

“If you haven’t had any power in a while and I give you power, it’s going to be tasty,” he added. “It’s a tasty morsel. If Democrats get back at the table, that will change how the Senate behaves.”

What’s also at risk is the ability to get conservative legislation to the governor. Without a Republican Senate supermajority, Easton said, measures important to hard-line conservatives might not get a hearing in the Texas House — let alone be brought up for debate on the Senate floor.

“Obviously, it’s going to be harder to get conservative stuff through the Senate if we don’t have the numbers, and if we don’t get it through the Senate then the House doesn’t even have to look at it,” Easton said. “It’s politics as usual. The stronger your base is, the more likely it is you’re going to get stuff through the House and eventually to the governor’s desk.”

Miller agreed, adding that Republicans in the Senate might have reason to worry.

“In recent cycles, Republicans have looked at every election cycle as just a reaffirmation of their dominance, and that has absolutely been the case,” he said. “This is the first time in memory where not only is that dominance in question, but there’s a high degree of confidence on the part of Democrats. So it’s a whole new world out there.”

There’s at least some polling evidence to suggest that both Powell and Johnson are in decent shape, though it’s one poll in each case and you know what we say about individual polls. I just want to observe that I wrote about the effect of Dems picking up two Senate seats last year, right after the filing deadline. Patrick could of course seek to eliminate the three-fifths rule in the same way that he eliminated the two-thirds rule; the Senate adopts the rules it abides by each session, and it only takes a majority vote to do so. All I know is that anything that clips Dan Patrick’s wings, even a little bit, is a good thing. Both Powell and Johnson have been endorsed by the DMN, for whatever that’s worth. These are all winnable races. It’s a matter of proving Dems can win in districts that weren’t drawn for them.

The Huffman influence

Oops.

Sen. Joan Huffman

A lawsuit filed in state district court Monday alleges that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission improperly fired one of its sergeants after he told federal law enforcement that state Sen. Joan Huffman had blocked an investigation into a Longview bar she and her husband partially owned.

The whistleblower lawsuit against the TABC — where the former sergeant, Marcus Stokke, worked for 16 years — says that last year Stokke told the FBI, a federal prosecutor and the agency’s internal affairs department that Huffman interfered in an investigation into Graham Central Station. The bar had drawn scrutiny for failing to report multiple “breaches of the peace” that took place on or near its premises, including a sexual assault, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Austin.

[…]

According to the lawsuit, agency officials told Stokke to discontinue an investigation into Graham Central Station and erase digital and print records documenting the bar’s alleged wrongdoing.

Stokke, who the lawsuit says oversaw 24 counties in northeast Texas for the liquor agency, contacted law enforcement authorities in May 2017 and lost his job the following October. Stokke provided the Tribune with a copy of his termination letter which outlines a number of reasons for his dismissal, including insubordination and unethical conduct. The lawsuit says those claims are false.

“It was total retaliation,” Stokke said in an interview. He is seeking at least $200,000 in damages as well as reinstatement to his old job at the TABC.

Asked how he knew Huffman had interfered in the investigation, Stokke said he does “not have any evidence that she actually, you know, conspired or told anybody to falsify records or delete records or anything like that.”

But, he said, the reason the agency officials gave when they instructed him to end the investigation was, “this is really political and there’s a state senator involved.”

That’s pretty thin, to be honest. Huffman denies the allegation, and it’s easy to see why. I hope there’s something to this, because if not it would have been better all around to not say anything.

2018 primary results: Legislative

Rep. Sarah Davis

Statewide Dem totals
Statewide GOP totals

Harris County Dem totals
Harris County GOP totals

(Please note that all results were coming in very slowly. I expect there will still be some precincts not yet reported by the time this publishes. So, I’m going to be less specific than usual, and may have to make a correction or two by Thursday.)

I’m gonna lead with the Republicans this time. Sarah Davis and Lyle Larson, both viciously targeted by Greg Abbott, won their races easily. Sarah, here’s that picture I mentioned before. Also, too, the anti-vaxxers can suck it (in this race; they unfortunately appear to have claimed a scalp elsewhere). Abbott did manage to unseat the mediocre Wayne Faircloth, who was the most conservative of his three targets. Party on, Greg!

Back to the good side: Rita Lucido was leading Fran Watson in SD17, but was short of a majority. Beverly Powell won in SD10, Wendy Davis’ old district. Mark Phariss was leading in SD08, but it was too close to call. On the Republican side, Rep. Pat Fallon destroyed Sen. Craig Estes in SD30, but Sen. Kel Seliger beat back the wingnuts again in SD31. Sen. John Whitmire won easily. Joan Huffman easily held off Kristin Tassin on her side of SD17. And Angela Paxton won in SD08 over the lesser Huffines brother. Apparently, two Paxtons are better than one, and also better than two Huffineses.

Other incumbents in both parties had more trouble. On the D side, longtime Rep. Robert Alonzo lost to Jessica Gonzalez in HD104; her election increases the number of LGBT members of the Lege by one. First term Rep. Diana Arevalo lost to former Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer in HD116, and first-term Rep. Tomas Uresti, no doubt damaged by his brother’s legal problems, lost to Leo Pacheco. And Dawnna Dukes’ odyssey came to an end as challengers Sheryl Cole and Chito Vela both ran way ahead of her. Other Dems, including (sigh) Ron Reynolds hung on, though Rep. Rene Oliveira was headed to a runoff with Alex Dominguez in HD37. For the Rs, Rep. Jason Villalba was going down in HD114 – he was an anti-vaxxer target, though there were other factors in that race, so it sure would be nice for Dems to pick that one off in November. Rep. Scott Cosper was headed to a runoff in HD54. Other incumbents, including those targeted by the extreme wingnut coalition, made it through.

For Harris County, the following challengers won: Natali Hurtado (HD126; she celebrated by going into labor, so double congratulations to her), Gina Calanni (HD132), Adam Milasincic (HD138). Sandra Moore was briefly above 50% in HD133, but ultimately fell back below it to wind up in a runoff with Marty Schexnayder. Allison Lami Sawyer had a slightly easier time of it, collecting over 90% of the vote against the idiot Lloyd Oliver. Maybe, just maybe, this will be enough to convince Oliver that his run-for-office marketing strategy has come to the end of its usefulness. Sam Harless was on the knife’s edge of a majority in HD126 on the R side; if he falls short, Kevin Fulton was in second place.

There will be a few runoffs in other races around the state. I’ll get back to that another day.

Endorsement watch: Close choices

The Chron endorses on both sides in SD17.

Republican State Senator, District 17: Joan Huffman

State Sen. Joan Huffman has been on board for some pretty bad bills, but it’s hard to overlook her herculean efforts to resolve the city of Houston’s formidable pension problems.

In last year’s legislative session, she carried the ball on a bill to reform the city’s public pensions and did a lot of heavy lifting in negotiations with the affected parties to come up with legislation that didn’t please everybody but, as she told us, likely “saved the city of Houston from bankruptcy.”

That and a sense that Huffman had been less intransigent than in the past earned her the selection by Texas Monthly as one of the best legislators in the 2017 session.

[…]

Huffman, 57, voted in favor of the silly “bathroom bill” that became a national laughing stock and for the macabre bill requiring burial or cremation of an aborted fetus, one of several she supported aimed at making it more difficult to get an abortion.

There were others, but we think Huffman plays below her weight when she panders to her party’s worst instincts.

I get the urge to reward Huffman for her work on the pension reform bill, I really do. But we need to be clear that this kind of productive output is the exception, not the norm. Bathroom bills, “fetal remains”, “sanctuary cities”, vouchers, the continued assault on home rule and local control – this is what Joan Huffman is about. She, like most of her Republican colleagues, will do Dan Patrick’s bidding whenever he tells them to. She was able to do the work she did on the pension bill because Patrick didn’t care to oppose her. As long as she’s there – and as long as he’s there – that’s what she’ll do. Thank her for the good work she was allowed to do if you want, but if you support her this is what you’re going to get. It’s not clear to me the Chron understands that.

On the other side:

Rita Lucido

State Senator, District 17: Rita Lucido

Democrats have two strong candidates running for the opportunity to challenge Republican incumbent Joan Huffman in November.

When Rita Lucido and Fran Watson, both attorneys, speak about the March 6 primary their words reflect their party’s rising anger at Republican extremism and a determination to put an end to it.

People want to “stop the nonsense” of bathroom bills and school vouchers and would “like to see their legislature get down to business and stop wasting time and money,” said Lucido, 61.

Watson, 40, has a youthful, enthusiastic organization seeking votes others have ignored by reaching deep into the neglected nooks and crannies of the district.

Her message is that everyone in Texas should have “equal access to the opportunity to succeed,” but the way is being blocked by state leaders, including Huffman.

Both candidates cited the need for state action on flooding in a post-Harvey world and for stopping the meteoric rise in property taxes.

This was a difficult call between two very talented women, but we endorse Lucido, 61, because, apart from being thoughtful and eloquent, she’s been on the frontlines for change for a long time and is tough as nails.

Much the same could be said of Watson so you can’t go wrong with a vote for either one.

Or you could break the tie in Watson’s favor by citing the need for more youthful enthusiasm in our legislature. I was excited for Watson’s entry in this race, and I remain excited by her candidacy. That’s in no way a knock on Lucido, who is all that the Chron says she is. It is a tough choice between good candidates.

On a side note, several people have reported to me that they don’t see full information on the various 2018 Election pages above. I get a complaint like this every cycle, and it’s very frustrating for me because there’s no pattern to it that I can see. I’m working on it, but I can’t make any promises about fixing a problem that I’m not yet able to diagnose. That said, I want people to be able to see this information, so I’ve come up with a workaround by grabbing the HTML code from my view of the pages and creating new ones based on that. So, if you are one of the people who have had trouble with these pages, try the following instead:

Backup 2018 Congressional
Backup 2018 Legislative
Backup 2018 Judicial
Backup 2018 Harris County

Republicans “against” Dan Patrick

RG Ratcliffe reports on a “loose coalition” of business and education interests who are seeking to clip Dan Patrick’s wings.

[FBSID Board President Kristin] Tassin is now running for a seat in the state Senate, and she is just one candidate in a growing coalition of education and business groups that want to roll back the social conservative agenda of Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott. And recognizing the ineffectiveness of the Texas Democratic Party, they are concentrating their efforts on the upcoming March Republican primaries instead of betting on candidates in the general election. “There is a perfect storm brewing, and it goes a lot deeper than just a vouchers vote,” Tassin told me. “What really led me to step into this race is I really see this past session as an indicator of failed leadership and, often, particularly in the Senate.”

This is, at best, a loose coalition. Some by law are restricted to urging people to vote based on certain issues, while others are gathering money to put behind candidates who will clip Patrick’s dominance in the Senate. If they just pick up a few seats, Patrick will no longer be able to steamroll controversial bathroom bills and school voucher bills through the Senate, because he will lack the procedural votes needed to bring the legislation to the floor for debate.

[…]

One of the main groups that fought against the bathroom bill was the Texas Association of Business, and its political committee currently is evaluating which candidates to support in the primaries. “You’re seeing more and more business leaders engaged in this election—this time in the primaries in particular—than you probably ever had,” TAB President Chris Wallace told me. He said the leaders are motivated because “we had such a divisive time” during the 2017 legislative sessions.

Most of the TAB endorsements will be made over the next several weeks, but the group already has endorsed state Representative Cindy Burkett in her Republican primary challenge to incumbent Senator Bob Hall. In the TAB scorecard for pro-business votes, Hall sat at 53 percent and Burkett was at 94 percent, even though she supported the “sanctuary cities” legislation that TAB opposed. Hall voted in favor of the bathroom bill, but it never came up for a vote in the House. Because Burkett also carried legislation adding restrictions to abortion last year, she probably would not gain much support among Democrats. But as an advocate of public education, she already is opposed by the Texas Home School Coalition.

Emotions already are running high. When Hall put out a tweet that he is one of the most consistently conservative senators, a former school principal responded: “No, @SenBobHall, the reason we’re coming after you is because you side w/ Dan Patrick over the will of your constituents time and again. That’s why we’ll vote for @CindyBurkett_TX in the Mar. Primary. We’re not liberals, just ppl who want to be heard. #txed #txlege #blockvote.”

The Tassin race may create divisions in this loose coalition. She is challenging incumbent Senator Joan Huffman of Houston in the primary. Huffman gave Patrick a procedural vote he needed to bring the voucher bill to the floor, but then voted against the legislation. Huffman also voted in favor of killing dues check-offs, which allow teacher groups to collect their membership fees directly from a member-educator’s paycheck. But Huffman’s pro-business score is almost has high as Burkett’s, even though Huffman voted for the bathroom bill. Huffman also received a Best Legislator nod from Texas Monthly for helping negotiate a solution to the city of Houston’s financial problems with its police and firefighter pensions. However, the firefighters are angry over that deal and likely will work for Tassin in the primary. Huffman, though, has received an endorsement from Governor Abbott. We can’t make a prediction in that race until the endorsements come out.

I agree with the basic tactic of targeting the most fervent Patrick acolytes in the Senate. Patrick’s ability to ram through crap like the bathroom bill and the voucher bill is dependent on their being a sufficient number of his fellow travelers present. Knocking that number down even by one or two makes it harder for him to steer the ship in his preferred direction. Neither Kristin Tassin nor Cindy Burkett are my cup of tea, but they have a very low bar to clear to represent an improvement over the status quo.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First and foremost, depending on Republican primary voters to do something sensible is not exactly a winning proposition these days. There’s a reason why the Senate has trended the way it has in recent years. To be sure, it’s been an uneven fight in that there has basically been no effort like this to rein in the crazy in favor of more traditional Republican issues. To that I’d say, were you watching the Republican Presidential primary in 2016? The traditional interests didn’t do too well then, either. The Texas Parent PAC has had a lot of success over the years supporting anti-voucher candidates, often in rural districts where that issue resonates. I have a lot of respect for them and I wish them all the best this year, along with their allies of convenience. I just don’t plan to get my hopes up too high.

That leads to point two, which is that there needs to be a part two to this strategy. The two purplest Senate districts are SDs 10 and 16, where Sens. Konni Burton (who also scored a 53 on that TAB report card, tied with Bob Hall for the lowest tally in the Senate, including Democrats) and Don Huffines (and his 60 TAB score) will face Democratic challengers but not primary opponents. It’s reasonable for TAB et al to not have any interest in those races now, as they work to knock off Hall and (maybe) Huffman. If they don’t have a plan to play there in the fall, then at the very least you’ll know how serious this “loose coalition” is. I fully expect TAB and the other business groups to roll over and show Patrick their bellies after March. But maybe I’m wrong. I’ll be more than happy to admit it if I am. I wouldn’t bet my own money on it, though.

Filing roundup: State Senate

In 2014, Democrats contested five of the eleven Republican-held State Senate seats on the ballot, plus the seat that was vacated by Wendy Davis, which was won by Republican Konni Burton. This year, Democrats have candidates in eleven of these twelve districts. I wanted to take a closer look at some of these folks. For convenience, I collected the filing info for Senate and House candidates from the SOS page and put it all in this spreadsheet.

Kendall Scudder

SD02Kendall Scudder (Facebook)

SD03 – Shirley Layton

SD05Brian Cronin (Facebook)
SD05Glenn “Grumpy” Williams
SD05Meg Walsh

SD07David Romero

SD08Brian Chaput
SD08 – Mark Phariss

SD09Gwenn Burud

SD10Allison Campolo (Facebook)
SD10Beverly Powell (Facebook)

SD16Joe Bogen (Facebook)
SD16Nathan Johnson (Facebook)

SD17Fran Watson (Facebook)
SD17Rita Lucido (Facebook)
SD17 – Ahmad Hassan

SD25Jack Guerra (Facebook)
SD25Steven Kling (Facebook)

SD30Kevin Lopez

I skipped SDs 14, 15, and 23, which are held by Democrats Kirk Watson, John Whitmire, and Royce West. Whitmire has two primary opponents, the others are unopposed. Let’s look at who we have here.

Kendall Scudder is a promising young candidate running in a tough district against a truly awful incumbent. First-term Sen. Bob Hall is basically Abe Simpson after a couple years of listening to Alex Jones. If he runs a good race, regardless of outcome, Scudder’s got a future in politics if he wants it.

Shirley Layton is the Chair of the Angelina County Democratic Party, which includes Lufkin. Robert Nichols is the incumbent.

All of the contested primaries look like they will present some good choices for the voters. In SD05, Brian Cronin, who has extensive experience in state government, looks like the most polished candidate to take on Charles Schwertner. Grumpy Williams is easily the most colorful candidate in any of these races. There wasn’t enough information about Meg Walsh for me to make a judgment about her.

I’ve previously mentioned Mark Phariss’ entry into the SD08 race at the filing deadline. He doesn’t have a website or Facebook page up yet, but you could read this Texas Monthly story about him and his husband for a reminder of who Phariss is and why he matters. This seat is being vacated by Van Taylor, and the demonic duo of Angela Paxton and Phillip Huffines are running for it on the GOP side.

I couldn’t find much about either David Romero or Gwenn Burud, but in searching for the latter I did find this Star-Telegram story, which tells me that the Tarrant County Democratic Party did a great job filling out their slate. The incumbent here is Kelly Hancock.

Elsewhere in Tarrant County, the primary for SD10, which is overall the most closely divided district, ought to be salty. Powell is clearly the establishment candidate, having been endorsed by folks like Wendy Davis and Congressman Mark Veasey. Campolo identifies herself as a Bernie Sanders supporter. I expect there will be some elbows thrown. The winner gets to try to knock out Konni Burton.

Joe Bogen and Nathan Johnson seem pretty evenly matched to me. They’re battling for the right to take on the awful Don Huffines, whose SD16 is probably the second most vulnerable to takeover.

In SD17, Fran Watson, who is a former President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, has been in the race for a few months. Rita Lucido, who was the candidate against Joan Huffman in 2014, filed on deadline day. The presence of perennial candidate Ahmad Hassan means this one could go to a runoff.

Both Jack Guerra and Steven Kling look like good guys in SD25. No doubt, both would be a big improvement over the zealot incumbent Donna Campbell.

Last but not least, Kevin Lopez is a City Council member in the town of Bridgeport. He joins Beverly Powell, who serves on the Burleson ISD Board of Trustees, as the only current elected officials running for one of these offices. The incumbent in SD30 is Craig Estes, and he is being challenged in the Republican primary.

Winning even one of these seats would be great. Winning two would bring the ratio to 18-13 R/D, which would be a big deal because the old two thirds rule is now a “sixty percent” rule, meaning that 19 Senators are enough to bring a bill to the floor, where 21 had been needed before. Needless to say, getting the Republicans under that would be a big deal, though of course they could throw that rule out all together if they want to. Be that as it may, more Dems would mean less power for Dan Patrick. I think we can all agree that would be a good thing. None of this will be easy – Dems are underdogs in each district, with more than half of them being very unfavorable – but at least we’re competing. National conditions, and individual candidates, will determine how we do.

Huffman gets a Republican challenger

This is definitely one to watch.

Kristin Tassin

Kristin Tassin, the president of the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees, is running against state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, in the 2018 GOP primary.

“I’m officially running,” Tassin told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “The final decision really came down to the fact that the state Legislature is just not getting the job done on many issues that are important to families in Texas.”

Tassin citied issues including property tax reform and public education. “I feel like we need somebody in the Legislature who’s going to stand up for those things and bring real solutions and not be afraid to stand up to special interests,” she said.

Tassin has been an outspoken advocate for public education, penning a number of op-eds that have taken aim at the Senate — and Huffman — for how they have approached the issue. In one of those op-eds, Tassin took Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to task for his derisive use of the term “educrats.” 

“Most of us are parents, many with conservative views and values, who ran for the school board or got involved in our school districts in order to improve education and make a difference for the children in our communities and across the state of Texas,” Tassin said.

In the interview, Tassin said Huffman has “really been no friend to education,” pointing to Huffman’s vote during the regular session paving the way for a private school tuition subsidy bill to reach the floor. Huffman was among three Republicans who ultimately voted against the bill, but Tassin has argued the legislation would have never been able to make it to the floor without Huffman’s initial sign-off.

I’m Team Fran Watson all the way, but Kristin Tassin would be an upgrade over Joan Huffman. Huffman isn’t a freak like Bob Hall or Don Huffines, but she is a reliable vote for Dan Patrick, and anything that loosens Patrick’s grip on power is a good thing. We’ve seen plenty of wingnut challenges to establishment Republican incumbents before, but we’ve not seen a serious (much less successful) challenge by a more moderate R to a conservative incumbent. Mainstreamers have withstood challenges and they’ve won their share of open seat battles, but this is something new. I will be very interested to see who lines up behind whom in this race. I don’t expect any establishment Republican support for Tassin – that’s the way things are when an incumbent who is otherwise in good standing gets a primary challenger – but there’s plenty of room for outsiders to support her. Surely pro-education groups like Parent PAC will have to take a look at this race, and of course she can demonstrate strength in grassroots fundraising. If that happens, this could be a fascinating race. The odds are against Tassin, but the potential for shockwaves is real, and it would be amazing. I wish Tassin all the best.

Fran Watson for SD17

Awesome news.

Fran Watson

It’s OFFICIAL!

I have launched my campaign for TX State Senate District 17. The campaign slogan is People First.

“When the people are part of the legislative process instead of a few leaders in Austin, our laws are more expansive, which in turn provide families access to healthcare, jobs, stronger public schools, and equitable opportunities to succeed. This leads to a better quality of life and a stronger Texas.”

You can visit franwatsonfortexas.com to donate, sign up to volunteer or learn more about me. Like the campaign Fran Watson for Texas on Facebook. You can also follow the campaign on Twitter using the handle, @franfortexas
Let’s do this y’all! #FranforTexas #PeopleFirst

The webpage is here and the Facebook page is here. As you know, I’ve been awaiting this announcement for awhile, and I’m delighted to see it happen. Watson is an attorney, community organizer, past president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and an all-around super person. SD17 is an uphill battle, like all of the Senate districts, but if anyone can do it, Fran can. Get to know her, and give her your support.

July 2017 campaign finance reports: State Senate targets

The Trib highlights a couple of races of interest.

Senate District 8

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, has not yet announced he’s running for Congress — he is expected to after the special session — but the race to replace him is already underway. Phillip Huffines, the chairman of the Dallas County GOP who has been campaigning for the Senate seat since March, put $2 million of his own money into his campaign and raised another $547,000, leaving him with $2.4 million in the bank. State Rep. Matt Shaheen, the Plano Republican who is likely to run for the Senate seat but has not yet made it official, had $495,000 cash on hand after raising $62,000 at the end of June and loaning himself $187,000 in June.

Senate District 10

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, already has two Democratic challengers in her battleground district, where she has a $352,000 war chest after raking in $196,000 at June’s end. One of her Democratic foes, Beverly Powell, raised $50,000 in just under a month and has $32,000 in the bank. Powell’s cash-on-hand figure is closer to $46,000 when factoring in online donations she received at the end of June, according to her campaign. Another Democratic candidate, Alison Campolo, posted smaller numbers.

Senate District 16

State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, is also on Democrats’ target list for 2018. He reported raising $222,000 at the end of June and having $930,000 in cash on hand. One of his Democratic rivals, Nathan Johnson, began his campaign in early April and has since raised $80,000, giving him a $65,000 cash-on-hand tally. Another Democratic candidate, Joseph Bogen, kicked off his bid in May and had raised $32,000 by the end of June. He has $21,000 in cash on hand.

Do I have finance reports for Senate districts and candidates of interest? Of course I do.

Van Taylor
Matt Shaheen
Phillip Huffines
Texans for Kelly Hancock
Konni Burton
Beverly Powell
Alison Campolo
Don Huffines
Nathan Johnson
Joe Bogen
Texans for Joan Huffman


Dist   Name         Raised     Spent      Loans     On Hand
===========================================================
SD08   Taylor        1,000   191,355    850,000     370,852
SD08   Shaheen      61,835     7,633    466,844     495,310
SD08   P Huffines  546,656   202,474  2,000,000   2,356,109
SD09   Hancock      87,655    86,634          0   1,205,070
SD10   Burton      196,058    49,152    240,000     351,787
SD10   Powell       51,200     1,265          0      31,704
SD10   Campolo       8,004     5,163          0       3,604
SD16   D Huffines  222,297   151,336  1,680,000     929,698
SD16   Johnson      80,260    14,851      5,286      64,728
SD16   Bogen        31,988     4,010          0      21,118
SD17   Huffman      10,025    54,606          0     410,465

Here’s my look at State Senate precinct data, with an eye towards evaluating potential electoral targets for 2018. The three of greatest interest are SDs 10, 16, and 17, more or less in that order. We’ve met the SD10 hopefuls, but this is the first I’ve heard of challengers in SD16. Here’s Nathan Johnson‘s webpage, and here’s Joe Bogen‘s. I don’t know anything more about either of them than that, so if you do please feel free to speak up. As for SD17, I sure hope Fran Watson or someone like her makes her entry soon, because right now the only opponent for Joan Huffman is Ahmad Hassan.

Here come the LGBT candidates

Keep your eyes on these folks.

Fran Watson

At least four Houstonians are among the numerous LGBTQ Texans eyeing campaigns in 2018 and 2019. One of the Houston candidates has formally announced, and three others are strongly considering runs.

“People are fed up, and they want a better Texas,” said Fran Watson, who’s considering running as a Democrat in Texas Senate District 17, which covers parts of Harris, Brazoria, and Fort Bend counties. That district is currently represented by Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston).

“Texans deserve leaders who have the everyday issues of Texans in mind, rather than focusing on who uses what bathroom,” said Watson, an attorney who serves as president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Huffman voted in favor of Senate Bill 6, the anti-transgender “bathroom bill.”

“There are people in the district who are hurting, and I know how to identify with these people,” Watson said. “I also have the skill set to draft legislation to help them.”

[…]

Other potential LGBTQ candidates are eyeing Houston City Council races in 2019. Ashton Woods, the founder of Black Lives Matter: Houston, said he may run for either the District K or an at-large seat. District K is represented by Council Member Larry Green, who will be term-limited in 2019.

“We have to stand up and fight back,” Woods said. “People are being left behind and treated as nonexistent. People have basic human needs—if they are missing a meal, they can’t think about fighting back. We had Donald Trumps before there was a President Trump. They are in our backyards and in elected offices. We need to fight the Trumps in our backyards.”

Nelvin Adriatico, who owns a Sugar Land real-estate firm, is considering a run for the District J seat held by openly gay Council Member Mike Laster, who is also term-limited.

Adriatico has been involved with the highly successful back-to-school backpack program in District J. He said he wants to focus on education, small business, and combatting domestic violence.

“If you have a voice, it can be magnified by serving in an elected office,” Adriatico said, adding that he watches the news every day and is troubled by what Trump is doing.

“I have friends who are minorities and immigrants,” said Adriatico, who would be among the first openly LGBT Asian-Americans elected to public office in Texas. “We’ve got to raise our voices and make a change.”

Watson is no longer the President of the Houston LGBT Political Caucus; she stepped down a few days ago, presumably in advance of announcing her candidacy. I could try to summarize the things she has done in recent years, but better for you to read this OutSmart profile and this Girls Like You And Me interview with her to see just how impressive she is. I know of at least one other person looking at this race, but Watson would be a formidable candidate if she does run.

As for Woods and Adriatico, I hope they have to wait till 2019 to actually run for Council, but I’m glad they’re thinking about it now, just in case. Let’s just say there’s more than a bit of anxiety about the possibility of a mad sprint for candidates this November. The other person mentioned in the story, the one who is already a candidate, is Jerry Simoneaux, who is among the Democratic judicial hopefuls. He’s running for Harris County Probate Court #1, and has a primary opponent. He also happens to be Watson’s law partner. There are a few non-Houston LGBT candidates in there as well. We’ll need to revisit the topic after the filing deadline.

Do we really have to have a pension bond vote?

So as we know, the Houston pension reform bill that passed contains a provision that requires a vote on the pension obligation bonds that Mayor Turner intends to float as a down payment. Pension obligation bonds have been floated in the past, by Mayor White, without a vote, but for whatever the reason some members of the Senate insisted on it, so here we are. Now it turns out that with interest rates likely to increase later in the year, waiting till after a vote in November to float the bonds will cost the city millions in extra payments. You would think the responsible thing to do would be to float them now while it’s less expensive, and so Mayor Turner has suggested that as a possibility.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner did not rule out Wednesday issuing the $1 billion in bonds that are central to his pension reform deal without a public referendum, a move that would sidestep a hotly debated requirement the Legislature added to ensure passage of the city-negotiated plan.

Turner said he and his staff are proceeding as though there will be a referendum, but the mayor said he may seek to issue the bonds without a vote if he can gain consensus among City Council members, state lawmakers and others that moving more quickly would benefit the city.

Specifically, he referenced the benefit of preempting an anticipated jump in interest rates. Waiting six to nine months to issue the bonds, the city finance department estimates, could cost taxpayers $135 million to $273 million more over the life of the debt.

“I find it highly unlikely that anything is going to take place other than the vote in November, and that’s how we’re proceeding,” Turner said. “If we can all agree on a certain course and it may be able to expedite things, then we’ll do that.

“I’m talking about agreement with everybody. We’ve come this far with everybody, both on the local levels as well as on the state level and my approach is to always move in collaboration with everyone. But if not, then we’ll proceed with the vote.”

[…]

Though much of the rhetoric surrounding the bill during legislative debates referenced that voters would have a chance to weigh in, the mayor’s team simply points to the text of the legislation as proof that they can proceed without a vote.

Current state law requires only that City Council enter into agreements with the pension funds that are to receive the bond proceeds – in this case, the police and municipal workers’ pension funds – in order to issue the bonds. The reform legislation adds the referendum requirement, but also states that the referendum provision applies only to those agreements signed on or after the effective date of the bill, which is July 1.

Turner plans to bring those agreements to council June 21, city officials said. Though adopting them would in no way obligate the city to issue the bonds without a vote, doing so would preserve that option.

Now you’d think the prospect of saving a couple hundred million bucks would appeal to pretty much everyone, but at the mere mention of this, several self-styled fiscal conservatives immediately contracted the vapors – seriously, CM Mike Knox walked out of the committee hearing upon being presented with this – so that would seem to scuttle the “if everyone is on the same page” possibility. And indeed, Mayor Turner has now walked back the idea and reassured everyone that we will indeed have a referendum, whatever the eventual cost may be. I get that not having a vote when everyone thought there was going to be a vote seems bait-and-switch-y, but 1) having a vote was not a requirement until people like Paul Bettencourt made it a requirement, and 2) interest rates are gonna go up, so it’s going to be more expensive to wait. But a deal’s a deal, so here we are. Hope everyone’s happy.

Voter ID 2.0 gets final passage

Hopefully, this will turn out to have been a waste of time.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas House and Senate have approved a deal to relax the state’s voter identification requirements, meaning the closely watched legislation now only awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval.

The Republican is expected to sign Senate Bill 5, capping a flurry of late activity that pushed the legislation to the finish line after some state leaders feared its demise — and legal consequences from inaction.

The House approved the compromise bill Sunday in a 92-56 vote — one day after the Senate backed the deal along party lines.

Sen. Joan Huffman’s bill, which would soften voter ID requirements once considered strictest in the nation, responds to court findings that the current law discriminated against black and Latino voters.

[…]

Under the final bill, Texans who own qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: a state driver’s license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate. Such IDs may be expired up to four years, thanks to a provision in the House bill that survived the compromise. Voters 70 years and older may use such IDs expired for any length of time.

The final bill stripped some provisions from the House legislation, including requirements that the secretary of state to study ways to boost the state’s perennially low voter turnout and that the agency reveal details — currently withheld — about its spending on voter education efforts.

House Democrats on Sunday voiced disappointment with those changes.

“The attempt was to try and bring some type of transparency, said Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who had pushed the spending disclosure provision. “My concern is basically handing a blank check over to the Secretary of State’s office.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sure the state and the Republicans didnt want to go into the June 7 status call with Judge Ramos empty-handed, but I really don’t see how this bill changes anything. It (barely) mitigates the effect of the 2011 voter ID law, but does not – cannot – address the discriminatory intent of the law. Add in the completely half-assed way the state implemented the court-ordered mitigations in 2016, as well as its refusal to be transparent about those efforts should make it clear that they are trying to do the tiniest minimum to get out from under the court order. The only answer here, the only way to get their attention, is to throw the law out entirely, and invoke Section 3 to make it harder for a new voter ID bill to get passed. Here’s hoping.

Houston pension reform bill passes

It’s done.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas House on Wednesday approved the controversial Senate version of a bill that aims to overhaul Houston’s failing pension funds — over the passionate objections of current and former firefighters.

Senate Bill 2190, which passed in a 103-43 vote, now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. But the months of rancor between firefighters and Houston officials promise to linger long after the legislative session ends Monday.

[…]

The Houston bill passed Wednesday without two amendments the House had previously added in an apparent attempt to appease firefighters. One amendment would have prevented the bill from impacting current firefighter retirees. The other could have allowed the firefighter pension system to bear a smaller burden in paying down unfunded liabilities shoring up billions in shortfalls in three city employee retirement funds.

That drew the anger of firefighter pension members, dozens of whom sat in the House gallery Wednesday. Some shouted down to representatives as they walked out after the vote. One woman could be heard yelling, “Shameful!”

After the vote, Houston firefighter pension board chairman David Keller said he was disappointed in the vote. During the session, pension officials had suggested such legislation could be unconstitutional because it determines the financial boundaries the fund should stay within. Keller said the Constitution says that power is left solely to the pension board.

Keller said it was too soon to determine if the pension board will file a lawsuit.

“We will explore every option available to us,” he said.

But state Rep. Dan Flynn, who carried the bill in the House, said that killing the bill because firefighters remained unhappy would have exasperated the dire financial situation the city and the retirement funds are experiencing. The bill addresses pensions for firefighters, police and municipal employees.

“If we don’t pass it, there won’t be any pensions,” the Canton Republican told The Texas Tribune earlier this year.

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, authored the amendment that could have helped the firefighter pension fund bear less of the burden shoring up the city’s shortfalls. The amendment would have given pension officials more time to provide data showing that financial forecasts estimate the fund will be in better shape than Houston officials estimated.

But on Wednesday, he urged his colleagues to vote for the bill without the amendment.

“We’ve done everything we can to work hard in good faith,” Huberty said.

Keller, the pension chairman, said the pension board offered to provide the data under licensing agreements that included confidentiality provisions. He said the city never responded.

When asked if firefighters would campaign against any Houston-area state officials who backed the bill, Keller said “it’s hard to say.”

“But I know the firefighters are having a lot of emotions right now: loss, anger,” he said. “And they’ve been shown to be politically active.”

See here for the background. The firefighters are gonna do what the firefighters are gonna do. I get they’re unhappy and to an extent I don’t blame them, but this is where we are, and it took a lot of effort to get here. At this point, the main thing I’ll be looking for is who will be campaigning against the pension obligation bonds. It’s one thing to say we need to vote on those things (even if we hadn’t voted on them before), it’s another to say we should vote against them. Until then, kudos to all for getting this done, and congratulations to Mayor Turner for doing what once seemed to be impossible. The Mayor’s press release is here, and the Chron has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the longer Chron story.

House passes Voter ID 2.0

Some minor changes, but the same basic idea.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas House on Tuesday tentatively approved legislation to overhaul the state’s embattled voter identification law, moving it one step closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Senate Bill 5 would in several ways relax what some had called the nation’s most stringent ID requirements for voters — a response to court findings that the current law discriminated against black and Latino voters.

The 95-54 vote followed a six-hour debate that saw fierce pushback from Democrats, who argued the legislation wouldn’t go far enough to expand ballot access and contains provisions that might discourage some Texans from going to the polls. Democrats proposed a host of changes through amendments, a few of which surprisingly wriggled through.

Tuesday’s vote was part of flurry of last-minute efforts to salvage a bill that languished in the House for nearly two months, worrying Republican leaders who believed inaction would torpedo the state’s position — and bring down federal election oversight — in ongoing litigation over the current ID law.

[…]

Before it reaches Abbott, the bill must return to the Senate, which must weigh seven House amendments or request a conference committee to squabble over each chamber’s legislation. One amendment would allow voters to present IDs that had been expired for four years, rather than two years, as the Senate bill would. Another would require the secretary of state to study ways to boost the state’s perennially low voter turnout, and a third amendment would require the secretary of state’s office to reveal details — currently withheld — about its spending on voter education efforts.

Democrats said the amended SB 5 would not pass legal muster, arguing lawmakers should instead scrap all vestiges of the 2011 law.

“We’re in for a long, hot summer of having to defend this in court,” said Rep. Alfonso Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass. “And guess what? We’re going to lose again.”

See here for the background. I agree with Rep. Nevarez. Changing how voter ID is enforced now has no bearing on the intent of the law when it was passed. That can’t be fixed by amending the law. I grant, the state will have a better defense with SB5 on the books, but I’m skeptical and Judge Ramos ought to be as well. The Chron has more.

House and Senate concur on pension bill

One more vote in each chamber, then it’s on to get a signature.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Legislature is expected to take its final votes on Houston’s pension reform legislation within days after a group of House and Senate lawmakers Sunday night hashed out the differences between their chambers’ versions and produced a final bill.

Stripped from the proposal that emerged Sunday evening were three amendments backed by firefighters and opposed by City Hall, said state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who carried the measure in the upper chamber and who was among the 10 lawmakers tasked with reconciling the bills. The excised amendments had been added earlier this month when the House followed the Senate in approving its version the reform package.

“It’s a great bill that’s good for the taxpayers, for retirees and for the employees,” Huffman said late Sunday. “I think it is a good solution.”

The development puts Mayor Sylvester Turner on the doorstep of a landmark achievement that he has made the central focus of his first year and a half in office and that aims to end a 16-year crisis that has increasingly imperiled the city’s finances.

“There is only one step left for the Legislature to take,” the mayor said late Sunday. “Houston needs their support for our police officers, municipal employees, firefighters and Houston taxpayers. We cannot afford to fail. I believe the Legislature won’t let us down.”

See here and here for the background. Basically, it sounds like the original Senate version of the bill was restored. The firefighters aren’t happy with the loss of the House amendments, all of which benefited them, but that’s the way it goes. There are no guarantees in this world, but this looks pretty set for passage.

Texting while driving ban passes the Senate

We’ll see if this one gets signed into law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Legislation that would create a statewide texting-while-driving ban overcame a last-ditch attempt in the Senate on Friday to gut the bill. The bill’s author, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said he will concur with the changes the Senate made. The measure will then head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed an amendment that would’ve outlined an offense as both having been committed in the presence of an officer and having required evidence the driver was not paying attention. The current version of the bill requires either threshold rather than both.

In laying out his amendment, Taylor said that given the list of exceptions to the law that would permit drivers to use their phone — such as operating a navigational tool, reading what the driver believes to be an emergency message, and playing music — requiring more evidence is warranted.

Taylor held up his cell phone and asked his fellow members, “What am I doing? I’m actually looking at [navigational app] Waze, looking for the quickest way out of here,” he joked. “Now I’m searching the greatest hits of the 60’s. These are all things that are legal. So I have issue with that.”

Several Republican and Democratic members rose to say his change would make the law unenforceable.

“It won’t stop all behavior, but I believe when something is against the law, people will hesitate,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. “And if this law saves one life, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

The amendment ultimately failed with a 12-19 vote.

After amendments, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the bill’s Senate sponsor, took the floor.

“I have waited 10 years to make this motion: I move final passage of HB 62,” the Laredo Democrat said.

Without any further discussion, House Bill 62 passed the Senate on a 23-8 vote.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, Sen. Huffman’s argument about the Taylor amendment – I can’t quite tell if she’s arguing for it or against it, not that it really matters – is my view of texting-while-driving bans as a whole. The act of making it illegal will almost certainly cause a significant number of people who are now texting and otherwise fooling around on their phones while driving – and in my observation there’s a lot of those people out there – to stop doing it, just because it is illegal. That to me makes it worthwhile. I strongly suspect that recent massive fatal crash that occurred while one driver was busy texting helped move a few votes. As the story notes, a Craddick texting ban bill was vetoed in 2011 by Rick Perry. Craddick says that Greg Abbott’s office has assured him this one will be signed. We’ll know within the next three weeks or so. The Chron has more.

A bipartisan bill to address actual vote fraud

Miracles do happen.

Here’s something folks rarely see in Austin, or other statehouses, in these politically prickly times: a bipartisan effort to crack down on voter fraud.

In the waning days of the 85th Texas Legislative Session, a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers — backed by party leaders — are pushing to tighten oversight of absentee ballots cast at nursing homes, which experts have long called vulnerable to abuse.

This effort has another twist: It could also bolster ballot access among the elderly.

“When was the last time you heard about a voter fraud bill that actually made it easier to vote?” said Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, one of the Republicans championing the proposal.

A bill he filed died this week after failing to reach the House floor. But a unanimous Senate committee vote Thursday gave some life to identical legislation, Senate Bill 2149, filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.

It would create a process for collecting absentee ballots at nursing homes — essentially turning them into temporary polling places during early voting — to ensure facility staffers or others aren’t manipulating residents’ votes. That’s been a well-documented threat surrounding such vulnerable voters.

“Many of our elderly voters in Texas are being disenfranchised,” Eric Opiela, a lawyer for the Texas Republican Party, told lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Committee on State Affairs.

[…]

State law allows Texans with disabilities, those who are at least 65 years old, or those who plan to be out of the county during voting to request a mail-in ballot. That typically includes voters at residential care facilities. Huffman’s bill would change the process for homes that request five or more absentee ballots. During early voting, counties would send election judges to deliver the ballots and oversee voting at those homes, providing assistance if need be. And political parties could send registered poll watchers, just as they do at regular polling places.

Qualified voters who might have forgotten to request an absentee ballot could fill out such paperwork on site and cast a vote during the election judges’ visit.

“This is just going to help seniors vote. It’s going to allow them to participate in greater numbers,” said Rep. Eric Johnson, a Dallas Democrat who authored the House legislation with Oliverson, and has closely followed the Dallas fraud investigation.

Glen Maxey, legislative director for the Texas Democratic Party, on Thursday called the bill “the biggest expansion of voting rights in Texas since we moved to early voting.”

Would it be churlish of me to say that Democrats have argued in vain for years that voter ID laws have no effect on mail ballot fraud, and that if the Republicans had been serious about combating the kind of vote fraud that actually happens they wouldn’t have gotten their asses handed to them in the voter ID lawsuit? Because if it would be churlish of me to say that, well, too bad, I’ve already said it. As far as this bill goes, if Glen Maxey says it’s a good bill, it’s a good bill. Let’s hope it makes it to the finish line.

Senate rejects House changes to Houston pension reform bill

Conference committee, here we come.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas Senate on Wednesday refused to concur with House-passed amendments to a reform bill designed to resolve financial problems for Houston’s pension system.

Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who is the author of the legislation, said the House changes would be too costly and would derail a tentative agreement brokered by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Huffman, saying the passage of the bill “is absolutely essential to the city’s future,” said one of the House amendments alone would add an additional $26.7 million to the cost of the reforms, an unaffordable amount.

Huffman was appointed chair for Senate negotiators assigned to negotiate a final version of the bill, joined by Sens. Jane Nelson, Charles Schwertner, Kelly Hancock and Carlos Uresti.

See here for the background. The amendment in question was authored by Rep. Dwayne Bohac; the Chron called for its removal, so there’s that. My guess is that the final version of the bill will be more or less the Senate version, and it ought to be approved without too much difficulty.