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Killer Ds

Quorum question

Who knew?

A quirk in Texas law could allow the two Republicans on Harris County Commissioners Court, despite being in the minority, to prevent the three Democrats from enacting a proposed property tax increase.

Typically, three court members constitute a quorum, the minimum number needed to conduct business. The Texas Government Code, however, requires four members be present to vote on levying a tax.

That exception affords rare power to Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, who have been steamrolled on 3-2 votes on enacting bail reform, appointing a judge and a resolution on gun violence.

The pair simply would need to skip a tax hike vote to prevent the three Democrats from passing it, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said. The trio on Sept. 10 proposed raising the overall property tax rate 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. The existing rate is 63 cents per $100 of assessed value.

“We don’t know how exactly it would play out,” Soard said. “But if there are not four members present, Commissioners Court can’t vote on a tax increase.”

A final vote is scheduled for Oct. 8, and the deadline to set the county tax rates is Oct. 11, leaving the Democrats with little margin for error. Commissioners Court has scheduled public hearings on the proposal on Sept. 20 and Sept. 24.

Radack pointed out that he has not missed a meeting in more than five years, and said Oct. 8’s session is marked on his calendar.

Cagle, through a spokesman, said he has made a decision on the issue but does not want to share his strategy publicly. Cagle proposed a compromise at the Sept. 11 meeting, only increasing the flood control district rate, but his motion was defeated on a party-line vote.

[…]

The proposed property tax increase, which would be the first increase since 1996, would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue over the current rate. Hidalgo said the measure is necessary to ensure the county can continue to pay for services, including billion in flood control projects, after the revenue cap passed by the Legislature takes effect next year.

That cap limits year-over-year growth of city and county revenue to 3.5 percent, down from a previous ceiling of 8 percent. Revenue increases above that threshold would need voter approval.

The county budget office estimates the average Harris County homeowner’s tax bill would increase by $38, based on a home valued around $230,000.

You have to love an anti-majoritarian law. I had no idea this existed, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Let’s please dispense with this nonsense about Radack and Cagle being “steamrolled”, however. They’re on the losing end of majority votes. That’s how this is supposed to work.

The story notes that Rodney Ellis participated in a big quorum break in 2003, while he was in the State Senate and was trying to hold off the Tom DeLay re-redistricting effort. The Senate quorum-busting, which lasted for weeks while Ellis and his Democratic colleagues holed up in New Mexico, followed a similar effort by 51 Democrats in the House. This is fair to bring up. I will note that in these cases, the threshold for a quorum in each chamber was set by the rules they adopted at the beginning of the session, not by state law, and that one of the things that happened as a result of all this was that the quorum rules were changed to make this kind of exercise futile. Also, the reason that Ellis and others fled the state is because the DPS is authorized to round up wayward members and drag them back into the chamber for the vote they’re trying to scuttle. Whether the DPS has the power to place quorum-busting legislators under arrest was unsettled the last time I checked on it, but I feel confident saying that if Radack and Cagle try this, they will not be hauled back downtown in handcuffs by Sheriff’s deputies.

As to the matter of the tax rate increase itself, this is something that Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia think is necessary to enable the county to pay for the things it needs to do, including flood mitigation. They are concerned that thanks to the revenue cap provision of HB3, the county will be hamstrung going forward, forced to implement rate cuts because the county’s growth has been too fast for the law, so they’re taking action to mitigate against that now. You can certainly disagree with that, and you can express that at the next Commissioners Court meeting and at the ballot box. I’d just note that if the Legislature had left the county to its own devices, this wouldn’t be happening now.

I do not expect another Ardmore

The AusChron tries to get out the Democrats’ strategy for Special Session 2.

When the Texas House convened last last month to pass, on third reading and onto the Senate for final passage, Senate Bill 5, the omnibus abortion regulations bill, Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat heard several colleagues discussing whether House Dems would be ready to walk out – to break quorum – in order to stop the measure from moving forward.

Among the questions before Democrats as they face today’s start of a second-called special session, with passage of abortion regulations first on Gov. Rick Perry’s to do list, is whether a mid-summer, out-of-state sojourn may be in the cards. “There was talk about it” on the floor last month, he said, “and there will undoubtedly be talk about it again.”

[…]

With the 30-day special-called session only getting under way today, there is plenty of time for Republicans to maneuver to pass the divisive measures – as one Capitol staffer said last week, not even Davis can talk for 30 days. But there remain other strategies to explore, said Austin Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson – though he declined to offer specifics. “I’m not going to get into strategies,” he said, “but we’re not going to give up the fight.”

[…]

Requiring testimony in each chamber may be one way to moderate the legislation’s forward progress, but it is unlikely to do much to halt the ever-forward movement. So, might a mid-summer trip to a nearby state be the way to go? That’s certainly an option, says [Rep. Donna] Howard. Though, realistically, says Naishtat, he isn’t sure that it would work to derail the measure completely. “I don’t see how House or Senate Democrats could break quorum for the amount of time necessary to defeat the bill – it could be as much as three weeks,” he said. “On the other hand, other people doubted that Sen. Wendy Davis could pull off a filibuster. So what I’m saying is, you never know.” Indeed, Naishtat agrees that at this point, every option is on the table. And it would be “foolish,” he said, for Republicans to “underestimate our power, our intelligence, our mastery of the rules, and our commitment to doing everything legal to prevent the passage of … anti-pro-choice bills.”

I’m not privy to the Dems’ thinking, and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss any feasible possibility out of hand, but I have a hard time seeing how a quorum break would be successful. As with the Davis filibuster, all it can do is delay. It can’t prevent any of this awful legislation from passing, because Rick Perry can just keep calling more sessions, which you know he will. The reason why Ardmore was doable in 2003 was that the Dems only needed to be gone for five days. As with the previous special session, the re-redistricting bill came up late, and it was close enough to the deadline for passing bills out of the House for the Senate to take up that they could bug out on Monday and return on Saturday having accomplished their task. Busting quorum now would be like what the Senate Dems tried to do later that summer. As was the case back then, there was no magic day after which you could say you were in the clear. Maybe they’ve though this through and they know what their endgame is, but I have my doubts. It’s asking an awful lot of a lot of people, and I don’t know how practical it is. I hate to be a wet blanket, and I could be wrong about this, but that’s how I see it.

Two more factors to consider. One is that in the aftermath of Ardmore and Albuquerque, there were some rule changes made in each chamber to make future quorum busts more difficult and more punitive to the fleeing party. I don’t remember the details, but I do feel confident that the Rs would be extremely vengeful towards a caucus that skipped town. Two, back in 2003 the Governors of Oklahoma and New Mexico were both Democrats, and thus unwilling to cooperate with the efforts to locate and extradite the Killer Ds. Both Governors are Republicans now, so no such assistance would be in the offing. The only neighboring state now with a Democratic Governor is Arkansas, but I would not want to put my fate in that state’s hands. The nearest state where I’d feel safe, politically speaking at least, is Colorado. Point being, any out of state excursion would need to be done by air, not by bus, which increases the cost, the risk factor, and the likelihood of something going wrong because there’s just too much you can’t control.

Anyway. If it were up to me, I’d do everything I could to drag the proceedings out, while giving the crazier members of the GOP caucus as many opportunities to say something as stupid as Rep. Laubenberg did last session, and I’d lay whatever groundwork I could for litigation to block the law. The name of the game is the 2014 election. Go down fighting, keep everyone engaged, and be ready to pick up where you left off as soon as the session ends. Be sure to read the whole AusChron story, there’s a lot more in there besides quorum breaking.

Will Perry call a special session to force the Lege to draw a Congressional map?

Maybe.

Gov. Rick Perry today said state lawmakers should be the ones to draw new congressional districts, not judges.

“I do think that the responsibility is with the members of the Legislature,” Perry said this morning. “To allow the courts to do that is not in the best interest of the people.”

[…]

There are six days left in the legislative session, and while Perry says he hopes lawmakers will get the job done, there is virtually no way that lawmakers can still tackle the task of congressional redistricting.

And here is the problem for Perry: The 2001 Legislature did not draw a new congressional map, leaving that job to federal courts. In 2003, Perry called lawmakers into repeated special sessions to do so.

So will he do that again? Numerous people close to Perry have said he will not.

I’m a little surprised by this. Greg has a theory (see second comment) that Perry is looking to get something from the Congressional delegation and will act when he has it. I think he may not want to get in the way of an intra-Republican pissing contest, between Lamar Smith and Joe Barton, and may just not care to have any distractions as he tries to get himself drafted to run for President. He’s usually pretty clear about what he wants and what he’ll do to get it, so it shouldn’t be too hard to tell. If the ongoing school finance negotiations fail to bear fruit and a special is needed to sort that mess out, then I don’t see how he avoids adding Congressional redistricting to the call. Will he do it just for that? So far I have no reason to believe he will, but that could change.

What’s different between now and 2001, when the Congressional map was also judicially drawn? (I seem to recall it’s been that way every time since 1971, the difference being that now Republicans have the control over the process.) In 2001, the House was still majority Democrat, and the two chambers could not agree on a bill. In addition, the Texas Congressional delegation was 17-15 D (though one of those Ds was Ralph Hall, who doesn’t count and who later switched to keep his seat), so the Republicans had a reasonable argument that the districts did not reflect the state’s political reality. (Much like Latinos have a decent argument now, not that it’s gotten them anywhere.) They also had a backup plan, which was to dominate the 2002 elections and redraw the map at that time to their preferences in the 2003 session.

The history of the 2003 legislative sessions is told as best I could at the time in my Killer D’s archive. Late in the session, some maps began to emerge, and though it wasn’t clear that anything could pass the Senate, House Democrats decided to take no chances and broke quorum on May 12, departing the state for Ardmore, OK, where they stayed for five days, returning after the House deadline for passing new bills had passed. After a number of redistricting hearings were held around the state, a special session was called to try again. After the House passed a map, everything came to a screeching halt as ten Senate Democrats plus Republican Bill Ratliff signed a letter saying they would not vote to suspend the rules and allow a redistricting bill to come to the floor. With the Senate’s two thirds rule in effect, that meant redistricting was dead for the session.

And that’s when it got even stranger. A second special session was called immediately after the first one ended, only this time with no “blocker bill”, meaning that the Senate’s two thirds rule was not in effect. This time, Senate Democrats took a powder, having previously announced their intent to do so under these conditions. They headed west to New Mexico and stayed there through the end of the second session. Two weeks after that, Sen. John Whitmire returned to Houston and announced his intent to attend Session #3; his comrades followed him home shortly thereafter and the next session was called. Finally, as time was running out in the third overtime, Tom DeLay swept into town, cracked a few heads, and got a deal done.

I give all that history to say that I can’t really think of a good reason why Rick Perry wouldn’t call a special session on Congressional redistricting. The two thirds rule in the Senate is hardly an obstacle, as they have demonstrated numerous times. There’s no way that a court will draw a friendlier map for Republicans than the Republicans themselves can. The only thing that makes sense to me is that he’s just biding his time, for whatever purpose. He waited 30 days before calling the first special session in 2003, so who’s to say he needs to act now. All I know is that if we go into 2012 with a map drawn by a three-judge panel or the like, it’ll be the biggest political mystery of recent years.

Finally, I should note that while the Senate Redistricting Committee may be fallow, other folks are taking on the map-drawing task. State Rep. Marc Veasey released a statement saying he “will present a statewide congressional redistricting map that provides the opportunity for Latino and African-American Texans to elect their candidate of choice as required by the Voting Rights Act, in recognition of the fact that minority population growth is the only reason Texas is receiving four additional congressional districts”. That’s happening at 9AM in the Speaker’s room at the Capitol. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

UPDATE: Welcome Kos Elections readers, and thanks very much to David Nir for the kind words. Roll Call suggests another possible reason why Perry isn’t motivated to call a special session on redistricting this time around:

If state lawmakers pass a map during special session, Perry will ultimately have control over it — and it’s likely the delegation won’t love the result. There’s still bad blood between Perry and the Texas delegation, which largely supported Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R) bid against the governor in 2010.

“If Perry takes control of the process, then at least you know that it will be a Republican-friendly map. It may not be a delegation-friendly map,” said one Texas GOP source close to the redistricting process. “He’s essentially let the Texas delegation know, ‘Don’t come to me with any favors.’ Read between the lines: The Congressional delegation, at least two-thirds of them, endorsed KBH in the primary.”

Never underestimate the power of spite, especially where Rick Perry is concerned.