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Pennsylvania

2019 election results: Elsewhere

I think we can all agree that this was the most important race on anyone’s ballot.

Shelley Sekula-Gibbs

One of the most contested elections in the brief history of The Woodlands Township Board of Directors came to a close Tuesday night, as Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, Ann Snyder and Bob Milner claimed unofficial victories over challengers for the three open seats on the seven-member board.

[…]

The battle for the Position 5 seat to replace retiring director John McMullan featured the most money raised by candidates of any of the three seat races in 2019, with both Shelley Sekula-Gibbs and Rashmi Gupta spending more than $20,000 each on the race while Walter Cooke spent more than $11,000 on his campaign.

At the end of early voting, Sekula-Gibbs has a sizable lead over both Gupta and Cooke with more than 1,600 vote lead over both before Tuesday’s ballots were counted.

With the results from Tuesday counted, Sekula-Gibbs easily nabbed an unofficial victory despite having only resided in the township for less than 20 months compared to her opponents, who combined have lived in The Woodlands more than 53 years.

A former three-term member of the Houston City Council, Sekula-Gibbs also holds the dubious distinction of being a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for one of the shortest time periods in U.S. History, serving about seven weeks but having only less than 10 days of duty in office. Her term in Congress was result of being elected in a special election in late 2006 to replace outgoing former Speaker of the House Tom Delay. Sekula-Gibbs is listed as having served seven weeks in the House of Representatives.

sniff The great ones always have one more run in them. We missed you, Shelley. I know we can expect big things from you.

In all seriousness, the big news nationally were the Democratic sweeps of the Virginia legislature, a result that may ultimately mean new life for the long-dormant Equal Rights Amendment, and the amazing victory in the Kentucky Governor’s race by Andy Beshear over extreme Trumpite Matt Bevin. Other results of interest came from Tucson, AZ, which just elected its first female and first Latinx Mayor, Regina Romero, Plymouth, NC, which just elected its first black Mayor, and Delaware County, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia, which elected a Democratic county government for the first time before the Civil War. And last but not least, there’s this:

Juli Briskman, who famously flipped off President Donald Trump’s motorcade in a viral 2017 photo, won her race Tuesday night for a seat on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors in Virginia.

God bless America.

Census lawsuit proceeds

Good.

A federal judge in New York on Thursday allowed a lawsuit challenging the addition of a citizenship question to the Census to move forward. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman’s decision rejected the Trump administration’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, which was brought by numerous states and localities.

The judge said that the court has jurisdiction to review Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision to add the question, rejecting the administration’s arguments that Ross could be insulated from judicial review.

Furman said that while Ross indeed had the authority under the Constitution to add the question, the judge concluded that the exercise of that authority in this particular case may have violated the challengers’ constitutional rights.

At this stage of the proceedings, Furman is required to assume the challengers’ allegations are true, and he must draw any inference from those allegations in the challengers’ favor. In doing so on Thursday, Furman said that the challengers “plausibly allege that Secretary Ross’s decision to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 census was motivated by discriminatory animus and that its application will result in a discriminatory effect. ”

See here, here, and here for the background. Nothing really new here, just another chance for me to say that this absolutely was motivated by discrimination and that it would be very nice to have it halted by the time the counting actually begins. Daily Kos and NPR have more.

Census lawsuit may proceed

Good.

A federal judge said Tuesday that there was a “strong showing of bad faith” by the Trump administration in adding a controversial question about US citizenship to the 2020 census. The judge hinted that he would allow the case to move forward over objections from the administration, and senior administration officials will be subjected to questioning under oath about why the question was added.

Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, said the administration “deviated from standard operating procedure” by adding the question with no testing. Furman ruled that the plaintiffs challenging the question—including the state of New York and the American Civil Liberties Union—can depose senior officials from the Commerce Department and Justice Department as the case moves forward.

The census has not asked respondents about their citizenship status since 1950. Civil rights groups say the citizenship question will depress response rates from immigrants, imperil the accuracy of the census, and shift political power to areas with fewer immigrants. The census determines how $675 billion in federal funding is allocated, how much representation states receive, and how political districts are drawn.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, approved the citizenship question in March, saying it was needed for “more effective enforcement” of the Voting Rights Act. Ross said at the time and in subsequent testimony before Congress that he approved the question after the Justice Department requested in December 2017 that it be added.

However, Ross stated in a memo he filed to the court on June 21 that he first considered adding a citizenship question to the census after he was confirmed as commerce secretary in February 2017, months before the Justice Department requested the question. He wrote that he had approached the Justice Department about the question, not the other way around, after consulting with “other senior Administration officials” who had “previously raised” the citizenship question.

Furman cited Ross’s memo to question his truthfulness and the administration’s motives in adding the question. “It now appears these statements were potentially untrue,” Furman said of Ross’ claims that the question was added at the Justice Department’s request. “It now appears that the idea of adding a citizenship question originated with Secretary Ross and not the Department of Justice.”

See here and here for some background. The judge did subsequently allow the lawsuit to go forward, while also granting the motion for discovery. I for one can’t wait to see what bits of treasure that digs up. Time is of the essence here, so I hope there’s a speedy schedule to get us towards a resolution.

Multiple cities and states sue over Census citizenship question

Good.

Seventeen states, the District of Columbia, and six major cities sued the Trump administration on Tuesday over the addition of a controversial new question about US citizenship to the 2020 census. This is the third major lawsuit against the administration’s action, after California and the NAACP sued last week, marking a major escalation of the legal and political battle over the census. Civil rights advocates say the question is designed to spark fear in immigrant respondents and will cause many immigrants not to be counted, diminishing the political power and financial resources of the jurisdictions where they live.

“This is a blatant effort to undermine the census and prevent the census from carrying out its Constitutional mandate,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who organized the multi-state lawsuit, at a press conference in lower Manhattan. New York has the third-largest immigrant population in the country, after California and Texas. More than 1 in 5 New York residents are foreign-born. “This is an effort to punish states like New York that welcome immigrants,” Schneiderman said.

The lawsuit says the new question “violates the constitutional mandate to conduct an ‘actual Enumeration’” of the country’s entire population, not just citizens, as well as a provision of the 1946 Administrative Procedure Act barring federal agencies from taking “arbitrary, capricious” actions.

The lawsuit was filed by New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia, and joined by the cities of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, San Francisco, and Seattle. The bipartisan US Conference of Mayors, which represents the 1,400 cities with a population of 30,000 or more, also joined the suit.

[…]

Past leaders of the Census Bureau and current advisers to the bureau have also blasted the question. Six former bureau directors, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, told Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in January that “an untested question on citizenship status at this late point in the decennial planning process would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk.” Members of the bureau’s Scientific Advisory Committee, who are appointed by the director, blasted the decision at a meeting of the Census Bureau last week.

“I want to say in no uncertain terms that I think this is an absolutely awful decision,” said D. Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science at Duke University. “I am dumbfounded that this decision is coming in at such a late date. My view is that this is going to have severe negative implications for data quality and costs.”

She began her PowerPoint presentation at census headquarters with the phrase “W.T.H.,” short for “what the hell.”

The Commerce Department, which oversees the census, said the new question was needed to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, but Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Barack Obama, told Mother Jones that was “plainly a ruse to collect that data and ultimately to sabotage the census.”

See here for some background. Even with the involvement of the US Conference of Mayors, I say every city of decent size should want to get involved, because it’s their residents who are going to be undercounted as a result of this malevolent policy, and that will cost them in terms of funding, representation, and more. This is a big, serious deal and it needs to be treated as such. Think Progress, which also looks at the effect of this policy on Texas, has more.

Driverless Ubers arrive in San Francisco

Here they come, ready or not.

Uber has always had a special relationship with this city. The ride-hailing company was founded and headquartered here. In its early days, one of the towns where Uber grew fastest was its hometown.

On Wednesday, Uber again highlighted its special relationship with San Francisco. The company has started offering its self-driving car service to passengers here, making it the second place in the world where Uber offers autonomous vehicles for public use.

It also marks the debut of the XC90 self-driving car, a Volvo sport utility vehicle outfitted with lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams; wireless technology; and seven different cameras. It was produced in collaboration with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, the company’s driverless tech division based in Pittsburgh. Uber began offering self-driving car service in Pittsburgh this year.

“The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, said in a blog post.

[…]

Starting Wednesday, any passenger who requests a ride from UberX, one of the cheaper options of the service, may be picked up by an autonomous vehicle. Those chosen will receive a notification inside the Uber app, where they can accept, or cancel and request a regular driver. A company engineer sits behind the wheel in each self-driving vehicle and can take over when needed.

Three passengers will be able to fit into the XC90 vehicles. Riders will be able to play with a large touch screen that displays the route the car is taking, as well as a rendered version of the environment the car sees through its cameras and laser guidance systems. Uber also lets passengers take selfies from a camera facing the back seat, which they can email to themselves and share on social media.

It is unclear if Uber is allowed to test its driverless vehicle technology within San Francisco. As of Dec. 8, the company’s name was not listed on California’s Department of Motor Vehicles website as one that held a permit to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Other companies, including Google, Tesla and General Motors, all hold permits to test autonomous vehicles in California.

“All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement.

The company said that under California’s D.M.V. definition, autonomous vehicles are those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its self-driving cars, which require a human behind the wheel to monitor or control them, did not fall under that strict definition.

In a statement, the California D.M.V. said, “20 manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”

Of course there’s a question about whether or not Uber is compliant with relevant law as it proceeds. It wouldn’t be Uber if there wasn’t at least a little bit of questionable legality. And it keeps on escalating.

“It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit,” wrote Brian Soublet, chief counsel for the California DMV in a strongly worded letter to Anthony Levandowski, who oversees Uber’s autonomous group. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action.”

An Uber spokesman didn’t have immediate comment Wednesday on the DMV letter.

“Based on how the car is operating and used, we feel strongly the car is not an autonomous vehicle,” said Lior Ron, senior director of engineering for Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, during a presentation with journalists Tuesday.

California requires companies testing autonomous cars—defined as having technology capable of “operating or driving the vehicle without active physical control or monitoring of a natural person”—to have a permit issued by the state and to have a test driver who is able to take over driving.

Mr. Soublet in a call with reporters Wednesday dismissed Uber’s argument that the car isn’t self-driving because a human is behind the wheel taking control. “They’ve equipped the vehicles with technology that allows them to operate autonomously and that’s the key,” Mr. Soublet said.

In his letter to Uber, Mr. Soublet said 20 companies—including Alphabet Inc.’s Google—are approved to test a total of 130 self-driving vehicles that are being driven by more than 480 permitted test drivers in California. “They are obeying the law and are responsibly testing and advancing their technology,” he wrote.

Uber may be balking at disclosure requirements from the DMV as part of its permitting process. The department said companies with an autonomous vehicle permit are required to hand over accident reports within 10 days of an incident and to disclose how many times humans had to take the wheel, both of which are available for public inspection.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of law and expert on autonomous car law, said Uber may have a plausible argument as the law allows some interpretation. Still, he said in an email, Uber’s actions are “in tension with the law if interpreted in context. This was a law intended to apply to aspirationally autonomous vehicles. It was in large part about building trust, and Uber is not building any trust in its systems or practices by doing this.”

Awesome. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

Anyway. The rollout here will be bigger than the one in Pittsburgh, and the hilly terrain of San Francisco will no doubt give the driverless cars – pardon me, the hip term now appears to be Highly Automated Vehicles, or HAVs – a sterner test than the one before. Well, except for weather conditions, as Pittsburgh is now experiencing snow, which is something San Francisco cannot provide. We’ll see how it goes this time. Forbes and TechCrunch have more.

Just a reminder that “more gambling” does not necessarily mean “more revenue”

If Atlantic City can go bust…

The winning streak has run cold for Atlantic City, N.J.

Earlier this week, the upscale Revel Casino Hotel announced it will close, bringing the total number of casinos in the city expected to close by the end of the year to four. Thousands of workers are confronting unemployment.

The state has long guaranteed Atlantic City a monopoly on gambling within New Jersey’s borders, but gambling revenues there have been declining due to increased competition from new casinos in neighboring states and the lingering effects of the financial crisis. The monthly report from the state Division of Gaming Enforcement issued Wednesday shows that the trend is continuing, as July’s take declined 7.7 percent year over year.

Pennsylvania, which only legalized casino gambling in the past decade, has replaced New Jersey as the state with the second-largest gambling industry. More casinos have been proposed in New York. Yet revenues have been disappointing across the region. In New Jersey, they have declined by around half from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006.

Most disappointing for investors has been the performance of the casinos’ new online gaming businesses. The prospect of online revenues has kept several casinos open despite declining income.

“A lot of these casinos have been unprofitable for quite some time,” said Alex Bumazhny, an analyst at Fitch Ratings.

Online gamblers haven’t anted up, though, and several casinos have folded. Bumazhny estimates that online gaming revenues for New Jersey businesses will total only around $125 million this year. Revel follows The Atlantic Club, which closed in January, and the Showboat and the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, also expected to close this year.

I like to note this sort of news item because as sure as the sun rises, at some point in the fall as the elections get settled and legislators start pre-filing bills, I’m going to get a press release from a pro-gambling expansion group touting the economic benefits of slot machines at horse racing tracks and/or casinos. Said press release and its accompanying economic study will point out the vast number of Texans that are currently gambling in Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other non-Texas states, and will lament the money that could have been spent and gambled right here. My point is that the casinos and riverboats and what have you in Louisiana and New Mexico and Oklahoma and wherever else won’t simply give up the business those traveling Texans bring them without a fight, and the competition they will bring to hold onto their existing customers as well as lure new ones may possibly have a downward effect on those numbers in those press releases and economic studies. This isn’t about whether one does support or should support expanded gambling in Texas – as you well know by now, I am deeply ambivalent about it. It’s just a reminder to keep a sense of perspective when the issue heats up as it always does every two years.

Pro tip: Vote only once

Oops.

Bruce Fleming

After the Fort Bend Star received a tip about the Republican candidate for Fort Bend County Precinct 1 Commissioner, the Star conducted an in-depth review of Bruce Fleming and his wife, Nancy Fleming’s voting record. Our research found that for several years Fleming voted both in Bucks County, Pa. and in Fort Bend County.

Although Fleming claims to be a 20-year resident of Texas, he first registered to vote in Bucks County, Pa. in 1992 and still owns a home there. He is listed as an active voter Bucks County.

Fleming first voted in Fort Bend County in the general election of 2006. He voted early in Fort Bend then voted absentee in Bucks County, Pa. in the same general election.

In 2008 he voted absentee in the general election in Bucks, County, Pa but in Fort Bend County he voted in person in the Democratic Primary and again in the 4/8/2008 primary run off. He also voted early in the November general election in Fort Bend.

In 2010 he voted absentee in the general election in Bucks County and in Fort Bend County he voted early in both the primary and the general election. Fleming voted in person in the 2010 primary in Fort Bend County and voted early in the primary run off.

The Star has been unable to get the primary voting records in Bucks County for 2012, but those records should be available next week.

According to Fleming, his wife, Nancy, is seldom seen in Fort Bend as she stays in their home in Pennsylvania in order to keep her job there. She usually votes in every general election in Pennsylvania. 2010 records indicate she voted in the general election in both Bucks County (absentee) and the general election in Fort Bend (also absentee).

However, in 2012 with her husband a candidate, she voted in Fort Bend in both the Republican primary (in person) and then absentee in the primary run off. She is classified as an active registered voter in both Pennsylvania and Fort Bend County, Texas.

The Star contacted Bruce Fleming to ask him why he had voted in both states in the same elections for at least three different elections. According to Fleming he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007 and he was back and forth between Houston and Bucks County for treatment. He seemed to indicate that was why he voted in both states. However, our research shows that Fleming started voting in both states in the 2006 general election and continued to vote in both states through 2010. Again, the 2012 primary records for Pennsylvania are not available yet. Fleming told the Star that he would have to talk to his wife and get back to us. He didn’t.

Ouch. Fleming is the Republican candidate for Fort Bend County Commissioner Precinct 1, against Richard Morrison. Fleming’s vote in the 2008 Democratic primary was aberrant – as Juanita demonstrated, he’s a consistent Republican primary voter otherwise. One presumes he was among those who voted in the Dem primary that year at the exhortation of Rush Limbaugh, to mess with things. Anyway, the Chron story ties this back to a larger theme.

“I’m, frankly, shocked at the double, secret life that my opponent has been living for the past six years,” said Fleming’s Democratic opponent, incumbent Commissioner Richard Morrison. “I know a lot of precinct chairs that are Republicans here in Fort Bend County, and I know them to be hard-working, they play by the rules and they would never stoop to anything like this.”

Morrison and fellow Fort Bend Democrats took aim at Catherine Engelbrecht, founder and president of True the Vote, a Houston-based tea party group dedicated to combating voter fraud nationwide and pushing for voter photo identification. Engelbrecht lives in Fort Bend’s Precinct 1.

“While local and national Republican leaders were tilting at the windmills of imaginary voter fraud, real voter fraud was taking place under their noses,” said Fort Bend County Democratic Chairman Steve Brown. “It demonstrates that the Republicans’ crusade against voter fraud is either disingenuous or ill- conceived – maybe both – to be totally unaware of a serial fraudulent voter like Fleming while aggressively harassing little old ladies attempting to vote in Briargate (a Houston neighborhood in Fort Bend County).”

The irony sure is thick, isn’t it? The story has a fairly limp response from some TTV person, because let’s face it, people like Fleming aren’t who they’re interested in. Additional coverage from the Fort Bend Star is here, a little gloating from Juanita is here, further commentary from FBCDP Chair Steve Brown about what protecting the integrity of the vote really means is here, and PDiddie has more.

Voter ID trial starts today

Another big lawsuit in a year that’s seen plenty of them.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The decades-old legal battle between states’ rights and civil rights returns to a familiar venue – a federal courtroom – on Monday as lawyers for the state of Texas try to convince a panel of judges that the U.S. Justice Department has no legal authority to block the state from immediately implementing a voter ID law.

Civil rights groups contend that Texas’ 2011 law requiring voters to provide identification with a photo issued by the state or the military discriminates against minority citizens and violates the federal Voting Rights Act. They say it harkens back to state laws designed to disenfranchise minorities, such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

“The effort to suppress the vote is not a new thing,” said Leon W. Russell, vice chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors. “What we’ve seen in the last two years, though, is the most egregious effort to compound and collect every single method that anybody could think of that would discourage a person to vote and put it in a piece of legislation and inflict it on our community.”

[…]

Thirty-one states require voters to show identification at the polls, including 15 that require photo ID. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of states to require identification cards in a 2008 Indiana case, but the Justice Department has rebuffed laws in two states covered by the Voting Rights Act, Texas and South Carolina. New ID laws in Mississippi and Florida are awaiting Justice Department action.

While the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks voter ID laws, reports there is little evidence to bolster claims of voter fraud or discrimination, [Texas Attorney General Greg] Abbott cites 50 election fraud convictions in Texas and more than 100 defendants prosecuted by the Department of Justice in the past decade.

“I know for a fact that voter fraud is real, that it must be stopped, and that voter ID is one way to prevent cheating at the ballot box and ensure integrity in the electoral system,” Abbott said in an interview. “It’s time for politics to be put aside and allow the Texas voter ID law to be put into effect, just like similar laws that exist across the country.”

Even if you accept Abbott’s numbers as gospel, he’s talking about ten people prosecuted per year. That’s out of over 100 million votes cast in a year like this. There are industrial processes that have higher error rates than that. You’ll note that Abbott doesn’t mention how many of those federal prosecutions ended in convictions, nor does he say how many of either the federal or state cases involved the kind of in person fraud that voter ID is supposed to prevent. There’s a good reason for that. This is what happens when you base your case on a lie. What also happens is that you needlessly threaten the rights of a whole lot of people.

Despite perceptions, there are between 600,000 and 800,000 Texas voters — out of 13 million registered voters in the state — who cannot be found in the records of the Texas Department of Public Safety, meaning they could represent voters without valid licenses or ID cards, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

Proponents of the law take exception to the numbers, saying that voter rolls are not purged often and many of the 600,000 to 800,000 voters are dead. Also, some of the people without DPS matches could still have DPS-issued driver’s licenses or IDs under abbreviated or maiden names, or there could be data entry mistakes, said Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office.

[…]

El Cenizo resident [José] Zuniga, who said he was originally from Big Spring in West Texas, epitomizes the bloc of voters who could be denied the right to cast a ballot at the polls: He’s elderly. He’s a minority, and he’s poor. He also lives in South Texas, where the voter ID law would have the greatest effect.

Eight of 10 of Texas’ counties with the highest percentage of registered voters without a DPS-issued identification are in South Texas or near the border, according to figures supplied to the Department of Justice by the secretary of state’s office.

For Zuniga, voting is something he is passionate about. When asked what he would do if he were turned away at the polls, Zuniga said something in Spanish that, if translated, could not appear in a daily newspaper.

Then, after falling silent for a moment, Zuniga displayed frustration at the idea that someone — once again — might be questioning his nationality.

“Soy Tejano. Cien por ciento,” Zuniga said curtly. (“I’m Texan. 100 percent.”)

It’s unlikely that Zuniga will get a valid and required form of ID — an American passport, military ID, Texas driver’s license, free or paid-for DPS personal identification card, U.S. citizenship certificate or state-issued concealed handgun license — before the next election. He’s frail, and getting around is too difficult. It would take two or three buses to get to the closest DPS office in Laredo, which is about 20 miles away but for Zuniga might as well be 200.

There’s a lot of people in this state like José Zuniga. Greg Abbott thinks they don’t exist, and even if they do he’s not bothered by telling him that his right to vote doesn’t matter. When do you suppose was the last time someone was in a position to tell Greg Abbott that he doesn’t matter?

You can see the list of witnesses here, a brief overview of the case here, and a press roundup here. Needless to say, Texas Redistricting will be an invaluable resource throughout this trial. And as big as this is, it’s sadly only one of many fronts in the war on voting rights, along with Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and a whole lot of other places. The Texas voter ID preclearance trial is a big deal, but it’s far from the only deal.

Another story analyzing gambling’s odds in the Lege

I have three things to say about this story.

[W]ith a budget crisis looming — and funding to public education, health care and other state services on the chopping block — gambling opponents aren’t taking any chances.

Both sides have said legalizing gambling could generate at least $1 billion in state revenue, which lawmakers could dole out as they see fit. Even with a more conservative Legislature this year, some believe a billion-dollar temptation could sway more lawmakers.

“It’s a situation where a lawmaker could hold his nose and say, ‘public education is too important for me to not take advantage of this financial opportunity,'” said Chuck McDonald, a legislative consultant in Austin who has worked on pro- and anti-gambling efforts in the past.

And it’s still the case that getting a constitutional amendment for anything remotely controversial passed is an exercise in counting votes, and I have yet to see an article that really explores what that means in this Lege. The fact remains that a number of legislators who supported expanded gambling – almost all Democrats – lost in 2010. Those votes have to be replaced, and a few legislators who had previously voted No would have to change their minds, since this same effort has fallen apart in previous sessions. Where are those votes coming from? How many House freshmen are open to voting for more gambling? Are there any opponents who may now be reconsidering? I agree that if a referendum makes it onto the ballot that it is a favorite to pass, as public opinion is in favor of the idea now. It’s how a joint resolution gets passed, that’s what we need to know.

Suzii Paynter, director of the Christian Life Commission for Texas and staunch gambling opponent, is bracing for a fight.

“It’s always tempting and there’s always a big push at the capital . . . especially at a time when revenue is short,” Paynter said.

She has polished up her talking points and put together a fact sheet, ready to tell lawmakers why gambling would not be the best way to collect revenue: Unlike the lottery — where the state makes 33 cents for every $1 spent — Texas stands to make only 2 cents on every $1 bet in a slot machine, Paynter said, noting that sales tax is 8 cents to the dollar.

Instead, she argues, taxes on beer and wine could be raised by $1, bringing in $786 million immediately.

“And you don’t need to build anything or plant any palm trees,” Paynter said.

And again, this isn’t an either-or choice. You can raise the alcohol tax and support gambling, and bring in more money now and hopefully in the future as well. That’s assuming the gambling industry is being honest about its potential, which brings me to this:

In Pennsylvania, for example, supporters of legalizing slot machines in 2004, including then-Gov. Ed Rendell, said it would generate $1 billion a year once all 14 casinos authorized by the law were up and running. Ten are open today, while plans to build four others have been stalled by lawsuits, collapsed financing and local opposition. In the current 2010-11 fiscal year, those casinos are on track to provide roughly $800 million in money for tax cuts and additional funds to support civic development projects, the equine industry and local governments.

That was a remarkably accurate projection, especially given the current economic climate. It doesn’t address the social costs of more gambling, of course, but to predict $1 billion in revenue from 14 casinos and get $800 million from 10 is impressive. I’ll consider us fortunate if Texas has a similar experience, if it ever comes to pass. The Trib has more.

You kids hang up and drive!

Some action on the cellphones and driving front.

The House tonight tentatively approved a bill restricting teens’ use of cellphones until they’re 18 and overhauling driver’s ed requirements in Texas. The bill would require all new teen drivers to have an additional 20 hours of behind the wheel experience, 10 of them at night, before they could get a driver’s license. And it would lengthen the ban on a new teen driver having more than one passenger under 21 in the car. The ban now last six months, but would be for the first year under the bill, passed on a voice vote.

Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said he offered the bill after the community of Pottsboro in Grayson County had two teens killed in car crashes in one month. Parents there formed a group, “Less Tears, More Years.” They campaigned for more parental awareness of the risks of today’s teen driving — and more driver ed.

That one wasn’t on my list of bills to watch earlier in the session, but it’s been passed to engrossment (meaning, it was passed on second reading; it still needs final approval in the House) and assuming it doesn’t become a casualty of the calendar, I imagine it will pass the Senate, though I suppose some of the driver’s ed provisions might generate some debate. I don’t see anything particularly onerous in this, so unless someone knows of a hidden danger lurking in there, I think this is worthwhile. And according to Atrios, similar restrictions are being worked on in the Pennsylvania legislature.

You kids hang up and drive!

Some action on the cellphones and driving front.

The House tonight tentatively approved a bill restricting teens’ use of cellphones until they’re 18 and overhauling driver’s ed requirements in Texas. The bill would require all new teen drivers to have an additional 20 hours of behind the wheel experience, 10 of them at night, before they could get a driver’s license. And it would lengthen the ban on a new teen driver having more than one passenger under 21 in the car. The ban now last six months, but would be for the first year under the bill, passed on a voice vote.

Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said he offered the bill after the community of Pottsboro in Grayson County had two teens killed in car crashes in one month. Parents there formed a group, “Less Tears, More Years.” They campaigned for more parental awareness of the risks of today’s teen driving — and more driver ed.

That one wasn’t on my list of bills to watch earlier in the session, but it’s been passed to engrossment (meaning, it was passed on second reading; it still needs final approval in the House) and assuming it doesn’t become a casualty of the calendar, I imagine it will pass the Senate, though I suppose some of the driver’s ed provisions might generate some debate. I don’t see anything particularly onerous in this, so unless someone knows of a hidden danger lurking in there, I think this is worthwhile. And according to Atrios, similar restrictions are being worked on in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Specter switches

As Greg says, wow.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter will switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and announced today that he will run in 2010 as a Democrat, according to a statement he released this morning.

Specter’s decision would give Democrats a 60 seat filibuster proof majority in the Senate assuming Democrat Al Franken is eventually sworn in as the next Senator from Minnesota. (Former Sen. Norm Coleman is appealing Franken’s victory in the state Supreme Court.)

“I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary,” said Specter in a statement. “I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election.”

He added: “Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.”

My thoughts:

1. I sure hope the Democrats got some kind of assurances about how Specter would vote going forward, because he needed them way more than they needed him. Given that he’s reiterated his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, the opening stanza isn’t too promising.

2. In many ways, this really doesn’t change much. Yes, assuming Sen. Al Franken gets seated sometime before he stands for re-election, this gives the Democrats the magic number of 60 members. The thing is, Senate Democrats have been a bigger obstacle to President Obama’s agenda than any other group. Conservative Dems such as Sen. Ben Nelson have the leverage to foil, water down, or otherwise pimp to their liking just about anything Obama wants to push. Specter’s switch doesn’t change this dynamic at all.

3. Having said that, there is a way in which Specter’s switch could have a profound effect:

Arlen Specter (R-PA) is rumored to be ready to become Arlen Specter (D-PA). There are a million aspects of that worth examining. But here’s one for process nuts. Check out the Senate Judiciary Committee Rules:

IV. BRINGING A MATTER TO A VOTE

The Chairman shall entertain a non-debatable motion to bring a matter before the Committee to a vote. If there is objection to bring the matter to a vote without further debate, a roll call vote of the Committee shall be taken, and debate shall be terminated if the motion to bring the matter to a vote without further debate passes with ten votes in the affirmative, one of which must be cast by the minority.

Your current lineup of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Arlen Specter
Orrin Hatch
Chuck Grassley
Jon Kyl
Jeff Sessions
Lindsey Graham
John Cornyn
Tom Coburn

Which of these fellas do you think will be ready to provide the necessary one vote from the minority to bring things to a vote in the committee on tough questions now?

Specter is caucusing with the Democrats, but he’s still a Republican as far as committee assignments go, and will be one until there’s a new organizing resolution. Same for all the other committees he’s on. Democrats were always going to call for a new organizing resolution once Franken gets seated. Now, maybe they’re willing to let that process play out. Which poison do you think the Senate GOPers would prefer to choose – the fox in the henhouse, or Senator Sixty? Decisions, decisions…

4. Speaking of which, how does this affect the KBH will-she-stay-or-will-she-resign equation? Short answer: beats the beck out of me. On the one hand, you’d think Sen. Cornyn would want her to stay that much more. On the other hand, once Franken is in place, as he inevitably will be, what difference does it make? As always, the answer is “Who knows what KBH will do?”

5. Having said that, prepare to have your mind blown even further. I don’t see any way in which this happens, nor do I see rank and file Democrats being that thrilled at the prospect, for better or worse. But crazier things have happened, and there is an objective logic to it.

6. Dealing with party switchers in general causes headaches and almost always comes with a fair bit of bellyaching up front. Which is totally understandable, especially in the case of someone as obviously calculating and driven by self-interest as Specter is. I get where people like Atrios are coming from, I really do, and it’s completely possible that what we’ll get is a nominal Democrat who doesn’t really change his behavior in any meaningful way. Even worse, we may be sacrificing the chance to elect a better Democrat in 2010 and risk losing to a Republican who’s slightly less crazy than Pat Toomey (not a high bar to clear), since the case against Specter pretty much writes itself. He’s going to have to prove himself, and I hope Dems like Joe Sestak keep their powder dry until it’s clear that Specter is walking the walk. Here in Texas, we’ve had some very good results, as State Rep. Kirk England has been a fine member of the Democratic caucus, and State Sen. Wendy Davis (who had some Republican voting history but had never held office as a Republican) is a rising star having by my count an outstanding freshman session. Whether or not the past stays in the past depends entirely on what happens going forward. It’s totally up to Sen. Specter.

7. Finally, whatever else this is about, I love Specter’s rationale for switching. It’s an acknowledgment of reality, something which his now-former colleagues have less and less experience with these days. Once upon a time, party switchers helped the GOP grow bigger and stronger. Now it’s helping them grow smaller and weaker. I couldn’t be happier about that.

CLC gambling update

Today there will be committee hearings on various gambling-related bills. I am reprinting here an email sent by Suzii Paynter of the Christian Life Coalition, which is one of the leading organizations that are fighting the expansion of gambling in Texas, as it has a pretty good summary of what has gone on so far.

Casino Hearing

On Wednesday, April 8, the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures will hear all the major gambling bills filed in the House this session. There are 16 gambling related bills currently on the notice of hearing which can be found here. This hearing is sure to draw the most vocal gambling proponents from all segments of the casino industry. We think it is important that the committee hear the other side of the argument as well. The CLC will be at the hearing to offer testimony. This is an entirely new committee made up of members who may not know this issue. It is important that they know people out in the state care about the issue and are paying attention. If your representative sits on this committee it would be an excellent time to let them know you oppose the expansion of gambling in Texas. A list of the committee members and their contact information can be found here.

The CLC recently completed a comprehensive newsletter outlining our most important arguments against the expansion of predatory gambling and in support of our current family-friendly economy. You can view the newsletter here (large PDF).

First Gambling Bills Voted Out of Committee

On the same afternoon that the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee announced the agenda for Wednesday’s hearing, they quietly passed out two gambling expansion bills. Both bills now sit in the Calendars committee and await a chance to be considered on the House floor.

The first bill is HB 222, by Rep. Menendez (D-San Antonio). This bill would legalize poker to be played at electronic tables in certain bars, restaurants, horse and dog race tracks and on Indian reservations. The proponents claim that only simple majorities in both the House and Senate are needed to pass this bill. It is the opinion of the CLC, based on previous opinions offered by the Attorney General, that the element of chance inherent in this card game requires a constitutional amendment and the support of 2/3rds of the House and Senate. Additionally, the electronic facsimile of a game of chance makes this a Class III game as described under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). As other states have experienced, and according to IGRA, the approval of a Class III game in Texas will lead to the expansion of Native American gambling in Texas above and beyond what is contemplated in this bill and in a way that weakens the state’s ability to control further casino expansion.

The second bill is HB 1474 by Rep. Geren (R- Ft. Worth). This bill is meant to be a “clean up” bill to standardize and improve the regulation of Bingo in Texas. However, the bill also greatly increases the number and type of organizations that are eligible to receive a bingo license. The CLC is concerned that bingo in this state is moving far beyond the original public understanding of the game and that the charitable purpose is being watered down. Specifically, during the legislative interim period after last session, the lottery commission approved new bingo games which would allow versions of electronic pull tab bingo as well as a type of Keno. We are concerned that these new games could lead to a rapid expansion of electronic casino-style games. This threat is even more possible with the broadening of organizations eligible to apply for a license stated in HB 1474.

The list of members on the Calendars Committee can be found here. If your representative is member of this committee, let them know that the best way to defeat these bills is to never allow a vote on the House floor.

Indian Gambling Bills Get Hearing

On Monday, March 30, two Native-American casino bills by Rep. Chavez (D-El Paso) were heard in committee. The first bill, HB 1308 was heard in the subcommittee on Criminal Procedure of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

The CLC testified in opposition to this bill. HB 1308 would give a defense to prosecution for Indian tribes that conduct otherwise illegal casino gambling operations. The bill is the exact same piece of legislation which failed to pass the House last session. According to Rep. Chavez and other supporters, the bill would simply allow two tribes, the Tigua of El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta of Livingston to reopen illegal casinos that were shut down several years ago. While sympathetic to the desperate conditions on these two reservations, the Christian Life Commission opposes this piece of legislation because we believe that the consequences of passage may be far more expansive than what proponents are indicating.

HB 1308 does not improve the legal standing of gambling by the Texas tribes bound by the Restoration Act. The state has never used criminal charges to shut down illegal Native-American casinos. The state has the right to sue the tribe in federal court and seek injunctive relief. This is how the casinos were closed in the past and the bill cannot prevent the state from closing any casino opened by the Tigua or Alabama-Coushatta. The gambling activity the tribes seek to conduct is not just an illegal violation of the penal code that this bill amends; it is UNCONSTITUTIONAL according to the Texas Constitution. A statute passed by a simple legislative majority cannot trump the state constitution. While it may preclude criminal penalties the state may still seek to have any operating casino shut down in federal civil court. The bill is an attempt to expand gambling by a simple majority vote in the legislature rather than the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment. The end result of this bill would likely be more costly litigation on the part of the state in federal court.

Additionally, the vague language in the bill would actually open a legal loophole to Native-American tribes that are 1) named in the list of tribes referenced in the bill, 2) which have historic, recognized land ties to Texas and 3) are not bound by the Restoration Act. The list of tribes referenced in the bill includes over 300 tribes from across the country, several of whom have entered into agreements with state agencies acknowledging “historic property” in Texas. There are currently letters of intent to petition for recognition on file with the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 10 tribes seeking recognition in Texas.

The members of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee should hear from those opposed to this bill so that it is defeated in committee. A link to the committee and their contact info can be found here.

That afternoon, the House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs heard testimony on HJR 108. This Joint Resolution proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the Tigua tribe of El Paso to operate a full blown, Las Vegas style casino. The CLC testified in opposition to this bill as well. Any constitutional amendment which would allow Class III gambling as defined under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) would be a “trigger” for further Native-American casinos beyond what is authorized in this resolution. It is impossible to authorize gambling for only one tribe without affecting the rights of other tribes in this state. As has been the case in other states, once the Class III threshold is crossed, the state loses much of the ability to control casino expansion since many of the decisions will be made on the federal level.

A link to the members of the Border and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee can be found here.

A news report of these two hearings can be found here.

To learn more about HB 1308 and the history of Native-American gambling in Texas see here (PDF).

Couple things. First, as you know, I support HB222. Of all the various gambling expansion options I’ve seen, allowing for poker seems to me to be the most sensible and least potentially harmful. Plus, as a bridge player who has had the chance to play for money legally, I think poker is a legitimate game of skill and should be treated as such. In fact, poker players in Pennsylvania and South Carolina recently won court rulings that agreed poker is a game of skill. As such, it’s not clear to me that the AG’s opinion would agree with the CLC about the inherent level of chance here. Of course, I Am Not A Lawyer, and Lord only knows what Greg Abbott will do. The point is that recent legal history is on the poker players’ side. I welcome any feedback on that question, and on the other legal points raised, by anyone who has more expertise on the topic.

Second, you can’t talk about the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribes and the litigation over their past attempts to open casinos without noting that a lot of the opposition to them has come from out of state Indian tribes and casinos, who have an obvious interest in minimizing their competition, and that along the way some really sleazy double-dealing was done by former Christian Coalition honcho Ralph Reed and Tom DeLay’s felonious friend Jack Abramoff. Here’s some previous blogging on the subject, plus a couple of corrected links to Observer articles to give you the background.

Finally, just to reiterate, outside of HB222, I am officially agnostic on the subject of expanded gambling in Texas. I have plenty of issues with it, and I may wind up voting against any future ballot propositions to allow for more gambling, but I am not comfortable being opposed to the idea. I thought this email was informative and worth highlighting, but please don’t take that as an endorsement, because it’s not intended as one.