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More local pushback against SB7 and HB6

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner invited a diverse group of elected officials, community leaders, and business executives to stand in solidarity against voter suppression bills in the Texas Legislature.

More than 50 individuals and organizations have vowed to fight Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, which would make voting more difficult and less accessible to people of color and people with disabilities.

“The right to vote is sacred. In the 1800’s and 1900’s in this country, women, and people of color had to fight to obtain that right to vote,” Mayor Turner said. “In 2021, we find ourselves again fighting bills filed in legislatures across this country that would restrict and suppress the right of people to vote. These bills are Jim Crow 2.0.”

In addition to elected and appointed officials from Harris and Fort Bend Counties, prominent attorneys, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith-based leaders joined the mayor Monday afternoon.

Representatives from the following organizations were also present:

NAACP, Houston Area Urban League, Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters Houston, Houston in Action, FIEL, ACLU, Communications Workers of American, IAPAC, Mi Familia Vota, Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Pipe Trades Association, National Federation for the Blind of Texas, Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Employment & Training Centers, Inc. and others.

Watch the entire voter suppression news conference here.

I’ll get to the Chron story on this in a minute. The TV stations were at this presser, and KTRK had the best coverage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner hit at a GOP-led effort that lawmakers say protects the integrity of Texas ballots, but what leaders around Houston believe do nothing but suppress the right to vote.

Turner was joined by leaders including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Monday.

Multiple major corporations based in Texas have already spoken out in opposition to Republican-led legislative proposals to further restrict voting in Texas.

[…]

Both measures are legislative priorities for Texas Republicans, who this year are mounting a broad campaign to scale up the state’s already restrictive voting rules and pull back on local voting initiatives championed in diverse urban centers, namely in Harris County, during a high-turnout election in which Democrats continued to drive up their margins. That push echoes national legislative efforts by Republicans to change voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

Click over to see their video. One more such effort came on Tuesday.

The press conference was convened by the Texas Voting Rights Coalition and included statements from MOVE Texas, Black Voters Matter, Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute. Beto O’Rourke, who traveled to the Texas State Capitol to testify against HB 6, and Julián Castro also spoke at the press conference.

This latest move comes after American Airlines became the largest Texas-based company to announce their opposition to voter suppression bills in Texas. Several of the speakers specifically called out Dallas-based AT&T for their silence in the wake of voter suppression legislation.

Cliff Albright from Black Voters Matter, which is based out of Georgia but has several statewide chapters, cited the corporate accountability campaign that took place in his own state after the governor signed sweeping legislation targeting the right to vote, which prompted Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to belatedly issue statements against that legislation. “If AT&T can convince folks to upgrade a phone every few months, certainly they can convince folks that voter suppression is bad,” Albright said. He also mentioned companies with a national profile should be speaking out in favor of voting rights legislation, like H.R. 1, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

O’Rourke also leaned into the pressure that Texans can place on companies like AT&T. He also mentioned several other Texas-based companies like Toyota, Frito Lay, and Southwest Airlines as organizations that should lend their voice against voter suppression. “Reach out to these companies, you are their customer you have some leverage, ask them to stand up and do the right thing while we still have time,” he said.

Castro was blunt about SB7 and HB6. “This is a Republican party power grab,” he said. Castro also called on companies to develop a consciousness regarding the right to vote. “Companies in the state of Texas and outside of it who do business here can choose to either stand on the side of making sure people have the right to vote and are able to exercise that right, or they can stand on the side of a party that is only concerned with maintaining its power and want to disenfranchise especially black and brown voters to do that.”

Castro also emphasized that the legislation in Texas is also about voter intimidation. The former mayor of San Antonio pointed out that one of the provisions in the legislation allows for the videotaping of any voter suspected of committing fraud, even though voter fraud almost never happens.

Mimi Marziani, the President of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), also spoke about the grave effects this legislation would have on communities of color. Marziani highlighted some findings that TCRP is releasing later in the week from renowned economist Dr. Ray Perryman that shows that voter suppression leads to less political power, lower wages, and even decreased education.

Marziani also mentioned that voter suppression bills have a track record of impacting states and their ability to generate tourism. “Big event organizers might choose to avoid a state altogether and avoid any appearance of approving a controversial policy,” she said. Marziani cited the decision of Major League Baseball to relocate their All-Star Game out of Atlanta as a recent example.

In terms of direct action towards Texas-based companies, the event organizers indicated that there are going to be several ongoing calls to actions including email campaigns and phone drives. Jane Hamilton, from the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute, said her organization (along with the Texas Organizing Project) would be holding a press conference outside of AT&T’s Dallas headquarters later this week to engage with them directly.

And one more:

Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s recent controversial voter law is sparking calls for other organizations to do the same but in Texas.

Progress Texas says that the NCAA should reconsider holding men’s basketball games in Texas in the coming years due to election bills currently on the table in the Texas Legislature.

[…]

“Since Texas Republicans insist on pushing Jim Crow voter suppression efforts, the NCAA basketball tournament should insist on pulling next year’s first and second-round games out of Fort Worth and San Antonio,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director at Progress Texas in a release. “The NCAA can join American Airlines, Dell, Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines and send a message to Texas lawmakers: we won’t stand for voter suppression.”

[…]

According to the NCAA’s men’s basketball calendar, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio are currently set to hold preliminary rounds in 2022, and Houston and San Antonio are set to host the national championship games in 2023 and 2025 respectively.

The NCAA has previously pulled games due to controversial legislation. In 2016, the NCAA relocated seven previously awarded championship events from North Carolina over the since-repealed HB 2, a law that required transgender people to use public bathrooms that conform to the sex on their birth certificate.

Swing for the fences, I say. All this is great, and I’m delighted to see companies like AT&T come under increased pressure. There’s a lot to be said about the national response from businesses in favor of voting rights, and the whiny freakout it has received in response from national Republicans, but this post is already pretty long.

I applaud all the effort, which is vital and necessary, but it’s best to maintain some perspective. These bills are Republican priorities – emergency items, you may recall – and they say they are not deterred.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the author of SB7, said some of the bill’s anti-fraud measures are being lost in the “national narrative” about it. He pointed to improved signature verification rules to make sure absentee ballots are thrown out when they don’t match. Another provision would allow people to track their absentee ballots so they can see that they arrived and were counted.

Still, critics have focused on how the legislation will end drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting locations, both of which were popular in Harris County during the 2020 election, which saw record turnout statewide.

One of those businesses trying to make itself heard is American Airlines.

“To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the carrier said in a statement released Friday.

[Lt. Gove Dan] Patrick fired back a short time later.

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session. Senate Bill 7 includes comprehensive reforms that will ensure voting in Texas is consistent statewide and secure.”

Patrick is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday to further defend the election reform bill against such criticism.

Hughes said he’s willing to listen to the business leaders upset with the bill, but he said many haven’t been clear about exactly what they want changed in the legislation.

“They haven’t told us what about the bill they don’t like,” Hughes said.

We’ll get to Dan Patrick in a minute. As for Sen. Hughes, the problem with signature verification rules is that there’s no standard for matching signatures, it’s just the judgment of whoever is looking at the ballot. People’s signatures change over time – mine certainly has, from a mostly-readable cursive to an unintelligible scrawl. More to the point, various studies have shown that the mail ballots for Black voters get rejected at a higher rate than they do for white voters. As for what the corporations don’t like about SB7, that’s easy: They don’t like the bill. It’s a kitchen sink of bad ideas for non-problems. Just take out everything except for the provision to allow people to track their absentee ballots online.

I am generally pessimistic about the chances of beating either of these bills, but there may be some hope:

Legum notes that there are at least two House Republicans who have publicly voiced criticisms of SB7 and HB6, and if they are actual opponents of the bills it would only take seven of their colleagues to have a majority against them. Still seems like a steep hill to climb, but maybe not impossible. If you have a Republican representative, you really need to call them and register your opposition to these bills.

As for Dan Patrick and his Tuesday press conference, well…

Is there a bigger crybaby in Texas than Dan Patrick? None that I can think of. His little diatribe was also covered, with a reasonable amount of context.

TDP gets initial win in vote by mail lawsuit

It’s a good start, but we’ve got a long way to go.

A state district judge on Wednesday said he will move forward with an order easing restrictions for voting by mail in Texas in light of the new coronavirus pandemic.

After conducting a video conference hearing in a lawsuit filed by state Democrats and civic organizations, Judge Tim Sulak told the attorneys he will issue a temporary injunction allowing all voters fearful of contracting coronavirus if they vote in person to ask for a mail-in ballot under a portion of the Texas election code allowing absentee ballots for voters who cite a disability. His ruling, which is almost certain to be appealed by the state, could greatly expand the number of voters casting ballots by mail in the upcoming July primary runoff elections.

[…]

During the hearing, those plaintiffs offered up two expert witnesses — a local doctor and an epidemiologist — who testified to the risks for transmitting the virus that would come with in-person voting. Meanwhile, the risks tied to mail ballots are “negligible,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health.

The Texas attorney general’s office, which intervened in the case, argued against the expansion, claiming the vote-by-mail disability qualifications apply to voters who already have a “sickness or physical condition” and not those who fear contracting a disease “whether it be COVID-19 or the seasonal flu.”

Just as the hearing was wrapping up, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton made public an “informal letter of advice” that further teed up what is expected to be a drawn out court battle over expanding voting by mail ahead of the runoffs and the November election.

Paxton stated that an individual’s sole fear of contracting the virus was not enough to meet the definition of disability to qualify for a mail ballot, and that those who advise voters to apply for a mail ballot based on that fear could be criminally prosecuted.

See here and here for the background; there is also a federal lawsuit over the same issues, for which I don’t know the status. The Chron adds some more detail.

State law currently allows voters to claim “disability” and apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.”

“Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in-person as a result,” Paxton wrote in a letter on Wednesday. “Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the Legislature … The integrity of our democratic election process must be maintained, and law established by our Legislature must be followed consistently.”

The state’s elections director earlier this month issued guidance to elections officials in all 254 counties pointing to the election code’s disability clause, which voting rights advocates had claimed as a victory.

Attorneys for the Democratic Party argued in court on Wednesday that the disability clause “plainly provided for circumstances such as this when public health makes it dangerous to vote in person.”

But they said the courts need to make that clear as county officials are currently wrestling with how to conduct the upcoming runoff elections in July, when voters will pick a Democrat to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

“This is a total muddled mess,” said Glen Maxey, the Texas Democratic Party’s primary director, who administers elections in dozens of counties, as he testified about the guidance during a court hearing on Wednesday. “We’re going to have a mishmash of who can vote and who cannot vote by mail in this election.”

But Anna Mackin, an assistant attorney general, argued that the law clearly does not cover those afraid of COVID-19 and urged state District Judge Tim Sulak “not to allow this global crisis to be manipulated as a basis for rewriting a provision of the election code.”

Yes, Paxton’s “letter” does indeed seem to fly in the face of that SOS advisory. Is that a lack of communication between branches, or a real difference of opinion? Hard to say. Bear in mind, there’s nothing in state law that allows the Governor to order the cessation of abortions in the state. AG Ken Paxton interpreted the Abbott emergency order that initiated a shutdown of non-essential businesses and services to include abortion providers, which the exigent circumstances allowed. Here, however, he’s arguing that these same exigent circumstances do not allow for an interpretation of the state’s absentee ballot law that includes voting by mail for people who claim under that law that they are unable to vote in person. It’s not that these interpretations are indefensible, but the two of them together sure suggest a strictly partisan motive. (Add in the ruling that gun shops do count as “essential” for some extra zest.)

In a vacuum, I think people of good faith could reasonably differ on the interpretation of our vaguely-worded state law, and one could make a principled argument that it’s the role of the Legislature to make such a significant change in how it should be read and enforced. But Ken Paxton is not making a good faith argument, he’s simply doing what he always does, advancing his partisan interests over anything else. He certainly may win, in both venues. Let’s just be clear about what he’s doing. The TDP (a plaintiff in the case), the ACLU of Texas (an intervenor), and the Texas Signal have more.

UPDATE: More from Texas Lawyer:

The dispute—which asks whether all Texans should be able to vote by mail because of social distancing restrictions and the risk of contracting the coronavirus—was headed to a higher court. Acknowledging that, Judge Tim Sulak of the 353rd District Court ruled from the bench that he would grant a temporary injunction, and reject jurisdictional arguments by the state of Texas.
The judge will issue a written order once it’s prepared.

Sulak said that if voters didn’t get clarity on whether the Texas vote-by-mail law applied to them, they might face a choice of having to vote in person, and accept the risk of getting sick. Or they could try to apply for a mail-in ballot. However, if the government later found their mail-in ballot inappropriate, voters could face prosecution, or find that their ballot was not counted, the judge said.

Also, if Sulak didn’t grant relief, he said there was a risk of future conflicts involving candidates filing election contests to challenge the voting results.

“Some of that could lead to the unstable, unsettled, uncertain situation about: Who are our elected representatives,” Sulak said. “Especially now that we are in this disaster scenario, where we don’t have courts running as efficiently as they have previously, it could result in some very serious governance issues, very serious jurisprudential issues.”

[…]

The plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction, and eventually a permanent injunction, that would require the defendants to accept and tabulate mail-in ballots from voters who are practicing social distancing to stop the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, the state of Texas, which intervened as a defendant, argued that the court didn’t have jurisdiction. The state claimed that a voter wouldn’t qualify to vote by mail just from having a fear of contracting the coronavirus. Also, the claim wasn’t ripe, since no one knows if the contagion will still be present in July, when the primary runoff elections are scheduled.

However, during a hearing Wednesday on the application for a temporary restraining order, an infectious-disease epidemiologist who testified for the plaintiffs said that it’s highly likely that the coronavirus will continue to spread in Texas through the summer.

“Once social distancing guidelines are relaxed, in my expert opinion, it’s inevitable we will see a rise in cases,” said Cathy Troisi, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.

Voters going to the polls will be at risk of infection because they’ll come into close contact with other people, and they’ll touch voting machines that many voters have touched, Troisi explained. Election workers would be at a higher risk, because they stay at polling locations all day and have contact with many more people, she added.

When asked if voting by mail carries a risk of infection, Troisi replied, ”Voting by mail does not, so yes, voting by mail would protect the public health and public safety of Texans.”

Sulak rejected the state’s jurisdictional arguments, which also included claims that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the vote-by-mail law was significantly expanding the statute the Texas Legislature wrote.

“I respect the separation of powers. We’ve got a choice here between arguments from that perspective and arguments from something that has seminal, fundamental, individual constitutional rights: that is, free people making full choices and having full access to have choices about their government,” Sulak said.

The judge asked plaintiffs’ counsel to draft an temporary restraining order, and to submit a proposed order denying the state’s plea to the jurisdiction.

And now we wait for the appeal, and for a hearing in the federal case.

Intervening in the mail ballot expansion lawsuit

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas, American Civil Liberties Union, and Texas Civil Rights Project on Wednesday joined a case seeking to declare that under Texas law all registered voters qualify to request a mail-in ballot as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

The lawsuit states that in order to prevent wide-scale disenfranchisement during this public health crisis, the court should declare that the Texas Election Code’s definition of “disability” in the vote-by-mail provision – one of the basis of eligibility to vote-by-mail in Texas – currently encompasses all registered voters. The suit further states that the court should order that all mail-in ballots received by eligible voters under this category due to the pandemic be accepted and tabulated.

Because of the current COVID-19 public health crisis and the need to be confined at home, all individuals cannot physically appear at a polling place on Election Day without a risk to their health. Texas has 3,997 confirmed cases as of today. The latest guidance from the Trump administration advises against gatherings of more than 10 people, and many Texas counties have ordered restaurants and bars closed.

“Public safety must be prioritized during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “If we don’t address how COVID-19 will affect our access to the ballot, people will find themselves balancing their civic duty to vote and their need to stay healthy. Clarifying that all Texans may vote-by-mail during this crisis under current state law is unquestionably the most effective and immediate way to ensure we protect both public safety and voting rights. Our state leaders must act fast so we can educate the public about how they can safely exercise their right to vote.”

The civil rights organizations are asking for the court’s declaration that the vote-by-mail provision applies to all Texans in light of the pandemic to allow for public education and planning to process an increase of mail ballots.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote, when we already have an election code that can accommodate a public health emergency,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, lead attorney on the case in the Voting Rights Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “The secretary of state has been shockingly silent when our clients have been seeking her leadership and guidance the most. I know we’re in isolation, but you can send an email.”

“States all across the country are making vote by mail available because they know it is a common-sense solution to protect democracy and people’s well-being during this public health crisis,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, citing states such as West Virginia, Indiana, Delaware, and Virginia, among others. “In failing to issue guidance making clear that all Texans are eligible to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Texas is forcing a false choice between protecting public health and allowing Texans to exercise their right to vote. Vote-by-mail for all eligible voters allows for both. Texas can and should make this common-sense solution explicit.”

The plaintiffs in this filing include the League of Women Voters of Texas, MOVE Texas, League of Women Voters of Austin Area, Workers Defense Action Fund, and University of Texas student Zach Price.

A copy of the motion to intervene is available here.

See here for the background. Again, the arguments are straightforward and have been discussed before. It’s mostly a question of how the state will oppose them, and what the courts do from there. As the Chron editorial board notes, the Secretary of State could simply agree to the plaintiffs’ demands and be done with it, but I think we both know that Abbott and Paxton won’t let that happen. We’re going to need a ruling soon for this to matter for the primary runoffs. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: And as soon as I finished drafting this, I got the following in my mailbox:

On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’s office responded to Progress Texas’ petition calling on Texas to implement universal vote-by-mail. So far, the petition has received roughly 3,000 signatures from voters across the state.

In the response, the Secretary of State’s office hinted at the possibility that Texans who are concerned for their health may meet the disability requirements currently in place to apply for a ballot by mail. However, the vague response is open to interpretation and requires clarity in the form of an official proclamation or agreed court order from Secretary of State Ruth Hughs or Governor Greg Abbott.

“Right now, no voter we know of has immunity to COVID-19, and physical polling places could risk exposure and cause injury by way of sickness,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “We have to make our upcoming elections as safe as possible. We believe that election law provides a remedy for all voters to vote-by-mail, but we need clarity from the state. Texas already allows no-excuse vote-by-mail for voters aged 65 and up, and we need our statewide lawmakers to step up and expand the benefit to everyone.”

“Being terrified of catching a virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people should obviously qualify as a legitimate reason for Texans to want to vote by mail, but we need an advisory from Secretary Hughes to make that official,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director at Common Cause Texas. “This email communication seems to indicate the Secretary of State agrees with our position, but this needs to be explicitly stated.”

Secretary of State Ruth Hughs office’s response states:

“One of the grounds for voting by mail is disability. The Election Code defines ‘disability’ to include ‘a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.’ (Sec. 82.002). If a voter believes they meet this definition, they can submit an application for ballot by mail.

“As the situation changes, we will be updating our guidance. We hope this information has been helpful.”

Progress Texas and Common Cause Texas call on Secretary Hughs and Gov. Abbott to act in the interest of Texans’ health, safety, and voting rights to officially expand vote-by-mail universally through an official proclamation or agreed court order as soon as possible.

We all agree on what the law says. What matters is what it means. If, as we have previously discussed, the state agrees that anyone can claim the disability allowance, then great! We’re done here. If not – and clearly, I think they won’t, though I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – that’s where we need the court to step in and issue a ruling. The clock is ticking.

Miller avoids charges for his questionable trips

Can’t catch ’em all.

Sid Miller

Travis County prosecutors will not press criminal charges against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller for tapping taxpayer funds for two trips that involved personal activities — including an appearance in a Mississippi rodeo and the receipt of a medical injection in Oklahoma called the “Jesus Shot.”

“We have decided to close our file and not pursue criminal charges against Commissioner Miller on these allegations,” Assistant District Attorney Susan Oswalt wrote in a memo to the Texas Department of Public Safety dated Sept. 8 first reported by The Houston Chronicle. “Our office has determined that criminal intent would be difficult to prove in this case.”

Travis County was reviewing an investigation that the Texas Rangers launched after the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas filed complaints about the Stephenville Republican’s February 2015 trips.

Those complaints followed media reports indicating that Miller personally benefitted from the state-funded trips.

A statement posted Tuesday to Miller’s Facebook account said the commissioner was “pleased this process is now complete and that he has been cleared of any wrongdoing.” The statement also thanked the Travis County District Attorney’s office and the Texas Rangers for their “professionalism.”

[…]

In her memo, Oswalt wrote “it is clear that Commissioner Miller used campaign and state funds to pay for the two trips,” but noted that he had fully repaid the state.

“Additionally, the total amount spent on the trips was relatively small, the state has been refunded all the money it expended on these trips, and the facts have been made known publicly so that Commissioner Miller is likely to be more careful in the future,” the memo said.

See here for the background. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a vindication of any kind, and Miller clearly wasn’t innocent. ADA Oswalt basically says as much in the memo – he did it, we all know it, but the amount involved was small, he paid it back, proving “intent” will be nigh impossible, so it just isn’t worth our time and limited resources to pursue. Miller will claim vindication anyway, and because the story ends here and we all have short memories, he’ll mostly get it. But we know what happened. The Chron and the Current have more.

Auditor asked to investigate Heidi Group health care grant

Good.

Right there with them

Right there with them

The left-leaning nonprofit Progress Texas is asking the state auditor’s office to investigate a $1.6 million state contract awarded to an anti-abortion group under the state’s new Healthy Texas Women program.

[…]

The Heidi Group does not currently provide medical services or employ medical staff, but founder Carol Everett has said that her group will coordinate with medical providers in rural areas to provide contraception, cancer screenings and other services.

According to Progress Texas advocacy director Lucy Stein, that raises some red flags about whether the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) improperly awarded the funds to Everett’s group.

[…]

In its request for an investigation, Progress Texas notes that Everett serves on the Women’s Health Advisory Committee, which provides input to the state health department on the implementation of its retooled reproductive health care safety net. Texas has spent the last year or so reorganizing after anti-abortion lawmakers barred Planned Parenthood from receiving public funds, and the $18 million Healthy Texas Women program is the result.

Progress Texas questioned whether a group that until a few weeks ago operated with the stated mission of “helping girls and women with unplanned pregnancies make life-affirming choices” because abortion is “contrary to God’s will” could provide the medical services promised by the new program.

See here for the background. I can’t find the aforementioned statement anywhere, but Progress Texas does have this call to action on their webpage, along with a video introduction to Heidi Group founder Carol Everett. Any time a group with no experience in a particular field receives a grant to provide services in that field, there ought to be questions about how that happened. Add in the Heidi Group’s political advocacy and you can see the potential for shenanigans. I hope the auditor agrees to take a look at this.

State Auditor asked to investigate Paxton

Come join the party.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

A liberal advocacy group wants the state auditor’s office to investigate whether Attorney General Ken Paxton broke the law by continuing to pay top staffersafter they resigned from the agency.

Progress Texas, a self-described “progressive” public relations firm based in Austin,sent a letter to the auditor Friday asking the office to look into whether Paxton “committed abuse and violated state law by misusing government funds” to pay two ex-staffers after they quit working at the agency.

“Paid leave policies are great, but it looks like Paxton violated state law. The facts clearly warrant a State Auditor’s Office investigation, particularly since Paxton’s justification for doling out 64 days of paid leave to two ex-employees has changed multiple times,” Progress Texas Advocacy Director Lucy Stein told The Dallas Morning News. She added: “We welcome a thorough and independent investigation. It’s important that Texans are confident that no elected official is abusing or misusing taxpayer dollars, especially to advance the work of a political campaign.”

[…]

First Assistant Attorney General Charles “Chip” Roy and Communications Director Allison Castle left the agency on March 9. A month later, both remained on the payroll,The News first reported.

Roy formally resigned the next day and backdated his departure from the agency, but Castle remains on the payroll and is scheduled to be paid a second full month’s salary of nearly $13,000 on May 2.

After more than a week of refusing to answer questions about the issue, the agency’s human resources director, John Poole, wrote a piece for a conservative websitedenying Paxton did anything wrong.

“Attorney General Paxton acted in a compassionate, legal, and ethical manner when he granted paid leave to two staffers who had worked tirelessly for the state of Texas,”Poole argued. “I stand by his decision.”

Poole added that Paxton had extended the offer to Roy and Castle under Texas’ emergency leave law, which allows officials to approve paid time off for employees who give “good cause.”

But Roy – in remission for Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma – said he was never on emergency leave and was only using up his accrued vacation time. He had been extended the option to take advantage of his health care benefits as a state employee,he added, if his health took a turn for the worse.

See here for some background. As of this writing, I don’t know if the State Auditor will follow up on this request or not. I don’t believe the Auditor has any power to issue fines or other punishment, but his findings could be used to spur another agency, like the Ethics Commission or a district attorney, to take a look. In the meantime, the Trib talks to one of the other beneficiaries of Paxton’s largesse.

A former aide to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday that he asked for her resignation and that she did not ask for nor negotiate a now-controversial departure package that left the state paying her thousands of dollars in salary and benefits.

“The attorney general wanted to bring in a new team and go in a different direction, and that is certainly his prerogative,” said Allison Castle, who resigned as senior communications director for the embattled attorney general on March 9.

Paxton’s request for her resignation was unexpected, said Castle, who was a veteran adviser to former Gov. Rick Perry before she joined Paxton’s team. After being handed a pre-written resignation letter including the terms of a compensation package, she said she signed it, packed up her belongings and was out of the AG’s office that afternoon.

Castle said she had no reason to question the appropriateness of the terms.

The benefits and compensation deal granted Castle 64 days of paid leave.

[…]

In addition to Castle and Roy, the agency has recently lost a number of other employees, including chief of staff Bernard McNamee, scheduler Katie Lawhon and two spokeswomen, Katherine Wise and Cynthia Meyer.

Lawhon, who, like Roy and Castle, also received administrative leave upon her resignation, told The Texas Tribune on Friday she did not negotiate paid leave beyond her earned vacation time. She said she was informed that she would be getting additional administrative leave, details that appeared in a pre-written resignation letter she later received.

Amid the staffing shakeup, Paxton, a McKinney Republican, has filled several key positions with longtime allies from North Texas.

Here’s the Chron story on Employee #3. My guess is that the payoff to Chip Roy was a favor for a friend, and the other two were motivated by a desire to get more of Paxton’s cronies in the door, with the payout being an incentive to go quietly. I’m just guessing here. You’d think the state’s top attorney would understand the law better than this, but then no one ever claimed Ken Paxton was a legal genius. I do hope the auditor takes this up, if only to see what official explanations are offered.

Weekend scandal news roundup

If anything comes from the Texas Rangers investigation into his questionable expenditures, Ag Commissioner Sid Miller would be prosecuted in Travis County.

Sid Miller

If embattled Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is prosecuted for misusing government funds, his trial would be in Travis County, officials said Friday, despite a new law that sends some corruption cases against state officials and employees to their home counties.

Before December, the public integrity unit in the Travis County district attorney’s office investigated and prosecuted alleged corruption by state officials and employees. House Bill 1690 changed that, moving investigation of accusations such as bribery, gifts to public servants, perjury and tampering with government records to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Under the new law, charges can be brought in the official or employee’s home county.

The Rangers are investigating Miller for two February 2015 trips he reportedly took on the state’s dime. Liberal advocacy group Progress Texas requested an investigation into Miller’s state-paid trips, following reports that he participated in a rodeo and received an injection called the “Jesus Shot” while he was supposed to be on the job.

But if Miller’s case leads to a prosecution, it wouldn’t be heard in his home county of Erath because the events in question occurred before the new law took effect in December, officials from DPS and the Travis County district attorney’s office told the Tribune.

See here for an apparently inoperative discussion of the issue. I’m sure Miller would prefer it that way, since it will be much easier for him to complain about political motivations if it’s the Travis County DA and not the Erath County DA prosecuting him.

In the meantime, the Travis County DA already has an investigation going on.

The Texas state auditor’s office has referred its investigation into possible misuse of state workers by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes to Travis County prosecutors, the Austin American-Statesman reported late Friday.

The Texas Tribune reported in February that the auditor’s office was investigating Dukes’ use of state workers for her personal project, the African American Heritage Festival, a nonprofit event Dukes has overseen for 17 years.

The auditor’s investigation was prompted by complaints from Dukes’ former chief of staff, Michael French, who approached House officials in January with concerns about the legality of the staff’s work on the festival.

Dukes acknowledged her staff worked on the festival but said their role was minimal. A Jan. 12 email obtained by the Tribune shows Dukes directing her staff to make the festival a priority.

“Festival is all hands on priority,” Dukes wrote in the email. “I don’t want any delays or fall throughs.”

Two members of Dukes’ staff also expressed concerns over personal errands the lawmakers asked them to run, a list that included smoothie runs, vet visits and babysitting. One staffer moved in with Dukes for three months last summer in exchange for helping the Austin Democrat care for her daughter.

Something to keep in mind amid all the calls for Ken Paxton and Sid Miller to resign. Want another reason to be wary of such an outcome? Here you go.

Texas doesn’t have a cabinet form of government, but in Gov. Greg Abbott’s case, it might soon have the next best thing.

Two of the state’s relatively new elected officials — Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — are in deep political trouble at the moment. If worst comes to worst for either or both of those fine gentlemen, Abbott would appoint their replacements.

That’s a lot more say than he had when they won the positions in 2014.

Yeah, I don’t want that. From a purely partisan perspective, it’s much better for Paxton and Miller to stay where they are and be embarrassments to the rest of the GOP than to let Greg Abbott swoop in and clean up the mess.

And finally, let’s get back to Ken Paxton for a minute.

The state is paying thousands of dollars in salaries and benefits to at least two former high-level staffers in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who haven’t worked there for over a month.

Charles “Chip” Roy resigned as first assistant attorney general March 9 but remains on the state’s payroll. He received his full month’s salary of $16,220.62 on April 1, according to the state comptroller, and remains on the payroll as an employee of the state even while working a new job for a national political committee.

Roy declined to comment about the payment arrangement, which the agency confirmed Wednesday after The Dallas Morning News raised questions. Despite its earlier public statement that Roy resigned, an agency spokeswoman said Thursday that he’s also on “emergency leave.”

“Roy resigned on March 9th. He is currently on emergency leave through June 10th,” spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said late Thursday.

If Roy’s arrangement continues until then, he will make $48,660 for the three months of emergency leave.

The agency at first offered no further explanation of the reason for the leave. When asked to clarify the emergency, Meyer said: “I’m not sure the answer.”

Texas’ “emergency leave” law says a state employee who has experienced a death in the family can take time off without seeing his or her pay cut. Agency heads also can approve other reasons for emergency leave if the employee “shows good case to take emergency leave.”

Employment law prohibits state workers from pulling down full-time salaries if they don’t work at least 40 hours a week for a public entity. There is no severance for workers who leave state employment, and the law that gives agency heads discretion in granting administrative leave also caps such time at 32 hours per year.

Austin-based campaign finance and ethics attorney Buck Wood questioned the arrangement.

“So, the emergency wasn’t so great that this person can’t work, or has any problems working? They just want to give her or him the money,” said Wood, who was not told the name of the individual or the agency in question. “This person obviously didn’t provide ‘good cause’ because they’re working. They’re just feeding you a line.”

So what was the emergency? Chip Roy needed health insurance.

Former First Assistant Attorney General Chip Roy on Friday defended receiving thousands of dollars in salary and benefits after leaving the attorney general’s office to join a pro-Ted Cruz super PAC.

[…]

Roy’s statement indicates that he will receive much less than that because he took the leave option partly for medical reasons that were resolved Thursday.

“The terms of my resignation included from the OAG [office of the attorney general] an option for leave beyond my earned vacation and holiday time,” Roy said in the statement. “The primary benefit to me would have been healthcare coverage in light of being in the five-year window after Stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma. My plan has been to go off payroll at OAG using only my earned vacation and holiday time unless it were absolutely necessary to stay on pending the uncertainty of medical tests and subsequent employment. Yesterday I was blessed to receive an all-clear from my Oncologist and my complete departure from the OAG is effective at the time of the expiration of only earned vacation and holiday time.”

So a former top lieutenant of the Texas Attorney General’s office is worried about not having health insurance. Let that sink in for a minute. Then go read what Lize Burr has to say.

Let me put it this way:

Chip Roy was given the option to keep his state-paid health insurance past the normal point of his compensation because he was facing health uncertainty.

Now we come to the genuinely important news this week from the Center for Public Policy Priorities. It’s very simple and completely awful: 1.7 million Texas children live in poverty. 1.7 million children. That means 1.7 million children being raised by adults living in poverty. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, guardians. All in poverty.

And what is one of the greatest threats facing Texas families living in poverty? The cost of health care. Not just the kids’ health care–the parents’ health care. Texas has both the highest number and rate of adults with no medical insurance. These Texans live with an uncertainty that borders on a form of terror. And that is fear is shared by everyone in the home.

Chip Roy probably understands that fear. It’s probably the reason his employer was willing to place him on a special type of leave that continued his state-paid insurance while he was facing health unknowns. That was a humane act that I can understand. However, for a Republican office holder who is committed to the overturning the ACA and is against Medicaid expansion for low income Texas–the rejection of which costs the state of Texas $6 billion in uncompensated care a year–making that gesture isn’t a sign of compassion. It’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

I can’t say it any better than that.

Second complaint filed against Miller

You do the crime

Sid Miller

A liberal advocacy group has filed another complaint against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who found himself in hot water recently over possible misuse of state and campaign funds.

The complaint, filed Wednesday by Progress Texas,asks the Texas Rangers to investigate Miller for using campaign funds to pay for a flight to Mississippi, where he won money in a rodeo competition. Miller, who said he met with donors while in Mississippi, has said he has done nothing wrong.

The group also has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Miller’s trip was revealed by a Houston Chroniclestory last week. Earlier this year, the Chronicle also reported that Miller may have used state funds to take a trip to Oklahoma for a controversial medical treatment. Miller reimbursed the state for that trip.

“This isn’t Sid Miller’s first rodeo,” said Lucy Stein, advocacy director of Progress Texas. “Miller has yet again demonstrated a pattern of abusing his office by misusing taxpayer and campaign funds.”

See here for the background. As with the previous complaint, the Texas Rangers would do the up front investigation before handing anything off to a District Attorney. The Rangers have now agreed to do their part, and Miller is totes sad that everybody is picking on him.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Wednesday called complaints filed against him over questions surrounding two taxpayer-funded out-of-state trips “harassment.”

The complaints were “filed by a very liberal left-wing organization, Progress Texas. They are just harassing me,” the Stephenville Republican said in a phone interview. “There’s nothing absolutely illegal or wrong with either of those trips … There is absolutely no validity to the complaint.”

[…]

One of the trips Miller took was to Oklahoma, where he received a controversial injection known as “the Jesus Shot” that is supposed to cure all pain for life.

When asked by the Houston Chronicle about the trip, Miller said he made it so he could tour the Oklahoma National Stockyards and meet with Oklahoma officials. But when those officials were contacted by the Chronicle, they said they had no plans to meet him in their state that day. Internal emails from the Agriculture Department later indicated that Miller had planned the trip around receiving the shot. After details about the trip became public, Miller said he would repay the state for the trip out of an “abundance of caution.”

Miller also traveled to Mississippi in February on the state’s dime. While there, Miller, who is a calf roper, participated in the National Dixie Rodeo. When asked about the trip, the Agriculture Department gave contradictory reports to media outlets.

I mean, come on, y’all. Why do there have to be all these rules and things taking all the joy out of life? Why can’t Sid Miller just be the Ag Commissioner he was always meant to be, without these professional busybodies poking their noses into his business? It’s just not fair, I tell you. The Trib and the Chron, which quotes a DPS spokesperson saying that the Travis County DA’s office will get this hot potato if there’s anything to it, have more.

It’s not easy going green

And by “going green” I mean legalizing pot, at least in Texas.

Zonker

Advocacy groups and lawmakers say marijuana policy reform in Texas could be the fiscally responsible thing to do in light of the state’s decreasing oil and gas revenues.

Texas legislators should look to marijuana policy reform to save, and even make, money in the face of looming budget shortfalls, said SXSW panelist Phillip Martin of Progress Texas, in front of what he called the “wake and bake crowd” Tuesday morning.

“It’s not an ideological barrier,” said Martin. “Anything that’s going to move is going to move because of money.”

The “Turn Texas Green” panel brought legislators and advocates together to to discuss how the Lone Star State could legalize pot for medical or even recreational use.

Zoe Russell, from the Houston nonprofit Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), said some “establishment” Republicans already “see the writing on the wall” with decriminalization policies at the local level. In 2015, Harris County’s Republican DA implemented a “First Chance” policy allowing non-violent offenders with small amounts of marijuana to be ticketed, rather than arrested.

But so far, few statewide elected officials have been willing to put their names on marijuana legislation, Russell said.

“Behind closed doors, they’re really supportive of ideas like this,” Russell told the audience of around 15 or so. “[But] they’re scared of their shadow.”

As Texas’ oil and gas revenues drop dramatically, panelists said the state’s money woes may override the squeamishness many legislators have about legalizing weed.

With all due respect – and I have a lot of respect for Phillip Martin and Progress Texas – the argument that Texas could make some money by legalizing pot and that this would help with the current budget situation is a complete nonstarter. I say this because advocates for expanded gambling, both the slot-machines-at-horse-tracks and the casinos groups, have been making this same argument for well more than a decade and during the budget crunches of 2003 and 2011, and they have nothing to show for it. If there’s one thing we should have learned from those past experiences, it’s that not only is the Republican leadership in this state unreceptive to proposals that would add new revenue streams in Texas, they are actively hostile to them. They’re not interested in more revenue. Budget crunches are to them opportunities to slash spending. It really is an ideological barrier. I don’t see that changing until the leadership we have in Texas changes. I wish that weren’t the case, but I see no evidence to suggest otherwise.

It also pains me to say that even under the most optimistic scenarios, the amount of revenue Texas would likely gain from legalizing and taxing marijuana is way too small to have any effect on a real budget shortfall. The state of Colorado took in $125 million in pot tax revenue in 2015, which sounds like a lot until you remember that the Texas budget is roughly a thousand times bigger than that for a year. This is like saying that Colorado pot revenue is a penny to Texas’ ten dollars. Putting this into a more workable context, $125 of pot tax revenue represents about two percent of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education in the 2011 budget. I’m the first to agree that in a crisis situation, every little bit helps. The point I’m making is that this really would be a little bit.

Which is not to say that there are no economic arguments to be made for at least loosening pot laws, if not outright legalizing it. The case that Texas will spend a lot less money, at the state and county level, with smarter pot laws has some traction and a chance to gain ground. You’re still going to have to overcome the fear that not punishing all these potheads will lead to a spike in crime – it won’t, but you’re going to have to convince some people of that – as well as the strong distaste a lot of people have for pot and the people who indulge in it, but the prospect of spending less will help. (You also have to overcome the fact that some of our legislators are complete idiots, but that’s more of an electoral issue.) Here I think the short-term potential is greater at the county level, since as Harris County has demonstrated some of what can be done is a simple matter of discretion on the part of one’s police department and District Attorney, but the Lege is where it’s at for the longer term, and the real gain. I wish everyone involved in this fight good luck, and I hope we all remembered to vote for candidates who will pursue smarter laws and strategies regarding marijuana in the primaries.

Complaint filed against Sid Miller

Game on.

Sid Miller

A liberal advocacy group on Monday asked the Texas Rangers to investigate whether Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller used taxpayer money to fly to Oklahoma to get an injection known as “the Jesus Shot” that is supposed to cure all pain for life.

The group, Progress Texas, filed a two-page complaint alleging Miller intentionally abused his office in February of 2015 by using at least $1,120 in public money for private gain.

Abuse of office involving using that amount of money for private gain is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

“Politicians like Sid Miller using their office to benefit themselves is inexcusable,” said Lucy Stein, advocacy director for the group. “These guys think that they’re above the law, and they aren’t.”

The complaint stems from a Houston Chronicle article published last week that raised questions about the February 2015 trip, which Miller took to Oklahoma City with a top aide, billing the taxpayers at least $1,120.

[…]

Monday’s action marks the first criminal complaint against Miller.

It also is among the first complaint of its kind to be filed with the Texas Rangers, which was given authority during last year’s legislative session to probe allegations of misconduct by state elected officials and employees. The move took that power away from the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which was accused by Republicans of initiating cases for political reasons.

Stein said she had trouble figuring out who to contact with her complaint and was referred to multiple employees within the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“It’s very complicated now — nobody knows what they’re doing,” said Stein, who worried that the process could scare off some Texans with fewer resources. “It shouldn’t be so hard for an ordinary citizen to file a complaint against a statewide elected official.”

Stein said she had been told that the Rangers were “reviewing” the complaint.

See here for the background. This will be an interesting test of that new procedure, as defined by the Lege last year. Among other things, if the Rangers decide there’s enough evidence to hand off to a prosecutor, that would presumably mean giving it to the District Attorney of Erath County, where Miller attends church and hung his hat as State Rep in HD59. Here’s Sen. Kirk Watson, in the comments to an RG Ratcliife post on Facebook, explaining the details:

Of course the answer is a little complicated because of the way the bill (HB 1690) was drafted.

HB 1690 says “venue … IS the county in which the defendant resided at the time the offense was committed.” However, then the bill defines residence for 4 categories of people: legislators, members of the executive branch, certain judges, and everyone else. For members of the executive branch, residence is defined as the county where the person “claimed to be a resident before being subject to residency requirements under Article IV, Texas Constitution.” (That’s the former requirement that certain executive offices must reside in Travis county.) The Ag. Commissioner used to be subject to the residency requirement since he’s elected statewide (see SJR 52).

So, piecing it all together, I think he can only be prosecuted where he claimed to be a resident before he was elected Ag. Commissioner. The bill doesn’t provide any guidance re: what constitutes claiming to be a resident.

This is the PIU bill not any “ethics” bill that was vetoed. Remember a key problem with what was being done was that they were creating a special class of defendants. Instead of trying a person (ever other person) in the place where the crime is committed, they create a special class of people that can and will be tried in some place other than where the crime is committed. The place they claim residency.

Got all that? This presumes, of course, that the Erath County DA would not be conflicted up the wazoo and have to recuse himself a la the Collin County DA and Ken Paxton. In which case we’d have yet another special prosecutor prosecuting yet another elected Republican. Isn’t this fun? I’m getting ahead of myself here – we don’t even know what the Rangers are going to do with this just yet – but keep that in your back pocket for future contemplation.

One more thing: Ross Ramsay wrote that for now, the lack of two-party competitiveness in Texas means that all this is water of Sid Miller’s back, at least until a grand jury returns an indictment and/or he draws a primary challenger. I’ve seen more than one lament, on Facebook and elsewhere, about how pathetic the Democrats must be for us to be in this situation. Well, the simple fact is that there are more Rs than Ds in Texas right now. There are things that may change that, in the long term and the short term, one of which I have noted is for more than a few Rs to become fed up with their party, or at least a few specific members of it, and refuse to support them any more. Dirty elected officials, and the colleagues who apparently have not problem with them, are a possible reason why they may do this. Perhaps that effect will be noticeable in 2018, and perhaps it will not. For now, it’s all a matter of numbers. As with most things in politics, things are they way they are until all of a sudden they’re not. Trail Blazers has more.

Complaint filed against Cruz campaign for “check enclosed” stunt

This ought to be fun.

A liberal Texas political group has filed a formal complaint alleging that a recent fundraising solicitation mailed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign violated state law.

The solicitation came in an envelope featuring a return address in official government type and the words “check enclosed.” The “check” was a fake check made out to Cruz’s campaign, accompanied by a missive asking the recipient to send in a “matching donation.”

Such fundraising techniques are relatively common, but in Texas they may now be illegal under a law passed last year by the state Legislature.

The law, House Bill 1265, authored by Houston Democrat Gene Wu, required solicitations resembling government notices, checks or negotiable invoices to include, “in at least 18-point type,” the words “SPECIMEN-NON-NEGOTIABLE.”

Cruz’s mailer said — in small type — “this check is a facsimile not redeemable or negotiable and has no cash value.”

The liberal group, Progress Texas, filed the complaint Monday with the Attorney General’s Office, according to a copy obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

“This is the kind of mail my legislation was trying to prevent,” Wu said in a statement about the complaint. “It certainly breaks the spirit of the law, and I agree that the Texas’ Consumer Protection Division should look into whether or not it breaks the letter of the law, as well.”

You can see a copy of the complaint here. I can only imagine what the reaction to this filing was like at the AG’s office; I’m guessing they handled it by holding it between two fingers, on the corner of the paper, with a pinched look on their faces. This is a new law, and I imagine it’s the first complaint made under it. Seems pretty straightforward here, but you never know once the lawyers get involved. I have no idea what happens next, procedurally or timewise or whatever else, though I’m sure we’ll hear about it one way or another. Any lawyers out there want to speculate? Progress Texas’ press release is here, and Trail Blazers, the Current, and the HuffPo have more.

L’affaire Paxton gets larger

Oh, yeah.

Ken Paxton

When Attorney General Ken Paxton publicly admitted that he violated a state securities law last year, the State Securities Board was obligated by law to gather evidence against him and immediately refer it to prosecutors who could seek criminal charges.

But prosecutors in Travis and Collin counties said the securities regulators did not refer Paxton’s case to them, an apparent violation of requirements set by state law, the American-Statesman has confirmed.

In May 2014, when Paxton was a state senator running for attorney general in the Republican primary runoff, he accepted a reprimand and $1,000 fine from the State Securities Board, whose five members were appointed by former Gov. Rick Perry.

In that proceeding, Paxton admitted to soliciting clients for a Texas investment firm without registering as an investment adviser representative — a violation that can be prosecuted as a third-degree felony under the State Securities Act — and without disclosing that he would receive 30 percent of management fees.

But despite state law that required Securities Board Commissioner John Morgan to “at once” refer evidence of a criminal violation to the appropriate prosecutors — a standard that has been in place since 1957 — there is no evidence that securities regulators did so in the Paxton matter.

Robert Elder, a State Securities Board spokesman, said the agency would not comment.

In Collin County, where Paxton lived while soliciting investment clients three times between 2004 and 2012 as an unregistered adviser, prosecutors received no information about Paxton’s activities from the board, said Bill Dobiyanski, first assistant district attorney.

In addition, the Travis County Public Integrity Unit — which prosecutes corruption by public officials — did not hear from securities regulators about Paxton’s admission of violating securities law, said Gregg Cox, director of special prosecutions for the Travis County district attorney’s office, which includes the Public Integrity Unit.

[…]

Allegations that the State Securities Board hadn’t followed the law were raised last week in a strongly worded letter sent to Wice and Schaffer by the director of the left-leaning Progress Texas PAC.

In a July 8 letter, Glenn Smith suggested that Gov. Greg Abbott, who was still attorney general at the time, also didn’t follow requirements set out in the Texas Securities Act.

“On the surface, those failures raise suspicions of widespread conspiracy among several agencies and officials aimed at minimizing the criminal exposure of Mr. Paxton,” wrote Smith in the letter, which he provided to the Statesman.

Cait Meisenheimer, an Abbott spokeswoman, declined to comment on Smith’s letter. Wice also declined to comment on the letter, and Schaffer could not be reached for comment.

In his complaint, Smith specifically names Texas Securities Commissioner John Morgan and Collin County District Attorney Willis.

“With something like this, which is a clear confession of a felony by Sen. Paxton, the sort of silence and inactivity of public officials was very suspicious to me from the beginning,” Smith said. “They were compelled to act and failed to act, and this deserves attention.”

See here, here, and here for the background on the State Securities Board stuff, and see the original Statesman story for a copy of the letter. It’s always the coverup that gets you, isn’t it? The State Securities Board, full of Rick Perry appointees, should have followed the law and done its duty. Attorney General Greg Abbott should have followed the law and done his duty. Collin County DA Greg Willis should have done his duty a lot more quickly and without having to be pushed into it. That’s hindsight for you. Now I really can’t wait till the special prosecutors start laying out their case to the grand jury.

Marijuana reform advocates get their day

This will be worth watching closely.

Rep. Joe Moody

Four proposals to relax penalties for possessing pot have been scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, setting up what is sure to be a closely-watched debate in the middle of the legislative session.

It will not be the first Texas committee hearing on marijuana bills, which historically have been introduced and heard, but ultimately killed. This time, however, optimistic supporters will benefit from the makeup of the committee, which this year counts three Democrats and a pro-legalization Republican among its seven members. The panel is led by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown.

“There’s no question that we’re hopeful that this committee will be especially open to considering these bills,” said Phillip Martin, deputy director of Progress Texas, an Austin-based liberal organization that is helping lead the push. “A lot of the legislators on the committee understand the importance of the issue.”

The legislation is still unlikely to win final approval in the conservative-dominated Legislature, but Martin and other members of the bipartisan Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy coalition say committee approval would represent a step forward in a years-long process.

The coalition has collected nearly 15,000 signatures of support and plan to deliver them to the Capitol on Wednesday, Martin said.

Here’s Progress Texas’ report on the bills that will get a hearing on Wednesday.

Rep. Joe Moody’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 507

  • The most effective civil penalties bill filed
  • Changes possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a civil penalty – similar to jaywalking or not wearing a seat belt
  • Anything over one ounce of marijuana remains a class B misdemeanor

Rep. Harold Dutton’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 414

  • Would change any marijuana possession less than one ounce to a Class C Misdemeanor
  • Makes possession a simple ticketable offense you could pay
  • Punishments increase if ticketed multiple times in a year

Rep. Gene Wu’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 325

  • Possession of less than .35 ounces of marijuana becomes a Class C Misdemeanor
  • Makes possession a simple ticketable offense you could pay
  • Punishments increase if ticketed multiple times in a year

Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 1115

  • Rather than potentially being arrested when carrying up to four ounces of marijuana an officer will only give a citation; However, the person charged is still responsible for appearing in court at a later date.
  • Does not reduce the penalty of marijuana possession (Class A or B misdemeanor), which can still result in jail time.

Also up for a hearing is Rep. David Simpson’s full scale legalization bill. As the story notes, the Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy coalition is putting most of its energy into Rep. Moody’s civil penalties bill. Bills to legalize medical marijuana have been referred to a different committee and don’t appear to have as much traction. The bills to be heard Wednesday face opposition from local sheriffs and an uncertain future in the Senate. Still, just having a hearing for them is something. I look forward to seeing how it goes. For further reading on the subject, see this interview with Rice sociologist William Martin.

Intimidation tactics

Very creepy.

Right there with them

Right there with them

Anti-abortion activists in Texas employ strategies to identify and monitor abortion patients, investigate abortion providers and clinic staff and search tax records to find locations of abortion providers, according to newly released undercover audio.

The audio, from NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and Progress Texas, was recorded during a training session at the Capitol hosted by several anti-abortion groups. Entitled, “Keeping Abortion Facilities Closed,” the recording reveals the disturbing lengths anti-abortion advocates take to track, monitor and intimidate abortion providers, clinic staff and patients.

For instance, Karen Garnett of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas instructs the audience on how to track license plates as well as car make, model and description of the patients visiting abortion clinics and lauds causing cancelled abortion procedures by “lining the sidewalks” of abortion clinics. “You track license plates […] coming into any abortion facility. We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet. This way you can track whether or not a client comes back.”

Another speaker refers to monitoring the percentage of abortion clinics closures as “keeping score” and cites the number of clinic staffers who quit, to applause. The “poorer ones” she said, heard the abortion clinic in their area was going to close and visited an anti-choice crisis pregnancy center instead. “God is good,” she said.

Anti-abortion poster child Abby Johnson of Live Action discusses how her group investigated appraisal district records to find the new location of where an Austin abortion physician plans to work. “We know where he will be moving if he loses the case […] These abortionists are feeling the pressure from the pro-life movement in Texas. I think they feel like they’re on the run. And that’s how we want to keep it.”

[…]

“The same groups that lobbied Texas lawmakers to pass HB 2, a law that has nothing to do with the health and safety of women, are those outside abortion clinics, harassing and intimidating patients, blocking them from accessing the care they need, and threatening abortion providers,” said Heather Busby of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas in a statement. “With fewer clinics for these stalking protestors to target, the dangerous impact of their intimidation tactics will be exacerbated.”

“The anti-abortion harassment tactics outlined in this disturbing training lead women to seek dangerous alternatives.”

The NARAL Pro Choice Texas press release is here. What would you call being surveilled and investigated like this while you are engaged in a perfectly legal activity? I can think of a few words for it, none of which are nice. Not that the so-called “pro-life” movement hasn’t routinely done plenty of stuff like this in the past, but it’s always bracing to get such a stark reminder of it. The SA Current, Progress Texas and BOR have more.

ACA enrollments top 200K in Texas

Despite continued fierce resistance from state leadership, people keep signing up for health insurance in Texas via the Healthcare.Gov exchange.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Enrollment in the federal health insurance marketplace continued to steadily climb in January, according to data the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Wednesday. In January, another 89,500 Texans selected a health plan on the insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act, the department reported.

“Today’s enrollment figures are more proof that Texans are ready and willing to push past the barriers that Gov. Perry has put in the way of the new Health Care law,” Ginny Goldman, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, which is assisting enrollment efforts across the state, said in a statement.

As of Feb. 1, the total number of Texans who have enrolled in a health plan jumped to 207,500 from 118,000 at the end of 2013. Across the nation, enrollment grew to 3.3 million, a 53 percent increase over enrollment in the previous three months.

“These encouraging trends show that more Americans are enrolling every day, and finding quality, affordable coverage in the Marketplace,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.

[…]

Texas has been a priority state for enrollment efforts, said Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers of Medicaid and Medicare Services, and they’re working closely with local organizations and government officials to assist enrollment efforts.

“A lot of the activities that we’re doing in Texas in particular, understandably, are focused on reaching citizens who speak both English and Spanish,” she said.

John Davidson, a health policy analyst at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said enrollment was strikingly low, given the total number of uninsured Texans.

“In a state with more than 6 million uninsured, you would expect more than 207,546 people would have bothered to sign up after four months of open enrollment,” he said in an email. “This suggests that many Texans do not think the exchanges plans are all that good of a deal after all.”

But Phillip Martin, deputy director of the left-leaning Progress Texas, said that it took Texas four years, from 2006 to 2010, to achieve a similar spike in enrollment on its own — 232,000 children — in the Children’s Health Insurance Plan.

“In the past, it took years to see the kind of health coverage expansion in Texas we’ve seen in the last few months thanks to the Affordable Care Act,” he said in an email.

Davidson’s criticism is kind of hilarious. Why aren’t there more of those benighted suckers signing up for this horrible, fascistic failure of a system that’s totally going to doom us all to a fate worse than not having health insurance in the first place? Don’t you people listen to me when I tell you what’s good for you? Never mind all of the barriers that Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott, and all the legislators that listen to people like Davidson put in place to keep millions of people off of health insurance. All these people that we’re prevented from getting health insurance still don’t have health insurance – see, it’s a failure, just like I said it would be!

Anyway. Davidson’s BS aside, the pace of enrollments in Texas mirrored the national trend, which showed stronger numbers in January than originally projected. Part of that is catchup from the first two months, but it’s still positive, and portends the likelihood that final signup numbers will be pretty close to what was expected in the beginning. Texas ought to exceed half a million, which is less than ten percent of our shameful total number of uninsured people, but will still be a half million more than Perry and his crew ever helped. And the push continues:

On Saturday, February 15, several community organizations will come together to host a bilingual community event to help Latinos learn about and enroll in new health care plans available under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) . Attendees will learn about new insurance plans, discover what financial help may be available to them, and work with trained experts one-on-one to enroll on site.

The event, celebrating Heart Health, will be hosted by Dia de la Mujer Latina, a national nonprofit organization focusing on Latino health since 1997. Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Get Covered America will be providing an opportunity for many underserved populations to learn about insurance options and enroll. Certified ACA navigators will be on hand to provide in person assistance. On the day of the event, attendees interested in enrolling will need to provide an email address, social security number, proof of legal residency (residence card or citizenship certificate), and income verification in order to apply.

Most eligible, uninsured Latinos don’t know how the health care law will affect them. Fifty-three percent of Latinos in Harris County had no health insurance coverage at the time of the 2010 American Community Survey; and in the state of Texas, there are 5.7 million Latinos without insurance. This information session will better inform people in the community about their benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

That’s from a media advisory I got about an event occurring tomorrow at the Hiram Clarke Multi Service Center, 3810 West Fuqua, from 11 to 3. There are a lot of groups out there doing this hard work, all over Texas. Imagine what kind of results they could be getting if people like John Davidson would just get out of their way. Wonkblog and BOR have more.

Texas Left Me Out

This.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Obamacare advocates are actively recruiting those left out of the Medicaid expansion in Republican-controlled states to lobby state officials to change their minds and participate in that key provision of the health care reform law.

So far, the effort is most organized in Texas, which is also the state with the most people in that Medicaid expansion gap: 1 million. But it’s likely to pick up elsewhere as the Obama administration and outside advocates apply pressure to the 25 states that have resisted expansion for the first year.

Texas Left Me Out, the combined effort of several community groups, is a website designed to collect those people’s stories and organize them into a cohesive political action constituency. It asks those in the Medicaid gap to sign a petition to stay informed about advocacy events and share their story on the site.

Are they going to turn Texas blue on the backs of people who have traditionally been ignored by Republicans? Are they going to convince an anti-Obamacare stalwart like Rick Perry to buy into the law? That’s a tough sell. But they’re going to try.

“When you personalize a policy, when you make it real, it’s always much more powerful. It’s always going to resonate,” Tiffany Hogue, state health care campaign coordinator at the Texas Organizing Project, one of the groups involved with the campaign, told TPM. “People have really have awakened to the fact that people really are getting left behind.”

Texas Left Me Out had a soft launch in October in preparation for a January rollout. The Texas Organizing Project says it has already contacted 100,000 people who are in the gap and convinced 20,000 to commit to be part of the campaign. They hope that those numbers will grow substantially before the Texas legislature reconvenes in 2015, its next opportunity to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. They’ve set recruitment targets for specific legislative districts to focus their efforts.

The broader coalition is also eyeing the 2014 elections. The presumed Democratic frontrunner for governor, state Sen. Wendy Davis, has enthusiastically endorsed expansion, and a more Democratic legislature would also be more likely to sign onto a major piece of the health care reform law.

The strategy is simple: sheer political force. They’ll ask people to turn up at legislative committee hearings and stage protests at the state capitol. Conference calls and press conferences will be the norm. They aren’t waiting for 2015 either. A group is going to a state insurance department meeting Dec. 20 to rally for expansion.

The website is here. I’m not at all surprised to see that Progress Texas is one of the forces behind it. The goals are ambitious, but we’re not going to get anywhere by thinking small.

And despite the ferocious efforts by Texas Republicans to deny health care coverage to its residents, demand for health insurance is strong.

Texas has the second-highest number of people who have purchased health plans through the embattled online insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act, according to enrollment figures for October and November released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But as a percentage of the uninsured in the second-largest state — which has the nation’s worst rate of health coverage — the number is tiny: 14,000 Texans had purchased coverage through healthcare.gov by the end of November.

The number of people who purchased coverage in the federal marketplace, which has been riddled with technical problems, was four times higher in November than in October: 137,204 people, including 14,000 Texans, had purchased coverage there as of the end of November, whereas only 27,000 people, including 3,000 Texans, had purchased coverage there at the end of October.

“Evidence of the technical improvements to HealthCare.gov can be seen in the enrollment numbers,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, said in a press statement.

Florida had the highest enrollment numbers, with 17,900 people purchasing coverage in the federal marketplace, followed by Texas, and Pennsylvania, with 11,800 people purchasing coverage. 2.2 million people, including 245,000 Texans, have now completed applications through the federal marketplace.

Texas has the nation’s highest rate of people without health insurance at 24.6 percent, according to U.S. Census data. About 48 million Americans — including more than 6 million Texans — were uninsured in 2011 and 2012.

Those numbers are two weeks old now, but there’s no indication that the pace has slowed since then. Remember when you hear a Texas Republican whine about Obamacare that they have been in complete control of Texas’ government for over a decade now. If they cared at all about those six million uninsured people, they’ve had ample opportunity to do something about it. But they don’t, so they haven’t. Nothing will change until our state government changes. That’s why efforts like Texas Left Me Out matter.

Empty benches

It would be nice to have some more federal judges here in Texas.

"Objection Overruled", by Charles Bragg

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

Saying that Texas has more vacant federal judgeships than any other state, leaders from state and national liberal advocacy organizations on Monday called on U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn to do more to fill the openings.

“The Republican senators go out of their way to prevent certain seats from being filled, hoping that a future Republican president will step in and fill them,” Janet Neuenschwander, coordinator of the National Council of Jewish Women, said Monday at a news conference addressing the vacancies. “You have got a circuit court of appeals heavily weighted in favor of Republicans. I can only assume that the two senators do not want to put any additional judges on that circuit to maintain the substantial advantage that they have on that circuit.”

There are seven Texas federal district court judgeships vacant and two Texas seats on the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Seven of the vacant spots have been declared “judicial emergencies” by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts because of the length of the vacancies.

[…]

In April, Cruz and Cornyn established a Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee to collect nominations for the seats. “It is crucial that we ensure Texans have the best, most qualified judges and prosecutors defending their rights in court,” Cruz said in a news release on the commission.

The panel accepted applications throughout the summer but has yet to make any nominations. Some of the seats have been open for as long as five years.

According to a statement from Progress Texas, the vacant seats can have serious consequences for Texans trying to have their cases heard.

“When there are not enough judges, Texans can’t stand up for their rights in court,” the group’s statement said. “Delays can stretch from months into years. Memories can fade, witnesses can die, a nd families can be bankrupted.”

Lord knows, the slowrolled by Texas’ Senators on federal appointments since pretty much the beginning. It would be nice if government were allowed to function normally, but that’s not what Cruz and Cornyn were elected to do.

Yes, Rick Perry still hates Medicaid

We’re not surprised by this, right?

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Texas rhetoric around a key facet of federal health reform — whether the state will expand subsidized insurance to its poorest adults — reached the high water mark on Monday, with back-to-back press conferences at the Capitol featuring political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans including U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and members of a conservative think tank gathered first, reaffirming their opposition to expanding Medicaid, a key tenet of “Obamacare” that is widely supported by Democrats. The expansion — and in particular, the flexibility the federal government has shown some Republican-led states in implementing it — has in recent months drawn the support of some fiscal conservatives reluctant to pass up billions of federal dollars and the opportunity to curb Texas’ ranks of the uninsured.

“For those states buying into this, they will come to rue the day,” Cruz said.

“When the federal government retreats,” Cornyn added, “the state’s going to be on the hook.”

[…]

Republican lawmakers want the Obama administration to give Texas a block grant for Medicaid, which the state would use to subsidize private health savings accounts for low-income recipients. Medicaid recipients would either enroll in a Medicaid managed care plan or be given subsidies on a sliding scale based on their income. The state would also likely include “personal responsibility” measures, such as higher co-pays for patients who went to the emergency room for minor ailments.

Perry said federal leaders need to “decide if they trust” Texas to run Medicaid as the state sees fit, and called the Obama administration “harder to deal with than previous administrations.” But when asked whether he, Cruz or Cornyn had reached out to begin negotiations with the Obama administration on ways to reform Medicaid with federal dollars, Perry said that was the job of the Legislature and the state’s health and human services commissioner.

Did I mention that Perry would make bogus claims about the feds not negotiating in good faith? Why yes, I did. It’s really very simple – Perry, Dewhurst, Abbott, Cornyn, Cruz, the poo-flinging nihilists at the TPPF, they don’t want to help anyone who doesn’t have access to health care. They could not care less about these people. It’s not about the money, it’s not about compassion (since none of them have any), it’s about ideology. They could not be any clearer about this.

Note, by the way, the cloistered nature of Perry’s gathering of the elites, which includes lobbyists but no one who is or would be affected by the decision to expand Medicaid. Now contrast that to some of the people who are affected by that decision.

The county judges of Texas’ most populous counties, as well as the Chambers of Commerce of most of Texas’ largest cities, have endorsed Medicaid expansion as a means of paying for health care in a state with the highest number of uninsured individuals in the country. Without it, they say local taxpayers foot the bill as poor people seek care in expensive emergency room settings.

Some of those people came to the Capitol as well, though they weren’t invited to Perry’s little conclave.

Democrats in Congress and the Legislature, uninsured parents, the head of the state’s main hospital trade group and top local officials in Dallas and San Antonio urged state GOP leaders Monday to negotiate with the Obama administration to expand Texas’ Medicaid program for the poor.

“The public hires us not to do the ideological thing but the smart thing,” said San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said it’s unacceptable to leave a large bloc of the population relying on safety net hospitals’ emergency rooms for care when their maladies could receive earlier attention and treatment.

“Do we want to insure the 1.5 million uninsured Texans that need this primary care and are eligible under the expansion population?” he said. “It’s time to put politics aside and stand up to the extremist factions of political parties and work together on the local, state and federal level to find a plan that fits the unique needs of struggling Texans and expands our Texas economy.”

[…]

Ofelia Zapata, an Austin housewife and mother, said her husband is an uninsured laborer who works long hours but can’t afford private coverage. And yet he makes too much to qualify for Medicaid, said Zapata, who is a leader of the Industrial Areas Foundation group Austin Interfaith.

She cast the policy question in moral and religious terms.

“As a Roman Catholic, we believe in dignity of a human person and demands that we stand in solidarity with the poor,” she said. “We must therefore expand Medicaid for Texas families.”

I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Zapata, but Rick Perry and his cronies don’t care about you. They don’t care what people like Ed Emmett and the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce think. They don’t care about the lives that would be saved by expanding Medicaid, because being “pro-life” has nothing to do with living people. They don’t care what a bunch of protesters think. (There are pictures here and here if you care what they think.)

Oh, and just so we’re clear, this full-on opposition to the Affordable Care Act in general and Medicaid expansion in particular is strong evidence that the GOP’s ballyhooed efforts to “re-brand” themselves and reach out to Latino voters is just so much hot air. Latinos strongly support the Affordable Care Act. In general, Latinos and other voters of color support a much more robust role for government, which kind of complicates the whole “small government/starve the beast” message the GOP has to offer. In addition, the bulk of uninsured Texans are Latino. These are the people that would greatly benefit from Medicaid expansion. But of course, Rick Perry and his cronies don’t care about them. I’m still not terribly hopeful that Perry’s obstinacy will have an electoral effect next year. But that day, and that effect, is coming.

UPDATE: More from PDiddie, and the Texas Organizing Project, which was responsible for some of those protesters from yesterday, has more in store for today:

A recent study shows sixty-eight percent of working class Texans don’t know they’d be covered under the health care expansion if it comes to the Lone Star State, but community activists from Texas Organizing Project want to change that. They’re meeting in Austin to lay out their “Find the 1.5” campaign which sets an ambitious goal to identify the 1.5 million Texans that would benefit from Health care Expansion. They’ll be joined by State Senators Rodney Ellis, Wendy Davis and Sylvia Garcia for a press conference laying out the details of the campaign where they’ll canvass clinics, grocery store parking lots and neighborhoods in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley to inform and organize those poised for coverage under the expansion.

“I didn’t know I would qualify for coverage until someone showed me the details,” said Gloria Payne who chairs the health care campaign in Houston. “We’re not going to sit back and let them make decisions for us, we want in on the conversation,” concluded Payne. The campaign will begin it’s neighborhood rollout Wednesday in Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, Thursday in San Antonio and Friday in Dallas.

Who: State Senators Rodney Ellis, Wendy Davis and Sylvia Garcia; Texas Organizing Project and allied organizations.

What: Press conference for statewide neighborhood rollout campaign to “Find the 1.5” million working, uninsured Texans that would benefit from health care expansion.

When: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Where: Texas State Capitol, Lieutenant Governor’s Press Room, Room 2E.9

Businesses say they want Medicaid expansion, too

This really comes down to two things.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Chambers of commerce representing companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Kimberly-Clark Corp. (KMB) are challenging Texas Governor Rick Perry and lawmakers to expand health care for the poor in the state with the highest percentage of uninsured people.

The chambers of five cities are sending lobbyists to press Republican leaders to increase Medicaid coverage under President Barack Obama’s health-care law.

Businesses are often allied with Perry, a failed contender for last year’s Republican presidential nomination. The chambers, however, argue Texas shouldn’t pass up $100 billion over the next decade to cover 1.5 million adults. Obama’s plan would pay all costs until 2016, then the state’s share would gradually increase to 10 percent in 2020. Perry says that’s too expensive.

“This may be the only time that we have taken an actual formal position that is opposite that of the governor,” said Richard Dayoub, chief executive officer of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t know of any issue that has created so much concern across the state and has amassed so much support across party lines and throughout the business sector.”

Chambers supporting expansion in Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Arlington include members ranging from publicly traded companies to small shoe stores and family restaurants, many of them strained by health costs.

[…]

About 29 percent of Texas citizens lack insurance, according to a March 8 poll by Gallup Inc. The state ranked 40th in health last year because 30 percent of residents are obese and one of every four children lives in poverty, according to United Health Foundation, affiliated with UnitedHealth Group Inc. (UNH)

Hospitals have urged expansion because it will reduce expensive and ineffective emergency-room visits, said Stephen Mansfield, chief executive of Methodist Health System in Dallas and next year’s chairman of the 2,100-member Dallas Regional Chamber.

“The eight other Republican governors were just as opposed to this initially as Rick Perry,” said Mansfield, who met with him in February. “They came to understand the economics.”

Chamber lobbyists from Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio have discussed Medicaid with legislators during the current session in Austin, officials said. Dayoub of the El Paso chamber spoke with Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, both Republicans, and about 35 legislators of both parties.

As a reminder, Progress Texas‘ list of all the groups that have endorsed Medicaid expansion is here. I keep harping on this theme, but it all comes down to whether any elected official feels like they might lose support for their position, and I just don’t see the evidence for that. Chambers of commerce don’t necessarily speak for their member businesses, as anyone who has followed the exploits of the increasingly hard-right US Chamber of Commerce can attest, so it’s not clear how much pressure they could apply to the likes of Rick Perry or Greg Abbott if the wanted to. Maybe they can put some heat on certain individual legislators, but I’m not holding my breath for that, either. People are going to have to lose elections over this, and that’s much easier said than done right now.

Business groups “are looking short term,” said Republican Senator David Duell (sic), a Greenville physician who met with chamber representatives. He said he doubted the Obama administration’s commitment “with the long-term viability of the federal government in question.”

Such opposition is “idiocy,” said Margaret Jordan, a former Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas director who is president of Dallas Medical Resources, a consortium of hospital executives and businesspeople headed by billionaire oilman Ray Hunt. “Medicaid expansion is a win-win for everybody.”

[…]

The tension is evident 330 miles (531 kilometers) west of Dallas in Lubbock, a wind-swept city of 230,000 that is the hometown of 1950s rock ’n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly and Texas Tech University. Medicaid divides the chamber of commerce, which favors expansion, and Republican Senator Robert Duncan, a lawyer who has served in the legislature since 1989.

After officials at the city’s UMC Health System explained how Medicaid expansion could cushion cost increases, chamber directors unanimously approved a resolution, said Chairman Carlos Morales.

“It’s a lot of money we’d be missing out on,” said Morales, who is executive vice president of Caprock Home Health Services Inc., a company that employs 2,200 in 12 Texas offices.

Duncan, however, says Texas can’t afford the deal because Medicaid crowds out spending for education, parks and other priorities.

“It’s not a free lunch,” Duncan said. He said he was unconvinced by studies by former deputy State Comptroller Billy Hamilton and Waco economist Ray Perryman suggesting expansion would boost the state’s economy by increasing business activity and productivity.

So on the one hand, you have people like Sen. Bob Deuell, who thinks we’re going bankrupt despite trillions having already been cut from the deficit, Medicare costs trending downward, and the entire basis of our medium-term debt-to-GDP ratio being a function of a temporary glut of old people. On the other hand, you have Sen. Robert Duncan, who doesn’t care what a bunch of high-falutin’ economists think when he just knows in his gut that spending money can only be a zero-sum game. Yeah, good luck changing that dynamic. In the meantime, the fanatics at TPPF present their never-gonna-happen case for Medicaid block grants so they can more efficiently deny access to health care to all those shiftless poor people, and the Democratic Congressional delegation chides Rick Perry for his continued mulishness on this topic. EoW and BOR have more.

More counties for Medicaid expansion

All of these are from last week. Bexar County:

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On a bipartisan vote, Bexar County commissioners Tuesday urged Texas lawmakers to expand the state’s Medicaid program and take advantage of federal matching funds under the Affordable Care Act.

“From 2014 to 2017, expansion will bring $27.2 billion in federal revenue to Texas for just over $3 billion in state investments,” said County Judge Nelson Wolff.

In Bexar County, the expansion “would provide insurance for more than 200,000 currently uninsured” residents, Wolff said.

The court’s resolution noted that Texas has the nation’s highest percentage of uninsured residents, 24 percent, and Bexar County has 396,000 uninsured.

Unanimous approval of the resolution came after the head of the University Health System said the county stands to gain $53 million a year.

[…]

Precinct 3 Commissioner Kevin Wolff, the court’s lone Republican, said it was difficult to support the resolution but did so because significant funds were at stake.

“I will support this even though philosophically our governor is right” in opposing expansion, Wolff said.

“This has got to be fixed at a different level than ours,” he added.

Hidalgo County:

Hidalgo County Commissioners Court has become the first governmental entity in the Rio Grande Valley to pass a resolution in support of expanding Medicaid to include coverage for adults.

The resolution, which was supported both by the RGV Equal Voice Network and Valley Interfaith, passed unanimously on Tuesday.

“We are very grateful county commissioners have supported this resolution to expand Medicaid, particularly since Hidalgo County has the highest rate of uninsured people,” said Ann Williams Cass, chair of the RGV Equal Voice Network’s health working group.

“This will allow the parents in a family of four that makes less than $14 an hour to qualify for Medicaid coverage.”

Cass said Hidalgo County needs healthy families and a healthy workforce. “This is opportunity to get over $400 million a year in federal money for the first three years for Adult Medicaid in Hidalgo County,” she said.

Cass paid tribute to the work of Texas Well and Healthy, Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Children’s Defense Fund. All three are supporting the expansion of Medicaid to include adults. “They have offered us so much help. They deserve credit for all the hard work they have done,” Cass said.

Travis County:

With more than $200 million a year at stake, the Travis County Commissioners Court is urging the Legislature to expand Medicaid coverage to more needy people in Texas, the state with the highest rate of uninsured residents.

The court spent time Tuesday tweaking the resolution that it passed last week to satisfy its lone Republican member, Gerald Daugherty. It was approved unanimously, 5-0. Austin Interfaith leader Oralia Garza Cortes called the bipartisan support “absolutely critical” and said that sister organizations of the advocacy group in Dallas and Bexar counties helped pass similar resolutions this month.

Austin Interfaith and its allies hope those efforts put pressure on the Legislature to expand Medicaid, a central but now optional part of the federal health care law.

See here for the original story. Cameron County joined in last week as well. A long and getting longer list of organizations that support Medicaid expansion, put together by Progress Texas and Texas Well & Healthy, can be found here. Despite Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s support of Medicaid expansion, I am not currently aware of any action on Harris County Commissioners Court’s part to pass a resolution. It should be noted, however, that while counties are the ones that are on the knife’s edge for this, other government entities can call on Rick Perry and the Legislature to act as well. Both Austin City Council and Waco City Council have passed resolutions or legislative agendas in support of Medicaid expansion. It would be great if Harris County Commissioners Court got in the game, but there’s no reason for Houston City Council to sit out.

One more thing. PDiddie, who was at the big rally for Medicaid on Tuesday, reminds us that Medicaid expansion isn’t just about saving lives, it’s also about making them worth living.

Then there are the personal stories. For example: my father, 86, who had a good job all his working life and then a comfortable retirement, is at medium-to-end-stage dementia and has essentially outlived his assets. So it’s humiliating enough for seniors like him who find themselves at the prospect of spending the very end of their lives on the government dole (when they are even capable of understanding that). But because health care providers are refusing new Medicaid patients — in large part because the state pays its Medicaid bills very slowly — people like him are falling straight from middle class all the way through the shredded safety net.

And people like him have no advocates. My dad can’t write a letter or an e-mail; can’t make a phone call, can’t go to a townhall meeting to speak to his state rep, can’t march at a rally. You know what’s even worse about his situation, though? If he lived in Arizona, or New Jersey, or Florida, he would be getting covered. Because their conservative governors can see the benefits of expanding Medicaid. Not our governor, though.

Everyone who is in a position to do something about expanding Medicaid but refuses to do so should be required to look Perry and his dad in the eye and explain themselves to them. Maybe that would finally break the grip of whatever madness it is that envelops them. BOR has more from the rally.

Two more ways to divert money from public schools

Number One: Taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

When the Georgia legislature passed a private school scholarship program in 2008, lawmakers promoted it as a way to give poor children the same education choices as the wealthy.

The program would be supported by donations to nonprofit scholarship groups, and Georgians who contributed would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits, up to $2,500 a couple. The intent was that money otherwise due to the Georgia treasury — about $50 million a year — would be used instead to help needy students escape struggling public schools.

That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.

“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”

A handout circulated at the meeting instructed families to donate, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, many of whom were already attending the school.

“If a student has friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax, all of those people can make a donation to that child’s school,” added an official with a scholarship group working with the school.

The exchange at Gwinnett Christian Academy, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, is just one example of how scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.

Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.

While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.

If this sounds a lot like vouchers to you, you’re right. It’s vouchers in a different package, done in a clever way to work around those pesky church-state obstacles. I haven’t seen this particular variant rear its head in Texas yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

That leads to Item Number Two: Virtual schools, which are operating here in Texas.

report released Tuesday by the liberal groupProgress Texas is adding another layer to the controversy over virtual schools, claiming that despite their popularity, the programs have failed Texas students and are run by businesses seeking profit.

“It’s a $24 billion industry with zero accountability,” Progress Texas executive director Matt Glazer said in a statement. “Virtual schools provide unregulated financial windfalls to a few insiders by shortchanging our children’s education.”

The Progress Texas findings come in response to a March report by  the conservative Austin think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supported virtual schools. The TPPF report claimed that virtual schools save money and can reduce drop-out rates because students who must drop out to work can take classes online whenever they have time. It said that virtual schools can also help students with special needs like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities.

In 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, made up of businesses and nearly 2,000 legislators, created a bill that supported online learning in classrooms and virtual schools. The measure initiated a wave of virtual schools across the country. In 2007, Texas approved Senate Bill 1788, similar to the ALEC model, which created a state-operated virtual school network and supported integrating online learning in Texas classrooms. Tax dollars help fund virtual schools, but businesses run them.

One of the only full-time virtual schools in the state, Texas Virtual Academy, was ranked academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency in 2009 and 2011, yet enrollment in the academy increased 3,203 percent in those years – from 254 students to 8,136, according to the Progress Texas report.

The report is here, and Progress Texas’ press release is here. ALEC was also a factor in the scholarship scam. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are. Read ’em both and keep your eyes open during the next legislative session. There’s a lot more to what’s going on with schools than just the nasty budget cuts from last year.