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Rick Perry

Perry the pitchman

How can we miss you if you won’t go away?

We’ll always have corndogs

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Monday jumped into the middle of the debate over mask mandates in public schools by trying to sell state officials on a product from a company in which he has a financial interest.

The Republican led a nearly hour-long press conference a the Texas Capitol on Monday that sounded more like an infomercial as he tried to convince state leaders to buy a brand of air filtration products from a company — Houston-based Integrated Viral Protection — that he acknowledged he has “a part” in.

When asked how much of a part, Perry replied: “Well, that’s none of your business. I’m not a public official anymore.”

And yet there you are using the Capitol as your own personal Etsy platform, as if that were a normal thing for non-public officials to do. Or anyone, honestly, though as we know the vast majority of the commerce that happens in that building does so in a far more discreet manner. But if we were going to ask you questions about your little side hustle, after we got to the ones about whether this thing is an effective and cost-effective mitigation strategy (masks are pretty cheap, after all), we’d then have to ask about the questionable characters that are also involved. But hey, you’re just a private citizen who only wants my tax dollars and not my vote, so I guess we’re done here.

Jake Ellzey wins CD06 special election runoff

I confess, I had totally forgotten about this.

Jake Ellzey

State Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie beat fellow Republican Susan Wright on Tuesday to succeed her late husband, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, and pull off a major upset against a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump.

With all precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Ellzey got 53% of the vote, while Susan Wright, a longtime GOP activist, received 47%, according to unofficial results.

Ellzey declared victory in a speech shortly after 9 p.m., addressing supporters in Ennis.

[…]

Susan Wright and Ellzey came out on top of a May 1 special election that featured 21 other candidates. She finished first with 19% of the vote, while Ellzey got 14%.

Trump endorsed Susan Wright in the final days before the May 1 election. He got more involved in the runoff, issuing three statements reiterating his endorsement, starring in a robocall for her and headlining a telephone rally for her on Monday night.

Ellzey relied on support from former Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, a fellow Navy veteran who came off the sidelines in the runoff. Perry and other Ellzey allies suggested Trump had been misled into endorsing Susan Wright.

National attention on the race dimmed after Democrats narrowly missed the runoff, a disappointment for the party in a district that Trump won by only 3 percentage points last year. But Ellzey kept things competitive in the intraparty matchup, significantly outraising Susan Wright during the latest campaign finance reporting period and rallying his supporters against a barrage of attacks from the pro-Wright Club for Growth.

The DMN goes into the campaign and the Trump effect.

Ellzey’s victory was a blow to former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Wright over the objections of several major Texas Republicans, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Trump is perceived to be the leader of the Republican Party, both nationally and locally, and the 6th Congressional District race was a test of his political clout in his post presidency. Though he didn’t campaign for Wright in Texas, he hosted two tele-rallies on her behalf, but couldn’t push her past Ellzey.

[…]

The contest, which featured two Republican candidates, was largely a test on whether Trump is still the most influential player in the Republican Party.

His backing of Wright is believed to have helped her in Ellis and Navarro counties, both Republican strongholds easily carried by Trump in his presidential elections, and where Ellzey, who lives in Waxahachie, had hoped to establish a beachhead. He represents a Texas House district that is anchored in Ellis County.

Wright won Trump’s endorsement upon the advice from officials at the Club for Growth, and his belief, according to several with knowledge of his decision, that Wright had a built-in advantage because she’s the widow of Ron Wright.

In the days leading up to the general election, Trump stepped up his outreach to voters, twice restating his endorsement of Wright, recording automatic phone calls that went throughout the district and advertising through his super PAC on television.

Ellzey’s biggest challenge was to overcome Trump’s endorsement, and he struggled at times to find an answer to why the former president saw fit to get involved in the race.

For most of the campaign, Ellzey, with surrogates like Perry, appealed to base Republican voters. But days before the election he sent campaign mailers to Democratic Party voters in the district. Those mailers, along with text messages voters received from some source, portrayed Ellzey as a fighter for public education, while pointing out that Wright is endorsed by Trump.

It’s possible that Ellzey was able to mine Democratic voters who otherwise would have skipped a race featuring two Republicans. Wright’s campaign had already been pounding Ellzey as a tool for Democrats, so he couldn’t openly court those voters until the final days of his campaign.

“He would like it if Democrats vote for him, but he sure doesn’t want to go out on a date with one,” Democratic strategist Matt Angle said of Ellzey’s imagery.

There was some discourse, mostly on Twitter, about how this result was a referendum on Trump and his influence. I would advise anyone to take that with an extreme grain of salt, as we should always be at least a little skeptical of special election and runoff results. That said, if Wright had won, Trump would be crowing about it, and the received wisdom would be that his influence was the difference maker. That would have been way overblown as well, but to the extent that one accepts that premise, it’s worth keeping the counterexample in mind.

Ellzey’s last-minute campaign pitch to Democrats was a smart play. They were obviously not the main targets in the race, but this wasn’t a primary runoff and they were allowed to participate. One might also recall that CD06 is (at least as currently drawn) a purple district, one in which Joe Biden got 48% of the vote. In other words, there were plenty of Dems to court, even with a very simple message, and that could be a big deal in an otherwise close race. If what Dem voters got out of it was a finger in the eye to Trump, it was worth it. As relationships go, this was a total one-night stand, but it got Ellzey where he wanted to go.

One more thing:

It doesn’t change the math directly – 51 missing Democrats still make for a lack of quorum – but if a couple of Republicans are not there as well, for whatever the reason, then you’d need more Democrats to be back to get to the minimum number of 100 present members. I would normally expect the special election to replace Ellzey in the House (his district is HD10) to be this November, but it’s possible Greg Abbott will expedite it because of the forthcoming special session(s) on redistricting. We should know for sure in a couple of weeks. Daily Kos has more.

Lawsuit filed over veto of legislative budget

Good. And necessary.

A group of Texas House Democrats and legislative staffers is asking the Texas Supreme Court to override Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent veto of a portion of the state budget that funds the Legislature, staffers there and legislative agencies.

More than 50 Democrats, a number of state employees and the Texas AFL-CIO have signed on to a petition for a writ of mandamus, which was filed Friday morning.

“The state is in a constitutional crisis at this moment,” said Chad Dunn, an attorney involved with the petition, during a briefing with reporters Thursday.

[…]

The petition argues that Abbott exceeded his executive authority and violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine. The parties involved with the petition are asking the all-Republican court to find Abbott’s veto unconstitutional, which would allow Article X of the state budget, the section at issue, to become law later this year.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus in the lower chamber, told reporters Thursday there are roughly 2,000 employees in the state’s legislative branch that would be affected by Abbott’s veto if it stands.

Lawmakers receive $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session for both regular and session sessions.

“This isn’t about [lawmakers’] paychecks,” Turner said during the briefing. “What he’s doing is hurting our staff and hurting our constituents.”

See here for the background, and here for a Twitter thread from Rep. James Talarico explaining the reasons behind the petition. Rep. Talarico notes that the effect of the veto “also includes nonpolitical staff like the custodians, cafeteria workers, landscapers, and parking attendants…[who] will also lose their pay and their health insurance on September 1”, which is the end of the fiscal year. The special session for July will almost certainly include action to restore this funding, but only if Abbott puts it on the agenda, which gives him quite a bit of leverage. Way too much, if you believe what the state constitution says.

The plaintiffs have asked the Supreme Court for a ruling before September 1. I have no idea what they will do, but consider this for a moment. Beto beats Abbott in November 2022. After taking office, he issues an executive order of some kind, maybe to kill the Abbott border wall. Doesn’t really matter, whatever it is he gets sued by Jared Woodfill, who gets a writ of mandamus from SCOTX blocking the order. And then, a few months later after the Lege passes its budget, Governor Beto uses his line item veto authority to defund the Supreme Court, which he says is payback for their dumb and disrespectful ruling against him.

You may say that’s ridiculous. I would agree, but the real question is what (other than a respect for norms and not being a petty tyrant like Greg Abbott) would stop Governor Beto if it came to that? If the Supreme Court says there are no limits on what a Governor can do to exert influence over another branch of government, then surely this too is fair game.

Those of you with memories that extend past last week may remember the precursor to all this, when Rick Perry threatened to veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA’s office if then-DA Rosemary Lehmberg didn’t resign following a drunk driving arrest. Lehmberg, whatever her faults, was an elected official who did not answer to the Governor, but Perry felt it was within his power to attempt to force her out and to use the threat of cutting off funding for a division of her office as the stick. Perry was subsequently indicted by a grand jury for an abuse of office charge, but the Court of Criminal Appeals came to his rescue and tossed the indictment, buying his argument that he was being arrested for exercising veto power. But it wasn’t that – indeed, he never did veto any PUI funding – it was the threat and the coercion. Abbott’s veto, done as retaliation against a legitimate legislative action that he just didn’t like, is the next step of this progression. It’s autocratic, it’s a huge abuse of power, it’s dangerous, and it must be stopped by the one branch of government that can stop it. If SCOTX doesn’t recognize the need to do this, they will have truly failed us all.

UPDATE: A statement from Abbott about the lawsuit can be found here.

Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman stepping down

Interesting.

Eva Guzman

Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman is resigning from her post effective Friday.

She informed Gov. Greg Abbott of the decision in a letter sent Monday. The news was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

“With utmost gratitude for the opportunity and gift of public service, I write to inform you that I am resigning from my office,” Guzman wrote in her letter to Abbott, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune. “It has been the honor of a lifetime to answer this high calling.”

Guzman, a Republican, was appointed to the post in 2009 by then-Gov. Rick Perry as the first Hispanic female on the court. She ran for a full six-year term the next year before winning reelection in 2016. Her second term would have ended Dec. 31, 2022.

Before Perry appointed her to the high court, Guzman served on the 309th District Court in Harris County and the Houston-based Fourteenth Court of Appeals.

[…]

In her letter to Abbott, Guzman did not state a reason for her resignation, fueling speculation that she may have aspirations to run for another office during the 2022 election cycle.

Her resignation will create a vacancy on the state’s highest civil court, which Abbott will be able to fill with an appointment. The court is currently occupied by all Republicans.

I’ll get to the Chron story in a minute, but first two things to note. One is that Guzman was the high scorer in the 2016 election, winning 4,884,441 total votes. That’s over 75K more than the next highest candidate (Debra Lehrmann), and 200K more votes than Donald Trump. She was the strongest Republican in Latino districts, which is not a surprise. If she is running for something else, she will be harder to beat than most. Two, note that at every step of the way – district court, 14th Court of Appeals, Supreme Court – she was appointed first, and ran for a full term later. She’s far from unique in this, of course, I just noted it in this story. The ability to fill judicial vacancies is an underrated power of the Governor’s office. One does wonder what all the incumbent Republican judges and justices who are ready to step down and take a higher-paying job will do when the Democrats finally take that office.

And it usually is for a payday, if it’s not for retirement, when a judge or justice steps down like this. In this case, as that Chron story notes, the speculation is that she wants to run for something else.

One race that Guzman could be contemplating began heating up last week: the Republican primary for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s seat. Land Commissioner George P. Bush — whose uncle, former Gov. George W. Bush, first appointed Guzman to the 309th District Court in Harris County in 1999 — opened up his campaign last week.

AG makes the most sense, at least in the abstract. I mean, she’s not going to run for Ag Commissioner. The question to me is, does she get into the “I Will Gladly Debase Myself For Donald Trump’s Endorsement” sweepstakes, or does she position herself as the non-Trump candidate, with actual accomplishments and conservative bona fides? This is where I admit I’m giving this speculation the side-eye. It’s hard to imagine, at this late date and with no record of sucking up to Trump in the past, that she could out-sycophant either Ken Paxton or George P. Bush. It’s also hard to imagine that there’s enough Republican primary voters who will prefer a non-Trump candidate in this – or almost any – race. I mean, you know who else didn’t do so well in that CD06 special election? Mike Wood, the anti-Trump Republican in that race, who got a whopping 3.2% of the vote. Eva Guzman would do better than that, but I see her as the odd person out in a three-or-more-way race. There’s no evidence that there’s a constituency for that kind of candidate, and as noted it’s awfully late for her to claim to be The One True Trump Candidate. Maybe I’m missing something – maybe she thinks the Lege will draw a Congressional district for her – but I don’t see how this makes sense. We’ll see if I’m right.

Can Abbott actually veto the legislative budget?

Who knows? We’ll see if he actually does it.

Fresh off the defeat of two of his legislative priorities Sunday night when Democrats abandoned the Texas House to block a sweeping elections bill, Gov. Greg Abbott flexed his executive muscle Monday — vowing to defund a co-equal branch of government while raising questions about the separation of powers in Texas.

“I will veto Article 10 of the budget passed by the legislature,” he wrote on Twitter. “Article 10 funds the legislative branch. No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities.”

Abbott did not give additional details about how the veto would work, telling his nearly 600,000 Twitter followers only to “stay tuned.” He’s also said that lawmakers will be brought back for a special legislative session this year to pass the failed priority bills. But the veto announcement on social media sparked concerns about the increasing encroachment by the state’s executive branch into the legislative branch’s purview.

“We have not seen a governor in modern times who has taken such a step to minimize the legislative branch of government,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “The Texas Constitution sets out a balance of power, and it has stuck to that since the inception of the Texas government. To change that by altering which branch was able to be politically and financially stronger is clearly antithetical to the Constitution.”

[…]

On top of funding the two chambers of the Legislature, Article X of the state budget also funds nonpartisan agencies that are crucial for policymaking, including the Legislative Reference Library, which conducts research for the Legislature; the Legislative Budget Board, which develops policy and budget recommendations and provides fiscal analyses for legislation; the Legislative Council, which helps draft and analyze potential legislation; the State Auditor’s Office, which reviews the state’s finances; and the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the efficiency of state agencies.

Several of these agencies would be crucial for the all-important redrawing of political maps that lawmakers are expected to take up in an already planned special session in the fall.

[…]

Rottinghaus, who is working on a book about former Gov. Rick Perry, said the growth of the executive branch’s power is one of the themes of the book, but “Abbott has taken it to the next level.”

“Perry made the tune popular, but Abbott took it to No. 1 with a new band,” he said.

Perry could serve in some ways as a cautionary tale for Abbott. In 2007, Perry signed an executive order mandating that all sixth grade girls get vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer. But lawmakers came back during that legislative session and blocked his executive order, saying Perry had overstepped his authority.

“He backed off immediately. He saw he’d gone too far,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s a battle that the governor doesn’t want to pick because the courts could say he’s wrong, the Legislature could defund the executive branch in the same way — there’s all kinds of options that the Legislature can use. … That’s what Perry found. If you cross the Legislature, you’re risking a revolt you can’t contain.”

Not everyone believes the governor will follow through, however.

Abbott has until June 20 to announce his vetoes. The current biennial budget ends Aug. 31. If Abbott called back lawmakers before the end of August and got his priority bills passed, he could then let lawmakers restore the funding for the new budget starting in September without any impact to people employed by the legislative branch.

“Abbott likes to puff up and then deflates very quickly,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic political operative who runs the Lone Star Project. “He doesn’t have the guts to send termination notices to public servants who are just doing their jobs.”

On Thursday, Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty he would call lawmakers back for two special sessions. The previously planned fall special session would be in September or October and deal with redistricting and the allocation of $16 billion in federal COVID-19 funds. But before that, Abbott said, he’d call legislators back to work on the defeated elections and bail bills.

Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said he was doubtful the veto would come to pass and said it would reflect poorly on Abbott if it did. Staffers for Republican lawmakers who played no role in the Democratic walkout would also be harmed.

“If it’s a political statement that he’s making, that’s one thing,” Larson said. “But if he follows through with it, I think a lot of people will lose confidence in his ability to govern. I know independent voters, Democratic voters and a lot of Republican voters will lose confidence in his ability to govern if he starts retaliating toward the majority party that did not walk out of the Legislature. It makes no sense.”

See here for some background. Not making sense is not a bar to Abbott. I still think he’s more likely to back down at the end than not, but if I’m wrong about that I hope someone files a lawsuit and forces the courts to sort it out. I mean, if Abbott can zero out the legislative budget, he can do the same for the courts, and I have to think they would not like that. There’s only one way to find out, if it comes to that.

How many times will we fail to fix our power grid?

By “we”, I mean our Legislature, and the PUC, and the Governor, and the Railroad Commission, and pretty much everyone else in charge of this state.

Ten years ago, Texas power plants froze during a fast-moving winter storm, causing rolling electricity blackouts across the state. Outraged Texas regulators and lawmakers, vowing to crack down, debated requiring energy companies to protect their equipment against extreme weather to ensure reliability.

But they didn’t.

Nine years ago, two state agencies that regulate utilities and the oil and gas industry warned that natural gas facilities that lost power during outages couldn’t feed electricity generation plants, creating a spiral of power loss. The agencies jointly recommended that lawmakers compel gas suppliers and power plants to fix the problem.

But they didn’t.

Eight years ago, economists warned that the state’s free-market grid left companies with little incentive to build enough plants to provide backup power during emergencies. With the support of then-Gov. Rick Perry, legislators and regulators considered increasing power rates to encourage the construction of more power plants, so that Texas, like other states, would have sufficient reserves.

But they didn’t.

In the wake of each power failure, or near-failure, over the past decade, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly stood at a fork in the road. In one direction lay government-mandated solutions that experts said would strengthen the state’s power system by making it less fragile under stress. The other direction continued Texas’ hands-off regulatory approach, leaving it to the for-profit energy companies to decide how to protect the power grid.

In each instance, lawmakers left the state’s lightly regulated energy markets alone, choosing cheap electricity over a more stable system. As a result, experts say, the power grid that Texans depend on to heat and cool their homes and run their businesses has become less and less reliable — and more susceptible to weather-related emergencies.

“Everyone has been in denial,” said Alison Silverstein, a consultant who works with the U.S. Department of Energy and formerly served as a senior adviser at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “They treat each individual extreme event as a one-off, a high-impact, low-frequency event, which means, ‘I hope it doesn’t happen again.’”

With each passing year, the grid has steadily become less reliable. In 1989, Texas suffered a cold snap considered worse if not equal to the winter storm earlier this year yet managed to keep the grid functioning, with only a few hours of rotating outages.

By comparison, February’s Winter Storm Uri brought the Texas power grid to within five minutes of complete collapse, officials acknowledged. Millions of residents were left without power for days in subfreezing temperatures; nearly 200 died.

“Our system now is more vulnerable than it was 30 years ago,” said Woody Rickerson, vice president of grid planning and operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. “With the generation mix we have now, the weather has the ability to affect wind and solar and (the gas supply). Those are things we can’t anticipate.”

It’s the first of a three-part series, and it’s a long read that will make you mad. The simple fact is that the system we have now works very well for some wealthy interests, and they are very good at defending their turf. Throw in an unwavering belief in the invisible hand of the free market and the general incentive towards doing nothing, and voila. Even the incremental steps forward have turned out to be meaningless:

As a result, the only legislation to come out of the 2011 storm was a minor bill from then-state Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican, which required power companies to file weatherization plans with the PUC each year.

Two months after that bill was signed into law, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation put out a report of more than 350 pages, urging Texas to enact stricter weatherization standards for power plants and natural gas operators.

And they did to a degree, with ERCOT putting out best practices, conducting annual workshops and inspecting plants every three to four years.

But there were two problems. First, despite FERC’s recommendation, the state Legislature never gave the PUC authority to penalize power plants that did not comply, making weatherization voluntary. While progress was made, some companies opted not to bring their plants up to code, said Rickerson, the ERCOT vice president.

“Ultimately those were financial decisions that had to be made,” he said. “How much is someone willing to invest in a power plant that’s 50 years old and going to retire in a few years?”

More significantly, the best practices ERCOT was sharing were designed for a cold snap like that seen in 2011. While cold, with temperatures in Dallas dropping as low as 14 degrees, it was nothing compared to the 1989 winter storm, when temperatures dropped to 7 degrees in Houston and minus-7 in Abilene, let alone 1899, when the state’s all-time low temperature of minus-23 degrees was set in the Panhandle town of Tulia.

So when temperatures dipped into the single digits for days on end this February, most Texas power plants were simply not prepared. Exterior control equipment and fuel lines froze, not to mention coal piles and wind turbine blades.

“One power plant under freezing for 200-plus hours. That’s not a thing, right?” said Chris Moser, executive vice president of operations for NRG Energy, of expectations going into the winter. “If you look at the math ERCOT did prior to the seasonal assessment, it looked like (there was plenty of power). But then you have 80 to 85 plants not showing up. It was a failure of imagination.”

As for Hegar’s legislation, it has proved even more toothless than it appeared at the time.

According to a recent report from ERCOT, the agency was never given authority to judge the weatherization plans but only to check that they were being implemented. And a requirement in Hegar’s bill that the PUC produce a one-time Weather Emergency Preparedness Report, which was quietly published in 2012 and found that many power companies were still doing a poor job implementing reforms, drew little attention from state officials.

“When you’re on the commission, you’re dealing with what’s immediately in front of you,” said Ken Anderson, a former public utility commissioner. “I’m not sure how much follow-up occurred.”

Seems like this is a pretty good campaign issue for next year, especially given what is being prioritized over making the grid more robust. I’m just saying.

Matthew McConaughey redux

Again? sigh All right…

Two weeks ago, in these very same digital pages, I claimed that Matthew McConaughey had shown more leadership during Texas’s devastating winter storms than Senator Ted Cruz, simply by clearing the low bar of not scuttling off to Mexico. Now, I don’t know for a fact that Matthew McConaughey reads this column, or that he’s even aware of its disturbingly obsessive chronicling of weekly McCona-nutiae. However, it now seems like he may have caught wind of the sentiments expressed, and—rather than sending me hate mail, like a normal person—he may be taking it to heart. McConaughey now says that running for Texas governor is a “true consideration,” and no longer just an idle fantasy to fill magazine interviews.

The Austin actor took his latest tentative step into genuine statesmanship during an appearance on Crime Stoppers of Houston’s The Balanced Voice podcast, where host Rania Mankarious brought up the political aspirations he’s been casually floating since last fall. “I’m looking into now again, what is my leadership role?” McConaughey replied. “Because I do think I have some things to teach and share, and what is my role? What’s my category in my next chapter of life that I’m going into?”

See here for the background. Look, there are three options here, if McConaughey is actually thinking about this and not just letting his mind wander a bit on a podcast: File as a Republican, file as a Democrat, and file as an independent. I think we can all agree that I have as good a chance of beating Greg Abbott in a Republican primary as McConaughey does. As for filing as an independent, I have two words for that: Kinky Friedman. Here are two more, as a bonus: Grandma Strayhorn. The one thing that such a move would do is split the anti-Abbott vote, for which the only possible outcome is an Abbott re-election. Abbott would surely do better than Rick Perry’s 39% in 2006, making any plausible pathway to beating him that much less likely. Maybe if literally nobody filed as a Democrat there might be a chance, but that’s not going to happen – even if no remotely credible candidate chooses to take on Abbott, some Gene Kelly type will, and that will be that.

Which leaves filing as a Democrat as the only viable option. I grant that the odds of winning against Abbott as a Democrat aren’t that much greater than either of the other two scenarios, but they are greater than zero. That means doing the work to win over a Democratic primary electorate, which I assure you wants very much to beat Greg Abbott and which right now is hoping that Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro files to run against him. McConaughey could win a Dem primary, especially if he announced first and started raising money and actively campaigning and, you know, stated some policy opinions and action items for his hoped-for term as Governor. If he did the work, in other words. No guarantees, of course – if Beto or Julian or some other Democrat of reasonable stature and accomplishment threw a hat into the ring, I’d make that person the favorite just for their having been committed to the party and its ideals and membership for more than five minutes. But at least he’d have a chance. If he did the work. No sign of that yet, so my position remains the same: Until I see some evidence of actual candidate-like behavior, this is not a thing. Nothing to see here, move along.

Have Texas Republicans finally damaged themselves?

Some of them have. How much remains to be seen.

The brutal winter storm that turned Texas roads to ice, burst pipes across the state and left millions of residents shivering and without power has also damaged the reputations of three of the state’s leading Republicans.

Sen. Ted Cruz was discovered to have slipped off to Mexico on Wednesday night, only to announce his return when he was caught in the act. Gov. Greg Abbott came under fire over his leadership and misleading claims about the causes of the power outages. And former Gov. Rick Perry suggested Texans preferred power failures to federal regulation, a callous note in a moment of widespread suffering.

It’s more than just a public relations crisis for the three politicians. The storm has also battered the swaggering, Texas brand of free-market governance that’s central to the state’s political identity on the national stage.

“Texans are angry and they have every right to be. Failed power, water and communications surely took some lives,” JoAnn Fleming, a Texas conservative activist and executive director of a group called Grassroots America, said in a text message exchange with POLITICO.

“The Texas electric grid is not secure,” said Fleming, pointing out that lawmakers “have been talking about shoring up/protecting the Texas electric grid for THREE legislative sessions (6 yrs),” but “every session special energy interests kill the bills with Republicans in charge … Our politicians spend too much time listening to monied lobbyists & political consultants. Not enough time actually listening to real people.”

[…]

Democrats sought to heighten the contrast between Cruz and his 2018 Senate opponent, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, by pointing out that the senator went to Cancun and tweeted about the death of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh while his former rival stayed in El Paso and tried to marshal his social media followers to help fellow Texans.

“It’s extremely important in governing and politics to be seen doing things,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist. “It’s important to be seen leading.”

Steinhauser said Abbott established himself as a leader in previous crises but took longer after the storm because he “had to find his footing. At first, he probably didn’t think the blackouts would last as long as they did.”

We’re at peak bad news for these guys – and now you can add State Rep. Gary Gates to that list – but who knows how long it will last. It’s also hard to take anything JoAnn Fleming says seriously, as she’s one of the major wingnut power brokers in North Texas. It’s one thing for someone like her to be mad at these guys, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to vote for a Democrat against them.

And that’s ultimately what this comes down to. Greg Abbott doesn’t have an opponent yet (though hold on, we’ll get back to that in a minute), Ted Cruz isn’t on any ballot until 2024, and Rick Perry is a Dancing with the Stars has-been. If there’s anger at them for their words and deeds and lack of action, that’s great, but it only goes so far. What if anything will this be channeled into?

One possible vehicle until such time as there’s a candidate running against Greg Abbott is President Biden. He’s done all the Presidential things to help Texas recover, and he’s coming for a visit next week, both of which have the chance to make people like him a little bit more. This is an opportunity for him as an example of good leadership, and also for future legislative proposals. If that translates into better approval/favorability numbers for Biden in Texas, that should help the Democratic slate next year. The longer the national GOP remains in disarray as well, the better.

The leadership example, if it can stand as a contrast to what Abbott et al have been doing, can serve as the baseline argument in 2022 and beyond for change in our state government.

What happened over the last four or five days, as the state became the subject of national and international pity and head-shaking, could undo years of economic development promotion, corporate relocation work and tourism campaigns.

It makes it a lot easier on the competition. Who wants to go to a failed state? Sure, there is no income tax. But we’re rationing gas, turning off electricity for millions of households and boiling water so it doesn’t poison us. Austin even closed a hospital and moved the patients when they couldn’t rely on heat or water.

In a hospital.

The light regulation here has been a key part of the business pitch. But the dark side was showing this week in the failures of our basic infrastructure.

Electricity here is cheaper than many other places, and it works, most of the time. But at some point, the corners we cut to keep electricity prices low turn into reliability problems. The cost-cutting shows up in the quality of the product. And the product, when it comes to infrastructure, is critical to the quality of life and the economy.

It’s a great state with a faltering state government. The political people running things too often worry more about their popularity than about their work. Too many of them are better at politics than they are at governing. And governing is the only real reason any of the rest of us have any interest in them.

Putting that another way:

Fixing ERCOT will require actual governance, as opposed to performative governance, and that is something the state’s leadership has struggled with of late. Rather than address the challenges associated with rapid growth, the state’s elected leaders have preferred to focus on various lib-owning initiatives such as the menace of transgender athletes, whether or not NBA games feature the national anthem, and—in a triumph of a certain brand of contemporary “conservatism”—legislating how local municipalities can allocate their own funds.

I’m anxious to see how our governor, in particular, will respond to this crisis, because I have never witnessed a more cowardly politician. When Abbott faces a challenge—and he has faced several in the past year alone—you can always depend on him to take the shape of water, forever finding the path of least resistance. I have no idea why the man became a politician, as I can discern no animating motive behind his acts beyond just staying in office.

During the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of 41,000 Texans so far, the governor first delegated as much responsibility—and political risk—as possible to the state’s mayors and county judges. When those same local officials decided that things like mask mandates and restaurant closures might be good ideas, which became unpopular with the governor’s donors, he overruled them. But when deaths spiked, Abbot decided that—surprise!—local leaders had retained the power to enforce mask mandates all along and that it was their fault for not solving his coronavirus riddle.

I am anxious to see how the governor weasels his way out of responsibility for what happens next. I wouldn’t want to be Texas’s new speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, to whom the governor will likely attempt to shift all the blame.

This is an opportunity for someone to say “It doesn’t have to be like this” and maybe get heard in a way that’s been nigh-impossible for Texas Democrats in recent years, Beto in 2018 semi-excepted. Even if the main effect is to make normal Republican voters less excited about supporting their team in 2022, that helps too.

But first we need someone to step up and make that argument. We know Beto is thinking about it, and at last report, Julian Castro was not inclined to run. But that Politico story also has this tidbit:

“Whether it’s Abbott’s failed response or Cruz’s abandoning of our state, we shouldn’t put people in charge of government who don’t believe in government. They fail us every time,” said former federal Housing Secretary Julián Castro, a Democrat who’s considering a bid against Abbott or Cruz.

Emphasis mine. Who knows what that means, or how it’s sourced. I mean, despite that earlier story about Castro, he’s a potential candidate until he’s not. Who even knows if Ted Cruz will run for re-election in 2024 – we all know he wants to run for President again, however ridiculous that may sound now – so considering a bid against Abbott is the only one that makes sense. I’d like to hear him say those words himself before I believe it, but I feel duty-bound to note that paragraph. We can hope from there.

Winter storm/blackout/boil water situation, Day 439

I may be a bit off in my counting of the days, but it’s close enough. Between my house and my in-laws’ house, I have had power for maybe 14 hours total since Monday morning, with a bit more time for Internet thanks to a backup battery we have here that we can plug the cable modem and Eero router into. For obvious reasons, I’m not able to stay on top of the news as a result. The blackouts will continue for at least another day or so, the water needs to be boiled until further notice, we have a cracked water pipe but at least it’s under the house and not inside a wall and we may try to wrap some plumber’s tape on it while we wait in line to get it fixed, but all things considered we are fine. So many people are so much worse off, it’s heartbreaking and infuriating. If there’s anything you can do to help someone in need – friend, neighbor, complete stranger – please do so. We’re all in this together.

With that in mind, allow me to offer a hearty Fuck You to Rick Perry, for suggesting that all of the suffering and deprivation are a justifiable price that we should be willing to pay for not having a more regulated power generation system. I am truly at a loss for words here. May we all remember this in 2022, when we get to vote on who runs our state.

On the subject of ERCOT and the system we do have, let me key in on one part of this conversation with energy expert Joshua Rhodes about why things are the way they are here.

TM: When it comes to frozen wells and wind turbines, or other infrastructure that is physically affected by the cold, are there preventative measures that could have been taken, such as winterizing?

JR: There are plenty of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. It gets a lot colder there than it does here, even today. There are ways of producing gas. All of that infrastructure is site-specific. I would assume it’s more expensive. We could winterize wind turbines better but it would cost more money. We can winterize pipes on power plants, but it would cost more money. We have to decide, what level of risk are we willing to take and what are we willing to pay for?

TM: How could this have been prevented?

JR: Could we have built a grid that would have fared better during this time? Of course we could have. But we could also build a car that could survive every crash you could possibly throw at it, but it would be very expensive and not many people would probably be able to afford it. At some point we do a cost-benefit analysis of how much risk we are willing to take. We have never had weather like this thrown at us, so it’s not surprising to me that we don’t have infrastructure that can support it.

There are no snow plows out on the road. They’d be handy right now, of course, but we don’t use them very often. We don’t have that capability in the state generally because we don’t want to pay for it. We may decide now as a society that we do, but that’s a conversation we’re going to have to have with our collective self, if you will.

I thought Rhodes was way too deferential to the power generation industry overall, but this here is nearly as tone deaf as Perry’s idiocy. Yeah, sure, we can’t prepare for every possible contingency, but surely we can all recognize that a risk that leaves millions of people without power for multiple days in the midst of freezing temperatures is one that we ought to consider mitigating. As someone who works in cyberdefense at a large company, I can assure you we mitigate the hell out of much smaller risks than that. Actual rolling blackouts that leave a modest number of people without power for a couple of hours at a time is one thing. This was very much not that. Worse, it had already happened ten years ago and was studied at the time, yet nothing of any substance was done. This is a heads-must-roll situation. Anyone who doesn’t see it that way is part of the problem.

There’s a lot more out there but I only have so much battery life on the laptop. Stay safe, stay warm, and boil that water – if you have it – until told otherwise.

When Republicans fight

Such a sight to see.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s most exasperating allies sure chose an awkward time to act up.

In the face of a momentous election, with an array of issues that includes the pandemic, the recession, climate change, racial justice, law enforcement and the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the chairman of the Texas GOP and a gang of lawmakers and activists have instead picked a fight with Abbott, who isn’t even on the ballot, over his response to the pandemic.

On the surface, they’re asking the courts to tell the governor that adding six more days of early voting to the calendar was outside of his powers. Abbott made the move under emergency powers he has claimed during the pandemic — the same powers he has used at various times to shut down schools, limit crowd sizes and limit how many customers businesses can serve at a time, or in some cases, to close businesses altogether.

The timing is connected to the Nov. 3 general election; even with the arguments over emergency powers, opponents of the governor’s action would be expected to grab for a remedy before early voting starts on Oct. 13. One might say the same about other lawsuits challenging the governor’s orders — that they’re tied not to politics, but to current events. Bar owners want to open their bars, for instance, and are not in the financial condition or the mood to stay closed until after the elections just to make the current set of incumbents look good.

What’s unusual is to see so many prominent Republican names on the top of a lawsuit against the Republican governor of Texas this close to an election.

In a gentler time, that might be called unseemly or distracting. Speaking ill of another Republican was considered out of bounds for a while there. Those days are over. What’s happening in Texas illustrates how the pandemic, the economy and other issues have shaken political norms.

As the story notes, this is also playing out in the SD30 special election, where Shelley Luther – supported by a million dollars from one of the Empower Texans moneybags – is busy calling Abbott a “tyrant”. There’s talk of various potential primary challengers to Abbott in 2022 – see the comments to this post for a couple of names – but I don’t see any serious threat to him as yet. If Dan Patrick decides he wants a promotion, then we’ve got something. Until then, it’s all talk.

But let me float an alternate scenario by you. What if the nihilist billionaires behind Empower Texans decide that Abbott and the Republican Party have totally sold out on them, and instead of finding someone to take Abbott out in a primary, they bankroll a petition drive to put some pet wingnut on the November ballot, as an independent or the nominee of some new party they just invented? It’s crazy and almost certain to hand the Governor’s mansion over to the Democratic nominee, but no one ever said these guys were strategic geniuses. It’s been said that there are three real political parties in Texas – the Democrats, the establishment Republicans, and the far right whackadoo Republicans. This would arguably be an outgrowth of that, and in what we all hope is a post-Trump world, there may be similar splits happening elsewhere.

How likely is this? As I said, it makes no sense in the abstract. It’s nearly impossible to see a path to victory for either Abbott or the appointed anti-Abbott. It’s instructive to compare to 2006, where Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman were taking votes away from both Rick Perry and Chris Bell. Nobody who considers themselves remotely a Democrat is going to be wooed by whoever Empower Texans could vomit onto the ballot. Maybe they would consider a victory by Julian Castro or whichever Dem to be preferable to another Abbott term, in their own version of “the two parties are the same, we must burn down the duopoly to get everything we want”. Just because it makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen. For now, if I had to bet, my money would be on some token but not completely obscure challenger to Abbott in the primary – think Steve Stockman against John Cornyn in 2014, something like that. But a lot can happen in a year, and if the Dems do well this November, that could add to the pressure against Abbott. Who knows? Just another bubbling plot line to keep an eye on.

Republican former Senators defend anti-majoritarian practices

I appreciate the spirit in which this was offered, but it’s completely out of touch with reality.

The purpose of the 31-member Texas Senate is similar to that of the U.S. Senate: to cool down some of the fevered legislation filed in the Senate or passed by a simple majority of the Texas House of Representatives.

This is accomplished by a Senate rule that requires a super-majority vote (60% of senators on the floor at this time) to bring up a bill for debate. This rule was enacted in 2015; for 70 years previously, a larger, two-thirds vote was required (21 votes of those present).

It’s no coincidence that the 2015 rule change mirrored the Senate’s partisan balance. It allowed Republicans, who held 20 seats, to bring up and pass a bill without any Democrat support. Now — with the possibility that Democrats may gain Senate seats in the general election — the idea has been raised to further lower the threshold during the 2021 legislative session to require only a simple majority vote.

As former Republican senators — with a total of 80 years of service in this wonderful, deliberative body — we oppose this possible change. Requiring only a simple majority would be bad for the Texas Senate, the Texas Legislature, and the State of Texas.

[…]

A stronger rule encourages, even forces, senators to work with colleagues across the political aisle. In our experience, working in a bipartisan manner led to better legislation and made the Texas Senate a more collegial body.

It also ensures legislators from rural and urban areas work together. In our heavily urban state, rural areas could be more easily outvoted under a rule change. In fact, some senators believe this issue is more about the urban/rural split than a partisan one.

Democrat and Republican Lt. Govs. Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock, Rick Perry, Bill Ratliff and David Dewhurst had successful terms under the two-thirds rule. It could be argued that this rule made them better leaders and improved the landmark legislation they passed (school finance, criminal justice reform, tort reform, tax cuts, worker comp reform, etc.).

Anyone notice which Lite Governor they left out of that recitation in the last paragraph? It’s not a coincidence, I assure you.

Let’s put aside the fetishization of super-majorities and the mythmaking that it’s the House producing all of the fever dream legislation these days while the Senate awaits with calm and wisdom to sort out the wheat from the chaff. (Tell me again, which chamber passed the “bathroom bill” in 2017?) The whole “require Senators to work across the aisle for the betterment of The People” thing sounds all nice and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”-like, but it ignores the utterly predictable reality of what will happen when and if Democrats achieve a majority in the upper chamber: Republican State Senators will immediately adopt of a model of intractable opposition to any bill that represents a Democratic priority, in the same way that Republican US Senators under Mitch McConnell used the filibuster to block literally everything President Obama wanted to do.

One reason for this is because Democratic State Senators have, to a large degree, taken similar action on many high-profile Republican priorities: redistricting, voter ID, more abortion restrictions, de-funding Planned Parenthood, “sanctuary cities”, “bathroom bills”, and so on. This is exactly why Dan Patrick, and to a lesser extent before him David Dewhurst, first weakened and then replaced the two-thirds rule, on the grounds that an elected legislative majority should be able to pass its bills with majority support. I hate these bills and I hate the effect they have had, but that’s why we have elections. I want a Democratic majority to be able to pass its bills with majority support when it is in that position as well.

But it’s the notion that requiring bipartisan consensus will be a net improvement to the process that is so laughable. Perhaps former Senators Deuell and Estes have forgotten, but the entire reason they are former Senators is because they were defeated in Republican primaries by opponents who successfully argued to the Republican voters in their districts that Deuell and Estes were too bipartisan, and too accommodating to the Democratic minority. They showed insufficient fealty to the Republican orthodoxy, and they needed to go. Would either of them argue with a straight face that Senators Bob Hall and Pat Fallon would “work with colleagues across the political aisle” in a hypothetical 16-15 or 17-14 Democratic Senate, in order to encourage better legislation and a more collegial atmosphere? I couldn’t even type that last sentence without snorting. The outcome we will get in a Senate with a modest Democratic majority and any kind of super-majoritarian rules is a Senate that passes no bills.

Again, I understand why this super-majority idea has some appeal. Maybe in a Democratic Senate where the likes of Krier and Ratliff and Sibley and Ogden and Deuell and Estes were the typical Republican Senators and none of them feared being tarred and feathered by their seething primary voters, we could indulge in this little fantasy. We don’t live in that world any more. I can’t even see it in my rearview mirror. The only thing this proposal would accomplish is the extended lifespan of every Republican priority from the past 20 years, possibly forever. I suspect they all know this, and that it appeals to them a lot more than the let’s-all-join-hands-and-work-together ideal ever would.

The subpoenas come for Rick Perry

The first law of Donald Trump is that everything he touches turns to mud. Sooner or later, that mud gets on you.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Democrats on the three U.S. House committees overseeing the presidential impeachment inquiry have subpoenaed documents from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Texas’ former governor.

Last week, Perry was identified as a potential player in allegations against the president that accuse Trump of threatening to withhold military funding to Ukraine if foreign officials didn’t investigate the business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a likely Trump opponent in next year’s general election. Trump reportedly told Republicans during a conference call that the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is the premise of the impeachment inquiry, was instigated by Perry.

Perry and energy officials said he encouraged Trump to reach out to the Ukrainian leader — but to discuss energy and economic issues, not about investigating the Bidens.

The subpoena requests documents “that are necessary for the committees to examine this sequence of these events and the reasons for the White House’s decision to withhold critical military assistance to Ukraine that was appropriated by Congress to counter Russian aggression,” U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., wrote in a letter attached to the subpoena.

[…]

The committees are requesting information about whether Perry sought to pressure the Ukrainian government to make changes to the advisory board of its state-owned oil and gas company, Naftogaz, as well as records from Perry’s attendance to the May inauguration of Zelensky in Kiev. According to the letter, Perry allegedly gave Zelensky a list of potential board members, which included previous campaign donors and Robert Bensh, a Houston energy executive.

The subpoena also requests documents related to “all meetings and discussions” related to Ukraine between Perry and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer who is also implicated in the Ukraine controversy. Perry’s relationship with Giuliani dates back to at least 2008, when Perry was still governor, and he endorsed the former New York City mayor for his presidential run.

I have to admit, I’d kind of forgotten that Rick Perry was even still in the Trump Cabinet. Honestly, that’s the best thing you can say about any Trump Cabinet member, that they’ve been sufficiently out of the news to slip your mind. It’s not clear that Perry has done anything wrong here, unlike “Congressman 1” Pete Sessions and pretty much everyone else, but the potential for making a fool of oneself, let alone committing perjury, is non-trivial, and a price I’ll bet Perry had no idea he might have to pay when he agreed to be Secretary of Energy. Hire a better attorney than Rudy Giuliani, that’s my advice. The Chron has more.

It’s not really a campaign until there are attack ads

I have three things to say about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner launched a television ad Monday attacking Tony Buzbee for donating to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, marking the mayor’s first major attempt to link his political opponent to the president.

Buzbee, a millionaire businessman and lawyer, is one of 11 candidates running for mayor against Turner, who is seeking a second four-year term in November.

In the summer of 2016, Buzbee hosted a fundraiser for Trump — who was then the presumptive Republican nominee — at his mansion in River Oaks.

In October 2016, after a video surfaced in which Trump is heard bragging about groping women, Buzbee disavowed Trump, posting on social media, “Sorry Donald. I’m done with you. Completely.”

He later contributed $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee.

Turner’s ad opens with a clip of Trump calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” at his 2015 campaign launch speech, when Trump also accused immigrants of bringing drugs and crime across the border.

“Noise, and more noise, from Donald Trump and his imitator, Tony Buzbee,” a narrator’s voice says.

1. Ideally, incumbents prefer to be able to run campaigns that don’t acknowledge their opposition. Even the most devastating negative ad still has the effect of raising the opponent’s name ID. Attacking Buzbee means there’s more value in trying to take him down than the downside of introducing him to a wider audience.

2. Buzbee is of course a target-rich environment, with his ties to Donald Trump and Rick Perry, his general douche-bro profile, his loose relationship with accurate information, and the fact that he’s basically a loudmouth know-it-all with no experience in government. You know, kind of like some other guy who was also a very bad idea to vote for.

3. The thing about running attack ads in a multi-candidate race is that it can have the side effect of improving the position of the candidate or candidates who are neither the target nor the instigator of the ad. Is Turner attacking Buzbee in hope of softening him up for the runoff, or in hope of knocking him out so he’ll face someone else in the runoff? Hard to say. If he keeps this up for weeks, or if he goes on to attack other candidates, we’ll have a better idea.

Texas’ uncertain nuclear future

Sometimes I forget that Texas has nuclear plants.

By the standards of the U.S. nuclear energy industry, Texas’s two nuclear plants are fairly new. Neither one is more than three decades old, while many nuclear sites across the country are nearing the five-decade mark.

But as the economics of nuclear power in this country continue to slide, even the futures of the South Texas Project, near Bay City, and Comanche Peak, located 60 miles southwest of Dallas, are far from certain.

When Manan Ahuja, senior director of North American power at the research arm of credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, recently updated his firm’s list of nuclear plants at risk of closing, he listed both Texas plants at “moderate” risk of closing as early as 2030 – despite the fact that NRG Energy recently renewed its operating license for the South Texas Project for another 20 years.

Ahuja explained that while the plants were “of a much more recent vintage,” low power prices in Texas and state regulators’ policy of not paying plants for their ability to ease power shortages at times of high demand or for generating carbon-free energy – like other states have done – left the two facilities vulnerable.

“It’s a game of chicken. Do you sit around and wait for those high prices, which could happen this summer because there’s been some (coal plant) retirements,” he said. “The prices are fairly weak, even in a fairly hot July last summer.”

Both NRG and Vistra Energy, which operates Comanche Peak, maintain the plants are economic and have no plans to close them.

“Given Comanche Peak is one of the youngest plants in the country, significant decisions on license renewal are a few years away, but the plant is currently well-positioned, and we have no plans to close the it prematurely,” a Vistra spokesman said in an email.

The situation in Texas mirrors one states across the country are grappling with, as nuclear power plants face increased pressure to reduce costs to compete with a surge of cheap natural gas and increasingly efficient wind turbines and solar plants.

I don’t know how serious that threat is, but it’s worth at least thinking about. I’ve always been of the opinion that nuclear power needs to be in the mix, as it is not carbon-generating, but it is surprisingly expensive and of course there are other risks associated with these plants. Given how prices for wind and solar are falling, and the vast potential for both in Texas, I would not advocate more nuclear power here, but neither do I want to see these existing plants mothballed or underused before their time. Whatever we can do to burn less coal is a good thing.

The Whitley hearing

Not a great day at the office for our Secretary of State and his advisory-ing ways.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Almost two weeks after calling into question the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, Texas’ new chief elections officer, David Whitley, defended his office’s decision to hand over those voters’ names to law enforcement around the same time his office was also acknowledging to local election officials that the list of names could contain mistakes.

At a Senate hearing to consider his confirmation as secretary of state, Whitley vacillated between telling lawmakers he referred the list of voters to the attorney general’s office because his office had no power to investigate them for illegal voting and describing the citizenship review efforts as an ongoing process based on a list that still needed to be reviewed by local officials. But he made clear is that his office knew from the start that the data could be faulty.

He stated that in response to a question from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, who asked whether the secretary of state’s office had “cautioned the counties that there may be mistakes on the data.”

“Yes,” Whitley responded.

But when he was pressed by Democrats over his decision to send the list to the statewide office that handles criminal voter fraud prosecutions before the list was fully vetted, Whitley responded he wanted to get the data “in the hands of someone who could do something with it,” given that the secretary of state’s office had no power to investigate. That prompted follow-up questions about whether he should have waited until the list was scrubbed by local election officials, and Whitley doubled down with his defense, despite describing the data as “preliminary.”

“I can tell you senator that 100 percent my reason for transmitting this data to the attorney general’s office was to ensure that these lists were as accurate as possible,” Whitley said to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Sitting before senators in a packed committee room, Whitley faced blistering questions from Democrats for the better part of two hours. After brief opening remarks in which he touted his long career as a public servant, he somberly defended the controversial citizenship review efforts he ordered. But at times he struggled to answer technical questions about the flawed data at the heart of it.

At one point, Watson asked Whitley whether he’d consider asking the attorney general to hold off on investigating voters until the list was cleaned up. Whitley responded it was a “reasonable request” but said he was unsure “that it’s appropriate coming from my office.”

“You were the one who made the referral and blasted it all over the state,” Watson said.

See here for the background. It goes from there, and it never gets any better for Whitley, who mostly comes across as unprepared. As discussed, he will need a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be confirmed, and right now he doesn’t look to be on track to win over any Democrats, from whom he will need at least one vote to clear the bar. As I understand it, if he does not get confirmed, he will serve till the end of the legislative session, then Abbott will have to name someone else. The last time I can recall such an appointment getting scuttled was in 2011, when we had the fortunately-doomed nomination of David Bradley to the Forensic Sciences Commission. Before that was the 2009 nomination of Don McLeroy as Chair of the SBOE. I don’t care who you are in Texas politics, those are not names you want to be associated with.

Anyway. It’s still early to say what will happen for sure, but David Whitley didn’t win anyone over yesterday. See Progress Texas’ Twitter feed for in-the-moment coverage, and the Chron editorial board, which calls for Whitley to be rejected, has more.

Buzbee for Mayor?

Oh, good grief.

Tony Buzbee, a high-wattage trial lawyer, big-time political donor and Texas A&M University System regent, says he is running to be the mayor of Houston in 2019.

“The mayor’s race in Houston traditionally has been as boring as watching paint dry,” Buzbee said on Fox26 Houston Tuesday night, when he announced his bid. “I think that we have a city that is above average with below average leadership, and I’m considering very seriously, because there’s a lot of people asking me to do this, running for the mayor of this town.”

When pressed, Buzbee confirmed he is running and would donate his mayoral salary, if elected, to “a random voter that I choose every year.”

[…]

Buzbee, a former Marine, has a roster of high-profile clients to his name, including former Republican Gov. Rick Perry, whom he successfully defended in an abuse-of-power case.

Buzbee was appointed to the A&M System Board of Regents in 2013, by Perry, and has been known to host raucous and politician-studded parties at his River Oaks mansion, including a 2016 fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Last year, he was rebuked by a local homeowner’s association after he parked an operational World War II-era tank outside his house.

So basically, one part Ben Hall, one part Bill King, and one part MAGA bro. If that’s not a winning combination, I don’t know what is. The Chron has more.

The Beto-Abbott voters

I have three things to say about this.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Barring divine intervention, Greg Abbott will handily beat Lupe Valdez — the only real question is by how much. The floor, if there is one, is Wendy Davis’ crushing loss to Greg Abbott by 20 percentage points in 2014. Abbott has the money, the power of incumbency, the “R” behind his name and more cash than an offshore account in the Cayman Islands. At the one and only gubernatorial debate, Abbott barely even acknowledged Valdez’s presence onstage, instead reciting anodyne talking points while making minor news about an extremely modest marijuana measure.

To her credit, Valdez has done more than a lot of bigger-name Democrats who have been “up and coming” for so long they’ve worn out the phrase: She is running. But even an extraordinary Democratic candidate running a flawless campaign would face difficult odds against Abbott, whose lackluster governing style doesn’t seem to bother the Republican electorate. That, I think it’s fair to say, does not describe Valdez or her campaign.

Interestingly, there is an unusually energetic Democratic candidate running a well-above-average statewide campaign this cycle — Beto O’Rourke affords us a rare opportunity to see just how much of a difference all that makes. Polls consistently show Abbott leading Valdez by 10 to 20 percentage points, while Ted Cruz appears to have a much narrower single digit lead over O’Rourke. That’s a remarkably steep drop-off. Are there really that many voters who will vote for Beto O’Rourke and Greg Abbott? I want to meet these strange folks! In any case, the Abbott/Valdez and Cruz/O’Rourke results will be meaningful, but imperfect, data points to gauge the “Beto effect.”

1. You know, just in 2016 Hillary Clinton got about 300,000 votes that otherwise went to Republicans. And in 2010, Bill White got even more than that. So maybe the Beto-Abbott voter this year looks like the Bill White-David Dewhurst voter from 2010, or the Hillary Clinton-pick a Republican judge voter from 2016. It’s not that mysterious, y’all.

2. No question, Beto polls better than Valdez – the difference was generally small early on but is more pronounced now – and I certainly don’t question the notion that he will draw more votes, possibly a lot more votes, than she will. That said, it’s not ridiculous to me that part of the difference in the polls comes from Beto’s name recognition being higher than Lupe Valdez’s. We’ve seen it before, when pollsters go past the top race or two and ask about races like Lite Guv and Attorney General and what have you, the (usually unknown) Democratic candidate hovers a good ten points or more below their final level of support. It may be that one reason why Beto and Valdez were closer in their levels of support early on because he wasn’t that much better known than she was at that time. My best guess is that Valdez will draw roughly the Democratic base level of support, whatever that happens to be. Maybe a bit less if Abbott draws some crossovers, maybe a bit more if she overperforms among Latinos. In the end, I think the difference in vote total between Beto and Valdez will come primarily from Beto’s ability to get crossovers, and not because people who otherwise voted Democratic did not support Valdez.

3. Of greater interest to me is whether the Rs who push the button for Beto will also consider doing so for at least one other Democrat. Mike Collier and Miguel Suazo have both been endorsed by the primary opponents of the Republican incumbents they are challenging, the Texas Farm Bureau and other usual suspects are declining to endorse Sid Miller even if they’re not formally supporting Kim Olson, and we haven’t even mentioned Ken Paxton and Justin Nelson. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, but those Congressional districts that have drawn so much interest because of their being carried by Hillary Clinton were ten-points-or-more Republican downballot. (CD07 and CD32 specifically, not CD23.) The game plan there and in other districts that the Dems hope to flip – not just Congressional districts, mind you – is based in part on persuading some of those not-Trump Republicans to come to the other side, at least in some specific races. The question is not “who are these Beto-Abbott voters”, but whether the ones who vote for Beto are the oddballs, or the ones who vote for Abbott.

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s Beto signs

And they’re breaking the minds of Ted Cruz supporters.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

The conversation unfolding before a campaign event for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz here last week echoed similar ones popping up among Republican groups around Texas. With a mixture of frustration and bewilderment, attendees were discussing the proliferation of black-and-white yard signs in their neighborhoods brandishing a single four-letter-word: BETO.

The signs have become a signature calling card of Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Cruz. While Democrats posting yard signs for candidates is nothing new, even when it happens in some of Texas’ most conservative conclaves, what’s been different this summer is the extent to which O’Rourke’s signs have seemingly dominated the landscape in some neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Cruz signs are far tougher to spot, and many Cruz supporters have become increasingly agitated at their inability to obtain signs to counter what they see on their daily drives.

[…]

The difference in tactics goes back to a 2006 political science experiment. At the time, former Gov. Rick Perry was running for his second full term and allowed for researchers to try different tactics in some communities to test which were most effective at motivating voters. Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Texas Tribune/University of Texas Poll, worked on experiments involving yard signs in Perry’s race and saw little evidence that they moved Perry’s numbers.

Four years later, Perry’s team essentially abandoned the entire practice of distributing yard signs during his third re-election campaign. He soundly defeated now-former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary and Democrat Bill White in the general election.

Since then, more academic research backed up Shaw’s findings, and yard signs have largely fallen out of vogue within the Texas GOP consultant class, at least among statewide candidates.

But that 2006 campaign marked Perry’s fifth statewide race — when he already had near-universal name identification in Texas, much like Cruz does now. As such, Shaw cautions not every campaign should follow Perry’s lead.

“It varies race by race and year by year,” he said. “So I wouldn’t claim that that study should be used as evidence that you ought not to be doing it this time around.”

For a candidate like O’Rourke, who began the race as a relative unknown, there is anecdotal evidence that the signs have helped him build his name identification.

Jo Johns is a retired physical education teacher who recently attended an organizing rally for O’Rourke in Weatherford.

She told the Tribune she first learned about O’Rourke by seeing his signs while driving to yoga class.

“I didn’t know who he was, and I wanted to know about him,” she added. “I saw Beto, Beto, Beto. I thought he must be a Republican because they’re everywhere.”

Shaw pointed back to the 2014 governor’s race, when Democrat Wendy Davis’ signs outnumbered her opponent, now-Gov. Greg Abbott, in some communities. Davis still lost by 20 points. But this time around, the political scientist suggests O’Rourke’s yard signs are possibly signaling momentum to voters, priming some who may have otherwise assumed Cruz was unbeatable that O’Rourke has a shot.

“In this race, it probably is more of a positive because it reinforces information you’re getting in public polls, stories you’re getting in the media and fundraising,” said Shaw.

My neighborhood is chock full of Beto signs. Literally, there’s multiple signs on every block. I do a lot of walking through the neighborhood with my dog, and not only are there tons of them, more keep popping up. Meanwhile, I have seen four Ted Cruz signs. Hilariously, three of them are accompanied by green signs with clovers on them that say “Make Beto Irish again”, to which the obvious riposte is “Sure, as soon as we make Ted Canadian again”.

Anyway, I think the Trib captures the dynamic of the sign skirmish well. Signs in and of themselves aren’t, well, signs of anything, but this year at least feels different. This year, the vast proliferation of Beto signs are both an indicator of enthusiasm and a means for expressing it. I do think it has helped to expand his name ID, and to signal to Democrats in red areas where they have felt isolated that they are not in fact alone. I don’t think it’s possible to isolate an effect related to this, and if we could it would probably be no more than a marginal one, but I do think this year that signs matter. I look forward to whatever research someone publishes about this after the election.

UT/Trib: Cruz 41, O’Rourke 36, part 2

We pick up where we left off.

Republican Ted Cruz leads Democrat Beto O’Rourke 41 percent to 36 percent in the general election race for a Texas seat in the U.S. Senate, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Neal Dikeman, the Libertarian Party nominee for U.S. Senate, garnered 2 percent, according to the survey. And 20 percent of registered voters said either that they would vote for someone else in an election held today (3 percent) or that they haven’t thought enough about the contest to have a preference (17 percent).

In the governor’s race, Republican incumbent Greg Abbott holds a comfortable 12-percentage-point lead over Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez — the exact same advantage he held over Democrat Wendy Davis in an early-summer poll in 2014. Abbott went on to win that race by 20 percentage points. In this survey, Abbott had the support of 44 percent to Valdez’s 32 percent. Libertarian Mark Tippetts had the support of 4 percent of registered voters, while 20 percent chose “someone else” or said they haven’t made a choice yet.

[…]

The June UT/TT Poll, conducted from June 8 to June 17, is an early look at the 2018 general election, a survey of registered voters — not of the “likely voters” whose intentions will become clearer in the weeks immediately preceding the election. If recent history is the guide, most registered voters won’t vote in November; according to the Texas Secretary of State, only 34 percent of registered voters turned out in 2014, the last gubernatorial election year.

The numbers also reflect, perhaps, the faint rumble of excitement from Democrats and wariness from Republicans who together are wondering what kind of midterm election President Donald Trump might inspire. The last gubernatorial election year in Texas, 2014, came at Barack Obama’s second midterm, and like his first midterm — the Tea Party explosion of 2010 — it was a rough year for Democrats in Texas and elsewhere. As the late social philosopher Yogi Berra once said, this year could be “Déjà vu all over again.”

Accordingly, voter uncertainty rises in down-ballot races where even previously elected officials are less well known. Republican incumbent Dan Patrick leads Democrat Mike Collier in the contest for lieutenant governor, 37 percent to 31 percent. Kerry McKennon, the Libertarian in that race, had the support of 4 percent of the registered voters surveyed, while the rest said they were undecided (23 percent) or would vote for someone other than the three named candidates (5 percent).

“As you move down to races that are just less well known, you see the numbers drop,” said Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “They drop more for the Republicans. Part of that reflects the visibility of those races, and of those candidates.”

Henson said Patrick and other down-ballot incumbents work in the shadow of the governor, especially when the Legislature is not in in session. “That said, he’s still solid with the Republican base, though he lags behind Abbott and Cruz in both prominence and popularity,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual about that.”

And indecision marks the race for Texas attorney general, where Republican incumbent Ken Paxton has 32 percent to Democrat Justin Nelson’s 31 percent and 6 percent for Libertarian Michael Ray Harris. Four percent of registered voters said they plan to vote for someone else in that race and a fourth — 26 percent — said they haven’t chosen a favorite.

Nelson and Harris are unknown to statewide general election voters. Paxton, first elected in 2014, is fighting felony indictments for securities fraud — allegations that arose from his work as a private attorney before he was AG. He has steadily maintained his innocence, but political adversaries are hoping his legal problems prompt the state’s persistently conservative electorate to consider turning out an incumbent Republican officeholder.

“If you’ve heard anything about Ken Paxton in the last four years, more than likely you’ve heard about his legal troubles,” said Josh Blank, manager of polling and research at UT’s Texas Politics Project. Henson added a note of caution to that: There’s also no erosion in Ken Paxton support by the Republican base. This reflects some stirrings amongst the Democrats and Paxton’s troubles. But it would premature to draw drastic conclusions for November based upon these numbers from June.”

Shaw noted that the support for the Democrats in the three state races is uniform: Each has 31 percent or 32 percent of the vote. “All the variability is on the Republican side, it seems to me,” he said. When those voters move away from the Republican side, Shaw said, “they move not to the Democrats but to the Libertarian or to undecided.”

Trump is still getting very strong job ratings from Republican voters — strong enough to make his overall numbers look balanced, according to the poll. Among all registered voters, 47 percent approve of the job the president is doing, while 44 percent disapprove. Only 8 percent had no opinion.

See here for yesterday’s discussion. Before we go any further, let me provide a bit of context here, since I seem to be the only person to have noticed that that Trib poll from June 2014 also inquired about other races. Here for your perusal is a comparison of then and now:


Year    Office  Republican  Democrat  R Pct  D Pct
==================================================
2014    Senate      Cornyn   Alameel     36     25
2018    Senate        Cruz  O'Rourke     41     36

2014  Governor      Abbott     Davis     44     32
2018  Governor      Abbott    Valdez     44     32

2014  Lite Guv     Patrick       VdP     41     26
2018  Lite Guv     Patrick   Collier     37     31

2014  Atty Gen      Paxton   Houston     40     27
2018  Atty Gen      Paxton    Nelson     32     31

So four years ago, Wendy Davis topped Dems with 32%, with the others ranging from 25 to 27. All Dems trailed by double digits (there were some closer races further down the ballot, but that was entirely due to lower scores for the Republicans in those mostly obscure contests). Republicans other than the oddly-underperforming John Cornyn were all at 40% or higher. The Governor’s race was the marquee event, with the largest share of respondents offering an opinion.

This year, Beto O’Rourke leads the way for Dems at 36%, with others at 31 or 32. Abbott and Ted Cruz top 40%, but Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are both lower than they were in 2014, with Paxton barely ahead of Justin Nelson. Only Abbott has a double-digit lead, with the other three in front by six, five, and one (!) points.

And yet the one quote we get about the numbers suggests that 2018 could be like 2010 or 2014? I must be missing something. Hey, how about we add in some 2010 numbers from the May 2010 UT/Trib poll?


Year    Office  Republican  Democrat  R Pct  D Pct
==================================================
2014    Senate      Cornyn   Alameel     36     25
2018    Senate        Cruz  O'Rourke     41     36

2010  Governor       Perry     White     44     35
2014  Governor      Abbott     Davis     44     32
2018  Governor      Abbott    Valdez     44     32

2010  Lite Guv    Dewhurst       LCT     44     30
2014  Lite Guv     Patrick       VdP     41     26
2018  Lite Guv     Patrick   Collier     37     31

2010  Atty Gen      Abbott Radnofsky     47     28
2014  Atty Gen      Paxton   Houston     40     27
2018  Atty Gen      Paxton    Nelson     32     31

There was no Senate race in 2010. I dunno, maybe the fact that Republicans outside the Governor’s race are doing worse this year than they did in the last two cycles is worth noting? Especially since two of them were first-time statewide candidates in 2014 and are running for re-election this year? Or am I the only one who’s able to remember that we had polls back then?

Since this cycle began and everyone started talking about Democratic energy going into the midterms, I’ve been looking for evidence of said energy here in Texas. There are objective signs of it, from the vast number of candidates running, to the strong fundraising numbers at the Congressional level, to the higher primary turnout, and so on. I haven’t as yet seen much in the poll numbers to show a Democratic boost, though. As we’ve observed before, Beto O’Rourke’s numbers aren’t that different than Bill White or Wendy Davis’ were. A bit higher than Davis overall, but still mostly in that 35-42 range. However, I did find something in the poll data, which was not in the story, that does suggest more Dem enthusiasm. Again, a comparison to 2010 and 2014 is instructive. In each of these three polls, there’s at least one “generic ballot” question, relating to the US House and the Texas Legislature. Let’s take a look at them.

If the 2010 election for [Congress/Lege] in your district were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or haven’t you thought enough about it to have an opinion?

2010 Congress – GOP 46, Dem 34
2010 Lege – GOP 44, Dem 33

If the 2014 election for the Texas Legislature in your district were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or haven’t you thought about it enough to have an opinion?

2014 Lege – GOP 46, Dem 38

If the 2018 election for [Congress/Lege] in your district were held today, would you vote for [RANDOMIZE “the Democratic candidate” and “the Republican candidate”] the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or haven’t you thought about it enough to have an opinion?

2018 Congress – GOP 43, Dem 41
2018 Lege – GOP 43, Dem 42

Annoyingly, in 2014 they only asked that question about the Lege, and not about Congress. Be that as it may, Dems are up in this measure as well. True, they were up in 2014 compared to 2010, and in the end that meant nothing. This may mean nothing too, but why not at least note it in passing? How is it that I often seem to know these poll numbers better than Jim Henson and Daron Shaw themselves do?

Now maybe the pollsters have changed their methodology since then. It’s been eight years, I’m sure there have been a few tweaks, and as such we may not be doing a true comparison across these years. Even if that were the case, I’d still find this particular number worthy of mention. Moe than two thirds of Texas’ Congressional delegation is Republican. Even accounting for unopposed incumbents, the Republican share of the Congressional vote ought to be well above fifty percent in a given year, yet this poll suggests a neck and neck comparison. If you can think of a better explanation for this than a higher level of engagement among Dems than we’re used to seeing, I’m open to hearing it. And if I hadn’t noticed that, I don’t know who else might have.

Looking back at 2010 and 2014

I’ve talked a lot about polls in the past week, so I thought I’d take a minute and look back at the polling data that we had as of this time in the 2010 and 2014 elections, to see if we can learn anything. The polls those years were about Governor’s races while this year is focused on the Senate race, but that’s all right. I’m not intending for this to be a straight apples-to-apples comparison, just more of a general feel. So with no further ado:

PPP, June 2010: Perry 43, White 43
UT/Trib, May 2010: Perry 44, White 35
Rasmussen, May 2010: Perry 51, White 38
Rasmussen, April 2010: Perry 48, White 44
UT/Trib, Feb 2010: Perry 44, White 35
PPP, Feb 2010: Perry 48, White 42

Avg: Perry 46.3, White 39.5

Boy, were we optimistic in the early days of 2010. Bill White was a top-notch candidate, coming off a successful tenure as Mayor of Houston with high popularity numbers and a strong fundraising apparatus. The polls supported that optimism, with that June result showing a tied race. Rick Perry, in the meantime, was coming off a 39% re-election in 2006 and a bruising primary win over then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. There were lots of reasons to think that people had gotten tired of Perry and his schtick after a decade in office, and the enthusiasm from the 2008 election was still felt and seen as a harbinger of things to come.

We know how this movie ended. The thing was, it wasn’t apparent that it was headed that way till the final days. Polls from September and early October continued to show a tight race. It wasn’t really until early voting had started and the last polls were published that we began to see the downward trends. It wasn’t a lack of Democratic enthusiasm that doomed White and the rest of the ticket – turnout was up from 2006, not that that was saying much – but Republican turnout was off the charts, swamping Democratic boats across the country and wiping out large swaths of the Democratic caucus in the Legislature. We didn’t know it in June, but there was a very ill wind about to blow.

UT/Trib, June 2014: Abbott 44, Davis 32
PPP, April 2014: Abbott 51, Davis 37
Rasmussen, March 2014: Abbott 53, Davis 41
ECPS, March 2014: Abbott 49, Davis 42
UT/Trib, Feb 2014: Abbott 47, Davis 36

Avg: Abbott 48.8, Davis 37.6

There are a lot of ways in which 2014 was like 2010 – initial excitement and optimism, high-profile candidate who drew national attention and had good fundraising chops, all ending in a gut-wrenching wipeout. One major way in which things were very different is that the early polls did not support that initial optimism in 2014. I distinctly remember writing a lot of words about why 2014 was going to be different and not at all like 2010. We were so young and innocent then. We also had a lot more warning about the impending doom we faced, as the next poll result after this one had Abbott up by 16, and in only two of the last seven polls was Davis within single digits. I was right about one thing – Republican turnout was in fact down from 2010. It’s just that Democratic turnout was as best flat from 2010, despite the endlessly-hyped presence of Battleground Texas, and that all added up to roughly a 2002-style outcome.

PPP, June 2018: Cruz 48, O’Rourke 42
Quinnipiac, May 2018: Cruz 50, O’Rourke 39
Quinnipiac, April 2018: Cruz 47, O’Rourke 44
PPP, Jan 2018: Cruz 45, O’Rourke 37

Avg: Cruz 47.5, O’Rourke 40.5

I discussed these last week, when that PPP poll hit. I’m dropping the Wilson Perkins result from this calculation, as it was done in the latter days of 2017, but if you insist on including it the averages change to Cruz 48.4, O’Rourke 39.2. That’s not as good as the 2010 average – if you just take these four polls, it’s basically even with 2010 – but it’s about two points better than 2014, three points better without the outlier. We don’t know how this one will end, of course, and it remains to be seen where the polls go from here. I just wanted to provide some context, so there you have it.

The case against expediting the CD27 special election

Erica Greider does not approve of Greg Abbott’s actions in CD27.

Blake Farenthold

All things considered, then, I find it hard to believe that Abbott’s decision was motivated by his altruistic concern for the Texans who live in this district.

What disturbs me, however, is that under the laws of Texas, the 27th Congressional District probably shouldn’t have a representative in Congress at all until January, when the candidate who wins the general election will be sworn into office.

I’ve always believed that the laws of Texas should not be dismissed as a technicality, or taken lightly, or suspended by the governor of Texas, whoever that might be.

Abbott has always cast himself as someone who believes in the rule of law. But in calling for this emergency special election, he has acted in a way that might — by his own account — exceed his constitutional authority.

“May I utilize my authority under section 418.016 of the Government Code to suspend relevant state election laws and order an emergency special election?” he asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a letter sent on Friday, April 19.

In Paxton’s opinion, Abbott may suspend state election laws. And in the opinion he issued on Monday, in response to the governor’s letter, he concluded that a court would likely agree.

Perhaps. But we don’t know that. And neither does Abbott, who responded to Paxton’s opinion by acting unilaterally on Tuesday.

See here for the background. I take her point, and Lord knows the rule of law could use all the support it can get these days. I just believe that the default preference in all cases should be to get these elections scheduled as soon as reasonably possible. Having this one in November is essentially pointless. Have it now, so that even a temporary representative will be able to, you know, represent the people of CD27. Remember when Rick Perry chose to keep a vacancy in HD143 through two special sessions he called? Greg Abbott and his lapdog Ken Paxton may have pushed the envelope here, but the urge to let the voters fill an empty seat is one I’ll defend.

Abbott v Davis

It’s getting real out there.

Rep. Sarah Davis

In what promises to deepen divisions in the Texas Republican Party, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday endorsed a GOP challenger to incumbent state Rep. Sarah Davis of Houston.

Abbott gave his public thumbs-up to Susanna Dokupil, a more-conservative Republican like Abbott, who is running against the more moderate Davis, who also touts herself as “a conservative voice in Austin.”

The announcement was the first endorsement of a legislative challenger by Abbott, who had announced last summer that he would support legislative candidates who supported his positions on issues. In the past, it has been relatively rare for governors to get involved in legislative races so early — if at all.

[…]

Davis, an attorney, has challenged Abbott’s positions on a number of issues in the past year, including the bathroom bill. She has represented a district that includes West University Place for four terms in the Texas House.

“We need leaders in Austin who will join me to build a better future for Texas,” Abbott said in his endorsement statement. “I trust Susanna, and I know voters in House District 134 can trust her too to fight for their needs in Austin, Texas. Susanna is a principled conservative who will be a true champion for the people of House District 134, and I am proud to support her in the upcoming election.”

Dokupil, who is CEO of Paladin Strategies, a strategic communications firm based in Houston, worked for Abbott as assistant solicitor general while he was Texas attorney general, before becoming governor. There, she handled religious liberty issues, he said.

Abbott said he has known Dokupil for more than a decade.

Davis is a part of the House leadership team. She chairs the House General Investigating and Ethics, serves as chair for health and human services issues on the House Appropriations Committee and is a member of the influential Calendars Committee that sets the House schedule.

In a statement, Davis appeared to dismiss the Abbott endorsement of her challenger, who said she represents the views of her district.

“I have always voted my uniquely independent district, and when it comes to campaign season I have always stood on my own, which is why I outperformed Republicans up and down the ballot in the last mid-term election,” Davis said.

This ought to be fun. Davis has survived primary challenges before, though she hasn’t had to fight off the governor as well in those past battles. She is quite right that she generally outperforms the rest of her party in HD134. Not for nothing, but Hillary Clinton stomped Donald Trump in HD134, carrying the district by an even larger margin than Mitt Romney had against President Obama in 2012. If there’s one way to make HD134 a pickup opportunity for Dems in 2018, it’s by ousting Davis in favor of an Abbott/Patrick Trump-loving clone. Perhaps Greg Abbott is unaware that he himself only carried HD134 by two points in 2014, less than half the margin by which he carried Harris County. Bill White won HD134 by three points in 2010. HD134 is a Republican district, but the people there will vote for a Democrat if they sufficiently dislike the Republican in question. This could be the best thing Greg Abbott has ever done for us. The Trib and the Observer, which has more about Davis’ opponent, have more.

The Texas Infectious Disease Readiness Task Force

We have such a thing, and at a time like this that’s good to know.

Most Texans don’t regularly concern themselves with infectious diseases such as typhus, Ebola, Zika, or the plague. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, public health experts worry that tetanus and MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant skin infection, could become more prevalent.

Thanks to the establishment of the Texas Infectious Disease Readiness (TX IDR) task force, citizens now have access to online courses and other resources geared at increasing the public’s knowledge of a variety of infectious diseases.

The program was launched in late 2014 when then-Gov. Rick Perry signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on Infectious Disease Readiness and Response due to an increase in infectious disease cases in Texas.

Typhus, which is transmitted by fleas and potentially fatal, infected only 27 Texans in 2003. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention In 2016, the state saw 364 cases, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. With so few cases in the past, typhus’ symptoms – chills, muscle aches, a rash, and vomiting – were likely mistaken for something else.

Described by some as a “Texas-specific CDC,” the task force gathers information from many sources and adapts it to Texas’ needs. In addition to sharing information on current cases, the TX IDR designs online courses specific to the diseases seen in Texas, explaining how the diseases are transmitted, who is at risk, and how to control their spread.

The need for such an initiative became evident after the first cases of Ebola were diagnosed in the United States.

[…]

In addition to educating traditional health care professionals, the program also targets first responders, who typically have limited access to resources about infectious diseases, [Dr. Jan E. Patterson, chair of TX IDR] said. With the establishment of the TX IDR website, they can now learn about infectious disease readiness and potentially avoid contracting a deadly virus.

We know about typhus. As one of those Texans that don’t regularly concern themselves with infectious diseases, I’m glad to know someone does.

No special session needed to address Harvey flooding

So says Greg Abbott.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday another special session of the Texas Legislature won’t be necessary to deal with the response to Hurricane Harvey.

“We won’t need a special session for this,” Abbott told reporters, noting that the state has enough resources to “address the needs between now and the next session.”

[…]

In recent days, some members of the Texas Legislature have speculated that a special session to address the recovery seemed likely. They included state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, an ally of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the chairman of the Senate GOP caucus.

“My personal assumption right now is that we will probably be back in Austin at work no later than January,” Bettencourt told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday.

Here’s that Chron story. A few details from it to help clarify:

“My personal assumption right now is that we will probably be back in Austin at work no later than January,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chair Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, echoing the sentiments of other House and Senate members.

“The governor and the Legislative Budget Board have the ability to move around quite a bit of money in current appropriations, but it probably won’t be enough when all the bills come in. This storm is going to cost more than (hurricanes) Katrina and Sandy put together, and I’m thinking we’ll be breaking the $200 billion mark before this over.”

While the state would be liable for only a fraction of that amount, after insurance and federal payments come in, but whatever that (remaining) amount is will be something the Legislature will probably have to address.”

That, say other lawmakers, will most likely involve a politically charged debate over tapping the state’s so-called Rainy Day Fund — a $10 billion account officially known as the Economic Stabilization Fund — to pay for some of the storm-damage tab.

[…]

In a Thursday letter to House members, House Speaker Joe Straus said he will be issuing selective interim charges — directives for legislative recommendations — “in the near future to address these challenges” resulting from the massive destruction caused by Harvey, especially to schools.

“The House Appropriations Committee will identify state resources that can be applied toward the recovery and relief efforts being incurred today, as well as long-term investments the state can make to minimize future storms,” the San Antonio Republican said in his letter. “When the appropriate time comes, other committees will review the state’s response and delivery of services.”

The Legislative Budget Board, jointly headed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Straus, can make key decisions on reallocating state funds to meet emergency needs — up to a point, officials said. Half of its members — three senators and two House members — represent areas devastated by Harvey.

My guess is that Abbott is probably right and the LBB can cover this for now. Tapping the Rainy Day Fund, which I will point out again was created for the purpose of helping to cover budget shortfalls in times of economic downturn before being bizarrely recast as in-case-of-disaster savings by Rick Perry in 2011, may require the Lege, but that may be done in a way as to defer that action until 2019. My wonk skillz are limited in this particular area. Point being, if Congress can manage to allocate relief funding without tripping over their ideologies, there shouldn’t be that much for the state to have to pick up. We’ll see.

Abbott signs texting while driving ban

That’s the good news. The bad news is that being Greg Abbott, he wants to make it worse.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed into law a bill that creates a statewide ban on texting while driving.

The measure, authored by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, goes into effect Sept. 1. This is the fourth session in a row Craddick has tried to pass such a ban.

“By enacting this public safety legislation, the governor is saving lives by deterring this dangerous and deadly behavior,” Craddick said in a statement. “For a long time, Texas has needed this law to prevent the loss of life in unnecessary and preventable crashes and we finally have it.”

[…]

The governor announced that he had signed the bill at a press conference Tuesday, when he also announced a series of priorities for a special legislative session to start July 18. Among those priorities is further work on the ban, which Abbott said “did not fully achieve my goals.”

“I was not satisfied with the law as it was written,” Abbott said Tuesday. “Now that Texas does have a statewide ban on texting and driving, I am calling for legislation that fully pre-empts cities and counties from any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles. We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas.”

The law includes a provision to pre-empt local ordinances that govern a driver’s ability to “read, write, or send an electronic message.” But Abbott said Tuesday he hopes for broader legislation that fully pre-empts local governments from passing “any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles.” A broader pre-emption measure would impact dozens of cities — including Austin, San Antonio and El Paso — that currently operate under stricter mobile regulations.

And so the war on local control continues apace. Quite a few of the special session agenda items are about adding limits or requirements on what cities can and cannot do. As I saw noted on Facebook, Abbott doesn’t just want to be Governor of Texas, he wants to be Mayor of Texas as well. And you know what? I think we should embrace that and take him seriously. We should all call Greg Abbott’s office every time we see an unfilled pothole, an illegal trash dump, a stray animal, a blinking traffic light, a downed branch blocking a road…you get the idea. If Greg Abbott wants to run the cities’ businesses, then let him have all the responsibility for fixing the cities’ problems. This isn’t a joke, by the way. It’s resistance, and the more of it we can do, the better. Who’s with me on this? The Chron has more.

Texting while driving ban passes the Senate

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

Rep. Tom Craddick

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

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

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

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

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

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

The amendment ultimately failed with a 12-19 vote.

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

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

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

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

The state’s voter ID failure is much bigger than you think

You really have to read this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The confusion started in the first hour of the first day of early voting in San Antonio last October.

Signs in polling places about the state’s controversial voter ID law contained outdated rules. Poll workers gave voters incorrect information. Lines were long — full of people who were full of uncertainty.

The presidential election of 2016 was off to a sputtering start in Texas, where years of angry claims about illegal voting had led to a toughening of identification requirements for those going to the polls.

On that day last October, Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, was met with a line out the door when she arrived at her San Antonio polling place.

“A poll worker stood in front of me where I was and said, ‘You are at the one-and-a-half-hour mark,'” Perales said. “And she insisted your ID needed to be out when you got to the front of the line.”

But that, in fact, wasn’t the law. A compromise a federal court had settled on months before allowed those without photo IDs to fill out an affidavit and show alternate ID.

“So, we filed suit against the county,” Perales said.

Days later, Bexar County, home to San Antonio, agreed to try and remedy its mistakes — poll workers would be retrained, signs would be corrected and voicemail instructions for voters would be updated.

But a ProPublica review of the 2016 vote in Texas shows that Bexar County’s problems were hardly isolated — and, in many cases, were beyond fixing.

Indeed, the state’s efforts to enact and enforce the strictest voter ID law in the nation were so plagued by delays, revisions, court interventions and inadequate education that the casting of ballots was inevitably troubled. Among the problems that surfaced:

  • The promised statewide effort to inform Texans about voter identification requirements failed terribly. ProPublica contacted hundreds of community organizations and local county party officials to see if they’d received a voting instruction manual the state said it had sent but could not find one who had used it. The largest voter education groups — League of Women Voters Texas, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, MALDEF and several disability rights groups — said they didn’t get copies at all.
  • The fiscal note attached to the 2011 bill indicated voter education would cost the state $2 million. That’s one-fifth what a similar bill in Missouri — a state with 21 million fewer people than Texas — allocated. While the Texas secretary of state’s office spent the majority of its voter education budget in 2016 to educate voters about the law, the money appears to have been wasted on an ineffective campaign.
  • The Texas Department of Public Safety, a law enforcement agency tasked with issuing free IDs for voting purposes, initially required those who applied for the ID to be fingerprinted, a decision many say scared off potential voters. DPS also didn’t have Spanish translators in all of its offices and didn’t initially provide applications or information about the free IDs in any language other than English.
  • Remarkably, the very aim of the legislation — to thwart people from voting illegally — was not fully addressed by the law, which allowed three versions of identification obtainable by non-citizens.

Jacquelyn Callanen, the election administrator for Bexar County, said she is still furious about the state’s performance in handling last November’s vote.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” she said. “This was the most complicated and emotionally charged election I have ever seen.”

There’s a ton more, and you need to read the whole thing. It will piss you off, and it should. We know that the state’s so-called voter ID education effort last year was a boondoggle and a failure, but you can’t fully appreciate how big a failure it was without this. Among other things, the story recounts the history of voter ID legislation in Texas, how the Elections department at the Secretary of State’s office became politicized and denuded of competence, and more. As noted by the Brennan Center, there will be a status call on June 7 to sort out the issues in determining a remedy in the wake of the ruling last month that the voter ID law was passed with discriminatory intent. I say any such remedy needs to begin with a complete scrapping of the existing law and an eight-figure campaign to do real voter (and elections administrator) education, done by multiple firms that don’t make BS claims about “proprietary” information. Then maybe, just maybe, we can claim to have set things right. Read the story and see what I mean.

Bathroom bills and business interests

Texas Monthly’s Dave Mann reviews the Republican schism over the bathroom bill and comes to the same conclusion as I have.

At the moment, the Legislature—and the Republican party, for that matter—has settled into an uneasy stalemate between Patrick’s right-leaning Senate and Straus’s more moderate coalition in the House. But, as they say, stalemates are made to be broken, and right now, Patrick’s faction seems likely to prevail eventually. It has the support of the most-devoted Republican primary voters, many of whom view moderation or compromise as surrender.

So business leaders and their Republican allies are in a precarious position. They still have a power base in the House, because Straus and his leadership team have fended off several challenges from the right, but he won’t be speaker forever. This session is his fifth leading the House, tying the record for longest-serving speaker with Pete Laney and Gib Lewis. Whenever he departs, Straus could well be replaced by a more conservative figure. So the talk among business Republicans in Austin’s bars and restaurants these days is about how they can reverse their losses and reclaim their party.

Well, good luck with that. The Republican grass roots aren’t going to moderate themselves, and it seems likely that business-friendly Republicans will continue to lose primaries, especially in statewide races. As long as that dynamic remains, the Republican party won’t be tilting back toward the middle anytime soon.

But there is another political party. Remember that one? It’s been stripped down and left to rust for the past two decades. But the Texas Democratic party is still there, waiting for someone to gas it up and take it for a spin.

That’s just what big-business interests should do. The TAB and any number of influential corporations could easily take over the party by recruiting and funding candidates to run as Democrats. It would be a homecoming of sorts; after all, years ago, before the state flipped to the GOP, business-friendly Republicans were conservative Democrats.

The problem with this idea is that Democrats can’t win in Texas at the moment. Sure, big business could take over the Democratic party, but what good would it do? Except the goal here isn’t to suddenly flip the state back to the Democrats. No, the goal would simply be to make Democrats somewhat more competitive, especially in statewide races. They don’t necessarily have to win, just get close enough to scare Republicans and perhaps nudge the GOP back toward moderation.

Republican primaries might turn out differently if there was the threat of a tight race in the general election—and that threat could be more credible in 2018 than it has been in years, with many pundits expecting the national mood to favor Democrats by then. Would Abbott strike a more moderate tone if he knew a well-funded pro-business Democrat was waiting for him in the 2018 general? Part of the business lobby’s problem with Patrick is that it has no way to threaten him. He’s untouchable in a Republican primary, and his general election campaigns have been cakewalks. But if, say, a conservative Democrat, backed by big-business money, opposed him in 2018, that might lead Patrick to moderate just a bit. Similarly, if the GOP once again nominated social conservatives with questionable credentials—like Attorney General Ken Paxton, currently under indictment, or Sid Miller, the agriculture commissioner famous for traveling out of state for his “Jesus shot”—for statewide offices, they’d at least have a challenging race in the fall. And just maybe the specter of a formidable Democratic opponent would lead to a more robust debate within the Republican party, rather than simply a mass rush to the right.

While I agree with Mann in the aggregate, there are several places where I disagree. For one thing, I don’t know what he means by a “conservative” Democrat, but I do know that Democratic primary voters aren’t going to be interested in that. Discussions like this often get bogged down in semantics and everyone’s personal definitions of words like “liberal” and “conservative”, but I think we can all agree that a Democratic candidate who is “conservative” (or just relatively “conservative” for a Democrat) in the social issues sense is going to be extremely controversial. It’s not like Democrats haven’t tried the approach of soft-pedaling such items in recent elections – see, for example, Wendy Davis’ muteness on abortion and her flipflop on open carry in 2014 – it’s just that there’s little to no evidence that it has helped them any. Maybe nothing could have helped them in those elections, but in the Trump era where everyone is fired up with the spirit of resistance, it’s really hard to see how this approach would do anything but piss people off.

I also dispute the assertion that the threat of a close race will make Republicans more likely to choose the less-extreme, more “electable” candidate in their primaries. For Exhibit A, see Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. Surely Bill White was a credible threat to them that year, but Rick Perry’s successful strategy was the exact opposite of striking a more “moderate” tone. The only thing that might convince Republican primary voters to try something different will be sustained electoral failure. To say the least, we are not there yet.

What I would recommend for Democrats like Mike Collier and Beto O’Rourke and whoever might emerge to challenge Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton is to approach the business community by reminding them that we already broadly agree on a number of core matters – quality public and higher education, better infrastructure, sanity on immigration, non-discrimination – and where we may disagree on things like taxes and regulations, the Lege will still be Republican. What you get with, say, a Democratic Lt. Governor is a hedge against self-inflicted stupidity of the SB6 and “sanctuary cities” variety. You will get someone who will listen to reason and who will be persuaded by evidence. From the business community’s perspective, this is a better deal than what they have now, and a better deal than any they’re likely to get in the near future. For there to be a chance for that to happen, it will take Democratic candidates that a fired-up base can and will support, plus the willingness of the business community to recognize the hand they’ve been dealt. The ball is in their court.

This could be the session that a statewide texting-while-driving ban passes

I haven’t followed the progress of the filed-every-session statewide-band-on-texting-while-driving bill, but recent tragic events have put a spotlight on it and raised the probability of it actually becoming law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Texas is one of four states that do not have a statewide ban on texting and driving. That distinction has drawn renewed attention in recent days following an accident in West Texas in which a truck driver who was texting and driving crashed into a church bus and killed 13 senior citizens.

State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, author of the texting ban bill that recently passed the House, said about the accident: “It’s a tragic situation. It’s a wasted situation.”

Craddick, who has pushed for the ban for four sessions in a row, offered condolences to the victims, their families and the church in a statement last week.

“No message or e-mail is important enough to risk injury or death while driving on our Texas roadways,” Craddick said.

If Texas had passed a texting-while-driving ban when Craddick first filed a bill creating one in 2011, Texas would have been the ninth state to pass such a law, he said. If House Bill 62 passes this session, it will be the 47th.

In 2015 and 2013, Craddick’s proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. In 2011, it traveled through both chambers only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who said it would “micromanage the behavior of adults.”

In the 2015 session, a group of conservative senators helped kill the proposal, arguing that it could lead to unreasonable searches by police, among other concerns.

This year, both Craddick and the measure’s most vocal advocate in the Senate, Judith Zaffirini, are hopeful the measure will draw enough support in the upper chamber and Gov. Greg Abbott will sign it.

The fatal crash in question was horrible and the sort of thing that will make it difficult for someone who doesn’t like texting bans to stick to their principles. (Though some people still stand firm.) That said, the story notes that several former foes of this bill have changed their minds or at least softened their opposition over time, so perhaps Craddick’s bill had a better chance this session than I expected. I also have to think that with all of the anti-local control fervor swirling around the Capitol, the old argument that a statewide ban is a “nanny state” thing has perhaps lost some of its appeal. Funny how these things go.

One more point:

Craddick pointed to research from Alva Ferdinand, an associate professor in health policy and management at Texas A&M, who has said a statewide ban could prevent 90 deaths a year. The most effective way to curb deaths related to people texting-and-driving is to make it illegal, he said, comparing the move to the law that people in cars wear seat belts.

“No one ever thought seat belts would go into effect and now it’s just standard use to buckle up. Only once it became law did most people start to buckle up,” Craddick said.

As it happens, Texans are pretty good about buckling up, so there may be something to this. I have always believed that banning texting while driving will reduce the number of people who do it for the simple reason that a lot of us are rule-followers, and if something is illegal that’s a sufficient reason for us to not do it. Combine that with the relentless messaging campaign against texting while driving, and over time I think it will largely cease to be a problem. I’ll be very interested to see if there’s an immediate effect that can be detected if the Craddick/Zaffirini bill gets enacted.

“Fetal remains” rule blocked

Good.

U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks ruled Texas cannot require health providers to bury or cremate fetuses, delivering another blow to state leaders in the reproductive rights debate.

On Friday afternoon, Sparks wrote in his ruling that Texas Department of State Health Services’ fetal remains burial rule’s vagueness, undue burden and potential for irreparable harm were factors in his decision. He also wrote that the state had proposed the new rule “before the ink on the Supreme Court’s opinion in Whole Woman’s Health was dry.”

“The lack of clarity in the Amendments inviting such interpretation allows DSHS to exercise arbitrary, and potentially discriminatory, enforcement on an issue connected to abortion and therefore sensitive and hotly contested,” Sparks said.

[…]

During two public hearings, department leaders heard stories of abortions, miscarriages, and general grief over losing a baby. While anti-abortion groups argued that the rule was a means to bring human dignity to the fetuses, reproductive rights advocates said the rule was another way for Texas to punish women who chose an abortion, saying the cost of the burials would be passed on to patients, making abortions harder to obtain for low-income Texans.

During multi-day court hearings earlier this month, state attorneys said the rule was designed to provide aborted or miscarried fetuses a better resting place than a landfill. They also argued that there would be no cost for patients to worry about and only miniscule costs for providers. The state also said that there were multiple groups willing to help with costs.

But Center for Reproductive Rights lawyers argued the rule had no public health merits and no clear directions on how it would work for providers. Providers who testified noted it was unclear if they would be on the hook for fines and disciplinary action from Texas if the nonprofit groups mishandled the fetuses. They also said separating fetuses away from other medical waste would likely mean an uptick in costs for transportation and new disposal procedures.

Sparks expressed frustration throughout the court proceedings that neither side could provide a firm estimate of the costs of implementing the rule. He also, one point, agreed with Center for Reproductive Rights attorneys’ argument that there would be no public health benefits.

In his ruling, Sparks wrote that the department’s estimates don’t know “the true impact” of the rule and that their “simple math” is “unsupported by research and relies heavily on assumptions.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the order; the full order is here. Note that this is just an injunction pending the actual lawsuit to overturn the ruling. The injunction strongly suggests that Judge Sparks thinks the plaintiffs will prevail, but that matter has not been decided yet. Now a trial date will be set and we will proceed from there, while the state will pursue an appeal to rescind the injunction and allow the rule, which had been scheduled to take effect on Friday, to be put in place for the duration of the trial.

Republicans like Ken Paxton are predictably gnashing their teeth about this, but if this rule was so important for the sanctity of life and dignity of the mothers and whatever else, then why wasn’t it proposed earlier than last year in the immediate wake of the HB2 ruling? Rick Perry could have proposed this a decade or more ago. Greg Abbott could have proposed it in 2015. If it was so damn important, why did they wait so long? Who had even heard of such a thing before last year? The timing of the rule gives the show away. It deserves the fate it got from Judge Sparks. A press release from the Center for Reproductive Rights is here, and the Chron, the Statesman, the Current, and the Austin Chronicle have more.

Texting while driving ban bills filed again

We’ll see if this gets a different result.

Drivers know the risks, and in more than 95 Texas counties they live under local cell phone ordinances that ban texting while driving. But the Lone Star State remains one of four states in the country without a statewide ban on the practice.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, hopes to change that with Senate Bill 31, which would make it illegal to text unless the vehicle is stopped. Lawmakers have shot down similar attempts by Zaffirini for four sessions in a row, but she hopes the fifth time’s a charm as lawmakers head back to Austin in January.

“All we can do is try,” she said. “It’s so important because more and more Texans have become aware about the danger that’s posed by texting while driving.”

Zaffirini’s legislation mirrors efforts by Rep. Tom Craddick, the Republican former House speaker from Midland, who filed anti-texting legislation in the last three legislative sessions. He filed his fourth attempt on the first day of bill filing last week. Once again, Zaffirini and Craddick are naming their legislation after Alex Brown, a West Texas high school student who was killed in a crash while texting and driving in 2009.

It will be an uphill climb, however. The legislation was approved by the House in 2015 and 2013but halted by the Senate. Zaffirini was just one senator short of passing the bill through the Senate in 2015. It passed both chambers in 2011, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

But that veto was unusual, Craddick said, because Perry was in the midst of his first presidential bid. Perry called the anti-texting bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”

Craddick is hopeful it won’t be vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott if it passes both chambers during the 85th Legislature. He said he’s also heard positive remarks made by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in Midland.

“(Abbott) has been pretty positive to people that have talked to him about it. I feel like he’ll sign it,” Craddick said. “(Patrick) said he thought the Senate would pass it, too.”

That would be a shift from earlier remarks made by Abbott, who said he opposed the legislationin 2014 and would veto any texting while driving legislation that made it to his desk. After the legislation made it through the House in 2015, Abbott promised to give it the “deep consideration it deserves.”

[…]

AT&T, which has been a big supporter of Craddick’s legislation, released a study that found that the four states without a statewide ban “have a roughly 17 percent higher rate of texting while driving than the 46 states with statewide bans.”

Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute released similar studies on the state impact of texting while driving. College Station, where the university is located, recently passed its own ordinance that banned the use of a wireless device while driving.

Alva Ferdinand, a faculty member at Texas A&M’s school of public health, led a 2015 study that found a seven percent reduction in crash-related hospitalization in states that have enacted texting while driving bans. An earlier study by Ferdinand found that texting bans led to a 3 percent reduction in traffic fatalities among all age groups.

See here for a bit of background. On the one hand, Craddick’s optimism aside, Abbott has previously expressed opposition to a statewide ban, and I can’t imagine this will be any kind of priority for leadership. On the other hand, this did make it to the Governor’s desk once, and passed the House two other times, so the support is there, and if it does get to Abbott’s desk he may not feel compelled to veto it. I wouldn’t bet on this passing, but it has a chance, and that’s more than you can say for most bills.

Some officials take note of special education funding restrictions

It’s a start.

The vice chairman of the State Board of Education, a Houston school board member, a key state senator and scores of parents and disability advocates all expressed strong opposition on Monday to a Texas Education Agency performance-based monitoring system that has kept thousands of disabled children out of special education since 2004.

[…]

Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who is the second-highest-ranking member of the State Board of Education, expressed dismay at TEA’s 8.5 percent special education target.

“It looks awfully arbitrary and in no way mirrors reality,” he said. “The concentric circles of damage that this has done I think is immeasurable at this point.”

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, called the issue an “utmost priority.”

“We have a constitutional duty and a moral obligation to provide all Texas children with the services that are required to ensure that every student can thrive academically,” said Lucio, D-Brownsville, echoing statements made by several of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature. “By urging schools to limit the number of students they enroll in special education services, our state is turning its back on students that need our help the most.”

[…]

Gene Acuña, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency, declined further comment. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus also declined comment.

Previously, former Gov. Rick Perry, during whose administration the 8.5 percent enrollment target was first put in place, declined to discuss the monitoring system.

In Washington, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman confirmed that her office was ready to take action, if needed, to ensure that children with disabilities get services.

“We are looking into it,” she said.

See here for the background. The headline on the story is “Officials vow to end limits put on special ed”, but let’s be honest. Until at least two of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Joe Straus make that vow, nothing is going to happen. Those three, as well as Rick “Dancing Terribly With The Stars” Perry, should not be allowed to “no comment” their way out of this for more than a few days, too. I greatly admire what the Chron has done with this story, but they need to call those three’s offices every day until they have some answers. The other news outlets in this state are more than welcome to get in on that action as well. In the meantime, I hope there’s more to report on, and I definitely hope to hear of some followup from the US Department of Education soon.

“Denied”

This is worth your time to read.

During the first week of school at Shadow Forest Elementary, a frail kindergartner named Roanin Walker had a meltdown at recess. Overwhelmed by the shrieking and giggling, he hid by the swings and then tried to escape the playground, hitting a classmate and biting a teacher before being restrained.

The principal called Roanin’s mother.

“There’s been an incident.”

Heidi Walker was frightened, but as she hurried to the Humble school that day in 2014, she felt strangely relieved.

She had warned school administrators months earlier that her 5-year-old had been diagnosed with a disability similar to autism. Now they would understand, she thought. Surely they would give him the therapy and counseling he needed.

Walker knew the law was on her side. Since 1975, Congress has required public schools in the United States to provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability.

But what she didn’t know is that in Texas, unelected state officials have quietly devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled kids like Roanin out of special education.

Over a decade ago, the officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services — 8.5 percent — and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids.

Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, have saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.

More than a dozen teachers and administrators from across the state told the Chronicle they have delayed or denied special education to disabled students in order to stay below the 8.5 percent benchmark. They revealed a variety of methods, from putting kids into a cheaper alternative program known as “Section 504” to persuading parents to pull their children out of public school altogether.

“We were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs,” said Jamie Womack Williams, who taught in the Tyler Independent School District until 2010. “It was all a numbers game.”

Texas is the only state that has ever set a target for special education enrollment, records show.

It has been remarkably effective.

In the years since its implementation, the rate of Texas kids receiving special education has plummeted from near the national average of 13 percent to the lowest in the country — by far.

In 2015, for the first time, it fell to exactly 8.5 percent.

If Texas provided services at the same rate as the rest of the U.S., 250,000 more kids would be getting critical services such as therapy, counseling and one-on-one tutoring.

“It’s extremely disturbing,” said longtime education advocate Jonathan Kozol, who described the policy as a cap on special education meant to save money.

“It’s completely incompatible with federal law,” Kozol said. “It looks as if they’re actually punishing districts that meet the needs of kids.”

Heidi Walker hoped that Humble school officials would help her son Roanin adapt and cope when he entered kindergarten.

In a statement, Texas Education Agency officials denied they had kept disabled students out of special education and said their guideline calling for enrollments of 8.5 percent was not a cap or a target but an “indicator” of performance by school districts. They said state-by-state comparisons were inappropriate and attributed the state’s dramatic declines in special educations enrollments to new teaching techniques that have lowered the number of children with “learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia.

In fact, despite the number of children affected, no one has studied Texas’ 32 percent drop in special education enrollment.

The Chronicle investigation included a survey of all 50 states, a review of records obtained from the federal government, state governments and three dozen school districts, and interviews with more than 300 experts, educators and parents.

The investigation found that the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent enrollment target has led to the systematic denial of services by school districts to tens of thousands of families of every race and class across the state.

Among the findings:

• The benchmark has limited access to special education for children with virtually every type of disability. Texas schools now serve fewer kids with learning disabilities (46 percent lower than in 2004), emotional and mental illnesses (42 percent), orthopedic impairments (39 percent), speech impediments (27 percent), brain injuries (20 percent), hearing defects (15 percent) and visual problems (8 percent).

• Special education rates have fallen to the lowest levels in big cities, where the needs are greatest. Houston ISD and Dallas ISD provide special ed services to just 7.4 percent and 6.9 percent of students, respectively. By comparison, about 19 percent of kids in New York City get services. In all, among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., only 10 serve fewer than 8.5 percent of their students. All 10 are in Texas.

• Students who don’t speak English at home have been hurt the most. Those children currently make up 17.9 percent of all students in Texas but only 15.4 percent of those in special education. That 15 percent difference is triple the gap that existed when the monitoring system began.

See here for the unebeddable charts that accompany the story, and be sure to read the whole thing, as it is well-reported and deeply infuriating. I had no idea any of this had been happening, and that’s despite knowing a couple of families who were directly affected by it. Now that this is out in the light, the next step is to try to pin down some elected officials and get them on the record about it. What do Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick think about this, and more importantly what if anything do they think needs to be done about it? Perhaps Rick Perry could spare a few minutes from his cha-cha practice to answer how his happened on his watch. Regardless of what answers we get, I hope the federal government opens a big ol’ probe of this practice, and comes down like a ton of bricks as needed. I don’t know what else the Chron has in store on this issue, but whatever it is, I look forward to it. Well done.

Rick Perry will join “Dancing With The Stars”

Make your own Tom DeLay joke. Mine is in the embedded image.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Rick Perry’s spirit animal

Former Gov. Rick Perry is joining the new season of “Dancing With the Stars.”

Texas’ longest-serving governor will be a contestant in the 23rd season of the dance competition show, which premieres Sept. 12 on ABC. Perry will be paired with professional dancer Emma Slater, the network announced Tuesday morning.

Entertainment Tonight broke the news Monday, and in a round of media appearances shortly before the lineup announcement, Perry declined to comment on the rumors. But he did suggest that the show would help him with dancing at his daughter’s upcoming wedding and that it would be an “extraordinary platform” to draw attention to two issues he has long been passionate about: the military and veterans.

“I just hope I don’t forget my dance steps, were I to be on this program, after the third lesson,” Perry said on Fox Business News, riffing off his infamous failure to remember the third federal department he wanted to eliminate during his 2012 presidential campaign.

I will say that I think Perry is likely to be a better fit for this than Tom DeLay was, because DeLay never appeared to have any actual charm, while Perry, whatever else you may say about him (and Lord knows there’s plenty), does have some people skills as well as a discernable sense of humor. I’m just glad that my kids are into watching “American Ninja Warrior” and not DWTS, so I won’t have to watch any of it. Now if he were to become a contestant on “American Ninja Warrior”, that would impress me. Until that time, here are Perry’s competitors for this title.