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Rodney Ellis

What to expect when you’re expecting a (larger) Democratic majority

I have three things to say about this.

Despite narrowly winning reelection against bruising campaigns by well-funded challengers, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court has made clear it intends to continue its progressive remake of Harris County.

Though neither County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia or Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis invoked the word “mandate,” their public promises of four more years of what they have been doing leaves little doubt about their intentions.

Adding a fourth Democrat in Precinct 4, where former county court at law judge Lesley Briones ousted incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle will only strengthen that resolve.

It also will prevent the lone Republican remaining on court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey from pulling off a quorum break as he did this year with Cagle to prevent the Democratic majority from passing its preferred property tax rate.

“Democrats will likely lean into a more progressive agenda now that they have uniform control of the court,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “They as much as campaigned on this promise.”

The question, Rottinghaus said, is how far Democrats should go in a progressive direction.

“Voters didn’t provide an overwhelming mandate for a major left shift and probably signaled some modest opposition to or, at least, different emphasis on priorities from the prior four years,” Rottinghaus said.

I’m old enough to remember the 2006 election, you know, the one where Rick Perry was elected with 39% of the vote. There was some Discourse at the time about how Perry should be humbled by his weak showing and should mend his ways and just somehow not be so Rick Perry-like. He did none of those things, was easily re-elected again in 2010, was briefly a Presidential candidate in 2012, and eventually became a Cabinet member. Mandates are what you make of them.

With the new stronger majority on the court, Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said she is concerned Democrats will be punitive toward those who have challenged them, pointing to Hidalgo’s victory speech delivered the day after the election.

In those remarks, Hidalgo spoke about her critics who have accused Democrats on the court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.” She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“That was sort of what was implied with her statement addressed to those people who didn’t support her. So, does that mean she’s not going to be supportive of the constables and the DA’s office?” Siegel said. “Because it’s one thing saying that you’re for funding and you want to make crime go down, but now it’s time to deliver. That’s what she told people.”

Oh, Cindy. Have you seen what Republicans are promising to do in Congress now that they have a slim majority? That’s what being punitive looks like. There are some significant policy differences between Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court on the one hand and Kim Ogg and the Constables on the other. Judge Hidalgo has – I’m gonna say it – a mandate to use her office to implement the policies she and the Court campaigned on and think are best. If Ogg and the Constables, who are all up for election in 2024, disagree about that, they can make a campaign issue out of it and hope to get their own mandate at that time. If Hidalgo and the Court really do overstep, that can be ammunition in their fight.

Still, Rottinghaus said, the opposition Democrats faced during the election cycle reflected the difficulty they had messaging on crime issues.

“Governing a massive and ideologically diverse county like Harris means compromising,” he said. “So, despite a solid majority, the close election shows Democrats on the Court need to encourage Republicans to come back to the table.”

This is just your periodic reminder that Harris County Commissioners Court operated with a Republican majority for at least 40 years – I’m only able to verify the Court’s makeup via election results back to about 1974 – before Dems took it in 2019. We operated under Republican laws, rules, norms, and assumptions for a long, long time. Only so much of that can be changed to reflect the current political reality in four years’ time, especially when a Republican minority was still able to wield a budget veto. The fact is that this now-larger Democratic majority – which even with the benefit of redistricting was still hard won – will continue to modify, update, and undo some of the things that we had long done under Republican rule. Everyone needs to wrap their heads around that.

Judge Hidalgo celebrates her win

Winning is sweet. Victory laps are even sweeter.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Fresh off a narrow reelection that was anything but assured, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday held a news conference to praise colleagues, thank supporters and call out some members of her own party for not backing her campaign.

“There were some elected officials that weren’t there because they didn’t think it was convenient, those in my own party that wouldn’t do an ad for me, that wouldn’t have a fundraiser, that wouldn’t help when it got tough,” Hidalgo said. “And oh, I remember who they are.”

The Hidalgo campaign declined to specify which officials she was addressing.

Hidalgo also addressed critics during the election cycle who accused the Democrats on Commissioners Court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.”

She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“This person who is supposed to represent justice in this county more than once said with a straight face ‘stop the defunding’ knowing full well that the budget had increased,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Despite being significantly out-funded by Republican newcomer Alexandra del Moral Mealer, Hidalgo emerged from early voting ahead of her opponent and narrowly maintained that lead throughout the night as votes were counted. The final unofficial tally, released just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, put Hidalgo in front of Mealer by slightly more than 17,000 votes, or 50.8 percent of the nearly 1.1 million votes cast. That was a narrower margin of victory than her surprise election in 2018, when the then-27-year-old ousted popular Republican Ed Emmett.

Mealer tweeted her concession around 9:30 a.m.

“While we did not accomplish our goal of changing leadership in Harris County, we were successful in elevating the profile of critical issues like the need to appropriately resource our law enforcement and criminal justice system as well as the desire to eliminate corruption and increase transparency in local government,” Mealer said in a statement. “This campaign was always about good government and I am hopeful that we have played a role encouraging that going forward.”

Hidalgo acknowledged her opponent’s hard-fought campaign, much of which centered on crime, blaming policies championed by Hidalgo for rising numbers of homicides the past two years, and accusing the first-term judge of corruption, mostly related to a controversial COVID vaccination outreach contract that resulted in indictments against three of her aides.

Since July 1, Mealer raised more than $8.5 million, much of it from large donors like Gallery Furniture owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, an early supporter of her campaign. Hidalgo, who has refused to accept campaign contributions from county vendors, raised $2.4 million in that period.

“She had almost $10 million in the bank and she had a U.S. senator and she had a furniture salesman,” Hidalgo said in her speech, taking a swipe at McIngvale who ran several campaign ads in support of Mealer.

“I want to thank Alex Mealer for running a hard fought campaign,” Hidalgo said. “I want to thank her for her concession. And I want to thank her again for her service to our country.”

Surrounded by union leaders and Democratic party elected officials, Hidalgo thanked her supporters for helping her block walk, raise money and host campaign events.

Much of her speech was of a celebratory nature, citing past accomplishments with current Commissioner Court colleagues Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia.

“We have done so much from the very first meeting,” Hidalgo said, citing countywide voting as one example of successes while she has been in office. “We did that at the first meeting in 2019.”

In re: the margin of victory, they are referring to the raw vote differential. In 2018, Judge Hidalgo won by 19,277 votes, while in 2022 it was 17,397 votes. Of course, there were more total votes cast in 2018 than in 2022, which has an effect. As it happens Judge Hidalgo’s margin of victory as a percentage of the vote is greater now than it was then: In 2018 she won 49.76% to 48.18% (there was a Libertarian candidate that took the rest). In 2022, it was 50.79% to 49.19%, with a write-in candidate getting the other 0.02%. That means she won this year by 1.60 percentage points, compared to 1.58 in 2018. Pick your preferred measure of expression.

As for what may be on the agenda for 2023, I’m not the first person to suggest this, but don’t be surprised if Commissioners Court looks at redrawing the Constable/JP precincts. Most counties just have the Constable and JP precincts be the same as the Commissioners Court precincts. Harris has its own weird precincts for them that don’t match up in population and (as I understand it haven’t been updated since the 70s. There’s also no shortage of bad blood between (at least some) Constables and the Court, so a bit of payback may be in order. I suspect this would be a complex matter and would surely invite litigation so I don’t think it will be undertaken lightly, but I will be surprised if it doesn’t at least come up.

Beyond that, I expect the Court to do more of what it’s been doing, with the freedom of knowing that their next budget can’t be busted by no-shows. The main obstacle will continue to be interference from the state and whatever new BS legislation may come down. This is where I remind you that Harris County was under a Republican majority on Commissioners Court going back to at least the mid-70s, which is as far back as I’ve been able to verify, up until 2019 when Dems finally achieved a 3-2 advantage. We’ve done things a certain way for a long damn time. Making changes to make things better will take time, too. For now, we can celebrate a bit as we look forward. Let it out, Judge Hidalgo. You’ve earned it. The Press has more.

Here’s the result of the Republican Commissioners’ budget busting

The Republican minority on Commissioners Court made this happen.

Harris County will eliminate more than 500 vacant jobs, delay some flood control projects, postpone a sheriff deputy cadet class, and cancel raises and cost of living adjustments for county law enforcement after the default to a lower tax rate forced by the two Republican commissioners.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle skipped six straight Commissioners Court meetings to block the adoption of any property tax rate by the Democratic majority, saying taxpayers deserved a break amid soaring inflation and the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

With early voting underway and three members of Commissioners Court on the ballot, the county’s annual budget process also played out amid escalating political rhetoric, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of defunding the police.

State law requires a quorum of four members of the court to adopt a tax rate. By preventing the court from setting the rate last week — the last week it legally could — the Republican commissioners forced the county to default to what is known as the no new revenue rate, the levy at which the county will take in the same revenue as last year, plus $45 million from property added to the tax rolls in the last 12 months. Only $15 million of that additional revenue will go toward operations, the county budget office said recently; the remaining $30 million will be used for debt payments.

The no new revenue rate is 53 cents per $100 of assessed value, down from the previous rate of 58.1 cents. In a bid to reach a compromise with Cagle and Ramsey, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia had proposed a rate 56.3 cents, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority. It would have included 200 additional members of law enforcement. Cagle earlier had pitched a rate of 55.6 cents and included 200 new lawmen. For the owner of a $300,000 home, the difference between the two commissioners’ proposals would have been about $16.

[…]

Budget Director Daniel Ramos said departments have eliminated an estimated 560 vacant positions as a result of the lower-than-expected tax rate.

He said most of those positions were planned to be filled and that in some cases, departments have used savings from not filling vacant positions to pay for other expenses such as contractors, overtime and maintaining services. Eliminating those vacant positions will mean reduced services in those departments, including the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, he said.

“IFS has medical examiner vacancies because of how specialized the position is, so they use the savings from positions being vacant to offset medical contractors to complete autopsies,” Ramos said. “Harris County will do less autopsies because they don’t have that funding anymore.”

The eliminated vacancies in the sheriff’s office will result in the department reducing the number of people it can hire and the amount of overtime it can pay patrol officers.

The $16.6 million loss for the sheriff’s office is the equivalent of 175 entry-level deputies, according to a memo from Ramos.

Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez will decide what gets funded and what does not as the department makes “some tough decisions.”

The postponed cadet class could be restored later, Spencer said.

“We expect to continue to lose deputies at the usual attrition rate, so it might be a situation where we have a cadet class down the road just to keep our heads above water with staffing,” Spencer said. “It wouldn’t be adding positions. It would just be replacing ones that we’re able to afford.”

Ramos said county staffers, including law enforcement officers, are feeling the effects of the county receiving less tax revenue than expected as planned cost of living adjustments and pay increases have been canceled.

“Most departments were able to absorb it into their vacant positions,” Ramos said. “We don’t have a final number quite yet, but there are hundreds of vacant positions that got eliminated across basically all departments.”

The Harris County Flood Control District lost its proposed $23 million increase, while the Harris Health System budget decreased from a proposed $957 million to $822 million.

Some flood control maintenance projects will be deferred to future years, Ramos said in a memo to county leaders last month.

“The type of projects that will be deferred include erosion repair, outfall repairs, sediment removal and conveyance improvements,” Ramos said. “Further deferral of maintenance projects will increase the risk of infrastructure failures during flood events.”

Additionally, the lower funding for the flood control department could jeopardize a $290 million federal grant for sediment removal that requires the county to advance the cost of the project before being reimbursed.

See here and here for some background. There’s a separate story about the effects this will have on Harris Health. My “favorite” detail from this story is that the cuts will affect “cybersecurity upgrades”, which speaking from my professional perspective sure seems like a bad idea. And the most fun part about all this is that unless there’s a 4-1 split on Commissioners Court, all this can happen again. Doesn’t seem like a great way to run a government, but it’s what we’ve got.

Ramsey and Cagle finish sabotaging the budget

They got what they wanted.

Harris County’s prolonged political battle over the budget came to an end today. For over a month, the two GOP members of Commissioners Court have broken quorum, skipping meetings to prevent Democrats from passing their proposed tax rate and budget for fiscal year 2023.

They skipped again Tuesday, despite multiple major items on the budget that impacted millions in funding for law enforcement, flood control and the Harris Health System. Here’s a play-by-play of how it all went down, from the Houston Chronicle’s government reporter Jen Rice.

You can read the rest, but it’s more of what we’ve seen before. If you don’t like the cuts to the Sheriff, the DA, and the constables that will now happen, take your complaints to Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey. They’re the ones that made this happen.

UPDATE: Chron editorial: Harris County Republicans just defunded the police.

Republican Commissioners skip the meeting they called

On brand. So very on brand.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court have announced they will skip a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, reversing the position they took Friday, potentially ending a month-long impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

On Friday, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

By Monday, Cagle’s position had changed.

In a statement, Cagle said, “I have read that Commissioner Adrian Garcia is now calling his most recent tax increase proposal his ‘final offer.’ There can be no good-faith negotiations with someone who announces publicly that he has made his final offer. In addition, Commissioner Tom S. Ramsey has announced that he will not attend Monday’s special session of Commissioners Court. Given Commissioner Garcia’s publicly announced refusal to negotiate in good faith and given the absence of a full quorum of court members in attendance, I will not attend the special session of Commissioners Court scheduled for Monday afternoon.”

Cagle on Friday said he would attend the special meeting hours after Garcia held his news conference in which he called his proposal his final offer.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey has reversed his decision, as well, according to a statement from his office released on Saturday: “He was hopeful in attending Monday’s special meeting of a ‘discussion’; however, vagueness around the “possible action” in that meeting paired with Tuesday’s meeting details leaves the door open to take other actions relating to the massive tax increase. Commissioner Ramsey is officially rescinding his offer and will not be attending Monday’s meeting.”

See here for the previous entry. I’m sure you can imagine just how shocked, shocked I am at this turn of events. We’re way into the farce zone at this point, so barring an unlikely change of heart on their part it’s time to move on to other political solutions. Let’s get that 4-1 majority and not have to worry about this going forward.

UPDATE: You know what Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey had time for yesterday? A little golf, and some fundraising.

There may be a county budget deal available

I don’t trust anything Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey say, but we’ll see.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court said Friday they would attend a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, potentially ending a monthlong impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey announced he would attend the meeting a short time later.

The two Republican commissioners have skipped the last three Commissioners Court meetings to block the three Democrats on the court from adopting a property tax rate. They view the Democrat-supported rate as too high at a time residents are dealing with the highest inflation in years amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They also want the county to fund more law enforcement.

Garcia’s proposal, unveiled in a Friday morning news conference, would set the overall property tax rate at 56.3 cents per $100 of assessed value, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority.

The current overall county tax rate is 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Under the rate of 57.5 cents originally proposed by the Democrats, the owner of a $250,000 home with a standard 20 percent homestead exemption would save about $12 in the first year, assuming the appraised value was unchanged from the previous year.

Under Garcia’s proposal, that homeowner would pay $36 less.

Garcia’s plan calls for an additional $20 million to hire 200 additional law enforcement officers, echoing Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey’s call for 200 additional law enforcement “boots on the ground.” It also includes a 2.5 percent pay increase for law enforcement officers.

“Today I make you my final offer,” Garcia said. “It checks every box that each of my colleagues has stated as a priority. … If my Republican colleagues continue to refuse to show up to work, it proves, once and for all, they had no intention on getting any deal done.”

State law requires a quorum of at least four members to set the property tax rate. The court has until Oct. 28 to set the tax rate. Failure to come to an agreement would force the county to adopt what is known as the “no new revenue rate,” a levy that generates the same amount of money as the previous year. In Harris County’s case, the no new revenue rate would include an additional $45 million from developed properties added to the tax roll this year.

Again, this is a legislative minority getting to set the terms because of an anti-majoritarian component of our state constitution. If we are going to bring up the quorum-busting by Democratic State House members again, I will remind you that 1) unlike the State House Dems, Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can do their thing from the comfort of their homes – they do not have to flee to another state to avoid being detained by the cops and dragged back to the county courthouse; and 2) the Republican legislative majority eventually got everything they wanted and all they had to do was wait it out, while the Democratic Commissioners Court majority has no choice but to negotiate. Either way, they cannot do what they would have done if the two Republican Commissioners didn’t have this power. These are two very different situations.

As far as the fear that somehow the three Democratic members of Commissioners Court will suddenly appear, gavel them into an official meeting, and pass their preferred budget before they can abscond again, the following is from the Harris County Attorney’s office:

Harris County Commissioners Court has issued a notice for a special meeting on Monday, October 17 that will focus on proposed tax rates and changes to the budget.

In response to members of court claiming they will skip the meeting because of concerns that a tax rate may be adopted, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee issued the following statement:

“There is no ‘vagueness’ about whether Commissioners Court can adopt a tax rate at Monday’s special meeting. The answer is no. Nor does the court having the Monday meeting mean that they could adopt a tax rate at some subsequent meeting with fewer than four members present.

If any member of court plans to skip Monday’s meeting, they should be honest about why, and not claim that they’re doing so out of fear that a tax rate could be adopted.”

State law requires that prior to a Commissioners Court holding a tax hearing those rates must first be noticed to the public at least 5 days prior to the hearing. Any vote to adopt those rates must take place after the hearing but not later than 7 days after the hearing.

Like I said, we’ll see. I don’t trust these guys and neither should you. Even if there’s an agreement reached, it was done under ridiculous circumstances. The Adrian Garcia deal, if that’s what we get, is fine as it is, it’s the process that’s the problem.

Commissioners Court approves its bond package

But not without some bitching and griping.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Thursday to put a $1.2 billion package on the November ballot this year, with the vast majority aimed at road construction.

Tensions flared when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cut off questions and moved forward with a vote over the protests of the two Republican commissioners, who were in the midst of arguing the bond measure lacked transparency and the plan for distributing the funds was unclear.

The debate grew heated after Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey raised his voice demanding transparency, earning loud applause from members of the public in attendance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle insisted Hidalgo explain how the county would decide where the money goes, and what it meant for the county to prioritize areas deemed most in need: “What is ‘worst first’? What is the definition?”

“I am voting for this because I believe your precinct needs this money,” Hidalgo shot back, arguing the money would benefit all precincts.

When Hidalgo abruptly moved ahead with the vote, leaving Cagle uncertain about whether he had missed the opportunity to oppose the measure, the commissioner asked, “Do I not even get to vote on calling this?”

Faced with Ramsey and Cagle’s rising frustration, Hidalgo insisted members of the court “have had hours of discussion on this” at previous meetings.

The two Republicans criticized Hidalgo for cutting off further debate to take the vote.

“When those who are elected with the responsibility of delving into questions to be asked aren’t even allowed to debate those issues at the table, that’s wrong,” Cagle said.

The decision to place the debt issue before voters required the court to vote on three separate bond issues. Each was approved along party lines with the three Democrats voting in favor and the two Republicans opposed.

Likewise, the November ballot will include three separate bond requests: $900 million earmarked for roads; $200 million for parks; $100 million for public safety bonds.

See here for the background. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I don’t give Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle’s complaints much weight. I don’t trust them to be acting in good faith. What I hear in their words is a demand for reassurance that their needs will be given priority, as this had been the way of the world for however many decades of bond issuances before now. Any indication otherwise, that more neglected areas will come first, or that people will be given equal or greater value than property values, is unacceptable. They may have some legitimate objections in there. That’s not what I’m hearing from them.

EPA to investigate TCEQ over concrete plant permits

Well, this ought to be interesting.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the subject of an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency following complaints that the state agency violated civil rights laws in its permitting of concrete batch plants.

The Harris County Attorney and Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law group, alleged that the state environmental agency discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities and those with limited English proficiency through a revised permitting process to build new concrete batch plants.

Their complaints, filed with the EPA earlier this year, said TCEQ failed to provide information in Spanish and insufficiently protected communities of color who live in areas where concrete facilities are predominantly located.

The concrete plants are subject to permits that aim to limit pollution in the form of particulate matter and crystalline silica — which have been linked to respiratory diseases and cancer — but independent testing of concrete facilities by the complaint’s authors indicate that pollution levels exceed health-based limits.

Last year, TCEQ approved an amendment that included exemptions for emission limitations for concrete batch plants, in response to an application to construct a plant by a Fort Worth concrete company. Area residents had fought the company’s application, which was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t adequately study the impacts of pollutants. TCEQ later passed the amendment and approved the company’s application after what it called a “clerical error.”

The EPA’s civil rights compliance arm announced the investigation last Wednesday. The investigation will focus on whether the adoption of the amendment — and the permitting process — is discriminatory, and whether the state agency failed to seek meaningful public comment.

The Chron adds some more details.

County Attorney Christian Menefee and Lone Star lawyers alleged in separate complaints to the EPA earlier this year that the state agency discriminated against Black and Latino residents when they didn’t adequately ensure communities would be protected and didn’t appropriately seek input from people who aren’t fluent in English.

Local, state and federal leaders celebrated the EPA’s decision to look at the discrimination claims Tuesday. They saw it as a chance to win long-sought relief for people who have suffered from batch plants. Facility operators say the plants are safe and need to be close to construction sites. People near them, concerned for their health, plead for them to go far away.

“Time and again, the TCEQ has approved permits for additional plants in these very same neighborhoods, and failed to ensure that the pollution that comes out of these plants does not harm human health and the environment,” Menefee said. “We’re here today because the TCEQ failed to address these issues when it had the chance.”

[…]

Applications are frequently submitted to start up concrete batch plants in the Houston area. They elicit strong backlash from residents who often already know what it’s like to live by one. Residents in Aldine recently packed a room to tell TCEQ not to approve another new plant — only to find out that the deadline had already passed to ask the state agency to escalate the dispute to the next level.

EPA stepping in signaled a shift in that fight for residents who have little more than emotional appeals on their side, and what help they can get from frustrated government representatives.

“This is important to us,” said Huey German-Wilson, president of the Trinity and Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood, “and now we have someone to hear us loud and clear, for the small Black and brown voices in communities that have not been heard.”

Politicians at the news conference slammed the state environmental agency for valuing the needs of industry over the health of people. They said that it took President Joe Biden — a fellow Democrat — winning the White House for federal regulators to put pressure on this issue in the conservative Lone Star State. Recent bills proposed in the state legislature largely floundered.

Neighborhoods with batch plants lack deed restrictions and zoning to protect them, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said. And facilities are often in communities of color — not wealthy, white River Oaks — making what has been happening clear environmental racism, state Sen. Borris Miles said.

Menefee’s office asked the EPA to stop any new standard concrete batch plant permits from being issued until the investigation is finished, he said. A public meeting has been scheduled later this month for residents to weigh in on a plant that’s been proposed in Simonton, a small city west of Houston in rural Fort Bend County.

This isn’t a lawsuit, it’s an investigation. I have no context to guess how long it may take, though I’d expect that if the state doesn’t like what the EPA says we’ll get a lawsuit afterwards. Until then, we wait. Here’s a Twitter thread from Chron reporter Emily Foxhall with more quotes.

Commissioners Court plans to put a bond issue on the ballot

First one in seven years.

Harris County voters will have more on their November ballot, after a divided commissioners court Tuesday took the first step toward a $1.2 billion bond package for police, parks, drainage and roads.

Common with many votes, the court was split 3-2 on the matter, with County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia in favor and Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle opposed.

Tuesday’s debate reiterated much of what divided county officials leading up to the vote, including the ability to put a robust plan in front of voters by November, concerns about future needs such as flood control and how exactly officials would split the windfall of money should voters approve.

The plan would likely lead to three bond votes on the ballot — $100 million for public safety, $200 million for parks and $900 million for transportation and drainage projects ranging from street maintenance to sidewalks and safety-related road repairs.

“People want to see that money spent yesterday,” Garcia said, noting the litany of improvements county residents are demanding.

Tuesday’s vote moved the county closer to a bond referendum, but did not finalize it. To call the election and set it for the November election, commissioners court must meet and call for the election between Aug. 12 and Aug. 22, per state law. They must also approve ballot language, which will guide the terms of the bond.

[…]

Though split on the plan, no one disputed Harris County has massive needs across a host of categories.

“I think people are clamoring for more capital investments,” Ellis said.

Local roads are in disrepair, drainage worries dot unincorporated communities who remember rising waters from Tropical Storm Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda all too well and sheriffs operate out of outdated and crumbling buildings.

Voters “don’t need to be sold on flood control, roads and public safety,” said State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, who spoke Tuesday in favor of the bonds.

Commissioners, however, struggled to find common ground on how they would share the money. Ellis and Garcia pressed for a “worst-first” approach that would focus funding in areas they said were previously neglected in their Precinct One and Precinct Two areas, and away from doling the money based on population and lane miles of road. Ramsey and Cagle, concerned about the inequity of that plan, said some equal divisions were needed so Precinct Three and Precinct Four could make needed repairs.

To satisfy her own concerns that funds needed to address problem areas but fairly include projects in each commissioners’ area, Hidalgo proposed the $100 million in public safety remain countywide, but that the road and parks money be divided in a way by the county that assured each precinct at least $220 million — leaving another $220 million to be spent where needs are greatest.

“Everybody has a base level of revenue from this bond,” she said.

Despite that compromise, other doubts remain, Ramsey said, citing the lack of project specifics provided by county staff.

Here’s the Tuesday morning version of the story, which in turn references that 2015 bond package. A total of four propositions that year passed easily, with percentages ranging from 61 to 74. I don’t have a strong opinion at this time about how the funds should be divvied up – I don’t recall that particular debate coming up in the past, for what it’s worth, but Commissioners Court was a lot clubbier in those days – nor am I particularly worried about a detailed project list at this time. We should have one, to be sure, but I think most people don’t get too far into those details when casting their vote. It’s for law enforcement/roads/bridges/parks/flood control/etc etc etc? That’s likely enough info for most voters. We’ll see what details we get when the final ballot language is proposed.

Who audits the auditors?

A novel idea. Not sure it will get anywhere, but it does send a message.

Harris County Commissioners Court, by a 3-2 partisan vote, agreed to explore legal options, including a possible lawsuit, to challenge the results of a random drawing by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office that means another round of election scrutiny for Texas’ largest county.

“It ought to be the state of Texas that is audited,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the lawsuit. “This place has gone back to the bad old days.”

Harris County learned last week it was one of two large counties chosen for an election audit by state officials, under new procedures lawmakers approved for election scrutiny. It is the second audit of Harris County, after another approved weeks following the 2020 general election.

[…]

Harris and Cameron counties were the two large ones chosen in a drawing from a bucket, the Secretary of State’s office announced; Eastland and Guadalupe counties were the two small counties selected.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, however, questioned the authenticity of the drawing, saying the broadcast of the drawing “looks like a video out of a sketch comedy show.”

“The camera does not show the slips going into the bucket,” Menefee said, noting various aspects of the drawing that are not filmed. “They don’t even show the slips to the camera.”

See here for the background. Just as a reminder, while there have been issues in other elections in Harris County, the November 2020 election ran incredibly smoothly. And the SOS has already done an “audit” of that election, even if they never bothered to release a report on their “audit”.

My guess is that this doesn’t go anywhere, because I can’t see what grounds there are to sue. (Remember: I Am Not A Lawyer. There is an excellent chance that I am full of beans here.) One could argue that Harris County should have been exempted from this year’s drawing, as the law states that counties cannot be subjected to this audit in consecutive cycles. But the previous audit was not done under the auspices of that law, so the legal response to that would be some form of “tough luck”. Again, I don’t know what the actual attorneys who will be looking into the legal possibilities may find here, so take all this with an appropriate amount of skepticism. But if you were to bet me a dollar right now that 1) Harris County would file a suit as threatened, and 2) it would result in a temporary restraining order, I would take that bet.

If on the other hand the point of this is to denigrate the audit process, which was created in response to Big Lie mania, I’m fine with that. If the idea is to suggest that the state can’t be trusted to conduct a fair random drawing, let alone a fair audit process, that works for me. Judge Hidalgo spoke about the need to combat Big Lie hysteria, which is doing immense damage to the election process and a whole lot more, in the story. That’s a worthwhile mission. If it turns out there really is more to it than that, I’ll be happy to have been proven wrong.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Happy Mid-Year Campaign Finance Reporting Day to all who celebrate. Today we’ll be looking at the races of interest in Harris County, which thankfully for me has a lot fewer candidates to review than the last time we did this in January, before the primaries. I also did this roundup in July 2021 if you want to go that far back. You know the drill here, so let’s get to it.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Alexandra Mealer, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Morman, County Commissioner, Precinct 2

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Stan Stanart, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Chris Daniel (SPAC), District Clerk

Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer
Eric Dick, County Treasurer
Kyle Scott, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo       1,150,804    569,065    1,400  1,983,697
Mealer          764,544    404,802    6,000    455,927

Ellis           543,900    241,714        0  3,805,232

Garcia, A       787,949    675,976        0  1,897,179
Morman           63,144     19,585        0     69,638

Ramsey           34,869     69,290        0    549,707

Cagle           388,332    209,368        0  1,231,540
Briones         126,038     98,547        0     90,720

Hudspeth         18,265     18,145        0     13,952
Stanart           3,407      5,583        0      6,729
Burgess          16,070     15,864    5,207     15,049
Daniel           20,600      9,619   25,000     12,144
Wyatt             2,085      6,082        0      1,092
Scott             2,309      5,340   23,000        719

With the much-smaller field of candidates now that we are fully past the primaries, everyone who is on the November ballot in these races has a current finance report online. Note that for some candidates, the report covers the period from February 20 through June 30 – these are the candidates who won their March primaries outright – and for some it covers the period from May 15 through June 30. These are the candidates who had to win in their runoff, a list that includes Alexandra Mealer, Jack Morman, and Lesley Briones. Mealer’s amount raised total is a lot more competitive with Judge Lina Hidalgo’s given the smaller amount of time that her report covers, but as John Coby points out, she got more than half of that total from four donors who each gave her $100K.

It’s interesting to me that Morman, who was a County Commissioner for eight years before Commissioner Garcia nipped him in 2018, has had such anemic fundraising. I’m not sure what that says, other than maybe not enough people think he can win. Lesley Briones still has a significant cash deficit against Commissioner Jack Cagle, but she’s been considerably more proficient at fundraising. She is unlikely to catch up to him in that department, but she’ll be more competitive.

Not much else to say, as the other offices tend to have little fundraising capacity, and these reports present no surprises. Eric Dick also filed a report for his current office of HCDE Trustee, in which he again reported zeroes across the board. Given Dick’s past propensities, I wouldn’t take any of that as gospel, but it is what he reported.

UPDATE: My bad, I had the wrong Republican candidate for Treasurer.

Radack drops his redistricting lawsuit

From the inbox:

Former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit he filed against Harris County Commissioners Court alleging Commissioners Court violated the Open Meetings Act during county redistricting.

Below is a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee on the lawsuit:

“I’m glad this frivolous lawsuit was dismissed. The County ran a transparent, thorough redistricting process. My office will continue working with each of the Commissioners to ensure the transition process is as seamless as possible.”

The suit sought to have the new Commissioners Court map invalidated and alleged court members violated state law by not making the map public at least 72 hours prior to the meeting at which that map was approved.

As you may recall, first there was a lawsuit filed by Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey along with a couple of voters, which claimed that redrawing of Commissioners Court precincts was a voting rights violation because people who would have voted for Commissioner in 2022 would have to wait until 2024. It was dismissed by a Harris County civil district court judge on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have jurisdiction to sue. A subsequent writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court was denied mostly on procedural grounds, as there would be no time to take any action as the primaries had already begun. The initial lawsuit is as I understand it pending an appeal to the First Court of Appeals, and SCOTx did not rule on the merits of the litigation so we could see a ruling against the county at some point in the future.

The Radack lawsuit was filed on December 31, shortly after the first lawsuit was dismissed by the district court. It claimed that commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting. As far as I know, this suit never had a hearing in court. I checked with the County Attorney’s office and the pending appeal to the First Court is the only active litigation over county redistricting at this time. So there you have it.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about it.

On naming a replacement for Judge Briones

I have three things to say about this.

Lesley Briones

Three years ago, Bill McLeod lost his spot on the civil county court-at-law bench in Harris County due to a paperwork snafu.

McLeod, a Democrat, had been presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4 in 2019 when he filed paperwork indicating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. His filing triggered an obscure — but reasonable — provision of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial bench an automatic resignation. He was required to step down as soon as a new judge was named.

Despite McLeod’s protests, Harris County Commissioners Court swiftly moved to replace him. At the time, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reasoned that keeping McLeod as a holdover judge would invite conflicts of interest that could require him to recuse himself from some cases. A week later, Hidalgo and the two other Democrats on the commissioners court — Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace him.

“Judge, this is something we did not create; we wish we weren’t in this situation,” Hidalgo told McLeod during that meeting. “Voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent as he was elected to be.”

Briones’ speedy appointment rankled the two Republican county commissioners, who voted against her, calling the vetting process unfair and opaque. It appeared as if the Democrats were ramming through their preferred candidate, the kind of behind-the-scenes scheming that Democrats used to accuse Republicans of when they were in charge.

Now in a twist of fate, or hypocrisy, another potential conflict has emerged, this time involving Briones.

Like McLeod, Briones is running for office. She’s a candidate in the March 1 primary aiming to take on GOP Commissioner Jack Cagle in the November general election. Her November campaign announcement also triggered an automatic resignation from the bench — but unlike with McLeod, the Democrats who run the commissioners court are in no hurry to replace her. She’s kept her bench even as she campaigns.

The commissioners’ rationale for letting her stay in her seat defies logic. Let’s roll the tape.

[…]

Commissioners Court has convened seven times since Briones technically resigned. These meetings are typically all-day, marathon sessions that include scores, or even hundreds, of agenda items. Naming a replacement for Briones has been conspicuously absent from their to-do list. In effect, the commissioners’ indecision on Briones’ replacement leaves her collecting a county salary to run for political office.

While we commend Briones for doing her part by recusing herself from certain cases, this predicament reeks of hypocrisy. The Democratic majority’s excuses for the delay don’t pass the smell test.

Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for Hidalgo, said in a statement that the county judge “is not leading the search for a replacement judge given that Judge Briones is deftly and efficiently carrying out her full workload of cases, while avoiding conflicts of interest,” adding that she “remains open to recommendations by her colleagues on a person to fill the position.” Both Ellis and Garcia noted in statements that it’s been a challenge finding someone who is not only qualified but also willing to take on what would be a temporary job, since voters will elect a new judge for Briones’ seat in November.

Really? When Judge Erica Hughes of Criminal Court at Law No. 3 was appointed to a federal immigration bench in December, county commissioners had no trouble finding not one, but two qualified candidates to fill her seat in a short amount of time. They appointed Hughes’ replacement, Porscha Brown, at the next possible meeting on Dec. 14. When Brown declined the appointment, commissioners named Ashley Mayes Guice to the bench at the very next meeting on Jan. 4.

1. I don’t understand the reason for the delay, either. It’s not a good look for Judge Hidalgo or Commissioners Ellis and Garcia. At the very least, give a better explanation for the delay. And in addition to the issue of Judge Briones having to recuse herself for matters involving the county, there are surely lawyers appearing before her now who may be supporting one of her opponents for the Commissioners Court nomination. That can’t be a comfortable experience.

2. That said, I kind of suspect that their ultimate preference would be to name the winner of the primary for this seat to the bench, as that would minimize turnover in the event that candidate wins in November. The main problem with that is that it’s a three-way primary, meaning that a runoff is likely, and thus we wouldn’t get someone named until late May. Briones herself may still be campaigning for the nomination to Commissioners Court through that time, as she too is in a multi-candidate race, or she may have been knocked out of the race. None of this is a desirable outcome.

3. Greg Abbott, of course, appoints judges all the time in a fashion that takes advantage of the election calendar. His appointees are expected to be the nominee for the next election, though they sometimes draw primary opponents. That’s been a thing for a long time, going back well before Abbott. This doesn’t excuse or justify what the Commissioners are doing here, but it is another reminder of my point that a judicial appointment system is no less inherently political than a system of electing judges. You can’t take the politics out of a political process.

Does Houston get its fair share from Harris County?

It’s complicated.

Do property taxpayers inside the City of Houston subsidize Harris County services? It’s a question that comes up a lot, given the fact that city residents—like their counterparts in the county—pay separate property taxes to the county, but the county provides many services only to the unincorporated areas.

The answer to that question appears to be yes: property taxes paid to the county by those inside the city do subsidize services out in the county—at least so far as general county services are concerned. (On the hospital front, city residents appear to receive more in services than they pay in taxes to the county.)

The overall picture might look different; for example, residents outside the city make many purchases inside the city, and the resulting sales tax goes to the city, not the county. But at least according to a new analysis from the Kinder Institute, with the assistance of the fiscal analysis firm TischlerBise, the county gets more in property tax revenue from city taxpayers than it provides in services.

[…]

Although much of the unincorporated area is served by municipal utility districts, the county government is responsible for providing many services, such as law enforcement and road maintenance, that are typically provided by cities. For this reason, the question of whether city taxpayers subsidize services outside the city has long been debated. At the same time, it should be noted that the county provides many services, such as justice administration and hospital care, to all residents of the county no matter where they live.

The Harris County government collects and spends about $2 billion per year in property tax revenue. The Harris County Hospital District collects and spends about $700 million per year in property tax revenue. A little more than half of the county’s property tax comes from inside the city.

But the amount of money that the county spends on services to city residents varies. For example, we estimate that almost 60% of all county flood control expenditures benefit the city. At the same time, however, almost 90% of county road and bridges expenditures occur outside the city limits.

I have definitely complained in this space about all of the roadbuilding in empty parts of the county as the primary development planning strategy. It’s worked in that the county’s population has boomed, but it has also led to the paving over of a lot of prairie land that had been a key component of flood control, and it has had the feel of leaving the inner core behind to fend for itself. I have felt that a little less in recent years, as the county has kicked in on various city road and bike projects, as well as contributing to Metro for bus shelters and other repairs. I give Commissioner Rodney Ellis a lot of the credit for that. I’d still like to see more done, but at least the disparity is not as glaring.

As this article points out, there are county services that provide a lot of benefit to Houston, and services that are widely used by everyone, so the picture is more nuanced than I might have given it credit in the past. The city also benefits from sales taxes from people who work in the city or travel into the city for business and entertainment. The cited study did not go into that aspect of the finances, though they say more study will be forthcoming. I’m just glad to see this issue get some attention.

January 2022 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You know what January means around these parts. There’s lots of action in Harris County, so that’s where we’ll begin. Here’s my summary of the July 2021 reports as a reminder. Let’s dive in.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Ahmed Hassan, County Judge
Georgia Provost, County Judge
Erica Davis, County Judge
Kevin Howard, County Judge
Maria Garcia, County Judge

Martina Lemon Dixon, County Judge
Robert Dorris, County Judge
Randall Kubosh, County Judge
Naoufal Houjami, County Judge
Hector Bolanos, County Judge
Oscar Gonzales, County Judge
Alexandra Mealer, County Judge
Vidal Martinez, County Judge
Warren Howell, County Judge
George Zoes, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
George Risner, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Gary Harrison, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
John Manlove, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jerry Mouton, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Morman, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Daniel Jason, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Richard Vega, County Commissioner, Precinct 2

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Ben Chou, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Ann Williams, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Clarence Miller, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Gina Calanni, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Jeff Stauber, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Stan Stanart, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Desiree Broadnax, District Clerk
Chris Daniel (SPAC), District Clerk

Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer
Kyle Scott, County Treasurer
Eric Dick, County Treasurer
Stephen Kusner, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo         900,323    424,448    1,400  1,488,652
Hassan              200      2,461        0          0
Davis            50,114     10,143   21,852     59,970
Howard
Provost
Garcia, M

Lemond Dixon    196,977    109,175        0     90,294
Dorris                0         68        0         68
Kubosh           15,075      9,051   60,000      7,165
Houjami           1,390        592        0        147
Bolanos               0          0        0          0
Gonzales          2,475      3,432      500          0
Mealer           60,049     15,464        0     15,840
Martinez        514,585     86,782  100,000    516,134
Howell            1,450      7,075        0        375
Zoes

Ellis           264,000    181,904        0  4,192,308

Garcia, A       587,885    364,783        0  2,119,825
Risner            3,250      1,899        0     51,550
Harrison              5      2,191        0          0
Manlove          19,452      4,285        0     68,870
Mouton           29,100      2,916        0     26,283
Morman           45,749     66,119        0    165,834
Jason
Vega

Ramsey          236,900    185,263        0    581,035

Cagle           285,673    501,923        0  1,119,432
Chou             80,590      4,133        0     77,490
Williams          2,600      1,250    1,250      1,450
Miller            5,293     10,560        0     10,336
Briones         244,974     60,571        0    229,258
Calanni           5,540          0        0      5,540
Stauber               0      1,250        0          0

Hudspeth         26,464     10,395        0     19,376
Stanart               0      3,054        0      8,053
Burgess          24,169     26,475        0     17,222
Broadnax          9,649      9,538        0        110
Daniel           11,875      1,393   25,000     12,264
Osborne           2,440        622        0      2,202
Scott             7,900     20,489   14,000      1,410
Dick                  0      1,489        0          0
Kusner              

If you don’t see a linked report for someone, it’s because there wasn’t one I could find on the harrisvotes.com page. The information I have here is current as of last night. It’s possible someone could still file a report, these things do happen, but I wouldn’t expect much from anyone who hasn’t by now.

There are items of greater substance to discuss, but I can’t help myself: Naoufal Houjami was a candidate for Mayor in 2019 – if you don’t remember him, it’s probably because he got a total of 565 votes, for 0.2%, finishing last in the field. He has filed a finance report as a candidate for Harris County Judge, but he is not listed as a candidate for either primary, according to the Secretary of State’s Qualified Candidates page. (The Harris County GOP candidates page doesn’t have him, either.) The first two pictures I saw on his webpage were one with him and Greg Abbott, and one with him and Sheila Jackson Lee. Go figure. He is fully supporting his friend George P. Bush for Attorney General, so you make the call. This is way more than you ever needed to know about Naoufal Houjami.

Anyway. Barring an unlikely late and lucrative report from Georgia Provost, who wasn’t much of a fundraiser as a City Council candidate, incumbent Judge Lina Hidalgo outraised all of the other candidates for that position combined. Erica Davis claimed $70K raised on the summary page of her report but just $50K on the subtotals page – I suspect the $70K number was a typo. She had six total donors listed, two of whom gave $25K each, one who gave $196, and the others gave $19.12 apiece. Vidal Martinez was the other big fundraiser, though as John Coby notes, almost 70% of his donations came from 14 people who each ponied up at least $10K. For sure, it’s all green, but that’s not exactly grassroots support. As for Alexandra Mealer, I’d been wondering about her because I’ve seen multiple signs for her in my very Democratic neighborhood. Turns out she’s also my neighbor, now living in one of the historic houses. That explains a lot.

I included the two Commissioners who are not on the ballot just as a point of comparison. Adrian Garcia is obviously well-equipped for battle. George Risner presumably had a few bucks in his account from his time as a Justice of the Peace, but his candidacy for Commissioner does not seem to have drawn much support so far. Jack Morman also had some coin still in his bank and drew more support on his attempt to come back, but he’s nowhere close to Garcia. For Precinct 4, Jack Cagle raised a reasonable amount, though as you can see not an earth-shaking total, with Lesley Briones coming close to him. He has a tidy sum in his treasury, but it’s less than what he had in July thanks to how much he spent. Gina Calanni didn’t raise much – to be fair, there isn’t that much time between the filing deadline and the finance reporting deadline – but her report showed $40K in pledges, which are noted as transfers from her State House campaign account.

None of the other offices tend to raise much. Chris Daniel has a personal report as well as the SPAC report. The non-SPAC account reported no money raised and $1,151 in expenditures.

Finally, someone named Stephen Kusner filed a finance report for Treasurer in July but is not on either ballot and has no report for January. I’m just making a note of that here in case anyone who looked at my July summary is wondering what happened to him.

I’ll take a look at some state reports next, and Congressional reports later. Let me know if you have any questions.

Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

All five members of Harris County Commissioners Court signed onto a letter Friday asking the local congressional delegation to ensure that future disaster relief bypasses the state government and goes directly to large counties.

The letter is the latest round of bipartisan outrage in Houston triggered by the Texas General Land Office’s decision last May to initially shut out the city and the county — the epicenter of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey — from $1 billion in flood control dollars later awarded to Texas after the 2017 storm.

The letter suggests that Congress or a federal agency require future disaster relief go directly to counties with at least 500,000 residents, instead of being administered by state agencies.

The court’s two Republicans, Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, joined the court’s Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — in signing the letter. Cagle and Ramsey had been sharply critical of fellow Republican George P. Bush, who runs the GLO, after the agency declined to award any money to the city or county.

In the letter, the five court members wrote that a direct allocation of federal aid would “bypass potential bureaucratic delay caused by various Texas agencies and by other entities that will harm our ability to have quick and efficient implementation.”

They did not mention the GLO by name, though the letter was sent to Harris County’s nine-member congressional delegation one week after federal officials halted the distribution of nearly $2 billion in flood control funds to Texas because, they said, the GLO had failed to send in required paperwork detailing its plans to spend the money.

I mean, based on past experience, why would we want to do it any other way? The GLO isn’t just not adding value here, they’re actively reducing it. It’s not a surprise that even the Republican commissioners signed on to this.

On a more philosophical note, a lot of federal relief funds that are targeted at cities and counties and school districts and whatnot have had to go through the state first. For the most part, with COVID funds, the Lege mostly rubber stamped it without much fuss. I know there had been concerns with the pace at which Harvey recovery funds had been spent and homes were being repaired – indeed, there are still a lot of unrepaired homes after all this time – but it seems that a big part of that problem has been having multiple layers of government involved, which led to conflicts and delays and issues getting funds to the people who needed them the most. Indeed, that story also cites issues with the way the GLO interacted with the city of Houston. With COVID relief there were issues with unemployment funds having to go through rickety state systems, no direct way to get other relief funds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, and so forth. There are bigger issues, having to do with underlying infrastructure, that are a big part of this. But even factoring that out, putting states in charge of distributing federal relief funds to localities has been a problem. More so in some states than in others. I don’t know what we can do about that, given everything else going on right now. But we really should do something.

Supreme Court rejects mandamus over Commissioners Court redistricting

The primary will proceed as scheduled, but the issue could be revisited sometime after the 2022 election.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republican commissioners and voters to block Harris County’s recent redistricting plan on Friday, suggesting another challenge still in the works will meet a similar fate.

In their challenge, the petitioners argued that the new maps amounted to illegal Democratic gerrymandering. The new precincts approved by Harris County leaders last year resulted in dramatic shifts that the challengers argued would disenfranchise voters in the upcoming primaries.

But in a narrow ruling, the justices found that they likely couldn’t provide any relief to the challengers because the wheels of the election were already in motion.

“(N)o amount of expedited briefing or judicial expediency at this point can change the fact that the primary election for 2022 is already in its early stages,” their opinion read. “This Court and other Texas courts are duty-bound to respond quickly to urgent cases that warrant expedited proceedings, but even with utmost judicial speed, any relief that we theoretically could provide here would necessarily disrupt the ongoing election process.”

The result is that the new precinct maps will be allowed to stand. The Democratic majority on commissioners court adopted the maps on a 3-2 party line vote in October.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion, which is also embedded in the story. It’s fairly brief and pretty straightforward, so let me summarize:

– The current map violates federal law because of population differences among the four precincts. It was not an option for the court to order that the current map be used while the appeals played out.

– The court ruled that their role in redistricting is limited, and that they did not have nearly enough facts to go on, as many of the plaintiffs’ claims remain in dispute. The burden required to make them step in and halt or change the election, which is already underway, was far too high for them to take action on such a short notice.

– Regarding the (ridiculous) claim about people being disenfranchised because they would have to wait until 2024 to vote when they had been expecting to vote in 2022, the court noted that some number of people will always be in that position when redistricting occurs. The Constitution requires the State Senate (which like Commissioners Court has staggered four-year terms) to have everyone run after redistricting, but there’s no such requirement for Commissioners Courts, which moved to four-year terms by an amendment in 1954. Ordering all four precincts to be on the ballot in 2022 was rejected because of the limited time for anyone who might run in the other precincts to get going. The court also noted that any short-term remedy for Harris County might cause problems with other counties, if people could make similar claims about being disenfranchised.

– Given all that, the court said it had no choice but to reject the writ of mandamus and allow the 2022 election to go forward as planned. The court did not make any claims or judgments about the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments, and said that if the matter comes back to them after going through the lower courts, they can evaluate them at that time.

So there you have it. There is still the Radack lawsuit out there, but as the story notes it seems extremely unlikely that will succeed at affecting this election based on this ruling. The Cagle/Ramsey lawsuit was dismissed in Harris County district court, so I presume the next step would be for the dismissal, which was made on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked jurisdiction (this is what the story said, perhaps this should be standing), to be appealed. Success for the plaintiffs would mean sending the case back to a district court, hopefully (for them) to get a hearing and ruling on the merits, which would naturally be appealed by whoever lost. My guess is that this whole process would take a few years if everything proceeds at its normal pace. While the Supreme Court allowed for the possibility of an all-precinct election (under another new map) in 2024, or even a special election presumably before then, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it. Same thing for the Radack lawsuit, which as far as I know has not had an initial hearing yet.

Finally, while this story does not mention it, I wonder if this may also signal the death knell for the two state court redistricting challenges, on the same grounds of not having enough time to do something before people begin voting. That last update suggested the possibility of a trial this week, but I am not aware of any news to that effect. The cases are in Travis County district court, if anyone wants to try to figure that out.

Another lawsuit filed over Commissioners Court redistricting

What a bunch of crybabies.

A former county commissioner is suing Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, claiming Hidalgo and the county violated state law when they met to approve redistricting maps.

Former Commissioner Steve Radack argues the commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting.

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the court’s adoption of the new maps.

County Attorney Christian Menefee dismissed the suit as “meritless.” The Open Meetings Act requires governments to post public notices about meetings at least three days before they occur. Courts and attorneys general have said the notices have to be sufficiently specific to let the public know what will be addressed. It does not require them to post supporting documents, although governments sometimes do.

The county posted a timely notice of the meeting and met on Oct. 28 to take up redistricting. The lone item on the agenda said: “Request to receive public input regarding Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting plans, and consider and possibly adopt an order approving a new district/precinct plan for Harris County Commissioners Court, including any amendments thereto.”

This lawsuit was filed on December 31, just a few days after the first lawsuit was dismissed. Funny how this wasn’t an issue before then. This is another Andy Taylor joint, and how sweet it must be for him to get another ride on the ol’ gravy train. But seriously, cry me a river, fellas.

Lawsuit over Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting tossed

Missed this over the holidays.

A Harris County Judge on Wednesday tossed a lawsuit from Republican commissioners and voters over new county maps that favor Democrats.

Judge Dedra Davis ruled in favor of Harris County, finding that Republican commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey and three voters did not have jurisdiction to sue.

The Republicans’ attorney, Andy Taylor, indicated that he planned to appeal the ruling.

Cagle, Ramsey and the three voters filed the lawsuit against Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and against Harris County last month. The suit alleged that the redistricting map proposed by Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis, known as the Ellis 3 plan, amounts to an unconstitutional gerrymander that would deprive more than 1.1 million voters of their right to vote.

Texas election law staggers county precinct elections every two years. All county commissioners serve four-year terms, but commissioners in even-numbered precincts and those in odd-numbered precincts take place at two-year intervals.

The next election for even-numbered precincts is in 2022. The lawsuit alleges that the Ellis 3 plan shifts more than 1.1 million voters from even-numbered precincts to odd-numbered precincts, depriving them of their right to vote until 2024.

“Plaintiffs submit that there is a very simple explanation for why this occurred,” the lawsuit reads. “Commissioner Ellis wanted to do whatever it would take to draw a new map that would create three…Democratic seats. Thus, the Ellis 3 Plan does just that.”

See here for the background. The lawsuit seemed pretty flimsy on its face, and it was dismissed without comment by District Court Judge Dedra Davis. The plaintiffs, which include Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey, and fan favorite attorney Andy Taylor, have filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court in a last ditch effort to stop the new map from taking effect. The mandamus, which you can see here, makes the following claims:

  • The 2020 census revealed population changes among districts that required redistricting.
  • It was possible to comply with the “one man, one vote” rule by transferring 4% of the county’s population.
  • But Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia chose a plan that moved 48% and overstepped their authority.
  • That plan will deprive 1.1 million people of their right to vote for commissioner in the next election and likely tip the result from Republican to Democrat in one precinct, creating a 4-1 supermajority for Democrats.

As soon as I saw that “moved 48%” of voters claim, I said to myself, where have I seen a statistic like that before? Right here:

The initial Republican proposal for redrawing Texas congressional maps calls for Harris County to once again be split into nine districts, but with major alterations to protect the region’s endangered GOP incumbents.

The shifts mean more than a million voters who live west of downtown Houston would have a different member of Congress representing them.

Ultimately, Democratic-held districts now represented by U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher would all become more heavily blue under the proposed map released Monday by the Texas Senate. Under the proposal, Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Troy Nehls would get more like-minded voters in their districts, too.

The proposal adds a completely new congressional district in west Harris County — District 38 — designed to favor a Republican, stitched together by cutting into four existing districts.

A little back of the envelope math here, we have “more than” a million voters, in a county with just under 2.5 million registered voters, that’s over 40% of voters being put into new districts, for the express purpose of creating a new Republican district in the county and bolstering the Republican caucus in Washington. So, yeah. Cry me a river, fellas.

Republicans sue over new Commissioners Court map

Hilarious.

Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey have filed a voting rights lawsuit in state court in hopes of halting a Harris County redistricting plan they claim strips more than 1.1 million people of their right to vote in 2022.

Cagle and Ramsey, who are in the political minority in county government, lost ground in the redistricting plan their three political opponents supported, as Cagle’s Precinct 4 was redrawn last month to become majority Democrat.

Cagle and Ramsey announced Tuesday they were suing Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the county itself, but indicated through their attorney they see Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia as equally culpable of depriving voters’ rights. Three fellow plaintiffs who stood with the commissioners at a news conference were identified in court documents as registered voters and ethnic minorities.

One plantiff, Ranya Khanoyan, a senior in ROTC at Klein Cain High School, voted for the first time in November, but she would not be able to vote for Precinct 4 commissioner in the March primary or November election because the plan moves her to Precinct 3, which does not have an election until 2024.

“I’m not willing to look Ranya who just turned 18 in the face and say, ‘You know, sweetie, you’re going to have to wait til 2024 to vote,’” said the commissioners’ attorney, Andy Taylor. “The right to vote is sacred.”

See here for the background. Sure does suck to be on the other side, doesn’t it, fellas? And hey, welcome back to the spotlight, Andy Taylor. With Jared Woodfill filing all the crazy political lawsuits these days, I’d almost forgotten you existed.

My initial reaction, when I saw the early version of this story, was that this lawsuit was ridiculous on its face. If “I don’t get to vote for County Commissioner in the next election” is the standard, then it would be impossible to ever move a voter from, say, Precinct 1 to Precinct 4. I’d be willing to be that if we went back to past redistrictings, like the 2011 redistricting, we had some motion from an odd-numbered district to an even-numbered one, or vice versa. It would mean that the next time HISD has to redraw boundaries, it could only move voters between districts that are on the same four-year schedule. I have a hard time believing that’s a constitutional or statutory right that’s being violated here. At least one person agrees with me:

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the commissioners’ lawsuit takes a creative approach but added, “This isn’t going anywhere.”

“The premise of it is that somehow because of staggered terms for county commissioners a person’s constitutional rights are being violated because they’ll have to wait two years to vote,” Jones said.

Those who might have to wait this time around because of the new map would vote in 2024 and 2028, he said. They wouldn’t lose their right to vote in Jones’ view. Like other southern politicians following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which cut out key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the members of commissioners court had much more flexibility in reshaping districts in 2021 than in 2011, 2001 or 1991. The did not need preclearance to make the changes.

Jones likened the Republicans’ announcement this week to the Democratic redistricting lawsuits against the Texas House and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This is much more political posturing rather than legal strategy,” he said. “This is more a negative reaction to the extreme partisan gerrymandering by Rodney Ellis, Lina Hidalgo and Adrian Garcia.”

Jones’ colleague at Rice, Robert Stein, agreed that the county’s new district boundaries undoubtedly disadvantage both Republican commissioners and many of their supporters.

“There is great irony in the fact the two white Republican males are suing the County Judge over the county commissioners redistricting plan,” Stein said. “For the last 100 years Blacks and Hispanics have argued, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, that the partisan drawing of legislative districts prevented them from voting for the candidates of their choice.”

This was filed in state court, so some Harris County judge will get to deal with it. There’s no federal standard for partisan gerrymandering, because the concept was too hard for John Roberts to deal with, but state courts could find that such a thing had happened. I don’t know that the Republicans in Austin will be all that thrilled in that event. I will of course keep an eye on this.

County Court At Law Judge Lesley Briones announces for Commissioner Precinct 4

From the inbox (and on Facebook):

Lesley Briones

Today, I announce my candidacy for Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4.

I have devoted my career to helping people – and serving as a county commissioner will allow me to help improve people’s lives in a more direct, impactful way.

Together, we can build a county government that keeps our families safe, protects our homes from flooding, expands access to health care, treats everyone fairly, and creates good jobs that help our families thrive.

I have been represented by the current Precinct 4 commissioner for the last ten years. In that time, Harris County has changed – and now is the time for new leadership that will get better results for our community.

As part of this transition, I have resigned from my position as judge, and will continue serving until my successor is appointed. It has been a tremendous honor to advance equal justice on the bench, and I look forward to building upon my experience as we work to create a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Harris County for all.”

County Commissioner Adrian García made the following statement:

I enthusiastically give my full support to Judge Lesley Briones in her campaign for County Commissioner, Precinct 4. Lesley’s professional qualifications and life experiences make her the best qualified to confront the issues facing Precinct 4 and all of Harris County – from public safety and flooding to health care and jobs. I am unequivocally all in for Lesley!

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis made the following statement:

I am proud to endorse Judge Lesley Briones for County Commissioner, Precinct 4. Lesley’s proven values of fairness and equal justice, combined with her proven skills at getting results for children, seniors, and families, will help keep Harris County safe, healthy, and thriving for all our residents.

Briones was appointed to the County Court At Law #4 bench in 2019 following the Bill McLeod “wait, do I have to resign now that I said I was running for another office?” kerfuffle. Note that she explicitly mentioned her intent to resign in the press release, so good form there. She then decisively beat McLeod in the 2020 primary and easily won a full term that November. She’s the first candidate to announce for the newly-Democratic precinct, and comes out of the gate hot with the two endorsements. I’m aware of at least one other person looking at this race, so she won’t have the primary to herself, but she’s off to a good start. This is the biggest prize on the ballot in 2022 for local Dems, so for sure there will be some further interest in that race. Her Facebook page is here, she’s got a website on the way, and we’ll see who the Court picks to fill that bench again.

So what happened with election night reporting this time?

The Chron turns its attention to how long it took for election results to get posted on Tuesday night.


Since last year, Harris County has purchased a new fleet of voting machines, created a new elections administration office and hired a new executive to run it.

Why then, many residents wondered, did Tuesday’s low-turnout election see the same delays in vote counting that plagued the county in the past?

By 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, just 60 percent of votes had been tallied for the ballot, which included state constitutional amendments, school board races and a handful of municipal contests. The county elections administrator’s office did not publish the final unofficial tally until 8:30 a.m., 13 ½ hours after the polls closed.

Election Administrator Isabel Longoria blamed the delay on an “extremely unlikely” glitch in the backup power supply at the vote count headquarters at occurred around 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon. That triggered a warning on the new voting system, which is sensitive to anything that may resemble a cyberattack, though it is not connected to the internet.

Longoria ordered a test of the system, which took about two hours and delayed the counting of ballots cast during the early vote period, which under Texas law cannot be counted until Election Day. That, in turn, caused delays when election judges began returning Election Day ballot boxes after polls closed at 7 p.m., she said.

“I get that it’s frustrating … but when you trip your new system, you want to be thorough,” Longoria said. “That’s the most responsible thing to do as an elections administrator, so there are no questions later about why you did not stop when you had the chance to double-check.”

Longoria said she does not anticipate the issue in future elections. Higher-turnout contests are no more difficult, she said, since they have the same number of polling places and memory cards that must be processed.

[…]

Tuesday’s delays were unacceptable to Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who last year opposed the creation of an independent elections office and the hiring of Longoria as its first leader. Cagle said Wednesday the county should revert to the old model, in which the county clerk oversees elections and the county tax assessor-collector maintains the voter roll.

“We have an unelected bureaucrat who was appointed by three members of Commissioners Court,” Cagle said. “There’s no accountability to the public.”

Commissioners Court last year created the election administration office on a party-line vote. Longoria was hired by a committee that included Hidalgo, the county party chairs, tax assessor and county clerk.

Cagle said the three Democratic members of the court, County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, bear responsibility for ensuring Wednesday’s delays do not happen again.

Marc Campos, a longtime Houston Democratic strategist, wrote on his blog Wednesday morning that he “expect(ed) outrage” out of the trio.

“This is not about every election watch party that was ruined last night across Harris County,” Campos wrote on his blog. “This is about botching the reporting of election results and the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office folk’s epic failure.”

Hidalgo said in a statement that while running elections is never easy, the county needs to identify any issues with Tuesday’s elections and correct them for the future. Ellis echoed that sentiment, saying he trusted that Longoria’s team acted in the interests of security and accuracy.

Garcia said the elections office needs to improve communication with the public and anticipate problems before they occur.

“Not getting timely results is unfair to voters and the candidates, and I expect this will be a one-time glitch rather than a continuance of the reputation Harris County earned when elections were run by Republicans like Stan Stanart,” Garcia said in a statement.

See here and here for the background. I’m going to bullet point this one.

– Just as a reminder, the elections administrator idea was first put forward by Ed Emmett back in 2010. Most counties in Texas have them now. Harris was very much an outlier with its Tax Assessor/County Clerk approach to handling voter registration and running elections. Harris County followed state law in creating the position and putting oversight on it.

– The first thing we need is a clear and publicly-available explanation of what exactly happened, why it happened (if we can determine that), and what we are doing to prevent it from happening again. Was the complete reboot necessary, or could that have been skipped? That glitch in the backup power supply may have been extremely unlikely, but given that it did happen, will there be some further mitigation built in to the system now?

This is basic stuff, and speaking as someone who has worked for a big company for a long time, it’s a good way to learn from experience and maintain confidence in one’s own processes. Campos worries that this episode will cause voters to question the capability of Democrats to govern Harris County. Transparency about what happened and what is being done about it is the best antidote for that.

– Something that Commissioner Garcia mentioned but has otherwise been overlooked is that there was inadequate communication from the Elections Administrator’s office on Tuesday night, while we were all waiting for the results. There was the “go watch the Astros” tweet and a couple of Facebook Live videos on the Harris Votes Facebook page, but I went to bed Tuesday night not really knowing what was happening, and I believe that was true for a lot of people. That’s a failure on Isabel Longoria’s part, and I believe it has contributed to the continuing criticism.

People have a reasonable expectation to see at least the early voting results at 7 PM or shortly thereafter. When that doesn’t happen, for whatever the reason, there has to be a clear and easy to find explanation for it. A message on the HarrisVotes website and at the top of the Election Day results page would have sufficed. I looked to Twitter because that’s usually where the breaking news is, but there was nothing to really answer my questions. Maybe those Facebook Live videos would have told me what I wanted to know, but who wants to sit through a video like that when a couple of lines of text that can be readily shared elsewhere will do? I’m sure the Elections office was busy trying to work through the problems so they could get the results out, but they really needed to be letting the rest of us know what was going on and when we might expect an update of the situation. It was the lack of relevant information that made the Tuesday night experience as frustrating as it was. That’s an error that cannot happen again.

– Also, why was there a location that was still voting at 8 PM? What happened there? That needs to be explained as well.

We need to know what happened. We should have known more on Tuesday night, but regardless of that we need to know it now. I hope that process has begun with the Commissioners Court meeting from yesterday. It won’t be done until I can find and link to a report about it.

Is there no way to fully close the flood bond funding gap?

Not looking great right now.

For three years, Harris County Commissioners Court members have bickered, haggled and negotiated over the $2.5 billion flood bond program voters passed after Hurricane Harvey.

Throughout all the discord over how projects should be prioritized and the order in which they should start, the group has stuck to one promise: All projects on the original list presented to voters would be completed, one way or another.

That guarantee may no longer be true, court members conceded Tuesday after Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed taking funding for seven planned projects in the Cedar Bayou watershed and reallocating it elsewhere.

While Garcia postponed seeking approval of the idea after County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned it effectively would kill the Cedar Bayou projects, the Democratic majority on the court said the county should consider re-vetting planned projects to see if better alternatives are available.

Court members are in a conundrum. The list contains about $5 billion worth of flood protection projects. The bond, however, provides only half that sum. The county planned for the rest to be covered through matching federal dollars that have failed to materialize, largely due to a distribution formula used by the state General Land Office that discriminated against populous areas.

“We only have $2.5 billion, so decisions have to be made,” Garcia said.

Through June, however, the county had received $1.2 billion in matching federal funds and diverted an additional $230 million in toll road revenue for the program, bringing the total available to $4 billion. The county budget office estimates the roughly decade-long program, currently 16 percent complete, is fully funded for the next five years.

Nonetheless, while no projects have been delayed or canceled to date, that day could soon arrive. Garcia’s proposal would shift $191 million planned for detention basins and channel improvements along Cedar Bayou, in northeast Harris County, to 17 projects in the Carpenters, Vince, Jackson, Greens, Armand, San Jacinto and Galveston Bay watersheds.

See here, here, and here for more on the attempts to fill the gap, and here and here for the reminder that the mess we are in is George P. Bush’s fault. According to Commissioner Garcia, his proposal to prioritize one project over another would protect more houses, score better on the county’s rubric for the projects, and get finished faster. I’m not sure why the order hadn’t been flipped before now, but that sure sounds like a worthy idea even without the funding issues. If nothing else, it may buy some time. But in the end, assuming we continue to be screwed by the GLO, it’s as Commissioner Ellis said: The Commissioners can find a way to come up with the rest of the money, or they can admit that not all of the projects will get done and explain their actions to the public. Those are the choices.

Commissioners Court passes its new map

It differs from the first map in a few ways, which I will get to in a minute, but it checks all the boxes I wanted it to check.

For Democratic Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, it boiled down to this: Do I trust my Republican colleagues to set tax rates that will fund critical services like health care and childhood development as the population continues to grow?

The answer? A firm no, which convinced Hidalgo to support a commissioner precinct redistricting plan that will likely lead to a 4-1 Democratic supermajority on Commissioners Court in 2023.

“I am concerned that your party is in a race to the bottom, to literally not pay for lifesaving services,” Hidalgo told Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, referencing his proposal in September to cut the county hospital district budget by $17 million. “I haven’t forgotten that.”

Court Thursday afternoon adopted the new map, which will debut in next year’s elections, on a 3-2 party line vote. The group adopted the third proposal offered by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, which he said keeps communities with similar interests together and reflects the leftward shift of the county over the past decade.

“I keep Katy ISD and Alief ISD together, the Energy Corridor together,” Ellis said. “It unites Sharpstown and Gulfton and combines watersheds in those areas.”

Cagle objected to the proposal, since it largely switches the current areas covered by precincts 3 and 4, which he said would leave those commissioners in charge of different road crews, parks and community centers for no reason.

“To be candid, I thought (this map) was a joke,” Cagle said. “It’s the stranger map. Your people of service are all going to be served by strangers, in terms of flipping all the resources.”

[…]

The current map, drawn by a Republican-controlled court in 2011, packs Democrats into Precinct 1, increasing the chance that Republicans would win elections in precincts 2, 3 and 4. Commissioners Cagle and Precinct 3’s Tom Ramsey proposed maps that would preserve that edge, even though Republicans have not won a countywide election since 2014 and President Joe Biden won here by 13 points last year.

The adopted Ellis map gives Democrats a decisive edge. According to analysis of election results from 2016 to 2020, Democrats will have an advantage of 50 percentage points in Precinct 1, 12 points in Precinct 2 and 12 points in Precinct 4. Republican voters are disproportionately crammed into Precinct 3, giving the party a 20-point advantage there.

If those trends hold, Democrats are likely to defeat Cagle in Precinct 4 next year to secure a 4-1 Commissioners Court majority. This is critical because setting tax rates requires a quorum of four members instead of the typical three, which gave Republicans tremendous influence in negotiations despite being in the minority.

See here, here, and here for the background. The current map can be seen here, the original Ellis proposal is here, and the final Ellis map, the one that was adopted, is here.

By switching the targeted precinct from 4 to 3, not only does this mean that it’s Jack Cagle and not Tom Ramsey who will get the boot (fine by me either way), it also moves up the date to do the booting from 2024 to 2022. That’s because Ramsey was elected in 2020 and would not be on the ballot again until 2024, while Cagle is on the ballot next year. Why wait? That makes the most sense.

I presume this will also have an effect on the HCDE, and in turn on Trustees Eric Dick in Precinct 4 and Andrea Duhon in Precinct 3; Amy Hinojosa in Precinct 2 will benefit in the same way that Commissioner Garcia will. Dick and Hinojosa are up for election next year, Duhon in 2024. Assuming Harris County stays blue overall, this will eventually result in the same 6-1 Dem split on the HCDE board, but with a two-year period between 2022 and 2024 in which everyone will be Democratic.

So there we have it. I’m fine with this, and I look forward to seeing who files to be the one to un-elect Jack Cagle. A statement from Commissioner Ellis is here and from Commissioner Garcia is here.

More on Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting

Tune up that tiny violin.

Republican Harris County Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey want to keep the decennial process of redistricting precinct boundaries simple. The maps they have proposed would add new zigs and zags to ensure each precinct has the same population but largely would leave the current lines intact.

The pair say their proposals would protect residents from disruptions to county services, though they also would protect something else: the political power of conservatives with an electorate that has shifted away from them.

Republicans have lost every countywide election since 2014, and President Joe Biden won here by 13 percentage points last year. Yet the proposal from Cagle and Ramsey, which packs Democratic voters disproportionately into one precinct, would leave Republicans well-positioned to regain control of the Commissioners Court next year.

“We’ve seen in the state Legislature where Republicans, instead of creating huge inroads in districts in which they lost, opt to protect themselves and protect the current status quo,” University of Houston political science professor Jeronimo Cortina said. “Republicans in Harris County are attempting to do a very similar thing.”

The difference, Cortina said, is that Cagle and Ramsey lack the power to do so. Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on the court and thus control redistricting.

Democratic Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed his own map, which likely would produce three precincts controlled by Democrats and one held by a Republican. He noted the redistricting criteria the Commissioners Court developed included “a desire to have precincts that will allow … representation to reflect the philosophical and partisan makeup of the county.”

“The so-called map that Commissioner Cagle has that I think I saw described as the status quo creates three solid Republican precincts,” Ellis said at a public hearing Thursday. “That was by design, that all of those folks of the philosophical persuasion that happened to tend for Democrats were stuck in Precinct 1.”

Cagle said he prioritized shifting as few residents between precincts as possible in drafting his map; Ramsey said he did not take politics into consideration.

“You can call me the naïve one, but I approached this from the standpoint of serving constituents,” Ramsey said.

[…]

The current map was drawn in 2011 by a Republican-majority Commissioners Court. It disproportionately pushed Democrats into Precinct 1, leaving Precincts 2, 3, and 4 with a majority of Republican voters. Notably, it shifted parts of heavily conservative Kingwood into Precinct 2, which had just been flipped by Republican Jack Morman, to boost his chances of reelection.

The county has shifted leftward in the decade since. Harris County voters have chosen the Democratic presidential nominee in every contest since 2008 and by 2018 had taken control of every countywide elected office. Democrat Adrian Garcia beat Morman in Precinct 2 in 2018, and now his party is keen to protect the seat.

See here and here for the background. I cannot emphasize enough how much I do not care about what Cagle and Ramsey want. Their constituents will be fine – they can commiserate with the many, many people who have been shuffled into various Congressional and legislative districts over the past couple of decades. But what they want, as far as their own political futures are concerned, that’s just not on the list of priorities. I’d say I’m sorry but we both know I’m not. The Texas Signal has more.

Harris County Commissioners Court begins the process of approving its new maps today

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Rodney Ellis:

Every decade, after each U.S. census, states, cities and counties engage in a process called redistricting, where they adjust the boundaries of their governing districts to reflect changes in population growth and other factors.

For the last six weeks, Harris County has held public meetings across the county to hear your thoughts.

Based on what we learned, and in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, we’re proposing new boundaries for county commissioner districts that are reflected in the map posted here. Our plan seeks to keep communities of interest together and brings together areas that have been split apart for years.

For too long this county has been intentionally divided by precinct boundaries that deny people the opportunity to elect representation that accurately reflects the views of the majority of our communities. The boundaries proposed cease that continued suppression, and allows the voices and views of the people to be reflected by those who represent them.

In Harris County, we’re committed to a fair and transparent process. That’s why we held public meetings across the county and why we are taking public comment now on the proposed maps.

You will hear some of my colleagues complain – and complain loudly. Sadly, they are more concerned about preserving their political power and getting headlines than they are about getting better representation for you.

You can provide YOUR feedback on the proposed maps in person or virtually. Public hearings on the adoption of a redistricting map in Harris County will be held on Tuesday, October 26 and Thursday, October 28. You MUST complete this form in order to testify.

  • For questions or assistance with the Appearance Request Form, please contact [email protected] or 713-274-1111.
  • If you cannot attend, you can still let your voice be heard by submitting your written comments to [email protected]

Redistricting will impact the direction of this county for years to come. We will continue to fight for you to have the fair representation that everyone in Harris County deserves.

For more information on the Harris County redistricting process, you can visit the Harris County Attorney Office’s redistricting page.

See here for the background. You can expect the wailing and gnashing of teeth among Republicans who just want a nice, fair, inclusive, mapmaking process – you know, like the one we just had – to be turned up to eleven. I can only imagine the lawsuits they may file afterwards. The HCDP has put out its support of the Ellis map along with a tout sheet about what the new map will do, and undo. This is going to be messy but exciting.

Commissioners Court redistricting has begun

The Republicans are apoplectic. I have no sympathy.

The two Republican Harris County commissioners say a proposal by Democrats to re-draw commissioner precinct boundaries will cut services and dilute the influence of conservative residents.

The proposed map by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis would significantly alter the shapes of precincts 3 and 4, the two represented by Republicans. Precinct 4 would arch along the county’s northern edge from Katy to Baytown, while Precinct 3 would be entirely west of Loop 610.

Commissioners Court [took] input from the public on redistricting at a hearing Thursday at 4 p.m.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey called Ellis’s map “the most corrupt plan I have ever seen my 45 years in doing work in Harris County.”

“The objective is control,” Ramsey said Thursday on the Michael Berry Show. “The objective is to create the most chaos as possible, because (the Democrats) cannot stand the fact that 3 and 4 function very well. … It drives them crazy, so they want to blow it up.”

He said he is particularly concerned that Precinct 4 would by far have the largest share of residents living in unincorporated areas, who rely on the county for services like parks and community centers. Ramsey predicted a strain on that precinct would lead to cutbacks.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the Ellis map, if approved, could allow Democrats to finally capture a fourth seat on Commissioners Court, which would allow them to set tax rates without any input from Republicans. In an email to constituents, Cagle predicted that would lead to future tax increases.

Cagle has proposed a map of his own. It largely keeps the current shapes of the precincts intact, while ceding parts of precincts 3 and 4 to precincts 1 and 2.

Oh, boo hoo hoo. Commissioner Ramsey deserves what he’s getting. I like Commissioner Ellis’ response, as noted here.

“Any maps that I vote for will be fair and designed to provide better representation for all Harris County residents. Has Commissioner Ramsey complained about the radical partisan racially discriminatory gerrymandering his Republican colleagues just rammed through the state legislature?” said Commissioner Ellis in response to a FOX 26 request for comment.

I think we know the answer to that. Here’s the current map. The Ellis plan is here, and if you scroll down to page 5, you’ll see the partisan splits from the 2018 Governor’s race, the 2020 Presidential race, and the 2020 Senate race. I feel pretty confident if those are the numbers. The Ellis map looks a lot like the third map suggested by Benjamin Chou, which we discussed in August.

You can see more maps here. There’s one drawn by Commissioner Ramsey, and a demonstration map drawn by Dem consultant Robert Jara (I assume it’s him, the link just says “Jara map”), which would make all four precincts Democratic, though with sufficiently close margins that I’d feel pretty nervous about it. We’ll know more about what is happening by the time you read this on Friday, but it looks to me like we’ll get a map approved pretty quickly – given that the state and Congressional maps are all in the hopper, we’re going to have primaries at the usual time, which means filing season opens on November 15 as usual. So yeah, this is going to move quickly. Campos has more.

Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week unanimously agreed on a proposal to cut the overall property tax rate for the coming year, a compromise that avoids a potential quorum break by Republicans that would have forced an even deeper cut.

The rate of 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value is 3 percent less than the current levy. This means the owner of a home valued at $300,000, with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption already factored in, could save up to $54 in the first year. However, as Harris County Appraisal District valuations continue to rise, homeowners could see slightly higher tax bills, despite the lower rate.

The overall rate is the sum of the rates Commissioners Court sets for four entities: the county as a whole, the flood control district, the hospital district and the Port of Houston. Compared to the current levies, the flood control district rate will increase slightly, while the other three entities would see a rate cut.

Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia last week proposed a rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, a 2.2 percent cut from the current rate of 59.9 cents.

The two Republican members wanted more significant savings for taxpayers, noting economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey proposed a rate of 57.9 cents.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned against cutting the tax rate, and thus revenues, too much because it will make raising more revenue in the future more difficult. That is because of a revenue cap the Legislature placed on cities and counties last year which limits year-over-year growth to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

“We should be negotiating on what the county needs,” Hidalgo said. “It does not benefit me, politically, to want to cut taxes less. I simply know we’re headed down a dangerous path.”

After hours of haggling at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, the panel agreed on the 58.1 cent rate, which Garcia offered as a compromise. The court at one point was mulling a half dozen options and County Administrator David Berry confessed he was struggling to keep track of who had proposed which.

See here for the background. They say in baseball that you gain more by avoiding dumb decisions than you do by making brilliant ones. I’m just glad we were able to avoid the dumb outcome here.

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.

A look ahead to Commissioners Court redistricting

As we know, the Census redistricting data is out, and that means a whole lot of map-drawing is in our future. The main focus on this will be in Austin where the Congressional and legislative maps are re-drawn, but those are not the only entities that have this job to do. Harris County will be redrawing its Commissioners Court map, and this time for the first time in decades it will be done with a Democratic majority on the Court. What might be in store? Benjamin Chou with the Texas Signal provides an advance look at the possibilities.

Over the course of the last decade, population in Harris County boomed, growing by over 630,000 residents from 4.1 million in 2010 to 4.7 million today. Most of the population growth occurred in Precincts 3 and 4, which are also the same precincts currently held by the two Republicans.

In this round of redistricting, the Court will need to tweak the districts so that the four precincts have relatively similar population numbers. For this year’s sake, that means increasing the population in Precinct 2 and decreasing the population in Precincts 3 and 4. To do so, the Democratic-majority can attempt a range of actions that can be simplified into 3 main results: maintain the same 3–2 Democratic majority or increase their majority to 4–1.

The current Commissioners Court map was drawn a decade ago, by the then 4–1 Republican majority. At that time, Republicans held Precincts 2, 3, 4 and the county judge position. The map was drawn with the intent to solidify the Republican 4–1 majority by increasing Republican voters in those three precincts, particularly Precinct 2. The court did so by replacing Hispanic Democratic voters with Anglo Republicans.

They were successful through much of the decade. In the high-Republican turnout year of 2014, Republicans crushed Democrats. Republican Governor Greg Abbott won Precinct 2 by more than 16% of votes and Precincts 3 and 4 by more than 20% each. Even in 2018, when Beto O’Rourke lifted Democratic performance to its most competitive level in a generation, the Republican majority barely crumbled. County Judge Hidalgo, the only one of the five members of the court to be elected county-wide, won by less than 2%. Commissioner Garcia won Precinct 2 by 1%. Last year, when Democrats had a chance to flip Precinct 3, the Democratic candidate lost by 5%.

When considering how to redraw the map, the new Democratic majority will likely keep Precinct 1 solidly Democratic while shoring up Precinct 2 for Commissioner Garcia. The question is whether the court makes Precincts 3, 4, or neither more Democratic so a future challenger has a better chance of ousting the Republican incumbents.

The problem with choosing neither means the Republicans have a chance of flipping the current Democratic 3–2 majority in the event Democrats lose the County Judge position. Similarly, if the Court decides to make only Precinct 3 more Democratic, there remains a risk that Republicans win control because Precinct 3 is not up for election until 2024. Because Precinct 4 is up for election in 2022, the safest bet for Democrats to retain uninterrupted control will be to redraw Precinct 4 more Democratic.

Chou goes on to draw three potential new maps, one that just makes Precinct 2 more Democratic, which would end up with the same Court if Judge Hidalgo wins re-election, and one that shores up Precinct 2 while also turning a radically redrawn Precinct 4 Democratic as well. I’ll let you have a look and see what you think. You can also review this tweet from Hector DeLeon to see the Census population figures for each of the four precincts.

It’s a good writeup, and it captures the choices well. A couple of things that were not directly addressed: One, the Latino drift towards Trump in 2020, which we have discussed before multiple times. We saw that manifest here, though perhaps not as much as in South Texas, but in areas that would affect Precinct 2. Biden carried Precinct 2 in 2020 by a tiny margin, while other Dems generally fell short; in 2018 Beto won Precinct 2 by seven points, while other Dems generally carried it by four or five. For a variety of reasons we don’t know how this will play out in 2022, but we should start with the assumption that Latino voters are a little softer than we’d like, so that we don’t overestimate our position.

Two, we can’t just shove Anglo Republicans into Precinct 1 as a way to aid Precinct 2, because the Voting Rights Act is still more or less in effect, and retrogressing its Black population would be a violation of the VRA. Yes, the thought of a Republican plaintiff filing a VRA lawsuit over this is ironic to the point of causing nosebleeds, but care must still be taken.

Three, as Harris County continues to grow and change demographically, Precinct 3 as it is now will likely become more Democratic in time for the 2024 election without much else being done. Betting on that does entail the risk that the Court could swing Republican in 2022, either via Commissioner Garcia losing or Judge Hidalgo losing. I’m less worried about the latter, and the former can certainly be mitigated against, but this would allow for the possibility of getting to 4-1 without a complete redesign of the county map, which might be controversial politically in ways that are not currently apparent.

It should also be noted that redrawing the Commissioners Court map does the same for the HCDE Trustees map. As it happens, due to resignations and appointments, Dems have a 6-1 majority on that body right now, with all three At Large seats plus the Precincts 1, 2, and 3 positions in their column. I’m certain this will be a lower priority for consideration by the mapmakers, but it is worth keeping in mind.

Beyond that, we’ll see. Commissioners Court is under the same time constraints as the Lege, in that they need to get a new map in place in time for the 2022 primaries, whenever they wind up being. Assuming that will take place in May, and the filing period will be pushed back commensurately, they have a couple of months. Expect to see some action soon – if this is like last time, they’ll hire a consultant to do the actual work, with their specifications, and they will formally approve it once it suits their needs and the public has a chance to weigh in. I will of course be keeping an eye out for this.

The Harris County Administrator of Departments

I have three things to say about this.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday created a new administrator position to oversee departments, which the three Democrats described as a wonky internal move to improve efficiency but the two Republicans decried as a radical and dangerous usurpation of their power.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to hire the administrator to oversee the day-to-day activities of the 20 departments that directly report to Commissioners Court. David Berry, the county budget director, will fill the administrator role.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the move is long overdue, arguing that too often departments duplicate efforts addressing some needs, ignore others and fail to work together on big-picture problems that have plagued the county for decades.

“I’m so proud of the things that have been achieved, but would it have taken three 500-year floods for us to have a flood bond that, by the way, isn’t enough?” said Hidalgo, a Democrat. “(Tropical Storm) Allison happened in 2001. But because it’s a parochial system, these kind of things went hush-hush.”

Democratic Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the administrator role will be nonpartisan and noted the other largest counties in Texas, except Travis, already have adopted the model. He said it also would leave intact the longstanding practice in which each commissioner oversees his precinct’s roads, parks and community centers without meddling from other court members.

“Look, I think this makes sense,” Ellis said. “This doesn’t take away from anybody’s fiefdom.”

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have a different view. Ramsey said the county has a long history of competent department heads and said he failed to see a need for a new layer of bureaucracy, which the budget office estimates will cost $2 million annually. He also accused his Democratic colleagues of trying to sneak a “power grab” past residents.

“Public transparency we get an F on, in terms of this issue,” Ramsey said.

Cagle said since Democrats control the court, and, thus, get to appoint the administrator, the new position merely allows them to grow their power. He echoed Ramsey’s concerns about redundancy and said the administrator would allow the Democrats to outsource unpopular decisions — such as firing personnel — to an unaccountable bureaucrat.

“We’re accountable to the people in our precincts,” Cagle said. “But the county administrator has no duty except to the majority of three here on the court. In essence, we become isolated.”

1. I dunno, this seems like pretty normal reorganization to me. I’ve been a drone in the corporate world for almost 30 years, I’ve lived through dozens of these. The reason for this reorg makes sense. Whether it achieves success or not will depend on a number of factors, including how the metrics of success are defined (trust me, this is always key). But it’s just normal, boring stuff. I do not understand the freakout.

2. Along those lines, spare me the “power grab” rhetoric. It’s called “having a majority”, and if the voters don’t like it they will get their chance to express that opinion soon enough. The “unaccountable bureaucrat” thing is especially laughable. By that logic, each individual department head is also an “unaccountable bureaucrat”. We elect people to run the government. That comes with a lot of hiring people to do the actual government work. Again, calm yourself down.

3. Whoever this person turns out to be, they’re gonna need a better title than the one I suggested in this post. Feel free to leave your best suggestion in the comments.

Harris County and Houston appeal to HUD for flood funds

Hope this helps.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday asked U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge to set a 30-day deadline for the Texas General Land Office to formally request $750 million in federal flood control aid that Land Commissioner George P. Bush recently said he would seek.

“Given this matter involves funds allocated in February of 2018, the rules were promulgated in August of 2019, and hurricane season has already begun for 2021, HUD (the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department) should require the GLO to submit this amendment within the next 30 days,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote.

Since late May, when the GLO announced its plan to distribute an initial round of about $1 billion in mitigation funds approved by Congress after Hurricane Harvey, Houston-area officials have hammered Bush for not directing a penny of the aid to the city or the county. In response, Bush said he would ask HUD, which oversees the federal relief money, to directly send $750 million to Harris County — essentially bypassing the GLO’s criteria for scoring flood project applications.

Hidalgo and Turner have said the $750 million falls well short of the $2 billion they believe the city and county should receive — $1 billion apiece — to fund projects aimed at mitigating the effects of future storms. In the letter to Fudge and at a congressional hearing Friday, they sought HUD’s help in securing roughly that amount from the $4.3 billion that Congress allotted for Texas after the 2017 storm.

“We’re asking that HUD approve this amendment (for $750 million) … as a down payment toward an equitable share for all governmental entities within Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Turner noted that Houston still has not been promised any flood mitigation relief because Bush has said he plans to ask HUD to send the $750 million directly to Harris County. Bush said the county, which faces a $1.4 billion funding gap for its $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018, could then decide how much to give the city.

The city and county collectively applied for $1.34 billion to cover 14 flood projects: five from the city and nine from the county.

See here for the background (there are more links to previous posts in that one). I don’t know what is likely to come of this, but the goal is to get more funding for the region, and for both the city and the county to have their own projects funded, rather than have the city depend on the county to give it a share of its allocation. We’ll keep an eye on this. The Texas Signal and the Press have more.

GLO to Harris County: Drop dead

Hard to see this as anything but a hatchet job.

Houston and Harris County officials said the Texas General Land Office informed them Thursday they would receive nothing from the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for federal flood mitigation funding the state is disbursing.

Instead, about $1 billion in U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds the GLO is managing will flow to other local governments in 46 Southeast Texas counties that are eligible for the aid. Four smaller municipalities in east Harris County — Pasadena, Jacinto City, Galena Park and Baytown — will receive about $90 million combined.

The snub, delivered by GLO staff in meetings this week, surprised local leaders, who had expected the city and county to receive hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I would like to tell you the meeting was informative and productive. Unfortunately, the meeting was ridiculous,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who suggested the state had political motives for its decision. “The GLO is saying today that the largest county in Texas, the county home to the most significant elements of our state, local and national economy, does not merit the fair share of billions of dollars.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it was “unconscionable” that federal funds Congress intended for Hurricane Harvey recovery would not flow to the Houston area, by far the most populous affected by the storm.

“Our community needs this federal funding and we have already begun the process of reaching out to the Biden Administration to identify alternatives — including a potential review of the process for this allocation and a direct carve-out going forward,” Hidalgo said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration said the city was preparing a letter Thursday evening in which it would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene. In a statement, the mayor called on the federal agency to “immediately halt the distribution” of the funds until it could review the situation.

“For the state GLO not to give one dime in the initial distribution to the city and a very small portion to Harris County shows a callous disregard to the people of Houston and Harris County,” Turner said. “And it is unfathomable that the state GLO would redirect most of these dollars to areas that did not suffer much from Hurricane Harvey.”

[…]

An appropriation from the state is crucial to closing a roughly $900 million funding gap Harris County has for its flood bond program. Without it, the county faces the prospect of issuing a new bond, diverting toll road revenue or scaling back the size or scope of flood projects.

Russ Poppe, the Harris County Flood Control District executive director, said he struggled to understand how roughly $300 million in applications his engineers prepared failed to secure a single dollar. He said he thought the county’s projects exceeded the criteria for awards.

“We’re curious to see how the GLO scored our projects, and why they declared us ineligible,” Poppe said. “I just don’t know until I see the numbers.”

See here and here for some background. I’d like to see those numbers too, because I cannot envision a scenario in which absolutely none of Houston or Harris County’s requests made the cut. Hell, if it had been looking likely along the way that Houston and Harris County were coming up short, you’d think it would make sense for the GLO to give them a heads up so they could maybe shore up their applications. Indeed, the exact opposite appears to be the case.

One might argue that the fix was in from the beginning.

It should be self-evident why the state should want Harris County to get its fair share of these funds. For that matter, the same is true for the federal government. As such, I hope Mayor Turner’s letter to HUD has an effect. I know George P. Bush has a primary challenge to run, but there are other concerns to deal with. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Said letter to HUD, signed by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Rodney Ellis, can be seen here.

UPDATE: Judge Hidalgo sent her own letter to HUD as well.

On vaccine equity

This was predictable, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as such.

Black and Latino Harris County residents received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than their white counterparts, according to a county analysis that also found a person’s likelihood of vaccination, to date, largely has depended on where they live.

The findings underscore what a Houston Chronicle analysis found last month: Even though African-American and Latino communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in Texas, they are being vaccinated at a much slower pace.

The gap exists despite a Harris County public health campaign crafted to convince residents of color to get the vaccine. And it is significant: In the highest-participation ZIP code, 77046 in Upper Kirby, 87 percent of residents have received at least one dose. Fourteen miles north in Greenspoint, 77060, 8 percent of residents have.

“That disparity is so disappointing, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho. “A large portion of the vaccines in the state went to the hospital systems, who just went through their electronic records — so if you’re insured, which means you’re more likely to be white, then it was easy for them to sign you up.”

Of the 20 Harris County ZIP codes with vaccination rates of at least 31 percent, 18 have predominantly white residents. Sixteen are in the so-called Houston Arrow, the section of Houston from Oak Forest southeast to downtown, southwest to Meyerland, north to the Galleria and west through the Energy Corridor that is significantly whiter and more affluent than other parts of the city.

Much of the data from 77030 likely is incorrect, the report notes, since the Texas Medical Center is located there and many hospitals appear to have listed that ZIP code as a way of expediting patient appointments.

Of the 20 county ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates, none of which exceed 15 percent, 18 are mostly nonwhite. None are in the Arrow.

[…]

The two commissioner precincts with the highest share of white residents, 3 and 4, had the highest vaccination rates, both above 16 percent. Precinct 1, which has the largest proportion of African Americans, was just below 16 percent. Just 13 percent of residents in [Commissioner Adrian] Garcia’s Precinct 2, which is mostly Latino, have received at least one dose.

Garcia said he asked for the study because he wanted to identify areas in Harris County that need greater vaccine outreach. He praised the county’s mass vaccination site at the NRG campus, but said many of his constituents lack access to public or private transportation to travel to the site or the Texas Medical Center, which are in Precinct 1.

“We want to make sure we’re being creative and thoughtful about where are the masses in the precinct that may be a way to help us move that needle in a better direction?

“The Medical Center, for most of the people in my precinct, doesn’t really exist because they can’t get to it,” Garcia continued. “We need to serve those tough, underserved areas of the precinct that have gone underserved for quite some time.”

Precinct 2 has partnered with unions and community groups to set up local vaccination sites. The portable SmartPod mobile medical units Garcia debuted last year to help with COVID-19 testing now are used also to assist with administering the shots.

Garcia said he also would urge the county health department to waive its requirement that residents register for appointments online. He predicted walk-in appointments would be popular among seniors who may not be technologically savvy, as well as undocumented residents wary of entering their personal information into a government database.

There are a lot of reasons for which, a primary one being that the state prioritized people over 65, who are disproportionately white, and not essential workers like grocery store employees or meatpackers or teachers or government employees. Not much we can do about that now other than try to catch up from here. Commissioner Garcia has the right idea, but it’s going to take time to make a difference.