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Rodney Ellis

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.

More local pushback against SB7 and HB6

From the inbox:

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

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

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

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

Representatives from the following organizations were also present:

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

Watch the entire voter suppression news conference here.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one more:

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not give Ken Paxton any more power

Seriously, WTF?

Best mugshot ever

A new bill would give Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton greater prosecutorial authority over abuse-of-office charges — the very crime for which the FBI is reportedly investigating the state’s top attorney.

The bill, proposed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would allow Paxton’s office to prosecute the charges without consent from local prosecutors, as is required now.

Paxton, a Republican who has been awaiting trial in a separate, unrelated felony securities fraud case for five years, has also been also under investigation by federal law enforcement after seven former aides accused him of using the powers of his office to help campaign donor, Nate Paul, an Austin-based real estate developer. Paxton has maintained his innocence in all cases.

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bettencourt’s bill was inspired by an unusual case in Harris County, in which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, was found to have stored more than 1,200 privately owned pieces of African artwork, free of charge, at a county warehouse for more than three years.

Ellis pushed the Commissioners Court to sign a 2018 deal for 14 pieces for display in county buildings, but that agreement lapsed in January. His precinct later accepted more than 1,400, few of which have ever been shown publicly. The cost of storage over those three years is estimated at between $432,000 and $576,000, according to quotes from Houston art storage facilities.

A new contract has yet to be approved, and Ellis has not been charged with any crimes, though political foes allege that it constitutes an illegal abuse of office.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is investigating the matter. The FBI is also reportedly investigating, according to KPRC 2, which broke the initial story.

[…]

Josh Reno, deputy attorney general for criminal justice, testified Monday that the office works with local prosecutors when requested if there is a potential conflict of interest.

“Local county and district attorneys want to be elected, and they are at a disadvantage in some of these cases when they may be prosecuting a very popular individual in their community,” said Reno, a former assistant district attorney tapped by Paxton in November. “I think SB 252 gives another tool in the tool belt for prosecutors who may not have the ability or may not have the political acumen to stand up to these folks.”

That would give the office “incredible power” over local prosecution decisions, said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

“My concern is — it’s obvious in this case, probably somebody should do something — but in our history, in our state’s history, occasionally we get some renegade attorney generals who if they really didn’t like you could harass the individual official,” Nichols said.

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who was a prosecutor with the Travis County Attorney’s office for eight years, said it was “folly” to presume the state’s top attorney would be any less political than a local prosecutor.

“We’re dealing with an attorney general’s office, for which the elected attorney general’s been under indictment for five years, so if you think you’re going to get less political prosecutions out of the current attorney general’s office, I think that’s highly unlikely,” Eckhardt said.

You can say that again. I’m old enough to remember when some people thought that having a Public Integrity Unit in the office of the Travis County DA, which had jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed by state officials, was ripe for partisan overreach. As with so many other Republican-filed bills this session, there’s no obvious need for this kind of approach. There are ongoing investigations of the allegations, which may or may not lead to a case being brought if the evidence warrants. Bettencourt claims handing the power to investigate and prosecute over to the AG would somehow restore trust in the system, but all he’s doing here is attacking the system before it even has a chance to work. And that’s without taking the deep and flagrant concerns any decent person would have with Ken Paxton.

(Has it occurred to Bettencourt that Paxton could lose next year? He came close to losing in 2018, and he’s now got the FBI dogging him, among other things. There’s no way Bettencourt files this bill if Justin Nelson were the AG. Surely that highlights the clear problem with it.)

The bill did not get a vote in committee, which is not unusual. It may get voted on later, and one of the Senators who will have a vote on it is none other than Angela Paxton. How convenient. Most likely, it dies a quiet death. But add this to the long list of particulars against Paul Bettencourt, who needs to be voted out as much as Ken Paxton does.

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail.

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

See here for more on the data. It’s meager, and I don’t see anything on the Data for Progress website to supplement it, so take it for what it is. As with all DfP polls, it was done via web panel, with 478 respondents. I point this out not because I think it’s a huge vindication of my own opinions, but because I’d really like to see a closer examination of these questions, and of the (frequently emotional rather than fact-based) arguments against them. I suspect that the potential to move these numbers, especially among partisans, is quite large, but we don’t know enough yet to say by how much. To the extent that we can have a thoughtful conversation about the costs and benefits of a policy to minimize the jail population along these lines, we should.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

The next phase of the I-45 fight is about to begin

Where it goes from here is still up in the air. The opening of this story was at a rally on Sunday that opposed the current I-45 plan.

The rally, part of a flurry of events from concerts to block-walking that members of Stop I-45 have organized, comes days before the deadline for comments on the $7 billion plan to remake I-45 and the downtown freeway system. Comments on the final environmental report are due to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office by Wednesday.

Construction on segments, starting downtown, could start as soon as late 2021.

In advance of the deadline, groups such as LINK Houston and Air Alliance Houston that have opposed the project have mobilized online efforts to solicit comments and even petition local elected officials to oppose it.

“We’re going to do whatever we can,” said Susan Graham, organizer of the Stop I-45 group. “We’re calling elected officials. We’re set to speak at City Council on Tuesday. If there’s something we can do, we’re going to do it, but we can’t do anything unless people show up.”

Scores of groups and individuals, including the city’s planning department, plan responses in their last chance to comment. Elected officials, notably County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, are also increasing their criticism of the plan.

“They want to continue to do the same old, same old, but that dog won’t hunt,” Garcia said of TxDOT’s plan. “We need to make sure they understand it is about the future, not what used to be.”

TxDOT and some supporters also have coalesced, with TxDOT releasing its own documents online and groups such as the NAACP and North Houston Association submitting comments at recent meetings in the Houston area and with the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin, which oversees TxDOT.

Certification of the project’s environmental process is not the end of the discussions or opportunities to address concerns, but it largely gives TxDOT the approval to proceed. Most of the money comes from state transportation funds, though about $100 million in locally controlled money is budgeted; members of the the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council can rescind it.

To address concerns raised by Harris County and Houston officials — who in the past year began to rethink their support of the project — H-GAC sought to craft a deal outlining what state and local officials hope to accomplish with the freeway rebuild. That memorandum of agreement between TxDOT, Houston, Harris County, H-GAC and the Metropolitan Transit Authority would allow all of the groups to have a single set of goals to achieve.

As that agreement has taken shape, however, much of the binding language H-GAC staff started with has been watered down, at the behest of TxDOT lawyers. For example, the original introduction said areas where the freeway fails to meet modern standards “must be corrected.” Now it reads “should be improved.”

TxDOT lawyers also inserted language stating the environmental review supersedes any agreements, in effect noting that the federal process governs how a freeway is designed.

“TxDOT’s legal obligations under the (federal environmental) process remain unchanged, and nothing in this document commits or obligates any party to any action against, or in addition, to those obligations,” lawyers wrote.

Susan Graham, quoted in the excerpt above, had a recent op-ed that outlined the opposition to the project, the bulk of which is that TxDOT has not adequately taken into account the concerns and the input from the people and communities that would be most directly affected by the rebuild. I’m sure TxDOT would say they’ve bent over backwards to provide opportunities to give feedback and that they have listened and adjusted as much as they can. I feel like this project has been looming over all of us who live within a mile or so of I-45, and while it has gotten better, there’s only so much you can do to mitigate its effects. I think the opposition has the stronger argument, and if TxDOT can’t stick to the agreement that H-GAC hammered out about consensus goals for the project, then maybe this project isn’t worth doing. Or at least, it’s not worth doing the way it’s currently set up to be done.

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $10 million fund to invest in early childhood development programs proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, her chief policy goal for 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the county government to shift its priorities.

The first-of-its-kind county initiative will provide seed investments over two to three years in programs and strategies aimed at improving health and educational outcomes for young children and their families, Hidalgo wrote in a memo to Commissioners Court. Those include reducing health disparities at birth, promoting responsive and nurturing parent-child relationships, reducing adverse childhood experiences and maltreatment and expanding access to high-quality childcare.

“Early childhood development is a fundamental determinant of long-term and societal health and wellbeing,” Hidalgo wrote.

Hidalgo pledged during her State of the County address last November to make significant investments in improving the lives of children. Since March, however, the pandemic has occupied much of Commissioners Court’s time.

The $10 million will be distributed among entities that provide services to children and at least one firm tasked with evaluating their effectiveness. Requests for proposals would be due Jan. 29, with the goal of launching programs by the end of March.

Hidalgo cited the effectiveness of similar programs in other metro areas, including a Chicago effort aimed at steering teens away from gun violence.

As noted, this was something Judge Hidalgo discussed in the State of the County address last year, and it was also something she campaigned on. She had and has a vision of county government that is more involved, and with the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court, she is acting on it. Speaking of which:

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the proposal, which they said is beyond the scope of county government.

I first heard the name Jack Cagle about thirty years ago. I was pretty active with Planned Parenthood back then. I reached out to the main clinic, which was then on Fannin, in early 1990 in advance of the economic summit that was held that year at Rice (I was still a grad student there at that time), because I had heard about various anti-abortion groups coming into town for the summit to picket and disrupt things at the clinic, and I wanted to do something about it. So I wound up spending the week of the summit as a clinic defender, where a bunch of other folks and I formed a human barrier on the sidewalk to keep those jackasses away from the front door. Got yelled at a lot on their one big day of protest, which was cool, but we succeeded in keeping the clinic running without disruption.

I was back for more in 1992 when the GOP held its convention in Houston, at the Astrodome. Clinic defense that year was a lot more fraught, and a lot more tense, as the threat from the national anti-abortion groups that poured into Houston felt a lot more real. We were boosted by a court ruling that kept them across the street from us, but it was a tense couple of weeks, let me tell you.

It was during this time that I encountered an attorney named Jack Cagle, who was representing those anti-abortion agitators as they sought the right to harass our staff and volunteers and especially our patients in an unfettered manner. He even had the cheek to show up at a reception the clinic held for its defenders. He got his start in Houston politics as a staunch “pro-life” activist, and within a couple of years had been elected to a misdemeanor court bench, from which he was eventually plucked by then-County Judge Ed Emmett to fill a vacant seat on Commissioners Court.

And now here he is, this champion of “the unborn”, one of the most powerful people in Harris County, and when presented with the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of actual born living children, he declines, on the grounds that it’s not his job. That’s some kind of “pro-life” philosophy, isn’t it? May he be haunted every day by the images of children that he could have helped but couldn’t have been bothered to care about.

Meet your new Election Administrator

Solid choice.

Isabel Longoria

The Harris County Elections Commission on Friday appointed Isabel Longoria as the county’s first election administrator, who will assume the voter registration and election management duties that currently fall to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.

Longoria, a 32-year-old currently serving as a special adviser to the county clerk on voting rights, will lead the new elections administration office created by Commissioners Court in July. Most of the large urban counties in Texas already had adopted the administrator model, which allows one official to be responsible for all election-related duties.

County Clerk Christopher Hollins, who is running the current general election, will step down from his role next month. He previously told the Chronicle he had no interest in the administrator job.

[…]

An obscure five-member body called the county election commission selected Longoria on a 3-2 vote. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Hollins and Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schecter voted in favor; Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen and Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett were opposed.

Nielsen and Bennett previously had objected to appointing an elections administrator who is not accountable to voters.

Harris County will still have an elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector. However, they no longer will be responsible for any election-related duties. Historically, the roles were bifurcated because the tax assessor until the 1960s was responsible for collecting a poll tax.

See here for the background, and give my interview with Commissioner Ellis a listen to understand why he pushed for this. I was at best ambivalent about the idea, but he did a lot to persuade me. Picking Isabel Longoria, who is smart and accomplished and will for sure be a force for good with respect to voting rights and expanding access to the vote, does even more. I know that the ideal was to have someone in place before the election, so that person could get familiar with Harris County’s elections operations, but Longoria is already there, so that’s also a plus. Here’s an interview I did with Longoria last year when she was a candidate for City Council District H. I think she’ll do a great job, and I have high expectations.

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

Harris County tried to make it easier. The state GOP, various other Republican contingents, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, and others fought that choice every step of the way.

Much of the Democrats’ dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.

In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters’ options during the pandemic.

Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county’s election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.

The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access.

“As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas,” the GOP lawsuit read. “If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected.”

Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston’s residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.

“This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it’s just going to disperse from there,” said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. “I think in some ways they’re going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they’ve decided to hobble them at every turn.”

It’s no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation’s most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country’s most diverse cities.

“If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend,” Hollins said. “If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target.”

The piece will be largely familiar to anyone who has been following along, but go read the rest for a review. Again, I want to emphasize, Harris County – by which I mean Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia and County Clerk Hollins – made a choice to invest the time and money to make it easier to vote. They did things that I think were revelations to all of us, who have been so used to the old ways for so long. “Wait a minute, we can have a lot more early voting locations? And more voting by mail, with options to drop off ballots instead of waiting on and worrying about the postal service (but we can also track our ballot if we do mail it), and with drive-through service? Who even knew any of this was possible?” Just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and see the many selfies and videos people have posted with their enthusiastic reaction to all this.

And then remember that every step of the way, Republicans of all stripes have tried to stop any of this from happening. From the two Republican Commissioners voting against that money that was budgeted for the election, to the Governor (who, to be fair, did extend the early voting period, and did extend the period during which mail ballots could be dropped off to all of early voting, even if he did later limit it all to one location) and the Attorney General and the Steven Hotze/Allen West minions filing lawsuit after lawsuit, every single innovation was opposed with a barrage of lies about “vote fraud” and not much else. Thanks to a batch of sympathetic Republican judges, though, they have been quite successful at it.

I’ve made this point before, but this is a long-term loser for the Republicans. People like ease and convenience. They want new ways to do things that take less time and require less effort. The Democrats, in Harris County and elsewhere, want to give it to them. The Republicans want to take it away or make sure they never get it in the first place. What side of that argument do you want to be on in the next election, or even before that in the next legislative session? Texas is a lousy state in which to vote, with obstacles everywhere you look. That’s a policy choice, enabled by the Republicans who run the state. The only way to change that is to change who runs the state. Look at Harris County’s vision for how voting could and should be, and then look at what the Republicans have done about it. What happens when the voters want something to be done about this?

October Census deadline restored

Good news, though as with everything we can’t be sure just yet that it’s for real.

A federal judge in California late Thursday blocked the Trump administration from stopping the 2020 Census count next week, saying it should continue until Oct. 31, the date the Census Bureau had planned on before the administration abruptly shortened the count.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction in the case brought by the National Urban League — a group of counties, cities, advocacy groups and individuals — and other groups. Koh had, earlier this month, issued a temporary restraining order to keep the count underway. The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a hearing Tuesday, Koh had expressed irritation with Justice Department lawyers for missing a deadline she had set for them to produce internal documents connected to the case.

She referred repeatedly to documents finally released over the weekend and Monday in which career bureau officials said the data could not be properly collected and delivered to the president on the government’s new timeline.

See here and here for the background. The Chron lays out what’s at stake locally.

Natalia Cornelio, legal affairs director for [County Commissioner Rodney] Ellis, said at the point Trump yanked back the deadline in early August, only 63 percent of households nationwide and 54 percent in Houston had responded to the census.

Despite those numbers, on Aug. 3, the census director abruptly announced what the court is calling the “re-plan,” which shortened the timeline for households to respond by Sept. 30.

Cornelio said the accuracy of the census count is critical to Harris County’s future.

“Its outcome determines political representation and billions of dollars of funding for healthcare, education, disaster relief, and housing,” she said.

Right now, Harris County is looking at an estimated undercount of 600,000 households, based on data from Civis Analytics, the company the county has partnered with to track its census outreach, she said.

One area likely to suffer from an undercount is the southern portion of the county, a pie-slice-shaped region extending from downtown Houston to Bellaire to League City, according to Steven Romalewski, who maps census data for the Center for Urban Research at CUNY. In that area, 11 percent of the door-knocking has yet to be completed, a feat that would likely would have been impossible with less than a week to spare to the Sept. 30 deadline, he said.

In parts of Fort Bend and Galveston counties, nearly 18 percent of the door-knocking needs to be finished. And in Montgomery County 12 percent of homes have yet to be documented.

Romalewski said the ruling could have a major impact on areas with a relatively low “completion” rate for the door-knocking operation that’s meant to visit every household that has not responded. With more time to complete the process, census enumerators can attempt to visit households more than once and will be likelier to talk with someone in-person or determine that a unit is vacant. The fallback, which census officials consider less accurate, is to to count residents through administrative records.

I have a hard time understanding why any decent person would think this was a good state of affairs. At least we have a chance now to try and get this close to correct. That’s pending the likely appeal to SCOTUS, and who knows what they may do at this point. But at least for now, there’s a chance.

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.

[…]

While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

County’s plan to make in person voting safer is having an effect

So says this poll.

Voters with the highest risk of suffering COVID-19’s worst effects say they’re more likely to vote early this November, according to a Rice University study.

A poll of nearly 6,000 Harris County voters found roughly 80% said they will vote in the presidential election regardless of the threat from COVID-19. That jumped to 90% among African Americans, according to Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who authored the study.

“Among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, there’s a greater fear of COVID-19 – for obvious reasons, they have suffered more,” Stein said. “Yet, they were more likely to vote given what the county clerk has been doing.”

Stein said that’s largely the results of steps Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins took to make voting safer during the July primary runoff – such as providing PPE for poll workers, as well as hand sanitizer and finger coverings for voters.

The study, however, found substantial confusion among voters about how to cast a mail-in ballot – with more than a third wrongly believing they could hand in a mail-in ballot at an in-person polling location.

Stein said that confusion is in no small part because of the legal wrangling over voting by mail. Texas election law allows registered voters to request a mail-in ballot if they meet one of four conditions: if they are older than 65, if they are disabled, if they will be out of their home county during voting, or if they are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.

The poll data is embedded in the story, so click over to see. In short, if you go all in on expanding voting access, people will respond positively. Funny how that works. I’m not too worried about the confusion over returning mail ballots – there will be a number of dropoff locations as it is, and I expect there will be plenty of messaging over how to return them. The bottom line is, this is how it should be done. Kudos to County Clerk Chris Hollins, County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia for making it happen.

Scrambling to finish the Census

It’s a hell of a job, and it’s so important.

With a deadline looming for local governments to complete a population count for the 2020 Census, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is warning that the city could miss out on billions in federal funding for services such as road repairs and school lunches.

The reason? Less than 57 percent of the city’s residents have filled out the census form, a nine-question survey that can be completed by mail, phone or online. The city of Houston was planning a major outreach effort to avoid an undercount among young and poor people, immigrants and communities of color. The pandemic and economic insecurity from shuttered businesses, however, hampered outreach efforts and hobbled participation, officials say.

“September is the final month to respond to the Census,” Turner tweeted this month. “Over 40% of Houstonians have yet to answer 9 questions @mycensus2020.gov which could cost Houston $1500 person per year for 10 years. Please do so now.”

Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a city planner who has been coordinating outreach efforts, attributed low participation to political interference, civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. She is “terrified” about the economic and social reverberations of an undercount that’s now running about 15 percentage points behind 2010.

Every 1 percent of the population that’s not counted means $250 million in federal funding that the city is entitled to will be directed to another city, she said. “It’s that serious.”

“I tell people, ‘It’s our federal tax dollars… God forbid it goes to Dallas,’” she said. “Whether you were born here or not, it’s our job to make sure people here have basic services.”

Harris County faces a similar predicament, with just under 61 percent of residents having participated.

“There are so many pockets in Harris County where we haven’t heard from most people — perhaps a fraction of the people have responded but most have not responded,” said Tazeen Zehra, a senior census staffer in Houston.

Galveston County has had such a low return rate — 58 percent — that census workers have sought helpers from neighboring counties. Montgomery County is doing slightly better with just under 66 percent reporting. Fort Bend County has the highest participation rate in the state with more than 73 percent responding overall, including nearly 80 percent in Sugar Land.

The current deadline for local governments to complete their counts is Sept. 30. But outreach workers are hoping a federal judge will extend that deadline to Oct. 31 for the entire country at a court hearing in California next week. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined as plaintiffs in the California case because they’re concerned that their districts will be undercounted without an extension. The Trump administration previously offered an extension, then withdrew the offer.

We’ve discussed the challenges of the Census many times. The undercounting issue is so pervasive that even our retrograde state leadership has been forced to try to do something about it. There’s a temporary restraining order in that California lawsuit to which Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are parties, with a hearing scheduled for the 17th. I think the odds are good that the plaintiffs will prevail since “arbitrary and capricious” is the standard operating procedure for this administration, but even with those extra 31 days it’s going to be tough to get an adequate count. As with so many other things these days, this did not have to happen.

On a related note:

A three-judge federal panel in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers reapportion congressional districts next year — an effort that could have potentially cost Texas several seats in Congress.

In a significant departure from the way representation is typically divided up, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants from the base population used to distribute seats in Congress. But in its Thursday ruling, the panel of judges deemed the memo an “unlawful exercise of authority granted to the President.”

The constitutionally mandated count each 10 years of every person residing in the country is used to determine congressional representation from each state. Excluding undocumented residents from the counts used to parcel out congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of political power throughout Texas.

Trump pursued the change by arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not define “which persons must be included” in that base population. But the New York panel of judges blocked Ross, who oversees the census, from providing any information on the number of undocumented people in each state.

See here for the background. This would almost certainly cost the state of Texas at least one if not two of the Congressional seats that it’s otherwise likely to get. Not that any of our state leaders care, going by their utter lack of any reaction to that memorandum. The courts can’t save us from everything, but they have been there at times like this.

Census shenanigans halted for now

Good.

[On] Saturday, US District Judge Lucy Koh issued a temporary restraining order to stop Census Bureau officials from winding down door-knocking and online, phone, and mail response collection by September 30—a month early—writing that the shortened census timeline could cause “irreparable harm.”

“Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services, and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” Koh wrote.

The US Census Bureau had originally planned to end their count by October 31, a date chosen to accommodate delays caused by the pandemic. But on August 3, the bureau announced that it would stop collecting census responses by the end of September, and was attempting to “improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness.” At the time, just 63 percent of households had responded. Immediately afterward, four former census bureau directors issued a public statement explaining that a shortened timeline would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas of the country.” Later that month, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog, also reported that “compressed timeframes” in the 2020 census could undermine the overall quality of the census count.

Now, at least until a hearing on September 17, the Census Bureau may not take steps to wind down its counting operations, such as terminating field staff.

The Chron adds some detail.

At a hearing Friday, Justice Department attorney Alexander Sverdlov told Koh that any “anxiety” about the census was “not warranted” and that operations were shutting down only when 85% to 90% of residents in a particular locale had responded. He argued in a court filing that said the government’s “decisions on how and when to complete a census turn on policy choices that are unreviewable political questions.”

The population count is crucial for states’ U.S. House representation and the distribution of $800 billion in federal aid each year. Separately, President Trump is seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, an action challenged by California and other states in multiple lawsuits.

Koh questioned the government’s explanations at Friday’s hearing and was equally skeptical in Saturday’s ruling.

The administration has insisted that moving the deadline up to Sept. 30 was necessary to deliver the census results to the president by Dec. 31, rather than by next April, under a previous timetable. But Koh said the Census Bureau’s deputy director, Albert Fontenot, “acknowledged publicly less than two months ago that the bureau is ‘past the window of being able to get accurate counts to the president by Dec. 31.’” She said the bureau’s head of field operations made the same admission in May.

Koh also quoted Fontenot as saying, in a court filing Friday night, that the bureau has begun terminating its temporary field staff in areas that have completed their work, and it is difficult to bring them back. That underscores the need for a restraining order halting any further cutbacks until the legality of the one-month delay is resolved, she said.

See here for the background. Harris County, along with Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, are among the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. Perhaps if we can wait to deliver the results to the President until, say, January 21, we can feel a bit more comfortable that they will get a proper review, and that the data is sufficiently accurate. Perhaps we could also then see about fixing anything that was clearly effed up thanks to the Trump team’s constant efforts at sabotage. If we are blessed with an all-Democratic government, we can pass a bill to allow statistical sampling, which would help a lot. There’s no reason to trust anything this administration has done with the Census, and every reason to give a new administration a chance to fix the more egregious errors. The Trib has more.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

Harris County voters this November will have more time and more than a hundred additional places to cast ballots in the presidential election, including drive-through locations and one day of 24-hour voting, under an expansive plan approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

With the additional polling locations, an extra week of early voting and up to 12,000 election workers, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is pledging a smooth November election.

On a 3-2 vote, the court agreed to spend an additional $17.1 million — all but about $1 million to come from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund Hollins’s ambitious election plan. The money is on top of the $12 million the court approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting amid fears that in-person balloting could spread the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.

The clerk’s plan includes extended early balloting hours, including multiple nights to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, as well as new equipment to process an expected record number of mail ballots.

“The County Clerk’s office has made it our top priority to ensure a safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient election for the voters of Harris County this November,” Hollins told court members. “And to ensure this outcome, our office has … executed a robust set of 24 initiatives, many of which were piloted in the July primary runoff election.”

Hollins’ plan is among the boldest unveiled by a Texas elections administrator to improve a voter’s experience and increase turnout in a state with historically low participation, said University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

“These changes would rocket Harris County to the top of the list as the most progressive approach to voting,” Rottinghaus said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the plan could inadvertently undermine a push by Democrats to expand mail voting for voters under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hollins is making sure that voting in person is safer than going to the grocery store,” Jones said. “To the extent to which other county clerks follow his lead, it’s more and more difficult to make the case that voting in person represents a risk to someone’s health.”

In previous elections, Harris County operated about 40 early voting and 750 Election Day sites. The additional funding, Hollins said, will allow the county to operate 120 early voting and 808 Election Day locations.

He estimated 1.7 million voters may turn out, a record in any Harris County election and an increase of 361,000 since the 2016 presidential contest.

The two Republican commissioners voted No to this, one complaining that it cost too much and one complaining that there were too many voting locations inside Precinct 1, which is where the city of Houston is. Remember how Commissioners Court was 4-1 Republican before last year? Apparently, elections do have consequences.

See here and here for some background. I had mentioned Hollins’ assertion of 120 early voting locations following the HCDP precinct chairs meeting, where he addressed us after we voted for County Clerk and HCDE nominees. It’s still kind of amazing to see this all actually move forward. There’s also another piece to mention:

Doubling down on increasing the use of voting by mail in November, Harris County will send every registered voter in Texas’ most populous county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election.

The move, announced Tuesday by the county clerk’s office, puts Harris County — which has more than 2.4 million residents on its voter roll — ahead of most other counties when it comes to proactively working to bump up the number of voters who may request mail-in ballots. Election officials expect a record number of people to vote by mail this year, but not all of Harris County’s registered voters will ultimately qualify.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has said he was encouraged by the county’s return rate ahead of the July primary runoff election when it sent applications to every registered voter who was 65 or older. Typically, voters must print out or request applications for ballots by mail from the county or the state and deliver or mail them to their local elections office. In between the March primary election and the July primary runoff, the county saw a more than 100% increase in vote-by-mail applications, Hollins said.

“If you’re eligible to vote by mail, we want you to vote by mail. It’s safest for you. It’s safest for all your neighbors,” Hollins said in a previous interview, arguing that every additional mail-in voter would make the election safer for those voting in person because they’d have to stand behind one less voter who could potentially infect them. “Voting by mail is the safest way to vote, and all those who are eligible to vote should strongly consider casting their vote in that manner — not only for themselves but as a service, a duty to other residents.”

Wow again. The county will purchase mail-sorting equipment and hire a bunch of temporary workers to deal with all the mail. We definitely saw a lot of people who had not voted in the March primary return mail ballots in the runoff. That certainly suggests that sending out the mail ballot applications in such a universal fashion helped boost turnout, though without a deeper study of other runoffs I can’t say that for sure. The Texas Democratic Party is also sent out mail ballot applications, though of course they sent them just to Dems. I don’t know how many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over, and I don’t know how many people will apply for a mail ballot under the disability provision, but the potential certainly exists for there to be a lot of voting by mail this fall. Just remember to send everything in as early as you can, and consider using the mail ballot dropoff locations at the County Clerk annex offices.

You may think that this is a lot of mail ballot applications being sent to people who can’t or won’t use them, and you may think this is a lot of money being spent to conduct this election. I got a press release from usual suspect Paul Bettencourt complaining about how the County Clerk was making it too darn easy for people to vote. (Remember when he was in charge of voter registration in Harris County as Tax Assessor? Remember how voter registration totals lagged well behind population growth during his term, and never started to catch up until after he was gone? Good times, good times.) My scalding hot take is that what County Clerk Chris Hollins is doing this year should be the norm going forward. Open up a ton of early voting sites, have really convenient hours for them, send mail ballot applications to everyone, and more. All of us expect, every day, a level of ease, convenience, and time-savings in the things we do. I can’t think of any reason why “voting” shouldn’t be on that list. Maybe starting with this year, it finally will be.