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Again with defining the Governor’s powers in an emergency

The legislative process has begun, and I feel like we’ve already lost the plot.

For roughly the past year, Republicans and Democrats have picked apart the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — and particularly how Gov. Greg Abbott has wielded his power along the way.

Now, with less than 90 days left in the 2021 regular legislative session and as Abbott has moved to lift most of the restrictions he imposed, the Texas Legislature is setting its sights on addressing the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic. And while many differences remain on the approach, members of both parties and both chambers of the Legislature appear intent on doing something.

In the House, a top lieutenant of GOP Speaker Dade Phelan has filed a wide-ranging bill that would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic, among other things. The measure has been designated House Bill 3, indicating it’s a top priority for the new speaker, behind the lower chamber’s proposed state and supplemental budgets in House Bills 1 and 2, respectively.

The author of House Bill 3, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, has said the proposal can serve as a starting point for lawmakers to begin to map out what the state’s response should look like in the event of another pandemic.

“After going through the last year of a pandemic and the government reaction to it, we owe Texans a healthy and robust debate about what we agree and disagree with,” Burrows said in a statement to The Texas Tribune for this story. “I filed HB3 so we could have a holistic review of state governance and to make sure we protect our liberties during a state emergency.”

The Senate, meanwhile, is appearing to take a more piecemeal approach. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has included several pandemic-related proposals as part of his 31 legislative priorities for the session, including a “First Responders Pandemic Care Act” and a “Family Nursing Home Visitation Rights” bill. Patrick’s office has remained tight-lipped so far about the substance of those proposals — many of which have not yet been filed — or his chamber’s contrasting approach. A Patrick spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

“Things are off to a slow start, and I think we’re probably in wait-and-see mode” when it comes to reforming emergency powers, said Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “There seems to be more going on on the Republican side of that, but as far as doing something like an HB 3 goes, I’m not sure.”

There are broad areas of agreement between the two chambers on issues like protecting businesses from certain lawsuits related to COVID-19, which is among Patrick’s and Abbott’s priorities and is included in the House’s omnibus proposal. But the more tricky territory could be reforming the parameters of a state pandemic response.

[…]

As filed, House Bill 3 would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. For roughly the past year throughout the pandemic, the state has been operating under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which Abbott has used to issue statewide guidelines. Some have argued that the disaster statute did not fit the circumstances brought on by the unprecedented pandemic and that tweaks would be needed should a similar crisis happen in the future.

The bill would also require local jurisdictions to receive approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic — an attempt to avoid the headlines and confusion that defined much of the 2020 general election, such as court battles over mail-in ballot applications and drive-thru voting.

“All of these jurisdictions, especially in [Harris and Dallas counties], the more blue areas, we’re not going to let them use a pandemic excuse to change the rules of the game to try to get more Democrats out to vote,” Burrows said last week on the Lubbock-based Chad Hasty radio show, noting that the Republican Party of Texas has named “election integrity” a top priority this legislative session.

Among its other provisions, the bill would affirm existing protections for places of worship remaining open during a pandemic, and for the sale or transportation of firearms and ammunition.

See here for the background. Keeping churches and gun stores open, while making it harder to vote – you have to hand it to these guys, they never miss an opportunity to follow their zealous little hearts. Kind of quaint to think that the heart of the matter would be about the relative roles of the Governor and the Legislature, or that a lightweight like Steve Toth would have the more serious and constructive proposal, but here we are. Speaking of which, the Chron adds a few details.

Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed a bill that would give the Legislature the power to intervene midpandemic if voters approved a constitutional amendment. Toth’s bill, House Joint Resolution 42, was one of at least eight that have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on the subject.

Last year, Toth and other conservative lawmakers were also party to lawsuits against the governor claiming Abbott abused his emergency powers when he extended the early voting period and when he signed off on a deal with a contact tracing company.

But Toth said Wednesday that he felt confident that Phelan and Burrows are listening to feedback and willing to make changes that other members deem necessary to strengthen the bill. Whether that will include a requirement for a special session, however, remains to be seen.

“I’d be seriously disappointed if they weren’t welcoming input,” Toth said. “I’d be disappointed if they weren’t saying how can we change to make it better, but they are, enthusiastically.”

Phelan, for his part, has supported Abbott taking charge during disasters, something he’s said helped his community of Beaumont during Hurricane Harvey. In a statement Thursday, Phelan called HB 3 “the House’s initial blueprint for our pandemic response.”

“Our chamber welcomes healthy debate over the best way to defend our liberties, create predictability in times of crisis and safeguard our economy,” he said.

Rep. Chris Turner, House Democratic Caucus chair, said in a statement that while the bill will likely go through many changes as the session goes on, “there is broad interest in addressing how future governors respond to future emergencies, given Gov. Abbott’s confusing, slow and often inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic — not to mention last month’s winter storm.”

He added that he hopes the legislation will give local leaders the chance to make rules for their own communities without being preempted by the governor. As of now, the law does the opposite, affirming a clause that most of Abbott’s orders have included stating that a governor’s emergency orders supersede local ones.

“Beyond that, we need to prioritize fixing our broken data reporting systems so we can make decisions based on science rather than politics,” said Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

I mean, I don’t really want Steve Toth to be happy, but he did have one halfway decent idea, and I do like to encourage that sort of thing. The Senate still has to weigh in, not that they’re likely to do anything to improve matters. As the Chron story notes, limiting the Governor’s powers was not something Dan Patrick considered to be a priority. He has more important things on his mind.

PUC Chair resigns

The body count increases.

The chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, resigned Monday, according to a resignation letter provided to the Texas Tribune.

The Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed commission came under public criticism in the aftermath of Texas’ power crisis that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for PUC chairwoman DeAnn Walker and Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness to resign.

[…]

Lawmakers began to call on the commissioners to resign Thursday after hearing testimony from Walker, who took little responsibility for the crisis during the house and senate committee hearings on the power outages. Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, wrote on Twitter that he has “zero confidence” in her after the Thursday hearings and that she “must” resign.

Walker came under fire during questioning for not doing more to prevent the crisis from occurring. Lawmakers probed how much information she had on whether the state’s power system could withstand winter storms, and questioned why she didn’t raise concerns about the possibility of outages sooner.

Walker, during her testimony to lawmakers last week, largely deflected blame to ERCOT and Magness, who testified in front of state senators on Thursday before Walker did.

“You know, there’s a lot of things Bill said about our authority over them that I simply disagree that that’s how it’s actually playing out in real life,” Walker told lawmakers.

But lawmakers countered that she leads the regulatory agency with the oversight of the power sector: “When you say you don’t have authority,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person.”

Walker said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization,” a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

Walker deflected blame to ERCOT, the entity her agency oversees, and added of winterization: “It costs a lot of money.”

In her resignation letter to Gov. Abbott, Walker said she was resigning because she believed it to be in the best interest of the state. She also pushed back on criticisms that she did not take responsibility for the outages.

“I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation,” Walker wrote.

She went on to call on others, including the Railroad Commission, ERCOT, the Legislature, gas companies, electric generators and other industry players to “come forward” to acknowledge how their actions contributed to the power crisis — all of them, she wrote, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed.”

See here for why we all needed more focus on the PUC and its all-Greg-Abbott-appointed board. I didn’t write about Walker’s testimony before the Senate, but the reaction was swift and unsurprising. I’m not going to defend De Ann Walker, but all this is a little precious given the warning the state got 10 years ago and the Legisnature’s steadfast refusal to take any action in response. It’s right for the Lege to call out ERCOT and the PUC and hold them accountable for their failures, but who’s going to do the same to the Lege and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Railroad Commission? That’s on us, and if we’re not still paying attention next year when we get the chance to exert that authority, we’ll let them get away with it again. The Chron has more.

Dan Patrick’s priorities

They haven’t changed. He might have had to shoehorn in a thing or two because he’s not stupid and he knows he had a close call in 2018, but the essence of Dan Patrick is eternal.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday unveiled his top 31 priorities for the 2021 legislative session, a mix of newly urgent issues after last week’s winter storm, familiar topics stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and a fresh injection of conservative red meat into a session that has been relatively bland so far.

Patrick said in a statement that he is “confident these priorities address issues that are critical to Texans at this time” and that some of them changed in recent days due to the storm, which left millions of Texans without power. After his top priority — the must-pass budget — Patrick listed his priorities as reforming the state’s electrical grid operator, as well as “power grid stability.”

Patrick’s specific plans for such items remain unclear, however. Almost all of his priority bills have not been filed yet, and the list he released refers to the issues in general terms.

The priorities echo much of the agenda that Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in his State of the State speech earlier this month, including his emergency items like expanding broadband access and punishing local governments that “defund the police.” Fourth on the list is a cause that Patrick himself prioritized recently — a “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act” that would require the national anthem to be played at all events that get public funding.

However, besides the fresh focus on the electrical grid, perhaps the most notable takeaway from Patrick’s agenda is how far it goes in pushing several hot-button social conservative issues. Patrick’s eighth and ninth priorities have to do with abortion — a “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as well as an “abortion ban trigger” that would automatically ban the practice if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Abbott said he wanted to further restrict abortion in his State of the State speech but did not mention those two proposals specifically.

Abortion is not the only politically contentious topic on Patrick’s list. As his 29th priority, Patrick put “Fair Sports for Women & Girls,” an apparent reference to proposals that would ban transgender girls and women who attend public schools from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women. He also included three items related to gun rights: “Protect Second Amendment Businesses,” “Stop Corporate Gun Boycotts,” and “Second Amendment Protections for Travelers.” It was not immediately clear what specifically those three bills would entail.

Coming in at 10th is another proposal that was left unmentioned in Abbott’s speech despite popularity with the GOP base: banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. That is considered one of the big pieces of leftover business for conservatives after the 2019 session.

You can see the list here. And yes, that Star Spangled Banner Protection Act slots in at number 4, behind the budget (the one bill the Lege is required to pass) and the two hastily-added power grid items. Which means that in the absence of last week’s freeze and blackouts, that would have been Dan Patrick’s top legislative priority. And that, even before you get to the rest of the garbage on his list, tells you all you need to know about Dan Patrick.

Actually, there is one more thing to point out. Note that tenth item, about the capability for cities and counties and school districts to hire lobbyists to advocate for their issues at the Legislature. As we have discussed, the power companies have plenty of well-paid lobbyists at the Capitol representing their interests. Those lobbyists are funded by your power bills. Dan Patrick is just fine with that. This is what he’s about. The Chron has more.

The traveling Paxtons

Seriously?

Ski bunny

While millions of Texans languished in their homes last week without heat, many of them racking up astronomical electricity bills, the state official in charge of consumer protection left to take an out-of-state trip.

According to a campaign spokesman, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton left the state during the middle of the power outage crisis to meet with a fellow attorney general in Utah for a “previously planned meeting.” Hs wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, was also on the trip, reported the Dallas Morning News, which first broke the story.

The revelation marks the third instance of a Texas public official leaving the state during the disaster that affected nearly every one of the state’s 254 counties.

[…]

Ken Paxton spokesman Ian Prior said that Paxton met with Utah AG Sean Reyes to discuss several matters, including their multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

Reyes’ spokesman Richard Piatt confirmed that Paxton was in Salt Lake City for meetings on Wednesday and Friday, and had “lengthy discussions” on the Google case.

Prior said Paxton also attended a demonstration of Utah’s law enforcement scenario simulator, which includes a wide variety of situations law enforcement must deal with and is used for training. He said Paxton is considering the program for Texas. Reyes said that meeting would have taken place in the suburb of Murray, about a 15-minute drive away.

“While there, AG Paxton had a number of meetings with the Utah Attorney General over the course of several days,” Prior said. “I cannot further share additional details or the specific reasons on the need for the meeting concerning Google as it involves an ongoing investigation.”

Prior did not respond to questions about the timing of the Paxton’s trip, why the trip was not postponed or whether taxpayers funded the trip.

I’ll bet he didn’t. Not likely to be any good answers to those questions. Oh, and did we mention that Mrs. Paxton, a/k/a State Sen. Angela Paxton, was also there?

On the day of Paxton’s Wednesday meeting, the state’s electrical grid operator reported 2.7 million households in Texas remained without power. Water infrastructure in many cities was also being strained. By Thursday, nearly half the state had had its water disrupted in some way. Many lost running water altogether, while others were issued boil-water notices.

“AG Paxton did lose power, but did not leave Texas until after power had returned to most of the state, including his own home,” Prior said in a statement.

Follow up questions about whether the attorney general was back in Texas on Monday were not answered.

A spokesperson for Angela Paxton confirmed that she was also on the trip, which she said “included meetings that benefit her efforts to promote human dignity and support law enforcement.”

While away, Ken Paxton’s office did send a handful of advisories about his office’s plans to investigate the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the state’s grid operator — “and other entities that grossly mishandled this week’s extreme winter weather.”

“We will get to the bottom of this power failure and I will tirelessly pursue justice for Texans,” he said in a press release Friday. The release made no mention of his whereabouts.

I’m sure you’re aware that I have a very low opinion of the Paxtons, as I do of Ted Cruz and all the other malfunctioning members of our Republican state government who have no call to service. But even I would have expected them to have slightly better political instincts than this. State Rep. Chris Turner speaks for me:

I don’t begrudge people a certain amount of business travel, but come on. This very easily could have been done remotely, and let’s not forget we are still in a pandemic, which makes any kind of air travel highly questionable at this time. And all of that is before the refusal to answer questions about the specifics of this little jaunt. What is wrong with these people? The Current has more.

Have Texas Republicans finally damaged themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a hospital.

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

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

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

Putting that another way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans are determined to learn the wrong lessons from the blackouts

It’s kind of amazing, and yet completely on brand.

With millions of Texans having lost power during the winter storms, key players in the Legislature say one of the most immediate reforms they will push for is recalibrating the state’s electricity grid to ensure more fossil fuels are in that mix and fewer renewables.

While all energy sources were disrupted during the historic freeze, Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature say renewables have been given all the attention over the years, yet proved to be unhelpful during the state’s crisis.

“It’s cool to be into wind and solar these days, but the problem is it leaves us frigid in the winter,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who leads the GOP caucus in the Texas Senate.

Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said most of the generating plants that went offline this week were natural gas, coal or nuclear facilities. But still, Republicans have singled out wind and solar as targets over the objections of Democrats and renewable energy advocates.

Texas utilities ratepayers have funded more than $7 billion over the last eight years building transmission lines to take wind power from West Texas to the big cities. It’s made Texas the biggest wind producer in the nation.

But Bettencourt and other Republicans say advantages like federal subsidies for wind and solar have to be evened out.

“We need a baseload energy generation strategy in Texas that is reliable and not based upon renewables so strongly,” he said.

Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, this week reupped a bill he filed last session that would require ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission to write rules that would “eliminate or compensate for market distortion caused by certain federal tax credits.”

“It’s not just the frozen wind turbines; it’s the fact that they even exist that is creating the problem,” said Patterson, who works as an energy consultant. “Their existence, their heavily subsidized existence on our grid is creating a shortage of energy supply because no one else can compete against them.”

[…]

Blaming renewables is misguided and politically motivated, said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

“There is no energy source that doesn’t receive subsidies,” Shelley said. “There have been energy tax credits for fossil fuel sources for a hundred years, so to target the renewable tax credit … it’s pretty disingenuous.”

[…]

But while there may be reforms to ERCOT, not many Republicans are talking about the prospect of ordering the state’s nearly 700 power plants to invest in weatherization and what that would cost.

ERCOT officials said earlier this week in a statewide press conference that while it was recommended power plants weatherize after winter storms in 2011 knocked out power, those were voluntary requests and not mandatory.

Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat and senior mechanical engineer in the oil and gas industry, said he is working on legislation that would build in more reserve energy supply for Texas, such as by hooking up the state to the nationally interconnected system, or offering financial incentives for providers to increase back-up power.

Rosenthal would also like to see reliability standards introduced that require generators to weatherize their systems. He said he knows that adding more regulations will be an uphill battle in the Republican-majority Legislature but believes there is a “happy medium” that can be struck.

“While the common argument ‘we don’t want regulation so we can provide electricity as cheaply as possible’ does provide cheap energy a lot of the time, these disasters are horrendously expensive,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve heard insurance folks saying this could be the costliest ever natural disaster in Texas. So you make a little bit of an investment in your infrastructure to ensure that you don’t have these disastrous consequences.”

He added: “And it’s not just the cost of it. It’s the human suffering.”

How it is that they could have missed the voluminous reporting about how the same freeze we all just endured also caused problems for gas and coal plants since they both involve water and that water was frozen solid is an eternal mystery, but here we are. We’ve literally had thirty years’ of warnings about the need to weatherize our power plants and wind turbines, and this is the response we get from Paul Bettencourt and his cronies. It would cost money – I forget where I read this now, but I saw one back-of-the-envelope estimate of about $2 billion for the whole system – but that can be paid in part by the power generators and in part by the state, with cash from the Rainy Day Fund or a bond issuance if need be.

Doing that might require changing the financial incentives for the operators, and it might require shudder regulating the energy market – certainly, ERCOT or some other governing body will need enforcement power, because simply asking the operators nicely to invest in weatherizing hasn’t worked so far – and it even might require rejoining the national power grid, which has its own pros and cons but would come with federal enforcement of weatherization standards. There are many viable options. We don’t have to choose the stupid, head-in-the-frozen-tundra option that Bettencourt et al seem hellbent on doing.

One more thing, which I find equal parts amusing and puzzling: All this antagonism towards wind energy seems to overlook the fact that a large number of wind farms and turbines are in the Panhandle and West Texas, easily two of the most Republican parts of the state. Do these Republican legislators and other currently trashing wind energy – the Observer quotes a Facebook post by Sid Miller that says “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas”, for instance – not realize that they’re kicking sand on their own people? I don’t even know what to make of that, but I do know that part of the 2022 Democratic message needs to be targeted at those folks. Texas Monthly has more.

Getting rid of racist deed restrictions

Let’s get this done.

Sen. John Whitmire

A bill was proposed in the Texas Legislature two years ago that sought to make it easier for homeowners to remove unconstitutional, unenforceable and discriminatory provisions from real property records.

State Sen. John Whitmire said he did not catch wind of the proposed legislation until late during the biennial session, which ended without it coming to pass.

This year, though, the longest-tenured legislator at the state capitol in Austin is determined to help the bill become Texas law, which would be welcomed by many of his constituents in his hometown of Houston.

“It’s my priority among my priorities,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire has filed Senate Bill 214, which is identical to House Bill 485 authored by State Rep. Gene Wu of Houston, in the legislative session that began last month. If the bill makes it through both chambers and is adopted by state legislators, it would become Texas law on Sept. 1.

The legislation, first introduced two years ago by Wu, would allow homeowners in neighborhoods such as Garden Oaks and Oak Forest to more easily remove the racist provision in their longstanding deed restrictions that say only members of the “Caucasian race” are allowed to own homes in the communities or even live there. The restriction has been unenforceable for decades under state and federal law, but it remains in Harris County property records and continues to be an eyesore and embarrassment for residents of both neighborhoods.

“I would love it,” Oak Forest resident Ashley Cavazos said. “If this bill comes to pass, hopefully it provides a pathway for the entire neighborhood.”

Cavazos is the leader of a volunteer neighborhood initiative called Oak Forest Deed for Change, which aims to remove the racist language from the deed restrictions by amending and restating them through procedures outlined by the Texas Property Code. But the process has proven exhaustive, because updating the deed restrictions in the seven Oak Forest sections that contain the offensive language requires the approval of at least 75 percent of property owners in each section.

Cavazos and her fellow volunteers have started with Section 4. Eight months into the effort – which has included regular Zoom calls, pro bono work by attorneys in the neighborhood and a signature party – she said signatures have been obtained from only about 25 percent of the section’s property owners.

Here are SB214 and HB485. The updated language would allow a single homeowner to remove the unconstitutional language from the deed restrictions for their neighborhood with a single filing. This is one of those things that should have happened a long time ago, but it wasn’t. This would be a good time to call your own State Rep and State Senator and tell them that you support these bills, because the biggest enemy to them is time and the attention that other bills will demand. The more visibility that a good bill that isn’t going to have any real opposition can get, the better.

We’re not going to be able to have our primaries in March

That’s the obvious conclusion from this.

Texas lawmakers will almost certainly be back for a rare special legislative session in the fall now that the U.S. Census Bureau has set a September deadline for releasing the 2020 census results.

Facing significant holdups in finalizing the decennial count, the bureau announced Friday that the detailed population numbers needed to redraw legislative and congressional districts to reflect the state’s growth in the last decade will be delivered by Sept. 30, a monthslong delay that could upend the next set of elections for seats from Congress down to local offices.

The bureau’s original plan was to get the data in lawmakers’ hands as soon as this month, giving them time to rejigger district boundaries and decipher Texans’ representation during the regular 2021 legislative session. But the census’ typical timeline was repeatedly upended by the coronavirus pandemic and interference from the Trump administration.

“If this were a typical decade, we would be on the verge of delivering the first round of redistricting data from the 2020 Census,” James Whitehorne, chief of the bureau’s redistricting and voting rights data office, said in a statement. “Our original plan was to deliver the data in state groupings starting Feb. 18, 2021 and finishing by March 31, 2021. However, COVID-19 delayed census operations significantly.”

Instead, the bureau is still working to release the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats are apportioned to each state by April 30 — blowing past the legal deadline for those numbers by many months. Census officials previously indicated the second set of more detailed numbers needed for redistricting wouldn’t be available until after July.

The current timetable puts the data delivery far past the end of the 2021 legislative session on May 31, meaning Gov. Greg Abbott would need to call lawmakers back for legislative overtime in the fall.

See here and here for the background. I’ve been operating under the assumption that there would be a special session for redistricting all along, but this puts to rest any doubt. Given the fact that our statutory deadline for filing for the primaries is December 13, and given the certainty of litigation over the new maps, there’s no way we can have something in place in time for the normal 2022 calendar. Expect the primaries next year to be in May, like they were in 2012, and hope it doesn’t need to be any later than that.

So how did Paxton’s budget grilling go?

Meh.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton violated his budget authority when he transferred $40 million of taxpayer money to cover pay raises for some members of his staff without approval of the Legislature or the governor, triggering an angry response from lawmakers on Wednesday.

“You know that I am not pleased,” Senate Finance chair Jane Nelson told Paxton during a meeting about the state budget. “We have an appropriations process for a reason. And if every agency did what yours did, General Paxton, we wouldn’t have a budget. We wouldn’t even need a budget.”

According to state budget officials, Paxton’s office in February 2020 moved money without authority for various expense items, including $8.5 million that was supposed to go to data center services. Some of that money was moved from capital project funds that are not supposed to be used for pay raises. That was a violation of Paxton’s budget transfer authority, according to officials with the state’s Legislative Budget Board. The money funded raises for 1,884 employees in the child support division.

Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound, made clear to Paxton it is the Legislature’s authority to consider pay raises from the various state agencies as part of the budget process, and it is not up to agency heads to make that call.

“I wish we had done that one differently,” Paxton conceded.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, also pressed Paxton on the move, seeking assurances that it won’t happen again.

“After knowing more about that situation I would say I’ve instructed my staff to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Paxton said.

See here for some background. That’s some truly harsh language there, I don’t know how he managed to withstand it. I’m all sweaty just reading the transcript. What about the money he wants to spend on fancy outside lawyers for that Google lawsuit?

But that request triggered questions from State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who pointed out that Paxton has more than 4,000 employees on his staff, including over 700 lawyers.

“Then you have talented lawyers who are capable of handling these big cases, correct?” Huffman asked.

Paxton replied: “If Google is going to have the very best lawyers that know anti-trust, we wanted to be able to compete on the same playing field.”

I guess when you drive off all the best attorneys on your own staff, you have to get creative. I’ll believe that the Senate is holding him accountable when I see what they do with this budget line item.

On a more serious note:

The U.S. Supreme Court was wrong when it refused to allow Texas to sue other states relating to the Nov. 3 that resulted in Joe Biden being elected president, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Wednesday.

Paxton, defending the lawsuit before the Texas Senate, said the U.S. Supreme Court Justices were wrong when they refused to hear his case arguing that other states had violated the Constitution because of the way they conducted their elections. The Supreme Court ruled in early December that Texas did not have the standing to challenge the election results in four battleground states — a conclusion that legal experts across the country had foreseen.

“Our only place to be heard was in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Paxton told the Senate Finance Committee as he defended his proposed budget for the next two years. “I do not think that their jurisprudence is right that they can just have this discretion to not hear your case.”

Under questioning from State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Paxton said his suit was never about finding election fraud. Instead, he said he was concerned Texas voters were being disenfranchised because other states did not follow federal rules for conducting elections.

“We have no way to go back and even verify whether these elections were credible and whether they were done in a way that wasn’t fraudulent,” Paxton said.

It was President Donald Trump’s lawyers who drafted the lawsuit, the New York Times reported, and Trump’s team turned to Paxton only after Louisiana Attorney General Jeffrey M. Landry, a Republican, declined to take the case. The Times also reported that members of Paxton’s staff argued against filing the suit, and Paxton’s top litigator, Kyle Hawkins, refused to put his name on it.

Hawkins has since resigned.

See here for some background. Sorry, but the smoke pouring out of my ears keeps setting off the fire alarms in our house, so I’m not able to say any more about this. Let me leave you with this as a palate cleanser, and as a song to play on repeat when the FBI finally arrests his sorry ass.

Found that here.

Appellate court redistricting

We’ll need to keep an eye on this.

Justice Bonnie Sudderth

Justices on the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts are talking—some are concerned—about a pair of bills filed in the Texas Legislature that propose redistricting the courts’ boundaries.

House Bill 339 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, currently only propose minor tweaks to the Fifth, Sixth and 12th Courts of Appeal to remove their overlapping jurisdictions over five rural Texas counties.

However, multiple sources told Texas Lawyer that the current versions are only “placeholders” or “shell bills” that would change during the legislative session to make bigger changes to the appellate court boundaries.

King and Huffman each didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.

But the uncertainty about what the bills will wind up doing is leading to concern among justices.

“I can’t speak for 80 justices across the state, but I’d say there are certainly justices who are talking about it,” said Chief Justice Bonnie Sudderth of Fort Worth’s Second Court of Appeals, who is chairwoman of the Council of Chief Justices. ”What is there to talk about, until we see what it is?”

David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said that staff for the House and Senate committees that handle bills about the justice system have requested data from his office about the courts’ workloads and the number of appeals that are transferred between appellate courts.

“I think they are looking at it for those reasons,” he explained, adding that his office isn’t taking any position about redistricting. “We haven’t seen a plan. It’s hard to read or think of how it would affect the administration of justice, without seeing a plan.”

He added that the idea to redistrict the appellate court lines did not come from inside of the Texas judiciary.

“There’s some proposals out there from groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform that reduce the number of appellate courts,” said Slayton.

[…]

That plan proposes:

  • First District: Merger of current First and 14th Courts of Appeal in Houston with 18 justices.
  • Second District: Merger of Third, Fourth and 13th Courts of Appeal in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi with 19 justices.
  • Third District: Merger of Fifth and Sixth Courts of Appeal in Dallas and Texarkana, but without four counties that overlap in another district, with 16 justices.
  • Fourth District: Merger of Second, Seventh, Eighth and 11th Courts of Appeal in Fort Worth, Amarillo, El Paso and Eastland, with 16 justices.
  • Fifth District: Merger of Ninth, 10th and 12th Courts of Appeal in Beaumont, Waco and Tyler, with 11 justices.

The other proposals in the paper would create different mixes based on mergers of existing appellate districts.

The paper in question is here, and TLR’s priorities for the appellate courts are here. It should go without saying that Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a villain, and while some of their ideas in this instance may have merit, everything they do should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

George Christian, senior counsel with the Texas Civil Justice League, another tort reform advocacy group, said that the current districts aren’t in line with modern Texas. Redrawing the boundaries could make the judiciary more efficient. Yet he acknowledged redistricting involves politics and stirs up intense debate.

In recent elections, appellate courts in Travis, Harris and Dallas counties were swept by Democratic candidates. The discussion about redistricting the appellate courts now may lead to questions.

“There is a very legitimate question people will ask,” Christian said. “Why the sudden interest in the appellate courts, now that a lot of Democrats are winning those elections?”

I think we know the answer to that question. I’ve raised this point before, and it’s just another thing we have to watch out for. In theory, this could be done during the regular session, as these court districts are not based on Census data and don’t have a mandate to have equal sizes. We’ll know when and if HB339 and SB11 get committee hearings.

Will the Lege cut Ken Paxton’s budget?

The first draft budget includes a significant cut, but it’s early days.

Best mugshot ever

Already under investigation by the FBI and facing calls to resign from both the left and the right, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton now has the Texas Legislature to worry about.

State lawmakers have rolled out an initial state budget that would slash his request for funding and eliminate more than 150 positions from his office — far deeper cuts than most state agencies face, reducing his staffing to its lowest level since he was elected.

In October, Paxton requested $1.26 billion over two years for his agency with 4,217 positions. Instead, the Texas Senate will begin debate on a budget plan this week that would give him $1.17 billion over the two years and 4,063 positions. That represents $89 million less than requested and 154 fewer positions.

Neither the Republican attorney general nor his colleagues in the state Senate are saying much publicly about the cuts, but that will change on Wednesday when Paxton and his staff are set to testify before the Senate Finance Committee.

“We have a lot of questions that need to be asked,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who is a member of that committee.

The cuts stand out when compared to the proposed budgets of other statewide elected officials. Gov. Greg Abbott and State Comptroller Glenn Hegar both are getting exactly the amount of money and staff they requested.

“Many state agencies saw a reduction in our introduced budget, including the attorney general,” said Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We made clear we did not want to see a reduction in services for crime victims, including rape crisis center services and sexual assault nurse examiners. This is a starting point.”

[…]

One of the biggest proposed cuts is to Paxton’s fund for hiring outside law firms, consultants, expert witnesses and information technology services. He asked for $205 million for the two-year budget, but the Senate is proposing $118 million.

Paxton’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In budget documents, Paxton says he needs tens of millions of additional funding for managing crime victims services programs and for technology upgrades.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the slowdown in oil and gas revenues, most agencies have been warned to lower their budget expectations.

The proposed cuts come as Paxton faces other administrative woes.

In 2019, the Legislature halted work on upgrading the child support enforcement system that had been on the books since before Paxton took office. Originally budged at $223.6 million, the project had jumped to $419.6 million before lawmakers finally pulled the plug. State budget writers cited the terminated project as a key reason for Paxton’s drop in funding.

Although it is not detailed in his budget request, the Associated Press reported Paxton was seeking about $43 million in state funding to hire outside attorneys for a high-profile antitrust lawsuit against Google. The whistleblowers told the Associated Press that before they reported him to the FBI in September and began resigning, the lawsuit against the search engine giant was set to be handled internally. Paxton runs one of the largest state attorney general’s offices in the United States.

See here for the background. It’s too early to say what will happen – he may answer all of those questions that Bettencourt and others want to ask in a satisfactory way to them on Wednesday, or maybe the Lege will give him more money for things they approve of to make up for the things they cut. Even if there is ultimately a net decrease in funding for Paxton, that doesn’t mean it will be taken as a rebuke for anything in particular. But at least it gets the conversation started.

That poll about Ted Cruz resigning

It’s not really that great, to be honest.

Not Ted Cruz

Former President Trump’s popularity in deep-red Texas is underwater following the mob attack by his supporters of the Capitol, according to a poll from the progressive group Data For Progress commissioned for MoveOn.org.

The poll found that at least 51 percent of likely voters in Texas said they had at least a “somewhat” unfavorable view of the former president following the events of Jan. 6, with 42 percent saying their view of Trump was “very unfavorable.”

Forty-nine percent of likely voters had unfavorable views of President Biden, while 42 percent of likely voters had unfavorable views of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The poll also found that 36 percent of GOP voters in the state would support barring Trump from running for office again, possibly the most significant break from the former president among his base registered by polling so far.

The poll data is here. I couldn’t find a blog post or press release on the Data for Progress website about this, just their tweet that linked to the data file. The poll is of 751 “likely voters” (remember, DFP uses web panels for their polls), and this is what I mean by “not that great”:

Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Ted Cruz? Favorable 49%, unfavorable 42%
Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Beto O’Rourke? Favorable 33%, unfavorable 46%
Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Donald Trump? Favorable 48%, unfavorable 51%
Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Joe Biden? Favorable 48%, unfavorable 49%

They had separate responses for “very” and “somewhat” favorable and unfavorable, and I combined the two for the numbers above. The Biden number isn’t bad, the Trump number is okay, the Beto and Cruz numbers are lousy. I would have liked to have seen a question about Greg Abbott, but given the above he probably would have done pretty well, and I would have been unhappy about that, so maybe it’s just as well. Beto’s “Favorable” number is likely dragged down a bit by having 21% of Democrats respond “Haven’t heard enough to say”, but even that is not great, since you’d like to think that likely-voting Dems would be sufficiently informed about him. (This may also have been the option chosen by Dems who were more or less neutral and didn’t want to round up or round down.) Only seven percent of Republicans gave a similar response about Cruz.

After that there was a question about supporting or opposing “former President Donald Trump from holding elected office in the future”, which referenced Trump’s efforts to overturn the election and his role in inciting the Capitol riot (49-44 support). They asked a couple of similarly-worded questions about Cruz, then concluded with a simple “Do you think that Senator Ted Cruz should resign?”, which went 51-49 for Yes. Neither of these things will happen so this is more slogan than data, but there you have it. It is what it is, but I don’t think it amounts to much. The Texas Signal has more.

It’s not a legislative session without an attack on transgender rights

They’re targeting kids, because of course they are.

Texas Republicans are again trying to limit the ways transgender youth can participate in athletics.

Lawmakers have filed legislation that would ban transgender girls and women who attend public K-12 schools, colleges and universities from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women.

One bill filed by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, is similar to others filed across the country that are characterized by conservative advocates as trying to maintain fairness in women’s sports. Idaho passed a law last year called the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.” In Montana, a similar bill, called the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” advanced to the state Senate this week.

According to a tally from the American Civil Liberties Union, nine other states have similar bills moving through the legislative process this year, including Mississippi, Connecticut and Tennessee. According to Equality Texas, more states are also filing bills this year that would apply these policies to colleges as well.

The University Interscholastic League of Texas, which governs high school athletics and extracurricular activities, relies on students’ birth certificates to determine whether they participate in men’s or women’s athletics. Notably, the UIL will recognize changes made to birth certificates to alter their gender marker.

Texas universities follow National College Athletic Association rules for division athletics, and some apply similar policies to intramural sports. Texas A&M University and the University of Houston allow students to play on the intramural team of the gender they identify.

This year’s legislative session could see yet another wave of debates over civil rights for LGBTQ youth. The next four years are likely to feature federal battles with Republican-led states, with the Biden administration already pledging to apply discrimination protections to sexual orientation and gender identity, and rolling back the order that banned transgender people from serving in the U.S. military.

In previous sessions, Texas Republicans, like those in other states, unsuccessfully pursued so-called “bathroom bills” that would prevent transgender people from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity. Now, LGBTQ advocates said conservatives across the country are latching onto issues related to athletics and health care as the latest way to spread fear about transgender children using inaccurate information, despite opposition from medical and athletic associations.

“This is bathroom bill 3.0,” said Angela Hale, senior adviser at Equality Texas. “It’s very unsettling to transgender children who just want to live. They don’t want to have to come down to the Capitol and testify every single legislative session just so that they can live and go about their daily lives.”

Republican lawmakers also filed a bill that would make it a crime for doctors and mental health providers to provide care to children that affirms their gender identity, perform gender-confirming surgeries or prescribe hormone treatments, characterizing these actions as “abuse.”

Advocates said lawmakers in at least five states have filed the bill restricting medical access for trans youth in tandem with the restrictive sports bill.

There’s more and you should read the rest, I’m too angry to think much more about it right now. The bills in question are based on ignorance and animosity, and would cause a lot of harm to a lot of people. I will never understand what causes a person to think this way, and I will never forgive a legislator who supports such things.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE

I’ve finally run out of Harris County races from 2020 to analyze, so let’s move over to Fort Bend County. I’ve said before that while Fort Bend provides downloadable Excel files on their county elections page, they format these results in a way that makes it harder for me to do the same analysis I do with Harris County. Basically, Harris County puts all the results on one worksheet, with the totals for every candidate given in each precinct. For district races, that means a blank in the results when the precinct in question is not in that district, but the cell for that district is there. That makes it super easy for me to use Excel functions to add up the vote totals for, say, the Presidential candidates in the precincts where, say, the HD134 voters are. I can do practically every race in a matter of an hour or two, and indeed I spend more time formatting the blog posts than I do the calculations.

Fort Bend, on the other hand, separates each race into its own worksheet, which is fine in and of itself, except that for district races they only include the precincts for that race on the worksheet in question. That completely nullifies the formulas I use for Harris County, and when I went and looked to see how I did it in 2016, I saw that I manually added the relevant cells for each of the countywide races, an approach that is inelegant, labor intensive, and prone to error. But it was the best I could do, so I did it again that way here. I can tell you that my results are not fully accurate, and I know this because the subtotals don’t add up correctly, but they’re close enough to suffice. The one exception is for the County Commissioner precincts, which are fully grouped together in Fort Bend – each precinct number is four digits, with the first digit being a one, two, three, or four, and that first digit is the Commissioner precinct. So those at least are easy to add up correctly. The rest is messy, but I did the best I could. When the official state reports come out in March and they’re off from mine, you’ll know why.

Anyway. That’s a lot of minutia, so let’s get to the numbers.


Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   15,527   52,998    414    292
CD22  142,191  142,554  2,614    799
				
HD26   42,389   45,097    743    283
HD27   24,191   59,921    576    296
HD28   65,043   61,103  1,212    313
HD85   26,661   29,016    503    197
				
CC1    37,765   40,253    699    261
CC2    18,054   52,525    441    307
CC3    61,437   49,976  1,120    247
CC4    40,460   52,798    768    276

Dist   Trump%   Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.43%   76.55%  0.60%  0.42%
CD22   49.34%   49.47%  0.91%  0.28%
				
HD26   47.89%   50.95%  0.84%  0.32%
HD27   28.47%   70.51%  0.68%  0.35%
HD28   50.95%   47.86%  0.95%  0.25%
HD85   47.29%   51.47%  0.89%  0.35%
				
CC1    47.82%   50.97%  0.89%  0.33%
CC2    25.31%   73.64%  0.62%  0.43%
CC3    54.48%   44.31%  0.99%  0.22%
CC4    42.90%   55.99%  0.81%  0.29%


Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   15,345   49,730  1,082    639
CD22  145,632  129,254  4,277  1,473
				
HD26   43,650   40,478  1,264    506
HD27   24,695   55,984  1,308    672
HD28   66,532   55,483  1,859    580
HD85   26,653   26,678    949    355
				
CC1    38,088   37,124  1,318    447
CC2    17,948   49,130  1,123    626
CC3    63,061   45,045  1,614    489
CC4    41,877   47,685  1,304    550

Dist  Cornyn%   Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.97%   74.45%  1.62%  0.96%
CD22   51.89%   46.06%  1.52%  0.52%
				
HD26   50.82%   47.12%  1.47%  0.59%
HD27   29.88%   67.73%  1.58%  0.81%
HD28   53.46%   44.58%  1.49%  0.47%
HD85   48.78%   48.83%  1.74%  0.65%
				
CC1    49.48%   48.23%  1.71%  0.58%
CC2    26.08%   71.38%  1.63%  0.91%
CC3    57.22%   40.87%  1.46%  0.44%
CC4    45.81%   52.16%  1.43%  0.60%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn
====================================
CD09   14,727   50,118    923    769
CD22  142,842  125,932  4,794  2,479
				
HD26   42,848   39,268  1,367    860
HD27   23,874   55,827  1,267    850
HD28   65,253   54,232  2,115  1,011
HD85   26,165   26,418    968    521
				
CC1    37,302   36,877  1,341    640
CC2    17,328   49,299    984    776
CC3    61,909   43,760  1,924    863
CC4    41,027   46,114  1,468    969

Dist  Wright%   Casta%   Lib%	Grn%
====================================
CD09   22.13%   75.32%  1.39%  1.16%
CD22   51.75%   45.62%  1.74%  0.90%
				
HD26   50.80%   46.56%  1.62%  1.02%
HD27   29.18%   68.23%  1.55%  1.04%
HD28   53.22%   44.23%  1.72%  0.82%
HD85   48.39%   48.86%  1.79%  0.96%
				
CC1    48.98%   48.42%  1.76%  0.84%
CC2    25.34%   72.09%  1.44%  1.13%
CC3    57.08%   40.35%  1.77%  0.80%
CC4    45.80%   51.48%  1.64%  1.08%

The first number to consider is not about any of the districts. It’s simply this: John Cornyn received 3K more votes in Fort Bend County than Donald Trump did, but MJ Hegar got over 16K fewer votes than Joe Biden. Jim Wright got about as many votes as Trump did, but Chrysta Castaneda got 19K fewer votes than Biden. That trend continued in the district races as well. Troy Nehls got 2K more votes than Trump did in CD22, while Sri Kulkarni got 19K fewer votes. Jacey Jetton got a thousand more votes than Trump did in HD26, while Sarah DeMerchant got 4,500 fewer votes than Biden did. Biden clearly got a few Republican crossover votes, but by far the difference between his performance and everyone else’s on the ballot was that there was a significant number of people who voted for Joe Biden and then didn’t vote in other races. That was just not so on the Republican side.

I don’t have a single explanation for this. It’s a near reverse of what happened in Harris County in 2004, when George Bush clearly got some Democratic crossovers, but by and large there were a lot of Bush-only voters, while the folks who showed up for John Kerry generally stuck around and voted for the other Dems. I don’t think what happened here in Fort Bend is a function of straight ticket voting, or its removal in this case, because there’s a world of difference between someone who picks and chooses what races to vote in and someone who votes for President and then goes home – I just don’t believe that latter person would have selected the “straight Democratic” choice if it had been there. In 2004, my theory was that Bush was a brand name candidate who drew out more casual voters who didn’t really care about the other races, while Kerry voters were more hardcore. I don’t buy that here because if anything I would have expected the Trump voters to be more likely to be one and done. It’s a mystery to me, but it’s one that state and Fort Bend Democrats need to try to figure out. At the very least, we could have won HD26, and we could have elected Jane Robinson to the 14th Court of Appeals if we’d done a better job downballot here.

One other possibility I will mention: Sri Kulkarni wrote an article in the Texas Signal that analyzed his loss and cited a large disinformation campaign against him that contributed to his defeat. That may be a reason why the Libertarian candidate did as well as he did in that race. I don’t doubt Kulkarni’s account of his own race, but I hesitate to fully accept this explanation. Dems had a larger dropoff of the vote in CD09 as well – about 3K fewer votes for Hegar and Castaneda, less than 1K fewer for Cornyn and Wright – and the dropoff in CD22 was pretty consistent for other Dems as well, though Kulkarni did generally worse. It may have moved the needle somewhat against him, but it doesn’t explain what happened with other Dems. Again, someone with more time and resources available to them – the TDP, in particular – should do a deeper dive on this. I do believe that disinformation was an issue for Dems last year, and will be an increasing problem going forward, and we need to get our arms around that. I just believe there were other causes as well, and we need to understand those, too.

One more thing: Kulkarni ran a lot closer to the Biden standard in Harris County than he did in Fort Bend. Biden and Trump were virtually tied in CD22 in Harris County, with the vote going 21,912 for Trump to 21,720 for Biden; Nehls defeated Kulkarni 20,953 to 19,743 in Harris. That’s the kind of result that one can easily attribute to Biden crossovers, and doesn’t raise any flags about the level of undervoting. I haven’t looked at Brazoria County yet, but my point here is just that Fort Bend County was very different in its behavior than Harris County was. And again, for the Nth time, we need to understand why. That is the point I’m trying to sledgehammer home.

Moving on, HD28 was a steeper hill to climb than perhaps we thought it would be. Eliz Markowitz got about 1,500 fewer votes than MJ Hegar did, and about 300 fewer than Castanada, while Gary Gates outperformed both Jim Wright and John Cornyn. It should be noted that while Dems in general lost HD28 by 20 points or so in 2016, Markowitz and other Dems were losing it by ten or eleven points in 2020. In total vote terms, a gap of 16-18K votes in 2016 was reduced to 12-13K votes in 2020. The shift is real, and even if it didn’t net us any extra seats, it’s still there.

The other way that shift manifested was in the County Commissioner precincts. In 2016, Republicans won three of the four precincts, with two-term Democrat Richard Morrison in Precinct 1 finally getting unseated after he had won against badly tainted opponents in previous years. There was a lot of movement in the Dem direction in Precinct 4, however, and that came to fruition in 2018 when Ken DeMerchant (yes, Sarah’s husband) flipped that seat. As you can see, there was no retreat in CC4 in 2020, and it probably wouldn’t take too much tinkering to make Precinct 1 a fifty-fifty or better proposition for Dems. It didn’t happen in either county this year, but in 2024, aided by demography and maybe a bit of gerrymandering, both Harris and Fort Bend counties can have 4-1 Democratic majorities on their Commissioners Courts.

I do have totals for the other Fort Bend races, though they’re not dramatically different from what you see here. I will put them together in a future post just to have it on the record. As always, let me know what you think.

The Republicans are not going to expand Medicaid

Maybe there was a brief moment, when the budget situation looked dire, when the forbidden topic could have been quietly whispered about. But come on, we know the score.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texas Republicans have long resisted expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, unswayed by the promise of billions in new federal aid for a state perennially ranked last in health coverage. But last fall, with their state House majority on the line and the uninsured rate climbing again amid the pandemic, conservative support seemed to be building.

On the campaign trail, Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, said she was newly open to expanding the public insurance program under limited conditions. Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, expressed support for a broader expansion than he had previously. Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, tweeted that lawmakers should “seriously consider accessing federal Medicaid funding” in the next legislative session.

“This is money we’re sending to the federal government and not getting back,” he wrote.

With the session now underway, the party is facing a reckoning on the issue. All but a dozen states including Texas have expanded Medicaid since President Barack Obama’s signature health care law passed in 2010. It is broadly popular in Texas, according to polls. And Republicans in swing districts have come under increasing pressure from voters to address the state’s ballooning uninsured rate, which was at 18.4 percent before the pandemic, or about 5.2 million people.

House Republicans have yet to file any bills, though lawmakers said work is happening behind the scenes on a measure that could satisfy the GOP majority. Staffers for Button, Meyer and Larson either did not respond to messages or said they were unavailable to comment.

Finding widespread approval will be tough, and proponents lost a key leverage point this month when the outgoing Trump administration extended part of a waiver that helps Texas hospitals cover uncompensated care. While the move does not expand health coverage, it does ensure that emergency care is reimbursed for struggling hospital systems that treat low-income patients.

“The 1115 waiver was never meant to be a permanent fix,” said Sarah Davis, a former Republican state representative who favors expansion. “It was really supposed to be kind of like a bridge, because we were assuming — or the government was assuming — that the state would be expanding Medicaid.”

In the Senate, Republicans are likely to oppose any expansion bills. The upper chamber has blocked past attempts and killed legislation last session that sought even a narrow expansion, for new moms. A Senate committee omitted the option entirely in a report last year on ways to lower the state’s uninsured rate.

See here for more on the 1115 waiver. As the story notes, Greg Abbott has no interest in expanding Medicaid, either. I can believe there are some Republican State Reps, especially in tight-margin urban/suburban districts, who’d vote for some form of Medicaid expansion if a bill came up, but that’s a long way away from convincing Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick. You want to expand Medicaid, you need to vote for the candidates from the party that wants to expand Medicaid. It ain’t happening otherwise. This is our sixth regular session post-Obamacare, the track record should be perfectly clear by now.

It’ll be awhile before redistricting happens

They’re waiting on Census data.

The U.S. Census Bureau has again pushed back the release of the 2020 census results — a delay that will almost certainly force Texas lawmakers into legislative overtime this summer to redraw the state’s political maps.

During an online presentation Wednesday, a bureau official revealed that the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats are apportioned to each state are expected to be released by April 30. The bureau has not finalized a timeline for the release of more detailed census results lawmakers need to actually redraw districts so they’re roughly equal in population, but the data likely won’t be available until after July.

“We hope to have a date in the near future that we can provide for when the redistricting data will come out. I cannot see that it would be before July 30 is how I would put this,” said Kathleen Styles, the bureau’s chief for decennial communications and stakeholder relations.

The 2021 legislative session ends May 31, but congressional and state House and Senate districts will need to be reconfigured ahead of the 2022 elections. Under the Census Bureau’s projected timeline, Gov. Greg Abbott would need to call lawmakers back for a special legislative session in the summer.

[…]

However, the delay announced Wednesday is likely to further fan questions among some Democrats over whether the redrawing of legislative maps can legally begin in a special session.

The state Constitution says state House and Senate seats must be redrawn by the Legislature during the first regular legislative session after the census is published. If they “fail” to do so, the Legislative Redistricting Board — a panel made up by the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the attorney general, the state comptroller and the state land commissioner — takes over the drawing.

With Republicans in control of both chambers, the delay in census data could provide a legal opening for Democrats to try to kick the legislative redistricting work out of Republicans’ hands and into the courts.

See here for the background. As I said, I figured this was going to be late, so I’m not surprised. The question of whether redistricting can begin in a special session is a legal technicality, and I’m not qualified to answer it. I am qualified to observe that a lot of the questions that were litigated in Texas during the 2020 election hinged on various technicalities, and overwhelmingly the courts ruled in favor of the state of Texas on those questions. Let’s just say that while I’m fine with pursuing a strategy of getting at least the Congressional map-drawing into the hands of federal judges (who by and large would rather gargle antifreeze than draw Congressional districts), I would not put a lot of hope and faith into the outcome of that strategy. To be fair, the outcome of having the Legislature do the map-drawing ain’t gonna be great either. I’m just trying to provide some perspective here.

An ancillary question is whether the delay in drawing the districts could force the primaries to be moved back as well. This is what happened in 2012, you may recall. The filing deadline for the 2022 primaries is December 15, and filing opens on November 15. I presume everyone will want a little time to figure out their options before filing for anything, so there’s likely to be a break between when the maps are ratified and when filing opens. Let’s say another 30 days for that, so that makes October 15 a functional deadline for getting them done without affecting the primary schedule. If the data is received on August 1 or so as suggested, then there’s probably enough time, though it will be close. In this DMN article, Speaker Dade Phelan says the special session could be called “as early as September”. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to get it done before filing season begins. Slip even a little, and I’d begin to assume we’ll have May primaries like we did in 2012. Let’s hope there isn’t another Ted Cruz out there to take advantage of that. NPR and the Brennan Center have more.

Please don’t ask us about Ken Paxton

A real profile in courage here.

Best mugshot ever

As President Joe Biden’s agenda is dealt an early blow in Texas, the embattled Republican attorney general promising more fights ahead with the new administration is getting little public support from members of his party, even as they cheer the results.

Nearly all of the more than 100 GOP lawmakers in the Texas Legislature did not respond when asked by The Associated Press if they had confidence in Attorney General Ken Paxton, who for months has been beset by an FBI investigation over bribery and abuse-of-office accusations.

At the same time, Republicans are showing no intention of using their overwhelming majority and legislative powers to confront Paxton over the coming months in the state Capitol, where lawmakers are back at work for the first time since eight top deputies for the attorney general leveled accusations against him. All eight have resigned or were fired since October.

Since then, Paxton has baselessly challenged Biden’s victory, including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the election. And on Tuesday, he won a court order halting Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, in a lawsuit filed just two days after the president was sworn in.

Now, with America’s biggest red state ready to resume the role of foil to a Democratic administration, the atmosphere surrounding Paxton in some ways resembles the peace that privately weary Republicans made with Donald Trump’s bombastic presidency — applauding the work while mostly staying silent about the surrounding turmoil.

“That’s the real measurement. That’s the real litmus test,” said Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pointed toward the deportation lawsuit and challenges last year to mail-in ballot applications around his Houston district. “Because I already know, in my case, in my county, the AG’s office made a major difference.”

The AP contacted the offices of every GOP lawmaker in the Legislature, asking if they had confidence in Paxton and whether the Legislature should act on his deputies’ accusations. Only two, Bettencourt and Rep. John Smithee, responded, both saying they had no reason to question the attorney general’s job performance and that they were waiting for the results of outside investigations.

Paxton’s budget requests may yet force Republican lawmakers to consider the exodus from his office. But so far, members of his party — who control of every lever of state government — haven’t rushed to put one of their top elected officials under a microscope.

That last paragraph is a reference to the $43 million Paxton has requested to pay outside attorneys in his lawsuit against Google. The reason he needs to pay outside attorneys is because all of the experienced senior litigators had jumped ship over the Nate Paul affair and resulting FBI investigation. It’s possible, I suppose, that Republicans in the Lege will hesitate to write that check for him, but at least they’ll have to answer questions about it and take a vote if they choose to support him. As for the rest and the shameless running and hiding that they’re all doing, this suggests to me that while they have no real intention of holding Paxton accountable for any of his actions, they want to leave themselves the wiggle room to become all righteous and shocked to discover the degree of his offenses in the event the FBI and federal prosecutors nail him with a laundry list of criminal indictments. Just remember, if and when that happens, they didn’t want to talk about it beforehand.

Ted Cruz, meet the Lincoln Project

No shortage of material here.

Not Ted Cruz

The Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson said that now that former President Trump is out of office, he intends to turn the super PAC’s attention to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Wilson told the Texas politics-focused podcast “Y’all-itics” the group would target Cruz over his support of a Republican challenge to the certification of President Biden’s victory earlier this month.

“We all know Ted Cruz is sort of a political force of nature. He is what he is. You either hate him or you hate him,” Wilson said. “And he is a guy who went so far over the edge, not just to appease Donald Trump and Trump’s base, but because he felt like [Sen.] Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) had gotten out ahead of him on it.”

Hawley, who, like Cruz, is seen as a possible 2024 GOP contender, was the first to announce he would challenge the results of the election. A number of Republicans signed on to the challenge, but some of them dropped their objections after a mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Cruz and Hawley continued their challenge.

Wilson called the effort “overtly seditious” and suggested the group would target other participants in the effort as well, saying “for as much as everyone sort of cordially hates Ted Cruz, this also about the fact there is a caucus of these guys right now.”

“These guys have realized that this was a very, very bad move legally, politically, morally, constitutionally and so that’s why they are in a position right now where they are not out beating their chest and saying ‘I am the alpha male in inheritor to the MAGA fortunes,’ ” he added.

Wilson went on to predict that the intraparty dispute over Trump’s continued role in the Republican party would lead to the emergence of a third party, adding “I think the traditional Republican, economic, social and fiscal conservatism is basically dead.”

A link to the podcast episode in question is here. It’s only about 25 minutes, and it’s hosted by a couple of reporters for WFAA in Dallas. (They tried and failed to get a response from Cruz, and have invited him on when he’s willing to talk to them.) The strategy in the short term is to cut off as much of Cruz’s corporate funding as possible, and to further isolate him in the Senate. I think what we’re all looking forward to is a barrage of take-no-prisoners anti-Cruz ads, for which there is ample raw material. 2024, the next time Cruz would be on the ballot, whether for Senate or President, is a long way off, and nothing is less certain in politics than that kind of long-range plan. But for now at least it’s out there.

Ethics complaint filed against Cruz and Hawley

Likely to have little to no effect, but one has to express one’s disapproval in as many appropriate manners as one can.

Not Ted Cruz

Seven Democrats in the U.S. Senate have filed an ethics complaint against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for his role lending “legitimacy” to false claims of election fraud ahead of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump.

In a letter addressed to the Senate Committee on Ethics, the Democratic Senators argue that Cruz and U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, “made future violence more likely.” The Democrats called for the committee to conduct an investigation into the two Republican senators and possibly consider “disciplinary action,” which could include the rare move of expulsion from the Senate. The Constitution also grants Congress the ability to censure its members, which is essentially just a strong condemnation from the chamber.

Leading up to the destructive Capitol riot, Cruz, Hawley and other Congressional Republicans vowed to object to the 2020 election results based on former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the election was stolen from him. There is no evidence of widespread fraud on a level that would have affected the result. Even after a mob of Trump supporters desecrated the U.S. Capitol, Cruz objected to certifying Arizona’s electoral results and he’s been in political hot water ever since.

[…]

The Senate’s ethics manual lays out various rules for U.S. Senators on campaign activity, conflicts of interest, gifts and what’s considered “improper conduct.” Once an ethics complaint is filed, the manual states that a preliminary inquiry is to be carried out “to conclude that a violation within the jurisdiction of the Committee has occurred.” The process includes allowing the accused to officially respond to the complaints.

At any point in the investigation, the Senate ethics committee can hold a public or executive hearing to cross-examine documents and hear testimonies.

Expelling a sitting Senator requires a two-thirds vote in the chamber while a censuring only requires a majority vote. But not many federal lawmakers have faced such discipline. According to senate.gov, only 15 senators have been expelled since the 18th century — all for their allegiance to the Confederacy — and only nine have been censured between 1811 and 1990 for a variety of “transgressions” like fighting in the chamber.

Expulsion has a snowball’s chance in hell, but a censure is possible, and may even attract a couple of Republican votes. It may not seem like much, but I think it’s correct and appropriate to put an official stamp of public disapproval on what Cruz and Hawley did. This wasn’t politics, it really was fanning the flames of insurrection, and the fact that these two seditious losers went ahead with their fantasy-based objections to the 2020 Electoral College results just shows the depth of their depravity. I’m going to get more and more angry if I keep going with this post, so let me end by saying that while this falls well short of what they deserve, it’s necessary. Even small consequences still count as consequences. NPR has more.

If we finally get immigration reform…

It would have a big effect in Texas, for obvious reasons.

Just after being sworn in on Wednesday, President-elect Joe Biden plans to propose a major immigration overhaul that would offer a pathway to citizenship to up to 1.7 million Texans who are in the country without legal authorization.

The proposal, which Biden is expected to send to Congress on his inauguration day, would create an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., more than 500,000 of whom live in Harris and Bexar counties, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Those who qualify would be granted a green card after five years and could apply for citizenship three years later.

The plan would create a faster track for those protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — more than 106,000 Texans as of June — and with temporary protected status, who could apply immediately for a green card. A Biden transition official on Tuesday confirmed the outline of the plan, which was first reported by the Washington Post.

The move positions immigration reform as a top priority for the new president, beyond tackling the coronavirus, for which Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion relief package. Democrats’ slim control of Congress, meanwhile, puts a spotlight on Texas Republicans, especially U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who campaigned last year on his support for the DACA program.

Democrats control the House, where a majority could pass Biden’s proposal, but they will need to build support from at least 10 Republican senators for it to get to Biden’s desk.

Immigration advocates have cheered the proposal and some experts say they’re more optimistic than they’ve been in years about the prospects of such a comprehensive overhaul.

Still, a deal on immigration has eluded Congress for decades and Biden’s proposal was already drawing resistance from the Senate’s most conservative members on Tuesday. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri stopped an effort to fast-track Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, citing the president-elect’s “amnesty plan for 11 million immigrants.”

Cornyn, meanwhile, said as recently as this summer that he had given up on comprehensive reform, calling at the time for incremental action on issues such as DACA.

“In the entire time I’ve been in the Senate, when we try to do comprehensive immigration reform, we fail,” Cornyn said in June. “We have a perfect record of failure when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform.”

Well, you can be part of the solution this time if you want to, John. We know your junior colleague will do everything he can to block this, so the choice is yours.

There are things that President Biden can do with executive orders, but as we know from previous litigation, that can be precarious. Getting the legislation through has to be the goal, especially since this time it’s all about providing relief and not further increasing the militarization of the border. Dems missed their chance on this in the first years of the Obama presidency. Lord only knows when the stars will align like this again. Get it done. Mother Jones and Daily Kos have more.

If we’re lucky, Congress will short circuit the Lege’s attempts to curtail voting

That would be nice.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Elections have consequences. So does the Republican enabling of the worst, most corrupt chief executive in the nation’s history. Hence, the first piece of legislation to be introduced in the new Democratic Senate will be S. 1, The for the People Act of 2021. The bill from Incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is a companion to H.R. 1 in the House, a bill with the same title and largely similar provisions to restore and protect voting rights, tackle dark money in politics, and make ethics reforms for public servants.

This could be the legislation that breaks the filibuster, and that will be a challenge for some Republicans to oppose. The House passed a version of the bill soon after retaking the majority in the last Congress, but no Republican in the Senate had to face a vote on it because Mitch McConnell just refused to bring the bill to the floor. Upping the stakes is Project Lincoln, the never-Trumper Republicans who made a big splash against Trump and his enablers in the GOP. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has the scoop that Project Lincoln supports it. “If Republicans want to move past Trump and repudiate Trumpism in all its forms, they need to pass foundational reforms to democracy,” Reed Galen, co-founder of the group told Sargent. “Senate Republicans must make a choice: Do they stand for democracy or are they the new Jim Crow caucus?”

Here’s some of what they have to decide on: universal registration of eligible voters and simple voter registration maintenance available to all voters online, Election Day voter registration, limiting voter purges by states and requiring early voting, as well as restricting hurdles states can impose on voting and vote by mail; restoration of the protections in the Voting Rights Act overturned by the Supreme Court and blocked by McConnell; and independent redistricting commission in the states to end gerrymandering. On the dark money front, it would impose new disclosure requirements both on donations and on lobbying, and require presidents and vice presidents to release their tax returns.

Some of these things directly address bills that will be or have been introduced this session, while others would allow Democratic agenda items to bypass that insurmountable obstacle. HR1 also addresses redistricting, but it is not clear that it will address it for this reapportionment cycle or if it would wait till 2031. That seems like a risk to me, but it may also be a moot point if the legislation can’t be passed in a timely fashion. And of course, anything Congress passes will be litigated, and that which is not litigated will be subject to various weaselly attempts to get around it. So no matter what, this is a long-term story. But at least there’s a chance it could be one with a more affirming narrative.

Maybe this is the year we get rid of Confederate Heroes Day

I know it shouldn’t boggle my mind that we even still have such a thing as “Confederate Heroes Day” in Texas in the year of our Lord 2021, but we do and it does. And so, some lawmakers will try, try again to make that a thing of the not-nearly-distant-enough past.

Rep. Nicole Collier

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring a leader of the American civil rights movement, some Texas employees will also take a paid day off this Tuesday for Confederate Heroes Day — a state holiday falling on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, intended to celebrate him, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate soldiers.

For years, a handful of Texas lawmakers have tried in vain to pass legislation that would remove or replace the holiday celebrating leaders of the Confederate army.

But they say this year feels different.

Demonstrators across the nation spent months over the summer protesting police brutality and racial injustice, leading many states to initiate mass removals of Confederate memorials.

“The killing of George Floyd, a Texan, and the killing of Atatiana Jefferson, another Texan, at the hands of law enforcement, certainly do underscore the importance of removing a day of remembrance that brings to the mind slavery and oppression,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, chairperson of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Texas isn’t alone in its recognition of the controversial holiday. Eight other states have similar Confederate memorial days throughout the year: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia. Mississippi and Alabama also have a joint Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day.

The birthdays of Lee and Davis used to be separate Texas holidays, but lawmakers consolidated them in 1973 to create Confederate Heroes Day.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, filed one of two bills for this session attempting to remove the holiday from the state’s calendar. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed the other in support.

“This is an opportunity for us to bring and shine light on social injustice, how Black people across this country have been demonized and have been treated unfairly by the judicial system, the criminal justice system,” Johnson said. “I think this is another way that we have to wipe away and erase harmful, hurtful imagery that continues to remind us of our horrible past.”

Johnson filed the same bill to abolish the holiday during the 2019 legislative session, but it never got a vote in the State Affairs Committee, which House Speaker Dade Phelan chaired at the time.

Phelan will ensure lawmakers have a “level playing field to advocate for legislation important to them and their communities” this session, said Enrique Marquez, spokesperson for the speaker.

We’ll see about that. I mean, it was just two years ago that we were finally able to get a Confederate plaque removed at the Capitol, though later in that same session the Senate approved a bill that would make it virtually impossible to remove any other Confederate monuments around the state. (That bill did not come to a vote in the House, so at least there was that.) I would hope that seeing an actual insurrectionist carrying an actual Confederate flag inside the actual US Capitol earlier this month, a thing that the Confederate Army itself failed to do, might shock some people out of whatever it is that made them not be reviled by this sort of thing, but I would not bet on it. But as someone once said, it’s always the right time to do the right thing.

Drinks to go on the legislative menu

Looks likely to succeed.

As the 87th legislature kicks into high gear in Austin tomorrow, a new bill introduced in both the Texas House and Senate is aiming to make to-go alcohol from restaurants and bars permanent.

Venues in Texas have been able to sell beer, wine and liquor with takeout food orders since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when Gov. Greg Abbott signed an emergency waiver in an effort to help the struggling service industry as it navigated shutdowns and other safety regulations.

The governor allowed to-go mixed drinks in June 2020 after bar and restaurant operators lobbied him to ease the restrictions further. Before that, many offered cocktail kits with the liquor in its original package.

Sen. Kelly Hancock and Rep. Charlie Green filed Senate Bill 298 and House Bill 1094, respectively, on Jan. 7. The bills would allow Texans to buy alcohol from licensed venues, via pick-up and delivery, for off-premise consumption.

“Without Governor Abbott’s temporary waiver allowing restaurants to safely sell alcohol with their to-go food orders, Texas would have seen many more restaurants – small and large – close their doors and lose their employees because of this pandemic,” said Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), in a statement. “We know the road to recovery will be long, which is precisely why we need tools like alcohol to-go to become permanent.”

Here’s SB298; HB1094 had not been filed as of when I went looking. You know I support this, and from all evidence so does Greg Abbott, which is perhaps a bit more important. There will likely be some concern about the potential for increased drunk driving, but we do have open container laws, and I’m not aware of any increases in DUI since May when the prohibition on drinks to go was first lifted. There’s still plenty of other things we can do to clean up the byzantine system of alcohol regulation in this state, but I’ll take this as a start.

Legislative diversity report 2021

It’s a tiny bit more diverse, but not by much.

In a perennial takeaway of The Texas Tribune’s demographic analysis, the Texas Legislature remains mostly white and male.

When the 2021 legislative session begins Tuesday, 3 of every 5 lawmakers in the state House and Senate will be white, although white Texans make up just 41% of the state’s population. That’s largely a function of the Republican dominance of the Capitol and the dearth of diversity in the party’s ranks. All but five of the 100 Republicans in the Legislature are non-Hispanic white people.

Women have seen gains in the Legislature in recent years, but their underrepresentation is underscored by how marginal those gains have been. Four years ago, women held just 20% of seats; on Tuesday they’ll take roughly 27%. And unlike at the start of the legislative session two years ago, there won’t be more lawmakers named “John” than Republican women in the House.

There will be an equal number.

Click over to see the charts. There are 13 Republican women this session, up one from 2019. For what it’s worth, I believe the Trib has undercounted Anglo Democratic legislators. They have it at sixteen, but my count is seventeen. There were eighteen Anglo Dems following the 2018 election, a significant increase over previous years in which retirements and electoral defeats, both in March and in November, had whittled that number down to six. Looking at that list the changes from the 2019 session are as follows:

– Sen. Sarah Eckhardt replaces Kirk Watson, who stepped down to take a job at the University of Houston.
– Rep. Gina Calanni was defeated, but Rep. Ann Johnson was elected, leaving the Harris County share of the contingent unchanged.
– The drop from 18 to 17 is the result of Joe Pickett’s retirement due to health concerns. Rep. Art Fierro won the special election to succeed him.

The number of LGBTQ legislators went up by one as well with the election of Rep. Ann Johnson.

Finally, I should note that if we include the SBOE in this scope, then the Anglo Democrat number goes back up to 18, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau was elected in SBOE5, winning the seat vacated by Republican Ken Mercer. I won’t be surprised if the SBOE is redistricted back to a ten R/five D situation, and of course who knows where the House and the Senate will end up, but for now, this is what we have. Tune in following the next election for further updates.

State Capitol closed again

At least through Inauguration Day, which is to say Wednesday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety abruptly announced the closure of the state Capitol Friday evening after uncovering new intelligence that intensified security concerns and prompted the agency to ramp up security further.

The closure affects the building and the Capitol grounds, which only reopened to the public this month after being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and damage that officials said protestors did to state property during protests in May and June.

The closure begins Saturday and continues through Wednesday.

In a statement, DPS Director Col. Steve McCraw said that “the Texas Department of Public Safety is aware of armed protests planned at the Texas State Capitol and violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events. As a result, DPS has deployed additional personnel and resources to the Capitol and are working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Austin Police Department to monitor events and to enforce the rule of law.”

Authorities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were bracing Friday for what law enforcement said could be violent protests this weekend through Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden. The caution stems from intelligence gained after the deadly pro-Donald Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Earlier this week, McCraw told state senators that authorities are monitoring multiple sects that could threaten Capitol security in coming days but stressed that the agency stood ready to neutralize any possible attack.

He said the groups have different political ideologies with 200 to 600 members each, according to three senators who attended the briefings. The senators did not want to comment publicly because DPS deemed the information confidential and said that releasing it could jeopardize safety.

McCraw said officials have ample troopers and other officers to respond should one of the groups travel to Austin to protest or riot. Their bigger concern, however, is that if the groups consolidate and mobilize together, that would pose a greater risk and prompt officials to call in reinforcements, the senators said.

We all know what this is about. I just hope it turns out to be a lot more talk than action. But whatever happens or doesn’t happen between now and January 20, the long-term threat isn’t going away and needs to be taken very seriously. The Chron has more.

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

The Texas House unanimously adopted rules Thursday that will require members to wear masks in the chamber and during committee hearings and allow them to cast votes on legislation from outside the House floor.

But the chamber opted to not require testing for lawmakers as they meet during the coronavirus pandemic and did not expand its virtual testimony options to allow members of the public who have not been invited to testify to comment at committee hearings remotely.

“We’re new to this pandemic, and the whole point about these rules — the key is respect, the key is courtesy,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, while introducing the rules proposal earlier Thursday. “What’s the rules? It’s 150 people, that’s what the rules are.”

The coronavirus requirements were part of a broad resolution setting rules for the House during the Legislature’s 2021 session. Members debated amendments on the resolution for hours. In addition to voting on health protocols, the chamber overwhelmingly shot down proposals that would have kept Democrats from serving as committee chairs in the Republican-controlled House.

House members, staff and the public will be required to wear face masks while inside the chamber or a committee hearing room, though witnesses and lawmakers may remove them while speaking from a microphone. Members may also remove masks during a committee hearing if protected by a barrier and socially distanced from others.

The House’s decision to not require testing for people entering the chamber or attending a committee hearing differs from protocols the Senate passed Wednesday. Every senator will be required to test negative for the virus before entering the upper chamber or attending a committee hearing. Senate staff must be tested the first day of the week they enter the Capitol and before accessing a hearing or the chamber.

Addressing the House’s testing approach, Hunter told members that the chamber could not mandate testing until it’s “available in our courthouses and … schoolhouses,” saying it “would be wrong” for members to prioritize their health and safety above others.

“That is the people’s House,” said Hunter, one of the House members spearheading the rules proposal. “And for us to prioritize our own health and safety above others would be wrong.”

The House rules also authorized members to cast votes for legislation “from a secure portable device” if they are inside the chamber, in the gallery, or “in an adjacent room or hallway on the same level as the House floor or gallery,” such as the speaker’s committee room or member lounge. That expansion could help space out the chamber’s 150 members should a lawmaker wish to do so.

See here for some background. The rules are codified in HR4, and you can see a long Twitter thread about the housekeeping rules that were the preliminaries for all this here; note that some of the proposed amendments were later withdrawn. One of the two House members who got up to some mischief but was roundly rejected by the rest of the chamber. I mean, when Briscoe Cain is speaking eloquently for tradition and bipartisanship, you know you’ve gone off the rails somewhere.

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

The five-ninths rule

All hail the new “smaller than three-fifths” rule.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the minority party’s ability to block legislation it unanimously opposes in the Republican-controlled upper chamber.

In a 18-13 vote, lawmakers voted to lower the threshold of support that legislation needs to make it onto the Senate floor. In past sessions, the Senate required a three-fifths supermajority, or 19 votes, to bring legislation to the floor. But after the defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, reduced the number of Republicans from 19 to 18, lawmakers lowered the threshold to 18 members — a move Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing for.

Passage of the rule required a simple majority — or 16 members. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted that the resolution passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans on the floor hailed the move. Patrick, who presides over the Senate, first floated the idea of lowering the threshold last January, later contending in December that the 2020 election proved voters support conservative candidates and that he planned on “moving a conservative agenda forward.”

[…]

In introducing the resolution, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said: “I believe our tradition of requiring a supermajority is good and we should retain it, but … it’s my view that there are enough big items that the majority of Texans have asked for that would be blocked with a 19-vote requirement, which would put us in a special session where we have no control over the agenda.” (To be clear, only Gov. Greg Abbott can call lawmakers back for a special legislative session.)

While the procedure may sound like parliamentary arcana, the impact could spell trouble for Democrats. The change essentially allows Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without the minority party’s input.

See here and here for the background. As you know, I oppose having artificial anti-majoritarian rules in place, for reasons you can peruse at those earlier posts. I have no illusions that this will be a good thing in this session. It’s going to suck, bigtime. I totally get all the complaints that the Democratic Senators have raised. I just disagree with them about the merits of this tradition.

One thing that was not clear to me, from this story or from the Chron story, was just exactly how this new, lower threshold for bypassing the blocker bill was to be determined. As noted in my previous post, the fraction used could be 5/9, or it could be 4/7, or it could just be “minimum eighteen Senators needed”. Neither of these stories explored that or the potential ramifications of it – I’ll get to that in a minute – but I eventually found it in Senate Resolution 2, the text of which is here (hat tip to Kimberly Reeves for providing the vital #SR2 hash tag that gave me the clue I needed to find this):

Any bill, resolution, or other measure may on any day be made a special order for a future time of the session by an affirmative vote of five-ninths [three-fifths] of the members present.

Further references to “three-fifths” were similarly struck and replaced by “five-ninths”. What this means is that on any day where there’s a full complement of Senators, eighteen votes are needed to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. That’s because, in math terms, 5/9 < 18/31. With a three-fifth requirement, 19 was the magic number (again, 3/5 < 19/31, but 18/31 < 3/5). The reason I'm obsessing over how this was officially expressed is because of the likelihood that at any point in the session, one or more Senators could be sidelined by COVID. If a Republican Senator is out, they're out of luck as long as the Dems are at full strength (17/30 < 5/9). They would need two Dems to be out to make the math work (5/9 < 17/29). Under normal circumstances, you'd shrug your shoulders and say these things happen, but in Pandemic Times, with the Republicans being very devil-may-care about masks, the risk of a self-own is higher than usual. This is one of the reasons why I thought Dan Patrick would give up on the fractions and just push a rule that does away with the pretense and enables majority rule. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be conservative in this sense, but here we are. We’ll see how it plays out.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

Hard to say, but there’s no reason to be particularly optimistic.

As the country’s political polarization reaches a boiling point — illustrated vividly Wednesday by the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the president who believed his false claims that the election was stolen — Texas Republicans are seeking to make some of the nation’s strictest voting laws even stricter.

They say the unrest sparked by the events Wednesday is likely to invigorate discussions over the matter in the state Legislature, where the 2021 session will begin Tuesday.

Several election-related bills have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — though their aims are in direct opposition, with Democrats looking to ease up laws they see as suppressing the vote and Republicans trying to curb the opportunities for the fraud they say plagued the 2020 election.

Democrats have filed about two-thirds of the election-related bills, with the other third coming from Republicans.

“If this week has highlighted anything, it’s that we need to protect and encourage democracy and that it’s fragile,” said Rep. John Bucy III, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House Elections Committee. “And so these types of bills are worth the investment.”

Election integrity was voted one of the Texas GOP’s top eight legislative priorities in 2020 by its members. Republican bills include measures to tighten mail voting restrictions and stop governors from changing election laws during disasters, two concerns that President Donald Trump raised in his election challenges.

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Texas is one of 16 states that require voters to have an excuse to vote by mail.

Bettencourt said Harris County’s move to mail the applications “would have certainly caused more voter confusion” because most recipients would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that voters’ lack of immunity to the coronavirus alone does not qualify as a disability that makes them eligible to vote by mail, but could be one of several factors a voter may consider.

Other bills filed by Republican lawmakers aim to correct the voter rolls, such as one filed by newly elected Sen. Drew Springer that would require voter registrars to do various checks for changes in address on an annual basis.

Springer said the bill was inspired by an Ohio law that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld that allows the state to purge voters from the registration rolls if they do not return a mailed address confirmation form or don’t vote for two federal election cycles. The Texas bill would require registrars to use data from the U.S. Postal Service and property records for inactive voters to identify possible changes of address, then to send the notice requesting confirmation of their current residence.

The Bettencourt bill, as described, doesn’t concern me much. Even in 2020, and even with all of the COVID-driven changes to election procedures, not that many people voted by mail, and the vast majority of those who did were over 65. Those folks will get their vote by mail applications one way or another. Unless there’s more to this, this bill is all show.

The Springer bill is potentially more concerning, but the devil will be in the details. I continue to have hope for a revamped federal law that will do a lot to protect voting rights that will blunt the effect of efforts like these, but it’s very much early days and there’s no guarantees of anything yet.

I did not excerpt a section of the story in which Rep. Steve Toth will propose a constitutional amendment that would require a special session of the Legislature in order to renew a state of disaster or emergency declaration past 30 days. It’s presented as a voting rights-adjacent measure, prompted in part by Greg Abbott’s extension of the early voting period, but as we discussed many times last year, there’s a lot of merit in asserting the role of the Legislature in these matters. I don’t trust Steve Toth any more than I trust Steven Hotze, but on its face this idea is worth discussing. It also would require a substantial number of Dems to support it, so there’s room for it to be a positive force. We’ll see.

There are bills put forth by Dems for obvious things like online voter registration, same day registration, no excuses absentee balloting, and so forth, all of which have little to no chance of being adopted. I’ve said before that I think people like voting to be easy and convenient for themselves and that Democrats should campaign on that (among other things), so I’m delighted to see these bills. I just know they’re not happening this session.

Beyond that, I’m sure there will be worse bills filed than what we’ve seen here. I won’t be surprised if there’s a push to amend the voter ID law to include absentee ballots, now that those are no longer seen as Republican assets. I’m sure there will be a bill officially limiting mail ballot dropoff locations, and maybe one to limit early voting hours. For sure, there’s a significant contingent of Republicans that would like to make voting extra super inconvenient for everyone, as well as make the penalties for whatever minor offense Ken Paxton can find to charge someone with as harsh as possible:

Laugh at the lunacy that is Allen West all you like, the man is in a position of influence. Note also the attack on drive-through voting, which is another likely target even without this hysteria. I don’t know how far the Republicans will go, but they’ll do something. We can do what we can to stop them, and after that it’s all about winning more elections. It’s not going to get any easier.

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

The Texas House on Tuesday elected state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next House speaker, ushering into office a new leader who will oversee a chamber facing its toughest set of legislative challenges in years against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The House voted 143-2 for Phelan, with four members not voting. The two members who voted against Phelan were GOP freshmen Bryan Slaton and Jeff Cason.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, replaced former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who retired from office thanks to a secret recording scandal that fractured relationships in the 150-member lower chamber. Phelan has billed himself as a figure who has earned the trust of his colleagues and who wants to lead the House by letting members drive the business of it.

Phelan’s election to the gavel was one of the House’s first orders of business Tuesday, when the Legislature gaveled in for the 2021 legislative session.

Best of luck in the new session. My advice is to never, ever speak to anyone associated with Michael Quinn Sullivan if you can avoid it, and if you can’t avoid it remember that they are almost certainly recording you in the hope that you will say something dumb and they can torpedo you over it. Learn from the mistakes of your overly self-confident predecessor. And don’t let anyone get away with sedition, insurrection, or not wearing a mask. Good luck, we’re all counting on you.

There was also this.

The Texas Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for its biennial session with a heavy security presence after the U.S. Capitol insurrection last week and rampant reminders of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

The state House and Senate met in the early afternoon without incident, and there was only a small protest outside the Capitol beforehand. Still, the sight of state troopers clustered around the building’s entrances and lining the halls inside was striking, especially after the unrest in the nation’s capital on Wednesday that left five people dead and has led to dozens of arrests.

“This is my 19th session, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I felt today when I recognized that we had to have all this security,” Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said in the minutes before the session began. “And my first question to myself was, How far have we come? I mean, have we come forward or have we gone backward?”

“I told the DPS officers and the military I felt safe,” Dutton added, “but I didn’t know I needed them to feel safe.”

[…]

Nothing remotely close to what happened in Washington, D.C., unfolded Tuesday in Austin. There was a small protest — appearing to number less than a dozen people — outside the Capitol’s north entrance, at least partly related to vaccines, about an hour before the session began, and a wall of DPS officers were lined up on the perimeter of it.

After the chambers let out around 1:30 p.m., DPS troopers were still in place on the outdoor perimeter of the Capitol, but there were no protests in sight.

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

Even as members of both parties came together for the opening remarks and swearing in of new members, they remained visibly at odds over proper health precautions amid the pandemic. In the Senate, masks were not required and at least half of lawmakers declined to wear them while seated at their desks.

Plexiglass barriers lined administrative desks at the front of the room, but only Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, had a protective shield around his desk.

“We’re here to do the people’s business,” said Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate and has been a vocal opponent of mandated restrictions. “We want our Capitol open this session, unlike many states,” he added. “We want the public to be here and have your voice heard in committee, to be able to visit your representative.”

Members and their guests were required to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the Capitol.

The new session arrives as infections in Austin have reached all-time highs. On Tuesday, state and local emergency officials opened a temporary facility for overflow hospital patients as the city’s hospitals continued to be overrun with coronavirus patients.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was among those who declined to wear a mask in the chamber. His spokesman said “everyone was tested prior to coming into the Capitol this morning, including all senators and guests that were sitting in the gallery today.”

Yeah, no one’s ever heard of a false negative test result. What do you think is the over/under on legislators who get COVID? Not counting the two (Drew Darby and Tracy King) who were not present because they already had a positive test. I’m at least as worried about the staffers and folks who work at the Capitol, but we’re much less likely to hear it when they get sick. Just please, let’s try not to turn this session into a superspreader event.

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

Texas lawmakers will enter the legislative session this week with an estimated $112.5 billion available to allocate for general purpose spending in the next two-year state budget, a number that’s down slightly from the current budget but is significantly higher than what was estimated this summer when the coronavirus began to devastate the economy.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday announced that number in his biennial revenue estimate, which sets the amount lawmakers can commit to spending when they write a new budget this year. But he acknowledged that Texas’ economic future remains “clouded in uncertainty” and that numbers could change in the coming months.

Hegar also announced a nearly $1 billion deficit for the current state budget that lawmakers must make up, a significantly smaller shortfall than Hegar expected over the summer. That number, however, doesn’t account for 5% cuts to state agencies’ budgets that Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered this summer or any supplemental changes to the budget lawmakers will have to make.

Hegar’s estimates portend a difficult budget-writing session for lawmakers. But Hegar acknowledged that things could have been a lot worse. The $112.5 billion available is down from $112.96 billion for the current budget.

See here for the previous update. I continue to hope that Congress will throw a boatload of state and local aid our way in the coming months, which will also help, but at least we’re not in truly dire territory. And bizarrely enough, there may be a silver lining in all this.

But advocates hope the pandemic, combined with the revenue crunch, could lead to an unlikely bipartisan agreement. Before the pandemic hit, Democrats saw a takeover of the Texas House as key for advancing the prospects of Medicaid expansion in the state. But as COVID-19 has ravaged the state economy and thrown even more Texans into the ranks of the uninsured, Democrats are guardedly optimistic this could persuade enough Republicans to put aside their political hangups and support expansion—even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton leads a national lawsuit to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act.

Texas is one of 12 remaining states that have refused the federally subsidized Medicaid expansion, despite having the highest rate and largest population of uninsured residents in the country. Expanding Medicaid would cover 1 million uninsured Texans and bring in as much as $5.4 billion to the state, according to a September report by researchers at Texas A&M University.

State Representative Lyle Larson, a moderate Republican, voiced his support for expanding Medicaid soon after the election, pointing to six GOP-led states that have done so in the past three years. “It is a business decision,” Larson wrote on Twitter, noting that the move would help with the revenue shortfall and COVID-19 response, address rural hospital closures, and expand access to care. Dallas County Representatives Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, both Republicans, pulled out razor-thin victories to keep their House seats after voicing support for some type of Medicaid expansion in their campaigns.

Even conservative state Senator Paul Bettencourt acknowledged that the fiscal crunch will force consideration of Medicaid expansion. “My back-of-the-napkin analysis shows that’s a $1.6 billion item, like that—boom!” he told the Dallas Morning News in September. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have that falling out of trees,” he said. “You can put Medicaid expansion up at the top of the list. There will be a debate.”

But there’s still plenty of staunch opposition. “For those that promote [expansion], I haven’t heard what they’re willing to cut,” state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee, said in November. “It’s easy to talk about it until you have to pay for it, especially going into this budget cycle.”

As with casinos and marijuana, the smart money is always to bet against Medicaid expansion happening. But this is a bigger opening than I’ve seen in a long time, and while that’s still not saying much, it’s not nothing.

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

Don’t get your hopes too high. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Five years after Texas legalized medical marijuana for people with debilitating illnesses, advocates and industry experts say the state’s strict rules, red tape and burdensome barriers to entry have left the program largely inaccessible to those it was intended to help.

But with a new legislative session gaveling in next month, some Texas lawmakers see an opportunity to fix the state’s medical cannabis program — known as the Compassionate Use Program — by further expanding eligibility and loosening some restrictions so Texas’ laws more closely resemble those of other states that allow the treatment.

There are 3,519 Texans registered with the state to use medical marijuana, though advocates say 2 million people are eligible based on current law.

Texas’ program pales in overall participation and scope compared with other states: It has fewer enrolled patients and businesses than most other states with medical marijuana programs. At least some form of medical marijuana is legal in 47 states nationwide, but Texas’ restrictions put it in the bottom 11 in terms of accessibility, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We’re pretty dang close to the bottom. We’re pretty far behind,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, referring to how access to Texas’ medical marijuana program fares compared with other states. Menéndez will push legislation in the next session to further expand the program.

[…]

As of Dec. 14, at least seven bills had been filed by lawmakers seeking to expand the Compassionate Use Program. Menéndez is authoring a far-reaching bill that would make more patients eligible, strike the THC cap and lower business fees, among other changes.

“I think we’d see a lot more participation if we had a real medical cannabis program,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

In the past, medical cannabis bills have faced opposition from lawmakers who see it as a path to legalizing recreational marijuana, Menéndez said. But he says expanding the program will put decisions about who can access the medicine into the hands of doctors.

When the Senate voted to include more patients in 2019, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said he was concerned the legislation was more of a “cliff” than a slippery slope.

“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to recreational use,” Birdwell said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable going any further than this because of what I’m seeing in Colorado, Washington and Oregon and what’s happening in those states. I am highly guarded.”

There are a lot more words in there about what Texas does and doesn’t do, and who is affected, and how much better things would be if we had more legal pot, not to mention the economic boost, and you should read them. And then you should remember that nothing is going to pass as long as Dan Patrick – who is for some reason not mentioned in the story – remains opposed to any further loosening of marijuana laws. I support a wholesale loosening of these laws, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that such a loosening would have popular support. Which is why I’d like to see the Democratic slate in 2022 go all in on this. It’s a winning issue, and we’re going to need winning issues if we hope to push Dan Patrick out of there. In the meantime, by all means call your Rep or your Senator and tell them what you support. Maybe your preferred bill will pass the House, or get a Senate committee hearing. That’s likely the best you’ll get for now, but at least it’s something.

You can’t escape your culpability, Ted

The stench will be on you forever, Ted.

Not Ted Cruz

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has sharpened his criticism of President Donald Trump, saying the president’s rhetoric “certainly contributed to the violence that occurred” as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol on Wednesday.

But the Texas Republican — who led an effort in the Senate to delay certifying Trump’s loss — is showing no signs of contrition amid growing calls for his resignation as many blame him for stoking the post-election strife that culminated with the attack on the Capitol.

Cruz objected to Arizona’s electoral votes less than an hour before demonstrators breached the building, pointing to “unprecedented” — and unproven — allegations of voter fraud. Even some of Cruz’s Republican colleagues said he should have been working to dispel those allegations, rather than airing them in Congress.

Asked in an interview with Hearst Newspapers on Friday whether he believes there was widespread fraud in the election, Cruz responded: “I don’t know if there was sufficient fraud to alter the outcome, I have never said that there was. What I said was there were serious allegations of fraud, and those allegations need to be examined carefully.”

In objecting to Arizona’s results, Cruz was pushing for an “emergency audit,” which he argues could have provided the final say Trump supporters needed. His objection was initially supported by 10 other senators, though two changed their minds after the riot.

“It would have been a much better solution, it would have helped bring this country together, it would have helped heal the divisions we have in this country and help reestablish trust in our democratic system,” Cruz said. “What I was working to do is find a way to reestablish widespread trust in the system.”

Critics accuse Cruz of doing the opposite by ignoring the fact that Trump’s claims had been thrown out of dozens of courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. They call his objection a craven attempt to appeal to Trump supporters and raise money for his own presidential bid.

[…]

Texas political experts and operatives say the blowback Cruz is facing now is unlikely to last as long as some expect.

“I’m not sure the criticism of some of his fellow Republicans, elites, or certainly Democrats, really make that much difference in the medium and long term,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “The only thing that’s ever really diluted the support of Republican voters in Texas for Cruz was when he was crosswise with Trump, and he knows that — and we’re seeing evidence he knows that.”

Cruz’s approval rating among Republicans in Texas hit its lowest point — 55 percent — in June 2016, at the height of his primary battle with Trump, Henson said. By October 2018 it had risen back to 86 percent and Henson said it hasn’t wavered much since.

“I think that as far as the voters go, the people who decide primary elections in Texas and elect Republicans in Texas … many of them are sticking with President Trump still and sticking with Ted Cruz still,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas.

Steinhauser, who is an outspoken critic of Trump but a supporter of Cruz, said in his conversations with family, friends and other Republicans in Texas over the last 48 hours, “there are still just a huge number of people who are just backing up Donald Trump’s line on this.”

Still, Steinhauser said, it’s significant that criticism of Trump is growing among Republicans, including Cruz.

“Everybody in Texas, whether it’s going to get my car fixed today, they’re talking about it. Going to get a drink with a friend last night, they’re talking about it,” Steinhauser said. “It’s not arguing about the ExIm Bank. Real people in Houston, Texas, are talking about this today.

“He probably does feel like he needs to explain himself.”

I think the thing about Cruz, and the reason why he is so widely despised, is that for as smart as he supposedly is, he treats everyone else like we’re stupid. It’s not just that he lies, it’s that he clearly doesn’t think anyone can see through his transparent bullshit. Maybe his approval rating among Republicans hasn’t moved much from the 86% he had in October of 2018, but that was right before he came very close to losing. That doesn’t seem like a solid place to be, if you ask me.

In the meantime, we know he’s not going to resign or be expelled, but we can enjoy the clamor for those things to happen.

Well, someone needs to make a motion for that to happen, I assume, so…

There’s not one but two Chron editorials calling on Cruz to resign – the second one also calls out Ken Paxton and the sixteen Texas members of Congress who supported the challenge to the electoral votes. Neither that nor the expulsion are going to happen, of course, but we can dream for a minute. And we can work like hell to make this happen, too.

“I think they should be just flat beaten the next time they run,” Biden said, when asked if Cruz and another Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, ought to step down. “I think the American public has a real good clear look at who they are. They’re part of the big lie, the big lie.”

From your lips to God’s ears, Mr. President. Please note the best thing you can do to help is have a great term and clean up the ginormous mess that Trump left behind, with Ted Cruz’s help. The better off we all are in four years’ time, the better the odds that Ted Cruz will become a private citizen again.

What to do about Ted and Kenny?

You wouldn’t think it would be possible for Ted Cruz to become more loathesome, but if you think that you seriously underestimate him.

Not Ted Cruz

Two nights before the Electoral College certification in Congress, Ted Cruz was in vintage form.

The junior U.S. senator from Texas was calling in to a friendly conservative radio host — Mark Levin — and setting up Wednesday’s vote to be the kind of intraparty line in the sand that has powered his political rise.

By then, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had made clear that he opposed objections to certifying Joe Biden’s election as the next president. But Cruz and 10 other GOP senators announced they would still object unless Congress agreed to an “emergency audit” of the presidential election results.

Cruz told Levin that there were some conservatives “who in good conscience” disagree with his view of Congress’ role in certifying the presidential election results, and that he had talked to them and did not fault them. On the other hand, Cruz said, there were “some Republicans who are not conservatives but who are piously and self-righteously preening” when it comes to the issue.

In spearheading the group of objectors, Cruz arguably upstaged U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who announced his plan to object three days earlier — and, like Cruz, is considered a potential 2024 presidential contender.

But on Wednesday, what Cruz might have thought was a savvy political play took an alarming turn: Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol while lawmakers were considering Cruz’s objection. Three people suffered medical emergencies during the siege and died; their deaths were in addition to another woman who was shot by a Capitol police officer.

Cruz denounced the violence but incurred a fierce backlash from critics in both parties, who said his drive to question the election results — and appease the president and his supporters ahead of a possible 2024 run — helped fan the flames of anger among Trump supporters. Prominent Texas Democrats called for him to resign. Many others suggested he’d played an inciting role in one of the darkest days in modern American history.

Politically, it was a high-stakes distillation of GOP tactics in the era of Trump.

“His challenge of the Electoral College votes helps him among core Trump supporters but risks further damaging his political standing among rank-and-file Republicans like moderates and suburban swing voters who have traditionally formed a stable winning coalition for Republicans in Texas and nationally,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, who added, “Siding with Trump is risky.”

Few people can pull of smarm and condescension at such a high level, but Cruz makes it look easy. The political environment was very favorable to Democrats in 2018 in large part because of anger against Donald Trump – and, it would seem, his absence on the ballot – and that went even further in the Senate race, where Cruz and his extreme unlikability took it the extra mile. Maybe a better politician, or at least someone who more closely resembles a normal human being, could get that to simmer down over time, but Cruz never misses a beat. He’s cast his lot with the Trumper deplorables, and maybe that’s his best bet to get an edge in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. All I know is, the more people who are sick of his shit, the better. Whether he runs for President or Senate or both in 2024 (remember that legally, he can do that in Texas), I expect we’ll be able to drum up some enthusiasm against him.

Having said all that, I’m unfortunately quite ambivalent about any effort to get him expelled from the Senate. I’ve no doubt that plenty of his Republican colleagues in the Senate also despise him, but voting to boot him out, which will take a non-trivial number of Republicans to happen, is a heavy lift. Just the act of putting a partisan target on his back like that will force some of them to defend him, and that’s the last thing we want to do. Chuck Schumer takes over as Senate Majority Leader on January 22, two days into the Biden administration. There’s a ton of vital stuff that needs to happen right away, from COVID relief to voting rights and much more, and the last thing we’re going to need is a sideshow. And look, as much as I’d love to see Cruz get the heave-ho, even if it did happen Greg Abbott would get to appoint his replacement, who almost by definition will be able to work better with his Republican mates. Where’s the upside in that? Let him stay where he’s mostly going to be ineffective and might help keep his caucus divided.

Now, Ken Paxton, on the other hand…

Best mugshot ever

On Wednesday morning, Ken Paxton stood in front of a roaring crowd, reminding a sea of President Donald Trump’s supporters that the president “is a fighter” and his backers must be, too.

“We’re here. We will not quit fighting,” he said, slamming Republican officials in Georgia who have stood by President-elect Joe Biden’s victory there. “We are Texans, we are Americans, and we’re not quitting.”

But by the evening — after members of the crowd he had invited to Washington, D.C., stirred up with false claims about election fraud, resorted to violence, smashing windows and scaling walls to breach the nation’s Capitol in a mob that forced members of Congress to flee and left at least one woman dead — he had claimed they were not his ilk at all.

“These are not Trump supporters,” he falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook, citing incorrect reports that the pro-Trump mob that invaded the Capitol had been infiltrated by liberal antifa activists.

[…]

On Thursday, Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, called for an investigation into Paxton’s role in Wednesday’s riot, leaving the door open to curbing the power of his office, restricting its budget, even censure and impeachment.

“From filing a fraudulent lawsuit that fueled unhinged conspiracy theories about a free and fair election, to egging on the crowd of insurrectionists in Washington, D.C., Paxton has played a major role in creating the national crisis that culminated with the first breach of our nation’s capital since the War of 1812,” Turner said. “Even today, Paxton has used social media to spread lies about yesterday’s acts of violence and insurrection.”

In December, Paxton’s support for Trump took the form of a widely panned, and ultimately rejected, lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to toss the election results in four battleground states that had handed the White House to Joe Biden. The lawsuit leaned on discredited claims of election fraud in the battleground states.

Paxton finds himself in a precarious political position, even before Wednesday’s disastrous events. Since October, he has been embroiled in a scandal after eight of his top aides in the attorney general’s office told authorities they believed he was breaking the law by doing a series of favors for a political donor.

Texas Republicans — many of whom stayed quiet for the past five years as Paxton battled felony securities fraud charges — came forward to express their disapproval. Some fellow conservatives, including his former top aide U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, have called for his resignation. An FBI investigation into Paxton’s conduct is reportedly moving ahead full-throttle, and in the meantime, the fresh criminal allegations are poised to impose tens of millions of dollars in costs to his constituents: Texas taxpayers.

Paxton has been in hot water before, and often escaped it only to climb higher politically, galvanizing support from the Republican party’s right flank. He alienated some with a long shot run for Texas House speaker, then got elected to the state Senate. He has characterized long-running felony securities fraud charges as a political witch hunt, much as Trump did in Washington.

Still, Paxton may have fewer defenders now than ever before.

At a low point in his rollercoaster political career, Paxton is betting on the Trump base to bring him back up the hill, lending the legitimacy of office to debunked claims that have motivated violence.

Here, I think the calculus is a little different. Opposing Paxton’s need for need for millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees should be easy enough, and will provide a test as to whether his wings can get clipped a bit. I don’t expect much more than that, for the same reason I don’t expect even the biggest Cruz-hating Republicans in the Senate to support a motion to expel him, but we can certainly make him more toxic, and harder for his buddies to defend. Paxton had the second-worst showing in 2018, right behind Ted Cruz, and I think it’s fair to say that patience is a little thin for him. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the rest have to consider the possibility that Paxton and his FBI investigation – even if Trump swoops in with a pardon – will be a burden on them in 2022. I’m sure they believe they’ll be re-elected anyway, but who needs the headache?

What they do about it is less clear. They could support a primary challenger – more likely, they’d just not get in a challenger’s way – or they could just avoid talking about Paxton as much as possible. Or they can just grit their teeth and stand by their man. I’m not listing the “quietly push him to not run for re-election” option, because I think it’s pretty clear that’s not going to work. So what we need to do is help keep the spotlight on our felonious and insurrectionist AG. There’s a petition to sign that calls for his resignation or impeachment, if you’re the petition-signing type. But mostly, just make sure everyone that you know also knows what a terrible person he is. We’re going to have to throw him out the old-fashioned way, so we’d better get to work on it.

Impeach him again

This is Donald Trump’s fault. All of it, though he did have plenty of assistance. Impeach him again, convict him this time, and then arrest him on the way out the door. There had been a call for censure before yesterday’s appalling disgrace, and I applaud Rep. Colin Allred for supporting that call, but we’re way past that point now.

And never forget that Ken Paxton had traveled to DC to be there for this. Never forget Ted Cruz sent a fundraising email in the immediate aftermath. Every day, they should both should be reminded of this.

All of Trump’s lickspittle seditious enablers, from Paxton to Ted Cruz to Louie Gohmert to Dan Crenshaw and more, should resign in shame, delete all their social media accounts, and never speak in public again, but only after they finally, finally, disavow Trump. Assuming they’re even capable of that. I don’t have words strong enough to adequately condemn all this.

One last thing: Given the failure of the DC police to stop or apprehend these thugs, it’s now on President Biden’s Justice Department to do a thorough review of all the video, news stories, social media posts, and anything else, and then arrest every single person they can identify that was inside the Capitol. None of them should be allowed to get away with this. Those who were just there for the lulz and didn’t invade the building should be named and shamed.