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Abbott to nominate Jane Nelson as next SOS

That was quick.

Jane Nelson

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday he will nominate retiring state Sen. Jane Nelson to be secretary of state. The announcement comes one day after John Scott said he would step down from the role at the end of the year.

Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is retiring from the Senate this year after 30 years in the Legislature. Her nomination to be the state’s top elections official will give Abbott a strong candidate for Senate approval after his last three nominees dating to 2018 have failed to be confirmed.

“I look forward to this new chapter of public service and appreciate the confidence Governor Abbott has placed in me to serve as Secretary of State,” Nelson said in a statement. “Voters expect fair elections with accurate, timely results, and I am committed to making that happen. Texans with all political views should have faith in our election system.”

[…]

Nelson’s nomination brings a longtime veteran of state politics to the role. She is the longest-serving Republican in the Texas Senate and has passed bills on changes to medical liability, property taxes, the state’s long-troubled foster care system, mental health care, domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. She also was the first woman to lead the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which writes the state budget, and passed legislation to create the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

In recent years, Nelson’s time at the Legislature has been focused on the state budget, and she has not been as involved in elections legislation. Like the rest of her Senate Republican colleagues, she voted in favor of a sweeping elections bill last session that tightened election laws in the state and that Democrats decried as voter suppression. The legislation banned programs that expanded access to voting like 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting and put limits on the number of hours counties could keep polls open.

Her office did not immediately respond to an interview request about her nomination.

Nelson’s nomination is a strategic political move by Abbott, who has seen a revolving door of elections officials who were unable to get through the confirmation process.

Scott did not have to undergo the Senate’s confirmation process because he is resigning before the Legislature’s biennial session to return to private practice. But Abbott’s last two nominees before him, David Whitley and Ruth Ruggero Hughs, held out for most of their respective legislative sessions waiting for confirmations that did not come.

Whitley was derailed by Democrats’ opposition to him because of his supervision of an attempt to purge the voter rolls of 100,000 voters, many of whom had Hispanic surnames and had previously not been U.S. citizens but subsequently became naturalized. Hughs’ confirmation process flew under the radar, but activists who have cast doubt on the integrity of elections without evidence opposed her confirmation because her office had claimed the 2020 elections were “smooth and secure.” She resigned before ever facing a hearing.

Nelson’s status in the Senate’s Republican Caucus and her proximity to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the chamber, make her confirmation more likely. And because Scott has pledged to release the results of the audit under his tenure, any lingering issues with that review will not fall on Nelson.

See here for the background. Whatever else one might say about Jane Nelson, she’s a serious policy person and has always struck me as an institutionalist. She’s certainly conservative, but I don’t associate her with the modern wingnut faction, in part because she’s been there for so long and in part because I’m just not aware of her saying crazy or radical things. There’s no one that Greg Abbott would nominate that I would prefer to be Secretary of State, but a serious policy person who has no track record of wanting to burn shit down is about as good as we can hope for. I wish her the best and hope she doesn’t make a fool out of me.

I regret to inform you that “tripledemic” is a word

The good news is that we may avoid it here in Houston.

A collision of three respiratory viruses — COVID-19, influenza and RSV — may not hit Houston as severely as other parts of the country, experts say, but pediatric hospitals are still preparing for a busy winter season with at least some virus overlap.

Texas Medical Center data published Tuesday shows early signs of another COVID wave, with an uptick in hospitalizations and the positivity rate, which jumped from 3.2 percent to 5 percent last week. COVID wastewater surveillance also offers a grim outlook, as the viral load rose for the fifth straight week, to 196 percent of the baseline set in July 2020. Newer variants make it difficult to predict the size and severity of the next wave of infections, experts say.

Meanwhile, RSV and flu, two respiratory viruses that commonly infect children, continue to circulate at high levels, weeks after patients began filling beds and prolonging wait times in Houston pediatric hospitals. Despite the ongoing strain, infectious disease experts believe Houston can avoid a so-called “tripledemic,” in which three simultaneous virus surges overwhelm hospital systems.

Statewide surveillance shows both RSV and flu have either peaked or declined.

“At least for us, here in Houston, the story that’s being written is we had this very early peak of flu and RSV and they’re starting to come down,” said Dr. Wesley Long, the medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist. “But then we’re probably going to see a winter speed bump of COVID.”

Dr. Melanie Kitagawa, medical director of the Texas Children’s Hospital pediatric ICU, said there are roughly 50 children admitted to Texas Children’s with RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, which usually causes mild cold-like symptoms but can be severe for infants and older adults. That number has remained steady for at least a month, but flu admissions have been decreasing across the hospital system, she said.

Flu and RSV admissions have stayed at consistently high levels at Children’s Memorial Hermann for weeks, said Dr. Michael Chang, an infectious disease pediatrician at the hospital who is affiliated with UTHealth Houston.

Chang expects RSV to become more manageable before COVID ramps up. The percentage of positive RSV tests has dropped across the state since early October, from roughly 25 percent to less than 15 percent, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

For him, flu rates are more of a concern. Texas’ flu infection rate of 29 percent is among the highest in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For flu, what I really worry about is that people have returned to normal behaviors, and vaccine uptake doesn’t seem to be really good,” he said. “From what I’ve seen of the new COVID numbers, we may see an unfortunate confluence of (COVID) and significant flu cases. But luckily I think we will avoid a full ‘tripledemic.’”

There are recent signs that the flu is waning as well.

See here for some background. We have milder winters here, so because we can still do stuff outside we can have a smaller winter effect from COVID. But the bottom line is the same as it always has been for minimizing the spread of these viruses. Get your COVID boosters, especially the bivalent booster. Get your flu shot. Keep wearing your facemask in crowded indoor spaces, and avoid such spaces where possible. You have the power and the choice to minimize your risk.

Time for the biennial salute to the new Secretary of State

So long, John. Hope the next guy is better than you were.

Texas Secretary of State John Scott will step down from his role as the state’s top elections official at the end of the year.

“When I took office as Texas Secretary of State in October of last year, I did so with a singular goal and mission in mind: to help restore Texas voters’ confidence in the security of our state’s elections,” Scott wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday. Scott said he would be returning to private practice.

Scott has served as interim secretary of state since last October, but he has struggled to walk the line between reassuring the public that the state’s elections are safe and secure and entertaining questions from some vocal critics who cast doubt on the integrity of elections. The Dallas Morning News first reported the departure.

Scott oversaw four statewide elections during his time as secretary of state. He also supervised an audit of the 2020 elections in four of the state’s largest counties. Critics have falsely said those elections included outsized voter fraud and irregularities. The first phase of the audit was released on New Year’s Eve 2021 and found no significant evidence of widespread fraud.

A news release from Scott’s office said he would release the findings of the audit before his departure on Dec. 31.

Scott came close a couple of times to actually saying the right thing about election denialism, but in the end he never overcame his lack of trustworthiness. Sometime in the next few months Greg Abbott will nominate a new person for SOS, and either that person will get confirmed by the Senate or will have to step down in two years as Scott is now doing. The Dems in the Senate do have some leverage as far as that goes, so maybe Abbott will decide to appoint someone relatively non-controversial. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for that, but you never know. Texas Public Radio and the Chron have more.

Uvalde class action lawsuit over mass shooting officially filed

We’ve been waiting for this.

Survivors of the fatal mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, have filed a $27 billion class action lawsuit against multiple law enforcement agencies in Texas, according to court documents.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Austin, names the city, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, the school district’s police department, the Uvalde Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and a number of persons who are members or former members of the agencies listed as defendants.

The plaintiffs include parents and teachers and school staff members who were at the school May 24 when 19 students and two teachers were gunned down in adjoining classrooms just a few days before school was to let out for the summer. At least 17 others were wounded.

A total of 376 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies responded to the massacre, the second deadliest shooting on a K-12 school in the United States.

Officers waited 77 minutes after the shooter entered two adjoining classrooms before storming in and killing the gunman, an 18-year-old Uvalde resident.

The lawsuit alleges the victims and survivors “sustained emotional and psychological damages as a result of Defendants’ conduct and omissions” as a result of the shooting.

According to the lawsuit, despite active shooter training, law enforcement “fundamentally strayed from conducting themselves in conformity with what they knew to be the well-established protocols and standards for responding to an active shooter.”

The lawsuit went on to reference the dysfunction and extended time period law enforcement took to respond to the shooting.

“Instead of swiftly implementing an organized and concerted response to an active school shooter who had breached the otherwise ‘secured’ school buildings at Robb Elementary school, the conduct of the three hundred and seventy-six (376) law enforcement officials who were on hand for the exhaustively torturous seventy-seven minutes of law enforcement indecision, dysfunction, and harm, fell exceedingly short of their duty bound standards,” the suit claims.

[…]

The civil complaint is one of several around the massacre that seeks damages from a number of parties. One federal lawsuit filed earlier this week alleges nearly two dozen people and entities, including the gun manufacturer and store that provided the rifle used in the attack, were negligent and failed to protect a student who was killed. Other families filed a similar lawsuit in September.

See here and here for the background on this class action lawsuit, which we first heard about in August. As the story notes, there are separate lawsuits filed in September and earlier this week by different plaintiffs, mostly against the same defendants. As I’ve said before, I don’t know what the odds of success are – I’m more pessimistic than optimistic, but will be delighted to be proven wrong. I’ll be rooting for them regardless. NPR, Reuters, and KENS5 have more.

Precinct analysis: Specifically, my precincts

I’m still waiting for the full landscape canvass data from Harris County – things are a bit up in the air right now because of the lawsuit filed by the local GOP, but I expect to get that data soon, and when I do I’ll do the usual set of analyses on it for you. In the meantime, I’ve been idly speculating about my own precincts in the Heights. I saw a lot of Mealer signs around, which is in part because she lives in the neighborhood, but it got me wondering if there was a significant crossover vote for her here. I never saw a yard that had both a Beto sign and a Mealer sign in it, but maybe those who voted that way wanted to keep it on the down low. The only way to know is to look at the data.

So I went to the canvass reports that are available now on the HarrisVotes website. I specifically wanted to see what the vote for Beto looked like versus what the Lina Hidalgo vote looked like in the two precincts around where I live and where I spend most of my time. For comparison, I did the same for 2018, to see how much Beto/Emmett crossover there was. It’s a limited look – I’ll be able to learn much more when I have the full landscape report – but all I’m looking for here is quick and dirty. That will do for now.

Here are the numbers. I added the vote totals for the two precincts. The percentages include the third party (and for 2022 County Judge, write in) candidates, so they don’t sum to 100. Note that precincts were redrawn last year, and the net effect is that there are more voters in them in 2022 than in 2018.


Year  Candidate   Vote    Pct
=============================
2018       Beto  1,819  72.0%
2018       Cruz    674  26.7%

2018    Hidalgo  1,205  49.2%
2018     Emmett  1,169  47.8%

2022       Beto  2,546  70.2%
2022     Abbott  1,019  28.1%

2022    Hidalgo  2,279  63.6%
2022     Mealer  1,302  36.3%

So yes, there were Beto/Mealer voters in my neighborhood. That’s not surprising, given that Beto got 54% of the vote and 595K votes total, while Hidalgo got under 51% and 553K votes. As I said, I won’t know if our neighborhood was substantially different than others in the improvement that Mealer had over Abbott until I get the full picture. She did fall well short of Ed Emmett in 2018, getting a bit more than half as many crossovers as he did then. Again, not a big surprise given Beto’s 58% versus Hidalgo’s 49% four years ago. Indeed, my neighborhood was a pretty good proxy for the count as a whole in the County Judge’s race in 2018, but it was significantly more Democratic in that race this year. Make of all that what you will.

From a turnout perspective, in 2018 2,527 of 3,431 registered voters came out, for 73.7% of the total. In 2022, it was 3,641 out of 5,298, or 68.7% turnout. The county as a whole declined from 52.86% to 43.54%, so again not a surprise. If anything, the decline was less steep here than elsewhere. But a decline it was.

Anyway, that’s what there is for this comparison. I will of course look at this in more depth once I have the data I need.

Perla Huerta added to migrants’ lawsuit against Ron DeSantis

Noted for the record.

A Boston-based law firm suing Florida’s governor for his scheme to transport asylum-seekers from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses has added Perla Huerta — the San Antonio woman accused of recruiting the migrants — as a defendant in its class-action lawsuit.

Lawyers for Civil Rights, the law firm that filed the lawsuit in a federal court in Massachusetts in September, initially had known Huerta only as “Perla.” The firm amended its lawsuit on Tuesday, saying “Huerta was the lead recruiter tasked with finding immigrants in San Antonio and transporting them to Martha’s Vineyard.”

The New York Times and other news outlets had previously identified the woman as Perla Haydee Huerta, 43.

Three migrants represented by lawyers are identified in the lawsuit as Yanet, Pablo and Jesus Doe. They are requesting damages, as well as an injunction blocking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state from coercing immigrants to travel by “fraud and misrepresentation.”

The lawsuit claims Huerta lied to the migrants about the help they would receive at their destination, including help getting jobs and with their immigration cases, if they agreed to get on the planes. The lawsuit says the migrants felt helpless, confused and anxious after they landed on the small island and when they reached out to Huerta by phone, she ignored or dismissed their concerns.

[…]

The amended complaint also cites text messages between Huerta and staffers for DeSantis detailing their plans to recruit migrants.

The Florida governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Texas Tribune seeking comment.

The lawsuit claims that the governor’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, and Florida’s public safety adviser, Lawrence Keefe, who are also listed as defendants in the lawsuit, were part of the plan. Uthmeier also texted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s former chief of staff, Luis Saenz, saying that Keefe would be the point of contact about the operation, the lawsuit says.

Keefe had come to San Antonio with Huerta in early September to scope out places where they could find migrants to recruit, such as churches, a transportation office and a convenience store parking lot, the lawsuit says.

See here and here for some background. There are also multiple investigations going on, with the one by Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar being of greater potential peril for Perla. I don’t expect Ron DeSantis to face any real accountability for his actions, but a functionary like Perla has more exposure, and being added to this lawsuit may provide some incentive for her to make a deal and spill some beans. We’ll see. The Current has more.

Candidate who lost by 15 points files election contest

Utterly ridiculous, and will hopefully be treated that way.

Rep. Jon Rosenthal

A losing Republican candidate for the Texas House of Representatives is challenging his defeat and asking the Legislature to void the results of the election.

Republican Mike May this week filed what’s known as an election contest with the Texas secretary of state’s office, citing reports of scattered paper ballot shortages at “numerous” polling places on Election Day. May lost to incumbent Democrat Jon Rosenthal by more than 6,000 votes in his bid to represent House District 135 in the Houston area.

The secretary of state’s office on Tuesday delivered May’s petition to House Speaker Dade Phelan, who can refer the contest to a committee for investigation and appoint another member of the House as a “master” to oversee discovery and evidence related to the contested election. If they side with May and void the results, another election would be required to decide the district’s representative. The House can also toss the contest by declaring it “frivolous.”

Election Day issues once again pushed Harris County’s election officials back under scrutiny, including from the state’s Republican leadership. Voting in Harris County was extended by court order for an extra hour after about a dozen polling places were delayed in opening. The county’s elections administrator Clifford Tatum has also acknowledged issues with insufficient paper ballots at some polling places, though he said election staff was dispatched to deliver additional ballots.

The fumbles prompted a lawsuit by the Harris County GOP, which alleged voters were disenfranchised by the paper shortages. The Harris County district attorney has since launched an investigation into allegations of “irregularities.” The Texas Election Code includes criminal penalties for various violations, including illegal voting, the unsolicited distribution of mail-in ballot applications by local election officials and the failure to distribute election supplies.

In his petition, May argued the results of the election were not the “true outcome” because election officials “prevented eligible voters from voting.” May did not immediately return a request for comment.

On Friday, Rosenthal’s camp framed May’s election contest as part of a national trend to “deny the outcome of an election when you lose.”

“This race demonstrated one of the largest percentage point differences in Harris County, it wasn’t even close,” Rosenthal’s campaign manager, Bailey Stober, said in a statement. “The opposition presented himself and his positions and was rejected by voters overwhelmingly. That is how democracy works.”

The statement came soon after Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee criticized the contest as an effort to “call into question the 2022 election in Harris County and lay the groundwork to force a redo.”

It’s unclear how Phelan will handle the contest. His office declined to comment Friday. But Menefee said he was hopeful that Phelan would throw out the challenge.

“And I trust that he will ensure a fair process before impartial legislators, without interference from the state leaders and other elected officials who have a history of making baseless claims against Harris County elections,” Menefee said.

The House took on a similar exercise in 2011 following a challenge by Travis County Republican Dan Neil, who, after a recount, lost to state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, by 12 votes. The House eventually upheld Howard’s win. She remains in the Texas Legislature.

Up till then, the Legislature had seen 113 election contests since 1846, according to the Texas Legislative Council, an in-house legal and research arm of the Texas Legislature. The losing party, however, had not managed to turn the outcome of the election at least in the last 30 years. In the one case in which the House ordered a new election in 1981, the winner of the initial contest was again elected.

There was also an election contest following the 2004 win by Rep. Hubert Vo, then a challenger, over then-Rep. Talmadge Heflin. The contest examined a number of votes that Heflin claimed were illegal, including at least one vote cast by a non-citizen (a Norwegian national who stated that he voted straight ticket Republican), upheld most of them, and in the end Vo still won. In both cases, the number of votes separating the winner and the loser was miniscule. There’s no planet on which this challenge even remotely resembles those two.

The Chron adds some context.

Larry Veselka, a Houston lawyer who represented Democrat Hubert Vo when Vo’s 2004 election to the Texas House was challenged by his Republican opponent, said the legal standard for voiding an election result and ordering up a redo typically requires “clear and convincing” evidence that would be near-impossible for May to obtain.

“It’s too speculative,” said Veselka, who previously served as chair of the Harris County Democratic Party in the 1980s. “I mean, how do you say who walked away at this hour or at this one location where they were short of ballots? … Have they gone out and found people that can credibly swear, I left and didn’t vote somewhere else?”

May’s election challenge sparked outrage among Houston Democrats, including Rosenthal, who called it “more a political stunt than any type of serious complaint or concern.”

Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu, who previously served as Rosenthal’s chief of staff, said the petition “reeks of Republican desperation.”

“The Republican candidate is attempting to alter a certified election with this baseless charge,” Evbagharu said. “Clearly, they’re running out of options in the election-attack playbook.”

Mark McCaig, a Houston attorney and conservative activist, also condemned the election contest in a tweet.

“There were HUGE problems with the election in Harris Co, but frivolous election contests like this are a gift to Dems (which is why Rosenthal is eating it up),” McCaig tweeted. “The focus needs to be on the very real problems that occurred.”

Jason Vaughn, former president of Houston Young Republicans, added: “I’m highly involved in Republican politics in Harris and didn’t even know this guy existed. The district was literally drawn to be a Democrat district.”

To put a few numbers on this, if you threw out every vote cast in the HD135 race on Election Day, Rosenthal still wins by 4,161 votes. Mike May collected 6,055 votes on Election Day. If you doubled that, if you somehow accept that the problems at a handful of voting locations prevented as many people who voted for him on all of Election Day from voting for him at all, without anyone who might have not voted selecting Rosenthal instead, he would still lose by 131 votes. This doesn’t come close to passing the sniff test. The only rational response by Speaker Phelan is to declare it frivolous. We’ll see. A statement from Rep. Rosenthal is here, and from County Attorney Menefee is here.

The people may have spoken, but who’s listening?

How much respect to city councils owe voter-approved referenda?

Voters in two Central Texas cities overwhelmingly passed propositions earlier this month that would stop citations and arrests for low-level marijuana offenses within city limits. But elected officials in Bell County are pushing back.

On Tuesday, Harker Heights City Council voted to repeal the measure, saying that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana was inconsistent with state law, as marijuana possession remains illegal statewide and federally. The City Council in Killeen agreed to put its decriminalization measure on hold as elected officials there weigh whether to repeal, amend or green light the ordinance that passed on Election Day.

Neither ballot measure legalizes marijuana. Instead, they prevent people from being cited or arrested for having up to 4 ounces of the drug. The propositions also prohibit city police officers from stopping someone because they smelled marijuana.

David Bass, the founder of Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana, told City Council on Tuesday that the people of Killeen have spoken. Regardless of the legality of marijuana, the ordinance was clear and he said the council should respect voters’ decision.

“What I know is that the people of Killeen voted overwhelmingly for our police to stop arresting people for small amounts of cannabis,” Bass said. “We should listen to the will of the people of Killeen.”

Shirley Fleming, a former Killeen city councilwoman, told the Harker Heights City Council that repealing the ordinance could make residents feel like their vote doesn’t matter.

“If you stomp on this, a lot of people will say, ‘My vote doesn’t count,’” Fleming said. “Let’s respect their vote.”

See here for some background. With all due respect to Ms. Fleming, and speaking as someone who supports these measures and would vote for a similar one if it were to be on my ballot someday, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. All of the city council members here were also elected by the people, and if they believe that the ordinances that were adopted without their input are bad policy, then it’s consistent with their mandate as elected officials to take action as they see fit. I wouldn’t have done it this way – some public hearings would have been a better way to begin – and if I were a dissenting council member I’d have approached it from the perspective of modification rather than repeal. But they can do this, and I don’t see it as necessarily ignoring the will of the people but as different mandates.

Look at it this way: A President gets elected, begins to implement a policy agenda, and then two years later the voters elect a Congressional majority from the opposing party. Both were duly elected with a valid mandate, it’s just that those mandates conflict with each other. This isn’t a perfect analogy – the opposition Congress and the incumbent President were surely campaigning directly against each other, and the new Congress or the existing President may well not reflect a true majority of voters for various reasons – but the idea is the same. The voters may now render a judgment on those city council members in the next election, and that may or may not provide clarity. That’s just the nature of our system.

To be clear, I think the city councils of Killeen and Harker Heights should have started from the position that the voters made a valid statement that they should engage with seriously. They do have the latitude to make changes, and if they want to put themselves on the line they can act in opposition. I can easily imagine scenarios where the voters might approve something unjust, where the moral imperative would be to undo the damage. I can also easily understand the frustration of any voter who worked to pass these referenda only to see their work bulldozed by the same government officials who had acted as the obstacle they sought to overcome. All I’m saying is that it’s more complex than “the voters have spoken”. I’ll try to remember that if it happens here.

Justice Department probing RealPage

Possibly good news for renters.

The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division has opened an investigation into whether rent-setting software made by Richardson-based tech company RealPage is facilitating collusion among landlords, ProPublica reported.

The inquiry is being launched as questions have arisen about a 2017 merger between RealPage and its largest pricing competitor. A source with knowledge of the matter told ProPublica that some DOJ staff raised concerns about the merger but were overridden by political appointees of former President Donald Trump.

Congressional leaders have pushed for an investigation into RealPage in three letters to the DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission, which were sent after a ProPublica report on the software’s use in mid-October.

The letters raised concerns that RealPage’s pricing software could be pushing rents above competitive levels and allowing big landlords to coordinate their pricing in violation of federal antitrust laws.

“We are concerned that the use of this rate setting software essentially amounts to a cartel to artificially inflate rental rates in multifamily residential buildings,” three senators said in a letter in early November. They included Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights.

The Capital Forum first reported the existence of the investigation.

RealPage’s software works by collecting information from property managers who are the company’s clients, including what rents they are able to charge tenants. That information is fed into an algorithm that then recommends prices daily for each available apartment.

Though RealPage says the information is aggregated and anonymized, some experts have said using private data from competitors to set rents could run afoul of antitrust laws, allowing property managers to illegally coordinate their pricing.

[…]

The DOJ’s investigation represents the second time the federal law enforcement agency has looked into RealPage’s rent-setting software. In 2017, the DOJ flagged a proposed merger in which RealPage sought to buy its biggest competitor, a company called Rainmaker Group, which made rent-setting software known as LRO, or Lease Rent Options.

RealPage’s then-CEO Steve Winn said the $300 million purchase would allow RealPage to double the number of apartments it was pricing from 1.5 million to 3 million units. RealPage was sold in 2020 to private equity firm Thoma Bravo in a $10 billion deal.

After the acquisition was announced in early 2017, the DOJ requested additional information from the companies involved. Federal regulators scrutinize mergers above a certain size — right now, it is transactions valued at $101 million — and typically allow them to proceed after only a preliminary review.

But the government can request more information from companies and even seek to block the merger in court if it believes it could substantially harm competition.

A paralegal specialist who worked on the original DOJ probe into RealPage said it was narrowly focused on the impact on competitors who made software with a similar purpose. The paralegal said she was unaware of any complaints by those companies about the proposed merger.

See here for some background, and that linked Pro Publica story for more on this investigation. My earlier post is about a lawsuit filed by a group of renters over RealPage’s pricing algorithms. It’s not totally clear to me what the Justice Department could do at this time, but let’s see what they find now that they’re looking. I suspect any real action would have to be legislative, and for obvious reasons that won’t happen anytime soon. At least the issue is getting some publicity.

Quantifying the abortion ban harm

These stories will keep on coming.

Usually, articles in medical journals are about science; they bring data to their readers, who can use them to provide evidence-based care to their patients.

But sometimes, evidence is an expression of grief or even rage. A recent journal article, “Maternal Morbidity and Fetal Outcomes Among Pregnant Women at 22 Weeks’ Gestation or Less with Complications in 2 Texas Hospitals After Legislation on Abortion,” contains such evidence.

To understand this article, you need to know that any number of complications can threaten a pregnancy, such as rupture of the bag of water around the baby, preterm labor, or heavy bleeding. When those complications arise before 22 weeks of gestation— before the age of viability when a fetus can live outside of a uterus—the standard of medical care is to offer a patient termination of pregnancy as an option. Women who continue pregnancy in these situations take on significant risks to their own health, and because of the early gestation, the chance for a healthy baby is very, very low.

However, in September 2021, Texas adopted two measures, S.B. 4 and S.B. 8, which instituted punitive actions against anyone providing abortion. These laws took effect before the Supreme Court decision ended Roe v. Wade. And all of a sudden, termination of pregnancy became impossible in Texas unless and until there was an “immediate threat to maternal life.”

The journal article, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, describes the experience of two large Texas hospitals over a period of eight months following that legislation. The authors, who care for patients at those hospitals, describe how their hospitals managed 28 women who presented at less than 22 weeks’ gestation with serious complications following the ban on abortion.

Without the ability to offer abortion to their patients, all 28 women were managed expectantly. This is a medical way of saying that they waited for something terrible to happen. That wait lasted, on average, nine days.

During that nine days of waiting, here is what was achieved for the babies: 27 of the patients had loss of the fetus in utero or the death of the infant shortly after delivery. Of the entire cohort, one baby remained alive, still in the NICU at time of the journal article’s publication, with a long list of complications from extreme prematurity, including bleeding in the brain, brain swelling, damage to intestines, chronic lung disease. and liver dysfunction. If a baby survives these complications, they often result in permanent, lifelong illnesses.

During those nine days of waiting for an immediate threat to maternal life, here is what happened to the women of that cohort: Most of them went into labor, or had a stillbirth, which meant the medical team could then legally intervene and empty the uterus. Fifty-seven percent of those pregnant women had some sort of complication, and for about a third of them, it was serious enough to require intensive-care admission, surgery, or a second admission to the hospital. One of the 28 patients ended up with a hysterectomy, which means she will never carry a pregnancy again. The authors of the article estimate, based on their pre-September practice, that about half of those maternal complications would have been avoided if immediate abortion had been offered as a choice. But of course, post-September in Texas, these women didn’t get a choice.

I’ll say again, it’s just a matter of time before some nice white suburban lady who already has kids dies as a result of not being able to get proper medical care following a similar instance. I’d love to tell the woman who was forced to have a hysterectomy to sue the state of Texas for that, but I don’t know that any deserving target of such a lawsuit would be allowed to be named as a defendant. You know what the refrain is for this song.

City of Uvalde sues Uvalde County DA

What is going on here?

The city of Uvalde is suing the local district attorney, accusing her of withholding information an independent investigator needs to conduct an internal affairs investigation of the police response to the Robb Elementary School shooting.

City officials hired Jesse Prado of JPPI Investigations LLC to conduct the internal affairs inquiry. The suit filed Thursday names Christina Mitchell, Uvalde County district attorney for the 38th Judicial District, as the lone defendant. It seeks a judge to compel Mitchell, who could not be immediately contacted for comment, to hand over all relevant law enforcement investigative records and materials from all law enforcement agencies.

“The internal affairs investigation by Prado is ongoing, but it is significantly restricted by the scope of evidence available to Prado by defendant,” the suit alleged.

In a statement about the suit, city officials said the Uvalde community had “waited entirely too long for answers and transparency” about the May 24 shooting and the widely criticized law enforcement response.

“Despite the City of Uvalde’s efforts to amicably obtain the necessary investigative materials for its ongoing Uvalde Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigation, the District Attorney has blocked the City’s ability to obtain critical information to assess its officers’ actions and compliance with police department policies and expectations,” they said in a statement. “From day one, the city’s focus is on helping the entire Uvalde community, parents who lost children, children who lost parents, and young survivors navigate through the healing process.”

This is all too weird. I have no idea what is going on. I can’t even imagine how frustrated the Uvalde parents must be at this point. Texas Public Radio has more.

New rules for hot air balloon operators

This caught my eye.

More than six years after 16 people died in a hot air balloon crash in Central Texas, the Federal Aviation Administration has started enforcing new rules on commercial balloon pilots that were devised because of tragedy.

The new FAA rules require hot air balloon pilots to hold medical certificates while they are flying with paying passengers. That means pilots would need to submit to medical exams.

The new rule was proposed by Texas lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, after the July 30, 2016, balloon crash in Lockhart. Sixteen people were killed after a balloon crashed into a high-voltage power line. It was the deadliest crash involving a commercial hot air balloon in U.S. history An investigation after the crash found that the pilot, Alfred “Skip” Nichols was under the influence of prescription drugs and suffered from medical ailments that should have raised red flags at the FAA.

Before the new rule, balloon pilots weren’t required to undergo medical screenings.

The new rule was approved by Congress in 2018, as part of legislation that funds the FAA. However it took more more four years for the aviation regulator to implement the rules. In a statement, Doggett said the FAA “inexcusably delayed and delayed for years” before finalizing the rules.

“For the many who prayed and mourned the loss resulting from this unnecessary tragedy, know that you have been heard,” Doggett said. “We cannot bring these precious lives back. But, now that this is finally implemented, we hope no more families will be exposed to the horror of a crash from an impaired pilot.

I remember this incident but didn’t blog about it at the time. Apparently, the FAA just started on the rulemaking process in November of 2021, which is why this is just happening now, six-plus years after the incident and four years after the law was passed. Whether the delay was at least partly about Trump-era dysfunction or something else is not explained in the story. All I can say is that I for one would like to know that my hot air balloon pilot is in good health and capable of doing the job that day, in the unlikely event I ever take a hot air balloon ride. The fact that we shouldn’t have taken that as a given before that tragedy is the real problem. We’ve addressed this instance of it, but I worry there are more out there. But at least you can go up in that balloon now with more safety than before.

Another lawsuit filed by Uvalde parents

Another one to watch.

The mother of a 10-year-old killed in the Uvalde school shooting has filed a federal lawsuit against the gun-maker and seller, the city of Uvalde, its school district and several law enforcement officers.

Sandra Torres’ daughter Eliahna was one of 19 students and 2 teachers killed by an 18-year-old gunman at Robb Elementary in May.

“I miss her every moment of every day,” Torres said in a joint press release with her lawyers from Everytown for Gun Safety’s legal team and Texas-based LM Law Group. “I’ve brought this lawsuit to seek accountability. No parent should ever go through what I have.”

The new lawsuit alleges that Daniel Defense — the manufacturer of the shooter’s weapon — violated the Federal Trade Commission Act, arguing that the Georgia-based company’s marketing on social media and video games “prime young buyers to purchase AR-15-style rifles as soon as they are legally able.” Earlier this year, gun-maker Remington settled a lawsuit for $73 million with the Sandy Hook shooting victims’ families who had also targeted the company’s marketing.

Torres’ lawsuit also accused Oasis Outback of “reckless dereliction” of selling weapons to the 18-year-old shooter. Some store patrons later told the FBI that he had “appeared odd and looked like one of those school shooters.”

The suit also accuses various law enforcement officers of failing “to follow active shooter protocols.” It argues that their decision to treat the active shooter as a “barricaded subject” inside the two classrooms had violated the victims’ constitutional rights.

[…]

Many of these defendants have also been facing a federal lawsuit filed by the families of three student survivors in September, which alleges that the parties’ actions and negligence contributed to the shooting. This followed another claim filed in August seeking $27 billion from the school district and other government agencies to compensate the victims.

Numerous Uvalde officials and officers have also resigned or been fired over the past few months, and the school district also suspended its entire police department in October. Some are named in Torres’ lawsuit, including former Uvalde school district police Chief Pete Arredondo, Uvalde Police Department’s acting chief Lt. Mariano Pargas, as well as Texas Department of Public Safety’s troopers  Juan Maldonado andCrimson Elizondo.

See here and here for more on the earlier lawsuits; the former is a class action suit that I’m still not sure has actually been filed yet. The Chron adds some details.

The 77-page lawsuit accuses many of the defendants of contributing to wrongful death, negligence and violating the constitutional rights of Eliahna and other victims at Robb Elementary.

“Sometimes the only way you get justice is by filing a lawsuit,” said Blas Delgado of San Antonio, the lead lawyer for the Torres family. “There have been a lot of questions throughout the investigation, and we hope this also helps answer some of them.”

The suit alleges that Daniel Defense “markets its products to adolescent and young men using a range of channels, including social media content, product placements, and print advertising.

“For example, Daniel Defense promotes its products heavily on Instagram, a platform with a young user base,” the lawsuit states.

“Daniel Defense also places its products in video games, and then heavily promotes the video game tie-ins in the company’s social media accounts,” the suit said.

The gun manufacturer did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Salvador Ramos of Uvalde bought a DDM4 V7 rifle on Daniel Defense’s website for $2,054.28 on May 16, his 18th birthday.

On another website, he paid $1,761.50 for 1,740 rounds of ammunition for the rifle.

The next day, Ramos went to Oasis Outback and bought a Smith & Wesson M&P15 assault rifle for $1,081.42, the lawsuit said.

The day after that, the teenager went back to Oasis Outback to buy an additional 375 rounds of AR-15 ammunition.

Ramos returned to Oasis Outback again two days later, on May 20, to pick up his Daniel Defense rifle and bought accessories for the weapon.

“Oasis Outback had a duty not to sell weapons to the just-turned 18-year-old shooter, who it knew or reasonably should have known was likely to harm himself or others,” the suit said.

“The shooter was described by patrons of the store as having a nervous disposition and behaving suspiciously.”

“The shooter had purchased two extraordinarily lethal assault weapons and enough ammunition to fight off a small army, as well as a holographic sight and Hellfire Gen 2 trigger system, spending thousands of dollars within days of his 18th birthday,” it stated.

We’ve talked about Daniel Defense before. I’d love to see them at least feel compelled to settle, but suffice it to say I consider that an underdog. With SCOTUS as it is I fear they’re untouchable. But I hope to be proved wrong. Reform Houston and the Current have more.

Time once again for the biennial paean to the gambling lobby

Such a weird tradition we observe.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

Even before Gov. Greg Abbott declared in October that he’s willing to consider expanded gaming options in Texas, that industry was trying to improve its odds in the state by doling out massive campaign donations and building an army of lobbyists in preparation for the legislative session that begins in January.

More than 300 lobbyists are now registered in Texas to work on gambling issues, according to state records, led by Las Vegas Sands, which added another just last week and now has 72 — the most lobbyists in Texas for any single group or business.

They are hardly alone. A newly created Sports Betting Alliance, BetMGM, Caesar’s, Boyd Gaming and Landry’s Entertainment, along with sports gaming companies like FanDuel and DraftKings, have all loaded up in what many in the gaming industry see as their best chance in decades to do business in Texas.

One reason for that is Abbott’s newfound willingness to listen to gambling options in Texas. In October, he told Hearst Newspapers through a spokeswoman that he’s prepared to listen to proposals.

“We don’t want slot machines at every corner store, we don’t want Texans to be losing money that they need for everyday expenses, and we don’t want any type of crime that could be associated with gaming,” said Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary. “But, if there is a way to create a very professional entertainment option for Texans, Gov. Abbott would take a look at it.”

While far from an all-out green light, it’s a world away from where Abbott has been in the past. In 2015, Abbott said he “wholeheartedly” supported the state’s strict laws against expanding gaming, essentially icing any attempts to pursue casinos or online sports betting options that have proliferated in other states over the past four years.

[…]

But Abbott hasn’t been the only stumbling block in Texas. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Houston-area Republican who oversees the state Senate, made clear in 2021 that expanded gaming was not going to see “the light of day.” He said then it just didn’t have the votes in a body dominated by Republicans.

As the leader of the Senate, Patrick has wide power to stop legislation from getting to the floor of the chamber to be debated or voted on.

But the industry continues to direct campaign donations to Patrick and others in Texas to improve their chances when the Legislature meets.

I’ve done many of these before, as you can infer from the title, so I don’t care to belabor this. The smart bet continues to be for nothing of substance to happen. This is partly because of Dan Patrick, and partly because I don’t think there’s enough Republican support to get the two-thirds majority in each chamber that a Constitutional amendment requires. As you know, I’m generally ambivalent about all this – I have no problem with allowing adults who want to gamble the legal opportunity to do so, but I also have no love for the Big Gambling business and lobby – but the news that Patrick’s campaign keeps getting fat with gambling money despite his rigid opposition to them – I guess they think they can eventually soften him up – inclines me to root for another expensive and humiliating defeat for them. At least then I’d get to write the same blog post in two years’ time, and what could be more important than my need for content?

Your periodic reminder that Ken Paxton’s vote fraud claims are bullshit

A long Chron story that documents the bullshit.

The only criminal involved

The first of the big cases to fizzle was in Gregg County.

Prosecutors and local politicians announced an investigation soon after county commissioner candidate Shannon Brown won the March 2018 Precinct 4 primary by only five votes. But it wasn’t until six weeks before the 2020 general election that Paxton unveiled a 134-count indictment charging Brown, his wife and two election workers with illegally rounding up mail ballots.

“We have a county commissioner under indictment for mail ballot fraud,” Sen. Bryan] Hughes said last year at a signing ceremony for his elections bill in nearby Tyler. “Anybody who tells you there is no voter fraud in Texas is telling you a very big lie.”

Early this year, however, the case quietly and dramatically shriveled. Each defendant admitted to a single misdemeanor infraction. Brown, who apologized for one technical election code violation, stayed in office. (He lost re-election in this spring’s Democratic primary.)

Officials have repeatedly refused to explain how a 134-felony indictment deflated to a four-misdemeanor violation. District Attorney Tom Watson, who is leaving office at the end of the year, did not return calls.

Another signature case took a hit this summer when a Hidalgo County jury acquitted former Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina of 12 counts of election fraud.

Molina was arrested in 2019 for “orchestrating an organized illegal voting scheme,” according to an attorney general’s office news release. Prosecutors said he tried to persuade voters to change their addresses — in some cases to an apartment complex he owned — so they could vote for him.

Molina, who won the 2017 race by more than 1,200 votes, said the case was instigated by a political opponent. At his August trial, he said he had relied on published opinions from the Texas Secretary of State and attorney general to try to decipher a vague state law describing where a person could claim to live for voting purposes. He noted the Legislature changed the law in 2021 to include more precise language.

“Nobody tried to hide anything,” added his lawyer, Jaime Pena.

It is unclear how Molina’s verdict will affect the still-pending cases of his wife and more than a dozen residents alleged to have reported moving into Edinburg to vote for him.

There’s more, but you get the idea. One key point that the story makes is that Paxton will pile on the charges – for example, including an individual charge for each alleged illegal vote – even though there’s no legal advantage in doing so, as any punishment would be concurrent and not consecutive, meaning that 100 convictions would result in the same jail time as one conviction. But by doing so he can make the claim that there are “hundreds” of pending cases, even if the reality is a handful of defendants each with a bunch of charges for the same alleged offense. It’s the oldest play in the book, one he inherited from Greg Abbott back when it was Abbott’s job to pursue vindictive yet utterly baseless charges against people who for the most part did nothing criminal. The fear and the screaming headlines are the point.

To be fair, this sort of bullshit is happening in plenty of other places. It’s just that the primary effect is to ruin people’s lives and to scare others into not voting. We’re not dealing with rational actors here, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do real damage. And we’re in for another at least two years of it here.

It’s legislative bullying time

Here we go again.

Republican lawmakers in Texas and Washington D.C. are threatening some of the nation’s largest corporate law firms if they provide what the lawmakers consider to be improper advice on issues such as climate change, diversity and abortion.

The Texas legislators have even threatened business lawyers with criminal prosecution and disbarment.

In letters sent Nov. 3, five GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee told 51 of the nation’s largest law firms, including 33 with offices and lawyers in Texas, that they have a “duty to inform clients of the risks they incur by participating in climate cartels and other ill-advised ESG schemes.”

The memo doesn’t describe what a “scheme” involving environmental, social and governance principles might look like. Nor does it say what is objectionable about efforts to defend the environment or democratize corporate capitalism.

In July, 11 members of the politically conservative Texas Freedom Caucus sent a letter to Sidley Austin Dallas partner and chair Yvette Ostalaza, threatening her and other corporate law firms operating in Texas with criminal prosecution, civil sanctions and a ban on practicing law if they help their employees in the state to get an abortion in another state.

The three-page letter to Sidley Austin, which has nearly 200 lawyers in Houston and Dallas, accused the firm of being “complicit in illegal abortions.” The Freedom Caucus members posted the letter on its website and sent a copy to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The letters, legal experts say, show that conservative Republican lawmakers believe they can score political favor with their base by attacking corporate lawyers, which they see as facilitating more liberal causes.

“Corporate law firms, especially in Texas because of the political environment, are taking these letters very serious,” said Kent Zimmermann, a consultant who works with several Texas law firms. “These are pure political hit jobs, but the law firms do not want to give any of these threats oxygen by responding.”

“It puts law firms in an unfair position in what amounts to a play to the (GOP) base,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmermann said law firm leaders need to respect the lawmakers even if the demands are not legally sound.

[…]

“It’s a stupid letter; a totally stupid letter,” Dallas legal ethics expert Randy Johnston said. “It’s kind of offensive in concept. “Some of the authors are also lawyers and are flirting with an ethical violation by this attempt to intimidate other lawyers in connection with those lawyers’ representation of advice to clients.”

Dru Stevenson, a professor at the South Texas School of Law in Houston, describes the letter as “mostly political theater,” but he cautions that it needs to be taken seriously.

Stevenson, who studies the legal issues associated with the ESG movement, says antitrust litigation may prove to be the only real weapon to curb increasingly popular trends toward climate change mitigation and, more specifically, energy transition and decreased use of carbon-based fuels like oil, natural gas and coal.

“The senators can’t sue, only threaten legislation,” Stevenson said. “For now, they are stuck (with the Biden administration), but the issue is worth keeping in mind. The political pendulum goes back and forth.”

We’ve seen this before, and as we get closer to the start of the legislative session we’ll see much more of it. Unfortunately, the voter backlash to Dobbs and the rejection of efforts to further limit abortion via referendum all happened outside of Texas. The fanatics have every reason to believe they’ve been vindicated, and they will act accordingly. The best part, as far as they’re concerned, is that the bluster is often enough to get what they want, because large firms are risk averse and would rather placate than fight. But if it comes down to it, or just because it’s what they want, they’ll still push forward with plenty of unhinged legislation aimed at criminalizing abortion and various forms of dissent. Some of this may wind up in court, and Lord help us if that happens. You know what I’m going to say about nothing changing until election results start to change. This is our motivation for next time. There’s no other choice.

Precinct analysis: How the 2022 Harris County State Rep candidates did versus the 2020 and 2018 results

I still don’t have a full canvass of Harris County, so I’m looking around to see what kind of analyses I can do in the meantime. For this post, I’m comparing how the candidates in the contested State Rep contests did against the 2020 and 2018 numbers that we saw in the redistricting reports. This isn’t my preferred kind of comparison – there are too many uncontested races, some “contested” races really aren’t because of poor candidate quality, incumbents tend to have a bit of an edge – but it’s what we’ve got for now. My impressions of the numbers for the new State Rep districts are here, and the Texas Legislative Council reports can be found here for 2020 and here for 2018. First up is 2020:


Dist   Biden   Trump   Hegar  Cornyn     Dem     Rep
====================================================
128    31.6%   67.1%   30.6%   67.2%   29.5%   70.5%
129    42.2%   56.2%   39.4%   58.0%   39.2%   60.8%
131    79.6%   19.5%   77.3%   19.9%   80.5%   19.5%
132    42.9%   55.6%   40.0%   57.6%   40.3%   59.7%
133    48.4%   50.3%   43.2%   54.9%   36.4%   61.4%
134    62.5%   36.1%   56.6%   41.7%   61.6%   37.1%
135    59.9%   38.7%   57.5%   39.4%   57.6%   42.4%
138    46.6%   52.0%   42.8%   55.0%   42.9%   57.1%
145    70.1%   28.3%   66.2%   30.8%   71.3%   28.7%
148    58.1%   40.5%   55.3%   41.7%   55.5%   42.6%
149    61.7%   37.2%   59.7%   37.5%   59.8%   37.7%
150    42.1%   56.5%   39.5%   57.9%   39.3%   60.7%

Biden generally outperformed the rest of the ticket by two or three points, more in some places like HDs 133 and 134. It’s clear he drew some crossover votes, so matching his performance is a sign of great strength. MJ Hegar was more of a typical Dem performer, and ideally a Dem in 2022 would do at least as well as she did. Note that most of the individual State Rep races were straight up D versus R, but in the cases where the percentages don’t add up to 100, assume there was a third party candidate as well. Most Dems met the Hegar standard, with incumbent Reps. Alma Allen (HD131) and Christina Morales (HD145) outdoing even the Biden number. On the other side, HD133 GOP candidate Mano DeAyala easily stomped a Democrat whose existence even I didn’t know about.

On to 2018:


Dist    Beto    Cruz  Valdez  Abbott     Dem     Rep
====================================================
128    32.6%   66.8%   29.1%   69.7%   29.5%   70.5%
129    42.8%   56.3%   36.8%   61.5%   39.2%   60.8%
131    85.2%   14.3%   80.4%   18.5%   80.5%   19.5%
132    41.8%   57.5%   36.2%   62.3%   40.3%   59.7%
133    46.1%   53.1%   37.9%   60.3%   36.4%   61.4%
134    62.4%   36.8%   52.5%   45.3%   61.6%   37.1%
135    64.4%   35.0%   59.4%   39.2%   57.6%   42.4%
138    46.4%   52.8%   39.6%   58.7%   42.9%   57.1%
145    75.0%   24.1%   67.5%   30.4%   71.3%   28.7%
148    62.7%   37.5%   56.1%   42.4%   55.5%   42.6%
149    68.7%   30.6%   64.0%   34.8%   59.8%   37.7%
150    41.2%   58.1%   36.3%   62.4%   39.3%   60.7%

Beto and Valdez represented the top and bottom of the scale for Dems this year. It’s clear that Dems fell short of the 2018 standard this year, with the 2022 version of Beto being somewhat above the Valdez line. In general, Biden did about as well in most districts as Beto had done two years before, though there are exceptions, of which HDs 135 and 149 are the most interesting. I don’t want to read too much into any single number here – this was a year I’d classify as an underperforming one for Dems overall, though at a much higher baseline than we were used to for off years, and I’d expect better numbers in 2024. Dems have the same targets as before in HDs 132 and 138, while if I were the Republicans I’d take a closer look at what’s going on in 135 and 148. The actual me really wants to see the full canvass data to see how the broader ticket did in these districts. Let me know what you think.

DPS asks to be rewarded for its abject failure at Uvalde

I like to think that I don’t get easily shocked, but this did it to me.

The Texas Department of Public Safety wants $1.2 billion to turn its training center north of Austin into a full-time statewide law enforcement academy — starting with a state-of-the-art active-shooter facility that would need a nearly half-billion-dollar investment from Texas taxpayers next year.

“You play like you practice,” DPS Director Steve McCraw told budget officials last month. “You need to practice in a real environment.”

If approved, the requested $466.6 million “down payment,” as McCraw called it, in the state’s 2024-25 budget — which won’t be finalized until the middle of next year — would be the start of a six-year proposal to turn the nearly 200-acre Williamson County DPS Tactical Training Center complex in Florence into a Texas law enforcement academy for use by agencies across the state, he said.

The $1.2 billion project figure does not appear in the agency’s legislative appropriations request, which comes at a time when agencies are making their bids for a share of a historic state cash surplus in the next biennium — and against the backdrop of an emotional debate over what the state needs to do to prevent more mass killings.

A “state-of-the-art” active-shooter facility would be built with the first round of funding next year and could be used “right off the bat,” independent of the rest of the proposed upgrades, to immediately enhance active-shooter response by Texas law enforcement, McCraw said in a brief presentation before the Texas Legislative Budget Board on Oct. 4.

If fully funded over the next three budget cycles, the training academy would cost $1.2 billion and eventually include dormitories, a cafeteria and other elements, McCraw said.

“It’s a cost we recognize as a cost that can’t be borne in any one session. It takes time to build it,” McCraw said of the proposed academy.

He did not specify whether the center would charge fees for other law enforcement agencies to use the facility, if it would draw down any federal funding or what it would cost to run the center beyond the six-year construction budget.

DPS officials did not respond to repeated requests for a copy of the proposed plans for the active-shooter facility or the larger multiyear proposal for the academy, information about whether additional land purchases would be needed or the breakdown of the cost estimate for the upgrades.

The proposed active-shooter facility was part of a presentation made by McCraw to captains at the Texas Highway Patrol, an arm of the DPS, according to meeting minutes obtained by The Texas Tribune. The minutes said the facility would include the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training program — an active-shooter response training system developed 20 years ago at Texas State University in San Marcos that has been the national standard for active-shooter training for a decade.

[…]

Pete Blair, executive director of the ALERRT center at Texas State, said his San Marcos facility is used for several types of first-responder training as well as active-shooter training on site.

Blair hasn’t seen the DPS plans for the proposed site but said a facility that would be considered state of the art might include reconfigurable walls, cameras and similar technological upgrades.

That’s the sort of technology that would be found at facilities like the federal Military Operations in Urban Terrain facility in Quantico, Virginia, which has 17 structures including a school scenario. Another of the nation’s top-tier facilities is at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers Glynco campus, a 1,600-acre facility near Brunswick, Georgia.

Most of the quarter-million first responders the Texas ALERRT center has worked with in the past two decades were trained somewhere besides the Texas State center in San Marcos, Blair said.

“I will say there is a need for training facilities across the state,” Blair said. “We’ve always had more demand than we have money to provide training. So every cycle, it’s been a situation of us having to put departments on the waitlist and say, ‘We’re coming to you, but it’s going to be a while.’”

Here’s my proposal for DPS active shooter training: A single PowerPoint slide that says “Don’t stand around with your thumb up your ass while kids are being murdered.” I can deliver that for a lot less than $1.2 billion, and the results can’t possibly be any worse than what we already had. The idea that we could turn mass shooter situations into a growth industry is just…I can’t. I’m going to go eat some pie. Reform Austin.

We do need to find someone to run against Ted Cruz

I don’t know who that ought to be yet, but surely someone is out there.

Not Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz said on Saturday that he would seek a third term in the U.S. Senate in 2024, though he also did not rule out running for president.

“I’m running for reelection in the Senate, I’m focused on the battles in the United States Senate,” Cruz told reporters after addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas. He said he was also focused on the Senate runoff in Georgia on Dec. 6, according to a video of his discussion with reporters posted by Fox News.

The Texas Republican reiterated his disappointment that his party failed to take control of the Senate in this month’s midterm elections, a setback he blamed on a lack of determination within the party.

Cruz was one of 10 Republican senators who voted against the reelection of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as minority leader on Wednesday. McConnell easily fended off a challenge from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, by a vote of 37-10.

I know I just said that I don’t want to engage in wischcasting for this, and I still don’t. But we do need to be prepared to think about who we want to see run for this nomination, and the sooner the better. It’s still the case that no Texas Republican has come as close to losing statewide this century as Cruz did in 2018, and it’s still the case that all decent people loathe Ted Cruz. I’m sure there are some people who will relish the opportunity.

I know we just came off a mediocre at best election, but the optimistic view is that Dems have been steadily gaining ground overall, and we’ve done better in Presidential years. The lunatic fringe of the Republican-majority House will make a very easy foil for President Biden, and Donald Trump will either be the Republican nominee – and nobody has done more for Democratic turnout efforts over the past three cycles than he has – or will be enraged and embittered over not being the nominee – and nobody has done more to sow division and turmoil in the Republican Party over the past six years than he has. There are any number of ways that things could be bad, and that’s before we consider whether Biden should be running for a second term, but there is a very plausible optimistic case to be made. Of course, I said the same thing about 2022 not long after Biden was inaugurated, so take all that into account. The point still is, at least at this time, there’s no need to fear running in 2024.

As to who, we can debate that as we see fit. Maybe Julian Castro, if he hasn’t reached his sell-by date. Maybe a current (Ron Nirenberg, Eric Johnson) or recent (Annise Parker) Mayor might want to take a step up. Maybe a State Senator who wins the draw to not be otherwise on the ballot in 2024. Who knows? My argument is simply that this is an opportunity that someone should want to take. We know we can raise enough money for whoever it is. Just think about it, that’s all I’m asking.

Yeah, the crypto lovers here are still all in

I mean, at least they’re consistent.

The crypto community in Austin was buzzing.

Hundreds of investors, legislators, professionals and enthusiasts packed the halls of the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center at the University of Texas on Nov. 17-18 for the Texas Blockchain Summit. For two days, there were discussions on everything from bitcoin mining to cryptocurrency regulations to blockchain innovations. But one thing was on everyone’s minds: the spectacular collapse earlier this month of major crypto exchange FTX and its billionaire CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, who was once the industry’s face in Washington and a Democratic megadonor who gave $1 million to Beto O’Rourke.

So when Lee Bratcher, president of nonprofit trade association Texas Blockchain Council, took the stage to open the summit on Thursday, he was quick to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

“The obstacles we face as an industry have just expanded significantly as a result of FTX’s incompetence and potentially fraudulent activity,” he said. “It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Other community members who spoke to The Texas Tribune echoed the sentiment. For them, FTX’s implosion has been a huge setback for the industry, especially one that just experienced a market meltdown following the fall of another high-profile crypto venture in May. But while these events have burned and likely turned away many retail investors, the members say they will continue investing in the space because of their belief in the technology and philosophy behind crypto and blockchain. And Texas politicians attending the conference also remain bullish on an industry that the state has strongly courted.

[…]

Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who is a Bitcoin investor and a leading advocate for crypto, also reaffirmed his unwavering enthusiasm for the industry during his event at the summit on Friday. “I want Texas to be an oasis for Bitcoin and crypto,” he said.

Later on the same day, a bipartisan panel of state legislators — including Sens. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, and Royce West, D-Dallas, as well as Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and John H. Bucy III, D-Austin — similarly expressed their support for strengthening crypto’s presence in Texas. FTX’s bankruptcy, they said, should be viewed more as a lesson rather than a reason for doing away with the industry.

“Any conversation I’ve had in response to FTX, it’s been what do we do to make sure we’re not like them,” Bucy said. “It’s how do we have commonsense policies to protect people without stopping progress.” Bucy is vice chair to the executive committee of the Texas House’s Innovation & Technology Caucus. Capriglione is the committee chair.

“This is the oil boom of this generation,” Bucy added.

[…]

In Texas’ upcoming legislative session, Bratcher said the Texas Blockchain Council will be talking with its legislative partners to see if they want to enact stronger consumer protections. Meanwhile, ATX DAO members are soldiering on with their current work by looking for state legislators to champion a bill that would legalize decentralized autonomous organizations — entities without a central authority that depend on blockchain-based contracts that self-execute when preset conditions are met.

I wonder if Beto got that contribution in actual money or one of FTX’s shitcoins. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Let’s just say I’m not convinced by Rep. Bucy or his colleagues and leave it at that. As for decentralized autonomous organizations, I don’t have a kneejerk reaction based on the five seconds of reading I’ve done so far. I strongly suspect that those things are coming whether we like it or not. I also strongly suspect that whatever the right kind of laws are to govern them, we’re not going to get them in the first attempt. The lawyers who will be working in that space are going to get a lot of business in the near future. Beyond all that, we’ll see if anyone’s enthusiasm for this stuff dims at all when the next crypto failure occurs. Oh, and to Democratic candidates in Texas, please do have some standards for the currency in which your contributions are received. And be very careful about where you store anything that isn’t a US dollar.

Our property tax system is soooooooo awesome!

How awesome is it? So awesome you don’t even have to live here to get a tax break.

Herschel Walker, the former Dallas Cowboys running back and Republican candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, is slated to get a tax break on his $3 million residence in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb — potentially running afoul of Texas tax law.

According to Tarrant County property and tax records, Walker claimed a homestead exemption on his four-bedroom home in Westlake in 2021 and is expected to do so again this year — even after he registered to vote in Georgia last year. Walker has since voted in two elections there, CNN reported.

The exemption saved Walker more than $1,200 on his property tax bill last year, records from the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector show, and would net him more than $1,500 in savings this year.

Walker’s Texas homestead exemption might also raise questions about his Senate run in Georgia. He is in a runoff with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, in a race to determine just how tightly Democrats will control the Senate for the next two years. The U.S. Constitution requires officeholders to live in the state in which they’re elected.

Under Texas law, homeowners can claim a homestead exemption — which exempts a certain amount of a home’s value from taxation — only on their primary residence. But homeowners may continue to claim the exemption if they “do not establish a principal residence elsewhere … intend to return to the home … [and] are away less than two years,” according to the state comptroller’s office.

Walker bought the house in Westlake in 2011, according to Tarrant County appraisal records. He has claimed the exemption on his Texas home since 2012, records show, allowing him to pay a lower tax bill toward the city of Westlake and Keller Independent School District. School districts make up the bulk of any given Texas homeowner’s tax bill.

So, um, anyone feel like filing a complaint? I can only imagine what a spectacle an attempt to enforce the law in this instance might turn into. The DMN has more.

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

I have three things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who else can we think of who’s alleged to have violated Texas securities law?

Into every story about cryptocurrency, some amount of absurdity is sure to follow.

Texas is investigating celebrities who had endorsed FTX, the now bankrupt cryptocurrency firm, for potentially violating state securities laws.

The Texas State Securities Board started looking into FTX’s operations last month over whether the exchange’s yield-bearing crypto accounts were providing residents with unregistered securities. Since the company’s collapse on Nov. 11, the board has significantly expanded its probe to examine the impact of this multibillion-dollar bankruptcy.

And promotions of FTX by celebrities such as the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady are now part of this broadened investigation, as first reported by Bloomberg News and confirmed by The Texas Tribune.

It also comes amid a class-action lawsuit filed in Florida against Curry, Brady and other celebrities — mostly high-profile athletes — which alleges that FTX had used their endorsements as part of a scheme designed to take advantage of “unsophisticated investors.” It also names FTX’s former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried.

“Anyone who renders investment advice in Texas typically needs to be registered and they typically have to truthfully disclose all known material facts,” said Joe Rotunda, the state board’s enforcement director. “In Texas, there is not a different system of justice or regulation for people who are celebrities.”

It’s currently unclear if any prominent Texan would be investigated, but Rotunda said his team is still compiling a list of relevant parties based on recent court filings by FTX’s current CEO John J. Ray III and the class-action lawsuit. In particular, it will be looking at what the promoters disclosed, how they were compensated and how their promotions were scripted and filmed.

“It’s important from a securities regulation standpoint, and from a bankruptcy standpoint, to determine the ways FTX was encouraging clients and Texans to use FTX and invest with FTX,” he said.

He added that his team will also have to consider how the relevant law applies in this situation, since it was established via a 1985 case involving an investment and financial newsletter being distributed via fax.

“That’s a far cry from social media and broadcast advertisements, let alone tokens and blockchains, right?” Rotunda said.

I mean, okay, that’s their job and I appreciate that they are not giving anyone a pass for being a celebrity. It’s just that I personally don’t expect a celebrity endorser to be an actual expert on the thing they’re being paid to endorse. Maybe they should have some level of knowledge, when we’re talking about a financial product, but as a general rule I just figure either they like the thing they’re shilling for or they like the money they’re getting for the shilling. I don’t need for Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman to be salsa connoisseurs in real life. It’s just an ad.

On the other hand, given the best known example we have of a prominent person being accused of violating state securities law (hint: his name rhymes with Pen Kaxton), it could be a decade or more before any of them find themselves answering to the charges in question. If I’m Tom Brady’s lawyer, I’m probably telling him to worry about other things over this one. He’s not in any near-term danger.

SCOTx allows provisional votes to be counted

Good.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Harris County can include about 2,100 ballots cast during an extra hour of Election Day voting when officials certify the midterm results. But the state’s highest civil court also ordered Harris County to determine whether those late-cast ballots would affect the outcome of any races — and kept alive Attorney General Ken Paxton’s challenge to counting them.

It’s a win, at least temporarily, for Harris County officials in a fight against Paxton’s attempt to discard thousands of midterm ballots as election results are set to be certified Tuesday.

In an interview Tuesday, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee said that about 2,100 provisional ballots cast after 7 p.m. Election Day should be counted. Those ballots were cast after a district court judge ordered Harris County polling places to remain open an extra hour because many locations had opened late that morning.

“The votes that were cast during that time period pursuant to a court order are still perfectly legal. And there’s nothing in the law that prohibits them from being counted,” Menefee said. “So our perspective is that those provisional ballots are no different than any other provisional ballots — they are to be counted.”

Harris County officials argued as much in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday. That came one day after Paxton petitioned the Supreme Court to toss the late-cast ballots.

[…]

In at least one race, the provisional ballots could impact the outcome. After provisional and mail-in ballots were counted, the incumbent for Harris County’s 180th Criminal State District Court, DaSean Jones, went from trailing Republican Tami Pierce to leading by less than 500 votes, the Houston Chronicle reported.

See here for the background and here for the court’s order. It’s just one page long, and the gist of it is this:

In this mandamus proceeding, which challenges Harris County election officials’ processing of the “later cast votes,” we grant the following temporary relief under Rule of Appellate Procedure 52.10(b):

  • Respondents are directed to conduct the canvass of the November 2022 election as required by the Election Code.
  • As part of the canvass, respondents are ordered to separately identify in the vote tabulations the number of “later cast votes” for each candidate in each race and for or against each proposition, so that candidates, the parties, and this Court may ascertain whether the “later cast votes” would be outcome-determinative and so that the parties can assess the extent to which further litigation is warranted.
  • Respondents are ordered to provide the Court with a copy of the canvass results, including the separately tabulated “later cast votes,” as soon as they are available.

The petition for writ of mandamus remains pending before this Court.

I presume that last line is there in the event the provisional ballots have an effect on the 180th Criminal District Court race, in which event (again, I presume) the merits of the arguments will have to be addressed. Lawyers, please feel free to correct me as needed. The only other race that is close enough to be even theoretically affected by the provisional ballots is the County Criminal Court #3 race, where Porsha Brown trails by the even smaller margin of 267 votes. However, given that the provisional votes cast on Election Day favored Democrats, it’s even less likely for that race to be affected, and it would be impossible for both of them to be in a position to change.

I maintain as I said yesterday that it is highly unlikely that the 180th Court will be affected. If you throw out all of the Election Day provisional ballots, DaSean Jones still leads by 89 votes. There are apparently 2,100 provisional Election Day ballots in question, out of 2,555 total E-Day provisionals and 2,420 that included a vote in this race. The odds that Jones could lose the entire 360 vote net he got from the E-Day provisionals plus another 90 votes in this subset of the total ballots just strike me as extremely remote. I wish the stories that have been published about this would go into more detail about this as I have done – yes, I know, math is hard, but you could at least use “highly unlikely” language to offer some context. By the time this runs in the morning we’ll know what the official canvass says, and from there we’ll see if an election challenge will follow.

The Chron story, from a bit later in the day, has more details.

While the provisional ballots are included in the official count certified by Commissioners Court, the Supreme Court also is ordering the county to include in the final canvassed results a separate report that details the votes of the “later cast votes for each candidate in each race.” That way, candidates can determine whether this group of ballots would change the outcome of their race and “assess the extent to which further litigation is warranted.”

Given that Harris County voters cast more than 1.1 million ballots overall, the 2,000 provisional ballots have little chance of changing most election outcomes. However, a handful of candidates in tight races may consider legal challenges over election results.

“At this point, we do not anticipate that it impacts the outcome of any races,” Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Fombonne said. “Of course the [Texas Supreme Court] proceedings remain pending and the court could rule on something. And of course there can always be election contests. Many of those races were close, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see candidates filing election contests.”

[…]

On Election Night, the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and ACLU of Texas obtained a court order from a judge requiring all Harris County polling locations to extend voting hours until 8 p.m. after the groups argued in a lawsuit that late openings at some polling locations prevented some residents from voting.

Voters who were in line by 7 p.m. were able to vote normally, while those who arrived between 7 and 8 p.m. were allowed to cast provisional ballots.

That evening, in quick succession, Paxton’s office filed its writ of mandamus asking the Texas Supreme Court to vacate or reverse the court order, and the Supreme Court responded by staying that order, saying votes cast after 7 p.m. “should be segregated,” without specifying whether they must be excluded from the final count.

Because the proceedings are still ongoing, it is too soon to know whether the ability to extend voting hours in the future could be impacted.

“The court hasn’t specified whether or not that’s legal,” Fombonne said. “The proceedings are pending. There may be an opinion in the future that addresses that question.”

Hani Mirza, legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program, was part of the team that sought the court order extending voting hours this year. The group also filed a lawsuit in 2018 obtaining a similar court order in Harris County. Mirza said in the case four years ago, Paxton’s office did not ask the Texas Supreme Court to intervene.

Nor did Paxton’s office intervene this year when voting hours were also extended by one hour in Bell County because of early morning glitches with check-in systems. The Bell County attorney confirmed last week that a court order there had not been challenged by the Attorney General’s Office or another party.

“It doesn’t make any sense outside of, obviously, cynical partisanship and these targeted actions against Harris County, the most diverse county in the state” Mirza said.

That sort of addresses my question above about the last line in the SCOTx order. We’ll just have to keep an eye on that. The election has been certified by Commissioners Court, which if nothing else avoids the drama of any further delays. As to who might file a contest, again we’ll have to see. Seems like a lot of fuss for something that is unlikely to go anywhere, but who knows.

Forced birther lawsuit targets abortion pills

Did you think you were going to have a nice, peaceful Thanksgiving week? Sorry, no can do.

Abortion opponents who helped challenge Roe v. Wade filed a lawsuit Friday that takes aim at medication abortions, asking a federal judge in Texas to undo decades-old approval of the drugs that have become the preferred method of ending pregnancy in the U.S.

Even before the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to an abortion earlier this year, the use of abortion pills had been increasing in the U.S. and demand is expected to grow as more states seek abortion limits.

The lawsuit was filed by the Alliance for Defending Freedom, which was also involved in the Mississippi case that led to Roe v. Wade being overturned. The lawsuit argues the U.S. Food and Drug Administration erred in approving the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol and overstepped its authority in doing so.

Reached for comment, the FDA said it does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Amarillo, Texas. The state banned abortion after the Roe decision and is among the states where GOP lawmakers have banned mail delivery of the pills.

The number of medication abortions has increased since regulators started allowing them and now account for roughly 40% of U.S. abortions. The medication can cost as little as $110 to get by mail, compared with at least $300 for a surgical abortion. Research has shown the pills are safe.

However, people seeking abortion pills often must navigate differing state laws, including bans on delivery of the drugs and on telemedicine consultations to discuss the medication with a health care provider. And until Democrat Joe Biden became president, U.S. government policy banned mail delivery nationwide.

Axios has a copy of the lawsuit. And before you ask the answer is yes, of course this is about sheer opportunism, not anything resembling facts.

Medication abortion accounts for more than half of abortions in the U.S. In response to the pandemic, the FDA allowed abortion pills to be mailed, which contributed to a significant jump in its use. For decades now, it has been used safely and effectively up to 10 weeks of pregnancy. It has been extensively researched for decades, and has proven safe, effective, and convenient for doctors and patients alike.

There is absolutely no scientific or medical basis for the assertions in this case. It is “an incredibly safe medication,” Loren Colson, a family medicine physician in Idaho and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, told The Washington Post. “It’s been well-studied and much safer than a lot of things you can find over the counter,” Colson said. “If they are trying to argue the safety, they have very little ground to stand on. It’s just a clear and blatant attack on abortion.”

One legal expert who has written extensively about the pill calls the safety claims in the suit “ridiculous.” Greer Donley, associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said, “Mifepristone is one of the safest drugs on the market, safer than Viagra and penicillin,” citing the decades of research: “We have a lot of studies and a lot of data on it.” This case, she said, is “really weak.”

Which is why the group chose Texas, where they could find a friendly federal district judge. They did. The case is going to Trump appointee Matthew Kacsmaryk, one of the young extremists the Federalist Society handpicked. He is vehemently anti-LGBTQ and misogynistic, and so extreme in his anti-LGBTQ writings that Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, voted against him.

His hostility to abortion is no secret. He has described Roe v. Wade as wrongly decided. “On January 22, 1973, seven justices of the Supreme Court found an unwritten ‘fundamental right’ to abortion hiding in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the shadowy ‘penumbras’ of the Bill of Rights, a celestial phenomenon invisible to the non-lawyer eye.”

It’s a junk case with no basis in science or medical research. But we’ve been here before with junk cases, this federal court district, and the 5th Circuit in which it operates. Kacsmaryk will rule for the plaintiffs and possibly even try to put a national injunction on the use of medication abortion. The administration will appeal and it will go to the abortion-hostile 5th Circuit, from where it will be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court.

So yeah, this is bad, not because of the law or anything like that but because of numbers and court-shopping. I don’t know how long it will take to get to a hearing and then to a preliminary ruling, but it’s out there. Be prepared for it. Bloomberg Law and Kaiser Health News have more.

Do we actually know how to fix the grid?

The evidence is unclear.

Texas lawmakers and experts who study the state’s power grid aren’t thrilled with a proposal by state energy officials aimed at preventing future widespread outages such as the one during the 2021 winter storm.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas last week unveiled a proposal, backed by Chair Peter Lake, that would essentially pay power generators to make sure they have enough reserve electricity to feed the state’s electrical grid in times of extremely high demand. Generators would receive “performance credits” after proving their ability to keep the lights on during those periods — a system that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, according to the commission’s consultant.

In the days since, state legislators and energy experts have cast doubts on the proposal, which would cost power customers an additional $460 million yearly, according to the PUC’s estimate. They also questioned the plan’s complexity and the time it would take to implement such a novel system.

“There are huge reliability stakes and huge dollar stakes,” said Alison Silverstein, a former senior adviser at the PUC, which regulates the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator. “We need certainty. But there are ways to create certainty without making potentially billion-dollar errors.”

The Texas Legislature last year ordered the commission to overhaul the state’s energy market, which functions mostly off of supply and demand, in the wake of the winter storm. Texas’ electrical grid nearly collapsed as ice and snow blanketed the state. Below-freezing temperatures caused the demand for electricity to surge, triggering widespread power outages that left millions of Texans in the dark without heat for several days. Hundreds of people died as a result.

Power suppliers were allowed to charge sky-high prices for energy as demand spiked during the storm — but frozen equipment meant that they couldn’t meet that demand.

During their first chance to weigh in on potential reforms to the market, lawmakers on a key Senate panel this week made it clear they’re not impressed with the commission’s main proposal.

“This plan is so convoluted, has a long timeline to be put into place, that it’s a set-up for failure for everybody,” state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said during a Thursday hearing of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, adding that the additional costs of the plan will ultimately be paid by power customers.

“The end loser is the end user,” Campbell said.

Senators expressed concerns about making the state’s power customers pay more for an untested system on top of paying off billions of dollars in costs incurred during the storm — costs that energy experts have said Texans will be paying off for decades.

“There was already a wealth transfer that we saw happen [during Uri], probably the largest in the state’s history,” state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said.

I’ve read this story and the Chron story about the same hearing a couple of times, and I’m still not really sure what was on the table here. Part of the reason for this is that PUC Chair Lake rejected the recommendations of the consulting firm they hired, which among other things called for requiring electric providers to buy “reliability credits” from power generators, the idea being that generators would commit in advance to provide enough power during periods of high demand. Given that this kind of robustness was cited as a key problem from last February it at least sounds like a decent starting point. If that’s not the plan, and we don’t care what FERC has to say, then where exactly are we? I don’t know, and it sounds like the Lege doesn’t either. Maybe we should do better about that? Just a thought. TPR has more.

A few words from Judge Hidalgo

Plus a few words that she could have said but didn’t, which I will fill in.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who narrowly won re-election last week over a strong push from GOP candidates and donors, outlined plans for her next four years in office, including continuing anti-crime efforts and doubling down on early childhood education.

“In some ways, it’s a continuation of the past four years — the work we’ve done to tackle violent crime, for example. We’ve already been able to bring down that violent crime rate by at least 10 percent. These are August numbers. We need to do more. We’re going to continue doing that,” Hidalgo said in a press briefing held Thursday.

Hidalgo took a jab at the two Republicans on commissioners court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who broke quorum for more than six weeks to stop Democrats from passing their proposed property tax rate. While the Democrats were proposing a tax rate decrease, Ramsey and Cagle argued for a slightly lower rate on the grounds that residents needed more tax relief.

Because the court was not able to reach a state-required quorum of four members present to set the tax rate by the end of October, the county defaulted to what is known as the no-new revenue rate, the levy that would generate the same revenue as last year. The county is projected to take in an additional $45 million from new properties on the tax roll.

Facing a lower tax rate, the court voted to approve a lower budget, cutting nearly $100 million that was to be allocated to law enforcement, including raises for sheriff deputies.

“I’m proud of the record investments we’ve made in public safety, even despite the fact that two colleagues boycotted our budget process and forced us to cut some expenses we’d planned,” Hidalgo said. “Even with that, we’ve been able to see results and we’re working really hard, including with the recent bond that passed, to try to strengthen our criminal justice system.”

County government will keep tackling issues that traditionally have not been on the agenda, she said.

That’s what she said. She didn’t say anything about Constable/JP redistricting, either as a political goal or a policy goal. She didn’t say anything about taking all of those $100 million in forced budget cuts from Tom Ramsey’s precinct, which I would totally tell her to at least publicly muse about if I were advising her. She didn’t say anything about whiny crybaby sore losers pursuing their completely bogus “investigation” of the Elections office. She’s a responsible elected official, and I’m a yahoo on the Internet, so that probably has something to do with it. But these are things that could be said, and maybe will be said in a more measured and nuanced way at some point in the coming weeks. We’ll see. Oh, and be sure also to see the hilariously thin-skinned response she drew for her victory celebration from a local furniture salesman and gambling aficionado. Someone needs a nap, I’d say.

UPDATE: Said furniture salesman gets roundly panned by Chron readers.

Paxton sues to prevent some provisional votes from being counted

On brand. Always, always on brand.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s office is attempting a last-minute intervention to toss out 2,000 provisional ballots before a Harris County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday to certify the November election.

The ballots in question were cast during a one-hour period on Nov. 8.

“Although the ballots were processed, Harris County now intends to include them in the final vote canvass,” Christopher Hilton, chief of the Attorney General’s office general litigation division said Monday. “We have never agreed that these ballots can be part of the final election results, and this afternoon we’re going to ask that the Texas Supreme Court rule that these late-cast votes should be excluded as Texas law requires.”

The petition was filed Monday afternoon. Hilton declined to comment on why the office did not ask for the ruling sooner.

“A court of law ordered Harris County to keep the polls to open for an additional hour on Election Day and people across our county cast their ballots during that time,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “My office is going to do everything we can to protect every single vote that was cast. Republican, Democrat, or Independent — no eligible voter should have their ballot thrown out because the Attorney General can’t accept the results of Harris County elections.”

[…]

According to emails shared with Chronicle, parties including the Texas Attorney General’s office, Harris County Attorney’s office, Texas Civil Rights Project, Harris County Republican Party and Harris County Democratic Party all signed off an agreement on Nov. 11 for processing the provisional ballots.

First Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Fombonne wrote the Harris County Attorney’s office was approving the agreement “based on the understanding that the Texas Supreme Court’s order does not prohibit the tabulating of those votes as long as the ballots themselves remain segregated.”

Kimberly Gdula, deputy chief of the Attorney General’s office general litigation division, signed off on the agreement in an email: “The State is good with this.”

However, Sunday evening, two days before the commissioner’s court meeting to certify the election results, Hilton, the chief of the Attorney General’s office general litigation division, sent an email to the parties questioning the legal basis for including the provisional ballots cast after 7 p,m. in the final count and seeking clarification “so that the parties can pursue any legal remedies, if necessary.”

In a statement Monday, Harris County Attorney’s office spokesperson Roxanne Werner said: “Representatives from the Attorney General’s office and the Harris County Republican Party asked for the language describing that process to be removed from the agreed order, leaving Harris County to process and count the late ballots as they would other provisional ballots while ensuring they were kept segregated. All parties were put on notice that the votes would be counted.”

“This 11th-hour ask to throw those votes away should not be tolerated, especially considering the State rejected the County’s offer to hold off on counting these votes while it sought clarification from the Supreme Court,” Werner added.

See here and here for some background about the litigation that allowed polling locations to remain open until 8 PM. As the story notes, Bell County had similar issues with some polling locations and also got a court order allowing locations to remain open until 8 PM, which the AG’s office has not opposed. The main takeaway here is that not only can you not trust anything Paxton says, you also can’t trust anything his office says, even if they sign their names to it. No wonder he’s having a hard time retaining staff.

As a reminder, and as you can see from the report released by the Elections Office on the 18th, DaSean Jones netted 360 votes from the provisional ballots cast on Election Day. However, he is leading by 449 votes, so if you threw out all of the E-Day provisionals, he would still be ahead by 89 votes in his race. He had already overcome the 165-vote deficit he had in earlier reports thanks to the counting of cured mail ballots, which had gained him 259 votes.

It’s actually not clear from the story how many ballots we’re talking about. The story refers to “2,000 provisional ballots”. I can’t tell if this is just using a round number because exact figures are confusing or if this is the exact figure. There were 2,555 provisional ballots cast on Election Day, of which 2,420 included a vote in the DaSean Jones – Tami Pierce race. I guess it’s theoretically possible that of the provisional E-Day ballots that were specifically cast by people who got in line after 7 PM (because if you were already in line you were always allowed to vote), Jones had a net advantage of at least 450 over Pierce. To say the least, that would be an extraordinary circumstance. (*)

I point this out to say that barring something truly weird, Paxton’s bad faith filing will not – can not – have any effect on any race. That doesn’t change the fact that his filing is trash and should be rejected by SCOTx on the grounds that these people deserve to have their votes counted. The remedy for having to vote late because of voting location problems is to extend voting hours to accommodate those that were affected. Just like what happened in Bell County (won by Greg Abbott 59.04% to 39.52%, in case you were curious), which the AG has accepted as fact. I for one don’t see any difference between the two.

(*) I did search on the Supreme Court webpage for Paxton’s mandamus filing, which might have been more specific and thus answered my questions. Looking on the Electronic Filings search, I think this case is number 22-1044. However, the hyperlink for that case didn’t work when I tried it, and searching for the case via that number returned no results. If you can do better than I did, or if the webpage eventually fixes itself, let me know.

UPDATE: The Trib story also references “2,000 ballots”, which does not help clear up my confusion. They also refer to the overall total of about 4,000 provisional ballots – the actual overall total is 4,333, of which 1,778 were cast early and are clearly not at issue. So, until I hear otherwise, it is my contention that these provisional ballots are not enough to alter any race’s result, and also that this doesn’t matter because all of the ballots should be counted. We’ll see what the Court says.

The cryptomining surge in rural counties

Here’s one possible answer to that question I posed the other day.

Jacob Rodriguez was driving a John Deere tractor in a West Texas cotton field when he received a phone call that would change his life.

“I was pulling a 59-foot air seeder … and at the same time I was on the phone having my interview,” Rodriguez, 29, said.

On the other end of the phone early this year were representatives from a new business that was coming to Dickens County, a community of around 2,000 people an hour east of Lubbock.

By March, Rodriguez had quit farming cotton — something he called “just another job” — and began training to work in a cryptocurrency mine.

The county had exactly what London-based Argo Blockchain was looking for: plenty of open land and easy access to affordable power, thanks to a large wind farm built there more than a decade ago.

Texas political leaders have been promoting the state as a destination for companies producing bitcoin and other digital currencies, touting the state’s reputation for low taxes and cheap power. Around 30 have come in the past decade, and dozens more have expressed interest in moving to Texas.

But instead of moving to the state’s large urban areas — which have the extensive infrastructure and large workforce that attracts most relocating companies — cryptocurrency companies have largely done the opposite and located in rural areas, according to Lee Bratcher, president of the Texas Blockchain Council, a group promoting crypto growth and innovation.

Crypto companies have been welcomed by many small towns hungry for an economic boost. Argo Blockchain opened its 125,000-square-foot Helios facility in Dickens County in May and hired a couple dozen locals, including Rodriguez. It has also added $17 million to the local tax base, according to Kevin Brendle, the county judge. The county’s overall assessed property tax value is $283 million, he said.

That economic infusion has allowed Dickens County to cut county property taxes by around 1.5%, give small raises to county staff, and purchase new equipment for the sheriff’s office and for road and bridge improvements.

“The end result is enhanced services to the community,” Brendle said. “We’re going to be able to do a better job of serving them, and we’ll be able to be competitive in our wages.”

In Milam County, northeast of Austin, a large crypto facility owned by Riot Blockchain that opened in 2020 has added hundreds of new jobs and millions of dollars for the local tax base, according to County Judge Steve Young. He said the boost in taxes has allowed the county government to pay for basic services such as road improvements. When the crypto company needed to employ contractors for various projects, it hired locally, he added.

See here for my question. The article notes that the recent crackdown on crypto mining in China has led to opportunities in places like Texas to pick up the slack. The Republican obsession with cryptocurrency and the fact that these places are locating in rural areas makes a lot of sense politically. And of course, as always, there’s this:

Many rural counties are offering crypto companies tax breaks to lure them to their communities. Milam County, which lost its biggest employer — an Alcoa aluminum plant that employed nearly 1,000 people at its peak and closed in 2008 — offered Riot Blockchain a 45% discount on local taxes for 10 years, said Young, the county judge.

“Businesses are typically not going to come to your county unless you’re willing to give them a tax abatement,” Young said.

Crypto companies still add millions of dollars to the local tax base, Young said, and in Milam County, Riot Blockchain also helped rebuild the local animal shelter and installed new lights at local sports fields.

On the other side of the state, Brendle said Argo Blockchain has committed to refurbishing the county-owned public pool, which closed more than a decade ago.

Brendle and Young both said local residents didn’t oppose the new businesses but had lots of questions about cryptocurrency and whether outsiders would flock to their rural counties.

“When they first came here, people had no idea what it was — neither did I,” Young said. “As it’s gone forward, the county as a whole has started to get a grasp of what’s going on and clearly appreciates the fact that they’re out there providing jobs, enhancing county services, hiring local contractors for the most part and spending a ton of money here. It’s a huge benefit to the county.”

Dig down far enough, there’s always a tax break. Look, I hope this works out well for these communities. Rural Texas has been losing population for a variety of reasons, and they could use the economic boost. I remain skeptical of cryptocurrency as a long-term endeavor, and I remain very worried about the demand it puts on our power grid, but there’s not much I can do about that. All I can say is that the last Big Economic Thing that happened in rural Texas was the private prison industry, and I really hope this turns out better all around than that. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I will need to see it to believe it.

NOTE: This is the time of year when I clear out some posts that have been sitting in my Drafts while other more important news items got blogged about. This one was from early October, well before the crash of FTX. I’ll have a separate post about that shortly; the news hook for that is what prompted me to finally publish this one.

Precinct analysis: Early voting versus Election Day

In his pre-election analyses of the early vote, Republican consultant Derek Ryan (whose numbers I have used in the past) suggested that there was still a significant number of regular Republican voters who had not voted yet, which could make Election Day redder than early voting was. I thought I’d take a look at the data to see how accurate that was. Short answer: Pretty accurate.


Candidate   Early%  E-Day%  Total%  Ratio
=========================================
Abbott     53.75%   57.05%  54.80%   1.06
Beto       45.14%   40.98%  43.81%   0.91
Others      1.11%    1.97%   1.39%   1.77

Note that “Early” here includes mail ballots, as the Secretary of State website combines mail ballots with early in person ballots to give that number. “Ratio” is just the Election Day percentage divided by the Early percentage, which you can interpret to mean that Abbott did about six percent better on Election Day while Beto did about nine percent worse. The Others include the Libertarian and Green candidates plus two write-ins. I am greatly amused by the fact that their voters are the real traditionalists for voting on Tuesday.

If you’ve followed the numbers from Harris County, you know that Democrats overall did at least as well on Election Day as they had done in early voting. I assumed there was a range of outcomes here, so I sorted the data by Abbott’s Ratio, to see where he did best and worst – relatively speaking – on Election Day. Here are a few counties of interest for each. First, where he improved on Election Day:


County                Abbott     Beto  Others
=============================================
Travis Early          24.07%   74.83%   1.10%
Travis E-Day          30.52%   66.96%   2.52%

Bastrop Early         53.93%   44.58%   1.50%
Bastrop E-Day         64.15%   33.53%   2.32%

Williamson Early      47.73%   50.94%   1.33%
Williamson E-Day      54.19%   43.20%   2.62%

Hays Early            42.52%   56.01%   1.46%
Hays E-Day            46.87%   50.30%   2.84%

Bowie Early           73.12%   25.96%   0.92%
Bowie E-Day           80.32%   18.17%   1.52%

Dallas Early          34.85%   64.18%   0.97%
Dallas E-Day          38.08%   60.02%   1.90%

There are numerous small counties in there that I haven’t listed, I’m just highlighting the ones of interest. Travis County was in fact the top Ratio value for Greg Abbott – he did 29% better on Election Day than he did in early voting. This is where I point out that “doing better (or worse) on Election Day” is not the same as doing well (or poorly). That said, Abbott did well enough on Election Day in Williamson County to nudge past Beto’s vote total for that county. Now here are a few where Abbott dropped off on Election Day:


County                Abbott     Beto  Others
=============================================
Fort Bend Early       47.58%   51.07%   1.35%
Fort Bend E-Day       44.72%   52.94%   2.33%

Lubbock Early         70.30%   28.64%   1.06%
Lubbock E-Day         67.54%   30.49%   1.97%

Harris Early          45.06%   53.79%   1.15%
Harris E-Day          43.31%   54.45%   2.24%

Gregg Early           73.76%   25.52%   0.72%
Gregg E-Day           71.09%   27.35%   1.56%

Jefferson Early       56.56%   42.33%   1.10%
Jefferson E-Day       54.61%   43.38%   2.01%

It’s interesting to me to see Central Texas counties filling up that first table, while the Houston area is more present in the second one. I could have included Waller, Wharton, and Chambers in the latter as well. Whether that’s a fluke or a tendency, I couldn’t tell you. But it’s finding weird things like this that makes doing this kind of exercise so much fun.

Does any of this matter on a more macro level? Again, I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t think it matters that much, in the sense that the votes all count the same and from the perspective of a campaign’s win number it doesn’t make a difference. It’s certainly nice to have a bunch of votes banked before Election Day – if nothing else, it mitigates some risk from bad weather and technical difficulties at voting locations. But ultimately, either your voters show up in the numbers you need or they don’t. I think this data is interesting, and it may suggest some strategies for how better to deploy campaign resources. Beyond that, it’s what you make of it.

Electric trucks and the power grid

Very interesting.

Next month, Tesla Inc. plans to deliver the first of its electric Semi trucks—able to haul a full 40 ton-load some 500 miles on a single charge. These massive batteries-on-wheels may accelerate the transition to electrified transport, but those responsible for delivering the power are starting to ask: Are we ready for this?

Probably not, according to a sweeping new study of highway charging requirements conducted by utility company National Grid Plc. Researchers found that by 2030, electrifying a typical highway gas station will require as much power as a professional sports stadium—and that’s mostly just for electrified passenger vehicles. As more electric trucks hit the road, the projected power needs for a big truck stop by 2035 will equal that of a small town.

Even the authors who planned the study were caught off guard by how quickly highway power demands will change. A connection to the grid that can handle more than 5 megawatts takes up to eight years to build, at a cost tens of millions of dollars. If power upgrades don’t start soon, the transition to electric vehicles—let alone electric trucks—will quickly be constrained by a grid unprepared for the demand, warned Bart Franey, vice president of clean energy development at National Grid.

“We need to start making these investments now,” Franey said in an interview. “We can’t just wait for it to happen, because the market is going to outpace the infrastructure.”

The key bit of information from the rest of the story, which you should read, is that we don’t need to add very much grid capacity to handle all of the EV charging stations we will soon require. It’s that this new infrastructure will take some time to build out, and we need to get started on it ASAP to stay ahead of the demand for it. If we don’t, it will likely slow down the rollout of electric vehicles, with all of the knock-on economic and climate effects that would have. So keep an eye on that, it’s a big deal.

DaSean Jones wins after provisional and cured mail ballots are counted

I’m sure someone is going to throw a fit over this.

Judge DaSean Jones

The Harris County felony judge race for the 180th criminal state district court flipped Friday night in favor of incumbent DaSean Jones after new mail and provisional ballots were counted.

Jones, who assumed office in 2019, has taken a 449-vote lead over Republican Tami Pierce. Pierce led by more than 1,200 votes the morning following the election. That number dwindled to 165 votes on Nov. 10.

Nearly 5,300 new ballots were counted in the latest update by Harris County Elections — including a little under 1,000 mail, nearly 1,800 early provisional and about 2,500 E-Day provisional.

[…]

According to Harris County Elections, the results posted Friday are the “final unofficial posting” before Tuesday when Harris County Commissioners Court is scheduled to canvass the results. The Elections office is still working on the reconciliation form.

See here, when I published the previous count, which was as of November 10 at 2:42 PM. Those were the last results before provisional votes were counted – as we know, those always take a few days for review. With the new restrictions on mail ballots, the same law that added those restrictions also allows for mail ballots that have a defect in them, such as lacking the correct ID number (drivers license number or last four digits of the SSN, depending on which you used to register with), to be corrected up to six days after the election, as noted by the Secretary of State. I presume that means up through Monday the 14th, I haven’t checked to see what the exact specification in the law is.

Be that as it may, here’s the November 10 report, which as noted had no provisional ballots and still some uncounted mail ballots. At that time, a total of 60,302 mail ballots had been counted, and as we know they favored Democrats countywide. Beto was leading in mail ballots in that report 62.25% to 36.76% over Greg Abbott, a net of 15,151 votes, while Lina Hidalgo had a 60.26% to 39.65% (11,960 votes) advantage. DaSean Jones was up 31,382 (56.12%) to 24,541 (43.88%) as of the 10th.

In the report from the 18th, which included the final mail totals as well as the provisionals, Jones gained 259 net votes, going to a 31,914 to 24,814 lead. Counted provisional votes were sorted into those from Early Voting and those from Election Day. His opponent Tami Pierce netted five votes in the former, winning them 850 to 845, but Jones added another 360 to his margin by taking Election Day provisional votes 1,390 to 1,030.

Overall, the EV provisional votes had a slight Democratic lean – looking just at the judicial races, the Democratic share of the EV provisionals was generally a fraction of a point to a point higher than the overall early vote percent. Jones was one of three Democratic judicial candidates to not carry the EV provisionals – Genmayel Haynes, one of the four remaining Democrats who lost, and Tami Craft, who had the closest margin of victory among the Dems who won before Jones’ ascent, were the other two. Dems won the Election Day provisional vote by a much more solid margin, in the 57-60% range in the judicial races I looked at. That right there suggests to me that the Republican claims about voting location problems affecting them disproportionately are bogus.

For what it’s worth, Beto now has 54.03% of the vote in Harris County; my previous post with the 2022 update on how statewide results compared to Harris County is now out of date, which is a lesson I’ll learn for next time. Lina Hidalgo increased her lead to 1.67 percentage points, now 0.09 points bigger than her percentage margin from 2018 though her raw vote margin of 18,183 is still slightly less. The Democrat among the four who lost who came closest to winning is now Porsha Brown, who now trails Leslie Johnson 50.01% to 49.99%, a 267 vote margin. Final turnout is 1,107,390, or about 43.75% of registered voters.

On comparing counties from 2018 to 2022

I started with this.

Voters in counties across Texas chose GOP leaders over Democrats at a higher rate than they did four years ago, a Dallas Morning News analysis shows.

The findings, based on data as of noon on Wednesday, reflect that an overwhelming number of counties — 205 out of 254 — favored Republicans. Those counties turned more Republican by an average of 2.87 percentage points, the data showed.

The analysis also showed urban areas are shifting toward Democrats, part of a continuing trend across the country.

All five North Texas counties experiencing population growth saw an uptick in the percentage of votes for Democrats, the analysis showed.

Collin County, a Republican stronghold anchored by suburban women, shifted its share of votes to Democrats by 4.45 percentage points compared to 2018, according to the analysis.

Tarrant County, another GOP-dominated region that has seen an increasing number of Democratic votes, increased support for Democrats by 3.04 percentage points; Dallas County, by 3.23 percentage points; Denton by 3.53; and Rockwall by 3.5, the analysis showed.

Political experts who reviewed The Dallas Morning News’ findings weren’t surprised by the shift. Though slow-moving, the changes can make an impact over the next decade, they said.

“We shouldn’t delude ourselves in any way that the Democrats are about to take over,” said James Riddlesperger, a professor of political science at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. “At the same time, election coalitions are dynamic and what we’re seeing is the competitiveness of the two political parties in this area is becoming more apparent.”

This Trib story has more of the same. And it set me off to do the thing I usually do, which is put a bunch of numbers into a spreadsheet and then try to make something interesting happen with them. If you were to do the same – copy county-by-county election results for the Governor’s races from 2018 and 2022 into Excel – you’d see what these stories say, which is that Beto generally did better than Lupe Valdez in the large urban and suburban counties, and generally did worse elsewhere. You’d also notice that the reverse is true, which is that Abbott did worse where Beto did better and vice versa. You might think this means something about maybe Dems closing the gap in some places, and maybe that’s true, but if so then you have to contend with the fact that the likes of Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton did better overall than they had done four years ago, and as such there’s a limit to this kind of analysis.

I got to that point and I just didn’t feel like putting more time into it. I’ll spend plenty of time looking at district-level numbers, to see how the assumptions of the 2021 redistricting have held up so far and where opportunities and dangers for 2024 might lurk. Much of that data won’t be available until after the next Legislative session begins, though some county data should be there after the votes are canvassed. But statewide, I think we already know what we might want to know, at least at a macro level. We Dems didn’t build on 2018. There’s nothing to suggest that the trends we saw over the last decade have reversed, but there was nothing to see this year to suggest that we have moved the ball any farther than it would have moved on its own. So I’m going to put my effort into places where I hope to find things to work for in the next election or two. I promise I’ll throw numbers at you in those posts.

Collin County DA denies sexual harassment allegations

Pretty damn forcefully, but also in a way that’s kind of telling.

Greg Willis

Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis repeatedly called accusations of sexual harassment and retaliation against him “false, defamatory and outrageous” at a news conference Wednesday, where he presented “extraordinary evidence” he says debunks allegations in a federal lawsuit filed last month.

Willis — flanked by about three dozen supporters, including his wife, State District Judge Jill Willis, and prosecutors inside the McKinney courthouse — played an audio recording and displayed notes written by the six current and ex-employees suing the DA. He said he had been “unfairly attacked” in the 75-page lawsuit.

“We have spent our entire professional lives fighting for the rule of law, and the rule of law is what holds our society together,” Willis said, speaking of himself and his wife. “Fair, equal and unbiased justice must always prevail, and in our roles we have the duty to seek justice at all times. The truth matters.”

The suit says Willis inappropriately touched and propositioned female employees. It also alleges that Willis’ top prosecutor, First Assistant District Attorney Bill Wirskye, fostered a toxic workplace and that county officials were complicit in covering up the systemic misconduct.

The office’s chief and deputy chief investigators, as well three former employees and a current prosecutor, lodged the accusations against the county’s two highest-ranking prosecutors, County Judge Chris Hill and commissioners Susan Fletcher, Darrell Hale, Duncan Webb and Cheryl Williams. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

Willis’ attorney, Rogge Dunn, said in a prepared statement that Willis “revealed only a small sampling of the compelling mountain of evidence proving the plaintiffs’ claims are false and completely trumped up.”

He added: “In 35 years of handling employment lawsuits, this is one of the most frivolous lawsuits I’ve ever seen.”

Jeffrey Simon, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a prepared statement that the employees “greatly feared [Willis’] rage and retaliation” if they defied him.

“Efforts by Mr. Willis to characterize those acknowledgments as proof of his innocence are consistent with the allegations that he remains consumed with trying to cover his tracks in the event he’s exposed,” the statement said.

[…]

One of the former employees, Fallon LaFleur, alleges Willis gave her a “full-frontal hug” as she left the district attorney’s office following her exit interview. LaFleur worked as a prosecutor from 2019 to 2021, according to the lawsuit. She resigned from the office, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says Willis hugged her “while her arms were stiff beside her body” and “he rubbed her lower back with his hands and pressed her breasts against him.”

In an audio recording of the exit interview, a woman Willis said is LaFleur can be heard saying, “Can I give you a hug?” and, “You are so wonderful! Thank you so much! And I will see you around.” Willis described her tone during this interaction as “animated” and cheerful.

“The truth is now clear for all to see what she said in this lawsuit did not happen,” Willis said. “It is a lie. It is false.”

It is unclear why Willis recorded the exit interview.

According to the lawsuit, LaFleur attempted suicide because of the “severe and pervasive discriminatory workplace.” Later, Wirskye was overheard calling LaFleur “crazy” and insinuating LaFleur attempted suicide to get out of a trial, the lawsuit says. LaFleur has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the lawsuit.

Simon, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said recording their conversation may have violated the Collin County employee handbook, which “expressly prohibits the recording or taping of conversations” inside the DA’s office or county offices.

“The fact that Mr. Willis appears to have tried to secretly set her up in the event she later exposed his behavior is again entirely consistent with the conduct alleged against him,” Simon said in his statement.

See here for the background. KERA dug into the code of conduct matter.

KERA obtained a section of a 2006 Collin County handbook, which says employees are “not allowed to film, record or tape in any format, a conversation or activity taking place on county property or where county business is being performed, unless you inform and obtain the consent of all parties to the conversation or activity.”

On Wednesday, Willis released portions of a May 2021 exit interview with Fallon LaFleur, one of his former subordinates. Willis had called a press conference to dispute allegations of sexual harassment against him that were detailed in a federal lawsuit. LaFleur had worked as a misdemeanor prosecutor.

LaFleur’s attorney, Jeffrey Simon, said she didn’t know Willis was recording the conversation. Simon said the fact Willis recorded LaFleur’s exit interview without her consent or knowledge is suspicious.

“What kind of workplace is one running that a boss feels compelled to secretly record their employees? Did Mr. Willis foresee that one day he and a toxic workplace that our clients alleged to exist would be exposed?” he said.

The handbook also says the rules about recording apply “even if you yourself are taking part in the conversation or activity.” Simon said Willis didn’t reveal to LaFleur at any point in their conversation that he was recording.

“What if in the interview he added to at least one or all of those comments of fawning praise and personal assurance, I’ve been secretly recording you?” he said.

I presume that if he did inform LaFleur about the recording, that would be on the recording as well. Recording the exit interview, when that’s against the county’s code of conduct, sure seems sketchy to me. It can’t be policy to do that, since that policy would (presumably, at least) be in violation of the code, and if it was done as a one-off you have to wonder why, as attorney Simon does. Let’s just say that I look forward to the court hearings, when people will be speaking under oath. KERA and the Dallas Observer have more.

UPDATE: OMFG.

Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis this week argued a snippet of a recorded conversation cast doubt on allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation against him by current and former employees.

But the entire 20-minute conversation with then-prosecutor Fallon LaFleur shows she told Willis in spring 2021 she was sexually harassed during the nearly three years she worked for him.

Willis posted the recorded interview and a transcript to his new website, collincountytruthfiles.com, but played only 11 seconds at a news conference Wednesday when he challenged the accusations.

[…]

“I worry there is a lot you don’t know,” LaFleur said timidly to Willis, about three-fourths of the way into the exit interview.

“I’m aware that there is a lot I don’t know,” Willis said. “The person at the top usually knows the least.”

LaFleur then described comments by First District Attorney Bill Wirskye: “I’ve personally been called a whore in a whorehouse.”

“It felt mean. It felt like sexual harassment,” she said.

In the clip Willis played at the news conference, LaFleur asks the DA for a hug. In the lawsuit LaFleur alleges Willis gave her a “full-frontal hug” while her arms were stiff beside her body. Willis rubbed her lower back and pressed her breasts against him, according to the lawsuit.

This interaction was the only accusation of inappropriate physical contact LaFleur lodged against Willis in the lawsuit. Several other women made similar allegations of unwanted massages, moaning as he touched them and unwanted sexual advances.

Willis, who would not answer questions Wednesday after his news conference, did not acknowledge the rest of the recording. His spokeswoman said she would ask Willis and his attorney questions from The Dallas Morning News on Thursday. But she didn’t follow up with answers to why Willis didn’t discuss it, why the full recording and transcript were posted to the website, and if Willis recorded other conversations with Willis recorded other conversations with employees.

Wirskye did not attend the news conference or respond this week to requests for comment. He previously called the allegations “politically motivated and politically timed” and made “by some very disgruntled and very troubled individuals.”

Jeffrey Simon, a lawyer for the former and current employees, said in an interview the audio “clearly corroborates paragraph after paragraph of allegations” LaFleur made in the paragraph of allegations” LaFleur made in the court filing.

“It’s astonishing to me, to us, that [Willis] thought that by virtue of the 11 seconds that he played that somehow disproved the importance of the 20 minutes of audio,” Simon said.

“If Mr. Willis believes that at his grandstanding … hurts Ms. LaFleur’s case, he is mistaken. He’s helping to prove it.”

That sound you heard was my jaw hitting the floor. There’s more to the story, none of which sounds good for Ken Paxton’s buddy Greg Willis. Like I said, I can’t wait for this to get a hearing.