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The Lege

Permitless carry

I had a hard time coming up with anything to say about the Lege passing a bill to allow anyone in Texas to carry a gun, no permit or education or license or anything else required. What is there to say? No one who supports this – and yes, there were a handful of mostly South Texas Democrats who voted for it as well – cares about gun violence except to think that more guns will somehow mitigate it. No one who supports this cares about the often-made comparison to the legal requirements one must meet in order to drive a car. No one who supports this cares that law enforcement organizations opposed this bill because it makes them less safe. No one who supports this cares that public opinion is strongly against permitless carry laws and strongly in favor of enhanced background checks and other gun control measures. No one who supports this cares that an amendment to bar “domestic terrorists and white supremacists” from carrying handguns in public was voted down. Like I said, what is there to say? Maybe the Senate won’t pass it, but I have no reason to put any hope in that. The Chron has more.

The Texas/Georgia comparison

The main thrust of this story is that the Texas voter suppression bills are not as bad as the law Georgia passed. But as you can see, these laws are still Very Bad.

After major corporations criticized Georgia for adopting voter restrictions in the wake of Democratic wins there, the spotlight is shifting to Texas as Republican lawmakers advance similar legislation.

And just as Georgia Republicans sought to rein in Fulton County — a heavily Democratic county that includes the city of Atlanta — Texas Republicans are targeting large counties run by Democrats with measures that provide possible jail time for local officials who try to expand voting options or who promote voting by mail.

That same push is happening in Arizona and Iowa, said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law.

“All of these bills share a common purpose: to threaten the independence of election workers whose main job should be to ensure fair elections free from political or other interference,” Norden said.

The Senate is particularly intent on preventing a repeat of 2020, when the interim Harris County clerk, Chris Hollins, promoted novel approaches such as 24-hour voting sites and drive-thru polling places as safe alternatives to indoor voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Democrat-leaning county saw historic turnout that helped Joe Biden come within 5.5 percentage points of the incumbent, Republican Donald Trump.

“Out of thin air they decided on drive-in voting,” charged Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative Republican who runs the Senate and has been a leading voice in urging lawmakers to tighten voting laws in the name of preventing fraud.

Harris County officials, on the other hand, say drive-thru voting was preapproved by administrators at the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

“In 2020 we did everything we could within the bounds of the law to ensure that we were going to have a free, a fair, a safe and an accessible election in Harris County,” Hollins said.

House Bill 6, which passed out of a committee and will next go before the full Texas House, would open up election officials to felony charges if they were to solicit a voter to fill out an application for an absentee ballot. Election officials could also face felonies for submitting false information on a provisional ballot, or if they are proven to intentionally have failed to count a valid ballot. Another provision would subject election officials to misdemeanor charges for blocking partisan poll watchers from having access to observe voting.

Legislation approved by the Texas Senate, SB 7, would also make it a crime for election workers to deny a partisan poll watcher the chance to sit or stand near enough to observe voting.

That Senate bill includes a proposal to allow poll watchers to video record voter activity at polling places. Election law expert David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation and Research told CBS News that provision would make Texas elections less secure, not more so.

[…]

The overlapping debates in Georgia and Texas over election legislation has left some confused over what each state is doing.

During a marathon session of the Senate last week, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, went out of his way to explain some of the distinctions. He noted that there is nothing in SB 7 that would make it a crime to give people food and water while they are standing in line to vote, as the Georgia bill does.

“Not in the bill,” Hughes said. “Never going to be in the bill.”

The “no food or water to anyone standing in line” provision in the Georgia law drew a lot of notice for its cruelty and pettiness, but the lack of such a provision in the Texas bills should not distract you from their badness. The main point is to make it harder to vote, and to prevent any future election official – with the threat of a felony, for crying out loud – from taking any action in any situation to make it easier to vote. The poll watchers provision is an open invitation for all kinds of self-appointed election vigilantes to intimidate any voter whose looks they don’t like. And this was all very much done with animus aimed at Harris County, for the sin of being a Democratic stronghold.

I have referred to Daniel Davies’ pithy comment about how “good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them to gain public support” in the past. In a post-Trump world, I’m not sure how accurate that still is, but I do note that the likes of Dan Patrick are still lying their heads off about these bills.

Before explaining how the bill would amend the state election code, Patrick said something that he would repeat during the 35-minute press conference.

“Nothing has changed in the election code (under SB7) regarding early voting. Nothing has changed,” he said.

[…]

If passed, SB 7 would codify Republicans’ objections to drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting into the state election code. To Roxanne Werner, deputy director of communications for Harris County Elections, that’s an appreciable change.

“There are definitely a number of things that would change under SB7, particularly with early voting. Some of the more obvious things are the drive-thru locations and the lack of extended early voting hours,” Werner said. “There are several things in SB 7 that relate to early voting, so I’m surprised to hear (Patrick’s) particular statement.”

For instance, the bill’s text would eliminate 24-hour voting by adding language to the election code that requires early voting to be conducted “for a period of at least nine hours, except that voting may not be conducted earlier than 6 a.m. or later than 9 p.m.”

And it would prohibit drive-thru voting — during the early voting period or on election day — by adding language that says “no voter may cast a vote from inside a motor vehicle.”

Robert Stein, a Rice University political scientist who has worked with and studied Harris County’s election system, said the changes proposed in SB 7 are obvious.

“What do you mean nothing changed?” Stein said, responding to Patrick’s claim. “Then why are you writing SB 7? You’re changing the law so as to prevent someone from doing something they have been doing in the past.”

David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, agrees and notes that SB 7 would make Texas one of the most restrictive voting states in the nation. Becker said that SB 7 would “concentrate more voting to a single day” by disincentivizing early voting and mail-in voting.

“I think it’s really hard to characterize SB 7 as not severely limiting early voting given that early voting was allowed to proceed under Texas law in a way that was much more expansive,” Becker said.

All of the changes packaged in SB 7 taken together, the overall effect of the bill, as in bills in other states, is the removal of authority from local election officials, Becker said.

“The fact is that the election code, as every election code does, leaves areas for local government to manage their elections, and there was nothing in the code before that said you couldn’t do drive-thru voting, that said you couldn’t do 24/7 voting, that said you couldn’t do temporary buildings for early voting,” he said. “That has absolutely changed.”

The claim was rated “Pants On Fire”. Even some Republicans have noted the likely effect that these bills would have on early voting and the voters who use it. It’s not that I expect Dan Patrick to be some kind of bastion of truth, but he’s usually smoother than this. Lying in such an obvious fashion like this is defensive in a way Patrick doesn’t often show.

The original story also notes that HB6 has fewer of the restrictive provisions than SB7 does. That’s true, but it’s not particularly relevant. One of these bills will end up in a conference committee, and once there anything can happen. I’d bet on the Senate version being the one that wins out in the end.

One last thing: I’ve mentioned this before as well, but remember that the two omnibus bills are not the only ones out there. There are other bills that do smaller and more targeted things that are getting hearings, like HB895, which would allow election workers to have the discretion to pull voters out of line if their ID and documentation seem questionable, take them aside and make their photo on the spot, make copies of their documentation, and turn that over to the Secretary of State. (No, really.) What could possibly go wrong with that? That hasn’t gotten a vote in committee yet, so it’s not nearly as far along as SB7 or HB6, but we all know that a bill like this could wind up as an amendment to a bill that’s on its way to passage if it doesn’t survive the committee process itself. Until the Lege is out of session, all kinds of badness remains possible.

Senate passes anti-transgender athletics bill

It’s gross, and it unfortunately may not be the only such bill they pass this session.

Transgender students would be banned from competing on school sports teams based on their gender identity under a bill that passed the Texas Senate on Thursday.

Despite immense opposition from civil rights groups and Democrats, the upper chamber voted on an 18-12 vote to advance Senate Bill 29. The measure now heads to the Texas House.

The proposal would prohibit students from participating in a sport “that is designated for the biological sex opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth.” Students would be required to prove their “biological sex” by showing their original, unamended birth certificates.

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, argued on Wednesday that the prohibition is necessary to keep girls safe from injury and to retain fairness in interscholastic athletics. But Perry acknowledged that he doesn’t know of any transgender students currently competing in Texas school sports.

And medical professionals have largely debunked the argument that transgender athletes have an advantage, with one study showing people taking hormones did not have a significant performance edge in distance running.

Opponents said the Republican leadership-backed bill was a “fear tactic” in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.

“Trans kids, they just know they are not what their birth certificate says,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. “And that’s where we’re creating a problem that we don’t need to.”

[…]

Wednesday afternoon, Equality Texas held a news conference outside the Capitol building in Austin to bring awareness to over 30 bills filed in the legislature that would discriminate against LGBTQ youth. Ricardo Martinez, the organization’s CEO, noted that the first of these anti-trans bills was filed 156 days ago, on the first day of bill filing for this session.

“That day kicked off the Texas portion of a nationally-coordinated attack on our community,” Martinez said. “This attack, which intentionally targets transgender and intersex youth, who are some of the most vulnerable members of our community, is especially cruel given that we’re still in a deadly pandemic.”

Landon Richie, an 18-year-old transgender Texan, skipped his classes at the University of Houston to speak outside the Capitol Wednesday.

“Trans kids belong in Texas and deserve the same rights, access to health care, access to sports, access to public facilities, as any other Texan,” Richie said.

Mack Beggs, a transgender athlete from Texas, garnered national headlines after he won back-to-back wrestling titles in 2017 and 2018. Beggs competed in the women’s division because the UIL ruled he had to compete against the gender that appeared on his birth certificate. Attorney Jim Baudhuin sued the UIL in 2017, arguing that Beggs posed an injury risk to other athletes and possessed an unfair advantage. A Travis County judge tossed out the case.

“Mentally, it took a toll on me,” Beggs told Yahoo News last month. “I think we need to have resources in place for other [trans] kids who are in those positions.”

He spoke out against proposals like SB 29, calling them “revolting and honestly appalling.”

The irony of people who have systematically chiseled away at women’s health care in Texas arguing that this ridiculous and pointless bill will somehow “protect” women is enough to break my brain. As previously noted, there are economic consequences on the line here, as the NCAA has codified its warning that “it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination”. As with voter suppression, the reason to oppose this harmful nonsense isn’t that Texas may lose out on a couple of Final Fours, but that bills like this are directly harmful to many children, and are just morally wrong on any level you want to look at them. And as noted above, it just gets worse from here.

The mother of a transgender boy testified before the Texas legislature in tears as Republicans try to pass a bill to criminalize parents who support their transgender children.

“I’m terrified to be here today,” said Amber Briggle told the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs at a hearing earlier this week. “I’m afraid that by speaking here today that my words will be used against me should S.B. 1646 or S.B. 1311 pass, and my sweet son whom I love more than life itself will be taken from me.”

Texas’s S.B. 1646 would redefine child abuse to include “consenting to or assisting in the administering or supplying of, a puberty suppression prescription drug or cross-sex hormone to a child,” as well as other gender-affirming health care procedures, even though puberty blockers are reversible and have been found to significantly reduce suicidal thoughts for trans people.

And Briggle knows that first-hand.

“When my son was four-years-old, he asked me if scientists could turn him into a boy,” Briggle said, adding that she didn’t understand that he was trans. “I only knew that he wasn’t like most girls his age and that something inside him was hurting.”

She said that she learned about trans youth and found that surgery is not performed on minors, despite how much Republican lawmakers talk about surgery in the context of bills to ban gender-affirming care for minors.

“Today, my son is 13-years-old, the most popular boy in seventh grade, and loved by our friends, family, our church, and our community,” Briggle said. “This is possible because he has parents who affirm him and provide him with the support he needs.”

“Taking that support away from him, or worse, taking him away from his family because we broke the law to provide that support – will have devastating and heartbreaking consequences,” she said, fighting through tears.

“If this bill becomes law, that, senators, is child abuse,” she concluded. “And I promise I will call every single one of you every time a transgender child dies from suicide to remind you that their lives could have been saved, but you chose not to.”

Neither SB1646 nor SB1311 have had committee votes yet, so maybe they’ll die a quiet death and we can exhale and say we dodged a particularly nasty bullet. The fact that Amber Briggle and Kai Shappley and countless others were forced to testify on behalf of their own humanity or the humanity of their children is beyond disgusting. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: And then this happened:

It is hard not to despair. Rep. Erin Zwiener has more.

Senate approves pointless appeals court

There’s more than one way to attack Democratic appellate court justices.

Sen. Joan Huffman

The Texas Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create a new statewide court of appeals that would hear cases that have statewide significance — including ones that challenge state laws, the constitution or when the state or its agencies are sued.

Currently, when such cases go to the intermediate appellate level, they are mostly heard by the 3rd Court of Appeals based in Austin. That court’s judges are elected by voters in Democratic-leaning Travis County. Senate Bill 1529, though, would send the cases to the new appellate court whose judges would be elected by voters statewide — an electorate that skews Republican.

Some of the state’s highest profile cases could be affected by this proposed court. Bill author Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said that recent lawsuits surrounding Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic emergency orders are examples of types of litigation the proposed court would have jurisdiction over.

Critics say the proposed new court is a Republican attempt to yank jurisdiction of these cases from Democrats.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals has five Democrats and only one Republican. Currently, all statewide elected judges are Republican, including on the Texas Supreme Court — and it’s likely the proposed court would also be all Republican.

“Since the [3rd Court of Appeals] deals with issues facing state government, it’s a thorn in the Republican Party side,” Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, said in an interview. “And so by transitioning that by moving that to a statewide election where Republicans have the advantage, they would be able to, most likely, flip from being a Democratic majority… to a [5-0] Republican advantage.”

Huffman maintains that she wrote the bill to promote consistency — not for partisan reasons.

“The new court has five justices elected statewide so that all Texans have a voice in electing those who decide cases of statewide significance,” she said from the Senate floor Tuesday. “It’s important for judges deciding cases of statewide importance to be familiar with specialized jurisprudence to provide consistent rulings for state litigants.”

[…]

Democrats on Tuesday raised constitutional concerns related to this bill, asking if the Legislature has the authority to create an appellate court with statewide jurisdiction, overlapping the current district system. Huffman maintains that it does.

“We’ll have to see you in court on this one,” Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said.

Darlene Byrne, chief justice on the 3rd Court of Appeals and a Democrat, said in an interview she thinks the bill is “bad policy and bad for statewide jurisprudence.”

Byrne also said the new structure would promote large campaigns.

“I don’t know of a Supreme Court race that costs less than a million dollars per candidate,” she said. “So this new statewide court is going to be mega-big donors infusing big money to influence the judiciary. And I thought we were trying to get away from that — but apparently not.”

Linda Thomas, a former Republican chief justice of the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals, said she believed the bill was unnecessary.

“As a retired judge, I think it’s a little disingenuous, and in some ways, insulting to the sitting justices of this state to indicate that they are not capable of handling complex business cases,” Thomas said.

I noted this in passing in my initial post about appellate court redistricting, the bill for which has since been withdrawn for the time being. I tend to agree with Justice Thomas, and I also think that insult was a feature and not a bug. Sen. Huffman’s justification for this new court is ridiculous on its face, because all of the lawsuits in question start out in a district court, with a judge that was elected by local voters in far lesser numbers than for appellate court justices. That’s not exactly conducive to “consistent rulings for state litigants”. Why not go whole hog and create an entirely separate court system for “cases of statewide importance” (whatever that means, and I’ll bet that very topic becomes a contentious point of appeals in itself) so as to avoid local yokel judges making insufficiently erudite rulings? One could argue that Sen. Huffman is actually making a back-handed case for ending the election of judges in the first place. At least that would be a more honest approach to this.

I have no idea what the prospects are for this in the House, but I do feel confident that there will be litigation if and when this does pass. That lawsuit would eventually come before a district court of appeals, as one presumes it would be halted from taking effect pending the litigation, before ultimately being decided by the Supreme Court. I’ll leave it to you to sort out where that all lands on the Irony-o-Meter.

Is there an infrastructure boost in the works for Texas Central?

Maybe!

The federal government is serious about spending money on high-speed rail, and Texas could be among the first beneficiaries.

The recent interest in investing in bullet trains capable of going 200 mph or faster comes at a time when many Texans — after hearing promises about high-speed rail for the past 12 years — are skeptical that such a project will ever come to fruition.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is talking up the potential of using modernized passenger trains to revolutionize the way people travel across the Lone Star State. And several members of Congress, including a former official with the proposed Texas Central Railway high-speed rail project who now represents Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, have filed a bill that would provide $205 billion in funding for projects nationwide over the next five years.

[…]

Buttigieg championed Texas high-speed rail during several recent public appearances, including during a Wall Street Journal podcast March 23 in which he mentioned the state by name without being prompted.

“I mean, if you just imagine what it would mean for Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Chicago and Louisville and Cincinnati and Detroit and all these cities, all to be within a swift ride of each other,” Buttigieg said on The Journal podcast last week. “But also think about Texas, think about what it would mean in Texas to have excellent high speed rail.”

When asked if his vision for rail was achievable in a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the former South Bend, Ind. mayor and Democratic presidential candidate replied that it was unacceptable for the U.S. to lack a passenger rail system on par with other countries.

“Yeah, I mean, my question is, when it comes to rail, why should Texas be inferior to China?,” he said. “And I’m going to keep putting it that way and see if it resonates.”

[…]

The Biden administration is expected to soon introduce a $3 trillion economic plan that could include a record amount of funding for development of high-speed rail.

And several members of Congress have filed a bill dubbed the American High-Speed Rail Act that would provide $41 billion annually for five years. Among those members is Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who in the early 2010s lived in the Dallas area and served as a managing director with Texas Central Railway.

The American High-Speed Rail Act would create at least 2.6 million jobs over five years, Moulton said.

“High-speed rail is faster, cleaner, safer and better for our economy,” Moulton said in a statement. “It will connect people to more jobs in new places, give Americans freedom and choice in how they travel, and put us on par with the rest of the world.”

In addition to the $41 billion in annual federal grants available for rail projects, the bill would provide incentives worth $38 billion for high-speed rail construction, he said.

This story came out before the announcement of the Biden Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, and I’ve covered some aspects of it elsewhere, for the Ike Dike and the power grid. Whether there is something specific in here for high speed rail in general or Texas Central in particular remains unclear at this time. The eventual infrastructure bill will likely contain piece from other already existing bills, so the Moulton bill could be in there as well. But let’s not count our chickens before the eggs are even laid. Back in the glory days of 2009 when we were all daydreaming about the Obama stimulus plan and various SUPERTRAIN proposals, it was very easy to get swept up in the hype and lose sight of the fact that high-speed rail is pretty pie-in-the-sky, and among the first things to get ditched in favor of higher priorities when the going gets tough.

That said, we know that President Biden is a train guy, and the plan does specifically mention Amtrak. Amtrak responded with a proposal for a bunch of new routes, including several cities in Texas that have little or no service today. If you look at the map that accompanied their statement, you may wonder what that means:

I assume we wouldn’t have both the Texas Central high-speed line and a normal-speed Amtrak line between Houston and Dallas, plus the proposed extension to Fort Worth. At some point, there ought to be clarity about that.

Now, even with federal funds, there remain obstacles to Texas Central. Those obstacles in Texas include a big fight over eminent domain, which won’t be resolved by federal grants. (There have been efforts to strictly limit any state funding to Texas Central, so this wouldn’t be for nothing.) For whatever it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything about the usual sorts of anti-TCR legislation so far this session, but that may just be a matter of timing, since the “emergency” items have taken up all the oxygen so far. The bottom line is that this is all encouraging if you’re a Texas Central fan, but we’re a long way from anything actually happening. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see.

More on the corporate response to voter suppression

It’s an encouraging start, but there’s an obvious next step that has so far not been mentioned.

With Republicans in Texas and other states continuing to advance restrictive election legislation, corporate chieftains around the country have stepped up their efforts in recent days to oppose such laws and defend voting rights.

Two prominent Black executives are enlisting major corporations to sign a new statement opposing “discriminatory legislation,” and PayPal and Twilio said Monday that they had agreed to add their names. Google, Netflix, BlackRock and Ford Motor will also sign, according to people familiar with the situation. Other companies were in discussions to do so, two people familiar with the deliberations said.

A group of major law firms formed a coalition “to challenge voter suppression legislation.”

And a film starring Will Smith and financed by Apple pulled its production out of Georgia on Monday in protest of the state’s new voting law, a warning shot to other legislatures.

“Corporations are always reticent to get engaged in partisan battling,” said Richard A. Gephardt, a Democrat and former House majority leader who is in conversation with corporate leaders about their responses. “But this is about whether we’re going to protect the democracy. If you lose the democracy, you lose capitalism.”

[…]

The Texas bills were central to a discussion on Saturday afternoon when more than 100 corporate leaders met on Zoom to discuss what, if anything, they should do to shape the debate around voting rights.

Several on the call, which was organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor who regularly gathers executives to discuss politics, spoke forcefully about the need for companies to use their clout to oppose new state legislation that would make it harder to vote.

Mia Mends, the chief administrative officer at Sodexo, who is Black and based in Houston, called on the other executives to focus their energies in Texas, and said she was doing the same.

“One of the things I’m doing this week is getting on the phone with many of our leaders to say: ‘We need you to take a stand. We need your company to take a stand,’” Ms. Mends said in a later interview. “And that means not just saying we support voting rights, but to talk concretely about what we need, what we’d like to see change in the bill.”

[…]

Like Georgia, Texas is an important state for big business, with companies and their employees drawn in part by tax incentives and the promise of affordable real estate. Several Silicon Valley companies have moved to Texas or expanded their presence there in recent years.

Apple plans to open a $1 billion campus in Austin next year, and produces some of its high-end computers at a plant in the area.

In December, Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced that it would move its headquarters from California to the Houston area, while the software company Oracle said it would take its headquarters to Austin. And last month, Elon Musk issued a plea on Twitter for engineers to move to Texas and take jobs at SpaceX, his aerospace company.

Mr. Musk’s other companies, Tesla and the Boring Company, have also expanded their presences in the state in recent months.

None of those companies have so far voiced opposition to the Texas legislation. And at least for now, there is little indication that the growing outcry from big business is changing Republicans’ priorities.

“Texas is the next one up,” said one chief executive who attended the Zoom meeting but asked to remain anonymous. “Whether the business commitments will have a meaningful impact there, we’ll see.”

Again, all of this is encouraging, and unlike Georgia this has all happened before the bad bills have been passed, which allows for the possibility (however slim) that they may not be. Before I get to what’s missing, there’s another group that has gotten engaged in the fight: big law firms.

Some 60 major law firms are uniting around an effort “to challenge voter suppression legislation and to support national legislation to protect voting rights and increase voter participation,” Brad Karp, chairman of the heavyweight law firm Paul Weiss, told The New York Times.

Though the group has not been formally announced, Karp promised it would “emphatically denounce legislative efforts to make voting harder, not easier, for all eligible voters, by imposing unnecessary obstacles and barriers on the right to vote.”

The firms are teaming up with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking Republican legislation across the country, to strategize about which laws to file legal challenges against.

“We plan to challenge any election law that would impose unnecessary barriers on the right to vote and that would disenfranchise underrepresented groups in our country,” Karp said. As one might expect, that includes the Georgia law, which has invited a flurry of fallout already for both the state and the Republican lawmakers who passed it.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, told the Times the coalition of law firms put lawmakers “on notice” that unconstitutional and legally flawed laws will almost certainly result in legal pushback.

“This is beyond the pale,” Waldman said of the GOP suppression laws. “You’re hearing that from the business community and you’re hearing it from the legal community.”

That’s from the same story. It’s great that there’s a promise of vigorous litigation as needed, but we’ll have to see how the courts respond. For obvious reasons, there’s no reason to believe that SCOTUS will take an expansive view of voting rights.

Which brings me back to the thing that’s not yet in any of these conversations, and that’s consequences. It’s great to see this resistance to what Georgia has done and what Texas is attempting to do, though there remain some holes in the fabric. (Per Daily Kos, HP has since issued a strong statement against the Texas voter suppression bills, so good for them. Apple and Elon Musk, you’re on the clock.) But what happens if and when Texas goes ahead and passes its bill? What other than some Hollywood productions not filming in Georgia happens there? If at the end, when Greg Abbott signs SB7 or HB6 into law, does everyone shrug their shoulders, say “well, we did our best, let’s hope the lawyers can do better than we did”, and go home? Because if that does happen, then frankly most of this will have been a waste of time.

I’ve said this a million times now, but the only message that these Republican lawmakers will ever respond to is losing elections. If there isn’t some level of commitment to vote Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick (and Brian Kemp) and as many of the complicit legislators as possible out of office, then the lesson they will learn is that this kind of response is basically a kabuki dance, with no real action behind it. If everyone who is enacting these anti-democratic laws is still in power in 2023 or 2025, then there’s not only no incentive for them to change their ways, there’s plenty of incentive for them to keep on keeping on.

So thank you for speaking up now. It does matter, and it is needed. But in the end, it can’t just be talk. If these bills get passed anyway, there needs to be action. I’d like to hear some talk about that now, too, so we’re all clear on that point. Axios has more.

UPDATE: Janice McNair, controlling owner of the Houston Texans and widow of GOP mega-donor Bob McNair, has signed on to the big corporate “stop voter suppression” team. Good for her.

First attempt to redefine the governor’s powers in an emergency

I’m still conflicted about this.

The Texas Senate backed a potential constitutional amendment Tuesday that would substantially rein in the power of the governor during emergencies like this past year’s coronavirus pandemic.

Texas voters would have to approve the amendment Nov. 2 for it to take effect. And before it could get on a ballot, the Senate action must still be approved by the House.

The amendment would require the governor to call a special session in order to declare a state emergency that lasts more than 30 days. The special session would give lawmakers the chance to terminate or adjust executive actions taken by the governor, or pass new laws related to the disaster or emergency.

The Legislature did not meet last year as the pandemic swept the state, so Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the largely unprecedented situation with executive orders and declarations spanning several months, citing the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

Abbott issued what essentially amounted to a statewide shutdown order last year, and he kept in place some level of capacity limitations for businesses until early March of this year. In July, he mandated that Texans wear masks in public. He also used executive authority to lift other state regulations to help businesses struggling during the pandemic, such as allowing restaurants to sell groceries and mixed drinks to go.

But many state lawmakers say the Legislature should be the government body to make decisions that affect businesses and livelihood of Texans.

“Early on, people understood [business closures] because they’re like, ‘we don’t know what this is,’” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said on the Senate floor. But as the pandemic and business closures wore on, Birdwell said the anger grew as the mandates continued.

Birdwell said if the governor believes the situation is dire enough that businesses need to close, then he needs to get the Legislature involved.

[…]

“I don’t see this Legislature being able to convene fast enough to answer … in the kind of disasters I have seen and expect the state to see in the future,” said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who used to serve as Travis County judge.

Meanwhile, a priority bill filed in the House would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters.

That bill, HB 3, has not yet made it out of committee, but would allow the governor to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, previously told the Texas Tribune that the proposal was meant as a starting point to map out responses in the event of another pandemic.

“HB 3 was trying to set structures, predicting the disaster or the emergency,” Birdwell said. “What I did was set a baseline…It is impossible to predict the disaster.”

As I’ve said before, I think the Legislature should have a say in these matters, and that calling a special session last year would have cleared some things up and maybe prevented a lawsuit or two. I think Sen. Birdwell’s proposed resolution is more or less okay, though I don’t trust his motives and I agree with Sen. Eckhardt about the Lege’s lack of ability to move quickly in times of crisis. Hell, unless we’re willing to allow a Zoom legislative session, having that special session I mentioned could have been a superspreader event. HB3 is completely off the rails – again with the fixation on preventing counties from making it easier to vote – so if I had to choose between the two I’d take the Senate’s version, but I’m a very qualified and uncertain supporter. The system we had now wasn’t great. My fear is that we’ll make it worse.

ERCOT roundup

Just a few stories of interest that I didn’t feel like putting in their own posts…

ERCOT will argue it is immune from lawsuits.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas will argue that it has governmental immunity that protects it from the at least 35 lawsuits that have been filed against the operator after February’s disastrous winter storm which killed dozens of people and created millions of dollars of damages.

“ERCOT has and will continue to assert that it is entitled to sovereign immunity due to its organization and function as an arm of State government,” the organization wrote in a Wednesday court filing requesting to consolidate several of the lawsuits it’s battling.

Sovereign immunity grants protections for state agencies against lawsuits, with some exceptions. And this isn’t the first time ERCOT has made the argument — with some success — that it should be shielded from lawsuits due to its role acting upon the directives of state agencies and lawmakers.

In 2018, an appeals court in Dallas ruled that ERCOT, despite the fact that it is a private nonprofit, has sovereign immunity after Dallas-based utility Panda Power sued the operator over allegations of flawed energy projections.

That immunity was challenged at the Texas Supreme Court last month. However, the high court refused to rule on the issue, claiming it lacked jurisdiction because the original case that posed the question was dismissed — a hotly contested opinion with four of the nine justices dissenting.

See here for the previous update. I don’t know what practical effect this might have if ERCOT succeeds, but as a general principle I think this kind of legal immunity needs to be carefully limited. Maybe it’s appropriate here, but there needs to be a strong argument for it.

ERCOT: Blackout primarily caused by power plants freezing up:

The massive loss in power generation during the Texas blackout in February was caused primarily by power plants freezing up under historically cold conditions, according to a new report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Tuesday.

The state’s grid operator reported that on the morning of Feb. 16, the most severe moment of the blackout, 54 percent of the loss of power supply stemmed from weather-related issues at power plants, while 12 percent was due to a lack of fuel such as natural gas. Some 51,000 megawatts of generation — more than half of the system’s capacity — were offline at the height of the blackouts at 8 a.m. of Feb. 16, ERCOT reported.

The findings come as state officials are debating how to fix the state’s energy system to prevent a repeat of the power outages that left millions of Texans without power for days on end.

The report Tuesday offered a fairly limited perspective on what went wrong, failing to explain why specific types of generation were unable to operate during the winter storm or what happened. But it will add questions to how well prepared ERCOT and the state’s power plants were for cold weather, despite warnings from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to winterize following a less severe cold snap in 2011.

[…]

After weather-related problems, the second biggest loss of generation on Feb. 16 was caused by planned or unexpected outages prior to the cold snap that began sweeping Texas earlier in the week, accounting for 15 percent of lost power supply.

Another 14 percent of lost generation came from equipment failures unrelated to the weather. Only four percent of outages were due to transmission problems or a short drop in the frequency of the power grid that occurred early Monday morning.

I don’t know enough to say what this means in terms of figuring out the best path forward, but I sure hope that the Legislature has some people who know how to read a report like this available to explain it to them. We screwed this kind of response up last time. We have no excuse for screwing it up again.

Faulting ERCOT, insurer says it shouldn’t have to cover storm damages:

ERCOT’s insurance company is seeking a court ruling excusing it from defending Texas’ electric grid manager from lawsuits or covering damages stemming from the catastrophic power failure in February.

The Cincinnati Insurance Co. on Tuesday sought relief from the U.S. district court in Austin, arguing it does not have to defend the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because it does not view the power outages as an accident, defined by the insurer as a “fortuitous, unexpected, and unintended event.” As a result, the company said it has no obligation under its insurance policy to cover ERCOT, which faces a flood of lawsuits after the winter storm.

“The allegations in the Underlying Lawsuits allege ERCOT either knew, should have known, expected, and/or intended, that Winter Storm Uri would cause the same power outages which occurred as a result of previous storms in Texas, including storms in 1989 and 2011,” the insurer said in court documents. “The Underlying Lawsuits allege the power outages caused by Winter Storm Uri were a result of the exact same failures including failures of the same generators which failed in the previous winter storms, and therefore, the power outages were foreseeable, expected, and/or intended.”

[…]

ERCOT’s insurance policy with Cincinnati Insurance, effective until June 2022, states that the insurer “will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies. We will have the right and duty to defend the insured against any ‘suit’ seeking those damages.’

The policy, however, says Cincinnati Insurance has no duty to defend ERCOT in cases in which the insurance policy does not apply, and retains the discretion to investigate any “occurance” and settle any claim or lawsuit that results from it. The insurer defines “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.”

In case you were wondering why ERCOT really doesn’t want to be sued. Also, when was the last time that an insurance company paid a claim without fighting it?

An open Texas power grid would boost reliability and renewables, experts say.

Since the February power outages, Texas legislators have been busy weighing a host of improvements for the state’s grid, from weatherizing equipment to shaking up oversight to partnering with the billionaire investor Warren Buffett on new emergency-use power plants.

But hardly any of them have focused on what some believe could be a more widespread fix: plugging into other U.S. power supplies.

While Texas has long opposed opening its grid to avoid federal oversight, and ostensibly to keep prices low, energy experts say the calculus is not what it once was and that the benefits of connecting to the outside world are at least worth examining, especially as renewable energy is poised for a major expansion under the Biden administration.

Not only is the state missing out on a potential lifeline in future blackouts, they warn, it also risks passing up billions of dollars in new investments for clean, marketable electricity.

“We export every form of energy you could imagine except electrons,” Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told reporters recently. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Let’s at least study the option.”

There are some good arguments for this, and some reasonable ones for maintaining the independence of the Texas grid. Just because our setup is dumb and expensive and unreliable doesn’t mean it has to be that way, after all. But this is all an academic point, because there’s a zero percent chance this happens. Go ahead and write a report, but don’t ever expect Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick to read it.

The propagandist’s advantage

Discouraging, but we have to address the world as it is.

Democratic state Sen. Royce West of Dallas was making a point.

The number of prosecutions for voter fraud cases in the state of Texas is low. In its 15 years of existence, the Texas Attorney General’s Election Integrity Unit has prosecuted a few dozen cases in which offenders received jail time, but none of them involving widespread fraud.

And though his colleague, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was talking about another voter fraud indictment in his home county of Gregg, that was one case in one county in a state of 254 counties and 30 million people.

But Hughes had a ready retort: “How much fraud is OK?”

“How much fraud is OK?” he repeated. “I want to know.”

Game, set and match. Hughes pushed forward with his bill, an omnibus piece of legislation he says will reduce voter fraud and opponents say will suppress the votes of marginalized communities.

The argument is a familiar one to followers of voting legislation over the last two decades, as Republicans in statehouses across the country have moved to stiffen voting regulations, arguing that such changes are necessary to combat voter fraud.

And it’s an effective point. It puts the proposal’s opponents in the unenviable position of having to defend the low level of fraud cases that happen as a normal part of any large election system. Who wants to be pro-fraud?

“The difficulty for Democrats is that it’s kind of hard to sell the argument that you won’t eliminate 100% of fraud but that even a small number of cases isn’t a big deal,” said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who researched arguments over voter fraud bills. “For the public, even one case can legitimize the view that fraud is rampant and impacts the outcome.”

“In their over 20 years of this being an issue… Democrats have never come up with an effective counterargument,” Miller said.

That’s because Americans by and large do not trust the government’s handling of elections and perceive that there’s more voter fraud than actually exists, he said.

[…]

But Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said the idea should be flipped on its head.

“Just because occasionally there’s a bank error doesn’t mean we should shut down ATMs. We have to make it better,” Rottinghaus said.

To do that, lawmakers would dedicate more resources and people to elections, like some of the state’s major counties have done. Instead those counties, Harris in particular, are being attacked for the new voting options they offered.

There are a lot of ways to respond to grandiose but wrong claims that “any amount of fraud is too much”. Professor Rottinghaus is on the right track, and one can expand that example in a limitless number of ways. Credit card fraud should never happen, but the fact that it does happen doesn’t mean we should all shred our Visas and MasterCards. Amazon screws up deliveries all the time. To put this in my professional bailiwick, computer viruses happen all the time, but no one is arguing that we should shut down the Internet until we can ensure they never happen again.

Indeed [puts on cybersecurity hat], the assumption in the enterprise IT world is that it’s a matter of when your network is successfully attacked, not if. While there are all kinds of protections and controls in place – which still have to balance out the need of your staff to actually do their business; again, no one is shutting down the Internet any time soon – there’s a premium on detecting viruses and other bad things when they happen, and quickly limiting the damage that they do. A stance that only having zero cyber-incidents is acceptable is not only completely unrealistic, it’s damaging and unproductive. There’s far more bang for the buck by assuming that some bad things are going to happen but we’ll catch them when they do because we’ve invested in that.

There’s also the fact that what the Hughes bill and the House bill aim to stop are things that carry little to no risk for election security. Limiting mail drop boxes and curtailing early voting hours and restricting the number of voting machines at voting locations will do a good job of making it harder to vote, but can’t and won’t do anything to make voting more secure because none of those things were insecure to begin with. Most of the actual “fraudulent” activity that the state has attempted to prosecute in recent years has involved the kind of behavior that could just as easily be classified as inadvertent mistakes, the equivalent of overstaying at a parking meter by five minutes, and most of what these bills aim to criminalize further is more of the same. Even if one were to accept that there’s a huge electoral crime wave going on, this would be like the police cracking down on jaywalkers.

Enhancing penalties for existing offenses, even the serious ones, is unlikely to matter as well. From a criminal justice perspective, our “tuff-on-crime” spree from the 80s and 90s has left us today with thousands of people serving decades-long sentences for pot possession and shoplifting. Our profligate use of the death penalty did precious little to curtail the murder rate back then, too. The main effect, then and now, is to more harshly punish a lot of people who weren’t doing anything we needed to be afraid of.

Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough, this entire premise about “fraud” is built on a foundation of lies. None of it is true. Our elections are quite reasonably secure, and the most fanatical “fraud” hunters on the planet cannot provide any shred of evidence to the contrary. Their arguments largely boil down to “Do we need for someone to find proof of Bigfoot’s existence before we pass all these anti-Bigfoot laws that everyone knows will have negative effects on our political opponents?” The rationale falls apart under the barest of scrutiny, but someone once said that if you’re explaining you’re losing, so there’s that.

The Republicans want to pass these laws because they have the power to pass them, and because they think passing them will be to their benefit. The rest is just pretext. The fact that the likes of Dan Patrick freak out whenever they get any pushback tells you more than anything I could ever say.

The economic effects of voter suppression

From Forbes magazine last week:

The Texas economy could take a massive hit if the state enacts new voting restrictions—potentially costing the state’s economy tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs—according to a study from the Texas-based economic research firm the Perryman Group, as the Texas legislature Thursday moved one step closer to making the proposals.

  • The potential loss of conventions, major sporting events and tourism could cost the state $16.7 billion in annual gross product by 2025, and nearly 150,000 jobs, according to the study.
  • Internal factors, like decreased business activity and lower wages in the state, could lead to the loss of $14.7 billion in household purchasing power by 2025, according to the Perryman Group.
  • Retail trade would take the biggest hit, according to the study, losing more than 50,000 jobs from drops in tourism and economic development alone.

[…]

“If you strip away all of the emotion and all of the politics and say ‘this is just what happens in the economy,’ that is what we’re analyzing,” Dr. Ray Perryman said in an interview with Forbes.

Perryman said his firm’s modeling relies on 40 years worth of data and academic research, which has consistently shown voting laws that are restrictive or have “the appearance of discrimination” lead to negative economic impacts. The negative impacts are already being seen in Georgia, Perryman said. The long list of companies condemning the state’s new law will likely mean fewer conventions in Georgia, which mean fewer visitors spending money in the state, while some socially conscious travelers also choose to stay away. The resulting domino effect and supply chain reaction will likely mean the economy takes a major hit, Perryman said.

There wasn’t much detail in that story, nor was there a link to the study in question, but Reform Austin filled in those gaps.

The Perryman Group looked at the two different buckets for the economic impact of the bills. The first was internal losses, which is what happens in the Texas labor market as it relates to earnings, employment losses and the spillover on household purchasing power. The second was external losses, which comes from reduced travel and tourism and economic development.

Decades of research showing restricting ballot access to certain groups has adverse impacts on their earnings. These lower earnings also impact workforce participation and employment, which in turn affect household budgets and consumer spending. The report found Texas could lose $9.4 billion in personal income, $14.7 billion in annual gross product and 73,000 jobs over the next five years with the proposed voting restriction measures.

Based on survey information, The Perryman Group has an idea of how many convention planners avoid states for controversial laws, like HB 6 and SB 7, to avoid an appearance of supporting the policy. The most recent national example is the MLB decision to move the All-Star game away from Atlanta for Georgia’s voting restriction laws. A single conference could cost Texas $54 million. A lost Super Bowl hosting opportunity could cost Texas $1.75 billion.

The study also looked at socially conscious consumers who have been shown to avoid such areas for travel, be it for business or leisure. The report estimates Texas could lose $4.1 billion in personal income, $6.6 billion in annual gross product and 60,000 jobs in the tourism sector over the next five years due to the proposed voting restriction measures.

On economic development, controversial laws tend to diminish the ability to attract knowledge workers and the companies that employ them for economic development. The report estimates Texas could lose $6.3 billion in personal income, $10.1 billion in annual gross product, and 89,000 jobs over the next five years because of the proposed voting restriction measures.

All of this impacts the tax base of the state and local governments. Not included in the fiscal notes of either bill are the estimates in the report of $832 million in direct losses to state coffers and $454.6 million in direct losses to local governments over the next five years. As for external losses due to reduced tourism and economic development, the state gets hit by $1 billion and local governments get hit by $802.5 million by 2025.

The study is here. Ray Perryman is the go-to guy for media-based economic forecasting, and I give him credit for addressing questions like these. I have no idea how to evaluate something like this – there are a lot of assumptions being made, and it’s not clear to me how many of them are based on past experience – but as we’re unlikely to get any kind of rebuttal from the Republicans, whose main arguments are basically “nuh uh, no it isn’t”, this is what we have. I’m happy to bring all the ammunition we can against this travesty, but the case against the current bills that will make it harder to vote is that they are anti-democratic, deeply racist, based on egregious lies, and wouldn’t actually do anything to solve the “problems” they claim they will even if one were to accept that there were such “problems” in the first place.

The problem with basing the argument against SB7 and HB6 on economic claims is that there’s no way to adjudicate them later on. If the Texas economy does more or less what it’s expected to do in the years to come, especially if it gets the boost that it should from the Biden infrastructure plan, then that gives the vote suppressors the opportunity to claim an undeserved victory. The case against making it harder to vote is that it’s wrong to make it harder for people to vote, especially when you make it a lot harder for some people than for others. Let’s not lose sight of that. The Current has more.

More on the poll watcher problem

It’s all right here. You just have to pay attention to what they’re saying.

As Texas Republican lawmakers seek to expand the powers of partisan poll watchers — and Democrats warn doing so will lead to intimidation of minority voters — newly uncovered video shows the Harris County GOP is recruiting thousands of the volunteers to monitor voting in Black and brown communities in Texas.

In the video, leaked by government accountability nonprofit Common Cause Texas, a county precinct chair giving a presentation describes the need for an “election integrity brigade” of 10,000 Republicans in Houston’s predominantly white suburbs to volunteer in the city’s racially diverse urban core.

“We’ve got to get folks in these suburbs out here that have, you know, a lot of Republican folks that got to have the courage” to cover the city, says the speaker, who’s not named in the video.

“If we don’t do that, this fraud down in here,” he goes on to say as he circles the city with a pointer, “this fraud down in here is really going to continue.”

It is unclear what the speaker is calling “fraud,” since there was scant evidence of wrongdoing uncovered in 2020, even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton doubled the resources for his elections integrity unit and aimed it at Harris County.

“What we see in this video is a concrete, real-world example of why it is a downright dangerous idea to expand poll watcher powers while removing the ability of election workers to kick a disruptive poll watcher out,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas. “Volunteer poll watchers who have no ill intent and who do not plan to disrupt voting would have no need to be ‘courageous’ about going into predominantly Black and brown communities.”

See here for the previous mention of that video. It’s actually quite clear what the speaker means by “fraud”, and that’s “there are too many Black and brown people voting”. There’s a reason why he’s highlighting urban neighborhoods, just as there was a reason why the Trump-fueled allegations of “fraud” mostly centered on cities like Detroit and Philadelphia and Atlanta. The reason is that this speaker and a whole lot of other people like him don’t view Black and brown voters, or the votes they cast, as “legitimate” in the way their own votes are. They think that too many voters is a problem, and we’d be better off if we had “fewer but better voters”. Of course, the criteria for deciding which voters would qualify as “better” would be up to them. That much is obvious.

A House counterpart bill, House Bill 6, would prevent election judges from removing a poll worker for any reason other than voter fraud, effectively requiring them to get law enforcement involved if other disruptions were to occur.

Democrats and voting rights groups have decried the provisions of the bill as intended to deter minorities from voting, citing past examples of poll watchers in Texas yelling at and taunting voters.

Democrats and voting rights groups have decried the provisions of the bill as intended to deter minorities from voting, citing past examples of poll watchers in Texas yelling at and taunting voters.

In 2010, the Harris County Attorney received multiple such complaints of poll watchers at early voting polling places in predominantly minority neighborhoods including Kashmere Gardens and Moody Park. The complaints included poll watchers “hovering over” voters, “getting into election workers’ faces” and blocking or disrupting lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots.

The county Democratic Party blamed volunteers with ties to True the Vote, a Houston-based voter watchdog group that started as a project of a tea party organization. The group denied the accusations.

“It seemed like Republicans were targeting Black and brown voters when they sent out poll watchers in November,” the Harris County Democratic Party said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. The GOP plan to add thousands of poll watchers and give them more power ahead of 2022 elections “confirms exactly what we suspected.”

Here’s a question to ask yourself: How do you think the people in those “predominantly white suburbs” that this speaker is attempting to recruit from would feel about ten thousand poll watchers from the neighborhoods that they intend to do their thing in showing up at their polling places to monitor them with the same level of suspicion and contempt that they intend to bring? Do you think they would accept that with equanimity in the name of “playing by the same rules” and “turnabout is fair play”, or do you think they’d lose their minds and demand a large police presence to keep them safe from those dangerous inner city rabble-rousers? I think we all know which is the more likely outcome. And that once again shows why enabling a vast army of poll-watchers with little to no accountability on them is a bad, racist, dangerous, and anti-democratic idea. The Trib has more.

Bill to delay primaries passes Senate

As expected.

Sen. Joan Huffman

The 2022 primary elections in Texas could be pushed back to April or May under a bill moving through the state Legislature.

Because of delays in U.S. Census Bureau data needed to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts, the Texas Senate passed a bill on Thursday that could push the state’s primary to April 5, or if the delays persist, to May 24.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, said at this point Texas might not have the needed census data until deep into the summer. If they get the maps drawn up and passed into law fast enough, the March 1 primary would go on as planned. But if the maps aren’t put into law until after Nov. 22, the primary would shift to April 5.

If the maps are not done until after Jan. 3, the primary would shift to May 24.

[…]

Huffman said she’s trying to put the Legislature in the best position possible in light of the census data delays.

“The bill will serve as a signal that the Legislature fully intends to complete the redistricting task once the census data is received,” she said.

We’ve known about the need for this for months, due to issues with receiving the Census data. It was just a question of how far back the primaries would need to be pushed. Sen. Huffman’s bill is SB1822, and I expect it will easily pass the House and be signed with no fuss.

Where are the stimulus funds for the schools?

Ridiculous.

For more than a year, the federal government has been pumping billions of dollars into school districts across the country to help them meet the demands of the pandemic. Most states have used that pot of stimulus funds as Congress intended: buying personal protective equipment for students and teachers, laptops for kids learning from home, improved ventilation systems for school buildings to prevent virus transmission and covering other costs.

But in Texas, local schools have yet to see an extra dime from the more than $19 billion in federal stimulus money given to the state. After Congress passed the first stimulus bill last year, officials used the state’s $1.3 billion education share to fill other holes in the state budget, leaving public schools with few additional resources to pay for the costs of the pandemic.

Now, educators and advocacy groups worry that the state could do the same thing with the remaining $17.9 billion in funding for Texas public schools from the other two stimulus packages. Because of federal requirements, Texas has to invest over $1 billion of the state’s own budget in higher education to receive the third round of stimulus funding for K-12 public schools. Experts said the state has applied for a waiver to avoid sending that added money to higher education, but the process has caused major delays in local districts receiving funds they desperately need.

“Principals’ budgets are being eaten up with personal protective equipment, with tutoring, with trying to get kids back engaged, while the Legislature is sitting on a whole bunch of money,” said Michelle Smith, the vice president of policy and advocacy for Raise Your Hand Texas. “And that will have an impact on our school districts not just this school year, but for several school years to come.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott told The Texas Tribune that state leaders are waiting for more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education before opening the spigot and letting billions flow down to school districts.

Because of the state’s waiver request, Texas lawmakers likely will not decide how to parcel out the money until they either hear back from Washington D.C., or until the Legislature finalizes its plans for the state budget. But the waiver only applies to the latest stimulus package, so the state could unlock $5.5 billion for education from the second relief bill at any time.

Libby Cohen, the director of advocacy and outreach for Raise Your Hand Texas, said dozens of states are already sending these federal dollars to public schools, and the most recent stimulus package also includes guidance on how to use that money. Texas and New York are the only two states that have provided no additional funding to public schools during the pandemic, according to Laura Yeager, a founder of Just Fund It TX.

“We find it baffling that Texas is pumping the brakes on this particular issue to the extent that it is,” Cohen said. “The dollars are there … and districts need to know if and when they’re coming because they’re writing their budgets right now, and they’re making decisions about summer programming right now.”

Many Texas teachers and administrators say they need money now, and want the Legislature to start funneling the federal funds to school districts as soon as possible.

But state lawmakers holding the most power over budgeting and education funding want the Legislature, instead of local school districts, to decide what to do with these federal stimulus dollars.

“The federal funds will ultimately get to school districts but the overriding question is how should these funds be spent and who should make that decision?” said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston chair of the House Public Education Committee. “I think the primary obligation for educating Texas children vests in the Legislature according to the Texas Constitution.”

I can accept that the Legislature should have oversight of this process, but I don’t accept that they must play the part of approving each allocation. All that does is put a bottleneck on things, at a time when the schools need the funds now. More to the point, it’s not even clear that it will be the Lege making these decisions:

I see even less point to that. There’s a lot of money at stake, not all for the schools, and it makes sense to want to ensure it’s being spent for its intended purposes. But it doesn’t make sense to sit on it and take a lot of time figuring that out, because that money is needed now, especially the money for schools and students.

One more thing to consider: Rising property values, which have fueled an increase in local property tax revenues, have already been used by the Legislature to pay for other things.

Because of the way public schools are funded, a rise in local property tax revenue means the state doesn’t have to send as much money to local school districts. The schools would get the same amount as before — it’s not a budget cut — but the money that might have come from the state comes instead from local school property taxes.

This year, that amounts to $5.5 billion — most of it from property value increases. About 21% of that amount — $1.2 billion — comes from what the Legislative Budget Board called “lower-than-anticipated Average Daily Attendance rates, increased non-General Revenue Funds revenues, and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.”

In plain language, that’s a drop in the average number of students that school funding is based on, money that comes from sources other than state taxes and money from the first round of federal COVID-19 relief.

That last one is a sore spot for local officials, who see the state skimming from a pot of money that was supposed to go to public education. Here’s how that scam works: The money is still going to public education, but the amount the state would have sent is being reduced by the same amount, freeing the state to use money it would have used on schools on some other part of government.

The budgeteers’ word for that is “supplanting” — instead of getting the state money that was coming to them, with the federal money on top, the schools get the same amount of money they’d have received without any federal aid.

Give the schools their money already. There’s no more time to waste. The Chron has more.

Appellate court redistricting bill withdrawn

I had a post all ready to go yesterday with more on the bill to redistrict the appellate courts, and then this happened on Thursday night:

This is not the end of it – there will be at least one special session on legislative redistricting, after all – but whatever does happen, it won’t be in this session. So the post that I had queued up for Friday morning became out of date, and so here we are. The original post is beneath the fold because it’s still worth reading, so click on for more. Whatever made this delay happen, I’m glad for it. Hopefully we will get a better bill out of this in the end, but we can’t take that for granted. The Chron story from Friday about this is here.

(more…)

House committee passes its voter suppression bill

I remain pessimistic about this, but we have no choice but to fight.

A Texas House committee on Thursday advanced an elections bill that would make it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute an application to vote by mail to a voter who didn’t request one.

House Bill 6 is part of a broader Republican effort this year to enact wide-ranging changes to elections in Texas that would ratchet up the state’s already restrictive election rules in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud. The legislation was approved by the House Elections Committee on a party line vote with only Republicans voting in favor of it.

Like other Republican proposals, the measure would target Harris County’s initiatives from the 2020 general election, including a shift to proactively send out vote-by-mail applications. Various counties sent unsolicited applications to voters who were 65 years and older, who automatically qualify to vote by mail in Texas. But Republicans’ ire fell on Harris County officials when they attempted to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

HB 6, by Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, would also set up new rules for people assisting voters — like those with disabilities or those who speak languages other than English — in casting their ballots. Voters can select anyone to help them through the voting process as long as they’re not an employer or a union leader. But the bill would require those helping voters to disclose the reason they need help.

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote.

[…]

The bill also picked up opposition from civil rights groups who raised the prospect that the legislation violates federal safeguards for voters of color who would be treated differently for being more likely to need assistance and concerns about the punitive nature of the bill against election workers. Advocates for people with disabilities worried it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and cautioned against complicating the voting process for voters with disabilities by creating new requirements for the individuals they select to help them.

“You can’t any longer help an elderly constituent by providing them with a mail in ballot application — this is truly incredible,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of Texas NAACP. “There’s only one reason to create criminal laws and that is to dissuade minority voters and [minority] voting officials.”

See here for the previous update. I’m going to spare myself a little work by pointing you to some other people who have done the work of highlighting how and why HB6 is just as dangerous as SB7. For example, the latest defensive maneuver by Dan Patrick and now Speaker Dade Phelan is to claim that the critics of these bills just haven’t read them, and to double-dog-dare them to point out any restictionist provisions they allegedly contain. Well, challenge accepted:

I presume she’ll follow with a thread for HB6, but give her a little time. Also, as a historical note, Jamelle Bouie reminds us that the Jim Crow laws of the old South never actually said they were intended to keep Black Americans from voting. They were just restrictions on voting that technically affected everyone but which the lawmakers knew and intended would have a much greater effect on Black voters (and which they could ensure via enforcement). Ignorance of history (real or feigned) is no excuse for trying to repeat it.

The real danger in these bills has to do with their elevating poll watchers into some kind of protected group. Why is that a problem? Because poll watchers are unvetted partisans, and in Texas their main role is making voters of color feel harassed:

What could possibly go wrong? This video has already generated some national coverage. One hopes that’s just the beginning.

Finally, while HB6 and SB7 are the big headliner voter-suppression bills, there are a lot of smaller, more targeted voter-suppression bills to watch out for as well:

So now you know. The Texas Signal and Popular Information, which goes deep on Dan Patrick, have more.

More local pushback against SB7 and HB6

From the inbox:

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

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

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

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

Representatives from the following organizations were also present:

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

Watch the entire voter suppression news conference here.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one more:

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave me out of the ballgame

What a snowflake.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced he would not throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opening game and would boycott any other Major League Baseball events, citing the league’s decision to pull its All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there.

In a letter to a top Texas Rangers executive, Abbott said he had been “looking forward to” tossing out the first pitch “— until [MLB] adopted what has turned out to be a false narrative about the election law reforms in Georgia.”

“It is shameful that America’s pastime is not only being influenced by partisan political politics, but also perpetuating false political narratives,” Abbott said, adding that he “will not participate in an event held by MLB, and the state will not seek to host the All-Star Game or any other MLB special events.”

Oh, boo hoo hoo. If Greg Abbott can’t take a little political criticism then we’re all better off if he just stays home and pouts. Maybe he just doesn’t want to take a chance on getting booed, like a certain former president at the 2019 World Series. Whatever the case, there’s one clear winner here:

As the first commenter notes, this teacher gets to throw out the first pitch and avoid a photo of with Abbott. Now that’s a day at the ballpark.

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan sure seems to be considering building the Ike Dike.

His $2 trillion plan includes improving and strengthening infrastructure in coastal areas most vulnerable during hurricane season.

Biden pitched part of the American Jobs Plan on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden Administration’s plan includes investing in improving “coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes.” While specific projects were not named in the plan, the Biden administration says the American Jobs Plan will “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure,” which could include funding the Ike Dike.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, who represents part of Houston, circulated a letter to Biden last week requesting federal support for the Ike Dike. Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee have also expressed support for the coastal spine.

The Houston Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund reports that Biden’s plan also includes $50 billion to improve infrastructure strength against hurricanes and other natural disasters, especially in lower-income areas. Biden’s administration used the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey as an example of the need for increased federal support and infrastructure development.

“People of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. They also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events,” a statement from the White House says. “In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to report experiencing an income shock with no recovery support.”

I’ll have more to say about the infrastructure plan, which is not yet a bill but an outline and a list of priorities right now, because if it is realized in its full form it would truly do a lot for Texas. That definitely includes the Ike Dike, mostly because it would solve how to pay for it, which I noted a few weeks ago.

To its credit, the Lege is at least thinking about that issue.

A proposed bill in the Texas Legislature would create a regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds to raise money to build and maintain a $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast.

The bill, SB1160, is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House sponsored by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The bills would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity comprised of members from Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.

The district would be empowered to operate the long-proposed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” as well as issue bonds and impose taxes to maintain the project. It would also have eminent domain power to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.

During a Monday meeting of the Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, Taylor noted that the bill is vital to the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed coastal barrier project, which aims to protect the region from the kind of catastrophic storm surge experienced during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“This is a very important bill, and not just not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” Taylor said. “The number one supplier of military aviation fuel is in this area. So if you’re talking about national security, this area gets wiped out and we don’t have the aviation fuel, that would be a security problem. It’s our number one military port. And it’s our number one petrochemical complex.”

[…]

A final report on the coastal barrier study will be completed in April, according to the Texas General Land Office, which is co-sponsoring the study. The report will released to the public in September and submitted to Congress for final approval.

The Gulf Coast Protection District would be governed by a board of 11 directors appointed by the governor in consultation with the respective commissioners courts from each county. Each of the five counties would have one representative except for Harris County, which, because of its larger population, would have two. The district would also include one representative for the regional ports; one representative for the environmental sector; one representative for the regional industrial complex; and one representative for the cities within the five counties.

The district would have to hold a vote among its member counties before it began collecting property taxes, but will be able to issue bonds.

I don’t know how likely this bill is to pass, but I tend to agree with Campos that this is at best an unwieldy mechanism for funding it. Read that last paragraph and ask yourself how likely it is that the member counties of this district are actually able to raise property taxes for this purpose. For more on what’s in the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, see Slate and the Trib.

Let’s get rid of Democratic appellate court justices

If that’s the Legislature’s goal, then this would be an effective way of accomplishing it.

A Texas Senate committee [heard] public comment Thursday on a controversial proposal to consolidate the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts into just seven, a move opponents have criticized as gerrymandering but that supporters say will make the courts more efficient and cure knotty court splits.

A committee substitute to S.B. 11 proposes dramatic changes to the organization of the state’s appellate districts: It would combine Houston’s two appellate courts, merge the Dallas and Austin districts together, lasso Waco and Eastland into a division with Texarkana and Fort Worth, and move two San Antonio justices to Midland in a district that would span roughly 500 miles — from Kendall County just southwest of Austin to the state’s western edge and include El Paso — among other changes.

The state’s current number and location of appellate courts largely reflects the state’s demographics, economy and travel conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP partner Scott Brister wrote in a 2003 Houston Bar Association article.

Brister, who formerly served as a Texas Supreme Court justice and chief justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston, told Law360 the districts need to be updated and consolidated.

“I just think 14 is too many,” he said. “They’re not located where all the people and the cases are.”

Yet opponents of the consolidation plan say it is blatant gerrymandering, and the worst instance of it they’ve seen in the Texas judiciary.

Elsa Alcala, a former justice on the First Court of Appeals in Houston and Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals, took to Twitter to call out the plan, writing “This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with electing Republicans to the bench.”

Since the 2018 general election, a wave of Democratic justices have ousted Republican from Texas appellate benches in record numbers, largely concentrated in urban population centers.

Alcala told Law360 that in the past the Legislature has changed jurisdictions one county at a time, but lawmakers have never proposed completely eradicating certain appellate courts like the proposed committee substitute bill does.

“This is the most significant and blatant change I’ve ever seen,” she said.

S.B. 11 originally called for a realignment of five counties that are currently under the jurisdiction of two appellate courts outside of the Houston district to eliminate overlapping jurisdiction between multiple courts.

Details for the new bill were leaked and spread on social media Tuesday, but the bill’s text [hadn’t] yet been made public. Law360 has reviewed a map detailing the new appellate districts as well as a bill summary and a table explaining how the 80 Texas justices would be distributed among the new districts.

According to the bill summary, consolidating the appellate districts would balance a “highly unbalanced” workload across the courts, an issue the Texas judiciary has dealt with for years through a docket equalization program that transfers cases when needed. The summary cites workload data showing that, between 2015 and 2019, the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso received an average of 79 appeals per justice compared to 158 appeals per justice in the Third Court of Appeals in Austin.

[…]

During her time on the First Court of Appeals, which has nine justices, Alcala said she would frequently review opinions handed down by her colleagues to make sure she didn’t have any qualms about their rulings. But on a court with 21 justices, it would be impossible to review all those decisions, she said.

Lawyers are also concerned that larger benches could cause issues at the ballot box.

Alcala said there’s already an issue with the public being able to make informed choices during elections about the various judges on the ballot. Expanding the court’s jurisdictions would mean more judges for the public to inform themselves about before voting.

Brister acknowledged that under the committee’s substitute, voting would look different. He would be concerned if he were a judge in Texarkana on the state’s eastern border with Arkansas, for example, because under the new district alignment, there’s a good chance voters from the more populous Fort Worth would control outcomes in the district and knock some small-town judges off the bench.

Christopher Kratovil, managing partner of Dykema Gossett PLLC’s Dallas office, told Law360 he can see both sides of the consolidation argument but believes the committee’s substitute isn’t the proper way to redistrict the state.

“I do think there are some good-faith efficiency arguments for reducing the number of intermediate appellate courts in the state,” he said. “That said, this is not based on efficiency. If we’re being honest about this, it is a partisan gerrymandered map to return control of the majority of the state intermediate appellate courts to the Republican party.”

Other attorneys, like solo appellate practitioner Chad Ruback, are upset that information about the committee substitute bill hasn’t been released ahead of Thursday’s public hearing. The original version of S.B. 11 is currently attached to agenda materials for the meeting.

“That doesn’t give the appellate judiciary — or appellate lawyers who regularly practice in front of them — much time to analyze the potential ramifications of the proposed changes in advance of the hearing,” he said. “That looks awfully suspicious.”

See here for the background. Not being transparent about the process or giving anyone the time to review the bill in question is on brand for the Republicans. To give you a sense of what this looks like, here’s a picture from the story:

This Twitter thread from Dylan Drummond gives you the data:

Maybe the new Fifth Circuit, with Dallas and Travis Counties, or the Third, with Bexar County and South Texas, would lean Democratic. I’d have to do a more in depth analysis. Katie Buehler, the reporter of the story linked above, attended the hearing and reported that Sen. Nathan Johnson said it would be a 5-2 split. Whatever the case, I guarantee you that someone with strong Republican credentials has already done such an analysis, and these districts are drawn in a maximally beneficial way for Republicans. What would even be the point from their perspective if that wasn’t the case?

You’ve read many bloviations from me over the years about why calls to change the way we select judges from the current system of partisan elections to something else were mostly a smokescreen to disguise complaints about the fact that Democrats were now winning many of those elections. It has never escaped my notice that we only began seeing those calls for change after the 2008 election, when Dems broke through in Harris County, and it moved to DefCon 1 following the 2018 election. If nothing else, I thank Sen. Joan Huffman for putting the lie to the idea that the motivating factor behind those calls for change was a fairer or more equitable or more merit-based system for picking judges, or that “taking politics out of the system” had anything to do with it. No, it is exactly what I thought it was from the beginning, a means to ensure that as many judges are Republican as possible. There may well be legitimate merits to rethinking the appellate court system in Texas – I’m not an appellate lawyer, I have no idea – but it’s crystal clear that this ain’t it. This is a full employment program for Republicans who want to be judges. That’s what we’ll get if this bill passes.

Which it has now done from the Senate committee, on a partisan 3-2 vote. For a report from the committee hearing, where multiple appellate court justices from both parties testified against SB11, see Law360 and The Texas Lawbook. This is easily the biggest redistricting matter going on right now it’s getting very little attention so far. (The DMN has a story, but it’s subscriber-only, which limits the impact.) Let’s not let this slip through without being noticed.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story as well, and it contains this knee-slapper:

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, also an attorney, asked Huffman if she took partisanship into consideration when making the maps.

“Some people think this is going to result in five Republican courts and two Democratic courts,” Johnson said. “Do you think that would accurately represent the partisan breakdown of this state?”

Huffman said she did not consider political makeup in drawing the maps and didn’t know how her plan might alter that.

Yeah, that’s obvious bullshit. Anyone with a list of counties per appellate district and access to recent state election results could tell you in five minutes what the likely orientation of each district would look like. Joan Huffman isn’t stupid, but if that’s what she claims then she thinks the rest of us are.

One more thing:

Another bill introduced by Huffman would create a statewide Court of Appeals that would have exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases of statewide significance filed by or against state agencies or officials. The justices on the court, seated in Austin, would be elected on a statewide ballot. No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.

That bill was met with similar opposition and accusations of partisan motivation. It, too, was referred to the full Senate on a 3-2 party line vote.

This appears to be SB1529, and I heard about it yesterday for the first time. I have no idea what problem (real, imagined, or political) this is intended to solve. Any thoughts from the lawyers out there?

MLB pulls 2021 All Star Game out of Georgia

Well, well, well.

Major League Baseball on Friday pulled this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of Georgia’s new restrictive voting law.

The “Midsummer Classic” was set for July 13 at Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, in addition to other activities connected to the game, such as the annual MLB Draft.

“I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft,” Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. said in a statement. “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.”

[…]

While Truist Park is in Cobb County, just outside of Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms warned her constituents that MLB’s move will likely be the first “of many dominoes to fall, until the unnecessary barriers put in place to restrict access to the ballot box are removed.”

“Just as elections have consequences, so do the actions of those who are elected,” she said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from neighboring Florida, blasted MLB for caving to public pressure.

“Why are we still listening to these woke corporate hypocrites on taxes regulations & anti-trust?” Rubio tweeted.

This week, President Joe Biden said he would strongly support moving the All-Star Game out of Georgia to protest the new law.

MLB’s action follows strong statements from the Georgia-based companies Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines blasting the state’s law.

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House of Representatives minority leader, said in a statement Friday that she’s “disappointed” that MLB officials took the All-Star Game from Atlanta but is “proud of their stance on voting rights.”

Georgia Republicans “traded economic opportunity for suppression,” said Abrams, who is credited with voter-drive efforts that delivered the Peach State to Biden and two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

MLB has not determined a new All Star Game location yet, but as the story notes the 2020 game was supposed to be in LA but was canceled due to COVID-19. That’s an obvious solution if they want it. You can see a copy of the full MLB statement here. They’re basically following in the footsteps of the NBA, which you may recall pulled their 2017 All Star Game out of Charlotte following the passage of the extremely anti-trans HB2 in North Carolina; that law was later amended, though not repealed. Stacey Abrams has said elsewhere that she does not advocate for boycotts of Georgia in response to their voter suppression bill because the effects of such boycotts tend to hit lower income folks and people of color harder, but it’s still meaningful to see a response.

Meanwhile, in Texas.

Some of the state’s most influential companies are criticizing a package of proposed changes to Texas elections that civil rights groups liken to Jim Crow laws and that will suppress voting.

The bill approved by the Texas Senate on Thursday would limit early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and ban local election officials from sending vote-by-mail applications to voters unless specifically requested. A bill that combines the Senate and House versions is expected to reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk within weeks.

Among the Texas-based companies decrying the bill are American Airlines, computer-maker Dell and Waste Management.

The Houston-based waste disposal company said in a statement that it supports elections that are open to all voters.

“Integrity and equal access for all are critical to a healthy voting system and our democracy,” spokeswoman Janette Micelli said.

The Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston region’s chamber of commerce, said in an email that it believes that the state’s voting process should instill confidence in the process and be “open and readily accessible by all.”

“We encourage our elected leaders, on both sides of the political aisle, to balance these two ideals, strengthening all Texans’ right to vote in free and fair elections,” the GHP said.

AA and Dell we knew about, while Waste Management is new to the party – welcome, y’all. As for the GHP, that statement is pretty damn limp, and SB7 author Bryan Hughes is quoted in the story claiming this is exactly what his trash bill is meant to do. Don’t be mealy-mouthed, GHP. Take an actual stand or sit down and be quiet. Daily Kos, which notes that Southwest Airlines and AT&T have “offered vaguer statements in support of voting rights” without mentioning SB7, has more.

The infrastructure bill and the power grid

Of interest.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could help rebuild Texas highways and ports and push broadband into rural parts of the state, where up to 31 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

It could help Texas weatherize the grid in a way that wouldn’t stick consumers with the bill as well as guard the Gulf Coast against hurricanes and address racial disparities that have made Latino and Black communities particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The infrastructure pitch is the president’s latest attempt to offer up money for things Republican leaders in Texas have been looking for funds to cover, as well as some that state lawmakers have been reluctant to take on.

But the president’s latest proposal also comes with a heavy emphasis on clean energy that some Texas Republicans have framed as an attack on the state’s oil industry, and Biden is calling for corporate tax increases to foot the bill.

[…]

Though Biden outlined the package in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the pitch may as well have been aimed at Texas.

“As we saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electrical power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses to tragic results,” Biden said, pledging to “put hundreds of thousands of people to work” rebuilding a “modern, resilient and fully clean grid” and capping hundreds of thousands of dry oil and gas wells, many in Texas.

[…]

The infrastructure bill could also help pick up the tab — if not cover completely — the cost of weatherizing Texas’ power grid, which state lawmakers are so far requiring the industry to cover. Consumer advocates have warned those costs would then be passed down to consumers.

So far the White House has not detailed specific projects, but the plan calls for $100 billion to be spent on energy projects, including upgrades to electrical grids. [Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin] said given that Texas accounts for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 10 percent of the GDP, a proportionate slice of that $100 billion would cover the estimated $8 to $10 billion price of weatherizing the grid.

But the president’s push for green energy in the infrastructure package already has state leaders pushing back.

The Texas Legislature is working to counteract tax credits for clean energy Biden would extend as his proposal aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. The state Senate passed a bill this week adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

More far-reaching proposals for clean energy in the plan could have major implications for the Texas oil and gas industry. Republicans are calling it Biden’s latest attack on fossil fuels after moves to end the Keystone XL pipeline and pause drilling on federal lands.

As Biden is calling for pouring $174 billion to juice the electric vehicle market and another $213 billion to retrofit 2 million homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency, he is also proposing spending $16 billion plugging oil wells — an endeavor Webber said could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas offering plenty of jobs to oil workers worried about Biden’s clean energy bent.

“This is a multi-hundred million to multi-billion dollar economic opportunity,” he said. “If you’re looking to be angry, you could be angry about what this might do to oil and gas — but I would say actually it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

As a reminder, right now this is the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, though the House is now working on what it will look like as legislation. The Texas Senate has passed its bill to overhaul the electricity market, which has some good things in it as well as that dumb and petty attack on renewable energy, which last I checked was still big business in Texas. The fact that Biden’s plan includes ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies will I’m sure have heads exploding all over the state. I have to assume that federal funds to cover the cost of weatherizing the grid would be scooped up and used, though never acknowledged and certainly not voted for by Republicans.

It’s hard to know how any of this will play out, given that we don’t have a piece of legislation yet, and we very much have to take into account the whole filibuster obstacle in the Senate. I have read elsewhere that the legislative calendar is such that this would all need to be done by late summer, so to say the least it’s a race. As a reminder, if you want to know more about the plan, see Slate and the Trib.

First major vote suppression bill passes

Nothing’s going to stop them.

Senate Republicans on Thursday cleared the way for new, sweeping restrictions to voting in Texas that take particular aim at forbidding local efforts meant to widen access.

In an overnight vote after more than seven hours of debate, the Texas Senate signed off on Senate Bill 7, which would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify.

The legislation is at the forefront of Texas Republicans’ crusade to further restrict voting in the state following last year’s election. Though Republicans remain in full control of state government, Texas saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020, with Democrats continuing to drive up their vote counts in the state’s urban centers and diversifying suburban communities.

Like other proposals under consideration at the Texas Capitol, many of the restrictions in SB 7 would target initiatives championed in those areas to make it easier for more voters to participate in elections.

The bill — deemed a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — now heads to the House for consideration after moving rapidly through the Senate. Just two weeks after it was filed, a Senate committee advanced it Friday. That approval followed more than five hours of public testimony, largely in opposition over concerns it would be detrimental to voters who already struggle to vote under the state’s strict rules for elections.

While presenting the bill to the Senate, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes said the legislation “standardizes and clarifies” voting rules so that “every Texan has a fair and equal opportunity to vote, regardless of where they live in the state.”

“Overall, this bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open,” Hughes said.

In Texas and nationally, the Republican campaign to change voting rules in the name of “election integrity” has been largely built on concerns over widespread voter fraud for which there is little to no evidence. More recently, Texas Republican lawmakers have attempted to reframe their legislative proposals by offering that even one instance of fraud undermines the voice of a legitimate voter.

[…]

While questioning Hughes, Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston referenced an analysis by Harris County’s election office that estimated that Black and Hispanic voters cast more than half of the votes counted at both drive-thru sites and during extended hours.

“Knowing that, who are you really targeting?” Alvarado asked.

“There’s nothing in this bill that has to do with targeting specific groups. The rules apply across the board,” Hughes replied.

See here for the previous update. Note the very careful language Hughes used in his response to Sen. Alvarado. The Republican defense to the eventual lawsuits is that these laws aren’t targeting voters of color in any way. They’re just plain old value-neutral applies-to-everyone restrictions, the kind that (Republican) Supreme Court Justices approve of, and if they happen to have a disparate impact on some voters of color, well, that’s just the price you have to pay to make Republicans feel more secure about their future electoral prospects ensure the integrity of the vote.

It’s the poll watchers provision that is easily the worst of this bill.

Although videotaping in polling locations in Texas is prohibited, under a bill that passed the Texas Senate just after 2 a.m. on Thursday, partisan poll watchers would be allowed to videotape any person voting that they suspect may be doing something unlawful. But poll workers and voters would be barred from recording the poll watchers.

History has shown this is likely going to lead to more Black and Hispanic people being recorded by white poll watchers who believe they are witnessing something suspicious, advocates warn.

“It’s designed to go after minority voters,” said Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP.

Not so, says State Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican from Mineola. He said the recordings by poll watchers will give officials a way to resolve disputes at polling locations especially related to potential voter fraud.

“They are the eyes and ears of the public, and if a dispute does arise about what happened, what was said, what was done, the more evidence we can have the better,” Hughes said of the provision within his Senate Bill 7, which includes a number of measures to restrict voting access in the name of preventing fraud.

But to Black and Hispanic leaders, the legislation is a replay of the voter intimidation from the 1960s and 1970s. After the voting rights acts of the 1960s were passed, Domingo Garcia, the national president of LULAC, said law enforcement in some counties in Texas would take pictures of Hispanics and Black voters at polling places and then try to deliver those pictures to their white employers or others in the community to get them in trouble.

“It was a form of voter intimidation then, and that’s what this would be now,” Garcia said.

What makes SB 7 even more dangerous is who it is empowers to make recordings, Bledsoe said.

Poll watchers are volunteers chosen by candidates and parties to observe the election process. They do not undergo background checks and are not subject to any training requirements.

As such, they could quickly become a sort of vigilante force, Bledsoe said. He said many times Republican poll watchers are sent from other parts of the community into Black and Hispanic precincts and may not even be familiar with the neighborhoods where they would be allowed to record people trying to vote.

“This is intimidating as all get out,” he said.

Shortly after midnight Thursday in a marathon hearing, Hughes amended the bill to bar poll watchers from posting the videos on social media or sharing them with others except for the Texas Secretary of State.

If you can’t see the potential for abuse here, I don’t know what to tell you. Others have pointed out that voters who have been the victim of domestic violence would certainly feel intimidated by having a stranger video them. This is giving unvetted people with a motive to cause trouble a lot of power and no accountability. That’s a recipe for disaster.

There’s not a lot more to say about this that I haven’t already said, so let me reiterate a few things while I can. There’s been more corporate pushback on the Georgia law, but we’re still very short on attention for what’s happening in Texas, not to mention the rest of the country. At this point, merely condemning the suppressionist bills is insufficient. If you actually believe in the importance of voting, then put your money where your mouth is and take action to vote out the officials who are trying to take it away from so many Americans. Senator Hughes is right about one thing – this anti-voting push from him and his fellow Republicans did in fact begin before the 2020 election. All the more reason why the elected officials doing the pushing do not deserve to have the power and responsibility they have been given.

Sen. Borris Miles gave a speech on the floor thanking Sen. Hughes for “waking the beast”, and I do think bills like this will have a galvanizing effect for Democrats and Democratic leaners. As I’ve said before, I think the practical effect of this law will be more negative to the Republican rank and file than perhaps they expect. Democrats took advantage of voting by mail in 2020, but that’s not their usual way of voting, and the restrictions that SB7 imposes, as Campos notes, is going to hurt those who are most used to voting by mail, who are generally Republicans. I believe as much as ever that Democrats should campaign in 2022 on a promise to make it easier and more convenient to vote. This law, to whatever extent it is allowed to be enacted, will hurt, but how much and in what ways remains to be seen. That’s the risk of reacting so forcefully to an anomalous event – it’s easy to go overboard and do things you didn’t really intend to do. We’ll see how it plays out. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: This is a good start.

American Airlines Statement on Texas Voting Legislation

Earlier this morning, the Texas State Senate passed legislation with provisions that limit voting access. To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it. As a Texas-based business, we must stand up for the rights of our team members and customers who call Texas home, and honor the sacrifices made by generations of Americans to protect and expand the right to vote.

Voting is the hallmark of our democracy, and is the foundation of our great country. We value the democratic process and believe every eligible American should be allowed to exercise their right to vote, no matter which political party or candidate they support.

We acknowledge how difficult this is for many who have fought to secure and exercise their constitutional right to vote. Any legislation dealing with how elections are conducted must ensure ballot integrity and security while making it easier to vote, not harder. At American, we believe we should break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society – not create them.

Via Patrick Svitek, who also posted the super pissy response it drew from one of Abbott’s mouthpieces and from Dan Patrick. More action is needed, but we have to start somewhere.

UPDATE: Also good:

Via the Trib. Keep ’em coming, but don’t forget the need for action.

Expanding telemedicine

Seems like a good idea.

Last year, rules temporarily changed in Texas allowing for additional types of doctor appointments to happen virtually.

As the state returns to more normalcy, there are questions about whether that broader use of telemedicine will continue.

Patterson said he hopes so but was recently surprised to find out he couldn’t schedule a virtual appointment with Advanced Pain Care.

“When Gov. Greg Abbott lifted his emergency order in early March, it was widely thought that the Medical Board also rescinded their rule on telemedicine, but it turns out there was a separate rule allowing us to continue with telemedicine,” said Dr. Mark Malone, president of Advanced Pain Care.

Malone explained they stopped telemedicine for about two weeks, because there was some confusion but offered curbside appointments as another option to patients concerned about COVID-19.

[…]

According to a spokesperson with the Texas Medical Board (TMB), the board’s emergency rule expanding the use of telemedicine is still in effect.

The board’s emergency rule regarding prescriptions was renewed earlier this month and will continue until May 1.

“The emergency rule continues to allow for telephone refill of certain prescriptions to established chronic pain patients as long as the patient has been seen by the prescribing physician, or health professional… in the last 90 days either in-person or via telemedicine using audio and video two-way communication,” said the rule on TMB’s website.

Abbott said during his State of the State address last month that he wants to permanently expand access to telemedicine services.

A number of bills have been introduced this legislative session regarding telemedicine. Several have already been heard in committee hearings.

Those bills would include a pilot project to provide emergency telemedicine medical services in rural areas and reimbursement and payment of claims for telemedicine medical services and telehealth services under certain health benefit plans.

A recent study showed that as many physician offices closed last February to April, the use of telehealth quickly escalated.

This makes sense, in the same way that lifting the rules about drinks to go made sense. And as is often the case, Texas had been a laggard compared to other states. Telemedicine was only legalized by the Legislature in 2017, following a federal anti-trust lawsuit that forced the issue. I wouldn’t want telemedicine to become the default, but that’s not what’s on the table here. Having it be part of the mix is valuable, and allowing it to grow and change as the needs of the patients demand it is what should happen. If one of those bills can be passed it would be a good thing.

CCA to review Crystal Mason’s conviction

Good.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters granted Mason’s petition on Wednesday, elevating the profile of a case that could test the extent to which provisional ballots provide a safe harbor for voters amid questions about their eligibility. Her 2016 vote was never counted.

After discovering she was not on the voter roll, Mason submitted a provisional ballot in that year’s presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction, she was not eligible to participate in elections and her vote was rejected. Throughout the case, Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom. But Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward with charges, arguing Mason’s case came down to intent.

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, a second-degree state felony, relying on an affidavit Mason signed before casting her provisional ballot. The affidavit required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.

The all-Republican court’s decision to review Mason’s case is notable. The Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t required to review non-death penalty convictions, and it rarely grants requests to do so. However, the court indicated it won’t hear oral arguments in the case and instead rely on legal briefs.

Mason turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals late last year after a state appeals court panel affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

In her petition to the court, Mason’s lawyers argued the appeals court erred in upholding her conviction because the state’s illegal voting statute requires a person to know they are ineligible to vote and Mason did not. In its ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.”

“The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. In other words, Mason’s knowledge that she was on supervised release was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction.

Mason’s lawyers argued that letting that finding stand “eviscerates” a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act, which established provisional ballots as a way for people whose registration is in doubt to record their votes and allow local officials to later determine if those ballots should be counted.

“These issues have far reaching implications for Texas voters who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote and could potentially be prosecuted for such mistakes, including the tens of thousands of voters who submit provisional ballots in general elections believing in good faith they are eligible to vote but turn out to be incorrect in that belief,” their brief read.

See here and here for some background. We can argue about whether Mason should have been convicted, and we can argue about whether people in Mason’s position should be able to vote (spoiler alert: my answers are “no” and “yes”, in that order), but if you believe a five-year prison sentence fits this “crime”, you’re just wrong. There are plenty of murderers and rapists who get off more easily than that. And by the way, if the various voter suppression worming their way through the Lege get passed, the state will have a lot more power to throw basically harmless people in jail for similar violations of made-up rules. The CCA is hardly known for being lenient on defendants, but I hope this time they do the right thing.

A bit of business pushback against voter suppression

It’s a start, but much more is needed.

A group of 72 Black business leaders are calling on companies to publicly oppose a series of bills being advanced by Republicans in at least 43 states that could dramatically curb access to the ballot box.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Black corporate executives are rallying around a letter that pushes back on a Georgia law that voting rights advocates have said will make it harder for Black people to vote.

“There is no middle ground here,” Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express and one of the letter’s organizers told the Times. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”

The letter — which urges corporate America to publicly oppose new laws that would restrict the rights of voters — comes after major Atlanta-based corporations, including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, failed to formally condemn the bills restricting voting rights.

The letter’s powerhouse group of signers include Roger Ferguson Jr., CEO of TIAA; Mellody Hobson and John Rogers Jr., the co-chief executives of Ariel Investments; Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners; and Raymond McGuire, a former Citigroup executive who is running for New York City Mayor.

Also among the letter’s long list of supporters were Richard Parsons, a former chairman of Citigroup and chief executive of Time Warner, and Tony West, the chief legal officer at Uber.

[…]

While voting rights and advocacy groups, including the ACLU and NAACP, have filed a series of lawsuits against the bill in the wake of its passage, a majority of corporations have remained largely mum on the legislation.

Delta Air Lines CEO came forward and issued a memo on Wednesday calling the final bill “unacceptable,” suggesting that it hinged on the premise of former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election.

The group of executives stopped short of calling out specific companies for their inaction, but are asking big corporations to dedicate resources to  fighting voting rights restrictions.

The executives are hoping that big companies will help short circuit dozens of similar bills in other states from being signed into law.

Like Texas, for example. Former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has sounded the alarm and called for the business community to get involved as well. I unfortunately think it’s already too late – remember, when there was a lot of business resistance to the bathroom bill in 2017 (which the likes of Dan Patrick viewed with contempt), it was underway well before the session began. We’re already pretty far into the process, and there hasn’t been a peep in Texas as yet, other than some progressive groups taking out ads urging businesses to get involved, which is still a couple of steps away from meaningful action. Things are starting to move in Georgia, but of course that’s after their heinous bill has been signed into law. Sometimes it just takes that much longer for the forces that oppose evil to get its act together. It’s still worth the effort, but time is fast running out.

Assault on abortion advances in Senate

I have four things to say about this.

The Texas Senate gave initial approval Monday to a half-dozen bills that would restrict access to abortion, including a priority measure that could ban abortions before many women know they are pregnant.

The measures are among the earliest bills to be debated by the full Senate — whose presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has given two abortion proposals top billing this session. Each piece of legislation must be voted on again in the upper chamber and then go through a similar process in the House before becoming law.

Senate Bill 8 would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which can be as early as six weeks, according to a legislative analysis. The bill has an exception for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest.

The bill would also let anyone in Texas sue an abortion provider if they believe they violated state laws, regardless of whether they had a connection to someone who had an abortion or to the provider. A person who knowingly “aids or abets” others getting abortions prohibited under state law could also be hit with lawsuits, according to a bill draft.

“We’re setting loose an army of people to go sue somebody under a bill that will likely be held unconstitutional,” state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said. “They could be sued over and over and over again having to pay $10,000” which is the minimum proposed damages in the bill.

Similar “heartbeat bills” have been passed in other states but have been blocked by the courts.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the lead author of SB 8, said unique legal language in the bill makes him believe it will be upheld. It’s intended to “protect our most vulnerable Texans when the heartbeat is present,” he said.

Senate Bill 9, another Patrick priority, would bar nearly all abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision or otherwise altered abortion laws. It would create a possible fine of $100,000 for doctors who perform abortions after the law goes into effect. Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said the fine for sexual assault in Texas has a $10,000 maximum.

Other legislation given initial approval Monday would bar later-term abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities — closing what the bill’s authors have likened to a “loophole” and forcing people to carry ill-fated or unviable pregnancies to term, according to experts and advocates. Women in that situation would be provided with information about perinatal palliative care, or support services, which they may not have been aware of, the bill’s author said.

Another bill, Senate Bill 394, would bar pill-induced abortions after seven weeks. Guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration approve the use of abortion pills up to 10 weeks. Nearly 40% of abortions performed on Texas residents in 2019 were medication-induced, according to state statistics.

1. I’m sure the anti-choice wingnuts are delighted by all this, but I wonder if any of them have ever said to themselves “Hey, wait a minute, we’ve had total control over the state government in Texas for 20 year. Why are we just getting all of this now, after all this time?” I doubt they have that level of self-awareness, however.

2. Most if not all of this would have been clearly illegal following the Whole Women’s Health ruling, but thanks to Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and John Roberts’ controlling opinion in the Louisiana case where a nearly identical law that had been struck down was tried again, most of the teeth from Whole Women’s Health were blunted, if not extracted. I have no idea what the courts will do under the newer ruling, but let’s just say I’m not optimistic.

3. The law that would allow basically anyone to sue any abortion provider for any reason is going to be a real rainmaker for a certain type of lawyer in this state. The odds that at least one such lawyer will end up running an elaborate grift based on this and eventually get busted for it are basically 100%.

4. In theory, federal legislation could overrule much of this, but there’s basically zero chance of that happening in the current Congress. As is so often the case, the real long-term remedy is Democratic control of Texas’s government. Needless to say, that ain’t gonna be easy. The starter agenda for when we finally get that is getting longer and longer.

The Chron and the Signal have more.

Freeze-related lawsuit filed against CenterPoint

Of interest.

Several more Houston families of victims of the February freeze are among the latest to sue CenterPoint Energy for allowing vulnerable people to languish without power during what were supposed to be brief blackouts.

Travis Flowers, 66, and Qazi Momin, 83, relied on oxygen tanks to survive, according to separate lawsuits — both of which were filed Friday by lawyer Tony Buzbee.

In the case of Flowers, the power at the Army veteran’s Houston home went out Feb. 15 and his wife, Brenda Flowers, swapped out his powerless tank for a portable device. By then, the home was too cold for the backup tank to work, according to the lawsuit. Flowers’ oxygen levels dropped dangerously low and he died at a hospital.

Two days later, when the power went out at another residence, Momin’s caretaker found him breathing rapidly. His oxygen tank was without power, the suit states. She “tried to make him comfortable using pillows to support him” but hours later, he stopped breathing.

Her phone was dead “so she went to her car to charge it so that she could call for help.”

Details surrounding Flowers’ and Momin’s deaths could not be found in medical examiner records.

The wrongful death litigation, among several filed after the winter storm that knocked out power for millions of Texans, both accuse CenterPoint — a private utilities company — of negligence for cutting power to Flowers’ and Momin’s homes as the temperature lingered below freezing.

[…]

Although CenterPoint was acting on instructions from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to lighten the power load, the regional energy company, Buzbee contends, was able to choose which circuits to sever power to and for how long. ERCOT, who is named in this case but not a defendant, manages most of Texas’ electrical grid through a deregulated market.

The lawsuit claims the energy company failed to disclose the possibility of a failing power grid or prepare Houstonians to keep warm or leave the area. The nine-page document points to a tweet that CenterPoint officials wrote the morning of Flowers’ death that states “controlled, rotating electric outages” would begin but that they would be temporary.

“At (the) same time that CenterPoint and others were telling the public that the blackouts were temporary and rolling, public officials were urging people to stay home and off the roads,” the suit reads.

Transparency and “balanced rotations of power” in Houston neighborhoods, Buzbee argues, could have saved their lives.

There have been other freeze-related lawsuits filed, against the now-bankrupt Griddy and against Entergy, with the latter also from the busy office of Tony Buzbee. There’s also litigation against ERCOT, though it remains an open question as to whether or not ERCOT can be sued in this fashion. I don’t have any particular insight about this action other than to say that however much you might think CenterPoint is at fault, the greater responsibility in my opinion lies with the Legislature and the state’s regulatory structure. None of that can really be sued (except maybe ERCOT), so here we are.

On a related note:

Last month’s disastrous and deadly winter storm impacted most Texans served by the state’s main power grid, with almost 70% of those people losing power in subfreezing temperatures and almost half experiencing a water outage, according to a new report from the University of Houston.

And although Texans were told to prepare for short-term, rolling power outages ahead of the storm, those who lost electricity ended up going an average of 42 hours without it, the survey found.

As the updated death toll from the storm reached 111 deaths last week, the severity of its full force has continued to come into focus. The damage the storm wrecked could make it the costliest disaster in Texas history.

That report is here. I figure we were without power for about 50 hours at our house – about half of Monday, all of Tuesday, and about half of Wednesday. Doesn’t have any direct bearing on the litigation around this, but it’s another reminder of just how bad this was, if for some reason we needed one.

Winter storm death count now at 111

A revision of the numbers. Expect this to happen at least once more.

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the state Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department had estimated last week, and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas’ larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to “motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

[…]

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

See here for the background. As a reminder, there were 103 deaths attributed to Hurricane Harvey, so the February freeze event (I’m sorry, I’ve not adopted the new paradigm of naming winter storms, so I have not and probably will not again refer to this as “Winter Storm Uri”) has now surpassed that total. And will likely put some more distance between them when the next month’s data is available.

There has been a bit of legislative action on this front.

A bill that would overhaul Texas’ energy industry — including mandating weatherization for natural gas and power generators — was approved by a Texas Senate committee on Thursday.

The sweeping Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, includes a number of reforms that have been floating around the state Capitol since last month’s deadly winter storm left millions without electricity during freezing temperatures. While the Texas House earlier this month approved a package of similar, standalone bills, Thursday’s vote represents the first substantive action on the issue by the upper chamber.

“This is an important issue to get right for the people of Texas, for the future of Texas, for the economy of Texas,” Schwertner said.

Chief among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines make upgrades for extreme weather conditions — a process known as weatherization. Many power generators and gas companies were ill-suited for the freezing temperatures in February, which led gas pipelines to freeze and power transmission to falter.

The measure would delegate rulemaking authority to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the electric and telecommunication industries. If a gas or energy company fails to comply with the weatherization rules, it would face a fine up to $1 million for each offense. The bill does not address funding to pay for the required upgrades.

A Texas House committee earlier this month passed a similar weatherization bill. But the requirements only apply to electric companies, not natural gas companies. In public testimony before the Legislature, Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick largely dodged talks of winterizing the natural gas supply chain.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know enough to offer a general critique of these bills, but I would certainly argue that natural gas companies should have the same weatherization requirements. All of these bills are sure to change as they move from one chamber to the other, so we’ll need to see where they wind up.

The Briscoe Cain follies

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

The Texas House Elections Committee abruptly ended its meeting [Thursday] before about 200 people who traveled to the Capitol could testify on a controversial anti-voter fraud bill.

Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, who chairs the committee and authored House Bill 6, had recessed briefly as he argued with the committee’s vice chair, Democrat Jessica González.

González wanted to hear from Rep. Nicole Collier, a fellow Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

“Vice Chair González, at this moment, you are not chairing this committee,” Cain said as he overrode González’s attempts to allow Collier to speak. “I’m not recognizing anyone but a member of this committee at this time.”

The meeting’s undoing came to pass for a procedural reason: Cain had not specified when the committee would reconvene, meaning the meeting would have to be rescheduled for a later date. He apologized to the hundreds who had made the trip to Austin to share their feedback on the bill.

“Even though I wish very much to continue today’s hearing, the rules prevent me from doing so,” he said. “Please forgive me for my error.”

This is the third-term GOP member’s first time chairing a committee during a legislative session.

[…]

Civil rights and voting advocacy groups slammed Cain, who had said it was committee practice not to allow non-members to ask questions, for blocking Collier’s testimony. There are no Black members of the elections committee.

“Today was further evidence of the GOP efforts to silence our voices. We can no longer stand by and allow them to shut us down,” Collier said at an informal, livestreamed “citizen’s hearing” in the Capitol rotunda. “We must speak up. Today shows why it’s important we have a seat at the table.”

Common Cause Texas executive director Anthony Gutierrez said non-members participate in committee hearings “all the time.”

“This deviation from standard practice to prevent a Black woman from engaging in debate on a bill that would impact Black communities disproportionately is appalling,” Gutierrez said. “There is truly nothing more absurd than Briscoe Cain having to adjourn his committee hearing on his bill that would criminalize procedural mistakes people might make while voting because he made a procedural mistake.”

Those who had planned to speak Thursday immediately expressed their deep frustration.

“(Cain) has promised a future hearing on the bill, date yet to be determined,” Texas Civil Rights Project, a voting-focused advocacy group, said in a tweet. “But this is still deeply unfair to all the Texans who took time off of work and school to be there today. And it’s troubling that no effort was made to accommodate and listen to these Texans.”

Or to put it another way, give power and responsibility to malevolent incompetents, get malevolent incompetent results. Imagine being someone who took time off from work, drove however many hours to be in Austin to wait even more hours to be given three minutes to testify against this travesty, only to be told that because the committee chair screwed up you have to come back again at some then-unknown date. (Per the Trib, it’s been rescheduled for April 1, which seems a little on the nose.) You’d have Briscoe Cain to thank for that.

R.G. Ratcliffe thinks Cain (who calls himself a “parliamentary guru”, by the way) may have inadvertently done the opponents of his malicious legislation a favor. I say that remains to be seen, because if there are two things we know about the Republicans’ push to change the rules in their favor, it’s that they can always extend the clock and that they don’t much care about the niceties along the way. What do they care if a few rabblerousers didn’t get a chance to vent at them? They will not be deterred.

Also not to be deterred is the Senate, which had its own voter suppression bill hearings.

The 31-page Senate Bill 7 includes provisions that would limit early voting opportunities, such as drive-thru and overnight polls, and stop counties from mass-mailing unsolicited ballot-by-mail applications — all methods that Harris County officials debuted in 2020.

It would also require Texas counties to have ballots with paper trails and maintain online systems tracking the status of voters’ mail ballot applications and ballots.

The bill was scheduled to be heard on Monday, but Senate Democrats delayed the hearing with a procedural move. It contains many similarities to a bill that passed the Senate but died in the House when the paper-trail system requirement, which had bipartisan support, was removed at the last minute.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, raised several potential legal issues with the bill as she questioned Keith Ingram, director of elections with the secretary of state’s office.

Texas is one of 16 states that does not have universal, no-excuse-needed voting by mail. Mail voting is only allowed for people who are 65 years or older; traveling out of the county during the election period; in jail; or have a disability or illness.

SB 7 would require voters to show proof of a purported disability, such as a doctor’s note. Zaffirini asked and Ingram confirmed that no other group allowed to vote by mail would be required to provide backup documentation.

Making a visit to see a doctor costs money, Zaffirini pointed out. Unless the state would provide voters with financial help, she asked, “could that constitute a poll tax?”

“I don’t know,” Ingram said. “That’s a question for a court.”

Seems to me that’s a pretty big can of worms, and could run into issues with privacy laws relating to medical information. Anyone out there want to comment on the possibility that this could run afoul of HIPAA in some way? The lawyers will be busy, that much is for sure. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention, Chris Hollins wrote an op-ed calling on the business community (especially Texas businesses and those that relocated here) to get involved in this fight as they recently have for other social justice issues. He specifically singled out HEB, AT&T, CenterPoint, and Pizza Hut.

Republicans will never hold Ken Paxton accountable for anything

Don’t be a chump and expect them to.

Best mugshot ever

Texas lawmakers are preparing to arm Attorney General Ken Paxton with $43 million to fight Google in court.

A key committee in the State Senate on Wednesday amended its proposed budget for Paxton, restoring most of the cuts members had threatened and giving the Republican extra money to hire outside attorneys to pursue an antitrust case against Google Inc.

“This case has the potential to bring down significant dollars to the state,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said Wednesday in advocating for the revised budget plan.

The move came as Paxton increased the political pressure on the Legislature to restore funding for his office. On Twitter, on Wednesday as the committee was meeting, he called on the public to push lawmakers to restore his office’s budget after lawmakers originally had proposed slashing nearly $90 million and cutting 154 positions from his 4,000-person workforce.

“Fellow Texans: Ensure your legislator is FULLY RESOURCING my Office. Any cuts are a loss for TX and in turn a loss for USA,” Paxton wrote to his 128,000 Twitter followers and on Facebook to more than 286,000 followers.

Paxton is also getting help from outside of Texas on that push. Yesterday, a group called Conservative Action Project sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan pushing for restoration of the money and helping fund the Google lawsuit.

“Any reduction to the Office of the Attorney General’s budget will result in tremendous harm to the state and nation,” the letter signed by 15 prominent Republican lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese III. “The cause of liberty and justice cannot afford that.”

Though the Legislature is dominated by Republicans like Paxton, key players in the Senate were upset with Paxton for violating his budget authority by moving $40 million in his budget to cover pay raises that were not authorized by lawmakers.

See here and here for the background. They obviously didn’t stay upset for very long. Hey, having to hire a fancy expensive law firm to do the work of the top lieutenants you had to fire because they accused you of being filthy and corrupt, it could happen to anybody. The House may still make changes, but come on. Don’t fall for that old bit again. We know how this is going to go.

Booze to go set to go

Good.

The Texas House has passed legislation that would allow restaurants to sell alcohol to go beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

The chamber signed off on House Bill 1024 to permanently allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery food orders and secure a revenue stream made available to restaurants in the last year in an effort to help those businesses when they closed their dining areas.

Initial approval of the bill came Wednesday, and a formal approval came a day later by a 144-1 vote. The legislation will now head to the Senate, where a version of the measure must still be approved by a committee before it can be considered by the full chamber.

Gov. Greg Abbott originally signed a waiver last March to allow to-go alcohol sales. The waiver was originally to last until last May, but it was extended indefinitely. As lawmakers began their work during the current legislative session, expanding Texans’ access to booze picked up rare bipartisan support.

[…]

The new, permanent alcohol-to-go option could benefit the restaurant industry after it has faced an excruciating year during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Texas Restaurant Association, 700,000 restaurant employees in Texas lost their jobs in the early days of the pandemic, and thousands of Texas restaurants have closed.

“The TRA is thrilled that restaurants are one step closer to offering alcoholic drinks to-go on a permanent basis,” the association said in a statement following the House vote. “Texans overwhelmingly support alcohol to-go, and the entire industry has rallied around the practice to ensure it is implemented safely.”

See here for the previous update. While nothing is ever certain, I expect this to breeze through the Senate, and we already know Greg Abbott supports it. I saw someone say on Twitter that we may not be able to get other things done but at least we’ll have drinks to go. I’m more upbeat about that – I think this will be a needed boon for the restaurants, and anything that brings us a step closer to dismantling the ridiculous tangle of alcohol laws we have in this state is a positive – but I do recognize that this is likely one of the few laws we’re going to get this session that’s actually worth celebrating. May as well enjoy the wins where you can, there ain’t gonna be many of them.

It’s Voter Suppression Week in the Senate

Delayed by a day, but that won’t stop anything.

Republican lawmakers in Texas are attempting to cement more bricks into the wall they hope will shield their hold on power from the state’s changing electorate.

After more than 20 years in firm control, the GOP is seeing its dominance of Texas politics slowly slip away, with some once reliable suburbs following big cities into the Democratic party’s fold.

This legislative session, Republicans are staging a sweeping legislative campaign to further tighten the state’s already restrictive voting rules and raise new barriers for some voters, clamping down in particular on local efforts to make voting easier.

If legislation they have introduced passes, future elections in Texas will look something like this: Voters with disabilities will be required to prove they can’t make it to the polls before they can get mail-in ballots. County election officials won’t be able to keep polling places open late to give voters like shift workers more time to cast their ballots. Partisan poll watchers will be allowed to record voters who receive help filling out their ballots at a polling place. Drive-thru voting would be outlawed. And local election officials may be forbidden from encouraging Texans to fill out applications to vote by mail, even if they meet the state’s strict eligibility rules.

Those provisions are in a Senate priority bill that was set to receive its first committee airing Monday, but Democrats delayed its consideration by invoking a rule that requires more public notice before the legislation is heard. Senate Bill 7 is part of a broader package of proposals to constrain local initiatives widening voter access in urban areas, made up largely by people of color, that favor Democrats.

The wave of new restrictions would crash up against an emerging Texas electorate that every election cycle includes more and more younger voters and voters of color. They risk compounding the hurdles marginalized people already face making themselves heard at the ballot box.

“I think Texans should be really frustrated with their politicians, because it is so obvious that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to put itself in a place where its people are safe with all the challenges we could be expecting to be facing in the modern era, and instead they’re figuring out how to stay in power,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is analyzing and tracking proposed voting restrictions across the country.

“Their manipulation has got a shelf life, and I think that’s part of the reason why they’re so desperate to do it right now because they see the end. They see what’s coming down the road for them.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have a whole lot to add to what I’ve already said, but it occurs to me that the Republicans may be underestimating how much of a negative effect this will have on their own voters, at least their own voters in high-population areas. Plenty of Republicans vote by mail, and the boost that Republicans got in Latino areas last year came primarily from low-propensity voters, who are exactly the kind of people that will be affected by further restrictions on when and where to vote. They obviously think they will profit from all this, and I certainly may just be whistling past the graveyard, but Democratic voters have shown a lot of resilience in recent years, and these bills are based on lies and the hurt feelings of one particular person. Maybe they’re shooting themselves in the foot here. It sure would be nice to think so, anyway.

Republicans take aim at bail reform

Lots of bad ideas in here.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Members of the Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence held their first hearing this week over Senate Bill 21, a controversial bail reform bill backed by Republicans.

The purpose of the bill according to its author Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) is to prevent repeat violent offenders from committing new crimes after being released on personal bond. A personal bond is an agreement to appear in court that allows a defendant to be released without any financial obligation, unlike a cash bond or a surety bond with a bail company.

Opponents who testified against the legislation Thursday warned that language of the bill goes much further than simply attempting to keep violent criminals locked up.

“This is a work in progress, I know this bill is not perfect, I know it’s not ready to be passed,” Huffman, who chairs the committee said at the beginning of the hearing.

Under the text of the bill, a person charged with a crime would not be eligible for release if they have recently failed to appear in court for another offense, if they have been charged with any other crime after being released on bond, or if they have been recently convicted of a felony, Class A or B misdemeanor. That includes charges for resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, prostitution and many other non-violent offenses.

To be clear, so-called violent repeat offenders would still be able to be bailed out of jail, just not on personal bond, which waives the financial obligation meant to incentive someone to appear in court.

[…]

Mike Fields, a former Republican judge in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 14, testified against the bill calling it an “overreach” and a return to the bad old days.

Fields said he was an original defendant in the O’Donnell lawsuit, the major lawsuit that was filed against the county’s wealth-based bail detention system and which ended in a settlement that allowed for the release of a majority of misdemeanor defendants.

“I switched from my position of opposition to the O’Donnell lawsuit to agreeing with it, I was only one of two judges who did,” Fields said.

He said that the 72 homicides in Harris County committed by people out on bond in 2020 — a figure cited by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg earlier in her testimony in support of the bill — were largely done by defendants with surety bond, or bonds posted by a bail bond company.

“I learned after 20 years of being a Republican judge in Harris County, that money does not make us safer,” Fields said. “Conditions make us safer. Assessment makes us safer. Using smarter strategies to keep people who need to be incarcerated, incarcerated, and those who don’t out. That’s what makes us safer.”

Fields said the conflation with misdemeanor and felony cases had led to legislation like SB 21 that would cast a broad net hurting taxpayers and slowing the work of criminal courts.

Emily Garrick, an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a criminal justice nonprofit and one of the groups involved in the O’Donnell v. Harris County lawsuit, said SB 21 would allow people who don’t have money to stay in jail and those who do to be released from jail despite having similar charges — a violation of the decision by federal judges that ruled Harris County’s wealth-based pre-trial detention system to be unconstitutional for that very reason.

Another aspect of SB 21 grilled during the hearing was the bill’s restrictions on charitable bail organizations, or groups (often churches or advocacy groups) that organize bail funds to help defendants who could otherwise not pay for their release. Among other things, the bill would only allow charitable bail organizations to pay bail bonds for defendants charged with misdemeanors and would restrict them from paying no more than $2,000 for each defendant they want to help.

This Trib story from earlier in March covered a lot of this ground already, while Grits has noted that much of this bill is or will be in conflict with federal court rulings. This is a classic “solution in search of a problem” situation, with a side order of retaliation against Harris County and its Democratic judiciary. It’s very likely that this bill will evolve before it comes to a vote, but it’s much less likely that it will transform into something productive.

The next frontiers in anti-abortion law

Why not attack the legal system while you’re at it?

Right there with them

Texas lawmakers — pushing to drastically restrict abortion access — have included language in a priority bill meant to make it harder to block the law from taking effect and easier to sue abortion providers.

The provisions seem intended to reshape the legal landscape, while many federal courts stop restrictive abortion laws that have passed out of conservative statehouses.

Proponents of the bill told lawmakers its “unique drafting” could make it the first of its kind that can’t be held up in the courts before it takes effect. But legal experts and abortion rights advocates say the proposals amount to a gambit meant to drive abortion clinics out of business.

“Regardless of how you try to dress up an unconstitutional bill, it is still unconstitutional,” said Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel for state advocacy and policy at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The proposed bill would strip Texas officials of their typical enforcement role — and open the door for any Texan to sue providers they thought weren’t complying with state abortion laws. By pushing enforcement to the civil court system, anti-abortion activists hope to make it harder to sue state officials to stop an unconstitutional law.

The bill also tries to give state actors immunity from lawsuits.

[…]

Versions of the law have been passed in other states and have all been blocked by the courts, said University of Texas at Austin law professor Elizabeth Sepper.

What’s different in Texas “and what the Texas Legislature is sort of pinning its hopes on — are the procedural maneuvers,” she said.

SB 8 would let anyone in Texas sue an abortion provider if they believe they violated state laws. The person would not have to have a connection to someone who had an abortion or to the provider.

Someone who knowingly “aids or abets” others getting abortions prohibited under state law could also be hit with lawsuits, according to a draft of the bill.

Advocates of abortion rights say the provisions would upend “the judiciary’s check on the Legislature” and could leave doctors — or even families of those who receive abortions — to face harassing and frivolous litigation.

Legal experts also said provisions in the bill represent a big break from how the law normally works.

“It’s an extreme departure from current law that someone [doesn’t have] to be connected to a problem in order to sue,” said David S. Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

“It really opens up for almost endless liability, which is one way that the anti-abortion folks, including the Texas Legislature, strategize to shut down abortion clinics,” he said.

Smith said the idea that anyone could sue abortion providers makes a “mockery of the legal system, which requires the person suing to have actually sustained a harm that provides the basis of the lawsuit.”

SB8, one of Dan Patrick’s priority bills, is one of many that have already been passed out of committee. It’s safe to say that most if not all of these bills will be passed because there’s nothing that can stop them other than time or the Republicans themselves choosing not to proceed for whatever the reason. From there, it’s a matter of what the courts will do. We know that Chief Justice John Roberts is a stickler for who does and does not have standing to file lawsuits, but we also know that there are five other SCOTUS justices who don’t believe in reproductive freedom, so it’s anyone’s guess what happens next. I see no reason to doubt that some, probably most, of what’s in these bills will survive. I sure hope I’m wrong about that.