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The Lege

HD68 special election goes to a runoff

As expected, though there is a clear leader going into the next round.

Sen. Drew Springer

Republicans David Spiller and Craig Carter appear to be headed to a runoff in the special election to fill the seat of former state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, now a state senator.

With all precincts reporting Saturday night, Spiller — the top fundraiser in the race — had a significant lead, holding 44% of the vote, with Carter taking 18%, according to unofficial results from the Texas Secretary of State. Carter was closely followed by another GOP candidate, John Berry, who trailed Carter by about 60 votes Saturday night. Jason Brinkley, also a Republican, snuck in fourth place, with 16% of the vote. The only Democrat running, Charles D. Gregory, finished last with 4%.

Spiller is an attorney and Jacksboro school board trustee. Carter is a former candidate for an overlapping Texas Senate district.

[…]

Abbott will set a date for the runoff election sometime in February, after the votes are canvassed, according to the secretary of state’s office.

See here and here for the background. Berry, now trailing Carter by 57 votes (unofficially), could ask for a recount once the overseas and provisional ballots are in. Assuming there is no change in who finished second (highly likely things remain as is), there may be some pressure on Carter to concede and allow Spiller to be sworn in now. Spiller got over 700 more votes than the next two candidates combined, so one could argue that there’s not much suspense in the runoff. One could also argue that the first part of this campaign was quiet and uncontentious, and as such there may be some relevant information about these candidates that the voters have not had the chance to learn. Most likely the runoff happens, and Spiller is elected anyway. For now, the House remains at 149 members.

A brief summary of what the next two years will be like

What will Republicans do without Trump?

“The Republican Party is at a crossroads like it’s never been before, and it’s gonna have to decide who it is,” said Corbin Casteel, a Texas GOP operative who was Trump’s Texas state director during the 2016 primary.

No one seems to be under the illusion that Trump will fade quietly. Since losing the election to Joe Biden in November, Trump has launched baseless attacks on the integrity of the election as most prominent Texans in his party let his claims go unchallenged. Some of Trump’s most loyal allies in Texas expect he’ll be a force here for years.

“The party is really built around Donald Trump — the brand, the image, but most importantly, his policies and what he accomplished,” [Dan] Patrick said during a Fox News interview Thursday. “Whoever runs in 2024, if they walk away from Trump and his policies, I don’t think they can get through a primary.”

To Texas Democrats, Trump has been a highly galvanizing force who created new political opportunities for them, particularly in the suburbs. He carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016 — the smallest margin for a GOP nominee in Texas in two decades — and then an even smaller margin last year. But his 6-point win here in November came after Democrats spent months getting their hopes up that Trump would lose the state altogether, and they also came up woefully short down-ballot, concluding the Trump era with decisively mixed feelings about his electoral impact at the state level.

More broadly, some Texas Democrats believe Trump is leaving a legacy as a symptom of the state’s current Republican politics, not a cause of it.

“Frankly I don’t think he changed the Republican Party in Texas,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the state Democratic Party chair, adding that Trump has instead magnified the “extreme politics and tendencies” that Texas Republicans have long harbored. “The things that [Trump] stands for — the white nationalism, the anti-LGBT [sentiment], the just flat-out racism, just the absolute meanness — that’s what the Republican Party has been in Texas for quite some time.”

As for Texas Republicans’ embrace of Trump, Hinojosa added, they “are the people that Trump talks about when he says he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose their support.”

[…]

To be sure, it’s entirely possible Republicans unite in the next year the way political parties do when they’re in the minority — with an oppositional message to the opposing administration. But the GOP’s longer-term challenges could prove harder to resolve. In the final years of Trump, some in the party drifted from any unifying policy vision. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, the party opted not to create a new platform, saying it would instead “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

November’s elections in Texas did little to settle the debate over which direction the party should go. Those who want to move on note that Trump won with the narrowest margin for a GOP presidential candidate this century, and swing-seat Republican congressional contenders largely outperformed him in their districts.

“Most every Republican that was successful, with the exception of a handful, outperformed Donald Trump by a significant margin,” Hurd said. “If you’re not growing, you are dying, and if we’re not expanding to those voters that are disaffected and don’t believe in the message that Democrats are providing, then we’re not going to be able to grow.”

On the other hand, Trump’s 6-point margin was bigger than expected, and he performed surprisingly well in Hispanic communities in South Texas. Former Texas GOP Chair James Dickey said Trump’s message was “particularly effective” in swaths of the state that aren’t typically looked at as political bellwethers.

“His biggest impact has been a return to populist roots and an expansion of the party in minority communities, which, again, is a return to its roots,” Dickey said.

My medium-lukewarm take based on 2018, 2020, and the Georgia runoffs is that Republicans do better with Trump on the ballot than not. Dems made the big gains in 2018 in part because Republican turnout, as high as it was in that off-year, wasn’t as good as it could have been. The GOP got some low-propensity voters to turn out in November – as did Dems – and now they have to try to get them to turn out again. Maybe they will! Maybe with Trump gone some number of former Republicans who voted Dem because they hated Trump will find their way back to the GOP. Or maybe those folks are now full-on Dems. The national atmosphere will be critical to how 2022 goes – the economy, the vaccination effort, the Senate trial of Trump, further fallout from the Capitol insurrection, and just overall whether people think the Dems have done too much, too little, or the right amount. Dems can only control what they do.

And that’s going to mean playing some defense.

Democrats are headed back to the White House, and Texas Republicans are gearing up to go back on offense.

For eight years under President Barack Obama, Texas was a conservative counterweight to a progressive administration, with its Republican leaders campaigning against liberal policies on immigration, the environment and health care and lobbing lawsuit after federal lawsuit challenging scores of Democratic initiatives. When Republicans could not block policies in Congress, they sometimes could in the courts.

Now, as Joe Biden enters the White House promising a slew of executive orders and proposed legislation, the notorious “Texas vs. the feds” lawsuits are expected to return in full force. And state leaders have begun to float policy proposals for this year’s legislative session in response to expected action — or inaction — from a White House run by Democrats.

[…]

Under Trump, Texas has often found itself aligned with the federal government in the courts. Most notably, the Trump administration lined up with a Texas-led coalition of red states seeking to end the Affordable Care Act. That case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Once Biden enters the White House and his appointees lead everything from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Homeland Security, Texas’ conservative leaders will return to a familiar posture: adversary, not ally, to those making national policy.

Paul Nolette, a professor at Marquette University who studies federalism, said he expects Texas to be “at the top of the heap” among Republican attorneys general challenging the new administration in court.

According to Nolette, the number of multi-state lawsuits against the federal government skyrocketed from 78 under eight years of Obama to 145 during just four years of Trump.

“Republican AGs will take a very aggressive multi-state approach,” Nolette predicted. “It’ll happen quickly.”

It should be noted that a lot of those lawsuits were not successful. I don’t know what the scoreboard looks like, and some of those suits are still active, so write that in pencil and not in Sharpie. It should also be noted that the goal of some of these lawsuits, like ending DACA and killing the Affordable Care Act, are not exactly in line with public opinion, so winning may not have the effect the GOP hopes it would have. And of course AG Ken Paxton is under federal indictment (no pardon, sorry), leading a hollowed-out office, and not in great electoral shape for 2022. There’s definitely a chance Texas is not at the front of this parade in 2022.

My point is simply this: There’s a lot of ways the next two years can go. I think the main factors look obvious right now, but nothing is ever exactly as we think it is. I think Democrats nationally have a good idea of what their goals are and how they will achieve them, but it all comes down to execution. Keep your eye on the ball.

Census apportionment shenanigans to be officially curtailed

As it should be.

The Trump administration’s protracted efforts to keep some immigrants from being counted when congressional seats are divvied up after the 2020 census ended with the former president’s departure from the White House, but President Joe Biden’s administration inherits a census running far behind schedule.

Among his first acts after being inaugurated, Biden on Wednesday is expected to sign an executive order undoing his predecessor’s plan to keep undocumented immigrants from being included in the state-by-state tallies that determine how those living in the U.S. are represented in Congress for the next 10 years.

Trump’s scheme to fundamentally alter the process had already been foiled by processing delays, but Biden’s order serves as an official reversal as state lawmakers wait for the detailed census results they need to reconfigure political districts to reflect a decade’s worth of population growth.

The most significant effect for Texas politically remains an extended delay in the Legislature’s efforts to redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative districts, and part of the job could ultimately fall to a Legislative Redistricting Board or the courts.

Texas lawmakers would ordinarily expect to receive detailed data from the census as soon as mid-February — marking an unofficial kickoff to the redrawing of political districts so they’re roughly equal in population. Instead, the Texas Legislature is operating on uncertainty.

The coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country last year just as it was set to begin the high-stakes, once-a-decade count of every person living in the U.S., setting back elaborate plans for counting communities and the deadline for tallying by several months. With the release of that data delayed — and amid political turmoil at the Census Bureau — it remains unclear whether lawmakers will even be able to embark on the redistricting process before the end of the regular legislative session in May.

“It appears to me [that] a reasonable person would look at what is occurring today and believe the numbers would not come until early summer, but don’t hold me to that,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who chairs the Senate redistricting committee, said on the Senate floor last week.

[…]

The Census Bureau was statutorily required to produce the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats each state gets by Dec. 31, but lawyers for the federal government indicated in court hearings that those counts won’t be ready until early March because anomalies in the data must be fixed. The detailed census results used to redraw districts come in a second dataset that must be delivered to states by March 31. The federal government has not provided details on when that data will be available.

In 2011, the Census Bureau began delivering the second dataset to Texas lawmakers on Feb. 17.

In announcing his executive order on Wednesday, the Biden transition team indicated the president would “ensure that the Census Bureau has time to complete an accurate population count for each state” in search of apportionment that is “fair and accurate so federal resources are efficiently and fairly distributed for the next decade.”

“I think at this point the delays are probably a good thing” because the data is being scrubbed for accuracy, said Joaquin Gonzalez, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has been pushing for a more transparent redistricting process at the state Capitol.

In a joint statement released earlier this month, a group of former directors of the Census Bureau indicated it was “appropriate” for the bureau to take the necessary time to ensure the count was accurate given the delays caused by the pandemic.

However, state lawmakers are up against a constitutional clock that says state House and Senate seats must be redrawn by the Legislature during the first regular legislative session after the census is published. If they fail to do so, the Legislative Redistricting Board — a panel made up by the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the attorney general, the state comptroller and the state land commissioner — takes over the mapping with no requirement to hold hearings for public input.

“In some ways, the worst case scenario is that the data comes down to the states in May or something like that because then the Legislature really doesn’t have time to do its job correctly, but because of the state constitution, the state districts would automatically get sent to the [Legislative Redistricting Board],” Gonzalez said. “In terms of public participation and transparency, that’s sort of the worst case scenario.”

See here for the previous update. I have been assuming that the redistricting process would have to occur in a special session anyway – it just never seemed like there would be enough time to fit it into the regular session. Dems strategy will apparently be to force the matter to the courts, which was the scenario for Congressional map-drawing if they had taken the House and no agreement could be reached. Don’t know if that can work, but it’s a strategy. Putting that aside, the main result here is that Texas will get a full count, and will get the likely three new Congressional districts that it merits. I’ll never get over the fact that our state leaders didn’t fight for that, but it happened anyway without them. You’re welcome.

On capping restaurant delivery app fees

Fine by me, but I’ll bet more than fifteen percent of my most recent delivery tab that this does not go anywhere.

Rep. Carl Sherman

High delivery fees by third-party apps, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, are often cited by restaurant operators as a source of financial strain, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. A new bill filed in the 87th Texas Legislature is seeking to cap the fees food delivery services charge restaurants at 15 percent.

The industry standard hovers around 30 percent of a customer’s order, depending on the platform. This would be significantly reduced across the state if the bill passes.

“This is one of my wishes for 2021,” says Alex Au-yeung, the chef and owner of Phat Eatery in Katy.

Au-yeung used Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats at one point, but he got rid of them even before the pandemic. Phat Eatery now operates its own delivery system. With razor-thin profit margins, a fee that high is untenable for restaurants, he says: “If you give 30 percent away, how can we survive?”

Rep. Carl Sherman Sr. introduced H.B. 598 in the House after he heard from restaurant owners in his DeSoto-area district that the high delivery fees were creating hardship for their business.

“The impact of COVID exacerbated the problem,” Sherman says. With dining rooms closed, then reopened at lower capacity, restaurants had to rely on takeout and delivery, often turning to third-party apps. “They were unable to factor in the levied costs from these delivery services,” he says.

Chef Justin Turner closed all four locations of his popular Bernie’s Burger Bus restaurants this year. While he said there were many factors at play, high delivery fees were one of them. Turner signed up for the services because he saw the convenience of delivery become increasingly popular with customers. He said representatives for the companies told him he would see an increase in business by being on the platforms, but he hasn’t found that to be the case. Instead, Turner noticed sales simply shifting away from dine-in to carryout over time. The pandemic made this worse.

“People want the convenience,” Turner says. “Especially in a COVID world, being able to get food dropped off at their door without talking to a person or touching a person.”

Turner adds that these fees also affect the customer. He’s already seen some restaurants increasing to-go prices to make up for the high commission from delivery apps. In his opinion, most food doesn’t travel that well, so people are paying more money for lesser quality than is offered by dining in person.

[…]

Besides the high commission, Au-yeung had other gripes about the delivery apps. His team couldn’t communicate directly with people ordering through the platforms, which made the restaurant’s mission of great customer service impossible. And while he made the decision to leave DoorDash, he found it impossible to take Phat Eatery down from their website. He says he’s tried to contact the company, to no avail. To turn people away from ordering through the app, he edited the menu items to read “Do not order here.” He also jacked up the prices to discourage people.

One service Au-yeung likes, though, is Favor Fleet, an offshoot of the local delivery app now owned by H-E-B. If the restaurant is busy and short-staffed for deliveries, he can request drivers from Favor Fleet on-demand, for a flat fee of $7.50 per order. “That, I can deal with,” he says.

Turner says he favors the bill’s passage but is skeptical about its chances in the Legislature.

“I don’t think, with two publicly traded companies and lobbyists, that this is going to make it further,” he says. “You’re asking them to cut their profits, that they’ve been making for a long time now, in half.”

I suspect that is absolutely correct. This will be smothered by lobbyists before it ever has a chance to breathe. It’s still worth bringing up. Personally, I never use delivery services for takeout. I pick it up myself, which is the only way I can be sure that the money I’m spending goes entirely to the restaurant. It helps that 90% of the time I’m ordering from a neighborhood place, but still. And when this damn pandemic is over, I’m going back to dining in most of the time. Restaurant food tastes best when it’s right out of the kitchen, and no amount of convenience makes up for that to me. Your mileage may vary.

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

That would be nice.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Nicole Collier

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

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

But they say this year feels different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinks to go on the legislative menu

Looks likely to succeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislative diversity report 2021

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

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

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

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

There will be an equal number.

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

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

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

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

State Capitol closed again

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

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

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

The closure begins Saturday and continues through Wednesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we already have our first COVID cases from the Lege

Surely not the last.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

A Texas House member tested positive for the coronavirus after being on the chamber floor for three straight days, giving lawmakers an early indication of the dangers of governing during the pandemic.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, told The Texas Tribune he tested positive Thursday — three days after lawmakers gaveled in for this year’s legislative session. The Democrat said he received a rapid test outside the Capitol because it was “free and quick” as he was heading home Thursday afternoon.

He has “no idea” how he contracted it, said Deshotel, who is currently quarantining and reported minor symptoms. “I don’t know where it came from. It rather shocked me when the guy told me.”

“Getting tested is important and wearing a mask is important,” he added. “You can certainly have [the coronavirus] and not know it, I can tell you that.”

Deshotel said his last test for the virus prior to testing positive on Thursday had been on Monday. He did not opt to receive a test before entering the Capitol on Tuesday or Wednesday.

[…]

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, tweeted Friday morning that she had been informed the night before of a “member in my 3 foot radius” testing positive for the virus.

“They did not test on Tuesday prior to the swearing in ceremony,” Beckley tweeted. “10 day self quarantine.”

Another House member, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, told the Tribune on Friday that she would also self-quarantine according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said she appreciated Deshotel notifying those who he came into contact with after testing positive.

“With COVID-19 cases soaring across the state, including here in Central Texas, it’s inevitable that legislators will test positive and expose our colleagues,” Zwiener said. “Rep. Deshotel is setting a tone of transparency that’s essential as we move forward.”

Before the House gaveled in Tuesday, House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, had asked lawmakers to take a test ahead of the opening day ceremony. State Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, responding to Beckley’s tweet, called it “very selfish and irresponsible” to not do so.

“Anyone that objected to take one prior to Tuesday clearly did so out of pride,” Holland tweeted. “Shame on them.”

Obviously, I hope Rep. Deshotel has a quick recovery, and that no one else became infected. This is the limit of testing – there’s a lag between when you get sick and when you might first test positive. That’s also the reason why wearing masks is so damn important, because anyone could be sick and not only not know it but also have a recent negative test to show. Until we’re all vaccinated, we’re all at risk. At least the House is adjourned till January 26, so no one should miss any time in session as a result of this. But please, for everyone’s sake, wear the damn mask. Texas Monthly has more.

Here comes the casino push

Expect this to get louder and louder, though whether it’s successful or not remains to be seen.

Casino1

When a big political player comes waltzing into Texas spending big money from out of state, it’s usually a good sign that he wants something from lawmakers. So when Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, spent $4.5 million to help Republicans keep control of the Texas House in 2020, heads turned.

While Adelson is known for cutting big checks—he’s one of the most powerful GOP mega-donors in the country—he doesn’t usually spend so lavishly on state-level politics. What did he want with Texas?

After the election, it became clear that Adelson was embarking on an all-out push to legalize casino gambling in Texas. In November, his corporation Las Vegas Sands started hiring some of the most powerful, well-connected lobbyists in Austin. The company declined to comment, though in early December, Andy Abboud, the company’s senior vice president for government relations, made the plans official. In an online panel at Texas Taxpayers and Research Association’s annual conference, he laid out the company’s hopes that Texas lawmakers would approve legislation lifting the casino ban, allowing for the establishment of a limited number of luxury destination casinos in the state’s major metro areas. “Texas is considered the biggest plum still waiting to be [picked],” Abboud said.

Gaming laws in Texas are among the most restrictive in the country, with bans on almost all gambling—including slots, table games, and sports betting—enshrined in the Texas Constitution since the Prohibition Era. Currently, gaming is restricted to wagers on dog and horse racing, charitable bingo, and the state lottery. The state’s three federally recognized Native American tribes are allowed to operate casinos with limited games, though the state has repeatedly contested their rights in the courts. Republican leaders like Governor Greg Abbott and U.S. Senator John Cornyn have aggressively resisted tribes’ attempts to expand gaming.

Abboud encouraged hesitant lawmakers to think “like you’re attracting Tesla or an Amazon facility or an entirely new industry to the state that’s going to create tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and ancillary benefits of hotels and tourism.”

[…]

Adelson’s casino push comes as lawmakers head into a session facing deep revenue shortfalls spurred by the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. In past sessions, casino proponents have argued that the state’s gaming prohibition has allowed billions of dollars to abscond into Oklahoma and Louisiana, where casinos are conveniently located just across the border. But opponents say that promises of revenue windfalls are overblown and would not provide a sustainable new revenue stream.

Abboud argued that Las Vegas Sands’ model for casinos in Texas would build another economic pillar in the state, helping to ease the state’s dependence on the oil and gas industry. “Will they solve all economic problems? No. Will it stabilize the economy? Yes,” he said.

So far, the only casino gambling legislation filed is from state Representative Joe Deshotel, a Beaumont Democrat, whose bill would legalize casinos to fund insurance programs for those living in hurricane-prone areas along the Gulf Coast.

Who ends up authoring the Adelson camp’s bill in the Texas House and Senate will have big implications for its success. If an ally of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick authors casino legislation in the Senate, that could be a sign that Patrick would allow it to get a vote on the floor, says Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “If Patrick is on board, it passes. If Patrick is not on board, it doesn’t. It’s about as simple as that,” Jones says. A signal of support from Patrick, a social conservative who has previously opposed gambling, could also sway House Republicans who would otherwise worry about primary challenges from the right, he adds.

This Chron story from early December is the reference for those Andy Abboud quotes. We go through something like this every two years, and the smart money has always been to bet against any expansion of gambling, including casinos. The financial arguments have some merit, though they are surely being overblown by the casino interests. The catch there is that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick et al don’t see a lack of revenue as a problem but as an opportunity to cut costs. Maybe this time it’s different, I don’t know, though now that the revenue picture isn’t as bad as it once looked, whatever financial argument the casinos may have made has less heft.

The casino interests have certainly hired a bunch of expensive and well-connected Republican lobbyists, so I do expect they’ll be able to get some facetime and bend a few ears. Maybe this is a long-term play, as Jim Henson suggests, where the groundwork gets laid this session and ultimate success comes a few years down the road. Who knows?

I remain ambivalent on the whole thing – I don’t have a problem with gambling and generally think adults should be allowed to partake in it, but I don’t see casinos as a net positive, and I believe the economic benefits that get touted will be extremely limited to a small class of renters, and not much good to anyone else. If we do someday get to vote on it as a constitutional amendment, I’ll have to see what the specifics are before I decide. We’ll keep an eye on this because it’s likely a high tide year for gambling interests, but as always don’t expect much.

UPDATE: I drafted this over the weekend, and since then Sheldon Adelson has passed away. I don’t believe that changes the calculus in any way, but I’m sure someone would have noted that in the comments if I hadn’t, so here we are.

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the direction of voting by mail?

It was different in 2020, but that doesn’t mean it’s permanently different.

Democratic voters in Texas were more likely to cast their ballots by mail than Republican voters in the last election.

Today, that may sound like a forgone conclusion, but that wasn’t the case four years ago. Absentee ballots, which only certain groups of Texans are eligible to use, have traditionally been a tool utilized by the GOP, and in 2016, counties reported that higher percentages of Republican voters cast absentee ballots than Democratic voters.

The reason for the swap? It came from the top. Experts and political operatives note that President Donald Trump spent months attacking the credibility of mail-in voting to his Republican base while national and state Democrats launched their largest-ever push to support the method as a safe option to vote in the pandemic.

Other factors at play this election season in Texas included an increase in participation by younger voters who lean Democratic, many of them college students living out of state. Democrats also were more likely to take coronavirus risks and precautions more seriously, leading them to look for ways to stay out of the polls during the pandemic, experts on both sides of the aisle said.

In total, Texans cast 1 million absentee ballots before Election Day, up from less than 500,000 in 2016, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

[…]

In November, about 39% of all ballot-by-mail voters had most recently voted in the Democratic primary, compared to about 26% who had most recently voted in the Republican primary, said GOP consultant and data analyst Derek Ryan, who tracks statewide voting trends. The rest did not vote in the primaries, Ryan said. Just over 2 million people voted in each primary in March.

That’s almost a complete flip from 2016, when 41% of people who voted by mail in the general election had voted in the Republican primary, while only 26% had voted in the Democratic primary, Ryan said.

More than 120,000 mail-in voters in November had never voted in a primary or general election before, Ryan said.

Overall, the influx of mail-in votes for Democrats didn’t give them a notable advantage, given that the GOP kept their majorities in state offices.

What it means for the future of participation in mail voting in Texas remains to be seen after an outlier year in which the pandemic led to an election unlike any other.

The story has more data about how voting by mail went in 2020, and quotes a friend of mine who’s a COVID long-hauler and took advantage of voting by mail for the first time this year because her health is now fragile. Some of this data we’ve discussed before, mostly from the daily early voting reports that Derek Ryan was putting out.

My personal sense is that for all the obvious reasons 2020 was mostly an outlier, and will not cause a large change in voting behavior. To the extent that it does cause changes, it will be mostly from the over-65 crowd that is already allowed to vote by mail. There may be some lasting damage to Republican vote by mail efforts, but as that did not appear to have any significant effect on the past election, it’s unlikely to have much effect on future elections. I think there is some risk inherent in a “do most of your voting on Election Day” strategy that hasn’t been discussed, and that’s the greater risk that an exogenous event on Election Day, such as bad weather or physical problems like a sewer overflow, that can have a negative effect on turnout. Not my problem, of course, and if it ever does happen in a way that might affect the outcome of an election, the irony will be so rich it will clog your arteries.

That said, there has been a multi-year effort by Democrats to push voting by mail for eligible voters. The HCDP has been aggressively pushing mail ballot applications to its over-65 voters for several cycles now, and there are similar programs being done by the TDP and other county parties. I don’t see that changing, and it may well be that more people respond to those entreaties in future years, but by its nature this is somewhat limited. The total number of mail ballots returned in Harris County in 2020 was about 180K, making it about 10.8% of all ballots cast last year. In 2016, there were 101K mail ballots cast, which was 7.6% of the total. It’s just not that big a change.

Really, the seismic change in 2020 was the shift to early in-person voting, where nearly as many people voted in 2020 (1,273,936) as in all of 2016 (1,338,898). That was aided by the third week of early voting, which we won’t have going forward barring any changes to the law, as well as the intense interest in that election. That’s a change in behavior that I could see sticking, as was the case with early voting after the 2008 election. Before 2008, it was assumed that less than half the vote came in early. In recent elections before 2020, the general wisdom was that about 70 to 75% of the vote was early (including vote by mail). In 2020, almost 88% of the vote was cast before Election Day. Maybe it won’t be quite that high in 2022 and 2024, but I think the expectation is that early voting is make or break, and Election Day matters that much less. (Which, to be fair, mitigates that risk I spoke of earlier. As we just saw in Georgia, though, if you’re not getting your voters out early, you may not be able to catch up later.)

Even then, this was one year, and who knows what the next election will bring. Also, as discussed elsewhere, this pattern holds much more for even-year elections than odd-year elections. We kind of get the year off in 2021, as there are no city of Houston races to be had, though there are some races of interest elsewhere in the state. If there’s one lesson to be taken from the 2020 voting experience, I say it’s that people liked having options for how and where and when to vote. To the extent that Republicans try to take that away, which remains to be seen, the Dems should be up front about the fact that we like having those options as well, and we think they should be a permanent feature of our elections. Vote how you want, we say.

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

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

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

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

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

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

There was also this.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early voting for HD68 special election starts today

Assume this will go to a runoff.

Sen. Drew Springer

Four Republicans and one Democrat have filed for the special election to replace state Sen.-elect Drew Springer, R-Muenster, in the Texas House.

The filing deadline for the Jan. 23 election was 5 p.m. [last] Monday.

The four GOP candidates for the seat in rural northwest Texas, which is safely Republican, are:

  • John Berry, a Jacksboro financial planner
  • Jason Brinkley, Cooke County judge
  • Craig Carter, a former candidate for overlapping Texas Senate District 30
  • David Spiller, a Jacksboro attorney and Jacksboro school board trustee

The sole Democratic candidate is Charles D. Gregory, a retired postal worker from Childress, according to the secretary of state’s office.

See here for the background. I don’t know anything about any of these candidates, so at this time I have no clue who is worth rooting for, or against. There will be two Republicans in the runoff – the district is way too Republican for any other possibility – so it’s a question of which if any are normal Republicans, and which are the “smear themselves in paint, put on fur and a Viking helmet, and storm the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the government” type of Republican. If you have any comments on these candidates, please let us know.

Taking the STAAR online

If we’re going to have the thing, then this makes sense.

Texas education officials want all public school students to take state-required standardized tests digitally by 2022, an effort that could cost school districts millions more collectively each year, according to a report released Monday.

The report, created by the Texas Education Agency and commissioned by state leaders, estimated school districts would have to make a one-time payment of about $4 million total to improve internet connectivity, and then spend about $13.4 million more annually for extra bandwidth and staff training. Many of the districts that need to increase funding are small and rural.

That investment would allow nearly all students to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, online by the 2022-23 school year, according to the report. That excludes students who may need paper tests due to disabilities or other special cases.

“Benefits of online assessments include the potential for faster results, the potential for customizable assessment, more engaging assessment questions, reduced operational complexity and paper waste, better test security, improved administration and more equitable access to accommodation supports for students,” the report reads.

In 2018-19, just 13% of STAAR tests were administered online, many for students who needed accommodations due to disabilities.

It makes sense, for the reasons stated, and spending the money to upgrade the schools that need the equipment is a good investment. The Lege needs to approve the plan, and I figure that’s likely to happen. I’m not a big fan of the STAAR, but as I said, if we’re going to have it, this is the way to do it.

CM Jackson’s residency questioned

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Tarsha Jackson

The election in Houston city council’s District B was put on hold for a year as courts addressed whether one of the two finalists for the seat, Cynthia Bailey, was eligible to run for office.

Now, the winner of last month’s runoff, Tarsha Jackson, is drawing scrutiny of her own, just weeks after she prevailed against Bailey and took office at City Hall as District B’s city council member.

Some civic leaders in District B are asking the city attorney’s office to review Jackson’s eligibility because she lives in a portion of Harris County that Houston annexed for limited purposes. Residents in those areas can vote in city elections — Jackson’s voter registration shows she lives in District B — but state law appears to bar them from running for office. The Texas Local Government Code says residents in those areas are “not eligible to be a candidate for or to be elected to a municipal office.”

A city map of Houston annexations shows the north Houston address where Jackson lives was annexed by the city in 2002. The city planning department said it was a limited purpose annexation, in which the city does not collect property taxes but can levy a sales tax. Jackson does not pay city property taxes on her home, according to the Harris County Appraisal District.

That could make Jackson ineligible, although the city has not taken a stand on the issue. City Attorney Arturo Michel declined an interview request.

[…]

The city does not vet candidates’ addresses in determining eligibility. Instead, city attorneys confirm the address listed is in the district they hope to represent. The mayor’s office said in 2019 it declared eight candidates ineligible after those checks and others to ensure candidates have marked a box swearing they have not been convicted of a felony. More than 100 people ran for city council in 2019.

Jackson, a criminal justice organizer, said she did not know about the phrasing in the Local Governmental Code or her neighborhood’s annexation history. She votes in District B elections and said she did not have any concern about eligibility. Jackson said she disclosed her address on her ballot application and the city allowed her to run. She said her mind is on getting to work for District B residents.

“I’ve been forthright on everything when I applied to run to represent the residents of District B. My address is on all the documentation,” Jackson said. “I looked at the criteria we needed to run, and as far as I’m concerned, I met that criteria.”

She was sworn in by Mayor Sylvester Turner on Dec. 21.

Doug Ray, an Austin-based attorney with Ray & Wood who specializes in election law, said it is possible someone could pursue what is called a quo warranto lawsuit, a special type of filing designed to challenge officeholders. The county or district attorney would have to bring the suit themselves, or on behalf of another individual if they approve the claim.

“It’s within their discretion, and if they don’t sign on, it would be subject to dismissal,” Ray said, referring to the county and district attorneys.

He said the annexation question gets complicated based on the different types. The planning department said Jackson’s neighborhood is part of a limited purpose annexation through a strategic partnership with a municipal utility district.

“Assuming all those things are true … that limitation would apply,” Ray said of the barrier on running for office.

Man, I don’t know what to say. As the story notes, the city generally doesn’t enforce this unless there’s a complaint or it’s otherwise brought to their attention, as was the case with Michelle Bonton in 2019. On the one hand, the uneven nature of the enforcement is frustrating, and we always seem to hear about these things at a time when it’s too late to do anything about them. I generally have no patience for non-city of Houston people who try to run for city of Houston offices. (Plenty of them find various ways to bend the rules to make themselves appear eligible – I can think of at least one other serving right now.) This case feels more like a technicality, but one should probably be aware if one is paying city of Houston property taxes or not, especially if one is planning to file for a city office. Against all that, there was a ton of time for this information to come out, and the people of District B waited a long time for this election. What are we supposed to do with this information now? I guess we’ll see if someone pursues this. I don’t know what else to say.

Another way Ken Paxton is costing you money

He’s something else, this guy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas may pay tens of millions of dollars to outside attorneys hired to handle a major lawsuit against Google — money the state did not plan to spend before a scandal enveloped Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this fall.

That’s under agreements signed last month with outside lawyers based in Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C., including high-profile plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Lanier and the law firm Keller Lenkner, who will lead Texas’ multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

The lawsuit came out of a Texas-led investigation launched more than a year ago. But until fall 2020, top agency staff intended to handle the case internally, instead of paying costly outside lawyers, a former senior Paxton aide told The Texas Tribune. The Associated Press first reported the timeline on Tuesday.

Jeff Mateer, who led the attorney general’s office for years as Paxton’s top deputy, said that when he resigned in October, the agency had no intention of hiring outside lawyers. Darren McCarty, another senior attorney, was leading an internal team on the case.

“Darren was more than able to do it,” Mateer told the AP.

But Mateer and McCarty were among the eight whistleblowers who left the agency after telling law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by doing favors for a political donor. Both resigned last fall, part of a notable exodus of the agency’s top staff.

The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation, but Paxton has insisted that the agency’s work has not been interrupted by the criminal investigation of him. Still, the contracts for the Google lawyers are an early indication of what cost taxpayers may bear for the latest drama surrounding Texas’ embattled attorney general.

The attorney general’s office will ask the Legislature for $43 million to pay the outside lawyers, according to a contract obtained by The Texas Tribune. If lawmakers do not grant that money — which may be a tall order during what’s expected to be a tight budget debate — the outside attorneys will be paid solely out of whatever monetary damages are recovered from Google, dollars that would have otherwise flowed into state coffers.

[…]

The expensive outside counsel contracts were inked in December, the same day the case was filed in federal court. The law firms were brought on only after the agency staff leading the probe fled the attorney general’s office in the wake of a fresh Paxton scandal.

Lanier told the Tribune he met with Paxton in Austin in November to discuss the possibility of working on the case, and emphasized that his team’s work was not intended to be “a big financial bonanza for the Lanier firm,” but rather to force a major restructuring of Google.

Lanier has given political contributions to Paxton, among a number of other top Texas officials.

The case, which comes alongside a number of other major government lawsuits against Google and other tech giants, takes aim at the company’s advertising practices.

Though it’s not yet clear exactly how much Texas could end up losing to the outside attorneys, it could be a massive figure. The outside lawyers’ contingency fee will either be based on an hourly rate equation — which could net the most senior attorneys as much as $3780 per hour — or be calculated as a percentage of the total Google settlement, whichever is less.

See here for the last update on the latest Paxton scandal. I will try, at least for a moment, to be as objective as I can about this. Paying the fee up front is a hedge against having to cough up a much larger amount of a hypothetical future award or settlement agreement, not to mention the time and effort it will surely take to haggle over the proper cut of said award. Lawyers cost money, this is going to run into some bucks no matter how you slice it, may as well get some certainty.

On the other hand:

1) The plaintiffs may lose this lawsuit, or have it overturned or any award reduced on appeal. We’d also be splitting any award a couple dozen ways, so it would have to be pretty freaking big for the attorneys’ cut to be more than $43 million.

2) Any future award is just that, in the future, likely years in the future. $43 million bucks now is worth more than an equivalent amount in, say, 2027. This is why Lottery winners who get the up-front payout instead of the over-20-years payout get a lot less than the stated prize amount.

3) Not to put too fine a point on it, but we don’t have an extra $43 million lying around right now. Yeah, sure, Rainy Day Fund yadda yadda yadda, but we know how that works. And yeah, $43 million is couch money compared to the real budget, but what would you rather spend it on this biennium – Ken Paxton’s fancy outside attorneys, or vaccines and the people to administer them? I know where my money would go.

4) Again not to nitpick, but if Ken Paxton hadn’t been a fucking awful Attorney General, we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. He drove off the senior staff who could have handled this in house. Every dollar that Texas loses out on as a result of this, either up front or down the line, is his fault.

So yeah, I’m a big No on paying the outside attorneys at this time. I’ll roll the dice on the future award being either sufficiently small that the contingency fee is a bargain compared to the $43 million, or so freaking enormous that who cares if the Lanier firm makes out like bandits. And maybe, just maybe, we can get a new Attorney General in 2022 and we can hire another good senior staff, and maybe take the case back from the outsiders. I’ll be very, very interested to see what the Republicans in the Legislature make of this.

The Senate outlines its opening plans

Seems inadequate to me, but what do I know?

All Texas senators attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be tested for the coronavirus and media and public access to the chamber will be limited, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Monday morning.

In a public memo, Patrick outlined a list of protocols for the Texas Senate’s Jan. 12 opening day, which typically sees the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and families.

“Senators have agreed to a much shorter opening day ceremony to reduce the time spent in a large gathering,” he wrote. “The Senate is reducing all ceremonial events and gatherings this session to focus solely on their constitutional legislative duties.”

Access to the Senate floor will be restricted to lawmakers and one family member at each senator’s desk. There will be no floor seating outside the brass rail or anywhere else on the Senate floor — a stark difference from past years when the chamber floor was fully in use for family and guest seating.

A pool of four members of the media who have been granted credentials will be allowed in the second-floor gallery on opening day. In normal times, credentialed members of the media are allowed to sit at a table on the Senate floor.

Each lawmaker or incoming member will have three guest seats for family, friends or constituents in the gallery, a move Patrick said will limit the gallery to fewer than 100 guests and ensure space for social distancing. Patrick’s memo made no mention of masks and it was not immediately clear whether masks would be required in the chamber. The state House has announced that it will require them on opening day.

See here and here for the background. Visitors to the Capitol are required to wear masks, but Senators are special, so you know. They’re also, you know, old: Bob Hall, Chuy Hinojosa, Eddie Lucio, Robert Nichols, John Whitmire, and Judith Zaffirini – not to mention our very own Dan Patrick – are all over 70, and at least five others are over 60. I hate to be morbid, but just in the past week we’ve learned of two state legislators and one incoming member of Congress who died from COVID, and all of them were younger than that. Maybe everyone will show up wearing masks and it won’t be a big deal, but I cannot get over the casualness. Even worse, I’m not sure that someone in the Lege dying of COVID will change anyone’s behavior or beliefs. All I know is, I’m glad I don’t have to be there, and I fear for everyone who does.

State Capitol reopens to the public today

From Twitter:

The Capitol grounds had reopened three weeks ago, but the building itself remained closed until today. This doesn’t address how the Legislature will operate – note the last paragraph for how that is deferred to the two chambers – so you will almost certainly be free to remove your mask and breathe in Rep. Briscoe Cain’s face at your discretion. We’ll know what the Lege has in mind for its own operations next Tuesday.

No consensus on partisan judicial elections

Even the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection can’t agree.

There’s always been room for disagreement on the question of how to select judges in Texas. That won’t change in recommendations by the Lone Star State’s latest commission looking at the issue.

With a report to the Texas Legislature coming due this month, the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection met on Friday to vote on the recommendations it would include for Texas lawmakers to consider. The commission members’ votes were split down the middle when they were asked if Texas should stop electing judges as Republicans or Democrats and switch to a method where a commission initially appoints judges, who then run in retention elections. But the members found more agreement with smaller reforms, such as increasing the minimum qualifications to be a judge or further regulating how judges can use money in their campaigns.

When the final report comes out, it will say that Texas should not continue with partisan judicial elections. But that decision was highly divisive, with an 8-7 vote.

Most of the “no” votes came from Texas senators and representatives—both Republicans and Democrats—who serve on the commission. If their view is similar to their colleagues in the Texas Legislature, the recommendation has a slim-to-none chance of passing the lawmaking body.

“Constituents have relayed to me they do not want to have their rights taken away from them on judges they want to serve on these benches,” said Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he would not take away Texans’ constitutional rights.

“I’m going to be voting to stay with the current method of partisan selection, but I’m encouraging us to increase qualifications on the judges,” he said.

Considering that a majority of the commission did vote to recommend eliminating partisan judge races, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she would not sign off on the commission’s report, and did not want her name associated with it, unless the report clearly explained her disagreement.

“We’re going to set forth exactly what the vote was, so everyone knows what they are agreeing to and what they are not,” replied commission Chairman David Beck, a partner in Beck Redden in Houston who added that Huffman could write a separate statement in the report about her viewpoint.

Another divisive vote asked if the commission should recommend that Texas create a judicial selection commission that would initially appoint judges to the bench, and then they would run in retention elections to keep their seats. The commission was tied on the idea by a 7-7 vote, with one member abstaining. Again, it was the legislator-members of the commission who said no.

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, and I said quite a bit of it in those two posts, so I’ll leave it at that. The Commission‘s report is due today, so we’ll see what they have to say. They did find more agreement on questions of mandating more experience for judicial candidates and for further regulating campaign contributions for judicial races. As a philosophical matter, I’m fine with those ideas, though of course the details will matter. The bottom line here seems to be that there’s zero appetite in the Legislature to make fundamental changes to our judicial election system. As I’ve said many times, until someone actually comes up with a viable alternate system that addresses the actual complaints people have with the current system without introducing other problems, this is how it should be.

UPDATE: Here’s a Trib story about this.

HD68 special election set

Welcome to your first election of 2021.

Sen. Drew Springer

Gov. Greg Abbott has selected Jan. 23 as the date of the special election to fill the seat of state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, who recently won a promotion to the Texas Senate.

The candidate filing deadline is a week away — Jan. 4 — and early voting begins a week after that.

Springer is headed to the upper chamber after winning the Dec. 19 special election runoff to replace Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, who is on his way to Congress next month.

Springer’s House District 68 is safely Republican. It covers a rural swath wrapping from north of the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs up into the Panhandle.

At least two Republicans have already announced campaigns for the House seat. They are Jason Brinkley, who is resigning as Cooke County judge to run for the seat, and David Spiller, a Jacksboro attorney and Jacksboro ISD trustee.

The Jan. 23 date means that Springer’s successor could be sworn in early in the 140-day legislative session, which begins Jan. 12. State law gives Abbott the power to order a sped-up special election when a vacancy occurs within 60 days of the session.

See here for the background. “Safe Republican” is almost an understatement – as noted, Ted Cruz got over 83% of the vote in 2018 in HD68. When Springer’s successor could be sworn in is more a function of whether or not there’s a runoff – that’s the difference between a January swearing-in, and one in March. This is the only special legislative election on the docket at this time. That can vary a lot from cycle to cycle – there were multiple special elections and runoffs in 2015 and 2019, none in 2011 and 2017, and one in 2013. The House will move forward with 149 members until this is resolved in HD68.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 2

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1

Here’s the more traditional look at the Court of Appeals races. Unlike the Supreme Court and CCA, all of these races just have two candidates, so we get a purer view of each district’s partisan measure.


Dist    Chris    Robsn  Chris%  Robsn%
======================================
CD02  184,964  152,768  54.77%  45.23%
CD07  157,736  147,670  51.65%  48.35%
CD08   26,431   14,916  63.92%  36.08%
CD09   39,195  119,621  24.68%  75.32%
CD10  104,717   59,540  63.75%  36.25%
CD18   62,244  178,810  25.82%  74.18%
CD22   22,412   20,080  52.74%  47.26%
CD29   51,407  100,718  33.79%  66.21%
CD36   84,772   47,797  63.95%  36.05%
				
SBOE4 111,462  333,791  25.03%  74.97%
SBOE6 398,123  345,585  53.53%  46.47%
SBOE8 224,293  162,545  57.98%  42.02%
				
SD04   56,898   22,562  71.61%  28.39%
SD06   59,896  116,837  33.89%  66.11%
SD07  241,721  170,662  58.62%  41.38%
SD11   79,273   46,425  63.07%  36.93%
SD13   39,578  158,975  19.93%  80.07%
SD15  118,283  192,558  38.05%  61.95%
SD17  122,640  122,169  50.10%  49.90%
SD18   15,589   11,734  57.05%  42.95%
				
HD126  39,903   33,263  54.54%  45.46%
HD127  55,384   34,979  61.29%  38.71%
HD128  49,071   21,878  69.16%  30.84%
HD129  49,357   34,835  58.62%  41.38%
HD130  71,485   31,992  69.08%  30.92%
HD131  10,547   44,331  19.22%  80.78%
HD132  51,970   48,189  51.89%  48.11%
HD133  52,531   35,414  59.73%  40.27%
HD134  51,636   55,503  48.20%  51.80%
HD135  37,498   36,828  50.45%  49.55%
HD137  10,775   20,855  34.07%  65.93%
HD138  32,788   30,669  51.67%  48.33%
HD139  16,375   44,551  26.88%  73.12%
HD140   9,795   21,511  31.29%  68.71%
HD141   7,493   35,952  17.25%  82.75%
HD142  14,378   41,649  25.66%  74.34%
HD143  12,559   24,038  34.32%  65.68%
HD144  14,250   16,410  46.48%  53.52%
HD145  15,600   26,725  36.86%  63.14%
HD146  11,819   43,211  21.48%  78.52%
HD147  16,024   52,771  23.29%  76.71%
HD148  23,255   36,320  39.03%  60.97%
HD149  22,187   30,741  41.92%  58.08%
HD150  57,197   39,304  59.27%  40.73%
				
CC1    97,397  278,086  25.94%  74.06%
CC2   154,992  143,474  51.93%  48.07%
CC3   234,325  208,116  52.96%  47.04%
CC4   247,164  212,247  53.80%  46.20%
				
JP1    97,730  161,507  37.70%  62.30%
JP2    35,419   48,550  42.18%  57.82%
JP3    53,112   67,814  43.92%  56.08%
JP4   239,927  183,854  56.62%  43.38%
JP5   210,230  213,175  49.65%  50.35%
JP6     8,570   26,891  24.17%  75.83%
JP7    19,569   99,806  16.39%  83.61%
JP8    69,321   40,326  63.22%  36.78%


Dist    Lloyd   Molloy  Lloyd% Molloy%
======================================
CD02  182,465  155,019  54.07%  45.93%
CD07  155,392  149,641  50.94%  49.06%
CD08   26,105   15,215  63.18%  36.82%
CD09   38,009  120,873  23.92%  76.08%
CD10  103,826   60,311  63.26%  36.74%
CD18   59,729  181,164  24.79%  75.21%
CD22   22,012   20,440  51.85%  48.15%
CD29   47,790  104,691  31.34%  68.66%
CD36   83,738   48,699  63.23%  36.77%
			
SBOE4 105,088  340,408  23.59%  76.41%
SBOE6 392,723  350,361  52.85%  47.15%
SBOE8 221,255  165,285  57.24%  42.76%
				
SD04   56,516   22,841  71.22%  28.78%
SD06   55,876  121,303  31.54%  68.46%
SD07  238,891  173,275  57.96%  42.04%
SD11   78,393   47,111  62.46%  37.54%
SD13   38,185  160,335  19.23%  80.77%
SD15  114,913  195,701  37.00%  63.00%
SD17  120,892  123,589  49.45%  50.55%
SD18   15,400   11,900  56.41%  43.59%
				
HD126  39,359   33,787  53.81%  46.19%
HD127  54,725   35,562  60.61%  39.39%
HD128  48,591   22,310  68.53%  31.47%
HD129  48,813   35,233  58.08%  41.92%
HD130  71,017   32,409  68.66%  31.34%
HD131   9,999   44,913  18.21%  81.79%
HD132  51,123   48,982  51.07%  48.93%
HD133  52,075   35,754  59.29%  40.71%
HD134  50,815   56,050  47.55%  52.45%
HD135  36,859   37,440  49.61%  50.39%
HD137  10,494   21,131  33.18%  66.82%
HD138  32,143   31,246  50.71%  49.29%
HD139  15,702   45,174  25.79%  74.21%
HD140   8,932   22,448  28.46%  71.54%
HD141   6,966   36,461  16.04%  83.96%
HD142  13,717   42,333  24.47%  75.53%
HD143  11,615   25,061  31.67%  68.33%
HD144  13,600   17,131  44.25%  55.75%
HD145  14,768   27,651  34.81%  65.19%
HD146  11,569   43,424  21.04%  78.96%
HD147  15,344   53,409  22.32%  77.68%
HD148  22,543   37,048  37.83%  62.17%
HD149  21,838   31,134  41.23%  58.77%
HD150  56,458   39,961  58.55%  41.45%
				
CC1    93,785  281,473  24.99%  75.01%
CC2   150,775  147,845  50.49%  49.51%
CC3   231,120  210,968  52.28%  47.72%
CC4   243,386  215,770  53.01%  46.99%
				
JP1    94,795  164,261  36.59%  63.41%
JP2    33,861   50,188  40.29%  59.71%
JP3    51,723   69,237  42.76%  57.24%
JP4   236,701  186,804  55.89%  44.11%
JP5   206,960  216,197  48.91%  51.09%
JP6     7,778   27,817  21.85%  78.15%
JP7    18,795  100,517  15.75%  84.25%
JP8    68,453   41,035  62.52%  37.48%


Dist    Adams   Guerra  Adams% Guerra%
======================================
CD02  184,405  152,836  54.68%  45.32%
CD07  157,212  147,381  51.61%  48.39%
CD08   26,351   14,919  63.85%  36.15%
CD09   38,998  119,778  24.56%  75.44%
CD10  104,820   59,234  63.89%  36.11%
CD18   61,326  179,332  25.48%  74.52%
CD22   22,218   20,211  52.37%  47.63%
CD29   48,121  104,386  31.55%  68.45%
CD36   84,501   47,871  63.84%  36.16%
			
SBOE4 107,293  337,920  24.10%  75.90%
SBOE6 397,124  345,286  53.49%  46.51%
SBOE8 223,535  162,743  57.87%  42.13%
				
SD04   56,904   22,386  71.77%  28.23%
SD06   56,357  120,880  31.80%  68.20%
SD07  241,466  170,348  58.63%  41.37%
SD11   79,098   46,319  63.07%  36.93%
SD13   39,476  158,887  19.90%  80.10%
SD15  116,690  193,656  37.60%  62.40%
SD17  122,412  121,729  50.14%  49.86%
SD18   15,549   11,745  56.97%  43.03%
				
HD126  39,813   33,289  54.46%  45.54%
HD127  55,237   34,999  61.21%  38.79%
HD128  48,957   21,899  69.09%  30.91%
HD129  49,340   34,653  58.74%  41.26%
HD130  71,559   31,806  69.23%  30.77%
HD131  10,266   44,574  18.72%  81.28%
HD132  51,808   48,208  51.80%  48.20%
HD133  52,597   35,086  59.99%  40.01%
HD134  51,370   55,317  48.15%  51.85%
HD135  37,274   36,945  50.22%  49.78%
HD137  10,724   20,876  33.94%  66.06%
HD138  32,559   30,808  51.38%  48.62%
HD139  16,147   44,644  26.56%  73.44%
HD140   8,966   22,430  28.56%  71.44%
HD141   7,254   36,084  16.74%  83.26%
HD142  14,142   41,863  25.25%  74.75%
HD143  11,744   24,953  32.00%  68.00%
HD144  13,658   17,072  44.45%  55.55%
HD145  14,824   27,584  34.96%  65.04%
HD146  11,928   43,032  21.70%  78.30%
HD147  15,656   53,073  22.78%  77.22%
HD148  22,757   36,812  38.20%  61.80%
HD149  22,195   30,784  41.89%  58.11%
HD150  57,176   39,156  59.35%  40.65%
				
CC1    95,892  278,971  25.58%  74.42%
CC2   152,017  146,563  50.91%  49.09%
CC3   233,933  207,769  52.96%  47.04%
CC4   246,110  212,648  53.65%  46.35%
				
JP1    95,938  162,864  37.07%  62.93%
JP2    34,099   49,931  40.58%  59.42%
JP3    52,405   68,430  43.37%  56.63%
JP4   239,343  183,827  56.56%  43.44%
JP5   209,649  213,147  49.59%  50.41%
JP6     7,852   27,792  22.03%  77.97%
JP7    19,566   99,631  16.41%  83.59%
JP8    69,100   40,329  63.15%  36.85%


Dist     Wise    Craft   Wise%  Craft%
======================================
CD02  187,076  150,161  55.47%  44.53%
CD07  160,323  144,461  52.60%  47.40%
CD08   26,468   14,814  64.12%  35.88%
CD09   39,255  119,480  24.73%  75.27%
CD10  105,224   58,786  64.16%  35.84%
CD18   62,464  178,398  25.93%  74.07%
CD22   22,479   19,942  52.99%  47.01%
CD29   51,350  100,685  33.78%  66.22%
CD36   85,152   47,195  64.34%  35.66%
				
SBOE4 111,160  333,956  24.97%  75.03%
SBOE6 403,452  338,891  54.35%  45.65%
SBOE8 225,179  161,076  58.30%  41.70%
				
SD04   57,202   22,111  72.12%  27.88%
SD06   59,943  116,758  33.92%  66.08%
SD07  242,902  168,936  58.98%  41.02%
SD11   79,698   45,696  63.56%  36.44%
SD13   39,579  158,895  19.94%  80.06%
SD15  119,640  190,784  38.54%  61.46%
SD17  125,186  119,108  51.24%  48.76%
SD18   15,641   11,636  57.34%  42.66%
				
HD126  40,122   32,983  54.88%  45.12%
HD127  55,653   34,618  61.65%  38.35%
HD128  49,175   21,666  69.42%  30.58%
HD129  49,744   34,245  59.23%  40.77%
HD130  71,894   31,468  69.56%  30.44%
HD131  10,420   44,469  18.98%  81.02%
HD132  52,080   47,898  52.09%  47.91%
HD133  53,487   34,292  60.93%  39.07%
HD134  53,678   53,121  50.26%  49.74%
HD135  37,617   36,577  50.70%  49.30%
HD137  10,841   20,738  34.33%  65.67%
HD138  33,111   30,252  52.26%  47.74%
HD139  16,338   44,533  26.84%  73.16%
HD140   9,677   21,649  30.89%  69.11%
HD141   7,162   36,255  16.50%  83.50%
HD142  14,336   41,735  25.57%  74.43%
HD143  12,465   24,123  34.07%  65.93%
HD144  14,238   16,400  46.47%  53.53%
HD145  15,761   26,507  37.29%  62.71%
HD146  12,019   42,980  21.85%  78.15%
HD147  16,327   52,404  23.75%  76.25%
HD148  24,026   35,407  40.43%  59.57%
HD149  22,369   30,513  42.30%  57.70%
HD150  57,250   39,088  59.43%  40.57%
				
CC1    98,291  276,873  26.20%  73.80%
CC2   155,580  142,504  52.19%  47.81%
CC3   236,903  204,782  53.64%  46.36%
CC4   249,017  209,766  54.28%  45.72%
				
JP1   100,430  158,362  38.81%  61.19%
JP2    35,440   48,448  42.25%  57.75%
JP3    52,981   67,919  43.82%  56.18%
JP4   240,598  182,662  56.84%  43.16%
JP5   212,371  210,308  50.24%  49.76%
JP6     8,629   26,793  24.36%  75.64%
JP7    19,649   99,743  16.46%  83.54%
JP8    69,693   39,690  63.71%  36.29%

If you just went by these results, you might think Dems did worse overall in Harris County than they actually did. None of the four candidates carried CD07, and only Veronica Rivas-Molloy carried HD135. They all still carried Harris County, by margins ranging from 6.0 to 8.7 points and 94K to 137K votes, but it’s clear they could have done better, and as we well know, even doing a little better would have carried Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft (who, despite her low score here still lost overall by less than 20K votes out of over 2.3 million ballots cast) to victory.

I don’t have a good explanation for any of this. Maybe the Libertarian candidates that some statewide races had a bigger effect on those races than we think. Maybe the incumbents had an advantage that enabled them to get a better share of the soft partisan vote. Maybe the Chron endorsements helped the incumbents. And maybe the lack of straight ticket voting did matter. The undervote rate in these races was around 4.7%, which is pretty low, but in 2018 it was around 2.7%. Picking on the Robinson race again, had the undervote rate been 2.7% instead of the 4.68% it actually was, there would have been an additional 36,154 votes cast. At the same 53.43% rate for Robinson, she would have received another 19,317 votes, with Tracy Christopher getting 16,837. That’s a 2,480 vote net for Robinson, which would be enough for her to win, by 1,291 votes. Tamika Craft would still fall short, but Dems would have won three out of four races instead of just two.

Of course, we can’t just give straight ticket voting back to Harris County and not the other nine counties. I’m not going to run through the math for each county, but given that Christopher did better in the non-Harris Counties, we can assume she’s net a few votes in them if straight ticket voting were still in effect. Maybe it wouldn’t be enough – remember, there were far more votes in Harris than in the other nine, and the Republican advantage wasn’t that much bigger, so the net would be smaller. It’s speculation built on guesswork, and it’s all in service of making up for the fact that the Democratic candidates could have done better in Harris County with the votes that were cast than they did. Let’s not get too wishful in our thinking here.

So does this affect my advice from the previous post? Not really – we still need to build on what we’re already doing, and figure out how to do better in the places where we need to do better. Maybe a greater focus judicial races is needed, by which I mean more money spent to advertise the Democratic judicial slate. As we’ve observed, these are close races in what is clearly very swingy territory, at least for now. With close races, there’s a broad range of possible factors that could change the outcome. Pick your preference and get to work on it.

More on the TDP 2020 audit

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the final report, but I don’t have a clear idea of the objectives from this story.

[Unsuccessful State House candidate Brandy Chambers’] election night confusion mirrors the second-guessing going on within the Texas Democratic Party, the members of which received every advantage they hoped for in 2020 — enough campaign cash to keep pace with a well-funded GOP, a polarizing candidate at the top of the Republican ticket and historically high voter turnout — but still gained virtually nothing.

The early diagnosis: A national push to avoid in-person campaigning because of the pandemic was ruinous, especially with Latino voters who are key to the party’s fortunes in Texas. Early polls were skewed against conservatives and gave Democrats a false sense of security. Republicans effectively characterized calls to defund the police as a threat to public safety. And the party’s message did not connect with the average voter worried about recovering from the economic hurt inflicted by COVID-19.

Texas Democrats believe the lack of in-person campaign events and door-knocking especially hurt them come Election Day, as Republicans continued to meet with voters.

“This was probably the most difficult thing that we faced — the most impactful thing in our election,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “You had the Republican Party engaged in all of these races in a massive canvassing campaign and bragging about it. … We were left at a very, very severe disadvantage.”

Hinojosa said President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign had advised down-ballot candidates to avoid in-person events and that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued similar rules for its candidates, threatening to withhold funds from campaigns if they went door to door.

About two months before the election, Hinojosa said, he’d heard concerns from congressional candidates and organizers who said they “were having a hard time reaching Hispanic voters by the phone. … They really needed to be freed to knock on doors.”

But the national officials wouldn’t budge, he said.

A DCCC spokesman confirmed that there was a nationwide policy directing candidates not to canvass in person during the pandemic but denied that the organization threatened to take away funding from Texas Democrats if they persisted.

[…]

The members demanded 12 action items to move forward, including changes in senior leadership, the creation of a 10-year strategic plan and a request for assistance from states where Democrats had successfully run campaigns this cycle.

“The ultimate goal was ‘let’s start a conversation.’ It was not meant to be petty or divisive,” said Jen Ramos, a member of the state party’s executive committee and co-author of the letter. “We just decided that we’ve got to be firm about this but also really have a means to healing.”

[…]

“Republicans were talking about how we could keep you working,” [SDEC member and letter co-author Kendall] Scudder said. “Democrats were talking about shutting the economy down. Democrats were being the most responsible, but sometimes you don’t love the parent who spanks you. You love the parent that buys you candy.”

Scudder said the party must improve its communication with minority voters and stop pushing only issues that “we ascribe to them as important,” such as immigration for Latino voters or criminal justice reform for Black voters.

[Committee co-chair Chris] Hollins said the committee will meet soon to settle on an initial list of objectives. Revamping party messaging is at the top of his list, too — especially as it relates to the specific identity and goals of the Texas Democratic Party and how they differentiate from those of more liberal states.

See here for the background and some more information about the letter. While it’s important to really understand what happened and learn from it, I hope this committee looks forward at least as much as it looks back. Every election is unique in its own ways, and I think the conditions of 2020 are especially singular. We already know that there’s no debate about issue of in-person campaigning – everyone agrees it was a net negative, and no one has any plans to try it again, so it’s not like this is some new ongoing advantage the Republicans have gained. Figure out what if anything was good about the other forms of campaigning everyone did, recommend ways to build it into future campaigns, and more on.

As far as the messaging stuff goes, I feel like it’s the post-2004 election all over again, though at least this time we won the Presidency. So much time and effort and money and think-pieces were spent on What The Democrats’ Message Needs To Be and How Do We Connect With Those Bush Voters and so on, and then Hurricane Katrina happened and public opinion turned sour on the Iraq War, and Democrats dominated the next two elections. I’m not suggesting that things will magically turn around and get better, nor am I saying that the post-2004 effort had no lessons for us, but I am saying that events can and will shape the political environment in substantial and unforeseeable ways, and that’s why we need to be looking forward as much as possible, while doing everything we can to make the opportunity we have in front of us – fixing the economy, successfully rolling out the COVID vaccine, getting people back to work, protecting our democracy, and more – so that the future environment is as filled with recent positive achievements we can point to as possible. Nothing succeeds like success.

My viewpoint in that paragraph is affected greatly by this WaPo story about the national Democratic reckoning; it’s where the post-2004 parallels occurred to me, because so much of the language was familiar. Again, I agree there’s a ton of value in auditing what just happened so we can understand what went well and what did not, and what we can learn from each. I just don’t want to get too bogged down in that, because what we do now, over the next 12-18 months will, I guarantee you, have a bigger effect on the 2022 election. If we’ve made progress in making people’s lives better, and we’ve been up front about taking credit for it, which is one trick from the Trump playbook that we really do need to appropriate, then we’ll be in good shape.

One last thing, which I have not seen mentioned in any of these “what did Dems screw up in 2020” stories is the effect of disinformation, propaganda, and fake news on voters’ behavior. We are seeing the effect of the constant barrage of bullshit coming from Trump and too many Republican leaders to count in the lawsuits, the increasing threats of violence from riled-up fringe types, the outrageous legislation being proposed around the country, and so forth, but that barrage began well before the election, and it’s being aimed at immigrants and people of color as well, with the same dispiriting effect. There was plenty of evidence of this occurring before the election, and I personally believe it’s a key part of the explanation for why Trump did better among Latinos and Asian-Americans than he had done before. Any strategy to improve Democratic performance, whether in Texas or nationally, has to take this into account. We can’t stop the liars from lying, but we can and we must figure out a way to blunt the effect of that lying. If that’s not a pillar of our plans going forward, then those plans are inadequate and not meeting the moment.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions

My next two posts in this series will focus on the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals. These courts are a little strange electorally, as the elections cover ten counties in all, and over the past few elections they have proven to be pretty darned balanced. As we know, turnout in Harris County has gone up a lot in recent years, and the county has gone from evenly split to strongly blue, yet the balance in these ten counties persists. In this post, I’m going to do a bit of a historical review, to look at the trends and see if we can spot the underlying metrics.


2008 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.58%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,111,642  70.74%   585,249  52.65%
Others     459,704  29.26%   209,510  45.57%

2012 - 14th CoA Pl 3 (47.74%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,137,580  69.82%   580,356  51.01%
Others     491,673  30.18%   197,511  40.17%

2016 - 1st CoA Pl 4 (48.95%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,273,638  69.00%   671,908  52.76%
Others     572,258  31.00%   231,702  40.49%

2018 - 1st CoA Pl 2 (50.93%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,187,403  68.63%   647,398  54.52%
Others     542,765  31.37%   233,693  43.06%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.76%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,122  68.23%   856,056  54.35%
Others     733,364  31.77%   314,644  42.90%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 5 (50.10%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,903  68.24%   845,951  53.75%
Others     732,455  31.76%   309,497  42.25%

2020 - 14th CoA Chief Justice (49.97%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,801  68.23%   841,923  53.43%
Others     733,698  31.77%   312,231  42.56%

2020 - 14th CoA Pl 7 (49.57%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,716  68.25%   833,925  52.99%
Others     732,057  31.75%   309,115  42.23%

A couple of points of explanation here. For 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2018, I picked the top Democratic performer among the appellate court candidates. For 2008, that meant the one Democratic winner. In 2018, as every Dem won their race, I went with the candidate with the narrowest victory, since what I’m most interested in is the threshold needed to win. For 2020, I included all four candidates.

In each table, I separated out the total votes cast in that race from Harris County, and from all the other counties. “Share” is the share of the vote that came from Harris County, so in the 2008 race 70.74% of the total vote came from Harris County. “DemVotes” is the total number of votes the Democratic candidate got, in Harris and in the other counties, and “Dem%” is the percentage of the vote that Democratic candidate got.

We see that the share of the vote from Harris County has dropped every year, from over 70% in 2008 to a bit more than 68% this year. That doesn’t appear to be predictive of anything, as Dems swept these races in 2018 and won two out of four this year, with the lowest-performing Dem having (by a tiny amount) the largest Harris County vote share. The rise of Fort Bend County as a Democratic bastion has no doubt mitigated the shrinking contribution from Harris, but that points out again the importance of counties around Harris, as the reddening of Galveston and the smaller counties has kept these races competitive. One thing I hadn’t realized till I went through this exercise was that Waller County was quite close to even in 2008, but gave Republicans a 7K vote edge in 2020. Indeed, Dem candidates in Waller in 2020 were getting about the same number of votes as Dem candidates in Waller in 2008, after two cycles of failing to meet the 2008 number, as the Republican vote steadily climbed. As we have discussed before, Jane Robinson lost her race by 0.06 percentage points, or a bit more than a thousand votes out of over 1.5 million votes cast. In a race that close, you can point to many, many ways in which a small difference would have changed the outcome.

That’s one reason why these races interest me so much. For one, the appellate courts were a place where Dems made numerous pickups in 2020, yet still fell a bit short of expectations – I at least thought we’d win all four of these, given how well we’d done in 2018. But as you can see, it wasn’t quite to be. I don’t want to downplay the races we did win – Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra are both terrific candidates, and they are now the only Latinas on that court – I’m just greedy enough to have wanted more.

What’s frustrating to me is that I can’t tell what I think is the magic formula here. The difference between Guerra, who won by four thousand votes and 0.20 percentage points, and Robinson is tiny enough to be rounding error. The main difference is that Guerra won Harris County by ten thousand votes more than Robinson did, while Robinson did five thousand votes better in the other counties than Guerra did (she lost them by 421K while Guerra lost them by 426K). We know that Latinx candidates generally did better in Harris County this year than their peers, but that wasn’t the case outside Harris County. And even if it was, that’s not much of a lesson to learn. It was a game of inches, and we won one and lost one.

Ultimately, I think the path here is the same as the path I’ve described in the various “key counties” posts. We’re starting to move in the right direction in Brazoria County, and if we can keep that going that could be enough to tip the scales to the blue side on a longer-term basis. Basically, if we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll likely be at least competitive in these races, and if we can step it up a bit, especially but not exclusively in Brazoria, we can do better than that. Maybe not the deepest insight you’ll ever read, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Assuming that the judicial districts don’t get redrawn, which I suppose they could. In 2004, the First and Fourteenth districts included Burleson, Trinity, and Walker Counties plus the current ten. We’d have zero chance of winning these races if those three were added back in. I have no idea what the process or criteria for defining the judicial districts is. I’m just saying that if Republicans decided to do something about this, they probably could.)

Next up, I’ll do the district breakdown for these four races in Harris County. After that, more judicial races and then on to the other county races. As always, let me know what you think.

Springer defeats Luther in SD30

Congratulations.

Rep. Drew Springer

State Rep. Drew Springer of Muenster prevailed over fellow Republican Shelley Luther in a special election runoff for a state Senate seat that was animated by Gov. Greg Abbott and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Luther is the Dallas salon owner who was jailed earlier this year over her refusal to close her business due to coronavirus restrictions. Throughout the race, she was an outspoken critic of Abbott, who endorsed Springer in the runoff and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own campaign funds to beat back Luther in the race to succeed outgoing state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper.

[…]

Springer declared victory on social media, posting statements on Twitter and Facebook that said he would “continue advancing the conservative priorities of our district like reducing property taxes, securing the border, and standing up for our law enforcement and first responders who keep our communities safe.”

“I will fight to ensure Texas remains the premier place in the nation to do business, so we can unleash the private sector to create jobs and move us out of this recession,” he wrote.

Luther ran as a political outsider, attacking Springer as a tool of the “Austin swamp” who would go along to get along in the upper chamber. Springer campaigned as a proven conservative, arguing Luther could not be trusted.

When it came to the pandemic, Luther leaned heavily on her experience being sent to jail, labeling Abbott a “tyrant” over the business shutdowns he initiated and calling for a 2022 primary challenge to the governor. While not as bombastic, Springer also expressed disagreement with some of the governor’s coronavirus handling, even after earning Abbott’s endorsement.

See here for the background. Like I said, there were no good choices in this race, but but at least we’ve been spared the hot takes and national attention that a Luther win would have meant. Maybe now Shelley Luther will go back to being an obscure small business owner that none of us had to pay attention to or care about. We can hope for that much.

Springer’s win will also trigger another special election, to fill his seat in HD68. I presume Abbott will call that pretty quickly after Springer gets sworn in, since the session is about to begin. I’d expect it in late January, and any subsequent runoff would be in early March or so. Like SD30, this is a deep red district 83.3% for Ted Cruz in 2018), so the partisan balance is not in doubt. The only question is whether Springer’s replacement will be more like him, or more like Shelley Luther.

The Lege will start out with masks

We’ll see how it goes from there.

Rep. Charlie Geren

People attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be required to wear a mask and asked to take a coronavirus test ahead of the event, the chair of the House Administration Committee wrote in a memo to lawmakers Monday.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said there may be additional screenings or temperature checks upon entering the building for the festivities, which typically see the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and family. If a House member tests positive for the virus, he wrote, “arrangements will be made … to allow them to take the oath of office.”

“The duration of the ceremony will be shortened,” he wrote, “and there will be a significant reduction in the number of people admitted to the House floor and gallery.”

Access to the House floor will be restricted to lawmakers, essential staff, ceremony participants, temporary officers and approved guests, according to Geren. Members of the media, the public and additional guests who have been approved to attend the ceremony will be seated in the House gallery.

Each lawmaker or incoming member will have two guest seats for family or friends either on the chamber floor or in the gallery. Guest seats will be spaced approximately three and a half feet from each other side-to-side and staggered front to back, Geren wrote. That spacing, coupled with the requirement of a face mask, “is acceptable to medical professionals consulted by the House,” he wrote.

Geren also wrote that hand sanitation stations will be located outside the chamber and on members’ desks and that ultraviolet light disinfecting units will be used on the floor and in the gallery.

See here for the background. The Senate has not settled on its protocol yet, so this could theoretically be a one-chamber rule. The bigger question remains what if anything the House plans to do with anti-mask jackwads like Briscoe Cain, because I fully expect that those types will be present, and they will kick up a huge fuss if they’re not given the special treatment they believe they are entitled to. We could be getting things off to quite the inauspicious start. Not my problem, but I hope they have a plan.

Can we get enough people vaccinated?

It’s going to take a lot of work.

In poll after poll, alarming numbers say they don’t plan to be inoculated with the vaccine, whose 95 percent efficacy rate in trials exceeded everyone’s expectations. It’s scientists’ nightmare: create one of medicine’s landmark achievements only to have large numbers of people not bother to get it.

But that appears to be the reality. Although the numbers appear to have improved since drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna reported their impressive trial results last month, about 40 percent of Americans tell poll takers they don’t plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. In Texas, only 42 percent say they will.

Public health officials fear such numbers will hinder the campaign to shut down the greatest scourge since the 1918 Spanish influenza.

At stake is a possible squandering of the chance to get COVID-19 under control by late summer, to save countless lives that will be lost the longer it takes to stop the spread of the virus. Also at stake is an increased potential for a more lethal or contagious strain of the virus to emerge, always a threat as long as an infection continues to circulate.

“The hesitancy is bad for getting the population vaccinated to obtain herd or community immunity, which would allow for activities to become normal again,” said Kirstin Matthews, a fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “The Biden administration will need to find ways to gain public trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA to ensure communities take the vaccine.”

A national task force led by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Texas State University’s anthropology department added that “if poorly designed and executed, a COVID-19 vaccine campaign in the U.S. could undermine the increasingly tenuous belief in vaccines and public health authorities who recommend them, especially among people most at risk of COVID-19 impacts.”

[…]

Vaccine mistrust has been building for years, fueled by a small but growing movement that works to exempt children for “reasons of conscience” from school-required inoculations. But the COVID-19 vaccine has brought a new audience to such groups, like Texans for Vaccine Choice. Its leader told publications this summer that its phones were ringing off the hook with calls from people who said they’d gotten other vaccines but don’t want this one.

Neil Johnson, a physicist at George Washington University who studies anti-vaccine groups on social media, has estimated that in recent months, 10 percent of people on Facebook asking questions about vaccines have switched to anti-vaccine views.

“It’s going to be a bumpy road,” said Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine. “Given media scrutiny and an aggressive anti-vaxxer movement, particularly in Texas, any adverse vaccine events are going to be amplified.”

The story cites this Texas Tribune poll from October. I feel like things are probably a bit better now, mostly because it’s clear we will now have a competent administration that takes the pandemic seriously in charge of getting the vaccine out. For sure, messaging is going to be key to this, and all of us will need to play a part to make sure our family and friends have good information and make good choices. This Twitter thread has some good advice.

There will no doubt be significant resistance no matter what, and we may have to reach a point where we impose sanctions on people who could get the vaccine but haven’t. I don’t know what that might look like, and honestly I’m not sure if there’s a practical way to do what I’m suggesting. It’s way premature at this point anyway, but it’s best to be prepared for all possibilities. And as much as anything, we need to be prepared to fight off any effort in the Lege to coddle the anti-vaxxers, who already have had way too much influence, and success. If we can just avoid not making things worse, that will be a big win.

UPDATE: See this NPR story for evidence of growing confidence in the COVID vaccine.

Is Greg Abbott now an obstacle for Texas Central?

This Texas Monthly story suggests that maybe the answer to that question is Yes.

Earlier this year, after six years of legal battles brought by property owners and local governments, the rail project finally looked to be chugging along. Texas Central, the company behind it, had purchased six hundred parcels, or 40 percent of the land needed to build the project. In May, a victory at the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals asserted the business’s status as a railroad company with the power to exercise eminent domain—meaning that it can require owners to sell portions of their land in return for a “reasonable” price—though that ruling may be appealed to the state Supreme Court. This fall, the project received approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration, and Governor Greg Abbott wrote a letter to the Japanese government, a key investor in the project, voicing his support. The potential benefits of the rail seemed manifold. It would offer travelers a ninety-minute alternative to the four-hour drive between Dallas and Houston and relieve highway congestion that’s projected to double by 2035. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it would create thousands of high-paying jobs at a time when Texas is suffering from both a pandemic-related recession and an oil-price bust.

“The Texas High-Speed Train will be the first truly high-speed train in Texas and the United States, connecting North Texas, Houston and the Brazos Valley in less than 90 minutes, using the safest, most accessible, most efficient and environmentally friendly mass transportation system in the world today,” Texas Central spokesperson Erin Ragsdale wrote in a statement.

Abbott’s letter, however, sparked a firestorm among some of his longtime supporters. Even before the governor expressed support for the rail project, Meier said, her circle of friends had become increasingly wary of him because they believed he was pandering to liberal interests by imposing restrictions on some businesses during the early days of the pandemic. “I was the only one I know of that was still basically supporting him,” Meier said. “If he continues to support the [train], he will not get my vote, and I will passionately spread the word.”

Four days after Abbott penned his letter, his staff walked back his support, telling the Dallas Morning News that the governor intended to reevaluate his position out of concern for Texans’ property rights and because he was provided with “incomplete” information about the project. (His initial letter had indicated the railway had already obtained all the necessary permits to proceed, but, in fact, it still needs to receive approval from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency.) Abbott’s office did not make clear whether staff, pro-rail lobbyists, or another party had provided the information that allegedly misled him, nor did it respond to multiple requests for an interview about why he wrote the letter and later walked it back. Texas Central also declined multiple requests for interview about Abbott’s reversal. With the loss of the governor’s support, the train’s future faces new hurdles. Texas Central now lacks a strong advocate to ward against pending anti-high-speed rail bills in the upcoming Legislative session, and the company has lost a prominent voice asking investors to keep money flowing.

See here for the background. It’s hard to know what Abbott is thinking, but what is clear is that the strongest opposition to TCR comes from rural Republicans, who are the base of the party. While I think that on a philosophical level this project likely appeals to Abbott – indeed, TCR was designed from the beginning to appeal to Republicans, with its private-enterprise, no-government-funding ethos, and with Republican stalwarts like Robert Eckels among its leadership – he is for sure aware of which way the wind is blowing, and after a summer of vitriol from the wingnut faction he’s probably wary of starting another fight. What that means in terms of the upcoming legislative session is unclear, but we already know that TCR was playing defense. They may be facing a more potent offense than originally expected.

Precinct analysis: Comparing to 2012 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts

I had meant to get to this last week, but SeditionPalooza took up too much of my time, so here we are. The intent of this post is to compare vote totals in each of the State Rep districts from 2012 to 2016, from 2016 to 2020, and from 2012 to 2020. The vote totals compared are from the Presidential and Railroad Commissioner races for each of these years, and for the Senate races from 2012 and 2020, as there was no Senate race in 2016.

President

								
Dist   12-16 R   12-16D   16-20R   16-20D   12-20R   12-20D
===========================================================
HD126   -3,207    5,285    6,100    9,611    2,893   14,896
HD127     -931    6,042    8,547   12,707    7,616   18,749
HD128      124    2,272    8,728    6,208    8,852    8,480
HD129   -3,226    5,992    8,844   11,033    5,618   17,025
HD130    2,216    6,749   14,229   13,325   16,445   20,074
HD131     -649    2,707    4,306    6,683    3,657    9,390
HD132    3,065   10,267   15,786   20,304   18,851   30,571
HD133   -7,791    8,688    5,592   12,018   -2,199   20,706
HD134  -10,938   15,346    6,692   17,904   -4,246   33,250
HD135   -2,571    6,505    6,664   11,473    4,093   17,978
HD137     -537    2,443    2,451    4,167    1,914    6,610
HD138   -2,804    6,451    6,537    9,433    3,733   15,884
HD139   -1,294    1,187    4,847    6,854    3,553    8,041
HD140     -733    4,416    4,146    1,855    3,413    6,271
HD141      222     -681    2,604    4,453    2,826    3,772
HD142      290    2,084    4,703    8,880    4,993   10,964
HD143   -1,042    3,226    4,500    1,495    3,458    4,721
HD144   -1,039    3,561    4,057    1,523    3,018    5,084
HD145   -1,291    5,594    5,310    5,088    4,019   10,682
HD146   -1,633     -884    2,459    6,864      826    5,980
HD147   -1,272    3,583    4,602    9,933    3,330   13,516
HD148   -1,489    8,544    5,634   10,180    4,145   18,724
HD149   -3,879    3,420    8,154    4,696    4,275    8,116
HD150      503    8,228   10,180   15,037   10,683   23,265
							
Total  -39,906  121,025  155,672  211,724  115,766  332,749

Senate

	
Dist    12-20R   12-20D
=======================
HD126    3,705   13,479
HD127    8,876   16,687
HD128    8,999    7,330
HD129    7,238   14,684
HD130   18,113   17,564
HD131    3,413    8,389
HD132   19,527   28,278
HD133    2,610   16,268
HD134    3,330   27,237
HD135    4,898   16,279
HD137    2,129    6,023
HD138    4,594   14,227
HD139    3,602    6,608
HD140    2,611    5,499
HD141    2,460    2,779
HD142    4,903    9,702
HD143    2,619    4,082
HD144    2,577    4,485
HD145    3,562   10,103
HD146    1,337    4,811
HD147    4,019   12,164
HD148    5,762   16,497
HD149    4,282    7,157
HD150   11,865   20,878
		
Total  137,031  291,210

RRC

								
Dist   12-16 R   12-16D   16-20R   16-20D   12-20R   12-20D
===========================================================
HD126   -1,676    3,559    4,735   10,131    3,059   13,690
HD127    1,006    4,180    6,933   13,217    7,939   17,397
HD128      989    1,200    7,749    6,681    8,738    7,881
HD129   -1,550    3,595    7,325   12,422    5,775   16,017
HD130    4,403    4,540   13,107   12,954   17,510   17,494
HD131     -465    1,814    3,419    6,824    2,954    8,638
HD132    4,638    8,171   14,267   19,768   18,905   27,939
HD133   -4,382    3,417    5,039   14,285      657   17,702
HD134   -5,177    6,106    5,497   23,976      320   30,082
HD135   -1,163    4,634    5,398   11,950    4,235   16,584
HD137     -132    1,538    1,929    4,571    1,797    6,109
HD138   -1,483    4,248    5,378   10,328    3,895   14,576
HD139     -551      -83    3,837    7,033    3,286    6,950
HD140     -321    2,969    2,874    2,855    2,553    5,824
HD141      181     -896    2,165    3,773    2,346    2,877
HD142      844    1,204    3,814    8,568    4,658    9,772
HD143     -550    1,586    3,148    2,910    2,598    4,496
HD144     -530    2,677    2,993    2,255    2,463    4,932
HD145     -531    3,369    3,983    7,142    3,452   10,511
HD146   -1,047   -2,256    1,853    7,402      806    5,146
HD147      104      536    3,510   11,837    3,614   12,373
HD148      665    4,416    4,945   12,352    5,610   16,768
HD149   -3,089    2,133    6,698    5,331    3,609    7,464
HD150    2,552    6,010    8,826   14,942   11,378   20,952
								
Total   -7,265   68,667  129,422  233,507  122,157  302,174

The columns represent the difference in vote total for the given period and party, so “12-16” means 2012 to 2016, “16-20” means 2016 to 2020, and “12-20” means 2012 to 2020. Each column has a D or an R in it, so “12-16R” means the difference between 2016 Donald Trump and 2012 Mitt Romney for the Presidential table, and so forth. In each case, I subtract the earlier year’s total from the later year’s total, so the “-3,207” for HD126 in the “12-16R” column for President means that Donald Trump got 3,207 fewer votes in HD126 than Mitt Romney got, and the “5,285” for HD126 in the “12-16D” column for President means that Hillary Clinton got 5,285 more votes than Barack Obama got. Clear? I hope so.

Note that there were 130K more votes cast in Harris County as a whole in 2016 than there were in 2012, and 320K more votes cast in the county in 2020 over 2016, which makes a grand total of 450K more votes in 2020 than 2012. Some districts grow faster than others, but as a general rule given the overall totals you should expect increases in each district to some extent.

I have left percentages and third party totals out of this discussion. As I have shown before, tracking changes in vote percentages can give a misleading view of whether the actual gap is growing or narrowing, and by how much. I also want to emphasize that in 2012, Harris County was very much a 50-50 proposition, and now it is very much not. Doing it this way help illustrate how and where that has happened, and by how much.

And yet, with all that said, I’m going to start with an observation about percentages. In 2012, Mitt Romney got 60% or more of the vote in eight State Rep districts – HDs 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 133, 138, and 150. Ted Cruz, running for Senate against Paul Sadler, got 60% or more of the vote in ten State Rep districts, the same eight as Romney plus HDs 132 and 135 – yes, the same 132 and 135 that Dems won in 2018. I didn’t publish an analysis of the RRC race from that year, but a review of the spreadsheet that I created at the time confirmed that Christi Craddick, running against Dale Henry, got 60% or more of the vote in eleven State Rep districts, the same ten as Cruz plus HD134. In other words, every single Republican-held State Rep district in Harris County in 2012 was at least a 60% Republican district in the Railroad Commissioner race. Mitt Romney, it should be noted, just missed getting to 60% in HDs 132 and 135, and was over 57% in HD134, as was Cruz. (Let’s just say Cruz fell way short of that mark in 2018.)

You can see how much the vote totals shifted at the Presidential level from 2012 to 2016. Trump got nearly 40K fewer votes than Romney, a combination of crossovers, third-party and write-in voting, and just the gentle degradation of the Republican brand, as you can see by Wayne Christian’s reduced vote totals from Christie Craddick. Still, in 2016, Donald Trump scored 60% or more of the vote in three State Rep districts: HDs 127, 128, and 130. In 2016, Wayne Christian, running for RRC against Grady Yarbrough, scored 60% or more of the vote in four State Rep districts: the three that Trump got plus HD150. And finally, in 2016, Eva Guzman, running for State Supreme Court, scored 60% or more of the vote in six State Rep districts: the four Christian got plus HDs 129 and 133. HDs 132 and 135 were clearly competitive at the Presidential level – Trump won 132 by four points and 135 by two points; he also lost HD138 by a hair. He lost votes compared to Romney in 18 of 24 districts.

It is certainly true that Republicans in general and Donald Trump in particular did better in 2020 than most people expected them to do – surely, they did better than I expected them to do. Trump gained 155K votes over his 2016 total, which put 2020 Trump more than 100K votes ahead of Mitt Romney. Even though Joe Biden gained 211K votes over Hillary Clinton, for a net gain of 56K, Trump had net gains on Biden in seven districts – HDs 128, 130, 140, 143, 144, 145, and 149, with the latter five being Democratic districts and four of the five being Latino. Still, Dems had a net gain from 2012 to 2020 in every district except HD128, and some of those gains were truly huge – just look at 133 and 134, for starters. And Trump’s gains in the Dem districts largely melted away by the time you got to the RRC race, with Chrysta Castaneda coming close to matching Jim Wright’s increases in 140, 143, and 144, and far exceeding him in 145. It’s hard to say from this what if any staying power the Trump gains may have, though Dems should be paying close attention to what happened there regardless.

Anyway, back to the percentages: In 2020, Donald Trump, John Cornyn, and Jim Wright scored 60% or more of the vote in two State Rep districts: HDs 128 and 130. The only statewide Republicans to score 60% or more in a third State Rep district were the statewide judicial candidates who did not have a Libertarian opponent – Jane Bland, Bert Richardson, Kevin Patrick, and David Newell – who also reached that level in HD127. I haven’t published the statewide judicial race analysis yet so you’ll have to take my word for it for now, but in any event I trust you see the pattern. This is what I mean when I say that Republicans just don’t have any spare capacity in Harris County, and that will present problems for them in redistricting. Look at the numbers in districts like 126 and 129 and 133 and 150 in 2020, and compare them to the numbers in 132 and 135 and 138 in 2012. Where do you think things are going to be in another couple of cycles?

I’ve thrown a lot of words and numbers at you, so I’ll wrap it up here. I hope this helps illustrate what I’ve been saying, about how Dem gains have largely come from huge steps forward in formerly Republican turf, and how there’s still very much room for Dems to improve in their strongholds. We need to keep building on our gains from this past decade as we proceed into the 20s. I’ll have a look at the statewide judicial races next. Let me know what you think.

One possible path for police reform in the Lege

Keep an eye on this.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees licensing of the state’s 102,000 police officers and jailers, could be in for a major overhaul, state officials hinted Monday morning.

“This is the time to get it done,” John Cyrier (R-Lockhart), chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission, said at a combination in-person and virtual hearing Monday. The commission, charged with evaluating state agencies every decade or so, last month issued a blistering report on the law enforcement oversight commission, finding it lacked meaningful ability to oversee the state’s law enforcement agencies and discipline bad cops.

It also concluded the state’s educational requirements for police were outdated and insufficient. To qualify for a peace officer license, Texas cops need fewer hours of basic training than licensed cosmetologists and less than half the education required of air-conditioning and refrigeration contractors.

Testifying to the Sunset commission — composed of five representatives, five senators, and two public members — Kim Vickers, the law enforcement commission’s executive director, agreed, saying the state’s approach to regulating law enforcement has been ineffective. “I’ll be frank,” he said. “That’s true. We’ve been saying that.”

The heart of the Sunset commission’s critique was that although the law enforcement commission is supposed to be responsible for licensing police, it has little authority to discipline bad cops. Instead, each of the state’s 2,800 local law enforcement agencies is responsible for enforcing its own standards, which can vary across departments, resulting in “inconsistently set and enforced local standards.”

Unlike in the agencies that regulate other professions such as teachers and doctors, state law gives the law enforcement commission authority to revoke a police officer’s license in only limited circumstances: if the officer falls behind on mandated continuing education, if he or she receives two dishonorable discharges, or when an officer is convicted of felony or serious misdemeanor crimes.

As a result, the Sunset commission concluded, Texas’s regulation of police was “toothless.”

For example, its examination of the licensing agency found that of 600 officers who had received “dishonorable” discharges, more than a quarter had been rehired.

There are of course a lot more things we can and should do at the state level to reform criminal justice as a whole, with marijuana decriminalization as the biggest ticket item. (Yes, full legalization would be better, but some small incremental decriminalization is the best we can hope for, given the realities of having Dan Patrick as Lt. Governor.) Banning no-knock warrants is another. I support the vast majority of them, though I know any step forward is going to be hard won. I would hope that improving the minimum standards for law enforcement training, and making it easier to permanently remove bad cops from the pool would be something that will have broad enough support to get enacted. Grits for Breakfast, writing about that original sunset report from last month, has more.