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What I want from the next HCDP Chair

As you know, the Harris County Democratic Party will soon have a new Chair. And as you know, I am a Democratic precinct chair, which means I’m one of the several hundred people that will vote on who that is. So as a public service to you, and as my way of telling the candidates what will influence my vote, these are my priorities for the next HCDP Chair.

1. Start with a goal of 1 million Democratic votes for Joe Biden in 2024, and really aim for 1.1 million. Hillary got 700K votes in 2016. Beto got 800K in 2018. Biden (and Ed Gonzalez) got 900K in 2020. There’s already more than 2.5 million registered voters in Harris County, up about 100K from November 2020, and I expect there to be over 2.6 million by next November. Sixty-five percent turnout (we were at over 68% in 2020) gets 1.7 million voters total (up less than 50K from 2020), and hitting one million Dems would mean taking almost 59% of the vote for Biden, which so far is the only real reach here as he was at 56% in 2020. Beto got to 58% in 2018.

What I’m really aiming for is a net of at least 300K for Biden in Harris County; he was at plus 218K in 2020, after Beto was at plus 200K in 2018. If we want to talk about making Texas competitive for Biden, and whoever our 2024 Senate nominee may be, that’s the kind of Dem advantage in Harris County we’re going to need, at a minimum. That’s the kind of vision I want from the next Chair, and I want there to be a plan to go along with it.

2. Improve performance in base Democratic areas. Harris County went from being evenly matched in 2012 to the strong blue county it is now in large part because Dems have vastly increased performance in formerly dark red places. I’ve said this before, but Mitt Romney won 11 State Rep districts in 2012, and he won them all with over 60% of the vote. In 2020, Donald Trump only won two State Rep district with 60% or more, HDs 128 and 130, and he won nine overall with HDs 134 and 135 being won by Dems.

But Democrats didn’t do as well in a number of dark blue districts in 2020 as they had in 2016 and 2018, and as we saw in 2022 it was in those districts where Beto fell short, often well short, of his 2018 performance. We need to turn that around. Part of this is that we have a vibrant Democratic club structure in place, with a lot of that participation coming in the formerly red areas. There’s a lack of clubs, and thus neighborhood-based outreach, in a lot of traditional Democratic areas. It’s also a dirty secret that some Democratic elected officials in those areas do very little to help with GOTV efforts. Achieving the goal set in item #1 will require an all-hands-on-deck mobilization. I want to know what the next Chair intends to do about that.

3. Find ways to partner with Democratic parties in neighboring counties. I know the job title is “Harris County Dem Party Chair”, but we abut a lot of other counties, and in quite a few places the development just sprawls over the border, making the distinction between the two of lesser value. There are also a lot of offices that include parts of Harris and parts of one or more neighbors: CDs 02 and 22, SBOE6, SDs 07 and 17, and all of the Firth and 14th Courts of Appeal benches, of which there will be ten Democratic incumbents on the ballot next year. We should find ways to collaborate and cooperate to help our candidates in these races.

In counties like Brazoria and Montgomery, population growth near the Harris County border has led to some burgeoning Democratic turf, mostly around Pearland for the former and around the Woodlands for the latter. I also believe that Conroe is starting to become like Sugar Land, a small but growing urban center of its own that we ought to see as such, and seek to build alliances there. In Galveston and to a lesser extent Waller, the growth has been in redder areas, and we need to find the allies there who likely feel isolated and help them connect with and amplify each other. In Chambers and Liberty, anything we can do to help slow down the small but steady Republican advantage will help.

My point is that 10-20 years ago, as Democrats were starting to assert power in Harris County, it was still quite common for Dems in the then-dark red areas to believe they were the only ones like themselves there. A big part of what the county’s organizing, and the growth of the local clubs, has done is to dispel that notion and allow people the chance to enhance their communities. Anything we can do – in a collaborative, “how can we help?” manner that respects the people who have been doing their own work there for a long time – to help with that will help us all.

4. Threat management. I’m being deliberately provocative here because I think this is urgent and I want people to see the dangers. We know there’s a lot of disinformation and propaganda aimed at non-English speaking communities – we’ve seen the websites and Facebook posts, and we’ve seen the mailers and heard the radio ads. We know that “poll watchers” with malign intent are out there. We’ve just had multiple winning candidates get sued by their losing opponents, and many of them were left scrambling to pay for lawyers to defend themselves in court. We’ve faced previous legal challenges over voting locations and voting hours and mail ballots and on and on. For the latter at least, we’ve had a strong response from the County Attorney, but we can’t assume that will always be the case. We need to be aware of past and current threats to our elections and candidates, we need to be on the lookout for emerging threats, and we need to have a plan and dedicated staff and resources to respond to them.

This is where my thinking is. I don’t expect the candidates for HCDP Chair to have fully formed answers to these problems, but I do hope they agree that these are urgent matters and deserve attention. They may have other priorities and I’m open to that, I just want to be heard. So far the two candidates that I know of – Silvia Mintz and Mike Doyle – are the only two that have come forward. I’ll let you know if I hear anything more on that, and you let me know what you think.

Harris County restores some public safety funding

A bit of post-quorum-busting cleanup.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved nearly $10 million in additional funding for the sheriff and district attorney, three months after the Democratic majority said the unplanned adoption of a lower tax rate would force county departments to tighten their budgets.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s office will receive an additional $5.6 million, covering the cost of a $1.5 million deficit plus another $4.1 million to fill 120 patrol positions to maintain last year’s staffing levels.

District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office will get $4.3 million to plug a $1.8 million deficit and restore funding for 30 assistant district attorney positions.

The sheriff’s office shortfall stems from rising health care costs. While the district attorney’s office also is contending with higher health care costs, the majority of the department’s shortfall was caused by $2.5 million in unbudgeted raises, according to the county’s Office of Management and Budget.

“(The raises) were done over my objection,” Budget Director Daniel Ramos told the court.

Ramos said that while approving the additional funding after the department gave out unbudgeted raises would set up “a moral hazard,” he recommended the court authorize the appropriation rather than risk that understaffing would worsen overcrowding at the jail.

Unlike a department headed by an appointed official, the district attorney’s office is run by an elected official with independent oversight of her office.

“It’s very difficult to have true controls over how money is spent in an elected official’s office,” County Administrator Dave Berry said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday the district attorney’s office would not need a supplemental appropriation if the original proposed tax rate had passed, but departments were advised to forego raises to meet the constraints of the no-new-revenue rate.

“One of the departments decided to give the raises anyway instead of using those funds for positions. Now that department is coming back and saying ‘I need more money for positions,'” Hidalgo said. “It’s a terrible precedent.”

The district attorney’s office appropriation passed in a 3-1 vote, with Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis voting no and Hidalgo abstaining. The deal will restore funding for 15 assistant district attorney positions, with funding for another 15 positions to follow after the office submits a report on how it will implement changes to improve areas such as the intake division.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for an earlier version of the story. It’s not explained where this supplemental funding is coming from – my best guess is that there was some slack from the previously-passed budget, as conservative estimates were used to ensure they didn’t overshoot their revenue, and now that things are clearer there’s room to fill a bit back in.

Ogg’s actions here are obviously problematic, as she exacerbated the projected deficit and then left the county in a bad position as there had already been the commitment made to fund extra positions. Not clear what the Court can do about that – I’ll predict that you won’t see that specific lineup of yes and no votes on many other items going forward (the extra funding for the Sheriff passed unanimously) – but you can add it to the list of things that will likely be brought up in the 2024 primary campaign. One other item to note is that if you go back and peruse Ogg’s January 2023 finance report, you can see that she got multiple contributions from her own employees – each contributor must list their employer, and right from the beginning you can see several who list “Harris County District Attorney’s Office”, or “HCDAO”. You have to wonder how many of those folks got raises.

On a better note, the Court also did this:

Harris County is moving forward with a plan to improve and expand access to child care as the industry struggles to bounce back from the pandemic.

Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to approve a $26.2 million program that will open new seats at high-quality child care centers for an additional 800 to 1,000 children in low-income families residing in child care deserts, according to officials.

Child care will be free for families participating in the program, which is funded under the American Rescue Plan Act. The program will also increase compensation for child care workers and providers to reduce turnover and improve quality of care.

“That is really what we need to recover from the pandemic, is to build back capacity within the child care sector,” said Sara Mickelson, director for early childhood initiatives at the county’s administration office. “This is about contracting with child care centers who can open brand new child care supply.”

The county awarded a two-year contract to BakerRipley, a Houston nonprofit, to implement the program with help from the United Way of Greater Houston. The measure passed unanimously with no discussion.

What happens after two years, which is presumably when this federal funding runs out, is unclear. My assumption is that if this is deemed to be successful, the Court will find a way to continue paying for it. It’s a great idea, and it should provide a great benefit not just for the recipients, but for all of us in the long run. It’s a travesty that this couldn’t be included in the big infrastructure bill, but the fight continues. Kudos to all for making this happen.

Houston Landing

Meet the new kid on the local media block.

More than a year ago, researchers studying local news in the Houston metro area learned something critical to the launch of the Houston Landing.

“The community often times feels left out of the news,” said a nonprofit director in east Harris County, who was one of hundreds of residents who participated in the study. “I think there’s a lot of feelings of being forgotten, being left out, and the light not being shined on the community since [Hurricane] Harvey.”

It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to make our communities feel heard, seen and valued.

It just takes a vision that is as big and bold as Houston.

This is why we are announcing today the launch of Houston Landing, an independent nonprofit news organization devoted to public service journalism that will be digital-only and nonpartisan.
introductory column by former Chron reporter Maggie Gordon. (Not surprisingly, a number of their staffers are Chron alums.) They also have an email newsletter that I got subscribed to either by someone else or by them having a starter list of either “media” contacts or Chron/Texas Tribune newsletter-getters. Which is fine, I was happy to hear about their existence directly, just a bit unexpected.

I don’t know what to expect from their coverage yet, but as a non-profit media source they have obvious models to follow, like the Texas Tribune, the San Antonio Report, the Fort Worth Report, and El Paso Matters. I consider the San Antonio Report to be the gold standard among the city-focused publications – if they can replicate that, they will be of great value to me. They have not yet announced an opening day for their stories, so we’ll just have to wait. If this sounds interesting to you, check them out and subscribe to their newsletter as you see fit.

(Shout out to Bob Dunn’s late, lamented Fort Bend Now, the real innovator in this space, and unfortunately about a decade ahead of its time.)

Weekend link dump for February 5

“AT FIRST GLANCE, electric vehicles seem like rolling disasters for the power grid. Surely the ancient, creaky network in the United States can’t handle the demand for charging those massive batteries. But a new analysis suggests that just a fraction of EV owners could make the grid more flexible and reliable by plugging into a system called vehicle-to-grid charging (V2G), or bidirectional charging.”

“The Unlikely Alliance Between Tech Bros and Radical Environmentalists”.

Et tu, Rooty?

“Biden’s expansive executive order seeks to restore competition in the economy. It’s been a long, slow road to get the whole government on board—but there are some formidable gains.”

“We are on the edge of a spy scandal with major implications for how we understand the Trump administration, our national security, and ourselves.”

RIP, Annie Wersching, versatile actor known for roles on 24, Timeless, Star Trek: Picard, The Vampire Diaries, and as the voice of Tess on The Last Of Us.

RIP, Barrett Strong, Motown singer and songwriter whose credits include “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”.

RIP, Lisa Loring, actor who was the original Wednesday Addams.

“We Tried to Call the Top Donors to George Santos’ 2020 Campaign. Many Don’t Seem to Exist.”

“Priscilla Presley, widow of Elvis Presley and mother of their late daughter Lisa Marie Presley, has filed a challenge to the validity of her daughter’s will in Los Angeles Superior Court.”

RIP, Bobby Hull, Hockey Hall of Famer. As Defector says, “He was a fantastic hockey player and a horrible human being, and to pretend like one of those is somehow at odds with the other is a fool’s math.”

RIP, Cindy Williams, actor best known as Shirley from Laverne and Shirley.

“Former President Donald Trump sued famed journalist Bob Woodward on Monday over the release of audio recordings of his interviews with Trump, who claims he never agreed to allow those tapes to be sold to the public.”

Premium cable channel Showtime is being swallowed by Paramount+ into a new thing called “Paramount+ With Showtime”, and all I can say as a computer nerd is that Paramount++ was right there.

“For all of the reasons provided in my answer, which is incorporated herein in its entirety, I decline to answer the question.”

“Be honest Gen Xers, if someone were to ask you, right now, to explain Whitewater in three sentences, could you do it? I think most people couldn’t; I know for me the phrase is really just a lot of random word association. e.g., Whitewater/Clintons/land deal/suicide (remember Vince Foster??) that is shorthand for some vague criminality no one can articulate. And that’s the point.”

“The World’s Most Online Man has been so busy soothing the bruised egos of right-wing Twitter influencers that he’s once again allowed Twitter to drift dangerously close to the rocks. That’s true not just in the United States, but increasingly in Europe, where regulators aren’t amused by Musk’s cavalier attitude toward tough EU policies on hate speech and data privacy. Let’s take a look at who Elon is pissing off today.”

Here’s a cool story about a cousin of mine.

“A Brief History of Let’s Get Back to Teaching the Basics”.

“Hunter Biden’s legal team is coming out swinging. Who knows what House Republicans were expecting, but President Joe Biden’s son is not going quietly into the night as they plan their unsubstantiated investigative attacks.”

“The interview, disappointingly, doesn’t touch on a question that I thought would be of particular interest to Christianity Today’s readers: Will AI programs like ChatGPT someday be writing sermons?”

“Netflix hasn’t confirmed its plans to stop password sharing just yet”.

RIP, Bobby Beathard, Hall of Fame football executive.

“Why On Earth Are Some MAGA Republicans Wearing AR-15 Pins?” (Spoiler alert: Because they are terrible, awful, no-good people.)

“Along with the Hug Fairy and HourlyPony, it’s likely also the end of song lyric bots, book snippet bots, poetry bots, art bots, satellite imagery bots, bots that tell you how much of the year has passed, bots that remind you to take a drink of water, those that share daily screenshots from TV shows, and the many, many other bots that demonstrate the creativity a free API allows. But it’s also a lot more serious than that.”

RIP, Melinda Dillon, actor best known for A Christmas Story, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Slap Shot.

EPA asked to investigate TCEQ’s water permitting process

Need to keep an eye on this.

The Environmental Protection Agency says an informal investigation is underway after more than two dozen environmental advocacy groups submitted a petition against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The petition alleges that state regulators are not doing enough to protect water quality in Texas, as is federally required.

The environmental groups are asking the federal agency to step in and repair Texas’ “broken system” of issuing permits to control water pollution, saying the state has made it too easy for industries to contaminate its water.

“We really feel that the TCEQ regulations, frankly, are not sufficient to ensure clean water,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, an environmental protection nonprofit based in San Antonio.

Historically, the TCEQ has been criticized for being a “reluctant” regulator and for being industry friendly. Many environmental groups have been pushing for permitting transparency, opportunities for more community input, and accountability of the state agency.

The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Public Citizen and 16 other groups filed the petition in 2021, stating that Texas has a major water pollution problem with state rivers, lakes and estuaries “so polluted they are considered impaired under the federal Clean Water Act.”

The Clean Water Act is a 1972 law designed to reduce pollution in America’s waterways. According to the petition, the state’s water permitting process does not recognize people who use waterways for recreational purposes, such as fishing or kayaking, to petition for a contested court hearing — only those who own land nearby.

The petition also states that industries are not required to document “the economic or social necessity of projects.” Environment advocates believe companies should provide documentation that shows there are no other options to their projects that could avoid pollution of the waters in order to obtain permits.

“They are the ones who are wanting to pollute the environment,” Eric Allmon, an attorney representing the petitioners, said about the industry. “The applicant should bear the burden of demonstrating compliance.”

Allmon said the EPA’s informal investigation is a preliminary step that determines whether there is any merit to the allegations from environmental advocates before the agency formally reviews the TCEQ’s track record on enforcing water quality standards.

[…]

If the EPA concludes that TCEQ is not enforcing the Clean Water Act, then the federal agency can proceed with a formal investigation and could revoke TCEQ’s authority to regulate water quality. The TCEQ would have 90 days to fix the problems or lose its authority.

I confess that I look at this with at least as much trepidation as any other emotion. Sure, this could end up with the TCEQ actually doing more to protect Texas’ waters. It could also end up with Ken Paxton filing a lawsuit against the EPA that ultimately results in SCOTUS doing serious damage to the Clean Water Act and/or the EPA itself. I have no trouble believing that the TCEQ has at best been half-assing this job, and I don’t want to tell these groups to be ruled by fear. But in the current climate, with the courts being what they are and a state government that has no interest in serving the public, we have to take this kind of thing into consideration. I hope I’m being way too pessimistic.

Metro CEO Lambert to retire

I wish him well.

After 44 years, Tom Lambert is hopping off the Metro bus.

Lambert, president and CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority, is retiring at the end of the year after leading Texas’ largest transit system for 11 years.

“We have a lot of things we are working on that we are going to get done by the end of the year,” he said.

Lambert, who turns 70 in May, said his decision to step back was “the right time personally and professionally.”

His departure comes as the agency accelerates work on its long-range transit plan, approved by voters in 2019. The plan includes adding bus rapid transit along Interstate 10 west of downtown within Loop 610 and a lengthy rapid line that will go from northeast Houston to near the University of Houston and then along Westpark to western Harris County.

[…]

Lambert, who began at Metro as a security investigator in 1979, became the agency’s first police chief in 1982, serving in that role until 2010. After less than three years as executive vice president, he became interim CEO in January 2013, when previous transit agency head George Greanias resigned. He was made the permanent replacement about a year later, following a national search, after initially saying he was interested only in the top job temporarily.

During Lambert’s tenure as CEO, Metro added roughly 15 miles of new light railredesigned its bus system and opened the region’s first bus rapid transit line along Post Oak in Uptown.

Despite the additional services, however, transit use has not fully rebounded after cratering during the COVID pandemic, and the Silver Line rapid transit continues to perform below initial expectations.

Lambert said it was daily performance over projects that he wanted as his legacy.

‘I think the users and the broader community will say this agency has been responsive,” he said, noting Metro’s role in major events such as Super Bowl LI and two Astros victory parades as well as responding to disasters such as the COVID pandemic and Hurricane Harvey flooding.

“These employees fully supported this community and quite frankly brought the system up faster than anybody thought possible,” Lambert said.

I tend to think that the Metro Board is about planning and vision, while the CEO is more about execution of those plans and visions, though there will be some overlap. As such, I don’t put too much of COVID’s effect on ridership on the CEO, but whoever succeeds Lambert will certainly need to have input in how to reposition the agency now that this is where we are. Given how much Metro was able to accomplish over the past decade, the new person will have a solid foundation on which to build. I’ve met Tom Lambert a couple of times, and from where I sit I think he’s done a very good job. His successor, whose timeline for hiring is not yet set, will have a tough act to follow.

Never underestimate the power of ducks

I don’t track “favorite stories” for a given year, but if I did, this would be a lock to make it for this year.

Alicia Rowe, an Austin therapist, first came across news of her death in a British tabloid.

The Daily Mail UK had run a story online about how her parents, Kathleen and George Rowe, had been sued for feeding the neighborhood ducks after feuding with their homeowners’ association in Cypress.

The article offered zero ambiguity about her demise: “Texas couple who began feeding neighborhood ducks to cope with loss of only daughter are sued for (up to) $250,000 by HOA for causing a nuisance and are forced to sell home to cover costs,” read the article’s headline.

Alicia, who is in her 30s, was the Rowes’ only child.

She stared at the article in shock. Then she wondered how she had died. She had her suspicions.

When she texted friends about the surreal development, they quickly found that versions of the story, which first ran in the Houston Chronicle in July, were everywhere: Alicia had also died in the Washington Post and in Business Insider India and in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The rash of stories had all come out roughly five months earlier, and thoughts about what people who knew her parents imagined had happened to her – what they were still thinking – niggled at the corner of her mind.

So she called the Houston Chronicle reporter who broke the story, and the reporter called Kathleen and George Rowe’s lawyer, who called Kathleen.

“She wanted me to communicate her apologies,” the lawyer, Richard Weaver, told the Chronicle shortly afterward. “She reiterated her words to me. And it was that she had lost her daughter. When she told me she’d lost her daughter, I thought she’d passed away.”

Five months had passed, Kathleen and her lawyer had spoken to additional outlets and no one had asked for a correction.

Alicia had cut off contact with her mother years ago; she was estranged, not dead. The misunderstanding, by multiple parties (for the original story, the Chronicle had also spoken with Kathleen about the “loss” of her daughter), had landed everyone involved in a predicament. Newspapers, as a rule, don’t use euphemisms to talk about death.

[…]

A Chronicle tool charting how many people are visiting its website showed 83 people read the story in the month after the correction was issued. More than 100,000 readers had viewed the Chronicle story in the months prior.

That’s why the Chronicle proposed this followup story about her predicament, Alicia agreed. “It’s this weird intersection of media, family trauma and how fast information gets around,” she said.

Alicia said the last time she was on speaking terms with her mother was roughly six years ago.

“There was a lot of both physical and emotional abuse in my home growing up,” she said. Alicia said she was often manipulated through lies and misleading information, while being presented to those outside the family as the problem child in order to garner sympathy. That pattern led her to ask her mother to cease contact.

Soon after, her mother started telling neighbors that her daughter had “passed,” Alicia said. “She had taken down all the photos of me in the house and had planted a memorial garden to me in the backyard. I had this series of letters, basically saying, ‘If you want people to not think you are dead, you need to come back and talk to us and tell everybody that you are not dead.’”

She no longer had a copy of the letters, and Kathleen did not return phone calls about the factual dispute.

Alicia said that she had a hunch why her mom had told her lawyer and the media that she started feeding ducks after the loss of her only child: “to have a reason why she’s not following the rules.”

“It’s kind of hard to be mad at the lady with a dead daughter that just wants to feed the ducks, right?”

Hard to beat a story that contains family estrangement, newspaper style guides, and ducks. My first thought when I saw this was that surely I had blogged about the original article and this woman’s duck-feeding parents and their legal issues. But that was not the case, though I did blog about a different duck feeding matter. Instead, I had blathered about it on the radio, which is why it stuck in my mind. One way or the other, I am just drawn to a good duck tale.

This article also contained an update on the original:

Kathleen and George did not respond to calls for comment on this story. They were not home at duck-feeding time on a recent Tuesday. The ducks that had once lined up outside their porch, craning their necks to see the owners, were also gone. In their place was a “Sale Pending” sign and a lockbox on the door. The couple was moving out. On Jan. 19, their lawsuit with their HOA in the masterplanned neighborhood of Bridgeland settled.

I don’t have anything to add to that. If you read that original story, whatever you may have thought about the main characters and their HOA, now you know more.

Is it finally the time for Julian Castro?

This story is mostly about Ted Cruz and whether he might run for President again in 2024; the tone of the story is that he probably won’t. No one cares about that, but because it is a story about 2024 and Ted Cruz will be running for re-election to the Senate in 2024, it contains the following bits of speculation about who might run against him:

Not Ted Cruz

Cruz’s focus on his Senate bid follows a tough 2018 reelection fight against former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost by 2.6 points. Combined, the two candidates raised close to $115 million, with O’Rourke bringing in more than $80 million. And Cruz may face another fight in 2024, with Texas and Florida the only conceivable pick-up opportunities for Democrats in a cycle that will have them mostly on defense — 23 of the party’s seats are up next year.

O’Rourke did not respond to a request for comment on whether he was considering a second Senate run against Cruz. After losing his gubernatorial bid against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022, he told the audience in his concession speech that “this may be one of the last times I get to talk in front of you all.”

But plenty of others are considering a Cruz challenge. A person close to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said that he is weighing a run. Democrats in the state are also watching Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas); state senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, the town devastated by a school shooting; and state Rep. James Talarico, who sparred with Fox News host Pete Hegseth in 2021, according to a Texas Democratic strategist.

A senior adviser to Cruz, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said he plans to make his formal Senate run announcement within the first half of the year. They added that Cruz would make additional staff hires during that period and that he’s already started raising money, including “revamping completely the small-dollar operation.” Cruz currently has $3.4 million cash on hand.

Democrats acknowledge that Texas has not been an easy state for the party. But they argue that Cruz is more vulnerable than his other GOP counterparts, citing the close 2018 race and his castigated 2021 trip to Cancun while Texas underwent a power-grid emergency due to a winter storm.

“We look forward to our Democratic nominee retiring Ted Cruz from the U.S. Senate and finally allowing him some time to finally relax at his preferred Cancun resort,” said Ike Hajinazarian, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. “That is, of course, should he even choose to run for reelection, which would be strange considering his newly-introduced legislation to limit U.S. senators to two terms.”

Cruz, who would be running for a third term, told reporters this week that he doesn’t support unilateral term limits, but would “happily comply with them if they applied to everyone.”

The term limits thing doesn’t even make my Top 25 list of Ted Cruz atrocities. I’m not going to expend any energy on that at this time. As for Beto, I’m pretty sure we’ve seen the last of him on the statewide stage, at least for the foreseeable future. He ain’t running for anything in 2024, I’m confident of that.

We have discussed Rep. Colin Allred before, and he would be a fine candidate if he chose to run. As far as I know, any words to the effect that he has an interest or is seriously considering the possibility have yet to come from his own mouth, and as such I put this in with the “speculation” files. The thing that strikes me about Allred is that he’s in a similar situation that his colleague Rep. Joaquin Castro was in 2017 and being talked about a run against Cruz in that cycle. Like Castro, Allred is in a (now, post-redistricting) blue district and he’s building up seniority while also being seen as a rising star within the party. It’s not hard to imagine him as a deputy whip or a powerful committee chair in a couple of cycles. Given that, what is the upside to making an at-best longshot run for the Senate? It would be one thing if the Senate seat were clearly winnable, but it’s a stretch and everyone knows it. He could win, and as was the case with Beto a close loss might still be a boost to whatever other prospects he ay have, but you still have to weight that against what he’d be giving up. Seems to me the easy choice is to stay put and wait until Texas is competitive enough to tip the odds in your favor. Rep. Allred may see it differently, but I think he’s not likely to make this leap.

And that brings us to Julian Castro, whose name has certainly been mentioned as a possible statewide candidate before. Indeed, we’re approaching the ten-year anniversary of “potential statewide candidate Julian Castro” territory, as those stories were being written at the start of the 2014 gubernatorial campaign. At this point, I don’t know if he really is thinking that the time is right or if he’s the 2023 version of John Sharp, destined to always be brought up in this kind of story because it would be weirder to not mention him. I don’t know who counts as a “person close to” him, but as with Rep. Allred, I’d like to hear the words come from his own mouth before I start to take it seriously.

I’ll say this: At least in 2017/2018, you could say that Julian Castro was really running for President in 2020, and as such it made no sense for him to campaign for something else in the meantime. Julian Castro is not running for President in 2024, and if what he really wants to do is run for Governor in 2026, maybe put the word out about that. I guess what I’m saying is that while there’s still no reason yet to get on the “Julian Castro might really run for something statewide this time!” train, there’s also nothing obvious out there that would be an obstacle to it. Either he actually does want to run and will eventually tell us so himself, most likely after multiple teases and hints like this could be, or he doesn’t and he won’t. This means I will need to stay vigilant for future references to his possible candidacy. Hey, I knew what I was getting into when I started blogging.

Finally, in regard to Sen. Gutierrez and Rep. Talarico, I mean, I’m sure someone mentioned their names as possibilities. I’ve speculated about potential future candidacies for people myself, it’s a fun and mostly harmless activity. Again, and I’m going to keep harping on this, until you hear the person themselves say it, that’s all that it is. I’m going to be tracking “potential candidate” mentions anyway, so we’ll see where they and maybe others fit in. It’s still super early, there will be plenty more where this came from.

Somehow, Texas could lose a state park

You wouldn’t think that would be possible, but you would be wrong.

Texas is at risk of losing a state park forever.

Fairfield Lake State Park, an 1,800-acre gem overlooking a beautiful 2,400-acre lake, nestled within the convergence of three Texas ecoregions – the Post Oak Savannah, Piney Woods and Blackland Prairies – and along the bustling I-45 corridor between Houston and DFW, could be lost to private development if a deal is not reached soon to continue the park’s existence.

“We are absolutely, clearly in dire straits of losing our park,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman Arch “Beaver” Aplin III said during a recent briefing at a commission work session.

Texas owns most of its state parks, but not Fairfield Lake.

The lake was created in 1969 by Dallas Power and Light Company, Texas Electric Service Company and Texas Power and Light Company to cool the coal plant, Big Brown. Those three companies merged and eventually became TXU Energy, which eventually conveyed the property to Luminant, a sister company under Vistra Corp. The park property has been leased to the state since 1971, free of cost.

In 2018, Big Brown shut down and Vistra Corp/Luminant gave TPWD a two-year notice that it was going to end the lease. Since then, the lease has been extended, allowing the park to continue operations after 2020.

The park was put up publicly for sale in 2021, and the entire property, (the TPWD park, lake and additional land totaling more than 5,000 acres) is currently under contract with a private developer out of Dallas, Todd Interests. The lease with TPWD can be terminated with 120 days of notice and the park could close as early as this month. Public access to the lake would end, too.

[…]

Despite the hope to buy and eventually expand the park, TPWD remains in a challenging position. The property is under contract and chairman Aplin said during the commission work session that the buyer is intent on canceling the lease. Todd Interests did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s all hands on deck, it’s very important to us,” Aplin said.

“The irony here of this being our centennial-year celebration and losing one of our gem state parks, is just absolutely unacceptable to me. Everyone has my word that we will work as hard as we can, but we can only deal with the cards that we’ve been dealt.”

Rep. Ken King (R), chair of the Texas House of Representatives’ culture, recreation and tourism committee during the 2021-22 session, vowed to not let this park go away quietly.

“Texas Power and Light was a regulated utility. Vistra is now going to sell the property they’ve acquired since. They’re not a regulated utility… There’s almost $70 million of taxpayer-funded improvements on this property. If they were still a tax-regulated utility, that money would have to go back to the ratepayers. That’s not how this works, now. They’re going to make a huge profit at the expense of the state of Texas. I think it is categorically wrong, and I’m going to fight it the whole way,” he told the commission.

Losing a park like this to private development would be unprecedented. “To our knowledge, we have not closed any sites,” a TPWD spokesperson said.

Fairfield Lake State Park is in Freestone County, between Buffalo and Corsicana off I-45, so closer to Dallas than Houston. As the story notes, the TPWD didn’t have the money to afford the property when it came on the market, but after the passage of prop 5 in 2019, which allocated more funds to TPWD via sales taxes on various sporting goods, it could try again now, but it may be too late. I’d suggest the Lege get involved, but it may be too late for that as well. If that’s the case, the Lege could still pass a law to require some level of public access to this land and the lake, and could put restrictions on any sales like it in the future. There are ways to at least mitigate this and learn from the experience, so I hope they will do that. We’ll see.

(If you’re trying to remember where you’ve heard the name Arch “Beaver” Aplin before, he’s the co-founder of Buc-ee’s.)

Can you print a house?

We’re gonna find out.

3D printing is taking home construction to new heights. In Houston, a giant printer is building what designers say is the first 3D-printed two-story house in the U.S.

The machine has been pouring a concrete mix from a nozzle, one layer at a time, in hot weather and cold, alongside a sparse on-site workforce, to create a 4,000-square-foot home.

While construction 3D printing has been around for over a decade, the technology has only started to break ground in the U.S. homebuilding market over the last couple of years, said Leslie Lok, the architectural designer for the project. Several 3D-printed homes have already been built or are currently in the works across a handful of states.

Lok, who co-founded the design firm Hannah, says her team aims to eventually scale up their designs to be able to efficiently 3D print multifamily homes.

“This Houston project is a step towards that, being a pretty large single-family house,” she said.

The three-bedroom home is a two-year collaboration between Hannah, Germany-based Peri 3D Construction and Cive, an engineering and construction company in Houston.

Proponents of the technology say 3D printing could address a range of construction challenges, including labor shortages and building more resilient homes in the face of natural disasters.

With the Houston home, the team is pushing the industrial printer to its limits to understand how it can streamline the technology, in the quest to quickly build cost-effective and well-designed homes.

“In the future, it has to be fast, simple design in order to compete with other building technologies,” said Hikmat Zerbe, Cive’s head of structural engineering.

The story doesn’t say where in Houston this is, so for all we know it could be anywhere in the greater Houston area. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know how much of a demand there is for concrete houses. From a design perspective, that seems awfully limited. That doesn’t mean this couldn’t catch on, I’m just not sure how big the market for this might be. But I’m sure the tech will improve, and from there who knows. What do you think?

HCDP Chair Odus Evbagharu to step down

This was expected.

Odus Evbagharu

The chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party on Wednesday announced that he would step down at the end of February.

Odus Evbagharu has led the party since 2021. The 30-year-old native of Katy is the youngest person and the first African American to serve as the party chairperson, according to a news release.

“I treasure the work we were able to accomplish during the last two years,” Evbagharu said in the release.

During Evbagharu’s tenure, the party raised more than $2.1 million and created programs dedicated to voter outreach and volunteer recruitment, according to the release.

I had heard chatter about this for a couple of months. At the last CEC meeting, he made oblique reference to stepping down as the meeting was coming to an end. So as I said, this was expected.

I think Odus did a good job as HCDP Chair. We made it through the 2022 election, the first post-Trump off-year election, with Democrats still in charge in Harris County. The party overall is in decent shape, and better organized than it had been in the past. I also think the next Chair will have some work to do to improve performance and get ready for the 2024 election. I have some specific thoughts on that, which I will share in a future post. As a precinct chair, I’ll get to participate in the process to pick the next Chair, who will then need to stand for election in the 2024 primary. Odus will serve through the end of this month, and the next CEC meeting on March 19 will be when his successor is named. I’ll post updates and candidate names as I get them.

UPDATE: As soon as I had hit Save on this draft, I see via Stace that attorney and former HD132 candidate Silvia Mintz has announced her candidacy. I look forward to speaking with her about this.

UPDATE: I have since received an email from Mike Doyle, the current president of the Harris County Democratic Lawyers Association, announcing his candidacy as well.

Winter storm 2023

I don’t know if this one will get a name, but I can imagine what a lot of folks are calling it.

Thousands of frustrated Texans shivered in their homes Thursday after more than a day without power, including many in the state capital, as an icy winter storm that has been blamed for at least 10 traffic deaths lingered across much of the southern U.S.

Even as temperatures finally pushed above freezing in Austin — and were expected to climb past 50 degrees (10 Celsius) on Friday — the relief will be just in time for an Arctic front to drop from Canada and threaten northern states. New England in particular is forecast to see the coldest weather in decades, with wind chills that could dive lower than minus 50.

Across Texas, 430,000 customers lacked power Thursday, according to PowerOutage.us. But the failures were most widespread in Austin, where frustration mounted among more than 156,000 customers over 24 hours after their electricity went out, which for many also meant their heat. Power failures have affected about 30% of customers in the city of nearly a million at any given time since Wednesday.

[…]

For many Texans, it was the second time in three years that a February freeze — temperatures were in the 30s Thursday with wind chills below freezing — caused prolonged outages and uncertainty over when the lights would come back on.

As outages dragged on, city officials came under mounting criticism for not providing estimates of when power would be restored and for neglecting to hold a news conference until Thursday. Mayor Kirk Watson said Thursday the city would review communication protocols for future disasters.

Austin Energy at one point estimated that all power would be restored by Friday evening, then later stated Thursday that full restoration would now take “longer than initially anticipated.” Soon after, Watson tweeted, “This is a dynamic situation and change is inevitable but Austin Energy must give folks clear and accurate info so they can plan accordingly.”

Unlike the 2021 blackouts in Texas, when hundreds of people died after the state’s grid was pushed to the brink of total failure because of a lack of generation, the outages in Austin this time were largely the result of frozen equipment and ice-burdened trees and limbs falling on power lines. The city’s utility warned all power may not be restored until Friday as ice continued causing outages even as repairs were finished elsewhere.

“It feels like two steps forward and three steps back,” said Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy.

School systems in the Dallas and Austin area, plus many in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee, closed Thursday as snow, sleet and freezing rain continued to push through. Public transportation in Dallas also experienced “major delays” early Thursday, according to a statement from Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

The weather has been lousy here in Houston, but it has not been freezing, so we have escaped the worst of this. I feel so bad for everyone in the affected areas. The story says that so far seven people have died on the roads as a result of this storm.

On Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the trees on their streets and the sound they make as they collapse under the weight of the ice on them. The Trib covered this as well.

All day and all night after the ice storm struck, Austin residents listened for the cracks, splinters and crashes. Each crack of a falling limb could shut the power off — if their home hadn’t gone dark already.

“It’s a really, really thick layer of ice,” said Jonathan Motsinger, the Central Texas operations department head for Texas A&M Forest Service. “Trees can only support weight to a certain extent, and then they fail.”

Across the Texas Hill Country this week, trees snapped under the weight of ice that accumulated during multiple days of freezing rain. Some of the most iconic trees were among the most severely damaged: live oaks (some of them hundreds of years old), ashe junipers (the scourge of allergy sufferers during “cedar fever” season), cedar elms. As their branches gave way, they took neighboring power lines with them.

“The amount of weight that has accumulated on the vegetation is probably historic, extreme,” Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said during a Thursday press conference.

Ice can increase the weight of tree branches up to 30 times, said Kerri Dunn, a communications manager for Oncor. The utility reported that almost 143,000 of its customers in North, Central and West Texas were without power Thursday afternoon.

“The amount of weight that has accumulated on the vegetation is probably historic, extreme,” Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said during a Thursday press conference.

Ice can increase the weight of tree branches up to 30 times, said Kerri Dunn, a communications manager for Oncor. The utility reported that almost 143,000 of its customers in North, Central and West Texas were without power Thursday afternoon.

[…]

Austin has almost 34 million trees in the city, according to an online tree census maintained by Texas A&M Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s a big point of pride,” said Keith Mars, who oversees the city of Austin’s Community Tree Preservation Division.

Mars said that shade from the trees saves Austin residents millions of dollars a year in energy costs by cooling homes during hot summer days.

“Trees are infrastructure,” Mars said. “How much maintenance and how much care we provide, so that [the trees] can continue providing those other benefits, is the kind of tradeoff that we all have.”

I don’t really have a point to make here. I hope everyone who has had to endure this week’s terrible weather has made it through all right, and that there are enough trees left over to keep things shaded. The Austi Chronicle has more.

Pension reform had the desired effect

It’s a good thing Houston got this done when it did. We couldn’t get it done earlier, and I don’t think we could get it done now.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Now, nearly six years after Mayor Sylvester Turner shepherded a package of reforms through the Texas Legislature and the ballot box, the city’s pension systems face a far brighter future, according to business leaders, financial analysts and City Hall officials.

The city’s pension liability has shrunk to $2.2 billion, a quarter of what it was in 2017, according to City Hall figures. The city’s net financial position increased last fiscal year from $3.7 to $5.9 billion, an achievement Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected financial watchdog, attributed to the reforms. And the city’s three pension systems have healthier funding levels, all while the city is on track to eliminate its debt in 30 years.

“My administration promised fiscal responsibility, and that is what we have delivered,” Turner said.

The results are not necessarily set in stone. Houston’s pension costs remain relatively high, and a market crash could test the reforms. The city faces other financial challenges, as well, from a structurally unbalanced budget to a pay dispute with firefighters. Still, the city’s pension picture unquestionably has improved from the crisis Turner inherited when he took office.

Turner’s reform package had three primary features: cutting benefits, infusing two of the pension systems with $1 billion in cash from voter-approved bonds, and recalculating the city’s payments.

The cuts, valued at $2.8 billion at the time, centered mostly on cost-of-living adjustments and survivability to descendants and family, instead of earned benefits for retirees. The cash infusion gave an immediate boost to the police and municipal systems. The recalculated city payments used more realistic projections of investment returns, shared risk if the market takes a downturn, and — most importantly — put the city on track to eliminate its debt.

Turner deemed the packages a “shared sacrifice.” The systems and their members took hits to their benefits and contributed more on their end, and the city had to issue more debt and start paying more in contributions.

“Whenever I go around the country, and I talk about this, it seems like Houston is the gold standard in pension reform for U.S. cities,” said Brown, a frequent critic of the Turner administration’s financial policies on other topics. “This should be a Harvard Business School case study in how to compromise in government.”

[…]

The state has codified Houston’s pensions systems into state law, meaning any reforms had to wind their way through the Legislature.  That was no easy feat, according to Greater Houston Partnership President Bob Harvey. The partnership first tried to tackle the pension debt in the Legislature in 2013, and found it would be a far more precarious enterprise than it first imagined. The idea of a shared sacrifice made it more feasible in 2017.

It is possible, Harvey said, that Turner was uniquely capable of getting these reform done, given his history and standing in the Texas House.

“I think that’s a fair statement,” Harvey said. “I think him doing it in his first year of office, when he has a 26-year history in the Texas House, that is what gave him the political equity to move something like this. It still wasn’t easy. There were times when it looked like this wasn’t going to be possible.”

I tend to think that Mayor Turner was the right Mayor at the right time to get this done, perhaps in part because it was so central an issue in the 2015 campaign. I don’t remember what happened in the 2013 session, but things can fail in the Legislature for any number of reasons. If this needed to happen this year, or in 2025 with a new Mayor, I’d be pretty doubtful about it. There’s too much general animus towards cities in general and Houston in particular, and not enough chamber-of-commerce-type Republicans to make up for it. The point is we got it done, it did what we hoped it would do, and we can turn our attention to other issues now.

State Bar lawsuit against Paxton survives motion to dismiss

Good news.

The only criminal involved

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton must face an ethics lawsuit by state attorney regulators over a case he brought challenging results of the 2020 election, according to a court ruling posted on Monday.

Judge Casey Blair on Friday denied Paxton’s bid to dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds. Blair said he was not ruling on the merits of the case.

[…]

The ruling is a setback for Paxton, who had argued that his work as the top Texas state lawyer was beyond the reach of Texas attorney ethics regulators. Potential penalties if the case succeeds could include suspension or disbarment.

The Texas State Bar, an agency that oversees licensed attorneys in the state, filed the lawsuit against Paxton in state court in Dallas last May. The complaint said Paxton made “dishonest” statements in a lawsuit that sought to toss 2020 election votes in four states.

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the election challenge in December 2020.

Paxton’s lawyers told the Texas court that the bar’s allegations were tied to his “performance of his official duties” and that seeking to discipline him “is tantamount to a judicial veto over the exercise of executive discretion.”

The state bar countered that Texas attorney conduct rules “apply to any attorney engaged in the practice of law regardless of their position.”

Technically, this lawsuit was filed in Collin County, per State Bar rules. Both sides filed their briefs in July, and the hearing was in August. Paxton’s argument was basically that the State Bar had no authority over him in this matter, which the judge (a Republican from Kaufman County) rejected.

Assuming this doesn’t get appealed or is upheld on appeal, there will be a hearing on the merits. If that goes well, we may finally get some form of accountability for our lawless Attorney General. Note that a similar lawsuit filed against Paxton’s First Assistant Brent Webster was dismissed in September when the judge in that case bought the same argument about separation of powers. That ruling is under appeal; if there’s been any further news about it, I’ve not seen it.

So there you have it. Stay patient, there’s still a long way to go. MSNBC has more.

Anti-vaxxer defamation lawsuit against Houston Methodist dismissed

Of interest.

A state district judge has dismissed Dr. Mary Talley Bowden’s defamation lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital, which suspended the doctor’s privileges in late 2021 over COVID misinformation.

Judge Mike Engelhart, of the 151st Civil District Court, heard arguments Monday afternoon after the hospital asked to dismiss the case and strike evidence from the record. The ruling appeared on online docket Tuesday, but the written order has not been made available.

Bowden responded shortly after the decision on Twitter: “We will appeal.”

That’s the early version of the dismissal story. An earlier version, from before the ruling came down and which has more background on the suit, is here.

The hearing was the latest development in the months-long dispute between Bowden, an ear, nose and throat specialist who practices in River Oaks, and the hospital. The feud started in November 2021, after Methodist announced her suspension from its “provisional staff” and issued a statement saying the doctor spread “harmful” misinformation about COVID vaccines and treatment. The hospital also cited “unprofessional behavior,” including vulgar language on social media, as a key reason for the suspension.

The doctor, who later resigned, had been touting the benefits of ivermectin for treatment of COVID-19 at a time of intense public debate around the off-label use of the antiparasitic drug to treat the virus. Bowden also had suggested the COVID vaccines are dangerous. Large studies still show no benefit of ivermectin against the virus, and evidence shows the COVID vaccines are safe and effective.

Bowden filed her defamation lawsuit against the hospital in July 2022, saying she lost patients and was exposed to “public hatred, contempt, ridicule and financial injury.” Methodist has argued that medical evidence backs up its statements. The hospital also contends that Bowden repeated the alleged defamatory statements herself in multiple conservative media appearances and profited from the ordeal.

The central issue in Monday’s hearing was whether the doctor’s claims could be dismissed under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which protects free speech.

LeRoy argued that Bowden became a public figure by “inserting herself” into a public debate about COVID, and that Methodist had to respond when she falsely stated the hospital denied care for unvaccinated patients — a claim Bowden later walked back. Bowden also could not provide clear enough evidence to show hospital officials made false statements or acted with reckless disregard for the truth, LeRoy said.

Biss countered that Bowden could prove the hospital made false statements, in part because the hospital portrayed her as an “unfit medical doctor” despite using her COVID data. Bowden previously had said she had been “sharing data” with physicians at Methodist to help them publish research.

“It wasn’t so dangerous or harmful that Houston Methodist didn’t rely and collaborate with Dr. Bowden,” Biss said.

LeRoy said that sharing data with physicians for research “does not mean she is right.”

“This is exactly the type of case that the (Texas Citizens Participation Act) is made for — accusations about a serious issue of public concern that aren’t based in any specific evidence,” LeRoy said.

Here’s a fairly simple explanation of the Texas Citizens Participation Act, sometimes called the Texas Anti-SLAPP Statute. More lawyerly explanations of it are here and here. My interpretation of this is that Houston Methodist successfully argued that Bowden’s lawsuit was an attempt to suppress their ability to freely talk about COVID. I’m happy to hear from real lawyers about this.

I think you can guess where my sympathies lie on this one. Looking in my archives I had not previously noted this case, but I did write about another unsuccessful anti-vaxxer lawsuit against Houston Methodist. We’ll see what if anything happens on appeal, a process that is likely to take years if it does go anywhere.

Have you chipped your pet yet?

The city will begin enforcing its new ordinance requiring dogs and cats to be microchipped.

Houston is offering free microchips for dogs and cats before it begins enforcing a new ordinance that requires pets to have the identification devices.

City Council passed the law last year as part of broader effort to revise animals laws, but the city offered a yearlong grace period to educate residents about the new requirement. That ends Wednesday.

Pets owners in Houston already were required to register pets with the city and prove they have been vaccinated against rabies. The registration requirement historically has had low participation; city officials have estimated just 4 percent of Houston pets are registered.

The registration, microchip and vaccine requirements now form a three-step process to license a dog or cat with the city. Officials said that process helps protect and identify your pet if it is lost. The cost to register generally is $20 for neutered or spayed pets, and $60 for those that are not. It must be renewed every year at the same cost. It is $2 for a senior citizen, and free for service animals.

The city [offered] free microchips from 8 to 10 a.m. Tuesday at its animal shelter on 3300 Carr St. It will offer them during the same hours on Monday, Feb. 6, and Tuesday, Feb. 7. The city usually offers to install the devices for $15.

The microchips will enable animal control officers to return lost pets directly, without bringing them to a shelter first, according to Greg Damianoff, the shelter director for the city’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care.

See here for the background. I confess, we haven’t gotten our indoor-only dog chipped, but he does have a city registration tag from last year and a rabies vaccination tag from the vet, so I would think he’d be ID’ed easily enough if he managed to escape. Really, this is a good risk mitigation for you and a good cost savings for the city. Take advantage if you can.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 30

The Texas Progressive Alliance is ready for January to end as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

January 2023 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Previously: City of Houston

January 2022 reports are here, July 2022 reports are here. I did not get around to doing the 30-day and 8-day reports from 2022, so what you see here in these reports is not contiguous for those who were on last November’s ballot.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff
Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor

Alan Rosen, Constable Precinct 1
Jerry Garcia, Constable Precinct 2
Sherman Eagleton, Constable Precinct 3
Mark Herman, Constable Precinct 4
Ted Heap, Constable Precinct 5
Sylvia Trevino, Constable Precinct 6
Phil Sandlin, Constable Precinct 8

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer

Alexandra Mealer, County Judge
Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Steve Radack


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo         612,111  1,095,479  101,400     36,568

Ellis            40,800    443,116        0  3,543,358
Garcia, A       175,027    340,089        0    291,697
Ramsey          550,625    149,433        0    944,935
Briones         819,495    331,782        0    667,234

Ogg             161,659     19,356   48,489    242,159
Menefee          36,826     30,700        0    193,291
Gonzalez              0      4,032        0      9,258
Danna             1,983     19,814   18,452        982
Bennett               0      1,022        0     14,527

Rosen           717,202     84,691        0  1,322,398
Garcia           33,177      8,498        0     54,177
Eagleton         51,665     23,158  119,650     59,159
Herman                0     96,574        0    518,009
Heap                  0     69,735   18,880     68,808
Trevino           3,150      4,270        0     26,871
Sandlin          38,580     28,502        0     79,998

Hudspeth          4,660     22,009        0      9,952
Burgess             940     14,710    5,207      5,403
Wyatt             1,950      2,110        0      2,258

Mealer          356,684    621,482        0    188,512
Cagle            64,225    186,970        0      5,056
Radack                0     71,246        0    794,652

I included Mealer and Cagle for post-election inclusion mostly out of curiosity. Jack Morman did not have a report filed or I’d have included him as well. Cagle’s July report showed over a million bucks on hand. Life comes at you fast. (Except for Steve Radack, who still has a nice chunk of change in his account.) On the other side of that, you can see that Judge Hidalgo left it all on the field. She’ll have plenty of time to build that treasury back up; she did a pretty good job of that this cycle, so I’d expect to see her total tick up in short order. I didn’t look closely at new Commissioner Briones’ report, but I’d bet a nice lunch that a substantial chunk of her cash arrived after the election. It’s good to be a Commissioner.

I don’t think I’ve seen reports for District Attorney on the county election site before. DA is technically a state office – for smaller counties, the DA can cover several of them at once – so I’d normally expect to see them on the Texas Ethics Commission site. Not that I’m complaining. I figure it’s just a matter of time before incumbent DA draws a primary challenger or two, so we’ll want to keep an eye on her fundraising totals. Nothing else of great interest in this group – I’d expect both Ed Gonzalez and Christian Menefee to start posting bigger numbers soon. As for Joe Danna, is there ever a time when he isn’t running for Sheriff?

I don’t know if we will get Constable/JP redistricting, but there are always some interesting primary contests here, and even with the same maps we could have interesting November races in Precincts 4 and 5. Along those lines, I note two potential future Constable candidates: Don Dinh, a Deputy Constable in Precinct 1 since 2020 who was for 24 years before that a sergeant in the Fort Bend County Precinct 2 Constable’s office, filed a designation of treasurer to run for Constable in Precinct 5. I’m going to guess he’d run as a Democrat, but I can’t say for sure at this time. A William Wagner, about whom I could find nothing, filed the same for Constable in Precinct 7. He would almost surely run as a Dem in this heavily Democratic precinct.

Oh, and the second place where there might be a Democratic primary fight worth watching is in Precinct 1. Alan Rosen had his eye on the Sheriff’s office back when Ed Gonzalez was a nominee for head of ICE, but that’s off the table now. He may or may not seek to run for something else – do remember that the minute he says something to that effect he’ll have to resign, so all we would have before then is speculation – but either way I won’t be surprised to see some competition for the Precinct 1 slot. One of his top staffers ran against Judge Hidalgo in the 2022 Dem primary, and I imagine there will be some kind of response to that. That would not be a cheap race as things stand now, as you can see.

Not much else to say at this time for 2024, but I will note that at least some of the Democratic judges whose election is being challenged by a sore loser are raising funds for their legal defense. If you have a favorite or two among them and a few bucks to spare, I’m sure they’d appreciate a contribution.

Paxton seeks settlement with some of the whistleblower plaintiffs

Very interesting.

The only criminal involved

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal team is in settlement negotiation talks with three of the four former employees who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against him for firing them after they accused Paxton of criminal acts.

Paxton’s lawyers, in a joint filing last week with attorneys for Mark Penley, David Maxwell and Ryan Vassar — Paxton’s former deputies — asked the Texas Supreme Court to put the whistleblower case on hold to give the parties time to negotiate a settlement. The lawyers wrote they were “actively engaged in settlement discussions” with mediation set for Wednesday.

Lawyers for a fourth plaintiff, Blake Brickman, opposed the motion in their own filing and urged the court to move forward with its consideration. The news was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

[…]

Paxton has argued in state court that he is exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he is an elected official, not a public employee and that he fired them not in retaliation for their complaint, but because of personnel disagreements. An appeals court has ruled against him and allowed the case to move forward. But last January, Paxton appealed his case to the Texas Supreme Court.

The joint filing by Paxton’s lawyers and the three plaintiffs says the court should defer its review of the case until Feb. 9 to give the parties an opportunity to resolve the issue outside of the courtroom.

Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brickman’s lawyers, Thomas Nesbitt and William T. Palmer, said in their filing that Paxton’s team has been delaying the case for two years and “there is no reason for abating this case.” They argued that the other plaintiffs sought the pause only because they intended to settle the case, but since Brickman was not involved in those negotiations, his claims still needed a quick resolution.

“Brickman respectfully requests that this Court deny the request for abatement,” they wrote. “It imposes further needless delay of the adjudication of Brickman’s claim.”

See here for my last update, in June. I am unabashedly rooting for Blake Brickman here. I respect that Messrs. Penley, Maxwell, and Vassar wish to settle. If they think that’s in their best interests, then godspeed and good luck. But if Brickman wants to pursue the case, there’s no reason to make him and SCOTx wait until they come to an agreement – if indeed they do. The question of whether Paxton as Attorney General can be sued at all in this context matters, and we deserve to get a ruling on that. (Yes, I may end up regretting this request, but such is life.) From a slightly more selfish perspective, the only way to ensure that the more sordid allegations from this complaint get an airing is if there’s a trial. Sure, if the FBI ever charges Paxton with a crime we may find out more, but given how long that has already taken and the amount of time Paxton has been able to evade trial for his state crimes, we may all be dead by the time that happens. So yeah, let this lawsuit continue. We all deserve some answers.

A brief digression on baseball broadcasting and leveraged buyouts

I call your attention to this fine article about some current baseball-business news, which among other things helped me better understand some business lingo.

Diamond Sports Group, the company that owns Bally Sports Network and thus the rights to 14 teams’ local broadcasts (plus minority stakes in two team-owned broadcasts)*, is careening towards bankruptcy. Per Bloomberg, the actual bankruptcy declaration is merely a formality: the firm will reportedly skip an interest payment due in February, triggering a restructuring that will wipe out the firm’s existing equity and convert all but the most senior debt into equity stakes in the new company, leaving its current creditors in charge.

That’s a shocking turn of events for a media group that sold for more than $10 billion in 2019. Heck, it’s a shocking turn of events for a company that made more than $2 billion in revenues in the first nine months of 2022, and more than $3 billion in 2021. It might also affect long-term cashflows for every team in the league; after all, local broadcast rights are a key piece of the revenue pie, and broadcast rights have exploded along with MLB revenues in the past decade.

How could this have happened? Which teams will be impacted, and what will that impact be? How will the league adapt to the new media landscape brought on by this bankruptcy and any subsequent dominos that fall as a result? I don’t have the answer to all of those questions, but I’ll walk through each in turn before speculating about what might happen next.

The easiest thing to figure out is how this happened. In early 2019, Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased the Fox Sports Networks brand and its associated networks from Disney as part of Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox. They bought it via a subsidiary called Diamond Sports Group, which is an annoying bit of corporate legerdemain that allowed Sinclair to keep the business at arm’s length and decline to backstop it if things went wrong. That set this entire chain of events into motion.

See, Sinclair didn’t buy this large collection of regional sports networks with cash. They used some financial sleight of hand known as a leveraged buyout. They paid $9.6 billion to Disney for the business (other investors put in $1 billion to make the aggregate purchase price $10.6 billion), but they didn’t do so by peeling an unending string of crisp new hundreds from their wallet. They only put up $1.4 billion of their own money, in fact. The remainder was covered by $1.8 billion in senior debt, $3.1 billion in secured debt, and $3.3 billion in a subordinated term loan facility (read: $8.2 billion in borrowed money).

In some sense, this bankruptcy was preordained. When Sinclair opted for a debt-enabled purchase, they considered these risks extensively. In fact, there’s no doubt about the way they thought. Scour the prospectus for one of the notes they issued, and you’ll find 22 references to bankruptcy, as well as an interest rate that assumed some chance of default. That’s hardly unusual in debt financing, but the point remains: behind all the ponderous wording that pervades financial documents, these bonds were issued and purchased with the understanding that Diamond Sports Group might not be able to make all of its payments. One peek at their financial reports could tell you that.

It’s good stuff, so read the rest. And no, the Astros are not among the teams whose local broadcast revenue is affected. Those of you who grimaced at the mention of Sinclair Broadcasting should get a bit of schadenfreude out of it by the end. Awful Announcing and Pinstripe Alley have more.

A petition effort to force H-GAC to be more fair to Houston and Harris County

I heard about Fair For Houston over the weekend, and I like where they’re coming from.

H-GAC determines the funding and planning for our:

  • Sidewalks & Roads

  • Flooding Prevention & Mitigation

  • Childcare

  • Workforce Development

  • Large-Scale Infrastructure, e.g., Highways

But we are losing funding for our city. Houston is being silenced on H-GAC.

Houston makes up 60% of the population under H-GAC’s authority, yet the city only has 20% of H-GAC’s voting power. Houston’s representatives are unable to prioritize what is most important to our communities.

What are we doing?

H-GAC cannot exist without Houston, so it is up to us to fight for fair representation, fair funding, and fair outcomes for Houston. We have the power to decide what’s right for our city.

We are collecting signatures of support from Houston voters to put this issue on the ballot. In November, Houstonians can vote to amend our city charter, forcing H-GAC to adopt a modern proportional voting system.

Proportional H-GAC voting empowers Houstonians to fund projects and programs that benefit our daily lives. It gives power to our leaders. It gives power to the voters who elect them.

The City of Houston has the power to change H-GAC and the people have the power to make this happen.

I’ve noted the disproportionate representation on H-GAC and its recent effects on Houston before. I don’t know what exactly happens if Houston and Harris County decide to take their ball and go home – federal and state grant monies still have to go through some kind of distribution process, and I’m not sure how that would move forward in this scenario – but it doesn’t have to come to that. All this is saying is that we deserve a fairer shake. H-GAC can make that happen, or they can lose access to the grants that Houston and Harris County attract; I’d bet that Fort Bend would be willing to come along with us, if we wind up making our own replacement organization. I’m in favor of putting some pressure on them to do the right thing.

Go visit Fair For Houston if you want to sign the petition or otherwise get involved. There are two other referenda scheduled to be on the 2023 ballot. I won’t be shocked if some other efforts are out there; if you know of something, give it a mention in the comments.

The ongoing referee shortage

This news is not new, though the cause being cited is different than the last time I read this kind of story.

The official shortage seen in the Houston area is part of a nationwide issue, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. So much so, in fact, that the NFHS — which oversees state associations like the University Interscholastic League in Texas — has launched a  campaign called “Bench Bad Behavior,” aimed at providing a remedy for abuse against officials during games.

The NFHS has dedicated resources to its member state associations to improve the behavior of coaches, parents, players and other fans.

NFHS chief executive officer Karissa Niehoff said pre- and post-COVID-19 numbers reveal that around 50,000 high school sports officials nationwide have left the profession.

“Despite our efforts for five years now to do a recruitment campaign, we still realize that loss,” Niehoff said during a Zoom session with national media last week. “We have some numbers that are coming back slowly, but we really want to not only call attention to the loss itself and the crisis itself but the reasons — more importantly, why? What we’ve found is the reasons officials do not stay in the profession really center around behavior.”

When the National Association of Sports Officials conducted its most recent nationwide survey during the summer of 2017 — drawing more than 17,000 participants — 57 percent said sportsmanship toward officials was getting worse. When it was asked who caused the most problems with sportsmanship, parents (39 percent), coaches (29 percent) and fans (18 percent) were identified as the top culprits. When it was asked who was most responsible for improving that sportsmanship, coaches (54 percent) and parents (23 parents) were again the top two answers.

NASO president Barry Mano also stressed the importance of school administrators correcting bad behavior in the stands. He said schools should be doing more to make officials feel protected and appreciated.

“Referees are in charge of the game; we’re not in charge of the environment,” Mano said. “So when a crew of sports officials comes to a site, they need to be better taken care of. They need to be recognized; they need to be secure. Do some things that make them feel welcome, make them feel respected. It’s not about money. We could solve the problem we’re taking about today if we started paying $500 a game for high school. We’re not going to do that. The shortage is not going to go away, so we need to do these other things.”

Over the summer of 2022, the Texas Association of Sports Officials took a hard stance and adopted a new policy aimed at stopping the abuse of officials. The two-section document is short and to the point. The goal is to “collaborate with schools where excessive verbal and/or physical abuse has occurred to provide a safe and more positive climate for all participants.”

The first section of the policy focuses on the abuse and warns that schools will be reprimanded if the TASO presidents council deems there is a culture of failing to control players, coaches or spectators. If those accusations are not met with sufficient action and results, the consequences will be severely punitive. It states, “For schools that fail to address their negative culture of abuse, a notification will be sent indicating that, effective on a certain date, there will be no TASO officials, in any sport, assigned to home games for that school until the issues are satisfactorily addressed.”

Other states also are taking action to battle the issue. The California Interscholastic Association, for example, implemented a bylaw that bans fans who assault officials from attending any future events.

Mano said attacks on officials have become a way-too-common occurrence in recent years.

“Today, we are getting reports in our office every single week of physical assaults against sports officials,” Mano said. “I believe it is important that administrators come to the realization that they are going to have to put some lines in the sand, saying that certain types of behavior are not going to be tolerated.”

Back in 2017, when I last wrote about this, the issue was simple demographics – Texas’ population, which very much includes the school-age population, was growing faster than TASO’s membership, which was trending older. I’m sure bad behavior by fans was an issue then as well, and I’m sure that demography continues to be an issue now, but the bad behavior issue is more acute. I’m a little surprised that the pandemic, which has been blamed for worse behavior by the public in a lot of other contexts, wasn’t mentioned here. I kind of think that a bigger problem is that we have an ever-increasing share of the public that doesn’t feel restrained by the kind of behavioral norms that we all lived by for generations – you know, all that “we live in a society!” stuff. There’s an obvious parallel to modern politics and the behavior of a certain class of politician that I’m sure you can infer on your own.

On that score, I’m a little surprised that there isn’t a lobbying effort to criminalize or enhance the punishment of this kind of abuse. I don’t know that that’s the best way forward, but I do believe that there have to be consequences for being that much of an asshole at a scholastic sporting event, and that it probably does make the most sense to put the onus on the schools to control their own fans. I hope it works.

Meanwhile, there is that other issue, and this time it seems that maybe there’s been a bit of progress.

Recruitment and retention are key components to battling the official shortage, both in Texas and across the country.

When faced with scheduling issues, Simpson started to take action. The Houston Soccer Officials Association does not appear to have a social media presence, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I just started tweeting,” she said. “I got the link on how to become a ref from the HSOA website and started sending it to every college in our area. I sent it to friends. Three actually signed up. I was focused on getting as many refs as we needed to recover so we don’t have to do this (scheduling) plan.”

Another solution is trying to get younger people involved in the profession. For those who have already joined on, it’s about using the available resources to train, develop and retain them.

“As far as the guys doing it, even though there are some younger guys that are having to call games they’re not ready for, the Houston chapter has done a really good job of putting veterans with those young guys and mentoring them, training them and leading them the right way,” Heston said.

Carl Theiss served as a high school basketball official for 26 years and is currently the Bay Area representative on the state board for the Texas High School Basketball Officials Association. He has also spent time on the TASO state board and officiated junior college basketball in the area for more than 20 years.

Theiss said one of his primary goals as a member of the THSBOA education committee is to get younger people involved. It starts with providing an avenue to learn about officiating.

Simpson and Heston are both local high school coaches. I also noted in 2017 an effort by the Houston chapter of TASO to recruit women to be football referees. That subject was not noted in this story, but as I had wondered about TASO’s recruiting efforts back then, I’m glad to see that at least someone is taking action. This really would be a good job for social media, especially if you’re trying to reach a younger audience. Fixing the abuse problem will surely also help, but actively finding the next generation of refs and umps needs to be a priority for these organizations. I wish them luck.

A brief 11th Street update

From the latest Woodland Heights Civic Association newsletter:

11th Street Safety Improvements: Project Update

The WHCA board hosted City officials (David Fields, Lauren Grove, and Colin Lupold) at the January 10th general meeting. We had around 50 or so on the Zoom call, and feedback from neighbors was positive about the project generally, except with some discrete concerns that the City addressed. Here is a brief recap:

  • Timeline. The project is on track to be completed by the end of February.
  • Hogg Middle School. The City has heard various reports of problems with pick-up and drop-off. They have met with Hogg officials multiple times, including earlier on Jan 10th. They did not share specifics but they are working on it.
  • Signal Lights. They understand that some of the traffic on 11th Street is due to old configuration of the traffic signals. The light signals will be changed at the very end of the project—they can’t do that until all striping and signage is in. So help is on the way.
  • Visibility. Several neighbors asked about increased visibility on the curbs and islands. The officials discussed several options and limitations, but will work on it.
  • Cut-Through Traffic. Finally, we discussed examples of increased cut-through traffic. The City re-affirmed its commitment to work with the neighborhoods after the project to minimize negative impacts. But these issues are addressed best after construction is complete.

Next Steps: the City will attend our next general meeting in March to follow up on these matters, and we will be communicating with them in the meantime as needed.

The last pre-construction update I had was from June. In September the planning was finalized and initial work was getting set to begin, and around Halloween I first noticed signs on the street announcing the imminent changes. There probably isn’t that much more to do – this stretch of 11th Street is now one car lane each way with a turn lane in place for much of it. The segregated bike lanes are there, some of those pedestrian islands are there, the “No Left Turn” signs at Heights Blvd are there, and any resurfacing that needed to be done was done early on.

And I have to say, for the most part the effect on traffic has been pretty minimal, as the city said it would be. I take this stretch of West 11th several times a week, all around 4 PM, as part of the kid-carpool thing, and other than having to wait longer at the Shepherd light, it’s really no different. I’m rarely tempted to cut over to 10th Street, and from my normal travels around the neighborhood I have not noticed more cars on the side streets. (*) I haven’t noticed a lot of bike traffic, but I have ridden it myself (just once as of this writing, but there will be more) and it’s great. I had always avoided riding on 11th Street in the past, and having a segregated lane makes all the difference. I’m glad to see from this newsletter update that this change has been positively received, because I definitely approve of it. I hope this means there will be more like this elsewhere in the city.

One more aspect of this, as you can see from the embedded image, is on Michaux, which connects 11th to Stude Park and the White Oak and MKT bike trails. The only changes on Michaux have been the addition of “Bike Trail” street signs and bike lane-type painting on the street itself. I’ve got a plan to do a ride along the whole route and take some pictures in the near future, so you can see that later. They also added a pedestrian island on White Oak at Michaux, so you can’t make a left turn from Michaux southbound onto White Oak, or continue through onto the one extra block of Michaux before it runs into Stude Park. That has made me redo how I get to the I-10 entrance and points south from Watson, either by taking Norhill and turning left onto White Oak from there or turning left to get to Watson before I reach Michaux. I’ve seen a driver or two get caught by surprise by that and do some ill-advised things to compensate, but I expect that will decrease over time.

Anyway. From where I sit this has been a success, and I’ve not seen any kind of response from the opponents of the project. I can’t wait until the Durham/Shepherd project catches up and you can really get places on your bike. I also need to hop over to North Main and see how that project is coming along. If you’re in this area, what has your experience been with the changes to West 11th Street?

(*) I grew up on Staten Island, New York, where everyone drove on the side streets because the main roads, which were often one lane each way and had bus routes and street parking and no protected left turns, were basically undriveable. So I know from taking side streets. If there’s any increase in side street traffic resulting from the changes to West 11th, I can’t see it.

Precinct analysis: The different kinds of courts

PREVIOUSLY
Beto versus Abbott
Beto versus the spread
Hidalgo versus Mealer
Better statewide races
Not as good statewide races
County executive offices
Houston/not Houston

I’ve spent a lot of time and space on this blog talking about judicial races and trying to make sense of their numbers. As we’ve discussed, there is consistently a three-to-four point range between the top-scoring Democratic judicial candidate and the lowest-scoring one. That range is consistent across years, across baseline Democratic performance levels, across different types of judicial races. I’ve looked but never found patterns that I think satisfactorily and consistently explain the variations.

This was an interesting year for multiple reasons – the first non-Presidential election since the huge shift towards Democrats in 2018, the first time these judicial incumbents were running for re-election, tons of money being spent by Republicans and their backers to smear Criminal Court judges, the high-profile County Judge race that was closely tied to that same campaign spending, the first non-Presidential year with no straight-ticket voting, coming in a year with the extra-long ballot and so on. There were a lot of contradictory polls and a lot of dubious conventional wisdom, including questionable pronouncements about voters getting worn out before they reached the end of the ballot, and how that would be bad for Democrats.

In the end, the results largely defied negative pronouncements about Democrats’ chances. I turn as always to the numbers to see what they tell us. One way that I decided to approach this was to look at the different type of judicial races on the ballot, to see if there was anything interesting there. Turns out there was:


Court         R Avg    D Avg    R pct   D pct
=============================================
Appeals     520,019  549,533   48.62%  51.38%
Dist Civil  518,475  545,206   48.74%  51.26%
Dist Crim   520,900  542,986   48.96%  51.04%
Family      508,801  546,195   48.23%  51.77%
C Civil     515,292  545,092   48.60%  51.40%
C Crim      522,321  534,175   49.44%  50.56%
C Probate   511,900  540,619   48.64%  51.36%

You may have noticed that the ballot is arranged in a particular order. At a high level, it’s federal races, then state races, then county races, then city and other local entities if applicable. In this context, after the statewide offices and the legislative offices (including the SBOE), there are the judicial races. They start with the appellate courts, the 1st and 14th for those of us in Harris County, then the District Courts in numerical order, which means that Criminal District Courts and Civil District Courts are mixed together. Last in line for the state courts are the Family Courts, also in numerical order. After the last Family Court race is the County Judge, the top race in the county, and then the County Civil courts, the County Criminal courts, and finally the County Probate courts. (I am not taking the Justice of the Peace courts into consideration here, as they are not countywide and you only have one of them on your ballot.)

That’s the order displayed in the table above, so each line represents a group that came entirely after the group above it. I took the average number of votes each party’s candidates got in these races – I omitted the one Appellate Court race that had a third candidate in it so that we’d have a cleaner comparison – and the average vote percentage for each group, which you see in the table.

Breaking it down this way revealed three things to me that I might not have noticed otherwise. One is that the many millions of dollars spent by the Mealer/Mattress Mack cohort did have some effect, specifically in the criminal court races, with that effect being slightly larger in the county courts than in the district courts. Republican criminal court candidates, at both the district and county levels, actually got more votes on average than their civil court counterparts, while the Democrats in those races got fewer votes than their civil court colleagues. It’s not clear to me why the gap was greater in the county (which is to say, misdemeanor) courts; the anti-Democratic advertising wasn’t at all subtle about who was responsible for whatever outrage they were fulminating about. To the extent that it did work, the voters seemed to understand the difference between “criminal courts” and “not criminal courts”. If anyone on the Republican side thought that the other Democratic judges might become collateral damage, there’s no evidence to support that.

Two, the Family Court judges were the stars of the 2022 elections for the Democrats. The gap is the greatest between them and their Republican challengers, and they got the most votes in the aggregate of any non-appellate group. They may have drawn some support from people who otherwise voted Republican, or they got more people who might have been skipping other judicial races to push their buttons. Again, I don’t know exactly why. Just eyeballing the 2018 results – I may go back and do these calculations for that year, just as a point of comparison – I think the Dems that year did better overall than in other races, though they had about the same range of results. One thought I’ve had about this is that the Family Courts were kind of a mess before the Dem sweep of 2018 – there were some stories that made it into the papers about happenings in the Family Courts, and of course there was then-Family Court Judge Lisa Millard ruling against the city of Houston giving health insurance benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees even after DOMA had been ruled unconstitutional by SCOTUS. Maybe there’s a general impression among (at least some) voters that Republicans can’t be trusted on Family Court benches, in the way that Republicans tried to push than message about Dems on Criminal Court benches. I’m just guessing – the evidence is minimal, there aren’t that many of these races, the gap isn’t that much – but it’s what I’ve got.

And three, there’s no evidence to support the hypothesis that I have seen too many times that “ballot fatigue” disproportionately hurts Democratic candidates. Democratic Probate Court judges, all the way at the bottom of the ballot, did basically as well as their counterparts in appellate and civil court races. The dropoff in votes cast for each party from appellate to probate, and from county civil to probate, is about the same; the dropoff from district civil to probate favors the Dems. If anyone thought that eliminating straight ticket voting would give Republicans more of a chance to win these farther downballot races because Dems would lose interest or get tired or whatever, they were wrong. I made this point till I was sick of having to make it back in 2018 and again in 2020. I will never not be mad about all of the lazy, uninformed, and frankly kind of racist assumptions that went into that hypothesis.

Let me close with a visual reminder of all this. The table above is the average vote and percentage for the different types of judicial races. The chart below is the vote percentage for both parties in each of those races individually.

The Y-axis is the percentages. The X-axis is where they are on the ballot, so on the left we start with the appellate races, then go through the district and family courts, then into the county civil, criminal, and finally probate courts. You can see the four races that Dems lost, one district criminal court and three county criminal courts.

And as you can see, while there is that dip in percentage that we have discussed for the county criminal courts, it bounces right back for the probate courts. There’s no overall downward trend. Many millions of dollars in advertising was able to move the needle a bit in a handful of races, but that’s it.

I still have a couple more of these posts to work through. As always, please let me know what you think.

Can we finally end Ken Paxton’s egregious court-shopping?

File this under “About damn time”, even if it eventually comes to naught.

The only criminal involved

As soon as President Joe Biden entered the White House, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched an unprecedented campaign of obstruction to block his agenda in the courts. Paxton took advantage of a quirk—really, a loophole—in the federal judiciary: A state can pick the specific judge who will oversee its case by filing in a small division where only one judge sits. Using this strategy, Paxton has positioned his cases before a rotating cast of the same conservative judges, most of them nominated by Donald Trump. They have dutifully played their role in this pantomime of litigation, issuing an unending series of sweeping injunctions that block Biden administration policies nationwide for months or years.

On Thursday, the administration finally said: enough. In response to yet another Texas lawsuit exploiting this loophole, Biden’s Justice Department called out Paxton—and, implicitly, the judges playing along with his scheme. The DOJ highlighted Texas’ “blatant” and shameless “judge-shopping,” urging a transfer to another court “in the interests of justice.” Naturally, Trump-nominated Judge Drew Tipton is unlikely to oblige; that is, after all, why Paxton hand-picked him for this lawsuit. But the DOJ’s filing marks a new phase of battle against Republicans’ judicial gamesmanship: The Justice Department is playing hardball in the lower courts, forcing compromised judges to address their own complicity in a cynical partisan chicanery.

As soon as President Joe Biden entered the White House, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched an unprecedented campaign of obstruction to block his agenda in the courts. Paxton took advantage of a quirk—really, a loophole—in the federal judiciary: A state can pick the specific judge who will oversee its case by filing in a small division where only one judge sits. Using this strategy, Paxton has positioned his cases before a rotating cast of the same conservative judges, most of them nominated by Donald Trump. They have dutifully played their role in this pantomime of litigation, issuing an unending series of sweeping injunctions that block Biden administration policies nationwide for months or years.

On Thursday, the administration finally said: enough. In response to yet another Texas lawsuit exploiting this loophole, Biden’s Justice Department called out Paxton—and, implicitly, the judges playing along with his scheme. The DOJ highlighted Texas’ “blatant” and shameless “judge-shopping,” urging a transfer to another court “in the interests of justice.” Naturally, Trump-nominated Judge Drew Tipton is unlikely to oblige; that is, after all, why Paxton hand-picked him for this lawsuit. But the DOJ’s filing marks a new phase of battle against Republicans’ judicial gamesmanship: The Justice Department is playing hardball in the lower courts, forcing compromised judges to address their own complicity in a cynical partisan chicanery.

The underlying lawsuit in Texas v. Department of Homeland Security is another frivolous effort to shift control over border policy from the executive branch to a single federal judge. Paxton has pulled this off before: In August 2021, he persuaded another Trump-nominated judge, Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, to block Biden’s repeal of a Trump policy that forced U.S.-bound migrants to remain in Mexico. Kacsmaryk even forced U.S. diplomats to negotiate with Mexican officials under threat of sanctions. Texas’ new suit, filed on Tuesday, seeks to do something similar. The state is infuriated by a new agreement between the Biden administration and Mexico regarding migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela. (The U.S. cannot send these migrants back to their home countries.) The agreement compels most of these migrants to stay on the Mexican side of the border. But it allows a small number of them to enter the U.S. legally—and remain here for a limited period—if they are vetted and have financial supporters in the country already.

This policy, first implemented in December, has already contributed to a dramatic reduction in unlawful entry among migrants from the four relevant nations. But Texas is furious that the new rules will allow some migrants to enter the U.S. lawfully. So its lawsuit asks the judiciary to strike down the entire policy, blowing up negotiations between the Mexican and American governments.

Paxton strategically filed the suit in the Victoria Division of the Southern District of Texas, where exactly one judge sits: Tipton, not just a Trump nominee but also a longtime Federalist Society member. This is the seventh case that Paxton has positioned before Tipton. The first, filed two days after Biden’s inauguration, sought to block the new president’s 100-day halt on deportations. Tipton swiftly granted a nationwide injunction against the pause.

Paxton’s suit is also the 25th time he has exploited the single-judge loophole to get a case before an ideological ally in Texas, according to statistics meticulously compiled by law professor (and Slate contributor) Steve Vladeck. (That count shoots up when you factor in suits filed in other red states with single-judge divisions, like Louisiana.) This plot goes way beyond any Democratic forum-shopping under Trump. Democrats filed in favorable district courts and hoped they drew a left-leaning judge. Paxton, by contrast, zeroes in on a handful of divisions within districts where he is guaranteed to draw a hard-right judge.

The Justice Department is asking for the case to be moved to either Austin or Washington, DC, on the theory that as the plaintiff is the state of Texas and the defendant is the USA, the case should be heard where one of them “resides”, which is to say one of their capitals. Alternately, the Justice Department asks for the suit to be moved to another division within the Southern District of Texas, one that has multiple judges in it, so the case can be randomly assigned as per the norm, instead of going to one of Paxton’s pet judges by default. I have no idea what the likelihood of that is – clearly, Slate author Mark Joseph Stern isn’t optimistic – but it can’t hurt to ask, if only to see what kind of weak justification is given for denying the request. I don’t know if this is appealable, but if it is I’d expect the Justice Department to go for it, since why not. It’s worth the effort and if nothing else it may at least put a little sand in Paxton’s gears. Anything is better than what we have been doing.

No 2024 DNC for Houston

Not a surprise.

The Democratic National Convention told Houston officials this week the city will not host Democrats’ national convention in 2024.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office confirmed Thursday that Houston no longer is in the running. The snub leaves New York City, Chicago and Atlanta vying to host the convention, which Democrats have estimated could bring more than $230 million in economic activity.

Houston did not publicize its bid, but the convention would have been split between the Toyota Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, according to officials at Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm.

The city separately is vying to host the 2028 Republican National Convention. It could not bid for that party’s 2024 gathering because it conflicted with other events at the two facilities.

See here for the background. I’d put a few bucks on Atlanta being the eventual winner given the competition, but who knows. Would Houston have had a better chance if Dems did better in Texas last year? Again, who knows. All I can say is that if we somehow win the bid for the 2028 RNC, I’ll be making plans to be out of town when it happens.

Weekend link dump for January 29

“One of George R.R. Martin’s favorite fantasy novels might finally get adapted into a TV series thanks to an unlikely ally — late-night host Stephen Colbert.”

“Over the last year, several Republicans have been clamoring to impeach the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Alejandro Mayorkas, as the next act in their nativist political theater. Devoid of substance, their production of impeachment is but the latest in an escalating set of performances to engage their base. While a dead-end in the Senate controlled by Democrats, House Republicans reinvigorated their calls for impeachment after their lackluster performance in the midterms guaranteed their efforts would be just for show. If House Republicans move forward with an endless set of hearings or impeachment, their charade will not just be a massive waste of tax dollars and distraction from Republicans’ failure to govern but a dangerous normalization of a conspiracy theory drenched in white nationalism and anti-Semitism that they will employ as a critical accusation. A conspiracy theory that has inspired multiple domestic terrorist attacks over the last few years and claimed the lives of dozens of Americans.”

“Pink Floyd Announce Dark Side of the Moon Box Set for 50th Anniversary”.

I’m not in the target demographic for Zoey 101, but this argument against watching the forthcoming reboot by someone who is in that demographic is compelling.

“A new analysis of citizen science reports indicates that light pollution is intensifying around the world.”

If you’ve ever wondered why the NFL doesn’t use the chip that’s in every football to measure for first downs instead of those silly chains, here’s an explanation for you.

So, how are the billionaires doing at supporting and revitalizing journalism?

Lock him up.

Elections have consequences. That includes good ones. And bad ones, too.

“Sunday [marked] 50 years since the Roe decision. Now, in the seven months since the court’s reversal, the scope of its protections are clearer than ever — as are the implications of its loss. The 19th has tracked who in America can get an abortion and where, a picture that has changed dramatically. Here’s where laws stood as of these dates”.

Hey, remember the USA Network? They used to have shows worth watching. I would have included In Plain Sight on their list of quality programs; among other things, it had in my opinion one of the best and most satisfying series finales I’ve seen.

“By coincidence, both party leaders are now Baptists, a faith that outside the South has generally been underrepresented among the political elite. […] There would be good feature potential in comparing the two Baptists’ congregations.” (Via Slacktivist.)

“For these policies to retain such support among House conservatives suggests that Republicans have failed to absorb Donald Trump’s one good political lesson: Don’t mess with Social Security and Medicare.”

“An important lesson of American mass shootings, including the most recent, is that each one is an individual incident, involving different circumstances, different motivations, different victims. We should always be careful to recognize this specificity, as well as the unimaginable losses suffered by the victims and their families. But we must never lose sight of the fact that all these tragedies take place in a culture that has facilitated the sale for profit of deadly weapons, making it relatively easy for people with deadly intentions to acquire one. Unless and until this environment changes, the carnage will continue.”

“And apparently it’s all part of a conspiracy that started with gas stoves, moved on to coffee, and now is infesting video games.”

I trust that by now, a special prosecutor has been appointed. Right?

“Earth’s inner core may have temporarily stopped rotating relative to the mantle and surface, researchers report in the January 23 Nature Geoscience. Now, the direction of the inner core’s rotation may be reversing — part of what could be a roughly 70-year-long cycle that may influence the length of Earth’s days and its magnetic field — though some researchers are skeptical.”

RIP, Lloyd Morriset, co-founder of Children’s Television Workshop and co-creator of Sesame Street.

Cry me a river.

“All of that could be described as Tim LaHaye’s attempt to ensure that the attitudes he expressed in that 1968 letter would be and remain “normal” for white evangelicalism in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and 2010s. For the next 48 years of his life, right up until his unraptured demise in 2016, Tim LaHaye never stopped writing this letter.”

“Chao has previously suggested that repeating Trump’s racist attacks against her—which often includes not only the personalized slur but baseless accusations of secret fealty to Beijing—only fuels his abhorrent taunting. And yet it’s gotten to the point that even she has to say something. And she had to do it alone.”

RIP, Lance Kerwin, actor best known for the TV show James at 16.

“But after almost four years — far longer than the Russia investigation itself — Mr. Durham’s work is coming to an end without uncovering anything like the deep state plot alleged by Mr. Trump and suspected by Mr. Barr.”

Disbar him.

RIP, Billy Packer, Emmy award winning college basketball announcer and Final Four fixture.

Not quite the same old gambling story

This Trib story about the state of gambling expansion in the Lege is not the usual formula. It has a lot of the usual elements, but for the first time there’s some hint of maybe something could happen. Maybe.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

Gambling legalization advocates in Texas are going all in again this legislative session, confident that they have built more support since their efforts came up far short in 2021.

The push is still an uphill battle, however, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, continues to pour cold water on the idea. But supporters have found promising signs elsewhere, and they have returned to the Capitol with an army of well-connected lobbyists after doling out millions of dollars in campaign contributions during the 2022 election.

There are two main camps pushing for expanded gambling in Texas — and right now, they appear to be operating on parallel tracks. The first is a continuation of a lavishly funded and high-profile effort initiated by the late Sheldon Adelson and his gaming empire Las Vegas Sands to legalize casinos, specifically high-quality “destination resorts” in the state’s largest cities. The other lane is the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of professional sports teams in the state and betting platforms that is exclusively focused on legalizing mobile sports betting.

Gambling is largely illegal in Texas with exceptions including the lottery, horse and greyhound racing and bingo. Texas has three tribal casinos, which are allowed to operate under federal law.

The Sports Betting Alliance already made a splash in the lead-up to this session by hiring former Gov. Rick Perry as a spokesperson.

“What’s changed [since 2021], I think, is the continuing education of the general public that this is not an expansion of gambling,” Perry said in an interview, suggesting that Texans already participate in this sort of gambling in other states or illegally. “It’s going on, it’s gonna continue to go on and the state of Texas needs to regulate it and make sure that its citizens’ information is protected.”

[…]

Given the stiff headwinds to getting any expansion in gambling passed, sports betting and casino advocates may be competing against each other, rather than working in tandem.

The Sports Betting Alliance is officially neutral on legalizing casinos, but the Sands team has welcomed collaboration, noting its proposal would additionally legalize sports betting.

Advocates for sports betting see their cause as a standalone issue that is more palatable for lawmakers. Perry said there is a “clear delineation” between what the Sports Betting Alliance is pushing for compared with legalized casinos.

“The other issues that are out there, they’ll have to stand or fall on their own,” Perry said. “I don’t think these will be tied together in any point in time.”

It is unclear if Patrick, the highest-ranking hurdle to expanded gambling, sees a similar distinction between the causes and could be more amenable to sports betting. His top political strategist, Allen Blakemore, recently signed up to lobby for the Sports Betting Alliance through the end of the year. And Patrick is close with Perry, once calling him “one of my best friends in life.”

Neither Patrick’s office nor Blakemore responded to requests for comment.

In the December TV interview, Patrick said no one had mentioned expanded gambling to him and no Republicans had filed bills on it yet. But advocates are making the case to Senate Republicans, and at least one of them, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, is giving thought to the sports-betting push.

“It’s true that Senator Kolkhorst is studying legislation to regulate ongoing app-based sports betting in Texas but she doesn’t comment on pending legislation,” Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, Chris Steinbach, said in a text message. “She will have more to say once a bill were to be filed.”

Neither Perry nor Blakemore as lobbyists impresses me. If hiring the right lobbyists was the key, this would have happened a long time ago. If there’s one thing the gambling interests know how to do, it’s hire lobbyists.

What does make me raise my eyebrows and go “hmmm” is the possibility that Sen. Kolkhorst could file a pro-gambling bill. That would at least contradict Dan Patrick’s statement about there being no Republican-filed bills; note that for these purposes, what he really means is a Senate Republican-filed bill. He doesn’t really care if House GOPers file these bills. Kolkhorst is a big Patrick ally, and I just don’t think she’d waste her time on a bill that she knows going in won’t get a committee hearing. If she does file a bill, it will be after she’s had some conversations, and assurances, from Patrick about its future.

Now, note that we don’t actually have Kolkhorst saying she’ll file a bill, nor do we know what might be in that hypothetical bill. We have chatter from the lobbyists that she’s thinking about it. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than we’ve seen before. I do think that whoever sourced that info to the Trib wouldn’t have done so without Kolkhorst knowing about it. It would be an extreme rookie mistake for a lobbyist to drop a name like that and have it vehemently denied and maybe get that legislator mad at you.

The dynamic of the two main interests competing against each other, and thus possibly decreasing the already slim chances that something could get voted on, is something we’ve seen before. Back when the discussion was about casinos and slot machines, we had the horse racing interests pushing for casinos at their racetracks, while the casinos were pushing for, you know, casinos. Here, the sports betting interests don’t need for there to be casinos for them to operate – as we know from those tedious Mattress Mack stories, where he drives to Louisiana to place one of his ridiculous bets on his phone, an app is all they need – but you can of course also bet on sporting events at casinos, and that’s what those folks would want. And “destination-style” casinos are what Abbott and Phelan have said they’d be interested in. You can have both but you don’t need both, and they’re both incentivized to say “hey, if you only want to support just one, support us!”

Two more points. One is that these interests have already spent a crap-ton of money, mostly on Republicans since that’s who they really need to convince, and will spend a lot more before all is said and done. I don’t know how much that has actually gotten them – the old adage about “if you can’t take their money and drink their liquor and screw their women and vote against ’em anyway you don’t belong in the Lege” still applies – but it’s what they do. You can feel however you want about expanded gambling – as you know, I’m adamantly ambivalent about it – but if you’re a Democrat and you support gambling, you should keep that in mind. And two, the usual opponents of expanded gambling are quoted at the end of the story like they’re not worried, they’ve seen this all before and they say they’re not seeing anything new. I tend to believe them – the “gambling expansion will fail” position has been correct for a long time – but to be fair, they could well want to project that same calm and confidence even if the tide was turning. So draw your own conclusions.

Sen. Gutierrez files more Uvalde bills

Wish I could say any of these had a chance, but the work he’s doing is still vital and necessary regardless.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, said Tuesday that he is leading legislation to make it easier for families of the Robb Elementary School shooting victims to sue the state and police officers over the botched law enforcement response.

The San Antonio Democrat and other Democratic senators are introducing four new pieces of legislation that seek to increase gun safety and law enforcement accountability. The news came during a press conference, where they were flanked by several of the victims’ families.

“We’re not asking for the moon and the stars. We’re asking for commonsense solutions,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez filed Senate Bill 575 to end qualified immunity for police officers, a judicial doctrine that shields government officials from liability for constitutional violations. The doctrine has been spotlighted nationally in recent years because it is routinely used to protect law enforcement officers from being sued in cases of excessive force. He said ending qualified immunity will make it easier for the families of the Uvalde shooting victims to seek damages after the flawed law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting, in which hundreds of officers descended on the school but did not confront the gunman for over an hour.

This bill is accompanied by Senate Concurrent Resolution 12, which he co-authored with other Democratic senators, that “empowers” families of the Uvalde shooting victims to sue the state and its agencies.

“I support law enforcement 100%, but under no circumstances should they have [allowed] what happened on that day,” Gutierrez said. “They failed these children for 77 minutes for a lack of leadership — under no circumstances should they be allowed to walk away and not compensate people. There’s no amount of money that’s going to bring back their children. But there should be justice, so today’s about justice.”

Gutierrez said he plans to file about 20 bills in total in response to the Uvalde shooting.

See here and here for the background. Like I said, I expect basically nothing from any of these bills. The Republicans have made their position clear, and they see no reason to budge. Their rabid voters wouldn’t let them anyway. The next best thing, which we need to do anyway, is make the case to the public. We know plenty of people support a lot of these ideas. Getting them to vote for politicians who support them, that’s the problem. Sen. Gutierrez almost certainly won’t get any of his bill passed this session, but he is – and should be – working for the next session, or the one after that. It’s good to start now.

The Pierce Skypark and the Midtown McDonald’s

Fascinating.

The now closed McDonald’s in Midtown isn’t the only parcel at play in the area that could – when combined with a major proposed “sky park’ – help to reshape the southern edge of downtown.

The Greyhound bus station next to McDonald’s in Midtown is expected to close next year, laying the groundwork for a potential redevelopment opportunity in an area on the cusp of a major transformation. The site is near where economic developers are pitching a proposed elevated park on top of a section of Interstate 45 slated to be abandoned if state officials can move forward with their massive overhaul of the highway.

The proposed sky park is steps away from the Greyhound bus station at 2121 Main Street. A spokesperson for Greyhound said the bus station is open and running now, but they acknowledged Greyhound is looking for a different site.

[…]

Marlon Marshall, director of engineering and construction at Midtown Redevelopment Authority, said the closure of the McDonald’s site and the sale of the Greyhound station could benefit future Midtown development activity. While much is unknown, the potential for both sites to be redeveloped puts a spotlight on a section of Midtown that already could see significant change if city and local economic development officials move forward with the proposed sky park nearby.

The Midtown group is hosting a public meeting Feb. 22 on updates to its master plan for the neighborhood, which will include a discussion about what to do with Pierce Elevated, Marshall added.

The sky park proposal has been bandied about for several years and could become more of a possibility as the Texas Department of Transportation inches closer to launching the I-45 expansion.

The proposal involves converting an abandoned section of the highway into an elevated linear park stretching from roughly Heiner Street to Hamilton Street along the southeastern edge of downtown. The section of the highway is known as the Pierce Elevated.

Downtown economic development group Central Houston has pitched the elevated sky park as part of a broader effort to establish a 5-mile so-called proposed “Green Loop” of green spaces, parks and multi-modal pathways encircling downtown. The sky park itself could be reminiscent of the High Line Park, a former railroad spur in New York City converted into an elevated greenway.

“For me the opportunities are almost limitless, there are ways in which you can carve out sections (of I-45) and sell the dirt itself and have someone build a building abutting the freeway – whether it’s a hotel, residence or business and people could walk out of their residences and be on this esplanade that is above the grid,” said Allen Douglas, chief operating officer at Central Houston, who is also Midtown resident and board member of Midtown Redevelopment Authority.

We first heard of the Pierce Skypark back in 2015. The next update we had for it was that it was included in the Central Houston compromise proposal for I-45, the one that the city and county signed off on. I like the idea of it conceptually, though as noted then and now there isn’t a current mechanism to fund whatever the vision for this thing eventually is. I personally think TxDOT should have to kick in at least a piece of it, but beyond that I figure it would be up to the city and whatever developers get on board.

I mean, obviously turning this piece of downtown/Midtown from a busy highway overpass into a genuine urban amenity would be great for the city, and there’s limitless potential for what could be done with it. It’s also a reminder that turning the US 59 overpass on the east side of downtown into a larger US59/I-45 joint overpass would be not so great for that part of town, and that’s even before we take into account all of the current buildings that would have to be knocked down to make it happen. This is the issue with running interstate highways through the center of cities. Are we sure it’s too late to consider the proposal to re-route I-45 to either Loop 610 or Beltway 8? Please? Houston Public Media has more.

More on the PUC’s attempt to fix the grid

From TPR:

After the last big blackout, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 3, telling the commission to improve grid reliability. So, commissioners have been working on changing the state’s electricity market. They want to reform how energy is bought and sold on the power grid to create a market that makes sure power is there when people need it.

To do that, the commission hired a consulting firm that came up with a plan called a Performance Credit Mechanism, PCM for short.

Basically, this plan would create reliability credits that electricity providers (the companies most Texans pay their power bills to) have to buy from power generators (the companies that own the power plants). The credits represent a commitment from those power generators to deliver electricity when the grid is most stressed.

“I believe that PCM is the right solution because it’s a comprehensive solution that sets a clear reliability standard as required by [Senate Bill] 3,” Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission, said earlier this month.

The consulting firm that came up with the plan says it will cost $5.7 billion more a year. Supporters say power generators will use that money to invest in new power plants and to keep the energy supply humming in extreme weather. They also argue that not all that extra money will be shouldered by consumers. But, in Texas, consumers typically end up eating extra costs.

The plan is supported by power plant owners, who stand to earn money from the credits. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, is in favor of it. Gov. Greg Abbott and Public Utility Commissioners, including Lake, who are appointed by Abbott, also support the PCM.

The list of opponents appears to be significantly longer.

The independent market monitor, a position that serves kind of as a third-party auditor for the Texas grid, does not think it is a good plan. Consumer and environmental groups oppose it or are skeptical. The Texas Association of Manufacturers, a group that represents big industrial energy users in the state, is against it. The oil and gas lobby is not convinced it will work, and many state politicians also oppose it.

This group of opponents represent diverse interests, so their reasons for opposing the PCM vary.

Environmentalists point out that the plan is designed to bring more natural gas power plants to Texas, which is bad for climate change and air pollution.

Others, who want more natural gas plants built, argue that the PCM may not accomplish that goal. Some would prefer more direct subsidizing of new plants instead of the addition of a new layer of rules into the already complex Texas energy market.

And others say a big overhaul of the energy market is not even necessary, and that the grid can be improved without investing billions in building more power plants.

“I think we have an operational flexibility problem,” Carrie Bivens, the PUC’s independent market monitor, told a state Senate Committee late last year. “I do not believe we have [an energy] capacity problem.”

One thing all opponents agree on is that the plan is untested. It will cost billions, but there’s no real-world example to show it will work.

See here for the background. At this point, it’s not about whether this plan works or not. The issue is with going forward with an untested plan when there was a lot of disagreement about what that plan was and even a lack of consensus that this was the right kind of plan. It’s also not clear to me what the definition of success is for this plan. If new plants are built, which is the goal of this plan, but big outages still occur, is that a “success” because the new plants were built? If the capacity issues that Carries Bivens identifies are fixed before any new plants get built and the outages go away, is that a success for the plan? This is a basic thing that happens in the business world. If we can’t be sure that the plan worked, how will we know if it’s a good idea to do again if the same problems arise later? We’re just rolling dice and hoping for the best here.

Metro approves initial takeover of B-Cycle

I’m optimistic about this.

The Metro board approved a six-to-nine month transition period where operations now overseen by the nonprofit Houston Bike Share will move into the transit agency. Officials said rolling the bike borrowing system into the transit made sense both to address linking people with available transit and shift bike sharing to more areas of the city.

“It is just impossible for the bus service and light rail on its own to operate and provide total coverage,” said Kristina Ronneberg, policy and advocacy director for BikeHouston, which encourages improved cycling access in the city.

Ronneberg called merging transit and cycling planning a “natural fit” to leverage not only increased bike lane building in Houston, but also add bike sharing in neighborhoods where people are interested in avoiding car trips.

“These two services need to be coordinated and seamless,” she said.

In a letter of support, Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis agreed, noting the investment bike sharing made in areas around Texas Southern University, Houston Community College and University of Houston.

“Houston BCycle offers a unique opportunity for Metro to expand access to public transit service in both urban and suburban areas with access to safe bicycle infrastructure,” Ellis wrote.

Though the board only approved a temporary transition, and $500,000 to allow bike sharing to continue to operate about half of the BCycle system, the intent is for Metro to keep operations going past 2023, CEO Tom Lambert said.

See here for the background. I don’t know what specific plans Metro has in mind, but as noted before integrating B-Cycle more into the transit system, with the goal of making various stops and stations easily accessible to more people, is and should be the priority. I look forward to seeing a report in nine months or so to see how it’s going and hope that it is viable for the long term. Here’s a letter from the B-Cycle board chair explaining their actions, and Houston Public Media has more.

Project Unloaded

I approve of this.

Jordan Phan spoke into the camera in a Tik Tok post with background music and several hash tags.

“I’ve spent the summer researching whether guns make us more or less safe, and the unfortunate truth is that guns make us all less safe,” the college sophomore said, listing several facts about women’s safety and domestic violence. “Guns are rarely used to protect, but often used to kill.”

The post was part of a wider campaign for a group called Project Unloaded. Instead of pushing for policy change or working with at-risk youth in neighborhoods, the organization aims to save lives and tackle gun violence by changing America’s gun culture — starting with young people on social media.

“I felt there was a missing piece in the larger movement to prevent gun violence, ” said Nina Vinik, the organization’s founder and executive director.

Most people think guns make them safer, she said, but research indicates the opposite is true.

“That myth is really at the core of America’s gun culture,” said Vinik, a Chicago lawyer. “We’re out to change the cultural narrative, to bust that myth and create a new narrative that guns make us less safe.”

The group launched a social media campaign called SNUG – Safer Not Using Guns – roughly a year ago in Houston and Milwaukee. It has since expanded into ten more cities, according to the organization, and the message has reached more than a million people on Tik Tok and Snapchat.

The campaign is meant for young people because their opinions and views are still changing. It includes partnerships with young Tik Tok influencers and Instagram posts loaded with statistics about the risks associated with firearms.

For example: Firearm-related injuries are the leading cause of death for American children and adolescents; suicide rates are four times higher for young people with guns at home; families in gun-owning homes are more than twice as likely to die by homicide.

[…]

Nearly a third of young people have had personal experience with gun violence, according to a report released in September by Project Unloaded. Black and Hispanic youth are more impacted than their peers.

The report found, too, that teens and young adults ranked gun violence as a bigger issue than abortion access or climate change. Half of the respondents in the survey said they think about school shootings every week.

The survey also discovered that young people changed their minds about gun ownership after reviewing facts about firearm risk.

“Gun violence is having a devastating impact on this generation of young people, and Gen Z is at the forefront of culture change,” Vinik said. “We’re talking directly to teens and really empowering this generation to be the ones to kind of propel that cultural change.”

While gun-related policies stall in the legislature, Hoyt said he hopes to help drive a cultural change by equipping people with information.

“We want to make sure we’re providing people all the facts we have, but we also don’t want to tell them exactly what to do,” he said. “Each person on their own has to decide.”

You can learn more about Project Unloaded here, and I presume on TikTok; as an Old Person, I don’t use that particular app, but I’m sure their target audience does. Founder Vinik talks a bit later about finding ways to make change that doesn’t rely on elected officials. Changing, or at least affecting, the culture is a great way to do that, but at some point the legislative and judicial processes need to be addressed as well. Putting out an effective message that can later help drive electoral behavior is a great way to start. I wish them all the best.

The next round of voter suppression bills are coming

Brace yourselves.

Texas Republicans spent most of the 2021 legislative session focusing on election security — and this year, it’s a top priority for them again.

GOP leaders are discussing a range of election security measures, from higher penalties for voter fraud to broader power for the attorney general to prosecute election crimes. Many of them target Harris County, which Republicans have spent the past two years chastising for back-to-back elections blunders.

“Harris County is the big problem,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who plans to file close to a dozen election bills this legislative session. “You’ve got the nation’s third-largest county that has had multiple problems with multiple election officers, to the point where one had to resign, and the problem is that it’s too big a piece of the electorate to ignore.”

Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum did not respond directly to the criticism, but said the office supports any legislation that increases voter registration and access to voting.

“Right now, we are focused on implementing new systems to promote the efficiency with which our office runs elections,” Tatum said in a statement.

[…]

Bettencourt said he’s considering a bill that would raise the charges for some voting-related misdemeanors, such as failing to provide election supplies.

He also questioned the existence of — and the accountability measures for — the election administrator position in Harris County. [Isabel] Longoria was the first, appointed under a newly created office in late 2020; Tatum was named as her replacement last July.

“That’s somebody that’s supposed to have better acumen and better results than elected officials, but the reverse has been proven to be true in Harris County,” Bettencourt said. “One of the things we’re going to have to explore is: Why aren’t the elected tax assessor-collector and the elected county clerk — which are, quite frankly, both Democrats — why are they not running the election, where there’s some public accountability?”

I’ve said this multiple times before, but as a reminder for the slow kids in the class, many counties have election administrators, including many Republican counties like Tarrant and Lubbock. Ed Emmett first proposed the idea for Harris County. There were problems with elections back when the County Clerk – specifically, Stan Stanart – was in charge of running them. This is nothing but a pretext.

Beyond Harris County, lawmakers are looking at a slate of statewide elections reforms, starting with returning the penalty for illegal voting to a felony instead of a misdemeanor. The Legislature lowered the punishment when it passed Senate Bill 1, but top Republicans — including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — have pushed to return it to the stiffer penalty.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, whose chamber amended the bill to include the lower penalty, rejected the idea when it was first floated during a series of 2021 special sessions.

“This important legislation made its way through the House after several thoughtful amendments were adopted,” he said. “Now is not the time to re-litigate.”

[…]

State Rep. Jacey Jetton, a Richmond Republican, said he’s exploring legislation to facilitate [the mail ballot] process, such as enabling election officials to check all identification numbers associated with an individual at the Texas Department of Public Safety. He also wants to review the system’s new online mail ballot tracker and ensure it’s working properly.

Republicans have also introduced bills to further investigate election fraud, to limit the state’s early voting period from two weeks to one, and to set earlier deadlines for handing in mail ballots. And some of them are hoping to give Attorney General Ken Paxton stronger authority to prosecute election crimes, after the state’s highest criminal appeals court ruled in 2021 that he could not unilaterally take on such cases.

Currently, Paxton can only get involved if invited by a district or county attorney, according to the court’s ruling. The decision led to an outcry from top Republicans, including Abbott and Patrick, who called for the case to be reheared.

Paxton encouraged his supporters to launch a pressure campaign and flood the court with calls and emails demanding, unsuccessfully, that they reverse the decision. The move prompted a complaint to the State Bar accusing Paxton of professional misconduct for attempting to interfere in a pending case before the court.

Much of this is also covered in this Trib story. I don’t know if Speaker Phelan will be persuaded or arm-twisted into changing his mind about making whatever minor infractions into felonies, but I hope he holds out. I commend Rep. Jetton for his interest in reducing the number of mail ballot rejections, though I have a hard time believing anyone can get such a bill through the Lege. As for Paxton’s continued desire to be Supreme Prosecutor, the CCA’s ruling was made on constitutional grounds. I feel confident saying that a constitutional amendment to allow this will not pass.

Anything else, however, is fair game and just a matter of whether the Republicans want it to pass or not. They have the votes and they have the will, and there’s basically nothing Dems can do to stop them. They’ll fight and they’ll make noise and they’ll employ the rules and pick up the occasional small-bore victory, but in the end they have no power. You know the mantra: Nothing will change until that changes.

And yes, it really is all about voter suppression, even if Texas Republicans are better than their Wisconsin colleagues at keeping the quiet part to themselves. It’s certainly possible that these laws aren’t as good at actually suppressing the vote as they’re intended to, but that’s beside the point. If they keep making it harder to vote, and they keep making it costlier to make an honest mistake in voting, and that cost is almost entirely borne by Democratic-leaning voters of color, it’s suppressive. The debate is about the extent, not the existence.