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House passes its omnibus voter suppression bill

But don’t bother asking what’s in the bill, because it’s going to change and we won’t know what’s in the real bill until it’s time for a final vote in both chambers.

As opposition to Texas Republicans’ proposed voting restrictions continues to intensify, state lawmakers’ deliberations over the GOP priority legislation could soon go behind closed doors.

The House early Friday voted 81-64 to advance a pared down version of Senate Bill 7, leaving out various far-reaching voting restrictions that have prompted widespread outcry from voting rights advocates, advocates for people with disabilities, and local officials in the state’s biggest counties. The legislation still contains some provisions opposed by those groups — including a prohibition on counties sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail.

Facing more than 130 proposed amendments from Democrats late Thursday — and a procedural challenge that could have delayed the entire bill’s consideration — lawmakers huddled off the chamber’s floor throughout the night to cut a deal and rework SB 7 through a flurry of amendments passed without objection from either party.

But the final contours of the bill remain uncertain.

The bill will need a second House vote, expected later Friday, before it can head back to the Senate. It will then likely go to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers who will be able to pull from both iterations of the legislation in crafting the final version largely outside public view.

SB 7 has emerged as the main legislative vehicle for changing the state’s voting rules, though the versions passed in each chamber differ significantly.

As passed in the Senate, the legislation restricted early voting rules and schedules to do away with extended hours and ban drive-thru voting. It also required large counties to redistribute polling places under a formula that could move sites away from areas with more Hispanic and Black residents.

Those and other provisions fell off when it was reconstituted in the House Elections Committee, with little notice and without a public hearing, to match the House’s priorities contained in House Bill 6.

Republicans amended the bill in the early hours of Friday to nix a provision that would’ve required people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help — even if for medical reasons. That measure raised concerns among advocates for people with disabilities that it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawmakers also amended the bill to slim down provisions that broadly enhanced protections for partisan poll watchers and provisions that boosted penalties for voting related offenses.

In keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots, the House upheld its response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. Other Texas counties sent unsolicited applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, but sending them unsolicited applications would also be blocked under the bill.

Under the deal House members cut to keep the bill on the floor, Democrats were able to tack on several amendments to the legislation. Most notably, they added language to the legislation in response to the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason was on supervised release for a federal conviction at the time and said she didn’t know that made her ineligible to vote. SB 7 was amended early Friday to require judges to inform someone if a conviction will prohibit them from voting and require that people know why they are ineligible for an attempt to vote to count as a crime.

See here for the most recent update. The Chron had a story over the weekend that went into detail about the two bills (before HB6 was rewritten in committee) and how much of them was an effort to punish Harris County for its “sins” in 2020. That’s mostly useful now as a reminder for when the conference committee version emerges. I have little hope that the Democratic amendments will make it into that version, but at least they tried. The one thing we can be sure about is that much like with Florida, there will be lawsuits over this. And we damn well better make it an issue in the 2022 election. Reform Austin has more.

Anti-transgender sports bill revived

Screw you, Harold Dutton.

Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton on Friday revived and helped advance a bill that would restrict transgender students from participating in school sports, in what appears to be a retaliatory effort directed at members of his own party for sinking one of his bills.

Senate Bill 29, abhorred by fellow Democrats, would require the University Interscholastic League to force students to play on the sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity.

The bill, which already passed in the Senate, is a priority of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Dutton, who chairs the House Public Education committee, brought the legislation up for a committee vote on Tuesday, where it failed to advance, in large part, because Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty was absent that day and because Dutton himself abstained from voting for or against the bill.

On Thursday night, Dutton, who is from Houston, presented his own bill to the House floor that would give Texas Education Commissioner Michael Morath the ability to take over a district that fails to meet various academic standards and remove school board members. The bill is largely in response to a current legal battle between the Texas Education Agency and Houston ISD after the agency attempted to take over the district in 2019, but was blocked from moving forward by a temporary injunction that’s been upheld by the state’s Third Court of Appeals. Dutton’s alma mater in Houston ISD, Wheatley High School, has received an F rating for multiple years.

That bill, which is largely unpopular among Democrats, was blocked from being voted on after a fellow Houston Democrat Rep. Alma Allen sank it on a procedural technicality. Dutton and Allen sparred over the bill’s intent on the House floor with Allen arguing the bill would provide the TEA with too much latitude to take over an independent school district without providing any recourse for a district.

“When the school goes down, the community goes down and the developers move in,” she said as Dutton repeatedly rejected her assessment. “That’s the long effect of this bill passing.”

Dutton made several references to his bill’s failure on Friday morning in the House Public Education committee as he brought the transgender student athlete bill up for another vote.

“The bill that was killed last night affected far more children than this bill ever will. So as a consequence, the chair moves that Senate Bill 29 as substituted be reported favorably to the full House with the recommendation that it do pass,” he said.

He and Huberty, who is vice chair of the committee, then joined with the previous yes votes, giving SB 29 an 8-5 majority and advancing it out of committee. The bill must still be approved by the House before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

See here for the previous update about HB29, and here for Dutton’s TEA takeover bill. “Petty” and “vindictive” are the words that come to my mind about this; I’m sure others can think of more. I hadn’t even considered this scenario as a possible route to this bill getting revived, but here we are. That doesn’t mean it will pass – it still has to come to the House floor, and if Speaker Dade Phelan is true to his earlier words about not wanting to bash LGBTQ+ people anymore, then it can get lost on its way to the Calendars committee. We’ll see about that. In the meantime, let’s start gathering support for the next primary challenge to Dutton, hopefully without any ghost candidates this time. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Paxton unblocks Twitter users who sued him

Blink.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has unblocked on Twitter the nine Texans who sued him after they say they were unconstitutionally blocked for criticizing him or his policies on the social media platform.

In a lawsuit filed in April, a group of Texans said being blocked from viewing Paxton’s tweets from his @KenPaxtonTX account was a violation of the First Amendment because it limited the rights of people to participate in a public forum and access statements made by the public official.

The ACLU of Texas and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University represented the Texans in their lawsuit. According to their statements from a Thursday press release, Paxton has unblocked the nine Texans in the “ongoing lawsuit challenging Paxton’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account.”

Paxton has also “blocked many other individuals from the @KenPaxtonTX account based on their viewpoints,” according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs had asked Paxton to unblock them and everyone else who was blocked from the @KenPaxtonTX account “based on their viewpoints,” but it’s unclear if people not named in the lawsuit have been unblocked.

Lyndsey Wajert, a legal fellow with the Knight First Amendment Institute, said while Paxton has unblocked the nine Texans, the case has not been dismissed.

See here for the background. It’s a strange lawsuit to be involved in when the prize for winning is to be able to see Ken Paxton’s tweets, but it’s the principle that matters, and on those grounds Paxton was clearly in the wrong. I’m not sure if there are just some technical aspects to clear up before this is dropped, or if there are still substantive matters to be decided, but we were going to get to this point sooner or later. Kudos to the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

UPDATE:

Clearly, not all issues are resolved.

Fort Bend says No to GHP

Good.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George said Thursday the county will not consider becoming a member of the Greater Houston Partnership following the group’s silence on bills in the state Legislature that he called “suppressive pieces of legislation reminiscent of Jim Crow era tactics prior to the Civil Rights era.”

George’s statement came a day after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced they no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership due to the group’s silence. George said he supported the pair’s rebuke; all three are Democrats.

“The implications of silence on this issue are too consequential and that Hidalgo and Turner have decided to make that clear is admirable,” George said. “Our County had been considering joining the Greater Houston Partnership for some time now, but following their silence on this, we will no longer consider becoming a member organization. Now is the time to take a stand, the eyes of history are indeed upon us now.”

In his statement, George noted the changes that the county made to make voting more accessible ahead of the 2020 election, including the extension of voting hours, making the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land a mega-voting site and creating drive-thru voting for individuals unable to walk into a center.

See here, here, and here for some background. The GHP had a simple test before it, to affirm the basic principle that our democracy works best when voting is easy and accessible to all and that the bills being pushed in the Legislature are antithetical to that, as well as based on a lie. It failed. There should be consequences for that, and there are. Any diminution of their stature is on them.

Turner and Hidalgo rebuke GHP over voting rights failure

Good.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership because of the chamber group’s silence on bills in the Texas Legislature that the pair say will add unacceptable obstacles to voting.

The move, which the pair announced at a news conference, was a rare public rebuke of the region’s largest chamber of commerce, which typically has enjoyed a close relationship with Houston-area politicians. Hidalgo’s comments amounted to an accusation of cowardice, echoing comments a prominent Black member of the partnership board made a day earlier.

“We can’t in good conscience stand at the dais of the partnership when their will to represent their members and their community so easily crumbles in a time of need,” Hidalgo said. “We do not feel comfortable letting them after seeing them shrink from the civil rights fight of our time.”

Hidalgo said she would announce a new venue for her annual address at a later date. Turner said he would instead have Houston First Corporation host his state of the city speech.

“I think it’s important this year for me to find that venue that better reflects the diversity of our city and the values we hold so dear,” Turner said.

[…]

The partnership issued a statement saying it regretted Hidalgo and Turner had canceled the annual events, which its members “greatly enjoy.” The statement said there is no consensus among members on the voting bills, which prevents the group from taking a stance on the legislation.

Board members told the Chronicle, however, that GHP leadership had declined to hold a special meeting at which a consensus could be reached.

Hidalgo also questioned the partnership’s commitment to fighting racial injustice the group made after the killing of Houston native George Floyd last summer, given its inaction on the voting bills.

“The blunt truth is, you cannot stand for that and at the same time say silent on voter suppression,” Hidalgo said. “The right to vote is at the core of all of those rights.”

See here and here for some background. This is entirely appropriate and justified, and I hope it leaves a mark. You can’t proclaim yourself an icon of good government and civic engagement while sitting this out, and Judge Hidalgo is exactly right to question their self-proclaimed commitment to racial justice. (If you need a better understanding of why, read this Texas Civil Rights Project report on the sordid and racist history of poll watchers, which SB7 and HB6 and other bills are set to unleash.) This is an attack on democracy for partisan gain and based on a brazen lie, and if the GHP can’t or won’t recognize that then it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Good for Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner, and shame on the GHP. The Press has more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board piles on.

Republican bail reform bill passes House

Meh.

Rep. Andrew Murr

The Texas House on Tuesday passed a bill to alter the way criminal defendants can be released from jail before trial. The priority legislation would, in part, require judicial officers to use a risk assessment tool when making bail decisions and ban cashless release for those accused of some violent or sexual crimes.

House members approved House Bill 20 after significant changes — largely by the bill’s author — were made on the floor Monday.

“The goal today is to strike a balance in which we provide … credible information to our trained magistrates so that they can determine that those that are low risk have a chance to get out while those who are higher risk, with a violent offense or a violent criminal history, they don’t easily pay and immediately walk on the street the next day and do something else that harms us,” state Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the bill, said Monday.

Named the Damon Allen Act after a slain state trooper, HB 20 was deemed an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott at the beginning of the legislative session after similar legislation failed in 2019. The suspect in Allen’s shooting death during a 2017 traffic stop was out of jail on cash bail at the time.

After tentatively approving the bill Monday, the House finally passed HB 20 on a 98-to-46 vote Tuesday. It is now headed to the Senate — where its future is uncertain. Last month, the Senate passed a competing priority bail bill which varies significantly from the House’s measure. Senate Bill 21 since has stalled in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

When making bail decisions, courts decide what restrictions are needed to release from jail a defendant who is legally presumed innocent while ensuring the person comes back to court and does not present a threat to public safety. Most often in Texas, that decision is currently based on a dollar amount.

The cash-reliant system has long prompted criticisms from bail reform advocates who argue it unfairly keeps poor people locked up while similar defendants with cash walk free. And federal courts have found bail practices in Texas’ two most populous counties unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

See here for the background. As this Chron editorial notes, HB20 is better than SB21 but still falls short because of its prioritization of cash bail. A fair and just system does not determine who gets to go home and who gets to stay locked up for weeks or months before even going on trial based on ability to pay. As Grits noted a month ago, any bail-related bill that has Greg Abbott’s support is highly unlikely to be upheld by the federal courts going forward. As such, the best move is to vote against HB20 and SB21, and wait for further direction from the Fifth Circuit.

Houston’s hospitals are still busy

Interesting.

While local hospital leaders aren’t sounding the alarm about capacity concerns, we heard a similar story from leaders at St. Luke’s and Houston Methodist: hospital beds and emergency rooms are regularly filling up as both health systems continue to manage coronavirus patients on top of all the folks finally heading to the hospital for care they may have delayed due to the pandemic, all while the number of patients coming into local emergency rooms is already hitting pre-COVID levels.

Roberta Schwartz, Executive VP of Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, told the Press that it wasn’t surprising to hear that the Houston Methodist ER in Sugar Land was recently so busy it had to turn away ambulances temporarily.

“The emergency rooms and the hospitals are very full,” Schwartz said.

When we asked Dr. Brad Lembcke — Chief Medical Officer at St. Luke’s — about the current status of his hospital system’s bed count and ER capacity, he said “We’re full, I guess is probably the two-second version.”

[…]

Lots of Schwartz’s colleagues around the country have told her their hospitals are seeing lower numbers of emergency room visits than they did before COVID. “That is not the case at Houston Methodist,” Schwartz said, “and seems not to be the case in Houston.”

St. Luke’s is also seeing a similar trend of ERs packed with more patients than in other parts of the United States, Lembcke said. While “a lot of places report only recovering to about 80 percent of what their prior volumes were,” he said, St. Luke’s main downtown hospital is now seeing ER numbers that have “just about reached the pre-COVID states.”

Even though coronavirus hospitalizations have fallen after the winter surge, local hospitals continue to deal with steady numbers of COVID-19 patients. At Houston Methodist, the number of coronavirus hospitalizations has plateaued in recent weeks, and at a level higher than where that patient count leveled-off at after the first two surges in the spring and summer of 2020.

Schwartz said that after the first surge last spring, coronavirus hospitalizations at Houston Methodist fell to around 50. Following the summer surge, they averaged “about 100 COVID patients on a daily basis.”

“When we came down from this latest surge in December and January, we’re settling in at about 180 to 200,” Schwartz said.

“If you had a normal load of patients, and you add on 200, that would put some stressors to the system, and I think that you’re seeing that across Houston. And this comment on saturation is not just us, it’s lots of hospitals,” she said.

Lembcke said that St. Luke’s average number of coronavirus hospitalizations these days is “maybe a little higher” than what they saw right after the summer surge. “But it’s more consistent. It’s been pretty stable over the last month or so.”

When asked about why Houston’s hospitals are still so full, Schwartz said she and her colleagues have a few educated guesses.

“We do know for sure — 100 percent, this is documented in many papers — that people have delayed their care in many cases, and are coming in with later stage illnesses,” many of whom whose conditions got bad enough that they needed emergency care, Schwartz said. Some of those patients “were people who said ‘I don’t want to get COVID from going to the hospital or to the doctor.’ We know that.”

They note also that a lot of nurses have retired or left the industry due to burnout from the previous high volume of COVID cases, and that they are seeing a lot more younger patients with serious COVID issues, as is “needing a lung transplant”-level of seriousness. I certainly hope we’ll get back on a downward trajectory as more people get vaccinated, but this is a reminder both that we really need to get as many people vaxxed as we can, and that even as the overall numbers have dropped we’re still not out of the red yet.

Funding weatherization

I’m okay with this, with one caveat.

A plan to help finance what will likely become mandatory power plant upgrades to withstand more extreme weather in the wake of the February power crisis received preliminary approval in the Texas House on Monday.

The failure of power plants to produce power during very cold temperatures was a major cause of the February power outages in Texas that left more than 4.8 million customers without electricity for days and caused more than 100 deaths. Natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather was the most significant source of outages, according to an analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers much of the state.

House members voted 126-18 in favor of a $2 billion program that would be created by House Bill 2000 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

“We are looking forward to make sure these things don’t happen again,” Huberty said. “We can’t shut the Texas economy down by losing power and losing lives. That can never happen again.”

Modeled after the state’s water infrastructure fund, House Bill 2000 and the corresponding House Joint Resolution 2 would allocate $2 billion of state funds to help finance what could be expensive — and likely mandatory — upgrades to power plants in Texas to withstand more extreme weather conditions by providing electricity generators with access to grants and low-cost loans for the projects. House Joint Resolution 2 was also advanced in a 126-18 vote.

Most power plants in Texas are not built to withstand very cold weather and experts have said that retrofitting plants will be more costly and difficult than building weatherized plants in the first place. Still, it is technically and economically possible, energy experts have told the Tribune, depending on the type of weatherization the state may eventually mandate.

Concerned that a mandate to upgrade would cause companies or municipalities to shut down power plants and further reduce the state’s available power supply, lawmakers sought a way to provide a financial boost to the effort.

A State Utilities Reliability Fund (SURF) and the State Utilities Reliability Revenue Fund — modeled after the state’s existing funds for water infrastructure projects — would be created by Huberty’s proposed constitutional amendment and corresponding bill. The plan would need to be approved by voters in November if passed by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate because it alters the state’s constitution.

In 2013, the Legislature created the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, known as SWIFT, by allocating $2 billion from Texas’ economic stabilization fund, better known as the “rainy day” fund. It offers subsidies and help with low-cost loans for municipal water infrastructure projects, said Rebecca Trevino, chief financial officer of the Texas Water Development Board, which is charged with managing the fund.

The “SURF” fund would function similarly, but instead of offering the low-cost loans and grants to municipalities, the fund would also offer those financing tools to for-profit power generation companies and others to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather conditions.

I’m okay with this approach, even if it is using public funds to subsidize for-profit companies, because the need outweighs the other concerns. We’re not going to scrap the system we have now for something that makes more sense, so the least we can do is address this glaring need so we (hopefully) never face a situation where hundreds of people die because of weather.

The caveat comes from the comparison to the water infrastructure fund that the Lege authorized following the 2011 drought. There may be a nice clean report on the SWIFT homepage that tells me just how much new water infrastructure has been financed and built (or is being built) as a result of that fund, but I’m not seeing it. I would like very much for there to be an easy-to-find progress report on whatever future SURF page we wind up with, so this is visible to everyone. Maybe if the progress we get isn’t what we hoped for, that will enable us to spot it and do something about it in a timely fashion.

Trib polling roundup, part 3

Once more, with approval ratings.

President Joe Biden

Texas Democrats think Joe Biden is doing a good job as president, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Texas Republicans don’t.

Overall, the president gets good grades from 44% of Texas voters and bad grades from 46% — numbers that are better or roughly the same as the state’s most popular Republican leaders. Underneath Biden’s overall numbers, as with other officeholders in Texas, are starker partisan grades: 88% of Democrats said Biden is doing a good job, and 86% of Republicans disapprove of the work he’s doing.

Biden does a little better — but still poorly — with Republicans on how he’s handled the response to the pandemic; 14% approve, and 67% disapprove. But 92% of Democrats approve. And overall, 49% of Texas voters give Biden good grades on the pandemic, while 35% think he’s done a bad job.

Overall, 38% approve of Biden’s handling of the economy and 46% disapprove. Only 23% of voters approve of his response to immigration and border security, while 59% disapprove.

See here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. I had noted that 49-35 rating in Part 1 and was surprised by how positive it was. This makes more sense. It’s still good, and likely has boosted his overall rating, and it may make it harder for Greg Abbott et al to claim all the credit as COVID (hopefully) continues to retreat in Texas. Hard to know if it will have any effect on how people will vote – we know that Trump overperformed his approval rating in 2020 in part because people had a higher approval of him on economic matters. Biden lags a bit there, but that question is now mostly a proxy for partisan identification. We’ll see if that changes as the economy continues to recover.

As for the rest of the politicians polled, let’s make a table:


Name     App  Dis  None
=======================
Biden      44   46   11
Cruz       43   48    9
Cornyn     31   43   25
Abbott     43   45   13
Patrick    35   39   26
Paxton     32   36   31
Phelan     20   22   57

Congratulations to Ted Cruz for being the politician most people have an opinion about. I’m not sure he has anything further to aspire to. Maybe this is why John Cornyn is tweeting so much now, so he can close that gap.

The gaudy approval levels Greg Abbott had last year during the Summer of COVID are officially over. As noted before, his high approvals were mostly a function of him doing OK with Democratic respondents, who did not have the visceral dislike that others generated. Not any more. What this tentatively suggests to me is that there will be less separation in 2022 between Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, who along with Sid Miller ran several points behind Abbott in the 2018 election. If this holds, and all else being equal, I’d still expect Abbott to outperform Patrick and Paxton, but not by much, maybe a point or two.

It’s interesting to me that everyone has a net negative rating. Even before his COVID boost, Abbott was usually in the black on this. I looked in the crosstabs for the three Republicans that are up for re-election next year, and they tell the story of why they’re under water:


Name       Dem     Rep     Ind
==============================
Abbott    7-83   77-13   34-37
Patrick   5-75   63-10   24-33
Paxton    5-68   59-11   23-26

I’d have to do some more research, but I feel confident saying that Abbott was received less negatively by Dems in the past. Again, this might change as we move away from the legislative session – Rick Perry always seemed to be in worse shape at this point in the cycle than he was headed into an election – but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Permitless carry passes the Senate

We didn’t really think this was going to fail, did we?

The Republican-led effort to allow Texans to carry handguns without any kind of license cleared what is likely its biggest remaining hurdle in the Capitol on Wednesday, when the Texas Senate moved in a nail-biter vote to bring the measure to the floor and then gave it approval.

The measure – already passed by the Texas House – heads to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences, unless the House accepts the Senate amendments. Then the bill heads to Gov. Greg Abbott, who said last week he would sign the permitless carry bill into law.

House Bill 1927 would nix the requirement for Texas residents to obtain a license to carry handguns if they’re not prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a gun. The Senate approved the bill in a 18-13 vote, less than a week after it sailed out of a committee created to specifically to tackle the legislation.

[…]

The bill’s fate remained uncertain heading into debate on Wednesday morning and led to a rare case of the GOP-controlled Senate taking up a bill with unclear odds at passage. Ultimately, every Republican supported the bill, but a handful of key senators admitted in debate that they reservations about certain provisions — namely a lack of support from law enforcement.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other Republicans who were initially noncommittal had been under immense political pressure from conservatives and gun rights advocates, who have for years lobbied the Texas Legislature for permitless carry but historically struggled to win support.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, told colleagues she was worried about protecting domestic violence victims.

“I have struggled with this, and I am a strong, strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” Nelson said Wednesday before voting in favor of the bill.

Leaders in both chambers previously held permitless carry at arm’s length, but the cause quickly gained momentum this year in the House, adding pressure to the Senate.

Patrick has expressed reservations about permitless carry in the past. Ahead of the 2015 session, he said he did not think there was enough support among lawmakers or the public, a sentiment he reiterated in 2017 while citing law enforcement concerns with “anyone being able to walk down the street with a gun and they don’t know if they have a permit or not.”

A solid majority of Texas voters don’t think permitless carry should be allowed, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

See here and here for the background. This played out more or less as I thought it would – there were a few amendments added to make this slightly less hostile to law enforcement, and as a result the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas shrugged its shoulders and said “sure, fine, whatever”. I suppose it’s possible the House will refuse to budge on this, and no deal that is acceptable to the Senate comes out of the conference committee, but I have a hard time believing they’d come this far and not push it across the finish line. And yes, public polls are solidly against this legislation. Do I need to say again what that means? The one thing we get out of this is absolute clarity on a campaign issue. We better use it well.

Massive anti-abortion bill passes the House

I’m just resigned to this shit at this point.

Texas lawmakers are poised to enact sweeping restrictions on access to abortions, prohibiting the procedure before many women know they are pregnant, and opening the door for a potential flood of lawsuits against abortion providers.

The House on Wednesday gave initial approval to a priority “heartbeat” bill passed by the Senate earlier this spring, which was authored or sponsored by nearly every Republican senator and more than 60 members of the House. The legislation must still get another vote in the lower chamber before it’s sent to the governor, who has signaled that he is looking forward to signing it into law.

Abortion rights advocates say the legislation is among the most “extreme” measures nationwide and does not exempt people pregnant because of rape of incest. Beyond the limitations on abortion access, the bill would let nearly anyone — including people with no connection to the doctor or the woman — sue abortion providers, and those who help others get an abortion in violation of the proposed law. People who support abortion funds and clinics could also be hit with lawsuits, and lawyers warn those sued would not be able to recover some of the money they spent on their legal defense.

The “unprecedented,” “extraordinary,” and exceptionally broad” language in the bills means “family members, clergy, domestic violence and rape crisis counselors, or referring physicians could be subject to tens of thousands of dollars in liability to total strangers,” nearly 400 Texas lawyers told House lawmakers in an open letter circulated by abortion rights advocates.

In a separate letter, more than 200 physicians said the bill would place doctors “at risk of frivolous lawsuits” and create a “chilling effect” where providers are reticent to give information “out of fear of being sued.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for more on what the doctors and lawyers had to say. This Legislature hasn’t been terribly interested in these folks have said about other bills, like the various anti-trans bills, so it’s not likely they were going to make any headway here, but you gotta try. We have known from the beginning of the session that this was coming and it was going to be terrible, and so here we are. Public polls show more opposition than support for this kind of legislation, with a level of confusion thrown in, so while some of this can likely be beaten back in the courts, we are once again at the point of acknowledging that the only action that will matter – that will ever matter – is winning more elections. There’s just not much else to say about it. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 3

The Texas Progressive Alliance weekly roundup was as always included in the Oscar nominees’ swag bag.

(more…)

Businesses finally offer some real resistance to voter suppression

About time.

With less than a month left in the legislative session — and Texas Republicans split on which package of proposals might cross the finish line — Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Unilever, Patagonia and two dozen other companies are urging state lawmakers not to pass new restrictions on voting.

In the biggest pushback so far by business against the GOP’s legislative bid to ratchet up the state’s already restrictive voting rules, national companies joined in a statement voicing their opposition Tuesday with local businesses and several local chambers of commerce representing LGBTQ, Hispanic and Black members of the business community.

“We stand together, as a nonpartisan coalition, calling on all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot,” the businesses wrote in their letter. “We urge business and civic leaders to join us as we call upon lawmakers to uphold our ever elusive core democratic principle: equality. By supporting a stronger trustworthy democracy, we will elevate our economy.”

The statement does not address specific legislation, but comes as Texas Republicans press forward with bills in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud and warnings from voting rights advocates and lawyers that many of them would be disproportionately harmful to voters of color.

Following the recent passage of new restrictions in Georgia, major corporations began responding to criticism about staying out of that fight by largely coalescing around joint statements that generally stated their opposition to election changes that make it harder to vote.

[…]

As the fight over new restrictions moved from Georgia to Texas, the state’s Republican leadership moved to quickly condemn businesses scrutinizing the proposals under consideration during the 2021 legislative session.

Gov. Greg Abbott — who declared “election integrity” a legislative priority — backed out of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opening game and said he would boycott any other Major League Baseball events over its decision to pull the All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there. Calling it “absolutely ridiculous” for the MLB to take a position on the Georgia law, Abbott in a Fox News television interview indicated he was sending a message to Texas-based companies and others eyeing a move to the state — and the financial incentives that are often used to lure them.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick angrily targeted American Airlines during a press conference in which he described those raising concerns of voter suppression a “nest of liars.”

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said in a separate statement responding to American Airlines’ opposition to SB 7.

In the Texas House, the possible retribution for companies that have come out against the bills has been mostly symbolic so far. Republicans sought to inject the dispute into the chamber’s consideration of the state’s massive budget bill last month, offering amendments to withhold state funds from businesses that publicly opposed legislation “related to election integrity.” Those proposals were ultimately kept off the budget.

Those threats — coupled with Republican demands for corporations to stay out of policy disputes outside of their business realm — did not deter the companies that signed onto the letter. Patagonia has even been sharing its own analysis of “voter suppression legislation,” which includes SB 7, HB 6 and several other bills, with other companies considering opposing proposed restrictions.

“Companies need to do more than solely focus on profit … and empowering their communities can be really good for business and thats something we’re seeing that’s a good trend,” said Corley Kenna, a spokesperson for Patagonia. “I hope more companies speak out on these issues, mostly because I think its important to have companies step up where government seems to be falling short.”

I certainly approve of that. See here for the previous update, here for a copy of the letter, and here for the Fair Elections Texas website, which is pretty bare-bones for now. I very much appreciate their stance, and I hope that they get a lot of reinforcements soon.

Case in point

A group of 175 business leaders sent a letter to House Speaker Dade Phelan on Tuesday morning opposing several key provisions of the voting bills being debated in the Texas Legislature, which they said would add unacceptable barriers for Houston residents to cast a ballot.

They included 10 members of the Greater Houston Partnership board, whose efforts to push the region’s largest chamber of commerce to condemn the bills were rebuffed by the group’s president. With the partnership silent on legislation Harris County leaders say will make voting more difficult for everyone and discriminate against people of color, the members said they could not stomach sitting on the sidelines.

“When you have an organization that is supposed to reflect the diversity and inclusion, and has taken steps on its website to discuss racial equality but does not have the spine to bring forth to a vote an issue that is as important as this, we felt we had no choice but to bring it in a public forum,” said Gerald Smith, who also sits on the partnership’s executive committee.

The letter takes Phelan up on the speaker’s invitation last month for business leaders to flag provisions in the bills, including House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, that could add obstacles to voting.

It raises alarm over provisions that would move polling sites away from Houston’s urban core, limit voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, remove restrictions on poll watchers, streamline voter roll purges and add a host of criminal penalties for poll workers and local election officials found in violation of the Texas Election Code.

“These provisions, among others, will inevitably damage our competitiveness in attracting businesses and workers to Houston,” the letter states. “Especially as we aim to attract major conferences and sporting events, including the FIFA World Cup, voter suppression is a stain on our reputation that could cost our region millions of dollars.”

[…]

The influential Greater Houston Partnership, founded in 1840, seeks to speak for the 12-county region’s business community. It regularly lobbies the Legislature on policy issues, and in the past has bucked state leaders on controversial issues, including the group’s opposition to the so-called bathroom bill in 2017 that helped torpedo a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The partnership also made a commitment last summer to opposing racial injustice, issuing a statement recognizing its members “have an opportunity as Houstonians to lead the way in reforming broken systems, building up communities, offering support and removing barriers.”

For some GHP members, the organization’s inaction on SB 7 and HB 6 calls into question how serious that commitment was. A proposal that would require a roughly equal number of polling sites per state House district, the Harris County election administrator estimates, would result in fewer sites in urban areas with higher Black and Latino populations and more in suburban communities with a higher share of white voters.

As the bills began to take shape in Austin, several board members wished to revise the partnership’s April 1 broad statement on voting rights, which called on the Legislature to balance election security with ensuring equal ballot access.

GHP President Bob Harvey allotted 15 minutes to the topic at the group’s April 21 regular meeting, though the discussion ran much longer, said board member Gerald Smith. He said Harvey pledged to schedule a special board meeting to resolve the issue.

See here for some background on that, and Zach Despart’s Twitter thread for a copy of the letter. These GHP members think the organization is dragging its feet, which at this point seems self-evident. In the end, I still think that at least one of SB7 or HB6 passes, or some combination of them. These are Greg Abbott “emergency” bills, and the seething hordes of the Republican primary electorate will not tolerate anything they perceive to be failure. (Which is one of the reasons we’re in this spot to begin with.) At the very least, time is running out to get on the right side of this issue while it still matters. Do the right thing here, GHP. NBC News and the Texas Signal have more.

UPDATE: I drafted this on Tuesday, didn’t run it on Wednesday, then Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo announced they would no longer hold events at the GHP in response to that organization’s pusillanimous response. I’ll have a separate post on that tomorrow. Too much news, y’all.

Trib polling roundup, part 2

The issues polling is mostly on our side, for what that’s worth.

A solid majority of Texas voters don’t think adults should be allowed to carry handguns in public places without permits or licenses, though the idea is popular with a 56% majority of Republicans. Overall, 59% oppose unlicensed carry — a number driven up by the 85% of Democrats who oppose it. On the Republican side, the gun questions revealed a gender gap. Among Republican men, 70% said they support unlicensed carry; 49% of Republican women oppose that position.

More people carrying guns would make the United States safer, according to 34% of Texas voters, while 39% said that would make the country less safe. Another 16% said more armed Texans would have “no impact on safety.”

Almost half of Texas voters (46%) would make gun laws stricter, while 30% would leave them alone and 20% would loosen them. The partisan lines were sharp: 85% of Democrats would make gun laws stricter, while 53% of Republicans would leave them as they are and another 29% would loosen them. That GOP gender gap appeared again here: 20% of Republican women would make gun laws more strict, while only 10% of GOP men would; 19% of Republican women would loosen those laws, while 41% of GOP men would.

Three-fourths of the state’s voters believe Texas should require criminal and mental background checks before any gun sales, including those at gun shows and private transactions. Only 18% oppose such checks.

“A lot of the [legislative] agenda right now seems at odds with public opinion,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin. He said Republican lawmakers are pursuing some ideas that “come from the most conservative wing of the majority party.

[…]

Most Texans (54%) oppose automatically banning all abortions in Texas if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade — what’s known as a “trigger” law that would take effect in the event of such a ruling — but about a third would support a ban.

Nearly half of the state’s voters (49%) support making abortions illegal after 6 weeks — except in the case of a medical emergency. That includes the support of 74% of Republicans. Among Democrats, 67% oppose the idea.

For all of that, there’s no consensus about changing the state’s current abortion laws: 33% would make them stricter, 33% would make them less strict and 22% would leave them alone. The partisan break is evident in those answers, too: 55% of Republicans would tighten the state’s abortion laws and 63% of Democrats would loosen them.

See here for part 1, and here for polling data. These numbers are consistent with the results we have gotten from UT-Tyler and from Data for Progress. It’s good to get more data, but the bottom line remains that 1) people’s voting behavior doesn’t always line up with their stated policy preferences, and 2) until Democrats start winning more elections in Texas, the Republicans have no incentive to back off from their only-popular-with-the-wingnuts agenda. I think there’s a lot here to campaign on, but that’s just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Anti-trans sports bill fails to advance from House committee

Good news, but hold off on the celebrations for now.

A bill that would prevent transgender Texas children from joining school sports teams that match their gender identity failed to advance out of a House committee Tuesday, signaling potential trouble for one of several anti-LGBTQ bills in the Legislature.

The Senate has advanced a handful of bills that LGBTQ advocates say threaten the rights and mental health of transgender children in Texas, including restricting their access to school sports and medical care. Senate Bill 29, the sports bill, is the first anti-trans Senate bill to get a committee vote in the lower chamber.

House legislation banning gender confirmation health care for children, signed by 45 Republicans, was passed out of the lower chamber’s Public Health committee last week but has yet to reach the full House floor. Senate-approved legislation labelling the treatment as child abuse is set to go before the same committee, which is made up of six Republicans and five Democrats.

When members of the House Public Education committee — made up of six Democrats and seven Republicans — took up sports bill SB 29 on Tuesday, it failed to advance in a 5-6 party-line vote.

Opponents of the legislation were relieved by vote.

“We thank the members of the House Public Education committee for their votes today against SB 29,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “We did the right thing today for all the children of Texas by standing up for trans kids.”

See here and here for some background; that second link is about the House companion to SB29. I should note that the House Public Education Committee has seven Republicans and six Democrats on it, so either two Republicans were absent or they abstained. Fine by me either way.

As noted, there are other bad bills out there. While SB29 may be dead, it can be attached to another bill as an amendment, which is a common legislative tactic. And of course we are going to have at least one special session for redistricting, and I guarantee there will be pressure on Greg Abbott to add anti-trans legislation to the agenda – he did that in 2017 for the bathroom bill, so it’s not like this would be out of character for him. So do celebrate this win, but celebrate responsibly. We’re a long way from being out of the woods. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Are you now, or have you ever been, a supporter of Greg Abbott?

Ken Paxton will get back to you on that.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a New York Times story published Tuesday that he does not support Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, as Abbott runs for reelection, the latest — and most revealing — sign that some state GOP leaders are on a collision course ahead of the 2022 election.

“The way this typically works in a primary, is it’s kind of everybody running their own race,” Paxton told the Times. “I don’t think he supports me; I don’t support him.”

Within hours of the story’s publication, Paxton bashed it as “fake news” and insisted he supports Abbott. “He’s a great Governor and a Great Texan,” Paxton tweeted.

Abbott is up for a third term in 2022, and for months he has faced heat from some on his right, most notably over his response to the coronavirus pandemic. Paxton told the Times that he wished Abbott had reopened the state “a little bit earlier.”

[…]

Abbott, a former attorney general, has dealt cautiously with Paxton and his legal woes over the years. Abbott declined to say whether he voted to reelect Paxton in the 2018 primary — Paxton was unopposed — though Abbott went on to voice support for Paxton in the general election.

Abbott said the latest allegations against Paxton “raise serious concerns” but declined further comment until any probe is complete.

Paxton was a top ally of former President Donald Trump among attorneys general, and especially so during Trump’s final weeks in office, when Paxton launched a lawsuit challenging Trump’s reelection loss in four battleground states. Abbott expressed support for the lawsuit, which the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up.

But will Ken Paxton let Greg Abbott sit at his table in the cafeteria at lunchtime? That’s what I really need to know. Or will he let that b*tch Sid Miller sit there instead? The drama, I just can’t stand the drama.

A Paxton spokesperson, Ian Prior, said in a statement that the Times took Paxton’s comments out of context.

“What the Attorney General said was that typically, when running primary campaigns, candidates run their own races and do not get involved in other races,” Prior said. “This is not a unique concept.”

True enough, but right now we’re talking about whether he supports the two-term Governor, who at this point has no known opponent, or if he’s keeping his options open in case something sexier comes along. The “don’t get involved in other races” stricture is usually for contested primaries or open-seat races, and only if you’re not already in the middle of it for other reasons. It’s fair to say that a political reporter should understand that concept, but it’s also fair to say that “he’s my Governor and I support him” in this context is a pretty anodyne statement, one that a veteran officeholder shouldn’t have had any reason not to make. Sometimes it takes two to upgrade a molehill into a mountain.

Downtown kiosks

I’m not sure yet how I feel about this.

City Council on Wednesday will consider a plan to install up to 125 interactive digital kiosks around the city, a proposal that has drawn support from city officials who tout the advertising revenue benefits and opposition from some who equate the kiosks to sidewalk billboards.

If approved by council, the city would have Ohio-based IKE Smart City LLC install at least 75 kiosks within the next three years, focusing on commercial areas with heavy pedestrian traffic. The kiosks, which are designed to resemble massive smart phones, would display dining, transit, event and lodging options and provide free Wi-fi and 911 access, among other features.

The city would receive 42 percent of the revenue generated from digital advertisements displayed on the kiosks, providing an estimated $35 to $50 million over the course of the 12-year contract, according to the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. Under the agreement, IKE Smart City would guarantee a minimum payment to the city of $11 to $16 million over the 12 years, depending on the number of kiosks installed.

City officials would have the option to extend the contract for another 10 years, in two five-year increments, if IKE Smart City meets certain performance goals. The company would pay for installation of the kiosks without using any public dollars.

Opponents of the kiosk proposal include Scenic Houston, a nonprofit that helped push for the city’s 1980 sign code that bans any new billboards. In a letter sent Friday to Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, Scenic Houston Executive Director Heather Houston said the board “strongly feels that the digital kiosks constitute digital billboards with a primary purpose to advertise.”

Icken disagreed, arguing Houstonians and tourists would find the kiosks helpful in navigating the city.

“I just don’t think of this as a digital billboard,” Icken said. “I believe they are interactive display screens, much like your iPhone, that allow people to get information.”

The kiosks also would display local job listings, arts and culture options, such as museums and theaters, a list of government buildings and services in the city, and a list of homeless shelters. Advertisements could not include racially derogatory, political or sexually explicit content, nor any ads for tobacco products.

Cooke Kelsey, chair of Scenic Houston’s advocacy committee, said the group also is concerned that business owners would lack the ability to prevent kiosks from being placed on sidewalks in front of their establishments.

Additionally, Kelsey argued the kiosks would defy the purpose of the city’s sidewalk right-of-way, which he said generally is supposed to be used for traffic-related street signage, such as stop signs.

“That’s what a right-of-way or easement is, an understanding that they use it for those types of purposes,” Kelsey said. “So, putting an 800-pound smartphone in front of your front door, even if it’s a map, that’s stretching it. If they’re starting to broadcast messages that have nothing to do with traffic, you’ve gone way outside of that.”

The embedded image is of one of these things in San Antonio, from a Scenic Houston action page to email your opposition to City Council. I get the concerns, especially about sidewalk space, and I agree that business owners should have a say in whether one of them is on their sidewalk. There are already colorful direction-oriented signs around downtown, which these would either supplement or supplant. I guess this would feel like less of a big deal if our bus stops had advertising on them, as they do in many other big cities. Honestly, my reaction is a shrug, perhaps because I just don’t see these things on the same level of ugliness as billboards. Maybe I’ll change my mind later, I don’t know. CM Sallie Alcorn is on record in the story as being opposed, while CM Ed Pollard is in favor. I predict someone will tag this, and then we’ll see what the rest of Council thinks. What’s your opinion? Campos, who does not like them, has more.

Trib polling roundup, part 1

On COVID and vaccinations.

Texas voters are feeling safer about being out in public, and better about getting COVID-19 vaccines, but a majority of the state’s voters still consider the coronavirus a “significant crisis,” according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In the first UT/TT Poll of the pandemic, conducted a year ago, 63% of Texans said they were “only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to.” That has fallen to 21%; in the current poll, 33% said they were “living normally, coming and going as usual,” and another 44% said they are still leaving home, “but being careful when I do.” The majority of Democrats, 55%, were in that last group, while 55% of Republicans said they are living normally.

“Democrats are still living as if it’s April of last year, but Republicans are pretty much back to normal,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Those Texas voters haven’t thrown caution to the wind, however: 74% said they’re staying away from large groups, 64% are “avoiding other people as much as possible,” and 80% are wearing masks when in close contact with people outside their households.

I personally am in the “I leave home but am careful when I do” group – I’ve been in that group for awhile, and I expect to stay in it for the foreseeable future. Mostly that means I wear a mask when inside someplace other than my house, and it means I try to avoid being inside someplace other than my house if there isn’t a good reason for it. In other words, shopping is fine, ordering at restaurants (I’m eating outside or taking it to go for now) is fine, visiting the doctor or getting a haircut is fine, but I’ll pass on going to a bar or movie theater at this time. We have been to hotels, and we will travel via airplane in July. When the societal vax level is higher, I’ll be more open to more things. Your level of risk acceptance may vary.

Two-thirds of Texas voters said vaccines against the coronavirus are safe, while 18% said they’re unsafe and 16% were unsure. Democrats (86%) were more likely than Republicans (53%) to hold that view. Likewise, 66% said the coronavirus vaccines are effective, including 86% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans.

Asked whether they’ll get vaccinated when they can, 64% either said yes or that they’ve already been vaccinated, 22% said they won’t get a shot and 14% were unsure. Again, there was a partisan split behind those results, with 84% of Democrats saying they would get vaccinated or already have been, 51% of Republicans and 51% of independent voters saying the same.

In a June 2020 UT/TT Poll — before vaccines had been developed — 59% of Texas voters said they would get the shots if they became available, 21% said no and the rest were undecided. In October’s poll, 42% planned to get vaccinations, and 51% said in February of this year that they would either get the vaccination or already received it. Vaccine hesitancy has dropped accordingly, from 57% saying they were not going to get shots or were undecided in October, to 48% in February, to 36% in the most recent poll.

It’s that fourteen percent we need to concentrate on. Maybe over time pressure from family members or the threat of being fired will get some of the total resisters to get vaxxed, but the folks who are merely hesitant or who have obstacles in their way need to be accommodated in whatever way we can. Getting above 75% for the total vaccination rate would be big.

When it comes to government response to the pandemic, Texans hold the performance of their local governments above either state or federal governments. More than half (53%) approve of how their local officials have handled things, while 45% approve of the state’s work and 47% approve of the federal government’s response.

The good marks for local government, unlike those for state and federal governments, come from both parties. Among Democrats, 56% approve of local handling of the coronavirus, and 54% of Republicans feel the same way. The federal government, with a Democrat in the White House, gets 76% approval from Democrats and 58% disapproval from Republicans. And the state, with a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, gets approval from 72% of Republicans and disapproval from 71% of Democrats.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, while 35% disapprove. For Gov. Greg Abbott, 43% approve of his work and 48% disapprove; a year ago, 56% thought the governor was doing a good job with the coronavirus.

That’s a pretty robust approval number for President Biden, and a surprisingly poor one for Greg Abbott. It may just be that Democratic approval for Abbott has fallen to the kind of levels that Dan Patrick gets, but that would still be a big deal, since Abbott significantly outperformed Patrick in 2018. If Biden’s approval level remains in that ballpark, 2022 may be a pretty decent year for Dems here. Insert all the usual caveats about how far off things are, it’s one poll, the national environment matters, etc etc etc.

On the Big Freeze and its power outages:

Texas voters overwhelmingly support requiring energy providers to protect their facilities from bad weather, and a slim majority thinks the government should pay for that weatherization, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Having lived through a statewide winter freeze and electricity outages in February, 84% of Texas voters said those facilities should be weatherized, and 52% said government funds should pay for it.

“The main thing that the Legislature is talking about — weatherization — is the main thing that voters say they should do,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Other proposals have strong support: 81% of voters think the members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, should live in the state; 81% said companies and regulators should be required to ensure higher levels of reserve power to meet spikes in demand; 78% want a statewide disaster alert system.

It remains to be seen what the Lege will actually do, but as far as what candidates should be talking about in 2022, it’s pretty clear on this front.

On voter suppression:

Asking whether the state’s election system discriminates against people of color depends on whether you are talking to Hispanic voters, who are split, Black voters, a majority of whom say it is discriminatory, and white voters, most of whom say it isn’t, according to the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, 52% of Texas voters said the system doesn’t discriminate. But the question is divisive: 73% of Democrats said it does and 88% of Republicans said it doesn’t. Among white voters, 62% said the system doesn’t discriminate, but 58% of Black voters said it does. Hispanic voters were divided, with 43% saying it does discriminate and 42% saying it doesn’t.

[…]

Most voters (80%) agree that counties should keep paper records so voters can verify that their ballots are counted. And 65% agree that vote-counting equipment shouldn’t be connected to the internet or other computer networks. Smaller majorities — 56% each — said they would require the state’s biggest counties to livestream and record areas where ballots are counted, and that they would prohibit counties from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who didn’t request them.

“Texas voters are open to increasing security, against increasing barriers and decreasing convenience,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “When convenience begin to compete with election integrity and fraud, the Republicans back off a little.”

Other proposals have the support of most Republicans, but not of most voters. Allowing volunteer poll watchers to take pictures, record video and audio of voters has the support of 48% of Texans, but 71% of Republicans. While 47% of Texans would allow drive-thru voting, 64% of Republicans said that should be prohibited. Only 36% of Texas voters would prohibit counties from allowing more than 12 hours per day during the last week of early voting, which has the support of 60% of Republicans.

The data is here, though that’s just the high-level stuff. Giving more latitude to poll watchers got a plurality, but drive-through voting (47-42) and extended early voting hours (47-36) were preferred by the voters, so that’s two out of three for the good guys. People like convenience, it’s a simple enough thing. I’ll take my chances campaigning on that next year.

More May election post-mortems

From the DMN: Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson bet the second half of his first term on these two council seats. Here’s how it looked after polls closed.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson bet the second half of his first four-year term on flipping two City Council seats held by members with whom he has battled during the last year.

He appeared to have lost that gambit.

Neither candidate he endorsed — Yolanda Faye Williams in District 5 and Donald Parish Jr. in District 7 — dealt a fatal blow to incumbents Jaime Resendez and Adam Bazaldua, according to unofficial results.

Resendez staved off a runoff against Terry Perkins, a former pastor at Abundant Grace Church. And in District 7, Bazaldua will face former council member Kevin Felder, not Parish.

In a late-night statement, Johnson acknowledged several races were headed to run-offs next month.

“No matter what voters in those districts ultimately decide, I am eager to work with our new City Council on an ambitious agenda that focuses on the basics — such as public safety, infrastructure investment, economic growth, and property tax relief — and builds for the future of this great city,” he said.

While it was never clear why the mayor chose to break a long-standing tradition against endorsing candidates as he did with Williams and Parish, the outcome was coming into focus after polls closed. Johnson never discussed his picks with The Dallas Morning News.

Johnson likely will still have a sizeable bloc of adversaries on the 15-member body.

“In a weak mayor system, allies and a coalition are critical,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Endorsing a challenger is a gamble. If you fail, you have deeply alienated people who will continue to serve on the council. However, if you succeed, then you’ve pretty well created the beginning of the mayoral fraction.”

[…]

A list of catastrophes, especially the coronavirus pandemic, has sidelined the mayor and his nascent agenda that included increasing workforce readiness, ending division on the council and blurring the city’s historic racial divide.

The pandemic and demand to reform policing and reinvestment in Black and Hispanic communities could have served as a launching pad for those issues — and that may still be the case. However, the mayor was often eclipsed by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on both fronts.

“This past year has been the year of Clay Jenkins, not the year of Eric Johnson,” Wilson said, adding that the mayor’s window of exercising any additional authority in an emergency situation is closing.

But as we emerge from the pandemic and move beyond the election, the mayor will have a chance to reboot.

“This is a time for enterprising mayors to put their cities ahead,” Wilson said.

I don’t follow Dallas municipal politics and I don’t know the players here, but this interested me for a couple of reasons. One is that as noted it’s pretty rare for a Mayor to directly oppose an incumbent Council member. Houston Mayors will support friendly incumbents and preferred candidates in open seat races, but otherwise usually stay in their own lane. For one thing, they’re always on the ballot as well, so there’s always that fish to be fried. Even in our strong Mayor system, the risk of picking a losing fight against someone who will then have incentive to oppose you is a risk that Mayors usually avoid (or at least do it very much on the down low). As a theoretical matter, I have no issue with this – I can think of more than a few Council incumbents I would have liked past Mayors to oppose – but the risk/reward calculation has to make sense, and there’s no better way to look like a bully that’s just been run off than backing a losing challenger.

Two, in the same way that I have an interest in San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, I see Mayor Johnson as a potential future statewide candidate. He was a legislator, he won his seat by ousting an incumbent in a primary, and he got some things done as a member of the minority party. He’s also young and clearly ambitious, which is in relatively short supply among the big city Mayors. The better the record of accomplishment he can build in the current job, the better his chances statewide down the line. The line about this being the year of Clay Jenkins and not Eric Johnson will leave a mark, but then Clay Jenkins is also someone I have my eye on for a statewide run at some point. Make the most of the next two years, Mayor Johnson.

Moving a bit north, opponents of anti-racism education won big in Southlake.

Nine months after officials in the affluent Carroll Independent School District introduced a proposal to combat racial and cultural intolerance in schools, voters delivered a resounding victory Saturday to a slate of school board and City Council candidates who opposed the plan.

In an unusually bitter campaign that echoed a growing national divide over how to address issues of race, gender and sexuality in schools, candidates in the city of Southlake were split between two camps: those who supported new diversity and inclusion training requirements for Carroll students and teachers and those backed by a political action committee that was formed last year to defeat the plan.

On one side, progressives argued that curriculum and disciplinary changes were needed to make all children feel safe and welcome in Carroll, a mostly white but quickly diversifying school district. On the other, conservatives in Southlake rejected the school diversity plan as an effort to indoctrinate students with a far-left ideology that, according to some, would institutionalize discrimination against white children and those with conservative Christian values.

Candidates and voters on both sides described the election as a “fork in the road” for Southlake, a wealthy suburb 30 miles northwest of Dallas. “So goes Southlake,” a local conservative commentator warned in the weeks leading up to the election, “so goes the rest of America.”

In the end, the contest was not close. Candidates backed by the conservative Southlake Families PAC, which has raised more than $200,000 since last summer, won every race by about 70 percent to 30 percent, including those for two school board positions, two City Council seats and mayor. More than 9,000 voters cast ballots, three times as many as in similar contests in the past.

[…]

Hernandez and other candidates running in support of new diversity and inclusion programs said they were not particularly surprised by the outcome in a historically conservative city where about two-thirds of voters backed President Donald Trump last year, but they were dismayed by the margin of their defeat.

Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico, said he worries about the signal the outcome sends to dozens of Carroll high school students and recent graduates who came forward with stories about racist and anti-gay bullying over the past two years. To demonstrate the need for change, members of the student-led Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition collected more than 300 accounts from current and former Carroll students last year who said they had been mistreated because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

“I don’t want to think about all these kids that shared their stories, their testimonies,” Hernandez said, growing emotional Saturday moments after having learned the election results. “I don’t want to think about that right now, because it’s really, really hard for me. I feel really bad for all those kids, every single one of them that shared a story. I don’t have any words for them.”

As the story notes, the origin of all this was a viral video of white Carrolton high school students chanting the N word in 2018. The town, which has become less white as its population has boomed in recent years, attempted to address that through listening sessions and the school curriculum, and not too surprisingly some people that it was All Just Too Much, because we can’t go about hurting their feelings. I do believe that the trends in Southlake are pointing in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some backsliding.

And finally, Collin College candidates address concerns of free speech, retaliation:

Ongoing controversies at Collin College could impact Saturday’s election where longtime trustees are aiming to keep their seats on the board.

The growing college system has made national headlines over allegations of retaliation and its response to the pandemic. Protestors have attended board meetings after administrators let go three women who criticized the school’s COVID-19 response.

Trustees seeking another six-year term include Jim Orr, Andy Hardin and Bob Collins, who has been on the board since the founding of the Collin College in 1985.

But their opponents say the board needs people who will push for transparency across the school and can bring in diversity and fresh ideas.

Last week, nearly 90 people gathered to protest the way school officials have handled free speech, including professors Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones — who were told by college leadership that their contracts would not be renewed at the end of the semester.

The two women had previously criticized the school’s handling of the pandemic and were leaders of the college’s chapter of the Texas Faculty Association.

Volunteers then went to nearby Collin County neighborhoods to speak to voters and discuss issues leading up to Saturday’s election.

Misty Irby, a risk manager, said it shocked her to learn that Collin College is on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list for top 10 worst colleges for free speech.

“That’s very disheartening to me,” Irby said. “You have something that’s rotten at the core of the college that needs to be fixed.”

Irby, who is challenging Collins, said she wants to promote transparency within the college, repair its reputation and foster freedom of speech for students, faculty and staff.

That article was from before the election – in the end, the three challengers all lost, though two of them lost by single digits. The Dallas Observer has been following this story closely, and you can find all of their relevant articles here. For a rapidly blue-trending county, Collin has some truly awful local officials. The day of reckoning for them can’t come quickly enough. In the meantime, if you want to talk “cancel culture”, please be sure to address the cases of Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones in your monologue.

The COVID wastewater tracking project has been a big success

This has been one of the best things to come out of this interminable and miserable COVID experience.

Lauren Stadler’s environmental engineering students always pose the same question at the beginning of a semester: “What happens to water in the toilet after you flush?”

Historically, humans have worked to quickly dispose and eradicate their own waste, which can carry diseases.

But an area’s waste creates a snapshot of who is there and what they’ve been exposed to, said Stadler, a wastewater engineer and environmental microbiologist at Rice University. She’s working with the Houston Health Department and Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR program to find SARS-CoV-2 in the city’s wastewater.

Stadler’s hunt has revealed variants in particular areas, heightening the city’s urgency to procure resources — COVID tests, informational meetings, advertising and now vaccine sites — in an effort to quash them before they proliferate.

“The beauty and challenge of wastewater is that it represents a pool of sample — we’ll never get an individual person’s SARS-CoV-2 strain, but a mixture of everyone in that population,” Stadler said. “We can find a population level of emergence of mutations that might be unique to Houston.”

[…]

Variant tracking has become an important part of the wastewater analysis process, Stadler said.

In February, the city and its research partners began seeing a quick emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the dominant variant in the area. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in nationwide.

Now that the team has gathered data and built a sustainable process, Stadler said they are using this information to forecast future pandemics. “Taking wastewater data, you can predict positivity rates and forecast infection burdens — it has this predictive power essentially. It’ll be very important to identify areas in the city experiencing increases in infection, and we can direct resources.”

The wastewater analysis team works with public works employees to collect weekly samples from nearly 200 sites across the city.

“I think they see this as a monitoring tool beyond the pandemic, and we see it as well,” Stadler said. “Hopefully, when SARS-CoV-2 is behind us, we will be able to monitor for an endemic virus, like flu. We can use wastewater monitoring to look for other viruses, bacterial pathogens and other pathogens of concern.”

See here and here for recent entries. I don’t have much to add, just my admiration for everyone involved and the knowledge they have gained. This was a simple and inexpensive innovation, and it will yield public health benefits for years to come. Kudos to all.

Other May election results

Roundup style, mostly.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg easily wins a fourth term.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

Mayor Ron Nirenberg vanquished the ghost of repeat challenger Greg Brockhouse in Saturday’s City election and secured his third term in office with a win of historic proportion.

Nirenberg is now on course to become the city’s first four-term mayor since his mentor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, led a successful campaign in 2009 to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms.

That longevity in office should give Nirenberg the time and space to forge the kind of legacy established by Hardberger and Julián Castro before him.

Hardberger can point to completion of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach, acquisition of Hardberger Park, redevelopment of Main Plaza, and jump starting the transformation of Hemisfair Park after it lay idle for 50 years. He recruited Sheryl Sculley to become city manager. Her long tenure led to the modernization of the city’s financial practices, ambitious five-year bond cycles to address critical infrastructure needs, and a new level of professional standards for city staff.

Castro, then the youngest mayor of a Top 50 city, led efforts to bring early childhood education to the forefront, well in advance of national trends, with successful passage of Pre-K 4 SA. He launched SA2020 and with it, the Decade of Downtown. Castro joined forces with Sculley to take on the powerful police union and address runaway health care costs. His growing national profile earned him a cabinet seat as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration.

Nirenberg is poised to establish his own legacy. Voters chose him by a 31-point margin, 62% to 31%, over Brockhouse, with the remainder going to a dozen other names on the ballot, a definitive verdict on Nirenberg’s second-term record. A Bexar Facts poll conducted with the San Antonio Report and KSAT-TV in late March accurately predicted as much. The reason: Nirenberg’s strong leadership through the pandemic.

Nirenberg won by a much wider margin against Brockhouse this time. When I look around at current Mayors for future statewide potential, Nirenberg certainly belongs on the list, but for whatever the reason I haven’t heard his name bandied about. Maybe that will change now.

San Antonio had a high-profile ballot proposition, which would have stripped the city’s police union of it collective bargaining power. It was narrowly defeated, but its proponents are encouraged they did as well as they did, and expect to continue that fight.

Austin had its own slew of ballot propositions, with a particularly contentious one that would outlaw the public camps that homeless people are now using. That one passed, and we’ll see what happens next.

The folks behind Proposition B, the citizen initiative to re-criminalize public camping in Downtown Austin and near the UT Campus, got the victory they sought for the more than $1 million they spent. With all votes counted Saturday night, the measure backed by Save Austin Now prevailed by 14 points, 57.1%-42.9%.

That’s a slightly weaker showing than was predicted before polls closed by SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, also chair of the Travis County Republican Party, but a win’s a win:

Those who have been paying attention will note that Mayor Steve Adler and much of Council have already decided that the June 2019 vote that Prop B reverses was a failed experiment, and have moved on to other strategies to house Austin’s unsheltered poor. Perhaps SAN will catch up soon. Whatever its merits as policy, the campaign for Prop B did almost certainly boost turnout, which all told was 22.55% countywide (just under 90% of that was city voters). That’s the highest Austin’s seen in a May election since 1994.

Even CM Greg Casar, the politician most directly rebuked by tonight’s results, is looking ahead: “I do not believe Austin is as divided as this election makes it seem. The overwhelming majority of Austinites share a common goal, no matter how folks voted on Prop B. We all want to get people out of tents and into homes,” Casar said in a statement. “Our community must come together after this election & house 3,000 more people.”

I’ll leave it to the Austin folks to figure this out from here, but from my vantage point one obvious issue here is the ridiculously high housing prices in Austin, which is fueled in part by way more demand for housing than supply. I hope the city can find a way forward on that.

Fort Worth will have a new Mayor, after a June runoff.

Fort Worth voters will chose a new mayor for the first time in a decade in June with Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples apparently headed to the runoff.

Mayor Betsy Price’s decision not to seek an unprecedented sixth term sparked 10 candidates to run, including two council members, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman and a slew of political newcomers.

According unofficial results in Tarrant County, Peoples, a former AT&T vice president, led with 33.60% of the vote Saturday night while Parker, a former Price chief of staff, had 30.82%, with all 176 vote centers reporting. Council member Brian Byrd was in third place with 14.75%.

Parker and Peoples maintained the upper hand with results for Denton County. There, Parker took 35.17% of the vote compared to 16% for Peoples. In Parker County, Parker had 42% of the vote followed by Byrd’s 23.3%. Peoples had 12.5%.

The runoff will be June 5.

Here are the Tarrant County results – scroll down to page 21 to see the Fort Worth Mayor’s race. There were 1,106 votes cast in total in this race in Denton County, and 176 total votes cast in Parker County, so Tarrant is really all you need to know. In 2019, Peoples lost to Mayor Betsy Price by a 56-42 margin. Adding up the votes this time, counting Ann Zadeh as progressive and Brian Byrn and Steve Penate as conservative, the vote was roughly a 55-42 margin for the Republican-aligned candidates. We’ll see how it goes in the runoff.

And then there was Lubbock.

Lubbock voters on Saturday backed a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that tries to outlaw abortions in the city’s limits, likely prompting a lawsuit over what opponents say is an unconstitutional ban on the procedure.

The unofficial vote, 62% for and 38% against the measure, comes less than a year after Planned Parenthood opened a clinic in Lubbock and months after the City Council rejected the ordinance on legal grounds and warned it could tee up a costly court fight.

The passage of the ordinance makes Lubbock one of some two dozen cities that have declared themselves a “sanctuary … for the unborn” and tried to prohibit abortions from being performed locally. But none of the cities in the movement — which started in the East Texas town of Waskom in 2019 — has been as big as Lubbock and none of them have been home to an abortion provider.

It’s unclear when the ordinance will go into effect, and if it will be challenged in court.

The push to declare Lubbock a “sanctuary city for the unborn” began in the last two years and was galvanized by the arrival of a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2020. Anti-abortion activists gathered enough signatures to bring the ordinance to the City Council — where it was voted down for conflicting with state law and Supreme Court rulings — and to then put it to a citywide vote.

Ardent supporters of the measure, who liken abortion to murder, say it reflects the views held by many in conservative Lubbock. They believe the ordinance would stand up in court and say they have an attorney who will defend the city free of charge if it is challenged.

But the strategy of bringing the abortion fight to the local level has divided even staunch anti-abortion activists, and Texas towns like Omaha and Mineral Wells have voted down similar ordinances or walked them back under advice from city attorneys.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which previously sued seven East Texas towns that passed similar ordinances, has said they were watching the vote closely and hinted at a lawsuit in a statement Saturday.

Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist with the organization, said the “ACLU has a long history of challenging unconstitutional abortion bans and will continue to fight to protect the fundamental rights of the people of Lubbock.”

[…]

The Lubbock ordinance outlaws abortions within the city, and allows family members of a person who has an abortion to sue the provider and anyone who assists someone getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic.

There isn’t an exception for women pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

The ordinance would not be enforced by the government unless the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, or made other changes to abortion laws.

It instead relies on private citizens filing lawsuits.

Richard D. Rosen, a constitutional law professor at Texas Tech University, expects someone would sue Planned Parenthood and the legal fight would go from there.

“As long as Roe is good law I think these suits will ultimately fail, but it [could make] abortion providers … expend money for attorneys fees and it takes time,” he said.

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit that was filed against those seven towns was later dropped after the ordinances to remove language that declared the Lilith Fund and the Texas Equal Access Fund “criminal entities”. The language banning abortions in those towns remains, however. Lubbock is in a much different position than those tiny little towns, and I have no idea what happens from here. It can’t be long before someone files a lawsuit for something.

Finally, I’m sorry to report that Virginia Elizondo lost her race for Spring Branch ISD. I wish her all the best in the future.

A little incentive

If it takes a reward of some kind to get a few more people to be vaccinated against COVID, I’m fine with that.

Could be yours

To increase the rate of vaccinations, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved giving incentives to citizens.

At Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting, the court authorized for up to $250,000 for gift cards, events and other incentive programs, to increase vaccine participation among Harris County citizens.

The money will come from the county’s Public Improvement Contingency fund.

“We desperately need these people to get vaccinated, particularly the young people,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “I asked you to be as creative as we possibly can because I don’t want to sit here a month from now and see the numbers worsen, or see this pandemic extended, and say ‘If we had just done X, would we have avoided this situation?’”

[…]

Commissioners pitched vaccine-promotion concerts, gift cards to local businesses, firework shows and Jose Altuve bobblehead dolls as incentives.

The immediate goal is not to use county coffers to pay for gift cards, said Hidalgo, who suggested the county find corporate partners to offer gift cards as a contribution to the community.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey worried that people may take advantage of direct cash payments or gift cards by returning for multiple shots.

“I do not think giving out gift cards or other pecuniary financial incentives is a good thing,” Ramsey said. “You may have people who get multiple shots so they could get their new gift card, so I have some concerns on that side of the equation.”

Ramsey said he didn’t have a problem with trying to promote vaccinations in the community through other means, such as bobblehead giveaways or veteran-centered events during Memorial Day weekend, complete with a fireworks show.

“If we give them out during a ‘Bobbleheads Weekend,’ we would pretty much max it out,” he said. “We could have a whole initiative around this… ‘What better way to honor our vets than to come get your vaccine.’”

We’ve discussed how it’s more challenging to vaccinate people now, because everyone who really wanted the vaccine and had no barriers to getting it has gotten it. What we have left for the most part is the people who need assistance and/or incentive (I’m not counting the absolute refusers, since there’s no reaching them), and this plan tries to provide some of the latter. Other places have tried similar strategies, and there is evidence that it is effective. Seems simple enough to me.

I do not believe that double-dipping is a concern, though perhaps there will be some people who will wait till there’s a reward available rather than get a shot at their earliest possible time. That seems like a minimal risk. I do think the approach of offering rewards at specific publicized events rather than making them a new default part of the experience could be worthwhile – it’s the vax incentive equivalent to the retail strategies of “blowout sales” and “everyday low prices”. Keep an open mind and track your data for every different method used. Finally, please keep to yourself any complaints about how you personally did not need any gift cards or Altuve bobbleheads to get your shot. You got the reward of getting the shots and their accompanying freedoms weeks if not months ahead of these slower-moving folks. That’s how economics works, bud.

Dave Wilson censure lawsuit goes to SCOTUS

We live in strange times.

Dave Wilson

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving former Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson who alleges in a lawsuit that the school violated his constitutional rights.

Wilson, who served on HCC’s board as a District II trustee for several years, filed a lawsuit in 2018 claiming the college violated his 1st and 14th Amendment rights after his fellow board members voted to censure him.

Board members said Wilson publicly criticized his colleagues’ votes and showed a lack of respect in the board’s decision-making process.

[…]

A U.S District Court judge dismissed the case in March 2019. Wilson later appealed in the 5th Circuit Court, which reversed the court’s original judgment in July 2020.

The Houston Community College System then filed a petition in December 2020 seeking the Supreme Court’s review of the district court’s decision, “arguing that a censure is a traditional form of government speech, an important tool of self-governance, and that the First Amendment does not protect an elected official from criticism,” HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado said in a written statement. The high court granted the petition Monday .

“It is our hope the Supreme Court will preserve the long-standing tool of censure because of its national importance to government institutions,” Maldonado said.

[…]

Shaundra Kellam Lewis, a law professor at Texas Southern University, said the Supreme Court decision to review the circuit court’s ruling when it only takes on about 100 cases a year is interesting but not surprising considering the conflict among circuit courts regarding the claim.

While the 5th Circuit ruled Wilson has a viable 1st Amendment claim, arguing that the board’s censorship went beyond disapproval of his conduct, a 10th Circuit ruling would state that the board’s censuring of Wilson was not a violation, Lewis said.

“We’re coming out of the Trump administration, when there was rancor and vitriol in political speech and what the conservatives called ‘cancel culture,’ where people are penalized for unfavorable speech,” Lewis said.

Josh Blackman, constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, said the free speech case is unique in that it involves people who were elected by the community. While government employees, like public service officials, are somewhat restricted by the government on what they can say, elected employees, like HCC board members, “have more free speech rights, which are not subject to review by colleagues, but by the electorate — the people,” Blackman added.

Both Lewis and Blackman predicted, however, that HCC will likely win the case.

Blackman said history shows that the Supreme Court typically reverses the decision of the lower court in the case of a petition. And Lewis said the Supreme Court will side with a majority of the other circuit court decisions that have addressed similar free speech cases.

See here for the previous update. I was a little surprised when I first read this, as I had not been aware that the Fifth Circuit reinstated the lawsuit. You know how I feel about Dave Wilson, so you know what outcome I’m rooting for.

Weekend link dump for May 2

Please don’t feed the bears.

“U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s reported $2 million book deal is drawing criticism from legal experts who say its size and timing create bad optics for a court that is already in the political crosshairs.”

A new malaria vaccine could save a lot of lives.

“David Brooks can be maddening, but he has a role to play in moving the needle of progress.”

“The issue is in part semantic: The term low-skill as we use it is often derogatory, a socially sanctioned slur Davos types casually lob at millions of American workers, disproportionately Black and Latino, immigrant, and low-income workers. Describing American workers as low-skill also vaults over the discrimination that creates these “low-skill” jobs and pushes certain workers to them. And it positions American workers as being the problem, rather than American labor standards, racism and sexism, and social and educational infrastructure. It is a cancerous little phrase, low-skill. As the pandemic ends and the economy reopens, we need to leave it behind.”

In which dogs are used to find turtles to help fight an emerging virus that affects turtles.

“There are basically four countries in the world that are at the head of the pack in terms of vaccinations – with one, Israel, far ahead of the other three. There are as many as a dozen others but they are either city states or tiny jurisdictions that it’s hard to draw much from in terms of statistics. Those four are Israel (Pfizer), the United States (Pfizer & Moderna), the UK (AstraZeneca) and Chile (SinoVAC). There’s a decent body of theoretical and empirical support for the proposition that the population-wide effects of COVID vaccination kick in when about 60% of the population has been vaccinated – at least with the Pfizer/Moderna vaccinations.”

“You don’t need to win every vote. You need to get a majority of votes. Similarly, we don’t need to get everyone vaccinated (thought that sure would be nice). We need to get to herd immunity.”

“To recap: A tabloid falsely linked a study to the Democratic president; Fox News regurgitated the lie; Fox News consumers swallowed the regurgitated lie like conspiratorial ipecac then urped it up all over the internet; America became a measurably dumber place to live.”

“Quentin Tarantino Had A Diabolical Method For Preventing NBC From Messing With His ‘ER’ Episode”.

“A Jan. 6 Commission is Crucial to Understand the Reality of the Attack, and the Alternate Reality of the Attackers”.

“I think the bottom line here is somewhat simple, though: Mask up in crowds. Otherwise—though some judgment calls might be involved—if you’re outdoors, it’s just not as necessary.” Here’s an opposing view to that.

“Russian singer finally voted off reality TV show he didn’t want to be on following three months of misery”. Honestly, that may be the most 2021 story we’ll ever see.

“Good news: Prancer has been adopted.”

I’d say that not listening to Joe Rogan is good advice in general.

RIP, Michael Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut.

RIP, Courtney Hall, Rice Owl and former NFL player.

Josh Duggar is in the position he is in because he was enabled and protected from consequences at every step by his revolting parents and their patriarchal, dehumanizing theology.” (More here, if you can stomach it.)

“Newsmax apologized on Friday for airing false allegations that an employee for Dominion Voting Systems manipulated machines or tallies on Election Day to the detriment of former President Donald Trump.”

RIP, Olympia Dukakis, Oscar-winning actor and cousin of former Massachusetts governor and 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

CD06 special election result

I’m not going to stay up late and wait till every last vote has been counted in CD06. You can see the latest report from the SOS here. As of when I drafted this, Susan Wright and Jake Ellzey were leading, with Jana Sanchez just a bit behind Ellzey. If that holds, it will be an all-GOP runoff, which is not great but not terribly surprising. It wasn’t just that the three Dems who raised the most money split the vote, it was also the no-name, no-money Dems who collected votes. I have no idea who Tammy Allison is, but she was actually the third-best Dem in the race, with over five percent of the vote. Multi-candidate special elections are weird, man.

The takes I saw last night on Twitter were scorching hot, but honestly things wouldn’t be all that much different if Sanchez had collected a couple hundred more votes (as of when I last checked) and slipped ahead of Ellzey and into the runoff. Having three viable Dems, plus one who perhaps benefitted from being the first name on the ballot in Tarrant County, was a heavy lift to overcome. It’s what I was worried about from the beginning. I don’t have anything more insightful than that to say.

The best time to buy a house in Houston was last year

Or the year before that, or the year before that

The O’Neals are part of a nationwide real estate frenzy playing out in Houston that is propelling prices to new highs. Houses are frequently drawing multiple offers, often above the asking price and can sell in a matter of days if they’re in good condition, according to local real estate agents.

The median price of a single-family home reached $260,212 in 2020, up 6.2 percent from 2019, according to an analysis of home sales and prices compiled by the Houston Association of Realtors for the Houston Chronicle. The increase in the median sales price was nearly twice the 3.2 percent year-over-year gain in 2019, according to HAR.

The increase came amid demand fueled by continued low interest rates, an extreme shortage of houses on the market and a rekindled desire for homes in the suburbs stemming from the pandemic as people spend more time at home. At the same time, despite the rising prices, the pandemic forced people to cancel vacations, stop eating out and allowed them to pay down debt, giving them more buying power than ever. Some of that may carry over to the future.

“We have a new habit of spending a lot of time at home,” said Ted C. Jones, chief economist with Stewart Title. “We’ll definitely eat out more, but maybe not as much as we did 24 months ago.”

Meantime, said Frank Lucco, an appraiser with Accurity Qualified Analytics, “Houses are flying off the shelves.”

Lucco said he has never seen Houston home prices rise this quickly in his 43 years as an appraiser. Traditionally, home prices have risen 3 percent to 4 percent annually over the last two decades. The veteran appraiser has been constantly adjusting his appraisals upward to reflect Houston’s fast rising prices.

“There’s multiple contracts on houses,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for houses to sell in the same day it’s listed.”

In March, 2,165 houses in the Houston area — 23.2 percent of the month’s sales — sold for above asking price, according to HAR. That’s nearly three times the 8 percent that sold for more than asking a year ago.

Everyone reading this in Austin and its environs is no doubt nodding their head grimly. You want crazy home prices and bidding wars, that’s the place for it. The same is going on in the greater D/FW area as well. As this story notes, there’s a lot of demand out in the burbs, with their bigger houses and spacious yards that have been a blessing for many in the pandemic, but there’s also a lot of demand for the urban core, especially among younger buyers. There’s plenty of construction in my neighborhood, and I can’t think of any lots that have been on the market for more than a couple of weeks. Whatever else you might say, it’s better to be a place where people want to live.

Zombie same sex employee lawsuit denied again

Shuffling along like the undead flesh eater that it is.

A Texas appellate court struck a challenge Thursday to Houston’s policy giving same-sex spouses of city employees the same benefits as different-sex spouses, saying that the city was immune from the case and that three major U.S. Supreme Courtrulings barred the claims.

A split Fourteenth Court of Appeals panel affirmed a state trial court’s February 2019 ruling against Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, who challenged the benefits policy in an October 2014 suit.

“Because appellants’ attempt to prevent the city from offering employment benefits to married same-sex couples on the same terms and conditions as married different-sex couples cannot be reconciled with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, we reject it,” Justice Margaret Poissant said in an opinion for the panel.

Mayor Sylvester Turner is not liable for the plaintiffs’ ultra vires claim, a claim used to target government officials for acting beyond their authority, because the 2013 directive issued by his predecessor was discretionary, the panel found.

The plaintiffs had even conceded that point when they argued the mayor and other officials spurned state marriage law “because it conflicts with their personal beliefs of what the U.S. Constitution or federal law requires,” the panel noted.

Further, Houston didn’t waive the immunity it typically has in ultra vires claims, according to the opinion. For a city to be a party to such a suit, the case must challenge a statute or ordinance, but the plaintiffs instead alleged violations of state law.

The plaintiffs also failed to establish that the directive was made without legal authority, according to the opinion.

Justice Poissant said the plaintiffs were wrongly trying to relitigate the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges , which legalized same-sex marriage and made the Texas state laws at issue unconstitutional.

The panel also cited the high court’s 2017 ruling in Pavan v. Smith , which allowed same-sex parents the right to be listed on their children’s birth certificates, and its 2019 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County , which protected transgender individuals from discrimination.

The panel further denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction barring the city policy, saying their claim that the city used their tax dollars to “subsidize homosexual relationship,” which they believe is “immoral and sinful,” didn’t demonstrate imminent harm.

Justice Randy Wilson penned a partial dissent, saying the rest of the panel took the issue too far.

The trial court, Wilson said, had “paradoxically” dismissed the claims for lack of jurisdiction while essentially granting summary judgment on the merits. The appellate court should have addressed only the former and simply vacated the latter, he said.

See here for the previous update, and for the case information, including the opinion and concurrence and dissent from Justice Wilson. The original lawsuit was filed in 2013, for those keeping score at home. How much do you have to hate gay people to continue to pursue this eight years later? Jared Woodfill is their lawyer, if that helps you answer that question. Let us hope there is no further news to note on this.

Briscoe Cain’s latest follies

This guy, I swear.

After an early misfire, House Republicans on Thursday succeeded in pushing their proposed restrictions on voting to the legislative forefront as the Texas Legislature’s 2021 session enters its final sprint.

The House Elections Committee’s Republican majority voted to gut Senate Bill 7, the priority voting bill that has already passed the Senate, and replace the bill’s language with that of House Bill 6, a significantly different voting bill favored by House leadership. That maneuvering will put the Senate on the defensive to resurrect its legislation and likely tee up end-of-session tension between the two chambers over competing visions for which proposed restrictions ultimately make it to the governor’s desk.

As passed in the Senate, SB 7 clamps down on early voting rules and hours, restricts how voters can receive applications to vote by mail and regulates the distribution of polling places in diverse urban counties, among several other provisions in the expansive bill. The legislation passed the Senate with support from the chamber’s Republican majority and was awaiting action in the House.

HB 6, approved by the committee’s Republican majority earlier this month, would restrict the distribution of applications to vote by mail, require people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help in casting their ballot — even if for medical reasons — and enhance protections for partisan poll watchers, including criminal liability for election workers for their treatment of watchers.

On first try, a morning committee meeting descended into chaos when state Rep. Briscoe Cain, the committee’s chair, blindsided his colleagues with a motion to substitute SB 7 with HB 6, which he authored. That effort failed when another GOP lawmaker didn’t vote to follow along after Cain pressed forward, saying there were no objections to adopting the substitute language even as Democrats, shouting at times, continued to object.

The committee reconvened Thursday evening and advanced SB 7 on a 5-4 vote, after rejecting several proposed Democratic amendments.

As things stand now, SB 7 is a duplicate version of HB 6. The Senate can still revive its priorities if the full House approves the rewritten SB 7 and lawmakers from both chambers convene to cut a deal.

[…]

Caught off guard earlier in the day, Democrats on the committee said they were handed the replacement language minutes before they were asked to vote, and repeatedly objected to the move, which would preempt any public hearing by the House on SB 7’s provisions that differ substantially from Cain’s substitute.

“I feel that SB 7 is a significant piece of legislation that we should hold a hearing on it,” said state Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin.

“I agree, but we are doing a committee substitute to match it to House Bill 6, and we’ve already heard a complete hearing on that exact language,” Cain responded. He argued that the committee’s lengthy hearing on HB 6 was “sufficient.”

“These two bills are substantially different — you have said that time and time again in committee. Many times you have said these bills are totally different when somebody compared it to SB 7,” said state Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee. “I have to object. This is wrong. We deserve to have a public hearing on this.”

The meeting erupted into chaos as lawmakers spoke over each other and Democrats pushed back on Cain. After adopting the substituted language, Cain then quickly called for a vote so the rewritten bill could head to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote. But he was forced to withdraw his proposal after state Rep. Travis Clardy said he would “pass” and refused to cast a vote. Without the Nacogdoches Republican’s vote — and Democrats on the committee voting against the bill — there weren’t enough votes for it to make it out of the committee.

When lawmakers returned to the committee later Thursday, Clardy fell in line with his Republican colleagues.

The push to replace the Senate’s priority election bill with Cain’s proposals likely serves as an indication of how far apart the House and the Senate are on what changes the Legislature should make to voting this session. Instead of uniting behind identical, or even substantially similar bills, each chamber has moved forward with different measures.

See here and here for some background. I recommend reading Emily Eby’s Twitter thread for the inside look and feel of the chaos that reigned. Briscoe Cain is an idiot, but let’s be clear, the Republicans are not going to let him fail. A voter suppression bill is going to pass, one way or another, because that’s what the Republicans want and they have the numbers to do it. If one of the adults in the room has to hold Briscoe Cain’s hand to make it happen, they will. I don’t quite understand the pissing contest between the House and the Senate – there are differences between SB7 and HB6, but in the end they’re both big voter suppression bills and they both suck – but that’s not my lane. I wish I could envision a scenario where the wheels all fall off and they eventually give up, but I can’t. Some form of one of these bills will pass. The rest is just cosplay.

Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court took initial steps this week to plug a $1.4 billion funding hole for its flood bond program by diverting revenue from the county’s toll roads system.

Court members also laid out a “backstop” plan to use Harris County Toll Road Authority debt for drainage projects in case federal matching funds, distributed by the state General Land Office, do not arrive.

“The hope is that GLO comes in before we have to use either of those,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “If they don’t, we’ll look at HCTRA funds first, and then, worst comes to worst, we’ll look at the road and bridge funds.”

Repurposing the toll road revenue, which court members unanimously approved Tuesday, ensures that $535 million worth of drainage projects across all four commissioner precincts are fully funded and can be completed in the next three to five years.

That will allow the Harris County Flood Control District to provide a modicum of immediate protection to neighborhoods while the county searches for money to complete larger, longer-term projects. The 91 projects will protect about 45,000 homes, according to the district.

The court transferred $230 million in surplus toll road revenue, which largely was derived from last year’s refinancing of Harris County Toll Road Authority debt. The sum will be divided evenly between the precincts.

In addition, Commissioners Court approved using $315 million in toll road revenue, road debt or funds from other county sources to complete the drainage projects in case federal help never comes. Toll road debt must be used for a transportation purpose, and therefore can only be used for flood control projects that in some way involve a road or bridge.

That will free up $115 million in flood bond money that was intended for this purpose. That money now can be used to fill massive funding shortfalls in several watersheds, including Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River.

See here and here for the background. There was a Chron story from a couple of days before this that went into the experiences of the neighborhoods that were the most affected by the way the funding was structured for this. I drafted a post for that but didn’t get to publishing it before the Court acted. Fine by me for that to become obsolete. There’s still more to be done to fix this, but we’re off to a good start.

Tesla disputes official account of that autopilot crash

Can’t say I’m surprised.

Tesla officials are disputing numerous assertions of local police related to a recent deadly crash in the Spring area, reiterating statements by founder Elon Musk that autopilot was not engaged on the vehicle.

Further, company officials contradicted officials in Houston, saying the car did not have a driver during the crash.

“The steering wheel was indeed deformed, leading to the likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash,” said Lars Moravy, vice president of vehicle engineering for Tesla.

The comments, the company’s first statements on the incident aside from Musk’s tweets, came during a Monday evening conference call related to the company’s first quarter financial performance.

The crash, which has drawn national attention because it involved a Tesla, is under investigation by Harris County Precinct 4 as well as the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

[…]

Moravy said a review of the car’s data and the conditions on the street – which lacked painted lines – make use of autopilot impossible.

Further, he said the vehicle’s cruise control only accelerated to 30 mph because of the street’s speed limit as set in Tesla’s traffic computers, and that when the driver unbuckled it slowed.

All of the seat belts in the car were unbuckled at the time of the crash, Moravy said.

Reached Monday evening, Herman said local police were aware of Tesla’s claims but would not comment on them.

“Our case is still under investigation,” he said.

See here for the background. I mean, maybe Tesla is correct, but given their overall track record with the NTSB and the clear demonstrations of how to fool the autopilot system into thinking there’s someone in the driver’s seat, I’m not inclined to take their word for it. Let’s have a full investigation and see where that takes us. The Washington Post has more.

Poll shows opposition to the extreme anti-abortion bills in the Lege

From the inbox:

Today, the Trust Respect Access coalition is releasing data from polling on abortion laws and anti-abortion bills in the Texas Legislature. The poll includes approval ratings as well as opinions on legislative priorities and House Bill 1515/Senate Bill 8, companion bills that would ban abortion at six weeks gestation, before many people even know that they are pregnant. HB 1515/SB 8 would also allow anyone to sue an abortion provider or anyone who helps someone obtain an abortion.

The poll jointly commissioned by Trust Respect Access partners offers insights by Texans from across the political spectrum. The following are key findings:

Across the political spectrum, Texans are united against extreme proposals

A majority of all respondents – including a majority of ideological subgroups – are opposed to anti-abortion measures currently being considered in the Texas Legislature. These unpopular proposals include HB 1515/SB 8, a six-week abortion ban that would allow out-of-state people to sue Texans who help someone access abortion. HB 1515/SB 8 also includes a “rapist rights” provision that would allow rapists to sue a doctor who performs an abortion on their victim.

It is worth noting that it is rare to see Trump voters, Democrats, and Independents on the same side of an issue – this survey shows that the combined opposition transcends ideology.

“Texans from across the political spectrum are categorically rejecting these extreme anti-abortion measures,” said Diana Gómez, advocacy manager at Progress Texas. “Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, but extremist politicians are hoping to challenge existing law with dangerous bills like HB 1515 and SB 8. Not only would these bills ban abortion before most people know they’re pregnant, but they would allow for anyone to enforce the rule, meaning a rapist could sue their victim’s doctor and reap a cash reward. Texans deserve better than these attacks on our rights. If passed, these laws would be some of the most extreme abortion restrictions in the country. Texans want our legislators to protect access to essential health care, and that includes abortion.”

Double-digit opposition

Texans have differing ideologies and opinions, but when it comes to the anti-abortion measures currently under consideration at the Legislature, voters expressed opposition by wide margins. In the bipartisan survey, only 33% of respondents identified as Democrats while 68% identified as a Republican or Independent. Even so, the poll found the combined opinions as follows:

Measure to ban abortion: 51% oppose, 36% favor, 12% not sure
Out-of-state lawsuits: 63% oppose, 19% favor, 18% not sure
“Rapists rights”: 76% oppose, 12% favor, 13% unsure
Carrying non-viable pregnancies to term: 64% oppose, 20% favor, 15% unsure

“These polling results reveal that Texans overwhelmingly reject extreme anti-abortion bills,” said Caroline Duble, political director at Avow. “HB 1515/SB 8 is so egregious that it allows ‘any person,’ Texan or not, to sue another person for providing abortion care or helping someone access abortion care. This means that a neighbor could sue a mother for driving their child to an abortion procedure, or a classmate could be sued for giving a friend $20 to help pay for an abortion. The bill is written so broadly that it would even allow rapists to sue their victim’s doctors and loved ones — something that 76% of Texans from across the political spectrum oppose.”

Misplaced priorities by the Legislature

When asked what they think the number one priority should be for the Legislature, the top issue voters chose was ensuring a stable energy grid. That was followed by public schools and healthcare (covid response, hospitals, and vaccines). Texans do not believe that abortion should be a top priority in the Legislature.

“The evidence is loud and clear, Texans want access to safe abortion care,” said Carisa Lopez, policy director for Texas Freedom Network. “For years, data consistently shows that people all over Texas from all-sides of the political spectrum don’t want additional barriers to safe reproductive health care. Legislators need to align themselves with the priorities of the voters who gave them their seat at the legislature. If not, they won’t have that seat for long.”

To emphasize just how distant abortion restrictions are from Texans’ minds, when asked what the Legislature’s top priority should be, 17% responded “not sure” whereas only 10% said abortion regulations. Getting outranked by “not sure” is not good in any poll.

“By trying to ban abortion in Texas, the Legislature is pandering to anti-abortion extremists and ignoring the will of the majority of Texans,” said Drucilla Tigner, Policy & Adocacy Strategist, ACLU of Texas. “Most Texans want our leaders to focus on the real issues they face every day and are tired of elected leaders playing political games. Instead of insisting on banning abortion, the Texas Government should focus on trying to keep the lights on for everyone.”

Black and Brown voters continue leading the way in progress on reproductive rights

When breaking down responses to the poll by race, there is more support for abortion rights and a greater opposition to restrictions amongst Black and Brown Texans in many of the questions.

63% of Hispanic/Latino respondents and 58% of Black respondents say abortion laws should be less restrictive or stay the same, compared to 49% of white respondents. 60% of both Hispanic/Latino voters and Black voters also oppose HB 1515/SB 8’s measure banning abortion compared to 46% of white voters.

“Abortion restrictions disproportionately harm Black Texans and other Texans of color, folks in rural communities and those with lower incomes. Texas legislators are fixated on advancing their political interests rather than fighting for the will of the people,” said Marsha Jones, executive director at The Afiya Center. “Texans want access to safe abortion care and the polls show Texans reject harmful anti-abortion bills like HB 1515/SB 8. This political grandstanding continues to put lives at risk and the weird obsession with the relentless attempts to deny bodily autonomy and healthcare harms the state’s most marginalized populations, especially Black women. If Texas legislators want to focus on abortion legislation, let it be only to ensure the safety of those seeking abortions and increase opportunities for quality care.”

Voters want the state to move on from this issue

By a combined total of 54%, voters say that Texas abortion laws should stay the same or be less restrictive, while only 33% are interested in more restrictions. This is consistent with findings from a Progress Texas poll in March that showed that 52% of Texans generally support abortion rights. If conservatives aren’t listening to the will of the voters, exactly who are they listening to?

“Pushing forward the most extreme abortion bans in the country is a purely political move that is not supported by the majority of Texans,” said Dyana Limon-Mercado, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. “These bills are part of a nationwide, extremist strategy to ban abortion by pushing access to care completely out of reach. HB 1515/SB 8 would outright ban abortion at six weeks — before many Texans even know they are pregnant — with no exceptions. For decades, politicians who have created medically unnecessary barriers to abortion access have simultaneously ignored the real health needs of every day Texans, such as Medicaid expansion, providing COVID-19 relief or addressing Black maternal mortality.”

Poll results: Full poll results including questions, responses, and crosstabs

The survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling from April 23-24, evenly divided between landline and text message, and includes responses from 593 registered Texas voters with a +/- 4% margin of error.

About Trust Respect Access The Trust Respect Access coalition envisions a Texas where everyone — regardless of their age, income, zip code, gender identity, immigration status, or whether they are incarcerated or detained — has access to all reproductive health care options including abortion.

The coalition includes: ACLU of Texas, The Afiya Center, Avow, Counter Balance, Deeds Not Words, Fund Texas Choice, Jane’s Due Process, Lilith Fund, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, Progress Texas, Texas Equal Access Fund, Texas Freedom Network, West Fund, Whole Woman’s Health, Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, and Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi.

You can see the polling data here. The sample seems reasonable – they reported voting 51-45 for Trump over Biden, and they give Biden a 43/48 approve/disapprove mark. The first abortion-related question asked was “Generally speaking, do you think that laws regarding abortion access in Texas should be more restrictive, less restrictive, or kept the same as current state law?”, and “more restrictive” was the plurality choice, with 33% picking that answer, to 31% for “less restrictive” and 23% for “kept the same”.

We have discussed before the challenges in polling about abortion – while basic attitudes towards Roe v Wade have been remarkably stable over time, you can get a lot of variance in polls by how questions are worded, and people can give answers that may appear to be contradictory. The questions in this poll accurately reflect what is in the bills that have been put forth, and I think the numbers are also an accurate reflection, but it’s important to remember two things. One is that in real life, the side that favors these bills gets a chance to describe them in terms they believe are more accurate (and thus favorable to them), and that will have an effect on how people perceive them. Two, even if people do ultimately reject the premise of these bills even after they are fully informed, that doesn’t mean they’ll vote in a manner that is consistent with that belief. People can and do put a higher priority on other things. Making them care enough about your thing, enough to change their voting behavior, is a tall, tall task.

I say this not to be a bummer, but to be a realist, and believe it or not to be a bit of an optimist for the longer term. The realist says that just because we may have opinion on our side on this issue doesn’t mean we’ll win the next election because of it. It’s more complicated than that, and while there are definitely people we can sway with this kind of argument, we need to be attuned to what is of higher value to them as well. There are two pieces of good news to accompany that. One is that public opinion is on our side of some other hot button issues, like permitless carry and voting restrictions and Medicaid expansion, so we have plenty of options to sway the folks who need to be swayed. The other is that once Democrats do have power in Texas, they can and should feel free to repeal these laws in bulk, for the same reason why the Republicans feel empowered to pass them: For the most part, it’s not what the voters will act on when they next express their preferences. We already know that to be true, and I expect it will still be true when we are in a position to act on it.

Houston police reform items announced

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday unveiled a sweeping effort to reform policing in Houston by banning no-knock warrants for non-violent offenses, restructuring the police oversight board, publicly releasing body camera footage when officers injure or kill residents, expanding diversion programs and allowing online and anonymous complaints against officers.

The reform package, which Turner outlined at a City Hall press conference with Police Chief Troy Finner and other city officials, comes nearly 11 months after the mayor appointed a task force to explore changes the city should make after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The group published a lengthy report last September that recommended 104 reforms to policing in Houston. Turner at the time said he supported “almost all” of the measures.

The city made more modest changes before and after it unveiled the report, such as an executive order curbing certain uses of force, “safe harbor” court to provide alternatives to jail for people who cannot afford to pay fines, and joining a cite-and-release program that gives citations instead of arrests for certain nonviolent crimes.

The slow pace in addressing big-ticket items, though, frustrated advocates looking for more immediate reforms. Turner sought to change that Thursday, addressing many of the central recommendations in the task force’s report. He said the city now has implemented more than half its suggestions.

Among the changes: a dashboard to track police misconduct and encounters while also accepting anonymous complaints; a revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff; the ban on no-knock warrants, one of which resulted in two civilian deaths and unearthed a major scandal for Houston police; and the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents.

The online complaint form, available in five languages, and data dashboards will be available by the end of May, Turner said. It will allow for anonymous complaints, which advocates have said is critical.

Scott Henson, executive director of justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said a similar change had a profound impact in Austin, where officers began anonymously reporting each other for infractions.

[…]

Turner also said he will use more than $25 million in federal pandemic relief dollars over three years to expand diversion programs, a key victory for some advocates who had called for the city to add mental health counselors to police responding to certain calls, or replace them altogether.

The diversion programs include Crisis Call Diversion, which directs certain 911 calls to mental health professionals with the goal of resolving an incident without a police response; Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, which dispatch mental health professionals without law enforcement; and Crisis Intervention Response Teams, which pair a mental health counselor with a police officer.

The mayor said the city will expand the call diversion program to around-the-clock coverage, at an annual cost of $272,140, and hire 18 new mobile crisis outreach teams at a cost of $4.3 million per year, as the task force recommended.

While the report called for 24 new crisis intervention teams, the city will hire six new teams to add to the current staff of 12, among other efforts.

“We do ask our police officers to do way too much, and put them in some very precarious situations where the outcomes sometimes are not positive,” Turner said.

See here for the previous update. Overall, this seems pretty good, and the announcement drew praise from CMs Letitia Plummer and Tarsha Jackson, who are among the leaders in pushing for reforms on City Council. Some advocates were more muted, but at least no one was quoted in the story with harsh criticism. It’s still early days, so we’ll see about that. The next step is in the implementation, which will be another measure of the commitment from the city, as well as an indication of if we’re going in the right direction and at the right pace. It’s a good start, now we need to take the next steps. The Press has more.

On the topic of criminal justice reform, there were also a couple of items of interest from the Lege. First, the George Floyd Act passed the House.

The Texas House on Thursday quickly gave preliminary approval to three police reform measures that are part of a sweeping set of legislation following the in-custody murder of George Floyd last year.

The bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more uniform and substantive disciplinary actions for officer misconduct, bar officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses and require corroboration of undercover officer testimony.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, lead author of the bills and the omnibus George Floyd Act, said the disciplinary measure was about fairness and accountability.

“The bill is by no means a cookie cutter process,” said Thompson, D-Houston. “Every case of officers’ misconduct is different. But so are other crimes in this state.”

The approved measures will head to the more conservative Senate after a final vote in the House. The upper chamber has also passed targeted pieces of Texas’ George Floyd Act — though only those that are also supported by police unions. The measure on officer discipline is strongly opposed by major police unions.

See here for some background. I am cautiously optimistic, but with the Senate working to pass permitless carry over the objections of law enforcement, I fear they’ll aim to appease them by watering down this bill. We’ll see.

Also from the Lege: Smaller penalties for pot possession passes the House.

The Texas House preliminarily approved a bill that would lower the criminal penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana and provide a path for many Texans charged with such a crime to expunge it from their criminal records. The bill applies to possession of one ounce or less — approximately two dime bags.

Currently in Texas, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, which can be punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. House Bill 441, authored by state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, would reduce possession of one ounce or less to a Class C misdemeanor, which carries no jail time. Police also wouldn’t be allowed to make arrests for possession at or under an ounce.

In a committee hearing, Zwiener said the language had been worked on with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and praised the “bipartisan conversation” over reducing possession penalties. The House passed a similar measure two years ago, but Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opposed it and quickly declared it dead in the upper chamber. Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I continue to believe that no measure of marijuana decriminalization will pass the Lege as long as Dan Patrick is in a position of power. I will be happy to be proven wrong about that.

No charges files in Capitol date rape drug incident

A not very satisfying resolution.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Travis County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday “that there is not enough evidence to support” an allegation that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer and that “no crime occurred in this instance.”

“DPS has conducted a thorough investigation following allegations of drugging of a Capitol staffer by a lobbyist,” the joint statement said. “Together, we have concluded that … criminal charges are not appropriate.”

The statement did not name the lobbyist, and officials have not offered further details — including the names of anyone allegedly involved — since DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Earlier this week though, after DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, Bill Miller, a co-founder of the prominent Austin-based HillCo Partners, told The Texas Tribune that one of its employees was “a person of interest” in the investigation.

In a statement after Thursday’s news, Miller said that neither the firm nor the employee “had absolutely anything to do with the” allegation and said “DPS found we are completely clear of any and all wrongdoing.”

“The announcement today confirms our own internal investigation into the issue,” Miller said. “We commend law enforcement for a forceful and swift investigation into this serious matter.

After news of the investigation surfaced Saturday, state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers expressed outrage, with many House members declaring that they planned to ban from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation. By Sunday, Buddy Jones, another co-founder of HillCo told state lawmakers in an email that the group had hired outside legal counsel and “a respected former law enforcement official” to launch an investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton, who said earlier this week they were representing a person” purportedly being looked into” for the investigation, said in a statement Thursday that the allegation was “100% false.”

“It is our opinion that the individual or individuals involved in this outrages and immoral scheme [of making the allegation] should be held accountable by their employers and then prosecuted by our new district attorney,” the two said.

See here and here for the background. You can see the full statement here. Saying there’s not enough evidence to support the allegations is not the same as saying that nothing bad happened – to say “no crime occurred” is a tautology, since that is exactly what it means to not bring charges. We have due process for a reason, and this is the result. Maybe nothing did happen, or at least nothing that was ill-intentioned. Maybe it was too late for a drug test to render a judgment, since rohypnol metabolizes quickly. Maybe this was just another powerful guy getting away with it. We’ll never know for sure. If the lobbyist in question, whose name has been released by one right wing website, is innocent then this really sucks for him, since this incident will always follow him around. It’s going to suck even more for the woman who made the allegation, especially if it was true.

Putting all that aside, and putting aside the bills that have been filed to try to do something about sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol, the one thing that seems clear is that little to nothing will change from a cultural perspective. Women aren’t going to be any more respected or valued at the Capitol, and the men who have been at the forefront of creating the hostile environment they work in – as well as the men and women who enable that environment – will not be held accountable. It’s aggravating, and I say that as a dude who has never been in a remotely similar position. My thoughts are with the woman who made the report, and with everyone who has ever gone through something like that. The Chron has more.

Alcohol to go passes both chambers

Off to get a signature.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday passed a measure to permanently allow Texans to purchase alcohol to-go from restaurants, advancing a shared goal of Gov. Greg Abbott and restaurateurs.

House Bill 1024which cleared the lower chamber last month, would allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery food orders, securing a revenue stream made available to restaurants in the last year during the pandemic intended to help those businesses when they closed their dining areas.

The Senate approved the legislation, filed by Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren, a restaurant owner in Fort Worth, in a 30-1 vote. The measure now heads to Abbott’s desk.

Abbott signed a waiver in March last year to allow to-go alcohol sales. The waiver was originally to last until May 2020, but it was extended indefinitely. As lawmakers began their work during the current legislative session, expanding Texans’ access to booze picked up bipartisan support.

“Making tools for alcohol-to-go permanent will accelerate the industry’s recovery, supporting thousands of jobs and small businesses along the way,” said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, laying out the bill Wednesday. “Once this provision was placed in through the pandemic, we saw restaurants that were closed down, open back up.”

See here for the background. Not much to say that I haven’t already said. It’s just nice to see at least one positive bill come out of the dumpster fire that is this session.