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And we already have our first COVID cases from the Lege

Surely not the last.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the casino push

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

Casino1

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

This Chron story from early December is the reference for those Andy Abboud quotes. We go through something like this every two years, and the smart money has always been to bet against any expansion of gambling, including casinos. The financial arguments have some merit, though they are surely being overblown by the casino interests. The catch there is that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick et al don’t see a lack of revenue as a problem but as an opportunity to cut costs. Maybe this time it’s different, I don’t know, though now that the revenue picture isn’t as bad as it once looked, whatever financial argument the casinos may have made has less heft. The casino interests have certainly hired a bunch of expensive and well-connected Republican lobbyists, so I do expect they’ll be able to get some facetime and bend a few ears. Maybe this is a long-term play, as Jim Henson suggests, where the groundwork gets laid this session and ultimate success comes a few years down the road. Who knows? I remain ambivalent on the whole thing – I don’t have a problem with gambling and generally think adults should be allowed to partake in it, but I don’t see casinos as a net positive, and I believe the economic benefits that get touted will be extremely limited to a small class of renters, and not much good to anyone else. If we do someday get to vote on it as a constitutional amendment, I’ll have to see what the specifics are before I decide. We’ll keep an eye on this because it’s likely a high tide year for gambling interests, but as always don’t expect much.

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

More on the Metro security robot

Looks like this is finally getting rolled out.

Typically, when a security guard weighs 400 pounds, it means they are not well suited for foot patrols. K5, however, was built for it.

Soon the spaceship-shaped sentries will roll into action at transit stops and continue keeping watch on a parking garage at Bush Intercontinental Airport, under tests to see if more mechanized monitoring can help people navigate places and provide a bit more security in spaces that could use an extra set of eyes.

Airport officials deployed two K5s, built by Silicon Valley-based Knightscope, in early December. In the coming weeks, once they are properly branded with logos, Metropolitan Transit Authority said it will roll out K5s at a park and ride lot and a transit center in the area. A stationary K1, also built by Knightscope, will be installed at a rail platform. Metro’s board approved a $270,000 contract with Knightscope about 11 months ago.

Robots likely will hit the beat in a few weeks, transit agency spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said. Officials have not confirmed the locations where the units will be deployed.

The intent at Bush, airport parking director Walt Gray said, is to see if the robots prove helpful addressing minor issues that come up in the garage, such as someone who cannot find their car or a traveler who returns with a trip to find a flat tire. A button on the robot can be pressed to speak directly with someone, with the robot able to pinpoint the exact location.

Gray said the robots are supplemental tools to on-site security, though airport officials could have bigger plans to let K5 loose in the terminals to help travelers with directions.

See here for the background. That contract was approved about a month before COVID shut everything down, so I presume that that is the reason why it took so long to get from contract approval to actual pilot test. I don’t have anything to add to what I said back then, I just look forward to the day when I can find myself on a rail platform and encounter one of these things.

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

The five-ninths rule

All hail the new “smaller than three-fifths” rule.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the minority party’s ability to block legislation it unanimously opposes in the Republican-controlled upper chamber.

In a 18-13 vote, lawmakers voted to lower the threshold of support that legislation needs to make it onto the Senate floor. In past sessions, the Senate required a three-fifths supermajority, or 19 votes, to bring legislation to the floor. But after the defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, reduced the number of Republicans from 19 to 18, lawmakers lowered the threshold to 18 members — a move Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing for.

Passage of the rule required a simple majority — or 16 members. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted that the resolution passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans on the floor hailed the move. Patrick, who presides over the Senate, first floated the idea of lowering the threshold last January, later contending in December that the 2020 election proved voters support conservative candidates and that he planned on “moving a conservative agenda forward.”

[…]

In introducing the resolution, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said: “I believe our tradition of requiring a supermajority is good and we should retain it, but … it’s my view that there are enough big items that the majority of Texans have asked for that would be blocked with a 19-vote requirement, which would put us in a special session where we have no control over the agenda.” (To be clear, only Gov. Greg Abbott can call lawmakers back for a special legislative session.)

While the procedure may sound like parliamentary arcana, the impact could spell trouble for Democrats. The change essentially allows Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without the minority party’s input.

See here and here for the background. As you know, I oppose having artificial anti-majoritarian rules in place, for reasons you can peruse at those earlier posts. I have no illusions that this will be a good thing in this session. It’s going to suck, bigtime. I totally get all the complaints that the Democratic Senators have raised. I just disagree with them about the merits of this tradition.

One thing that was not clear to me, from this story or from the Chron story, was just exactly how this new, lower threshold for bypassing the blocker bill was to be determined. As noted in my previous post, the fraction used could be 5/9, or it could be 4/7, or it could just be “minimum eighteen Senators needed”. Neither of these stories explored that or the potential ramifications of it – I’ll get to that in a minute – but I eventually found it in Senate Resolution 2, the text of which is here (hat tip to Kimberly Reeves for providing the vital #SR2 hash tag that gave me the clue I needed to find this):

Any bill, resolution, or other measure may on any day be made a special order for a future time of the session by an affirmative vote of five-ninths [three-fifths] of the members present.

Further references to “three-fifths” were similarly struck and replaced by “five-ninths”. What this means is that on any day where there’s a full complement of Senators, eighteen votes are needed to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. That’s because, in math terms, 5/9 < 18/31. With a three-fifth requirement, 19 was the magic number (again, 3/5 < 19/31, but 18/31 < 3/5). The reason I'm obsessing over how this was officially expressed is because of the likelihood that at any point in the session, one or more Senators could be sidelined by COVID. If a Republican Senator is out, they're out of luck as long as the Dems are at full strength (17/30 < 5/9). They would need two Dems to be out to make the math work (5/9 < 17/29). Under normal circumstances, you'd shrug your shoulders and say these things happen, but in Pandemic Times, with the Republicans being very devil-may-care about masks, the risk of a self-own is higher than usual. This is one of the reasons why I thought Dan Patrick would give up on the fractions and just push a rule that does away with the pretense and enables majority rule. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be conservative in this sense, but here we are. We’ll see how it plays out.

Ken Paxton couldn’t be more on brand if he tried

News item: Texas laws protecting whistleblowers don’t apply to Attorney General Ken Paxton, his agency argues in bid to quash lawsuit. Who among us didn’t already know that Ken Paxton doesn’t think the law applies to him?

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s Office is attempting to fight off efforts by four former aides to take depositions and issue subpoenas in their lawsuit claiming they were illegally fired after telling authorities they believed Attorney General Ken Paxton was breaking the law.

The agency is arguing that Paxton is “not a public employee” and thus the office cannot be sued under the Texas Whistleblower Act, which aims to protect government workers from retaliation when they report superiors for breaking the law.

Four former Paxton aides claim they were fired in retaliation for telling authorities they believed Paxton had done illegal favors for a political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul. The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation.

In seeking reinstatement and other financial damages, the whistleblowers want to question Paxton himself under oath, as well as Brent Webster, his top deputy at the attorney general’s office, and Brandon Cammack, a Houston lawyer Paxton hired to investigate complaints made by Paul in what aides say was a favor to the donor. They also issued subpoenas to Paul’s company and a woman alleged to have been Paxton’s mistress.

[…]

The whistleblowers sought to question Paxton, Webster and Cammack under oath as soon as next week. Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, accepted the subpoenas for both World Class and the woman, court documents show. She could not be reached for comment and Wynne did not return a request for comment.

But in a filing last week, the attorney general’s office asked the judge to quash the depositions and the subpoenas, and prevent the whistleblowers from conducting any discovery.

“The OAG is doing everything they can muster to avoid having Ken Paxton answer basic questions under oath about the facts,” said Carlos Soltero, an attorney for one of the whistleblowers.

Instead, the agency said, the Travis County judge should dismiss the case entirely on procedural grounds.

The Texas Whistleblower Act — the basis for the lawsuit — is designed to provide protection for public employees who, in good faith, tell authorities they believe their superiors are breaking the law. But the attorney general’s office claims the agency cannot be sued under the law because Paxton is an elected official.

“The Attorney General is neither a governmental entity nor a public employee and, thus, the Whistleblower Act does not extend protection to reports of unlawful conduct made against the Attorney General personally,” the agency argued. “The Act does not apply… for reports made about actions taken personally by the elected Attorney General.”

Comparing Paxton’s authority to that of the president of the United States, the agency claimed that the attorney general had the right to fire the employees, despite their claims of retaliation.

Under that theory, “he’s saying that elected officials aren’t accountable” for violating the Whistleblower Act, said Jason Smith, a North Texas employment attorney who has handled whistleblower cases.

“It appears that General Paxton is trying to get off on a technicality that doesn’t exist,” he added.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have anything clever to add here, just that I hope this defense is as successful as his lawsuit to overturn the Presidential election was.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would he condemn something he supported?

We know who and what Ken Paxton is.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton is the only state attorney general to decline to join letters over the past week condemning the Capitol riot.

In a Jan. 12 letter, 50 state and territorial attorneys general who belong to the National Association of Attorneys General denounced the “lawless violence.” The three remaining state attorneys general not included in that letter wrote their own Wednesday, leaving Paxton as the only holdout.

Paxton is a staunch Trump supporter who co-chaired the re-election group Lawyers for Trump. He spoke at the “Save America” rally at the Capitol in the hours prior to the riot last week, telling the crowds “we will not quit fighting” to overturn the election results. Neither Paxton’s office nor his campaign spokesman responded to requests for comment.

“The events of January 6 represent a direct, physical challenge to the rule of law and our democratic republic itself,” the Jan. 12 letter read. “Together, we will continue to do our part to repair the damage done to institutions and build a more perfect union. As Americans, and those charged with enforcing the law, we must come together to condemn lawless violence, making clear that such actions will not be allowed to go unchecked.”

In a separate letter Wednesday, the attorneys general of Indiana, Montana and Louisiana wrote: “In all forms and all instances, violent acts carried out in the name of political ideology have no place in any of our United States.”

To be fair, you can’t expect a serial lawbreaker to venerate the rule of law. It just gets in his way. Also, that “rally” he was at was organized in part by people who also helped organize the storming of the Capitol. Like I said, why would he condemn something he supports?

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, which contains this bit of tangential business at the end:

On Wednesday, Paxton’s office was also hit with the loss of one of its top staffers.

Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins is leaving the agency, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. The exit comes in the wake of a scandal at the agency, and also Paxton’s controversial lawsuit at the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn the election results, which Hawkins — the agency’s appellate expert — did not sign onto. Hawkins has not answered questions about his decision to leave or why his name did not appear on the case.

Perhaps some day we’ll hear that story. In the meantime, chalk this up as another example of Ken Paxton being bad at his job.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price not running for re-election

Here now is the most interesting election for May 2021.

Betsy Price

Betsy Price, the longest serving mayor in Fort Worth’s history, will not seek another term after a decade in office.

Price made the announcement that she wouldn’t run for an unprecedented sixth term Tuesday at City Hall, ending speculation about whether her time leading the city would continue and creating the most contested race for mayor since she ran in 2011. Campaign filing opens Jan. 13.

“You know, serving as mayor has been one of the greatest joys of my life, next to having my children and my grandchildren. It’s been amazing,” Price, slightly choked up, said as she announced she would step aside.

Price, 71, did not immediately say what her future political aspirations might hold, but noted she still has “that Energizer Bunny energy and passion.” She said in the short term she’ll focus on spending time with her family. She also declined to make an endorsement in the May election.

[…]

She served as Tarrant County tax assessor for 10 years before running in 2011 and faced little opposition in following elections. In 2019 she bested Democratic Party Chairwoman Deborah Peoples by 14 points in an election that saw all nine council members reelected. Turnout in Tarrant County was about 9%.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, who has been on the council the longest, watched Price’s speech from the back of the council chamber. Councilmen Dennis Shingleton, Carlos Flores and Cary Moon were also seen at the event.

“I hate to see Betsy go,” Jordan said. “She’s been a great face for our city, even nationally.”

There are a number of potential mayoral candidates.

Tarrant County Democratic Chairwoman Deborah Peoples, 68, was Price’s strongest opponent in 2019. She has said for months she’ll make another bid, but hedged her commitment in a message to the Star-Telegram last week, saying she wanted to meet with her family and campaign team.

Following Price’s announcement Tuesday, Peoples said she would run.

There are other names out there, and you can read the rest for more of that and more on Mayor Price’s career. I don’t know a whole lot about here and have no opinion to offer of her tenure, but I wish her all the best in her next phase.

I am of course interested in this election, for all the obvious reasons. Daily Kos does a lot of the leg work here.

Republican Mayor Betsy Price announced Tuesday that she would not seek a sixth two-year term in the May 1 nonpartisan primary. Price, who is Fort Worth’s longest-serving chief executive, is also one of just two Republicans to lead any of the nation’s 20 largest cities. (The other is Lenny Curry, the mayor of Jacksonville, Florida.) The candidate filing deadline is Feb. 12, so Price’s potential successors will only have a little time to decide what they’ll do. All the contenders will face off on one nonpartisan ballot in May, and a runoff would take place later if no one took a majority of the vote.

Price was decisively elected in 2011 to succeed retiring Democratic Mayor Mike Moncrief, and she won her next three campaigns without any trouble. Politics in Fort Worth’s Tarrant County has been changing over the last few years, though, and Team Blue was encouraged by 2018 victories up and down the ballot. Price faced a serious challenge the following year from Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples, and while the incumbent won 56-42, the margin was considerably closer than any of Price’s other re-election campaigns.

The 2020 presidential results give Democrats some reasons for optimism about the race to succeed Price: Joe Biden won Tarrant County by a narrow 49.3-49.1, a showing that made him the first Democrat to carry the county since Texan Lyndon Johnson took it in his 1964 landslide.

Peoples has been preparing for a second campaign for a while, and she confirmed on Tuesday that she was inRepublican City Councilman Brian Byrd also said just before the Price’s announcement that he’d be running if the incumbent didn’t, while his Democratic colleague Ann Zadeh also expressed interest. Attorney Dee Kelly, who called himself a friend of Price’s, also said he’d consider an open seat race, while Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero also didn’t dismiss the idea on Tuesday. Romero, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, said, “I believe it would be irresponsible for any leader of a community of color across the city to prematurely rule out a run.”

We’ll see who else gets in. Rep. Romero would be an interesting candidate, but he’d almost certainly have to resign to make a serious run at it, and I don’t know that he’ll want to do that. But he might, so stay tuned. An odd year election, especially in May, is a very different dynamic than a Presidential year election, so Tarrant County’s shift doesn’t tell us anything about how Fort Worth, which among other things has less than half the population of Tarrant County. I’d love to see an analysis of how Fort Worth proper voted in 2020 and 2018, but even knowing that, we have to acknowledge the vast differences in turnout conditions. If you’re from Fort Worth and have any thoughts on this, please let us know.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 11

The Texas Progressive Alliance calls for the swift prosecution and punishment of everyone involved in the violent assault on the Capitol as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Precinct analysis: Tax Assessor 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff

Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett is the third incumbent from 2016 running for re-election. Like Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, she improved her performance pretty significantly from four years ago. Unlike either Gonzalez or DA Kim Ogg, she came off a close race – she was actually trailing after early voting, and did just well enough on Election Day to pull out a eight thousand vote victory. In 2020, she won by ten points, with a Libertarian candidate also in the mix. Here’s how 2020 looked for Bennett:


Dist    Daniel  Bennett     Lib Daniel%Bennett%   Lib%
======================================================
CD02   174,454  151,148  11,516  51.15%  44.32%  3.38%
CD07   148,007  146,906   9,535  47.97%  47.62%  3.09%
CD08    24,960   14,786   1,419  59.88%  35.47%  3.40%
CD09    35,972  117,815   4,676  22.43%  73.47%  2.92%
CD10    98,983   58,837   5,631  59.77%  35.53%  3.40%
CD18    57,057  175,920   8,077  23.44%  72.28%  3.32%
CD22    20,650   19,913   1,660  48.18%  46.46%  3.87%
CD29    46,205  101,024   4,961  30.09%  65.80%  3.23%
CD36    79,503   48,053   4,570  59.41%  35.91%  3.42%
						
SBOE4  100,919  330,636  13,852  22.66%  74.23%  3.11%
SBOE6  374,836  342,677  24,239  50.53%  46.20%  3.27%
SBOE8  210,036  161,090  13,954  54.54%  41.83%  3.62%
						
SD04    53,982   22,540   2,570  68.25%  28.50%  3.25%
SD06    53,863  117,046   5,997  30.45%  66.16%  3.39%
SD07   227,833  169,249  13,705  55.46%  41.20%  3.34%
SD11    74,156   46,328   4,608  59.28%  37.04%  3.68%
SD13    36,043  156,250   5,976  18.18%  78.81%  3.01%
SD15   110,239  189,765  10,747  35.48%  61.07%  3.46%
SD17   115,088  121,733   7,376  47.13%  49.85%  3.02%
SD18    14,587   11,494   1,066  53.73%  42.34%  3.93%
						
HD126   37,713   32,939   2,327  51.68%  45.13%  3.19%
HD127   52,360   34,525   3,193  58.13%  38.33%  3.54%
HD128   46,291   22,223   2,192  65.47%  31.43%  3.10%
HD129   46,005   34,465   3,291  54.92%  41.15%  3.93%
HD130   67,940   31,860   3,420  65.82%  30.87%  3.31%
HD131    9,557   43,780   1,586  17.40%  79.71%  2.89%
HD132   48,284   47,303   3,782  48.59%  47.60%  3.81%
HD133   49,924   35,385   2,408  56.91%  40.34%  2.75%
HD134   48,604   55,747   2,949  45.30%  51.95%  2.75%
HD135   34,905   36,408   2,567  47.25%  49.28%  3.47%
HD137    9,845   20,352   1,178  31.38%  64.87%  3.75%
HD138   30,750   30,377   2,169  48.58%  47.99%  3.43%
HD139   14,994   44,096   1,832  24.61%  72.38%  3.01%
HD140    8,661   21,724   1,000  27.60%  69.22%  3.19%
HD141    6,617   35,561   1,217  15.25%  81.95%  2.80%
HD142   13,268   41,110   1,631  23.69%  73.40%  2.91%
HD143   11,211   24,369   1,121  30.55%  66.40%  3.05%
HD144   12,895   16,646   1,072  42.12%  54.38%  3.50%
HD145   14,110   26,467   1,630  33.43%  62.71%  3.86%
HD146   10,878   42,506   1,661  19.76%  77.22%  3.02%
HD147   14,762   51,621   2,518  21.42%  74.92%  3.65%
HD148   21,733   35,555   2,479  36.36%  59.49%  4.15%
HD149   20,767   30,361   1,522  39.44%  57.67%  2.89%
HD150   53,716   39,022   3,300  55.93%  40.63%  3.44%
						
CC1     89,315  274,496  11,676  23.79%  73.10%  3.11%
CC2    143,799  143,691  10,434  48.27%  48.23%  3.50%
CC3    220,064  206,206  14,217  49.96%  46.81%  3.23%
CC4    232,613  210,012  15,718  50.75%  45.82%  3.43%
						
JP1     90,963  160,043   8,734  35.02%  61.62%  3.36%
JP2     32,249   48,712   2,804  38.50%  58.15%  3.35%
JP3     49,382   67,843   3,512  40.90%  56.19%  2.91%
JP4    226,115  182,066  14,185  53.54%  43.11%  3.36%
JP5    196,782  210,577  13,981  46.70%  49.98%  3.32%
JP6      7,542   26,611   1,383  21.22%  74.88%  3.89%
JP7     17,840   98,244   3,456  14.92%  82.19%  2.89%
JP8     64,918   40,309   3,990  59.44%  36.91%  3.65%

Bennett’s 834K vote total was the lowest among the non-judicial countywide candidates, and only ahead of five judicial candidates. Thanks in part to the 52K votes that the Libertarian candidate received, however, she led challenger and former District Clerk Chris Daniel by over 148K votes, which is one of the bigger margins. If you want to examine the belief that Libertarian candidates mostly take votes away from Republicans, look at some of the district totals, especially HDs like 132, 135, and 138. We can’t know for sure how Daniel might have done in a two-person race, but it seems reasonable to me to say he’d have improved at least somewhat. Bennett did about as well as you’d expect someone who got 53% of the vote would do. If the final score would have been closer in a two-person race, it’s not because she’d have received fewer votes or gotten a lower percentage.

Here’s the 2016 comparison, in which Bennett knocked off incumbent Mike Sullivan. She trailed by about five thousand votes when the totals were first displayed on Election Night, with Sullivan having slight leads in both mail ballots and in person early votes – yes, that’s right, Republicans used to try to compete on mail ballots – but got nearly 52% of the Election Day vote, which was a big enough part of the vote to push her over the top.


Dist  Sullivan  Bennett  Sullivan%  Bennett%
============================================
CD02   168,936  105,778     61.50%    38.50%
CD07   147,165  106,727     57.96%    42.04%
CD09    29,855  103,511     22.39%    77.61%
CD10    83,213   34,795     70.51%    29.49%
CD18    53,558  148,586     26.49%    73.51%
CD29    41,555   88,942     31.84%    68.16%
				
SBOE6  357,083  249,953     58.82%    41.18%
				
HD126   37,003   24,186     60.47%    39.53%
HD127   50,028   23,460     68.08%    31.92%
HD128   42,659   16,238     72.43%    27.57%
HD129   44,072   24,777     64.01%    35.99%
HD130   60,429   20,277     74.88%    25.12%
HD131    8,121   37,906     17.64%    82.36%
HD132   39,094   29,321     57.14%    42.86%
HD133   50,116   25,241     66.50%    33.50%
HD134   49,352   39,410     55.60%    44.40%
HD135   33,528   26,112     56.22%    43.78%
HD137    9,664   17,099     36.11%    63.89%
HD138   28,827   22,096     56.61%    43.39%
HD139   13,707   38,266     26.37%    73.63%
HD140    7,556   19,790     27.63%    72.37%
HD141    5,934   32,109     15.60%    84.40%
HD142   11,599   33,182     25.90%    74.10%
HD143   10,372   22,294     31.75%    68.25%
HD144   11,810   15,188     43.74%    56.26%
HD145   12,669   21,519     37.06%    62.94%
HD146   11,323   36,903     23.48%    76.52%
HD147   14,119   43,254     24.61%    75.39%
HD148   20,434   26,999     43.08%    56.92%
HD149   16,639   26,389     38.67%    61.33%
HD150   50,472   25,358     66.56%    33.44%
				
CC1     82,916  231,040     26.41%    73.59%
CC2    134,067  117,084     53.38%    46.62%
CC3    202,128  149,943     57.41%    42.59%
CC4    220,415  149,294     59.62%    40.38%

Again, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, but as Mike Sullivan nearly hung on, you can see what an almost-successful Republican looked like in 2016. Note the margins he had in CDs 02 and 07, and the various now-competitive State Rep districts. I mean, Sullivan won HD134 by eleven points. He won CC4 by almost 20 points, and CC3 by fifteen. We don’t live in that world now.

What is the direction of voting by mail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaccine roundup

Just a few news stories (and a Twitter thread) of interest from recent days.

How do you get a COVID-19 vaccine? In Texas’ rollout, it’s a game of luck and chance

Still, the contrast shows just how sharp and seemingly random the divide has emerged between those who are able to get the vaccine easily and those who cannot. In the fourth week of Texas’ vaccine rollout, a dermatology practice in Bellaire got 300 doses while Hope Clinic, which serves Houston’s poor and immigrant communities, got 100, according to the state’s most current list.

County registration hotlines have crashed under the volume of applicants while some doctors reported fielding calls from friends asking how to move to the front of the line.

In the month since the vaccines got federal approval, getting them into arms of the most vulnerable has been anything but smooth. Distribution has lagged. Demand has far outstripped supply. Critics call it yet another chapter in the failed government response to a virus that arrived nearly a year ago.

“There does seem to be no discernible distinction between those who are getting the vaccine and those who aren’t,” said Elena Marks, CEO of Houston’s Episcopal Health Foundation, an organization that works to improve health care access for poor.

Such unevenness is happening not just among the public but also within the medical community. At some small and midsize private practices, access to the vaccine remains elusive for front-line health care workers who regularly treat COVID patients, doctors say. Yet employees of large medical practices and big-name facilities are vaccinating staff that is not in direct contact with patients and in some cases working from home.

Clogged phone lines and ethical dilemmas: Texas health providers scramble to roll out vaccine with little state guidance

Texas has largely left the vaccine rollout process in the hands of local providers like Tarrytown Pharmacy, one of more than 1,000 providers approved to vaccinate Texans. And outside of dictating the first two groups allowed to receive it, providers say the state has given little instruction or information on when allotments will arrive, how immunization operations should be organized and what principles ought to be followed in prioritizing within groups 1A and 1B.

As they spearhead vaccination in a state of 29 million people, hospitals, pharmacies and community health centers alike across Texas built new scheduling systems from scratch, struggled to sync their patient information systems with the state’s and answered to an increasingly anxious public wondering when their turn for the shot will come — all while helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic during its highest peak in Texas.

“Every space I have is booked. I have phones going off the hook saying, ‘Where’s mine?’” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive for the Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. “The demand is insatiable right now. Everybody wants it today, and we just don’t have enough vaccines. It will take months.”

The state’s initial allocation of 1.2 million doses had been shipped by Jan. 3, according to state health officials, and another January shipment was expected to bring the state’s total allotment to 1.7 million. That’s still hundreds of thousands of doses short of the roughly 1.9 million necessary to provide just a first dose of vaccine to those Texas health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities eligible in group 1A.

But before many of those first in line had received a dose, the state allowed providers to start administering the vaccine to the second group — about 8 million people older than 65 or at least 16 with certain medical conditions. A Department of State Health Services official said there is some overlap between groups 1A and 1B (doctors and other health care workers over age 65, for example).

The sudden announcement to open vaccinations to the second group — just a week after the first distribution of vaccines for the first group — caught many providers off guard.

“It was in response to all of the chatter and angst to ‘Oh my God, they haven’t given all their vaccines out,’ and it’s been five days,” said McCarthy of Memorial Hermann. “I thought we would get all the health care workers done, and then we would move on. I didn’t think we’d be doing them simultaneously.”

Greg Abbott’s Politics Create a Vaccine Stampede

But Texas decided to do things differently than the CDC. While the state’s designated first tier matched that of the feds, its second tier included all Texans age 65 and older, as well as those with preexisting health conditions that make them vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19. This approach put lower priority on police and younger essential workers, like grocery clerks or restaurant servers, many of whom were bitter about the state’s decision. Then, just before the new year, Governor Greg Abbott and his state health department changed the game further. On December 29, state health commissioner John Hellerstedt ordered providers to start vaccinating those in the second tier immediately, even though many in the first tier remained unvaccinated. Abbott backed him up in a tweet: “The state urges vaccine providers to quickly provide all shots.”

In an instant, I effectively had been moved to the front of the vaccination line. The problem was finding where that line began. Abbott had started a stampede.

There were too many eligible people chasing too little vaccine. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported that it had received 1.3 million doses. But Abbott had authorized another 8 million people to receive the vaccine even though providers weren’t anywhere near finished inoculating the 1.9 million Texans in what was supposed to be the first-tier priority group. Abbott’s declaration got too many in the state (even those under 65 and without any severe health conditions) thinking vaccines were more widely available. With few providers actually offering shots to the general public, the Hunger Games of vaccination had begun.

Advocates worry vaccines will be out of reach for Black and Hispanic neighborhoods devastated by COVID-19

COVID-19 has been disproportionately deadly for communities of color in Texas. And advocates for those communities are worried that they will have more trouble accessing vaccinations than the white population because of where vaccination sites are located.

“We already saw huge disparities in death rates and people getting [coronavirus] infections, and there wasn’t availability of resources like health care for brown and Black communities suffering tremendously,” said Kazique Prince, interim executive director for the Central Texas Collective for Racial Equity, a nonprofit association based in Austin. “I’m very nervous and anxious that this [vaccination effort] is not going to work out for us.”

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services data, more than half of the fatalities in Texas due to COVID-19 have been Hispanic individuals and almost 10% have been Black people. Yet the state’s designated vaccination sites — mostly hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and pharmacies — are concentrated in more affluent areas where those facilities tend to be located.

And, just as a reminder:

Health officials in Austin are considering opening a makeshift hospital as its intensive care units fill up. Patients in North Texas are being treated in lobbies or in hallways. And hospitals around Laredo, Abilene and College Station have three or fewer intensive care unit beds open, according to state data.

A week into the new year, hospitalizations in Texas have well-surpassed a deadly summer wave that overwhelmed health care workers in the Rio Grande Valley. Health experts have long warned of a dark winter — with a public tired of following safety precautions, a raging pandemic and cold weather drawing people indoors where the virus can more easily spread. Add to that holiday gatherings and increased levels of travel, which health officials say are already being reflected in the growing numbers of hospitalized coronavirus patients.

New year, same story. We deserve so much better. We’ll get better soon from the federal government. When will we get it from our state government?

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

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

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

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

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

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

There was also this.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott speaks about the vaccination effort

It’s going great! We swear!

More than 877,000 Texans have received a COVID-19 vaccine since they first began arriving in Texas nearly four weeks ago, and that number is expected to increase by at least 50,000 more per day, Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday.

“Never before in the history of this state has Texas vaccinated so many people so quickly, “ Abbott said during remarks at the Esports Stadium Arlington & Expo Center, a newly-designated “vaccination hub” that local health officials said can vaccinate thousands per day. “It’s stunning to see what we’ve accomplished.”

The Arlington center, home to the city’s mass vaccination effort since December, is among 28 sites designed by the state as hubs.

“Our goal is, by the end of the week, we have no vaccines left,” said Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley. The county’s health district was allotted 9,000 doses in the most recent shipment this week.

The hubs are meant to streamline vaccinations at a time when the state is seeing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. Texas continues to prioritize vaccinating health care workers, people who are 65 and older, and those with medical conditions that increase their risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the virus.

The large sites will receive most of the state’s next shipment of 158,825 COVID-19 vaccine doses this week. Just over 38,000 doses will go to 206 additional providers across the state, including several in rural counties that until recently had not received an allotment.

Officials promise bigger allotments in the weeks and months to come, but a patchwork local system of vaccine distribution, among other issues, has created a tumultuous rollout to the long-awaited vaccine.

On Monday, Abbott said Texas expects to see an additional 310,000 first doses per week for the rest of January and up to 500,000 second doses earmarked for those who have already received the injection in Texas. Continued increases are expected, Abbott said, depending on the federal government allotments.

[…]

The data on the number of doses administered has a reporting lag of at least two days, Abbott said, but added that Texans will start to see a significant uptick in those numbers as this week’s vaccinations are reported.

“You are going to see those numbers increase, as it turns out, somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 per day,” Abbott said.

Texas Health Commissioner John Hellerstedt said the rate and scale of the state’s rollout has been “a really amazing operation” and said the creation of the hubs would ratchet up the rate of administration.

“Through the kind of vaccination operation we see here, we’re very confident it’s going to accelerate here even more,” Hellerstedt said. “It is really the way forward.”

That’s a lot of number being thrown at us. For sure, 50K per day is a big improvement over the “100K per week” we were at earlier in the year. That was a six-years-to-full-vaccinations pace, whereas 50K per day will get everyone vaccinated in 20 months. At the promised high end of 75K per day, we’re at about 13 months. Still not great – we sure would like to finish this task before 2022, wouldn’t we? – but at least in a timeframe we can envision. Note though that we are not at that pace yet – the 310K first doses per week rate is less than 50K per day, and puts us back at an almost-two-years duration. Again, I do expect things will get better, assuming of course that Abbott and the rest of our state leaders don’t reject federal assistance in the name of stupid partisan politics, but every week it takes us to get up to speed is that much longer to get to where we want to be. The hub approach is a sensible model, but it’s going to take a lot of effort and resources to make it work.

The Minute Maid mega-vaccine center

More like this, please.

The city partnered with the Astros organization to transform [Minute Maid Park] into a site to provide the Moderna vaccine to up to 3,600 health care workers, residents ages 65 and older, and patients with underlying medical conditions. Vaccine distribution was moved from the Bayou City Event Center, which was needed for a different event, giving the city a sneak peek at how the stadium would operate as a mega-site when it officially opens in the coming week.

Divided into three sections, the stadium’s lower level was reserved for the elderly and those with mobility challenges. Volunteers first led participants to a section to complete additional paperwork for the vaccine, then to a waiting area and the official vaccination stations, and finally, an observation area, where health workers watched for any adverse or allergic reactions at least 15 minutes.

[…]

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner, who toured the site, greeting residents with fist and elbow bumps and encouraging volunteers and essential workers, said Minute Maid Park is the largest vaccination site that the city has hosted so far — inoculating 350 people an hour and tripling the total amount of people vaccinated last Saturday at the Bayou City Event Center.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who attended an afternoon press conference at the ballpark, said it’s also the first model of a mega-site in the country, which could serve as an example for other major cities also looking to establish similar sites.

The outcome, however, was more than Turner and health officials had originally expected.

The city had around 1,000 doses of the vaccine as of Thursday and decided to scale back vaccinations for the weekend when a delivery was not received, but by Friday morning, the city unexpectedly received an additional 2,600 vaccines, Turner said. The city and the Houston Health Department quickly switched gears, scheduling appointments with people who had pre-registered to ensure that the vaccine was distributed and not sitting, wasted on shelves. They also opened up registration, receiving an additional 1,000 applicants within 20 minutes, Turner said.

Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations, said the stadium had already begun preparing earlier in the week and officials were confident in the infrastructure.

“It was more about the logistical flow” and ensuring that there was enough physical space within the building to allow for social distancing in waiting areas and immunization pods, Braithwaite said.

This is great, and as a proof of concept it’s clear that this model can work well. I meant it literally when I said “more like this”, because we’re going to need to replicate this on a much bigger scale in order to make progress against COVID. Remember what I said about the scope of the problem. There’s nearly five million people in Harris County. If we want to get everyone vaccinated by the end of the year, we need to be doing over sixteen thousand inoculations per day, every day. That means we need the equivalent of five of these mega-centers, again operating every day. We need them to be accessible by public transit, we need them open at night so as to get people who can’t get off work (remember those 24-hour early voting centers we had last year? Like that), we need them to take all comers whether they have insurance or a personal physician or access to the Internet to make an appointment, we need people working at these locations who speak a broad variety of languages, and we need all of the personnel for this to be local, both to minimize COVID risk (so no one has to travel) and because literally everywhere else will be doing the same thing so we can’t expect to bring in volunteers from other places. Oh, and baseball season will start in April, so at some point Minute Maid becomes unavailable. How’s all that sound? It’s what we need. And we’re going to need a highly-functional federal government, as well as a much better response from the state government, to have a chance.

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precinct analysis: Sheriff 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney

Behold your 2020 vote champion in Harris County: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, running for his second term in office. I’ll get into the details of Gonzalez’s domination in a minute. Here are the numbers for 2020:


Dist     Danna  Gonzalez    Danna%  Gonzalez%
=============================================
CD02   170,422   166,902    50.52%     49.48%
CD07   141,856   162,417    46.62%     53.38%
CD08    24,788    16,406    60.17%     39.83%
CD09    35,308   122,871    22.32%     77.68%
CD10    98,458    65,239    60.15%     39.85%
CD18    54,869   186,236    22.76%     77.24%
CD22    20,466    21,710    48.53%     51.47%
CD29    43,503   109,304    28.47%     71.53%
CD36    79,327    52,648    60.11%     39.89%
				
SBOE4   96,435   349,282    21.64%     78.36%
SBOE6  363,916   378,161    49.04%     50.96%
SBOE8  208,646   176,291    54.20%     45.80%
				
SD04    53,758    25,277    68.02%     31.98%
SD06    50,944   126,617    28.69%     71.31%
SD07   224,433   186,884    54.56%     45.44%
SD11    74,078    50,852    59.30%     40.70%
SD13    35,054   162,823    17.72%     82.28%
SD15   106,009   204,899    34.10%     65.90%
SD17   110,189   133,749    45.17%     54.83%
SD18    14,532    12,635    53.49%     46.51%
				
HD126   36,979    36,165    50.56%     49.44%
HD127   51,960    38,105    57.69%     42.31%
HD128   46,345    24,235    65.66%     34.34%
HD129   45,743    37,938    54.66%     45.34%
HD130   67,658    35,780    65.41%     34.59%
HD131    9,271    45,531    16.92%     83.08%
HD132   47,705    51,772    47.96%     52.04%
HD133   47,629    39,951    54.38%     45.62%
HD134   44,590    62,513    41.63%     58.37%
HD135   34,389    39,591    46.48%     53.52%
HD137    9,680    21,648    30.90%     69.10%
HD138   30,004    33,385    47.33%     52.67%
HD139   14,623    46,351    23.98%     76.02%
HD140    8,109    23,412    25.73%     74.27%
HD141    6,449    36,900    14.88%     85.12%
HD142   12,684    43,278    22.67%     77.33%
HD143   10,463    26,455    28.34%     71.66%
HD144   12,685    17,965    41.39%     58.61%
HD145   13,322    29,035    31.45%     68.55%
HD146   10,562    44,351    19.23%     80.77%
HD147   13,955    54,824    20.29%     79.71%
HD148   20,375    39,637    33.95%     66.05%
HD149   20,574    32,068    39.08%     60.92%
HD150   53,242    42,844    55.41%     44.59%
				
CC1     85,139   289,925    22.70%     77.30%
CC2    141,416   156,934    47.40%     52.60%
CC3    214,450   226,063    48.68%     51.32%
CC4    227,992   230,814    49.69%     50.31%
				
JP1     84,929   174,954    32.68%     67.32%
JP2     31,274    52,644    37.27%     62.73%
JP3     48,485    72,207    40.17%     59.83%
JP4    223,758   199,021    52.93%     47.07%
JP5    191,671   229,696    45.49%     54.51%
JP6      6,846    28,930    19.14%     80.86%
JP7     17,135   102,122    14.37%     85.63%
JP8     64,899    44,162    59.51%     40.49%

Only Joe Biden (918,193) got more votes than Sheriff Ed (903,736) among Dems that had a Republican opponent; District Court Judge Michael Gomez (868,327) was next in line. Gonzalez’s 235K margin of victory, and his 57.46% of the vote were easily the highest. He carried SBOE6, HD132, HD138, and all four Commissioners Court precincts, while coming close in CD02 and HD126. He even made SD07, HD133, and JP4 look competitive.

How dominant was Ed Gonzalez in 2020? He got more votes in their district than the following Democratic incumbents:

CD07: Gonzalez 162,417, Lizzie Fletcher 159,529
CD18: Gonzalez 186,236, Sheila Jackson Lee 180,952
SD13: Gonzalez 162,823, Borris Miles 159,936
HD135: Gonzalez 39,591, Jon Rosenthal 36,760
HD142: Gonzalez 43,278, Harold Dutton 42,127
HD144: Gonzalez 17,965, Mary Ann Perez 17,516
HD145: Gonzalez 29,035, Christina Morales 27,415
HD149: Gonzalez 32,068, Hubert Vo 31,919
JP1: Gonzalez 174,954, Eric Carter 166,759

That’s pretty damn impressive. Gonzalez is the incumbent, he’s in law enforcement and may be the most visible county official after Judge Hidalgo, he had a solid term with basically no major screwups, he’s well liked by the Democratic base, and he ran against a frequent flyer who had no apparent base of support. At least in 2020, this is as good as it gets.

Obviously, Gonzalez did better than he did in 2016, but let’s have a quick look at the numbers anyway.


Dist   Hickman  Gonzalez  Hickman%  Gonzalez%
=============================================
CD02   162,915   111,689    59.33%     40.67%
CD07   139,292   113,853    55.02%     44.98%
CD09    26,869   106,301    20.18%     79.82%
CD10    81,824    36,293    69.27%     30.73%
CD18    48,766   153,342    24.13%     75.87%
CD29    35,526    95,138    27.19%     72.81%
				
SBOE6  341,003   265,358    56.24%     43.76%
				
HD126   36,539    24,813    59.56%     40.44%
HD127   48,891    24,516    66.60%     33.40%
HD128   41,694    17,117    70.89%     29.11%
HD129   41,899    26,686    61.09%     38.91%
HD130   59,556    21,256    73.70%     26.30%
HD131    7,054    38,887    15.35%     84.65%
HD132   38,026    30,397    55.57%     44.43%
HD133   47,648    27,378    63.51%     36.49%
HD134   44,717    43,480    50.70%     49.30%
HD135   32,586    27,180    54.52%     45.48%
HD137    8,893    17,800    33.32%     66.68%
HD138   27,480    23,366    54.05%     45.95%
HD139   12,746    39,223    24.53%     75.47%
HD140    6,376    20,972    23.31%     76.69%
HD141    5,485    32,573    14.41%     85.59%
HD142   10,801    33,924    24.15%     75.85%
HD143    9,078    23,689    27.70%     72.30%
HD144   10,765    16,194    39.93%     60.07%
HD145   10,785    23,462    31.49%     68.51%
HD146   10,144    37,991    21.07%     78.93%
HD147   12,100    45,136    21.14%     78.86%
HD148   17,701    29,776    37.28%     62.72%
HD149   15,702    27,266    36.54%     63.46%
HD150   49,904    26,142    65.62%     34.38%
				
CC1     74,178   239,211    23.67%     76.33%
CC2    125,659   125,416    50.05%     49.95%
CC3    193,214   158,164    54.99%     45.01%
CC4    213,519   156,417    57.72%     42.28%

Gonzalez ran against Ron Hickman, former Constable in Precinct 4, who was appointed following Adrian Garcia’s resignation to run for Mayor of Houston in 2015. Hickman had been well respected as Constable and wasn’t a controversial selection, but he was quickly dogged with a scandal involving lost and destroyed evidence from his Constable days, as well as the usual bugaboo of jail overcrowding; his opposition to misdemeanor bail reform did not help with that. With all that, Gonzalez got “only” 52.84% of the vote in 2016, which was ahead of most judicial candidates but behind both Kim Ogg and Vince Ryan. My thought at the time was that Gonzalez maxed out the Democratic vote, but didn’t get many crossovers. Clearly, he knocked that second item out of the park this year. I’m not going to go into a more detailed comparison – I’ll leave that to you this time – but it should be obvious that Gonzalez built on his performance from 2016. We’ll see what he can do with the next four years.

Sheriff Gonzalez hires jail administrator

Interesting.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

A former state jail inspector will oversee Harris County’s jail, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Wednesday.

Shannon Herklotz, who worked for the Texas Commision on Jail Standards for more than 20 years, began serving as the jail’s chief of detentions on Monday, according to a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Harris County commissioners have for years tried to install a civilian administrator to oversee the county’s sprawling jail, which houses some 9,000 inmates at any given time and in recent years has been the site of several inmate suicides, assaults, or other violent incidents.

Herklotz was deputy director for the regulatory agency, which ensures all 239 Texas jails meet state standards.

“Our search for a Chief of Detentions targeted someone with the experience, values and vision to achieve our goal of cementing the Harris County Jail’s reputation for safety, innovation and professionalism,” stated Gonzalez. “These are qualities that our team displayed while managing the ongoing pandemic, and I am excited to see the continued transformation of the Harris County Jail under Shannon Herklotz’s leadership.”

Herklotz said he takes his duty seriously to ensure “care, custody and control of every person living inside our jail.”

“Keeping every person in the jail – including our staff and those entrusted into our care – safe and healthy is our first priority,” he said. “But more than that, we are committed to making sure people leave our jail better prepared to make a positive contribution to our community by connecting them with the resources and support they need to do so.”

The Harris County Jail is the largest jail in Texas, and the third-largest in the nation, with a current population of just over 9,000. Harris County officials have flirted with the idea of a civilian administrator several times over the last 30 years.

Commissioners considered trying to appoint a civilian administrator at least as far back as 1991, according to Chronicle archives. The move was driven by the soaring cost of the jail, and the increase in the sheriff’s budget, and as the sheriff’s office had struggled to control overcrowding in its facility.

As the story notes, this idea most recently surfaced in 2015, with the administrator being hired by and answering to Commissioners Court. That was shelved when a study concluded that a change in state law would be required for that. Existing law allows for the Sheriff to make such an appointment, however, and that’s what has happened here. I was skeptical at the time, mostly because I don’t trust Steve Radack, who was the original advocate for the idea, but then-Commissioner Gene Locke made what I thought were some decent arguments, so I was willing to listen. Locke’s main argument was that Sheriffs want to put their budget into patrol, which takes money away from jail administration, so having a jail administrator with a seat at the table can be a counterweight for that. We’ll see how that works when the administrator reports to the Sheriff. If Shannon Herklotz can help the jail consistently meet state standards – a problem it has had for some time now – and maybe also help figure out how to reduce its population, that will be a huge win.

A parting gift of pollution

Gee, thanks.

Texas may soon get authority over the disposal of ash from coal-fired power plants, a change that could insulate coal companies from tougher rules expected under a Biden administration.

A proposal introduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month would allow Texas to regulate coal ash instead of the federal agency. The move comes just after the EPA this year weakened the Obama-era rule on coal ash pollution amid other rollbacks and rule-making maneuvers cementing the Trump administration’s environmental agenda.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for power generation. The ash is typically dumped into detention ponds or pits and can leach toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, lead and mercury, into groundwater. All of the coal power plants in Texas have coal ash disposal sites that are leaking contaminants, according to data analyzed by the Environmental Integrity project in 2019.

President-elect Joe Biden’s reported pick to head the EPA, Michael Regan, currently leads North Carolina’s environmental agency and has a record of cracking down on coal ash pollution: In North Carolina, he fought to obtain a huge settlement over an 80 million ton coal ash cleanup by Duke Energy — the largest coal ash contamination cleanup in U.S. history.

But if Texas gets authority to implement the coal ash rules before Biden’s new EPA chief has a chance to strengthen the standards, the program could act as a temporary shield for the industry because the state would need to work through a lengthy process to modify already-issued registrations to coal companies.

“It’s always better for industry if the state has control instead of EPA,” said Abel Russ, a senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project who helped draft the organization’s comments on Texas’ coal ash program. “States are typically more favorably inclined to what industry wants. That’s true not just in Texas, but across the country.”

Oklahoma and Georgia are the only two states that currently have approval to operate the EPA’s coal ash program. Texas’ program won’t be effective until at least February, when the public comment period ends.

The Texas Mining and Reclamation Association, an industry group that represents coal and other mining industries in the state, supports the proposal, arguing that state-level environmental regulation is more effective.

“This system is designed to give decision-making authority to a level of government that is closer to the people and recognizes that states are in a better position to address specific problems as they arise,” said Michael Nasi, an Austin lawyer, on behalf of the industry group.

[…]

The EPA must review state programs within three years after any change in federal regulations, and the agency has the authority to withdraw approval if the state program is not as protective as federal requirements. The EPA will retain its authority to inspect coal ash facilities. That’s why Nasi, the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association lawyer, said the industry group’s stance is that coal ash standards in Texas will be as protective as federal rules.

The EPA proposed the Texas program for partial approval this month. Because sections of the federal program were being challenged in court by both industry and environmental groups — including a rule allowing unlined coal ash pits to operate, a proposal overruled in court — Texas did not apply to assume all of the EPA’s oversight authority. That means facilities in Texas would have to comply with some federal and some state requirements if the state’s application is approved.

It’s not clear to me what the full implications of this are, if Texas manages to get approval before any further rule changes are made, and it’s not clear to me if any changes can be made before that approval is given. The Congressional Review Act may come into play here as well. My preference would be for Texas to be under much tougher standards, even though as we know from the Obama experience that’s basically a full employment program for lawyers. On the plus side, coal is on the decline in Texas, so whatever kind of fight this turns into will be over a smaller piece of the action. It would still be nice if Texas is subject to the same kind of standards that the rest of the country is.

Early voting for HD68 special election starts today

Assume this will go to a runoff.

Sen. Drew Springer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend link dump for January 10

“Which Side Are You On?”

“Train your children to think of mass-death as good and thrilling and they’ll grow up to be the kind of people who simultaneously deny and celebrate a global pandemic.”

“There is no reason, frankly, for any of the PAYGO rules to still exist.”

“We resolve to double down on measures to protect ourselves, our families, and our community so we may endure the current surge of COVID-19 cases. We all can do our part by covering our faces anytime we are with anyone outside our immediate household, by maintaining at least 6 feet of physical distance, following hand hygiene and environmental control measures, and by not going to work or school when feeling unwell. Masking, including while indoors, is safe and more effective in preventing COVID-19 — including the coronavirus mutation first seen in England — than any other tool we have available today and clearly works to prevent transmission of the virus.”

“The price we paid for Rutherford B. Hayes was too damn high.”

RIP, Tanya Roberts, actor best known for Charlie’s Angels and That 70’s Show. It was then reported that she was still alive, and then reported later than she had in fact passed away.

Solicitation to commit election fraud is a felony under both federal and Georgia law. Donald Trump and everyone else in the room with him should be prosecuted for it. And given how many times he tried to call Brad Raffensperger, there are surely more such calls out there that we don’t yet know about.

And no, recording the call was not in any way wrong or criminal.

“Ordinary people worn out by the dramas and lies of the past four years have a right to refuse to take Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters seriously. To reject further debate with people whose views are completely incoherent is not only understandable, but sensible.”

How to save the Postal Service, and let it thrive.

My kids never knew about the PBS Kids show Caillou, and it seems that makes me lucky.

If you’ve been saying to yourself “What I need in my life right now is a life-like replica of David Hasselhoff that is fourteen feet tall“, boy is today a good day for you.

“WTF Is Going On In The Georgia US Attorney’s Office? And how can Donald Trump make it worse?”

“In October 2020, KrebsOnSecurity looked at how a web of sites connected to conspiracy theory movements QAnon and 8chan were being kept online by DDoS-Guard, a dodgy Russian firm that also hosts the official site for the terrorist group Hamas. New research shows DDoS-Guard relies on data centers provided by a U.S.-based publicly traded company, which experts say could be exposed to civil and criminal liabilities as a result of DDoS-Guard’s business with Hamas.”

The mot pirated TV program of 2020 is The Mandalorian.

“Certainly a basic problem here is that Capitol Police, under the jurisdiction of Congress, were not prepared for yesterday’s attack. But when we ask what happened yesterday, a significant part of the equation is that the various agencies charged with handling such situations – federal marshals, DHS, FBI, DOJ, National Guard, et al – were under the control of the person who was trying to whip the crowd against Congress.”

Go look up the word “superfetation”, then come back and read this story. Pretty damn amazing.

Help the FBI identify and find the insurrectionists. Some of them are already facing consequences, but so much more is needed.

RIP, Tommy Lasorda, Hall of Fame manager for the LA Dodgers.

“They bankrolled Donald Trump. They applauded his tax cuts. They cheered as the stock market soared. Now, the sound coming from some of the president’s wealthiest donors is this: silence.”

“A voting machine company sued former Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell on Friday, accusing her of spreading false conspiracy theories about November’s election that Republican President Donald Trump lost to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.” They’re seeking $1.3 billion in damages.

One last goodbye to Alex Trebek.

It’s taken them way too long, but finally the far right insurrectionists are getting deplatformed.

“If you are a rank-and-file Republican, the kind of person who listens to your party’s elected officials and friendly media outlets, you have been marinating in anti-democratic beliefs for years: that Democrats are fundamentally hostile to the American way of life, that people telling you otherwise cannot be trusted, that you have an obligation to fight against tyranny on your own.”

RIP, Theodore Lumpkin, Jr, Tuskegee Airman.

All right, fine Sean Hannity did not have his Lifetime Pasta Pass revoked.

“Career officials at the State Department filed a second unprecedented dissent cable condemning President Donald Trump for inciting the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and urging top administration officials to consider invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. The dissent cable is the second such cable sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, reflecting widespread shock and anger in the diplomatic corps at Trump’s actions and Pompeo’s own response to the political crisis. The protest against the sitting U.S. president by American diplomats is largely unparalleled in the department’s nearly 232-year-long history.”

“One thought I keep returning to: if there were a functioning federal government we’d be seeing regular press conferences updating the public on on-going arrests, health status of the injured, progress of the investigation. As far as I can tell there hasn’t been a single one. Nothing from DOJ, FBI, Capitol Police, the Pentagon. Normally you might expect such information to be channeled through press conferences at the White House. But, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s not clear or perhaps too clear which side the White House is on.”

You can’t escape your culpability, Ted

The stench will be on you forever, Ted.

Not Ted Cruz

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has sharpened his criticism of President Donald Trump, saying the president’s rhetoric “certainly contributed to the violence that occurred” as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol on Wednesday.

But the Texas Republican — who led an effort in the Senate to delay certifying Trump’s loss — is showing no signs of contrition amid growing calls for his resignation as many blame him for stoking the post-election strife that culminated with the attack on the Capitol.

Cruz objected to Arizona’s electoral votes less than an hour before demonstrators breached the building, pointing to “unprecedented” — and unproven — allegations of voter fraud. Even some of Cruz’s Republican colleagues said he should have been working to dispel those allegations, rather than airing them in Congress.

Asked in an interview with Hearst Newspapers on Friday whether he believes there was widespread fraud in the election, Cruz responded: “I don’t know if there was sufficient fraud to alter the outcome, I have never said that there was. What I said was there were serious allegations of fraud, and those allegations need to be examined carefully.”

In objecting to Arizona’s results, Cruz was pushing for an “emergency audit,” which he argues could have provided the final say Trump supporters needed. His objection was initially supported by 10 other senators, though two changed their minds after the riot.

“It would have been a much better solution, it would have helped bring this country together, it would have helped heal the divisions we have in this country and help reestablish trust in our democratic system,” Cruz said. “What I was working to do is find a way to reestablish widespread trust in the system.”

Critics accuse Cruz of doing the opposite by ignoring the fact that Trump’s claims had been thrown out of dozens of courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. They call his objection a craven attempt to appeal to Trump supporters and raise money for his own presidential bid.

[…]

Texas political experts and operatives say the blowback Cruz is facing now is unlikely to last as long as some expect.

“I’m not sure the criticism of some of his fellow Republicans, elites, or certainly Democrats, really make that much difference in the medium and long term,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “The only thing that’s ever really diluted the support of Republican voters in Texas for Cruz was when he was crosswise with Trump, and he knows that — and we’re seeing evidence he knows that.”

Cruz’s approval rating among Republicans in Texas hit its lowest point — 55 percent — in June 2016, at the height of his primary battle with Trump, Henson said. By October 2018 it had risen back to 86 percent and Henson said it hasn’t wavered much since.

“I think that as far as the voters go, the people who decide primary elections in Texas and elect Republicans in Texas … many of them are sticking with President Trump still and sticking with Ted Cruz still,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas.

Steinhauser, who is an outspoken critic of Trump but a supporter of Cruz, said in his conversations with family, friends and other Republicans in Texas over the last 48 hours, “there are still just a huge number of people who are just backing up Donald Trump’s line on this.”

Still, Steinhauser said, it’s significant that criticism of Trump is growing among Republicans, including Cruz.

“Everybody in Texas, whether it’s going to get my car fixed today, they’re talking about it. Going to get a drink with a friend last night, they’re talking about it,” Steinhauser said. “It’s not arguing about the ExIm Bank. Real people in Houston, Texas, are talking about this today.

“He probably does feel like he needs to explain himself.”

I think the thing about Cruz, and the reason why he is so widely despised, is that for as smart as he supposedly is, he treats everyone else like we’re stupid. It’s not just that he lies, it’s that he clearly doesn’t think anyone can see through his transparent bullshit. Maybe his approval rating among Republicans hasn’t moved much from the 86% he had in October of 2018, but that was right before he came very close to losing. That doesn’t seem like a solid place to be, if you ask me.

In the meantime, we know he’s not going to resign or be expelled, but we can enjoy the clamor for those things to happen.

Well, someone needs to make a motion for that to happen, I assume, so…

There’s not one but two Chron editorials calling on Cruz to resign – the second one also calls out Ken Paxton and the sixteen Texas members of Congress who supported the challenge to the electoral votes. Neither that nor the expulsion are going to happen, of course, but we can dream for a minute. And we can work like hell to make this happen, too.

“I think they should be just flat beaten the next time they run,” Biden said, when asked if Cruz and another Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, ought to step down. “I think the American public has a real good clear look at who they are. They’re part of the big lie, the big lie.”

From your lips to God’s ears, Mr. President. Please note the best thing you can do to help is have a great term and clean up the ginormous mess that Trump left behind, with Ted Cruz’s help. The better off we all are in four years’ time, the better the odds that Ted Cruz will become a private citizen again.

Assistance for renters coming

Good, but of course much more is needed.

Houston officials expect to get up to $70 million in federal stimulus funds to help renters in the city make their monthly payments and use toward other housing expenses.

The $900 billion federal stimulus package Congress approved late last year did not include more assistance for cities and states, but it did allot $25 billion in emergency relief for renters. Those funds will pass through states and local governments that represent more than 200,000 residents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he expects Houston’s share of those funds will arrive soon. Bill Kelly, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations, said he estimates the city will get an allocation of $65 million to $70 million. The money will go through the Treasury Department, and the law calls for making the payments within 30 days of its passage, which would be Jan. 26.

“My personal goal is to make sure we have this thing done by February 1,” Kelly said of developing the city’s program.

[…]

To be eligible under the law, households must be renters and have at least one individual that qualifies for unemployment or has experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19; demonstrate a risk of homelessness or housing instability; and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income. For a family of four in Houston, that would be $63,050.

The law prioritizes applicants who have been unemployed for 90 days and households below 50 percent of the median income, around $39,000 in Houston for a family of four. The city could adopt additional requirements and priorities.

The city previously used about $30 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds to direct toward renters. It also used roughly $20 million for direct assistance, in which recipients can use the money as they see fit. BakerRipley, a community nonprofit, administered those funds.

The first round of $15 million was distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, but the city pivoted in the second round to distribute the money based on need.

I’m sure this will help a lot of people, and I’m sure the city will do everything it can to get the program up and running quickly. More is obviously needed, but I expect another, bigger relief package coming as soon as possible after January 20, so at least part of the problem should addressed. But look at all the qualifiers in the two paragraphs above, and ask yourself how many people might not know they’re eligible, or might not know how to apply for the funds, or who just need them faster than that to avoid eviction or other hardship. In normal times, it makes sense to make sure all the funds are used super-efficiently, and not wastefully. The cost of making it harder and take longer to get the funds is worth the tradeoff. We’re as far from normal times as we can get. Maybe we just need to make it easier to get as much money as is needed into the hands of everyone who might need it, and not worry too much if some of it goes to the “wrong” people. There’s got to be a better way to alleviate suffering in crisis times.

Taking the STAAR online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On prosecuting the insurrectionists

This is a good start.

While federal prosecutors in the nation’s capital will likely tackle the bulk of criminal charges for the perpetrators of Wednesday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Ryan K. Patrick is among a growing number of U.S. attorneys around the country vowing to prosecute anyone from their regions who traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate.

More than a dozen U.S. attorneys from Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland have made statements that they’d go after people in their districts who made the trip to Washington.

Patrick, who represents the Southern District of Texas, commonly abbreviated SDTX, tweeted Wednesday, “What happened today in Washington was despicable and illegal. Storming a government building is not a protest, it’s anarchy. Arrest them, charge them, and incarcerate them.”

And he added, “And if these clowns today don’t think the capitol police, FBI, FPS and others won’t be poring over open source and other video to make cases, they’re wrong. If any of these leads points to SDTX, we’re on it.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray promised in a statement Thursday to investigate the crowds of participants: “Make no mistake: With our partners, we will hold accountable those who participated in yesterday’s siege of the Capitol.”

[…]

Reports of Capitol mob participants are already cropping up in Texas.

A Texas attorney who videos appear to show participated in the violent mob that took over the Capitol was identified by a journalist.

Paul MacNeal Davis, an attorney eligible to practice law in Texas and based in Frisco, was terminated from his position at Goosehead Insurance, a company with offices in Houston and across Texas.

The video was originally posted to Instagram by an account that appears to belong to Davis. The same account posted a message to followers Thursday morning stating, “I already lost my job because of the Twitter mob. I’m not upset. I’m thankful to be suffering for righteousness and freedom.”

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is investigating whether a jail lieutenant broke policy or any laws by attending the pro-Trump rally that later turned into the mob.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said 46-year-old Roxanne Mathai, an eight-year veteran with the department, posted selfies and photos of the crowd in Washington to her Facebook page, identifying herself as a BCSO employee.

Justice Department officials in Washington will likely pursue cases that involve violence, theft, property damage, criminal mischief, trespassing or knowingly entering or remaining in restricted building or grounds without permission, Patrick said. The department handles theses cases because there is no district attorney in Washington. But there are charges local districts can file as well, on their own or in coordination with “main justice” in Washington.

If someone involved in the melee lived in the sprawling 43-county Southern District, Patrick said, he would investigate whether the person planned in advance to travel to Washington to incite a riot.

Here’s another seditious chucklehead to investigate, though I’d guess she’s in a different district. These guys weren’t hiding their motives or intentions, so by all means look into all possibilities, but do keep in mind that just what was done in the Capitol will keep prosecutors and law enforcement very busy. And by all means, think big.

Supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol, breaking windows and stealing things, could face charges including sedition, insurrection and rioting, Washington, D.C.’s top federal prosecutor said on Thursday.

“All of those charges are on the table,” Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin told reporters in a call, when asked about possible charges of sedition, rioting or insurrection.

“We’re not going to keep anything out of our arsenal.”

The Justice Department has filed 55 criminal cases about events this week, Sherwin said, some pre-dating Wednesday’s assault on the seat of government, including the arrest of far-right Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio on Monday.

Sherwin repeatedly said no suspects in Wednesday’s riots would be ruled out – even when asked whether this could include Capitol Police who may have been complicit or Trump himself for urging protesters to march on the Capitol at a rally on Wednesday.

“We’re looking at all actors here and anyone that had a role, and the evidence fits the elements of a crime, they’re going to be charged.”

Oh, and did we mention that a Capitol police officer died as a result of injuries sustained during this riot? I want to see a lot of people charged with being accessories to his death. The point here is to make the price of this exercise in fascism as steep as possible for as many people as possible. It’s by far the best way to make future such events less likely.

And if all that is not enough:

As horrible as this was, this could have been so much worse. Get every last one of them arrested and convicted. Daily Kos has more.

The Republican war against Harris County

To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.

Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.

The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.

“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”

Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”

[…]

Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.

Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.

A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.

Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Swanson filed the House companion bill.

That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:

During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.

I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.

This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.

NCAA finalizes single-site March Madness

Welcome to Indianapolis, assuming anyone is allowed to attend, which honestly they shouldn’t as things are right now.

The NCAA will host its entire postseason men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis and surrounding areas with a bubble-like format, officials announced on Monday.

All 68 teams will come to compete for the national championship and play most of the games at multiple venues in Indianapolis, with some games in Bloomington and West Lafayette. The bulk of the teams will stay in hotels connected to the Indiana Convention Center, which will be used as a practice facility, the NCAA said.

Selection Sunday is still scheduled for March 14, and the Final Four is set to be held April 3 and 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

In Indianapolis, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse and Indiana Farmers Coliseum will be used for tournament games. Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Assembly Hall in Bloomington will also be used, the NCAA said.

“This is a historic moment for NCAA members and the state of Indiana,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “We have worked tirelessly to reimagine a tournament structure that maintains our unique championship opportunity for college athletes. The reality of today’s announcement was possible thanks to the tremendous leadership of our membership, local authorities and staff.”

The monumental effort will include the largest bubble-like attempt by any major sport during the pandemic.

A local health partner in Indianapolis will handle testing for all players, coaches, staffers, officials and others connected to the event. The announcement did not specify the frequency of testing in what NCAA officials are calling a “controlled environment,” but Marion County officials have approved the NCAA’s plan and protocols.

Teams will stay on “dedicated hotel floors” and abide by social distancing throughout their time in the tournament. And a “limited number of family members” will be permitted to watch games, while other details about fans remain undetermined.

See here for the background. As the story notes, the Division II and III championships will also be held in Indiana, in other cities. This is all happening as various teams are missing and postponing games due to virus concerns, and one major women’s team canceled their season. Speaking of the women, no word that I know of what they will do with their tournament. I feel pretty confident that some form of March Madness, as big as they can make it (who knows, maybe even bigger this year), will happen. If all the other sports can be played to completion, and with all the money at stake, it pretty much has to.

What to do about Ted and Kenny?

You wouldn’t think it would be possible for Ted Cruz to become more loathesome, but if you think that you seriously underestimate him.

Not Ted Cruz

Two nights before the Electoral College certification in Congress, Ted Cruz was in vintage form.

The junior U.S. senator from Texas was calling in to a friendly conservative radio host — Mark Levin — and setting up Wednesday’s vote to be the kind of intraparty line in the sand that has powered his political rise.

By then, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had made clear that he opposed objections to certifying Joe Biden’s election as the next president. But Cruz and 10 other GOP senators announced they would still object unless Congress agreed to an “emergency audit” of the presidential election results.

Cruz told Levin that there were some conservatives “who in good conscience” disagree with his view of Congress’ role in certifying the presidential election results, and that he had talked to them and did not fault them. On the other hand, Cruz said, there were “some Republicans who are not conservatives but who are piously and self-righteously preening” when it comes to the issue.

In spearheading the group of objectors, Cruz arguably upstaged U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who announced his plan to object three days earlier — and, like Cruz, is considered a potential 2024 presidential contender.

But on Wednesday, what Cruz might have thought was a savvy political play took an alarming turn: Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol while lawmakers were considering Cruz’s objection. Three people suffered medical emergencies during the siege and died; their deaths were in addition to another woman who was shot by a Capitol police officer.

Cruz denounced the violence but incurred a fierce backlash from critics in both parties, who said his drive to question the election results — and appease the president and his supporters ahead of a possible 2024 run — helped fan the flames of anger among Trump supporters. Prominent Texas Democrats called for him to resign. Many others suggested he’d played an inciting role in one of the darkest days in modern American history.

Politically, it was a high-stakes distillation of GOP tactics in the era of Trump.

“His challenge of the Electoral College votes helps him among core Trump supporters but risks further damaging his political standing among rank-and-file Republicans like moderates and suburban swing voters who have traditionally formed a stable winning coalition for Republicans in Texas and nationally,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, who added, “Siding with Trump is risky.”

Few people can pull of smarm and condescension at such a high level, but Cruz makes it look easy. The political environment was very favorable to Democrats in 2018 in large part because of anger against Donald Trump – and, it would seem, his absence on the ballot – and that went even further in the Senate race, where Cruz and his extreme unlikability took it the extra mile. Maybe a better politician, or at least someone who more closely resembles a normal human being, could get that to simmer down over time, but Cruz never misses a beat. He’s cast his lot with the Trumper deplorables, and maybe that’s his best bet to get an edge in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. All I know is, the more people who are sick of his shit, the better. Whether he runs for President or Senate or both in 2024 (remember that legally, he can do that in Texas), I expect we’ll be able to drum up some enthusiasm against him.

Having said all that, I’m unfortunately quite ambivalent about any effort to get him expelled from the Senate. I’ve no doubt that plenty of his Republican colleagues in the Senate also despise him, but voting to boot him out, which will take a non-trivial number of Republicans to happen, is a heavy lift. Just the act of putting a partisan target on his back like that will force some of them to defend him, and that’s the last thing we want to do. Chuck Schumer takes over as Senate Majority Leader on January 22, two days into the Biden administration. There’s a ton of vital stuff that needs to happen right away, from COVID relief to voting rights and much more, and the last thing we’re going to need is a sideshow. And look, as much as I’d love to see Cruz get the heave-ho, even if it did happen Greg Abbott would get to appoint his replacement, who almost by definition will be able to work better with his Republican mates. Where’s the upside in that? Let him stay where he’s mostly going to be ineffective and might help keep his caucus divided.

Now, Ken Paxton, on the other hand…

Best mugshot ever

On Wednesday morning, Ken Paxton stood in front of a roaring crowd, reminding a sea of President Donald Trump’s supporters that the president “is a fighter” and his backers must be, too.

“We’re here. We will not quit fighting,” he said, slamming Republican officials in Georgia who have stood by President-elect Joe Biden’s victory there. “We are Texans, we are Americans, and we’re not quitting.”

But by the evening — after members of the crowd he had invited to Washington, D.C., stirred up with false claims about election fraud, resorted to violence, smashing windows and scaling walls to breach the nation’s Capitol in a mob that forced members of Congress to flee and left at least one woman dead — he had claimed they were not his ilk at all.

“These are not Trump supporters,” he falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook, citing incorrect reports that the pro-Trump mob that invaded the Capitol had been infiltrated by liberal antifa activists.

[…]

On Thursday, Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, called for an investigation into Paxton’s role in Wednesday’s riot, leaving the door open to curbing the power of his office, restricting its budget, even censure and impeachment.

“From filing a fraudulent lawsuit that fueled unhinged conspiracy theories about a free and fair election, to egging on the crowd of insurrectionists in Washington, D.C., Paxton has played a major role in creating the national crisis that culminated with the first breach of our nation’s capital since the War of 1812,” Turner said. “Even today, Paxton has used social media to spread lies about yesterday’s acts of violence and insurrection.”

In December, Paxton’s support for Trump took the form of a widely panned, and ultimately rejected, lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to toss the election results in four battleground states that had handed the White House to Joe Biden. The lawsuit leaned on discredited claims of election fraud in the battleground states.

Paxton finds himself in a precarious political position, even before Wednesday’s disastrous events. Since October, he has been embroiled in a scandal after eight of his top aides in the attorney general’s office told authorities they believed he was breaking the law by doing a series of favors for a political donor.

Texas Republicans — many of whom stayed quiet for the past five years as Paxton battled felony securities fraud charges — came forward to express their disapproval. Some fellow conservatives, including his former top aide U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, have called for his resignation. An FBI investigation into Paxton’s conduct is reportedly moving ahead full-throttle, and in the meantime, the fresh criminal allegations are poised to impose tens of millions of dollars in costs to his constituents: Texas taxpayers.

Paxton has been in hot water before, and often escaped it only to climb higher politically, galvanizing support from the Republican party’s right flank. He alienated some with a long shot run for Texas House speaker, then got elected to the state Senate. He has characterized long-running felony securities fraud charges as a political witch hunt, much as Trump did in Washington.

Still, Paxton may have fewer defenders now than ever before.

At a low point in his rollercoaster political career, Paxton is betting on the Trump base to bring him back up the hill, lending the legitimacy of office to debunked claims that have motivated violence.

Here, I think the calculus is a little different. Opposing Paxton’s need for need for millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees should be easy enough, and will provide a test as to whether his wings can get clipped a bit. I don’t expect much more than that, for the same reason I don’t expect even the biggest Cruz-hating Republicans in the Senate to support a motion to expel him, but we can certainly make him more toxic, and harder for his buddies to defend. Paxton had the second-worst showing in 2018, right behind Ted Cruz, and I think it’s fair to say that patience is a little thin for him. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the rest have to consider the possibility that Paxton and his FBI investigation – even if Trump swoops in with a pardon – will be a burden on them in 2022. I’m sure they believe they’ll be re-elected anyway, but who needs the headache?

What they do about it is less clear. They could support a primary challenger – more likely, they’d just not get in a challenger’s way – or they could just avoid talking about Paxton as much as possible. Or they can just grit their teeth and stand by their man. I’m not listing the “quietly push him to not run for re-election” option, because I think it’s pretty clear that’s not going to work. So what we need to do is help keep the spotlight on our felonious and insurrectionist AG. There’s a petition to sign that calls for his resignation or impeachment, if you’re the petition-signing type. But mostly, just make sure everyone that you know also knows what a terrible person he is. We’re going to have to throw him out the old-fashioned way, so we’d better get to work on it.

CM Jackson’s residency questioned

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Tarsha Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus 2.0

Happy New Year.

The first known case of a new and possibly more contagious coronavirus strain has been reported in Texas, in an adult male resident of Harris County who had no history of travel, according to the state health services department and County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

The variant known as B.1.1.7 was first identified in the United Kingdom, where it has spread quickly, and cases have been found in several U.S. states, including California and Colorado. It does not cause a more severe disease, and vaccines “are expected to be effective against it,” the health services department said, citing the existing scientific evidence.

“The fact that this person had no travel history suggests this variant is already circulating in Texas,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the state’s health services department. “Genetic variations are the norm among viruses, and it’s not surprising that it arrived here given how rapidly it spreads.”

While this variant doesn’t appear to be any nastier, as far as we know, and should still be covered by the vaccines, it is apparently capable of spreading faster. Really makes you want to stay away from people, doesn’t it?

On the plus side, maybe.

State officials will start distributing most of Texas’ vaccine doses next week to a handful of large pharmacies and hospitals, creating “vaccination hubs” where more people can get a shot quickly, the Department of State Health Services announced Thursday.

“As the vaccination effort continues to expand to people who are at a greater risk of hospitalization and death, in addition to frontline health care workers, these vaccination hubs will provide people in those priority populations with identifiable sites where vaccination is occurring and a simpler way to sign up for an appointment with each provider,” the department said.

Those hubs could vaccinate more than 100,000 people next week, officials said.

DSHS issued a survey earlier this month to vaccine providers gauging their ability to operate community vaccination sites. The state will release the final list of large-scale providers later this week, after the federal government decides how many doses Texas will receive next week.

We expect another 200K total doses next week as part of this preparation. That’s good, but as we’ve discussed before, the numbers remain daunting. Texas has almost 30 million people in it. At 100K shots a week, you’re looking at six years to get everyone vaccinated. The optimistic interpretation of this story is that 100K per week is a starting point, and we’ll accelerate from there. Great, I sure hope so, but if we want to get enough of the state done to get close to herd immunity this year, we need to get to 500K per week, and every week we operate at less than that makes the target number have to be a little higher. (A better and more organized federal response will surely help.) I know, it’s a hard problem, everyone’s doing the best they can (well, not really, but let’s be generous for these purposes), and so on, but this is the math. As someone once said, the stars may lie but the numbers never do.

Impeach him again

This is Donald Trump’s fault. All of it, though he did have plenty of assistance. Impeach him again, convict him this time, and then arrest him on the way out the door. There had been a call for censure before yesterday’s appalling disgrace, and I applaud Rep. Colin Allred for supporting that call, but we’re way past that point now.

And never forget that Ken Paxton had traveled to DC to be there for this. Never forget Ted Cruz sent a fundraising email in the immediate aftermath. Every day, they should both should be reminded of this.

All of Trump’s lickspittle seditious enablers, from Paxton to Ted Cruz to Louie Gohmert to Dan Crenshaw and more, should resign in shame, delete all their social media accounts, and never speak in public again, but only after they finally, finally, disavow Trump. Assuming they’re even capable of that. I don’t have words strong enough to adequately condemn all this.

One last thing: Given the failure of the DC police to stop or apprehend these thugs, it’s now on President Biden’s Justice Department to do a thorough review of all the video, news stories, social media posts, and anything else, and then arrest every single person they can identify that was inside the Capitol. None of them should be allowed to get away with this. Those who were just there for the lulz and didn’t invade the building should be named and shamed.

Dems go two for two in Georgia

It’s hard to talk about anything else, given the violent debacle in Washington yesterday, but the two Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia won their runoff elections, giving control of the Senate to the Democrats, and putting an emphatic final exclamation point on the Trump regime. I mean, it wouldn’t have taken much from Trump to make the Republican candidates’ lives and elections a lot easier, and he took every opportunity along the way to do the opposite. Maybe, just maybe, the sting of losing these elections and with them the ability to thoroughly block President Biden’s agenda will make Republicans realize that if nothing else, it’s now bad political strategy to defend and coddle Donald Trump. At least some of them are likely savvy enough to acknowledge that.

Let us also tip our hats to the great irony of the legal need for a runoff in Georgia in the first place. Like some other Southern states, Georgia required a majority of the vote to win statewide in November, which is a Jim Crow-era relic designed to make it harder for Black candidates to win. Had Georgia operated like many other states, including Texas, David Perdue would have won in November. To be sure, so would Raphael Warnock have won then, but just splitting the two races would have been enough for Republicans to maintain control of the Senate. I hope that rubs a little extra salt into the wound.

As to what Democrats in other states can learn from this experience, I’d say the best lesson is the constant, in depth, personal organizing, which is a long-term investment. Texas has different demographics than Georgia, though as I have noted, there are parts of the state where the specific approach Stacey Abrams took, of registering and empowering Black voters in rural areas, would likely pay dividends. I’m certainly in favor of asking the leaders of the movements that helped win these elections for their advice, and then listening very carefully.