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That’s our Lege

So now we start to prep for redistricting

It’s gonna make for a long session, or more likely sessions.

Wielding the map-drawing power will not be entirely painless for Republicans, who have seen their grip on dozens of state and federal districts erode since the last round of redistricting. Though Democrats failed to flip any of their targeted congressional seats in 2020 and fared about as poorly in state House contests, their single-digit defeats in once ruby red districts point to Democrats’ growing advantages in urban and suburban counties, even as Republicans retain an overwhelming advantage in rural Texas.

Republicans, then, will have to decide how aggressive they want to be in redrawing political boundaries to their benefit, balancing the need to fortify their numbers in battleground districts with the opportunity to flip back some of the districts they lost in 2018, when Democrats picked up 12 seats.

“I see this redistricting opportunity for Republicans as more of a defensive play than an offensive play,” said Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “This is one of the tough things when you’re engaging in redistricting if you’re the party in power, because you can be sort of allured by the short-term potential to win an extra seat or two. But you can take two steps forward to eventually take three steps back if you’re not thinking about demographic changes over a 10-year period.”

For now, the looming redistricting fight is far from the minds of most state lawmakers. Though the U.S. Census Bureau is supposed to deliver updated population data to states by April 1 next year, the agency suspended field operations for the 2020 Census due to the COVID-19 pandemic and wrapped up the count in October, well after the original July 31 deadline. Bureau officials also sought to push back the deadline for sending data to the states until July 2021, prompting speculation that Texas may not get the census numbers until after the Legislature gavels out in late May.

“If the data is not delivered during the regular session, it creates a whole set of cascading problems that impact the drawing of lines, even down to the county and municipal levels, because everyone is going to be put on an even greater time crunch,” said Eric Opiela, an attorney and former executive director of the Texas Republican Party who has worked on prior redistricting efforts.

During normal times, officials might already be using population data from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS) to strategize or even draw up preliminary maps. But the pandemic has forced census workers to adopt unconventional survey tactics and generated unprecedented population shifts due to the rise in remote working, factors that make any pre-2020 population data highly unreliable, Opiela said.

“Those (ACS) projections can be used to allow you to do things like work through scenarios before the official data comes, and it’s actually fairly accurate,” Opiela said. “I don’t know that that’s going to be the case this time. I think it’s going to be very important to wait until the official data is received to draw any conclusions as to where Texans live.”

It’s not just the uncertain timeline. Even if the Census data arrived on time, COVID-19 would likely hamper redistricting efforts by forcing lawmakers to prioritize filling the state’s pandemic-inflicted budget gap and perhaps providing economic and medical relief to COVID-19 victims.

“The challenge with redistricting is it’s such a naturally partisan issue that it’s really hard to sort of box half the day and then be ballet dancers the other half of the day,” Mackowiak said. “It’s hard to be bipartisan on other issues but then super, super partisan during redistricting. So, having a special session just related to redistricting after the major issues are taken care of seems to me to be the smartest pathway.”

See here for the most recent news on the Census situation. I think it’s very likely that we don’t get the data in time for the regular session, in which case redistricting will be done in a special session later in the year. Depending on how late that is, and on how long it takes to hammer out maps, and whether any initial court challenges result in temporary restraining orders, we could see the 2022 primaries get pushed back. The filing period begins in mid-November, after all, so there’s a non-zero chance of it being affected by how this plays out.

It’s worth remembering that if the Dems had managed to win the State House, they still would have had limited influence over redistricting. As the story correctly notes, the Legislative Redistricting Board, a five-member panel that would have had only one Democrat (the House Speaker, in this hypothetical), would draw the State House, State Senate, and SBOE maps if the House and Senate had been unable to agree on them. The Congressional maps would go to a federal court, however, and that’s where the Dems might have had some influence. If Republicans didn’t want to take the chance of putting map-drawing power in a third party like that, they might have been open to some compromises on the other maps. We’ll never know now, but that was the basic idea.

As it is, how this goes with Republicans once again in full control will come down to how they answer a few key questions. (For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the State House. The issue are mostly similar for Congress and the State Senate, but my examples will come from House elections.) Will they be constrained by established rules like the county line rule, which puts only whole House seats in sufficiently large counties (this is why all Harris County State House seats are entirely within Harris County), or do they change that? How constrained do they feel by the Voting Rights Act, and by other established redistricting precedents – in other words, do they bet big on the courts overturning past rulings so that they can more or less do whatever they want, or do they pull it in so as not to risk losing in court?

Most of all, what do they consider a “safe” seat to be? Look at it this way: In 2012, Republicans won 16 of the 95 seats they took with less than 60% of the vote. Of those, only five were decided by fewer than ten points:

HD43 – Won in 2010 by then-Democrat JM Lozano, who subsequently switched parties.
HD105 – Barely won by the GOP in 2008, by less than 20 votes.
HD107 – Won by a Dem in 2008, it became the first Republican-held seat to flip in this decade, won by Victoria Neave in 2016.
HD114 – Nothing special, it was won by eight points in 2012.
HD134 – The perennial swing district.

Note that four of those five are now Democratic. Other “less than 60%” seats from 2012 now held by Dems include HDs 45, 47, 65, 102, 115, and 136. (*) The point is, that looks like an extremely durable majority, with enough 60%+ seats on their own to ensure a mostly Republican House. And indeed it was for the first three elections of the decade. There will be books written about why all of a sudden it became precarious, but you’d be hard pressed to do a better job than the Republicans did in 2011.

But as noted, things look different now. In 2020, Republicans won 26 of the 87 seats they took with less than 60% of the vote. Of those, seventeen were won by less than ten points:

HD26, HD54, HD64, HD66, HD67, HD92, HD93, HD94, HD96, HD97, HD108, HD112, HD121, HD126, HD132, HD138

We can talk all we want about how things might have gone differently in 2020, but the fact remains that it wouldn’t have taken much to change many of those outcomes. How many Republican incumbents will insist on a 55%+ district for themselves? Whatever assumptions you make about the 2020 electorate and what it means for the future, that’s going to be a tall order in some parts of the state.

This more than anything will drive their decision-making, and may well be the single biggest source of friction on their side. Who is willing to accept a 51% Republican district, and who will have to take one for the team? In 2011, Republicans were coming off an election that they had won by more than 20 points statewide. This year they won at the Presidential level by less than six points, and at the Senate level by less than ten. They have a smaller piece of the pie to cut up. They have full control over how they do it, but the pie isn’t as big as it used to be. What are they going to do about that?

(*) In 2012, Cindy Burkett had no Democratic opponent in HD113, and Gary Elkins was re-elected in HD135 with 60.36% of the vote. Both of those districts are now held by Democrats. Always in motion, the future is.

I remain pessimistic about the chances of good voting bills passing

This Trib story suggests that with Republicans doing well in the high turnout 2020 election, and with the emergency measures that were implemented to expand voting access, the odds of getting a bill passed to make some forms of voting easier are as good as they’ve ever been.

Lawmakers and voting rights groups have been fighting over updates to Texas’ election systems for years, but issues heightened by the coronavirus pandemic have launched a new conversation over voter access.

This January, primarily Democratic lawmakers heading into the next legislative session are honing in on problems like backlogs in processing voter registrations, an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots and applications that overwhelmed some elections offices, and a lack of viable alternatives to voting in person.

Outnumbered by GOP members in both chambers, Texas Democrats have seen their efforts to expand voter accessibility thwarted at virtually every turn for years.

But the pandemic-era challenges combined with strong Republican performance at the polls — which may have been boosted by record-breaking voter turnout across the state — has some lawmakers and political operatives believing there’s potential for conservatives to warm up to voting legislation that could improve accessibility.

A main reason is that voters of all political camps experienced some of these new ideas when they were introduced during the pandemic — things like drive-thru voting pilot programs, multiple ballot drop-off sites, turning in mail ballots during early voting and extended early voting — or realized that others, like online registration, would have made voting in the pandemic easier.

“My guess is [lawmakers are] going to hear from their Republican voters that they like to do this, and there will start to be Republicans championing these things, and they’re championing them from a majority point of view,” said Trey Grayson, a former Republican Kentucky secretary of state who was previously director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “I would be shocked in five years if Texas didn’t have more of these reforms in place.”

Quinn Carollo Jr. is one of those Republican voters who said he applauded efforts in Texas to make it easier to vote. He was thrilled by Texas’ lengthy early voting period — which had been expanded from two weeks to three weeks because of the pandemic. He moved in recent years from Alabama, which doesn’t have early voting.

“There was plenty of opportunity to get by there and vote without dealing with a lot of lines on Election Day,” said Carollo, a 49-year-old transportation manager for a chemical company in Houston. “So I really enjoyed that. I’m all for it.”

Carollo said he’d like to see the longer voting period become a permanent part of Texas law, along with other reforms that might make voting easier and more accessible.

[…]

Bills already filed include legislation that would allow for online voter registration for those with driver’s licenses or state IDs, on-site voter registration at the polls during early voting and on election day, making election days state holidays, universal mail-in balloting, easing voter ID restrictions and allowing felony probationers and parolees to vote.

The idea of moving registration online is worth considering, given that some 41 other states have already implemented it, said Justin Till, chief of staff and general counsel for Republican state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who sponsored the 2019 bill that eliminated mobile polling sites and who has filed election fraud legislation to be considered this session.

“I don’t think it would be a problem if we were to transition. I know a lot of people are still hung up on the IT security part of it, which I get.” Till said. “So long as it’s a sound system, it will work fine and the other states that have implemented it thoughtfully have done so successfully.”

Till said Bonnen’s office would consider measures that could ease or expand access during early voting and eliminate long travel and wait times, such as extending the early voting period to three weeks and allowing counties to keep polling sites open beyond the state required minimum.

“If you can achieve that satisfaction point where everyone gets an opportunity to vote as quickly and as easily as they can, then you’re good,” Till said.

Voting rights advocates say that the experiences of millions of new voters in Texas this year could translate into election changes that are driven by the voters, not politics.

“I think a lot of people that had not been affected by some of the problems in our election systems were affected this time,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “So there are probably a lot more legislators who are hearing about it more from all walks of the aisle.”

A new “driving force” behind some legislation will be pressure to address or retain some voting initiatives that were born out of the pandemic, said Derek Ryan, a Republican consultant and voter data analyst in Austin.

These could include increased access to curbside voting, extended early voting periods and expanding countywide voting and online voter registration — the latter of which Ryan said was hit or miss with Republicans and “one of those issues that kind of splits the party.”

Among those that are anticipated but haven’t been filed yet are bills dealing with drive-thru voting, allowing 24-hour polling sites and making permanent a pandemic-era order by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott extending the early voting period to three weeks — all of them ideas that first appeared in some counties during the pandemic, several activists and lawmakers said.

”I think that after any election, we figure out that there are better ways to do things, and so there’s always some election legislation that kind of tries to clean up some of the process, but I think you’re probably going to see that even more so because of the pandemic,” Ryan said.

Maybe, but I’m going to see some hard evidence of this before I buy into the idea. The one place where maybe I can see something happening is with online voter registration, mostly because Republicans made a show of trying to register new voters this cycle, and running into the same problems everyone else who has ever tried to do this has run into, and that was even before the pandemic hit. The fact that there’s a staffer for a Republican legislator talking about it is of interest. I’m willing to believe something may happen here. As for everything else, my counterarguments are as follows:

1. The first bill out of the gate is a bill to restrict county election administrators from sending vote by mail applications to eligible voters, for no particular reason other than Paul Bettencourt’s sniffy disapproval of Chris Hollins doing it. It’s not an auspicious start, is what I’m saying.

2. While Greg Abbott did extend the early voting period and did allow for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period (before then cracking down on where they could be dropped off), all of the prominent innovations like drive-through voting and 24-hour voting and multiple drop boxes were pioneered by local election administrators, most of whom were Democrats, with Chris Hollins in Harris County and Justin Rodriguez in Bexar County being among the leaders. I’d feel like this would be more likely if Abbott and the Lege were ratifying Republican ideas, rather than giving their stamp of approval to Democratic inventions. I admit that’s attributing a level of pettiness to Abbott and the Republicans in the Lege, but if we’re talking about the process being driven by feedback from the voters, I’ll remind you that the chair of the state GOP, several county GOP chairs, activists like Steven Hotze, and more were the plaintiffs in lawsuits that targeted not only the Hollins/Rodriguez-type innovations, but also Abbott orders like the third week of early voting. Plus, you know, the extreme animus that Donald Trump fed into Republican voters about mail ballots and other vote-expanding initiatives. What I’m saying is that while some Republican voters undoubtedly liked these new innovations and would approve of them becoming permanent, the loudest voices over there are dead set against them. We’d be idiots to underestimate that.

3. All of which is a longwinded way of saying, wake me up when Dan Patrick gets on board with any of this. Nothing is going to happen unless he approves of it.

4. Or to put it another way, even if these innovations help Republicans, even if everyone can now say that expanding turnout is just as good for Republicans as it is for Democrats, it’s still the case that making it harder to vote is in the Republican DNA; I’m sure someone will post that decades-old Paul Weyrich quote in the comments, to illustrate. I don’t believe that the experience of one election is going to change all these years of messaging.

5. To put that another way, Republicans might be all right with things that make it easier for them to vote, as long as they don’t make it easier for Democrats to vote. They’re absolutely fine with things that make it harder for Democrats to vote – and by “Democrats” I mostly mean Black voters, as far as they’re concerned – and if those things also make it harder for some of their people to vote, it’s an acceptable price to pay. Making it easier to vote, as a principle, is not who and what they are. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, but until then I’ll be taking the under.

Our nanny state and vote by mail applications

Sen. Paul Bettencourt purses his lips and wags his finger and is very disappointed in your county government.

Republican state lawmakers have filed bills to codify the Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to all of its 2.4 million registered voters.

Senate Bill 208, authored by Sens. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; Brian Birdwell; Bob Hall and Kel Seliger, would stop election officials from sending absentee ballot applications, regardless of eligibility. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, a Republican from Houston, filed a companion bill, House Bill 25.

“We must recognize the obvious that we didn’t need to mail 2M+ absentee ballot applications to registered voters in Harris County to have a record 11.2 million Texas voters cast their ballots in November,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “It is important to note that the 66.2% turnout in 2020 was without wasting taxpayer money by doing shotgun mailings to everyone on the voter roll.”

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to do so, an attempt to make voting easier during the pandemic, was thwarted after the county’s Republican Party sued. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in early October that Hollins would be exceeding his authority, though two lower courts had previously approved of the mass mailings.

Hollins had already sent out nearly 400,000 applications to Harris County voters who were 65 and older by the time the suit arose. The proposed legislation filed this month would extend to even such mailings to eligible voters because they would prevent counties from sending any unsolicited mail ballot applications.

Emphasis mine. So that first sentence about codifying the State Supreme Court decision is misleading, since this bill would now prohibit something the Court explicitly allowed. Let’s be clear about that.

Let’s also be clear that there’s no valid justification for this bill. If the voters of Harris County don’t like the way that Commissioners Court appropriates and spends money, the voters of Harris County have a simple and direct way to express that disapproval. This is Paul Bettencourt and others expressing their disapproval of Harris County voters, because he has that power.

I’m sure there will be more bills like this one, and while most of them probably won’t pass I’ll be surprised if this one manages to fail. the good news, for what it’s worth, is that the Harris County Democratic Party can continue its very successful campaign of sending mail applications to its voters, then following up with them to ensure they get and return their mail ballots. I won’t be surprised if there’s some dropoff in mail voting in the next couple of elections, as people were motivated to vote by mail due to the pandemic, but I’d expect most of those voters to just go back to voting in person. This is a legislative temper tantrum, and it can some day be fixed, but don’t forget that it happened. Republicans like Paul Bettencourt want it to be hard to vote, and they will do what they can to make it hard to vote. We should make a bigger deal about this in our campaigns.

Texas Central once more gets to deal with the Lege

They’re both farther along, and not as far along, as they might like heading into this session.

Less than two months before the Texas Legislature begins its next session, the yearslong battle over a controversial high-speed rail project is expected to spark more legislative skirmishes.

And after years of public skepticism, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled his support for the project in a letter to Japan’s prime minister, although his spokesperson later said that Abbott’s office will “re-evaluate this matter.”

Last month, Abbott sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying: “This venture has my full support as Governor of Texas, and I am hopeful that final negotiations of this project with Japan can be concluded so that construction can begin. Public support and momentum are on our side, and this project can be completed swiftly.”

The Oct. 2 letter also included a significant error. Abbott told Suga that the company developing the high-speed rail line had “all the necessary permits to begin construction.”

The Texas Tribune found that Texas Central, the Dallas- and Houston-based company in charge of the project, is far from receiving all permits needed to build the 240-mile line, which would stretch from Dallas to Houston and cost around $20 billion, according to the company. When contacted by the Tribune with this information, Abbott’s office said it would review the matter.

“From the beginning of this project, the Governor made clear that he could support this project if, and only if, the private property rights of Texans are fully respected,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the Tribune on Oct. 7.

“The Governor’s team has learned that the information it was provided was incomplete. As a result, the Governor’s Office will re-evaluate this matter after gathering additional information from all affected parties,” Wittman added.

The governor’s office has not responded to multiple follow-up questions about the results of its review and has not explained why Abbott didn’t know the project lacked permits or who Abbott was relying upon for information about the project.

[…]

Texas Central has said that it plans to start construction by the first half of 2021 and that it has already secured sites for stations in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley.

But the Tribune found that Texas Central still hasn’t applied for a key permit from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates transportation projects, for the construction and operation of the proposed rail line, according to an STB spokesperson.

And two Texas agencies, the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said they haven’t received all the necessary permit applications from the company, including the route proposal and a permit to discharge stormwater during the construction process.

A third agency, the Texas Department of Transportation, must approve permits for the rail line to cross state roads during construction, but a spokesperson said the agency would consider any proposals from the company only after the STB approves the project.

The company did receive two key approvals in September from the Federal Railway Administration, which provided the regulatory framework and the environmental review for the high-speed train. The railway administration explained that these rulings covered several of the permits needed by the project in areas like railroad safety, protection of parkland and protection of cultural resources.

See here for the previous update, about the approval provided by the Federal Railroad Administration. I have no idea where the other permits stand, or how long that part of it is supposed to take. We’re about to enter at least the third legislative session where I find myself saying “if they can just make it through this session, they’ll probably be okay”. They did fine in 2019, but their opponents are organized and dedicated, and even though I suspect they’re a minority, I have no idea offhand who their best champion in the Lege is. A small group of people who really care about something can often beat a larger group of people who don’t feel all that strongly about whatever it is they’re being asked to care about. TCR might also want to check in with Greg Abbott and make sure he has up to date information from them – assuming he bothers to respond to their requests, of course. On the plus side for TCR, the Lege has a pretty packed agenda, which may crowd out anything their opponents want to do. But I wouldn’t count on that.

A bill to ban no-knock warrants

Probably won’t go anywhere, but well worth the effort.

Rep. Gene Wu

A bill pre-filed this week by state Rep. Gene Wu would ban no-knock warrants across Texas, marking the first major legislative response to last year’s botched drug raid that led to the deaths of two Houston residents and murder charges for a police officer.

Wu’s proposal, which he filed Tuesday, would bar magistrates from issuing warrants that allow police to break into residents’ homes without warning. After the practice came under scrutiny in Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo began requiring approval from top-ranking police officials and the signature of a district court judge — not municipal court judges or county magistrates — before officers could carry out no-knock warrants.

Acevedo implemented the policy change after narcotics officers in January burst into a home on Harding Street in search of heroin, sparking an eruption of gunfire that killed residents Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas and injured five officers. Police discovered only small amounts of cocaine and marijuana during the bust.

Shortly after the raid, Acevedo said no-knock warrants “are going to go away like leaded gasoline in this city,” prompting headlines that claimed the Houston Police Department would end the practice altogether.

Rep. Wu’s bill is HB492. The story references the recent HPD audit of the atrocious Harding Street raid, of which Rep. Wu was a harsh critic. I will note that the Mayor Turner task force report on police reform includes the recommendation of “a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses”. This bill would go farther than that, and it’s not clear to me if the Harding Street fiasco would have been covered by the recommended task force policy.

As with marijuana reform bills, there is bipartisan support for banning (or at least restricting) no-knock warrants, but any bill to do that seems doomed to me. As the story notes, a bill from 2019 that simply called for law enforcement agencies to submit reports on their use of no-knock warrants to DPS never got a vote in committee. Things have changed since then, but that’s just not a great sign. I hope I’m wrong about that.

There’s a raft of pro-pot bills that have been filed so far

And one formidable obstacle to them all, in the form of Lt. Gov. Dan “One Million Dollars!” Patrick.

Texas lawmakers set a record with over 60 marijuana-related bills in 2019 — and this year, they’ve already introduced 11 measures that could potentially loosen the legal restrictions on the drug, with two months to go before legislative session begins in January.

“The shift in public opinion has led to lawmakers taking more action on this issue,” said Heather Fazio, the director of the advocacy group Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, pointing to 2019’s legalization of hemp products containing less than 0.3 percent THC. “What we’re seeing is this huge movement where lawmakers are responding to their constituents who no longer support the status quo.”

Still, Texas is among the states with the most restrictive marijuana laws in the nation. The state counted the most total arrests for marijuana possession in the country in 2018, according to a April ACLU report on racial disparity and drug possession, making up 44 percent of all drug-related arrests statewide.

And the Texas Highway Patrol made 250 arrests for small amounts of weed between July 2019 and the end of the year, after the state’s hemp law took effect.

At the top of advocates’ list is House Bill 447, filed by state Rep. Joseph Moody, a Democrat from El Paso. If passed, it could be the most far-reaching cannabis legalization bill to come out of the House so far, allowing Texans over 21 years old to consume, transport and grow marijuana with some limitations.

The bill also opens the door for marijuana businesses, offering guidelines on proper licensure and distribution of cannabis. A portion of tax revenue from sales would contribute to public school teachers’ salaries and retirement.

In 2019, Moody unsuccessfully tried to pass a decriminalization bill. It failed in the Senate, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick saying the measure would have been a step toward legalization, which he would not support.

Opponents have said any steps to lessen the legal penalties for possessing, using or distributing marijuana could lead to increased crime or push users into more dangerous and more addictive drugs.

But with a pandemic-induced budget slump to handle, Moody said lawmakers from both parties are beginning to look to the marijuana industry as a potential gold mine for sales tax revenue.

There’s a quote a little farther in the article from Sen.-elect Roland Gutierrez, who has filed a companion bill in the Senate, that touts the revenue that these bills could generate. I think that would be a great pitch in a campaign to get a statewide referendum passed, but that’s not an option in Texas. It’s also the case that people like Dan Patrick don’t care about the revenue potential, because they’re not interested in generating revenue. They don’t want to pay for things (well, most things), they want to cut them. Patrick opposes legalization of pot, and anything that looks like a step towards legalization of pot. I admire and support what Rep. Moody and Sen.-elect Gutierrez are doing, but those bills will never get past Dan Patrick.

There is, as noted, bipartisan support for easing up on marijuana. Even a wingnut like Rep. Steve Toth has a bill to make marijuana possession a Class C misdemeanor, which would greatly reduce punishment for it. Dan Patrick opposed a similar bill in 2019. If we want to make progress on this, the first step has to be to get rid of Dan Patrick. The Trib has more.

What might the Lege do to make voting easier, or harder?

I confess, I didn’t read most of this story about the various problems some people had in voting, and the various theories as to what was happening during voting, mostly because it contained way too many quotes from Jared Woodfill. I’m going to focus on one piece of this, and then jump to the question I posed in the title.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In Texas, which was recently ranked 50th in the nation by the Election Law Journal for ease of voting, the stories of disenfranchisement in this election are plentiful, because the hurdles state lawmakers have erected to registering and voting create many chances for the system to fail.

The state GOP leadership has steadfastly resisted modernizing voter registration, including blocking attempts at online registration. Voter ID laws, limits on qualifications for absentee ballots and rigidity in the mechanics of balloting all weed out untold numbers of voters along the way.

“These things will feed into the ability of someone to either participate easily and conveniently and effectively, or for someone to encounter barrier after barrier after barrier and at some point throw up their hands in disgust and quit trying,” said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections team at the Democracy Fund in Washington, D.C.

It certainly was difficult for East Texas resident Serena Ivie, who had to reeducate herself on the registration process after sitting out elections for 20 years.

Ivie wanted to vote for President Donald Trump because she worried about the direction of the country if he left office. She sent in her voter registration application in early September, she said.

She figured out too late that her registration was never activated, and she still has not gotten an explanation, she said.

Ivie, 49, is angry that the state hasn’t created easy, online registration since the last time she voted.

“I was disappointed that I’d let myself down, and I really felt that I screwed up,” Ivie said. “It’s a huge letdown, and I, in turn, feel like I am letting my country down.”

There really is no good reason why our voter registration process is so antiquated. There is a good reason why the law that controls how voter registration may be done has not been updated in forever, and that’s because the Republicans have opposed it, as we have covered here numerous times. Not all Republicans, to be sure – the bill cited in that post had numerous Republican co-sponsors, but never got a hearing in committee. The difference now is that Republicans have been actively registering voters these days, and as they discovered, it’s harder than it needs to be. There is also now a very limited form of online voter registration available, thanks to a federal lawsuit. These two factors may finally allow for our voter registration laws to be dragged into the 21st century. I wouldn’t bet on it until someone like Greg Abbott announces support for it, but the possibility exists.

Unfortunately, that’s probably about where the potential good news ends. There’s a zero percent chance that any expansion will be made to voting by mail – I’d be more worried about some bills that will attempt to make it harder, or perhaps to define “disability” in a way that would explicitly exclude pandemic-related risk factors. Along the same lines, I expect there to be bills that codify limiting ballot dropoff locations to one per county, and to limit if not outlaw drive-through voting that isn’t part of the already-allowed curbside voting for people with (perhaps more strictly defined) disabilities. Finally, as part of the larger conversation about the role and power of the Governor and the Legislature during a disaster, there may be legislation that codifies the Governor’s ability to do things like extend early voting hours as part of a disaster response. A bill like that doesn’t have to be bad, but it would be easier to make it bad than to make it good.

As far as I’m concerned, the best case scenario here is keeping trash like that from getting passed. Maybe the new Speaker will put his thumb on the scale in a good way, or maybe Republican legislators will have heard from enough voters that they liked the longer early voting period and/or drive-through voting to mess with it, or maybe they’ll just be too damn busy with all of the other business they’ll have to deal with to have time for this. I’m just saying be prepared for some nonsense here. It’s coming, and we need to be ready for it.

UPDATE: Bill pre-filing is now open, and there are numerous election-related bills already, including one that would “prohibit state officers and employees from distributing applications for early voting ballots”. I’m sure you can guess what motivated that. Remember that zillions of bills get filed but only a handful make it through, so don’t draw conclusions from any of this just yet.

Republican Party Chair craps on Republican presumed Speaker

I expected this upcoming legislative session to be interesting, but I didn’t think it would be this interesting this quickly.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas GOP Chair Allen West said Monday that the state party “will not support, nor accept” state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next speaker of the Texas House, after the Beaumont Republican said last week he has the votes to win the gavel.

In an email to supporters, West took issue with the fact that Democrats had backed Phelan even though Republicans retained a majority in the 150-member lower chamber after Election Day.

Phelan said last week he had support from a “supermajority of the Republican caucus” and a “broad coalition of support” from Democrats. That support, should it hold until January when the Legislature convenes, would mean Phelan has more than enough votes needed to become the next speaker when House members elect a leader as one of the chamber’s first orders of business.

“Texas will not allow the undermining of our ‘Texas Republic.’ This is why the Republican Party of Texas is perplexed, and will not support, a potential Texas Speaker of the House who would seek affirmation from progressive socialist Democrats to attain that position,” West wrote, calling it “utterly absurd and demonstrably idiotic” that a Republican would join with Democrats to lead the GOP-controlled House.

West does not get to vote on the next speaker since he is not a House member. And past speaker candidates, including current Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who will retire at the end of his term, have claimed support from Democrats in their bids to help get to a majority of votes needed to preside over the House.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Tom Craddick and Joe Straus also had Democratic supporters when they were elected Speaker. It was Straus’ ouster of Craddick in 2009, in which the bulk of his support came from Dems (who had 74 members in the House that year, remember) plus a handful of renegade Republicans, that led to a GOP rule that Speaker candidates are supposed to be ratified by a majority of the Republican caucus first. Bonnen got around that, and no one other than West seems too exercised about it now, but throwing tantrums is a good way to raise one’s profile, so here we are. I regret to say that while we can now all begin the process of detoxing our brains of Donald Trump, we must acquaint (or re-acquaint) ourselves with Allen West. I’m so sorry, y’all. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

We need an official Speaker candidate tracker

We’re up to five now, and we’re likely not done yet.

Rep. Trent Ashby

State Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Cyrier of Lockhart join two Democrats in seeking the gavel: Senfronia Thompson of Houston and Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio. More candidates are expected to file, perhaps after the Nov. 3 election once it’s clear which party will be in control of the chamber.

In statements, both Ashby and Cyrier pointed to the legislative session beginning in January — and the challenges state lawmakers will all but certainly have to tackle — to help make their pitch for why they’re the best candidate for the job.

“Given the collective challenges we will face in upcoming legislative session, as we continue our battle with COVID-19 and work to balance a budget despite revenue challenges, it is critically important that the next Speaker fosters the trust and cooperation necessary to overcome these challenges and deliver the results that all Texans expect and deserve,” Ashby, who has served in the House since 2013, said.

Cyrier, who has served in the House since 2015, said the session “will be a demonstration of Texans’ resilience.”

“My top priority as speaker will be to work with all members of the House and build consensus during what is sure to be a challenging session,” Cyrier said.

Paddie, who has served in the lower chamber since 2013, did not immediately release a statement about his bid.

As noted, Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Trey Martinez Fischer are already in. None of the three Republicans were among the crowd that had made a move towards running for Speaker before the last session; five of those seven will be in the 2021 Lege, so there is definitely the possibility of a larger field. I should note that Rep. Thompson picked up the endorsements of her fellow Harris County Democratic legislators, and also of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, thus giving her the most supporters for now, though still far from a majority.

We’ll have a much better idea of how this may shake out once we know how many Ds and how many Rs there will be. And as a reminder: Right after the election is when some number of members announce their intent to step down, thus necessitating a special election to replace them. Rep. Drew Spinger is in the runoff for SD30, scheduled for December 19, so his seat may become vacant right before the opening gavel as well. I say this all because the number we have on November 4 may be different than the number we have on January 4, and that could have a real effect on who has enough votes to actually become Speaker. The potential for chaos, and maybe even some shenanigans, is quite high. The Lege is never more entertaining when those things are true.

UPDATE: And now there are six:

Possibly by the time you read this, there will be more announced candidates. You see what I mean when I say we need a tracker.

UPDATE: And now there are seven:

All members of the House that are not running for Speaker, please raise your hand.

TMF files for Speaker

Now it’s a race.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer announced Monday that he is running for Texas House speaker, becoming the second Democrat in the lower chamber to launch a bid for the gavel.

Martinez Fischer, from San Antonio, joins state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, in the race. Both filings come ahead of a November election in which Democrats are within striking distance of winning control of the Republican-held House for the first time in nearly two decades.

Martinez Fischer would be the first Latino to hold the position, if elected. Thompson would be the first woman and Black person to serve as speaker.

No Republicans have filed paperwork yet with the Texas Ethics Commission to run for the job, which Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will vacate at the end of his term when he retires from office. More members from both parties are expected to enter the race in the coming days.

[…]

Martinez Fischer nodded to the upcoming legislative challenges in a statement announcing his speaker bid, saying he is running “because I believe that I am best prepared to deliver the solutions Texans expect, navigate the redistricting process, and protect the House as we chart our path forward as Texans.” Martinez Fischer also said as speaker his goal would be to “make historic changes” to the makeup of House committees in an attempt to address “the disparities in the lack of women and people of color in our leadership ranks.

“The Texas House operates on trust,” he said in his statement. “For the last twenty years, Members know that even when we may disagree, I have never been shy about saying where I stand. As Speaker, I will always deal straight.”

See here for the background. I had said that it was my belief that if Rep. Thompson wanted this, she’d have a clear path. That’s not the case, but it is early days. There were multiple people floated as possible challengers to Tom Craddick before a majority coalesced around Joe Straus, and when Dennis Bonnen succeeded Straus, it was after several other Republicans (and one Democrat) had made their intentions known. In each situation, the others simply backed down and got on board with the winner. If Dems have a clear majority in the House, I would expect there to be only one Dem in the running for Speaker at the end.

Does it mean anything that TMF filed so quickly after Thompson did? Probably not – his ambition is as good as anyone’s, he’s likely been talking about it for some time, and there are many ways to be a Speaker if one gets elected to that spot. Most of what will happen between now and when the members take a vote will not be visible to us. That said, if this ever does get ugly, we will surely hear about it. I’m sure a Republican will file at some point, but I figure there’s still some factional healing that needs to happen post-Bonnen, and no one may be ready to go public yet. This is the Lege nerds’ equivalent of fantasy football – it’s of extreme interest to a few, and means nothing to normal people. Enjoy the ride, or feel free to tune out until something interesting happens, it’s your call.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson files for Speaker

One hat in the ring, who knows how many to go.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, filed Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making her the first to enter what’s been a quiet race so far to replace retiring Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Thompson, a Houston Democrat, has filed ahead of a November general election in which Democrats are confident they will regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades. If elected, she would be the first Black woman to serve as speaker.

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

Thompson is not the only candidate expected to enter the race, which has had a different tempo and tone from the last one in 2018. The uncertainty surrounding which party will be in control of the lower chamber in 2021 has kept the race relatively quiet; by this time two years ago, several candidates had already declared that they were seeking the gavel.

[…]

Thompson, known better as “Ms. T” to colleagues and other Capitol goers, has served in the chamber since 1973, making her the second longest-serving member in the House. She has been mentioned repeatedly among both Republicans and Democrats as a potential candidate, with members pointing to her legislative experience and inroads with colleagues as perhaps her best case for a House that has a challenging agenda heading into the 2021 legislative session.

There are many potential Speaker candidates, but as I said in that post, if Rep. Thompson wants this, it’s hard to imagine other Dems opposing her. I’m sure she will be talking to those other potential candidates over the next few days, if she hasn’t been already. It won’t surprise me if they line up behind her.

There are of course a bunch of important things the next Legislature will have to tackle, from COVID response to a crap-ton of election and voting issues to redistricting to the budget to executive authority and the role of the Lege in dealing with crises. But even before we get to any of that, there’s a big question about how the Lege will operate. I mean, maybe you haven’t heard, but the COVID situation isn’t getting any better right now. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in Greg Abbott to impose restrictions again, so I’m not expecting it to be all that different come January. How exactly is the Lege going to conduct its business if it’s not safe for them all to be clustered in a stuffy room for hours at a time? What are they going to do if twerps like Briscoe Cain ignore a rule mandating masks in the Capitol? I don’t mean to be indelicate, but Rep. Thompson is 81. Rep. Alma Allen is 81, Tom Craddick is 77, Doc Anderson is 75, Harold Dutton is 75, and Phil Stephenson is 75. More than a few others are north of 60; not all of them have their age listed when I look them up on the Trib directory of State House members, but you get the point. The health and safety of every Member, as well as their staff and everyone who works at the Capitol is on the line, and as of today we have no idea what they plan to do about it. The next Speaker has some big things to do before a single vote is taken.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

How not to be “ground zero” for voter suppression

It starts with winning elections. Which would be easier to do if Republicans weren’t hell-bent on making it hard to vote, but then that’s why they do what they do.

Fewer and fewer states are standing with Texas as it continues to resist calls to expand mail-in voting amid the coronavirus outbreak, with South Carolina on Wednesday becoming the latest to allow anyone to cast a ballot by mail this fall.

Texas is now one of just five states won’t accept concerns about the coronavirus as an excuse to vote by mail and state leaders have blocked attempts by local officials in Harris County to make voting by mail more accessible.

That Texas is out on the edge on an issue of voting access should come as no surprise, experts in voting laws say.

The Republicans who run state government have made Texas a national leader in voting restrictions, ground zero in a series of long-running fights over voting rights, and hotly debated allegations of potential voter fraud. It’s a battle President Donald Trump has escalated in the past week, tweeting repeatedly about mail-in voting, which he alleges will lead to “MAYHEM!!!” despite no evidence of such in the states that already have widespread voting by mail.

Democrats have poured millions into at least 18 different legal battles against Texas over mail-in voting and a host of other election issues — more than anywhere in the nation — as the state’s elections have grown more competitive. They charge that the Republicans who run state government have placed hurdles at every step of the electoral process to keep their power despite demographic changes that have diminished their public support.

Texas’ sluggish voter turnout rates are frequently cited as evidence that GOP suppression efforts are working. The state’s decision not to make it easier to vote by mail, critics say, is just the latest example.

You can read the rest for a recitation of the greatest hits in making it harder to vote, but it’s all familiar. (This was also written before the Abbott order about mail ballot dropoff locations, which shows that there will always be new frontiers in this field.) The key to this whole thing is right there in the fourth paragraph, “The Republicans who run state government”. The only way this is going to change is for the Republicans to not be running state government. We can take an important step in that direction in this election, especially if we can get an all-Democratic federal government that will pass an expansion of the Voting Rights Act and other protections. We can finish the job in 2022 and pass laws to repeal voter ID, allow for no-excuses vote by mail, enable online voter registration, and more. The courts aren’t going to save us. The Republicans have no interest in any of this – indeed, as I’ve argued before, if they maintain their trifecta after this election, they are now strongly incentivized to rein in efforts to send out vote by mail applications to those who hadn’t requested them. We win these elections and we move forward, or we don’t and we move back. The fact that it’s harder for us to win these elections is just too bad. That’s how it is. It’s all up to us.

Speaker’s race? What Speaker’s race?

Just a reminder that one of the three most powerful political offices in the state is on the ballot this November, even if it’s largely invisible to us.

Found on the Twitters

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?

“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.

Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”

The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.

[…]

Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.

Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.

In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.

None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.

Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.

Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.

“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”

[…]

In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.

On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.

Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.

I agree that which party has the majority, and by how much, will matter a lot. And hoo boy, what might happen if we have a 75-75 split – there would surely be a compromise power-sharing agreement out there, but just agreeing about who chairs what committees gives me a headache. I tend to believe that if Dems have a majority, the job will be Rep. Thompson’s if she wants it, but she may not want it. She might prefer to be in the trenches passing the priority bills, or she may just decide the job is too much trouble to be worth it. Joe Moody may be best positioned to be a compromise candidate if the parties are tied or even if Republicans have a 76-74 lead but can’t settle their ideological rifts and find their own consensus; in other words, he could be the Democratic Joe Straus. I feel like TMF is the choice if Dems wind up with a bit of a cushion and are feeling a bit salty. I’m totally spitballing here.

Whoever wins the job in the event of a Dem house, he or she will have a slightly easier go of it than a Dem Speaker from before 2010 would have had, as the caucus is more unified on issues these days. That’s largely because there are no more conservative Dems from rural districts, and thus no one who has to be appeased or coddled on things like LGBTQ equality or gun control or immigration. Passing a budget that fully funds education and prioritizes coronavirus relief, and maximizing Democratic leverage on redistricting, are the two top tasks. When the Dems get together after the election to plan their strategy for the session, those have to be the main questions that any Speaker wannabe must answer. We know how important this election is, but in part that’s because what comes after it is so damn important, too.

Will we have redistricting hearings?

Not looking great for it right now.

In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Republicans have quietly halted plans to hold a series of public input hearings across more than 20 cities, slated to occur earlier this year, to collect public testimonials from Texans about redistricting. These testimonials would be a critical tool to help group communities which share common social and economic interests, voting patterns, and local preferences as new district maps are being drawn.

A coalition of 42 advocacy groups have taken notice of this indefinite stoppage and are demanding for the resumption of public hearings on redistricting in a safe and accessible format.

[…]

In an effort to remedy urgent concerns about the lack of preclearance and increase transparency in the upcoming 2020 redistricting process, Texas lawmakers planned for a series of public input hearings earlier this year, led by the House and Senate Redistricting Committees. Both committees are led by Republicans, Rep. Phil King and Sen. Joan Huffman, respectively.

The House and Senate originally planned for a limited public hearing schedule, however, the Texas Civil Rights Project built a coalition of groups to successfully agitate for the geographic expansion of these public hearings to reach across every corner of the state, from Austin and Houston to Amarillo and Weslaco. Then, COVID-19 swept across the state.

Because state leadership prematurely opened the state and failed to enact safety measures to control the pandemic, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed to nearly 600,000 infections and have claimed nearly 11,000 lives, disproportionately killing Black and Latinx Texans. South Texas communities along the U.S.-Mexico border have the highest infection rates across the entire nation.

Due to the pandemic, public hearings for redistricting were indefinitely postponed in March. However, in the past four months since, the legislature has failed to provide a plan to resume the hearings with a modified schedule or different format.

The Texas Civil Rights Project argues that resuming this process to hear from Texans and receive community input is both urgent and vital to avoid further suppression and the dilution of voting power of Black and Brown communities.

You can see a copy of the letter and who signed it, along with a list of the cities where hearings had been tentatively scheduled, here. I attended one of these for the 2011 reapportionment, and there was a lot of interesting information that was presented, with several members of the public having useful things to say. The point of these hearings is to give the public a chance to understand what the data looks like and how any proposed new maps may affect their communities, while also giving the committee members a chance to hear about concerns and issues that they might not otherwise know about. It’s the least they can do, in my opinion, and even with a pandemic there needs to be a way to bring this opportunity to the people. Zoom meetings have their pros and cons, but they could certainly be used here, and would allow for people not in any of those 20 cities to attend without having to travel. Something is better than nothing, and right now nothing is what we have.

Dan Patrick’s Confederate posturing

Whatever else you can say about Dan Patrick, he’s always on brand.

n response to a letter by Democratic state senators urging the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols at the Texas Capitol, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed Democrats on Monday for past discrimination in the state and said the party is not committed to a “sincere” or “serious conversation” about the future of the monuments.

He did not directly answer whether he supported removing the symbols.

“If you are truly sincere about a serious discussion, then you need to openly examine the role Democrats have played in our state’s history on this issue,” Patrick wrote in a letter to the Democrats. “It is time to be transparent. A first step in addressing these issues is for Democrats to acknowledge that it was your party who carried out those past discriminatory policies and injustices and who built those monuments and hung those paintings.”

That kind of rhetoric has become common in the era of President Donald Trump, but it ignores the history of how in Texas and the rest of the South, many conservative Democrats switched parties after their former party embraced civil rights legislation. Texas was dominated by white, conservative Democrats for the first three quarters of the 20th century, a time during which the state passed numerous racist laws that enforced or promoted segregation and violated the rights of Texans of color.

But Republicans have been in near-complete control of the Texas government this century, and in that time have passed multiple voting measures found by federal courts to have intentionally discriminated against people of color.

In the last decade alone, federal courts have repeatedly scolded the Legislature under Republican leadership for discriminating against voters of color in redrawing political maps that undermined the political clout of Hispanic and Black voters and in passing one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country that disproportionately burdened voters of color who were less likely to have the identification the state required people to show at the polls.

At the start of the most recent legislative session, about 80% of Democrats in the Texas Legislature were people of color, compared with about 4% of Republicans.

You can see a copy of the letter, which was sent on August 12, here. As the story notes, there’s a select Senate committee that had been named by Patrick to review artwork in the Senate chambers, but for a variety of reasons it has not yet had a meeting. Clearly, that is not a priority on Patrick’s part, given his response to this gentle prodding. It was just last year that a Confederate plaque was removed from the Capitol following several years of lobbying by mostly Black legislators, so we know this can be done. On the other hand, the Senate that same year passed a bill that would have made it much harder for Confederate monuments to be removed; that bill thankfully never passed the House. Again, it’s clear what Dan Patrick cares about here. The ironic thing is that if he really wanted to stick it to the Democrats of fifty or a hundred years ago – the ones he blames for the presence of these monuments in the first place – he could work to remove those monuments that he claims are such a part of their legacy. I’m sure you can guess why he’s not interested in that.

So, as with the plaque in the Capitol, it’s going to take some work to get this done. Most likely, the removal of Dan Patrick from the Senate chambers as well will be a prerequisite. Be that as it may, let me close by applauding the Trib for putting Patrick’s bullshit in its proper context. A little truth can go a long way.

Introducing the George Floyd Act

Coming this spring to the Legislature.

Black lawmakers at the Texas Legislature unveiled on Thursday the George Floyd Act, a sweeping police reform proposal that would ban chokeholds across the state and require law enforcement officers to intervene or render aid if another officer is using excessive force while on the job.

The legislation, spearheaded by members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, is named after Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody. Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes until and after he lost consciousness.

His death in May set off protests across the country and renewed debate over police brutality and racial inequity. And at the Legislature, which is set to meet again in January 2021 for a regular session, Floyd’s death has sparked new calls for policing and criminal justice reforms — including proposals that have failed at the Texas Capitol in recent years, often after opposition from police unions.

“We acknowledge that the road to justice in Texas — particularly for Black and brown people in Texas — has been fraught with dead ends, dead ends of white supremacy, racial hatred and bigotry,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who chairs the caucus, said as he kicked off a virtual press conference, which included Floyd’s youngest brother, Rodney Floyd. “These dead ends have to go — and particularly the dead ends that relate specifically to law enforcement.”

The bill would also address qualified immunity, which shields government officials from litigation, by allowing civil lawsuits at the state level “for deprivation of rights under color of law,” according to a caucus summary of the legislation. Another provision would end arrests for fine-only offenses like theft under $100, a version of which died dramatically in 2019 after union opposition.

“Those police officers who do wrong by unlawfully harming our families or our constituents, who violate the constitutional rights of others, will be held accountable and legally liable for their actions,” said state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston.

It’s unclear if the outcry sparked by Floyd’s death will provide enough momentum in 2021 to push past resistance from law enforcement and unions. It’s also unknown whether the legislation will win Gov. Greg Abbott’s support, which would be crucial in turning it into law.

Abbott has previously said he is committed to working with Floyd’s family on legislation, and has even floated the possibility of a George Floyd Act at the Legislature. While he has not offered specifics on what proposals he would support, Abbott has emphasized a proposal that has also been pushed by police union officials: strengthening law enforcement training before officers are allowed to go on patrol.

It’s still too early to pre-file bills, since after all we don’t know for sure who will be serving in the next session, but it’s never too early to announce them. The Chron adds some details.

Groups including the Texas NAACP, Mothers Against Police Brutality, ACLU of Texas, Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, Black Lives Matter Houston and Texas Organizing Project have already thrown their support behind the bill.

Gov. Greg Abbott has publicly condemned Floyd’s death and promised to work with state legislators to pass reforms, though he did not discuss specifics. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who plan to carry the legislation, said Thursday they had not yet spoken with Abbott about it.

“It would be a great signal if he made this an emergency item and that we pass this in the first 90 days of the Legislature,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “Hopefully he will partner with us on this legislation.”

The 19-member caucus that introduced the bill Thursday includes a single Republican, Rep. James White of Hillister.

While some local police and sheriff’s departments have implemented some tenets of the bill, such as requirements for officers to attempt de-escalation before using force, none of them are required for all 2,000 police agencies in Texas.

Further, the bill would require officers to demonstrate that they use lethal force only when in “imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death” or when “no other lesser level of force could have worked” and their actions present no risk to bystanders, according to a draft of the law that the caucus released Thursday. The use of force must stop as soon as the threat diminishes.

The bill states that “all force must be proportionate to the circumstance and the seriousness of the offense … and must be accompanied by (an) attempt to de-escalate.”

[…]

Charley Wilkison, the executive director of CLEAT, one of the largest law enforcement union in the state, said his organization is open to many of the concepts in the proposed bill, including banning chokeholds and ending arrests for fine-only offenses.

Other areas may require a more nuanced conversation, such as qualified immunity, as Wilkison said he believes it allows enough latitude — “It’s ‘qualified’; it’s not blanket” — under current law for citizens to sue officers for misconduct. Wilkison said he agrees with setting a statewide use-of-force policy, as long as officers retain discretion.

“If we’re allowed to be in the chain of communication, we’ll share and do our due diligence to take honest action in the Legislature,” Wilkison said.

As both stories note, some of what is in this proposed bill had been in the Sandra Bland Act originally. I don’t know that Abbott will care enough to make this bill an emergency item, but I do expect that he’ll support some form of this, and I do expect that something will pass. It’s mostly a question of how much of the bill as filed makes it to the finish line, and whether anything that is less desirable makes it in along the way. The potential for messiness, heated debate, and at least one idiot member of the Freedom Caucus saying something deeply stupid and offensive is quite high. But in the end I do expect something to pass, and we’ll feel good about what we do get. The question is how good, and how much more there will be to do in a future session. Reform Austin has more.

We don’t need a vote to expand Medicaid

There’s a fundamental truth that needs to be addressed in this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On Tuesday, Missouri became the 38th state to expand Medicaid, opening healthcare to over 230,000 Missourians. It joins a lengthy list of GOP-led states in expanding healthcare, including Nebraska, Utah, and Oklahoma. Meanwhile in Texas we still lead the country in the number of uninsured and, since the COVID-19, pandemic another 650,000 have lost their health insurance.

The ballot initiative to expand Medicaid passed in Missouri by 53 percent, with several suburban counties in St. Louis and Kansas City voting overwhelmingly for the measure. The governor of Missouri, a staunch conservative, actually added the ballot initiative to the August primary ballot instead of November’s presidential ballot, hoping a smaller turnout would defeat the measure.

Clearly, the voters of Missouri felt expanding Medicaid was important for their state. The vote also comes as the Trump administration continues its effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, potentially kicking 20 million Americans off their health care and denying preexisting conditions coverage to over 120 million. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton support ending the ACA.

Texas has been in a health crisis for a long time, well after the state decided not to expand Medicaid through the ACA. According to a report from 2018, over 17 percent of Texas residents lacked health coverage. That’s about 5 million Texans without access to health care.

With COVID-19, that health crisis has only exacerbated. While cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have gone down in parts of the state, those numbers will likely rise precipitously as schools open. Over 7,000 Texans have died from the coronavirus. Many hospitals, particularly rural ones, are overwhelmed. The health care status quo has never felt so dangerous and untenable.

So will Texas ever get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid? According to Republican lawmakers in the state, that would be a “no.” Rep. Celia Israel commented on Twitter that she and Rep. John Bucy sponsored a bill in the last legislative session that would allow voters to “weigh in and expand Medicaid,” but that it never got a hearing.

[…]

If Texans do get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid, it will surely be opposed by Republicans statewide and in the legislature. If history is any guide, however, improving health care will transcend partisan lines.

The people of Missouri voted on the question of expanding Medicaid because the state of Missouri allows for laws to be enacted by referendum. In other words, in the state of Missouri and a number of others, you can collect petition signatures to put a proposed law up for a vote by the people, which is then enacted if it passes. Different states have different rules for this, but that’s the basic idea. The city of Houston allows for charter amendments to be put up for a vote via the petition process, which is always a fun thing to endure. For better or worse, the state of Texas does not allow for this.

The key thing to understand here is that the folks who pushed Medicaid expansion in Missouri via referendum did so for the explicit purpose of bypassing Missouri’s legislature and governor, both of which opposed Medicaid expansion. Most states early on passed Medicaid expansion via their legislatures, including some Republican states, but in recent years most of the action has come via the ballot box, in states like Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma. The key ingredients there were a combination of legislators and governors that opposed expanding Medicaid, and a petition process that allowed for the legislative process to be circumvented.

So if you’ve wondered why if those states can vote to expand Medicaid why can’t Texas, the answer is because the law doesn’t allow for it. It can only be done via the Legislature. Indeed, bills to do some form of Medicaid expansion have been proposed but have not gotten anywhere. The reason for that of course is intransigent Republican opposition, but guess what: The Democrats have a shot at taking the majority in the State House this year (as you may have heard), which would overcome one of those obstacles. We’d still need to take the Senate and elect a new Governor to finish the job, but at the very least the House could pass a Medicaid expansion bill, or put something for it in the budget, and dare the Senate and Greg Abbott to oppose it. I for one would be fine with having the 2022 Governor’s race be defined in large part by expanding Medicaid (in addition to, you know, COVID-19 response).

If that’s the case, then what was Rep. Israel tweeting about? Very simply, it was a political move to try to force the issue in a slightly different way. What Reps. Israel and Bucy proposed was a Constitutional amendment, which is something that the voters have to approve, which would have expanded Medicaid. Why propose a Constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, instead of a regular old bill that needs only a simple majority? Three reasons: One, constitutional amendments do not need the governor’s approval, so it would go to the voters regardless of what Greg Abbott wanted. Two, it offered Republican legislators who opposed Medicaid expansion but might have felt the need to do something a way out, as in “just vote to let the people decide, and we’ll never bother you about it again”. And three, constitutional amendments can only be changed or repealed by subsequent constitutional amendments, with their two-thirds-majority requirements, thus protecting Medicaid expansion via this avenue from the whims of a future Republican legislature.

The point is, though, we don’t need to vote to expand Medicaid. At least, we don’t need to vote on a ballot proposition to do it. We just need to vote for a Legislature and a Governor who are willing to do it. We’re a lot closer to that than we’ve ever been, and we’re closer to it than states like Missouri and Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma had any hope of being. The votes we need to expand Medicaid are this November, and November of 2022. Those are the prizes to keep your eyes on.

Revisiting the May elections

I’m ambivalent about this.

Most cities in Texas — from Galveston to Lubbock — moved their May elections to November under a pandemic-era decree by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But the choices facing voters will remain limited to candidates who filed for office months ago — at least for now.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Galveston County Republican, wants to reopen the filing period for candidates to lead cities and other political jurisdictions, including school boards. He believes voters may have soured on incumbents facing little or no competition.

Middleton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the state should give candidates who want to run in a postponed local election until mid-August to file for a spot on the ballot.

“I think it’s also only fair that this occur because there are a lot of people that have been frankly unhappy with how some of the decisions… have been made in local government during this pandemic,” Middleton said.

The legal rub: Abbott’s March 18 order was silent on the filing deadline. But Abbott’s secretary of state, Ruth Hughs, wrote local officials that “the postponement does not have the effect of reopening candidate filings.”

Middleton believes that guidance is not supported by election law and Abbott’s order. Middleton, who chairs the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, contends in his July 2 letter to Paxton that Texas law clearly states that if the election day is changed or moved, the filing period rolls forward with it.

He said the ripple effects of a legal opinion by Paxton go well beyond proving greater scrutiny for elected officials who have issued shutdown orders or mask requirements, which have drawn the ire of many conservatives. Some local officials believe that tax rates adopted by cities for the coming fiscal year could greatly exceed what voters have the appetite for amid curtailed local tax revenues due to the pandemic.

I mean, I don’t agree with Mayes Middleton on much, and I think his motives for this action are screwy. But I confess that a part of me thinks that an election held in November, even if it was supposed to have been held in May but had to be postponed for whatever reason, should have a filing deadline that’s standard for a November election. On the other hand, the original filing deadline for the May 2 elections was February 14, more than a month before Abbott’s order that rescheduled the thing. As such, it’s hard to argue that people may have been unfairly excluded from filing. Obviously, conditions have changed, and I think there’s a valid case to be made that if these elections had been scheduled for November in the first place, there would be a very different lineup for them than what exists now. I think you can also make a valid case that the voters have it in their power to persuade the candidates they do have to prioritize the things they want now, as opposed to the things they would have wanted then.

On the related question of whether we should have regular elections in May at all, I’m also ambivalent. No question, turnout would be much greater in November elections, and as a general principle I think that’s preferable. But November elections, especially November elections in even-numbered years, are full of races with a lot more money and noise-making ability, which combine to drown out whatever local issues would be heard in a quieter context. It would be so much better if people simply took a greater interest in their local and school board elections, so that they could be held at any time and didn’t need the boost of a Presidential or gubernatorial election to get even semi-decent participation. I’d like to have a robust debate about this, but I fear that only the hardcore, vote-in-every-election types would be tuned in for it, and that would miss the point entirely. I don’t know what else to say.

One more thing:

Republican Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor, wrote Paxton in support of Middleton’s position. She said the pandemic has “opened the eyes” of Texans to potential government overreach, namely local tax rates that could soar as cities try to bridge budget shortfalls. Johnson wants officials considering tax hikes to feel the pressure of a campaign challenge.

Johnson noted that Senate Bill 2, signed into law by Abbott during the 2019 legislative session, requires cities to receive voter approval before levying taxes that would result in collections 3.5 percent higher than the previous year. But the bill contains a disaster provision that permits a city to collect more than twice as much for at least two years if any part of the city is declared a disaster area during the current tax year.

State and local officials are at odds over whether the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a “disaster” to trigger this provision.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not the type of disaster that would warrant the disaster provision of Senate Bill 2,” she said.

The Texas Municipal League says it conducted a survey of cities recently and found the “vast majority” plan to keep increased collections below the 3.5 percent threshold allowed by Senate Bill 2.

Yeah, sorry, if you don’t think what we’re in now counts as a “disaster”, then I’m afraid I just can’t take you seriously. SB2 was a terrible bill for many reasons, and this is one of them. But look, if you don’t want cities and counties to try to deal with their massive revenue shortfalls on their own, then there is a simple alternative, and that’s to push the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which the House passed months ago, to provide fiscal relief to local governments for precisely this purpose. If you’re not down for that either, then I think we know all we need to know about your priorities.

We still need that equality bill in the Lege

That SCOTUS ruling was huge, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

LGBTQ Texans marked a major victory Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal civil rights law prevents employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. But in Texas, which did not have such workplace safeguards, LGBTQ lawmakers and advocates say they are far from done fighting for other essential protections.

Employment discrimination protections, they say, are necessary but not sufficient for advancing the equal treatment of LGBTQ Texans. Thanks to Monday’s ruling, Texans can no longer be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity, but there is no state law explicitly preventing landlords from refusing to rent homes to LGBTQ Texans, for example.

Members of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus are setting their sights on a comprehensive set of nondiscrimination protections that would codify the employment protections in state law, as well as guarantee LGBTQ Texans equal access to housing, health care and other public accomodations.

It will not be an easy bill to pass.

[…]

“We can’t look at this as being a partisan or political issue — it’s a human issue,” said Democratic state Rep. Jessica González, vice chair of the LGBTQ Caucus. “And in order to create a change in mind, you need to create a change in heart.”

González announced in May that she would spearhead the fight for a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill during the next regular legislative session in 2021 with Republican state Reps. Sarah Davis of West University Place and Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi.

“We rolled it out early to start the conversation,” González said.

In pushing for comprehensive nondiscrimination protections, LGBTQ lawmakers and their allies are also making an economic case. Big businesses like Amazon and Google have been major advocates for LGBTQ Texans over the last few years, telling lawmakers that to attract the best talent to their Texas offices, they need to guarantee workers equal rights in their communities.

“It is the business community’s voice that has been one of the loudest and strongest advocates for the LGBT community over the years,” said Tina Cannon, executive director of the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Still, advocates have acknowledged that Monday’s ruling, while exhilirating the LGBTQ community, may also stir up opposition.

“I do think this is going to galvanize the folks who don’t want us to be at the same level,” Shelly Skeen, a senior attorney with the LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal, said during a virtual briefing after Monday’s ruling. “So we got even more work to do, but I think we got some great momentum behind us.”

LGBTQ Caucus members have already made major progress since 2017, when LGBTQ advocates spent much of the legislative session playing defense as they fought back a controversial “bathroom bill” that would have limited transgender Texans’ access to certain public spaces. It was championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and hardline conservative groups.

See here for more on that SCOTUS ruling, and here for more on the equality bill. Dems taking the House is probably the only path to this bill making it out of the lower chamber, where it will never get a hearing in the Senate. The best we can do is get everyone on the record, and fight like hell to elect more Democratic Senators in 2022, as well as un-electing Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, by far the two biggest obstacles to getting a real equality bill enacted. Yeah, I’ve got Paxton there ahead of Greg Abbott, who I could sort of maybe imagine going with the flow if he gets enough pressure from business and the wingnut fringe has been somewhat neutered. Electing some Democrats to the State Supreme Court would also help, and that we can do this year as well. The things to remember are 1) this is going to take more than one session; 2) the more elections we win, the closer we will be able to get; and 3) we cannot ease up, not even a little, because it will always be possible to go backwards. Eyes on the prize, and get people elected to do the job. That’s what it is going to take.

Interview with Rep. Chris Turner

Rep. Chris Turner

I’ve done two interviews about redistricting so far, with both of them focused on the litigation aspect of it, which in turn had a focus on Congress. Today I want to pay more attention to the Legislature, which is not only where redistricting originates but also itself a big part of the fight. State Rep. Chris Turner is the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, representing HD101 in Tarrant County. That was a new district created in 2011 due to population growth in Tarrant County, and while it represented a third Democratic district in Tarrant, it was also a place to pack Democrats so the eight-member Republican caucus from Tarrant could have easier elections. Turner was elected to a different Tarrant County seat in 2008, lost it in the 2010 wave, and has served in HD101 since 2013. Tarrant is a major battleground for control of the State House in 2020, in part due to demography and in part due to the Trump effect on college-educated white voters. We talked about the effects of the 2011/2013 maps, and what we have to look forward to in the Lege in 2021. Here’s the conversation:

Previous interviews in this series: Redistricting legal expert Michael Li, and Congressman Marc Veasey. I have more of these in mind and will bring them to you as I can.

Interview with Michael Li

Michael Li

As we know, among the many monumental tasks that the Legislature has before it in 2021 is redistricting. That will almost certainly be done in a summer or even autumn special session, since Census data will be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will happen next year, with all the usual pomp and partisan fighting that accompanies it. And as we also know from living in Texas, litigation and redistricting go together like chips and salsa. This past decade was particularly eventful for redistricting and the courts, and I wanted to have a chance to review where we are now before we embark on the next round. The best person I could think of to have this conversation with is Michael Li, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights, and elections. I was of course a dedicated reader of his Texas Redistricting blog, and I follow him now on Twitter, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him all my questions about the state of redistricting litigation:

I have a number of interviews in mind on this topic that I would like to do. I’m working on making that happen, but have no set schedule for any of it at this time. Please let me know what you think.

Let’s fix the Sandra Bland Act

Let’s make it what it was supposed to have been in the first place.

Sandra Bland

After Sandra Bland’s death in a rural Texas jail drew outrage across the nation, two Texas lawmakers filed a comprehensive bill to address racial profiling during traffic stops, ban police from stopping drivers on a traffic violation as a pretext to investigate other potential crimes, limit police searches of vehicles and other jail and policing reforms.

But by the time the Legislature passed it, most of the sweeping provisions related to policing had been stripped out.

Now, on the heels of the death of George Floyd, those lawmakers say they’re determined to try again to push those reforms through when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021.

State Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, both Houston Democrats who chair relevant committees in their respective chambers, said in a joint news release Tuesday they would continue to work together on criminal justice reform efforts next year. Whitmire’s chief of staff and Coleman confirmed to The Texas Tribune that they will begin with pushing again for measures they hoped to achieve with the 2017 law — like investigations into racial profiling and officer consequences. Many provisions were removed from the bill after law enforcement opposition.

[…]

Coleman told the Tribune on Tuesday that he and Whitmire will start with filing legislation that was removed from the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, such as measures to increase the standards by which law enforcement can stop and search a vehicle and ban law enforcement from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations to allow an officer to look into other suspicions. Coleman said they will also look at filing measures related to what constituents are asking for in the wake of Floyd’s death, “specifically getting rid of choke holds” and ensuring that, “if a peace officer is standing around watching their colleague do something wrong, that they must intervene.”

See here for some background. The Chron adds some details.

Lawmakers in 2019 tried to revive the limitation on arrests but faced steep opposition from police unions and lost support from some Democrats who disagreed with parts of its language that they felt gave police too much discretion.

This time around, however, Gov. Greg Abbott is already speaking publicly in support of legislation that would prevent a death like Floyd’s from happening in Texas, which he called a “horrific act of police brutality” in a news conference Tuesday.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who authored the Sandra Bland Act, was listening.

“When Sandra Bland happened, we didn’t have Gov. Abbott coming out and saying that this was appalling,” said Coleman, a member of the newly formed bipartisan House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “We do on this case. Across the country, people who ordinarily would not side with the protesters in terms of what happened, they are. We have peace officers kneeling with protesters saying enough is enough. … That’s the great thing about life. Things can evolve.”

[…]

The Sandra Bland Act has already seen some early success: According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the number of annual suicides declined by 50 percent from 35 in 2015 to 17 in 2018 after the implementation of new standards for mentally ill inmates and independent investigations of jail deaths

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said he also hopes to bring back discussion of the misdemeanor arrest restrictions missing from the Bland Act, as well as reforms of grand juries and the death penalty.

“It’s just a nightmare scenario with not only Mr. Floyd’s death but all of the stories — they’ve got to compel us not just to say the right things but to do the right things,” Leach said. “So, yes, my hope is that we will come together quickly and act, and I think you’re going to see the House and Senate do that next session.”

Other reforms lawmakers’ said they’d like to revisit in 2021 include deeper training on racial bias, stronger laws to prevent racial profiling in arrests and, like the Blands, ending “pretext stops.”

[…]

The fiercest political opposition has tended to come from police unions, including the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, better known as CLEAT.

Last session, the group fought the measure blocking arrests for class C, low-level misdemeanors because of a concern about taking away officer discretion.

It also opposed a bill written by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would have made more records regarding in-custody death public. The police union said it was concerned that alleged misconduct would become public before the completion of an investigation.

After a bitter fight, the group declined to meet with Moody and certain other lawmakers.

“There’s a philosophical shift that we have to undertake next session,” Moody said. “Being told that we can’t even have a conversation about it, that is a nonstarter. We are going to have a conversation about this. … So while some cop lobbyist in Austin says we’re not allowed to talk about it, it’s not his decision to make. It’s our decision to make, and we have to get to work on this in a real way.”

There’s lots of things the Lege could do, and this all sounds like a good start. Overcoming opposition from law enforcement will be the main challenge. The head guy at CLEAT says they’re willing to talk to anyone speaking “in good faith”, and you can take that as you see fit. As I see it, they’re welcome to sit at our table if they have something constructive to offer, but no one has to go sit at theirs if they don’t want to. This session looks like the best opportunity to take positive action. Let’s keep that momentum going.

UPDATE: Well, what do you know?

In the first statewide policy change since George Floyd’s death shook the nation, the Texas agency that regulates police has agreed to add implicit bias training to a course required for every officer, upon the request of Houston Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman.

The requirement was one that had been included in an early iteration, but not the final version, of the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, which requires all officers to take de-escalation training.

This time, Coleman went a different route and simply asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement if it would make the change administratively as opposed to waiting for new legislation. To his delight, the commission responded a day later that it would adopt the policy.

Coleman said he will work with the agency on crafting and finalizing curriculum, but the purpose will be to train officers about the possibility that they may be unconsciously carrying preconceived notions or prejudices that can affect their actions on the job.

“It does what the public is asking for,” Coleman said. “When a police officer doesn’t understand that they have this bias, the only way to change it is for them to recognize that they have a bias that may be a racial bias.

“When people say, ‘How do you change how people think?’ This is how you change how people think.”

Who knew it could be that easy? May the rest of it be the same.

A bipartisan equality bill

I appreciate the effort, but we can’t expect too much to come of this.

Five Democratic and two Republican state legislators announced plans Wednesday to file a bill next legislative session that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ Texans in housing, employment and public spaces.

The bill, which has the early support of state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that already have enacted such policies.

“Quite frankly, we are already behind the curve on this issue,” Davis said. “Nondiscrimination is not just good for LGBTQ community, but it’s good for all Texans.”

Lawmakers rolled out the bill during a virtual news conference where they touted an economic study that found a statewide nondiscrimination policy would generate $738 million in state revenue and $531 million in local government revenue next biennium. It also would add 180,000 new jobs in technology and tourism by 2025, the study found. The benefits, the authors said, largely would come from Texas’ greater ability to attract talent and heightened opportunity for tourism and conventions.

“We should want to treat people fairly because it’s the right thing to do, whether it has economic effects or not,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist who led the study. “This shouldn’t be the reason to do it, but it is a very important aspect of it in today’s society, and there are very significant economic costs associated with discrimination.”

The legislation likely will face strong headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, prominently opposed a similar measure that was rejected by Houston voters in 2015, and later backed the so-called bathroom bill opposed by LGBTQ advocates that would have required people to use facilities matching the gender identity on their birth certificates.

The lawmakers largely dismissed political concerns Wednesday, arguing instead that their early push for the bill — more than seven months before the session is slated to begin — heightens their odds of passing it.

“I think a lot of this is going to take talking to our colleagues and explaining the results of this study,” said Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a member of the House LGBTQ Caucus and author of the bill. “It’s going to take a lot of groundwork.”

[…]

The bill faces good odds of passing the lower chamber, where Democrats have gained ground and some Republicans have moderated their positions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. He was less bullish on the bill’s chances in the Senate.

“It’s a different animal on that side of the chamber,” Rottinghaus said. “You do all the political calculations and it’s a tall order to get it passed. But, in some ways it’s a marker: these members see the future of Texas as one where the economy needs to be put front and center, and if that theory can get some grip among the members, then there’s hope for it in the future. But as it is now, it’s a pretty tough sell.”

That’s really about all there is to it. This bill may pass the House, but if so then Dan Patrick will stick it in a shredder, have the shredder blown up by the bomb squad, and then have the debris shipped to Oklahoma. We ain’t getting a bill like this passed while he’s Lite Guv, and that’s even before we consider getting it signed and then having it reasonably enforced by the Attorney General. It’s nice that there are two House Republicans willing to sign on to this – no, really, that is important and could very well matter if we oust Patrick in 2022 but still have a Republican-controlled Senate – but it will take either more of them than that to get this passed, or fewer Republicans in the House overall. I don’t know who our next Speaker will be, but I like the odds of this passing with a Democrat appointing committee chairs than with pretty much any Republican that could inherit the gavel. Needless to say, one way of getting the requisite number of Dems in the House is to oust Sarah Davis, as her seat is high on the list of pickup possibilities. Todd Hunter’s HD32 is on that list as well, but farther down; if he loses in November, Dems have had a very, very good day.

Let’s be clear that lots of substantive bills take more than one session to get passed, so bringing this up now even without any assurance that it could get out of committee is the right call. Start talking about this now – the real benefits a true equality bill would bring, the ridiculous arguments that opponents will throw at it, and very importantly the potential legal pitfalls that the true wingnuts and their sympathetic judges will try to exploit – and we’ll be better positioned when the timing is better. I can’t say when that might be – elections have consequences, I’m told – but it’s best to be prepared.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

More on the potential delay of redistricting

Some further details from the Statesman.

On Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, all Census Bureau field operations would be canceled until June 1, and the agency would not be able to complete the count until Oct. 31.

Ross wants Congress to enact legislation delaying the deadline for delivering apportionment counts to President Donald Trump from Dec. 31 to April 30, 2021, and for delivering redistricting data to the states from March 31, 2021, to July 31, 2021. Ross said he couldn’t rule out further delays.

That would mean that Texas lawmakers would not have the numbers they need to redraw political districts in the upcoming 140-day regular session, which ends on May 31, 2021.

The Texas Constitution requires that the Legislature redraw state Senate and House maps “at its first regular session after the publication of each United States decennial census.”

But, with the delay, that would not be until 2023, too late for the 2022 elections.

“Texas will have to have a special session to do redistricting,” said Michael Li, the former Dallas attorney who is now senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections.

Depending on the census count, Texas is expected to add three seats to the 36 it already has in the U.S. House. Li said that, under federal election law, if new maps have not been drawn in time for the 2022 election, any new seats would be elected at-large.

“Or alternatively, a court might draw maps,” Li said.

The same likely would be true if the Legislature fails to draw state House and Senate districts in time for the 2022 election.

[…]

[If] the Legislature were able to take up redistricting in the 2021 session, Republicans would be well situated even if the House and Senate were unable to pass a state legislative redistricting plan that was signed by the governor, because responsibility for devising a plan would then fall on the Legislative Redistricting Board made up of the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the Texas attorney general, the state comptroller and the land commissioner. Unless Democrats take control of the Texas House in 2020 and elect a Democratic speaker, all those officials are Republicans.

That Legislative Redistricting Board provision does not apply in a special session.

The provision in the Texas Constitution means that even if the Legislature, meeting in special session, drew new state legislative lines in 2021, it would have to repeat the process when it convenes in regular session in 2023, said Eric Opiela, an election lawyer and former executive director and associate general counsel to the Texas Republican Party, with long experience in redistricting.

That means that Democrats, who have made flipping the Texas House the centerpiece of their 2020 campaign, “might have two bites at the apple” — the 2020 and 2022 elections — to gain control of the House in time for the last word on redistricting, he said.

The 120-day delay makes redistricting in time for the March 2022 primary, “tough but still manageable, but if there are further delays, then you start bumping into the filing period for candidates and potentially the primary,” Li said.

“The extension is in everyone’s interest, however,” Li said. “Texas is behind in census responses, and it’s important from the standpoint of Texans that the bureau have the time to get the census as right as possible.”

See here for the background. The relevant Constitutional amendment is this one. The 2013 Legislature did indeed revisit the House and Senate maps following the 2011 special session that drew them, but that was also for the purpose of amending the maps to conform with the interim districts the federal court had already drawn for the 2012 election. There are two scenarios where Dems have real leverage. One is in 2021 with a Dem majority in the House. The Legislative Redistricting Board can draw most maps if there’s no agreement between the House and the Senate, but it can’t draw a new Congressional map. That would go to a three-judge panel if all else failed, and it’s not hard to imagine the Republicans not wanting to roll the dice on that. In that situation, there would be lots of room for some horse trading, with legislative maps and a Congressional map that all cater to incumbent protection over maximal partisan gain. I’m not saying this would happen, but it could.

Alternately, Democrats could win or maintain the House in 2022 and win enough statewide offices, including Governor, to force a redraw in 2023 or direct it if a redraw is mandated because the previous exercise had been done in a special session. It should be noted that the same opportunity exists for Republicans, who start out in a much stronger position to make it happen – they would just need to take back the House (this situation only applies if they didn’t have control of the House in 2021) and re-elect Greg Abbott. I definitely have some fear of this scenario playing out, as it is not at all far-fetched, and the 2003 experience shows that they have no shyness when it comes to a bit of mid-decade map-drawing.

All this is getting way ahead of ourselves. For now, the main point is that any delay in the Census has a big ripple effect in Texas, thanks to the legislative calendar and our early-in-the-year primaries. Such a delay is almost certainly necessary to get an accurate count, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and we need to be aware of what would happen as a result. This is a subject we will come back to again and again between now and January.

It’s even harder to prosecute pot cases now

Such a shame.

What if lawmakers writing one of the most consequential laws to come out of last year’s legislative session, legalizing hemp in Texas, forgot to include a small, but crucial detail that could get your marijuana possession charges dropped?

That’s what happened last week, after a Brazos County court judge concluded the new law omitted a date typically included in state crime legislation. As a result, misdemeanor charges against a Texas A&M University student arrested on the day of his 2018 college graduation were summarily tossed.

The decision is the latest stumbling block that Texas’s nine-month-old hemp law has presented for police and prosecutors committed to pursuing low-level marijuana possession cases. Although the decision does not bind other judges, attorneys said the successful tactic had the potential to change the course of hundreds of pending cases across the state.

[…]

New state crime laws always include a clear dividing line, typically written as a date, said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Before the date, the old law applies; after, the new law does.

Yet the hemp bill, which was passed through the Agriculture and Livestock Committee instead of the regular criminal justice panels, neglected to specify when the new pot definition started. A little-known provision of Texas law says that without clear transition instructions, if a new law lowers the penalty for a crime it can be applied retroactively.

The district and county attorneys association noted the missing language early on. “The law went into effect on June 10, 2019, but it is unclear whether it applies to previously-filed marijuana cases pending on that date,” it warned In a June letter to member prosecutors.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, did not return a call to his office seeking comment on the AWOL date.

Criminal defense attorneys noticed it, too, and began seeking cases to test if the new law could also be used to challenge older possession charges.

Long story short, they found a defendant in College Station who wanted to have his day in court, and their argument that the new law applied resulted in the dismissal of the case because the cops hadn’t tested the pot they said they found. Testing is another problem for prosecutors, and the DPS has said they don’t have enough money to handle the demand from the locals, leaving them in limbo. Which is fine by me. Let’s keep this natural experiment going and see for ourselves once and for all how little there is to fear from not being hardasses about weed.

Republican former Senators defend anti-majoritarian practices

I appreciate the spirit in which this was offered, but it’s completely out of touch with reality.

The purpose of the 31-member Texas Senate is similar to that of the U.S. Senate: to cool down some of the fevered legislation filed in the Senate or passed by a simple majority of the Texas House of Representatives.

This is accomplished by a Senate rule that requires a super-majority vote (60% of senators on the floor at this time) to bring up a bill for debate. This rule was enacted in 2015; for 70 years previously, a larger, two-thirds vote was required (21 votes of those present).

It’s no coincidence that the 2015 rule change mirrored the Senate’s partisan balance. It allowed Republicans, who held 20 seats, to bring up and pass a bill without any Democrat support. Now — with the possibility that Democrats may gain Senate seats in the general election — the idea has been raised to further lower the threshold during the 2021 legislative session to require only a simple majority vote.

As former Republican senators — with a total of 80 years of service in this wonderful, deliberative body — we oppose this possible change. Requiring only a simple majority would be bad for the Texas Senate, the Texas Legislature, and the State of Texas.

[…]

A stronger rule encourages, even forces, senators to work with colleagues across the political aisle. In our experience, working in a bipartisan manner led to better legislation and made the Texas Senate a more collegial body.

It also ensures legislators from rural and urban areas work together. In our heavily urban state, rural areas could be more easily outvoted under a rule change. In fact, some senators believe this issue is more about the urban/rural split than a partisan one.

Democrat and Republican Lt. Govs. Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock, Rick Perry, Bill Ratliff and David Dewhurst had successful terms under the two-thirds rule. It could be argued that this rule made them better leaders and improved the landmark legislation they passed (school finance, criminal justice reform, tort reform, tax cuts, worker comp reform, etc.).

Anyone notice which Lite Governor they left out of that recitation in the last paragraph? It’s not a coincidence, I assure you.

Let’s put aside the fetishization of super-majorities and the mythmaking that it’s the House producing all of the fever dream legislation these days while the Senate awaits with calm and wisdom to sort out the wheat from the chaff. (Tell me again, which chamber passed the “bathroom bill” in 2017?) The whole “require Senators to work across the aisle for the betterment of The People” thing sounds all nice and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”-like, but it ignores the utterly predictable reality of what will happen when and if Democrats achieve a majority in the upper chamber: Republican State Senators will immediately adopt of a model of intractable opposition to any bill that represents a Democratic priority, in the same way that Republican US Senators under Mitch McConnell used the filibuster to block literally everything President Obama wanted to do.

One reason for this is because Democratic State Senators have, to a large degree, taken similar action on many high-profile Republican priorities: redistricting, voter ID, more abortion restrictions, de-funding Planned Parenthood, “sanctuary cities”, “bathroom bills”, and so on. This is exactly why Dan Patrick, and to a lesser extent before him David Dewhurst, first weakened and then replaced the two-thirds rule, on the grounds that an elected legislative majority should be able to pass its bills with majority support. I hate these bills and I hate the effect they have had, but that’s why we have elections. I want a Democratic majority to be able to pass its bills with majority support when it is in that position as well.

But it’s the notion that requiring bipartisan consensus will be a net improvement to the process that is so laughable. Perhaps former Senators Deuell and Estes have forgotten, but the entire reason they are former Senators is because they were defeated in Republican primaries by opponents who successfully argued to the Republican voters in their districts that Deuell and Estes were too bipartisan, and too accommodating to the Democratic minority. They showed insufficient fealty to the Republican orthodoxy, and they needed to go. Would either of them argue with a straight face that Senators Bob Hall and Pat Fallon would “work with colleagues across the political aisle” in a hypothetical 16-15 or 17-14 Democratic Senate, in order to encourage better legislation and a more collegial atmosphere? I couldn’t even type that last sentence without snorting. The outcome we will get in a Senate with a modest Democratic majority and any kind of super-majoritarian rules is a Senate that passes no bills.

Again, I understand why this super-majority idea has some appeal. Maybe in a Democratic Senate where the likes of Krier and Ratliff and Sibley and Ogden and Deuell and Estes were the typical Republican Senators and none of them feared being tarred and feathered by their seething primary voters, we could indulge in this little fantasy. We don’t live in that world any more. I can’t even see it in my rearview mirror. The only thing this proposal would accomplish is the extended lifespan of every Republican priority from the past 20 years, possibly forever. I suspect they all know this, and that it appeals to them a lot more than the let’s-all-join-hands-and-work-together ideal ever would.

Dan Patrick makes the most predictable announcement ever

Really, who didn’t see this coming?

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Thursday he may further lower the threshold required to bring bills to the Senate floor if Republicans lose one or two seats in November.

Patrick made the comment at a conservative policy conference in Austin while discussing the current makeup of the upper chamber, which has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Currently, 19 votes are required to put legislation on the floor for passage. But Republicans are facing the real possibility of losing at least one caucus member in 2020. Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, is running for reelection in a solidly Democratic district after winning his seat in 2018 special election upset.

“I’m right there at that number, and if we lose one or two seats, then we might have to go to 16 next session,” Patrick said. “We might have to go to a simple majority because we will not be stopped in leading on federalism in the United States of America.”

Honestly, this is good news and we should be thankful for it. For one, this is the closest thing any Republican will come to admitting in public that they expect to lose SD19, a seat that they had the very good fortune to borrow for the 2019 session. There’s no reason Dan Patrick would voluntarily say this out loud to people who might report on it otherwise. He’s laying the groundwork. But look, while the two-thirds-that-is-now-three-fifths rule had its place in an older time, when the parties were less sorted by ideology and that rule wasn’t generally used for partisan reasons, it’s an anti-majoritarian abomination that just has no place in a democracy. Just look at the devastation that the filibuster wrought in the US Senate during the Obama presidency. You can’t be in favor of killing the filibuster and preserving the 2/3-3/5 rule. At least, I can’t.

Sure, in the short term, if Dems don’t take the House this year, losing the 3/5 rule will suck. Patrick and his cronies will get another session to shove through all the ridiculous wingnut crap they can, and may get to keep doing it even longer given that they’d be in control of redistricting. But someday, maybe even someday in the 20’s, the Dems are going to retake the Senate. Maybe it’ll happen in 2022, when all of the Senate is on the ballot, and maybe it’ll happen in conjunction with Dems winning statewide and keeping the House. Now ask yourself, in a Senate where Dems have 16 or 17 members: Do you want to let Senate Republicans control that chamber’s agenda by blocking every single bill the House passes that they don’t like? Or would you rather let those 16 or 17 Dem Senators do the job they were elected to do?

The brilliant thing is that when the Democratic Lieutenant Governor announces the Senate rules, which do not include a 2/3 or 3/5 rule, no one can cry about the vicious partisanship of it all, because Dan Patrick will have already set the precedent. He’ll get to have it first, but we’ll get it next, and we won’t have to do any work to make it happen. If you don’t see that as a golden opportunity, even if it is one whose timeline is unknown, I don’t know what to tell you.

We’re not going to get an independent redistricting commission

Nice to think about, but the set of circumstances that might lead to it are exceedingly narrow.

Most of the seven states that have independent commissions adopted them by a citizens’ initiative. Since Texas doesn’t have that option, the only way it would happen would be if lawmakers voluntarily gave up their redistricting power.

Kathay Feng, national redistricting director of the progressive government watchdog group Common Cause, said that’s unlikely to happen in Texas, but not impossible.

“The reality is that when a legislature is looking at potentially split control or the changeover of control from one party to another, they’re the most likely to entertain the possibility of redistricting reform,” Feng said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said it would take a unique set of circumstances.

“It would take us reaching a tipping point where Republicans are pessimistic about their prospects for retaining a majority, but Democrats are also pessimistic about their prospects for taking a majority as well,” Jones said.

I think Jones’ assessment is basically accurate, but it’s important to understand what Republican pessimism about retaining a majority means. We’re talking about them being afraid that they might face unified Democratic government in 2031, the next time redistricting will come around. And not only must they fear this thing that might happen ten years and three statewide elections from now, they must conclude that their best option now would be to curb that future theoretical Democratic hegemony via the creation of an independent redistricting commission. All this happens following a Democratic takeover of the State House, because otherwise Republicans can do what they’ve done before, which is draw whatever districts they want without fear. You see what I mean by exceedingly narrow?

Let’s keep one other thing in mind here. If we do get a Democratic State House, Republicans can still push for whatever maps they want for the SBOE, the State Senate, and the State House. That’s because if the two chambers can’t agree on maps for those three entities, the job gets thrown to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which is the Lite Governor, the Speaker, the AG, the Comptroller, and the Land Commissioner. In other words, a Board on which Republicans would have a 4-1 majority, and thus no trouble passing those Republican maps. The one map that would still be up in the air would be the Congressional map. If there is no map passed legislatively, it gets thrown to a federal court, over which neither side would have any control.

There is room in this scenario for some compromise. Republicans would prefer not to let a court do this work. Democrats would of course like to have some influence in the mapmaking process. You can imagine an agreement to draw maps for all four entities – Congress, SBOE, Senate, House – that leans towards incumbent protection rather than greatly advantaging or disadvantaging one party over the other. If that happens, you could also imagine them including an independent commission as a bonus Grand Bargain, but that seems a bridge too far. But compromise maps that mostly don’t make any incumbents’ lives too difficult, that I can see maybe getting done.

Maybe. The situation I’ve just described here is like what happened in 2001, which was the last time Dems controlled the House. The LRB drew the state maps, which led to the massive GOP takeover in the 2002 election, and a court drew the Congressional map. And then, once Republicans had control of the House, they went back and redid the Congressional map. That was the original, stated motivation when Tom DeLay pushed for re-redistricting in 2003: The Congressional map should be drawn by the legislators, not by a court. Obviously, they wanted a map that was much more favorable to Republicans, but that was the original reason they gave. It seems to me that this is a very plausible outcome in 2021 as well – the Republicans decide to let a court draw the map, which in all likelihood would be quite deferential to incumbents anyway, then take their chances on retaking the House in 2022 and doing a new Congressional map again. Hey, it worked once before, and now they have a more favorable Supreme Court to back them up.

Honestly, this may be the single most likely scenario – the LRB draws the state maps, a court draws the Congressional map, and everything hinges on the 2022 election. Maybe Dems keep the State House. Maybe we manage to elect a Democratic Governor, who could then veto any new Congressional map. Maybe Republicans win and do their thing. Heck, even in the Great Map Compromise scenario, who’s to say that Republicans wouldn’t tear it all up and start over in the event they retake the House and retain the Governor’s Mansion? I’d put money on that before I placed a bet on a redistricting commission. 2031 is a long, long way away. It’s not at all irrational to prioritize the now over what maybe could possibly happen if everything goes wrong.

Bonnen “likely violated” the law

Well, isn’t that special?

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The House General Investigating Committee on Friday unanimously adopted a report from its legal advisers that said House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “likely violated” state law during a June meeting with a fellow member and a hardline conservative activist — though members didn’t raise the idea of any possible action against Bonnen and said the investigation was closed.

“Today’s action concludes the committee’s investigation,” said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, after members met behind closed doors for over an hour.

Meyer, who left the hearing room at the Texas Capitol without taking questions from reporters, said the full report from the three legal advisers retained in October by the committee would be “promptly transmitted” to House members. The committee did not immediately release the report to the public, though a copy was later obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The report concluded by saying the information produced “militates against criminal prosecution” against either Bonnen or state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican considered one of the speaker’s top lieutenants who involved in the political fallout — a line that the speaker’s office reiterated in a statement after the news.

“The committee has confirmed what we have known for months and the conclusion of their report speaks for itself,” Cait Meisenheimer, a spokesperson for Bonnen, said in a statement.

Bonnen “likely violated” section 572.051(a) of the Texas Government Code, according to Meyer, who was reading from the report during the committee hearing — but advisers in the report said the law provided no “independent statutory consequences” for a state official who breaches it.

[…]

Democrats, for their part, said that Friday’s news reiterated the need for the Texas Legislature to pass “substantial ethics reforms.”

“It is unfortunate that Chairman Meyer scheduled today’s hearing to be part of a Friday news dump right before the holidays,” state Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “If the committee has found that there is no consequence for transacting campaign business in the state capitol building or exchanging House media credentials for political favors, then we need to pass new laws. House Democrats will be ready to lead that effort when the Legislature convenes in 2021.”

Further action is now up to the full 150-member House. The General Investigating Committee, according to House rules, can propose articles of impeachment — but did not do so during Friday’s hearing.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the report. It’s a little frustrating to see the committee acknowledge that there was likely a violation of the law, then state that there’s basically nothing to be done about it. Not that I think Dennis Bonnen needs to be thrown in jail, just that it’s always annoying to see powerful people get away with abusing their power. Then again, at least Bonnen will be out of power soon enough, and not by his preference. It’s something, if not wholly adequate. Read the report and see what you think. And very much yes, this is a thing Democrats should make a priority out of, on the trail and in the Lege next session.

Every Speaker’s race is unique

The one to come has a more uncertain outcome than the last few we’ve seen.

Found on the Twitters

The current party mix is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Republicans hope to hold their advantage after the 2020 elections, while Democrats, encouraged by their 12-seat gain in 2018, hope to win back the majority they lost in 2002.

The next race for speaker, a certainty with Bonnen’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection, probably won’t happen quickly — unless Bonnen can be persuaded to leave office earlier than January 2021 to allow a faster switch to new management.

Why? If the House majority isn’t overwhelming — in either party’s favor — it will probably take a coalition to replace Bonnen. A Republican speaker will need some Democratic votes to win; a Democrat, some Republicans. And until they know what the mix will be, uncertainty will prevent most state representatives from committing to any speaker candidate.

[…]

The list of people who might succeed Bonnen probably starts with the list of people he beat last time in a race that started slow, percolated for about a year, and then sprinted to a close. Straus announced in October 2017 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. A couple of aspirants announced quickly, and more trickled in as the year went on — especially after the primary elections were over.

But nobody could put together 76 votes. Bonnen, who had demurred when he was first mentioned as a candidate, became a late entry. Within a matter of days after the 2018 general election, he had the votes he needed.

And a year later, the House is back where it was two years ago, looking for new leadership with a tough election ahead, doing the preparatory work for a redistricting session with high political stakes, a huge budget to write and other big issues to confront.

And no strong incentive to hurry.

In early September of 2018 there were seven candidates for Speaker, six Republicans and one Dem. Two of them – Republican John Zerwas and Democrat Eric Johnson – are no longer in the Lege, while the others are in safe seats. Seems like those five would be in the mix, but there would be plenty of others, including who knows how many Dems. Bonnen got in as Zerwas got out just before the 2018 election, and he was the clear choice shortly thereafter. My guess is that while there are a lot of members who can envision themselves as Speaker right now, they’re mostly going to keep it on the down low until after the election, when it will at least be known which party will have the numerical advantage. After that, it will all be about counting votes. We may not know who the Speaker will be until the start of the session. The potential for excitement, and some bruised feelings, is quite high.

The next bathroom bill

You can see it coming from here.

The Texas House LGBTQ Caucus is counting on Democrats flipping the Republican-held House to keep another possible ‘bathroom bill’ off the table during the 2021 legislative session.

Texas Republicans last week rallied around a child custody case of a Dallas 7-year-old whose mother says is transgender, pledging to intervene against children’s gender transition. Members of the caucus, who fought the controversial “Chick-fil-A bill”, said flipping the House will be key to winning the brewing battle over the care of transgender children.

“The only way we’re going to avoid that is by flipping the House,” Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said at a caucus town hall at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. “We are nine seats away from controlling the flow of legislation in the House so that we don’t feed that beast anymore.”

[…]

Rep. Julie Johnson, a freshman Dallas Democrat, said the government has no right to intervene in the “personal decision” for children to transition. The child lives in Johnson’s district.

She agreed that winning the House is the best strategy to combat bills such as the one promised by Rep. Matt Krause to ban puberty blockers for children to transition. Johnson noted that the Fort Worth Republican also authored the “Chick-fil-A bill” banning governments from taking “adverse action” against someone based on affiliation to a religious organization.

LGBTQ advocates say the law, which gained traction after San Antonio’s city council booted Chick-fil-A from its airport for its donations to Christian organizations that oppose expanding LGBTQ rights, gives a license to discriminate.

“He’s going to be filing those bills, so hopefully if Democrats are in charge those bills won’t get a hearing,” Johnson said.

See here for the background. I agree with Reps. Israel and Johnson, and I daresay Republicans also believe that whether a bill targeting trans kids gets a House hearing or not depends very much on which party has a majority. There’s not really anything else to say at this time, so let me encourage you to read this Twitter thread, and reflect on the fact that Greg Abbott et al would consider that man to be an abusive parent.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.